Defending the Fed’s Independence

I’m not usually one to sign public petitions, but I made an exception today for a key issue: defending the independence of the Federal Reserve.

Like many other economists (here’s the list of signatories, with a day’s lag), I am troubled by the anti-Fed rhetoric emanating from some parts of the Congress. The Fed has taken a remarkable series of actions that deserve close congressional oversight. But that oversight should not endanger the Fed’s fundamental independence in executing monetary policy.

The petition therefore makes three important points about Fed independence:

First, central bank independence has been shown to be essential for controlling inflation. Sooner or later, the Fed will have to scale back its current unprecedented monetary accommodation. When the Federal Reserve judges it time to begin tightening monetary conditions, it must be allowed to do so without interference.

Second, lender of last resort decisions should not be politicized.

Finally, calls to alter the structure or personnel selection of the Federal Reserve System easily could backfire by raising inflation expectations and borrowing costs and dimming prospects for recovery. The democratic legitimacy of the Federal Reserve System is well established by its legal mandate and by the existing appointments process. Frequent communication with the public and testimony before Congress ensure Fed accountability.

Over at the WSJ, David Wessel has a nice piece on the petition.

Counting Stimulus Efforts

Today, the Washington Post has a letter to the editor about counting stimulus efforts. I think the letter is pithy and on-point, but that might be because I wrote it. Anyway, my conclusion is:

[T]here have already been two rounds of stimulus since the recession started in December 2007. The first, enacted in February 2008 (when I served at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers), provided $168 billion in tax cuts for families and businesses. The second, enacted in February of this year, provided $787 billion in various spending programs and tax cuts. The question we face today is whether to enact a third stimulus, not a second one.

The letter was a response to an editorial the Post ran last Friday.

Stimulus aficionados will recognize that, in the interest of brevity, I used dollar amounts that aren’t completely apples-to-oranges. As noted in my previous post on this topic, the $168 billion amount for the first stimulus reflects the gross amount of stimulus in the first couple of years; the long-run, net cost budget cost of the bill is lower. The $787 billion amount for the second stimulus is the ten-year net cost; the initial stimulus is a bit larger. I think the gross impact is a better way to characterize the stimulus effort, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone by referring to an $800+ billion stimulus, when everyone knows it as $787 billion.

Health Insurance and Labor Markets

Health insurance is not just a health issue. It’s also a jobs issue. Why? Because about 60% of non-elderly Americans get their health insurance through an employer or a labor union. As a result, health insurance and employment are closely related.

As lawmakers consider changes to our system of health insurance, they should therefore keep an eye on the potential implications for jobs and wages. To help them do so, the Congressional Budget Office yesterday released a very helpful brief (see also the accompanying blog entry) that discusses many of the linkages between health insurance and the labor market.

Among other things, CBO reiterates a point I’ve made previously: that the costs of health insurance are ultimately born by workers through lower wages and salaries:

Although employers directly pay most of the costs of their workers’ health insurance, the available evidence indicates that active workers—as a group—ultimately bear those costs. Employers’ payments for health insurance are one form of compensation, along with wages, pension contributions, and other benefits. Firms decide how much labor to employ on the basis of the total cost of compensation and choose the composition of that compensation on the basis of what their workers generally prefer. Employers who offer to pay for health insurance thus pay less in wages and other forms of compensation than they otherwise would, keeping total compensation about the same.

CBO then goes on to discuss a range of potential policies, including ones that would impose new costs on employers. Such policies might require employers to provide health insurance to their workers (an employer mandate), for example, or might levy a fee on employers who don’t provide health insurance (play or pay). CBO concludes that, consistent with the argument above, employers would generally pass the costs of such measures on to their employees through lower wages and salaries. Such adjustments won’t happen instantly, so there may be some short-term effect on employment, but over time the cost will primarily be born by workers through lower compensation.

One exception, however, would be workers who currently earn low wages. As noted on the blog:

Continue reading “Health Insurance and Labor Markets”

House Prices and Productivity

Many economists, myself included, refer to the recent boom and bust in house prices as a bubble, whose foundation lay in a combination of credit market excesses and human imperfections. Fundamentals certainly played a role as well, but bubble forces were particularly important.

In a short paper recently published by the New York Federal Reserve, Jim Kahn makes a very different argument: that the boom and bust in house prices can largely be explained by a boom and bust in productivity growth:

The housing boom and bust of the last decade, often attributed to “bubbles” and credit market irregularities, may owe much to shifts in economic fundamentals. A resurgence in productivity that began in the mid-1990s contributed to a sense of optimism about future income that likely encouraged many consumers to pay high prices for housing. The optimism continued until 2007, when accumulating evidence of a slowdown in productivity helped dash expectations of further income growth and stifle the boom in residential real estate.

Jim’s argument depends on several related lines of reasoning:

  • First, he notes that productivity drives long-term income growth and that incomes determine how much families can pay for homes. He then argues that the demand and supply for housing are inelastic and, as a result, rising incomes imply rising house prices. Putting these pieces together, he concludes that faster productivity growth implies faster house price appreciation.
  • Second, he notes that productivity growth accelerated in the mid-to-late 1990s and then slowed around 2004. The productivity acceleration thus began shortly before house price took off, and the productivity slowdown began shortly before house prices began to collapse.

Kahn Productivity 1

Continue reading “House Prices and Productivity”

Google, Unemployment, and the Future of Data

Google may eventually solve the problem of finding data on the web. Too bad its first effort reports the wrong numbers for unemployment.

Since leaving public service, I have occasionally pondered whether to start a company / organization to transform the way that data are made available on the web. The data are out there, but they remain a nuisance to find, a nuisance to manipulate, and a nuisance to display. I cringe every time I have to download CSV files, import to Excel, manipulate the data (in a good sense), make a chart, and fix the dumb formatting choices that Excel makes. All those steps should be much, much easier.

There are good solutions to many of these problems if you have a research assistant or are ready to spend $20,000 on an annual subscription. With ongoing technology advances, however, there ought to be a much cheaper (perhaps even free) way of doing this on the net.  With some good programming, some servers, and careful design (both graphic and human factors), it should be possible to dis-intermediate research assistants and democratize the ability to access and analyze data. At least, that’s my vision.

Many organizations have attacked various pieces of this problem, and a few have even made some headway (FRED deserves special mention in economics). But when you think about it, this is really a problem that Google ought to solve. It has the servers, software expertise, and business model to make this work at large scale. And with its launch of a search service for public data it has already signaled its interest in this problem.

As a major data consumer, I wish Google every success in this effort. However, I’d also like to use their initial effort, now almost three months old, as a case study in what not to do.

Google’s first offering of economics data is the unemployment rate for the United States (also available for the individual states and various localities). Search for “unemployment rate united states” and Google will give you the following graph:

Google UE

Your first reaction should be that this is great. With absolutely no muss and no fuss, you have an excellent (albeit sobering) chart of the unemployment rate since 1990. I would add myriad extensions to this – e.g., make it easier to look at shorter time periods, allow users to look at the change in the unemployment rate, rather than the level, etc. – but the basic concept is outstanding.

Unfortunately, there is one major problem:  That’s the wrong unemployment rate.

Click over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, open a newspaper (remember them?), or stay right here on my blog – all of them will tell you that the unemployment rate in June was 9.5% not 9.7%.

Continue reading “Google, Unemployment, and the Future of Data”

We Already Did a Second Stimulus

Much ink, both physical and electronic, has recently been spilled on the question of whether the United States should undertake a second stimulus.

To which there is only one possible answer: we already did a second stimulus.

The first stimulus — the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 — was signed by President Bush in February 2008. That Act gave families $115 billion in tax rebates and allowed companies to depreciate business investment more rapidly. Overall, the Act reduced taxes and increased spending by $168 billion in 2008 and 2009 (the long-term budget hit from the Act is smaller — about $124 billion over ten years — because the corporate tax reductions deferred tax payments rather than eliminating them.)

Those were the days before the collapse of Lehman (heck, it was even before the collapse of Bear Stearns) when policymakers were rightly worried about a weak economy, but $168 billion seemed like a lot of money.

The second stimulus — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 –was signed by President Obama in February 2009. That Act increases spending on a host of programs, including infrastructure, state assistance, and extended unemployment insurance. It also created the Making Work Pay tax credit, among other tax reductions. The Act is usually described as a $787 billion stimulus, with ten-year spending increases of $575 billion and tax reductions of $212 billion. The reality is a bit more complex, however. On the one hand, the Act provides somewhat more stimulus than the headline figure; for example, there are about $810 billion in spending increases and tax reductions during the first seven years. On the other hand, the stimulus takes time to phase in; during fiscal 2009, for example, the estimated stimulus is about $185 billion.

The question we face today is whether to enact a third stimulus, not a second one. I will have more to say on this in the future. For now, I think the Obama administration has it exactly right, indicating that it’s premature to enact a third stimulus, but their economic team is closely monitoring the situation.

A Grim Jobs Report

The headlines in today’s job report were gloomy:

  • Nonfarm payrolls fell by 467,000 in June, more than expected and more than in May.
  • The unemployment rate increased to 9.5%.

That gloominess is confirmed if you look deeper into the numbers. Most striking is the continued decline in the number of hours logged by private sector workers. The average workweek fell to 33.0 hours in June, the lowest since BLS began tracking the data in 1964.

The economy is thus losing jobs and, for the jobs that remain, is losing hours worked. That double whammy is bad news for the economy.

The following chart shows year-over-year changes in BLS’s index of total private sector hours worked (by production and nonsupervisory workers, who make up the bulk of the workforce). This index is useful because it captures both the number of jobs and the number of hours worked:

AWHI - June - 2009

As you can see, the recent decline in private hours worked is sharper than any in the past forty years. Over the past twelve months, total private hours have declined by 7%.

A closely related issue is the rise in part-time employment for economic reasons. Continue reading “A Grim Jobs Report”

Stimulus Lifts Government Transfers

A few weeks ago, I posted some charts showing that Americans are increasingly reliant on government transfers as a source of income. Friday’s data on personal income for May confirmed that the trend is continuing.  Government transfers made up a record 18% of personal income in May:

Transfers thru May 2009 In interpreting this increase, it’s important to keep several points in mind:

  • May’s increase was driven entirely by the recent stimulus act. The act provided for one-time payments of $250 to a range of Americans who are beneficiaries of various other programs, including Social Security, SSI, and veterans’ benefits. Those payments more than account for the increase in transfers from 16.9% of personal income in April to 18.0% in May. Continue reading “Stimulus Lifts Government Transfers”

Competitiveness & Health Reform

This morning, the Wall Street Journal editorial page questioned the oft-alleged link between health care costs and the competitiveness of American business. Echoing Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer, it referred to that argument as “schlock.” At the same time, everyone interested in health policy is still absorbing the trillion-dollar price tag that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put on the Kennedy health bill.

I’d like to point out that these two issues – any link between health care and competitiveness and the estimated cost of health reform – are closely related. The way that CBO estimated the budget impacts of the Kennedy bill implies that health care has little effect on competitiveness. If you take the contrary view, that health care is a big deal for American competitiveness, then you should also believe that CBO has underestimated the difficulty of paying for health reform.

Continue reading “Competitiveness & Health Reform”

Has Housing Reached Bottom?

I must confess that I find Jim Cramer entertaining and, on occasion, even illuminating.  The key is to Tivo his show and fast forward through the less-than-illuminating parts.  That can trim an hour show down to ten minutes or less.

The highlight of Tuesday night’s show was Cramer’s declaration that the housing market had reached bottom. His evidence?  Tuesday’s data on housing starts, which came in stronger than expected.  That prompted me to take a closer look at the data. Here’s a chart of single-family housing starts since 1970 (when the data begin):

Housing StartsAs the chart shows, Cramer may be on to something, at least as far as starts are concerned.  Single-family starts bounced around the 360,000 level (at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate) in January through March, rose to 373,000 in April, and hit 401,000 in May.  It’s been more than two years since we’ve seen starts increase that much.

That’s good news, but I think we should still expect further pain in housing.

Continue reading “Has Housing Reached Bottom?”