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 highlighting the latest Beat the Press posts.

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Apparently our news stories are being written by people too young to remember the 90s and unable to find anyone with the competence to look up the data. The economy added 290,000 jobs in April. It is important to note that 66,000 of these jobs were temporary jobs associated with the 2010 census. There is nothing wrong with census jobs, but the point is that these are temporary and have nothing to do with the underlying strength of the economy. So, we can ignore that fact and boast about 290,000 jobs, but if we are then going to be consistent, we should be sure to ignore the loss of these temporary jobs in July and August.

Of course, ignoring that these are temporary jobs generated by the census would give us a poorer understanding of the economy, but would at least be consistent. What is not consistent is ignoring that these jobs are temporary now and then highlighting their loss in July and August. We'll see.

But, back to the fundamental issues. Is 290,000 jobs in a month (224,000 excluding the census jobs) strong job growth coming out of the worst downturn in 70 years. Well the economy created more than 250,000 jobs a month in the years from January 1996 to January 2000. If we adjust for the larger labor force, it generated 400,000 jobs a month for the year following the employment trough of the 74-75 recession and 420,000 jobs a month for the year following the 81-82 recession. Put another way, if we assume an underlying rate of growth of the labor force of 100,000 a month, then it will take 80 months (6 2/3 years) to make up the job deficit from the downturn at the current rate of job growth. Now, let's go celebrate!

 

 

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The Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th Street) pulled out the stops in pushing its deficit reduction agenda today. Its news section includes a lengthy story on the euro crisis that makes things up in order advance the Post line about evil budget deficits.

It starts by misrepresenting the central problem: "and the currency that was designed to rival the U.S. dollar for power and influence is foundering because of a lack of fiscal discipline among its weakest members." While Greece's problems can be attributed in large part to a lack of fiscal discipline, this is clearly not the case with Spain and Ireland, both of whom had budget surpluses and low debt to GDP ratios prior to the downturn. Portugal is a more ambiguous case. The euro would not be facing a crisis if only Greece and Portugal, two relatively small economies, were facing difficulties.

The euro's problem stem from the fact that many economies across Europe were driven by a housing bubble. The European Central Bank (ECB), like the Fed, thought that bubbles were fun and opted to ignore the growth of dangerous housing bubbles in many countries.

For this reason, the sentence: "The euro, created 11 years ago, has always stood upon two unequal legs: a disciplined European Central Bank that has set interest rates for the entire monetary union and a wide variety of national budgets and economic policies ranging from prudent to profligate," could perhaps be more accurately written: "The euro, created 11 years ago, has always stood upon two unequal legs: an incompetent European Central Bank that has set interest rates for the entire monetary union and a wide variety of national budgets and economic policies ranging from prudent to profligate." Had the ECB done the proper job of a central bank it would have taken steps to pierce the bubble (which could have involved many measures other than raising interest rates) before it grew to such dangerous proportions.

It is worth noting that the Post consistently ignored the economists who warned of the dangers of the housing bubble in the build up to the crisis. It is continuing to ignore the bubble even after its collapse led to the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

The Post also gets the necessary remedies confused. It tells readers: "If Greece still had its own currency instead of being tethered to the euro zone, a sudden devaluation would have already slashed the value of the country's wages and benefits." Actually, the important point is not the absolute fall in Greece's wages and benefits, but rather their decline in value relative to those of other countries in Europe.

This is the key point, the issue is less the budget problems, but rather that the fixed exchange rate precludes and effective process of economic adjustment to a period of lower budget deficits. Because Greece and the other troubled countries are stuck in the euro zone, they can neither lower interest rates nor decrease the value of their currency to offset the contractionary impact of deficit reduction. As a result, deficit reduction can lead to a downward spiral in which lower output leads to a higher budget deficit, requiring further cuts, and therefore causing a further drop in output.

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The Washington Post devoted a whole article to the views of a delegation of "senior U.S. executives " selected by the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. These executives told readers that China's industrial policy was a far bigger concern than the value of its currency.

It is understandable that executives of U.S. corporations operating in China would argue this case. A drop in the dollar relative to the yuan will improve the U.S. trade situation for two reasons. First, it will make U.S. exports cheaper for buyers in China, leading them to buy more. Second, it will make Chinese imports more expensive for people in the United States, leading the U.S. to consume fewer goods from China and more domestically made goods.

The U.S. executives in China only care about the former effect. The latter effect -- the impact of a lower dollar on imports from China -- is likely to be the far more important one, since we import far more than we export. Rather than presenting the views of these executives as the simple truth about U.S. trade with China, the Post should have presented them as the views of a narrow interest group. It should have presented the views of independent experts or representatives of other groups to put these views in context.

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In an article on the Greek crisis, the Post noted that the European Central Bank (ECB) could: "use its essentially limitless ability to create money to stanch the crisis." It then added: "though doing so could hurt the long-term credibility of the central bank as an inflation fighter that does not yield to politics."

It is not clear how rescuing Europe's economy implies that the ECB had decided to "yield to politics." This is an invention by the Washington Post. Central banks are supposed to intervene to help economies in this sort of crisis, that is why governments create them. If the ECB fails to act to stem this crisis, when it obviously has the power, its reputation and Europe's economy will suffer serious consequences.

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Morning Edition ran a segment this morning telling us about the tragic plight of the poor doctors who don't know how much their reimbursements will be from Medicare next month. It gave us the doctors' perspective and also the perspective of a Medicare beneficiary who complained that she could not find doctors who are willing to work for Medicare's pay rate.

It would have been helpful to include the perspective of an economist who could have told listeners that physicians are the most highly paid profession. An economist also could have told listeners that our physicians are paid far more than doctors in countries like Germany and Canada, which is one reason that the U.S. health care system is so uncompetitive. An economist also could have discussed the protectionist measures that keep the pay of U.S. physicians so far above world levels.

Finally, an economist could have ridiculed the idea that physicians will en masse stop accepting Medicare patients. The logic is very simple. There is no large group of wealthy potential patients that is underserved now. In other words, wealthy people already have all the doctors that they need. This means that if the nations' physicians decide that they will not accept the 40 million Medicare beneficiaries then they will have no way to make up this lost income. They will have to get by on a lower income. The threat to just serve higher paying patients is nonsense.

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The Washington Post told readers that Freddie Mac needed an additional $10.6 billion from the government to cover its losses. The article never discusses the extent to which these losses are due to loans purchased before Freddie Mac was taken over by the government in September of 2008 or losses on loans purchased after this date.

This distinction is important because when Fannie and Freddie lose money, it means that they paid banks too much for the loans they purchased. If they paid too much for loans before they were taken over then this was presumably the result of bad business decisions. However, if they lose money on loans purchased after September of 2008, then the government is effectively subsidizing banks by paying too much money for their loans. This was the original intention of the TARP program.

Taxpayers have a right to know if Fannie and Freddie are being used to subsidize banks by overpaying for their loans. The Post and other news outlets should be trying to answer this question.

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A front page Washington Post article told readers that: "The basic problem in Greece, and in the other struggling European countries, is that the government debts have grown as large, or nearly as large, as the gross domestic product, making the government's repayment difficult, if not impossible. The countries' imperiled finances, meanwhile, push up the rates at which they can borrow. (emphasis added)"

This is the sort of assertion that belongs on the editorial pages, not in a news story. There have been and are many countries with considerably higher ratios of debt to GDP than Greece than manage to borrow in financial markets without major problems. The more obvious problem with Greece is that it is in the euro.

This means that when it make budget cutbacks to reduce its deficit, it leads to large falls in domestic output. It has no ability to counteract these declines with expansionary monetary policy or a devaluation that will increase its net exports by making Greece more competitive. Greece's budget austerity therefore risks putting it in a downward spiral, where budget cutbacks further depress GDP, leading to a larger budget shortfall, requiring further cutbacks. Washington Post reporters should understand this situation.

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That is what readers of this election eve article must assume. The bubble and its collapse are not mentioned once in an article that tells readers how the citizens of the UK will have to sacrifice in the years ahead. Remarkably, one of the people who is cited as an authority on this topic is Mervyn King. Mr. King, as the head of the Bank of England is the person who is most responsible for the country's economic devastation. Like Alan Greenspan in the United States, King just sat back as the housing bubble in the UK grew to ever more dangerous levels. While the collapse and the resulting economic damage were totally predictable, Mr. King chose to do nothing to prevent this catastrophe.

The economic collapse following in the wake of the housing crash is the main source of the country's current fiscal problems, not profligate spending, as the piece implies.

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The NYT told readers that the White House is opposed to an amendment to the financial reform bill by Senator Bernie Sanders that calls for an audit of the Federal Reserve Board because they: " view it as an encroachment on the central bank’s traditional independence." While this may be the real reason that the White House opposes the bill, there may also be other motives. For example, it is possible that the Fed disbursed funds from its emergency facilities in ways that would be embarrassing if more widely known.

The NYT only knows that the White House says. It does not know its true motives. It should have simply told readers that the White House "claims" that it views an audit as interfering with the Fed's independence.

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Casey Mulligan is on the loose again. The notorious University of Chicago economist is arguing that there was no housing bubble in the NYT Economix section. The centerpiece of his argument is that inflation-adjusted house prices have not returned to their pre-bubble level. This means that the price rise must be driven by the fundamentals of the housing market rather than an irrational bubble.

It's hard to know where to begin on this one. I guess the first point would be that he is using the wrong series to find anything about the bubble. He is using the new house price series from the Census Bureau. This series controls for neither quality nor location. If the price of all homes doubled, but the price of new homes built further from city centers remained the same, this index would show no increase in prices. This is why almost everyone in this debate uses one of the repeat sales indices, such as the FHFA House Price Index or the Case Shiller national housing index.

Of course the good part of the story is that Mulligan's case would hold even more strongly with these indices (they are further above their pre-bubble level), but it is important that we at least look at the right picture. The NY Fed put out a paper back in 2004 claiming that there was no bubble, the only problem was that people like me were using the wrong price index.

But, let's get back to the issue at hand. House prices have certainly not deflated to their pre-bubble level. They are about 15-20 percent higher in real terms. Why is this the case?

I would point out three factors that may have escaped Professor Mulligan's attention. First, until last Friday the government had an $8,000 first time homebuyers tax credit. This is a bit less than 5 percent of the median house price. Even at the University of Chicago an $8,000 tax credit would be expected to have an upward effect on house prices.

The second factor is that we have had extraordinarily low mortgage interest rates. The weakness of the economy and the Fed's policy of buying $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities pushed the 30-year mortgage rate below 5.0 percent. Interest rates are at their lowest levels since the early 50s. Again, even at the University of Chicago, low interest rates would be expected to have a positive effect on house prices. We might see a different picture if interest rates creep up to near 6.0 percent over the next year, as they are widely expected to do.

The third factor unusual affecting house prices in the last year was the expanded role of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). The FHA guaranteed almost 30 percent of purchase mortgages in 2009. Many of these homebuyers would not have been able to get a mortgage without the government's support. Again, even at the University of Chicago they probably think that government guarantees for mortgages will have a positive effect on house prices. It is worth noting that the FHA is rapidly cutting back its role because it lost lots of money and is now below its minimum capital requirement.

Finally, real house prices are falling -- currently at a rate of between 0.5-1.0 percent a month. Economists generally do not expect to see instantaneous price adjustments, so it should not be surprising if it takes another year or two for house prices to get to a stable level, once the bubble has fully deflated. (Over-correction is a real risk.)

So, if anyone thought that the housing bubble would immediately deflate and bring prices back to their fundamental level -- in spite of massive efforts by the government to prop up prices -- then Professor Mulligan has the evidence to show that they were wrong. But for everyone else, this piece is probably not very enlightening.

 

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