Do Economic Recoveries Die of Old Age?

Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D. | GraphsandLaughs, LLC

The US economy is clearly slowing.  After adjusting for inflation, GDP grew by 2.9% in 2018, and by an even better 3.1% in 19Q1.  But growth slowed to just 2% in 19Q2, is expected to grow at a similar pace the rest of this year, and to then slow further in 2020.  According to some pundits, this rapid slowing is a clear sign we are in the final stages of this economic recovery and that a recession is fast approaching.  They point out that we are in the 11th year of this recovery, making it the longest one in history, and as such we are simply due for a recession.  Fortunately, they are wrong, expansions do not die of old age.  Let me explain.

Elliot Eisenberg

Prior to WWII, the idea that expansions were more likely to end as they got older was very common and was frequently mentioned in business and economics textbooks. And indeed, it was justified by the data.  Using a statistical technique called survival analysis, which looks at the probability of some particular event occurring given the age of the subject, be it a person or a car or sports team, it is clear that prior to WWII recessions were more likely to happen the longer the recovery.

The intuitive starting point is based on analogies to human mortality. In short, this presumption suggests that as an economic recovery ages, assorted imbalances and rigidities accumulate that hobble the economy and make it more fragile. As a result, a recovery is increasingly put at risk by smaller and smaller shocks, and it becomes increasingly likely the economic expansion will fall into recession the longer it lasts. Analogies to cars are also frequently cited. All else equal, as a car ages, the probability that it will suffer a mechanical breakdown increases. Thus, older cars are considered less reliable and generally command a lower price than new ones.

Happily, however, various postwar changes in the economy have contributed to more robust and longer-lived expansions!  One key change has been the rise in the share of services produced in the economy and the concomitant decline in goods.  This change has diminished the importance of inventory fluctuations and, as a result, has moderated the business cycle.

The role of the federal government has also drastically changed.  Since WWII, government activity has, among other things, increasingly focused on stabilizing the economy.  In short, the government has gone from a laissez-faire hands-off attitude towards the economy to a forceful, countercyclical policy. This approach has not only prolonged business cycles but has, importantly, eliminated the pattern of cycles becoming increasingly fragile as they age.  In a sharp reversal, it is now recessions that are increasingly likely to end the longer they last as policymakers take action to revive growth, such as passing tax cuts and spending increases and lowering interest rates.

In closing, enjoy the current expansion. Treat it like a good friend or a fine glass of wine and savor every extra month together. While it is almost ten and a half years old, it might well last another year, two if we are lucky. Better yet, the recession that follows is not likely to be particularly deep, as there are no asset bubbles in the making, nor are the sectors of the economy that usually drive us into recession growing inappropriately quickly.

Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D. is President of GraphsandLaughs, LLC and can be reached at Elliot@graphsandlaughs.net. His daily 70-word economics and policy blog can be seen at www.econ70.com

What will cause the next recession?

Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D.
GraphsandLaughs, LLC
September 1, 2019

The Great Recession of 2008 is firmly in the rearview mirror, we are now enjoying the longest recovery in U.S. history, the unemployment rate is near a 50-year low, wage growth is pretty good, inflation is virtually non-existent, and the stock market is just a few percentage points off its all-time high. Yet, talk of recession is increasingly common. And it’s not surprising, given the weakening global economy, the decline in exports, the soft energy and transportation sectors, the ailing agricultural markets, and of course, the overarching U.S.-Sino trade/currency/tech war. That said, while the next recession may well not arrive till 2021, it is not entirely clear what will cause it.

Elliot Eisenberg

In general, recessions are caused by one of three things. Often, central banks raise interest rates too much in an effort to slow the economy to reduce late cycle inflationary pressures. In the process, they either raise rates too much or keep them too high for too long, driving the economy into a recession. A second reason we have recessions is due to unforeseen shocks to the economy. It might be a war or a sudden rise in energy or food prices which reduces household spending power and can cause widespread obsolescence of capital equipment because the higher price of energy makes the equipment uneconomical. A third cause, and one that has recently been the culprit is financial excesses (think bubbles) that result from overexuberance on the part of markets that lead to mispricing of assets and finally a financial crisis.

The 1973 recession was caused by a quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC. Overnight, oil went from $3/bbl to $12/bbl. Moreover, the supply of oil was severely restricted, which led to gasoline rationing and long lines at gas stations. This caused consumer spending to plummet and factories to close, crushing the economy. The recessions of 1979 and 1982 were deliberately engineered by the Fed and its then-chairman, Paul Volker. The only way to squeeze inflation, which was north of 13% at the time, out of the economy was to induce a recession. In 2001, it was the tech bubble, and in 2008 the recession was caused by the housing bubble.

But the 1990 recession was different; it had no singular cause. On one hand, it was a result of a commercial real estate bust partly caused by the S&L crisis, which in turn led to a severe drop in construction activity. But there was also a major rise in energy prices, due to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which hurt consumer confidence and spending. In addition, there was the post-Cold War drawdown in defense spending, which led to a rise in unemployment. While none of these events in isolation would have precipitated a recession, collectively they did. Fortunately, it was short and shallow, but the recovery was slow and jobless.

As for what’s to come, I suspect the next recession will be caused by a confluence of factors. The trade war is already hurting GDP growth. Add to that a global slowdown, a decline in energy prices, a weakening transportation sector, feeble manufacturing activity, Brexit and other European problems, an largely impotent monetary policy as rates are already very low. If all this leads to one or two negative monthly job reports which, in turn, leads to weakening consumer confidence and spending, you probably have the beginnings of a recession. Regrettably, getting out of the next recession may take longer than usual because fiscal policy is already a spent force as we are already running historically very large deficits. And that means a much-reduced willingness on the part of Congress to cut taxes and boost spending.

The good news, the coming recession is not likely to be very deep as there are no obvious bubbles that must be punctured. And lastly, with a bit of luck, this recovery can keep on going for another few years; it is entirely possible.

Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D. is President of GraphsandLaughs, LLC and can be reached at Elliot@graphsandlaughs.net. His daily 70-word economics and policy blog can be seen at www.econ70.com.

Are 1,061 Pages Enough?

By Robert Rivinius, FBA Executive Director
CalChamber Labor Law DigestWhen I have a chance to meet with someone in the Legislature or from the Governor’s Office, I take them a copy of the Cal-Chamber’s 2019 California Labor Law Digest. The book is 8″ x 11″, 2 1/2″ inches thick, and has 1,061 pages. As I present the book, I tell them that if they would like to start a family business in California they will need to know everything contained in the book, follow it to the letter of the law, and even if they do that, probably will be sued.

The lawsuit might be generated by some accommodation an employer was trying to make to actually help their employees, like a late lunch so a person can eat with their co-workers, or skipping a break in order to attend their child’s Little League game. Our labor laws have done a great job of taking flexibility away from California employers who would like to accommodate an employee’s reasonable requests.

I also ask the person receiving the book to keep it in their office and when a new regulation is proposed, take a look at the book and ask, “Are 1,061 pages of labor law compliance requirements not enough? Would 1,200 pages be better?” It usually is an eye-opener for the person receiving the book and maybe, even in a small way, could make a difference in their decision-making.

PAGA Reform Would Help Grow Our Economy

By Ken Monroe
Chair, Family Business Assn. of CA and president, Holt of California

This op-ed originally appeared in the Orange County Register on July 5, 2019

Ken MonroeYou can’t watch TV or go online these days without hearing about more and more politicians who are calling for America to become a socialist nation. With California’s presidential primary just nine months away, these calls will become even louder in the months ahead.

As a family business owner and chairman of the Family Business Association of California, I’d argue that in many ways we already live in a socialist state. After all, a basic definition of socialism is that the state redistributes the wealth and controls the means of production. Through high taxes and ever-increasing regulations, California does both quite effectively.

But there are other ways the state redistributes wealth, and one of the most egregious is the Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA.

PAGA was one of the last bills signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis before his historic recall in 2003 and was his parting gift to the state’s trial lawyers. It allows private attorneys to act as the state and use the 800 pages of labor laws on the books to sue employers over any and all violations, even for incredibly trivial issues. For example, if a company doesn’t list its full legal name on a paystub, it’s a violation.
But no matter how trivial, the penalties for each labor code violation are the same: $100 for each employee per pay period for an initial violation, and $200 for each employee per pay period for each subsequent violation, along with other possible penalties.
These violations can be stacked, with multiple penalties for each statutory wage violation and can quickly add up. I know, because my company, Holt of California, was sued over allowing our employees the flexibility to schedule lunches so they could eat with friends, even if that meant they worked more than five hours set without a meal break.
Because the possible penalties and legal fees in PAGA lawsuits can easily total millions of dollars if a suit goes to trial, most employers settle the cases. While the employees usually get about 60% and the lawyers get about 35%, that means a few lawyers get large checks while the numerous employees end up with relatively little.

PAGA has created an unfair distribution of wealth and should be repealed, with the state once again given the power to enforce labor laws. Since trial lawyers are a major part of the state’s progressive governing coalition, this probably won’t happen any time soon.

But there are some reforms that could at least make PAGA truly focus on the needs of employees more than the trial lawyers’ desire for big paydays:

• First, give employers 90 days to cure underlying issues before a suit can continue. Faced with a similar deluge of lawsuits over construction defects a decade ago, the Legislature gave homebuilders an opportunity to make repairs before they could be sued, so there is a precedent.
• Cap attorney’s fees so that in cases where significant violations occurred that the employees get more of the settlements.
• And make some common-sense reforms in those 800 pages of labor laws. Give employees the right to take their lunch break when they want to and allow companies to include the name they do business as on paystubs. The state should focus on situations that really harm employees.

Successful economies need an ongoing economic engine to create wealth. Here in California, family businesses play a major role making California the fifth-largest economy in the world. But our state’s economic engine is being choked back by a whole host of state laws and regulations, so the Legislature should at least take some modest steps to strengthen our economy. PAGA reform would be a good place to start.

Modern Monetary Theory Is Voodoo Economics Redux

Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D. | June 1, 2019

There is currently widespread frustration with the performance of the global economy. Traditional policy approaches are not delivering the economic results they have in the past. In the U.S., millennials are poorer, have lower incomes, marry less often, and have fewer children than the generations before them. In Europe, the rise of previously fringe parties is unmistakable as voters express their frustrations with the status quo at the ballot box. All this has led to the rise of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a set of ideas that reflect a significant and unfortunate break with previous orthodoxy.

Elliot Eisenberg

During the late 1970s, a similar economic malaise gave rise to supply-side economics popularized by Arthur Laffer. It began with the age-old observation that taxes had important incentive effects and that, in conceivable circumstances, tax cuts could raise revenue. That said, from these two well-understood underpinnings, it grew into the ludicrous idea that tax cuts would always pay for themselves. In the 1980 presidential primaries, future President George H.W. Bush called this idea “voodoo economics” and in the following decades this doctrine did substantial damage to the U.S. economy and has largely short-circuited meaningful debate about taxes.

Now comes MMT, which, like supply-side economics, makes a good observation — that fiscal policy needs to be rethought in an era of low real interest rates — but then stretches it into a ludicrous claim that massive deficit spending on job guarantees can be financed by central banks without any burden on the economy. At a moment of deep economic and political frustration, some fringe wing of the out-of-power party is again offering the proverbial economic free lunch as a politically attractive way out of a fiscal bind. Regrettably, MMT is flawed at many levels.

First, it promises that by printing money the government can finance deficits at zero cost. Not true! The government in fact pays interest on money it creates as it becomes reserves held by commercial banks and the Fed pays interest on reserves. Second, contrary to MMT, governments cannot simply print money to pay bills and avoid default. Looking back at developing nations that have employed MMT demonstrates that beyond a certain point printing money leads to hyperinflation. Third, MMT conveniently assumes an economy that does not trade with other nations. Regrettably, money printing will result in a collapsing exchange rate that will in turn boost inflation, raise long-term interest rates, encourage capital flight, and reduce real wages.

And it is not only in emerging markets where MMT has played out badly. France in the early to mid-1980s and West Germany in the late 1980s employed what now would be called MMT but both nations had to reverse course. Separately, the U.K. and Italy both had to be bailed out by the IMF in the mid-1970s because of an excessive reliance on inflationary finance.
Supply-side economics was an unreasonable extension of valid ideas. To that end, few support a return to the very high marginal tax rates that prevailed before the tax reform of the 1980s. Similarly, in an era of very low inflation, and of real interest rates of close to zero, we can and should carefully reconsider our traditional views of federal borrowing; they need at a minimum a careful and thoughtful rethink. That said, when something sounds too good to be true — as was the case with supply-side economics and is the case with MMT — it’s important to make this clear to improve debate and hopefully prevent us from making another costly and unnecessary economic policy mistake.

Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D. is President of GraphsandLaughs, LLC and can be reached at Elliot@graphsandlaughs.net. His daily 70-word economics and policy blog can be seen at www.econ70.com.

More than 70 Members get latest information at Family Business Day

NEW! See photos from Family Business Day.

More than 70 FBA Members and guests heard the latest information about developments at the Capitol at last week’s Family Business Day and Legislative Conference — including the hot-off-the-presses news that legislation to reinstate the estate tax in California is apparently on hold.

As reported in last week’s News Summary, FBA’s lobbying team of Dennis Albiani and Faith Borges told attendees that after FBA quickly assembled a coalition of some 30 business-oriented organizations to oppose SB 378, the Senate leadership decided to not refer the measure to a committee for a hearing.

While no bill is ever completely dead until the end of the two-year session, the leadership’s action means that the bill by San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener will likely not advance this year. The bill would authorize voters to overturn a 1982 statewide vote and allow lawmakers to reimpose the death tax in California.

Albiani said the decision demonstrates FBA’s growing influence at the Capitol.

“After seven years, we’re starting to infiltrate the minds of the political folks here in California,” Albiani told attendees. “We’ve been asked to engage on several other bills and we do engage when appropriate.”

FBA continues to focus on several other top public policy priorities, including efforts to create a split roll that would reassess commercial properties every three years. Albiani called the proposal “probably the biggest threat for the next year” as lawmakers are pressured to enact legislation to create the split roll before an already-qualified ballot measure is voted on in 2020.

Dan Walters

A strong lineup of speakers provided unique insights. Veteran political columnist Dan Walters outlined what Democratic “super-duper majorities” in both houses, combined with more-progressive Gov. Gavin Newsom, will mean for business interests.

On the one hand, Walters said having more Democrats in each house than the two-thirds majorities needed to enact tax increases allows party leaders to let some members vote against tax bills, increasing the chances such legislation will have enough votes to pass. But on the other hand, he noted that several new Democrats were elected in historically Republican districts and will have to vote their districts in order to be re-elected.

And while there is strong pressure from progressive elements to move California to the left, the costs will be daunting.

“We have 6 million kids in K-12 public education. To get California into the top tier of education spending would cost $5,000/year in per-pupil spending, or about $30 billion. For just that one priority, the state would have to increase income tax collections by one-third or double the sales tax,” Walters said.

And in a state where voters are willing to tax others — the rich and smokers, for example — they have shown a reluctance to tax themselves.

“The Legislature would have to be willing to significantly raise taxes on the middle class” to fund expansive increases in state spending. “They can’t get there without taxing a broad spectrum of California voters.”

Ned Wigglesworth

Ned Wigglesworth, the CEO of Spectrum Campaigns — a firm specializing in ballot measure campaigns for the business community — said there is a significant chance the split roll measure will be on the ballot in 2020, but also said there’s a significant chance it will be defeated if voters can be educated that raising property taxes on businesses will likely be followed by efforts to raise them on homeowners as well.

And he warned business owners that they needed to be engaged, citing the fact that a single-payer healthcare bill passed out of the Senate during the past session before being held up by the Assembly speaker.

Bruce Scheidt (speaking) and Jon Coupal

Bruce Scheidt, senior partner with the Kronick Moskowitz law firm, an FBA Statewide Sponsor, discussed the perils of the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), which allows individuals to sue over Labor Code violations on behalf of the state.

Scheidt said the law was a gift to trial lawyers from former Gov. Gray Davis and that significant reform is all but impossible legislatively because of the clout the trial lawyers have over Democratic lawmakers and the fat the state receives 75 percent of any penalties agreed to in settlements. He said PAGA really stands for “pandering to attorneys’ greed and avarice.”

He also warned that business owners can be held personally liable as well, urging FBA members to redouble efforts to comply with the 9,000+ provisions in the three-inch-thick Labor Code, such as making sure that paystubs contain the full legal name of the company, not any sort of abbreviated version.

He also said employers need to vigilantly enforce meal break laws, even if the employees don’t want to take breaks when the law requires them. He said one approach is to issue written warnings for a first violation and to suspend violators for a subsequent violation.

“For meal and rest violations, you need a zero-tolerance program,” he said.

Taxpayer advocate Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, filled in at the last minute for Joel Fox, who was ill. He was optimistic that a split roll measure would be defeated if it appears on the ballot next year.

“The split roll polls at about 50%, but when voters hear it means amending Prop. 13 they say, ‘What!,'” he said. “Prop. 13 still polls incredibly well, and if we can wrap it in the flag of Prop. 13, we can drive down its numbers.”

Asm. Blanca Rubio

The day’s final speaker, Assembly Member Blanca Rubio, D-West Covina, told members that while she strongly supports Democratic social policies, she also understands that businesses need to be encouraged.

“People in my district depend on local businesses to survive,” she said of local job creators. “I love social programs, but I realize that if I don’t have a tax base, who’s going to pay for those programs?”

Attacked by a primary opponent as “Big Oil Blanca” for being supported by oil companies, she said she’s in a good position because having been opposed by party leaders and labor in her first campaign, she can represent her district and what’s good for California.

“My constituents want a roof over the heads, food to eat and good schools for their kids. We depend on business and our infrastructure to create good bedroom communities in the San Gabriel Valley,” she said.