Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Economic Sentiment Indicator Jumps in December

NEW YORK, January 3, 2011 – "Driven by a wide range of upbeat grassroots economic news, the Dow Jones Economic Sentiment Indicator (ESI) jumped 2.2 points to 46.1 in December, breaking out of its previous range and indicating the economy could be picking up momentum at the start of 2011. The ESI is determined by in-depth analysis of national news coverage across 15 daily newspapers. It held steady at 43.9 in October and November."

Dow Jones Newswires “Money Talks” columnist Alen Mattich said: “Improved sentiment about the U.S. economy is pointing to a solid, even if unspectacular, recovery in growth, including an upswing in job creation.”

Monday, January 03, 2011

Global Manufacturing: Strong Year-End Growth

Wall Street Journal -- "Global manufacturing ended the year on a strong note, according a global purchasing managers’ index released by J.P. Morgan Chase and Markit. The JPMorgan global PMI hit a six-month high of 55 in December from 53.9 the prior month. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion. The expansion was broad based led by the U.S. and the euro zone. China also continued to expand, though at a slightly slower rate. Only Japan and Greece were in contractionary territory."

MP: Note chart that accompanies the article showing that 21 of 23 countries listed were expanding in December, and only Greece and Japan were below 50 (contraction).  

Ph.D. Jobs: What's Hot (Econ), What's Not (History)

From today's Inside Higher Ed:

"During the 2009-10 academic year, the number of positions listed with the American Historical Association dropped by 29.4 percent, according to a study the group will release today. That follows a 23.8 percent drop the year before. Last year, the association announced that the number of listings it received -- 806 -- was the smallest in a decade; this year's total of 569 marks the smallest number in 25 years.

But in data also being released this week, the American Economic Association (AEA) is announcing that its job listings in 2010 recovered from a 21 percent decline in 2008. Further, the number of academic jobs exceeded the number in 2008. (Economics job listings include positions in the finance and consulting industries, in addition to academic slots.)

The total number of listings with the AEA rose to 2,842 in 2010, up from 2,285 in 2009, and only 43 jobs shy of the 2008 total. Because many of the 2008 openings that were listed were for searches that were subsequently called off, the AEA report -- prepared by John J. Siegfried, secretary-treasurer of the association -- says that it believes job openings are now above 2008 levels.

New academic jobs increased to 1,884 in 2010, up from 1,512 in 2009, and now exceed 2008 totals by 24. The vast majority of the academic jobs are at universities with graduate programs.  The top area of specialization in job listings, by far, was mathematical and quantitative methods, followed by microeconomics, macroeconomics and financial economics, international economics, and macroeconomics and monetary economics."

State Tax Revenues Increased by More Than 6% in 2010, The Largest Increase in More Than 10 Years

Last week, I featured the recent Census Bureau report showing that state and local tax revenues increased by 5.21% in the third quarter this year compared to 2009, which is the largest quarterly increase since the fourth quarter of 2007 (see chart above).  Dennis Cauchon now reports in today's USA Today that:

"Tax collections are surpassing projections, the clearest sign yet that state and local government finances are on the mend as the economy improves. Sharp rises in tax collections since July, especially in the last three months, have boosted tax revenues to levels not seen since 2008, a review of tax reports shows. Including federal aid, state and local government revenue is running at a record high.

Serious challenges remain: financing long-term pension obligations, rebuilding budget reserves and repaying funds raided for unrelated expenses.  In the short term, though, the outlook is brightening. Nearly every state is reporting tax collections above what it expected and higher than a year ago.

"We're getting revenue growth that you'd see in a reasonable expansion," says Wisconsin Department of Revenue chief economist John Koskinen.  State and local revenue rose more than 6% nationwide in the first nine months of 2010, the biggest increase over inflation since 1999, Bureau of Economic Analysis data show."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Something Else to Watch in 2011: ND Oil Boom; Running Out of Superlatives As Estimates Double

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- "Government and industry officials believe North Dakota's oil patch contains more than twice the amount of oil previously estimated and that the state's already record crude production will double within the decade.  If the forecast is correct, North Dakota could leapfrog in a few years from the fourth-biggest oil producing state to No. 2, trailing only Texas.

"It's a pretty rosy picture," said Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. "We have a huge amount of drilling still in front of us."

Record rig activity pushed by strong crude prices and refinements in drilling technology could result in North Dakota seeing a twofold increase in production. The drilling technology alone has cut the amount of time needed to complete a well from 65 days in 2008 to about 25 days. "We are now looking at the possibility of 700,000 barrels a day and we see that coming in the next four to seven years," Helms said.

At that rate, North Dakota would surpass California and Alaska based on those states' current production, said Steven Grape, the domestic reserves project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy's information administration.  "That would be pretty amazing in my book," Grape said.

Federal and state estimates had pegged North Dakota's portion of the Bakken shale and underlying Three Forks-Sanish oil formations in western North Dakota at about 5 billion barrels of oil, using current horizontal drilling technology. Helms said that estimate has more than doubled based on drilling success and current production rates." 

"We're starting to see indications that we could reasonably get 11 billion barrels," Helms said.  Helms said nothing surprises him anymore about the state's prolific oil patch. "I'm running out of superlatives," Helms said. "We're going to have to invent some new ones."

HT: Buddy Pacifico

Saturday, January 01, 2011

100 Things to Watch in 2011

From global advertising agency JWT, comes its list of "100 Things to Watch in 2011," including Africa's growing middle class, bamboo (as a building material, clothing, etc.), the rise of beer sommeliers and the rise of the city of Detroit, the decline of the cash register, digital etiquette and digital interventions, etc.

HT: Paul Kedrosky

World Stock Markets End 2010 at 27-Month High

The Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) World Stock Market Index closed out the year by reaching a 27-month high of 1280.07 yesterday.  This was the highest closing index value for world stock markets since September 19, 2008 in the wake of Lehman Brothers' filing for bankruptcy on September 15, and the subsequent financial meltdown caused the MSCI World Index to drop below 700 by March 2009 (see chart). As I reported previously, it's a significant milestone that world stock markets have now returned to their pre-Lehman levels.

House Price Indexes: Case-Shiller vs. FHFA; Based on FHFA, There's No Threat to Economic Recovery

In a post yesterday, I discussed Alan Reynolds' recent editorial in the IBD titled "Do Falling Home Prices Imperil Recovery?, where he points out that house price declines in a "few troubled cities in a few states [based on the Case-Shiller 20-city composite house price index] do not represent the entire nation."  This was in response to a recent front-page Wall Street Journal article ("Housing Recovery Stalls") that fretted about how "A new bout of declining home prices (based on the October decline in the Case-Shiller house price index) is threatening to hamper the U.S. recovery, just as consumers and the overall economy have been showing signs of healing." 

Like the chart in the previous post, the chart above provides further evidence of the significant disconnect between the Case-Shiller Home Price Index (10-city composite above for Boston, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, LA, Miami, NYC, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.) and the FHFA U.S. House Price Index.  As Alan Reynolds pointed out, the FHFA U.S. House Price Index based on 50 states increased by 1.07% in the third quarter of this year vs. the previous quarter, the largest quarterly gain since the 1.30% increase in the fourth quarter of 2006.  Based on the FHFA House Price Index, there's no threat to the U.S. economic recovery.  

Friday, December 31, 2010

Do Economists Need a Code of Ethics?

From the New York Times:

"Academic economists, particularly those active in policy debates in Washington and Wall Street, are facing greater scrutiny of their outside activities these days. Faced with a run of criticism, including a popular movie, leaders of the American Economic Association, the world’s largest professional society for economists, founded in 1885, are considering a step that most other professions took a long time ago — adopting a code of ethical standards.

Should economists be required merely to disclose who finances their research, as many academic journals already require? Should they have to reveal which corporate clients they advise, consult for or give speeches to? Should they even be allowed to serve as corporate directors and officers, as many business and finance professors do? Some scholars say the discussion is long overdue."

Many Parts of Country Won't Have Double-Dip In Home Prices Because They Never Had the FIrst Dip

Cato's Alan Reynolds writes in yesterday's IBD:

"A front-page Wall Street Journal feature, titled "Housing Recovery Stalls," worries that "a new bout of declining home prices is threatening to hamper the U.S. recovery." A dip in the Case-Shiller moving average of home prices in 20 cities for August to October is said to be "troublesome headwind" for the economy in 2011, and "markets such as Sacramento, Las Vegas and parts of Arizona and Florida are at risk of more declines."

Some of those cities may indeed account for a significant share of the Case-Shiller index, because that index covers only 20 cities (and Sacramento, the centerpiece of the story, is not one of them). However, a few troubled cities in a few states do not represent the entire nation."

Alan concludes that "anxiety about falling home prices is based on a limited sample of 20 cities," among several other factors. 

Reynolds also refers to a WSJ editorial from yesterday, where Peter Schiff  warns that "...third quarter 2010 declines in the Standard & Poor's Case–Shiller home-price index—including very bad October numbers reported this week—have sparked concerns that a "double dip" in home prices is probable."

MP: The chart above of FHFA house price indexes in eight states (data here) helps to support Alan Reynold's position about falling home prices being heavily concentrated in large cities that are included in the Case-Shiller home price index.  While states like Arizona, Florida, Nevada and California have experienced housing bubbles and huge price declines in recent years, many other states like South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas have seen fairly steady, but very mild increases in home prices, with no bubbles and no house price corrections.  Especially in many states in the middle of the country stretching from Texas all the way up to the Dakotas, it will be hard to have a "double dip" in home prices because they haven't yet had the "first dip."

Nov. Int'l. Air Traffic 4% Above Pre-Recession Level

Geneva -- "The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced international scheduled traffic results for November showing 8.2% year-on-year passenger traffic growth and a 5.4% increase for freight.  November saw traffic growth slow from the 10% increase recorded in the passenger business and the 14.5% growth in freight in October. The slowdown in 2010 is partially skewed because of the exceptionally rapid rise in traffic volumes recorded during the fourth quarter of 2009. This slower growth does not necessarily signal a negative trend. Even with the decline in November, passenger and freight traffic are still expanding at annualized rates of between 5-6% which is in line with the industry’s historical growth trend."

Highlights of the November report include:

1. The level of international air travel is now 4% above the pre-recession peak of early 2008.

2. November passenger traffic levels for North American carriers equaled the pre-recession levels of early 2008.

3. On a year-to-date basis, passenger traffic in 2010 is 8.5% above the same period last year, and freight volume is above 2009 by 21.9%. 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Christmas Tree Indicator: Economy's Improving

Wall Street Journal (OAK PARK, Ill.) -- "Sandhill Christmas Trees here sells fewer than 5,000 firs in a typical holiday season but this year it sold nearly 6,000, many as last-minute deliveries to retailers who had underestimated demand. Sandhill's success mirrors that of tree farms across the U.S.

Precise numbers won't be available until late winter, when the National Christmas Tree Association completes its annual survey. But after two flat seasons, tree-farm associations in the biggest-producing states say members are estimating an industry-wide sales jump in the mid- to high single digits over a year ago, with some growers reporting larger gains.

"At times during the season, we had growers reporting increases of 20% to 40%," said Brian Ostlund, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, whose territory includes Oregon, the nation's largest producer of Christmas trees.

With annual sales under $2 billion, the Christmas tree is a small but nevertheless telling economic indicator because when incomes fall, people tend to forgo buying trees, economists say. "Better sales would be a good supporting indicator for better consumer sentiment," said Michael Swanson, agricultural economist for Wells Fargo." 

State Tax Revenues Rebound By 5.2% in QIII

The Census Bureau reported this week that state and local tax revenues increased by 5.21% in the third quarter compared to a year ago, which is the largest quarterly increase since the fourth quarter of 2007.  Here's a breakdown by category for the third quarter 2010 vs. 2009:

Individual income tax: +4.78%
Property taxes:  +7.77% 
General sales taxes: +4.01% 
Motor fuel taxes: +8.21% 
Tobacco taxes: +8.25% 
Alcoholic beverage taxes: +1.90%
Corporation income taxes: - 3.26%

The increases in state tax revenues in the third quarter provide more evidence that economic activity (income, retail sales, etc.) continues to improve, and we can probably look forward to even greater improvements in the fourth quarter. 

Update: See related report in today's WSJ

As Year Ends, Labor Market Continues to Improve

The Department of Labor reported today that initial jobless claims fell to 388,000 for the week ending December 25, the lowest weekly level since early July 2008, almost two and-a-half years ago.   That brought the four-week moving average down to 414,000 claims, the lowest count since late July 2008 (see chart).

In other positive labor market news this week, the American Staffing Association reported that its weekly Staffing Index was 100 for the week ending December 19.  That marks the 14th consecutive week (except for a holiday-related drop around Thanksgiving) that the ASA Staffing Index has remained at a level of 100 or above.  U.S. staffing employment is 45% higher than the first week of 2010, and is 16% higher than the same weekly period in 2009.  And for late December, the demand for temporary and contract employment this year is above any of the previous years going back to 2006 (see bottom chart below).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Major Social Legislation Votes by Party

From Matthias Shapiro: "One of the more entertaining themes running around the media these days is that the almost entirely Democratic passage of the health care reform bill is pretty standard issue for major social legislation. After all, the theory goes, Republicans never really supported any major social legislation and this bill was about as bi-partisan as it could get under the circumstances.

We live in a world of accessible information. Quite frankly, if you’re too lazy to go look up the damn facts your own damn self you should probably make it a practice of just keeping your mouth shut. So when I hear people saying that this kind of narrow, one-party passage of major social legislation is par for the course, I look it up for myself. Guess what I found?"

Great graphic and post from the Political Math blog (Political Information Visualization and Other Math-y Things).  

Thanks to Tom Sullivan for finding this blog. 

Fair Trade vs. Free Trade

"Last summer, I purchased a 2010 LS 460 Lexus, through a U.S. intermediary, from a Japanese producer for $70,000. Here's my question to you: Was that a fair trade?

I was free to keep my $70,000 or purchase the car. The Japanese producer was free to keep his Lexus or sell me the car.  As it turned out, I gave up my $70,000 and took possession of the car, and the Japanese producer gave up possession of the car and took possession of my money.

The exchange occurred because I saw myself as being better off and so did the Japanese producer. I think it was both free and fair trade, and I'd like an American mercantilist to explain to me how it wasn't.

Mercantilists have absolutely no argument when we recognize that trade is mostly between individuals.  Mercantilists pretend that trade occurs between nations, such as the U.S. trading with England or Japan, to appeal to our jingoism.

First, does the U.S. actually trade with Japan and England? In other words, is it members of the U.S. Congress trading with their counterparts in the Japanese Diet or the English Parliament?  That's nonsense. Trade occurs between individuals in one country, through intermediaries, with individuals in another country.

Who might protest that my trade with the Lexus manufacturer was unfair?  If you said an American car manufacturer and their union workers, go to the head of the class.

They would like Congress to restrict foreign trade so they can sell their cars at a pleasing price and their workers earn a pleasing wage.  As a matter of fact, it's never American consumers who complain about cheaper prices.  It's always American producers and their unions who do the complaining. That ought to tell us something."

Economists: The Real "Party of No"

"Economists are the real "Party of No." They keep saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch — and politicians keep on getting elected by promising free lunches. Nothing is easier for politicians than to play Santa Claus by promising benefits without mentioning the costs — or lying about the costs and leaving it to future governments to figure out what to do when the money runs out."

~Thomas Sowell

The Finite World of Paul Krugman's Thinking

Paul Krugman claims that the commodity markets are telling us that we're living in an Ehrlich-like finite world of resource scarcity where "the rapid growth of emerging economies is placing pressure on limited supplies of raw materials, pushing up their prices."

And what are the implications of the recent increase in certain commodity prices? According to Krugman, "It's a sign that we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding."

Don Boudreaux responds and suggests that Krugman study resource economist Julian Simon, and points out that:

"It’s not true that vigorous economic growth necessarily makes resources more scarce.  In fact, history shows that, because of human ingenuity, the opposite is not only possible but prevalent. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century, available supplies of coal, petroleum, iron ore, and most other resources have increased significantly – and, as a result, their real prices have fallen." 

MP: The evidence is working against Krugman and in favor of Boudreaux on this one.  The chart above shows the monthly, inflation-adjusted Dow Jones-AIG Commodity Index back to January of 1934 (data from Global Financial Data, paid subscription required). The DJ-AIG index is composed of futures contracts on 19 physical commodities in five categories with the following weights (individual weights are listed here): 

1. Agriculture (coffee, corn, cotton, soybeans, soybean oil, sugar, wheat): 34.37%
2. Energy (crude oil, natural gas, heating oil, unleaded gas): 27.28%
3. Industrial Metals (aluminum, copper, nickel, zinc): 17.65%
4. Precious Metals (gold, silver): 14.60%
5. Livestock (lean hogs, live cattle): 6.10%

(Note: According to Global Financial Data, data in the index from 1933 to 1989 are from the Dow Jones Futures Index, and data from 1990 are from the Dow Jones-AIG Commodity Index.)

Bottom Line: Over a very long period of time (76 years), there has been a significant downward trend in the real prices of commodities (see red trend line in graph), and the decline in commodity prices has taken place during a period when the world population increased by more than three times, from 2 billion in 1934 to the current population of 7 billion in 2010.  Don asks the right question:

"If economic growth since the industrial revolution coincided with increasing resource supplies, why should we expect that continued economic growth will suddenly start to have the opposite, dreary effects predicted by Mr. Krugman?"

Monday, December 27, 2010

Julian Simon via John Tierney Wins Another Bet

In the summer of 2005, when oil was trading at $60 per barrel (see chart above), there was a bet between Malthusian Matthew R. Simmons (member of the Council on Foreign Relations, head of a Houston investment bank specializing  in the energy industry, and author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy”), and New York Times science writer John Tierney, proponent of the Julian Simon school of economics.  

"Peak oil" advocate Simmons predicted in 2005 that the inflation-adjusted price of oil would more than triple over the next five years, and he made a $5,000 bet with Tierney that the average price of oil in 2010 would be at least $200 per barrel in 2005 dollars.  Tierney agreed to share his bet with Julian Simon's widow, who enthusiastically participated in a bet on the real price of a natural resource in the tradition of her late husband, who won the famous bet in 1990 against Malthusian Paul Ehrlich about resource scarcity based on real prices of five commodities selected by Ehrlich and his doomsayer colleagues (see details here)

Although Mr. Simmons died in August of this year, the representatives of his estate will deliver $5,000 on January 1 to John Tierney and Rita Simon, because the price of oil this year has averaged about $80, or about $70 in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars (see chart above), which is about 1/3 of the $200 per barrel price predicted by Simmons.   

John Tierney summarizes his economic optimism a la Julian Simon here:

"Giant new oil fields have been discovered off the coasts of Africa and Brazil. The new oil sands projects in Canada now supply more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia does. Oil production in the United States increased last year, and the Department of Energy projects further increases over the next two decades. The really good news is the discovery of vast quantities of natural gas. It’s now selling for less than half of what it was five years ago. There’s so much available that the Energy Department is predicting low prices for gas and electricity for the next quarter-century.

Maybe something unexpected will change these happy trends, but for now I’d say that Julian Simon’s advice remains as good as ever. You can always make news with doomsday predictions, but you can usually make money betting against them."

Where Do Canadians Go When They Need Experimental Life-Saving Surgery?

Now that's a pretty easy question, and you'll find the answer here.  

HT: Pete Krieger

Markets in Everything: Market-Based Beer Pricing

How much is a pint of beer worth?  Well, why not let market forces determine the price? That's exactly what will happen at Michigan's Kalamazoo Beer Exchange, where a variety of 28 tap beers will be priced according to market demand, and will fluctuate like stock prices in increments of 25 cents. 

"Stagehand Scalping" at Carnegie Hall; Where's the Outrage About $450,000 Salaries for Stagehands?

About a year ago, I had a post about "excessive pay" for the unionized stagehands at Carnegie Hall, some of whom made more during the 2007-2008 season by pushing the 9-foot Steinway Model D concert grand piano out onto the stage for a concert than the artist makes for playing the piano.  Financial data for many nonprofit organizations, including salary data for the "highest paid employees and their compensation," are available at the website GuideStar. Here's the link to The Carnegie Hall Corporation listing at GuideStar.

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, the top five highest paid Carnegie employees were all stagehands making an average of $359,000 in base compensation (see chart above).  A more detailed analysis of Carnegie Hall's 2008 tax return reveals that each of the five stagehands earned an additional $100,000 in deferred compensation for 2008, bringing their total yearly compensation amounts to:

Dennis O'Connell (properties manager): $524,332
James Csollany (carpenter): $461,174
John Cardinale (electrician): $438,828
Kenneth Beltrone (carpenter): $432,655
John Goodson (electrician): $425,105    

That's a total annual compensation for the five Carnegie stagehands of $2,280,000, or $456,000 each.   How to explain these excessive above-market wages? Easy, the stagehands are members of one of the oldest and most powerful NYC labor unions - The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees - which exercised its union muscle in 2007 by striking and shutting down 26 Broadway shows for almost three weeks, at an estimated cost to NYC of about $40 million. 

There's a lot of outrage and attention directed towards "excessive CEO pay," judging by the 153,000 Google hits for that phrase, which is 270 times more than the 567 Google hits for the phrase "excessive union pay."  As I mentioned in the previous post, musicians and promoters frequently blame "ticket scalpers" for raising ticket prices, but maybe "stagehand scalping" deserves some of the blame for high concert ticket prices?! 

Europe Leading Index:Continued Expansion in 2011

The Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI) for the Euro Area increased by 0.7% in November to 114.3, following a 0.3% increase in October and no change in September.

Said Jean-Claude Manini, The Conference Board senior economist for Europe: “The LEI for the Euro Area reaccelerated in November and points to a continued expansion in economic activity during the first half of 2011. But, the strengths have not been very widespread. Downside risks still dominate the outlook, and the planned government budget cuts will increasingly create a drag on growth. The divergence between the LEIs for Germany and Spain is a further reminder that the improvement in economic conditions will remain uneven.” 

The Conference Board also reported last week that the Leading Index for Mexico increased sharply in October by 1.5%, following a 0.3% increase in September and a 0.5% increase in August.  Except for Spain and Japan, all other 9 LEIs reported by the Conference Board are showing positive signs of future growth (Australia, China, Euro Area, France, Germany, Korea, Mexico, UK and US). 

Balancing the Budget Requires Spending Restraint and Pro-Growth Policies, Not Higher Tax Rates

Scott Grannis has a great post about the pro-cyclical pattern of federal tax revenues, illustrating graphically above the huge increase in tax revenues recently due to the economic rebound.  Historically, tax revenues as a share of GDP have been fairly constant, despite large variations in the top marginal tax rate, see the chart below. 

This analysis leads Scott to conclude that:

"There is every reason to think that federal (and state and local) revenues will continue to grow at a relatively high rate as long as the economy continues to recover. Balancing the budget doesn't require higher tax rates, it just requires spending restraint and pro-growth policies. Holding spending constant, and assuming revenues grow at their current rate, the federal budget would be balanced in 5-6 years. If the new Congress can't make a significant move in this direction (i.e., holding the line on spending and keeping tax rates as low as possible), they deserve to be trounced in the next election."

20 Things That Became Obsolete This Decade

From the Huffington Post:

"The last ten years have brought us a windfall of new gadgets and gizmos, and with them, a new way of life. Since 2000, we've gained iPods and iPads, Travelocity and Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, BlackBerry smartphones and Android devices, Xboxes and Wiis, among many other new services, sites, and electronics. We're now poking, tweeting, Googling, and Skyping.

But in that time we've also changed our habits and lost a few things, too. As we look forward to 2011, HuffPostTech has taken a look back at the 20 things that have become obsolete this decade."

Check out the list here, includes dial-up Internet, newspaper classifieds, maps, watches, travel agents, VCRs and VHS tapes, etc.   

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Current Labor Market Recovery and Job Creation Are Outpacing the 1990-91 and 2001 Recoveries

According to a new study from the Joint Economic Committee based on employment data through November, "the recovery from the Great Recession continues, and is occurring more quickly than the recoveries from the 2001 and 1990-1991 recessions."

Here's an excerpt:

"Despite the severity of job losses during the Great Recession, the current labor market recovery is outpacing the last two recoveries.  A focus on private-sector job growth during this recovery as compared to the last two recoveries illuminates this point. In all three recoveries, the labor market continued to shed jobs even after economic activity accelerated. However, private sector job growth in the current recovery began substantially sooner than in the recovery from the 1990-1991recession and in the recovery from the 2001 recession. The private sector began adding jobs 16 months after the official end to the Great Recession, in comparison with 18 months after the 1990-1991 recession and 30 months after the 2001 recession (see chart above). Total non-farm job growth during the current recovery has been less steady, but this unevenness is due almost entirely to declines in government-sector employment (see chart below)."

HT: Steve Bartin of The Newsalert Blog

Living the Good Life: The Good Old Days Are Now

Here's another comparison of consumer purchasing power in the 1960s versus today, based on the time cost of common household appliances like a kitchen oven. The Sears Kenmore oven pictured below retailed for $330 in 1966, which would represent 121.3 hours of work (about three weeks) at the average hourly wage in that year (ignoring taxes).  

At the current average hourly wage of $19.10, today's average consumer would earn a little more than $2,300 working 121.3 hours, and would be able to furnish their entire kitchen with the new appliances pictured below (click to enlarge) from Best Buy including a high-efficiency front-loading washing machine, super capacity gas dryer, 30-inch gas stove, 8.8 cubic feet chest freezer, 16.5 cubic foot refrigerator, dishwasher, mid-size microwave and blender:

Measured by what is ultimately most important, the value of our time, household appliances keep getting cheaper and cheaper, thanks to innovation, technology improvements, supply chain efficiencies, increases in productivity and other market-driven efficiencies that drive prices lower and lower year by year. As much as we hear about declines in median income, economic stagnation, the disappearance of the middle class, falling real wages, increasing income inequality, the data tell a much different story: The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer.

Facts of the Day: U.S. Auto Industry

After falling in every single year between 1994 and 2009, the market share of the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) is on pace to increase slightly in 2010 for the first time in 17 years.  Based on year-to-date (YTD) sales through  November from Ward's Automotive, the Big Three will capture about 44% of the U.S. vehicle market this year, up slightly from 43.66% last year (see chart below).  If that happens, it would be the Big Three's first increase in market share since 1993. 
Also based on sales data through November from Ward's, the light truck share of the U.S. vehicle market will increase to 50.8% in 2010 from 48.5% last year.  This will be the first time since 2007 that light truck sales will be more than half of all vehicle sales, and the first year since 2005 that the market share of trucks has increased (see chart below). 

Other highlights for the automotive industry include:

1. Capacity Utilization for the U.S. automakers in 2009 was only 45.2%, compared to 62.2% for 2010 (based on full year data).

2. U.S. total vehicle production YTD in 2010 is above last year by 38.7%, from 5.17 million units to 7.17 units.  

3. Vehicle sales in the U.S. this year, at 10.4 million units YTD, are running 11.1% above last year's sales of 9.375 million units.  

Taken together, these facts suggest that the U.S. automotive industry made a strong recovery this year in terms of sales and production, and next year will probably be even better.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Magic and Miracle of the Marketplace: Christmas 1964 vs. 2010 - There's No Comparison

1964 Sears Christmas Catalog
Pictured above are some color TVs from the 627 page 1964 Sears Christmas Catalog, available here at WishbookWeb along with many other Christmas catalogs from 1933 to 1988.  The original prices are listed ($750 for the Sears color TV console and $800 for the more expansive one), and those prices are also shown converted to today's dollars using the BLS Inflation Calculator: $5,300 for the basic console TV model and $5,650 for the more expensive model.   

To put that in perspective, the pictures below illustrate what $5,300 in today's dollars would buy in the 2010 marketplace:

Bottom Line:  For a consumer or household spending $750 in 1964, all they would have been able to afford was a console color TV from the Sears Christmas catalog.  A consumer or household spending that same amount of inflation-adjusted dollars today ($5,300) would be able to furnish their entire kitchen with 8 brand-new appliances (refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, range, washer, dryer, microwave and blender) and buy 9 state-of-the-art electronic items (laptop, GPS, camera, home theater, plasma HDTV, iPod Touch, Blu-ray player, 300-CD changer and a Tivo recorder).  And of course, even a billionaire in 1964 wouldn't have been able to purchase many of the items that even a teenager can afford today, e.g. laptop, GPS, digital camera.  

As much as we might complain about high unemployment, high taxes, a huge deficit, we have a lot to be thankful for, and we've made a lot of economic progress since the 1960s as the example above illustrates, thanks to the "magic of the marketplace."  

Labor Market Gender Arbitrage: MNCs Profiting From Sexism By Hiring Female Talent in S. Korea

"Working women in South Korea earn 63% of what men do. Not all of this is the result of discrimination, but some must be. South Korean women face social pressure to quit when they have children, making it hard to stay on the career fast track. Many large companies have no women at all in senior jobs. This creates an obvious opportunity. If female talent is undervalued, it should be plentiful and relatively cheap. Firms that hire more women should reap a competitive advantage. And indeed, there is evidence that one type of employer is doing just that. 

Jordan Siegel of Harvard Business School reports that foreign multinationals are recruiting large numbers of educated Korean women. In South Korea, lifting the proportion of a firm’s managers who are female by ten percentage points raises its return on assets by one percentage point, Mr. Siegel estimates.  

South Korea is the ideal environment for gender arbitrage. The workplace may be sexist, but the education system is extremely meritocratic. Lots of brainy female graduates enter the job market each year. In time their careers are eclipsed by those of men of no greater ability. This makes them poachable. Goldman Sachs, an American investment bank, has more women than men in its office in Seoul."

MP: Great example of how competitive market forces and the "invisible hand" of profit-seeking firms can correct gender discrimination in the labor market by taking advantage of it and profiting from it.  And it's probably a faster and more effective solution than costly government regulations and legislation.    

HT: Bill Connerly

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Not Make It A Green Holiday? Give a Climate-Friendly Green Gift of Carbon Offsets This Year

Doing some last minute Christmas shopping and looking for a special gift for that special friend or relative who seems to have everything? Well, why not reduce their carbon footprint and buy them a carbon offset certificate this year? Make it a Green Holiday, find out more here.

Just in case it wasn't obvious, I'm only joking about this....

Training College Graduates for Dependency By Counterfeiting Genuine Accomplishment

Some excerpts from "The College Degree Fraud," by Robert Weissberg, Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois:

"For more than a half-century, government has tried to close racial gaps in educational attainment. Sad to say, those gaps have proven intractable. Nevertheless, the impulse remains as heartfelt as ever (perhaps due to its financially lucrative character), but the emphasis is now shifting from actual learning to equality of graduation rates. President Obama has spoken of adding 5 million graduates to the workforce by 2020, and credential-mania is now all the rage. This shift is a disaster in the making; imparting knowledge is commendable, but just handing out diplomas is harmful deception. A cynic might aver that the shift from knowledge to graduation rates is a tacit admission that the gap-closing quest is futile.

That today's college degrees, regardless of the recipient's race, are increasingly "manufactured" versus reflecting real learning is strongly suggested by a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Specifically, contemporary "college graduates" are increasingly employed in positions once occupied by high school graduates.

For example, in 1992, 17.6% of all college graduates were in positions classified as "noncollege level jobs." By 2008, this percentage had doubled to 35.2%. In 1992, some 119,000 waiters and waitresses had college degrees; by 2008, this number had soared to 318,000. No doubt, unprepared black students who owe their diplomas to intense institutional effort and deception have fared even worse in today's difficult job market. In a sense, America's long quest for both educational equality and excellence is being satisfied by a combination of gullibility, linguistic trickery, and craven opportunism.

Ill-prepared black students are the real losers in this deception, and one can only speculate why their liberal "friends" tolerate the dishonesty. Many would have been better-advised to enroll in a trade school and acquire a well-paid, marketable skill. In the long run, if a college degree is the aim, a "tough love" strategy of requiring passing arduous courses with modest outside help would be more beneficial. Surely President Obama has encountered these subterfuges in his academic career and must realize that calling for more and more diplomas will only increase the supply of college-educated waiters.

Some exceptions aside, granting ever more college diplomas only signifies the power of today's universities to counterfeit genuine accomplishment. Particularly worrisome is that many of these graduates have been trained for dependency. Picture these graduates navigating a cruel world deprived of role models, mentors, counselors, sympathetic evaluators, resource centers, pre-job bridge programs, and bosses unwilling to substitute ego-enhancing identity politics for difficult work."

Facts of the Day: From Forced-Union to RTW States

Based on the results of the 201o Census, eight U.S. states will gain a total of 12 House districts, and 10 states will lose those 12 Congressional seats.  

Fact 1: Of the 8 states that will gain districts (Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Washington), all states except Washington are Right-to-Work states.   

Fact 2: Of the 10 states that will lose districts (Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey), all states except Iowa and Louisiana are Forced-Unionism states.  

Fact 3: Right-to-work states had a net gain of 9 House seats (gain of 11, loss of 2), and Forced-Unionism states had a net loss of 8 House seats (gain of 1, loss of 9). 

Consumer Spending Above Pre-Recession Level

Real personal consumption expenditures increased by 2.77% in November from a year earlier, to $9.432 billion, according to today's BEA report.  This was the largest increase in spending since a 2.96% yearly gain in January 2007, and lifted consumption spending above the pre-recession peak of $9.355 billion in December of 2007, when the recession officially started (see chart above).  The U.S. consumer is back. 

St. Louis Fed Financial Stress Index Returns to Pre-Recession, Pre-Financial Crisis Levels

The St. Louis Federal Reserve updated its Financial Stress Index today for the week ending December 17, see chart above (data here).  For those who don't like the CBOE VIX Index as a measure of stock market uncertainty or volatility, this is an alternative measure of the amount of financial stress affecting the markets (explanation here) based on 18 individual variables including seven different interest rates, six interest rate yield spreads, and five measures of market volatility (including the VIX).  According to the St. Louis Fed, each of the 18 component variables in the Financial Stress Index captures some aspect of financial stress in the markets, and the Financial Stress Index incorporates the 18 variables into a single, composite index measure that tracks the amount of overall financial stress in the markets.   

The chart above shows that the St. Louis Fed Financial Stress Index has now returned to the pre-recession, pre-financial crisis levels that prevailed back in the fall of 2007. 

Christina Aguilera, Dr. John: Merry Christmas Baby

Christmas Card from the Stock Market: The CBOE Volatility Index Returns to Pre-Crisis 2007 Levels

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) is a "key measure of market expectations of near-term volatility conveyed by S&P 500 stock index option prices. Since its introduction in 1993, VIX has been considered by many to be the world's premier barometer of investor sentiment and market volatility."

The VIX Index closed yesterday at 15.45, the lowest closing value for the stock market's "fear index" since July 19, 2007, almost three and-a-half years ago.  A little more than two years ago, the VIX reached an all-time record high of 80.86 on November 20, 2008 as fear gripped the stock market and the financial crisis was spreading globally.  The fact that the VIX Index has returned to the pre-crisis levels of the summer of 2007 provides further evidence that the worst of the financial crisis is far, far behind us, and the U.S. stock market has made a lot of progress towards increased stabilization and reduced volatility.  2011 could be a great year for the U.S. stock market and the U.S. economy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

October Traffic Volume Sets New Record; Five Straight Months of Traffic Above 2007 Levels

The Federal Highway Administration reported today that travel on all roads and streets in the U.S. increased by +1.9% in the month of October compared to the same month last year. Total travel for the month of October was estimated at 259.5 billion vehicle miles, the highest travel volume ever for the month of October.  The October increase in traffic was the fifth consecutive monthly increase compared to the same month last year, and the seventh increase in the last eight months. For the last five months starting in June, traffic volume this year was higher than the comparable pre-recession months in 2007. 

On a moving 12-month total basis, the annual vehicle-distance traveled through October 2010 was 2,995 billion miles, the highest 12-month total since July 2008, almost two and-a-half years ago (see chart).

Following a sharp decline in U.S. traffic volume (moving 12-month basis) that started in late 2007 and ended at a cyclical low in May 2009, traffic volume has been gradually increasing as both personal and commercial travel on U.S. roads and highways have rebounded (see graph above).  The sustained and ongoing improvements in vehicle miles since the summer of 2009, along with a record-high volume for the month of October, indicate that the economy recovery is real and gaining momentum.

How Gov't. Failure Caused the Great Recession

The banking crisis that began in August 2007 shocked markets and precipitated the Great Recession. To fully explain the banking crisis, one must account for its timing, severity, and global impact.  For example, why didn’t a banking crisis erupt sooner—say, in the recession years of 1990-1991 or 2001-2002? What changed in recent years that led to business risk-taking capable of wrecking the U.S. housing market and the U.S. banking system and other banking systems throughout the world? Further, why were prudent credit practices reasonably maintained in credit card and commercial mortgage securitization in recent years, but wholly abandoned in residential mortgage securitization?

In answer to the questions about what specific factors explain the: causes and timing of the banking crisis and the extraordinary departure from historically sound underwriting and securitization standards for residential mortgages, we identify a potent mix of six major government policies that together rewarded short-sighted collective risk-taking and penalized long-term business leadership.  

From my article "How Government Failure Caused the Great Recession," (with Robert Dell) now available at The American.

Architecture Billings Index Hits Pre-Recession Level

Washington, D.C. (link will appear shortly) – "After stepping back in October reversing into the negative territory, the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) rose more than three points in November to reach its highest mark since December 2007. As a leading economic indicator of construction activity, the ABI reflects the approximate nine to twelve month lag time between architecture billings and construction spending. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported the November ABI score was 52.0, up from a reading of 48.7 the previous month. This score reflects an increase in demand for design services (any score above 50 indicates an increase in billings). The new projects inquiry index was 61.4, down slightly from a mark of 61.7 in October.

“While this is heartening news, it would be premature to say the design and construction industry is out of the woods yet,” said AIA Chief Economist, Kermit Baker. “We continue to hear a wide mix of business conditions, with a good deal of it still indicating flat or no demand for design services. Once we see several months in a row of increasing demand we can feel safe saying we have entered a recovery phase. Until then, we can expect continued volatility in business conditions.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

World Stock Markets Rally to Pre-Lehman Levels

The Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) World Stock Market Index reached a 27-month high today of 1271.278.  This was the highest closing index value for world stock markets since September 19, 2008 in the wake of Lehman Brothers' filing for bankruptcy on September 15, and the subsequent financial meltdown caused the MSCI World Index to drop below 700 by March 2009 (see chart).  It's a significant milestone that world stock markets have now returned to their pre-Lehman levels.   

ASA Staffing Index Remains at 100 for 13th Week

The American Staffing Association reported today that its Weekly Staffing Index of temporary, contract and freelance employment for the week ending December 12 remained at at a level of 101 for the second consecutive week.  Except for a Thanksgiving-related drop in November, the ASA Staffing Index has remained at 100 or above for the last 13 weeks, which is the first time since 2007 of that many consecutive weeks at an index level of 100 or above.  Although the December readings this year are below the levels in December 2007, the index has improved every week this year compared to last year, and the positive trend indicates ongoing improvements in the demand for temporary employment.  As a leading indicator of labor market conditions, the ASA index suggests that we can look forward to broader-based gains next year in employment levels. 

More Leading Economic Indexes Showing Gains

1. The Leading Economic Index for France increased 0.1% in October, following three consecutive strong monthly increases in July, August and September.

2. The Leading Economic Index for Australia increased 0.6 percent in October. 

3. The Leading Economic Index for Germany increased strongly again in October by 0.8%.  

Note: There was a sharp increase in the November Leading Economic Index for the U.S., see CD post here.  

Increase in Temp Help: Cyclical, Not Structural

Tyler Cowen points to this NY Times article about the increase in temporary hiring in the post-recession recovery:

"This year, companies have hired temporary workers in significant numbers. In November, they accounted for 80 percent of the 50,000 jobs added by private sector employers, according to the Labor Department. Since the beginning of the year, employers have added a net 307,000 temporary workers, more than a quarter of the 1.17 million private sector jobs added in total."

This is "raising concerns among workers and some labor experts that temporary employees will become a larger, more entrenched part of the work force. This is bad news for the nation’s workers, who are already facing one of the bleakest labor markets in recent history. Temporary employees generally receive fewer benefits or none at all, and have virtually no job security. It is harder for them to save. And it is much more difficult for them to develop a career arc while hopping from boss to boss."

Temporary employees still make up a small fraction of total employees, but that segment has been rising steeply over the past year. “It hints at a structural change,” said Allen L. Sinai, chief global economist at the consulting firm Decision Economics. Temp workers “are becoming an ever more important part of what is going on,” he said."

Two comments:

1. An increase in contract, freelance or temporary employment is not necessarily "bad news" for U.S. workers. That type of work can actually enhance job security for some workers in the long run, because their careers and livelihood are not dependent on a single corporation or company. 

2. The chart above displays temporary employment workers as a share of all private sector jobs back to January 2000, and shows a normal cyclical pattern that does not reflect any "structural changes" in the labor market.  At least not yet. While the share of temporary workers has been rising since the recession ended in the summer of 2009, the current share of 2.05% is still way below the 2.34% peak in late 2005. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tourism Spending Increases in 3rd Quarter by 8%

From today's BEA report: "Real spending on travel and tourism increased at an annual rate of 8.0 percent in 2010:3, following an increase of 3.4 percent in 2010:2. By comparison, real gross domestic product (GDP) increased 2.5 percent in 2010:3 after increasing 1.7 percent in 2010:2. While tourism spending outpaced overall growth in the economy, it still remains below its peak set in 2007:3 (see chart above).

Examining the components of real travel and tourism spending, passenger air transportation increased sharply, accompanied by accelerated growth in accommodations. During this period, prices for passenger air transportation fell, while prices for accommodations rose.

Direct tourism-related employment continued to grow, increasing 2.0 percent in 2010:3 after increasing 2.1 percent (revised) in 2010:2. By comparison, overall U.S. employment fell 0.1 percent in 2010:3 after increasing 2.2 percent in 2010:2." 

MP: The 8% third quarter growth in real travel and tourism spending was the largest increase since a 8.3% increase in the fourth quarter of 2004.