Credit Cycle Starting to Worsen

I have been saying for the past few months that I think we are likely to have a recession within the next couple of years. One reason for this is that it seems the credit cycle is starting to reverse itself, especially as it relates to consumer credit.

The following four graphs pulled from the Federal Reserve Economic Database give some indication of this. As shown in Charts 1-3, delinquency rates for other consumer loans, credit card loans, and consumer loans declined pretty steadily since the economic recovery began, but since 2015, the delinquency rates have started to rise.

Furthermore, the increase in delinquencies seems to pick up pace in 2016 for all of the categories of loans with consumer loans and credit card loans maintaining the increase through 2017. Delinquencies in automobile loans have also been rising (see here).

On the positive side, delinquency rates on single-family mortgages appear to continue to decline (see Chart 4). This might just indicate that consumers are clearly financially stressed, but they are continuing to pay their mortgages on time in an attempt to at least keep their homes. If the economy does go into recession, we will see delinquency rates rise on mortgages, as well.

Consumers under financial stress are not likely to maintain their strong spending patterns, and since consumer spending is two-thirds of gross domestic product, a slowdown in consumer spending is not going to bode well for continued economic growth.

On the commercial side, the credit market seems to be fairly strong as delinquency rates are continuing to fall. It is just a matter of time, though, before this trend reverses course, too. If consumer spending starts to decline, this means goods and services will go unsold, eventually causing businesses to decrease production as inventories increase and demand for services falls. With less revenues flowing into the business, we will likely see delinquency rates start to rise. A recession cannot be far away at this point.

Chart 1. Delinquency Rate on Other Consumer Loans, All Commercial Banks (Seasonally Adjusted – gray bars indicate recessions)

Delinqunecy Rate on Other Consumer Loans All Commercial Banks

Chart 2. Delinquency Rate on Credit Card Loans, All Commercial Banks (Seasonally Adjusted – gray bars indicate recessions)

Delinquency Rate on Credit Card Loans All Commercial Banks

Chart 3. Delinquency Rate on Consumer Loans, All Commercial Banks (Seasonally Adjusted – gray bars indicate recessions)

Delinquency Rate on Consumer Loans All Commercial Banks

Chart 4. Delinquency Rate on Single-Family Residential Mortgages, All Commercial Banks (Seasonally Adjusted – gray bars indicate recessions)

Delinquency Rate on SF Mortgages All Commercial Banks

Maybe this is all just a regression to the historical mean, but I think these trends are a bit concerning and worth watching.

Steve

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“Inextricable Connections” Are Important for Economic Development

As an economist whose research focuses on regional economies, I have often wondered about the economic and social impacts of the movement to online retail and social engagement in general through online means and away from interactions among physical persons. As one whose graduate degrees are in political economy, I am aware of the close connections between politics, a well-functioning government, and the functioning of the economy. Like many U.S. citizens, I am also increasingly concerned about the acrimony of our political environment in the U.S., especially, but also around the world.

I am reading Brene Brown’s, Braving the Wilderness, and among the many great insights in the book, she makes the point that we have a human need for “inextricable connection.”

All of these examples of collective joy and pain are sacred experiences. They are so deeply human that they cut through our differences and tap into our hardwired nature. These experiences tell us what is true and possible about the human spirit. We need these moments with strangers as reminders that despite how much we might dislike someone on Facebook or even in person, we are still inextricably connected. And it doesn’t have to be a big moment with thousands of strangers. We can be reminded of our inextricable connection after talking with a seatmate on a two-hour flight.

The problem is that we don’t show up for enough of these experiences. We clearly need them. But it’s vulnerable to lean in to that kind of shared joy and pain. We armor up. We shove our hands into our pockets during the concert or we roll our eyes at the dance or put our headphones on rather than get to know someone on the train (Brown, 2017, pp. 128-129).

The disrupting or tearing apart of these connections not only has social ramifications, but it also has economic effects that are not good. One of the key lessons I took away from the book is that it is easy to hate and spread nonsense when you can hide behind email and social media. One of her chapter titles summarizes it perfectly: “People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In” (p. 63).

Reading the book highlighted one of the concerns I have been thinking about with respect to the effects of moving our everyday economic transactions and engagement with others both socially and economically to the online world. I took from Dr. Brown’s discussion that as this social disruption continues, the lack of personal engagement will decline as brick and mortar stores go out of business. Even though the interactions we have as we shop at one of these stores might be brief, it seems to me that they are very important per the points Dr. Brown makes as previously highlighted. As we lose these physical in-person interactions, it seems to me that it only exacerbates our vitriolic political climate, which is not good for our economic future.

Additionally, we may also lose the benefits and efficiencies that come from clusters of people (be they large or small numbers) engaging with one another in person. These are called agglomerations economies in economics. One of the biggest benefits that comes from these interactions are the transmission of ideas that lead to innovations that facilitate business growth, new business creation, and ultimately, economic development. Some argue that these can occur just as well in an online environment, and to some extent they do. What gets missed is the richness of the discussions that occur when in the physical presence of others that do not occur in an online environment. Sometimes (often times?), this just happens serendipitously as we wander the streets or engage in our daily activities – including our consumer activities at physical stores.

As usual, Dr. Brown states the importance of the physical interactions much more eloquently than I do.

As I started digging into this question [i.e., Is social media a toll to achieve collective joy and pain or more for the spreading of hate, unfounded statements, and picture of cute animals?] with research participants, there was very little ambiguity It became clear that face-to-face connection is imperative in our true belonging practice. Not only did face-to-face contact emerge as essential from the participant data in my research, but studies across the world confirm those findings. Social media are helpful in cultivating connection only to the extent that they’re used to create real community where there is structure, purpose, and meaning, and some face-to-face contact.

One of the most well-respected researchers in this area is Susan Pinker. In her book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier, Pinker writes, “In a short evolutionary time, we have changed from group-living primates skilled at reading each other’s every gesture and intention to a solitary species, each one of us preoccupied with our own screen.” Based on studies across diverse fields, Pinker concludes that there is no substitute for in-person interactions. They are proven to bolster our immune system, send positive hormones surging through our bloodstream and brain, and help us live longer. Pinker adds, “I call this building your village, and building it as a matter of life or death.”

…Social media are great for developing community, but for true belonging, real connection and real empathy require meeting real people in a real space in real time (Brown, 2017, pp. 140-141).

To be clear, I am not against shopping online or the internet or social media. I do my share of shopping online and certainly use the internet and social media, but I do think there are negative consequences for the economy that we need to keep in mind. One of these negative consequences is that it reduces our physical interactions with others, which reduces our understanding and tolerance of others. This leads to an inability to have reasonable and productive public debates and a dysfunctional democracy. Whether you love or dislike the government, a poorly functioning government has serious negative consequences for economic development. This lack of face-to-face interaction may also stifle the benefits of agglomerations economies, which could also slow economic development. In other words, the demise of online retail seems to be more than just structural changes happening in the economy. The reduction in face-to-face interactions leads to destructive social problems and slower development of the economy.

Just something to keep in mind as many of us consider where to shop at the end of the holiday season and spend all of those gift cards afterwards. Now, out the door I go to finish my last minute holiday shopping.

May you enjoy the season with those you love.

Steve

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References

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.

 

 

 

 

The Imperative of Understanding the Role of Institutions, Culture, and History in Economics

I recently read an article by Dr. Avner Greif of Stanford University titled, “Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and individualist Societies.” While it is a somewhat dated article being published in 1994 (see citation below), Dr. Greif’s conclusion struck me as being very important and still applicable to understanding economic development and economics in general today. I think his concluding remarks are also important to take into consideration when one is attempting to apply economics in the making of public policy or just trying to understand a certain issue or event.

Here are the highlights I took from Dr. Greif’s conclusion.

…This paper points to factors that make trajectories of societal organization – and hence economic growth – path dependent. Given the technologically determined rules of the game, institutions – the nontechnological constraints on human interactions – are composed of two interrelated elements: cultural beliefs (how individuals expect others to act in various contingencies) and organizations (the endogenous human constructs that alter the rules of the game…). Thus the capacity of societal organizations to change is a function of its history, since institutions are combined of organizations and cultural beliefs, cultural beliefs are uncoordinated expectations, organizations reinforce the cultural beliefs that led to their adoption, and past organizations and cultural beliefs influence historically subsequent games, organizations, and equilibria.

Understanding the sources of institutional path dependence indicates the factors that forestall successful intersociety adoption of institutions for which there are many historical and contemporary examples…The view of institutions developed in this paper indicates why it is misleading to expect that a beneficial organization of one society will yield the same results in another. The effect of organizations is a function of their impact on the rules of the game and the cultural beliefs of the society within which this game is embedded. Analyzing economic and political institutions and the impact of organizational modifications requires the examination of the historical development and implications of the related cultural beliefs.

Past, present, and future economic growth is not a mere function of endowment, technology, and preferences. It is a complex process in which the organization of society plays a significant role. The organization of society itself, however, reflects historical, cultural, social, political, and economic processes. Comparative historical analysis is likely to enhance our comprehension of the evolution of diverse societal organization, since this process is historical in nature. Furthermore, such an analysis provides the historical perspective and diversity required to examine institutional evolution and the interrelations between culture, the organization of society, and economic growth (Greif 1994, 943-944).

What this means to me is that if we are truly going to understand economics, the process of economic development, and the functioning of economies, we have to also understand the related historical, political, social, cultural, and institutional elements. We can’t only rely on mainstream economic theory. The culture and institutions that are embedded within an economic system are vitally important to fully understanding how that economy functions at a macro level, as well as gaining a full understanding of the economic behavior at the micro level.

Furthermore, since history (along with culture) plays a key role in determining the path dependence of the economy’s institutions, it is imperative to understand the historical context of an economy in order to be able to appropriately apply economic theory to the development and implementation of effective policy. Institutions, culture, and history matter, but yet, we ignore them, for the most part, in mainstream economics…much to the detriment of society.

Reference

Greif, A. (1994). Cultural beliefs and the organization of society: A historical and theoretical reflection on collectivist and individualist societies. Journal of Political Economy, 102, 5, 912-950.

 

Steve

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San Antonio 2018 Economic Forecast

I had the pleasure and honor of being on a panel at an event this past Friday hosted by Texas CEO Magazine in partnership with the Bill Greehey School of Business at St. Mary’s University in which I presented my economic forecast for the San Antonio economy in 2018.

The presentation can be found here.

Employment growth in San Antonio remains healthy but has been slowing a bit over the past twelve months, which follows a similar pattern to the other major metropolitan economies across the state through August. Given the length of the economic expansion, growth rates have regressed toward the long-term average. The unemployment rate in San Antonio is still quite low at 4.1% in August, but it has started to tick up over the past year.

Again, a similar pattern is occurring across the other major metropolitan areas, too. We are at the point in this phase of expansion where the economy is at or very near full employment, so growth is going to be driven by population growth and/or growth in productivity, so it is difficult to see that growth will be much greater than average, if it is at all in 2018. For next year, I believe we continue to see growth in San Antonio with employment increasing in the range 2.25-2.50%, which is around the historical average growth rate of 2.43%. I project that the unemployment rate in 2018 will probably be in the range of 4.00-4.25% in San Antonio in 2018.

You will also see in the slides that I think we need to consider the possibility of the U.S. economy going into recession in the next two to three years. This is simply due to the fact that the current expansion is already 100 months old, which makes it the third longest in history. If growth continues over the next two to three years, it will become the longest expansion in history.

If we learned anything in the last recession, it is that growth does not go on forever. The expansion is long in the tooth. As already mentioned, growth in the foreseeable future is going to come from population growth and/or higher levels of productivity. Given the trends in demographics with the aging baby boomer generation and limitations being put on immigration, it is difficult to see where the population growth is going to come from in the next few years. Boosts in productivity are, in part, going to be driven by technological change, and while that is exceedingly difficult to forecast, it is hard to envision from where the boost in productivity will come in the near future. With this in mind, it seems that the odds are pretty high that the economy will run out of steam within the next two to three years.

Of course, all of this is contingent on various risks, and the biggest risk I see at this point is political risk. The national and global political situation has injected a massive amount of uncertainty into the business and economic environment. This, in and of itself, can be a deterrent to economic growth, but it certainly makes economic forecasts more difficult.

Steve

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Economic Growth by Presidential Administration

A couple of weeks ago I gave a speech in which I anticipated that the audience would like to have some discussion about the potential economic effects of the upcoming presidential election in the U.S.

To support the discussion, I worked with one of our economics students at St. Mary’s  University to create a chart showing the growth in gross domestic product for the U.S. by presidential administration.

growth-by-presidential-administration

As shown in the graph, GDP growth during Democratic administrations averaged 4.13% and during the Republican administrations, growth averaged 1.77% if you include the Great Depression and 2.72% if you do not include the Great Depression. Without going into more in-depth analysis, it is difficult to make too much of these numbers. I do not think it is correct to just attribute strong or weak growth only to the policies passed during any of these administrations. They can certainly have effects on the economy during their times in office, but the strength or weakness of the economy during most presidential administrations is often due to some extent to the policies implemented well before a president takes office.

For example, some of President Hoover’s policies certainly made the Great Depression worse, but I do not think one can attribute the entire Depression to him. President Roosevelt was the beneficiary of the growth after the Great Depression, the massive amount of spending during World War II, and the fact that he was in office for twelve years. President Obama took office as the economy was at or near the depths of the Great Recession, the cause of which I would attribute to policies implemented by Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Bush 43.

There are other studies that go into more depth on growth during the presidential administrations that I may write about in future blog posts. As previously mentioned, while it is difficult to say much about growth during specific presidential administrations based only on the data presented in this chart, there is one fact worth noting. I hear quite a bit that the economy slows or even goes into recession during Democratic administrations, but as shown in the graph, that is clearly not the case.

In fact, it is just the opposite.

 

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Blind Pursuit of the Free Market Does not Lead to Prosperity

While I think the perfectly competitive model as it is presented in economics has some uses in helping us understand economic behavior, I believe the way it is presented in economics classes has lead to a vast misunderstanding of the workings of the economy. The presentation typically gives the impression that government intervention in the economy is only bad, except for instances where market failures exist. The problem, in my opinion, is that very little attention is given to the assumptions necessary to make the model work. Sure, these are most often covered quickly at the beginning of the presentation of the model, but the rest of the course or discussion of this model is spent showing who this leads to equilibrium in the markets and how government intervention pulls the market away from this equilibrium and leads to a loss of welfare. However, if one stops and thinks about it, the assumptions of the model (e.g., economic agents act rationally, perfect information, perfectly mobile resources) mean that the free market really never exists. By its very inherent nature, market failure is always present, and because of this and the fact that markets and the economy are huge complex systems, not the isolated static mechanisms of the perfectly competitive model, they are rarely, if ever, in equilibrium.

I want to stress again that there are still some valuable lessons that can be taken from the perfectly competitive model. It is an elegant model that lead to some intoxicating conclusions, but because of this and the lack of emphasis of the assumptions underlying the model, it has lead to a lot of misguided economic policy. This is especially the case with respect to macroeconomic policy, which has been misguided by the absurd dynamic stochastic general equilibrium model. This has lead to the belief by many that all regulations and government intervention are bad and that if we would only get rid of almost all regulations, cut taxes, and minimize the size of government, markets would be able to operate freely leading to more prosperity and a better society.

To be clear, I am not arguing that government is the answer to everything, nor am I arguing that we should raise taxes to exorbitant levels. But, this blind pursuit of the free market based on the misapplication of economic theory or just bad economic theory does not lead to prosperity either. There has to be a balance between the two. Even Adam Smith (one of the greatest, if not the greatest, political economists, to have ever lived), whose Wealth of Nations is the standard bearer for all those in blind pursuit of the free market, recognized the need for balance, as he thoroughly discussed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This has lead to the belief that the ideas of cutting taxes (mostly for those in the upper income strata and the wealthy) and shrinking the government will lead to prosperity and improved social outcomes. Two articles recently published in the New York Times provide even more evidence that this is not the case. One of the articles was written by two political science professors, Jacob S. Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson at the University of California, Berkeley. The article, “The Path to Prosperity Is Blue,” is a brief summary of their book, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America ProsperI think the following quote from the article summarizes their argument.

Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan are united by the conviction that cutting taxes – especially on corporations and the wealthy – is what drives growth.

A look at the states, however, suggests that they’re wrong. Red states dominated by Republicans embrace cut and extract. Blue states dominated by Democrats do much more to maintain their investments in education, infrastructure, urban quality of life and human services – investments typically financed through more progressive state and local taxes. And despite what you have heard, blue states are generally doing better.

Work by Jon Bakija, Lane Kenworthy, Peter Lindert, and Jeff Madrick in their book, How Big Should Our Government Be?provides some evidence against the argument that small government facilitates economic growth. They show evidence that there is a direct relationship between the growth of government and economic growth. Over the past fifty years, those countries where governments have grown the largest over the  past fifty years have also experienced some of the fastest economic growth (see the chart here).

While governments are certainly not perfect, and as I have already mentioned, government is not the answer to every issue or problem, but it seems clear to me that government has an important role to play in the proper functioning of an economy and society. Blind pursuit of the neoclassical notion of the free market with the wildly unrealistic assumptions at its foundation can be very appealing, but it leads to bad economic policy in many cases.

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