Saturday, April 22, 2017

Weekly Indicators for April 17 - 21 at

 - by New Deal democrat

My Weekly Indicators post is up at

No big change this week from the recent story, although one long leading indicator did flip negative this week, and another edged a little more towards neutral.

Friday, April 21, 2017

No, consumer debt service payments aren't signalling recession

 - by New Deal democrat

When I see an article trumpeting an oncoming recession, I will usually take at least a quick look to see if maybe there is an indicator that I've been missing or discounting. Or if it is just the usual cherry-picking of data never relied upon before, and probably not to be relied upon again once it reverses.

So this morning I read that there was a "Gathering Storm of Recession Indicators."
One of the datapoints caught my eye: consumer debt service payments as a percentage of disposable personal income.  Here's the graph in context:

I immediately focused on the limited time shown by the graph:  the last 8 years, with a nice red line showing how the value now is the value then.

I wondered if maybe I was missing something.  After all, this data series comes from the same quarterly report that gives us several other measures of household debt service that I've been following for 10 years, and which have, with one exception, risen into a recession, during and after which they turn down:

Both are pretty much going sideways as of the last report.  Nothing exciting happening there.

So here's what happens when I take the reference graph and follow it all the way back to its beginning:

Consumer debt service as a percentage of disposable personal income has been *declining* in advance of 3 of the 4 recessions since the reports were initiated.  In the 4th case, the rising debt level was much higher than it is now.


Hey, pretty red line though!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Real wages and spending: I don't think consumers will roll over that easily

 - by New Deal democrat

This is the second part of a post about "hard data" and consumer spending.

 Yesterday I noted that self-reported consumer spending, as measured by Gallup, has been running 10% or better YoY since the beginning of February, consistent with's earnings growth, but in contrast to a small slump in retail sales as reported for the last two months.

In fairness, real personal consumption expenditures have turned down slightly in the last several months:

Since this measures spending, there is clearly a divergence between this measure  and Gallup.

Another contrary argument that the slump in consumer spending is real, is that the cause has been the decline in real wages since last July:

But over the last 50 years, a downturn in real wages has frequently not meant recession.  Consumers can cope by refinancing debt at lower rates (not available now), by cashing in appreciating assets, if they have them (e.g., stocks or housing equity), or saving less, before they cut back saving.  While there was a slight downturn in the savings rate in 2016, it was less than half of that we saw in 1998 and 2004 (and similar downturns in earlier cycles dnot shown in the below graph):

In the past, consumers have not caved in without saving less first.  It could always be different this time, but my suspicion is that we will see a much more substantial  decline in the savings rate before we see a real, sustained downturn in spending.

Maybe Jazz Shaw and John Hinderaker Should Read a Report Before Promoting its Result, Part II

     Several days ago, both John Hinderaker and Jazz Shaw promoted a story from the Washington Examiner, which in turn covered a new Harvard Business Report study on the effect of San Francisco's $15 minimum wage increase on the restaurant industry.  Yesterday, I observed that the report contained a key passage that essentially countered Mr. Shaw's and Mr. Hinderaker's assertion that "basic economics says the increase in the minimum wage is bad."  Today, I want to look at the actual results of the report, because a nuanced reading shows that neither Mr. Shaw nor Mr. Hinderaker's points are validated.

     Here is the first of two excerpts:

This paper presents several new findings. First, we provide suggestive evidence that higher minimum wage increases overall exit rates among restaurants, where a $1 increase in the minimum wage leads to approximately a 4 to 10 percent increase in the likelihood of exit, although statistical significance falls with the inclusion of time-varying county-level characteristics and city-specific time trends. This is qualitatively consistent but smaller than what Aaronson et al. (forthcoming) find; they show that a 10 percent raise in the minimum wage increases firm exit by approximately 24 percent from a base of 5.7 percent. Differences in sample and specifications may account for the differences between our study and theirs. 

Next, we examine heterogeneous impacts of the minimum wage on restaurant exit by restaurant quality. The textbook competitive labor market model assumes identical workers and firms who therefore are equally likely to share in the minimum-wage generated employment and profit losses. However, models that depart from the standard competitive model to allow for heterogeneous workers and firms suggest that a minimum wage increase would cause the lowest productivity firms to exit the market (Albrecht & Axell, 1984; Eckstein & Wolpin, 1990; Flinn, 2006). We show that there is, in fact, considerable and predictable heterogeneity in the effects of the minimum wage, and that the impact on exit is concentrated among lower quality restaurants, which are already closer to the margin of exit. This suggests that the ability of firms to adjust to minimum wage changes could differ depending on firm quality. Finally, we provide evidence that higher minimum wages deter entry, and hastens the time to exit among poorly rated restaurants.

     The report's conclusion is hardly breathtaking.  According to the report, somewhere between 4 and 10 restaurants per hundred will close as a result of the increase in the minimum wage.  And, that number may fall when other variables are added to the mix.  In addition, so far only the lower rated restaurants are impacted.  And considering the minimum wage is just going into effect, it's possible the techniques used by higher rated restaurants to limit the impact will be passed down to the lower rate restaurants -- which is a standard development in the market economy.

     In fact, the findings are consistent with the literature.  As this report conceded: even studies that identify negative impacts find fairly modest effects overall, suggesting that firms adjust to higher labor costs in other ways.   Most economists would call a 4-10% closure rate (which has the potential to be lower when other factors are considered) of marginally efficient restaurants modest.

     And a final point: the authors make no mention of San Francisco's restaurant bubble.  That means that we could simply be seeing correlation, no causation.

     What can we conclude from this little exercise:

    First: Jazz Shaw doesn't read for comprehension.
    Second: Jazz Shaw shouldn't be allowed to write about economics.
    Third: Jazz Shaw will continue to do so, largely because he thinks he's an expert.

     And so, we will continue to point out just how wrong he is.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The effect: retailers say they're not selling, but consumers report they are buying

 - by New Deal democrat

This was originally one post but I think it works better divided into two parts.

One of the issues I keep reading about recently is the (alleged) divergence between "soft" and "hard" data.  For example, consumer sentiment as measured by the University of Michigan (and the Conference Board, and Gallup) has been making new highs since the Presidential election last November (according to Gallup, mainly fueled by a massive gain in optimism among Republicans). while "hard data," chiefly industrial production but also including consumer spending, has failed to follow suit.

One problem with this thesis has been that manufacturing as measured by the industrial production index, turned up for five months in a row.  It turned down in March, and one good measure of how intellectually honest the commentator is, is whether they have been using a consistent measure for industrial production:

Production as a whole only fell in January and February because of utility production (warm winter in the eastern half of the US).  In March, production only rose because utility production rebounded sharply (March was actually colder than February in much of the East).

So a Doomer who was all over the decline in industrial production for the last two months should be touting its advance in March.  If the Doomer backs out utilities this month, take a look to see if they did the same thing last month -- almost certainly not.

Another problem with the soft/nard data dichotomy is that online retail appears to have reached a tipping point where it is causing big damage to brick-and-mortar retailers, who are laying off thousands of employees and even shutting down completely.

I am concerned that the official real retail sales numbers might not be adequately picking up online retail:

But here is's sales numbers for 2016 vs. 2015:

And here is the number that really jumps out -- Gallup's consumer spending, here measured for the last two years:

Pay attention to that $100 line. Except for Christmas seaon 2015, that line wasn't breached at all in the 14 day average until December 2016.  And spending has remained above that $100 line all during February, March, and April so far.  Most often for the last 10 weeks, this measure has been up over 10% YoY.  Now, before you criticize Gallup's measure, it earned its bones in 2011 at the time of the Debt Ceiling Debacle, when it was the only measure that accurately reported that consumers hadn't stopped spending.

So if retailers are reporting poor sales, but consumers are telling people that they are spending 10% this year vs. last year, then we have to wonder if the official measures aren't catching the full extent of the big secular increase in online sales.

Maybe Jazz Shaw and John Hinderaker Should Read Papers Before Promoting Their Results

Yesterday, the conservative blogsphere was on fire with a new report from the Harvard Business School that supposedly proved raising the minimum wage is forever damaging to the local restaurant industry.  Rather than reading the actual report themselves, both Mr. Shaw and Mr. Hinderaker relied on the Washington Examiner as their media filter.  This was a big mistake.  In the words of the Princess Bride, "I don't think that report says what you think it says..

First, let's start with the following stunning rebuke of Mr. Shaw and Mr. Hinderaker, both of whom argue that simple economics shows raising the minimum wage is damaging:

Mr. Shaw:

There is an entire body of work in the progressive sphere dedicated to nothing but this particular propaganda effort. The premise makes no sense in terms of basic economics (or simply math, for that matter) but it keeps on being repeated. And yet, when the experiment is moved off of the chalkboard and out into the real world the opposite always seems to happen.

Mr, Hinderaker:

A number of cities across the country have enacted dramatic increases in the minimum wage. This has caused a great deal of harm, but on the plus side, it has enabled research on the economic consequences of mandating wages at higher than market rates.

However, the new report directly contradicts both statements.  From page 6 of 33 of the report:

Our results contribute to the existing literature in several ways. First, our findings relate to a large literature seeking to estimate the impact of the minimum wage, most of which has focused on identifying employment effects. While some studies find no detrimental effects on employment (Card and Krueger 1994, 1998; Dube, Lester & Reich, 2010), others show that higher minimum wage reduces employment, especially among low-skilled workers (see Neumark & Wascher, 2007 for a review). However, even studies that identify negative impacts find fairly modest effects overall, suggesting that firms adjust to higher labor costs in other ways. For example, several studies have documented price increases as a response to the minimum wage hikes (Aaronson, 2001; Aaronson, French, & MacDonald, 2008; Allegretto & Reich, 2016). Horton (2017) find that firms reduce employment at the intensive margin rather than on the extensive margin, choosing to cut employees hours rather than counts. Draca et al. (2011) document lower profitability among firms for which the minimum wage may be more binding

The emboldened sentences are very clear.  First, there is a large amount of academic support for arguing that raising the minimum wage to certain levels has no negative effect.  But here's the kicker: the reports that supposedly support Mr. Shaw and Mr. Hinderaker don't provide the support they thought.  The negative effects are "modest, suggesting that firms adjust in other ways."  This is a point I made last spring

Shaw's and Perry's reasoning run into two primary microeconomic problems.  Both assume labor demand is elastic (a term I doubt Mr. Shaw is familiar with) -- that a change in cost will have a disproportionate impact on demand.  However, this simply isn't true.  For example, let's assume that a restaurant owner currently has 10 employees when wages increase.  Let's assume he fires 4 people due to increase cost.  At some point, he'll cut off his economic nose to spite his face -- that is, he'll lower his payroll to such an extent that he'll hurt customer service, lowering overall revenue.  Given the profit maximizing principal underlying cost theory (again, I doubt Mr. Shaw is aware of this concept, either), the current level of 10 employees is probably already peak efficiency, which means he'll either, absorb the cost, cuts costs elsewhere, raise prices, or do some combination of all three. 

     And then there's the inherent problem of the production function graph:

As anyone who knows micro (which, it is painfully obvious Mr. Shaw doesn't) would note, when you lower your primary short-term variable cost (labor) you also lower your output.   Now, it's possible you might not do too much damage, depending on a number of different factors, but the bottom line is that you're moving in the wrong direction.

     In my next post, I'll look at the results.  Because, like the above points, they don't support Mr. Shaw or Mr. Hinderaker nearly as much as either thinks.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Jazz Shaw Still Can't Make the Minimum Wage Argument Stick

     Jazz Shaw desperately wants to make sure that his readers believe raising the minimum wage is a bad idea that will lead to job losses.  Hot off the presses, he cites a new Harvard Business Review article that he things validates his position.

San Francisco’s higher minimum wage is causing an increasing number of restaurants to go out of business even before it is fully phased in, a new study by the Harvard Business School found.

The closings were concentrated among struggling, lower-rated restaurants. The higher minimum also caused fewer new restaurants to open, it found.

“We provide suggestive evidence that higher minimum wage increases overall exit rates among restaurants, where a $1 increase in the minimum wage leads to approximately a 4 to 10 percent increase in the likelihood of exit,” report Dara Lee and Michael Luca, authors of “Survival of the Fittest: The Impact of the Minimum Wage on Firm Exit.” The study used as a case study San Francisco, which has an estimated 6,000 restaurants in the Bay Area and is ratcheting up its minimum wage. Restaurants are one of the largest employers of minimum wage workers.

Except, it's not the minimum wage causing this.  Instead, San Francisco's restaurant bubble is bursting.  According to 2010 Census data:

Not only did San Francisco come in as number one with the most restaurants per capita, no other city even came close. At 39.3 restaurants per 10,000 households, San Francisco has nearly 50 percent more relative restaurants than the second place city.

That's an amazing large number of restaurants per capita -- a pace of growth the city maintained throughout the tech boom:

San Francisco's restaurant scene is outpacing New York — at least in terms of growth. That's according to a new study by conducted by international payment processing company First Data, which compares New York and San Francisco's restaurant scenes and delivers some intriguing insights about dining trends in both cities.

Here's the crux of the matter:

To do that I'm going to tell the story of the rise and fall of Matt Semmelhack and Mark Liberman's AQ restaurant in San Francisco. But this story isn't confined to SF. In Atlanta, D.B.A. Barbecue chef Matt Coggin told Thrillist about out-of-control personnel costs: "Too many restaurants have opened in the last two years," he said. "There are not enough skilled hospitality workers to fill all of these restaurants. This has increased the cost for quality labor." In New Orleans, I spoke with chef James Cullen (previously of Treo and Press Street Station) who talked at length about the glut of copycats: "If one guy opens a cool barbecue place and that's successful, the next year we see five or six new cool barbecue places... We see it all the time here."

Here's econ 101 for Mr. Shaw: San Franciso's large number of restaurants created a labor shortage. That means there were too few workers.  It's called supply and demand.  Combine that with sky high real estate prices and it's no wonder we have this problem.  Mr. Shaw is making a classic rookie mistake: correlation does not equal causation.

So, once again, we have an analytical failure by Mr. Shaw.  Does he care?  Not at all.  Retractions and corrections are for the liberal press, not conservative bloggers.

Good news or bad news, take your pick: March housing and industrial production

 - by New Deal democrat

This morning's reports on housing permits and industrial production were good news or bad news, depending on the context in which you place them.

This post is up at