Kevin Drum

So How's the Economy Doing, Anyway?

| Sun Apr. 11, 2010 1:29 PM EDT

Business Week's Mike Dorning thinks the economy is on the mend:

While no one would claim that all the pain is past or the danger gone, the economy is growing again, jumping to a 5.6% annualized growth rate in the fourth quarter of 2009 as businesses finally restocked their inventories. The consensus view now calls for 3% growth this year, significantly higher than the 2.1 % estimate for 2010 that economists surveyed by Bloomberg News saw coming when Obama first moved into the Oval Office. The U.S. manufacturing sector has expanded for eight straight months, the Business Roundtable's measure of CEO optimism reached its highest level since early 2006, and in March the economy added 162,000 jobs — more than it had during any month in the past three years. 

Floyd Norris of the New York Times agrees that a lot of people are being too pessimistic:

“Go back and read what people were saying in 1982 or 1975,” said Robert Barbera, the chief economist of ITG. “Nobody was saying, ‘Deep recession, big recovery.’ It is quite normal to expect an abnormally weak recovery. It is also normal for that expectation to be wrong.”

....In 1982, Democrats scoffed at a surging stock market and thought a severe recession would last for a very long time....Change a few words (Reagan to Obama, Democrats to Republicans, 1984 to 2012) and you have an accurate description of the current political climate. Could the Republicans be as wrong now as the Democrats were then?

There's a lot to this. But just off the top of my head, here are the things that gnaw at me when I hear stuff like this:

  1. This is a balance sheet recession, not a Fed-induced recession. Paul Volcker caused the 1981 recession by jacking up interest rates and he ended it by lowering them. That's not going to happen this time.
  2. In fact, there won't be any further stimulus from lower interest rates. They're already at zero, and Ben Bernanke has made it clear that he doesn't plan to effectively lower them further by setting a higher inflation target.
  3. Consumer debt is still way too high. There's more deleveraging on the horizon, and that's going to make consumer-led growth difficult.
  4. The financial sector remains fragile and there could still be another serious shock somewhere in the world.
  5. There are strong political pressures to reduce the budget deficit. That makes further fiscal stimulus unlikely.
  6. Housing prices are still too high. They're bound to fall further, especially given rising interest rates combined with the end of government support programs.
  7. Our current account balance remains pretty far out of whack. Fixing this in the short term will hinder growth, while leaving it to the long term just kicks the can down the road.
  8. The Fed still has to unwind its balance sheet. That has the potential to stall growth.
  9. Oil prices are rising. This not only causes problems of its own, but also makes #7 worse.
  10. Unemployment and long-term unemployment continue to look terrible. Yes, these are lagging indicators, but still.

I don't expect all of this stuff to be as dire as it sounds, and overall I suspect that we are indeed going to see steady if unspectacular growth over the next few years. But I'm not entirely sure of that, and these are the reasons why. Just thought I'd share.

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Fight the League!

| Sun Apr. 11, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

Orin Kerr snarks about the diverse background of Barack Obama's shortlist of picks to succeed John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court:

No matter who he chooses, Obama will continue to break new ground, or at least help bolster some of the low numbers of people of certain arguably underrepresented backgrounds on the current Court. For example, Elena Kagan would become only the second former Harvard professor presently on the Court (joining Justice Breyer). Either Kagan or Wood would be only the second Chicago professor (joining Justice Scalia).

....Elena Kagan would also bring notable educational diversity to the Court. Kagan would be the very first Justice ever to have attended Princeton and then Harvard Law. Obviously, that would be a major break after two consecutive nominees who had attended Princeton and then Yale Law (Justices Alito and Sotomayor). Whoever Obama picks, I think it’s clear that Obama faces a major choice and that his selection will be a historic occasion.

Stevens aside, every single justice on the Supreme Court attended an Ivy League law school (Harvard, Yale, or Columbia). It's an East Coast conspiracy. Where are the candidates from Stanford? Cal? Michigan? Vanderbilt? Or one of those other states west of — well, everywhere. West of Delaware, anyway.

Some years ago, when I was blogging for the Washington Monthly, I remember having a conversation with its editor, Paul Glastris, about the interns they were planning to hire that summer. Basically, to a man and woman, all the good candidates were from East Coast schools. How about Ezra Klein? I said. He's a good guy and he goes to UCLA. Strike a blow against the Ivy League mafia! And thus history was made.1

Sure, Obama went to Columbia and Harvard Law. But he's a Hawaii guy at heart, and that's as West Coast as it gets. So fight the power, O. Be true to your roots. Hope and change means someone from outside the Ivy League.

1Or, um, something like that. Maybe I'm overstating my role a wee bit. But who wouldn't?

Quote of the Day: Banana Peels

| Sat Apr. 10, 2010 11:47 PM EDT

From Simon Johnson and James Kwak, on whether the financial meltdown of 2008 was basically a gigantic accident caused by mistaken models and excess optimism:

It was as if the government first repealed the laws against littering, eliminated all public sanitation services, and subsidized the consumption of bananas . . . and then the global economy slipped on a banana peel.

I remember trying once to come up with a similar analogy that started off with repealing all the speed limit laws and getting rid of the highway patrol, but I never quite finished thinking it through. In the meantime, this one works.

Blogging on the iPad

| Sat Apr. 10, 2010 8:02 PM EDT

When I blog, I switch back and forth between browser tabs all the time in order to cut-and-paste excerpts and grab links to related posts. I also switch over to Photoshop/Excel/PowerPoint a fair amount in order to futz around with images and graphs. But the iPad doesn't support multitasking and its browser doesn't have tabs. So how do you blog on the thing? Any early adopters out there who can weigh in on this?

UPDATE: Via comments, I see that Safari for the iPad does support multiple windows, it just doesn't do it via a tabbed interface. (You click an icon and then choose the window you want to bring to the foreground.) So that's one question answered. As for the other, I suppose as long as you're just doing straight text blogging, the other stuff doesn't matter.

The Great Liberaltarian Alliance

| Sat Apr. 10, 2010 5:21 PM EDT

Will Wilkinson hopes that libertarians and liberals will find more common ground in the future:

In particular, I predict Democrats will become somewhat more receptive to arguments that certain less centralized, more market-oriented policies do a better job of achieving liberal goals than do the more heavily centralized, technocratic policies favored by current Democratic opinion elites. This kind of increased openness to fresh thinking is especially likely if there is an organized effort to articulate a moderate libertarian philosophy in terms attractive to liberals, which is precisely what Brink Lindsey and I are in the process of doing.

....I don’t expect liberaltarian arguments to be enthusiastically embraced by those who cannot tell the difference between successful liberal social and economic policy and the preservation and extension of New Deal/Great Society institutions. But I do expect a future Democratic Party less dismissive of policies such as school choice and defined-contribution social insurance schemes — policies that have been successfully implemented in a fair number of countries rather less libertarian in spirit than the U.S.

As a liberal who is — tentatively, cautiously — sympathetic to arguments for both school choice and a role for private accounts in Social Security, I guess I'm the target audience for whatever they're cooking up. So I'll be curious to see what they propose, especially since I've long been skeptical of Lindsey's past efforts in this direction. But if Will and Brink have anything new, I'm all ears.

The Rich Are Getting Richer

| Sat Apr. 10, 2010 4:10 PM EDT

Martha Coakley may have lost her Senate race against Scott Brown last January, but she's still attorney general of Massachussetts. So a couple of weeks ago she released a report about the wide variance in prices for medical services throughout the state, which the chart on the right illustrates in a nutshell. It's for one of the state's major insurers (Harvard Pilgrim) and it shows astonishing variation in payment rates. There's a 4x difference from the lowest paid to the highest paid hospital.

Why is this? We'll get to that, but first let's walk through all the things that don't explain the differences. Here's what the report found:

  1. Wide disparities in price are not explained by differences in quality of care.
  2. Wide disparities in prices and total medical expenses are not explained by the relative sickness of the population being served or the complexity of the care provided.
  3. Wide disparities in prices are not explained by the extent to which a provider cares for a large portion of patients on Medicare or Medicaid.
  4. Wide disparities in prices are not explained by whether a provider is an academic teaching or research facility.
  5. Wide disparities in prices are not explained by differences in hospital costs of delivering similar services at similar facilities.

So this astonishing variation isn't explained by quality of care, older/sicker patients, Medicare rates, or even differences in underlying costs. What could possibly be left?

Answer: leverage. If a hospital group owns most of the hospitals in an area, it's got the whip hand and can demand higher payment rates. Insurers can't afford to be shut out of entire market, so they have to pay up. Conversely, if a single insurer is dominant in an area with lots of providers, it can squeeze the local hospitals, who can't afford to be dropped.

The chart on the right demonstrates the relationship. It's also for Harvard Pilgrim, and it shows payment rates to six similar adult academic medical centers. The small ones get low rates, the big ones get high rates. What's worse, there's a vicious cycle in which high-cost hospitals use their higher rates to fund more expansion, giving them even more leverage:

Higher priced hospitals are gaining market share at the expense of lower priced hospitals, which are losing volume....[Highly paid hopspitals] are able to build new buildings, purchase new equipment and technology, and add to their cost structure. In contrast, hospitals with lower prices are unable to put comparable resources toward building maintenance or equipment acquisition....This results in a loss of volume to better capitalized, more expensive hospitals.

....As patient volume shifts from lower-priced to higher-priced hospitals, overall health care costs increase because those patients are now receiving their care in the higher-priced setting....[Low-cost] providers continue to lose volume to higher-priced hospitals, making it increasingly difficult for them to remain competitive, or sometimes even viable.

This is, obviously, just one study in one state — and just as obviously, it's not the whole story. But it's suggestive of a widespread problem, and one that's not just confined to hospital bargaining power. Coakley's report, for example, showed that a big part of her state's increase in medical costs was due to rising prices, not increased utilization of services. At the same time, a recent study in Health Affairs shows that doctors who own a stake in outpatient surgery centers operate on twice as many patients as non-owners. In both cases — whether it's extracting higher prices or driving up utilization of questionable surgery — it's money that's motivating healthcare choices, not good medicine.

Via Austin Frakt.

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The Texas Mystery Revisited

| Sat Apr. 10, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

So how did Texas escape the housing bubble? I blogged about this a couple of days ago, and I was skeptical that it could really be explained by the mortgage regulations that Texas had in place during the bubble years. Ryan Avent is skeptical too, but he suggests that I'm asking the wrong question in the first place. There's really no mystery about Texas, he says: most cities outside coastal areas didn't see huge price appreciation, so Dallas and Houston aren't really outliers. They escaped the bubble because land there is cheap and plentiful. The real question is why there are a couple of non-coastal cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, where land is also cheap and plentiful, that did participate in the boom. His explanation:

As it turns out, you can "catch" a bubble from elsewhere. Migration to Las Vegas and Phoenix came overwhelmingly from Southern California. Residents of Los Angeles would cash out their homes and move east, buying one or two properties in cheaper markets, investing in those properties, and generally transmitting the bubble mentality that characterised the real estate markets of the California coast. Analysis of price movements has identified ripple effects from the Los Angeles property market to the Las Vegas property market, and thence on to the Phoenix property market. It seems likely that a similar phenomenon took place in Florida, which absorbed a great deal of migration from bubbly northeastern markets.

The academic backup for this is here. I suppose it makes sense, though I'm not thrilled with the reliance on a "bubble mentality" as the proximate cause. There's no question, I think, that people are far more likely to migrate from Southern California to Phoenix (or Las Vegas) than they are to Dallas, but what about, say, Denver or Salt Lake City? Perhaps it's more accurate to call this a general Mountain West phenomenon rather than just a Phoenix/Las Vegas phenomenon, and since Texas isn't part of the Mountain West it got left out.

Still, "bubble mentality" might be as good an explanation as any. Some years ago Paul Krugman explained the dynamics of the housing bubble by comparing Flatland — the middle of the country where you just build outward when demand rises — to the Zoned Zone, the coastal areas where land is at a premium and prices skyrocket when demand goes up. But there's always been a problem with that. Here in California, prices in built-up locations like Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco did indeed skyrocket, but if anything, the prices out in areas like Riverside and Stockton may have appreciated even more. That's crazy, since Riverside has plenty of room to expand. But if the bubble mentality is sort of like a virus, as Ryan suggests, then that's that. Even with plenty of land, prices went up because everyone thought prices would go up. In Dallas, not so much. Additionally, as Krugman pointed out earlier this year, even though they have plenty of land, areas like Phoenix and Las Vegas (and Riverside and Stockton) have more building restrictions than most places in Texas.

There are still some questions here. But to my ears, anyway, treating Phoenix and Las Vegas as the outliers actually makes a little more sense than treating Dallas as the outlier. So that's where we are for now.

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 April 2010

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 3:11 PM EDT

Domino was uncooperative today. Every time I aimed the camera in her direction she immediately perked up and walked straight toward it. She thinks it's a giant eye, and she's mesmerized by eyes. If I want her to come to me, she resolutely ignores everything I do1 unless I get down on the floor and look at her from eye level. Then she immediately trots over. This is actually kind of fun except when I want to take a picture of her. So instead of a nice spring-ish garden picture, you get one I took yesterday as she was rolling over in her afternoon patch of sunshine. Inkblot, however, who is oblivious to everything,1 remained right where he was when I went out in the garden today. So he gets a nice spring-ish garden picture. If the weather cooperates in your neck of the woods, I hope you get to spend some time in your garden too.

1Other than opening a can of cat food, of course.

Where Has All the Money Gone?

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 2:58 PM EDT

Business Insider promises us today "15 Mind-Blowing Charts About Wealth And Inequality In America." I don't think any of them will come as a big surprise to readers of this blog, but it's nice to see them all in one place. Below is the chart on average hourly earnings, which I've modified to show (approximately) what it would look like if you added income in the form of rising healthcare premiums. Basically, even if you do that, average income has only increased from $20/hour in 1972 to about $23/hour today. That's roughly 12% over four decades, or about 0.3% per year, during an era in which per-capita productivity has grown at something like five times that rate. Our economy has generated a ton of increased income over the past few decades, but hardly any of it has trickled down to the average worker.

The Other Shoe

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 2:13 PM EDT

Felix Salmon is relatively sanguine about Greece's problems:

The first option is default. If it happens, it'll happen, as Thomas says, in the form of a debt restructuring....Debt restructurings are messy and unpleasant things at the best of times, but what we're really talking about here is the sovereign equivalent of a loan modification which, if it goes according to plan, makes both the borrower and the lender better off. What we're most emphatically not talking about here is an Argentina-style default, where the country simply unilaterally stops paying any interest on its debt, and then takes years to address the issue, trying to drive the hardest bargain it can all the while.

Then there's devaluation. If Greece leaves the euro, that would allow it to devalue its currency. If it redenominated its debt from euros into drachmas, that alone would constitute a default, even without a bond exchange. But again, in the event that Greece did leave the euro, it wouldn't see its currency plunge overnight to a third of its previous value, as Argentina did.

First question: is leaving the eurozone a realistic option? Quite a while ago Barry Eichengreen persuaded me that it wasn't, and I haven't seen anything since then to change my mind.

As for default — well, maybe Greece's version will be kinder and gentler than Argentina's. And maybe that will work out. But Peter Boone and Simon Johnson are skeptical:

The default on debt would have major ramifications. The government would need to take actions to avoid a run on all the Greek banks — this would need to be coordinated with the ECB to ensure there was liquidity support. Private creditors would pull loans wherever possible from Greek entities. In short: Greece would suffer a large financial and economic collapse, and GDP would decline substantially.

This financial collapse would mean Greek debt would need to be written down substantially. We would guess that a 65% write down of face value, bringing total Greek debt to around 50-60% of a lower new GDP, would be reasonable. Such write downs roughly match the terms that Argentina received after its debt restructuring.

This draconian cut to government debt would not solve Greece’s problems. It would still need to cut budget spending in order to lower the deficit — and in the aftermath of defaults, there are generally few sympathizers. Greece could save on interest (which to data it never paid in any case), but it would not be a panacea for the budget or economy.

For what it's worth, I think I'm in the pessimistic camp. Everyone keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop in Greece, and it's hard to believe that it's not going to happen soon. As every shaky financial firm learns, there's a tipping point at which the market isn't just skeptical anymore, it's actively attacking you and working toward your demise. That point doesn't seem too far away to me, and when it happens everyone is going to go into full scale panic mode. And there's no guarantee that the fallout will be restricted to Greece.

But that's just my gut reaction, and I'm an inherent pessimist. Maybe things won't turn out as badly as I think.