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Summary of My Post-Employment Tweets – Growl of Displeasure

March 7, 2014 2 comments

The following is a summary and extension of my post-Employment tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy (and tell your friends!)

  • 175k +25k revisions, nice jobs figure. Oh, but Unemployment up to 6.7%. Love how these seem to always provide opposite surprises.
  • One of my favorite labor charts. Want a Job Now, versus the Unemployment Rate:

wannajob

  • 1 way to add more jobs is to have em all work less. Is this an Obamacare effect since part-timers don’t count?

hrsworked

  • …regardless, fewer hours worked –>lower output. Expect more downward revisions to Q1 growth ests. Q2 too, if this is ACA.
  • If we all end up with jobs, but we’re all working only 30 hours per week, is that better than if only 93% have jobs, working 40?

It will be interesting over the next few months to see if the Hours Worked figures are weather-related (as will be claimed). I suspect that for the most part, they are not. Notice that if there was any weather effect over the last few years, it is not noticeable in the data (nor is it apparent in the unrevised data, incidentally). So, while this year’s weather was colder and snowier than usual, I am skeptical that this can account for more than a small downtick in the hours worked figures.

I rather suspect that the drop is more likely to be attributable to the definition of what constitutes a “full time worker” under the Affordable Care Act. And the question I asked rhetorically above is actually worth thinking about seriously because, looked at one way, the ACA is a jobs program: it will tend to cause businesses to cut back on full-time work and replace those people with more part-time work. The effect should be to cause the Jobless Rate to decline along with Hours Worked. But is that a good thing (because more people have some job) or a bad thing (because people who formerly had a full-time job now only have a part-time job)?

That’s a normative question, not a positive question. But I would think that one effect would be to push more people from what we think of today as “middle class” to lower-middle class, while perhaps raising some who were previously in poverty to be also lower-middle class. I don’t think this was one of the purposes of the law – because frankly, it doesn’t seem that much economic thought went into the design of the ACA – but it is interested to reflect on.

I don’t know what to make of the “Want a Job Now” chart. Let me explain that series, first. “Not in the Labor Force” implies that these people aren’t even looking for jobs, because if they were then they would be counted as unemployed. But, despite the fact that they are not looking, they would like to have a job and would take one if it was offered. While the Unemployment Rate is falling, almost as many people are in the “not in labor force but want a job now” category as were in that category at the beginning of 2011. Why aren’t these people looking?

A fair number of these workers, some 2.3mm of them, are described as “marginally attached” because they’ve looked for work in the last 12 months, and want a job, but haven’t looked in the last 4 weeks so that they aren’t counted as part of the work force. And those are the ones who are holding the category up (see Chart, source Bloomberg).

marginatt

Some of those workers are not looking because they are “discouraged”, but that only represents about 750k of the 2.3 million or so in this category (and discouraged workers have fallen from about 1 million in 2011, so the decline is consistent with the Unemployment Rate).

So, we are left with a category of people who have looked for work in the past, and would take a job if it was offered, but haven’t looked in the last month. Or the month before. Or the month before. But, at some point, they had at least done a cursory search of the wanted ads.

I think the story of these “marginally attached” workers is worth studying. Are these structurally-unemployed people, who should be counted as such? Are they incentivized to remain out of the work force due to governmental benefits they receive? Or are they, and the decline in the labor force participation rate generally, telling us that the jobs aren’t coming back (or that the newly-created jobs are of lower quality than the old jobs)? I don’t know, but none of the answers is good. We want to see this number decline.

The story of the declining hours worked is potentially much more serious, though – partly because it is a new effect. The nation’s total output is number of employees, times average hours worked, times output per hour. If the number of employees is rising, but they’re working less, then unless productivity rises the total output (that is, GDP) won’t grow very quickly. This could be an early recession sign, or it could be a consequence of the ACA…or it could be a sign that the ACA is pushing a fairly non-robust economy towards the recessionary tipping point. Again, none of these things are good.

So, while the stock market roars its approval about this Employment number, I growl my displeasure. But this is normal.

More on Health Care: Agreeing on the Questions

Since I wrote a blog post in early December on “The Effect of the Affordable Care Act on Medical Care Inflation,”  in which I lamented that “I haven’t seen anything of note written about the probable effect of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act on Medical Care CPI,” several things have come to my attention. This is a great example of one reason that I write these articles: to scare up other viewpoints to compare and contrast with my own views.

In this case, the question is not a trivial one. Personally, I approach the issue from the perspective of an inflation wonk,[1] but the ham-handed rollout of the ACA has recently spawned greater introspection on the question for purely political reasons. This is awkward territory, because articles like that by Administration hack Jason Furman in Monday’s Wall Street Journal do not further the search for actual truth about the topic. And this is a topic on which we should really care about a number of questions: how the ACA is affecting prices, how it is affecting health care utilization and availability, how it is affecting long-term economic growth, and so on. I will point out that none of these are questions that can be answered definitively today. My piece mentioned above speculated on possible effects, but we simply will not know for sure for a long time.

So, when Furman makes statements like “The 7.9 million private jobs added since the ACA became law are themselves enough to disprove claims that the ACA would cause the sky to fall,” we should immediately be skeptical. It should be considered laughably implausible to suggest that Obamacare had a huge and distinguishable effect before it was even implemented. Not to mention that it is very bad science to take a few near-term data points, stretching only for a couple of years in a huge and ponderous part of the economy, to extrapolate trends (this is the error that Greenspan made in the 1990s when he heralded the rise in productivity growth that was eventually all revised away when the real data was in). Furman also conflates declines in the rate of increase of spending with decelerating inflation – but changes in health care spending include price changes (inflation) as well as changes in utilization. I will talk more about that in a minute, but suffice to say that the Furman piece is pure politics. (A good analysis of similar logical fallacies made by a well-known health care economist that Furman cites is available here by Forbes.)

I want to point you to another piece (which also has flaws and biases but is much more subtle about it), but before I do let’s look at a long-term chart of medical care inflation and the spread of medical care inflation to headline inflation. One year is far too short a period to compare these two things, not least because one-time effects like pharmaceuticals losing patent protection or sequester-induced spending restraints can muddy the waters in the short run. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows the rolling ten-year rise in medical care inflation and, in red, the difference between that and rolling ten-year headline inflation.

medicalcareYou can see from this picture that the decline in medical care inflation, and the tightening of the spread between medical care inflation and headline inflation, is nothing particularly new. Averaging through all of the year-to-year wiggles, the spread of medical care has been pretty stable since the turn of the century (which, since this is a 10-year average, means it has been pretty stable for a couple of decades). Maybe what we are seeing is actually the anticipation of HillaryCare? (Note: that is sarcasm.)

Now, the tightening relative to overall inflation is a little exaggerated in that picture, because for the last decade or so headline inflation has been somewhat above core inflation due to the persistent rise in energy prices throughout the ‘00s. So the chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows the spread of medical care inflation over core inflation, which demonstrates even more stability and even less reason to think that something big and long-term has really changed. At least, not that we would already know about.

medicwithcoreThe other piece I mentioned, which is more worth reading (hat tip Dr. L) is “Health Care Spending – A Giant Slain or Sleeping?” in the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors here include David Cutler, whom Forbes suspected was tainting his views with politics (see link above), so we need to be somewhat cautious about the conclusions but in any event they are much more nuanced than in the Furman article and the article makes a number of good points. And, at the least, the authors distinguish between spending on health care and inflation in health care. A few snippets, and my remarks:

  • “Estimates suggest that about half the annual increase in U.S. health care spending has resulted from new technology. The role of technology itself partly reflects other underlying forces, including income and insurance. Richer countries can afford to devote more money to expensive innovations.” This is an interesting observation that we ought to think carefully about when professing a desire to “bend the cost curve.” If we are reining in inflation, that’s a good thing. But is it a good thing to rein in innovation in health care? I don’t think so.
  • The authors, though, clearly question the value of technological innovation. “The future of technological innovation is, of course, unknown. But most forecasts do not call for a large increase in the number of costly new treatments… some observers are concerned that a wave of costly new biologic agents (for which generic substitutes are scarce) will soon flood the market.” Heaven forbid that we get new treatments! “The use of cardiac procedures has slowed as well.” This is a good thing?
  • “Health spending has clearly been associated with health improvements, but analysts differ on whether the benefits justify the cost.” Personally, it makes me uncomfortable to leave this question in the hands of the analysts. If the benefits don’t justify the cost, and the market was free, then no one will pay for those improvements. It’s only with a highly regulated market – replete with “analysts” doing their cost/benefit analysis on health care improvements – that this even comes up.
  • Some of the statistical argument is a little weak. “The recent reduction in health care spending appears to have been correlated with slower employment growth in the health care field; this suggests that such changes may continue.” I’m not sure that the causality runs that way. Surely tighter limits on what health care workers can earn might cause slower employment growth? That’s at least as plausible as the direction they are arguing.

That sounds very critical, but I point these things out mainly to make them obvious. Overall, the paper does a very good job of discussing the possible causes of the recent slowdown in health care inflation (although they focus inordinately on “the first 9 months of 2013”, a period during which we know the sequester impacted health care prices), give plenty of credit to reforms instituted far before ACA implementation, correctly distinguish between utilization and prices, and highlight some of the promising trends in health care costs – and yes, there are some! The authors are clearly supportive of the ACA, which I am not, but by and large they raise the salient questions.

It matters less if we instantly agree on the solution than that we agree on the questions.


[1] Actually, a little more than a generic inflation wonk in this case; I’ve also written about, presented on (and you can listen to my presentation while you walk through the slides) and consulted on the topic of hedging health care inflation, for example in post-employment benefit plans.

Certainty About Uncertainty

I haven’t written recently because it is hard to figure out what to do here. Market action at this point seemingly has little to do with fundamentals, and isn’t even in “risk on/risk off” mode because no one seems to be sure how the government shutdown affects risk (the debt ceiling debate is another issue, which I will discuss later).

I often get comments to the effect that “political uncertainty is a fact of life,” or “the Fed always manipulates markets,” implying that we cannot simply refuse to invest because markets aren’t trading cleanly off of economic fundamentals (which don’t directly translate into market action even in the best of times anyway). This is true, but I always hearken back to the notion that uncertainty implies a smaller bet size (a long time ago I wrote an article in which I discussed the implications of the Kelly Criterion for thinking about how one invests). When the economic signals are clear but the market isn’t pricing them properly, then you have a great edge and the market is giving you good odds, and most of your chips should be on the table. When the economic signals aren’t clear, or when stochastic political events are likely to overwhelm them, then your bet should be small because your edge is lower even if you are getting good odds.

In this case, of course, no matter what market you are talking about it isn’t at all clear how the debate (perhaps calling it a “debate” is generous) about the continuing resolution to fund government operations, the ACA, and the debt ceiling will be resolved.

We can speculate about what various outcomes might mean to the markets, but even here our analysis is fraught with uncertainty. Would an extended shutdown be good for equity markets because it would imply a greater chance of lower ACA costs and a lengthier period of Fed quantitative easing? Or would it be bad because of the short-term impact on growth as government spending is delayed? Would bonds rally because there would be no incremental supply, or sell off because of the implied risk of default? A lengthy government closure might be bad for the dollar because it implies more monetary ease, but might be good because it represents “fiscal discipline” (admittedly, in this case it’s discipline in the fetishistic sense rather than in the self-control sense). The only thing I am certain about is the uncertainty, and that spells a smaller bet.

Retail investors are especially at a disadvantage, because of the huge amount of misinformation that is out there about likely scenarios and the results of various outcomes. This misinformation is often unwittingly disseminated by media outlets, but I suspect it is rarely unwittingly initiated by the original sources.

For example, a recent New York Times blog was pretty good at discussing the possible outcomes, but flunked on at least one aspect when it stated what would happen to the economy as a result of a federal default. I don’t mean to pick on the Times here, and in general it is a good article. But at one point the writer said that a default could cause a spike in Treasury yields (likely true), but then continued “The price tag on a huge range of other debt products is benchmarked to the cost of Treasuries. That means a spike in the federal government’s borrowing costs would translate into pricier mortgages, car loans and corporate borrowing costs.”

Well, that’s wrong. It’s not offensively wrong, but it’s wrong (and I’m pointing it out partly as an example of how even simple stuff is confused right now). The interest rate on any nominal debt instrument consists of several components: the real cost of money, a premium for expected inflation, and a premium for the riskiness of the credit.[1] Normally, with Treasuries we can say the credit spread is effectively zero, so that we refer to the spread that a corporate bond trades over Treasuries as “the” credit spread because that spread minus zero equals that spread. But there is no reason to think that spread would remain constant if the Treasury’s credit was diminished, any more than it would remain constant if the corporate’s credit was diminished. If Treasury rates spiked because the government’s perceived credit spread was no longer zero, then unless that also affected the perceived credit of, say, Caterpillar then there is no theoretical reason that CAT yields should also rise.[2]

In any event, a federal default is not going to happen unless someone in the Administration wants it to happen. The government’s $2.9 trillion in revenues is quite a bit more than is needed to pay the $300bln or so in interest costs per year, so unless the Treasury simply decided to default (see an excellent article here by my friends at TF Market Advisors) it isn’t going to happen. The Treasury has made some mystifying statements about how they don’t have the capability to pay some expenses and not others, but in the worst case someone can sit down and manually wire the money to every holder. So that’s nonsense that is meant to scare us.

So I don’t have any decent “trading opinions” on the basis of the government shutdown. What I do believe is that this is an unmitigated positive for inflation (positive in the sense of pushing it higher), and thus for breakevens and inflation swaps. The longer the government stays shut, the longer quantitative easing will be in force as the Fed attempts to counteract the short-term contraction of economic activity (the fact that monetary policy is ineffective at affecting growth rates never seems to enter their minds); furthermore a long shutdown will more likely to push the dollar lower in my opinion – although, as I said above, I can argue the reverse position as well. On the other hand, if the Republicans cave quickly, as is likely in my view, and the ACA goes into effect, prices for consumer-purchased medical care will rise rapidly. This is less a statement about whether the ACA will push aggregate health care costs higher, although I believe that it will. It’s more an observation that controlled prices in the government-purchased sector will produce higher prices outside of the controls, and it is this latter group that will be sampled for consumer prices (since the price the government purchases at is not a “consumer” price). Since it is the Medical Care subgroup of CPI that has been pressing core CPI to be lower than median CPI, any rebound in Medical Care inflation will push aggregate core inflation higher.

Was that said in a confusing-enough manner?

TIPS should do well while the government is shut, because there is ongoing growth in demand for TIPS while the supply will be drying up. Unlike with the nominal Treasury market, there is no corporate inflation-linked bond sector that can replace the inflation exposure (although there should be) demanded by investors, so TIPS will tend to outperform nominal bonds in the event that both sets of auctions are canceled.


[1] There are other costs, such as the discount to the interest rate that the Treasury pays as a result of the status of Treasuries as superior collateral in repo and similar exchanges, but they are not relevant to this point.

[2] There may be a practical argument that there might be a substitution effect, but that’s also saying that investors would bet the selloff in Treasuries makes them a better risk-adjusted bet than CAT bonds. However, if the Treasury’s credit spread moved permanently higher, it would not affect the equilibrium bond yield of a corporate bond.

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