Category Archive for: Economics [Return to Main]

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Phillips Curve: A Primer

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

The Phillips Curve: A Primer: Economists have debated the relationship between inflation and unemployment at least since A.W. Phillips’s study of U.K. data from 1861 to 1957 was published 60 years ago. The idea that a tight or slack labor market should result in faster or slower wage gains seems like a natural corollary to standard economic thinking about how prices respond to deviations of demand from supply. But, over the years, disputes about this Phillips curve relationship have been and remain fierce.
As the U.S. labor market tightens, and unemployment approaches levels we have not seen in more than 15 years, the question is whether inflation is going to make a comeback. More broadly, how useful is the Phillips curve as a guide for Federal Reserve policymakers who wish to achieve a 2-percent inflation target over the long run?
To anticipate our conclusion, despite evidence of a negative relationship between wage inflation and unemployment, central banks ought not rely on a stable Phillips curve for setting monetary policy. ...

Paul Krugman: Trump’s Energy, Low and Dirty

King Coal has a scary soul:

Trump’s Energy, Low and Dirty, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: Donald Trump has two false beliefs about energy, one personal, one political. ...
On the personal side, Trump reportedly disdains exercise of any kind except golf. He believes that raising a sweat depletes the finite reserves of precious bodily fluids, I mean energy, that a person is born with, and should therefore be avoided.
Many years of acting on this belief may or may not explain the weird and embarrassing scene at the G-7 summit in Taormina, in which six of the advanced world’s leaders strolled together a few hundred yards through the historic city, but Trump followed behind, driven in an electric golf cart.
More consequential, however, is Trump’s false belief that lifting environmental restrictions ... will bring back the days when the coal-mining industry employed hundreds of thousands of blue-collar Americans. ...
These days..., those who take energy policy seriously see a future that belongs largely to renewables... But that’s not what voters from what used to be coal country want to hear. They enthusiastically backed Trump, who promised to bring those coal jobs back, even though his real agenda would punish those voters with savage cuts in programs they depend on. And Trump cares a lot more about public adulation than he does about serious policy advice.
Which brings me ... to Trump’s European trip...
First, in Brussels, he declined to endorse NATO’s Article 5, which says that an attack on any NATO member is an attack on all. In effect, he repudiated the central plank of America’s most important alliance. Why, it was almost as if he’s more interested in appeasing Vladimir Putin than he is in defending democracy.
Then, in Taormina, he was the only leader who refused to endorse the Paris climate accord ... that may be our last good chance to avoid catastrophic climate change. ... But Trump isn’t offering coal country real help, just a fantasy about turning back the clock. ...
So am I suggesting that the world’s most powerful leader might put the whole planet’s future at risk so that he can keep telling politically convenient lies...? Yes. ...
Now, maybe Trump won’t really pull the plug on Paris; or maybe he’ll be gone from the scene before the damage is irreversible. But there’s a real possibility that last week was a pivotal moment in human history, the moment when an irresponsible leader sent the whole world careening off to hell in a golf cart.

Links for 05-29-17

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Future of Work: Automation and Labor: Inclusive AI: Technology and Policy for a Diverse Human Future

Brad DeLong:

The Future of Work: Automation and Labor: Inclusive AI: Technology and Policy for a Diverse Human Future: Thank you very much.
Let me follow the example of our Lord and Master Alpha-Go as it takes the high ground first.
Let me, therefore, take the hyper-Olympian and very long run historical point of view.
The human brain is a massively parallel supercomputer that fits inside half a shoebox. It draws 50 watts of power. It is an amazing innovation, analysis, assessment and creation machine. 600 million years of proto-mammalian and mammalian evolution coupled with the genetic algorithm means that almost every single human can solve AI problems far beyond our current engineering reach—so much so that much of what our machines find impossible our brains find so trivially easy that we call such capabilities "unskilled".
When combined with our brains, human fingers are amazingly fine manipulation devices.
Human back and leg muscles—especially when testosterone soaked—are quite good at moving heavy objects.
Thus back in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, we used our brains, our big muscles, and our fingers to lead cognitively interesting if stressful and short lives.
But history has rolled forward since the hunter-gatherer age. And as history has rolled forward, we have figured out other things to do to add economic and sociological value than their uses in the hunger-gathers paradigm. Over the long historical sweep, the ability to add value using our backs to move heavy objects and our fingers to perform fine manipulations in cognitively-interesting ways has, relatively, declined. We have, so far: ...[continue]...

Links for 05-27-17

Friday, May 26, 2017

Paul Krugman: It’s All About Trump’s Contempt

"The mother of all sucker punches":

It’s All About Trump’s Contempt, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: For journalists covering domestic policy, this past week poses some hard choices. Should we focus on the Trump budget’s fraudulence — not only does it invoke $2 trillion in phony savings, it counts them twice — or on its cruelty? Or should we talk instead about the Congressional Budget Office assessment of Trumpcare, which would be devastating for older, poorer and sicker Americans?
There is, however, a unifying theme to all these developments. And that theme is contempt — Donald Trump’s contempt for the voters who put him in office. ... He is ... betting that he can break every promise he made to the working-class voters who put him over the top, and still keep their support. Can he win that bet?
When it comes to phony budget math — remember his claims that he would pay off the national debt? — he probably can. ...
The bigger question is whether someone who ran as a populist, who promised not to cut Social Security or Medicaid, who assured voters that everyone would have health insurance, can keep his working-class support while pursuing an agenda so anti-populist it takes your breath away. ...
So what did [Trump voters] think they were voting for? Partly,... they ... believed that he was a different kind of Republican. Maybe he would take benefits away from Those People, but he would protect the programs white working-class voters ... depend on.
What they got instead was the mother of all sucker punches.
Trumpcare, the budget office tells us, would cause 23 million people to lose health insurance, largely through cuts to Medicaid... It would also lead to soaring premiums — we’re talking increases on the order of 800 percent — for older Americans whose incomes are low but not low enough to qualify for Medicaid. That describes a lot of Trump voters. Then we need to add in the Trump budget, which calls for further drastic cuts in Medicaid, plus large cuts in food stamps and in disability payments. ...
So many of the people who voted for Donald Trump were the victims of an epic scam by a man who has built his life around scamming. ...
Will they ever realize this, and admit it to themselves? More important, will they be prepared to punish him the only way they can — by voting for Democrats?

Links for 05-26-17

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Blinder: Why, After 200 Years, Can’t Economists Sell Free Trade? (Video)

Fed Watch: Fed Not Ready To Change Course

Tim Duy:

Fed Not Ready To Change Course, by Tim Duy: The minutes of the May Federal Reserve meeting reveal central bankers remained poised to raise interest rates again in June:
With respect to the economic outlook and its implications for monetary policy, members agreed that the slowing in growth during the first quarter was likely to be transitory and continued to expect that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity would expand at a moderate pace, labor market conditions would strengthen somewhat further, and inflation would stabilize around 2 percent over the medium term…
…Members generally judged that it would be prudent to await additional evidence indicating that the recent slowing in the pace of economic activity had been transitory before taking another step in removing accommodation.
With incoming data brighter and suggesting that the first quarter slowdown was indeed temporary, a June rate hike looks more certain than not. But why are they even contemplating raising rates at all given recent inflation numbers? And how long can the Fed stick with its current rate hike trajectory with inflation persistently below their 2 percent target?
The Fed finds itself stuck in a conundrum of low inflation despite low unemployment. One interpretation of this situation is that it is not a conundrum at all. The Fed’s estimates of the natural rate of unemployment are too high, and hence unemployment isn’t really all that low.
The other interpretation is with unemployment low and projected to be lower, it is only a matter of time before the inflation shoe drops. As noted in the Fed minutes:
Labor market conditions strengthened further in recent months. At 4.5 percent, the unemployment rate had reached or fallen below levels that participants judged likely to be normal over the longer run. Increases in nonfarm payroll employment averaged almost 180,000 per month during the first quarter, a pace that, if maintained, would be expected to result in further increases in labor utilization over time.
This is the potential outcome that keeps Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues gently resting their feet on the brakes.
To compare inflation-unemployment dynamics during the last three tightening cycles, I use here the estimate of the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) produced by the Congressional Budget Office and core Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation. I assume for consistency that the Fed has a 2 percent inflation target throughout this period, but that is technically true only since 2012. 
Consider the late 1990s. The high productivity growth and rising dollar environment kept downward pressure on inflation even as unemployment fell as low as 3.8 percent:

FedMandate1

Will history repeat itself? Should the Fed take the chance that history will repeat itself? There are risks to such a strategy. Inflation eventually did take hold, accelerating in 2001:

FedMandate2

The return of inflation spooked the Fed enough that they hiked rates 50 basis points in May 2000, the last hike of the cycle. In retrospective that final hike was too much, too late and helped set the stage (or at least worsen) for the 2001 recession. One lesson learned: Even in a favorable macroeconomic environment, there are limits to how low the Fed can let unemployment fall.
Contrast this with the next hiking cycle, initiated by former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan and concluded by his successor Ben Bernanke. The post-2001 economy saw stagnant to falling productivity and a weaker dollar. It also experienced higher inflation with a smaller unemployment gap:

FedMandate3

Greenspan had the best of both worlds, whereas Bernanke arguably had the worst. But the lesson learned was again that unemployment cannot be reduced indefinitely without triggering higher inflation, and once the Fed allowed unemployment to fall too low, reversing course was very difficult and likely to conclude in recession. It is no wonder then that current Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen repeats the concern that:
…waiting too long to remove accommodation would be unwise, potentially requiring the FOMC to eventually raise rates rapidly, which could risk disrupting financial markets and pushing the economy into recession.
This time around, the Fed faces low productivity but a generally stronger dollar. And the unemployment-inflation dynamic is splitting the difference between the past two tightening cycles:

FedMandate4

Stuck in the middle, so to speak. Will the economy face a positive productivity shock that further reduces inflationary pressures? Or will the dollar continue its recent slide with the opposite impact on inflation? Will low unemployment finally start to kindle an inflationary fire? Or is the estimate of the natural rate of unemployment still too high? Interestingly, the minutes suggest that the majority of central bankers expect it more likely than not that these dynamics play out in such a way that the Fed needs to steepen the path of tightening:
Several participants, however, pointed to conditions under which the Committee might need to consider a somewhat more rapid removal of monetary accommodation--for instance, if the unemployment rate fell appreciably further than currently projected, if wages increased more rapidly than expected, or if highly stimulative fiscal policy changes were to be enacted. In contrast, a couple of others judged that the Committee could withdraw monetary accommodation even more gradually than reflected in the medians of forecasts in the March Summary of Economic Projections, noting that slack might remain in the labor market or that inflation was not very sensitive to declines in the unemployment rate below its estimated longer-run normal level.
The Fed, it seems, is biased toward more tightening not less - a situation that doesn't seem tenable if inflation remains persistently low as the year drags on.
Bottom Line: The bar to scaling back the Fed’s plans appears fairly high and requires either a more evident slowdown in growth that is likely to stabilize the unemployment rate or a substantial downward revision of NAIRU estimates. Until then, policymakers look committed to the middle ground of gradual removal of accommodation.

Links for 05-25-17

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Trump’s “China Deal” is Only a Good Deal for China

Larry Summers:

Trump’s “China deal” is only a good deal for China: The events of the last week have crowded out reflection on economic policy.  But things have been happening. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross described the trade deal reached with China earlier this month as “pretty much a herculean accomplishment….This is more than has been done in the history of U.S.-China relations on trade.”
Past a certain point, exaggeration and hype become dishonesty and deception. In economic policy, as in almost everything else, the Trump Administration is way past that point.
The trade deal is a “nothing burger” that a serious Administration committed to helping American workers would likely not have accepted, and surely would not have hyped. ... [gives details of the agreement] ...
Now it is true that a ludicrously hyped squib of a deal is much better than a trade war. So perhaps we should be pleased that the President and his commerce secretary are so easily manipulated. Perhaps our officials know how bad a deal they got and are just hyping for political reasons.
It is an irony of our times that those who most frequently denounce “fake news” seem to most frequently purvey it.

Links for 05-24-17

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

It’s Time to Worry about Health Care in the Senate

David Leonhardt

It’s Time to Worry about Health Care in the Senate, NY Times: While the rest of the country has been transfixed by Trumpian chaos, members of the Senate have spent the last two weeks talking about taking health insurance from millions of Americans.
There is an alarmingly large chance that they’ll decide to do so. But if they do, they will almost certainly rely on a political sleight of hand to disguise their bill’s damage. Understanding that sleight of hand — and calling attention to it — offers the best hope for defeating the bill.
The effort to take health insurance from the middle class and poor and funnel the savings into tax cuts for the rich is a little like mold. It grows best in the dark. ...
If secrecy is the first part of the strategy, distraction is the second. ...
The final part of the strategy will be arm-twisting. If victory is in sight, McConnell will invoke party loyalty to cajole his colleagues... Being the Republican who brought down Trumpcare wouldn’t be fun.
So the current period is important. It’s a time for all those groups that oppose the bill, and for the engaged progressive base, to put senators on notice. ...
A small group of Senate Republicans has shown signs of being persuadable, and only three are likely needed to stop a bill. The group includes Lamar Alexander, Shelley Moore Capito, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Dean Heller, Lisa Murkowski and Rob Portman.
They should hear a loud message that Americans aren’t in favor of taking health insurance from their fellow citizens. The senators work for those citizens, not for Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump.

Trump’s Budget is Simply Ludicrous

Larry Summers:

Trump’s budget is simply ludicrous: Details of President Trump’s first budget have now been released. Much can and will be said about the dire social consequences about what is in it and the ludicrously optimistic economic assumptions it embodies. My observation is that there appears to be a logical error of the kind that would justify failing a student in an introductory economics course.
Apparently, the budget forecasts that US growth will rise to 3.0 percent because of the Administration’s policies—largely its tax cuts and perhaps also its regulatory policies. Fair enough if you believe in tooth-fairies and ludicrous supply-side economics.
Then the Administration asserts that it will propose revenue neutral tax cuts with the revenue neutrality coming in part because the tax cuts stimulate growth! This is an elementary double count. You can’t use the growth benefits of tax cuts once to justify an optimistic baseline and then again to claim that the tax cuts do not cost revenue. At least you cannot do so in a world of logic. ...
This is a mistake no serious business person would make. It appears to be the most egregious accounting error in a Presidential budget in the nearly 40 years I have been tracking them. ...
I have no doubt that there are civil servants in OMB, Treasury and CEA who do know better than this mistake. Were they cowed, ignored or shut out? How could the Secretary of Treasury, Director of OMB and Director of the NEC allow such an elementary error? I hope the press will ferret all this out.
The President’s personal failings are now not just center stage but whole stage. They should not blind us to the manifest failures of his economic team. Whether it is Secretary Mnuchin’s absurd claims about tax cuts not favoring the rich, Secretary Ross’s claim that the small squib of a deal negotiated last week with China was the greatest trade result with China in history, NEC Director Cohn’s ludicrous estimate of the costs of Dodd Frank, or today’s budget, the Trump administration has not yet made a significant economic pronouncement that meets a minimal standard of competence and honesty.

Links for 05-23-17

Monday, May 22, 2017

Paul Krugman: The Unfreeing of American Workers

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose:

The Unfreeing of American Workers, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: American conservatives love to talk about freedom. ... Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.
Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt. ...
And you can make a strong case that we’re getting less free as time goes by.
Let’s talk first about those noncompete agreements... Noncompete agreements were originally supposed to be about protecting trade secrets... And that’s perfectly reasonable.
At this point, however, almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause..., noncompete clauses are in many cases less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs.
This shouldn’t be happening in America... But there’s another aspect of declining worker freedom...: health care.
Until 2014, there was basically only one way Americans under 65 with pre-existing conditions could get health insurance: by finding an employer willing to offer coverage. ...
But what if you wanted to change jobs, or start your own business? Too bad: you were basically stuck...
Then Obamacare went into effect, guaranteeing affordable care even to those with pre-existing medical conditions. This was a hugely liberating change for millions. ...
But maybe not for much longer. Trumpcare ... would drastically reduce protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. And even if that bill never becomes law, the Trump administration is effectively sabotaging individual insurance markets, so that in many cases Americans who lose employer coverage will have no place to turn...
You might say, with only a bit of hyperbole, that workers in America, supposedly the land of the free, are actually creeping along the road to serfdom, yoked to corporate employers the way Russian peasants were once tied to their masters’ land. And the people pushing them down that road are the very people who cry “freedom” the loudest.

The Heartless Tradeoffs in the Trump Budget

I have a new column:

The Heartless Tradeoffs in the Trump Budget: As the bombshells continue to drop on the Trump administration, behind the scenes Trump’s first detailed budget proposal is being developed, and it has a few bombshells of its own, particularly for the poor. The budget proposal is not yet finalized, so the details could change, but according to what has leaked so far, the budget is a combination of tax cuts for the wealthy, reduced spending on social programs that serve the needy, and wishful thinking about tax cuts and economic growth. ...

Links for 05-22-17

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Links for 05-20-17

Friday, May 19, 2017

Paul Krugman: What’s the Matter With Republicans?

"even if Trump goes, one way or another, the threat to the Republic will be far from over":

What’s the Matter With Republicans?, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: ...It has become painfully clear ... that Republicans have no intention of exercising any real oversight over a president who is obviously emotionally unstable, seems to have cognitive issues and is doing a very good imitation of being an agent of a hostile foreign power..., there is not a hint that any important figures in the party care enough about the Constitution or the national interest to take a stand. ...
What’s the matter with Republicans?
Obviously I can’t offer a full theory here, but there’s a lot we do know...
First, ... the ... G.O.P. ... is one branch of a monolithic structure, movement conservatism, with a rigid ideology — tax cuts for the rich above all else. Other branches of the structure include a captive media that parrots the party line every step of the way. ...
And this monolithic structure — lavishly supported by a small number of very, very wealthy families — rewards, indeed insists on, absolute fealty. Furthermore, the structure has been in place for a long time... What this means is that nearly all Republicans in today’s Congress are apparatchiks, political creatures with no higher principle beyond party loyalty. ... Republicans ... went all in behind Trump, knowing full well that he was totally unqualified, strongly suspecting that he was corrupt..., and even ... now, with the Trump/Flynn/Comey story getting worse by the hour, there has been no significant breaking of ranks. ...
Does this mean that Trump will be able to hold on despite his multiple scandals and abuses of power? Actually, yes, he might. ...Republicans won’t turn on Trump unless he has become such a political liability that he must be dumped.
And even if Trump goes, one way or another, the threat to the Republic will be far from over.
In a perverse way, we should count ourselves lucky that Trump is as terrible as he is. Think of what it has taken to get us to this point — his Twitter addiction, his bizarre loyalty to Flynn and affection for Putin, the raw exploitation of his office to enrich his family, the business dealings ... he’s evidently trying to cover up by refusing to release his taxes.
The point is that given the character of the Republican Party, we’d be well on the way to autocracy if the man in the White House had even slightly more self-control. Trump may have done himself in; but it can still happen here.

Links for 05-19-17

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Is ''Neo-Imperialism'' the Only Path to Development?

Branko Milanovic:

Is “neo-imperialism” the only path to development?: As is well-known (or should be well-known) Marxism has gradually developed two approaches to imperialism. Marx’s own position was (until the very last years of his life) essentially and unbendingly positive: imperialism, however brutal and disruptive, was the engine whereby more advanced social formation, namely capitalism, was introduced in and transformed more backward societies. Marx’s own writings on the British conquest of India are fairly unambiguous in that respect. Engels’ writings on the French conquest of Algeria are  (as is usually the case when one compares Engels’ and Marx’s writing styles) even more “brutal”. In that “classical” view, Western Europe, the United States and the “Third World” would all develop capitalistically, may relatively quickly come to the approximately same levels of development, and capitalism will then directly be replaced by socialism in all of them.
This view  depended crucially on two assumptions: that (1) the Western working class remain at the low level of income (subsistence) which would then (2) assure its continued revolutionary fervor. Assumption (1) was common to all 19th century economists, was supported until the mid-19th century by the observed evidence, and Marx was not an exception. But towards the end of the century, Engels had noticed the emergence of “workers’ aristocracy”  which blunted the edge of class conflict in Britain, and possibly other advanced countries. The increase in wages was “fed”, Engels argued, from colonial profits realized by British capitalists. Although the increases were mere “crumbs from capitalists’ table” (Engels) they exploded the theory of the “iron law of wages” and, collaterally, the revolutionary potential of the working class in the West.  Thus the seeds of the idea that imperialism may undermine class struggle in developed countries were sown and that had far reaching consequences. ...[continue]...

How Tales of ‘Flippers’ Led to a Housing Bubble

Robert Shiller:

How Tales of ‘Flippers’ Led to a Housing Bubble: There is still no consensus on why the last housing boom and bust happened. That is troubling, because that violent housing cycle helped to produce the Great Recession and financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. We need to understand it all if we are going to be able to avoid ordeals like that in the future.
But the explanations for what happened in housing are not, I think, to be found in the conventional data favored by economists but rather in sociologically important narratives — like tales of getting rich through “flipping” houses and shares of initial public offerings — that constitute the shifting mentality of the era. ...

By now, the notion of getting rich by flipping houses is entrenched. I searched Amazon for books on “flipping houses” and came up with 325 hits, most written in the past few years..., many of these books make extravagant pitches and seem aimed at inspiring amateurs to plunge into risky ventures.

The public fascination with speculating in housing has been held in check by regulators empowered by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, but that restraint is tenuous with the election as president of a real estate promoter intent on reducing regulators’ power. These narratives are still potent and could easily spur further spirals in the housing market.

Inflation Isn't Cooperating With the Fed

Tim Duy:

Inflation Isn't Cooperating With the Fed: The Federal Reserve can’t catch a break on the inflation numbers, which are simply not helping in its drive to normalize monetary policy.
Monetary policy makers have three possible responses to the weak inflation data. First, they can define down the extent of an acceptable miss on their target. Second, they can dismiss the numbers as transitory and focus instead on full employment. Third, they can rethink their estimates of full employment and the subsequent implications for the path of interest rates... Continue reading at Bloomberg Prophets...

Darwin Visits Wall Street

“biology is a closer fit to economics than physics”:

Darwin Visits Wall Street, by Peter Dizikes, MIT News: If you have money in the stock market, then you are probably anticipating a profit over the long term — a rational expectation given that stocks have historically performed well. But when stocks plunge, even for one day, you may also feel some fear and want to dump all those stress-creating equities.
There is a good reason for this: You’re human.
And that means, to generalize, that you have both a rational side and some normal human emotions. To Andrew Lo, the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor and director of the Laboratory for Financial Engineering at the MIT Sloan School of Management, accepting this basic point means we should also rethink some common ideas about how markets work.
In economics and finance, after all, there is a long tradition of thinking about investors as profit-maximizing rational actors, while imagining that markets operate near a state of perfect efficiency. That sounds nice in theory. But evidence shows that this view is not sufficient for understanding the radical swings that market sentiment creates.  
“When you and I are making investment decisions independently, we’ll exhibit different behavior,” Lo says. Those varied decisions help keep markets stable, most of the time. “But when we all feel threatened at the same time, we’re likely to react in the same way. And if we all start selling stocks at once, we get a market crash and panic. Fear can overwhelm rationality.”
Now Lo has written a new book about the subject, “Adaptive Markets,” published this month by Princeton University Press. In the book, he draws on insights from evolutionary theory, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence to paint a new picture of investors. Instead of regarding investors simply as either rational or irrational, Lo explains how their behavior may be “maladaptive” — unsuited to the rapidly changing environments that shifting markets present.  
In so doing, Lo would like to resolve the divergence between the realities of human behavior and the long-standing “efficient markets hypothesis” (EMH) of finance with his own “adaptive markets hypothesis,” to account for the dynamics of markets — and to provide new regulatory mechanisms to better ward off damaging crashes.
“It takes a theory to beat a theory,” Lo quips, “and behavioralists haven’t yet put forward a theory of human behavior.”
Path-dependent
To get a grip on Lo’s thinking, briefly examine both sides of the EMH debate. On the one hand, markets do exhibit significant efficiencies. Do you own a mutual fund that tracks a major stock-market index? That’s because it is very hard for individual investors or fund managers to beat indexes over an extended period of time. On the other hand, based on what we know about market swings and investor behavior, it seems a stretch to think markets are always efficient.
“The EMH is a very powerful theory that has added a great deal of value to investors, portfolio managers, and regulators,” Lo says. “I don’t want to be viewed as criticizing it. What I’m hoping to do is to expand its reach, by explaining under which conditions it’s likely to work well, and under which other conditions we require a different approach.”
As Lo notes in the book, the EMH assumes that individuals always maximize their expected utility — they find the optimal way to spend and invest, all the time. Lo’s adaptive markets hypothesis relaxes this dictum on two counts. First, a successful investing adaptation doesn’t have to be the best of all possible adaptations — it just has to work fairly well at a given time.
And second, Lo’s adaptive markets hypothesis does not hold that people will constantly be finding the best possible investments. Instead, as he writes in the book, “consumer behavior is highly path-dependent,” based on what has worked well in the past.
Given those conditions, the market equivalent of natural selection weeds out poor investment strategies, Lo writes, and “ensures that consumer behavior is, while not necessarily optimal or ‘rational,’ good enough.” Not perfect, but decent.
In this light, consider fund managers who do beat the big stock indexes for a while. In many cases, their successes are followed by years of poor performance. Why? Because they did not keep adapting to a changing investing environment. This familiar dynamic, Lo contends, is one reason we should drop the physics-inspired notions of the market as an efficient mechanism, and think of it in evolutionary terms.
Or, as Lo writes in the book, “biology is a closer fit to economics than physics.” As the physicist Richard Feynman put it, “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings.”
Looking for policy impact
“Adaptive Markets” does not represent the first time Lo has put some of these ideas into print. It is the culmination of a long-term line of inquiry, and the most detailed, extended treatment he has given to the concept.
The book is written for a general audience but has received a wide hearing in academia. Nobuhiro Kiyotaki, an economist at Princeton University, calls “Adaptive Markets” a “wonderful book” that “presents many valuable findings” and “is itself a manifestation of the important finding that rational thinking and emotion go together.”
Lo says his hope for the book, however, is not just to change some minds among the public and other scholars, but to reach policymakers. Having served on multiple government advisory panels about regulation, Lo believes we need regulations that are more generally focused on limiting risk and large-scale crashes, rather than seeking to assess the legitimacy of umpteen new financial instruments.
The analogy Lo likes to make is that finance needs an equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates the systemic causes of aviation accidents, among other things, and whose existence has helped engender a period of unprecedented air safety.
Even in the run-up to the 2008 financial-sector crisis, Lo contends, the notorious bond markets trading securities backed by subprime mortgages, and their derivatives, were not deeply “irrational.” After all, those markets had winners as well as losers; the problems included the way the markets were constructed and the opportunity for firms to wildly increase their risks while seeking big payoffs. 
“It’s not so much that market prices were wrong, it’s that the policies and incentives were flawed,” Lo contends.
That might generate some heated debate, but Lo says it is a discussion he welcomes.
“We aren’t really getting traction arguing either for or against efficient markets,” Lo says. “So maybe it’s time for a new perspective.”

Links for 05-18-17

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump Tax Plan Would Give 400 Highest-Income Americans More Than $15 Million a Year in Tax Cuts

Brandon DeBot at the CBPP:

Trump Tax Plan Would Give 400 Highest-Income Americans More Than $15 Million a Year in Tax Cuts: President Trump’s tax plan contains specific, costly tax cuts for the wealthy and profitable corporations but only vague promises for working families.[1] Even accounting for his proposal to restrict most itemized deductions, the top 1 percent would still receive annual tax cuts averaging at least $250,000 per household. But the tax cuts at the very top would be far larger. Their annual tax cuts would be more than five times the typical college graduate’s lifetime earnings.The 400 highest-income taxpayers — whose incomes average more than $300 million a year — would get average tax cuts of at least $15 million a year each, we estimate from IRS data.  Their annual tax cuts would be more than five times the typical college graduate’s lifetime earnings.[2]..  The total tax cut for these 400 households would be at least $6 billion annually.
The Trump plan prioritizes these tax cuts for the highest-income Americans over many worthy programs that need more resources. For example, $6 billion is more than the federal government spends on grants for major job training programs to assist people struggling in today’s economy. An additional annual investment of $6 billion could enable roughly 1.5 million adults each year to train for a new career.[3]
Also, $6 billion is roughly the cost of providing 600,000 low-income families with housing vouchers that would help them afford decent, stable housing. ...
Yet, far from investing in these areas, President Trump has proposed to sharply cut the budget area (non-defense discretionary programs) that funds job training and housing vouchers, even as his tax plan delivers massive tax cuts to the top.[5] ...
While the Trump tax plan would clearly shower windfall tax cuts on those at the very top, it provides little detail on whether or how it would help working families. Indeed, the plan wouldn’t provide any tax benefits to at least 17 million working families and individuals because they don’t earn enough to owe federal income taxes (though most pay significant payroll and other taxes). Those families would very likely be worse off under the plan because policymakers eventually would likely pay for the large tax cuts for the very wealthy at least in part by cutting programs on which they and millions of other low- and middle-income families rely.[9]

Links for 05-17-17

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fed Watch: Can't Keep A Good Economy Down

Tim Duy:

Can't Keep A Good Economy Down, by Time Duy: Call it the revenge of the hard data. Industrial production popped in April while the number of sectors contracting fell sharply:

IpA517

Manufacturing itself enjoyed a healthy monthly gain:

IpB517

One point to watch is the improvement in automobile assemblies:

IpC517

Given tepid auto sales, this may add to inventories and ultimately place downward pressure on car prices.
Housing starts remained solid in April:

Stats517

To be sure, the volatile multi-family component slid, but I think that should not be unexpected. Apartment construction bounced backed more quickly after the recession and I suspect has peaked. More of the action should now be in the single family component, which continues to gain traction. Given under-building in many markets, there seems to be plenty of room for continued growth in that sector.
From last week, retail sales growth continues, albeit as a lackluster pace:

Retail517

Nothing to write home about, either good or bad.
Altogether incoming data adds up to some healthy growth expectations for the first quarter. The Atlanta Fed GDPNow tracker is looking for 4.1 percent growth in the second quarter. Still, I don't think the US economy is really posting such numbers any more than I believe first quarter growth was 0.7 percent. Take the average of the two and you get 2.4 percent, which is probably closer to reality.
This all clears the way for the Fed to hike rates again in June. But going forward, inflation remains a sticking point:

CPIApril

Either inflation is headed higher or the economy has more slack than the Fed believes. We will be seeing how that story plays out in the second half of this year.

Top Taxes & Growth

Chris Dillow:

Top taxes & growth: Rich people don’t like paying taxes. This is pretty much the only thing we’ve learned from some of the hysterical reaction in the papers to Labour’s plan to raise taxes on the rich.
Let’s remember the historical facts here. Low tax rates aren’t associated with faster growth – if anything the opposite. ...
For me, the non-hysterical arguments against Labour’s tax plans lie elsewhere. You could argue that – with tax morale low partly as a result of the rise of individualism – they’ll decrease social solidarity. People will regard them not as the price for living in a civilized society but as a burden which subsidizes “scroungers”. Or you could argue that the revenue raised by taxes will fuel wasteful public spending. Or you might argue that redistributive taxation isn’t enough: we need to reduce inequalities of power as well as income. Or you might argue that the tax base should be shifted from incomes to land and inheritances...
What you shouldn’t do, though, is argue that higher top taxes will wreck the economy. Other things might do that, but it’s unlikely that top taxes will.

The Fed Is Making a $2 Trillion Mistake

Narayana Kocherlakota:

The Fed Is Making a $2 Trillion Mistake: Sometime later this year or early in 2018, the U.S. Federal Reserve intends to embark on an unprecedented maneuver: Reducing the vast bond holdings that it has accumulated in its efforts to support the economy over the past decade. I think this is a mistake, in both concept and implementation. ...

Links for 05-16-17

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Growing Dispersion of Wages and Productivity in OECD countries

Giuseppe Berlingieri, Patrick Blanchenay, and Chiara Criscuolo at VoxEU:

Great Divergences: The growing dispersion of wages and productivity in OECD countries: Summary Some firms pay well while others don’t; and some are highly productive while many aren’t. This column presents new firm-level data on the increasing dispersion of wages and productivity in both the manufacturing and services sectors in 16 OECD countries. Wage inequalities are growing between firms, even those operating in the same sector – and they are linked to growing differences between high and low productivity firms. Both globalisation and technological progress (notably information and communications technologies) influence these outcomes – as do policies and institutions such as minimum wages, employment protection legislation, unions, and processes of wage-setting.

Paul Krugman: The Priming of Mr. Donald Trump

"a delusion of truly Trumpian proportions":

The Priming of Mr. Donald Trump, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: Donald Trump has said many strange things in recent interviews. ... Over here in Econoland, however, the buzz was all about Trump’s expressed willingness, in an interview with the Economist magazine, to pursue tax cuts even if they increase deficits, because “we have to prime the pump” — an expression he claimed to have invented. “I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good.”
Actually, the expression goes back generations...
But why should anyone besides pedants care?
First, a mind is a terrible thing to lose..., that Economist interview was basically one long senior moment...
Second, we’re talking about some really bad economics here. ...
America may not be all the way back to full employment — there’s a lively debate among economists over that issue. But the economic engine no longer needs a fiscal jump-start. This is exactly the wrong time to be talking about the desirability of bigger budget deficits. ...
Which brings me to my third point: Trump’s fiscal delusions are arguably no worse than those of many, perhaps most professional observers of the Washington political scene.
If you’re a heavy news consumer, think about how many articles you’ve seen in the past few weeks with headlines along the lines of “Trump’s budget may create conflict with G.O.P. fiscal conservatives.” The premise ... is that there is a powerful faction among Republican members of Congress who worry deeply about budget deficits...
But there is no such faction, and never was.
There were and are poseurs like Paul Ryan, who claim to be big deficit hawks. But there’s a simple way to test such people’s sincerity:... when you see a politician claim that deficit concerns require that we slash Medicaid, privatize Medicare, and/or raise the retirement age — but somehow never require raising taxes on the wealthy, which in fact they propose to cut — you know that it’s just an act.
Yet somehow much of the news media keeps believing, or pretending to believe, that those imaginary deficit hawks are real, which is a delusion of truly Trumpian proportions.
So I’m worried. Trump may be not just ignorant but deeply out of it, and his economic proposals are terrible and irresponsible, but they may get implemented all the same.
But maybe I worry too much; maybe the only thing to fear is fear itself. Do you like that line? I just came up with it the other day.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Links for 05-13-17

Friday, May 12, 2017

Paul Krugman: Judas, Tax Cuts and the Great Betrayal

"almost an entire party appears to have decided that potential treason in the cause of tax cuts for the wealthy is no vice":

Judas, Tax Cuts and the Great Betrayal, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: The denarius, ancient Rome’s silver coin, was supposedly the daily wage of a manual worker. If so, the tax cuts that the richest 1 percent of Americans will receive if the Affordable Care Act is repealed — tax cuts that are, obviously, the real reason for repeal — would amount to the equivalent of around 500 pieces of silver each year.
What inspired this calculation? The spectacle of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, defending Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey.
Everyone understands that Mr. Comey was fired ... because his probe of Russian connections with the Trump campaign was accelerating and, presumably, getting too close to home. So this looks very much like the use of presidential power to cover up possible foreign subversion of the U.S. government.
And the two leading Republicans in Congress are apparently O.K. with that cover-up, because the Trump ascendancy is giving them the chance to do what they always wanted, namely, take health insurance away from millions of Americans while slashing taxes on the wealthy.
So you can see why I find myself thinking of Judas.
For generations, Republicans have impugned their opponents’ patriotism. ...
But now we have what may be the real thing: circumstantial evidence that a hostile foreign power may have colluded with a U.S. presidential campaign, and may retain undue influence at the highest levels of our government. And all those self-proclaimed patriots have gone silent, or worse. ...
And we know how to resolve the remaining uncertainty: independent investigations...
At this point ... almost an entire party appears to have decided that potential treason in the cause of tax cuts for the wealthy is no vice. And that’s barely hyperbole. ...
So it’s naïve to expect Republicans to join forces with Democrats to get to the bottom of the Russia scandal — even if that scandal may strike at the very roots of our national security. Today’s Republicans just don’t cooperate with Democrats, period. They’d rather work with Vladimir Putin.
In fact, some of them probably did.
Now, maybe I’m being too pessimistic. Maybe there are enough Republicans with a conscience — or, failing that, sufficiently frightened of an electoral backlash — that the attempt to kill the Russia probe will fail. One can only hope so.
But it’s time to face up to the scary reality here. Most people now realize, I think, that Donald Trump holds basic American political values in contempt. What we need to realize is that much of his party shares that contempt.

Links for 05-12-17

Thursday, May 11, 2017

SNAP Helps Low-Wage Workers

Brynne Keith-Jennings at the CBPP:

SNAP Helps Low-Wage Workers: For millions of Americans, work doesn’t provide enough income for them to feed their families. Our major new report explains that SNAP (formerly food stamps) provides workers with low pay and often fluctuating incomes with crucial additional monthly income to help put food on the table. It also helps workers get by while they’re between jobs.
Up to 30 percent of Americans earn pay that would barely lift a family above the poverty line for full-time, year-round work. And, in many cases, workers who want a full-time job can only get part-time work or have irregular schedules that can change from week to week, with little advance notice or worker input.
Also, low-wage jobs tend to lack crucial supports such as paid sick leave, which can cost workers their jobs when they get sick or must care for an ill family member. In addition, low-wage workers are less likely than other workers to qualify for unemployment insurance.
SNAP benefits support work. The benefit formula phases out benefits slowly as earnings rise and includes a 20 percent deduction for earned income to reflect work-related expenses. As a result, SNAP benefits fall by only 24 to 36 cents for each additional $1 of earnings for most households. SNAP benefits can help smooth out volatile income and provide much-needed food assistance when workers’ hours are cut or they lose their jobs.
SNAP participants work in a wide range of jobs but, compared to all workers, a greater share of them are in service occupations (see graph) and industries such as retail and hospitality — jobs likelier to have low wages and other disadvantages. In some occupations, such as dishwashers, food preparation workers, and nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides, at least one-quarter of workers participate in SNAP. For them and millions of others whose jobs don’t provide enough or steady income to provide for their families, SNAP provides essential support.

The Economics of Trust

From the IMFBlog:

The Economics of Trust: Trust in other people – the glue that holds society together – is increasingly in short supply in the United States and Europe, and inequality may be the culprit.
In surveys over the past 40 years, the share of Americans who say that most people can be trusted has fallen to 33 percent from about 50 percent. The erosion of trust coincides with widening disparities in incomes.
But does inequality reduce trust? There is evidence that it does, according to research by Eric D. Gould, a professor of economics at Hebrew University, and Alexander Hijzen, a senior economist at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. They analyzed data from the American National Election Survey from 1980 to 2010. The results show that wider income inequality explains 44 percent of the drop in trust. The authors, who reported their findings in an IMF working paper, found similar results in Europe...

Links for 05-11-17

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Will Falling Unemployment Pressure The Fed?

Tim Duy:

Will Falling Unemployment Pressure The Fed?, by Tim Duy: The unemployment rate continues to slide, hitting 4.4 percent in April. The Federal Reserve’s median forecast for joblessness -- 4.5 percent from the end of 2017 through 2019 -- has once again proved optimistic. But does this mean that Fed officials will hike their interest rate projections at the next Open Market Committee meeting? ... Continued at Bloomberg Prophets...

Links for 05-10-17

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Fed Is on the Right Side of Its 'Transitory' Bet

Tim Duy:

The Fed Is on the Right Side of Its 'Transitory' Bet: The Federal Reserve receives a lot of criticism for the way it conducts monetary policy, but it shouldn’t be faulted for delivering a hawkish message at last week’s policy meeting in the face of data showing a marked slowdown in first-quarter growth. The May meeting came off largely as expected, with policy makers leaving interest rates unchanged and the post-meeting statement containing a clear message that policy makers remained set on a June rate hike... Continued at Bloomberg Prophets...

The Link between Family Structure and Wealth Is Weaker Than You Might Think

William Emmons and Lowell Ricketts of the St. Louis Fed:

The Link between Family Structure and Wealth Is Weaker Than You Might Think: ...While there is an overall correlation between, say, two-parent families and higher wealth, research presented at the symposium found that this link actually is inconsistent across racial and ethnic groups and quite weak in a causal sense.

Spurious Connections

In a nutshell, when we focus on family-structure differences within racial or ethnic groups, rather than between groups, there is essentially no relationship at all. Our interpretation is that any correlation between family structure and wealth that exists in aggregate data is largely spurious. That is, it reflects deeply rooted structural, systemic or other unobservable factors that differ across races and ethnicities.

These “deep” causes of differences in both family structure and wealth accumulation could include:

  • The continuing effects of past discrimination
  • Segregation in housing, health care and education
  • Environmental, epigenetic (that is, suppressed expression of true genetic abilities) or cultural factors that differentially affect early-childhood development

We concluded that family-structure differences are a symptom of deeper driving forces, not an important cause per se of wealth differences. One implication is that, even if we could change patterns of marriage and child-bearing among many people, this alone would be unlikely to affect racial and ethnic wealth gaps very much, if at all. ...

Links for 05-09-17

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Great Risk Shift is Back

I have a new column:

Killing Banking Rules Will Invite a Whopper of a Recession: The vote in the House of Representatives to dismantle Obamacare was not the only attempt to undo key legislation from the Obama years that occurred last Thursday. Though it mostly went unnoticed, the House Financial Services Committee voted in favor of the Financial Choice Act. This legislation would substantially weaken the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.
If the Republicans are successful, and that is not assured at this point for either piece of legislation, it will increase economic insecurity for most households. ...

Paul Krugman: Republicans Party Like It’s 1984

"This is an act of deliberate betrayal":

Republicans Party Like It’s 1984, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: There have been many bad laws in U.S. history. ... But has there ever been anything like Trumpcare...? It’s a miserably designed law, full of unintended consequences. It’s a moral disaster, snatching health care from tens of millions mainly to give the very wealthy a near-trillion-dollar tax cut.
What really stands out, however, is the Orwell-level dishonesty of the whole effort. As far as I can tell, every word Republicans, from Trump on down, have said about their bill — about why they want to replace Obamacare, about what their replacement would do, and about how it would work — is a lie, including “a,” “and” and “the.”
And what does it say about the state of American politics that a majority of the representatives of one of our major political parties have gone along with this nightmarish process? ... Trumpcare breaks every promise Republicans ever made about health ... and ... they are doing so with intent. ... This is an act of deliberate betrayal.
...Why are they doing this, and why do they think they can get away with it?
Part of the answer to the first question is, presumably, simple greed. Tens of millions would lose access to health coverage, but ... people with incomes over $1 million would save an average of more than $50,000 a year.
And there is a powerful faction within the G.O.P. for whom cutting taxes on the rich is more or less the only thing that matters. ...
As for why they think they can get away with it: Well, isn’t recent history on their side? The general shape of what the G.O.P. would do to health care, for the white working class in particular, has long been obvious, yet many people who were sure to lose, bigly, voted Trump anyway.Why shouldn’t Republicans believe they can convince those same voters that the terrible things that will happen if Trumpcare becomes law are somehow liberals’ fault?
And for that matter, how confident are you that mainstream media will resist the temptation of both-sides-ism, the urge to produce “balanced” reporting that blurs the awful reality of what Trumpcare will do if enacted?
In any case, let’s be clear: What just happened on health care shouldn’t be treated as just another case of cynical political deal making. This was a Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength moment. And it may be the shape of things to come.

Links for 05-08-17

Friday, May 05, 2017

Links for 05-05-17

Prime-Age Employment Rate Hits New High for Recovery

Dean Baker:

Prime-Age Employment Rate Hits New High for Recovery: College grads see little gain from last year of employment growth.
The overall unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent in April, tying the lowest level reached since May of 2001 as the establishment survey reported the economy added 211,000 jobs. With roughly offsetting revisions to the prior two months' job growth, this brings the average for the last three months to 174,000.
While the report on the whole is quite positive, one item especially worth noting is the increase in the employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) among prime-age men. The employment rate for prime-age workers edged up to 78.6 percent. This is a new high for the recovery, although it is still 1.7 percentage points below the pre-recession peak and 3.3 percentage points below the 2000 peak.
In April, the EPOP for prime-age women edged down to 71.9 percent, 0.9 percentage points below its pre-recession peak and 3.0 percentage points below its 2000 peak. However, the EPOP for prime-age men rose 0.2 percentage points to 85.4 percent. This is still 2.6 percentage points below its pre-recession peak and 4.1 percentage points below its 2000 peak, but the rise does suggest that there is still more room for EPOPs among prime-age men to increase. The fact that EPOP for both prime-age men and women remain below pre-recession levels and far below 2000 levels strongly suggests that the issue is a lack of demand in the economy and not a decrease in the ability or desire of people to work.
Interestingly, employment patterns do not appear to be following the story where benefits are going disproportionately to the most educated. Over the last year, the unemployment rate for college grads has not changed, while the EPOP is actually down by 0.3 percentage points from its year-ago level. At 2.4 percent the unemployment rate for college grads is much lower than for those with less education, but it is still 0.6 percentage points above its pre-recession low. By comparison, the unemployment rate for those with just a high school degree has fallen by 0.8 percentage points over the last year to 4.6 percent, while the EPOP for this group has risen by 0.8 percentage points.
The number of people involuntarily working part-time fell sharply to 5,272,000. This is a new low for the recovery, but still more than 800,000 above pre-recession levels. While the number of people involuntarily working part-time has fallen sharply since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the number of people choosing to work part-time is up by more than 1.8 million. In this vein it is worth noting that the number of incorporated self-employed is up by 8.2 percent in the first four months of 2017 compared with 2013.
If minimum wage hikes in many states and cities are leading to preventing teens from getting jobs, it is not showing up in the national data. Teen employment is up by 3.4 percent over the last year.
While the duration measures for unemployment all edged down, one discouraging area is the relatively low quit rate. At 11.2 percent it is roughly a percentage point below pre-recession levels and is 4.0 percentage points below the peak reached in 2000. Workers are still reluctant to give up jobs.
The big job gainers in April were restaurants (26,200 jobs), professional and technical services (23,100 jobs), local government (23,000 jobs), and health care (19,500 jobs). While the growth in restaurant and professional services were roughly in line with their longer-term trend, the jump in local government jobs is clearly an anomaly. Employment growth in health care has been somewhat slow the last four months, averaging 19,500 a month. This is down from 31,700 in the year up to December.
Retail added only 6,300 jobs after losing 27,400 in March. The sector is likely to remain weak for the near future. Construction employment has been virtually flat the last two months, after jumping by 88,000 in the prior two months. This fits the warm winter story.
There continues to be little evidence of accelerating wage growth. Year-over-year wages are up 2.5 percent, while they are rising at a 2.6 percent annual rate taking the average of the most recent three months with the prior three months.
On the whole, this is very positive report, but one that provides little evidence of the labor market overheating. The EPOPs suggest and quit rates indicate there is still considerable slack.

See also Calculate Risk: Comment: A Solid Employment Report.