Is the economy really twice as large as we thought?

Since the mid-20th century, economists, governments, businesses, and just about everyone else has used gross domestic product (GDP) to measure the size of the economy. But is it thebest metric for the job? Some economists are saying no.

GDP is a measure of the level of spending on finished goods in the economy. It is a measure of final production. If a pencil sells for 50 cents, it increases GDP by 50 cents. But a good deal more spending tends to occur in the process of making a pencil. At the very least, the manufacturer has to acquire resources to make the pencil — someone must harvest the wood, someone must harvest the rubber, someone must mine the graphite. Under GDP, that spending is not directly included. It is only counted implicitly when the finished pencil is produced and purchased by a consumer or business.

Some economists, such as Chapman University’s Mark Skousen, argue that the intermediate stages of production lower down the production chain should also be included in measurements of output. While they recognize that including them again explicitly can mean double counting or triple counting, they argue that there are “several reasons why double counting should not be ignored and is actually a necessary feature to understanding the overall economy.” After all, lots of businesses deal solely in intermediate goods. Intermediate producers buy partial products, add a “bell and a whistle,” and pass them on. At Forbes, Skousen argues that “no company can operate or expand on the basis of value added or profits only. They must raise the capital necessary to cover the gross expenses of the company — wages and salaries, rents, interest, capital tools and equipment, supplies, and goods-in-process.” To Skousen that means that a measurement of output should take all this spending into account.

Perhaps taking heed of some of these arguments, the Bureau of Economic Analysis starting on April 25 will release each quarter a measure called gross output that includes total sales from the production of raw materials through intermediate producers to final wholesale and retail trade. 



On Policy Uncertainty…

Paul Krugman says that the notion that the weak economy is due to policy uncertainty has been thoroughly debunked. The Stanford/Chicago uncertainty index has considerably fallen:


Without any considerable boost to job growth:


While policy uncertainty is concerned with policy in general, and not executive policy in particular, Krugman’s analysis is that “policy uncertainty” is a thinly-veiled attempt to blame Obama for the sluggishness of the recovery:

One of the remarkable things about the ongoing economic crisis is the endless search for explanations of something that’s actually quite simple — the sluggish pace of recovery. You have a large overhang of private debt; you have a still-depressed housing sector; and you have contractionary fiscal policy. Add to this the well-established fact that recovery tends to be slow after recessions caused not by tight money but by private-sector overreach, and there’s just no mystery that needs explaining.

Yet we’ve seen an endless series of analyses declaring that there is indeed a deep mystery, and it must be Obama’s Fault. Probably the most influential of these analyses was the claim that Obama was creating “uncertainty”, and this was holding everything back.

This crude notion of policy uncertainty is often attached to the notion of the Confidence Fairy; the idea that by running large deficits, government is crowding out private investment due to fears of future tax increases. The corollary of the Confidence Fairy view is that the only way to bring back private investment is to have large-scale austerity, to solidify expectations of lower future taxes. This view has been the basis for David Cameron’s economic policy in the UK, which can only be soberly judged as a large-scale failure.

Krugman is right to trash the Confidence Fairy — austerity at this point in the business cycle is a catastrophic error, because it sucks money out of the real economy. And he’s also right to trash those who view the sluggishness of the recovery as solely Obama’s fault. But he’s wrong, I think, to throw policy uncertainty out of the window entirely as a proximate cause of some of the problem’s we’re now facing.

Broadly, policy uncertainty goes both ways. That is simply because not all entrepreneurs in the private sector are looking for or worrying about tax cuts. People are heterogeneous. While there are some entrepreneurs worried about the future trajectory of taxes, many other entrepreneurs may be hoping for fiscal stimulus either because they would expect to receive orders from the government (for example, construction firms, defence contractors, universities, energy companies) or because they would be hoping that with stimulus, more people would have money in their pockets and they would be spending it.

While this, of course, cannot explain the crisis itself, nor the long and slow deleveraging since, having a deadlocked Congress erring on the side of austerity could be a major headache for many private enterprises. The fact that the more severe austerity experienced in Europe and Britain has actually led to bigger budget deficits there could result in even deeper and greater uncertainty for businesses. Put more simply, many businessmen could be reading Paul Krugman and others like him, agreeing with their interpretations, and worrying about the confused and deadlocked approach that the Federal government has taken to the post-2007 economy, and the dangers of austerity. This could contribute to the uptick in policy uncertainty measured by the Stanford/Chicago Index experienced since 2007 just as much as Wall Street Journal-reading Republicans worrying about the Confidence Fairy and taxes.

The Magazine Cover Top?

John Hussman makes an entirely unscientific but still very interesting point about market euphoria — as epitomised by a recent Barron’s professional survey leading a magazine cover triumphantly proclaiming “Dow 16000” — as a contrarian indicator:


I have no idea whether or not the Dow Jones Industrial Average will hit 16,000 anytime soon. A P/E ratio of 15.84 seems relatively modest even in the context of some weakish macro data (weak employment numbers, weak business confidence, high energy input costs) and that priced in real GDP they look considerably more expensive, but it’s healthy to keep in mind the fact that euphoria and uber-bullishness very often gives way to profit-taking, stagnating prices, margin calls, shorting, panic and steep price falls. That same scenario has taken place in both gold and Bitcoin in the past couple of weeks. Leverage has been soaring the past couple of months, implying a certain fragility, a weakness to profit-taking and margin calls.

Psychologically, there seems to be a bubble in the notion that the Fed can levitate the DJIA to any level it likes. I grew up watching people flip houses in the mid-00s housing bubble, and there was a consensus among bubble-deniers like Ben Stein that if the housing market slumped, central banks would be able to levitate the market. Anyone who has seen the deep bottom in US housing best-exemplified by a proliferation of $500 foreclosed houses knows that even with massive new Fed liquidity, the housing market hasn’t been prevented from bottoming out. True, Bernanke has been explicit about using stock markets as a transmission mechanism for the wealth effect. But huge-scale Federal support could not stop the housing bubble bursting. In fact, a Minskian or Austrian analysis suggests that by making the reinflation of stock indexes a policy tool and implying that it will not let indexes fall, the Fed itself has intrinsically created a bubble in confidence. Euphoria is always unsustainable, and the rebirth of the Dow 36,000 meme is a pretty deranged kind of market euphoria.

Nonetheless, without some kind of wide and deep shock to inject some volatility — like war in the middle east or the Korean peninsula, or a heavy energy shock, a natural disaster, a large-scale Chinese crash, a subprime-scale financial blowup, or a Eurozone bank run  — there is a real possibility that markets will continue to levitate. 16,000, 18,000 and 20,000 are not out of the question. The gamble may pay off for those smart or lucky enough to sell at the very top. But the dimensions of uncertainty make it is a very, very risky gamble.

It’s a Bubble?

From the Wall Street Journal:

Investors agreed to pay the German government for the privilege of lending it money.

In an auction Monday, Germany sold €3.9 billion ($4.96 billion) of six-month bills that had an average yield of negative 0.0122%, the first time on record that yields at a German debt auction moved into negative territory.

This means that unlike most other short-term sovereign debt, in which investors expect to be repaid more than they lend, investors agreed to be paid slightly less. And they are willing to do that because they are so worried about the potential for big losses elsewhere.

The so-called safety of government paper is being eroded by the reality of negative real rates.

The same conundrum applies to America.

In theory, this is designed to try and force fearful investors into more productive assets.

But in reality the irresistible force of the printing press slams up against the immovable object of depressed demand. They have shoved and shoved and shoved this huge boulder, but the market hasn’t budged…


Another Sign of Coming Blowup?

Last week I asked:

Look at the following graph from the St. Louis Fed. It is the amount of deposits at the US Fed from foreign official and international accounts, at rates that are next to nothing. It is higher now than in 2008. What do they know that you don’t?

Here’s another sign that powerful insiders are increasingly running scared.

From Zero Hedge:

Back in the summer of 2007 two important things happened: the market hit an all time high, and the smart money realized what was about to happen (following the subprime and the Bear hedge fund blow up, it was pretty clear to all but Jim Cramer) and bailed out of stocks and into bonds, with Treasury holdings of Primary Dealers soaring at the fastest pace in history.

Finally, disgraced ex-President of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn has weighed in, to confirm what everyone already knew.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The former International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director, Dominique Strauss Kahn, Sunday said Greece is unable to pay its debt and its creditors will have to take losses on the debt they hold.

“Greece got poorer, we can say Greeks will pay on their own, but they can’t,” Strauss Kahn said in an interview on French TV channel TF1. “There is a loss and it must be taken by governments and banks,” he said.

Yes — and so the real question, which nobody in a position of global or national authority has addressed — is just how will the global financial system be made to cope with the another Lehman-style cascade of defaults?

Why Cash Is Not King

This is a strange and beautiful crisis. For the last century, at times of change and instability, nervous investors have traditionally piled their money in two directions, into Treasury Bonds, and into cash. This time, the fortifications underlying the entire financial system are straining beneath the weight of change, the weight of systemic debt, and the rise of China, Brazil, India and Russia. From The Economist’s resident cartoonist, KAL:

And the most common response to these wild and whirling winds of change is money flowing into the asset class that has just been downgraded, the US Treasury, slashing yields by half a percent. Why? Because it is the most widely traded and the most liquid asset in the world. Put money in Treasuries — goes the common logic — and you will get your money back. The United States Treasury cannot, will not default. Why? The answer has been spoken explicitly in the past few days, most prominently by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan:

The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So there is zero probability of default

Sadly, Chairman Greenspan is sorrily wrong. There are others kinds of defaults, and currently one is ongoing as a policy choice. With rates low, it is only necessary to have a small rate of inflation for real rates to be negative.

So are real interest rates really negative? It depends how we measure inflation. A huge aspect of my economic case is that — really — there is no such thing as a uniform inflation (or uniform inflation expectations), because there are different rates for different people, different communities and different strata of society. For welfare-recipients on a fixed income, food and fuel make up a much higher proportion of their income, leading to a much higher inflationary rate. For large corporations importing vast quantities of goods from China, inflation is undoubtedly lower. But no matter who you are, the rate of inflation is high enough to yield a negative real rate on cash.  On Treasuries, this is not necessarily true. But real rates on Treasuries are undoubtedly close to zero, if they are not negative.

Of course as I noted above that is the point of the zero interest rate policy: it is designed to spur holders of cash and Treasuries out of merely holding onto wealth, and instead into more productive ventures. The ostensible goal of the Federal Reserve’s policy, at this stage is to gradually increase productivity, output and unemployment and kick the can down the road for long enough to be able to get the burden under control. This is why Bernanke has called for further fiscal stimulus, as well as continuing monetary stimulus. In this environment, cash and Treasuries cannot be king, because cash and Treasuries are being deliberately throttled (even as the market deludes itself by pushing them to ever-greater heights).

What is king? Returns above the rate of inflation, at least. Right now that includes gold, silver, stocks from various countries and continents, and corporate bonds — so long as they are not in default. But in the long run, the winner will be quality productive assets built around solid companies, solid entrepreneurs, solid products and solid ideas. Value investors have known this for an eternity. But in tempestuous markets, getting in at the right price and at the time is difficult. That is why so many investors are waiting on the sidelines in cash and treasuries.