Mitchell’s Musings 12-12-16: Looking Ahead
Daniel J.B. Mitchell
I attended the December 2016 conference of the quarterly UCLA Anderson Forecast last Tuesday. The Forecast had originally been predicated on an assumption of a Hillary Clinton presidency. (In fairness, the UCLA event is an exercise in economic forecasting, not a political prediction.) So assumed macroeconomic policies were based on the Clinton-as-president assumption. When the win went to Trump, the Forecast – which had originally been slated to focus on real estate developments – was hastily redone to look at the economic outlook under Trump presidency.
The UCLA forecasters did not present their original Clinton prediction with a comparison to the Trump version. But the difference can be loosely seen by comparing the Forecast’s predictions made last September with the December edition. Of course, some of the difference between September and December is due to an addition three months of economic data, not to a change in the political outlook. But since drastic changes in the U.S. economy did not occur over that three-month period, the comparison is good enough to obtain a general picture of the Clinton vs. Trump impact – at least as the forecasters saw it. The table below summarizes the September-vs.-December differences.
Forecast of Sept/Dec 2016 Sept/Dec Sept/Dec
Real GDP Growth 2.4%/2.4% 2.3%/3.0%
Core CPI 2.5%/2.3% 2.4%/2.5%
90-Day T-Bill Yield 0.9%/1.2% 1.7%/2.6%
30-Year T-Bond Yield 3.3%/3.3% 3.8%/4.4%
Total Compensation Change 3.8%/3.9% 4.1%/4.2%
Unemployment Rate 4.8%/4.7% 5.1%/4.5%
Federal Budget Deficit
FY, % of GDP -3.5%/-4.6% -3.9%/-6.0%
Real Net Exports
$ Billion (2009$) -$640.9/-$634 -$688.0/-$758
So what was the message of the revision? Essentially, the new forecast assumes that Congress goes along with a fiscal stimulus through a tax decrease, but not necessarily through spending on infrastructure. However, the economy already appears to be close to full employment so the Fed reacts to the fiscal stimulus by a partial offset through monetary policy - a rise in interest rates. Inflation (wage and price) rises a bit – net – but the main effect by 2018 is a faster rate of real GDP growth. The tax cut worsens the federal budget deficit and, despite Trump’s concerns about the trade deficit, worsens it, too, as consumption demand spills over into more imports.
Note that this forecast revision is conventional and linear. Just add some tax cuts to a semi-Keynesian forecasting model and let the computer grind out the predicted adjustment. Whatever the model, you will get something along the lines of what UCLA predicted. The conference forecasters did say that if the U.S. winds up in a trade war with China, their estimates would need to be further revised. Of course, trade wars are not the kind of events that economic forecasting models even purport to predict.
And that is the problem. As noted in a musing two weeks ago, there could easily be other such consequences such as an oddball monetary policy if oddball candidates are appointed to the Fed. If China chose to retaliate against U.S. policy, instead of a trade war, it could dump its large holdings of U.S. dollar reserves. Such a step would in principle depreciate the dollar, something China doesn’t want to happen, taken by itself. But if China wanted to send a message, can such a response be ruled out? And if that response by China occurred, the actual short-term financial reaction could be very unsettling.
Other world events – some kind of blow-up in the Middle East (on top of what is already occurring) -could also be destabilizing. No one knows what the Trump policy on Syria, for example, is going to be. Domestic immigration policy could also change dramatically. The current wisdom – based on little hard evidence – is that in reality mass deportations are not likely, despite earlier campaign rhetoric. But does anyone really know?
Although the UCLA forecasters were aware of the kind of unpredictable events that might occur in a Trump presidency – and acknowledged that such events could upset their predictions - there was one possibility that they did not consider (or, at least, did not discuss at the conference event).
It was implicitly assumed that whatever happens, there will be honest official statistics reporting the consequences of whatever economic and other policies that might ensue. But economic statistics don’t always deliver messages that presidents want to hear. And we do know from the tweeting and other campaign tactics of the president-elect that he doesn’t enjoy criticism from anyone. He seems unlikely to enjoy unfavorable news from his own government. So is the U.S. statistical apparatus immune from pressure to avoid presenting bad news (such as the rise in the international trade deficit and the federal budget deficit that the UCLA forecast currently projects)?
The idea that a president might decide that unfavorable news from official federal economic statistics was the result of some kind of cabal – and then decide to do something about it – is not a fantasy. It occurred during the Nixon administration and, in fact, was caught on tape. From the Washington Post:
As first recounted by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their 1976 book "Final Days," the frequently paranoid president — who had a history of anti-Semitic outbursts — became obsessed with the idea that a "Jewish cabal" at BLS was undermining him by issuing negative labor numbers. Nixon ordered his subordinates to tally up the number of Democrats and Jews in the agency.
"There's a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this," Nixon fumed in July 1971 to his chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, according to White House tapes. "...And they all — they all only talk to Jews. Now, but there it is. But there's the BLS staff. Now how the hell do you ever expect us to get anything from that staff, the raw data, let alone what the poor guys have to say [inaudible] that isn't gonna be loaded against us? You understand?"
According to journalistic accounts and documents, the task fell to Nixon aide Fred Malek, who first counted high-ranking Democrats at BLS using voter registration lists and then identified employees with "Jewish-sounding" names. He reported the resulting statistics to Nixon in a 1971 letter that became known as the "Jew-counting" memo, identifying 25 Democrats and 13 employees who "fit the other demographic criterion that was discussed."
The UCLA forecasters didn’t discuss the possibility that future data on which they rely might be subject to political pressure from the White House. They probably didn’t consider it. But unlike the hypothetical trade war with China they did mention (and which we have never had), it’s hard to deny that pressure on statistical agencies couldn’t happen with the advent of a vindictive president. It once did.
 Dan Eggan, “There was one president who tried to manipulate BLS,” Washington Post, October 5, 2012. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2012/10/05/there-was-one-president-who-tried-to-manipulate-bls/. See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQjiSQKIpS8. In this excerpt (starting at minute 4:28), Nixon and his aide Charles Colson discuss a phantom conspiracy in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to adjust unemployment data in ways unfavorable to Nixon. Supposedly, the incoming Secretary of Labor Peter Brennan was going to fix the BLS problem.