Economic Growth Slows to 1.5%

The economy grew at a tepid 1.5% annual rate in the second quarter, according to the latest BEA estimates. That’s far below the pace we need to reduce unemployment.

Weak growth was driven by a slowdown in consumer spending and continued cuts in government spending (mostly at the state and local level), which overshadowed rapid growth in investment spending on housing–yes, housing–and equipment and software:

Housing investment expanded at almost a 10% rate in the second quarter, its fifth straight quarter of growth. Government spending declined at a 1.4% rate, its eighth straight quarter of decline.

Weak Employment in One Chart

Another weak jobs report with payrolls up only 80,000, unemployment stuck at 8.2 percent, and underemployment ticking up to 14.9 percent.

But the real news continues to be how far employment has fallen. As recently as 2006, more than 63 percent of adults had a job. Today, that figure is less than 59 percent:

With the exception of the past several years, you’ve got to go back almost three decades to find the last time that so few Americans were employed (as a share of the adult population).

The stunning decline in the employment-to-population ratio (epop to its friends) reflects two related factors. First, the unemployment rate has increased from less than 5 percent to more than 8 percent. That accounts for roughly half the fall in epop. The other half reflects lower labor force participation. Slightly more than 66 percent of adults were in the labor force back them, but now it’s less than 64 percent.

Financial Repression and China’s Extractive Elite

Financial repression and extractive institutions are two of the big memes in international economics today.

Financial repression occurs when governments intervene in financial markets to channel cheap funds to themselves. With sovereign debts skyrocketing, for example, governments may try to force their citizens, banks, and others to finance those debts at artificially low interest rates.

Extractive institutions are policies that attempt to redirect resources to politically-favored elites. Classic examples are the artificial monopolies often granted by governments in what would otherwise be structurally competitive markets. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have recently argued that such institutions are a key reason Why Nations FailInclusive institutions, in contrast, promote widely-shared prosperity.

Over at Bronte Capital, John Hempton brings these two ideas together in an argument that Chinese elites are using financial repression to extract wealth from state-owned enterprises. In a nutshell, he believes Chinese authorities have artificially lowered the interest rates that regular Chinese citizens earn on their savings (that’s the repression), and have directed these cheap funds to finance “staggeringly unprofitable” state enterprises that nonetheless manage to spin out vast wealth for connected elites and their families.

I don’t have the requisite first-hand knowledge to judge his hypothesis myself. But both his original post and recent follow-up addressing feedback are worth a close read.

2,000 Years of Economic History in One Chart … and Another

Michael Cembalest, head of investment strategy at JP Morgan, is famous for his beautiful, insightful charts. His latest (courtesy of Paul Kedrosky) illustrates two millennia of world economic history:

According to the chart, India (orange) and China (red) together comprised more than two-thirds of the globe’s economic activity back in year 1 (well, not so much the globe, but the chosen countries). By 1950, their share had fallen to only one-eighth, thanks to the growth of the United States (green), Western Europe (shades of blue), Russia (gray), and Japan (yellow). Since then, China has been gaining share.

Not surprisingly, the chart has already attracted attention in the blogosphere. Over at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson slices and dices the data to see how much of the pattern reflects  the ebbs and flows of population vs. productivity.

At the Economist, meanwhile, K.N.C. channels Edward Tufte, expressing appropriate alarm about the compressed x-axis. The first millennium gets as much real estate as the 1990s. K.N.C. then offers another approach:

Given data limitations, this chart also compresses the x-axis, but using bars and variable-width gaps make it much clearer that there are jumps between years. The focus on a limited number of countries also makes it clear that the chart omits countries that account for 30-40% of world GDP. In Cembalest’s chart, in contrast, one wonders what happened to South America, the Nordic countries, Canada, Africa ex Egypt, etc. His listed countries appear to sum to 100% of world GDP, but large swathes of the world are unaccounted for.

Soros: The European Union is a Bubble

My Twitter feed lit up yesterday with folks recommending a speech by George Soros about Europe[Link subsequently stopped working, but now it’s back.] They were right. Whether you love him or hate him, he provides a fascinating perspective on Europe’s past, present, and future and, in so doing, provides a particularly clear presentation of his critique of (what he views as) mainstream economics.

The whole speech is worth a read. Here are some excerpts describing his view that the European Union is a bubble:

Among other things, I developed a model of a boom-bust process or bubble which is endogenous to financial markets, not the result of external shocks. According to my theory, financial bubbles are not a purely psychological phenomenon. They have two components: a trend that prevails in reality and a misinterpretation of that trend. A bubble can develop when the feedback is initially positive in the sense that both the trend and its biased interpretation are mutually reinforced. Eventually the gap between the trend and its biased interpretation grows so wide that it becomes unsustainable. After a twilight period both the bias and the trend are reversed and reinforce each other in the opposite direction. Bubbles are usually asymmetric in shape: booms develop slowly but the bust tends to be sudden and devastating. That is due to the use of leverage: price declines precipitate the forced liquidation of leveraged positions.

I contend that the European Union itself is like a bubble. In the boom phase the EU was what the psychoanalyst David Tuckett calls a “fantastic object” – unreal but immensely attractive. The EU was the embodiment of an open society –an association of nations founded on the principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law in which no nation or nationality would have a dominant position.

The process of integration was spearheaded by a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called piecemeal social engineering. They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step. The process fed on its own success, very much like a financial bubble. That is how the Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the European Union, step by step.

Germany used to be in the forefront of the effort. When the Soviet empire started to disintegrate, Germany’s leaders realized that reunification was possible only in the context of a more united Europe and they were willing to make considerable sacrifices to achieve it. When it came to bargaining they were willing to contribute a little more and take a little less than the others, thereby facilitating agreement. At that time, German statesmen used to assert that Germany has no independent foreign policy, only a European one.

The process culminated with the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro. It was followed by a period of stagnation which, after the crash of 2008, turned into a process of disintegration. The first step was taken by Germany when, after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Angela Merkel declared that the virtual guarantee extended to other financial institutions should come from each country acting separately, not by Europe acting jointly. It took financial markets more than a year to realize the implication of that declaration, showing that they are not perfect.

The Maastricht Treaty was fundamentally flawed, demonstrating the fallibility of the authorities. Its main weakness was well known to its architects: it established a monetary union without a political union. The architects believed however, that when the need arose the political will could be generated to take the necessary steps towards a political union.

But the euro also had some other defects of which the architects were unaware and which are not fully understood even today. In retrospect it is now clear that the main source of trouble is that the member states of the euro have surrendered to the European Central Bank their rights to create fiat money. … Due to the divergence in economic performance Europe became divided between creditor and debtor countries. This is having far reaching political implications … .

Are Two Economic Clocks Better Than One?

A man with one clock always knows the time. A man with two clocks is never sure.

This week brings the two heavyweights of economic statistics. On Thursday morning we got the latest read on economic growth, and on Friday we learn how the job market fared in May.

Government statisticians and outside commenters usually emphasize a particular headline number in these reports. For the economy as a whole, it’s the annual growth rate of gross domestic product (GDP), which logged in at a mediocre 1.9 percent in the first quarter. For jobs, it’s the number of nonfarm payroll jobs created in the past month (115,000 in April, but that will be revised on Friday morning).

In each case, the government also reports a second measure of essentially the same thing. Jobs day aficionados are familiar with this. The payroll figure comes from a survey of employers, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports results from a survey of people. That provides the other famous job metric, the unemployment rate, and a second count of how many people have a job. The concept isn’t exactly the same as the payroll measure–it includes a broader array of jobs, for example, but doesn’t reflect people holding multiple jobs–but it’s sufficiently similar that it can be an interesting check on the more-quoted payroll figure.

The downside of this extra information, however, is that it can foster confusion. In April, for example, payrolls increased by 115,000, but the household measure of employment fell by 169,000. Did jobs grow or decline in April?

Another, less well-known example happens with the GDP data. The Bureau of Economic Analysis calculates this figure two different ways: by adding up production to get GDP and by adding up incomes to get gross domestic income (GDI). In principle, these should be identical. In practice, they differ because of measurement challenges. As Brad Plummer notes in a piece channeling Wharton economist Justin Wolfers, the two measures tell somewhat different stories about recent economic growth. In Q1, for example, GDI expanded at a respectable 2.7 percent, much faster than the 1.9 percent recorded for GDP. Is the economy doing ok or barely plodding along?

Such confusion is the curse of having two clocks. We can’t be sure which measure to believe. Experts offer good reasons to prefer the payroll figure (e.g., it’s based on a much larger survey) and GDP (e.g., income measurement is difficult for various technical reasons, including capital gains). But there are counterviews as well; for example, at least one paper finds that GDI does a better job of capturing swings in the business cycle.

Despite this confusion, two clocks are better than one. They remind us of the fundamental uncertainty in economic measurement. That uncertainty is often overlooked in the rush to analyze the latest economic data, but it is real. There are limits to what we know about the state of the economy.

In addition, a weighted average of two readings may well provide a better reading than either one alone. If one clock says 11:40 and another says 11:50, for example, you’d probably do well to guess that it’s 11:45. Unless, of course, you have reason to believe that one clock is better than the other.

The same may well be true for GDP and GDI – the truth is likely in the middle. (This is less true with the jobs data; because of the larger sample, I weight the payroll measure much more heavily than the household measure, at least for monthly changes.)

P.S. For more on GDP vs. GDI, see Dean Baker and Binyamin Appelbaum.

Jobs Report – The Soft Side of Mediocre

As expected, today’s jobs data showed a slowing labor market. Payrolls expanded by 115,000 in April, less than hoped or expected. Upward revisions to February and March added another 53,000 jobs, however, so the overall payroll picture is better than the headline. The unemployment rate ticked down to 8.1%, the labor force participation rate slipped to 63.6%, weekly hours were unchanged at 34.5, and hourly earnings increased a measly penny from $23.37 to $23.38.

Put it all together, and this report is on the soft side of mediocre.

Unemployment and underemployment both remain very high, but they’ve been moving in the right direction. After peaking at 10% in October 2009, the unemployment rate has declined by about 2 percentage points. The U-6 measure of underemployment, meanwhile, peaked at 17.2% and now stands at 14.5%:

(The U-6 measures includes the officially unemployed, marginally attached workers, and those who are working part-time but want full-time work.)

The U.S. Economy is Uncertain, Fragile, and … Growing

Over at the Kauffman Foundation, Tim Kane has released his latest quarterly survey of economic bloggers. Here’s the usual word cloud reflecting the adjectives (up to five per respondent) that we econobloggers offered up to describe the U.S. economy:

That’s much better than last quarter, when you needed a magnifying glass to find any optimistic sentiments:

As usual, the survey also includes various questions about economics, policy, and haiku. Yes, the survey solicited haiku about the European debt crisis. My inner muse didn’t speak that day, so I don’t have my own to share. So let me offer up Jeff Miller’s (A Dash of Insight) as food for thought … and not just for Europe:

When the task is great

take but one step at a time

Compromise builds strength

Getting Better But a Long Way to Go

Friday’s jobs data confirmed that labor markets are getting better, but slowly. Payrolls expanded by 200,000, the unemployment rate fell again to 8.5%, weekly hours ticked up from 34.3 to 34.4, and hourly earnings rose by 0.2%.

Of course, there is still a long, long way to go. Unemployment and underemployment both remain very high, but they’ve been moving in the right direction. After peaking at 10% in October 2009, the unemployment rate has declined by 1.5 percentage points. The U-6 measure of underemployment, meanwhile, peaked at 17.2% and now stands at 15.2%:

(The U-6 measures includes the officially unemployed, marginally attached workers, and those who are working part-time but want full-time work.)

Is Our Luck Running Out on Oil Supplies?

In an excellent new paper, Jim Hamilton asks whether the “phenomenal increase in global crude oil production over the last century and a half” reflects technological progress or good fortune in finding new reserves. The two aren’t completely distinct, of course. Better technology helps find more resources. But the heart of the question remains: have we been lucky or good?

Based on a careful reading of production patterns in the United States and around the world, Jim concludes that we’ve been both and worries that the luck part may be coming to an end:

My reading of the historical evidence is as follows. (1) For much of the history of the industry, oil has been priced essentially as if it were an inexhaustible resource. (2) Although technological progress and enhanced recovery techniques can temporarily boost production flows from mature fields, it is not reasonable to view these factors as the primary determinants of annual production rates from a given field. (3) The historical source of increasing global oil production is exploitation of new geographical areas, a process whose promise at the global level is obviously limited.

Most economists view the economic growth of the last century and a half as being fueled by ongoing technological progress. Without question, that progress has been most impressive. But there may also have been an important component of luck in terms of finding and exploiting a resource that was extremely valuable and useful but ultimately finite and exhaustible. It is not clear how easy it will be to adapt to the end of that era of good fortune.

These arguments should be familiar to anyone who’s followed the peak oil debate, but Jim brings a welcome rigor to the discussion.

He also includes some charts illustrating how various states and regions have passed their production peaks. Here, for example, are the United States, North Sea, and Mexico:

And he discusses how oil prices affect the economy. All in all, a great survey.

P.S. If you are interested in the details, Jim’s post over at Econbrowser sparked some thoughtful comments.