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July 22, 2015

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Posted: 22 Jul 2015 12:06 AM PDT

Financial Regulation: Which Reform Strategy is Best?

Posted: 21 Jul 2015 10:50 AM PDT

Today is the 5th anniversary of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. When the bill was being debated, I was torn on which strategy is best, to strike while the iron is hot -- to implement financial reform legislation as soon as possible -- or to take a patient approach that allows careful consideration and study of proposed regulatory changes:

Kashyap and Mishkin ... may be right that now is not the time to change regulations because it could create additional destabilizing uncertainty in financial markets, and that waiting will give us time to see how the crisis plays out and to consider the regulatory moves carefully. But as we wait, passions will fade, defenses will mount, the media will respond to the those opposed to regulation by making it a he said, she said issue that fogs things up and confuses the public as well as politicians. By the time it is all over there's every chance that legislation will pass that is nothing but a facade with no real teeth that can change the behaviors that go us into this mess.

More and more, I think doing what you can while passions are inflamed, and then defending the legislation as much as possible when the inevitable attack from the industry comes is the best strategy. For example, in the WSJ two days ago, there was an opinion piece with the title "After Five Years, Dodd-Frank Is a Failure," and the sub-header "The law has crushed small banks, restricted access to credit, and planted the seeds of financial instability."

There is a problem with small banks. Here's an email I received earlier this year (last March, in response to an article of mine at CBS MoneyWatch on the decline in the number of small banks and how that could harm smaller buinesses):

Mr. Thoma,
I am a regular reader of your columns, and lean more to the left than virtually any banker I know, but I have to tell you that you are on to something with the decline in the number of small banks, and regulations. As the Chairman of a small bank in [state omitted], the shear amount of regulations that have come out since the banking crisis started are incredible. I know of banks in the area which have simply had to hire a full time staff person to help with compliance. Our bank has had to hire the CPA firm [omitted] to have them come in once a quarter to help us keep up with the compliance. Obviously, this crimps our profits, as does the ZLB which we have had to deal with for six years now, through no fault, at all, of our own.
Don't get me wrong, I understand why all these regulations have been put in place, but unfortunately for us, most of these have little to do with our small bank. They seem to be designed to keep the behemoths out of trouble, and we got dragged along. There needs to be a different set of rules for banks under a certain size. Banks like ours, who keep all our loans in house, and aren't a threat to the economy as a whole, have never been ones to "screw" our customers, or write "bogus" loans, and sell them. Our loan losses since 2008 have been minimal to say the least, because we try very hard to make loans that are going to be repaid. Our total losses over the last six or seven years are not any worse than, and probably, better than they were before the banking crisis arrived.
We, as a board of the bank, have talked on numerous occasions in the last few years on what to do about this problem, and have brought it up with the federal regulators at our last two exams, but have really gotten no where as far as coming up with any ideas on what to do to try and alleviate these burdens on small banks. Any suggestions, or publicity regarding the issue, would be greatly appreciated.

The point I'm trying to make is this. There are two choices when trying to fix a financial system after a crisis. The first is to move fast while the politics are supportive, and put as many of the needed rules and regulations in place as possible. Then, over time, *carefully* adjust the rules to overcome unforeseen problems (while resisting attempts to rollback needed legislation, a delicate balance). The second is to proceed slowly and deliberately and "consider the regulatory moves carefully" before implementing legislation. But by the time this deliberate procedure has been completed, it may very well be that the politics have changed and nothing will be done at all. So I'd rather move fast, if imperfectly, and then fix problems later instead of waiting in an attempt to put near perfect legislation in place and risk doing very little, or nothing at all.

'This is What Economists Don’t Understand About the Euro Crisis – or the U.S. Dollar'

Posted: 21 Jul 2015 09:58 AM PDT

One of those "economists don't understand" thingies:

This is what economists don't understand about the euro crisis – or the U.S. dollar, by Kathleen McNamara, Monkey Cage: Prominent American economists are weighing in on the Greek debt crisis, with more than a hint of schadenfreude. The title of a New York Times op-ed by Gregory Mankiw says it all in one smarmy sentence. "They told you so: Economists were Right To Doubt the Euro." Economists are condescendingly scolding the Europeans for venturing into a single currency without the proper underlying economic conditions. Paul Krugman has relentlessly excoriated the leaders of Europe for being what he calls "self-indulgent politicians" who have "spent a quarter-century trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics." The conventional wisdom seems to be that the problems of the euro zone are, as economist Martin Feldstein once put it, "the inevitable consequence of imposing a single currency on a very heterogeneous group of countries."
What this commentary gets wrong, however, is that single currencies are never the product of debates about optimal economic solutions. Instead, currencies like the U.S. dollar itself are the result of political battles, where motivated actors try to centralize power. This has most often occurred "through iron and blood," as Otto van Bismarck, the unifier of Germany put it, as a result of catastrophic wars. Smaller geographic units were brought together to build the modern nation state, with a unified fiscal system, a common national language that was often imposed by force, a unified legal system, and, a single currency. Put differently (with apologies to sociologist Charles Tilly), war makes the state, and the state makes the currency. ...
European leaders weren't stupid or self indulgent when they decided to move ahead with the euro, without fiscal union or strong Europe-level democracy. They just cared more about politics and international security than economics. They wanted to build a Europe that had transcended the divisions of the Cold War, and bind together Germany, which was reunited and much more powerful, with the rest of Europe. When they did think about economics, they hoped that a strong euro, anchored in an independent European Central Bank located in Frankfurt and built on a commitment to protecting the stability of the currency, would help resolve the problems of currency depreciation, spiraling inflation and economic instability that came with the weak currencies of the "Club Med" countries to the south of Europe.
European leaders, the IMF and the European Commission have done a terrible job at handling the Greek debt crisis. However, criticizing the euro because it doesn't meet the ideal economic conditions for a single currency is missing the point. ...

I think we get the underlying political motivations. But whether the euro was politically motivated for the most part, or not, economics matters for the sustainability of a political union.

'Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness'

Posted: 21 Jul 2015 09:46 AM PDT

Marc Bellemare:

Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness: ... After working on it for almost two years, I am happy to finally be able to circulate my new paper titled "Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness," coauthored with my colleague Rob King and my student Jenny Nguyen, in which we ask whether farmers markets are associated with food-borne illness in a systematic way. ...

In sum, what we find is:

  1. A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported outbreaks of food-borne illness in the average state-year./li>
  2. A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported cases of food-borne illness in the average state-year.
  3. A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported outbreaks of Campylobacter jejuni in the average state-year.
  4. A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported cases of Campylobacter jejuni in the average state-year.
  5. Six dogs that didn't bark, i.e., no systematic relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of outbreaks or cases of norovirus, Salmonella enterica, Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, Staphylococcus (i.e., staph), or scombroid food poisoning.
  6. When controlling for the number of farmers markets, there is a negative relationship between the number of farmers markets that accept SNAP and food-borne illness in the average state-year.
  7. AA doubling of the number of farmers markets in the average state-year would be associated with a relatively modest economic cost of about $900,000 in terms of additional cases of food-borne illness.

Of course, correlation is not causation, which is why we spend a great deal of time in the paper discussing the potential threats to causal identification in this context, investigating them, and trying to triangulate our findings with a number of different specifications and estimators. At the end of the day, we are pretty confident in the robustness of our core finding, viz. that there is a positive association between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported outbreaks and cases of food-borne illness. ...

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