United States of America is still the most powerful economic influence in the world. If we choose to "drill baby drill", over the long run we will simultaneously erode Russia's financial ability to wage war on Ukraine and others by driving global energy prices down and slow inflation. This would begin the liberation of Eastern Europe from Russian influence through economic policy.
As natural gas supplies increase, we can re-route liquefied natural gas exports from China to Europe. As we engage Canada, open the Keystone XL pipeline, and enlist Mexico, we can reduce revenues to Russia and limit China's access to low cost energy resources. We can use our enormous energy resources to support our allies and weaken governments led by autocrats claiming a democratically elected mandate.
As an economic policy, capitalism beat communism and ended the cold war in the 1980s and we can do it again. Russia and China both acknowledged the failure of their centrally planned economic systems and moved to a form of capitalism to retain their political power. As a system of governance, communism has no better track record. Supposedly free elections are overshadowed by fear, censorship, and oppression. A truly free people would not chose the ruthlessness that governs the two Asian nations. On equality and opportunity, Russia and China have made the political class in the two countries wealthy in a way that would make the robber barons of the early 1900's blush. While they pay lip service to their citizens, they coerce them into systematic oppression and trap them in long term poverty. The wealth creation of western economies and the spontaneous innovation of free people will always outmatch centrally planned economies and their political class. This is why they can't wean themselves off a form of capitalism.
We should untether the us economy and demonstrate unequivocally that there is no economic system that can match it. We should not move forward with a 1960’s dual mandate of guns and butter. To leverage the economic strength of this country, we need to demonstrate the kind of fiscal policy that will firmly establish the United States as the global standard for fiscal stability, budget accountability, and credit worthiness. A United States Government that is not dependent on its allies or aggressors for financial support would demonstrate the impact for good that free markets, free governments, and free people can make in the 21st century. On defense, we should be the most respected nation in the world both because of our capability and our restraint.
If we can’t lead from the White House, we should lead from the respective states. Let states set in motion a wave of capitalism and freedom that will demonstrate the influence for good that God given rights protected by Constitutional governance, including life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness can have on the lives of our people.
One year ago, in March 2020, State and Local Governments put the United States into a recession in response to the global COVID-19 Pandemic. From the outset, it was apparent this recession would be unlike the past recession, or any other in our memory (see my post from March 19, 2020). It set in motion structural changes in our economy that will last decades.
V, U, W, K Recovery
As soon as the recession was declared, economists tried to describe the shape of the recovery. The first forecasts were for a sharp recession and a proportionally sharp recovery, a “V”. As COVID surged in a second wave during the summer, the concern became a long recovery and a long bottom, or a “U” shaped recovery. The improving economics in the fall lead to fears of a fall recovery and a winter retrenchment, followed by a more sustained recovery in the spring, or a “W” recovery. It is clear, that the COVID-19 recession will be something different, a “K”.
A “K” shaped recovery is an economic cycle with a sharp downturn, followed by sectors that boom and others that bust. This bifurcated recovery is painful as some languish under frustratingly dismal conditions while others watch their economic outlook brighten.
Value stocks languished in bear territory following the spring correction while Tech was responsible for the S&P reaching an all-time high at the end of the year. Big box retail saw tremendous pressure on sales while industrial distribution centers experienced record demand. Apartments in the densest urban cores are saw lease rates fall more than 20% while suburban and rural housing saw record high price levels. Tourism destinations such as New York City, Hawaii, and Las Vegas were hit very hard while destinations near national parks in states that did not close performed well. Restaurants with large dining rooms struggled to remain open while drive-thrus saw record sales. Non-essential employees who could not work from home became unemployed while essential and remote enabled roles remained employed and may have thrived.
Unfortunately, K-12 education, one of the most resilient sectors in any recession, has not been spared the bifurcated outcomes. While budgets were hit with technology and curriculum modifications, the bigger impact was students who could continue to attend in person versus those who could not. Parents and students without means were disproportionately impacted by closed schools. With children at home, parents may have had to choose between essential jobs and their child’s education. Education is a means to opportunity, and many were set back by policies that kept children home without necessary technology, supervision, and support.
Structural Population Shift
Since the Industrial Revolution, people have migrated to cities for education and employment. While the country was historically dominated by small farms and agricultural jobs, the industrial revolution resulted in technology and productivity gains that transformed farming and created opportunity in nearly every other industry. The result was generations of better jobs and upward mobility concentrated in urban centers.
These urban centers have housed the nation’s largest employers and attracted talent from across the country. In many instances, employers are there because they were looking for a deep pool of human capital and the infrastructure to support their growth. Over decades, state and local governments set policy with the knowledge that employees would be required to work where their employers were headquartered.
While technology was enabling remote work and remote education for a few prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 may have broken this relationship between employer and geography by allowing millions of jobs to move remote nearly overnight.
Live, work, play is a movement that has been upended by COVID-19 and the structural shifts in its wake. It used to be that we lived where we worked. Now, many may have the opportunity to live anywhere. If they have that choice, will they choose to live where they play? Will they relocate to be near family? Will they choose to live in expensive urban centers? We have already seen that many are willing to relocate if their employer will allow them.
This is a potential reversal of a migration trend that could favor most communities in the country with only the largest, most expensive, most dense urban centers impacted. It is a reversal that could change population and demographic trends for generations to come.
What happens when interest rates are not set by market forces, but rather managed by policy? Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, and Janet Yellen, immediate past chair of the Federal Reserve and current Secretary of the Treasury, have stated that they do not want to see interest rates rise. An increase in interest rates would make government borrowing more expensive.
What are the impacts of a managed low interest rate environment? First, is the intended boost to consumption and investment. Because interest rates are low consumers and investors are incentivized to spend more. Housing is a good example. A 1% decrease in interest rates on a $350,000 home will allow the price to rise approximately 14% while the mortgage payment remains the same. In other words, the payment on a $350,000 house at 4% is approximately the same as the payment on a $400,000 house at 3%.
There is downside. First, if you are looking to earn a return on savings, you will be disappointed. This incentivizes savers to take additional risk and compete for other investments like stocks, bonds, and real estate—driving those assets values up. Second, the distortion makes government borrowing for federal, state, and local governments appear lower than it should be, incentivizing borrowing by government.
When interest rates become more about policy decisions than economics, unexpected distortions occur that are not healthy in the long run.
More than ever, economics is valuable in helping understand the result of policy choices. It is important to listen to what policy makers say, but it is even more important to watch what they do.
Policy makers have often said they want to help individuals who have been hurt by the COVID-19 induced recession. More than once, they have issued checks of $1,400 to qualifying individuals. They have provided rental assistance and eviction restrictions. At the same time, interest rate policy has increased home values on average by $50,000 in the United States. This disparate impact has benefited homeowners and widened the wealth gap relative to those who rent.
Policy makers have said the want to put money in families’ pockets to help them weather the pandemic. The combined relief packages of over $5.2 trillion in COVID-19 stimulus in the United States distributed to over 130 million households would have been $40,000 per household if distributed directly. If relief focused only on those who lost jobs during 2020, the combined relief packages for approximately 25 million lost jobs is $208,000 per lost job.
Policy makers are concerned about large urban cities and their recovery. Structural shifts accelerating work from home options have released many from living in urban areas, and they have responded by moving to less crowded areas. The result is less traffic, less crime, better air, and better balance for relocating employees. The downside is less revenue to support urban infrastructure and programs.
Policy makers have said they are concerned about getting Americans back to work. Many will stay out of the work force by no choice of their own until economies are open and policy makers trust citizens to make good decisions.
Policy makers are concerned about equal opportunity for all Americans. There is no greater equalizer than education, yet in many communities our schools remain closed and those students who are least prepared to catch up are being impacted the most.
Unfortunately, as with most recessions, individuals are impacted differently. This recession is unique in that winners and losers are primarily determined by policy, not by economics. The response has been to stimulate the economy by lowering interest rates and fiscal spending of $5.2 trillion. Homeowners, suburban and rural communities, and essential services are winners that are benefiting from the upside in a “K” shaped recovery. Urban centers, renters, children, and low wage earners are feeling the downside. The policies of the last year are highly inflationary, even if inflation doesn’t show up in traditional consumption items such as food, fuel, or other household purchases. Asset prices are rising and will do so until the policy induced stimulus runs out.
The United States government struggled with the COVID-19 recovery bill to address the recession the government created. It will not be implemented but here is my proposal (skip to #5 below if you are in a hurry).
1) The bill that is being considered is enormous and highly inefficient. It will get passed anyway.
2) We should not subsidize state and local governments. They made the decision to go into recession, their revenues are protected (utilities, property taxes, income taxes). Sales tax has exposure, but it has always been more volatile than income and property taxes.
3) We should not subsidize businesses or industries. Their assets will be bought and the human capital will not be destroyed. Let the situation play out with investors and creditors.
4) We should not try and solve the situation through unemployment insurance. It is too bureaucratic. The money will not get distributed when it is needed, and then too much will get distributed when it is not needed.
5) There are approximately 130 million households in the United States. Congress will approve an astounding $2 trillion dollar package. That is $15,000 per household. Why not send every household $15,000? The IRS can claw back unneeded funds on next year’s tax return for those who do not lose their job and who make over $100,000 per year. If someone loses their job or does not make over $100,000 per year, then let them keep the money.
We are a consumption based economy. The business sector will weather the recession if consumers are not scared and broke. The payments will allow everyone to either get through the next couple of months or have some reserves set aside. Those who don’t end up needing it can return it on the next tax return. The rest of the country will be set to deal with the recession the government created. This solution can be executed fast, it is easy to implement, and easy to administer.
We are in Recession
The United States moved into recession because of COVID-19 and subsequent governmental actions. It hasn't been confirmed by official statistics, that will take time. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The first quarter of 2020 will show a small drop in GDP because of COVID-19 personal distancing measures and impacts to nonessential business implemented by governments in March. The second quarter will be a much larger drop due to the impacts.
Which Sectors Will Be Hurt the Worst?
High exposure sectors include hospitality, travel, tourism, restaurants, airlines, and other businesses that put groups of people in close contact. The personal distancing measures governments have implemented will create residual reluctance for people to be in large groups and will slow recovery for some businesses. Further, any business or activities considered nonessential will be slower to rebound.
Who are the Winners?
First, winning in a recession is relative. Some will see revenues rise, but some may simply see revenues not fall as much as harder hit sectors. Delivery services will do well, online merchants will benefit. Personal services offered in homes will benefit. Healthcare, domestic manufacturing, transportation, housing, internet and communications services, and utilities considered essential will be more resilient and some will see upside.
Not the Same as Last Time
Each recession and recovery is different. The last recession was characterized by a surplus of homes built by home builders and inflated buyer demand from real estate investors buying homes no one planned to live in. It was made possible by the underwriting of loans where borrowers didn't have sufficient income to support the debt service.
Contrast this with current real estate markets. First, home builders have built many homes, but in some cases at half the rate of the last market cycle. There is very little standing inventory, and the homes have been purchased by people who will occupy them, or investors with someone to rent them. Further, when the loans were originated, the investors who purchased the homes had the income to support the investments.
This recession was initiated by COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic and the actions of governments to implement personal distancing and close nonessential businesses. The government knowingly put the United States in recession in an effort to stop a global pandemic.
There will be softness in real estate. New home construction will be impacted more than residential resale. Expensive markets will be impacted more than affordable markets. Low growth markets will be impacted more than high growth markets. Retail will be impacted more than industrial. Hospitality and vacation rentals have the most exposure today. Interest rates will be low and there will be opportunities for buyers.
The economy will adapt and recover. This recovery will be much quicker than the last one, but it still will take time. Unemployment will rise quickly and the hiring will be slow to recover because of an abundance of caution from employers. Recovery will begin when collective economic activity stops falling and starts growing again. The start of the recovery is not intuitive. It is when everything seems to be the worst. We call this the trough. The recovery lasts until we reach the peak of the last market cycle, which will be the fourth quarter of 2019. From there, we will resume economic expansion.
Everyone will adapt. Some adjustments will be easy, some will be hard. Individuals and businesses will make adjustments and we will begin a recovery. Some basic principles will persist. First, have cash set aside for a rainy day. Second, you can't get credit when you need it most. Secure credit when times are good. Third, change is inevitable. We can't always predict the source of change, but we can adapt and be responsive to change. Our world changed in the matter of a few months. The more quickly we make adjustments, the quicker we will begin the process of recovering.
Many have proclaimed their disapproval over elections outcomes. Some have suggested foul play because their candidate isn't automatically declared the winner. Some have labeled elections processes undemocratic. In a few instances, unsatisfied individuals propose a referendum or ballot initiative to change election rules.
We are in need of a civics lesson. Our nation is not a democracy. It is a republic. If there is any doubt, look at the Constitution. Electors, consisting of a body equal in number and representation to the sum of the House of Representatives and the Senate, choose the President. In the event they cannot come to a majority, the House of Representatives makes the final determination. Originally, senators were chosen by state legislatures, not the broader public. In 1789, only the House of Representatives was elected by popular vote. Today, because of the 17th amendment, the Senate is also elected by popular vote.
Some advocate the wrong process for solving perceived elections problems. For example, Consider the discussion regarding the presidential election outcome where the popular vote and the electoral college produced different results. The United States can't change the process for electing the President from Electors to the winner of the popular vote by ballot initiative or legislation. It requires amending the Constitution.
A republic is fundamentally different from a democracy. In a democracy, voters take action or legislate through ballot initiatives and referenda. The majority rules--right or wrong with little consideration for the minority. Further, referenda are passed with no process for ammendment or improvement. In a republic, voters select representatives that govern according to a charter (or constitution) and these representatives act on behalf of voters in a deliberative process of legislation and negotiation. Voters may re-elect them or give the office to another.
Most of the time, those who substitute "democracy" for "republic" are making an unintended error. Similarly, the term "democracy" and Democrat are no more linked than "republic" and Republican. The respective parties may have opposing views on many issues, but both support our representative form of government.
Politics has always been contentious. Emotions run high when supporting candidates or debating interests and principles that individuals feel strongly about. Disagreements are common when parties seek to persuade detractors and reassure supporters. Contention over policy or an unfavorable election outcome is a poor justification for changing the process. The effectiveness of the representative process is grounded in the necessity of assembling a majority while protecting the interests of the minority.
Today, many argue there is too little accomplished by the Congress or the President. Their respective stalemates and corresponding contention are frustrating. To them, I argue that this was an intentional design of the founders to ensure that a majority in one body can't ignore the interests of others. If there is an inability to achieve consensus among a majority in Congress or among branches of government, we ought to take time to work through the issues. Some issues will move too slowly to appease advocates, but governance is a process of persuasion. By definition it is slow, you don't get everything you want, and there are opposing views trying to stop your efforts.
Understanding the process is an important part of participation. Citizens understand what it means to vote, but frequently misunderstand the process and misinterpret the outcomes. We must do a better job educating voters and their children about our elections and legislative processes if we want better voter participation with less contention in the future.
The State of Utah has tens of billions of dollars (yes, more than $10,000,000,000) in cash and short-term investments for liquidity, float, reserves, and savings. The strategy for managing this money is very important. Even a 0.1% increase in investment returns generates $10 million (yes, $10,000,000) in additional dividends to be distributed to entities of the State.
This analysis proposes increasing dividends for entities like municipalities, school districts, charter schools, water conservancy districts, and universities by altering the available investment options. Without increasing credit risk or raising taxes, we can distribute additional funds to government entities. While as an economist, I have to acknowledge there is no such thing as a free lunch, this is just about the closest thing to it.
The State of Utah and more particularly the Republican Party have been in the throws of a knock-down, drag-out fight over the nomination process for candidates. Count My Vote initiated a movement to replace party conventions with primaries. The movement spawned Senate Bill 54 which allowed candidates to choose between collecting signatures with the option to bypass the party convention and still appear on the primary ballot or securing enough votes at the party convention as a requirement to appear on the primary ballot.
Count My Vote proponents want to increase voter participation, represent the voice of the people, and eliminate party control of the ballot. These are all positive outcomes that resonate with many in our State. Some have been confused or frustrated by the Republican Party's challenge of SB54 and County My Vote. They see the party's fight as evidence that it wants less voter participation, less representation of the people's voice, and control of the ballot.
The real debate is not over the desired outcomes, but rather the process to achieve those outcomes. The Republican Party also wants more voter participation, to be representative, and for Republicans to choose their candidates with party officials acting as independent referees.
Process and rules are important. They can be boring. They may often seem irrelevant, but they are what creates a level playing field for the party's number one responsibility--candidate nomination and election. Process and rules make the elections and governance inclusive for both urban and rural areas. For a clear illustration of the importance of process, look at the current Republican Presidential nomination. As of today, it appears Donald Trump will not secure a majority of the delegates at the Republican Convention in Cleveland. So why not just make him the nominee because he has the most support (but not a majority)?
Delegates to the Republican National Convention are not allocated simply by popular vote. To do so would render rural areas irrelevant. It was for this reason the Founders compromised in the establishment of Congress with two chambers inclusive of the Senate (equal representation regardless of population) and a House of Representatives (representation by population). Similarly, while we watch the popular vote for President in the general election, we count based on the Constitution's process for electing a president embodied in the Electoral College. To simply count the popular votes would disenfranchise the small population states and marginalize the compromise represented in our Constitution.
George Will with the Washington Post explained the importance of the Convention in establishing a level playing field for presidential candidates and getting to a majority support as opposed to nominating a candidate without a majority.
In an editorial authored by seven prior National Chairmen of the Republican National Committee published April 21, 2016 in the Wall Street Journal, they made a parallel argument.
http://www.wsj.com/articles/lets-get-this-straight-about-the-convention-1461193740 (subscription required).
Imagine if the Speaker of the House suggested that it would pass a law that had more support than any other version of the law, but could not secure a majority vote on the House floor. We would be outraged--49% is not the same as 51%. Even 50.0% is not a majority whereas 50.1% is. Resolving pluralities (support from most, but not a majority) is a thorny problem in elections and legislative processes. We do not recognize pluralities as the will of the people. There is simply a stalemate until a majority can be reached. Resolving pluralities (without a majority) requires an effective process.
It is for this reason that the Republican National Convention all of a sudden becomes not only relevant, but necessary. Without the convention, we have a plurality with no way to get to a majority. For the same reasons, state and county conventions are also relevant and necessary. If there are problems with the process used in the conventions, we should change those processes, not circumvent the convention. The reason the Utah Republican Party has fought so aggressively against SB54 is to preserve the convention and its ability to break plurality stalemates and come to a majority behind a nominee.
I am confident that as a party and as Utahans, we will work through the disagreement over the elections process and come to a positive solution because we share the same desire to increase voter participation, have a representative process, and let voters decide who is on the ballot.