Thursday, December 13, 2018

Series on recession and financial crisis

Over the last few weeks we have had a series of discussions at Hoover on the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis and recession. This all happened mostly due to the energy of John Taylor.

The final event on Friday Dec 7 was a Panel Discussion Summary, including Taylor, Shultz, Ferguson, Hoxby, Duffie, and myself, with question and answer. Click the above video.

This was preceded by four smaller discussions. We did not video them, but there are transcripts and presentation materials.

October 19, The causes.  (Follow links to a transcript and to the presentation slides.)  John Taylor and Monika Piazzesi present and learn discussion on the causes of the financial crisis, emphasizing monetary policy, regulation, and housing.

November 9 The Panic What happened on in the panic of August through November (or so) 2018? Did the actions of government officials help or hurt? Or both? George Shultz and Niall Ferguson present their views and lead the discussion.

December 7 The Recession. Why was the recession so deep? Why wasn't it deeper, repeating the Great Recession? Why did it last so long? Did fiscal stimulus help or hurt? Caroline Hoxby and John Taylor led, focusing on labor markets and stimulus. I added some comments on QE and the lessons of the long zero bound for monetary economics; Bob Hall comments on labor markets and unemployment, Mike Boskin comments on stimulus, and much more

December 7 also, Lessons for Financial Regulation. Darrell Duffie and me. Darrell summarizes his excellent "Prone to Fail." I expound on the need for more capital.

What's distinctive about this series, given all the other conferences and retrospectives?

First, we decided not to have retrospectives from people in power at the time. Many other such meetings are descending into memoirs of how we saved the world. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. And maybe that's not so interesting, except of course to the parties involved who would like to go down nicely in history.

Second, you will find an effort to trace the intellectual lessons of the last 10 years of thought, not just whether certain actions were right or wrong in context of some eternal truth. We all have learned a great deal in the last 10 years, and opinions are shifting. For example, I discuss how capital, once thought immensely costly and regulation much prefereable, has slowly emerged as not at all costly and the best salve for financial crises. Similar lessons have emerged throughout.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, you will find here many disagreements with the standard narrative and what is becoming the first draft of history, as Ferguson nicely described. No, maybe it wasn't just "greed" and "deregulation." No, maybe our officials contributed to panic as much as they helped to stop it. No, maybe fiscal stimulus and QE did not save the world. No, maybe our super-confident regulators armed with an immensely larger rule book are not ready to save the world again next time. And in each case you will hear contrary views buttressed with facts and thoughtful analysis. Perhaps when the second draft of history is ready to be written this will be a starting place.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Canadian Debt

Corey Garriott, Sophie Lefebvre, Guillaume Nolin, Francisco Rivadeneyra and Adrian Walton at the Bank of Canada have issued a thoughtful and crisply written proposal for restructuring Canadian government debt, titled Alternative Futures for Government of Canada Debt Management.

Their third and fourth ideas are the most radical and attractive to me: Replace all government debt with 1) a set of zero-coupon bonds issued on a fixed schedule and/or  2) a long perpetutity, a long indexed perpetuity, and fixed-value, floating-rate short term debt, essentially the same as interest-paying central bank reserves or a money market fund. (Naturally I like it, since it draws on my "new structure for Federal Debt")

Why? Well, a simpler and smaller set of securities would be more liquid.
...investors will pay more in the primary market for assets they believe will be more liquid. Thus, issuing assets that are more liquid would decrease the issuer’s costs. ... a decrease in the total cost of funding of just one basis point would save the government $68 million annually
There is a social benefit as well. We hear a lot about "safe asset shortage," and the need for liquidity. Well, the easiest way to create safe liquid assets is to make the safe assets more liquid!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Brexit and democracy

Tyler Cowen has a very interesting Bloomberg column on Brexit. Essentially, he views the UK getting this right -- which I agree it does not seem to be doing -- as a crucial test of democracy. Tyler notes that the current agreement serves neither leave nor remain sides well.
Brexit nonetheless presents a decision problem in its purest form. It is a test of human ingenuity and reasonableness, of our ability to compromise and solve problems...
The huge barrier, of course, is the democratic nature of the government.... 
So many of humanity’s core problems — addressing climate change, improving education, boosting innovation — ultimately have the same structure as “fixing Brexit.” It’s just that these other problems come in less transparent form and without such a firm deadline. We face tournament-like choices and perhaps we will not end up doing the right thing.
...Brexit would likely cost the U.K. about 2 percent of GDP, a fair estimate in my view. But that is not the only thing at stake here. Humanity is on trial — more specifically, its collective decision-making capacity — and it is the U.K. standing in the dock. 
I guess I have a different view of the merits and defects of democracy. My view is somewhat like the famous Churchill quote, "democracy is the worst form of Government. Except for all those other forms."

Democracy does not give us speedy technocratically optimal solutions to complex questions revolving around 2 percentage points of GDP. Democracy, and US democracy in particular, serves one great purpose -- to guard against tyranny. That's what the US colonists were upset about, not the fine points of tariff treaties. US and UK Democracy, when paired with the complex web of checks and balances and rule of law protections and constitutions and so forth, has been pretty good at throwing the bums out before they get too big for their britches. At least it has done so better than any other system.

2 percentage points of GDP? Inability to tackle long run issues? Let's just think of some of Democracy's immense failures that put the Brexit muddle to shame. The US was unable to resolve slavery, for nearly 100 years, without civil war. Democracies dithered in the 1930s and appeased Hitler.  The scar of Vietnam  is still festering in US polarization today. On the continent, when France stood for democracy and Germany for autocracy, France's defense decisions failed dramatically in 1914 and 1939.

And if we want to raise UK GDP by 2 percentage points, with free-market reforms, there is a lot worse than Brexit simmering on the front burner. A team from Cato and Hoover could probably raise GDP by 20 percent inside a year. If anyone would pay the slightest attention to us.

Yes, Brexit is a muddle which nobody will be happy with, until the UK decides if it really would rather remain or become a free-market beacon on the edge of the continent. But do not judge democracy on it. Democracy's errors as the mechanism for collective decision-making capacity have been far worse. And then there are the failures of all the other options.

Canadian non-QE

Friday at Hoover we will have a series of events reexamining the lessons of the financial crisis and recession. (There is a public event here, in case you're interested. Presenters include George Schultz, John Taylor, Niall Ferguson, Caroline Hoxby and Darrell Duffie.)

In preparing a presentation on QE, I stumbled across the following fact.

1) Canada did not do QE, quantitative easing. (Kjell Nyborg showed us this fact in a very interesting finance seminar on a different topic -- European banks are borrowing from the ECB using rotten collateral)

2) Use vs. Canadian 10 year government bond rates were nearly identical in the QE period.

Conventional wisdom states that US QE lowered interest rates by 1%. I am a skeptic, and this graph reinforces my skepticism.

One might say that the US exports its monetary policy effects to Canada. But the Canadian Dollar is its own currency, so exchange rates, not interest rates should soak up that difference.

One can complain in many ways, but this seems to me to add to the view that QE didn't even change interest rates.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Taylor on China and Trade and Ideas

Tim Taylor, also reviewing Summers on China, makes a few excellent points.

Growth comes from within. Trade is not conquest.
The formula for economic growth is to invest in human capital, physical capital, and technology, in an economic environment that provides incentives for hard work, efficiency, and innovation. China has made dramatic changes in all of these areas, and they are the main drivers behind China's extraordinary economic growth in the last four decades, and its expectation of above-global-average growth heading into the future.
No matter your views of China's trade surplus, there's no sensible economic theory which suggests that China's trade surplus, which as a share of GDP is relatively small, is a major driver of China's growth....
Conversely, the US economy has not done a great job of investing in the fundamentals of economic growth.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Summers on China

(Continues from my last post on China trade)

Larry Summers has a good Financial Times oped on the same subject, titled "Washington may bluster but cannot stifle the Chinese economy."  He puts well the point of my previous post:
At the heart of the US’s problem in defining an economic strategy towards China is the following awkward fact. Suppose China had been fully compliant with every trade and investment rule and had been as open to the world as the most open countries at its income level. China might have grown faster because it reformed more rapidly or it might have grown more slowly because of reduced subsidies or more foreign competition. But it is highly unlikely that its growth rate would have been altered by as much as 1 percentage point.
Equally, while some US companies might earn more profits operating in China [IP sharing requirements] and some job displacement in American manufacturing due to Chinese state subsidies may have occurred, it cannot be argued seriously that unfair Chinese trade practices have affected US growth by even 0.1 per cent a year.
Larry gives more voice to China critiques than I do, which is excellent. One should listen to what people are saying, understand their objectives, and if one disagrees on outcomes -- tariffs -- usually it is because one believes a common objective has a preferable means of achievement. 

Yes, China misbehaves, to the annoyance mostly of producers in other countries and their mercantilist governments:

Flowers not tariffs

I wrote a little commentary on trade for The Hill, which they titled "The US should give China Flowers not Tariffs." Chocolates too.

Source: The Hill
(The facial expressions in the picture are priceless) 

The US should Give China Flowers not Tariffs

Trump and Xi met, and declared a 90 day cease fire. Where will this end? It’s hard to forecast. Our commander in chief is less predictable than the stock market. But we can opine on what should happen. And we can look for interest — what is in everybody’s interest to have happen? 

That answer is clear: Come to a quick deal, declare victory, and get back to work fixing real economic problems. China makes some commitments about intellectual property (reasonably good for both sides, though not as important as all the fuss makes it seem); China makes some promises to buy American goods (crony capitalist mercantilism, but it makes politicians feel good); the US announces the 25% tariffs are off the table. Both politicians announce a great triumph. In sum, roughly what happened with NAFTA. Better still, we could do some reciprocal opening: repeal the 25% tariff on pickup trucks, and our own restrictions on foreign investments.

Large additional tariffs would be terrible for the US economy. Tariffs are taxes. Traditionally anti-tax Republicans, fresh off a hard-won victory to lower corporate taxes, should get that. And these taxes are starting to bite. For just one example, GM’s decision to close car plants was not completely unaffected by the price of steel and aluminum needed to make cars. And the constant threat of tariffs is in some ways worse than tariffs themselves. Companies managing global supply chains need to know where and how to invest. Big uncertainty postpones those investments. The point of the corporate tax cut was to encourage companies to invest. The threat of tariffs undoes that incentive.

Big tariffs, with exemptions granted on a discretionary basis, are corrosive to our political system. The rest of the admirable deregulatory effort is trying to get government agencies out of this racket.  

If it ever was true that China stole our jobs, that’s not today’s problem. With a 3.9% unemployment rate, employers can’t find enough qualified workers. Our economy needs efficiency and productivity to grow, not protection for some and high prices for others.

The US economy is doing well, but it’s an iffy time. When does the long expansion end and the next recession come? Storm clouds are gathering. The stock market is dribbling down. Auto sales, home prices and sales are softening. America remains waist-deep in debt. With split government, there will be no significant economic legislation legislation for the next two years, and the House will do everything they can to stymie the deregulation effort. A big disruption of trade and immigration is a self-inflicted wound at a bad time.

It’s an even iffier time for China. Be careful what you wish for. A major downturn in China, which could well lead to financial crisis, could be just the spark for a global recession. 

What’s the long run goal? The right approach to trade is simple: zero tariffs or restrictions. Americans are free to buy from the cheapest and best supplier. Whether foreigners put in tariffs or not is irrelevant to that conclusion.

Trade is no different than new companies that can produce things cheaper or better. And just as hurtful to old companies and their workers, but we generally see that it’s unwise to stop innovation. Trade between countries is no different than trade between states, and we all recognize that tariffs between states are a terrible idea. 

Any money that goes to China to buy goods must — must, this is arithmetic, not economics — come back. It just comes back to a less politically favored industry. To the extent that trade is “imbalanced,” that means China works hard, puts goods on boats, and takes our government bonds in return. Would we really be better off if we worked hard, put the fruits of our labor on boats, in exchange for Chinese government bonds?  Paper and promises are cheap. 

If China wants to tax her citizens to subsidize goods for US consumers, the right answer is flowers, chocolates and a nice thank-you card, as you would for any gift. Even intellectual property protection is an iffy cause. Theft is bad. But if selling the technology isn’t worth the market access, US companies don’t have to do it. Moreover, much intellectual property protection is the right to just the kind of continuing profits that we bemoan at home, in the new worry about increasing monopoly. Just how enthusiastic are we about defending pharmaceutical companies’ right to charge whatever they want in the US for their intellectual property? 

If one wants to help the US economy, effort is far best spent at home — fix health care, financial regulation, the obscene tax code, zoning, occupational licensing, labor laws and on and on. The rewards are infinitely larger than any imaginable benefit from trade threats. 

US GDP per capita is $60,000. China’s is $9,000. The average American is more than six times better off than the average Chinese.  The air in Beijing is unbreathable. For the US to complain about China hurting us is like the captain of the football team complaining that a six grader cheated him out of lunch money. 

Even in the best case, tariffs and trade restrictions are zero sum — they make the US better off by making China worse off. There is no case that they increase the size of the pie. In fact they make us all worse off. Is this America’s place in the world? Would we send in the marines to take wealth from Chinese people to benefit Americans? That’s the case for tariffs.

The idea that we can use tariffs to threaten China into freer trade is dangerous. It’s hard to credibly threaten to do something that hurts us, without denying that it does hurt us, and then getting trapped doing it. It took decades to get rid of the trade restrictions of the 1930s. 

We should get a grip, set a standard for good self-interested free-trade behavior, and work with our allies to get China to obey the same rules. Such a China is far more likely to cooperate on security issues than one already at war with us over trade.


I left out lots of obvious pot shots. An obvious one: Sanctions on North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Russia,  and so forth are designed to.. reduce imports. So we are doing to ourselves exactly what we are doing to them.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Financing innovation

I went to the Financing of Innovation summit at Stanford GSB last Thursday. (Sorry, I can't seem to find a full program online.) Here is a sample of two interesting papers, presented by Amit Seru and Steve Kaplan: