Thursday, August 30, 2018

What is Really Fair Trade?

Popular Economics Weekly

China is our trading partner with the largest deficit; $506 billion in exports to the US vs. $130 billion in imports from US for a -$376 billion trade deficit in 2017. Canada is the 2nd largest partner with American consumers buying $300 billion in imports from Canada vs. $282 billion in exports for a -$18 billion trade deficit, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.

Mexico is the third largest partner, with a -$71 billion trade deficit in exports vs. imports. The only partners with which the US has a trade surplus of exports over imports are Brazil and The Netherlands, ranked 12th and 13th, respectively, of the top 15 US trading partners.

The culprit is American consumers that now account for almost 70 percent of economic activity, versus 60 percent in the early 1980s, according to Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch analysts.

Consumers spend almost as much as they save, thanks in part to historically low interest rates that make it easy to borrow. The personal savings rate is now 6.7 percent and inflation is ticking above 2 percent, the Fed’s preferred inflation rate, so look for more interest rate hikes in coming months.

Why is President Trump picking a trade war with two of our top three trading partners that accounted for 29 percent of our trading volume in 2017? Is there a better way than a trade war to cure the deficit problem that doesn’t threaten to elevate prices further to an already escalating inflation rate?

Attempting to correct those imbalances is the major reason President Trump launched tariff wars with our largest trading partners. But he crippled himself at the same time by withdrawing from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership—called TPP—at the beginning of his administration. Though it wasn’t perfect (didn’t boost US job formation), the trade alliance lowered tariffs on thousands of goods and gave US the power to oppose China’s unfair trade practices.

Obama economic advisor Austun Goolsbee tweeted recently:
“E.g. TPP cut tariffs on 18,000 us products—to zero for $90b of US autos & $35b of IT, big cuts for US beef, pork, dairy, poultry, forced fairness for US service exports, established free intl movement of data, killed regulatory barriers to us export, limited state owned enterprises.
“TPP had strongest labor rules of any agreement ever (ban forced labor, child labor, discrimination, required freedom to unionize, minimum wage, hour limits, wkr safety) & the strongest enviro (ship pollution, ozone chem, illegal fishing, illegal logging, wildlife trafficking)movement of data, killed regulatory barriers to US export, limited state owned enterprises. And Mexico and Canada signed TPP so Trump’s nafta “deal” is demonstrably worse for the US than what Canada and Mexico already agreed to,” said Professor Goolsbee.”
The trade deficit has been with US since the 1970s, when roaring inflation and several recessions meant consumers wanted cheaper-foreign-made goods over those made in the USA, due in part to several Arab oil embargos that drove up oil prices and caused long lines at gas stations due to gasoline shortages.

On the macro (national) economic level, the US made it easy for American multi-national corporations to build their factories overseas with anti-labor policies that suppressed union collective bargaining and US wages, in their quest to expand international trade by opening US borders via lower import tariffs.

So a greater fair trade world would require major policy changes to correct the trade imbalances, needless to say. American consumers would pay more for Made in USA products and not always seek discounted foreign goods, for starters, if their incomes improved. They would then pay more taxes, increasing government revenues, which would lessen demand for massive federal government borrowing to cover the huge annual federal budget deficit that is projected to reach $1.5 trillion in 10 years.

Really fair trade is understanding basic economics—which would require fairer labor policies.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Labor Productivity is the Golden Fleece

Financial FAQs

Rising labor productivity is the golden fleece of economic growth, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, because major economists maintain it is really the only way workers can raise their standard of living. This means raising incomes above the inflation rate, which is where average household incomes have been stuck since the end of the Great Recession.

The sheep’s fleece was an ancient Greek method of extracting gold from flowing streams.  The heavier gold flakes would stick to the fleece, hence the Greek myth of Jason bringing home the Golden Fleece came to signify the accumulation of wealth and power.

For that reason it’s good news that labor productivity seems finally to be recovering. Workers’ output rose at a very hot 4.8 percent rate in the second quarter, up from an already solid 2.6 percent rate in the first quarter. Hours worked rose at a 1.9 percent rate vs. the first quarter's 2.6 percent.

But we don’t see its benefits being passed on to wage and salary earners. Wages have stagnated and income inequality increased because workers’ productivity hadn’t risen substantially since 2010, as the graph shows; when benefits from ARRA, the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted during the first year of President Obama’s administration, petered out. It was much too inadequate to help restore states’ and consumers’ personal wealth from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
“Obama officials and Congress clearly made a big mistake early in the recession by focusing more intently on saving banks — and, thus, bankers and investors — and much less on directly helping families facing foreclosures and layoffs,” says a recent NY Times Op-ed. “Later in the recovery, the decision by Republican leaders in Congress to oppose every Obama proposal prevented the government from doing much to help people regain what they had lost or to heat up the tepid recovery with infrastructure spending and other stimulus measures.”
More government public sector aid was necessary, in other words, because the private sector was recovering from their losses and had little money to invest.
And “Government puts a lot of money into basic research, whereas businesses tend to fund late-stage development that can be quickly commercialized,” says MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting. “However, federal funding for research hasn’t kept pace with the growth in the economy; in the past 10 years, federal R&D investments have risen just 0.3 percent per year after adjusting for inflation.”

A major reason for the rise in productivity at the moment has to be that companies are investing more in new plants and equipment; in part because of the Republican tax cut in corporations’ nominal tax rate, but also because there is a huge deficit in skilled workers that has required businesses to invest more heavily in technologies that replace those missing workers. There are now about one million more job openings than jobs being created each month.

So workers aren't really benefiting from the productivity increase, as nominal compensation fell to a 2.0 percent rate from 3.7 percent in the first quarter, according to Econoday. When adjusting for inflation, real compensation rose 0.3 percent and was little changed from the first quarter's 0.2 percent rate.
Why?? Firstly, many more low-paying service sector jobs are being created than manufacturing jobs; which have been shipped overseas by corporations where wage and benefit costs are a fraction of Americans’. It is a major reason President Trump has initiated tariff increases in the hope foreign manufactures become less competitive in a bid to bring home some of those manufacturing jobs.

But that may or may not succeed, as a burgeoning trade war with higher tariffs would probably raise prices and inflation to a level that would nullify any benefits from more domestic jobs. Nobel economist Paul Krugman has said that it could eliminate 8 to 9 million jobs from companies that would shrink as a result of the increased tariffs, due to foreign businesses looking elsewhere for cheaper products not affected by the tariffs.

Increasing the national minimum wage from $7.25/hour last set in the 2009 would definitely help the lower wage sector, which Big Business has been resisting. Workers are producing more than ever, at present. But that doesn’t mean their standard of living will rise because of it, unless employers pass on more of the productivity increase to their employees

Harlan Green © 2018

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WHere Goes the Housing Market From Here?

The Mortgage Corner

We definitely have a housing shortage. Housing construction is unable to keep up with the demand for single-family homes, in particular. Year-on-year, starts are down 1.4 percent with completions, at a 1.188 million rate, down 0.8 percent and homes not started, at 175,000, up 23.2 percent, nationally. The lack of available construction labor and high costs for lumber, which are tied in part to tariffs, are negative factors, say Realtors and home builders.
“Given the chronic lack of affordable housing and rapidly escalating home prices, it is worrisome that on a per capita basis, the country is producing new single-family housing stock at a rate that is similar to the trough of a typical recession,” Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac, told Reuters.
This is not good news for entry-level homebuyers looking to buy affordable homes, needless to say. Even though mortgage rates are still at post-recession (historic) lows, with the 30-year conforming mortgage rate stuck at 4.0 percent for a one point origination fee among the most competitive California lenders.

Some new-home projects are seeing construction delays due to those cost concerns, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The NAHB also notes the number of single-family units that are authorized but have not started is up 25 percent since July 2017.
And we have the aforementioned tariff wars raising the price of building materials—Canadian lumber in particular. “Supply-side challenges, including increases in material prices and chronic labor shortages, are affecting affordability in many markets,” says Robert Dietz, the NAHB’s chief economist. “However, consumer demand remains strong, due to a growing economy and job market and favorable demographics.”
Showing much less weakness are permits, up 1.5 percent in the month to 1.311 million. Year-on-year, permits are up 4.2 percent with strength centered where it should be and that's single-family homes where permits are up a very solid 6.4 percent. Multi-family permits are up 0.2 percent year-on-year, reflecting the rise in renters that can’t afford to buy.

What can be done to ease what is fast becoming a housing crisis? The tariff wars with Canada and the EU are definitely not in our national security interest, as housing inflation is already a problem. But there is also a construction workers shortage in this fully employed economy. Many of those workers are recently-arrived immigrants being deported by the Trump administration, rather than offered a path to citizenship; which is also harming agriculture.

The national median existing-home value is now $217,300, an increase of 8.3 percent on the year and 8.4 percent above the bubble-era peak. In 21 of the nation’s 35 largest markets, the median home value is now at an all-time high reports Zillow, the housing information specialist.

And continuing a years-long trend, says Zillow, the number of U.S. homes for sale in June fell 4.8 percent to 1.2 million, the 41st month in a row of annual inventory declines. Inventory of homes in the top value tier dropped 5.4 percent, while the number of homes for sale in the bottom value tier fell 3.6 percent.

Even though homeownership is rising from its Great Recession trough, the share of people renting their home, rather than owning it, has also increased in all 50 of the largest cities in the country between 2006 and 2016, reports Zillow.   Renter households now represent the majority in 29 of those 50 cities — back in 2006 at the start of the housing crisis, only 16 had renter-household majorities.

So we are seeing the inevitable result of the busted housing bubble, when as many as one million excess homes were built. But even more damage was done during the succeeding recovery, when policies were not instigated to cure the loss of incomes that resulted from the loss of jobs and homes.

It will require many more public-funded programs to cure the housing shortage, including affordable housing tax breaks, remedy of the massive infrastructure deficit, and tax cuts and spending programs (such as on health care and education) that benefit the middle and working classes, rather than Wall Street and the corporations.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Are Interest Rates Dangerously Low?

Popular Economics Weekly

Why should historically low interest rates be a problem, you say?  Doesn’t that help consumer demand by enabling consumers to buy more by borrowing more cheaply, and economic growth by encouraging companies to create more jobs?  Not when rates have remained low for such an extended period.

Interest rates are far too low this late in the recovery from the Great Recession. It isn’t only because the Treasury Yield Curve slope has been steadily declining since 2014 that measures the difference between the 10-year and 2-year Treasury bond yields, as we said last week.

The Benchmark 10-year Treasury yield itself hasn’t risen above 3 percent in at least one year. It was this low for sustained periods during the Great Recession, when it dipped below 2 percent. But it shouldn’t be as low today (2.85 percent at this writing). In fact, interest rates haven’t recovered from the Great Recession. It normally ranges from 4 to 5 percent during prosperous times when there is a greater demand for money—e.g., from 2000 to 2008—as the FRED graph shows.

It signals a significant weakness in aggregate demand for goods and services; which is the sum of demand by consumers, investors, government spending and net exports, (and somewhat mirrors the weak 2 percent GDP growth since then). This could means we are dangerously close to another recession, if economic shocks such as the Turkish Lira plunge, or a full-fledged trade war occurs.

Consumer spending is perking along above 3 percent only because of excessive borrowing due to the low interest rates, rather than rising incomes, so it won’t be sustainable. And capital spending is half of what it should be with the stimulus from the Republican tax cuts and $1.3 trillion in additional federal spending.

Exports—another component of aggregate demand—is momentarily rising, but it could be a one-time surge in orders to escape rising costs from the trade war. And there is always the threat of cuts to government entitlement programs like food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, which increases costs of many low and middle-income consumers.

So we could be teetering on the edge of an economic slowdown, no matter what the pundits are saying about full employment and the latest 4.1 percent GDP 2nd quarter growth, with excessive government and private debt providing little cushion for support should geopolitical and financial problems worsen.

However, there is a caveat to this dismal scenario. It may not be a recession for all Americans. Household debt — including mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, student loans and other credit — grew for the 16th consecutive quarter in the April-to-June period, rising by 0.6%, or $82 billion, to $13.29 trillion, the New York Fed reported Tuesday.

That’s because the recovery has really benefited just the top 10 percent income-earners, who have been able to pay down their debts. With personal disposable incomes at a $15.46 trillion annual rate in the quarter, the debt-to-income ratio dipped to 86 percent. That’s the lowest, by a tiny amount, since the fourth quarter of 2002. At the height of the credit bubble in 2008, debts topped at 116 percent of disposable income.

And we have government debt approaching 100 percent of GDP by 2020, according to the watchdog Congressional Budget Office. The sad denouement of this scenario could be that another downturn will hurt those most dependent on the federal government for protection, as has happened in the past.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Why Aren't Wages Growing Faster?

Popular Economics Weekly

Graph: FRED

Interest rates are far too low for this late in the recovery from the Great Recession. We know this because the Treasury Yield Curve has been falling that measures the difference between the 10-year and 2-year Treasury bond yields. The difference is just 1 percent, when it has been around 2 percent during other prosperous times, as the FRED graph shows. It last was this low just before the last 2 recessions (gray columns in graph).

Why are interest rates still low? The simplest answer is there isn’t sufficient demand for what is being produced that would cause more borrowing, thus causing interest rates to rise. And though the Republican tax cuts have juiced profits of corporations and their stock holders, it hasn’t boosted the wages of ordinary consumers that power two-thirds of economic activity.

Consumers’ personal incomes are rising at the inflation rate on average, which means they don’t have sufficient income or savings that would cause them to increase their spending habits. It’s a difficult and maybe counter-intuitive concept. If prices are rising as fast as incomes, then consumers are also playing catchup in what they need to maintain their standard of living.

That is why economists worry that such low long term interest rates in particular could be a sign of another incipient recession. Banks cannot lend as much when their profit on loans is the difference between their cost of money and what they can lend at longer-term loan rates (such as mortgages and installment loans). So it means a shrinkage in the available credit.

The good news is that job openings are still soaring in the Labor Department’s JOLTS Report, which should boost wages. It is a survey of available jobs, vs. how many jobs have been created in June.
There were 6.662 million in June vs. an upwardly revised 6.659 million in May, reports the BLS.

Year-on-year, the number of job openings was up 8.8 percent. The number of hires remained well below job openings at 5.651 million in June, down from May's 5.747 million, while separations, which includes quits, layoffs and discharges, rose to 5.502 million from 5.419 million.

That means there were more than 1 million jobs that remained unfilled, which has to put more pressure on employers to boost wages. So will inflation behave enough to allow an increase in real wages, which should be rising above the rate of inflation this late in the recovery from the Great Recession?

That has been the problem since the 1970s, really. The Fed wants to keep inflation low, so it raises interest rates whenever there is a sign that workers’ wages are rising faster than inflation. But this puts a damper on consumer spending, which in turn keeps economic growth in the 2-3 percent range, which isn’t enough to either pay down personal or government debts.

And social security trustees calculate the $3 trillion social security trust fund will be depleted by 1934, which would mean taxes must be raised to maintain current benefits before then. Does anything believe Congress will allow said benefits to shrink, with voting seniors just daring them to cut their benefits?

It’s much easier for the Fed to allow inflation to rise above its 2 percent target range before raising their interest rates to allow faster wage growth, which in turn boosts tax revenues. The social security trustees use a mid-range GDP growth rate of approximately 2.6 percent to calculate longevity of the SS trust fund.

GDP growth has averaged 3.5 percent since the 1930s, including the Great Depression. Why have inflation hawks at the Federal Reserve so slowed growth since the 1970s by boosting interest rates at the slightest hint of higher inflation, which in turn has kept GDP growth below its long-range potential?

The real answer is that pro-business, pro-corporate administrations since 1980 have severely limited collective bargaining and other pro-labor laws in the name of globalization, thus limiting wage growth.

That’s why such policies are called trickle-down economics. Very little of the national wealth created since then has trickled down to the 80 percent that are the real wage earners.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Slower July Jobs Growth Worrisome

Popular Economics Weekly

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 157,000 in July, and the unemployment rate edged down to 3.9 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Employment increased in professional and business services, in manufacturing, and in health care and social assistance.
A 157,000 rise in nonfarm payrolls for July is at the low end of Econoday's consensus range but is still healthy growth that is strong enough to absorb new entrants into the labor market. And revisions showed a net 59,000 gain with June revised up to 248,000 and May higher at 268,000 in what were two very strong months for job growth.

So the jury is out on when this fully employed economy will begin to slow down. The stock and bond markets are predicting another six months of growth, even with the trade war uncertainties. Trump seems to be holding off on bringing down the hammer of additional Chinese tariffs of $200B, and says he will work in concert with the EU on bringing China to the fair trade table.
The payroll increases were led by temporary help services which rose 28,000 in a very strong gain that indicates employers, stacked up with orders and backlogs, “are scrambling to meet demand,” says Econoday. “Construction payrolls also standout with a strong 19,000 gain in the latest indication of strength in this sector. Manufacturing payrolls rose 37,000 to more than double Econoday's consensus with trade & transportation, reflecting strong activity in the supply chain, up 15,000. Weakness in payrolls comes from mining, down 4,000 after a long series of gains, and also government payrolls which fell 13,000 to nearly reverse the prior month's 14,000 jump.”

Another caveat to continued growth is a slowing of activity in the service industries, at the lowest level in 11 months. ISM’s Non-manufacturing Composite Index reported both new orders, down more than 5 points to 57.0, and backlog orders, down 5 points to 51.5, show softening. Export orders in this report, at 58.0, remain very strong but are down 2.5 points.

Overall business activity also slowed, down nearly 7.5 points to 56.5 with delivery times showing less stress. Input prices remain highly elevated at 63.4, up nearly 3 points in the month, said the ISM.

But there is still the threat of higher auto tariffs, and Midwest farmers are being hurt by higher agricultural tariffs aimed at Trump country, so we can see that a sharp acceleration in inflation might unsettle both the job and financial markets.

Higher inflation and interest rates, in other words, should tell us whether the rising import and export prices will hurt jobs and company earnings in coming months.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Rebuilding of Local Communities!


Where does the rebuilding of local communities that creates a sense of healthy community itself really happen? At the local level, whether it be in neighborhoods, towns, or cities. It is everywhere residents find a reason to band together.

And it is an answer to the fragmentation of local communities caused by the loss of so many blue collar jobs due to the Digital Revolution and Globalization of the workforce that has internationalized commerce so that corporations ignore national borders in their search for cheaper labor and new markets.

This has meant that towns, cities and states have had to look inward to heal their broken communities in order to provide citizens with the necessary means to grow and prosper. National Night Out is one such community-building effort that has become a nation-wide movement.

It is an annual community-building campaign that promotes public safety-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie. National Night Out enhances the relationship between neighbors and public safety and fosters that sense of community.

It is“… a chance to bring neighborhoods together with the men and women who protect them. The safety of our communities depends on both law enforcement and the neighbors they serve. National Night Out enhances that cooperation,” says Vice President Joe Biden.

Millions of neighbors take part in National Night Out across thousands of communities for one night each year.

What is its history? National Night Out has been celebrated since 1984 and is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch in the United States and Canada. NATW introduced National Night Out in August of 1984 through an already established network of law enforcement agencies, neighborhood watch groups, civic groups, state and regional crime prevention associations and volunteers across the nation. The first annual National Night Out involved 2.5 million neighbors across 400 communities in 23 states. However, the event soon grew to a celebration beyond just front porch vigils.

Neighborhoods across the nation began to host block parties, festivals, parades, cookouts and various other community events with safety demonstrations, seminars, youth events, visits from emergency personnel, exhibits and much, much more. Today, 38 million neighbors in 16 thousand communities across the nation take part in National Night Out.

My home town of Redwood City, California is one such city participating in National Night Out. Here are some of the programs designed to foster a sense of belonging to a viable community and city:

“National Night Out is an annual community-building campaign that promotes public safety-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie. National Night Out enhances the relationship between neighbors and public safety and fosters Redwood City's sense of community."

Join your Redwood City neighborhood this year on August 7 to celebrate National Night Out!
Centennial - Mezes Park, 6-8 p.m.
Eagle Hill - Block Party at Quartz and St. Francis St., 5-8 p.m.
Friendly Acres - Barbeque at Andrew Spinas Park, 6-8 p.m. Fun and games for children and families.
Redwood Shores/Sandpiper Lagoon HOA - Block Party at Avocet Dr. and Waterside Circle from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. Redwood City Police and Fire departments will attend. Light food and drinks will be provided. Please park in guest parking only or walk to the area.
Redwood Village - Join your neighbors for food, ice cream, classic cars, and a jumper on Flynn St. (off Greenwood), from 6-8 p.m.
Roosevelt - Gather at the Sheltered BBQ Area at Red Morton Park (by the Bocce Ball Court, behind the Community Activities Building) from 6 - 8 p.m. Come tie-dye t-shirts and participate in a dessert contest. 
Woodside Plaza - Gather at Maddux Park from 5 - 8 p.m. for corn hole, ladder golf, and a bake-off competition. Redwood City Police and Fire departments will attend with cars and trucks. RCPD will provide fingerprinting kits. Kona Hawaiian Ice Truck will stop by from 6 - 7 p.m. At 8 p.m. Maddux movie night will follow with a showing of The Princess Bride.
Go here to learn more.

What could be more enjoyable on a summer evening that coming together with others to celebrate your own community’s well-being.

Harlan Green © 2018

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