Monday, March 31, 2014

EconTalk MOOC Podcast

Russ Roberts
podcast interview with Russ Roberts on EconTalk about my experience teaching a MOOC and thoughts on the economics of MOOCs. (The interview was based a bit on my last post here.)

Russ is a very good interviewer, and the EconTalk series quite interesting.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The sign of monetary policy, part II

(This blog post uses mathjax to show equations. You should see pretty equations, not ugly LaTex code.)

The ECB is in the news today. They want some inflation, yet the overnight rate is already zero. They're talking about negative interest rates, which leads to a great lunchroom discussion about bags of euros wandering around Europe.  All very interesting.

Yet it brings to mind a heretical thought I explored in an earlier blog post: What if we have the sign wrong on the effect of monetary policy? Could it be that to get more inflation, our central banks should raise rates not lower them? (Leave aside whether you think more inflation is good, which I don't. But suppose you want it, how do you get it?)

It's not as crazy as it sounds.


I did two interviews that blog readers might enjoy.

This is an interview with Jeff Garten at Yale, covering financial crises and reform/regulation efforts rather broadly. Source here. It's part of a very interesting series of interviews on the "future of global finance" with lots of superstars. I give Niall Ferguson the prize for most creative  author photo.

This one is a podcast interview on the ACA and how free-market health care can work, with Don Watkins at the Ayn Rand institute's "debt dialogues" series. If you follow the link you get several formats.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Goodman Vs. Emanuel

On the fourth anniversary of the ACA, Saturday's Wall Street Journal had an excellent pair of pro and con OpEds from John Goodman "A costly failed experiment" and Ezekiel Emanuel "Progress, with caveats."

Stein on Financial Stability in Monetary Policy

Fed governor and Harvard Professor Jeremy Stein gave an important speech on March 21, Incorporating Financial Stability Considerations into a Monetary Policy Framework. I have a few minor criticims, specifically on standard errors, causal mechanism, and Lucas critique. But it's great for Jeremy to think out loud this way, and give me occasion to do the same. You should read the whole thing.

Stein's bottom line:
...all else being equal, monetary policy should be less accommodative--by which I mean that it should be willing to tolerate a larger forecast shortfall of the path of the unemployment rate from its full-employment level--when estimates of risk premiums in the bond market are abnormally low.
This view has put Stein a bit in the camps of the hawks, meaning simply those who for one reason or another think the time to raise rates is sooner rather than later.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A World Without Banks?

A graphic short story in this month's "capital ideas."  Click on the link or the image to read the whole thing (4 panels). If you can find the print magazine, the visual quality is much better. I think it does a great job of making economic ideas visual without too many talking heads and big balloons full of text. More of these to come in future "Capital Ideas." More work from this unusually talented graphic novelist here. (My side of this "debate" is a bit captured here.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hello Discretion

Today, the much-anticipated first Fed policy statement of the Yellen era came out. FOMC statement, here.

Some interesting tidbits:
The Committee will closely monitor incoming information on economic and financial developments in coming months and will continue its purchases of Treasury and agency mortgage-backed securities, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate, until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially in a context of price stability. ... asset purchases are not on a preset course, and the Committee's decisions about their pace will remain contingent on the Committee's outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as its assessment of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchases. 
In determining how long to maintain the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess progress--both realized and expected--toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments. 
With the unemployment rate nearing 6-1/2 percent, the Committee has updated its forward guidance. 
In other words, the committee will do whatever it feels like doing, whenever it feels like doing it, based on whatever information it decides is relevant. The Committee updated its forward guidance by throwing it under a bus, or at least by clarifying that it is of the form "here is what we think now we will want to do in the future, but we can change our minds at any time."

The larger context is the debate between commitment or rules and discretion. Discretion wins.

You might expect me to be fulminating. I'm not. (Though I'm waiting for a rules vs. discretion blast from John Taylor! (Update: here it is.)  I regard this as simply stating reality.

University Debt

Bloomberg has a story on the University of Chicago's big debt expansion. Obviously, it's a topic around faculty lounges too.

A few thoughts. Why does a university simultaneously borrow $3.6  billion but have $6.7 billion Invested? If borrowing is such a big deal, why not just spend the endowment on new buildings?

Answer: universities can borrow at municipal rates, free of federal tax to the lender, if they are building something. Borrowing at tax-free rates makes financial sense, even you just stuff the marginal dollar into endowment. Of course the endowment is not invested in Treasuries -- universities don't do simple tax arbitrage. So the model is more that of a leveraged hedge fund -- borrow at low tax-free rates, up to the limit imposed by tax law, and invest in high risk, (hopefully) high-return projects like hedge funds, private equity, real estate etc. The fact that investment returns are also not taxed makes this a doubly advantageous strategy. Donors: if you give now, your gift grows tax-free, while if you earn the rate of return and then give the money to the university, you pay taxes on the intervening returns.

Monday, March 17, 2014

House of Debt

Atif Mian and Amir Sufi have started a blog related to their new book, "House of Debt." Amir and Atif are admirably data-oriented, which ought to make for good reading.

Today's post "Fed Meetings and Asset Prices" is a good example. They put together one-day returns on the June 19 "taper tantrum" when the Fed announced it might (heavens) start tapering bond purchases. There is, of course, a large literature studying announcement effects. Atif and Amir  put together an unusually wide spectrum of asset classes.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Goodman Plan

John Goodman has an excellent health-care piece at National Review Online. You don't have to subscribe to every element of his "plan" to appreciate many of his trenchant observations of coming Obamacare disasters. (Any "plan" that advertises it is crafted to meet perceived political constraints is bound to be less than perfect as a matter of economics.)

The slight weak point: he keeps community rating and guaranteed issue, but talks about how people need to sign up immediately or lose that benefit as they do in Medicare. I'm not sure just how he wants to do that or if that's realistic. But the big picture is right on: deregulated, individual, portable insurance.

Transferability between plans is a nice point:  "if an expensive-to-treat patient moves from Plan A to Plan B, the former has to compensate the latter for any above-average expected costs — just the way Medicare compensates private plans."

But read it for the mess we're in now. Lots of looming problems have not made headlines. Yet.

Asness and Liew on Efficiency

Source: Institutional Investor
Cliff Asness and John Liew -- Chicago PhD's and now founding principals of AQR -- have a nice piece in Institutional Investor on Fama, Shiller, Nobel Prizes and efficiency.

They do a good job on the joint hypothesis theorem -- maybe a more important part of Fama's 1970 paper than efficiency itself -- and value and momentum strategies.

They point out one big difficulty for the inefficiency view (p.5). If value stocks are just overlooked and growth stocks irrationally overpriced, why do value stocks all subsequently rise or fall together, and growth stocks go the other way? "Cheap stocks would get cheaper across the board at the same time. It didn't matter if the stock was an automaker or an insurance company. When value was losing it was losing everywhere."

A second very important theorem: the average investor must hold the market portfolio, so alpha is a zero sum game. If you're going to profit, it helps a lot to identify just who the morons are whose money you are taking and why they're willing to give it to you. Everyone thinks the other guy is "behavioral." Are you sure it's not you?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Employment-Population Ratio: war of the graphs

The comments on my last post were particularly good, and pointed to some alternative graphs. And, I think, to the important conclusion, that there is no substitute really for sitting down and doing some economics.

Thursday, March 6, 2014