13 January 2022

The Even More Truly Extraordinary Numbers Behind 2021's Truly Extraordinary Jobs Numbers

The BLS reports 2 numbers each month for new jobs. One is a result of household surveys. (Something like going door to door asking, "Did you get a new job last month?") The other - the official number - is a result of surveying firms. (Something like calling up businesses and saying, "Did you hire anyone last month?")

Last month the household surveys suggested 651,000 new jobs yet the official number was 199,000, a difference of 452,000. For the year, the household surveys suggest 356,000 more jobs than the official number.

Last year, we had a record number of new businesses start up. Significantly more. In 2021, 53% more businesses were started than in 2019. Those new businesses don't get surveyed because they're not yet on the list for BLS. [Per Austan Goolsbee]

On top of that, people who start unincorporated businesses aren't counted as having new jobs. They're not employees. So if you leave a job to start a business, you will actually show up as one less employee in the job count. [Per Jason Furman.]

One more item of note. When BLS reports 500,000 new jobs, that is a net number. Every month people quit, retire, get laid off or fired. So a month in which you might report 537,000 new jobs (the average for 2021), you may actually count about 4.5 million new jobs and 4.0 million jobs ended, for a net of 500,000.

Quits were at a record level last year. Compared to the rest of this century, quits are up by about 1.3 million. Per month.

So the economy is creating a record number of net new jobs in spite of the fact that 43 million people quit their job last year. (And that is just through November.)

Last year, the economy created and brought back a total of 6,448,000 jobs. Again, that is net. That shatters the old record (set in 1946, the year after World War 2 ended) by 2.2 million. And it may well prove to be an undercount because the rate of new business formation is up by 50%.

The phrase you are looking for is "strong job market."

07 January 2022

Making Sense of the Monthly Job Numbers (and a little reminder about how blurry is our vision of reality)

Since 1970, there has been only one year that ended with a lower unemployment rate than 2021. That was 2019. In this century, the unemployment rate has been higher than December's 3.9% 90% of the time. So last month's unemployment rate is really good news.

Job creation of 199,000 was absurdly low for December and while the 6.4 million for 2021 is the most jobs created for any year on record, it still leaves us down 3 million jobs from December of 2019. So that's mixed news. We needed a big number for job creation and we got a fairly normal one (by the standards of this century.)

The variability in monthly job creation during the last 2 years has been incredible. We've had a month in which we lost 21 million jobs and another month in which we gained nearly 5 million jobs. In one month. Annual job creation jumps all over the place but 180,000 is pretty typical for a healthy, normal month. Since COVID hit, half the monthly jobs numbers represented a swing of more than 650,000 in one direction or another, so monthly volatility has been about 3 to 4 times what it normally is.

On top of that, there seems to be a lot of noise in the monthly measures.

How many new jobs were created in December?
The consensus expectation was for 450k.
ADP is a private company that tracks monthly changes in private employment. Their count for December was 807k.
BLS's household survey that - well, surveys households - arrived at an estimate of new jobs of 651k.
And the official number from BLS - which surveys employers - shows a gain of just 199k. 
This 199k is the headline number.

It's worth remembering that during the long run of uninterrupted job creation in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession, the jobs created in a a normal month was about 200,000. What is often forgotten is that this is a net number. Every month about 2 million people were fired, laid off, quit or retired. And about 2.2 million were hired. So, the net for the month was 200,000 "new jobs" but the fact was that there were millions of new jobs that offset the millions of jobs ended. If your measurement error on the 2.2 million new and 2 million ended jobs is just 5%, and the real net for the month was 200,000, you could double the reported new jobs or erase them. Let me repeat that. With an underlying reality of 200,000 new jobs and a measurement error of 5%, it is possible to report that as anywhere from 0 to 400,000 new jobs. The last 22 months have been so volatile that it's easy to imagine that measurement error has gone up. I don't know what actual measurement error is. I do know that it exists and that's just one reason to be cautious in interpreting numbers from one month - particularly before they've been revised. 

The BLS numbers will be revised twice more over the next two months, as they always are. Pandemic volatility makes it tough to track what is going in this labor force of 162 million Americans. The good news is that we're moving in the right direction. By one measure - the unemployment rate of 3.9% - the job market is already healthy. By another measure - the millions of jobs that we've lost over the last couple of years - the economy is still weak.

As with so much in life, you can choose your narrative. Job creation is strong? Cheer about that or complain about inflation. Unemployment rate is low in December? Cheer about that or complain about the rate of job creation in December.

Lots of early retirements and some long COVID disabilities are possibly depressing the number of folks looking for work, which would explain how the unemployment rate could be so low even while we are still millions of jobs short of where we were 2 years ago. Additionally, there seem to be lots of folks who simply haven't worked out issues like childcare or elder care to be able to work again. And while we're buying more goods than ever before, the service sector still hasn't fully recovered.  You might have better or more interesting theories about what is going on. The most robust theories still await more data, though, data that smooths out the monthly variations that sometimes seem nearly as big as the phenomenon they're measuring.

01 January 2022

How Faith in an Invisible Hand has Made Republican Policies So Dangerous (And Made Biden the 21st Century Economic Repairman)

Caption for picture of regulators with chainsaw and bolt cutters from Jonathan Levy's brilliant Ages of American Capitalism.

"Increased residential mortgage lending was one route to President George W. Bush's promised 'ownership society.' Here, a number of federal regulators and banking representatives take a chain saw and pruning shears to the 'red tape' of government-lending regulations. Lax government oversight contributed to fraudulent lending practices during the 2000s."

How did the gospel of deregulation lead to the Great Recession?

As wages stagnated in the early 2000s, people tapped their homes for loans they used to maintain consumption. This was lightly regulated, lenders assuming that even if borrowers income didn't rise enough to pay the loans, the home prices would rise enough to cover the debt. Lenders bundled home loans as MBSs, mortgage backed securities. Between 2003 and 2007, there were $4 trillion in new MBSs. Then investors leveraged those into CDO (collateralized debt obligation), selling these on largely unregulated markets. Finally, these CDOs were leveraged into CDS - an insurance contract that paid out if the CDO defaulted. CDS were built on CDOs that were built on MBSs that were built atop actual home loans taken out by Americans whose incomes weren't going up but whose home values were.
How precarious were those CDSs at the top of the pyramid resting on the bet of steadily rising home prices? "Between 2004 and 2007, the value of CDS-referenced assets in the world increased from $6.4 billion to $58.2 trillion."

That's trillion. How much is $58 trillion in debt obligation? Global GDP in 2007 was $58 trillion. One type of debt was allowed to spiral into a paper value equal to the world's total GDP.

The crash was spectacular. By the time Obama took office, median household wealth in the US had crashed back to where it had been (adjusted for inflation) in 1969. All the gains during the presidencies of Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, and Bush 2 erased.

Gains in wealth, income, and jobs are not random. They flow from policy, from a collaboration of private and public sector initiatives.

In his final months in office, when Trump paid little attention to the pandemic that was killing more Americans daily than 9-11 had and instead obsessed over trying to invalidate the election, he essentially left COVID relief initiatives to states. At this point in the pandemic, there was little distinction between quelling the pandemic and reviving the economy. Economic policy was health policy but still he largely downplayed the risks of COVID. For him, the love of unregulated responses neatly aligned with his disdain for management responsibility. Bush's affection for deregulation led to a freefall in capital markets. Trump's affection for management neglect (its own kind of faith in the notion that government interventions were worse than no interventions) led to a freefall in labor markets. Trump is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a drop in the number of Americans employed.

As he came into office nearly a year ago, Biden once again (as when he served as VP under Obama) was tasked with cleaning up a mess left behind by a Republican presidency's disastrous policies. The differences in the performance of capital and labor markets is not random.

Since the start of Carter's presidency, job creation rates under Democratic presidencies has run at 6.5X what it has under Republican presidencies; stock market returns are 3X higher. It might just be that no invisible hand is going to save your economy.

22 December 2021

Four Dimensions of Progress and The Dramatic Setback to Progress in 2020

You all know that I'm fascinated by economic progress and development. Medieval serfs had very few rights, on average died in their early or mid-30s and had almost nothing in the way of income or goods (or certainly nothing in contrast to what we now have). The fact that the world gradually began to transform its technology - from equipment to institutions - to bring us to today's reality is for me the most delightful thing. Our freedoms, income and life expectancy gives us millions more options than our medieval ancestors had.

There are four simple measures of progress.

1. Did real incomes go up? Do you have a greater choice each year of goods and services to buy and enjoy? Do we have a choice of more great products for each hour of work?

2. Did the community gain more freedoms? Can you be a practicing Protestant without threat of death or expulsion or exclusion from certain key positions and rights? How about Hindu? Or atheist? Are two men free to marry just as a man and a woman are? Can women hold positions of power? Do you have more choice about how to live your life and not just more products to buy?

3. Have life expectancies gone up? Do you have more time in which to live your life choices, to pursue happiness? Between 1900 and 2000, life expectancy rose from 47 to 77. That didn't just radically alter the life span. It meant that one of the coolest inventions of the 1900s was retirement, a period of life in which someone didn't just live decades longer but was free from the obligation of work for some portion of that added time.

4. Are your gains sustainable? Are you reliant on energy sources that your great grandchildren can also enjoy, energy sources that when used don't threaten ecosystems? Are you investing as well as spending so that your grandchildren have a good shot at continuing the progress that you're the beneficiary of?

Progress means progress on these four measures: income, life expectancy, rights and sustainability.

The drop in life expectancy of 2 years in men and 1.5 years for women between 2019 and 2020 is a huge setback to progress.

I'm optimistic enough to think that the advances this pandemic is forcing / facilitating in things like advances in mRNA technology that could actually result in a longer term increase in life expectancy. Setbacks do sometimes force changes that result in a later step function in progress. But that's speculative. The reality, for now, is that COVID, deaths of despair and our responses to both have translated into a setback to progress.

19 December 2021

Comorbidities, COVID and the Excuse du jour for Dismissing a Dangerous Disease

"Well, comorbidities explain a lot about who is dying of COVID," say the same folks who have - at various times - dismissed COVID as no worse than the flu, then explained it as just a blue state or urban problem, then a hoax in that deaths from COVID are grossly over-reported because doctors are keen to collect special COVID premium fees from deaths by other causes like falling out of windows or microwave explosions and falsely attribute the cause of death to COVID. Now the argument is, "Well, comorbidities."

Comorbidity would include conditions like old, obese, or asthmatic. The argument du jour is that COVID isn't real because it is comorbidities that are the real cause, sort of a more subtle twist on the "doctors are falsifying documents" argument.
It's another wave of nonsense and misinformation. Allow me a comparison.

Imagine that you lived on the British Isles in the year 1000 or thereabouts. Vikings periodically invade to rape, pillage and kill. You're trying to discuss this problem.

"This is an atrocity. They killed Elwood and raped his wife and stripped everything valuable from his farm."
"Well of course they killed Elwood."
"Comorbidities. You know how scrawny Elwood was. I mean, of course he couldn't stand up to a Viking attack."
"You're saying that he wasn't killed by Vikings but instead because he wasn't sufficiently buff?"
"Essentially, yeah. I mean, it's almost always the scrawny or old guys who are most likely to die."
"And the convent of nuns they attacked and raped?"
"Well, nuns. I mean. They have almost no upper body strength."
"Which explains why the Vikings raped and pillaged their convent?"
"And the problem isn't that Vikings are raiding our coast raping and pillaging?"
"Vikings are going to rape and pillage. Vikings are going to do what they do. You aren't going to change that."
"You don't think that maybe we could form some kind of coastal defense so that it isn't so easy for the Vikings to attack us?"
"That seems like a lot of hassle. And sounds very expensive. Just keep a broad ax handy. And do something to increase your upper body strength. You are not going to have much luck fending off Vikings."

Comorbidities is a fancy way of saying, "COVID is more likely to kill people who are vulnerable." It's self-evident nonsense presented as if it is insightful.

COVID raises the probability of death the same for everyone. It is true that different groups - young and fit high on that list - are less vulnerable and increasing their odds of dying still leave them highly unlikely to die compared to, say, an asthmatic 94 year-old who is incredibly vulnerable. (And of course death isn't the only bad thing that can happen. Long COVID can change your health for ... well no one really knows for how long.)

Saying that the vulnerable are more likely to die of any cause is not an explanation or an insight. It's just another way to dismiss COVID - a disease that has lowered life expectancy in the US for the first time since 1918 - rather than acknowledge its severity and impact.

11 December 2021

They're Making Inflation Sound Worse Than It Is

Inflation after a year of sharp contraction followed by a year of record growth is about as shocking as squealing tires on a car that goes from 75 mph to 25 mph to 65 mph within a couple of minutes.

A couple of thoughts about inflation.

One, inflation is typically overstated. Here's why.

Let's say that you have a local grocery store called Smith's in your town of River Run. They sell eggs for $4 a dozen. Then a Walmart opens in town. They sell a dozen eggs for $2.50. Lots of folks start shopping there. So, obviously this means prices have dropped, right? Nope. For consistency, the folks tracking prices now track the change in prices at Smith's separately from the prices at Walmart. If Smith's lowers their prices to $3.50 to compete, the official price drop will be 13%. If they don't drop their prices at all, the official inflation will be zero. What the officials don't do is calculate the price of eggs as dropping by more than a third in River Run. And then they track price changes for eggs at Smith's and Walmart over time. Or if you find a great supplier online who sells something for half of what they charge at your local hardware store, inflation measures don't show a drop of 50%.

The pandemic has changed buying habits. People are seeking out higher quality, greater convenience or lower prices from any of a number of retail sources - local brick and mortar or online. To the extent that this involves them finding better bargains (higher quality at the same price or lower prices for same quality) from new retailers, that shift is not showing up in measures of inflation. The period from 2020 to 2021 may have involved the most change in who people buy from of any year. That change is not reflected in inflation numbers.

Also, prices measured do not allow for changes in quality. In Robert Gordon's magisterial economics history book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, he compares the TV of his youth with one available in 2014. Electricity costs dropped as they became more efficient. They were so reliable they no longer required a service contract of $50 a year. The 1950 set was $350 for a black and white, 9 inch. By 2014, for $418 one could buy a 40" high-definition with theater surround sound and internet streaming capability. He compared two sets from 1952 and 1983 to make adjustments for quality differences. The official annual inflation rate for TVs in this period was -1.0%, prices dropping by 1% a year. His adjustment for quality improvements suggested a more dramatic annual price drop of 4.3%, a huge difference.

What's the point? Inflation is almost always overstated. It doesn't track changes in sources over time as people seek out cheaper products of the same quality from a different vendor or better quality products for the same price.

Second, stagflation is highly unlikely.

It seems to me that the great period of stagflation in the 1970s always misses a really important event. Stagflation is the worst fear of policy makers. Before the 1970s, people thought that you could have the problem of inflation with low unemployment or the problem of high unemployment with low inflation. There was a tradeoff. But in the 1970s, we had both high unemployment AND high inflation. This was called stagflation.

There were a lot of theories bandied about but I've never heard that one that makes the most sense to me. Throughout the world, former colonies were being transformed by rising nationalism. As the British and French empires were being unwound after WWI and WWII, new nation-states were emerging. Places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia that had huge oil deposits had previously gotten a token fee for their oil as companies like British Petroleum and Standard Oil operated drilling rigs there and shipped the oil to the West. In the 1970s, rising nationalism included the notion that the peoples in a country should be the ones who benefitted from their own land. They insisted on keeping a much, much larger portion of the oil revenue. This amounted to a shift in GDP from countries like the US and UK to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. What happened in the US? Prices went up. (Oil was used for making and distributing a huge portion of the goods we enjoyed and now we were paying more.) GNP stagnated. (A portion of GNP that counted "their" oil as ours was shifted from the US to foreign countries.) Stagflation - it seems to me - wasn't so much a change in the tradeoff between unemployment and inflation as it was an oil shock that came from a shift in international GNP.

What does all this mean? Inflation is not as high as you think. And it is highly unlikely that we'll experience anything like stagflation over the next few years. As we start lowering unemployment less dramatically, measured inflation will probably drop.  Prices are higher now but job creation is at its highest rate on record. Monetary and fiscal policy stimuli have been huge - and rightfully so. That's going to taper off and as new job creation / reinstatement rates lower, the rate of inflation will likely taper off as well. There is still a relationship between inflation and unemployment and the 1970s don't seem to me proof that the relationship has changed.  

09 November 2021

Keynes on How We Tend to Save More and Invest Less Than We Should (And on how old ideas should be exorcised by new)

From John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

"... there has been a chronic tendency throughout human history for the propensity to save to be stronger than the inducement to invest. The weakness of the inducement to invest has been at all times the key to the economic problem. To-day the explanation of the weakness of this inducement may chiefly lie in the extent of existing accumulations; whereas, formerly, risks and hazards of all kinds may have played a larger part. But the result is the same. The desire of the individual to augment his personal wealth by abstaining from consumption has usually been stronger than the inducement to the entrepreneur to augment the national wealth by employing labor on the construction of durable assets…."

Meaning? The impulse to save is greater than the impulse to invest, to put capital to work to create something new. To me that is affirmation that we need initiatives to invest more than people naturally do.

He continues,
"One recurs to the analogy between the sway of the classical school of economic theory and that of certain religions. For it is a far greater exercise of the potency of an idea to exorcise the obvious than to introduce into men’s common notions the recondite and the remote…"

Meaning? The ideas that exorcise obviously bad practices are more powerful than ideas that are esoteric.

How can you not love Keynes?

21 October 2021

20 October 2021 We Lost Csikszentmihalyi, Who Taught Us About Creating a Life of Engagement and Meaning

“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

One of my heroes died yesterday.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote two books that hugely influenced my worldview. One day over lunch he agreed with my characterization of the first as an answer to the question of how to find engagement and the second an answer to the question of how to create meaning.

Freud explained great accomplishments as sublimation of cruder instincts like sex and violence into socially accepted activities. Skinner explained great accomplishments as all done in response to rewards and punishment. As a young psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi didn't think either explanation was particularly tied to real people doing real things. For instance, he interviewed a lot of folks who were painting. The thought that they were doing this as some odd diversion of energy that would otherwise go into sex and violence struck him as nonsensical. Nor did any of the painters seem to believe that they'd be rewarded as if they were a Picasso for their efforts or punished if they didn't paint. As Csikszentmihalyi talked to these people, they would often use the term "flow," as in, "I began to paint (or write or rock climb or whatever) and just got into the flow of it." His great insight was that the psychology of engagement was not only one that made us happy but was a route to productivity, creativity, and self development. Being fully engaged not only makes us feel better; it actually makes us better.

His Evolving Self never sold as well as Flow but strikes me as even more important. (Apparently I bought it as a gift for my son-in-law at least twice.) Flow was a very successful book and concept but missed something revealed to him when one day he asked a student how his summer was. The student’s eyes lit up as he told Csikszentmihalyi about his amazing job of clubbing baby seals for their fur. More innocuously, video games are a marvelous example of tasks that fully engage us – provide flow – but have dubious value outside of the experience of flow they provide. In Evolving Self he explored how lives – how our actions – have meaning. His conclusion wasn’t wildly different from Sartre’s, building on the notion that we have to create our own meaning, creating and finding flow in tasks that contribute to some greater good that lies outside of ourselves. Our lives have meaning as we connect to something bigger than us.

Csikszentmihalyi helped me – and probably millions of people – to better understand how to find and create engagement and meaning. Now that’s a life.

15 October 2021

A Tentative Theory About Why 30 Year Old Children from the Richest Families Are Less Likely to Work

Curiously, poverty and wealth alike seem to lower employment rate for the children of the poor and wealthy.

This first graph shows that as parental income rises, so does the probability that the children are in jobs. Until you reach about the 94th percentile, after which further increases in income actually lower the odds that your children have jobs at 30.

[from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/rich-kids-stay-rich-poor-kids-stay-poor/ ]

I'd be curious to better understand this. One of my tentative explanations is based on the fact that the median wage in the US is just under $35,000. Kids raised in the top 5% of households would probably recoil at such paltry wages and thus are less likely to accept half the jobs out there - which might make it tough to get started.
Social security wages just includes income from a job. It doesn't include rental income, money from dividends or business income.

In 2020, the number of people with social security wages over $50 million rose 61% from 2019 - ten times the rate of increase of the number of people making more than $100k. The number of people making a million dollars or more rose 14%. (And yes. There was a pandemic underway and still wages rose this much.)

[social security data from https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2020 ]

13 October 2021

Beware of This Neighborhood Scam

The doorbell rings this morning and I open it to an 8-year-old in costume. “Trick or treat!” he hollers at me.
“What is this,” I ask. “It’s 13 October. What are you doing trick or treating?”
“I’m going as a dyslexic,” he says. “13 October. 31 October. It’s all the same to me.”

I look him over, admiring his costume and his scam. And then I say, “Ha! If you were dyslexic, you’d have said, ‘Treat or trick!’” And then I close the door, pleased with myself that I wasn’t outsmarted by a kid.

About 30 minutes later, he comes back with a taller kid in a suit.
“Now what,” I ask.
“This is my older brother. He’s going as my lawyer and he plans to sue you for insensitivity and discrimination.”

So that’s how I ended up driving two kids to Costco this morning, buying them each a huge bag of candy. How was your morning?