Archive for the 'Wages' Category

Sep 27 2012

Deflation: why lower prices spell doom for any economy!

The Fed should focus on deflation | The greater of two evils | The Economist

Deflation: a decrease in the general price level of goods and services of an economy. Sounds great, right? Lower prices mean the purchasing power of our income increases, making the “average” person richer! On the surface, it could be concluded that deflation may actually be a good thing. And in some cases, it is!

If prices of goods are falling because of major technological advances (think of the price of cell phones and laptop computers over the last 20 years) or because of massive improvements in the productivity of labor and capital (think of the price of manufactured consumer goods during the Industrial Revolution), then deflation could be considered a sign of healthy economic growth. Put in terms an IB or AP Economics student should understand, a fall in prices caused by an increase in a nation’s aggregate supply is good, since it is accompanied by greater levels of employment and higher real incomes. But if the fall in prices is caused by a decline in spending in the economy (in other words, by a decrease in aggregate demand), the consequences can be catastrophic.

It just so happens that the United States, Great Britain, and my own home of Switzerland are all faced with demand-deficient deflation at this very moment. I’ll allow the Economist to elaborate:

…With unemployment nearing 9% (in the United States), economic output is further below the economy’s potential than at any time since 1982. This gap is likely to widen. House prices are not part of America’s inflation index but their decline is forcing households to reduce debt , which could subdue economic growth for years. As workers compete for scarce jobs and firms underbid each other for sales, wages and prices will come under pressure.

So far, expectations of inflation remain stable: that sentiment is itself a welcome bulwark against deflation. But pay freezes and wage cuts may soon change people’s minds. In one poll, more than a third of respondents said they or someone in their household had suffered a cut in pay or hours…

Does this matter? If prices are falling because of advancing productivity, as at the end of the 19th century, it is a sign of progress, not economic collapse. Today, though, deflation is more likely to resemble the malign 1930s sort than that earlier benign variety, because demand is weak and households and firms are burdened by debt. In deflation the nominal value of debts remains fixed even as nominal wages, prices and profits fall. Real debt burdens therefore rise, causing borrowers to cut spending to service their debts or to default. That undermines the financial system and deepens the recession.

From 1929 to 1933 prices fell by 27%. This time central banks are on the case. In America, Britain, Japan and Switzerland they have pushed short-term interest rates to, or close to, zero…

…inflation is easier to put right than deflation. A central bank can raise interest rates as high as it wants to suppress inflation, but it cannot cut nominal rates below zero… In the worst case, rising debts and defaults depress growth, poisoning the economy by deepening deflation and pressing real interest rates higher….Given the choice, erring on the side of inflation would be less catastrophic than erring on the side of deflation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Deflation poses several threats to an economy that is otherwise fundamentally healthy, such as the United States’. What are some the threats posed by deflation?
  2. The expectation of future deflation can have as equally devastating effect. Why is this?
  3. What evidence does the article put forth that an economy experiencing deflation may eventually “self-correct”, meaning return to the full employment level of output in the long-run?
  4. Why don’t governments and central banks just sit back and let the economy self-correct? In other words, why are fiscal and monetary policies being used so aggressively by the US, Great Britain and Switzerland during this economic crisis?

Deflation or Inflation:Watch the video below, see if gives you any clues as to the causes and effects of deflation. What do you think John Maynard Keynes would say in response to the deflationary fears expressed in the Economist article?

61 responses so far

Feb 27 2012

A closer look at Apple’s iPad and iPhone – “made in America”?

I have two  interesting stories on Apple and the iPad to reflect on today.

First, ABC’s Nightline recently became the first Western journalists actually welcomed into an Apple assembly plant in China. The show recently aired a 15 minute feature on working conditions inside Apple’s Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China last week. Watch the video and then scroll down for what may be some additional surprising news about Apple’s operations in China.

Next, the story that has gone unreported lately is a University of California study titled “Capturing Value in Global Networks: Apple’s iPad and iPhone”. The study’s most interesting finding, in my opinion, is the tiny percentage of the total value of Apple’s iPhone and iPad that actually goes to the Chinese manufacturers of the products. The charts below, from the study, show how the value is divided among the various groups involved it their production and sales:

The Economist provides the analysis:

The chart shows a geographical breakdown of the retail price of an iPad. The main rewards go to American shareholders and workers. Apple’s profit amounts to about 30% of the sales price. Product design, software development and marketing are based in America. Add in the profits and wages of American suppliers, and distribution and retail costs, and America retains about half the total value of an iPad sold there. The next biggest gainers are South Korean firms like Samsung and LG, which provide the display and memory chips, whose profits account for 7% of an iPad’s value. The main financial benefit to China is wages paid to workers for assembling the product and for manufacturing some inputs—equivalent to only 2% of the retail price.

A student today asked why Apple doesn’t produce its products in the United States, where an economic downturn has left 14 million American out of work for the last three or four years. If iPads and iPhones were just made in America, jobs could be created, households would have more income to spend on Apples products, and both the country and the economy would benefit.

The data in the UC study indicates that in fact, more than half the value of an iPad or iPhone does end up in the hands of Americans. But Apple could never achieve the low costs and high profits that it does by assembling its products in the US. After watching the Nightline video above, it should be clear that the type of production involved in Apple factories’ is very low-skilled and labor-intensive. Using American labor, with its unions, minimum wages and 40 hour work weeks, would require Apple to employ such large numbers of workers and raise the company’s variable cost to such a level that the firm’s profits would be reduced significantly and its sales would fall dramatically. Apple would lose out to foreign producers of smart phones and tablet computers, such as LG, Samsung, Sony and others, which would continue assembling their goods with Chinese labor.

Ultimately, any gain to the low-skilled American workers (presuming Apple could even find enough to do the work of the 400,000 Chinese employed in the production of Apple products in China), would be offset by a loss of profits enjoyed by the millions of Americans who hold shares in Apple Computer and the thousands of American who are employed engineering and designing its products, as the firm’s sales would slip in the face of lower-cost competitors.

So this student’s question identifies an interesting paradox: America, with its large pool of unemployed workers, will never be attractive as a place to produce labor-intensive products such as phones and tablet computers, due to the vast wage differential between the US and China. And even if one firm did decide to produce its products in America, the gains to low-skilled workers who may find minimum wage work in the new assembly plants would be off-set by losses to the firms’ shareholders and the high-skilled workers whose jobs would be lost as sales decline due to the lower prices offered by lower-cost competitors.

The lesson here is two-fold: First, Apple and other American technology companies should continue using Chinese labor to assemble their products, and second, America is better off for it: lower costs mean cheaper products and higher sales, thus greater employment in the high-skilled sectors of the US economy, and more profits and returns on the investments of shareholders in American corporations. Americans are richer and enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to the millions of Chinese working in factories assembling the goods we consume.

Keep in mind, this analysis did not even consider the effect on the Chinese economy and the millions of Chinese workers (whose lives are much harder than the typical American) should companies like Apple shut down their Chinese manufacturing plants. That’s a whole other blog post!

2 responses so far

Sep 09 2010

Updated: Immigration – NOT and economic debate…

Because if it were, there would be no debate at all. Immigration, from an economic standpoint, is simply the flow of labor from one geographic region to another. I’m not talking about the kinds of immigrants who arrive in America or Switzerland or the UK as refugees fleeing political, religious, gender or racial persecution. Such asylum seekers have motives that are entirely non-economic for fleeing their homelands. I’m talking about the millions of people every year pack up their homes and seek a new life in a new country for economic reasons.

America has been called the “land of opportunity”, and for nearly five centuries now the opportunities the New World has had to offer have attracted immigrants from all corners of the globe. First it was the Spanish and the Portuguese who came in conquest in search of gold and silver. Later came the pilgrims seeking religious freedom, and after that the Irish, Italian, Germans, Russians and countless other Europeans seeking the economic opportunities offered by the construction of railroads, homesteads on the Great Plains and gold in the mountains of the West. Chinese arrived by the millions from the 1850’s through the turn of the 20th century, and over the past hundred years America’s racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural fabric has been enriched by the arrival of millions upon millions of people seeking the economic opportunities America has had to offer. The opportunities of the 21st century no longer involve the hope of striking gold or working on the railroad, rather they exist in industries such as software engineering, medicine, scientific research, finance and, yes, agriculture and construction.

It is interesting to me that in the United States today, American citizens and politicians seem to be as angry as ever about the seemingly endless flow of “illegals” flooding across the American border, bringing with them crime and contributing to unemployment among American workers already struggling to find jobs during the country’s deepest recession in decades. If you believe politicians like the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, this “invasion” of illegals from south of the US border is simply tearing apart the fabric of American society. Her state has even gone so far as to pass a law requiring police officers to require anyone who they suspect of being “illegal” to present proof of their legal status upon the officer’s request. Other attempts by states to crack down on illegal immigration include laws forbidding landlords from renting apartments to illegal immigrants and on a national level there is a major push to change the US constitution, in which the 14th Amendment states that any child born in the United States is automatically a US citizen. Imigration opponents claim that millions of Latinos enter the US illegally to have babies, which they call “anchor babies”, who become US citizens and then, supposedly, later in life, help their parents become legal US residents.

The protest against illegal immigration has dominated the right wing agenda in America lately, and has brought angry Americans to the street for rallies across the country aimed at sending illegals “back to where they came from”.

The irony of the whole situation is that today, in the midst of the Great Recession, immigration rates are falling rapidly. The number of immigrants entering the United States illegally has actually fallen by 67% in the last few years, from 850,000 per year between 2000 and 2005 to under 300,000 in 2009. Even more ironically, the number of illegals leaving the United States now actually exceeds the number entering the US, meaning that the total number of illegal immigrants (around 11 million in 2009) is decreasing and is lower now than it has been for much of the last decade. The Washington Post presents the facts:

From an economic perspective, the backlash against illegal immigration to the United Sates right now is perplexing and frustrating. Americans currently find themselves in a dire economic situation in which over 8 million people have lost their jobs, the unemployment rate is stuck at a historic high of nearly 10%, and discouraged workers have dropped out of the labor force at alarming rates, meaning that almost one in five Americans is either unable to find work or has given up the search. Clearly there is much to be upset about.

But all the facts above send a clear message to potential illegal immigrants to America, as well as to those who are already here! The message is, “DON’T COME!” (or for those who are already here, “maybe this is a good time to leave!”). Some of the decrease in the flow of illegal immigrants can probably be attributed to tougher border security and increased enforcement of the existing immigration law. But it’s more likely that the decrease in the illegal population is an economic phenomenon. Here’s why:

America purportedly practices a system of economics known as a free market. The fundamental characteristic of the free market system is that resources are allocated efficiently when they are allowed to flow from markets in which they are in low demand to markets in which they are in high demand. Price is the signal that tells resource owners where their resources are demanded the most. When we are talking about immigration, the resource that is flowing from market to market is labor. In a free market economy, there should be no government controls over the free flow of labor from one market to another. When the price of labor in one market (say the apple industry in Washington State or the construction sector in Arizona) is higher than in another market (say the corn industry in Mexico or the retail sector in Guatemala), the signal sent by this imbalance of wages is that more labor is demanded in Washington and Arizona and less is needed in Mexico and Guatemala.

The imbalance of wages between the US and its closest neighbors leads to a natural inflow of labor from low-wage countries to the higher wage industries in the United States. It’s a form of osmosis, which according to Wikipedia is “the movement of water across a partially permeable membrane from an area of high water concentration to an area of low water concentration… which tends to reduce the difference in concentrations”. Instead of water, immigration is osmosis of labor. Labor is more abundant in Mexico and Latin America than it is in the United States. The flow of labor across America’s “semi-permeable” border with Mexico simply “reduces the differences in concentration” of labor between the US and its southerly neighbors.

Making it harder for immigrants to come into the United States does little to protect American jobs. One thing I teach my students is that in a world where labor is not able to be imported (i.e. one where immigration is stemmed or slowed down), we should expect to see capital exported. A higher border fence with Mexico or more immigration police or a repeal of the 14th Amendment may reduce the number of people coming to the United States to find work, but these barriers to immigration will do nothing to stop the flow of capital to Mexico and the rest of the low-wage world. If Americans want more jobs to be done in America, then they should embrace those who are willing to do them, otherwise those jobs can be exported to where the wages are lower and people are willing to do them. If labor is immobile, capital will grow legs!

The immigration debate is not an economic debate. It is a political one. From a purely economic perspective, with the efficiency of free markets as a guiding principle, the free flow of labor across national borders improves overall efficiency of both the countries from which the immigrants come and the country in which they arrive. American workers are only marginally affected by the presence of illegal immigrants in the United States. Several studies have shown that while employment among certain Americans is affected slightly, there is no evidence that illegal immigration puts downward pressure on American wage rates. Jobs that might not even exist in America without immigrant workers willing to work for low wages do get done thanks to immigration, and the American economy is stronger and healthier because of this.  Without immigration, those jobs will still get done, just not in America! Or, if the jobs can’t be exported, they’ll get done but at a much higher cost, raising prices for American households and reducing the real income of the American people.

In economic terms, increased immigration allows the United States to have a comparative advantage in the production of a broader range of goods and services than it would have without immigration. Since in a global economy, what a nation’s economy produces is determined by what it can produce at the lowest opportunity cost, the more low-wage labor America has to employ, the larger it can expect its economy to be and the greater number of exports it can expect to sell to the rest of the world.  Immigration is overwhelmingly positive for the American economy, even illegal immigration. If it weren’t illegal, it would happen anyway, just more of it, which again would only make the US economy stronger and its output greater.

Again, these are all mute points in the current American debate over immigration, because the fact is that the net flow of illegal immigrants is actually negative right now. NPR reports,

Signs are pointing to stabilization on the border… as a still-sputtering U.S. economy and high unemployment continue to contribute to the over-the-border slowdown. Estimates suggest that the U.S. economy has lost 8 million jobs in the downturn, including 4 million manufacturing and construction jobs over the past three years.

The free market offers the perfect solution to the illegal immigration debate in the United States. Let it be! If America doesn’t need more labor, then labor will not come to America, and some of that which is already here will leave. But once the US economy begins to recover and the demand for labor begins to grow once more, let it be! Instead of building higher fences and hiring more border police, find ways to make it easier for workers to enter the country and fill the jobs for which they are demanded. America will be stronger for it! After all, if we don’t embrace the inflow of labor, we better be prepared for an outflow of capital. And as even my first year IB Econ students can tell you, a decrease in the labor force and the amount of capital in a nation is a recipe for economic contraction, recession and declining standard of living among that nation’s people.

Is that the America we want to see in the future? Would America be the land of freedom and opportunity today if it had kept out immigrants throughout its history instead of embracing them and incorporating them into American society and the US economy? I doubt it. So, America,  end the debate… because from an economist’s perspective, it was over before it even began!

Update:

Several people have left comments on my Facebook page about this post. Here are a couple of those comments:

From reader #1:

Good post! I’m curious since you didn’t specifically mention the main argument I’ve seen: Illegal immigration results in immigrants who consume more value in public services than they return to the public funds. What’s your take on that angle?

And from reader #2:

Very good and well thought out post. However, I disagree that it isnot an economic issue. In fact the major problem is that it IS an economic issue. Over 80 percent of their wages go back home – out of the country – and I’m not just talking about Mexicans. Additionally they go to the emergency room for most of their medical issues, even the common cold. They can have a $10,000 visit and never pay a penny – we have to pay for it. They get welfare, food stamps and much more – and we have to pay for it. Most of them have false IDs and Social Security cards so they pay no taxes.

Granted some of them do the jobs that most Americans won’t do – agriculture, sweat shops, etc. – but they cost us much more than they provide. 60 percent of the criminals in California jails are illegal and we have to support tham at an average cost of $30,000 per year each. Their families also collect welfare. Thousands of car accidents are caused by illegals each year who have no insurance – driving our insurance rates sky high.

Illegals are DEFINITELY an economical issue. By the way what is the first word in ILLEGAL alien – their very existance here is illegal. Also they are not illegal immigrants. An immigrant is one who goes through the proper channels and supports this country. The illegals do not do that. They protest that they are mistreated and insist that they be treated as citizens. Try to enter their home countries illegally and see how you are treated. America is heaven to ‘our’ illegals compared to virtually any other country in the world.

So, I felt obliged to reply to these comments, so here is my response!

Reader number #2, you have some fair concerns, but it should be pointed out that the industries immigrant workers support do pay taxes, and the revenues these businesses generate for the US economy using low wage immigrant labor is taxable income. Without the availability of cheap labor, many of these industries would fall to foreign competition or would simply pack up and move their operations to foreign countries. Without the income generated by these industries, the US tax base would shrink and there would be less to spend on all sorts of public goods for US citizens.

While you’re right that illegals do not pay income taxes and therefore are “free-riding” in a sense, it must be recognized that if they were here legally, they also would not pay income taxes, and in fact would be eligible for billions of dollars in federal tax subsidies and other transfer payments due to their low income (minimum wage?!) that they are not able to take advantage of due to their status as illegals. So couldn’t you argue that they’re costing American taxpayers LESS because they are here illegally?

And I don’t understand your argument that since they make up 60% of California’s prison population they are somehow taking advantage of the American taxpayer. If those spots were not occupied by “illegals”, are you suggesting there would be 60% fewer prisoners? Last I heard California was shortening sentences to make room for the long line of convicts who there is simply not room for in the state’s prison system! Wouldn’t taxpayers have to pay $30,000 a year for any prisoner, regardless of his nationality? I mean, if they were Americans they’d also cost $30,000 a year to support, right?

Reader #1, with regards to the lack of contribution to public funds, you must remember that most Americans earning below $40,000 per year effectively pay no income tax, and depending on the number of children they have and other factors may even be eligible for an earned income tax credit of thousands of dollars. Illegal immigrant workers earning minimum wage (or close to it), if they were to become legal taxpaying workers, would instantly add millions of low income workers to the tax system and thus add billions of dollars to government expenditures on EICs and other tranfer payments, as opposed to contributing positively to the country’s public funds like you suggest they might. I mean, sure, an immigrant working in Silicon Valley is a valuable contributor to the tax base, but one working for minimum wage on a farm will add nothing to the tax coffers, legal or not!

In addition to the earned income tax credit, as legal American workers they’d be eligible for welfare benefits, unemployment benefits, Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized school lunches and countless other transfer payments that would place a larger burden on the American middle and upper class tax payers.

Reader #2, illegal immigrants are not the only people in America who take advantage of the emergency room. Poor white Americans, not to mention the 49 million of us who are without health insurance, can walk into an emergency room just like the few million illegal immigrants can and walk out without ever paying a bill. Do you also want to kick the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans out of the country because they might take advantage of the Emergency room? Is a poor illegal immigrant any more likely to drive without car insurance than a poor American citizen? I don’t know, but I’d be interested to see some data on that.

Public schools are paid for by property taxes in most states. Immigrant workers supporting a family on minimum wage are never going to contribute much to property taxes, just as low income American households who rent their homes or own homes of low value will not pay much in property taxes. Yet their children still receive an education, don’t they? Should we deny all Americans who do not pay much in property tax access to public education? Besides, if a family or an individual pays rent, whether they’re citizens or illegal immigrants, their landlord is paying property taxes which go towards supporting public schools. Therefore anyone, legal or illegal, who pays rent is indirectly supporting public schools… so what difference does it make whether the renter is an American citizen or not?

Reader #2, one of the only reasons that 80% of illegal’s wages are sent home is because the US makes it so difficult for them to bring their families into the country with them. I think you misunderstood the whole point of my blog post. I did not intend to present an argument for more ILLEGAL immigration, rather I intended to present an economic argument for more LEGAL immigration. I think immigration reform that makes it easier for labor to flow across borders between the US and its immediate neighbors would alleviate much of the anti-immigration concerns of citizens like yourself. Yes, illegal immigration is ILLEGAL, so let’s make it easier for immigrants to come here legally, then we’ll have fewer criminals on our hands, and more valuable human capital to contribute to the strength of and increase the growth potential of the American economy.

I’m approaching this issue from a purely economic standpoint here, and from an economic perspective the benefits of more flexible international labor markets overwhelmingly outweigh the costs. Look at the EU and the 27 member countries which allow labor to move easily and efficiently across national borders. If immigrant labor was really as harmful as America claims it to be, then why has Europe embraced open borders and its economy has grown to exceed the size of the United States in the last decade? Sure, many Brits hate having Eastern Europeans in their cities “taking their jobs” and corrupting their culture. But the British economy (and those of Eastern Europe) are better off because of it.

Anyway, thanks for reading the article!

2 responses so far

Sep 04 2010

Excellence and teacher pay: A New York charter school is not the only school paying teachers $100,000+!

Next Test – Value of $125,000-a-Year Teachers – NYTimes.com

A New York City charter school is experimenting with paying teachers nearly triple the national average teacher salary of public schools. The article below describes the result:

So what kind of teachers could a school get if it paid them $125,000 a year?

An accomplished violist who infuses her music lessons with the neuroscience of why one needs to practice, and creatively worded instructions like, “Pass the melody gently, as if it were a bowl of Jell-O!”

A self-described “explorer” from Arizona who spent three decades honing her craft at public, private, urban and rural schools.

Two with Ivy League degrees. And Joe Carbone, a phys ed teacher, who has the most unusual résumé of the bunch, having worked as Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer.

“Developed Kobe from 185 lbs. to 225 lbs. of pure muscle over eight years,” it reads.

They are members of an eight-teacher dream team, lured to an innovative charter school that will open in Washington Heights in September with salaries that would make most teachers drop their chalk and swoon; $125,000 is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and a half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries. They also will be eligible for bonuses, based on schoolwide performance, of up to $25,000 in the second year…

The school received 600 applications. Mr. Vanderhoek interviewed 100 in person.

It’s amazing to me that a school in NYC that pays $125,000 a year and expects teachers to work year round gets so much attention, while some international schools have been paying teachers nearly as much for decades to work a regular school year. Yet so many American teachers seem unaware of the career opportunities available at international schools! A salary of $100,000 is not unheard of in international schools, and often times that income is tax free (at least the majority of it, since it is considered “foreign earned income” by the IRS).

In economics we study how scarce resources are allocated by supply and demand in the market place. Demand for highly skilled, qualified teachers is huge in all kinds of schools, public, private, charter and international schools alike. But only once an American school like this New York charter school comes along and offers to pay teachers a salary more than double the national average (and then receives nearly a hundred applications for every opening) do we begin to read about teacher pay in the news and reflect on the roll it plays in attracting top notch, expert educators. From one economics teacher’s perspective, it should come as no surprise at all that when a school offers a higher salary it will attract better teachers and thereby improve the quality of the education it provides.

International schools have known this simple fact for years. Unlike the American public school system, which from state to state essentially resembles the “monopsonistic employer” model (meaning each state has a “monopoly” of sorts on the hiring of teachers), the market for international teachers is highly competitive. In most big cities, even, there are several international schools competing to attract the best educators from the limited supply available. And in a particular country, for instance China, there are dozens of private international schools, all seeking to offer the best quality education in order to increase demand for enrollment, competing against one another to hire the best teachers they can.

The result of the competition between international schools for student enrollment is increased competition for skilled, qualified teachers. Add to this the fact that year after year there end up being shortages of qualified international teachers and you end up with the perfect recipe for teachers like myself and all the colleagues I’ve worked with over the years, upward pressure on the salaries and benefits packages offered by international schools.

The lesson here is clear from my perspective. Increased competition among schools for student enrollment will lead to increased competition among schools for better teachers, and therefore better teacher pay. The NYC charter school set out with a clear vision in mind for achieving students success. Attract the best teachers and we’ll provide the best education. And in order to achieve this vision, it followed the most basic of economic principles, articulated so eloquently by Adam Smith himself:

Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this: Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.

The bargain being offered to teachers in this case is an attractive salary, and all the schools in question are asking for in return is excellent teaching. “In this manner” schools obtain from teachers a commitment to excellence and teachers obtain from schools a salary that rewards them for this commitment. Society’s need for excellent education and teachers’ need for a living wage are met. But public schools go against this basic tenet of  market doctrine when the monoposony that is the state public school system pays teachers not based on their achievement, training, excellence or results but on their years of service. The lack of competition for student enrollment leads to a failure of the incentive system for attracting good teaches, and what schools find themselves with is a burnt out, underpaid, disgruntled work force and test scores and student achievement that you’d expect to follow.

I hope this charter school succeeds. I hope the students’ scores surpass those of their public school peers. I hope this not  because I like to see the old model of education fail, but because I would love to see a new model, based on the simple market principle that individuals respond to monetary incentives, succeed. I can say from experience that the competition among international schools for the limited supply of skilled teachers benefits all the stakeholders in question: teachers are paid better, the schools that pay the most attract the best teachers and thereby attract the greatest demand for enrollment. The market has worked! If the New York charter school succeeds, how can this be ignored. How can America’s other public schools not admit that to improve education, competition for students and teachers must be embraced.

11 responses so far

Aug 26 2009

Inflation: a threat to fear now or a distant concern?

Fidelity Investments – Inflation: A Threat or Not? by Dirk Hofschire

I was surprised to receive an email from the company that manages my personal investments directing me to an article that I would be able to use in class. But this analysis by a vice president of Fidelity Investments offers and excellent, concise examination of the threat posed by inflation in America today. I will use excerpts from the article and present the ideas in a graphical form to help students better understand the situation faced by the US as it struggles to emerge from its deep recession.

Hofschire sets out to answer four questions about inflation:

1. Is inflation accelerating?
2. Why is higher inflation expected?
3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?
4. When will inflation return?
5. How high will inflation go?

1. Is in flation accellerating:

In short, NO.

In June, the U.S. consumer price index (CPI) declined 1.2% (on a year-over-year basis), representing the biggest fall in prices since 1950.1 Much of the decline is attributable to the steep drop in energy prices over the past year, which may reverse itself in the second half of 2009 if crude-oil prices remain near current levels. However, core CPI—which excludes food and energy—was less than 1.8% in June, demonstrating little inflationary pressure in general

A combination of weak aggregate demand and low resource costs for firms has kept price levels down.  While total spending has falling (leftward shift of AD), firms’ costs of production have fallen (rightward shift of AS). Since total output fell we can see that national income (Y) is less in 2009 than in 2008. Since price level has fallen, we can see deflation.

Diagram 1:

25 8 blog post graphs_1

2. Why is higher inflation expected?

With little evidence of economic strength or cost-push inflation today, the concern now is that the monetarist economic view of the world sees inflation clouds on the horizon. The godfather of modern monetarist economic thought, Milton Friedman, once stated, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” What Friedman meant was that money—specifically changes in the supply and use of currency—was the primary driver for changes to price levels in an economy. Friedman informally defined inflation as “too much money chasing too few goods and services.” As a result, an excessive increase in the amount or use of money relative to economic output is the textbook prescription for inflation.

The inflation described above, and feared by Friedman and today’s monetarists is not of the cost-push type, rather the demand-pull variety. As the vast quantities of money injected by the US Fed work their way through the banking system and into the pockets of consumers and the hands of firm managers, eventually demand for America’s goods and services will rise. But in the current recession, the production of those goods and services has stagnated, meaning that once all this money starts getting spent, the competition among buyers for the limited output of producers will drive prices up.

Diagram 2:

25 8 blog post graphs_2

3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?

…there remains considerable downward pressure on prices still in place, due to growing slack in the economy (i.e. underutilized resources, such as labor) and continued deleveraging by consumers and financial firms with heavy debt loads. With the unemployment rate at its highest level in 26 years and consumers saving more and spending less, there is little upward pressure on wages or prices for consumer goods.

Yes, the money supply has increased, which according to our answer to number 2 should lead to inflation. But not if the new money isn’t being spent! Banks with money from the Fed are holding onto their excess reserves instead of loaning them out, due to a prevailing lack of confidence in borrowers ability to repay loans during these hard economic times. If all the money the Central Bank is injecting in the economy is sitting idle, and resources such as labor, land and capital are under-employed, then there is little fear of cost-push nor demand-pull inflation.  Diagram 1 illustrates why inflation hasn’t occured yet.

The excess bank reserves thus represent both the potential for future inflation as well as the explanation for why rapid money growth has yet to create current inflation.

In short, money must be spent to drive inflation up. When households prefer savings to consumption and banks prefer liquidity to risk, inflation is only a distant fear.

4. When will inflation return?

Interestingly, the answer to this question can be summed up as: “hopefully sooner rather than later”. Despite popular belief, some inflation is considered a positive sign of economic growth. Just as deflation is the purveyor of doom and gloom (unemployment, uncertainty, low consumer and investor confidence, credit crunch, etc) inflation is a sign of health returning to the economy (improved confidence, rising employment, looser credit markets, expectations of future growth). Central Bankers like Bernanke will surely be showered with praise, while congressman will be quick to give credit to the fiscal stimulus package.

Whether the pick-up in money velocity leads to significantly higher inflation depends on how quickly the Fed pulls the reins back on the extraordinary credit it is currently providing. In theory, the Fed can take actions to reduce the size of its balance sheet and move back to a more appropriate level of money. In practice, due to the unprecedented expansion in the Fed’s balance sheet, this will be a challenge.

Just as it was the Fed”s and government’s job to get the party started through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, it is equally important for policymakers to calm the party down should the level of inflation begin to rise.

Diagram 3:

25 8 blog post graphs_3

5. How high will inflation go?

Given the high level of slack (i.e. underutilized resources) likely to remain in the economy during the next two years, there also could be offsetting deflationary pressures lingering in the system. For example, the unemployment rate is expected to rise above 10% and not peak until sometime in 2010. Industrial capacity utilization rates are at their lowest level on record, which means a lot of unused capacity in the manufacturing sector. This slack must tighten considerably before upward pressure is placed on wages and other prices.

As a result of this downward pressure on wages, which remain the largest expense for corporations, it would appear a 1970s-style, double-digit inflation outburst remains unlikely in the short to medium term. Average weekly earnings for U.S. workers rose more than 7% annually during the period from 1975-1981 in which consumer price inflation averaged more than 9% and peaked at 14% in 1980.5 It is hard to foresee wage gains of that magnitude reinforcing inflation pressures during the next couple of years.

The 1970’s was a period of high inflation in the US, caused primarily by higher costs for firms rather than increasing demand for output. This “cost-push” inflation is unlikely to occur in today’s climate due to the high levels of unemployment and under-employment of labor, land and capital resources. This does not mean inflation won’t happen, just that it’s unlikely to look like the cost-push variety of the 1970’s.

Diagram 4:

25 8 blog post graphs_4

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