Making News: On National Radio Tonight on the Threat (to Americans) of China’s Social Ratings

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to return to John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show tonight.  Our likely topic:  China’s totalitarian practice of “social rating” – and how it can turn American businesses into agents of China’s dictators.  The segment is slated to begin at 9:15 PM EST and you can listen live on-line at this link.

As usual, if you can’t tune in this evening to what’s sure to be an important discussion among John, me, and co-host Gordon G. Chang, I’ll be posting a link to the podcast as soon as one’s available.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

 

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(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Some Manufacturing Pushback Versus Tariff Gloom-Mongering

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Is U.S. domestic manufacturing emerging from its recent funk? This morning’s Federal Reserve industrial production figures (for August) certainly supply some compelling evidence. And some of the nation’s major metals-using industries – widely portrayed as major victims of Trump administration tariffs that have been in place since early 2018 on steel and aluminum – led the pack last month.

August’s 0.53 sequential real output increase wasn’t enough to pull domestic industry out of its current technical recession. But it did shorten the length of the downturn considerably. As of the previous industrial production report, manufacturing had been in recession since April, 2018 – with its inflation-adjusted output down 0.004 percent.

Today’s data revealed that constant-dollar production has now fallen 0.36 percent since the previous August. In addition, since its latest bottom (this April), after-inflation manufacturing output is up 0.89 percent. And sequentially, this production is up three of the last four months.

Moreover, the strong August performance of the metals-using sectors was noteworthy. These industries have faced wide-ranging tariffs on steel and aluminum since March, 2018, with April being the first full month in which the duties were in effect. (Major appliances have been an exception – they have also been coping with separate levies on large household laundry equipment since February, 2018.) As reported by RealityChek last month, some of these metals-users suffered a miserable July, indicating that the metals tariffs were finally taking a measurable toll, either because of the higher input costs they created, the greater uncertainty they generated, the impact of retaliatory foreign tariffs, or some combination of all three.

But as demonstrated by the following table, they regained much of their momentum relative to the rest of manufacturing last month. These figures represent the changes in their real output since April, 2018, with the data for manufacturing overall used as a control group.

                                              April thru June    April thru July    April thru August

overall manufacturing:         +0.42 percent       -0.01 percent        +0.54 percent

durables manufacturing:      +1.57 percent       +1.37 percent       +1.98 percent

fabricated metals products:  +1.89 percent      +0.95 percent        +1.88 percent

machinery:                           +0.78 percent       -0.88 percent        +0.67 percent

automotive:                          +0.69 percent      +1.20 percent       +0.17 percent

major appliances:                 -4.84 percent       -4.39 percent        -2.04 percent

aircraft and parts:                +2.39 percent      +3.59 percent       +4.39 percent

With the exception of the automotive sector (where a big inventory overhang could finally be slowing output significantly) and aircraft and parts (which keeps chugging along, so far despite Boeing’s safety troubles) these major metals-using sectors enjoyed Augusts that were much stronger in terms of growth than their Julys. And in August, durable goods overall (the manufacturing super-sector in which the main metals-using industries are located), major appliances, and aircraft and parts have recaptured the relative growth lead they’d lost the previous month.

The effects of President Trump’s China tariffs have been much more difficult to ascertain for many reasons: Even the earliest have been in effect only since last summer. Their nature has been so on-again-off-again nature. The original tariff levels on some have been increased. Their use is so widely (but often so thinly and non-uniformly) spread throughout American industry. And the official lists of tariff-ed products don’t match up precisely with the classification system used by the Fed (and the rest of the U.S. government) to track trends in manufacturing and the rest of the economy.

All the same, here are results for a handful of sectors reasonably certain to have faced tariff pressure since last August. Each column measures real output changes since that month.

                                                   Aug thru June    Aug thru July    Aug thru Aug

overall manufacturing:              -0.48 percent     -0.89 percent      -0.36 percent

ball bearings:                             -2.48 percent     -2.30 percent      -2.23 percent

industrial heating equip:           -4.96 percent     -4.16 percent      -2.52 percent

farm machinery & equip:         -6.44 percent     -6.91 percent     +9.71 percent

oil/gas drilling platform pts:   +2.18 percent     -0.84 percent       -1.04 percent

The sample size is obviously very small, and the results are almost as obviously a wash.

Looking ahead, domestic manufacturing – and especially the metals-using industries – faces at least two visible possible hurdles: Boeing’s ongoing woes, and a new strike at General Motors. And literally no one outside the Oval Office (assuming President Trump does) knows what the future will bring in terms of tariffs on imports from China, retaliation from Beijing. And don’t forget the Congressional vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada [trade] Agreement that may be coming.

But the August manufacturing production data were unquestionably solid. They continued a decent recent streak for the nation’s industries, and indicated considerable resilience – including possibly a growing ability to adapt to a radically different and volatile trade policy environment.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Case for Confidence in the Consumer Confidence Surveys May be Weakening

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Since psychology and emotions can affect how much individuals and companies spend and invest, and since U.S. economic growth does show signs of slowing from a solid but less-than-torrid pace, surveys purporting to track levels of consumer and business confidence understandably have attracted much more attention than usual.

One big possible problem, though: This era’s white hot political partisanship may be undercutting the usefulness of these soundings. The evidence comes from the widely followed University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment, and it indicates both that such partisanship has greatly increased and influenced the results since the 1980s administration of President Ronald Reagan, and that most recently, more of this bias has been demonstrated by Democrats than Republicans.

The Michigan findings – which break out results according to whether respondent “usually think” of themselves as Republicans, Democrats, Independents, “or what?” – don’t permit conclusions on longer term trends to be drawn with great confidence. That’s mainly because the university’s Survey Research Center presents only five months worth of results for the Reagan administration, which lasted for eight years, and only twelve months worth for George W. Bush’s similar two-term presidency. Nonetheless, the data for those two periods do contrast significantly with those for the Obama and Trump administrations, which are complete (and bring the story up through this month).

My measure of partisanship compares the degree to which the results for Republican and Democratic identifiers (for the headline Michigan number) diverge from the results for Independent identifiers – which I use as a proxy for non-partisanship, based on the assumption that such Americans don’t permit politics to impact their views on the economy. For example, if during a given month, Independents’ assessment of the economy registers as a 50, Democrats’ as a 20, and Republicans as a 60, the Democrats’ views would be judged to be more partisan. In order to produce figures for each presidency, I calculated the average monthly totals for each of the three political groups for the duration of that President’s administration.

This method shows, not surprisingly, that partisanship has always influenced assessments of confidence. That is, when Democratic Presidents hold office, Democrats’ confidence levels are invariably higher than Republicans’, and vice versa. But during the Reagan years, the average monthly ratings for the economy found by the Michigan researchers were Democrats, 87.66; Independents, 98.14; and Republicans, 108.12.

So the partisan effect clearly was present, but the Democrats’ and Republicans’ perceptions diverged from those of the Independents by about the same degree.

No results are presented for either George H.W. Bush’s nor Bill Clinton’s administrations, but the results for George W. Bush’s presidency were Democrats, 63.48; Independents, 66.04; and Republicans, 78.38. That is, Democrats were only slightly more downbeat. More specifically, their ratings of the economy were 96.12 percent as good as the Independents’, while the Republicans’ was 118.69 percent of the Independents’.

During the Obama years, these results were almost exactly reversed: The average confidence level recorded for Democrats was 84.61; for Independents, 72.67; and for Republicans, 69.63. In this case, the Republican ratings were 95.12 percent as good as the Independents’, while the Democrats’ were 116.43 percent of the Independent’ score. But the partisanship showed by the Democrats under President Obama was still almost exactly as great as that showed by the Republicans when George W. Bush served in the Oval Office.

This pattern has continued through Donald Trump’s presidency so far, but Democratic partisanship looks somewhat stronger compared with the results for the Obama years. During the 32 Trump months, the average Democrat’s rating for the economy has been 76.61, the average Independent’s was 96.37, and the average Republican’s was 120.14. As a result, the Democrats’ judgments on the economy have been only 79.50 percent as positive as the Independents,’ but the Republicans’ has been 124.67 percent the size of the Independent score.

Put differently, during the Obama years, the Republicans’ judgments about the economy nearly matched the Independents’ (being 96.12 percent of the Independents’ average), but during the Trump years, the Democrats’ judgments came to only 79.50 percent of the Independents’ average. Both Democrats and Republicans were much more bullish on the economy under their respective Presidents than were Independents, but the Republicans’ “over-optimism” under Mr. Trump hasn’t been dramatically greater than the Democrats’ “over-optimism” under Mr. Obama.

Another sign of relatively great Democratic partisanship:  According to the Michigan research, Democrats’ optimism about the economy so far this year has weakened much faster than Republicans’.  And Independents’ confidence is actually up slightly so far. 

One cause for optimism about assessing consumer confidence stems from the divergence between the results for the Trump presidency and those for his predecessors recorded by the Michigan researchers. They could suggest that the Trump years are outliers, and that if he’s defeated in 2020, partisanship will remain significant, but will return to normal levels – at least for recent decades. Pessimists, however, can just as reasonably argue that the Trump years might represent a decisive break from the recent past. If the latter group is right, assessing the economy’s prospects by using consumer sentiment surveys – already a challenging task –will become more difficult than ever.

Making News: Breitbart Podcast of Recession Gloom-Mongering Interview Now On-Line…& More!

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I’m pleased to announce that the podcast is now on-line of my Tuesday night interview on Breitbart News Tonight on evidence that many of President Trump’s opponents have launched a politically inspired campaign to talk the U.S. economy into a recession.  To listen, click here and scroll all the way down until you see the September 10 interviews – since for some reason, the podcasts aren’t arranged in chronological order.

Also, IndustryToday.com has re-posted two RealityChek columns this week – the first was the offering originally documenting recession gloom-mongering claims, and the second was the item on puzzling trends in productivity growth in America.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

 

Im-Politic: Has Trump’s Record on Real Wages Been Good Enough Politically?

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Given the on-again-off-again nature of President Trump’s tariff policies (which against China went partly off again yesterday in the form of an announced short delay in the imposition of $250 billion worth of levies originally set for October 1), I figured there was no sense in performing my now-standard analysis of this morning’s new monthly U.S. consumer price inflation figures (for August).

Instead, I’ll focus on today’s inflation-adjusted wage data – which is always released by the Labor Department in tandem with the consumer inflation report –  and here there’s definitely some good news for President Trump, his supporters, and for manufacturing workers. One notable qualification: The shorter the memories of Trump working class voters, the better for his political future.

The table below makes clear what I mean. It shows the price-adjusted wage changes for the last three January-thru-August periods for private sector workers overall, for “blue-collar” private sector workers (that is, those not in management or supervisory positions), for manufacturing workers overall, and for blue-collar workers in general and their manufacturing counterparts. (To remind:  The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for public sector employees, since their pay stems mainly from politicians’ decisions, not economic fundamentals.) 

January thru Aug. real wages                  2019                2018                 2017

private sector:                                 +0.55 percent   +0.75 percent    +0.94 percent

private sector blue-collar:               +1.27 percent   +0.76 percent   +0.76 percent

manufacturing:                               +0.65 percent     -0.19 percent   +0.46 percent

manufacturing blue-collar:            +0.23 percent         0 percent      +1.15 percent

As you can see, manufacturing workers in particular have seen January-through-August constant-dollar wage gains in 2019 that were much better than in the comparable last year – but largely because the 2018 results were terrible. Moreover, for blue-collar manufacturing workers, the 2019 improvement was still much weaker than the 2017 increase. Private sector blue-collar after-inflation hourly wages accelerated year-on-year in 2019 as well, but the 2018 gain was at least identical to 2017’s.

Short blue-collar worker memories will also help Trumpworld if the Obama administration’s real wage record is forgotten. For Mr. Trump’s record trails that of his predecessor for all of these major worker categories (although the advance in inflation-adjusted manufacturing blue-collar wages under both Presidents during comparable periods of their terms in office is pretty similar).

                                                   Last 30 Obama months       First 30 Trump months

private sector:                                  +3.39 percent                      +2.62 percent

private sector blue-collar:               +3.97 percent                      +2.72 percent

manufacturing:                                +3.25 percent                     +0.37 percent

manufacturing blue-collar:              +3.22 percent                     +3.11 percent

Let’s end on a fairly positive note for Mr. Trump and his backers: The table below shows that overall, price-adjusted wages in manufacturing fared better after his tariffs’ advent in March, 2018 (for the most part) than during the pre-tariff phrase of his presidency. Because the two time periods have been of different lengths, I’m presenting the results in terms of average monthly changes in absolute dollars and cents terms.

                                                         Pre-tariffs                            Post-tariffs

Manufacturing:                               -0.31 cents                           +0.50 cents

Blue-collar manufacturing:           +0.85 cents                            +0.75 cents

Again, what these statistics mean for the future of American workers is anyone’s guess, especially in trade-heavy manufacturing, since trade policy decisions seem so ragged. And politically, the key question remains: Have times been good enough for working class and other voters during the Trump era to offset other concerns about his leadership sufficiently to bring him a second term?

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: Trump’s Record and the Bolton Effect

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With John Bolton now out as President Trump’s national security adviser, it’s a great time to review the Trump foreign policy record so far. My grade? Though disappointing in some important respects, it’s been pretty good. Moreover, Bolton’s departure signals that performance could improve significantly, at least from the kind of America First perspective on which Mr. Trump ran during his 2016 campaign. That’s less because of Bolton’s individual influence than because what his (clearly forced) exist tells us about the President’s relationship with the Republican Party and conservative establishment.

There’s no doubt that the Trump foreign policy record is seriously lacking in major, game-changing accomplishments. But that’s a globalist, and in my view, wholly misleading standard for judging foreign policy effectiveness. As I’ve written previously, the idea that U.S. foreign policy is most effective when it’s winning wars and creating alliances and ending crises and creating new international regimes and the like makes sense only for those completely unaware – or refusing to recognize – that its high degrees of geopolitical security and economic self-reliance greatly undercut the need for most American international activism. Much more appropriate measures of success include more passive goals like avoiding blunders, building further strength and wealth (mainly through domestic measures), and reducing vulnerabilities. (Interestingly, former President Obama, a left-of-center globalist, saltily endorsed the first objective by emphasizing – privately, to be sure – how his top foreign policy priority was “Don’t do stupid s–t.”)     

And on this score, the President can take credit for keeping campaign promises and enhancing national security. He’s resisted pressure from Bolton and other right-of-center globalists to plunge the country much more deeply militarily into the wars that have long convulsed Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, and seems determined to slash the scale of U.S. involvement in the former – after nineteen years.

He’s exposed the folly of Obama’s approach to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Although Tehran has threatening to resume several operations needed to create nuclear explosives material since Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the previous administration’s multilateral Iran deal, it’s entirely possible that the agreement contained enough loopholes to permit such progress anyway. Moreover, the President’s new sanctions, their devastating impact on Iran’s economy, and the inability of the other signatories of Obama’s multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to circumvent them have both debunked the former President’s assumption that the United States lacked the unilateral power to punish Iran severely for its nuclear program and ambitions, and deprived Tehran of valuable resources for causing other forms of trouble throughout the Middle East.

Mr. Trump taught most of the rest of the world another valuable lesson about the Middle East when he not only recognized the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but actually moved the U.S. Embassy there. For decades, American presidential contenders from both parties had promised to endorse what many of Israel’s supporters called its sovereign right to choose its own capital, but ultimately backed down in the face of warnings that opinion throughout the Arab world would be explosively inflamed, that American influence in the Middle East would be destroyed, and U.S. allies in the region and around the world antagonized and even fatally alienated.

But because the President recognized how sadly outdated this conventional wisdom had become (for reasons I first explained here), he defied the Cassandras, and valuably spotlighted how utterly powerless and friendless that Palestinians had become. That they’re no closer to signing a peace agreement with Israel hardly reflects an American diplomatic failure. It simply reveals how delusional they and especially their leaders remain.

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s Middle East strategy does deserve criticism on one critical ground: missing an opportunity. That is, even though he’s overcome much Congressional and even judicial opposition and made some progress on strengthening American border security, he’s shown no sign of recognizing the vital America First-type insight holding that the nation’s best hope for preventing terrorist attacks emanating from the Middle East is not “fighting them over there” – that is, ever more engagement with a terminally dysfunctional region bound to spawn new violent extremist groups as fast as they can be crushed militarily. Instead, the best hope continues to be preventing the terrorists from coming “over here” – by redoubling border security.

The Trump record on North Korea is less impressive – but not solely or even partly because even after two summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, no progress has been made toward eliminating the North’s nuclear weapons or even dismantling the research program that’s created them, or toward objectives such as signing a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War formally that allegedly would pave the way for a nuclear deal. (Incidentally, I’m willing to grant that the peninsula is quieter today in terms of major – meaning long-range – North Korean weapons tests than when the President took office – and that ain’t beanbag.)

Still, the main – and decisive – Trump failure entails refusing to act on his declared instincts (during his presidential campaign) and bolstering American security against nuclear attack from North Korea by withdrawing from the peninsula the tens of thousands of U.S. troops who served as a “tripwire” force. As I’ve explained previously, this globalist strategy aimed at deterring North Korean aggression in the first place by leaving an American president no choice except nuclear weapons use to save American servicemen and women from annihilation by superior North Korean forces.

But although this approach could confidently be counted on to cow the North before Pyongyang developed nuclear weapons of its own capable of striking the United States, and therefore arguably made strategic sense, now that the North has such capabilities or is frighteningly close, such “extended deterrence” is a recipe for exposing major American cities to nuclear devastation. And if that situation isn’t inexcusable enough, the United States is playing such a dominant role in South Korea’s defense largely because the South has failed to field sufficient forces of its own, even though its wealthier and more technologically advanced than the North by orders of magnitude. (Seoul’s military spending is finally rising rapidly, though – surely due at least in part to Trump pressure.) 

Nonetheless, far from taking an America First approach and letting its entirely capable Asian allies defend themselves and incentivizing them plus the Chinese and Russians to deal as they see fit with North Korean nuclear ambitions that are most threatening to these locals, the President seems to be happy to continue allowing the United States to take the diplomatic lead, bear much heavier defense spending burdens than necessary, and incurring wholly needless nuclear risk. Even worse, his strategy toward Russia and America’s European allies suffers the exact same weakness – at best.

Finally (for now), the President has bolstered national security by taken urgently needed steps to fight the Chinese trade and tech predation that has gutted so much of the American economy’s productive sectors that undergird its military power, and that his predecessors either actively encouraged, coddled, or ignored – thereby helping China greatly increase its own strength.

In this vein, it’s important to underscore that these national security concerns of mine don’t stem from a belief that China must be contained militarily in the Asia-Pacific region, or globally, as many globalists-turned-China economic hawks are maintaining. Of course, as long as the United States remains committed to at least counterbalancing China in this part of the world, it’s nothing less than insane to persist in policies that help Beijing keep building the capabilities that American soldiers, sailors, and airmen may one day need to fight.

I’ll be writing more about this shortly, but my main national security concerns reflect my belief that a world in which China has taken the military and especially technological need may not directly threaten U.S. security. But it will surely be a world in which America will become far less able to defend its interest in keeping the Western Hemisphere free of excessive foreign influence, a la the Monroe Doctrine, and in which American national finances and living standards will erode alarmingly.

The question remains, however, of whether a Bolton-less administration’s foreign policy will tilt significantly further toward America First-ism. President Trump remains mercurial enough to make any such forecasting hazardous. And even if he wasn’t, strategic transitions can be so disruptive, and create such short-term costs and even risks, that they’re bound to take place more unevenly than bloggers and think tankers and other scribblers would like to see.

But I see a case for modest optimism: Just as the end of Trump-Russia scandal-mongering and consequent impeachment threat has greatly reduced the President’s need to court the orthodox Republicans and overall conservative community that remain so influential in and with Congress in particular, and throw them some big bones on domestic policy (e.g., prioritizing cutting taxes and ending Obamacare), it’s greatly reduced his need to cater to the legacy Republicans and conservatives on foreign policy.

Not that Mr. Trump has shown many signs of shifting his domestic priorities yet. But I’m still hoping that he learns the (screamingly obvious) lessons of the Republicans’ 2018 midterms losses (e.g., don’t try to take an entitlement like Obamacare away from Americans until you’re sure you can replace it with something better; don’t endorse racist sexual predators like Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore simply for partisan reasons). It’s still entirely possible that the growing dangers of his remaining globalist policies will start teaching the President similar lessons on the foreign policy front.

Making News: Talking Recession Gloom-Mongering on Breitbart Radio Tonight…& More!

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to return to Breitbart News Tonight to talk about evidence that President Trump’s opponents are trying to talk the U.S. economy into recession.  The segment is slated to begin at 9:40 PM EST, and if you’re not already a SiriusXM Patriot radio subscriber, you can get a free trial by clicking on this link and following the instructions.  But make sure to give yourself enough time!

In addition, it was great to see Tampa Bay (Florida) Times editorial writer Jim Verhulst designate as an especially interesting commentary my post last week for The American Conservative debunking “Trump as phony populist” charges.  Here’s the link.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Why Media Recession Cheerleading May Be a Thing

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Can a national economy be talked into recession? And is this a danger for the American economy today? As known by anyone with even basic knowledge about economics, because psychology (and especially optimism and pessimism) so crucial determines business and consumer decisions, the answer to the first question unmistakably is “Yes,” at least in theory.

There’s a lively debate over whether that’s now a danger – with Donald Trump among others charging that his political and Mainstream Media opponents’ alleged determination to defeat him in the upcoming presidential election has turned them into prophets of doom – but obviously the winner can’t be determined until an actual downturn has begun.

But two notable clusters of evidence have just emerged lending at least some credence to the latter proposition. The first comes from today’s news coverage of a key measure of confidence in the economy – the monthly Optimism Index issued by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the nation’s leading small business organization.

In quintessential examples of unjustifiably downbeat reporting, the survey’s results were widely portrayed as a sign that the national economic sky is getting close to falling. “U.S. Small-Business Optimism Drops to Lowest in Five Months,” blared a Bloomberg.com headline. “Trump’s trade war is triggering a ‘sharp slowdown’ among American small businesses, warned Business Insider pointedly. “Small Business Optimism Index for August 2019 falls 1.6 points,” specified a brief YahooFinance.com item, which also blamed the Trump trade policies (as did the Bloomberg article).

But if you think about it, two of these headlines themselves strengthen allegations of alarmism. After all, five months isn’t an especially long time period. And 1.6 percentage points isn’t exactly a nosedive.

More important were the points buried in these stories. For example, it wasn’t until the fifth paragraph (of eight) that Bloomberg readers were told that “Even with the decline [from a prior reading of 104.7], the NFIB gauge remains elevated by historical standards, though it’s below the average level since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.”

And get a load of this statement from the NFIB’s leader, which appeared in a gloomily headlined Dow Jones piece:

“‘In spite of the success we continue to see on Main Street, the manic predictions of recession are having a psychological effect and creating uncertainty for small business owners throughout the country,'” NFIB Chief Executive Juanita Duggan said in prepared remarks. ‘Small business owners continue to invest, grow, and hire at historically high levels, and we see no indication of a coming recession.'”

Further evidence of media fear-mongering – also tightly linked to Mr. Trump’s trade wars – has appeared in a new study from the Federal Reserve. In a September 4 report titled “Does Trade Policy Uncertainty Affect Global Economic Activity?” a team of Fed staff economists seek to document the widespread (and entirely reasonable) belief that “Higher uncertainty could lead firms to delay their investment and reduce their hiring, lower consumer confidence and spending, and ultimately curtail economic activity around the world” – including in the United States.

To make their point, they created and use two measures of uncertainty. The first “is based on searches of newspaper articles that discuss trade policy uncertainty.” The publications comprising this database were “Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Guardian, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.” The second was constructed “in an analogous way from automated text searches of the quarterly earnings call transcripts of U.S.-listed corporations.”

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of trade policy and its recent history might well immediately recognize one serious potential problem with the business-based uncertainty gauge: Public companies have been among the strongest and most influential supporters of pre-Trump trade policies, and have understandably been among the loudest critics – since the President’s pushback threatens established business models that have greatly boosted profits via sales to the high-wage U.S. market from offshored or other factories located in super low-cost countries like China and Mexico, and through the use of subsidized and artificially cheap inputs from numerous mercantile foreign economies.

But much more interesting and revealing: However strongly these companies logically would be expected in their public statements to harp repeatedly on the reality and potential of trade war-related problems (which can be considerably hyped, as I’ve demonstrated), the newspapers in the Fed report’s gauge cited such actual and possible difficulties much more – as the chart below shows. That’s why the solid line in the chart, showing the media’s mentions of uncertainty, has consistently been higher than the businesses’ mentions until very recently. (I know it’s a little hard to eyeball, but make the effort.)

Figure 1: Trade Policy Uncertainty

Figure 1. Trade Policy Uncertainty. See accessible link for data description.

 

Do these findings mean that the economy has no serious problems, that the odds of a recession in the foreseeable future are negligible, and that Mr. Trump’s trade policy decisions may not exact significant economic costs? Of course not. They don’t even prove the charge that the media is seeking to oust the President by talking the economy down. But do they indicate that a “bad news sells” bias is pervading media coverage of the economy (and the trade war) at an especially crucial stage of the business cycle – and the political cycle? The above evidence makes this allegation look awfully credible.         

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Economic and Political Productivity Puzzles

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It’s U.S. labor productivity data time – in other words, the point at which all Americans interested in their economy and its future should be examining the latest news about a major measure of economic efficiency that speaks volumes about the nation’s chances of boosting living standards on a healthy, sustainable, rather than bubble-ized and therefore dangerous, basis.

And the Labor Department figures released last week continue to show a split personality performance: decent results for non-farm businesses (the Department’s main category for the economy as a whole), and woeful, worsening results for manufacturing.

According to these revised numbers for the second quarter of the year, output per each hour on the job by each worker (the narrower but most timely of two productivity measures tracked by Labor), increased over the first quarter’s level by the same 2.3 percent annual rate initially reported. In manufacturing, however, the originally published 1.6 percent annualized sequential decline is now judged to be a 2.2 percent drop – the worst such performance since the four percent nosedive in the third quarter of 2017.

As shown in the table below, the new data leave the current economic expansion (which began in mid-2009) as a major labor productivity laggard. After all, the cumulative growth rate for non-farm businesses is little better than half that of the 1990s expansion, even though they lasted for approximately the same period of time. And it’s even slower than the labor productivity growth rate of the bubble decade’s expansion – which was about 40 percent shorter. As for manufacturing, the table makes clear that the deterioration has been much greater.

                                                                          Non-farm business    Manufacturing

1990s expansion (2Q 1991-1Q 2001):                 +23.74 percent      +45.86 percent

bubble expansion (4Q 2001-4Q 2007):                +16.59 percent     +30.23 percent

current expansion (2Q 2009 thru prelim 2Q 19):  +12.80 percent      +9.19 percent

current expansion (2Q 09 thru revised 2Q 19):     +12.80 percent      +9.02 percent

Nonetheless, the new figures do contain some good news for President Trump. So far during his administration, overall labor productivity has grown faster than during the last comparable period under former President Obama. Manufacturing labor productivity has grown more slowly, but the difference is only fractional:

                                                                         Non-Farm business   Manufacturing

last 8 Obama quarters:                                         +1.33 percent        +0.38 percent

first 8 Trump quarters:                                         +3.46 percent        +0.25 percent

Even better, although the second quarter’s non-farm business annualized 2.3 percent labor productivity growth was lower than the first quarter’s 3.5 percent, the trend under Mr. Trump has generally been up. During those last two Obama years, the growth rate slowed significantly. In manufacturing, however, the momentum picture has been the reverse – modest but overall strengthening under Obama, major weakening under Mr. Trump.

One reason for this recent manufacturing deterioration could actually be good news politically for the President and his supporters: During his months in office so far, manufacturing workers’ compensation cumulatively has risen at more than twice the rate (8.52 percent) than during the final eight quarters of the Obama administration (4.06 percent). And workers, of course, are often voters.

Yet this development brings up a real puzzle: When it comes to non-farm businesses, the Trump productivity performance has been considerably better than the Obama even though compensation under the current administration has also risen much faster (11.30 percent cumulatively) than during the comparable period under the previous administration (6.96 percent).

On the one hand, puzzling productivity results aren’t all that puzzling, since most economists admit that it’s the performance measure that’s the most difficult to track. On the other, these Obama-Trump puzzles look pretty mysterious even by productivity’s standards.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The New Jobs Report’s Wage Details are Mixed, Too – Economically and Politically

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The latest U.S. government report on the nation’s employment picture (for August) produced unusually mixed jobs results. (See, e.g., this report.) Maybe that’s why analysts seem to have missed one of its more encouraging takeaways: Hourly wages in the manufacturing sector, which have remained weak throughout the current economic expansion and into the Trump era, have picked up notably so far this year.

Yet the new data also make clear that, when it comes to the gap between U.S. blue-collar workers’ in the private sector overall and those of their better paid white-collar counterparts, the former have lost some ground under the Trump administration, even though their hourly wages are up in absolute terms.

So for a President who’s going to run for reelection largely as a populist champion of forgotten Americans, the August results were unusually mixed as well. 

That manufacturing-specific pickup has taken place in pre-inflation wages, and we won’t get the latest constant dollar figures until this coming Thursday. But the progress before adjusting for price changes (and don’t forget – inflation has been awfully low lately) has been so notable that, for now, manufacturing wages’ performance is no longer worsening in comparison with the trends in the overall private sector. Indeed, the gap has narrowed a smidge.

Chiefly, from this January through August, current dollar manufacturing wages are up 2.09 percent. That’s the best such increase since 2008 (2.44 percent) – when the economy was still mired in recession, and employers’ tendency to jettison less experienced and thus more poorly paid workers produced a statistical wage increase for the remaining manufacturing workforce.

Moreover, this improvement was slightly faster than the two percent rise achieved by the private sector overall – also the best such performance since 2008 (2.36 percent). (This Labor Department wage series only goes back to 2006.)

The story is similar for blue-collar workers in both manufacturing and the private sector overall. (Data for these wages in the overall private sector goes back all the way to 1964 and for manufacturing to 1939.) For blue-collar manufacturing workers (called “production and nonsupervisory employees” by the Labor Department), January-through-August pre-inflation hourly pay is up 1.74 percent. That’s of course less than for the manufacturing workforce as a whole, but it’s the best such number since 2016 (1.98 percent) and, perhaps more important, the second best since 2006.

For the overall private sector, current-dollar blue-collar wages have advanced by 2.08 percent between January and August of this year. That’s their best such performance since 2008’s 2.48 percent.

As a result, from the beginning of the current economic recovery (mid-2009) this August, overall pre-inflation private sector wages had risen 1.2906 times faster than comparable hourly pay in manufacturing. That’s ever-so-slightly slower (but still slower) than the ratio through last August (1.294 times faster).

Manufacturing’s relative improvement was greater for blue-collar workers. From the mid-2009 beginning of the current economic recovery through this August, private sector nonsupervisory etc current dollar hourly wages have risen 1.2131 times faster than blue-collar manufacturing wages. That’s a smaller gap than the 1.228:1 ratio from the recovery onset through last August.

Nonetheless, the data show that, after narrowing slightly under former President Obama, the pre-inflation hourly wage difference between blue-collar and white-collar workers overall has been growing slightly again under President Trump.

When the recovery began, in mid-2009, private sector production and non-supervisory workers’ hourly wages were 83.83 percent of the wages earned private sector workers overall. By January, 2017 – the last Obama month in office, this figure had grown to 83.99 percent. As of this August, however, it’s back down to 83.92 percent.

Interestingly, the Trump record looks better when only the manufacturing trends are examined. In mid-2009, blue-collar manufacturing wages stood at 78.93 percent of manufacturing wages overall before inflation. By January, 2017, the share had dipped to 78.25 percent. The latest statistics show that it’s grown to 79.88 percent.

None of these changes is anywhere close to dramatic – a timely reminder, as a presidential campaign year rapidly approaches, that the U.S. economy really is akin to a supertanker, and barring sudden catastrophes or windfalls, typically takes a frustratingly long time to turn significantly.