Friday, March 29, 2019

Operating Procedures

The Fed sets interests rates. But how does the Fed set interest rates? The Fed is undergoing a big review of this question. We had a little workshop at Hoover, in preparation for the larger May 3 Strategies for Monetary Policy conference, which provokes the following thoughts.


Here is the issue.

The graph plots the demand for reserves, as a function of the interest rate on other short-term assets such as overnight federal funds, Libor, money market rates, and so on.

(Reserves are accounts that banks have at the Fed. The Fed sets the interest rates on such accounts.)

The lower horizontal line is the rate the Fed pays on reserves.

If the interest rate on other similar assets (overnight federal funds, Libor, repo rates) is above the interest rate on reserves, then banks should want to get rid of reserves. However, reserves are useful, as money is useful, so banks are willing to hold some even when they lose interest on reserves by doing so. The greater the interest costs -- the greater the difference between the rate banks can lend at and the rate they get on reserves -- the more they work hard to avoid holding reserves. At the end, there are legal and regulatory requirements to hold reserves.

In the flat zone, banks are satiated in reserves. Reserves don't have any marginal liquidity value. But banks are happy to hold arbitrary quantities as an asset so long as the interest on reserves is above or equal to what they can get elsewhere.

If banks can borrow at less than the interest on reserves, they would do so and demand infinite amounts. Therefore, competition among banks should drive those rates up to the interest on reserves.  Similarly, if rates banks can lend at are higher than interest on reserves then banks should compete to lend, driving other rates down to the interest on reserves. Therefore, the Fed by setting the interest on reserves sets the overall level of overnight interest rates.


Here are the questions:

1) Where should the supply of reserves be? This is the biggest question the Fed is asking right now. The three vertical lines in the graph are three possibilities.

The Fed currently fixes the supply of reserves, which is referred to as the "size of the balance sheet," so the lines are vertical. The Fed raises the supply of reserves by buying assets such as treasuries or other assets, "printing money," i.e. creating reserves, in return for the assets. The balance sheet shows the assets (e.g. Treasuries) against liabilities (reserves and cash). Yes, the Fed is nothing more than an enormous money market fund, offering fixed value floating rate accounts which it backs by treasury and other securities.

The debated is couched as "floor system" vs. "corridor system."  A "floor system" refers to the two supplies on the right, where there are so many reserves that the other interest rates will equal the rate on reserves.

There are two floor-system variants: abundant reserves, with the supply well to the right, and minimalist reserves, with the supply of reserves set to the smallest possible level, where the demand curve just hits the lower bound, "satiation" in reserves. The latter seems to be where the Fed is heading -- a minimal-reserves floor system.

In a "corridor system," the Fed has an upper and lower band for the market interest rates it wants to target. Historically this was the Federal funds rate, which is the rate at which banks lend reserves to each other overnight. It tries to place that interest in the middle of the band, by artfully putting the supply of reserves in the downward sloping component. This is how the Fed operated before 2008.

The rate at which the Fed is willing to lend reserves also provides an upper bound, which I'll get to in a minute.

2) If there is going to be a corridor, which rate should the Fed care about? The (justly) moribund federal funds rate? The overnight general collateral repo rate? Libor? One advantage of the abundant floor, is that the Fed can stay quiet about all this and let the market sort out just what kind of overnight lending it prefers.

3) If there is a band, how wide should the range between the upper and lower bound be?  1%? 0.5? 0.25%? 0.01%?

3) How free should lending and borrowing be? Who gets access to interest paying reserves, and how much interest do they get? Who can borrow reserves, and on what therms -- what collateral is acceptable, is it overnight or term borrowing, does such borrowing incur formal regulatory attention or informal "stigma"?

4) What assets should the Fed buy on the other side of the balance sheet, or accept as collateral if it lends reserves?  Just short-term treasuries? (My favorite) The current mix of long term treasuries and mortgage-backed securities? Or, perhaps, follow the ECB and BOJ and buy corporate bonds and stocks, many countries debts, or lend newly created reserves to banks and count the loans as assets?

The motivations here are, I think, as much political as economic, and it's better to acknowledge that. (We should understand the Fed can't do that in writing, but we can!) Having touted QE as extraordinary accommodation the Fed is under big pressure to stop stimulating. It's too late to say that QE was mostly symbolic. Having seen the Fed buy all sorts of securities, congresspeople are coming up with dandy ideas for new things the Fed can "invest" in by printing money. Having paid banks about a quarter point more than they can get anywhere else, and indeed allowed a pleasant little arbitrage to go on, the Fed is under pressure to pay other investors the same. Congress is even more full of ideas for who the Fed should lend to, and how the Fed should use its expanded regulatory powers to channel credit here and deny credit there.

"Normalization" is a pretty meaningless economic term to me -- why is whatever the Fed was doing in 2007 "normal," why is it good? But "normalization" is a tremendously useful marketing banner. We're going back to "normal," so leave us alone with your bright ideas. Well, fine, but let us quietly  go to a new normal that incorporates all the interesting things we've learned in the last 10 years.

My answer

My (radical as usual) answers:

I like the "floor" system, with abundant reserves. The great lesson of the last 10 years is, we can live the Friedman rule. We can have money that pays full interest, so that holding money has no opportunity cost, and this will not cause inflation. This is genuinely new knowledge. Liquidity is free! There is no need for people to waste time and effort on cash management. Liquidity is good for financial stability too: Banks holding huge reserves don't fail.

I go beyond the abundant floor: The Fed should not target the supply of reserves at all. The supply curve of reserves should be horizontal.  The Fed should just say, "bring us your treasuries, and we'll give you reserves and pay the IOER rate." Or, "Bring us your reserves and you can have treasuries."

Why? Well, if you want to target a price, you offer to buy and sell freely at that price. If you want to target an interest rate, target an interest rate. We have seen limited arbitrage between reserves and other assets due to lack of competition in banking and Fed restrictions, who can hold reserves, and the fixed supply.

I see no economic or financial harm whatever from arbitrary expansion of the Fed's balance sheet, if the assets are all short-term Treasuries. Reserves are just overnight, electronically transferable government debt. If the banking system wants more overnight debt and less three week to six month debt, let them have what they want. I see no reason to artificially starve the economy of overnight debt.  The Fed offers free exchange between cash and reserves; the government as a whole should offer free exchange between short term treasuries and overnight treasuries, i.e., reserves.

To accommodate the economy's desire for ample reserves, and the Fed's desire not to provide them, the Treasury should offer the same asset, and the Fed should encourage this and work with the Treasury to make it happen. 

Specifically, the treasury should issue overnight, fixed-value ($1), floating-rate, electronically-transferable debt. Let's call it treasury electronic money. Legally, this is treasury debt that any individual or financial institution can hold, just as they can hold treasury bills or treasury coins. Functionally, these are interest-paying reserves. Like reserves, but not even like T bills, these can be bought or sold immediately: Owners can transfer their ownership of $1 worth of treasury money to someone else on the treasury website, and owners can sell $1 worth of treasury money and have the money wired (i.e. the treasury sends $1 of reserves to the owner's bank) instantly. (Details here.)

Given the Fed's resistance to narrow banking, and the potential of treasury electronic money to undercut bank's (subsidized) deposit financing, I suspect the Fed's first instinct would be to fight such an innovation. The Fed should overcome that instinct and welcome a solution to the problem of providing lots of liquid assets without the (genuine, below) downsides the Fed feels about a large balance sheet.

I agree with critics that the composition of the Fed's assets should return quickly to short-term treasuries only, and in my ideal world to just this treasury electronic money. That is mostly for political economy reasons outlined below. Other assets should be on the balance sheet in emergencies only.

If the Fed feels the need to buy long-term treasurys or take them as collateral, issuing reserves in return, because of a shortage of safe assets, that means the Treasury has not issued enough short-term liquid treasurys. There are simpler ways to fix that problem. 

Other answers

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Central Bank Independence

I'm on a panel at the "ECB and its watchers" conference Wednesday, to discuss central bank independence. Here are my comments. Yes, there is a lot more to say, but I get exactly 15 minutes. I hope I'm not scurrying back tomorrow to retract something stupid here.

Central Bank Independence
John H. Cochrane
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Remarks presented at the “ECB And its Watchers” conference, March 27 2019. 

I believe central bank independence is a good thing, and that it is in increasing danger. I don’t think that’s a controversial view, or we would not be here.

I sense that our mission today is to decry politicians that wish to influence the central banks’ good works, especially by pressing for low interest rates.

But I’ll argue instead that much of the threat to central bank independence stems ultimately from how central banks are behaving, and has little to do with interest rates.


What is, can and should be independent? Let me suggest three principles.

1) In a democracy, independence must come with limited powers, and a limited scope of authority.

2) An independent agency must follow rules, norms, and traditions, not act arbitrarily, with lots of discretion.

3) To be independent, an agency must be, and be perceived to be, competent at its task.

What cannot be independent? A lot of government activity transfers wealth from one person to another, or fights for political power. Those activities must be politically accountable.

Limited powers: Central banks operate within legal restrictions. For example, it seems puzzling that central banks struggle to raise inflation. We all know how to stoke inflation: drop money from helicopters. To stop inflation, soak up the money supply with heavy taxes.

Yet central banks are legally prohibited from this one, most effective action for stoking or stopping inflation.  Why? Well, in a democracy, writing checks to voters or confiscating their hard-earned cash must be reserved for politically accountable institutions.

Rules and norms: Most restraints on central bank actions are rules, norms, and traditions, not legal limitations. Central banking remains something of a black art, so central bankers must sometimes use judgement and discretion, especially in crises, and let the rules or norms evolve with experience. But if they are to stay independent, they must quickly return to or re-form rule, norm, or traditional limitations on their power.

From this perspective, the ECB was set up as an almost perfect central bank. It followed an inflation target. It only acted on the short-term interest rate. Its assets were uncontroversial.  And it was not to finance deficits or bail out sovereigns.

The inflation target and Taylor rule are most important here for their implied list of things that the central bank should not, is not expected to, and pre-ccommits not to pay attention to or control directly: stock prices, housing prices, sectoral and industry health, regional imbalances (especially in Europe), credit for small businesses, income and wealth inequality, infrastructure investment, decarbonization, bad schools, and so on.

An independent central bank should say often, “that’s a terrible problem, but it’s not our job to fix it.” It loses power and prestige in the moment, but gains independence in the long run.


So what are central banks doing to invite challenges to their independence?

Interest rates get a lot of attention, but they are not, I think, the core of the problem. Yes, President Trump is violating established norms by complaining publicly about interest rates. But most people in both parties understand this is a violation, and a norm worth keeping, so for the moment I think the norm against interest-rate jawboning will hold in the future.

The big threat to independence comes from the expansion of activities and responsibilities that central banks have taken on, on an apparently permanent basis, in the years since the financial crisis: Asset purchases, regulatory expansion, a much larger set of goals, and a marriage of regulatory and macroeconomic policy.

Purchasing assets in dysfunctional markets, as in 2008, is what central banks traditionally do in a crisis. (We can argue whether they should, but that’s for another day.) But once markets returned to normal, continuing to buy large portfolios of long-term bonds, mortgage backed securities, corporate bonds, imperiled European sovereign debt, and even stocks, for years on end, was a different choice.

We can argue the benefits. Maybe QE lowered some rates, a bit, for a while, and maybe that stimulated a bit.

But we have ignored the costs. Central banks took on a new, and apparently permanent power, formerly foresworn: to buy assets directly, to control asset prices, not just short term interest rates.

It is harder to say to a politician, who complains that mortgage rates are too high, that this is not our problem; we set the short term rate to stabilize inflation; we don’t pay direct attention to other assets, or to directing credit to mortgages rather than big business.

It will get worse. The US Congress has noticed the Fed’s balance sheet. Under the mantra of “modern monetary theory,” a swath of congresspeople want the Fed to print trillions of dollars to finance the Green New Deal.

The ECB and euro were set up with a clear rule that the ECB does not bail out sovereigns. In the crisis, President Draghi rather brilliantly stemmed the first debt crisis with a “do what it takes” promise, that did not have to be executed, along with a warning that this could not be permanent.

But in response, Italy took the St. Augustinian approach — Lord, give me structural reform, but not quite yet. The ECB continues to repo government debt and Italian banks are still stuffed with Italian government bonds. The doom loop looms still, and markets still expect a bailout.

The ECB has lost the long run game of chicken. It will likely have to actually do what it takes when the next crisis comes.

But there is little that is more political, little that cannot stay independent more clearly, than bailing out insolvent sovereigns, with euros that must either inflate or be backed up by taxes on the rest of Europe.

The ECB is still directly financing questionable banks and questionable corporations. These are also activities that will invite political scrutiny.

The crisis spawned a vast expansion of regulation. The US Fed is now using an immense,confusing, and constantly changing set of rules to act with great discretion on telling banks what to do.

Moreover such regulation changed from “micro,” somewhat rules-based regulation, to more nebulous and discretionary “macro prudential” regulation that directs the activities of “systemic” institutions — something nobody can define other than “we know it when we see it.” The Fed wanted to include large insurance companies, until courts struck that down, and tried for a while to systemically regulate equity asset managers, on the theory that the managers might sell in a behavioral herd and send prices down.

But telling banks and other institutions what to do, who to lend to, when to buy and sell assets, with billions on the line, using a high degree of judgment and discretion, is a political act that invites loss of independence. Your “bubble” is my “boom,” your “fire sale” my “buying opportunity.”

More than current actions, the ideas swirling around central banks seem to me even more dangerous for their future independence.

It is taken for granted that central banks should embrace the task of managing and directing the entire financial system. This only starts with managing bank assets to try to manage “systemic” risks. It goes on to managing asset prices and housing prices, I guess so that nobody ever loses money again, and directing the “credit cycle.” And central banks should go beyond short rates and asset purchases, and use regulatory tools to direct the macroeconomy and asset markets.

Nobody even seems to stop and think that such actions are intensely political, and will invite strong attacks on central bank independence.

Moreover, faith that we economists and the central banks we populate have any actual technical competence to implement such grandiose schemes is evaporating, and rightly so. That the already vast regulatory system failed to stop the last crisis eroded a lot of trust. In many ways the revelation that elites didn’t know what they were doing led to today’s populism. That once this horse was out of the barn, Europe’s regulators nonetheless kept sovereign debt risk free, inviting a second sovereign debt crisis, eroded more trust. If the next crisis blindsides larger, and much more pretentious grand plans, that trust and the independence it grants will vanish.

Even monetary policy is becoming more dangerous to independence. Much of the post-crisis analysis hinges on how monetary policy effects income transfers, for example from investors to mortgage borrowers or from all of us to bank balance sheets. Well, if the point of monetary policy is to take money from Peter, and give it to Paul, on the grounds that Paul has a higher marginal propensity to consume, Peter is going to call his congressman.

I sense that a lot of this expansion of tools, scope, and discretion comes from a natural human and institutional tendency towards aggrandizement.  It’s fun to become the grand macro-financial planner, always in the news. It’s boring to be a limited, technical institution that says “not my job.”

For example, I think a lot of QE was simply done to be seen to be “doing something” in the face of slow supply-side growth. Remember, monetary problems, especially any ill effects of 1% rather than 2% inflation, do not last 10 years. Long run growth comes from productivity, and structural reform, not stimulus, and not money.

But in the language of central bankers, “growth” and “demand” seem to be synonyms. This morning, describing a decline in growth with no decline in consumption, President Draghi used the word “demand” many times, and “supply” never. Like helicopter parents, central banks want always to be in charge.

Maybe you disagree, but think of the costs. For sure, the promise of endless QE, and reiterating the promise that central-bank provided demand stimulus is the vital answer, lessened the pressure for structural reform.

More generally, imagine that about 5 years ago, central banks had said, “We’ve done our job. The crisis is over. ‘Demand’ is no longer the problem. If you think growth is too low, get on with structural reform. Low inflation and interest rates are fine. Welcome to the Friedman rule. QE is over, and we are no longer intervening in asset markets. In place of intrusive bank regulation, countercyclical buffers, stress tests, and asset price management, we are going to insist on lots and lots of capital so there can’t be crises in the first place. We’ll be taking a long vacation.”

Just how much worse would the overall economy be? We can argue. How much better would the threats to central bank independence be? A lot.

Well, it’s not too late.


Let me offer some practical suggestions:

1) Separate monetary policy and regulation. Regulation is much more intrusive, and much harder to resist political pressure. Using regulatory tools for macroeconomic direction is inherently going to threaten independence. The ECB’s Chinese wall between regulation and monetary policy is a good start.

2) Transfer, or swap, all balance sheet assets other than short term treasuries to a “bad bank,” controlled by fiscal authorities.

3) Solve the sovereign debt problem. Stop the doom loop: get own country sovereign debt out of banks, or backed by capital. Create a mutual fund with a diversified portfolio of government debts, and force banks to hold that if they don't want big risk weights. Allow pan-europeans banks that hold diversified portfolios. Then insolvent sovereigns can default without shooting their hostage.

4) Abandon the pretense that risk regulation, asset price management, and credit allocation policy will stop another crisis. Move to narrow deposit taking and equity financed banking, or at least allow these to emerge rather than fighting them tooth and nail.

The US Fed is clearly perceived to be defending monopoly profits of large banks, a big threat to its independence. If you don’t like President Trump’s tweets, wait for President Elizabeth Warren’s. And she knows where the regulatory bodies are buried.

5) Europe needs structural financial reform more than continued bank support from the ECB. For example, corporate bonds should be held in mutual funds marketed directly to investors.

6) Be quiet. Federal Reserve officials should not give speeches about inequality or other hot-button partisan political issues, no matter how passionately they feel about them.

7) But don’t throw away the bad with the good. In the face of political criticism, I sense central banks, rushing to apply the label “normalization.” The Fed is rushing to reduce the quantity of reserves and go back to older reserve management schemes, losing the lessons of how well an abundant reserves system can work.

Independence is not ours to claim. Central banks are government agencies, not private institutions with rights. Governments grant them independence when it is useful for government to pre-commit not to use some of its vast powers for political ends. Independence must be earned by, well, not using power in ways that must be politically accountable.

Central banks need to answer, What economic problems, are not your job to worry about? What tools will you not use? Central banks need to choose the power and allure of trying to fix everything, and thus acting politically, vs. the limitations that allow independence. They can’t have both. And we voters need to tell our politicians which kind of central bank we want. We can’t have both either.

Having laid out the options, it seems clear to me that nobody wants a limited, and hence independent central bank. The trend to central banks as the large, integrated, monetary-financial-and macroeconomic planners, integrating broad control of financial markets and their participants, is desired by central banks, politicians, and not contested by voters. So they shall be, but not independent.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Concentration increasing?

Is the US economy getting more concentrated or less? At the aggregate level, more. This is a widely noted fact, leading quickly to calls for more active government moves to break up big companies.

But at the local level, no. Diverging Trends in National and Local Concentration by  Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, Pierre-Daniel Sarte, and Nicholas Trachter documents the trend.

They make a concentration measure that is basically the sum of squared market shares, so up means more concentrated and down means less concentrated. This is the average of many different industries and markets.

The average concentration of national markets has gone up. But the concentration of smaller and smaller markets has gone down. More businesses are dividing up county and zip code markets.
Industries differ. This graph does not get a prize for ease of distinguishing the lines, but the two red lines just below zero are manufacturing and wholesale trade, where the industries with really dramatic reductions in local concentration are retail trade, finance insurance and real estate, and services.

What's going on? The natural implication is that the town once had 3 local restaurants, two local banks, and 3 stores. Now it has a McDonalds, a Burger King, a Denny's and an Applebees; a branch of Chase, B of A, and Wells Fargo, and a Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and Costco. National brands replace local stores, increasing the number of local stores.

However, that turns out not to be so obvious.

This graph shows what happens in the diverging industries (those in which national goes up, and local goes down) if you leave out the biggest company. Doing so, lowers the rise of national concentration, because we left out the single most concentrated firm. The lower line however, shows a positive effect. If we leave out the largest national firm, the local markets look more concentrated. If  national brands had just replaced local businesses, then when we leave them out, we should see lots of smaller shares.  The same thing happens if we leave out the second and third largest.

What's going on? Well, they look at what happens when Wal-Mart comes to town.

The lower line is the effect on concentration in the years before and after the top national firm enters a market. Concentration drops. If, when Wal-Mart came to town, all the exiting firms went under, concentration would rise. The upper line shows you concentration ignoring the largest enterprise. It's unchanged. Either the mom and pop stores do, in fact, stay in business; or new smaller firms enter along with Wal-Mart. The phenomenon is not just the replacement of all smaller businesses by a larger number of national chains.

The paper was presented at the San Francisco Fed "Macroeconomics and Monetary Policy" conference, where I am today. The discussions, by Huiyu Li and François Gourio, were excellent. As with all micro data there is a lot to quibble with. Is a zip code really a market? Much of the data are industry+zip codes with a single firm, both before and (slightly less often) after. Maybe Walmart and other stores drag in customers from other places? And of course, concentration is not the same thing as competition. The SF Fed will, in a week or so, post the conference, papers, and discussions.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Less listing

Torsten Slok at DB sent along this lovely graph. The underlying paper "Eclipse of the Public Corporation or Eclipse of the Public Markets?" by  Craig Doidge, Kathleen M. Kahle, G. Andrew Karolyi, and René M. Stulz,  has a lot more.

Stocks are fleeing the exchanges in the US. Small and young stocks are disappearing most, with older larger stocks dominating. Less public means more private, not less companies. Companies are more and more financed by private equity, groups of large investors, debt, venture capital and so forth.

This is largely a US phenomenon, which is important for us to figure out what's going on:

What's going on? Doidge,  Kahle, Karolyi, and Stulz have some intriguing hypotheses. US business is more and more invested in intellectual capital rather than physical capital -- software, organizational improvements, know-how, not blast furnaces. These, they speculate, are less well financed by issuing shares on the open market, and better by private owners and debt.

This shift from physical investment to R&D -- investment in intellectual capital -- is an important story for many changes in the US economy.

Improvements in financial technology such as derivatives allow companies to offload risks without the "agency costs" of equity, and then keep a narrower group of equity investors and more debt financing.
"We argue that the importance of intangible investment has grown but that public markets are not well-suited for young, R&D-intensive companies. Since there is abundant capital available to such firms without going public, they have little incentive to do so until they reach the point in their lifecycle where they focus more on payouts than on raising capital."

I.e. the only reason to go public is for the founders to cash out, and to offer a basically bond-like security for investors. But not to raise capital.

They leave out the obvious question -- to what extent is this driven by regulation? Sarbanes Oxley, SEC, and other regulations and political interference make being a public company in the US a more and more costly, and dangerous, proposition.  This helps to answer the question, why in the US.

The move of young, entrepreneurial companies who need financing to grow to private markets, limited to small numbers of qualified investors, has all sorts of downsides. If you worry about inequality, regulations that only rich people may invest in non-traded stocks should look scandalous, however cloaked in consumer protection. But if you can only have 500 investors, they will have to be wealthy. Moving financing from equity to debt and derivatives does not look great from a financial stability point of view.

Our financial system has become remarkably democratized in recent years. Once upon a time only wealthy individuals held stocks, and had access to the superior investment returns they provide. Now index funds, 4501(k) plans are open to everyone, and their pension funds. What will they invest in as listed equity disappears?

A wealth tax, easy to assess on publicly traded stock and much harder to assess on private companies with complex share structures -- especially structures designed to avoid the tax -- will only exacerbate the problem. More moves to regulate the boards and activities of public companies will only exacerbate the problem.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Monopoly in history

Timothy Taylor, the Conversable Economist, tracks down the oft-told story of William Lee and his knitting machine.
...the 2019 World Development Report from the World Bank has a mention near the start of Chapter 1: "In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England was alarmed when clergyman William Lee applied for a royal patent for a knitting machine: `Consider thou what the invention would do to my poor subjects,' she pointed out. `It would assuredly bring them to ruin by depriving them of employment.'” 
It's really a lovely story, presaging this fallacy passed down through the ages, to Milton Friedman's famous "let them use spoons" story (on being told a Chinese dam was being made by hand and shovel rather than bulldozers to provide employment) to the current hullabaloo that AI will take all the jobs. (And today. On a KQED (NPR) "forum," show last week, on while I was shaving, a caller expressed just how great it is that Mexico uses people not machines to sweep streets, thereby providing employment, and we should do the same. Fallacies live a long time.)

Lovely as it is, Taylor is "inherently dubious about direct quotations from conversations held in 1589," took a  "journey through libraries and archives," to track down the actual story.  It is an interesting note on the very beginnings of the industrial revolution.

As I read Taylor, it seems the story is actually pretty suspect.
"The underlying source seems to be in an 1831 book, History of the Framework Knitters, written by Gravenor Henson....Henson was an important British trade union leader in the early 19th century. As Stanley D. Chapman notes in his "Introduction" about Henson's purpose in writing the book: "His main theme was that hosiery, lace and all other industries should be regulated by the government so as to maintain a decent living standard for the workers and fair conditions of trade. British industries must be protected from direct foreign competition and, more particularly, from industrial espionage, migration of skilled workmen to other countries, and export of machinery."  
So, as I gather indirectly, the story passed on from a source was definitely trying to make a point, and (again reading only Tim) has precious little primary evidence for the famous conversation.

The first lesson: beware these apocryphal stories passed on through secondary, tertiary and ultimately gossipy sources.  

This lesson was brought home to me by Peter Garber's great "Famous First Bubbles" book (I had a lot of fun reviewing it). Garber went back to look at actual primary sources behind stories that though apocryphal are passed around as true among economists, such as the famous tulip "bubble." They aren't true either. Though they make good stories.

I got a deeper lesson, on just how economies worked in early modern Europe. Early economies were so pervasively regulated, that the only thing to do with an innovation was to run to get a Royal monopoly. 

William Lee invented a stocking-making machine. (Apparently, to put out of employment a woman who spurned his advances while knitting stockings.) So, what does he do with his newfound knowledge?
Having now discovered the method of knitting by machinery, his next effort was directed to obtain the golden harvest which had flattered his imagination. He removed his invention to London for the purpose presenting it to the Queen,...Lee now imagined himself certain of a handsome remuneration,...[but]  she refused to make either a grant of money or secure him a monopoly or patent. 
Here is where the famous quote enters
Her answer is said to have been to the following purport: -- My Lord, I have too much love to my poor people, who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting, to give my money to forward an invention which will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment, and thus make them beggars. 
It goes on, interestingly. The Queen was interested in cheaper silk stockings, which she wore:
Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have affected only a small number of my subjects. but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects is too important to grant to any individual."
But it gets much more s economically interesting
Apparently Lee ran into a different problem: Queen Elizabeth has been granting lots of monopolies to court favorites, and there was a widespread sense that it had gotten out of hand. Thus, the granting of unwarranted monopolies became a reason to deny Lee a monopoly as well. Henson writes:
"The time which Mr. Lee had chosen to make an application to the government, though to his sanguine mind very propitious for remuneration. was in reality the reverse; the treasury of Elizabeth was extremely low, owing to the enormous expenses which she had incurred in preparations to meet the Spanish armada in the preceding year. Already had the Parliament begun to express their decided umbrage at the grant of the privileges of patents for monopolies; which, as they were then conducted, were justly considered national evils, and the most odious means of rewarding court favorites, by an excessively tyrannical mode of private taxation. Nearly all the nobles enjoyed a patent for the most useful and general articles of consumption, such as iron, lead, saltpetre, salt, oil, glasses, &c. &c., to the amount of more than one hundred articles, which were sold, imported, or exported by virtue of letters patent. These patent rights, were sold to persons who farmed the profits, and thus demanded what prices they thought prudent for their commodities. [my emphasis] When the general list was read over in the House of Commons in 1601, a member, indignant at the the extortions, exclaimed, " Is bread amongst the number?" "Bread?" cried the house, with astonishment, "Yes I assure you," he sarcastically replied, "if we go on at this rate, we shall have a monopoly of bread before next Parliament." 
Actually, I believe they did. Most trades were restricted to guild members and you couldn't just bake bread and sell it. (Historians, let me know if I'm confusing place and time here.)  "Patent" in 16th century England also seems to mean more a general monopoly right than our current understanding, as in a "patent" to sell iron. Lee went on to the French court, to try to get a patent and monopoly there too.

Lee never, apparently, made a bundle actually making stockings. He died unhappily in France, though his machine did get adopted. Just how long it took a simple stocking machine to be adopted may tell us something interesting about why economic growth was so slow to break out.

The interesting observation here: it's 1589, and you invent a cool new machine, say for making stockings. What do you do with it? You and I might answer, "start making stockings." You can undersell the competition and make a bundle. Or, we might answer, "start selling stocking-making machines." Sure, others will follow, but you have a big first-mover advantage. Yes, if a modern patent system were up and running it might be useful to get a patent and try to slow down competitors. But first and foremost, get the business going.

That Lee did not do this -- that it seems not even to have occurred to him - is telling about just how controlled and regulated economies apparently were at the time.

It brings to mind two other recent histories I read, Dava Sobel's Longitude and Charles Coulston Gillispies' book on the  Montgolfier Brothers.

Longitude: In the 1700s, it was a major problem to know how far east or west a ship was. After painstaking work, John Harrison came up with a solution: a clock that could tell time accurately, even at sea. What did he do with it? Start selling clocks to ship captains, you might say! And you would be wrong. He spent his life trying to get the prize established for that purpose, mostly unsuccessfully.

Balloons: The Montgolfier Brothers invent the balloon. What do they do with it? Start selling balloons? Start selling balloon rides? No, immediately off to Paris to get royal dispensation.

I don't know enough about these early economies, but that running off to get a Royal monopoly seems to be the only thing anyone even considers to do with a new invention seems interesting evidence on just how rigidly controlled economic affairs were.

Guilds, patents, monopolies, and the primary function of economic regulation being to create rents in return for political support, seems a pattern with deep roots.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Competitive deposits?

In its death note to narrow banks (link to Federal Register where you can post comments; previous post),  the Fed claimed charmingly that retail deposit rates are fully competitive, so we don't need a narrow bank option to help spread the interest on reserves to deposit rates. In the Fed's view, the fact that banks pay so little compared to reserves just reflects the costs (many of them regulatory!) of servicing retail accounts.
"Some have argued that the presence of PTIEs could play an important role in raising deposit rates offered by banks to their retail depositors. The potential for rates offered by PTIEs to have a meaningful impact on retail deposit rates, however, seems very low...retail deposit accounts have long paid rates of interest far below those offered on money market investments, reflecting factors such as bank costs in managing such retail accounts and the willingness of retail customers to forgo some interest on deposits for the perceived convenience or safety of maintaining balances at a bank rather than in a money market investment. 
Here is some data. From "The Deposits Channel of Monetary Policy"  by Itamar Drechsler  Alexi Savov  and Philipp Schnabl, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 132 (2017)1819–1876:

When the Fed Funds rate rises, checking  account rates do not. (It's interesting that savings and time deposits do move more quickly, indicating banks face more competition there.) The Fed's story that the spread between checking account rates and federal funds (now IOER) rates reflects costs is very hard to square with this graph -- why should costs and benefits of checking accounts change over time so much, and coincidentally rise exactly one for one with the Federal Funds rate?

Pablo Kurlat, Deposit Spreads and the Welfare Cost of Inflation plots similar data cross sectionally, which lets you estimate the pass through rate better at the expense of the time pattern:

Pablo puts the spread between deposit and federal funds rate on the vertical axis. So, if banks passed through interest rates one for one, the line would be flat. If there were a constant cost, it would be flat but at a higher level. If banks pay the same lousy rate no matter what interest rates are, the curve lies on the 45 degree line. You can see the same general picture.

(Pablo's paper is very nice. He concludes that therefore the "Friedman rule" that interest rates should perpetually be zero, with slight deflation making real rates positive, has yet another thing going for it, that banks are not able to use their market power against us so much.)

Pablo also plots data from different countries:

It's interesting that Sweden and Italy have flatter (more competitive lines). It's really interesting that Argentina lies on the 45 degree line, with no pass through, despite huge inflation-induced interest rates. I would guess that Argentina has a law against paying interest rate on deposits, as the US used to have.

No, it strikes me we have exactly what it seems to be, looking out the window, a heavily regulated not very competitive oligopoly, sort of like airlines 1972.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fed vs. Narrow Banks

Suppose an entrepreneur came up with a plan for a financial institution that is completely safe -- it can never fail, it can never suffer a run, it offers depositors perfect safety with no need for deposit insurance, asset risk regulation, capital requirements, or the rest, and it pays depositors more interest than they can get elsewhere.

Narrow banks are such institutions.  They take deposits and invest the proceeds in interest-bearing reserves at the Fed. They pay depositors that interest, less a small profit margin. Pure and simple. Economists have been calling for narrow banks since at least the 1930s.

You would think that the Fed would welcome narrow banks with open arms.

You would be wrong.

The latest chapter in the Fed's determined effort to quash The Narrow Bank (TNB) and at least one other effort to start a narrow bank is unfolding. (Previous posts here and here.)

Last year, TNB sued the Fed for refusing to allow TNB an account at the Fed at all. The Fed has just now filed a motion to dismiss the suit. The Fed has also issued an advance notice of proposed rule making, basically announcing that it would, on a discretionary basis, refuse to pay interest on reserves to any narrow bank. In case anyone gets a bright idea to take a small bank that already has a master account and turn it in to a narrow bank, thereby avoiding TNB's legal imbroglio, take note, the Fed will pull the rug out from under you.

I find both documents outrageous. The Fed is acting as a classic captured regulator, defending the oligopoly position of big banks against unwelcome competition, its ability to thereby coerce banks to do its bidding, and to run a grand regulatory bureaucracy, against competitive upstarts that will provide better products for the economy, threaten the systemically dangerous big bank oligopoly, and reduce the need for a large staff of Fed regulators.

I state that carefully, "acting as." It is my firm practice never to allege motives, a habit I find particularly annoying among a few other economics bloggers. Everyone I know at the Fed is a thoughtful and devoted public servant and I have never witnessed a whiff of such overt motives among them. Yet institutions can act in ways that people in them do not perceive. And certainly if one had such an impression of the Fed, which a wide swath of observers from the Elizabeth Warren left to  Cato Institute anti-crony capitalism libertarians do, nothing in these documents will dissuade them from such a malign view of the institution's motives, and much will reinforce it.  

On the outrage scale, the first paragraph of the Fed's motion to dismiss takes the cake: