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So these are the three largest components of GDP, all indexed to 1960:


Clearly one of these is not like the others, but the well-known fact that investment, not consumption or government spending, is mostly what fluctuates with the business cycle is very visible. I wanted to dig a little deeper, though, especially to compare the current recession to priors. So I made this graph:

sum gpdi nosmooth

Bars are unbroken periods of percent change in GPDI; their height is the total percent change in the period, their width is the length.

Here it is smoothed a bit using a highly-advanced method called “arbitrary eyeballing”:

sum gpdi smooth1

And this time with feeling:

sum gpdi smooth2

While none of these three graphs is perfect, looking at all of them the various recessions we’ve experienced and their depth and breadth become quite clear. And it seems striking that our current mess represents a vastly larger and longer decline in private investment then any prior recession since WWII.

So let’s break down GPDI; the biggest component is the broad heading of “fixed non-residential investment:”


Looking at the log (which is quite often a good idea, see James Hamilton for more) you can see that this recessions seems notably but not dramatically more severe than past downturns, and that we are on a decent track for recovery.

But here’s residential structures:


Wowzers. Two facts worth noting: residential investment has fallen off a cliff and is nowhere near recovering; the so-called “housing boom” is barely visible.

That becomes a little clearer, though, when you look at single-family construction vs. multifamily and “other” (dorms, trailers, etc):




Single-family construction clearly gets a little wacky during the mid-aughties, whereas multifamily is catching up from slacking on trend; since then, multi-family is rebounding while other is wishy-washy and single-family is really terrible.

What’s remarkable about all this, though, is that you can with some confidence say non-causally that recessions are, for all intents and purposes, fluctuation in housing construction.

In the past, we’ve had recessions, interest rates are cut, recession over. Now, interest rates can’t be cut, and we’re not building enough housing, and therefore there’s too much unemployment (especially among the young who are largely the building class):


In fact, relative to older folks, this is the worst the young have had it since the 70s:


Now, why does lowering interest rates reverse recessions? There are many good reasons, but to some extent they’re all about setting expectations. When the Fed “cuts rates,” what is doing is what its doing is just buying lots of government securities, which is what “quantitative easing” is; the difference between the former and the latter is the ends, not the means. The former is a kind of credible expectation setting of broader outcomes – “we will buy bonds until interest rates are where we say they should be, dammit.” The latter sets a much narrower expectation that doesn’t necessarily imply broader changes in the economy.

Now, there is an idea out there that Paul Krugman calls “the confidence fairy,” which he belittles…and he’s right (at least in practice)! As it is formulated by conservative pols and pundits as a partisan cudgel, it basically amounts to a non-sequitur; recessions, ergo, implement the tangential policies we support regardless of economic conditions (derp).

But I’m not sure the confidence fairy is entirely a fiction. In what I think is a bit of a cousin to Steve Waldman’s story of finance as the world’s most important confidence game, it seems like in the past recessions have been alleviated because the Fed creates self-fulfilling prophecies – by buying bonds to depress interest rates, they incentivize individuals to invest based on an implicit assumption about future growth dependent on their investment. And it all worked rather nicely until we hit the ZLB:

The thing that the Fed has fundamentally failed to do is pull their usual trick; they haven’t convinced anyone that the economy will be better tomorrow, so they’re not doing the things today that will create that improvement.

This, in a roundabout way, is where I get to responding to Ryan Cooper’s terrific article making the case for helicopter money. Helicopter money is a good idea. I like it. I support it. It is a humane, fair, and efficient way to help everyone get through hard times. But my gut tells me its not, on its own, enough to kickstart us out of the funk our economy is in. While the biggest reason the 2008 tax rebate didn’t help the economy was its puniness relatively to the impending crisis, it was doubly hobbled by the fact that it was a one-off with no guarantee of being repeated (which it hasn’t, though the payroll tax cut was it’s cousin). Ryan supports giving the Fed the power to mail checks unilaterally, not by implicitly supporting a fiscal-side program, which is a great idea – coordinating the king and the wizard can be a tricky game. But even then, a $2000 check can be extraordinarily helpful in the medium term to people in need, but it in-and-of-itself does not a housing construction recovery make. Helicopter money works best, and may work only, as the whip hand of a credible promise by the Fed of meeting a broader economic target; it can, though, be a very persuasive whip.

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