Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fun debt graphs

I was having a bit of fun making graphs for a talk. Are we all fine and debt is no longer a problem? I went back for a closer look at the CBO's long term budget outlook and The budget and economic outlook 2013 to 2023. All numbers from these sources.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Growth in the UK?

I thought European "austerity," meaning mostly large increases in marginal tax rates on anyone daring  to work, save, invest, start a company or hire people, while spending stays north of 50% of GDP, was a pretty bad idea.

So I was glad to read the tiltle, when a friend sent me a link to the Telegraph, announcing Osborne to unleash raft of policies to kick-start growth. Great, I thought, after trying everything else, the British will finally try the one thing that will work.

The fair price of catfish in Vietnam

Source: Wikipedia
Another fish story.  In recent news, our Federal Government is now taking on the "fair price" of catfish in Vietnam, and imposing large "anti-dumping" tariffs. Can the price of tea in China be far away?

Lovers of free markets and free trade, this is for you. Fry it with a little hot sauce.

Capital not a lost cause?

Admati and Hellwig (my review here) (and fellow travelers) may be having some effect! From today's WSJ "Heard on the Street":
There is growing talk among regulators, for example, of forcing banks to issue a minimum amount of long-term debt, cap the size of their short-term liabilities or restrict activities that can be conducted within regulated bank subsidiaries.

At the same time, regulators seem to be focusing more on the need to pre-emptively address potential systemic risks.

Any such moves could further constrain banks' ability to juice returns through leverage while also limiting lucrative activities that fall outside a traditional lending function. That could subdue earnings growth already hampered by the superlow interest-rate environment.

The danger isn't lost on banks themselves. A number of banking groups recently joined together in a public attempt to rebut notions of a big-bank borrowing subsidy.”
OK, 3 out of 4 ain't bad. Admati and Hellwig (and I) take a dim view of asset risk regulation and the chance that regulators have any hope of seeing bubbles emerge. But more capital, and more people understanding that leverage and TBTF is a subsidy to banks, so banks are forced to fight about it... that's progress.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

GMO Salmon

This weekend's New York Times brought the interesting story of AquaBounty's genetically modified salmon, which are genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as normal Salmon. A few choice bits:
"In 1993, the company approached the Food and Drug Administration about selling a genetically modified salmon that grew faster than normal fish. In 1995, AquaBounty formally applied for approval. Last month, more than 17 years later, the public comment period...was finally supposed to conclude. But the F.D.A. has extended the deadline...

Appropriately, it has been subjected to rigorous reviews... scientists, including the F.D.A.’s experts, have concluded that the fish is just as safe to eat as conventional salmon and that, raised in isolated tanks, it poses little risk to wild populations.
Why the delay?

Taxation of capital and labor

"Redistributing from Capital to Workers: An Impossibility Theorem" is a fine post by Garrett Jones on Econlog, explaining the theorem that the optimal tax on capital is zero. It's the best blog-post length, evenhanded, accessible summary I've seen. It includes all sorts of links where you can see arguments in detail, an unusually scholarly approach for a blog post.

His one-sentence summary
 Under standard, pretty flexible assumptions, it's impossible to tax capitalists, give the money to workers, and raise the total long-run income of workers. Not, hard, not inefficient, not socially wasteful, not immoral: Impossible.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Crunch time

David Greenalw, Jim Hamilton, Peter Hooper and Rick Mishkin have a nice op-ed in the Wall Street Journal summarizing their recent paper, Crunch Time: Fiscal Crises and the Role of Monetary Policy, (The link goes to from Jim's website there is also an executive summary.)

David, Jim, Peter and Rick are after the same question in my last WSJ oped and Blog post: Suppose the Fed wants to raise interest rates with a huge debt outstanding. With, say, $18 trillion outstanding, raising interest rates to 5% means raising the deficit by $900 billion a year. That's real fiscal resources. In a present value sense, monetary tightening costs someone $900 billion a year of taxes.  There is no chance that current tax revenues can go up that much, or current spending can go down that much. So, raising interest rates to 5% with a lot of debt outstanding means we will borrow it, the debt will grow $900 billion a year faster, and the larger taxes /lower spending will come someday in the far off future.

Or maybe not. David,  Jim, Peter and Rick delve in to the "tipping point" I alluded to.
Countries with high debt loads are vulnerable to an adverse feedback loop in which doubts by lenders about fiscal sustainability lead to higher government bond rates, which in turn make debt problems more severe.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Comic of the day

Greg Mankiw posted this lovely "comic of the day." He called it "not completely fair." I'm not sure what he meant.

Perhaps it's in need of a better caption. To be fair to Keynesian economics, perhaps the caption should continue,

"When you're done, another half a box will magically appear on the wall." 

Maybe this is a good time for a cartoon caption contest!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Monetary policy with large debts

This is a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, March 4 2013. They titled it "Treasury needs a better long game," but the most important question is whether the Fed can keep any independence, if 5% interest rates will cause $900 billion interest costs. There is a pdf version of the oped on my webpage. 

Sooner or later, the Federal Reserve will want to raise interest rates. Maybe next year. Maybe when unemployment declines below 6.5%. Maybe when inflation creeps up to 3%. But it will happen.

Can the Fed tighten without shedding much of the record $3 trillion of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities on its balance sheet, and soaking up $2 trillion of excess reserves? Yes. The Fed can easily raise short-term interest rates by changing the rate it pays banks on reserves and the discount rate at which it lends.

But this comforting thought leaves out a vital consideration: Monetary policy depends on fiscal policy in an era of large debts and deficits. Suppose that the Fed raises interest rates to 5% over the next few years. This is a reversion to normal, not a big tightening. Yet with $18 trillion of debt outstanding, the federal government will have to pay $900 billion more in annual interest.

Will Congress and the public really agree to spend $900 billion a year for monetary tightening? Or will Congress simply command the Fed to keep down interest payments, as it did after World War II, reasoning that "Fed independence" isn't worth that huge sum of money?

Friday, March 1, 2013

The banker's new clothes -- review

I wrote a review of Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig's nice new book, "The banker's new clothes" for the March 2 2103 Wall Street Journal.

Bottom line: Banks should issue a lot more equity, a lot less debt, especially short term debt, and a heck of a lot less nonsense.

I admire Anat and Martin. The rest of us read the gobbledygook in the newspapers, chuckle at the faculty lunch -- "Ha ha, xyz is CEO of a huge bank and has never heard of Modigliani-Miller! Ha Ha -- pdq is a senior regulator, and doesn't know the difference between capital and reserves!" -- and then we go about our business. Anat and Martin have admirably taken the bull by the horns. They write opeds, they go to interminable banking policy conferences, they fight it out with bigwig bankers, regulators, and their consultant economists, and endure their scorn. This nice book summarizes their arguments very clearly (without the foaming at the mouth ranting and raving that I would have had a hard time avoiding in their place!)

(Links: This review at the Wall Street Journal (html), in a pdf from my webpage. Admati and Hellwig have a book website with lots of extra material and response to critics.)

Enough preamble. The review: 

Four and a half years ago, the large commercial banks nearly failed, inaugurating our great recession. They were saved by the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Federal Reserve lending and other government support. If you think all that was bad, imagine the ATMs going dark. What has been done to avoid a repetition of these events? Sadly, and despite all the noise you hear about bank regulation, not much.

The central problem, at the core of Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig's "The Bankers' New Clothes," is capital.

Limited clairvoyance

The current approach to financial and banking regulation relies a lot on the idea that our now-wise regulators, armed with new powers and the tens of thousands of pages of Dodd-Frank regulations, really will see trouble around the corner next time and do something about it. If only they had more power back then....And of course even conventional macro policy chat revolves around wise heads of the Fed, IMF, ECB, and so on spotting "global imbalances," pricking "bubbles," "coordinating policies" and otherwise guiding the ships of state.

In this context, a lovely little piece at "The American" AEI's online magazine, caught my eye, Alex Pollock's "The housing Bubble and the Limits of Human Knowledge"

An excerpt:
Consider the lessons of the following 10 quotations:

1. About whether Fannie and Freddie’s debt was backed by the government: “There is no guarantee. There’s no explicit guarantee. There’s no implicit guarantee. There’s no wink-and-nod guarantee. Invest and you’re on your own.” — Barney Frank, senior Democratic congressman, notable Fannie supporter, later chairman of the House Financial Services Committee

It would be difficult to imagine a statement more wrong.