The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

September 13, 2006

A Warning Sign In The Deficit Report?

I guess how you feel about today's news on the August federal deficit report depends on your perspective.  Reuters led with the observation that the ink was a little redder than expected...

The U.S. government posted a larger-than-expected $64.61 billion federal budget deficit in August as outlays for the month were at a record high, a Treasury Department report showed on Wednesday.

The August deficit compared with a $51.33 billion deficit in August 2005.

Wall Street economists polled by Reuters were expecting a $61.15 billion deficit for the month.

... while AFX News Limited (via Forbes) kicked off with a cheerier perspective:

The federal deficit through August held below last year's level and continued on its course for a smaller yearly deficit this year than last, the Treasury Department said.

The government posted a budget deficit of 64.6 bln usd in August, compared to expectations of a 67 bln usd monthly deficit.

Through the first 11 months of the budget year, the deficit was 304.3 bln usd, down 14 pct from the same period in 2005, when it totaled 354.1 bln usd.

I don't doubt that someone out there in blogland will point out that, in the even longer run, the federal budget remains in a state of some disrepair.  But, for the moment, I am decidedly focused on the short run, and trying to figure out exactly how the economic outlook is evolving.  From that perspective, this detail from Action Economics (subscription required) is not encouraging:

Receipts were weak, declining 1.0% or $1.6 bln to $153.9 bln.  Weakness was led by a drop in individual income.  This marks the first time since April of 2004 that receipt growth has been negative.

OK, I'll remind myself that one month does not a trend make, and maybe encourage myself with this report, from Greg Ip and Christopher Conkey at The Wall Street Journal Online:

The recent drop in oil prices could provide a welcome and surprising boost to consumer pocketbooks this fall, cushioning the economy from a falloff in home prices and construction while venting an important source of inflation pressure.

The easing of energy prices is an unexpected -- and little-noted -- positive amid economic anxiety over falling housing activity, previous energy-price increases and the possibility of recession.

Crude oil was at $77 a barrel as recently as early August. Yesterday, the price of the October crude-oil future contract settled at $63.76, a near six month low, down $1.85 from Monday, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Ahh.  I feel better already.

UPDATE: Jim Hamilton surveys the prospects for oil and gas prices and comes up with a happy face.  And Felix Salmon shows Jim is not alone!

September 13, 2006 in Data Releases, Energy, Federal Debt and Deficits | Permalink


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Do you know where AE found this data:

"Weakness was led by a drop in individual income. This marks the first time since April of 2004 that receipt growth has been negative."


Posted by: Movie Guy | September 14, 2006 at 12:26 AM

The fall in income taxes owed to a one-time correction for an accounting error that had been occuring over the past few years, as well as one fewer Mondays than normal. See the always excellent CBO Monthly Budget Review

Posted by: rana | September 14, 2006 at 03:30 PM

"Ahh. I feel better already."

Uh, huh.

Pull up a comfortable chair, tear open those Ritz crackers and get ready for this disaster:

Black Friday kicks off at 7 AM (EDT).

More general news

Sales information

Better yet, pass that unopened Blue Bell over this way. Yeah, that one. The new flavor.

It's going to be a rough day. The bars will be packed tomorrow night in many communities. I'm thinking that they will get an early start.


Posted by: Movie Guy | September 14, 2006 at 05:55 PM

rana -- thanks for that.

MG -- well, I do like beer and crackers.

Posted by: Dave Altig | September 14, 2006 at 09:17 PM

Dave: Not so fast (re: I feel better already). You missed the important point of Ip's story. (Granted it was the second to last graf!): "The falling price of oil also may be an ominous sign if it reflects decreased global demand, which would indicate decreased economic activity."
Or do you think the lower price is coming from the supply side? Somehow i doubt it. -cb

Posted by: Caroline Baum | September 15, 2006 at 02:00 PM

Caroline -- I actually do think it is sort of a supply shock -- witness the recent discovery of greater oil reserves and positive noises from OPEC. And to the extent that reduced demand is involved, I chalk some of that up to adjustments to higher prices rather than substantially weaker growth. I guess lower expected growth in the US and the ECB does come into play, but the world growth forecast was actually marked up by the IMF this week. So I'm still tentatively comfortable.

Posted by: Dave Altig | September 15, 2006 at 03:55 PM

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Posted by: yuntrip | September 28, 2006 at 09:35 PM

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July 22, 2006

Odds And Ends -- July 22 Edition

A rainy morning in Cleveland, and an opportunity to do some quality blog-surfing.

The confluence of Chairman Bernanke's Congressional testimony and the release of the June FOMC meeting minutes got lots of people thinking about what is next for U.S. monetary policy. Brad Delong is "surprised that there hasn't been a pause yet" and thinks that we haven't seen one because "the Fed is scared of the 'soft on inflation' headlines that a pause would generate."  The Capital Spectator offers a terrific round-up of the week's economic news, and claims that "In theory, a slowing economy makes it easier for the Federal Reserve to cease and desist with its current round of interest rate hikes. In practice, life's more difficult, thanks to the worrisome rise in core CPI in June..."  Tim Duy also thinks that "although the Bernanke sounded soothing relative to expectations, the incoming data argue for another rate hike in August."  Toni Straka believes the "rate trend will stay the same and probably accelerate." At Hypothetical Bias, the opinion is "Once more and done (for a bit, at least)". William Polley is leaning that way tooBarry Ritholtz reiterates: The Bernanke bounce in the stock market is a "sucker bet".

Speaking of the Chairman -- more specifically his ideas about the global savings and investment and their relationship with interest rates -- Mark Thoma has a legitimate beef with the use of the word "glut."

Other summaries of, and commentary on, the week's economic news: From Dr. John John Rutledge (here and here). Calculated Risk provides a nice graphical look at where housing inventories are building, replicated from the Wall Street Journal. The Nattering Naybob Chronicles has its usual rundown of the week in bond and equity markets. MacroMouse contemplates the end of quantitative easing in Japan, and sees lessons for U.S. policymakers.  Tim Iacono has plenty of this and that, as does The Skeptical Speculator.

On my exchange with Nouriel Roubini on Chinese currency reform, Kash agrees "it does not feel like we're getting closer to some sort of crisis" but wonders "what should we expect it to feel like?"  Paul at Truck and Barter gets right to the substance of our exchange, while Brad Setser adds his own, ever insightful, thoughts at RGE Monitor. The Skeptical Speculator notes that "China has taken additional steps to cool its economy." Though not about the Chinese case specifically, Daniel Gross addresses a related and really important question: Is the end of American dominance in capital markets done?

Russell Roberts echoes an argument made this week by Ben Bernanke: In dealing with low-wage workers, an earned-income credit is preferable to a minimum wage.  He also takes on Paul Krugman's position on both the minimum wage and the inequality statistics that Krugman argues support a minimum wage policy.

Brad DeLong highlights an interesting column by Hal Varian on luck and taxation.  (Bottom line: If luck -- as opposed to hard work and risk-taking -- is a big part of being rich  progressive taxation makes good economic sense.  The intuition would be that luck is not sensitive to prices, and so won't be diminished by relatively high taxes.) 

Mark Thoma noticed the Varian piece too, and has several links to others opining on the inequality debate more generally. I'd also check out Greg Mankiw's ruminations, Tom McGuire's recent "Stalking Points", and, if you have the time, everything in the Cafe Hayek archive on inequality.

Taking a more global perspective on poverty and inequality, J.S. at Environmental Economics shares some thoughts on "Rethinking Development Aid For The 21st Century" (thoughts which sound pretty darn sensible to me).  Also, NEI Nuclear Notes asks "Should Developing Nations Embrace Nuclear Energy?"  In the category of excellent advice, The New Economist quite rightly commends your attention to the Private Sector Development Blog. (So do I.)

A colorful picture of who gets what from oil revenues across the G7 is available at Contango.

John Irons documents the continuing, and puzzling, mix of profits versus labor compensation in overall income.  As I've noted before, however, there may be more to this story than meets the eye.

Hat tip to Captain Capitalism for the link to this article about a county in Oregon that is running its own monetary systemMark Thoma comments intelligently on a proposal to implement a commodity-based monetary system backed by "local renewable energy" (whatever that might mean).

Daniel Drezner links to an interesting article in the Economist on the value (or lack thereof?) of large quantitative trade models.

July 22, 2006 in Asia, Economic Growth and Development, Energy, Exchange Rates and the Dollar, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Housing, Inequality, Saving, Capital, and Investment, This, That, and the Other | Permalink


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These posts of yours are great Dave ...



Posted by: claus vistesen | July 22, 2006 at 07:25 PM

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June 15, 2006

Feeling The Love

I normally would not expect news that starts like this, from Bloomberg, to be greeted with much enthusiasm:

Bernanke Says Oil May Slow Growth, Spur Inflation (Update2)

June 15 (Bloomberg) -- Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said soaring energy costs may slow economic growth and spur inflation in the short term...

Oh, but it was. From Reuters (via USAToday):

Stocks jumped sharply Thursday as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said inflation developments "bear watching" but the impact of high energy costs on other prices has been limited and the economy will adjust over time.

What's the deal?

"The reason it's up isn't so much that (Bernanke) said anything, it's what he didn't say," said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist with Wells Capital Management. "Leading up to this people thought he might be more hawkish," given recent data showing an uptick in inflation.

And from the Wall Street Journal, today's bad news is good news entry:

Manufacturing data released by the Fed Thursday might have eased some concerns about inflationary pressure. The Fed said its measure of industrial production fell for the first time in five months, reflecting sharp declines in auto and machinery output and a dip in mining activity. It lost 0.1% in May, versus economists' expectations for a gain of 0.2%. Capacity utilization, a closely watched measure of inflationary pressure, was 81.7%, down from 81.9% in April and also less then expected.

Actually, it would be a mistake to make too much out of the industrial production report, as the monthly series is quite volatile:




This month's dip follows two months of fairly good gains, and the 12-month growth rate still looks pretty healthy:




There. Feeling worse now?  OK, if it's any consolation, a downward trend has to start somewhere, so maybe this is, in fact, the start of something small.  Feel free to rally.

UPDATE: Those who put their money where their expectations are in the market for options on federal funds futures were not moved to alter their assessments of the situation:





UPDATE II: Good round-ups of all the day's economic news can be found at The Nattering Naybob Chronicles and at The Skeptical Speculator.

June 15, 2006 in Data Releases, Energy, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation | Permalink


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May 11, 2006

Oil Or Money?

This comes from David Wessel, in today's Wall Street Journal (page A3 in the print edition):

So far, the global economy and the U.S. economy, in particular, are shrugging off higher oil prices. The latest forecasts, most of which assume oil prices will fall a bit from current levels, predict reasonably strong economic growth for the rest of the year...

But a lot turns on the response of the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks. History demonstrates that a sharp increase in oil prices is economically toxic when accompanied by a sharp increase in short-term interest rates. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke knows his history and vows to avoid repeating it.

Below is a picture I (and many others) have shown before.  The arrows represent episodes in which the relative price of energy -- the energy component of the consumer price index divided by the price index for all other goods and services -- increased by at least 10%.  The shaded bars represent NBER recession dates.




Here is a similar picture, with the federal funds rate substituted for the energy price series.  (The arrows are preserved for reference):




Hmmm.  Sure enough, every energy-price spike has a downturn in the economy in the near temporal vicinity.  But every energy-price spike is likewise associated with a run up in the funds rate. 

Should we be worried?  Wessel continues:

"The crucial difference from the 1970s, in my view, is that today, inflation expectations are low and stable," Mr. Bernanke said. "As a result, the Fed has not had to raise interest rates sharply as it did in the 1970s." The key to keeping inflation expectations "benign," he argued, has been "Fed policies that have kept actual inflation low in recent years, clear communication of those policies, and an institutional commitment to price stability."

That does leave the 1990-91 and 2001 episodes sort of hanging there.  Nevertheless:

So if we all believe higher oil prices won't spark inflation, the Fed won't have to raise interest rates so much to squelch inflation. If the Fed doesn't raise rates too much, the slow-motion supply shock won't provoke a slow-motion recession. Let's hope.


May 11, 2006 in Energy, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy | Permalink


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Shouldn't higher energy costs result in wage pressures? It seems to me that most of America, especially that part that commutes, is currently beating a path to the boss' office looking for a little bit more in the paycheck. Higher wages will cause inflation. This necessitates the Fed to continue duing their completely irrelevant job of raising interest rates which, while it shouldn't, seems to cause energy prices to rise.

I guess I'm just as dumb as a dog on the darkest night but I can't figure out how continuing to raise interest rates a quarter point at a time will make anything better.

I think they needed to raise one final time yesterday to 6% even. That would have made a real difference and, guess what, the world would keep turning on its axis, the dollar would be stronger today, commodities would begin to descend and, in a couple of weeks, or so stocks would have returned to buy levels.

But that's me - a realist in a Republican-run fantasy world.

Posted by: john | May 11, 2006 at 06:26 PM

"History demonstrates that a sharp increase in oil prices is economically toxic when accompanied by a sharp increase in short-term interest rates."
Hasn't the Fed reacted in the past BECAUSE evidence suggested if they didn't react the increases would be passed through?
I sure hope we haven't entered a twilight zone where the Fed believes it can micromanage our economy so we will NEVER undergo another recession. Recessions are as necessary to our economic well-being as checks & balances are to binding Presidential aspirations to democratic ideals. Oops, maybe that's a bad analogy.

Posted by: bailey | May 12, 2006 at 11:08 AM

The other side of the coin is that oil prices always continue to rise until a recession causes a drop in demand -- the lead time to bring on new supply is so long that it is never in time to impact the supply-demand balance.

In addition even though the Fed knows the lags on monetary policy are long and varied, they virtually always continue to tighten until they see the impact of the tightening in the data. The exception was the early 1990s round. But isn't that what they are doing now?

Posted by: spencer | May 13, 2006 at 11:42 AM

I am curious why bailey thinks that recessions are necessary. I agree that they happen, but theoretically I don't agree that they are necessary.

It is possible to have periods of faster and slower growth with out a recession isn't it?

I think that the key thing the fed is trying to do is maintain level growth, fight inflation, and maintain price stability. (which could be interpreted as the same thing fighting inflation.)

Posted by: jeff | May 13, 2006 at 12:05 PM

Probably because I'm an old man & believe we constantly underprice, then overprice goods - TOO MUCH. Eventually, we seem to revert to the mean. If housing prices in Krugman's "zones" (60% all home on value) weren't SO overpriced I'd agree with you, but my guess is it would take 20 years OR MORE for earnings to increase to the level needed to support current home prices in the "zones". To make matters worse, homeowners have borrowed from their home equity to maintain a lifestyle they can NOT afford. So, the greater problem we face is, the 70% of our population who are lucky enough to own homes, save nothing & have next to nothing set aside for retirement. I wish there was a way around it, but sooner or later, we must stop passing the bill to the next guy and pay it.
It's the Fed's job to see our economy doesn't get so far out of control that we can't afford the interest on the bill or that no one wants us to pay it back in our dollars. (Personally, I'd like to see BB & Co. focus now on increasing 10 yr. yields & unwinding our derivatives market rather then increasing FF further. But, thanks to AG, BB's in a real tough spot.) Clearly, he's heading in the right direction & he deserves our support. If we're going to stop passing the bubble forward from equity mkts. to housing markets to other mkts. we're going to HAVE to slow our economy down & start paying our bills. Unfortunately, for your hope of a soft landing, our consumer's responsible for 2/3 of our GDP.

Posted by: bailey | May 13, 2006 at 02:57 PM

But, if the Fed did not respond aggressively to lower rates from Dec 1999 to 2004, the economy tanks. Remember how they got so low. There was a liquidity crisis on all notes expiring in Dec of 1999. Fear of the Millenium. (I have a friend that is still long powdered milk and velveeta!) Then, in 2001, the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, China begins developing. They need a place to park dollars and do it in our treasury market.

We had artificially low rates. Even when the Fed went on the course to raise rates, long term rates did not move. Too much buying pressure.

I think a lot of the game of flipping is over in the hot markets. I dont' think Real Estate values are overvalued. Besides native home ownership, we had a lot of foreign buying, especially in Florida.

I have a more optimistic view on the American economy than you do I think.

Posted by: jeff | May 13, 2006 at 06:11 PM

Jeff, you're not alone.
"Raphael Bostic, a real estate analyst at the University of Southern California said it's too early to say that things are looking particularly bad for the housing market. Despite the drop in sales, the large number of listed homes and the recent drop in prices, Bostic said analysts are still watching to see whether prices actually go into freefall.
Bostic doesn't see any reason why that should happen. Traditionally, homes in Southern California have only suffered from extended and significant drops in value as the result of factors largely external to the housing market. The most often-cited example is the last real estate slowdown in the early 1990s, which experts agree was largely caused by massive job losses." Pulled from: http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=euLTJbMUKvH&b=486837&ct=2453669
Personally, I'm leaning with Shiller, Buffett & common sense.

Posted by: bailey | May 16, 2006 at 11:32 AM

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February 05, 2006

The Market Solution To The Energy Question...

... pushed with conviction by Mickey Kaus and Matthew Yglesias at bloggingheads.tv.  If I'm reading everyone correctly, the bheads and Jim Hamilton are on the same page.

February 5, 2006 in Energy | Permalink


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Time for a carbon tax! On the basis that even assigning a moderate probabilibity to global warming makes it a critical externality that must be addressed. Adjusting the carbon tax somewhat to account for oil-specific externalities might be a good idea for the reasons Hamilton suggests for an oil tax. However, we should not structure energy taxes that make coal (as currently utilized) a larger component of our energy consumption, as it represents a critical source of CO2. I am releived to see this discussion about approriate and effective energy policy slowly spreading.

Posted by: CorrectLeaning | February 05, 2006 at 10:58 PM

If foreign oil is a compelling federal concern because of national security, then I have simple solution: begin limiting foreign oil imports and let the market determine the best mix of alternative energy and conservation.

Posted by: Mark | February 06, 2006 at 02:41 AM

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December 05, 2005

The Kyoto Conversation: As Complicated As Ever

In the midst of the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Montreal -- and the continuing pressure for the US to get on board with the Kyoto Protocol (and its hope-for extensions) -- a few items caught my eye.  First, this from EurActiv:

With the successful launch of the EU CO2 Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) on 1 January 2005, the European Commission will want to present the EU as a world leader in cutting global warming gases at the 11th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal (COP-11)...

Highlighting its successes before heading off to Montreal, the Commission indicated that 230 million tonnes of CO2 have already been traded on the EU carbon market since January 2005, representing 3 to 4 billion euros. EU-15 countries have reduced their emissions by 1.7% since 1990 while achieving economic growth of 27%, the Commission pointed out.

This is however still short of the 8% reduction target the EU-15 agreed to cut under the Kyoto Protocol. The latest inventory report from the European Environment Agency showed that total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU-15 went up by 1.3% in 2004 (EurActiv, 21 June 2005). The Commission described the figures as disappointing at the time. But Brussels said it remained confident that further measures, including the full implementation of the EU-ETS would help improve the situation.

However, in a recent development, the Court of First Instance in Luxembourg dealt the Commission a serious blow by ruling that the UK was entitled to raise its CO2 emissions ceiling approved under the EU-ETS (EurActiv, 24 Nov. 2005). The court ruling could have serious implications for the Commission's ability to enforce the scheme, but Brussels said it had still not decided whether to appeal against the ruling.


European energy ministers on 1 December have called on the Commission to review the EU CO2 Emissions Trading Scheme "as soon as possible" in order to put it in line with policies aimed at boosting economic growth and competitiveness...

The ministers invite the Commission to produce a set of "comprehensive and reliable data and ensure that remedies to possible market disturbances in sectors affected by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme are provided in good time".

A French official close to the negotiations told EurActiv that all member states agreed that new climate change measures proposed by the Commission should take full account of possible consequences for the economy and be based on an extensive cost-benefit analysis.

In related news, Environmental Economics has this:

... 2002 GHG emissions levels relative 1990 levels (the comparison year in the Kyoto Protocol). The U.S. is 13% over 1990 while the UK, France and Germany have reduced their GHG emissions...

According to the UN's report National greenhouse gas inventory data for the period 1990–2003 and status of reporting, U.S. "Gg CO2 equivalent" was 6.1 million in 2000 and 6.07 million in 2003 (about a .9% decrease). And the EU's emissions have increased. Here is the chart:


Much of the U.S. growth in GHG emissions is due to the economic growth of the 1990s (i.e., it's Clinton/Gore's fault). And, as env-econ commenter "tc" points out, the 2001 recession probably had something to with the GHG slowdown from 2000 to 2001.

So, what would that cost-benefit analysis look like if the EU could guarantee economic growth comparable to the US over the past decade or so?

December 5, 2005 in Energy, This, That, and the Other | Permalink


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November 14, 2005

Windfall Profits Taxes: Take 3

In my last post, I cast a skeptical eye toward the prospect of a windfall profit tax levied on oil companies, arguing that rational businesspeople cannot be expected to expect that a one-time charge on profits deemed to be "too high" will really turn out to be "one time."  If the government does it once, everyone will expect that they will do it again when the spirit so moves.  The consequences for investment will likely be negative.

pgl responds with a response from the New Republic, countering that a reasonably designed windfall profit tax need not have this characteristic:   

But as Dorgan explained at a press conference announcing the bill, "this is not your father's windfall profits tax." Instead, the Dood Dorgan plan offers companies an out: Profits invested in oil exploration, refineries, or capacity expansion would be exempt from the tax. "It will be the most significant incentive for them to use those profits to invest in the ground of any incentive I can possibly think of."

Fair enough. Although this runs counter to the goal of using the tax to raise revenues -- which Dodd and Dorgan apparently want to spend on transfers to consumers "who have paid with pain at the pump" in any event --  it does address the bad incentive effects that I previously discussed.  But then my question would be this: If incentives for investment in "oil exploration, refineries, or capacity expansion" are a good thing, why should they be tied to "windfall profits"?  Isn't it likely that such incentives are likely to be least necessary when oil companies are flush and prices are high?

I confess that my gut reaction to these types of proposals is generally negative.  My personal vision of tax-system heaven is something like this:  Forget the economic engineering, give me a tax system with as flat a playing field as possible, leave it be, and watch the private-market garden grow.   The windfall profit tax -- even the thoughtful one that Messrs. Dodd and Dorgan have dreamed up -- just doesn't fit into that scheme.

UPDATE: As reader nate pointed out in a comment to my first post on this subject, Andrew Samwick has a different opinion.

November 14, 2005 in Energy, Taxes | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 21, 2005 6:12:38 PM


I don't support everything these Democrrats are saying. Imposing a tax on suppliers and then subsidizing consumers strikes me as a very futile exercise. But then isn't that want we used to do with tobacco - just in reverse?

Posted by: pgl | November 14, 2005 at 04:24 PM

pgl -- yep. That one was a bad idea too.

Posted by: Dave Altig | November 14, 2005 at 10:59 PM

If you want the same effect, a progressive corporate tax based on some factor like ROI would be a better idea. At least the definitions of windfall would need be clearly laid out. Of course the whole thing is a horrible idea, the only time windfall profits need be addressed is probably when they occur again, then an investigation into what type of market failure is occurring would be useful...

Posted by: akatsuki | November 15, 2005 at 02:47 AM

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November 12, 2005

Windfall Profits Taxes: Take 2

In my post on this topic yesterday, I made note of pgl's endorsement of a windfall profit tax in his comments at Angry Bear.  This morning, pgl takes exception with my characterization of his position:

Incidentally, I hope I was clear that I’m opposed to price controls and do not buy into this price gouging spin. Spencer does not buy into the spin either. I’m not sure why David associated my advocacy for a gasoline tax with the gouging spinmeisters.

My bad.  It was certainly not my intention to associate pgl with either price controls or "the tax gouging spinmeisters," which I probably did by combining commentary on the tax issue with commentary related to critics who accuse the oil companies of price gouging.  I am a great fan of the boys at Angry Bear, not least because I don't expect anything less than a thoughtful analysis on whatever the issue of the moment might be.  Consider this an apology.

So, let me try again. I take pgl's comment to be that, as long as we are searching about for ways to close the fiscal financing gap, why not take the opportunity to collect some revenue via the windfall profit tax?  My interpretation of Andrew Chamberlain's evidence from the Carter/Reagan era windfall profit tax is that this is not a very durable source of revenue.  In the comment section of my earlier post, Spencer writes this:

Technically, the windfall profits tax was signed into law in April 1980 and remained on the books until 1988.

But the tax only collected revenues when the price of crude was above $30 and April 1983 was the last month oil was above $30. So for all practical purposes the effective end of the tax was April 1983 -- because no one had to pay the tax after that point.

But the data the CBO study uses to claim the tax caused oil production to fall has to go out to 1986 to find lower oil production, about 3 years after the tax effectively ended although it was sill legally on the books..

That's a good critique of the CBO study, but doesn't change the essential point I was trying make:
Things change, and profits and prices in the energy sector are notoriously volatile. To my mind, this fact significantly diminishes the attractiveness of a windfall profit tax as a way to finance government expenditures.

There is another, potentially more serious, criticism which I neglected to emphasize in my first post.  A windfall profit tax is essentially an after-the-fact tax on fixed capital.  As such, it is prime candidate for the time inconsistency critique.  In brief, because "windfall profits" represent returns on economic activity that has already taken place, it may seem like a free lunch to generate revenue from these profits because there is not a whole lot that the taxed companies can do to to avoid paying the tax today.  But if the impacted businesses anticipate that the tax will persist or be levied again in comparable future circumstances -- and why wouldn't they? -- the end result will be a less than socially optimal level of investment.  That's a bad thing.

For sure, I endorse pgl's refrain that it is a good thing to get serious about reducing the magnitude of the federal deficit relative to GDP. I am more agnostic than he about whether that should be through higher taxes or lower expenditures -- the devil is always in the details, so you need to tell me which taxes you intend to raise and which expenditures you intend to cut before I am willing to come to any conclusions.  Based on his past positions, I'm willing to bet that pgl would prefer the reversal of the previous reductions in income tax rates.  That's fine. If we collectively decide that fiscal financing gap is best closed by higher taxes, let the debate proceed to the recommendations of the Federal Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform, and how those proposals might be amended to raise the requisite revenues. I'd forget the windfall profit tax.

November 12, 2005 in Energy, Taxes | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 21, 2005 6:14:44 PM


The reason I came down so hard on the tax foundation study is that it was just another example of a biased study that you see so much of these days.

It is like the claim you see so often that Carter imposed price controls. But Carter did not impose price controls. Nixon imposed price controls. Carter actually lifted price controls. No he did not lift them 100% -- it was a phased deconrol. But, on a percentage basis Carter actually did more to lift price controls then Reagan did. But time after time I see this claim given uncritical acceptance -- even by Nobel prize winning economist -- when it is completely untrue.

There were no gas lines under Carter either -- they were all under Nixon.

But I constantly see claims that the windfall profits tax did massive damage. But the fact was that the time of the windfall profits tax was the era of the most masive investment by the oil industry.

I am opposed to a windfall profits tax.

But I am more opposed to dishonesty in economic analysis.

I am not accusing you of dishonest, just of uncritically accepting a study you know is from a source that is well known for its bias.

But maybe this is the biggest problem with blogs. Such claims that would never be published in a peer review article get widely circulated and become part of the generally accepted thinking.

Posted by: spencer | November 12, 2005 at 11:22 AM

If you want to impose a tax on energy my own personal preference is an import tariff.

A tax on the final product would act to reduce demand, but it does nothing to increase supply.

But an import tariff would raise the price to domestic producers --
assuming that imports are the marginal product that set the domestic price --and make some oil available that is not available at lower prices.
For example, at $60 oil the ammount of oil that could be extracted from ANWAR is some two to three times that that can be extracted at $30.

Posted by: spencer | November 12, 2005 at 11:36 AM

There were no gas lines under Carter

Now who is revising history? Under the second oil price shock, gas supplies were allocated toward the countryside and shortages developed in the cities. I know. I waited in those lines. Fortunately it only lasted a few weeks.

Posted by: Lord | November 13, 2005 at 01:26 PM

It is fairly easy for me to remember. In the first oil shock I lived in the washington burbs and commuted into DC and remember the lines and shortages. In the second oil shock I lived near Boston and have no memory of lines or shortages. Because they are two distinct locations it easy for me to differentiate between the two.

Posted by: spencer | November 14, 2005 at 02:52 PM

spencer -- I'm not quite sure where the dishonesty is. The point was that the windfall profit tax did not raise the revenues it was expected too. Your cogent comments on my earlier post clearly demonstrated why that was so -- the price assumptions just did not hold up. On the issue I was highlighting, I don't think the piece I was referencing said much more.

Posted by: David Altig | November 14, 2005 at 11:11 PM

LA had lines. August 79 is about right. Not being able to get gas in the cities, few left them for the country and they had a surplus as a result. Didn't drive under Nixon so I didn't have to wait in those lines.

Posted by: Lord | November 15, 2005 at 11:45 AM

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November 11, 2005

Price Gouging And Windfall Profits: Where have I Heard That One Before?

Did Wednesday's hearing on Energy Pricing and Profits, and the emerging talk  of windfall profit taxes, make anyone else just a little nostalgic for the 1970s?  No?  Well, at least there has been plenty of buzz out in the blogger fields. As befits a discussion centered on a fairly large issue, different folks have focused on different aspects of the debate, pro and con.  pgl lends his support to a windfall profit tax, on the basis of its revenue generating potential:

I’m with Senator Boxer on the proposal to use a windfall-profits tax to reduce the government deficit so we don’t have to rely on taxing the working poor as much.

The New York Times has similar ideas -- wrapped around a more specific desire for a teax-based energy policy -- but Russell Roberts is not impressed with the logic.  And Andrew Chamberlain at Tax Policy Blog offers a very discouraging word on the presumption that there are big revenues to be had from a windfall profit tax, buttressed by this pretty convincing picture:


The shortfall from projected revenues in that picture had a lot to do with missed projections on energy prices.  Apropos to that, Market Power suggests that, relative to pre-Katrina levels, gas retailers have recently been "price degouging" (and he has the graph to prove it.)

As to whether windfall profit taxes or Congressional oversight will ease the pain of the consumer, Hispanic Pundit fears that government intervention and lower prices just don't add up. while Gerald Parente at Tax Policy Blog warns that the burden of any such tax may hit closer to home than many think:

... the answer to rising prices from many in Washington has been a proposed windfall profits tax. Not only would such a tax create uncertainty that’s likely to reduce future output, it also would unfairly strip away profits from shareholders in an ex post facto manner.

A large portion of the shares of companies like Shell and Exxon Mobile are owned by mutual funds. Who owns mutual funds? Anyone with a well-diversified retirement portfolio. As     a result, imposing a windfall profits tax may end up harming many Americans on the verge of retirement, without doing much to lower gas prices.

The Tax Foundation's Jonathon Williams and Scott Hodge remind us of more very unintended consequences:

... according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), is that the 1980s windfall profits tax depressed the domestic production and extraction industry and furthered our dependence on foreign sources of oil.

As to the whole fairness issue, Williams and Hodges provide a little documentary evidence:

... the taxes paid or remitted by domestic oil companies have been consistently far greater than their profits and now total more than $2.2 trillion (adjusted for inflation) over the past quarter century. The largest share of those taxes is federal and state gasoline excise taxes. In 2004, governments collected $58 billion in gasoline excise taxes. Overall, governments have collected $1.34 trillion in gasoline excise taxes since 1977.

Econbrowser, on the other hand, finds the comedy in it all.

November 11, 2005 in Energy, Taxes | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 21, 2005 6:16:47 PM


I do not know the source of the tax foundation data, but according to the Department of energy data domestic oil production rose during the time the windfall tax profits was in effect. Moreover, during this time oil imports plunged almost 60%. Finally, over the time that the windfall taxes were in effect the rig count soared to all time highs -- from 2,175 in 1979 to 3,974 in 1981. This compares to an average of under 1,000 since 1985.

The era of the windfall profits tax -- April 1980 to April 1983 when oil fell below $30 -- was actually an era of massive excess capital spending on oil that created so much excess capacity that it took almost 20 years for the industry to work out from under it.

I will be more then happy to provide the data to support these statements.

Posted by: spencer | November 11, 2005 at 01:09 PM

OK -- I remember the CBO study.

There was a major problem with it.

Technically, the windfall profits tax was signed into law in April 1980 and remained on the books until 1988.

But the tax only collected revenues when the price of crude was above $30 and April 1983 was the last month oil was above $30. So for all pratical purposes the effective end of the tax was April 1983 -- because no one had to pay the tax after that point.

But the data the CBO study uses to claim the tax caused oil production to fall has to go out to 1986 to find lower oil production, about 3 years after the tax effectively ended although it was sill legaly on the books..

Posted by: spencer | November 11, 2005 at 01:17 PM

To be clear - I disagreed with that price gouging claim. My point was simply that when the supply curve elasticity is near zero, the incidence of a tax (or a subsidy) goes to the supplier. It is true that oil prices fell in the 1980's but I seriously doubt that the reason for this decline was a profits tax on U.S. oil companies. So the forecast error is not - as some would argue - for a misunderstanding of how taxes work.

Posted by: pgl | November 11, 2005 at 03:09 PM

you might look at Professor Samwick's blog posting:


Posted by: nate | November 12, 2005 at 05:07 PM

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October 02, 2005

Ready To Solve The Energy Problem?

Surveying the ongoing fallout from Hurricane's Katrina and Rita, Professor Goose at The Oil Drum says the situation is "not only bad, it's very bad."  Some of the disruption is temporary, to be sure, but, as Professor Hamilton (and many others) have been warning, things may not be looking so great even after the short-term stress has passed.

Andris Piebalgs has a plan.  From BusinessWeek online:

    EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs on Wednesday told oil companies to boost refining capacity.

Piebalgs said he would meet with executives from major oil companies and ask them to do more to remove production bottlenecks...

He also said Europe should switch to using alternative energy sources and boost research of wind, wave and solar, and hydrogen energy and of clean coal and carbon sequestration.

"The energy potential of biomass in the EU needs to be developed. A Biomass Action Plan will be tabled before the end of the year," he said.

    MEPs warned against the EU's over-dependence on oil and said Europeans should diversify their energy sources...

In a resolution scheduled to be voted on Thursday, lawmakers were to call on EU governments to initiate a world summit of large consumer and producer countries.

The resolution also calls on the European Commission to ensure the EU becomes the world's least fossil-fuel-dependent and most energy-efficient economy by 2020.

Maybe "plan" is a little generous. Planning to plan maybe.  In any event, note the absence of a specific mention of nuclear  energy alternatives.   The politics of that are not hard to figure out.  From EurActiv:

A Eurobarometer survey conducted in February and March 2005 analysing EU public opinion on nuclear energy has revealed an underlying lack of knowledge concerning nuclear power, alongside a growing distrust of governments and the media on radioactive waste management issues. The survey results included the following findings...

  • Only four out of every ten interviewees (37%) answered that they were in favour of nuclear energy.
  • While 30% of participants said that they were ‘fairly in favour’, only 7% of the EU citizens interviewed claimed to be ‘totally in favour’ of nuclear energy.
  • 31% of the people interviewed said they were 'fairly opposed' to energy produced by nuclear power stations while 24% stated that they were 'totally opposed'...
  • In comparison to four years ago, latest opinion demonstrates a significant loss in confidence with both national governments (down from 29% to 19%) and the media (down from 23% to 13%) as reliable sources of information on nuclear issues.

Is this a result of informed debate?  Maybe not:

Three quarters of EU citizens (74%) claim that they are ‘not well informed’ about radioactive waste.

Not to be picking on EU citizens -- Orlando Sentinel columnist Peter A. Brown argues the situation is just as muddled in the United States (hat tip, NEI Nuclear Notes).  And for every argument that includes a role for nuclear alternatives,  there is no lack of opposition to be found. But if there ever was a time when it was okay to be "not well-informed" about the essential issues of the debate, this is decidedly not it.

October 2, 2005 in Energy, Europe | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 4, 2005 12:43:24 PM


What is this, then, a call for nuclear power masked by a poll of the seemingly uniformed?

What half-wit does not know the long life of radioactive slag? Where to put it? In my backyard or near my water table?

Greenspan seems to think that we will solve the problem of retrieving the vast frozen methane deposits lying off-shore. One slip there and nuclear melt-downs will look like marshmellow roasts.

The fact of the matter is our leadership, economists included, have played ostrich for too long. And economists seem as ill-informed as anyone else for that matter.

Getting religion late is better than not getting it at all, I guess.

Posted by: Stormy | October 02, 2005 at 01:11 PM

I just read this memo called "Energy Prices, Hedge Funds and the Coming Energy Crisis - By Gary M. Vasey, Ph.D.".

It's pretty short ... you can read it here:


Anyway, he says, "... the fact that the [hedge] funds and the banks have had such a hard time this year making returns and have even lost money suggests that they too are capable of making bad 'bets.'"

I think he expects us to infer from this statement that hedge funds are not responsible for the high energy prices.

My question: Couldn't the recent underperformance of hedge funds in the energy commodity sector signal a saturation point has been reached for hedge fund activity? In other words, all of the strategies may have been exhausted, which implies 1) future fund outflows from the energy sector, or 2) a risk of critical losses (apropos of Prof. Andrew Lo's paper at http://web.mit.edu/alo/www/Papers/systemic2.pdf).

So, maybe we'll find out sooner rather than later if hedge funds are a significant factor in these high energy prices.

Posted by: SoCal Chris | October 03, 2005 at 12:45 AM

Stormy -- Actually I thought I was issuing a call for informed discussion about the issue. The Hamilton/Kaufman exchange to which I linked above would be an example. More directly related to the nuclear issue would be the Becker-Posner discussion I linked to last spring: http://macroblog.typepad.com/macroblog/2005/05/becker_and_pose.html.In case it was in doubt, I welcome any challenges to these ideas that might move the discussion forward.

Chris -- By my reading, Dr. Vasey pretty directly rejects the "blame the funds" tack, and I tend to agree. He also seems to indicate a fair amount of diversity in the types of energy investments to which the funds are exposed. Perhaps that mitigates the sort of systemic risks highlighted by Professor Lo et al? Hope so. Thanks for bringing these to my attention.

Posted by: Dave Altig | October 03, 2005 at 01:42 PM

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