Thursday, June 14, 2018

Different Planets

A friend, who reads an unusually diverse set of sources, passed on some interesting pictures suggesting that our media live on different planets.

On the Trump-Kim summit

On the investigations:

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Cross-subsidies are an under-appreciated original sin of economic stagnation. To transfer money from A to B, it would usually be better to raise taxes on A and to provide vouchers or otherwise pay competitive suppliers on behalf of B. But our political system doesn't like to admit the size of government-induced transfers, so instead we force businesses to undercharge B. Since they have to cover cost, they must overcharge A. It starts as the same thing as a tax on A to subsidize B. But a cross-subsidy cannot withstand competition. Someone else can give A a better price. So our government protects A from that competition. That ruins the underlying markets, and next thing you know everyone is paying more for less.

This was the story of airlines and telephones: The government wanted to subsidize airline service to small cities, and residential landlines, especially rural. It forced companies to provide those at a loss and to cross-subsidize those losses from other customers, big city connections and long distance. But then the government had to stop competitors from undercutting the overpriced services. And as those deregulations showed, the result was inefficiency and high prices for everyone.

Health care and insurance are the screaming example today. The government wants to provide health care to poor, old, and other groups. It does not want to forthrightly raise taxes and pay for their health care in competitive markets. So it forces providers to pay less to those groups, and make it up by overcharging the rest of us. But overcharging cannot stand competition, so gradually the whole system became bloated and inefficient.

A Bloomberg article "Air Ambulances Are Flying More Patients Than Ever, and Leaving Massive Bills Behind" by  John Tozzi offers a striking illustration of the phenomenon, and much of the mindset that keeps our country from fixing it.

The story starts with the usual human-interest tale, a $45,930 bill for a 70 mile flight for a kid with a 107 degree fever.
At the heart of the dispute is a gap between what insurance will pay for the flight and what Air Methods says it must charge to keep flying. Michael Cox ... had health coverage through a plan for public employees. It paid $6,704—the amount, it says, Medicare would have paid for the trip.   
The air-ambulance industry says reimbursements from U.S. government health programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, don’t cover their expenses. Operators say they thus must ask others to pay more—and when health plans balk, patients get stuck with the tab.
Seth Myers, president of Air Evac, said that his company loses money on patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare, as well as those with no insurance. That's about 75 percent of the people it flies. 

According to a 2017 report commissioned by the Association of Air Medical Services, an industry trade group, the typical cost per flight was $10,199 in 2015, and Medicare paid only 59 percent that. 
So, I knew about cross-subsidies, but $45,950 vs. $6,704 is a lot!

OK, put your economics hats on. How can it persist that people are double and triple charged what it costs to provide any service? Why, when an emergency room puts out a call, "air ambulance needed, paying customer alert" are there not swarms of helicopters battling it out -- and in the process driving the price down to cost?

Monday, June 11, 2018

Summer School Suggestion

The Asset Pricing online class is back, now hosted on Canvas. This is a first-year PhD level course in asset pricing. Advanced undergraduates and MBAs with some economics and basic calculus can take it too.  I mention it again as it is well suited as a summer school project, and I realized in talking to colleagues that not everyone who knew about the original class knows it's alive again.  Go here to sign up.

Faculty can also assign it or parts of it, and using the canvas system find out if students have taken the quizzes. This makes it a useful summer school prerequisite for fall classses, or you can use it or parts of it in a flipped classrom -- have the students do an online unit, take the quiz, and then show up to class prepared for more advanced discussion.

More information here on my webpage, along with all the videos and notes, and lots of extra material. If you don't want to take the quizzes, you can see the videos and notes without taking the course.

Monday, June 4, 2018

ACA dropouts

Half of the people who sign up for Obamacare (ACA) get a flurry of medical care, then drop out before a year is over. They can always sign up again if they need to. People who stay on insurance tend to be those who have ongoing chronic and expensive conditions that need continual care. The implications for the viability of such insurance are not good.

This is the interesting conclusion of a new paper, "Take-Up, Drop-Out, and Spending in ACA Marketplaces" by Rebecca Diamond, Michael Dickstein, Tim McQuade, and Petra Persson. One good summary graph:

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Lessons of the ELB

I gave a short presentation on monetary policy at the Nobel Symposium run by the Swedish House of Finance. It was an amazing conference, and I'll post a blog review as soon as they get the slides up of the other talks. Offered 15 minutes to summarize what I know about the zero bound, as well as to comment on presentations by Mike Woodford and Stephanie Schmitt-Grohé, here is what I had to say. There is a pdf version here and slides here. Novelty disclaimer: Obviously, this involves a lot of recycling and digesting older material. But simplifying and digesting is a lot of what we do.

Lessons of the long quiet ELB
(effective lower bound) 

We just observed a dramatic monetary experiment. In the US, the short-term interest rate rate was stuck at zero for 8 years. Reserves rose from 10 billion to 3,000 billion. Yet inflation behaved in this recession and expansion almost exactly as it did in the previous one. The 10 year bond rate continued its gentle downward trend unperturbed by QE or much of anything else.

Europe's bound is ongoing with the same result.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Or, "the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?" Or, "from demand to supply?"

An Op-Ed for The Hill with some extras:

The economic expansion and stock market runup have been going on for a decade, and a case of the jitters seems to be spreading. How long can this go on? Is the end around the corner?

After years of quiet, the stock market suddenly became volatile again last March. Volatility is a sign of uncertainty, and often presages a decline. Stock prices are high relative to earnings and dividends, which often precedes a fall. Short term interest rates have risen, and long term rates and short term rates are nearly the same. An inverted yield curve, when short term rates are higher than long term rates, is one of the most reliable warning signs of a recession. The unemployment rate is down to 3.9%, a level that historically has only happened at business cycle peaks — that were soon followed by troughs. House prices and credit are up too, as they were at recent peaks. Is it time to worry?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Alexander Hamilton's solar panels

I think I finally have figured out why California is mandating solar panels on top of houses. (WSJ story here.)

As energy, environmental, or housing policy, it borders on the absurd, as pretty much everyone quickly figured out.

Just to recap, remember that most rooftop solar does not power the house underneath it. The energy goes out to the grid. Why not, you ask? Well, the rooftop energy comes at the wrong time, and we don't yet have economical storage, so you have to be connected to the grid anyway. Given that, the costs of switches to let the roof partially power the house at sometimes, power the grid at other times, is not worth the zero benefit. After all, electricity is electricity and your light bulb does not care where it came from.

So rooftops are just a place to put the electric utility's solar panels. Now let's consider, where is the best place to put solar panels that feed the grid?

Option A:

(OK, in reality the Mojave desert, or the vast stretches of wasteland along I-5 pockmarked with angry farmer billboards, but the camels are cute.)

Option B: The roof of a typical northern California house:

(OK, I'm having fun with this one, but you get the point. Actually a house off the grid is one place where rooftop solar does make a lot of sense, but you don't have to force people to buy them in that case.)

To belabor the point, people like to build houses near trees. Trees shading roofs are heavily protected in Palo Alto where I live, and you risk massive fines if you cut one down. House roofs don't always pitch to the southwest at the optimum angle.

A house is an expensive and flammable structure for a solar panel. You need to be a lot more careful putting it up there than out in the desert. In California especially, each installation needs a separate design, design review, permits, and so on. Code requirements are stringent. Each installation needs big switches, where the fire department can get at them (and a separate one for the battery). Each house needs a separate set of switches to connect to the grid. All of these fixed costs are spread way out on a commercial solar farm out in the desert.

And so on. We don't operate tiny coal burning generators in each house for the same good reasons.

So why is California doing it? Grumpy free marketers tend to bemoan nitwit liberalism, but economics teaches us to look for rational maximizing actors even in government.

So here is a suggestion. It's actually a brilliant move. Large-scale rooftop solar is only sustained by subsidies -- tax credits for installation and the requirement that homeowners can sell power to their fellow citizens (through the utility) at above-market rates. To put the matter mildly, not everybody thinks these subsidies are a good idea, and moreover you can't count on Washington to maintain subsidies for the 30 year lifespan of solar panels. You never know, someone like, say, Donald Trump might get elected president and start tearing apart energy subsidies.

So, once solar panels are on the rooftops of thousands of registered voters, you have a natural constituency that will vote and otherwise pressure the state, the administration, congress, and agencies to continue solar subsidies. 

The Alexander Hamilton story is that he wanted the US federal government to take on the state debts from the revolutionary war, in part to create a class of bondholders who would support the federal government's ability to raise taxes, to pay off that debt. Putting solar panels on houses, though ridiculously inefficient from an energy or environment point of view, achieves the same thing, in a nefarious sort of way.

Too bad they can't just give each of us a solar panel out in the desert, the way some charities show you "your" child in some third-world country. Once a year, you get a card "Happy holidays! I'm your solar panel, number 3457 in the Mojave desert. I've had a great year pumping out electricity! Here is your check for $357.52 in subsidies and power generation. Remember to vote on election day!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Meditation on a trip to the DMV

I arrived at the DMV yesterday at 9 AM. My number came up at 5:45 -- you have to wait anxiously all day as you have 10 seconds to respond to your number. At 6:05, 10 hours after arrival. I was informed it was too late to take my written test so I would have to come back. As usual the place was packed, no food, no drink, two filthy restrooms.

(California has an appointment system but it takes two months to get an appointment, so if you need something now or can't book a free day two months ahead of time, you wait. 10 hours. Then you still get an appointment to return two weeks later as they won't get to you.)

Despite 13.2% top income tax rate, 7.5-9.5% sales tax, gas taxed to $3.80 a gallon, California cannot operate a functional DMV. Even Illinois, good old corrupt, bankrupt, Illinois, can operate a vaguely functional DMV. (Direct election of the secretary of state may have something to do with that.)

Estonia, this is not. Piles of paper flow around. Technology is about 1992 -- there is a number system, so you don't stand in line for 10 hours. But no indication where you are in the queue or when they might get to you.

Rebellion was in the air. Most people do not have my time flexibility. The very nice lady next to me had taken the day off work and had to arrange child care, which was going to end at a finite time. This was her second day of waiting. She was ready to start the revolution.

This is not unusual. It's just a completely normal day down at the DMV.

The joke has been around a long time: Do you really want the people who run the DMV to operate your health care and insurance system? But it is a good joke. The DMV is the main interface most people have  with the functioning or lack thereof of a bureaucracy.

The irony is that the democratic candidates in California are falling all over themselves to be stronger on "single-payer" health -- which does not just mean one fallback, but that all others are banned.

The amazing thing is that citizens of this noble state are all for it, though they must, like me, each take their turn in the 10 hour line at the DMV. (I suspect many high income progressives do not realize that "single payer" means them too. No concierge medicine.)

Republicans: I suggest you set up tables outside the DMV. After all, there is motor voter registration and this might get people in a good frame of mind for your message.

Second thought: Things could be worse. The DMV is  good proxy for the quality of government institutions. In many countries in the world you must pay a bribe to get a driver's license. In many other countries you can pay a bribe to cut through swaths of paperwork. At least in the US you can't do that.

But there are countries where government actually works. When our friends on the left dream of Scandinavian health care, perhaps they should visit a Scandinavian DMV first, and agree that let's see if our government can run a DMV before it tackles health care. And don't go after me with taxes -- the cost of a functional DMV is not that high. This one just needs to expand to match the growth in its population and the complexity of the various laws it has passed.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Argentina update and IMF

From Alejandro Rodriguez, my correspondent from the last post
We are ***! People are withdrawing funds from fixed income mututal funds (which hold ARS 300 billion of CB short term debt). Yestedary alone people withdrew 4% from those funds and ran to the dollar today. Peso falls 5% to $24.00 ARS/USD. Next step is a ran against term deposits in banks. Next tuesday the CB has to roll over ARS 680 billion of short term debt. A conservative estimate is that ARS 150 billion will not be rolled over and will ran immediatelly to the dollar. No IMF bailout will stop the crisis but it will definitively help us in the aftermath.

PS: If you want to know what interest rates are now (like if anyone cares about them anmore)

maturity APR 5 days 81% 41 days 45%

PS2: CB trying to control the FX as I write email. Down to $23.00 ARS/USD.
Coincidentally, as Argentina started this spiral, I was at the Hoover conference on "Currencies, Capital, and Central Bank Balances," and thinking about it especially during the session on "Capital Flows, the IMF’s Institutional View and Alternatives" featuring Jonathan Ostry, who bravely came to defend the IMF's Institutional View, Sebastian Edwards, and John Taylor, moderated by George Shultz.

Briefly, in the good old days, the IMF was solidly for the Postwar Order that viewed capital restricitons -- laws stopping people from investing in a country or taking their investments out -- were bad things and to be avoided at all times.

That changed, and the new view, as summarized compactly by John Taylor, is much more friendly toward "capital flow management":
what is new about the Institutional View is that “capital flows require active policy management,” which includes “controlling their volume and composition directly using capital account restrictions.” (p. 8) The Institutional View document (IMF 2012) defines key terms and gives examples. For example,.. CFMs thus include “capital controls” that “discriminate on the basis of residency” and macro-prudential policies that differentiate on the basis of currency (p. 40). ..[The quotes and page numbers in the next two paragraphs are from Ghosh, Ostry, and Qureshi (2017).]
As Ostry explained, the new view also includes a stronger reliant on fiscal stimulus tools to counter domestic difficulties.

My obvious thought, is just how much would Argentina's problems be solved by more capital flow management, currency restrictions, investment restrictions, fiscal stimulus and so forth. And whether the IMF, if it rides to the rescue, will suggest more such dirigisme for its bailout money. The old IMF view -- commit to openness, fix your budget problems, and a somewhat jaundiced view of the ability of even well intentioned central bankers to execute masterstrokes of technocratic "management"  -- might have something to go for it still.

(It's worth remembering that capital cannot flow in aggregate. The only way capital can leave a country is on boats.  You can sell a factory to a local at a low price, and you can sell the foreign currency for dollars at a low price, but you cannot move a factory once built and someone else has to buy the foreign currency and give you dollars. Capital and trade accounts must balance. Capital cannot flow in the short run. Prices can change.

"Flow management" is one of those soothing NGO acronyms for what is in fact property seizure. You can tell I'm not favorably predisposed)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Groundhog day in Argentina

My friend and colleague Alejandro Rodriguez, director of the Department of Economics at CEMA in Buenos Aires, wrote me a few emails that Argentina seems to be blowing up again in very interesting and sad ways. I haven't seen any coverage in the US media.
Argentina is going through some fun times (for macroeconomists)... After a two day holiday markets opened yesterday and the peso kept falling (-3%) despite the rate hike (300bps) on friday and the continued drain of reserves. We are trapped with Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Same thing today... markets open with pressure on the peso. The central bank sold 300 millon of reserves in less than 10 minutes early in the morning when liquidity is at its lowest and it couldn´t sopt the run. Soon after it announced another rate hike of 300bps. Short term debt that expires on may 16 has a yield of 38.7% APR and there are 680 billon pesos of it waiting to mature in less than two weeks. Still the market did not respond and the peso kept falling, more than 8% with respect to yesterday´s close....
Naturally my interest is particularly peaked by a country whose central bank seems powerless to stop inflation and devaluation in a time of fiscal stress. In fact, there are indications that raising interest rates, by making interest costs larger, make the fiscal problem worse and make devaluation worse, not better.

I asked Alejandro for a bit more to share with blog readers since we hear so little about this in the US. Here is his longer story backward:

Groundhog Day: ...Like Phil Connors (Bill Murray) we got trapped in Punxsutawney by the perfect storm. Last year Congress passed a law changing the tax code which included a new tax on Central Bank debt held by non residents. The new tax became effective on April 25th. The new tax initiated a sell off by non residents which was absorbed by the CB which sold USD 2.1 billon between April 23rd and 25th without the dollar moving one cent (20.25 ARS/USD). The new tax coincided with the increase of the 10 year US treasuries yield and the strengthening of the dollar. The CB thought this was an external shock and that no further actions were going to be needed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

DB warns of US debt crisis.

"A coming debt crisis in the US?" warns a Deutsche Bank report* by Quinn Brody and Torsten Slok.

Source: DB
This graph is gorgeous. US deficits have, historically, been driven overwhelmingly by the state of the business cycle, and have very little to do with tax policies and spending decisions that dominate press coverage. In booms, income rises, so tax rate times income rises. In busts, the opposite, plus "automatic stabilizer" spending kicks in.

Until now.

There is a good reason past deficits did not really spook markets. They understood the deficit was a temporary phenomenon, due to temporary poor demand-side economic performance. We do not have that excuse now.

In case you thought this was some alarmist crank sheet, the report starts by quoting the latest CBO
the CBO argues that, assuming current policies and trends are not changed, “the likelihood of a fiscal crisis in the United States would increase. There would be a greater risk that investors would become unwilling to finance the government’s borrowing unless they were compensated with very high interest rates.” 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

What's worse than tariffs?


This morning's Wall Street Journal "Trump postpones steel tariff decision.." starts optimistic
President Donald Trump eased trade pressure on top U.S. allies Monday, giving the European Union and some nations outside the bloc more time to negotiate deals that would exempt them from U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs..
But it turns out those "deals" are worse than the original
The Trump administration is backing broad restrictions on the trade of metals to limit the direct and indirect effects of Chinese steel and aluminum production on the U.S. market. “In all of these negotiations, the administration is focused on quotas that will restrain imports, prevent transshipment, and protect the national security,” the White House said in a statement. 
Quotas are worse than tariffs. With a tariff, you can at least measure and limit the damage. Imported steel pays a tax, and then costs 25% more.  But you can import as much of the stuff as you need, and the damage is limited to a 25% price rise.

(On that word. Free traders should insist on "import tax" rather than "tariff" to remind taxophobic Republicans just what they are doing.)

With a quota, by contrast, the price difference can get as big as it wants and so the damage can grow unbounded. Moreover, it's harder to see -- you have to look at exchange-rate adjusted price indices which people can ignore as one more government statistic. When you pay 25%, you see it.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

EPA, the nature of regulation, and democracy

My Hoover colleague Richard Epstein posted a revealing essay on the nature of environmental regulation last week, with environmental regulation as a particular example. The contrast with "Environmental Laws Under Siege: Here is why we have them"  in New York Times  and the New Yorker's  Scott Pruitt's Dirty Politics is instructive

Epstein's point is not about the raw amount of or even what's in the regulation, but the procedure by which regulation is imposed:
As drafted, NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 ] contains no provision that allows private parties to challenge agency decisions in court. Instead, the NEPA approval process is a matter for internal agency consultation and deliberation that takes into account comments submitted by any interested parties. 
One year after its passage, NEPA was turned upside down in a key decision by Judge J. Skelly Wright of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals... Wright read the law as giving private parties the right to challenge government actions. Indeed, Wright welcomed such challenges, writing (admiringly) that the change, “promises to become a flood of new litigation—litigation seeking judicial assistance in protecting our natural environment.”
Giving private parties the right to challenge an agency decision grants enormous leverage to the private parties most opposed to letting projects go forward. In the case of nuclear power, delay became the order of the day, as the D.C. Circuit on which Judge Wright sat arrogated to itself the power to find that any EA or EIS was insufficient in some way, so that the entire project was held up until a new and exhaustively updated EIS was prepared—which could then be duly challenged yet again in court.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Conference on the cross section of returns.

The Fama-Miller Center at Chicago Booth jointly with EDHEC and the Review of Financial Studies will host a conference on September 27–28, 2018 in Chicago, on the theme “New Methods for the Cross Section of Returns.” Conference announcement here and call for papers here.

Papers are invited for submission on this broad theme, including:
  • Which characteristics provide incremental information for expected returns?
  • How can we tame the factor zoo?
  • What are the key factors explaining cross-sectional variation in expected returns?
  • How many factors do we need to explain the cross section?
  • How can we distinguish between competing factor models?
  • Do anomaly returns correspond to new factors?  
Why a blog post for this among the hundreds of interesting conferences? Naked self-interest. I agreed to give the keynote talk, so the better the conference papers, the more fun I have! 

This is, I think, a hot topic, and lots of people are making good progress on it. It's a great time for a conference, and I look forward to catching up and trying to integrate what has been done and were we have to go. 

My sense of the topic and the challenge: (Some of this reprises points in "Discount rates," but not all) 

Both expected returns and covariances seem to be stable functions of characteristics, like size and book/market ratio. The expected return and covariance of an individual stock seems to vary a lot over time. So we need to build ER(characteristics) and then see if it lines up with covariance(R, factors | characteristics), where factors are also portfolios formed on the basis of characteristics. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018


Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin have to solve two and a half important problems if they are to become currencies: 1) Unstable values 2) High transactions costs 2.5) Anonymity.

I recently ran across Basis and its Basecoin, an interesting initiative to avoid unstable values. (White paper here.)

Basecoin's idea is to expand and contract the supply so as to maintain a stable value. If the value of the basecoin starts to rise, more will be issued. If it falls, the number will be reduced.

So far so good. But who gets the seignorage when basecoins are increased? And just what do you get for your basecoins if the algorithm is reducing the numbers? From the white paper:
If Basis is trading for more than $1, the blockchain creates and distributes new Basis. These Basis are given by protocol-determined priority to holders of bond tokens and Base Shares, two separate classes of tokens that we’ll detail later. 
If Basis is trading for less than $1, the blockchain creates and sells bond tokens in an open auction to take coins out of circulation. Bond tokens cost less than 1 Basis, and they have the potential to be redeemed for exactly 1 Basis when Basis is created to expand supply.
Aha, basecoins get traded for ... claims to future basecoins?

You should be able to see instantly how this will unwind. Suppose the algorithm wants to reduce basecoins. It then trades basecoins for "basecoin bonds" which are first-inline promises to receive future basecoin expansions. But those bonds will only have value during temporary drops of demand. If there is a permanent drop in demand, the bonds will never be redeemed and have no value.  They are at best claims to future seignorage. Any peg collapses in a run, and the run threshold is mighty close here.

But it gets worse.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Q is better than you think

This lovely graph comes from "Learning and the Improving Relationship Between Investment and q" by Daniel Andrei, William Mann, and Nathalie Moyen. The careful investment and q measurement make it much better than similar figures I've made for example Figure 4 here. Their paper explores the puzzle, just why did q theory work worse before 1995?

The graph also bears on the "monopoly" debate. Corporations are making huge profits, stocks are high, yet we don't see investment, the story goes -- marginal q must be much less than average q, indicating some sort of fixed factor or rent. Not in the graph.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Buybacks redux

Two more points occur to me regarding share buybacks. 1)When buybacks increase share prices, and management makes money on that, it's a good thing. The common complaint that buybacks are just a way for managers to enrich themselves is exactly wrong. 2) Maybe it's not so good that banks are buying back shares.  3) The tax bill actually gives incentives against buybacks. What's going on is despite, not because.

Recall the example. A company has $100 in cash, and $100 profitable factory. It has two shares outstanding, each worth $100. The company uses the cash to buy back one share. Now it has one share outstanding, worth $100, and assets of one factory. The shareholders are no wealthier. They used to have $200 in stock. Now they have $100 in stock and $100 in cash. It's a wash.

Why do share prices sometimes go up when companies announce buybacks? Well, as before, suppose that management had some zany idea of what to do with the cash that would turn the $100 cash into $80 of value. ("Let's invest in a fleet of corporate Ferraris"). Then the stock would only be worth $180 total, or $90 per share. Buying one share back, even overpaying at $100, raises the other share value from $90 to $100.

That was the big point. Share buybacks are a good way to get money out of firms with no ideas, into firms with good ideas. We want firms to invest, but we don't necessarily want every individual firm to invest. That's the classic fallacy that I think it turning Washington on its head. Best of all we want money going from cash rich old companies to cash starved new companies. Buybacks do that.

1) Management getting rich on buybacks is good.

OK, on to management. Management, buyback critics point out, often has compensation linked to the stock price. They might own stock or own stock options. So when the buyback boosts the stock price, then management gets rich too. Aha! The evil (or so they are portrayed) managers are just doing financial shenanigans to enrich themselves!

The fallacy here, is not stopping to think why the buyback raises the share price in the first place. If it is the main reason given in the finance literature, that this rescues cash that was otherwise going to be mal-invested, then you see the great wisdom of giving management stock options and encouraging them to get rich with buybacks.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Fiscal theory of monetary policy

Teaching a PhD class and preparing a few talks led me to a very simple example of an idea, which I'm calling the "fiscal theory of monetary policy." The project is to marry new-Keynesian models, i.e. DSGE models with price stickiness, with the fiscal theory of the price level. The example is simpler than the full analysis with price stickiness in the paper by that title.

It turns out that the FTPL can neatly solve the problems of standard new Keynesian models, and often make very little difference to the actual predictions for time series. This is great news. A new-Keynesian modeler wanting to match some impulse response functions, nervous at the less and less credible underpinnings of new-Keynesian models, can, it appears, just change footnotes about equilibrium selection and get back to work. He or she does not have to throw out a lifetime of work, and start afresh to look at inflation armed with debts and deficits. The interpretation of the model may, however, change a lot.

This is also an extremely conservative (in the non-political sense) approach to curing new-Keynesian model problems. You can keep the entire model, just change some parameter values and solution method, and problems vanish (forward guidance puzzle, frictionless limit puzzle, multiple equilibria at the zero bound, unbelievable off-equilibrium threats etc.) The current NK literature is instead embarked on deep surgery to cure these problems: removing rational expectations, adding constrained or heterogeneous agents, etc. I did not think I would find myself in the strange position trying to save the standard new-Keynesian model, while its developers are eviscerating it! But here we are.

The FTMP model

(From here on in, the post uses Mathjax. It looks great under Chrome, but Safari is iffy. I think I hacked it to work, but if it's mangled, try a different browser. If anyone knows why Safari mangles mathjax and how to fix it let me know.)

Here is the example. The model consists of the usual Fisher equation, \[ i_{t} = r+E_{t}\pi_{t+1} \] and a Taylor-type interest rate rule \[ i_{t} = r + \phi \pi_{t}+v_{t} \]
\[ v_{t} =\rho v_{t-1}+\varepsilon_{t}^{i} \]
Now we add the government debt valuation equation \[ \frac{B_{t-1}}{P_{t-1}}\left( E_{t}-E_{t-1}\right) \left( \frac{P_{t-1}% }{P_{t}}\right) =\left( E_{t}-E_{t-1}\right) \sum_{j=0}^{\infty}\frac {1}{R^{j}}s_{t+j} \]
Linearizing \begin{equation} \pi_{t+1}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1}=-\left( E_{t}-E_{t+1}\right) \sum_{j=0}^{\infty }\frac{1}{R^{j}}\frac{s_{t+j}}{b_{t}}=-\varepsilon_{t+1}^{s} \label{unexpi} \end{equation} with \(b=B/P\). Eliminating the interest rate \(i_{t}\), the equilibrium of this model is now \begin{equation} E_{t}\pi_{t+1} =\phi\pi_{t}+v_{t} \label{epi} \end{equation}
\[ \pi_{t+1}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1} =-\varepsilon_{t+1}^{s} \]
or, most simply, just \begin{equation} \pi_{t+1}=\phi\pi_{t}+v_{t}-\varepsilon_{t+1}^{s}. \label{equil_ftmp} \end{equation}

Here is a plot of the impulse response function:

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Intellectual property

The China trade argument has boiled down to intellectual property and trade. Roughly it has gone like this:
"We need to stop China from selling us all this stuff. Bring the jobs home!" 
"Uh, right now the jobs problem is that employers can't find workers. Cheap stuff from China is a boon to American consumers. Tariffs like that on steel cost more steel-using jobs than they save."  
"Hm. Ok, but we have to threaten with tariffs to get China to stop requiring our companies to share intellectual property!" 
I'm still skeptical about the intellectual property and trade argument. OK, suppose China says that in order for a US company to produce there, it must share intellectual property with a Chinese partner. Just how terrible is this? Just how terrible for the US economy, and society as a whole, justifying a robust policy response -- obviously the company would rather make more profits, but that's not a basis for economic policy.

Intellectual property is different from real property, in that it is nonrival. If you live in my house, I can't live in it. But if you use my equation, my blueprints, my recipe for nanoscale lubricants,  or my designs for specialty oilfield equipment, that does not hamper my use of the same ideas.

Because of this feature, intellectual property is quite different in law, and in economics, than other kinds of property. Ideally, once an idea is produced, it should be distributed freely to everybody. The marginal cost is zero, it is nonrival, so society is best off if everyone gets to use new ideas immediately. Economic growth is the spread of better ideas, and the faster the better. Period.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Why not taxes?

Reaction to the Washington Post oped (blog post, pdf) on debt  has been sure and swift. We suspected we might get criticized by Republicans for complaining about deficits are a problem.  Instead, the attack came from the left.  Justin Fox hit first, followed by a joint oped by Martin  Baily, Jason Furman, Alan Krueger, Laura Tyson and Janet Yellen. It's almost an official response from the Democratic economic establishment.

Their bottom line, really, is that entitlements and deficits are not a problem. They put the blame pretty much entirely on the recently enacted corporate tax cut.   (I'm simplifying a bit. As did they, a lot.)

By contrast, we focused on entitlement spending -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA, pensions, and social programs -- as the central budget problem, and entitlement reform (not "cut") together with a strong focus on economic growth as the best answer. Our warning was that interest costs could rise sharply and unexpectedly and really bring down the party.

Well, deficit equals spending minus tax revenue, so why not just raise taxes to solve the budget problem?

First, let's get a handle on the size and source of the problem. 

I. Roughly speaking the long term deficit gap is 5 rising to 10 percentage points of GDP. And the big change is entitlements -- social security, medicare, medicaid, pensions. 

For example, even Fox's graph shows social security spending rising from 11% of payroll in 2006 and asymptoting at 18%.

The most recent 2017 CBO long-term budget outlook is quite clear. Long before the tax cut that so upsets our critics was even a glimmer in the President's eye, they were warning of budget problems ahead:
If current laws generally remained unchanged, the Congressional Budget Office projects, ..debt...would reach 150 percent of GDP in 2047. The prospect of such large and growing debt poses substantial risks for the nation....
Why Are Projected Deficits Rising?
In CBO’s projections, deficits rise over the next three decades—from 2.9 percent of GDP in 2017 to 9.8 percent in 2047—because spending growth is projected to outpace growth in revenues (see figure below). In particular, spending as a share of GDP increases for Social Security, the major health care programs (primarily Medicare), and interest on the government’s debt.
The CBO gives us this nice graphs to make the point:

Another CBO's graph follows. Top graph -- where is the spending increase? Social security, health, and interest. Not "other noninterest spending."

(In the bottom graph you see a rosy forecast that individual income taxes will rise a few percent of GDP to help pay for this. Don't be so sure. This comes from inflation pushing us into higher tax brackets and assuming congress won't do anything about it. Notice also how small corporate taxes are in the first place.)

The more recent CBO budget and economic outlook is equally clear: The near term problem is 5 percentage points of GDP:
CBO estimates that the 2018 deficit will total $804 billion....[GDP is $20 Trillion, so that's 4% of GDP]  ... In CBO’s projections, budget deficits continue increasing after 2018, rising from 4.2 percent of GDP this year to 5.1 percent in 2022... Deficits remain at 5.1 percent between 2022 and 2025 ... Over the 2021–2028 period, projected deficits average 4.9 percent of GDP..
Then, things get worse,
In CBO’s projections, outlays for the next three years remain near 21 percent of GDP, which is higher than their average of 20.3 percent over the past 50 years. After that, outlays grow more quickly than the economy does, reaching 23.3 percent of GDP ... by 2028. 
That increase reflects significant growth in mandatory spending—mainly because the aging of the population and rising health care costs per beneficiary are projected to increase spending for Social Security and Medicare, among other programs. It also reflects significant growth in interest costs, which are projected to grow more quickly than any other major component of the budget, the result of rising interest rates and mounting debt. ... 
And that's only 2028.

You see the problem in our critic's complaint:
"The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year’s tax cuts, not an increase in spending. This year, revenue is expected to fall below 17 percent of gross domestic product." 
Let us take the estimate that the recent tax cut cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years, i.e. $150 billion per year or 0.75% of GDP.  Compared to the $800 billion current deficit it's small potatoes. Compared to the 5 percent to 10 percent of GDP we need to find in the sock drawer, it's peanuts.   (Compared to the $10 trillion or more racked up in the last 10 years it's not huge either!)

[Update: Thanks to commenters, I now notice the "had been expected." OK, we expected 4% of GDP deficits, and then they passed a tax cut and now it's 5% of GDP. Sure. On the day that the tax cut was passed, the entire increase in the deficit was due to the tax cut. But our article, and the economy, is about the overall level of the deficit. The problem is what had been expected, not the recent minor change!]

Here is what the CBO has to say about it: 
For the next few years, revenues hover near their 2018 level of 16.6 percent of GDP in CBO’s projections. Then they rise steadily, reaching 17.5 percent of GDP by 2025. At the end of that year, many provisions of the 2017 tax act expire, causing receipts to rise sharply—to 18.1 percent of GDP in 2026 and 18.5 percent in 2027 and 2028. They have averaged 17.4 percent of GDP over the past 50 years.
17, maybe 18. We're waddling around in the 1% range, when the problem is in the 10 percent range. The long run budget problem has essentially nothing to do with the Trump tax cut. It has been brewing under Bush, Obama, and Trump. It fundamentally comes from growth in entitlements an order of magnitude larger. 

It is simply not true that "The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year’s tax cuts, not an increase in spending."

To call us "dishonest" -- to call George Shultz "dishonest," in the printed pages of the Washington Post -- for merely repeating what's been in every CBO long term budget forecast for the last two decades really is a new low for economists of this stature. Is Krugmanism infectious?

Put another way, US government debt is about $20 trillion. Various estimates of the entitlement "debt," how much the government has promised more than its revenues, start at $70 trillion and go up in to the hundreds.

To be clear, I agree with the critic's complaint about the tax cut.
"The right way to do reform was to follow the model of the bipartisan tax reform of 1986, when rates were lowered while deductions were eliminated."
Yes! As in many previous blog posts, I am very sad that the chance to do a big 1986 seems to have passed. A large, revenue neutral, distribution neutral, savage cleaning and simplification of the tax code would have been great. There are some elements in the current one -- the lower marginal corporate rate is nice, and there is some capping of deductions, which is why it was a "good first step." But it fell short of my dreams too in many ways.

If only these immensely influential authors had been clamoring for their friends in the Resistance to join forces and pass such a law, rather than (Larry and Jason in particular) spend the whole time arguing that corporate tax cuts just help the rich, perhaps it might have happened. Having to do the whole thing under reconciliation put a lot of limits on what the Republicans could accomplish.

All that aside though, we're still talking about 0.75% of GDP cut compared to a 5%-10% of GDP problem. The long run deficit problem does not come from this tax cut.

II OK, so why not just tax the rich to pay for entitlements? 

I hope I have sufficiently dismissed the main line of this particular criticism -- that deficits are all due to the Trump tax cut and all we have to do is put corporate rates back to 35% and all will be well.

On to the larger question, echoed by many commenters on our piece. OK, social security and health are expensive. Let's just tax the rich to pay for it. Like Europe does, so many say.

I do think that roughly speaking we could pay for American social programs with European taxes. That is, 40% payroll taxes rather than our less than 20%; 50% income taxes, starting at very low levels; 20% VAT; various additional taxes like 100% vehicle taxes and gas that costs 3 times ours.

I don't think we can pay for European social programs with European taxes, because Europe can't do it. Their debt/GDP ratios are similar to ours. And their lower growth rates both are the result of this system and compound the problem. Many European countries are responding exactly as we suggest, with deep reforms to their social programs -- less state-paid health insurance, more stringent eligibility requirements and so on.

But that's the option: heavy middle class taxes for middle class benefits, at the cost of substantially lower growth, which itself then drives the needed tax rates up further.

America in fact already has a more progressive tax system than pretty much any other country. Making it more progressive would increase economic distortions dramatically.

A key principle here is that the overall marginal tax rate matters.  There is a tendency, especially on the left, to quote only the top Federal marginal rate of about 40%, and to say therefore that high income Americans pays less taxes than most of Europe. But that argument forgets we also pay state and sometimes local taxes.

The top federal rate is about 40%. In California, we add 13% state income tax, and with no deductibility we're up to 53% right there. But what matters is every wedge between what you produce for your employer and the value of what you get to consume. So we have to add the 7.5% sales tax, so we're up to 60.5% already.

But we're not done.  The Federal corporate tax is now 21%, and California adds 8.84%, so roughly 29% combined. Someone is paying that. If, like sales tax it comes out of higher prices, then add it to the sales tax. Those on the left say no, corporate taxes are all paid by rich people, which is why they were against lowering them. OK, then they contribute fully to the high-income marginal rate.

What about property tax? The main thing people do with a raise in California is to buy a bigger house. Then they pay 1% property tax. As a rough idea, suppose you pay 30% of your income on housing and the price is 20 times the annual cost (typical price/rent ratio). Then you are paying 6% of your income in property taxes. Add 6 percentage points.

I'm not done. All distortions matter. In much of  Europe they charge taxes and then provide people health insurance. We have a cross subsidy scheme, in which you overpay to subsidize others. It's the same as a tax, except much less efficient.  In terms of economic damage, and the overall marginal rate, it should be included. If you live in a condo, whose developer was forced to provide "affordable housing" units, you overpaid just like a tax and a transfer. And so on. I won't try to add these in, but all distortions count.

In sum, we're at a pretty high marginal tax rate already. The notion that we can just blithely raise another 10% of GDP from "the rich" alone without large economic damage does not work.  This isn't a new observation. Just about every study of how to pay for entitlements comes to the same conclusion.

Again, my argument is not about sympathy for the rich. It is a simple cause and effect argument. Marginal tax rates a lot above 70% are going to really damage the economy and not bring in the huge revenue we need.

Bottom line: Paying for the current entitlements entirely by taxes would involve a big tax hike on middle income Americans. 

III Answers

The most important answer is economic growth. 30 years of 3% growth rather than 2% growth gives you 35% more GDP, and thus 35% more tax revenue. If federal revenues are 20% of GDP, that's 7%
of the previous GDP right there.  Deregulation and tax reform -- get on with the lower marginal rates and simplification that we agree on -- are important.

(The CBO also writes,
In CBO’s projections, the effects of the 2017 tax act on incentives to work, save, and invest raise real potential GDP throughout the 2018–2028 period....
The largest effects on GDP over the decade stem from the tax act. In CBO’s projections, it boosts the level of real GDP by an average of 0.7 percent and nonfarm payroll employment by an average of 1.1 million jobs over the 2018–2028 period. During those years, the act also raises the level of real gross national product (GNP) by an annual average of about $470 per person in 2018 dollars.
This is not a terrible result!)

Our oped was clear to say social program "reform" not just "cut." Little things like changing indexing and retirement ages make a big difference over 30 years. We argue for reducing the growth and expansion of entitlements, not "cut."  Removing some of the very high work disincentives would help people get off some programs. Europe is facing this too, and many countries are a good deal more stringent about qualification than we are.

Our critics say that to point out America cannot pay for the entitlements we have currently promised "dehumanizes the value of these programs to millions of Americans." No. Failing to reform entitlements now and gently will lead to chaotic cuts in the future, on programs that people depend on. If we're going to throw around accusations of heartlessness, denying the problem is the heartless approach.

Friday, April 6, 2018


Economists delight in unravelings -- behavioral responses that undo bright ideas. A subsidy for skunks produces cats with white stripes. Two good ones came up this week.

As hare-brained as they are, I have to opine that the actual economic consequences of US steel import tariffs and Chinese soybean tariffs are essentially zero.

(Political comment: tariffs are taxes on imports. It would do fans of the Administration's trade policies good to utter the correct "tax" word to describe tariffs. Or "self-inflicted sanctions." )

Why do I say that? Each country is assessing a tariff on goods produced only by the other country. Well then, why not park the ships overnight in Vancouver, or Tokyo, fill out some paperwork, and say steel is imported first from China to Canada, and then Canada to the U.S., and vice versa?

Trade bureaucrats are smart enough to catch that. But they cannot hope to stop essentially the same thing: China sells steel to Canadian steel users, who currently buy from Canadian firms. Canadian steel producers reorient their production to the US, and sell to US companies who formerly bought from China. The steel is genuinely Canadian.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Buybacks full oped

Now that 30 days have passed I can post the full oped on buybacks at the Wall Street Journal.

As the Republican tax reform has gained popularity, the Democrats have had to update their messaging. To cast corporate tax cuts as a “scam” and redistribution to the wealthy, opponents have shifted their focus to the evils of stock buybacks and dividends.

“Corporations have been pouring billions of dollars into stock repurchasing programs, not significant wage increases or other meaningful investments,” declared Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Feb. 14. Such buybacks, he claimed, “benefit primarily the people at the top” and come at the expense of “worker training, equipment, research, new hires, or higher salaries.” Other Democrats have echoed the theme, and their media friends are cheerfully passing it on.

Economic logic isn’t strong in Washington these days, but this effort stands out for its incoherence.

Share buybacks and dividends are great. They get cash out of companies that don’t have worthwhile ideas and into companies that do. An increase in buybacks is a sign the tax law and the economy are working.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Debt Oped

An oped on debt in the Washington Post. Growing debt and deficits are a danger. If interest rates rise, debt service will rise, and can provoke a crisis. Really the only solution is greater long-run economic growth and to reform -- reform, not "cut" -- entitlements. And the sooner the better, as the size and pain of the adjustment is much less if we do it now.

This is written with Mike Boskin, John Cogan, George Shultz, and John Taylor. George Shultz was the inspiration, and wrote the first draft. He radiates an ethic of government as responsible stewardship, and displeasure when he does not see such. It is a pleasure of my job at Hoover to work with such distinguished colleagues.

The Post gave it two headlines, in one "horizon" and in the other "doorstep," in different versions. The latter is a bit more alarmist than we care for.  Like living above an earthquake fault, living on a mountain of debt can be quiet for a long time. Until all of a sudden it isn't.  A pdf version

A Debt Crisis is on the Horizon

By Michael J. Boskin, John H. Cochrane, John F. Cogan, George P. Shultz and John B. Taylor

We live in a time of extraordinary promise. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, 3D manufacturing, medical science and other areas have the potential to dramatically raise living standards in coming decades. But a major obstacle stands squarely in the way of this promise: high and sharply rising government debt.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Friedman 1968 at 50

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman's The Role of Monetary Policy, one of the most influential essays in economics ever.  To this day, economics students are well advised to go read this classic article, and carefully. The Journal of Economic Perspectives hosted three excellent articles, by Greg Mankiw and Ricardo Reis, by Olivier Blanchard, and by Bob Hall and Tom Sargent.

Friedman might have subtitled it "neutrality and non-neutrality."  Monetary policy is neutral in the long run -- inflation becomes disconnected from anything real including output, employment, interest rates, and relative prices. But monetary policy is not neutral in the short run.

There are three big ingredients of the macroeconomic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.  1) The remarkable neutrality theorems including the Modigliani Miller theorem (debt vs. equity does not alter the value of the firm), Ricardian equivalence (Barro, debt vs. taxes doesn't change stimulus), and the neutrality of money. 2) The economy operates intertemporally, not each moment in time on its own.  3) Basing macroeconomics in decisions by people, not abstract relationships among aggregates, such as the "consumption function" relating consumption to income. Efficient markets, rational expectations, real business cycles, etc. integrate these ingredients. You can see all three underlying this article.

As money is not neutral in the short run, the neutrality theorems are not true of the world in their raw form, but they form the supply and demand framework on which we must add frictions. Friedman's permanent income hypothesis really kicked off the latter, and The Role of Monetary Policy is a central part of the first.

I.  The Phillips curve

Friedman's view on the Phillips curve is the most durable and justly famous contribution. William Phillips had observed that inflation and unemployment were negatively correlated. (The observation is often stated in terms of wage inflation, or in terms of the gap between actual and potential output.)

For fun, I plotted the relationship between inflation and unemployment in data up until 1968, with emphasis in red on the then most recent data, 1960-1968.  This was the evidence available at the time.

The Keynesians of Friedman's day had integrated this idea into their thinking, and advocated that the US exploit the tradeoff to obtain lower unemployment by adopting slightly higher inflation.

Friedman said no. And, interestingly for an economist whose reputation is as a dedicated empiricist, his argument was largely theoretical. But it was brilliant, and simple.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Unintended consequences

Unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies, unexpected behavioral changes in response to ignored incentives, unusual supply (or demand) responses to demand (or supply) interventions, and clever new pathways for changes to happen are the sorts of mechanisms that make economics fun, and I hope useful to cause-and-effect understanding of human affairs.

A case in point is an Atlantic article from 2012 that a friend pointed me to last week, by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.
... UCLA, an elite school that used large racial preferences until the Proposition 209 ban [on overt racial preferences] took effect in 1998... Many predicted that over time blacks and Hispanics would virtually disappear from the UCLA campus.
And there was indeed a post-209 drop in minority enrollment as preferences were phased out. Although it was smaller and more short-lived than anticipated, it was still quite substantial: a 50 percent drop in black freshman enrollment and a 25 percent drop for Hispanics...
...The total number of black and Hispanic students receiving bachelor's degrees were the same for the five classes after Prop 209 as for the five classes before.
How was this possible? 
Indeed, I too would have guessed, if I didn't think hard about it, that eliminating racial preferences would have to have reduced the number of minorities who graduated, and that the affirmative action argument would have gone on to other pros and cons. But that's wrong.
First, the ban on preferences produced better-matched students at UCLA, students who were more likely to graduate. The black four-year graduation rate at UCLA doubled from the early 1990s to the years after Prop 209.
Yes. Half the admits but double the graduation rate leaves constant the number of graduates.
Second, strong black and Hispanic students accepted UCLA offers of admission at much higher rates after the preferences ban went into effect; their choices seem to suggest that they were eager to attend a school where the stigma of a preference could not be attached to them. This mitigated the drop in enrollment.
Third, many minority students who would have been admitted to UCLA with weak qualifications before Prop 209 were admitted to less elite schools instead; those who proved their academic mettle were able to transfer up to UCLA and graduate there.
Thus, Prop 209 changed the minority experience at UCLA from one of frequent failure to much more consistent success. The school granted as many bachelor degrees to minority students as it did before Prop 209 while admitting many fewer and thus dramatically reducing failure and drop-out rates. 
To be absolutely clear, this post is about pathways. I do not wish to wade into a perilous pro or anti affirmative action debate, a basically radioactive topic for white male economists. (Though I am pleased to report a quick Google search that suggests both Sanders and Taylor still employed, something that might not happen if their book were published today.)

And a proponent of affirmative action could nonetheless make many arguments consistent with this work.  Perhaps dropping out of UCLA is good for people. Perhaps more minorities on campus is useful for white students' social perceptions, even if it harms its intended beneficiaries. Perhaps things were going on at other universities that drove minority upperclasspeople UCLA's way. UCLA is part of the California state system, which encourages transfers at year two, which is not the case everywhere. I also don't know how the numbers are holding up post 2012. Finally, racial preferences seem to have advantaged whites by keeping asians out, which is an interesting scandal by the silence surrounding it.

Today's post is not about this larger argument.

I'm willing to bet Brad DeLong still blogs I'm racist for even mentioning the topic, but that will be an interesting test of today's political climate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Bear Stearns Anniversary

Justin Baer and Ryan Tracy have an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Bear Stearns bailout.
The Federal Reserve tried to limit the damage with extraordinary actions, first extending the firm credit before forcing it into a hasty weekend shotgun marriage to JPMorgan Chase with $29 billion in assistance.
More specifically,
Ten years ago, Bear’s crisis week began with rumors of liquidity problems following steep losses from mortgage bonds. Mr. Schwartz, the CEO, phoned JPMorgan Chief Executive James Dimon to ask for a simple overnight loan. By that Thursday, Bear’s lenders and clients had backed away, and the firm was running out of cash. Mr. Schwartz called Mr. Geithner for more help.
Fearing a Bear-induced panic could spread throughout the banking system, the Fed arranged a $12.9 billion emergency loan routed through JPMorgan. It ultimately agreed to purchase $29.97 billion in toxic Bear assets.
First, Bear lost a lot of money in mortgage backed securities. Second, like Lehman to follow, Bear was mostly financing that investment with borrowed money, and short-term borrowed money at that, not with its own money, i.e. equity capital. Small losses then made it more likely Bear would not be able to pay back its debtors. Third, there was a run.  Short term creditors ran out the doors just like Jimmy Stewart's depositors in a Wonderful Life. More interestingly, Bear's broker-dealer clients started running too. Just how investment banks like Bear were using their broker-dealer clients to fund investments is a great lesson of the event.  Darrell Duffie lays this out beautifully in The failure mechanics of dealer banks and later How big banks fail.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Fama Portfolio

The Fama Portfolio, is a new book from the University of Chicago Press. This is a collection of Gene Fama's papers, edited by Toby Moskowitz and me. It includes introductory essays by a group of Gene's distinguished colleagues, Ken French, Bill Schwert, René Stulz, Cliff Asness, John Liew, Campbell Harvey, Jan Liu, Amit Seru, and Amir Sufi.

The essays explain the ideas in modern terms, tell you why the papers are important, explain how the papers influenced subsequent thinking, update you on where our understanding on each point is today, and speculate about where new ideas may go. The continuing vitality of this work, even parts decades old, is impressive.

The task was hard. Which Fama papers should one read? Well, all of them! but we nonetheless had to pick. We typically chose a famous one from early in one of Gene's many research programs, and then a less known later one that really sums it up clearly. Gene's ideas get clearer over time, just like the rest of ours do.

The press lets us post our essays.  Here are mine (most joint with Toby):

  1. Preface;
  2. Efficient Markets and Empirical Finance
  3. Luck vs. Skill;
  4. Risk and Return
  5. Return Forecasts and Time Varying Risk Premiums
  6. Our Colleague.
Other authors may post their essays on their webpages. Otherwise, you'll just have to buy the book!

The contents:

Monday, March 5, 2018


A short oped for the Wall Street Journal here  on stock buybacks. As usual, they ask me not to post the whole thing for 30 days though you can find it ungated if you search. An excerpt:
... Buybacks do not automatically make shareholders wealthier. Suppose Company A has $100 cash and a factory worth $100. It has issued two shares, each worth $100. The company’s shareholders have $200 in wealth.  Imagine the company uses its $100 in cash to buy back one share. Now its shareholders have one share worth $100, and $100 in cash. Their wealth remains the same.
Wouldn’t it be better if the company invested the extra cash? Wasn’t that the point of the tax cut? Perhaps. But maybe this company doesn’t have any ideas worth investing in. Not every company needs to expand at any given moment.
Now suppose Company B has an idea for a profitable new venture that will cost $100 to get going. The most natural move for investors is to invest their $100 in Company B by buying its stock or bonds. With the infusion of cash, Company B can now fund its venture.

On tariffs

An oped on tariffs, for Fox news here. That tariffs are bad is rather obvious to readers of this blog, but perhaps marshaling and digesting things we've known for 250 years is worthwhile.

In a remarkable achievement, President Trump has united the nation’s economists by proposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, tariffs designed to reduce imports of those goods. Tariffs are bad for the economy. Tariffs on raw materials, produced by machine-intensive dirty declining industries are worse. Trade is good.

Trade is good. Why? Follow the money. If China sells us, say, a solar panel, what does it do with the dollars? There is only one thing to do with dollars — buy American goods, invest in America, or buy our government debt. Oh, and we also get a nice cheap solar panel.

China might use the dollars to buy, say, wheat from Australia, so it looks like China sells us more than we sell them. But then Australia must use the dollars here in America. Dollars always come home to roost.  So how much more one country sells us than we sell them — the “bilateral trade deficit” — really is pretty meaningless.

The rest of the world sells us more than we sell them. But the rest of the world uses every cent of the extra dollars it gets from that trade to invest in the U.S. and to buy our government bonds. If we sell the whole world exactly as much as they sell us every year — in other words, if there were no overall U.S. trade deficit — we’re the ones who would have to start saving huge much larger amounts of our incomes in order to invest in U.S. companies, give mortgages to people to buy houses, and to fund the governments’ $1 trillion deficits.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Economists letter on tariffs

Once per decade or so it is worth revisiting the famous 1930 economists' letter on Tariffs. (The link, at, has a concise history and links to more.) 1028 economists -- a huge proportion of the number then around -- signed the following, urging President Hoover to veto the Smoot Hawley tariff.

We know how it turned out. No, we did not win that trade war. Well, not until about 1945.

What will this one lead to? I see some hope in that President Trump is at last uniting the country. As Greg Mankiw points out
How often do Jeffrey Sachs and the Wall Street Journal editoral writers agree?
Perhaps, as with DACA, the President using the existing law, which allows and even encourages widespread protectionism, this action will spur Congress to pass trade laws that require a bit more than vague "injury" to industry or "national security" fantasies. But I am straining to find a silver lining.

The darker possibility. Many administrations start with some policy victories -- judicial nominees, deregulation, tax reform -- and then over reach. This may be the start of over reach.

Rereading the letter, it is impressive for stressing simple truths that apparently remain mysterious to many even today. If we buy a good from overseas, the dollar must come back, either as a purchase of American goods or investment in American capital. Conversely that purchase or investment cannot happen if we do not allow foreigners to sell us things. Open trade is important to peace and stability, not just prosperity. It  stresses the final effects on people who end up paying more and working less, not just downstream producers.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
The undersigned American economists and teachers of economics strongly urge that any measure which provides for a general upward revision of tariff rates be denied passage by Congress, or if passed, be vetoed by the President. 
We are convinced that increased protective duties would be a mistake. They would operate, in general, to increase the prices which domestic consumers would have to pay. By raising prices they would encourage concerns with higher costs to undertake production, thus compelling the consumer to subsidize waste and inefficiency in industry. At the same time they would force him to pay higher rates of profit to established firms which enjoyed lower production costs. A higher level of protection, such as is contemplated by both the House and Senate bills, would therefore raise the cost of living and injure the great majority of our citizens.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


A debt crisis does not come slowly and predictably. This year's short term bond holders, a very risk averse lot, are mostly interested in whether next year, new bondholders will show up, to lend the government money to pay this year's bondholders back. Bondholders can run on small jitters over that expectation.

When bondholders get nervous, they demand higher interest rates. More than higher interest rates, they diversify their portfolios, or just refuse. Debt gets "hard to sell" at any price. A different class of bondholders, willing to take risks for better rates, must come in to replace the safety-oriented clientele that currently holds short-term government debt.

As interest rates rise, interest costs on the debt rise. At $20 trillion of debt, when interest rates rise to 5%, interest costs rise to $1 trillion dollars, essentially doubling the deficit. That makes markets more nervous, they demand even higher interest rates, and when that spiral continues, you have a full blown debt crisis on your hands.

Short term debt compounds the problem. Since the US has borrowed very short term, interest increases make their way to the budget more quickly. If the US had borrowed everything in 30 year bonds, the spiral mechanism from higher rates to higher deficits would be cut off.

The crisis typically comes in bad times -- when in a war, recession, or financial crisis, the government suddenly needs to borrow a lot more and markets doubt its ability to repay.

But there is a case for a crisis to happen in good times as well. We have known for decades that the fundamental US problem is promised entitlement spending far beyond what our current tax system can fund. Markets have, sensibly I think, presumed that the US would fix this problem sooner or later. It's not that hard as a matter of economics. Well, say markets in 2005, OK for now, you have a war on terror and a war in Iraq on your hands, we'll trust you to fix entitlements later. Well, say markets in 2012, OK for now, you're recovering from a massive financial panic and great recession. We'll trust you to fix entitlements later, and we'll even lend you another $10 trillion dollars. But what's our excuse now? At 4% unemployment, after 8 years of uninterrupted growth, if we can't sit down now and solve the problem, when will we? Markets have a right to think perhaps America is so fractured we won't be able to fix this in time. Or, more accurately, markets have a right to worry that next year's markets will have that worry, and get out now.

All this is well known, and most commenters including me think that day is in the future. But the future comes often quicker than we think.

With that prelude, two pieces of news strike me as distant early warning signs. Here, from Torsten Sløk's excellent email distribution are two graphs of the bid-to-cover ratio in Treasury auctions.

Torsten's interpretation:

The first chart below shows that the bid-to-cover ratio at 4-week T-bill auctions is currently at the lowest level in almost ten years.... demand is also structurally weaker when you look at 10-year auctions, see the second chart. The main risk with issuing a lot of short-dated paper such as 4-week T-bills is that in 4 weeks it all needs to be rolled over and added to new issuance in the pipeline. In other words, the more short-dated paper is issued, the bigger the snowball in front of the US Treasury gets. 
Things are so far looking ok, but the risks are rising that the US could have a full-blown EM-style fiscal crisis with insufficient demand for US government debt, and such a loss of confidence in US Treasury markets would obviously be very negative for the US dollar and US stocks and US credit. The fact that this is happening with a backdrop of rising inflation is not helpful. Investors in all asset classes need to watch very carefully how US Treasury auctions go for any signs of weaker demand.
The last part is the mechanism I described above. As an ivory tower economist, I tend to overlook such technical issues. If the bid to cover ratio is low, well, then that just means we need higher rates. But higher rates aren't a panacea as above, since higher rates make paying it back harder still. As I look at debt crises, also, it isn't just a matter of higher rates. There comes a point that the usual people aren't buying at all.

Again, we're not there yet, and I think we have a long way to go. But this is a little rumble.

The second tremor is Why International Investors Aren’t Buying U.S. Debt in the Wall Street Journal.  The overall message is also that international investors are getting nervous.

US 10 year yields are 2.9% already. German yields are 0.68%. Why aren't people buying our debt? Well, number one, they are worrying a further slide in the dollar. Which comes when next year's international bond holders really don't want to hold US debt.

Most of the article is.. well, difficult for this former finance professor to follow. The article claims that one used to be able to lock in the difference, "Last year, buying Treasurys and swapping the proceeds back into euros provided European investors with a higher return than buying German sovereign bonds."[my emphasis] This sounds like arbitrage, "covered interest parity violations." That arbitrage is not perfect, but my impression is that it's not whole percentage points either. And you really can't lock in 10 years of funding. Besides which, someone else is on the risk-taking side of the swap. So the interviewed traders must be only partially hedging the difference. Perhaps it's really "uncovered interest parity," where you borrow Europe 0.68% invest in the US 2.9% and pray or only partially hedge the exchange rate risk. (On that, "The New Fama Puzzle by Matthieu Bussiere, Menzie D. Chinn, Laurent Ferrara, Jonas Heipertz, blog post at econbrowser documents that uncovered interest parity, where you invest in the high yield currency and take the risk, is losing its profitability. Interest spreads seem to correspond to future exchange rate changes after all.)

All to follow up on for another day. Mostly, it rang a bell as a little tremor that people who answer WSJ reporter's phone calls are expressing nervousness about US debt.

Again, these are little rumbles. I still think that a full blown crisis will come only amid a large international crisis, featuring some big country defaults (Italy?), big financial trouble in China, perhaps a war, state and local pension failures, and the US comes to markets with unresolved entitlements and asks for another $10 trillion. But I could be wrong. We live on an earthquake fault of debt, and the one thing I know from my own past forecasting ability (I have lived through 1987, the dot com boom and bust, 2008, the recent boom, and more, and saw none of them coming in real time) that I will not see it coming either.

Update:  Reply to Benjamin Cole, below. The US has never spent less on defense, as a fraction of GDP or of the federal budget, than it is doing today, since the 1930s. Here is defense / GDP. Defense / federal budget is even less, as the budget has expanded as a share of GDP.