Enlightened Economics

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Archive for the ‘Unethical Statistics’ Category

• Positive ‘Spin’ Grows U.S. Economy… But For How Long?

Posted by Ron Robins on November 9, 2014

‘Spin’ — “Political hyperbole, especially when intentionally misleading” — The Online Slang Dictionary

American political and economic elites are forever spinning the idea that self-sustaining economic growth is imminent. And this time the spin might be working — but only for a while.

Underpinning the spin are U.S. government economic statistics. Unfortunately — and it seems unknown to even most economists — there are huge methodological and philosophical issues with these statistics, some of which I detailed in Dubious Positive Biases in Revised U.S. Economic Statistics.

In that post I investigated how unemployment rates, payroll numbers, the consumer price index (CPI), savings rates, and gross domestic product (GDP), have seen their statistical philosophical and methodological foundations changed. And these changes almost always make the economy appear in better shape than it would have been by using prior statistical methodologies.

Furthermore, these changed methodologies have not occurred by only wanting to make the statistics more honest. No. In fact, political interference (documented by Shadowstats) is behind most of the major changes so that the government of the day appeared in a better light.

The spin of this ‘growing’ economy has been taken to heart by the richest 20% of families — those who have been able to borrow for next to nothing and invest in foreclosed homes, stock and bond markets. They have invested and seen their investments rise markedly. They are happy.

But for most people — the other 80% — they are neither happy nor convinced of the efficacy of the present government’s economic spin. (See the exit polls of the November 4 midterm elections!) Truly illustrating the difference in economic well-being between the rich and everyone else are the results of a Gallup poll.

In August, Gallup found that, “Americans with an annual household income of $90,000 or more continue to have more economic confidence than those who live in households with less annual income. Upper-income Americans had an index score of -2 in August, up slightly from -5 the past two months. Lower and middle-income Americans, on the other hand, averaged -18, similar to -19 in July.” Recent data from multiple sources indicates this divergence continues to exist.

The difficulty for most working Americans is that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers incomes over the past few years are barely matching — if at all —  their rising cost of living as measured by BLS’s own (politically influenced) consumer price index (CPI). But ask most workers and they will tell you their living costs are up much more than the government’s CPI.

This is verified by independent inflation measures such as the Guild Basic Needs Index (GBNI) which includes only food, clothing, shelter and energy (thus covering most of the expenses for the majority of people). Using their latest data points from July 2009 to July 2014, the GBNI rose by a significant 22.8% compared to the 10.6% rise in the CPI over the same period.

Interestingly, while living costs have risen and left individuals with less disposable income, savings rates have increased. It seems the experience of financially difficult times for most people in recent years, including unemployment, severe losses in home equity, and for many the need to save for a fast approaching retirement, has convinced them to save more. Savings rates are now averaging above 5% says the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

But again, savings rates would be much less if previous methodologies were used. For instance, in 2006 and 2007, savings rates were about -2% but had become +3% after methodical revisions. Savings rates prior to 1985 were mostly above 10%.

Perhaps of even greater concern is that consumer debt is once again growing much faster than incomes indicating the U.S. is on the continuing treadmill to further financial crises. Between July 2011 and July 2014, Federal Reserve data show consumer debt grew from $2,722 billion to $3,233 billion, a rise of 18.8%, compared to personal income gains over the same period of just 11.8% ($13,294 billion and $14,860 billion.)

The real concern with consumer debt was highlighted by Constantine Van Hoffman, writing for CBS Moneywatch on September 11, 2014. She wrote that, “[quoting CardHub] ‘by the end of 2014 U.S. consumers [with about $7,000 each in credit card debt] will be roughly $1,300 away from the credit card debt tipping point, where minimum payments become unsustainable and delinquencies skyrocket.” And this is with ultra low-interest rates. What happens when they rise?

Rapid debt accumulation in excess of income growth indicates people demanding goods and services now no matter the eventual financial cost to themselves. To me, this suggests — barring extreme confidence about their future circumstances — the possibility of deep inner insecurity and lack of personal fulfillment among individuals. Unbeknownst to our political and economic leaders, this mental state is really the central issue that has to be resolved before lasting economic sustainability can be gained. (See, The Missing Ingredient in Economics — Consciousness.)

Government and financial institutions are aware of the harm caused by excessive and irresponsible debt growth and asset valuations. Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has remarked that central banks are afraid to ‘prick’ asset bubbles for fear of causing market chaos. So, our economic elites believe they must continue to spin the illusion of economic good times no-matter the reality. Eventually, as in 2008, the illusory good times end, and sadly, financial difficulties and ruin occurs for many.

As understanding grows about the spinning of government economic statistics, as increasing savings rates restrain consumer spending, and as consumer debt rises far faster than incomes, it is just a question of time before the spin stops working and a bust ensues. For now though, the spin is working for the 20%. And they are happy.

© Ron Robins 2014

Posted in Consciousness/Psychology, Economics, Monetary Policy, Statistics, Unethical Statistics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• Dubious Positive Biases in Revised U.S. Economic Statistics

Posted by Ron Robins on April 9, 2014

Why do most of the methodologically revised U.S. economic statistics tend to create a picture of a more positive looking economy? Do these revised statistics really give a better—or illusory—understanding of economic activity? And is it coincidental that the benefits flowing from these more positive looking statistics largely accrue to powerful elites who also have the muscle to influence the statistical methodologies? Now those who should be investigating and informing us of these concerns, our economists and media, fail to do so.

We see this ‘positive bias’ appearing in the most important economic statistics, including unemployment rates, payroll numbers, the consumer price index (CPI), savings rates, and gross domestic product (GDP).

Considering the unemployment rates and payroll numbers, we find that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has implemented many changes that have resulted in lower unemployment rates and higher payroll numbers.

One particular change in 1994 to the unemployment rate was most significant. At that time the BLS decided to exclude the long-term (over one-year) unemployed discouraged workers from measurement. The chart below, from ShadowStats, shows that revised rate, now referred to as the Official U3 rate, as the red line.

The unemployment rate including these long-term unemployed discouraged persons is the ShadowStats blue line. The broadest government unemployment rate U6 is the gray line, which ShadowStats says, includes “short-term discouraged and other marginally attached workers as well as those forced to work part-time because they cannot find full-time employment.”

Using March 2014 unemployment data, notice the huge difference in unemployment rates between the pre 1994 methodology, which ShadowStats estimates at 23.2%, and the much-publicized Official U3 rate of just 6.7% and U6 at 12.7%!


With reference to the BLS payrolls data, John Williams, ShadowStats founder, has regularly spotted “spurious revisions used to spike payroll employment levels.” He said of the March 2014 payroll report, that, “[The] increase of 192,000 was bloated heavily by concealed and constantly shifting seasonal adjustments… [that the] numbers remain of horrendous quality… generally not comparable with earlier reporting.”

Methodological changes to the CPI are also worrisome. Some non-government consumer price indices show exactly how much the government CPI has understated inflation that’s relevant to most people’s everyday experience. One such index is Guild Investment Management’s (GIM), Guild Basic Needs Index (GBNI). GIM says that because the BLS, “periodically alters its [CPI] content, making adjustments to the weighting of the components, and smoothing seasonal patterns. [That,] such tinkering with data… usually results in an understatement of the inflation rate and creates an unreliable, misleading cost of living index.”

The GBNI includes food, clothing, shelter and energy, covering 50-80% of most people’s expenditures. From the chart below see how over the five years to January 31, 2014, the annual increase in the GBNI was 4.7%, versus 2.1% for the CPI.

ShadowStats has re-worked the CPI as the BLS measured it with a fixed basket of goods in 1990 (see below), and in 1980 (not shown). Using the 1990 measure annual inflation in February 2014 was running at about 5%, blue line, versus under 2%, red line, for the Official CPI-U.

Changes to the personal savings rate methodology are of concern too. Negative personal savings rates in the past decade became positive. For instance, the personal savings rate (as a percentage of disposable personal income) in 2006 and 2007 was about -2% but has become +3% after revisions. Methodological changes in personal incomes and certain pension benefits, etc., had the effect of enhancing personal savings rates.

Regarding GDP, we see it has benefited from arguably bureaucratically lowered inflation rates. To arrive at ‘real’ U.S. GDP, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reduces nominal (current prices) GDP by BEA’s own inflation measure. According to Mr. Williams, this measure shares many similarities to the CPI. One example is that it includes “quality-adjusted price indexes to deflate goods and services.” Hence, if a new computer has the same price as one several years ago but is many times more powerful, its price would now be deemed much, much lower, thereby lowering BEA’s price index and thus increasing real GDP.

To see exactly how these methodologies upwardly bias GDP, consider that BEA reported real GDP for 2013 at 1.9%. However, using the SGS-Alternate GDP that eliminates, as ShadowStats says, some of the “distortions in government inflation usage and methodological changes that have resulted in a built-in upside bias to official reporting,” real 2013 GDP would be about 4% lower and negative at around -2%!

These questionable brighter-looking statistics could be creating the illusion of a better economy. Coincidentally, such a possibly falsified, better-looking economy, greatly benefits some key political and financial elites who just happen to have disproportionate power to influence government statistical methods.

ShadowStats gives examples of the Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush (first) and Clinton administrations engaging in acts to alter various economic statistics so as to put their respective administrations in a brighter light.

And the economic elite benefiting most from these more positive looking statistics pumping up the bond and stock markets are the ultra rich. Moreover, it is they who have an out sized influence on legislators and government policies and perhaps the most interest in adding gloss to the statistics.

Regrettably, those who should be critiquing and providing insight for the public about the meaning and consequences of the methodological changes to the statistics, our beloved economists, are missing-in-action. Economists, believing they are quasi-physicists of the economics realm, should be ashamed at their apparent near total public acquiescence to government statistical methods and methodological changes.

Sadly, the financial media is just as irresponsible too, parroting the statistical information spoon-fed to them by government. This is a situation suited to a dictatorship rather than an enlightened democracy.

When methodological changes to government economic statistics nearly always create a picture of a more positive economic reality, we have to doubt their integrity—especially when particularly powerful political and financial elites benefit the most from them. Alas, economists and financial journalists studiously avoid publicly critiquing the changing statistical methodologies. They treat government statistics as if they come down from God and written in stone. We deserve better in this enlightened age.

So, are these dubious, positively biased economic statistics providing improved insight into economic reality–or are they created to proffer the impression of a healthy economy?

© Ron Robins 2014

Posted in Economic Measurement, Economics, Statistics, Unethical Statistics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

• Manipulated Markets Can Cause Ruin

Posted by Ron Robins on December 10, 2010

By Ron Robins. First published October 9, 2010, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Market manipulations eventually led to Soviet economic collapse. Though not as overt as the Soviets, it is the manipulation of currencies and interest rates by major economic powers that has mostly led to massive misalignments in investment and consumption that pose extraordinary dangers to global economic health.

Ask anyone if they believe that the Chinese currency, the renminbi, is manipulated. Almost everyone agrees that it is. Are US interest rates manipulated? Again, everyone knows they are. (Not too long ago it was only the short term rates that were controlled. Now the US Federal Reserve [the Fed] is buying longer dated US treasury bonds to bring their rates down too.) Countries all over the world are manipulating their currencies lower to gain export advantages and maintaining near zero interest rates to spur domestic demand and cheap government borrowing.

It is basic economics that where markets are manipulated, supply and demand are distorted. And one distortion creates the need for a further distortion, and so on. The longer the distortions continue the greater the possibility of total market failure. We are near that point today with currencies and interest rates.

The Chinese have scored a major mercantile advantage by pegging their currency, the renminbi, at a relatively set and undervalued rate to the U.S. dollar. Not only have US exports suffered, but the exports of many other countries have suffered as well. Under US law, the Chinese should probably have been labelled a ‘currency manipulator.’ However, by bowing to Chinese demands that they not be labelled a currency manipulator, President Obama’s administration is losing credibility everywhere.

So, Americans are waking up to find that not only does China dictate U.S foreign exchange policy, but China indirectly influences its domestic economic agenda as well. Everything from employment policies (export expansion) to government funding needs (requiring Chinese funding) are all partly defined by the present exchange rate policies.

Increasingly, Americans realize that on the foreign exchange front they have been ‘checkmated’—as in the game of chess—by China. Should difficult economic times continue, or worsen, increasing American anger is likely at this arrangement. It could pass the breaking point and encourage America to act unilaterally against China. Currency turmoil might then embrace the globe.

However, one never discussed but possible reason why the US government has been afraid to label China (and Japan previously) as currency manipulators may be because the US itself may be acting covertly to manage the dollar exchange rate.

According to the US government’s own legislation, it can act secretly in currency exchange markets to affect the dollar’s exchange rate using the Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF). The US Treasury says that the ESF, “with the approval of the President, may deal in gold, foreign exchange, and other instruments of credit and securities.” The ESF was established by the Gold Reserve Act of 1934 and then amended in the late 1970s.

Also, the Fed engages in opaque currency ‘swaps’ with other nations, and there is significant evidence of U.S Treasury and Fed engagement in gold price suppression. Gold is the ‘anti-dollar’ and barometer of confidence in the dollar. (See my August 24 column, “The Ethics of Gold,” at http://english.alrroya.com/node/54671 and gata.org)

Another manipulation of the Fed is its control of short term rates—and now possibly long term ones as well—to smooth out the booms and busts of the economy. However, we see the falsity of this argument. After almost two years at a near zero per cent federal funds rate the US economic quagmire continues—or worsens.

Induced low rates over the past ten years or so created a massive real estate boom and bust, discouraged savings, led to inordinate financial risk taking and moral hazard, unsustainable consumer debt, and now excessive, possibly uncontrollable government deficits and debt.

In their seminal work, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” published January 2010, Professors Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff found that when government debt/GDP ratios exceed 90 per cent, economic growth rates fall considerably. According to the BIS, U.S. government debt/GDP will be 92 per cent by the end of 2010 and 100 per cent in 2011.

Furthermore, on September 1, the International Monetary Fund said, “general government debt in the G-20 advanced economies surged from 78 per cent of GDP in 2007 to 97 per cent of GDP in 2009 and is projected to rise to 115 per cent of GDP in 2015.”

Unfortunately, the present and future private deleveraging of debt in the U.S. and some other developed countries means potentially continued high—or higher—government deficits as economic growth is retarded or declines further. The Fed has said that to counter any renewed softness in US economic activity it will significantly expand its purchases of US government bonds and possibly other assets. This has the potential for fuelling a huge expansion of the money supply and creating high or even hyperinflation.

The U.S. and some other countries are following a path whereby every manipulation begets further manipulation, and which then begets even further manipulation. With China, perhaps Japan again soon, and other countries controlling their currency values, the U.S. may be forced overtly or covertly to counter their currency manipulations. And with continuing economic difficulties, with interest rate policy having created a debt nightmare and becoming increasingly ineffective, the Fed may institute money proliferation policies that have the possibility of leading to high or even hyperinflation.

If a vicious circle of manipulations by US authorities and other countries occurs, given time, it might rival some aspects of the Soviet command economy—and with a possibly similar tragic outcome. Hopefully, Americans and others will wake up before it is too late and realise that manipulated markets can eventually cause ruin.

Copyright alrroya.com

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