Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. Andre Gide

Friday, December 18, 2009

Nouriel Roubini (Doctor Doom)

According to CNBC (First in Business Worldwide):

Global markets have rallied "too much, too soon, too fast" this year but a
correction will not happen right away, as a cheap dollar will still encourage investors to seek higher-yielding assets for a few more months, leading economist Nouriel Roubini said Thursday. Roubini, one of the few economists who accurately predicted the
magnitude of the financial crisis
, said the U.S. dollar will eventually recover some of its losses, but only in "six to 12 months from now, not any time soon."

I have nothing against Roubini; doomsayers are a dime a dozen (see my previous post). What I find incredible is how professional columnists at self-proclaimed "leading business networks" mindlessly genuflect at the alter of stopped clocks.

You've heard the old joke about how economists have successfully predicted 10 out of the last 2 recessions. Eric Tyson has a nice little piece claiming that Roubini is among these tireless prognosticators; see here. That's right, Roubini called the recession in 2004, 2005, 2006 and in 2007. As the old saying goes, even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. The puzzle is why there is such a large and persistent demand for stopped clocks.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A History of Hysteria

An interesting recurring fact of human history is the endless supply of doomsayers. One would think that this large supply would drive the price (wages) of these prophets of doom to zero. But from Isaiah to Al Gore, we see that this is not so. We are left to conclude one of two things: either economic theory is wrong; or there exists a large persistent demand for doom and gloom. Naturally, I prefer the latter interpretation. But if so, then evidently, we like having the shit scared out of us. I'm not sure why this is the case, but if so, the phenomenon deserves study.

Most of you are likely too young to remember the hysteria created by the Club of Rome in their 1972 report The Limits to Growth. Not sure what ever happened to these bozos.

I remember my grade 3 teacher announcing to my class that at current rates of air pollution, the world was destined to run out of oxygen in 10 years (1980). I spent the rest of that afternoon trying to design an oxygen tent that might save my family from this impending disaster. Today, I'm sure that students would be well-versed in the technique of sequestering government "stimulus money" to finance the endeavor.

But then my attention was turned to a more pressing issue: the coming ice age; see Newsweek 1975 The Cooling World. Back then, meterologists (aka the experts) were convinced that the globe was cooling; and that disaster loomed on the short horizon. While no one was sure of what was causing the cooling trend, there was a strong suspicion that industrialization (aka capitalism run amok) had something to do with it. All that pollution blocking the sun's rays; and so on.

Fortunately, we didn't have to worry about global cooling for long; it was soon supplanted by a much more pressing concern: Acid Rain. The culprit? You guessed it: industrialization. Never heard of acid rain? Don't worry about it.

The latest, of course, is global warming...oops, I mean "Climate Change." The climate changing...imagine that. The culprit? Do I even have to ask?

How are we to understand all of this? H.L. Menken had this to say:"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

One of my colleagues (Charles Crawford) had this to say: "Why is there such zeal for belief in global warming? I think that it taps into many different sources of the desire for power. Some think it will allow regulation of the evil capitalist system. Others see opportunities for new capitalist opportunities. Some feel it will put a crimp in the style of rising economics, such as China. Others with Puritan sentiments find it satisfying. It would be interesting to explore the desires for power that encourage belief in global warming."

Another one of my colleagues (John Heaney) offers this: "Guilt, as a feeling merited or unmerited, reduces a natural inclination to oppose bogus authority. It is amazing that more or less random unwarranted associations suffices to produce this feeling with effect.Climate justice, climate debt, climate reparations, climate colonialism.Almost certainly, these slogans, will be the permanent legacy of Copenhagen. So why worry about the science?"

I like this letter to the editor of the Economist Magazine, Dec 12, 2009 by Paul Reiter: "Sir-- Passion is the root problem in what you term 'the modern argument over climate change'. ('A heated debate', November 28th). You state for instance, that the 'majority of the world's scientists have convinced themselves' that human activity is the cause of climate change. I know of no poll that confirms this, but your choice of words is telling. In science, our interpretations of nature are based on observation, experiment and evidence, not self-conviction. Those of us who are dismissed, often derided, as sceptics have waited a long time for the chicanery behind the global-warming movement to come to light. But we should not blame scientists --however unprincipled--nor UN organizations, nor national governments. The true culprits are latter-day Nostradamuses, who, under their icons of cuddly pandas and polar bears, have misused science to stoke fear, guilt and a craving for atonement in the minds of the public. Governments have been browbeaten to respond to these catastophists, and some scientists, dependent on public money, have fashioned their behaviour accordingly. Nikolay Semyonov, a Soviet scientist and Nobel prize winner in chemistry, wrote that: 'There is nothing more dangerous than blind passion in science. This is a direct path to unjustified self-confidence, to loss of self-cricalness, to scientific fanatacism, to false science. Given support from someone in power, it can lead to suppression of true science, and since science is now a matter of state importance, to inflicting great injury on the country.' Semyonov was referring to the ruthless manipulation of Soviet science by Trofim Lysenko and other opportunists. In a similar vein, it is time we recognize that we are becoming prey to a new fanaticism, a religious fervour that runs contrary to rational society."

Leigh Palmer notes that "It should be noted that Paul Reiter (of the Pasteur Institute in Paris) is a respected scientist and a former lead author for the IPCC assessments. He left the process and had his name removed as an author because the IPCC had published scientific misinformation regarding malaria in the second and third assessment reports. He had quite a battle with the officials of the IPCC over this and his story bears listening to. You can hear him tell this story in his own words here. His story is not entirely unique, as other lead authors and lead reviewers* have resigned from the IPCC process for very similar reasons.The IPCC has a mission. It was formed by the UN pursuant to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to gather evidence linking anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide to harmful effects on the world's human population. In effect the IPCC is a prosecutor in a criminal proceeding with copious resources at its command to prove carbon dioxide guilty. The prosecutorial metaphor fails, however, because there is no institutional defense. Carbon dioxide is being tried by a modern Inquisition."

I am inclined to agree with these assessments. Not that this makes me feel any better. I think we can all agree that we would prefer to live in a cleaner world; and that it is desirable that society takes steps toward meeting this worthy goal. Why do many influential people feel the need to resort to scare tactics and bullying to achieve this goal (assuming that this is their goal)? And why do so many of us fall for it, time and time again?

PS. Just came across this fun read: History's Hysteria

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Climate Science Hanky Panky

The scientific community is buzzing over thousands of emails and documents -- posted on the Internet last week after being hacked from a prominent climate-change research center -- that some say raise ethical questions about a group of scientists who contend humans are responsible for global warming. Read more here: WSJ

Interesting development: Phil Jones, Director of the Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia, is stepping down pending an investigation into the ethical conduct of his and perhaps other climate scientists' work on historical global temperature research; see here.

And now for something truly appalling (I sincerely hope that this is not true): Uh Oh -- Raw Data in New Zealand Tells a Different Story than the Official One.

An interesting piece in today's WSJ: The Climate Science Isn't Settled (by Richard S. Lindzen, professor of meteorology at MIT). See also: Climategate.

Thank goodness that the science of macroeconomics is settled and free of any politically-motivated hanky panky!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fiscal Multipliers in War and in Peace

It truly is breathtaking how certain some people are of what they know to be true about the way a macroeconomy operates. The Krugmans and DeLongs of this world really make it sound like everything we really need to know has been settled long ago. Yes, the science is "settled" (where have we heard this before?).

I recently came across this piece by Brad DeLong: A Guide for the Perplexed. Consider the following quote:
But when fiscal boost was tried on a large enough scale, it certainly did the job. And it is reasonable to infer (with all the caveats provided by the CBO) that what is true in the very large will be true in the merely large as well. Eugene Fama says that it is theoretically impossible for fiscal stimulus to boost output: World War II proves him wrong. Robert Barro says that the multiplier is zero: World War II proves him wrong. Benn Steil says that Jacques Rueff in 1947 conclusively proved that fiscal policy could not boost employment: World War II proves him wrong.

Implication: a WWII style fiscal stimulus will "do the job" in a peacetime recession. WWII "proves" it. does he know this? Why do I not feel as confident that this is the case? Am I truly that dense? (an invite to some rather rude comments, I'm sure!)

In any case, I decided to gather my thoughts on the subject and post them here for public review and criticism. The piece is a bit too long for a blog posting; so if you're interested, please click here. Looking forward to any comments.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I Don't Mean to Nitpick, But...

You have no doubt read the news. The WSJ headline reads: Economy Snaps Long Slump, GDP's 3.5% Rise May Mark End of Recession; Recovery Weak, Reliant on Stimulus. See here. I reproduce their figure at the right.

Evidently, consumer spending "led" third-quarter growth (note the implicit use of the theory that consumer spending "drives" growth -- it is hard to get reporters to think outside the Econ 101 box). The 1% figure is, I think, rightly attributed in part to the "cash for clunkers" program.

My nitpick is the following observation. Almost all of these expenditure components (save exports) consists of spending on both domestically produced goods and imports. What fraction of this 1% is accounted for by spending on imported motor vehicles and parts?

It would be more informative, I think, if all these expenditure components had imports subtracted off individually; rather that summing them all up and then subtracting off total imports (the -2% figure in red).

Given the way the numbers are presented here, we have no idea to what extent the government subsidy stimulated domestic production (which is what goes into the calculation of GDP), as opposed to total expenditure. In short, did the "cash for clunkers" program simply encourage Americans to purchase foreign vehicles; and, if so, to what extent might one argue that this program encouraged the domestic production of vehicles (as opposed to foreign production)?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Averting the Worst

According to Paul Krugman, we recently avoided a Great Depression because of Big Government; see here.

By any "reasonable" estimate, he says that the current stimulus program has saved up to 1 million jobs. Let's imagine that this is true. According to the government's own figures (see here), roughly 100 billion of the stimulus plan has been spent to date (the vast majority in the form of transfers; rather than purchases). So, if my arithmetic is correct, this translates into only $100,000 per job. Well done, government.

The thing that caught my eye in Krugman's piece was this statement:
All of this [Big Government not slashing spending the way the private sector does during recession] has helped support the economy in its time of need, in a way that didn't happen back in 1930, when federal spending was a much smaller percentage of GDP.

He is, of course correct in stating that the U.S. federal government was much smaller in 1930. And while he does not say so explicitly, I think he may leave the reader with the additional impression that, in addition to being small, the Hoover government actually chose to become smaller (mimicking the private sector in tightening its belt through hard times). The facts, as far as I can gather, seem to suggest something quite different.

According to this data, government outlays from 1930-33 increased by 9.0%, 19.4% and 46.5%, respectively. The latter two years in particular constituted classic deficit-financed expansionary policy (a policy, one might add, came under scathing criticism for recklessness by the Democratics in Congress, led by Roosevelt himself).

I'm not sure what to make of such data; but it does seem to dispell the myth of Hoover as a "do nothing" president.

It is of some interest, I think, to record how the economy recovered from recession prior to the era of Big Government. I seem to recall a fairly significant recession occurring in the early 1920s. Here is the data.
According to this data, the economy contracted by 3.3% and 4.3% in 1920 and 1921, respectively. The economy expanded by 4.5% and 11.4% in 1922 and 1923, respectively.

How did it manage this recovery after 2 years in the absence of Big Government? Why did a Great Depression not occur?

In fact, fiscal policy throughout this entire episode was significantly contractionary. How are we to make sense of this? Or, more precisely, I wonder how Krugman would make sense of this?

[Thanks to Doug Smith, for gathering this data]

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And the New Minneapolis Fed President is...

Narayana Kocherlakota; see here.

Hmm...his biography says that he was born in Baltimore. I seem to recall him mentioning that he was born in Winnipeg. Is he Canadian, or isn't he? Someone enlighten me!

In any case, he is an excellent choice. NK is a consummate academic: clear-thinking, articulate, and persuasive. Does he have what it takes to be a successful/influential Fed president? Yes, I believe so. Apart from his academic credentials, he has a very easy manner; not many people are likely to find him a boor. He has the gift of skewering lame-brained ideas to the wall, and then making you feel good that you've learned something useful (at least, this has been my experience).

Congratulations to NK...and good luck!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kocherlakota on the State of Macro

A very nice piece by NK here. Unfortunately, you won't see something like this published in the NYT. But naturally, we can rely on DeLong to make a comment; see here: Narayana Leaves Me Puzzled. Consider this DeLong quote:
The models thus tell us that downturns are either the result of a great forgetting of technological and organizational knowledge, a great vacation as workers develop a sudden extra taste for leisure, or a great rusting as the speed with which oxygen in the air corrodes speeds up and so reduces the value of large things made out of metal.

This is exactly how I would expect a first-year undergraduate to interpret a model that they've seen for the first time. And DeLong claims that he has a PhD in economics. Let me help the poor lad along.

Some macro models incorporate "news shocks." A news shock is the random arrival of information that leads people to (rationally) revise their forecasts of future events. These forecasts may be made, for example, over future productivity, future riskiness of investments, future policies, etc. These news shocks do not seem like an implausible impulse mechanism; unexpected news arrives every day.

Investment demand today depends on forecasted productivity of investment. These forecasts will change with news; leading to variations in investment that an econometrician might identify as "aggregate demand shocks." As the investment matures and comes online, its actual productivity may be higher or lower than originally forecast; its realization constitutes another "shock."

There is no need to appeal to DeLong's childish "great forgetting" interpretation of a negative technology shock. A negative technology shock occurs when the realized return on investment is lower than expected. The return on an important class of investments may turn out to be terrible (think of all the fibre optic cable planted across the world's oceans in anticipation of a demand that never materialized). And as Fisher Black has stressed, these types of errors are typically correlated across agents. In short, recessions may be explained, in part, by collective mistakes on investments made in the past.

In any case, what DeLong fails to offer us what he might propose instead as the ultimate source of the business cycle? I am guessing that he might say something like "animal spirits." So why did the recession occur? Because people thought that it would. Why did that boom occur? Because people believed that it would.

There may be an element of truth to the animal spirit hypothesis; but then, there do appear to be competing interpretations as well. If DeLong would spend less time writing his blog and more time reading the literature, he might one day be less puzzled with Narayana's observations.

Levine to Krugman: A Love Letter

David Levine (Washington University in St. Louis) writes an open letter to Paul Krugman here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thar she blows! The Bitter Paul Krugman

The latest by Paul Krugman here: How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?

So what, pray tell, have we learned from the blowhard this time?

First thing: Krugman is not an economist. Evidence: Throughout his long rant, he is careful in referring to economists as "they." So whatever went wrong, please don't blame Krugman. On the other hand, not being an economist does not appear to place limits on his profound knowledge of how the profession should reorganize its thinking. Please show us the way, o wise one.

But first, what went wrong exactly? His claim is that the profession fell in love with its mathematically elegant models; and adopted a belief that unfettered markets achieve the best of all possible worlds (Dr. Pangloss). Evidently, this latter belief, supported by unsubstantiated modeling, translated into policy advice with predictable consequences.

Funny though: My reading of economic history suggests that economic crisis preceded mathematical modeling. Moreover, the phenomenon seems to transcend institutional regime (economic crises are endemic to "planned" societies as well). And as for how the philosophy of free market capitalism has manifested itself in reality--well, this is utterly laughable.

In any case, his claim that "Freshwater economists are, essentially, neoclassical purists" is so far off the mark as to make one question his academic credentials. The neoclassical framework is certainly viewed as a benchmark; but almost all serious work that I am aware of regularly departs from its basic tenets (in particular, by explicitly modeling the problems that arise when commitment is limited and information is private). There is, in fact, much work being done in taking institutions seriously, in modeling environments where trade is subject to search frictions, and in identifying potentially beneficial policy interventions. Krugman would not be aware of this, of course, as he spends all his time writing op-ed pieces for the NYT instead of actually engaging in difficult research questions.

It is true, however, that most of the profession adopts the view that individuals are "rational;" at least, in the sense that we model people trying to the best they can (according to a well-defined objective) subject to the constraints imposed upon them by the economic or institutional environment. I believe that this assumption is employed for three reasons: [1] the idea that people try to do the best they can subject to limitations does not sound crazy; [2] the hypothesis admits all sorts of "crazy" equilibrium behavior anyway; and [3] it is hard to know what the hypothesis should be replaced with. In particular, while there is only one way to be "rational," there are an infinitely many different ways to be "irrational."

To give you just two quick examples, Krugman offers his Capitol Hill Babysitting Cooperative anecdote as some sort of puzzle for "neoclassical" economists. I doubt, however, whether he has read this. Or, if you believe his rant the mathematically inclined are oblivious to possibility of economic catastrophe; read this.

As an alternative, Krugman proposes the methodology of behavioral finance. Basically, the approach there is to simply assume that people behave according to some (theoretically imposed or empirically estimated) rule of thumb. In less polite language, assume that people are "stupid." Personally, I believe there may be much to be learned by this approach; and I welcome the fact that a part of the profession devotes some time exploring its implications. But one gets the sense that Krugman prefers this approach because by adopting it, we admit that the general population is stupid and is therefore in need of guidance. This guidance, quite naturally, is to come from self-appointed philosopher kings, like Krugman (consulting $).

On one point, Krugman is correct: There was a growing complacency among many in the profession (and elsewhere). He is incorrect, however, in suggesting that this complacency was the product of economists falling in love with their mathematical models. The majority of the profession continues to whittle away at difficult problems in relative obscurity. The complacency, in my view, stemmed from people like Krugman -- people who poo-poo those of the profession engaged in exploring difficult problems in a rigorous manner.

Krugman prefers his simple equations--an IS curve, and LM curve, and all his "fudge factors" to explain the world. Not much else is needed when you know that the world is stupid; and that you alone hold the answers.

Unfortunately, people are evidently too stupid even to recognize Krugman's genius (confirming his hypothesis in his own mind, no doubt). Is this the source of his thinly-disguised bitterness?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fiscal Multiplier Mockery

Just came across this IMF Staff Position Note by Olivier Blanchard (and coauthors) entitled Fiscal Policy for the Crisis.

The best part of this paper is contained in Appendix II: Fiscal Multipliers-A Review of the Literature, and Appendix III: Five Case Studies of Fiscal Policy During Financial Crisis.

The conclusion I arrive at in reading these appendices is that during a financial crisis: [1] fixing the financial sector is of primary importance; and [2] fiscal policies may be marginally beneficial at best, and seriously detrimental at worst.

In the body of the paper, the authors draw several lessons from history.

[1] Successful resolution of the financial crisis is a precondition for achieving sustained growth.

Here, they give the example of Japan during the 1990s. Evidently, "fiscal actions following the bursting asset bubble failed to achieve sustained recovery because financial problems were allowed to fester."

In short, fiscal stimulus failed in Japan. But we don't really want to believe that fiscal stimulus doesn't work. It didn't work here because things were not set up to allow it to work. I wonder how one might modify an IS-LM model to formalize this notion?

But there are more examples. "Delaying interventions, as was also done in the US during the Hoover administration and during the S&L crisis, typically leads to a worsening of macroeconomic conditions, resulting in higher fiscal costs later on."

So I guess that if we wait too long, the fiscal multiplier now is severely negative. Not sure what to make of this (like, where does this show up in the IS-LM model?). And in any case, they have their history wrong: Hoover did in fact react quickly to the crisis (although many of his measures were frequently blocked by the Democrats-Roosevelt, in particular-and then later adopted wholesale by the Democrats). And even though "interventions" were evidently delayed during the S&L crisis, I seem to recall a fairly protacted spell of growth in the 1980s. Unimportant details, I suppose.

Ah yes, but there was the "prompt and sizeable support to the financial sector by the Korean authorities that limited the duration of the macroeconomic consequences thus limiting the need for other fiscal action."

Huh? The Korean government fixed the financial sector, thereby eliminating the need for future fiscal stimulus? So fiscal stimulus is not needed, if the financial sector is repaired. This is supposed to be taken as evidence that fiscal stimulus is needed?

[2] The solution to the financial crisis always precedes the solution to the macroeconomic crisis.


[3] A fiscal stimulus is highly useful (almost necessary) when the financial crisis spills over to the corporate and household sectors.

Not sure where this came from; they cite no examples (and indeed, the examples above seem to suggest otherwise).

[4] The fiscal response can have a larger effect on aggregate demand if its composition takes into account the specific features of the crisis.

In this regard, they note that the tax/transfer policies implemented early in the Nordic crisis did little to stimulate output. Sure, the Ricardian equivalence theorem at work. As for "evidence" as to how a different composition of expenditure might work, they make the following compelling statement: "In theory, public spending on goods and services has larger multiplier effects..."

I see. That would be the same theory (IS-LM) that has absolutely nothing to say about financial crisis?

And so, on the basis of this, the authors' conclusions are:

The optimal fiscal package should be timely, large, lasting, diversified, contingent, collective, and sustainable: timely, because the need for action is immediate; large, because the current and expected decrease in private demand is exceptionally large; lasting because the downturn will last for some time; diversified because of the unusual degree of uncertainty associated with any single measure; contingent, because the need to reduce the perceived probability of another “Great Depression” requires a commitment to do more, if needed;collective, since each country that has fiscal space should contribute; and sustainable, so as not to lead to a debt
explosion and adverse reactions of financial markets.

And so there you have it. The fiscal multiplier is greater than one. Unless, that is, the stimulus in question is any one of: not-in-time, small, short, undiversified, non-contingent, non-collective, and unsustainable.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why the Growing Level of U.S. Debt May Not be Inflationary

History shows that high levels of government debt are frequently associated with inflation. The reason for this seems clear enough. At some point, maturing debt needs to paid back. At high enough levels of debt, rolling the debt over is no longer feasible. Cutting back government spending and raising taxes is politically difficult. The easy way out is simply to print new money. As the money supply expands, inflation resuts.

The rough logic described above would seem to fit the experience of many smaller economies that find themselves under fiscal pressure. But things may not work so simply for a select few dominant economies. Japan appears to be one example; and the U.S. another.

Let us consider the U.S. Unlike most other economies, there appears to be a huge worldwide demand for U.S. Treasuries and U.S. dollars (which can be thought of as zero-interest Treasuries). A large scale increase in the supply of these government debt instruments need not lead to a depreciate in their value if there is a correspondingly large scale increase in the worldwide demand for these objects. What is the evidence that this may be happening?

Foreigners Snap Up Treasuries Even as US Debt Keeps Rising

But why should this be so? What accounts for what appears to be an insatiable demand for US debt, especially in the wake of the recent financial crisis?

Ricardo Caballero of MIT offers some hints in a very interesting piece entitled: On the Macroeconomics of Asset Shortages. After reading this paper, I started thinking in the following way. Tell me what you think.

There is a high and growing demand for low-risk assets, both as a store of value, and as collateral objects in payment systems (e.g., repo and credit derivatives markets). This growth has exploded over the last 20 years or so; and stems from the demand from emerging economies and innovations in the financial sector. There is a worldwide "shortage" of good quality (low-risk) assets, like U.S. Treasuries (which explains their relatively low yield). Indeed, many of the innovations in the financial sector can be interpreted as the private sector's response to this shortage: the creation of "low-risk" tranches of MBSs allowing these objects to substitute for U.S. Treasuries as collateral in the rapidly expanding repo market.

The recent financial crisis was centered in the repo market. Very suddenly, agents in the repo market were no longer willing to accept MBS as collateral (or if they did, at very large "haircuts"). The demand for U.S. Treasuries exploded (I seem to recall a day when their yields actually went negative). At the same time, there was a worldwide "flight to quality;" which again, manifested itself as large increase in the demand for (relatively safe) U.S. Treasuries.

If this is more or less true, then the implication is this: The massive increase in the supply U.S. Treasury debt may very be "socially optimal" in the sense that the U.S. government is simply supplying the world with an asset that is in very high demand (which, in turn, means that the demanders obvious find some value in the existence of such an asset). To the extent that this "new demand regime" remains stable, the added supply of U.S. Treasuries will impose no financial burden on the U.S. (indeed, they make off like bandits, as the Treasuries are ultimately purchased by exporting goods and services to the U.S.).

The million dollar question, of course, is whether the high world demand for U.S. debt will persist long into the future (and whether the U.S. government will "overissue" debt beyond what is called for by this new high-demand regime). Who knows what will happen. But it appears to me that IF the U.S. government plays its cards right, it may very well enjoy its higher debt levels without the prospect of inflation. U.S. citizens will benefit (from the sales of Treasuries for goods) and the world will be grateful to hold a stable asset.

Well, maybe. But that was a big IF. What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

William Poole on Ben Bernanke

For those of you who may not know, I have recently joined the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis as a VP in the research division. Will keep you posted on things that I learn (and am allowed to reveal).

We were recently asked to comment on an article written by Bill Poole, former president and CEO of the Fed here in St. Louis. He asks the question: Should President Obama reappoint Fed Chairman Bernanke? See here. His conclusion is "no." (too late, it appears).

So what's his beef? Essentially, that some of the new policies initiated by Bernanke have violated stipulations in the Federal Reserve Act (FRA) and that, in doing so, he has comprised the Fed's political independence. The relevant stipulations are section 13(3) and section 14(b).

Poole grants Bernanke some leeway in terms of the emergency measures adopted in March 2008 (Bear Stearns) and September 2008 (AIG). But he believes that the Fed's Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF) violates section 13(3). He may have a point here; but there is not much a leg for him to stand on as the term "exigent" is not precisely defined.

Poole also believes that the Fed's buying program for Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) is not authorized under Section 14(b). I beg to differ. As far as I can tell, the act does allow for purchases of assets that are guaranteed by the U.S. government. The MBS purchased by the Fed are fully insured by the Treasury (and indeed, they are generating a very nice return).

Poole makes some very good points about distancing the Fed from politics as much as possible. But I do not believe that he makes a compelling case against reappointment. Among other things, he does not propose alternative candidates (many of the apparent frontrunners would likely view Bernanke's interventions as too conservative). Bill should be careful what he wishes for.

In any case, it looks like Bernanke will be reappointed (after a good grilling in front of the Senate). Considering the alternatives, I think this was the right choice.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

B.C. Election Campaign 2009

There is something very important happening in BC at the moment. The Vancouver Canucks are in a death struggle with the Chicago Blackhawks (series tied 1-1). Things are not looking good as the series moves to Chicago. Game 3 is on tonight. Oh, the drama!

There is also something less important happening in BC at the moment. We are in the midst of a provincial election campaign. I heard that the provincial party leaders are engaged in a series of debates. Naturally, I checked out the comedy network for the full schedule. No luck. But I did find a summary here of some recent "highlights."

The cast of characters are in the finest tradition of BC politics (they are all nuts). But I think that NDP leader Carole James really takes the cake. Here is a quote:
"We’re doing that (lowering taxes, increasing spending) within a fiscally responsible plan, a balanced budget in four years, and putting you and your family first. That’s what people are looking for in these tough times.”

That's right: she will put you and your family first. The presumption, I suppose, is that the other leaders are promising to put you and your family second.

Ms. James' platform reminds me of the fabulously funny radio campaign put on by my favourite London hangout Joe Cools in the 1980s: "Come to Joe Cools...where we'll screw the other guy and pass the savings on to you!"

Relative to Ms. James, Mr. Cools is to be commended along three dimensions. First, Mr. Cools understands the concept of feasibility (it is impossible to put everyone first; unless, of course, everyone is simultaneously put last). Second, Mr. Cools is honest. And third, Mr. Cools was actually trying to be funny. I vote for Joe Cools!

Now...back to the NHL playoffs...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Against Intellectual Property

I have long suspected that there was something fishy about the economic defense for property rights in knowledge. My first attempt at questioning the wisdom of such a policy at a conference at NYU in 1994 was met with harsh criticism (especially from the late great Fisher Black, bless his libetarian soul). I was never able to fully recover from that experience, and so I meekly let that research program die.

But I am now very pleased to see that Michele Boldrin and David Levine have taken up the cause. Levine was kind enough to visit SFU on March 20, 2009 where he delivered a public lecture entitled "Against Intellectual Property." The lecture, if you are interested, is now available online here.

There is much food for thought here. The logic of his argument and the evidence he provides is quite persuasive, in my view. But if you see any holes in his arguments that have escaped me, please let me know.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Does Fiscal Spending "Work"?

I just returned from a visit to the Bank of Canada and had the opportunity to speak to a few high-level officials at the Bank along with several leading academics concerning a variety of issues relating to the current financial crisis.

In some of my conversations, I brought up the subject of fiscal spending; in particular, the desirability of many of the so-called "fiscal stimulus" packages that are currently being proposed. I am not sure why I was surprised, but almost everyone I spoke to thought that there was clear merit in the idea of "fiscal stimulus;" especially in the form of infrastructure investment.

Once their view was made known, I asked the question "why?" What evidence can be brought to bear in support of their view? What was it that convinced them of their belief on this matter?

Judging by the delay in the responses I received, I got the impression that many were not used to being asked such a question. They had to pause, after the initial shock I suppose, of having to collect their thoughts on the matter. The responses I received were not entirely convincing.

The responses could be divided into one of three categories:

[1] There is econometric evidence which suggests that the government spending multiplier is greater than one;
[2] The big jump in U.S. fiscal spending during WW2 and corresponding increase in GDP constitutes clear evidence of the efficacy of fiscal stimulus; and
[3] These are unusual times; the market is screwed up and *something* of this sort must be tried.

Personally, I am skeptical of having one's belief on the matter so firmly rooted on the basis of [1]. But perhaps one of you might persuade me otherwise.

The second world war is one data point that most people like to point to for confirming evidence. But is it wise to base one's beliefs on this one data point? The war experience was rather unusual. True, there was a massive buildup in military hardware (and hence, measured GDP), much of which was destined for destruction. But there was also a sharp drop in personal consumption expenditures (e.g., foodstuffs and material were rationed to the population). And while employment surged, much of this was by taking women out of the home sector and into the production of war materials. I can see why a population might want to make such sacrifices during a period of war; but would they be willing to do so today? And if so, would such a diversion of resources make society better off in any meaningful sense? I am not sure.

I found [3] the least convincing. My own view is that if we do not have convincing evidence that a particular policy will "work," then how do we know that doing "something" might not leave things even worse off than doing "nothing" at all? Since doing "something" involves the mass appropriation of resources from private citizens, would it not be better to err on the side of doing "nothing?" (Evidently not).

Of course, there may be better answers to the questions I asked, but these were the answers I received. My surprise, I suppose, was not in the answers themselves; but rather, how firmly people seemed to believe in the value of fiscal stimulus on the basis of their reported answers. Is this some sort of new religion? Perhaps they might have provided more convincing answers if they had a little more time to think about it, but I am not sure.

My own view is that people believe that fiscal stimulus works because there is no question that it does work at the microeconomic level. That is, when the government commissions a large number of workers to build something, one can actually see it being built, and one can actually see workers being employed in the act of construction.

But of course, what appears to work at the microeconomic level does not necessarily mean that it "works" at the macroeconomic level. It is harder to "see" the general equilibrium effects. It is harder to estimate net employment creation (rather than gross). What would these workers have been doing absent the government project? Would they have sat at home "idle;" or would they have been employed in some other sector (or perhaps engaged in retraining?). And how does the tax bill levied on the population at large affect their desired spending? If government spending is so successful in one area, then why not have the government coordinate all production activities in the economy? What is the optimal level of government spending? How does one calculate it? These are much harder questions to answer; and so, I suppose it is easier if they are not asked.

I leave you with a couple of articles on Japan's fiscal experience:
Bloated Bureaucracy Exposed (Japan Times)
Japan's Big-Works Stimulus is a Lesson (NY Times)

For the time-being, I remain agnostic on the subject (although, I confess that the evidence from Japan leans me more in one direction than the other). If someone can provide me with clear evidence one way or the other, I'd really appreciate it!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

King Solomon's Dilemma and Behavioral Economics

When the tale of King Solomon's dilemma was first told to me as a kid, I was (like most people, no doubt) left marvelling at Solomon's brilliant solution to a rather difficult predicament.

But then I grew up and made the unfortunate choice of pursuing a graduate degree in economics. My mind was left rotted to the point where I could no longer appreciate what most other people continued to believe was the self-evident wisdom of Solomon.

The problem with Solomon's "solution" is that it adopts what in modern parlance would be labeled a "behavioral approach." In other words, the solution relies heavily on the assumption that people are "irrational" in a particular sense. It turns out to be easy to be a wise philosopher king when one assumes that everyone else is irrational. Perhaps this is why so many aspiring philosopher kings today want to replace conventional economic theory with what they call "behavioral economics."

Let's think about this. The "mechanism" (game) designed by Solomon proposes to split the baby in two (sounds "fair" at least). One women screams out "No! Let the other have the whole baby instead." The other woman coldly agrees to the solution. The real mother is revealed in the obvious manner. What is not so obvious is why the false mother could not have anticipated this outcome; a more clever woman would have simply mimicked the behavior of the true mother. Instead, the false mother fails to make this calculation (and instead adopts a simple "behavioral" strategy; which is just a fancy label for irrational behavior).

Now, perhaps there really are "irrational" people like the false mother. But would you be willing to stake a baby's life on this assumption? Even if this mechanism worked out one time, could we reasonably expect it to work in the future (would people not learn from the outcome and tailor their strategies accordingly?). If you believe that people are fundamentally irrational in this sense, then you will make a fine behavioral economist (and a poor philosopher king).

So what is the solution to Solomon's dilemma?

One approach might be to adopt the Coase theorem, which states that if transaction costs are zero, then an arbitrary assignment of property rights will lead to the efficient solution. That is, Solomon could just have assigned the baby at random to one or the other woman. If it fell into the hands of the false mother, the true mother (who presumably values the baby more) could then purchase the baby (from the one who values it less). In other words, if there are gains to trade (as would obviously exist in this case), then these gains will be realized--if transaction costs are zero.

The problem with this approach is that transaction costs are obviously not zero (these costs could arise, for example, if the true value of the baby by both women is private information). Moreover, this "solution" violates what most people would consider to be a principle of "fairness" (why should the true mother pay for her own baby?). The Coase theorem is a fascinating theorem, but it should not be applied as a solution to the problem at hand; the theorem simply states what one could expect to happen IF transaction costs are zero. In fact, the Coase theorem should be interpreted as explaining precisely why various institutions emerge to handle the problem of resource allocation in a world where transaction costs are not zero.

One such solution was offered by Solomon. But I have already highlighted the problem with his proposed institution (or mechanism). Another possible solution was offered by William Vickery: a sealed-bid second-price auction (or a Vickery auction). Assume, as seems reasonable in this case, that only the two mothers know the true value they attach to the baby. A Vickery auction would have both mothers submitting sealed bids for the baby. The woman with the highest bid would then win the auction, but pay the second-highest bid.

This solution is clever because the amount that either woman expects to pay is independent of their actual bid. Accordingly, neither one of them have an incentive to misrepresent how much they really value the baby. If the true mother values the baby more, she will win the auction (it would not be rational for the false mother to bid more than what the baby is worth to her).

Clever indeed. But there is still a problem associated with this solution. In particular, it requires that the true mother actually pay for her baby. Leaving issues of "fairness" aside, a more relevant problem may be that this mother does not have the resources to make the requisite payment. (It is absolutely critical that the payment be forthcoming; if Solomon could not credibly commit to collecting the payment, then rational players will understand this limitation and alter their strategies accordingly).

One solution might be to let the women offer themselves as indentured servants. This sounds feasible and has the desirable property that the true mother gets her baby (she would presumably be happy to offer herself as Solomon's servant, if it means getting her baby). While this solution has its drawbacks, it seems to dominate Solomon's solution--something that risks having the baby split in two.

But is it possible to design a mechanism that "does the right thing" without any cost to the true mother? Several solutions have been proposed in the literature; but each with its own peculiar drawbacks. But I recently came across one proposed solution that seems quite clever; see Bid and Guess: A Nested Solution to King Solomon's Dilemma, by Cheng-Zhong Qin of UC Santa Barbara.

The idea as presented in Qin's paper seems a little more complicated than it needs to be (but I could be wrong). The basic idea, as I see it, is to have the women play a "participation game" just before playing a standard Vickery auction. We could set up the mechanism as follows.

First, Solomon informs the women of the Vickery auction that will be used to allocate the baby. Second, he informs each woman that the price of participating in the Vickery auction will be a half-life of servitude in some miserable occupation. The women are then asked to submit envelopes with ballots that are marked "yes" or "no" (yes, I am willing to participate; no I am not). If both women submit "yes," then the Vickery auction is played. If only one woman submits "yes," then the baby is allocated to her for free (the auction is not played). If neither woman submits "yes," then the baby is disposed of in some manner (perhaps in the King's service).

Now, put yourself in the place of first, the true mother and second, the false mother. How would you play the game? Would you say "yes" or "no?"

Theory suggests that the true mother will say "yes" to the participation game (she knows that she will get the baby if the auction is played; she will pay one half-life of servitude for participation, and the other half-life in payment for the baby). Likewise, the false mother will say "no." Why submit to a half-life of servitude when she knows that she will inevitably lose the subsequent auction? The false mother will rationally bow out of the bidding; she will choose not to participate. And the baby is allocated for free to the true mother.

Of course, this assumes that the people playing this game are "rational" in the sense that they understand the rules of the game and in the sense that they can anticipate how others are likely to play it. One of the great strengths of assuming rationality in this form is that the assumption can be applied as a general condition that prevails in any resource allocation problem. Its weakness is that people may not always possess this assumed degree of rationality.

But the alternative--the "behavioral approach"--suffers from an even greater problem. In particular, the policymaker must be aware of precisely how people are irrational in each and every given circumstance (a great loss in generality). There are an infinite number of ways in which people might be irrational; and the behavioral theorist is forced to choose among an infinite number of "behavioral rules" that he or she believes captures this irrationality in a plausible manner. The only hope that a behavioral theorist has for developing a general theory is in discovering that people are irrational in some systematic manner. But if the theorist can identify this systematic pattern of irrationality, it seems hard to know why people cannot discover it for themselves too. But then, it seems clearly in the interest of aspiring philosopher kings prefer to think of themselves as being systematically more rational than the subjects they study.

Friday, March 27, 2009

South Park on the Financial Crisis

Am winding down a two-week visit at the department of economics at Nanterre (Paris X). Paris is lovely, even at this time of year. And naturally, I have fallen in love...with the bakery next to my flat (a sure sign of old age, when one prefers to oggle a fresh baguette in a shop window, rather than the pretty Parisiennes walking down the street).

During my idle time (digestive phase), I surf the net for amusing/interesting pieces. Most of my searches have turned up idiotic musings by the likes of Buiter, DeLong, and comrade Anatole. But here now, I have finally found the jewel among the rot: an episode from South Park that draws on Monty Python's "The Life of Brian."

This is absolutely brilliant; a short clip is available here.

I wonder whether all the finger-pointers might recognize themselves? (I doubt it).

Goodbye, Homo Economicus

Here we have Anatole Kaletsky, giving us his version of the Buiter rant: Goodbye, Homo Economicus.

Who is Anatole Kaletsky? Evidently, he is an "economist." Well, more like a journalist-economist-consultant-forecaster. That is, he is a snake-oil salesman; which is to say, he is richer than you or I.

In this fine piece, Kaletsky argues that economists must take the blame for the current financial crisis. Well, not all economists, of course. Not economists like Kaletsky, for example. Not the "talking head" economists, or the economists who like to forecast things. The blame lies with academic me. Well, I am sorry. I am truly sorry for causing the crisis.

The fault lies with academics who plant crazy ideas into the minds of people (adults who cannot possibly be held responsible for what they learn). Crazy ideas like efficient markets, the glory of capitalism, blah, blah, blah. One can certainly see how these crazy ideas have manifested themselves as unbridled capitalism run amok (it is inconvenient here to observe that the financial sector is by far the most heavily regulated sector in any "well-developed" economy).

To flash his eruditeness, Kaletsky offers us the following quote from Keynes:
Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

I like this quote and agree with it. Kaletsky evidently believes that the economist is to blame for this; rather than the madmen who adopt their ideas. Evidently, Kaletsky must have skipped some classes at Cambridge. I see that Keynes (1923) also said:
The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking which helps its possessor to draw correct conclusions.

This is something that Kaletsky evidently does not understand. He certainly shows none of the humility that academic economists demonstrate when it comes to understanding the world around them. For example, take a look at Kaletsky's bold predictions for the economy (made January 2008), Goodbye to all that: the worst is over for the global credit crunch.

His predictions are as follows:

[1] The global credit crisis is now almost over;
[2] There will be no U.S. recession;
[3] Stock markets around the world will rise in 2008;
[4] There will be a "decoupling" between the U.S. and Asia;
[5] The sterling will fall against every other major currency

Incredibly, every single one of his predictions failed to materialize. This takes an incredible amount of skill (generally, bullshit forecasts can expect to be correct 50% of the time). But I suppose that the fault here again lies with academic economists. Shame on all of you!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Larry Summers on Fear and Greed

I used to think that Larry Summers was a reasonable sort of fellow. By here is some evidence proving that spending too much time in administration and politics can rot even the best mind; see White House: Greed Will Help. Here are some quotes:

"In the past few years, we’ve seen too much greed and too little fear; too much spending and not enough saving; too much borrowing and not enough worrying," Summers said Friday in a speech to the Brookings Institution. "Today, however, our problem is exactly the opposite."

Borrowing, you see, is evidently linked to greed; especially if one borrows too much. I am reminded of university students who mindlessly accumulate too much student debt. The greedy bastards. Or of poor people mindlessly borrowing to finance a home purchase. The greedy SOBs. There is too much borrowing; too much spending; there is too much greed.

Saving, on the other hand, is evidently linked to fear. Fear is a virture (as in the fear of God). As when all those virtuous savers bid up the NASDAQ to 5000. Whoops; this doesn't sound right. Perhaps he means saving in virtuous assets, like government treasuries (backed by virtuous/coercive taxation; rather than the prospect of future cash flow from a successful enterprise). Yes, fear is a virture...unless there is too much fear. Then fear is bad.

To summarize then: greed is vice; fear is a virtue. Unless there is too much fear, which is not a virtue. Not enough greed is a virtue; but not a good virtue...which is to say it is a vice. I am getting confused. Let me consult the article again.
"While greed is no virtue, entrepreneurship and the search for opportunity is what we need today."

OK, this clears things up. Make no mistake: greed is no virtue. But we do need more of it at a time like this. So to sum up, greed (borrowing) is bad and fear (saving) is bad (unless there is not enough of either). In the world economy (a closed system), we know that borrowing = saving. And this proves that greed is always balanced by fear. Wait a second, I am confused again. Perhaps what we need is a "new generation" IS-PC-TR like model to help policymakers confront the difficult economic choices they face in balancing fear and greed.

Assume that the policymaker has a quadratic loss function in deviations of actual fear and greed around some socially optimal level of fear and greed (we will let Woodford provide the microfoundations for this social welfare function). Accordingly, let us write this loss function as,

L(t) = 0.5(f(t) - f)^(1/2) + 0.5(g(t) - g)^(1/2)

Here, (f,g) are the socially optimal levels of fear and greed. f(t) and g(t) are the prevailing levels of fear and greed at date t. The policymaker wishes to minimize the fluctuations in fear and greed around their socially optimal levels.

We need more restrictions. Let's see. It seems natural to suppose that fear is influenced in some manner by endogenous variables and an exogenous shock; let's say

f(t) = a*f(t-1) - b*y(t) + e(t)

where y(t) is the output gap; and e(t) is the shock (like a "fear" markup shock in New Keynesian models).

Greed, on the other hand, is influenced by the interest rate and exogenous factors; e.g.,

g(t) = c*g(t-1) - d*r(t) + u(t)

where r(t) is the interest rate, set by monetary policy. Lowering r(t), the way Greenspan did, results in an increase in greed. Seems right.

Now, the policymaker wishes to choose an interest rate rule that miminizes the loss function, given the stochastic processes (estimated as the residuals from a mindless OLS or VAR) governing the fear and greed shocks.

Yes, I can see how the New Keynesian model, so widely used by central banks to justify the policies they follow, will no doubt be replaced by my formalization of Summer's hypothesis. The implications for policy design are likely to prove equally enlightening. Anyone care to coauthor this paper with me? Fame (or notoriety) is virtually guaranteed!

Friday, March 20, 2009

CDO Squared, Anyone?

Along with Martin Hellwig, I think that the other bright light in the field of finance is Gary Gorton of Yale. He has published several very interesting papers on historical banking panic episodes; see here. He gives a detailed account of the subprime mortgage market and the financial innovations associated with it in his paper entitled "The Panic of 2007."

In this paper, he describes the nuances of subprime mortgages; in particular, how their particular design made them very sensitive to the underlying asset price (unlike conventional mortgages). Evidently, this was by design (there was no other way for creditors to make money servicing this particular demographic).

He goes on to describe how these subprime mortgages were packaged into mortgage backed securities (MBS). This is a common form of securitization (although, the design of these also differed in a subtle, but important manner, from standard securitizations). As with other securitizations, mortgages were pooled and then tranches were formed; e.g., a senior tranche, a mezzanine tranche, and an equity tranche.

This type of securitization has an economic rationale. Higher rated tranches can be sold to insurance companies and pension funds (whose liabilities are longer term in nature). In principle, the originator of the MBS should could then hold on to the junior (equity) tranche. This gives the originator the incentive to construct a sound MBS; as the originator is the first in line to potential losses.

What I do not understand is what followed. These MBS were then used as backing for new securities, called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). For example, the mezzanine tranche of the MBS (rated BBB) would then be divided into senior, mezzanine, and junior tranches. The mezzanine tranche of this CDO would then be divided again into senior, mezzanine, and junior tranches (a CDO squared). The senior tranches of the CDO squareds would be assigned AAA ratings!

I do not understand the economic rationale for this further subdivision of the original MBS. I presume that there must be one (perhaps to get around some government regulations?). Is there an expert in finance out there that can help me out? I have had little luck in finding anything that explains the motivation for why CDOs exist.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Martin Hellwig on the Financial Crisis

Tired of all that sanctimonious drivel spewing from the likes of Dani Rodrik and Willem Buiter? Head aching from the cacophony of shrill voices rejoicing at the end of the world?

Then consult the good doctor Martin Hellwig; see here.

He also has a very nice article entitled "International Contagion: The Result of Information or Rhetoric?" that is well worth reading.

Would be interested to hear what people think.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Multiplier Mischief

The current debate over the size of the "government spending mulitiplier" is a perfect measure of the sway that conventional economic theorizing continues to grip the minds of people who should know better.

At the center of the theorizing is the income-expenditure identity: Y = C + I + G. This identity is not a theory; it is something that is true by definition. The theory comes in by way of behavioral assumptions that are imposed on C and I. All that is left is to determine how an exogenous change in G manifests itself as a change in Y. The government spending multiplier is dY/dG. Now all economic historians have left to do is to try to estimate the size of dY/dG. They frequently "discover" that dY/dG > 1. That is, it appears that for every dollar the government spends, the national income appears to increase by more than a dollar. Conclusion: Obama's stimulus package is a good idea.

There you have it. The only puzzle remaining is why it takes 4 full years of training to receive a PhD in macroeconomic theory; and why it should take a further 6 years to become a tenured professional by publishing papers examining what we all know to be the self-evident truth embedded in this "really useful ad hoc model."

Unfortunately, I am apparently one of few who have trouble absorbing this simple theory. But perhaps there is still some hope for me. I just need a few questions answered.

[1] What does this theory predict concerning the optimal level of Y? Is more Y always to be preferred to less? When Y was expanding rapidly above trend during WW2, were people really made materially better off? Were people made happier by their long hours employed in military manufacture and European adventures? Did people really enjoy the rationing of foodstuffs and gasoline associated with the increase in G? Was the general destruction of capital (both physical and human) during WW2 really associated with increasing wealth levels?

[2] Do *measured* increases in Y associated with increases in G correspond in any meaningful way to *true* increases in Y? Do we not know that when the government pays for something, the "value" of this purchase is measured by cost (instead of market-value) by the National Income and Product accountants? Is this not a serious problem in assessing the "true" value of an increase in G? Are measured government spending multipliers simply a figment of this questionable accounting exercise?

[3] What are we to make of multiplier estimates that are above unity? Is this a linear approximation? Does it represent the value of the marginal dollar spent? (If it does not, then is the implication that the entire economy should simply be nationalized?).

[3] Do the "microeconomic" details concerning the added G not matter at all? Does it matter, for example, that almost $100 million in "stimulus" money is being directed to the Milwaukee Public School system to construct new schools (a district that has been closing schools as a result of declining attendance; see here)? Are people still willing to argue that "digging up holes and filling them in" is a wise use of economic resources?

[4] What does this simple theory identify as the "cause" of recession? An exogenous decline in private sector "sentiment?" What does this mean? Is this purely pyschological? Can we not expect private sector agents to make estimates of the future based on the best information available? Does the government have better information? If so, why does it not make it available? Can declining consumer and business sector "confidence" not be reasonably interpreted as a symptom, rather than a cause, of any economic downturn? How can we know, one way or the other? What evidence can be brought to bear on the idea that recessions are "inefficient?" Is the arrival of a harsh winter that freezes construction to a halt also inefficient? Should the government promote construction activity during a freezing winter?

[5] What is the government spending multiplier in Japan since 2000?

[6] Should we follow Christina Romer's advice and take employment as a metric of economic welfare? Has she not studied economic theory? (Actually, I know the answer to this last question--it is no). I recall reading an article from the TASS news agency, published in 1957 that "the unemployment rate in the Soviet Union, as in previous years, was equal to zero." Should we seek "full employment" along the old Soviet model? Is this how we are to measure success?

I have many more questions, but these will do for now. Of course, some of these questions are rhetorical in nature. But many are not; I genuinely do not know the answers to them. Evidently, the likes of Romer, DeLong and Krugman do know the answers to them. But perhaps this is because none of these esteemed academics are macro theorists. They likely view my ignorance on these matters as evidence supporting their proposition that too much macroeconomic theory distorts the mind. Thank goodness we have these clear-thinking folk around to set me straight!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Willem Buiter: Economicus Ignoramus

Oh my, this is rich. Here we have Willem Buiter, self-proclaimed genius and mediocre economist extraodinaire, suddenly discovers that there is a problem with the development of "Anglo-American" macroeconomic theory. See his little diatribe here.

We all have our own pet peeves with the way macroeconomic theorizing has progressed over the last few decades. My own is with the the so-called "New-Keynesian" paradigm (Woodford); which is clearly the "mainstream" view adopted by most policymakers (until recently, that is).

My beef with the NK paradigm is this in a nutshell. It is a model that ignores money and typically, financial markets too. It embeds unexplained "frictions," like sticky prices. It embeds conceptually vacuous "shocks" like "mark-up shocks" or "inflation shocks." It focusses on the policy problem of "stabilizing" the economy in the face of these little itty-bitty shocks. It is not a model designed to understand financial crisis. It is a model designed to legitimize what central bankers always believed they should be doing in the first place: adjust the short-term interest rate to stablize the economy around a predetermined long-run trend. This is why the NK model is the dominant paradigm; and this is why those that promote this view land all the cushy consulting jobs. Among those that promote this view include our very own Herr Buiter. Here are some links to the courses he teaches on the subjects: see here. Good job, Willem. One can easily see how your students (and yourself) were well-prepared to deal with the current financial market crisis with your "very useful ad hoc models" of the economy.

Of course, most economists who have worked to develop the NK paradigm are honest researchers with a sincere desire to understand how the economy works and how policy might be designed to meet worthy social objectives. Evidently, Herr Buiter has a different view:
Research tended to be motivated by the internal logic, intellectual sunk capital and esthetic puzzles of established research programmes rather than by a powerful desire to understand how the economy works - let alone how the economy works during times of stress and financial instability. So the economics profession was caught unprepared when the crisis struck.
I presume that he is talking about himself here; he should not attribute his own objectives to others in this manner.

Let's see what else he has to say...

The most influential New Classical and New Keynesian theorists all worked in what economists call a ‘complete markets paradigm’.

This is clearly evidence that he has no idea of what he is talking about. The complete markets paradigm is the Arrow-Debreu model; and this is patently not what "New Classical" and "New Keynesian" theories assume.

In a world where there are markets for contingent claims trading that span all possible states of nature (all possible contingencies and outcomes), and in which intertemporal budget constraints are always satisfied by assumption, default, bankruptcy and insolvency are impossible. As a result, illiquidity - both funding illiquidity and market illiquidity - are also impossible, unless the guilt-ridden economic theorist imposes some unnatural (given the structure of the models he is working with), arbitrary friction(s), that made something called ‘money’ more liquid than everything else, but for no good reason. The irony of modeling liquidity by imposing money as a constraint on trade was lost on the profession.

No, Mr. Buiter, the irony of modeling liquidity by imposing money as a constraint was not lost on the profession (see the work of Neil Wallace and Randall Wright, for example); it was lost on a subset of the profession of which you belonged.

It is clear that, when searching for an appropriate simplification to address the intractable mess of modern market economies, the starting point of ‘no markets’, that is, autarky or no trade, is a much better one than that of ‘complete markets’.

The conclusion, boys and girls, should be that trade - voluntary exchange - is the exception rather than the rule and that markets are inherently and hopelessly incomplete. Live with it and start from that fact. The benchmark is no trade - pre Friday Robinson Crusoe autarky. For every good, service or financial instrument that plays a role in your ‘model of the world’, you should explain why a market for it exists - why it is traded at all. Perhaps we shall get somewhere this time.
Oh thank you Professor Buiter; thank you for this. Let us begin by modeling exchange by assuming an economy populated by a single Robinson Crusoe. Yes, this should help. And let us model the exchange process as "involuntary" exchange instead of voluntary exchange. Perhaps we will get somewhere this time indeed. Good luck. I'm sure that you will lead the way.

Even during the seventies, eighties, nineties and noughties before 2007, the manifest failure of the EMH in many keBlockquotey asset markets was obvious to virtually all those whose cognitive abilities had not been warped by a modern Anglo-American Ph.D. eduction.
And so where is Herr Buiter's theory that would replace the EMH? I am very much looking forward to my de-programming from such an enlightened and worldly individual.
The EMH is surely the most notable empirical fatality of the financial crisis. By implication, the complete markets macroeconomics of Lucas, Woodford et. al. is the most prominent theoretical fatality. The future surely belongs to behavioural approaches relying on empirical studies on how market participants learn, form views about the future and change these views in response to changes in their environment, peer group effects etc.

Clearly, he does not understand the EMH. We probably do have some things to learn from behavioral approaches; but I would not want this ignoramus to lead the charge.

I believe that the Bank has by now shed the conventional wisdom of the typical macroeconomics training of the past few decades. In its place is an intellectual potpourri of factoids, partial theories, empirical regulaties without firm theoretical foundations, hunches, intuitions and half-developed insights. It is not much, but knowing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

I too hope that central banks are now led to place less weight on the "conventional wisdom" expoused by Buiter and others. It is indeed a good thing to be humbled by the realization of the limits of our theorizing. But to expouse a program of ignorance "without firm theoretical foundations" is going too far. Too far that is, unless you are Willem Buiter, economicus-ignoramus ready for hire.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

DeLong vs Boldrin on Fiscal Stimulus

The following links are from Greg Mankiw's blog. The first is a statement by Brad DeLong, explaining why the large fiscal stimulus package can be expected to work; see here.

Any good scientist will try to support his or her views by pointing to the evidence. What is the evidence that large fiscal stimulus packages have worked in the past? DeLong gives us three examples:

[1] The 2003-2005 housing boom, facilitated by loose monetary policy;
[2] The 1996-1998 internet boom;
[3] The post 1982 boom following the easing of monetary policy, the Reagan tax-cuts, and increase in military expenditure.

He goes on to write:

These are just three examples of a general principle: each major business-cycle expansion we have seen has been driven by a leading wave of spending—by some group that became enthusiastic about their prospects and decided to greatly increase its spending. And that pulled employment and production up.

I view this as evidence that DeLong should have his degree in economics revoked.

This is the best he can do? The first two examples have nothing to do with fiscal policy. The suggestion that the 1980s boom would not have occurred absent the Reagan tax cuts and increased military spending is dubious at best. Moreover, he neglects to point to the several cases we know of demonstrating the converse (with Japan being the most notable recent example).

His thesis appears to be that a significant increase in "confidence" is followed by an increase in spending and an increase in production. This much is no doubt true. Whether this "starry eyed" optimism begins in the private sector or the public sector is, in his view, irrelevant. This is almost surely not true. Confidence in the private sector is ultimately based on information that signals the expected productivity of capital investment (these expectations can turn out to be wrong ex post, of course). In short, private sector confidence is a by-product of changing fundamentals; that is, confidence is symptomatic and not causal. Confidence cannot be manufactured out of wishful thinking; which is the approach that fiscal policy appears to based on.

For more sober appraisal, I refer you to Michele Boldrin's take on this; see here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Our "Deregulated" Financial System?

I used to love watching "60 Minutes" as a kid. Unlike "60 Minutes," however, I eventually grew up (although, not everyone around me agrees). Perhaps you have seen their recent report that places the blame for the current financial market turmoil squarely on those that "deregulated" the U.S. financial market; see here.

Is the U.S. financial system really an example of laissez-faire capitalism run amok? This certainly appears to be the bill of goods being marketed by the religious left and other clear-thinking people. It is unfortunate, as far as this view is concerned, that it contradicts reality so violently. The truth of the matter is that the financial market is by far the most heavily regulated sector in any “well-developed” economy.

If you already knew this, there is no need to read further. But for those of you who may be surprised by this, let me document just some of the federal agencies that play a major role in the U.S. financial market. Of course, I don't expect anyone to read what follows carefully: it is far too long to keep anyone's attention for any length of time. But I suppose that this is precisely the point that I am trying to make. Take a deep breath now...

The U.S. Department of the Treasury

Naturally, I begin with the U.S. Treasury. Here is their mission statement:

Serve the American people and strengthen national security by managing the U.S. Government’s finances effectively, promoting economic growth and stability, and ensuring safety, soundness, and security of the U.S. and international financial systems.

Again, in their own words,

The Department of the Treasury's mission highlights its role as the steward of U.S. economic and financial systems, and as an influential participant in the global economy.

If we are to take this seriously, I suppose it implies that the U.S. Treasury takes responsibility for the current global financial crisis.

The Treasury currently consists of 12 bureaus. I highlight the 5 here that have a direct bearing on the financial system. See:

[1] Bureau of the Public Debt

These are the guys responsible for selling and redeeming U.S. government bonds. They are also useful bean counters. If you visit their website, you’ll see that they keep a precise measure of the outstanding dollar value of the U.S. federal debt (to the penny). As of this writing, this debt amounts to $10,877,144,501,237.52. This is almost 11 trillion dollars; or roughly $36,000 per American.

Who is backing this debt? The American taxpayer of course. And of course, not all Americans pay taxes. Children do not pay taxes. Drug dealers and the unemployed do not pay taxes. According to the IRS, almost 33% of tax filers in 2004 did not pay taxes. You get the picture. It is probably not unreasonable to guess that each American taxpayer is on the hook for $100,000. And this does not include “off balance sheet” items, like social security.
Fortunately, the Bureau of Public Debt has a mechanism in place to help deal with this burden. On one of their webpages, they answer the question: “How do you make a contribution to reduce the debt?” Here is the answer:

Make your check payable to the Bureau of the Public Debt, and in the memo section, notate that it is a Gift to reduce the Debt Held by the Public. Mail your check to: Attn Dept GBureau of the Public DebtP. O. Box 2188Parkersburg, WV 26106-2188

[2] Community Development Financial Institutions Fund

Here is their mission statement:

Through monetary awards and the allocation of tax credits, the CDFI Fund helps promote access to capital and local economic growth in urban and rural low-income communities across the nation.

Through its various programs, the CDFI Fund enables locally based organizations to further goals such as: economic development (job creation, business development, and commercial real estate development); affordable housing (housing development and homeownership); and community development financial services (provision of basic banking services to underserved communities and financial literacy training).

In short, this federal department extends credit to low-income high-risk individuals. Where have we heard this before? This department is also responsible for implementing President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). According to their website:

It is an unprecedented effort to jumpstart our economy, create or save millions of jobs, and put a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges so our country can thrive in the 21st century. The Act is an extraordinary response to a crisis unlike any since the Great Depression, and includes measures to modernize our nation’s infrastructure, enhance energy independence, expand educational opportunities, preserve and improve affordable health care, provide tax relief, and protect those in greatest need.

[3] The Inspector General

Conducts independent audits, investigations and reviews to help the Treasury Department accomplish its mission; improve its programs and operations; promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness; and prevent and detect fraud and abuse.

In short, this department does nothing.

[4] Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC)

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) charters, regulates, and supervises all national banks. It also supervises the federal branches and agencies of foreign banks. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the OCC has four district offices plus an office in London to supervise the international activities of national banks.

The OCC was established in 1863 as a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The OCC is headed by the
Comptroller , who is appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a five-year term. The Comptroller also serves as a director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and a director of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation.

The OCC's nationwide staff of examiners conducts on-site reviews of national banks and provides sustained supervision of bank operations. The agency issues rules, legal interpretations, and corporate decisions concerning banking, bank investments, bank community development activities, and other aspects of bank operations.

National bank examiners supervise domestic and international activities of national banks and perform corporate analyses. Examiners analyze a bank's loan and investment portfolios, funds management, capital, earnings, liquidity, sensitivity to market risk, and compliance with consumer banking laws, including the Community Reinvestment Act. They review the bank's internal controls, internal and external audit, and compliance with law. They also evaluate bank management's ability to identify and control risk.

In regulating national banks, the OCC has the power to:

Examine the banks.
Approve or deny applications for new charters, branches, capital, or other changes in corporate or banking structure.
Take supervisory actions against banks that do not comply with laws and regulations or that otherwise engage in unsound banking practices. The agency can remove officers and directors, negotiate agreements to change banking practices, and issue cease and desist orders as well as civil money penalties.
Issue rules and regulations governing bank investments, lending, and other practices.

The OCC's Objectives

The OCC's activities are predicated on four objectives that support the OCC's mission to ensure a stable and competitive national banking system. The four objectives are:

To ensure the safety and soundness of the national banking system.
To foster competition by allowing banks to offer new products and services.
To improve the efficiency and effectiveness of OCC supervision, including reducing regulatory burden.
To ensure fair and equal access to financial services for all Americans.

So you see, how could we expect to see anything to wrong with such extensive government oversight?

[5] Office of Thrift Administration (OTS)

The OTS supervises a national thrift industry that is built on the bedrock of the American dream of homeownership—supplying affordable home financing for Americans from all walks of life.

The industry has a long history dating back to 1831 with the establishment of the first savings association, the Oxford Provident Building Association, which made home loans and offered savings accounts. Today, the charter is a vibrant, sophisticated model for running a retail financial services business.

Home mortgages remain a staple of the thrift industry. However, the array of financial products and services offered by many institutions and their holding companies paint a modern-day portrait of great diversification within the industry based on size, complexity, and business strategy.

Three unique advantages of the federal thrift charter foster this diversification:

Preemption – The federal thrift charter operates under a comprehensive framework of federal regulations that supersede state and local laws on lending and deposit taking activities. This provides a uniform national standard for lending and deposit taking, thereby reducing regulatory burden and increasing the efficiency of operations at thrift institution. This authority supports the delivery of low-cost credit and other services to the public, while maintaining consumer protections and promoting the safety and soundness of federal thrifts and the nation’s financial industry.

Branching – Federal thrifts enjoy the distinctive ability to establish branches nationwide, seamlessly and without restriction, under a single charter and a single regulator.

Single Supervisor – Savings and loan holding companies, and their thrift subsidiaries and affiliates, operate under the consolidated supervision of a single federal regulator, the OTS.
The thrift charter is employed by some of the largest financial enterprises in the world, as well as small, one-office savings associations. Financial institutions from across the nation and a number of international financial firms have found that the thrift charter and the experienced, responsive workforce of the OTS provide an ideal framework for conducting retail banking operations and related financial services activities. The charter enables these institutions to meet the needs of their customers and to innovate effectively, compete, and prosper in today’s fast-paced financial marketplace.

Today’s “fast-paced” financial marketplace indeed!

Other Government Regulatory Agencies

[1] U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)

Congress created the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in 1974 as an independent agency with the mandate to regulate commodity futures and option markets in the United States. The agency's mandate has been renewed and expanded several times since then, most recently by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.

[2] Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is an independent agency created by the Congress that maintains the stability and public confidence in the nation’s financial system by insuring deposits, examining and supervising financial institutions, and managing receiverships.

[3] National Credit Union Association

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) is the independent federal agency that charters and supervises federal credit unions. NCUA, backed of the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, operates the NCUSIF insuring the savings of 80 million account holders in all federal credit unions and many state-chartered credit unions.

[4] Federal Reserve Board

Here you go: another fine example of laissez-faire capitalism (a government legislated monopoly on the paper money supply and sweeping regulatory powers). For details, see:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Shock and Awe" Needed to Combat Recession

See the full article here.

A selected excerpt:

Government leaders will need to take a "shock-and-awe" approach towards the economy as indicators show a worsening recession, Mohamed El-Erian, co-CEO of the Pimco bond fund, said Friday. Asked what he would do if he stood in Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's shoes, El-Erian said the government needs to take drastic, immediate and comprehensive action to combat the threats posed by the crumbling economy.

Do people like El-Erian actually think before speaking? Do they think at all? Perhaps not thinking is a luxury that only the very rich can afford?

A leading bond fund manager is asked for his views on how U.S. government policy might be designed to combat what appears to be a worsening recession. How will he answer? One might hope that the experienced sage will draw on the lessons learned from past interventions in the U.S. and elsewhere. Nope. Perhaps he will draw on a few philosophical principles concerning the role of government in the economy. Nope. Perhaps he will frame his views in the context of a coherent economic theory. Yeah, right.

Nosiree...forget all that BS. Instead, for inspiration and as a model of successful intervention, our high-paid fund manager draws on one of the greatest U.S. policy failures of all time -- the "shock and awe" bombing campaign that preceeded the U.S. invasion of Iraq. How's that as an example of "drastic, immediate, and comprehensive" action? And oh boy, that sure turned out well, didn't it?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gosh Darnit, Mr. Immelt

Another slow day. But trust General Electric's Chief Executive, Jeff Immelt, to provide us with some entertainment value (as opposed his real job of generating shareholder value). Check out the story here. Here is a quote:

The U.S. economy is in its worst shape since the deep recession of 1974 and 1975, and if it deteriorates further the most meaningful comparisons will be to the Great Depression. We're at least to 1974-75. Once you break through '74-'75, you don't stop 'til you get to 1929. Unlike the other downturns that I've been a part of, this one is faced with limited liquidity. If liquidity exists, it's not coming back readily. That's why the government's role in this cycle is so gosh-darned important.
Jeepers...I had no idea. But gosh-doodly, I suppose this is why he is paid the big bucks.

We're at least to 1974-75? What is he talking about? U.S. real per capita GDP 35 years ago was approximately 50% lower than it is today; see first figure here.

Oh, wait a second...I think he was referring to GE's stock price.

But you see, this is not Immelt's fault. Nosiree. Jack Welch (legendary former CEO of GE 1981-2001) never experienced anything like this. Things are "different" this time around. In particular, there appears to be a shortage of "liquidity;" or a "credit crunch." Nope...I can't recall people ever talking about a phenomenon like this before during an economic downturn. This is why the government's role in this cycle is so gosh-darned important.

And just what, pray tell, might that role be? know...the government should do something...and it should do it right away...anything really big...anything, I presume, to legitimize the view that things are really different this time around; and that poor share price performance really has nothing to do with poor executive decisions.