Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Clemens on minimum wage

Jeff Clemens offers a "roadmap for navigating recent research" on minimum wages in a nice CATO policy analysis.  A review and a doubt.

He discusses the recent claims that minimum wages don't hurt low-skilled people. This is an impressive and readable account of a vast literature. It's not as easy as it seems to evaluate cause and effect in economics.  Evidence from small increases in the minimum wage over short time intervals in some locations in good economic times may not tell you the effects of large increases over longer time intervals in all locations in bad economic times.

The "new conventional wisdom," of small effects, Jeff reports, ignores a lot of the more recent work, and especially work that  uses "data from individual-level administrative records" rather than "aggregate data and survey data," work that runs "experiments whenever possible," and work that "transparently analyzes compact historical episodes in the U.S. experience" (P. 8)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Two Videos

My Hoover colleague Russ Roberts just finished a nice video on inequality:

Among other takeaways, he stresses that the people who were rich in 1980 are not the same people or even families who are rich now. It is not true that "the rich got richer." He also tracks individuals through time, and poor individuals got richer to.  There is a lot more economic mobility in the US than the standard talking points.

The video is part of Hoover's Policy Ed initiative, and comes with lots of background information. I'll be curious to hear your comments.

A few months ago I went to the Friedberg Economic Institute to give an evolving talk I call "Free to grow" bringing together various themes of this blog and other writing. It's not nearly as polished as Russ's, and I'm still struggling to keep it under 10 hours!

The Friedberg Institute is a nascent free-market oriented organization in Israel. It mostly sponsors talks and classes for undergraduates, and for alumni of their program. As a result it is forming a club of sorts of talented and interesting young Israelis interested in economic freedom. If you're in Israel, check it out, and if you're invited to talk there, accept!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Almost sane housing supply

California, despite being a one-party state, is actively debating SB50 that would over-ride local zoning laws and allow construction of apartment buildings, especially near transit areas.

This is almost a remarkable outbreak of sanity. In a divided government, one can keep touting slogans. But when one party takes over, apparently permanently, they do have to actually govern, and eventually some reality must sink in.

Housing in California is ridiculously expensive. After California tried everything else -- "affordable housing" mandates on developers, subsidies, rent controls, public housing, and so forth -- it is finally facing the fact -- we need to just let people build. Given that California will not allow more land to be devoted to housing -- wisely, in my view -- and given that the first generation housing stock was built cheaply, using a lot of land for little house, the natural place to allow people to build is up: replace small single family houses on large lots with apartments, townhouses, or even single family houses on smaller lots.

The problem here is local zoning laws, building laws and various impeding regulations, which are more or less designed to preserve enormously expensive museums of 1950s suburbia. So SB50 overrides local laws.

The end result, though is saddled by a trip through the progressive sausage factory. I recommend Joe DiStephano's analysis with beautiful maps.

The first stop was rather clever: wrap it in green. "You can build" was never going to fly in California. So the original effort, SB25, restricted the effort to areas near transit. Who can object to allowing apartments near transit, so people can get out of their cars? Moreover, with this twist, SB25 put the kibosh on one standard local trick for restricting construction, requirements for lots of onsite parking.

The transit clause extends to "high quality bus corridors." Now in one sense that's great. Other than nostalgia and cuteness, and outside places like New York City, buses are much better transit options.  But one of the main reasons buses are great is that it is much easier to move a bus line than to move a rail line. You can be on a "high quality bus corridor" tomorrow.

"Jobs rich areas" are now included. Allowing people to live nearer where they work is better than any "transit" idea. That too is a little strange though. If people were allowed to build housing, jobs would locate there quickly. Housing first redevelopment is not too hard an idea.

Alas, the bus and jobs exemption only waive density and parking, and allow cities to keep height limits and other zoning restrictions. Which they will do.  

Then it descends into madness, and an invitation to endless litigation.

"Sensitive communities" are exempt. That means (still quoting Joe), "‘High Segregation & Poverty’ or ‘Low Resource’ in TCAC Opportunity Maps," "Other local areas determined by each regional government through a collaborative process," and "Tenant-Occupied and Rent Controlled parcels."

California will write a law allowing the construction of apartment buildings, and conversion of houses to multifamily units, yet will specifically exempt the areas most obviously in need of redevelopment. Once upon a time governments granted subsidies and tax breaks for redeveloping such places. Minorities and poor people will instead be condemned to live in rotten housing and rotten neighborhoods. Heaven forbid a few apartments get built near transit stops, some yuppies move in, grocery stores and coffee shops grow to serve them, and the rest of the neighborhood. 

Joe's maps tell the story. Where in LA will California allow apartments? Not in the places that need redevelopment! Perhaps if people could build apartments, these might become "jobs rich areas!"   

As its local governments are devoted to maintaining museums of suburbia, the state government is devoted to preserving museums of poverty, racial segregation, and lack of businesses and services. 

(To be fair, the state law only over rides local zoning laws. There is nothing that stops the city of LA from allowing development with or without SB50.)

As a classic example of how we got in to this mess, consider the instant reaction on the Menlo Park nextdoor.com 

Now, if we do a little Bayesian Improved Surname Geocoding -- not perfect, but good enough for the Justice Department to sue auto dealers -- we can conclude that the author is white, wealthy, lives in a house worth at least $3 million dollars, and a reliable progressive Democrat, bleeding hearts over climate change and inequality. Yet this post is worthy of the darkest anti-immigrant keep-the-poor-out    climate-denying right-winger. All the people who rehab the $3 million single family houses to $6 million single-family houses in Menlo Park drive in from 50 miles away, as do those who mow the lawns, wait the tables and so on. The young bright kid from Fresno who might get his break working here has little hope of finding a place to live. I guess there is a lot of hypocrisy going around these days, but this is pretty glaring.

Also echoing the local zeitgeist and how-did-we-get-in-to-this-mess thoughts is the ongoing saga of the Flintstone House. NYT here, and a good article at the Guardian If you've ever driven down 280, you've seen this cool house. It was recently sold, and the new owner took up the Flintstones theme:

More great pictures at SF Curbed. How utterly cool, you undoubtedly think. What did the city do, make it a historic landmark to preserve it? No, the city is suing Ms. Fang, the owner, for landscaping without permits and "community input."

From the Guardian
... the tastemakers of Hillsborough have not extended their favor to the experimental stylings of William Nicholson, the architect...It was in response to the Nicholson’s construction of the Flintstone house in 1976 that the town first established its Architecture and Design Review Board (ADRB), ... established “so there would never be another home like that built in Hillsborough”.
...Mrs Fang claims that she attempted to work with town of Hillsborough to obtain the proper permits for her landscaping work, ..she says she feels like the town is playing with her like a cat with a mouse – “play, play, play, bite, until I die” – and claims she has interacted with the town 44 times while attempting to comply. At one point, the town lawyer pressured her to paint all the mushrooms a single color, she says. “Every time I complied with their request, they moved the goalpost,” she says.
"Design review," which produces Disneyland replicas of craftsman houses and bland identical French farmhouses, allows its executors to stymie permits with endless arbitrary whimsical requests for esthetic changes.

Bottom line, any residual meaning of "private property" is vanishing in California.

(I received a few comments from fellow libertarians last time I wrote about these issues. Shouldn't communities have the right to pass whatever restrictions they want? If they want to preserve a $5 million per house replica of 1950s suburbia, and wall out the unwashed masses, hypocrisy aside, why should the state stop them? I counter, this is not libertarianism, the defense of private rights, this is untrammeled majoritarianism, by which your neighbors via the city strip you of your right to sell your house to the highest bidder, do what you want with it, and strip the ambitious kid from Fresno who wants to move here of his right to be supplied by a competitive marketplace. It's also a monstrous inefficiency. A neighbor who is hurt by $500 from his dislike of looking at your property can destroy millions of value to you. Anyway, it's a longer discussion which I acknowledge here without getting in to it. )

Monday, May 13, 2019

Free Solo and Economic Growth

We recently watched "Free Solo", the great movie about Alex Honnold's free (no aids, no ropes) solo climb of El Capitan. Among many other things, it got me thinking about economic growth.

The abilities of modern day rock climbers are far beyond those of just a generation ago. The Wikipedia history of El Capitan starts with a 47 day climb in 1958, using pitons, ropes, and all sorts of equipment, and continues through development of routes and techniques to Alex's three hour romp up the face. 

Why wasn't it done long before? There is essentially no technology involved. Ok, a bit. Alex is wearing modern climbing boots, which have very sticky rubber. But that's it. And reasonably sticky rubber has been around for a few hundred years. There is nothing technological that stopped human beings from climbing much like this thousands of years ago. Alex, transported to 1890, might not have free soloed El Capitan without his current boots, but he would have climbed a lot more big walls than anyone else.

Clearly, there has been an explosion in human ability to climb rocks, just as there has been in human productivity, our knowledge of how to do things, in more prosaic and more economic activities. And, reading the history, the rate of improvement has grown over time. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Financial Inflation?

Torsten Slok sends this lovely picture of the S&P500 and the price index for portfolio management and investment advice services. Torsten explains that "50% of the decline in core PCE inflation since the peak in July has been driven by financial services, and with the stock market rebounding, we should expect to see the financial services component move higher again."

What's going on? I think it's this: Most portfolio management payments are a percent of value -- you pay a fee, say 1%, of the total value of the portfolio. When the stock market goes down 10%, you pay 10% less in fees. Now, the BEA's job is to figure out, did you get 10% less quantity -- did you get 10% less "valuable advice" for that fee? You're not an idiot, so you're paying 1% off the top of your wealth annually, a third of Senator Warren's dreaded wealth tax, for something of value, the BEA figures. Or did the "price" of financial services go down 10%? Evidently, the BEA assumes the price, not the quantity changed, so the "price" of financial services tracks the stock market.

This is of course nonsense. On the other hand, I have no better idea how to separate 1% management fees into a "price" or a "quantity" (or, heaven forbid, a "quality improvement"). The number of people working to provide you financial advice didn't change 10%. Though, in the long run, it will if the market stays down. How should, or does, the PCE handle rents, or dividend payments? I don't know.

I went back to the documentation for how the PCE is constructed to try to understand these questions and see if my hunch is correct, but I failed to understand anything in there. (I got lost in the "commodity flow method," see p. 5-27.) I would value comments from people who understand this stuff.

Overall, I think the lesson is that our measures of inflation are pretty noisy. First we throw out food and energy. Now it looks to me that "core" should throw out management-fee based financial services, or at least assume that the price is fixed (1% sounds like a fixed price) rather than the quantity. Do real estate and other commissions do the same thing and the price index rises and falls with the price of housing? What's next?

(The point of throwing out food and fuel is not that they don't matter but a feeling that the core CPI today is a better guide of where the overall CPI will be in the future. A more thorough analysis of which components are better forecasters of overall CPI would be welcome.)

Maybe an inflation measure that is less comprehensive but better measured isn't such a terrible idea. Maybe the Fed worrying about 1.8% vs. 2% inflation is not such a good idea.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Rent Control Poem

"kevinsch" posts an remarkable essay on rent control on a  Seattle city council blog (HT Marginal Revolution).
I’m not an economist, not a landlord, nor a renter. But since we’re having this debate, I went to the UW Library and pulled the literature on rent control so I could understand the issues, the studies, and what the experts conclude.  Here’s what I found. 
1. Within the community of economists there is broad consensus that rent control is a bad idea. The consensus is on par with the scientific community on climate change, and the medical community on the safety of vaccinations. 
Given the widespread move to introduce rent controls on the left coast, savor that.
2. There are two documented benefits of rent control: it decreases economic displacement for people living in rent-controlled housing, and it can reduce the volatility of rental pricing in cities where there is sufficient stock of rental housing. 
3.  There is a very long list of documented harms that rent control causes. It provides a strong disincentive to build more rental housing. It drives landlords to reduce spending on maintaining their units until the quality of the housing has drawn down to the point where it matches the allowed rent. And thus by reducing property values, it reduces property tax revenues. It reduces mobility for renters, causing them to stay in their rent-controlled housing rather than move when a better job or the needs of their family require it. It misallocates the total housing stock by encouraging people to stay in housing that doesn’t match their needs.  It encourages rental property owners to convert apartments to condominiums, thereby reducing the rental housing stock. It inevitably leads to a “cluster” of regulations piled on top to try to legislate away all of rent control’s problems. And it doesn’t help the people with the greatest need, but rather the people most capable of gaming the system. 
It's remarkable that someone who is not an economist could so quickly find all these subtle effects. Yes, most people quickly get that landlords will not keep up apartments, and builders won't build them. But most people don't quickly get the disincentives for renters not to "move when a better job or the needs of their housing require it." Or that it leads not to nirvana for the low income renter, but helps "the people most capable of gaming the system." I would only add that it really hurts the young ambitious person of limited means who wants to move to town to get that upward-mobility job.

4.  In many cities with rent control, tenants see annual rent increases at the maximum amount allowed, because landlords understand that if they skip a year they will never catch up. 
5.  Rent control’s harms can be mitigated in part through an aggressive public/social housing program that creates a large quantity of units using public funds. However, in those places it’s unclear that rent control itself is adding much value beyond the significant value that the public housing program alone delivers. 
OK, Kevinsch is not an economist so I'll let this pass. The history of aggressive public/social housing programs in US cities are an absolute disaster.

More deeply, he missed the underlying cause of the problem -- building, zoning, and land-use restrictions. Supply meets demand. If builders were allowed to build cheap apartments for modest renters, they would do so. If builders were allowed to build expensive apartments for high-income renters, who then would move out of buildings suitable for low rent apartments, they would do so.
6.  As this paper says, rent control “confers its benefits early, and extracts its costs late.” That’s one of the reasons it’s such an attractive policy idea. 
Well, it confers benefits to renters early. The loss of property value to landlords is instant, but apparently nobody cares about them. The "one time" capital tax is always tempting.
7.  As this article puts so well, among rent control advocates there are no rent control failures; there are only bad implementations. 
Ditto, say, Socialism and Venezuela.
8. And finally, as this research paper suggests, economists have been thorough at convincing themselves that rent control is a bad idea, and inept at convincing anyone else.
This is a gem. And so true. Like, say, tariffs. I wish I knew just how to fix that despite the immense effort and millions of dollars going in to better dissemination of economic ideas.

The essay goes on, and it's worth reading the whole thing. 

There is a lesson here. Why do our governments, and especially local governments, so often wander into terrible economic policies? The "education" theory says they just don't know basic economics, and don't have any competent policy advice. If they and their staff could just be "educated" things would get better. (And if we could break through all the competing parties who also want to "educate" politicians.) The "interest" theory, more typical among public choice economists, views political outcomes as the result of power, not ideas. Rent control wins when incumbent renters who want to stay put win the political battle over landlords, mobile renters, and potential newcomers, and invoke whatever ideas butter the toast of their cause.

That the city council of Seattle has available such amazingly good policy advice speaks to the latter, sad to say for those of us in the "education" business.

The third view is that ideas still matter at the larger level.  A bad idea like rent control requires the asset of the general voter. Yes, incumbent renters who know how to work the system may win the political battle over landlords, property owners, people who want to move to the city and rent, and mobile renters or those not good at working the system, who will lose.  But the larger mass of homeowners, condo owners, and non-controlled renters must go along. They don't have a personal interest, other than a general desire to feel good by helping those who face higher rents, so they don't have much reason to study the issue. If the general electorate understood how bad rent control is for their city, and most of the people they want to help, perhaps economic policy would be better. There is hope for ideas. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Jenkins on ACA

Holman Jenkins "Obamacare is popular because it failed" from a week ago is worth savoring and has an interesting new idea.

On Obamacare's failure:
ObamaCare’s user cohort now consists almost entirely of willing “buyers” who receive their coverage entirely or largely at taxpayer expense. It also consists of certain users who take advantage of the coverage for pre-existing conditions and stop paying once their condition has been treated.... 
...For a family of four not benefiting from a subsidy, notes insurance industry veteran Bob Laszewski, a policy can cost $15,000 with a $7,000 deductible. In other words, “they have to pay $22,000 before they get anything.” 
In every larger aim, the Affordable Care Act has predictably failed. It was supposed to ramrod efficiency through the health-care marketplace. Instead, it has become just another inefficient program bringing subsidized medicine to one more arbitrarily defined subset of the population.
(On "stop paying," see the excellent paper by Rebecca Diamond, Michael J. Dickstein, Timothy McQuade and Petra Persson. They document that many people sign up for ACA insurance, get a flurry of health care, and then quit. Half of new ACA enrollees in California quit by the end of the year. This number includes everyone, even those getting subsidized premiums, so it is likely that people paying full premiums quit even sooner.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Ip on carbon tax

Over the weekend, Greg Ip at WSJ wrote a  nice piece on the carbon tax.

Greg addresses some common objections.
This urge to stop at nothing to find an effective solution is understandable. How can you put a price tag on the future of the planet?
..Green New Deal backers make another powerful argument: Global emissions levels are still rising, and to reverse them, carbon prices would have to be so high they’d be politically toxic. Better, the activists argue, to simply go straight to a massive, government-directed transition. 
This attitude is common. But there is no evading economics. Either you have visible economic damage (carbon tax) of $1,000 per ton or invisible economic damage of $10,000 per ton.  Prices are better than restrictions because you can see where you're wasting $10,000 per ton, which money could reduce 9 times as much carbon properly deployed.

There is also a political judgment here that people will not stand for a visible tax, but will stand politically, or perhaps be too stupid to notice, the much larger shadow price of direct controls. They won't pay $5 at the pump for gas, but will stand for banning cars. I don't think that's true. I don't think the left thinks it's true either. The way the Green New Deal and even the IPCC reports now bundle carbon reduction with a vast left-wing political agenda, and a rather Orwellian drive to silence criticism confirms it.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Smith, MMT, and science in economics

Many blog readers have asked for my opinions of "Modern Monetary Theory." I haven't written yet, because I try to read about things in some detail, ideally from original sources, before reviewing them, which I have not done. Life is short.

From the summaries I have read, some of the central propositions of MMT draw a false conclusion from two sensible premises. 1) Countries that print their own currencies do not have to default on excessive debts. They can always print money to pay off debts. True. 2) Inflation in the end can and must be controlled by raising taxes or cutting spending, sufficiently to soak up such printed (non-interest-bearing) money. True. The latter proposition is the heart of the fiscal theory of the price level, so I would have an especially tough time objecting.

It does not follow that the US need not worry about deficits, and may happily borrow tens of trillions to finance all sorts of spending. Borrow $50 trillion or so. When bondholders revolt, print money to pay off the bonds. When this results in inflation, raise taxes to soak up the money. OK, but this latter step is exactly raising taxes to pay off the bonds. Moreover, if bondholders see that the plan is to pay off bonds with printed money, they refuse to buy or roll over bonds in the first place and the inflation can happen right away.

This may reflect a common confusion between today's money with the new money that pays off debt. It would only take $1.5 trillion in extra taxes or lower spending to retire current currency (non-interest bearing government debt) outstanding. But  that's not the task after the great bond bailout. Then we have to raise taxes or cut spending by, in my example,  the $50 trillion printed to pay off the bonds. Large debts are either paid or defaulted, and inflation is the same thing economically as default. Period. (Currency boards run in to some of the same problem. Backing today's currency is not enough to avoid devaluation, if one does not back all the debt which promises to pay currency.)

I must admit some amusement that Keynesian commentators, having urged fiscal stimulus and decried evil "Austerians" for years, are apoplectic to be passed on the left. But that does not make the ideas of those passing on the left any more right.  There is also a different and interesting strain of thought, exemplified by recent writings by Larry Summers and Olivier Blanchard, that the current low interest rate environment might allow for somewhat, but not unlimited, extra borrowing. Those ideas are completely different analytically. I hope to cover them in a later blog post.

Noah Smith and guru-based theory

But, as I said, I have not studied MMT, so perhaps I'm missing something. Enter Noah Smith, who has delved in to figure out just what MMT is and whether or how it hangs together.

Noah interestingly characterizes MMT as  "Guru-based theory." Noah:

Friday, April 12, 2019

Perpetually wrong forecasts

Torsten Slok of Deutsche Bank sends along the following fascinating graphs

The titles seem a little off. Yes, the market is expecting rate cuts (forward rate) but the market has been exactly wrong about everything for 10 years (and longer) first forecasting the recovery that never came, then forecasting much slower interest rate rises than actually happened.  Survey expectations seem to match the forward curves well except perhaps at the very end.

Mechanically, a rising forward curve and rates that never rise means you earn a lot of money in long term bonds. It's a "risk premium" Monika Piazzesi and Eric Swanson point out this pattern is common. The same pattern holds in longer term bonds, as well known since Fama and Bliss. An upward sloping term structure indicates higher expected returns on long term bonds, and vice versa. And it makes some sense. In recessions, people don't want to hold risks, so we expect a premium for riskier assets. In booms, as interest rates rise, people are more willing to take risks.

Still it's unsettling for lots of reasons. Why did the forward curve suddenly flatten exactly when interest rates finally took off? Another interpretation is something like a Poisson process in the end of recessions, in which the chance of fast recovery is independent of how long you've been in a recession, rather than arriving slowly and predictably. That makes it rational to continue these expectations persist despite continual disappointment, and to change forecast quickly once the long-awaited fast growth arrives.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Meer On Minimum Wage

David Henderson posts a thoughtful draft op-ed by Jonathan Meer on minimum wages. Two talents of  great economists are to recognize that averages hide big differences among people, and to imagine all the avenues of substitution and unintended effects of a regulation. The oped excels:

when the minimum wage is raised, employers offset increased labor costs by reducing benefits like the generosity of health insurance. Other benefits, like free parking or flexibility in scheduling, are more difficult to measure but are also likely to be cut back. Employers will likely expect more work effort when they are forced to pay more, changing the nature of jobs. And in the longer run, economists have found that employers shift towards automation and expecting customers to do more things themselves– reducing job growth in ways that aren’t always obvious. This damage takes time to be seen, which is one reason minimum wage hikes, like rent control, often seem appealing. 
Who gets jobs?
When debate focuses on the total number of jobs lost or gained, it hides this potentially nasty distribution of the benefits: a recent college graduate with a barista job may get a few more dollars an hour, but the high school dropout finds it harder to get and keep a job. ...
The teenage children of well-off families, earning money to buy video games, are treated the same as single moms struggling to get by. When wages are set at an artificially high rate, why should an employer take a risk on the single mother who needs the occasional shift off to take her kids to the doctor? The kid from a disadvantaged background who needs some direction on how to treat customers appropriately? Or the recently released felon trying to work his way back into the community? Why should employers bother with them when there are plenty of lower-risk people who are willing to work at those artificially high wages? 
Assorted comments, especially to dispel the usual you-just-don't-care-you-want-profits-for-big-business calumnies:
It will get much worse in the next recession...Those at the margins of the workforce will be left further behind. Low-wage jobs aren’t easy, don’t pay well, and are rarely fun. But not being able to find work at all is far worse.
Despite the lowest unemployment rates in decades, only 39% of adults without a high school degree had a full-time job in 2018 – and among young African-Americans dropouts, it’s a shocking 26%. It’s hard to believe that the best way to help them find work and start climbing the job ladder is to put the first rung out of reach, making it difficult for them to find work and driving them to illegal employment with few protections.
 We should never minimize the struggles of low-income families to get ahead. But good intentions are no substitute for good policy. Minimum wage proponents mean well, but the unintended consequences hurt the worst-off the most.
Jonathan isn't just making this up as us bloggers tend to do. He points to "The Minimum Wage, Fringe Benefits, and Worker Welfare, with Jeffrey Clemens and Lisa B. Kahn
...state-level minimum wage changes decreased the likelihood that individuals report having employer-sponsored health insurance. Effects are largest among workers in very low-paying occupations, 
and Dropouts Need Not Apply: The Minimum Wage and Skill Upgrading
workers employed in low-paying jobs are older and less likely to be high school dropouts following a minimum wage hike.... job ads in low-wage occupations are more likely to require a high school diploma following a minimum wage hike,
Related, Zachary S. Fone, Joseph J. Sabia, Resul Cesur find exactly the predicted substitution into criminal activity
find that raising the minimum wage increases property crime arrests among those ages 16-to-24, with an estimated elasticity of 0.2. This result is strongest in counties with over 100,000 residents and persists when we use longitudinal data to isolate workers for whom minimum wages bind. Our estimates suggest that a $15 Federal minimum wage could generate criminal externality costs of nearly $2.4 billion. 
Hat tip to David Henderson, who posted the draft oped and a link to the excellent Jonathan Meer - James Galbraith debate, and to the indefatigable Marginal Revolution. I saw an early draft of the oped, and hoped Meer would be able to publish it, at least somewhere like WSJ. It's not too late!


Jonathan passed on this tidbit from Obenauer & von der Nienburg, “Effect of Minimum-Wage Determinations in Oregon,” July 1915, yes 1915
“The belief was very prevalent among store women that the minimum wage had wrought only harm to them as a whole. The experienced women contended that formerly they had gotten through the day without any hurry or strain. If it was necessary to work a few minutes overtime, they did so willingly. Now, they said, they are under constant pressure from their supervisors to work harder; they are told the sales of their departments must increase to make up for the extra amount the firm must pay in wages.”
Plus ça change...

Overall, it's a shame that economists have bought the popular discourse that all that matters are "jobs," as if it were 1933, not the vast range of the terms of employment -- how hard you have to work, hours, tasks, flexibility, side benefits, overtime, and so forth.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Operating Procedures

The Fed sets interests rates. But how does the Fed set interest rates? The Fed is undergoing a big review of this question. We had a little workshop at Hoover, in preparation for the larger May 3 Strategies for Monetary Policy conference, which provokes the following thoughts.


Here is the issue.

The graph plots the demand for reserves, as a function of the interest rate on other short-term assets such as overnight federal funds, Libor, money market rates, and so on.

(Reserves are accounts that banks have at the Fed. The Fed sets the interest rates on such accounts.)

The lower horizontal line is the rate the Fed pays on reserves.

If the interest rate on other similar assets (overnight federal funds, Libor, repo rates) is above the interest rate on reserves, then banks should want to get rid of reserves. However, reserves are useful, as money is useful, so banks are willing to hold some even when they lose interest on reserves by doing so. The greater the interest costs -- the greater the difference between the rate banks can lend at and the rate they get on reserves -- the more they work hard to avoid holding reserves. At the end, there are legal and regulatory requirements to hold reserves.

In the flat zone, banks are satiated in reserves. Reserves don't have any marginal liquidity value. But banks are happy to hold arbitrary quantities as an asset so long as the interest on reserves is above or equal to what they can get elsewhere.

If banks can borrow at less than the interest on reserves, they would do so and demand infinite amounts. Therefore, competition among banks should drive those rates up to the interest on reserves.  Similarly, if rates banks can lend at are higher than interest on reserves then banks should compete to lend, driving other rates down to the interest on reserves. Therefore, the Fed by setting the interest on reserves sets the overall level of overnight interest rates.


Here are the questions:

1) Where should the supply of reserves be? This is the biggest question the Fed is asking right now. The three vertical lines in the graph are three possibilities.

The Fed currently fixes the supply of reserves, which is referred to as the "size of the balance sheet," so the lines are vertical. The Fed raises the supply of reserves by buying assets such as treasuries or other assets, "printing money," i.e. creating reserves, in return for the assets. The balance sheet shows the assets (e.g. Treasuries) against liabilities (reserves and cash). Yes, the Fed is nothing more than an enormous money market fund, offering fixed value floating rate accounts which it backs by treasury and other securities.

The debated is couched as "floor system" vs. "corridor system."  A "floor system" refers to the two supplies on the right, where there are so many reserves that the other interest rates will equal the rate on reserves.

There are two floor-system variants: abundant reserves, with the supply well to the right, and minimalist reserves, with the supply of reserves set to the smallest possible level, where the demand curve just hits the lower bound, "satiation" in reserves. The latter seems to be where the Fed is heading -- a minimal-reserves floor system.

In a "corridor system," the Fed has an upper and lower band for the market interest rates it wants to target. Historically this was the Federal funds rate, which is the rate at which banks lend reserves to each other overnight. It tries to place that interest in the middle of the band, by artfully putting the supply of reserves in the downward sloping component. This is how the Fed operated before 2008.

The rate at which the Fed is willing to lend reserves also provides an upper bound, which I'll get to in a minute.

2) If there is going to be a corridor, which rate should the Fed care about? The (justly) moribund federal funds rate? The overnight general collateral repo rate? Libor? One advantage of the abundant floor, is that the Fed can stay quiet about all this and let the market sort out just what kind of overnight lending it prefers.

3) If there is a band, how wide should the range between the upper and lower bound be?  1%? 0.5? 0.25%? 0.01%?

3) How free should lending and borrowing be? Who gets access to interest paying reserves, and how much interest do they get? Who can borrow reserves, and on what therms -- what collateral is acceptable, is it overnight or term borrowing, does such borrowing incur formal regulatory attention or informal "stigma"?

4) What assets should the Fed buy on the other side of the balance sheet, or accept as collateral if it lends reserves?  Just short-term treasuries? (My favorite) The current mix of long term treasuries and mortgage-backed securities? Or, perhaps, follow the ECB and BOJ and buy corporate bonds and stocks, many countries debts, or lend newly created reserves to banks and count the loans as assets?

The motivations here are, I think, as much political as economic, and it's better to acknowledge that. (We should understand the Fed can't do that in writing, but we can!) Having touted QE as extraordinary accommodation the Fed is under big pressure to stop stimulating. It's too late to say that QE was mostly symbolic. Having seen the Fed buy all sorts of securities, congresspeople are coming up with dandy ideas for new things the Fed can "invest" in by printing money. Having paid banks about a quarter point more than they can get anywhere else, and indeed allowed a pleasant little arbitrage to go on, the Fed is under pressure to pay other investors the same. Congress is even more full of ideas for who the Fed should lend to, and how the Fed should use its expanded regulatory powers to channel credit here and deny credit there.

"Normalization" is a pretty meaningless economic term to me -- why is whatever the Fed was doing in 2007 "normal," why is it good? But "normalization" is a tremendously useful marketing banner. We're going back to "normal," so leave us alone with your bright ideas. Well, fine, but let us quietly  go to a new normal that incorporates all the interesting things we've learned in the last 10 years.

My answer

My (radical as usual) answers:

I like the "floor" system, with abundant reserves. The great lesson of the last 10 years is, we can live the Friedman rule. We can have money that pays full interest, so that holding money has no opportunity cost, and this will not cause inflation. This is genuinely new knowledge. Liquidity is free! There is no need for people to waste time and effort on cash management. Liquidity is good for financial stability too: Banks holding huge reserves don't fail.

I go beyond the abundant floor: The Fed should not target the supply of reserves at all. The supply curve of reserves should be horizontal.  The Fed should just say, "bring us your treasuries, and we'll give you reserves and pay the IOER rate." Or, "Bring us your reserves and you can have treasuries."

Why? Well, if you want to target a price, you offer to buy and sell freely at that price. If you want to target an interest rate, target an interest rate. We have seen limited arbitrage between reserves and other assets due to lack of competition in banking and Fed restrictions, who can hold reserves, and the fixed supply.

I see no economic or financial harm whatever from arbitrary expansion of the Fed's balance sheet, if the assets are all short-term Treasuries. Reserves are just overnight, electronically transferable government debt. If the banking system wants more overnight debt and less three week to six month debt, let them have what they want. I see no reason to artificially starve the economy of overnight debt.  The Fed offers free exchange between cash and reserves; the government as a whole should offer free exchange between short term treasuries and overnight treasuries, i.e., reserves.

To accommodate the economy's desire for ample reserves, and the Fed's desire not to provide them, the Treasury should offer the same asset, and the Fed should encourage this and work with the Treasury to make it happen. 

Specifically, the treasury should issue overnight, fixed-value ($1), floating-rate, electronically-transferable debt. Let's call it treasury electronic money. Legally, this is treasury debt that any individual or financial institution can hold, just as they can hold treasury bills or treasury coins. Functionally, these are interest-paying reserves. Like reserves, but not even like T bills, these can be bought or sold immediately: Owners can transfer their ownership of $1 worth of treasury money to someone else on the treasury website, and owners can sell $1 worth of treasury money and have the money wired (i.e. the treasury sends $1 of reserves to the owner's bank) instantly. (Details here.)

Given the Fed's resistance to narrow banking, and the potential of treasury electronic money to undercut bank's (subsidized) deposit financing, I suspect the Fed's first instinct would be to fight such an innovation. The Fed should overcome that instinct and welcome a solution to the problem of providing lots of liquid assets without the (genuine, below) downsides the Fed feels about a large balance sheet.

I agree with critics that the composition of the Fed's assets should return quickly to short-term treasuries only, and in my ideal world to just this treasury electronic money. That is mostly for political economy reasons outlined below. Other assets should be on the balance sheet in emergencies only.

If the Fed feels the need to buy long-term treasurys or take them as collateral, issuing reserves in return, because of a shortage of safe assets, that means the Treasury has not issued enough short-term liquid treasurys. There are simpler ways to fix that problem. 

Other answers

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Central Bank Independence

I'm on a panel at the "ECB and its watchers" conference Wednesday, to discuss central bank independence. Here are my comments. Yes, there is a lot more to say, but I get exactly 15 minutes. I hope I'm not scurrying back tomorrow to retract something stupid here.

Central Bank Independence
John H. Cochrane
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Remarks presented at the “ECB And its Watchers” conference, March 27 2019. 

I believe central bank independence is a good thing, and that it is in increasing danger. I don’t think that’s a controversial view, or we would not be here.

I sense that our mission today is to decry politicians that wish to influence the central banks’ good works, especially by pressing for low interest rates.

But I’ll argue instead that much of the threat to central bank independence stems ultimately from how central banks are behaving, and has little to do with interest rates.


What is, can and should be independent? Let me suggest three principles.

1) In a democracy, independence must come with limited powers, and a limited scope of authority.

2) An independent agency must follow rules, norms, and traditions, not act arbitrarily, with lots of discretion.

3) To be independent, an agency must be, and be perceived to be, competent at its task.

What cannot be independent? A lot of government activity transfers wealth from one person to another, or fights for political power. Those activities must be politically accountable.

Limited powers: Central banks operate within legal restrictions. For example, it seems puzzling that central banks struggle to raise inflation. We all know how to stoke inflation: drop money from helicopters. To stop inflation, soak up the money supply with heavy taxes.

Yet central banks are legally prohibited from this one, most effective action for stoking or stopping inflation.  Why? Well, in a democracy, writing checks to voters or confiscating their hard-earned cash must be reserved for politically accountable institutions.

Rules and norms: Most restraints on central bank actions are rules, norms, and traditions, not legal limitations. Central banking remains something of a black art, so central bankers must sometimes use judgement and discretion, especially in crises, and let the rules or norms evolve with experience. But if they are to stay independent, they must quickly return to or re-form rule, norm, or traditional limitations on their power.

From this perspective, the ECB was set up as an almost perfect central bank. It followed an inflation target. It only acted on the short-term interest rate. Its assets were uncontroversial.  And it was not to finance deficits or bail out sovereigns.

The inflation target and Taylor rule are most important here for their implied list of things that the central bank should not, is not expected to, and pre-ccommits not to pay attention to or control directly: stock prices, housing prices, sectoral and industry health, regional imbalances (especially in Europe), credit for small businesses, income and wealth inequality, infrastructure investment, decarbonization, bad schools, and so on.

An independent central bank should say often, “that’s a terrible problem, but it’s not our job to fix it.” It loses power and prestige in the moment, but gains independence in the long run.


So what are central banks doing to invite challenges to their independence?

Interest rates get a lot of attention, but they are not, I think, the core of the problem. Yes, President Trump is violating established norms by complaining publicly about interest rates. But most people in both parties understand this is a violation, and a norm worth keeping, so for the moment I think the norm against interest-rate jawboning will hold in the future.

The big threat to independence comes from the expansion of activities and responsibilities that central banks have taken on, on an apparently permanent basis, in the years since the financial crisis: Asset purchases, regulatory expansion, a much larger set of goals, and a marriage of regulatory and macroeconomic policy.

Purchasing assets in dysfunctional markets, as in 2008, is what central banks traditionally do in a crisis. (We can argue whether they should, but that’s for another day.) But once markets returned to normal, continuing to buy large portfolios of long-term bonds, mortgage backed securities, corporate bonds, imperiled European sovereign debt, and even stocks, for years on end, was a different choice.

We can argue the benefits. Maybe QE lowered some rates, a bit, for a while, and maybe that stimulated a bit.

But we have ignored the costs. Central banks took on a new, and apparently permanent power, formerly foresworn: to buy assets directly, to control asset prices, not just short term interest rates.

It is harder to say to a politician, who complains that mortgage rates are too high, that this is not our problem; we set the short term rate to stabilize inflation; we don’t pay direct attention to other assets, or to directing credit to mortgages rather than big business.

It will get worse. The US Congress has noticed the Fed’s balance sheet. Under the mantra of “modern monetary theory,” a swath of congresspeople want the Fed to print trillions of dollars to finance the Green New Deal.

The ECB and euro were set up with a clear rule that the ECB does not bail out sovereigns. In the crisis, President Draghi rather brilliantly stemmed the first debt crisis with a “do what it takes” promise, that did not have to be executed, along with a warning that this could not be permanent.

But in response, Italy took the St. Augustinian approach — Lord, give me structural reform, but not quite yet. The ECB continues to repo government debt and Italian banks are still stuffed with Italian government bonds. The doom loop looms still, and markets still expect a bailout.

The ECB has lost the long run game of chicken. It will likely have to actually do what it takes when the next crisis comes.

But there is little that is more political, little that cannot stay independent more clearly, than bailing out insolvent sovereigns, with euros that must either inflate or be backed up by taxes on the rest of Europe.

The ECB is still directly financing questionable banks and questionable corporations. These are also activities that will invite political scrutiny.

The crisis spawned a vast expansion of regulation. The US Fed is now using an immense,confusing, and constantly changing set of rules to act with great discretion on telling banks what to do.

Moreover such regulation changed from “micro,” somewhat rules-based regulation, to more nebulous and discretionary “macro prudential” regulation that directs the activities of “systemic” institutions — something nobody can define other than “we know it when we see it.” The Fed wanted to include large insurance companies, until courts struck that down, and tried for a while to systemically regulate equity asset managers, on the theory that the managers might sell in a behavioral herd and send prices down.

But telling banks and other institutions what to do, who to lend to, when to buy and sell assets, with billions on the line, using a high degree of judgment and discretion, is a political act that invites loss of independence. Your “bubble” is my “boom,” your “fire sale” my “buying opportunity.”

More than current actions, the ideas swirling around central banks seem to me even more dangerous for their future independence.

It is taken for granted that central banks should embrace the task of managing and directing the entire financial system. This only starts with managing bank assets to try to manage “systemic” risks. It goes on to managing asset prices and housing prices, I guess so that nobody ever loses money again, and directing the “credit cycle.” And central banks should go beyond short rates and asset purchases, and use regulatory tools to direct the macroeconomy and asset markets.

Nobody even seems to stop and think that such actions are intensely political, and will invite strong attacks on central bank independence.

Moreover, faith that we economists and the central banks we populate have any actual technical competence to implement such grandiose schemes is evaporating, and rightly so. That the already vast regulatory system failed to stop the last crisis eroded a lot of trust. In many ways the revelation that elites didn’t know what they were doing led to today’s populism. That once this horse was out of the barn, Europe’s regulators nonetheless kept sovereign debt risk free, inviting a second sovereign debt crisis, eroded more trust. If the next crisis blindsides larger, and much more pretentious grand plans, that trust and the independence it grants will vanish.

Even monetary policy is becoming more dangerous to independence. Much of the post-crisis analysis hinges on how monetary policy effects income transfers, for example from investors to mortgage borrowers or from all of us to bank balance sheets. Well, if the point of monetary policy is to take money from Peter, and give it to Paul, on the grounds that Paul has a higher marginal propensity to consume, Peter is going to call his congressman.

I sense that a lot of this expansion of tools, scope, and discretion comes from a natural human and institutional tendency towards aggrandizement.  It’s fun to become the grand macro-financial planner, always in the news. It’s boring to be a limited, technical institution that says “not my job.”

For example, I think a lot of QE was simply done to be seen to be “doing something” in the face of slow supply-side growth. Remember, monetary problems, especially any ill effects of 1% rather than 2% inflation, do not last 10 years. Long run growth comes from productivity, and structural reform, not stimulus, and not money.

But in the language of central bankers, “growth” and “demand” seem to be synonyms. This morning, describing a decline in growth with no decline in consumption, President Draghi used the word “demand” many times, and “supply” never. Like helicopter parents, central banks want always to be in charge.

Maybe you disagree, but think of the costs. For sure, the promise of endless QE, and reiterating the promise that central-bank provided demand stimulus is the vital answer, lessened the pressure for structural reform.

More generally, imagine that about 5 years ago, central banks had said, “We’ve done our job. The crisis is over. ‘Demand’ is no longer the problem. If you think growth is too low, get on with structural reform. Low inflation and interest rates are fine. Welcome to the Friedman rule. QE is over, and we are no longer intervening in asset markets. In place of intrusive bank regulation, countercyclical buffers, stress tests, and asset price management, we are going to insist on lots and lots of capital so there can’t be crises in the first place. We’ll be taking a long vacation.”

Just how much worse would the overall economy be? We can argue. How much better would the threats to central bank independence be? A lot.

Well, it’s not too late.


Let me offer some practical suggestions:

1) Separate monetary policy and regulation. Regulation is much more intrusive, and much harder to resist political pressure. Using regulatory tools for macroeconomic direction is inherently going to threaten independence. The ECB’s Chinese wall between regulation and monetary policy is a good start.

2) Transfer, or swap, all balance sheet assets other than short term treasuries to a “bad bank,” controlled by fiscal authorities.

3) Solve the sovereign debt problem. Stop the doom loop: get own country sovereign debt out of banks, or backed by capital. Create a mutual fund with a diversified portfolio of government debts, and force banks to hold that if they don't want big risk weights. Allow pan-europeans banks that hold diversified portfolios. Then insolvent sovereigns can default without shooting their hostage.

4) Abandon the pretense that risk regulation, asset price management, and credit allocation policy will stop another crisis. Move to narrow deposit taking and equity financed banking, or at least allow these to emerge rather than fighting them tooth and nail.

The US Fed is clearly perceived to be defending monopoly profits of large banks, a big threat to its independence. If you don’t like President Trump’s tweets, wait for President Elizabeth Warren’s. And she knows where the regulatory bodies are buried.

5) Europe needs structural financial reform more than continued bank support from the ECB. For example, corporate bonds should be held in mutual funds marketed directly to investors.

6) Be quiet. Federal Reserve officials should not give speeches about inequality or other hot-button partisan political issues, no matter how passionately they feel about them.

7) But don’t throw away the bad with the good. In the face of political criticism, I sense central banks, rushing to apply the label “normalization.” The Fed is rushing to reduce the quantity of reserves and go back to older reserve management schemes, losing the lessons of how well an abundant reserves system can work.

Independence is not ours to claim. Central banks are government agencies, not private institutions with rights. Governments grant them independence when it is useful for government to pre-commit not to use some of its vast powers for political ends. Independence must be earned by, well, not using power in ways that must be politically accountable.

Central banks need to answer, What economic problems, are not your job to worry about? What tools will you not use? Central banks need to choose the power and allure of trying to fix everything, and thus acting politically, vs. the limitations that allow independence. They can’t have both. And we voters need to tell our politicians which kind of central bank we want. We can’t have both either.

Having laid out the options, it seems clear to me that nobody wants a limited, and hence independent central bank. The trend to central banks as the large, integrated, monetary-financial-and macroeconomic planners, integrating broad control of financial markets and their participants, is desired by central banks, politicians, and not contested by voters. So they shall be, but not independent.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Concentration increasing?

Is the US economy getting more concentrated or less? At the aggregate level, more. This is a widely noted fact, leading quickly to calls for more active government moves to break up big companies.

But at the local level, no. Diverging Trends in National and Local Concentration by  Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, Pierre-Daniel Sarte, and Nicholas Trachter documents the trend.

They make a concentration measure that is basically the sum of squared market shares, so up means more concentrated and down means less concentrated. This is the average of many different industries and markets.

The average concentration of national markets has gone up. But the concentration of smaller and smaller markets has gone down. More businesses are dividing up county and zip code markets.
Industries differ. This graph does not get a prize for ease of distinguishing the lines, but the two red lines just below zero are manufacturing and wholesale trade, where the industries with really dramatic reductions in local concentration are retail trade, finance insurance and real estate, and services.

What's going on? The natural implication is that the town once had 3 local restaurants, two local banks, and 3 stores. Now it has a McDonalds, a Burger King, a Denny's and an Applebees; a branch of Chase, B of A, and Wells Fargo, and a Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and Costco. National brands replace local stores, increasing the number of local stores.

However, that turns out not to be so obvious.

This graph shows what happens in the diverging industries (those in which national goes up, and local goes down) if you leave out the biggest company. Doing so, lowers the rise of national concentration, because we left out the single most concentrated firm. The lower line however, shows a positive effect. If we leave out the largest national firm, the local markets look more concentrated. If  national brands had just replaced local businesses, then when we leave them out, we should see lots of smaller shares.  The same thing happens if we leave out the second and third largest.

What's going on? Well, they look at what happens when Wal-Mart comes to town.

The lower line is the effect on concentration in the years before and after the top national firm enters a market. Concentration drops. If, when Wal-Mart came to town, all the exiting firms went under, concentration would rise. The upper line shows you concentration ignoring the largest enterprise. It's unchanged. Either the mom and pop stores do, in fact, stay in business; or new smaller firms enter along with Wal-Mart. The phenomenon is not just the replacement of all smaller businesses by a larger number of national chains.

The paper was presented at the San Francisco Fed "Macroeconomics and Monetary Policy" conference, where I am today. The discussions, by Huiyu Li and François Gourio, were excellent. As with all micro data there is a lot to quibble with. Is a zip code really a market? Much of the data are industry+zip codes with a single firm, both before and (slightly less often) after. Maybe Walmart and other stores drag in customers from other places? And of course, concentration is not the same thing as competition. The SF Fed will, in a week or so, post the conference, papers, and discussions.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Less listing

Torsten Slok at DB sent along this lovely graph. The underlying paper "Eclipse of the Public Corporation or Eclipse of the Public Markets?" by  Craig Doidge, Kathleen M. Kahle, G. Andrew Karolyi, and René M. Stulz,  has a lot more.

Stocks are fleeing the exchanges in the US. Small and young stocks are disappearing most, with older larger stocks dominating. Less public means more private, not less companies. Companies are more and more financed by private equity, groups of large investors, debt, venture capital and so forth.

This is largely a US phenomenon, which is important for us to figure out what's going on:

What's going on? Doidge,  Kahle, Karolyi, and Stulz have some intriguing hypotheses. US business is more and more invested in intellectual capital rather than physical capital -- software, organizational improvements, know-how, not blast furnaces. These, they speculate, are less well financed by issuing shares on the open market, and better by private owners and debt.

This shift from physical investment to R&D -- investment in intellectual capital -- is an important story for many changes in the US economy.

Improvements in financial technology such as derivatives allow companies to offload risks without the "agency costs" of equity, and then keep a narrower group of equity investors and more debt financing.
"We argue that the importance of intangible investment has grown but that public markets are not well-suited for young, R&D-intensive companies. Since there is abundant capital available to such firms without going public, they have little incentive to do so until they reach the point in their lifecycle where they focus more on payouts than on raising capital."

I.e. the only reason to go public is for the founders to cash out, and to offer a basically bond-like security for investors. But not to raise capital.

They leave out the obvious question -- to what extent is this driven by regulation? Sarbanes Oxley, SEC, and other regulations and political interference make being a public company in the US a more and more costly, and dangerous, proposition.  This helps to answer the question, why in the US.

The move of young, entrepreneurial companies who need financing to grow to private markets, limited to small numbers of qualified investors, has all sorts of downsides. If you worry about inequality, regulations that only rich people may invest in non-traded stocks should look scandalous, however cloaked in consumer protection. But if you can only have 500 investors, they will have to be wealthy. Moving financing from equity to debt and derivatives does not look great from a financial stability point of view.

Our financial system has become remarkably democratized in recent years. Once upon a time only wealthy individuals held stocks, and had access to the superior investment returns they provide. Now index funds, 4501(k) plans are open to everyone, and their pension funds. What will they invest in as listed equity disappears?

A wealth tax, easy to assess on publicly traded stock and much harder to assess on private companies with complex share structures -- especially structures designed to avoid the tax -- will only exacerbate the problem. More moves to regulate the boards and activities of public companies will only exacerbate the problem.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Monopoly in history

Timothy Taylor, the Conversable Economist, tracks down the oft-told story of William Lee and his knitting machine.
...the 2019 World Development Report from the World Bank has a mention near the start of Chapter 1: "In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England was alarmed when clergyman William Lee applied for a royal patent for a knitting machine: `Consider thou what the invention would do to my poor subjects,' she pointed out. `It would assuredly bring them to ruin by depriving them of employment.'” 
It's really a lovely story, presaging this fallacy passed down through the ages, to Milton Friedman's famous "let them use spoons" story (on being told a Chinese dam was being made by hand and shovel rather than bulldozers to provide employment) to the current hullabaloo that AI will take all the jobs. (And today. On a KQED (NPR) "forum," show last week, on while I was shaving, a caller expressed just how great it is that Mexico uses people not machines to sweep streets, thereby providing employment, and we should do the same. Fallacies live a long time.)

Lovely as it is, Taylor is "inherently dubious about direct quotations from conversations held in 1589," took a  "journey through libraries and archives," to track down the actual story.  It is an interesting note on the very beginnings of the industrial revolution.

As I read Taylor, it seems the story is actually pretty suspect.
"The underlying source seems to be in an 1831 book, History of the Framework Knitters, written by Gravenor Henson....Henson was an important British trade union leader in the early 19th century. As Stanley D. Chapman notes in his "Introduction" about Henson's purpose in writing the book: "His main theme was that hosiery, lace and all other industries should be regulated by the government so as to maintain a decent living standard for the workers and fair conditions of trade. British industries must be protected from direct foreign competition and, more particularly, from industrial espionage, migration of skilled workmen to other countries, and export of machinery."  
So, as I gather indirectly, the story passed on from a source was definitely trying to make a point, and (again reading only Tim) has precious little primary evidence for the famous conversation.

The first lesson: beware these apocryphal stories passed on through secondary, tertiary and ultimately gossipy sources.  

This lesson was brought home to me by Peter Garber's great "Famous First Bubbles" book (I had a lot of fun reviewing it). Garber went back to look at actual primary sources behind stories that though apocryphal are passed around as true among economists, such as the famous tulip "bubble." They aren't true either. Though they make good stories.

I got a deeper lesson, on just how economies worked in early modern Europe. Early economies were so pervasively regulated, that the only thing to do with an innovation was to run to get a Royal monopoly. 

William Lee invented a stocking-making machine. (Apparently, to put out of employment a woman who spurned his advances while knitting stockings.) So, what does he do with his newfound knowledge?
Having now discovered the method of knitting by machinery, his next effort was directed to obtain the golden harvest which had flattered his imagination. He removed his invention to London for the purpose presenting it to the Queen,...Lee now imagined himself certain of a handsome remuneration,...[but]  she refused to make either a grant of money or secure him a monopoly or patent. 
Here is where the famous quote enters
Her answer is said to have been to the following purport: -- My Lord, I have too much love to my poor people, who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting, to give my money to forward an invention which will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment, and thus make them beggars. 
It goes on, interestingly. The Queen was interested in cheaper silk stockings, which she wore:
Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have affected only a small number of my subjects. but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects is too important to grant to any individual."
But it gets much more s economically interesting
Apparently Lee ran into a different problem: Queen Elizabeth has been granting lots of monopolies to court favorites, and there was a widespread sense that it had gotten out of hand. Thus, the granting of unwarranted monopolies became a reason to deny Lee a monopoly as well. Henson writes:
"The time which Mr. Lee had chosen to make an application to the government, though to his sanguine mind very propitious for remuneration. was in reality the reverse; the treasury of Elizabeth was extremely low, owing to the enormous expenses which she had incurred in preparations to meet the Spanish armada in the preceding year. Already had the Parliament begun to express their decided umbrage at the grant of the privileges of patents for monopolies; which, as they were then conducted, were justly considered national evils, and the most odious means of rewarding court favorites, by an excessively tyrannical mode of private taxation. Nearly all the nobles enjoyed a patent for the most useful and general articles of consumption, such as iron, lead, saltpetre, salt, oil, glasses, &c. &c., to the amount of more than one hundred articles, which were sold, imported, or exported by virtue of letters patent. These patent rights, were sold to persons who farmed the profits, and thus demanded what prices they thought prudent for their commodities. [my emphasis] When the general list was read over in the House of Commons in 1601, a member, indignant at the the extortions, exclaimed, " Is bread amongst the number?" "Bread?" cried the house, with astonishment, "Yes I assure you," he sarcastically replied, "if we go on at this rate, we shall have a monopoly of bread before next Parliament." 
Actually, I believe they did. Most trades were restricted to guild members and you couldn't just bake bread and sell it. (Historians, let me know if I'm confusing place and time here.)  "Patent" in 16th century England also seems to mean more a general monopoly right than our current understanding, as in a "patent" to sell iron. Lee went on to the French court, to try to get a patent and monopoly there too.

Lee never, apparently, made a bundle actually making stockings. He died unhappily in France, though his machine did get adopted. Just how long it took a simple stocking machine to be adopted may tell us something interesting about why economic growth was so slow to break out.

The interesting observation here: it's 1589, and you invent a cool new machine, say for making stockings. What do you do with it? You and I might answer, "start making stockings." You can undersell the competition and make a bundle. Or, we might answer, "start selling stocking-making machines." Sure, others will follow, but you have a big first-mover advantage. Yes, if a modern patent system were up and running it might be useful to get a patent and try to slow down competitors. But first and foremost, get the business going.

That Lee did not do this -- that it seems not even to have occurred to him - is telling about just how controlled and regulated economies apparently were at the time.

It brings to mind two other recent histories I read, Dava Sobel's Longitude and Charles Coulston Gillispies' book on the  Montgolfier Brothers.

Longitude: In the 1700s, it was a major problem to know how far east or west a ship was. After painstaking work, John Harrison came up with a solution: a clock that could tell time accurately, even at sea. What did he do with it? Start selling clocks to ship captains, you might say! And you would be wrong. He spent his life trying to get the prize established for that purpose, mostly unsuccessfully.

Balloons: The Montgolfier Brothers invent the balloon. What do they do with it? Start selling balloons? Start selling balloon rides? No, immediately off to Paris to get royal dispensation.

I don't know enough about these early economies, but that running off to get a Royal monopoly seems to be the only thing anyone even considers to do with a new invention seems interesting evidence on just how rigidly controlled economic affairs were.

Guilds, patents, monopolies, and the primary function of economic regulation being to create rents in return for political support, seems a pattern with deep roots.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Competitive deposits?

In its death note to narrow banks (link to Federal Register where you can post comments; previous post),  the Fed claimed charmingly that retail deposit rates are fully competitive, so we don't need a narrow bank option to help spread the interest on reserves to deposit rates. In the Fed's view, the fact that banks pay so little compared to reserves just reflects the costs (many of them regulatory!) of servicing retail accounts.
"Some have argued that the presence of PTIEs could play an important role in raising deposit rates offered by banks to their retail depositors. The potential for rates offered by PTIEs to have a meaningful impact on retail deposit rates, however, seems very low...retail deposit accounts have long paid rates of interest far below those offered on money market investments, reflecting factors such as bank costs in managing such retail accounts and the willingness of retail customers to forgo some interest on deposits for the perceived convenience or safety of maintaining balances at a bank rather than in a money market investment. 
Here is some data. From "The Deposits Channel of Monetary Policy"  by Itamar Drechsler  Alexi Savov  and Philipp Schnabl, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 132 (2017)1819–1876:

When the Fed Funds rate rises, checking  account rates do not. (It's interesting that savings and time deposits do move more quickly, indicating banks face more competition there.) The Fed's story that the spread between checking account rates and federal funds (now IOER) rates reflects costs is very hard to square with this graph -- why should costs and benefits of checking accounts change over time so much, and coincidentally rise exactly one for one with the Federal Funds rate?

Pablo Kurlat, Deposit Spreads and the Welfare Cost of Inflation plots similar data cross sectionally, which lets you estimate the pass through rate better at the expense of the time pattern:

Pablo puts the spread between deposit and federal funds rate on the vertical axis. So, if banks passed through interest rates one for one, the line would be flat. If there were a constant cost, it would be flat but at a higher level. If banks pay the same lousy rate no matter what interest rates are, the curve lies on the 45 degree line. You can see the same general picture.

(Pablo's paper is very nice. He concludes that therefore the "Friedman rule" that interest rates should perpetually be zero, with slight deflation making real rates positive, has yet another thing going for it, that banks are not able to use their market power against us so much.)

Pablo also plots data from different countries:

It's interesting that Sweden and Italy have flatter (more competitive lines). It's really interesting that Argentina lies on the 45 degree line, with no pass through, despite huge inflation-induced interest rates. I would guess that Argentina has a law against paying interest rate on deposits, as the US used to have.

No, it strikes me we have exactly what it seems to be, looking out the window, a heavily regulated not very competitive oligopoly, sort of like airlines 1972.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fed vs. Narrow Banks

Suppose an entrepreneur came up with a plan for a financial institution that is completely safe -- it can never fail, it can never suffer a run, it offers depositors perfect safety with no need for deposit insurance, asset risk regulation, capital requirements, or the rest, and it pays depositors more interest than they can get elsewhere.

Narrow banks are such institutions.  They take deposits and invest the proceeds in interest-bearing reserves at the Fed. They pay depositors that interest, less a small profit margin. Pure and simple. Economists have been calling for narrow banks since at least the 1930s.

You would think that the Fed would welcome narrow banks with open arms.

You would be wrong.

The latest chapter in the Fed's determined effort to quash The Narrow Bank (TNB) and at least one other effort to start a narrow bank is unfolding. (Previous posts here and here.)

Last year, TNB sued the Fed for refusing to allow TNB an account at the Fed at all. The Fed has just now filed a motion to dismiss the suit. The Fed has also issued an advance notice of proposed rule making, basically announcing that it would, on a discretionary basis, refuse to pay interest on reserves to any narrow bank. In case anyone gets a bright idea to take a small bank that already has a master account and turn it in to a narrow bank, thereby avoiding TNB's legal imbroglio, take note, the Fed will pull the rug out from under you.

I find both documents outrageous. The Fed is acting as a classic captured regulator, defending the oligopoly position of big banks against unwelcome competition, its ability to thereby coerce banks to do its bidding, and to run a grand regulatory bureaucracy, against competitive upstarts that will provide better products for the economy, threaten the systemically dangerous big bank oligopoly, and reduce the need for a large staff of Fed regulators.

I state that carefully, "acting as." It is my firm practice never to allege motives, a habit I find particularly annoying among a few other economics bloggers. Everyone I know at the Fed is a thoughtful and devoted public servant and I have never witnessed a whiff of such overt motives among them. Yet institutions can act in ways that people in them do not perceive. And certainly if one had such an impression of the Fed, which a wide swath of observers from the Elizabeth Warren left to  Cato Institute anti-crony capitalism libertarians do, nothing in these documents will dissuade them from such a malign view of the institution's motives, and much will reinforce it.  

On the outrage scale, the first paragraph of the Fed's motion to dismiss takes the cake:

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The death of the healthcare market

People really do not need health insurance for regular small expenses, as they do not need car insurance to "pay for" oil changes. And any insurance system relies on an underlying cash market to find what the right prices are. Collision insurance works reasonably well because there is a supply and demand market for auto repair in which people pay their own money and there are competitive suppliers and free entry, offering services along a wide quality-price spectrum.

The underlying cash market has disappeared in health care. If you try to just pay for service, you face the ridiculous sticker prices. Everyone needs to go through some sort of middleman. We have, collectively, fallen for the fallacy that "negotiation" can lower everyone's price, rather than (try to) lower my price by raising yours. It is widely recognized that catastrophic insurance plus health savings plans are a much better structure than current pay for everything structures. But you can't do that if people showing up on their own to buy things are faced with fictitious "list prices." 

These thoughts come to mind reading an excellent explanation of the price of insulin posted by Novo Nordisk via Charles Sauer in the Washington Examiner (and thanks to a correspondent who sent the link) 
".. the drug pricing system, .. is incredibly complex and has resulted in a lot of confusion around what patients pay for medicines...."
"As the manufacturer, we do set the “list price” ... However, after we set the list price, we negotiate with the companies that actually pay for the medicines, which we call payers. This is necessary in order for our medicines to stay on their preferred drug list or formulary. The price or profit we receive after rebates, fees and other price concessions we provide to the payer is the “net price.”... "
Perhaps it's clearest right there: "the companies that actually pay for the medicines, which we call payers." What happened to people?

Notice also the graph. If you think it's been getting a lot worse in a short time, you're right.

Right out in the open, and clear as a bell:
...those price increases were our response to changes in the healthcare system, including a greater focus on cost savings, and trying to keep up with inflation. PBMs and payers have been asking for greater savings – as they should. However, as the rebates, discounts and price concessions got steeper, we were losing considerable revenue... So, we would continue to increase the list in an attempt to offset the increased rebates, discounts and price concessions to maintain a profitable and sustainable business. ...