Posts Tagged ‘recession’

Quite Different

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Consider two propositions:

  • The first is that markets are smart, to the extent that they cannot be tricked into anything unless one carefully hides most or all of the contrary evidence.
  • The second is that, left unregulated, markets produce some best possible outcomes.
These aren't at all the same proposition. On the one hand, something can be hard to deceive, yet work at purposes contrary to those that one favors. On the other hand, a mechanism can be vulnerable to some sorts of disruption but, in the absence of that disruption, perform some task well. I'm not saying that the propositions are contrary; they could be simultaneously true; none-the-less, they're plainly not identical.

The run-up to the latest economic crisis seems to have been founded in no small part by a confusion of these two distinct propositions. The Bush Administration represented itself — and may well have considered itself — free market, in-so-far as it expected considerable resilience on the part of the market in the face of remarkable levels of state borrowing and considerable other interventions (compassionately conservative or kleptocratic). And Alan Greenspan, who surely considered himself a believer in laissez faire, is these days explaining his optimistic proclamations from before the crisis as stemming from a failure to reälize that investors would not recognize that a boom could not last forever, to which lack of recognition he also attributes the crisis, as if irrational exuberance were simply a Keynesian animal spirit, rather than a product of things such as lending regulations and Federal Reserve interest rate policy.

Meanwhile, many of the Keynesians, socialists, and pragmatic technocrats (long-standing or born-again) are arguing that the fact that the market could be fooled shows that markets aren't clever and that thus various sorts of interventions are needed, as if any defense of free markets must hang upon a belief that markets are simply too clever to be fooled. Left unaddressed is whether the confusion were endogenous or brought on by state intervention, whether those prior interventions that may have been the cause of the confusion produce actual benefits worth the costs of that confusion, and whether more intervention would produce a more clever system or a less clever system.

In fact, there are various long-established free-market schools of thought that attribute economic crises to a propensity of state intervention to fool economic participants. For example, it is difficult to distinguish to what extent interest rates reflect the supply and demand of private savings for future consumption, and to what extent they are an artefact of central bank intervention for other purposes. In the face of Federal Reserve manipulation of interest rates, the market will not be sufficiently smart to see what the price of loanable funds should be, and therefore will almost certainly build too much or too little for the future.

And We All Feel the Claws

Saturday, 28 February 2009

As most or all of you have read or heard by now, the economic news for the the last quarter of 2008 was quite bad

US economy suffers sharp nosedive from the BBC
The US economy shrank by 6.2% in the last three months of 2008, official figures have shown, a far sharper fall than had previously been reported.

Plunging exports and the biggest fall in consumer spending in 28 years dragged the annualised figure down from an earlier estimate of 3.8%.
and the news from the stock market has grown worse
Brutal February for Blue Chips by Peter A. McKay at the Wall Street Journal
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 119.15 points, or 1.7%, to end at 7062.93. The blue-chip benchmark ended down 937.93 points, or 11.72% on the month — the worst percentage drop for February since 1933, when it fell 15.62%. The Dow industrials have fallen six months in a row and are now more than 50% off their record highs hit in October of 2007.

Now the New York Times frets

Sharper Downturn Clouds Obama Spending Plans by Peter S. Goodman
The economy is spiraling down at an accelerating pace, threatening to undermine the Obama administration’s spending plans, which anticipate vigorous rates of growth in years to come.
Of course, if they believed the naïve Keynesian rhetoric that has come back into political fashion, then the claim would be that Obama's aggressive spending plans were insufficiently ambitious.

I'm wondering whether it's merely the so-far unpassed budget that is under threat. As I noted earlier, the stimulus bill is an enormous blow to the economy, and was passed only as a result of some combination of willful blindness, knavish exploitation of a crisis in which politicians did not actually believe, and desire to worsen things on the expectation that even greater expansion of state power could be achieved. In the case of all three of these motivations, one could expect some politicians to now regret what they have done in passing the bill; what seemed like a bearable amount of plunder may now seem like a grave miscalculation. I don't think that it's politically possible that the legislature would overtly repeal the stimulus bill, let alone that the Obama Administration would openly reverse itself. But subsequent legislation might implicitly pare some of the programmes, and a formula might even be found for the Administration to suspend some programmes without legislative action.

Of course, the Administration and the Democrats in Congress know that, if they repealed a significant share of the stimulus bill even obliquely, then their opponents would pounce on how this repeal demonstrated that it were not a stimulus bill. So those who supported the bill may have a tiger by the tail.

Another Liar-in-Chief

Monday, 9 February 2009

Calvin Woodward, at the AP, calls this an overstatement:

Most economists, almost unanimously, recognize that even if philosophically you're wary of government intervening in the economy, when you have the kind of problem you have right now … government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy.
but it goes well beyond mere overstatement. It's an gross lie.

It's bad enough when people use consensus to argue for a proposition that ought instead to be tested by logic applied to brute fact. But this business of using counterfeit consensus is just actively vile.

Tossing the Economy into the Trough

Monday, 9 February 2009

Any time that the state spends money, there is some cost to the economy.

The state can tax, in which case the cost is obvious. But I put obvious in quotation marks here, because people don't seem to think past the fact that money is taken, without much thinking that the value of money per se is its purchasing power.

The state can print money, issuing new currency to fund its expenditures. The cost here comes because

M · ν = pT · q
where M is the total supply of money in an economy system, ν is the average frequency with which a unit of currency changes hands in the system, q is vector of the quantities of goods and services purchased in the system, and p is the corresponding vector of prices. If M is increased, and there isn't some off-setting increase in the elements of q, or a drop in ν, then elements of p must increase. If prices go up, then the purchasing power of the unit of currency goes down. Ceteris paribus, when the state issues new currency, the value of the holdings of currency that people already had is decreased. (There are some other, potentially far more costly effects than the direct loss of purchasing power, but I don't want this entry to mushroom into some huge treatise.)

In many modern states, printing money is made to look like borrowing, whereïn the ostensible borrowing is from a central bank, a special creature of the state, which prints money and uses this to make the loan to the state.

But the state may also more genuinely borrow money (especially when officials of the central bank think this better than printing more) in the financial markets. In this case, borrowing by the state shifts out the demand curve for loanable funds. Unless the supply curve for loanable funds were perfectly elastic, so that any amount of funds would be made available by lenders at the prevailing price — the rate of interest — that price will go up.

When people lose purchasing power to taxation or to an over-all increase in prices, they reduce purchases of goods and of services, and they save less, so that funds for investment are decreased, and hence investment is decreased. When the price of borrowing is increased, people borrow less for consumer purchases and less for investment. So whenever the state spends, no matter whether it taxes, inflates, or borrows, that spending takes a piece of the economy. Whether there is a net cost turns upon whether the activity funded by state spending is somehow more productive than the private activity that it has crowded-out.

As I have explained, state allocation of resources can be more productive only if private provision is hampered by transactions costs, and the effects of those transactions costs are greater than the combined effects of state transactions costs (red tape and all that) and the loss of economic coördination which results from substituting guess-work for market prices.

Okay, so this gets me to these stimulus bills in the United States legislature. Various numbers are associated with various versions, but the bill that left the House of Representatives was for about 800 billion dollars. And various commentators, both conservatives at institutions such as the Wall Street Journal and social democrats (liberals) at institutions such as NPR, have noted that only about one-eighth of the projects in that bill could be reasonably claimed to be stimulus, with the rest just being pork-barrel projects. Regardless of whether we buy-into the Keynesian hopes for about $100,000,000,000, the loss to the economy associated with about $700,000,000,000 in pork will be vastly greater.

It was claimed that a stimulus bill was necessary because the economy is tanking. The word depression is being bandied-about. And, yet, a majority in Congress and the President are pushing what will plainly be a massive hit on the economy.

To explain the behavior of these parties, we could offer various hypotheses. Many politicians are simply great fools; some politicians might believe that we are indeed on the cusp of an economic disaster, but be so greedy for the political gains associated with these projects that they just won't allow themselves to think. Other politicians might not believe the talk of economic crisis, but be knaves who participate in it, creäting a smokescreen behind which to seek much the same gains as are the fools. Finally, some of these politicians might both genuinely believe that the economic crisis is quite dire, and recognize that a stimulus like those proposed will be greatly damaging, but expect that the effects of the bill can be blamed on other things, especially upon what remains of the market economy, so that those effects become an excuse for even greater expansion of state power.

With regard to one particular politician, the President, I don't at all think that he's so great a fool as to misunderstand what a stimulus bill that is about 7/8 pork would do. He knows that he's pushing a hit on the economy. I don't know whether he is amongst the knaves who don't really believe that the economic situation is all that dire, or amongst those who want to engineer a greater crisis in order to have a greater excuse to technocratically restructure the economy. But when the President speaks of recovery as taking years rather than months, I worry that he is not merely lowering expectations to reduce future criticism, but revealing more ambitious plans.

Tweaking the Truth

Friday, 9 January 2009

Here's an example of a wretched journalistic practice:

US job losses hit record in 2008 from the BBC
More US workers lost jobs last year than in any year since World War II, with employers axing 2.6 million posts and 524,000 in December alone.

The US jobless rate rose to 7.2% in December, the highest in 16 years.
One should not begin with a news story with a lie, and then correct it. The head-line here doesn't refer to a post-war record. A head-line is often the only part of the story read, and almost always the first part of the story read. So people with no sense of history — because their educators in the school system and in the main-stream media don't impart one to them — are filled with anxiety and rage. The emotional effect lingers even after the correction is given, and some never get the correction.

The economic news has been bad, but it simply doesn't compare to that of the Great Depression — which itself shouldn't be seen as necessarily our worse down-turn. (Those who uncritically presume that it was should look into the Depression of 1837.)

One should, BTW, be careful to distinguish amongst different statistics:

  • the number of jobs lost,
  • the unemployment rate,
  • the employment rate,
  • changes in these rates.
Note that the article acknowledges that the unemployment rate is not at a post-war high; it has, rather, climbed faster than at any time previous in the post-war period. The unemployment rate itself was worse at the end of the kinder, gentler Administration of GHW Bush.

Second, when there is job creätion as well as job loss, people may lose jobs but spend relatively little time unemployed. (Being dismissed from a job is still a stressful experience for most people, but not necessarily equivalent to being materially impoverished.)

Finally, the unemployment rate is not simply the complement of the employment rate. The unemployment rate, which tries to measure the number people who are seeking employment and unable to find it, is a fairly junky statistic. On the one hand, it doesn't count people who would choose to work if the were offered a job, but who have just given-up hope of finding one; and it doesn't count people who are under-employed, wanting full-time jobs but only able to secure part-time employment. On the other hand, it does count people who aren't sincerely seeking employment, but are going through the motions of seeking a job so that they can continue to collect benefits from programmes that require them to seek employment. The employment rate is simply the percentage of people of working age who have jobs. It has problems — including that it counts under-employed people — but it's less junky that the unemployment rate.

Equations and Differentiations

Monday, 3 November 2008

A couple of things to note about this story:

Eurozone is on verge of recession from BBC
The eurozone is on the brink of recession with economic growth falling 0.2% in the second quarter, the European Commission has announced.

First, we yet again have the BBC confusing a rate of change with the thing changing, The last time that I took note of such confusion from them, they were confusing the growth rate of GDPYt) with the change in that growth rate (Δ2Yt2). This time, they've turned around to confuse the growth rate of GDPYt) with GDP (Y) itself. (If they maintain the earlier confusion, then by transitivity they confuse Y with Δ2Yt2.)

The Eurozone economy isn't growing 0.2% more slowly than before; its production is shrinking at a rate of 0.2%. (GDP is not itself a growth rate of under-lying wealth, because the vast majority of what is produced is consumed, rather than saved.)

A second thing to note is that the BBC is referring to the Eurozone as on the verge of a recession, while America may already be in recession. The brute fact is essentially the same across these two economies — one quarter in which production declined — but the Eurozone is made to seem on the cusp while America is presented as perhaps already well-in.

Economic Oscillations

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

As I previously noted, in an interview published on 6 April, Greenspan said that there were not many signs that the economy were actually in recession, but declared on 8 April that we were in the throes of a recession.

Well, to-day,

Asked if the U.S. economy was in recession, Greenspan said: We are on the brink.
I doubt that I am alone in wishing that Alan would make up his mind.

(I just hope that I don't find Paul Volcker playing with Neopets at David's Coffee Place to-day; that gives me the willies.)

Miscellaneous Economic Observations

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Last night at about 20:00 PDT, on my way to David's Coffee Place, I glanced into the Brass Rail, a San Diego night club. On a Friday night, there were no customers. That had changed by the time that I headed homeward, but it still wasn't particularly busy. Nor was it yester-day. David's Coffee Place has also been slow the last few days. Carlos, one of i baristi, suggested that this is largely an artefact of the increased price of gasoline. I think that he's correct. I also think, as I told him, that current petroleum prices are a bubble; but I don't know when the bubble will collapse, nor what will trigger the collapse.

Locally, there are various store-front locations in Hillcrest that have been vacant for months. It's an inescapable that there is some price at which someone would be willing to rent any given one of these sites; but landlords are evidently unwilling to drop rents to such levels. This refusal might seem simply unreasonable, and perhaps in some cases it truly is, but all landlords (reasonable or unreasonable, renting or refusing) are unavoidably gambling. Any who enter into an arrangement at the market-clearing price of to-day is gambling that those prices won't rise to-morrow enough to off-set revenue forgone by waiting. At the same time, those who are refusing to lower their prices are hanging tough on a theory that prices will rise in such manner, or that they'll connect with someone who'll pay their price in spite of generally prevailing prices.

I don't know what the national economy is doing right now.

Apparently, growth figures for the first quarter were revised upward; I read mention of a 0.9% annualized rate (rather than 0.6%) yester-day. This is still low — one normally expects growth of about 3%. Some respected economists are predicting that the annualized rate of growth in the second quarter will be about 0.4%, followed by 2.2% in the third quarter. Since that would suggest that we would avoid a recession altogether, I can safely predict that present efforts by pundits to redefine recession will intensify.

There has been some yammering about consumer confidence, which has dropped to levels not seen since the economic down-turn during the Presidential administration of GHW Bush. The consumer confidence measure seems to be a garbage statistic to many economists, including me. Further, it hit that previous minimum at the end of a down-turn, rather than leading a worsening of conditions. (And the down-turn in question didn't even qualify as a recession proper, as it did not last for two quarters.) If the statistic means much of anything, it doesn't mean what journalists seem to think that it means, nor what they want their readers to think that it means.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that the worst of the credit-crunch has passed. That means, however, that the Federal Reserve System will counter-act the pressure on prices creäted by the measures that it took to loosen credit; those counteractives are, unsurprisingly, things that will re-tighten credit — the hope being that a credit crunch doesn't resume. I don't think that they'll get to have their cake and eat it too; prices will rise, or the economy will go into recession, or both.


Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Last Friday or Saturday, my mother asked me qua economist whether we were in a recession.

I carefully explained to her that the standard formal definition of recession is two or more consecutive quarters of over-all economic contraction. So, as I explained, if I said that we were in a recession then I would be saying that it had contracted in the first quarter of 2008 and would contract in the second quarter, or that it would contract both in the second quarter and in the third quarter.

After that careful prefacing, I told her that I thought that we were in a recession, but that this had to be seen as a guess.

Well, the data have since been reported for the first quarter of 2007, and apparently the economy did not contract, though its annualized growth rate was a sad .6%. My guess is in danger of being falsified, if the growth rate manages to stay at-or-above zero in the present quarter, or if things pull back above zero in the next quarter. Unsurprisingly, I'd be pleased if the data proved me wrong.

In that first quarter, there were those who were mocked for refusing to concede that the economy was in recession. The data demonstrate that it was wrong to mock them. Not that any apologies will be made by those who did the mocking, or even that they will be held to task by other commentators in their circles.

Mind you that a small decline wouldn't have legitimized the mocking. What is wrong, first and foremost, is too much certitude. And then that wrong is compounded by attacking those who are duly cautious.

Uh, what?

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Alan Greenspan in an interview published on Sunday:

We would have to see signs of this intensification; there are some, but not many yet. Therefore … I would not describe the situation we are in as a recession, although the chances that we'll have one are more than 50 percent.
Alan Greenspan on Tuesday:
Consumers are beginning to shrink in, the automobile markets are beginning to contract, production is beginning to ease, and we are in the throes of recession.
Important new data came-in on Monday? El Pais sat on the interview for some significant period?