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Archive for November, 2010

The much-maligned TARP program will cost taxpayers only $25 billion according to the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. That’s substantially less than the $66 billion CBO estimated back in August or the $113 billion that the Office of Management and Budget estimated in October.

The good news, budget-wise, is that the government is on track to make about $22 billion on its assistance to banks.

However, CBO estimates that TARP’s other activities will cost $47 billion. This reflects aid to AIG ($14 billion), the auto industry ($19 billion), mortgage programs ($12), and a few smaller programs ($2 billion).

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Here’s the simplest argument in favor of the Fed’s decision to restart quantitative easing:

  1. The economy remains very weak. Unemployment, for example, is still almost 10%, and the underemployment rate is close to 17%.
  2. Key inflation measures are exceptionally low. The core consumer price index (CPI), for example, is up only 0.6% over the past year.
  3. It’s unlikely that Congress and the White House will do anything to stimulate the economy.

In short, the economy is struggling, inflation appears tame, and the Fed is the only game in (Washington) town.

Items (1) and (3) are, I suspect, not controversial. Moderate economic growth is moving us in the right direction, but has done little to create jobs or reduce the yawning output gap. And given the Republican’s election gains, it’s hard to imagine a new round of fiscal stimulus (except an extension of the expiring tax cuts – a form of anti-anti-stimulus).

Item (2), however, is highly controversial. Some commentators argue, for example, that it’s not appropriate to focus on core measures of inflation, which exclude volatile food and energy prices. Others argue that the government systematically (and, perhaps, intentionally) understates inflation.

I will leave those old debates to the side today and focus on a third, more contemporary question: Is housing messing up inflation measures?

Although the housing bubble popped several years ago, America is still adjusting to its aftermath. Falling house prices don’t directly show up in the CPI, but over time they do result in lower rents and lower estimates of the rental equivalent for owning a home. My question is how big an effect those falling housing prices are having on measured inflation.

To start, note that the core CPI really is running at exceptionally low levels:

Indeed, core inflation is well below the levels that inspired the previous round of deflation worries back in 2003.

Now let’s look at what’s happening with the shelter component of the CPI, which tracks the cost of owning or renting a home:

The CPI for shelter has fallen off a cliff. Shelter price inflation averaged about 3% from 1995 through 2007. Over the past year, however, it’s negative.

Shelter makes up almost a third of overall consumer spending, so you might expect that weak shelter prices are having a big effect on measured inflation. They do:

If you strip out shelter from the core CPI, you find that the remaining consumer prices have risen at a moderate pace over the past year (1.3%) – low, but not exceptionally low. Indeed, the economy came much closer to deflation back in 2003, by this measure, than it has so far today.

In short, the ongoing weakness in housing is a key reason why measured inflation is so low. But — and this is an important but — inflation still appears quite moderate even when you adjust for this effect. At 1.3% over the past year, the core CPI less shelter certainly doesn’t inspire concern about inflationary pressures. And if you look more recently, you find that this measure of inflation has been falling (e.g., the pace of inflation was about 1% annually over the past six months).

Bottom line: Housing weakness has indeed pushed measured inflation down a great deal, but it’s not the only factor at work.

Note 1: BLS tracks four costs of shelter: rent of primary residence (for renters), owners’ equivalent rent of residences (for homeowners), lodging away from home, and tenants and household insurance. Lodging and insurance account for only 3.5% of shelter, so it didn’t seem worth the trouble to strip them out to get a housing-only measure. You will sometimes see analysts do this comparison using the BLS measure of housing costs. Housing is about one-third larger than shelter because it includes household energy and utilities purchases, furnishings, and other household operations. For that reason, I think shelter is a better measure for exploring the relationship between the housing market and measured inflation.

Note 2: According to BLS, food comprises about 14% of consumer expenditures, energy about 9%, and shelter about 32%. So the core CPI less shelter covers about 45% of consumer expenditures. So use it with care.

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“Uncertainty, not insecurity, is the fundamental problem for business” in Afghanistan according to a new study by Jake Cusack and Erik Malmstrom at the Center for a New American Security (ht: Zach W.). In “Afghanistan’s Willing Entrepreneurs: Supporting Private-Sector Growth in the Afghan Economy,” they report:

In national surveys, insecurity ranks at the top of the most serious concerns of Afghan businesses. However, discussions with local business owners revealed a critical qualification to this finding. Surprisingly, Afghans were more concerned with the uncertainty of the business environment than with physical insecurity. In Kandahar, which is considered one of the most dangerous areas of the country, conversations with business people highlighted uncertainty about the quality and timing of the power supply, about supplies flowing in through the border crossing of Spin Boldak, about the local/national government, about financing,about American force posture and about the sanctity of obligations should political power shift – more than security issues. In Kabul, two manufacturers noted that they had received seven-year tax break guarantees from a minister of finance only to see them rescinded by his successor. This act understandably rendered the companies reluctant to make subsequent investments.

So how do Afghanistan’s entrepreneurs respond to this uncertainty? Cusack and Malmstrom find that “businesses adapt by integrating vertically, emphasizing short-term profits and ‘buying’ security”:

Businesses employ a number of common strategies to adapt to Afghanistan’s uncertain business environment. First, they seek to vertically integrate operations, generally within family and tribe, to minimize reliance on untrustworthy business partners and the government. “We have the most corrupt government and people in the world. I don’t like relying on people outside of my family if I don’t have to,” stated Mohammad Jalil Rahimi, General Manager of the Mazar-based Barakat Group, an import-export conglomerate. The process of vertical integration begins around a central business, often import-export, and grows to include supporting businesses, such as transportation and logistics. It can then grow to include other sectors such as construction, agriculture and light manufacturing.

Second, businesses seek to remain as flexible as possible in order to hedge against uncertainty, valuing short-term but dependable gains over developing long-term productive capacities. A Western official explained, “Afghans go to the highest-margin businesses that require the least amount of capital and that produce benefits in the least amount of time.

This means that they often start in trade, then pick productive business opportunities in services, agriculture and construction. But even then, people are loathe to invest in manufacturing versus trade because it is easier and quicker.” Despite this adaptation, producers continue to face challenges from a variety of sources. For instance, a Mazar cable and wire producer was being put out of business due to competition from cheaper Iranian imports; a Jalalabad-based box manufacturer could not afford his onerous credit payments, was accumulating debt and was unable to sell his business; and a Kandahar beverage company could not convince needed Pakistani technical engineers to visit and repair manufacturing breakdowns.

We observed four primary strategies for managing physical insecurity: 1. shifting operations away from unstable areas; 2. negotiating with government or insurgent power brokers, often through payment of informal taxes and bribes; 3. allocating up to 20 percent of an operating budget to formal security costs, including a security director, guards, etc.; or 4. implementing community-based strategies in cooperation with local elders and staff. The choice businesses make depends on an individual business’ toleration of risk, past experience and influence within society. An Afghan mining executive explained his predicament: “I can’t complain to the police or the government because it will make the problem bigger. My only strategy is to negotiate directly with the Taliban. My last option is to pay them. But I don’t want to pay them because it will make them stronger.”

Well worth a read.

For previous discussions of Afghanistan’s economy, see this post on resource wealth and this one on opium.

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So many fascinating economic issues, so little time to blog.

Here are some of the fun items that I would have discussed in recent days if I had infinite time:

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Over at the New York Times You’re the Boss blog, Jay Goltz provides a great example of economic reasoning (ht: Jack B). His topic: how should small businesses think about the costs and benefits of participating in daily coupon sites like Groupon? Participants can see big spikes in traffic, at the expense of slashed margins. Is it worth it?

Goltz deploys many of the standard concepts we professor types teach our microeconomics students: distinguishing variable and fixed costs, the importance of thinking incrementally (i.e., at the margin), etc. But, frankly, he does it in a more entertaining way.

Here’s his basic set-up (but check out the whole article for how this calculation works out):

There are eight key calculations you need to consider to determine whether this is a better advertising vehicle than something else you may already be doing

1. Your incremental cost of sales — that is, the actual cost percentage for a new customer. If you are giving boat tours and have empty seats, your incremental costs for an additional customer are next to nothing. If you are selling clothes, your incremental costs might be 50 percent of the sale price. Food might be 40 percent. In any case, don’t include fixed costs that you would be incurring any way.

2. The amount of the average sale. If the coupon is for $75, will the customers spend more that that? I have seen more than one retailer complain that nobody spends more than the value of the coupon. That’s unlikely but I am sure it can feel that way, and that is my point: Keep track.

3. Redemption percentage. You don’t really know until the end, but from my experience and from what I have heard, 85 percent is a good guess.

4. Percentage of your coupon users who are already your customers. I’m sure this number varies tremendously depending on the size of your city, how long you have been around, and the type of business.

5. How many coupons does each customer buy? (The more they buy, the fewer people are exposed to your product or service.)

6. What percentage of coupon customers will turn into regular customers? Again, it can seem as if they are all bargain shoppers who will never return without a discount, but that’s almost impossible. Is it possible 90 percent won’t return? Sure.

7. What is the advertising value of having your business promoted to 900,000 people — that’s the number on Groupon’s Chicago list — even if they don’t buy a coupon?

8. How much does it normally cost you to acquire a customer through advertising? Everything is relative.

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When Ben Bernanke and his colleagues at the Federal Reserve announced their plan for $600 billion in new quantitative easing, I am sure they expected criticism. Angela Merkel? No surprise. Hu Jintao? Ditto. Domestic inflation hawks? Ditto again.

But could the Fed have anticipated that its most vocal critics would be a pair of talking bunnies?

If your email, Facebook, and Twitter feeds are anything like mine, you know the video: two bunny-like creatures (I’ve also heard them called smurfs and dogs) discussing “the quantitative easing” of “the Ben Bernank.” It’s hilariously effective but, as Jim Hamilton helpfully points out, also quite wrong in places.

In case you’ve missed it, here’s the video:

The folks at Xtranormal have been offering the ability to make such movies for a couple of years now, but the idea appears to have gone viral in the economics and finance space in the last week. Indeed, YouTube already has a bunch of rebuttal videos to the quantitative easing one.

So far, the funniest video I have seen (ht: Jack B) features a bunny interviewing for a Wall Street trading job. I usually keep things G-rated here, but I’ll make an exception today. Be forewarned, some of the language may be NSFW — unless, of course, you are a trader:

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The other day I discussed the Tax Policy Center’s distributional analysis of the Bowles-Simpson tax proposal. As you may recall, a key feature of the proposal we considered (“Option 1″) is that it eliminates almost all existing tax breaks and reduces tax rates on most types of income (but raises them on capital gains and dividends).

We subsequently learned that we misinterpreted one aspect of the Bowles-Simpson proposal. As a result, we posted an updated distributional analysis yesterday. Let me turn the mike over to Howard Gleckman at TaxVox:

One of the most dramatic elements of the tax reform plan offered by the chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, was their proposal to eliminate tax breaks for employer-sponsored health insurance, contributions to retirement plans, and other employee benefits. When the Tax Policy Center did its first analysis of that proposal on November 16, our modelers assumed (perfectly reasonably) that if these benefits were now subject to income tax, workers would have to pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on them as well.

Because these tax subsidies are so generous, a payroll tax on their value would generate a lot of money—more than $100 billion a year. And that extra levy would have a noticeable impact on the how taxes would be distributed among various earners under the plan. But after we published our analysis, the Bowles-Simpson staff told us they did not intend to hit workers with payroll tax on this income as well.

So TPC has run a new distributional analysis for the Bowles-Simpson plan without those extra payroll taxes. It turns out that everyone still pays more tax on average, but less, of course, than if they were hit with bigger payroll taxes. The lowest 20 percent of earners (who will make an average of about $12,000 in 2015 and who pay far more in payroll tax than in income tax) would pay about $200 more than they do today, instead of an average of $400 if they took a payroll tax hit as well. Their typical after-tax income would be cut by 2 percent, instead of 3.4 percent if they had to pay that extra payroll tax.

Middle-income earners (who’ll make about $60,000) will pay about $1,000 more instead of $1,900. Their after-tax income would be cut by about 2.2 percent instead of 4 percent. People at the top 0.1 percent of the economic food chain would also save about $1,000. But when you’re making an average of $9 million, and paying a half a million in new taxes, an additional thousand bucks is easily lost in the sofa cushions.

You can also see the importance of the payroll tax effect in the debt reduction proposal released on Wednesday by a Bipartisan Policy Center task force on which I served. In that proposal, the rollback affects both payroll taxes and income taxes. The extra Social Security revenues from phasing out the tax exemption for employer-sponsored health insurance account for about one-third of the plan’s overall improvement in Social Security solvency.

Bottom line: When you are cutting tax breaks, it’s a big deal whether you do that for payroll taxes as well as income taxes.

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Today’s Census data show another decline in the number of single-family houses under construction:

In short, completions are still outrunning starts.

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Today Eric Toder and Daniel Baneman of the Tax Policy Center released a preliminary analysis of the tax proposal put forward by the fiscal commission’s co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. The centerpiece of their proposal is to eliminate almost all tax expenditures* except the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit and use the resulting revenues for a mix of deficit reduction and tax rate cuts (they also consider other options that would retain more tax expenditures). The proposal would also increase the fraction of wages subject to the Social Security tax, increase the gasoline tax by 15 cents per gallon, and make a few other changes.

The distributional impacts of the proposal depend greatly on what baseline you compare against. As my TPC colleague Howard Gleckman notes, if you use current policy (in which the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts remain in place and the alternative minimum tax is patched), then the Bowles-Simpson plan raises taxes on everybody:

The Bowles-Simpson proposal is indeed an across-the-board tax increase– and a fairly progressive one at that. In 2015, the lowest earners would face an average cut in their after-tax income of 3.4 percent or about $400. Middle-income households (those earning an average of about $60,000) would see their after-tax incomes fall by 4 percent or about $1,900. On the other end of the economic food chain, the top one percent of earners (who earn an average of about $2 million) would lose about $77,000 (5.3 percent) while the top 0.1 percent would see their after-tax incomes cut by nearly 8 percent, or close to $500,000.

Things look different if your baseline is current law–in which all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire and the AMT remains unpatched. In that case:

[T]he distributional impact of the Bowles-Simpson plan would be quite different: While low-income households and the top one percent of earners would be hit with a tax increase, the upper middle class would enjoy a small tax cut averaging about 1 percent.

You can find all the details here.

* Added 11/17: As noted in a previous post, the concept of tax expenditures officially includes the lower tax rates paid on capital gains and dividends. So whenever you hear the phrase “eliminate tax expenditures”, that means not only eliminating deductions, credits, etc., but also taxing capital gains and dividends as ordinary income.

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In conjunction with its new deficit option game, the New York Times asked 16 budgeteers to write-up ideas for reducing the deficit. My assignment was to explain the rationale for reducing tax expenditures–the exclusions, exemptions, deductions, and credits that complicate the code and dramatically reduce the revenue that it raises:

The Office of Management and Budget has identified more than 170 such tax expenditures (these provisions are called “expenditures” because they essentially run spending programs through the tax code). The deductibility of state and local taxes, for example, runs almost $70 billion each year. Favorable tax treatment for life insurance savings is about $23 billion. Credits for alcohol-based fuels total almost $9 billion. And dozens of rifle-shot provisions benefit narrow interests, such as special tax rules for NASCAR venues.

In total, individual and corporate tax expenditures reduce revenues by more than $1 trillion each year. Congress should revisit each tax break to see if it produces sufficient economic and social benefits to justify its budgetary cost. Some provisions should make the grade (the earned income tax credit, for example). But many others should be restructured or cast into the dustbin of history.

Such housecleaning would help close the deficit, reduce wasteful spending disguised as tax cuts, simplify tax preparation for millions of households, and potentially make the tax code more progressive (since many tax expenditures are worth most to households in high tax brackets) – all without raising rates.

You may have noticed that the co-chairs of the President’s fiscal commission recently made tax expenditures a centerpiece of their proposal for both deficit reduction and tax reform. Tax expenditures are so expansive that the co-chairs decided an aggressive roll-back could both raise more revenue and finance substantial reductions in tax rates on wages, salaries, and other ordinary income (tax rates on capital gains and dividends would increase since their lower rates are counted as tax expenditures, a topic I will return to at a later date).

For the other 15 ideas for deficit reduction, see here.

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