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 Federal Government HAS Been Cutting Spending – And That’s A Major Problem

One of the my major frustrations as a blogger and as a follower of economic news is the way in which misinformation and falsehoods get repeatedly passed around as they were facts.  For example, one common meme that we hear a lot is that the  government, especially under Obama, has engaged in a massive spending spree.  The idea is pushed that government is growing out of control.  This idea has been pushed heavily by Republicans and Tea Partiers. It is often combined with the conclusion that “stimulus doesn’t work”.  The unfortunate part is that this idea of a government spending spree is completely untrue!

Look at this graph from the FRED database at the stlouisfed.org.  This shows the annual change in real dollars in government consumption and investment expenditures.  In other words, it shows how additional spending was added each year by all layers of government in the U.S.  During the recession, 2008 and 2009, governments were spending more.  They were spending approximately $60 billion a year more.  But notice that once the “official recession” ended in 2009 (the end of the shaded bars) governments began cutting back.  By late 2010 government has cut back so much that it is now spending less each year than the last year.

It’s no coincidence that this is the same exact timing when two things happened: the Republicans asserted control over the House of Representatives and began pushing to cutting spending, and the economy began to slow again and the recovery stalled. These two phenomena are related.  Cutting government spending when there is high unemployment and a slow economy is a sure-fire recipe for an even slower economy and even higher unemployment.

A critical thinking reader might ask “how can this be true (that government spending is lower than a year ago) if the federal government deficit is so large?”.   Well there’s two explanations.  The first is that the federal government deficit in the economy is largely due to the slow down in tax collections and the tax cuts that delivered little economic stimulus since they were saved, not spent.  Second, government in the U.S. is more than Washington D.C. There’s as much state and local government as there is national government, particularly when it comes to spending (as opposed to transfer payments).  State and local governments are cutting back and cutting back big time.  The 2009 “stimulus” bill of the national government actually had a large component that involved the national government transferring money to states and locals so they wouldn’t have to cut as much.  State and local governments cannot run deficits the way the national government can (they don’t have central banks).  That’s over now.  Now state and local governments are cutting big time – over 345,000 jobs lost at the state and local government level in just the last 12 months.  Of those, the majority are teachers in education.

Jobs And Unemployment Report For August 2011 – More Bad News, More Signs Economy Is Stalled, No Net New Jobs

This being the first Friday of the month, the latest U.S. employment report was released this morning.  Not good news.  In a nutshell:  no new net jobs created and the unemployment rate holds steady at 9.1%. It disappointed even the weak expectations of forecasters. The news continues to show an economy that has stalled without recovering and is in danger of relapsing to recession. CalculatedRiskBlog does it’s usual exemplary reporting of the latest monthly jobs and unemployment report:

From the BLS:

Nonfarm payroll employment was unchanged (0) in August, and the unemployment rate held at 9.1 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Employment in most major industries changed little over the month. Health care continued to add jobs, and a decline in information employment reflected a strike. Government employment continued to trend down, despite the return of workers from a partial government shutdown in Minnesota.

The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for June was revised from
+46,000 to +20,000, and the change for July was revised from +117,000 to +85,000.

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 in graph gallery.

The unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.1% (red line).

When looking at the detailed numbers we find that the private sector created a net total of 17,000 new jobs.  Unfortunately this was entirely offset by government reducing employment by 17,000 jobs.  I suppose for Tea Party and Conservative types who blame government for most all economic ills and who fantasize about a society with no government, this is moving towards their ideal economy.  Somehow, I don’t see it that way.

Further details behind the numbers show that the number of private sector jobs was likely understated by 45,000 since during the survey week the 45,000 Verizon workers who were on strike were not counted as having jobs.  Those jobs will return in the report on September, assuming Verizon doesn’t lay off some of them.

Overall, the picture for recovering from the Great Recession has been turning bleaker.  We were never on a very robust path for recovery at all during the last 2 years.  However, now what modest slow momentum we had towards job recovery has stalled and job recovery has essentially flatlined.  At the current rate, we never recover the jobs lost in 2008-09 until at least a decade has passed, if that.  This is definitely starting to look like depression territory, not “recession”.  The following graph, also from Calculated Risk,


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.

The red line is moving sideways – and I’ll need to expand the graph soon.

The current employment recession is by far the worst recession since WWII in percentage terms, and 2nd worst in terms of the unemploymentrate (only the early ’80s recession with a peak of 10.8 percent was worse).

The details in the report also show more depressing (sorry for the pun) news:

  • U-6, an alternate unemployment rate measure that includes both traditional unemployed (no job but looking), part-time workers who want but can’t full-time hours, and some other marginally-attached workers has risen to 16.2%, a new high for this year.
  • There are 13.967 million Americans unemployed now.
  • Of those unemployed workers, 6.0 million have been without a job and looking for work for over 6 months.
  • The previous reported totals for both June and July were revised downward.

 

Possible Good News – A Gasoline Price Drop Would Help.

Ronald White of tthe LA Times brings us this nugget via CalculatedRiskBlog:

Since I haven’t posted on gasoline prices in some time … from Ronald White at the LA Times: Gas prices expected to fall

“If oil remains low, the national average for gasoline will fall to $3.25 to $3.40 in the next two to three weeks as retailers slowly lower their prices to reflect their drop in cost,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior energy analyst for GasBuddy.com, a website that lists retail gasoline prices.

Another price decline would be good news, but it just takes us back close to the late February and early March levels – and March is when Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) growth slowed, and consumer sentiment fell sharply.
If this comes to happen, then it raises the chances of avoiding another drop in GDP  and another recession.  It’s the first positive contingency I’ve seen for quite awhile.  Most of the “if this happens…” around today are all negative: Eurozone collapses, Bank of America hits more losses, state and local governments continue to layoff workers, etc.  Of course, gas prices dropping depends on oil prices staying down, and that depends on the big banks and hedge funds not speculating in the oil markets to drive them up.

We Have A Debt-Ceiling Deal. The Economy Loses.

Earlier this week the absurd and totally unnecessary debate in Washington over raising the national debt-ceiling came to an agreement, both houses of Congress passed it, and the President signed it.  Earlier this week I gave this metaphor for the deal, wondering why we need enemies with “friends” like our representatives in Washington.  Now that I’ve had a little more time to reflect, read some more on the details, comment on radio & TV about it, I think I was too easy on it.  It’s worse than it first appears.

This deal doesn’t “guarantee” that the U.S. government will reduce it’s deficit and maintain “solvency” (a non-concept for a sovereign country with a central bank).  Instead, this deal is more likely to guarantee that our economic non-recovery does, indeed, become at least a lost decade, if not a depression.  Right now I want to look at the economic impact of the deal.  In another post I’ll look at another casualty of the deal and the probably political-economy impact.

So what does the deal do specifically?  Well the details are fairly complex, even by Washington standards.  Right now the debt ceiling rises by $400 billion – enough to last for probably 3-4 months.  No real cuts will happen for maybe 60 more days.  Then starting in October 2011, which is the start of the government’s fiscal year 2012 budget (see here for definition of fiscal year), the action begins. Caps on spending start.  There are no tax or revenue changes in the deal.  It starts modestly with only $21 billion in spending cuts in 2012, although many of those cuts will be felt painfully by many citizens.  Students in graduate school in particular will feel the pinch in their pocket. Then in the remaining 9 years of the deal, there will be at least another $896 billion in reduced spending, amounting to about $100 billion less spending per year than currently planned.

This total of $917 billion in reduced spending is only the start though.  Congress is going to appoint a “special joint committee” of 12 members to recommend and additional $1.2-1.5 trillion in either spending cuts or tax revenue increases over the next 10 years.  (if you believe that committee with half Republicans will allow any revenue increases, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale).  If Congress doesn’t adopt those cuts, then Medicare payments, defense spending, and other discretionary spending would automatically by cut across the board. Either way spending gets cut another $1.2 trillion for the years 2013-2022.

This deal is supposed to raise the debt ceiling enough to get us through the end  of 2012 and the presidential election before the debt ceiling has to be raised again, sparing us this debate.  Don’t bet the your house on that though because House Republicans are betting they can keep this debate alive through then.  Basically Congress has created an elaborate mechanism in this law that increases the debt ceiling in several steps between now and the end of 2012.  But the way it’s done is that the debt ceiling keeps going up unless Congress votes to stop it (which the President would then veto).  It’s  a way for Republicans to keep talking about the debt and deficit, to keep recording “votes” against it, but all the time knowing that the debt ceiling will rise because it has to.  Pure politics at the expense of the country.

Right now the economy has over 9% unemployment.  Inflation is so low that deflation is actually the threat. The economy has effectively stalled or at least reached “stall speed”, threatening another double-dip recession.  This is not the time to be cutting spending.  To the degree spending cuts are necessary, they should happen when the economy is at or nearing full employment, not now.  At this time the economy needs all the spending it can find whether it’s from consumers, firms, or government.  And right now, firms and consumers are pulling back and keeping their wallets closed.  The government needs to step up and fill the gap.

So bottom-line, what should we expect?  I’ve seen several estimates from folks with more sophisticated econometric models than I can access.  My own back-of-the-envelope calculations and intuition say the drag on the economy is significant.  In 2012, this deal is probably going to take up to another 0.4 percentage points off of GDP growth.  The real damage starts in 2013 with a reduction closer to 1%.  Remember we’ve only grown at 0.8% rate so far in the first half of 2011, so 2012 will be close to zero growth and 2013 will likely be negative unless some other source of growth and spending can be found.  Looking around, it’s hard to imagine where that could be.  Instead I see nothing but possible negative risks: Europe imploding in a currency and austerity crisis, China having to pull back to slow their inflation, the housing mess in the U.S. is still bad, U.S. banks aren’t as healthy as they claim.

The estimates I’ve seen are similar.  Economic Policy Institute says the debt ceiling deal with cost us 1.8 million jobs in 2012 alone. The same article reports:

Top economists and CEO’s have also weighed in against the deal and said that GOP concessions to the Tea Party will cost our economy dearly. Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian warned that the deal will lead to less growth, more unemployment, and more inequality. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the plan “a disaster” and “an abject surrender” that will “depress the economy even further.”

The Center for American Progress’s Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden argue that while the deal “goes straight in the wrong direction,” Congress can redeem itself by using the so-called “super committee” mandated by the bill to focus on job creation. The committee, made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, is tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next 10 years, and must report a plan by Thanksgiving.

It’s noteworthy that J.P.Morgan Chase Bank’s research department, as representative of Wall Street as any, says that overall with this deal, government budget policy in 2012 subtract at least 1.5% points from GDP growth rate in 2012.  Since  it takes at least 2% growth in GDP to keep unemployment stable and we haven’t even had a single quarter of growth at more than a 4% rate since the end of 2006, things look grim for employment.

The cutters and austerians have won.  They will make a wasteland of the economy in the name of fighting the deficit.

So We Have a Debt-Ceiling Deal. Whoppee. With “Friends” Like These…

Ok, we have a “deal” in Washington to raise the debt ceiling.  Big whoop.  With friends like these, we don’t need enemies.  I don’t much time today (end of semester, grading, and all), but I’ll comment tomorrow in more depth.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this metaphor for how I see the debt-ceiling deal and it’s spending cuts, new “super-congressional” committees, etc.   Picture the economy as a person crossing the street.  The person is frail, sickly from an infection, and has a broken leg in a cast.  That’s because the economy hasn’t healed from 3 years ago when it got hit by speeding truck called The Great Financial Crisis.   Just as the person is in the middle of the street, we see two cars driven by reckless youngsters drag racing down the street – a totally unnecessary activity.  Both drivers saw the person several blocks away but they kept speeding straight toward the person, yelling at each other that the other one should swerve or stop to avoid hitting the poor hobbled pedestrian.  Now at the very last minute, a shred of sanity prevailed and the two cars keep speeding, but they swerved just enough to miss hitting the economy.  But in the process of swerving, they’ve knocked our economy/pedestrian down to the ground.

The good news is we avoided being run over and possibly killed.  The bad news is that not only are we still sick, infected, and have a broken leg, we might also have more bruises and injuries from the close-call.

This Is No Movie Folks. It’s Real and It’s Scary.

I don’t enjoy scary movies. Never have.  I also don’t enjoy scary “amusement” park rides.*  I know I’m kind of a fluke in our U.S. culture this way.  I just find that there’s enough excitement, thrills, and fright in the real world if you just open your eyes.

An example of real world things to be scared of is the current debate  childish tantrum in Washington over increasing the debt limit. I’ll admit I haven’t taken it seriously until now.  A couple months ago I called it Kabuki Theatre of the Absurd. The law itself, the debt “ceiling” law, is absurd.  It is also redundant. Raising the debt ceiling should be a like sending a form letter.  Routine. Perfunctory. The law should be simply done away with. If Congress doesn’t want to borrow more money then the time and place to make that point constitutionally is when the budget is adopted.

The Republicans and Tea Party types were unable to accomplish their goals of gutting Social Security, Medicare, and other programs when the budget bill was debated last March-April.  They simply didn’t have the political support and they couldn’t agree on just who to cut.  So instead of doing the constitutional thing and either win more elections and gain seats (they actually lost a special election in May because of their plans to cut Social Security), or waiting until the next budget for next year, they’re trying to accomplish their goals under a subterfuge.  It’s not about the debt. It’s not about the deficit.  If it were about debt, deficits, and “fiscal responsibility”, then closing tax loopholes for high-income folks like hedge fund managers and the commodity speculators that drive up oil prices would be an option.  But the Republicans and Tea Partiers have expressly stated that even closing a tax loophole is unacceptable.  Only spending cuts are acceptable.  So the truth is it’s not about “fiscal responsibility”.  It’s about eliminating government programs that people want as the New York Times explains today (possible paywall on link).

So back to the debate tantrums being thrown in Washington. I still expect there to be a last-minute deal when powerful folks on Wall Street give the call to their friends in D.C. and tell ’em to knock it off and do it. In the meantime, the Republicans, Tea Party types, and Obama administration are playing a game of chicken.  Except that this is a bit different from movie versions of chicken.  Jeff Frankels provides an excellent analysis. The problem is three-fold: it’s not movie fantasy – it’s real, the folks in the Republican car aren’t rational and are fighting among themselves, and when these cars go over the cliff there’s a good chance they take our entire economy with them. Quoting Jeff:

In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and a teenage rival race two cars to the edge of a cliff in a game of chicken.  Both intend to jump out at the last moment.  But the other guy miscalculates, and goes over the cliff with the car.

This is the game that is being played out in Washington this month over the debt ceiling.  The chance is at least 1/4 that the result will be similarly disastrous.

The game is not symmetric.  The Republicans are the ones who are miscalculating.   Evidently they are confident of prevailing:  they rejected the President’s offer, even though he was willing to cut entitlement programs.

The situation is complicated because there are a number of different people crammed into the Republican car.    There is one guy who is obsessed with the theory that, come August 3, the federal government could retain its top credit rating if it continued to service its debt by ceasing payment on its other bills.  But this would mean failing to honor legal obligations that have already been incurred (paying suppliers for paper clips that have already been bought, paying soldiers their wages for last month’s service, sending social security recipients their checks, etc.).  This is like observing that the cliff is not a 90 degree drop-off, but only 110 degrees.   It doesn’t matter: the car would still go crashing into the ocean far below.   The government’s credit would still be downgraded and global investors would still demand higher interest rates to hold US treasuries, probably on a long-term basis.

There are other guys (and gals) in the car who are even more delusional.   They are dead set on a policy of immediately eliminating the budget deficit (e.g., those opposed to raising the debt ceiling no matter what, or those campaigning for a balanced budget amendment), and doing it primarily by cutting nondefense discretionary spending.  This is literally impossible, arithmetically.  But they honestly don’t know this.   It is as if they were insisting that the car can fly.   Sometimes it can be a good bargaining position to adopt a very extreme position.  But if you are demanding that the car flies, you are not going to get your way no matter how determined you are.

It seems likely that the man in the driver’s seat – House Speaker John Boehner – does realize that his fellow passengers don’t have the facts quite right.   But there is also a game of chicken going onwithin the Republican car.  The crazies have said they will oppose in the next Republican primary election any congressman who votes to raise the debt ceiling or to raise tax revenues.   (Yes, they think they would support someone who would eliminate the budget deficit primarily by cutting non-defense discretionary spending; but remember, this is arithmetically impossible.)   The guy who is riding shot-gun in the car – the one who believes the car can fly — is trying to put his foot on top of Boehner’s on the accelerator pedal.

Yes, people who cannot do basic arithmetic are in charge here. And they’re throwing a childish tantrum because they can’t get their way.  Only unlike a child who’s threatening to hurt themselves if they don’t get their way, these folks could potentially take us all down.

The facts are that nobody knows for sure what happens if Congressional Republicans don’t raise the debt ceiling by August 3. But it defies imagination to think it will be smooth sailing. It depends on how the Obama adminstration reacts.  There might be ways around it.  A couple of proposals exist. The government could dispute the constitutionality of the debt ceiling law or it could mint some super-large coins (such as billion-dollar coins) that would only be used as Marshall Auerbach has noted:

Or the President could, as we and others have suggested in the past), simply invoke the 14th amendment and refuse to enforce a statute that he believes violates the Constitution.

Professor Scott Fullwiler has suggested an even more creative way around the debt ceiling: Fullwiler notes that Fed is the monopoly supplier of reserve balances, but that the US Constitution bestows upon the US Treasury the authority to mint coins (particularly platinum coins). Future deficit spending by the federal government could thereby continue to be carried out by minting coins and depositing them in the Treasury’s account at the Fed (for more details see here).

Curiously, the President won’t pursue any of these options.

These options would keep financial markets on an even keel but could provoke a constitutional and legal crisis as the Tea Party types would not doubt file endless lawsuits challenging it.  But thinking about these options is largely academic since Obama shows no inclination to exercise these options or to explain why he doesn’t.   Obama shares responsibility because he’s let the Tea Party types and Republicans take this charade this far.

Let’s consider a more likely intermediate case.  As mentioned in another post, to immediately stop all new borrowing and instantly balance the budget, the government has to cut 40% of it’s spending right now.  The federal government accounts for $3.8 trillion of spending in 2011.  GDP is expected to be in the $15 trillion range.  If the government cuts 40% of that $3.8 trillion instantly, that’s a $1.5 trillion cut in spending. Government spending is part of GDP (despite what far right-wing types believe).  So an instant balancing of the budget on Aug 3 means a 10% cut in GDP.  When the economy collapsed in 2008 it was only approximately a 5% drop in GDP.  So the “intermediate” case of default is an instant recession twice as big as the “Great Recession” of 2008.  Apparently the Republicans and Tea Party types loved 2008-09 and the bailouts so much they want to repeat it and double down.

Now what’s the worse case?  Well add into the scenario a financial crisis to dwarf 2008.  See US bonds are AAA rated because there’s no chance of default.  If there’s a default, or even a slight increase in the possibility of a future default, then pension funds, banks, and central banks around the world no longer have safe, interest bearing assets.  Chaos. Pension funds have to sell bonds.  Bond prices drop. Interest rates rise. Banks lose capital as the bonds fall in value. Nobody knows which banks are worst off.  A mess to make 2008 look simple.  And guess what, we’ll be back to bank bailouts only with even more unemployment.

Why can’t we have grown-ups in Washington?  These kinds of scary scenarios should be fictional and in the movies.  It shouldn’t be national policy to deliberately default and crush the economy just to make some political policy victory that you couldn’t win straight up.

 

* racing cars in real life is different.  😉