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February 4, 2013

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 29 Nov 2012 12:24 AM PST
Are you tired of paying too much for low-quality cable, internet, and phone services?:
Bad Connections, by David Cay Johnston, Commentary, NY Times: Since 1974, when the Justice Department sued to break up the Ma Bell phone monopoly, Americans have been told that competition in telecommunications would produce innovation, better service and lower prices.
What we've witnessed instead is low-quality service and prices that are higher than a truly competitive market would bring.
After a brief fling with competition, ownership has reconcentrated into a stodgy duopoly of Bell Twins — AT&T and Verizon. ...
The AT&T-DirectTV and Verizon-Bright House-Cox-Comcast-TimeWarner behemoths market what are known as "quad plays": the phone companies sell mobile services jointly with the "triple play" of Internet, telephone and television connections, which are often provided by supposedly competing cable and satellite companies. And because AT&T's and Verizon's own land-based services operate mostly in discrete geographic markets, each cartel rules its domain as a near monopoly.
The result of having such sweeping control of the communications terrain, naturally, is that there is little incentive for either player to lower prices, make improvements to service or significantly invest in new technologies and infrastructure. And that, in turn, leaves American consumers with a major disadvantage compared with their counterparts in the rest of the world. ...
The remedy ... is straightforward: bring back real competition to the telecom industry. The Federal Communications Commission, the Justice Department and lawmakers have long said this is their goal. But absent new rules that promote vigorous competition among telecom companies, it simply won't happen.
Just as canals and railroads let America grow in the 19th century, and highways and airports did so in the 20th century, the information superhighway is vital for the nation's economic growth in the 21st. The nation can't afford to leave its future in the hands of the cartels.
Posted: 29 Nov 2012 12:06 AM PST
Posted: 28 Nov 2012 02:59 PM PST
This is from a much longer Ezra Klein interview of Chrystia Freeland:
'Romney is Wall Street's worst bet since the bet on subprime', by Ezra Klein: Ezra Klein: You've written about the revolt of the very rich against President Obama, and all the money they spent and time they dedicated to defeating him. So what's the mood in those circles now that they've lost?
Chrystia Freeland: There's a great joke on Wall Street which is that the bet on Romney is Wall Street's worst bet since the bet on subprime. But I found the hostility towards Obama astonishing. ... On that Tuesday, the big Romney backers I was talking to were sure he was going to win. They were all flying into Logan Airport for the victory party. There's this stunned feeling of how could we be so wrong, and a feeling of alienation.
The Romney comments to his donors,... I think they accurately reflected the view of a lot of these money guys. It's the continuation of this 47 percent idea. They believe that Obama has been shoring up the entitlement society, and if you give enough entitlements to enough people, they'll vote for you.
EK: Here's my question about those comments. Romney was promising the very rich either a huge tax cut or, if you believe he would've paid for every dime and dollar of his cut, protection from any tax increases. He was promising financiers that he would roll back Dodd-Frank and Sarbanex-Oxley. He was promising current seniors that he wouldn't touch their benefit. How are these not "gifts"?
CF: Let me be clear that I'm not defending any of them. But I think the way it works — and I think Romney's comments were very telling in this regard — ...they're absolutely convinced that they're not asking for special privileges for themselves. They're convinced that it just so happens that their self-interest coincides perfectly with the collective interest. That's where you get this idea of the "job creators". ... If you've developed an ideology that what's good for you personally also happens to be good for everyone else, that's quite wonderful because there's no moral tension. ...
EK: ... From my reporting with the White House, I think the president's view of the economy is that globalization is here and it's not going away. The economy rewards high skills more than ever. Automatic and computerization and foreign competition are wiping out many middle class jobs, and while some new ones are created, it's not at all clear that enough are being created. But in his view, he sees more redistribution as very necessary in this context. He thinks that if the economy is going to grow but the gains won't be broadly shared, then it's the government's role to try and redistribute some, though of course not all, or even most, of those gains.
My experience is that the very rich are open to higher taxes in the context of a deficit deal. ... But they don't like the idea that their money should be redistributed simply because they have too much of it. They don't like the idea that, so to speak, they didn't build all of this, and as such, they need to give back in order to make sure it continues. ... They see it as punishing their success.
CF: I completely agree. ...
Posted: 28 Nov 2012 10:49 AM PST
Tim Duy:
A Little Less Dovish..., by Tim Duy: In the midst of an internal debate over policy communication, Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans pulled back on his 3 percent inflation threshold in a speech yesterday. Arguably, as the only policymaker suggesting guidance well above the Fed's stated 2 percent target, Evans was the last true dove at the Fed. With Evan's falling in line with his colleagues, it looks like the last sliver of hope that the Fed would tolerate slightly higher inflation to accelerate the reduction of real burden has now been dashed.
There is a lot of interesting material in Evan's speech, but here I focus only on his basic outlook and the implications for policy. Regarding growth:
That said, monetary policymakers must formulate policy for today. In the United States, forecasts by both private analysts and FOMC participants see real GDP growth in 2012 coming in at a bit under 2 percent. Growth is expected to move moderately higher in 2013, but only to a pace that is just somewhat above potential. Such growth would likely generate only a small decline in the unemployment rate.
Of course, he added earlier that this forecast is vulnerable to the possible of an austerity bomb in 2013, but for the moment assume that issue is resolved:
Having said all that, most forecasters are predicting that the pace of growth will pick up as we move through next year and into 2014. Underlying these projections is an assumption that fiscal disaster will be avoided—and with this, that some important uncertainties restraining growth should come off the table. Also, deleveraging will run its course, and as it does, the economy's more-typical cyclical recovery dynamics will take over. As the FOMC indicated in its policy moves last September, the current highly accommodative stance for monetary policy will be kept in place for some time to come.
He then praises recent policy actions:
Tying the length of time over which our purchases will be made to economic conditions is an important step. Because it clarifies how our policy decisions are conditional on progress made toward our dual mandate goals, markets can be more confident that we will provide the monetary accommodation necessary to close the large resource gaps that currently exist; additionally, markets can be more certain that we will not wait too long to tighten if inflation were to become an important concern.
And then tackles a big question:
The natural question at this point is to ask: What constitutes substantial improvement in labor markets? Personally, I think we would need to see several things. The first would be increases in payrolls of at least 200,000 per month for a period of around six months. We also would need to see a faster pace of GDP growth than we have now — something noticeably above the economy's potential rate of growth.
From Evan's perspective, these conditions would be sufficient to end the expansion of the balance sheet, although interest rates will remain near zero beyond that point. When should rates rise?
Of course, we will not maintain low rates indefinitely. For some time, I have advocated the use of specific, numerical thresholds to describe the economic conditions that would have to occur before it might be appropriate to begin raising rates.
On the employment mandate:
In the past, I have said we should hold the fed funds rate near zero at least as long as the unemployment rate is above 7 percent and as long as inflation is below 3 percent. I now think the 7 percent threshold is too conservative....This logic is supported by a number of macro-model simulations I have seen, which indicate that we can keep the funds rate near zero until the unemployment rate hits at least 6-1/2 percent and still generate only minimal inflation risks.
So he shifts to a 6.5 percent threshold for unemployment, and later argues that even this might be a bit conservative as his models don't foresee much inflation pressure before 6 percent. See also Federal reserve Janet Yellen's recent speech; Evans' view is consistent with the optimal path forecasts. On one hand this is somewhat of a shift to the dovish side on the inflation forecast, suggesting that inflation will not accelerate as quickly as some might expect. What about the threshold for the rate of inflation itself?
With regard to the inflation safeguard, I have previously discussed how the 3 percent threshold is a symmetric and reasonable treatment of our 2 percent target. This is consistent with the usual fluctuations in inflation and the range of uncertainty over its forecasts. But I am aware that the 3 percent threshold makes many people anxious. The simulations I mentioned earlier suggest that setting a lower inflation safeguard is not likely to impinge too much on the policy stimulus generated by a 6-1/2 percent unemployment rate threshold. Indeed, we're much more likely to reach the 6-1/2 percent unemployment threshold before inflation begins to approach even a modest number like 2-1/2 percent.
So, given the recent policy actions and analyses I mentioned, I have reassessed my previous 7/3 proposal. I now think a threshold of 6-1/2 percent for the unemployment rate and an inflation safeguard of 2-1/2 percent, measured in terms of the outlook for total PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditures Pride Index) inflation over the next two to three years, would be appropriate.
Notice that he really doesn't have a reason to shift his threshold; he doesn't even expect to hit the inflation threshold before hitting the employment threshold. His reason for essentially is that the 3 percent threshold makes people "anxious." Anxious about what? Anything that is perceived to be a threat to the Fed's credibility.
Does this shift on Evans' part really change anything? Probably not. He was always an outlier among Fed policymakers, with a tolerance for inflation as high as 3 percent making him a true dove. But he was never going to get any additional traction on that front from his colleagues. The 2 percent target is set in stone, and it is too much to expect the Fed will tolerate any meaningful deviations from that target. Of course, it is questionable that 3 percent is a meaningful deviation to begin with, but that is question is almost irrelevant at this point.
Bottom Line: By shifting his threshold on inflation, Evan's concedes to the political realities within the Fed. There was never much support for anything like tolerance for 3 percent inflation; for most policymakers, I suspect anything above 2.25 percent would be considered a threat to credibility. By falling in line with the rest of the FOMC, Evan abandons his role as a true dove, someone willing to tolerate substantially higher inflation. He is a dove now in the modern sense - a policymaker with a lower inflation forecast that allows for a longer period of easier policy.
Posted: 28 Nov 2012 10:29 AM PST
I thought I'd note this column from several weeks ago for two reasons. First, it was widely misinterpreted as supporting laws against price-gouging, but I didn't mean to disavow the price-system. The point was that there is a lesson in the public's reaction to price-gouging: When the public believes the price-allocation mechanism results in unfairness, they won't support it. Market fundamentalists, and those who support capitalism more generally, should worry more than they do about how increasing inequality or the increasing market and political power of those at the top will affect the public's perception of the fairness of the capitalist system. If the belief that the system is unfair crosses the tipping point, who knows what type of system could be adopted in its place. Second, and more to the point, I haven't had much luck finding things to post today, and no time to write something myself (so this is filler):
Hurricane Sandy's Lesson on Preserving Capitalism: With long gas lines and other shortages putting people on edge in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the usual post-disaster debate over the economics and ethics of price-gouging is underway. However, while the question of whether it is okay, even desirable, for businesses to raise prices after natural disasters is certainly important, there are larger lessons that can be drawn from this debate.
Economists do not like the term "price-gouging." They believe that price increases are the best way to allocate scarce goods and services after a natural disaster and, importantly, to encourage additional supply. When people can make a large profit by supplying goods and services to a market, they will work extraordinarily hard to meet the demand.
But if there is such an advantage to allowing the price system to work after an event like Hurricane Sandy, why did producers often choose to stick with pre-disaster prices? Why would they leave profits on the table by maintaining pre-disaster prices and allocating goods through other mechanisms such as first-come, first-serve until supplies run out? One answer is that price-gouging after a natural disaster is illegal in many places. But this just begs the question. Why do so many places choose to prohibit large price increases in response to disaster induced shortages?
Most of the explanations economists have come up with rely upon the idea of fairness. ...[continue]...
Let me add one reference to a study by Daniel Kahneman I didn't know about when I wrote this supporting the notion that perceptions of unfairness undermine support for the price-allocation system:
As far as most economists are concerned, it would be totally reasonable for a grocery store to raise prices the day be for a hurricane. In fact, that's what's supposed to happen. If prices don't go up when demand increases, you wind up with shortages. To an economist, empty shelves at grocery stores are evidence that prices were too low.
In a famous study, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his co-authors asked ordinary people lots of questions about pricing and fairness. In one question, a hardware store raised the price of snow shovels from $15 to $20 the morning after a snowstorm.
The higher price sends a signal to the world that says: Send more snow shovels! Someone who runs a hardware store an hour away might be inspired by to put a bunch of shovels in the back of a truck and bring them to town, easing a potential shortage and, perhaps, driving prices back down.
But, not surprisingly, eighty percent of people surveyed said raising the price of snow shovels after a storm would be unfair. Presumably, those people would also say it's unfair for a store to double prices on canned food the day before a hurricane.
People feel so strongly about this that they've passed price-gouging laws in many states, banning merchants from raising prices during hurricanes or other natural disasters.
Posted: 28 Nov 2012 09:30 AM PST
Rajiv Sethi on the "death of a prediction market":
Death of a Prediction Market: A couple of days ago Intrade announced that it was closing its doors to US residents in response to "legal and regulatory pressures." American traders are required to close out their positions by December 23rd, and withdraw all remaining funds by the 31st. Liquidity has dried up and spreads have widened considerably since the announcement. There have even been sharp price movements in some markets with no significant news, reflecting a skewed geographic distribution of beliefs regarding the likelihood of certain events.

The company will survive, maybe even thrive, as it adds new contracts on sporting events to cater to it's customers in Europe and elsewhere. But the contracts that made it famous - the US election markets - will dwindle and perhaps even disappear. Even a cursory glance at the Intrade forum reveals the importance of its US customers to these markets. Individuals from all corners of the country with views spanning the ideological spectrum, and detailed knowledge of their own political subcultures, will no longer be able to participate. There will be a rebirth at some point, perhaps launched by a new entrant with regulatory approval, but for the moment there is a vacuum in a once vibrant corner of the political landscape.

The closure was precipitated by a CFTC suit alleging that the company "solicited and permitted" US persons to buy and sell commodity options without being a registered exchange, in violation of US law. But it appears that hostility to prediction markets among regulators runs deeper than that, since an attempt by Nadex to register and offer binary options contracts on political events was previously denied on the grounds that "the contracts involve gaming and are contrary to the public interest."

The CFTC did not specify why exactly such markets are contrary to the public interest, and it's worth asking what the basis for such a position might be.

I can think of two reasons, neither of which are particularly compelling in this context. First, all traders have to post margin equal to their worst-case loss, even though in the aggregate the payouts from all bets will net to zero. This means that cash is tied up as collateral to support speculative bets, when it could be put to more productive uses such as the financing of investment. This is a capital diversion effect. Second, even though the exchange claims to keep this margin in segregated accounts, separate from company funds, there is always the possibility that its deposits are not fully insured and could be lost if the Irish banking system were to collapse. These losses would ultimately be incurred by traders, who would then have very limited legal recourse.

These arguments are not without merit. But if one really wanted to restrain the diversion of capital to support speculative positions, Intrade is hardly the place to start. Vastly greater amounts of collateral are tied up in support of speculation using interest rate and currency swaps, credit derivatives, options, and futures contracts. It is true that such contracts can also be used to reduce risk exposures, but so can prediction markets. Furthermore, the volume of derivatives trading has far exceeded levels needed to accommodate hedging demands for at least a decade. Sheila Bair recently described synthetic CDOs and naked CDSs as "a game of fantasy football" with unbounded stakes. In comparison with the scale of betting in licensed exchanges and over-the-counter swaps, Intrade's capital diversion effect is truly negligible.

The second argument, concerning the segregation and safety of funds, is more relevant. Even if the exchange maintains a strict separation of company funds from posted margin despite the absence of regulatory oversight, there's always the possibility that it's deposits in the Irish banking system are not fully secure. Sophisticated traders are well aware of this risk, which could be substantially mitigated (though clearly not eliminated entirely) by licensing and regulation.

In judging the wisdom of the CFTC action, it's also worth considering the benefits that prediction markets provide. Attempts at manipulation notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine a major election in the US without the prognostications of pundits and pollsters being measured against the markets. They have become part of the fabric of social interaction and conversation around political events.

But from my perspective, the primary benefit of prediction markets has been pedagogical. I've used them frequently in my financial economics course to illustrate basic concepts such as expected return, risk, skewness, margin, short sales, trading algorithms, and arbitrage. Intrade has been generous with its data, allowing public access to order books, charts and spreadsheets, and this information has found its way over the years into slides, problem sets, and exams. All of this could have been done using other sources and methods, but the canonical prediction market contract - a binary option on a visible and familiar public event - is particularly well suited for these purposes.

The first time I wrote about prediction markets on this blog was back in August 2003. Intrade didn't exist at the time but its precursor, Tradesports, was up and running, and the Iowa Electronic Markets had already been active for over a decade. Over the nine years since that early post, I've used data from prediction markets to discuss arbitrageoverreactionmanipulationself-fulfilling propheciesalgorithmic trading, and the interpretation of prices and order books. Many of these posts have been about broader issues that also arise in more economically significant markets, but can be seen with great clarity in the Intrade laboratory.

It seems to me that the energies of regulators would be better directed elsewhere, at real and significant threats to financial stability, instead of being targeted at a small scale exchange which has become culturally significant and serves an educational purpose. The CFTC action just reinforces the perception that financial sector enforcement in the United States is a random, arbitrary process and that regulators keep on missing the wood for the trees.

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