Stanley Fischer: “Reasonable People Can Disagree”

Stanley Fisher bravely gave a talk on labor productivity last week—bravely because Robert Solow was in the audience, which Fischer acknowledged as an honor, a joy, and something of a difficulty. In his talk Fischer touched on a number of possible measurement problems, but, like the majority of serious researchers on the topic we have quoted over the years, sees no reason to believe there has been an increase in any measurement bias, meaning the long standing decline in productivity is not a measurement problem.

Fischer hauls out the old, and we’d say true, saw that public-sector research is responsible for the R part of the R&D pair, and the private sector is responsible for the D. This of course is a controversial statement, how many arguments have we all had on one side or the other? But the research in favor is pretty conclusive. The private sector has done wonders with the applications, but the basic materials are close to entirely produced in government or government-funded labs. (If you have evidence to the contrary, please send it along.)

That’s why Fischer calls the stunning trend shown below disturbing. We’d add it may go a long way toward debunking the idea that there’s any mystery cloaking current weakness in productivity.


John Fernald, researcher at the San Francisco Fed who has had tremendous influence on the Federal Reserve’s overall thinking on the issue, has shown that labor’s contribution to productivity, driven by gains in educational attainment, etc., has been stable in the periods shown on the graph below, which were derived from his team’s work on the subject. Investment has been a dragging factor, but the real culprit appears to be innovation, the residual tracked by Total Factor Productivity. Somewhat elusive by nature, it’s designed to measure changes in output that cannot be explained by labor and capital. Belief in the power of that component of TFP was the Kool-aid of belief in the New Economy, but the contributions of formal and informal R&D, better management, gains driven by government-provided infrastructure (there would be no farming west of the Mississippi without federal water projects), and the creative destruction wreaked by highly productive firms on the trailers are certainly real.


While we’re not graphing this, Fernald’s research shows that productivity contributions from IT producing industries peaked between 1995-2000, the contribution of IT-intensive firms increased ten-fold between 2000 and 2004, and then shrunk back to where it had been by 2007. Non IT-intensive firms plucked their low-hanging fruit by 2007, and their contribution disappeared by 2011. Many of the revolutionary increases in productivity took place in retail and wholesale trade, and in online brokerage back then. Nothing comparable is happening now.

Fischer believes that AI, his example is self-driving cars, medical technology (gene-driven treatments), and cheaper alternative fuels all suggest that we can reach for higher fruit, and raises the possibility that we may be in a productivity lull as these advances spread through the economy. He notes that it took decades for the steam-engine to make its changes. One hopes.

the Rule of 70

And Fischer cuts to the chase. In answering his rhetorical what does this matter?, he turns to his favored measure: how long it takes for productivity and, therefore, income, to double. During the 25 years between 1948 and 1973 when labor productivity was growing at 3.25%, it took labor productivity 25 years to double (70/3.25); in the 42 years between 1974 and 2016, with labor productivity growing an average 1.75%, it took 41 years to double. What is the difference between the prospects facing the young when per capita incomes are doubling every 22 years and when they are doubling every 41 years. An excellent reason to work to shift the tide.

Noting that reasonable people can disagree on how best to advance the objective, Fischer points out that another restraining factor may be uncertainty related to government policies, which stabilized in 2013, but was on the rise again in late 2016. Damping such uncertainty by more clarity is “highly desirable—particularly if the direction of policy itself is desirable.”

Perhaps we could harness some creative destruction and dismantle our $125 billion-dollar-a-year Grid Lock industry. (Forbes noted about 56% of that is direct, wasted time and fuel while sitting in traffic.) It’s a far cry from what we hoped for from the innovation residual, but perhaps we should try to recoup the kind of productivity gains that came with the interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s—only maybe with some 21st century modes of transportation instead?

by admin· · 0 comments · Fed Focus, Uncategorized


The late Ed Hart of the late Financial News Network used to refer to the set of topics around broad price changes as “’flation,” which neatly covers inflation, deflation, and disinflation in a single word.

Some analysts in the U.S. are getting worried about the “in-“ kind of ’flation. With core inflation hitting 2.2% for the year ending in January—though the headline figure, dragged down by the collapse in oil prices, was just 1.3%—hawks are fretting that the Fed has fallen behind the curve.

Maybe, but maybe this is better news than it seems. Graphed below are headline and core inflation for the U.S., the eurozone, and Japan. The latter two are in or near deflation, a sign of profound and extended economic weakness. The U.S., for all its troubles, is not suffering from those maladies. That 2.2% core reading is just slightly above the average since 2000; the 1.4% headline is 0.8 point below that average.
It might be a good idea to relax and give thanks that the U.S. is not caught in what our beloved if irascible John Liscio used to call “the tractor beam of deflation.” There’s plenty of time to get on top of this one if the rise persists.


Consumer price index all and core

by admin· · 0 comments · Current Affairs, Uncategorized

Enter lates news/post here

by admin· · 0 comments · Uncategorized

The IMF considers the rich, JP Morgan Chase considers everyone, and upcoming budget cuts

1.  Bas B. Bakker and Joshua Feldman just published an IMF working paper, "The Rich and the Great Recession," that shifts the focus from the role of the middle class to the role of the top 10% in the debate over the macro trends that led into the crisis.

They call both the inequality narrative, that stagnant wages led the middle class to over-borrow the rich's savings, and the wealth narrative, which ignores distribution and blames rollercoastering asset prices, flawed, and advance the idea that the rich, whose debt increased as quickly as that of the lower 90% in their methodology, were "active participants" in the boom that busted. Their work, including modeling, suggests that the savings rate of top 10% followed the same pattern as that of the lower 90%, and their model implies something they call, "…truly striking: between 1993 and 2003, about 55 percent of the increase in consumption came from the rich; over the last ten years, the share was even larger (71 percent)."

They focus on the savings rate from the National Income and Product Accounts, pointing out that in the early 1980s the savings rate was 10% and the share of income going to the top 10% one third, but by 2010 aggregated savings had slipped to 5%, and the upper share of income had risen to one half.

They do not believe, as none of us should, that the only process that would support the inequality scenario on its own, that the savings rate of the top 10% held steady over time while the rate of the lower 90% fell from 10% to zero, is plausible, especially as it requires both groups to have been saving at the same rate in the early eighties. They make the more likely assumption that the savings rate of the rich was well above that of all the rest in 1980, perhaps three times higher, and then fell much harder. Supporting this is the negative correlation between the share of wealth heading into cashmere pockets and the aggregate savings rate of the last 3 decades.

The Flow of Funds, the authors don't even bother with the new moniker, shows the debt of the top 10% rose as quickly as that of the less flush, and was likely a response to the increase of wealth. Wealth to income ratios rose from 721% in 1994 to 912% in 2007 for the top group, and from 373% to 404% for the bottom. With both savings rates traveling along the same curve, it makes sense that the top 10%, who enjoyed the lion's share of income and wealth gains, played a central role in both the boom and bust.

Check their models here.

2. In a study of income and spending patterns of 100,000 of its account holders (a sample drawn from 27 million accounts), the JPMorgan Chase Foundation found high levels of volatility on both sides of the income statement, with close to all experiencing changes of 5% or more from month to month. Over a quarter, 26%, experienced income changes of 30% or more over the course of a year (10% of them a decline, 16% an increase). There was surprisingly little variation by income quintile – in fact the top quintile experienced somewhat more volatility than the bottom. This results generally show more volatility than previous studies have.

Income and consumption changes didn't move in tandem: just 28% of the sample, whom the bank called "responders," showed a tight correlation between the two. Responders were slightly more likely to be in the bottom quintile, to be maxed out on their credit cards, and on a fixed income. A third of the sample were "sticky optimists," meaning consumption increases typically exceed income increases by 10 percentage points or more; most increased consumption despite drops in income. The optimists tended to be higher earners, though obviously that kind of aggressive consumption isn't sustainable over the longer term. The largest share of accounts, 39%, were "sticky pessimists," meaning that consumption increases less than income by more than than 10 points or more. Their consumption rises less than income when income rises, and they cut back on spending when income drops. For a large minority, 39%, income and consumption changes between 2013 and 2014 moved in the opposite direction. The data suggests that few individuals follow a monthly budget: 60% of the sample showed average monthly changes in consumption of greater than 30%.

Of course, it's hard to generalize from just two years of data, but the looseness of fit between income and consumption changes is striking. It'd be interesting to know how these categories have been affected by the Great Recession – are consumers more cautious than they used to be? – but we just don't have the data.

The typical household in the sample just didn't have the savings cushion necessary to weather the income and spending volatility. The bank estimates that a middle-income household should have about $4,800 in liquid assets on hand to cope with normal monthly ups and downs – but they had only about $3,000. The shortfall was present in all but the top quintile.

Both the volatility and lack of cushion found in this study are usually thought to affect lower-income households, but that's clearly not the case. Better financial planning and budgeting could help mitigate the problem, but most Americans experience quite a bit of economic uncertainty. As the report says in its conclusion, "financial insecurity and scarcity exact a mental toll, making it more difficult for people to solve problems, exert self-discipline, and have the mental bandwidth to weigh the costs of borrowing or other short-term solutions."

3. In their April minutes, the FOMC noted that state and local governments cut back on construction spending in the first quarter. Bloomberg's Mark Nicette put together a nice roundup of state finances, citing, among others, the mighty Rockefeller Institute, that shows that despite better collections 32 states face gaps in their FY 2015 and/or 2016 budgets, and that, as we and others have pointed out, adjusted for inflation state revenues have not regained pre-recession peaks. This means new cuts.

As we often mention, the Great Recession is the only one on record where public sector employment fell, and hence could not function as an automatic stabilizer. Nicette ends his piece with a quote from Alabama's two-term Republican Governor Robert Bentley, who just asked for a tax hike (gasp). "We have a real crisis on our hands." 

Like it or not, public employees are generally quite well paid, and they shop in the same stores as everyone else. The Bureau of Economic Analysis assigns a 2.22 economic multiplier to local (N.B.) governmental enterprises, just below residential construction's 2.27, and among the highest. And dead last? Federal banks, credit intermediation and related activities, 1.39. Uh oh.


by Philippa Dunne· · 1 comment · Uncategorized

Public Service Announcement on the Non-farm Payroll

The large upward revisions to August payrolls released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics this morning (with jobs data for September) set the conspiracy theorists' world on fire. And they were strong, about three times the usual revision. But, as we pointed out in a report we sent to our clients earlier this week, this is a long-standing pattern. It almost always happens, whether there's an election coming up or not. Here's the relevant text from this morning's note:

August's gain was revised upward by 46,000, and July's by 40,000. Almost all the revisions, however, came from an upward revision of 101,000 to local government education in August before seasonal adjustment – a recurrent anomaly at this time of year that we wrote about in Wednesday's report. The concurrent seasonal adjustment technique distributes large changes like that backwards, so the gain was split between July and August in the adjusted numbers. Some excitable types are attributing the upward revision to political machinations, but this pattern has been around a long time. It's likely something is amiss in the BLS's collection process, and they are working on it. There shouldn't be a recurrent pattern of error like this. (Excitable types should also note that the birth/death model subtracted 9,000 jobs in September.)

by Philippa Dunne· · 0 comments · Uncategorized