Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Better Choice

Roll up your shirtsleeves, financial economists. As reported by Elizabeth Dexheimer at Bloomberg, Rep. Jeb Hensarling is “interested in working on a 2.0 version,”  of his financial choice act, the blueprint for reforming Dodd-Frank. “Advice and counsel is welcome."

The core of the choice act is simple. Large banks must fund themselves with more capital and less debt. It strives for a very simple measure of capital adequacy in place of complex Basel rules, by using a simple leverage ratio. And it has a clever carrot in place of the stick. Banks with enough capital are exempt from a swath of Dodd-Frank regulation.

Market based alternatives to a leverage ratio

The most important question, I think, is how, and whether, to improve on the leverage ratio with simple, transparent  measure of capital adequacy. Keep in mind, the purpose is not to determine a minimum capital level at which a bank is resolved, closed down, bailed out, etc. The purpose is a minimal capital ratio at which a bank is so systemically safe that it can be exempt from a lot of regulation.

The "right" answer remains, in my view, the pure one: 100% equity plus long term debt to fund risky investments, and short term liabilities entirely backed by treasuries or reserves (various essays here). But, though I still think it's eminently practical, it's not on the current agenda, and our task is to come up with something better than a leverage ratio for the time being.

Here are my thoughts. This post is an invitation to critique and improve.

Market values. First, we should use the market value of equity and other assets, not the book value. Risk weights are complicated and open to games, and no asset-by-asset system captures correlations between assets. Value at risk does, but people trust the correlations in those models even less than they trust risk weights. Accounting values pretend assets are worth more than they really are, except when accounting values force marks to market that are illiquid or "temporarily impaired."

Market values solve these problems neatly. If the assets are unfairly marked to market, equity analysts know that and assign a higher value to the equity. If assets are negatively correlated so the sum is worth more than the parts, equity analysts now that and assign a higher value to the equity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Central Bank Governance Meeting

I'll be part of "Central Bank Governance and Oversight Reform: A Panel Discussion" at the Hoover Institution Washington DC offices, Tuesday Dec 6, 2016 10:00-12:00. The panelists will be  Michael Bordo, John Cochrane, Charles Plosser, John Taylor, and Kevin Warsh.

The occasion will be in honor of the book (cover at left), though knowing this panel I doubt we will keep to the subject and instead enjoy a thorough debate on central bank and monetary policy issues. The format will be very short presentations, followed by lively Q&A and discussion.

If you're interested in attending, follow this link to rsvp.

Discussion now available online, embed below, link here

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


For Thanksgiving, I offer a rumination.

Last month, the Hoover Institution's fall retreat was organized around the theme of American Exceptionalism. See here for podcasts of talks from the stars -- really good. I talked about the nexus between economics, rule of law, regulation, and exceptionalism.

This was before the election, but two themes strike me as especially important still.

First: America needs rule of law, regular order, a partisan truce, even more than it needs my particular free-market policy preferences.

If Republicans overturn Obamacare in their first 100 days, with no Democratic votes; if President Trump picks up his phone and pen, undoes 8 years of Obama in the first day, and starts writing his own; and sends the agencies after his critics and enemies, we are headed for disaster.  Future president Elizabeth Warren, or President Malia Obama with Vice President Chelsea Clinton, will just do the same. There is an anectdotal story of early 20th century Chicago mayors, who alternated between German and Irish. Each one's first act in office would be to overturn the ban on whiskey (beer), and impose a ban on beer (whiskey). (Too good a story to check the facts!) Let's not do that.

Second, we must not become a country where you can't afford to lose an election. The criminalization of politics has already gone too far. If you can't afford to lose an election -- if losing or supporting the losing party or speaking out on policy issues that lose gains you the tender attentions of the FBI, the IRS, the DOJ, the NLRB, and the EPA, if you lose your job and your business -- then people in power will fight to the end not to lose that power. Though I'm no fan of the Clinton foundation shenanigans, the noises coming out of the Trump transition not to push that issue are hopeful. Losing an election, a 95% reduction in speaking fees, and the public attention that investigative journalists can bring are enough. Putin can't retire and stay out of jail -- or alive.

A last thought for Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were all illegal immigrants -- violating their charter from the English King, and the natives' longstanding ban on white settlement. Thank the Wampanoag's tolerant attitude for your turkey.

Economics, Rule of Law, and American Exceptionalism
(Talk given at Hoover retreat October 2016) 

To be a conservative — or, in my case an empirical, pax-americana, rule-of-law, constitutionalist conservative libertarian — is pretty much by definition to believe that America is “exceptional” — and that she is perpetually in danger of losing that precious characteristic. Exceptionalism is not natural or inborn, but must be understood, cherished, maintained, and renewed each generation — and her garden is always perilously unattended.

Friday, November 18, 2016

How to raise house prices and inequality

From Chris Kirkham in today's Wall Street Journal, department of you can't make this stuff up:
Nearly two-thirds of Los Angeles voters last week approved a citywide affordable-housing requirement.... 
The rule requires that up to 25% of units in rental properties and up to 40% in for-sale projects meet affordability guidelines. Alternatively, developers can pay a fee to the city.
New York City and Seattle passed similar requirements earlier this year. 
The Los Angeles initiative goes a step further, however. It also sets wage standards for the projects. 
Developers must pay construction wages on par with those required for public-works projects, hire 30% of the workforce from within city limits, set aside 10% of jobs for certain disadvantaged workers living within 5 miles of the project and ensure 60% of workers have experience on par with graduates of a union apprenticeship program. 
The mandates could double the hourly wage for some construction trades compared with state median wages. The pay for a carpenter, for example, could rise to $55.77 an hour from $26.16, according to an economic analysis sponsored by opponents of the initiative.
I wonder what that will do to the cost of housing? Notice also that by restricting who can do construction jobs and forcing up wages, there will be lots of new unemployment among lower-skilled or new entrants to construction, often a first step up the ladder for less educated people.
... some developers will be less affected by the change. Those who build primarily affordable housing, using government subsidies, already must pay higher wages. Developers of large high-rise projects, meantime, often use union work crews.
The measure was backed in part by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a union group,
A union group delighted to eliminate low-wage competition. Let them eat tacos?
“There’s a huge shortage of housing in L.A., and a huge shortage of low-income housing,” he [Shawn Evenhaim, chief executive of Los Angeles developer California Home Builders] said. “They took that problem and made it worse.”
Left out of the article, and a big question I have if anyone knows the answer: who gets "affordable" or "below market rate" housing. Rather obviously more people want subsidized housing than can get it. So who wins the lottery?

"Affordable" housing is parceled out by income limits. So what happens if you get a better job? Are you kicked out of your house? That sounds like a great recipe for perpetuating income inequality. What happens if you get a job offer somewhere far away? Can you trade one "affordable" house for another? I bet not. One more nail in the coffin of advancement.

More deeply, if these things work the way I suspect, there is a long waiting list and a lottery. Once in, you're in so long as you don't get more income. Thus, they entrench and benefit people who have been in one place a long time. And the people really hurt by "affordable" housing -- which restricts supply and raises costs of all other housing -- are newcomers, especially low-income newcomers who would like to come for better jobs. And new businesses who would like to hire ambitious low-income newcomers and give them better incomes.

So the effects are not just to raise house prices -- they are to increase inequality, reduce opportunity, especially for low skill and low income people, and reduce the economic vitality of the region.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Yglesias discovers rule of law

Matt Yglesias (HT Marginal Revolution) writes well of the danger facing America in the era of the regulatory state.
Those who support the regime will receive favorable treatment from regulators, and those who oppose it will not. Because businesses do business with each other, the network becomes self-reinforcing. Regime-friendly banks receive a light regulatory touch while their rivals are crushed. In exchange, they offer friendly lending terms to regime-friendly businesses while choking capital to rivals. Such a system, once in place, is extremely difficult to dislodge precisely because, unlike a fascist or communist regime, it is glued together by no ideology beyond basic human greed, insecurity, and love of family.
He's talking about the Trump administration.  Matt, where have you been these last 8 years? Well, better late then ever, but wow those partisan glasses make the mirror hard to see. (I might add that this is exactly how fascist and communist regimes work in reality. Ideology is easy to find.)

Update for Fire Man (I try not to endlessly push my previous work.) The Rule of Law in the Regulatory State

Update 2. A little less snarky. Still, the danger is real. Will Republicans, now in power, say thank you very much, pick up the phone and pen, and do unto D like D did unto R? Or will they be the ones to undo tit-for-tat, shove-it-down-their-throats policy, and reestablish executive restraint at least by custom if not by statute? That will take losing or delaying some policy fights, and foregoing the delicious irony of revenge. President elect Trump did threaten to use the IRS against political enemies. Let us hope that like much else was campaign rhetoric. Will the repeal and replace Obamacare happen strictly along party lines in 100 days -- and then be overturned itself by President Warren or Chelsea Clinton? Or will they take the time and effort to get a significant Democratic buy in? Time will tell.

I did not mean to say that the worry is unfounded, only that it goes back a ways in US politics,  and the  fight would now be oh so easier if people like Yglesias had kept true to principle while their policy priorities were being shoved down people's throats, and their political antagonists were the victims of the politicized regulatory state.

Good commentary from Glenn Greenwald on the Inspector-Renault quality of this outrage.

Monday, November 14, 2016

No 100 days. Please

Dear President-Elect Trump:

The media and punditocracy are full of speculation about your "100 day" program. It sounds like you and your team might actually be preparing for one. Don't do it. Please.

I know, every new president wants to repeat Franklin Roosevelt’s hundred days: a flurry of new legislation, executive orders and agencies, dramatically changing the country (for better or worse) and cementing his (or her, someday) place in history.

It's not the time, and you're not that president. You can only achieve a similar place in history with the opposite course.

It’s not 1932. We’re not in a national political and economic emergency. Our country does not need a massive dose of new laws, new regulations, new policies, and new agencies. It has lots of laws, regulations, and agencies that aren’t working.  

The task for our time is to fix the dysfunction, soothe the polarization, get the sensible compromises passed, and clean up the administration of government. Tax reform.  Regulatory reform. Entitlement reform. Immigration reform. Criminal-justice reform.  Fix health insurance. Fix Dodd-Frank. There are straightforward, bipartisan workable if not perfect answers to most of these long-standing messes that have been torpedoed by absolutists on one side or another.  Read the Paul Ryan "better way" plan, detailed and prepackaged. If you really think you can do better, work from that basis. You don't have to write a word of new proposals yourself. The more something is someone else's idea, the easier it is to get it passed.

Find a deal. Get it done. Quietly, behind the scenes. Let your opponents in both parties have a face-saving way to help you. Don't try to shove things down people's throats, either legislators or voters. That’s what great politicians do.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Don't Believe the Economic Pessimists

Source: Wall Street Journal
No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, now ought to be the time that policy makers in Washington come together to tackle America’s greatest economic problem: sclerotic growth. The recession ended more than seven years ago. Unemployment has returned to normal levels. Yet gross domestic product is rising at half its postwar average rate. Achieving better growth is possible, but it will require deep structural reforms.

The policy worthies have said for eight years: stimulus today, structural reform tomorrow. Now it’s tomorrow, but novel excuses for stimulus keep coming...

Keep reading here, the Wall Street Journal Oped. I'll post the whole thing in 30 days as usual.

Somehow the WSJ thinks anyone is interested in growth and serious policy on the eve of the election. Or maybe they were just tired of Trump vs. Clinton and needed to fill space.  At any rate, it might give you a little reprieve from the election coverage.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Yellen Questions

Fed chair Janet Yellen gave a remarkable speech at a Fed conference in Boston. I have long wanted to ask her, "what are the questions most on your mind that you would like academics to answer?" That's pretty much the speech.

Some commenters characterized this speech as searching for reasons to keep interest rates low forever. One can see the logic of this charge. However, the arguments are thoughtful and honest. If she's right, she's right.

The last, and I think most important and revealing point, first:

1. Inflation
"My fourth question goes to the heart of monetary policy: What determines inflation?"
"Inflation is characterized by an underlying trend that has been essentially constant since the mid-1990s; .... Theory and evidence suggest that this trend is strongly influenced by inflation expectations that, in turn, depend on monetary policy....The anchoring of inflation expectations...does not, however, prevent actual inflation from fluctuating from year to year in response to the temporary influence of movements in energy prices and other disturbances. In addition, inflation will tend to run above or below its underlying trend to the extent that resource utilization--which may serve as an indicator of firms' marginal costs--is persistently high or low."
I think this paragraph nicely and clearly summarizes the current Fed view of inflation. Inflation comes from expectations of inflation. Those expectations are "anchored" somehow, so small bursts of or disinflation will melt away. On top of that the Phillips cure -- the correlation between inflation and unemployment or output -- is causal, from output to inflation, and pushes inflation up or down, but again only temporarily.

What a remarkable view this is. There is no nominal anchor. Compare it, say, to Milton Friedman's MV=PY, the fiscal theory's view that inflation depends on the balance of government debt to taxes that soak up the debt, the gold standard, or John Taylor's rule. In the Yellen-Fed view, "expectations" are the only nominal anchor.