Sunday, August 30, 2009

Flad's Yield Curve

My blog was always intended to be a journal for me to learn new ideas. This blog is written in the spirit of learning. I believe that learning involves writing and the elimination of mistakes. With that in mind, I begin.

An upward sloping yield curve means that short-term interest rates are going to rise. This is mathematically so if investors have formed expectations of future interest rates correctly. As usual, Wikipedia has a genius explanation that I recommend.

Shalom P. Hamou was a trader in the bond pit for many years. His blog, THE YIELD CURVE often contains serious discussion on interest rates.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Recession of 1982

videoRecession narrative In this video, I will analyze the recession of 1982, the worst recession since WWII. What happens to real GDP during a recession? Here I have created a graph using FRED data series GDPC95. The shaded bars represent recessions as dated by the National Bureau of Economic Research. You will observe that real GDP falls in each recession. The 1982 recession was no exception. From January 1, 1979 until December 1, 1982 GDP fell 6.4%. Clearly, GDP falls during a recession. GDP is made with labor resources. What happens to the unemployment rate during a recession? The data shows that during this time, unemployment rose from 5.4% to 9.7%. You can see that the unemployment rate rises during a recession. What happened to housing during this recession? The data shows that housing starts fell off the deep end during this recession. What type of workers was hurt by this decline in investment? Men usually work in the construction industry. As less homes were built, men were laid off not just from construction but all of the trades, factories, and mining. During this time of high unemployment, labor force participation for women more than offset the decline in men and teenagers participation rate. Many reasons are given for this including labor saving devices such as the microwave oven. In the textbook, Modern Macroeconomics, the authors explain that the pill contributed to the increase in women’s participation rate in the labor force. Working with data allows researchers a look at the changing demographics of the recession. Certainly there are more variables involved in the recession than what I have covered here. But the data I have used does confirm economic theory which predicts a decrease in GDP, employment, and an increase in the unemployment rate.

Circular Flow of Income

Here's the link to today's lecture. For some reason, I can't upload to Facebook. Click here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inflation and Policy

Since 1970, inflation has always been positive. There have been times when inflation was a major economic problem as shown in 1918, 1947. Deflation has been a concern too especially during the Great Depression. In the 1990s, prices have seemed to stabilize. Does that mean that inflation isn't a problem?

I think the FED can control price changes with monetary policy. Price stability has been the result of artful policy by the FED. I am worried that the government spending by the Obama administration will fuel the flames of inflation.

Total Capacity Utilization and the PPF

During a recession, total capacity utilization of capital goods declines. If we assume some frictional and structural unemployment of resources and make 90% "full employment", then the US is currently inside its PPF.

Is this recession worse than 1982? I can't add up the psychic costs of the downturn, but the current recession appears to be the worst since WWII.

Women in the Labor Force

Since 1950 the labor force participation rate for women has steadily increased. The labor force is now approaching a 50%-50% composition. What caused the explosive entry of women entering the labor force?

A sociologist would argue that civil rights played a significant role. Economists argue that household inventions like the microwave increased the relative cost of staying at home. In 1973, the landmark case on abortion, Roe v. Wade, contributed to the increase in labor force participation for women. I would argue that work preferences also changed the composition of the labor force. Men prefer to work in construction, mining, factories, and blue-collar work. Women choose retailing, professional occupation, and service sector occupations. The service sector continues to create more and more of our GDP while manufacturing is declining. It makes sense to me that women are making up more of the labor force.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jobless Recovery

Fox News ran an feature today about the jobless recovery. The implication was that GDP will grow but the unemployment rate will stay high until 2011. I was wondering if Fox News had any idea that unemployment is a lagging indicator. Also, Okun's Law empirically shows that for every 1% decrease in the unemployment rate GDP grows 2%. Two very distinguished economists were cited on the 5-minute program. I wonder if Fox just wanted to grab a headline with sensationalism or if I need to learn more about recovery.

My data shows that the last recovery from the last two recessions have been jobless.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

PCE or Consumption This link defines Personal Consumption Expenditures as "consumption." If PCE is consumption, does it appear that the aggregate demand component of GDP has shifted to the left? Consumption makes up about 67% of GDP. An anecdotal observation of the data leads me to conclude that there's been a decrease in "C" so aggregated demand has shifted to the left. Questions for you to think about. 1) Have prices fallen? 2) What happens to savings when consumption falls?
Investment is about 16% of GDP. 3) Since savings equals investment, has investment increased? Investment leads to long-term growth. 4) If banks aren't lending, where is this savings going? Macro always has more questions than answers for me.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Aggregate Production Function


Aggregate Production Function Narrative

The aggregate production function is shows how an economy changes inputs into output.

The aggregate production function is how inputs are magically changed into output. This is a metaphorical production function where corn is turned into an egg. Inputs are land, labor, capital, and technology. Output are goods and services.

The production function I’m going to use in this video is the Cobb-Douglas which takes the form: Y = A√KL where Y is GDP, A is technology, K is capital, and L is labor.

I have used a graphing calculator I found on the web to graph the Cobb-Douglas production function. Notice that as more capital is added to a fixed amount of labor, output increases, but at a decreasing rate.

When more and more capital is added to a fixed amount of labor, output increases by smaller and smaller amounts. This is called decreasing returns to scale. Decades of data confirm both the shape of the curve and diminishing returns.

In this picture, I have taken a graph from Timothy Taylor’s free online textbook that shows the shape of the aggregate production function. If you’d like to access this book, pause this video and use the link on the screen.

When the state of technology changes, the production function shifts up as seen here. Many think that the technological change has to be a whizbang awe inspiring innovation like the internet. But many changes involve finding a faster way to the same task with less.

Here, these women fill up the barrels with water and roll them back home instead of carrying the water on their head. This invention saves four trips to the well and is an example of technology.

One last characteristic about the Aggregate Production Function is that is exhibits constant returns to scale. That is, doubling the amount of land, labor, and capital, doubles the output. If you ever need to know if a production function has constant returns, simply sum the exponents. If the sum equals one, then the curve has constant returns. In this example, doubling the inputs and plant size, doubles the output from 3 to 6.

In this video I have given you the basics of the aggregate production function. I look forward to your comments.

Bin Laden Trade and Brazil

It's Probably Not Another Bin Laden Trade, But This Massive Mystery Options Play Hints at a Bearish End to 2009. by Investment Director, Keith Fitzgerald can be found here. Another article written by Jason Simpkins, and is titled: With One of the Hottest Economies on the Planet Brazil is Finally Living Up to Its Promise. It is found here.

Make some money.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Phillips Curve


Phillips curve narrative

In 1958, A W Phillips published a paper on inflation and unemployment. Phillips saw a negative relationship between the unemployment rate and inflation. Using data from the 1960’s, I have plotted the Phillips Curve seen here.

Phillips observed that when unemployment was high, inflation was low. When inflation was high, unemployment was low. This negative relationship is known as the Phillips curve.

Policymakers saw this relationship as a menu of inflation choices. Policymakers thought that they could choose to have low unemployment at the expense of inflation.

Let’s begin with the economy in long run at the natural rate of unemployment at say 6% shown as point 1. If policymakers use both Fiscal and Monetary policy to reduce the unemployment rate to 4%, resources become scarce and prices rise to point 2.

Workers will demand higher wages and the Short Run Phillips Curve will shift to the right from point 2 to point 3.

If policymakers continue to use Fiscal and Monetary policy to keep the unemployment rate below its natural rate, then inflation will continue and a wage price spiral will follow as shown a movement from point 3 to point 4.

The Phillips Curve is an empirical relationship that is observed from data. Policymakers have learned that they cannot exploit the relationship by choosing a point on the curve. The Phillips Curve is often used in introductory textbooks to explain short-term fluctuations in prices and unemployment.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Goofy Thoughts on Love and Economics

Economics is the study of scarcity. The textbook definition of economics is "Economics is how to satisfy unlimited wants with limited resources." Economics studies how individuals satisfy their wants.

At the Y, I heard two men talking and one said, "No matter how hard I work I just can't seem to please her." I was reminded of the Toby Keith song, "You Ain't Much Fun". In the song a man quits drinking and his wife has him mowing the yard, mending the fence and hundreds of other household chores. The man in the Y found out that as soon as one want was satisfied, another want took its place.

So often, I hear men say, "She's all I want". These men aren't thinking economically. If economics is correct, he'll want someone else. Of course, it doesn't work like this. Many couples are happily married for life. There must be somethings that economics doesn't predict. One might be the economy.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Econ Thoughts

Here are my thoughts as I workout.

No one uses the phone to call someone anymore.

Using economics to figure out what's wrong with our economy is like trying to determine who emitted gas in a crowded room

Why is it so hard to find someone who will work on our home? Fox news reports that 76,000 construction workers lost their jobs in July. I can't find one to fix my bathroom. Fox news reports that 247,000 jobs were lost last month. Could it be that unemployment insurance inhibits workers from seeking actual employment? How many long-term workers have become discouraged?

Unions have halted the progress of solar energy in California. Many non-union workers wanted to install panels, but the union says that hiring these workers violates the contract. Many of these workers will be unemployed. Here's an example of how institutional forces shape the natural rate of unemployment. With unions requiring higher than market clearing wages, many go without work.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Bernanke's Exit Strategy

Why Ben Bernanke's Incomplete 'Exit Strategy' Could Lead to a Decade-Long Downturn By Shah GilaniContributing EditorMoney Morning
[Editor's Note: For additional insights on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, please click here to check out this additional story, which appears elsewhere in today's issue of Money Morning.
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At its most basic level, the U.S. Federal Reserve's so-called "exit strategy" is designed to let government bailout and liquidity programs unwind on their own, as markets return to a state of "normalcy."
But what investors don't realize is that without an exit strategy that includes plans for unwinding insolvent mortgage giants Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE) - now more accurately defined as government-sponsored hedge funds - recent market gains will be limited and will likely reverse. If those setbacks cause the nascent U.S. housing market rebound to stall, it could even lead to a decade-long downturn.
And Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's exit strategy ignores Fannie and Freddie.
The Government-Sponsored (800 Pound) Gorilla
When the U.S. government - succumbing partly to pressure from foreign bondholders - last September forced Fannie and Freddie into government conservatorship, it essentially nationalized what amounted to the world's two largest hedge funds.
Essentially, in the government-brokered deal, taxpayers bought senior preferred stock (with a 10% annual dividend yield) from Fannie and Freddie, which each received $1 billion in capital. Both firms were also granted a backstop guarantee worth $200 billion. In March, amid escalating fears that these arrangements wouldn't provide enough support, an additional $200 billion of taxpayer muscle was added to the support pyramid.
Why are we supporting run-amok government-sponsored hedge funds?
Describing Freddie Mac - and especially Fannie Mae - as "aggressively competitive" is a lot like calling the Grand Canyon "a ditch." Both firms use their special status as "government-sponsored enterprises" (GSEs) to borrow trillions of dollars in the public markets - at spreads just a couple of basis points above U.S. Treasury debt.
This GSE status induced investors throughout the world - including virtually every major government- to load up on Fannie and Freddie debt, since that nurtured the belief these institutions were backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. As it turned out, any doubt about the status of GSE backing was put to rest. The September 2008 Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress - titled "Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in Conservatorship" - plainly states that "the U.S. Treasury has put in place a set of financing agreements to insure that GSEs continue to meet their obligation to holders of bonds that they have issued or guaranteed. This means that the U.S. taxpayer now stands behind about $5 trillion of GSE debt."
By borrowing cheaply and stymieing any threatening regulation by means of dispensing payoffs from its $350 million Fannie Mae Foundation - as well as from a 10-year, $170-million lobbying effort - Fannie and Freddie eventually managed to leverage themselves at a ratio of 60-to-one. Both firms successfully glad-handed powerful legislators into granting them clearance to keep expanding their balance sheets: Eventually, the two firms accumulated more than $6 trillion in mortgage balance sheet assets between them. The explosion of debt and leveraged assets was even more troubling because it came against a backdrop of lower and lower capital, the result of an ongoing relaxation of capital requirements, the specific result of targeted campaign donations
From Mortgage Facilitator to Financial Market Predator
Fannie and Freddie - with the GSE status acting as a U.S. government imprimatur - had easy access to cheap capital, and a massive leveraging capacity that would be the envy of even the most aggressive private-sector hedge funds. Does any one remember Long-Term Capital Management?
Together these two factors enabled Fannie and Freddie to buy back massive amounts of their own securitized pools of mortgage loans and - in a brazen money grab - to purchase huge amounts of private-label, bank-pooled securities that didn't have their own mortgage-borrower guarantees. The game was about juicing up net-interest income by using cheaply borrowed money to buy high-yielding "junk" mortgages.
Originally, the term "hedge fund" applied to managers of alternative assets who once actually "hedged" their portfolios. Not only did Fannie and Freddie fail to hedge their rising risk exposure to any meaningful degree, they were insanely non-diversified, because they held only one class of assets: Mortgage-backed securities.
Despite such ill-advised strategies, the executive echelon at Fannie and Freddie paid themselves like private-sector hedge-fund honchos. In the middle part of this decade, Fannie Mae was involved in an $11 billion accounting scandal in which shareholders were allegedly deceived and regulators stonewalled. The company "managed" (manipulated) its quarterly earnings to smooth out returns and impress stockholders enough to induce them to drive its stock price higher and higher - a gambit designed to trigger big bonus payments for top executives.
Once a Vice, Now a Habit
In last week's "Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress" and in his July 21 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, Bernanke, the U.S. central bank chairman, laid out plans to wind down government credit extension programs and combat any potential inflationary pressures. What was not addressed was how - or even if - the two government-owned and operated de-facto hedge funds, with combined assets of more than $6 trillion, would be unwound, or whether they would remain in place as they are in order to be used as back-door fiscal and monetary policy tools.
In what amounts to more than just a bailout on an unprecedented and under-reported scale, the takeover of both Fannie and Freddie provides the Fed and the U.S. Treasury Department a super sponge to both guarantee new mortgages and absorb all the unwanted mortgage-backed securities that banks and non-bank originators package and need to offload.
Because they lack sufficient capital - or lack the appetite to hold any new mortgage paper on their balance sheets - banks need this government-sponsored outlet for the mortgages they want to unload. The Fed and the Treasury Department are using their taxpayer-supported hedge funds to grease the rusted wheels of the mortgage money machine to gain traction where there is none.
The Housing Market is the Key to an Economic Rebound
Without a rebound in the U.S. housing market, most economists agree that the overall U.S. economy has almost no chance for a resurgence of its own. In fact, barring a turnaround in housing, the best we can hope for is to have the U.S. economy just limp along for years. And the reality is that without a resurgent housing market, the outlook for the general economy is actually much, much worse.
The prospect for a housing recovery is predicated on an end to the ongoing slide in real estate prices, followed by sufficient availability of low-interest credit - as well as a buying public that's willing to use that credit to buy new homes if the cycle isn't likely to repeat itself.
In an uncertain real-estate environment Fannie's and Freddie's wholesale purchasing of new mortgage pools is the only hope the U.S. government has of stimulating and accelerating the velocity of mortgage money. These hedge funds are now indispensable fiscal and monetary policy levers.
Beware of the "Bear Trap"
Propping up teetering banks may serve to shore up near-term public confidence in the financial system. But it also destroys the same system by dislocating any meaningful capital-allocation strategy by extending the life of sick institutions that suck up scarce resources. What's happening at Fannie and Freddie is no different - except that it's happening on an exponentially more debilitating scale.
As the buyer of last resort, the U.S. government is letting its two hedge funds continue to borrow and leverage themselves to backstop the nation's mortgage-origination market. The Treasury Department also is buying up any mortgage-backed securities that Fannie and Freddie don't add to their own balance sheets.
Taxpayers are being duped into believing that the mortgage market is recovering and that money will be flowing when they decide it is time to buy homes again.
But there's a big problem here: At some economic "inflection point" - a point that will come together very quickly if interest rates unexpectedly spike - losses at the "twin terrors" of Fannie and Freddie could spike into the stratosphere, as well, meaning the financial reality that we're detailing here will necessitate another bailout, but on a scale we've yet to envision.
In the first quarter alone, Fannie lost $23.2 billion - its seventh-consecutive quarterly loss - and it drew another $19 billion from its government piggybank. The firm has a negative-net-worth of $18.9 billion.
Fannie Mae isn't just insolvent, it's dead - though its functions are being maintained by a federal-government life-support system.
Freddie Mac had a $9.9 billion loss for the quarter and drew $6.1 billion from the U.S. Treasury. Freddie's 10% dividend to the government on the $51.7 billion it has drawn to date is costing it $5.2 billion a year - an amount that exceeds what it earned in nine of the last 10 years.
Investors should be afraid. While the "bear trap" hasn't been sprung yet - it's clearly been set. Recently trotted out earnings that only look good because they exceed analysts' doomsday estimates are not going to override the reality that mortgage financing won't be easy or cheap when buyers return en masse. Unless our government weans itself off its own tainted tonic - and makes a concerted effort to create a financially viable private-sector mortgage-origination and investment outlet - the U.S. stock market will remain weak for decades.
Two Moves the U.S. Government Needs to Make Now
Unlike the unworkable plan that Bernanke outlined last week, there is an "exit strategy:" that will work. Government leaders need to understand that bigger is not always better, especially in light of the concentration of risk and taxpayer exposure that's been created by these government-sponsored hedge funds. This exit strategy consists of two key initiatives:
Get Competitive Again: Break up all the big banks and create a greater number of highly localized, community-centric banks. Let community and regional bankers securitize pools of mortgages using transparent "conforming" disciplines, and force originators and lenders to keep skin in the game. Create national ratings standards and let originators pool strictly defined, varying-quality loans into properly labeled packages, and let investors determine their risk tolerances without being blindsided. Large loans can easily be syndicated across multiple banking institutions and large risk-taking, non-deposit-taking institutions - such as real hedge funds and private-equity companies that will constitute the new "equity merchant banks" - can do a better job of high-stakes lending.

Bring Down the Curtain on Fannie and Freddie: It's time to break up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The government has proposed reducing their portfolios by about 10% per year, but that's not happening. In an end-around maneuver, while Fannie and Freddie are being propped up and still growing, the government is buying mortgages through the Federal Reserve. Either way, taxpayers end up holding massive pools of mortgages that no one else wants. Doing away with the socialization of homeownership financing will put the market back in control of appropriating risk.

The bottom line is this: The only "exit strategy" we really need is to position ourselves to diversify risk and promote stable rewards by taking apart what history has proven to be too-big-to-control.
Shutting down sick banks and unwinding government schemes to mask illiquidity will be painful and would certainly stress the financial markets again. But those are short-term pains that will lead to meaningful long-term change. On our current path, we may be keeping things copasetic in the near-term - but in the long run we remain on a potential collision course with some painful periods that will be deep and drawn out.
The old adage tells us that "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." After the tragic financial travails of the past year or so, the last thing the U.S. economy needs is to spring a bear trap that results in a 10-year financial malaise. Let's learn from the mistakes of the most-recent past and make the changes needed to avoid this pending dour outcome.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Working to Efficiency

In the checkout lane at Fareway, I struck up a conversation with a gentlemen whom I call the lawn mower man. He is a kind man who is well known around the tri-state area for his excellence in small engine repair. He has a thriving business from his home. From our conversation, he told me that he makes no long-run profit after people steal from him, return his repaired mowers damaged, and profits are competed away. I told him that my riding lawn mower needed an oil change, and asked him he would change it. We exchanged information. A short time later, he arrived at my place. He had all of the tools, filters, and oil. He changed the oil in 10 minutes. I paid his bill plus a tip.

My insight was, that efficiency maximizes his profit and provides him with the highest utility. If he would have messed around looking at the mower, then going to Walmart to buy the materials, the job would have taken all day. So I concluded that efficiency resulted in a mutually beneficial exchange. The market forces business to be efficient.