Saturday, June 24, 2017

Non-voting shares response

Todd Henderson and Dorothy Shapiro wrote me a thoughtful response to my post on non-voting shares. Todd and Dorothy:

Response to Cochrane

We are grateful for Cochrane’s thoughtful response to our op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Space limitations prevent us from giving the necessary treatment to our ideas, but he is right to push us to be careful in our analysis, no matter the limits. We look forward to addressing his concerns and others in a forthcoming article.

In the meantime, here is a quick response to the thrust of Cochrane’s critique.

There is a logical inconsistency in Cochrane’s post—his “modest proposal” would require more legal change to accomplish than ours. (And we are the ones with a vested interest in more law!) For one, it’s not clear that companies would willingly issue non-voting stock in addition to voting stock (and in the right amounts)—this occurs very rarely in practice, if ever.

Second, even if the shares existed, Cochrane assumes that index funds would willingly buy them, although there’s no evidence to suggest that this would occur.

The hostile reaction from large passive institutional investors, including BlackRock and Vanguard, to the Snapchat IPO and other recent dual class stock offerings make it clear that passive funds wouldn’t buy non-voting stock willingly—institutional investors participated in those offerings under protest and have since been advocating for reforms that would prevent future non-voting offerings, even going so far as to lobby Russel FTSE to delist companies that have dual class shares.

It’s also unlikely that non-voting stock would be much cheaper than voting stock—empirical evidence has demonstrated that often, non-voting stock doesn’t trade at any discount to voting stock (such as when there's a controlling shareholder or the company is well run).

Even if passive funds could purchase non-voting shares at a small discount, it’s not obvious that they would have any incentive to do so. Index funds have the sole goal of replicating the performance of an index. Why would they want to get a different product for a lower price? This is especially true when doing so would cause them to give up power and influence over some of the companies that they invest in (for a small benefit that investors are unlikely to recognize).

So, under Cochrane’s proposal, the law would have to not only require companies to issue non-voting shares, it would also need to require index funds to buy them. Talk about a lot of law! (Read: coercion.) Not only would this be a more dramatic change than the one that we propose, it would surely lead to a worse world. As an example, there could be liquidity concerns—if passive funds wanted to sell en masse (as can happen when funds are tracking the same index), there would be no buyers. And, if passive funds instead wanted to buy, there would be no sellers (and in this situation, it's unlikely that the non-voting shares would really trade at a discount).

By contrast, our solution--encouraging (but not requiring) passive funds to abstain from voting—is much less intrusive. Rather than mandating the creation of a new market of non-voting shares, we advocate a voluntary legal change that would permit natural correctives to any corner solution. The concern seems to be that if index funds abstain, too much power will be vested in the hands of activists, not all of whom will be interested in long-term shareholder value. But if index funds are merely encouraged to abstain unless they have no strong interest in the outcome, then there is a natural, market-based corrective to this problem. If activists go overboard, then index funds will have a strong interest, and reenter the voting market at that time. In a sense, Cochrane’s critique is ironic: we are calling for less law. We want law to get out of the way, by letting index funds act naturally—to not vote when they have no interest in doing so, and where they have no comparative advantage in the process. (Our other alternative, a legal duty to vote in an informed matter, and not just blindly follow ISS and other proxy advisors, is a clear second best.)

***

A little response-response clarification:

I do not envision any coercion!  So I  deny "under Cochrane’s proposal, the law would have to not only require companies to issue non-voting shares, it would also need to require index funds to buy them."

Index funds need to wake up and ask for non-voting shares, and then companies will issue them. The funds get a discount and absolution from legal trouble. Or companies need to wake up and offer non-voting shares to index funds. The companies get a new source of financing.

The non-voting shares I have in mind need do need a lot of smart lawyering and contract writing by people like Todd and Dorothy.  I accept the point that current non-voting shares are not as protected as they should be, that the promise ``you get exactly as much money as the voting shares, and you can sue as bondholders do if you don't'' needs teeth.

Indeed, the market is hostile to non-voting shares because current non-voting shares are designed to concentrate control with insiders, not to create a vibrant outside market for corporate control. That's the last thing insiders want, and a reason that companies will be slow to offer such shares unless funds start demanding them.

Sometimes the world hasn't arrived by itself at the optimum, just because nobody thought of it, not because there is a market failure, and not because law has not compelled it. We live in a time of legal and financial innovation, not just gadget innovation.

And index funds not voting aggressively is not a screaming problem that can't take some time to sort out.

(How to start a fight in a libertarian bar -- "You're advocating government intervention! No, you're advocating government intervention! I probably should have left that out of the original, and there is not much need to spend time on it in further discussion. Laws and contracts and courts are all on the menu at the libertarian bar.)

***

Update:


This is a good point. Perhaps we just need some good intermediation/financial engineering for index funds to routinely lend out their shares around votes.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Index funds and voting shares

Todd Henderson and Dorothy Shapiro Lund have an interesting OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, "Index funds are great for investors, risky for corporate governance." In brief, index funds don't participate heavily in monitoring companies, finding information about companies, or corporate control contests.

This point echoes larger complaints that with the spread of index funds there won't be enough active money to make markets efficient, and especially to make efficient the market for corporate control. One of the most important functions of a public market is, if you think that a company is mismanaged, you can buy up a lot of shares, vote out the management, and run it better. This is an imperfect system, to be sure, but note how many nonprofits (universities) and privately held companies, immune from this pressure, are run even more inefficiently than public companies.

Todd and Dorothy, law professors, after very nicely reviewing how funds currently deal with voting issues, seem to favor more law.
So how can the law ensure that these institutions make informed decisions about corporate governance? ... The first is to encourage them to rely on third-party corporate governance experts. It may be necessary... for the law to create incentives for institutional investors ...option three: encouraging passive institutional investors to abstain from voting altogether.   
Hmmm. When "the law," not a person or people, is the subject of a sentence, I get cautious. When the law wants "to encourage" people, my hackles rise.  The law "encourages" and "creates incentives" pretty bluntly. One example, though discarded, is a bit chilling,
 This could be accomplished by providing a legal cause of action to shareholders that are harmed by uninformed or conflicted voting decisions. But this would be a blunt tool for curbing abuse. 
Indeed it would.

But this is forgiveable. They are lawyers, so more law is the answer. We are economists, and law a necessary evil when contracts and markets fail. Is there not an economic solution, a Coasean way to slice the knot?

I think so. Companies should issue, and index funds should want to buy, non-voting shares.  Non-voting shares seem to be regarded as a little infamy of internet companies, used to keep control in the hands of founders. But a split between voting and non-voting shares seems ideally suited to a mass of indexing investors, and a few active, information-based traders and active corporate control investors. In this vision, most of those voting shares are in public hands, unlike the internet companies.  In fact, most corporate stock grants and options to insiders should be in the form of non-voting shares.

Non-voting shares are treated exactly the same for all cash flow purposes. They receive the same dividends, same rights in repurchase, same treatment in any reorganization. They just do not allow the right to vote.

Since index funds don't value the option to vote, they should want non-voting shares.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The optimal inflation rate

Anthony Diercks has a very useful review of the the academic literature on the question, what is the optimal inflation rate? He includes 150 papers, ordered from low to high inflation.


Broadly speaking, we start with the Friedman result that the optimal nominal interest rate is zero, so the optimal inflation rate is the negative of the real rate of interest. The optimal nominal interest rate is zero, so people feel no incentive to economize on money holdings, or devote effort to cash management, paying bills late and collecting early. Many sticky price models suggest an optimal inflation rate of zero, so you don't have to change sticky prices. Then,
Most all of the studies that have found a positive optimal inflation rate have been written in the last ten years. The increase in the number of studies with a positive optimal inflation rate can be explained predominantly by the rise of two modelling features: (1) inclusion of the zero lower bound and (2) financial frictions.  
The zero bound means the Fed may want some headroom, a higher nominal rate in normal times. (More on that issue in an earlier post here).

Then, economists get creative. Anthony provides a nice list of additional ingredients that have appeared in the literature:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reis on the state of macro

Ricardo Reis has an excellent essay on the state of macroeconomics. "Is something really wrong with macroeconomics?"
In substantive debates about actual economic policies, it is frustrating to have good economic thinking on macro topics being dismissed with a four-letter insult: it is a DSGE. It is worrying to see the practice of rigorously stating logic in precise mathematical terms described as a flaw instead of a virtue. It is perplexing to read arguments being boxed into macroeconomic theory (bad) as opposed to microeconomic empirical work (good), as if there was such a strong distinction. It is dangerous to see public grant awards become strictly tied to some methodological directions to deal with the crisis in macroeconomics.
There have been lots of essays lately bemoaning the state of macroeconomics. Most of these essays are written by people not actively involved in research, or by older members of the profession who seem tired when faced with the difficulty of understanding what the young whippersnappers are up to, or by economic journalists who don't really understand the models they are criticizing. I am old enough to feel this temptation and have to fight it.

Many bemoan the simplifications of economic models, not recognizing that good economic models are quantiative parables. Models are best when they isolate a specific mechanism in a transparent way.

Critics usually conclude that we need to add the author's favorite ingredients -- psychology, sociology, autonomous agent models, heterogeneity, learning behavior, irrational expectations, and on and on -- stir the big pot, and somehow great insights will surely come. This is the standard third-year PhD student approach to writing a thesis, and explains why it takes five years to get a PhD.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Treasury Portfolio

Charlie Plosser makes the case that the Federal Reserve should hold only Treasuries in its asset portfolio, at Hoover's "Defining Ideas"

Background: The Fed is essentially a giant money-market fund. Its liabilities are cash and bank reserves. Its assets are .. well, they used to be entirely short term Treasury securities, but now include mortgage-backed securities. In the crisis, the Fed bought a lot of other securities. Other central banks buy stocks, and it's pretty clear if there were a recession tomorrow, after interest rates hit zero the next day, the Fed would go on a buying binge. The Fed is a government agency, but it is "independent," enjoying a lot of freedom to do what it wants no matter what Congress or the Administration want it to do.

Plosser's proposal,
 1.        The Federal Reserve should be required to maintain a Treasuries-only policy as it pertains to the conduct of monetary policy. 
2.         The Federal Reserve should be prohibited from purchasing non-Treasury securities, private sector securities or lending against private collateral except through traditional discount window operations with depository institutions. 
3.         Emergency lending under Section 13(3) of the FRA should be eliminated and replaced with a new Fed-Treasury accord...

The Fed may buy other securities, but basically has to swap them back to the Treasury or sell them within 60 days. If the government is going to subsidize credit to various industries, voters, and constituencies, then the politically accountable Treasury should do it, not the independent Federal Reserve. Charlie allows here that the Fed may be able to move faster in a crisis.

Why only Treasuries? Why should the Fed not always have greater power to guide the economy more forcefully by buying whatever assets it thinks need propping up? Because,

Monday, June 12, 2017

Living Trusts for Banking

One of the core problems of financial reform is how to "resolve," AKA bankrupt, a big bank -- how can equity holders be wiped out, and debt holders carve up the remaining assets. Big banks are supposed to craft “living wills,” really living vivisection guides, but that effort is clearly in trouble. This blog post expands on a different idea for bank resolution; let’s call it “living trusts” by a similar analogy to estates.


Here's the idea: Let a bank fund its risky investments 100% by issuing equity. The bank then simply cannot fail — it cannot go bankrupt, it cannot suffer a run.  As I've argued elsewhere, I think this is entirely practical.

But suppose it really is important for some reason to carve up bank liabilities into a small amount of highly leveraged equity and a large amount of run-prone short-term debt. Suppose it really is important for banks to "create money," and to take deposits, and to funnel those into risky, illiquid, and otherwise hard-to-resolve assets. Suppose that equity holders really demand highly leveraged high return high risk bank equity, not super-safe low return low risk bank equity, that the return on equity not its Sharpe ratio is a constant of nature.

OK. For $100 of assets, and $100 of bank equity, let, say, $10 of that equity be traded — enough to establish a liquid market. Then, let $90 of that equity is held by a downstream entity or entities— a fund, special purpose vehicle, holding company or other money bucket. I’ll call it a holding company, and return to legal structures below. The holding company, in turn, issues $10 of holding company equity and $80 of debt.

There you have it — $100 of bank assets are “transformed” into $10 of very safe bank equity, $10 of risky and high return holding-company equity, and $80 of short-term debt.

Now if the bank loses money, the value of the bank equity falls. But the bank is failure-proof and run-proof. Shareholders get mad, may throw out management, may even break up the company. But they cannot run, demand their money now, and force bankruptcy.

The holding company can fail however! Suppose he bank loses $20. The holding company owes $80 of short term debt. Its assets are worth .9 x $80 = $72. It’s insolvent. It fails. Holding-company equity holders are wiped out. Holding-company creditors get the assets, common stock in the original bank, worth $72/$80 = 90 cents on their original dollar.

It need not be that drastic. Its likely the previous short-term debt holders don’t want stock, and would want to sell it in a hurry. Dumping 90 shares on the market might be tough.

The holding company could do a 5-minute recapitalization instead. Holders of the $80 of debt get $60 of debt and $12 of new holding-company equity. The holding company is recapitalized by the flip of a switch.

The key: this resolution/recapitalization can happen in about 5 minutes.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

NoahLogic

My little foray here into the blogosphere sometimes leaves me in slack-jawed amazement at the leaps of illogic in the commentariat.

Such was the case last week, when Noah Smith writing at Bloomberg.com, took on a recent post of mine about food stamps. 

My post was about food stamps, and about the language that people use to hide agendas in the policy debate. Scott Simon at NPR thought he had a big gotcha by repeatedly asking Congressman Adrian Smith "Is every American entitled to eat?" because the budget proposal reduces food stamp payments. The title was "single payer food," as it seemed Scott's view of food was like many people's view of health care. 

This sent Noah on a tear about "free market purists" who disdain "single-payer" health care:
In a recent blog post, Hoover Institute senior fellow John Cochrane likens single-payer health care to single-payer food:
...
by drawing an equivalence between health care and food, Cochrane is ignoring the long history of economic research showing that the health-care market is very different from others.  
Here I am left scratching my head. I did not, in fact, "liken single payer-heath care to single-payer food." I didn't mention health care at all. How can a post about food stamps "ignore" research on health economics? And if you spend 10 seconds googling you will find I have addressed all these arguments in other writing that is actually on this topic. You might not agree with my answers, but I don't "ignore" them.

A bit of advice to Noah: OK, you can't be bothered to do any real research before mounting a personal attack on  Bloomberg.com. But try to make it all the way through a blog post before writing a takedown.

(Or, back in the old days, before writing that "Cochrane is ignoring" something, basic journalistic ethics would demand that you contact Cochrane for comment, at which point Cochrane could point out that no, he is quite aware of Ken Arrow's work and has responded to it in detail, especially when actually writing about health care, not food. Or an editor or fact checker would require that. Some news media still practice this kind of basic journalistic ethics. Bloomberg, we see, does not.)

***

However completely unrelated to the subject at hand, though, Noah does bring up some interesting issues regarding health care. I'm grateful for the opportunity to rebut, because, as a matter of fact, I have written about health care,  and the attack gives me an opportunity to recycle some great old prose to prove that point.

The issue at hand: Can markets work for health care and health insurance? Noah:
There are so many problems with the health-insurance and health-care markets that it’s little wonder that they operate differently from the markets for food or cell phones. 
That's a misleading comparison. Health care is a complex personal service. The right comparison is lawyers, accountants, tax preparers, contractors, car repair shops, architects, gardeners, interior designers, bankers, brokers. These are all cases in which people deliver a complex service, and they know a lot more than we do. We hire their expertise as much as a product.

Health insurance is insurance. The right comparison is car insurance, home insurance, personal liability insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, and more complex insurance associated with businesses, such as director liability insurance, product liability insurance, freight insurance, and so forth.

All of these we generally leave to somewhat free markets. Nobody thinks there needs to be a single-payer contractor. (Well, maybe Noah does. I can't wait to see what kinds of bathroom tiles ContractorCare will pay for.) Just what is it about health care and insurance that have an essential market failure, and these do not?

Noah summarizes a 1963 Ken Arrow essay about health care, which Noah cites as research showing that markets cannot possibly work. The objections:
.. the importance of moral norms.  People have all kinds of moral considerations associated with health care. They expect doctors to act honestly and selflessly, and not just seek profit
Any time economists start telling you to pass complex regulations to enforce morality, run in the opposite direction. The Obama administration had something with the idea of "science-based" policy. At least let's get the cause and effect science right before we start making moral claims.

Let's read economists about economics:
...incomplete markets. Can people really know all of the possible health conditions they might get, including how much they would pay to cure or treat each one? ... The answer is certainly no. 
...uncertainty -- in health care, people don’t know what they’re buying until it’s already too late to make a different choice. Unlike food, which you buy over and over, open-heart surgery tends to only happen once.  
...adverse selection. People with health problems are more likely to try to buy health insurance; and since insurance companies know this, they have to charge everyone more. 
....moral hazard. After you’ve paid for insurance, the insurance company has every incentive to deny as many claims as it can get away with denying
These are all the standard objections to markets. They are all theoretical possibilities, echoed in every econ 101 textbook. But are they true of health care and insurance? And so much so that the evident pathologies of a government run system is better? (Remember, the free market case is not that markets are perfect. It is the long and sorry experience that governments are worse.) And are they so much more true than they are of all the above listed complex personal services, that the latter can be left to markets but a vast government bureaucracy must not only provide for all but outlaw the private option?

As it turns out, I have written about these things, in "After the ACA" easily available on my website and rather relentlessly promoted on this blog, especially p. 184ff,
B. The Straw Man 
...Critics adduce a hypothetical situation in which one person might be ill served by a straw- man completely unregulated market, with no charity or other care (which we have had for over eight hundred years, long before any government involvement at all), which nobody is advocating. They conclude that the hypothetical justifies the thousands of pages of the ACA, tens of thousands of pages of subsidiary regulation, and the mass of additional federal, state, and local regulation applying to every single person in the country.

How is it that we accept this deeply illogical argument, or that anyone making it expects it to be taken seriously? Will not one person fall through the cracks or be ill served by the highly regulated system? If I find one Canadian grandma denied a hip replacement or one elderly person who cannot get a doctor to take her as a Medicare patient, why do I not get to conclude that all regulation is hopeless and that only an absolutely free market can function? Both straw men are ludicrous, but somehow smart people make the first one, in print, and everyone nods wisely

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Revised Radical

A revised draft of "Michelson-Morley, Fisher, and Occam" is now on my webpage (Yes, new title.)

This paper argues that the long quiet zero bound is an important experiment. The zero bound or an interest rate peg can be stable, and determinate. Longstanding contrary doctrines are simply wrong -- the doctrine that interest rate pegs must be unstable, starting with Milton Friedman, or the new-Keynesian view that the zero bound will lead to sunspot volatility.

I struggle hard with the implication that raising interest rates will eventually raise inflation. I've posted the paper before, but if any of you are following it this is a big revision.

What happens to inflation at the zero bound, and with a huge expansion of reserves? The big surprise: Nothing. This dog did not bark.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A survey



My Hoover colleague David Brady put together this lovely graph, using the Gallup poll results from their standard question, "do you think the economy is getting better?"

It has many interesting interpretations -- add your own in comments.

A context that spiked my interest is the use of survey data for expectations in economics. We frequently use such surveys to establish what expectations are, or to question whether expectations are rational.  That partisan feeling so dramatically affects people's views of the economy is  interesting for the interpretation of such survey results.

Most economists don't think that presidential elections have all that much to do with the state of the economy, at least within the bounds of what traditional Republicans and Democrats actually end up doing when in power. The people, apparently, believe quite differently, or at least this time.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Single payer food?

I heard a revealing conversation on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday, featuring Scott Simon, the usually soothing and empathetic Cubs-fan voice of my Saturday mornings, and  Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith.
SIMON: This budget would also... mean deep cuts to the food stamp program....
After some waffling about farm subsidies,
SIMON: Well, let me ask you this bluntly - is every American entitled to eat? 
SMITH: Well, they - nutrition, obviously, we know is very important. And I would hope that we can look to... 
SIMON: Well, not just important, it's essential for life. Is every American entitled to eat? 
SMITH: It is essential. It is essential. 
SIMON: So is every American entitled to eat, and is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor? 
SMITH: I think that we know that, given the necessity of nutrition, there could be a number of ways that we could address that. 
SIMON: So you would vote ..  for a budget that cuts food stamps? 
SMITH: I want to look at an entire budget, look at all of the details. I'm still sifting through the details of the newly released budget. But we know that Congress ultimately has the say. I look for there to be a lot of changes made in the House and the Senate to the president's budget. 
SIMON: Congressman Adrian Smith from Nebraska, thanks so much for being with us, sir. 
SMITH: Thank you. Have a good day.
[My emphasis.]

It really speaks for itself and I should just stop here. But as this is a blog, let me expand on the obvious.

Monday, May 22, 2017

YIMBY papers

Two new papers on housing restrictions are noteworthy, Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti, and  The Economic Implications of Housing Supply by Ed Glaeser and Joe Gyourko.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised at the idea that zoning and other restrictions drive up the cost of housing, and that this has many bad consequences on economic growth and inequality. The papers are especially noteworthy for much deeper implications.

Hsieh and Moretti:
...high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent re- strictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by more than 50% from 1964 to 2009.
1) The costs of regulation. The biggest problem in economics right now (yes, I mean that) is, How do we measure the growth consequences of regulation? Looking at the Western world's sclerotically slow growth rate, and listening to many anecdotes, it seems at least plausible that productive innovation is being strangled by byzantine bureacracy, captured by rent-seeking and anti-competitive forces. (Your other choices are, we just ran out of ideas, or some sort of endless "lack of demand.")

But how do we move past anecdote? How to we come up with "regulation is costing the economy x percentage points of growth?" Our statistical measurement system, GDP, unemployment, inflation, and so on, was beautifully designed in the 1940s to measure very Keynesian demand concepts. It isn't designed to answer the question of our time, how much growth is regulation costing us? We are flying in the dark. And Europe, perpetually in an Augustinian moment -- Lord,  grant me structural reform, just not yet--is also.

Well, Hsieh and Moretti are doing it, and by doing so showing one path to answering the larger question.

Half of all US growth for a half century is an astounding amount. 1964: $3,734 trillion;   2009: $14,419 Trillion. Growth = 3.05% per year. At 6.1% per year, $3734 x (1.061)^(2009-1964)=$53.6 trillion dollars!

OK, maybe that's too huge. Well, read the paper and see how they came up with the number. If you don't like their assumptions make different ones. More important than this number is how they are coming up with answers to this, the most important question of economics.

2) Models and micro vs. macro

So how do they make the calculation? Roughly, they measure productivity in cities. They assume that people get higher wages in San Francisco because there are some very high productivity activities that have to be done here. They assume that business could expand and form here, and workers could move here and join in those high productivity activities, both earning higher wages and making more and better stuff for the rest of us. But those workers can't move, and businesses can't expand and form, because housing supply is restricted.

You can see grounds for objection.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wild health care proposal

I found a lovely post on health care full of wild ideas at market-ticker.org. You may not agree with all the proposals -- wild even by my standards.  But it is full of interesting detail on what's wrong with the microeconomics of health care delivery, as opposed to the usual focus on health insurance, and who pays, ignoring the vast dysfunction of the underlying market. 

A few choice quotes to whet your appetite
All providers must post, in their offices and on a public web site without any requirement to sign in or otherwise identify oneself to access it, a full and complete price list which shall apply to every person....  
All customers must be billed for actual charges at the same price on a direct basis at the time the service or product is rendered to them.  This immediately and permanently decouples "insurance" from the provision of care.  The current system of an "explanation of benefits" that often features a "negotiated discount" of some 90% is nothing other than an extortion racket and is arguably felonious...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A better r*

The Chicago Booth Review published here a much cleaned up and nicely formatted version of my earlier blog post on r*.  If you missed the original and you're curious about r* issues, or just curious what the heck r* is anyway, this version is better.

...

Long run money

Continuing in the Il Sole series on Italy and the Euro, Alberto Bagnai writes that the euro is a "big defeat for the economics profession'' here in English, here in Italian.  He takes particular issue with my earlier case for a common currency, here in English, in Italian, and blog post.
"John Cochrane’s idea that money is irrelevant for growth (economists say that money is “neutral”) not only clashes with major scientific results, such as Dani Rodrik’s analysis of the role of excessively strong exchange rates in slowing the growth of a country, but also with what the European institutions are finally admitting through clenched teeth: the reforms are causing deflation and failing to promote employment in any decisive way (footnote 23 in the above-mentioned ECB Economic bulletin).
The best economists had also addressed this point: the negative consequences of structural reforms on the productivity of labour were illustrated by Robert Gordon in 2008. For Cochrane, money is like oil in a motor. The metaphor is (unwittingly) correct. Bad management of oil has long-period consequences like bad management of currency: in the first case the head fuses and the motor stops; in the second a continent, and the world economy stops.
If De Grauwe is incoherent with data and Cochrane with theories,..."
I have long been accused of being theoretically pure but incoherent about the "real world." (As if the real world could ever conform to no theory, rather than a better theory). This is the first time I, or the proposition of long-run monetary neutrality, have been accused of theoretical incoherence.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fintech and Shadow Banks

"Fintech, Regulatory Arbitrage, and the Rise of Shadow Banks" is an interesting new paper by  Greg Buchak, Gregor Matvos, Tomasz Piskorski, and Amit Seru

1. Shadow banks and fintech have grown a lot.
the market share of shadow banks in the mortgage market has nearly tripled from 14% to 38% from 2007-2015. In the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage market, which serves less creditworthy borrowers, the market share of shadow banks increased...from 20% to 75% of the market. In the mortgage market, “fintech” lenders, have increased their market share from about 5% to 15% in conforming mortgages and to 20% in FHA mortgages during the same period

2. Where are they expanding? They seem to be doing particularly well in serving lower income borrowers -- FHA loans.  They also can charge higher rates than conventional lenders, apparently a premium for convenience of not having to sit in the bank for hours and fill out forms,

Monday, May 8, 2017

Trade Haiku

George Shultz and Martin Feldstein, in the Washington Post
If a country consumes more than it produces, it must import more than it exports. That’s not a rip-off; that’s arithmetic. 
If we manage to negotiate a reduction in the Chinese trade surplus with the United States, we will have an increased trade deficit with some other country. 
Federal deficit spending, a massive and continuing act of dissaving, is the culprit. Control that spending and you will control trade deficits.
That's not an excerpt, it's the whole thing. Someday, I will learn to be this concise.



Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Healthy Reform?

Holman Jenkins and Cliff Asness have worthy commentaries on the health insurance reform effort.

Jenkins has quite a few fresh thoughts. He also gets the incurable optimist award for viewing the bill as the "inklings of a salvation" for America’s health-care system. It's possible. Whether it is likely depends on your views of the political process.

Individual insurance:

Jenkins' freshest thought comes last:
We’ll say it again, now for the Senate’s benefit: Apply a few GOP-style fixes and ObamaCare, or something like it, becomes a solution to America’s health-care muddle. You could phase out every other federal program, including Medicare, Medicaid and the giant tax handout to employers, and roll their beneficiaries into ObamaCare.
This wisdom is exactly the opposite of most current commentary, and, here in grumpy-land, where it seems the political process may be heading.

Yes, if any memory of markets remains, the goal should be to get everyone on individual insurance -- functional, portable, individual, lifetime, guaranteed-renewable, competitive health insurance, married to mercilessly competitive innovative and disruptive health care supply. People who need help -- sick and poor -- get it by subsidies to buy that insurance. Period. (Newcomers, some of my many writings on this topic are here.)

I fear we are going in the opposite direction. I fear that the non-subsidized individual market is going to shrink more and more, to become more and more an insignificant, government run, dysfunctional waystation for a handful of unlucky self-employed and young people, on their way to employer care, a government program (medicare, medicaid, VA, etc.) or now to a miserly high-risk pool.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Wonderful Loaf


A charming animated free-market poem by Russ Roberts, on the invisible hand, at http://wonderfulloaf.org

The "read the poem" link includes much interesting annotation.

Mild critique: I would rather the "planner" be a well-meaning economist faced with impossible information problems than a darkly sinister white guy in a suit. It looks like all we need is better  planners. And the bakers seem really happy about all that competition and free entry, whereas real bakers quickly band together to demand regulation, occupational licensing, and other restrictions. But I'm just whining, it's a good romp through the invisible hand in a mythic war-free and Disney-clean 1940s Europe.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Douthat and Feldstein on Euro

In case you missed it, this Sunday featured a creditable effort by the NY Times to look out of the groundhog hole. You have likely followed the explosion resulting from Bret Stephens' first column. Likewise, Ross Douthat tried to explain the attraction of Marine LePen.  I'm not a LePen fan, but appreciated his honest effort to explain how the other side say things.

I was interested in Douthat's views on the euro:
But on the other hand, our era’s “enlightened” governance has produced an out-of-touch eurozone elite lashed to a destructive common currency,..
There is no American equivalent to the epic disaster of the euro, a form of German imperialism with the struggling parts of Europe as its subjects... 
And while many of her economic prescriptions are half-baked, her overarching critique of the euro is correct: Her country and her continent would be better off without it.
Douthat does not pretend to be an economist, and I have no beef with his expressing such views. Because such views are commonplace conventional wisdom from our policy elite. And if the euro falls apart, they will bear a lot of blame for its passing. Be careful what you write, people might be listening.  No, when Germany sends Porsches to Greece in return for worthless pieces of paper, it is not Germany who got the better of the deal. And while you're at it, get rid of that silly common meter, and restore proper nationalism of weights and measures too. (Of course perhaps my admiration for the euro is wrong. Then they will deserve credit for the wave of prosperity that flows over Europe once it unleashes the shackles of the common currency dragging it down. )

As a concrete example, consider  Martin Feldstein writing in the Il Sole series on the Euro, (I don't mean to pick on Feldstein. He has been a consistent anti-euro voice, arguing the great benefits for Italy and Greece of periodic inflation and devaluation. But he is just a good sober example of the common view in Cambridge-centered economic policy circles.)

WalBank

Arnold Kling's Askblog quotes Robert J. Mann
Wal-Mart’s application to form a bank ignited controversy among disparate groups, ranging from union backers to realtor’s groups to charitable organizations. The dominant voice, though, was that of independent bankers complaining that the big-box retailer would drive them out of business. Wal-Mart denied any interest in competing with local banks by opening branches, claiming that it was interested only in payments processing. Distrusting Wal-Mart, the independent bankers urged the FDIC to deny Wal-Mart’s request and lobbied state and federal lawmakers to block Wal-Mart’s plans through legislation. Ultimately, WalMart withdrew its application, concluding that it stood little chance of overcoming the opposition.
Mann also writes
... I argue that permitting Wal-Mart to have a bank would have a salutary effect on the relatively uncompetitive market for payment networks. The dominant position of Visa and MasterCard, in which payments are priced above cost to subsidize credit, inevitably will give way to a world in which payment services are priced at cost, or even below cost as a loss-leader to attract customers to other goods and services.  
As the first quote shows, Walmart was only trying to process payments more efficiently -- because it already saw the chance to offer banking services, lend, and other banking functions would be blocked.

Arnold also points to this by Lawrence J. White.

Arnold sums up,
We are always told that we need regulation to protect consumers and make the financial system safer. That is the theory. The practice is that regulation very often gets used to limit competition. 
Many people in the US still do not have regular bank accounts, and perhaps wisely so as banks notoriously suck money from poor people with pesky fees. Yet cashing a social security check remains a problem. Imagine small town America in which Walmart also offers banking services.

If it's not obvious, Walmart banks would be much safer than traditional banks. A bank tied to a huge retailer would not be financed by astronomical leverage, and if the bank lost money the equity holders of Walmart would pick up the losses.

Walmart has also faced a lot of resistance and restrictions in opening clinics. Imagine small town America in which simple, cheap Walmart clinics can offer a much wider range of services.

It's worth remembering how much opposition Walmart already overcame. It was the Uber of its day. A&P, its predecessor, was widely opposed, as was Walmart. Walmart still faces union opposition -- as I left it was still blocked from operating in the city of Chicago. Imagine the south side of Chicago populated with Walmarts, Walclinics and Walbanks! Thank its legislators and regulators for protecting its citizens from that nightmare.

Update:

An excellent blog post by Larry White on Walmart's troubles in starting a bank. A primary obstacle is the rule that bank holding companies can't be engaged in "commerce." Larry also points out just how much the other banks use this to keep out competition.

the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 placed a three-year moratorium on the granting of deposit insurance to any new (or newly acquired) ILC. Although the moratorium expired in 2013, bank regulators appear to have “gotten the message” that the commerce-finance barrier should remain intact.

Monday, May 1, 2017

93 words, most of them wrong

In the WSJ, The 93 Words That Could Unlock $200 Billion in Bank Capital. This could be a great MBA final exam. Spot the errors: 
"Tucked inside a nearly 600-page legislative proposal to overhaul U.S. financial regulations are 93 words that could provide a windfall for bank investors seeking heftier dividends and share buybacks."
"Bank analysts at Barclays BCS -6.08% PLC estimate $236 billion in capital is tied up in operational risk at the four biggest U.S. banks alone"
"Bankers ... want to free up capital that could be returned to shareholders or used for more lending."
"Mr. Dimon added that U.S. banks now hold about $200 billion in capital against operational risk."
(I made it easier with italics, all mine.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A progressive VAT

A VAT (value added tax) with no other tax — no income, corporate, estate, etc. etc. etc. — is pretty much the economists’ ideal. But how do you make it progressive? A bright — or perhaps lunatic— idea occurred to me.

A progressive VAT

Everyone pays the maximum VAT rate — 40% say, equal to the maximum marginal federal income tax rate. Then, as you spend money over the year, you turn in your receipts — figuratively, we’re going to do al this electronically in a second. So, for the first (say) $10,000 of purchases in each year, you get a refund of all VAT taxes paid. For the next $20,000 of purchases, you get $30 out of every $40 tax payments back, so you pay a 10% rate. And so on. Finally, after (say) $400,000 you don’t get anything back, so you pay the 40% maximum rate.

As you see, I give people an incentive to declare all their consumption.  That incentive completes one of the main advantages of a VAT over an income or sales tax. In a VAT, each business in the production chain pays the VAT on its inputs, and charges the VAT on its sales. It then deducts the VAT payments on its inputs against the VAT it has to pay on its sales. That gives the business a strong incentive to collect the VAT on sales, and for its business customers to demand proof the VAT was paid so they in turn can deduct VAT payments against their VAT collections. Now people will also demand “receipts,” proof of tax payment.

Clearly this works only if everything is electronic. I would not inflict expense reimbursement drudgery on the American taxpayer. But that largely is the case. We have a sales tax reporting mechanism, so adding or substituting VAT tax reporting is not that hard.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Long Run Lira?

Luigi Zingales inaugurated a series of essays in Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian newspaper, on whether Italy should stay in or get out of the Euro, and graciously asked me to contribute. My view, here in English, here in Italian.

To be clear, I kept to Luigi's terms of the debate. This piece is only about whether Italy is better off in the long run, with a common currency. Whether it gets anything out of an exit, a devaluation, a default now is for another day. And this is just about currency, not about leaving the EU, not about debt or austerity, not about whether europe needs a fiscal union, or the rest of it. (Some subsequent correspondence verifies the wisdom, but also the difficulty, of talking about one thing at a time.)

Return to the Lira? A long-run view (Not very good English title)
The euro isn't perfect, but it isn't bad. (Much better Italian title)

Should Italy have her own currency, and run her own monetary policy? For today, let's focus on the long-run question, leaving out for now the transition and any immediate benefits and costs. When contemplating a divorce, it is wise to focus on what life will be like when everything is settled, not just who will have to wash today's stack of dirty dishes.

Remember first that monetary policy cannot substantially improve long-run growth. Long-run growth comes from people and productivity, how much each person can produce per hour of work. In turn, productivity comes from innovation, new companies, new ways doing business, and new products. Like Uber, consumers benefit and existing producers are disrupted. Improvements in long-run growth come only from structural reform, not monetary machination. Money is like oil in a car. Bad monetary policy, like too little oil, can drag an economy down. But after a point more oil will not help you to go faster — you need a bigger engine.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Inflating our troubles away?

These are comments I gave on "Inflating away the public debt? An empirical assessment" by Jens Hilscher, Alon Aviv, and Ricardo Reis at the Becker-Friedman Institute Government Debt: Constraints and Choices conference, April 22 2017, along with generic comments on the conference in general. This post contains mathjax equations.

Long Term Debt

Consider the government debt valuation equation, which states that the real value of nominal government debt equals the present value of primary surpluses.

My first equation expresses this idea with one-period debt, discounted either by marginal utility or by the ex-post return on government debt.
$$\frac{B_{t-1}}{P_t} = E_t \sum_{j=0}^\infty \beta^j \frac{u'(c_{t+j})}{u'(c_t)} s_{t+j} = E_t \sum_{j=0}^\infty \frac{1}{R_{t,t+j}} s_{t+j}$$
(\( P \) is the price level, \( B \) is the face value of nominal debt coming due at \( t \) , \( s \) are real primary surpluses, \( R \) is the real ex-post return on government debt.)

This paper's question is, to what extent can inflation on the left reduce the value of the debt, and hence needed fiscal surpluses on the right. The answer is, not much.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Capital Cause and Effect

Òscar Jordà, Björn Richter, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor wrote a provocative What has bank capital ever done for us? at VoxEu, advertising the underlying paper Bank Capital Redux  (NBER, CEPR link here, google if you can't access either of those)

It starts with a blast:
"Higher capital ratios are unlikely to prevent a financial crisis."
Wow! How do they reach this dramatic conclusion? The post and underlying paper are empirical, collecting a very useful dataset on bank structure across countries and a long period of time. They show, for example, that
bank leverage rose dramatically between 1870 and the second half of the 20th century. In our sample, the average country’s capital ratio decreased from around 30% capital-to-assets to less than 10% in the post-WW2 period (as shown in Figure 1 below) before fluctuating in a range between 5% and 10% in the past decades. 
Here is the very nice Figure 1. (It shows not just how capital has declined, but how reliance on more run-prone wholesale funding has increased.  The fact that capital used to be 30% is one that we need to reiterate over and over again to the crowd that says 30% capital would bring the world to an end.)
With the facts and regressions,
We find that the capital ratio provides virtually no information about the probability of a systemic financial crisis.
Whether used singly or along with credit, higher capital ratios are associated, if anything, with a higher probability of a crisis.
There used to be a lot more capital, and there used to be a lot more financial crises.

Wow. Now, (this is a good quiz question for a class), before you click the "more" button: Do the facts justify the conclusion? And if not why not?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

United

Commentators seem to have noticed a lot of the economics  of the United fiasco: Yes, don't stop auctions at $800. (WSJ review and outlook.) Yes, if you need employees at Louisville so badly, call up American and buy a first class ticket. Book a private jet. Or, heck, you're an airline. Bring up another plane. Don't drag people off planes to save a measly $500.

The one economic point that I haven't seen:  the whole issue also comes down to airlines' use of personalized tickets to price discriminate. (And most of the TSA's job is to enforce that price discrimination by making sure you are the name on the ticket.) If you could resell tickets, the problem would go away. Then the airline must sell only as many tickets as there are seats on the plane, as concerts do. If people aren't going to show, they put their tickets on ebay -- or another quick peer to peer ticket trade platform -- and someone else buys them. Including the airline, if it wants to send employees around. Standby disappears -- want to get on the plane? Bid for a ticket. We still get efficiently full planes -- fuller, even -- nobody ever gets bumped, and the auction for the last seat is going on constantly.

Yes, one of the hardest lessons in economics is that price discrimination can be efficient. Business class cross subsidizes leisure and pays for fixed costs. But the airlines could speculate in their own tickets as well, so its' not clear in a data mining race that scalpers would reap the price discrimination profits better than the airlines themselves.

Holman Jenkins adds, in a brilliant column,
While we’re at it, what’s wrong with Chicago airport security? Did not a single officer say, “I’m having no part of this. If United can’t deal with its overbooking mistakes in a civilized, non-cheapskate way, how is it my job to manhandle innocent customers?” This also smacks of our national malaise—police who need an armored personnel carrier before they’ll roll up and serve a warrant, who wait outside Columbine High until they’re sure the shooting has stopped.
And do not the other passengers rebel at seeing such treatment? Well, maybe not the first time, but I suspect the next time they try to drag a customer off an overbooked plane, there will be a riot.

Update: More at the always excellent Marginal Revolution.  One negative reaction, already on display at United -- the crush to get on the plane first will increase.

Getting on United vs. Southwest is a study in bad incentives. Southwest: you get a number. People peacefully line up when called, and quickly get on the plane. Southwest also gives free (bundled in the ticket price) bags, so people aren't hauling trunkolads of junk for the overheads. United: Board by groups, and now everyone with a credit card is in group 1. They charge for bags. Midway through the scramble for overhead space, the bins fill up, then people have to start swimming upstream with their huge bags to gate check. If ever there was a way to make an airplane board slower, having people swimming against traffic with huge bags is it. The result, you line up like it's the New Delhi airport (or Southwest, circa 1995) and 100 million dollars of United plane plus crew sits on the ground.  I do it too (I'm a rational consumer!) Quite a few times I have had someone show up with a boarding pass with my seat number in it, and being there first makes a big difference.   Another fully rational response -- you really want to be a high mileage customer. The love/hate relationship with United will get deeper.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The second original sin of healthcare regulation

Whenever I advance one or another view of how a relatively free health care and insurance market could work a lot better than the mess we have now, the obvious question comes up: Well, what about the homeless person with a heart attack? You won't let him die in the gutter will you?

No. Of course not. We are a compassionate society. We will provide for poor people, very sick people, those with diminished mental capacity, the unfortunate, the incompetent, or the merely improvident. People don't die in the gutter.  Any half-reasonable health care reform proposal, including mine, provides some system of charity care; whether via medicaid, government run hospitals (VA for everyone, county hospitals), premium subsidies or vouchers, support for charity hospitals, and so forth; and in our society the government will have a big part in this; I do not appeal to private charity alone.  Such systems will also always be a thorn in our public side; as the tension between cost, effectiveness, quality, moral hazard will not magically disappear no matter how nice the promises of their architects, and the fraud, inefficiency, and bureaucracy of anything run by governments will not disappear as well.

But the great puzzle of health care policy: Just why is it, to accommodate this worthy goal, must your and my health care and insurance be so deeply regulated and so thoroughly dysfunctional? As one small example, why does a 20 minute skin check with the resident of my dermatologist generate a phoney baloney bill for over $1000, meaning a cash and carry market for such a simple, elastically demanded, and perfectly predictable service is impossible?

Why, in order to provide for the unfortunate, do we not simply levy taxes, and pay for charity care, and leave the rest of us alone?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Spikes

Jon Hartley, writing in Forbes, offers a great graph of the overnight Federal Funds rate,


This graph  mirrors nicely the graph I posted last week, from "Deviations from Covered Interest Rate Parity" by Wenxin Du, Alexander Tepper, and Adrien Verdelhan:


What's going on with these quarter-end spikes?

Floating rates?

I was interested to read in the Financial Times, "Iceland weighs plan to peg krona to another currency":
Iceland’s finance minister has admitted it is untenable for the country to maintain its own freely floating currency....Benedikt Johannesson told the Financial Times that the Nordic island of just 330,000 people would look at options to link Iceland’s krona to another currency, most likely the euro or pound.
“Is the status quo untenable? Yes. Everybody agrees on that. We’d like to have a policy that would stabilise the currency. It’s really not good when a currency fluctuates by 10 per cent in the two months since we took over,” said Mr Johannesson, who became finance minister in January. 
The main thing is if you want to peg against a currency, do it against a currency where you do business. Once you decide on a currency, that will also change the future. You will do more business with that area,” he added, pointing to Denmark’s experience of doing more business with Germany after pegging its currency first to the Deutschmark and then the euro.
This is interesting in the context of Conventional Wisdom, which says the euro is a bad idea, and every tiny country needs its own currency, to devalue any time there is a "shock." In this view, Iceland is a great success because it did devalue after its banking crisis. I am a skeptic, largely favoring a common standard of value. Greece did not become a growth tiger from its previous umpteen devaluations. I'm interested that even the supposed success story for devaluation does not see it that way.

Update (via marginal revolution) here at Bloomberg. The idea is controversial.

Everyone wants a float after the fact, to devalue their way out of trouble. But everyone should also want a peg before the fact; the firm commitment that you will not devalue your way out of trouble makes international investment and trade flow much better. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Consumption vs. GDP

Random Critical Analysis has a really interesting blog post from a while ago, on the difference between consumption and income as measures of well being.  The level of data analysis and detail on that blog is really impressive.

The narrow question is whether the US spends "too much" on healthcare. A counterargument has always been, what else should we spend money on? As a society gets wealthier, it's natural to spend more on health care, just as we spend more on art, travel, and so forth.

(The counterargument to that is, whether we spend more or less is beside the point. The point is a dysfunctional regulated oligopoly is charging way too much for what we get. It's not so bad to spend this much, it's bad to get such a bad deal.)

So, the question is not whether the US spends more on health care, the question is whether we spend more on health care relative to a measure of our standard of wealth.  Using GDP as a rough proxy, we spend a lot more on health care relative to GDP than other countries.

But, the larger point of the blog post, on which I'll focus -- consumption is not GDP (income). Americans are far better off relative to other countries than we think we are. See the graph:

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Obamacare Unraveling

I usually leave Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman alone. If you haven't figured them out by now, you are beyond my help.

In particular, Brad a few years ago made fun of me for "predicting" in 2013 that Obamacare exchanges would unravel due to adverse selection. I have so far  resisted the temptation to needle Brad about that as, well... the Obamacare exchanges unraveled due to adverse selection!

But, unbelievably, Brad is doubling down. While recommending again a snarky 2015 Krugman piece, in which even Krugman was not naming his snarks, DeLong writes:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

More covered interest parity

Several correspondents were kind enough to send me additional work on covered interest parity.

There are two big questions (and a third at the end): 1) what force pushes prices out of line? 2) what force stops arbitrageurs from taking advantage of it, and thereby pushing prices back in line?

Covered Interest Parity Lost: Understanding the Cross-Currency Basis by Claudio Borio, Robert McCauley, Patrick McGuire, and Vladyslav Sushko (also "The Failure of Covered Interest Parity") 
point out that the price whose variation drives arbitrage is the forward rate.  
Interest rates in the cash market and the spot exchange rate can be taken as given – these markets are much larger than those for FX derivatives. Hence, it is primarily shifts in the demand for FX swaps or currency swaps that drive forward exchange rates away from CIP and result in a non-zero basis 
So who is putting pressure on forward markets?

Friday, March 24, 2017

More good finance articles

The February Issue of the Journal of Finance made it to the top of my stack, and it has a lot of good articles. The first two especially caught my attention, Who Are the Value and Growth Investors? by Sebastien Bertermeier, Larent Calvet, and Paolo Sodini, and Asset Pricing Without Garbage by Tim Kroencke. A review, followed by more philosophical thoughts.

I  Bertermeier, Calvet, and Sodini. 

Background: Value stocks (low price to book value) outperform growth stocks (high price to book value). Value stocks all move together -- if they fall, they all fall togther -- so this is a "factor risk" not an arbitrage opportunity. But who would not want to take advantage of the value factor? This is an enduring puzzle.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Covered Interest Parity

Here's how covered interest parity works. Think of two ways to invest money, risklessly, for a year. Option 1: buy a one-year CD (conceptually. If you are a bank, or large corporation you do this by a repurchase agreement). Option 2: Buy euros, buy a one-year European CD, and enter a forward contract by which you get dollars back for your euros one year from now, at a predetermined rate. Both are entirely risk free. They should therefore give exactly the same rate of return, by arbitrage. If european interest rates are higher than US interest rates, then the forward price of the euro should be lower, enough to exactly offset the apparent higher return.  If not, then banks can (say), borrow in the US, go through the european option, pay back the US loan and receive an absolutely sure profit.

Of course there are transactions costs, and the borrowing rate is different from the lending rate. But there are also lots of smart long-only investors who will chase a few tenths of a percent of completely riskless yield. So, traditionally, covered interest parity held very well.

An update, thanks to "Deviations from Covered Interest Rate Parity" by Wenxin Du, Alexander Tepper, and Adrien Verdelhan. (Wenxin presented the paper at Stanford GSB recently, hence this blog post.)

The covered interest rate parity relationship fell apart in the financial crisis. And that's understandable. To take advantage of it, you first have to ... borrow dollars. Good luck with that in fall 2008. Long-only investors had more important things on their minds than some cockamaime scheme to invest abroad and use forward markets to gain a half percent per year or so on their abundant (ha!) cash balances.

The amazing thing is, the arbitrage spread has not really closed down since the crisis. See the first graph. [graph follows]

Source: Du, Tepper, and Verhdelhan

What is going on?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Trade insight

Daniel Hannan, a (soon to be unemployed?) UK member of the European Parliament, writes insightfully about trade in the Saturday Wall Street Journal.
It is telling that neither of the Obama administration’s flagship trade deals—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—even had “free trade” in the title. Although they had liberalizing elements, they also contained a great deal of corporatism.
Monitoring TTIP as a member of the European Parliament, I saw plainly enough what was going on: Big multinationals in Europe were getting together with big multinationals in the U.S. and lobbying for more regulation. By combining the most restrictive rules in the EU and the U.S., they aimed to raise barriers to entry and to give themselves an effective monopoly.
There is a deep point here. Our trade treaties have strong elements of managed mercantilism, not free trade, and can serve the interests of global corporations. There is a "better" trade that is also freer trade, and may address some of the political unpopularity of trade deals. Hannan has in mind a very open US-UK bilateral deal, but more deeply states clearly and concisely how better trade deals could work in general
A British-American deal should avoid that danger. How? By focusing on mutual product recognition rather than on common standards. If a drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it should automatically be approved for sale in the U.K. If a trader can practice in the City of London, he should automatically be licensed to practice on Wall Street. And so on.
A commercial deal, in this case as in any other, should have nothing to do with human rights or child labor or climate change. Important as those issues are, they are separate from the free exchange of products.
... Once Britain no longer has to worry about the protectionism of French filmmakers, Italian textile manufacturers and the rest, we should reach a comprehensive agreement covering services as well as goods. If we make sure that the resulting deal is in the interest of consumers rather than producers, we could revive the whole notion of free trade, which is something the world very much needs just now.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Real Fed Issues

The media are usually fixated on the angels on heads of pins question, will she or won't she raise rates 0.25%? As such Fed discussion misses many of the really important issues. Fed’s Challenge, After Raising Rates, May Be Existential by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times is an excellent counterexample and a nice primer on some of the really big issues facing the Federal Reserve -- and the nation -- going forward.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Capital Illogic

More Bank Capital Could Kill the Economy write Tim Congdon and the usually sensible Steve Hanke in today's Wall Street Journal.

I was expecting a quantitative disagreement on plausible channels -- some explicit violation of the Modigliani Miller theorem, some reason that splitting the pizza into 8 slices rather than 4 will help your diet, some argument that relationship lending is inherently tied to short-term funding, and so forth. Instead, we got treated to one of the most illogical conclusions I've seen on the WSJ pages for a long time.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Target the spread

What should the Federal Reserve do, to control inflation, given that

nominal interest rate = real interest rate + expected inflation,

and that real interest rates vary over time in ways that the Fed cannot directly observe? In this post I  explore an idea I've been tossing around for a while: target the spread between nominal and indexed bonds, leaving the level of interest rates to float freely in response to market forces. (It follows Long Run Fed Targets and Michelson Morley and Occam.)

Indexed bonds like TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) pay an interest rate adjusted for inflation. In simple terms, if a one-year indexed bond offers 1%, you actually get 1% + the rate of CPI inflation at the end of the year. So, with some qualifications (below), markets settle down to

nominal interest rate = indexed rate + expected inflation  

The Fed already uses this fact extensively to read market expectations of inflation from the difference between long-term nominal and indexed rates. 

My modest proposal is that the Fed should (perhaps, see below) target the spread, and thereby force expected inflation to conform to its will. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Russ Roberts on Economic Humility

Russ Roberts has an excellent essay, What do economists know? on economic humility. (HT Marginal Revolution)
A journalist once asked me how many jobs NAFTA had created or destroyed. I told him I had no reliable idea. ... 
The journalist got annoyed. “You’re a professional economist. You’re ducking my question.” I disgreed. I am answering your question, I told him. You just don’t like the answer. 
A lot of professional economists have a different attitude. They will tell you how many jobs will be lost because of an increase in the minimum wage or that an increase in the minimum wage will create jobs. They will tell you how many jobs have been lost because of increased trade with China and the amount that wages fell for workers with a particular level of education because of that trade. They will tell you that inequality lowers health or that trade with China reduces the marriage rate or encourages suicide among manufacturing workers. They will tell you whether smaller classrooms improve test scores and by how much. And they will tell you things that are much more complex — what caused the financial crisis and why its aftermath led to a lower level of employment and by how much.
And Russ continues, with great clarity, to explain just how uncertain all those estimates are.

So what do economists know? As Russ points out, much of these kind of estimates are not really produced by economics

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Long Run Fed Targets

What should the Fed's long-run interest rate target be? The traditional view is that the glide path should aim at 4% -- 2% real plus 2% inflation.

3%?

One big question being debated right now is whether the "natural'' real rate of interest -- r* or "r-star" in econspeak -- has declined below 2%.

Over the long run, the Fed cannot control the real rate of interest -- that comes from how much people want to save and what opportunities there are for investment, i.e. the marginal product of capital. So, if the real rate of interest is now permanently lower, say 1%, then one might argue that the glide path should aim for 3% long-run interest rate -- 1% real plus 2% inflation target -- not 4%.

Janet Yellen recently came to Stanford and gave a very interesting speech that talked in part about a lower r-star, and seemed to be heading to something like this view. See the picture:

Source: Federal Reserve. 

(She also talked a lot about Taylor Rules, seeming to move much closer to John Taylor's view of how to implement monetary policy. See interesting coverage on John Taylor's blog. On r*, see Measuring the Natural Rate of Interest Redux by Thomas Laubach and John C. Williams for a central paper on r*. Henrike Michaelis and Volker Wieland have an interesting post on r* and Taylor rules, also commenting on Ms. Yellen's speech.)

Of course, cynics will say that it's just the latest excuse not to raise rates. But these are serious arguments which should be considered on their merits.

0%?

Should the glidepath head to 3% interest rates? Maybe not. How about zero?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Miserable 21st Century

Nicholas Eberstadt in Commentary, (HT Marginal Revolution) offers a revealing look at what's wrong with "middle" America's stagnation. Read the whole thing, but the following snapshot jumped out at me.

He starts with a review, probably familiar to readers of this blog, of the sharp decline in work rates, even among prime-age men and women.
As of late 2016, the adult work rate in America was still at its lowest level in more than 30 years. To put things another way: If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.
Why are so many not working, not studying for work, and not even looking for work? What is going on in their lives? One answer:
The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century...
According to [Alan Krueger's] work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis.
I think Krueger had a different idea in mind: that they are in pain, indicated by medication, so can't be expected to work. How the explosion in disability jibes with a much safer workplace is an interesting puzzle to that view. Eberstadt has a different interpretation, and the lovely thing about facts is they are facts, not interpretations.
We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.

Trump Derangement Syndrome

On Sundays it has been my habit to read the New York Times Sunday Review. I like to peer in the bubble. On view, the old lady is still full-on foaming at the mouth with Trump Derangement Syndrome. Sunday's Review:

  1. Our Putin
  2. Bring Back Hypocrisy ("The American President and the American Way of Lying") 
  3. Donald Trump Will Numb you
  4. When it's time to blow the whistle (why leaking Flynn's private phone conversations is ok)
  5. Are Liberals Helping Trump?
  6. The Secret Service of the Skies (Trump flying is closing down airports.) 
  7. New Yalta (Trump, Putin and Xi photoshpped on to Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill at Yalta) 
  8. Being First Lady is a Job (OK, MDS not TDS, but I still count it. ) 
  9. Unnamed Sources, Happy Readers (more it's ok to leak private phone calls in service of TDS) 
  10. Where in the world can we find hope? "In Canda and Denmark creative strategists fight right-wing populism. "
  11. Breaking the Anti-Immigrant fever ("Americans have been watching the Trump Administration unfold for almost a month now, in all its malevolent incompetence...." ) 
  12. Trapped in Trump's Brain.
  13. How can we get rid of Trump? 
  14. Beltway panic, Wall Street Zero? 
  15. Diagnosing the President (Is he mentally ill?)
  16. Trump's Wall Won't Keep out Heroin.
  17. A Muslim Bank is Unscientific.



All TDS, all the time. There were only 5 pieces that were not, directly, foaming at the mouth about Trump. The old pretense of "balance" with one or two token opposing opinions is completely gone.  There were none -- none -- that offered an inking as to how people in the Administration see things, how Republicans cooperating with the Administration see things, or how the nearly half of the country that voted for Trump sees things. I don't agree with much of what's going on either, but I like to try to understand how they articulate their views. 

And then we wring our hands about polarization. 

Dear Times, get a grip.  America needs a thoughtful opposition, especially now. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Good Review

Frank Diebold, on Mostly Harmless Econometrics:
All told, Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist's Companion is neither "mostly harmless" nor an "empiricist's companion." Rather, it's a companion for a highly-specialized group of applied non-structural micro-econometricians hoping to estimate causal effects using non-experimental data and largely-static, linear, regression-based methods. It's a novel treatment of that sub-sub-sub-area of applied econometrics, but pretending to be anything more is most definitely harmful, particularly to students, who have no way to recognize the charade as a charade.
Disclaimer, I haven't read the book. The  quote does summarize feelings I have had in many seminars involving difference in difference in difference regressions with 100 fixed effects and controls. But mostly I post it as a lovely quote.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Economies in reverse

How can economies forget? How is it that once we have learned to do something better, that knowledge can be lost and economies move backward? How can productivity decline? Viewing productivity as knowledge, it would seem almost impossible for it to do so -- and real business cycle theory was often derided on that point. Yet middle ages eurpoeans lost the recipe for concrete, and time after time we have seen economies get worse. How can our own productivity be growing so slowly overall when so much we see around us is progressing so fast?

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has an intriguing blog post that illuminates these questions (HT marginal revolution). I'll offer my thoughts on the answers at the end.

Scott starts with education:

Inputs triple, output unchanged. Productivity dropped to a third of its previous level.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Healthcare repair on "The Hill"

On repeal and replace, a healthcare oped on "The Hill", here.  

Republicans replacing Obamacare, beware. It has a certain logic. Much of it patches up unintended consequences of previous regulations. If we just roll back and patch once again, we will end up right back where we started.

It’s wiser to start with a vision of the destination. In an ideal America, health insurance is individual, portable, and guaranteed renewable — it includes the right to continue coverage, with no increase in cost. It even includes the right to transfer to a comparable plan at any other insurer. Insurance companies pay each other for these transfers, and then compete for sick as well as healthy patients. The right to continue coverage is separate from the coverage itself. You can get the right to buy gold coverage with a silver plan.

Most Americans sign up as they graduate from high school, get a drivers’ license, register to vote, or start a first job. Young healthy people might choose bare-bones catastrophic coverage, but the right to step up to a more generous plan later. Nobody’s premiums subsidize others, so such insurance is cheap.


People keep their individual plans as they go to school, get and change jobs or move around.  Employers may contribute to these individual plans. If employers offer group coverage, people keep the right to individual plans later.

Health insurance then follows people  from job to job, state to state, in and out of marriage, just like car, home and life insurance, and 401(k) savings.

But health insurance is not a payment plan for small expenses, as home insurance does not “pay for” lightbulbs. Insurance protects your wallet against large, unexpected expenses. People pay for most regular care the same way they pay for cars, homes, and TVs — though likewise helped to do so with health savings and health credit accounts to smooth large expenses over time. Doctors don’t spend half their time filling out forms, and there are no longer two and a half claims processors for every doctor.

Big cost control comes from the only reliable source — rigorous supply competition. The minute someone tries to charge too much, new doctors, clinics, hospitals, and models of care spring up competing for the customer’s dollar. “Access” to health care comes like anything else, from your checkbook and intensely competitive businesses jockeying for it.

What about those who can’t afford even this much?  Nobody dies in the street. There is also a robust system of government and charity care for the poor, indigent, those who have fallen between the cracks, and victims of rare expensive diseases. For most, this simply means a voucher or tax credit to buy private insurance.

But — a central principle — the government no longer massively screws up the health insurance and health care arrangements of the majority of Americans, who can afford houses, cars, and smartphones, and therefore health care, in order to help the unfortunate. We help people forthrightly, with taxes and on-budget spending.

Why do we not have this world? Because it was regulated out of existence, and now is simply illegal.

The original sin of American health insurance is the tax deduction for employer-provided group plans — but not, to this day, for employer contributions to portable individual insurance.  “Insurance” then became a payment plan, to maximize the tax deduction, and then horrendously inefficient as people were no longer spending their own money.

Worse, nobody who hopes to get a job with benefits then buys long-term individual insurance. This provision alone pretty much created the preexisting conditions problem.

Patch, patch. To address preexisting conditions, the government mandated that insurers must sell insurance to everyone at the same price. Insurance companies will then try to avoid sick people, so coverage must be highly regulated.  Healthy people won’t buy it, so it must be nearly impossible for people to just pay out of pocket. Obamacare added the individual mandate.

Cross-subsidies are a second original sin. Our government doesn’t like taxing and spending on budget where we can see it. So it forces others to pay: It forces employers to provide health insurance. It forces hospitals to provide free care. It low-balls Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

The big problem: These patches and cross-subsidies cannot stand competition. Yet without supply competition, costs increase, the number of people needing subsidized care rises, and around we go.

The Republican plans now circulating make progress. Rep. Tom Price’s plan ties protection from preexisting conditions to continuous coverage. His and Speaker Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” plan move toward premium support for private insurance, and greater portability.

So far, though, the announced plans do not really overturn the original sins. But those plans were crafted in a different political landscape. We can now  go big, and really fix the government-induced health care mess in a durable way.

I visited my dermatologist last month. I spent 20 minutes with a resident, and 5 minutes with the dermatologist. The bill was $1335. An “insurance adjustment”  knocked off  $779. Insurance paid $438. I paid $118.  The game goes on. We start with a fake sticker price to negotiate with the uninsured and to declare uncompensated care. But you cannot just walk in and pay as you can for anything else. Even $438 includes a huge cross-subsidy.

We’ll know we’ve fixed health care when we don’t get bills like this.

Mr. Cochrane is a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and an Adjunct Scholar of the Cato Institute.