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September 2, 2009

Economist's View - 4 new articles

"IMF Needs to Coordinate Reform of Global System"

Barry Eichengreen says the IMF shouldn't let the crisis go to waste:

IMF needs to co-ordinate reform of global system, by Barry Eichengreen, Commentary, Project Syndicate: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been one of the few beneficiaries of the global economic crisis. Just two years ago, it was being downsized, and serious people were asking whether it should be closed down. Since then, there has been a renewed demand for IMF lending. Members have agreed to a tripling of its resources. It has been authorised to raise additional funds by selling its own bonds. The Fund is a beehive of activity.
But the crisis will not last forever. Meanwhile, the IMF's critics have not gone away; they have merely fallen silent temporarily. The Fund only encourages their criticism by failing to define its role. It needs to do so while it still has the world's sympathetic ear.
The IMF's first role is to assist countries that, as a result of domestic policies, experience balance-of-payments crises. Their governments have no choice but to borrow from the Fund. To ... be sure that its shareholders are paid back – the Fund must demand difficult policy adjustments... The problem is that the IMF has bought into the rhetoric of its critics by agreeing to "streamline" its conditionality. ... By seeming to give ground on this point in the effort to win friends and influence people, the IMF has created unnecessary confusion.
A second role for the IMF is to act as a global reserve pool. Countries have accumulated large reserves in order to insure against shocks. This is costly for poor economies... The IMF has moved in this direction by creating a Short-Term Liquidity Facility (STLF)... But the STLF still requires a burdensome application process...
A third role for the IMF is macro-prudential supervisor... National supervisors may be reluctant to surrender this responsibility to a multilateral organisation. If so, this is shortsighted. Financial markets and institutions with global reach need a global macro-prudential regulator, not just a loosely organised college of supervisors. Or it could be that national policymakers don't trust the IMF, given that it essentially missed the global financial crisis. If so, the Fund needs to win back their confidence.
This brings us to the IMF's fourth role, namely using its bully pulpit to warn of risks created by large-country policies. Small countries are subject to market discipline, as any Latvian will tell you. But when large economies whose currencies are used internationally need more resources, they can just print more money. Not only do they feel less market discipline, but they are subject to less IMF discipline, since they are not compelled to borrow from the Fund.
But, as the sub-prime mortgage debacle reminds us, large countries' policies can place the global financial system at risk. The Fund, wary of biting the hand that feeds it, has been reluctant to issue strong warnings in such instances. But if the IMF is to have a future,... [t]here can be no more mincing of words.
Finally, the IMF needs to co-ordinate reform of the international system. If, in the long run, a supra-national unit ... is to replace national currencies in international use, then the Fund will need to guide its development. ...
So far,... the ... Fund has been notable mainly for its silence. The crisis is not yet forgotten, but the window is closing. ... If the Fund does not provide a clear vision of its future by then, the opportunity will have been missed.

"The Decline of Job Loss and Why it Matters"

In the post Job Losses are Not the Problem, I noted that the graph from Andy Harless shows that both the rates of job creation and job destruction have declined over time, and I invited speculation as to why that has happened. Steven Davis of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business sends an email with more than just speculation, there are links to two of his papers on these issues. The first looks at the declining rate of job loss and why it matters:

The Decline of Job Loss and Why It Matters, by Steven J. Davis, University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business, American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 2008, 98:2, 263–267: [AEA Papers & Proceedings]: There is considerable evidence that American workers face lower risks of job loss in recent years than 10, 20, or 30 years earlier. I summarize some of the evidence for this claim and explain why the decline of job loss matters. My attention centers on "unwelcome" job loss: employer-initiated separations that lead to unemployment, temporary or persistent drops in earnings, and other significant costs for job losers. Since there is no fully satisfactory statistic for the incidence of job loss, I consider several measures and data sources.
I. The Decline of Job Loss The Federal-State Unemployment Insurance Program provides cash benefits to experienced workers who become unemployed "through no fault of their own" and who meet other requirements that vary somewhat by state. Administrative data on new claims for unemployment benefits under this program provide a useful indicator for cyclical and longer-term movements in job loss rates. Drawing on these data, Figure 1 shows a dramatic decline in new claims for unemployment benefits since the 1970s and early 1980s. New claims average 0.24 percent of employment per week from January 2004 to November 2007, slightly below the 0.26 percent average from January 1996 to December 1999, and well below any earlier period covered by the data.
The new claims rate responds to changes over time in eligibility requirements and takeup rates, as well as in the incidence of job loss. Thus, it is important to ask how other job loss indicators compare to Figure 1. Davis et al. (2007) consider the longer-term evolution of monthly unemployment inflow rates, as measured from Current Population Survey (CPS) data on unemployment by duration. They report that unemployment inflows fell from about 4 percent of employment per month in the early 1980s to 2 percent or less by the mid-1990s and thereafter. Robert Shimer (2007, Figure 4) and Michael Elsby, Ryan Michaels, and Gary Solon (2007, Figure 2) report a similar result. The downward drift in monthly unemployment inflows is more gradual than the post-1982 drop in new claims in Figure 1, but the basic pattern is otherwise similar.
Shigeru Fujita and Garey Ramey (2006) estimate employment-to-unemployment flows using data on labor force status in short CPS panels, rather than data on unemployment by duration in CPS cross sections. They also find dramatic declines in employment-to-unemployment flow rates since the early 1980s. Jay Stewart (2002) calculates transitions from employment to unemployment using March CPS data from 1976 to 2001. ... Stewart's approach also yields dramatic declines in employment-to-unemployment flows since the early 1980s. The declines are concentrated in the 1990s for men and are relatively uniform throughout the 1980s and 1990s for women.
The Displaced Worker Survey (DWS) provides yet another source of information about the incidence of job loss. The DWS has been conducted every two years since 1984 as a supplement to the CPS. It asks about job loss in the previous three years (five years before 1996) due to plant closure, layoffs, and other reasons unrelated to the worker's individual performance. ... Figure 10 in Farber (2007) shows that the three-year job loss rate in the 2003–2005 period is at or near its lowest level since the inception of the DWS, about one-third below the 1981–1983 period, and nearly identical to the corresponding rate for the 1987–1989 and 1997–1999 periods.
Measures of (gross) job destruction by employers also point to declining risks of job loss for US workers. The job destruction rate is calculated by summing employment declines over all employer units that shrink or exit during a given time interval and then dividing by the overall level of employment to obtain a rate. This measure captures the rate at which employers eliminate employment positions rather than the rate at which workers lose jobs, but, not surprisingly, the two are closely linked... See Davis, R. Jason Faberman, and John Haltiwanger (2006) for evidence.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces quarterly job destruction statistics in its program on Business Employment Dynamics (BED). These data show sizable declines in the rate of private sector job destruction after the 1990–1991 recession and again after the 2001 recession (Faberman 2006 and BLS data). Private sector job destruction averages about 6.5 percent of employment per quarter from the first quarter of 2005 to the first quarter of 2007 (BLS data), lower than any other period back to 1990 (Faberman 2006). Job destruction measures constructed from the Longitudinal Business Database at the Bureau of the Census also show a decline in private sector destruction rates after the early to mid-1980s (Davis et al. 2007). Quarterly data for the manufacturing sector pieced together from multiple sources suggest that job destruction rates have trended downward since the early 1960s (Davis, Faberman, and Haltiwanger 2006).
Summing up, a variety of indicators based on household surveys, establishment surveys, and administrative records show a long-term decline in the risk of job loss facing US workers. New claims for unemployment benefits and CPS based measures of employment-to-unemployment flows imply dramatic declines in the risk of job loss since the 1970s and early 1980s. Job destruction measures from various sources also point to large declines in the risk of job loss. The DWS is something of an outlier in suggesting that essentially the entire long-term decline in the risk of job loss reflects a recovery from the deep recession of the early 1980s.
This body of evidence is sharply at odds with populist rhetoric about declining job security for American workers, a view some economists have also espoused. I refer the reader to Davis (2007) for a detailed critique of claims that American workers have suffered a long-term decline in job security. Here, I pause only to highlight a basic, but crucial, distinction between the risk of job loss and the durability of employment relationships.
Many observers interpret declines in the durability of employment relationships (e.g., declines in median job tenure) as evidence of an increased risk of unwelcome job loss and a decline in job security. This interpretation is unwarranted. Job tenure statistics do not inform us about job security or the risk of job loss for the simple reason that most employment relationships do not end with an employer-initiated separation. Indeed, data from the BLS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey imply that layoffs and discharges for cause account for only 36 percent of worker-employer separations in the 2001 to 2006 period, much lower than the percentage accounted for by workers who quit a job (Davis 2007). The 36 percent figure may be an understatement, but even if employers initiate 70 percent of all separations—an extremely dubious proposition—one cannot form reliable inferences about job security and the risk of unwelcome job loss from statistics on the durability of employment relationships.
Moreover, workers are more prone to quit when labor market conditions are tight and job opportunities are plentiful. In light of this well-documented pattern and the high share of worker-initiated separations, one might just as well interpret declines in job tenure as evidence that workers now enjoy a greater abundance of attractive job opportunities. This interpretation merits just as much weight—and just as little— as the claim that shorter job tenures imply an erosion of job security for American workers.

Two points. First, Jacob Hacker has been one of the people leading the effort to highlight The Great Risk Shift, and I would guess he'd argue, based upon past remarks, that job loss and income volatility is only one part of his argument:

[F]amily income volatility is scarcely the only measure of economic insecurity or the "risk shift" that I and others have discussed. Only one chapter in my book is about family income instability. The rest are about pensions, health care, the decline in traditional job security, the increasing debt burdens reflected in families' financial balance sheets—in short, about the whole range of economic risks that Americans face. Many of these risks, such as health costs, retirement insecurity, bankruptcy, and mortgage foreclosure, either do not show up in the incomes of working-age people or show up only weakly.

As I put it in The Great Risk Shift, "The up-and-down movement of income among working-age families is a powerful indicator of the economic risks faced by Americans today. Yet economic insecurity is also driven by the rising threat to families' financial well-being posed by budget-busting expenses like catastrophic medical costs, as well as by the massively increased risk that retirement has come to represent, as more and more of the responsibility of planning for the post-work years has shifted onto Americans and their families. When we take in this larger picture, we see an economy not merely changed by a matter of degrees, but fundamentally transformed—from an all-in-the-same boat world of shared risk toward a go-it-alone world of personal responsibility."

Second, the graph from Andy Harless in this post shows that the rate of job creation is falling at the same rate as the rate of job destruction. An evaluation of the risks faced by workers must also take account of the declining probability of finding a job after a job loss. If the paper covers this point (and it may have, I read it quickly), I missed it.

Moving on, the second paper examines "the empirical relationship between the decline in business variability and job destruction and the decline in unemployment flows." In essence, this paper associates the changes in the rate of job loss with The Great Moderation. If business volatility is higher after the recession than before, as many expect it will be, it will be interesting to see if the change in the rate of job loss and unemployment flows accords with the predictions of this model (I should note that one of the co-authors is a former graduate student):

Business Volatility, Job Destruction, and Unemployment, by Steven J. Davis, R. Jason Faberman, John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin, and Javier Miranda, 9 August 2009: Trends in the volatility of economic activity attract considerable attention. Many recent studies examine the "great moderation" episode in aggregate U.S. fluctuations.[1] Another recent line of research finds a secular decline in the variability of business-level changes. In this regard, R. Jason Faberman (2008) documents a decline in the rate at which jobs are reallocated across establishments. Steven J. Davis, John Haltiwanger, Ron S. Jarmin and Javier Miranda (2006; hereafter DHJM) document a decline in the cross-sectional dispersion of business growth rates and in the time-series volatility of business growth rates.[2] The secular decline in business-level variability measures roughly coincides with a marked decline in the magnitude of unemployment flows. Inflows, for example, fell from 4 percent of employment per month in the early 1980s to about 2 percent per month by the mid 1990s.
In this paper, we quantify the empirical relationship between the decline in business variability and job destruction and the decline in unemployment flows. To do so, we relate industry-level movements in the incidence and duration of unemployment to industry-level movements in several indicators of variability and job destruction. ...
The industry-level data provide strong evidence that changes in business volatility, dispersion, job reallocation and job destruction account for big changes in the incidence of unemployment. This key result holds in the annual and the quarterly data. We estimate, for example, that a decline of 100 basis points in an industry's quarterly job destruction rate lowers its monthly unemployment inflow rate by 28 basis points with a standard error of 4 basis points. ...
To put the estimate in perspective, the quarterly job destruction rate for the U.S. private sector fell by 174 basis points from 1990 to 2005. Multiplying this drop by its estimated effect yields a decline of 48 basis points in the unemployment inflow rate, which amounts to 55 percent of the drop in the unemployment inflow rate from 1990 to 2005 and 22 percent of its average value. Analogous calculations based on our estimates with annual data imply that falling job destruction rates account for 28 percent of the larger drop in unemployment inflow rates from 1982 to 2005. ...
An interesting question raised by our results is what drives the secular declines in business variability, job destruction and unemployment inflows. Our study does not provide a definitive answer to this question, but we show that the basic pattern holds across major industries in the U.S. economy. We interpret this pattern as reflecting a secular decline in the intensity of idiosyncratic labor demand shocks. ... Other interpretations of the same basic patterns are also possible, as we briefly discuss.
We also develop some implications of our findings for the unemployment rate and its cyclical behavior. Simple approximations and decompositions along the lines of those used by Robert Shimer (2007), Michael Elsby, Ryan Michaels and Gary Solon (2009) and Shigeru Fujita and Garey Ramey (2009) establish three results. First, the steady state unemployment rate fell by 43 log points from 1976-1985 to 1996-2005. Second, nearly the entirety of this decline reflects a drop in the unemployment inflow rate. This result, when combined with our estimates, implies that the secular fall in job destruction accounts for about a quarter to a half of the long-term decline in the unemployment rate.
Third, while we focus on low frequency behavior, our findings also have implications for cyclical dynamics. In particular, the big secular decline in unemployment inflows implies a fall by half in the sensitivity of the unemployment rate to cyclical movements in the job-finding rate. More generally, our results highlight the dependence of short run unemployment dynamics on the background level of business volatility and job destruction. ...

In closing, we return to the question of what our findings say about changes in the underlying structural characteristics of the economy. Secular declines in unemployment flows, job destruction rates, and business volatility and dispersion measures are consistent with the predictions of standard search and matching models when perturbed by a persistent fall in the intensity of idiosyncratic labor demand shocks. We think this interpretation is a natural one. However, our empirical evidence does not preclude a major role for other long-term structural developments with important effects on business variability, job destruction and unemployment flows. For example, one might interpret our findings in terms of greater compensation flexibility over time or increased adjustment costs. Changes of either sort lead to smaller employment responses to labor demand shocks of given size. A careful assessment of these alternative interpretations is an important topic for future research.

A Financial Transactions Tax?

Is a Tobin tax on financial transactions just what the deficit and efficiency doctors ordered? Dean Baker has been advocating for a financial transactions tax, and here's his explanation for why it is needed:

A Financial Transactions Tax, by Dean Baker, Commentary, Counterpunch: Just like that perfect sweater, a financial transactions tax (FTT) would look just great on those Wall Street bankers and financiers. A modest tax, which would be too small for normal investors to even notice, could easily raise more than $100 billion a year. ...
[A]n FTT makes a huge amount of sense. The basic point is quite simple. A tax of 0.25 percent on the sale or purchase of a share of stock will make little difference to a person who intends to hold the share for 5-10 years as a long-term investment. ... A small increase in trading costs would be a very manageable burden for those who are using financial markets to support productive economic activity. However, it would impose serious costs on those who see the financial markets as a casino in which they place their bets by the day, hour, or minute. Speculators who hope to jump into the market at 2:00 and pocket their gains by 3:00 would be subject to much greater risk if they had to pay even a modest financial transaction tax. ...
The Wall Streeters and their flacks will insist that an FTT is unenforceable and will simply result in trading moving overseas. There is a small problem with this argument call the "United Kingdom." The U.K. has had a tax on stock trades ... for decades. The revenue raised each year would be equivalent to $30 billion in the U.S. economy. Obviously, the tax is enforceable.
In fact, we can go beyond the U.K. and add other measures to make enforcement more fun. For example, we can give workers an incentive to turn in their cheating bosses by awarding them 10 percent of any revenue and penalties that the government collects. ...
Of course, the prospect of the financial industry moving overseas should not be troubling any case. Why should we be any more bothered by buying our financial services from foreigners than by buying our steel from foreigners? If the industry moved overseas, then it could corrupt some other country's politics.
The basic point is simple. A FTT can allow us to raise more than $100 billion annually to finance health care or any other budget item that we consider important. It does so in a way that is very progressive and will weaken the financial industry both economically and politically. In fact, even Larry Summers, the head of President Obama's National Economic Council, even argued that a FTT was a good idea. ...

Here's a bit more on the tax, whether the Obama administration might support it, and Summer's support of the tax in the past:

A Tobin tax for Wall Street?, by Robert Kuttner, Prospect: Now that Adair Turner has opened the door to a forbidden subject—Tobin taxes on financial transactions—could the Obama administration embrace such an idea?
Professor Tobin first proposed his tax to address currency speculation. This was in 1972, when the fixed-rate regime of Bretton Woods had collapsed. His concern was that speculative trades were fundamentally distorting currency values and damaging the real economy. The tax that he proposed was intended to damp down the volatility in currency movements, and take much of the profit out of purely speculative, short-term moves.
The early 1970s was a period ... before the general financial deregulation that followed. Since that time, speculative trading has distorted not just currency markets, but the broad financial market itself. The volume of short-term trades has grown far faster than the value of the stock market or the real economy. The most recent case in point is ultra high-speed computerised trading...
A small tax on very short-term financial transactions would have two immense benefits. It would discourage purely speculative trades, while having no significant effects on long-term investments, and it would thus help restore the legitimate function of financial markets: connecting investors to entrepreneurs. Secondly, it could raise a substantial amount of revenue in a highly progressive fashion—at a time when large deficits loom.
The Obama administration might take a serious look at a Tobin tax for both of these reasons. Early in his career, Larry Summers, Obama's economic policy chief, was a supporter of the Tobin tax. In a 1989 paper, co-authored with his former wife, Victoria Summers, he wrote that there might be times when it was salutary to throw a little sand in the gears of trading markets. The paper was titled: "When Financial Markets Work too Well: a Cautious Case for a Securities Transaction Tax."
However, the Obama administration's regulatory stance is still a long distance away from taking serious measures to discourage speculative trading markets as a general policy goal. The more likely motivation would be concerns about the federal budget deficit. ...
The tax, of course, would be fiercely resisted by Wall Street. For a reform administration, Obama's government has approached any confrontation with Wall Street very gingerly. ... Even if Obama comes to a Tobin tax via the back door of revenue needs, this would be most welcome, as it would also lead to examination a larger, neglected issue: how to rein in financial engineering for the good of the larger economy.

Since I don't have a strong opinion on this, let's play "he said-he said." Here's Willem Buiter with an alternative view:

Forget Tobin tax: there is a better way to curb finance, by Willem Buiter, Commentary, Financial Times: Lord Turner, chairman of the UK's Financial Services Authority, has set the cat among the financial pigeons by making highly critical comments about ... financial intermediation... He recommended some drastic remedies, and suggested considering a global tax on financial transactions – a generalised Tobin tax. ...
What problem would a Tobin tax on financial transactions solve? Lord Turner asserts ... that the UK financial sector has grown too big; that some financial sector activity is worthless from a social perspective; that the sector is destabilising...; and that new taxes may be required to curb excessive profits and pay in the sector. ... Even if all these assertions are correct, they do not imply the need for a Tobin tax.
Economics teaches us that taxes and other public interventions to correct distortions and other market failures should be targeted directly at the distortion or failure in question. What distortion is a tax on financial transactions targeted at?
The financial sector is too big throughout the overdeveloped world in part because much of it enjoys a free state guarantee against default on its unsecured debt. ... The cost of capital to the banking sector is subsidised, causing the sector to be too large.
The solution is clear, and it is not a tax on financial transactions: bring default risk back into the calculations of unsecured creditors and other counterparties of the financial sector. This would eliminate the capital subsidy to the industry. The obvious way to do this is through the creation of a "special resolution regime" as an alternative to bankruptcy for all systemically important financial institutions. This would permit their unsecured creditors and other counterparties to be forcibly and swiftly converted into shareholders, until the institutions are adequately capitalised. It must be possible to achieve such a mandatory recapitalisation by unsecured creditors and counterparties for any institution overnight, and without interrupting normal business. A regularly updated "will" for each systemically important financial institution would eliminate any remaining "too big, too interconnected, too complex and too international to fail" obstacles to the Darwinian discipline of the market, which has been sorely missed in the financial sector.
I believe that efficient financial intermediation and a dynamic financial sector are essential for the proper functioning of any decentralised market economy; I also believe that too much financial sector activity is not only socially worthless, but actually harmful. Take financial derivatives. ... To tame the rampant excessive speculation in the derivatives markets, it is sufficient to require that at least one of the parties involved in a derivatives transaction has an insurable interest. The Tobin tax does nothing to achieve this. ...
"Churning" can be a problem for individual savers. Excessive transaction volumes can be caused by perverse incentive systems that link the remuneration of traders – acting as agents for owners of wealth – to trading volumes. Even here, the right solution is not transaction taxes but regulation restricting the undesirable features of these contracts directly. If excessive pay in the financial sector is a problem, tax pay.
I agree with Lord Turner that the UK financial sector – too large to fail and possibly also too large to save – has become a destabilising force for the UK. ... One can share Lord Turner's diagnosis that the UK financial sector was allowed to grow too large and to get out of control – almost a law unto itself – without accepting the Tobin tax as part of the solution. Tobin was a genius, but the Tobin tax was probably his one daft idea. Creating a viable and socially useful UK financial sector does not require this unfortunate fiscal intervention.

The efficiency properties of the tax depend upon how speculation is viewed. If you believe speculation is efficiency enhancing, and it can be, then reducing speculation would reduce rather than increase efficiency. But if you believe speculation is destabilizing, and it can be this too, then reducing speculation would be beneficial. I am not as negative toward speculation as many, and believe that while it can be both good and bad from a market efficiency perspective, on net, it does good. A general tax would reduce both the good and bad types of speculation, so it is not clear to me that this would be beneficial. I would prefer a mechanism that targets that bad speculation, but leaves the good type alone, but since it is difficult to tell the two apart, even ex-post, it is not practical to levy a tax on just the bad transactions while giving the good ones a free pass. But it may be possible to target the underlying market failures and distortions driving the problems in financial markets, which amounts to the same thing, and these extend far beyond just speculative ventures. Thus, I am somewhat persuaded by Buiter's argument that "public interventions to correct distortions and other market failures should be targeted directly at the distortion or failure in question." It's not clear a financial transactions tax has this property.

From a revenue point of view, the calculation is different. Given the government's spending needs (whatever they are), the question is how to best raise the revenue to pay for that spending. In that regard, the question is whether a financial transactions tax would be the least distortive (and fairest) means of raising the revenue needed to support government spending. Since I am somewhat on the fence regarding speculation, there is good speculation and bad speculation and it's not clear which prevails (though I give an edge to the good type), it may be that a tax of this type creates more distortions than it resolves. However, that also means that it may not create, on net, as many distortions as the next best alternative tax that would raise the same amount of revenue, and hence a financial transactions tax may be a desirable way to provide additional funds to the government.

Update: More reactions to the tax at Salvation or suicide? Experts react to a Tobin tax.

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