Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dinner with Paul Krugman

I’ve been invited to a fancy dinner with Paul Krugman later this month when he will be paying a brief visit to the O.C. For those of you who haven’t heard, Krugman is a well known international macroeconomist and political columnist. Krugman is a Professor at Princeton University, and a columnist for the New York Times. Dr. Krugman is a gifted economic theorist, and a best selling author of non-technical books on the macroeconomy for the general public. Krugman and his spouse Robin Wells have co-authored a new book on beginning Macroeconomics. Krugman has a strong respect for the free market, yet his columns have taken an increasingly populist turn.

Here are some pithy quotes from recent Krugman columns in the New York Times on some current macro issues:

“Should we be cheering over the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has finally set a new record? No. The Dow is doing well largely because American employers are waging a successful war against wages. Economic growth since early 2000, when the Dow reached its previous peak, hasn’t been exceptional. But after-tax corporate profits have more than doubled, because workers’ productivity is up, but their wages aren’t — and because companies have dealt with rising health insurance premiums by denying insurance to ever more workers….Major employers like Wal-Mart have decided that their interests are best served by treating workers as a disposable commodity, paid as little as possible and encouraged to leave after a year or two.”
The War Against Wages”, Commentary, by Paul Krugman, NY Times, Published: October 6, 2006

“….housing has been the main engine of U.S. economic growth over the past three years, and with that engine now going into reverse, it's hard to see how we can avoid a serious slowdown.” “Housing Gets Ugly” Commentary, by Paul Krugman, NY Times, Published: August 25, 2006

“Last year America spent 57 percent more than it earned on world markets. That is, our imports were 57 percent larger than our exports. How did we manage to live so far beyond our means? By running up debts to Japan, China and Middle Eastern oil producers. ... Sometimes large-scale foreign borrowing makes sense. ... But this time our overseas borrowing isn't financing an investment boom: ... business investment is actually low by historical standards. Instead, we're using borrowed money to build houses, buy consumer goods and, of course, finance the federal budget deficit.

In 2005 spending on home construction as a percentage of G.D.P. reached its highest level in more than 50 years. People who already own houses are treating them like A.T.M.'s, converting home equity into spending money: last year the personal savings rate fell below zero for the first time since 1933. And it's a sign of our degraded fiscal state that the Bush administration actually boasted about a 2005 budget deficit of more than $300 billion, because it was a bit lower than the 2004 deficit.

It all sounds unsustainable. And it is. Some people insist that the U.S. economy has hidden savings that official statistics fail to capture. I won't go into the technical debate about these claims ... except to say that the more closely one looks at the facts, the less plausible the "don't worry, be happy" hypothesis looks.

But serious analysts know that America's borrowing binge is unsustainable. ... So how bad will it be? It depends on how the binge ends. If it tapers off gradually, the U.S. economy will be able to shift workers out of sectors that have benefited from the housing boom and ... into sectors that produce exports or replace imports. Given time, we could bring the trade deficit down and bring housing back to earth without a net loss in jobs.
In practice, however, a "soft landing" looks unlikely, because too many economic players have unrealistic expectations. This is true of international investors, who are still snapping up U.S. bonds ... seemingly oblivious both to the budget deficit and to the consensus view ... that the dollar will eventually have to fall 30 percent or more to eliminate the trade deficit.

It's equally true of American home buyers. Most Americans live in regions where housing remains affordable. But ... most of the rise in housing values has taken place in a "bubble zone" along the coasts, where housing prices have risen far more than the economic fundamentals warrant. ... houses in the bubble zone are overvalued by between 35 and 40 percent, creating trillions of dollars of illusory wealth.

So it seems all too likely that America's borrowing binge will end with a bang, not a whimper, that spending will suddenly drop off as both the bond market and the housing market experience rude awakenings. If that happens, the economic consequences will be ugly. All in all, Alan Greenspan, who helped create this situation, can consider himself lucky that he's safely out of office, giving briefings to hedge fund managers at $250,000 a pop. And his successor may be in for a rough ride. Best wishes and good luck, Ben; you may need it.” Debt and Denial, Commentary, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: Published February 13, 2006

I look forward to the dinner.

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