Economics

The manufacturing sector is now operating at 77.8 percent of its capacity, according to Federal Reserve data, well above the 76 percent average during the last expansion and not far from the 79.1 percent peak during the mid-2000s.

That is from Neil Irwin.  As I’ve been saying for over a year, we are no longer at the point where boosting nominal demand will help very much if at all.

It seems not.  Responding to an earlier piece by Ray Fisman, Tino Sanandaji writes:

Fisman doesn’t cite any plausible mechanism through which private schools could have dragged down the test scores of the 86 percent of Swedish pupils who attend public schools. The explanation cannot be that private schools have drained public schools of resources, as private schools on average get 4 percent less funding than public schools.

One-third of Sweden’s municipalities still have no private schools. Social Democratic strongholds in northern Sweden in particular were less enthusiastic about licensing such institutions, and if private schools were causing the Swedish school crisis, we would expect municipalities with no privatization to outperform the rest of the country. Two studies by Böhlmark och Lindahl suggest that school results, if anything, fell more in regions with no private schools.

He also argues:

…in my view, the main culprit was the experiment with radically new pedagogical methods. The Swedish school system used to rely on traditional teaching methods. In recent decades, modern “individualist” or “progressive” pedagogic ideas took hold. The idea is that pupils should not be forced to learn using external incentives such as grades, and children should take responsibility for their own learning, driven by internal motivation. Rote memorization and repetition are viewed as old-fashioned relics. Teacher-led lectures have increasingly been replaced by group work and “research projects.”

And this:

The private Swedish schools are not really allowed to innovate where it matters, with their pedagogic methods. The curriculum and rules in the classroom are determined by the state, which also trains teachers in the so called “modern” pedagogic theories. “Swedish schools have comparatively low levels of autonomy over curricula and assessments,” PISA notes.

In practice, what private Swedish schools have control over is management and cost control, and this is where they have directed their efforts. But since the public Swedish schools were pretty well managed to start with, productivity gains from privatization were limited.

For the pointer I thank Daniel B. Klein and Niclas Berggren.

From Neil Irwin at The Upshot:

Five years into the economic recovery, businesses still aren’t plowing much money into big-ticket investments for the future. Nonresidential fixed investment — what businesses spend on equipment, software, buildings and intellectual property — still hasn’t bounced back to its pre-crisis share of the economy, let alone made up for lost ground from the record lows of 2009. As Justin Lahart notes in The Wall Street Journal, equipment spending in particular has averaged 5.2 percent of the economy over the last five years, down from 6.5 percent over the previous half-century.

If firms increased their spending enough to close that gap, it would mean an extra $220 billion in annual economic activity and perhaps a couple of million more jobs. But there may be even more important and lasting consequences for this lack of spending by businesses.

Capital spending improves worker productivity. And worker productivity improves living standards. Less capital spending by businesses means less investment in the kinds of equipment, software and intellectual property that will make the economy more competitive over the long haul.

One simple hypothesis is that it’s not worth spending more on American workers at current wage levels.  As workers, while Americans are quite good, they are just not that much better than a variety of high-IQ individuals in cheaper countries, many of whom now have acceptable infrastructure to work with.

Addendum: Brad DeLong considers potential gdp.

From my email:

The Washington Post today launches ‘Storyline’, a new digital initiative led by economics writer Jim Tankersley examining how U.S. public policy is affecting the lives of Americans across the nation. Storyline will feature a mix of narrative writing, data journalism and visual storytelling to explore big questions like: who’s being lifted by the economic recovery, and who’s left waiting for it to kick in? How are Americans adapting to life under Washington’s immigration deadlock?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/storyline

China’s total debt load has climbed to more than two and a half times the size of its economy, underscoring the difficult challenge facing Beijing as it seeks to spur growth without sowing the seeds of a financial crisis.

The total debt-to-gross domestic product ratio in the world’s second-largest economy reached 251 per cent at the end of June, up from just 147 per cent at the end of 2008, according to a new estimate from Standard Chartered bank.

Such a rapid build-up is far more of a concern than the absolute level of debt, since increases of that magnitude in such a short period have almost always been followed by financial turmoil in other economies.

While calculations of the ratio vary depending on exactly what types of credit are included, several other economists agreed with the new figure. Even those with slightly different calculations said the general trend was clear.

…“China’s current level of debt is already very high by emerging markets standards and the few economies with higher debt ratios are all high-income ones,” said Chen Long, China economist at Gavekal Dragonomics, a research advisory. “In other words China has become indebted before it has become rich.”

The U.S. total debt-to-gdp ratio is now about 260 percent.  From the FT, there is more here.

I also would like to see an estimate of the Chinese wealth-to-income ratio, relative to the U.S. ratio.  I would expect a higher ratio for the United States, which would militate in favor of greater sustainability for American debt, but of course that is why we wish to have the actual numbers.

There is a new NBER Working Paper from Brianna Cardiff-Hicks, Francine Lafontaine, and Kathryn Shaw, and the abstract is this:

With malls, franchise strips and big-box retailers increasingly dotting the landscape, there is concern that middle-class jobs in manufacturing in the U.S. are being replaced by minimum wage jobs in retail. Retail jobs have spread, while manufacturing jobs have shrunk in number. In this paper, we characterize the wages that have accompanied the growth in retail. We show that wage rates in the retail sector rise markedly with firm size and with establishment size. These increases are halved when we control for worker fixed effects, suggesting that there is sorting of better workers into larger firms. Also, higher ability workers get promoted to the position of manager, which is associated with higher pay. We conclude that the growth in modern retail, characterized by larger chains of larger establishments with more levels of hierarchy, is raising wage rates relative to traditional mom-and-pop retail stores.

This is not a surprising result, but it doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in popular discussions of the subject.  There is a related ungated earlier draft here.

The economy here is just fine by most traditional measures.  And yet:

Virginia has an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent but average hourly wages in the year to May 2014 declined by 0.1 per cent.

That is from a probably gated piece, by James Politi, surveying the U.S. labor market more broadly.

Bolivia fact of the day

by on July 20, 2014 at 7:29 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

One of the most surprising developments is the way that Bolivia has amassed foreign currency, salting away a rainy-day fund of about $14 billion, equal to more than half of its gross domestic product, or 17 months of imports, that can help it get through economic hard times.

According to the monetary fund, Bolivia has the highest ratio in the world of international reserves to the size of its economy, having recently surpassed China in that regard.

There is more here.  What do you recommend as good to read on the economy of Bolivia?  Please let me know in the comments.  I am going there in late August.

That is the theme of my new New York Times column.  Here is one excerpt:

Income inequality has surged as a political and economic issue, but the numbers don’t show that inequality is rising from a global perspective. Yes, the problem has become more acute within most individual nations, yet income inequality for the world as a whole has been falling for most of the last 20 years. It’s a fact that hasn’t been noted often enough…

The message from groups like Occupy Wall Street has been that inequality is up and that capitalism is failing us. A more correct and nuanced message is this: Although significant economic problems remain, we have been living in equalizing times for the world — a change that has been largely for the good. That may not make for convincing sloganeering, but it’s the truth…

Many egalitarians push for policies to redistribute some income within nations, including the United States. That’s worth considering, but with a cautionary note. Such initiatives will prove more beneficial on the global level if there is more wealth to redistribute. In the United States, greater wealth would maintain the nation’s ability to invest abroad, buy foreign products, absorb immigrants and generate innovation, with significant benefit for global income and equality.

In other words, the true egalitarian should follow the economist’s inclination to seek wealth-maximizing policies, and that means worrying less about inequality within the nation.

Do read the whole thing.

Moral Effects of Socialism

by on July 19, 2014 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Dan Ariely and co-authors have an interesting new paper looking at moral behavior, specifially cheating, in people who grew up in either East or West Germany.

From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided one nation into two distinct political regimes. We
exploited this natural experiment to investigate whether the socio-political context impacts
individual honesty. Using an abstract die-rolling task, we found evidence that East Germans
who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to
capitalism. We also found that cheating was more likely to occur under circumstances of
plausible deniability.

…If socialism indeed promotes individual dishonesty, the specific features of this socio-political
system that lead to this outcome remain to be determined. The East German socialist regime
differed from the West German capitalist regime in several important ways. First, the system
did not reward work based to merit, and made it difficult to accumulate wealth or pass
anything on to one’s family. This may have resulted in a lack of meaning leading to
demoralization (Ariely et al., 2008), and perhaps less concern for upholding standards of
honesty. Furthermore, while the government claimed to exist in service of the people, it failed
to provide functional public systems or economic security. Observing this moral hypocrisy in government may have eroded the value citizens placed on honesty. Finally, and perhaps most
straightforwardly, the political and economic system pressured people to work around official
laws and cheat to game the system. Over time, individuals may come to normalize these types
of behaviors. Given these distinct possible influences, further research will be needed to
understand which aspects of socialism have the strongest or most lasting impacts on morality.

It’s interesting that Ariely et al. try to explain cheating as a result of socialism. My own approach would look more to the virtue ethics of capitalism and Montesquieu who famously noted that

Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.

See Al-Ubaydli et al. for a market priming experiment and especially McCloskey on The Bourgeoise Virtues for more work consistent with this theme.

To enlist in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), potential recruits have to take tests. To make sure their sons and daughters pass, families pay up. At one recruitment office in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi, this year’s going rate, depending on your guanxi, or connections, is as much as 99,000 yuan ($16,000), says Wang, a recruitment officer in the province who asked that his full name not be used because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Limited openings, plus a high failure rate on the fitness exam, push parents to buy spots for their children during the annual enlistment drive that runs through September. Success offers a stable job and, for some, an escape from rural poverty.

The price varies, Wang says. His old army friends “asked me what the current price tag is, and I said ‘around 80,000 to 90,000 yuan for you guys.’ If your guanxi was really strong, it’d cost you around 50,000 to 60,000 yuan; if it was just so-so, you would have to spend 100,000 yuan at least.”

So how formidable a fighting force are they?  There is more here.

The working paper (pdf) describes it in this way:

Filecoin is a distributed electronic currency similar to Bitcoin. Unlike Bitcoin’s computation-only proof-of-work, Filecoin’s proof-of-work function includes a proof-of-retrievability component, which requires nodes to prove they store a particular file. The Filecoin network forms an entirely distributed file storage system, whose nodes are incentivized to store as much of the entire network’s data as they can. The currency is awarded for storing files, and is transferred in transactions, as in Bitcoin. Files are added to the network by spending currency. This produces strong monetary incentives for individuals to join and work for the network. In the course of ordinary operation of the Filecoin network, nodes contribute useful work in the form of storage and distribution of valuable data.

The mother site is here.  File under…arbitrage.

For the pointer I thank J.

Technological decline seems more plausible [as a cause]; see this Brookings Institution paper for the extended argument. Basically, health-care innovation is expensive, and for roughly the last decade, we’ve been doing less of it. As old innovations come off patent or are refined into cheaper and better versions, costs fall.

If you think health-care innovation is all useless me-too drugs, you should be pleased that we’re getting less of it. As it happens, I don’t think that’s the case, so while I’m pleased about the budget impact, I’m less pleased at the prospect of fewer new medical technologies. The good and the bad news is that the authors of that Brookings paper don’t necessarily expect the experience of the last decade to be continued in the future — good, because “whee, new treatments!” And bad, because, well, money.

The most worrying possibility is that this reflects a broader slowdown in how fast everything can grow. Certainly, it’s clear that the Great Recession caused a major slowdown in health-care costs everywhere; if you graph the data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, there’s a sharp, across-the-board inflection point in 2009.

There is more here.

It seems to be yet another cycle of China taking a temporary downturn and the economy picking itself up again and resuming its upward course, albeit at lower growth rates.  Why does this pattern keep repeating?  What could be going on?

1. The government keeps spending from its $3 trillion reserves stash and through direct fiscal policy it keeps Chinese workers employed and thus avoids the worst of the business cycle.  (NB: This is in general not a good understanding of what is going on, but it should make the list of possibilities.)

2. Worker productivity is going up ??% each year, through the importation of technical progress and the capture of low-hanging fruit.  So China keeps on hitting negative shocks, sticky nominal wages won’t fall, trouble is about to hit but then higher productivity kicks in quickly to keep unemployment down.  The economy then resumes its upward course, although hitting some bumps and snags along the way.

3. State-owned enterprises are told to keep on producing more and investing more.  This worsens their long-run profitability problems, due to collective excess capacity.  But in the short run (how long is that short run now?) both aggregate demand and aggregate supply stay fairly high.  When the profitability constraint hits, though, it will be a doozy.  Unless of course the government resorts to #1, postponing the problem even further.

4. China already has hit a recession in terms of living standards, we are simply mismeasuring the rate of inflation in the country.  And since real wages are falling (for some workers) and nominal gdp stays on a decent (or maybe even excessive) growth path, the country does not experience a traditional recession.

5. Through the use of monetary/fiscal policy and SOEs, the government keeps on boosting the supply of credit.  Since there has been a significant underemployment of resources in China, higher credit induces a self-sustaining positive response from the supply side.  There are then two options for the future:

a. China is still at a margin where this credit process is largely self-financing, or

b. China is now at a margin where soon enough the bills can no longer be paid.

I am not seeking to persuade you of any of these views, I am simply listing some possibilities.

Liam Boluk has written an excellent four-part series, which should be read by anyone with an interest in movies or cultural economics.  He addresses whether movies are a dying or shrinking business, and the installments are here:

 

Here is one excerpt from number three:

One of the primary barriers to indie success and growth comes from screen distribution. In 2013, 50% of indie films were released on fewer than ten screens – nearly half of which maxed at only two. The reason for this is simple: the audience for the average indie film tends to be small and heavily concentrated in select cities (New York, San Francisco, Portland). As a result, expanding a film’s footprint into additional markets – even cities such as Seattle, Washington DC or Atlanta – can be financially destructive. Yet, even as the theater count is scaled, total performance can remain modest.

And here is Boluk’s blog.