The Law of Diminishing Greeks

The Law of Diminishing Returns  states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to  decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren’t the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in  less than 2-1/2 minutes.

From an economic standpoint, this law now seems to be fully in force in Greece. The latest jobs figures from the twice-bailed out euro zone country paint a bleak numerical picture of the impact of unrelenting austerity in ordinary Greeks, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or not. To wit:

More than one in five Greeks is unemployed.

There are more young people without a job than with one.

The record 1.08 million people  without work in January was a  47 percent tumble  in a year.

Putting aside for the moment the question of what such a condition means for political dissent, there is now the issue of whether any of this austerity-fueled pain is actually helping the Greek economy.

Austerity mixed with the inability of euro-tied Greece to devalue its currency  means  Greece is now in its fifth year of recession. As for job-creating small and medium -sized businesses, the latest projections are that more than a net 130,000 of them will have shut down over two years by the time 2012 is over.

A worker is a terrible thing to waste

How bad is the U.S. employment situation? The Labor Department’s tally for March, which showed only 120,000 new jobs were created, raised doubts about the sustainability of a recent pick up in job growth. But to get a broader sense of what things are really like it helps to put things in a longer-term perspective.

Even with the 3.6 million new jobs created during the recovery, some 5 million more are needed just to make up for all of the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. At March’s pace, it would take nearly four more years to get there – and that’s not accounting for population growth.

If job growth remains at tepid clip of around 150,000 a month, it would take five years for the jobless rate, which registered 8.2 percent in March, to fall to 6 percent, according to Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank economist Julie Hotchkiss.

Spain: ¿Cómo se dice “contagion”?

It was not a good day for Spain.

The euro zone’s fourth largest economy had to pay dearer to borrow through medium-term bonds, a sign that concerns over the country´s fiscal problems was curbing appetite for its debt. It sold 2.6 billion euros of 2015, 2016 and 2020 paper – at the low end of the target range.

In contrast, Portugal’s 1 billion euros sale of 18-month treasury bills was a successful test of market appetite for the longest-dated debt since it took an international bailout. Appetite for short-dated paper has been especially supported by the one trillion euros of cheap three-year European Central Bank funding injected into the financial system since December.

The problem is that Spain is the latest country to come into the firing line of the euro zone debt crisis. This week’s tough budget was not enough to calm investor nerves and many fear too much austerity could choke an already struggling economy where unemployment rose to a staggering 22.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 – the highest in the European Union. Meanwhile, the government expects Spain’s public debt to jump in 2012 to its highest since at least 1990.

Bernanke’s jobs pivot

Jason Lange contributed to this post

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made no direct references to the outlook for monetary policy in a speech to the National Association for Business Economics on Monday. But the message from his heavy focus on a weak labor market was pretty clear: The Fed is not considering tightening policy in the near future and stands ready to do more if growth doesn’t pick up steam this year. Ironically, Bernanke’s pessimism cheered the markets – by signaling that another round of stimulus is not off the table.

Andrew Wilkinson at Miller Tabak captured Bernanke’s feat for the day:

It ain’t what you say it’s the way that you say it – at least that’s what Chairman Bernanke found out on Monday by not mentioning further quantitative easing.

After its last two meetings, the Fed said it would likely keep rates near zero at least through late 2014. But upbeat economic signs, including solid employment growth, have led investors to bet on a move as early as the middle of next year. Bernanke’s speech appeared aimed at pushing back against those expectations.

from Lawrence Summers:

It’s too soon to return to normal policies

Economic forecasters divide into two groups: those who cannot know the future but think they can, and those who recognize their inability to know the future. Shifts in the economy are rarely forecast and often not fully recognized until they have been under way for some time. So judgments about the U.S. economy have to be tentative. What can be said is that for the first time in five years a resumption of growth significantly above the economy's potential now appears as a substantial possibility. Put differently, after years when the risks to the consensus modest-growth forecast were to the downside, they are now very much two-sided.

As winter turned to spring in 2010 and 2011, many observers thought they detected evidence that the economy had decisively turned, only to be disappointed a few months later. A variety of considerations suggest that this time may be different. Employment growth has been running well ahead of population growth. The stock market level is higher and its expected volatility lower than at any time since the crisis began in 2007, suggesting that the uncertainty hanging over business has declined. Consumers who have been deferring purchases of cars and other durable goods have created pent-up demand. The housing market seems to be stabilizing. For years now, the rate of family formation has been way below normal as young people moved in with their parents. At some point they will set out on their own, creating a virtuous circle of a stronger housing market, more family formation and demand, and further improvement in housing conditions. Innovation around mobile information technology, social networking and newly discovered oil and natural gas is likely, assuming appropriate regulatory policies, to drive significant investment and job creation.

True, the risks of high oil prices, further problems in Europe, and financial fallout from anxiety about future deficits remain salient. However, unlike in 2010 and 2011, it is probable that these risks are already priced into markets and factored into outlooks for consumer and business spending. There has already been a significant escalation in oil prices. The European situation is hardly resolved but is unlikely to deteriorate as much in the next months as it did last year. And market participants report great alarm about the deficit situation. So it would not take great news in any of these areas for them to actually contribute to upward revisions in current forecasts.

Europe’s triple threat: bad banks, big debts, slow growth

The financial turmoil still dogging Europe is most often described as a debt crisis. But sovereign debt is only part of the problem, according to new research from Jay Shambaugh, economist at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. The other two prongs of what he describes as three coexisting crises are the region’s troubled banks and the prospect of an imminent recession.

These problems are mutually reinforcing, and require a more forceful policy response than the authorities have delivered to date. In particular, Shambaugh advocates using tax policy to lower labor costs, fiscal stimulus from those economies strong enough to afford it, and more aggressive action from the European Central Bank:

It is possible that coordinated shifts in payroll and consumption taxes could aid the painful process of internal devaluation. The EFSF could be used to capitalize banks and to help break the sovereign / bank link. Fiscal support in core countries could help spur growth.  Finally, the ECB could provide liquidity to sovereigns and increase nominal GDP growth as well as allow slightly faster inflation to facilitate deleveraging and relative price adjustments across regions.

Employer of last resort, Arab Spring style


The concept that the government should serve as an employer of last resort in times of economic stress was first floated by the late economist Hyman Minsky. Its modern-day proponents remain largely marginalized, despite the nation’s persistently high unemployment and the extreme damage to the job market that was done by the deepest recession in generations. 

But Ali Kadri, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, argues the policy, which works as an automatic stabilizer when economies are struggling, is all the more appropriate for an Arab world that has been plagued by extremely high joblessness and a general lack of infrastructure and development. He says the Arab spring creates an opportunity for a drastic shift in the region’s approach to social and economic policy.

The retention of resources and their redeployment within the national economy are indispensable conditions for development and job creation. Employment policies are best set subject to social efficiency criteria distinct from the salient neoclassical productivity ones. It is highly unlikely, in view of the sheer smallness to which industry and the productive economy have shrunk under neoliberalism, that it would be possible to reemploy the massive redundant labour force on the basis of expanding private sector expansion and productivity gains. A criterion valuing and remunerating social work may be costly in the short term, but the social returns will reimburse initial expenses over the long term.

A recovery in Europe? Really?

There’s a sense of relief among European policymakers that the worst of the euro zone’s crisis appears to have passed. Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic officials, talked this week of a “turning of the tide in the coming months”. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, speaks of “sizeable progress” and “a reassuring picture”.

At last week’s spring summit, EU leaders couldn’t say it enough: “This meeting is not a crisis meeting … it’s not crisis management,” according to Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen. All the talk is of how the euro zone’s economy will recover in the second half of this year.

But for the 330 million Europeans who make up the euro zone, the outlook has, if anything, darkened. As euro zone governments deepen their commitment to deficit-cutting, and rising oil prices mean higher-than-expected inflation, households can’t be counted on to drive growth. Not only did housing spending fall 0.4 percent in the October to December period from the third quarter, but unemployment rose to its highest since late 1997 in January.

Mid-Atlantic headwinds for U.S. employment

Ed Krudy contributed to this post

The Philadelphia Fed’s Mid-Atlantic manufacturing survey covers a pretty small chunk of an already shrunken U.S. factory sector. Still, analysts at Harris Bank have found that the survey’s employment component has been a pretty solid leading indicator of the monthly payrolls figures.

If the trend persists, then February’s report could be a bit of a letdown following a surprisingly robust gain of 243,000 jobs last month. The Philly Fed’s employment index dropped sharply in February to its lowest level since August.

According to Jack Ablin, Harris Bank’s chief investment officer:

For the last several months, the Business Outlook survey has been a keen predictor of the monthly change in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ non-farm payroll. The survey came close to nailing last month’s 243,000 gain, even though economists expected a 140,000 pickup on average. Should the survey’s predictive power continue, investors could be disappointed with February’s BLS report. The Philly Fed survey implies roughly 50,000 net new non-farm payroll jobs added in February. Positive yes, but it would be a big momentum killer. Stay tuned. The payroll report is not due out until March 9th.

Is falling U.S. unemployment a statistical mirage?

After the initial jubilance that followed last week’s employment report, Wall Street economists are having a second look at the data. Their conclusions are not quite as rosy.

The rapid decline in the U.S. jobless rate in recent months – from 9.1 percent last summer to 8.3  percent in January – has caught forecasters by surprise given the rather soft pace of underlying economic growth. Steve Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho, says a shrinking U.S. labor force helps explain the apparent discrepancy.

The fact that the employment-to-population ratio has not moved since September even as the jobless rate has fallen by 0.7% suggests that this improvement is a statistical mirage. The fact that the labor force participation rate has also declined by 0.4% during this four month period is another warning that the jobless rate is improving for the wrong reasons. This more realistic look at the data suggests that over-thinking the jobs data will lead to investor disappointment in the months ahead.