Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Times on Taxes

The New York Times' Sunday lead editorial (12/30) is simply breathtaking. The title is "Why the economy needs tax reform." It starts well,
Over the next four years, tax reform, done right, could be a cure for much of what ails the economy...
OK, say I, the sun is out, the birds are chirping, my coffee is hot, and for once I'm going to read a sensible editorial from the Times, pointing out what we all agree on, that our tax system is horrendously chaotic, corrupt, and badly in need of reform. Let's go -- lower marginal rates, broaden the base, simplify the code.

That mood lasts all of one sentence.
Higher taxes,...
Words matter. "Reform" twice, followed by paragraphs of "higher taxes," with no actual "reform" in sight. The Times is embarking on an Orwellian mission to appropriate the word "reform" to mean "higher taxes" not "fix the system."

Let's be specific. What is the Times' idea of tax "reform?"

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Benefits trap art

Two charts from the UK, admittedly sprayed with too much chartjunk, but illustrating the poverty trap in Britain. (A previous post  on high marginal tax rates for low income people has more charts like this.)

Most of UK benefits are not time-limited, so people get stuck for life, and then for generations.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Fiscal cliff or fiscal molehill?

Four thoughts, reflecting my frustrations with the "fiscal cliff" debate. 

1. Recession

How terrible will it be if we go over the cliff?

Bad, but for all the wrong reasons. If you, like me, didn't think that "stimulus" from government spending raised GDP in the recession, you can't complain that less government spending will cause a new recession now. The CBO's projections of recession are entirely Keynesian. Pay them heed if you still think the key to prosperity is for the government to borrow money and blow it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Fed's great experiment

So now you have it. QE4. The Fed will buy $85 billion of long term government bonds and mortgage backed securities, printing $85 billion per month of new money (reserves, really) to do it. That's $1 trillion a year, about the same size as the entire Federal deficit. It's substantially more each year than the much maligned $800 billion "stimulus." Graph to the left purloined from John Taylor to dramatize the situation.

In addition, the Fed's open market committee promises to
"..keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored." [Whatever "anchored" means.] 

This is a grand experiment indeed. We will test a few theories.

ECB dilemma

It was announced yesterday that  Europe will have a new, central bank supervisor run by the ECB, much as our Fed combines monetary policy and bank supervision. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

One big unified central agency always sounds like a good idea until you think harder about it. This one faces an intractable dilemma.

Here's the problem. Why not just let Greece default?" is usually answered with "because then all the banks fail and Greece goes even further down the toilet." (And Spain, and Italy).

So, what should a European Bank Regulator do? Well, it should protect the banking system from sovereign default. It should declare that  sovereign debt is risky, require marking it to market, require large capital against it, and it should force banks to reduce sovereign exposure  to get rid of this obviously "systemic" "correlated risk" to their balance sheets. (They can just require banks to buy CDS, they don't have to require them to dump bonds on the market. This is just about not wanting to pay insurance premiums.) It should do for the obvious risky elephant in the room exactly what bank regulators failed to do for mortgage backed securities in 2006.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Billing codes

A while ago, an acquaintance saw her dermatologist for an annual check. She said, "oh, by the way, take a look at the place on my foot where we removed a wart a while ago." The doctor looked at her foot, said everything is fine, then finished the exam. Checking the bill, there was a $400 extra charge for the wart examination!

This nice audio story from NPRs "third coast festival"  tells the story of billing codes. Answer: As insurers and medicare/medicaid reduce payment for services, doctors respond by writing up every billing code they legally can. There are whole conferences devoted to billing code maximization. It's a lovely unintended-consequences story. Good luck with that "cost control."

The piece quotes the Institute of Medicine that there are 2.2 people doing billing for every doctor, at a $360 billion dollar cost. I couldn't find the source of these numbers. If any of you can, post a comment.

Of course, being NPR, the program leaves the impression that all this will be fixed in our brave new world of the ACA. But it wasn't even that heavy handed on the point. Perhaps experience is gaining on hope.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Buffett Math

Warren Buffett, New York Times on November 25th 2012:
Suppose that an investor you admire and trust comes to you with an investment idea. “This is a good one,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m in it, and I think you should be, too.”

Would your reply possibly be this? “Well, it all depends on what my tax rate will be on the gain you’re saying we’re going to make. If the taxes are too high, I would rather leave the money in my savings account, earning a quarter of 1 percent.” Only in Grover Norquist’s imagination does such a response exist.
MBA final exam question: Explain the mistake in this paragraph.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Truth stranger than fiction?

From the New York Times. I checked, it really is not from the Onion
WASHINGTON — House Republicans said on Thursday that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner presented the House speaker, John A. Boehner, a detailed proposal to avert the year-end fiscal crisis with $1.6 trillion in tax increases over 10 years, an immediate new round of stimulus spending, home mortgage refinancing and a permanent end to Congressional control over statutory borrowing limits.

...In exchange for locking in the $1.6 trillion in added revenues, President Obama embraced $400 billion in savings from Medicare and other entitlements, to be worked out next year, with no guarantees.

The upfront tax increases in the proposal go beyond what Senate Democrats were able to pass earlier this year. Tax rates would go up for higher-income earners, as in the Senate bill, but Mr. Obama wants their dividends to be taxed as ordinary income, something the Senate did not approve. He also wants the estate tax to be levied at 45 percent on inheritances over $3.5 million, a step several Democratic senators balked at. The Senate bill made no changes to the estate tax, which currently taxes inheritances over $5 million at 35 percent.
Meanwhile, Costco is in the news, for borrowing $3 billion dollars, and paying it out as a special dividend before dividend taxes rise.  Stock rose 6%. Tax arbitrage is so cool.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Experimental evidence on the effect of taxes

Much of our "fiscal cliff" debate revolves around the incentive effects of raising marginal taxes on high incomes. High tax advocates used to say that taxes won't hurt growth that much, and advocated them for other reasons.  Now they are advocating that even a 91% federal income tax rate, on top of state, sales, etc, as we had in the 1950s, (not counting all the loopholes!) will actually be good for the economy and also raise lots of revenue.

This seems to me like magical thinking, and a great testament to how people can persuade themselves of anything if it suits the partisan passion of the moment.  But wouldn't it be nice if someone would run an experiment for us?

Fortunately, Europe has been running a very useful set of experiments on what happens if you address yawning deficits with high income, wealth and property taxes. Which brings me to a report from the Telegraph
Almost two-thirds of the country’s million-pound earners disappeared from Britain after the introduction of the 50p (percent) top rate of tax, figures have disclosed.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Taxes and cliffs

(Update: John Batchelor show radio interview on this blog post)

The whole tax debate is supremely frustrating to anyone who survived econ 1.

The ill effects of taxation -- the "distortions" -- depend on the total, marginal rate including transfers. If I earn an extra dollar, how much more stuff do I get, or how much more of someone else's services can I receive? That calculation has to include all taxes, federal, payroll, state, local, sales, excise, etc. and phaseouts.

And, if you receive a benefit from the government that phases out with income, so every dollar of income above (say) $30,000 reduces your benefit by 50 cents, then you face a 50 percent marginal tax rate even if you pay no "taxes" at all. Taxes and benefits -- both in level and on the margin -- need to be considered together.
I've been looking for good calculations of marginal rates.  The CBO has just issued a nice report titled "Effective Marginal Tax Rates for Low- and Moderate-Income Workers" that begins (begins!) to shed some light on the right question.  Here's one important graph, titled "Marginal Tax Rates for a Hypothetical Single Parent with One Child, by Earnings, in 2012";

Friday, November 23, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Health economics update

Russ Roberts did a podcast with me in his "EconTalk" series, on my "After the ACA'' article. Russ also put together a really nice list of readings with the podcast, at the same link.

I also found this very informative editorial "What the world doesn't know about health care in America" by Scott Atlas. It goes a good way to answering the persistent "What about how great health care is in Europe" comments. Some choice quotes:
Affirming 2005’s Chaoulli v. Quebec, in which [Canadian] Supreme Court justices famously concluded “access to a waiting list is not access to health care,” [my emphasis] countless studies document grave consequences from prolonged waits...
I love this little quote, because the deliberate confusion of "insurance" with "access" has long bugged me about the US debate.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Debt Maturity

Another essay, a bit shorter this time, on maturity structure of  US debt. I was asked to give comments on a paper by Robin Greenwood, Sam Hanson, and Jeremy Stein * at a conference at the Treasury. It's a really nice paper, and (unusually) I didn't have much incisive to say about it, except to say it didn't go far enough. And, I only had 10 minutes. So I gave a speech instead. (The pdf version on my webpage may be better reading, and will be updated if I ever do anything with this.) 

Having your cake and eating it too: The maturity structure of US debt
John H. Cochrane 1
November 15 2012

Robin Greenwood, Sam Hanson, and Jeremy Stein 2 nicely model two important considerations for the maturity structure of government debt: Long–term debt insulates government finances from interest-rate increases. Short-term debt is highly valued as a “liquid” asset, providing many “money-like” services, and potentially displacing run-prone financial intermediaries as suppliers of “liquidity.” Long-term debt also provides some liquidity and collateral services, (Krishnamurthy and Vissing-Jorgensen3 (2012)) but not as effectively as short-term debt. How do we think about this tradeoff?

Posing the question this way is already a pretty radical departure. The maturity structure of U.S. debt is traditionally perceived as a relatively technical job, to finance a given deficit stream at lowest long-run cost, as Colin Kim eloquently explained in the panel. Greenwood, Hanson and Stein, along with the other papers at this conference, are asking the Treasury’s Office of Debt Management to consider large economic issues far beyond this traditional question. For example, saying the Treasury should provide liquid debt because it helps the financial system and can substitute for banking regulation, whether or not that saves the Treasury money, asks the Treasury to think about its operations a lot more as the Fed does. Well, times have changed; the maturity structure of US debt does have important broader implications. And getting it right or wrong could make a huge difference in the difficult times ahead.

Go Long!

As I think about the choice between long and short term debt, I feel like screaming4 “Go Long. Now!” Bond markets are offering the US an incredible deal. The 30 year Treasury rate as I write is 2.77%. The government can lock in a nominal rate of 2.77% for the next 30 years, and even that can be paid back in inflated dollars! (Comments at the conference suggested that term structure models impute a negative risk premium to these low rates: They are below expected future short rates, so markets are paying us for the privilege of writing interest-rate insurance!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bloomberg TV interview

A short interview with Bloomberg TV's Betty Liu on the fiscal cliff.  No big news for readers of this blog, but maybe fun anyway.

We were just getting going when it ended. I was ready to say, if you didn't buy stimulus from spending increases, you shouldn't fear lack of stimulus from spending reductions; all government (federal, state, local) and all taxes matter; you need to include taxes and benefits, and then see the huge marginal taxes faced by poor people, and how cutting subsidies that go to rich people counts in the distributional calculus;the growth of regulation and tax chaos matters more than tax rates, Europe just showed us what happens when you try to balance the budget with sharp hikes in marginal rates....Next time.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gas price contest

As all of you know, New York and New Jersey are having huge gas lines in the wake (still) of hurricane Sandy. Both are enforcing laws against "gouging," and New Jersey's attorney general, apparently having time on his hands, is going after people who listed gas for resale on Craigslist.

Let's start a little comments essay contest. If New York and New Jersey let people charge whatever they wanted for gas, and prices went up to $25 per gallon then...

Here are some ideas to get you started

Diversity in academia

99 percent of donors from Princeton gave to Obama, reports the Daily Princetonian, 157 to 2.  Princeton's one-percenters are a visiting lecturer and a custodian.

As a colleague pointed out, it may be little wonder that Republican politicians distrust academic "studies," whether about the effects of taxes on growth or carbon on the climate.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dodd-Frank and Stigler's Ghost

The New York Times finally published  Gretchen Morgenson's article, pointing out that Dodd-Frank enshrines rather than eliminates "too big to fail," though systemic "designation" of "financial utilities" such as the exchanges has been underway since the bill's beginning. Needless to say, this has been my opinion all along.

Today let's move on. I'll label the bigger problem, "too big to fail means too big to compete." TBTF=TBTC. There, we can put that on bumper stickers.

As the Ms. Morgenson figured out, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is now too big to fail, and will be able to borrow from the Fed and get a bailout. But that's not the big issue. The CME is now too big to compete. Who can now start a new exchange, maybe offering more protection against high frequency traders or other conveniences to customers, and threatening the CME's customer base? Not against a protected "financial utility."

George Stigler taught us that regulators are prone to "capture." Over the years, regulators start to sympathize with the industry they're regulating. Next thing you know, the regulations end up being used to protect the industry from competition. Luigi Zingales' great new book calls it "crony capitalism," emphasizing that it, not too much benevolent government or too much ufettered market competition, is the main characteristic of our society.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


I did a short spot on NPR's Marketplace this morning (also here). The announced topic was what I thought would happen to economic policy after the election. Jeff Horwich, the interviewer wanted to stitch together a story about everyone is going to get together and play nice now, which seemed like a fairly pointless line to pursue. What "I would do" is now off the table, and I didn't think it worth arguing with Jared Bernstein's repetition of Obama campaign nostrums.

But it gave me a chance to put some thoughts together. I usually don't predict anything, because I (like everyone else) am usually wrong. But I'll make an exception today

Forecast in three parts: The sound and fury will be over big fights on taxes and spending. They will look like replays of the last four years and not end up accomplishing much. The big changes to our economy will be the metastatic expansion of regulation, let by ACA, Dodd-Frank, and EPA.  There will be no change on our long run problems: entitlements, deficits or fundamental reform of our chaotic tax system.  4 more years, $4 trillion more debt.

Monday, November 5, 2012

DeMuth on Obamacare

Christopher DeMuth has a nice Oped in the Wall Street Journal. Thesis: Obamacare is the big question for the election.

He makes two points that I haven't seen expressed this well before, including by me despite 25 pages of trying:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why the electoral college is a great idea

With the election looming, we see the quadrennial complaining about the electoral college. "The electoral college effectively disenfranchises most Americans" complains the New York Times  "Shafted by the electoral college" complains the usually excellent Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune.

Here's why I think the electoral college -- with (crucially) winner-take-all selection in the states, which is under attack -- is a great idea. (Even though I live in Illinois.) Look at the map. (Source here, I found it just by google searching, so no endorsement.)

With the electoral college, Governor Romney and President Obama have to get 51% majorities in enough states to get 270 votes, to win the white house.

Suppose we had a popular vote instead. Now, instead of fighting for 51% of Ohio, President Obama could instead try to raise his 60% of New York and Illinois to 70%, even if it meant 45% of Ohio. Or he could try to raise his 80% of New York city and Chicago to 90%, (made up number).  He doesn't need to persuade people, really, he just needs to  encourage more New Yorkers and Chicagoans to turn out.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Debate with Goolsbee

Last Tuesday, Glen Weyl asked me to debate economic policy issues in the current election with Austan Goolsbee, in the famous "rational choice" workshop. Here's my 10-minute opening statement. Austan did a great job in a tough audience.

Economic Policy and the Election: 

Growth is our number one economic challenge. Here’s how recoveries are supposed to look. We get a period of very strong growth rates, until the economy recovers to “trend,” or potential.”

Here we are. Not only have we failed to bounce back, growth is slowing down. We seem headed for a permanent loss of about 8% and sclerotic 1-2% growth.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Good and bad local news

Revealing bits of good and bad local news from the Chicago Tribune: Food trucks and congestion pricing.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

NBER Asset Pricing conference

I spent Friday at the NBER Asset Pricing conference in Palo Alto. All the papers were really good, and the discussions were especially thoughtful. Here are a few highlights that blog readers might like.

There's no better way to wake up than with a good puzzle. Emanuel Moench presented his paper with David Lucca,The Pre-FOMC Announcement Drift.(If these links don't work for you, most papers can be found with google.)

Here are average cumulative returns on the S&P 500 in the day preceding scheduled FOMC announcements (when the Fed says what it will do with interest rates). The grey shaded areas are 2 standard error confidence intervals. The S&P500 drifts up half a percent in the day before FOMC announcements!  In fact, 80% of the total return on the S&P500 over this period was  earned on these days.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Christina Romer on Stimulus

(Small update to clarify in response to early comments)
Christiana Romer has an important column in Sunday's New York Times on the stimulus. You will recall that as chair of the Council of Economic advisers, she played a big part in designing the stimulus, and forecasting its effects. She also is one of the preeminent academics who have done empirical work evaluating the effects of stimulus programs. You expect a thoughtful essay.

Pile of paper

In response to my long health-care essay, a friendly doctor sent me the image at the left, with an explanation:

"You want to talk about filling out forms? Here are two hospital privilege renewal applications. Most of my info - such as where I graduated from, where I trained, license #, etc - has not changed. That includes my face, yet they want a new photo. My staff tabbed all the places where I have to sign or initial. This is a standardized form, yet I have to fill one out for every hospital and they all want extra information (including a copy of my signature on a check made out to the hospital)."

Comment: And, amazingly this is all on paper!  

Friday, October 19, 2012

After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care

This is an essay, based on a talk I gave at the conference, “The Future of Health Care Reform in the United States,” at the University of Chicago Law School. The pdf version on my webpage may be easier to read than this version, which is a bit long for a blog post. Also, I'll update the pdf over time as I collect comments, but not this blog post.

Update 2/6/2013 I revised the essay on my webpage which is now better than this one. 

Clearly, two important items on the policy agenda are, if we could get rid of the ACA and Dodd-Frank, what would we replace them with? This essay thinks about ACA, I'll be back on Dodd-Frank. Here goes:

After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care
John H. Cochrane1
October 18 2012

Most of the current policy debate, and the optimistically-named “Affordable Care Act,” focuses on health insurance. I think we need to move on to think about the economics of health care. If the ACA is repealed, we still have a mess on our hands, and just fixing insurance will not be enough to clean up that mess.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Are recoveries always slow after financial crises and why

Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have an interesting new Bloomberg column, "Sorry, U.S. recoveries really aren't different." They point to the great Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O'Rourke "Tale of two depressions: what do the new data tell us" columns. (Hat tip, commenter Tim to "slow recoveries after financial crises" who asked what I think. Here's the answer)

Reinhart and Rogoff go after the sequence of studies who have questioned their assertion that recessions after financial crisis are deeper and recoveries slower.

Friday, October 12, 2012

If air travel worked like health care

I spent the day at the Law School's "Future of Health Care Reform in the United States." I'll post my talk soon. In the meantime, Einer Elhauge from Harvard showed this hilarious video. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dynamic Tax Scoring

The Tax Foundation study, "Simulating the Effects of Romney's Tax Plan" is worth reading and thinking about, especially in contrast to the standard static analysis that I complained about at the CBO.

Gov. Romney has proposed, at heart, a reduction in marginal rates, together with tightening of deductions. He hopes to make the latter large enough so that the program is revenue neutral, or at least deficit neutral when some spending cuts are included, and as close to neutral across the income distribution as possible.

Unlike a Keynesian plan, whose purpose is to transfer wealth to the hands of people (voters) likely to "consume" it, or a redistributionist plan, whose purpose is to transfer wealth from one category to another of people, the point of a revenue-neutral, income-neutral tax reform is to permanently and predictably lower marginal rates, giving rise to incentives to work, save, invest, and increase economic growth over the long run.

What possible sense does it make, then, to evaluate such a plan by assuming off the bat that it has no effect at all on output, employment, investment and so forth? Yet that is precisely what the standard "static" scoring does!  We build a rocket ship to go to the moon, and we evaluate its cost effectiveness by assuming that it never leaves the launch pad?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Europe's payroll taxes

The Wall Street Journal made this nice graph on Saturday.

Forget "who bears," it's the totals here that are mind-boggling. In most countries, if you add up the "employer" and "employee" contributions, you get between 30 and 40%. So, if a worker produces 100 euros worth of output, 30-40 euros immediately go to the government. And there is an additional 20%+  VAT when the worker goes to buy something. So, right out of the gate, we have a 50-60% wedge between working and the fruits of labor. Income taxes, corporate taxes and property, excise, and other taxes are all on top of that! It's a wonder anyone in Europe bothers to work at all.

(I haven't looked in to the numbers, but I presume the European numbers include financing of their health systems, and the US number does not. Don't feel so cheeky.) 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Two views of debt and stagnation

Two new papers on economic stagnation in periods of high government debt (i.e. now) are making a splash: 

Public Debt Overhangs by Carmen  Reinhart,Vincent Reinhart and Ken Rogoff
The Output Effect of Fiscal Consolidations by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero and Francesco Giavazzi

This review is mostly about the former, with a little mention of the latter (maybe I'll get back to that later)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sargent and interest-rate options

By now, you've probably seen Tom Sargent's great Ally Bank TV spot.

But, were I to needle Tom just a bit, I might ask, "Tom, the Ally Bank CD allows you the option of raising your CD rate once over its two-year life. Can you explain when to optimally exercise that option?''  Or (second beer), "Tom, to what portfolio optimization question is the answer, combine a two-year CD with an American option to raise the rate once?  You must have some great robust-control result here about parameter uncertainty in dynamic interest-rate models."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Unraveling the Mysteries of Money

Harald Uhlig and I did a fun interview run by Gideon Magnus (Chicago PhD) at Morningstar. We talk about the foundations of money, fiscal theory, monetary policy, European debt problems, etc. Gideon framed it well, and Harald is really sharp. Somebody combed my hair. A cleaned up version of the interview appeared in the Morningstar Advisor Magazine (html) (A prettier pdf)

A link in case the video doesn't work or doesn't embed well (if you see "server application unavailable" the link usually still works), or if you want the original source.

The video starts a little abruptly, as it left out Gideon's thoughtful introduction (it's in the Magazine) and framing question:
Gideon Magnus: I want to discuss the value of money and the idea that money is valued similarly to any other asset. Are there really assets backing money? If so, what are they? John, please explain.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How not to blow it with phase-outs

Today's Wall Street Journal article, How Not to Blow It With Financial Aid, appparently about financing college education, has important lessons for the ongoing grand fiscal debate.

The article is about college financial aid, especially federally funded, and unwittingly exposes the atrocious incentives of the system.
"Every $10,000 reduction in income is going to improve your aid eligibility by [about] $3,000" if you have one child in college..

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bad Hair Day

A short interview by Betty Liu on Bloomberg TV: (if that doesn't work a link). The ECB's big bond buying program, how "sterilizing" won't solve everything, and discussion of the WSJ Oped on the future of the Fed

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Woodford at Jackson Hole

Mike Woodford's Jackson Hole paper is making a big buzz, and for good reasons. Readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that I agree with about 99% of it. (Right up to the "and hence this is what we should do" part, basically!)

Any student of economics should read this paper. Mike lays out in clear if not always concise prose, and remarkably few equations, the central ideas of modern monetary economics, on all sides, along with important evidence.

Mike's central question is this: how can the Fed "stimulate," now that interest rates are effectively zero, and given that (as Mike reviews), "quantiative easing" seems extremely weak if not completely powerless? He comes up with two answers: (Hint: starting with the conclusions on p. 82 is a good way to read this paper!)

Monday, September 3, 2012

CBO and fiscal cliff, again

I turned last week's CBO post into an Op-Ed for Bloomberg. This version is better.

Last month, the Congressional Budget Office released a report warning that the “fiscal cliff” would cause a new recession. It came to the right conclusion for all the wrong reasons.

Reasons matter. A policy response crafted to satisfy the CBO’s analysis would hurt the economy. Reports such as this one would be much more useful if the agencies that publish them were more transparent about the calculations, and explained the logic of their models.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


This has nothing to do with economics or finance, but it's way cooler...If you or your teenage children are into young-adult fiction.

My wife  Beth's young adult novel, Monstrous Beauty, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will be released September 4.

Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences. Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.

There will be a launch party at 57th street books in Chicago, Tues. Sept. 4, at 6 PM. A second larger coming out will happen at the Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth MA (the book is set in Plymouth, and partly on the plantation) Sept. 7, at 5 pm, information here.

Then Beth will be off on Macmillan's Fierce Reads Tour with three other YA authors.
  • September 18: Changing Hands Bookstore, Pheonix
  • September 19: Tattered Cover, Denver
  • September 20: Left Bank Books, St. Louis
  • September 21: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinatti
  • September 22: Next Chapter Bookshop, Milwaukee
  • September 23: Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville 
For a taste of Beth's mermaid lore, try the extra short story "Men Who Wish to Drown" on, (cover art to the left).

Monstrous beauty at Amazon and the publisher's website 
Visit Beth at her blog and on Twitter

(My plot suggestion, "Syrenka, Libertarian Mermaid" went nowhere. I guess I'd better keep my day job!)

Friday, August 31, 2012

The future of central banks

A WSJ Op-Ed. Here is a pdf for non subscribers:

Momentous changes are under way in what central banks are and what they do. We are used to thinking that central banks' main task is to guide the economy by setting interest rates. Central banks' main tools used to be "open-market" operations, i.e. purchasing short-term Treasury debt, and short-term lending to banks.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Federal Reserve has intervened in a wide variety of markets, including commercial paper, mortgages and long-term Treasury debt. At the height of the crisis, the Fed lent directly to teetering nonbank institutions, such as insurance giant AIG, and participated in several shotgun marriages, most notably between Bank of America and Merrill Lynch.

These "nontraditional" interventions are not going away anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gordon on Growth

Bob Gordon is making a big splash with a new paper, Is US Growth Over?

Gordon's paper is about the biggest and most important economic question of all: Long-run growth. It's easy to forget that per-capita income, the overall standard of living, only started to increase steadily in about 1750. The Roman empire lasted centuries, but the average person at the end of it did not live better than at the beginning.

Gordon's Figure 1, reproduced here shows how growth picked up in the mid 1700s, reached 2.5% per year -- which made us dramatically better off than our great-grandparents -- and now seems to be tailing off.

As Bob reminds us with colorful vignettes of 18th and 19th century living, nothing, but nothing, is more important to economic well being than long-run growth.

And modern growth economics is pretty clear on where the goose is that lays this golden egg: Innovation. New ideas, embodied in new products, processes and businesses. For example, see Bob Lucas' "Ideas and Growth" which starts

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

CBO and the fiscal cliff

The CBO has released a report warning that a new recession could follow the  "fiscal cliff"

Background: Here's the CBO report and a Washington Post story  A few snippets from the CBO:

Should the Fed risk inflation to spur growth?

The New York Times asked me and two others this question for its "Room for Debate" blog. My answer follows. Not news for readers of this blog, but maybe a fun concise summary

Should the Fed risk inflation to spur growth? The Fed is already trying as hard as it can to spur growth, and to create some inflation. The Fed has created about two trillion dollars of money, set interest rates to zero, and promised to keep them there for years. It has bought hundreds of billions of long-term government bonds and mortgages in order to drive those rates down to levels not seen in a half a century.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Inevitable slow recoveries?

The economy is stuck in slow growth, not the fast growth we should see after a steep recession. (See previous post here, as well as John Taylor on the subject)

But we've heard the defense over and over again: "recoveries are always slower after financial crises."  Most recently (this is what set me off today) in the Washington Times,
Many economists say the agonizing recovery from the Great the predictable consequence of a housing market collapse and a grave financial crisis. ... any recovery was destined to be a slog.

“A housing collapse is very different from a stock market bubble and crash,” said Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It affects so many people. It only corrects very slowly.”
This argument has been batted back and forth, but a new angle occurred to me: If it was so obvious that this recovery would be slow, then the Administration's forecasts should have reflected it.  Were they saying at the time, "normally, the economy bounces back quickly after deep recessions, but it's destined to be slow this time, because recoveries from housing "bubbles" and financial crises are always slow?"

No, as it turns out. I went back to the historical Administration Budget proposals and found the "Economic Assumptions" in each year's "Analytical Perspectives." This gives the Administration's forecast at the time.

Here is actual real GDP (black line) together with the Administration's forceasts (blue lines). The red line is the current blue chip consensus (also as reported in the budget), which I'll get to in a minute.

As you can see, there is nothing like an inevitable, forecastable, natural, slow recovery from a financial crisis or "housing bubble" in the administration's forecasts.
Their forecasts at the time look just like my quick bounce-back-to-the trend line that you see in my previous posts, and John Taylor's, and lots of others'. And they are surprised each year that the fast recovery doesn't happen.

Bloomberg TV Interview

An interview on the Tom Keene's show this morning on Bloomberg TV

I always feel bad after these things, that I could have answered much better or clearer. Or found a better tie. Well, we do what we can. A direct link

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The mismeasure of inequality

Kip Hagopian and Lee Ohanian have a wonderful new policy review titled "the mismeasurement of inequality."  Calmly, and with careful grounding in facts and review of research, it destroys most of the current liberal myths about the amount of inequality and its importance. The promise:
We will show that much of what has been reported about income inequality is misleading, factually incorrect, or of little or no consequence to our economic well-being. We will also show that middle-class incomes are not stagnating; in fact, middle-class incomes have risen significantly over the 29 years covered by the cbo study. Lastly, we will address assertions that the rich are not paying their “fair share” of taxes
"Address" should be "destroy", but they're being careful. Some nuggets:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Subsidies for economists?

My colleagues Gary Becker and Jim Heckman have an interesting OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, arguing for Federal funding for economists. I respectfully disagree.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Just how bad is the economy?

The second-quarter GDP numbers came out. The newspapers and Republicans pounced on low growth and anemic job growth. The Democrats rebut growth is growth and tell us of the steady job gains. How bad is the economy?

Economists know that levels matter, and that long-run growth matters more than anything else. I made a few graphs to emphasize these points.

Start with the level (in logs) of real GDP. (This is an update of a graph I saw on John Taylor's blog.)

Looking at levels you see the current awfulness better than by looking at growth rates. GDP declined almost 5% in the recession, but then started growing at a glacial pace, averaging 2.4% since the trough.  We seem stuck in this slow growth trap.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Myths and Facts About the Gold Standard

This is a July 28 2012  Wall Street Journal OpEd with a few of their cuts restored.

While many people believe the United States should adopt a gold standard to guard against inflation or deflation, and stabilize the economy, there are several reasons why this reform would not work. However, there is a modern adaptation of the gold standard that could achieve a stable price level and avoid the many disruptions brought upon the economy by monetary instability.

Let's start by clearing up some common misconceptions. Congressman Ron Paul's attraction to gold, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's biggest criticism, is that a gold standard implies an end to monetary policy and the Federal Reserve. It does not.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Krugman, Delong and Inflation

Quite a few commenters and correspondents have asked me what I think of the latest blast, "What Chicago Doesn't Know" from Krugman and the obliquely-titled "The need for a higher rate of increase in prices" from Brad DeLong.

Yes, I've been worried for some time that our current debt could lead to inflation. And yes, that inflation has so far not happened, and US government interest rates remain low.

Well, they made fun of Friedman when he said in 1968 that inflation was coming. They made fun of Greenspan when he said in 1996 that stocks seemed awfully high, and stocks went up for a few more years. They made fun of Shiller when he said in 2005 that house prices looked awfully high, and they went up for a few more years. Greek interest rates were really low in 2007.

Krugman asks whether I have realized I have the "wrong model." My model is arithmetic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A good Greek story

Matt Jacobs sent along a link to a great story from Greece on Reuters,  "Lessons in a shrimp farm's travails." The whole article is worth reading, but here are a few tidbits:
Just over a decade ago, Napoleon Tsanis set out from Sydney with 11 million euros and a dream to build a shrimp farm in his ancestral homeland... What he got was years of wrestling Greek bureaucracy and a court battle with a civil servant...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Six policies from NPR

"Six policies economists love (and politicians hate)" From NPRs Planet Money

The Planet Money team got together a group of economists from widely differing political backgrounds, and came up with this very nice list of policies the economists all agreed on--which are all regarded as hopeless in the standard political debate.
  1. Eliminate the mortgage tax deduction.
  2. End the tax deduction companies get for providing health-care to employees.
  3. Eliminate the corporate income tax. Completely.
  4. Eliminate all income and payroll taxes. ... Instead, impose a consumption tax.
  5. Tax carbon emissions. 
  6. Legalize marijuana.
It is often perceived that economists don't agree on anything, or that economists are pretty much just like everyone else in the spectrum of their policy views -- that economics training really has no clarifying effect on one's worldview. This list is a nice counterexample. We could probably safely add eliminating all agricultural subsidies and free trade.

(I quoted the proposals as above. In fact, the health tax exemption applies to individuals, and it's for employer-provided group health insurance, not care.  Hat tip, I found the NPR story in a nice post on econlog)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Powell Post

Jim Powell has a very nice article at Forbes,with his trademark combination of thoughtful comment and detailed facts.

I love his litany of ways that the government subsidizes and taxes the same activity. Hmm, I wonder what maximizes the need of all sides to come ask for favors. It's a great list for those of you who think that regulation in practice achieves much of anything coherent:
Government is actually a big bureaucracy run amuck, a vast tangle of contradictions that often have harmful consequences.  For instance:
  • Politicians scold citizens for consuming too much sugar, but the government provides subsidies for producing high fructose corn syrup that’s widely used in sodas, cookies and other sweets.
  • Taxes are higher because government subsidizes some farmers to grow crops and subsidizes other farmers not to grow crops.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Who is for growth?

This weekend, a prominent columnist delivered some brilliant advice to a presidential candidate:
...make America the launching pad where everyone everywhere should want to come to launch their own moon shot, their own start-up, their own social movement. We can’t stimulate or tax-cut our way to growth. We have to invent our way there....

Thursday, July 19, 2012

More weird behavior in high frequency markets

Today's Coke and IBM markets are jumping every hour on the hour.  Does anyone know what the heck is going on? One guess received: another case of algorithms gone wild. But whose, and on the hour, exactly? And are there no humans left to counter this sort of thing? Looking at the google finance plot (source here) this started exactly at the open today and seems to have petered out. (Thanks Giovanni Puma for sending me the pictures.)

Common sense from France

Today's WSJ has a lovely editorial from Pascal Salin, professor emeritus of economics at the Université Paris-Dauphine. It echoes many of the things I've said about the euro crisis, but with deeper political insight....and it's from France.

A few tidbits with comment
Contrary to what is claimed daily in the media by politicians and many economists, there is no "euro crisis." The single currency doesn't have to be "saved" or else explode.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Forget the mandate

(This is a Bloomberg "business class" oped, July 1. I got frustrated how the health care discussion has gotten stuck in a rut, "see, Obama's raising your taxes." "No, it's a penalty." Blah Blah.) 

On June 28, the Supreme Court upheld President Barack Obama’s health-care law. Opponents and supporters are still sparring over whether its mandate is a tax. It’s time to get over this debate. The mandate’s mild penalty was never this law’s central economic and policy flaw.

The distinctions among a mandate, a tax, a penalty, or a credit, and between federal and state powers, are important legally and constitutionally. But they are irrelevant in economic terms for this law.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Devaluation Chorus Sings again

The chorus to devalue (and then inflate) the euro as the key to solving Europe's ills is singing again.

Ken Griffin and my colleague Anil Kashyap have a big OpEd on the Euro in the New York Times. They want Germany to leave the Euro, followed by quick euro depreciation relative to the Mark and Dollar.

Martin Feldstein, writing in the Wall Street Journal, echoes this faith in devaluation
The only way to prevent the dissolution of the euro zone might be a sharp decline in the value of the euro relative to the dollar and to other currencies
As you might have guessed, I think it's a terrible idea.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Two More Cents on the Obamacare Decision

Update from the last post on the Supreme Court decision

There is in fact a huge difference between a tax on people without health insurance and a mandate enforced with a penalty.

A mandate is a mandate, a law that everyone must have health insurance. If the minor penalty envisioned in the ACA isn't sufficient (it's not) to get people to buy health insurance, it was entirely within HHS power to find more effective means of enforcement.  They could literally have sent inspectors around and drag you off to jail for not having health insurance.

A tax is only a tax.  If you pay the tax, there is nothing else they can do to you. And taxes have to be approved by Congress, not just HHS. And there is no way Congress is going to vote in a $10,000 head tax for not having health insurance. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

New Paper

In my "real" academic life, I just finished a new paper, "Continuous-Time Linear Models," find it here if you're curious.  It's a pedagogical piece really, showing how to do all the familiar discrete-time time-series tricks in continuous time.  Comments welcome. I thought of advertising it as evidence that blogging hasn't turned my mind to mush, but I'm afraid real continuous-time econometricians will see it as proof of the opposite proposition.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

My 2 Cents on the Supreme Court and Obamacare

I think the court did the right thing. And pretty much what I expected.

They overturned the mandate under the commerce clause. Hoorray! There is some limit to the commerce clause!  I think they had to do this. If they upheld the whole thing, they would have said there is no limit whatsoever to Federal power.

They upheld the mandate as a tax. Swallow hard, free-market friends.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sand in the gears

Today's Wall Street Journal has a beautifully informative editorial, "Employment, Italian Style." Snippets:
Once you hire employee 11, you must submit an annual self-assessment to the national authorities outlining every possible health and safety hazard to which your employees might be subject. These include stress that is work-related or caused by age, gender and racial differences. You must also note all precautionary and individual measures to prevent risks, procedures to carry them out, the names of employees in charge of safety, as well as the physician whose presence is required for the assessment.

Monday, June 25, 2012

McCloskey Wisdom

I recommend a gorgeous essay by Deirdre McCloskey, "Factual Free Market Fairness" (hat tip, Kyle N's comment on Sunday's post "Legal News").  Some choice bits:
I’m from economics and history, and I’m here to help you... The High-Liberal political philosophers... rely...on a factual story which they take to be so obvious as to not require defense.  I claim that on the contrary their master narrative is mistaken, as anthropology or economics or history.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Legal News

Two legal items in last week's news caught my eye: The legal challenge to Dodd-Frank, and a challenge to Virginia's "certificates of need" for new hospitals.  I've written about both from an economic, and slightly political-economy viewpoint. The legal challenges are a new and interesting angle.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Operation Un-Twist

This morning's WSJ has a great piece by Todd Buchholz, titled "Washington Should Lock in Low Rates" This is in the context of increasing speculation that the Fed will do another "operation twist," buying long term bonds and selling short term bonds in an effort to drive long term rates even further down.

Long term rates are absurdly low.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bloomberg TV link

I did a Bloomberg TV interview this morning on Euro debt crisis. I can't seem to insert the video here, so you'll have to follow the link if you're curious.

Update: I figured out how to embed bloomberg vidoes!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A glimmer of hope?

Weekend Update.

On Monday the Greeks decide whether to vote for the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus to solve their fiscal problems. What is Europe planning to do next?

Sunday's New York Times had an unusually cogent article on European events over the weekend, reporting on events with thoughtful analysis:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Euro explosion

The European bank run is on, and with it the slow-motion train wreck  will move to high speed.

The Wall Street Journal reports €600 to 900 million  a day are flowing out of Greek banks, and  the outflow may rise above a billion euros per day. At the end of April there were only €166 Billion deposits to flow. Count the days.  And Greeks -- those who can't move money abroad or move themselves abroad -- are "hiding money in jars, under the bed, even burying it in the mountains."

In related news, I read last week say that payments are simply stopping in Greece. If there's a chance to pay in Drachma next month, why pay in euros now? Shipments are stopping -- if your invoice might get paid in drachma, no point in sending goods today. This is simple implosion.  Spain has already lost about € 100 billion of bank deposits and Italy is losing them quickly.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Crony Capitalism

Luigi Zingales has a nice Wall Street Journal oped today, decrying how crony capitalism has ruined Italy and is on its way to doing so in the US. A tidbit:
In Italy today, even emergency-room doctors gain promotions on the basis of political affiliation. Instead of being told to study, young people are urged to "carry the bag" for powerful people in the hope of winning favors.
Related, the University of Chicago Magazine had a very nice article by Dario Maestripieri explaining just how Italian academia works. Another tidbit:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I almost agree with Summers

Larry Summers has an interesting pair of Opeds in the Washington Post and on Reuters. By picking and choosing just a bit, I can find a lot to agree with -- and I can point to the central factual question separating his view and mine.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Economist's Haiku for Europe

A lovely letter to the Economist says it all.

Leaving the euro zone is no option for Greece (“Fiddling while Athens burns”, May 19th). The new drachma would be valueless, as there would be no demand for it. A country that finds it difficult to run its fiscal affairs cannot manage a national currency. The restored drachma would stay in circulation only if the Greeks were denied access to foreign exchange, preventing the informal use of the euro. That would require draconian exchange controls of the type put in place by Germany after the first world war, which ensured the circulation of the depreciating mark during a period of hyperinflation.

What can Europe do for Greece? It can provide it with a stable monetary unit: the euro. What can Europe not do for Greece? Well, it cannot give it a sound fiscal system. The Greeks have to achieve that themselves if they wish to remain a sovereign country.

Ernst Juerg Weber
Associate professor of economics
University of Western Australia

Good news from Europe

This morning's Wall Street Journal article on renewed bank competition in Europe is one little bright spot. Apparently, large healthy international banks are competing for deposits in Greece, Spain and Italy.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Simon Johnson on the Euro

Simon Johnson has a good blog post on the end of the euro. Digging in, the run is on, the end is near, and the chaos will be worse than you thought.T he ECB has also monetized a lot more than you thought.

Still, I do not understand why even Simon cannot imagine the idea of sovereign default while staying in -- and firmly committing to stay in -- the currency union. The picture Simon paints of the euro breakup is a catastrophe. So why not even talk about sovereign default (restructuring) without euro breakup?

It strikes me as really the only way out, and the longer Europe waits, the harder it will be. 

Texas Hedge

My first reaction to the JP Morgan loss was, if their "hedge operation" had become a "profit center" as reported, we know exactly what went wrong. (And, if they weren't playing with a government guarantee, who would care if they lost $2 billion and some hedge funds gained $ 2 billion?)

Andy Lo put it beautifully:

Why not thank the speculators?

 The price of oil. (Sent by a friend whose reputation I won't besmirch by name, but thanks.)

Remember how the oil price rise was the work of evil speculators who had to be stopped? (My post here) Well, now that the speculators are driving prices down even faster,  shouldn't they get a thank you? Ok, maybe not medal of honor, but a nice statue out on the Washington Mall would be thoughtful. Flowers are always nice.

Tongue in cheek of course, but the different treatment of price rises and declines by the usual economic and political pundits is interesting to note.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Good Comments

Reading through some of last weekend's commentary  got me thinking about what I look for most -- and try to emulate -- in good economic commentary.

One of the first lessons we learn in econ 1 is that economics has a lot to say about incentives, which are usually ignored by popular discussions, and economists have a lot less to say about fairness, morality, or distributional questions, which is what popular discussions focus on. I don't mean that fairness or distributional questions are unimportant, just that economists don't have any special insight into those questions.

Local Regulation

A nice short video describing some of the trials and tribulations of an excellent Hyde Park cafe trying to navigate our city's over-regulation:

A few things struck me about this story, which only scratches the surface of troubles small businesses have in Chicago.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

airline seats

You know the drill. They try to board us by groups, but people are smashing on the plane like it's the New Delhi train station. When the plane is half full, the overhead bins fill up. Then people start dragging massive bags all the way upstream for gate checks. On and on it goes, tempers frazzling and  a few hundred million dollars of plane, costly crew, and my not so free time sitting idly on the ground.

So I have long wondered: why in the world do airlines charge $25 for checking bags, and not $25 for bringing huge bags on the plane? 

I finally found out the answer, here

Friday, May 25, 2012

Leaving the Euro again

Yesterday's coverage of the latest European summit seems designed to reinforce my view of basic confusion expressed yesterday pretty clearly.

For example, the Wall Street Journal's "Europe Girds for a Greek Exit" reports that the talk was all about eurobonds, stimulus, or bailout as a way to avoid Greek exit from the Eurozone, repeating the senseless mantra that sovereign default cannot occur in a currency union.
"We want Greece to remain in the euro zone," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after nearly eight hours of talks. "But the precondition is that Greece upholds the commitments it has made."
I salute Ms. Merkel for not giving in to the camp that wants endless wasted spending disguised as stimulus, to be followed by inflation. But really, why would Greece not "upholding its commitments" mean it has to "leave the eurozone?" Why is it impossible to turn off the bailout spigot, and let Greece default and stop running deficits, while it stays in the euro?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Leaving the Euro

I find all the reporting of the Greek (and following Spanish, Italian, etc.) debt crisis unbelievably frustrating.

Why does everyone equate Greece defaulting on its debt with Greece leaving or being kicked out of the euro? The two steps are completely separate. If Illinois defaults on its bonds, it does not have to leave the dollar zone -- and it would be an obvious disaster for it to do so. 

It is precisely the doublespeak confusion of sovereign default with breaking up a currency union which is causing a lot of the run.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Rajan on the world's troubles

My colleague Raghu Rajan wrote a very thoughtful essay in Foreign Affairs. Though titled "The True Lessons of the Recession" it's really more a grand view of the last 50 years and prospects for growth ahead. The subtitle "The West Can’t Borrow and Spend Its Way to Recovery" is worth repeating.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

FDA for Financial Innovation?

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl are making a big splash with their proposal for An FDA for Financial Innovation

As you might guess, I think it's a terrible idea. But let me try not to be predictable. I do think there are financial products that need to be regulated if not banned. Interestingly, Posner and Weyl completely miss these elephants in the room. (What are the dangerous products? I'm going to make you wait so you'll read more of the post.) That observation alone seems like a good argument against their FDA as a structure for financial regulation. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Slow recoveries after financial crises?

Are recoveries always slower for recessions that follow financial crises? This factoid has become sort of a mantra, or excuse, depending how you look at it.

Former President Bill Clinton chimed in, repeating the factoid thus: "If you go back 500 years, whenever a country’s financial system collapses, it takes between 5 and 10 years to get back to full employment."

I. Facts

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Floating-rate debt update

As reported in the WSJ, the Treasury delayed it's decision on floating rate notes.

I was interested to note in the article that the Treasury seems to be struggling with the same issue that occupied my post on the subject yesterday -- just how will the "floating" rate be set?

The Treasury is searching for an index, and considering the overnight Federal Funds rate, Libor, the general collateral Repo rate, or an index based on treasury bill rates. All of these have various problems outlined in the article.

A second indication of the problem with any index shows up in the article: The unsettled debate whether to let floating rate debt auction at a price greater than face value. That means Treasury also envisions the security trading less than face value.

I'm interested that what's missing is the most obvious mechanism: The price is exactly $100 every single day, and an auction mechanism sets the rate daily at whatever it takes to maintain that price. Any other mechanism means the security is not protected from capital losses, which makes it much less useful as an asset.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Floating-rate Treasury Debt?

Bloomberg has an intriguing April 29 article on Treasury Floaters According to Bloomberg, the Treasury may announce on May 2 that it will issue floaters. It quotes Cam Harvey, who testified that floaters as being a great idea in 1993, as disapproving.   Knowing Cam,  I suspect he had a more sophisticated view in mind.

Issuing floaters and converting a lot of debt to floating-rate debt is a great idea, if done right, even if the maturity structure of government debt should be much longer now. Let me explain.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Speculation and gas prices

I was getting myself frothed up about the recent idea that  "speculators" are behind the recent gas price increase.  Have we learned nothing in the centuries of witch hunts for "speculators" "middlemen" and "money changers"? And how horribly things go wrong when societies take these witch hunts seriously? Haven't the Europeans just woken up from a severe attack of denial that "speculators" were to blame for their sovereign debt crisis?

Then I found that Jim Hamilton already did a better job than I could hope to do, while skewering Rep. Joseph Kennedy's editorial in the New York Times calling for a ban on speculation. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

How to lie with statistics

Along with David Leonhardt's interesting article "Taxmageddon," last weekend's  New York Times Sunday Review included this pair of graphs. These belong high up in the pantheon of "How to lie with statistics" (one of my favorite books) examples. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Money Market Runs

A good oped in Bloomberg's "Business Class" series tackles money market funds. (I signed it along with the rest of the Squam Lake group, but I can't take credit for much of the writing.)

There was a run in money market funds. We have to do something about this.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

Supreme court and health insurance part II

Yesterday's post morphed into a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, reprinted below.

Why am I going on? I think too many people don't understand there is a coherent free-market, deregulated alternative. President Obama himself said today,
"I think the American people understand — and I think the justices should understand — that in the absence of an individual mandate, you cannot have a mechanism to ensure that people with pre-existing conditions get health care."   
This just isn't true. I don't blame Obama, but his health insurance advisers ought to know better. "Guaranteed Renewable," or "premium-increase insurance" is a possibility. It solves the genuine pre-existing conditions problem. It's been in the academic literature for almost 20 years (see e previous  ArticlesOpeds, Blog posts and citations in the Articles, especially to Mark Pauly's work and extensive coverage on Cato's health insurance and Universal Heath Care sites). A deregulated, competitive market can work. 

The WSJ Oped: 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Supreme court and health insurance

It was interesting watching and reading about the Supreme Court arguments on the constitutionality of the health-care law.

This is an interesting moment for constitutional law. Are there limits to the commerce clause? What is the balance of Federal vs. State power? But this is an awful conversation for thinking about reasonable health-insurance and health-care regulation.

The central constitutional weakness of the law is the "individual mandate." We're all supposed to buy insurance, and if we don't we pay a penalty. So everyone is hot and bothered discussing the mandate. But the mandate is far from the central economic problem with the law. So, as a country, we're like a squabbling couple, fighting over who should do the dishes, when the real problem is "why did you buy that stupid boat?" 

Thursday, March 22, 2012


I'm in Japan, one great data point on the ineffectiveness of fiscal stimulus, and the reason for blog silence for the last week or so. I will be giving a talk about asset pricing, based on the "Discount Rates" paper, at a Chicago Booth  event on Friday evening March 23 at the American Club in Tokyo, details here. Blog readers and ex-students most welcome. It's a public event, but you have to register.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Austerity, Stimulus, or Growth Now?

(This is also a Bloomberg "Business class" column, with minor improvements.)

Austerity isn't working in Europe. Greece is collapsing, Italy and Spain’s output is declining, and even Germany and the U.K. are slowing down. In addition to its direct economic costs, these “austerity” programs aren't even swiftly closing budget gaps. As incomes decline, tax revenue drops, and it is harder to cut spending. A downward spiral looms.

These events have important lessons for the U.S. Our government cannot forever borrow and spend 10 percent of gross domestic product each year, with an impending entitlements fiasco to boot. Sooner or later, we will have to fix our finances, too.  Europe's experience is a warning that austerity -- a program of sharp budget cuts and (even) higher tax rates, but largely putting off “structural reforms” for a sunnier day -- is a dangerous path.

Why is austerity causing such economic difficulty? What else should we do?

Friday, March 9, 2012

To London

I'll be at the Booth campus in London next Monday March 12 as part of a panel discussion with Francesco Garzzarelli and Charles Goodhart on "Financial Stability and the Macroeconomy," sponsored by the Becker-Friedman Institute. More information on the event here. Presuming, of course, that the fact that Greece has finally defaulted doesn't mean the end of the world, as so many predicted. Ex-students, colleagues, and blog readers, if you come to the event, stop and say hi. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Too big not to fail

The Economist has a great article, "Too big not to fail" about the Dodd-Frank regulation. Readers of this blog will know I'm no big fan of Dodd-Frank, for example an article in Regulation, collected opeds, and collected blog posts on reform. I've made most of these points before. But to hear it from the liberal-leaning Economist, with very detailed documentation, is good news.

A few delicious quotes:

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Manna from Heaven: the Harvard Stimulus Debate

Last week there was a fiscal stimulus debate between titans John Taylor and Larry Summers, at Harvard. Taylor wrote his opening remarks on his blog, which I recommend without further comment.  Summers was quoted in the Harvard Crimson:
Summers also said that in studies comparing states that received varying amounts of stimulus money, those that received more money experienced higher levels of job growth.
This makes no sense as an argument for overall fiscal stimulus. 

A story from Davos, and how Grumpy got his name

I was reading Nick Paumgarten's New Yorker article about Davos in the bathtub this morning, and ran into this gem:
The Belvedere [hotel], ... is the annual meeting’s hub after dark. Often, there are a half-dozen parties going on at once. To get into it, must pass through airport-like security ... The line, on this night, was long enough that a Nobel laureate in economics, who, moments earlier at the Hotel National, had been holding forth on unfairness, deemed it worth cutting. 
It would be easy enough to figure out who it was, but I like the story better as it is, a reflection on the Davos attitude, not a snarky comment on one individual. (If you know, please don't run it by outing him in the comments.) 
A while back, on a lovely spring night, I was walking home with my family after dinner out. We observed one of Hyde Park's Great Liberal Minds, walking his ill-trained dog. He watched his dog deliver a a large steaming poop, and walked off, leaving the poop behind.

I opined, "well, there goes the Great Liberal; I suppose he thinks there is a Federal Department of Picking up your Dog Poop."

The kids laughed and dubbed me "Grumpy Economist" on the spot.

Update: I removed a few comments. I really do not want this to be personal.