The Global “Capital” Glut

April 17th, 2014 No comments

No, I’m not talking about Piketty hitting the Times bestseller list. And it’s not just wild-eyed lefty Frenchman who are expressing concern about the state of world capital these days. Mitt Romney’s shop was beating this drum loudly more than a year ago.

One of the central takeaways from Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the U-shaped long-term trend in the capital-to-income ratio, especially in rich countries. He uses “capital” synonymously with “wealth.” Here are the latest numbers for the U.S. from his compatriots Saez and Zucman (source PDF):

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The economic relationship between wealth (or net worth, financial assets minus liabilities) and real capital  is a sticky one, even if you’re only considering “fixed capital” — structures, equipment (hardware), and software. It’s even more so if you consider  human skills, knowledge (i.e. patents), organizational capital, etc. (The line between organizational capital and “software” is getting especially blurry these days; what would Vanguard’s, much less Google’s, value be without their web presence?) And more so again if you consider natural capital like land and what’s on/under it.

But “Wealth in the 21st Century” wouldn’t have had quite the same ring to it, so let’s just go with it, with the knowledge that we’re talking about wealth (“financial capital”), and wealth has some indeterminate but somewhat representative relationship to real assets/capital. We can at least say, loosely, that financial assets are claims on real assets, or on the production that’s enabled by those assets.

So what about Bain Capital, Romney’s shop? Here from their December 10, 2012 report (PDF; hat tip to the always-remarkable Izabella Kaminska, and to Climateer Investing).

World awash in nearly one quadrillion of cheap capital by end of decade, according to new Bain & Company report

Their takeaways include:

The capital glut will be accompanied by persistently low real interest rates, high volatility and thin real rates of return.

Sound like secular stagnation to you?

Also:

The ever-present danger of asset inflation will contribute to an overall steepening of the investment risk curve… companies will need to strengthen their bubble-detection capabilities

In short, there’s a huge amount of money floating around out there relative to income and production. (In Steve World, all financial assets embody money, and the money stock is the total value of financial assets — including dollar bills, deeds, or other formal financial claims — regardless of how currency-like those things are. Equating currency and currency-like things with money is conceptually incoherent.)

With so much money around, is it any surprise that people are lending it cheap?

As usual I have much more to say on this but instead I’ll hand it off to Jesse Livermore, who recently wrote one of the clearest and most cogent posts I’ve seen in years on financial asset values, hence wealth. I’ve been meaning to link to it. Read the whole thing.

The Single Greatest Predictor of Future Stock Market Returns

Hint: it’s about what the herd does with all that money.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

ALEC: Destroying the American Economy, One State at a Time

April 14th, 2014 No comments

The American Legislative Exchange Council — which authors ultra-conservative legislation and promulgates it to state legislatures nationwide — has a little index measure of states’ “competitiveness,” which supposedly results in greater prosperity for those states that rank highly.

Does it? Let’s let the numbers speak for themselves:

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Source (PDF).

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Thinking About Piketty’s “Capital”

April 6th, 2014 1 comment

The quotes in this post’s subject line are very much intended as a double entendre. I’m of course referring to the title of Piketty’s book (which I’ve read about 80% of, jumping around). But even more, I’m talking about his definition of “capital.”

I’ve ranted frequently about economists’ failure to define this term or agree on what it means, and Piketty is very much laboring under the burden of that failure.

Don’t take my word for it. This confusion about the nature of capital (and the associated term, wealth) is the central point of James Galbraith’s critique of the book:

First, he conflates physical capital equipment with all forms of money-valued wealth, including land and housing, whether that wealth is in productive use or not. He excludes only what neoclassical economists call “human capital,” presumably because it can’t be bought and sold. Then he estimates the market value of that wealth. His measure of capital is not physical but financial.

You’ll find that “capital” conundrum lurking or leaping out within every review you read.

Piketty deserves great credit. Unlike many or most economists, he makes a good-faith effort to define his usage of the term, and a not-altogether-successful effort to think coherently and consistently within the terms of that definition. He addresses his definition head-on on pages 47-49, and wrestles with various aspects of it throughout the book. See for instance page 149 (on the market value of assets), page 163 (on “human capital” that can be bought and sold in a slave society), page 188 (again on the market value of real capital), and page 210 (on “real” vs. “nominal” assets).

I’ll just highlight one subject: In the course of things he expresses disdain for the notion of “human capital.” Many will find this to be problematic, since most estimates would suggest that human capital — our ability to work and produce in the future — constitutes the great bulk of world and national capital. But Piketty’s stance is reasonable or even inevitable: it’s largely impossible to measure this kind of capital outside a slave society (and then you’re only measuring the “value” of the slaves). So for his purposes of analyzing the subject based on recorded numerical data, human capital is a non-starter.

But still, Piketty fails to address the extent to which human capital is increasingly being “capitalized” or “finacialized.” Think, for instance, of the extraordinary runup in U.S. student-loan debt, and asset-backed securities packaging those loans — debt and securities whose only collateral is those students’ enhanced ability to…work and produce in the future.

Here one measure that is at least a proxy for that runup: government-held student loans as a percent of GDP.

Where are the lines between “real” capital, “human” capital, and “financial” capital? What are their economic relationships? (If you’re under the impression that they’re obvious or clearly understood and agreed-upon, you’re not thinking very hard. At all.)

My purpose here is not to solve that capital conundrum — far be it from me. I come not to bury Piketty, but to praise him. His usages and definitions provide a very useful framework in which to discuss issues that have been hard to discuss coherently absent such framing. The evidence he’s assembled within that framework, and his remarkably cogent discussion of that evidence, gives ample evidence of that.

But even more: By tackling these definitional issues head-on (if not always successfully), he has brought an inconclusively theorized crux of economic thinking — the nature of capital (plus wealth, value, and even money) — back to the forefront of discussion. We can all hope that much good will come from that.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

 

The Incredible Vanishing Takeaway from the CBO Report on Minimum Wage

March 10th, 2014 1 comment

I’m surprised that nobody highlights what for me is the key takeaway from that report.

They predict, with a $10.10/indexed increase:

Low-end incomes increase $19 billion.

High-end incomes decline $17 billion.

For a net GDI increase of $2 billion.

Table 1, page 2:

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 12.18.13 PM

Pie gets bigger, all that rot.

The increase is presumably explained by the last phrase in footnote F to that table:

increases in income generated by higher demand for goods and services.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Why the Fed Hates Inflation: 1.2 Trillion Dollars of Why

March 10th, 2014 38 comments

Upate: Those who have qualms about the methodology and underlying assumptions here would do well to consider Thomas Piketty’s thinking on page 210 of Capital in the 21st Century. He distinguishes between “real” and “nominal” assets, pointing out that real asset values climb along with inflation and growth, while nominal asset values don’t.

A simple rule of economic arithmetic that economists seem to studiously ignore:

Inflation transfers real buying power from creditors to debtors, with nary an account transfer visible anywhere on anyone’s account books. Inflation means that debtors pay off their loans over time with less-valuable dollars — dollars that can’t buy as much bread, butter, and guns.*

Higher inflation causes, is, a massive transfer from creditors to debtors.**

And the Fed is run by creditors. Inflation is, always and everywhere, very very bad for them.

How bad? Look at the fixed-income assets and liabilities of financial corporations:

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Financial businesses are net creditors to the tune of $9-$14 trillion dollars.

If inflation was 1% higher than it is, it would transfer between $90 and $140 billion dollars to their debtors. Every year. For every extra point of inflation.

Add it up: an extra point of inflation over the last ten years would have cost financial businesses $1.2 trillion dollars.

It’s enough to get a banker’s attention.

And that’s before you even consider the Fed powers-that-be in their roles as equity shareholders, and the Fed’s dual mandate. By emphasizing low inflation over low unemployment — and stomping on growth whenever the bogieman wage inflation threatens to rear its head*** — the Fed maintains a pool of unemployed and weakly compensated employees that cripples labor’s bargain power and empowers the steady growth of corporate profits over labor earnings.

It kinda makes you think about Mankiw’s fourth principle of economics: “People respond to incentives.”

I’ve said it before: if it weren’t for inflation, the rich really would own everything, instead of almost everything.

* Some will caveat: this is only true of unexpected inflation, because contracts are written with expected inflation in mind. The proper response: since the future is impossibly uncertain, all changes in the inflation rate are unexpected.

** Meanwhile economists fetishize notions about menu costs and the like, which in their largest estimations are an order of magnitude smaller than the inexorable arithmetic effect described here.

*** It’s happening now.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Dean Baker on Piketty’s Capital: Or, How FDR Proved Marx Wrong

March 10th, 2014 5 comments

Thomas Piketty’s important new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Centurypredicts a bleak future of increasing concentrations of financial assets in few hands, stagnant wages and labor share of income, and declining returns to capital — secular stagnation. He enunciates and demonstrates the part of Marx that Marx got exactly right.

But Dean Baker points out where Marx got it wrong, and where an optimist  can hope that Piketty’s got it wrong. By changing our institutions, laws, and regulations — the rules of the capitalist game — we can head off that seemingly inevitable downward spiral. Dean gives several examples of institutional changes that could prevent or even reverse it, from patent laws to cable monopolies to financial-transaction taxes.

Which prompts me to finish this post, started long ago, and to point to Steve Randy Waldman’s eloquent rejoinder to the pessimistic view. Steve ingested this contrary view with his mother’s milk:

I remember pride in my businessman father’s voice when he explained to me that this [pessimistic view] was wrong. Marx had underestimated the ingenuity and flexibility of capitalist societies, and particularly of the United States during the New Deal. Government intervened to solve Marx’s collective action problem, enabling capitalists secure their enlightened self-interest by keeping a distribution of prosperity sufficiently broad that the predicted collapse could be avoided. … To my father, American capitalism’s adaptability and ingenuity had proved Marx definitively wrong, in the best possible way — by producing a stable society that served the vast majority of its citizens, while countries whose politicians had followed Marx’s prescriptions grew into monsters.

So Marx was wrong both ways — economically and politically — even while he was right. The capitalist tendency to concentrate financial assets at everyone’s expense is inevitable – unless we as a society decide to do something(s) about it.

You’ll find this very same thinking elsewhere, for instance in this line from Joseph Stiglitz’s review of Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes: The Return of the Master.

Keynes’s great contribution was to save capitalism from the capitalists

And in this 2001 article from The Hoover Digest:

How FDR Saved Capitalism

This is a clear, cogent, and coherent story, but one I rarely hear from the left. I’d like to suggest that progressives should be moving this rather moving narrative to the front of the rhetorical bookshelf.

Now if someone could just convince Obama to go all FDR on us…

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Jared Bernstein Gives Us The Best Graph on the Employment Effects of Minimum Wage Increases

February 21st, 2014 2 comments

They say sample size matters. A handful of sample points in a study doesn’t tell you much, because they could just be showing random variation. This is also true not when you’re looking at many studies. You need to look at lots of research that uses different methodologies and data sets to get a confident feel for the facts on the ground.

Jared Bernstein points us to exactly such an effort, looking at 64 studies on the employment effects of minimum-wage increases, with a wonderfully informative display:

Note: “se” refers to standard error; 1/se is a measure of statistical significance. The dots up high are generally more believable.

“Employment elasticity” is a measure of the impact of minimum-wage increases. A measure of -.1 (left of the zero line) suggests that 10% MW increase reduces employment by 1%.

All the high-statistical-significance studies put elasticity at zero: no employment effect.

There’s some clustering to the left of the line versus the right down at the bottom, suggesting a small negative employment effect, but none of those studies has high statistical significance.

And this doesn’t consider “file-drawer/publication bias”: studies that find no effect don’t get published, because researchers don’t submit them or journals don’t accept them for publication. The CBO explains this in its new report on minimum-wage effects (PDF). Emphasis mine.

an unexpectedly large number of studies report a negative effect on employment with a degree of precision just above conventional thresholds for publication. That would suggest that journals’ failure to publish studies finding weak effects of minimum-wage changes on employment may have led to a published literature skewed toward stronger effects.

And that doesn’t consider (pas possible!) negative-effect researchers finding ways to get to that publishable statistical-significance level. (It’s curious that those finding a positive effect don’t display this anomaly…)

So at least, you can mentally add a whole lot more unpublished dots to that tall vertical line. At most, you can shift a bunch of those published dots on the left farther to the right, and down.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

The Conservative Case for a Minimum Wage Hike

February 18th, 2014 2 comments

Most conservatives disparage minimum-wage laws with straightforward economic reasoning, based on Econ 101 textbook theory: demand curves slope down. If you institute a price floor, raising the price of labor, you’ll get less labor demanded — less jobs. This hurts poor people, especially entry-level folks like teenagers.

At first blush, the argument’s got legs. And there’s been a fair amount of research over the decades suggesting that higher minimum wages do hurt employment. But conservative economists know that life’s more complicated than that. There’s also good research suggesting that this effect isn’t very strong in the low-wage labor market; many other economic effects are at play.

One of those other effects — also based on textbook Econ-101 reasoning – bears serious consideration by conservatives: economic incidenceIt’s often darned hard to know where the effects (the “incidence”) of a policy or system will land — who will get the benefits and bear the burdens — especially in a complex system with lots of moving parts. That’s a core conservative belief (“unintended consequences”).

On the minimum wage, it’s not crazy to suggest that minimum-wage employers — many of whose workers inevitably rely on government benefits — are the actual beneficiaries of those benefits. Those employers are able to get workers at lower wages than they would absent those benefits, so to some extent at least (depending on incidence) those businesses thrive at the expense of taxpayers. The dole goes, largely or partially, to the employer’s bottom line.

How do we suss out these incidence effects? In recent years we’ve seen some excellent new research on the employment and earnings effects of different minimum-wage laws, in particular great work by Arindrajit Dube et. al. comparing adjacent counties across state lines with different minimum wages (levels and changes).

This research has a big leg up on all the previous studies. It very cleverly exploits the implicit “control group” of an ongoing natural experiment across the whole country, over a quarter-century, to tease out cause, effect, and result. Dube and his cohort are incredibly careful, diligent, competent, and thoughtful researchers and analysts. Read their stuff. I think you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree.

Results? They find that minimum-wage laws have had little influence on employment levels, at the minimum-wage levels we’ve seen over past decades — too small to consider either statistically or truly significant. But they find significant increases in earnings from higher minimum wages. Minimum-wage laws have the rather intuitive  effect of increasing poor people’s earnings. (Some might deride this intuition as unsophisticated “folk economics,” but: 1. it’s actually much more economically sophisticated than the Econ-101 thinking, and 2. it seems to be correct.)

And here’s the key takeaway for conservatives: if higher minimum wages increase poor people’s market incomes, they reduce their reliance on government handouts, and reduce government spending. That’s not even Econ 101. It’s just arithmetic.

Conservatives oughtta love that. And they should also like the part about responsibility: require all business owners to do what most already do: make a profit while paying the actual cost of keeping their workers alive, in decent health, trained, educated, mobile, and employable, rather than irresponsibly externalizing those costs onto taxpayers and pocketing the profits.

How do workers’ livings get paid for — through government benefits or employers’ wages? Conservatives would naturally vote for private enterprise.

But here’s where it gets a lot more interesting. A new study out of the Chicago Fed (PDF) uses the same adjacent-county, natural-experiment methodology, and looks at what happens to companies in higher minimum-wage environments:

Firm entry and exit both rise.

Again, they find minor employment effects and significant earnings effects. But there’s more churn among companies. New companies emerge that thrive and profit in the higher minimum-wage environment, because their business models are more labor-efficient and they invest more in productive capital. (Not just drill presses, but human and organizational capital developed through training, retention, efficient business processes, etc.)

Companies that are less labor-efficient and more reliant on low wages (and, hence, taxpayer subsidies/handouts) are less successful in this environment. Inefficient businesses that can’t pay the full cost of their workers and still make a profit, fade away and go out of business.

Schumpeter. Creative destruction.

In the language of (neo)classical economics, higher minimum wages (again, within the ranges we’ve seen over past decades) seem to push the whole system to a new, higher equilibrium. Employees earn more. Businesses invest more in productivity. All boats rise. The pie gets bigger. We all take another step, together, up toward that shining city on the hill.

The real (inflation-adjusted) minimum wage is at a historically quite low level right now, so it’s reasonable to expect that the effects of increases that have played out over past decades will also play out over the next ten, twenty, or thirty years. We’ll all be better off in three decades if we raise the minimum wage today.

But suppose that isn’t true. Suppose we end up in the same place thirty years from now that we would without a minimum-wage hike. Over the course of those decades, tens of millions of workers and their families will have lived better, more prosperous lives — for decades on end. The promise of American opportunity, embodied. To quote the great economist Abba Lerner, “In the long run, we’re always in the short run.”

If you’re a conservative who wants to:

• Get people off the government dole

• Reduce government spending

• Encourage investment in productive capital

• Spur the process of creative destruction, and

• Demonstrate the manifest benefits of hard work and American opportunity…

You might consider throwing your full-throated support behind a minimum-wage increase.

Dozens of the country’s most prominent economists, of diverse political persuasions, agree 4:1 that an increase “would be a desirable policy.” Bill O’Reilly supports it. So do hundreds of Patriotic Millionaires and Smart Capitalists for American Prosperity

Here’s to suggest that other conservatives and business leaders might find a very comfortable seat on this bandwagon.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

My Head Talking on the Thom Hartmann Show

February 17th, 2014 1 comment

The Global Labor Glut

February 17th, 2014 30 comments

Ryan Avent’s excellent post at The Economist finally provides me the impetus to respond to Josh Mason’s comments on my recent post.

I suggested:

 What we have instead of a Global Savings Glut is:

1. A Global Labor Glut: more human effort and ability available than is needed to provide goods that provide high aggregate marginal utility, and,

2. A global financial and political system that — despite the reality of #1 — fails to transform that abundance into maximum aggregate human utility via reasonable distribution of that abundance.

Josh sed:

I think your conclusion that unemployment must be a glut of labor is both wrong and politically destructive. By turning this into a labor-market problem, you are implicitly accepting Say’s law and rejecting the principle of aggregate demand. And you are wrong factually. All factors of production are in excess supply in a recession, not just labor.

What you are saying here is that changes in (realized or desired) balance sheet positions never affect the real economy. I’m sure you don’t think that’s what you’re saying, but it is.

Josh may be right. But I really don’t think that’s what I was saying, and my gentle readers will know that it’s very much not what I want to be saying. I think he’s framing my argument in terms that implicitly concede the exact false assumption I was dismantling in my post — that more saving causes lower rates so more borrowing so more investment.

This gets messy so I’ll just say: We have the amusing situation where Josh and I — who as far as I can tell agree on almost everything — are mutually accusing each other of sleeping with the enemy.

In any case, what Josh thinks I’m saying is certainly not what Ryan Avent is saying, when he says exactly the same thing I was saying:

…full employment is no longer compatible with full utilisation of capital. The “great savings glut” story may indeed be a tale of insufficient investment opportunity. The return on capital is low because the return on labour is low: because society is allowing the market to become glutted with labour, none of the potential high-return capital investments are economical. The global savings glut might well be thought of as a global labour glut.

This is an abundance versus scarcity argument, not a production-causes-income argument. The dominant resource — effective, efficient, productive human labor – is not scarce. As productivity steadily increases, it’s ever more abundant.

And the takeaway? I’ll leave that to Ryan:

Fiscal expansion could help, but the gain from fiscal policy is likely to be limited unless it is structured to try and reduce labour supply. That’s right, reduce labour supply.

In other words, the very anathema of the right: paying people not to work.

The ultimate goal of increased productivity is straightforward: more stuff, less work. The problem is that those who own the stuff don’t want the people who don’t own the stuff to slack off or get a larger share of the stuff. They only like that mantra when it applies to them.

And they don’t understand the inexorably destructive arithmetic of their selfish rivalry in a high-productivity economy — that their refusal to share the wealth, their frantic hoarding, results in us all having less wealth. It’s a classic coordination failure, a tragedy of the common good.

I’m pretty sure Josh agrees with me (and Ryan) on that 100%.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.