NZ isn’t the US: Employment rates

So often we hear that, even though the unemployment rate is falling in the US, employment is low.  It is the low level of employment, and the lack of integration in the community that entails, that is causing so much anger over there.  The lack of opportunity illustrated through the low employment rate is one of the key pieces of information pulled out to suggest something must be done.

Often people in New Zealand talk as if whatever is happening in the US is happening here, therefore something must be done.  However, lets be a bit more careful – especially as in the case of the employment rate that is untrue.

 

remprSource:  Stats NZ.  Quandl.

Yes, the story is more complicated (Working for families increased the number of second earners in the labour market, a factor that will in of itself have pushed up the participation and employment rates).  But if anything that suggests we need to be a lot more careful applying “lessons” from the US situation to New Zealand.  We are not the United States – a point we’ve noted when looking at median income comparisons in the past ;)

 

 

Bleg: Grimes on bubbles

Arthur Grimes recently gave an interview to Reuters, all I’ve seen so far is this write up via Raf on Twitter (cheers).  Now Grimes is an incredibly good New Zealand economist, to put things in perspective I would generally put more weight on a single line of his opinion of something than I would on my own intuition and analysis of issues – an given that as individuals we are strongly biased towards our own views that is pretty significant.

But anyone who reads TVHE knows what I’m like, I just really really want to know ‘why’ certain things are being said!  I emailed a few economists and some suggested I do a bleg asking, so why not!

In the Yahoo story there are a couple of segments I’m a touch confused on and I’d like it if someone could answer them for me :) (Note:  Seamus from Offsetting offers some example answers at the bottom of this post)

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It’s about the “right” counterfactual

In a recent post, Mark Calabria from the Cato Institute took aim at the idea that the Lehman Brothers crisis was the “trigger” for a big crisis.

Now I do not disagree that there was, and would have been, a recession without Lehman Brothers – and even without the uncertainty caused by the lack of clarity around insurance of the shadow banking system which grew post August 2007.  However, these issues, and in turn the failure of Lehman Brothers did make the crisis significantly more severe than it would have been.

He appears to say that the failure of Lehman Brothers was a good thing (Note:  There is nothing wrong with wiping out the company – but the way it was handled, was a big driver of the global slowdown that was to come), and that the US was on the road to recovery post this.  So here we are focusing just on the US, not the contagion to other countries.  His evidence is the following graph:

Employment and consumption stopped declining not long after Lehman Brothers failed, and although the largest declines occurred WHEN Lehman Brothers failed this doesn’t mean the failure caused them – in fact, employment tends to lag the cycle and the drop may well have been the result of prior economic weakness … and the amazingly high fuel prices through the first half of 2008.

Now I agree that there were factors driving a recession prior to the failure of Lehman Brothers – but the impact of Lehman Brothers as an event is captured by asking what would have happened in the absence of the Global Financial Crisis that stemmed from it, and the full blown “bank run” on wholesale financial markets that had been building pressure from the start of 2008.  Going to FRED, grabbing consumption and population, and running a basic time regression in excel no less (so it’s easy to copy) we can get an idea of what the “trend” rate of consumption per capita was during the 1952-2012 period.  Armed with that, we can ask what the percentage difference is between this trend and actual consumption per capita outcomes.  This is:

Something is broken here – I will try to fix that up tonight.  The strange thing is that I can see the graph when editing the post … but it then wont let me do anything with it

Now we can start arguing that consumption per person was too high and a whole bunch of other things if we want to here.  However, this basic analysis clearly shows that the gap between trend consumption and actual consumption, something that should have a tendancy to head back to zero after a recession, actually deterioarted further … and has continued to deteroriate.  We look at business cycles “around trends” not “around levels” given that our counterfactual involves growth – and this makes this post by the Cato institute a bit misleading.

Saying that the downturn, or even the crisis, started with Lehman Brothers is wrong, I agree with the author here – however Lehman Brothers failure started a new dangerous stage of the crisis which, when combined with the persistent institutional failure in Europe, has made sure that the US economy has remained below potential.  A market monetarist would say that the Fed is truly responsible for this in terms of policy action, but even if we were to accept this it is undeniable that it is the “shocks” that have occurred in financial markets are the very things the Fed needs to respond to by “loosening policy”.

It’s failure is indicative of what was underlying the crisis, and the evidence shown in no way suggests that allowing its failure and initially ignoring the quiet, and then full scale, bank runs in wholesale financial markets was good policy.

QE3: Forward guidance, debt purchases, unemployment target

As expected, the US Federal Reserve announced QE3 early this morning NZ time.

In the statement, they commit the the purchase of mortgage debt people expected (carrying on for an undefined period of time), they state they will keep the cash rate exceptionally low until at least mid-2015 (which was anticipated) – but they also say they will do more unless they get traction on the labour market.

This is reasonably significant.  They are fully testing their view that there is no structural problem in the labour market (which is empirically supported) and are banking on the idea that easier monetary conditions, combined with a credible commitment on the labour market will lead to households and firms finally bringing forward consumption and investment.

This makes more sense than prior policy.  The constant forecasting of “failure” in monetary policy in the US led to policy that can be seen as insufficient – the Fed was treating the risks of inflation (and thereby the outlook for the domestic economy) asymmetrically – obviously Woodford’s speech had an impact (although the projections still have a pretty slow improvement in the unemployment rate – would need to see employment rate forecast to really get a feeling for what they mean).

It may also be seen as reinforcing the view of market monetarists (eg Sumner) that the Fed’s expectations have a significant impact on expectations of real economic and labour market activity within the cycle (at least in response to large shocks – possibility of multiple equilibrium.  Note:  They wouldn’t see it the same way.).  This is a view I would like to see in more detail (eg what sort of expectations does this rely on, and what sort of conception of the real rate – are they are artifact of current monetary policy settings).

Although this is encouraging - when looking over here in NZ it is the European debt crisis that is impeding growth.  Yes, a stronger US economy will support growth in Asia and NZ helping remove large scale risks – but the European debt crisis continues to have a separate impact on NZ that is binding.

Update:  Having a read around on the piles of good sites discussing the issue, I ran into this post via Money Illusion.  Now, doesn’t this scream multiple equilibrium to you?  To criticise the Fed for rates being low and indicating a weak recovery, we need to blame the Fed for the drop in the natural interest rate – this has to imply that the Fed either created uncertainty, or is so far away from their mandate we’ve fallen into a “suboptimal” eqm.  You cannot blame the Fed for exogenous shocks (which you’d normally pin this on), so there MUST be an implicit multiple eqm argument behind NGDP level targeting – I find it conceivable, although potentially hard to test empirically … can someone send it to me please :)

Update II:  Good point from Scott Sumner:

In addition, they did move closer to level targeting, something I didn’t think was politically possible:

(Fed statement) To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee expects that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.

What’s changed since June?  That’s pretty easy to answer; Woodford’s paper was obviously very influential, and that changed the politics on level targeting.

This is still consistent with flexible inflation targeting at the ZLB.  Of course, NGDP level targeting and inflation targeting share a lot of similarities – and to be fair, NGDP level targeting would be more transparent when faced with the ZLB problem.  In net terms I’m still a flexible inflation targeter – as the benefits of a predictable price level ex-ante from a point in time seem significant, and best served by doing that directly (through inflation targeting).  Of course, if the facts at my disposal change I’m happy to move around :)