Friday, April 18, 2014

Five Reasons Interest Rates Aren’t Going Anywhere This Decade

Five weeks ago, I took a look at new Fed chair Janet Yellen.  I said that she cared more about jobs than about curbing inflation, which was a good thing, since American work opportunities have stayed scarce while annual price increases have been low since George H. W. Bush was president.  Still, we’re seeing some renewed inflation fears, leading to speculation that interest rates might be raised to prevent it.  Is that reasonably possible?  No, it isn’t, for five reasons.

First, on Wednesday we had some more words from Yellen.  When she addressed the Economic Club of New York, she mentioned full employment, saying that it was “for the first time since the crisis, in the medium-term outlooks of many forecasters,” but the end to chronic joblessness was projected “to be more than two years away.”  That means that she seems to believe the jobs crisis will end, and that it will take some time.  Combine those two ideas, and it seems she will wait for a large employment improvement.  That means staying the course, which as of yesterday was a 0.25% federal funds rate, a 0.75% federal discount rate, and the result of a 3.25% Wall Street Journal prime rate.  With other developed countries even lower – prime rates in Canada, Japan, and the Euro zone are now 3%, 1.475% and a rather stunning 0.25% respectively – if the jobs crisis is permanent, there will be little change.

Second, Yellen said, also Wednesday, that “as the labor market slack diminishes, it will exert less of a drag on inflation,” which she acknowledged had been under 2% for some time.  It has actually been 18 months since inflation worked out to more than 2% per year, and ten months before that since it was over 3%.  Although the official unemployment rate has dropped substantially over the past nine months, annual inflation for them, working backwards, has been 1.5%, 1.1%, 1.6%, 1.5%, 1.5%, 1.2%, 1.0%, 1.2%, and 1.5%.  Given that food and energy costs have fluctuated as usual since July, we couldn’t expect any more of a steady state, and it has been ten years since monthly inflation has had nine consecutive months in such a narrow range.  If the labor market, including its prodigious latent demand, stays loose, there is no reason to believe that further unemployment rate reductions will cause prices to jump, and interest rates will not significantly rise. 

Third, the federal government now owes about $17.58 trillion, mostly financed through the sale of bonds.  At 2% interest, debt servicing costs about $350 billion per year.  Triple that, to rates actually much lower than were in effect for decades, and we would pay over a trillion in interest, which would be more than defense costs, Social Security payouts, or Medicare and Medicaid combined.  Our public sector is addicted to low interest rates, and that is reason enough for extreme pressure to keep them that way.

Fourth, the jobs crisis keeps demand for goods and services low.  Inflation happens when willingness to buy products exceeds their supply, and, with so many people having minimal money to spend, the latter is healthier than the former.  As a result, business borrowing will remain lukewarm, allowing the supply of funds to stay ahead of it. 

Fifth, we have now gone more than four years without a recession.  There is no reason to think that will continue indefinitely.  The jobs crisis, making Americans feel as if they are in a cyclical downturn, does not mean the real thing won’t happen.

So there we are.  If you are called upon to place bets, through borrowing or investment decisions, do not be scared that it will suddenly be 1980 again, or even 2008.  A lot of things could happen during the rest of the decade.  Ukraine may fall completely under Russian influence, a cure or solid prevention for cancer may materialize, Google Glass devices could outnumber regular spectacles, and a Tea Partier could be elected president.  The Cubs could even win the World Series.  But one thing will stay the same through at least 2020 – American interest rates will remain low.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Telecommuting and Round-The-Clock Contact – We Do Need Limitations

This week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour (yes, even here in the Catskills), which brought up an issue with work that has gone on for decades in one form or another.  The story was about the intrusion of job responsibilities into personal time, helped along by technology such as iPhones and of course email.  The story pointed out that more people are getting pulled into responding to communications during off-hours, and that some employees, and employers, were starting to take a stand against it.

We’ve heard that sort of thing before.  It has its roots in age-old workplace pressure to put in extra time, and it gathered steam with widespread telecommuting in the 1990s, before text messages but with email from anywhere well established.  Since cubicle jobs seemingly did not require people to be in the office, the idea spread that they might as well save the commute and work from home.  Those doing it swore that it improved their productivity, and for a few years telecommuting received almost totally positive business press. 

After a while – a short time at some progressive companies and much longer at others – the bloom went off the work-from-home rose.  Companies discovered that many were, in fact, doing poor work or no work when they telecommuted.  It proved more valuable for people to maintain better contact with their peers by being physically present.  Managers were faced with evidence that not all of their employees put in equal efforts, and some who did not accept that ended telecommuting privileges completely.  The logical flaw in working from home, that people who had trouble getting their work done in settings designed to facilitate that did not become focused jammers when surrounded by their own personally chosen distractions, became exposed.  When I worked in AT&T management throughout the 1990s, the company, not known then for responding quickly to change, got the worst of it, as the least disciplined and conscientious workers seemed to ask to telecommute the most.  Some abuses I saw included being told by one person’s spouse at 2:00pm that the employee was taking a “late lunch,” another making sounds consistent with an aerobic workout at 9:45am, another telling me not to call them when they were working from home, and several refusing to alter their schedules when events clearly indicated they should be physically present.  Some supervisors seemed to assign incoming work only to people in the office, and in general, telecommuters were treated as roughly midway between those onsite and those off for the day.  As a result of similar experiences elsewhere, it has been a long time since commentary about working at home has been exclusively glowing – more representative is the recent Dilbert strip in which the title character almost succeeded in getting his boss to allow him to work from home with no deliverables, after which he said, to himself, that he fell just short of getting a year’s vacation.

So what does telecommuting, still around but generally much better judged, have to do with extra hours and the subject of the BBC piece?  All three are about the boundaries of ordinary office-related jobs.  In a way, the newest problem is the worst, as workers are now sensing expectations that they in effect should telecommute around the clock.  What is wrong with all the off-hour contact?

First, it is inefficient.  Studies have shown that for office jobs, work over 40 weekly hours has diminishing returns, even to the extent of those who put in 20 extra ones doing the equivalent of not 60 but 48.  Second, transition time between tasks, for thinking work, can take as long as 20 to 30 minutes, and changing from personal task to job-related ones is no better.  Third, new and more accessible communications channels have created a Parkinson’s Law-like situation.  That rule states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, and it is a serious problem and subject of many books and articles;  when cell phones are always carried and text messages are available, people are known to be electronically accessible, which leads to non-urgent and unnecessary communications.  Fourth, many employees, especially those with relatively little demanding their time outside of work, welcome the opportunity to look dedicated;  the belts adorned with pagers and phones two decades ago have given way to conspicuous texting and talking at hours that might seem, to some, impressive.

What is happening here, though, is more akin to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  We then did not know how many hours a human being could put in at a factory, and those who managed those going from the likes of 3am to 10pm six or seven days a week found out it wasn’t that many as they had hoped.  Now, the presence of modern wireless phones and the lack of physical exertion of cubicle work are fooling a lot into thinking people can be available for much more time than before.  They cannot.  When combined with the lack of jobs, making more office workers available, it would be beneficial if employers did consign round-the-clock contact to history, where most have already put unbridled telecommuting.  Technology is a fine servant, but makes a very poor master – within the decade we will discover that again. 



Friday, April 4, 2014

March AJSN: America Now “Only” 19.7 Million Jobs Short

This morning’s data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show improvement.  It is small, but broad-based to an extent we don’t see too often.  While the headline number, the seasonally-adjusted employment rate, stayed the same, almost everything else of overall national significance got better.  The count of net jobs added, 192,000, more than covered population increase.  The number of long-term jobless, those out for 27 weeks or more, went from 3.8 million in February to 3.7 million.  Labor force participation improved from 63.0% to 63.2%, and the share of the population working rose from 58.8% to 58.9%.  Almost every one of the federal marginally attached categories – all, in fact, except those out for ill health or disability – shrank.   The result is a lower American Job Shortage Number, as follows:


Compared with a year before, the AJSN is now 1.2 million lower.  Although, compared with March 2013, over 1.6 million more Americans report not wanting a job at all, and 2.7 million additional are off the grid, almost 1.3 million more have work, and the other secondary categories have generally improved.  

With almost everything getting better, why, you ask, did the AJSN not improve more than 544,000?  It’s not seasonality – February and March are similar for employment.  The reason is that the improvements were small.  Last month was not a banner one for jobs, but in the right direction.    

So how much better shape are we actually in?  Some of the improvement didn’t really happen, as bad February weather made that month’s numbers look worse than they actually were, with problems not only with people working but with reporting.  Two measures also did not get better at all – unadjusted unemployment stayed at 6.8%, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting full-time employment but not finding it, rose from 7.2 million to 7.4 million. 

However, even though the previous set of employment statistics were poorer quality than usual, its numbers were nothing depressing.  And here in March, we have real improvement, small though it may be.  Will slow and steady win the American jobs race?  That depends on something very much unknown – just how long the turtle can keep plodding forward.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Five More Ways the Jobs Crisis Might be Nullified

I have previously identified three things with potential to end the permanent work shortage.  They are guaranteed income, shorter work hours, and payment for Internet information.  How about others?  Yes, there are extra ways the jobs crisis can be stopped, or at least made less important. 

First, there are the holocausts mentioned by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, in his classic 2000 Wired article “Why the future doesn’t need us.” One is from out-of-control robots, which, by replicating themselves, can give us problems bombs don’t cause.  Another could be from genetic modification, which could be used to create a fast-killing disease much worse than the medieval plague.  A third he called the “gray goo problem,” caused by nanotechnology, in which self-replicating man-made bacteria could “reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.”  Any of these would make our need to work rather moot.

Second, funny things could happen to our consciousness.  Despite recent press on how we know we exist and how we can formally determine if other beings are alive, we don’t know much about what awareness really is.  There are four broad possibilities.  It could be algorithmic and caused by computational procedures, it could come from the brain and can be simulated by machines, it could be the same but cannot be replicated elsewhere, or it could have no physical source at all.  It’s quite a tall order to design an experiment to determine which of these is really the case, so we will continue to speculate.  If either of the first two is right, we have an interesting situation coming up – merging ourselves with computers.  If calculators, let alone animals, are self-aware, we will within the century be able to end our earthly needs, and our deaths, by changing platforms from flesh and blood to silicon.  And who would need to work then?

Third, more and more devices, along the lines of contact lenses but rather more profound, may be invented for our bodies.  One idea is nanobots, which would course through our bloodstreams and search for and destroy diseases and other malfunctions.  A lot of Superman-level technology is already in progress, such as telekinetics (making something move by thinking certain thoughts), a suit rather like an insect’s exoskeleton to provide extreme strength, and two things the Army uses already, telescopic and X-ray vision.  We may soon also see gene doping, or changing DNA to improve physical capabilities, beyond lab animals, where it has worked.  These would hardly be free, but there proliferation could warp our need for income in strange and unforeseen ways.   

Fourth, the aging process could become a thing of the past.  Possible breakthroughs could include deactivating destructive genes, treatment to change an individual’s genetic code, cell cloning for regeneration, and advanced metabolic medications, resulting in perpetual physical 35-year-olds.  The greatest advantages of these technologies would not be restricted to those born after their availability, as people could live endlessly if they only achieved what author Aubrey DeGrey called “longevity escape velocity,” when methods to stop aging add to remaining life expectancy quicker than it decreases naturally. 

Fifth, a relatively old standby in the immortality quest, cryonics, or preserving bodies at very low temperatures, could become the norm.  Science fiction author Larry Niven has written extensively on the outcome of what he called “corpsicles,” who (or which?) could be rejected or even destroyed by future generations even if the technology works, but many people, such as baseball great Ted Williams, are now in that state.  

If any of these things happen, jobs and careers could go away.  If energy and other resources become so cheap that nobody need pay for them, they won’t need to work either.

Will the jobs crisis end in one of these ways?  Technology marches on, but public policy stops and starts.  Yet our lawmakers and government leaders get there through our voting choices, so there is truth in the saying that people get the governments they deserve.  The future is, as always, ours to create. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Here’s What to Give Up for Lent

Now let’s take a little break, from real-life Tom Clancy thrillers about disappearing airplanes, and from foreign despots doing remarkably accurate Adolf Hitler imitations (the election results were legitimate, that’s all the territory we want, we need to protect speakers of our language from harm which their country’s government couldn’t provide, and more).  It’s Lent, during which it was once a common custom for people to give things up.  So what would I like our conservatives and liberals to skip for at least its 30 remaining days?

Conservatives, give up complaining about Obamacare.  It’s the law, it’s moving forward (even if more than a little clumsily), and it’s crystal-clear that by decade’s end it will be as well established as Social Security and Medicare are now.  The stance against it is Wrong Side of History #1, and, if you can’t find something constructive to concentrate on, at least find something else to carp about.

Liberals, lay off harping about global warming, climate change, or whatever you’ll want us to call it next.  Your proselytizing reminds me of door-to-door religion sellers – if you’re confident about what you’re saying, then why do you need to convince others?  Some people who doubt that the whole package – not only that we know beyond any sane doubt that the planet is getting warmer, but that humans, especially Americans, are causing it, and that that is bad, and that the problem will go on indefinitely otherwise, AND that people can viably make the difference between salvation and disaster – is doubtlessly correct are not scientific Neanderthals.  Hush, and let the facts, if they truly support your position, speak for themselves.

Conservatives, it’s overdue by at least 16 months, since the 2012 election results were final, to dam the steady stream of criticizing Barack Obama.   He’s scheduled to be our president until January 2017.  Do you want to impeach him, remove him from office, and replace him with a Republican?  Sorry, can’t.  Running him down on each issue that comes up (Charles Krauthammer’s column, for one, while putting the occasional ball in the center-field stands, could be titled “What Obama Did Wrong This Time”) will NOT help your 2014 or 2016 causes – most moderates have just plain had enough of that stuff.

Liberals, and your guru Noam Chomsky, take time off from accusing conservatives of hating the poor.  Just because they don’t support destroying half a million jobs by raising the minimum wage, or trying to raise everyone’s prosperity to middle-class status, doesn’t mean they’ll drop their often devout Christianity by letting them starve.  Focus more on the right parts of that.  If you hadn’t asked for the sun, the moon, and the stars, more food stamps and longer unemployment benefits would have been a slam-dunk by now. 

Conservatives, on same-sex marriage, it’s time to give up.  Quit.  Fold your hand.  Leave the playing field.  That is Wrong Side of History #2.  Government licenses and humane rights, such as visiting your life partner in the hospital, are not sacred anyway.  And, if the experiments in Colorado and Washington prove nondisastrous, get ready to do the same thing with marijuana legalization.        

Liberals, for at least the next several weeks stop attributing all human differences to race, sex, or sexual orientation.  People are different in vastly more ways, and more important ways, than those things, which don’t explain everything.  I doubt you’re ready to believe that all groups aren’t 100% biologically or even culturally equal in interests, priorities, drive, and therefore economic outcomes, but at least stop dumping everyone’s actions on their genital type, skin pigmentation, or who they want in bed with them.

Conservatives, at least briefly table the gun-control paranoia!  So you think Obama, like every other Democratic president since Andrew Jackson, wants to ban guns?  OK, document it.  And then don’t believe it.  Even if everyone in Congress lost what was left of their common sense, the avowed blue-steel Democrats there would see that anything like that would get laughed out of committee, even if it bizarrely got that far.  And no, restrictions on things like giant ammunition magazines in public are not sinister precursors to such a law, any more than driving a mile west to your Atlanta grocery store means you’re headed to Los Angeles.

Liberals, did you think you were escaping blame for resisting change?  Hardly.  Through the next month, please stop equating the unions in the earlier days of the Industrial Revolution, when labor and management were true opponents and neither employers nor employees knew when workers should and should not be pushed or endangered, with public-sector organizations today.  As the Japanese knew decades ago, once unions are in place they should be fully cooperated with, but advocating expanding their scope, especially by evoking images such as the widows of workers dying in steel mills getting denied even that day’s pay, is Wrong Side of History #3.

Conservatives and liberals, consider, over the next four weeks and two days, that the jobs crisis might be not only permanent but a higher priority than any of these.

There you are.  If nothing else, let’s all heed the proverb about not speaking unless we can improve upon the silence.  If you don’t like that one, at least consider what Tom Lehrer said:  “I feel that if a person has problems communicating the very least he can do is to shut up.”

Friday, March 14, 2014

Janet Yellen at the Fed – So Far, So Good

When Janet L. Yellen’s name first reached the general public, it was because she was a novelty.  It’s sad that 2014 someone’s sex is more important than his or her qualifications, but it’s hardly rare.  She was frequently described as a woman who was a major candidate to replace Ben S. Bernanke as Chair of Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, or, as otherwise known, chair of the Fed. 

That is an extremely responsible position.  In my mind, it would contend only with the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice for not only the effect it has on others but in its need for prudence and sobriety.  The Fed’s monetary policies affect the prosperity of the majority of Americans, and the decisions are the most complex imaginable.  A fellow graduate student, in physics instead of sociology, told me he didn’t want to study the social sciences because they had “too many variables” – we can all agree that economics is in that category.  Many of its factors are worse than that – they are simply unknown, lost in the murk of human behavior.  So in many ways it is a wonder that none of the past few decades’ Fed leaders, from Paul Volcker through Alan Greenspan and Bernanke, have made a clearly catastrophic error. 

Yellen, a Harvard economics professor at age 25, had been president and CEO of San Francisco’s Federal Reserve Bank for six years when she became the Fed’s vice chair in 2010.  After President Obama went through a remarkable amount of time deciding that Yellen was the right choice for the top job, he officially nominated her in October and she started the job last month. 

Beyond the prime credentials, what is she like?  She is a Keynesian, believing in the ability of circulating money to boost economic activity.  She is known as being more concerned with jobs than with inflation.  That is now a very good thing.  Earlier this year, she went out of her way to point out that long-term joblessness had not improved as much as the unemployment rate, and touched on the damage it did to long-out-of-work people’s careers.  That is also good.  She maintained in 2012 that the economy needed more stimulation, and, back in 1995, called moderately high inflation “a wise and humane policy.”  Accordingly, she has received some criticism from the right, such as being called “entirely too easy money” by investor Julian Robertson. 

That is understandable, but not to the point.  American inflation is dormant, and has been for a long time – in fact, it has been over 23 years, since November 1990, that it has exceeded an annual 6% even for a month.  On the other hand, even if you don’t think the job shortage is permanent, you must admit that employment is recovering very slowly, well over an official 6% almost five years after the last recession’s end, with measures such as the share of adults working having not improved at all. 

Since taking office, Yellen has said that any end to the federal bond-buying program will be based on a variety of economic indicators.  That is favorable also, as is continuing another of Bernanke’s well-judged policies of keeping short-term interest rates close to zero.  She acknowledged that raising the minimum wage could cost as many as one million jobs, a fine response from the first Democrat to hold the office in thirty years.  She said that bad February weather had made a significant dent in the economy, and on that we will see, probably in three weeks with March’s jobs data. 

In all, early indications on how Yellen will be for American jobs are clearly positive.  Not only does she have the right emphases, but her words on the minimum wage show that she may not be bound by party doctrine.  We can continue to expect, and probably receive, more solid performance from the Fed chair’s office.  As for inflation, we should not worry – even if the fundamentals hinted at all that it might return, she will not get carried away.  After all, her predecessor and de facto mentor Bernanke, though once known as Helicopter Ben for his statements about increasing the money supply by throwing it out from the air, saw inflation go nowhere during his eight-year tenure.  From here, Janet Yellen looks like a winner.

Friday, March 7, 2014

AJSN: America Almost 20.3 Million Jobs Short on Neutral February Jobs Report

Dull.  Nondescript.  Undistinctive.  Unsurprising.  Inconclusive. 

Those words could be used to describe this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics federal employment issue.  The 175,000 net new jobs were almost exactly the 172,000 estimate offered in The New York Times’s Economix blog.  The headline seasonally adjusted unemployment rate went up, though only a tenth of a percent to 6.7%.

Although official joblessness rose, the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN) decreased over 300,000, mostly on smaller counts of discouraged workers and those not having looked in the previous year.  The total number of additional American positions that could be quickly filled is still almost 20.3 million, with its components as follows:

TotalLatent Demand %Latent Demand Total
Family Responsibilities251,0003075,300
In School or Training275,00050137,500
Ill Health or Disability173,0001017,300
Did Not Search for Work In  Previous Year3,216,000802,572,800
Not Available to Work Now572,00030171,600
Do Not Want a Job85,968,00054,298,400
Non-Civilian, Institutionalized, and Unaccounted For, 15+10,110,009101,011,001
American Expatriates6,320,000201,264,000
TOTAL  20,285,501

Those in school or training dropped, a strange thing to happen between January and February, by 72,000, while those saying they just plain didn’t want to work also found an unusual decrease, of 58,000, as did the non-civilian, institutionalized, and unknown group, off 449,000. 
Two of last month’s favorable changes held their gains; the labor force participation rate and employment-to-population ratio, more important in assessing the availability of work than the unemployment rate, stayed at 63.0% and 58.8%.  The number of people working part-time when they would prefer full-time improved to 7.2 million, while the count of long-term unemployed, officially jobless for 27 weeks or longer, gained back nearly all of its January loss and now stands at 3.8 million.  Seasonally unadjusted unemployment stayed at 7.0%. 
Compared with a year ago, the AJSN is now almost 1.5 million lower.  Almost the entire reason is fewer people unemployed, down 1.6 million.  Although over 3 million more are non-civilian, in institutions, or off the grid, 362,000 fewer report they want to work but haven’t looked over the past year, and 130,000 fewer are officially discouraged.  The number saying they didn’t want a job at all increased, as it is almost certain to continue doing, to 2.7 million.   
So what can we take away from this data?  First, the employment situation seems to have stabilized, with the number of jobs rising remarkably consistently with the rise in the adult population, and enough Americans choosing other lifestyles and otherwise leaving the labor force to keep official unemployment steadyish.  Second, the number of work opportunities and the number of Americans are still parting company, though slowly for now.  Third, we are not in a recession, but in our modern-day steady state.  If we think that is good enough, we should be happy – if not, today’s data gave us no reason at all for optimism.