Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Long Run Lira?

Luigi Zingales inaugurated a series of essays in Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian newspaper, on whether Italy should stay in or get out of the Euro, and graciously asked me to contribute. My view, here in English, here in Italian.

To be clear, I kept to Luigi's terms of the debate. This piece is only about whether Italy is better off in the long run, with a common currency. Whether it gets anything out of an exit, a devaluation, a default now is for another day. And this is just about currency, not about leaving the EU, not about debt or austerity, not about whether europe needs a fiscal union, or the rest of it. (Some subsequent correspondence verifies the wisdom, but also the difficulty, of talking about one thing at a time.)

Return to the Lira? A long-run view (Not very good English title)
The euro isn't perfect, but it isn't bad. (Much better Italian title)

Should Italy have her own currency, and run her own monetary policy? For today, let's focus on the long-run question, leaving out for now the transition and any immediate benefits and costs. When contemplating a divorce, it is wise to focus on what life will be like when everything is settled, not just who will have to wash today's stack of dirty dishes.

Remember first that monetary policy cannot substantially improve long-run growth. Long-run growth comes from people and productivity, how much each person can produce per hour of work. In turn, productivity comes from innovation, new companies, new ways doing business, and new products. Like Uber, consumers benefit and existing producers are disrupted. Improvements in long-run growth come only from structural reform, not monetary machination. Money is like oil in a car. Bad monetary policy, like too little oil, can drag an economy down. But after a point more oil will not help you to go faster — you need a bigger engine.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Inflating our troubles away?

These are comments I gave on "Inflating away the public debt? An empirical assessment" by Jens Hilscher, Alon Aviv, and Ricardo Reis at the Becker-Friedman Institute Government Debt: Constraints and Choices conference, April 22 2017, along with generic comments on the conference in general. This post contains mathjax equations.

Long Term Debt

Consider the government debt valuation equation, which states that the real value of nominal government debt equals the present value of primary surpluses.

My first equation expresses this idea with one-period debt, discounted either by marginal utility or by the ex-post return on government debt.
$$\frac{B_{t-1}}{P_t} = E_t \sum_{j=0}^\infty \beta^j \frac{u'(c_{t+j})}{u'(c_t)} s_{t+j} = E_t \sum_{j=0}^\infty \frac{1}{R_{t,t+j}} s_{t+j}$$
(\( P \) is the price level, \( B \) is the face value of nominal debt coming due at \( t \) , \( s \) are real primary surpluses, \( R \) is the real ex-post return on government debt.)

This paper's question is, to what extent can inflation on the left reduce the value of the debt, and hence needed fiscal surpluses on the right. The answer is, not much.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Capital Cause and Effect

Òscar Jordà, Björn Richter, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor wrote a provocative What has bank capital ever done for us? at VoxEu, advertising the underlying paper Bank Capital Redux  (NBER, CEPR link here, google if you can't access either of those)

It starts with a blast:
"Higher capital ratios are unlikely to prevent a financial crisis."
Wow! How do they reach this dramatic conclusion? The post and underlying paper are empirical, collecting a very useful dataset on bank structure across countries and a long period of time. They show, for example, that
bank leverage rose dramatically between 1870 and the second half of the 20th century. In our sample, the average country’s capital ratio decreased from around 30% capital-to-assets to less than 10% in the post-WW2 period (as shown in Figure 1 below) before fluctuating in a range between 5% and 10% in the past decades. 
Here is the very nice Figure 1. (It shows not just how capital has declined, but how reliance on more run-prone wholesale funding has increased.  The fact that capital used to be 30% is one that we need to reiterate over and over again to the crowd that says 30% capital would bring the world to an end.)
With the facts and regressions,
We find that the capital ratio provides virtually no information about the probability of a systemic financial crisis.
Whether used singly or along with credit, higher capital ratios are associated, if anything, with a higher probability of a crisis.
There used to be a lot more capital, and there used to be a lot more financial crises.

Wow. Now, (this is a good quiz question for a class), before you click the "more" button: Do the facts justify the conclusion? And if not why not?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Commentators seem to have noticed a lot of the economics  of the United fiasco: Yes, don't stop auctions at $800. (WSJ review and outlook.) Yes, if you need employees at Louisville so badly, call up American and buy a first class ticket. Book a private jet. Or, heck, you're an airline. Bring up another plane. Don't drag people off planes to save a measly $500.

The one economic point that I haven't seen:  the whole issue also comes down to airlines' use of personalized tickets to price discriminate. (And most of the TSA's job is to enforce that price discrimination by making sure you are the name on the ticket.) If you could resell tickets, the problem would go away. Then the airline must sell only as many tickets as there are seats on the plane, as concerts do. If people aren't going to show, they put their tickets on ebay -- or another quick peer to peer ticket trade platform -- and someone else buys them. Including the airline, if it wants to send employees around. Standby disappears -- want to get on the plane? Bid for a ticket. We still get efficiently full planes -- fuller, even -- nobody ever gets bumped, and the auction for the last seat is going on constantly.

Yes, one of the hardest lessons in economics is that price discrimination can be efficient. Business class cross subsidizes leisure and pays for fixed costs. But the airlines could speculate in their own tickets as well, so its' not clear in a data mining race that scalpers would reap the price discrimination profits better than the airlines themselves.

Holman Jenkins adds, in a brilliant column,
While we’re at it, what’s wrong with Chicago airport security? Did not a single officer say, “I’m having no part of this. If United can’t deal with its overbooking mistakes in a civilized, non-cheapskate way, how is it my job to manhandle innocent customers?” This also smacks of our national malaise—police who need an armored personnel carrier before they’ll roll up and serve a warrant, who wait outside Columbine High until they’re sure the shooting has stopped.
And do not the other passengers rebel at seeing such treatment? Well, maybe not the first time, but I suspect the next time they try to drag a customer off an overbooked plane, there will be a riot.

Update: More at the always excellent Marginal Revolution.  One negative reaction, already on display at United -- the crush to get on the plane first will increase.

Getting on United vs. Southwest is a study in bad incentives. Southwest: you get a number. People peacefully line up when called, and quickly get on the plane. Southwest also gives free (bundled in the ticket price) bags, so people aren't hauling trunkolads of junk for the overheads. United: Board by groups, and now everyone with a credit card is in group 1. They charge for bags. Midway through the scramble for overhead space, the bins fill up, then people have to start swimming upstream with their huge bags to gate check. If ever there was a way to make an airplane board slower, having people swimming against traffic with huge bags is it. The result, you line up like it's the New Delhi airport (or Southwest, circa 1995) and 100 million dollars of United plane plus crew sits on the ground.  I do it too (I'm a rational consumer!) Quite a few times I have had someone show up with a boarding pass with my seat number in it, and being there first makes a big difference.   Another fully rational response -- you really want to be a high mileage customer. The love/hate relationship with United will get deeper.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The second original sin of healthcare regulation

Whenever I advance one or another view of how a relatively free health care and insurance market could work a lot better than the mess we have now, the obvious question comes up: Well, what about the homeless person with a heart attack? You won't let him die in the gutter will you?

No. Of course not. We are a compassionate society. We will provide for poor people, very sick people, those with diminished mental capacity, the unfortunate, the incompetent, or the merely improvident. People don't die in the gutter.  Any half-reasonable health care reform proposal, including mine, provides some system of charity care; whether via medicaid, government run hospitals (VA for everyone, county hospitals), premium subsidies or vouchers, support for charity hospitals, and so forth; and in our society the government will have a big part in this; I do not appeal to private charity alone.  Such systems will also always be a thorn in our public side; as the tension between cost, effectiveness, quality, moral hazard will not magically disappear no matter how nice the promises of their architects, and the fraud, inefficiency, and bureaucracy of anything run by governments will not disappear as well.

But the great puzzle of health care policy: Just why is it, to accommodate this worthy goal, must your and my health care and insurance be so deeply regulated and so thoroughly dysfunctional? As one small example, why does a 20 minute skin check with the resident of my dermatologist generate a phoney baloney bill for over $1000, meaning a cash and carry market for such a simple, elastically demanded, and perfectly predictable service is impossible?

Why, in order to provide for the unfortunate, do we not simply levy taxes, and pay for charity care, and leave the rest of us alone?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Jon Hartley, writing in Forbes, offers a great graph of the overnight Federal Funds rate,

This graph  mirrors nicely the graph I posted last week, from "Deviations from Covered Interest Rate Parity" by Wenxin Du, Alexander Tepper, and Adrien Verdelhan:

What's going on with these quarter-end spikes?

Floating rates?

I was interested to read in the Financial Times, "Iceland weighs plan to peg krona to another currency":
Iceland’s finance minister has admitted it is untenable for the country to maintain its own freely floating currency....Benedikt Johannesson told the Financial Times that the Nordic island of just 330,000 people would look at options to link Iceland’s krona to another currency, most likely the euro or pound.
“Is the status quo untenable? Yes. Everybody agrees on that. We’d like to have a policy that would stabilise the currency. It’s really not good when a currency fluctuates by 10 per cent in the two months since we took over,” said Mr Johannesson, who became finance minister in January. 
The main thing is if you want to peg against a currency, do it against a currency where you do business. Once you decide on a currency, that will also change the future. You will do more business with that area,” he added, pointing to Denmark’s experience of doing more business with Germany after pegging its currency first to the Deutschmark and then the euro.
This is interesting in the context of Conventional Wisdom, which says the euro is a bad idea, and every tiny country needs its own currency, to devalue any time there is a "shock." In this view, Iceland is a great success because it did devalue after its banking crisis. I am a skeptic, largely favoring a common standard of value. Greece did not become a growth tiger from its previous umpteen devaluations. I'm interested that even the supposed success story for devaluation does not see it that way.

Update (via marginal revolution) here at Bloomberg. The idea is controversial.

Everyone wants a float after the fact, to devalue their way out of trouble. But everyone should also want a peg before the fact; the firm commitment that you will not devalue your way out of trouble makes international investment and trade flow much better. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Consumption vs. GDP

Random Critical Analysis has a really interesting blog post from a while ago, on the difference between consumption and income as measures of well being.  The level of data analysis and detail on that blog is really impressive.

The narrow question is whether the US spends "too much" on healthcare. A counterargument has always been, what else should we spend money on? As a society gets wealthier, it's natural to spend more on health care, just as we spend more on art, travel, and so forth.

(The counterargument to that is, whether we spend more or less is beside the point. The point is a dysfunctional regulated oligopoly is charging way too much for what we get. It's not so bad to spend this much, it's bad to get such a bad deal.)

So, the question is not whether the US spends more on health care, the question is whether we spend more on health care relative to a measure of our standard of wealth.  Using GDP as a rough proxy, we spend a lot more on health care relative to GDP than other countries.

But, the larger point of the blog post, on which I'll focus -- consumption is not GDP (income). Americans are far better off relative to other countries than we think we are. See the graph:

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Obamacare Unraveling

I usually leave Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman alone. If you haven't figured them out by now, you are beyond my help.

In particular, Brad a few years ago made fun of me for "predicting" in 2013 that Obamacare exchanges would unravel due to adverse selection. I have so far  resisted the temptation to needle Brad about that as, well... the Obamacare exchanges unraveled due to adverse selection!

But, unbelievably, Brad is doubling down. While recommending again a snarky 2015 Krugman piece, in which even Krugman was not naming his snarks, DeLong writes:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

More covered interest parity

Several correspondents were kind enough to send me additional work on covered interest parity.

There are two big questions (and a third at the end): 1) what force pushes prices out of line? 2) what force stops arbitrageurs from taking advantage of it, and thereby pushing prices back in line?

Covered Interest Parity Lost: Understanding the Cross-Currency Basis by Claudio Borio, Robert McCauley, Patrick McGuire, and Vladyslav Sushko (also "The Failure of Covered Interest Parity") 
point out that the price whose variation drives arbitrage is the forward rate.  
Interest rates in the cash market and the spot exchange rate can be taken as given – these markets are much larger than those for FX derivatives. Hence, it is primarily shifts in the demand for FX swaps or currency swaps that drive forward exchange rates away from CIP and result in a non-zero basis 
So who is putting pressure on forward markets?

Friday, March 24, 2017

More good finance articles

The February Issue of the Journal of Finance made it to the top of my stack, and it has a lot of good articles. The first two especially caught my attention, Who Are the Value and Growth Investors? by Sebastien Bertermeier, Larent Calvet, and Paolo Sodini, and Asset Pricing Without Garbage by Tim Kroencke. A review, followed by more philosophical thoughts.

I  Bertermeier, Calvet, and Sodini. 

Background: Value stocks (low price to book value) outperform growth stocks (high price to book value). Value stocks all move together -- if they fall, they all fall togther -- so this is a "factor risk" not an arbitrage opportunity. But who would not want to take advantage of the value factor? This is an enduring puzzle.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Covered Interest Parity

Here's how covered interest parity works. Think of two ways to invest money, risklessly, for a year. Option 1: buy a one-year CD (conceptually. If you are a bank, or large corporation you do this by a repurchase agreement). Option 2: Buy euros, buy a one-year European CD, and enter a forward contract by which you get dollars back for your euros one year from now, at a predetermined rate. Both are entirely risk free. They should therefore give exactly the same rate of return, by arbitrage. If european interest rates are higher than US interest rates, then the forward price of the euro should be lower, enough to exactly offset the apparent higher return.  If not, then banks can (say), borrow in the US, go through the european option, pay back the US loan and receive an absolutely sure profit.

Of course there are transactions costs, and the borrowing rate is different from the lending rate. But there are also lots of smart long-only investors who will chase a few tenths of a percent of completely riskless yield. So, traditionally, covered interest parity held very well.

An update, thanks to "Deviations from Covered Interest Rate Parity" by Wenxin Du, Alexander Tepper, and Adrien Verdelhan. (Wenxin presented the paper at Stanford GSB recently, hence this blog post.)

The covered interest rate parity relationship fell apart in the financial crisis. And that's understandable. To take advantage of it, you first have to ... borrow dollars. Good luck with that in fall 2008. Long-only investors had more important things on their minds than some cockamaime scheme to invest abroad and use forward markets to gain a half percent per year or so on their abundant (ha!) cash balances.

The amazing thing is, the arbitrage spread has not really closed down since the crisis. See the first graph. [graph follows]

Source: Du, Tepper, and Verhdelhan

What is going on?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Trade insight

Daniel Hannan, a (soon to be unemployed?) UK member of the European Parliament, writes insightfully about trade in the Saturday Wall Street Journal.
It is telling that neither of the Obama administration’s flagship trade deals—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—even had “free trade” in the title. Although they had liberalizing elements, they also contained a great deal of corporatism.
Monitoring TTIP as a member of the European Parliament, I saw plainly enough what was going on: Big multinationals in Europe were getting together with big multinationals in the U.S. and lobbying for more regulation. By combining the most restrictive rules in the EU and the U.S., they aimed to raise barriers to entry and to give themselves an effective monopoly.
There is a deep point here. Our trade treaties have strong elements of managed mercantilism, not free trade, and can serve the interests of global corporations. There is a "better" trade that is also freer trade, and may address some of the political unpopularity of trade deals. Hannan has in mind a very open US-UK bilateral deal, but more deeply states clearly and concisely how better trade deals could work in general
A British-American deal should avoid that danger. How? By focusing on mutual product recognition rather than on common standards. If a drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it should automatically be approved for sale in the U.K. If a trader can practice in the City of London, he should automatically be licensed to practice on Wall Street. And so on.
A commercial deal, in this case as in any other, should have nothing to do with human rights or child labor or climate change. Important as those issues are, they are separate from the free exchange of products.
... Once Britain no longer has to worry about the protectionism of French filmmakers, Italian textile manufacturers and the rest, we should reach a comprehensive agreement covering services as well as goods. If we make sure that the resulting deal is in the interest of consumers rather than producers, we could revive the whole notion of free trade, which is something the world very much needs just now.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Real Fed Issues

The media are usually fixated on the angels on heads of pins question, will she or won't she raise rates 0.25%? As such Fed discussion misses many of the really important issues. Fed’s Challenge, After Raising Rates, May Be Existential by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times is an excellent counterexample and a nice primer on some of the really big issues facing the Federal Reserve -- and the nation -- going forward.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Capital Illogic

More Bank Capital Could Kill the Economy write Tim Congdon and the usually sensible Steve Hanke in today's Wall Street Journal.

I was expecting a quantitative disagreement on plausible channels -- some explicit violation of the Modigliani Miller theorem, some reason that splitting the pizza into 8 slices rather than 4 will help your diet, some argument that relationship lending is inherently tied to short-term funding, and so forth. Instead, we got treated to one of the most illogical conclusions I've seen on the WSJ pages for a long time.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Target the spread

What should the Federal Reserve do, to control inflation, given that

nominal interest rate = real interest rate + expected inflation,

and that real interest rates vary over time in ways that the Fed cannot directly observe? In this post I  explore an idea I've been tossing around for a while: target the spread between nominal and indexed bonds, leaving the level of interest rates to float freely in response to market forces. (It follows Long Run Fed Targets and Michelson Morley and Occam.)

Indexed bonds like TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) pay an interest rate adjusted for inflation. In simple terms, if a one-year indexed bond offers 1%, you actually get 1% + the rate of CPI inflation at the end of the year. So, with some qualifications (below), markets settle down to

nominal interest rate = indexed rate + expected inflation  

The Fed already uses this fact extensively to read market expectations of inflation from the difference between long-term nominal and indexed rates. 

My modest proposal is that the Fed should (perhaps, see below) target the spread, and thereby force expected inflation to conform to its will. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Russ Roberts on Economic Humility

Russ Roberts has an excellent essay, What do economists know? on economic humility. (HT Marginal Revolution)
A journalist once asked me how many jobs NAFTA had created or destroyed. I told him I had no reliable idea. ... 
The journalist got annoyed. “You’re a professional economist. You’re ducking my question.” I disgreed. I am answering your question, I told him. You just don’t like the answer. 
A lot of professional economists have a different attitude. They will tell you how many jobs will be lost because of an increase in the minimum wage or that an increase in the minimum wage will create jobs. They will tell you how many jobs have been lost because of increased trade with China and the amount that wages fell for workers with a particular level of education because of that trade. They will tell you that inequality lowers health or that trade with China reduces the marriage rate or encourages suicide among manufacturing workers. They will tell you whether smaller classrooms improve test scores and by how much. And they will tell you things that are much more complex — what caused the financial crisis and why its aftermath led to a lower level of employment and by how much.
And Russ continues, with great clarity, to explain just how uncertain all those estimates are.

So what do economists know? As Russ points out, much of these kind of estimates are not really produced by economics

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Long Run Fed Targets

What should the Fed's long-run interest rate target be? The traditional view is that the glide path should aim at 4% -- 2% real plus 2% inflation.


One big question being debated right now is whether the "natural'' real rate of interest -- r* or "r-star" in econspeak -- has declined below 2%.

Over the long run, the Fed cannot control the real rate of interest -- that comes from how much people want to save and what opportunities there are for investment, i.e. the marginal product of capital. So, if the real rate of interest is now permanently lower, say 1%, then one might argue that the glide path should aim for 3% long-run interest rate -- 1% real plus 2% inflation target -- not 4%.

Janet Yellen recently came to Stanford and gave a very interesting speech that talked in part about a lower r-star, and seemed to be heading to something like this view. See the picture:

Source: Federal Reserve. 

(She also talked a lot about Taylor Rules, seeming to move much closer to John Taylor's view of how to implement monetary policy. See interesting coverage on John Taylor's blog. On r*, see Measuring the Natural Rate of Interest Redux by Thomas Laubach and John C. Williams for a central paper on r*. Henrike Michaelis and Volker Wieland have an interesting post on r* and Taylor rules, also commenting on Ms. Yellen's speech.)

Of course, cynics will say that it's just the latest excuse not to raise rates. But these are serious arguments which should be considered on their merits.


Should the glidepath head to 3% interest rates? Maybe not. How about zero?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Miserable 21st Century

Nicholas Eberstadt in Commentary, (HT Marginal Revolution) offers a revealing look at what's wrong with "middle" America's stagnation. Read the whole thing, but the following snapshot jumped out at me.

He starts with a review, probably familiar to readers of this blog, of the sharp decline in work rates, even among prime-age men and women.
As of late 2016, the adult work rate in America was still at its lowest level in more than 30 years. To put things another way: If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.
Why are so many not working, not studying for work, and not even looking for work? What is going on in their lives? One answer:
The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century...
According to [Alan Krueger's] work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis.
I think Krueger had a different idea in mind: that they are in pain, indicated by medication, so can't be expected to work. How the explosion in disability jibes with a much safer workplace is an interesting puzzle to that view. Eberstadt has a different interpretation, and the lovely thing about facts is they are facts, not interpretations.
We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.

Trump Derangement Syndrome

On Sundays it has been my habit to read the New York Times Sunday Review. I like to peer in the bubble. On view, the old lady is still full-on foaming at the mouth with Trump Derangement Syndrome. Sunday's Review:

  1. Our Putin
  2. Bring Back Hypocrisy ("The American President and the American Way of Lying") 
  3. Donald Trump Will Numb you
  4. When it's time to blow the whistle (why leaking Flynn's private phone conversations is ok)
  5. Are Liberals Helping Trump?
  6. The Secret Service of the Skies (Trump flying is closing down airports.) 
  7. New Yalta (Trump, Putin and Xi photoshpped on to Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill at Yalta) 
  8. Being First Lady is a Job (OK, MDS not TDS, but I still count it. ) 
  9. Unnamed Sources, Happy Readers (more it's ok to leak private phone calls in service of TDS) 
  10. Where in the world can we find hope? "In Canda and Denmark creative strategists fight right-wing populism. "
  11. Breaking the Anti-Immigrant fever ("Americans have been watching the Trump Administration unfold for almost a month now, in all its malevolent incompetence...." ) 
  12. Trapped in Trump's Brain.
  13. How can we get rid of Trump? 
  14. Beltway panic, Wall Street Zero? 
  15. Diagnosing the President (Is he mentally ill?)
  16. Trump's Wall Won't Keep out Heroin.
  17. A Muslim Bank is Unscientific.

All TDS, all the time. There were only 5 pieces that were not, directly, foaming at the mouth about Trump. The old pretense of "balance" with one or two token opposing opinions is completely gone.  There were none -- none -- that offered an inking as to how people in the Administration see things, how Republicans cooperating with the Administration see things, or how the nearly half of the country that voted for Trump sees things. I don't agree with much of what's going on either, but I like to try to understand how they articulate their views. 

And then we wring our hands about polarization. 

Dear Times, get a grip.  America needs a thoughtful opposition, especially now.