Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Asset Pricing Competition


John Campbell's text, "Financial Decisions and Markets" is out from Princeton University Press. With some mild chagrin, I must say it's a splendid book. (Chagrin, of course, because it's an obvious major competitor to my own effort in Asset Pricing.)

It is spare, concise, and clearly written. How can I say that of a 450 page book, with wide text and tiny margins? Well, it's the concise version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, breathtakingly comprehensive and up to date in its coverage of important research topics.

The first part is a whirlwind tour of asset pricing theory. Here, John adopts the traditional organization -- expected utility, static portfolio choice, static CAPM and APT as equilibrium relations where supply meets demand, and finally we meet the discount factor and consumption-based pricing. I chose to go the other way around, and start with the basic asset pricing equation \(p_t u'(c_t) = E_t [\beta u'(c_{t+1}) x_{t+1} ]\), following Bob Lucas' insight that asset pricing is the same as in an endowment economy, and filling out the CAPM and APT and so forth as special cases. I never even got to portfolio theory -- it's in a draft chapter for the long-delayed next version. I still think that's the right organization, but most people don't want to teach it that way. John's more conventional organization, combined with clarity and concision, may be more what you want.

Even here, John's empirical taste and contributions rings through Any textbook is in many ways a summary of its authors' research journey, and John's journey has gone far and wide. You see a preview of the style on the 6th page of chapter 2 (p. 28) where you meet approximations for log returns, and the growth-optimal portfolio on the next page. On calculating minimum-variance portfolios, on p. 37, you get  graph of time-varying return correlations from Campbell Lettau Milkier and Xu (2001), a provocative fact usually ignored. After efficiently presenting the classic CAPM, we get (p. 51) an insightful application to Harvard's endowment, highlighting the difficulties of using these oft-repeated portfolio and pricing theories in practice.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The hard road of free markets

The fundamental reason so many markets are not free, and so dysfunctional, is that the voters of our democracy don't really want freedom. Freedom will come when we want it, when we insist on it, when the average voter sees a free market solution rather than endless controls as the answer to real world problems. The sad paradox of free markets is that free markets do not need people to understand them to work. But democracy does require voters to understand how things work.

In that vein today's internet browsing (both HT marginal revolution) brings good news and bad news.

Good news - one more piece of evidence that people from left and right are finally beginning to see the huge damage of zoning and construction restrictions, including inequality, income segregation, and perpetuation of economic status. That "progressives" now see this too is a most heartening development.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bitcoin and Bubbles

Source: Wall Street Journal

So, what's up with Bitcoin? Is it a "bubble?'' A mania of irrational crowds?

It strikes me as a fairly pure instance of a regularly occurring phenomenon in financial markets, one that encompasses some "excess valuations" in stock markets, gold and commodities, and money itself.

Let's put the pieces together. The first equation of asset pricing is that price = expected present value of dividends. Bitcoin has no cash dividends, and never will. So right off the bat we have a problem -- and a case that suggests how other assets might have value above and beyond their cash dividends.

Well, if the price is greater than zero, either people see some "dividend," some value in holding the asset, beyond its cash payments; equivalently they are willing to hold the asset despite a lower expected return going forward, or they think the price will keep going up forever, so that price appreciation alone provides a competitive return. The first two are called "convenience yield," the latter is a "rational bubble."

"Rational bubbles" are intriguing, but I think fundamentally flawed. If a price goes up forever, eventually the value of bitcoin must exceed all of US wealth, then all of world wealth, then all of interplanetary wealth, then all of the atoms in the universe. The "greater fool" or Ponzi scheme theory must break down at some point, or rely on an irrational belief in the next fool. The rational bubbles theory also does not account for the association of price surges with high volatility and high trading volume.

So, let's think about "convenience yield." Why might someone be willing to hold bitcoins even though their price is above "fundamental value" -- equivalently even though their expected return over a decently long horizon is lower than that of stocks and bonds? Even though we know pretty much for sure that within our lifetimes bitcoin will become worthless? (If you're not sure on that, more later)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Eight Heresies of Monetary Policy


Eight Heresies of Monetary Policy

This is a talk I gave for Hoover, which blog readers might enjoy. Yes, it puts together many pieces said before. This post has graphs and uses mathjax for equations, so if it isn't showing come back to the original. Also here is a pdf version which may be more readable.

Background

As background, the first graph reminds you of the current situation and recent history of monetary policy.

The federal funds rate is the interest rate that the Federal Reserve controls. The funds rate rises in economic expansions, and goes down in recessions. You can see this pattern in the last two recessions. Since about 2012, though, when following history you might have expected the funds rate to rise again, it has stayed essentially at zero. Very recently it has started to rise, but very slowly, nothing like 2005.

The black line is reserves. These are accounts that banks have at the Fed. Crucially, these bank accounts now pay interest. Starting in 2008, reserves grew dramatically from about $20 billion to $2,500 billion. The three cliffs are the three quantitative easing' episodes. Here, the Fed bought bonds and mortgage backed securities, giving banks reserves in exchange.

Inflation initially followed the same pattern as in the last recession. It fell in the recession, and bounced back again in 2012.Inflation has been slowly decreasing since. 10 year government bonds have been quietly trending down, with a bit of an extra dip during the recession.

The next graph plots US unemployment and GDP growth.

You can see we had a deeper recession, but then unemployment recovered about as it always does, or if anything a little faster. You can see the big drop in GDP during the recession. Subsequent growth has been overall too low, in my view, but it has been very steady. If anything, both growth and inflation are steadier in the era of zero interest rates than they were when the Fed was actively moving interest rates around.

These central facts motivate my heresies: Inflation, long term interest rates, growth and unemployment seem to be behaving in utterly normal ways. Yet the monetary environment of near-zero short term rates and huge QE is nothing but normal. How do we make sense of these facts?

Heresy 1: Interest rates
  • Conventional Wisdom: Years of near zero interest rates and massive quantitative easing imply loose monetary policy, "extraordinary accommodation,'' and "stimulus.''
  • Heresy 1: Interest rates are roughly neutral. If anything, the Fed has been (unwittingly) holding rates up since 2008.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Journal graphics in a bygone era


To illustrate MV = PY. (It was MV=PT then.)  In  Irving Fisher, "The Equation of Exchange 1896-1910," The American Economic Review Vol. 1, No. 2 (June, 1911), pp. 296-305, via JSTOR.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap is an extraordinary blog post on land use regulations. (HT the dependably excellent Marginal Revolution.) It is great for its detail, but most of all for its fresh voice. Sure, send one of my free-market economist friends in to examine the pathologies of any city, and we start almost reflexively on land use regulations. But the author is clearly from a different background -- the sort of person who "was in Hamtramck, Michigan a couple of years ago to participate in a seminar about reactivating neighborhoods." Lessons discovered the hard way, from different backgrounds, are often the freshest.

The big point of the blog post is how land use regulations force a steppingstone pattern of urban decay. It's hopelessly expensive to convert any building "up" the economic foodchain of uses, so bit by bit buildings get used for less and less productive uses, that don't attract the attention of regulators, until they become vacant lots, or until a large commercial developer can come in, demand tax subsidies, and rebuild the whole neighborhood.

The post starts with the story of a family that
bought an old fire station a few years ago with the intention of turning it in to a Portuguese bakery and brew pub.
Alas,
Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, draught tolerant native plantings… It’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. They only paid $245,000 for the entire property. And that’s before they even started bringing the building itself up to code for their intended use. Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. Big surprise.

(The post is full of great photographs like this one.) So instead,

Monday, November 13, 2017

Two on energy subsidies

The WSJ has two good and related opeds on energy and transport subsidies recently, Randall O'Toole on Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train and Lee Ohanian and  Ted Temzelides write on energy and transport subsidies

O'Toole:
Last month, Nashville Mayor Megan Berry announced a $5.2 billion proposal that involves building 26 miles of light rail and digging an expensive tunnel under the city’s downtown. Voters will be asked in May to approve a half-cent sales tax increase plus additions to hotel, car rental and business excise taxes to pay for the project.
Just in time for self-driving Ubers to arrive.

I love trains. But we have to admit practicalities. One transportation economist summed all there is to know about transit with "Bus Good. Train Bad." (With a few exceptions, such as Manhattan.)  And light rail, worse. Trains are expensive, and once built, immobile. If people want to go somewhere else, tough. Rolling stock lasts around 50 years, meaning they bake in technical obsolescence. Trains carry far fewer people per lane-mile than busses. And a fleet of self-driving Ubers linked by computer will be able to use bus lanes.

Actually, even buses are more and more questionable. As I wait for the interminable lights on El Camino to cross to Stanford (on bicycle), I have taken to counting passengers on the well-subsidized bus line. The modal number is zero.

As Randy has pointed out elsewhere, the main beneficiaries of light rail are suburban largely white commuters with a nostalgia thing for trains. The main people paying for it are inner city minorities who don't get bus service anymore.
To pay for new light-rail lines that opened in 2012 and 2016, Los Angeles cut bus service. The city lost nearly four bus riders for every additional rail rider.
Congestion got you down? Real time tolling, adjusted minute by minute, will either cure traffic congestion forever, or will bail out indebted local governments with massive revenues, or both. Or, let people live somewhere near where they work!

Lee and Ted consider the transition from horse to auto and truck,
‘In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under 9 feet of manure.” With this 1894 prediction, the London Times warned that the era’s primary source of transportation energy—the horse—would soon create an environmental crisis. ...
The enormous demand for a cleaner and more efficient source of energy led to remarkable innovations in the internal combustion engine. By 1920 horses in cities had been almost entirely replaced by affordable autos and trucks...
And to be honest, horse manure replaced by auto exhaust -- but as bad as auto exhaust is, it's a lot better than horse manure.
Suppose governments in the 1890s, desperate to replace the horse, had jumped on the first available alternative, the steam engine. Heavy subsidies would have produced more steam engines and more research on steam technology. This would only have waylaid the development of the far superior internal combustion engine. 

Source: Obtainium works
(Actually, the government did subsidize railroads a good deal, and perhaps by doing so did stall the development of the truck.)

More than horse manure, I love the image of an alternate reality steampunk America...At left a cool  steampunk RV. (Image source)

Which brings us back, I'm afraid to the main force behind rail subsidies, which Randall has pointed out before: Nostalgia. Nostalgia for what seems like a simpler age. I understand that too. I love trains. But that doesn't make them practical, especially at billions of dollars per mile.

If we're doing nostalgia, how about doing it full time -- high speed stagecoach lines? Bring back the horse! It's all renewable!'

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The real questions the Fed should ask itself

The real questions the Fed should ask itself.  This is a cleaned up and edited version of a previous blog post, commenting among other things on Janet Yellen's Jackson Hole speech in favor of most of Dodd Frank, that appeared in the Chicago Booth Review. When you think of the Fed, think more of the giant regulator than about where interest rates go.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Yellen Retrospective

The newspapers report today that President Trump has decided to nominate Jerome Powell to replace Janet Yellen as Fed Chair.

The Federal Reserve's mandate is to "promote maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long- term interest rates." Ms. Yellen can look back with pride on these outcomes during her term:




All three variables are doing better than they have in half a century. Many people complain about many things at the Fed, including me, but relative to the stated mandate, she has every right to put these charts on the wall of her new office.

One could complain that Ms. Yellen didn't face any particular challenges. As presidents are tested in wartime, so Fed chairs are tested by events. Ms. Yellen didn't face a recession or financial crisis. In this quiet late summer of the business cycle, her job was largely to do nothing, and resist calls from people who wanted her to take big steps. The Fed's major tool is the federal funds rate, has barely moved.



True, but she did not screw up either. So much of monetary history consists of unforced errors, that not making one is an accomplishment. The late summer of business cycles has historically been a time when central bankers over or under react.  And there has been no lack of loud voices calling for drastic action one way or another. In particular, the siren song of "macro prudential policy" that the Federal Reserve should manipulate stock and housing prices has been strong. Her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, will be much more written about for the Fed's management of the 2008 crisis and recession, as well for its failure to see it coming in 2007.  Not screwing up doesn't earn you as big a place in history, but perhaps it should.

No matter how one feels about monetary policy, and the more important (in my view) question of Fed financial regulation, President Trump is breaking with tradition by not reappointing her. The tradition that if the Fed chair has done a reasonable job, he or she is reappointed is a good one for maintaining the independence of the Fed. Let us hope that it is not gone for good.

Good luck to Ms. Yellen in her next endeavor. And to Mr. Powell in this one.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tax Graph


The tax discussion is moving to personal income taxes, and the world is waiting to hear the actual Republican proposal, due tomorrow (Thursday).

With apologies to blog readers who know all this in their sleep, I thought I might explain just why (some) economists keep chanting "broaden the base, lower marginal rates," or why I keep saying that taxes don't matter, tax rates matter to economic growth.  This is grumpy economist, Saturday morning cartoon edition. Perhaps a colorful graph will help as you try to explain taxes to relatives this Thanksgiving.

Start with the blue line. Suppose you work 40 hours a week, and make $100,000. Suppose the government wants half of it. One way to get that is with a flat tax -- for every dollar you earn, send 50 cents to the government.  The government gets $50,000.

Now consider the red line. This line can represent a progressive tax: Exempt the first $50,000 of income, so people who make less have to pay a smaller share of their income in taxes, and charge a 100% tax rate on the rest. Equivalently, this line represents $50,000 of tax shelters and deductions -- employer-provided health care, charitable contributions to a foundation that employs your relatives and flies you around on private jets, a deduction for home mortgage interest, credits for the solar cells on your roof, and so on.

At first glance, this tax system raises the same amount of money. (That's "static scoring.")

You can see the hole in the argument. If we tax the marginal dollar after $50,000 at 100%, you won't bother working the second 20 hours, and the government will get no revenue. More deeply, slowly, and insidiously, in my view, people choose easy college majors that lead to $50,000 jobs, not harder ones that lead to $100,000 jobs, or they don't start businesses.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Economists and taxes

My last post on taxes continued the question, who bears the burden of the corporate tax? Will a reduction in corporate taxes benefit stockholders or workers? It was a fun technical discussion.

But the whole time I want to scream: That is the wrong question! And the public economists job should be to scream from the rafters, that is the wrong question!  By just accepting the question, we are doomed to bad answers.

The public, and politicians, analyze taxes entirely through the lens of who gains and who loses. Income redistribution, yes, but also redistribution from renters to homeowners, married to unmarried, young to old, city dwellers to farmers, Texans to Californians, and so on. The political and popular discussion is about taxES, and who pays what.

Economists serve best when they offer thoughts outside the standard left-right partisan divide. Our first function should be always to remind people that marginal tax rates matter to the economy not taxes. 

Our second insight is always to analyze things comprehensively. The Federal income tax is not what counts, the entire wedge between work and consumption matters. Whether the corporate tax is progressive or not does not matter, whether the overall tax code is progressive (plus the overall spending code, and forced cross-subsidy code!) matters.   Don't tax wine over beer to redistribute; tax goods evenly and achieve progressivity through a progressive income (or better, consumption) tax, or spend money on programs to help people whose distress is correlated (imperfectly) with beer drinking.

Economists may feel their moral sentiments about redistribution are really important. But we have little professional reason to argue our feelings are better than anyone else's. What we can argue is, if you'r going to do more or less redistribution, do it efficiently and comprehensively.

In this context, the current tax reform proposal, and its instant dismissal from self-identified Democratic economists, echoing political rhetoric, is a deep disappointment.

The economists' tax reform starts with a detailed breakdown by income. (I'm caving to political reality that our nation is obsessed with income, not more meaningful measures of economic advantage and disadvantage.) Then, we create a tax reform in which each group pays the same amount (ideally, bears the same burden), but trades lower marginal rates for fewer deductions, exemptions, and for the reduction or elimination of taxes that either highly distort economic activity or lead to lots of inefficient avoidance  (corporate, rates of return, estate).

In short, we aim for a revenue-neutral, redistribution-neutral, reform. We recognize that eventually tax rates must be high enough to cover spending. There isn't a big need to argue over Laffer effects. Even if scored as statically revenue neutral, when the economy booms, revenue flows in, and we have paid off the debt we can start lowering rates. We recognize that if the structure if the tax reform is fixed, we can later continue to argue over the right amount of redistribution.

1986 came close. It wasn't perfect. But at least the rhetoric was this, and politicians explained this goal to the public. You will pay the same taxes, but at lower rates for fewer deductions, and the economy will grow. And lo, it did.

For thirty-one years, we have waited to finish the job. As the tax code grew more complex, with higher statutory rates and more deductions, we waited to redo the job. Reform proposal came and went, with at least a nod to this amount of economic sense.

But no more. Now tax policy is all redistribution all the time. Democratic politicians have decided that their mantra is "tax cuts for the rich." Well, a slogan is a slogan. More sadly, self-identified democratic economists echo this mantra, and little other. Anytime you're arguing one side's talking point or another, you're doing little to illuminate a discussion.

Each provision is examined in isolation for its redistributive impact. It's profoundly hypocritical of course.  Tax deductions are indeed a "tax cut for the rich" since people in the 40% marginal bracket who itemize get a lot more than Joe and Jane down in the lower brackets. But you hear either silence, or pretzel logic defense, such as the New York Times defense of the profoundly regressive deduction for state and local taxes.

I was disappointed at both the rhetoric and the small progress of the administration's proposal's to date. Yes, cutting the corporate rate is a good idea. But they don't even try to argue for marginal rate reductions or incentives. The buzzword is to give "tax cuts to help the middle class," which the left can then argue is a "lie" or not. Once you fall for redistributionist rhetoric, once you say that tax policy is all about giving the right people more and the wrong people less money, I think the hope for a tax reform that actually gets the economy going is dim.

The holy trinity was off the table from the start -- home mortgage interest deduction, charitable deduction, and employer-provided health deduction. The fourth horseman of the apocalypse, the deduction for state  and local taxes, is in danger. (Sorry for mixing metaphors!) This is like a wayward husband saying, "sure, I'll clean up my act. However, the drinking, gambling, and smoking are off the table." The corporate tax reduction does not seem to be coming with a serious cleanup of the thousands of deductions and extenders, each catnip to the lobbyists who keep them in place.

The political challenge for a reform is to say to each group, "you're going to give up your deduction, yes even interest on future home mortgages. But, your rates will go down so much that you will end up paying no more overall, and as the economy grows you will pay less. I want your help holding the fort against those who will demand their deductions and subsidies." That's a deal that pretty much held together in 1986. But if we go into the negotiation saying "oh, and by the way the big three are getting theirs unscathed," and "therefore really big rate reductions are off the table," then the hope of putting that coalition together is gone. It's  a free for all, call your congressperson and make sure you keep yours.

The bottom line: I support the current tax proposal, as incomplete and flawed as it is. It is a step in the right direction. We get the corporate tax rates down to those common in that low-tax free-market nirvana, Europe. It is not, however, 1986 on its own.

I do not support the rhetoric. "Tax cuts" do not work absent spending cuts. Cuts in distorting marginal tax rates matter. The people in charge must surely understand this, so the choice to market it as "tax cuts for the middle class" represents, I think, an unwise rhetorical choice.  The American people are smart enough to understand this, and playing redistribution, bidding for support with handouts, is not a winning game.

Moreover, the sense I have from talking to people, less enshrined in economic theory, is that massive tax complexity and uncertainty are larger drags on growth than a stable simple but high tax rate would be. I see "simplification" in the rhetoric, but no substantial simplification in the body of the proposal. It leaves most of the "finish 1986" job undone, and unless magic happens on entitlement reform, this tax bill will be undone soon as the deficit widens. If it is all we get, and if it is passed as Obamacare was passed, with no votes from the other party, it will not give the sense of permanence necessary to induce a lot of investment and growth.

It needs to be a first step, not this generation's tax reform for the next 31 years. I understand the politics. Republican leadership needs to do something. If Democrats will unite in "resistance" to a bill celebrating mom and apple pie, they need to do something on their own. If they do something, and look like winners, they can get support to do more. But it must be that first step. And even so, I would have hoped for some more courage in the first step. Enshrining the triplet of deductions without  a fight, not even mentioning marginal rates, makes it ever harder to remove them in a second step.

And I wish I were hearing a lot of this, and not just echoing the political line "tax cuts for the rich," from top economists more critical of the proposals.



Corporate tax burden again

This post continues the question, who bears the burden of the corporate tax? The next post will have broader thoughts on the tax plan and economists' reaction to it.

I'm responding in many ways to Larry Summers, who weighed in on the corporate taxes issue in a Washington Post oped. He eloquently and concisely makes most of the arguments floating around now against the corporate tax cut, so I don't have to wade through the venom in Krugman posts to find nuggets of economic sense that one discuss on objective grounds.

This is a long post, so let me summarize the conclusions

1) Even if stockholders do bear the burden of the corporate tax, that is entirely the stockholders who are there when the tax is announced. Current stockholders bear little or no burden.

2) The novel "monopoly" argument is seriously deficient.

3) Even if stockholders bear the burden of the corporate tax, the corporate tax is an insanely inefficient way to make a more progressive tax code.

So who does bear the burden of the corporate tax? 

I think every economist in this debate admits, if some reluctantly, that "corporations" pay no taxes. As an accounting matter, every cent corporations pay comes from higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. The only question is which one.  And indirect general equilibrium effects are central.  The question is not just, how do corporations respond immediately, but how do wages, prices, and capital in the whole economy adjust. "Make corporations pay their fair share" is just nonsense.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hall graphs

Bob Hall gave a lovely talk on wages, and how a reduction in the cost of capital from tax or regulatory reform might raise capital, and by doing so raise labor productivity and hence wages.  The graphs speak for themselves.




Saturday, October 21, 2017

Greg's algebra

How much do workers gain from a capital tax cut? This question has reverberated in oped pages and blogosphere, with the usual vitriol at anyone who might even speculate that a dollar in tax cuts could raise wages by more than a dollar. (I vaguely recall more blogosphere discussion which I now can't find, I welcome links from commenters. Greg was too polite to link to it.)

Greg Mankiw posted a really lovely little example of how this is, in fact, a rather natural result.

However, Greg posted it as a little puzzle, and the average reader may not have taken pen and paper out to solve the puzzle. (I will admit I had to take out pen and paper too.) So, here is the answer to Greg's puzzle, with a little of the background fleshed out.

The production technology is \[Y=F(K,L)=f(k)L;k\equiv K/L\] where the second equality defines \(f(k)\). For example \(K^{\alpha}L^{1-\alpha}=(K/L)^{\alpha}L\) is of this form. Firms maximize \[ \max\ (1-\tau)\left[ F(K,L)-wL \right] -rK \] \[ \max\ (1-\tau)\left[ f\left( \frac{K}{L}\right) L-wL \right] -rK \]

Friday, October 20, 2017

Taylor for Fed

I might as well share with blog readers my favorite for the Fed: John Taylor.

A preface is in order though.

Monetary policy is not, right now, the flaming hot mess that characterizes so much of the Federal Government. And all the candidates are good.

The Fed's official mandate is low interest rates, low inflation, and maximum employment -- as large as monetary policy can make it. Interest, inflation, and unemployment are each lower than they have been in living memory. The stock market is high yet surprisingly quiet (low volatility).

One may question whether this is because or despite the Fed. (My view, largely despite.) One may quibble about low growth and labor force participation. One may worry about over-regulation, though Congress mandated most of it. But by the standards of the Fed's mandate, we must admit that the outcomes we see are fine. In any other branch of the Federal government, performance like this relative to mandates, together with a tradition of reappointment, would argue for Ms. Yellen's swift reappointment.

Ms. Yellen's critics, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, are forced to argue that she might fall short faced with future challenges. She might keep interest rates too low for too long, and let inflation pick up. (Inflation is still nowhere in sight.) She might raise interest rates too fast if the economy does start to grow more, in fear of inflation, and choke off supply side growth. (Yes, the two criticisms are inconsistent.) She might not handle the next crisis well.

Indeed. And taking the measure of people and trying to figure out how they will deal with future challenges is just what this process is supposed to be about. One can also complain that the process of monetary policy has too much discretion, too many speeches, and needs a more stable rules based approach. I have complained that the Fed is massively over-regulating finance, and this will cause a less competitive and efficient financial system in the future.

But recognize that all this is hypothetical, and there is little to complain right now about in the outcomes we tasked the Fed to achieve.

Still, let us suppose Mr. Trump decides he wants a new person at the Fed. Why John?

John is, quite simply, the top monetary economist of his generation. He understands the theory, he understands the empirical work, he deeply knows the history. He took the baton from Milton Friedman.

How does inflation work anyway?

Monetary policy, central banking and inflation are hard. It's well to remember that. Today's blog post adds up a few things that seem like they're obvious but are not.

Inflation is hard. 

Central bankers are puzzled at persistently low inflation.  From WSJ,
Ms. Yellen said, as the “biggest surprise in the U.S. economy this year has been inflation.” 
“My best guess is that these soft readings will not persist, and with the ongoing strengthening of labor markets, I expect inflation to move higher next year,” Ms. Yellen said, adding that “most of my colleagues on the [interest-rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee] agree.”
Of course, they've been expecting that for several years now.  And she seems fully aware that they may be wrong once again:
She cautioned, however, that U.S. central bankers recognize recent low inflation could reflect something more persistent. “The fact that a number of other advanced economies are also experiencing persistently low inflation understandably adds to the sense among many analysts that something more structural may be going on,”  
"Something more structural" is a pretty vague statement, for the head of an agency in charge of inflation, that has hundreds of economists looking at this question for years now! That's not criticism. Inflation is hard.

Why is it so hard? The standard story goes, as there is less "slack" in product or labor markets, there is pressure for prices and wages to go up. So it stands to perfect reason that with unemployment low and after years of tepid but steady growth, with quantitative measures of "slack" low, that inflation should rise, as Ms. Yellen's first quote opines.

That paragraph contains a classic economic fallacy, that of composition; the confusion of relative prices and the level of prices and wages overall. If labor markets get "tight," companies finding it hard to find workers, then yes, one expects wages to rise. But one expects wages to rise relative to prices. You only tempt workers to move to your company by offering them wages that allow them to buy more. Similarly, if there is strong demand for a company's products, its prices will rise. But those prices rise relative to other prices and to wages. Offering a company higher prices when its wages, costs, and competitor's prices are all rising does nothing to get it to produce more.

So, in fact, standard economics makes no prediction at all about the relationship between inflation -- the level of prices and wages overall; or (better) the value of money -- and the tightness or slackness of product and labor markets! The fabled Phillips curve started as a purely empirical observation, with no theory.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tyler: Equity financed banking is possible!

Tyler Cowen wrote an extended blog post on bank leverage, regulation and economic growth on Marginal Revolution. Tyler thinks the "liquidity transformation" of banks is essential, and that we will not be able to avoid a highly levered banking system, despite the regulatory bloat this requires, and the occasional financial crisis. As blog readers may know, I disagree.

A few choice quotes from Tyler, though I encourage you to read his entire argument:
I think of the liquidity transformation of banks in terms of...Transforming otherwise somewhat illiquid activities into liquid deposits. That boosts risk-taking capacities, boosts aggregate investment, and makes depositors more liquid in real terms.  
Requiring significantly less bank leverage, at any status quo margin, probably will bring a recession. 
...many economies are stuck with the levels of leverage they have, for better or worse. 
I fear ... that we will have to rely on the LOLR function more and more often. 
I don’t find the idea of 40% capital requirements, combined with an absolute minimum of regulation, absurd on the face of it. But I don’t see how we can get there, even for the future generations.
Depressing words for a libertarian, usually optimistic about markets.

This is a good context to briefly summarize why "narrow", or (my preferred) equity-financed banking is in fact reasonable, and could happen relatively quickly.

Tyler's main concern is that people need a lot of "liquidity" -- think money-like bank accounts -- and that unless banks can issue a lot of deposits, backed by mortgages and similar assets, bad things will happen -- people won't have the "liquidity" they need, and businesses can't get the investment they need.

Here are a few capsule counter arguments.  In particular, they are reasons why the economy of, say 1935 or even 1965 might have required highly levered banks, but we do not.

1) We're awash in government debt.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Cowen on Fed Chair

Tyler Cowen has a good thought on the Fed chair question. The next chair has to be a good politician, in all the positive senses of that word, more than a good technocrat:
The Fed has functioned as a technocracy for a long time, but might the future bring a Fed that is irrevocably split between competing factions? ...the future could bring a Fed divided over how much it should assert its political independence, how much it should assume responsibility for possible asset bubbles, how it should respond to an international financial crisis, or how much it should align with an “America First” mindset. .... 
The backdrop is this: Ben Bernanke’s Fed, with its bailouts during the financial crisis, ate up a lot of the Fed’s political capital, though arguably for the worthwhile cause of saving the financial system. As a result, the Fed no longer has its pre-crisis credibility. As long as the American economy is on the path of a slow and steady recovery, with relatively high asset prices, that’s bearable. 
But the next time major economic volatility comes around, Fed decisions will be scrutinized and politicized like never before. This will happen in the mainstream media, on social media, and perhaps by our very own president in his tweets or offhand remarks. The key factor for any Fed leader will be the ability to maintain and project a coherent, unified voice at the Fed, so that the Fed remains an island of relative sanity in the polarized nation. This will be a problem of crisis management, but unlike Bernanke’s crisis management it will be fought first and foremost in the trenches of public opinion.
(The open vice chair positions are good ones for technocrats, who need to be able to translate the abstruse language of the staff.)

My related thought: We focus a lot on interest rate policy, but most of what the Fed does these days is financial regulation and supervision, and those decisions are likely much more important going forward.  The challenging question there is "macro-prudential." Is it the Fed's job to worry about "asset bubbles," and to micromanage "credit booms" and their eventual busts? Or is it better for the Fed to limit its authority, to preserve independence, credibility, and insulation from political demands for action and political criticism of its actions, by pronouncing there are economic events beyond its scope?

Moreover, if the Fed is to limit the scope of its financial dirigisme, it had better do so beforehand not afterwards. If everyone expects the Fed to set prices and bail out hither and yon, and then the Fed gets religion (perhaps under relentless political pressure), the crisis will be so much worse. Bernanke also benefitted from acting far beyond expectations of what he would or could do. The next chair will be in the opposite situation, have to set limits of crisis reaction, and disappoint expectations. It's much better to do that ahead of time -- and much harder for an institution like the Fed to scale back people's expectations, and to renounce and pre-commit against attractive-sounding powers.

Update: 

Narayana Kocherlakota predicts Jerome Powell. In line with some of the above thoughts, Narayana's view basically is that monetary policy is doing fine. Low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, low macro and financial volatility. Mission accomplished. Moreover, if there is a hawk vs. dove question, President Trump looks likely to be on the dove side of it. (Sadly, I doubt that rules and precommitment vs. discretion is ringing in the appointment decision.) However, supervision and regulation is the key issue going forward, and Narayana views Powell as Yellen monetary policy plus a regulatory/supervisory reform.

(I learned to use both words from Ms. Yellen's Jackson hole speech. Regulation is rules, supervision is sending Fed people to look over banks' shoulders. It's a good distinction.)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Atlas on Health

My colleague Scott Atlas has a superb oped in today's (October 4) Wall Street Journal. Instead of just arguing about health insurance and how we, via the government, will subsidize and pay for health care demand, let's fix the equally catastrophically broken health supply system.
"Republicans have now failed twice to repeal and replace ObamaCare. But their whole focus has been wrong. The debate centered, like ObamaCare, on the number of people with health insurance. A more direct path to broadening access would be to reduce the cost of care. This means creating market conditions long proven to bring down prices while improving quality—empowering consumers to seek value, increasing the supply of care, and stimulating competition."
This is the kind of out of the box, out of the usual left-right mudslinging idea that might someday spark a bipartisan reform, if our legislators could someday get past scoring symbolic points and sit down to actually fix something. (I have written similar ideas, but nowhere near as clearly, or as based in lots of fact-based scholarship and detail as Scott has.)

VAT -- full text

Now that 30 days have passed, the full text of the WSJ oped advocating a VAT instead of all other federal taxes. Previous post with extra comments.



By John H. Cochrane
Sept. 4, 2017 2:38 p.m. ET

Soon the Trump administration and congressional leaders will unveil their tax-reform proposal. Reports indicate the proposal will include some reductions in corporate and personal rates and the end of some tax deductions. But true reform is likely to be stymied by the usual interests, by those who see the tax code primarily as a way to transfer income to or from favored or disfavored groups, and by politicians who dole out deductions, exemptions and subsidies to supporters.

So if the process stays its normal course, don’t expect the complex and dysfunctional U.S. tax code to change much. But if our leaders were to attempt a really fundamental reform, they could break the political logjam. Changes must be simple, understandable and attractive to voters. And only fundamental reform paired with deregulation can hope to raise economic growth to 3% or more.

The best way to do this is to eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes, and to implement instead a national value-added tax—essentially a national sales tax.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Tax Reform

I read with interest the Unified Framework for Fixing our Broken Tax code. The bottom line is a cut in the corporate tax rate to about 20%, roughly the world average. It also proposes an end to the estate and gift tax.These are small steps in the right direction. It's not a once-in-a-generation clean-out-all-the-junk tax reform.

As an economist I am most saddened by what is missing. Tax reform, designed to support long term growth, should have two main characteristics:

1) Lower marginal rates, by broadening the base. This reduces the disincentives to work, save, invest, start businesses, while raising the same revenue.

2) Simplicity, stability, transparency, and consequent evident fairness. (By fairness I mean each of us knows the others are paying taxes too, and do not suspect that lobbying, political connections, and clever tax lawyers are getting others off the hook.)

These two are essentially missing from the document. The left has seen the tax code pretty much entirely as a vehicle for subsidy and redistribution for a long time. This Republican document, sadly seems to have bought that view.  The goal is to
"put more money into the pockets of everyday hardworking people."
Well, without changing government spending, that means less money in someone else's pocket.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Health Care Policy Isn't so Hard

Last July, as the last Republican Obamacare bill was imploding, Greg Mankiw wrote "Why Health Care Policy is So Hard" in the New York Times. For once, I think Greg got it wrong. Health care policy isn't hard at all, at least as a matter of economics. (Politics, and ideological politics, is another question, but not Greg's question nor mine.)

There are some important underlying themes uniting how Greg's piece goes wrong (in my opinion)
  • A little bit of economic education can be a dangerous thing
While most opinionated people and most "policymakers" are blissfully unaware of any economics, a little bit of economics education can sometimes mislead. Economics is full of pretty fairy tales, passed on through the decades or even centuries. The day after one sees the beautiful tale of the natural monopoly, or the externality, or the public good, then like a two-year-old with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, one starts to see natural monopolies, externalities and public goods all over the place. Wait a moment. Just because it's in the textbook -- even Greg's textbook -- doesn't mean every single industry and case fits.

The other rhetorical error is of the type, "well, we can't have homeless people who get heart attacks dying in the streets." No, of course not, but, is every single line of the ACA and tens of thousands of subsidiary regulations absolutely necessary to provide for homeless people who suffer heart attacks? Why must your and my health insurance be so totally screwed up -- and so totally micromanaged by the Federal government -- just to solve the problem of homeless people heart attacks? I'm struggling to find just the right category for this sort of argument
  • Gross disregard of the size of effects. 
  • Straw man -- a theoretical problem with a completely free market justifies any regulation. 
  • Disregard of the choice at hand -- it's not benevolent perfection vs. free market. 
  • Using problems as talking points. If the same "problems" exist elsewhere and you don't want to or need to fix them, then you're not serious about that "problem" for health. 
Maybe we can come up with a better one sentence characterization later. (There must be a Greek word for these rhetorical tricks!)

Let's review Greg's "why health care policy is so hard" problems.
"...free market sometimes fails us when it comes to health care. There are several reasons.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A paper, and publishing

Even at my point in life, the moment of publishing an academic paper is a one to celebrate, and a moment to reflect.

The New-Keynesian Liquidity Trap is published in the Journal of Monetary Economics -- online, print will be in December. Elsevier (the publisher) allows free access and free pdf downloads at the above link until November 9, and encourages authors to send links to their social media contacts. You're my social media contacts, so enjoy the link and download freely while you can!

The paper is part of the 2012-2013 conversation on monetary and fiscal policies when interest rates are stuck at zero -- the "zero bound" or "liquidity trap." (Which reprised an earlier 2000-ish conversation about Japan.)

At the time, new-Keynesian models and modelers were turning up all sorts of fascinating results, and taking them seriously enough to recommend policy actions. The Fed can strongly stimulate the economy with promises to hold interest rates low in the future. Curiously, the further in the future the promise, the more stimulative.  Fiscal policy, even totally wasted spending, can have huge multipliers. Broken windows and hurricanes are good for the economy. And though price stickiness is the central problem in the economy, lowering price stickiness makes matters worse. (See the paper for citations.)

The paper shows how tenuous all these predictions are. The models have multiple solutions, and the answer they give comes down to an almost arbitrary choice of which solution to pick. The standard choice implies a downward jump in the price level when the recession starts, which requires the government to raise taxes to pay off a windfall to government bondholders. Picking equilibria that don't have this price level jump, and don't require a jump to large fiscal surpluses (which we don't see) I overturn all the predictions. Sorry, no magic. If you want a better economy, you have to work on supply, not demand.

Today's thoughts, though, are about the state of academic publication.

I wrote the paper in the spring and summer of 2013, posted it to the internet, and started giving talks. Here's the story of its publication:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Duet Redux

Another duet of headlines with an interesting lesson, both from the Wall Street Journal:

Solar power death wish
Suniva Inc., a bankrupt solar-panel maker, and German-owned SolarWorld Americas have petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to impose tariffs on foreign-made crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells. 
Solar cells in the U.S. sell for around 27 cents a watt. The petitioners want to add a new duty of 40 cents a watt. They also want a floor price for imported panels of 78 cents a watt versus the market price of 37 cents. 
they’re resorting to Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974 because they don’t need to show they are victims of dumping or foreign government subsidies. They only need to show that imports have harmed them
California Democrats Target Tesla
The United Automobile Workers are struggling for a presence in Tesla’s Fremont plant, and organized labor has called in a political favor. 
Since 2010 California has offered a $2,500 rebate to encourage consumers to buy electric vehicles. But last week, at unions’ behest, Democrats introduced an amendment to cap-and-trade spending legislation that would require participating manufacturers to get a sign-off from the state labor secretary verifying that they are “fair and responsible in their treatment of workers.” 
The legislation, which passed Friday, is a direct shot at Tesla. The Clean Vehicle Rebate Project has amounted to a $82.5 million subsidy for the company
Both moves ought to pose a liberal conundrum. If you want carbon reduction, you want cheap solar cells, so that more people will buy them. The planet does not care where the solar cells are produced. If you want electric cars, you want cheap electric cars so that more people will buy them.

But those who falsely sold green energy as a job producer, a boon to the economy; not a costly alternative to fossil fuels, a cost that must be borne to save the planet, now face this conundrum.

The deeper lesson here is the corrosive nature of subsidies and protection. Once the government starts subsidizing solar cells and electric cars, there is a quite natural force demanding access to the subsidies. Why should the owners of the Tesla company get largesse from the taxpayers, and not their workers too?

Solar cells are just the latest embodiment of the infant industry fallacy -- that protection from competition will allow an industry to grow and become competitive.  Instead, they become infantile industries, expert and getting protections and subsidies not producing cheap solar cells.

The infrastructure paradox is similar. We need infrastructure. Yet federal contracting requirements, requirements for union workers and union wages, and everything else attracted to federal money being handed out, drive costs up to astronomical levels.

For energy, this is an abject lesson in the wisdom of a simple carbon (and methane) tax in place of all the subsidies and winner-and-loser-picking our government does. (Let's not fight about whether to do it. The point is if we want to restrict fossil fuels and subsidize a move to non-carbon energy, this is how to do it.) Subsidies and protection invite demands for subsidies and protection, not clean energy.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stranded profits

The tax reform discussion includes the idea that by moving to a territorial system, US companies will bring lots of money stranded offshore back to the US, unleashing a wave of investment here. While I think a territorial system makes sense, as does reducing or eliminating the corporate tax, as a pure matter of economics, I don't think this repatriation argument makes sense.

Here's why. (The following is a story, not a fact about Apple accounting.) Apple sells an Iphone in Spain. Apple Spain pays a huge licensing fee on software, owned by Apple Ireland, so it's not a profit in Spain. Apple Ireland thus collects huge amounts of cash from all over the world, taxed at the low Irish corporate tax rate. Apple Ireland deposits this cash in an Irish bank. (I presume they do fancier things with the money, but I'm telling a story here). The cash is "stranded" overseas, right?

No. The Irish bank can lend the money anywhere. It can buy US mortgage backed securities, it can lend the money wholesale to US banks who lend it out to US businesses. It can even lend the money to Apple US. If Apple or any other US company wants to invest, they can borrow from the Irish bank. Conversely, if profits are repatriated to US banks, those banks can lend the money overseas.

If Apple's Irish bank invests exclusively in, say Spanish condos, then the Spanish bank that would have made the condo loan instead loans to the US. Conversely, even if the profits are "repatriated" to a US bank, if investment opportunities are better abroad, that's where the investment will happen.

You can't avoid two fundamental truths: 1) Money is fungible. 2) Savings - Investment = Net Exports.

Yes, there are some second order effects. If money comes back to US banks, US banks get to earn the fees. Internal capital can be cheaper then external; it's inefficient to send your own money to yourself through a bank. But these are second order, and that's not the argument being made.

It's still a good idea, but for other reasons. Reduction or elimination of corporate taxes will make US investment more profitable, and that will attract money from abroad. But don't count on a wave of repatriated profits to mean much more than a big financial change.  Even if it happens. There are many other reasons to keep pots of money overseas these days. Bad arguments for good policies are not, in the end, a good idea.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Duet

Sometimes the blog posts write themselves from contrasting newspaper headlines.

New York Times

New Gene-Therapy Treatments Will Carry Whopping Price Tags
By GINA KOLATA September 11, 2017

Emily Whitehead, the first pediatric patient to receive the gene-therapy treatment Kymriah, which put her leukemia into remission. The treatment has a $475,000 price tag, raising questions about how patients and insurers will pay. ...
One drug, to prevent blindness in those with a rare genetic disease, for example, is expected to cost between $700,000 and $900,000 per patient on average,..

Washington Post

The dam is breaking on Democrats’ embrace of single-payer
By Aaron Blake September 12 at 9:39 AM

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) became the fourth co-sponsor of Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) “Medicare for all” health-care bill Monday. In doing so, he joined Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). 
What do those four senators have in common? Well, they just happen to constitute four of the eight most likely 2020 Democratic presidential nominees, according to the handy list I put out Friday. 
Update: Gillibrand just signed on to Sanders's "Medicare for all" bill. So now 5 of my top 8 potential 2020 Democratic nominees have now come out for the bill -- before it is even introduced. "Health care should be a right, not a privilege, so I will be joining Senator Bernie Sanders as a cosponsor on his Medicare-for-All legislation," Gillibrand said.
Hint. Budget constraints? Hint 2: get ready to start making lots of noise if you want treatment.

By the way, let us watch for the crucial buzzword question. Does "single payer" mean there is a single payer that anyone can use -- but you're free to buy and sell your own insurance on top of that, hopefully deregulated since there is no need to regulate anymore, everyone has access to medicare for all? Or does "single payer" mean there is a single payer that everyone must use -- private insurance, private practice, just paying cash illegal, to cross-subsidize the system? I fear the latter. We'll see.

The previous champion was stories on the same page in WSJ, roughly ``self driving trucks coming soon'' and ``shortage of truck drivers.'' I lost the link.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Online Asset Pricing is back!

The online Asset Pricing Ph.D. class is back! It died in a Coursera "upgrade," but it is now migrated over to Canvas.

Click here to go to the online class. My Asset Pricing webpage has links to the class, book, and many other useful materials.

It should be open and free to anyone, including all the quizzes, problem sets and exams.

Since it's on the Canvas system, if you are teaching at a University that uses Canvas, you should be able to integrate it with your class, assign all or part of it, and receive grades from quizzes and problem sets. Thus, you can use it as a flipped classroom, assign selected videos and quizzes in advance of a lecture.

It is also ideal for a Ph. D.  program summer school for year 0 or year 1. Again, through Canvas you should be able to assign the class, in whole or in part, and get grades.

It's also well suited to self-study. If you just want to watch the videos and read the notes, they are all here via youtube links on the Asset Pricing webpage.

Huge thanks to Emily Bembeneck and Allison Kallo at the University of Chicago, Mikhail Proshletsov, and above all to Nina Karnaukh now at Ohio State. Nina masterminded all the hard work of moving the class pages and quizzes from the Coursera system to the Canvas system, and fixing innumerable glitches along the way. Thanks also to the Booth School for paying for the transition.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

In the name of Science

Source: climatefeedback.org
"Climate Feedback" has produced a "scientific review" of my WSJ oped with David Henderson on (Oped ungated full text here, see also associated blog post.)

In the blog post, I wrote,
"If it is not clear enough, nothing in this piece takes a stand on climate science, either affirming or denying current climate forecasts. I will be interested to see how quickly we are painted as unscientific climate-deniers."
Now we know the answer. 

To recap, the oped said nothing about climate science, nothing about climate computer model forecasts, and did not even question the integrated model forecasts of economic damage. We did not deny either climate change nor did we argue against CO2 mitigation policies in principle. For argument's sake we granted a rather extreme forecast (level of GDP reduced by 10% forever) of economic costs. We did not even question the highly questionable cost-benefit analyses of policies subject to cost benefit analysis. We mostly complained about the lack of any cost benefit analysis, and the quantitative nonsense of many claims.

So, it's curious that there could be any "scientific" review of a purely economic article in the first place. How do they do it? 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tax Reform Again

A Wall Street Journal oped on tax reform. This complements an earlier oped and see the tax link at right for many others.

The bottom line: I argue for a national VAT instead of (and that is crucial) individual and corporate income taxes, estate taxes, and anything else.

Why? I want to break out of our stale argument. "Lower taxes to boost the economy"  vs. "you just want tax cuts for the rich." It's not going to go anywhere.

I also want to break out of the process. Proposing cuts within the current structure of the tax code, even if proposing them with offsetting cuts in deductions, leads naturally right back to the mess we're in.

Once you tax income much of the rest of the mess follows inexorably.  If we go back to the beginning, and tax spending not income, so much mess vanishes.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

On climate change 2

Now that 30 days have passed I can post the full Wall Street Journal climate change oped with David Henderson. The previous post has more commentary. A pdf is here.

By David R. Henderson and  John H. Cochrane
July 30, 2017 4:24 p.m. ET

Climate change is often misunderstood as a package deal: If global warming is “real,” both sides of the debate seem to assume, the climate lobby’s policy agenda follows inexorably.

It does not. Climate policy advocates need to do a much better job of quantitatively analyzing economic costs and the actual, rather than symbolic, benefits of their policies. Skeptics would also do well to focus more attention on economic and policy analysis.

To arrive at a wise policy response, we first need to consider how much economic damage climate change will do. Current models struggle to come up with economic costs commensurate with apocalyptic political rhetoric. Typical costs are well below 10% of gross domestic product in the year 2100 and beyond.

That’s a lot of money—but it’s a lot of years, too. Even 10% less GDP in 100 years corresponds to 0.1 percentage point less annual GDP growth. Climate change therefore does not justify policies that cost more than 0.1 percentage point of growth. If the goal is 10% more GDP in 100 years, pro-growth tax, regulatory and entitlement reforms would be far more effective.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Yellen at Jackson Hole

Fed Chair Janet Yellen gave a thoughtful speech at the Jackson Hole conference.

The choice of topic, financial stability and the Fed's role in financial regulation and supervision, says a lot. Financial regulation, supervision, and other tinkering, is much more centrally a part of what the Fed is and does these days than standard monetary policy. Whether overnight interest rates go up or down a quarter of a percentage point may be the subject with the greatest ratio of talk to action, and of commentary to actual effect, in all of economics. Interest rates are likely to stay around 1% for the foreseeable future. Get used to it. But the Fed is deeply involved in running the financial system, and all the talk points to more. 

Rather unsurprisingly, she did not give the speech I might have given, or that some of the others campaigning for her job have given, bemoaning the current state of affairs. She's been in charge, after all. If she viewed the Dodd-Frank act as a grossly complex Rube Goldberg contraption, and the Fed only following silly rule-making dictates to comply with the law, she would have said so loudly long before this. Whether with an eye to reappointment, to write the first draft of history, or -- my sense of Ms. Yellen -- out of forthright Jon Snow-like irrepressible honesty, one should not have expected a stunning critique.  Moreover, her speech is dead-center of the world in which she lives, that of international policy and regulatory organizations. It would be a lot to expect a Fed chair to lead intellectually and to strike out far from the consensus of the bubble.

Still, I am disappointed. Even accepting her view of the crisis, and the current slow growth era, there are far more "Remaining Challenges" than her three paragraphs. There are far more questions to be asked, paths to choose, and fundamental choices to be made.

Which deregulation? 

Monday, July 31, 2017

On Climate Change

David Henderson and I wade in to perilous waters in the July 31 Wall Street Journal. We try to stake out a different and more productive conversation than the usual shouting match between alarmists and deniers.
Climate change is often misunderstood as a package deal: If global warming is “real,” both sides of the debate seem to assume, the climate lobby’s policy agenda follows inexorably.
It does not. Climate policy advocates need to do a much better job of quantitatively analyzing economic costs and the actual, rather than symbolic, benefits of their policies. Skeptics would also do well to focus more attention on economic and policy analysis.
As usual, I have to wait 30 days to post the whole thing.

As economists, we both have a healthy skepticism of large computer based forecasting models. The famous 1972 club of Rome forecast that we would run out of resources, and the grand failure of large scale Keynesian models in the late 1970s are two humbling examples. The "climate" models also feature a lot of questionable economics. A crucial question -- how much carbon will the world's economies add on their own, without Paris-accord policies? That's economics, very questionable economics, and not meteorology.

That said, however, the point of the oped is to try to shift the debate away from climate science and mixed climate-economic computer models. Stop arguing about climate, and let us instead investigate costs and benefits of policies. That strikes us as a much more fruitful place for discussion. If you are wary of the climate policy agenda, the costs and benefits of those policies are more fertile ground for discussion than the science of carbon emissions and atmospheric warming. If you only argue about the climate, then you implicitly admit that if the models are right about climate, the whole policy agenda follows. Do not admit that point. They may be right about climate and wrong about policy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Thornton on interest rate humility

Dan Thornton has an interesting essay, ``The Limits of Monetary Policy: Why Interest Rates Don’t Matter.’’

Just why do we think that the Fed raising and lowering interest rates has a strong effect on output (or inflation)? Just why does the Fed control short-term interest rates rather than the money supply, or something else?

Dan's essay is a nice quick tour through the history of this question. No, there is not as much logic and evidence behind this hallowed belief as you might think, and yes, people did not always take the power of interest rates for granted as they seem to do now. Dan's historical tour is worth keeping in mind.

This question is especially relevant right now. We are unlikely to see big changes in interest rates going forward. And central banks are busy thinking of different things to control -- the size of the balance sheet; treasury, MBS, corporate bond, and even stock purchases; use of regulatory tools to control lending. So we may be on the cusp of a fairly major change in thinking about what central banks do -- what their primary tool is -- and how that tool affects the economy. (And, I hope, whether it is wise for central banks to use new tools that come along. Their mandate is not to be the great macroeconomic-financial planner after all.)

As Dan points out,
it is a well-known and well-established fact that interest rates are not very important for investment, or for spending decisions generally.
Quoting Bernanke and Gertler
… empirical studies of supposedly “interest-sensitive” components of aggregate spending [fixed investment, housing, inventories, and consumer durables] have in fact had great difficulty in identifying a quantitatively important effect of the neoclassical cost- of-capital variable [interest rates].
That is by and large true. But I see an alternative breaking out. Investment is strongly influenced by stock prices, by the risk premium in the cost of capital. The total cost of capital is risk premium plus risk free rate, and the risk premium varies much more than the risk free rate. 

Here is the latest version of a graph I've made several times to emphasize this point. ME/BE is the market to book ratio of the stock market, or "Q.'' P/(20xD) is the ratio of price to 20 x Dividends. IK is the ratio of investment to capital. 

Investment responds to the stock market, and the stock market moves because risk premiums move, not because interest rates move. 

The "alternative" then is the increasing amount of attention paid to the Fed's effect on stock and corporate bond prices, together with evidence like this that investment responds to risk premiums in stock and corporate bond prices. 

I am a long-time skeptic of the stories that say low levels of interest rates encourage asset price "bubbles." After all, borrowing at 1% and investing at 5% is the same as borrowing at 5% and investing at 9%. Why should the level matter to the risk premium? But those stories are repeated more and more often (like the story about interest rates!) So overall, what may break out is a story that the central bank can influence risk premiums-- this needs segmented markets, leveraged intermediaries, and other financial frictions, modern heirs to the "credit channel"-- and risk premiums influence investment. Macro-finance is full of this sort of analysis right now. 

I recoil at the idea that central banks should start operating this way -- targeting risky asset prices, using a range of tools to do it, and thereby trying to control investment spending.  Central planners can set prices too, but that doesn't mean they should. But this may be where the world is going. 

Now, back to Dan. After reminding us that consumption and investment spending does not respond (much) to interest rates, Dan's intellectual history. (Excerpts here, the original is worth reading) 
“So why do policymakers believe that monetary policy works through the interest rate channel and that monetary policy is powerful?” Well, there was one important event that brought economists and policymakers to this conclusion. Specifically, the Fed under Chairman Paul Volcker brought an end to the Great Inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Prior to this event, Keynesian economists … believed that monetary policy was totally ineffective. “Why?” Keynesians believed that the only thing monetary policy could affect was interest rates. Since interest rates were not important for spending, the effect of monetary policy actions on interest would have essentially no effect on spending and, consequently, no important effect on output. Keynesians believed that monetary policy was essentially useless.
There was a smaller group of economists called monetarists who believed that monetary policy could have a large effect on output. But they believed this effect was due to the effect of monetary actions on the supply of money, not interest rates. Both Keynesians and monetarists believed that the effect through the interest rate channel would be tiny.
It's worth remembering that the power of pure interest rate changes is a recent idea. Separately, 
Bernanke and Blinder find that monetary policy works through the bank credit channel of monetary policy—not through interest rates. However, … because banks have financed most of their lending by borrowing funds from the public since the mid-1960s, it is unlikely that the bank credit channel is important. …It is now well-recognized that the bank credit channel of monetary policy is very weak.
I'm not sure Bernanke and Blinder (as well as other fans) agree with the last sentence, but the bank lending channel has always suffered the problem that 1) Fed actions have little effect on lending -- as Dan mentions, reserve requirements really don't bite 2) Only very small businesses really rely on bank lending. There are lots of them, but not much GDP. 

So how did belief in the power of interest rates come about? 
When he became chairman of the Fed, Paul Volcker made ending inflation the goal of policy. … He announced that he wanted to pursue a new approach to implementing monetary policy that “involves leaning more heavily on the [monetary] aggregates in the period immediately ahead.” …it seems to have worked. Inflation declined from its April 1980 peak of 14.5% to about 2.4% in July 1983….The policy change was also followed by back-to-back recessions…. the fact that the change in policy was followed by a marked reduction in both inflation and output led economists and policymakers to dramatically change their view about the power of monetary policy to effect output and inflation.
…economists debated whether the success of the Volcker’s monetary policy was due to a marked reduction in the supply of money or to higher interest rates. But the growth rate of M1 monetary aggregate changed little over the period. Moreover, the growth rate of M2 actually increased. In contrast, the federal funds rate, which was 11.6% the day the FOMC changed policy, increased to a peak of 17.6% on October 22, 1979. The funds rate then cycled, hitting cyclical peaks above 20% in late 1980 and mid-1981. Given the behavior of the M1 and M2 monetary aggregates and the behavior of the federal funds rate during the period, a consensus formed around the idea that the success of Volcker’s policy was attributable to high interest rates not to slow money growth. 
Like the Phoenix, the idea that monetary policy worked through the interest rate channel rose from the ashes. … the FOMC adopted the federal funds rate as its policy instrument in the late 1980s, circa 1988. … Policymakers pay essentially no attention to monetary aggregates…
And academic analysis of monetary policy is focused entirely on interest rates. Dan doesn't mention new-Keynesian models, but they epitomize the current thinking. The Fed sets interest rates, with no money at all, and higher interest rates induce people to spend less today and more tomrrow. 
The problem is that nothing else changed. There have been no new studies showing that spending is much more sensitive to changes in interest rates than previously thought. … Bernanke and Gertler’s statement that monetary policy does not work through the interest channel is as true today as it was 20 year ago. What has changed is economists’ belief that monetary policy works through the interest rate channel. … economists’ and policymakers’ belief that monetary policy has strong effects on output through the interest rate channel is more akin to religion than to science. It is built on a belief that it seems to have worked once. 
This belief is reinforced by fact that few economists believe that policy could work through any of the other possible channels of policy: the exchange rate channel, the wealth effect channel, the money supply channel, or the credit channel. Monetary policy seems to work, but it cannot work through any of these other channels. Conclusion: it must work through the interest rate channel.
Quoting Alan Greenspan
We ran into the situation, as you may remember, when the money supply, nonborrowed reserves, and various other non-interest-rate measures on which the Committee had focused had in turn fallen by the wayside. We were left with interest rates because we had no alternative. … – Alan Greenspan, FOMC Transcript, July 1-2, 1997, pp. 80-81. 
Where does this leave us? In the short run, the fact remains. We have no alternative. If I were to wake up as Fed chair tomorrow, I'd move the interest rate levers just about the same way as anyone else does. In the short run, I think these reflections should add to our humility -- we really don't understand the mechanism as well as most analysis suggests, and a new idea will come sooner or later.

In the longer run, those new ideas seem to be breaking out. Central banks, increasingly gargantuan financial regulators, are using a wide range of tools to influence the economy via asset prices. In my own view this is a bad idea. But like most bad ideas it is slipping in sideways largely un noticed.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ray of hope update

The July 13 Wall Street Journal editorial updates yesterday's ray of hope.
One remaining debate is over Ted Cruz’s “freedom option.” The Texas Senator’s amendment says that any insurer that offers at least one ObamaCare-compliant plan could also sell other types of coverage off the exchanges. The expectation is that a more competitive and dynamic insurance market will emerge outside of ObamaCare. Released from federal mandates and price controls, insurers could offer many more innovative products designed for individuals, rather than standardized coverage planned in Washington.
Mr. Cruz acknowledges that insurance markets could “segment,” meaning that younger and healthier people would gravitate to the Cruz option, where premiums are likely to be much cheaper. Older people with more health expenses would remain on ObamaCare, which bars insurers from charging higher premiums based on health risks and bans exclusions for pre-existing conditions.
The logic of the Cruz proposal is that there is a rough consensus among Republicans that government should guarantee access to coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. In that case, government should pay for this guarantee, in the form of a de facto high-risk insurance pool, rather than hiding the cost in cross-subsidies imposed on private citizens.
The virtue of this approach is transparency and honesty. In a bifurcated market, premiums would be much higher for ObamaCare plans. But they’d be offset for consumers by much higher federal subsidies that rise with premiums...
So, the solution envisioned yesterday could actually emerge. The exchanges become what they already are -- places to get subsidies. Where you go to sign up for medicare, income-based premium subsidies, and so on. [The "rough consensus" really is not all that much about preexisting conditions. It is about subsidies based on income and age.] The rest of the market can be free.

It's not perfect. If we "bifurcate," just why should insurance companies have to offer an exchange policy? You can smell a cross subsidy from off exchange to on-exchange already, together with restrictions on competition to enforce that cross subsidy.

Will the off exchange policies offer guaranteed renewability, portability from state to state, and portability into and out of employment? Not yet, I think, but that's where they need to go.

The WSJ emphasizes preexisting conditions, but let's make a distinction between people with preexisting conditions right now, the day after Obamacare destroyed the individual market, and people who get conditions next year that become preexisting the year after that.

If the point of exchanges is to be high risk pools forever, for anyone who in the future develops a preexisting condition as the WSJ seems to envision, then Sen. Cruz free market idea will be very weak. It will offer people one year worth of cheap insurance, and then the minute anyone gets actually sick they transition to subsidized insurance.

The combination of free market and exchange has to be designed to keep people out of the exchanges. The previous limits on signing up for people who, starting a year from now, do not have continuous coverage, go a step in that direction. You want people to buy health insurance not so much for this year's expenses, but for the right to be covered next year if they develop a preexisting condition, and then to stay with their individual policies.

Yes, people who have preexisting conditions now cannot jump in to the market, because the market doesn't exist. But that does not mean that subsidized exchanges should forever be an absorbing state for anyone who gets sick or old. Which is all of us.

Still, the outlines of subsidies for those who need them, and freedom for the rest of us, seems to be on the table.

Update: 

Or maybe not. Mike Cannon writes there will be price controls on the "free" market alternative, linking them to exchange policies. Together with a requirement to offer exchange policies, this looks just like a small broadening of exchange policies, cross subsidies intact.  Since the exchange policies are specific to counties, I can't see how this is portable across even county lines, let alone state lines, guaranteed renewable,  and so forth.