September 28, 2007
Is a land transfer tax in your future?
Many North Carolina voters may get a chance to vote on whether they want a new kind of tax -- a land transfer tax -- used in their county. What is it? And what are its implications? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains.
"A way to think about this ... is it's a sales tax applied to real estate. So whenever real estate is sold -- and that real estate can be your home, it can be land, it can be commercial property -- this tax would be applied," explains Dr. Walden, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist. "It would be up to a maximum of .4 percent or four dollars on $1,000 of value in counties.
"County voters will have a chance -- if the county commissioners decide they want to go this route -- to vote on this," he continues. "Although the tax would be paid by the seller, it's likely a large part of that tax will actually be passed on to the buyer. And really the split there depends upon market conditions.
"The overall economic impact of this tax really depends on how residents view it. If they view this as a tax with no real benefits or they can't see the benefits, then this may actually be detrimental to the county," says Dr. Walden. "On the other hand, if they can see where this money is going and they value the use of that money -- for example, if it's used to build schools or buy parkland or something -- then this could actually enhance the attractiveness of the county.
"So you really need to think about not only the tax but how the money is used in terms of evaluating its impacts," he says. "Now there is an alternative. Counties have also been authorized to instead of talking about a land transfer tax to consider increasing the local sales tax by a quarter percentage point. Or, of course, they can always raise the same amount of revenue through the annual property tax.
"And this is all going to be of course very strongly debated."
September 27, 2007
The cost of drought
All of North Carolina's counties are now in some level of drought, and most big city water systems have imposed restrictions on their customers. Economist Mike Walden says that the drought is also taking a toll on the economy.
"These numbers are very, very difficult to calibrate. I estimate right now that the drought is costing North Carolina in aggregate at least half a billion dollars," says Dr. Walden, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist at N.C. State University.
"Now you can see the biggest impact and, indeed, I think it's easiest to estimate the drought on agricultural interests. In 2002 when we had a drought, it's estimated that that drought cost farmers in the state over $400 million," he says. "So, for example, my half a billion number may be low for this year.
"And it's obvious because farmers depend on adequate rainfall in order to produce their crops. Also if you have a drop in crop production, that can impact the livestock industry because the livestock industry in many cases depends upon these crops as feed," he adds. "Another big loser in the drought is the green industry -- nurseries and others related to landscaping. That industry is now estimated to be an $8 billion industry in the state, and so if there's any slowdown in economic activity there that can also have a major detrimental effect on the state’s economy.
"I think the bigger concern right now that I hear discussed is perhaps not so much about this year's drought, and of course it's important, but whether this is going to be part of a trend -- whether we are entering into a phase of warmer drier weather for this region," Walden concludes. "That could have clearly major economic consequences."
September 26, 2007
Are we already in a recession?
For the first time in a long while the nation's job market actually shrank in August, falling by about 4,000 after rising by almost 70,000 the month before. Does this mean the national economy is in a recession? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden says not necessarily.
"The recession definition actually includes much more than job changes. It's really based on overall production of both products and services in our economy. And the standard definition of a recession is that that production number must fall for six months in a row for us to be in an official recession," explains Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "And unfortunately we will not know if that has happened until perhaps several months down the road.
"But right now most economists do not think that overall national production is going down. It appears that the economy has slowed down clearly, but we don't think the economy is actually shrinking even though ... we have seen some modest decline in jobs over one month," he adds. "So we need to keep obviously an eye on this. Economists right now are split; still the majority do not think that in coming months we will go into a recession.
"And if we are lucky," he says, "what we will have is a period of rather slow growth and then the economy will pick back up."
September 25, 2007
Are we working less and enjoying ourselves more?
People today face so many demands for their time -- from work, family and household chores. But we also like to have fun. Are we having fun? Or are we working more than ever? Economist Mike Walden takes a look at what the research says.
"There is one big problem in answering this question, and that is how do you define fun or leisure time. Well, a new study from the very prestigious national Bureau of Economic Research said, 'Look, we are not going to try to settle on one definition. We are going to come up with at least four or five definitions of leisure or fun time.' And they did so. They had a very narrow definition, which included only time spent by a person in relaxation or recreation. They had a broader measure of leisure time that included, for example, time with children and some household tasks.
"If we just look at the narrow definition -– that is, time spent in relaxation or fun activities -– what the study found (and this is very interesting) and that is in the last 40 years the time spent in fun has expanded, has increased by between 5 and 7 hours per week," says Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "It's also interesting that when they looked at their other definitions, which were broader, they found the same result. And the increase in leisure time has come both from reductions in working at work as well as working at home on household chores.
"And interestingly further, the increase in fun time or leisure time has occurred across the income spectrum," Walden adds. "In fact, the biggest increases in leisure time have been for lower income households."
September 24, 2007
There's plenty of evidence suggesting that the pay of company executives has risen much faster than the pay of rank-and-file workers. But if it's true, what's behind the trend? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden says it's more than simple greed.
"I think there are some important economic fundamentals behind it," explains Dr. Walden, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist.
"First of all, a CEO is going to get paid based on the importance of their decisions, and those decisions of many CEOs, I think, have become more important for a couple of reasons: Number one is the global economy. Many companies are operating in a global marketplace, and so companies have greater opportunities to expand and bring in revenues. And so the average CEO, his or her decisions can have greater influence. And, of course, as that is the case, their pay is going to go up.
"The second element in our new economy is that our economy has become more competitive. We don't have any more really protected companies and protected industries," he says. "It's really an economic free-for-all out there. Again, what that means is that the decisions of individual CEOs, on average, are more important. Again that would make their pay go up.
"And then thirdly when you are looking at the difference between CEO pay and worker pay, it is the case again with our global economy that workers ... are in competition really around the world, and that has worked to depress, to some, extent factory workers' pay. And so that has worked to expand the difference between CEO pay and factory worker pay."
September 21, 2007
Age and the stock market
There's a seemingly simple theory that the stock market is tied to the age structure of the country, with stocks reaching their peak when the percentage of people in their peak spending years -- say, from 35 to 55 -- is at its highest and stocks fall as this percentage drops. But N.C. State University economist says that it's more complicated.
"It is true that if you look at the age structure of our economy, that people in their peak earning years -- that is, from 35 to 55 -- that is when the top spending in the economy occurs. When those folks age out and go into retirement, their spending tends to decline.
"And so there is this theory -- and it's held by a lot of people -- that you can track the ups and downs in the stock market by the percentage of people in that peak spending category, say age 35 to 55. That is, the stock market rises when the percentage of folks in that middle-age group goes up, and the stock market falls when the percentage goes down," explains Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "And there have been books written about this, purporting to show the correlation between the two.
"Well unfortunately for folks who like simple theories, all economists don't agree," he says. "In fact there was a recent study by an economist who looked at that in a much more detailed manner, and he found that there was no correlation between the age distribution in an economy and the progress of the stock market.
"And it is not to say that people in that middle-aged category don't spend a lot, but two reasons could be at bay as to why we don't see the correlation. One is that there are many other forces that affect the stock market, and at any point in time they can overwhelm this demographic explanation," he says. "The second explanation is that increasingly, as we are in a global economy, we have foreign investors. So you don't just want to look at the age structure of U.S., you want to look at the age structure of the entire world.
"And when you do that, for example, the world is still very young and moving into middle age. So this is a theory that has been around a long time, but certainly there is no definitive conclusion on how valid it is."
September 20, 2007
Many communities are launching campaigns that encourage consumers to buy products and services from locally owned stores rather than national chains. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explores the pros and cons of such efforts.
"There is a pro side and (it's) exactly what the buy local campaigners say, and that is that if you are buying things from, say, a locally owned store where the storeowners live in the community so the money goes to them and they are going to then turn around and spend that money also in the local community, well that has a multiplier effect," says Dr. Walden. "And the average multiplier is two. That is to say if all that money is respent locally, then for every dollar that you spend at the store then there's another dollar created in the local community from all this respending.
"In comparison, of course, if you go to a national chain, you spend money, most of that money is going to go out of the local community and it's going to go to the national coffers of the company, so to speak, so the local effect is going to be reduced," he adds. "So clearly the buy local folks are onto something in terms of looking at the impact on the local community.
"The con side, of course, would be from the individual buyer's perspective," he says. "If what they are looking for is not available from the local store or if they can get a better price and or a better quality product from a national chain, then
obviously from their individual perspective they are better off buying from that national chain and not buying from the local company.
"So this is a matter of weighing your individual benefits against the communitywide benefits," Walden concludes, "And of course every person is going to have to do that weighing on their own."
September 19, 2007
Can recessions be good for the economy?
Some business forecasters predict that a recession will hit the economy before the end of the year. And some of them say that recessions can have some benefits. N.C. State University's Mike Walden explains.
"This has been a debate that economists have been addressing for really almost a century. And there are some economists who actually think that it is good for the economy to go through a recession every now and again," says Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics.
"Number one, they think this sort of plays a cleansing role. That is, a recession will get rid of weaker companies, it will reduce weaker sectors in the economy, and this will allow resources in the economy -- that is, money and technology and machinery and workers -- to move away from declining sectors to growing sectors," he explains. "And these economists, therefore, claim that actually that will put the economy on sounder footing and allow it to grow faster in the future.
"It's kind of akin to fires in a forest, where some foresters say that forest fires are actually good periodically because it kind clears out the dead brush and the dead trees and leaves the forest in a better position to grow faster in the future," he continues. "That's exactly what these economists are saying who claim that recessions can be good.
"Now clearly though -- and you pointed this out -- there are big, big costs to a recession. Unemployment goes up, incomes go down, and we see all kinds of social issues and indicators deteriorate also during a recession.
"This is again a question of benefits and costs," Walden concludes. "If there are any benefits to a recession, they certainly have to be weighed against the big costs."
September 18, 2007
The flight to quality
In the recent turmoil on the stock market many analysts have said that a flight to quality was affecting both the yield and the value of treasuries securities. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains what that means.
"It's not as complicated as it might sound," says Dr. Walden, a specialist with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. "When we do have problems in the stock market as we have had, it's natural that investors want to move money to places they consider safer. And the safest investments -– and any investment person would agree –- ... are actually those issued by the federal government called treasury securities.
"These are safe for a couple of reasons," Walden continues. "One, the government has never missed an interest payment on these, and secondly the government has never missed paying off the principal on treasury securities.
"So generally what we see they are for is when you have a big drop in the stock market, money is moved out of stocks and into treasury securities. Now this does two things to those treasury securities: One it means that they are more popular, so the government doesn't have to pay as high an interest rate, so interest rates on those treasury securities fall.
"And you could see a couple weeks ago -- when we had the big drops in the stock market -- a big plunge in treasury security interest rates," he explains. "The second thing it does though is increase the ... market value -- what people would pay to buy treasury securities -- so there value or price goes up.
"Now what this means is that one indicator we can use to see if investor confidence in the stock market is returning is to watch treasury securities. If treasury security interest rates go up, that should be a sign that confidence is coming back and people are moving their money out of treasury securities and back into the stock market."
September 17, 2007
Is North Carolina manufacturing really up?
We've all heard that manufacturing jobs in the country including here in North Carolina have been dropping for several decades but especially since 2000. While that's true, it doesn't mean that we're manufacturing less. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains.
"If we look here in North Carolina for example ... we have lost over 200,000 manufacturing jobs in this state just in this decade," says Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "That's 27 percent of all manufacturing jobs.
"Most people think, 'Gosh, that must mean we are manufacturing less -- if you stood at the factory door and all the factory doors in North Carolina and counted what's coming out of the factory doors it must be down,'" he says. "And actually that's not the case. We are actually today in North Carolina manufacturing more in terms of the quantity of manufactured items today than ever before ... .
"We are actually up 5 percent in the quantity of manufactured products in the state since 2000, and we've actually doubled the amount of manufactured products in the state over the last 25 years," he says. "Now given we are certainly manufacturing different things. We are manufacturing fewer textile products, fewer clothes, fewer cigarettes. But we are manufacturing more computers, pharmaceuticals, processed food and vehicle parts.
"Now again many people would say, 'How can that be? How can you have fewer people working in the factory and yet you are manufacturing more?' That's because worker productivity is up," Walden explains. "In fact it is up almost 50 percent in North Carolina this decade, and that's because we are pairing workers with advanced machinery and technology."
September 14, 2007
Most people would agree that a dollar value can't be placed on a person's life, but in the real world, when sometimes guesses have to be made -- for example, in trials or in evaluating regulations that might save lives. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains.
"I want to say up front of course that this is very, very difficult, and I want to defend economists by saying we certainly recognize that there are important emotional or subjective values to life, and you can't put dollar values on everything," says Dr. Walden, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist. "I don't want people to be confused and think that there are economists who are saying that we can put a dollar value on a life and everything. We recognize you can't.
"But ... there are situations where you have to do that -- ... [for example in] a trial where someone has been injured or a life lost and beneficiaries or relatives of that person are seeking some money to compensate for that loss, well you have to come up with a value," he says. "Or ... when the government passes regulation that may be costly to businesses and others, well, we'd like some measure of ... the value of those regulations, especially if you are improving safety and reducing the loss of life.
"So it is important sometimes to come up with some dollar value, and generally what economists do in approaching this is to say, 'Let's put a value on a life equal to what that person will earn over their remaining years of life.' Or if you are dealing with someone who is just entering the workforce, you would look at an estimate of their lifetime income. And when this is done the latest estimates show that these numbers can be up in the millions of dollars -- for some people they can as high as $4, $5 or $10 million. Again I want to emphasize that this is not to say that this captures all values of life, but these are numbers that are used in cost-benefit analysis as well as in trials," he concludes.
September 13, 2007
The Fed's tools
The Federal Reserve has been in the news a lot recently. The bank intervened in the economy to stabilize the financial sector after big drops in the stock market. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden outlines the tools that the Fed can use.
"They have a combination of tools. They have two tools that relate to interest rates -- one tool related to the money supply, or the credit supply. What the Fed did recently was lower one of the interest rates. It's called the discount rate," explains Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "That's the rate the Federal Reserve charges directly to banks if banks want to come to them to borrow money. The Fed lowered this because they were worried that some banks and some other financial institutions perhaps were ... facing a money crunch where they simply wouldn't have enough money available to meet their demand, and so the Fed lowered this interest rate. It's called the discount rate.
"Now the interest rate that gets more news and affects other rates in the economy called the federal funds rate," he adds. "The Fed did not lower that; however, they are effectively lowering it because they have been supplying more money and credit to the economy and as they do that that actually causes the federal funds rate to go down. And we've actually seen a drop in the federal funds rate of at least a quarter percent in recent weeks. Now the Fed can stop doing that when they stop supplying extra money to the economy.
"So there's more that the Fed can do than just the headlines that we read. Behind the scenes they've actually been acting to make all credit more available," he concludes.
September 12, 2007
Pricing water differently
With North Carolina's drought has come increased pressure to use our water much more efficiently. Many cities are relying on water use restrictions, but others are doing something different with how they price the water. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains.
"They are charging a different price for water depending on how much you use. This is called tiered pricing or block-rate pricing. The idea here is that you charge a lower rate for the initial gallons of water you use, then you charge a higher rate for later gallons," Dr. Walden says. "For example, the city might charge a low rate for the first 2,000 gallons that you use in a month and then charge a higher rate for gallons 2,001 and above. And the idea is that those initial gallons are presumably being used for necessities -- like bathing, washing dishes and cooking -- and the higher levels of water are being used for things that are not necessities -- things obviously with value, but we don't have to keep our grass green or our shrubs water, and so you charge a higher price for that.
"The advantage of this is people get to choose how much those use. If it's really important to you to water your grass presumably you can continue to do that as long as you are willing to pay the price.
"The disadvantage is knowing where that cutoff is between prices, and cities have to estimate how ... many gallons of water are needed for necessities for a particular family. Now actually several towns in North Carolina use this system, and over a third of people living in cities nationwide use this kind of pricing for water."
September 11, 2007
What is average?
Economics uses a lot of numbers -– income, sales, jobs, taxes, spending. And often these numbers are expressed as averages. But N.C. State University economist Mike Walden notes that there are things to watch for when you hear a number for average income or average spending.
"Any statistician will tell you there are actually a number of different meanings and measures of average. When most people hear the term avera'e they think of something called the mean," says Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "Let's take income. Let's say we want to calculate average income for 100 households. Well, the mean will be to simply add up all the income of those 100 households and then divide by 100. And that would give us the mean household income.
"The problem with that is it can be influenced by extreme values. You could have one of those 100 households earning a billion dollars, and everyone else earning a thousand dollars, and the mean would look relatively high," he says, "but it certainly wouldn't connote any indication of what's average among all those 100 households.
"So another average that people have come up with is the median. The median is the midpoint of the income distribution, to continue with our income example," he says. "Let's say we had a median income of $50,000 -- that means half the households would earn more than 50; half would earn below 50.
"So economists tend to like median averages –- median income, median wages, median spending," he concludes, "And indeed, median income -- if we are going to again continue with income -- tends to be much lower than mean income, right now about $10,000 lower for households."
September 10, 2007
The power of the Fed
Recent news coverage noted that the Federal Reserve had "injected liquidity into the banking system" to help calm stock market jitters. An N.C. State University economist explains what that means.
"In essence, liquidity is just another name for money. And what happens when, for example, in this case the market was jittery and there were big concerns actually about financial solvency of many institutions, what the Fed did is took the steps they can to in essence pump more money into banks," says Dr. Walden, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist.
"And so if there was a fear that banks were running out of money, the Fed said 'OK, here, we are in essence going to provide you with more money.' Now they don't do it free of cost. Usually what happens is the banks, in essence, have to borrow money from the Fed.
But the Fed makes it very practical for the banks to do that.
"And this is the tool that the Fed has used many, many, many times. They did it back in 2000, when people may remember there were concerns about the conversion to Y2K," he adds. "They did it in the big stock market crash of 1987.
"This is a role the Federal Reserve typically plays. Now there is a downside in that if the Fed does this too much, if they pump too much money into the banking system, down the road that can lead to either more bad loans, which is -- of course -- the problem we have now, or it can lead to higher inflation. So this is a tool that the Fed has to be very cautious in using."
September 07, 2007
Long-term care insurance
Many Americans are concerned about not having enough income to pay for health care as they age. While long-term care insurance was devised to address this fear, few people end up buying it. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains why.
"There are several reasons," says Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "First of all, a simple reason is that the majority of older people end up not needing long-term care. About two-thirds of older folks will never go into a nursing home, so with those kind of odds many people say, 'Gee, I'm not going to need that kind of care, so I'm not going to buy the insurance.'
"The second reason is there are private substitutes. The most common is that your family will take care of you if you need long-term care. And indeed that is the case in many situations; a person gets in effect unpaid care from their children or perhaps through a church group," he adds.
"And then thirdly there is government help. Under certain restrictions, Medicaid will pay part of the cost of a nursing home. And even though that's not lavish, many people again their mindset would be, 'Well, gee, if I do need a nursing home, the government's going to pick up the bill.' And they view Medicaid as a backstop. In effect they view Medicaid as a substitute for their own long-term care that they may have paid for out of their pocket.
"So for these three reasons economists think that long-term care insurance really hasn't taken off," he concludes. "And so these three reasons would have to be addressed if we want to see more folks buy long-term care insurance."
September 06, 2007
Exports occur when a U.S. company sells a product or provides a service to a foreign buyer. They have become a more important part of our economy as trade has become globalized. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden lists the top U.S. exporting industries.
"Let's focus on manufacturing, ... because manufacturing is where most exporting takes place," says Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "If you look at all U.S. manufactured products today that are manufactured here in our country, about 14 percent of them are exported to foreign countries. So 86 percent are sold to domestic buyers. Now this is higher –- the export side is higher than it was in the past -- but it's much lower than in other countries. And I think the simple reason is because the U.S. is such a large market.
"Now in terms of breaking that down and saying what parts of manufacturing are more export-oriented, the prize goes to computer products -- computer technology products. Twenty-one percent of those manufactured in the U.S. are exported," he says.
"Second prize goes to factory machinery: machinery that's made specifically for factories. We export about 16 percent of our factory machinery to other countries.
"Third place, and this may surprise some people, goes to manufactured food -- processed food products. We sell about 15 percent of our processed food to foreign buyers.
"And then completing the list of the top ones: transportation equipment and leather products, interestingly," he concludes. "Both sell about 13 percent of their output to foreign buyers."
September 05, 2007
Issues with employer-provided health insurance
Why do we buy our car and home insurance directly from an insurance company while we usually get our health insurance through our employers? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains.
"The answer really goes back to World War II, when we had wage and price controls. And so companies were limited in giving pay raises, but companies were allowed to give additional benefits to their workers," explains Dr. Walden, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist.
"And one of the things that companies came up with was they said, 'Hey, we'll provide health insurance.' They also got a tax deduction for that. And this tax law has lasted 'til this day.
"And so that's the real reason why most of us get our health insurance through our employer, because it's cheaper for the employer to do it because they get a tax deduction. If we go out and get it ourselves, in most cases we don't get a similar tax deduction.
"Now many say this has caused problems because if you change jobs you have to worry about changing your health insurance," he adds. "You have to worry about whether your new employer will have the same kind of health insurance. It also means that the consumer is not as directly involved as much in picking the health insurance policy as we are, for example, in picking our auto or home insurance policy.
"So some have said we need to level the playing field. We either need to get rid of the tax deduction for health insurance for businesses, or we need to give a similar deduction for individuals who go out and directly get their health insurance from a business. And this is a major controversy. It's one that's not yet been resolved."
September 04, 2007
The new North Carolina earned income tax credit
As part of the new state budget a brand new tax credit has been added. Called the earned income tax credit, it applies to low-income taxpayers. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden describes the purpose and how the credit works.
"The purpose is to give tax relief -- targeted tax relief -- to low-income households who are working," he says. "And this tax will piggyback on to the comparable federal earned-income tax credit, which has actually grown to be one of the largest anti-poverty programs.
"And the way it works is it allows qualified households to get back some, all or maybe even more than the amount of income tax they've had withheld from their check," Dr. Walden adds. "The idea is that it's going to encourage low-income households to work, because it actually increases the benefit from working. And yet it does supplement their income. So there's a focus here on incentives.
"Now many in North Carolina have pushed this for a long time. And I think the reason perhaps it came about this year is the state sales tax was increased," he explains. "Low-income households typically pay a higher percentage of their income in sales tax, so in some sense to compensate for that supporters of the earned income tax credit say the time was now to institute that new program."
September 03, 2007
Education in narrow fields or disciplines is increasingly important for today's job seekers. But educators also say that schooling in soft skills is very important. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden explains what these skills are.
"People are going to college increasingly to become engineers, accountants, computer systems specialists. They need those high-grade skills that you say to compete in the world economy and get a good paying job. But soft skills are very important," says Dr. Walden, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. "Soft skills are skills in communication, in organization, in writing, in interpersonal skills. Soft skills really allow you to get along with your workers, your fellow workers, number one, and then to pass on what you know and organize your skills with others.
"And surveys of businesses today show that soft skills are lacking today in many workers just at a time when they are becoming much more important," he says. "So these are these skills again that, again, teach kids how to write, teach kids how to speak, that teach kids how to coordinate themselves with others.
"And this is putting pressure on colleges as well as K to 12 to really ramp these skills up at the same time that those institutions are expected to again teach kids in a particular discipline or field. So, again, it just makes the process of education that much more complicated but still very important."