The surprisingly okay state of consumer debt

“According to a recent congressional report, credit card balances actually declined sharply, by $76 billion, in the second quarter of 2020. You might also assume that, with the guillotine of joblessness hanging precipitously in the balance, Americans might defer large purchases, like homes or cars. Again, you’d be wrong: By the fourth quarter of 2020, mortgage debt grew to $10 trillion (compared to a fourth-quarter 2019 statistic of $9.56 trillion), and auto loan debt reached $1.4 trillion.”

“During the worst part of Covid, people were pretty cautious. Debt did rise, but not all debt rose. For example, the US experienced the largest recorded quarterly decline in credit card balances (about $76 billion, see the Congressional Research Service study of May 6, 2021). For one thing, people stopped spending; they really just cut back on expenditures. That’s one of the reasons that businesses were so hard-hit: Aside from the lockdowns and all the rest of it, people weren’t buying stuff.

But I would say that what really saved it from being a total disaster was the three stimulus checks. That first stimulus check was spent almost entirely on expenses, and it appeared that was the period of highest unemployment. When the second stimulus check came out, people were more likely to spend that on debt; that may be one reason that we began to see a decline in credit card debt. And then by the time we got to the third stimulus check, some people were spending it, some people were buying down debt, but a surprising number saved it. The personal savings rate actually reached a high in April of 2020. Who would have believed it?”

“The Census Bureau began doing a survey that was very helpful during the pandemic called the Pulse survey, which comes out every week and asks people about their economic difficulties. In the survey that covered May 12 through 24, there were still 26 percent of respondents who said they were having trouble paying their household expenses. That’s a red flag. And 9 percent of adults were in households where they said that at least some time in the past week, there had not been enough to eat. So it appears to me that the people who have been in dire straits are not going to get out of those dire straits any time soon.”

Will China’s national security law break Hong Kong as a business hub?

“The Biden administration in July issued a warning to US companies: Doing business in Hong Kong is increasingly risky. The advisory, released jointly by the departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security, was basically a giant red flag cautioning companies and investors against the complications that are emerging under China’s national security law.

China imposed the sweeping legislation a little more than a year ago. It has since stifled Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and undermined its autonomy, rule of law, and free speech traditions.

This tenuous political climate has shaken Hong Kong, but it has not yet upended its status as a global financial capital. The United States’s advisory is recognition that this might change as China continues its crackdown in the territory. International businesses — and their employees — could soon find themselves entangled in national security law enforcement.”

“China, for its part, is banking that Hong Kong’s infrastructure and economic climate will still make it a destination for foreign businesses in Asia despite the crackdown. After all, trade wars, tense Washington-Beijing relations, Beijing’s atrocious human rights record, and US sanctions have yet to stop most US firms from doing business in mainland China. And that may keep Hong Kong’s economic might intact while doing little to stop its democracy from crumbling.”

Where Republicans Are Starting to Worry About Big Oil

“Fracking has also accelerated life on the surface. Some landowners have made millions of dollars from selling the rights to oil beneath their land to major corporations. And struggling agricultural crossroads, including Watford City, the county seat 20 miles southeast of Novak’s farm, have found new life as boomtowns. During the past decade, a new high school and hospital, and housing developments sprawling from Main Street into the prairie, have arisen to serve the more than 10,000 people who have come from afar to work in the McKenzie County oil field.

But installing an industry atop an agricultural zone has brought less-heralded changes, too, including an elaborate system to deal with the saltwater, which is actually a polluted mix of naturally occurring brine, hydrocarbons, radioactive materials and more. Billions of gallons of it are produced by oil drilling and pumping each year.”

“Over the following weeks, industry clean-up specialists dug dirt, built berms and installed pumps to try to decontaminate the pasture and its springs. But nearly three months later, a water sample taken far down the gully, where it broadens into a wetland, contained 149,000 parts per million of chloride — 600 times the advised limit, and a clear indication that saltwater and its dangerous contaminants were still present.

The damage to Novak’s land, while dramatic, isn’t uncommon in the North Dakota oil fields. More than 50 saltwater spills happen each year in McKenzie County, when tanker trucks crash, pipelines leak, or well pads or disposal sites catch fire or otherwise malfunction. Many spills are contained on well pads and at disposal sites. But others drain into fields, farmyards and roadways. Novak worried about his pasture, a water source for cows, deer, pheasants and more. And he feared the cumulative impact of so many saltwater spills in a county that is home to hundreds of streams and springs, and where farmers and ranchers often rely on water wells for livestock and themselves.”

” Today, tax revenues from oil operations make up more than 50 percent of North Dakota’s annual budget. Republican leaders in the state, who hold all federal and statewide elected positions, have continued to push for a carbon-based economy, as North Dakota now depends on oil more than any other state. The North Dakota Legacy Fund, an investment account approved by North Dakota voters to guard some oil tax revenue for future expenses, is worth more than $8 billion. Oil tax revenue from that and other sources has buoyed schools and health care across the state, lowered income taxes for residents, and funded everything from flood containment systems in eastern North Dakota to major highway projects.”

““Sometimes you have a really good company that will clean it up. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you don’t ever find out about it,” Jappe said. “I wish saltwater had a little bit more regulation. There just needs to be more accountability.”

Jappe would like the state to require tanker trucks hauling saltwater to carry placards that indicate the toxic load. She would like to see more state health and environmental quality inspectors on site, including some who live and work in McKenzie County year-round, as many now travel from the eastern part of the state for shorter stays.

She is especially concerned about the damage that can come if pipes injecting saltwater a mile underground were to leak. She told me she is not confident underground aquifers, let alone fields and pastures impacted by surface spills, are safe. She worries that residents don’t have enough protection under current oil-field oversight by state agencies that can’t keep pace with development.

“We’re their lab rats,” Jappe said.”

When Government Spending Hurts the Most Vulnerable

“a review of the literature about the impact of government spending on growth reveals that, generally, such spending crowds out the private sector. This dispels the hope that more spending will produce economic wonders.

Deficit spending will eventually result in higher taxes for future generations. That’s a profoundly unfair burden. Debt is also expansive in and of itself, as interest payments on an enormous amount of debt—even when interest rates are low—will result in a larger and expanding deficit. According to Brian Riedl at the Manhattan Institute, Congressional Budget Office data reveal that by 2049, “Interest payments on the national debt would be the federal government’s largest annual expenditure, consuming 42% of all projected tax revenues.”

Eventually, growing debt will also slow economic growth. Lower growth means fewer innovations, lower wage growth, and higher unemployment. It’s all-around bad news. Finally, higher debt could result in a debt crisis. These are good enough reasons for me to want to restrict the size of government and impose fiscal prudence.”

“Interestingly, recent concerns over inflation have highlighted one additional reason why higher debt is problematic. You see, when it comes to inflation, people’s expectations about the price trajectory in the next few years are what really matters. So, it matters less than we think that the current inflationary forces are likely transitory. If people believe that inflation is here to stay, they will try to protect themselves from it today, and we will indeed have inflation today.

Under that scenario, to get inflation under control, the Federal Reserve will have to raise interest rates. And this is where your debt levels matter. Higher interest rates result in a large increase in overall interest payments fairly quickly, as so much of our debt needs to be rolled over on a short-term basis. A sudden increase in interest rates would slow down the recovery, too, which hurts lower-income Americans.

If the Fed were immune to political pressures, this reality might not matter. However, we can expect that political pressure to be enormous. No administration would be happy to see a large increase in interest payments suddenly show up on its balance sheet followed by a large increase in the size of the deficit, especially if that administration is already planning to spend a larger amount of money in the first place. This pressure only grows under an administration that will resist any rate change that could hurt growth. The Fed may also be slow to act because it has made addressing inequality one of its priorities.”

“Do I know what expectations are and how long inflation will stick around? I don’t. But in truth, no one really does. That’s part of the point. In that context, fiscal prudence now is the best course of action, because with so much political pressure in the worst-case scenario, there will be fewer opportunities when the Fed must actually raise interest rates.”

Don’t worry about inflation

“the biggest price increases affecting “core” non-gas or food inflation in recent months have come from new and used cars and air travel. The Biden Council of Economic Advisers estimates that at least 60 percent of inflation in June was due to car prices alone, and a big chunk of the rest came from services like air travel increasing in price as everyone rushes back to travel post-pandemic.

A huge part of the rise in car prices is a semiconductor shortage — implying that a better way to tackle inflation than the Fed raising interest rates might be an effort to improve supply of semiconductors, including boosting production in the US. Biden’s recent efforts to get Taiwan to boost production for US car companies is exactly the kind of intervention implied by this analysis.

The Fed itself seems to be thinking this way; Powell recently testified to Congress that “supply constraints have been restraining activity in some industries, most notably in the motor vehicle industry, where the worldwide shortage of semiconductors has sharply curtailed production so far this year.” Lael Brainard, an influential member of the Fed’s Board of Governors, has said the same.

“If you do think that this supply side story is convincing, then that does really change the way you want to think about this,” Steinsson told me. “Somebody’s going to build a new semiconductor factory at some point … that gives you a rationale for not using the blunt tool of raising interest rates for the whole economy.”

Yes, inflation is rising, there is a great deal of uncertainty, and the specter of the ’70s looms large. But given how much economic pain was visited on millions in the fight against inflation decades ago, it’s encouraging that today’s policymakers seem more willing to consider the path their predecessors did not take.”

Joe Biden’s Executive Order on ‘Promoting Competition’ Covers Everything From Farmers Markets to Net Neutrality

“Not all of the encouragement is bad. For instance, Biden “encourages the [Federal Trade Commission (FTC)] to ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility.” This is one area where U.S. antitrust policy does have a lot of room for improvement.

Another bit of positive encouragement: Biden is directing the Department of Health and Human Services “to consider issuing proposed rules within 120 days for allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter.”

It also touches on “right to repair” rules, encouraging the FTC to limit “equipment manufacturers from restricting people’s ability to use independent repair shops or do DIY repairs—such as when tractor companies block farmers from repairing their own tractors” and to “issue rules against anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of your own devices and equipment.”

“the order “encourages the FTC to ban or limit non-compete agreements” and to establish new rules on internet user data. He encourages the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restore net neutrality rules, to ban landlords from making deals with internet service providers that say tenants must choose a particular internet service, and to create a “nutrition label” for internet service. He orders the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to support farmers markets, and further “directs USDA to consider issuing new rules defining when meat can bear ‘Product of USA’ labels” and to develop new labeling standards “so that consumers can choose to buy products that treat farmers fairly.”

He also announces a general “policy of greater scrutiny of mergers, especially by dominant internet platforms, with particular attention to the acquisition of nascent competitors, serial mergers, the accumulation of data, competition by ‘free’ products, and the effect on user privacy.”

The White House will establish a new Competition Council, led by the director of the National Economic Council, “to monitor progress on finalizing the initiatives.””

Robots were supposed to take our jobs. Instead, they’re making them worse.

“often spend so much time talking about the potential for robots to take our jobs that we fail to look at how they are already changing them — sometimes for the better, but sometimes not. New technologies can give corporations tools for monitoring, managing, and motivating their workforces, sometimes in ways that are harmful. The technology itself might not be innately nefarious, but it makes it easier for companies to maintain tight control on workers and squeeze and exploit them to maximize profits.

“The basic incentives of the system have always been there: employers wanting to maximize the value they get out of their workers while minimizing the cost of labor, the incentive to want to control and monitor and surveil their workers,” said Brian Chen, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “And if technology allows them to do that more cheaply or more efficiently, well then of course they’re going to use technology to do that.”

Tracking software for remote workers, which saw a bump in sales at the start of the pandemic, can follow every second of a person’s workday in front of the computer. Delivery companies can use motion sensors to track their drivers’ every move, measure extra seconds, and ding drivers for falling short.

Automation hasn’t replaced all the workers in warehouses, but it has made work more intense, even dangerous, and changed how tightly workers are managed. Gig workers can find themselves at the whims of an app’s black-box algorithm that lets workers flood the app to compete with each other at a frantic pace for pay so low that how lucrative any given trip or job is can depend on the tip, leaving workers reliant on the generosity of an anonymous stranger. Worse, gig work means they’re doing their jobs without many typical labor protections.

In these circumstances, the robots aren’t taking jobs, they’re making jobs worse. Companies are automating away autonomy and putting profit-maximizing strategies on digital overdrive, turning work into a space with fewer carrots and more sticks.”