The Fed got it wrong

The job market received a jolt last week when the Labor Department reported that just 38,000 jobs were added in May, the fewest for any month in more than five years. The experts expected a gain of 150,000 jobs and had included an estimated decrease of about 35,000 striking Verizon workers.

Equally disturbing, the job numbers for the two previous months were revised downward. In total, there were 59,000 fewer jobs in March and April than had previously been reported. This suggests the May numbers will be revised downward next month.

But it gets worse. Of the 38,000 new jobs, only 25,000 were in the private sector. Yet even as job growth stalled, the headline unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent from 5 percent, in large part due to a drop in the labor force participation rate as many frustrated Americans stopped looking for jobs, meaning they are not counted in the unemployment rate. It’s an ominous sign that suggests the economy may be slowing.

Since the end of the recession, economic growth has been lackluster despite the Federal Reserve putting the pedal to the metal by pursuing zero interest rates and engaging in bond purchases known as quantitative easing. The rationale for this policy is that artificially suppressed interest rates and easy money are required for the Fed to fulfill its full-employment mandate. They assume that low rates stimulate business investment and make it easier for consumers to finance big-ticket purchases such as housing and automobiles.

The May employment numbers are just the latest evidence that it isn’t working. This should come as no surprise, since the Fed high priests’ failure to prophesize the 2008 crisis has been well documented.

President Truman once famously asked for a one-armed economist because his economic advisers kept telling him “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that.” For sure, there are pros and cons to the Fed’s monetary policy. Low interest rates have contributed to a partial recovery and growth may be stronger than it would otherwise have been. The rationale was to lower interest rates to encourage movement into riskier assets with higher yields, including stocks, junk bonds, real estate and commodities. The Fed has privileged Wall Street over Main Street in the belief that the wealth effect will trickle down to the ordinary American worker.

Lower rates would encourage greater leverage, i.e., borrowing to invest and boost asset prices. This pseudo “wealth effect” would then stimulate consumption, economic growth, and job creation. Such monetary policy raises the question of whether the Fed should be promoting risk and inflated asset prices that outpace real economic growth.

On the other hand, zero interest rates have created problems for savers, retirees and those on the other side of the velvet rope. Savers get virtually no return on their money market funds and saving accounts. Indeed, after inflation and taxes, real rates on these instruments are negative, promoting inequality and resulting in declining purchasing power. With so many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, is it any wonder that payday lenders are doing record business?

Lost interest is a permanent loss of wealth. Very low interest rates force retirees, who rely on interest income, to reduce their spending. Workers contemplating retirement will stay in the labor force longer to save more, blocking access for younger workers.

More importantly, low interest rates play havoc with retirement planning for both individuals and pension plans. Pension funds face increasing unfunded liabilities. Without adequate future income streams, retirement as Americans have known it is off the table.

Fed policy can’t overcome structural weakness in the job market that results from the twin challenges of globalization and rapid technological change. Continuing the policy of cheap credit is reminiscent of the old lesson about looking for a lost item under a lamppost at night because that’s where the light is. It’s time to look elsewhere for answers.

Originally Published: Jun 11, 2016

Why ‘good’ job numbers leave us feeling mad, sad and worried

Earlier this month the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its February jobs report. The unemployment rate of 4.9 percent is the lowest since February 2008 and suggests nearly full employment, but the real picture is far more mixed.

The report finds that the country created 242,000 new jobs last month, well ahead of the Wall Street forecast of 190,000. It also revised its December and January reports to add a total of 30,000 more jobs. The numbers suggest that even in the face of financial market turmoil and slowing global demand, the

U.S. has averaged about 228,000 new jobs over each of the last three months.

Still, many of the jobs were concentrated in low-wage sectors. Retailers added 54,900 jobs last month and restaurants and drinking establishments another 40,200. Manufacturers cut their payrolls by 16,000 jobs as slow growth in key markets around the world and the rising value of the dollar reduced demand for U.S. products. By far the weakest sector for job growth was the mining sector, which includes oil and gas producers. It cut jobs for the 17th straight month, losing 19,000 in February.

Hiring by employers directly associated with consumers has more than offset layoffs by manufacturers and fossil fuel companies, the two sectors squeezed by declining oil prices and a strong dollar.

An increase in the labor force participation rate was an encouraging sign. The rate of 62.9 percent is the highest in over a year as more than half-a-million people joined the labor force. Fewer and fewer people appear to be sitting on the sidelines.

But there is more to the story. The headline unemployment number does not account for the underemployed, such as those who are involuntary working part time. And even though labor participation rose, there are still many long-term unemployed and discouraged workers who have stopped looking because they believe no jobs are available for them. When these groups are included, the February unemployment rate rises to 9.7 percent, which suggests that the labor market is far from overheating.

Other downbeat notes were that the average length of the workweek declined by 0.2 hours, aggregate hours worked fell 0.4 percent, and average wages fell by 3 cents to $25.35 an hour. This put the yearly wage growth at 2.2 percent, just slightly ahead of core inflation rate. That makes it difficult for the average American to keep up with the staples of a middle class life. Indeed, real wages for most American workers have been flat lining since the 1970s.

A 4.9 percent unemployment rate masks the fact that things are not going very well for a large share of American workers. Jobs may be plentiful, but they are not paying much. It may be good news that the economy is growing at 2 percent, but ordinary Americans are not reaping the benefits of that growth.

Things are tough on Wall Street, too. Average bonuses paid out in the financial services sector tumbled 9 percent last year to the lowest level in three years, according to new figures from the New York State comptroller. Of course, that average $146,200 bonus is still nearly three times the median annual U.S. household income of about $52,000.

In light of these disparities and glass-half-empty job numbers, is it any wonder that average working class Americans are seething with anger, are anxious about the future, and are feeling betrayed? Stalled incomes may be fueling the hard line positions on illegal immigration and opposition to job-destroying trade deals that spur the rise of both Donald J. Trump and Bernie Sanders, the yin and yang of America’s season of political discontent and economic stagnation.

If that continues, voters might find themselves liking the cure even less than they like the illness.

originally published: March 19, 2016

Will Fed finally raise interest rates?

Investors are trying to figure out whether the Federal Reserve will increase interest rates for the first time in nine years at its Sept. 16-17 policy meetings. The guessing game is complicated by recent stock market volatility amid concerns about China’s economy, but it is unlikely the Fed would delay its rate hike solely because of the China effect.

The timing of the Fed’s decision to reverse its near-zero interest rate policy is further complicated by conflicting economic signals that emerged from the last major data point before the Fed meets to discuss a rate increase. The Labor Department reported that the U.S. economy created 173,000 new jobs in August, less than expected, but the headline unemployment rate dropped to 5.1 percent, the lowest since April2008 and a level the Fed considers to be full employment.

Weekly earnings increased to a 2.4 percent annual rate in August and average number of hours worked also rose; all good for increased consumer spending.

Wages and GDP from the second quarter that showed a 3.7 percent annualized growth rate may keep rate increase prospects alive. Moreover, a tightening labor market and decisions by several state and local governments to raise the minimum wage might give the Fed confidence that the inflation rate, which collapsed with oil prices, will move closer to their 2 percent target.

On the other hand, the broader measure of unemployment, including those stuck in part-time jobs and discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work, remains at 10.4 percent. The labor participation rate remains low at 62.6 percent.

And just to make things more complicated, the reported jobs and GDP numbers are far from certain. As always, you can expect revisions in the coming months.

In an effort to induce growth during the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, the Fed aggressively eased monetary policy in the final months of 2008, slashing short-term interest rates.

The Fed used additional tools to stimulate the economy by easing credit and keeping interest rates low. Making housing more affordable and enabling households to refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates would free up income for consumer spending. For corporations, reducing the cost of capital would promote investment. Commentators routinely argue whether QE has improved the real economy. Critics contend that reliance on ultra-low interest rates is insufficient to accelerate economic growth. The policies may support economic activity, but can’t take the place of fiscal policies such as addressing mounting debt, rising entitlement program costs, the need for infrastructure investment, repairing the tax code, and trade policies that advantage the American worker.

These critics argue that the Fed’s policies transfer wealth away from savers and force savers and pensioners to take on more credit risk in an effort to boost returns in an era of low rates. Corporations use cheap money to engage in stock buyback programs rather than capital investment.

Put another way, the Fed pushed trillions of dollars of new money into banks, but too little trickled down to the real economy and job creation. According to this crowd, the Fed has been fighting for the one percenters.

John Stuart Mill said, “He who only knows his side of the case knows little of that.” It will be very interesting to see what the Federal Reserve does when it meets later this month to sort out piles of conflicting data and decides whether it’s finally time to raise interest rates.

Originally Published: September 12, 2015

Is China in a currency war with U.S.?

China’s recent surprise decision to devalue its currency, the renminbi (also known as the yuan), versus the dollar sent shock waves through financial markets. It could trigger a race to the bottom to gain an export price advantage, which would have a major impact on the U.S. economy and on looming decisions by the Federal Reserve.

Many believe China’s move was an effort to gain a trade advantage. A drop in the yuan’s value makes Chinese products cheaper, costing thousands of jobs by forcing factories outside China to close.

China said the devaluation was a one-off event, but the move could set off a currency war, which is when two or more countries engage in currency devaluations to improve the competitiveness of their products in global markets.

Over 35 years, China has developed from abject poverty into an economic giant. It is the world’s second largest economy and accounts for about 12 percent of global exports. A country so reliant on trade must maintain the growth of exports, which have been the most important driver of China’s growth since liberalizing its economy in 1978. The U.S. is their biggest customer.

Chinese farmers continuously leave the countryside for higher paying jobs in urban areas. Robust economic growth is needed to absorb this workforce and maintain social stability and the existing political order, which is a top priority. If the economy worsens, China may further devaluate its currency to export its way out of the decline. Chinese exports were down 8.3 percent in July compared to 2014.

More importantly, China’s economic growth has slowed to an annual rate of 7 percent. That’s healthy for most countries- the U.S. struggles to keep annual gross domestic product growth above 2 percentĀ­ but far below the previous decade’s double-digit growth.

Even though its GDP remains smaller than that of the United States, China is the world’s largest trading nation and is many countries’ most important bilateral trade partner. In the future, the yuan may well eclipse the dollar as the preferred currency of trade.

Some believe the devaluation may cause other countries’ central banks to respond, triggering a currency war. Both Japan and the European Union have repeatedly depressed their currencies in the past two years to promote exports. The U.S. certainly does it. The dollar took a deep dive after the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero and flooded the world with cheap money through its quantitative easing initiative.

The devaluation engineered by Beijing also complicates the Federal Reserve’s September decision about whether to raise interest rates, which have been near zero since the 2008 financial meltdown. A weaker yuan would reduce the price of Chinese goods in the U.S. This would further depress the 1.3 percent inflation rate, which is below the Fed’s target of 2 percent.

Last month, the U.S. government reported that the economy added 215,000 jobs and the headline unemployment rate remained at a low 5.3 percent. That could support a Fed decision to raise its key interest rate.

But low inflation, weak increases in hourly wages and continued low labor-force participation could be reasons to delay their planned 0.25 percent increase until early next year. A rate hike would increase the dollar’s value, which would cause even more angst for American exporters, kill manufacturing jobs and sales of American goods; and slow economic growth.

To further complicate the situation, China has stockpiled more than $1.2 trillion in U.S. bonds, which help finance wars and huge budget and trade deficits. If foreign countries stop buying treasury bonds, rising debt would mean higher interest rates because investors would insist on higher returns.

The bottom line is that while there are a number of incentives for countries to devalue their currencies, every effort should be made to avoid the kind of competitive devaluations that exacerbated the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Originally Published: August 22, 2015

How America can become a job creator

Unless you have been hibernating, you understand that the debate over the proper role of government is a central issue in America’s current troubled political environment.

The contretemps over this question are exacerbated by high unemployment, which exerts a severe economic drag on the country. We should approach the question of government’s role with job creation as our top priority.

Nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed and another 9.8 million either involuntarily work only part-time or are too discouraged to keep looking for a job. Families struggling to make ends meet on unemployment benefits are no longer able to participate fully in the nation’s consumer economy. And since consumer spending accounts for some two-thirds of the nation’s gross domestic product, their reduced spending poses an obstacle to economic recovery.

People’s views on the role of government are heavily influenced by their political philosophies. Some care most about individual freedom, seeing wealth creation mainly as the product of individual effort; others prioritize promoting the well-being of the community as a whole. These two philosophical conceptions lead to disagreements about government’s proper role in the economy. Those on the right believe less government leads to more robust economic growth and those on the left argue for more government intervention.

The real problem is that what both groups really want is to find a political strategy that will tip a few red states blue and vice versa. That makes the philosophical clash toxic because bad politics trumps smart public policies.

There are, however, some basic areas of agreement about the role of government. For example, government should protect us from violence. To do so, government must have a monopoly on coercive power. Otherwise anarchy develops, and as the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes noted, “the life of man (becomes) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Similarly, Adam Smith, the intellectual messiah of capitalism, argued that government should protect “society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies” and protect “as far as possible every member of the society from the injustice of or oppression of every other member of it.” The most limited government, then, is one whose sole function is to prevent its members from being subjected to physical coercion.

But even Smith argued that government should create and maintain “certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain.” Think roads, bridges and sewers -the infrastructure required for society to function and grow.

Consider the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the great dams and water systems of the west, airports, seaports, transit, and the highways and bridges that are part of America’s great public works inheritance. They were the envy of the world and supported the growth of the greatest economic power the world has even known.

One way to pay for infrastructure upgrades is to recruit private firms as active partners to help fund and operate these projects. If properly structured, public-private partnerships could tap into billions of dollars in private capital that are looking for a home.

This kind of ambitious infrastructure investment plan could give the nation’s economic growth a vital shot in the arm by creating new jobs and reversing the negative-multiplier effect caused by high unemployment and reduced consumer spending.

originally published: December 14, 2013