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The Monster Is Eating Itself

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Back on February 10, 2009 – before President Obama had completed his first month in office – two students at the Yale Law School, Jeffrey Tebbs and Ady Barkan, wrote an article which began with the point that the financial crisis was caused by the recklessness and greed of Wall Street executives.  Tebbs and Barkan proposed a “windfall bonus tax” on those corporate welfare queens of Wall Street, at the very moment when budget-restrained states began instituting their own economic austerity measures so that The Monster could be fed:

Last week, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed a state budget that slashes crucial public services, including deep cuts to health care for kids and pregnant women, higher education and consumer protection.  She says that the cuts are necessary to close our state’s budget shortfall, but she’s apparently unwilling to increase taxes on Connecticut’s millionaires.

That is to say, while your hard-earned tax dollars are funding Christmas bonuses for Wall Street’s jet-set, Connecticut’s government will be cutting the programs and services that are crucial to your health and safety and to the vitality of our communities.

Since that time, “reverse Robin Hood” economic policies, such as the measures proposed by Governor Rell, have become painfully widespread.  As an aside:  Despite the fact that Governor Rell announced on November 9, 2009 that she would not seek re-election, the conservative Cato Institute determined that Rell was the only Republican Governor worthy of a failing grade on the Institute’s 2010 Fiscal Policy Report Card.

The entity I refer to as “The Monster” has been on a feeding frenzy since the financial crisis began.  Other commentators have their own names for this beast.  Michael Collins of The Economic Populist calls it “The Money Party”:

The Money Party is a very small group of enterprises and individuals who control almost all of the money and power in the United States.  They use their money and power to make more money and gain more power.  It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats.  The Money Party is an equal opportunity employer.  It has no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.  Democrats are as welcome as Republicans to this party.  It’s all good when you’re on the take and the take is legal.  Economic Populist

*   *   *

The party is also short on compassion or even the most elementary forms of common decency.  It’s OK to see millions of people evicted, jobless, without health care, etc., as long as short term profits are maintained for those CEO bonuses and other enrichment for a tiny minority.  It’s perfectly acceptable for this to go on despite available solutions.  If you don’t look, it’s not there should be their motto.

Beyond that, The Monster’s insensitivity has increased to the point where it has actually become too numb to realize that the tender morsel it is feasting on happens to be its own foot.  Until last year, The Monster had nearly everyone convinced that America would enjoy a “jobless recovery”, despite the fact that the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  Well, the “jobless recovery” never happened and the new “magic formula” for economic growth is deficit reduction.  As I discussed in my last posting, Bill Gross of PIMCO recently highlighted the flaws in that rationale:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.

Simon Johnson, who formerly served as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, conducted a serious analysis of whether such “fiscal contraction” could actually achieve the intended goal of expanding the economy.  The fact that the process has such an oxymoronic name as “expansionary fiscal contraction” should serve as a tip-off that it won’t work:

The general presumption is that fiscal contraction – cutting spending and/or raising taxes – will immediately slow the economy relative to the growth path it would have had otherwise.

*   *   *

There are four conditions under which fiscal contractions can be expansionary.  But none of these conditions are likely to apply in the United States today.

*   *   *

The available evidence, including international experience, suggests it is very unlikely that the United States could experience an “expansionary fiscal contraction” as a result of short-term cuts in discretionary domestic federal government spending.

Economist Stephanie Kelton explained that the best way to lower the federal budget deficit is to reduce unemployment:

The bottom line is this:  As long as unemployment remains high, the deficit will remain high.  So instead of continuing to put the deficit first, it’s time get to work on a plan to increase employment.

Here’s the formula:  Spending creates income.  Income creates sales.  Sales create jobs.

If you think you can cut the deficit without destroying jobs, dream on.

Dr. Kelton has identified the problem:  Deficit reduction schemes which disregard the impact on employment.  Nevertheless, The Monster is determined to press ahead with a “deficits first” agenda, regardless of the consequences.  The Monster will have its way because its army of lobbyists has President Obama under control.  As a result, we can expect increased unemployment, a diminished tax base, less consumer spending, less demand, decreased corporate income, lower GDP and more deficits.  The Monster’s gluttony has placed it on a course of self-destruction.  Perhaps that might be a good thing – if only it wouldn’t cause too much pain for the rest of us.


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The End

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July 29, 2010

The long-awaited economic recovery seems to be coming to a premature end.  For over a year, many pundits have been anticipating a “jobless recovery”.  In other words:  don’t be concerned about the fact that so many people can’t find jobs – the economy will recover anyway.  These hopes have been buoyed by the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting (usually by mass layoffs) to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports.  This helps inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the extent to which the American economy is consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.

Although many observers seem to take comfort in the assumption that the jobless rate is below ten percent, many are beginning to question the validity of the statistics to that effect provided by the Department of Labor.  AOL’s Daily Finance website provided this commentary on the June, 2010 unemployment survey conducted by Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence:

The June poll turned up 27.8% of households with at least one member who’s unemployed and looking for a job, while the latest poll conducted in the second week of July showed 28.6% in that situation.  That translates to an unemployment rate of over 22%, says Mayur, who has started questioning the accuracy of the Labor Department’s jobless numbers.

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In fact, Austan Goolsbee, who is now part of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a 2003 New York Times piece titled “The Unemployment Myth,” that the government had “cooked the books” by not correctly counting all the people it should, thereby keeping the unemployment rate artificially low.  At the time, Goolsbee was a professor at the University of Chicago.  When asked whether Goolsbee still believes the government undercounts unemployment, a White House spokeswoman said Goolsbee wasn’t available to comment.

Such undercounting of unemployment can be an enormously dangerous exercise today.  It could lead  some lawmakers to underestimate the gravity of the labor market’s problems and base their policymaking on a far-less-grim picture than actually exists.  Economically, and socially, that would make a bad situation much worse for America.

“The implications of such undercounting is that policymakers aren’t going to be thinking as big as they should be,” says Ginsburg, also a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College.  “It also means that [consumer] demand is not going to be there, because the income from people who are employed isn’t going to be there.”

Frank Aquila of Sullivan & Cromwell recently wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, discussing the possibility that we could be headed into the second leg of a “double-dip” recession:

The sputtering economy and talk of a possible second recession have certainly rattled an already fragile American consumer.  Consumer confidence is now at its lowest level in a year, and consumer spending tumbled in May and June.  Since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of  U.S. economic growth, a nervous consumer is not a good omen for a robust recovery.

Job creation is a key factor in increasing consumer confidence.  While economists estimate that we need economic growth of 4 percent or more to stimulate significant job creation, the economy has grown at only about 2 percent to 3 percent, with a slowdown expected in the second half.

*   *   *

With governments struggling under the weight of ballooning budget deficits and businesses waiting for the return of sustained growth, it is the American consumer who will have to lift the global economy out of the mire.  Given the recent news and current consumer sentiment, that appears to be an unlikely prospect in the near term.

The same government that found it necessary to provide corporate welfare to those “too big to fail” financial institutions has now become infested with creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks are now preaching the gospel of “austerity” as an excuse for roadblocking any further efforts to use any form of stimulus to end the economic crisis.  One of the gurus of the deficit chicken hawks is economic historian Niall Ferguson.  Because Ferguson is just an economic historian, a real economist – Brad DeLong — had no trouble exposing the hypocrisy exhibited by the Iraq war cheerleader, while revisiting an article Ferguson had written for The New York Times, back in 2003.  Matthew Yglesias had even more fun compiling and publishing a Ferguson (2003) vs. Ferguson (2010) debate.

At The Daily Beast, Sir Harry Evans emphasized how the sudden emphasis on “austerity” is worse than hypocrisy:

As for the banks, one of the obscenities of our time is that so many in the financial community who owe their survival to the massive taxpayer bailouts, not only rewarded themselves with absurd bonuses, but now have the gall to sport the plumage of deficit hawks.  The unemployed?  Let them eat cake, the day after tomorrow.

Gerald Celente, publisher of The Trends Journal, wrote a great essay for The Daily Reckoning website entitled, “Let Them Eat Losses”.  He pointed out how the kleptocracy violated and destroyed the “very essence of functioning capitalism”.  Worse yet, our government betrayed us by forcing the taxpayers “to finance the failed financiers”:

No individual, business, institution, nation or empire is too-big-to-fail.  Had true capitalism been allowed to function unimpeded, the bloated, over-extended, inefficient and gluttonous firms and industries would have failed.  There would have been hardships and losses but, finally rid of its financial tapeworms, the purged system could be restored to health.

No “ism” or “ology” — regardless of purity of intent or moral foundation — is immune to corruption and abuse.  While capitalism itself is being blamed for the excesses that brought on financial chaos, prior to the most recent gambling binge, in tandem with the blanket dismantling of safeguards and the overt takeover of Washington by Wall Street, capitalism was responsible for creating one of the world’s most successful and universally admired societies.

As I discussed on July 8, because President Obama lacked the political courage to advance an effective economic stimulus package last year, the effects of his “semi-stimulus” have now abated and we are headed into another recession.  Reuters reported on July 27 that Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University and co-developer of Standard and Poor’s S&P/Case-Shiller Index, gave us this unsettling macroeconomic prognostication:

“For me a double-dip is another recession before we’ve healed from this recession … The probability of that kind of double-dip is more than 50 percent,” Shiller said.

“I actually expect it.”

During the last few months of 2009, did you ever think that someday you would be looking back at that time as “the good old days”?




The Employment Outlook Debate

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March 10. 2010

The February non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics boosted the optimism of many commentators who follow the unemployment crisis.  Nevertheless, predictions about the employment outlook for the remainder of 2010 are extremely conflicting.  Surfing around the web will give you completely divergent prognostications, usually depending on the locale.  Here are some examples:  Los Angeles job outlook expected to improve (Los Angeles Times); Atlanta employers expect to hold payrolls steady — neither hiring nor firing (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) Boston employers expected to add jobs (The Boston Globe — quoting a Manpower report); Employers still skittish on hiring (CNNMoney.com); Columbus hiring prospects for upcoming quarter weaken slightly (ledger-inquirer.com).

In an essay for the istockanalyst.com website, Ockham Research began by pointing out that 8.4 million jobs have been lost since the recession began in December of 2007.  The fact that the S&P 500 has advanced 70% during this time has encouraged pundits to believe in a jobless recovery.  After noting Senator Harry Reid’s odd reaction to the February non-farm payrolls report:  “Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good” — the piece continued:

After that blunder, the report on Bloomberg.com struck us in just how optimistic it is towards March’s employment data, thanks in part to temporary hiring for census workers which could add more than 100,000 jobs this month.  However, a strategist for Goldman Sachs (GS) estimated 275,000 job gains; another economist predicted “easily” reaching 300,000.  Chief  US economist at Deutsche Bank (DB) took the prize though, saying that a gain of 450,000 “can’t be ruled out.”

The Ockham Research piece again emphasized that many of the optimistic views are based on the addition of census workers to the rolls of the employed, despite the fact that these are temporary positions, eventually disappearing in mid-summer.  Ockham Research was also dismissive of the inclusion of workers added to payrolls simply because of summertime seasonal employment opportunities.  They concluded on this note:

Of course, no one can predict the future and predictions about macroeconomic data points are extremely thorny.  As much as we would like to believe they are correct and job growth will return in robust fashion, we are a bit skeptical.  They have raised the bar for expectations, so it will be extremely interesting to see the market’s reaction when the data comes in.

The Seeking Alpha website featured a posting by David Goldman which began with these remarks:

.  .  .  it would be hard to envision significant declines in payroll employment from already miserable levels.  But the sort of things that generate jobs — venture capital investments, small business expansion, and so forth — are as dead as the Monty Python parrot.

Mr. Goldman focused on the February Small Business Confidence report by Discover Card, which revealed that America’s small business owners remained cautious about the economy during February as they expected economic conditions to stay largely the same during the coming months.  At the close of the piece, we are reminded of its title, “Where Will the Jobs Come From?”   —

With the continuing catastrophe in both the residential and commercial real estate markets, small business capital has imploded.  And small business surely isn’t getting help from the banking system, where loans still are contracting at the fastest pace on record.

Two economists for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn, recently published a research paper addressing the surprisingly high unemployment rate for 2009, based on a principle known as Okun’s Law.  They explained it this way:

Okun’s law tells us that, for every 2% that real GDP falls below its trend, we will see a 1% increase in the unemployment rate.  Since real GDP was almost flat in 2009 while its trend level increased by 3%, the unemployment rate under Okun’s law should have increased by 1.5 percentage points.  Instead it rose by 3 percentage points, more than twice the predicted increase.

I will now fast-forward to their conclusion:

The data presented here consistently point to unusually strong productivity growth as the main driver of the departure from Okun’s law in 2009.  A key question that remains unanswered by this analysis is whether this pattern will continue in 2010.  Most forecasters assume that the economy will return to its historical path this year, following Okun’s two-to-one ratio of changes in GDP and changes in unemployment.  Under this scenario, unemployment would begin to edge down this year as the economy recovers and gains momentum.  But there are clearly risks to this view.            .  .   .

Anecdotal evidence suggests that efforts to contain costs and remain nimble in the face of uncertainty have become a fixture in business strategy.  If productivity keeps on growing at an above-average pace, then unemployment forecasts based on Okun’s law could continue to be overly optimistic.

So there you have it.  Pick your favorite prediction and run with it.  The Manpower Employment Outlook Survey seems to have a reasonable take on expectations for the second quarter of 2010:

“U.S. hiring activity is still in neutral, but revving toward first gear,” said Jonas Prising, Manpower president of the Americas.  “It’s moving in the right direction, but it will take some time, with no major speed bumps, before it can accelerate.”

Let’s just hope the road ahead doesn’t have any sinkholes.



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