Saturday, May 30, 2015

Betting on Grexit

A capital flight mechanism I hadn't thought of, from  Hans-Werner Sinn (HT Marginal revolution)
Basically, Greek citizens take out loans from local banks, funded largely by the Greek central bank, which acquires funds through the European Central Bank’s emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) scheme. They then transfer the money to other countries to purchase foreign assets (or redeem their debts),... 
 In January and February, Greece’s TARGET debts increased by almost €1 billion ($1.1 billion) per day, owing to capital flight by Greek citizens and foreign investors. At the end of April, those debts amounted to €99 billion. 
I knew Greeks are taking money out of bank deposits, and parking it abroad, and that in the end this money came from the ECB. When a Greek depositor wants his or her money, the Greek bank gets it from the Greek central bank, who gets it from the ECB, which prints it (metaphorically). It had not occurred to me that of course borrowing every cent you can from a Greek bank and parking it abroad is just as smart.

Of course, If Greece leaves the Euro, the Greek central bank goes bust, the ECB loses and Greek borrowers or ex-depositors keep their euros.

Hans-Werner seems to think capital controls are a good idea to stop this run. I think the likely imposition of capital controls is just why people are running in the first place. Similarly, if both Greece and Europe were to credibly say that Greek government default will not mean leaving the euro that would also stop the run.

But news for the day is this interesting run on the borrowing side, not just the depositor side.

Friday, May 29, 2015

On writing well

The WSJ notable and quotable picked a lovely snippet from “On Writing Well” (1976) by William Zinsser, who died May 12 at age 92. 
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. 
Who can understand the clotted language of everyday American commerce: the memo, the corporate report, the business letter, the notice from the bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? What member of an insurance plan can decipher the brochure explaining the costs and benefits? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it. 
But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
Though each sentence is spare,  Zinsser includes some long and concrete lists. Notice how effective that combination is.

From the New York Times Obituary
His advice was straightforward: Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece. 
He conveyed that himself with lively turns of phrase: 
“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough,” ... 
“Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence,” ..
Zinsser's book was an inspiration to me.  I highly recommend it to economists and PhD students. (My reading list for a PhD writing workshop.)

Measure your time. You may think you're a social scientist, but in fact you're a writer.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Small shoes and headroom

I talked with Kathleen Hays and Michael McKee on Bloomberg Radio last week, and they asked (twice!) a question that comes up often in thinking about Fed policy: shouldn't the Fed raise rates now, so it has some "headroom" to lower them again if another recession should strike?

I could only answer with my standard joke: That's like the theory that you should wear shoes two sizes too small because it feels so good to take them off at the end of the day.

But the question comes up so often, it's worth thinking about a little more seriously. Under what views about the economy does this common idea make any sense?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tucker and Bagehot at Hoover

I had the pleasure last week of attending the conference on Central Bank Governance And Oversight Reform at Hoover, organized by John Taylor.

Avoiding the usual academic question of what should the Fed do, and the endless media question will-she-or-won't she raise rates, this conference focused on how central banks should make decisions. Particularly in the context of legislation to constrain the Fed coming from Congress, with financial dirigisme and "macro-prudential" policy an increasing temptation, I found these moments of reflection quite useful.

Some of the issues: Should the Fed follow an "instrument rule," like the Taylor rule? Should it have "goal," like an inflation target, but then wide latitude to do what it takes to attain that goal? What structures should implement such a rule? Implicit in a rule that the Fed should do things, like target inflation and employment, is an implicit rule that it should ignore others, like asset prices, exchange rates and so on. (I think this is much too often overlooked. As financial reform should start by delineating what is not systemic, and hence exempt from regulation, monetary policy rules should start by saying what the Fed should ignore.) Should that limitation be more explicit? What's the right governance structure? Should we keep the regional Feds? How should Fed meetings be conducted? Is "transparency" the enemy of productive debate? How much discretion can an agency have while remaining independent?  And so on.

I was going to post thoughts on he whole conference, but John Taylor just posted an excellent summary, so I'll just point you there.

My job was to discuss Paul Tucker's (ex Deputy Governor of the Bank of England) thoughtful paper, "How Can Central Banks Deliver Credible Commitment and be “Emergency Institutions" Paul's paper starts to think deeply about independent regulatory agencies in general, and monetary and fiscal policy together. My discussion is narrower. I'll pass on the discussion (pdf here) as today's blog post, as it might be interesting to blog readers.

Comments on “How Can Central Banks Deliver Credible Commitment and be “Emergency Institutions” By Paul Tucker
May 21 2015

Let me start by summarizing, and cheering, Paul’s important points.

The standard view says that perhaps monetary policy should follow a rule, but financial-crisis firefighting needs discretion; a big mop to clean up big messes; flexibility to “do what it takes”; “emergency” powers to fight emergencies.

I think Paul is telling us, politely, that this is rubbish. Crisis-response and lender-of-last-resort actions need rules, or “regimes,” even more than monetary policy actions need rules. At a basic level any decision is a mapping from states of the world to actions. “Discretion” just means not talking about it.

More deeply, you need rules to constrain this mapping, to pre-commit yourself ex-ante against actions that you will choose ex-post, and regret. Monetary policy rules guard against “just this once” inflations. Lender of last resort rules guard against “just this once” bailouts and loans.

But you need rules even more, when the system responds to its expectations of your actions. And preventing crises is all about controlling this moral hazard.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Bailout barometer

The Richmond Fed updated its "bailout barometer," at left. Post here and longer report here. (WSJ coverage here)

I found the numbers and the table from the longer report interesting as well. Guaranteeing more than half of financial sector liabilities is impressive. But most of us don't know how large financial sector liabilities are. GDP is about $17 Trillion. $43 Trillion is a lot.

This is only financial system guarantees. It doesn't include, for example, the federal debt. It doesn't include student loans, small business loan guarantees, direct loan guarantees to businesses, the ex-im bank and so on and so forth. It doesn't include non-financial but likely bailouts like auto companies, states and local governments, their pensions, and so on.

Guaranteeing debt subsidizes things off budget. Of course, the chance that the government will have to simultaneously pay all these claims at once in full is small. But the chance that substantial debt guarantees might have to be paid is no longer vanishing.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Homo economicus or homo paleas?

Or at least that's how Google translate renders "straw man."

Dick Thaler is in the news, with a long review of his book in the Wall Street Journal  and a thoughtful opinion piece in the New York Times, earning plaudits from Greg Mankiw no less.

The pieces are nice reference points to think about just where psychological economics is. (That's a better adjective than "behavioral" since we are all students of behavior.)

Bottom line: People do a lot of nutty things. But when you raise the price of tomatoes, they buy fewer tomatoes, just as if utility maximizers had walked into the grocery store.

Homo paleas

Dick spends the first half of his precious space in the New York Times and much of the WSJ review complaining about homo economicus, the dispassionate rational maximizer of economic theory.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Feldstein on inflation

Martin Feldstein has an interesting Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, "Why the U.S. Underestimates Growth."

The basic idea is that inflation may be overstated, because it doesn't do a good job of handling new products. As a result, real output growth may be a bit stronger than measured.  Marty runs through a lot of sensible conclusions.

He doesn't talk about monetary policy, but that's interesting too. So what if inflation really is (say) 3% lower than we think it is, and therefore real output growth is 3% larger than it really is?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

McAndrews on negative nominal rates

Jamie McAndrews of the New York Fed has a thoughtful and clear speech on negative nominal rates and the benefits of currency. (Some previous posts on the subject here  here and here.)

A few high points:

1. Needed: anonymous electronic transactions.

Many (not all) negative interest rate proposals call for the elimination of currency. Currency is dying anyway due to the great advantages of electronic transactions. I bemoaned the loss of privacy and political freedom when the NSA, the IRS, and pretty soon Twitter and the Chinese Department of Hacking have a record of everything you've ever bought or sold. Jamie brings up another important point:
The anonymity afforded by currency transactions prevents a buyer from suffering from any actions taken after the transactions that could exploit the knowledge gained by the seller of the buyer’s identity. For example, identity theft, or theft of credit or debit card information, is avoided through the use of currency. This is an economic benefit that is distinct from valuing privacy from a civil liberties point of view. If currency cannot be used in transactions, buyers are at a disadvantage, and many otherwise beneficial transactions (not related to buyers seeking to engage in tax evasion or otherwise illicit activity) would not take place.
Anonymity has value in many transactions. Anonymity equals finality.

It's not hard to have anonymous electronic transactions. Stored value cards could work well as electronic cash. If regulators allowed it, it would be simple enough to set up a money market fund that allows anonymous investing. Regulators don't allow it.

2. Hysterisis of institutions and the lesson of the 70s