Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

Our Permission-Based Economy

The decline in new business formation in this country shouldn't be a surprise -- in industry after industry, numerous bits of government permission are needed to proceed with a new idea into a new market.  If, like Uber, you plow ahead ignoring these roadblocks, you will likely spend the rest of your life in court (as does Uber).

I thought about all this when reading this article on awesome portable automated systems that can maintain a person's insulin level.  What an amazing advance in safety and life quality for people!  The part that struck me was this line from a woman when she first saw one:

Sarah Howard became interested after she met Ms. Lewis last year. “My first question was: Was it legal?” said the 49-year-old, who has Type 1 diabetes, as does one of her two sons. “I didn’t want to do anything illegal.”

It is pathetic that this is the first reaction of Americans when they see an awesome new innovation.  And it turns out that she is right to worry.  Because if one avails oneself of the normal division of labor, in other words if one lets someone more expert to build the device or program it, then it is illegal.  Only if one downloads all the specs from the Internet and builds and programs it oneself is this fabulous device legal.

The only restriction of the project is users have to put the system together on their own. Ms. Lewis and other users offer advice, but it is each one’s responsibility to know how to troubleshoot. A Bay Area cardiologist is teaching himself software programming to build one for his 1-year-old daughter who was diagnosed in March.

This is roughly the equivalent of having to go fell a tree and mine graphite in order to makes one's own pencils.  It is simply stupid.   All because the government will not let us make our own decisions about the risks we want to take with medical products.  So if you don't have the skills or the time to put one together, you can wait 5 or 10 years for the FDA to get around to approving a professionally-made version.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who by the title of his post obviously also saw the I, Pencil analogy.

Update:  I give it 12 months before someone at the FDA demands that these home-made devices be regulated, and at least registered with the government.  I wonder if in 10 years the government will be demanding registration of 3D printers?  After all, they potentially incredibly empowering to individuals and can let folks work around various product bans like this.   Exactly the kind of empowerment that government hates.

2016 Presidential Election: Battle of the Crony Capitalists

I am not sure that many politicians are good on this score, but Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are likely as bad as it gets on crony capitalism.  Forget their policy positions, which are steeped in government interventionism in the economy, but just look at their personal careers.  Each have a long history of taking advantage of political power to enrich themselves and their business associates.  I am not sure what Cruz meant when he said "New York values", but both Trump and Clinton are steeped in the New York political economy, where one builds a fortune through political connections rather than entrepreneurial vigor.   Want to build a new parking lot next to your casino or start up a new energy firm -- you don't bother with private investors or arms length transactions, you go to the government.

With that in mind, I particularly liked Don Buudreaux's quote of the day:

First, we labor under a ubiquitous threat of being shackled by crony capitalists.  [Adam] Smith wondered how internally stable a free market could be in the face of a tendency for its political infrastructure to decay into crony capitalism.  (The phrase “crony capitalism” is not Smith’s.  I use it to refer to various of Smith’s targets: mercantilists who lobby for tariffs and other trade barriers, monopolists who pay kings for a license to be free from competition altogether, and so on.)  Partnerships between big business and big government lead to big subsidies, monopolistic licensing practices, and tariffs.  These ways of compromising freedom have been and always will be touted as protecting the middle class, but their true purpose is (and almost always will be) to transfer wealth and power from ordinary citizens to well-connected elites

Yes the Middle Class is Shrinking. And the Ranks of the Poor Are Shrinking. Because Americans are Getting Wealthier

Mark Perry has a number of good graphs that show that the shrinking of the middle class is real, but only because they are moving to "rich" -- hardly the implication of those on the Left who are trying to demagogue the issue.  Check them out if you have not seen them but this animated graph was new to me:


Note the general movement to the right.

Interestingly, the only block on the low side getting larger is the percent of people at "zero".    In my mind, this just reinforces my point that the poverty issue is primarily one of having a job, not the rate paid at the job.  For that growing cohort at zero, raising the minimum wage only makes it more likely they stay at zero.

So @tylercowen, You Want to Understand the Great Stagnation? Here It Is

Certainly the government's current permission-based approach to business regulation combined with an overt hostility of government (or at least those parties that influence it) to radically new business models (see: Uber) is a big part of the great stagnation story.

But insanity like this is also a big part:

Vague but expensive-if-not-correct rules on employee seating just got vaguer and harder to figure out

Weighing in on two California laws that require employers to provide suitable seating to workers when “the nature of the work” permits it, the California Supreme Court said the phrase refers to an employee's tasks performed at a given location for which the right to a suitable seat is asserted.

In response to questions certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the state high court said April 4 that the phrase “nature of the work” doesn't require a holistic evaluation of the full range of an employee's tasks completed during a shift.

An employer's business judgment and the layout of the workplace are relevant in determining whether sitting is permitted, but courts should apply an objective analysis based on the totality of the circumstances, the California Supreme Court said.

It held that “if an employer argues there is no suitable seat available, the burden is on the employer to prove unavailability.”

As a business owner in California, I am going to have to do a ton of research to figure out just how we can comply with all this, and even then I will likely be wrong because whether one is in compliance or not is never actually clear until it is tested in court.  I had to do the same thing with California meal break law (multiple times), California heat stress law, new California harassment rules, California sick leave rules, the California minimum wage, Obamacare rules, Obamacare reporting, the new upcoming DOL rules on salaried employees, etc.

Five or ten years ago, I spent most of my free time thinking about improving and growing the business.  Now, all my mental bandwidth is consumed by regulatory compliance.  I have not added a new business operation for years, but instead have spent most of my time exiting businesses in California.  Perhaps more important is what I am doing with my managers.  My managers are not Harvard MBAs, they are front-line blue collar folks who have been promoted to manager because they have proven themselves adept at our service process.  There are only a finite number of things I can teach them and new initiatives I can give them in a year.  And instead of using this limited bandwidth to teach some of the vital productivity enhancement tools we should be adopting, I spend all my training time on compliance management issues.

Raising the Cost of Hiring Unskilled Workers by 50% is A Bad Way to Fight Poverty

After my prior post, I have summarized the chart I included from Mark Perry to the key data that I think really makes the point.  Household income is obviously a product of hours worked and hourly wages.  Looking at the chart below, poverty seems to be much more a function of not working than it is of low wages.  Which makes California's decision to raise the price of hiring unskilled workers by 50% (by raising their minimum wage from $10 to $15) all the more misguided.

click to enlarge

Note the calculations in the last two lines, which look at two approaches to fighting poverty.  If we took the poorest 20% and kept their current number of hours worked the same, but magically raised their hourly earnings to that of the second quintile (ie from $14.21 to $17.33), it would increase their annual household income by $2,558, a 22% increase (I say magically because clearly if wages are raised via a minimum wage mandate, employment in this groups would drop even further, likely offsetting most of the gains).  However, if instead we did nothing to their wages but encouraged more employment such that their number of workers rose to that of the second quintile, this would increase household income by a whopping $13,357, a 115% percent increase.

From this, would you logically try to fight poverty by forcing wages higher (which will almost surely reduce employment) or by trying to increase employment?

Why The Minimum Wage Does Not Make Moral Sense: Unemployment, Not Low Wage Rate, Causes Most Poverty

In response to his new $15 minimum wage in California, Governor Jerry Brown said:

Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally, socially, and politically they make every sense because it binds the community together to make sure parents can take care of their kids.

Let me explain as briefly as I can why this minimum wage increase is immoral.  We will use data from the chart below which was cribbed from Mark Perry in this post.

click to enlarge

The average wage of people who work  in the poorest 20% in the US is already near $15 ($28,417 divided by 2000 full time hours - $14.20 per hour).    This is not that much lower than the hourly earnings of those in the second poorest or even the middle quintiles.  So why are they poor?  The biggest different is that while only 16% of the middle quintile households had no one who worked, and 31.5% of the second poorest quintile had no one who worked, of the poorest 20% of households a whopping 63% had no one who worked.  Only 16.1% of poor adults had a full time job.

The reason for poverty, then, is not primarily one of rate, it is one of achieving full time employment.  Many of these folks have limited education, few job skills, little or no work experience, and can have poor language skills. And California has just increased the cost of giving these folks a job by 50%.  The poor will be worse off, as not only will more of them miss out on the monetary benefits of employment, but also the non-monetary ones (building a work history, learning basic skills, etc.)

Past studies have shown that most of the benefit of the minimum wage goes to non-poor households (ie second and third earners in middle class homes).  The targets Jerry Brown speaks of, parents earning the minimum wage to take care of families, are perhaps only 1/8 of minimum wage earners.

MaCurdy found that less than 40% of wage increases [from a minimum wage hike] went to people earning less than twice the poverty line, and among that group, about third of them are trying to raise a family on the minimum wage.

Of course, the price of a lot of stuff poor people have to buy in California is about to go up.  We are going to have to raise our campground rates by 20-25% to offset the labor cost increase.  But that is another story.

California Creates Another Setback of Unskilled Workers -- And Possibly A Setback for Immigrant Integation

It appears that California is going to increase its state minimum wage to $15 in steps over the next five or six years.  This is yet another body blow for unskilled workers in the state.  As I wrote a while back, it is already overly difficult to build a business based on unskilled labor in that state, and increasing the price people have to pay for that labor by 50% is only going to make things worse.  It is possible low-skill workers in large wealthy cities like San Francisco will be OK, as service businesses are still going to want to be there to access all that wealth, and will just raise their prices even higher to account for the higher wages.   For laborers in rural areas that are already suffering from high unemployment, the prospects are not very bright.

As most readers know, we run a service business operating campgrounds across the country, including a number in California.  Over the last  years, due to past regulation and minimum wage increases, and in anticipation of further goofiness of this sort, we exited about 2/3 of our business in California.

Our problem going forward is that in rural locations, sometimes without even electricity or cell phone service on site, we have simply exhausted all the productivity measures I can think of.  There appears to be a minimum amount of labor required to clean a bathroom and do landscaping.  Which leaves us the options of exiting more businesses or raising prices.  Most of our customers in California are blue collar rural folks whose lot is only going to be worse as a result of these minimum wage increases, and so I am not sure how far they will be able to bear the price increases we will need to cover our higher costs.   Likely we will keep raising prices until customers can bear no more, and then exit.

By the way, the 5-6 year implementation time is a frank admission by the authors of the law, not matter what they say in pubic to the contrary, that they know there will be substantial negative employment effects from the minimum wage increase.   They are hoping that by spreading it out over several years, those negative effects will lost in the noise of economic fluctuations.  The Leftist playbook is to do something like this that trashes the earnings of the most vulnerable low-skilled workers, and then later point to the income inequality of those low-skilled workers as a failure of free markets.

On a related note, one of the more interesting things I have read lately is this comparison of successful integration of Muslim immigrants in the US vs. poor integration in Europe.  Alex Tabarrok raises the hypothesis that high minimum wages and labor market rigidity in Europe may be an important factor in reducing immigrant integration.  He quotes from the OECD:

Belgian labour market settings are generally unfavourable to the employment outcomes of low-skilled workers. Reduced employment rates stem from high labour costs, which deter demand for low-productivity workers…Furthermore, labour market segmentation and rigidity weigh on the wages and progression prospects of outsiders. With immigrants over-represented among low-wage, vulnerable workers, labour market settings likely hurt the foreign-born disproportionately.

…Minimum wages can create a barrier to employment of low-skilled immigrants, especially for youth. As a proportion of the median wage, the Belgian statutory minimum wage is on the high side in international comparison and sectoral agreements generally provide for even higher minima. This helps to prevent in-work poverty…but risks pricing low-skilled workers out of the labour market (Neumark and Wascher, 2006). Groups with further real or perceived productivity handicaps, such as youth or immigrants, will be among the most affected.

In 2012, the overall unemployment rate in Belgium was 7.6% (15-64 age group), rising to 19.8% for those in the labour force aged under 25, and, among these, reaching 29.3% and 27.9% for immigrants and their native-born offspring, respectively.

Wow, I guess it is sure lucky California does not have a very large immigrant population.  Oh, wait....

Mark Perry's "Best of Venn Diagrams" .... But Where Did They Start?

Mark Perry loves to use the Venn diagram format to point out hypocrisy or inconsistent arguments.  He has a sort of best-of post with 12 of them here.

I am actually fairly certain the first one of these actually appeared here, on Coyote Blog.  This was the chart I made:

click to enlarge


Update:  Good lord I wrote Rick Perry instead of Mark Perry.  I am officially going senile.  Sorry Mark.

Another Trump Triumph -- He Has The Left Defending the American Economic System

The American Left generally spends most of its time telling us how much better things are in Denmark or France.  I can't find a lot of reasons to like Trump, but he has apparently convinced the Left that they need to defend the American economic model against other countries.  This post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones reasd more like what one might expect from Mark Perry at AEI.

"We're a poor country now." I wonder how many people believe that just because Donald Trump keeps saying it? In case anyone cares, the actual truth is in the chart on the right. There's not a single country in the world bigger than 10 million people that's as rich as the US.

I agree!   In fact, not only are American rich richer, but the American middle class is richer and the American poor are richer.  From an earlier post, here is the purchasing power of individuals across the income spectrum in the US vs. Denmark

click to enlarge

The Miracle of Oil Production

Gasoline costs less than bottled water at your local service station, but look at what it takes to produce it:

Here is an offshore oil platform being towed out to sea.  As huge as it is, its height is nothing compared to the depth and reach of the network of wells that were drilled from it.


And here is a refinery where the oil is processed into gasoline and other products.  This happens to be the Exxon refinery in Baytown, where I had my first job out of college


I am pretty sure this is Pipestill (distillation tower) #8.   If so, I have climbed through every inch of the tall tower on the left


Here is bottled water production in comparison

Home Ownership and Labor Mobility

Alex Tabarrok discusses some academic work that shows a declining inter-regional mobility in the United States which is causing local economic declines to last much longer than they used to last.

In a new paper, also cited by Leubsdorf, Danny Yagan at Berkeley suggests that reduced migration is only part of the problem. What has made the aftermath to the 2008-2009 recession so bad is that migration is low at the same time that it has become more necessary than ever. The 2008-2009 recession was especially localized, it hit some places harder than others and in a way that appears to be permanent. But migration has been too slow to solve the problem.

The usual story is that in-and-out migration equalizes wage, unemployment and employment rates across the nation. Some places may be harder hit than others but movement quickly makes the US into one labor market. In the aftermath of this recession, however, that isn’t happening for employment rates. Using a clever research design that looks at workers with similar education and skills doing the same jobs at the same large firms but in different locations, Yagan finds that location continues to matter years after the recession has ended. Workers who worked in the places hardest hit in the 2007-2009 recession have employment rates today that are 1% lower than similar workers in regions that were less hard hit.

It is probably unfair for me to comment on this because I have been highly mobile in  my life, having lived and worked in about 10 places as diverse as Houston, Dallas, Boston, Boulder, Seattle, Phoenix, St. Louis.  However, I will take  a shot at this.  Some of my hypotheses:

  1. Government programs to encourage home ownership have reduced mobility.  It is simply harder to move if one has a house to sell, and this was worse in the last recession, which was driven in large part by falling home prices, which made it even harder to move when one has an underwater home to sell.
  2. Political/Cultural redlining reduces mobility.  As an example, certain millennials want to be nowhere else but San Francisco, despite how absurdly hard it is to live there.  They will starve in poverty there before going to, say, Houston, which is an easy place to live when one is young but which many consider to be a evil redneck backwater.
  3. Use of Communication technology causes people to think they can reduce mobility when they perhaps can't.  I think a lot of folks with modern communication technology assume that location is irrelevant and that they should be able to do X work anywhere they want.   I think they are overestimating where many industries and companies are right now (though they may be correct in the future).  Just from tax compliance and regulatory perspectives, it is pure hell for a company in, say, Texas to have an employee in, say, California.  Plus I think there are still real networking and management reasons for employees to be concentrated in facilities.


The Fed Wins!

I have observed before that the central bank of every major industrialized country is trying to devalue its currency.  Since in some sense this is a zero sum game, they are all locked into a race to the bottom, a competition to see who can be most successful in hammering their consumers and individual savers in order to boost sales of their domestic companies dependent on export markets.

It looks like the US is winning!  Yay for us, we have destroyed our currency the fastest!  Our government has been most successful in making our domestic consumers relatively poorer vs. those of other nations.  Who says the Obama Administration can't do anything right?

The article goes on to point out something I have been saying for years -- that the unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus steps that governments are taking today at the peak of the economic cycle (though admittedly a relatively weak peak) is going to leave the tank completely empty when it comes to the next downturn.

While the ECB’s initial move to cut interest rates into negative territory in June 2014 sparked a sharp plunge in the euro, further cuts last December and last week have had little effect on the currency.

“The ECB’s hand has been played out,” said Alan Ruskin, head of G-10 foreign-exchange strategy at Deutsche Bank AG. “The currency market isn’t as responsive to the ECB anymore.”

Similarly, markets have ignored the Bank of Japan’s hints at its monetary-policy meeting this week of more rate cuts to come. Not only has the mechanism transmitting ultraloose policy into the real economy appeared to be broken, but some unconventional policy tools—such as negative interest rates—have been deleterious to banks and rattled financial markets.

And maybe that's OK - maybe at some point some government starts thinking about fixing structural regulation, taxation, and government resource reallocation policies that are the true source of economic weakness.

Utter Madness: Phoenix Has The Cheapest Water in the Country

The Arizona Republic reports that the Arizona Department of Water Resources has set six priorities for managing expected water shortages in the future.  The six are listed in one of those annoying click-bait page-flipping things, so I will summarize them below:

  1. Resolve water disputes
  2. Pursue reclaimed water
  3. Expand monitoring (of the public's water use)
  4. Look at water transfers (between communities)
  5. Go for desalinization
  6. Find funding (for large scale projects)

What is missing here?  Well I will give you a hint.  This article was on the very same page (at least online) of the newspaper -- Phoenix has the cheapest water in the country!

If you live in Phoenix, you’re probably paying one of the cheapest annual water bills in the country, even with the rate increase that took effect this month, according to a recent national report on public water systems.

The February report by Food & Water Watch said the lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan, was the most expensive in the country, with customers there paying $910.05 a year. It said Phoenix residents paid just $84.24 a year, then the lowest rate in the nation.

A city water department official said the rates could be a little misleading – rates jump for heavy users, one factor that has helped Phoenix keep water use down even as the number of water users has risen sharply.

But even after the 3 percent increase that took effect March 1, analysts say Phoenix rates are probably still among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the country for residential customers who don’t use large amounts of water in a month.

This is absurd.  Why does the state agency need to go around spying on private water use and begging for funding when price is such an obvious lever to match supply and demand.  Raise the freaking prices!  Are we drawing from lakes and groundwater faster than they can replenish themselves?  Raise the dang price until demand falls to a sustainable level.  As an extra bonus, this would help solve the funding problem, and have it solved by water users themselves rather than taxpayers.

By the way, I ask these questions but I actually know the answers -- government officials don't want to take the heat when the prices rise.  They want to pander to the public and hand them populist goodies like cheap water, and then manage the inevitable water crisis with authoritarian actions like rationing and surveillance that increase their personal power.

And congrats to our newspaper:  It has article after article, day after day, listing all the dire water shortages that face the area, and then they write this article with nary a mention that having the country's lowest water rates might be related.

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)



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.