Tim Duy at Bloomberg:
Why the Fed Can't and Shouldn't Raise Interest Rates: ... The flattening of the U.S. yield curve as investors see little chance of rates rising in the longer term should serve as a red flag that their focus on short-term interest rates may be doomed to failure.
One of the defining features of this tightening cycle is the same as the cycles that came before – the yield curve is flattening, and very quickly. The spread between 10-year and two-year U.S. Treasuries has collapsed to 88 basis points at a time when the federal funds target rate is 25-50bps. This suggests that the Fed actually has very little room to raise short-term rates. If additional rates hikes compress the yield curve further, the capacity for maturity transformation – effectively the process of borrowing on shorter time frames to lend on longer time frames – will soon be compromised. ...
... Bottom Line: The Fed needs to remember that how they got into this policy stance may offer a lesson for how to get out. Policy makers cut rates to zero and then instituted quantitative easing. Now they should consider selling assets before raising rates. Or, at a minimum, utilizing a mixed strategy of rate hikes and asset sales. The objective of meeting the Fed's mandate in the context of maintaining financial stability may be unattainable using the interest rate tool and associated forward guidance alone. Unfortunately, the Fed does not appear to be debating the policy mix — at least not in public. They remain focused on interest rates, delaying balance sheet policy to a later date. On the current trajectory, however, that later date may never come.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 07:43 AM in Economics, Monetary Policy |
Don't Try This Crazy Trick on the Economy: Some economists argue that the Federal Reserve should take a highly unconventional approach to ending a long period of below-target inflation: Instead of keeping interest rates low to spur economic activity and push up prices, it should raise rates.
Labeled "Neo-Fisherism" ... (after the famous monetary economist Irving Fisher), it's an idea I once entertained. Allow me to explain why I now think it’s dangerous. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 07:43 AM in Economics, Monetary Policy |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Why has transparency been so damn confusing?: The theme of our recent series of posts on understanding FOMC actions and communications has been the well-disguised, steady predictability of FOMC policy. The basic story is that policy is driven by a consensus on the FOMC. The consensus tends to evolve slowly and predictably, and for some time now, the consensus has behaved consistently as if driven by two principles:
So long as steady job market gains persist, continue a gradual, pre-announced removal of accommodation.
So long as inflation remains below target, take a tactical pause if credible evidence arises that the job gains might soon falter.
The factual record, I argued, is unambiguous: over the last three years, we’ve gotten normalization at a preannounced pace as in to the first principle, punctuated only by brief (so far) tactical pauses as under the second.
But the fact that my low-drama story lines up with the facts doesn’t make it correct. And my story directly contradicts the popular narrative of a skittish, market-obsessed Fed flip-flopping at every opportunity. This is where the well-disguised part comes in.
Before continuing, however, I want to emphasize that I came to the views I’m describing during my years working on transparency and communications on behalf of the chairs Bernanke and Yellen—a job that ended about 2 years ago now. Yes, I did my small part in making the mess. But the FOMC members and Fed staffers like me also worked pretty hard to understand what was going wrong and attempting to improve the situation. This series of posts is essentially the lessons I took from these efforts. It would be inappropriate for me to say who among my former colleagues subscribes to these views, but I similarly don’t want to claim the ideas as my own. For now, I’ll be deliberately and appropriately vague in saying that all the points I’m making were in the air at the Fed while I was there. In this post, I’ll sketch the basics, leaving details and support for subsequent posts. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 18, 2016 at 08:44 AM in Economics, Monetary Policy |
I have a new post at MoneyWatch:
The toughest question about global trade: This year's battle for the White House has put international trade in the spotlight. Donald Trump has led the charge against trade agreements, but Hillary Clinton's reversal of her support for President Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) also reflects the evolving view of the benefits of globalization.
The American public has long been suspicious of international trade, but economists have been much more supportive. However, new evidence in the economics literature has caused a rethinking of how to evaluate trade agreements.
This research documents that the negative effects of globalization on employment and wages are larger than many people realized. In addition, it recognizes that most of the benefits have accrued to those at the top of the income distribution while the costs -- lost jobs, lower wages and fewer attractive employment opportunities -- have fallen mainly on the working class.
One response from many advocates is to point out that international trade has lifted millions of people around the world out of poverty and that reducing the pace of globalization would slow the rate of global poverty reduction.
All of which brings up an important and rather difficult question: Just how should we value international trade? ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 18, 2016 at 08:37 AM in Economics, International Trade |
Balancing the unbalanced:
Both Sides Now?, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: When Donald Trump began his run for the White House, many people treated it as a joke. Nothing he has done or said since makes him look better. On the contrary, his policy ignorance has become even more striking, his positions more extreme, the flaws in his character more obvious, and he has repeatedly demonstrated a level of contempt for the truth that is unprecedented in American politics.
Yet while most polls suggest that he’s running behind in the general election..., there’s still a real chance that he might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with bothsidesism — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes. ...
You might think that Donald Trump, who lies so much that fact-checkers have a hard time keeping up, who keeps repeating falsehoods even after they’ve been proved wrong, and who combines all of this with a general level of thuggishness aimed in part at the press, would be too much even for the balance cultists to excuse.
But you would be wrong. ...
And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism...: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also, although the op-ed didn’t mention it, attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.
Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!
Stung by criticism, the authors ... issued a statement denying that they had engaged in “false equivalency” — I guess saying that the candidates are acting “similarly” doesn’t mean saying that they are acting similarly. And they once again refused to indicate which candidate was behaving worse.
As I said, bothsidesism isn’t new, and it has always been an evasion of responsibility. But taking the position that “both sides do it” now, in the face of this campaign and this candidate, is an act of mind-boggling irresponsibility.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 18, 2016 at 08:02 AM in Economics, Politics, Press |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 18, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Helicopter money: Despite aggressive actions by central banks, many of the world’s economies are still stagnating and facing new shocks, leading to renewed calls for helicopter money as a serious policy prescription for countries like Japan and the U.K.. And, if things go badly, maybe the United States? ...
After discussing helicopter money, he concludes with:
... If helicopter money is no more than a combination of fiscal expansion and LSAP, and if we think LSAP hasn’t been able to do that much, it’s clear that the fiscal expansion part is where the real action is coming from. On the other hand, if we think both components make a difference, there’s no inherent reason that the size of the fiscal operation has to be exactly the same as the size of the monetary operation.
Nevertheless, as has been true with LSAP, there might be some psychological impact, if nothing else, from announcing this as if it were a new policy. For example, I could imagine the Fed announcing that for the next n months, it will buy all the new debt that the Treasury issues. For maximal effect this would be coupled with a Treasury announcement of a new spending operation. Doubtless the announcement would bring out calls from certain quarters that the U.S. was going the route of Zimbabwe. And just as in the previous times we heard those warnings, those pundits would be proven wrong, as indeed the effects would not be that different from what we’re already getting from central bank expansions around the globe.
Helicopter money is no bazooka for stimulating the economy. Ben Bernanke offered this reasonable summary:
Money-financed fiscal programs (MFFPs), known colloquially as helicopter drops, are very unlikely to be needed in the United States in the foreseeable future. They also present a number of practical challenges of implementation, including integrating them into operational monetary frameworks and assuring appropriate governance and coordination between the legislature and the central bank. However, under certain extreme circumstances– sharply deficient aggregate demand, exhausted monetary policy, and unwillingness of the legislature to use debt-financed fiscal policies– such programs may be the best available alternative. It would be premature to rule them out.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 17, 2016 at 10:36 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 17, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 16, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Data dump, by Tim Duy: Interesting mix of data today that will give monetary policymakers plenty of food for thought. My guess is that it will probably drive a deeper division in the Fed between those who looking to secure two hikes this year rather and those good with just one or none at all.
Retail sales came in stronger than expected, although prior months were revised down. Various measures of sales excluding gas are perking up compared to last year:
While prior expansions churned out some better spending numbers, the consumer is clearly not in some kind of recessionary free-fall. Remember, 2% growth is the new 4%. These data will help reassure the Fed that the bulk of economic activity - that directed by consumers - remains solid.
Industrial production rose, albeit on the back of autos. Compared to a year ago, factory activity remains in negative territory. Still, softness in the sector does not exhibit the degree of dispersion typically experienced in recessions:
Still looks to me more like a mid-cycle slowdown like the mid-80s and 90s rather than a recession. Containing such a slowdown argues for keeping rates low for now.
Inflation as measured by the consumer price index continues to firm. Core CPI inflation came in at 0.2 percent m-o-m and 2.3 percent y-o-y. Of course, the Fed targets PCE inflation, and there the core number is weaker:
See Calculated Risk for more measures of inflation. The key point here is that the Fed's preferred measure is tracking lower than other measures. Watch for the hawks to press their case on those higher measures; the doves should keep a focus on PCE. The doves should win this battle. If they don't win, the Fed will be effectively targeting a different inflation rate than stated in their long-run policy objectives. That would then render those objectives and likely future similar missives essentially worthless.
The Atlanta Fed released its wage measures for June. These measures - which track persons steadily employed over the past twelve months - continue to exceed the average measures of the employment report:
The Atlanta Fed measure just about in the pre-recession territory; while the standard measures still have a ways to go. The Atlanta Fed measure tells the Fed that cyclical labor market dynamics are not terribly different than the past. When unemployment goes down, wage growth accelerates:
Demographic effects - the exit of higher earning Boomers from the labor force, replaced by lower earning Millennials - appear to be weighing on average wage growth. Which one is the better guide for monetary policy? Policymakers will again find themselves at odds along the obvious lines. The San Francisco Fed gives mixed guidance on the issue:
How to best gauge the impact of wage growth on overall inflation is less clear. As long as employers can keep their wage bills low by replacing or expanding staff with lower-paid workers, labor cost pressures for higher price inflation could remain muted for some time. If, however, these lower-wage workers are less productive, continued increases in unit labor costs could be hiding behind low readings on measures of aggregate wage growth.
On net, when the Fed faces a mixed message, they tend to move slower than faster. So given the low core-PCE environment, the doves will likely remain in control.
Separately, the Wall Street Journal has a story on which Fed speakers are most useful as policy guides. The article is behind the WSJPro paywall, but via Twitter came this graphic:
Granted, this type of list is always in flux. That said, I would definitely move Brainard, Powell, and Tarullo up with Yellen and Dudley. I find it very rare that you would learn less from a Board member than a regional president. This is especially true given the caliber of these three speakers. And remember that Tarullo doesn't talk a lot about monetary policy, but when he does you probably should listen. Brainard has been driving policy since last fall. Of the regionals, I would place Evans at the top. Williams has been too hawkish in his guidance the past couple of years; you really need to put a negative delta on any rate forecast you glean from him. Rosengren steered you wrong this year as he joined Williams in trying to set the stage for a June rate hike. I don't see where Lockhart should be in the top half of this list. And I don't know what to make of Fischer. He has leaned hawkish this cycle as well, to the point of being one who scolds markets for thinking differently. He appears to me to be an outlier on the Board at the moment, not one driving the policy debate.
Bottom Line: Generally solid data sufficient to keep the prospect of a rate hike or two alive for this year. But soft or mixed enough on key points to lean policy closer to the former than the latter.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 15, 2016 at 11:13 AM in Economics, Fed Watch, Monetary Policy |
The Outsized Impact of the Fall in Commodity Prices on Global Trade: Global trade has not grown since the start of 2015.
Emerging market imports appear to be running somewhat below their 2014 levels.
Creeping protectionism? Perhaps.
But for now the underlying national data points to much more prosaic explanation.
The “turning” point in trade came just after oil prices fell. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 15, 2016 at 10:51 AM in Economics, International Trade, Oil |
High stock prices are "not evidence of a healthy economy":
Bull Market Blues, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: Like most economists, I don’t usually have much to say about stocks. Stocks ... have a lot less to do with the state of the economy or its future prospects than many people believe. ...
Still, we shouldn’t completely ignore stock prices. The fact that the major averages have lately been hitting new highs ... is newsworthy and noteworthy. What are those Wall Street indexes telling us?
The answer, I’d suggest, isn’t entirely positive..., in some ways the stock market’s gains reflect economic weaknesses, not strengths. ...
We measure the economy’s success by the extent to which it generates rising incomes for the population. But stocks ... only reflect the part of income that shows up as profits.
This wouldn’t matter if the share of profits in overall income were stable; but it isn’t. The share of profits ... has been a lot higher in recent years than it was during the great stock surge of the late 1990s ... making the relationship between profits and prosperity weak at best. ...
When investors buy stocks, they’re buying a share of future profits. What that’s worth to them depends on what other options they have for converting money today into income tomorrow. And these days those options are pretty poor... So investors are willing to pay a lot for future income, hence high stock prices for any given level of profits. ...
This may seem, however, to present a paradox. If the private sector doesn’t see itself as having a lot of good investment opportunities, how can profits be so high? The answer, I’d suggest, is that these days profits often seem to bear little relationship to investment in new capacity. Instead, profits come from some kind of market power... And companies making profits from such power can simultaneously have high stock prices and little reason to spend.
Consider the fact that the three most valuable companies in America are Apple, Google and Microsoft. None of the three spends large sums on bricks and mortar. ...
In other words, while record stock prices do put the lie to claims that the Obama administration has been anti-business, they’re not evidence of a healthy economy. If anything, they’re a sign of an economy with too few opportunities for productive investment and too much monopoly power.
So when you read headlines about stock prices, remember: What’s good for the Dow isn’t necessarily good for America, or vice versa.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 15, 2016 at 09:10 AM in Economics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 15, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
On Arrest Filters and Empirical Inferences: I've been thinking a bit more about Roland Fryer's working paperce use of force, prompted by this thread by Europile and excellent posts by Michelle Phelps and Ezekeil Kweku.
The Europile thread contains a quick, precise, and insightful summary of the empirical exercise conducted by Fryer to look for racial bias in police shootings. There are two distinct pools of observations: an arrest pool and a shooting pool. The arrest pool is composed of "a random sample of police-civilian interactions from the Houston police department from arrests codes in which lethal force is more likely to be justified: attempted capital murder of a public safety officer, aggravated assault on a public safety officer, resisting arrest, evading arrest, and interfering in arrest." The shooting pool is a sample of interactions that resulted in the discharge of a firearm by an officer, also in Houston.
Importantly, the latter pool is not a subset of the former, or even a subset of the set of arrests from which the former pool is drawn. Put another way, had the interactions in the shooting pool been resolved without incident, many of them would never have made it into the arrest pool. Think of the Castile traffic stop: had this resulted in a traffic violation or a warning or nothing at all, it would not have been recorded in arrest data of this kind.
The analysis in the paper is based on a comparison between the two pools. The arrest pool is 58% black while the shooting pool is 52% black, which is the basis for Fryer's claim that blacks are less likely to be shot by whites in the raw data. He understands, of course, that there may be differences in behavioral and contextual factors that make the black subset of the arrest pool different from the white, and attempts to correct for this using regression analysis. He reports that doing so "does not significantly alter the raw racial differences."
This analysis is useful, as far as it goes. But does this really imply that the video evidence that has animated the black lives matter movement is highly selective and deeply misleading, as initial reports on the paper suggested?
Not at all. The protests are about the killing of innocents, not about the treatment of those whose actions would legitimately plant them in the serious arrest pool. What Fryer's paper suggests (if one takes the incident categorization by police at face value) is that at least in Houston, those who would assault or attempt to kill a public safety officer are treated in much the same way, regardless of race.
But think of the cases that animate the protest movement, for instance the list of eleven compiled here. Families of six of the eleven have already received large settlements (without admission of fault). Six led to civil rights investigations by the justice department. With one or two possible exceptions, it doesn't appear to me that these interactions would have made it past Fryer's arrest filter had they been handled more professionally.
The point is this: if there is little or no racial bias in the way police handle genuinely dangerous suspects, but there is bias that leads some mundane interactions to turn potentially deadly, then the kind of analysis conducted by Fryer would not be helpful in detecting it. Which in turn means that the breathless manner in which the paper was initially reported was really quite irresponsible.
For this the author bears some responsibility, having inserted the following into his discussion of the Houston findings:
Given the stream of video "evidence", which many take to be indicative of structural racism in police departments across America, the ensuing and understandable outrage in black communities across America, and the results from our previous analysis of non-lethal uses of force, the results displayed in Table 5 are startling... Blacks are 23.8 percent less likely to be shot by police, relative to whites.
His claim that this was "the most surprising result of my career" was an invitation to misunderstand and misreport the findings, which are important but clearly limited in relevance and scope.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 14, 2016 at 08:49 AM in Economics |
Austin Clemens at Equitable Growth:
New analysis shows it is more difficult for workers to move up the income ladder: Against a rising chorus of concern about increasing income inequality, some economists are pushing back, suggesting that it is not income inequality we should be concerned with but rather income mobility. Income mobility describes the ability of individuals to move up and down the income ladder over some period of time. As long as mobility is healthy, they argue, society can remain egalitarian in the face of inequality, because the poor can move up and the rich down. ...
Equitable Growth grantees Michael D. Carr and Emily E. Wiemers at the University of Massachusetts-Boston used a new dataset to revisit the measurement of earnings mobility, the part of income that comes from work. Their results suggest that lifetime earnings mobility has declined in recent years. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 14, 2016 at 08:43 AM in Economics, Income Distribution |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 14, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Cameron's failure: austerity: David Cameron’s premiership must be considered a failure. He wanted to keep the UK in the EU, but failed; he wanted to preserve the Union but Scotland might well leave as a result of Brexit; and he wanted to heal a “broken Britain” but leaves the country divided and with hate crime rising.
A big reason for these failures lies in economic policy. Unnecessary austerity contributed to Brexit in four ways:
- In contributing to stagnant incomes for many, it increased hostility to immigrants, which some Brexiteers exploited. When combined with high inequality – which Cameron did little to combat – it also contributed to increasing distrust of “elites”. ...
- In worsening public services, Cameron and Osborne allowed the false impression to grow that immigrants were responsible for pressure on the NHS. ...
- Austerity policies ran contrary to the established wisdom of most economic experts. Having shut out experts in one area, Cameron and Osborne were then less able to appeal to them on the merits of staying in the EU. They created a precedent for a rejection of mainstream economics.
- Supporting austerity at home meant that the Tories could not argue for expansionary policies in the euro zone – policies which would have both helped to reduce migration to the UK and which would have diminished the image of the EU as a failing institution. ...
In this sense, the costs of austerity have been far higher than estimated by conventional macroeconomic thinking. This perhaps reinforces an old piece of political wisdom – that if a government doesn’t get economic policy right, it’ll not get much else right either.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 13, 2016 at 09:53 AM in Economics, Politics |
The Costs of Monopoly: A New View, The Region, FRB Minneapolis: Economists overwhelmingly agree that the actual costs of monopoly are small, even trivial. This consensus is based on a theory that assumes monopolies are well-run businesses that limit their output in order to drive up prices and maximize profit. And because empirical studies have found that monopolists do not restrict output or raise prices by very much, most economists have concluded that monopolies inflict relatively little harm on the economy.
In this essay, I review recent research that upends both the theoretical and empirical elements of this consensus view.2 This research shows that monopolies are not well-run businesses, but instead are deeply inefficient. Monopolies do drive up prices, as conventional theory suggests, but because they also reduce productivity, they often ultimately destroy most of an industry’s profits. These productivity losses are a dead-weight loss for the economy, and far from trivial.
The new research also shows that monopolists typically increase prices by using political machinery to limit the output of competing products—usually by blocking low-cost substitutes. By limiting supply of these competing products, the monopolist drives up demand for its own. Thus, in contrast to conventional theory, the monopolist actually produces more of its own product than it would in a competitive market, not less. But because production of the substitutes is restricted, total output falls.
The reduction in productivity exacts a toll on all of society. But the blocking of low-cost substitutes particularly harms the poor, who might not be able to afford the monopolist’s product. Thus, monopolies drive the poor out of many markets.
In this essay, I first review the standard theory of monopoly that contends it inflicts little harm, and then I introduce a new theory that refutes that view. In this new theory, groups within monopolies act as both adversaries that reduce productivity and allies that eliminate substitutes. The new theory thus demonstrates that monopolies in fact cause substantial economic harm, and that harm falls disproportionately on people with fewer financial resources.
I then provide several historical examples of monopolies from my own research and that of others. I’ll discuss monopoly subgroups in their role as adversaries in the sugar, cement and construction industries. I’ll discuss monopoly subgroups acting as allies in the dental and legal industries. But I want to emphasize that in all monopolies, subgroups engage in both roles. I’ll also take a fresh look at a familiar example of a monopoly, U.S. Steel, showing how subgroups acted as both adversaries and allies. These few examples are illustrative only and provide a narrow glimpse of a far broader economic phenomenon: Monopolies are prevalent in the U.S. (and international) economy. ...
Skipping forward to the summary and conclusion:
For decades, the theoretical understanding and empirical analysis of monopoly have themselves been monopolized by a dominant paradigm—that the costs of monopoly are trivial. This blindness to new theory and analysis has impeded economists’ understanding of the actual harm caused by monopoly. Rather than inflicting little actual damage, adversarial relationships within monopolies have significantly reduced productivity and economic welfare. And in many industries, subgroups within monopolies collaborate to eliminate competition from low-cost substitutes. This lack of competition in the marketplace has a disproportionate impact on poor citizens who might otherwise find low-cost services that would meet their needs.
I’ve described this as a “new” theory, but in truth its roots go back decades, to the ideas of Thurman Arnold. Arnold ran the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice from 1938 to 1943, taking aim at a broad range of targets, from automakers to Hollywood movie producers to the American Medical Association.10 He argued that lack of competition reduced productivity and that monopolies crushed low-cost substitutes, hurting the poor. Arnold supported his arguments through intensive real-world research. He and his staff undertook detailed investigations of monopolies, examining the on-site operations of many industries and documenting the productivity losses and destruction of substitutes caused by monopoly.
Arnold began his work at a pivotal time—in the midst of the Great Depression, just after the United States had experimented with the cartelization of its economy. Faith in competitive markets had reached such a low that cartels and monopolies were thought to be, perhaps, better alternatives. His work and ideas played a big role in reinvigorating confidence in competitive markets. He mounted an aggressive campaign to protect society from monopoly. The campaign had two parts: forceful prosecution of monopoly through the courts, accompanied by an array of speeches and articles to educate the general public about its costs.
Economists gradually forgot Arnold and his ideas, convinced by Harberger’s empirical work and the introspection of economists, leading to, for example, the logic provided by Stigler and others. Scholars and regulators who studied monopolies focused on prices alone and found little to worry about.
But as shown by the research reviewed in this essay—and an expanding body of empirical work—the problems caused by monopoly are significant, and still pervasive. My hope is that this paper will open a new era of discussion about monopoly and its costs, and ultimately lead policymakers to encourage greater competition for the benefit of all.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 13, 2016 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Market Failure |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 13, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Still Confused About Brexit Macroeconomics: OK, I am still finding it hard to understand the near-consensus among my colleagues about the short- and medium-term effects of Brexit. As I’ve tried to point out, while there are clear reasons to believe that Brexit will make Britain somewhat poorer in the long run, it’s not completely obvious why this should lead to a recession in the short run. ...
When we say “uncertainty”, what do we mean? The best answer I’ve gotten is that for a while, until things have shaken out, firms won’t be sure where the good investment opportunities in Britain are, so there will be an option value to waiting.
Let’s be slightly spuriously concrete. Suppose you think Brexit might have seriously adverse effects on service exports from the City of London. This would mean that investment in, say, London office buildings would become a bad idea. On the other hand, it would also mean a weaker pound, making investment in industrial properties in the north of England more attractive. But you don’t know how big either effect might be. So both kinds of investment are put on hold, pending clarification.
OK, that’s a coherent story, and it could lead to a recession next year.
At some point, however, this situation clarifies. Either we see financial business exiting London, and it becomes clear that a weak pound is here to stay, or the charms of Paris and Frankfurt turn out to be overstated, and London goes back to what it was. Either way, the pent-up investment spending that was put on hold should come back. This doesn’t just mean that the hit to growth is temporary: there should also be a bounce-back, a period of above-normal growth as the delayed investment kicks in.
And again, since some people seem unable to read what I’m saying, this should happen even if the negative scenario holds; it’s the resolution that should produce the delayed boom, whichever way that resolution goes. But that’s not what ... almost anyone else ... seems to be saying; they’re projecting lower growth as far as the eye can see. They could be right. But I still don’t see the logic. It seems to me that “uncertainty” is being used as a catchall for “bad stuff”.
Update: See also Brad DeLong: Brexit: I Think Paul Krugman Is Confused Here...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 08:03 AM in Economics |
I have a new column:
New Economic Thinking is Needed to Stop Charlatans Like Trump: After the positive employment report last week, we are hearing that faster wage growth may be “around the corner.” This is not the first time this hope has been raised, but workers have not yet realized significant gains. Will this time be different? The average hourly wage is up 2.6 percent relative to a year ago, and there are some signs of wage acceleration in recent months. However, part of the increase appears to be a shift from health care benefits to wages so the gains up to this point have not been as large as statistics on wage growth alone suggest.
If there is acceleration in wage growth that is not offset by a further decline in benefits, it would certainly be a welcome change from the wage stagnation and rising inequality that workers have experienced in recent decades. But faster wage growth won’t solve the problem of rising inequality on its own. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 07:32 AM in Economics |
Catching Up: I snuck out of town last week and am catching up on Fed/economy news. Highlights from the past week:
1.) The labor report comes in better than expected. Nonfarm payrolls rose by 287k in June compared to the downwardly revised 11k gain in May. These results speak to the volatility typically seen in the employment data. See also Matthew Boesler on impact of end of the school year on the data. On a twelve month basis, job growth has eased only moderately. But on a three month basis, the slowdown is more pronounced:
You have to decide if this is one of those situations when the longer term trend is missing a more severe turning point in the data.
My sense is that these numbers are sufficient to convince many Fed officials that the unemployment rate will decline further in the months ahead. But many will also see reason for caution. First, as noted earlier, near term trends reveal a moderation in the pace of job growth. And the rate of improvement in the unemployment rate has slowed markedly in recent months:
This raises the prospect that job growth is actually not that much higher than that necessary to hold the unemployment rate constant. Moreover, progress toward reducing unemployment has slowed or stalled:
And while wage gains are accelerating, the pace remains tepid, roughly 100bp below the pre-recession rates:
It would be disappointing if wage growth stalled out here. Note also that the long-leading indicator of temporary help employment is tracking sideways to slightly down:
All of these indicators may be headed for upside breakouts in the months ahead, but at the moment I sense some loss of momentum in labor market improvement. This, I think, places the Fed on some precarious ground, something that the bulk of the FOMC likely recognizes. It's not that the fundamentals of the economy have necessarily broken down; it's that the Fed needs to maintain a sufficiently accommodative policy to allow those fundamentals to exert themselves.
2.) Influential policymakers urge patience. Federal Reserve Governor Dan Tarullo came out strongly against additional rate hikes at this time. Via MarketWatch:
“Inflation is not at our stated target, not near our stated target, and hasn’t been so in quite some time,” Tarullo said in a conversation at a Wall Street Journal breakfast.
“This is not an economy that is running hot,” he added.
“For some time now I thought it was the better course to wait to see more convincing evidence that inflation is moving toward and would remain around the 2% target,” Tarullo said.
“To this point, I have not seen that type of evidence,” he said.
It seems to me that Tarullo is looking for something close to the proposed Evans Rule 2.0 - no rate hikes until core-inflation hits 2 percent year-over-year. Even more interesting is this:
Tarullo said he didn’t think that the worry that low interest rates may fuel asset bubbles was an “immediate concern.”
The Fed governor, who is the quarterback of the Fed’s efforts to regulate banks, questioned whether raising rates would ease financial stability concerns in an environment where the market was pessimistic about the economic outlook.
“If markets do regard economic prospects as only modest or moderate going forward, then raising short-term rates is almost surely going to flatten the yield curve, which generally speaking is not good for financial intermediation, and in some sense could exacerbate financial stability concerns,” Tarullo said.
When rates are low, regulators should pay more attention to financial stability issues “but it doesn’t translate into ‘therefore raise rates and all will be well,’” he added.
Tarullo is obviously not pleased that the yield curve continues to flatten
and is not interested in hiking into such an environment. New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley echoes this concern:
Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley voiced concern Wednesday about very low yields on 10-year Treasury notes, which could be a sign that investor expectations for growth and inflation are waning. Mr. Dudley, who had been meeting with local leaders at Binghamton University in New York, said low yields weren’t “completely good news.”
This suggests these two policymakers would prefer to hike if long-term yield were rising, pulling the Fed along for the ride. Low yields are only feeding into the Fed's suspicion that their expectations of where rates are headed are wildly optimistic.
3.) Williams interview. Gregg Robb of MarketWatch has a long interview with San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams. The whole interview is worth a read. Two points. First, Williams is in the camp that the Fed need to act sooner than later to forestall the growth of imbalances:
The risk I think we face in waiting too long, or waiting maybe as long as some of these market expectations are, is that the economy is already pretty strong and if we wait too long in further removal of accommodation I do think imbalances will form more generally. It could show up as more inflation pressures down the road, we’re not seeing those yet, but I think that you do see some of this in terms of real-estate markets and other asset markets which are being priced to perfection based on an outlook of very low interest rates. You are seeing extremely high asset valuations in real estate, commercial real estate, the stock market is very strong relative to fundamentals. That is a natural result from low interest rates, that’s one of the ways monetary policy affects the economy. But if asset prices, real estate prices, continue to go further and further away from longer-term fundamentals I think that creates risk for the economy, I think it creates risks eventually for the financial system.
Note that this runs counter to Tarullo, who argued that the flattening yield curve could worsen, not improve, the financial stability situation. The need to rates rates in the name of financial stability is a growing fault line within the Fed.
Second, Williams gives his view of the disconnect between financial markets and the Fed:
In term of the private-sector forecasts, I think it’s very hard to fully understand what the Fed’s decision-making is given that we haven’t done many active policy steps in the last few years. I mean we did obviously as I mentioned the asset purchases during that period, but since we’ve ended that, we talked a lot about raising rates, we’ve given a lot of “dot plots” about raising rates, we did one rate increase in December, but then it has been over six whole months since then, and - I try to put myself in the shoes of a private sector forecaster - one of the hard things to do is kind of see what is our reaction function. What is it that is driving our decision?...
...Right now we’re just in a situation where there is just not a lot of data on actual actions because, for various reasons we’ve held off a long time on our first rate increase and then we held off so far on a second rate increase.
This I think is wrong; lack of action is a policy choice as much as action. Williams seems to think the only useful information about the Fed's reaction function comes when the Fed changes rates. This implies that holding policy steady conveys no information. I would argue that steady policy is in fact signaling the Fed's reaction function, and hence, in combination with the data flow, financial market participants are concluding that the Fed will continue at a glacial pace regardless of what the "dots" say. Indeed, I would say that financial market participants are signaling that the Fed's stated policy path would be a policy error, an error that they don't expect the Fed to make. I guess you could argue that the market doesn't think the Fed understands it's own reaction function. And given the path of policy versus the dots, the market appears to be right.
4.) Mester, seriously? Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester dropped this line in a July 1 speech (emphasis added):
But there are also risks to forestalling rate increases for too long when we are continuing to make cumulative progress on our policy goals. Waiting too long increases risks to financial stability and raises the chance that we would have to move more aggressively in the future, which poses its own set of risks to the outlook. I believe waiting too long also jeopardizes our future ability to use the nontraditional monetary policy tools that the Fed developed to deal with the effects of the global financial crisis and deep recession. If we fail to gracefully navigate back toward a more normal policy stance at the appropriate time, then I believe there is a non-negligible chance that these tools will essentially be off the table because the public will have deemed them as ultimately ineffective. This is a risk to the outlook should we ever find ourselves in a situation of needing such tools in the future. Of course, such a risk is hard to measure and is not one we typically consider. But we live in atypical times, and we need to take the whole set of risks into account when assessing appropriate policy.
The part about low rates and financial instability is, as I noted earlier, a growing fault line within the Fed. But the next part about needing to "gracefully" return to a normal policy stance to regain policy effectiveness of nontraditional tools was unexpected. This a variation on a theme. There is a common misperception that policymakers need to raise rates not because the economy needs it, but because it needs tools to fight a future recession. Completely backwards logic, of course. Premature rate hikes only speeds up the arrival of next recession and ensures that policymakers lack room to maneuver. They don't, as Mester suggests, preserve your options. A central banker should know this.
5.) The minutes. My short takeaway from the minutes is that the divide among FOMC participants is greater than the divide among FOMC members. In other words, a larger percentage of participants are looking to hike rates sooner than members. Until the balance on the FOMC shifts, discount hawkish Fedspeak.
Bottom Line: I am keeping an eye on Tarullo; he has been more public on his monetary policy views in recent months. And those views are fairly dovish. My guess is that he and other doves regret taking one for the team last December and falling in line with a rate hike. They won't go down so easily this time around.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Fed Watch, Monetary Policy |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Here's a Q&A on the economics of Brexit from Christian Odendahl and John Springford of the Centre for European Reform:
Long day’s journey into economic night: There are currently more questions than answers in post-Brexit Britain. The short-term economic consequences of the vote are no exception. We have attempted to clarify our thinking about what we believe will happen, through a series of questions and (sometimes tentative) answers. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 11, 2016 at 12:15 PM in Economics |
I did a podcast with David Beckworth:
Macro Musings Podcast: Mark Thoma
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 11, 2016 at 08:41 AM in Economics |
What is the "extraordinary plunge in long-term interest rates" telling us?:
Cheap Money Talks, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: What with everything else going on, from Trump to Brexit to the horror in Dallas, it’s hard to focus on developments in financial markets — especially because we’re not facing any immediate crisis. But extraordinary things have been happening lately, especially in bond markets. ...
Specifically, there has been an extraordinary plunge in long-term interest rates. ... Basically, investors are willing to offer governments money for nothing, or less than nothing. What does it mean?
Some commentators blame the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, accusing them of engineering “artificially low” interest rates that encourage speculation and distort the economy..., however, it’s important to understand that they’re not making sense. ...
Historically,... the way you know that money is too easy ... has been out-of-control inflation. That’s not happening... If anything, developments ... are telling us that interest rates aren’t low enough... But why?
In some past episodes of very low government borrowing costs, the story has been one of a flight to safety: investors piling into U.S. or German bonds because they’re afraid to buy riskier assets. But there’s little sign of such a fear-driven process now. ...
So what’s going on? I think of it as the Great Capitulation. ... Until recently,... investors acted as if they still expected a return to what we used to consider normal conditions. Now they’ve thrown in the towel, in effect conceding that persistent weakness is the new normal. This means low short-term interest rates for a very long time, and low long-term rates right away.
Many people don’t like what’s happening, but raising rates in the face of weak economies would be an act of folly that might well push us back into recession.
What policy makers should be doing, instead, is accepting the markets’ offer of incredibly cheap financing..., there are huge unmet demands for public investment... So why not borrow money at these low, low rates and do some much-needed repair and renovation? This would be eminently worth doing even if it wouldn’t also create jobs, but it would do that too.
I know, deficit scolds would issue dire warnings about the evils of public debt. But they have been wrong about everything for at least the past eight years, and it’s time to stop taking them seriously.
They say that money talks; well, cheap money is speaking very clearly right now, and it’s telling us to invest in our future.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 11, 2016 at 12:51 AM in Economics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 11, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 10, 2016 at 12:06 AM
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 9, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Employment Rebounds in June, but Unemployment Edges Higher: The Labor Department reported that the economy added 287,000 jobs in June, a sharp bounce back from the 11,000 jobs now reported for May. A big factor in the reversal was the end of the Verizon strike, which subtracted 37,000 jobs from the May growth number and added the same amount in June, but even adjusting for this effect, the June growth figure is much stronger.
The job gains were widely spread across sectors. ...
The average hourly wage is 2.6 percent above its year-ago level. In the last three months, it has risen at a 2.7 percent annual rate compared with its level for the prior three months. While there has been some acceleration in wage growth by this measure, the Employment Cost Index shows no upward trend whatsoever. Clearly compensation is being shifted in part from benefits, most importantly health care, into wages. It is important not to mistake this shift for an increase in labor costs.
The household survey showed a bleaker picture. The unemployment rate rose modestly to 4.9 percent. The employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) fell to 59.6 percent as employment measured by the household survey increased by just 67,000. Employment in the household survey is still more than 200,000 below its March level.
By demographic group, the most disturbing item is the reported rise in the unemployment rate among black teens to 31.2 percent. It had been 23.3 percent in February. These data are highly erratic, but the trend is large enough that it could reflect a substantial deterioration in the labor market.
Employment patterns by education are showing an interesting pattern in this recovery. Over the last year the unemployment rate for college grads has not changed while their EPOP is down by 0.3 percentage points. By contrast, the unemployment rate for those with a high school degree has fallen by 0.4 percentage points and by 0.6 percentage points for those with less than a high school degree. Their EPOPs have risen by 0.3 and 1.2 percentage points, respectively. The increased demand for skills is not obvious in this picture.
Other aspects of the household survey were mixed. There was a drop of 587,000 in the number of people working involuntarily part-time, which more than reversed a sharp rise reported for May. The number of discouraged workers is more than 150,000 below its year-ago level and not too far above pre-recession levels. The duration measures of unemployment were mixed. The median duration of unemployment spells fell slightly to 10.3 weeks, a new low for the recovery, but both the average duration and share of long-term unemployed rose slightly.
The percentage of unemployment due to voluntary quits remained constant at 10.7 percent. This is near the high for the recovery, but still far below pre-recession levels.
On the whole, this should be seen as a modestly positive report. The job growth in the establishment survey was impressive, but it still only brings the three-month average to 147,300. At the same time, the household survey is indicating a much weaker picture. The establishment survey is generally a better measure, but even the establishment survey is not showing strong job growth over the three-month period.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 8, 2016 at 09:25 AM in Economics, Unemployment |
The reason "Trumpism could triumph":
All the Nominee’s Enablers, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: A couple of weeks ago Paul Ryan ... sort of laid out both a health care plan and a tax plan. ...Mr. Ryan’s latest proposals had the same general shape as every other proposal he’s released: huge tax cuts for the wealthy combined with savage but smaller cuts in aid to the poor, and the claim that all of this would somehow reduce the budget deficit thanks to unspecified additional measures. ...
Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan deficit-scold group ... issued a statement — but not, as you might have expected, condemning Mr. Ryan for proposing to make the deficit bigger. No, the statement praised him. “We are concerned that the policies in the plan may not add up,” the organization admitted, but it went on to declare that “we welcome this blueprint.”
And there, in miniature, is the story of how America ended up with someone like Donald Trump... It’s all about the enablers, and the enablers of the enablers.
At one level, all Mr. Trump has done is to channel the racism that has always been a part of our political life... But there’s a reason these tendencies are sufficiently concentrated in the G.O.P. that Trumpism could triumph...
To put it bluntly, the modern Republican Party is in essence a machine designed to deliver high after-tax incomes to the 1 percent. ... But not many voters are interested in that goal. So the party has prospered politically by harnessing its fortunes to racial hostility, which it has not-so-discreetly encouraged for decades. ...
I’m not saying that all leading Republicans are racists... It is that in pursuit of their economic — actually, class-interest — goals they were willing to act as enablers, to make their party a safe space for prejudice. And the result is a party base that is strikingly racist...
But there’s one more crucial element here: We wouldn’t have gotten to this point if so many people outside the G.O.P. — in particular, journalists and self-proclaimed centrists — hadn’t refused to acknowledge what was happening. ... Instead, the respectable, “balanced” thing was to pretend that the parties were symmetric, to turn a blind eye to the cynicism of the modern Republican project. ...
The point is that this kind of false balance does real harm. The Republican establishment directly enabled the forces that led to Trump; but many influential people outside the G.O.P. in effect enabled the enablers. And so here we are.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 8, 2016 at 08:58 AM in Economics, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 8, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Is the Labor Market Tossing a Fair Coin?, Macroblog: How important is tomorrow's June employment report? In isolation, the answer would surely be not much. The month-to-month swings in job gains can be quite large, and one month does not a trend make.
And yet, there seemed to be a pretty significant reaction to the May employment number...
I get it. I don't speak for the Fed, of course—above my rank—but I am in fact one of those who regularly cautions against putting excessive weight on one number. And I am also one of those taken aback by the May employment report, so much so that my view of the economy changed materially as a result of that report.
Let me check that. My view of the risks to the economy, or more specifically the risks to my assessment of the strength of the economy, changed materially.
Here's an analogy that I find useful. Flip what you assume to be a fair coin. The probability of getting a heads, as we all know, is 50 percent. And if you weren't too traumatized by the statistics courses in your past, you will recall that the probability of two heads in a row is 25 percent, dropping to just about 13 percent of the coin coming up heads three times in a row.
Now, 13 percent is not zero, but it may be getting low enough for you to begin to wonder about your assumption that the coin is actually fair. If you have some stake in whether it is or isn't, you might want to take one more toss to get a little more evidence (since the odds of getting four heads in a row is, while not impossible, pretty improbable).
The point is that it wasn't just the May statistic that was striking in last month's report, but also the fact that the March and April numbers were revised downward to the tune of nearly 60,000 jobs. And if you step back a bit, you will see that the rolling three-month average of monthly job gains has been declining through the first half of the year (as the chart shows), even adjusting the May number for the Verizon strike:
Strike-adjusted, the May job gains were the lowest since December 2013. The three-month average (again strike-adjusted) was the lowest since the middle of 2012. In other words, although the year-over-year pace of jobs gains has been holding up, momentum in the labor market is decidedly softer—at least when measured by payroll employment gains.
I have been assuming that the U.S. economy will, for a while yet, continue to create jobs at a pace greater than necessary to maintain the unemployment rate at a more or less constant level. That pace is generally believed to be about 80,000 to 140,000 jobs per month, depending on your assumptions about the labor force participation rate. Another jobs report (including revisions to past months) that counters that assumption would, I think, cause a reasonable person to reassess his or her position.
Based on today's ADP report, the odds look good for some decent news tomorrow. On the other hand, if the June employment number does tick up, some observers will no doubt note that it is a pre-Brexit statistic. It may take a few more flips of the coin to determine if that consideration matters.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 7, 2016 at 10:12 AM in Economics, Unemployment |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 7, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
''Confidence in Federal Reserve Economic Management is, Right Now, Lacking'': Correct, IMHO, from the very sharp Narayana Kocherlakota [Three Antidotes to the Brexit Crisis]. Now perhaps his successor Neel Kashkari and the other Reserve Bank presidents not named Charlie Evans might give him some back up?
The one thing I do not like is Narayana's "Granted, there is a risk that such steps will spook markets by signaling that the Fed is concerned about the state of the U.S. financial system." That sentence seems to me to misread market psychology completely. As I see it--and as the people in markets I talk to say--right now markets are fairly completely spooked by their belief that the Federal Reserve is unconcerned, and takes that lack of concern as a sign of Federal Reserve detachment from reality. Narayana's following sentences seems to me to be highly likely to be the right take: "I'd say the markets are already pretty spooked" and "By demonstrating that it is paying attention to these obvious signals, the Fed can help to bolster confidence in its economic management".
Let me stress that, at least from where I sit, that confidence in Federal Reserve economic management is, right now, lacking. ...
For eight straight years now the Federal Reserve has been more optimistic than the markets. And for eight straight years now the markets have been closer to being correct. And yet the Federal Reserve still believes that it "can't be led by what the market thinks" and has "got to make our own analysis"? Why? ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 at 11:10 AM
A Remarkable Financial Moment: The US 10 and 30 year interest rates today reached all time low levels of 1.32 percent and 2.10 percent. Record low 10 year interest rate were also registered in Germany, France, Switzerland and Australia. Notably Swiss 50 year interest rates are now for the first time negative. Rates out 15 years are negative in Germany and 9 years in France. ...
Remarkably the market does not now expect a full Fed tightening until early 2019. This is despite all the Fed speeches expressing optimism about the economy and a desire to normalize interest rates.
I believe that these developments all reflect a growing awareness of the importance of the secular stagnation risks that I have highlighted over the last several years. ...
Unfortunately markets have been much more aggressive in responding to events than policymakers. ... Having the right world view is essential if there is to be a chance of making the right decisions. Here are the necessary adjustments.
First..., neutral real interest rates are likely close to zero going forward. ...
Second, as counterintuitive as it is to central bankers who came of age when the inflation of the 1970s defined the central banking challenge, our problem today is insufficient inflation. ...
Third, in a world where interest rates over horizons of more than a generation are far lower than even pessimistic projections of growth, traditional thinking about debt sustainability needs to be discarded. ...Brad Delong and I set out in 2012 for expansionary fiscal policy to pay for itself are much more easily satisfied today than they were at that time.
Fourth, the traditional suite of structural policies to promote flexibility are not especially likely to be successful in the current environment... Indeed in the presence of chronic excess supply structural reform has the risk of spurring disinflation rather than the contributing to a necessary increase in inflation. There is in fact a case for strengthening entitlement benefits so as to promote current demand. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 at 10:16 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
How Martin Feldstein Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Inflation: Martin Feldstein and I go back a ways. Not that I have ever met him, which I haven’t, or that he has ever heard of me, which he probably hasn’t, but I have been following his mostly deplorable commentary on Fed policy since at least 2010 when he published an op-ed piece in the Financial Times, “QE2 is risky and should be limited,” which was sufficiently obtuse to provoke me to write a letter to the editor in response. A year and a half later, after I had started this blog – five years ago to the day on July 5, 2011 – Feldstein wrote an op-ed (“The Federal Reserve’s Policy Dead End”) in the Wall Street Journal, to which he is a regular contributor, in which he offered another misguided critique of quantitative easing, eliciting a blog post from me in response.
Well, now, almost six years after our first encounter, Feldstein has written another op-ed (“Where the Fed Will Be When the Next Downturn Comes“) for the Wall Street Journal which actually shows some glimmers of enlightenment on Feldstein’s part. Always eager to offer encouragement to slow learners, I am glad to be able to report that Feldstein seems to making some headway in understanding how monetary policy operates. He is still far from having mastered the material, but he does seem to be on the right track. If he keeps progressing, the Wall Street Journal will probably stop publishing his op-eds, which would be powerful evidence that he had progressed in understanding of the basics of monetary policy. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 at 07:44 PM in Economics, Inflation, Monetary Policy |
Republicans Talk a Better Game on the Economy Than Democrats: Over the weekend Brad DeLong wrote a post about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and how his disastrous tax cuts have decimated the state's economy. It prompted several of the usual comments, and DeLong highlights this one in particular:
The process Brownback has put the state on isn't something he regrets. And obviously over the next several years, Kansas will recover in that it won't get worse and will have growth that more or less tracks national growth. And at that point the state will declare Brownback's policies to be a "success."
This reminds me of something I've meant to point out for a while: economies always recover eventually.1 Conservatives take advantage of this fact by loudly and clearly insisting that their proposed tax cuts will supercharge economic growth. They know that eventually there will be growth, and when it happens they can then loudly and clearly insist that their tax cuts were responsible. Since they've been loudly and clearly saying this all along, ordinary citizens conclude that they're right.
Democrats don't really do this. When Barack Obama put together his various economic initiatives in 2009, for example, he was pretty circumspect about what they'd accomplish. Ditto for Bill Clinton in 1993. ...
Why is this? ...
...Republicans ... [ha]ve been focused like a laser beam on tax cuts as economic miracle workers for more than 30 years now. The fact that virtually no evidence supports this claim doesn't matter. Democrats, conversely, can't quite bring themselves to make the same unequivocal claim. Are they too embarrassed to just flatly lie about it? Too disorganized to agree on any one thing? Too muddled to make their points loudly and clearly? It is a mystery. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 at 06:04 PM in Economics, Politics |
Kavya Vaghul at Equitable Growth:
U.S. democracy stuck in an “inequality trap”: Economic inequality in the United States appears to be trapped in a vicious cycle, as shown by several new working papers published today by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth alongside other recent research. Non-white, lower-income Americans are far less likely to vote than wealthier white citizens, and much of this participation gap is due to discriminatory practices at the ballot box. As a result, the political interests of lower-income minorities are not well-represented, and these interests are vastly different than those of their voting counterparts. This in turn means that policy decisions are made that exacerbate economic inequality and the inequalities that limit citizens’ voices in the first place.
To figure out how to break this cycle, social scientists need to understand what is happening at various points along the political continuum. So, let’s first examine new and existing research on the vote. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 at 02:11 PM in Economics, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 at 12:06 AM
Don't "mistake tough talk on trade for a pro-worker agenda":
Trump, Trade and Workers, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: Donald Trump gave a speech on economic policy last week. Just about every factual assertion he made was wrong, but I’m not going to do a line-by-line critique. What I want to do, instead, is talk about ... the candidate’s claim to be on the side of American workers. ...
About globalization: There’s no question that rising imports, especially from China, have reduced the number of manufacturing jobs..., completely eliminating the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods would add about two million manufacturing jobs.
But ... total employment exceeds 140 million. Shifting two million workers back into manufacturing would raise ... employment back from around 10 percent to around 11.5 percent. To get some perspective: in ... the 1960s it was more than 25 percent. ... Trumponomics wouldn’t come close to bringing the old days back.
In any case, falling manufacturing employment is only one factor in the decline of the middle class...
Mr. Trump..., even as he tried to pose as a populist ... repeated the same falsehoods usually used to justify anti-worker policies. We are, he declared, “one of the highest taxed nations in the world.” Actually, among 34 advanced countries, we’re No. 31. And, regulations are “an even greater impediment” to our competitiveness than taxes: Actually, we’re far less regulated than, say, Germany, which runs a gigantic trade surplus. ...
What’s important is that voters not mistake tough talk on trade for a pro-worker agenda.
No matter what we do on trade..., we need policies that give ... workers the essentials of a middle-class life. This means guaranteed health insurance — Obamacare brought insurance to 20 million Americans, but Republicans want to repeal it and also take Medicare away from millions. It means the right of workers to organize and bargain for better wages — which all Republicans oppose. It means adequate support in retirement from Social Security — which Democrats want to expand, but Republicans want to cut and privatize.
Is Mr. Trump for any of these things? Not as far as anyone can tell. And it should go without saying that a populist agenda won’t be possible if we’re also pushing through a Trump-style tax plan, which would offer the top 1 percent huge tax cuts and add trillions to the national debt.
Sorry, but adding a bit of China-bashing to a fundamentally anti-labor agenda does no more to make you a friend of workers than eating a taco bowl does to make you a friend of Latinos.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 4, 2016 at 11:01 AM in Economics, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 4, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Chris Waller, research director at the St. Louis Fed (and a classmate in graduate school) argues that "TBTF status leads to a wealth transfer from new buyers to existing holders of the debt":
Who Exactly Benefits from Too Big To Fail?: Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has revived discussion of the Too Big To Fail (TBTF) issue for large U.S. financial institutions. TBTF arises when the government and regulators fear that a bank’s failure would cause widespread damage to the financial system. Consequently, when a large bank or highly interconnected bank is on the verge of failure, the government steps in and prevents its collapse. When this happens, howls are heard that the government is “bailing out” equity and bond holders at taxpayer expense and that the proper action is to wipe them out.
Why is having a bank labeled TBTF a problem? First, by being viewed as TBTF, a bank receives an insurance policy against default from taxpayers but does not pay a premium for this insurance. Second, being provided with this insurance creates moral hazard since bank management can undertake riskier activities and reap the higher returns while shifting the risk of default to the taxpayer. Note that the first benefit occurs even if the bank does not change the risk structure of its balance sheet—e.g., even if it does not engage in moral hazard. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that having TBTF status is not just about moral hazard. It is also about the provision of free insurance to the bank by the taxpayer. This latter point is often overlooked in discussions of TBTF.
But, as heretical as it may sound, are the current equity holders and bank creditors the true beneficiaries of the bailout? The answer depends on whether or not the TBTF designation for a bank was accounted for in its equity and debt prices at an earlier date. If a bank is declared TBTF unexpectedly at the moment it is about to default, then equity and bond holders are bailed out since their asset positions did not price-in this status at the time of purchase.
However, what if the TBTF designation was given prior to default? Looking back at the financial crisis, this seems to be the more-relevant case. Ron Feldman and Gary Stern warned about banks having this designation in their 2004 book, Too Big to Fail: The Hazards of Bank Bailouts, and the risks it created for the U.S. taxpayer. They point out that the failure of Continental Illinois in 1984, the seventh largest bank in the U.S. at the time, and the government’s generous treatment of unsecured creditors brought TBTF front and center into the public policy arena. Feldman and Stern succinctly summarize the TBTF problem: “The roots of the TBTF problem lie in creditors’ expectations...and the source of the problem is a lack of credibility” that the government will let them fail. Thus, the problem with TBTF is that a bank is viewed this way long before it actually gets into trouble.
It is exactly this timing that makes it difficult to determine who benefits from TBTF. To make this scenario as stark as possible, suppose the government knows that its promises to let bank A fail are not credible. So the government simply announces at date t that bank A is too big to fail and will be bailed out if it is on the verge of default.
What will happen at the time of this announcement? Bank A’s equity price will increase to reflect the absence of default risk associated with this new designation. Furthermore, the price of the bank’s outstanding debt and its newly issued debt will increase to reflect the elimination of default risk.
So who benefits from this? Well, obviously those holding equity claims on bank A when the TBTF status is announced. They get a capital gain on their shares from the price appreciation. The same is true for those holding bank A debt—the higher price of bank A debt would generate a capital gain to the debt holders at the time of the announcement. This all happens even if the bank does not change the riskiness of its portfolio.1
But what about those who buy bank A stocks and bonds after the announcement? If financial markets are efficient, then the TBTF status should be fully capitalized into the value of the bank. As a result, a risk-neutral investor would be indifferent between (i) buying the stock at a low price without TBTF protection and (ii) buying the stock at a higher price but with TBTF status. In short, new buyers are paying for the TBTF insurance via higher equity and bond prices. They do not receive a windfall from the TBTF status assigned to bank A.
To illustrate with a simple example, suppose bank A has an outstanding simple discount bond at time t that matures in period t +1with face value of $1. Assume the probability of default is zero in period t but occurs with an exogenous probability π > 0 in t + 1. If default occurs, the bond holder gets zero. Since default is purely exogenous, moral hazard does not come into play. In the absence of TBTF status, the time t price of the bond that a risk-neutral investor would pay to acquire the bond is
where i is the discount rate used by all investors. Note that the bond price reflects the probability of default.
Now suppose that, at the beginning of period t, the government announces that bank A is too big to fail. Then the bond price will instantly jump to
So the initial holder of the debt reaps a capital gain of
from selling his bond after the announcement. However, the new buyer has to pay a higher bond price to get this “insurance” from the government. Thus, the TBTF status leads to a wealth transfer from new buyers to existing holders of the debt. Note that the difference p̂t – pt is the fair market price for the insurance (the “premium”) that the existing bond holder would be willing to pay to avoid default. So, in short, the government provides the insurance but existing bondholders collect the premium from new buyers of the debt.2
A similar exercise can be done with equity pricing as well. Suppose the firm faces a constant and exogenous probability π of failing each period and pays a dividend d if it doesn’t fail and 0 otherwise. Using a simple present discounted value formula applied to the dividend stream yields the equity share price
Once the bank is declared TBTF, default goes to zero and the equity price jumps to3
which yields a capital gain of
But what about the buyers of bank A equity after the announcement? As we can see, they paid a much higher equity price in response. Again, they are paying for the default protection.4 The equity holders at the time of the announcement are the ones who reap the rewards of the TBTF status.
Now suppose the government chose to let bank A fail after this announcement and wiped out the equity holders and creditors. Well, the initial bondholders would not care. They received the insurance premium and sold the bond. They do not suffer. However, those who bought the bond at price p̂t “paid” for insurance but did not get the promised payoff. They actually lose.5 Hence, it is not surprising that they would be upset by the government’s action. Who wouldn’t be upset after paying for insurance that didn’t pay off when it should have?6
A similar argument applies to equity holders. The initial stock holders wouldn’t care. They reaped their capital gains by selling their shares to new buyers. But a shareholder who bought shares at êt would again argue that they paid for the default protection. They would not be happy if they are told it’s “fair” that they should be wiped out ex post. If someone held a share of bank A stock prior to the time of the announcement until the government allowed them to fail, then they would receive no capital gain and would be wiped out appropriately since they paid et not êt. This seems to be the view of those opposed to bailing out equity holders: that those holding equity at the time of bank A’s failure were the same ones holding equity when the TBTF status was announced.
Moral hazard is a separate issue and an important one. But a similar logic applies. Bond holders care only about the default insurance. They do not reap the additional earnings from the riskier portfolio. Suppose the government sold a credit default swap (CDS) to potential buyers of bank A’s debt. They would be willing to pay p̂t > 0 for the CDS and nothing more. Is this enough to compensate the government for taking on this risk? Most likely not, since under moral hazard the risk of default increases, say, to π̄ > π. But this is not the new bondholders’ problem. It’s a problem between the government and the equity owners.
For equity holders, moral hazard would imply bank management undertakes actions such that π̄ > π and d̄ > d. If markets could properly assess this behavior in pricing bank A’s changed risk structure, then the equity price would be
which reflects the fact that the shareholders reap the higher dividend stream but the government absorbs the downside risk since π̂does not appear. As before, a new buyer of equity is paying for (i) the default protection and (ii) the higher dividend stream arising from moral hazard. So, yes, they receive the benefits of moral hazard in the form of higher dividend payments but they paid for it via the price they paid to acquire the stock. The problem once again is that the government absorbs the downside risk but isn’t compensated for it by the equity holders at the time of the announcement. How severe the moral hazard problem is depends on its quantitative importance. And research is only now beginning to explore this.7
To summarize, the value of being designated TBTF is capitalized into the price of a firm’s equities and its bonds. TBTF provides a windfall capital gain to shareholders and creditors at the time of the designation. But after that, new buyers of equities and debt are paying for that status. Consequently, determining who gets “bailed out” when an institution is TBTF is a more complicated task than it appears.
If the government is unable to commit to letting banks fail or breaking them up is not a serious option, then the best that can be done is compensate taxpayers for the default insurance it provides to large financial institutions. Minneapolis Fed President Kashkari has advocated turning the banks into financial public utilities and regulating them accordingly. An alternative may be to have the government sell CDSs against the debt of large financial institutions. Debt holders would then pay the government directly for this insurance. Having the U.S. government sell insurance is already a common policy: The U.S. government currently sells crop insurance, flood insurance, disability insurance, etc. So it is not unprecedented. While this may not solve the moral hazard problem, it at least compensates taxpayers for providing default insurance.
1 The same logic applies to stock options of senior management. If the announcement of TBTF causes the equity price to jump high enough, then the strike price is below the market price of the stock, meaning senior executives are “in the money” and get a capital gain from their stock options.
2 Another way to think about this is to assume the government issues a credit default swap. If it sold the CDS on the market it would receive the premium p̂t – pt from the buyer of the CDS. If default does not occur, the taxpayer makes a profit from the CDS; if default does occur, the taxpayer is on the hook for the loss. Now suppose the government gives the CDS to the existing bondholders and lets them sell it. The current bondholders get the premium as a windfall profit without absorbing any risk. Meanwhile, the taxpayer gets zero if no default occurs and is on the hook for $1 if default occurs. The buyer of the CDS is not bailed out—he paid the fair market price for the insurance.
3 Since bond financing costs are lower, this would allow for a higher dividend payment after TBTF status is announced. Nevertheless, this is priced-in for new buyers of the equity.
4 Again, senior managers who join bank A after the TBTF designation now face a higher strike price for their stock options, which effectively lowers their executive compensation.
5 This applies even if the government could credibly remove the TBTF status of bank A.
6 This line of reasoning also applies to many situations. For example, consider the mortgage interest rate deduction. Many argue that it is a subsidy to homeowners and should be eliminated. However, the deduction has now been capitalized into the price of the house so a new owner would actually take a capital loss if the deduction was removed. Again, new homeowners have paid for the subsidy and get very angry when elimination of the mortgage interest deduction is discussed.
7 See Javier Bianchi’s “Efficient Bailouts” (forthcoming in American Economic Review; https://www.minneapolisfed.org/research/wp/wp730.pdf) for an excellent attempt at quantifying the moral hazard problem in banking. Bianchi’s main finding is that moral hazard is not quantitatively important if bailouts are systematic as opposed to being focused on a particular bank.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 3, 2016 at 11:46 AM in Economics, Financial System, Regulation |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 3, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 2, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Markets and states are complements: The main point of my 1999 book with Jeff Williamson was that globalisation produces both winners and losers, and that this can lead to an anti-globalisation backlash. ...
What was missing from all this was an analysis of what, if anything, governments can do about this. Which is where Dani Rodrik’s finding that more open states had bigger governments in the late 20th century comes in. Dani’s interpretation is that markets expose workers to risk, and that government expenditure of various sorts can help protect them from those risks. In a series of articles, and an important book, Michael Huberman showed that this correlation between states and markets was present before 1914 as well: countries with more liberal trade policies tended to have more advanced social protections of various sorts, and this helped maintain political support for openness.
Anti-immigration sentiment was clearly crucial in delivering an anti-EU vote in England. And if you talk to ordinary people, it seems clear that competition for scarce public housing and other public services was one important factor behind this. If the Tories had really wanted to maintain support for the EU, investment in public services and public housing would have been the way to do it: if these had been elastically supplied, that would have muted the impression that there was a zero-sum competition between natives and immigrants. It wouldn’t have satisfied the xenophobes, but not all anti-immigrant voters are xenophobes. But of course the Tories were never going to do that, at least not with Osborne at the helm.
If the English want continued Single Market access, they will have to swallow continued labor mobility. There are complementary domestic policies that could help in making that politically feasible. ...
Too much market and too little state invites a backlash. Take the politics into account, and it becomes clear (as Dani has often argued) that markets and states are complements, not substitutes.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 1, 2016 at 08:41 AM in Economics, Immigration, International Trade, Social Insurance |
U.S. top one percent of income earners hit new high in 2015 amid strong economic growth: The top 1 percent income earners in the United States hit a new high last year, according to the latest data from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. ... The latest IRS data show that incomes for the bottom 99 percent of families grew by 3.9 percent over 2014 levels, the best annual growth rate since 1998, but incomes for those families in the top 1 percent of earners grew even faster, by 7.7 percent, over the same period. ...
After a large decline of 11.6 percent from 2007 to 2009, real incomes of the bottom 99 percent of families registered a negligible 1.1 percent gain from 2009 to 2013, and then grew by 6.0 percent from 2013 to 2015. Hence, a full recovery in income growth for the bottom 99 percent remains elusive. Six years after the end of the Great Recession, those families have recovered only about sixty percent of their income losses due to that severe economic downturn.
In contrast, families at or near the top of the income ladder continued to power ahead. ... The share of income going to the top 10 percent of income earners—those making on average about $300,000 a year—increased to 50.5 percent in 2015 from 50.0 percent in 2014, the highest ever except for 2012. The share of income going to the top 1 percent of families—those earning on average about $1.4 million a year—increased to 22.0 percent in 2015 from 21.4 percent in 2014.
Income inequality in the United States persists at extremely high levels, particularly at the very top of the income ladder. ... This ... is unfortunately on par with a long-term widening of inequality since 1980, when the top 1 percent of families began to capture a disproportionate share of economic growth. ...
Policymakers ... need to grasp whether past efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy—in particular the higher tax rates for top U.S. income earners enacted in 2013 as part of the 2013 federal budget deal struck by Congress and the Obama Administration—are effective at slowing income inequality.
The latest data from the IRS suggests the 2013 reforms proved to be fleeting in terms of reducing income inequality. There was a dip in pre-tax income earned by the top one percent in 2013, yet by 2015 top incomes are once again on the rise—following a pattern of growing income inequality stretching back to the 1970s.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 1, 2016 at 08:07 AM in Economics, Income Distribution |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 1, 2016 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |