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  • Zachary Karabell on Making Statistics More Meaningful

    Zachary Karabell is on a quest. He wants us to have a healthier relationship with economic statistics. And that means not placing too much pressure on those statistics to tell us more than they are designed to. In his latest book, The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World , Karabell knocks some of the magic shine off of GDP and other key data that we follow closely. He recently spoke about GDP, income per capita, and other headline stats at the Carnegie Council . Here is an excerpt: For more information on the event, and to listen to the full talk, click here .
  • Planet Money: Greece's Economy May Stop Shrinking

    Greece's economy has a had a bad six years. At times, very very bad. But it may be getting better. The latest Planet Money podcast focuses on Greece, because the government there has put out a less-than-bad economic forecast. If the forecast is accurate, "the amazing shrinking economy will finally stop shrinking."
  • Pew: Americans Remain Bearish About the Economy

    Americans don't seem to be letting traditional economic indicators get in the way of their feelings about the economy. Andrew Kohut --Founding Director of the Pew Research Center --looks at some of the latest survey data he and his team has gathered, and calls citizens' "bearish" views of the economy as a big puzzle. As the new year began, the Associated Press summed up the optimistic outlook of experts succinctly: “Consumers will spend more. Government will cut less. Business will invest more. And more companies will hire.” In that regard, the Bureau of Labor Statistics first report of the year showed that the unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 6.7 percent, and essentially remained at that level in February. But even so, much of the American public is still not over the Great Recession. And the factors that drive economic pessimism are not easily mitigated. Surveys show that a complex combination of partisanship and widening socio-economic gaps are in play, undermining chances of an improvement in the public mood any time soon. At the outset of what appeared to be a brightening economic climate, the Pew Research Center’s January national survey found just 16% of the public rating the national economy as excellent or good while a whopping 83% rated it as only fair or poor. This is little different than a year earlier when the survey found 12% giving the economy a positive rating and 86% rating it negatively. In fact, this is only modestly better than at any point since the onset of the Great Recession. The same pattern is seen in how Americans size up their personal finances. While Americans have a better opinion of their own finances than of the national economy, ratings of personal financial well-being remain well below what they were pre-recession. In 2007, and for much of the decade before it, about half of Americans rated their finances as excellent or good. Today, just 39% do. While there is a significant split on Americans' views about the economy based on political party affiliation, the split on personal finance issues is based on what Pew terms an education gap: Read the full article here .
  • Harvard Business Review: 'Why Is Ukraine's Economy Such a Mess?'

    Harvard Business Review editor Justin Fox looked at growth in Ukraine since independence and compared it to neighboring, former Soviet bloc economies, and was surprised by how much it lagged: So he called up Chrystia Freeland , former FT correspondent and now member of Canadian Parliament. Freeland was in Ukraine when it became an independent nation, and, Fox notes, her mother helped "craft the country's constitution." Here is an excerpt from the interview: Fox: The East has this old industrial base. What does the Ukrainian economy consist of on the whole? Is it heavily agricultural? Freeland: The industrial base is important, particularly in eastern Ukraine. We all know about Ukraine as the breadbasket of Europe, and it is indeed an incredibly fertile country. There’s been a lot of Chinese investment in that part of the Ukrainian economy. There is also a technology outsourcing industry. And then finally, in some parts of Ukraine, tourism has been becoming more important. Why is the economy such a mess? Because of very bad, kleptocratic governments. That is 90% of the reason. In terms of the economy, Ukraine only accomplished maybe half of the things that you need to do, when the Soviet Union collapsed and they moved to a market economy. They did do privatization. There are now a lot of private companies, and there is a market. It’s important for us to remember that not so long ago even selling a pair of jeans was illegal. But what they failed to do was build an effective rule of law and government institutions. Corruption, in the Yanukovych era at least, was absolutely rampant. And some important reforms of state finances haven’t happened. In particular, energy prices are still subsidized. Of course, when you move to free-market prices that’s a huge shock to the society. But Ukraine’s failure to liberalize energy prices is part of the reason that it has this great dependency on Russia. Having said all of that, and having been in Kyiv* last week, I think there’s a bit of an Italian phenomenon going on, where you actually have a highly educated, very entrepreneurial population, but because you had this incredibly corrupt state, a lot of the Ukrainian economy has gone underground. Walking through the streets of many Ukrainian cities — Kyiv, Lviv in Western Ukraine, Dnipropetrovsk in the East — you feel yourself to be in a much more prosperous society than the official data reflect. The official data is incredible. Poland on the one side and Russia on the other are both in the low twenty-thousands in GDP per capita, and Ukraine is officially at $7,298. There is no doubt that Ukraine has fared much, much worse than Poland. That is a testament to how important government decisions are. These countries were not so far apart in 1991 when Ukraine became independent, and the Poles by and large have done the right things, and the Ukrainian government has not. Read the full interview here .
  • Crimea Crisis: The Economic Costs to Russia

    War is costly on all levels. And Russia's involvement in Ukraine is going to be costly economically, not only for all Ukrainians, but for the Russian economy. How costly? Very costly, argues Sergei Guriev , a professor of economics and former Rector at the New Economic School in Moscow who is currently a visiting professor at Sciences Po . At Project Syndicate Guriev writes "The economic damage to Russia will be vast." First, there are the direct costs of military operations and of supporting the Crimean regime and its woefully inefficient economy (which has been heavily subsidized by Ukraine’s government for years.) Given the uncertainty surrounding Crimea’s future status, these costs are difficult to estimate, though they are most likely to total several billion dollars per year. A direct cost of this magnitude amounts to less than 0.5% of Russia’s GDP. While not trivial, Russia can afford it. Russia just spent $50 billion dollars on the Sochi Olympics and plans to spend even more for the 2018 World Cup. It was prepared to lend $15 billion to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government and to provide $8 billion annually in gas subsidies. Then there are the costs related to the impact of sanctions on trade and investment. Though the scope of the sanctions remains uncertain, the effect could be enormous. Annual inward foreign direct investment is estimated to have reached $80 billion in 2013. A significant decline in FDI – which brings not only money but also modern technology and managerial skills – would hit Russia’s long-term economic growth hard. And denying Russian banks and firms access to the US (and possibly European) banking system – the harshest sanction applied to Iran – would have a devastating impact. In the short run, however, it is trade that matters much more than investment. Russia’s annual exports (mostly oil, gas, and other commodities) are worth almost $600 billion, while annual imports total almost $500 billion. Any non-trivial trade sanctions (including sanctions on Russian financial institutions) would be much more painful than the direct cost of subsidizing Crimea. Of course, sanctions would hurt Russia’s trading partners, too. But Russia’s dependence on trade with the West is certainly much larger than vice versa. Moreover, the most important source of potential damage to Russia’s economy lies elsewhere. Russian and foreign businesses have always been worried about the unpredictability of the country’s political leadership. Lack of confidence in Russian policymaking is the main reason for capital flight, low domestic asset prices, declining investment, and an economic slowdown that the Crimea crisis will almost certainly cause to accelerate. Read Putin's Imperial Road to Ruin here .
  • The Case for Measuring Gross National Disposable Income

    GDP gets all the attention of the media, but there are limits to relying on it as the measure of economic progress. GNI, or Gross National Income, is another measure, and one that is popular with a lot of economists. But for some countries, it doesn't include all of the funds coming in to a nation's people. Clara Capelli and Gianni Vaggi , of the University of Pavia, argue that we should pay more attention to GNDI, or Gross National Disposable Income. From Vox : Traditionally, the Gross Domestic Product is the most widely accepted indicator of an economy’s size and performance, although in the last decades many contributions have suggested to adopt alternative tools to measure people’s wellbeing (see Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi 2008). The Gross National Income (GNI) is largely considered a better indicator to account for the income available to the dwellers of a country because it captures the incomes related to the mobility of factors of production (wages earned by cross-border workers, repatriated profits and dividends, etc.), the so-called Net Primary Incomes (NPI), in the Systems of National Accounts (see UN 2008 and IMF 2009). However, GNI does not include unilateral transfers such as foreign aid and, most importantly, remittances: the so called Net Secondary Incomes (NSI). GNI accounts for the income of cross-border workers – the so called compensation of employees – but not for the money sent home by those who live and work abroad for more than one year, which are by far the largest share of remittances. Remittances have increased by approximately seven times between 1990 and 2010 (see the World Bank database); they now represent one of the largest types of monetary inflows for many developing countries and in some developing countries they can be as high as 20% of GDP. Unilateral transfers are recorded by a third indicator, the Gross National Disposable Income (GNDI), which includes both primary and secondary distribution of income. GNDI provides a much better indicator than the GNI of the living standard of the people of a country and in many cases it should substitute for the latter measure. However the GNDI is not easily available in major international reports and databases. The OECD calculates GNDI for its members and for some non-member countries such as China and Indonesia. Furthermore, GNDI is sometimes confused with GNI in common practice (see for instance Todaro and Smith 2011, page 54). Read A better indicator for standard of living: The Gross National Disposable Income here .
  • Gallup Economic Confidence Index Level in February, Remains at Pre-Shutdown Level

    Americans' confidence in the economy remained flat in February. Confidence had plummeted in October with the partial shutdown of the federal government, but recovered significantly in the three months following. Gallup 's Economic Confidence Index : is now at -16, roughly where it was last spring when it began a climb to a 5 year peak of -7. Here's a look at the monthly averages since the start of 2008: From the report: The end of consecutive monthly climbs in Gallup's Economic Confidence Index is not an auspicious sign, particularly as Americans remain more negative than positive about the economy overall. After the government shutdown wreaked havoc on Americans' confidence in both the government and the economy in October, a parade of monthly improvements offered some hope that economic confidence might finally escape negative territory. But the readings have plateaued at the pre-shutdown level -- in other words, they are back to "normal." However, if 2014 is anything like 2013, good things could be in store as the seasons change. Last spring and summer saw some of the highest economic confidence index readings Gallup has recorded since it began tracking these measures in 2008. And with contentious gridlock on fiscal matters temporarily out of the way for the president and Congress, political sideshows should be less of a threat to economic confidence in the near future, giving confidence a fighting chance of reaching positive territory.; Read the full release here .
  • Rogoff on Potential Blocks to Sustained Economic Progress

    When you look at the collective rise in the quality of living for most people over the last century, it is easy to understand why Warren Buffett says he will continue to bet on economic prosperity. But, writing at Project Syndicate , Kenneth Rogoff warns that "past growth performance is no guarantee that a broadly similar trajectory can be maintained throughout this century." And he lays out four problems to consider: The first set of issues includes slow-burn problems involving externalities, the leading example being environmental degradation. When property rights are ill-defined, as in the case of air and water, government must step in to provide appropriate regulation. I do not envy future generations for having to address the possible ramifications of global warming and fresh-water depletion. A second set of problems concerns the need to ensure that the economic system is perceived as fundamentally fair, which is the key to its political sustainability. This perception can no longer be taken for granted, as the interaction of technology and globalization has exacerbated income and wealth inequality within countries, even as cross-country gaps have narrowed. Until now, our societies have proved remarkably adept at adjusting to disruptive technologies; but the pace of change in recent decades has caused tremendous strains, reflected in huge income disparities within countries, with near-record gaps between the wealthiest and the rest. Inequality can corrupt and paralyze a country’s political system – and economic growth along with it. The third problem is that of aging populations, an issue that would pose tough challenges even for the best-designed political system. How will resources be allocated to care for the elderly, especially in slow-growing economies where existing public pension schemes and old-age health plans are patently unsustainable? Soaring public debts surely exacerbate the problem, because future generations are being asked both to service our debt and to pay for our retirements. The final challenge concerns a wide array of issues that require regulation of rapidly evolving technologies by governments that do not necessarily have the competence or resources to do so effectively. We have already seen where poor regulation of rapidly evolving financial markets can lead. There are parallel shortcomings in many other markets. Read Malthus, Marx, and Modern Growth here .
  • Buffett Forever Bullish on U.S. Economic Future

    Warren Buffett has always bet on economic growth in America, and he is not stopping now. In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett comes across as being as bullish as ever, despite the impact of the Great Recession and the slow recovery. Here is an excerpt that explains his thinking: Late in 2009, amidst the gloom of the Great Recession, we agreed to buy BNSF, the largest purchase in Berkshire’s history. At the time, I called the transaction an “all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.” That kind of commitment was nothing new for us: We’ve been making similar wagers ever since Buffett Partnership Ltd. acquired control of Berkshire in 1965. For good reason, too. Charlie and I have always considered a “bet” on ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing. Indeed, who has ever benefited during the past 237 years by betting against America? If you compare our country’s present condition to that existing in 1776, you have to rub your eyes in wonder. And the dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. America’s best days lie ahead. With this tailwind working for us, Charlie and I hope to build Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value by (1) constantly improving the basic earning power of our many subsidiaries; (2) further increasing their earnings through bolt-on acquisitions; (3) benefiting from the growth of our investees; (4) repurchasing Berkshire shares when they are available at a meaningful discount from intrinsic value; and (5) making an occasional large acquisition. We will also try to maximize results for you by rarely, if ever, issuing Berkshire shares. Those building blocks rest on a rock-solid foundation. A century hence, BNSF and MidAmerican Energy will still be playing major roles in our economy. Insurance will concomitantly be essential for both businesses and individuals – and no company brings greater human and financial resources to that business than Berkshire. Moreover, we will always maintain supreme financial strength, operating with at least $20 billion of cash equivalents and never incurring material amounts of short-term obligations. As we view these and other strengths, Charlie and I like your company’s prospects. We feel fortunate to be entrusted with its management. Read the letter here .
  • Lagarde: Three Reform Steps for Spain (and Europe)

    Christine Lagarde was in Bilbao, Spain this morning to discuss the state of the economy in Europe in general, and Spain in particular. The IMF managing director noted that there are encouraging signs of growth across the EU. But the big challenge remains the high unemployment rates in member nations. Spain, of course, is the poster child for the jobs problem. Lagarde: I am here reminded by President Rajoy who said: “Spain is out of recession but not out of the crisis….The task now is to achieve a vigorous recovery that allows us to create jobs." I fully agree—creating jobs must be the overriding focus for Spain. What does this mean in practical terms? It means there can be no let-up in the reform momentum. The strong reform momentum must be maintained. And we can see three key areas where further progress will be crucial. The first area is labor market reforms—which need to be deepened so that they can work for all. Both firms and their workers need to be assured that they can reach appropriate agreements on working conditions and wages. This is essential for jobs to be protected and created. Workers need to be directly supported as well—through enhanced skills training and job-search assistance for the unemployed. And by further cutting the tax costs of employing people, especially the low-paid, the unemployed would face fewer barriers in finding work. The second area concerns debt—which needs to be lowered. For firms, this means helping insolvent but viable ones restructure their debts, so they can stay in business and continue to invest and hire people. For the government, it means continuing to reduce the fiscal deficit in a gradual, growth-friendly way—especially by relying more on indirect taxes. The third and final area is the business environment—which needs to be strengthened. Making it easier for businesses to start up and grow will lift their capacity to create employment. Making domestic firms more competitive will also boost their employment and productivity. The government’s plans to liberalize professional services and promote free trade among Spain’s regions go very much in this direction. Read the full speech here .
  • Fourth Quarter GDP Growth Revised Down

    Real Gross Domestic Product expanded at an annual rate of 2.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to the latest (second) estimate from the Commerce Department . Growth was revised downward from the advanced estimate, that reported 3.2% growth in real GDP. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports these four areas were revised down from the last report: •Consumer spending on both goods and services; the revisions were widespread. •Inventory investment, led by wholesale trade industries. •Exports, mainly nonautomotive capital goods and consumer goods. •State and local government spending, mainly investment in structures. Here is an updated look at the trend: Read the BEA release here .
  • CEA Final Report on the Effect of Recovery Act

    On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Council of Economic Advisers has released a report to Congress on the economic impact of the act. The CEA stands firmly behind the act, and the report points to several measures as signs of the effectiveness of the government's plan. Among the evidence presented: GDP per capita returned to pre-crisis levels in four years, an the economy has added over 2 million jobs a year since ARRA. The estimates for the long term impact of ARRA are bullish, with the CEA touting a significant multiplier effect from overall fiscal policy: CEA Estimates of the Recovery Act and Subsequent Fiscal Measures Combined. The combined effect of the Recovery Act and the subsequent countercyclical fiscal legislation is substantially larger and longer lasting than the effect of the Recovery Act alone. The Recovery Act represents only about half of total fiscal support for the economy from the beginning of 2009 through the fourth quarter of 2012. Moreover, as shown in Figures 7 and 8, the bulk of the effects of the other fiscal measures occurred as the Recovery Act was phasing down. These other measures thus served to sustain the recovery as effects of the Recovery Act waned. The CEA multiplier model indicates that by themselves these additional measures increased the level of GDP by between 1.0 and 1.5 percent per quarter from mid-2011 through the end of calendar year 2012. Altogether, summing up the effects for all quarters through the end of calendar year 2012, the Recovery Act and subsequent fiscal measures raised GDP by an average of more than 2.4 percent of GDP annually—totaling a cumulative amount equal to about 9.5 percent of fourth quarter 2008 GDP. The contribution of all fiscal measures to employment is equally substantial. Other fiscal measures beyond the Recovery Act are estimated to have raised employment by 2.8 million job- years, cumulatively, through the end of calendar year 2012. Adding these jobs to those created or saved by the Recovery Act, the combined countercyclical fiscal measures created or saved more than 2.3 million jobs a year through the end of 2012—or 8.8 million job-years in total over the entire period. Estimates from Private Forecasters. Private forecasters and domestic and international institutions have used large-scale macroeconomic models, mostly to estimate the effects of either the Recovery Act by itself or other policies in isolation. The models used by these individuals and organizations generally employ a similar multiplier-type analysis as is found in CEA and CBO work, although they vary considerably in their structure and underlying assumptions. Although no outside estimates of the total impact of all the fiscal measures are available, Table 6 displays the estimates of the impact of the Recovery Act offered by several leading private-sector forecasters before the Act was fully implemented. Despite the differences in the models, these private-sector forecasters all estimated that the Recovery Act would raise GDP substantially from 2009 to 2011, including a boost to GDP of between 2.0 and 3.4 percent in 2010. Read the full report here . For a helpful summary, read a summary from CEA chair Jason Furman here .
  • An Optimistic Take on Japan's Weaker Than Expected GDP Data

    Japan's economy grew at a disappointing rate to close 2013, expanding at an annualized rate of 1 percent during the fourth quarter. That has some analysts disappointed and worried about the short term prospects for Japan, but not Dalju Aoki . Aoki, economist for UBS, tells the Wall Street Journal's Deborah Kan that he is still optimistic about growth in Japan this year. And he explains what he looks at as helpful economic indicators:
  • Strobe Talbott: Jean Monnet and Economic Integration in Europe, Past and Present

    Though never elected to political office, Jean Monnet was one of Europe's most important politicians of the last 100 years. As a young businessman, he set to work on strengthening economic ties between European economies, and strengthening a European economy well before the birth of the European Union. In a new essay, Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott calls Monnet the "master architect" for the "European Project," and he argues that Monnet's thinking is very much relevant today. He died 35 years ago, long before the euro went into circulation. Still, he would have understood the purpose that monetary union is meant to serve: binding up the wounds of the most bloodstained continent in modern history and turning it into a zone of peace, prosperity, democracy, and global clout, animated by common values and governed by common policies and institutions. That is the European Project. As its master architect, Monnet would also have understood the mistakes, dilemmas, and dangers that threaten the project now. The method that guided him throughout his long life put a premium on the careful sequencing of innovations in economic policy so as to make irreversible the overall process of political integration. Unlike Monnet, however, the leaders responsible for the adoption of the euro in the 1990s failed to ensure that the necessary political conditions and institutions were in place, thus making the current troubles of the European Union all but inevitable. The relevance today of this historical figure is all the more striking in the light of his idiosyncratic career. Monnet spent much of his life as a private citizen. He never held elective office or a ministerial post. He was an effective advocate, who used his carefully cultivated mellifluous speaking voice and forensic skills to good effect in interviews and declarations. But it was primarily from behind the scenes that he influenced generations of major actors on the world stage: in his youth, Georges Clemenceau, Arthur Balfour, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt; in his middle years, Dean Acheson, Konrad Adenauer, and John F. Kennedy; in old age, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, and Shimon Peres. At crucial moments and on vital issues, these leaders and others took his counsel and adopted his ideas as their own. In a sense, Monnet is once again exerting his influence, this time from beyond the grave. The crisis in the eurozone has focused minds in key capitals on cobbling together institutional measures of the sort that he believed were necessary for monetary union. As a result, his vision of a united Europe may well survive and, over time, succeed. You can read the full essay here . And watch Talbott discuss Monnet and the economic integration of Europe in this interview:
  • Growth Picks Up the Pace in Europe

    The rate of growth picked up in Europe at the end of the year. According to data released by Eurostat this morning, GDP across the euro area rose 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2013. That's following third quarter growth of 0.1%. For the EU overall, the numbers were better. GDP for the EU28 rose by 0.4% in the fourth compared with 0.3% for the third quarter. . The Czech Republic and Romania had standout quarters, with growth rates of 1.6% and 1.7%, respectively, for the quarter. Cyprus, on the other hand, had the biggest drop at -1.0%, and Finland came in at -0.8%. The data for each country is available here .
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