Sunday, June 23, 2013

Stopping Bank Crises Before They Start

This is a Wall Street Journal Oped 6/24/2013

Regulating the riskiness of bank assets is a dead end. Instead, fix the run-prone nature of bank liabilities.

In recent months the realization has sunk in across the country that the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation is a colossal mess. Yet we obviously can't go back to the status quo that produced a financial catastrophe in 2007-08. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

At its core, the recent financial crisis was a run. The run was concentrated in the "shadow banking system" of overnight repurchase agreements, asset-backed securities, broker-dealers and investment banks, but it was a classic run nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mankiw on the 1%

Greg Mankiw has an intereting new article draft, titled "Defending the 1%"  It's mistitled really, as the main point I got out of it is the more interesting question, "Can transfers really help the bottom 50%?"

It's a very well written (as one would expect) and survey of economic issues surrounding the idea of greatly expanded taxation of upper income people to fund transfers. Go read it, I won't do it justice in a summary.

As Greg notes, much of the success of the 1% is not rent-seeking, nor inherited wealth, but entrepreneurs who innovated and got spectacularly wealthy in the process.

Two seconds

The weekend wall street journal had an interesting article about high speed trading, Traders Pay for an Early Peek at Key Data. Through Thompson-Reuters, traders can get the University of Michigan consumer confidence survey results two seconds ahead of everyone else. They then trade S&P500 ETFs on the information.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Naturally, the article was about whether this is fair and ethical, with a pretty strong sense of no (and surely pressure on the University of Michigan not to offer the service.)
It didn't ask the obvious question: Traders need willing counterparties. Knowing that this is going on, who in their right mind is leaving limit orders on the books in the two seconds before the confidence surveys come out?

OK, you say, mom and pop are too unsophisticated to know what's going on. But even mom and pop place their orders through institutions which use trading algorithms to minimize price impact. It takes one line of code to add "do not leave limit orders in place during the two seconds before the consumer confidence surveys come out."

In short, the article leaves this impression that investors are getting taken. But it's so easy to avoid being taken, so it seems a bit of a puzzle that anyone can make money at this game. 

I hope readers with more market experience than I can answer the puzzle: Who is it out there that is dumb enough to leave limit orders for S&P500 ETFs outstanding in the 2 seconds before the consumer confidence surveys come out?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Job market doldrums

Three recent views on the dismal labor market pose an interesting contrast.

Alan Blinder wrote a provocative WSJ piece on 6/11, Fiscal Fixes for the Jobless Recovery. A week prviously, 6/5, Ed Lazear wrote about The Hidden Jobless Disaster. And John Taylor has a good short blog post Job Growth–Barely Keeping Pace with Population

All three authors emphasize that the unemployment rate is a poor measure of the labor market. Unemployment counts people who don't have a job but are actively looking for one. People who give up and leave the labor force don't count. Employment is a more interesting number, and the employment-population ratio a better summary statistic than the unemployment rate. After all, if unemployment falls because everyone who is looking for a job gives up, I don't think we'd see that as a good sign.

Source: Wall Street Journal
Ed Lazear made this interesting chart. As he explains,

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Two on financial reform

I recently read two interesting items in the long-running financial regulation saga.

First, a very thoughtful, clear, and succinct speech by Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser titled "Reducing Financial Fragility by Ending Too Big to Fail." It's interesting to see a (another?) Fed President basically say that the whole Dodd-Frank / Basel structure is wrong-headed. Two little gems:
 There is probably no better example of rule writing that violates the basic principles of simple, robust regulation than risk-weighted capital calculations.
Remember that Title II resolution is available only when there are concerns about systemic risk. Just imagine the highly political issue of determining whether a firm is systemically important, especially if it has not been designated so by the Financial Stability Oversight Committee beforehand....

...Creditors will perceive that their payoffs will be determined through a regulatory resolution process, which could be influenced through political pressure rather than subject to the rule of law
No surprise, I agree.

Second, Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig have an addition to their "Banker's new clothes" book (my review),  23 Flawed Claims Debunked.  Don't miss the fun footnotes.  Anat and Martin get some sort of medal for patience in wading through dreck.

Bipartisan Mercantilism

From the press release here and here
Wednesday, June 5, 2013 WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following new figures that show a 34 percent jump over last month’s [my emphasis] U.S.-China trade deficit, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Richard Burr (R-NC), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Robert Casey (D-PA), today introduced the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2013... 
 ...the bill would use U.S. trade law to counter the economic harm to U.S. manufacturers caused by currency manipulation, and provide consequences for countries that fail to adopt appropriate policies to eliminate currency misalignment. The senators’ introduction comes in advance of upcoming talks between President Obama and Chinese President Xi.
Obviously, this is a political shot across the bow to the Obama Administration to press mercantilist trade restrictions in the upcoming discussions with China. Still, why cloak it in such nonsense as
“It is universally accepted that China and other major countries intentionally manipulate their currency to create an advantage for themselves in the marketplace” [Senator] Graham said.
Well, not "universally."

The "complete summary" continues,
"the bill specifies the applicable investigation initiation standard, which will require Commerce to investigate whether currency undervaluation by a government provides a countervailable subsidy if a U.S. industry requests investigation... 
I'm glad to see that industries which don't like to compete with Chinese manufacturers will become experts in monetary policy.
The legislation requires Treasury to develop a biannual report to Congress that identifies... "fundamentally misaligned currencies" based on observed objective criteria...
I cannot find what those "objective criteria are." Let us know, guys and gals, a Nobel Prize in economics awaits you.

If they don't like the Chinese peg, maybe next they can target Texas for its 1-1 peg to the Ohio dollar, which is obviously sucking business to Texas.

When they're done with "currency manipulation" perhaps they can get to the serious business of impeaching the Easter Bunny.

(Thanks to Alex Walsh at the Birmingham News for pointing me to the link.)


I wrote a short essay on immigration for Hoover's "Advancing A Free Society" series. It's here, and reproduced below.  The whole set of essays in Hoover's Immigration Reform series is worth perusing.

Since writing it, and also reading Steve Chapman's good editorial on the subject (Chicago Tribune, Townhall) the e-verify system seems like an even bigger nightmare. Every employer in the country must check that every applicant has the Federal Government's permission to work before employing him or her.

Beyond the points raised in the essay below, it's an interesting coincidence that this e-verify is in the news at the same time as the IRS scandal. Congressional Republicans get the cognitive-dissonance award of the year for this one.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Monetary Policy Puzzle

Might raising interest rates, but not paying interest on reserves, actually be "stimulative," inducing banks to lend out reserves?

Last week, I gave a talk on monetary policy at a forum organized by the Becker-Friedman institute.  I explained my view, that as long as reserves pay the same interest rate as very short-term Treasuries, and as long as banks are holding huge amounts of excess reserves, that monetary policy and pure quantitative easing -- buy short-term treasuries, give the banks more reserves -- has absolutely no effect on anything. Interest-paying excess reserves are exactly the same thing as short-term treasuries.

When the time comes to tighten, I said, I hope dearly that the Fed continues to pay a market interest rate on reserves and allow huge amounts of excess reserves to continue. (I had lots of financial-stability reasons, which will wait for another day here.)   But that means that conventional open market operations and quantitative easing -- more reserves, less Treasuries -- will continue to have no effect whatsoever.

An audience member asked a very sharp question: Suppose the Fed raises interest rates but does not raise the rate on reserves? Now, banks do have an incentive to lend them out instead of sitting on them. Wouldn't velocity pick up, MV=PY start to work again, and the Fed get all the "stimulus" it wants and then some?

It's a particularly sharp question, because it gives sensible-sounding mechanism why the conventional sign might be wrong: why raising rates now might give monetary "stimulus" that is otherwise so conspicuously lacking. There are a few other of these stories wandering around. One: Low rates are said to discourage retirees and other savers, who now "can't afford to spend."  (Quotes around things that don't make much economic sense.)   John Taylor, wrote a very provocative WSJ oped, (too subtle to summarize in one sentence here) and also came close to saying the sign is wrong and higher rates would be more stimulative.

But is the suggestion right? I sort of stammered, and needed the weekend to think it through. (Giving talks like this is a great way to clarify one's ideas. Or maybe this just reveals my shocking ignorance. In any case, it makes a good exam question.) Think about it, and then click the "read more."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Forward Guidance vs. Commitment

He: "Honey, I'm getting tickets for Sunday's football game. Do you want to come?"

Forward guidance.  She: "As things look now, I think I'll feel like coming when Sunday rolls around. Of course that might change. If my mother calls and wants to go shopping I might well feel differently."

Commitment. She: "Sure, honey, that sounds like fun. Get the tickets. I know my mom might call, and I'll regret it later, but we have to get the tickets now, so count me in."