ZeroHedge’s post on the apparent breakdown of Okun’s “Law” highlights the ongoing tragicomedy of how the science of central economic planning eventually confounds, and then consumes itself. Economics is, after all, a social “science”, an elaborate study of human beings and, most importantly, human interactions. Robert Okun, for his part, merely observed in 1962 that when “output” (whatever statistical measure is en vogue) rises by 3%, the unemployment rate seems to fall by 1%. For some reason, economics assumes that if it is true in the past, it will be true forever, so it was written into the canon of orthodox economic practice. Economics has inferred causation into that relationship, giving it a layer of permanence that may not be warranted. Econometrics has always had this inherent flaw. The science of modern economics makes assumptions based on certain data, and then extrapolates them as if these assumptions will always and everywhere be valid. There is this non-trivial postulation that correlation equals causation. In the case of Okun’s Law, it seems fully logical that there might be causation since it makes intuitive sense – more economic activity should probably lead to more jobs, and vice versa. But to assume a two-variable approach to something that should be far more complex is more than just dangerous, it is unscientific. In fact, Okun’s Law has already been adjusted somewhat, most famously by Ben Bernanke and Andrew Abel in their 1991 book. It was upgraded to a 2% change in output corresponding with a 1% inverse change in unemployment. Apparently with the economic “success” of that period, Okun needed a re-calibration.
Okun's rule-of-thumb relates the long-term empirical finding that a country's unemployment rate is closely related to a country's output (or GDP) - perfectly sensible and comprehensible. In fact to be a little more explicit, it is the change in unemployment that is more notable in its relationship to the potential GDP (the output gap). His original work noted that a 3% increase in output corresponds to a 1% decline in unemployment rates (and/or rise in labor force participation, rise in hours worked, and rise in labor productivity) but as Goldman Sachs notes this week, Okun's Law has broken. As they point out, even though US real GDP growth has averaged a meager 2.5% pace since the end of the recession, the unemployment rate has fallen almost two percentage points from its peak. There are three implications, in our view: the unemployment rate is hopelessly miscalculated (and is much higher); potential growth is much lower than economists have been expecting (not such good news for real growth); and the multiplier effect of money has dropped structurally (in other words the implied money flow from more workers is not circulating the way it empirically has to juice growth). It seems to us that none of these are good for growth as the reality of a higher unemployment rate (BLS adjustments aside) is negative, lower potential for growth impacts earnings expectations (as we are already seeing in company and analyst outlooks which has perplexed those market watchers pinning their hopes on the jobless rate), and the balance sheet recessionary impacts of the 'employed' minimizing debt rather than maximizing potential gain is a further drag. Either way, as Goldman notes the potential growth rate going forward (2012 and 2013) is likely to remain quite weak, in the neighborhood of 2% in line with the CBO's dismal views and this could be further exacerbated by the drop in labor force participation we have noted vociferously.
Last week we heard from Nomura's bearded bear as Bob Janjuah restated his less-then-optimistic scenario for the global economy. Today his partner-in-crime, Kevin Gaynor, takes on the bullish consensus cognoscenti's three mutually supportive themes in his usual skeptical manner. While he respects the market's potential view that fundamentals, flow, valuation, and sentiment seem aligned for meaningful outperformance, it seems actual positioning does not reflect this (yet). Taking on each of the three bullish threads (EM policy shift as inflation slows, ECB has done and will do more QE, and US decoupling), the strategist teases out the reality and what is priced in as he does not see this as the March-2009-equivalent 'big-one' in rerisking (warranting concerns on chasing here).
Update summary added.
Just a headline on Reuters, citing Medley Global Advisors:
- FED WOULD CURTAIL ASSET BUYING IF COMPELLING EVIDENCE OUTPUT GAP CLOSING QUICKER THAN EXPECTED
Is the Warsh-Hoenig-Plosser-Fisher-Kocherlakota mutiny about to go nuclear? We will bring you the report if we see it.
Could it be that the fundamental economic indicator that is gospel not only to Goldman Sachs, but to Ben Bernanke in estimating and determining monetary policy, the output gap, provides a flawed reading of the economy? As a reminder, Ben Bernanke has repeatedly expressed little regard for either commodity inflation or US dollar exchange as having an impact on overall US inflation. As Askari and Hochain state: "according to [Bernanke's] theory, inflation was related only to the output gap. As long as the output gap was negative, that is, if actual gross domestic product was below potential GDP, the economy was at no risk of inflation. Hence, he argued that the central bank had to adopt an aggressive money policy until the output gap closed. Such is the policy prescription from what is called the Taylor Rule or the Phillips Curve. Because potential GDP is not a measured macroeconomic variable, it can be estimated in millions of ways. There are, therefore, millions of ways for estimating an output gap, making the concept difficult to use as a policy tool." The problem with these millions of estimations, is that especially courtesy of the Greenspan created bubble over the past 20 years, the American economy is, ironically, not a true representation of itself. And thus, the output gap estimates need to be normalized for a "bubble free" GDP environment. It is precisely this issue that none other than the St. Louis Fed addresses in its latest paper: "Has the Recent Real Estate Bubble Biased the Output Gap?" The conclusion is startling: based on a production function output gap normalization (an approach "based on a relation between available productive inputs (such as capital and labor), their current utilization rates, and aggregate production"), Bernanke could be fatally wrong about the economy's "capacity for inflation" courtesy of the CBO's overestimated output gap, and that his loose monetary policy could end up being a disastrous precursor to rampant (and not distant) hyperinflation, due to his blatant avoidance of simple logic when interpreting the economic output gap.
"Over the full ten-year period, we now see the deficit cumulating to $10½trn, up from $9trn previously." - Goldman Sachs