Tag: recession

The Good Side of Bad News in Europe

What does the Greco-Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?

Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.

This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after  July 1997,  and a Russian debt crisis the following May.

The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.

Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes).  It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper.   When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.

At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output  rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.

During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home-grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998.  Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.

The table  show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.

1997-06    19.17    87.80
1997-07    19.63    88.12
1997-08    19.93    89.69
1997-09    19.79    90.45
1997-10    21.26    90.98
1997-11    20.17    92.05
1997-12    18.32    92.52
1998-01    16.71    93.36
1998-02    16.06    93.31
1998-03    15.02    93.13
1998-04    15.44    93.68
1998-05    14.86    94.25
1998-06    13.66    93.53
1998-07    14.08    92.96
1998-08    13.36    95.40
1998-09    14.95    95.11
1998-10    14.39    95.96
1998-11    12.85    96.08
1998-12    11.28    96.63

In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.

Once again, as in 1997-98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.

Furor over Government Employees

Concern about the pay, benefits, and performance of government employees seems to be growing. Chris Edwards’s articles on how government pay is outpacing private-sector pay have generated media attention, cartoons, and angry rebuttals from the head of the federal Office of Personnel Management. Steven Greenhut has a new book, Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, and is writing lots of newspaper articles on the high costs of government unions, also the topic of a recent Cato Policy Analysis. New Jersey unions are not finding much sympathy as they try to hold on to their raises, benefits, pensions, and work rules in the face of Gov. Chris Christie’s attempt to cut the budget. Liberal journalist Mickey Kaus is running for the U.S. Senate, trying to warn California’s voters and the Democratic Party about the excessive power and destructive influence of public employee unions.

And now Saturday Night Live. The zeitgeist-riding comedy show had a truly harsh sketch this weekend about the “Public Employee of the Year Awards.” It touched every element of popular resentment toward government workers: “people with government jobs are just like workers everywhere – except for the lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions, and full medical coverage with no deductibles, office visit fees, or copayments” – “retirement on full disability” by an obviously young and healthy worker – “Surliest and Least Cooperative State Employee” – “3200 hours [a year] on the job, all of it overtime” – New York school janitors living in Florida – employees with two current jobs and full disability – an entire workday at the DMV without serving a single customer – no-work contracts –  surprisingly early closings – and “he’s on break.”

Time for unions to start worrying?

Cutting Government Spending in a Recession

One of the topics Chris Edwards will be discussing with Glenn Beck this evening (5:00 EST, Fox) is the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21.

Cato Senior Fellow Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post–World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.”

However, instead of calling for bigger government to right the economy, as President Obama did upon inheriting George Bush’s mess, Harding pushed for spending and tax cuts.

The result?

With Harding’s tax and spending cuts and relatively non-interventionist economic policy, GNP rebounded to $74.1 billion in 1922. The number of unemployed fell to 2.8 million— a reported 6.7 percent of the labor force— in 1922. So, just a year and a half after Harding became president, the Roaring Twenties were underway. The unemployment rate continued to decline, reaching an extraordinary low of 1.8 percent in 1926. Since then, the unemployment rate has been lower only once in wartime (1944), and never in peacetime.

The following chart shows federal spending from 1920 to 1940:

Social Security in the Red

Social Security is officially in the red.  The New York Times reports that the system will pay out more than it takes in this year.  Explains the Times:

The bursting of the real estate bubble and the ensuing recession have hurt jobs, home prices and now Social Security.

This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, said that while the Congressional projection would probably be borne out, the change would have no effect on benefits in 2010 and retirees would keep receiving their checks as usual.

The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.

Analysts have long tried to predict the year when Social Security would pay out more than it took in because they view it as a tipping point — the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency, unless Congress strengthens the program’s finances.

The crisis is now, since the vaunted “trust fund” is filled with non-recourse government bonds–essentially worthless pieces of paper.  There’s no there there when it comes to financing future benefits.  Either payments have to come down or taxes have to go up, unless we adopt real reform centered around personal accounts.  And the latter course seems ever more distant after Congress voted to expand federal control over every Americans’ health care.

Why the Slow Recovery?

“Wealthy Face Higher Taxes.” That’s the headline that greeted two million American businesspeople Tuesday when they opened their Wall Street Journals. Inside, another banner head: “Big Firms Would Face Deeper Tax Bite.” Turn to the New York Times: “A Red-Ink Decade/Obama Budget Sees Years of Deficits.” The Financial Times: “Obama to target overseas tax breaks.” Investor’s Business Daily: “Higher Taxes for All in Obama Budget, $1.6 Tril 2010 Deficit.” And the Washington Post (not that many productive people get that on their doorstep): “Obama budget would spend billions more.”

And President Obama wonders why banks aren’t lending, employers aren’t hiring, and investors are holding back? As the Economic Policy Institute illustrates, this is the slowest recovery of any postwar recession.

[chart: Current downturn is far worse than any other in post-War period]

Let’s hope the Obama administration soon learns that higher taxes, more regulation, a larger share of GDP shifted to government, fears of Fed monetization of soaring debt – not to mention newspaper reports of Obama budgeteers “flipp[ing] through the tax code, looking for ideas” – can only discourage employers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Robert Higgs has cited the role of “regime uncertainty” in prolonging the Great Depression, as investors worried about what FDR might do next. Will Wilkinson points to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s saying “businesses want certainty. They need certainty so they can make long-term plans today.” Unfortunately, Will says, “Creating completely irresponsible, economically chilling regime uncertainty would appear to be the basic modus operandi of the Obama administration.”

Taxes, regulation, and uncertainty – and Obama asks why businesses aren’t lending, investing, and hiring.

Five Decades of Federal Spending

The chart below shows federal spending in three component parts over the last five decades. It includes Obama’s proposed spending in 2011. Here are a few thoughts on the recent spending trends:

Defense: In the post-9/11 years, defense spending bumped up to a higher plateau of around 4 percent of GDP. But now we have jumped to an even higher level of around 4.9 percent of GDP.

Interest: The Federal Reserve’s easy money policies reduced federal interest payments in recent years. That is coming to an end. Obama’s budget shows that interest payments will start rising rapidly next year and hit 3 percent of GDP by 2015. And that’s an optimistic projection.

Nondefense: This category includes all other federal spending. After a steady decline during the Clinton years to 12.9 percent of GDP, President Bush pushed up nondefense spending to a higher plateau of around 14.5 percent. Then came the recession and financial crisis, and the Bush-Obama tag team hiked spending to an even higher level of around 19 percent of GDP. That level of nondefense spending is almost double the level in 1970 measured as a share of the economy.

Deficit Prognostications

Exactly two years ago, George W. Bush released his final budget. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say:

[T]he president’s budget envisions a big jump in the budget deficit, from $163 billion in 2007 to about $400 billion in 2008 and 2009. Much of that increase will be the result of a slowing economy and a stimulus package expected to cost about $150 billion.

Today’s release of President Obama’s FY 2011 budget shows that those deficit prognostications were way off:

Instead of a “big jump” to $400 billion in 2009, the actual deficit turned about to be a trillion dollars higher. Bush deserves most of the blame for that deficit, but the 2010 and 2011 deficits will be on Obama.

The frightening prospect is that, like Bush, Obama’s future budget projections will also turn out to be low-balled. Whether it has been war, natural disasters, or a recession, Bush and Obama have both responded to any “crisis” by spending gobs of money. Given that even Obama is projecting annual deficits still in the trillion dollar range by 2020, taxpayers had better hope the Taliban, Mother Nature, and the economy start cooperating.