Is the British Economy Finally Recovering?

The British government would like us to believe that the British economy is finally recovering after a quarter of 0.6% real GDP growth, which if sustained over a full year would equate to 2.4% annualised real GDP growth.

David Cameron claimed:

To accept this argument, one would have to make oneself entirely ignorant of the facts of the current economic situation. Here’s the British economy’s post-2008 real GDP growth, compared to the United States which has also experienced a relatively lukewarm, disappointing recovery:

BPbn8cdCYAAGT_S

We are still far below the 2008 peak. Even the United States has done better. Only Europe — which has adopted even greater fiscal austerity than Britain since the slump — has done worse.

On unemployment, we’re doing even worse. Since the slump, unemployment hasn’t even begun to come down:

fredgraph

The truth is that the British economy is in a depression, very similar to the one experienced in the 1930s — what Keynes called a “depressed equilibrium”. The government now — as then — is not taking the malaise seriously, and would prefer to spew meaningless slogans about “building an economy for hardworking people” instead of focusing on job creation, which is the only viable short-term route out of the slump.

About these ads

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:

071313krugman5-blog480

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:

fulltimeparttime

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

percentofpopulationwithfulltimejob

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

highlowpay

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.

Of Wages and Robots

There is a popular meme going around, popularised by the likes of Tyler CowenPaul Krugman and Noah Smith that suggests that recent falls in worker compensation as a percentage of GDP is mostly due to the so-called “rise of the robots”:

For most of modern history, two-thirds of the income of most rich nations has gone to pay salaries and wages for people who work, while one-third has gone to pay dividends, capital gains, interest, rent, etc. to the people who own capital. This two-thirds/one-third division was so stable that people began to believe it would last forever. But in the past ten years, something has changed. Labor’s share of income has steadily declined, falling by several percentage points since 2000. It now sits at around 60% or lower. The fall of labor income, and the rise of capital income, has contributed to America’s growing inequality.

In past times, technological change always augmented the abilities of human beings. A worker with a machine saw was much more productive than a worker with a hand saw. The fears of “Luddites,” who tried to prevent the spread of technology out of fear of losing their jobs, proved unfounded. But that was then, and this is now. Recent technological advances in the area of computers and automation have begun to do some higher cognitive tasks – think of robots building cars, stocking groceries, doing your taxes.

Once human cognition is replaced, what else have we got? For the ultimate extreme example, imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.

Now, humans will never be completely replaced, like horses were. Horses have no property rights or reproductive rights, nor the intelligence to enter into contracts. There will always be something for humans to do for money. But it is quite possible that workers’ share of what society produces will continue to go down and down, as our economy becomes more and more capital-intensive.

So, does the rise of the robots really explain the stagnation of wages?

This is the picture for American workers, representing wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP:

WASCURGDP

It is certainly true that wages have fallen as a percentage of economic activity (and that corporate profits as a percentage of economic activity have risen — a favourite topic of mine).

But there are two variables to wages as a percentage of GDP. Nominal wages have actually risen, and continued to rise on a moderately steep trajectory:

WASCUR_Max_630_378

And average wages continue to climb nominally, too. What has actually happened to the wages-to-GDP ratio, is not that America’s wage bill has really fallen, but that wages have just not risen as fast as other sectors of GDP (rents, interest payments, capital gains, dividends, etc). It is not as if wages are collapsing as robots and automation (as well as other factors like job migration to the Far East) ravage the American workforce.

It is more accurate to say that there has been an outgrowth in economic activity that is not yielding wages beginning around the turn of the millennium, and coinciding with the new post-Gramm-Leach-Bliley landscape of mass financialisation and the derivatives and shadow banking megabubbles, as well the multi-trillion dollar military-industrial complex spending spree that coincided with the advent of the War on Terror. Perhaps, if we want to look at why the overwhelming majority of the new economic activity is not trickling down into wages, we should look less at robots, and more at the financial and regulatory landscape where Wall Street megabanks pay million-dollar fines for billion-dollar crimes? Perhaps we should look at a monetary policy that dumps new money solely into the financial sector and which has been shown empirically to enrich the richest few far faster than everyone else?

But let’s focus specifically on jobs. The problem with the view that this is mostly a technology shock is summed up beautifully in this tweet I received from Saifedean Ammous:

The Luddite notion that technology might render humans obsolete is as old as the wheel. And again and again, humans have found new ways to employ themselves in spite of the new technology making old professions obsolete. Agriculture was once the overwhelming mainstay of US employment. It is no more:

farmjobs

This did not lead to a permanent depression and permanent and massive unemployment. True, it led to a difficult transition period, the Great Depression in the 1930s (similar in many ways, as Joe Stiglitz has pointed out, to the present day). But eventually (after a long and difficult depression) humans retrained and re-employed themselves in new avenues.

It is certainly possible that we are in a similar transition period today — manufacturing has largely been shipped overseas, and service jobs are being eliminated by improvements in efficiency and greater automation. Indeed, it may prove to be an even more difficult transition than that of the 1930s. Employment remains far below its pre-crisis peak:

EMRATIO_Max_630_378

But that doesn’t mean that human beings (and their labour) are being rendered obsolete — they just need to find new employment niches in the economic landscape. As an early example, millions of people have begun to make a living online — creating content, writing code, building platforms, endorsing and advertising products, etc. As the information universe continues to grow and develop, such employment and business opportunities will probably continue to flower — just as new work opportunities (thankfully) replaced mass agriculture. Humans still have a vast array of useful attributes that cannot be automated — creativity, lateral thinking & innovation, interpersonal communication, opinions, emotions, and so on. Noah Smith’s example of a robot that “can do everything you can do” won’t exist in the foreseeable future (let alone at a cost of $5) — and any society that could master the level of technology necessary to produce such a thing would probably not need to work (at least in the sense we use the word today) at all. Until then, luckily, finding new niches is something that humans have proven very, very good at.

Jobs For Boomers

Via Zero Hedge — as two Boomers battle it out for the White House, plenty of jobs for Boomers, crumbs for everyone else:

And here’s last month’s data:

I’m 25. This age-bracket has consistently shed jobs since 2009.

While the underlying reality beneath the statistics is undoubtedly complex and multi-dimensional, one factor has to be that younger workers are stuck in a kind of Catch-22. Many younger individuals are trapped with job little experience. To get experience, they need to get hired, and to get hired they need experience. In a depressionary environment, employers may be less willing to take chances with new employees, and so when hiring may more often choose experience over youthful enthusiasm and academic qualifications. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Boomers were retiring en mass. But with plenty of older individuals still in the work force — at least in part due to the very low-interest rate environment where returns on savings are meagre, and due to the depressed housing market that has left many underwater on their homes — the elderly are snapping up jobs and experience, and so consigning many younger individuals — even those with degrees — to flipping burgers, making coffee, the unemployment queue, or writing blogs.

Should the Rich Pay More Taxes?

It’s a multi-dimensional question.

The left says yes — income inequality has soared in recent years, and the way to address it (supposedly) is to tax the rich and capital gains at a higher rate. The right says no — that the rich already create more jobs and wealth, because they spend more money, and why (supposedly) should they pay more tax when they already pay far higher figures than lower-income workers?

Paul Krugman made the point yesterday that the tax rate on the top earners during the post-war boom was 91%, seeming to infer that a return to such rates would be good for the economy.

Yet if we want to raise more revenue, historically it doesn’t really seem to matter what the top tax rate is:

Federal revenues have hovered close to 20% of GDP whatever the tax rate on the richest few.

This seems to be because of what is known as the Laffer-Khaldun effect: the higher rates go, the more incentive for tax avoidance and tax evasion.

And while income inequality has risen in recent years, the top-earners share of tax revenue has risen in step:

So the richest 1% are already contributing around 40% of the tax revenue, taxed on their 34% share of the national income. And even if the Treasury collected every cent the top 1% earned, America would still be running huge deficits.

Yet the Occupy movement are still angry. A large majority of Americans believe the richest should pay more tax. More and more wealthy Americans — starting with Warren Buffett, and most recently Stephen King are demanding to pay more taxes.

King writes:

At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist view that firing teachers with experience was sort of a bad idea), I pointed out that I was paying taxes of roughly 28 percent on my income. My question was, “How come I’m not paying 50?”

How come? Well, the data shows pretty clearly that it’s unlikely that revenues would increase.

They may have a fair point that capital gains above a certain threshold should probably be taxed at the same rate as income, because it is effectively the same thing. And why should government policy encourage investment above labour by taxing one more leniently?

But more simply, people like King think the status quo  is unjust far beyond the taxation structure. A lot of people are unemployed:

A lot of people are earning less than they were five years ago:

28% of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. Millions of graduates face a mountain of student debt, while stuck in dole queues or in a dead end job like Starbucks.

We live in dark times.

From Reuters:

Nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012, according to a new poll.

With all this hurt, there’s a lot of anger in society. Those calling for taxing the richest more are not doing the same cost-benefit analysis I am doing that suggests that raising taxes won’t raise more revenue.

But they’re not unfairly looking for a scapegoat, either. While probably the greatest culprits for the problems of recent times are in government Americans are right to be mad at the rich.

Why?

This isn’t about tax. This is about jobs, and growth.

The rich, above and beyond any other group have the ability to ameliorate the economic malaise by spending and creating jobs, creating new products and new wealth. The top 1% control 42% of all financial wealth. But that money isn’t moving very much at all— the velocity of money is at historic lows. It should not be surprising that growth remains depressed and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

And every month that unemployment remains elevated is another month that the job creators are not doing their job. Every month that the malaise festers, the angrier the 99% gets.  It is, I think, in the best interests of the rich to try and create as many jobs and as much wealth as they can.  A divided and angry society, I think, will find it even more difficult to grow and produce.

America needs the richest Americans to pay more tax dollars — but as a side-effect of producing more, and creating growth.

If the private sector doesn’t spend its way out of the current depression, eventually the government will have to, of course. But it can do that with borrowed money, not taxed money.

The Disaster of Youth Unemployment

This is a demographic disaster.

From the Guardian:

Unemployment among Europe‘s young people has soared by 50% since the financial crisis of 2008. It is rising faster than overall jobless rates, and almost half of young people in work across the EU do not have permanent jobs, according to the European commission.

There are 5.5 million 15- to 24-year-olds without a job in the EU, a rate of 22.4%, up from 15% in early 2008. But the overall figures mask huge national and regional disparities. While half of young people in Spain and Greece are out of work, in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands it is only one in 10. In a further six EU countries, youth unemployment is around 30%. Of those in work, 44% are on temporary contracts.

The same phenomenon exists in the United States:

And why is this such a staggering  problem?

Firstly, the psychological impact: a whole lot of young people have never become integrated with the workforce. Many will become angry and disillusioned, and more likely to riot and rob than they are to seek productive employment. There is a significant amount of evidence for this:

Thornberry and Christensen (1984) find evidence that a cycle develops whereby involvement in crime reduces subsequent employment prospects which then raises the likelihood of participating in crime. Fougere (2006) find that increases in youth unemployment causes increases in burglaries, thefts and drug offences. Hansen and Machin (2002) find a statistically significant negative relationship between the number of offences reported by the police over a two year period for property and vehicle crime and the proportion of workers paid beneath the minimum before its introduction. Hence, there are more crime reductions in areas that initially, had more low-wage workers. Carmichael and Ward (2001) found in Great Britain that youth unemployment and adult unemployment are both significantly and positively related to burglary, theft, fraud and forgery and total crime rates.

Additionally unemployment is correlated with higher rates of suicide and mental illnesses like depression. And of course, the longer the unemployment, the rustier workers become, and the more skills they lose. Frighteningly, the numbers of long-term unemployed are rising:


Second, the economic impact: people sitting at home doing nothing don’t contribute productivity to society. In a society faced with falling or stagnant productivity, that is frustrating; there are lots of people sitting there who could be contributing to a real organic recovery, but they are not, because nobody is hiring, and (perhaps more importantly) barriers to entry and the welfare trap are crowding out the young, and preventing the unemployed from becoming self-employed. It also means higher welfare costs:


That leads to higher deficits, and greater government debt.

So it is not just a demographic disaster; it is also a fiscal one.

Chart of the Decade

This chart tells millions of stories. I’m trying to get my head around its implications.

That’s right: since 1984 (surely an appropriate year) while the elderly have grown their wealth in nominal terms, the young are much worse off both in inflation-adjusted terms, as well as nominal terms (pretty hard to believe given that the money supply has expanded eightfold in the intervening years). So why are the elderly doing over fifty times better than the young when they were only doing ten times better before?

Are young people a stupefied generation coddled by parents and government, addicted to welfare, junk food, drugs and reality TV?

To some extent, but are they any less fiscally and morally responsible than the marijuana-smoking, free-love-embracing, national-debt-accruing baby boom generation? That’s a matter of opinion, but my answer is probably not. Baby boomers hate Ron Paul, while the under-35s seem to love him.

Is it due to government policies that favour the elderly and screw the young?

America is suffering from excessive consumer debt:

Net worth is calculated by subtracting debt from assets. The biggest debt for most people is a mortgage. So having more mortgage debt or less mortgage debt tends to be a pretty good determinant of net worth. (And no — unlike in the United Kingdom and Australia which have a severe problem with housing affordability — housing in the USA is still cheap today priced in wages)

The elderly have very often already paid off their mortgages — no doubt helped by the 1980s and 1990s where both stock prices and house prices grew rapidly. And why did rise so rapidly?

Some say that it came on the back of excessive expansion of the money supply beyond the economy’s productive capacity. But that doesn’t seem quite true:

The money supply grew in tandem with industrial production. This was no bubble, but organic growth (albeit as I have shown before on the back of cheap Chinese goods and cheap Arab energy).

My hypothesis is that the present situation is a product of government expansion.

Here’s government expenditure as a proportion of GDP:

Government spending in democracies very often tends to constitute a transfer of wealth from non-voters to voters (as well as groups that can’t afford lobbyists to groups that can afford lobbyists — perhaps that is one reason why corporate profits are soaring while youth unemployment remains elevated, and why Wall Street banks get bailed out, but delinquent small businesses do not).

Here’s the voter turnout by age in the 2004-2008 Presidential elections:

Older people vote in droves. Politicians want their votes and therefore promise them more free stuff — medicare, medicaid, services — and they vote for whoever offers them the most.

The biggest issue though, is this:

Keynesians may say that this reflects a government’s failure to create jobs for young people. They claim that the problem is that there is not enough money circulating in the economy, and that government can “raise demand” by pumping out more cash. But there is plenty of money in the economy; so much money that Apple have built up a $90 billion cash pile. So much that China has built up a $3 trillion cash pile. So much that banks are holding $1.6 trillion in excess reserves below fractional lending requirements.

More likely is the reality that overregulation and barriers to entry are preventing the unemployed from picking up the slack in the jobs market. As John Stossel reveals in a recent documentary film,  in New York City it costs $1 million to get a licence to drive a taxi. Anyone who wishes to operate a food cart, or run a lemonade stand has to traverse reams of bureaucracy, acquire health and safety certificates, and often pay huge fees  to receive the “necessary” accreditation. While some barriers to entry are necessary (e.g. in medicine), in other fields it is just an unnecessary restraint on useful economic activity. In many American cities it is now illegal even to feed the homeless without government certification and approval. Citizens who defy these regulations face fines, arrest, and even imprisonment.

In a recent article, the Economist noted:

Two forces make American laws too complex. One is hubris. Many lawmakers seem to believe that they can lay down rules to govern every eventuality. Examples range from the merely annoying (eg, a proposed code for nurseries in Colorado that specifies how many crayons each box must contain) to the delusional (eg, the conceit of Dodd-Frank that you can anticipate and ban every nasty trick financiers will dream up in the future). Far from preventing abuses, complexity creates loopholes that the shrewd can abuse with impunity.

The other force that makes American laws complex is lobbying. The government’s drive to micromanage so many activities creates a huge incentive for interest groups to push for special favours. When a bill is hundreds of pages long, it is not hard for congressmen to slip in clauses that benefit their chums and campaign donors. The health-care bill included tons of favours for the pushy. Congress’s last, failed attempt to regulate greenhouse gases was even worse.

Complexity costs money. Sarbanes-Oxley, a law aimed at preventing Enron-style frauds, has made it so difficult to list shares on an American stockmarket that firms increasingly look elsewhere or stay private. America’s share of initial public offerings fell from 67% in 2002 (when Sarbox passed) to 16% last year, despite some benign tweaks to the law. A study for the Small Business Administration, a government body, found that regulations in general add $10,585 in costs per employee. It’s a wonder the jobless rate isn’t even higher than it is.

The truth may be that the inability of the unemployed to become self-employed is the force that is squeezing the jobless most. Certainly, job migration overseas has changed America, but why should it mean continued elevated unemployment? There is enough money to keep the economy flowing so long as there are opportunities for people to make themselves useful in a way that pays. With the crushing burden of overregulation and the problem of barriers to entry, these opportunities are often restricted to large corporations.

These issues of youth unemployment and growing inequality between the generations are critically important. Unemployed and poor swathes of youth have a habit of creating volatility in response to restricted economic opportunity.

A Philosophical Look at Unemployment

Regular reader Buddy Rojek brought this response he received from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to my attention:

Mr. Rojek –

It is correct to note that the official unemployment rate, currently at 8.3 percent, does not include persons who have stopped looking for work.  In order to be classified as unemployed, a person must have conducted active search in the last 4 weeks.

It is not correct, and indeed misleading,  to suggest that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is “hiding” anything about this.  The Bureau publishes information every month on the number of persons who have not looked for work because they are discouraged about their job prospects.  The official report on the labor market, the Employment Situation, includes a section in the text discussion every month documenting the number of such persons.  The Bureau also includes a table of “alternative indicators”, which show additional measures based on broader definitions of underemployment, including things such as part time work for economic reasons or persons who have stopped looking for work.

What I am looking for here is a definition of unemployment. There are many measures. Which (or which combination of measures) is the best? Which gives us the fullest picture of the economic situation? The answer is that to get the fullest and richest detail, we must look at as much data as possible. It is foolish to expect — as the BLS does — that the detail of unemployment can be fully conveyed in one particular figure, or data series.

The real question, I suppose, is what we want to get out of our unemployment statistics? Do we want to learn about the wider economy, or do we want to restrict our investigation to labour markets?

To an outsider, the notion that the unemployment rate does not include discouraged workers, who have given up looking for work, is rather jaw-dropping. And yes — it does smack of an attempt to brush problems under the rug.

But examining the data, it becomes clear that the difference between the official unemployment rate (U3 — below in blue) and one that adds in discouraged workers (U4 — below in green)  is very small. The big difference comes when we include part-time workers who cannot find a full-time job (the “underemployed”) (U6 — below in red):

While there has been a minor improvement in both U3 and U4 since the recession officially ended in 2009, U6 has remained stubbornly elevated at over 15% of the population. Does that suggest that the official figures are sweeping a problem under the rug? Yes — the official numbers are capturing nothing like the real extent of our economic malaise.

More interesting is the civilian-population employment ratio:


This is the broadest measure of all, measuring the number of people with jobs against the total civilian adult population. During the recession, that figure fell off a cliff, and there has been no recovery at all. Now — the fact that 41%of adults are workless — is not necessarily quite as shocking as it seems. Many of these are homemakers, or retired, or disabled; certainly it is true that in every society on Earth there are a residual group of people who will not belong in the working population. The salient information here, then, is that total employment has slumped by 5% of the population since its peak, and that even with all the quantitative easing and stimulus there are no signs of any recovery.

In the end, the choice of data set can be irrelevant. In this recession, a lot of the data has been so objectively bad that the data set makes no difference at all. This one chart running from U3 data — where there has been a minor improvement since the end of the recession — says more than any other I have found:

Missing the Point

There’s a strong correlation between the Philadelphia Federal Reserve’s measure of business confidence (OUTFGAF), and employment, or Non-Farm Payrolls as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls it. And the Philly Fed’s measure just went into freefall. What will that mean for employment? From Zero Hedge:

-700K NFP print coming?


And here is Wall Street’s economist brigade again proving they are worth every penny based on their predictive skills: we just had an 8 standard deviation miss to consensus.

Continue reading