About The Authors

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Auto Inventory Cycle Adjustment: More Pain Ahead

Mike Smitka
Washington and Lee University

During the extended housing boom of the early 2000s, consumers used home equity lines to go on a consumption binge. Light vehicle sales remained strong, while the model mix richened. Then the housing bubble reached its peak (and gas prices rose). The good times were over, and at the February 2009 trough sales fell to that of the trough of the 1981 recession. In relative terms the situation was far worse, because in the interim the US population grew by almost 80 million. Relative to employment, sales were a full 15% below the previous post-1976 (before which consistent data are unavailable).

Cars are durable goods, and even though the average vehicle now lasts 12 years, they eventually need to be replaced. Meanwhile the US population continues to increase and incomes have recovered (though for most Americans, not risen). From an excess of vehicles per household going into the recession, the number fell below what households wanted, and has now recovered. In February 2007 SAAR was 16.7 million units; that level wasn't hit again until March 2014. Fueled by low interest rates, longer loan maturities, and high used vehicle prices, sales crept back up. Indeed, Paul Traub of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago argues that they have been higher than sustainable.

...it's payback time...

It's payback time. Over the past several months the Light Vehicle SAAR (seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales) fell 7.5% from its December 2016 peak of 18.051 million units. This represents a drop of over 1 million units. Now  inventories rise and fall as a normal response to short-term swings in sales. With a steady fall, though, they mushroom, and mushroom they have. (Thanks to Paul and his May 2017 presentation to my W&L auto seminar for the graph on the left.) Now that the drop appears to be more than a transitory blip, it's time to bring inventories under control and pare production.

The supply chain is like a snake....

The supply chain is like a snake. If it's to eat bigger prey, it has to bulk up, and that takes time as suppliers rehire and otherwise add capacity. (This is on top of the normal investment to replace tooling for old models with that for new. Given the hit balance sheets took from the Great Recession, they also had to repair balance sheets to add capacity.) Going into the recession, production peaked in June 2007. It took over 6 years, until November 2013, to reach the previous peak.

....that's consumed too big a meal.

Now it’s like a snake that’s just consumed too big a meal: it's sluggish, because it takes time to get it out of its system. The Production Index hit 131 in October 2016, and bounced around that level through April 2017. It’s since fallen 7.6%. But that at best brings production in line with sales. It doesn’t pare inventories. That will require either an uptick in sales (fueled by assorted incentives) or a further cut in output. GM for example has chosen the latter, with extended summer vacations – not that they aren’t discounting, after all they can’t totally ignore price cuts by competitors. Output will surely fall more; it’s better to overshoot a bit, given uncertainly about whether sales will fall further. And today labor is no longer a fixed cost. As per Econ 101, the flip side of higher marginal costs makes it relatively more profitable to cut production than prices.

That leaves two questions. One: what is the stable level of output? I’ll save that for another post; too many graphs already! The second is employment. Here the bottom line is clear: productivity continues to rise, a trend visible as far back as data are available. Industry employment is certain to fall, and on a permanent basis. As a dismal scientist, I close with that graph, and with that of auto industry manufacturing employment.

I leave out many pieces. One is that while manufacturing productivity increased, that's much less true of automotive retail: employment there is at a historic peak. Then there are the finance, household formation, population data, household formation, depreciation and other pieces of the peak sales story that Paul Traub sets forth. I have not tried to put together the last couple months of inventory data, or compiled the various media reports of reduced production at GM factories, eg Lake Orion where the slow-selling compact Sonic (and the Chevy Bolt EV) are produced. Finally, while I can't provide any details, I do participate when my schedule permits in the monthly sales analysis roundtable that BWG hosts for their clients. My reading of these various sources is that at a more detailed level, some manufacturers are slower in responding than others, while the impact of the sales slowdown is uneven across manufacturers/brands, with for example the shift towards light trucks amplifying the impact on producers that are sedan-heavy, such as some of the Asian brands.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Real Yield Curve

Mike Smitka

I look at data of various sorts, often out of mere curiosity. One ongoing puzzle is the evolution of interest rates. I've posted graphs of nominal rates, and implied future rates. Below are similar graphs for real rates, as calculated by Treasury using inflation-adjusted bond (TIPS) yields. The first are the real rates at various maturities. (That's the graph on the left – click to expand.) I then use the difference between yields at different maturities to calculate the implied future interest rate. (Duh, that's the graph on the right.)

At one level these look sensible. We see that longer maturities have higher yields. We see craziness in fall 2008. But real rates remain low, around 1% into the far future. They look sensible, but they don't make sense.

...[they] look sensible, but they don't make sense...

One explanation might be global excess savings, what Ben Bernanke termed in 2005 as a global savings glut, driven by countries where individuals and firms are building up financial assets as their populations grow but where they've run out of sensible domestic investment possibilities. That requires financial outflows (and for that to happen, a trade surplus). And on the US end we do indeed see the flip side of trade deficits and net financial inflows. (Again, you can't have one without the other.)

After all, conceptually the return on investment ought to be higher in labor-abundant, poor economies. But I find it hard to believe that story, when we find it going on year after year. OK, many economies have unstable politics, which might make would-be investors cautious. So savings could pile up. But we don't see sharp breaks that might be consistent with that story, that is, with the ebb and flow of politics. Indeed, if that sort of uncertainty is key, we ought to see a huge Trump bump, because politics in the US now looks zany. Policy change is precluded by political infighting and the failure to appoint staff across the Federal government. We have no ability to address a crisis, much less attend to long-run challenges such as putting in place a true healthcare system, improving eduction or setting our fiscal house in order. The bottom line is that I don't see any such effect in the data.

The other story is secular stagnation: that despite the hype and self-promotion of Silicon Valley and the venture capital vultures who circle in search of easy feeds, there just isn't much happening. Cheaper taxi services – Uber, for example – just aren't working out. And from an economy-wide perspective it's hard to see an economic revolution in that, or better dating apps, or in receiving streams of 140 characters. In the $20 trillion dollar US economy, there's room for a lot of successful new $50 million businesses, but again, from a $20 trillion dollar perspective they are chump change. Robots? – I've been visiting factories for decades, automation is already widespread. The low-hanging fruit has been picked, and "hard" goods are only a 20% slice of our consumption. Artificial intelligence? The Executive Director of our small local United Way of Rockbridge worked in the earliest AI initiative at Stanford in the 1970s. Algorithms aren't new, and the cost of computing has long been near zero. Again, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

...the other story is secular stagnation...

My preferred explanation then is that (to borrow the title of Marc Levinson's most recent book), the transport, information and energy revolutions that exploded after 1800 represented An Extraordinary Time. That era has now come to a close, and henceforth we will no longer see the productivity growth that underlay the rise of the US. To borrow again, this time from Robert Gordon, this represents the Rise and Fall of American Growth.

However it's not just an American story, something emphasized more by Levinson than by Gordon. It's the story throughout the OECD economies, Europe and Japan and now even China. We can pray that in the next 3 decades South Asia and Africa converge on the developed economies through their own growth miracles. But for now they're too small, and too isolated financially, to offer a solution to the secular stagnation that we see in the US.

Disclosure: I'm using Levinson's book this fall in my 2 sections of Econ 102, Principles of Macroeconomics. I listened to the Audible recorded book version this spring, and am now reading the hard copy one. Gordon is also available as a recorded book, but given his prolific use of data, I can't imagine consuming it without his graphs in front of me – and I do my listening while driving.
For completeness, Bernanke reviewed his original savings glut story 10 years later, in a 2015 Brookings post. Here too is The Demise of U.S. Economic Growth, a modest-length paper that covers the stagnation themes that appear in the latter 100 or so pages of Gordon's 750+ page book.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Auto margins and disruption

Just a quick cross-reference in line with the previous post a great quote:

“TSLA, for all Musk's gift-wrapping abilities, is primarily a manufacturer, and history has shown us that the economics of the automotive industry are crap. ”

Graham Osborn, Contributor 10 Aug 2017, 09:51 AM

found in the comments to "Some Thoughts About Tesla's Latest Bond Offering" posted by Montana Skeptic at Seeking Alpha on August 10th.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

No margins, no disruption: the New Mobility Challenge

Mike Smitka
Washington and Lee University

If you want to disrupt an industry, you need to pick one with fat margins. That's the real challenge for the entire family of "new mobility" models, and more generally for "disruptive" technologies in the automotive footprint. It's one thing to be able to arbitrage regulated monopolies, which is what most incumbent cab companies are. But that only works if your strategy provides you with entry barriers, and the monopolies you break into earn piles of money. Local cab companies are however perfectly capable of developing their own cell phone apps, benefitting from the high ratio of "locals" in the customer base. That's true up and down the automotive value chain: all operate with thin margins. They are thus NOT ripe for "disruption."

...why would anyone want to try to disrupt a market with thin margins?...

At base, motor vehicle manufacturing, distribution, repair, and the final market of transportation services have few monopolies. Yes, if you want to develop the next-generation diesel engine there are only two players who are capable of the underlying material science and have the ability to manufacture with the requisite quality in the requisite volumes. (These two are Federal Mogul and Mahle.) There are however multiple firms capable of "mature" piston production. The same is true for every other component that I can think of: there are often a small handful of "leading" firms but there are also commodity producers of older technologies. The only way to preserve margins is to keep innovating.

Furthermore, it's a complex chain. Assembling vehicles, as Tesla is learning, is the easiest part – and they don't yet have their Model 3 assembly line up and running, despite having more employees than the normal volume assembly plant. But that's the tip of the iceberg: they have yet to solve the national distribution challenge in a cost-effective manner. Assuring that component supply lines can meet your production plan, and that you can take tradeins, provide financing and repair vehicles quickly, all that takes a lot of people and a lot of physical assets. Experience helps, too. If you're to grow rapidly, those have to be in place beforehand. Some resources can be borrowed, including the financing, as happens in the "traditional" franchised dealership system (though Tesla has decided not to do so).

It took over a decade from their establishment of a solid footprint for Honda, Toyota and VW to succeed – and as VW has demonstrated, laurels can be lost. After all, in the early 1960s and again around 1968 VW was THE import market in the US. They're now barely a player. The VW vertically integrated, single model mass production strategy worked for a while, as did Henry Ford's monomaniacal focus on the Model T and nothing but the Model T. Neither VW nor Ford were ever able to lower costs sufficiently to develop a sustainable advantage against the evolving products of rivals. In contrast, Tesla is a high-cost producer with a high-cost distribution system. High costs aren't an insuperable barrier if you aim to break into the premium car segment, but even then you have to keep renewing your product. High costs don't work if you aim for the high volume, middle-segment of the market.

Ditto Uber on the downstream transportation service end: taking over the taxi business would be great, but only if the underlying business was unusually profitable. But it's not. There's little room for cost reduction – materials, labor, overhead. It's not as though existing taxis are new and drivers well-paid. There not much room to cut economic costs, even if in the short run costs can be shifted to unsuspecting parties (Uber's owner/driver contractors). The only way Uber can provide reliably better service than incumbent Yellow Cabs is to have higher peak load capacity, with the requisite assets of vehicles and drivers. Superior service at a comparable price lets them grab market share, but they've not expanded the market. And without a bigger market they can't sustain their high-cost strategy. A cell phone app doesn't lower the cost of a car, or lower the minimum wage paid by alternate jobs. To reiterate: creating a big taxi company does not provide a route to healthy long-run margins.

...creating a big taxi company does not provide a route to healthy long-run margins...

So don't be fooled by the apparent ease of entry by disruptors. Yes, Tesla can draw upon the base of automotive suppliers to launch a car, something that would not have been possible in the more vertically integrated world of the 1960s. Numerous Chinese domestic players have done the same, and one or two may even survive if not thrive, the Geely's and Great Walls. But Tesla can't rapidly expand in the mature markets of NAFTA and the EU, absent a revolution in battery costs that decades of leading-edge chemistry research has yet to deliver. They can't compete in costs against the still-improving technology of the internal combustion engine. They can't compete by eroding the fat margins of incumbents, because margins aren't fat.

Autonomy is much the same. The suite of sensors need to be integrated into a vehicle, software integrated into the actuation of steering, braking and so on. Everything then needs to be tested. Car companies are good at that – that's why they're called assemblers. Many of the pieces are already in place, but consumer acceptance is still uncertain, and the only way average transaction price can rise is if sales fall: the average new car purchaser can only finance so much, given stagnant incomes amidst a driving population that is virtually flat. In other words, implementing a costly technology won't help margins. Indeed, it's already gotten the CEO of Ford fired.

...govt policy can disrupt the (auto) market, but not Tesla, not Uber, not Waymo...

There is one exception: government policy can disrupt the market, by enacting direct and indirect subsidies (such as California ZEV credits or safety mandates). But not Tesla, not Uber, and not Waymo. What is amazing is that, given automotive margins, they purport to have "disruption" as their strategy. It may work on the stock market, at least for a while. It won't work in the automotive market.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Germany will be first in EVs – but don't invest in VW!

Mike Smitka

The first big market for EVs will be the EU, not China and certainly not the US. This is not common wisdom: after all, isn't Beijing pushing EV technology, including forcing firms to buy batteries from "domestic" players? And then there's Tesla in the US. Of course in terms of hype no one can beat Elon Musk (and in semiconductors, NVDIA). But against global production of 90+ million units Tesla's puny 80,000 units in 2016 is on the order of the reporting errors in global sales data. They aren't disrupting anything. Instead the disruptor will be VW, adding to the presence of Renault and Nissan.

This was one of my key takeaways from the 25th GERPISA conference in Paris in June, garnered across 4 days of R&D center visits, presentations and conversations. [For fellow researchers, next year's GERPISA will meet in June in Sao Paulo Brasil.]

On the regulatory side, EU fuel efficiency rules cinch tighter in 2020-21, and thanks in part to VW the test cycle standards – currently the New European Driving Cycle – will be tightened to better reflect actual EU driving patterns. (Currently, for example, back seats can be removed and the alternator disconnected, while accelerations are unrealistically slow and idles too frequent.) That will make it extremely difficult to meet CO2 mandates. Reconfiguring diesel systems that passed due to "cheats" will lower their efficiency and raise their costs. Keeping to a diesel-centric strategy won't work. This will be a particular challenge for VW. At the same time, France was already moving to limit the presence of diesels in urban areas.

Hence BEVs (battery electric vehicles). VW just announced they've frozen the design of their first model, to be launched in 2020, and will thereafter start turning over their fleet to BEV models. For now they are basing their model on the underlying architecture of the Gulf. However, they are working on new architectures that will facilitate flat battery packs – we at GERPISA visited Renault's vehicle competitive teardown facility, and that's one of the things they look for in their analysis of new platforms.

Then there are batteries. VW will not make their own cells, reflecting both a lack of internal capabilities and to maintain the flexibility to shift their sourcing as cell technology advances. But they will make their own modules and packs, to better control weight and safety. Those are also heavy and bulky, so doing this in their assembly plants makes sense. Ditto Daimler.

Now VW is not alone, even if their diesel-heavy strategy and legal issues places them in an awkward position. Renault continues to update the Clio (and Nissan the Leaf), and both are poised to launch additional vehicles in line with demand. Meanwhile, the various EU members are building out base infrastructure. France already has charging capabilities along major highways; Norway (a small market!) is already 30+% electric. The government role is central, because infrastructure is expensive, and needs to be pervasive. Private efforts suffer from chicken-and-egg issues. For-profit charging ventures inevitably focus on dense areas. But for consumers to make a BEV their sole vehicle, national availability helps: there's always that trip to the beach, or a quick weekend getaway to the countryside. Such locations wouldn't generate enough business to make it pay to set up charging, at least early in the rollout of BEVs. But their presence facilitates market expansion.

After hearing pieces of this story from multiple people, I'm now convinced that BEVs will happen sooner than I expected in Europe. Key is that they will now provide a better value proposition relative to diesels, which intrinsically sip rather than gulp fuel. But batteries remain expensive, so that's not good news for VW. To meet efficiency standards they'll need to sell a lot of EVs. To do so on a competitive basis against the standard gasoline vehicles from other manufacturers means VW will lose money on each one it sells, to the tune of billions of euros as volumes rise. So VW has solved the subsidy dilemma: economies of scale and competitive costs can't be achieved without somehow getting BEV volumes up. EU incentives aren't enough; paying for a test fleet is one thing, doing it for millions of cars is another. VW incentives may well make the difference – indeed, Volkswagen is betting the company that that will be the case. In the interim, though, VW will not be particularly profitable. That interim will extent until 2027, at which point costs will fall, or VW will. Don't invest in VW!

...for the next 10 years, don't invest in VW...

For the US, the current administration is hostile to environmental issues, and is promising to roll back fuel efficiency standards (which will benefit luxury car makers, primarily German, and hence is not particularly helpful to domestic manufacturing). At the same time, the current Congress seems unable to pass any legislation, much less focus on such long-run issues as energy policy. That may change over the next couple elections, but for the time being there will be no national infrastructure policy in the US, and without that BEVs will remain a niche product. Yes, the fines VW is paying will be used to build charging infrastructure, particularly in California. But there's no national vision behind it, only an attempt of VW to get some modest indirect benefit out of their fraud settlement.

Then there's China. For the same budgetary reasons as elsewhere, Beijing will rein in central government subsidies by 2020. Yes, they want electric vehicles, they want to have a presence in new technologies. No, they don't want to pay for it. Economic nationalism fails as a policy when it requires spending serious money. Meanwhile Panasonic and others are building plants there, suggesting that a "Chinese companies first" stance will work no better there than it has in the passenger car market, where VW and GM are #1 and #2. In fact, China has already relaxed its stated limitations on foreign firms setting up new joint ventures: new ones are fine if they're for EVs.

...China may be the largest single BEV market, but it lives on subsidies and those are fading...

One presentation at GERPISA made that clear, using insurance data (not registration data, known to be misleading due to false registrations by various corrupt "car companies" that let them pocket government EV subsidies without actually making vehicles). As everywhere, BEVs are a small share of the market. Once the data were disaggregated geographically, it turns out that in many regions there are essentially no sales. In contrast, in some metropolitan areas BEVs appeared quite popular.

Ah, but the details! In such cities BEVs qualified for a license plate at no cost and with no wait, while buying a plate for an ICE (internal combustion engine) car requires entering a lottery with average wait times of 2 years, and paying up to $12,000 in fees. The BEV exemption thus provides a huge implicit subsidy – but the BEV quota is finite. In one major city the quota of 50,000 was quickly filled. Total BEV sales: 50,800. Absent subsidies, there's as yet no market for BEVs in China, and these subsidies are not set to expand. At the national level they are already shrinking, and there's no systematic rollout of charging infrastructure. Instead, we have owners dropping wires from the window of 5th floor apartments to let them charge their cars. [There were a couple news stories last year on this, if I can find the links I'll edit them into this post.] So while China may be the largest single BEV market, that's due to a confluence of idiosyncratic and transient subsidies, not to effective policy or consumer demand.

So in the end the EU will be first. What is not yet know is whether battery prices will fall sufficiently to become competitive with ICEs. After all, ICE costs are also falling – a decade ago, did anyone foresee "real" cars running on 3-cylinder engines? Lower component count aside, those save weight in a manner that batteries don't, and so allow downsizing in suspensions, frames – everywhere! – with attendant cost reductions. No current commercial battery technology can offer those indirect savings. Even if things go well, it will still be well into the 2030s before EVs will comprise half of sales in development markets. By that time biofuels will also have advanced. My own belief is that in 2030 we'll see a variety of drivetrains coexisting in the global market, with variations in dominant power sources from country to country.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Airlib', and Uber All is Over: ridehailing & carsharing aren't viable businesses

Mike Smitka from Brunate, Italy

Sorry for the sorry attempt at a pun, but I had my normal 4-week Spring auto seminar that included a week with students in Detroit and daily classes. The closing week included two two-hour Skype sessions with co-blogger David Ruggles, fit in between his guitar lessons while he remained home in Las Vegas. Then came the Industry Studies Association conference (where I presented a paper on why there will be no disruption in the auto industry in terms of new entry, but already has been in OEM profits). Then it was off to the GERPISA global auto industry conference in Paris, where I gave two presentations in two sessions, moderated a third session and took part in a meeting of the organization's steering committee, 4.5 days of work. My wife accompanied me to toot around, and then we headed to Germany (my brother was finishing a month in Freiburg), are now high above Lake Como at the top of the funicolare above the city, and leave this morning for the southern end of Lake Lucerne for a day en route to the Zurich airport and home. OK, enough with excuses that I'm sure elicit tears of sympathy.

On to higher topics: Uber. The firm's death spiral should now be visible for all to see. I'm not thinking of the firing of the founder by the board, but of the string of a dozen-plus executive departures, many voluntary (example: the CFO). People are fleeing the Titanic, the big players with Golden Parachutes (lifeboats would be demeaning), while tough times their plebeian drivers face are getting tougher (including loss of market share to various and sundry rivals). Investors (crocodile tears) in our latest dot.com fad are set to go down with the ship, as any hope of an IPO have surely vanished.

I've mentioned from time to time Airlib', a Paris "new mobility" provider. While they target a different segment from Uber, their experiment suggests wider problems with the hailing/sharing segment. Their cars are visible in residential areas of the Paris, where they have charging stations and the parking spots to go with them. (Which is more valuable, I wonder?) My wife and I watched their all-electric fleet of by-the-hour rentals come and go; they had a row of vehicles on the sidestreet of our hotel, plus we ate outside at an adjacent restaurant. On the surface they have plenty of business, families swiping their pass at a window to open a car up, and after unplugging the charger it was off on a quick shopping trip, things of that sort. There were also a lot of Airlib' staff, apparently repositioning cars to places with too few while freeing spots where users might want to drop vehicles off, and cleaning cars. But Autolib' cars are not clean, they're old and dingy, custom-made Pininfarina cars amidst a sprinkling of new Renault ZOEs.

Apparently the company is not doing well (conversations with Paris-based researchers, not my own research). First, that we saw a lot of Airlib' vests was not unrepresentative: their personnel costs are high. People don't treat shared cars as their own, so they need constant cleaning. That requires a car to take drivers to Airlib' parking locations, who then take them to a cleaning facility. Of course a car then needs to be sent to pick up drivers once they've returned a car to a slot. The bottom line is that the process requires two people and a car that is then unavailable for rent. The above photo is representative of what soon happens: a hub cap missing, body panels that have been repaired, an overall dirty exterior, and an interior that has seen better years (not days). One side aspect of the constant cleaning, though, is that it facilitates repositioning cars.

Second, cars remain in the fleet: custom, bare-bones electric econocars have no resale value, so need to be driven until they die – they soon look like taxis everywhere. I didn't have the keypass to get inside one, and didn't want to interrupt a family unloading groceries, but apparently the insides are worse than the outsides. Third, the rentals are short-term, too few hours to generate the expected level of revenue. Finally, from a public policy standpoint, survey data (researchers at the GERPISA conference) suggest that users would otherwise use public transport: they are not giving up cars. Airlib' does not lessen urban vehicular congestion, it makes it worse.

I also wonder about the parking spaces they occupy: do they add to urban congestion by leaving fewer free, resulting in more circling of the block in search of a spot? There's a US parallel: friends down from New Jersey report that they don't drive into the city very often, midtown is occupied by Uber vehicles. Since unlike a regular taxi they can't be hailed, they obtain no benefit from cruising the streets. Instead they park, or more properly "stand" with their drivers inside, taking up a visible share of the already sparse Manhattan parking spots. My friends are patient people, they're in to visit their architect daughter Stephanie Goto, but it's insufficient for the Uber hurdle.

One parallel business is Zipcar. They've been acquired by Avis; I've not tried to see if that segment is broken out. Is the short-term rental business profitable? I have my doubts, but at least Zipcar is now owned by an experienced fleet management company, with "ordinary" cars that can presumably be remarketed (sold at auction) and replaced by new vehicles on a regular basis to keep them fresh in user's eyes.

Anyway, I have a wealth of topics coming off of the past two months, including my own preliminary presentation at GERPISA on the geography of the Chinese industry. Are producers locking themselves into high-cost production locations, driven to the provinces by industry policy – I mean, there's a car plant on the province-island of Hainan! Is Shanghai becoming a new Detroit, a center of global R&D, with most global suppliers having engineering centers there? More on those issues later: I've summer research money to compile data from a 900+ page company directory. There's also notes from the GERPISA visit to Renault's R&D center, including their competitive analysis "teardown" hall (a room doesn't have enough room).

Now really, to be profitable, new ventures should focus on high-margin businesses, not low-margin ones. What do you get by disrupting the latter with an app? Low margins. Unfortunately the auto industry as a whole is a low margin business. That's why over the past 50 years there's been scant new entry: it's not for lack of imagination, it's for lack of profits to be had.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Chinese assembly flow

I'm back from a week in Detroit with students [schedule here] that included factory tours at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Giffin in Auburn Hills and Continental Structural Plastics in Carey, OH. Both Giffen and CSP were 2017 PACE Award winners. Even though what they saw is a small sample of the range of processes in automotive parts manufacturing and final assembly, they now have a sense of what goes on.

So here is a really nice video that follows a vehicle through the assembly process. During our trip we didn't see welding robots but we did see a paint shop and robots inserting/removing material from a SMC stamping press. Because those were not metal parts we didn't see e-coat in the paint shop of Continental Structural Plastics in Carey, OH. We did however see the stamping of body panels, which is not shown in this video. We did see the roof liner being inserted in the Ford Rouge plant (though given the large number of things being done, students likely don't recall that one particular step). In any case much of this video should now be familiar to my students. Oh, and China is not much different from the U.S. Production in China is driven first and foremost by quality and speed considerations, not by labor costs, so robots do the welding and the heavy lifting.

NYTimes video

Friday, May 5, 2017

LF Participation: Improvement Continues

Mike Smitka, Economics
Washington and Lee University

...how many older workers can be enticed back into the labor market?...

Rather than headline unemployment rate I follow participation rates because so many would-be workers dropped out of the labor market during the Great Recession. In a couple age brackets we've now returned to normal as judged by the pre-recession average, which was roughly flat over the period 2000-2006. The black line is a moving average, which means that it lags as participation increases. The raw average is now at 99%, but bounces around a lot from month to month. I'm thus conservative in how I approach the data. While I do not correct for this (I don't have age-specific data) the share of the labor force working involuntary short hours is down to 3.3% from a Great Recession peak of 6.0%. Some of this improvement thus includes a transition from part-time to full-time work. It's taken 7 years, which means a lot of personal pain and sidetracked careers. But most of the slack in labor markets has now disappeared.

Of course these data are national averages, so there will be a lot of local variation. One caution: participation by older workers at near historic highs. The aging of the baby boomers means there are many people wanting jobs who a generation ago would have been fully retired. How many of them can be enticed back into the labor market? We'll find out over the next couple years. In the meantime, if labor markets really are tightening, then we should start to find employers offering higher wages to attract and retain workers, first on a regional level, then nationally. I however don't follow those data. I need to start reading the Federal Reserve Beige Book, which provides the qualitative impressions of Fed staff in each of its 12 districts.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Data Point: Real Yield Curve

Periodically I've posted graphs showing the future bond yields implied by the difference between (say) the yield on a 5 year bond and a 7 year bond. The Treasury also issues TIPS, bonds whose post-inflation yield is guaranteed. Doing so gives suggests after-inflation returns – the yield on a 2-year bond – of 0.65% in 2022. Over the past 10 years, as per the previous post, real bond yields lay below the real growth rate by about 0.65%. So will the ceiling on real growth over the next 5 years be 1.5%?? This of course is consistent with the argument of Robert Gordon that the US is seeing and will continue to see lower growth than experienced in the first four post-WWII decades. (For reference I also include one measure of inflation, the rate of increase in personal consumption expenditures after lopping off items with the highest and lowest price changes. This continues to trend just under 2%.)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

US Deficits and Sustainable Debt

As Congress and the Trump Administration begin to work on their fiscal program, with the potential for tax cuts and expenditure increases, it's important to think about whether our current deficit is sustainable. Now Japan is fast approaching a point where debt issues will overwhelm their financial system. (My senior capstone read a paper by Hoshi & ItoNote that lays forth that case, arguing that the breakdown point will occur by 2027.) The US is not Japan: we have a growing population, less debt, and smaller deficits. Nevertheless at some point we too will need to put our fiscal house in order.

...we don't need to run a surplus, but the current deficit isn't sustainable...

What follows uses a simple (but standard) arithmetic framework to clarify what matters. As long as debt to GDP is stable, we should be OK, because the demand for financial assets grows with the economy. In general institutional investors such as pension funds hold government bonds for good reasons, and that a particular bond has matured doesn't change that. So they want to buy new bonds to replace the old. In other words, at today's level of debt, the Treasury can "roll over" debt, issuing new bonds to replace old. There's not only no need to repay our debt, financial markets would be hard-pressed to find alternative assets if we did so. Indeed, 20 years ago, under the impact of the Clinton administration's budget surpluses, Federal debt was declining rapidly and there was hand-wringing about how financial markets could function if all the debt was repaid. Some of that public worrying was partisan, used by those who wanted to argue that large tax cuts were OK.

Our economy is also growing. So even if the absolute amount of debt continues to rise, potentially debt to GDP will not. Indeed, that's what happened following WWII. By the end of the war debt surpassed GDP, but fell to just over 20% by 1974. This didn't happen because we ran budget surpluses. Quite the contrary, on average we ran small deficits after 1948. But we did grow, enough to outgrow our debt. But today we're running significant deficits and not growing.

Interest rates matter. In the 1950s and 1960s they were relatively low, so the interest the Treasury paid on our debt didn't offset growth. Today we again have low interest rates, but we also have low growth. So we need to ask whether that changes the situation.

Again, what we want to look at is whether debt is stable relative to GDP. That is, if B is the stock of bonds and Y is GDP, is B/Y growing? On its own – assuming bonds are rolled over – the stock grows with accumulated interest: t+1 = Bt(1 + i), where Bt is the stock of bonds at time t and i is the nominal interest rate. Similarly, GDP grows at Yt+1 = Yt(1 + g) where Y is nominal GDP and g is the nominal growth rate. Hence debt to GDP will grow at:

B(1+i)
Y(1+g)

To put this to use, we need three pieces of information: what is the level of debt, B/Y; what is the growth rate g;, and what is interest rate i. That will give us an indication of whether debt is sustainable, and if not, what level of surplus is needed to keep it within bounds.

The first is easy: Federal debt is approximately 100% of GDP, that is, debt to GDP ratio is 1.0 – convenient for arithmetic, as multiplying by 1 is easy. We then need to know the ratio (1 + i)/(1 + g). When i and g are single digits in percentage terms, as in the US, that ratio is approximately 1 + i - g. In other words, with our debt ratio of 1, B/Y will shrink as long as (1 + i - g) is less than 1. The critical issue then is the value of (i - g). If i > g then our debt level will rise, unless we run surpluses. If i < g then we can run (small) deficits indefinitely, as happened during 1949-1974, yet not see our debt level rise.

Now while it might seem that we ought to be able to earn better than the growth rate, this is fundamentally an empirical question. Thanks to the Great Inflation of the 1970s and 1980s nominal interest rates and nominal growth varied wildly. But real growth and real interest rates stay within fairly narrow bounds, except at the depths of our recent Great Recession. The graph below sets forth those data. Excluding the peak around 2009 we find that the average level of (i - g) is about -0.6%. If we include the peak, the average is roughly 0. Now as the graph below indicates, real long term bond yields fell over the past 15 years and are now on the order of 0.8%. Investors, rightly or wrongly, have not built strong growth into bond prices. So to date there's no evidence that the Fed's ongoing normalization of interest rates will raise real interest rates relative to growth. If so, we can run deficits of 0.6% of GDP forever.

To reiterate, we don't need to run a surplus. However, we do need to bring the budget close to balance. Unfortunately, our current deficit is about 3% of GDP. Now that's a vast improvement over the -10% of GDP level at the trough of the Great Recession. Employment growth and profit growth led to stronger income tax receipts, while the improved employment situation led to a drop in "safety net" expenditures. That combination lowered the deficit by a full 7% of GDP. Unfortunately we can't expect further gains, as profits are now high and (un)employment low. There is however downside potential. So we ought to count on the deficit averaging out at -3.5% of GDP, not -3.0%.

...that means we need to "enhance revenue" by 4% of GDP, not cut taxes...

That does not factor in the aging of the baby boomers, who haven't fully retired and whose healthcare expenses will continue to rise until offset by rising boomer mortality. Such retirement-related expenses will likely come to at least 1% of GDP. Hence we need a fiscal adjustment on the order of 4.0%-4.5% of GDP. Congress needs to "enhance revenue," not cut taxes.

Note: Hoshi, Takeo, and Takatoshi Ito. 2014. “Defying Gravity: Can Japanese Sovereign Debt Continue to Increase without a Crisis?” Economic Policy 29(77): 5–44.