Recoveries have been getting weaker and weaker because that's how the Fed wants them
It's time to talk about everybody's least favorite Davos buzzword -- New Normal.
With GDP unexpectedly contracting 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 (though the private sector mostly kept up, despite the obstacles we've thrown in its way), it's enough to make you wonder if this time really is different. In other words, has the economy settled into a, well, new normal of slower growth?
If it has, it's not quite new, at least when it comes to recoveries. As you can see in this Minneapolis Fed chart of job gains following recessions, something changed after 1981. Recoveries went from being V-shaped affairs characterized by rapid bouncebacks in employment to U-shaped ones better described as nasty, brutish, and long.
(Note: I excluded the recovery from the 1980 recession, because the double-dip in 1981 cut it short).
The story of the jobless recovery is one of what the Fed isn't doing. As Paul Krugman points out, recessions have become post-(or perhaps pre-) modern. Through the 1980s, postwar recessions happened when the Fed decided to raise rates to head off inflation, and recoveries happened when the Fed decided things had tamed down enough to lower rates. But now recessions happen when bubbles burst, with financial deregulation and the global savings glut making these more of a recurring feature of our economy, and the Fed hasn't been able to cut interest rates enough to generate strong post-crash recoveries. Or maybe it hasn't wanted to.
Here's a stupid question. Why have interest rates and inflation mostly been falling for the past 30 years? In other words if the Fed has been de facto, and later de jure, targeting inflation for most of this period (and it has), why has inflation been on a down trend (and it has)? As you can see in the chart below, core PCE inflation, which excludes food and energy costs, fell substantially from the Reagan recovery through the bursting tech bubble, and has more or less held steady since, though a bit more on the less side recently.
Say hello to "opportunistic disinflation." Okay, let's translate this from Fed-ese. Remember, the Fed is supposed to target 2 percent inflation, meaning it raises rates when prices rise by more than that much and lowers them once the economy's cooled off enough, but it wasn't always so. Back in the mid-1980s, inflation was hovering around 4 percent, a major achievement following the stagflation of the previous decade, but the Fed wanted it to go lower -- here's the crucial bit -- without taking the blame for it. The Volcker Fed had come in for quite a bit of abuse when it whipped inflation at the expense of the severe 1981-82 downturn, and the Fed seems to have learned it was better not to leave its fingerprints on the business cycle.
In other words, Let recessions do their dirty work for them.
It's not hard for central bankers to get what they want without doing anything, as long as what they want is less inflation (and that's almost always what central bankers want). They just have to wait for a recession to come along ... and then keep waiting until inflation falls to where they want it. Then, once prices have declined enough for their taste, they cut rates (or buy bonds) to stabilize inflation at this new, lower level. But it's one thing to stabilize inflation at a lower level; it's another to keep it there. The Fed has to raise rates faster than it otherwise would during the subsequent recovery to keep inflation from going back to where it was before the recession. It's what the Fed calls "opportunistic disinflation," and it's hard to believe this wasn't their strategy looking at falling inflation the previous few decades. Not that we have to guess. Fed president Edward Boehene actually laid out this approach in 1989, and Fed governor Laurence Meyer endorsed the idea of "reducing inflation cycle-to-cycle" in a 1996 speech -- the same year the Wall Street Journal leaked an internal Fed memo outlining the policy.
In short: Recoveries have been jobless, because that's how the Fed likes them.
But it gets worse. Pushing inflation progressively lower means recoveries get progressively weaker, since the Fed has to choke off inflation, and hence the recovery, at lower and lower levels. Now, to be fair, the Fed, and Ben Bernanke in particular, have awoken to the dangers of this approach. The danger, of course, is that the Fed gets in a situation where short-term rates are stuck at zero, but the economy stays stuck in a slump. Sound familiar? Bernanke realized this was a threat in 2002 when the economy was flirting with deflation despite 1.34 interest rates, and vowed not to let it happen here. (Remember, "disinflation" means falling inflation, and "deflation" means negative inflation).
The Fed, of course, did let it happen here. But it didn't let prices actually start to fall, which would make debt and borrowing more expensive at the worst possible moment, due to the Fed's bond-buying and to wages that are sticky downwards. Bernanke got the Fed to accept that opportunistic disinflation had gone too far with QE1 and QE2, but it's not clear that he's gotten them to give up on the idea altogether. Core inflation has settled in below 2 percent, and the Fed's economic projections don't show it rising above that level anytime soon. That's pushed nominal GDP growth -- the growth of the total size of the economy -- down to 4 percent for each of the past three years; a low level the Fed is apparently comfortable with. Bernanke seems to be trying to shift the consensus towards undoing some of this disinflation -- unlike previous rounds of bond-buying, QE3 was aimed at lowering unemployment, and not stopping lower prices, while the Evans rule explicitly says the Fed will tolerate inflation up to 2.5 percent -- but there's been no shift in the data so far. The Fed needs to realize there is no try when it comes to reflation. It has to promise to do whatever it takes.
The new normal doesn't have to be new or normal if the Fed doesn't want it to be.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
I spent a year in Tromsø, Norway, where the “Polar Night” lasts all winter—and where rates of seasonal depression are remarkably low. Here’s what I learned about happiness and the wintertime blues.
Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway, is home to extreme light variation between seasons. During the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Then the days get progressively longer until the Midnight Sun period, from May to July, when it never sets. After the midnight sun, the days get shorter and shorter again until the Polar Night, and the yearly cycle repeats.
So, perhaps understandably, many people had a hard time relating when I told them I was moving there.
“I could never live there,” was the most common response I heard. “That winter would make me so depressed,” many added, or “I just get so tired when it’s dark out.”
But the Polar Night was what drew me to Tromsø in the first place.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
A day after default, there's no deal in sight—and Greece’s defiant prime minister says Sunday's referendum will still happen.
July 1, 2015 11:01 a.m.
The referendum will go on, says Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Yesterday, there was doubt about whether Sunday’s referendum—where Greeks would decide whether to accept its creditors conditions—would still happen. If Greece had managed to secure a third bailout, or an extension from the IMF, there would theoretically be no need for the referendum.
Neither of those two things happened, and Tsipras addressed the nation on Greek television an hour ago to confirm that the referendum will take place. He’s also not backing down from his original position, strongly urging Greeks to vote “no.” Tsipras has since tweeted 18 updates on his position, including this: “You're being blackmailed & urged to vote Yes to all of institutions' measures without any solution to exiting the crisis.”
The social network learns more about its users than they might realize.
Facebook, you may have noticed, turned into a rainbow-drenched spectacle following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.
By overlaying their profile photos with a rainbow filter, Facebook users began celebrating in a way we haven't seen since March 2013, when 3 million peoplechanged their profile images to a red equals sign—the logo of the Human Rights Campaign—as a way to support marriage equality. This time, Facebook provided a simple way to turn profile photos rainbow-colored. More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to the Facebook spokesperson William Nevius, and the number continues to grow.
“This is probably a Facebook experiment!” joked the MIT network scientist Cesar Hidalgo on Facebook yesterday. “This is one Facebook study I want to be included in!” wrote Stacy Blasiola, a communications Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, when she changed her profile.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The untold story of the improbable campaign that finally tipped the U.S. Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into a courthouse in Minneapolis, paid $10, and applied for a marriage license. The county clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to give it to them. Obviously, he told them, marriage was for people of the opposite sex; it was silly to think otherwise.
Baker, a law student, didn’t agree. He and McConnell, a librarian, had met at a Halloween party in Oklahoma in 1966, shortly after Baker was pushed out of the Air Force for his sexuality. From the beginning, the men were committed to one another. In 1967, Baker proposed that they move in together. McConnell replied that he wanted to get married—really, legally married. The idea struck even Baker as odd at first, but he promised to find a way and decided to go to law school to figure it out.
The question is at the center of the Greek crisis.
In 1961, the economist Robert Mundell published a paper laying out, per the title, “A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas.” In it, he inquired about the appropriate geographic extent of a shared unit of money. Was it the world? A country? Part of a country? A border-spanning region of, say, the western parts of the United States and Canada, with a separate currency circulating in the eastern parts of the two countries?
“It might seem at first that the question is purely academic,” he wrote, “since it hardly seems within the realm of political feasibility that national currencies would ever be abandoned in favor of any other arrangement.” But it was worth considering anyway, in part because “certain parts of the world are undergoing processes of economic integration and disintegration,” and an idea of what an “optimum currency area” would look like could help “clarify the meaning of these experiments.”
In 1908, photographer Lewis Hine traveled across the U.S. to document child laborers and their workplaces. His portraits were used by reformers to drive legislation that would protect young workers or prohibit their employment.
At the start of the 20th century, labor in America was in short supply, and laws concerning the employment of children were rarely enforced or nonexistent. While Americans at the time supported the role of children working on family farms, there was little awareness of the other forms of labor being undertaken by young hands. In 1908, photographer Lewis Hine was employed by the newly-founded National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to document child laborers and their workplaces nationwide. His well-made portraits of young miners, mill workers, cotton pickers, cigar rollers, newsboys, pin boys, oyster shuckers, and factory workers put faces on the issue, and were used by reformers to raise awareness and drive legislation that would protect young workers or prohibit their employment. After several stalled attempts in congress, the NCLC-backed Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938 with child labor provisions that remain the law of the land today, barring the employment of anyone under the age of 16.
Was the Concorde a triumph of modern engineering, a metaphor for misplaced 20th-century values, or both?
The box sat untouched in his bottom desk drawer. For weeks we discussed opening it, and one January morning he was ready. I set the box on his white bedsheets and removed the stack of passports, which could have belonged to a family with dual citizenship. But all nine—from 1956 to a valid update issued in 2014—belong to my 89-year-old grandfather.
Lying in bed, he unfolded a stamp-covered page like an accordion and held it open above his chest. “Oh my,” he kept repeating. He paused, and pointed.
London. March 22, 1976. My then-50-year-old grandfather, Raymond Pearlson, the inventor ofSyncrolift, was traveling the world selling his shiplift system. Concorde had launched commercially that January. He knew exactly what this stamp represented: Washington Dulles to London Heathrow in 3.5 hours—the first of at least 150 supersonic flights he took on the legendary aircraft.