Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

When Keynesians Attack

If I was organized enough to send Christmas cards, I would take Richard Rahn off my list. I do one blog post to call attention to his Washington Times column and it seems like everybody in the world wants to jump down my throat. I already dismissed Paul Krugman’s rant and responded to Ezra Klein’s reasonable criticism. Now it’s time to address Derek Thompson’s critique on the Atlantic’s site.

At the risk of re-stating someone else’s argument, Thompson’s central theme seems to be that there are many factors that determine economic performance and that it is unwise to make bold pronouncements about Policy A causing Result B. If that’s what Thompson is saying, I very much agree (and if it’s not what he’s trying to say, then I apologize, though I still agree with the sentiment). That’s why I referred to Reagan decreasing the burden of government and Obama increasing the burden of government — I wanted to capture all the policy changes that were taking place, including taxation, spending, monetary policy, regulation, etc. Yes, the flagship policies (tax reduction for Reagan and so-called stimulus for Obama) were important, but other factors obviously are part of the equation.

The biggest caveat, however, is that one should always be reluctant to make sweeping claims about what caused the economy to do X or Y in a given year. Economists are terrible forecasters, and we’re not even very proficient when it comes to hindsight analysis about short-run economic fluctuations. Indeed, the one part of my original post that causes me a bit of regret is that I took the lazy route and inserted an image of the chart from Richard’s column. Excerpting some of his analysis would have been a better approach, particularly since I much prefer to focus on the impact of policies on long-run growth and competitiveness (which is what I did in my New York Post column from earlier this week  and also why I’m reluctant to embrace Art Laffer’s warning of major economic problems in 2011).

But a blog post is no fun if you just indicate where you and a critic have common ground, so let me identify four disagreements that I have with Thompson’s post:

(1) To reinforce his warning about making excessive claims about different recessions/recoveries, Thompson pointed out that someone could claim that Reagan’s recovery was associated with the 1982 TEFRA tax hike. I’ve actually run across people who think this is a legitimate argument, so it’s worth taking a moment to explain why it isn’t true.

When analyzing the impact of tax policy changes, it’s important to look at when tax changes were implemented, not when they were enacted (data on annual tax rates available here). Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act was enacted in 1981, but the lower tax rates weren’t fully implemented until 1984. This makes it a bit of a challenge to pinpoint when the economy actually received a net tax cut. The tax burden may have actually increased in 1981, since the parts of the Reagan tax cuts that took effect that year were offset by the impact of bracket creep (the tax code was not indexed to protect against inflation until the mid-1980s). There was a bigger tax rate reduction in 1982, but there was still bracket creep, as well as previously-legislated payroll tax increases (enacted during the Carter years). TEFRA also was enacted in 1982, which largely focused on undoing some of the business tax relief in Reagan’s 1981 plan. People have argued whether the repeal of promised tax relief is the same as a tax increase, but that’s not terribly important for this analysis. What does matter is that the tax burden did not fall much (if at all) in Reagan’s first year and might not have changed too much in 1982.

In 1983, by contrast, it’s fairly safe to say the next stage of tax rate reductions was substantially larger than any concomitant tax increases. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should attribute all changes in growth to what’s happening to the tax code. But it does suggest that it is a bit misleading to talk about tax cuts in 1981 and tax increases in 1983.

One final point: The main insight of supply-side economics is that changes in the overall tax burden are not as important as changes in the tax structure. As such, it’s also important to look at which taxes were going up and which ones were decreasing. This is why Reagan’s 1981 tax plan compares so favorably with Bush’s 2001 tax plan (which was filled with tax credits and other policies that had little or no impact on incentives for productive behavior).

(2) In addition to wondering whether one could argue that higher taxes triggered the Reagan boom, Thompson also speculates whether it might be possible to blame the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus for the economy’s subsequent sub-par performance. There are two problems with that hypothesis. First, a substantial share of the tax cuts in the so-called stimulus were actually new spending being laundered through the tax code (see footnote 3 of this Joint Committee on Taxation publication). To the extent that the provisions represented real tax relief, they were much more akin to Bush’s non–supply side 2001 tax cuts and a far cry from the marginal tax-rate reductions enacted in 1981 and 2003. And since even big tax cuts have little or no impact on the economy if incentives to engage in productive behavior are unaffected, there is no reason to blame (or credit) Obama’s tax provisions for anything.

(3) Why doesn’t anyone care that the Federal Reserve almost always is responsible for serious recessions? This isn’t a critique of Thompson’s post since he doesn’t address monetary policy from this angle, but if we go down the list of serious economic hiccups in recent history (1974-75, 1980-82, and 2008-09), bad monetary policy inevitably is a major cause. In short, the Fed periodically engages in easy-money policy. This causes malinvestment and/or inflation, and a recession seems to be an unavoidable consequence. Yet the Fed seems to dodge any serious blame. At some point, one hopes that policy makers (especially Fed governors) will learn that easy-money policies such as artificially low interest rates are not a smart approach.

(4) Thompson writes, “Is Mitchell really saying that $140 billion on Medicaid, firefighters, teachers, and infrastructure projects are costing the economy five percentage points of economic growth?” No, I’m not saying that and didn’t say that, but I have been saying for quite some time that taking money out of the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pockets doesn’t magically increase prosperity. And to the extent money is borrowed from private capital markets and diverted to inefficient and counter-productive programs, the net impact on the economy is negative. Thompson also writes that, “Our unemployment picture is a little more complicated than ‘Oh my god, Obama is killing jobs by taking over the states’ Medicaid burden!’” Since I’m not aware of anybody who’s made that argument, I’m not sure how to respond. That being said, jobs will be killed by having Washington take over state Medicaid budgets. Such a move would lead to a net increase in the burden of government spending, and that additional spending would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy.

The moral of the story, though, is to let Richard Rahn publicize his own work.

Deflation

I was listening to NPR in the car yesterday, when a report came on about the implications of deflation — which apparently is the latest concern regarding financial markets. The report nearly made me fall out of my seat from bewilderment and frustration.

Adam Davidson, the NPR reporter, waxed eloquent about how deflation turns normal economic and investment calculus on its head.  But his explanation was so poor that he ended up saying exactly the opposite of what he should have said.

Here’s how it went for me:

Davidson: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an amazing investment opportunity for you. Give me $100, just a hundred, and in one year I promise it will be worth 93 bucks. We call it the deflation special.”

My reaction: No, sir! Under deflation, $100 today would increase in value to $107 (assuming your implicit rate of deflation).  Help! Stop the car! …Wait, I’m the one driving…what just happened?

Davidson: “All right, seriously, nobody is giving anybody a hundred bucks just so they can lose seven.”

My reaction: No, no, please, please take my money! I’d give you a million dollars if I had that amount. I really would!

Davidson: “That’s the opposite of an investment opportunity, which is precisely why economists and central bankers get terrified when they hear the word deflation.”

My reaction: Well, a small amount of deflation can be consistent with flexible prices. It’s only rapid spiraling deflation that we should worry about.  But the same is true about rapid spiraling inflation.

Davidson: “Technically, deflation means that the prices of all kinds of goods and services keep falling, rather than what they normally do, which is rise. And deflation means that not just one investment but all investments are worth less next year because the currency they are based on — like the U.S. dollar — is going to be worth less next year.”

My reaction: That word “technically” should be banned from his vocabulary.  Again, the confusion here arises from using the word “currency.” Deflation means lower prices tomorrow compared to today and, therefore, a higher value of each dollar.  Indeed, all debts appreciate in value in a deflationary environment.

Davidson: “Why pay money to build a new factory or buy a house or hire an employee or go to school if the payoff will be worth (less) than the money you put in?”

My reaction: Lenders would be happy to lend money for investment projects because deflation implies a higher rate of return on them. It’s the borrowers and entrepreneurs who would not want to borrow funds because deflation escalates the real value of debtors’ liabilities.

Davidson: “Deflation, once it starts, is extremely hard to stop. Which is why the Federal Reserve is doing everything it can to prevent it.  Although, all the tools used to prevent deflation, like increasing the money supply and keeping interest rates incredibly low, can cause another problem: inflation.”

My reaction: What is it that you want, man? Make up your mind!

Davidson: “Now, central bankers tend to think that they can stop inflation more easily than deflation. So given the choice, they’ll inflate.”

My reaction: Those horrible Fed officials! I always suspected they were up to no good — always ginning up inflation. Now I know why!

I wonder which economics school Davidson (and his editor) attended. My guess: none. Let’s see … what’s on the next radio channel?

Even Keynesian Accounting Can’t Find All That ‘Stimulus’

From January 2009 to the present, President Obama and his team have repeatedly made grandiose claims about the economic benefits of shoveling money at shovel-ready projects or green jobs.  “It is largely thanks to the Recovery Act that a second Depression is no longer a possibility,” said the President.   He also claimed that lavish spending alone (not Federal Reserve actions or bank bailouts) is what prevented the unemployment rate from “getting up to … 15%.”

If any of that were remotely close to being true then, as a matter of simple accounting, rising federal spending would have shown up as a huge offset to falling GDP in 2009, and also as a major component of the modest increase in GDP growth in early 2010.   On the contrary, the table below shows that the increase in federal nondefense spending contributed only two-tenths of one percent (0.2) to the change in GDP in 2009.  That was no better than 2008 when the Recovery Act did not exist.  If nondefense spending had not increased at all in 2009 (unlike 2008) then GDP would have fallen 2.8% rather than 2.6% — scarcely the difference between a recession and a “second Depression.”  If nondefense federal spending had not increased at all in 2010, the economy still would have grown at a 3.6% pace in the first quarter, 2.1% in the second.  Cutbacks in state and local spending were a trivial damper on GDP growth last year, contrary to recent speculation, and real state and local spending rose significantly in this year’s second quarter (unlike the first).

This is just an exercise in crude Keynesian accounting, not economics.  Yet it nonetheless makes the stimulus bill look like a huge waste of money.  The reason Keynesian accounting is no substitute for economics is that governments can only spend other peoples’ money.  To claim that such spending is a net addition to “aggregate demand” is to ignore those other people — namely, current and future taxpayers.

Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas put it this way:

If the government builds a bridge … by taking tax money away from somebody else, and using that to pay the bridge builder — the guys who work on the bridge — then it’s just a wash.  It has no first-starter effect.  There’s no reason to expect any stimulation.  And, in some sense, there’s nothing to apply a multiplier to.  You apply a multiplier to the bridge builders, then you’ve got to apply the same multiplier with a minus sign to the people you taxed to build the bridge.  And then taxing them later isn’t going to help, we know that.

Are These Examples of Washington Corruption?

The “appearance of impropriety” is often considered the Washington standard for corruption and misbehavior. With that in mind, alarm bells began ringing in my head when I read this Washington Times report about Jacob Lew, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. A snippet:

President Obama’s choice to be the government’s chief budget officer received a bonus of more than $900,000 from Citigroup Inc. last year — after the Wall Street firm for which he worked received a massive taxpayer bailout. The money was paid to Jacob Lew in January 2009, about two weeks before he joined the State Department as deputy secretary of state, according to a newly filed ethics form. The payout came on top of the already hefty $1.1 million Citigroup compensation package for 2008 that he reported last year. Administration officials and members of Congress last year expressed outrage that executives at other bailed-out firms, such as American International Group Inc., awarded bonuses to top executives. State Department officials at the time steadfastly refused to say if Mr. Lew received a post-bailout bonus from Citigroup in response to inquiries from The Washington Times. But Mr. Lew’s latest financial disclosure report, provided by the State Department on Wednesday, makes clear that he did receive a significant windfall. …The records show that Mr. Lew received the $944,578 payment four days after he filed his 2008 ethics disclosure.

Why did Citigroup decide to hire Lew, a career DC political operator, for $1.1 million? As a former political aide, lobbyist, lawyer, and political appointee, what particular talents did he have to justify that salary to manage an investment division? Did the presence of Lew (as well as other Washington insiders such as Robert Rubin) help Citigroup get a big bucket of money from taxpayers as part of the TARP bailout? Did Lew’s big $900K in 2009 have anything to do with the money the bank got from taxpayers? Is it a bit suspicious that he received his big windfall bonus four days after filing a financial disclosure?

See if you can draw any conclusion other than this was a typical example of the sleazy relationship of big government and big business.

Lest anyone think I’m being partisan, let’s now look at another story featuring Senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Republican and his former aides have a nice relationship that means more campaign cash for him, lucrative fees for them, and lots of our tax dollars being diverted to such recipients as the state’s university system. Here are some of the sordid details:

Since 2008, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has steered more than $250 million in earmarks to beneficiaries whose lobbyists used to work in his Senate office — including millions for Alabama universities represented by a former top staffer. In a mix of revolving-door and campaign finance politics, the same organizations that have enjoyed Shelby’s earmarks have seen their lobbyists and employees contribute nearly $1 million to Shelby’s campaign and political action committee since 1999, according to federal records. …Shelby’s earmarking doesn’t appear to run afoul of Senate rules or federal ethics laws. But critics said his tactics are part of a Washington culture in which lawmakers direct money back home to narrow interests, which, in turn, hire well-connected lobbyists — often former congressional aides — who enjoy special access on Capitol Hill.

Some people think the answer to such shenanigans is more ethics laws, corruption laws, and campaign-finance laws, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Besides, it is quite likely that no laws were broken, either by Lew, Citigroup, Shelby, or his former aides. This is just the way Washington works, and the beneficiaries are the insiders who know how to milk the system. The only way to actually reduce both legal and illegal corruption in Washington is to shrink the size of government. The sleaze will not go away until politicians have less ability to steer our money to special interests — whether they are Wall Street banks or Alabama universities. This video elaborates:

No, There Are NOT “Five Job Seekers for Every Job Opening”

The Washington Post published “5 Myths about unemployment” by Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute.  The article is indeed full of myths, though not in the intended sense. 

“There are now roughly five unemployed people for every available job,” says Ms. Shierholz,  adding “there literally aren’t jobs for four of every five unemployed workers.” That statement has been repeated endlessly− in recent columns by Paul Krugman and Art Laffer, for example, and in a July 20 Wall Street Journal editorial which said “there are still five job seekers for every job opening.”

Regardless how often you hear this, the statement is completely false.  After all, the same survey that showed only 3.2 million “job openings” in May also showed 4.5 million people were hired that month.   If 3.2 million “openings” measured all available jobs, as Ms. Shierholz claims, then how did 4.5 million get hired?  I exposed this myth and others in my June 10 Wall Street Journal article. “The myth that there are nearly six job seekers for every available job,” I wrote, “arises from the misnamed BLS ‘Job Opening and Turnover Survey’ (JOLTS), which asks a few thousand businesses how many new jobs they are actively advertising outside the firm. But note well that this concept of ‘job openings’ does not purport to include ‘every available job.’ On the contrary, it is closer to being a measure of help wanted ads. ‘Many jobs are never advertised,’ explains the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook; ‘People get them by talking to friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, teachers, former coworkers, and others who know of an opening.’ Because many jobs are never advertised they are also never counted as job openings!  The BLS Handbook also notes that, ‘Directly contacting employers is one of the most successful means of job hunting.’ Those jobs are also not counted as job openings.” 

Unfortunately, I apparently failed to persuade even the Wall Street Journal editors about this statistical hoax.  So, let’s get a second opinion. 

The Minneapolis Fed recently interviewed Stanford economist Robert Hall, the famed co-author of Hall-Rabushka flat tax and (as he once told me) a “Clinton Democrat.”  For 32 years he has chaired the NBER committee that defines the dates of business cycles.  If he’s not an expert, who is?

Hall noted that “there’s been a decline in the profitability of hiring a worker without a corresponding decline in the wage. The incentive to create a job is the difference between what a worker will contribute to the business and what the worker has to be paid.”  But he also noted that the difficulty of finding a job is not just because fewer jobs are created, but because employers “do relatively little to try to recruit workers” when unemployment is high:  “Interestingly, the number of people who find jobs each month  is more or less a constant…,” said Hall, ”So, something like 4 million people find jobs every month.  Even with 10 percent unemployment, as recently, we’ve still seen the same thing. A very large number of people looking, very low job-finding rate for each individual, but the product—the number of jobs filled—is roughly a constant. It’s a very important fact about the labor market.  Think about a slack market from an employer’s point of view.  They see there are all kinds of highly qualified people out there they can hire easily, so they don’t need to do a lot of recruiting— people are pounding on the door.”

When job seekers are pounding on the door, the number of advertised “job openings” is a useless indicator of the much larger number who actually find jobs.   If the Washington Post were really interested in exposing myths about unemployment, they could start by debunking the myth that the “job openings” survey means “there literally aren’t jobs for four of every five unemployed workers.”  That is literally hogwash.

Obama Tells It Like It Is

The New York Times reports:

President Obama signed into law on Wednesday a sweeping expansion of federal financial regulation….

A number of the details have been left for regulators to work out, inevitably setting off complicated tangles down the road that could last for years…complex legislation, with its dense pages on derivatives practices….

“If you’ve ever applied for a credit card, a student loan, or a mortgage, you know the feeling of signing your name to pages of barely understandable fine print,” Mr. Obama said.

Americans Voting with their Feet

The Financial Times reports that the number of Americans giving up their citizenship to protect their families from America’s onerous worldwide tax system has jumped rapidly. Even relatively high-tax nations such as the United Kingdom are attractive compared to the class-warfare system that President Obama is creating in the United States.

I run into people like this quite often as part of my travels. They are intensely patriotic to America as a nation, but they have lots of scorn for the federal government.

Statists are perfectly willing to forgive terrorists like William Ayres, but they heap scorn on these “Benedict Arnold” taxpayers. But the tax exiles get the last laugh since the bureaucrats and politicians now get zero percent of their foreign-source income. You would think that, sooner or later, the left would realize they can get more tax revenue with reasonable tax rates. But that assumes that collectivists are motivated by revenue maximization rather than spite and envy.

From the FT article:

The number of wealthy Americans living in the UK who are renouncing their US citizenship is rising rapidly as more expatriates seek to escape paying tax to the US on their worldwide income and gains and shed their “non-dom” status, accountants say. As many as 743 American expatriates made the irreversible decision to discard their passports last year, according to the US government – three times as many as in 2008. …There is a waiting list at the embassy in London for people looking to give up citizenship, with the earliest appointments in February, lawyers and accountants say. …“The big disadvantage with American citizens is they catch you on tax wherever you are in the world. If you are taxed only in the UK, you have the opportunity of keeping your money offshore tax free.”

To grasp the extent of this problem, here are blurbs from two other recent stories. Time magazine discusses the unfriendly rules that make life a hassle for overseas Americans:

For U.S. citizens, cutting ties with their native land is a drastic and irrevocable step. …[I]t’s one that an increasing number of American expats are willing to take. According to government records, 502 expatriates renounced U.S. citizenship or permanent residency in the fourth quarter of 2009 — more than double the number of expatriations in all of 2008. And these figures don’t include the hundreds — some experts say thousands — of applications languishing in various U.S. consulates and embassies around the world, waiting to be processed. …[T]he new surge in permanent expatriations is mainly because of taxes. …[E]xpatriate organizations say the recent increase reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. government treats its expats and their money: the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that taxes its overseas citizens, subjecting them to taxation in both their country of citizenship and country of residence. …Additionally, the U.S. government has implemented tougher rules requiring expatriates to report any foreign bank accounts exceeding $10,000, with stiff financial penalties for noncompliance. “This system is widely perceived as overly complex with multiple opportunities for accidental mistakes, and life-altering penalties for inadvertent failures,” Hodgen says. These stringent measures were put into place to prevent Americans from stashing undeclared assets in offshore banks, but they also make life increasingly difficult for millions of law-abiding expatriates. “The U.S. government creates conflict and abuses me,” says business owner John. “I feel under duress to understand and comply with laws that have nothing to do with me and are constantly changing — almost never in my favor.” …Many U.S. expats report being turned away by banks and other institutions in their countries of residence only because they are American, according to American Citizens Abroad (ACA), a Geneva-based worldwide advocacy group for expatriate U.S. citizens. “We have become toxic citizens,” says ACA founder Andy Sundberg. Paradoxically, by relinquishing their U.S. citizenship, expats can not only escape the financial burden of double taxation, but also strengthen the U.S. economy, he says, adding, “It will become much easier for these people to get a job abroad, and to set up, own and operate private companies that can promote American exports.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, delves into the misguided policies that are driving Americans to renounce their citizenship.

Amid mounting frustration over taxation and banking problems, small but growing numbers of overseas Americans are taking the weighty step of renouncing their citizenship. …[F]rustrations over tax and banking questions, not political considerations, appear to be the main drivers of the surge. Expat advocates say that as it becomes more difficult for Americans to live and work abroad, it will become harder for American companies to compete. American expats have long complained that the United States is the only industrialized country to tax citizens on income earned abroad, even when they are taxed in their country of residence, though they are allowed to exclude their first $91,400 in foreign-earned income. One Swiss-based business executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive family issues, said she weighed the decision for 10 years. She had lived abroad for years but had pleasant memories of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Yet the notion of double taxation — and of future tax obligations for her children, who will receive few U.S. services — finally pushed her to renounce, she said. …Stringent new banking regulations — aimed both at curbing tax evasion and, under the Patriot Act, preventing money from flowing to terrorist groups — have inadvertently made it harder for some expats to keep bank accounts in the United States and in some cases abroad. Some U.S.-based banks have closed expats’ accounts because of difficulty in certifying that the holders still maintain U.S. addresses, as required by a Patriot Act provision.