Wonkbook: Previewing the GDP report

October 26, 2012

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Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Romney +0.9%; 7-day change: Romney +0.5%.

RCP Obama approval: 49.3%; 7-day change: +0.1%.

Intrade percent chance of Obama win: 62.8%; 7-day change: -1.4%.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 1.9%. That, says Neil Irwin of The Washington Post, represents the rough consensus forecast of economists for GDP growth in the third quarter. Some analysts at major banks have lowered expectations in recent days -- they see growth coming in at somewhere near 1.3% percent as in line with other disappointing economic data. If we do get growth near the higher estimates, though, it may suggest some strengthening of the recovery even as we head to the edge of the "fiscal cliff." The numbers will be out by 8:30 a.m. this morning.

Top story: Looking toward today's GDP report

What to expect from the GDP report. "There are two more major points of economic data due out before the presidential election, the final data on how the nation has fared under nearly four years of the Obama administration. The first of the two, the latest reading on gross domestic product, will trundle across financial wires Friday morning at 8:30...Forecasters estimate that the U.S. economy grew at a 1.9 percent annual rate during the third quarter, from July through September. If that figure is accurate, it means the economy is getting stronger: Growth was 1.3 percent in the second quarter. But a growth rate in the ballpark of 2 percent is nothing to write home about." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

@justinwolfers: So an incredibly noisy advance GDP estimate comes out tomorrow, and I guess we'll all infer it proves that our guy should be president.

Weak business confidence numbers have caused analysts to lower their forecasts of economic growth. "Companies are holding off on purchases of computers, industrial equipment and other long-lasting manufactured goods, a trend that is slowing the American economy. A fourth straight month of lackluster corporate spending led some economists on Thursday to trim their forecasts for growth in the July-September quarter. The government will issue its first estimate of third-quarter growth on Friday, the last snapshot of overall economic activity before the presidential election...Corporate investment helped the American economy emerge from the recession three years ago. But businesses have grown more cautious since spring, seeing tepid growth in consumer spending and declines in exports." The Associated Press.

@JimPethokoukis: Barclays: US Q3 GDP tracking: Down two-tenths to 1.8% on soft details underlying the durable goods report

Economists are anticipating GDP growth around 1.9% in quarterly annualized terms. "The consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires is that Friday’s report will show the economy grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.8% in the July-to-September quarter...Wells Fargo -- pointing out that shipments of core capital goods fell at an annual pace of 4.9% over three months -- lowered its estimate of third-quarter GDP growth to an annual rate of 1.4% from 1.6%. J.P. Morgan Chase lowered its forecast to 1.6% from 1.8%." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

@MacroScope: U.S. Q3 GDP seen rising 1.9 percent, according to @ReutersPolls, as firmer consumer spending offsets business caution

It may be that the fiscal cliff is already beginning to bite into growth. "The fiscal cliff is still two months off, but the scheduled blast of tax hikes and spending cuts is already reverberating through the U.S. economy, hampering growth and, according to a new study, wiping out nearly 1 million jobs this year alone. The report, scheduled for release Friday by the National Association of Manufacturers, predicts that the economic damage would deepen considerably if Congress failed to avert the cliff, destroying nearly 6 million jobs through 2014 and sending the unemployment rate soaring to near 12 percent." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

A new poll shows Romney leading on the economy as an issue. "As Romney hits 50, the president stands at 47 percent, his lowest tally in Post-ABC polling since before the national party conventions...Romney does now boast a statistically -- and substantively -- important lead on the economy, which has long been the central issue of the race. When it comes to handling the nation’s struggling economy, 52 percent of likely voters say they trust Romney more, while 43 percent say they have more faith in the president." Rachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

Top op-eds

THE WASHINGTON POST: Four more years for President Obama. "Much of the 2012 presidential campaign has dwelt on the past, but the key questions are who could better lead the country during the next four years -- and, most urgently, who is likelier to put the government on a more sound financial footing. That second question will come rushing at the winner as soon as the votes are tallied. Absent any action, a series of tax hikes and spending cuts will take effect Jan. 1 that might well knock the country back into recession. This will be a moment of peril but also of opportunity. How the president-elect navigates it will go a long way toward determining the success of his presidency and the health of the nation. President Barack Obama is better positioned to be that navigator than is his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney." The Washington Post Editorial Board.

@fivethirtyeight: Obama 73% to win w/ those polls added. Bottom line simple: Romney is trailing -- slightly -- in tipping point states.

BOSKIN: Market failure, meet government failure. "In a market economy, price signals automatically steer society's scarce resources to the uses people value most, and at minimum cost...But sometimes markets aren't competitive, or they generate effects such as congestion or pollution that are not accounted for in the price system. These 'market failures' potentially justify government intervention...Potentially -- but not necessarily. There may be more effective and less-expensive alternatives to government action such as regulation or antitrust...More generally, the costs of government regulation may be higher than the benefits -- the cure may be worse than the disease. Before undertaking a new government intervention or adopting a new rule, instituting a new program or expanding an old one, the problem of 'government failure' has to be considered." Michael J. Boskin in The Wall Street Journal.

ALTER: Romney has no hope curtailing the excesses of the House GOP. "You have to hand it to Mitt Romney and his team. Starting in the first debate, he pivoted almost effortlessly to the center, which is where elections are won...Unfortunately, he has little chance of governing that way. We don’t know which Romney will show up on a given day, but we sure know which Republican Party would be in charge in Washington every minute. The Republicans have become the most extreme major political party in generations. They are tolerating Romney’s heresies this month only to gain power. If a President Romney tried to govern in a moderate fashion by, say, allowing for some revenue increases to reduce the deficit, his base wouldn’t hesitate to savage him...More likely, Romney as president would be a man with a strange crick in the neck, constantly looking over his right shoulder to see which pickup truck full of movement conservatives was about to run him over." Jonathan Alter in Bloomberg.

@DavidLeonhardt: To be clear: Romney continues to have a very good chance to win this election.

BARRO: The lunacy of Gary Johnson. "Reason Magazine has put out its pre-election compilation of its writers' statements about whom they will be voting for and why. The Reason staffers are more unanimous than usual in their support for the Libertarian Party nominee, Gary Johnson...This is unfortunate because Johnson has nutty economic policy views and would do tremendous damage to the global economy were he to somehow become president. Johnson advocates severe near-term fiscal and monetary policy austerity...[I]f he became president now, he would do his best to strangle the tepid recovery we are enjoying and turn it into another severe recession...He would also drastically slash our entitlement system when only tweaks are necessary, leaving many of the most vulnerable Americans without benefits they depend on." Josh Barro inBloomberg.

@jbarro: People asking why Gary Johnson would be so bad. Basically he'd smash the economy into tiny bits with extreme fiscal and monetary austerity.

Amazing math interlude: The brain appears pre-programmed to think logarithmically.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: when austerity can be its most dangerous; $4.8 billion and counting saved on prescription drugs thanks to the Affordable Care Act; lobbies are rushing to defend their perks in the tax code; how the U.S. may be gaining the upper hand on nuclear power; and Durham, NC's "Bridge of Death" which decapitates tall trucks.

Economy

Business leaders call on Washington to "fix the debt." "Business leaders really don’t want Washington to go over the fiscal cliff. But the CEOs of the 'Fix the Debt' campaign say they have a much bigger agenda: Their push is not just to head off the economic impact of the fiscal cliff but also to use the negotiations as a springboard for major deficit reduction that includes both tax increases and spending cuts. The group is pushing to replace fiscal cliff’s major austerity measures -- averting the impact of taking more than $700 billion out of the economy in 2013 -- with an alternative package that would reduce the deficit even more but that would take effect farther down the road." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

@AnnieLowrey: Renaming the "fiscal cliff" the "austerity cliff" would do a lot to promote public understanding of what it would actually do...

How the Tax Policy Center wins 2012's title for "most valuable wonks." "A small nonpartisan research center operated by professed 'geeks' has found itself at the center of a rancorous $5 trillion debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. No white paper or policy manifesto put out during the presidential campaign has proved more controversial than an August study by the Washington-based Tax Policy Center, a respected nonprofit that issues studiously detailed tax analyses. That study found, in short, that Mr. Romney could not keep all of the promises he had made on individual tax reform...In many ways the report did just what the center was created to do: inject some solid numbers into a shifty, accusatory, raucous political debate...The center’s claim to provide reliable, nonpartisan information comes in part from its staff makeup. It has about four dozen affiliated staff members and scholars -- most are economists, several are considered top experts in their fields, and a number have experience in either Republican or Democratic administrations. It also is derived by virtue of its ownership of a highly sophisticated tax modeling system, one that took about two years to build and has a small coterie of specialists to tend it. The model resembles those used by government offices to forecast the effect of changes to the tax code, and it relies on about 150,000 anonymous tax returns and a wealth of data on pensions, education, consumer expenditures and economic growth." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Why, amid the housing bust, building a home remains expensive. "[T]he industry is facing a fresh challenge: building costs are going through the roof...Builders are seeing the prices of materials, labor and land rise due to shortages and reduced capacity among manufacturers, subcontractors and developers...The cost of framing lumber, which makes up nearly one-sixth of the total construction cost of a home, has risen 21% in the past year. Makers of drywall, which is used to build interior walls, have boosted prices 25% since January and signaled more increases to come early next year. In addition, builders are paying more for land and labor."Robbie Whelan in The Wall Street Journal.

How austerity can be unusually dangerous coming out of a recession. " Two years ago the rich world thought that the global recession was over, vanquished by a wave of fiscal and monetary stimulus. Policymakers turned their backs to clean up the government debt that had been left behind. In 2011 and 2012 structural deficits across the rich world will have been reduced by about 0.75% of GDP, a pace that is forecast to rise in 2013. But economic gloom has not gone; indeed, fiscal consolidation seems to have deepened it...[A]usterity may hurt much more at some times than others. In a 2010 paper Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California, Berkeley argued that the fiscal multiplier may be negative during booms, meaning that spending cuts actually raise growth. In recessions, by contrast, it could be as high as 2.5. A study by Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum and Sergio Rebelo of Northwestern University suggested that although the multiplier may hover at around 1 normally, it could rise to more than 3 when interest rates fall to near zero, leaving the central bank with less room to act." Ryan Avent in The Economist.

Not-so-high-art interlude: Ai Weiwei. Gangnam Style. Watch..

Health Care

Growth in Medicaid spending and enrollment drop. "In a sign of the improving national economy, Medicaid spending growth this year slowed to 2 percent as enrollment in the state-federal health insurance program for the poor also slowed for the third consecutive year, according to a report released Thursday. In 2011, Medicaid spending soared by nearly 10 percent, which helped put the entitlement program in the crosshairs of politicians looking to lower the federal deficit and ease pressure on state budgets. The increase this year is the smallest since 2006, said the report...Enrollment growth in Medicaid slowed to 3.2 percent this year, down from 4.4 percent last year and 7.2 percent in 2010." Phil Galewitz in Kaiser Health News.

Health law has saved seniors $4.8 billion on Rx drugs, HHS says. "Seniors have saved nearly $5 billion on prescription drugs because of President Obama's healthcare law, the Health and Human Services Department said Thursday...HHS said nearly 21 million seniors have received at least one preventive service this year without facing out-of-pocket costs." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Study: We overestimate how much medicine can do. "Between 2003 and 2005, a team of researchers at Harvard asked over 1,000 cancer patients about their expectations for chemotherapy. All patients surveyed had received a diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer or colorectal cancer four months earlier...Medical research says that, in these extremely challenging cases, chemotherapy can extend life by weeks or months but it is very unlikely to provide a cure. That’s what the science tells us -- but that’s not what most late-stage cancer patients believed. The majority who elected to have chemotherapy believed there was a chance it would do something it wouldn’t: Namely, provide a cure. Sixty-nine percent of lung cancer patients and 81 percent of colorectal cancer patients gave responses 'that were not consistent with understanding that chemotherapy was very unlikely to cure their cancer,' the researchers report in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

How insurers could game Medicare vouchers. "There are two tough questions facing the folks who want to remake Medicare into a premium support (or voucher) program. The first is that, despite decades of attempts, we don’t have a single good example of a competitive health insurance market driving down prices in a big way...The second is that we do have evidence that a major way insurers compete is through trying to figure out who’s healthy and who’s sick and insuring the healthy people and turning away (or pricing out, or underserving) the sick people. And that’s a kind of competition we don’t much want. This is of particular concern with proposals to open Medicare to more competition because the results could be so devastating. If private insurers manage to get the healthy seniors, and Medicare gets stuck with the unhealthy seniors, Medicare could effectively be destroyed as it gets caught in a death spiral where it needs to raise prices because it’s been stuck with sicker patients, which drives out even more healthy patients, which requires higher prices, and so on." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Would Romney's justices overturn Roe? "There's no question a Romney presidency could spell the end of Roe v. Wade, President Obama said in an interview with Rolling Stone. Romney has said he'd like to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that said abortion is legal. And if he wins in November, he might be able to tilt the balance of the court to make that possible...The court currently has four solid conservatives and four solid liberals, with Justice Anthony Kennedy -- a Republican appointee -- serving as the most common swing vote. If a President Romney could replace even one justice, especially a liberal, most observers believe there would be five reliable votes against abortion rights." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Senate panel expands meningitis probe as illness spreads. "The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is demanding a slew of documents in light of a deadly meningitis outbreak that has spread to 18 states. Pressure has been mounting from Congress, now in recess, for answers on the spate of illnesses. Most have been tied to tainted steroid injections administered for back pain. The injections came from the New England Compounding Center (NECC), a Framingham, Mass.-based company that remixes drugs to fit patients' needs...On Thursday, members of the HELP Committee wrote to the NECC, the Massachusetts Board of Pharmacy and the Food and Drug Administration seeking records that will reveal 'how the outbreak occurred and what warning signs may have existed.'" Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Domestic Policy

Lobbies rush to the defense of their perks. "A number of interest groups representing religious organizations, real estate agents, operas and others are mobilizing to preserve their tax breaks as political momentum grows for limiting them. President Barack Obama has called for capping itemized tax deductions at 28% of adjusted gross income for upper-income earners. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has suggested capping the total amount of itemized tax deductions at around $25,000 for most Americans and less for wealthier households. These proposals have set off alarm bells for the groups and industries that benefit from tax deductions, exemptions and other types of breaks, which are worth more than $1 trillion each year. Roughly two dozen charitable groups, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Catholic Charities USA, the Salvation Army, and OPERA America, sent separate letters to Messrs. Obama and Romney on Thursday extolling the benefits of the tax breaks for charitable giving." Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

Senators ask, "What ever happened to that Volcker Rule?" "Democratic lawmakers on Thursday criticized regulators for taking too long to finalize the Volcker Rule, a controversial provision passed in 2010 aimed at restricting banks from making risky investments with their own money. People familiar with the matter say a rift has developed between bank regulators and the nation’s top markets regulator over how the rule should be shaped. That could delay a final draft beyond the end of the year, an informal deadline set by the Obama administration, those people said." Danielle Douglas and and Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

@amacker: On Volcker, Schapiro says staffs of SEC, other regulators trying to come to final rule all can agree on. "nobody's calling quits."

Watchdog faults Treasury, Fed for Libor use, wants alternatives. "The U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve need to stop using the benchmark interest rate known as Libor in financial rescue programs because it might not be reliable and could put taxpayer dollars at risk, a federal watchdog said Thursday. The special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bailout vehicle launched during the financial crisis, recommended that the Treasury and the Fed change some initiatives to ensure participating U.S. firms use alternatives to Libor -- which stands for the London inter-bank offered rate -- in pricing billions of dollars in loans...There is $598.6 million in outstanding TALF loans and $5.685 billion in outstanding PPIP debt with interest tied to Libor, the report said." Reuters.

When taxes are high, raising them hurts. When they’re low, not so much. "[E]conomists assume that the effects of tax cuts or hikes are linear -- that is, a 1 percent of GDP increase or decrease in taxes has the same effect, no matter where taxes were before that. Raising taxes from 19 percent to 20 percent of GDP would have the same effect as raising them from 49 to 50 percent, in other words. But Jaimovich and Rebelo argue that taxes don’t really work like that. A tax hike when taxes are already high, they figure, ought to do more damage than one when they’re low. When taxes are higher, people are likelier to be taking them into consideration when weighing whether to work more or less, and so people will be more responsive to changes than when they’re low and no one is really factoring them into their decision making...The results are even more dramatic if you assume that people don’t know how good they’d be at starting companies." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Highway interlude: Durham, NC's "Bridge of Death" which decapitates tall trucks.

Energy

Regulatory chief: Edge on nuclear power shifting to US. "U.S. nuclear innovation is on the rise as nuclear heavyweights Germany and Japan head toward a possible decline in technical expertise, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane said Thursday...Macfarlane said that resurgence has helped the U.S. forge ahead with new types of reactors. She said those reactors are smaller, and therefore could cost less than the 'extra large' legacy models. The first design certification applications for those reactors could come next year, Macfarlane said. She said the NRC has been in contact with several companies working on the reactors, some of which have had discussions with electric utilities." Zack Colman in The Hill.

The Cato Institute finds itself in hot water after global warming paper. "The high-temperature battle over the science of climate change got even hotter this week. A group of scientists who wrote a landmark, federally commissioned 2009 report are ticked off at the Cato Institute, which recently issued what the scientists say is a flimsy report that the libertarian think tank tried to make look like an extension of their original work...The original report was called 'Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,' and it was printed with a blue cover that featured an image of North America. The Cato report, now in draft form, is called 'ADDENDUM: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,' and its cover is nearly identical to the original report." Al Kamen in The Washington Post.

Is U.S. climate policy better off without cap-and-trade? "Even though cap-and-trade died, U.S. carbon emissions kept dropping. Since 2006, the United States has cut its carbon-dioxide emissions by 7.7 percent -- comparable to what Europe is achieving under its cap-and-trade system. What’s more, a new analysis from Resources for the Future (RFF) suggests that the United States is on pace to cut greenhouse-gas emissions even more deeply by 2020 than would have been the case if Congress’ climate bill had passed into law. So does that mean environmentalists were wrong to despair? Is U.S. climate policy better off without cap-and-trade? Not so fast. In the short term, yes, the United States has found ways to slash emissions without a comprehensive climate bill from Congress. But it’s harder to see how those cuts will continue over the long run."Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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