Friday, January 8, 2016

A brief note: Why the Fed should not have raised interest rates

Recently, the United States Federal Reserve decided to raise its key interest rate, the Federal Funds rate target, from 0%-.25% to .25%-.5%. This rise, while small, was not wise.

The federal funds rate is the benchmark rate for the Fed, decided by the FOMC(Federal Open Market Committee). The FOMC is made up of the 7 members of the federal reserve board, of which Janet Yellen is the head, and five federal reserve bank presidents, of which the president of the New York bank is always a member. It has control of key decisions, including raising the federal funds rate.

The federal funds rate is the rate at which banks and credit unions lend to other banks and credit unions over night without colateral. Lower interests rates result in cheaper borrowing, increasing consumer spending and investment, and thus aggregate demand, which results in higher inflation and GDP, as well as lower unemployment. Higher interests rates have the reverse effects.

There are a few reasons to raise interest rates. One is to lower inflation. However, as of now, this is not a problem. The Fed's target for inflation is 2%, but right now inflation is much lower. The Fed prefers the PCE price index to measure inflation. According to its most recent numbers total inflation increased .2% from a year earlier. However, this is unreliable because it includes volatile food and energy prices. Even when excluding them, inflation increased 1.3% from a year earlier. In fact, for over three years straight, inflation has been below the target. So as of right now, inflation is not high enough for concern.

Not only is inflation low, but there is little sign it will be of concern in the future, or even reach its target. Core inflation has been flat for several months, and the trend over the past few years is slightly down, not up. Wage growth is modest, but not high enough for worries about inflation.
In the period of solid growth, stretching from (January 2003-January 2007), average wage growth per month was about .34% in terms of average weekly earnings. Over the past year, average wage growth per month has been .17%. Clearly, wage growth is neither were it should be, nor does it indicate that there will be problematic inflation in the near future.

The economy, while recovering, is still not at full strength. I have already mentioned the lackluster wage growth. The U6, an alternate measure of labor underutilization and the one I prefer because it includes people who want a job but have stopped searching and people who want to work full time but can only find part time work, stood at 9.9% seasonally adjusted for the December 2015 jobs report. This is down significantly from its peak, and by an impressive amount from a year ago. However, it is still a couple percentage points above where it has been in past expansions (see previous posts). GDP growth is much lower than it has been historically during recent periods of robust growth.

The only other argument is fear of a bubble. At least in the U.S., however, this does not appear to be a problem. Housing prices are yet to recover from their peak. While the stock market is up significantly since its trough, it has stagnated in the past year. Continued low interest rates are not likely to cause a bubble, for the stock market had a correction with near zero interest rates. The most recent correction, occurring after the rate increase, while caused by a variety of factors, does not support the idea that the Fed made the right choice.

The problem with raising interest rates is that it makes borrowing more expensive. This reduces consumer spending and investment, which in turn increases unemployment and reduces growth. In fact, the last two major rate increases by western economies, Sweden in 2010 and the Euro-zone in 2011, were followed by interest rate decreases in the next few years because their economies struggled. While the U.S. economy now is stronger than either of those were, raising rates is still an unnecessary risk.

Overall, the feds interest rate rise is small, and definitely not catastrophic. However, with economic activity still not at full strength, it was not the right course of action either.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bashar Al Assad- The lesser of two evils

          Right now Russia is launching strikes into Syria. Although its exact motives are disputed, it is clear that the U.S. has little control of what is occurring on the ground, and little control over the details of a solution. A change of strategy is needed.

     The current strategy has failed. The number of U.S. trained fighters a few weeks ago was reported to be only "four or five" by a top general despite having spent $500 million on a train and arm program, although it has increased since then. CNN stated "The government's plan to train moderate rebels has been a flop. The goal was to train 3,000 to 5,000 fighters a year. So far the U.S. has trained an estimated 75 rebels- some of whom were kidnaped as soon as they crossed into Syria" Over 1/4th of the military equipment has been given to the al-Nusra Front, an Al-Queda affiliate in Syria. Meanwhile, the most effective groups in Syria besides the regime are the al-Nusra front and IS(Islamic State). For well over a year, the 'moderate' opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, has been ineffectual. Some have disbanded all-together. Meanwhile, radical opposition is advancing on Assad.   Despite U.S. led coalition airstrikes, the war with IS(Islamic State) is either considered a stalemate or very small gains are being made. This is not very encouraging, and IS is still advancing on Assad. A strategy to train and arm the moderate rebels may have been viable in 2011, but is not now.

     A partition of Syria still could work, similar to one proposed in one of my earlier posts. Although the situation in Syria has changed, the basic premise remains sound: that it will be nearly impossible to ever stabilize Syria with its current borders. The partition is already de-facto, there should be a plan to make it de-jure for a post IS Syria.

     Knowing that a partition is still unlikely to happen, the best option appears to be Assad. Assad is a cruel dictator, but he is the least bad option. Unlike the Nusra front and IS, the Assad regime shows no indication of wanting to destroy Israel, the border had been quiet for nearly 40 years when the Civil War started.  When in power and not facing rebellion, Assad does not terrorize his people to nearly the extent that IS does. Unlike the al-Nusra Front, the Assad regime may use brutal warfare, but it does not commit terrorist attacks.  The most recent UN estimate of the death toll is about 220,000, but not all of it is Assad's fault. After all, pro-government fighters are dying as well, and not all civilian casualties have been caused by the regime.

     The question for anyone who wants to remove Assad is what do to next.  As seen in Libya and Iraq, once the government is removed, there is a power vacuum that needs to be filled, leaving the country highly unstable. Colin Powell had a rule known as the "pottery barn rule": you break it, you own it. Unless Americans are willing to send a large military force to Syria for many years at the costs of hundreds of billions of dollars, any further action to bolster the Syrian opposition is a bad idea.

     However, not fighting Assad may not be enough. If Russian intervention does not work and Assad loses, radical rebels or even IS could take Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest cities in Syria. In a scenario were Assad keeps losing, the U.S. may need to implicitly support Assad. Stated support would be a bad idea, because it would anger Sunni allies and much of the Muslim world.

     At the very least, any plan for peace will require Assad to leave only after a long period of time, if at all. If we truly care about the people of Syria, the Civil War needs to end soon. With a diplomatic solution looking more and more unlikely, unfortunately the world's best bet is with the regime.

     Just a side note, the proposed no fly zone is a terrible idea. With Russian planes in the sky, it would be either ineffective, possibly humiliating if the U.S. backs down, or extremely confrontational if Russia does not abide.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The U.S. economy: not as good as it seems

The unemployment rate now stands at 5.3%, which is good and close to the 4.8% in June 2006. However, this number does not show an accurate reflection of the labor market, nor the economy. Labor labor force participation is down 3.6% since June 2006 from 66.2% to 62.6%, but this isn't a particularly good number either.  It is not a good number because it doesn't factor in people retiring as the U.S. gets older, nor involuntary part-time workers. In the future most of the decrease will be because of demographics. However, I will argue that right now,  people focusing on the unemployment rate and not on alternate measures of under-utilization, and stating the U.S. economy is in good health should be less optimistic than they are. 

There are two reasons June 2006 is a good starting time. First of all, it was before the recession during good but not great economic growth. In the prior two quarters, average GDP growth was 3.05%. June 2006 should indicate what economic data should be in slightly above average times. Also, it is exactly 9 years before the latest statistics were available(when post was first drafted). This allows for comparison of statistics that are not seasonally adjusted.

To show that the drop in the labor force participation rate isn't solely due to aging, I will bring up an important statistic. Labor force participation ages 25-54 in June 2015 down 2.1% from June 2006, from 82.7% to 80.6%. 25-54 are the peak working years, so this number should not be shrinking even though the country is aging. This shows that even among people who are not out of peak work years, the labor force participation rate is shrinking. 

To more accurately determine the labor situation, I will use an alternate rate of labor underutilization, one provided by the BLS, referred to as U6. [It is calculated as all unemployed people + plus all marginally attached workers + all employed part time for economic reasons/ (civilian labor force + all marginally attached workers)] * 100.  It stood at 8.4% June 2006 (after revisions), but was 10.5% in June 2015. Both of the previous figures were seasonally adjusted. While this number has gotten better, it was at 17.1% in September 2010(after revisions) it is still significantly above that of 8 years ago. 
The less than stellar employment numbers are reflected in GDP as well. In 2006, GDP growth averaged 3.05% in the first and second quarters. This number is slightly below the year average during the fairly brisk expansion of the mid 2000s (2003-2006).  This is good relative to what the economy has done since the great Recession, but far below the growth seen in the mid-late 90s. Therefore, it is not such a high number that it is unreasonable to reach it during good economic times, but not so low that it can be reached easily. In the first two quarters of 2015, GDP growth averaged 1.45%. Although growth may pick up later this year, no annual GDP increases for the past 8 years have come within .65% of the number back in the first part of 2006.

    The economy has recovered significantly, but is not in good shape yet. Employment and GDP growth are far behind what they have been in the past in the middle of prior robust expansions. Fortunately, the economy could get better, as the general trend for economic indicators in the past few years is that they have been getting better. Unfortunately, better economic growth is not guaranteed. If this is the new good, the best days of America's economy are surely behind us. At the very least, anyone stating America's economy is back to normal is wrong, and the economy should be a much bigger issue in the election cycle than it has been so far.

(note:all statistics are accurate as of when this post drafted)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The ignored problem: the unsustainable U.S. debt

      For the most part, the deficit has faded from he headlines. It is ISIS, or Ukraine, or other things  that are in the news. The deficit is fairly low, running at around $880 billion annualized as of the end of the first half of of the 2015 fiscal year. It has plummeted since the recession of 2008, when the deficit(Sept, 2008-Sept. 2009) was nearly 1.9 trillion in today's money. However, the situation is not as good as it seems. Today, we are about 5 years after the end of the last recession. Recessions, or series of recessions, have occurred about every 9 years during the past 35. While it is difficult to predict recessions, the last 35 years suggest the next one should occur within the next 5.

     When the next crisis hits, it will be more difficult to make up for it using stimulus. On September, 30, 2007, shortly before the official beginning of the recession, the U.S.  government debt outstanding as a percent of GDP stood at about 70.5%, while between the official end of the recession, and peak unemployment, on September 30, 2009 the U.S. national debt as a percent of GDP was about 94.5%. It has somewhat stabilized, today at around 102.7% 5 years later. The concern isn't that the U.S. has debt, only once has the U.S. had no debt, and that was back in the 1830s. Running a deficit isn't too concerning either, times such as the surplus in 1990s are rare. Rather, the major concern is nearly 5 years after the last recession ended, during relatively good economic times, the total debt isn't shrinking as a percent of GDP. 

     With projections of the debt to GDP ratio at about 105.2% in 2019, the U.S. would probably use stimulus once again to increase Aggregate Demand and help lift the U.S, economy out of recession. However, the debt to GDP ratio is bound to increase significantly after this, making it harder to use stimulus. With Social Security and Medicare taking up a ever larger portion of the budget, the debt to GDP ration should continue to increase. After all, using a narrower definition of debt, to only that held publicly, the debt to GDP ration should increase from 74% of GDP in 2014 to 106% by 2039. The numbers are even worse if we use the total (public AND private) debt in our calculations, which the treasury, the debt clock, and most news networks do. Using the same ratio of public to private debt as today for 2039, the total outstanding debt would be about 146% of GDP.  This is higher than all of PIIGS(Portage, Italy, Ireland, Greece, & Spain) except Greece at the peak of the Euro crisis. Regardless of which projection method is used, the outlook it not good. This is all long term, and the U.S. has a huge advantage these countries don't, being able to borrow in its own currency. That being said, in a few decades, if another recession such as the previous one strikes, it will be much more difficult to use expansionary fiscal policy1or stimulus, an important weapon during the previous recession(up to 11.4 million full time equivalent employment years, which are a year of 40 works weeks, created or saved). Eventually, the U.S. will have to make some very difficult decisions about its budget. As we have learned from Greece, it is far better to do this sooner rather than later.

    1: According to the Economist(June 13-19th edition), the United State's wriggle room for dealing with a recession decreased by about 37.5% in the last 8 years. Since the deficit will increase in the future, its wriggle room will only decrease further.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The never ending negotiations: Iran and P5 +1

For over two years negotiations have been taking place between the P5+1(U.S., China, Russia, U.K., France, and Germany) and Iran over its nuclear program, which Iran claims to be for peaceful purposes but is widely believed to have the goal of developing a nuclear weapon. In June of 2013, Hassan Rouhani, considered a moderate relative to Iran, was elected President. He signaled wanting a less hostile relationship with the rest of world. A few months afterward  October of 2013, negotiations ramped up.  In November of that year, an interim agreement was reached in which Iran would halt its nuclear program. The U.S. agreed not to put on any new sanctions.

However, negotiations were less than successful. The U.S. wanted to halt Iran's nuclear program, limit to several hundred centrifuges, be able to re-instate sanctions if Iran broke the deal, a gradual removal of sanctions, to ship fuel out of Iran, and limit breakout time to over a year. Iran wanted immediate sanction relief, to be able to keep many of its 18,000+ centrifuges, a shorter breakout time and to be able to keep most of its nuclear program.

Because of the huge gaps, talks were extended from July 2014 to November 2014. Some gaps were closed, but not enough to make a deal, or even a framework, so they were extended March 31, 2015. Negotiations hit a pitfall once Iran signaled its unwillingness to ship nuclear fuel out of the country, backing out  of hypothetically shipping its fuel to Russia in exchange for commercial fuel rods. The talks kept going until the last minute, and then were extended to a day later, and then again to April 2nd.

Finally, last minute, a framework was reached.  The  outline for this deal includes cutting centrifuges by two-thirds to about 6,014 with 5,000 allowed to enrich uranium, extending breakout time from 2-3 months to over a year. Several of Iran's reactors, notably in Arak and Fordow, will be redesigned but not closed. Fordow is burried under a mountain, was hidden until 2009, and will be able to keep 1,000 centrifuges, but won't be able to enrich uranium. Two-thirds of its centrifuges and infrastructure will be removed. The sanctions will be lifted in phases but can be reinstated if Iran breaks the terms of the treaty. It will be subject to stringent IAEA inspections. Iran has agreed to ship spent nuclear fuel, but not its nuclear stockpile. Research and development can continue, but not any allowing it to get within a 1 year breakout time. However, after 10 years, Iran can rebuild its nuclear program. In fact, Obama admitted that it could build a bomb after 13 years under the framework.

     Despite the framework, things began to unravel quickly. About a week after the framework was agreed to, the Iranian supreme leader stated that sanctions must be lifted immediately once a deal finalized. The U.S. insists that the sanctions be lifted in phases. While this may get sorted out, it is not promising that a key disagreement came up so soon after the framework was agreed upon.
The final deadline if June 30, 2015, but it may be extended once again.

     With Iran so close to bomb, there are only 3 options: a deal, allow Iran to get a nuke, or a regional war. The first one is optimal. If this latest dispute isn't worked out in the U.S.'s favor, any deal would be a bad one. If a bad deal is reached in which the sanctions were lifted immediately, they could cheat and the sanctions would have to be put on once again. This is a possibility with any deal. If a deal is reached, it could be rejected the Senate, but under the deal Obama made with Congress, it would take 67 votes to override any deal the President makes. Still, I think that nearly any deal would be preferable to no deal. The only exception would be if the sanctions were to be lifted immediately, and the inspectors wouldn't get access to the facilities. In this case, it would be very difficult to monitor Iran's activities and the sanctions would have to be re-instated.

   Allowing Iran to get a nuke is highly undesirable for several reasons. It would deeply damage Israeli and Saudi trust in U.S. since it has repeatedly said Iran will not develop a nuke. It could also cause an nuclear arms race in the middle east. A four way nuclear standoff between Iran, Israel, and then probably Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be awkward enough. If Iran or Saudi Arabia, both known to sponsor terrorism, were to give a nuke to a third party organization, or more likely a terrorist group were to obtain a nuke if these authoritarian governments fell, the situation could go down hill very quickly. Lastly, it would make a mockery of the U.S's policy of nuclear-nonproliferation.

    A war is undesirable. While it would allow the U.S. to prevent Iran from getting a nuke, and the weakening of Iran would likely topple Assad and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and force Iran to engage less in militaristic activity, it would also be incredibly expensive. It could also costs thousands of lives. Russia is arming Iran, and may arm Iran even more with a war. In fact, the war could easily expand into a regional wide sectarian war. If the U.S. opts with bombing Iran because of a bad deal, it  would likely destroy consensus with isolating Iran, especially with Russia and China. Unilateral strikes would also likely hurt the U.S. popularity in the muslim world. Iran could close the Straight of Hormuz, where a large amount of the world's oil comes across.

 Strikes wouldn't even be very successful.  Best case scenario is about four years being set back, after which Iran may be even more dedicated to getting a weapon. This would incur most of the costs of a full scale war with few of the benifits. The U.S, would really need a full scale continuous war. Securing the Straight of Hormuz would need to occur simultaneously with strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. Ground operations may be necessary to destroy the centrifuges. This would probably lead to a full scale war with Iran and its proxies. In this scenario, there would certainly be American and Israeli casualties. Despite this, if it comes down to it I would reluctantly choose war, but only if the U.S. is willing to engage in a prolonged effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuke, partition Iraq and Syria and prevent the region from completely falling apart. This could cost trillions of dollars. This would have to come from somewhere else such Social Security or Medicare.

In the past Prime Minister Netanyahu's warnings about Iran developing a nuclear weapon were exaggerated and sometimes flat out wrong. Despite this if the deal fails, the remaining options will show he was right to bring it to the world's attention very early on. Had serious negotiations started in 1992 when Iran was decades from a nuke, rather than so recently, the U.S. would not be facing such difficult options.