Tag Archives: real economy

Feldstein on the Economy

What does it mean that Martin Feldstein (hat tip Mark Thoma) is now one of my favorite economists, when it comes to commenting on the current economic crisis? Feldstein’s analysis:

  • Evidence of recovery so far is thin.
  • The stimulus package will kick in and provide a short period of growth.
  • But as the stimulus wears off, growth will fade away again.
  • The Obama Administration’s policies are pointed in roughly the right direction but not big enough to turn the tide.

Here’s his conclusion:

The positive effect of the stimulus package is simply not large enough to offset the negative impact of dramatically lower household wealth, declines in residential construction, a dysfunctional banking system that does not increase credit creation, and the downward spiral of house prices. The Obama administration has developed policies to counter these negative effects, but, in my judgment, they are not adequate to turn the economy around and produce a sustained recovery.

Having said that, these policies are still works in progress. If they are strengthened in the months ahead – to increase demand, fix the banking system, and stop the fall in house prices – we can hope to see a sustained recovery start in 2010. If not, we will just have to keep waiting and hoping.

By James Kwak

Guest Post: A Closer Look at Industrial Policy

This guest post is by occasional contributor Ilya Podolyako, a third-year student at the Yale Law School and an executive editor of the Yale Journal on Regulation.

In my last post, I compared Obama’s plan for the automakers to that of the Chinese government. I concluded that the two shared goals, but that these goals fit poorly into the traditional American ethos of free enterprise. For better or worse, the administration will have to remedy this mismatch sometime soon, either by letting the automakers fail or by openly stating that jobs, national pride, and a green fleet justify a government-backed industry.

Some of the comments to that piece strongly favored the latter course of action. Accordingly, I think it is worthwhile to take a normative look at directed industrial policy generally. In the abstract sense, this system is the opposite of laissez-faire capitalism – the government owns enterprises and dictates both the nature and quantity of their output. This description naturally evokes images of the USSR, Cuba, or the People’s Republic of China (before 1992), all countries with “command” economies. The distinctive characteristic of these nations, however, was not the presence of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) per se, but the absence of a legal, noticeable private sector.

Countries like Sweden, South Korea (before 1988), and, indeed, the modern China have demonstrated that directed industrial policy is not an all-or-nothing game.

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Tracking the Household Balance Sheet

One concept that has gotten a lot of attention the last few months is the household balance sheet: the relationship between household assets and liabilities, and what that means for household behavior (consumption versus saving). Though not the precipitating factor in the current crisis, the weakening of household balance sheets (fewer assets, same liabilities, less net worth, more anxiety) has likely had a significant effect in depressing consumption, which has been the single largest factor in our recent decline in GDP. The Federal Reserve recently released a snapshot of the household balance sheet in its triennial Survey of Consumer Finances, so we can see what the situation looks like in some detail. The survey was actually taking in 2007, but with a few adjustments we can see what the current balance sheet looks like.

On the headline level, median income fell from $47,500 to $47,300 (all figures are in constant 2007 dollars), while median net worth (assets minus liabilities) grew from $102,200 to $120,300. No surprise there: we already knew wages stagnated, while real estate and stocks appreciated. However, since the survey was conducted in 2007, median net worth fell by 17.8% according to the Fed estimate, to $99,300, and that’s just to October 2008. Given that the cumulative returns of the stock market have been about -15% since October 31, and that housing prices have fallen as well (and the Fed used a housing index that has fallen less than the Case-Shiller index*), that net worth is probably between $90,000 and $95,000 – significantly less than in 2004, and back around 1998 levels ($91,300).

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Random Observations on the GDP Announcement

By now I imagine you know that GDP contracted at an annual rate of 3.8% in Q4, beating economists’ “consensus” prediction of a 5.4% decrease. (Why do people insist on calling an average of forecasts a “consensus?”) A few thoughts:

  • You can waste a lot of time looking over GDP statistics. Go to the news release page and download the Excel tables in the right-hand sidebar.
  • The “consensus” is that the reason for the positive surprise was an unexpected increase in inventories. (Goods added to inventory count as production, even if they aren’t bought off the shelves.) But . . .
  • With any set of numbers that add up to their totals, you can’t really find true causality. All you can do is point out numbers you think are particularly interesting. Another way to look at it is that the numbers were helped out a lot by short-term deflation, particularly due to falling gasoline prices. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) , the biggest component of GDP by far, fell at an 8.9% annual rate in nominal terms. But the price deflator for PCE fell by so much – an annual rate of 5.5% – that in real terms PCE only fell at a 3.5% annual rate. That fall in prices was almost entirely due to the fall energy prices, which is highly unlikely to be repeated. But do people consciously reduce their spending in nominal or real terms? Nominal, I would think. So, as I “predicted” in December (I always have so many caveats that it’s not really fair to say that I ever predict anything), Q4 was better than expected, but Q1 is likely to be worse than predicted (before today, that is, since everyone is revising their Q1 forecasts down right now), since people will keep ratcheting down spending in nominal terms, but we won’t be bailed out by such a steep fall in prices.
  • The savings rate climbed from 1.2% to 2.9% – but it still has a long way to go (it was over 10% in the 1980s).
  • Real expenditures on food were down 4% (that’s not an annual rate, that means people spent 4% less on food in Q4 than in Q3). Ouch. I hope that was mainly a shift from restaurants to eating at home.

Back to more useful things.

Silver Linings?

We got one of our last batches of economic data for this calendar year today, and there may have been a glimmer of good news in there. In the news stories about the November data, I read that personal income went down, but real personal consumption went up, and the savings rate went up, which I found confusing, so I looked directly at the Bureau of Economic Analysis news release.

To summarize (all numbers are November’s change from October), personal income went down by 0.2%, and disposable personal income (after taxes) went down 0.1%, but in real terms (after adjusting for inflation, or deflation in this case), disposable personal income went up by 1.0%, which is huge (remember, that’s month over month). This was entirely due to falls in food and energy prices (mainly gasoline), since the core price deflator (excluding food and energy) was flat. Of that 1.0% increase in real disposable personal income, 0.6% turned into increased consumption, and 0.4% turned into increased saving, raising the savings rate from 2.4% to 2.8%.

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An Economic Strategy for Obama

Barack Obama has been getting a mountain of unsolicated economic advice; here’s one selection. In case he needs more to read, we posted our long-term recommendations on the WSJ Real Time Economics blog today. In short, we see a long-term challenge – and opportunity – to shift resources from the financial sector and into what is colloquially called the “real economy.” This will require, among other things, investment in education, openness to immigration, consolidated financial regulation, and assistance for workers affected by restructuring.

Should the Government Bail Out the Auto Industry?

Over in the real economy, perhaps the biggest story is the impending and highly likely merger of GM and Chrysler, in which GM would swap its 49% stake in GMAC, its consumer finance company, to Cerberus (which owns the other 51%), in exchange for Chrysler, which is currently owned by Cerberus. It seems that the deal may hinge on financial assistance from the government, at least according to six governors attempting to pressure the dynamic duo of Paulson and Bernanke to help out. Until Thursday, GM was seeking $10 billion from the Treasury Department’s $700 billion bailout fund – yes, the same one that has been used to recapitalize banks – but Paulson’s preference is that GM tap a $25 billion low-interest loan program set up by the Energy Department in September.

It’s easy to argue for bailing out the auto industry, with its hundreds of thousands of factory workers, as opposed to the financial sector and its Wall Street bonus babies. (It’s less easy to argue for bailing out Cerberus, which is a private equity firm.) But I want to point out one difference.

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The Bank Lending Debate

For those who spend too much time reading economics blogs, there was a bit of a stir in the last few days over a paper by three economists at the Minneapolis Fed, which essentially said that bank lending to the real economy had not been affected by the supposed credit crisis. There were articles on the topic by Alex Tabarrok, Free Exchange, Mark Thoma, me, Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok again, Free Exchange again, and Tyler Cowen again, among others. My main issue was that the charts in the paper said nothing about new lending, and my guess was that changes in new lending practices would take time to show up in measures of aggregate lending. (Other people raised more sophisticated issues, for example that companies were racing to draw down lines of credit after September 15 out of fear they might not be around for much longer.)

I want to point out one more source of information that might shed light on this question. Every quarter the Federal Reserve conducts a Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey which asks how bank lending practices have changed over the past three months. In the July survey, every single measure of either willingness to lend or loan spreads (price of loan, less cost of funding) was at or above the tightest values (least willingness to lend, highest prices) seen in the last twenty years. Granted, these are measures of change in lending practices, but they still show a rapid shift in sentiment at banks. The October survey should be underway now, and it’s hard to see how it won’t look even worse.

Credit Crunch: Did We Make It All Up?

There is a paper by three economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that is getting a lot of attention on the Internet today. (How often can you write that sentence?) V.V. Chari, Lawrence Christiano, and Patrick J. Kehoe set out to debunk four myths about the financial crisis:

  1. Bank lending to nonfinancial corporations and individuals has declined sharply.
  2. Interbank lending is essentially nonexistent.
  3. Commercial paper issuance by nonfinancial corporations has declined sharply and
    rates have risen to unprecedented levels.
  4. Banks play a large role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers.

In short, they are saying that despite all the hand-wringing about banks not lending to consumers and businesses, it just ain’t true, and even if it were, most lending isn’t done by banks anyway. The implication, to simplify somewhat, is that we are in a media storm of hype that may itself have negative effects.

While I would love to believe this, I don’t think they make the case conclusively. A few quibbles (for this to be understandable, you may have to look at the original paper):

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Banks Can Borrow Money; You, Not So Much

The TED spread is down again today to 3.20 (down from 4.64 at its peak ten days ago). This means that banks are beginning to lend money to each other, which means we are less likely to see serial bank failures and a complete collapse of the financial system. This is good.

However, all is not rosy. Mortgage rates unexpectedly shot up last week – from 5.87 to 6.38 percent for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in the US – in a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences. Apparently, what happened was this. During the panic, investors lent money only to the US government, not to banks. However, since the nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they have been regarded as as safe as the US government, and hence benefited from abnormally low funding costs. As banks become more attractive places to lend money – particularly because of the government guarantee on new senior debt, which means existing debt gets safer (banks can issue new guaranteed debt and use it to pay off the existing debt) – Fannie and Freddie become relatively less attractive. So their borrowing costs go up, and because they play an enormous role in the US mortgage system, mortgage rates go up.

The short-term jump is probably not something to get too worried about, since it basically corrects an anomalous feature of the last few weeks. However, it points out a larger problem. The Fed and Treasury are like firefighters. They decided that the top priority was preventing a collapse of the financial sector, and I agree with that priority. But now that banks are beginning to lend to each other, the next priority is resuscitating the real economy, and for that banks will have to lend to real people and real companies. We aren’t there yet.

Financial Crisis and the Real Economy, Part 2

The impact of the financial crisis on the real economy can be divided into two periods: before September 15 and after September 15. Before 9/15, it was clear that we were in an economic slowdown, beginning with the construction industry, and that troubled assets on bank balance sheets would probably lead to a long-term decline in lending, which might push the economy into recession. Since Lehman failed on 9/15, this general problem sharpened into a short-term credit crunch, in which various parts of the credit markets have stopped functioning or come close to it. Still, though, people want to know, what does the credit crunch mean for me?

Bloomberg reported that almost 100 corporate treasurers held an emergency conference call yesterday to discuss the challenges they are facing rolling over lines of credit with their banks. In some industries, lines of credit are the lifeblood of even completely healthy companies. They operate like home equity lines of credit: you draw down money when you need it (like to make payroll), and you pay it back when your customers pay you back. (In most business-to-business transactions, money changes hands some time after goods are delivered; hence the pervasive need for short-term credit.)

Now, however, banks are demanding much higher interest rates, lower limits, and stricter terms when lines of credit expire, or are even pouncing on forgotten clauses in contracts to force renegotiations of terms. Lines of credit are priced in basis points (a basis point is 1/100th of a percentage point) over LIBOR, a rate at which banks lend to each other. One company saw the price for its line of credit rise from 90 basis points to 325 basis points over LIBOR, which is itself running at high levels. The banks aren’t doing this because they think their borrowers are in any danger of not paying them back; they’re doing it because they want to hold onto the money because they are afraid of liquidity runs. “These are very different circumstances than many of us have dealt with before,” said one treasurer. “We’re all having to learn every day about provisions that were buried in documents executed 15 years before.”

This is how fear in the banking sector translates very quickly into higher costs and less cash for healthy companies in the real economy. Fortunately there are clear steps that Washington can take to bolster confidence in the banking sector, which will cause the flow of money through the real economy to pick up.

Your Money Is Not Going to Go Poof

Readers of this blog will already know that we believe that (a) the credit crisis of the past two weeks is serious, (b) there is a real risk of a global recession,  but (c) there are practical steps that governments can take to minimize the damage to the economy. Several of my friends have asked me what this means for them. And I wanted to repeat here what I told them: nothing cataclysmic is going to happen to your money.

First, let’s start with deposit insurance. In general, your checking accounts, savings accounts, and CDs are guaranteed by the FDIC up to $100,000 per account holder per bank, and that is likely to go up to $250,000 shortly. Some people have been pulling money out of banks even though they are below this limit, because they don’t know about the insurance, don’t trust it, or don’t want to deal with the hassle. Now this is something with which I have personal experience. I had a CD (<$100K) at IndyMac Bank when it failed earlier this year. The FDIC took over the bank over the weekend and by Monday everything was exactly the same as on Friday: same web site, same call centers, same CD account, everything. The only change was that the name had changed from IndyMac Bank to IndyMac Federal Bank. I didn’t have to file a claim or even call anyone. My CD is still there, earning interest (at 4.15%, by the way). So if you have an insured account, you shouldn’t worry about it. (Some people have pointed out that the FDIC could run out of money if too many banks fail, but it’s a certainty that the government would put more money in the FDIC in that case.)

Second, you may have investments in stocks or bonds. Individual securities could be wiped out, and some have been already; not only did Lehman shareholders lose their money, but bondholders lost most of their money, too. But stocks are ownership shares in real companies, and most companies are not going to stop operating overnight. They will continue to buy, build, and sell whatever they buy, build, and sell today. Some will go bankrupt, as always happens, and some will lose value, but some will gain value. And it’s not likely that every company in the U.S. will lose all of its value at the same time. So you should be diversified, but you should always be diversified.

Third, there are your debit and credit cards. As long as you have money in your bank account, you will still be able to get at it using your debit card. It is unfathomable that a bank would need cash so desperately that it would block access to deposit accounts (and remember, those accounts are insured). When banks are at risk of failing, they want to preserve as much value as they can to sell to an acquirer. A large part of the value is the base of depositors and the ongoing banking operations. As for credit cards, it is possible that banks will gradually reduce the amount of credit they have extended by offering fewer cards, tightening the terms, reducing credit limits, and even unilaterally canceling some people’s cards. This could affect some people. But again, there is no reason why the credit card system as a whole would fail.

Now, if there is a recession, and that is certainly a possibility, it could have serious consequences for you: you could lose your job, your rate of salary increases could go down, your house could continue to lose value, your investments could lose value, and so on. As we’ve said, there are concrete steps that governments can take to minimize the duration and severity of any recession. In any case, you’re not going to wake up one day and find out that your money is gone. (Unless you keep your money under your mattress, in which case someone might steal it.)

Financial Crisis and the Real Economy

One of the biggest questions about the financial crisis – one heard from Capitol Hill to radio talk shows to casual conversations with friends – is why it matters for ordinary people. One major reason a significant proportion of public opinion is against the rescue plan is the general failure to make the connection between panics in the financial sector and the ordinary lives of everyday people; simply saying that the plan is necessary to prevent (or moderate) a recession smacks too much of “trust me” to be credible.

The connection is that much of the ordinary activity in the real economy relies on credit – think no further than the volume of purchases made using credit cards. (Although banks have been reducing credit limits, there is little risk for now that credit cards will stop working overnight.) And in today’s conditions, when many financial institutions are potential victims of liquidity runs, lending has virtually ground to a halt. The New York Times has an article today about the impact that the current crisis is having on local governments suddenly unable to raise money for ongoing projects such as highway repairs and hospital expansions. Across the country, local governments issued $13 billion in fixed-rate bonds in the first half of September – and $2 billion in the second half. A sudden 87% drop in a major source of municipal funding is a very real impact of the financial crisis, and one that will necessarily result in both fewer services and fewer jobs for taxpayers.