Monday, June 29, 2015

Kashyap on Greece

Anil Kashyap has an excellent summary of the Greek debt crisis.

He sees government printed IOUs as a much better solution to the banking and payments crisis than for Greece to exit the euro and try to reestablish the Drachma. I agree entirely.

His summary goes back to the beginning, and reminds us that Greece did not get bailed out; Greece's creditors (mainly european banks) got bailed out.

Wages and inflation

Marty Feldstein has a very interesting opinion piece on Project Syndicate. His main point is that micro distortions from social programs (and taxes, labor laws, regulations etc.) are leading many people not to work, and is well stated.

An introductory paragraph poses a puzzle to me, however,
Consider this: Average hourly earnings in May were 2.3% higher than in May 2014; but, since the beginning of this year, hourly earnings are up 3.3%, and in May alone rose at a 3.8% rate – a clear sign of full employment. The acceleration began in 2013 as labor markets started to tighten. Average compensation per hour rose just 1.1% from 2012 to 2013, but then increased at a 2.6% rate from 2013 to 2014, and at 3.3% in the first quarter of 2015.
These wage increases will soon show up in higher price inflation. 
This is a common story I hear. However I hear another story too -- the puzzle that the share of capital seems to have increased, and that real wages have not kept up with productivity.

So, maybe we should cheer -- rising real wages means wages finally catch up with productivity, and do not signal inflation. The long-delayed "middle class" (real) wage rise is here.

I'd be curious to hear opinions, better informed than mine, about how to tell the two stories apart.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

4% growth

I wrote last week on the simple factual question of whether and how often the US has experienced 4% real GDP growth in the past.

The deeper question, is that growth possible again? I answered yes, it's surely possible as a matter of economics. 

A few have asked me "why do so many of your colleagues disagree?" It's a question I hate. It's hard enough to understand the economy, I don't pretend to understand how others respond to media inquiries. And I don't like the invitation to squabble in public. 

It has taken me some time to reflect on it, though, and I think I have a useful answer. I think we actually agree.

As I read through the many economists' quotes in the media, I don't think there is in fact substantial disagreement on the economic question -- is it economically possible for the U.S. to grow at 4% for a decade or more? Their caution is political. They don't think that any of the announced candidates (at least with a prayer of being elected) will advocate, let alone get enacted, a set of policies sufficiently radical to raise growth that much. 

This is a sensible position. When I answer the question, is 4% growth for a decade economically possible, my answer is whether the most extreme pro-growth policies would yield at least that result. A  short list:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Last Greek thoughts

A few salient points that don't seem to be on the top of the outpouring of Greece commentary.

1. Greece seems to be coming to a standstill.  Kerin Hope at FT  (HT Marginal Revolution):
... many [Greeks] have simply stopped making payments altogether, virtually freezing economic activity.
Tax revenues for May, for example, fell €1bn short of the budget target, with so many Greek citizens balking at filing returns. 
The government, itself, has contributed to the chain of non-payment by freezing payments due to suppliers. That has had a knock-on effect, stifling the small businesses that dominate the economy and building up a mountain of arrears that will take months, if not years, to settle.
“Business-to-business payments have almost been paused,” one Athens businessman says. “They are just rolling over postdated cheques.”
 Around 70 per cent of restructured mortgage loans aren’t being serviced because people think foreclosures will only be applied to big villa owners,” one banker said.
2.  If a Greek goes to the ATM and takes out a load of cash, where does that cash come from? The answer is, basically, that the Greek central bank prints up the cash. Then, the Greek central bank owes the amount to the ECB. The ECB treats this as a loan, with the Greek central bank taking the credit risk. If the Greek government defaults, the Greek central bank is supposed to make the ECB good on all the ECB's lending to Greece.  It's pretty clear what that promise is worth.

Some observations on what these stories mean.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Econ 1

John Taylor is offering his Economics 1, the introductory economics course for Stanford undergraduates, as a free online class. Class starts Monday, June 22.

John's blog post here, and registration page here.

Yes, Martha, apparently there is a free lunch.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Roy's plan

I found two novel (to me) and interesting points in the heath insurance reform plan  put forward by Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute. (His Forbes articles here.)

First, the ACA establishes that it is ok to help people by subsidizing their purchase of private health insurance. It is not necessary to provide completely free insurance, medicaid, VA, medicare, and so on.

Yes, the health insurance you can buy has been salted up with extras, competition severely restricted, and large insurers so deeply in bed with their regulators that to call insurance "private" is a stretch and "competitive" a dream. But people do have to pay something, if they want better coverage they have to pay more, and the insurers are still nominally private companies.

Second, it is ok to ask people to contribute pretty substantial copayments.  That's a vital component to getting a functioning health care market.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Source: Wall Street Journal
Today's (June 18) Wall Street Journal has two noteworthy pieces on tax reform, "Rubio's tax mistake" in the Review and Outlook and Rand Paul's "Blow Up the Tax Code and Start Over" Perhaps now that pretty much everyone agrees the tax code is a mess, something will be done about it.

Paul is sure to be pilloried about the 14.5% rate and whether it will generate enough growth to sustain tax revenues and pay for 20% of GDP spending.

But the structure of the tax code is far more important than the rate. It is refreshing to hear a serious presidential candidate stand up to say
"...repeal the entire IRS tax code—more than 70,000 pages—and replace it with a low, broad-based tax of [rate deliberately deleted] on individuals and businesses. I would eliminate nearly every special-interest loophole. The plan also eliminates the payroll tax on workers and several federal taxes outright, including gift and estate taxes, telephone taxes, and all duties and tariffs. 

It's not exactly the structure I would advocate, but close enough. And close enough even if 14.5% becomes 20%. Or adds higher brackets at higher incomes.  We should talk about the structure separately from the rates to avoid all these distractions.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Noah Smith Writing Lesson

Source Noah Smith
Noah Smith has a good review of the writing in Deirdre McCloskey's review of Thomas Piketty's book.

A lesson for students learning to write papers: Don't needlessly annoy readers before you get to your point. If a reader disagrees, finds something wrong, or insufficiently documented, of if you offend a reader, he or she will leave without getting to the main point.  Once a reader finds one thing he or she thinks is wrong, he or she will distrust the rest of the argument. Grand methodological statements and criticisms of swaths of literature are especially dangerous.

Noah's post is a great example. As you can see, Noah never got to the main point of McCloskey's review, and happily admits it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Four percent?

Timothy Noah from Politico called yesterday to ask if I thought four percent growth for a decade is possible. Story here. In particular he asked me if I agreed with other economists, later identified in the story, who commented that it has never happened in the US so presumably it is impossible.

This prompts me to look up the facts, presented in the charts at left. The top graph is annual GDP growth. The bottom graph gives decade averages. Data here. The red lines mark the 4% growth point. Notice the sad disappearance of growth in the 2000s.

Judge for yourself how far out of historical norms a goal of 4% growth is.

By my eye, avoiding a recession and returning to pre-2000 norms gets you pretty close.  A strong pro-growth policy tilt, cleaning up the obvious tax, legal, and regulatory constraints drowning our Republic of Paperwork (HT Mark Steyn) only needs to add less than a percent on top of that. 4% might be too low a target!

Note the question asks about real GDP not per capita. Adding capitas counts. If you want total GDP to grow, regularizing the 11 million people who are here and letting people who want to come and work and pay taxes counts toward the number. You may argue with the wisdom of that policy, but the point here is about numbers.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Asset Pricing Summer School

I’m going to offer my online course “Asset Pricing” over the summer. The intent is a “summer school” for PhD students, either incoming or between the first year of foundation courses and the second year of specialized finance courses.

At least one university is going to use this more formally: Require completion of the class for their PhD students (either incoming or between first and second year,) and organize a TA and group meetings around the class. We have found that this sort of social organization helps a lot for students to get through online classes.

Greek roll-over

The latest Greek debt "crisis" poses an interesting puzzle. (Quotes because it's hard to call something that's been going on this long a "crisis.") Greece needs to come up with $300 million euros by Friday to pay off the IMF. And the most likely source of this money is... the IMF.

What's going on here? Obviously, Greece was going to need decades to pay off loans, in the sense of running primary surpluses to actually work down debt. Why lend Greece money for a short amount of time, then institute regular "crises" about rolling over the debt?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Bank at the Fed

"Segregated Balance Accounts" is a nice new paper by Rodney Garratt, Antoine Martin, James McAndrews, and Ed Nosal.

Currently, large depositors, especially companies, have a problem. If they put money in banks, deposit insurance is limited. So, they use money market funds, overnight repo, and other very short-term overnight debt instead to park cash. If you've got $10 million in cash, these are safer than banks. But they're prone to runs, which cause little financial hiccups like fall 2008.

But there is a way to have completely run-free interest-paying money, not needing any taxpayer guarantee: Let people and companies invest in interest-paying reserves at the Fed. Or, allow narrow deposit-taking: deposits channeled 100% to reserves at the Fed.

(I'm being persnickety about language. I don't like the words "narrow banking." I like "narrow deposit-taking" and "equity-financed banking," to be clear that banking can stay as big as it wants.)

That's essentially what Segregated Balance Accounts are. A big depositor gives money to a bank, the bank invests it in reserves. If the bank goes under, the depositor immediately gets the reserves, which just need to be transferred to another bank. This gets around the pesky limitation that the Fed is not supposed to take deposits from people and institutions that aren't legally banks.