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June 28, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

Old Economy/New Economy

How did people survive without Google? A colleague, Bill Harbaugh, emails:

I stink, and I needed a Laundromat in Lyon. Google translate says that's called a laverie in French. Google maps says there's one 4 blocks away. Is it open on Sunday? Laundromats don't have websites. But Google street views shows the front door - Ouvert 7 Jours.


Then the washing machine swallowed my last Euros.

What's behind Recent Changes in Long-Term Interst Rates?

Martin Feldstein says we need to cut social programs so that we don't "weaken demand in the near term and hurt economic incentives in the long run":

The Fed must reassure markets on inflation, by Martin Feldstein, Commentary, Financial Times: The interest rate on 10-year US Treasury bonds almost doubled in six months, rising from 2.26 per cent last December to 3.98 per cent in mid-June, before decreasing slightly in recent days. This sharp rise happened despite the Federal Reserve's ... policy aimed at lowering long-term rates by buying $300bn of Treasuries and promising to buy more than $1,000bn of mortgage securities. ...

There is no single reason for the sharp rise in rates... The simplest explanation for the higher 10-year rate is that many investors now expect inflation to rise. ... The prospective decline of the dollar is also a potential source of inflation. ...

But such an explanation is deceptively easy. ... Those scared by Lehman Brothers' collapse wanted the safety and liquidity of ordinary Treasury bonds, causing their yields to fall sharply...

Treasury yields rose this month to their level a year earlier because improving market conditions meant investors were no longer willing to pay for the extreme liquidity of Treasuries. Inflation was thus not the only, and perhaps not even the main, reason for the rise in rates.

Why did the Fed's massive buying of long-term Treasury bonds not hold down the bond rate? The answer is that bond markets are less impressed by the $300bn of Fed purchases than by the official projection of $10,000bn of government borrowing over the next decade... The resulting crowding out of private investment will require higher future interest rates, and that is reflected in current long-term rates.

A further reason long rates remain high is a fear that foreign buyers may not be willing to continue buying dollar bonds to finance a large US current account deficit.

In short, higher long-term interest rates reflect investors' concern about future inflation, future fiscal deficits and the future willingness of foreign investors to purchase US bonds. ...

It would be wrong for the Obama administration and Congress to reduce the fiscal stimulus in 2009 or 2010, since there is no clear evidence of a sustained upturn. But it would be equally wrong to allow the national debt to double to 80 per cent of GDP a decade from now. Increasing taxes even more than proposed would weaken demand in the near term and hurt economic incentives in the long run. The fiscal deficit should therefore be reduced by curtailing the increases in social spending that the president advocated in his election campaign.

The Fed must also be careful not to tighten too soon. But it needs to reassure markets that it will prevent the excess reserves of the banks from financing a surge of inflationary lending when the economy begins to expand. It must make clear now that it will be willing to do so even if that involves big rises in short-term rates.

Here's (my interpretation of) Paul Krugman's argument about the source of recent movements in long-term interest rates:

There are two reasons long-term rates might rise, first more worries about the debt and inflation in the future would drive rates up, and second the prospect of better economic conditions in the future would have the same effect, rates would go up.

Suppose we receive bad news about the current state of the economy. That should cause expectations of lower output growth in the future, and hence lower tax revenues and higher spending on social programs than would exist with a stronger economy. So the bad news should cause an expectation of a larger deficit and more inflation worries, and that would drive long-term interest rates up (these worries would also make foreign central banks less likely to fund US borrowing which would reinforce the increase in long-term interest rates).

But if it is future economic conditions that are driving the changes in long-term interest rates, bad news about the economy should drive rates down.

Last week, we received bad news about the economy. If the debt/inflation/foreign lending story is correct, long-term rates should have gone up. If the state of the economy story is driving rates, rates should have fallen. What did long-term rates actually do? They fell.

A Public Plan

[I'm hoping this education example will give some insight into the public health care plan, or at least give you another way to think about it.]

Suppose that education is only available from private sector schools, and that education within this system is very expensive. Because of the expense, millions of people do not have access to education. Further suppose that due to the characteristics of the education market, there is reason to believe that the private institutions are bloated with excess costs (and, in addition to all the other excess costs, 30% of their expenditures came from competition for students rather than delivering education). To make matters worse, the already too high costs are expected to escalate rapidly in the future and further limit access to education. (And there's more. If costs aren't controlled, the government's Educare program for the very young will begin to eat up a huge share of the federal budget.)

Now suppose the government decides to solve both the access and cost problems by setting up a public plan for education. Here's how it works.

The government will build schools, staff them, purchase supplies, and so on, but there's a catch. The schools will have to run without any government subsidies, none at all, not a dime (so this is different than what we actually do since some or all of the education bill is subsidized, some for college, all for lower grades).

If these schools provide exactly the same education as the private sector schools but cost less to attend, then that would either force the private sector schools to find a way to compete by bringing costs down, and they ought to be able to match the government run institution, or they would go out of business. It's true that the public institutions might have an advantage in buying books in bulk, that sort of thing, and they could probably get books and other supplies for less than individual private schools could get them, but what's wrong with scale economies? And to the extent that it is the power that comes from their size as public institutions rather than actual efficiencies, it's important to remember that the publishers aren't without their own countervailing market power, so this makes the playing field more level.

As to access, one option is to do as we do with schools now and implicitly subsidize everyone who attends, rich and poor alike, by giving government subsidies to the schools (tuition falls by the amount of the subsidy, to zero for public elementary and high schools, part way to zero for colleges). But that would violate the no government help rule we imposed above. The other way to do this is to take the money that would have been used to subsidize the schools and instead give it out to individuals who couldn't attend school otherwise (perhaps graduated by income). That avoids giving subsidies to those who don't need them, and the subsidies can then be concentrated on those who do. The additional help available to those who need it would, in turn, allow more people access to education, a key goal of the policy.

So, the idea is to build government schools that must run without any help from taxpayers, and the public schools will compete side by side with the private schools. Rather than limiting choice, this adds one more choice, and it's a choice nobody has to make if the public schools turn out to be more expensive than than the competing private schools. Then, to increase access to education, give individuals the tuition subsidies they need to make it possible for them to attend the public school. Finally, for any conservatives opposed to the public plan, notice that if individuals can use the subsidy on either a public or a private sector school, this is basically a voucher system. However, in this case the goal of the voucher system is to reduce costs in the overly expensive private sector rather than to discipline the public institutions, something the private sector shouldn't fear if, in fact, it is the least cost provider of education.

links for 2009-06-28

links for 2009-06-28

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