Friday, December 7, 2018

Canadian Debt

Corey Garriott, Sophie Lefebvre, Guillaume Nolin, Francisco Rivadeneyra and Adrian Walton at the Bank of Canada have issued a thoughtful and crisply written proposal for restructuring Canadian government debt, titled Alternative Futures for Government of Canada Debt Management.

Their third and fourth ideas are the most radical and attractive to me: Replace all government debt with 1) a set of zero-coupon bonds issued on a fixed schedule and/or  2) a long perpetutity, a long indexed perpetuity, and fixed-value, floating-rate short term debt, essentially the same as interest-paying central bank reserves or a money market fund. (Naturally I like it, since it draws on my "new structure for Federal Debt")

Why? Well, a simpler and smaller set of securities would be more liquid.
...investors will pay more in the primary market for assets they believe will be more liquid. Thus, issuing assets that are more liquid would decrease the issuer’s costs. ... a decrease in the total cost of funding of just one basis point would save the government $68 million annually
There is a social benefit as well. We hear a lot about "safe asset shortage," and the need for liquidity. Well, the easiest way to create safe liquid assets is to make the safe assets more liquid!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Brexit and democracy

Tyler Cowen has a very interesting Bloomberg column on Brexit. Essentially, he views the UK getting this right -- which I agree it does not seem to be doing -- as a crucial test of democracy. Tyler notes that the current agreement serves neither leave nor remain sides well.
Brexit nonetheless presents a decision problem in its purest form. It is a test of human ingenuity and reasonableness, of our ability to compromise and solve problems...
The huge barrier, of course, is the democratic nature of the government.... 
So many of humanity’s core problems — addressing climate change, improving education, boosting innovation — ultimately have the same structure as “fixing Brexit.” It’s just that these other problems come in less transparent form and without such a firm deadline. We face tournament-like choices and perhaps we will not end up doing the right thing.
...Brexit would likely cost the U.K. about 2 percent of GDP, a fair estimate in my view. But that is not the only thing at stake here. Humanity is on trial — more specifically, its collective decision-making capacity — and it is the U.K. standing in the dock. 
I guess I have a different view of the merits and defects of democracy. My view is somewhat like the famous Churchill quote, "democracy is the worst form of Government. Except for all those other forms."

Democracy does not give us speedy technocratically optimal solutions to complex questions revolving around 2 percentage points of GDP. Democracy, and US democracy in particular, serves one great purpose -- to guard against tyranny. That's what the US colonists were upset about, not the fine points of tariff treaties. US and UK Democracy, when paired with the complex web of checks and balances and rule of law protections and constitutions and so forth, has been pretty good at throwing the bums out before they get too big for their britches. At least it has done so better than any other system.

2 percentage points of GDP? Inability to tackle long run issues? Let's just think of some of Democracy's immense failures that put the Brexit muddle to shame. The US was unable to resolve slavery, for nearly 100 years, without civil war. Democracies dithered in the 1930s and appeased Hitler.  The scar of Vietnam  is still festering in US polarization today. On the continent, when France stood for democracy and Germany for autocracy, France's defense decisions failed dramatically in 1914 and 1939.

And if we want to raise UK GDP by 2 percentage points, with free-market reforms, there is a lot worse than Brexit simmering on the front burner. A team from Cato and Hoover could probably raise GDP by 20 percent inside a year. If anyone would pay the slightest attention to us.

Yes, Brexit is a muddle which nobody will be happy with, until the UK decides if it really would rather remain or become a free-market beacon on the edge of the continent. But do not judge democracy on it. Democracy's errors as the mechanism for collective decision-making capacity have been far worse. And then there are the failures of all the other options.

Canadian non-QE

Friday at Hoover we will have a series of events reexamining the lessons of the financial crisis and recession. (There is a public event here, in case you're interested. Presenters include George Schultz, John Taylor, Niall Ferguson, Caroline Hoxby and Darrell Duffie.)

In preparing a presentation on QE, I stumbled across the following fact.



1) Canada did not do QE, quantitative easing. (Kjell Nyborg showed us this fact in a very interesting finance seminar on a different topic -- European banks are borrowing from the ECB using rotten collateral)


2) Use vs. Canadian 10 year government bond rates were nearly identical in the QE period.

Conventional wisdom states that US QE lowered interest rates by 1%. I am a skeptic, and this graph reinforces my skepticism.

One might say that the US exports its monetary policy effects to Canada. But the Canadian Dollar is its own currency, so exchange rates, not interest rates should soak up that difference.

One can complain in many ways, but this seems to me to add to the view that QE didn't even change interest rates.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Taylor on China and Trade and Ideas

Tim Taylor, also reviewing Summers on China, makes a few excellent points.

Growth comes from within. Trade is not conquest.
The formula for economic growth is to invest in human capital, physical capital, and technology, in an economic environment that provides incentives for hard work, efficiency, and innovation. China has made dramatic changes in all of these areas, and they are the main drivers behind China's extraordinary economic growth in the last four decades, and its expectation of above-global-average growth heading into the future.
No matter your views of China's trade surplus, there's no sensible economic theory which suggests that China's trade surplus, which as a share of GDP is relatively small, is a major driver of China's growth....
Conversely, the US economy has not done a great job of investing in the fundamentals of economic growth.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Summers on China

(Continues from my last post on China trade)

Larry Summers has a good Financial Times oped on the same subject, titled "Washington may bluster but cannot stifle the Chinese economy."  He puts well the point of my previous post:
At the heart of the US’s problem in defining an economic strategy towards China is the following awkward fact. Suppose China had been fully compliant with every trade and investment rule and had been as open to the world as the most open countries at its income level. China might have grown faster because it reformed more rapidly or it might have grown more slowly because of reduced subsidies or more foreign competition. But it is highly unlikely that its growth rate would have been altered by as much as 1 percentage point.
Equally, while some US companies might earn more profits operating in China [IP sharing requirements] and some job displacement in American manufacturing due to Chinese state subsidies may have occurred, it cannot be argued seriously that unfair Chinese trade practices have affected US growth by even 0.1 per cent a year.
Larry gives more voice to China critiques than I do, which is excellent. One should listen to what people are saying, understand their objectives, and if one disagrees on outcomes -- tariffs -- usually it is because one believes a common objective has a preferable means of achievement. 

Yes, China misbehaves, to the annoyance mostly of producers in other countries and their mercantilist governments:

Flowers not tariffs

I wrote a little commentary on trade for The Hill, which they titled "The US should give China Flowers not Tariffs." Chocolates too.

Source: The Hill
(The facial expressions in the picture are priceless) 

The US should Give China Flowers not Tariffs

Trump and Xi met, and declared a 90 day cease fire. Where will this end? It’s hard to forecast. Our commander in chief is less predictable than the stock market. But we can opine on what should happen. And we can look for interest — what is in everybody’s interest to have happen? 

That answer is clear: Come to a quick deal, declare victory, and get back to work fixing real economic problems. China makes some commitments about intellectual property (reasonably good for both sides, though not as important as all the fuss makes it seem); China makes some promises to buy American goods (crony capitalist mercantilism, but it makes politicians feel good); the US announces the 25% tariffs are off the table. Both politicians announce a great triumph. In sum, roughly what happened with NAFTA. Better still, we could do some reciprocal opening: repeal the 25% tariff on pickup trucks, and our own restrictions on foreign investments.

Large additional tariffs would be terrible for the US economy. Tariffs are taxes. Traditionally anti-tax Republicans, fresh off a hard-won victory to lower corporate taxes, should get that. And these taxes are starting to bite. For just one example, GM’s decision to close car plants was not completely unaffected by the price of steel and aluminum needed to make cars. And the constant threat of tariffs is in some ways worse than tariffs themselves. Companies managing global supply chains need to know where and how to invest. Big uncertainty postpones those investments. The point of the corporate tax cut was to encourage companies to invest. The threat of tariffs undoes that incentive.

Big tariffs, with exemptions granted on a discretionary basis, are corrosive to our political system. The rest of the admirable deregulatory effort is trying to get government agencies out of this racket.  

If it ever was true that China stole our jobs, that’s not today’s problem. With a 3.9% unemployment rate, employers can’t find enough qualified workers. Our economy needs efficiency and productivity to grow, not protection for some and high prices for others.

The US economy is doing well, but it’s an iffy time. When does the long expansion end and the next recession come? Storm clouds are gathering. The stock market is dribbling down. Auto sales, home prices and sales are softening. America remains waist-deep in debt. With split government, there will be no significant economic legislation legislation for the next two years, and the House will do everything they can to stymie the deregulation effort. A big disruption of trade and immigration is a self-inflicted wound at a bad time.

It’s an even iffier time for China. Be careful what you wish for. A major downturn in China, which could well lead to financial crisis, could be just the spark for a global recession. 

What’s the long run goal? The right approach to trade is simple: zero tariffs or restrictions. Americans are free to buy from the cheapest and best supplier. Whether foreigners put in tariffs or not is irrelevant to that conclusion.

Trade is no different than new companies that can produce things cheaper or better. And just as hurtful to old companies and their workers, but we generally see that it’s unwise to stop innovation. Trade between countries is no different than trade between states, and we all recognize that tariffs between states are a terrible idea. 

Any money that goes to China to buy goods must — must, this is arithmetic, not economics — come back. It just comes back to a less politically favored industry. To the extent that trade is “imbalanced,” that means China works hard, puts goods on boats, and takes our government bonds in return. Would we really be better off if we worked hard, put the fruits of our labor on boats, in exchange for Chinese government bonds?  Paper and promises are cheap. 

If China wants to tax her citizens to subsidize goods for US consumers, the right answer is flowers, chocolates and a nice thank-you card, as you would for any gift. Even intellectual property protection is an iffy cause. Theft is bad. But if selling the technology isn’t worth the market access, US companies don’t have to do it. Moreover, much intellectual property protection is the right to just the kind of continuing profits that we bemoan at home, in the new worry about increasing monopoly. Just how enthusiastic are we about defending pharmaceutical companies’ right to charge whatever they want in the US for their intellectual property? 

If one wants to help the US economy, effort is far best spent at home — fix health care, financial regulation, the obscene tax code, zoning, occupational licensing, labor laws and on and on. The rewards are infinitely larger than any imaginable benefit from trade threats. 

US GDP per capita is $60,000. China’s is $9,000. The average American is more than six times better off than the average Chinese.  The air in Beijing is unbreathable. For the US to complain about China hurting us is like the captain of the football team complaining that a six grader cheated him out of lunch money. 

Even in the best case, tariffs and trade restrictions are zero sum — they make the US better off by making China worse off. There is no case that they increase the size of the pie. In fact they make us all worse off. Is this America’s place in the world? Would we send in the marines to take wealth from Chinese people to benefit Americans? That’s the case for tariffs.

The idea that we can use tariffs to threaten China into freer trade is dangerous. It’s hard to credibly threaten to do something that hurts us, without denying that it does hurt us, and then getting trapped doing it. It took decades to get rid of the trade restrictions of the 1930s. 

We should get a grip, set a standard for good self-interested free-trade behavior, and work with our allies to get China to obey the same rules. Such a China is far more likely to cooperate on security issues than one already at war with us over trade.

Update: 

I left out lots of obvious pot shots. An obvious one: Sanctions on North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Russia,  and so forth are designed to.. reduce imports. So we are doing to ourselves exactly what we are doing to them.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Financing innovation

I went to the Financing of Innovation summit at Stanford GSB last Thursday. (Sorry, I can't seem to find a full program online.) Here is a sample of two interesting papers, presented by Amit Seru and Steve Kaplan:


Friday, November 30, 2018

Opinions change

Source:David Brady and Mo Fiorina
My Hoover colleagues David Brady and Mo Fiorina gave a recent talk updating some of their work on polling American political opinions. I found this one particularly interesting. Notice how after President Obama's first win in 2008, the fraction of Democrats reporting that the economy is getting better jumped from 10% to 50%. The Republican fraction declined, though not as much. When Trump was elected in 2016, the Republican opinion jumped from 15% to 80%, and Democrats fell from 60% to 25%.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Financial reform video


Capital, more capital. I did a video interview for the Chicago Booth Review, summarizing a few talks I'm giving this fall. At some point I'll put the talks together in useful form for the blog. In the meantime, the Booth team did a nice job of cutting and splicing to make me sound coherent. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

ASU forecast luncheon

On Wed Nov 28 I will be giving a talk at the ASU Forecast Luncheon in Phoenix. Blog readers will likely be bored, as I'm going to unapologetically recycle blog material, emphasizing strategies for long run growth. But you may find it amusing, and do say hi if you're one of my dozens of readers.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Imagine what we could cure

A WSJ oped with J J Plecs, formerly of Roam Analytics, which does a lot of health related data work.
The discovery that cigarettes cause cancer greatly improved human health. But that discovery didn’t happen in a lab or spring from clinical trials. It came from careful analysis of mounds of data.
Imagine what we could learn today from big-data analysis of everyone’s health records: our conditions, treatments and outcomes. Then throw in genetic data, information on local environmental conditions, exercise and lifestyle habits and even the treasure troves accumulated by Google and Facebook...
So why isn’t it already happening?..., the full potential of health-care data analysis is blocked by regulation... medical-data regulations go far beyond what’s needed to prevent concrete harm to consumers, and underestimate the data’s enormous value.... 
I'll post whole thing in 30 days. In addition to  RoamTafi and Datavant are two other companies I'm aware of working on this issue.

Update: 

Bob Borek, Head of Marketing, Datavant wrote to describe their effort to keep lots of data while protecting privacy:
We connect de-identified patient data. In short, as part of the process of de-identification, we create encrypted tokens that are built from the underlying PHI. The encrypted tokens allow patient records to be joined across data sets on a de-identified basis, without ever revealing the underlying PHI. In contrast to the Safe Harbor method, which - as you correctly point out - removes much of the information that would make data analytically valuable, our approach can be certified under HIPAA's Expert Determination method, allowing our clients to both join data for analysis and respect patient privacy. We're already seeing exciting new use cases, from rare disease patient finding to designing real-world evidence trials; from payers and providers building targeted intervention programs to life sciences companies forming go-to-market strategies around intelligent physician targeting.   

Update 2 the FDA sentinel initiative implements one approach to these issues. The data stays secure, but you're allowed to make queries, i.e. basically to run regressions on the FDA server.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

Regulatory cost disease

A post on Marginal Revolution is so good, I have to quote in its entirety before commenting.
From my time in both the military and healthcare I can say that the biggest problem are the compliance costs.

For example, I have a phone app that allows me to send texts. We pay very good money to have said app. It does nothing that my phone cannot innately do – except be HIPAA compliant. EMR software is clunky, an active time suck, and adds little or no value … but we are required by law to use it. In each case there are scads of less specific programs out there which are insanely cheaper and more functional, but those programs cannot justify the costs of becoming compliant for a small niche of their business.

In the military we had similar difficulties. If you want systems to be secure, you need to pay extra as the marketplace does not do real security for consumer goods. Likewise, if you worry about logistical tails, building in assured access drastically increases costs.

And I fully suspect that prices will continue to diverge. As ever more of the internet ends up in a giant interconnected mess there will be fewer people able to code in a secure fashion. There will be fewer parts of the ecosystem that can be used by security conscious actors.

Then we get to actual procurement itself. People worry that arcane institutions will somehow make off with lots of money and spend it either poorly or nefariously. Absent easily observed price and cost data in both sectors we began developing rules. These rules drive firms out of the market (e.g. we needed some light interior remodeling to comply with a regulation that specified inches between things, the contractor who has been most affordable and highest quality refused to bid because the hassle on his side was too great). Eventually the rules become too complicated and you start needing specialists to interpret them. Costs skyrocket and firms abuse rules to pad profits. Then the lawyers get involved and things get more expensive. Again, medical and military consumers become a captive market facing greater monopoly as fewer firms can navigate the thicket of rules to even try to make money.

Then we have the problem that people look at these sectors and say that it is public money. All public money should help with goal X (e.g. going “green”, affirmative action, boycotting South Africa/Israel, patriotism, “America first”) and then we become even more overly constrained. Find vendors who meet one hurdle is hard, finding ones that meet 30 is nigh unto impossible unless the vendor is engineering the firm to market solely to this niche – and charging monopoly rates as his reward.

Any single thing would not be too bad for prices, but the marketplace in general is diverging from military and healthcare. Even education is diverging with mandates in FERPA and political business constraints. We have pretty effectively restricted supply, why exactly would we not expect an increase in cost?
This story seems much broader than just healthcare and military procurement. The story also clarifies a bit why it's going to be hard to fix. The thicket of regulations often have a purpose -- security, to protect patent privacy, or more importantly, for military applications. But we do not often ask properly what the cost of extra regulations is. Even well done cost benefit analyses tend to take the supplier network as given, and ask what it will cost them to add just one more step. That the network will shrink and the number of potential entrants shrink more -- the best protection against monopoly power -- is really not part of any cost benefit analysis. The note also points slightly to the public choice problem. The few companies who become specialists at meeting regulations become advocates for the regulations, which puts them in fine position with the army of bureaucrats who promulgate and enforce regulations.  Yes, military text messages probably need high security. Does every doctor's text message to a patient need the same?

It doesn't take long to see in this post a reading of many contemporary economic ills. The perception of increasing monopoly power fits well. The decrease of small business formation and increasing size of businesses fits. And we can think of a number of industries that have the same problem. Banking is obvious.

General aviation is a tiny, but clear example.  Go to your local airport, and contrast the ramp (where planes park) to the parking lot. The ramp is typically an excellent example of a Cuban used car lot. Lovingly maintained aircraft either from the 1950s or designed in the 1950s predominate.  Beautiful, yes, to nostalgic eyes, but not exactly practical. Small aircraft engines are much less reliable than automobile engines. Why? Well, they all must be FAA certified, and it's not worth the cost to certify, say, a new model of spark plug. The parking lot is full of Teslas. Well, in Palo Alto. BMWs elsewhere. But stuffed with the latest technology. Planes are not inherently more durable than cars. They're just regulated differently.

The HIPAA regulations, making electronic medical records every doctor's nightmare, and adding billions to costs, are actually an improvement. We can all remember the not too distant past, and sometimes still present, that doctors needed us to fax things around, because of the same regulations.

The central point of the story is the interplay of new technology and regulation. Our technology has huge fixed costs.  Commercial off the shelf technology, usually "pretty darn good" is amazingly cheap and effective. Specialized technology written to constantly evolving regulation is nightmarishly expensive, and usually not very good. And leads to cronyism and monopoly. The cost of regulation is higher than you think. Make sure the benefits are appropriate.


Friday, November 9, 2018

Carbon Tax

Source: Seattle Times
"The carbon tax is dead; long live the carbon tax" is the headline of Tyler Cowen's Bloomberg column on the failed (again) Washington State carbon tax.  And rather decisively, per the picture on the left.

"Maybe its failure on the ballot in Washington state will inspire economists to come up with better arguments" challenges the subhead. I can't resist.

The key question for a carbon tax is, what do you get in return? What do you do with the money? Washington's carbon tax would have, according to the Seattle Times,
It would have taken effect in 2020, rising year after year to finance a multibillion-dollar spending surge intended to cut Washington greenhouse-gas emissions. The initiative reflected proponents’ faith that an activist government can play a key role in speeding up a transition to cleaner fuels.
The fee would have raised more than $1 billion annually by 2023, with spending decisions to be made by a governor-appointed board as well as the state’s utilities
Well, perhaps the voters of Washington State were not so much against a carbon tax per se, but had less than full faith that a large increase in green boondoggle spending by Washington State government was a good idea. They need only to look south at California's high speed train to see cost-benefit analysis at work in dollars per ton of carbon saved.

And in fact it violates the whole idea of a carbon tax. The point of a carbon tax is to give people and businesses an incentive to figure out their own ways to cut carbon emissions. The whole point is not to fund big government projects. If you want to fund big government projects, you do it out of the broadest based and fairest tax you can find.

As Tyler suggested,
But maybe it’s time for a change in tactics. These new approaches might start with the notion that we can address climate change without transferring more money from voters to politicians.
Here are three ideas:

Idea 1: One answer is obvious: a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Use the carbon tax to offset other taxes. Tyler anticipates this with
The economist can respond, correctly, that a carbon tax will ease the path to greener outcomes, and that other taxes can be cut as recompense if necessary. But it seems right now there is not enough trust for such a grand bargain to be struck. 
Perhaps. But if the carbon tax were coupled with an explicit reduction in other taxes, it might help to convince people. If carbon taxes were coupled with elimination of other taxes, it would help more. Taxes are like zombies. If you just lower the rates they tend to come back. If you eliminate them entirely, perhaps requiring referendum for their reinstatement, there can be more trust. Couple the carbon tax with elimination of, say, state property taxes, income taxes, or sales taxes.

And in the end we all know taxes must equal spending. You can convince voters there won't be more taxes if there isn't more spending. Advertising the carbon tax as a substitute for carbon spending; simultaneously eliminating green boondoggles, would help to seal the deal.

Idea 2: The Baker-Shultz plan, or Americans for Carbon Dividends, (previous blog post here) has another bright idea: Send the proceeds back to the voters. Write everyone a nice check. This ensures that the money doesn't go to boondoggles, and gives every voter a stake in keeping the scheme going. It is highly progressive, which Democrats should like.

I had a similar idea a while ago: Rather than a tax, give each American a right to, say x tons of carbon emissions that they can sell on a carbon market. That also gives everyone an incentive to vote for the system. And it states the issue squarely. You, a voter, are having your air polluted. You have a right to collect on that damage. It makes it clear that carbon is a fee, a penalty, not a "tax." The point is to disincentivize the use of carbon, not to raise revenue for the government to spend. "Tax" is a loaded word in American culture and politics. Carbon rights takes the whole discussion away from "tax."

Idea 3: Lastly, one could pair the carbon tax and fee with a trade: A hefty fee, in return for elimination of all the other carbon subsidies and regulations. To those who don't believe in climate change: ok, but our government is going to do all sorts of crazy stuff. Let's cut out the rot and just pay a simple fee instead. No more electric car subsidies -- $15 k from taxpayers to each Tesla owner in Palo Alto -- HOV lanes, windmill subsidies, rooftop solar mandates, washing machines that don't wash clothes anymore (hint: do NOT buy any washing machine built since Jan 1 2018), and so on and so forth.

I think on the left the strategy has been to ramp up climate hysteria: if we just yell louder and demonize opponents more, the voters will buy it. No matter how much of a problem you think climate is, let's admit that's not working. In part the claims are now so over the top that everyone can tell it's gone too far. No, the way to put out fires in California is not to build a high speed train.

When, in the name of science the IPCC writes things like this -- right up front in the executive summary --
D3.2. ...For example, if poorly designed or implemented, adaptation projects in a range of sectors can increase... increase gender and social inequality... adaptations that include attention to poverty and sustainable development (high confidence).  
D6. Sustainable development supports, and often enables, the fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations that help limit global warming to 1.5°C. ... in conjunction with poverty eradication and efforts to reduce inequalities (high confidence).... 
D6.1. Social justice and equity are core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways that aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C... 
D7.2. Cooperation on strengthened accountable multilevel governance that includes non-state actors such as industry, civil society and scientific institutions, coordinated sectoral and cross-sectoral policies at various governance levels, gender-sensitive policies.... (high confidence). 
D7.4. Collective efforts at all levels, ... taking into account equity as well as effectiveness, can facilitate strengthening the global response to climate change, achieving sustainable development and eradicating poverty (high confidence)
You can't blame the suspicious Washington State voter from wondering if perhaps a larger agenda isn't being financed here.

There is a sensible middle. Voters who want to do something about carbon, but not finance massive boondoggles or a collectivist progressive agenda. Environmentalists who want to do something about carbon that actually will work. Skeptics who understand, as long as we're going to so something, let's do it efficiently via a carbon fee rather than at massive cost as we are doing now.



Thursday, November 8, 2018

Europe's Banks

My visit to Europe resulted in many interesting conversations. There was a stark contrast between the complex regulatory vision of formal presentations and papers, and the lunch and coffee discussion reflecting experience of people involved in actually regulating banks. They seemed to be quite frustrated by the state of things. Disclaimer: this is all completely unverified gossip, and remembered through a fog of jet lag. If commenters have better facts, I'm hungry to hear them.

Risk weights are ungodly complex, and not many people actually understand them, or the layers of buffers and how they are applied.

Risk weights are suspiciously low. Big banks are allowed to use their own models, calibrated on 10 years of data. That means the data have, now, 10 years of stable growth and very low default. Look, say the banks, our investments are nearly risk free.

"Micro" regulators who look at the specifics of an individual bank are prone to offset the "systemic" and "macro-prudential" efforts. Look, say the banks, we have to fulfill all these macro-prudential rules, give us a break. Regulators do.

The financial regulatory community has been preoccupied with writing reports about one thing after another. Meanwhile, the elephant remains in the room:  Italy may default or leave the euro.

Italian banks remain stuffed with Italian government bonds. I learned some new words for this: a "doom loop." If the government defaults, the banks go with it.  Some smaller foreign banks still have large investments in Italian bonds. Another new word: "Moral suasion," governments encouraging banks to buy a lot of their bonds.  I imagine the Godfather had more colorful words for it. On the other hand, Italian banks are reportedly happy for the moment, since as long as Italy doesn't actually default, they make a bundle from high interest rates. Government debt is still treated with low or no risk weights.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

State of thought on financial regulation

I'm at a conference on "Financial cycles and regulation" at the Deutsche Bundesbank. Beyond the individual papers, I find the conversation interesting.

Groups of researchers develop a common language and a common set of assumptions. This is productive -- to push a research frontier we have to agree on a few basic ideas, rather than argue about basics all the time. I, as an outsider, parachute in, and learn as much what the shared assumptions are, as I do about particular points in elaboration of the program.

Here,  it is pretty much taken for granted that there is such a thing as a "financial cycle." It's in the conference title, after all! That means a "cycle" of credit expansion, usually "unwarranted," "excessive," or an "imbalanced," followed by a bust. It is also agreed that it is the job of financial regulators to manage this "cycle."

Monday, November 5, 2018

Kotlikoff on the Big Con

In preparing some talks on the financial crisis, 10 years later, I ran across a very nice article, The Big Con -- Reassessing the "Great" Recession and its "Fix" by Larry Kotlikoff. (Here, if the first link doesn't work.) 

Larry is also the author of Jimmy Stewart is Dead – Ending the World's Ongoing Financial Plague with Limited Purpose Banking, from 2010, which along with Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig's The Bankers' New Clothes is one of the central works outlining the possibility of equity-financed banking and narrow deposit-taking, and how it could end financial crises forever at essentially no cost.

Larry points out that the crisis was, centrally a run. He calls it a "multiple equilibrium."  Financial institutions have promised people they can have their money back in full, at any time, but they have invested that money in illiquid and risky assets. When people all do that at the same time, the system fails. Such a run is inherently unpredictable. If you know it's happening tomorrow, you run to get your money out and it happens today.

This is a common view echoed by many others, including Ben Bernanke. What's distinctive about Larry's essay is that he pursues the logical conclusion of this view. If the crisis was, centrally, a run, all the other things that are alluded to as causes of the crisis are not really central.  Short-term debt, run-prone liabilities are gas in the basement. Just what causes the spark, how big the firehouse is, are not central, as without gas in the basement the spark would not cause a fire.

Larry puts it all together nicely by starting with the 2011 Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report:
"There was an explosion in risky subprime lending and securitization, an unsustainable rise in housing prices, widespread reports of egregious and predatory lending practices, dramatic increases in household mortgage debt, and exponential growth in financial firms’ trading activities, unregulated derivatives, and short-term “repo” lending markets, among many other red flags. Yet there was pervasive permissiveness; little meaningful action was taken to quell the threats in a timely manner. "
Larry then takes apart each of these non-culprits, as below.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Cross subsidies and monopolization, explained

I found a beautiful, clear, detailed, fact-based, and devastating explanation of how forced cross-subsidies, monopolized markets, and lack of competition conspire to strangle the American health care system.

No, this was not on some goofy libertarian website. It was in the official Voter Information Guide, for the ultra-progressive state of California, authored by "the legislative analyst." Whether the analyst is a secret libertarian struggling to get the word out, or simply that this is so much the way of doing things in California that nobody notices the scandal of it all, I do not know.

Starting on p. 62, with my emphasis
911 EMERGENCY MEDICAL TRANSPORTATION

Ambulances Provide Emergency Medical Care and Transportation. When a 911 call is made for medical help, an ambulance crew is sent to the location. ... (Ambulances also provide nonemergency rides to hospitals or doctors’ offices when a patient needs treatment or testing.)

Private Companies Operate Most Ambulances. ...  State law requires ambulances to transport all patients, even patients who have no health insurance and cannot pay. ... 
Commercial Insurance Pays More for Ambulance Trips Than Government Insurance Pays. The average cost of an ambulance trip in California is about $750. Medicare and Medi-Cal pay ambulance companies a fixed amount for each trip. Medicare pays about $450 per trip and Medi-Cal pays about $100 per trip. As a result, ambulance companies lose money transporting Medicare and Medi-Cal patients. Ambulance companies also lose money when they transport patients with no insurance. This is because these patients typically cannot pay for these trips. To make up for these losses, ambulance companies bill patients with commercial insurance more than the average cost of an ambulance trip. On average, commercial insurers pay $1,800 per trip, more than double the cost of a typical ambulance ride.
Not stated, just why do commercial insurers put up with this? The answer is, that you need government approval to run an insurance company in California, and an insurer who said "we're not paying for that" won't be allowed to do business in California.

Also not stated, just what happens to you if you don't have health insurance but actually are the type who pays your bills? Good luck.
THE EMERGENCY AMBULANCE INDUSTRY

Counties Select Main Ambulance Providers. County agencies divide the county into several zones. The ambulance company that is chosen to serve each zone has the exclusive right to respond to all emergency calls in that area.
If you want to know why there is no competition in the 911 ambulance industry, now you know. I don't know about private, non-911 ambulances. Is this all just exploiting the convenience of 911? Can you get a competitively priced ambulance ride if you know who to call?
The company generates revenue by collecting payments from patients’ insurers. In exchange, the ambulance company pays the county for the right to provide ambulance trips in that area. The county typically chooses the ambulance company through a competitive bidding process....
So cash strapped counties are in on the business of fleecing insurance companies, and through them, people and businesses who pay premiums.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Supply-side health care

The discussion over health policy rages over who will pay -- private insurance, companies, "single payer," Obamacare, VA, Medicare, Medicaid, and so on -- as if once that's decided everything is all right -- as if once we figure out who is paying the check, the provision of health care is as straightforward a service as the provision of restaurant food, tax advice, contracting services, airline travel, car repair, or any other reasonably functional market for complex services.

As anyone who has ever visited a hospital knows, this is nowhere near the case. The health care market in the US is profoundly screwed up. The ridiculous bills you get after the fact are only one sign of evident dysfunction. The dysfunction comes down to a simple core: lack of competition. Airlines would love to charge you the way hospitals do. But if they try, competitors will come in and offer clearer, simpler and better service at a lower price.

Fixing the supply of health care strikes me as the policy win-win. Instead of the standard left-right screaming match, "we're spending too much," "you heartless monster, people will die," a more competitive health care market giving us better service at lower cost, making a cash market possible, makes everyone's goals come closer.

But even health insurance and payment policy is simple compared to the dark web of restrictions that keep health care so uncompetitive. That is deliberate. Complexity serves a purpose -- it protects anti competitive behavior from reform. It's hard for observers like me to understand what's really going on, what the roots of evident pathology are, and what policy steps (or backward steps) might fix them.

Into this breach steps a very nice article in today's WSJ, "Behind Your Rising Health-Care Bills: Secret Hospital Deals That Squelch Competition"  by Anna Wilde Mathews. Excerpts:
Dominant hospital systems use an array of secret contract terms to protect their turf and block efforts to curb health-care costs. As part of these deals, hospitals can demand insurers include them in every plan and discourage use of less-expensive rivals. Other terms allow hospitals to mask prices from consumers, limit audits of claims, add extra fees and block efforts to exclude health-care providers based on quality or cost.
The effect of contracts between hospital systems and insurers can be difficult to see directly because negotiations are secret. The contract details, including pricing, typically aren’t disclosed even to insurers’ clients—the employers and consumers who ultimately bear the cost.
Among the secret restrictions are so-called anti-steering clauses that prevent insurers from steering patients to less-expensive or higher-quality health-care providers. In some cases, they block the insurer from creating plans that cut out the system, or ones that include only some of the system’s hospitals or doctors. They also hinder plans that offer incentives such as lower copays for patients to use less-expensive or higher-quality health-care providers. The restrictive contracts sometimes require that every facility and doctor in the contracting hospital system be placed in the most favorable category, with the lowest out-of-pocket charges for patients—regardless of whether they meet the qualifications.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Dollarize Argentina

Argentina should dollarize, says Mary Anastasia O'Grady in the Wall Street Journal -- not a peg, not a currency board, not an IMF plan, just give up and use dollars.
Another currency crisis is roiling Argentina... The peso has lost half its value against the U.S. dollar since January. Inflation expectations are soaring. 
The central bank has boosted its overnight lending rate to an annual 60% to try to stop capital flight. But Argentines are bracing for spiraling prices and recession. 
...the troubles have been brewing for some time. On a trip to Buenos Aires in February, I got an earful from worried economists who said Mr. Macri was moving too slowly to reconcile fiscal accounts. 
In 2016 and 2017 the government continued spending beyond its means and borrowing dollars in the international capital markets to finance the shortfall. That put pressure on the central bank to print money so as not to starve the economy of low-priced credit ahead of midterm elections in 2017.... 
A sharp selloff of the peso in May was followed by a new $50 billion standby loan from the International Monetary Fund in June. With a monetary base that is up over 30% since last year, in a nation that knows something about IMF intervention, that was like waving a red cape in front of a bull. 
The peso was thus vulnerable when currency speculators launched an attack on the Turkish lira last month and the flight to the dollar spilled over into other emerging markets, including Argentina. After decades of repeated currency crises, Argentines can smell monetary mischief. A peso rout ensued.
Conventional Wisdom these days -- the standard view around the Fed, IMF, OECD, BIS, ECB, and at NBER conferences -- says that countries need their own currencies, so they can quickly devalue to address negative "shocks." For example, conventional wisdom says that Greece would have been far better off with its own currency to devalue rather than as part of the euro. I have long been skeptical.

It's not working out so great for Argentina. As Mary points out, short term financing means there can be "speculative attacks" on the currencies of highly indebted countries that run their own currencies, just as there can be runs on banks. And Conventional Wisdom, silent on this issue advocating a Greek return to Drachma, was full in that the Asian crises of the late 1990s were due to "sudden stops," and such speculative machinations of international "hot money."

Well, says CW, including the IMF's "institutional view," that means countries need "capital flow management," i.e. governments need to control who can buy and sell their currency and and who can buy or sell assets internationally.  Yet Venezuela and Iran are crashing too, and not for lack of capital flow "management." My understanding is Argentina does not allow free capital either. Moreover, if there is a chance you can't take your money out, you don't put it in in the first place. There is a reason the post Bretton Woods international consensus drove out capital restrictions.

So I agree with Mary -- dollarize. Just get it over with. What possible benefit is Argentina getting from clever central bank currency manipulation, if you want a dark word, or management, if you want a good one? Use the meter and the kilogram too.

There is a catch, however, not fully explicit in Mary's article. The underlying problem is fiscal, not monetary. To repeat,
"Mr. Macri was moving too slowly to reconcile fiscal accounts. ...In 2016 and 2017 the government continued spending beyond its means and borrowing dollars in the international capital markets to finance the shortfall." 
So, I think it's a bit unfair for Mary to complain that Argentina's problem is that it "has a central bank." I don't know what any central banker could do, given the fiscal problems, to stop the currency from crashing.

If the government dollarizes, it can no longer inflate or devalue to get out of fiscal trouble. Argentina has pretty much already lost that option anyway. If the government borrows Pesos, inflating or devaluing eliminates that debt. But if the government borrows in dollars, a devaluation or inflation taxes a much smaller base of peso holders to try to pay back the dollar debt.

Still, a dollarized government must either pay back its bills or default. That's how the Euro was supposed to work too, until Europe's leaders, seeing how much Greek debt was stuffed into French and German banks, burned the rule book.

So the underlying problem is fiscal. With abundant fiscal resources, the government could have borrowed abroad to stop a run on the Peso. And without those resources, dollarization will not solve its debt and deficit problem. Dollarization will force the government to shape up fast, which may be Mary's point.

Dollarization will insulate the private economy from government fiscal troubles. This is a great, perhaps the greatest, point in its favor. Even if the government defaults, companies in a fully dollarized, free capital flow economy, can shrug it off and go about their business. Forced to use pesos, subject to sharp inflation, devaluation, capital and trade restrictions, the government's problems infect the rest of the economy.

Last, CW likes devaluation and inflation because it supposedly "stimulates" the economy through its troubles surrounding a crisis. That strikes me as giving a cancer patient an espresso. Argentina is getting both inflation and recession, not a stimulative boom out of its inflation.

Dollarization is not a currency board, which Argentina also tried and failed. A currency board is a promise to keep the peso equal to the dollar, and to keep enough dollars around to back the pesos. Alas, it does not keep dollars around to back all the governments' debts, so the government soon enough will see the kitty of dollars and grab them, abrogating the currency board. Dollarization means the economy uses dollars, period, and there is no pool of assets sitting there to be grabbed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Fed Nixes Narrow Bank

A narrow bank would be a great thing. A narrow bank takes deposits, and invests 100% of the money in interest-paying reserves at the Fed. (The Fed, in turn, mostly invests in US treasuries and agency securities.)

A narrow bank cannot fail*. It cannot lose money on its assets. A narrow bank cannot suffer a run. If people want their money back, they can all have it, instantly. A narrow bank needs essentially no asset risk regulation, stress tests, or anything else.

A narrow bank fills an important niche. Individuals can have federally insured bank accounts which are (mostly) safe. But large businesses need to handle cash way above the limits of deposit insurance. For that reason, they invest in repurchase agreements, short-term commercial paper, and all the other forms of short term debt that blew up in the 2008 financial crisis. These are safer than bank accounts, but, as we saw, not completely safe. A narrow bank is completely safe. And with the option of a narrow bank, the only reason for companies to invest in these other arrangements is to try to harvest a little more interest. Regulators can feel a lot more confident shutting down run-prone alternatives if a narrow bank is widely available.

The most common objection to equity-financed banking is that people and businesses need deposits. Well, narrow banks provide those deposits, and can do so in nearly unlimited amount. Narrow banking, providing completely safe deposits, opens the door to equity-financed banking, which can invest in risky assets and also be immune from financial crises.

Why not just start a a money market fund that invests in treasuries? Since deposit -> narrow bank -> Fed -> Treasuries, why not just deposit -> money market fund -> treasuries, and cut out the middle person? Well, a narrow bank is really a bank. A money market fund cannot access the full range of financial services that a bank can offer. If you're a business and you want to wire money to Germany this afternoon, you need a bank.

Suppose someone started a narrow bank. How would the Fed react? You would think they would welcome it with open arms. Not so.

TNB, for "The Narrow Bank" just tried, and the Fed is resisting in every possible way. TNB just filed a complaint against the New York Fed in District Court, which makes great reading. (The complaint is publicly available here, but behind a paywall, so I posted it on my webpage here.) Excerpts:
2. “TNB” stands for “the narrow bank”, and its business model is indeed narrow. TNB’s sole business will be to accept deposits only from the most financially secure institutions, and to place those deposits into TNB’s Master Account at the FRBNY, thus permitting depositors to earn higher rates of interest than are currently available to nonfinancial companies and consumers for such a safe, liquid form of deposit. 
3. TNB’s board of directors and management have devoted more than two years and substantial resources to preparing to open their business, including undergoing a rigorous review by the State of Connecticut Department of Banking (“CTDOB”). The CTDOB has now granted TNB a temporary Certificate of Authority (“CoA”) and is fully prepared to permit TNB to operate on a permanent basis. 
4. However, to carry out its business—indeed, to function at all—TNB needs access to the Federal Reserve payments system. 
5. In August 2017, therefore, TNB began the routine administrative process to open a Master Account with the FRBNY. Typically, the application procedure involves completing a one-page form agreement, followed by a brief wait of no more than one week. Indeed, the form agreement itself states that “[p]rocessing may take 5-7 business days” and that the applicant should “contact the Federal Reserve Bank to confirm the date that the master account will be established.” 
6. This treatment is consistent with the governing statutory framework. Concerned by preferential access to Federal Reserve services by large financial institutions, Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 (the “Act”). Under the applicable provision of the Act, 12 U.S.C. § 248a(c)(2), all FRBNY services “shall be available” on an equal, non-discriminatory basis to any qualified depository institution that, like TNB, is in the business of receiving deposits other than trust funds. 
7. TNB did not receive the standard treatment mandated by the governing law. Despite Connecticut’s approval of TNB—as TNB’s lawful chartering authority—and the language of the governing statute, the FRBNY undertook its own protracted internal review of TNB. TNB fully cooperated with that review, which ultimately concluded in TNB’s favor. At the same time, the FRBNY also apparently referred the matter to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “Board”) in Washington, D.C.  
8. In December 2017, TNB was informed orally by an FRBNY official that approval would be forthcoming—only to be called back later by the same official and told that the Board had countermanded that direction, based on alleged “policy concerns.” 
9. TNB’s principals thereafter met with staff representatives of the Board, as well as the President of the FRBNY, to explain that there was no lawful basis to reject TNB’s application for a Master Account. On information and belief, the FRBNY and its leadership agreed with TNB and were prepared to open a Master Account. 
10. Though TNB had satisfactorily completed the FRBNY’s diligence review, the Board continued to thwart any action by the FRBNY to open TNB’s Master Account, reportedly at the specific direction of the Board’s Chairman. 
11. Having delayed the process for nearly one year—effectively preventing TNB from doing business—the FRBNY has repeatedly refused either to permit TNB to open a Master Account or to state that the FRBNY will ultimately do so. 
12. The FRBNY’s conduct is in open defiance of the statutory framework, its own prior positions, and judicial authority. See Fourth Corner Credit Union v. Fed. Reserve Bank of Kan. City, 861 F.3d 1052, 1071 (10th Cir. 2017) (“The plain text of § 248a(c)(2) indicates that nonmember depository institutions are entitled to purchase services from Federal Reserve Banks. To purchase these services, a master account is required. Thus, nonmember depository institutions . . . are entitled to master accounts.”) (Bacharach, J.) (emphasis added). 
13. Further, the FRBNY’s actions, especially in the context of other recent conduct by the Board,1 have the effect of discriminating against small, innovative companies like TNB and privileging established, too-big-to-fail institutions—the very dynamic that led Congress to pass the Act in the first place. 
14. TNB therefore brings this action for a prompt declaratory judgment that it is entitled to a Master Account.
Why does the Fed object?

The Fed may worry about controlling the size of its balance sheet -- how many reserves banks have at the Fed, and how many treasuries the Fed correspondingly buys. If narrow banks get really popular, the Fed might have to buy more treasuries to meet the need. Alternatively, the Fed might have to discriminate, paying narrow banks less interest than it pays "real" banks, in order to keep down the size of the narrow banking industry. It would then face hard questions about why it is discriminating and paying traditional banks more than it pays everyone else. (It's already a bit of a puzzle that it often pays interest on reserves larger than what banks can get anywhere else, even treasuries.)

But why does the size of the balance sheet matter? Why does it matter whether people hold treasuries directly, hold them via a money market fund, or hold them via a narrow bank, which holds reserves at the Fed, which holds treasuries?

"Money" is no longer money. When the Fed pays interest on huge amounts of excess reserves, the size of the balance sheet no longer matters, especially in this regard. If people want to hold more treasuries indirectly through a narrow bank and the Fed, and correspondingly less directly, why should that have any stimulative or depressing effect at all? Even if you do think QE purchases -- supply-driven changes in the balance sheet -- matter, it is not at all clear why demand-driven changes should matter.

The Fed already allows a "reverse repo program,"  in which 160 institutions such as money market funds to hold reserves. It currently pays those 20 basis points (0.2%) less than it pays banks, to discourage participation.

The second argument, made during the discussion about reverse repos, is that narrow banks are a threat to financial stability, not a guarantor of it as I have described, because people will run to narrow banks away from repo and other short term financing in times of stress.

This is, in my view, completely misguided. Again, narrow banks are just an indirect way of holding treasuries. There is nothing now stopping people from "running" to treasuries directly, which is exactly what they did in the financial crisis.

Furthermore, the Fed does not, in a crisis, seek to force people to hold illiquid assets having a run. The Fed pours liquid assets into the system like Niagara falls, and buys illiquid assets from them, all in massive quantities.

Moreover, the whole point of the narrow bank is that large businesses don't hold fragile run-prone short term assets in the first place. By paying interest on reserves, and allowing more and more people to enjoy run-proof government money, there is less gasoline in the financial system to begin with. If the Fed is worried about financial crises, it ought to encourage narrow banks and give others a gold star for using them rather than shadier short-term assets in the first place.

The emptiness of both arguments is easy to see from this: Chase and Citi are narrow banks -- married to investment banks. Both take deposits, and invest them as interest paying reserves at the Fed. Right now there are more reserves than checking accounts in the banking system as a whole. If there were some threat to monetary policy or financial stability from banks being able to take deposits and funnel them in to reserves, we'd be there now. The only difference is that if Chase and City lose money on their risky investments, they drag down depositors too and the government bails out the depositors. The narrow banks are not separated from the investment banks in bankruptcy. A true narrow bank just separates these functions.

Shadier speculations are natural as well.

Banks are making a tidy profit on their current activities. JP Morgan Chase pays me 1 basis point on my deposits, as it has forever, and now earns 1.95% on excess reserves. The "pass through" from interest earned to interest paid to depositors is very slow. This is a clear sign of lack of competition in the banking system. The Fed's reverse RP program was put in place, in part, to pressure banks to act a bit more competitively, by allowing an almost-narrow bank to take investor money and put it in reserves. The Fed is now scaling that program back.

That the Fed, which is a banker's bank, protects the profits of the big banks system against competition, would be the natural public-choice speculation.

Perhaps also my vision of a run-proof essentially unregulated banking system isn't as attractive to the Fed as it should be. If deposits are handled by narrow banks, which don't need asset risk regulation, and risky investment is handled by equity-financed banks, which don't need asset risk regulation, a lot of regulators and "macro-prudential" policy makers, who want to use regulatory tools to control the economy, are going to be out of work.

To be clear, I have no evidence for either motivation. But the facts fit, and large institutions are not always self-aware of their motivations.

Whatever the reason, it is sad to see the Fed handed such an obvious boon to financial stability and efficiency, and to slow walk it to regulatory death, despite, apparently, clear legal rights of the Narrow Bank to serve its customers.


*Well, almost. For the Fed to fail, there would have to be a large-scale US default on treasury debt. Even so, Congress could exempt the Fed by recapitalizing it, making good its losses. So Congress would have to decide that it won't even recapitalize the Fed, so that reserves also default. If there is one bank that really is too big to fail, it's the Fed, as its failure would bring down the entire monetary system. Literally, all of the ATMs and credit card machines go dark. This is a pretty improbable event.

Update: Endi below asks "Why do you say that with the existence of narrow banks, equity-financed banks would be immune from a financial crisis?" See "A Blueprint for Effective Financial Reform", "Equity-financed banking and a run-free financial system," "Toward a run-free financial system",  All here.

Update 2: Matt Levine at Bloomberg has excellent coverage.   Michael Derby at WSJ too. As Matt and a commenter below explain,  I got ahead of myself on TNB. This particular company is not planning to offer banking services or retail deposits. They won't even wire money for you. The reason: if they were to do so, they would face lots of anti-money-laundering regulations. This particular business is focused on giving money market funds and other large institutions access to the 1.95% that the Fed pays on reserves, which is more than the 1.75% that money market funds can get via reverse repo at the same Fed, or (paradoxically) the rate that short term treasuries have been offering lately.

Update 3: an excellent WSJ editorial. The Fed remains silent. My forecast: The Fed will remain silent, fight the lawsuit with obfuscation and delay.  It can surely let this rot in the courts for a decade or more. By that time the TNB folks will be out of money and have to give up, and any potential copycats will get the message.