Monday, December 31, 2012

Total debt comparison: US vs Japan

Here's a chart of the ratio of US total credit market debt to GDP, a classic exponential trend breakdown:

Here's a similar chart for Japan:

It's remarkable how in Japan government debt has substituted for private debt; the reason for this is the government has been cushioning the credit crunch implied by falling private debt.

Friday, December 28, 2012

US population concentrations

What is most striking about this map is the vast empty areas.

Investing in technological progress leads to increased economic growth

Paul Krugman writes, in Is Growth Over? -


" Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people — including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots."

Dean Baker responds, in
Capital Biased Technological Progress; It Doesn't Just Happen | Beat the Press

"Krugman discusses the case where there is an exogenous change in the nature of technology that makes capital relatively more productive than labor. This leads to more capital being used, driving up its price, and less labor being used, driving down its price (i.e. wages)."

"the fact that we may appear to be seeing capital-biased technological progress should not be viewed as just some unfortunate event in the world that we have to learn to cope with. If we are in fact seeing capital-biased technological progress it is almost certainly the case that it is at least in part the result of policy decisions that could be handled differently"

I can see innovation shrinking employment, but the owners of the innovations theoretically would get the marginal wealth. Otherwise there'd be no point to the innovation. Raising tax rates on unearned income to the same as those of labor income would help a lot with the resulting inequality of wealth distribution.. This would be a policy decision that offsets the policy decisions mentioned by Baker.

A retrospective look at Japan's banking crisis

I recently stumbled across a research paper by Richard Koo titled "Japan's disposal of bad loans: failure or success?"

The thesis of this analysis is that Japanese monetary/fiscal authorities handled their post bubble banking crisis relatively well compared to how the US has handled its banking crisis which began in 2008.  The paper contains a lot of good data so it is worth the time even if you disagree with Koo's conclusions.

However, it looks like Koo is defining "success" as a fourteen year recessionary period.

The problem I have with this Koo analysis is with its conclusion is that Japanese monetary/fiscal authorities did mostly the right things.  The paper shows that the Japanese equivalent of the FDIC's Deposit Insurance Fund was in a negative balance from 1996 to 2008. This implies that it could still be in a negative balance now.  If your deposit insurance fund is negative, that's not "success".

In Japan much of the banks' bad loans were simply shifted into government debt.

Koo posits the concept that the US is handling its banking crisis differently when in fact the US is doing the same things that Japan has done.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Unemployment much higher than expected

Notice the point that shows that the unemployment rate would be 10.7% if the participation rate hadn't gone down.  In any case, the projections were clearly not close to the actual results.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

China has bailout decision

Analysis: Too big to fail? China's wealth management products stir debate
| Reuters

China International Capital Corp (CICC), a prominent Chinese investment bank, urged regulators in a December 4 note to allow such products to fail. Most are not guaranteed by banks, analysts say. "If we don't take this opportunity to let a relatively small-scale contract be broken, it will only reinforce the attitude that these products have a rigid return and a limitless guarantee," CICC said. Forcing Hua Xia to stand behind these products would cause "no end of trouble", it added.

The default of a Chinese investment plan has handed Beijing a tough choice: bail out investors and endorse moral hazard or let it fail and risk unnerving those who hold at least $1 trillion in so-called wealth management products.

US financial regulators faced a similar decision four years ago and decided on unlimited bailouts, because the alternative was in their minds an apocalyptic financial system crash.

Is that really the only alternative?

Update: What this means is that China is on the verge of a major financial panic.

Update: China Warns of Rising Financial Risks Dec 26 2012
Due to soaring bank loans, with lending to the property sector and local governments a particular concern, China's financial system is facing increasing risk, the finance ministry warned Wednesday.

Interest rate trends

Calculated Risk today said in a post on housing starts showing that starts are increasing that

 "Residential investment and housing starts are usually the best leading indicator for economy."

If housing starts are up, then that should mean that a Fed interest rate tightening cycle is close to beginning.

Except that the Fed Funds rate has been at or near zero for an extended period of time.

Here's what happened with interest rates after the Great Depression:

It's impossible to know how long it will take for interest rates to normalize this time.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Federal debt and GDP

The amount of federal debt appears to be growing exponentially

whereas real GDP seems to to show a linear growth trend(and growth may approach zero soon):

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Four years of ZIRP

The Fed Funds rate has been near zero since December 2008:

See Fed cuts key rate below 1% for first time - Dec. 16, 2008

"the Federal Reserve cut its key interest rate to a range of between zero percent and 0.25%"

This is unprecedented.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Workers aged 55-69

Here's a trend looking for a breakdown:

Given that the youngest baby boomers are 48, there is a limit to how much more this number can grow.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Why China failed to progress technologically

Explaining why Chinese scientific discoveries didn't flower into a scientific revolution, Levenson wrote, "It is not because their forebears were constitutionally unable to nurture a growing tradition of science, but because they did not care to."

Science had no social prestige, he says, and it would never have occurred to traditional Chinese scholars that kudos was to be gained from claiming discoveries or inventions.  The ancients didn't turn such inventions into world-changing technologies, so why should we?

China Road page 105
Seems plausible to me

Trend breakdown: foreign ownership of Treasury debt

Notice that the proportion of US Treasury debt held by foreign governments has peaked
This begs the question, what will happen when the Federal Reserve reduces it's purchases of this debt?

Book review: China Road

I just finished a very good book China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (9780812975246): Rob Gifford: Books.

It's written by an English journalist who worked in China for many years. It was published in 2007 so it's reasonably contemporary and it addresses most of the big issues that China faces. The author thoughtfully analyzes the concept of whether China is capable of ever turning to democracy for example. The book focuses more on the domestic effects of the economic boom rather than the trade issues.

One interesting thing that the book addresses is the idea that China doesn't have social values anymore since Confucian ideals were obliterated by Maoism and now Marxism has no traction either. So the mentality is just do whatever you want since it's a "man eat man" world.

Another point that the author makes is that Confucian thought is hostile to populist, democratic ideas. And that the weight of Confucian tradition makes it unlikely that democracy will happen in China anytime soon. Of course that's debatable but it's a point of view that I had been unaware of.

Here's the book description from Amazon:

Route 312 is the Chinese Route 66. It flows three thousand miles from east to west, passing through the factory towns of the coastal areas, through the rural heart of China, then up into the Gobi Desert, where it merges with the Old Silk Road. The highway witnesses every part of the social and economic revolution that is turning China upside down.
In this utterly surprising and deeply personal book, acclaimed National Public Radio reporter Rob Gifford, a fluent Mandarin speaker, takes the dramatic journey along Route 312 from its start in the boomtown of Shanghai to its end on the border with Kazakhstan. Gifford reveals the rich mosaic of modern Chinese life in all its contradictions, as he poses the crucial questions that all of us are asking about China: Will it really be the next global superpower? Is it as solid and as powerful as it looks from the outside? And who are the ordinary Chinese people, to whom the twenty-first century is supposed to belong? 

This book is well worth your time.