Is the rent really too damn high?

new study from Harvard University shows that in the last thirty years, rents have risen and the income of renters has fallen:

[America’s Rental Housing]

Read More At TheWeek.com

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Would you cuddle a stranger for $80 an hour?

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Cuddling feels great. But cuddling also has lots of quantifiable medical benefits. It releases the trust hormone oxytocin, which creates a sense of well-being and happiness, and endorphins, which are a natural painkiller. It also relieves stress, reduces inflammationlowers blood pressure, and may prevent depression.

A way to create and maintain social bonds within families, most cuddling takes place between sexual partners, or between children and parents. But a new slew of businesses have appeared offering cuddling as a paid-for service. And the prices can be steep.

Read More At The Week.com

No, wrecking shopping carts won’t help the homeless

Hawaii state Representative Tom Brower (D) has been taking a sledgehammer to Hawaii’s homelessness problem. Literally. Wielding a sledgehammer, the lawmaker has destroyed over 30 shopping carts used by homeless people to store and transport their belongings.

Brower claims his actions are a product of his frustration over the existence of homelessness in his district, telling Hawaii News Now, “I got tired of telling people I’m trying to pass laws. I want to do something practical that will really clean up the streets.”

Brower also wakes those he finds sleeping and tell them to sleep somewhere else. “If someone is sleeping at night on the bus stop, I don’t do anything, but if they are sleeping during the day, I’ll walk up and say, ‘Get your ass moving,’” he said.

Read More At TheWeek.com

The London Real Estate Bubble

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In October, London real estate asking prices jumped 10%. In my view is kind of parabolic-looking jump has developed out of quite a silly situation, and one I think is a good exhibit of just how irrational and weird markets can sometimes be.  London real estate prices have been rising strongly for a long while, and a large quantity — over half for houses above £1 million — of the demand for London real estate is coming from overseas buyers most of whom are buying for investment purposes. It is comprehensible that London is a desirable place to live, and that demand for housing in London might be higher than elsewhere in the UK. It is a diverse and rich place culturally and socially, boasting a huge variety of shopping, parks, art galleries, creative communities, restaurants, monuments and landmarks, theatres and venues, financial service providers, lawyers, think tanks, technology startups, universities, scientific institutions, sports clubs and infrastructure. Britain’s legal framework and its straightforward tax structure for wealthy foreign residents has proven highly attractive to the global super rich. With London real estate proving perennially popular, and with the global low-interest rate environment that has made borrowing for speculation cheap and easy, it is highly unsurprising that prices and rents have pushed upward and upward as the global super rich — alongside pension funds and hedge funds — sitting on large piles of cash have sought to achieve higher yields than cash or bonds by speculating in real estate. In some senses, London real estate (and real estate in other globally-desirable cities) has become a new reserve currency. And while this has occurred, price rises have proven increasingly cyclical as both London residents and speculators have sought to buy. The higher prices go, the more London residents become desperate to get their feet on the property ladder in fear they won’t ever be able to do so, and the more speculators are drawn in, seeing London real estate as an asset that just keeps going up and up.

Yet the bigger the bubble, the bigger the bust. And I think what we are seeing in London is a large psychological bubble, a mass delusion built on other delusions. Chief among these delusions is that real estate should be seen as a productive investment, as an implicit pension fund, or as a guaranteed source of real yield. While investors can look at real estate however they like, there is no getting away from the fact that real estate is a deteriorating asset. Sitting on a deteriorating asset and hoping for a real price gain — or even to preserve your purchasing power — is a speculation, not a productive investment. For commercial enterprises buying as a premises for business, or for residents buying as a place to live this is not in itself problematic. But as an investment this can be hugely problematic. It is just gambling on a deteriorating asset under the guise of buying a “safe” asset.

Of course, in the UK where housing has been treated by many successive governments as an investment, and as a haven for savings and pensions, real estate owners have done particularly well. Governments have been willing to prop up the market with liquidity via schemes like Help To Buy and via restrictive planning laws to rig the market to restrict supply. This may make investors feel particularly secure, but governments can be forced — not least by demographics — to swing in another direction. An important side-effect of continually rising prices and a restricted supply of housing is that many people will not be able to afford to buy a home. With the house prices-to-wages ratio sitting far above the long-term average, the next UK government will come under severe pressure within the next few years to allow — and probably subsidise — much more housebuilding to bring down housing costs for the population. The past-trend of government-protected gains may have inspired a false sense of security in investors.

But such a reversal of policy would not in itself crash the London real estate market. After all, London is a unique place in Britain, and the majority of the new housebuilding may take place away from London. More likely, the bubble will simply collapse under the weight of its own growth. Sooner or later, even with liquidity cheap and plentiful, the number of speculators seeking to cash out will exceed the number of speculators seeking to cash in, and confidence will dip. Sometimes, this simply equates to a small correction in the context of a large upward trend, but sometimes — especially when it can be negatively rationalised — it manifests into a deeper malaise.

When this occurs, one probable rationalisation is as follows.  Domestically, many of the relatively low-income artists, designers, technologists, musicians, students, artisans, academics, service workers and professionals (etc) who make London London are priced out, then they will go and contribute to communities elsewhere where rents and housing costs are lower — Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Paris, Berlin, out into the sprawl of the home counties, and deeper into the English countryside, to places where a four bedroom house costs the same as a studio apartment in central London. Where once this would have been culturally, professionally and socially prohibitive, fast, ubiquitous internet allows for people to live a culturally and socially connected life without necessarily living in a big city like London. Internationally, other cheaper cities and jurisdictions will simply catch up with London in terms of amenities and desirability to the global super class. Competition for global capital  is huge, and while London as an Old World metropolis has done well since 2008, it may suffer in the wake of renewed competition from newer, cheaper, faster-growing Eastern metropolises.

When the bubble begins to burst — something that I think could occur endogenously within the next five years, especially if the fast increases continue — speculators, and especially speculators who are heavily leveraged may face severe problems, resulting in a worsened liquidation and contraction, and possibly threatening the liquidity of heavily-invested lenders. As many people at the table are sitting on big gains, they may prove desperate to cash out. Just as many presently feel pressured to get in to avoid being priced out of London forever, a downward turn could be severely worsened as many who are heavily invested in the bubble and scared of losing gains on which they hoped to fund retirements (etc) feel pressured to get out. Such an accelerated liquidation could easily lead to another recession. While I doubt that London prices will fall below the UK average, prices may see a very sharp correction. The psychological bubble is composed of multiple fallacies — that housing is a safe place to put savings and not a speculation, that deteriorating real estate should yield higher returns than productive business investments, that the UK government will continue to protect real estate speculators, that large flows of capital from overseas speculators will continue into London. A bursting of any of these fallacies could begin to bring the whole thing into question, even in the context of continued provision of liquidity from the Bank of England.

Obama Talks Bubbles & Bubble Avoidance

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Barack Obama is focusing his economic rhetoric on the dangers of bubbles:

President Barack Obama, who took office amid the collapse of the last financial bubble, wants to make sure his economic recovery doesn’t generate the next one.

Obama this month spoke four times in five days of the need to avoid what he called “artificial bubbles,” even in an economy that’s growing at just a 1.7 percent rate and where employment and factory usage remain below pre-recession highs.

“We have to turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality that created this mess,” he said in his Aug. 10 weekly radio address.

In the long run, this goal — of avoiding inflating economic bubbles that change the structure of production both as they inflate and deflate — is laudable. The best manner in which to achieve it is through the teaching and discussion of history. A key qualitative factor in most bubbles seems to be the forgetting of history, the sense that this time is different, the sense that we may have reached a new stable plateau upon which asset prices can only rise. With the rise and popularisation of notions like the Great Moderation or the end of speculation, investors put down their guard and increasingly engage in riskier behaviours, like flipping condominiums, or buying stocks with leverage. The bubble is a mentality — risks will remain at bay, sentiment will remain high, externalities won’t disrupt activity. This is fine if the risks that investors have begun to ignore never materialise, so not every asset that soars in price is a bubble. Many asset classes including treasuries and junk bonds today are at record high prices, but the Fed is determined to do whatever it takes, and so sentiment has held in spite of naysayers like Marc Faber and Peter Schiff talking of the inevitability of a crash since the recovery began in 2009. The risks have so far remained at bay. But very often the risks that are assumed to have gone away reappear, and all it takes for the market to go into freefall is for sentiment to turn and investors to start selling. Asset valuation is not a question of fundamentals. It is a question of abstractions away from fundamentals. As John Maynard Keynes noted:

[Investing] is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.

What this means, as Minsky noted, is that avoiding the possibility of economic bubbles is really, really difficult (if not impossible by definition). Each stabiliser leaned upon to stabilise markets becomes another assumption lulling investors into assuming that this time is different and thus into riskier behaviours. Keynes and Minsky both recommended fiscal policy as the stabilisation lever, but fiscalism has become unfashionable and politically challenging.

Obama’s chosen mechanism for avoiding bubbles is decreasing income inequality. In fact he sees income inequality and economic bubbles as being intimately connected:

Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top 1 percent. The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009. The average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. … This growing inequality not just of result, inequality of opportunity – this growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics.

Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what, businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America – that idea that if you work hard you can make it here.

It’s not sustainable to have an economy where the incomes of the top 1 percent has skyrocketed while the typical working household has seen their incomes decline by nearly $2,000. That’s just not a sustainable model for long-term prosperity.

This is all true. But it’s also all rhetoric. In his nearly five years in office, Obama has totally failed to get income inequality under control. According to Pew Research, since Obama came to office:

Mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%

Research from the Bank of England shows that the main transmission mechanism used by central banks — specifically, reinflating asset prices — disproportionately favours the richest in society; those who already have assets whose prices can be lifted. The policies that Obama and Bernanke have pursued for the past 5 years have been tilted toward assisting the wealthy. The recovery has been a recovery from and for the top, while the poor have continued to experience greater social fragmentation, weakened social programs, and long-term unemployment. This has all been cemented by Obama’s own policies.

So while avoiding asset bubbles and reducing income inequality are laudable goals it is highly questionable that Obama — who has embraced an austerity agenda — will come close to achieving either.

UPDATE: Miles Kimball on Twitter points me toward Anat Admati’s suggestion of implementing bank capital requirements to make bubbles less damaging. This is a very fair suggestion, because it is a stabiliser that does not lean on the idea of eliminating bubbles, but the idea of limiting their impact. Obviously, rules can be gamed, but if implemented properly it could systematically limit the size of bubbles, by cutting off the fuel of leverage.

Of Obamacare & Part-Time Jobs

On healthcare and healthcare costs, I try to take a pragmatic approach. I’m for whatever combination of market and government that can deliver the best quality healthcare for the most possible. I am not a pro-market or pro-government ideologue. Obamacare — or to give it its proper name, Romneycare The Affordable Care Act — is a strange hybrid of market and government. Yet, I worry that it may encapsulate the worst of both worlds. I have listened keenly to criticisms of Obamacare — specifically, the idea that the healthcare mandate creates a subsidy for for-profit health insurers — and I have worried myself that the individual mandate creates the potential for mandates for the purchase of other market goods. Yes, there are incentives to bring down the cost of care, but evidence is so far quite mixed.

One aspect of criticism I have not paid enough attention to is the labour market impact — specifically, the idea that the employer mandate (which compels firms with 50 full-time employees or more to provide healthcare to fulltime workers) will result in a greater number of part-time jobs, and less full-time jobs. The Washington Times reports:

Since January 2009 the country has added a net total of 270,000 full-time jobs, but it has added 1.9 million part-time jobs, according to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The numbers come as Republicans argue that the president’s health care law is pushing businesses to save money and push workers into shorter schedules to avoid the penalties that come from hiring more full-time workers, who under the law will be required to be covered with health care insurance.

Yet correlation is not causation.  This effect cannot entirely be the fault of Obamacare. In this depressed economy, there has been a global shift toward part-time work. Obamacare and its employer mandate cannot be forcing employers in Europe or Britain to take on less full-time workers, and more part-time. But perhaps Obamacare is exacerbating an underlying trend. Because the shift at the margin is very pronounced:

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If it is really the case that Obamacare is disincentivising full-time work, then hopefully this shift away from full-time work is only a temporary one. Employers scared of the potential for a high-cost mandate at a time of economic upheaval might try to resist Obamacare, shedding full-time workers and hiring part timers to push themselves below the 50-worker threshold. Once Obamacare is up and running — and especially if it really does reduce costs, and if the economy is growing — employers might stop resisting, and begin hiring full-time workers again.

On the other hand, if healthcare costs remain high and rising, and employers remain resistant then the 30-hour threshold could increase in importance, and the growth of part-time work could continue. This raises larger questions. At this point, the 30-hour threshold seems ill-conceived.  Why should employers be responsible for the healthcare of a worker that works 30 hours a week, but not one that works 29?  In an era where the availability of full-time work is decreasing globally, should the government not try to avoid worsening this phenomenon with arbitrary thresholds? Shouldn’t large firms be responsible for their part-time employees’ healthcare too?

What Do Rising Numbers of Welfare Claimants Really Mean?

As we know, food stamp claimants are soaring to new highs. But this just mirrors the numbers of people who are jobless:

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This isn’t a product of people getting lazy and choosing to live off the state. It’s a product of a weak economy that isn’t creating a large enough supply of jobs to meet the demand for work.

Because as we know, there are lots more job-seekers than there are jobs being created:

As I noted recently, solving the challenge of high unemployment is not a matter of job-seekers working harder to look for work. It’s a matter of the economy being able to create enough jobs and demand to absorb job-seekers.

I worry that we aren’t taking unemployment seriously even five years into a crisis that is defined by soaring unemployment. It may be hard for  policymakers and wealthy business people — the people who are in a position to spend to create jobs and seriously lower the unemployment rate — to have any idea what unemployment really means. After all, as a successful, wealthy person with a high quality of life, who has been successful in life from school, to university, to the workplace, then perhaps it is hard to empathise with the plight of people who are struggling to find a job. It seems easy to notice the rising costs of welfare, and the rising numbers of welfare claimants and jump to the conclusion that these things are caused by laziness or lack of discipline or immorality. Yet the simple, demonstrable fact that there are not at present enough jobs to go around entirely debunks this.

Trying to nudge unemployed people into looking harder for work seems like a futile exercise. If the government wants to get people off unemployment, the only real option is job creation.

Empirical Evidence of Employment Stagnation

Last week, I discussed the possibility that we had reached a depressed equilibrium, resulting in long-term or even permanent employment stagnation. I also discussed the possibility that the only routes out were large-scale technology shocks, geopolitical shocks or very large scale fiscal stimulus — events that drastically change broader market expectations.

Frustratingly, there are some superficial signs of recovery. Yet digging beneath the surface it is apparent that we are dealing with a depression in employment demand. These graphs produced by a blogger under the pseudonym Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk from Bureau of Labor Statistics data illustrate this well.

Since the recession, lots of part-time jobs have been created. Yet full-time jobs remain in much shorter supply:

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This has meant that the percentage of the population with a full time-job is just where it was after the recession:

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There has been significant growth in low-pay jobs, but decline in high-pay jobs, again illustrating a weakening of labour demand:

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The extent to which this is fixable and may fix itself is unclear. In the long run, the sea may be flat and the weather may be sunny. But what this trend has already led to is strong growth for corporate incomes, and a decline in labour incomes. If in the long run this trend does not reverse we will face a bifurcation of society between the capital-owning elites still thriving on rents, automated industry and foreign wage labour, and a squeezed middle deprived of the well-paying jobs and careers that once supported and grew the middle class and increasingly dependent on part-time jobs, temporary work and welfare. Without middle class job and labour growth, demand in the economy as a whole may remain depressed.

Permanent Employment Stagnation?

Paul Krugman says that we may have reached a “depressed equilibrium” that unemployment may remain elevated for a long, long time to come:

We had what felt like an epic intellectual debate over austerity economics, which ended, insofar as such debates ever end, with a stunning victory for the anti-austerity side — and hardly anything changed in the real world. Meanwhile, the pain caucus has found a new target, inventing dubious reasons for monetary tightening. And mass unemployment goes on.

So how does this end? Here’s a depressing thought: maybe it doesn’t.

True, something could come along — a new technology that induces lots of investment, a war, or maybe just a sufficient accumulation of “use, decay, and obsolescence”, as Keynes put it. But at this point I have real doubts about whether there will be events that force policy action.

First of all, I think many of us used to believe that sustained high unemployment would lead to substantial, perhaps accelerating deflation — and that this would push policymakers into doing something forceful. It’s now clear, however, that the relationship between inflation and unemployment flattens out at low inflation rates.

Last week, I wrote a piece arguing much the same thing:

It is also possible that we have reached what John Maynard Keynes called a “depressed equilibrium” where capital continues to be hoarded and not used to raise employment levels back to the pre-crash norm, and grow the economy out of the slump. With a private sector awash in debt and refusing to take on more to act as a source of growth, the only other agency with the ability to borrow and spend the economy back to growth is the government.

As the rate of technological growth accelerates, the chances of a technology shock that greatly increases investment seems to rise. New technologies coming onto the market in the coming years — lower-cost photovoltaic solar, 3-D printing, synthetic fossil fuels and more exotic things like asteroid mining — have a lot of potential to create a lot of demand. Yet, just as advanced manufacturing technologies have done in the past, they may end up destroying more jobs than they create. This could further accelerate the big post-2008 redistribution trend — falling wage and salary incomes and rising corporate profits as a percentage of GDP:

This general trend toward the obsolescence of labour is worrying. With less and less demand for labour in the economy due to things like robots, computerisation and job migration we could see more and more people sitting around doing nothing and collecting unemployment cheques. Perhaps this is the accidental fulfilment of the leisure society that Keynes envisaged. As humanity has gotten better at fulfilling our material needs, it takes less labour to do so. The unemployed are caught between a rock and a hard place; social and governmental expectations that able-bodied people should work, up against the economic reality that the demand for labour just doesn’t exist.

Without a technology shock or other exogenous shock, there may be another route out of the depressed equilibrium, and mass unemployment. I am not entirely convinced by Krugman’s argument that high unemployment won’t produce systemic price deflation. With core inflation at its lowest point in history in the United States and falling it does appear possible that the deflationary trend is beginning to accelerate even as headline unemployment gradually creeps down. This has after all been the norm in Japan for the last twenty years. With accelerating deflation, it seems much likelier that we will see both monetary and fiscal policy throwing money at lowering unemployment. But in the long run, if the trend toward the obsolescence of labour continues, this may only buy some temporary respite for the unemployed. In the long run, individuals, governments and society may have to adjust attitudes toward work and employment and adapt to a new normal encompassing less work, and more leisure.