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.

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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.

The “Unemployment Is Voluntary” Myth

Loyd S. Pettegrew and Carol A. Vance of the Ludwig von Mises Institute ask and answer a question:

Why does a large portion of the population choose not to work when there are many jobs available? The answer is simple. If you can receive 2-3 times as much money from unemployment, disability, and/or welfare benefits (subsidized housing, food stamps, free cellphones, etc.) as you can from a temporary or part-time job, and live a life of leisure, why work? In 2011, the U.S. government spent over $800 billion on this “welfare,” exceeding expenditures on Social Security or Medicare.

So, is it true? Is the reason why unemployment is elevated that millions of Americans are choosing not to work because of cushy government welfare provisions?

After all, welfare payments as a percentage of GDP and unemployment have risen in tandem:

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However, in this case it is clear that correlation is not causation. Why?

Well, if labour was truly slacking off then we would expect to see a shortage of labour. But instead we see an elevated level of applicants per job openings:

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This means that there are not enough job openings in the economy even for the number of current jobseekers, let alone the discouraged workers and disabled individuals who are claiming welfare. If the Federal government were to throw them all off welfare, the number of jobseekers per opening — already elevated — would soar. This means that the issue causing unemployment is not individuals dropping out of the labour force, but an economy that isn’t creating jobs very rapidly. So welfare is not acting as a disincentive to work, in this case. It is acting as supplementary income for those who cannot otherwise find an opening in the economy due to factors like job migration and automation reducing the level of labour desired by employers.

Under other conditions, it is possible that welfare payments could act as a disincentive to work. If there were a low number of applicants per opening, then welfare that paid better than the lowest-paid jobs available could be seen as a disincentive to work. But now, with job openings at a very low level? Don’t be ridiculous.

Ben Bernanke Is Right About Interconnective Innovation

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I’d just like to double down on Ben Bernanke’s comments on why he is optimistic about the future of human economic progress in the long run:

Pessimists may be paying too little attention to the strength of the underlying economic and social forces that generate innovation in the modern world. Invention was once the province of the isolated scientist or tinkerer. The transmission of new ideas and the adaptation of the best new insights to commercial uses were slow and erratic. But all of that is changing radically. We live on a planet that is becoming richer and more populous, and in which not only the most advanced economies but also large emerging market nations like China and India increasingly see their economic futures as tied to technological innovation. In that context, the number of trained scientists and engineers is increasing rapidly, as are the resources for research being provided by universities, governments, and the private sector. Moreover, because of the Internet and other advances in communications, collaboration and the exchange of ideas take place at high speed and with little regard for geographic distance. For example, research papers are now disseminated and critiqued almost instantaneously rather than after publication in a journal several years after they are written. And, importantly, as trade and globalization increase the size of the potential market for new products, the possible economic rewards for being first with an innovative product or process are growing rapidly. In short, both humanity’s capacity to innovate and the incentives to innovate are greater today than at any other time in history.

My reasons for optimism for the long run are predominantly technological rather than social. I tend to see the potential for a huge organic growth in the long run resulting from falling energy and manufacturing costs from superabundant alternative energy sources like solar, synthetic petroleum, wind, and nuclear, as well as decentralised manufacturing through 3-D printing and ultimately molecular manufacturing.

But Bernanke’s reasons are pretty good too. I see it every day. Using Twitter, the blogosphere and various other online interfaces, I discuss and refine my views in the company a huge selection of people of various backgrounds. And we all have access to masses of data to backup or challenge our ideas. Intellectual discussions and disputes that might have taken years now take days or weeks — look at the collapse of Reinhart & Rogoff. Ideas, hypotheses, inventions and concepts can spread freely. One innovation shared can feed into ten or twenty new innovations. The internet has built a decentralised open-source platform for collaborative innovation and intellectual development like nothing the world has ever seen.

Of course, as the 2008 financial collapse as well as the more general Too Big To Fail problem shows greater interconnectivity isn’t always good news. Sometimes, greater interconnectivity allows for the transmission of the negative as well as the positive; in the case of 2008 the interconnective global financial system transmitted illiquidity in a default cascade.

But in this case, sharing ideas and information seems entirely beneficial both to the systemic state of human knowledge and innovation, and to individuals like myself who wish to hook into the human network.

So this is another great reason to be optimistic about the long run.