Stronger Labor Market May Increase Productivity

(p. B3) . . . the provocative conclusion of new research from the McKinsey Global Institute, the in-house think tank of the consulting giant, . . . suggests we should change how we think about the advancements that make society richer over time. It implies that as the economy returns to full employment, an outburst of faster growth in productivity — and hence economic growth — is a real possibility.
. . .
For years, McKinsey researchers have tried to understand what drives productivity growth from the ground up. They’ve studied how innovations that enable a company to make more goods and services per hour of labor spread across the economy.
The latest wrinkle is that the researchers now believe that productivity growth depends not just on the supply side of the economy — what companies produce and what technologies they use to do it — but also significantly on the demand side. That is to say, productivity advancements don’t happen in a vacuum just because technology is available. They also happen because companies need to increase production to match demand for their goods, and a shortage, either of workers or of materials, forces them to think creatively about how to do so.
. . .
. . . consider how this dynamic might apply in the restaurant industry (or retail, or tourism).
The basic technology for self-serve kiosks has been around for years. But when the unemployment rate was at its post-crisis highs, employers could have their pick of good workers at relatively low prices. Now, with the jobless rate at 4.1 percent, good workers are harder to find. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, companies have been more open to installing technology that may have a significant upfront cost and require reworking how a restaurant is organized, but allow more sales without hiring more workers.

For the full commentary, see:
Neil Irwin. “Why Researchers Believe a Productivity Boom Is Now a Real Possibility.” The New York Times (Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018): B3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has a date of Feb. 21, 2018, and has the title “The Economy Is Getting Hotter. Is a Productivity Boom Next?”)

The McKinsey report discussed above, is:
Remes, Jaana, James Manyika, Jacques Bughin, Jonathan Woetzel, Jan Mischke, and Mekala Krishnan. “Solving the Productivity Puzzle.” Report McKinsey Global Institute, Feb. 2018.

Is a Michelin Star the Best Metric of Good Food?

(p. A4) MONTCEAU-LES-MINES, France — It is like giving up your Nobel, rejecting your Oscar, pushing back on your Pulitzer: Jérôme Brochot, a renowned and refined chef, decided to turn in his Michelin star.
He is renouncing the uniquely French distinction that separates his restaurant from thousands of others, the lifetime dream of hundreds. But Mr. Brochot’s decision was not a rash one, born of arrogance, ingratitude or spite. Rather, it was for a prosaic, but still important, reason: he could no longer afford it.
. . .
Even in a region famed for its culinary traditions, this declining old mining town deep in lower Burgundy could not sustain a one-star Michelin restaurant. Mr. Brochot, a youthful-looking 46, had gambled on high-end cuisine in a working-class town and lost.
. . .
Already Mr. Brochot’s strategy appears to be working. He has cut his prices and is offering a more down-to-earth cuisine of stews, including the classic blanquette de veau, and serving cod instead of the more expensive sea bass.
It had depressed him deeply, he said, to have to throw away costly bass and turbot, like gold even in France’s street markets, at the end of every sitting because his customers couldn’t afford it. “There was a lot of waste,” he said.
“Since we changed the formula, we’ve gotten a lot more people,” Mr. Brochot said. Above all, the effect has been psychological. “In the heads of people, a one-star, it’s the price,” he said.
On a recent Friday afternoon, most of the tables had diners, including Didier Mathus, the longtime former mayor, a Socialist.
. . .
“Maybe the star scared people,” Mr. Mathus said. “I understand. He’s saying, ‘Don’t be scared to come here.’ Here, it’s simple people, with modest incomes.”

For the full story, see:
ADAM NOSSITER. “Rejected Honor Reflects Hardships of ‘the Other France’.” The New York Times (Thurs., December 28, 2017): A4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 27, 2017, and has the title “Chef Gives Up a Star, Reflecting Hardship of ‘the Other France’.”)

The System Is “Rigged” by the “Unelected Permanent Governing Class”

(p. 10) With its broad historical scope, Eisinger’s book lacks the juicy, infuriating details of “Chain of Title,” David Dayen’s chronicle of foreclosure fraud — another instance of white-collar crime that went largely unpunished. With its emphasis on institutions and incentives, it doesn’t serve up the red meat of Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide,” a stinging indictment of the justice system’s unequal treatment of corporate executives and street-level drug offenders. But for someone familiar with the political landscape of the contemporary United States, Eisinger’s account has the ring of truth.
After decades in which Wall Street masters of the universe were lionized in the media and popular culture, star investment bankers — rich, usually white men in nice suits — just don’t match the popular image of criminals. Democrats as well as Republicans cozied up to big business, outsourcing the Treasury Department to Wall Street and the Justice Department to corporate law firms. Even after the financial system collapsed, the Obama administration’s priority was to bail out the megabanks — to “foam the runway,” in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s words. The Justice Department became increasingly staffed by intelligent, status-seeking, conformist graduates of the nation’s top law schools — all of whom had friends on Wall Street and in the defense bar. In that environment, the easy choice was to play along, strike a deal with an impressive-sounding fine (to be absorbed by shareholders) that held no one responsible, and avoid risking an acquittal or a hung jury. (The book’s title comes from then-U.S. Attorney James Comey’s name for prosecutors who had never lost a trial.) Corruption can take many forms — not just bags of cash under the table, but a creeping rot that saps our collective motivation to pursue the cause of justice. As Upton Sinclair might have written were he alive today: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his résumé depends upon his not understanding it.
There’s just one problem. While the “unelected permanent governing class” may have been willing to look the other way when highly paid bankers wrecked the economy, many of the workers who lost their jobs and families who lost their homes were not. Outside the Beltway, the fact that the Wall Street titans who blew up the financial system suffered little more than slight reductions in their bonuses only reinforced the perception that the “system” is “rigged” — with the consequences we know only too well. Many people simply want to live in a world that is fair. As Eisinger shows, this one isn’t.

For the full review, see:
JAMES KWAK. “Getting Away With It.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, JULY 9, 2017): 10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date JULY 5, 2017, and has the title “America’s Top Prosecutors Used to Go After Top Executives. What Changed?”)

The book under review, is:
Eisinger, Jesse. The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Venezuelan Communist Economy Continues to Collapse

EmptyShelvesVenezuela2017-09-11.jpg“Empty cases and shelves in a grocery store in Cumaná, Venezuela, last year.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6) CARACAS, Venezuela — Food shortages were already common in Venezuela, so Tabata Soler knew painfully well how to navigate the country’s black market stalls to get basics like eggs and sugar.

But then came a shortage she couldn’t fix: Suddenly, there was no propane gas for sale to do the cooking.
And so for several nights this summer, Ms. Soler prepared dinner above a makeshift fire of broken wooden crates set ablaze with kerosene to feed her extended family of 12.
“There was no other option,” said Ms. Soler, a 37-year-old nurse, while scouting again for gas for her stove. “We went back to the past where we cooked soup with firewood.”
Five months of political turmoil in Venezuela have brought waves of protesters into the streets, left more than 120 people dead and a set off a wide crackdown against dissent by the government, which many nations now consider a dictatorship.
An all-powerful assembly of loyalists of President Nicolás Maduro rules the country with few limits on its authority, vowing to pursue political opponents as traitors while it rewrites the Constitution in the government’s favor.
But as the government tries to stifle the opposition and regain a firm grip on the nation, the country’s economic collapse, nearing its fourth year, continues to gain steam, leaving the president, his loyalists and the country in an increasingly precarious position.
. . .
In one nine-day stretch in late July and early August, the price of the bolívar, the national currency, fell by half against the dollar on the black market, cutting earnings for people who make the minimum wage to the equivalent of just $5 per month.
. . .
“Bolívars are like ice cubes now,” said Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, who leads the Latin America practice at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic advising firm, and teaches at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “If you’re going to go to the fridge and take one, it’s something you have to use right now, because soon it’s going to be gone.”

For the full story, see:
ANA VANESSA HERRERO and NICHOLAS CASEY. “In Venezuela, That Empty Feeling.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., SEPT. 3, 2017): 6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 2, 2017, and has the title “In Venezuela, Cooking With Firewood as Currency Collapses.”)

Deregulation Can Stimulate Dynamism and Economic Growth

(p. A15) Various estimates suggest that had U.S. productivity growth not slowed, GDP would be about $3 trillion higher than it is today.
. . .
Many economists contend that properly counting free digital services from companies like Google and Facebook would substantially boost productivity and GDP growth. One of the highest estimates, calculated by economists Austan Goolsbee and Peter Klenow, stands at $800 billion. That’s a big number, but not big enough to fill a $3 trillion hole.
. . .
In his 2016 book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon contends that the current economy fails to measure up to the great inventions of the past, and that innovation today is more incremental than transformative. He has argued vigorously that the transformative effects of technologies like electric lighting, indoor plumbing, elevators, autos, air travel and television are unlikely to be repeated. Technological innovation, he argues, will not be sufficiently robust to counter the headwinds of slowing population growth, rising inequality and exploding sovereign debt.
Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has resurrected Alvin Hansen’s 1938 theory of secular stagnation. Morgan Stanley economist Ruchir Sharma has argued that a 2% economy is the new normal. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has repeatedly said that the growing share of social benefits and entitlements in GDP crowds out national savings and reduces investments required to boost productivity growth.
The growth dividends from disruptive technology often require time before they are widely diffused and used. To Mr. Gordon’s point, economic historians respond that the Industrial Revolution did not improve British living standards for almost a century. Likewise the productivity boost spurred by the transformative innovations of the early 20th century took decades to kick in.
In the short term, as companies try to develop online capabilities while maintaining a physical presence, some costs are duplicated.
. . .
It’s possible that economic dynamism and entrepreneurship are no longer driving the U.S. economy. Startups are being created at a slower pace. From 1996 to 2007 the ratio of new firms to the total number of firms oscillated between 9.6 and 11.2. Today it has dropped to 7.8. Existing firms do innovate and contribute to improved productivity, but the declining share of young firms suggests a less dynamic economy.
Concurrently, the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that churn in the U.S. labor market remains weak across industries, regions and age groups. People are simply not moving or changing jobs for better alternatives.
. . .
The real debate is about policies that favor productivity and GDP growth. Predicting future innovation is hazardous, but deregulation and streamlined licensing requirements will facilitate job mobility. Tax reform that encourages and rewards investment should stimulate capital investment.
. . .
These necessary policy changes provide options for improving productivity and GDP growth. Waiting for the data debate to resolve itself gets us nowhere.

For the full commentary, see:
Brian Switek. “The Great Productivity Slowdown; It began long before the financial crisis, and it has worsened markedly in the past six years.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., May 5, 2017): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 4, 2017.)

The Goolsbee and Klenow article mentioned above, is:
Goolsbee, Austan, and Peter J. Klenow. “Valuing Consumer Products by the Time Spent Using Them: An Application to the Internet.” American Economic Review 96, no. 2 (May 2006): 108-13.

Fed Throws Seniors Under Bus

(p. A1) The average one-year CD hasn’t paid more than 1% since 2009, according to Bankrate.com.
The drop in interest rates since the financial crisis cost U.S. savers almost $1 trillion in lost income from savings accounts, CDs and bonds from the start of 2008 through 2015, taking into account money saved on debt costs, according to April 2016 research (p. A2) by insurer Swiss Re.
There are few signs of imminent improvement. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note has risen since the election to nearly 2.6%, but it is still below the 2.9% it yielded when U.S. stocks hit their low on March 9, 2009.
. . .
Lawmakers such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) have criticized the Fed’s low-rate policy as harmful to savers. Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) in 2013 said it amounted to “throwing seniors under the bus.”

For the full story, see:
Corrie Driebusch and Aaron Kuriloff. “Stocks Have Tripled Since Crisis, but Low Rates Are Still Squeezing Savers.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., MARCH 9, 2017): A1-A2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 8, 2017, and has the title “Stocks Have Tripled Since Crisis, but Low Rates Are Still Squeezing Savers.”)

Chinese Government Stimulus Inflated Egg Futures Bubble

(p. A1) HONG KONG — China is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into its economy in a new effort to support growth. Some of it is going into roads and bridges and other big projects that will keep the economy humming.
And some of it is going into eggs.
China’s latest lending deluge has sent money sloshing into unexpected parts of the economy. That includes a financial market in Dalian where investors can place bets on the future productivity of the country’s hens.
Egg futures have surged by as much as one-third since March, the sort of move that would be justified if investors believed China’s chicken flocks were headed for an unfortunate fate.
But the market’s usual participants say the flocks are fine. In fact, the actual price of eggs in the country’s markets has fallen from a year ago, according to government statistics.
The reason for the unusual jump in egg futures, they say, is China’s tendency to experience investment bubbles when the government steps up spending and lending. China’s previous efforts to bolster growth unexpectedly (p. B2) sent money into real estate and the stock market — markets that had unexplained rises followed by striking drops.
“Many commodities prices have gone up crazily,” said Du Shaoxing, a futures trader in Guangzhou, in southern China. “We surely hope for a more stabilized trend where futures can reflect economic fundamentals. The way in which recent commodity prices went up is worrisome.”
China’s latest bubble illustrates the potential risks of its newest effort to spur growth. The Chinese economy is already burdened with too much debt, economists say. And sometimes, stopgap measures to help the economy create long-term problems.

For the full story, see:
NEIL GOUGH. “China’s Flood of Cash Roils Egg Futures.” The New York Times (Weds., May 2, 2016): A1 & B2 [sic].
(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 1, 2016, and has the title “China Lending Inflates Real Estate, Stocks, Even Egg Futures.”)