Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bitcoin and Bubbles

Source: Wall Street Journal

So, what's up with Bitcoin? Is it a "bubble?'' A mania of irrational crowds?

It strikes me as a fairly pure instance of a regularly occurring phenomenon in financial markets, one that encompasses some "excess valuations" in stock markets, gold and commodities, and money itself.

Let's put the pieces together. The first equation of asset pricing is that price = expected present value of dividends. Bitcoin has no cash dividends, and never will. So right off the bat we have a problem -- and a case that suggests how other assets might have value above and beyond their cash dividends.

Well, if the price is greater than zero, either people see some "dividend," some value in holding the asset, beyond its cash payments; equivalently they are willing to hold the asset despite a lower expected return going forward, or they think the price will keep going up forever, so that price appreciation alone provides a competitive return. The first two are called "convenience yield," the latter is a "rational bubble."

"Rational bubbles" are intriguing, but I think fundamentally flawed. If a price goes up forever, eventually the value of bitcoin must exceed all of US wealth, then all of world wealth, then all of interplanetary wealth, then all of the atoms in the universe. The "greater fool" or Ponzi scheme theory must break down at some point, or rely on an irrational belief in the next fool. The rational bubbles theory also does not account for the association of price surges with high volatility and high trading volume.

So, let's think about "convenience yield." Why might someone be willing to hold bitcoins even though their price is above "fundamental value" -- equivalently even though their expected return over a decently long horizon is lower than that of stocks and bonds? Even though we know pretty much for sure that within our lifetimes bitcoin will become worthless? (If you're not sure on that, more later)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Eight Heresies of Monetary Policy

Eight Heresies of Monetary Policy

This is a talk I gave for Hoover, which blog readers might enjoy. Yes, it puts together many pieces said before. This post has graphs and uses mathjax for equations, so if it isn't showing come back to the original. Also here is a pdf version which may be more readable.


As background, the first graph reminds you of the current situation and recent history of monetary policy.

The federal funds rate is the interest rate that the Federal Reserve controls. The funds rate rises in economic expansions, and goes down in recessions. You can see this pattern in the last two recessions. Since about 2012, though, when following history you might have expected the funds rate to rise again, it has stayed essentially at zero. Very recently it has started to rise, but very slowly, nothing like 2005.

The black line is reserves. These are accounts that banks have at the Fed. Crucially, these bank accounts now pay interest. Starting in 2008, reserves grew dramatically from about $20 billion to $2,500 billion. The three cliffs are the three quantitative easing' episodes. Here, the Fed bought bonds and mortgage backed securities, giving banks reserves in exchange.

Inflation initially followed the same pattern as in the last recession. It fell in the recession, and bounced back again in 2012.Inflation has been slowly decreasing since. 10 year government bonds have been quietly trending down, with a bit of an extra dip during the recession.

The next graph plots US unemployment and GDP growth.

You can see we had a deeper recession, but then unemployment recovered about as it always does, or if anything a little faster. You can see the big drop in GDP during the recession. Subsequent growth has been overall too low, in my view, but it has been very steady. If anything, both growth and inflation are steadier in the era of zero interest rates than they were when the Fed was actively moving interest rates around.

These central facts motivate my heresies: Inflation, long term interest rates, growth and unemployment seem to be behaving in utterly normal ways. Yet the monetary environment of near-zero short term rates and huge QE is nothing but normal. How do we make sense of these facts?

Heresy 1: Interest rates
  • Conventional Wisdom: Years of near zero interest rates and massive quantitative easing imply loose monetary policy, "extraordinary accommodation,'' and "stimulus.''
  • Heresy 1: Interest rates are roughly neutral. If anything, the Fed has been (unwittingly) holding rates up since 2008.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Journal graphics in a bygone era

To illustrate MV = PY. (It was MV=PT then.)  In  Irving Fisher, "The Equation of Exchange 1896-1910," The American Economic Review Vol. 1, No. 2 (June, 1911), pp. 296-305, via JSTOR.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap is an extraordinary blog post on land use regulations. (HT the dependably excellent Marginal Revolution.) It is great for its detail, but most of all for its fresh voice. Sure, send one of my free-market economist friends in to examine the pathologies of any city, and we start almost reflexively on land use regulations. But the author is clearly from a different background -- the sort of person who "was in Hamtramck, Michigan a couple of years ago to participate in a seminar about reactivating neighborhoods." Lessons discovered the hard way, from different backgrounds, are often the freshest.

The big point of the blog post is how land use regulations force a steppingstone pattern of urban decay. It's hopelessly expensive to convert any building "up" the economic foodchain of uses, so bit by bit buildings get used for less and less productive uses, that don't attract the attention of regulators, until they become vacant lots, or until a large commercial developer can come in, demand tax subsidies, and rebuild the whole neighborhood.

The post starts with the story of a family that
bought an old fire station a few years ago with the intention of turning it in to a Portuguese bakery and brew pub.
Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, draught tolerant native plantings… It’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. They only paid $245,000 for the entire property. And that’s before they even started bringing the building itself up to code for their intended use. Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. Big surprise.

(The post is full of great photographs like this one.) So instead,

Monday, November 13, 2017

Two on energy subsidies

The WSJ has two good and related opeds on energy and transport subsidies recently, Randall O'Toole on Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train and Lee Ohanian and  Ted Temzelides write on energy and transport subsidies

Last month, Nashville Mayor Megan Berry announced a $5.2 billion proposal that involves building 26 miles of light rail and digging an expensive tunnel under the city’s downtown. Voters will be asked in May to approve a half-cent sales tax increase plus additions to hotel, car rental and business excise taxes to pay for the project.
Just in time for self-driving Ubers to arrive.

I love trains. But we have to admit practicalities. One transportation economist summed all there is to know about transit with "Bus Good. Train Bad." (With a few exceptions, such as Manhattan.)  And light rail, worse. Trains are expensive, and once built, immobile. If people want to go somewhere else, tough. Rolling stock lasts around 50 years, meaning they bake in technical obsolescence. Trains carry far fewer people per lane-mile than busses. And a fleet of self-driving Ubers linked by computer will be able to use bus lanes.

Actually, even buses are more and more questionable. As I wait for the interminable lights on El Camino to cross to Stanford (on bicycle), I have taken to counting passengers on the well-subsidized bus line. The modal number is zero.

As Randy has pointed out elsewhere, the main beneficiaries of light rail are suburban largely white commuters with a nostalgia thing for trains. The main people paying for it are inner city minorities who don't get bus service anymore.
To pay for new light-rail lines that opened in 2012 and 2016, Los Angeles cut bus service. The city lost nearly four bus riders for every additional rail rider.
Congestion got you down? Real time tolling, adjusted minute by minute, will either cure traffic congestion forever, or will bail out indebted local governments with massive revenues, or both. Or, let people live somewhere near where they work!

Lee and Ted consider the transition from horse to auto and truck,
‘In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under 9 feet of manure.” With this 1894 prediction, the London Times warned that the era’s primary source of transportation energy—the horse—would soon create an environmental crisis. ...
The enormous demand for a cleaner and more efficient source of energy led to remarkable innovations in the internal combustion engine. By 1920 horses in cities had been almost entirely replaced by affordable autos and trucks...
And to be honest, horse manure replaced by auto exhaust -- but as bad as auto exhaust is, it's a lot better than horse manure.
Suppose governments in the 1890s, desperate to replace the horse, had jumped on the first available alternative, the steam engine. Heavy subsidies would have produced more steam engines and more research on steam technology. This would only have waylaid the development of the far superior internal combustion engine. 

Source: Obtainium works
(Actually, the government did subsidize railroads a good deal, and perhaps by doing so did stall the development of the truck.)

More than horse manure, I love the image of an alternate reality steampunk America...At left a cool  steampunk RV. (Image source)

Which brings us back, I'm afraid to the main force behind rail subsidies, which Randall has pointed out before: Nostalgia. Nostalgia for what seems like a simpler age. I understand that too. I love trains. But that doesn't make them practical, especially at billions of dollars per mile.

If we're doing nostalgia, how about doing it full time -- high speed stagecoach lines? Bring back the horse! It's all renewable!'

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The real questions the Fed should ask itself

The real questions the Fed should ask itself.  This is a cleaned up and edited version of a previous blog post, commenting among other things on Janet Yellen's Jackson Hole speech in favor of most of Dodd Frank, that appeared in the Chicago Booth Review. When you think of the Fed, think more of the giant regulator than about where interest rates go.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Yellen Retrospective

The newspapers report today that President Trump has decided to nominate Jerome Powell to replace Janet Yellen as Fed Chair.

The Federal Reserve's mandate is to "promote maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long- term interest rates." Ms. Yellen can look back with pride on these outcomes during her term:

All three variables are doing better than they have in half a century. Many people complain about many things at the Fed, including me, but relative to the stated mandate, she has every right to put these charts on the wall of her new office.

One could complain that Ms. Yellen didn't face any particular challenges. As presidents are tested in wartime, so Fed chairs are tested by events. Ms. Yellen didn't face a recession or financial crisis. In this quiet late summer of the business cycle, her job was largely to do nothing, and resist calls from people who wanted her to take big steps. The Fed's major tool is the federal funds rate, has barely moved.

True, but she did not screw up either. So much of monetary history consists of unforced errors, that not making one is an accomplishment. The late summer of business cycles has historically been a time when central bankers over or under react.  And there has been no lack of loud voices calling for drastic action one way or another. In particular, the siren song of "macro prudential policy" that the Federal Reserve should manipulate stock and housing prices has been strong. Her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, will be much more written about for the Fed's management of the 2008 crisis and recession, as well for its failure to see it coming in 2007.  Not screwing up doesn't earn you as big a place in history, but perhaps it should.

No matter how one feels about monetary policy, and the more important (in my view) question of Fed financial regulation, President Trump is breaking with tradition by not reappointing her. The tradition that if the Fed chair has done a reasonable job, he or she is reappointed is a good one for maintaining the independence of the Fed. Let us hope that it is not gone for good.

Good luck to Ms. Yellen in her next endeavor. And to Mr. Powell in this one.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tax Graph

The tax discussion is moving to personal income taxes, and the world is waiting to hear the actual Republican proposal, due tomorrow (Thursday).

With apologies to blog readers who know all this in their sleep, I thought I might explain just why (some) economists keep chanting "broaden the base, lower marginal rates," or why I keep saying that taxes don't matter, tax rates matter to economic growth.  This is grumpy economist, Saturday morning cartoon edition. Perhaps a colorful graph will help as you try to explain taxes to relatives this Thanksgiving.

Start with the blue line. Suppose you work 40 hours a week, and make $100,000. Suppose the government wants half of it. One way to get that is with a flat tax -- for every dollar you earn, send 50 cents to the government.  The government gets $50,000.

Now consider the red line. This line can represent a progressive tax: Exempt the first $50,000 of income, so people who make less have to pay a smaller share of their income in taxes, and charge a 100% tax rate on the rest. Equivalently, this line represents $50,000 of tax shelters and deductions -- employer-provided health care, charitable contributions to a foundation that employs your relatives and flies you around on private jets, a deduction for home mortgage interest, credits for the solar cells on your roof, and so on.

At first glance, this tax system raises the same amount of money. (That's "static scoring.")

You can see the hole in the argument. If we tax the marginal dollar after $50,000 at 100%, you won't bother working the second 20 hours, and the government will get no revenue. More deeply, slowly, and insidiously, in my view, people choose easy college majors that lead to $50,000 jobs, not harder ones that lead to $100,000 jobs, or they don't start businesses.