Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. He is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). To never miss a post, subscribe to a weekly email roundup of Beat the Press.

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It's Novartis and Japan today. The NYT reports on allegations that the company altered test results to exaggerate the effectiveness of Diovan, a drug for treating high blood pressure and heart disease. This is the sort of corruption that economic theory predicts would result from government granted patent monopolies. By raising the price of drugs by several thousand percent above their free market price, patents provide an enormous incentive for drug companies to misrepresent the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.

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That headline would have been as accurate as much of what appears in a NYT article on Republican proposals that they claim are designed to address poverty. The piece asserts "Republicans are offering a series of proposals to help more Americans rise out of poverty."

Of course the NYT has no idea if the goal of these proposals is really to "help more Americans rise out of poverty." There is good reason to believe that this is not the case since almost all of them have been tried before with little success. Furthermore, the most obvious beneficiaries of many of these proposals would be rich people who are able to game them successfully.

Usually reporters do not take politicians claims at face value. This is why they report on their statements and their actions, not their intentions. If progressive Democrats came up with a proposal for "defense reform," which they asserted would make the country better able to confront foreign threats, it is unlikely that any major media outlet would simply describe the defense reform proposal as a plan to improve the country's security.

Most of these proposals have obvious ways to game them. For example, Senator Rand's proposal would provide for a 5 percent flat tax for any individual or business who lived in his designated "economic freedom zones." It would be a relatively simple matter for Bill Gates or any other rich person to buy an apartment which they would claim as their residence in order to reduce their tax bill by 75-85 percent. Similarly, it would be easy for Apple to set up an office which would register most of its patents, so that it would be the location for most of its profits.

Of course the 6-figure and 7-figure tax accountants hired by the rich and large corporations would find many more sophisticated ways to game the Rand proposal. However, since it opens such obvious loopholes for the rich to drastically lower their tax bill it is as reasonable to believe that this Rand's motive rather than recycling a failed approach in the hope that this time it will actually reduce poverty. 

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As we mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it would be appropriate to note one of the main causes of its limited success, using big numbers without context. The issue here is a simple one; most people think that we have committed vastly more resources than is in fact the case to fighting this war. As a result, they are reasonably (based on their understanding) reluctant to contribute more resources.

Polls consistently show the public hugely exaggerates the share of the budget that goes to programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or food stamps. They believe that these anti-poverty programs are responsible for a large share of the budget when in reality their impact is marginal. (TANF accounts for about 0.4 percent of federal spending and food stamps account for 2.1 percent.) This is partly due to the fact that these items are always reported as millions or billions of dollars, which are very large numbers that few people can conceptualize. They are rarely reported as shares of the total budget.

As a result of exaggerating their importance to the budget, the public is less likely to support anti-poverty programs. They see them as a big part of their tax bill, thinking that their taxes, or at least the deficit, would decrease substantially if we spent less on these programs.

They also reasonably question their effectiveness. If we were actually spending one-third of the budget on anti-poverty programs and still had so many poor people, then the public would be right to question whether this was a good use of their tax dollars.

The NYT has committed itself to expressing large budget numbers in a context that will make them understandable to readers. It remains to be seen whether they will follow through on this commitment. If they do, and the rest of the media follow suit, it will have a substantial impact on the public's understanding of the War on Poverty.

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When someone touts the risks of deflation it is simply their way of saying that they don't understand the economy. The NYT provided us this service in an article on how the euro zone is seeing a lower than desired rate of inflation.

After noting that year over year inflation was just 0.8 percent in the most recent data, well below the European Central Bank's 2.0 percent target, the article tells readers:

"Europe could face outright deflation — a debilitating economic condition in which prices actually decline across the board.

"As long as hints of deflation remain, the E.C.B. faces a difficult challenge."

It later adds:

"Spain’s consumer prices rose just 0.3 percent, while Italy’s rose only 0.2 percent, as those two countries’ troubled economies teetered near a deflationary cliff.

"Deflation would only add to the broader economic malaise in the region, by hurting corporate profits and by leading consumers to delay purchases in anticipation of better deals in the future. It would also weigh heavily on borrowers, making loan repayments more expensive in real terms — a particular danger for Europe’s already fragile financial sector."

Okay, let's get this straight. It's okay if the inflation rate is 0.2 percent or 0.3 percent, but all hell breaks loose if we are looking at 0.5 percent deflation? How does that work?

The article tells us corporate profits will be lower. Well, ignoring the fact that corporate profits are currently very high, how does a dip from 0.3 percent inflation to 0.5 percent deflation affect corporate profits in a way that is different from a dip from 1.1 percent inflation to 0.3 percent inflation? If the inflation rate is lower than what businesses had expected then they will be selling their output for a lower than expected price. That means lower profits regardless of whether or not the lower inflation rate is positive to negative.

As far as consumers delaying purchases, let's try some arithmetic. Suppose someone is considering a big ticket item like a television or a refrigerator that costs $1,000. If the rate of deflation is 0.5 percent, our would-be buyer would save $2.50 by delaying their purchase for six months. They would get a $5 windfall if they delay the purchase a full year. Is this going to be a big problem?

To make matters worse for the deflation hawks, many prices are already falling even before we fall off the "deflationary cliff." The overall inflation rate is an average of millions of price changes. When the average is positive but close to zero then it is inevitable that the price of many items is already falling. Is that a big problem? Well, the price of computers has been falling sharply for decades.

The real issue here is simple. It would be desirable to have a lower real interest rate in the euro zone to boost demand. This can only be brought about with a higher rate of inflation. It would also be helpful to have higher inflation in core countries like Germany so that peripheral countries like Spain and Greece can regain competitiveness within the euro zone. Going from a positive rate of inflation to deflation is a move in the wrong direction, but it is not qualitatively different from a drop in the rate of inflation to a still positive rate. The problem is simply too low a rate of inflation, there is nothing magical about crossing zero. (As a practical matter, there is enough measurement error in price indices that a low reported positive rate is in fact consistent with a true negative rate.)

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Those who hoped to be informed about the state of the economy by reading this NYT piece on President Obama's renewed focus on the economy made a bad mistake. The piece implies that the economy is largely back to normal except for pockets of people who have been left behind. For example it tells readers:

"He is presiding over an economy that has improved sharply in the five years since 2009, when it was buckling under the weight of a severe recession, but decades-long shifts in technology and globalization have left more people out of work for extended periods than at any other time in the past 50 years.'

The piece then adds:

"Like Mr. Obama, President Ronald Reagan also ended his fifth year with unemployment at 7 percent after a devastating recession. But Mr. Reagan was sunnier in public as the country’s financial fortunes turned around, and ran for re-election in 1984 with an advertising campaign that declared 'It’s morning again in America' for a country weary of economic distress. Mr. Obama has chosen to be more restrained in his enthusiasm."

It is not just a question of sunny disposition. By the beginning of 1986 the economy had 7.8 percent more jobs than it had in its pre-recession peak in July of 1981. By contrast, the number of jobs is still 1.0 percent below its pre-recession peak in January of 2008. The same story can be seen looking at the ratio of employment to population (EPOP). In January of 1986 the EPOP was 0.6 percentage points above its pre-recession peak. By contrast the EPOP is now more than 4.5 percentage points below its pre-recession peak. This corresponds to more than 10 million fewer people working.  By any reasonable measure the economy is in far worse shape today relative to its pre-recession level of output than it was in January 1986.

The assertion that people have been left out of work due to a "decades-long shifts in technology and globalization" is not supported by evidence. If there is reason to believe that most of the unemployed would not find work if the economy returned to its level of potential output (we are still down by more than 6 percent [$1 trillion annually] according to the Congressional Budget Office) the NYT opted not to show it.

In other words, the most obvious reason these people are unemployed is that the government is running macroeconomic policies that are keeping the economy far below its potential level of output, not some inexorable trend in globalization or technology. The latter view may absolve policy makers of blame for the plight of these people, as well as the lack of wage growth for the much larger group of people who are employed but not sharing in the economy's growth, but it is far from obvious that it correctly describes the economy. It is irresponsible of the NYT to just assert it as fact.

 

Note: Typo corrected, thanks Robert Salzberg.

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Marketplace radio says that we should be happy for those big Wall Street bonuses because they lead to more spending and job creation. Of course spending by the Wall Street boys creates jobs, but the same is true of spending by drug dealers and bank robbers. It is a bit peculiar that a news show would try to use this fact as a justification for bonuses that arguably stem from rent-seeking activity that provides no benefit to the economy.

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The NYT discussed the state of debate in the United Kingdom on the conservative government's austerity policy. The piece notes that the economy is now growing again and implies that the austerity policies might be the basis for this renewed growth.

Actually, economies almost always grow, so there really should not be much debate about whether austerity policies deserve credit. This is like noticing that a child is taller at age six than she had been at age five and then boasting that her growth must have been attributable to six months of a near starvation diet. While that may be the nature of political debate in the United Kingdom, the billions of people around the world who know that children grow would recognize it as absurd.

Similarly, it is absurd to say that an economy has resumed growth after years of recession or near recession conditions, owes this growth to austerity. The NYT is not supposed to present delusions of political leaders to its readers as plausible explanations of reality.

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Stanford Professor and former Bush administration economist John Taylor is taking strong exception to the secular stagnation argument being put forward by Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, and right-thinking economists everywhere. His alternative explanation for an unusually weak recovery and a decade of poor growth is excessively expansionary monetary policy and policy uncertainty due to items like the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. Both of these lines of argument are a bit hard to follow.

On the excessively expansionary monetary policy point, the usual evidence is accelerating inflation. We see the opposite over the last decade, low and falling inflation. The expansionary monetary policy has been a direct response to the weak economy over this period. Taylor seems to miss this, asserting in his paper:

"The federal funds rate was 1.0 percent in 2003 when the inflation rate was about 2.0 percent and the economy was operating pretty close to normal."

Actually the economy was far from being close to normal. It was still shedding jobs until September of 2003, almost two years after the official recession was over. The employment to population ratio at the end of 2003 was still almost 2.5 percentage points below its pre-recession level, a larger falloff than at any point in the 1990-91 downturn. It seems more than a bit of a stretch to say the economy was operating close to normal. (My explanation is that we were having trouble recovering from the collapse of the stock bubble.)

Taylor then follows Peter Wallison in blaming Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Community Re-investment Act for the housing bubble even though the worst loans were securitized by private investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns. The GSEs lost massive market share in the bubble years to the subprime issuers.

Then we get that Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank are preventing firms from investing and hiring. There is no real explanation of how this is supposed to be occurring. First off, non-residential investment is almost back to its pre-recession share of GDP, so it seems like Taylor is trying to explain a gap that does not exist. The same applies to hiring. If there were a fear of hiring then we should be seeing the length of the average workweek rising far above historic levels, as employers substitute more hours for more workers. We don't.

If the Affordable Care Act is actually discouraging hiring can we get some hint as to where to look for evidence. Presumably it would be at mid-size firms that didn't previously provide insurance but might now be forced to by employer sanctions under the ACA. Is there any evidence this is happening? Taylor certainly doesn't present any.

The same is true with Dodd-Frank. Do we see less hiring and growth in the financial sector than we would have in the absence of the new legislation? If so, Taylor does not make the case. Is it harder for non-financial firms to borrow as a result of Dodd-Frank? This is certainly not in any obvious way true.

In short, Taylor's argument is primarily one of yelling "uncertainty, ACA, Dodd-Frank bad." It may sell in some circles, but it is not a serious economic argument.

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That's because Larry Summers is right and John Taylor is just obscuring reality. The NYT did a disservice when it reported on Larry Summers' concern for a period of secular stagnation that predated the downturn and then gave Taylor's response:

"If Mr. Summers’s theory is accurate, said John B. Taylor, a Stanford economist who served in Republican presidential administrations, 'You would have expected the economy to not have been working so well before the crisis. He says it wasn’t. I say it was.'

"Mr. Taylor said that such measures as inflation, housing investment and unemployment showed a strong economy leading up to the crisis."

Actually the story of secular stagnation is totally consistent with one where growth can be temporarily spurred by a housing bubble. The growth created by the bubble can bring down unemployment and raise output to near capacity, but it is not sustainable. There is nothing that Taylor said that is in anyway inconsistent with a story of secular stagnation.

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Peter Wallison, who was White House Counsel under President Reagan and has long been a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told NYT readers today that the housing bubble is back. Wallison is right to be concerned about the return of a bubble, as I have pointed out elsewhere, but his account of the last bubble and the risks of a new one are strangely off the mark.

Wallison wants to blame the bubble on government policy of promoting homeownership. There certainly has been a problem of a housing policy that is far too tilted toward homeownership, but this does not explain the bubble. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors in the bubble years, buying up trillions of dollars of loans issued on houses purchased at bubble inflated prices, as I said at the time.

However the worst loans were securitized by folks like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs. They weren't securitizing junk mortgages to meet government goals for low-income homeownership, they were doing it to make money. And they made lots of money in these years. In fact, the private securitizers were so successful in securitizing junk mortgages that they almost put the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) out of business. Since the FHA maintained its lending standards it couldn't compete with the zero down payment loans being securitized on Wall Street. It saw its market share fall to 2 percent at the peak of the bubble. Some of us warned about the problem posed by the bubble in low-income communities at the time.

Anyhow, Wallison's chronology of the last bubble is more than a bit off. He tells readers;

"In 1997, housing prices began to diverge substantially from rental costs. Between 1997 and 2002, the average compound rate of growth in housing prices was 6 percent, exceeding the average compound growth rate in rentals of 3.34 percent. This, incidentally, contradicts the widely held idea that the last housing bubble was caused by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. Between 1997 and 2000, the Fed raised interest rates, and they stayed relatively high until almost 2002 with no apparent effect on the bubble, which continued to maintain an average compound growth rate of 6 percent until 2007, when it collapsed."

I also date the bubble as beginning in the mid-1990s, but there was a qualitative difference in the price rises of the late 1990s and the 2000s. If prices had stopped rising in 2000, house sale prices would have been somewhat higher relative to rents, but there would have been no serious risk of a recession and financial collapse if they fell back to their historic levels. However house price growth accelerated in the 2000s, with prices rising at a 10 percent annual rate from the 4th quarter of 2000 to their peak in the 2nd quarter of 2006 (not 2007). [Doesn't the NYT do any fact checking? The interest rate story is wrong also, with the federal funds rate having been lowered to 3.0 percent by September of 2001.] And this more rapid price growth is from an already inflated level.

Levels are important also in assessing Wallison's claim that we have a new bubble because:

"Today, after the financial crisis, the recession and the slow recovery, the bubble is beginning to grow again. Between 2011 and the third quarter of 2013, housing prices grew by 5.83 percent, again exceeding the increase in rental costs, which was 2 percent."

This rate of growth is from a more normal level of house prices. As I have frequently noted, house prices were growing very rapidly in the first half of 2013 posing a real risk of a return to a bubble. However Bernanke's taper talk in June and the resulting rise in mortgage rates appears to have curbed the irrational exuberance, although it will be important to watch future price appreciation closely. In any case, it appears that the main culprits today are private equity funds and hedge funds who have been buying up large blocks of homes as investment properties, not low income buyers.

 

Addendum:

Through the Twitterverse I received a link to this Wallison piece from 2002 in which he critcized the GSEs for not doing enough to provide mortgage credit to moderate income households. Here's the key part:

"Any claim that they are discharging a public trust is an illusion. To the degree that they do anything less than maximizing profits it is to maintain their valuable franchise by reducing their political risk, not because they are voluntarily fulfilling some public trust. It can't be otherwise; they are legally bound to a duty only to the corporation and its shareholders.

"This is very clearly seen in Fannie and Freddie's activities in affordable and minority housing. Study after study has shown that they are doing less for those who are underserved in the housing market than banks and thrifts. Not only do they buy fewer mortgages than are originated in minority communities, the ones they buy tend to be seasoned and thus less risky. Despite Fannie's claims about trillion dollar commitments, they are meeting their affordable and minority housing obligations by slipping through loopholes in the loosely written and enforced HUD regulations in this area.

"In other words, two companies that are immensely profitable and claim to have a government mission, are doing as little as they can get away with for those who most need assistance--while swamping the airwaves with advertising that they are putting people in homes. This should be no surprise, since their incentives push them in this direction. As shareholder-owned companies, they are maximizing their profits--as they must--while doing just enough to avoid the criticism that might result in the loss of the government support that enables them to earn these profits."

 

 

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