Sunday, March 8, 2015

@RobertJShiller and the #EMRATIO.

There's been a tendency, every spring since the start of the Lesser Depression, for the business community to express, hopefully, that "this will be the year things turn." The first post I wrote noting this theme was on March 8, 2013. I thought this morning that, two years later to the day, I'd revisit the question.

Civilian Employment-Population Ratio
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
I've been keeping an eye (thanks to Brad DeLong) on the Civilian Employment-Population Ratio from the St. Louis Fed for some time. It is generally the best measure of labor market conditions. If the economy rallies strongly, this is the ratio that should change substantially.

In March of 2013, the ratio was at 58.5. As of February 2015, it's at 59.3; the graph is on the right. There's essentially been no movement.

At the same time, though, the Shiller P/E Ratio, as of February 13, 2015, passed its pre-financial crisis high. This past week, the NASDAQ closed above 5,000 for the first time since the dot-com bubble. There is some local evidence of a speculative real estate bubble. Shiller himself recently released a new edition of his "Irrational Exuberance," where in the preface he expresses surprise at the events that have followed “the bursting of the speculative bubbles that led to the 2007-9 world financial crisis”:
"[E]vidence of bubbles has accelerated since the crisis. Valuations in the stock and bond markets have reached high levels in the United States and some other countries, and valuations in the housing market have been increasing rapidly in many countries."
So the data is there to support a narrative of asset price inflation unsupported by fundamentals, rather than the hopeful mantra of Main Street.

It is, of course, the why of this situation that is so puzzling to so many. If the economy presents meager prospects, shouldn't prices adjust to reflect? It is always tempting to fall back on Thomas Sargent and simply say that in an economic equilibrium, people are satisfied with their choices, and to add Herbert Stein's observation that "[i]f something cannot go on forever, it will stop."  But Shiller himself offered a potential explanation on why this phenomenon recurs, and I found that his point resonated, and so I link to his piece in the New York Times from last month:
"When there is unusual uncertainty about the future, and if not enough new business initiatives can be found to increase the supply of good investments, people will compete to bid up existing investable assets. They may go so far in bidding up prices that even though the assets may have horrible prospects, people will still want to hold them because they feel they have to save somewhere."

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