MacroScope

Sanctions loom for Russia

The European Union, as we exclusively reported yesterday, has agreed on a framework for sanctions against Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, which goes further than many expected. The list of targeted individuals is still being worked on but will be ready for the bloc’s foreign ministers to look at on Monday.

Angela Merkel will speak to the German Bundestag about the standoff with Russia. Merkel has been cautious about imposing anything too tough as she tries to convince Vladimir Putin to agree to a “contact group” that would reopen communications between Moscow and Kiev. But yesterday she said measures would be imposed next week – after a Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal – unless diplomatic progress is made.

There is no sign of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table and no question of western force being deployed. In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said his government was ready to negotiate over Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea – a possible diplomatic avenue? The U.N. Security Council will discuss the crisis in an open meeting later.

Russia’s intervention in Crimea has focused minds in the EU on ending decades of dependence on Russian gas by developing its own energy supplies and pushing for greater access to U.S. resources. That will come up at next week’s summit of the bloc’s leaders. It’s clearly a long-term project but could be a hammer blow to the Russian economy if it succeeds.

Italy will dive into the bond market after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi presented a sweeping package of tax cuts, saying they would foster economic recovery without breaking EU budget deficit limits. Income tax will be reduced by a total of 10 billion euros annually for 10 million low and middle income workers which should give domestic demand a fillip.

Hollande’s moment of truth

This afternoon, French President Francois Hollande will expand upon his New Year announcement that French companies who agree to hire more workers could pay lower labour taxes in return and find themselves less tied up in red tape. Unemployment is running near to 12 percent and Hollande’s vow to get it falling by the end of 2013 fell short.

Unfortunately, the announcement has been eclipsed by his threat of legal action after a French magazine reported he was having an affair with an actress. France tends to overlook its politicians’ peccadilloes but with the economy in a hole, Hollande risks facing the charge that he should be focusing squarely on that.

To complicate matters his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, has been admitted to hospital following the reports. She will stay there for a number of days yet.
Given this is one of only two news conferences that Hollande has promised to give each year it’s hard to see how he can avoid it being hijacked by his personal life. As boxing promoter Don King was fond of saying: there are two chances, slim and none and Slim just left town.

Letter of the Lew: Treasury comments on change of guard at troubled IRS

Here are comments from a U.S. Treasury official on Secretary Jack Lew’s meeting with incoming Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel this morning, following a scandal of political targeting that cost the previous acting commissioner his job. Treasury officials knew about the problem as early as last June, according to this report in the Wall Street Journal:

Secretary Lew met with incoming Acting IRS Commissioner Werfel this morning and directed him to conduct a thorough review of the organization in an effort to restore public confidence in the IRS and ensure the organization is providing excellent and unbiased service to the taxpayer. Secretary Lew also requested that he take actions immediately as appropriate, and that within the next 30 days, Werfel report back to the President and him about progress made in three areas: 1) ensuring staff that acted inappropriately are held accountable 2) examine and correct any failures in the system that allowed this behavior to happen and 3) take a forward-looking systemic view at the agency’s organization.

On fiscal ledge, corporate gain may be household’s pain

It doesn’t sound sustainable but, at least in coming months, businesses look set to keep booming even as consumers come under pressure – in line with the recent trend. That’s because the economic hit from the partial deal on the fiscal cliff will hurt salaried workers disproportionately, says Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho.

He writes:

Although the worst of the fiscal cliff has been avoided, the compromise is not macroeconomic neutral. Our calculations, in fact, suggest that the drag created by the reversal of the payroll tax cut and the various tax hikes on upper income households will cut real GDP by upwards of 0.5% to 1% from our preliminary 1.5% to 2% forecast.

Real GDP in the range of 0.5% to 1.5% this year implies that corporate profit growth will come at the expense of the wage earner. Moreover, the earnings focus assures a larger share of national income will accrue to the corporate sector. This implies another year of limited employment gains.

Lucky enough to pay taxes

“People. People who pay taxes, Are the luckiest people in the world …” That may not be exactly how the lyrics, most memorably sung by Barbra Streisand in the musical “Funny Girl” actually go, but one could argue that one is lucky to be well off enough to pay federal income taxes.

A research note from Stone & McCarthy Research Associates economist Nancy Vanden Houten wonders why “obsessing about taxpayers with no federal income tax liability” has become a focus of the U.S. presidential campaign.

We think the emphasis is misplaced. A more appropriate question to ask is how much all taxpayers benefit from provisions of the tax code.

What do Americans really want?

Judging by the heated political rhetoric, you would think there is a great divide in America over the proper role of government. The drama is played out in battles over budgetary policy where one side wants low taxes and small government, and the other favors taxing the rich to pay for government programs.

Interestingly Americans, when faced with making the tough fiscal choices themselves, are remarkably pragmatic.

The Committee for a Responsible Budget since 2010 has invited people to go to its website and figure out how they would cut the U.S. budget debt load, which is fast approaching 100 percent of GDP. They must make specific choices, such as whether to cut farm subsidies or Social Security payments and what tax rates to impose.

Is there a skills gap at the Fed?

Ask most economists why the distribution of wealth in the United States has become so unequal over the last three decades and they will likely offer a two word answer: skills gap. They point out that Americans with a college education have a lower jobless rate than those without one, and that better-educated workers make more money than their counterparts.

Yet as regional Federal Reserve presidents disclosed their personal asset holdings for the first time ever, the figures showed a gaping range: from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions.

The report showed the wealthiest officials, Richard Fisher and William Dudley of the Dallas and New York Feds respectively, made millions working the financial industry – Fisher running a hedge fund and Dudley as chief U.S. economist and partner at Goldman Sachs. It would be tough to argue that the two are any more skilled than the career PhD Fed economists who were at the bottom of the list.

Inequality highest in 30 years, OECD finds

Income inequality is at its highest levels in three decades, according to a new report from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. The trend is no accident, the group says, but rather the result of a combination of spending cuts on social programs and lower taxes on the wealthy.

Tax and benefit systems play a major role in reducing market-driven inequality, but have become less effective at redistributing income since the mid-1990s. The main reason lies on the benefits side: benefits levels fell in nearly all OECD countries, eligibility rules were tightened to contain spending on social protection, and transfers to the poorest failed to keep pace with earnings growth. As a result, the benefit system in most countries has become less effective in reducing inequalities over the past 15 years. Another factor has been a cut in top tax rates for high-earners.

“There is nothing inevitable about high and growing inequalities,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria.

from Amplifications:

The 70% solution

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

Via a circuitous Internet chain – Paul Krugman of Princeton University quoting Mark Thoma of the University of Oregon reading the Journal of Economic Perspectives – I got a copy of an article written by Emmanuel Saez, whose office is 50 feet from mine, on the same corridor, and the Nobel laureate economist Peter Diamond. Saez and Diamond argue that the right marginal tax rate for North Atlantic societies to impose on their richest citizens is 70%.

It is an arresting assertion, given the tax-cut mania that has prevailed in these societies for the past 30 years, but Diamond and Saez’s logic is clear. The superrich command and control so many resources that they are effectively satiated: increasing or decreasing how much wealth they have has no effect on their happiness. So, no matter how large a weight we place on their happiness relative to the happiness of others – whether we regard them as praiseworthy captains of industry who merit their high positions, or as parasitic thieves – we simply cannot do anything to affect it by raising or lowering their tax rates.

The unavoidable implication of this argument is that when we calculate what the tax rate for the superrich will be, we should not consider the effect of changing their tax rate on their happiness, for we know that it is zero. Rather, the key question must be the effect of changing their tax rate on the well-being of the rest of us.