Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Unintended consequences

The Dec 14 Wall Street Journal amplifies my warnings on the movement to de-fund fossil fuels by financial regulation, citing "climate risks." 
"The Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis recently issued a report detailing how the Fed and eight other regulatory agencies should penalize investment in fossil fuels and promote green energy. They claim financial institutions are underpricing the risk that carbon-intensive assets will become “stranded.”
Mind you, their worry isn’t about how climate change per se would devalue investments, which financial institutions already account for. They want a warning about the costs of government climate policies. “Because Congress has not advanced any comprehensive climate policies in the last decade, the market has not priced in the possibility of significant federal action,” the report notes."

As reported this is at least a refreshing breath of honesty. In all I have read (not everything, it's a mountain) of the BoE, ECB, BIS, OECD, IMF treatment of "climate risk," there is a vague insinuation that climate itself poses a "risk," which is utter nonsense. Beyond nonsense, it is a directive for banks to make up numbers in order to justify de-funding politically unpopular fossil fuel projects. (In case that's not obvious, climate is not weather. The tails of the weather distribution and their minor effect on the profitability of large corporations are better known than just about any other risk, at horizons where bank supervision and risk management operate.) Here, it is at least clear that the relevant "risk" is the risk that Congress or the administrative state will shut down businesses. 

Actually, if taken seriously, honestly and generally, I might be all for it. Yes! Let our financial regulators require that firms and the banks who fund them disclose and account for all of the political risks that future government action might take to harm them -- law, regulation, administrative decisions, and prosecution. Indeed, state every possible nitwit regulation, idiotic tariff (Dec 29 WSJ is a masterpiece of how arbitrary  administrative decisions make or break companies), or ridiculous law or politicized prosecution might harm the company or investment.  Let's make this really tough -- criminal penalties for failing to disclose ahead of time that, say, the government might challenge a decade-old merger, or decide with a secret algorithm that it doesn't like the interest rates you charged or who you hired, or decide (Wal-Mart) to sue you for prescriptions you are legally required to fill. While we're disclosing financial risks, let's disclose the risk that a future Congress might remove the long list of subsidies and protections that your green projects live on. The long lists of well documented potential mischief would be edifying! 

OK, I'll stop dreaming. This isn't serious, it isn't about climate in any vaguely sensible cost-benefit way, it's about fossil fuels. It's about de-funding fossil fuels before alternatives are available at scale, by capturing the regulatory system because the people's elected legislators are not about to do it. (In the US.)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas in Quarantine



A merry Christmas -- or whatever you celebrate this time of year -- in quarantine, from a favorite band. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Techsodus/Techsit politics.

The tech industry is fed up and leaving San Francisco in particular, the valley and California in general. Covid, like a war, speeds things up. If you're a young economist you could do worse than study this latest chapter in the (likely) decline of great cities (SF, NY, LA? Chicago?) and the movement of people and industries to friendlier, safer, and more welcoming climates. If you're a young political economist, whether they bring with them the politics that destroyed the places they left behind -- slash and burn progressivism -- will be equally interesting to watch. 

I ran across a great essay on this saga by Mike Solana

The latest fashion is to claim it's immoral for tech founders and companies to leave, after they have "extracted" so much wealth here. Mike skewers this new fashion, pointing out that tech companies and their founders created wealth here.  Microcode is not mined like gold. 

I take extreme issue with the notion that industry leaders have taken something from the “community,” ...This is precisely the opposite of reality. ... They are the network. Technology workers do not “extract” value from the region, they are what makes the region valuable.

...the Bay Area’s nativist, anti-immigration political climate has certainly not created the tech community, which is populated largely by immigrants, be they from out of the state or out of the country 

But he really digs in on the culture and politics that is going to send this golden goose packing to Austin: 

 the technology industry has brought tremendous tax revenue to the Bay Area. The budget of San Francisco literally doubled this decade, from around six billion to over twelve billion dollars. With our government’s incredible, historic abundance of wealth, the Board of Supervisors has presided over: a dramatic increase in homelessness, drug abuse, crime — now including home invasion — and a crippling cost of living that can be directly ascribed to the local landed gentry’s obsession with blocking new construction. ...

"Landed gentry." That's really good.  


I wrote an oped for Il Sole 24 Ore on central bank digital currency, as part of a series they are doing. It's here in their premium edition (gated) here on their blog, in Italian on top and English below. Thanks much to Luciano Somoza and Tammaro Terracciano for translation and inspiring the project.


A central bank digital currency (CBDC) is in principle a very good idea. It offers the possibility of very low-cost transactions to households and businesses, especially in securities and international transactions. More excitingly, CBDC offers us a foundation for an efficient and nimble financial system that is completely insulated from recurrent crises. 

But CBDC poses a puzzle, as it undercuts many of governments’ and central banks other questionable objectives. Central banks want to prop up conventional banks, who benefit from taking deposits. And governments are unlikely to want to allow the anonymity that is the great attribute of physical cash. 

One vision for CBDC basically gives everyone access to bank reserves. Reserves are interest-paying accounts that banks hold at the central bank. When bank A wishes to pay bank B, it notifies the central bank, which just changes the numbers in each account on the central bank’s computer. The transaction can be accomplished in milliseconds, and costs basically nothing. Why don’t we have that? We should.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Bisin on MMT Rhetoric

Alberto Bisin has written an intriguing short review of Stephanie Kelton's The Deficit Myth. Alberto focuses on the rhetoric of MMT and the book. (My review here FYI.) 

MMT's rhetoric is surely its most salient feature. It has been phenomenally successful in terms of gaining attention, and it has eschewed all the traditional rhetoric of economics -- academic articles, conference presentations, monographs full of equations, econometric estimates and tests, or even mountains of charts and graphs, PhD students fanning out to develop it. 

[In response to JZ comment, that is not necessarily good or bad, it's just a fact. The conventional economic rhetoric produces a lot of garbage, too.  Bryan Caplan has a point. The major distinction may be engagement with critics, which happens in conventional discourse and so far has been largely absent with MMT.]  

Kelton's book is unusual in MMT rhetoric for appearing to be one definitive source that would lay it out, following standard rhetoric. The trouble with writing a book is that sometimes people read it carefully, and are emboldened that they aren't missing something in the usual flurry of blog posts tweets and videos. Then the world finds out the ideas in it are empty, the rhetoric artifice rather than explanatory. 

(NB, "rhetoric" has gained an unfortunate pejorative in common usage. I mean no such pejorative. How we structure economic discussion is hugely important. If you have not read Deirdre McCloskey's Rhetoric of Economics article or subsequent books, do so immediately.)    


The book should be seen as a rhetorical exercise. Indeed, it is the core of MMT that appears as merely a rhetorical exercise. As such it is interesting, but not a theory in any meaningful sense I can make of the word. The T in MMT is more like a collection of interrelated statements floating in fluid arguments. Never is its logical structure expressed in a direct, clear way, from head to toe.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Goodfellows wrap-up

The wrap-up goodfellows for the year, a great conversation with H.R. McMaster and Niall Ferguson, moderated by Bill Whalen who serves up the questions and keeps us on track. >

The podcast version. You can find all the good fellows videos and podcasts here. We'll be back in January. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Debt denial

Our national debt denial is a new essay on debt. Yes, it repackages many themes from previous essays, but debt is important, and I'm refining things through many efforts. This one is better, I think, than previous efforts. 

This appears in a new biweekly column in National Review Online, "Supply and Demand," which I'll be doing with Casey Mulligan. 

In French here


Does debt matter? As the Biden administration and its economic cheerleaders prepare ambitious spending plans, a radical new idea is spreading: Maybe debt doesn’t matter. Maybe the U.S. can keep borrowing even after the COVID-19 recession is over, to fund “investments” in renewable energy, electric cars, trains and subways, unionized public schools, housing, health care, child care, “community development” schemes, universal incomes, bailouts of student debt, state and local governments, pensions, and many, many more checks to voters.

The argument is straightforward. Bond investors are willing to lend money to the U.S. at extremely low interest rates. Suppose Washington borrows and spends, say, $10 trillion, raising the debt-to-GDP ratio from the current 100 percent to 150 percent. Suppose Washington just leaves the debt there, borrowing new money to pay interest on the old money. At 1 percent interest rates, the debt then grows by 1 percent per year. But if GDP grows at 2 percent, then the ratio of debt to GDP slowly falls 1 percent per year, and in a few decades it’s back to where it was before the debt binge started.

What could go wrong? This scenario requires that interest rates stay low, for decades to come, and remain low even as the U.S. ramps up borrowing. The scenario requires that growth continues to outpace interest rates. Most of all, this scenario requires that big deficits stop. For at best, this is an argument for a one-time borrowing binge or small perpetual deficits, on the order of 1 percent of GDP, or only $200 billion today.

Yet an end to big borrowing is not in the cards. The federal government borrowed nearly $1 trillion in 2019, before the pandemic hit. It borrowed nearly $4 trillion through the third quarter of 2020, with more to come. If we add additional and sustained multi-trillion-dollar borrowing, and $5 trillion or more in each crisis, the debt-to-GDP ratio will balloon even with zero interest rates. And then in about ten years, the unfunded Social Security, Medicare, and pension promises kick in to really blow up the deficit. The possibility of growing out of a one-time increase in debt simply is irrelevant to the U.S. fiscal position.

Everyone recognizes that the debt-to-GDP ratio cannot grow forever, and that such a fiscal path must end badly.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Free Market Vaccines

Part 1: Who should get the vaccine first? Sell to the highest bidder. The disease and recession go away faster. 

 Part 2: The cost of perfection. The vaccine was invented in a weekend, available in February. In free market land, we would not have had a pandemic, or a recession. 284 thousand people would be alive today. That is the cost of FDA "protection." 

Part 1: Who should get the vaccine first? 

Absolutely nobody* has mentioned in public the free market answer: Sell to the highest bidder. 

(Or just allow some sales to the highest bidder. Don't put people in jail for selling some to the highest bidder,) 

It's not as dumb as it sounds. Sure, there is an externality. A good vaccine policy might be to give it to those most likely to spread it to others, with the goal of swiftly reducing the prevalence of the disease. That argues for giving the vaccine in bars. 

That is not our public policy. The entire discussion centers around who should be protected first, from a disease whose prevalence is taken as given. Old people, nursing homes, health care workers, essential workers -- the argument is not the externality. The argument is entirely who should get the individual benefit of protection from the vaccine.  Just why "to the highest bidder" is wrong is then much less clear. 

The case is stronger than usual, for there is a second way to avoid infection: Stay home. Social distance. Wear protective gear. So the question is not, really, "Who should be protected from the virus?" The question is, really, "Who should get a treatment that allows them to be out and about, risking contact with the virus, rather than protect themselves by traditional means?" It is really mainly an economic benefit, avoidance of the cost of other measures to stay healthy. There is an economic answer: people should be out and about first who generate the most economic benefit from being out. And, therefore, are willing to pay the most to get the vaccine. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Hoover is hiring!

Hoover is hiring in its fellows program! This is roughly analogous to an assistant/associate professor position, aimed at new PhDs or people out a few years as postdoc or assistant professor. Information here. Deadline Dec 11. This is a great position for young economists, historians, or political scientists with policy-relevant interests. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Target the spread?

The Fed wants to control inflation. Now, it targets the nominal interest rate. But to do that it has to guess what the right real interest rate is. Nominal interest rate = real interest rate plus expected inflation.

Guessing the right price is hard for any planner, and guessing the right asset price doubly hard. If the Fed wants to target inflation, why not target the spread between real and indexed bonds, and let the level of interest rates float to wherever they want to go by market forces?

Nominal interest rate - real interest rate = expected inflation. So, if the Fed wants to see 2% expected inflation, why not target the difference between one year TIPS (indexed treasurys) and one year treasurys at 2%? Then expected inflation has to settle down to 2%

Indeed, beyond a target, the Fed could really nail this down with a flat supply curve. The Fed could nail expected inflation at 2% by offering to exchange, say, any amount of one-year zero coupon treasury bonds for 0.98 one-year zero coupon indexed treasurys (TIPS). And leave \(r^\ast\) and a lot of real rate prognosticating in the dustbin.

Obviously, you worry. If the Fed nails the spread at 2%, will everything else really settle down so that expected inflation is 2%? Or is this like holding the tail and hoping the dog will wag? We need to write down a model.

I just wrote such a model. This is part of the long-running fiscal theory of the price level book project. But it is a short independent point which blog readers may enjoy. And, I'm always nervous that I missed something in wild ideas like this (see the whole Neo-Fisherian business) so I enjoy comments.

I start with a really simple version of the model, \begin{align} x_{t} & =-\sigma\left( i_{t}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1}\right) \label{ISspread}\\ \pi_{t} & =E_{t}\pi_{t+1}+\kappa x_{t}.\label{NKspread}% \end{align} Here I have deleted the \(E_{t}x_{t+1}\) term in the first equation, so it becomes a static IS curve, in which output is lower for a higher real interest rate. This simplification turns out not to matter for the main point, which I verify by going through the same exercise with the full model. But it shows the logic with much less algebra. Denote the real interest rate \begin{equation} r_{t}=i_{t}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1}.\label{rdef}% \end{equation} We can view the spread target as a nominal interest rate rule that reacts to the real interest rate, \begin{equation} i_{t}=\alpha r_{t}+\pi^{e\ast}.\label{iar}% \end{equation} The spread target happens at \(\alpha=1\), but the logic will be clearer and the connection of an interest rate peg and interest spread peg clearer if we allow \(\alpha\in [0,1]\) to connect the possibilities.

Eliminating all variables but inflation from \eqref{ISspread}-\eqref{iar}, we obtain \begin{equation} E_{t}\pi_{t+1}=\frac{1-\alpha}{1-\alpha+\sigma\kappa}\pi_{t}+\frac {\sigma\kappa}{1-\alpha+\sigma\kappa}\pi^{e\ast}.\label{pidynsimple}% \end{equation}

For an interest rate peg, \(\alpha=0\), \(i_{t}=\pi^{e\ast}\), inflation is stable -- the first coefficient is less than one -- but indeterminate.

We complete the model with the government debt valuation equation, in linearized form \begin{equation} \Delta E_{t+1}\pi_{t+1}=-\Delta E_{t+1}\sum_{j=0}^{\infty}\rho^{j}% s_{t+1+j}-\Delta E_{t+1}\sum_{j=0}^{\infty}\rho^{j}r_{t+1+j}% ,\label{fiscalclose}% \end{equation} which determines unexpected inflation. We have a simplified version of the standard new-Keynesian fiscal theory model.

(Targeting the spread rather than the level of interest rates does not hinge on active fiscal vs. active monetary policy. In place of \eqref{fiscalclose}, one could determine unexpected inflation from an active monetary policy rule instead. One writes a threat to let the spread diverge explosively for all but one value of unexpected inflation, in classic new-Keynesian style. In place of \(i_{t}=i_{t}^{\ast }+\phi(\pi_{t}-\pi_{t}^{\ast})\), write \(i_{t}-r_{t}=\pi_{t}^{\ast}+\phi (\pi_{t}-\pi_{t}^{\ast})\), where \(\pi_{t}^{\ast}\) is the full inflation target, i.e. obeying \(\pi_{t}^{e\ast}=E_{t}\pi_{t+1}^{\ast}\) and \(\Delta E_{t+1}\pi_{t+1}^{\ast}\) the desired unexpected inflation. )

If the interest rate target responds to the real rate \(\alpha\in(0,1)\), the model solution has the same character. As \(\alpha\) rises, the dynamics of \eqref{pidynsimple} happen faster, so inflation dynamics behave more and more like the frictionless model, \(\kappa\rightarrow\infty\).

At \(\alpha=1\), the spread target \(i-r=\pi^{\ast}\) nails down expected inflation, as we intuited above. Equation \eqref{pidynsimple} becomes \[ E_{t}\pi_{t+1}=\pi^{e\ast}. \] Equation \eqref{fiscalclose} is unchanged and determines unexpected inflation, though the character of discount rate variation changes.

Inflation is not zero, but it is an unpredictable process, which in some sense is as close as we can get with an expected inflation target. Output and real and nominal rates then follow \begin{align*} x_{t} & =\frac{1}{\kappa}\left( \pi_{t}-\pi^{e\ast}\right) \\ r_{t} & =-\frac{1}{\sigma\kappa}\left( \pi_{t}-\pi^{e\ast}\right) \\ i_{t} & =\pi^{e\ast}-\frac{1}{\sigma\kappa}\left( \pi_{t}-\pi^{e\ast}\right) \end{align*} A fiscal shock here leads to a one-period inflation, and thus a one-period output increase. Higher output means a lower interest rate in the IS curve, and thus a lower nominal interest rate. The real and nominal interest rate vary due to market forces, while the central bank does nothing more than target the spread.

Of course we may wish for a more variable expected inflation target -- many model suggested it is desirable to let a long smooth inflation accommodate a shock. It's easy enough, say, to follow \(\pi_{t}^{e\ast}% =E_{t}\pi_{t+1}=\pi_{t}\) and even have a random walk inflation. Or, \(\pi _{t}^{e\ast}=p^{\ast}-p_{t}\) to implement an expected price level target \(p^{\ast}\) with one-period reversion to that target. Or \(\pi_{t}^{e\ast }=\theta_{\pi}\pi_{t}+\theta_{x}x_{t}\) in Taylor rule tradition. The point is not to defend a constant peg, but that a spread target is possible and will not explode in some unexpected way.

The same behavior occurs in the full new-Keynesian model, which is also the sort of framework one would use to think about the desirability of a spread target. I simultaneously allow shocks to the equations and a time-varying spread target. The model is \begin{align} x_{t} & =E_{t}x_{t+1}-\sigma(i_{t}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1})+v_{xt}\label{xspread}\\ \pi_{t} & =\beta E_{t}\pi_{t+1}+\kappa x_{t}+v_{\pi t}\label{pispread} \end{align} Write the spread target as \[ i_{t}-r_{t}=\pi_{t}^{e\ast}. \] With the definition \[ r_{t}=i_{t}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1}, \] we simply have \[ E_{t}\pi_{t+1}=\pi_{t}^{e\ast}. \] As in the simple model, the spread target directly controls equilibrium expected inflation. Unexpected inflation is set by the same government debt valuation equation \eqref{fiscalclose}. The other variables given inflation and unexpected inflation follow \[ x_{t}=\frac{1}{\kappa}\left( \pi_{t}-\beta\pi_{t}^{e\ast}-v_{\pi t}\right) \] \begin{equation} r_{t}=i_{t}-\pi_{t}^{e\ast}=-\frac{1}{\sigma}\left( \pi_{t}-\pi_{t}^{e\ast }\right) +\frac{\beta}{\sigma}\left( \pi_{t}^{e\ast}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1}^{e\ast }\right) +\frac{1}{\sigma}\left( v_{xt}+v_{\pi t}-E_{t}v_{\pi t+1}\right) \label{rit} \end{equation}

Following inflation, output still has i.i.d. deviations from the spread target, plus Phillips curve shocks. The real rate and nominal interest rate also have only i.i.d. deviations from the spread target, plus both IS\ and Phillips curve shocks. Output is not affected by IS shocks. The endogenous real rate variation \(\sigma r_{t}=v_{xt}\) offsets the IS shock's effect on output in the IS equation \(x_{t}=E_{t}x_{t+1}-\sigma r_{t}+v_{xt}\). This is an instance of desirable real rate variation that the spread target accomplishes automatically. (To obtain \eqref{rit} first-difference \eqref{pispread} and then substitute \(x_{t}-E_{t}x_{t+1}\) from \eqref{xspread}.)

I conclude, it could work. The Fed could target the spread between indexed and non-indexed debt. Doing so would nail down expected inflation. The Fed could then let the level of real and nominal rates float according to market forces. If every other price that has ever been set free is any guide, real and nominal interest rates would float around a lot more than anyone expects.

The result is almost, but not quite, a holy grail of monetary economics. The gold standard has a lot of appeal, as the Fed needs only exchange dollars for gold at a set rate and do no other grand financial central planning. Alas, the value of gold relative to everything else varies too much. We would like something like a CPI standard, which automatically stabilizes the price of everything else in terms of dollars. But the Fed can't buy and sell a basket of the CPI. Indexed bonds (or CPI futures) are nearly the same thing. And here the Fed just trades one year nominal debt for one year real debt. But it's not quite a CPI standard since it only sets expected inflation, not actual inflation. We still need fiscal policy, or new-Keynesian off equilibrium threats, to pick unexpected inflation. Still, guaranteeing that long-sought "anchoring" of expectations seems like a first step.

What else could go wrong? Well, this is just the first simple model, but it's a step. Obviously it depends on the forward looking Phillips curve. So in that sense it may be best as a longer run target and a regime, in which rational expectations and forward looking behavior are good assusmptions, rather than trying to set expected inflation at a daily horizon or try to do something one time that surprises markets.

I would advise the Fed to start paying a lot more attention to the spread. Next, work on increasing the liquidity of indexed debt. Ideally the Treasury should fix debt markets, vastly simplifying TIPS. I've argued for tax free indexed and non-indexed perpetuities, which would be ideal. But the Fed could and should start offering indexed and nominal term financing, for many reasons. If the Fed is going to buy a lot of long-dated Treasurys, it shold issue term liabilities not just floating-rate overnight reserves. Issing term indexed liabilites is a good next step, and there's nothing more liquid than Fed liabilities! Then start gently pushing the spread to where the Fed wants the spread to go. Start buying and selling bonds to push the spread around. Get to the point of a flat supply curve slowly. Heavens, the Fed doesn't trust interest rate targets and QE enough yet to offer a flat supply curve!

Walter Williams and Economics

 "For 40 years Walter was the heart and soul of George Mason’s unique Department of Economics. Our department unapologetically resists the trend of teaching economics as if it’s a guide for social engineers. This resistance reflects Walter’s commitment to liberal individualism and his belief that ordinary men and women deserve, as his friend Thomas Sowell puts it, “elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’

My emphasis on the two best parts. This paragraph is from Don Boudreaux' WSJ oped for Walter Williams. The highlighted phrases (my emphasis) stuck out to me as a brilliant encapsulation of where economics research and practice has gone, as well as teaching, in the last few decades. A guide for social engineers, indeed. Most papers end up with "policy conclusions" that amount to intensely complex advice for all-powerful (yes) and all-knowing (ha) "policy-makers" aka social engineers. Economics was once more about how people searching for a little elbow room are empowered to help themselves and their neighbors. 

Walter Williams passed this week and Ed Lazear passed last week. I am not only saddened by their loss, but that stirring bits of  the Chicago - UCLA - George Mason economic philosophy seems to take place increasingly in obituaries.   

One tidbit

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


 400 years ago, a group of intrepid migrants signed the Mayflower Compact

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

My emphasis. We have much to be thankful for. But perhaps the top of the list should be the blessings of self-government, which has fostered an unimaginable human flourishing. 

Yes, our society and government remain imperfect. But our "civil Body Politick" remains the best hope for continued improvement. 

This, more than inventing a big turkey dinner, seems like the best way to thank the Pilgrims.

Vaccines and externalities

 A lovely point from the always creative Tyler Cowen

Say, for the purposes of argument, that you had 20,000 vaccine doses to distribute. There are about 20,000 cities and towns in America. Would you send one dose to each location? That might sound fair, but such a distribution would limit the overall effect. Many of those 20,000 recipients would be safer, but your plan would not meaningfully reduce community transmission in any of those places, nor would it allow any public events to restart or schools to reopen.

Alternatively, say you chose one town or well-defined area and distributed all 20,000 doses there. Not only would you protect 20,000 people with the vaccine, but the surrounding area would be much safer, too. Children could go to school, for instance, knowing that most of the other people in the building had been vaccinated. Shopping and dining would boom as well.

All along our authorities have had trouble distinguishing public health from the treatment of individual patients. That's why testing has been such an unfulfilled promise.  "Who gets it first" is treated like who should the government send money to. The point of vaccine is not mainly to protect individuals, it is to stop the spread of a disease.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

OCC fights de-banking. Fed moves to climate.

Part 1: The OCC

The OCC issued a refreshing rule proposal, covered in a nice WSJ oped by Brian Brooks and Charles Calomiris. It is as interesting as a compendium of what's going on as it is for a rule to put an end to it, especially since enthusiasm for the rule is likely to change about Jan 20.  

...practices that amount to redlining whole parts of the economy that banks find politically unpalatable, including independent ATM operators, gun manufacturers, coal producers, private correctional facilities, and energy companies. Also under threat of interest-group pressure campaigns are gasoline-powered car manufacturing, large farms and ranches. Many of the targeted industries are those unpopular on the political left. But we’ve also heard allegations of banks being pressured to cut off programs and business disfavored on the right, such as Planned Parenthood.

Their summary of the rule

Banks may not exclude entire parts of the economy for reasons unrelated to objective, quantifiable risks specific to an individual customer. Banks ... cannot deny a service it provides except on the basis of an objective analysis of the riskiness of the client. Banks are not free to refuse credit simply because they don’t agree with a customer’s business.

I think the latter characterization is a bit wrong. Banks are not all doing this because they don't agree with a customer's business. Banks are doing this because they are afraid of pressure from both right and left. They are afraid of ESG pressure from their investors.  

I suspect banks would enjoy a clear rule, in which case they can say to protesters, shareholders, media and others, we'd love to de-fund your latest cause, but the mean old OCC won't let us do it. 

The proposed rule has a long preamble giving the legal and regulatory history. 

Consistent with the Dodd–Frank Act’s mandate of fair access to financial services and since at least 2014, the OCC has repeatedly stated that while banks are not obligated to offer any particular financial service to their customers, they must make the services they do offer available to all customers except to the extent that risk factors particular to an individual customer dictate otherwise. 

It is clearer about banks are often pressured, rather than choosing to discriminate on their own -- though the later is documented as well. (See the rule for footnotes documenting each case) 

banks are often reacting to pressure from advocates from across the political spectrum whose policy objectives are served when banks deny certain categories of customers access to financial services.

The pressure on banks has come from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors of the economy and targeted a wide and varied range of individuals, companies, organizations, and industries. For example, there have been calls for boycotts of banks that support certain health care and social service providers, including family planning organizations, and some banks have reportedly denied financial services to customers in these industries. Some banks have reportedly ceased to provide financial services to owners of privately owned correctional facilities that operate under contracts with the Federal government and various state governments.

Makers of shotguns and hunting rifles have reportedly been debanked in recent years. Independent, nonbank automated teller machine operators that provide access to cash settlement and other operational accounts, particularly in low-income communities and thinly-populated rural areas, have been affected. Globally, there have been calls to de-bank large farming operations and other agricultural business...

They don't mention pot farmers, presumably because they are still illegal under federal law.  

In June 2020, the Alaska Congressional delegation sent a letter to the OCC discussing decisions by several of the nation’s largest banks to stop lending to new oil and gas projects in the Arctic....The letter also stated that, although the authors believed that the banks’ rationale was political in nature, the banks had ostensibly relied on claims of reputation risk to justify their decisions.

In response to this letter, the OCC requested information from several large banks to better understand their decisionmaking. The responses received indicate that, over the course of 2019 and 2020, these banks had decided to cease providing financial services to one or more major energy industry categories, including coal mining, coal-fired electricity generation, and/or oil exploration in the Arctic region. The terminated services were not limited to lending, where risk factors might justify not serving a particular client (e.g., when a bank lacked the expertise to evaluate the collateral value of mineral rights in a particular region or because of a bank’s concern about commodity price volatility). Instead, certain banks indicated that they were also terminating advisory and other services that are unconnected to credit or operational risk. In several instances, the banks indicated that they intend only to make exceptions when benchmarks unrelated to financial risk are met, such as whether the country in which a project is located has committed to international climate agreements and whether the project controls carbon emissions sufficiently.

My emphasis. 

The actual rule is mercifully short and clear. After definitions (including  that "person" includes "Any partnership, corporation, or other business or legal entity."

(b) To provide fair access to financial services, a covered bank shall:

(1) Make each financial service it offers available to all persons in the geographic market served by the covered bank on proportionally equal terms;

(2) Not deny any person a financial service the bank offers except to the extent justifiedby such person’s quantified and documented failure to meet quantitative, impartial risk-based standards established in advance by the covered bank;

(3) Not deny any person a financial service the bank offers when the effect of the denial is to prevent, limit, or otherwise disadvantage the person:

(i) From entering or competing in a market or business segment; or

(ii) In such a way that benefits another person or business activity in which the covered bank has a financial interest; and

(4) Not deny, in coordination with others, any person a financial service the bank offers.

Of course, the chance of this rule surviving and being implemented as it stands in the new administration is small. But not all de-banking comes from the left, and perhaps there is hope that keeping funding open to, say, planned parenthood, and seeing the danger that banks can also be pressured by right-wing groups  will encourage them to put climate-based squeezing of fossil fuel companies where it belongs in EPA or elsewhere rather than try to pressure banks to do it. 


Part 2: The Fed

The IMF, BIS, ECB, BoE, are embarking on just such de-funding of fossil fuels, this time mandated by regulators. (Previous posts here and here.) I had praised the Fed and its chair Gerome Powell in particular for eschewing this mounting pressure. 

It seems the Fed's resolve is weakening. As reported by Andrew Stuttaford

The Federal Reserve on Monday for the first time formally highlighted climate change as a potential threat to the stability of the financial system and said it is working to better understand that danger.

In its semiannual report on financial stability, the Fed said it would be helpful for financial firms to provide more information about how their investments could be affected by frequent and severe weather and could improve the pricing of climate risks, “thereby reducing the probability of sudden changes in asset prices.” 

which is, on account of weather, negligible, and the unknown probabilities of which, due to climate change, are precisely zero. 

It also said it expects banks “to have systems in place that appropriately identify, measure, control, and monitor all of their material risks, which for many banks are likely to extend to climate risks.”...

It always starts with "disclosure." Then the activists and ESG funds know where to go.   

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said last week that the “science and art” of incorporating climate change into financial regulation is new but that the Fed is “very actively in the early stages” of getting up to speed and working with officials around the world....

See previous posts for what those officials are up to.  

If you had asked me then what my test would have been to determine whether the Fed had finally succumbed to the mission creep that he described so well, it would have been the news that it had finally applied to join the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System (NGFS).

"The Federal Reserve expects in coming months to join the Network for Greening the Financial System, a group of 75 central banks set up to combat climate change by better understanding the risks it poses to economies.

“We have requested membership. I expect that it will be granted,” Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles told a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday. He said the Fed could probably join before the NGFS’s annual meeting in April."

Especially if you see the climate as a present crisis, and you wish to have a coherent, sustainable, cost-benefit tested policy that actually reduces carbon, I hope you recognize how nutty and absolutely dishonest it is to address climate by having bank regulators force banks to make up  imaginary "climate risks" to the financial system to justify near-term de-funding fossil fuel companies. A policy built on a lie will either require us to descend to Soviet style lie-repetition, or will blow up just as we need a coherent carbon policy. 


Part 3: Regulatory competition. 

If the OCC rule goes through, the OCC will forbid what the Fed requires. This will be fun. The OCC will lose, but at least it shines a bright light on what's going on. 

It is common to bemoan America's fractured and overlapping regulatory system, with an alphabet soup of agencies all trying to do the same thing. Centralization and uniformity always sound great. Here is a case where regulatory competition looks like a very good thing. At a minimum one regulator can shine a light on what the other is doing, and at best competing regulators can limit regulatory damage. 

Update: I am informed that the OCC rule may in fact be final before Jan 20, which would make it much harder to overturn. It doesn't have to be enforced, of course. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Stanford Condemns Atlas

On Friday Nov. 20, as reported in the official Stanford News, the Stanford Faculty Senate formally condemned Scott Atlas, Hoover Senior Fellow and a special adviser to the reviled President Trump.  The full resolution is posted here (but only available with a Stanford id).

"Rise up"

The resolution lists a single documented fact.

in a post to his Twitter account,  Atlas called on the people of Michigan  to ‘rise up’  against their Governor in response to new public health measures...

They acknowledge his later correction 

Although he subsequently claimed that his call to rise up had  been misunderstood, we believe that this latest communication is a dangerous provocation

The President of the University himself piled on, 

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply troubled by the views by Dr. Atlas, including his call to ‘rise up’ in Michigan.” Tessier-Lavigne noted that Atlas later clarified his statements, but he said that the tweet “was widely interpreted as an undermining of local health authorities, and even a call to violence.”

Now, indeed this was a dumb tweet, and I do not defend it. My view of scientific advisers is that they should advise and serve the President and shut up. Most presidents want them to do that, and not become an independent part of political messaging. But this administration is, er, different, and President Trump has not objected to Scott's tweeting habits. None of us know even if tweeting is expected or not in Scott's job. 

I do not here defend any of Scott's opinions, merely his freedom to state them, advise the President as he sees fit, and not be the first person formally condemned by the university for that speech. 

But let us be clear: It may have been dumb, but Atlas did not call for violence. Period. You can call it "interpreted," you can call it "dog whistle," you can put all the words into Scott's mouth you want, but those words are not there. Condemnation for speech is bad enough, condemnation because someone might misinterpret speech is unimaginable. 

You can also interpret it as I did, a call for people whose livelihoods and health are being imperiled by nitwit proclamations to exercise their rights and duties as citizens of this great country to, well, rise up, to protest to their elected officials, to complain in regular and social media, peaceably to assemble (with masks) and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

So, is a tweet calling for the people of Michigan to 'rise up' against a set of widely panned, economically devastating, ineffectual public health measures, at least in Scott's view (more later), an act meriting this unprecedented and unique condemnation? 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Neo-Fisherian Challenge and Reconciliation

 Lars Svensson has a very interesting challenge to the Neo-Fisherian view. (See link for slides.) 

What happens to inflation and unemployment when the central bank (for no good reason) raises the policy rate by 175 bp?...

Sweden did, which provides  

..a natural experiment of the neo-Fisherian view: Does inflation really increase after a policy-rate increase? 

Despite roughly the same circumstances as many other countries, including the US, Sweden in 2010 raised rates 175 bp. (Top left graph). The result: Inflation fell, the exchange rate appreciated. Unemployment also rose (not shown).  

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Budish Covid-19 update

Eric Budish has an update to his excellent Covid-19 paper. Eric has a few deep central insights about pandemic management, which necessarily joins economics and epidemiology. 

Keep your eyes on R<1. 

The reproduction rate R -- how many people the average person who gets the disease passes it on to -- is really the only thing that matters. When R>1 the disease grows, initially exponentially, then only tailing off when a large (half or more) of the population is either immune or dead. When R<1, the disease tails off. The costs of the disease grow enormously when R>1. Once R<1, further reductions in R don't really do much good. 

From a public health perspective, you don't have to stop all transmission. Just get R less than one.  

Thus, The goal of pandemic policy must be to maximize the economy (maximize utility, if you're an economies) while keeping R<1. 

The costs of changing R are so smooth, and the benefits so nonlinear, we might as well treat R<1 as a constraint. 

..the formulation provides economics language for a policy middle ground between society-wide lockdown and ignore-the-virus, and a new infectious threat response paradigm alongside “eradicate” and “minimize”.

Important simple insights: 

the R ≤ 1 constraint imposes a disease- transmission budget on society. Society should optimally spend this budget on the activities with the highest ratio of utility to disease-transmission risk, dropping activities with too low a ratio of utility to risk. 

Contra most epidemiologists, you don't shut down everything. You accept risk, and even some transmission, where it is important. From my priorities, keeping business and school open is more important than bars nightclubs and parties, but gustibus do matter here. Market value is a good test however.    

Second, masks, tests, and other simple interventions increase activities’ utility-to-risk ratios, and hence expand how much activity society can engage in and utility society can achieve while staying within the R ≤ 1 budget. 

This is a deeply important point, which I really had not grasped: 

Do not evaluate the value of mask-wearing by how much it can reduce the spread of disease. Evaluate the value of mask-wearing by the vale of activities we can open up, while keeping the disease spread constant.  

Campus news

Three bits of news illustrate the state of things in US academia. 

1. UC and Prop 16

A proposition was placed before the citizens of California, to strike the following words from our state constitution: 

The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

The voters soundly rejected the proposition. 

As a Berkely alumnus, I received an email from Chancellor Carol Christ to all alumni

In California, Prop 16, which would have helped reverse the initiative (Prop 209) that banned the consideration of race, ethnicity, and gender in public higher education admissions, did not pass. I share UC President Michael Drake’s disappointment... Here is President Drake’s full statement

That statement includes 

The University of California is disappointed that Proposition 16, ... did not pass in this election. ...

... said UC President Michael V. Drake, M.D. “We will continue our unwavering efforts to expand underrepresented groups’ access to a UC education.”

The UC Board of Regents supported the passage of ACA 5, which became Proposition 16,..

Friday, November 13, 2020

Cell phone covid test?

"Artificial intelligence model detects asymptomatic Covid-19 infections through cellphone-recorded coughs" reports MIT News. Well, maybe. But what struck me was this: 

The team is working on incorporating the model into a user-friendly app, which if FDA-approved and adopted on a large scale could potentially be a free, convenient, noninvasive prescreening tool to identify people who are likely to be asymptomatic for Covid-19.  

FDA approved? So now the FDA must approve an AI app that says "nasty cough you've got there?" I'm already outraged that the FDA can stop a company from analyzing a bit of spit I send them and telling me what's in it. What has happened to us that the FDA must approve a cell phone app that listens to your cough? What, sometime in mid 2025? 

Debt still matters

Debt still matters  is an essay on debt at the Chicago Booth Review. It is a cleaned up and edited version of previous blog posts here and here, but a better essay.  

In praise of slow democracy

Steve Landsburg wrote a excellent short WSJ oped  adding one more good reason for our apparently cumbersome electoral practices: 

Imagine a future presidential election in which the incumbent refuses to concede and enlists the full power of the federal government to overturn the apparent democratic outcome.

Now imagine that the election in question is actually run by a federal agency or by some nationwide quasigovernmental authority charged with collecting and aggregating the results from all 50 states.

I don’t know about you, but I might worry a bit about the pressure that could be brought to bear on that single authority. I might worry a bit about the objectivity of the attorney general and the federal election commissioners who would be in a position to ramp up that pressure.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

1933 lessons for today

Nov 11, Eric Leeper presented "Recovery of 1933" with Margaret  Jacobson and  Bruce Preston, at the Hoover "Road Ahead for Central Banks" series, and it was my pleasure to discuss it. This is a really important and insightful paper.  

Since Japan hit the zero bound more than 25 years ago, economists have been thinking about how to avoid deflation. The answer seems obvious -- "helicopter money," or "unbacked fiscal expansion." But this has proved remarkably hard to do. Jacobson, Leeper and Preston show us how the Roosevelt Administration managed a credible unbacked fiscal expansion, and it bears important lessons today. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Virus over? Not quite

The news of a vaccine seems to be sparking an its-all-over sigh of relief. Not so fast.  Interesting and challenging corona virus policy remains on the front burner. 

Holman Jenkins makes a few good points in WSJ. The media and many governments (mine) are focused on new case counts, now 100,000 per day. But 

Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha estimated while we are identifying 100,000 new cases a day, “we’re probably missing 70%, 80% of all the cases out there.”

He mentions other guesses that say 90%. 

Why does this matter? Well, 100,000 cases per day x (say) 2 weeks of infectiousness means that 1.4 million people are infectious, or 0.5% of the population. Not bad odds for a dinner party, maybe not a rave. But if we really have 500,000 or 1,000,000 cases per day, that means 2.5% to 5% of the people you are going to run in to may be infectious. Yikes.  

If Americans knew they were being laughably misled, that the virus is far more widespread and their chances of encountering it are much greater than the confirmed case count (currently 10 million) implies, their behavior might be different. Especially we might get more mask-wearing by unwitting carriers to curb unwitting spread.

And a lot less partying. 

More intriguing, 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Covid cycles

Theory: (From An SIR model with behavior)

Fact: (from Scott Gottlieb via Marginal Revolution)

I do not mean to toot my horn, as many other graphs from the model did not look like that. This particular graph did, and really offers a sad interpretation of what's going on. In the model that produced the graph, people and policymakers react to the current death rate in deciding how much risk to take by going out. 

It is entirely individually rational for people to go out and party when very few around them are infected. Sadly, that means the disease collectively ramps up. Then it is individually rational for people to cut back, and the disease slows down. Cycles can result.  

Public policy is supposed to get on top of these cycles, by stamping out disease when it is low, the same way you keep taking antibiotics even when you feel better. It is the policy that has failed rational expectations here, not people. (No, that does not mean lockdown business and print money so we all can stay home and order stuff that comes by magic from Amazon. Ambitious testing would have done the trick. Or at least containing the summer's wave of super spreading parties.) 

Sherwin Rosen, Kevin Murphy and José Scheinkman have a beautiful JPE paper Cattle Cycles describing a related phenomenon. But our governments are supposed to be smarter than cows. 

Biden vs. Harris preview

I had a long drive Saturday evening which allowed me to listen to the Harris and Biden speeches. Two lines summed up where we may be heading for the next four years. 


I'll work as hard for those who didn't vote for me as those who did. Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now. 

Not quite "with malice toward none, with charity for all," but close. 


protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice...our very democracy was on the ballot in this election, with the very soul of America at stake,..

Not quite "to you 70 million of Tump voters, you did not just hold your nose and vote to slow down the progressive agenda, no, you voted against democracy, you deplorable fascists, and we will treat you as such," but close.

The battle will be interesting to watch. 

First up, it will be very interesting to see what the voters of Georgia do with Senate races. Now that the Trump issue is off the table, the calculus is entirely different. Whether Republicans encourage or put the brakes on the Biden-Harris-Pelosi-Schumer agenda is a quite different question than the one facing voters a week ago. 


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Campus still blue

California may be secretly libertarian, but not the Stanford campus.  Several thousand faculty, staff, and students who live in Stanford Campus Housing are registered to vote in Stanford’s exclusive 94305 zip code. Alvin Rabushka puts together their votes: 

                      Biden               Trump          Others 

Stanford     1,860 (94.7%)    68 (3.5%)    37 (1.8%)

California     (65.3%)            (32.9 %)       (1.6%)

I'm actually surprised that it's as high as 68. On proposition 13, raising the property tax for business, 

                              Yes                            No

Stanford          1,664  (86.4%)          262  (13.4%)

California             (48.3%)                   (51.7%)

This is not about Stanford per se, but just a nice hard data point on political diversity in a typical university, relative even to a deep-blue state. 

I note that our employer, Stanford, is a nonprofit which does not pay tax, though it makes voluntary contributions, and that people in Stanford housing not only get houses that cost typically half or less of market value, but most thereby pay less property tax than the rest of us.   

Far-leftism does indeed seem to be a plaything of the very wealthy, government workers, nonprofits and universities. Which are supported, in part, by your taxes, both through explicit federal and state support and via their tax-exempt status. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Is California secretly libertarian? -- Proposition outcomes

California is a deep blue state when measured by party affiliation, and voting 65% Biden at last count. Yet here is how California's propositions came out, per LA Times and the google search for "California propositions." 

Prop. 14: Bond issue for stem cell research. Wins. 

Prop. 15: Raise property taxes on business. Loses.

Prop. 16: Remove language in the state constitution that "the government and public institutions cannot discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to persons on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, public education, and public contracting." Sold to allow race-based and other preferences in university admissions, contracting, etc. Loses.

Prop. 17: Parolees may vote. Wins.

Prop. 18: 17 year olds may vote. Loses. 

Prop. 19: Property tax reduction. Wins. Note, it allows people who have multi-million dollar houses to keep the low property tax base when they move, and pass it on to heirs. So much for "tax the rich."   

Prop. 20: Complicated. Stricter parole, crime classification. Loses. 

Prop. 21: Allows cities to impose rent control. Loses dramatically. (Per Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck, "...rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.")

Prop. 22: Exempt Uber and Lyft from the employee-vs-independent contractor legislation that was expressly aimed at Uber and Lyft. Wins. (Too bad Uber and Lyft didn't have the guts to just overturn the whole stupid law.) 

Prop. 23: Requires on-site physician at kidney dialysis centers. (Pushed by SEIU union.) Loses. 

Prop. 24: Data privacy regulations. Loses.  Passes. 

Prop. 25: Eliminate cash bail. Loses.

I have rarely had the pleasure of seeing so many of my preferences confirmed by fellow citizens. (To be clear, all of these propositions are highly imperfect, and none is close to how a conservative libertarian would approach these issues. By preferences, I mean just how I chose given the menu at hand.) 

There is a deep lesson here, that Democrats might wish to pay attention to. Their brand and mood affiliation is strong. But even in California, there is little enthusiasm for looney-left policy, or even mainstream-Democrat policy (more taxes, rent controls, stricter labor legislation). Perhaps nationally, Democrats wondering how their candidate is not absolutely trouncing an opponent of such... how shall I put this... singular personal qualities, might wish to contemplate the lesson here.  

Update: Thanks to a commenter and just checked, deep-blue Illinois turns down a progressive state income tax. Will miracles never cease? Maybe Illinoisans are secretly libertarian too. 

The election seems to be heading to a never-Trumper Republican's dream: Biden wins by about 1 electoral vote. Trump rides into the sunset. (Starts a new show on Fox?) The Senate stays Republican. Republicans pick up a good number of seats in the House. The Senate says no no no to anything but reasonable governance for four years. The Supreme Court looks askance at ambitious executive orders. The New York Times editorial page and lots of Very Annoying People fume about the Senate "resistance." Umm, they will have to pick another word. 

More broadly, the big news of the election seems a clear rejection of the far-left agenda. (Big news. We know all about Mr. Trump, good and bad.) 

Damon Liker expresses the view well, in "the left just got crushed." Read Sergeiu Kleinerman in Newsweek, or listen to Jodi Shaw from Smith College (A link. I can no longer find the original via Google, a bad sign.) There is no love for Trump here (Liker is savage), but they're not swallowing the kool-aid, nor, apparently, is the average voter. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Sumner review of Strategies for Monetary Policy

Scott Sumner posted an excellent  Review of Strategies for Monetary Policy (Book information and, yes free pdfs here). By "excellent," I don't mean he agrees with everything, especially that I wrote! He read the whole thing, including comments, and provides a concise summary along with insightful critique. I won't try to summarize his summary -- it's all good. 

The book summarizes last year's conference on monetary policy at Hoover, which focused on the Fed and ECB policy reviews. This year's analogue is unfolding via zoom,  and has had a really interesting set of papers and discussions. More coverage will follow.  

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Rhetoric of economic policy -- Biden plan analysis

Last week saw four interesting statements by economists regarding the economic effects of Biden economic plans. 

My focus will be "An Analysis of Vice President Biden’s Economic Agenda: The Long Run Impacts of Its Regulation, Taxes, and Spending" by  Timothy Fitzgerald, Kevin Hassett, Cody Kallen and Casey Mulligan, a 50 page report. (Yes, hosted by the Hoover Institution, my employer). The Wall Street Journal gave it major coverage in its editorial page, offering a thoughtful summary.   

I  contrast that piece with  a letter  signed by 13 Nobel-Prize winning economists  endorsing Biden's economic policies. A separate open letter  signed by 1072 regular economists wrote, and a similar Economists for Trump letter.   

I am a bit late to the game, as it took me a while to read the weighty Hoover report. However, unlike letter writers, I have no illusions that my opinions will sway the election. 

And, if the polls are right and Biden wins, the question of just what Biden's policies will be, and their economic effects, will have perhaps greater resonance after the election than in the Biden vs. Trump choice of the election.  As they formalize, debate, and institutionalize the plans, surely quantitative analysis of the likely outcomes will matter.  

I highlight this report not because of its contribution to the issue of the day. This report marks a dramatic innovation in rhetoric, how economists analyze political plans. The authors really have started a revolution in policy analysis. This was evident in their previous work at the CEA, but the report highlights it. 


The report. 

The deep innovation: This is entirely, and appropriately, a neoclassical analysis. This report shows you how to do serious, quantitive, applied, large-scale detailed and transparent incentive-based analysis. 

(I use "incentive-based" as a clearer and less charged word than "neoclassical" these days. It gets to the central point.) 

This report puts the neoclassical growth model at the center of policy analysis, rather than the simple Keynesian ISLM model. And that's exactly appropriate for permanent long-run policies, not short-run get out of a depression policies. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Podcast with Ed Glaeser

podcast conversation with Harvard's Ed Glaeser, a if not the top economist who does urban affairs.   Does Zoom mean we all work from home? Will cities bounce back? Will San Francisco and New York fade and smaller cities grow? What problems are the policies causing and can cities reverse downward spirals? How to help unfortunate people who live in cities? Join us for a fast paced discussion with a leader in the field.

This is a follow up to a previous podcast on cities

Update: Courtesy Marginal Revolution the SF Chronicle on "rampant brazen shoplifting," (solve for the equilibrium, as MR likes to say) 
a man wearing a virus mask walked in, emptied two shelves of snacks into a bag, then headed back for the door. As he walked past the checkout line, a customer called out, “Sure you don’t want a drink with that?”

The Walgreens is shutting down -- which hardly matters as the shelves were bare anyway

Also in the Chronicle, Burglars switch to homes in S.F. as tourists, and their cars, stay away  on a spike in residential burglary, even while people are in their homes. 

Ed and I talked about a spiral, crime, high taxes, people leave, businesses leave, amenities leave, which can be irreversible. 

What you believe depends on where you stand, apparently.

Or, talking your book on surveys. 

Political Polarization and Expected Economic Outcomes by Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Michael Weber is a fascinating working paper on the election. 

...despite wanting different things, voters should be able to broadly agree on the likelihood of different electoral outcomes..


87% of Democrats expect Biden to win while 84% of Republicans expect Trump to win. Importantly, this stark disagreement does not reflect two sets of partisan voters each foreseeing a close election that just barely breaks their way. Among Republicans, the average probability they assign to Trump winning is 76%, with more than one in five saying that Trump will win with 100% probability. Among Democrats, the average probability assigned to Biden winning is 74%, with almost 15% of them saying that Biden will win with 100% probability. 

Less surprising:

Republicans expect a fairly rosy economic scenario if Trump is elected but a very dire one if Biden wins. Democrats ... expect calamity if Trump is re- elected but an economic boom if Biden wins. 

Perhaps of course that economic forecast is why each group votes the way they do, and the conditional distribution should go the other ways -- given which president you think will be a calamity, you vote for the other one. 

Normally I am a bit skeptical about surveys -- they measure what people respond on surveys. Surely people don't mean 100% chance of my candidate wining in the same way they assess the probability of the car breaking down on the way to work. But here measuring what people respond on surveys is quite interesting! If people respond 100% chance of their candidate winning, the same people's response that 100% chance of the stocks they bought going up makes more sense. We learn what "likely" means in casual conversation, compared to "true-measure conditional probability." 

So, I can forecast with 100% probability, the libertarian revolution is coming in 2024! 


It would be interesting to document the same pattern with media and pollsters. Informally they seem to confuse "is likely to win" with "who I want to win." 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Virtual finance theory seminar

I'm giving "A fiscal theory of monetary policy with partially-repaid long-term debt" at the virtual finance theory seminar, Wed Oct 28 at 1 PM EDT. Brett Green leads off with "Due Diligence" at 12 PM EDT. If interested, come join. Warning: this is an academic theory paper whose whole point is to look at equations. 

The link has an email address which I don't want to post here, email for a zoom invitation. 

This is an excellent seminar series and one of the first of the new international zooms, which are an exciting development. Thanks to Linda Schilling for organizing.

Monday, October 26, 2020

IMF, BIS, expanded mandates, climate and inequality

Last week I was pretty critical of the ECB's move to expand its mandate to take on climate policy. The ECB is not alone however. The Bank of England started down this direction. The IMF has also been a proponent, and the BIS is nodding assent. 

In short, the move that central banks, financial regulators, and their club of international institutions should to expand to general macroeconomic and financial dirigisme, and then take on climate, inequality, and other social causes far beyond their institutional mandates is widespread. The ECB is not alone, and in this context their wish to join the movement makes more sense. 

I adapt here some comments I made last March at the end of the Homer Jones talk I gave at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (videowritten version).  For that reason my links and sources stop around then. All of that was quickly overshadowed by covid, but perhaps it's time to revive the question. Let's go: 

From probity to exchange rate, capital, and macro prudential dirigisme. 

For decades the IMF served a valuable function. IMF urged countries to keep trade and capital open. In a crisis, the IMF required a commitment to micro deregulation, cutting subsidies, and getting the fiscal house in order before offering a bridge loan. This is like borrowing from your grumpy uncle: Get a job, stop drinking and gambling, here is some money to tide you over, but I'll be watching.

In 2012, the IMF moved to an "institutional view," advocating that central banks "manage" capital flows and exchange rates, along with extensive macroprudential direction.  For example, explaining the "institutional view,"  the IMF writes in 2018

"CFMs …are designed to limit capital flows. These can include administrative and price-based restrictions on capital flows, for instance bans, limits, taxes, and reserve requirements."

The BIS (2019) Annual Report Chapter II chimes in enthusiastically as well. 

..most EME [Emerging Market Economy] ..inflation targeters have pursued a controlled floating exchange rate regime, using FX intervention to deal with the challenges from excessive capital flow and associated exchange rate volatility. This contrasts with standard textbook prescriptions for inflation targeters, which advocate free floating without recourse to FX intervention.

The IMF and BIS reports make clear that they are following emerging common practice at central banks around the world, rather than leading a new agenda. Whether jumping in front of a bandwagon is wise is a good question to ask. If the ambitious but vague dirigisme of these reports drives you batty, I recommend re-reading Lucas (1979) review of a previous OECD report, always a good tonic if you are suffering a deficit of grumpiness.  See also the IMF's 2013 case for macro prudential policy

The IMF's new "integrated policy framework" promises an even more ambitious "integrated" approach to "monetary policy, macroprudential policy, exchange rate interventions, and capital flow measures," tailored to disparate "country circumstances." (Kristalina Georgieva,  Financial Times, February 17, 2020.) 

It is all very tempting. Central bankers like to feel important. Interest rates are either stuck at zero or don't seem to do a heck of a lot. Well, take on broad new powers to run things and do good as you see it. Alphabet soup international institutions are even less directly powerful. Well, cheerlead for the movement. 

But like discretionary monetary policy, central banks have never been able to time credit and asset price cycles, or micromanage dozens of interacting policy levers to offset poorly understood (and country-specific) "frictions" and "imperfections," as the IMF now proposes and recommends.   How do you tell a boom from a bubble in real time? How and why will central banks get it right this time after so many abject failures—2007 being the most recent and screaming example? How will they avoid repeating the endless problems of managed exchange rates and extensive capital controls that finally blew up in the 1970s? Central bankers are only human, just like the rest of us—and just as prey to the fallacy that we're the smart ones and everyone else is behavioral. In the crisis, as monetary policy committees were begging banks to lend, regulators were telling banks to cut back lest the crisis get worse. In the 12th year of the subsequent expansion, the U.S. was been if anything loosening capital and credit standards, despite great increases in credit. So much for macroprudence. 

Rather than try to stop anyone from ever borrowing too much or losing money ex post, we should make the financial system robust so that people can make and lose money without burning down the house. That's the equity-financed banking approach.


The current trend is even more ambitious. Now, the International Monetary Fund, the Bank for International Settlements, and the Financial Stability Board are advocating and the Bank of England is starting to implement climate policies.  Central banks should demand extensive disclosures of "climate risk" and contributions to "sustainable investing." Those lending to, say, fracking companies will have an army of regulators descend on them. The European Central Bank is buying "green" bonds. Fed Chair Jay Powell has so far been a courageous and principled resister to the climate side of this movement, ("Bankers Aren't Climate Scientists, WSJ 2020) but we'll see how long that lone voice of resistance can hold out. 

BIS: See, for example, Bolton et al. (2020) "The Green Swan" at the BIS, whose abstract states central banks should step up to 

"coordinating actions among many players including governments, the private sector, civil society and the international community. … Those include climate mitigation policies such as carbon pricing, the integration of sustainability into financial practices and accounting frameworks …"

In his foreword to this piece, BIS general Manager Augustín Carstens starts reasonably by also advocating carbon taxes—though this has nothing to do with central banks under usual readings of their mandates. But, since carbon taxation "requires consensus building" and is "difficult to implement," central banks should plow forward to 

"raising stakeholders' awareness and facilitating coordination among them. Central banks can coordinate their own actions with a broad set of measures to be implemented by other players (governments, the private sector, civil society and the international community) …there are many practical actions central banks can undertake (and, in some cases, are already undertaking). They include… environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria in their pension funds; helping to develop and assess the proper taxonomy to define the carbon footprint of assets more precisely (eg "green" versus "brown" assets); working closely with the financial sector on disclosure of carbon-­intensive exposure…; …examining the adequate room to invest surplus FX reserves into green bonds. "

In a separate preface, François Villeroy de Galhau, Governor of the Banque de France, advocates that 

"more holistic perspectives become essential to coordinate central banks', regulators', and supervisors' actions with those of other players, starting with government." 

Bank of England: 

Carney (2019) "fifty shades of green" is a good place to start. The first step is "disclosure." The FSB instigated a "task force on climate-­related financial disclosures" (TCFD): 

"four-fifths of the top 1,100 Group of Twenty companies now disclose climate-related financial risks as some TCFD recommendations advise. "

The next step is to make disclosure mandatory, as the United Kingdom and European Union have already signaled. The third step is regulation and de-financing unpopular industries: 

"Banks …are taking steps to assess exposure to transition risks in anticipation of climate action. This includes exposure to carbon-intensive sectors, consumer loans for diesel vehicles, and mortgages for rental properties, given new energy efficiency requirements."

The message is clear: Nice bank you've got there. It would be a shame if something should happen to it. Sure you want to keep lending to fossil fuel companies? 

"The Bank of England is …setting out our expectations with respect to the following:

Governance: Firms will be expected to embed the consideration of climate risks fully into governance frameworks, including at the board level…

Risk management: Firms must consider climate change in accordance with their board-approved risk appetite…

Appropriate disclosure of climate risks: Firms must develop and maintain methods to evaluate and disclose these risks.

The Bank of England will be the first regulator to stress-test its financial system under various climate pathways…This stress test will.. make the heart of the global financial system more responsive to changes to both the climate and to government climate policies.

The Bank of England will develop the approach in consultation with …other informed stakeholders, including experts from the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System.…"

(Yes, my quotations are selective, so you can see what's going on in the otherwise sleep-inducing verbiage. Read the originals if you're unhappy about that.)

On to inequality.

The IMF is now advocating, along with climate, a full range of policies including increased "social spending," progressive taxation, income redistribution, and social-justice policies far beyond anything traditionally monetary or financial. 

The IMF is now advocating, along with climate, a full range of policies including increased "social spending," progressive taxation, income redistribution, and social-justice policies far beyond anything traditionally monetary or financial.  For example, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva (2020) writes in "Reduce Inequality to Create Opportunity,"

Progressive taxation is a key component of effective fiscal policy…Gender budgeting is another valuable fiscal tool in the fight to reduce inequality….The ability to scale up social spending is also essential…Active labor market policies…job search assistance, training programs, and in some instances, wage insurance….Geographically-targeted policies and investments can complement existing social transfers…:

During the implementation of the IMF-supported program, Egypt more than doubled its coverage of cash transfers,…we are working to implement our social spending strategy by weaving it into the fabric of our work…

Note the latter point -- during the implementation of the Egypt program... In the past, when the IMF parachuted in to a bankrupt country, the first thing it would do is to tell the government to rein in useless subsidies and other spending programs. When you look at a typical EME budget, they spend money on a lot of politically popular but ineffective subsidies. Many of them subsidize gasoline, not a great climate policy. Now the IMF is going to reverse that -- on inequality grounds, have a Bloody Mary for that debt hangover. And spend more money on green subsidies too.  [Update: A correspondent inquires what "gender budgeting" means. It is a new euphemism to me.]  

The IMF (2019) "Strategy for Engagement on Social Spending" goes into details. 

…concerns about rising inequality and the need to support vulnerable groups,… a global commitment to continue support for inclusive growth, as expressed in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).… Social spending is viewed as a key policy lever for addressing these issues. 

The Fund has concomitantly increased its work on social spending. …The growing emphasis on inclusive growth is also reflected in operational activities, including the use of social spending "floors" in IMF-­supported programs. There has been enhanced engagement on inequality issues in surveillance, as well as increased technical assistance to expand fiscal space for social spending. 

Requirements for "sustainable accounting" (see Finley, 2020 WSJ, criticizing a Michael Bloomberg proposal), "disclosure" of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) blessings, "stakeholder capitalism," divestiture, and de-financing more unfavored industries are already being advanced.

The messenger not the message

I emphasize that my objection here is to the messenger, not the message. These institutions are empowered to worry about financial affairs. They are not empowered, nor competent as general purpose do-good agencies. 

There is a reasonable risk that climate change may be, in 50 or 100 years, a big economic problem. There is a larger risk that climate change is an environmental problem with little economic impact. But the risk that unforeseen changes—risk—in climate threatens the financial system with another run is essentially zero on the 5-year-or-so timeline of honest risk assessment. (Except maybe risks induced by the same regulators!) 

Repeating the contrary assertion over and over in speeches does not make it so. That, say, coal company stock investors may lose money when regulators shut down their businesses is not a systemic risk, unless we debase "systemic" to mean anyone ever losing money on anything. 

Likewise, you may regard inequality as a big economic problem. (I regard lack of opportunity as a big economic problem, but I'm more focused on compassion for the unfortunate than hatred of the super-rich.) But no matter how you feel about the issue, bringing inequality into the financial mandate by claiming that inequality causes systemic runs, as the IMF is doing, is a similar flight of fancy. And once you cook the books to advance climate and inequality, the books are cooked for everything else, too. And when the IMF  comes flying in to solve a genuine crisis, everyone knows "here come the book-cookers, everything they say is going to be political.  

As I write, (this was late Feb 2020) the chance of a systemic crisis induced by a pandemic is a strong possibility. That none of this scenario-building and stress-testing even considered pandemic risk, in the wake of SARS, MERS, Ebola, and HIV, exposes just how much groupthink and virtue-signaling and how little quantifiable prescience any of this effort has—and how utterly this whole project for a regulatory elite to foresee risk has failed. The possibility of advanced country sovereign default is similarly absent from these exercises, though it has happened many times before and would be a calamity to our system built on the sanctity of such debt and its ability to bail others out in crisis.

In sum, my objection has nothing to do with the importance or not of climate and inequality or the worthiness or not of these (regulate, de-fund, redistribute) policy approaches to climate and inequality. The main problem is that these are, obviously, highly partisan and deeply political actions on which people disagree rather strongly, at least outside of the bubbles in which international central bankers and NGO staff seem to operate. 

Maybe climate change and inequality are the existential problems our economies must address. Perhaps green new deal controls, highly progressive taxation, universal basic incomes, and wealth taxes, rather than a carbon tax and a focus on opportunity—my favorites—are necessary means to fight them. But central banks and their supporting alphabet soup institutions should not appoint themselves to coerce financial institutions and governments to these causes, especially by such transparently dishonest means. 


The concluding part of the essay points out that such blatant politicization will cost the institutions their independence, as well as their reputation for technocratic competence. But I think I said that well enough last time so I'll leave you here. 

Update: International institutions

The real tragedy of this situation only struck me after the fact. I, and I suspect many of you, hold some conservative reverence for the postwar era of strong international institutions, and a rule-based international order, rather than the emerging era of bilateral deals among nations. Yet the evident rot at international institutions is one good reason countries are retreating from international institutions or ignoring them. 

Update: New Zealand

Commenter Coker below points us to the Reserve Bank of New Zealand's climate initiative I read most of it as a pledge that many overpaid RBNZ employees will spend a lot of time churning out reports that nobody will read. But there is a clear statement of intent to implement ECB style policies, i.e. to use bank regulation to channel credit and subsidize 'green' (their scare quotes) investments: 

"Engage with regulated entities to understand how climate related risks are being addressed within the sectors that we regulate. As part of this, the Bank will:

Engage with entities to explore their own internal climate risk strategies to evaluate the New Zealand financial system’s awareness and management of climate risks; and

Seek to identify opportunities to enhance disclosure of climate risks in New Zealand.

Monitor the development and operation of capital markets to identify any impediments to the efficient provision of finance for ‘green’ investments."