Saturday, August 26, 2017

Weekly Indicators for August 21 - 25 at

 - by New Deal democrat

My Weekly Indicators post is up at

There was no eclipse of the positive tone this week.

Friday, August 25, 2017

An economy on autopilot between Scylla and Charybdis

-  by New Deal democrat

Interest rates are a vital determinant of longer term growth. While the economy has remained on autopilot for the last several years, with almost no political stimulus or disruption -- though that may well change next month -- the Fed has to steer a course between the Scylla of an interest rate spike and the Charybdis of an inverted yield curve.  The Presidential election spike in long term interest rates has been enough to cause growth in the housing market, whether measured by permits, starts, new or existing home sales, to stall out. Meanwhile the several hikes in the Fed funds rate has cause a slight flattening of the yield curve.

So while it is somewhat welcome that longer term interest rates have fallen back below 2.20%f and mortgage rates below 4%:

that just means that there is less of a spread between longer term and shorter term yields.

Almost any inversion in yields out further than 3 months is a warning sign. The below graph shows that 3 month rates (green) have been lower then the Fed funds rate (red) almost consistently since the early 1980s:

Meanwhile 1 year treasury yields (blue) typically only fell below the Fed funds rate later in the expansion.

Here's a close up on what that looks like since just before the Fed started this tightening cycle:

So far the 1 year treasury yield remains higher than the Fed funds rate, but the spread is tighter.

For now autopilot is keeping us off the rocks, but there is a significant risk of "controlled flight into terrain" before September 30. Even if we escape that, another Fed rate hike could finally create a yield curve inversion near the shorter end.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New and existing home sales show stall is continuing

 - by New Deal democrat

The stall in the housing market brought about mainly by the post-Presidential election spike in interest rates continued in July, based on both new and existing home sales.

This post is up at

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Free Trade, the Primrose Path, and the Blinkered Blindness of macroeconomists

 - by New Deal democrat

Here's what I learned today: the origin of the phrase "being led down the primrose path." 

It turns out that in medieval times, one meaning of the word "primrose" was the "prime," or first or loveliest, rose.  Thus taking the primrose path was a particularly lovely journey. At least by the time of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," where Ophelia speaks of the "primrose path" to Laertes, the connotation developed of the use of a lovely and seductive experience to lure a mark to their misfortune or doom.

The doctrine of free trade is macroeconomists' primrose path.  Today's example comes from Tim Haab's blog "Environmental Economics," in the below post entitled "Quote of the Day: Both sides win from free trade . . . sheesh," which I am reproducing in full:

That moment you realize the Chinese administration understands economics better than the U.S. administration...
"In reality, China and the United States' long term cooperation has brought about real benefits for both countries' peoples, any unbiased person will clearly see this fact," [Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying] told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
"We have also said before, a trade war has no future. A trade war does not serve the interests of any party, as fighting a trade war will not produce a winner. We hope that relevant parties can stop viewing issues of the 21st century with a 19th- or 20th-century mentality."
 Hua's quote is in reaction to Steve Bannon's claim that the U.S. is losing the trade war with China:
"It's in all their literature. They're not shy about saying what they're doing. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it's gonna be them if we go down this path," he was quoted as saying.
"If we continue to lose it, we're five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we'll never be able to recover."

Now, I am no fan of Steve Bannon, but alas in this case it is economist Tim Haab who has the worse argument. Here's why.

Let's assume that Haab is completely right in what he says: that free trade in the aggregate absolutely benefits both countries which engage in it.  End of story?

No, and here is where macroeconomists' blinkered blindness to human behavior is on full display.

Wealth is, generally speaking, not accumulated for its own sake, but rather to be spent of stuff that you really want. So Country A and Country B can use the increased wealth from free trade to fund the stuff they really want.  

So let's suppose that while both Countries benefit from free trade, Country A's wealth increases by an additional 5% a year, while Country B's wealth increases by an additional 1% a year. By the magic of compounding, over 10 years Country A's wealth increases by 63%, and over 20 years by 265%. Meanwhile Country B's wealth has only increased by 10% in 10 years and 22% in 20 years.

Suppose further that what Country A really wants to do with this wealth is invade and take over Country C, which alas is an ally of Country B, meaning that Country B will have to go to war to defend it.

Is Country B's 22% increase in wealth worth the loss of life and destruction it will incur defending Country C?  This calculation nowhere appears in any of the arguments by free traders.

Meanwhile, if I am the leader of Country A, I am more than happy to lead Country B down the primrose path of free trade, knowing what I have in store at the end.

What's worse, we have already been through this exercise  once before, with calamitous results,  In 1909, Norman Angell's "The Great Illusion," argued that countries that trade with one another would never go to war, because it was so illogical.  At the time, free trade had burgeoned among the countries of Europe.

But it turns out that wasn't the priority of Kaiser Wilhelm or other European monarchs.  Only 5 years later, all of that wealth was poured into a catastrophic war.

Even though the historical facts devastatingly rebut the macroeconomic theory, macroeconomists ignore the facts. Since the uses to which ocountries might put the increased wealth obtained by trade lays outside their theory, they are blinkered and blind to it, and assuming that it does not exist. That World War I rebuts their argument is waved away as ancient history, even though human nature has not changed one wit.    In their blinkered blindness, macroeconomists fail to see that  free trade can be used as the primrose path.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Revisiting the Apartment Boom

 - by New Deal democrat

The entry of the large Millennial generation into the housing market should have generated more permits and starts in condos and apartment complexes than we have seen.

What's going on?  Factoring in the number of units under construction appears to give us at least a partial answer.

This post is up at