Not Performing Up To Potential

When I was kid there was a comment I dreaded but got too often on too many grade reports to my parents: Not performing up to potential. I hated that. I must say, though, that there times when it did motivate me to do better.

The same comment, not performing up to potential, can easily be applied to the U.S. economy for at least the last 6 years.  I really wish it would motivate our economic policymakers to do better, but alas, they seem to be indifferent to the challenges.

For the details of just how much we are under-performing, I give you the Center for Budget Policy Priorities summation of the latest Congressional Budget Agency report on the economy (below the fold): Continue reading

The Problem in One Graph

Yesterday I said I was reluctant to get over-optimistic about the recent slight upturn in employment data. This year may truly be different from the last few, but there’s a nagging feeling that we’ve seen this movie before. I’m not alone in the feeling. As 2012 dawns, Tim Duy summarizes the problem in one graph (emphasis is mine):

I have been hesitant to embrace the recent positive data flow – once bitten, twice shy perhaps.  Something about the current dynamics that seems a little too familiar.  Indeed, I felt something of relief when FT Alphaville came to a similar conclusion in the waning days of 2011.  Cardiff Garcia reports on a Nomura research note that details a new bias in the seasonal adjustment process, noting:

Up next, writes Nomura, you can expect exaggeratedly strong readings from the Chicago PMI later this month and the next ISM manufacturing survey at the start of January.

I imagine it is premature to call the readings “exaggerated,” but both did surprise on the upside, as much data has of late.  Read the whole piece – it is worth the time.

Indeed, flirtations with either excessive optimism or excessive pessimism were not richly rewarded last year, as on average the economy simply edged upward in pretty unremarkable fashion:

It seems reasonable to expect the same in 2012, at least as a baseline – a slow “recovery” that is really more of an adjustment to what appears to be the economy’s new equilibrium path, one that is decisively subpar to the pre-recession trend.  I don’t believe that such an adjustment is necessary, as in my view it simply reflects a shortfall of aggregate demand.  That said, the longer the cyclical downturn grinds on, the more likely it is that we will indeed see a new equilibrium path.  A greater percentage of the cyclical unemployment will become structural unemployment or permanent shifts in the labor force participation rate.  In addition, investments will go unmade as firms hoard cash.  And, increasingly, policymakers will manage policy along the new equilibrium path, forgetting entirely the pre-recession path.

The gap in the above graph, the gap between the green trend line of what we’re capable of doing and the blue-red trend from Jan 2009 onward of we’re actually doing is the challenge.  We are slowly becoming an economy that simply cut-off 7% or so of our economy in 2008 and we aren’t recovering it.  Instead it increasingly appears that the 90-93% of the economy that survived, those of us still with good jobs, are simply going on our way leaving behind those who lost out a few years ago.

There are over 13 million unemployed workers. Over 5.6 million of them have been searching fruitlessly for a new job for more than 6 months.  These are the people who got kicked off the American economy bus some time ago.  Unfortunately, even at the recently improved rate of 150-200,000 new jobs per month, there won’t be any room on the bus for them again.  Instead, the bus is moving on and they are left behind.

This is new. This is not the normal pattern. In past recessions, public policy, both fiscal and monetary, was managed to restore full employment rapidly after a recession.  It didn’t always succeed but the effort was made.  Now it is not. Now we focus more on long-term debt issues and spending concerns.  Politicians run on platforms of fear of some future default or financial crisis. This despite the fact that the government is able to borrow at record low rates of interest.

We are on path to a “new normal”, a “normal” that says it’s OK to have millions of long-term unemployed who have no hope.  I don’t think I like the “new normal”.


November Employment and Revised 3rd Qtr 2011 GDP

I’m a few days late but I wanted to note the latest employment (jobs) report and the first revision to 3rd quarter GDP.  There’s really not much news here – it’s the same old story. The economy continues to move along somewhat like  a zombie.  Not really dead, but definitely not anything you could call “living”.  That’s particularly true if you’re one of millions of unemployed who need a job to “make a living” but can’t get one.

CalculatedRisk Blog tells us:

From MarketWatch: U.S. economy adds 120,000 jobs in November

The U.S. gained 120,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate fell to 8.6% from 9.0%, the Labor Department said Friday. The government also revised jobs data for October and September to show that 72,000 additional jobs were created. … Hiring in October was revised up to 100,000 from 80,000 and the job gains in September were revised up to 210,00 from 158,000. In November, companies in the private sector hired 140,000 workers … Government cut 20,000 jobs

Employment Pop Ratio, participation and unemployment ratesClick on graph for larger image.

The following graph shows the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate declined to 8.6%.

Some of the decline in the unemployment rate was related to a decline in the number of workers in the labor force.

Percent Job Losses During RecessionsThe second graph shows the job losses from the start of the employment recession, in percentage terms. The dotted line is ex-Census hiring.

This was still a weak report, and slightly below consensus.

The headline unemployment rate declining from 9.0% in October to  8.6% in November is deceptive.  It is NOT because economic growth created enough new jobs to start making a significant dent in the millions of unemployed.  Instead it was almost entirely due to the labor force shrinking.  In other words, approximately 300,000 would-be workers abandoned their search in frustration and discouragement.  If the economy starts to grow briskly (not much chance of that happening) then these discouraged and “marginally attached” workers will likely renew their searches and rejoin the work force.

Calculated Risk also tells us how just before Thanksgiving the estimate for 3rd quarter real GDP growth was revised downward.

From the BEA: Gross Domestic Product, Second Quarter 2011 (second estimate

Real gross domestic product — the output of goods and services produced by labor and propertylocated in the United States — increased at an annual rate of 2.0 percent in the third quarter of 2011 (that is, from the second quarter to the third quarter) according to the “second” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

This was revised down from 2.5% and below the consensus of 2.4%.

The downward revisions was mostly due to a large decline in the “change in real private inventories ” – this subtracted 1.55 percentage points from the third-quarter change in real GDP (second estimate) as opposed to 1.08 percentage points in the advance estimate. Final domestic demand was mostly unchanged (the inventories will probably reverse in Q4). Still sluggish growth …

The relatively large revision came from having better data about the change in business inventories.  In GDP accounting, when a business produces goods it counts as “production” and part of GDP, even if the goods haven’t been sold yet to a final customer.  Additions to inventory then are considered to be a form of “business Investment”.  A decline in inventories tells us that businesses (in aggregate) sold more from their inventories (previous production) than they produced.  A large decline in inventories can be either a good or bad sign.  It’s good if it happens because sales were unexpectedly higher than managements expected.  That would suggest that production would be increased in the next quarter.  On the other hand, a decline in inventories can also be a sign that businesses expect future sales to be weak and so they didn’t produce as much in advance.  We’ll have to see which it is.  Regardless of why the inventory adjustment was so large, a 2.0% real growth rate is unacceptable.  It wouldn’t even be acceptable at full employment, but with 8.6% unemployment it’s totally unacceptable.

Update on Current Situation – October Jobs Report and 3rd Qtr GDP

Two of the more important (U.S.) economic measures were reported in last week and half.  Yesterday the October jobs report came in.  The week before we got the flash report on 3rd quarter GDP.  Both measures were better than feared, not quite as good as consensus expectations of many forecasters, and overall still a disappointment.  First let’s look at the numbers and then I’ll comment. CalculatedRisk, as usual, reports the facts on the jobs report:

From the BLS:

Nonfarm payroll employment continued to trend up in October (+80,000), and the unemployment rate was little changed at 9.0 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

The following graph shows the employment population ratio, the participation rate, and the unemployment rate.

Employment Pop Ratio, participation and unemployment ratesClick on graph for larger image.

The unemployment rate declined to 9.0% (red line).

The Labor Force Participation Rate was unchanged 64.2% in October (blue line). This is the percentage of the working age population in the labor force. The participation rate is well below the 66% to 67% rate that was normal over the last 20 years, although some of the decline is due to the aging population.

The Employment-Population ratio increased to 58.4% in October (black line).

Note: the household survey showed another strong gain in jobs, and that is why the unemployment rate could decline with few payroll jobs added – and the employment population ratio increase.

Percent Job Losses During Recessions

The second graph shows the job losses from the start of the employment recession, in percentage terms. The dotted line is ex-Census hiring.

Now we reach back to October 27 and CalculatedRisk again:

From the BEA:

Real gross domestic product — the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States — increased at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the third quarter of 2011 (that is, from the second quarter to the third quarter) according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The acceleration in real GDP in the third quarter primarily reflected accelerations in PCE and in nonresidential fixed investment and a smaller decrease in state and local government spending that were partly offset by a larger decrease in private inventory investment.

The following graph shows the quarterly GDP growth (at an annual rate) for the last 30 years. The dashed line is the current growth rate. Growth in Q2 at 2.5% annualized was below trend growth (around 3%) – and very weak for a recovery, especially with all the slack in the system.

So what’s happening.  Nothing much, really.  That’s the problem.  The economy is effectively going sideways.  Yes, we continue to grow, but the rate of growth is so slow that we aren’t really seeing any improvement in conditions.  For all of 2011 we have grown at a rate below the long-term historic trend of 3.0%.  We are struggling to keep up with population growth and not really doing anything to “put people back to work”.  hat’s not a recovery.  That’s society throwing 5% of our workforce off the bus 3 years ago and saying “so long” forever.  It should be unacceptable, especially when it’s possible to do much better.

UPDATE on President Obama’s Jobs Proposal – Better, But Still Weak

First an update on a post I made a few days ago. When I commented last Monday on President Obama’s jobs proposal, I was less than excited. Having read more detail of the proposal, I should correct some statements I made.  I incorrectly left the impression that the payroll tax (Social Security/Medicare tax) cut that the President was proposing was only an extension of the present year cut that is scheduled to expire December 31, 2011.

In fact, the President is proposing not only a 1 year extension of this year’s temporary payroll tax cut, but an increase in the size of that tax cut.  Estimates are that for a median household income of near $50,000, it would result in a $1,500 reduction in payroll taxes compared to not having any payroll tax cut at all. However, the existing, this-year only, payroll tax cut had already cut payroll taxes by up to $500 per household.  So of the claimed $1,500 tax cut for next year for the median household, $500 is an extension of this year’s situation and  $1000 is new stimulus.  Today’s economy is weak even with the existing temporary $500 tax cut, so extending that cut won’t improve things. It will only prevent things from deteriorating further.  In my world, simply agreeing to not put on the brakes is not the same thing as actually hitting the accelerator.

But, the proposal does contain perhaps $1000 worth of tax cut stimulus to nearly all working households. That’s perhaps $150 billion of pure, new stimulus to economy.  It’s more than I estimated on Monday, so the plan will likely have some more stimulative effects than I thought.  But how much?  Let’s do a quick “back of the envelope” type calculation.  The proposal puts $150 billion in consumers’ hands that wouldn’t have been there without it.  But for this money to generate jobs, people have to spend the money.  Simply saving the money or paying down debt won’t cut it.  That improves individual household balance sheets but it doesn’t cause any firm out there to go “oh, more business! I need to hire people!”  In normal times like the 1960’s or 1970’s people would have spent 85-90% of the tax cut.  But these aren’t normal times. We live in high debt, high debt payments, and scared-of-the-future times.  More people save in these kind of times. (paying down debt is economically the same as savings – think of your debt as a negative balance in a savings account).  Let’s assume that people spend 2/3 of the money.  Both history and theory indicate that people save more of a tax cut when they know it’s temporary, but let’s be generous/optimistic and say 2/3 gets spent.  That’s $100 billion in new spending.

Now when it gets spent, it generates business demand and jobs.  Those people get paid and then they go spend the money again – the circular flow of money in the economy.  How much?  That’s a huge controversy in empirical macroeconomics.  This is the question of what the spending multiplier is.  Estimates vary widely, although often the studies are heavily biased by ideology to begin with.  Let’s be modestly optimistic and say the multiplier is 1.5 – 2.0.  This is a relatively high estimate given recent studies as far as I know, but let’s run with it.  That means that after some months, this initial $150 billion in tax cuts becomes $100 billion in new, initial spending which ultimately increases total spending by $150-$200 billion.  Total spending is another way of saying GDP.  This puts it in the range of 1.0% to 1.5% of GDP.

There’s a rule of thumb about the relationship between changes in GDP to changes in unemployment rate. It’s called Okun’s Law.  It’s not a law so much as a statistical regularity. There are many versions, but let’s use a real simple one: each 2 percentage point change in GDP equates to a 1 percentage point change in the unemployment rate.  So if we have GDP growth increasing by 1.5% points, we can count on unemployment rate going down by 0.75 to 1.0% points.

We’re currently over 9% unemployment rate and stuck there.  I’m not real excited about a proposal that aims to reduce the unemployment rate from over 9% to maybe 8%.  We know 4-5% unemployment is possible.  We did it in 2006 even with the slow-growth policies of the Bush administration.  We did better than that under Clinton. In the 1960’s we were even below 4%.   Why are we settling for tepid responses and setting goals of only getting to 8% unemployment and then calling this “bold”?  I don’t know.  But then maybe I’m just a grumpy old man.

The Mean and the Median Tell Two Different Stories

Averages, if you’re not careful, can as easily mislead as enlighten.  It matters a lot which statistical measure of the “average-ness” that’s used.  A good example comes in the case of the U.S. long-term trend of economic growth.  What we’re interested in is to what degree the amount of GDP the average household has available has increased over time.  It’s the prime way economists measure whether not living standards are improving.  GDP, of course, is the measure we use to count output in the economy.  GDP is the total market value of all goods and services produced for final demand in a year.   Real GDP is the inflation-adjusted version of it so we can compare GDP from different years.   But of course, just because total GDP, or even real GDP, is going up from year to year is no assurance that living standards are generally increasing.  After all, if real GDP grows by 1% per year but the population grows by 2% per year, there’s less per mouth each year.

So we need to adjust the real GDP measure to account for population growth. We want a measure of average GDP per person or average GDP per household.  Those readers who didn’t fall asleep in statistics class might recall that technically “average” isn’t a statistical measure.  Instead there are several different ways of calculating what statisticians prefer to call “central tendency” instead of “average”.  The two most common calculations in economics are the mean and median.  And there’s a huge difference between them.  The mean is  what you probably learned in primary school as the “average”.  To calculate it we take the total and divide by the number of people in the population.  When economists cite GDP per capita, we are, in fact, calculating the mean Real GDP per person.  The mean, the real GDP per capita for the U.S. over the last 34 years has grown at around a 1.9% annual rate.  That might not sound like much, but remember the power of compounding means that at 1.9%, mean real GDP per person will double in less than 40 years – one working lifetime.  Sounds good, right?  Sounds like the American dream in action, right? Wrong.

Real GDP per capita when looking at the U.S. is highly misleading because most of the growth only goes to the top 1% income folks.  The vast majority of Americans, the other 99% of us, haven’t experienced anything like that growth.  To see the difference let’s consider real income of the median household.  Remember Gross Domestic Income is the same as Gross Domestic Product.  It’s just counted differently by counting income available to spend instead of actual spending.  Long run, they are the same.  Now let’s quick review what the median is. The median is the middle observation. It means that there’s as many observations with a lesser value as there are with a greater value.  In this context it means that there are exactly as many households with a smaller income as there are households with a larger income.  It’s another way of looking at the average.  In this case we’re looking for the most typical household.  Statistics note:  mean will equal median if both sides of the distribution are identical, but in income this isn’t true – millionaires, billionaires, and rich households are a lot richer than the $49,700 median income but the poorest households can only $49,700 poorer at most.

In the U.S. over the last 34 years, the median household income has only grown at less than 0.5% per year despite increases in education.  So real GDP per person grows at 1.9% per year, but real median income only grows less than 0.5% per year.  At 0.5%, it will take 150 years for income to double.  End of the American dream of doing a lot better than your parents. What accounts for the difference?  It’s the upper 1% of the income distribution, the rich folks, millionaires and billionaires, that have skimmed off the 65% of all of the GDP gains for 34 years.

Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt explains in the NYTimes Economix blog:

So if an American macroeconomist — a specialist who tends to think of nations as people — or high-level government officials or politicians mimicking a macroeconomist boasted on a television talk show that “average family income grew by 3 percent during 2002-7, more than in most European economies,” about 99 percent of American viewers, reflecting on their own experience, would probably scratch their heads and wonder, “What is this guy talking about?”

The third chart, below, exhibits the growth path of real G.D.P. per capita in the United States over the period 1975-2009 and the corresponding path of real median household income. The data show that over the 34-year period, real G.D.P. per capita rose by an annual compound rate of 1.9 percent. Those data come from the Economic Report of the President to the Congress (Tables B-2 and B-34).

Sources: Economic Report of the President to Congress (G.D.P.); Census Bureau (income)

According to the Census Bureau data (see Table H-6), however, median household income in the United States rose by less than 0.5 percent a year. Other than national pride in league tables, that 1.9 percent average economic growth does not mean much for the experience of the median household in the United States.

GDP and GDI: Two Sides of the Same Coin (Theoretically)

One of the starting points for understanding macroeconomics is to understand basic measures of the economy and what we call the “circular flow” of goods and services.  The “circular flow” refers to the idea that firms are the economic “agents” who produce and sell all our goods and services for sale, and that households are the folks who consume those goods.  Of course in reality, both groups are made up of the same people, but we divide up the activities into firms and household consumption.  Given this division of activities into two groups, the circular flow is the idea that the groups both buy and sell to each other.  Households buy the products sold by firms, but households also sell their labor to the firms.  This is all good and it shows how interdependent firms and households are.  Firms can’t hire and pay if they don’t sell products, but households can’t buy those products unless they are able to sell their labor to the firms.

We generally measure the size of an economy by adding up the total value of all the goods and services that are produced and then sold.  This is what we call GDP – Gross Domestic Product.  GDP is the accepted way to measure the size of an economy.  The GDP number as observed and estimated each period is what should technically be called Nominal GDP.  It’s the starting point for estimating Real GDP.  Real GDP is GDP adjusted for changes in the overall level of prices – it takes the inflation/deflation out of the GDP numbers so we can compare GDP from different time periods.

The GDP numbers as reported by the government agencies is generally computed by observing and at times estimating how much spending happened.  In other words, it’s an attempt to add up the value of all final sales by firms of the products they produced.  A “final” sale means the product has been sold to someone who intends to use it up or consume it as opposed to reselling it or making it into an even better product.

There is however another way to estimate GDP.  Since the total value of what firms produce is the money the firms receive, then we could look at how that money is disposed of by those firms.  Put in other words, instead of looking at what households spend to buy goods and services, we can look at the income households received.  We could look at the other side of the circular flow.  When calculated this way, we give it a slightly different name: Gross Domestic Income or GDI.  Because of the circular flow, the two sides shoudl be the same.  In other words, in theory GDP should equal GDI.  In general and over the long haul they do.

Of course theory and practice sometimes differ.  On a quarter-by-quarter basis, GDI and GDP differ slightly because of difficulties in measuring precisely – what we call statistical discrepancy.  Occasionally the discrepancy is bigger than other times for reasons economists don’t fully understand.  The first half of 2011 was one of those periods.  So was 2007.  But as you can see from this graph (thanks to James Hamilton at Econbrowser), in general GDP does equal GDI.