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November 11, 2009

Economist's View - 4 new articles

Will There be a 'New Normal' for Unemployment?

At MoneyWatch:

Will There be a 'New Normal' for Unemployment?, by Mark Thoma

"The Fed Is Already Transparent"

Anil Kashyap and Frederic Mishkin are worried that the Ron Paul proposal to audit the Fed will "cripple policy making":

The Fed Is Already Transparent, by Anil Kashyap and Frederic Mishkin: Under the banner of increasing Federal Reserve transparency, Congressman Ron Paul has sponsored a bill that would subject the Fed's monetary policies to an audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The bill is a veiled attempt to undermine the Fed's independence. If it passes, it will cripple policy making...
Weakening the Fed's independence now might raise the risk of inflation, which would cause borrowing costs to rise and would lower prospects for a strong economic recovery. ...
Fortunately, Congress is considering an amendment to the bill that would prevent the negative consequences of the original Paul legislation. This amendment, put forward by Rep. Mel Watt (D., N.C.) would change the focus of the bill by instructing the GAO to audit the new lending facilities at the Federal Reserve that were authorized under the 13(3) "unusual and exigent circumstances" clause of the Federal Reserve Act. The 13(3) lending authority, which had not been used by the Fed since the Great Depression, was the basis for many of the most controversial decisions made during the crisis, including the rescue of AIG and the establishment of new lending facilities.
This audit would involve oversight of the operational integrity of these facilities' accounting, internal controls, and protection against losses. It would also disclose the borrowers from these facilities one year after the facilities are closed. The audit would produce new, important information that is not otherwise available and would play to the strengths of the GAO. And the amendment would exempt the Fed's normal monetary policy actions from the audit.
We strongly support an amendment of this type because it will increase the Fed's accountability without compromising its monetary independence. We also believe that the lag in disclosing the names of borrowers would enable Congress to have appropriate oversight over these facilities without compromising their effectiveness. Earlier disclosure would diminish the efficacy of these facilities because of the so-called stigma problem: If borrowing from emergency lending facilities is immediately made public, the markets would know that the borrowers might have financial difficulties, which would make it harder for the borrowers to operate.
No one can be fully comfortable with all the unprecedented actions that the Fed has taken to limit the damage from the financial crisis. We appreciate the frustration of the public and members of Congress who want a better understanding of what has happened. ... But the Paul bill, as originally written, won't help with these goals and will only stifle the recovery.

I think one of the problems the Fed is facing is that people do not feel like the Fed is operating on their behalf, they don't think that the Fed's actions are in their best interests, and they don't feel like they have any way to do much about it.

So how could we fix this? One way would be to have each party choose a candidate for Fed chair during presidential election years, and then have the public vote for the candidate of their choice at the same time they pick the president (but this seems likely to mimic the presidential outcome independent of the particular candidates). The Fed governors could all be elected in this way, and then serve their usual 14 year terms without the possibility of reelection. The hope is that this would give voters some sense of control over the process.

I don't think that proposal is all that good, but the point I am trying to make is that one of the Fed's most valuable attributes, its independence, also causes the public to feel as though it has very little say in how policy is conducted, and this leads to distrust of the Fed's motives and actions. Why should the fate of the entire economy be decided by twelve people who aren't accountable to anyone? If we can somehow get the public more vested in the process without sacrificing the Fed's independence, that would be helpful. But most of the ways that I can think of to implement accountability through the ballot box also undermine independence, and for me independence is an important attribute to preserve.

links for 2009-11-10

"Powerful Interests are Trying to Control the Market"

For the first few years I was doing this, I'd often complain that government regulators weren't doing enough to intervene in cases where firms had substantial market power. But this was mainly an economic worry about how market power leads to the inefficient utilization of resources. Over time, however, I've started to worry more and more about the harm that comes when large firms have the ability to exert undue influence on the political process (see health care, financial, or greenhouse gas emission reform just for starters). So I agree with this call to limit rent-seeking activities:

Powerful interests are trying to control the market, by John Kay, Commentary, Financial times: ...Control of rent-seeking requires decentralisation of economic power. These policies involve limits on the economic role of the state; constraints on the concentration of economic power in large business; constant vigilance at the boundaries between government and industry; and a mixture of external supervision and internal norms to limit the capacity of greedy individuals in large organisations to grab corporate rents for themselves. Vigorous pursuit of these is the difference between a competitive market economy and a laisser-faire regime, and it is a large difference. ...
[T]he scale of corporate rent-seeking activities by business and personal rent-seeking by senior individuals in business and finance has increased sharply.
The outcomes can be seen in the growth of Capitol Hill lobbying and the crowded restaurants of Brussels; in the structure of industries such as pharmaceuticals, media, defence equipment and, of course, financial services; and in the explosion of executive remuneration.
Because innovation is dependent on new entry it is essential to resist concentration of economic power. A stance which is pro-business must be distinguished from a stance which is pro-market. In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that distinction has not been appreciated well enough. ... The essence of a free market economy is not that the government does not control it. It is that nobody does.

On government's role in the economy, this is from a previous post:

Free markets - where free simply means minimal government involvement - are not necessarily the same as competitive markets. There is nothing that says what many interpret as freeing markets - lifting all government restrictions - will give us competitive markets, not at all. Government regulation (as well as laws, social norms, etc.) is often necessary to help markets approach competitive ideals. Environmental restrictions that force producers to internalize all costs of production make markets work better, not worse. Rules that require full disclosure, or that impose accounting standards help to prevent asymmetric information improve market outcomes. Breaking up firms that are too large prevents exploitation of monopoly power (or prevents them from becoming "too large to fail") which can distort resource flows and distort the distribution of income. Making sure that labor negotiations between workers and firms are on an equal footing doesn't move markets away from an optimal outcome, just the opposite, it helps to move us toward the efficient, competitive ideal, and it helps to ensure that labor is rewarded according to its productivity (unlike in recent years where real wages have lagged behind). There is example after example where government involvement of some sort helps to ensure markets work better by making sure they are as competitive as possible.

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