Thursday, March 25, 2021

Inflation options?


From Torsten Slok at Apollo. Torsten explains

Current pricing for caps and floors shows that the market sees a 30% probability that inflation will be above 3% for the next five years, and a 5% probability that inflation will be below 1%, see chart below. A similar worry about high inflation can be seen in 5-year breakevens, currently trading at 2.5%, the highest level since 2008.

A perpetual inflation worrier, I habitually confront the fact that bond prices don't signal inflation. I am forced to point out that they never do -- interest rates did not forecast the inflations of the 1970s, nor the disinflation of the 1980s. And I say inflation is unforecastable, a risk like a California Earthquake. 

But for once there does seem some inflation risk in asset prices.  

These are option prices. The main forecast remains subdued inflation. But these option prices are pointing to a larger chance that inflation does break out. More risk, not so much a sure thing. Also, it's not really screaming -- after all, we're about at the prices of July 2018.

In Torsten's view, despite these prices, 

Five years of CPI inflation above 2.5% or 3% is in my view extremely unlikely. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Defining inequality so it can't be fixed

In one of their series of excellent WSJ essays, Phil Gramm and John Early notice that conventional income inequality numbers report the distribution of income before taxes and transfers. After taxes and transfers, income inequality is flat or decreasing, depending on your starting point. 

Source: Phil Gramm and John Early in the Wall Street Journal

If your game is to argue for more taxes and transfers to fix income inequality, that is a dandy subterfuge as no amount of taxing and transferring can ever improve the measured problem! 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Testimony on financial regulation and climate change

Update: An expanded and improved version of this post is at city journal, or here (pdf on my webpage

I had the honor of testifying at the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, on Protecting the Financial System from Risks Associated with Climate Change Full video at the link, I start at 48:30 with slightly abridged version of these remarks. 

Testimony of John H. Cochrane to US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs 

Chairman Brown, Ranking Member Toomey and Members of the Committee: Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. 

I am John Cochrane. I am an economist, specializing in finance and monetary policy. My comments do not reflect the views of my employer or any institution with which I am affiliated. 

Climate change is an important challenge. But climate change poses no measurable risk to the financial system. This emperor has no  clothes. “Risk” means unforeseen events. We know exactly where the climate is going over the horizon that financial regulation can contemplate. Weather is risky, but even the biggest floods, hurricanes, and heat waves have essentially no impact on our financial system. 

Moreover, the financial system is only at risk when banks as a whole lose so much, and so suddenly, that they blow through their loan-loss reserves and capital, and a run on their short-term debt erupts. That climate may cause a sudden, unexpected and enormous economic effect, in the next decade, which could endanger the financial system, is an even more fantastic fantasy. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Back to the 60s.

Marginal revolution links to a great read on contemporary macroeconomics from J.W. Mason. It's mostly wrong, I think, but very thoughtfully puts together the wrong ideas behind contemporary policy macroeconomics.  

Briefly, debt doesn't matter and there are no effective supply constraints. Borrow, spend without limit is the key to prosperity. 

The fact that the Biden administration not only managed to push through an increase in public spending of close to 10 percent of GDP, but did so without any promises of longer-term deficit reduction, suggests a fundamental shift.

The fact that people like Lawrence Summers have been ignored in favor of progressives like Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein, and deficit hawks like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget have been left screeching irrelevantly from the sidelines, isn’t just gratifying as spectacle. It suggests a big move in the center of gravity of economic policy debates.

It really does seem that on the big macroeconomic questions, our side is winning. 

I have noticed the same thing. Few Republicans mention the idea that today's spending has to be paid by tomorrow's taxes, and consequently today's stimulus must be repaid by tomorrow's prosperity. His "side" won.  Until the well runs dry. (I also resist the assertion that economics must have political "sides," rather than an objective truth.)

But my interest in this particular post is to think about what it says about how thinking about economic policy is shifting, and how those shifts might be projected back onto economic theory.

The post is brilliant for systematizing the emerging view of economics in the Biden Administration, in much of the Fed, and its academic  allies. 

The conventional view

Mason is captures refreshingly well the other "side," conventional macroeconomic wisdom that emerged after the debacle of the 1970s: 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Hoover Economic Policy seminar online

The Hoover Economic Policy working group seminars are now online for anyone who is interested. Follow the link and click "news and events." These happen on Wednesdays at noon, and are put up soon after. Interesting speakers, interesting discussion. Here's what's available so far:

Michael Bordo and Mickey Levy Wednesday, March 10, 2021 “Do Enlarged Fiscal Deficits Cause Inflation: The Historical Record.”

Chad Jones Wednesday, March 3, 2021 “The End of Economic Growth? Unintended Consequences of a Declining Population.” 

Eleni Kounalakis And Lee Ohanian “The Exodus of Firms from California: Facts, Reasons, Solutions.” 

A Special Event in Honor of Secretary George Shultz Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Paper, silver, deficits and inflation -- Chinese history version

A history of paper money and inflation in China, from Edward Chancellor's Wall Street Journal review of Jin Xu's Empire of Silver.  In these sparse paragraphs is most of monetary (and fiscal!) theory, along with a history I was not aware of.

Paper money, Ms. Xu tells us, dates back to the Tang dynasty in the ninth century, when the authorities allowed merchants to exchange bronze coins for promissory notes, known as “flying cash.” Two centuries later, in the time of the Song dynasty, merchants in Sichuan were using private exchange notes in place of the cumbersome iron coinage. The Song emperor issued his own paper money against deposits of coin. The jiaozi, as these notes were called, proved so popular that they traded at a premium to cash.

The convenience of paper money proved its undoing, however. The first temptation was for the Song authorities to make the jiaozi inconvertible, severing the connection with metal reserves. The next step was to increase the issue of paper money, both to feed the people and, more pressingly, to fund the fight against the Mongol invaders. The inevitable outcome was inflation, followed by the collapse of the currency.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Woke wars good and bad news

R.A. Fisher, famous statistician, is canceled by Cambridge University, along with a pretty nice stained glass window

Bari Weiss has a tremendous essay by  on the state of affairs in elite secondary schools, but including the first inklings of secret resistance. Coverage below. 

The New York Times allows Brett Stephens to be critical of California's Ethnic Studies Follies. A short excerpt below. Others have slammed the curriculum more effectively, but the source makes this notable. 

A group of courageous University of Chicago students sets up "The Chicago Thinker" a well-produced news website devoted to "defend conservative and libertarian perspectives in a community that is increasingly intolerant of such voices." 

The Academic Freedom Alliance is launched, not just to talk and expose censorship but also to offer concrete and even legal help to those targeted. Spend some time browsing the website. We need not just voices, but institutions of civil society to defend free speech and thought, and this is a great initiative. It adds to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Heterodox Academy


Bari Weiss  (I have reordered many paragraphs by my topics) What's it like at fancy schools these days? 

A Harvard-Westlake English teacher welcomes students back after summer with: “I am a queer white womxn of European descent. I use [ she | her ] pronouns but also feel comfortable using [ they | them ] pronouns.” She attached a “self-care letter” quoting Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

“We don’t call them Newton’s laws anymore,” an upperclassman at the school informs me. “We call them the three fundamental laws of physics. They say we need to ‘decenter whiteness,’ and we need to acknowledge that there’s more than just Newton in physics.”

A conversation with Tyler Cowen

Conversation with Tyler podcast interview. Perhaps predictably, the most challenging interview / podcast I've ever done. Video here  and embed below 


My comments on efficient markets and active management provoked a lot of email. 

I mentioned Jonathan Berk, and should have mentioned his coauthors Rick Green and Jules Van Binsbergen, on how active management can persist even though investors don't make any money on it. The basic idea is really clever:  A manager has 5% alpha skill on $10 milllion, i.e. he can earn $500k, but the skill does not scale. So he earns 5%, charges 1% fee, investors get 4%.  Investors see his great performance and rush in.  Now he has $50 million assets under management. He still earns $500k. He charges 1% fee, and investors get zero alpha. It’s equilibrium – if investors leave,  alpha to investors goes up again, and they return. Investors are earning the same zero alpha they get on the index so why not. And that’s about what we see. Fees persist in equilibrium, fees are equal to alpha on average, alpha post fees are about zero, flows follow performance. The seminal paper is "Mutual Fund Flows and Performance in Rational Markets" Jonathan B. Berk, Richard C. Green  Journal of Political Economy 2004  112 1269-1295 and a series following, here . It's not a perfect theory, but the glass is nearer full than empty, and it's a lovely supply and demand starting place to understand an industry that persists for decades. 

More generally, the average fund earns no alpha, almost guaranteed by free entry. The trouble is distinguishing the good ones from the bad ones, on ex-ante characteristics. The filters used by academics are pretty weak -- past returns, ratings, education of principals etc. On the other hand, now we just move it all up to the meta-game. Picking managers is no different than picking stocks. Skill on skill, alpha on alpha, fees on fees...

Inflation outlook at NRO. 1970s all over again?

Essay on monetary policy in National Review Online

Short version: The Fed's monetary policy has returned to the intellectual framework of the late 1960s. At best "expectations" now float around as an independent force, manipulable by speeches, but not tied to patterns of action by the Fed as analysis since the 1980s would require. 

If you follow the conventional reading of how monetary policy works, that observation leads to a natural prediction:  we're on the verge of reliving 1970s inflation. (Fiscal policy, entitlements, regulation and cities seem to be headed also to 1970s policy on steroids.) 

True, the Fed says "we have the tools" to stop inflation should it break out. But that tool is to rerun 1980. Does the Fed have the will? Will the Fed really induce a 2 year agonizing recession to bring down inflation, followed by 15 years of historically unprecedented high interest rates? Or will the Fed do what it did three times before that -- half-hearted interest rate rises that brought milder recessions, and a quick backtrack? Having even a nuclear weapon is useless if people stop believing you will use it. 

I don't follow that conventional reading, so I'm not confidently predicting inflation. I worry more about fiscal affairs directly than about the Fed, which leads to a fear of a larger but less predictable inflation, that the Fed will have little power to stop. But mine is definitely a minority view.   

Does the Fed’s Monetary Policy Threaten Inflation? (Contains Spoilers)

The central bank is headed back to the Seventies — a rerun that no one should want.

Does the Fed’s monetary policy threaten inflation? By conventional measures, yes. But those conventional measures have failed in the past. I believe that the short-run danger is less than it appears, but the long-run danger is larger.

If one reads Fed statements through conventional glasses, monetary policy seems to have been reset to the 1960s, and we know how that worked out.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Hope at the NYT: Douthat on cancel culture

Ross Douthat in the New York Times doubts that canceling Dr. Seuss is a good idea. That this essay made it in to the Times, of all places, and as of 9 AM Monday he has not yet been fired may give us some hope. 

The most daring and revealing bit: 

Just a few weeks ago the Amazonian giant decided to simply delete, without real explanation, a 2018 book by Ryan Anderson, a Catholic scholar and the head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, called “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.”

...I live and work among highly educated liberals, and I know that more than a few of them actually agree with the critiques of current transgender theory Anderson presents. They’re skeptical about the widespread use of puberty blockers for gender dysphoria. They’re wary about the implications for women’s spaces, women’s sports. They don’t share Anderson’s Catholic presuppositions, but they are, at least, J.K. Rowling liberals.

In the last stages of the same-sex marriage debate, I never encountered a flicker of private doubt from liberal friends. But in the gender-identity debate, there are pervasive liberal doubts about the current activist position. Yet without liberal objection, that position appears to set rules for what Amazon will sell.

That this admission could be printed in the New York Times strikes me as good news for free speech. 

Let me be clear, as this is an explosive topic and I don't want my intent misconstrued. The question is not to judge anything about the gender-identity debate.  People I care deeply about lie on a trans spectrum, and I have learned a lot about their point of view. The question is whether public policy and medical or psychological fact on the issue can be discussed. Can evidence be sought, studies done, research discussed, books written and sold, and policy debated, actual science be performed? Can good progressives who work for the New York Times discuss these issues? Or is the current "activist position" on policy and medical issues undebatable? Nor is the issue, yet, legality of expression. Legality in a democracy only formalizes elite opinion. Amazon and Twitter censor first, law follows. Activists burn books first, law follows.  

Monday, March 8, 2021

Pay toilets and NYT: a free market microcosm

Nicholas Kristof in Sunday's New York Times asks a pressing -- often quite pressing -- question. Why are there no public toilets in America? He is right. He calls for a federal infrastructure plan to fix the problem: "Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets."

Now, put on your economist hat. Or even put on your reporter hat. Ask the question why are there no public toilets in America? 


Friday, March 5, 2021

GoodFellows interview with Ayaan Hrsi Ali

I learned a lot. The book is very interesting. Direct link in case the following embeds don't work.


What about work or starve?

 A young correspondent posed the following question: 

I was wanting to know your opinion on the “work or starve” argument often made my leftists. ...they’re essentially saying that the exchange between the [worker] and the employer isn’t truly voluntary since if the worker doesn’t have a source of income, they can’t live. What would be your objection to this..?

Essay contest for free-marketers. Here is my shot at it: 

First, someone has to work, or we all starve. So, if it is not going to be you work or you starve, it has to be you work or we send you to Siberia. If we are not actors in a market, we must be slaves to the state. Empirically, the incentive that the more you work the more you get has proved much more productive than appeals to patriotism, community sprit, the common good, or force.

Second, the best worker protection is competition. Many capitalists vying for your services in a free and open market is the best curb on one employer’s attempt to exploit its workers.  A good free marketer is always suspicious of the cronyism and protectionism of both capital and entrenched labor that pervades our economy.

Third, there is little objection to a robust safety net for those who are unfortunate so cannot work. Nobody starves,  not in the US, and not even in Libertarian Nirvana. But people who work harder, who apply their talents creatively in ways that serve their neighbors’ needs, do get to live a little better, to give them incentive to serve us all. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Europe productivity -- and US too


 Source Stephan Schubert

Source: Chad Jones "straight out of the Penn World Tables, and I first learned about it from Lee Ohanian and Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde"

In the top graph you get the impression that German and French workers are using up to date technology, including both machines, firm organization,  opportunities to trade in a wide market, etc. but that they simply choose to, are incented to, or forced to work fewer hours than US workers. Italy and UK are still plodding along 20% or so inside the frontier.

The bottom graph points a bleaker picture. I'm not an expert, but if labor productivity is high and total productivity is low, that means that the productivity of other inputs must be atrocious.  Chad (amazing expert on all things growth) "It is stunning to me that Spain and Italy have had negative TFP growth for 20 years." 

I remember when real business cycles came out, and many were incredulous at the idea of negative productivity shocks. How can you forget how to do things? Well, maybe not for business cycles, but a society clearly can forget, and retrench. For centuries, remember, Italians looked up in wonder at the cupola of the Pantheon, the arches of the dry aqueducts, and wondered how they had been built. 

Source: Eli Dourado.  

Before you get all "go USA", let us not forget the largest economic disaster of our own times. These are all relative to the US. How is the US doing? Productivity slowed down suddenly, sharply, and it seems permanently around 2000. 

In the long run, nothing else matters. GDP buys you health, advancement of the disadvantaged, social programs, international security, and climate if you are so inclined. Without GDP, you get less of all.  Economic policy should have one central goal -- get productivity growing again, or (in my view) get out of the way of its growth. This is the one little hope that has not been let out of the policy Pandora's box, focused on everything else right now. 


John Fernald and Bing Wang date the recent slowdown at 2003. The end of the first tech boom has something to do with it -- but why hasn't the second tech boom shown up in more productivity? 

Ed Prescott's famous Ely Lecture* looked at US vs. France and concluded high marginal tax rates reduced French working hours. 

Many commenters chalk it up to culture and a preference for leisure. I'm old enough to remember when French people worked Saturday mornings and chuckled at the lazy English who took the whole weekend off. An important work of social science on this question here.  

An excellent Vox Post by Fadi Hassan and Gianmarco Ottaviano on Italian productivity. Too much investment in the wrong places, not enough computers. I speculate also too-small companies. Labor laws, regulations and taxes make it desirable to stay small, private, family-run -- and thus local, non-financialized. 

*BTW, looking up the citation, I learned that the AEA canceled Ely of the Ely lecture, and renamed the lecture series. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The puzzle of Europe

Here are two unsettling slides I made for a talk. Here is GDP per capita in US, UK, France and Italy and China (2020 dollars, source world bank) 

To make the comparison easier, here is each country not including China, divided by the US: 

Here are the 2019 numbers (in 2019 dollars, again World Bank) US: $65,297. UK $42,330. That's 35% less than the US. Or, the US is  54% better off than the UK.. France: $40,494. Italy: $33,228 That's 50% less than US. Or the US is 96% better off than Italy.  China: $20,261.

And it's been getting steadily worse. France got almost to the US level in 1980. And then slowly slipped behind. The UK seems to be doing ok, but in fact has lost 5 percentage points since the early 2000s peak. And Italy... Once noticeably better off than the UK, and contending with France, Italy's GDP per capita is now lower than it was in 2000. 

GDP per capita is income per capita. The average European is about a third or more worse off than the average American, and it's getting worse. 

What the heck happened? It could happen here too. Maybe it already has, just not as bad. 

This should be profoundly unsettling for economists.  Everyone thinks free trade is a good thing. The European union, one big integrated market, was supposed to ignite growth. It did not. The grand failure of the world's biggest free trade zone really is a striking fact to gnaw on. 

Sure, other things are not held constant. Perhaps what should have been the world's biggest free trade zone became the world's biggest regulatory-stagnation, high-tax, welfare-state disincentive zone. Still, "it would have been even worse" is a hard argument to make. 

Economists haven't been talking about Eurosclerosis for a while but I think we should. 

These are huge numbers. The worst estimates of climate change are 7% of GDP in 2100. And those are surely overstated (see the excellent new paper by José Luis Cruz and Estban Rossi-Hansberg) You may admire the NHS for saving money, but even if the 20% of GDP we spend on health care is totally wasted, we're still ahead.  Lots of people admire the European model. Just how far Europe is behind the US is remarkable -- and getting worse. 

Goodman on single payer

With the current focus on "equity" and "disadvantage," even in the midst of a pandemic, one might yearn for the simplicity of a government run system. Surely if health care were free at the point of delivery, paid for by taxes, all the inequities of health care would disappear, no? (Sure we might all get bad health care, but we'd all get the same health care, no?) 

No. John Goodman has a nice Forbes article explaining why and giving the evidence from UK and Canada. Bottom line: Nothing is free. Everything is rationed. If it is not rationed by price, it is rationed by political access or personal connections. Markets are the great leveler, as anyone can get money but it's hard to get friends and connections. 

When Britain founded the National Health Service

It was often said "health care is a right." Aneurin Bevan, father of the NHS, declared, “the essence of a satisfactory health service is that rich and poor are treated alike, that poverty is not a disability and wealth is not advantaged."

30 years after the NHS began the Working Group on Inequalities in Health investigated and  

The Black Report found little evidence that the creation of the NHS had equalized health care access or health care outcomes at all. Here are the words of Patrick Jenkin, secretary of state for social services, in his introduction to the report: 

“It will come as a disappointment to many that over long periods since the inception of the NHS there is generally little sign of health inequalities in Britain actually diminishing, and in some cases they may be increasing. ..”

.. 30 years after Britain had nationalized its health care system and replaced private care with public care, it appears that inequalities in access to health care and health care outcomes were not any different than if the NHS had never been established at all!