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. ...

Friday, January 25, 2019

Privatize TSA and ATC!

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was some debate whether TSA should be federal employees, or run privately, and paid for by airlines. Government does not have to actually employ people in order to regulate, supervise, and make sure standards are followed.

Similarly, there has been a longstanding debate whether air traffic control should continue to be run by the federal government rather than privatized, as it is in Canada.

Now that TSA and ATC turn out to be the straws that break the camel's back on federal government shutdowns, perhaps it would be wise to revisit both decisions!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Carbon tax update

An interesting question emerged from some discussion surrounding my last carbon tax post. How big will the tax be? The letter says $40 a ton, but then rising. But how far? And in response to what question?

It occurs to me that the two obvious targets lead to radically different answers.

1) The social cost of carbon. This is what economists usually think of as the appropriate Pigouvian tax. In order to pollute, you pay the cost you impose on others by your pollution.

Even the worst-case scenarios now put the cost of carbon emissions at 10% of GDP in the year 2100. Discount that back, divide by all the carbon emitted between now and then, and, you're going to get a pretty small tax.

2) Temperature or quantitative guidelines. Or, "whatever it takes to stop the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees C." Such a tax has to be high enough to basically stop us  from using fossil fuels. It would be radically higher, and impose economic costs far higher than 10% of GDP.

When you set a goal of a quantity with no attached price, the price can get pretty high.

I see now some of the back and forth chatter. Anti-carbon types warn that any tax "won't be enough." Now I know what they mean.

So who sets the tax, and on what basis, are important issues we're all fudging over.

Of course, a cynic would take the view that the tax will be set to

3) Maximize government revenue.

Given the behavioral elasticities, that is likely to be a good deal less than #2, as to high a tax will quickly erode the tax base.

PS: to my may CO2-is-not-a-problem commenters. If (or perhaps when) it's all proved to be a hoax, a carbon tax is a lot easier to undo than the alternative regulatory approach!

Lend the shutdown?

The Federal Government seems to be obeying with rather remarkable accuracy the constitutional mandate that the government may not spend money that has not been appropriated by Congress.

I would be curious to hear from legal experts, however, what stops the government from lending money to federal employees, or just guaranteeing loans.

After all the government lends money all over the place, and credit guarantees are even larger. Is the Treasury no longer operating small business loan programs? (Honest question.) Is the Fed no longer lending money to banks, if they want it? Are Fannie and Freddy refusing to buy home mortgages because the funds to guarantee home mortgages (which it does) are not appropriated? No. As far as I can tell, Federal lending and loan guarantee programs are up and running.

If so, what stops the Treasury, from either lending money directly to Federal employees, or guaranteeing private lending. After all, the Treasury will write their back paychecks when the time comes, so these are potentially risk free loans. What stops the Treasury from just writing on a federal employees' paycheck "this is a loan against your back pay?"

Or... Social security and Medicare are still running. Can they write advances against social security payments that will be deducted from future federal paychecks?

I presume there is something stopping this -- that it is a step too clever, like the trillion dollar coin solution to the debt limit. But I would be curious to hear what the limitation is.

(HT Marginal Revolution on federal employees' other sources of financing, at pretty high interest rates.)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Economists' letter on carbon

The "Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends" in the Wall Street Journal this week is a remarkable document. It's short, sweet, and signed by, as far as I can tell, every living CEA chair, every living Fed Chair, both Democrat and Republican, and most of the living Nobel Prize winners. (Thanks to a commenter who corrected an earlier count.)

It offers four principles 1. A carbon tax, initially $40 per ton. 2. The carbon tax substitutes for regulations and subsidies and (my words) the vast crony-capitalist green boondoggle swamp, which is chewing up money and not saving carbon. 3. Border adjustment like VAT have 4. "All the revenue should be returned directly to U.S. citizens through equal lump-sum rebates."

That the carbon tax is better than regulations and subsidies in choosing technology gets a lot of press. Yes, should we have rooftop solar cells or utility cells in the desert? Is it better to have battery powered cars or high speed trains? Do we really have to have washing machines that no longer actually clean clothes? And the only way to actually save lots of carbon -- nuclear -- has a much better chance under a carbon tax than hoping our political system will allow it.

But most people forget what economists know best -- that a carbon tax is the only way to change behavior. The answer to energy savings isn't as much new technology as in old behaviors. Turn the lights off. Take fewer trips. Turn the heat down. Move nearer your work. Carpool. Without a carbon tax there is no way for the average bleeding heart Palo Alto climate worrier to realize that one trip to Europe is like driving a car for 10,000 miles. (Planes get about 80 passenger miles per gallon -- but it's a lot of miles to Europe.) Twenty years ago, my then 8 year old daughter, reading about fuel economy standards, piped up "if they make cars more fuel efficient, it will be cheaper to drive. Won't people just move further away?" Indeed.

I try to sell a carbon tax deal to friends who are climate skeptics. Well, our government is going to do something. Given that fact, the carbon tax will cause much less damage than ever increasing regulations and subsidies. And I try to sell it to carbon warrior friends too. The tax instead of the regulations and subsidies, in our political system, is going to save you a lot more carbon.

The last proposal is, I think, the most contentious. Optimal taxation theory, as several of the signatories pointed out in other contexts, says that the carbon tax should go to reduce other distorting taxes. This will create more economic growth. As Holman Jenkins  put it,
A tax reform that included a carbon tax to replace taxes that depress work, saving and investment would be an incentive to do everything in a less carbon-intensive way, bringing forth new technologies 
Here the authors step back from benevolent-planner optimums and think politically. Well, we live in a political system.

But there is a bright side. One big point of the dividend is to guarantee that revenues will not go to financing ever larger green boondoggles like the California high-speed train to nowhere, or to subsidize a Tesla in every VCs driveway. Carbon dividend means no "green new deal." The view that the tax system is what it is, and a major new source of revenue will not go to reducing marginal tax rates in a growth-oriented reform sounds quite realistic to me. If our Congress were interested in growth-oriented tax system it would already look a lot different than it is today.

A flat dividend is also immensely progressive. It is, effectively a universal basic income. And casual observation on ownership of large houses and jet travel suggests wealth people spew a lot more carbon than poor ones. I guess that is an effort to get Democrats to give up some of their cherished regulations and subsidies to get these long sought goals. (Like any UBI, it's going to make immigration a tougher issue, but we won't go there today.)

Tyler Cowen disagrees with the dividend.
"It strikes me as economists thinking they know what makes good politics, something which economists are rarely good at."
Well, he has a point, and I also think economists should emphasize more when they have expertise and when they don't. On the other hand, I don't see anybody else having much better idea what makes good politics these days, and the list of "economists" that created and signed the letter, starting with George Shultz, have immense political experience.

The dividend may not be the economically most efficient thing to do, but it will guarantee a lifetime of political support for the carbon tax! Hamilton figured this out with the assumption of national debt.

It has taken me some time to come around, as attached as I am to reducing marginal tax rates, but the political advantage that out keeps the money from being spent on boondoggles, and creates a constituency in favor of the tax and against spending the results on boondoggles, is strong.

I also worry about the wide range of environmental issues that have been forgotten in the Great Carbon War. Butterflies and Frogs are disappearing. The pacific garbage patch grows. Rhinos and Elephants will be gone long before climate bothers them. Take your pick, if we passed the carbon tax, and if this issue could disappear as one of the issues uniting partisanship and sweeping up the entire environmental movement, it would be a lot better for life on the planet.  Once upon a time, there were Republicans in the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and other formerly non-partisan organizations. Put carbon behind us, and it could be so again.

"Big Names Bake a Climate Pie in the Sky" complained Holman Jenkins. His complaint, largely, is that the deal won't be kept -- we'll get the tax and regulations, and the dividend promise will disappear into the bowels of Washington.
Besides, since we face a “climate emergency,” wouldn’t the money be better spent on speeding up deployment of wind and solar? As for existing mandates and subsidies, sure, we might expend additional political energy to repeal these. And pigs might fly. 
This is an important point. As reducing marginal rates and removing deductions sounds nice, our tax reforms (especially the last) reduce marginal rates but don't remove deductions. The VAT with no income tax is a much better system, but many free market economists don't favor it because they don't trust the deal. Trusting the deal, carbon tax in return for no regulations, is a stretch.

However, I can hope that a deal could be struck, carbon tax in return for no new regulations and subsidies, or subsidy extensions -- no "Green New Deal."  If we give up that deals can ever be struck and kept, we might as well give up on democracy.

Of course, in the 5th week of a shutdown, over a completely symbolic issue, with great deals on the table that benefit both sides, if only each could let the other have a symbolic victory, is not a great time to advance such hope. But even here, once you realize the shutdown has nothing to do with immigration, you see hope. This is a battle to the end over the Trump presidency. If he backs down, his presidency is finished. The Democrats think they can achieve that, and if they back down their left wing takes over. There is no way out of that one -- and reason to hope that when Washington is bargaining over actual policy and not over a symbolic but life-and-death battle, that they can do it.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Volalitily, now the whole thing

An essay at The Hill on what to make of market volatility, from Dec 31. Now that two weeks have passed, I can post the whole thing. I add some graphs too.  (Though at the rate things are going any forecast will have been proved wrong in two weeks!)

What’s causing the big drop in the stock market, and the bout of enormous volatility we’re seeing at the end of the year?

The biggest worry is that this is The Beginning of The End — a recession is on its way, with a consequent big stock market rout. Is this early 2008 all over again, a signal of the big drop to come? 
Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it’s 2010, 2011, 2016, or the greatest of all, 1987. “The stock market forecast 9 of the last 5 recessions,” Paul Samuelson once said, and rightly. The stock market does fall in recessions, but it also corrects occasionally during expansions. Each of these drops was accompanied by similar bouts of volatility.  Each is likely a period in which people worried about a recession or crash to come, but in the end it did not come.

Still, is this at last the time? A few guideposts are handy. 

There is no momentum in index returns. None. A few bad months, or days, of stock returns are exactly as likely to be continued as to be reversed. The fact is well established, and the reason is simple: If one could tell reliably that stocks would fall next month, we would all try to sell, and the market would fall instantly to that level.

Twenty percent volatility is normal. Twenty percent volatility on top of a 5 percent average return, means that every other year is likely to see a 15 percent drop.

Big market declines come with a recession, as in 2008. But recessions are almost as hard to forecast as stock prices, and for much the same reason. If we knew with confidence that a recession would happen next year, businesses would not invest or hire, and people would not spend, and we’d have a recession now.

Recessions do have some momentum. But the cyclical indicators of the real economy are strong, much stronger than they were in 2007-2008. Unemployment is 3.7%. There is no slowdown in real GDP growth or industrial production, or business investment in the most recent data. Inflation is close to the Fed’s target, so there is little reason to fear the Fed will quickly raise rates and cause a recession. Now, the market aggregates more information and faster than the rest of us. Still, the lack of any slowdown adds weight to the suspicion that this correction may pass as well.

In thinking about the economy, remember that it has passed from “demand” to “supply.” At 3.9% unemployment, we cannot get greater growth from simply putting unemployed people and machines to work.

The stages of the business cycle
As we complete the transition from a demand-limited economy to a supply-limited economy, it is perfectly natural for interest rates to rise. One or two percent above the inflation rate is perfectly normal. As interest rates rise, it is perfectly natural for interest-sensitive sectors like housing and autos to decline a bit – but other sectors do better. Demand shifts between products, and auto or housing slowdowns do not mean an overall slowdown.

The economy no longer needs or can use monetary or fiscal “stimulus.” Now growth must come more productivity. Growth-oriented policy requires efficiency, “structural reform,” better incentives, not just money in pockets. In my view, the US has gotten an extra percent of growth, mostly from deregulation and a bit from the incentive effects of the tax cuts. But these are over, and further reform is unlikely. So a growth slowdown is certainly in the cards.

What about the yield curve? It is flattening – the difference between long-term rates and short term rates is narrowing. And an inverted yield curve has, historically, been a good forecast of a recession to come.

But we are not yet at inversion, as the graph shows. Moreover, there have been long periods of nearly flat yield curves in the past, when the “supply” economy kept growing before the next recession, most notably the mid 1990s. In fact, if inflation remains contained, it is possible that the world starts to resemble earlier eras with permanently inverted yield curves. In a non-inflationary environment, long-term bonds are safer for long-term investors. Last, the form of inversion matters as well as the fact. An inversion that comes from the Fed quickly pushing up short rates to cause a slowdown, fighting inflation, is likely to, well, cause a slowdown. An inversion that comes when long-term rates plummet, seeing trouble ahead, is likely to be followed by trouble ahead. We have neither of those circumstances.

So what is going on? I hazard a guess.

Volatility occurs when there is great uncertainty. Investors are worried big events are on the horizon, and can’t quite figure out what is going to happen. Prices aggregate information, so seeing a price decline can make you think other people know something you don’t in a time of great uncertainty. We see this clearly in studies of high frequency data, when bond markets are adapting and digesting Fed statements, and we know there is no other news to react to.

We are, no doubt, in a time of high uncertainty about policy and politics. Volatility broke out almost coincident with the November election, and I think the markets are trying to digest just what the political chaos of the next two years means for the economy.

Surely no major growth-oriented economic reforms will come out of Congress. Congressional democrats will bring the full weight of the legal system against the Administration. Cabinet secretaries trying to clean up regulation will have a hard time when being constantly subpoenaed.

The government shutdown over 1/10 of 1% of the Federal budget devoted to a border wall is emblematic. It is, of course, entirely symbolic as any border wall will be stuck in the courts for decades. But it is precisely when issues are symbolic that compromise is impossible.

So the best economic news that markets can hope for is two years of complete government paralysis, and therefore a return to 2 percent or so growth.

Things could be much worse, and markets know it. A large policy blunder in the next two years, such as a big trade shock could well happen.

More deeply, the US is now unable to respond to any genuine crisis — economic, financial, military. Imagine that another banking crisis hits, and President Trump asks Congress, again, for a trillion bucks to bail out banks, and another trillion for fiscal stimulus. Or imagine if he does not, and whether the Administration can implement better ideas to fight a new and different crisis. Imagine what happens if China invades Taiwan, or a big bomb goes off in the middle east.

Europe is not in much better shape. It has followed the Augustinian approach to structural reform – Dear Lord, give me reform, but not quite yet. Italian banks, and too many German banks, are still stuffed with Italian government debt. Brexit, Cinque Stelle, and Gilets Jaunes mean that pro-market, free trade, growth-oriented structural reform not likely, and there is a limit to what even the ECB can do. China is as usual obscure, and more fragile than they want us to believe.

Throughout the world, government debt remains the big danger. Where is there a lot of debt, no plan to repay it, shady accounting, extend-and-pretend, off-balance sheet guarantees, and the debt is mostly short term and prone to runs? Government debt. If a serious recession comes, in a time of dysfunctional government, it may well provoke a government debt crisis, which would be an economic conflagration beyond anything we have seen.

So, we live in a time of great uncertainty, brought about by great political uncertainty. Great uncertainty leads to volatility. Volatility means that stocks are more risky, and thus must pay a greater expected return to get people to hold them. The only way for the expected future return to rise, is for today’s price to go down. So we see a correction – mild so far, to compensate for the mild risk of holding stocks through a few months of ups and downs.

There is a silver lining to this story. If prices are low because required returns have risen, then if nothing bad happens, long-term investors will do fine. Bond prices go down when yields go up, and the larger yields eventually make up for the price loss.

But greater uncertainty means a greater chance that something truly terrible will happen. As well as a greater chance that it won’t. The big message of the moment is that risk is higher. Managing risk, not following some sage’s directional bet, is the best investment advice anyone should start with.

(I also wrote here "The Jitters" related thoughts about the spring 2018 bout of volatility.)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Property tax present value

How much is the property tax? In Calfornia, we pay 1%  per year.

That doesn't seem bad, except that property values are very high. You can't get a tear-down in Palo Alto for under $2 million. If you buy a house that costs 5 times your income -- say someone earning $200,000 per year buying a $1 million house -- then that is equivalent to 5 percentage points additional income tax.  On top of 42% federal, 13.2% state, 9% sales, and other taxes, it's part of my view that we're past 70% top marginal rate now.

The other way to look at taxes is in present value. At 1% interest rate, the value of a 1% payment is $1.00. What that means: Suppose you bought a $1,000,000 house. It's going to cost you $10,000 in property taxes per year. Let's set up an account that will pay your property taxes. If you get 1% interest on that account, you need to put $1,000,000 in the account!

A 1% property tax at a 1% interest rate is equivalent to a 100% tax on houses. That $1,000,000 house is really going to cost you $2,000,000!

There is a general paradox here: The top two things our politicians say they want to encourage are jobs and homeownership. Jobs are perhaps the most highly taxed economic activity in the economy, and by this calculation houses come in a close second.

(California also assesses a 1% personal property tax, on top of a sales tax, for anything they can prove you own, which usually means boats and airplanes. That too is an additional 100% tax.)

The second lesson, the value of wealth taxes depends sensitively on the interest rate, as I'm sure some of you are chomping at the bit to point out. If the interest rate is 2%, then the tax rate is "only" 1/0.02 = 50%. If the interest rate is 5%, then the tax rate is 1/0.05 = 20%. I suspect these taxes were put in place in a time of higher interest ares and nobody is really thinking about the effect of lower rates.

Similarly, suppose the government puts in a 1% per year wealth tax. If wealth generates a 5% rate of return, then the 1% wealth tax is the same thing as a 20% one-time confiscation of value*.  If wealth generates a 1% rate of return, a 1% wealth tax is a 100% confiscation of value**. Mercifully, our income tax system taxes the rate of return, not the principal, and avoids this conundrum. Others do not.

What is the right rate? We can have a lot of fun with that one. The current 30 year TIPS (inflation indexed) rate is 1.19%. The 30 year nominal Treasury rate is 2.97%.  In California, under Proposition 13, you pay 1% of the actual purchase price per year, but that quantity never increases. (This fact results in the paradox of extremely high property taxes on new purchasers, older people staying in huge old houses, and low property tax revenues.) So you might say that the nominal rate applies.

In Illinois, you pay a percentage of assessed value, which is usually a good deal lower than the actual value. (It also leads to a fun game of fighting over what the assessed value is. No surprise some of Illinois' most powerful politicians are also lawyers whose firms argue property assessment cases. ) That means however that the real interest rate matters.

But in both cases, we need to use the after-tax rate. If you put your money in a 30 year treasury (or a long-term bond fund that keeps a long maturity), you pay taxes on the interest. If your marginal tax rate (federal + state + local) is 50%, that means you only get half the interest. So that 3% nominal yield is really a 1.5% nominal yield, and the Californian should use a 1.5% rate, resulting in a 1/0.015 = 66% tax rate.

The tax treatment of TIPS is more complicated. (Really, inflation protected bonds are a great idea, but did the Treasury have to screw up the tax treatment so thoroughly?) You pay taxes on the nominal interest payments, and also on increases in principal value. This causes an accounting mess that I don't want to get into here, but as a rough guide, if you are in a 50% marginal tax bracket, then you need to buy $200 worth of TIPS to generate a $1.00 after-tax stream. So, if you live in a state where property tax assessments rise over time, we're really talking about 2  x 1/0.01 = 200% tax rate on the initial assessed value.

Now, house prices rise more than inflation. That argues for an even higher present value of taxes.

On the other hand, you're not going to keep your house forever. But you will sell it, and the price reflects the property tax. On one extreme, if there is no house supply, then the price reflects the full property tax. Without property tax, you could sell it for double the current value. Then these calculations are right. That's a good approximation for Palo Alto. If house supply is flat, then the house price equals construction costs, and we need to cut off these present values at your horizon for owning the house.

The back of my envelope is full.

I'm not very good at taxes, so I welcome comments and corrections on this.  Also if it's all standard stuff, send a pointer to the source.

*sum_j=0^inf (0.05 - 0.01)/(1.05)^j = 0.04/0.05 = 0.80 = (1-0.20) x sum_j=0^inf 0.05 / (1.05)^j

**sum_j=0^inf (0.01 - 0.01)/(1.01)^j = 0 = (1-1) x sum_j=0^inf 0.01 / (1.01)^j 

Update: Thanks to several commenters who point out that California property tax rises at the lesser of inflation or 2%. This means that the lower real interest rate is the right discount rate, not the higher  nominal interest rate. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Krugman on optimal taxes

As you may have noticed, I try very hard not to get in to the business of rebutting Paul Krugman's various outrages. The article "The economics of soaking the rich" merits an exception. I will ignore the snark, the... distoritions, the ... untruths, the attack by inventing evil motive, the  demonization of anything starting with the letter R, and focus on the central economic points.

Paul correctly cites recent work by Diamond and Saez, estimating the optimal top marginal tax rate at 70%, and Christina Romer's concurring opinion.

The howlers are well epitomized by

"Why do Republicans adhere to a tax theory that has no support from nonpartisan economists and is refuted by all available data? Well, ask who benefits from low taxes on the rich, and it’s obvious.

And because the party’s coffers demand adherence to nonsense economics, the party prefers “economists” who are obvious frauds and can’t even fake their numbers effectively."

1) 70% is not carved in stone.

Diamond and Saez made a big splash precisely because their estimates were so novel and so much higher than the prevailing consensus. For example, Greg Mankiw, also a previous CEA chair, and not a fraud, writing the excellent "Optimal Taxation in Theory and Practice" in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a nonpartisan (or left-leaning) academic journal, not a fraud, with with Matthew Weinzierl and Danny Yagan, writes
A well-known early result of the Mirrlees (1971) model is the optimality of a zero top marginal tax rate. ...
All this leaves the policy advisor in an uncomfortable position. Early work, following Mirrlees (1971), assumed a shape for the ability distribution, a social welfare function, an individual utility function, and a pattern of labor supply elasticities that yielded clear and surprising results— declining marginal tax rates at the top of the income distribution. Some recent work has yielded dramatically different results more consistent with existing policy, but many of the key assumptions are open to debate.
Lesson 3: A Flat Tax, with a Universal Lump-Sum Transfer, Could Be Close to Optimal 
The claim that the optimal marginal tax schedule is generally flat has been challenged often in the nearly four decades since Mirrlees (1971). Most prominently, Saez (2001) finds optimal tax rates that increase steadily from incomes around $50,000 to $200,000. Of course, the optimal tax schedule is sensitive to assumptions about the inputs discussed in the previous lesson: the shape of the distribution of abilities, the social welfare function, and labor supply elasticities. None of these three components of the problem is easily pinned down. 
You get the picture, the optimal top tax rate is in fact a highly contentious number, depending on many assumptions, all very hard to measure or even to define really.

As Mankiw et al point out, the position "let's implement textbook optimal taxation theory" might be a bit uncomfortable for Krugman's position that all things that start with D are holy.
Lesson 6: Only Final Goods Ought to be Taxed, and Typically They Ought to be Taxed Uniformly
Lesson 7: Capital Income Ought To Be Untaxed, At Least in Expectation
There is a lot of controversy on these too -- the best way to get an AER publication is to disagree with orthodoxy, but they are still the rough orthodoxy, and there are sensible non-evil people who agree with them.

2) Even in Diamond, Saez, et Al, 70% is the total tax, not the federal income tax, and it is the marginal rate not the average rate.  (Though not always as you'll see in a minute)

We have to add up every wedge between one dollar of extra revenue you create for your employer, and the value of what you receive in turn. That includes the  federal income tax, plus state and local income taxes,  property taxes, excise taxes, estate taxes, and so forth. We have to include sales taxes, personal property taxes, payroll taxes on employees you might hire. We have to include your share of corporate and business taxes (corporations raise prices to pay their taxes, so you're paying in the end). It's a marginal rate -- we have to include phaseouts of tax benefits, and loss of income-related subsidies.

Greg Mankiw calculated his marginal tax rate at over 90% (Sorry, I can't find the link anymore). He thought about, what if he takes a consulting job, pays all tax on it, saves it, paying taxes on dividends and intrerest, gives it to his kids, paying estate taxes, and they spend it. Even greg forgot about sales taxes and property taxes (if they buy a house) in this calculation. In California, where I live, the top rate is at least 42% federal + 13.2% state (not deductible anymore)  + about 10% sales tax + about 6% property tax (1% of house value per year, house = 5 times income) +  .. it goes on like this.

Watch what you wish for. A 70% all in marginal rate might well be a tax cut for many households. I once semi-humorously proposed an alternative maximum tax.

Krugman and company are proposing a 70% top federal rate on top of all the others, which is... a bit deceptive relative to the 70% total marginal tax rate even in his cherry-picked sources.

3) Disincentives. Krugman correctly points out the central tradeoff.
So why not tax them at 100 percent? The answer is that this would eliminate any incentive to do whatever it is they do to earn that much money, which would hurt the economy. 
But then Krugman, and those he cites, take an extremely narrow view of this disincentive effect.

By and large the "optimal redistribution" theory considers only the static question, how many hours will you work.
 If a rich man works an extra hour, adding $1000 to the economy, but gets paid $1000 for his efforts, ...
 And, correctly, I think, this literature by and large agrees with the labor supply literature that once people have found jobs and careers, they tend to work about 40 hours a week or so even at pretty high tax rates. We can argue about that, but I think it's more productive to look at all the margins that are ignored here.

The big margin for economic growth is peoples human capital decisions -- the decision to go to school, to take hard courses (computer programming) rather than softer more pleasant ones, the decisions to start businesses and invest enormous time when young developing them. The optimal redistribution literature just ignores all of this. And, like the decision to relocate, it depends on the total tax bite, not just the marginal tax bite. How much will I earn, after all taxes -- what lifestyle will I lead -- if I go to med school, or just stay where I am? High tax countries do not immediately see people staying home from work. But they do not see vibrant business formation and human capital investment. (Chad Jones has a great new paper on this.)

The other margin is avoidance. Throwing around high statutory tax rates in the 1950s as if anyone actually paid them is past disingenuous at this point, as often as the opposite has been pointed out. (Diamond and Saez engaged at least recognized that nobody paid 90%, but engage in a subtle .. sleight of hand. They assume that all corporate taxes were paid by wealthy people in the 1950s -- the one and only burden or indirect calculation in the paper, and contrary to the usual assumption that capital supply curves are flatter than labor or product demand.)

The one thing we should learn from the New York Times and others' probes in to Trump Tax Land is just how far very wealthy people will go to avoid paying taxes. Especially estate taxes -- there is nothing like the government coming for nearly half your wealth to concentrate the mind. I venture that we would have gotten a lot more out of the Trump family with a 20% VAT and no income tax or estate tax!

A 70% or 80% marginal federal income tax would be first and foremost a boon for tax lawyers and accountants. If one were in the mood to match Krugman's attacks of which party has which dark motives to serve which evil interest, the direction would be easy.

Moreover, Krugman gets the benefit of labor to society wrong in an astonishing econ 1 way
If a rich man [or woman, Paul, please!] works an extra hour, adding $1000 to the economy, but gets paid $1000 for his efforts, the combined income of everyone else doesn’t change, does it? Ah, but it does — because he pays taxes on that extra $1000. So the social benefit from getting high-income individuals to work a bit harder is the tax revenue generated by that extra effort — and conversely the cost of their working less is the reduction in the taxes they pay.
If you are paid your marginal product, as you are in a competitive market, then you are paid how much revenue your efforts add to your employer's bottom line. But society benefits by the consumer surplus, the area under the demand curve, and loses that consumer surplus when taxes put a wedge between your effort and your wage. When Steve Jobs worked hard and sold us all Iphones, he made a ton of money, and apple made a huge profit. But we all benefitted by far more than we paid Apple for the phones.

No, the world is not a static, zero-sum game.

I should add though, that economics really doesn't care how much taxes you, or "the rich" pay. Economics cares about the marginal rate, how much you pay on the extra dollar. There is not much of an economic case, really, for low taxes on the rich, or anyone else, so long as taxes do not distort economic decisions. That's the case for a very broad base -- and a low rate. Krugman et al are beyond misleading if they characterize the case for low taxes as handouts for the rich. No, the case is incentives for the rich -- and everyone else. (Incentives are particularly bad at the low end, where you lose a dollar of benefits for every dollar of earnings.)

4) Garbage in, garbage out.

Every result in economic theory starts from assumptions and derives conclusions. This one is the same. Before we get to the distribution of talent, the accumulation of human capital, and the rest, this whole business starts with the presumption that the US Federal Government is a benevolent dictator, whose job it is to take from Peter to give to Paul -- to maximize the sum of everyone's utility, and yes making intrapersonal comparisons to do it -- constrained only by Peter's willingness to work if faced with a steep tax rate.

If you don't buy that basic assumption, along with all the others along the way, you don't buy the result. If, in particular, you look at the world circa 1850, or even in Krugman's cherished 1950, and you look at how amazingly better off we all are today, and you conclude that the government's job is to foster economic growth as fast as possible, then all bets are off.

No, the world is not a static, zero-sum game, in which we fleece the rich one just enough to keep him playing.

I think it's time to reactivate my no-Krugman new year's pledge.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Selgin on IOER and TNB

George Selgin has a nice piece on TNB and IOER, which I missed when it came out in September, but it's still relevant.

(HT a correspondent. TNB is "The Narrow Bank" which I wrote about here; IOER is interest on excess reserves. The Fed pays banks interest on reserves, which are accounts that banks hold at the Fed.) 

As George points out, TNB's model is to take money from, large corporations or money market funds, invest that money at the Fed as interest-paying reserves, and give as large an interest rate back to the depositors as possible. (Well, that's what their model will be if their suit against the Fed  winds through the US legal system before the next crash, which is unlikely, These customers can't get large enough insured deposits at regular banks; that TNB invests entirely in reserves make it impossible for TNB to fail so its customers don't need insurance. TNB doesn't want to let you or me give them money because that opens them to an immense amount of costly regulation.

The puzzling question is, how can TNB make money at that.?TNB takes money, invests it with the Fed, and the Fed in turn buys US treasuries. How is that better than TNB simply operating a money market mutual fund that invests directly in Treasurys?

The answer is, that for most of the last decade, the Fed has paid more interest on reserves than comparable treasury rates. Yes, "money" pays higher interest than "bonds," an inversion of classic monetary theory. Since money is more liquid, how can this survive? The answer is, because only banks can access this kind of "money." TNB was going to upend that.

Just why does the Fed pay more interest on reserves than comparable treasuries?  This is, like it or not, a nice little subsidy to banks, who get about 0.2% more on their reserves than anyone else can get.

Where does that 0.2% come from? You and me. George explains vividly
Just how is it that the Fed's IOER payments could allow MMMFs to earn more than they might by investing money directly into securities themselves? Because the Fed has less overhead? Don't make me laugh. Because Fed bureaucrats are more astute investors? I told you not to make me laugh! No, sir: it's because the Fed can fob-off risk — like the duration risk it assumed by investing in so many longer-term securities — on third parties, meaning taxpayers, who bear it in the form of reduced Fed remittances to the Treasury. That means in turn that any gain the MMMFs would realize by having a bank that's basically nothing but a shell operation designed to let them bank with the Fed would really amount to an implicit taxpayer subsidy. There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch... As it stands, of course, ordinary banks are already taking advantage of that same subsidy.
This is good, and I conclude that the Fed should keep a large balance sheet, flood the economy with liquidity as Friedman said it should, and run a tight corridor system paying no more on excess reserves than comparable Treasury rates.  Here we part company.

George seems to agree with the Fed though, that this subsidy is an integral part of the interest on reserves scheme, and that TNB will undermine the whole project of a large balance sheet and targeting interest rates directly via interest on reserves and later, the discount rate. I disagree.


Many of us free-market types bemoan how poorly designed regulation hurts economic growth. But unlike "stimulus," regulation is a death by a thousand knives. Each one seems innocuous, but they add up. It's hard to tell the story without details. There is no handy government statistic on "impact of regulations." We tend to talk about what we can easily measure. Likewise, there is a general sense that the current deregulation effort may be helping, but again without details it's hard to know if this is truth or spin.

In this context, I just learned of an interesting new website at the Brookings Institution that tracks Trump Administration deregulation efforts (HT Daniel Henninger at WSJ).  I get the general sense that Brookings isn't too happy with it and wants to expose removal of useful regulations. But they've done a nice job, so you can read it both ways.

Yes, the big ones you've heard of are there. The Waters of The US Rule, The Coal Fired Powerplants Rule, Title IX, Asylum Seeker restrictions, Fuel Economy standards, lots of rules pecking away at capital standards for financial institutions (so much for procyclical capital!)  and so forth.

It's interesting quite how many are not really Administration deregulations, but compliance with the Supreme court throwing out Obama era regulations. This really is what the Supreme Court battle is about.

It's also interesting actually how short this list is. For all the talk of "deregulation," you would think thousands of individual rules would be on the chopping block.

But I enjoyed this mostly for details for all the little ones you don't read about every day, a little peek into the bowels of the regulatory state.
Affordable Housing Program Amendments 
The Federal Home Loan Bank Act requires each Federal Home Loan Bank to establish an affordable housing program to enable members to provide subsidies for long-term, low- and moderate-income, owner-occupied, and affordable rental housing. 
What? You might have thought Trump officials were going to stage a book burning of that one, but no, it's modest
This proposed rule invites comment on several amendments to the regulations governing Federal Home Loan Banks, among others, giving Federal Home Loan Banks additional authority to allocate their Affordable Housing Program funds and relaxing or streamlining certain regulatory requirements.
Baby steps, baby steps

Monday, December 31, 2018


An essay at The Hill on what to make of market volatility:

What’s causing the big drop in the stock market, and the bout of enormous volatility we’re seeing at the end of the year?

The biggest worry is that this is The Beginning of The End — a recession is on its way, with a consequent big stock market rout. Is this early 2008 all over again, a signal of the big drop to come? 

Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it’s 2010, 2011, 2016, or the greatest of all, 1987. “The stock market forecast 9 of the last 5 recessions,” Paul Samuelson once said, and rightly. The stock market does fall in recessions, but it also corrects occasionally during expansions. Each of these drops was accompanied by similar bouts of volatility.  Each is likely a period in which people worried about a recession or crash to come, but in the end it did not come. 
Still, is this at last the time? A few guideposts are handy. 
There is no momentum in index returns. None. A few bad months, or days, of stock returns are exactly as likely to be continued as to be reversed. The fact is well established, and the reason is simple: If one could tell reliably that stocks would fall next month, we would all try to sell, and the market would fall instantly to that level.
Twenty percent volatility is normal. Twenty percent volatility on top of a 5 percent average return, means that every other year is likely to see a 15 percent drop. 
Big market declines come with a recession, as in 2008. But recessions are almost as hard to forecast as stock prices, and for much the same reason.


They asked me to hold off a few weeks before posting the whole thing. So either wait two weeks or head over to The Hill. I also wrote here "The Jitters" related thoughts about the spring 2018 bout of volatility. 

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sumner on teaching economics

Scott Sumner has a terrific post on teaching economics. (HT Marginal Revolution)
The core ideas of economics are extremely counterintuitive and are not accepted by most people....
Non-economists also tend to reject the central ideas of basic economics, and for reasons that are not well justified. [In particular these central ideas do not rest on hyper-rationality.] For the economics profession, our “value added” comes not from spoon feeding behavioral theories that the public is already inclined to accept, rather it is in teaching well-established basic principles of which the public is highly skeptical.  Thus we should try to discourage people from believing in the following popular myths: 
1.    People don’t respond very strongly to economic incentives.  (I.e., the demand for life-saving drugs is very inelastic.) 
2.    Imported goods, immigrant labor, and automation all tend to increase the unemployment rate. 
3.    Most companies have a lot of control over prices.  (I.e. oil companies set prices, not “the market”.) 
4.    Policy disputes over taxes and regulations are best thought of in terms of who gains and who loses. 
5.    Experts are smarter than the crowd. 
6.    Speculators make market prices more unstable. 
7.    Price gouging hurts consumers. 
8.   Rent controls help tenants. 
These myths are all widely believed by the general public.
Our primary goal should not be to add new information, it should be to have people unlearn false ideas about the world.
My emphasis.

One is tempted to add to the list. (An invitation to comments.)  Many of them stem from a basic principle -- "find the supply response" or ("demand response") that the fallacy ignores. "State the budget constraint" is another good habit.  Look for competition, entry, and choice among alternatives -- a market is not just bilateral negotiation. I might add reverse causality and selection bias -- empirical economics has stories to tell as well.

Scott frames the essay as a reaction to an Atlantic story advocating more teaching of behavioral economics. Scott is very clear: he is not opposed to behavioral economics. (He will likely be misquoted on this. Some behaviorists are very touchy. I know this from painful experience.) He is merely opining that our profession has more value added in teaching regular economics first. Regular economics is harder, less intuitive, less known, and therefore more valuable. To really understand behavioral economics, you have to understand what it is behaviorists object to -- and the vast amount of regular economics that good behaviorists agree with. Art schools might do better teaching people to draw, music schools to teach classical before atonal, physics programs newtonian before quantum mechanics, and so forth.
Most people find the key ideas of behavioral economics to be more accessible than classical economic theory. If you tell students that some people have addictive personalities and buy things that are bad for them, they’ll nod their heads.  And it’s certainly not difficult to explain procrastination to college students. [Dave Henderson's nomination for best sentence in the essay!] Ditto for the claim that investors might be driven by emotion, and that asset prices might soar on waves of “irrational exuberance.”  ... One should spend more time on subjects that need more time, not things that people already believe. 
I.e. let us not indulge in our own quest for teaching ratings via confirmation bias.

Yes, people do nutty things. But if you approach rent control, and all you have in the back of your head is behavioral stories, you will miss the clear prediction, borne out time and time again, that within a decade there will be a massive shortage of rental housing.

Scott does not neglect how awful most economics courses are
That doesn’t mean that I agree with the way that economics majors are currently being taught.  Our intermediate level courses are far too theoretical; they waste students’ time on lots of minor theories that would only be useful for people planning to do graduate work in economics.  (Most students do not.)  Too many homework problems with Cobb-Douglas utility, Hicksian demand, marginal rates of substitution, Giffen goods, gross substitutes, indifference curves, etc.  Some of that is appropriate, but all economics courses should focus heavily on applied economics. 
Most students come out of such courses still unable to coherently judge Scott's nice list of fallacies. Most of our courses are histories of thought, "greatest hits" of past theoretical contributions, passed on rather mindlessly. We teach many harmful parables. For example, natural monopoly due to increasing returns to scale, and the need for resulting regulation is a staple, passed down from about 1910. It has little to do with modern industrial organization in a global economy.

In part, it's easy to get through an hour by moving the curves around. Teaching real applied cases is much harder.

Macroeconomics teaching is in worse shape. Keynesian macro, like behavioral economics, enshrines most people's intuitive fallacies. Consuming more will increase output - forgetting the budget constraint. Breaking windows is good as it gives employment to window repair people. Good Keynesian macro justifies these apparent fallacies with carefully described "frictions," by which classical economic results fail. But you have to understand those classical results first to arrive at a correct economics that recognizes frictions (like behavioral biases) but doesn't violate budget constraints and accounting identities. Most macro teaching consists of young professors pushing IS-LM curves around, though such curves appear nowhere in their own research, nor anyone else's since the time they were born. Well, it passes the time easily.

An important point is implicit. Economics is not hard because of math. The math in even graduate level economics is no greater than in sophomore physics. Classical economics is hard because it can attack social problems in a value-free, cause-and-effect way, and upends the little morality stories that most people use to think about those problems -- rents are high because landlords are greedy. "Learning to think like an economist" is indeed best learned by application. And "learning to think like a behavioral economist" requires learning to think like an economist first.

Saturday, December 29, 2018


Christopher Rufo at the New York Post has an interesting article on homeless problems in Seattle. The analysis rings true of many other areas, especially San Francisco. It is also  a good microcosm of how policy and law in so many social and economic areas stays so profoundly screwed up for so long.
The real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges or in the corridors of City Hall, but in the realm of ideas, where, for now, four ideological power centers frame Seattle’s homelessness debate. I’ll identify them as the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex and the addiction evangelists.
My emphasis. And the political influence of groups organized around absurdly counterfactual narratives is the larger picture of this story.

Who are these people? "Socialist" is not an insult, it is how the new left-wing groups describe themselves:
Socialist Alternative City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant claims that the city’s homelessness crisis is the inevitable result of the Amazon boom, greedy landlords and rapidly increasing rents. 
The capitalists of Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft and Boeing, in her Marxian optic, generate enormous wealth for themselves, drive up housing prices, and push the working class toward poverty and despair — and, too often, onto the streets. 
...According to King County’s point-in-time study, only 6 percent of homeless people surveyed cited “could not afford rent increase” as the precipitating cause of their situation, pointing instead to a wide range of other problems — domestic violence, incarceration, mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, eviction, addiction and job loss — as bigger factors.
...the evidence suggests that higher rents alone don’t push people onto the streets. Even in a pricey city like Seattle, most working- and middle-class residents respond to economic incentives in logical ways: relocating to less expensive neighborhoods, downsizing to smaller apartments, taking in roommates, moving in with family or leaving the city altogether. King County is home to more than 1 million residents earning below the median income, and 99 percent of them manage to find a place to live and pay the rent on time. 
To be clear, that response does not imply everything is hunky-dory in Seattle's (or San Francisco's) housing market. The point is narrow -- high rents do not cause people to live on the streets.

The compassion brigades are the moral crusaders of homelessness policy. Their Seattle political champion is City Councilman Mike O’Brien,... O’Brien has become a leader in the campaign to legalize homelessness throughout the city. He has proposed ordinances to legalize street camping on 167 miles of public sidewalks, permit RV camping on city streets, and prevent the city’s homeless-outreach Navigation Teams (made up of cops and other workers) from cleaning up tent cities. 
O’Brien and his supporters have constructed an elaborate political vocabulary about the homeless, elevating three key myths to the status of conventional wisdom. The first is that many of the homeless are holding down jobs but can’t get ahead... 
But according to King County’s own survey data, only 7.5 percent of the homeless report working full-time, despite record-low unemployment, record job growth and Seattle’s record-high $15 minimum wage. The reality, obvious to anyone who spends any time in tent cities or emergency shelters, is that 80 percent of the homeless suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and 30 percent suffer from serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Common sense suggests that the central conundrum of city policy to deal with homelessness is that people move. The "compassion brigades''  must deny this fact:
...Progressive publications like The Stranger insist that “most people experiencing homelessness in Seattle were already here when they became homeless.” This assertion, too, clashes with empirical evidence. More than half of Seattle’s homeless come from outside the city limits, according to the city’s own data. Even this number might be vastly inflated, as the survey asks only “where respondents were living at the time they most recently became homeless” — so, for example, a person could move to Seattle, check into a motel for a week, and then start living on the streets and be considered “from Seattle.”
More rigorous academic studies in San Francisco and Vancouver suggest that 40 percent to 50 percent of the homeless moved to those cities for their permissive culture and generous services. 
There's much more at the original. The next group are "addiction evangelists." I'm pretty libertarian about drugs, but there are certain externalities especially to policies that encourage drug use out doors and in concentrated areas. And again easy drugs in just one place forms  a magnet:
public consumption sites do tremendous damage to businesses, residents and cities at large. It also attracts more homeless to a city. 
In Seattle, the influx has already begun. According to survey data, approximately 9.5 percent of the city’s homeless say that they came “for legal marijuana,” 15.4 percent came “to access homeless services,” and 15.7 percent were “traveling or visiting” the region and decided that it was a good place to set up camp... Even King County’s former homelessness czar admits that the city’s policies have a “magnet effect.” 
Last time I was in San Francisco, as we were entering a restaurant a half-clothed man was shooting up heroin on the four foot wide sidewalk just in front of the restaurant. I feel for the problems this man must have been facing, and the terrible life he leads. But San Francisco's policies are not a functional response, either to his problems, or those of a city where this is a normal part of life.

Chris doesn't offer easy solutions, nor do I.
The best way to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held communities together.
That's nice, but let's put it mildly a large project. And neighborhoods where the vast majority of children are born to and raised by single women, with few fathers or working men in sight, seems like a larger goal of such a policy. (Another great topic for fanciful narratives is political discussion of "inequality" in which this screaming impediment to economic advancement is as unmentionable as is nuclear power at a climate-change rally.)

More realistically,
Homelessness should be seen not as a problem to be solved but one to be contained.
Cities must stop ceding their parks, schools and sidewalks to homeless encampments. In San Diego, for instance, city officials and the private sector worked together to build three barracks-style shelters that house nearly 1,000 people for only $4.5 million. 
They’ve moved 700 individuals off the streets and into the emergency shelter, allowing the police and city crews to remove and clean up illegal encampments. 
In Houston, local leaders have reduced homelessness by 60 percent through a combination of providing services and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for street camping, panhandling, trespassing and property crimes. There’s nothing compassionate about letting addicts, the mentally ill and the poor die in the streets. The first order of business must be to clean up public spaces, move people into shelters and maintain public order.
The latter is the heart of Chris's point. The former seems sensible, and I have heard good superficial reports of similar programs. Still, I'm skeptical. One trip to a public toilet is enough to convince you of the difficulties of renting any kind of apartment to people who are struggling with mental illness and drug addictions. Didn't we just close down housing projects all over the country? Plus, we are infatuated with building new housing. The easiest way to get cheap housing is to move wealthy people out of older houses by letting them build new. And this too is the sort of thing that really has to be done at the state level. If one city does too good a job, it will only attract people to move there and make its job harder.

Today's post though is not about exactly what policy is best to solve this tough problem. Most of all, I am struck by Chris' insight about how really dysfunctional policies persist through the repetition of these fairy-tale narratives.

The current policy dysfunction is pretty clear.
the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened,... By any measure, the city’s efforts are not working
Now let's talk about job training programs, disability, food stamps, agricultural subsidies, trade, tax laws...