Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

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Free exchange: Concrete benefits

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Public investments in infrastructure do the most good at times like the present

THOSE trying to fly to or from Chicago in the past week learned first-hand the shortcomings of America’s public infrastructure. A suicidal employee set fire to a nearby air-traffic-control centre, resulting in the cancellation of thousands of flights, the third such interruption this year. The chaos is aggravated by a system dating from the 1950s that relies on radar. Unpredictable funding has delayed its planned replacement with a system that uses satellites.

Public infrastructure is one of the few forms of government spending that both liberals and conservatives support. Ports, power lines and schools are essential to the smooth running of the economy. But as America’s outdated air-traffic-control system shows, public investment is at the mercy of the fiscal weather. Cash-strapped governments are loth to pile on debt or raise taxes even for something as popular as a new road. After a burst of stimulus spending in the immediate wake of the recession, public investment has fallen back in the rich world (see charts).20141004_fnc807

This is profoundly short-sighted. That is the message of a new study by the International Monetary Fund, released as part of its half-yearly “World Economic Outlook”. It found that in rich countries at least, infrastructure spending can significantly boost growth through higher demand in the short run and through higher supply in the long run. This comes with caveats: the results depend on how the investment is financed, how efficiently it is carried out and what the prevailing economic conditions are. As it happens, the present conditions are perfect.

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Written by gregip

October 4, 2014 at 9:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Free exchange: Fluid dynamics

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America’s famously flexible labour market is becoming less so

Aug 30th 2014 | From the print edition

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August 30, 2014 at 9:11 am

How long will the expansion last?

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Weighing the evidence

Aug 16th 2014 | WASHINGTON, DC | From the print edition
NEWS that America’s economy grew at a brisk annualised rate of 4% in the second quarter was greeted with relief. After a puzzling first-quarter contraction, growth has returned, though the recovery remains the weakest since the second world war. As of June, the expansion is now five years old, longer than the post-war average of 58 months (see chart 1).

Recessions have become rarer in recent decades. The three expansions preceding the 2008 crisis lasted on average for 95 months. For that, economists credit structural factors such as companies’ better control of stocks, and modest inflation. The latter is especially important because as the late Rudi Dornbusch, an economist, once said, post-war expansions didn’t die in their beds; they were murdered by the Federal Reserve. The economy would run out of spare capacity, profits deteriorated, prices and wages rose and the Fed hiked interest rates, precipitating a recession.

If that pattern holds, the current expansion should have plenty of life left in it. Inflation is actually lower than the Fed’s target of 2%. The huge hit sustained during the crisis has a positive side: it has given the economy plenty of running room. JPMorgan reckons that adding a percentage point to the output gap at the start of an expansion adds two quarters to its lifespan. (The output gap is the difference between actual output and the maximum an economy can produce without sparking inflation.)
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Written by gregip

August 14, 2014 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

America’s economy: Jobs are not enough

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New figures show that the speed at which America’s economy can grow without stoking inflation has fallen

Jul 19th 2014 | WASHINGTON, DC | From the print edition

AMERICAN workers have had no news this good for years. In June employers added 288,000 jobs, bringing the total for the year to 1.4m, the best six-month stretch since 2006. Unemployment has sunk to 6.1%, the lowest rate in almost six years. It could hit levels long regarded as “full employment” within a year. Help-wanted signs are proliferating, with vacancies up by 20% since January.

Such an ebullient labour market is usually the token of a booming economy. Not now. In the first quarter gross domestic product fell by 2.9% at an annual rate, the worst showing since the recession. This was a result in part of bad weather. Yet the second quarter will only be strong enough to make up the ground lost in the first. Economists had thought 2014 would be the best year since the recession; with growth in the first half of around zero, it is shaping up to be the worst.

Economic growth over the business cycle is driven mostly by swings in demand, and in recent years demand has been held back: households have been repaying their debts; the government has restrained its spending and raised taxes; and interest rates, having reached zero, are unable to fall further. Over the long run, however, a country’s potential growth depends on supply: how many workers it has and how productive they are. The recent divergence between America’s employment and output suggests the country faces not just deficient demand but also enfeebled supply, as more people working without more output means lower productivity. That is bad news for all Americans since their standard of living depends on productivity. It is also a headache for the Federal Reserve, since inflation emerges more quickly when economic capacity is expanding more slowly. Thus it could mean interest rates rising sooner than might otherwise be expected. If so, though, it would also mean they might not rise that high; in a slower-growing economy, there is less demand for capital.

In the 1990s America boasted one of the rich world’s highest potential growth rates, of more than 3%, thanks to a labour force that was expanding by more than 1% a year and productivity, fuelled by the spread of information technology, growing at around 3% a year (see chart 1). By 2007 the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had trimmed its estimate of potential growth to a still respectable 2.6%. It now thinks it may be just 2.1% (see chart 2). The Fed has lowered its projections of long-term growth by almost as much.

Even that may be optimistic. The recent spell of strong jobs growth and feeble output means that productivity declined by 0.4% over the past year, JPMorgan calculates. The labour force did not grow at all. Economic theory holds that unemployment declines when the economy grows faster than its potential on the upswing of the business cycle. If the slow growth of the past year was above the long-term potential, as the rapid drop in unemployment suggests, it would seem to imply that the long-term potential was actually negative. Things are almost certainly not that bad. Still, JPMorgan reckons America’s potential growth is just 1.75%—about half the rate it enjoyed from 1947 to 2007.

Measuring potential growth is notoriously difficult. Productivity is volatile, making underlying trends hard to discern. Disentangling short-term demand from long-term supply is complicated by the fact that the former has a direct effect on the latter. When the economy is booming, businesses invest and innovate more, which raises productivity, and people who might have stayed at home, retired or remained in school join the labour force. That is what happened in the 1990s: as the economic boom continued with no uptick in inflation, economists concluded that potential growth had risen.

The great reversion

The optimistic way to read the current situation is as the same thing happening in reverse: potential growth may be being depressed by the hangover of weak demand from the Great Recession, rather than by underlying structural forces. For example, the labour force has grown by just 0.3% per year so far this decade, compared with 0.8% in the previous decade, and the participation rate—the share of the working-age population either working or looking for work—has fallen from 65.9% at the end of 2007 to 62.8%. Some of that is structural: of particular note is the fact that the first baby boomers qualified for Social Security (the public pension) in 2008. Some is cyclical: those who have not found work since the recession are quitting the jobs market. But which effect is bigger?

A new report by Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers reckons 1.6 percentage points of the 3.1-point decline in participation can be explained by ageing alone. It reckons another half point is clearly cyclical. That leaves a gap of roughly one percentage point requiring explanation. One factor is that 16- to 24-year-olds are staying in education longer, and are less likely to work while learning. But participation among those aged from 25 and 54, the biggest and most active portion of the workforce, has also fallen—and it was doing so before the recession hit.

This fall has been most striking for those with less education: participation has dropped by four percentage points for those with only a high-school diploma, according to Judd Cramer, a doctoral student at Princeton University. These are the workers most likely to be displaced by technology or foreign competition. But this long-standing trend was made worse by the recession; participation in states hit harder by the recession fell more than it did in those less afflicted, according to Christopher Erceg and Andrew Levin of the International Monetary Fund.

In theory, a hotter economy should draw some of these workers back into the labour market. In practice, the impact is likely to be small. Many dropouts have retired or begun collecting disability benefits, a decision that is “more or less permanent”, according to Shigeru Fujita of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. And the structural problem will get worse; the baby-boomers will continue to retire, even as the supply of new workers shrivels. The Census Bureau reckons America’s working-age population will grow by just 0.3% a year from 2010 to 2030, less than a third of the rate of the past two decades. Ageing is not the only reason: falling fertility rates and declining immigration also play a role.

Like labour, productivity is growing more slowly, averaging a little over 1% since the recovery began, about half the average of 2.3% from 1947 to 2007. This might be partly cyclical: weak sales and financial crises have discouraged investment in recent years. But productivity growth had begun to slow even before the recession, from around 2005. John Fernald of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco attributes this to the waning of the IT revolution. Led by the likes of Walmart, a fiercely efficient retailer, businesses began using IT in the late 1990s to better manage supply chains, deploy workers and design products. By 2005 they had reaped most of the benefits, the theory runs, and the pace of innovation in semiconductors had slowed.

The spread of social media which allow new forms of working, of automation which increases an individual’s output and of many other technological innovations which, like those of the previous wave, are taking their time to show up in the productivity figures may yet improve the outlook. But such a pay-off could be many years away. As Michael Feroli of JPMorgan notes, the share of GDP devoted to investments in IT plunged during the recession and has continued to fall, even as investment of other sorts has recovered. The Bank Credit Analyst, an investment journal, notes that lower potential growth means business needs less capital to meet future sales. That would explain why investment, at 12% of GDP, remains below its pre-recession peak.

Even if potential growth picks up a bit, America will increasingly resemble the ageing slow-growth economies on which it used to look down. To improve potential growth policymakers can take various steps, such as raising the age at which the elderly receive government benefits, lowering the top corporate-tax rate and reforming support for the disabled. But such steps would take years to bear fruit. In the meantime the Fed has held interest rates at zero out of a belief that the economy is loaded with spare capacity which is holding down inflation.

Recent data have prompted a reappraisal. Not only has unemployment fallen rapidly, broader measures of underemployment which include the unemployed who have given up looking for work have fallen even further. Yet participation has not risen. Meanwhile, employers are having more trouble filling jobs: in May 3.2% of all jobs went vacant, close to a seven-year high, suggesting the jobless lack the skills that employers are looking for.

All this indicates that the economy is closer to full employment than the Fed had expected just a year ago. Given how quiescent wages and prices remain, rate rises seem still at least a year away. But as Janet Yellen, the Fed chair, noted on July 15th, that date will come sooner if unemployment keeps falling so quickly.

The original article is linked here.

Written by gregip

July 18, 2014 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Red tape blues: Small businesses fret less about taxes than over-regulation

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Jul 5th 2014 | WASHINGTON, DC | From the print edition
IAN TONER, an architect in Philadelphia, recently went to city offices for a permit to build a stoop for a client’s home. The city, he learned, had just imposed new requirements: he would have to get maps from gas, electric, water and other utilities to ensure the stoop would not disturb their underground lines and then resubmit his application. A process he thought would take a day took more than two weeks.

That’s not all. Other new rules require that he prove that his builder has general liability, workers’ compensation and car insurance, and has paid all his taxes. Four times a year he must set aside a half day to ensure he is paying the state’s and city’s myriad taxes correctly. Mr Toner doesn’t question the need for rules and taxes; what galls him is the time and hassle involved in complying with them. “The information exists all over the place and the burden is on me not just to gather it but [to] interpret it. I’m not going to leave here because of this, but they’re all things that could turn a person off of coming here.”

America’s states and cities have traditionally tried to attract businesses by offering them tax breaks and other cash incentives. Yet there may be a more effective way, and one which puts no strain on stretched budgets: make life simpler. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

July 3, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Optimal crises

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Jul 2nd 2014, 20:32 by G.I. | WASHINGTON, D.C.

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chair, has long said there might be times when monetary policy could be used to counteract financial instability. But in a speech before the International Monetary Fund today, she erected such a high bar to its use that is seems unlikely ever to happen: the “potential cost … is likely to be too great … at least most of the time.”
The unstated logical conclusion is that there is some optimal exposure to crisis. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

July 2, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Is it secular or is it stagnation?

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Jun 19th 2014, 18:25 by G.I. | WASHINGTON, D.C.

Secular stagnation is a delightfully alliterative description of America’s economy, but also an ambiguous one. “Secular” implies the depressed state of the economy is down to structural, supply-side factors, whereas “stagnation” suggests cyclical obstacles to demand are to blame. The distinction matters, because it will determine the path for interest rates.

Let’s assume stagnation is the problem: the normal cyclical recovery of the economy is being smothered by headwinds to demand: deleveraging, tight credit, fiscal contraction, post-crisis risk aversion, etc. The supply side is largely unscathed. This means there’s a big gap between actual and potential output which puts significant downward pressure on inflation. In this case, the path of interest rates should resemble the blue line in the nearby chart. The Fed keeps interest rates near zero as long as possible to overcome those headwinds. The large output gap ensures this doesn’t allow inflation to emerge. But eventually, the headwinds fade, demand springs back and the Fed must quickly tighten so that by the time demand converges with supply (i.e. the output gap closes), rates are back to their natural, equilibrium rate. In this case, the natural rate is same as it was before the crisis, i.e. a nominal rate of around 4%, and a real rate around 2%.secular stagnation rates chart

Now suppose instead that secular, supply-side forces are the reason growth has been so disappointing. These would include diminished labour force growth because of aging, lifestyle choices, lower fertility and immigration; reduced innovation; and as a consequence of all these things, less capital investment. In this case, the right path for interest rates is shown by the red line. Because weak growth is due primarily to lower potential, the output gap is much smaller and an outbreak of inflation more of a risk. This means the Fed must start to raise interest rates sooner, and more quickly, so that they are back to normal by the time the output gap closes. But lower potential growth means the return on capital is lower which reduces the natural, or Wicksellian (named for Knut Wicksell) interest rate, and so Fed funds plateaus at a lower level.

Deciding which of the two scenarios applies requires estimating both potential growth and the natural rate of interest – no easy task since neither can be directly observed.
Thomas Laubach of the Federal Reserve Board and John Williams, now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, managed to do just that with an elegant, intuitive model in a 2001 paper. They define the natural rate as the rate needed to keep the output gap at zero. Then they develop a model of potential output that yields an output gap, and from that infer the natural rate. This is determined by both potential growth, and a bunch of other factors like risk aversion and desired saving. Because these latter factors move a lot over the business cycle, the natural rate fluctuates more than if only relatively-slow moving potential growth mattered. For example, Mr Williams’ updated estimates imply the real natural rate of interest was -0.2% at the end of 2013, owing both to high desired saving, and a steady decline in potential growth, to about 2% now from 2.9% in 2007.

Your choice of interest rate path thus depends heavily on how you interpret recent data. The fact that unemployment has fallen far faster than GDP can explain may be down to demand – a lot of discouraged workers have quit the labour force – and thus require zero rates for longer; or it may be because potential growth is lower, which means the output gap is closing quickly, and the Fed must start tightening relatively soon. For most of the last few years, Fed officials threw their lot in with the demand side story: they kept pushing out the date that rates would start rising. That’s changing. In the FOMC’s latest survey of economic projections, released yesterday, members lowered both expected growth and unemployment this year while trimming their estimate of potential growth to 2.2% from 2.25%  (it was 2.65% in 2009).  They slightly raised the path of expected hikes in the Fed funds rate while lowering its long-run level (the de facto the natural rate) to 3.75%, from 4%.

This process is probably not over; labour market and demographics factors may have depressed potential growth to below 2%. Add in high desired saving from fiscal consolidation and reserve accumulation by emerging economies, and the natural rate is probably closer to 3% than 3.75%. This also means inflation has probably bottomed out and could move back to, or even above, target within a year or so.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that bond yields are about to shoot higher. That’s because the negative of a quicker liftoff by the Fed is more than offset by the positive of a lower long-run natural rate. For equities, the implications are ambiguous: a lower natural rate reduces the discount rate and raises the price-earnings ratio, but lower potential depresses earnings growth.

My analysis treats supply and demand separately. In reality, they are interrelated. People who lose their jobs for cyclical reasons and then go long enough without work can end up permanently out of the labour force. As Mr Williams and his colleague Glenn Rudebusch note in a recent paper, getting the long-term unemployed back to work can restore some of the economy’s lost potential. But it will require more stimulative monetary policy and inflation overshooting for a while. This is a prospect the Fed may have to grapple with before long. When I asked Janet Yellen about it, she indicated she was open to letting inflation overshoot if it was necessary to get unemployment down: “If the distance from achieving an objective [either full employment or low inflation] is particularly large, it would be consistent with the balanced approach that we would tolerate some movement in the opposite direction on the other objective.” She suggested that such a scenario was pretty unlikely. Hopefully, though, she’s preparing for it – just in case.

The original article is linked here.

Written by gregip

June 19, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized