Opinion

The Great Debate

A free lunch for America

By J. Bradford DeLong
The opinions expressed are his own.

Former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had a good line at the International Monetary Fund meetings this year: governments, he said, are trying to treat a broken ankle when the patient is facing organ failure. Summers was criticizing Europe’s focus on the second-order issue of Greece while far graver imbalances – between the EU’s north and south, and between reckless banks’ creditors and governments that failed to regulate properly – worsen with each passing day.

But, on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans have no reason to feel smug. Summers could have used the same metaphor to criticize the United States, where the continued focus on the long-run funding dilemmas of social insurance is sucking all of the oxygen out of efforts to deal with America’s macroeconomic and unemployment crisis.

The US government can currently borrow for 30 years at a real (inflation-adjusted) interest rate of 1% per year. Suppose that the US government were to borrow an extra $500 billion over the next two years and spend it on infrastructure – even unproductively, on projects for which the social rate of return is a measly 25% per year. Suppose that – as seems to be the case – the simple Keynesian government-expenditure multiplier on this spending is only two.

In that case, the $500 billion of extra federal infrastructure spending over the next two years would produce $1 trillion of extra output of goods and services, generate approximately seven million person-years of extra employment, and push down the unemployment rate by two percentage points in each of those years. And, with tighter labor-force attachment on the part of those who have jobs, the unemployment rate thereafter would likely be about 0.1 percentage points lower in the indefinite future.

The impressive gains don’t stop there. Better infrastructure would mean an extra $20 billion a year of income and social welfare. A lower unemployment rate into the future would mean another $20 billion a year in higher production. And half of the extra $1 trillion of goods and services would show up as consumption goods and services for American households.

from Global Investing:

Solar activities and market cycles

Can nature's cycles enrich our finance and market theories?

Market predictions based on the alignment of the sun, moon and the earth and other cycles could help investors stay disciplined and profit in economic storms, says Daniel Shaffer, CEO of Shaffer Asset Management.

SPACE/SUN

Shaffer writes that sunspot activities show that the sun has an approximate 11-year cycle and as of March 31, 2009, sunspot activity has reached a 100-year low (this, interestingly, coincides with a cycle low in equity markets, reached sometime mid-March in 2009).

But a low in solar activity seems to be followed by a high. Scientists are predicting a solar maximum of activity in sunspots in 2012 that could e the strongest in modern times, according to Shaffer.

We are all widows and orphans now

It may seem like a  world turned upside down: stocks are desired for their dividends and bonds are all about capital appreciation, or at least preservation.

It was all so different over much of the past 20 years, when despite steady falls in inflation and rising prices for bonds, the real money was perceived to be in equity price gains.

Dividends were for widows and orphans; those without the knowledge or guts to take the big risks and make the momentum plays.

Stocks from Venus, bonds from Mars

Forget about politics, the biggest divide in the U.S. is between stock and bond investors, who aren’t so much arguing as speaking entirely different languages.

Stocks, while about flat for the year, are priced moderately cheaply by historical standards, implying that investors think they have a reasonable, if not spectacular, outlook for the next couple of years.

Earnings are strong, and forward looking estimates of earnings, while coming somewhat off the boil, are still rosy and cash balances are high.

Stocks, bonds and the earnings season dance

A look at company earnings implies it is a great time to be a corporation in America, but for investors a rising savings rate and the threat of deflation mean that, ugly and risky as they are, government bonds looks good in comparison to stocks.

So far it has been a pretty remarkable earning season in the U.S. Almost 80 percent of companies reporting have beaten analysts’ estimates and profits among the largest companies are up more than 40 percent on the same period last year.
Perhaps even more remarkably, companies are managing to trouser a record 10.2 cents in every dollar of revenue after operating costs, according to Standard & Poor’s.

That’s the rub – profitability growth is outpacing revenue growth, which has been 9.0 percent, implying that the gangbusters pace of profits is more due to cost cutting and efficiencies than a sustainable expansion in anyone’s business model.

from The Great Debate UK:

Banks, borrowing, bonds and Britain’s budget

BRITAIN/

-Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. Join Reuters for a live discussion with guests as UK Chancellor George Osborne makes  an emergency budget statement at 12:30 p.m. British time on Tuesday, June 22, 2010.-

George Osborne must be thankful to Don Fabio and his boys for ensuring that Wednesday’s tabloids will have other things to think about than the Budget, because it is going to be one of the toughest ever.

There is every indication the advance billing is more than just news management. The pain is going to be frontloaded for two reasons.

from MacroScope:

Political economy and the euro

The reality of  'political economy'  is something that irritates many economists -- the "purists", if you like. The political element is impossible to model;  it often flies in the face of  textbook economics;  and democratic decision-making and backroom horse trading can be notoriously difficult to predict and painfully slow.  And political economy is all pervasive in 2010 -- Barack Obama's proposals to rein in the banks is rooted in public outrage; reading China's monetary and currency policies is like Kremlinology; capital curbs being introduced in Brazil and elsewhere aim to prevent market overshoot; and British budgetary policies are becoming the political football ahead of this spring's UK election. The list is long, the outcomes uncertain, the market risk high.

But nowhere is this more apparent than in well-worn arguments over the validity and future of Europe's single currency -- the new milennium's posterchild for political economy.

For many, the euro simply should never have happened --  it thumbed a nose at the belief that all things good come from free financial markets; it removed monetary safety valves for member countries out of sync with their bigger neighbours and put the cart before the horse with monetary union ahead of fiscal policy integration. But the sheer political determination to finish the European's single market project, stop beggar-thy-neighbour currency devaluations and face down erratic currency trading meant the  currency was born and has thrived for 11 years.

from The Great Debate UK:

The economy: reasons to be miserable

Laurence Copeland- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Is the crisis over yet?

In the last 3 months, the Dow and the FTSE have each risen by about 25 percent, the Standard & Poor's 500 by a third. House prices appear to be stabilising in the UK. Stress-tested and backed by seemingly unlimited government funding, the banks are lending again (if only to each other), so that 1-month libor is down to only 0.3 percent.

In the Far East, the Chinese economy may be growing again, and even Japan may have pulled out of its nosedive. The oil price has recovered from its lows.

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