Posts Tagged ‘drive-by truckers’

The wage is too damn high?

19 February 2013

I don’t think so. But first, some background.

President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage in his State of the Union address. Specifically he called for it to go up to $9 an hour by the end of 2015, up from $7.25 now, and then to index it to the rate of inflation in subsequent years. Is this a good idea?

Economists are famous for being against the minimum wage, with introductory microeconomics textbooks typically using it as an example of a price floor that creates a surplus of the good in question – in this case, a surplus of labor, or unemployment. And that is valid if the market for labor is perfectly competitive and if the rest of the economy is held constant. (Two rather big ifs, yes.) Economists call this “partial equilibrium analysis,” as opposed to “general equilibrium analysis,” which looks at the repercussions in all markets. In the economy as a whole, firms can’t always sell all they want to at the going price, and too-high wages are not the only source of unemployment – recessions cause unemployment, and so does falling demand in specific sectors of the economy. It’s also possible that higher minimum wages could increase the total income of the lowest-paid workers, resulting in more demand for goods and services in general and a higher level of employment. The White House clearly believes that last part (more about that here).

Who’s right? It all depends on which effect is stronger – the micro effect (higher wages mean less output and employment) or the macro effect (higher wages mean higher incomes and higher aggregate demand). And that is an empirical question. For decades, most economic studies found that minimum wages reduced employment among the least educated, least skilled workers, i.e., the people most likely to be working at low wages. But an influential study by economists David Card & Alan Krueger in the 1990s found either no effect or, surprisingly, a positive effect of higher minimum wages on low-skill or teenage employment. In their 1995 book, Card & Krueger further found that the earlier studies omitted important variables, like teenage high school attendance rates, and that controlling for those variables caused the minimum wage’s estimated effect to be insignificant. Their work has had its own critics and would-be debunkers, but it remains influential.

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Is inflation on target? (corrected)

5 August 2011

The new BLS unemployment numbers (9.1% unemployment rate, 16.1% comprehensive unemployment rate, 117,000 new jobs created) are the talk of the morning. I don’t have much to add to it, but I’ll echo the oft-made point that job growth needs to be twice as fast for the next several years for unemployment to fall to normal levels. I’ll also note that the numbers are a bit better than those of a year ago, but a bit worse than those of March, when unemployment was 8.8%. So although the numbers are better than expected, they’re still underwhelming and we still might be in a double-dip recession.

Instead I want to focus on the other big economic variable. Inflation has been so low over the past few years — in the range of 1-2% — that Ben Bernanke and others have seemed more worried about deflation than inflation. At the same time, some Fed critics have charged that the Fed’s actions to backstop dodgy financial asset markets and flood the banks with new reserves will lead to a massive inflation after the slump is over or a stagflation (stagnant economy with high inflation) even sooner. Some numbers to remember: Inflation has averaged 3% a year over the past century, and close to that over the past few decades. The Fed’s unofficial target for inflation is 2%. What do the markets expect for the years to come?

A good way to answer that question is to compare the well-reported interest rates on regular Treasury bonds with the interest rates on “TIPS” — Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities. The payments on a TIPS bond are adjusted for whatever inflation occurs over the bond’s lifespan.  The inflation adjustment is trickier than I’d originally thought — instead of simply adding the inflation rate to the interest rate that arose from the bond’s auction, the interest rate stays the same but the bond’s principal rises, and the interest payments are based on the original interest rate times the new principal. (Ex.: Imagine a 1-year, $1000-face-value TIPS bond that sells at par, i.e., for $1000 and therefore has an interest rate of 0%. If inflation is 3% over the next year, then the principal rises 3% to $1030. The interest is still $0, but the overall yield on the bond is 3% ($30/$1000). That’s a simplified example. It’s more complicated if the interest rate isn’t 0%.) Because the arithmetic can get complicated, it’s easier to look up the “breakeven” rate, which is the inflation rate implied by the different on TIPS and ordinary T-bonds.

(Add to that a conceptual complication: Because the TIPS bond is less risky, since it’s indexed for inflation, it should be in somewhat greater demand than the regular T-bond. So, other things equal, it should command a higher price and pay a lower interest rate. With that in mind, the difference between the interest rates on regular T-bonds and TIPS bonds is roughly the expected inflation rate plus an inflation-risk premium, which reflects people’s uncertainty about future inflation.)

Comparing the interest rates for 5-year bonds last week (when this was originally posted), the  T-bonds paid 1.12% and the TIPS paid -0.67%. The implied inflation rate (1.80%, if my spreadsheet math is correct) is actually very close to the difference in the interest rates on the two bonds (1.79%). Apparently the market is expecting the Fed to be just shy of its 2% target over the next 5 years.

Looking at the 10-year bonds, the T-bonds paid 2.47% and the TIPS paid 0.24%. The 2.03-percentage-point difference is again a close approximation of the breakeven rate; my spreadsheet math yields an expected inflation rate of 2.22%, or slightly over the Fed’s target. Together the two breakeven rates imply that the market is expecting inflation to average about 2.6% in years 6 through 10. These numbers provide no guide to where they think that inflation is going to come from (recovery? shortages of gas or food? QE5?), but the weakness in the stock market suggests they’re not expecting a recovery anytime soon. It may just be that their flight to safety has gone into overdrive, and TIPS are in exceptionally heavy demand because they are even less risky than regular T-bonds. So possibly they’re expecting inflation rates of about 1% through 2016 and 2% in 2016-2021, with the remainder being a risk premium.

In sum, the Fed does seem to be hitting its inflation target, more or less, but that’s about all. Bondholders appear willing to lock in near-zero or negative real returns over the next five or ten years, just so they can hold a safe asset. Which suggests they’re scared shitless.

Feeling 1982: Fifteen million unemployed

2 July 2009

Another BLS employment report, more bad news.  In every month since April 2008, the U.S. unemployment rate has either risen or held steady.  It’s currently at 9.5%, the highest since late 1982, and 14.7 million people are unemployment (or 15.1 million if one uses the non-seasonally-adjusted data, i.e., the data that count the actual unemployed without filtering for seasonal fluctuations).  For adult men, the unemployment rate is an even 10%. Nonfarm payroll employment fell by 467,000, about 100,000 worse than economists had expected.

U.S. unemployment rate, 1980-2009

U.S. unemployment rate, 1980-2009

It gets worse still. Think of 5% unemployment as the benchmark, as many economists consider 5% to be the “natural” rate of unemployment, i.e., about the lowest unemployment rate that the economy can sustain without generating higher inflation.  The unemployment rate has been that low or better quite often in recent years, including about four years in 1997-2001 and about three years in 2005-2008 (click chart to see it properly).  Right now, however, 5 percent (actually 5.1%) is the long-term unemployment rate, i.e., the number of people unemployed 15 weeks or longer divided by the total labor force.

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Clinging to your stocks and bonds

29 December 2008

A useful personal investing article in the Dec. 26 New York Times about bonds, pointing out that bonds and bond funds have also fallen victim to the financial crisis and concluding with a helpful list of what’s available.  But hey, NYT, bonds aren’t just for old people!  (The headline: “Older Investors Should Examine the Risks in Bonds.”  Oh well, I’ve seen worse headlines — will somebody please inform their headline writers that “printing money” and “issuing Treasury bonds” are two different things?)

By now, the personal finances are way overdue for a rebalancing.   Burton Malkiel, author of the great A Random Walk Down Wall Street, suggests the following portfolio allocation for people my age (early 40s):

60% STOCKS (20% international, 20% growth & income, 10% small cap, 10% growth; all in stock funds, not individual stocks)

35% BONDS (12.5% GNMA mortgage bond funds, 12.5% high-grade bond funds, 10% T-bills)

5% CASH (money market funds or short-term bond funds)

I can’t follow that completely, as I derive too much pleasure from the lottery tickets known as individual stocks (and I figure it’s not too reckless as long as they’re a small part of the overall portfolio), and I’m not putting any money into Treasury bills while they’re paying 0% interest, but it still looks like sound advice.  Having a third of your stock holdings be international stocks sounds especially logical (not that European or Japanese stocks have been going gangbusters themselves lately).

Some stock-market links from a couple months ago, when the Wall Street crisis was in full roar: