Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

Cargo Cult Economics And Why We Should Stop Fetishizing Home Ownership

I have always thought that government policy to encourage home ownership was  counter-productive, even beyond its role in creating bubbles.  My sense is that those who advocate for such programs are engaging in what I call cargo cult economics.

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class [without any consideration of which direction the arrow of causation ran].  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.

I tend to be a lone voice in the wilderness on this (even those who oppose government programs for libertarian reasons often tend to fetishize home ownership).  But Ike Brannon at Alt-M seems to agree:

The pro-home-building folks aver that homeownership fosters civic involvement and helps people become more tied to their community, which encourages other behavior beneficial for the economy.  And for a good proportion of homeowners the majority of their net wealth is in their home, so it can be an important source of savings.

But another way to look at it is that correlation is not causation:  The reason that homeowners are more civic-minded and involved in the community is because such people are much more likely to have the wherewithal to save enough to make a downpayment on a house.  Ed Glaeser, the renowned housing economist from Harvard, puts little stock in the notion that homeownership has significant positive societal externalities.

What's more, there's some evidence that high homeownership rates have downsides as well.  In the last four decades the predilection for moving has slowed significantly:  only half as many people moved across state or county lines in any year this decade as was the case in the 1950s, for instance.  This is problematic because it means that our economy is worse at matching up workers with where the available jobs are.  The lingering unemployment in many rust-belt states would be less if some of their unemployed could be persuaded to move to another community where there are jobs.  There has been a decades-long move of people from the midwest to the Sunbelt, of course, but the data suggest there's ample room for more.  This hasn't happened in part because people are tied down by the homes that they own and are reluctant to sell while they are underwater.  That people are unable to ignore sunk costs isn't economically rational, of course, but it nevertheless governs how many people consider whether to move.

I Get This Same Comment All the Time -- Here is My Blanket Advice

Don Boudreaux writes:

This note is to an angry young man who describes Bernie Sanders as his and his girlfriend’s “hero” and as “the only candidate following humane economics.”  Sigh.

Mr. Claudio Morello

Mr. Morello:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You find my arguments against a $15 per hour minimum wage to be “totally uncompelling” because “labor is not a commodity like bread and electronics.”  In your view, “labor should not be subject to the bloodless laws of economics.”

I get this sort of comment all the time about it being wrong, even inhuman, to treat labor as a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand.  I generally have two responses:

  1. For the guy who was just pushed out of a 10th story window, I am sure a more "humane" law of gravity would see him wafted gently to earth -- but all his wishing for such an alternate reality is not going to have it happen.
  2. Forgetting public policy for a moment, to the extent that you (the commenter) relies on other people hiring you to stay alive in this world, I can think of few things that would improve your well-being more than attempting to develop a basic understanding of why your labor might have more or less value to someone else.  Refusing to do so, or even refusing to acknowledge that your labor has some sort of economic value at all, would be like trying to launch rockets to mars while refusing to acknowledge the rules of celestial mechanics. .  Refusing to even think about why labor (and skills) might or might not have value in different situations seems to be a recipe for pretty low earnings over time.

Corporations Don't Want to Report Their True Earnings. Why is The Financial Press So Eager to Help?

I totally understand why corporations may wish to push the envelope on earnings adjustments to make their stock look like a better buy.  But why is the financial media generally complicit with this?  Take any earnings announcement you read about or hear on the TV -- almost every single time it turns out that the earnings number quoted by the press, at least in the headline or the TV sound bite, is the company's non-GAAP adjusted number, not their actual GAAP number.

I might be OK with this if this were being done for good reasons, ie if the financial press thought the adjusted number was somehow more representative.  But I don't get this sense at all.  It feels more like the press is just lazy and accepts whatever number is in the press release without digging further.   Often in a longer story you will find the GAAP number, but buried many grafs in.

Oh, and by the way, the two numbers are diverging:

click to enlarge

A good way to think about this chart is that, if you are not careful, you are paying for the bar on the right but getting the bar on the left.  Note that without adjustments, earnings fell pretty substantially in 2015.  It is not at all clear to me why we have not seen this story.

Why Exxon Provides a Good Analogy for the Central Banker's Dilemma

This article on Exxon stock seemed to be an allegory for the current problem central bankers face:

Earlier this month, Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) reported Q4 2015 earningswhich, as expected, looked ugly considering the large decline in the price of oil over the last one and a half years. Exxon Mobil has long been one of the largest repurchasers of shares, spending a net of $89.74B on share buybacks during the 2010 through 2015 period. However, during the Q4 earnings release, management stated that share buybacks were being halted, presumably to preserve cash...

Contrast that with the strategy from 2008 when share buybacks were accelerated during the market fallout of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the beginnings of what's now known as the Great Recession. Management reduced shares outstanding by 7.5% in 2008 alone...

Oil prices have sunk to lows not seen in more than a decade. The share price hit a low in the $60s in 2015 which hadn't been seen since late 2010. If you're of the belief that oil prices will rebound, eventually, then now should be the time that Exxon Mobil is ramping up the share buybacks not eliminating them.

This is the problem the author is highlighting:  Exxon ran up tens of billions in debt to stimulate the stock price in good times.  Now that times are bad, at least in the oil patch, the tank is empty (so to speak) and they have had to cease buybacks at the very time they would make the most sense (the same amount of money spent at lower stock prices would have higher impact on EPS).  The tank is empty enough that they might have to cut the dividend, an action with such negative consequences for stock value that it would likely undo all the effects of years of stock purchases.

I am not trying to beat up on Exxon -- I actually admire them as a well-managed company and pretty much every large corporation has gotten caught up in this unproductive Fed-inspired game of borrowing at close to zero and buying back stock (to my mind the financial equivalent of the Keynesian digging of holes and filling them back in).  But I hope you can see the analogy with the position of governments and central bankers.   For the last 5 years, when economic times have been good (alright, maybe just OK) governments have been deficit spending like crazy and central banks have been expanding their balance sheets with programs like QE to keep the economy stimulated.  But just as with the situation at Exxon, when the bad times come, bankers are going to find themselves with far fewer options than they had in 2008.

PS:  This is what Exxon really should have been doing the last 5 years -- hoarding their cash and borrowing reserves to be able to buy assets like crazy on the cheap in the next downturn.  They have always been able to do this in past downturns.  I suspect it may not be possible this time.

More Evidence Against My Least Favorite Legislation of the 20th Century

I have written about the National Industrial Recovery Act many times, a love-note from FDR to Mussolini's fascist economic system that was thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court.  Its intent was to make the corporate-crony state the default economic system of the US.

Essentially, the NIRA cartelized the US economy, creating government-sponsored cartels in every industry that would set prices and wages as well as output and quality.  You can imagine exactly how well upstart competitors would have fared under this system.  I am pretty sure, for example, that the government mainframe cartel would never have let apply, or even DEC, see the light of day.

Now, a couple of academics have laid the blame for the long duration of the Great Depression at the NIRA's doorstep.

"President Roosevelt believed that excessive competition was responsible for the Depression by reducing prices and wages, and by extension reducing employment and demand for goods and services," said Cole, also a UCLA professor of economics. "So he came up with a recovery package that would be unimaginable today, allowing businesses in every industry to collude without the threat of antitrust prosecution and workers to demand salaries about 25 percent above where they ought to have been, given market forces. The economy was poised for a beautiful recovery, but that recovery was stalled by these misguided policies."

Using data collected in 1929 by the Conference Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cole and Ohanian were able to establish average wages and prices across a range of industries just prior to the Depression. By adjusting for annual increases in productivity, they were able to use the 1929 benchmark to figure out what prices and wages would have been during every year of the Depression had Roosevelt's policies not gone into effect. They then compared those figures with actual prices and wages as reflected in the Conference Board data.
In the three years following the implementation of Roosevelt's policies, wages in 11 key industries averaged 25 percent higher than they otherwise would have done, the economists calculate. But unemployment was also 25 percent higher than it should have been, given gains in productivity.

Meanwhile, prices across 19 industries averaged 23 percent above where they should have been, given the state of the economy. With goods and services that much harder for consumers to afford, demand stalled and the gross national product floundered at 27 percent below where it otherwise might have been.

"High wages and high prices in an economic slump run contrary to everything we know about market forces in economic downturns," Ohanian said. "As we've seen in the past several years, salaries and prices fall when unemployment is high. By artificially inflating both, the New Deal policies short-circuited the market's self-correcting forces."

The policies were contained in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which exempted industries from antitrust prosecution if they agreed to enter into collective bargaining agreements that significantly raised wages. Because protection from antitrust prosecution all but ensured higher prices for goods and services, a wide range of industries took the bait, Cole and Ohanian found. By 1934 more than 500 industries, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of private, non-agricultural employment, had entered into the collective bargaining agreements called for under NIRA.

Hmm.  Certainly wages and prices are going to be especially "sticky" if the government creates cartels to keep them that way.

A Media Article Actually Highlights the Trouble with A Falling Currency

If you listened to the media and political candidates, you would quickly come to the conclusion that the quickest way to prosperity and wealth is to have a worthless currency.  Every politician the world over argues for devaluing their own currency vs. other nations, with the logic that this helps domestic manufacturers by making imported competitors more expensive and making their own products less expensive to buy in other countries.  **

While the latter two statements are nominally true, the only way this actually helps an economy is if one ignores everyone except manufacturers in markets dominated by international trade.  What it ignores is that a falling currency makes purchases more expensive for everyone else.  Consumers and service industries and even manufacturers who depend on imported raw materials all suffer from a falling currency.  And this is not even to mention the effect on wealth -- if one's savings are all in assets denominated in the falling currency, one is clearly losing wealth as the currency falls.

Well, for the first time in a really long time, I actually saw an article this week that focuses on some of the problems of having a falling currency.  via zero hedge.

“I’ve never seen it that high. It’s usually $6.99, maybe $8 but that seems like quite a jump.”

Grapefruit isn’t the only produce to soar in price as fresh fruit has increased by 12.4 per cent since December 2014, and fresh vegetables are up 14.4 per cent, according to data from Statistics Canada released Friday. Led by those surging produce prices, Alberta’s annual inflation rate rose last month by 1.5 per cent, year over year.

The high prices are a direct result of adverse weather in the United States and the lower Canadian dollar since most produce is imported, said Jason Wiebe, president of Chongo’s Market at the Crossroads Farmers Market.

“Tomatoes trade the same as the TSX. It’s a commodity, too, and all produce is traded in U.S. dollars. In November, the retail cost of tomatoes on the vine was $1.99 a pound. Now I have to sell the same box at $3.99 pound.

“What’s going to be really interesting going forward is what happens to local growers come summer. With the dollar, they can make one and half or two times as much exporting than selling here.”

And that may only be the beginning of higher food costs, according to ATB chief economist Todd Hirsh.

“Going forward I think we’ll see even higher upward pressure on imported fruits and vegetables. If not for weather conditions, certainly that low Canadian dollar will affect it. Because the numbers we’re talking about today are from December and now in January we’re almost five to six per cent lower on that dollar….If people insist on eating fresh tomatoes and pineapple in January, they’ll be forced to pay for it.”

 

** To my eye, every government in the industrialized world is working as hard as they can to hammer down the value of their own currency.  As a result, a rising currency tends to mean only that the country in question has a central bank that is not working as hard and as fast as other countries to trash their currency.  All of which makes accusations that China is manipulating its currency an enormous joke.  Several trilling dollars in QE here and they are the ones manipulating their currency?

Looking at the Business Cycle as an MBA Rather Than an Economist: The Effect of Organizational Dynamics on Recessions

I will confess that there is much about advanced economics that I have trouble following, because I just don't have the background.  I suspect I am more comfortable with a mal-investment model of recessions because it is something I can see and understand as a business guy, whereas when talk gets into monetary policy I can quickly get lost.

For example, in this Arnold Kling review of Scott Sumner's book on the Great Depression, I totally get this:

Sumner's theoretical framework starts with a straightforward explanation for fluctuations in employment and output. Large shortfalls in output and employment occur when relatively flexible prices fall in relation to relatively sticky wages. When firms face high wages and low prices, they have to cut back on employment and output.

A business guy (outside of a commodity business) would probably say he sees a fall in demand for his product rather than a fall in prices, but I understand enough economics to know that these are essentially interchangeable -- the business is seeing a fall in demand at the old price but would likely see the same old demand if the price were lowered.

However, when I read stuff like this, I start to get lost.

If investors believe that the future path of monetary policy is expansionary, then they will immediately start to bid up prices for sensitive commodities. This means that if the central bank sends a credible signal today that it will maintain an expansionary stance going forward, this can quickly raise prices relative to wages, leading to a rapid expansion of employment and output.

I understand it intellectually, but I certainly don't go on a buying spree the moment the Fed announces more QE (though in retrospect looking a the rise in financial asset prices over the last few years, I should have).

But where I was going with all this is there are real-world effects that I am positive contribute to the depth of recessions that I seldom see in these economic theories.  For example, economic theories tend to assume firms are properly staffed heading into the downturn, such that layoffs are driven by the fall in prices/demand.

But that is not ever the case.  In my experience, it is an iron law of organizations that their staffing grows fat in the good times.  No matter how tough or attentive the management, firms will put on too much staff.

My personal theory is that organizations have a life of their own.  Almost literally.   In many ways the organization acts as a living entity with a mind of its own, trying to grow and feed itself.  It does not consider what size it should be, any more than a deer heard is concerned about its size vs. the available food supply.  It will keep growing until it is culled by an outside  force (lack of food or a predator).

I think of organizations the same way, and the only way to check its growth is with active management from the top.  Managers have to constantly stay on top of the organization's size and be pruning or culling it constantly (depending on the metaphor you want to latch on to).  However, because of scale economies, profits tend to grow faster than revenues at the top of the business cycle.  This creates a certain comfort level among management, and since pruning the organization is emotionally difficult -- at the least saying no to people's resource requests and at the most demanding layoffs --managers don't keep up with their job in this area in the good times.  No one notices that a 15% profit growth could have been 20% if they organization had properly been kept in check.

Then comes the downturn.  Demand and/or prices are falling, and profits are falling faster than revenues, and the crisis is now at hand.   Now that we have overcome whatever emotional starting friction there is to have layoffs, we might as well do the job right and cut not only what is required to keep up with falling prices, but we might as well take a look at the bloat we accumulated in the good times and right-size that away as well.  In fact, many businesses I have worked for or with as a consultant like to overshoot what they might have previously thought of as the right-size point, and cut even deeper, hoping that the limited resources will push the organization into finding new inefficiencies in how it does things.

And thus, in my view, the degree of layoffs in a recession will tend to be larger than that one might predict solely from sticky wages and declining  prices/demand.

By the way, for those of us who are skeptical about the government's ability ever mange a task efficiently, this organizational theory is one explanation.  Often commenters make the mistake of assuming that when I criticize tendencies in government organizations to look after themselves (rather than their mission) that I am singling government out as somehow operating differently from the private world.  That is not true.  Government is made up of the same human beings as businesses (though perhaps there is some negative self-selection) and government organizations are going to have the same tendencies as private organizations.

The difference is one of correction mechanisms and incentives.  Eventually, the private organization must clean out the bloat or else it will fail and go out of business entirely (unless of course the government bails it out, see: GM).  There is no such accountability with government organizations.   They just deficit spend or demand more taxes when they get bloated.   Making this worse are the incentives of  government agency leaders.   Lacking a profit metric or even a customer service metric, government agency managers typically get their pay and prestige set based on the budget and headcount of the organization they run, so cost and headcount cutting run directly counter to their incentives.  Combine this with higher barriers in government organizations to cleaning house (e.g. public union power and politicization of what should be efficiency decisions) and we get the dysfunctionality of government.  But again note, this is an issue of accountability mechanisms and incentives, not of having better or worse or smarter people.

China as a Test of Keynes vs. Hayek

Let's start by saying that I have an imperfect layman's view of Keynes and Hayek.  This is my understanding and over-simplification of how these camps deal with economic downturns.

  • Keynes:  Economic downturns result from some sort of failure of aggregate demand.  There are positive feedbacks in the system such that a small downturn can lead to a larger downturn if left unchecked (but on the flip side mean that a small stimulus can have a disproportionately large effect on demand).  The proper government response to a downturn is to create demand through government deficit spending.   Failure to emerge in a timely manner from a recession likely is the result of the government not being aggressive enough in its spending.
  • Hayek:  Economic downturns result from mis-allocation of savings and investment capital, often due to government policy by not necessarily so (one can argue the housing bubble was driven by government policy, but the first Internet bubble likely was not).  The proper government response to a recession is to stop any distorting government policy that drove it and let the economy sort itself out by restructuring.  Failure to emerge in a timely manner from a recession is likely due to interventions that slow this necessary restructuring (e.g. bailouts, government-directed investment programs).

I will say that if my Hayek description is not correct for the Austrians, it is correct for me -- this is what I believe happens.

That said, I have long thought the Japanese lost decade(s) were pretty much final proof of the Hayek vs. Keynes explanation, and I am sort of amazed people still argue about it.  I remember in the 80's people in the US admired the Japanese MITI system of industrial management that carefully directed investment into government-preferred industries and, by the way, stomped on the Japanese consumer (including laws that kept both the retail and agricultural sectors backwards) in favor of promoting the export market.

In the 20+ years since Japan slid into a downturn, they have been the poster child for Keynesian stimulation.  They have deficit spent like crazy and have driven up -- by a longshot -- the largest government debt as a percent of GDP of any of the industrialized nations.  Yet still they flounder -- I would argue precisely because they had an Austrian recession, based on years and years of government-enforced mal-investment, but have refused the Austrian solution.  Watching it evolve over the years, I have thought it impossible to miss the point, but it appears that Krugman-Keynesians can always argue, not matter how much government debt was run up, that the problem was that they just didn't spend enough.

Well, in my view we have another such test coming, perhaps even more stark -- in China.  China, perhaps more than Japan, has filled their economy with investment distortions -- the huge empty cities that get shown on the Internet seem to be one example.

China empty city

And over the past year or two, China has been deficit spending and stimulating like hell -- both at the central government level as well as with policies that have encouraged the accumulation of debt both locally and in industry.

This is why I think the crash is coming in China, and the longer they manage to delay it by artificial means, the worse and longer the crash will be.  There is probably a bet that could be had here, but I am not sure how it would be structured.

Recession Warning?

Back in 2009, the Baltic Dry Index seemed to be everyone's new favorite economic indicator, with recoveries in this metric of dry bulk shipping supposedly the harbinger of prosperity.  So now that it is hitting record lows, I don't see it in the news much.

On Immigration, Conservatives Sound Just Like Socialists

The other day John Hinderaker of Powerline wrote:

If someone proposes that next year we should import 10,000 unskilled immigrants from Pakistan, the first question we should ask is: why do we need them? But that is the one question that no one ever seems to pose.

This is a terrible question and to my eye shows just how close Conservatives come to accepting many of the assumptions of Socialism.

Socialists seldom think in terms of individuals, but instead talk about the economy as some great big machine that they get to run.  We all remember Bernie Sanders saying

“You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country”

When Hinderaker is asking if we need more immigrants, or Sanders is asking if we need more deoderant choices, they are both working from an assumption that some authoritarian gets to sit at the top and make these choices for us.

The question "do we need immigrants" is actually senseless. Who is "we"? Who gets to make decisions for "we"? Only a socialist thinks this way. In a free society, the questions that matter are "Do I want to hire this immigrant?" or, as an immigrant, "do I want to take the chance of moving to an unfamiliar country to try to better my life." If I wish to hire someone from another country and they wish to move here and take the job, what the hell does it matter if John Hinderaker thinks this person is "needed"? I have decided I need a certain immigrant for my business, and the immigrant has decided that moving here is a good tradeoff for him.  In capitalism, that should be a done deal.

Could the immigrant or I be wrong about my employment offer being a good idea? Sure.  But authoritarian government second-guessing of individual decisions is supposed to be a progressive-socialist game, and here is a prominent Conservative doing exactly the same thing.  If Bernie Sanders wanted to require me to get government permission to produce a new flavor of deodorant, Hinderaker would be outraged.  But never-the-less he similarly wants me to get government permission (actually he wants to deny me government permission) to hire the employee I want to hire.

All this "Amercan jobs for Americans" thing may sound nice, and get head nods at the local Rotary, but what it actually means is that individual business people like myself have to be limited to hiring from a government-approved list.  Doesn't sound much like the free markets and small government Conservatives claim to want.

Hinderaker quotes approvingly from David Frum

However one assesses [the Farook family] chain and its consequences, it seems clear that the large majority of legal immigrants choose to come—or, more exactly, are chosen by their relatives—for their own reasons. They are not selected by the United States to advance some national interest. Illegal immigrants are of course entirely self-selected, as are asylum seekers. …

Donald Trump’s noisy complaints that immigration is out of control are literally true. Nobody is making conscious decisions about who is wanted and who is not, about how much immigration to accept and what kind to prioritize—not even for the portion of U.S. migration conducted according to law, much less for the larger portion that is not.

Doing things for one's own reasons.  Self-Selection.  Lack of government control.  Lack of government decisions about who or what is wanted.  Lack of national priorities.  These all sound like ... capitalism and a free society.   Replace the word immigration with any other term and Conservatives would blast these two sentences and Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama would vigorously nod.  I could write a $15 minimum wage screed using almost these identical words from Frum.    Here, let me try:

However one assesses [the John Smith] $8 wage and its consequences, it seems clear that the large majority of employers set wages for their own reasons. These wages are not set by the United States to advance some national interest. The wage rates are entirely self-selected by employers and employees.

Bernie Sanders's noisy complaints that wage rates and income inequality are out of control are literally true. Nobody in government is making conscious decisions about who is hired and for how much, about how much income to accept and what kind to prioritize.

Postscript:  Yes, I know that Conservatives are all worked up because 1 in a 1,000 or so of our immigrants might be murderers.  You know what, one in a thousand Americans born every day will likely grow up to be murderers, but we don't ban sex.  We accept the consequences that we get a few bad apples along with a lot of awesome productive people.

I would also ask Conservatives this -- why don't you think the Left's desire to ban gun ownership to head off mass shootings is fair?  I would suggest one reason is that it is unfair to ban legal gun ownership for 1,000 good people because one will use their gun to commit a murder.  If you agree with this statement, explain why your argument against immigration is different from the Left's call to ban gun ownership.

The Rich Don't Get Richer, the Free Get Richer

OK, it is not just freedom, but rule of law, protection of property rights, eschewing of cronyism and kleptocracy.  But you get the idea.  There is nothing in the Progressive oppressor-oppressed narrative that would predict that an impoverished "victim" of western colonialism would perform like this (via Cato)

singapore_income

 

Though I will say that, speaking of colonialism, it tends to support my old argument that it sure was better in the long-run to be a British or American rather than a French colony.

The Paradox of Index Funds (And the Joy of Shopping)

Mark Perry makes the (updated) case for index funds.  I need no convincing, as most** of my savings (such that they are) are in Vanguard index funds of various sorts.

But as I was reading his article, I couldn't help thinking that there is a flaw with the "everyone should be in index funds" advice -- if everyone actually was 100% in index funds, they would not work.  Index funds are premised on the idea that stock prices are pretty well reflective of the information out there in the marketplace -- the company's future prospects, the strength of its market position, the direction of external factors such as economic growth and interest rates, etc.  But this is only going to be true if there are investors out there trying to pick stocks and beat the market -- ie if everyone is not in index funds.

It sort of reminds me of the old economics joke where a man is walking down the street with an economist, and the economist walks right past a $20 bill lying on the ground.  The man says to the economist -- "do you realize you just walked past a $20 bill?" and the economist answered, "It couldn't really be there -- in an efficient market, someone would have already picked it up."

In some ways, the stock pricing paradox here is just an example of a larger phenomena which for the lack of a better name I call "the joy of shopping."  People make fun of shopping all the time, but economically shopping is really a miracle.  All the things we attribute to prices and efficient markets and competition and the accountability of markets depend on shopping.  Individuals have to be out there making price-value trade-offs between products, or between buying something and not buying something.   For example, at least half of everything wrong with health care economics can be explained by lack of shopping.

The interesting thing is that only a small percentage of consumers in any particular market have to be hard-core shoppers (meaning they do tons of research and compare prices across multiple sellers) for all of us to benefit.  I seldom look at a price in Wal-Mart because I know other people who care a lot have enforced a discipline on Wal-Mart.  Just as with my Vanguard mutual funds, I depend on that core of folks who walks the aisles of Wal-Mart checking every price against Amazon and Target.

 

** I do enjoy picking stocks, and have a particular affinity for shorting things too early.  I never, ever let this portfolio grow to more than 5% of my total savings, and treat it explicitly as a sandbox to play in rather than real investments on which my future well-being depends.

Do We Care About Income Inequality, or Absolute Well-Being?

I am going to reprise parts of an article I wrote in Forbes several years ago, because I think the conclusions are particularly relevant given the Democrats' discussion of income inequality and the Scandinavian economic model.

When folks like Bernie Sanders say that we have more income inequality than Sweden or Denmark, this is certainly true. By just about any test, such as Gini ratios, we have a much wider range of incomes.

However, we Sanders implies that this greater income equality means the poor are better off in these countries, he is very probably wrong.  Because the data tends to show that while the middle class in the US is richer than the middle class in Denmark, and the rich in the US are richer than the rich in Denmark, the poor in the US are not poorer than those in Denmark.

And isn't this what we really care about?  The absolute well-being of the poor?

I am not a trained economist or economic researcher, but I have looked for a while for a data source to get at this.  I can find Gini ratios all over the place, but how do I compare the absolute well-being of poor in one country to poor in another?

The first clue that I was maybe on the right track was this chart that actually came from a left-wing group trying to promote the idea of reducing income inequality.  The chart is hard to read (the study is no longer online and all I have is a bad screenshot), but it seemed to show that the poor in the US were no worse off than the poor in Denmark and Sweeden

epi8d (1)

 

So the data had to be there somewhere.  Finally I found a set of data that seemed to does the trick.  I used data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center.  I cannot vouch for their data quality, but it is the same data set used by several folks on the Left (John Cassidy and Kevin Drum) to highlight inequality issues, so I used the same data source.  I then compared the US to several other countries, looking at the absolute well-being of folks at different income percentile levels.  I have used both exchange rates and purchasing price parity (PPP) for the comparison but my feeling is that PPP is a better approach when we are comparing consumer well-being.

You can click through the Forbes article to see all the comparisons, but I will focus here on Sweden and Denmark since they are very much in the policy-making discussion on income inequality.  As usual, you can click to enlarge:

click to enlarge click to enlarge

What does this mean?  If the data is correct, it means that all the way down to at least the 10th percentile poorest people, the poor in the US are as well or better off than the poor in Denmark and Sweden.  And everyone else, including those at the 20th and 25th percentile we would still likely call "poor", are way better off in the US.

All this talk about reducing income inequality by emulating Denmark is thus not about making the poor better off, but just about cutting the rich and middle class down to size.

Chart of the Day: Median Income, US States vs. European Countries

From Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute, is your state richer than Bernie Sander's dream country Sweden?  The author has used state-level purchasing price parity adjustments, rather than a single US adjustment, due to large variations in state price levels discussed previously here (click to enlarge)

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Early Progressive, Race-Based Rational for the Minimum Wage

From the same article, From Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard, that I quoted in a recent post on immigration comes this bit as well (emphasis added):

Progressive economists, like their neoclassical critics, believed that binding minimum wages would cause job losses. However, the progressive economists also believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit, as it 212 Journal of Economic Perspectives performed the eugenic service ridding the labor force of the “unemployable.” Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1897 [1920], p. 785) put it plainly: “With regard to certain sections of the population [the “unemployable”], this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health.” “[O]f all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Sidney Webb (1912, p. 992) opined in the Journal of Political Economy, “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them to unrestrainedly compete as wage earners.” A minimum wage was seen to operate eugenically through two channels: by deterring prospective immigrants (Henderson, 1900) and also by removing from employment the “unemployable,” who, thus identified, could be, for example, segregated in rural communities or sterilized.

The notion that minimum-wage induced disemployment is a social benefit distinguishes its progressive proponents from their neoclassical critics, such as Alfred Marshall (1897), Philip Wicksteed (1913), A. C. Pigou (1913) and John Bates Clark (1913), who regarded job loss as a social cost of minimum wages, not as a putative social benefit (Leonard, 2000).

Columbia’s Henry Rogers Seager, a leading progressive economist who served as president of the AEA in 1922, provides an example. Worthy wage-earners, Seager (1913a, p. 12) argued, need protection from the “wearing competition of the casual worker and the drifter” and from the other “unemployable” who unfairly drag down the wages of more deserving workers (1913b, pp. 82–83). The minimum wage protects deserving workers from the competition of the unfit by making it illegal to work for less. Seager (1913a, p. 9) wrote: “The operation of the minimum wage requirement would merely extend the definition of defectives to embrace all individuals, who even after having received special training, remain incapable of adequate self-support.” Seager (p. 10) made clear what should happen to those who, even after remedial training, could not earn the legal minimum: “If we are to maintain a race that is to be made of up of capable, efficient and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization . . . .”

Dear Americans: You Are All Rich

I have made the point a number of times that the bottom 20th percentile (in term of income) of US families would actually be in the 80th percentile in many nations.  In fact, it turns out that the 20th percentile person in the US would not just be relatively rich in many other countries, but on a global scale sits around the 85th percentile of world income.  Virtually no one in the US would even be in the bottom half of world income. This chart from a recent study was shared by David Henderson:

fig2_0

 

The axes are not well labelled here.  How to read this is the X axis is the income percentile of a person in their home country.  Then one reads up, and the Y axis is the income percentile that person would be at for the whole world.  So a person who is at the 20th percentile in the USA is around the 85th percentile worldwide.  It is interesting that by hugging the 45 degree line, China mirrors the world average.  If you want to envision the distribution of absolute incomes around the world, think of China.

This raises a certain question for American redistributionists.  Ayn Rand used to point out that redistributionists always love the idea because they feel like they got to pick the pocket of the guy wealthier than them, forgetting that someone poorer gets to pick their pocket.  Essentially, in a truly global redistribution scheme, everyone in the US would be paying rather than receiving.

A better way to achieve global income equality would be to have more countries emulate the American rule of law, property rights regime, and relatively free markets.  Ironically, most American redistributionists support the opposite, arguing that in many was the USA should emulate the authoritarianism of these poorer countries.  Which I suppose will achieve global income equality as well, though in a much less attractive way.

Investing with Coyote

In short, don't ever ever ever take my investment advice.  However, I will note that when I tongue-in-cheek called the market top on May 27, the S&P closed at 2123 and has not closed higher than 2128 since.

The reason market timing is virtually impossible is because the actual timing can be so skewed .  You can be sure the market is overvalued but it can take years for that to play out, particularly when governments (e.g. US, China) are pumping liquidity into the markets to keep them afloat.

A good example is China.  I (and many other much smarter people) were recognizing the China market was overvalued years ago, but had one shorted the China market back then you would have been short-squeezed into oblivion before the actual crash came about this year.

While fundamental investing isn't worthless, the effects of fundamentals seem to get easily swamped by government actions, such that predicting government actions is far more important to investment success than figuring out corporate fundamentals.  I learned to tear apart company financials from one of the best back at HBS, but I have no ability to figure out when the Fed will or will not stop dumping money into the markets.  So I buy a few index funds and try not to look at them too much.

Business Licensing in Europe

We had a private tour in Vienna from a very good tour guide.  Apparently, to become a tour guide in Austria requires that one study for years and take a special government test to get a government license.  It does not matter if one wants to just focus on, say, giving special Klimt-only tours at the Belvedere or if one wants to give comprehensive cross-city tours, one still must pass the same test to practice tour-guiding.  This, by the way, is entirely parallel to how most US states require one to get a full dental license after a bajillion years of school whether one wants to repair cavities or just whiten teeth.

As a result, tour guides seem to get 80 Euros an hour and up.

Anyway, as we walked we were chatting with her as she called a cab.  We asked if they had Uber in Vienna, suspecting that they had the same conflicts with it as in, say, Paris.  But she had never heard of it, so we explained the concept to her.

To her credit, she immediately got it, so much so that she immediately thought about it in the context of her job.  She said, "Can you imagine, if any housewife could give tours and charge 30% (of her rate)?  I would be looking for work the next day."

I am not totally sure that is true -- there is more differentiation in quality of tour guides vs. cab drivers.  But she recognized that a portion of what she earned came because the license she had gotten from the government excluded a lot of potential competition.

Minimum Wage, American vs. European Restaurants

In reading reviews of European restaurants to try to find places to dine, I saw a lot of criticisms of their service.  There seems to be a meme among travelers that Austrian restaurants in particular often have bad service.

I am not sure I can agree with this -- we had a lot of good wait-staff in Austria  But I can say that they had to service a LOT more tables than a typical American waiter.  I don't know what the standard is today, but it used to be that 4-6 tables was the max American restaurants considered that a waitperson could cover and still provide acceptable service.  In Austria, the number was often double that.  I watched one gentleman memorably service almost 20 tables during the busy lunch hour at a museum cafe in Vienna.  I can tell you he was working his butt off but we still had to wait for basic service like ordering or paying our bill or getting our food delivered.

I pair this information with a second factoid from a travel book we read when trying to figure out what tipping policy was over there.  The book, as well as most other sources we consulted, said that tips for waiters in Austria and Germany could be less generous because waiters were paid much more than in the US -- a fact that the source considered a point of superiority over the US for the Europeans.

That may or may not be -- personally, I have never like the US tradition of restaurants outsourcing the paying of their staff to the customers.  But it may well be that these higher wages have their cost in the form of reduced customer service, as restaurants are forced to minimize their higher cost staff to keep prices reasonable.

A Few Thoughts on Branding After Travelling in Europe

In Europe, we stayed several times in rental apartments we found through the invaluable VRBO website.  One advantage of these apartments is that we can cook breakfast, avoiding the high-priced breakfasts at many hotels.

So I found myself shopping for orange juice in Austria, with a number of choices at hand, but none recognizable to me.  Skeptics of capitalism often point to branding and brand-based advertising as particular wastes of resources.  But I would have loved to see an orange juice brand I recognized.  Brands are essentially a guarantee of  predictability -- whether I like the taste or not, I know what a Big Mac will taste like in Omaha or Beijing.  Brands are an enormous aid to shopping and making choices, and in this manner create real value for us as consumers.  I missed recognizable brands when I was in Europe.

PS-  Coca-Cola and Pepsi are obviously the exceptions to this predictability game.  Diet Coke, called Coke Light in Europe, tastes entirely different in Europe than it does in the US -- in fact it tastes more like what Diet Pepsi tastes like in the US.  Which is ironic, and fitting I guess, because Diet Pepsi in Europe tastes a lot like American Diet Coke.

Keynesians Have Shot Their Only Bolt -- How Will They Spend Their Way Through The Next Crisis?

Governments have spent so much, to so little effect, to try to stimulate the current economy, I wonder where they will find the resources to spend more the next time?  Because you can be sure that despite the fact that we are likely near the top of a weak cycle, no one is paying back what was spent in the last recession or proposing to reduce central bank balance sheets.

This is a couple of years old, but tells the story pretty well:

The financial crisis that began in late 2007, with its mix of liquidity crunch, decreased tax revenues, huge economic stimulus programs, recapitalizations of banks and so on and so forth, led to a dramatic increase in the public debt for most advanced economies. Public debt as a percent of GDP in OECD countries as a whole went from hovering around 70% throughout the 1990s to almost 110% in 2012. It is now projected to grow to 112.5% of GDP by 2014, possibly rising even higher in the following years. This trend is visible not only in countries with a history of debt problems - such as Japan, Italy, Belgium and Greece - but also in countries where it was relatively low before the crisis - such as the US, UK, France, Portugal and Ireland.

So over a third of the debt that has been built up in all of history by Western nations was added in just a few years from 2007-2012.  At the same time, the central banks of these countries were adding to their balance sheets like crazy, essentially printing money in addition to this deficit spending.  In the US, the Fed's balance sheet as a percent of GDP hovered around 6% until the second half of 2008.   That had tripled to over 18% in 2012 (source).  At the same time, European central bank assets grew from about 7% to over 16% of GDP.

James Taranto has a regular feature named after a reporter named Fox Butterfield.  The feature takes statements such as "Despite Mary getting a PhD in Peruvian gender studies from Harvard, she has struggled to find a job" and argues that the "despite" should be replaced by "because".

This is certainly true of the statement that "despite record stimulus and Fed balance sheet expansion, the economy has remained sluggish".  That "despite" should be "because of".  The government continues to distort the allocation of capital and wonders why investment is sluggish and tends towards bubbles in certain assets.  Japan has stimulated for 25 years to absurd levels of debt and has gotten 25 years of sluggishness in return.

All this reminds me of a story in one of my favorite business books, "Barbarians at the Gate."  Back in the day, tobacco companies had a practice of jamming inventory into the channel just ahead of the semi-annual price increase.   They called this "loading."  The channel liked it because they got cheap product to sell at the new higher prices.  The tobacco companies liked it because it boosted quarterly revenues at the end of the quarter.  But that boost only happens once.  To show growth the next quarter, one must load even more.  Over time, they were jamming huge amounts of inventory into the channel.  I have never been a smoker, but apparently freshness is an issue with cigarettes and they can go stale.  Eventually, the company was loading so much their sales started to drop because everyone was buying stale cigarettes.

In find this a powerful metaphor for government interventions in the economy today.

Postscript:  I will give another example.  In Arizona, we are on a July-June fiscal year.  Years ago, some government yahoo had the bright idea to close a budget hole by passing a law that all businesses had to pre-pay their estimate of sales taxes due in July a month earlier in June.  For that one glorious year, politicians had 13 months of revenue to spend rather than 12.

But to set things aright the next year, they would have to live with just 11 months of revenue.  No way they were going to do that!  So they did the pull-forward thing again to get a full 12 months.  And they have done it every year since.  It has become an institution.  All this costs a ton of money to process, as the state must essentially process a 13th return each year, presumably paying overtime and temp costs to do it.  All for the benefit of one year where they got the use of one month of revenue early, we have been stuck with higher state operating costs forever.

China Slashes Costs for American Consumers

My headline is probably the most accurate description of how China's devaluation of the yuan yesterday affects this country.  But I bet you will not see it portrayed that way in any other media.  What you are going to see, particularly as the Presidential election races heat up, are multiple calls to bash China in some way to punish it for being so generous to American consumers.  Why?  Because the devaluation of the yuan will negatively affect the bottom line of a few export sensitive companies.  And if we have learned anything from the Ex-Im battle, things that GE and Boeing like or hate are much more likely to affect policy than things that benefit 300 million consumers.  Make no mistake, protectionist measures are the worst sort of cronyism, benefiting a few companies and workers and hurting everyone else (look up concentrated benefits, dispersed costs).

By the way, aren't the worldwide competitive devaluation sweepstakes amazing?  If everyone is doing it, then devaluations have no substantive effect on trade (except to perhaps decrease its magnitude in total), which just adds to the utter pointlessness of the game.  And it is hilarious to me to see US elected officials criticizing China for "manipulating" its currency, as if the US Fed hasn't added several trillion dollars to its balance sheet over the last few years in a heroic attempt to manipulate the value (downwards) of our own currency.

Cargo Cult Regulation -- How Much Effect Did Card and Krueger Have on New York's Fast Food Minimum Wage Ruling?

New York is proposing a $15 minimum wage for any fast-food restaurants that are part of a national chain with 30 or more stores.  How this survives any sort of equal protection test is beyond me -- if I own a restaurant and call it "coyote's place" I don't have to pay $15, but if I own a single restaurant where I pay franchise fees to McDonald's, I do.

Let's leave the inevitable court challenges on fairness aside.  Of all the possible industries, I wonder why the focus on just fast food and on just large franchises.  Some of it is obviously mindless Progressive soak the rich thinking, and some of it is a liberal distaste for any foods that are not kale.  Is it just because the fast food workers have been the most vocal?  If so, that is pretty lame the the government is merely focusing on the squeaky wheel, a real indictment of any pretensions technocratic politicians have to legislating intelligently.

But I wonder if it is something else.  Pick a progressive on the street, and in the unlikely event they can name any economic study, that study will probably be Card and Krueger's study of the effect of a minimum wage increase in New Jersey.   Sixty bazillion studies have confirmed what most of us know in our bones to be true, that raising the price of labor decreases demand for that labor.  Card and Krueger said it did not -- and that a minimum wage increase may have even increased demand for labor -- which pretty much has made it the economic bible of the Progressive Left.

What intrigues me is that Card and Krueger specifically looked at the effect of the minimum wage on large chain fast food stores.  In this study (I will explain the likely reason in a moment) they found that when the minimum wage increased for all businesses in New Jersey, the employment at large chain fast food restaurants went up.

So I wonder if the Progressives making this ruling in New York thought to themselves -- "we want to raise the minimum wage.  Well, the one place where we KNOW it will have no negative effect from Card and Krueger is on large fast food chains, so...."

By the way, there are a lot of critiques of Card & Krueger's study.  The most powerful in my mind is that when a minimum wage is raised, often the largest volume and highest productivity companies in any given business will absorb it the best.  One explanation of the Card & Krueger result is that the minimum wage slammed employment in small ma and pa restaurants, driving business to the larger volume restaurants and chains.  As a whole, in this theory, the industry saw a net loss in employment and a shift in employment from smaller to larger firms.  By measuring only the effect on larger firms, Card and Krueger completely missed what was going on.

Dodd-Frank a Disaster for the Poorest People in Africa

Yeah, that headline seems a bit odd -- Dodd-Frank is about banking, right?  Well, apparently buried within Dodd-Frank are conflict minerals rules which I suppose were spurred by the efforts of a few dim-bulb celebrities who have a knack for latching onto poorly thought out "solutions" for Africa that tend to have staggering unintended consequences.

In this case, the logic was that minerals sales to western companies were  propping up dangerous warlords and militias, particularly in the Congo.  The law imposed huge penalties on American companies that did not purge their supply chain eight, ten, twelve steps deep of any suspected bad actors in the mineral world.

The problem for US companies is that this imposes a ton of cost, and is very hard to do.  So hard that the US government has not been able to successfully differentiate conflict from non-conflict suppliers.   However, as we learned on issues like cybersecurity, the US Government is still more than willing to impose enormous penalties on private businesses for failing at tasks the government can't even do itself.  So companies play it safe and don't buy from any source anywhere near places like Congo, even avoiding neighboring countries that have no such conflict issues.

Because what Progressive supporters forgot in patting themselves on the back for their sensitivity in passing such laws is that minerals extraction and related labor is about the only source of income for citizens of these countries, which are among the poorest in the world.  We may cut have off some of the money flowing to warlords (though not much as they turn out to do pretty well in the new bootlegging environment), but we are cutting off all the money that went to the struggling population.   Further, by driving the trade underground, it becomes impossible to impose event he most basic rules on the trade.   Dodd-Frank turned the mineral trade in these countries into the cocaine trade.

Via Overlawyered, from the CEI

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act increased violence in the Congo by 143 percent (and looting by 291 percent) through its “conflict minerals” rule, which has backfired on its intended beneficiaries. So concludes a new study by Dominic Parker of the University of Wisconsin and Bryan Vadheim of the London School of Economics.

As we noted earlier, Dodd-Frank conflict minerals regulations have also caused starvation in the Congo, harmed U.S. businesses, and resulted in increased smuggling—even as they punish peaceful neighboring countries in Africa just for being near the Congo, whose civil wars have killed millions over the last 20 years. They have inflicted great harm on a country that was just beginning to recover from years of mass killing and had the world’s lowest per capita income. The new study is consistent with a 2013 paper by St. Thomas University law professor Marcia Narine that criticized the conflict minerals rule for its dire consequences for the Congolese people.

To his credit, David Aronson was on this four years ago:

For locals, however, the law has been a catastrophe. In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.

...

Meanwhile, the law is benefiting some of the very people it was meant to single out. The chief beneficiary is Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is nicknamed The Terminator and is sought by the International Criminal Court. Ostensibly a member of the Congolese Army, he is in fact a freelance killer with his own ethnic Tutsi militia, which provides “security” to traders smuggling minerals across the border to neighboring Rwanda.

...

The people of eastern Congo agree that it would be beneficial to bring greater clarity and transparency to the mineral trade. A variety of local and international initiatives to do so were under way when the embargo hit. Those efforts may now become a casualty of the Dodd-Frank law.

A Good Roundup on the Minimum Wage

David Brooks has what looks to be a pretty even-handed piece on what academic work shows on the minimum wage.  A few highlights:

Recently, Michael Wither and Jeffrey Clemens of the University of California, San Diego looked at data from the 2007 federal minimum-wage hike and found that it reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage points (which is actually a lot), and led to a six percentage point decrease in the likelihood that a low-wage worker would have a job.

Because low-wage workers get less work experience under a higher minimum-wage regime, they are less likely to transition to higher-wage jobs down the road. Wither and Clemens found that two years later, workers’ chances of making $1,500 a month was reduced by five percentage points.

Many economists have pointed out that as a poverty-fighting measure the minimum wage is horribly targeted. A 2010 study by Joseph Sabia and Richard Burkhauser found that only 11.3 percent of workers who would benefit from raising the wage to $9.50 an hour would come from poor households. An earlier study by Sabia found that single mothers’ employment dropped 6 percent for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage....

What we have, in sum, is a very complicated situation. If we do raise the minimum wage a lot of people will clearly benefit and a lot of people will clearly be hurt. The most objective and broadest bits of evidence provoke ambivalence. One survey of economists by the University of Chicago found that 59 percent believed that a rise to $9 an hour would make it “noticeably harder” for poor people to find work. But a slight majority also thought the hike would be worthwhile for those in jobs. A study by the Congressional Budget Office found that a hike to $10.10 might lift 900,000 out of poverty but cost roughly 500,000 jobs.

So 900,000 would get up to a 25-40% raise while 500,000 would get a 100% cut.