Software Nerd

Sunday, June 07, 2009

1930 WSJ Blog

Somebody has decided to read the Wall Street Journal from 1930 (library microfilm) and post a daily summary on a blog. The idea is to get a feel of that year, when the depression had just set it, to see if we can learn anything about our current situation.

A daily update is more detailed than I'd have liked. If he would do a summary paragraph or two each week, that would work well for me.

The blog is called "News from 1930"

Friday, June 05, 2009

Conceptualizing "recession"

Officially, recessions are measured by how the economy is changing. I think this is wrong. While it is useful to know if an economy is getting better or if it is getting worse, the primary measure of health ought to measure it against what it could be, not against what it was in the last quarter.

Example: Imagine that the economy goes into a tailspin, that unemployment shoots up from 5% to 10%, and that GDP plummets from $ 14 trillion to $13 trillion. Now, imagine that things start to improve after about 1 year. However, imagine two different scenarios...

Come-back scenario: A year after turning downward, the economy starts to pick up again. In another year, it is back where it began, with unemployment at 5% and GDP back to $14 trillion. The dip and return took two years; but, as currently conceptualized, the recession would be measured as being 1 year long, because that is when the economy started to rebound. (i.e. the recession is measured from "peak" to "trough").

"New normal" scenario: Under an alternative scenario, a year after turning downward, the economy flattens, and then climbs almost imperceptibly. Then, another year out, it starts to climb a little faster, but is still quite laggard. Finally, 5 years later unemployment is back down at 5%, and GDP is back to $14 trillion. Even though the dip and return took so many years, the recession would be measured as being 1 year long, because that is when the economy stopped going any lower.

This way of conceptualizing a recession is faulty. We need a measure of economic health that meaningfully describes how an economy is doing, compared to its potential, not a measure that accepts the previous quarter as a "new normal" and rejoices in small upturns.

Reverse Immigration

This is a software-related post. Ignore it if that does not interest you.

Over the 8 years, U.S. salaries in software-development jobs have not risen much. Meanwhile, salaries for similar jobs in India have continued to rise. (The same relative change is probably true across other industries as well.)

Salaries in India can still be 25% of U.S. salaries. However, there are additional costs when the customer is in the U.S. Today, large U.S. companies budget India-based work at about 50% of U.S. based work. An experienced U.S.-based programmer may cost $120k to $140K, when one adds salary, health-insurance, company-paid social-security, and U.S. based infrastructure. An equivalent India-based employee would cost about $60k-$70k, when all costs are considered.

That is still a large difference, but much narrower than it used to be a decade ago. It has been interesting to see how such changes take place. The process is slow, giving companies and employees a fair amount of time to adjust. And, it is slow for "natural" reasons, not because of some government protectionism. A decade ago, many companies were still wary of off-shore development. They began to dabble and test the waters. Then, in the 2000's -- especially with the cost-cutting required after the stock-market bust -- some companies actually set themselves targets: e.g. "in 5 years, 20% of our development must be done off-shore".

The process would have been even slower if the free-market had prevailed. In a free-market, one would have had more immigration from India to the U.S. This would have reduced the wage-differential by lowering U.S.-based costs, while one would have seen India-based cost rise slightly more than they otherwise did. In the end, one would have had significantly more U.S.-based wealth-creation.

Now, with the downturn, companies are again under cost-cutting pressure, and looking to off-shore development as one means.

In February, IBM did something I've never heard of before. While laying of software-developers, they offered to transfer them abroad, to India, China or Brazil (1). IBM would help them move and also help them get set-up. However, once there, the U.S. workers would have to accept local levels of salaries and benefits. I doubt many people took up this offer, but it is good to see IBM being creative about this, and offering their employees a solution that is far better than being jobless.

Reverse immigration would be a true sign of the decline of the U.S. As an immigrant myself, I understand there are costs (in terms of friendships, proximity to family, familiarity with one's environment, and optional cultural values like food) in moving far from home. So, when people vote with their feet, it is a serious indicator. I don't expect this, but nor would I rule it out ... some two decades hence.

Notes:
(1) Computerworld, Feb 6, 2009 "Workers Losing Jobs at IBM Get Overseas Option"

Monday, June 01, 2009

Time for another default?

Should the U.S. declare a default on its governmental debt?

I never imagined I would suggest that the U.S.A. renege on its borrowings, but I'm starting to entertain the idea as a "lesser evil". Federal debt was about 55% to 65 % of GDP at the start of 2007; now, with all then new government spending and "rescuing", it is slated to rise to 90% of GDP by 2011.

This 90% number understates the magnitude, because the government has also taken on large, new "off balance-sheet" obligations. For instance, in 2007, the government's official position was that it was not responsible for money borrowed by Fannie and Freddie. A CBO report, from 2001, said this:
A typical disclosure from a Fannie Mae prospectus states, "The Certificates, together with interest thereon, are not guaranteed by the United States. The obligations of Fannie Mae are obligations solely of the corporation and do not constitute an obligation of the United States or any agency or any instrumentality thereof other than the corporation."
However, when push came to shove and the U.S. government (ex Treasury Secretary Paulson) did not dare insist on the explicit provision in the prospectus. Instead, late in 2008, the government decided to make the guarantee of Fannie/Freddie debt explicit. Later, the government also guaranteed debt of certain banks.

The US is in the exact position in which many poor borrowers find themselves: they don't know how they'll repay their debt tomorrow, but they really, really need the money just now. It is always easier to push the problem to the future, and borrow now. This does not work unless lenders evade too. Politicians are usually happy to evade this way, and to push any problem beyond the next election. In this case, the major lenders are politicians too, with foreign central banks holding large amounts of US government debt.

As a U.S. taxpayer, I will end up paying for this evasion. Continued evasion simply means that the U.S. will be encouraged to borrow more, and to inflate more, and waste more. The solution is simple: recognize the problem now, and begin to deal with it. A default would be a rude wake-up call: something that nobody could evade. It would make the poor creditworthiness of the U.S. government explicit. If we need a default to scare everyone into action before things get still worse, a default would be a lesser evil.

Fannie/Freddie debt was different from direct U.S. government debt, because it did not have an explicit government gurantee. This is debt the government did not have to take on. This debt would have been the ideal candidate for a default, because it could be done while upholding true government debt. Even a small gesture -- for instance, if the government had said they would guarantee a part (say 80%) of the Fannie/Freddie debt -- would have put lenders on notice.

Major lenders to the U.S. governments are not idiots! Until recently, with debt around 60% of GDP, they could have held up hope that future U.S. taxpayers would foot most of the bill. Some evasion was involved, and the big lender of the recent few years --the Chinese government -- had its own political reasons to evade. However, the recent U.S. government spending has worried them, and the Chinese have been scolding the U.S., saying the government needs to be more careful with spending.

This week, we saw a small example of the pressure that lenders can bring to bear. Secretary Geitner has just gone to China and is reassuring them that the U.S. will try not to exceed an annual deficit of 3% of GDP. These are promises, promises... If the U.S. had insisted that the lenders to Fannie/Freddie at least take a "haircut", that would have been something concrete, a real loss rather than a probable one.

What would have happened if the government had not backed Fannie/Freddie 100%? It is possible that the recession would have got deeper faster. Instead of being able to keep interest rates low, anything like a default would have sent interest rates up. Home prices might have dropped even lower than they did, unemployment might have risen higher, the stock market may have gone lower. However, the economy would have readjusted to the new realities rapidly. That is what happens when the amount of evasion is lessened: people not only adjust to the new reality, but -- in terms of real wealth -- build up from that base more rapidly than from an economy propped up by inflation.

It is less than a century since the U.S. defaulted on its debt, when F.D.R. brazenly rescinded its promise to pay its debts in gold. A dollar used to be a promise to pay about 1/21th of an ounce in gold. In about a year, it was changed to a promise to pay 1/35th of an ounce. The SCOTUS upheld this as being constitutional. Creditors would only get 57% of their loans back! It was a dishonorable act.

I think the U.S. should pay back its creditors. This is a rich country, that produces a great deal of wealth every year. If the government did not fritter away such a large portion, we could easily do the honorable thing. I fear though, that we have to choose between a small dishonor today that serves as a wake up call, or a much worse fate in the future.