Thursday, March 31, 2022

Will inflation persist?

(Note: this post uses Mathjax equations. If you see garbage, come back to the original.)


Will inflation persist? One line of thought says no: This inflation came from a one-time fiscal blowout. That "stimulus'' being over, inflation should stop. In fiscal language, we had a one-time big deficit, that people do not expect to be repaid by future surpluses. That gives rise to a one-time price-level increase, paying for the deficit by inflating away some debt, but then it's over.

There are many objections to this argument: We still have persistent deficits, and the entitlement deluge is coming. Or, maybe our inflation comes from something else.

Here, I analyze one simple point. Suppose we do, in fact, have a one-time large deficit. How much do sticky prices and policy responses draw a one-time deficit shock out to a long-lasting inflation? The answer is, quite a bit. (This post is an extension of "Fiscal Inflation," which documents the size and nature of the fiscal shock to inflation, and talks through the frictionless model.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

SEC climate update

Three additional thoughts on climate financial regulation, building on the last post about the SEC  

1) A big question about SEC and related regulation. May the SEC regulate only on financial issues, i.e. "materiality," or may it regulate with larger social, economic, or political objectives in mind? 

The big squeeze now is to squeeze the latter in to the former. Disclose that the company doing something unpopular, even if it may have no financial effect, because someone might decide they don't like it -- either the twitter mob or future regulators -- and cause you trouble. (I am deliberately not using legalize here.) The carbon rules are not entirely new ground here, but so deep into that territory that the question is now loud and clear. 

2) "Disclosure" usually means revealing something you know. A perfectly honest answer to "disclose what you know about your carbon emissions" is, "we have no idea what our carbon emissions are." Back that up with every document the company has ever produced, and you have perfectly "disclosed." There is no asymmetric information, fraud, etc. 

The SEC has already required the production of new information, and as Hester Peirce makes perfectly clear, the climate rules again make a huge dinner out of that appetizer: essentially telling companies to hire a huge number of climate consultants to generate new information, and also how to run businesses.  

The fixed costs alone are huge. The trend to going private and abandoning public markets, at least in the U.S. will continue. The trend to large oligopolized politically compliant static businesses in the U.S. will continue. 

I would bet these rules wind up in court, and that these are important issues. They should be. 

3)  The SEC's timing relative to Russian sanctions makes an interesting one-two punch, as Walter Russell Mead points out. Suppose you're Brazil. Hmm. When will the U.S. decide to impose financial sanctions on Brazil for not following our ideas of climate policy, or the SG (social, governance) part of ESG? Maybe we should find alternative financial channels, pronto.  

Monday, March 21, 2022

SEC takes on climate

From March 21 SEC press release, covering the 510 page proposed rule on climate disclosures. (The colleague who pointed me to this describes that as "a good deal shorter than many such exercises!") 

The Securities and Exchange Commission today proposed rule changes ... The required information about climate-related risks also would include disclosure of a registrant’s greenhouse gas emissions, which have become a commonly used metric to assess a registrant’s exposure to such risks.

Wow, just wow. Later, 

The proposed rules also would require a registrant to disclose information about its direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Scope 1) and indirect emissions from purchased electricity or other forms of energy (Scope 2). In addition, a registrant would be required to disclose GHG emissions from upstream and downstream activities in its value chain (Scope 3), if material or if the registrant has set a GHG emissions target or goal that includes Scope 3 emissions.

Why is this noteworthy? Remember, the SEC like other financial regulators is supposed to be in the business of relating financial risks. It is not supposed to be in the business of deciding and implementing climate policy. The pretense in this game has been, oh, we're not doing climate policy, we're just making sure that companies disclose (and, at the Fed, banks are not exposed to) risks. Financial risks. The climate might change, and the company goes out of business sorts of risks. 

What does calculating (nearly impossible, including upstream and downstream) and "disclosing" greenhouse emissions themselves, including emissions from purchased energy is a different story. 

How does a financial regulator have the authority to do that?   Aha, "which have become a commonly used metric to assess a registrant’s exposure to such risks." Don't you love passive voice? Now, just what connection is there between, say, a refinery's CO2 emissions, including those of the electric company that it buys power from, and the emissions of the truck company that buys its grease, and the financial risk to the refinery? Does that "commonly used" metric make any sense at all? Of course not. Only, perhaps, political risk; that the SEC and other regulators might close down companies based on CO2 emissions. I hope that people involved in this debate will seize on whether "have become a commonly used metric to assess a registrant’s exposure to such risks" is true, and whether it makes any sense at all. 

Commissioner Hester Peirce's response "We are Not the Securities and Environment Commission - At Least Not Yet" is wonderful, and detailed. 

The funniest  part: 

My statement is rather lengthy, so I will turn my video off as I speak; by one estimate, doing so will reduce the carbon footprint of my presentation on this platform by 96 percent.[2]

Serious points: 

The proposal turns the disclosure regime on its head.  Current SEC disclosure mandates are intended to provide investors with an accurate picture of the company’s present and prospective performance through managers’ own eyes.  How are they thinking about the company?  What opportunities and risks do the board and managers see?  What are the material determinants of the company’s financial value?  The proposal, by contrast, tells corporate managers how regulators, doing the bidding of an array of non-investor stakeholders, expect them to run their companies.[1]  It identifies a set of risks and opportunities—some perhaps real, others clearly theoretical—that managers should be considering and even suggests specific ways to mitigate those risks.  It forces investors to view companies through the eyes of a vocal set of stakeholders, for whom a company’s climate reputation is of equal or greater importance than a company’s financial performance.

A big point  

I. Existing rules already cover material climate risks.

Existing rules require companies to disclose material risks regardless of the source or cause of the risk.

SEC rules require disclosure of any "material" financial risk, whether climate, weather, political risk, nuclear war (remember that? Maybe there is something more "existential" than climate!), changes in customer demand, difficulties in getting supplies, and so forth. If we're doing more on climate, it almost necessarily means stepping out of the "material risks" role .

II. The proposal will not lead to comparable, consistent, and reliable disclosures.

... The proposal does not just demand information about the company making the disclosures; it also directs companies to speculate about the habits of their suppliers, customers, and employees; changing climate policies, regulations, and legislation; technological innovations and adaptations; and changing weather patterns. 

To my complaint that changes in weather are just tiny risks, the usual answer is that "transition risks," mostly regulatory risks are the real issue. Pierce:

Required disclosures of so-called transition risks also present these challenges.  The proposal defines “transition risks” broadly as:

the actual or potential negative impacts on a registrant’s consolidated financial statements, business operations, or value chains attributable to regulatory, technological, and market changes to address the mitigation of, or adaptation to, climate-related risks, such as increased costs attributable to changes in law or policy, reduced market demand for carbon-intensive products leading to decreased prices or profits for such products, [JC: how about skyrocketing prices of carbon-intensive products due to regulatory strangulation of supply, like look out the window?] the devaluation or abandonment of assets, risk of legal liability and litigation defense costs, competitive pressures associated with the adoption of new technologies, reputational impacts (including those stemming from a registrant’s customers or business counterparties) [JC: disclose that the twitter mob might be after you] that might trigger changes to market behavior, consumer preferences or behavior, and registrant behavior.[35]

Transition risk can derive from potential changes in markets, technology, law, or the more nebulous “policy,” which companies will have to analyze across multiple jurisdictions and all across their “value chains.”  These transition assessments are rooted in prophecies of coming governmental and market action, but experience teaches us that such prophecies often do not come to fruition.  Markets and technology are inherently unpredictable.  Domestic legislative efforts in this context have failed for decades,[36] and international agreements, like the Paris Accords, have seen the United States in and out and back in again.[37]  

I.e. make up what the regulators want to hear. 

VI. The proposed rule would hurt investors, the economy, and this agency.

Many have called for today’s proposal out of a deep concern about a warming climate and its effects on the planet, people, and the financial system.  It is important to remember, though, that noble intentions, once baked into complex regulatory plans, often have ignoble results.  This risk is considerably heightened when the regulatory complexity is designed to push capital allocation toward politically and socially favored ends,[61] and when the regulators designing the framework have no expertise in capital allocation, political and social insight, or the science used to justify these favored ends.  This proposal, developed under these circumstances, will hurt investors, the economy, and this agency. 

The proposal, if adopted, will have substantive effects on companies’ activities.  We are not only asking companies to tell us what they do, but suggesting how they might do it. [my emphasis]  The proposal uses disclosure mandates to direct board and managerial attention to climate issues.[62]  Other parts of the proposal offer even more direct substantive suggestions to companies about how they should run their businesses.  For example, the Commission suggests that a company could “mitigate the challenges of collecting the data required for Scope 3 disclosure” by “choosing to purchase from more GHG efficient producers,” or “producing products that are more energy efficient or involve less GHG emissions when consumers use them, or by contracting with distributors that use shorter transportation routes.”[63]  And the proposal suggests options for companies pursuing climate-related opportunities as part of a transition plan, including low emission modes of transportation, renewable power, producing or using recycled products, setting goals to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and providing services related to the transition to a lower carbon economy.[64]  

If you thought Russia's invasion of Ukraine, its effect on energy prices, our pathetic begging to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela to open the spigots, had made a dent in America's self-destructive climate policy--shut down domestic fossil fuels before alternatives are available at scale -- you would be wrong.  

(Thanks to a  colleague who pointed me to these releases.) 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Monday, March 14, 2022

Latest Goodfellows

Ukraine, of course, with Congressman Mike Gallagher, who occasionally gets a wise word in edgewise.


If the above embed doesn't work, direct link here at the Hover website, along with podcast for audiophiles.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Irwin on trade reform

Doug Irwin of Dartmouth gave a really informative talk at the Hoover Economic Policy Working Group, based on his paper The Trade Reform Wave 1985-1995, AER May 2022.  Embed (hopefully) below, or go to the link here.  


Doug opened my eyes, hence this post. I love learning something new. I'm a resolute Free Trader. So, naturally, I jump to the answer: Stop protecting industries. Get rid of tariffs. Don't bother with the negotiated mercantilism of trade deals -- the "you can sell to us if our exporters can sell to you" deals. The point of a foreign country's exports is to get dollars, and the point of dollars is for them to buy from the US. Full stop. 

Doug reveals that this story is far too simplistic to understand the closed economies of the 1950s through 1970s, and the great trade liberalization that the world experienced starting in the 1980s -- and which we are very sadly likely to lose in the years ahead. A little reminder of what we gained, and a sad peak: 

The process of liberalization started with money, not tariffs: Countries first devalued overvalued currency, usually to a floating rate. Then they eliminated quantitative restrictions on imports including import licenses. Then they reduced tariffs. 

In turn, how did they get there, and why did they not reform earlier? The standard story pits domestic industry vs. consumers. Domestic industries have concentrated interest in protection, consumers are diffuse. That accounts for status quo bias, but not why they eventually changed. 

The source of the problem, and reason for the change is different. Countries (especially in the "developing" world) were hit with a "terms of trade" shock -- they exported commodities, say, to import goods; the commodity price went down so they could not buy imports. Many countries were financing imports with foreign aid and borrowing, and those transfers dried up. 

What do they do? They have to choose between deflation, currency depreciation, or import controls.  Deflation at the same exchange rate makes foreign goods more expensive. Depreciation does the same, without changing the domestic price level. Or, stop imports by direct controls, and by rationing foreign exchange leading to a black market. In the early postwar view, consistent with Bretton Woods, they chose the latter. (Why is there so much nostalgia for Bretton Woods? It was a rotten system.) 

Naturally, it didn't work. Eventually they gave up and devalued or floated the exchange rate. Now there is no need to ration foreign exchange or to restrict imports by license. (Tariffs are bad, but quantitative restrictions are worse, since you never know what the cost is, and then imports are allocated by political rather than economic reasons. Just paying a tax is more efficient!) They moved to exports in order to generate foreign exchange to buy imports. 

So, Doug answers the central question: 
Why no reform in 1970s? “foreign exchange reserves kill the will to reform” 
Oil and commodity export countries were flush with cash to buy imports. Foreign aid recipients had cash to buy imports. 

Why reform in 1980s?
Era of scarce foreign exchange – all three BOP shocks.
Goal: increase foreign exchange earnings by increasing exports.
Learning from experience – cost of import controls, benefit of exports

Shift from import repression to export promotion to overcome foreign exchange shortage 

And, later, 
Michael Bruno (World Bank): “We did more for Kenya by cutting off aid for one year than by giving them aid for the previous three decades”

Aid lets a country put off reform. 

I asked one question, about the importance of an open capital account. That also used to be gospel, now under debate. Doug's answer was interesting: In these cases, a free currency market was crucial, but free capital markets less so. 

Ideas matter.

This process did not just play out in standard political economy terms, one interest group gains power over another. The shift of ideas in universities, the IMF, central banks, and countries was crucial. I find this heartwarming as a producer of ideas, and terrifying as I watch these successful ideas crumble around me. 

Doug discusses the process of reform in Mexico, (which first had disaster under some bad ideas, then reform when a new group of economists came in), India, South Korea and others. Listen to the talk! 

Concluding slide: 

Monday, March 7, 2022

The Biden-Blinken Doctrine

Over the weekend, the U.S. declared a no-fly zone off the table. Secretary Blinken on NBC News with Chuck Todd: 

QUESTION:  ... Why rule out the no-fly zone?  Why not make Putin think it’s possible?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: ...The President’s been very clear... we’re not going to put the United States in direct conflict with Russia, not have American planes flying against Russian planes or our soldiers on the ground in Ukraine, because for everything we’re doing for Ukraine, the President also has a responsibility to not get us into a direct conflict, a direct war, with Russia, a nuclear power, and risk a war that expands even beyond Ukraine to Europe.  That’s clearly not our interest.  What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one.... 

And by the way, keep in mind what – again, keep in mind what a no-fly zone – just so people understand, too, what a no-fly zone means.  It means that if you declare a space no-fly and a Russian plane flies through it, it means we have to shoot it down.

If country A nakedly invades country B, and country A has the ability to expand to a wider war, especially nuclear, then the US will not fight. Not only we do not fight directly, we do not declare a no-fly zone. If country B has an explicit defense treaty with the US, such as NATO, we might, but otherwise, you're on your own. 

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Time for Supply

At Project Syndicate essay, with Jon Hartley. It's not the first, and it won't be the last on the issue! 

Now that surging inflation has refocused everyone's attention on the long-ignored supply side of the economy, the question is how best to support broad-based growth, efficiency, and innovation. The answer is not necessarily deregulation, but the need for smarter regulation is increasingly apparent – even to progressives.

STANFORD – The return of inflation is an economic cold shower. Governments can no longer hope to solve problems by throwing money at them. Economic policy must now turn its attention to supply and its cousin, economic efficiency. 

The issue is deeper than delayed goods deliveries and a year’s worth of sharp price increases. From the end of World War II to 2000, US real (inflation-adjusted) GDP per capita grew 2.3% per year, from $14,171 to $44,177 (in 2012 dollars). Americans became healthier, lived longer, reduced poverty, and paid for a much cleaner environment and a vast array of social programs. But since 2000, that post-war growth rate has fallen almost by half, to 1.4% per year. And it’s worse in Canada and Europe, where many countries have not grown at all since 2010 on a per capita basis. 

Nothing matters more for human flourishing than long-term economic growth. So, no economic trend is more worrisome than growth falling by half, especially for the well-being of the less fortunate. 

The eruption of inflation settles a long debate. Sclerotic growth is not the result of demand-side “secular stagnation,” fixable only with massive fiscal and monetary stimulus. Sclerotic growth is a supply problem. We need policies to increase the economy’s productive capacity – either directly or by reducing costs. 

How? The simplest and most important thing governments can do is to get out of the way. Byzantine regulations and capricious regulatory authorities stymie business. We do not need thoughtless deregulation, but rather smarter regulation that is simple, effective, avoids disincentives and unintended consequences, and is not distorted to protect current business and prop up regulatory empires. That means adding sunset clauses to regulations, regularly re-evaluating existing measures, and instituting a right to external appeal.