Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Who's afraid of inflation?: Part 2

This chart covers the US economy  from 1960 through to the present day. Core inflation is shown in red, and year over year wage growth is shown in blue.

The first point here is that inflation problems go hand in hand with stong wage growth. In the high inflation period of the 1970s, wage growth was never less than 7.5% per year. Strong wage growth in the late 60s preceded the slide into high inflation. Inflation is a problem that tends to appear in the late stages of an economic boom, not when the economy is deeply depressed. Wage growth at present is very low.

The second point is that the Fed's current target for inflation, at 2.5%, is far lower than the 3-5% inflation that prevailed during Reagan's presidency. Nobody saw inflation as a problem at the time, even though it was far above the level which the Fed now regards as acceptable. And job growth in the Reagan recovery was far better than anything which we have seen in the past few years.

Clearly the Bernanke Fed has prioritized low inflation over fighting unemployment. I believe this reflects a lack of accountability to the American public.

Wage growth isn't likely to be a problem any time soon

This chart shows wage growth in blue and the unemployment rate in green. Wages seem to take off when unemployment gets below about 5%. There is no chance of that happening in the near future because unemployment remains far too high. If wage growth stays low, so will inflation.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Who's afraid of inflation?

Central banks continue to point to fears of inflation as their justification for not doing more to generate growth and fight unemployment. I find their concern about inflation almost impossible to understand and in this post I will explain why.

Inflation: A problem of the past

As this chart shows, inflation has been dormant since the mid-90s. It hasn't been a serious problem for 30 years, since 1982. Inflation is in red, while unemployment is in blue. And unemployment remains far above the 5% level which has sometimes sparked inflation in the past.

Global conditions don't favor inflation

When inflation was last a serious problem, in the 1970s, it wasn't just a US issue. As the next chart shows, it was a global problem. Japan is in red, the UK in green, France in orange and Germany in blue. Japan and the UK had even more serious inflation than the US. Today, global inflation is lower than at any time in the past 50 years.

The bond market isn't worried

The next chart shows the yield on ordinary 10-year Treasuries in green, and on inflation protected bonds in blue. Bond rates are lower than at any time in the past 50 years. Real interest rates are negative. The difference between ordinary and inflation protected bonds gives an implied inflation forecast of 2.5%.

Demand is very weak

The next chart shows housing starts in red, and GDP in blue. In past recoveries, falling interest rates would encourage home building, and that added demand would pull the economy out of recession. The housing market is badly broken, and housing starts remain at very low levels despite very low interest rates. In the past month there have been a few stories indicating an upturn in housing, which is a rare piece of good economic news, but there is a long ways to go to get back to normal levels.

When inflation was a problem, in the 1970s, demand was much stronger, with housing starts running at over 2 million units.  Growth surged to over 5% back then.

Today, growth is extremely weak by comparison with past recoveries. It is below 2.5%, which is unusual for an economy that is not in recession.

Car demand is also unusually weak.

Unemployment in catastrophically bad

Not since the Depression have so many been unemployed for so long, yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve don't seem to care. The longer people stay unemployed, the more skills they lose.

We have an economy with surplus capital, industrial capacity and labor, and very weak demand. This is not the sort of economy that generates inflation. Yet the Bernanke Fed appears to have given up on its mandate to fight unemployment.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A divided Europe

The European crisis is often framed in terms of 'wealthy' Northern Europe bailing out 'poor' Southern Europe. Reality is more complicated.

Regional GDP as a percent of EU average (2009 data)

This map shows economic output by region. Dark greens show the regions of highest output, light green shows regions close to the EU average, while the poorest regions are colored pale yellow. The north-south divide runs right through the middle of Italy, and parts of northern Italy and northern Spain have output levels comparable to Germany.

Meanwhile, parts of eastern Germany have output levels comparable to Greece and southern Spain. Despite 20 years and vast amounts of aid, East Germany is nowhere near matching West Germany's economic performance. East Germany has never really recovered from having an overvalued currency after unification
Chart source: Eurostat

Judging by the very slow improvement of East Germany, it seems very unlikely that the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) will be able to solve their problems by raising competitiveness. German experience with reunification probably explains why Germany is reluctant to give the PIGS large amounts of aid. They tried that with East Germany and it didn't work.

Regional unemployment (2010)

Chart source: Eurostat

In this map dark green shows high levels of unemployment while light yellow shows low unemployment. Southern Germany and Northern Italy are doing very well, while most of Europe struggles.

Given the divergent economic performance, a single currency no longer seems to make sense. Of course the USA also struggles with large regional differences in wealth. However, it is the vast differences in unemployment rates which will probably make the Eurozone unworkable. Salzburg region, Austria has 2.5% unemployment, while Andalucia region, Spain suffers from 30% unemployment.

Source: Eurostat


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Eurofail: Ireland vs Arizona

The financial crisis in Europe just won't seem to go away. While the US is still struggling to get out of the recession that started in 2008, we have at least managed to stabilize our financial system.

There are surprising similarities between Ireland, one of the first European countries to be engulfed by the crisis, and the American state of Arizona. The differences in the way the crisis was handled contain a lot of lessons about what is necessary for a successful currency union.

NamePopulation   2007 GDP per capita (2010$) Homeownership rate (2004)
Arizona 6.3 million $44,200 69%
Ireland4.6 million $46,138 81%

Annual economic growth in Ireland and Arizona was very similar before the crisis
Orange: Arizona, Green: Ireland

Unemployment rates were also very similar before the crisis, but post-crisis Arizona has done much better.
Orange:Arizona, Green:Ireland

Irish house prices have lost half their value from their peak.

House prices in Phoenix have also lost a little over half their peak value. Arizona house prices fell faster, and have now stabilized.

The lesson for Europe

Arizona and Ireland had very similar housing bubbles. Yet Arizona is now on the road to recovery, while Ireland remains stuck with very high unemployment. Both are small economies which are part of much larger currency areas.  In the US, mortgage related losses were dealt with at the Federal level.  Bank failures were dealt with via FDIC. Arizona also benefited from payouts from Federal anti-poverty programs, like unemployment insurance and food stamps.

In Ireland, all these costs had to be borne by the Irish state. The Irish state is now broke.

If the Euro is to have any chance of survival, the cost of cleaning up failed banks needs to be paid at the European level.  Money for programs like unemployment insurance also needs to come from Europe. To pay for all this, some form of European tax system will be needed.

European governments should remain free to raise their own taxes and spend money as required. Arizona doesn't need budget approval from the Federal government in Washington, DC. The  US does not have anything similar to Europe's growth and stability pact.