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April 21, 2015

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Posted: 21 Apr 2015 12:06 AM PDT

'Labor Market Slack and Monetary Policy'

Posted: 20 Apr 2015 11:42 AM PDT

Let's hope the Fed is listening:

Labor Market Slack and Monetary Policy, by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew T. Levin, NBER Working Paper No. 21094: In the wake of a severe recession and a sluggish recovery, labor market slack cannot be gauged solely in terms of the conventional measure of the unemployment rate (that is, the number of individuals who are not working at all and actively searching for a job). Rather, assessments of the employment gap should reflect the incidence of underemployment (that is, people working part time who want a full-time job) and the extent of hidden unemployment (that is, people who are not actively searching but who would rejoin the workforce if the job market were stronger). In this paper, we examine the evolution of U.S. labor market slack and show that underemployment and hidden unemployment currently account for the bulk of the U.S. employment gap. Next, using state-level data, we find strong statistical evidence that each of these forms of labor market slack exerts significant downward pressure on nominal wages. Finally, we consider the monetary policy implications of the employment gap in light of prescriptions from Taylor-style benchmark rules.

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'Credit Supply and the Housing Boom'

Posted: 20 Apr 2015 09:04 AM PDT

This is from the Liberty Street Economics Blog at the NY Fed:

Credit Supply and the Housing Boom, by Alejandro Justiniano, Giorgio Primiceri, and Andrea Tambalotti: There is no consensus among economists as to what drove the rise of U.S. house prices and household debt in the period leading up to the recent financial crisis. In this post, we argue that the fundamental factor behind that boom was an increase in the supply of mortgage credit, which was brought about by securitization and shadow banking, along with a surge in capital inflows from abroad. This argument is based on the interpretation of four macroeconomic developments between 2000 and 2006 provided by a general equilibrium model of housing and credit.
The financial crisis precipitated the worst recession since the Great Depression. The spectacular rise in house prices and household debt during the first half of the 2000s, which is illustrated in the first two charts, was a crucial factor behind these events. Yet, economists disagree on the fundamental causes of this credit and housing boom.

Real House Prices

Household Mortgages-to-GDP Ratio

A common narrative attributes the surge in debtand house prices to a loosening of collateral requirements for mortgages, associated with higher initial loan-to-value (LTV) ratios, multiple mortgages on the same property, and expansive home equity lines of credit.
The fact that collateral requirements became looser, at least for certain borrowers, is fairly uncontroversial. But can higher LTVs account for the unprecedented increase in house prices and debt, while remaining consistent with other macroeconomic developments during the same period?
Two facts suggest that the answer to this question is no. First, if the relaxation of collateral constraints had been widespread, it should have resulted in a surge of mortgage debt relative to the value of real estate. In the data, however, household debt and real estate values rose in tandem, leaving their ratio roughly unchanged over the first half of the 2000s, as shown in the chart below. In fact, this ratio only spiked when home prices tumbled, starting in 2006.

Household Mortgages-to-Real Estate Ratio

Second, more relaxed collateral requirements make it possible for the borrowers to demand more credit. Therefore, interest rates should rise to convince the lenders to satisfy this additional demand. In the data, however, real mortgage interest rates fell during the 2000s, as shown below in the fourth chart.

Real Mortgage Interest Rates

The fall in mortgage interest rates depicted in the fourth chart points to a shift in credit supply as an alternative explanation of the credit and housing boom of the early 2000s. We develop this hypothesis within a simple general equilibrium model in Justiniano, Primiceri, and Tambalotti (2015).
In the model, borrowing is limited by a collateral constraint linked to real estate values. Changes to this constraint, such as when the maximum LTV increases, shift the demand for credit. On the lending side, there is a limit to the amount of funds that savers can direct toward mortgage finance, which is equivalent to a leverage restriction on financial intermediaries. Changes to this constraint shift the supply of credit.
Lending constraints capture a host of technological and institutional factors that restrain the flow of savings into the mortgage market. Starting in the late 1990s, the explosion of securitization together with changes in the regulatory environment lowered many of these barriers, increasing the supply of mortgage credit.
The pooling and tranching of mortgages into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) played a central role in loosening lending constraints through several channels. First, tranching creates highly rated assets out of pools of risky mortgages. These assets can then be purchased by those institutional investors that are restricted by regulation to hold only fixed-income securities with high ratings. As a result, the boom in securitization channeled into mortgages a large pool of savings that had previously been directed toward other safe assets, such as government bonds. Second, investing in these senior MBS tranches freed up intermediary capital, owing to their lower regulatory charges. This form of "regulatory arbitrage" allowed banks to increase leverage without raising new capital, expanding their ability to supply credit to mortgage markets. Third, securitization allowed banks to convert illiquid loans into liquid funds, reducing their funding costs and hence increasing their capacity to lend.
International factors also played an important role in increasing the supply of funds available to American home buyers, as global saving flowed into U.S. safe assets, including agency MBS, before the financial crisis (Bernanke, Bertaut, Pounder, DeMarco, and Kamin 2011).
The fifth chart plots the effects of a relaxation of lending constraints in our model. When savers and financial institutions are less restricted in their lending, the supply of credit increases and interest rates fall. Since access to credit requires collateral, the increased availability of funds at lower interest rates makes the existing collateral—houses—scarcer and hence more valuable. As a result of higher real estate values, borrowers can increase their debt, even though their debt-to-collateral ratio remains unchanged. These responses of debt, house prices, aggregate leverage, and mortgage rates match well the empirical facts illustrated in the previous four charts. We conclude from this experiment that a shift in credit supply, associated with looser lending constraints, was the fundamental driver of the credit and housing boom that preceded the Great Recession.

Response to a Change in the Lending-Limit

This interpretation of the sources of the credit and housing boom is consistent with the microeconometric evidence presented in the influential work of Mian and Sufi (2009, 2010). They show that an expansion in credit supply was the fundamental driver of the surge in household debt and that borrowing against the increased value of real estate accounts for a significant fraction of this build-up in debt.
 Our model, by providing a theoretical perspective on the important factors behind the financial crisis, should prove useful as a framework to study policies that might prevent a repeat of this experience.

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Paul Krugman: Greece on the Brink

Posted: 20 Apr 2015 07:28 AM PDT

Is there any hope for Greece?:

Greece on the Brink, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... At the end of 2009 Greece faced a crisis driven by two factors: High debt, and inflated costs and prices that left the country uncompetitive.
Europe responded with loans that kept the cash flowing, but only on condition that Greece pursue extremely painful policies. These included spending cuts and tax hikes that, if imposed on the United States, would amount to $3 trillion a year. There were also wage cuts on a scale that's hard to fathom, with average wages down 25 percent from their peak.
These immense sacrifices were supposed to produce recovery. Instead, the destruction of purchasing power deepened the slump, creating Great Depression-level suffering and a huge humanitarian crisis. ...
It has been an endless nightmare... Can Greek exit from the euro be avoided?
Yes, it can. The irony of Syriza's victory is that it came just at the point when a workable compromise should be possible. ...
By late 2014 Greece had managed to eke out a small "primary" budget surplus... That's all that creditors can reasonably demand... Meanwhile, all those wage cuts have made Greece competitive on world markets — or would ... if some stability can be restored.
The shape of a deal is therefore clear: basically, a standstill on further austerity, with Greece agreeing to make significant but not ever-growing payments to its creditors. Such a deal would set the stage for economic recovery, perhaps slow at the start, but finally offering some hope.
But right now that deal doesn't seem to be coming together..., creditors are demanding things — big cuts in pensions and public employment — that a newly elected government of the left simply can't agree to, as opposed to reforms like an improvement in tax enforcement that it can. ...
To make things even worse, political uncertainty is hurting tax receipts, probably causing that hard-earned primary surplus to evaporate. The sensible thing, surely, is to show some patience on that front: if and when a deal is reached, uncertainty will subside and the budget should improve... But in the pervasive atmosphere of distrust, patience is in short supply.
It doesn't have to be this way. True, avoiding a full-blown crisis would require that creditors advance a significant amount of cash, albeit cash that would immediately be recycled into debt payments. But consider the alternative. The last thing Europe needs is for fraying tempers to bring on yet another catastrophe, this one completely gratuitous.

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