James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Why growth is good

Aug 10, 2011 19:34 UTC

Today’s WSJ op-ed by Jeb Bush and  Kevin Warsh is hardly startling in its policy recommendations, as wise as those recommendations happen to be.  What I really like about the piece  is that its authors gave us the “why” as well as the “how.” And the “why” is not just about making CBO numbers add up:

Stronger economic growth is not just about economics. Growth unleashes human potential. It turns personal aspirations into positive achievements. And it lays the predicate for a better, stronger, more prosperous and opportunity-filled America. Our weak economic recovery has dashed the hopes and dimmed the prospects of too many of our citizens. And it has put America’s place in the world at risk.

We should resist the temptation to wrangle with the green eyeshade folks who question our prospects. Instead, we must take actions that demonstrate our resolve and resiliency. We must restore our faith in growth economics and reform our policies accordingly. This will bring strength to our markets and reaffirm our place in the world.

 

A crisis of confidence in economy — and Obama

Aug 9, 2011 00:29 UTC

Barack Obama’s presidency was birthed by economic collapse and financial crisis. Opportunity for a second term is now in growing danger of termination by the very same forces. After its Monday plunge, the U.S. stock market has fallen 18 percent since late April. (During his January State of the Union address, the president pointed to a “roaring” market as one sign his Keynesian policies were working.)

And the economy is advancing at such a slow pace that it risks sliding back into recession. Goldman Sachs thinks the nation’s GDP will expand just 1.7 percent this year and 2.1 percent in 2012, leaving the unemployment rate stuck at well over 9 percent. The firm sees a one-in-three risk of a downturn over the next six to nine months. Other financial firms think the odds are closer to 40 percent or even 50-50.

Then, once again, there’s Wall Street. Not only were bank stocks hammered in the sell-off, the cost to insure their bonds against default soared. Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. government debt may have been a factor since Uncle Sam is backstopping the sector. (More evidence “too big to fail” is alive and well.) But there are also concerns about U.S. bank exposure to European banks and, in turn, their exposure to European government debt. (Sovereign defaults and a EU banking crisis would also slow economic growth in a key market for U.S. exports.) And, coming full circle, banks here still face billion in potential mortgage losses, a problem that another recession would only worsen.

In short, there is again a crisis of confidence in the U.S. economy – but in Washington, too. During his brief speech yesterday at the White House, Obama did nothing to calm jittery markets, perhaps achieving just the opposite. He blamed Tea Party Republicans for the debt downgrade. He said government discretionary spending couldn’t be cut much further. He called for raising taxes. And he repeated his demand for a mini-version of the 2009 stimulus – temporary tax cuts, infrastructure spending, more unemployment benefits.

The stock market, already falling before Obama spoke, saw selling accelerate as Obama made it clear he had no new ideas to offer. And he certainly gave no hint that he’s ready to adopt Republican ideas such as cutting business taxes or slashing regulation. Instead of a pivot, Obama stayed firmly planted in the anti-growth policies of the past two-and-a-half years. He’s even keeping Tim Geithner as Treasury secretary, practically begging the poor guy to stay. (Indeed, it was almost exactly a year ago that Geithner penned his “Welcome to the Recovery” op-ed.)

Americans have seen this movie before. And it didn’t end well. No one wants a sequel, least of all Obama. But the way things are going, another president-elect might be able to utter pretty much the same words on Nov. 6, 2012, as Obama did on Nov. 4, 2008:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

 


 

COMMENT

One day plunges don’t mean much to me any more. ~5 (biz) day movement matters more. How this week ends is more significant, imo.

If this week closes below 10,000, a lot of folks are going to be looking for something new to add to the end of their very long machine-trading if-then-else software logic statement after “buy US treasuries.”

#yikes
@DanFarfan

Posted by DanFarfan | Report as abusive

More evidence U.S. economy approaching stall

Aug 2, 2011 11:33 UTC

The U.S. economy doesn’t like to hover. If it isn’t expanding at a 2 percent or higher annual pace, it risks slipping into recession. As I mentioned in a post last week:

Research from the Federal Reserve finds that that since 1947, when two-quarter annualized real GDP growth falls below 2 percent, recession follows within a year 48 percent of the time. (And when year-over-year real GDP growth falls below 2 percent, recession follows within a year 70 percent of the time.

But rising unemployment can also be a warning signal. Goldman Sachs, for instance, has a “three-tenths rule of thumb” for the unemployment rate:

Technically, the “rule” is as follows: if the three-month average of the unrounded unemployment rate increases by more than three-tenths of a percentage point (35 basis points to be exact) from a trough, the economy has either entered recession already, or will do so within six months. The intuition behind this statistical regularity is that if the labor market stalls for more than a short period, a vicious cycle of weaker income growth, weaker spending and weaker hiring typically results. An important exception is in the early phase of economic recovery, when the unemployment rate often continues to drift higher for several months.

Currently, the three-month average rate is 9.07%, up from a recent trough of 8.90% in April. The unemployment rate would need to increase to 9.3% in July and stay there in August to trip the 35-basis point threshold; our forecast for Friday’s July labor market report is that the unemployment rate will remain steady at 9.2%.

So all eyes on Friday’s jobs report. Certainly some forecasters think the economy will be considerably stronger in the second half of this year. But from a political perspective,  the 2012 economic landscape looks like it will be nowhere near what Team Obama was expecting or hoping for: 4 percent GDP growth and sub-8 percent unemployment

 

 

COMMENT

Exports are doing well, though. I saw in one article: I read that exports were clocking along at a record level.
The company where my husband is employed can’t keep up
’cause of all the exporting orders for durables.

YET, I read that the trade deficit was widening,
too.

And then there is this inflation “roof” going to collapse
in on Bernanke. Some of the “shingles” they want, of course, to mask our spending addiction, but these wild swings of the pendulum aren’t good timings for anyone.

Remember the fears of the double dip immediately after
the crash? Well, I think it’ll finally hit this time.

Posted by limapie | Report as abusive

America’s missing trillions

Jul 5, 2011 15:18 UTC

In the WSJ, David Malpass and  Steve Moore note a disturbing trend in foreign investment in the U.S.:

It is true that foreign direct investment rose to $236 billion in 2010 from $159 billion in 2009. But that was still well below the $310 billion invested in 2008. The White House also neglected to disclose that in the first quarter of 2011 foreign investment fell by 51% from the first quarter of last year, according to data released last month from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Foreigners of late have not found the U.S. to be a receptive, high-return home for investment.

… To be sure, foreigners still park a huge amount of money in this country, but in the last several years they’ve shifted their investment toward U.S. Treasury securities and government-guaranteed bonds, and away from the private-sector staples—corporate bonds, intellectual property, ownership of businesses—that create sustainable jobs. Since 2009, foreigners have invested just over $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Some economists argue that investing in low-interest-rate government bonds works fine for America because it allows the government to boost spending on programs—the latest doozies are windmills, high-speed rail and 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The low interest rates, this argument goes, prove there is no negative “crowding out” from America’s near $1.5 trillion deficit.

That misses the point. To produce rapid growth, most capital must be allocated by markets. The effect of $4.5 trillion of borrowing since 2009 is that foreigners and Americans are buying Treasury bills instead of investing in the next Google, Oracle, Wal-Mart or biomedical company. Today, foreigners are financing food stamps and the next bridge to nowhere while Americans are building state-of-the-art production systems abroad. This is the real pernicious “crowding out effect” of the federal government’s borrowing.

But wait, there’s more. Don’t forget about the more than $1 trillion in U.S. corporate earnings parked offshore, just waiting to be repatriated if U.S. corporate tax rates were lowered.

Why Christina Romer is wrong on taxes

Jul 5, 2011 14:41 UTC

President Obama’s economic all-star team from 2009 is all but gone. But it’s the gift that keeps on giving. In yesterday’s NY Times, former White House economist Christina Romer offered a rather strange op-ed in favor of tax increases. The crux of her argument is this:

The economic evidence doesn’t support the anti-tax view. Both tax increases and spending cuts will tend to slow the recovery in the near term, but spending cuts will likely slow it more. Over the longer term, sensible tax increases will probably do less damage to economic growth and productivity than cuts in government investment.

And her evidence?

Some in Washington and in the news media have seized on a study I conducted with David Romer, my husband and colleague, that they say shows tax increases having a bigger short-term effect on the economy than spending cuts. Our study, which examined only federal tax policy, found that conventional analysis underestimates the effect of tax changes on the economy substantially. The key problem we address is that changes in taxes are often linked to what is happening in the economy.

That Romer-Romer study offered this conclusion:

Our results indicate that tax changes have very large effects on output. Our baseline specification implies that an exogenous tax increase of one percent of GDP lowers real GDP by almost three percent. Our many robustness checks for the most part point to a slightly smaller decline, but one that is still typically over 2.5 percent

Right, tax increases hurt economic growth. Agreed. And they may only raise half of the revenue predicted by static analysis that does not take into account behavioral effects. But then Romer makes this claim:

If there were a similar study on government spending, it would likely show that spending cuts also have larger effects than conventionally believed. Like tax actions, spending changes are often correlated with other factors affecting economic activity. For example, large cuts in military spending, like those after World War II and the Korean War, were typically accompanied by the end of wartime taxes and production controls. Those probably lessened the economic impact of the spending cuts, leading many researchers to underestimate the reductions’ effects.

It is hard to argue against a hypothetical study. But Romer’s reasoning, though flawed, is hardly novel:

1) She states that, at least over the short-term, $100 less in government spending reduces aggregate demand by $100. On the other hand, a $100 tax increase on “wealthier households” does not reduce demand by $100 since at least part of that tax increase would be paid from savings rather than consumption.

Me: Been there, done that. This is sort of the flipside of the Keynesian argument in favor of the $800 billion Obama-Romer-Bernstein stimulus plan.  Except she uses a smaller fiscal multiplier here , 1.0, than she used in analyzing potential impact of the stimulus plan, 1.6. But even that may be too high. Economist John Taylor thinks the multiplier is about 0.5. In fact, there are several models that find such a low multiplier.

Unfortunately, we find substantially smaller government spending multipliers than those used by Romer and Bernstein. For example, the multiplier associated with a permanent increase in government spending by the end of 2010 lies between 0.5 and 0.6. In other words, government spending does not induce additional private spending but instead quickly crowds out private consumption and investment.

We also provide an assessment of the impact of the American Recovery and Re-investment Act. This legislation implies measures amounting to $787 billion and spread over 2009 to 2013 but peaking in 2010. Our estimate of the total impact is closer to 1/6 of the effect estimated by Romer and Bernstein. By 2010 we project output to be about 0.65% higher. Using the same rule-of-thumb as Romer and Bernstein, this increase in GDP would translate to about 600,000 additional jobs rather than three to four million.

2)  Next, Romer says that while “higher tax rates reduce the rewards of work and investing,” raising current tax rates by 10 percent would only reduce reported income by 2 percent.

Me: Again, I am not sure whose taxes she is talking about, but research by Martin Feldstein on the 1993 Clinton tax increase found that a) high-income taxpayers reported 8.5 percent less  taxable income than if their taxes had not been raised, which resulted in b) the tax increase only raising about one-third as much dough as Team Clinton has predicted.

3)  Romer also worries that “certain spending cuts may also have small effects on long-run growth.” She’s talking about stuff like basic scientific research, education and infrastructure.

Me: Ah yes, the “good” sort of spending. But as I have noted before, McKinsey consultants have found that if the U.S. public sector could just halve the productivity gap with the private sector, its productivity would be as much as 15 percent higher and would generate annual savings of up to $300 billion a year. We’re far from cutting into the muscle and bone. And there’s no reason not to take a look at basic research, infrastructure and other investment spending to see if they could be done  more productively.

Bottom line: But the basic problem here is that Romer, like the rest of Obama’s all-star team, is worried about stimulating consumer demand rather than encouraging — by the removal of tax and regulatory barriers – established businesses and new entrepreneurs to invest, expand, hire and create. And talk of raising taxes distracts from the real work that needs to be done to reduce spending. Whenever economists talk about the need to raises taxes, they are actually making a political argument rather than an economic one.  Either they are ideologically opposed to smaller government or they don’t believe Washington will ever cut spending. But that isn’t surprising since there really isn’t a valid economic argument to support the long-term Obama spending binge.

 

Why the GOP shouldn’t go wobbly on taxes

Jun 27, 2011 17:59 UTC

It’s up to House Speaker John Boehner now. Democrats, the media and Wall Street will be pounding him to agree to raise taxes as part of a debt ceiling deal. But now is no time for Republicans to go wobbly. Here’s why the GOP should stick to its guns until Aug. 2 – and beyond if necessary:

1. The last thing the economy needs is a tax hike. If the economy was too weak to absorb a tax hike last December – when the White House and Congress agreed to extend all the Bush tax cuts for two more years –  its health is even worse today. The economy grew at just a 1.9 percent pace in the first quarter, and many economists now think it might grow just 2.0 percent in the second quarter – or even less. This should be a red flag to Washington. New research from the Federal Reserve finds that that since 1947, when two-quarter annualized real GDP growth falls below 2 percent, recession follows within a year 48 percent of the time. (And when year-over-year real GDP growth falls below 2 percent, recession follows within a year 70 percent of the time.)

 

In other words, the economic recovery is sputtering with stall speed fast approaching. Now would be a terrible time to penalize investors and business, both big and small, with new taxes.

2. Tax revenue isn’t the problem. Spending is. The recent Congressional Budget Office budget outlook was illustrative. The CBO forecast to note is its “alternative fiscal scenario” which “incorporates several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions that might be difficult to sustain for a long period.”

By 2021, the the CBO says, the annual budget deficit would be 7.5 percent of GDP and by 2035 a truly monstrous 15.5 percent. Throughout this period, tax revenue would be 18.4 percent, right around the historical average. But spending would be 25.9 percent in 2021, 33.9 percent in 2035 vs. an average of roughly 21 percent. It’s spending that’s way out of whack, not revenue.

But let’s say all the Bush tax cuts were left to expire, as was AMT relief. Assuming no economic fallout, according to the CBO, revenue would be 23.2 percent of GDP by 2035. Three problems here: a) even with all those tax increases, the annual budget deficit would still be nearly an unsustainable 10.7 percent of GDP in 2035; b)  the U.S. tax code has never generated that level of revenue and almost certainly can’t without a value-added tax; and c) there would be tremendous economic fallout. Axing all the Bush tax cuts would chop three percentage points off GDP growth, according to Goldman Sachs, certainly sending America back into recession. Tax revenue would again plummet.

And as bad as those numbers are, they don’t fully take into account the economic impact of all that debt. When the CBO does makes those calculations, total debt as a share of output is not 187 percent of GDP – the number you frequently see in media accounts – but rather 250 percent of GDP since economic growth would slow sharply due to debt overload. And more than likely the economy would suffer a debt crisis long before 2035 came around.

3. The key to boosting tax revenue is faster economic growth. A team of economists from the American Enterprise Institute recently fashioned a debt-reduction plan that would raise tax revenue to a long-term level of 19.9 percent of GDP. That’s pretty high when you consider there have only been three years in U.S. history that have seen a higher tax burden. Its tax plan:

To achieve this goal, the income tax system would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax. To address environmental externalities in a more cost‐effective and market‐based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a carbon tax.

But the AEI team also notes that such a tax plan would more than likely boost growth:

Economic simulations have repeatedly indicated that replacing the income tax system with a consumption tax can boost economic growth, although the magnitude of the gains depends on the assumptions that are made and on the detailed provisions of the consumption tax. One widely cited study estimates a 6.4 percent gain in long‐run output from the adoption of an X tax.

Our plan also reduces transfer payments to the elderly, which should further increase private saving and long‐run growth. These growth effects have not been taken into account in the estimation of our plan. Accounting for them suggests that actual revenue requirements are lower than those stated above. For example, if our plan increases long‐run output by even 5 percent and if government spending does not increase in response to the expansion of output, then the actual long‐run revenue requirement will be 19.0, rather than 19.9, percent of GDP.

Revenue of 19.0 percent of GDP happens to be the same revenue requirement of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity debt-reduction plan. And tax reform isn’t the only thing that can boost economic growth. Increasing high-skill immigration, implementing regulatory reform, and raisng productivity in education, government and healthcare could pump up economy-wide  GDP growth by at least a full percentage point, according to McKinsey Global Insitute.

Bottom line: Higher taxes would hurt the economy, wouldn’t solve the debt problem and aren’t really needed anyway.

 

COMMENT

“1. The last thing the economy needs is a tax hike.”

Au Contraire.

Raising taxes on the Rich & Corporate worked like a charm for both Presidents FDR and WJC. It all depends what you do with the money.

The periods of greatest economic prosperity in this country occurred when the top federal personal income tax BRACKETS were at 81%, 85%, and even 91%, while the top corporate federal income tax BRACKET was at 50%, AND after the top federal income tax brackets were raised on the Rich & Corporate.

~

“2. Tax revenue isn’t the problem. Spending is.”

Wrong.

According to the independent non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the vast overwhelming majority of our current federal deficits and debt, as well as our medium-term projected future federal deficits and debt, are from the massive drop in federal income tax revenue as a direct result of the numerous rounds of massive tax cuts for the Rich & Corporate enacted during the previous administration.

Not even close.

Posted by JoeFriday | Report as abusive

A terrible day for tax hikers

Jun 23, 2011 19:34 UTC

Was it just a week or so ago when the GOP’s 30-year commitment to lower taxes was supposedly in shambles? That sure didn’t seem to be the case today:

1) Eric Cantor bolted from debt ceiling talks with VP Joe Biden, saying the tax issue was an obstacle and that Obama and Boehner needed to hash things out directly. Now three sources tell me that Cantor and Boehner are against any net tax revenue increases, whether from higher tax rates or the elimination of tax subsidies.

2) Mitt Romney signs the tax pledge of Americans for Tax Reform, as he did when he ran 2008.

Of course, the weird thing is that Romney just declined to sign a pro-life pledge. But in any event, it is good to see him take a hard line against taxes and for Schumpeterian, pro-growth economics.

3) At a House Budget hearing today, the director of the Congressional Budget Office said the following: ”Higher marginal tax rates do reduce economic activity.”  This is  a point yesterday’s CBO report made repeatedly.

Another look at the Growth Gap

Jun 20, 2011 20:45 UTC

I just ran across this great chart from Jim Glassman over at JPMorgan that illustrates the Growth Gap and how it is imperative we grow this economy faster.

The Growth Gap

Jun 20, 2011 19:49 UTC

The main reason we have a big budget deficit right now is that the U.S. economy has been growing too slowly for a decade, including the Great Recession and Terrible Recovery. That means less tax revenue and more government services like unemployment insurance and Medicaid. So perhaps the real way Obamanomics has worsened our debt situation is by contributing to this extended period of weak growth.

By my back of the envelope calculations, the CBO forecasts a roughly 10% of GDP budget deficit this year. If revenues were at their historical average, that number would be more like 6%. And if the economy way rebounding as it should, the automatic stabilizers would be more like 3% of GDP, instead of 6%. So that would bring the budget deficit down to around 3% of GDP. The rest you can blame on Obama-”investment” spending.  Of course, one big problem is that Obama’s future budget plans would never bring spending down to historic levels — it stays right around 24% of GDP for a decade —  even as its assumes a growth splurge that would supposedly reduce annual deficits.

A chart from Forbes.com give a few for the growth gap:

 

 

COMMENT

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Posted by s12345 | Report as abusive

5% or bust: more on America’s growth potential

Jun 17, 2011 15:30 UTC

So typical. The WaPo’s Ezra Klein quotes a bunch of people saying that there is no way, no how the economy can grow at 5 percent for a decade,  the “aspirational” economic goal of Tim Pawlenty.

Hey, I can quote people, too! Like economist John Taylor of Stanford:

First, look at employment growth. Given the dismal jobs situation, that’s the highest priority. Currently the percentage of the working-age population (age 16 and over) that is actually working is very low at 58.4 percent. In the year 2000 it reached 64.7 percent, so that is at least a feasible number. Raising the employment-to-population ratio to 64.7 means an employment increase of 10.8 percent (64.7-58.4/58.4 = .108) or about 1 percent per year over 10 years, even without any growth of the population. Adding in about 1 percent for population growth (from Census projections), gives employment growth of 2 percent per year.

Now consider productivity growth. Since the productivity resurgence began around 1996, productivity growth in the United States has averaged 2.7 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So numbers in that range are not pie in the sky. As Harvard economist Dale Jorgenson and his colleagues have shown, the IT revolution is part of the explanation for the productivity growth, and, if not stifled, is likely to continue, as is pretty clear to me as I sit a few hundred yards from Facebook and other high-tech firms.

Now if we add the 2.7 percent productivity growth to the 2 percent employment growth, we get 4.7 percent economic growth, which is within reaching distance of—or simply rounds up to—the 5 percent target set by Governor Pawlenty. Thus, five percent growth is a good goal to aspire to, whereas 3 or 4 percent would be too little and 6 or 7 percent too much

Is Taylor correct? Well, Don Marron of the Tax Policy Center (and formerly of the Bush WH) puts it this way:

Taylor’s scenario thus assumes that everything breaks right for the U.S. economy for a full decade, with remarkable job growth and remarkable productivity growth in the economy as a whole. Not impossible but, unfortunately, not likely either.

Marron thinks Taylor’s population and productivity numbers are fine. But he does have three problems:

1) Taylor uses a very optimistic assumption about how much employment growth can exceed population growth. Today, about 58% of the working age population has a job. That woefully low level ought to rise as the Great Recession recedes. Taylor assumes that we can boost that ratio back to its 2000 level of almost 65%. But 2000 was the tail end of a technology boom that lifted America’s employment-to-population ratio to record heights. Since then, the working population has aged, so the employment-to-population ratio will be persistently lower even in good times. CEA thus forecasts that labor force changes will trim about 0.3% annually from potential growth in coming years. Getting the employment-to-population ratio back up to 65% thus won’t happen unless we have an even bigger boom than the late 1990s delivered.

2) Taylor assumes that workers will keep working the same number of hours that they do today. That sounds innocuous except for one thing: average hours have been declining. CEA estimates that trimmed 0.3% per year from potential economic growth from 1958 to 2007 and will trim another 0.1% per year from 2010 through 2021.

3) Taylor assumes that the rest of the economy will enjoy the same productivity growth as the nonfarm business sector. In reality, the other parts of the economy – most notably government – are lagging behind. CEA estimates that slower productivity growth outside the nonfarm business sector trimmed 0.2% from potential economic growth from 1958 to 2007 and sees an even bigger bite, 0.4% annually, in the coming decade.

I still like the 5 percent target, even though I think 3.5 -4.0 percent is more realistic.  And Pawlenty’s basic path for getting there — tax policy that rewards saving, reducing regulation and cutting the share of our economy gobbled up by government — is sound as far as it goes.  I would also like to see more on immigration and education policy, as well approaching  basic research and infrastructure spending in a market-friendly way.

 

 

 

COMMENT

Education can add billions to our economy as it would stop giving company excuses for off-shoring jobs. The current trend is to actually bring the jobs back, but education would at least allow Americans to off-shore themselves to find work if they have to (I work for a japanese company in China until jobs come back to the US.). Infrastructure is a must as the US is decaying in this area. The Obama-haters need to realize this simple fact. But it should be done efficiently, but not the chinese style of efficiency which means fast and corrupt. The biggest thing that will keep our economy growing is to reduce imports and increase exports. The US needs to change its export laws to allow more high tech exports, because most of those restrictions are just laughable. Of course we have to keep restrictions on certain military equipment, but come one. Also, we need to reduce the oil imports, which account for the largest chunk of US imports. Alternative fuels, energy efficient technology, and domestic oil production is the key. One last thing; buy american. I live in China and still have the opportunity to buy American goods at local import stores. Those who complain about the US economy but still buy imports are missing the big picture.

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