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July 31, 2015

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Paul Krugman: China’s Naked Emperors

Posted: 31 Jul 2015 01:08 AM PDT

What can we learn from the response of the Chinese government to the problems in China's stock market?:

China's Naked Emperors, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... We've seen ... strange goings-on in China's stock market. In and of itself, the price of Chinese equities shouldn't matter all that much. But the authorities have chosen to put their credibility on the line by trying to control that market — and are in the process of demonstrating that, China's remarkable success over the past 25 years notwithstanding, the nation's rulers have no idea what they're doing. ...
China is at the end of an era — the era of superfast growth... Meanwhile, China's leaders appear to be terrified — probably for political reasons — by the prospect of even a brief recession. ... China's response has been an all-out effort to prop up stock prices. Large shareholders have been blocked from selling; state-run institutions have been told to buy shares; many companies with falling prices have been allowed to suspend trading. ...
What do Chinese authorities think they're doing?
In part, they may be worried about financial fallout. It seems that a number of players in China borrowed large sums with stocks as security, so that the market's plunge could lead to defaults. This is especially troubling because China has a huge "shadow banking" sector that is essentially unregulated and could easily experience a wave of bank runs.
But it also looks as if the Chinese government, having encouraged citizens to buy stocks, now feels that it must defend stock prices to preserve its reputation. And what it's ending up doing, of course, is shredding that reputation at record speed.
Indeed, every time you think the authorities have done everything possible to destroy their credibility, they top themselves. Lately state-run media have been assigning blame for the stock plunge to, you guessed it, a foreign conspiracy against China, which is even less plausible than you may think: China has long maintained controls that effectively shut foreigners out of its stock market, and it's hard to sell off assets you were never allowed to own in the first place.
So what have we just learned? China's incredible growth wasn't a mirage, and its economy remains a productive powerhouse. The problems of transition to lower growth are obviously major, but we've known that for a while. The big news here isn't about the Chinese economy; it's about China's leaders. Forget everything you've heard about their brilliance and foresightedness. Judging by their current flailing, they have no clue what they're doing.

Links for 07-31-15

Posted: 31 Jul 2015 12:06 AM PDT

Fed Watch: GDP Report

Posted: 30 Jul 2015 01:45 PM PDT

Tim Duy:

GDP Report, by Tim Duy: The second quarter GDP report, while not a blockbuster by any measure, will nudge the Fed further in the direction of a September rate hike. At first blush this might seem preposterous - 2.3% growth is nothing to write home about in comparison to history. But history is deceiving in this case. It remains important to keep in mind that 2% is the new 4%.
Year-over-year growth rates continue to hover around 2.5%:


While the 2.3% quarterly rate of the second quarter was below consensus forecasts, the first quarter figure was revised up from -0.2% to 0.6%. That said, the annual revisions from 2012-2014 disappointed. Average annual growth from 2011 to 2014 dropped from a previsouly reported 2.3% to 2.0%. Sad, very sad.
That was still enough growth, however, to sustain fairly solid job growth and sharp declines in the unemployment rate, suggesting that potential output growth is indeed fairly anemic. The Fed staff appear to agree; see their very low potential growth numbers in the accidentally released forecasts (and for more on the implications of those forecasts, see Gavin Davies). Note also the low end of the range of potential growth estimates from FOMC meeting participants is 1.8%. Furthermore, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams wants the Fed to guide the economy to a 2.0% growth rate in 2016. Hence 2.3% growth when the economy is operating near full-employment is sufficient for many policymakers to pull the trigger on the first rate hike.
A second implication of the revisions is that they provide no relief for those pondering low productivity growth. Indeed, it is quite the opposite, and they suggest downward revisions to productivity. Low productivity plus low labor force growth equals low potential output growth. 2% is the new 4%. And don't expect that all the data will fall into the same nice, consistent patterns we typically see in a business cycle. Some indicators will point up, others down, leading to many erroneous calls that a recession is soon upon us.  
As an aside, solid research and development spending gives hope that productivity growth will accelerate:


We can only wait and see.
The inflation numbers also point to a September hike. Recall that the Fed is waiting until they are reasonably confident that inflation is heading back to target. Headline and core PCE rebounded to 2.15% and 1.81% annual growth rates in the first quarter, respectively, adding weight to the Fed's conviction that the inflation weakness of the first half was indeed transitory. To be sure, these gains have yet to translate into higher year-over-year numbers. But a forward looking Fed will expect they will head higher.
Separately, the forward-looking indicator of initial unemployment claims continues to hover at very low levels:


A reminder that layoffs are few and far between as we head into next week's employment report for July.
Bottom Line: An unspectacular recovery, but sufficient to keep the Fed on track for raising rates this year. The case for September further strengthens.

'Dentists and Skin in the Game'

Posted: 30 Jul 2015 10:41 AM PDT

Paul Krugman:

Dentists and Skin in the Game: Wonkblog has a post inspired by the dentist who paid a lot of money to shoot Cecil the lion, asking why he — and dentists in general — make so much money. Interesting stuff; I've never really thought about the economics of dental care.

But once you do focus on that issue, it turns out to have an important implication — namely, that the ruling theory behind conservative notions of health reform is completely wrong.

For many years conservatives have insisted that the problem with health costs is that we don't treat health care like an ordinary consumer good; people have insurance, which means that they don't have "skin in the game" that gives them an incentive to watch costs. So what we need is "consumer-driven" health care, in which insurers no longer pay for routine expenses like visits to the doctor's office, and in which everyone shops around for the best deals. ...

As it turns out, many fewer people have dental insurance than have general medical insurance; even where there is insurance, it typically leaves a lot of skin in the game. But dental costs have risen just as fast as overall health spending...

Higher-Than-Expected Second Quarter Growth

Posted: 30 Jul 2015 09:25 AM PDT

Dean Baker:

Consumption Spending and Net Exports Spur Higher-Than-Expected Second Quarter Growth: Downward GDP revisions show economy falling further behind potential output from 2011–2014.
The Commerce Department reported the economy grew at a 2.3 percent annual rate in the second quarter, a substantial improvement from the 0.6 percent rate in the first quarter. The latter number was an upward revision from a previously reported decline of -0.2 percent. The biggest factors were a turnaround in the trade balance and an uptick in the rate of consumption growth.

In the first quarter, exports fell at a 6.3 percent annual rate. This was partly the result of the rise in the value of the dollar in 2014, but also partly the result of slowdowns at West Coast ports due to a labor dispute. With the labor dispute now settled, exports rose at a 5.3 percent rate in the second quarter, still leaving them below their level from the fourth quarter of 2014. The improvement in the trade balance contributed 0.13 percentage points to growth after subtracting 1.92 percentage points in the first quarter.

Consumption grew at a 2.9 percent annual rate in the second quarter, up from a weather-depressed 1.1 percent rate in the first quarter. The biggest change was in durable goods. People who put off buying cars in the harsh winter weather instead bought in the second quarter, leading to a 7.3 percent rate of increase in durable good sales compared to a 2.0 percent rate in the first quarter. Consumption contributed 1.99 percentage points to growth in the second quarter compared to 1.19 percentage points in the first quarter.

The personal saving rate was 4.8 percent for the quarter, the same as the average of 2014. This should end speculation about why people are not spending their dividend from lower gas prices, since the data indicate they are. Consumption is at near-record highs as a share of GDP, which makes the frequent fretting over cautious consumers seem more than a bit peculiar.


Investment was very weak in the quarter, shrinking at a 0.6 percent annual rate. Equipment spending fell at a 4.1 percent rate, and spending on structures fell at a 1.6 percent rate after dropping at a 7.4 percent rate in Q1. It is likely that overbuilding in some areas will lead to further weakening of structure investment in future quarters. Residential construction grew at a 6.6 percent rate, down from a 10.1 percent rate in the first quarter. Government spending rose at a 0.8 percent rate as a 2.0 percent rise in state and local spending more than offset a drop of 1.1 percent at the federal level.

The revisions show the recovery to have been weaker than previously reported. Growth for the years 2012–14 averaged just 2.0 percent, down from a previously reported 2.3 percent. This means the economy was growing less rapidly than most estimates of potential GDP growth, implying the economy was falling further below its potential level of output during this period instead of making up the ground lost during the recession.

The revised data also show a somewhat smaller profit share in the last two years. Before-tax profits were revised down by $69.5 billion (3.3 percent) in 2013 and $16.9 billion (0.8 percent) in 2014. With these revisions, the profit share of corporate income peaked in 2012 and has been drifting downward for the last two years.

The data on health care spending continue to look very good. Spending on health care services, which accounts for the vast majority of health care spending, rose at a 2.7 percent annual rate in the quarter, virtually the same as the rate over the last three years. Spending on drugs has been rising considerably more rapidly. Inflation continues to be very much under control. Over the last year, the core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) has risen by 1.3 percent, well below the Fed's 2.0 percent target.

On the whole, this report suggests that the economy is likely to continue to grow at a very modest pace. Consumption growth will likely be slower in the second half of the year, with investment likely to be somewhat stronger. The net is likely to lead to a growth rate of close to 2.0 percent. If it had not been for extraordinarily weak productivity growth, this would imply a very slow rate of job creation.

July 30, 2015

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Posted: 30 Jul 2015 12:06 AM PDT

Fed Watch: FOMC Recap

Posted: 29 Jul 2015 12:37 PM PDT

Tim Duy:

FOMC Recap, by Tim Duy: The July FOMC meeting yielded the widely expected outcome of no policy change. Very little change in the statement either - pulling out any useful information is about as easy as reading tea leaves or chicken bones. But that won't stop me from trying! On net, I would count it was somewhat more hawkish as the Fed gears up to hike rates later this year. By no means, however, did the statement make any definitive signal about September. The Fed continues to hold true to its promise to make the next move about the data. The era of handholding fades further into memory.
The first paragraph contained nearly all of the changes in the statement. Using the Wall Street Journal's handy-dandy Fed tracker:


In my opinion, this represents a not trivial upgrade of their thoughts on the labor market. Job growth is "solid," unemployment continues to decline, and a much more forceful conclusion on underemployment. No longer has underutilization diminished by a wishy-washy "somewhat." It now conclusively "has" diminished. Hence, it seems like the Fed is closer to declaring victory over one impediment to hiking rates - Fed Chair Janet Yellen's concerns about the high degree of underemployment.
I tend to regard the exclusion of the "energy prices appear to have stabilized" as the elimination of an artifact from the June statement. Energy prices are not in free-fall as the were at the end of last year, and have instead been tracking within a range since the beginning of the year. Hence the Fed can later repeat the inflation forecast as:
"...the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of earlier declines in energy and import prices dissipate."
Some may interpret it as a more dovish signal in light of the recent declines in oil prices. I am wary of that interpretation.
The only other change to the statement was in the third paragraph:


The addition of the determiner "some" fits nicely with the changes to the first paragraph. The labor market has now shown sufficient improvement such that the bar to a rate hike is actually quite low. Essentially, meeting participants believe the economy is closing in on full employment. And that in and of itself will raise their confidence on the inflation outlook.
There was some early chatter regarding the continued description of the risks to the outlook as "nearly" balanced. This was taken as dovish. Had they said the balance is weighted toward inflation, however, the Fed would have essentially been promising a rate hike in September, and they have been very clear they do not want to make such a promise. So the failure to change the balance of risks should not be that surprising. In that vein, I suspect that when they do hike, they will say something like "with today's action, the risks to the outlook remain balanced" such that they leave no signal regarding the timing or the magnitude of the next move.
Bottom Line:  All else equal, the next two labor reports will factor strongly into the Fed's decision in September. A continuation of recent labor trends is likely sufficient to induce them to pull the trigger. Further signs of stronger wage growth would make a September move a certainty.

What Is 'Price Theory'?

Posted: 29 Jul 2015 11:27 AM PDT

Glen Weyl at Marginal Revolution:

What Is "Price Theory"?: ... I have an unusual relationship to "price theory". As far as I know I am the only economist under 40, with the possible exception of my students, who openly identifies myself as focusing my research on price theory. As a result I am constantly asked what the phrase means. Usually colleagues will follow up with their own proposed definitions. My wife even remembers finding me at our wedding reception in a heated debate not about the meaning of marriage, but of price theory.
The most common definition, which emphasizes the connection to Chicago and to models of price-taking in partial equilibrium, doesn't describe the work of the many prominent economists today who are closely identified with price theory but who are not at Chicago and study a range of different models. It also falls short of describing work by those like Paul Samuelson who were thought of as working on price theory in their time even by rivals like Milton Friedman. Worst of all it consigns price theory to a particular historical period in economic thought and place, making it less relevant to the future of economics.
I therefore have spent many years searching for a definition that I believe works... This process eventually brought me to my own definition of price theory as analysis that reduces rich (e.g. high-dimensional heterogeneity, many individuals) and often incompletely specified models into 'prices' sufficient to characterize approximate solutions to simple (e.g. one-dimensional policy) allocative problems. This approach contrasts both with work that tries to completely solve simple models (e.g. game theory) and empirical work that takes measurement of facts as prior to theory. Unlike other definitions, I argue that mine does a good job connecting the use of price theory across a range of fields of microeconomics from international trade to market design, being consistent across history and suggesting productive directions for future research on the topic. ...

He goes on to explain.

FOMC Press Release

Posted: 29 Jul 2015 11:14 AM PDT

Not much to say about this, policy is unchanged, and not as much guidance on what to expect going forward as some expected (i.e., to get people ready for a rate increase in September):

Press Release, Release Date: July 29, 2015: Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that economic activity has been expanding moderately in recent months. Growth in household spending has been moderate and the housing sector has shown additional improvement; however, business fixed investment and net exports stayed soft. The labor market continued to improve, with solid job gains and declining unemployment. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources has diminished since early this year. Inflation continued to run below the Committee's longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and decreasing prices of non-energy imports. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate. The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. Inflation is anticipated to remain near its recent low level in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of earlier declines in energy and import prices dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.
To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress--both realized and expected--toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen some further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. This policy, by keeping the Committee's holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent. The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.

'Using Math to Obfuscate — Observations from Finance

Posted: 29 Jul 2015 10:52 AM PDT

More from Paul Romer on "mathiness" -- this time the use of math in finance to obfuscate communication with regulators:

Using Math to Obfuscate — Observations from Finance: The usual narrative suggests that the new mathematical tools of modern finance were like the wings that Daedalus gave Icarus. The people who put these tools to work soared too high and crashed.
In two posts, here and here, Tim Johnson notes that two government investigations (one in the UK, the other in the US) tell a different tale. People in finance used math to hide what they were doing.
One of the premises I used to take for granted was that an argument presented using math would be more precise than the corresponding argument presented using words. Under this model, words from natural language are more flexible than math. They let us refer to concepts we do not yet fully understand. They are like rough prototypes. Then as our understanding grows, we use math to give words more precise definitions and meanings. ...
I assumed that because I was trying to use math to reason more precisely and to communicate more clearly, everyone would use it the same way. I knew that math, like words, could be used to confuse a reader, but I assumed that all of us who used math operated in a reputational equilibrium where obfuscating would be costly. I expected that in this equilibrium, we would see only the use of math to clarify and lend precision.
Unfortunately, I was wrong even about the equilibrium in the academic world, where mathiness is in fact used to obfuscate. In the world of for-profit finance, the return to obfuscation in communication with regulators is much higher, so there is every reason to expect that mathiness would be used liberally, particularly in mandated disclosures. ...
We should expect that there will be mistakes in math, just as there are mistakes in computer code. We should also expect some inaccuracies in the verbal claims about what the math says. A small number of errors of either type should not be a cause for alarm, particularly if the math is presented transparently so that readers can check the math itself and check whether it aligns with the words. In contrast, either opaque math or ambiguous verbal statements about the math should be grounds for suspicion. ...
Mathiness–exposition characterized by a systematic divergence between what the words say and what the math implies–should be rejected outright.

'Spare Tire? Stock Markets, Banking Crises, and Economic Recoveries'

Posted: 29 Jul 2015 10:52 AM PDT

From Ross Levine, Chen Lin, and Wensi Xie at Vox EU:

Spare tire? Stock markets, banking crises, and economic recoveries: Do stock markets act as a 'spare tire' during banking crises, providing an alternative corporate financing channel and mitigating the economic severity of crises when the banking system goes flat?

In 1999, Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, argued that stock markets could mitigate the negative effects of banking crises, including more fragile businesses and greater unemployment. Using the analogy of a spare tire, he conjectured that banking crises in Japan and East Asia would have been less severe if those countries had built the necessary legal infrastructure so that their stock markets could have provided financing to corporations when their banking systems could not. If firms can substitute equity issuances for bank loans during banking crises, then banking crises will have less harmful effects on the public.

But researchers have not evaluated the spare tire view. Although official entities and others discuss the spare tire argument (e.g. US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission 2011, Wessel 2009), we are unaware of systematic assessments of the testable implications emerging from Greenspan's view of how financial markets can ease the effects of systemic banking failures.

In a recent paper, we provide the first assessment of the spare tire view... The findings are consistent with the three predictions of the spare tire view. ... The estimated economic effects are large...

July 29, 2015

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'Second-best Macroeconomics'

Posted: 29 Jul 2015 12:24 AM PDT

Paul Krugman wonders if he has been advocating for the right type of policies:

Second-best Macroeconomics: The ... economic problems facing both the United States and Europe have been quite straightforward and comprehensible. ... So no worries: just hit the big macroeconomic That Was Easy button, and soon the troubles will be over.
Except that all the natural answers to our problems have been ruled out politically. Austerians not only block the use of fiscal policy, they drive it in the wrong direction; a rise in the inflation target is impossible given both central-banker prejudices and the power of the goldbug right. Exchange rate adjustment is blocked by the disappearance of European national currencies, plus extreme fear over technical difficulties in reintroducing them.
As a result, we're stuck with highly problematic second-best policies like quantitative easing and internal devaluation. ... In case you don't know, "second best" ... comes from a classic 1956 paper by Lipsey and Lancaster, which showed that policies which might seem to distort markets may nonetheless help the economy if markets are already distorted by other factors. ...
The problems with second best as a policy rationale are familiar. For one thing, it's always better to address existing distortions directly, if you can — second best policies generally have undesirable side effects... There's also a political economy concern,... in a complicated world you can come up with a second best rationale for practically anything. ...
But here we are, with anything resembling first-best macroeconomic policy ruled out by political prejudice, and the distortions we're trying to correct are huge — one global depression can ruin your whole day. So we have quantitative easing, which is of uncertain effectiveness, probably distorts financial markets at least a bit, and gets trashed all the time by people stressing its real or presumed faults; someone like me is then put in the position of having to defend a policy I would never have chosen if there seemed to be a viable alternative. ...
Which makes me ask myself the question: Do people like me spend too much time being limited by what is presumed to be politically practical? Should we devote more time to trying to widen the range of options, to pointing out that we really would be much better off if we threw off the fetters of conventional deficit fears, the 2 percent inflation target, and the extremely ill-advised euro project?

Links for 07-29-15

Posted: 29 Jul 2015 12:06 AM PDT

The Politics of Economics and ‘Very Serious People’

Posted: 28 Jul 2015 09:15 AM PDT

New column:

The Politics of Economics and 'Very Serious People': The latest debate in the economics blogosphere is about the true meaning of the term "Very Serious People," a term of derision initially used to describe some supporters of the Iraq war. It was later broadened to describe people who advocate for the tough position on any issue – budget cuts and entitlement reform to ease debt worries, increases in interest rates to prevent inflation, and so on – despite evidence contrary to their policy proposals.
Very Serious People often embrace unpopular policies; they adopt the tough and serious route they believe is needed to ensure the US remains on solid footing, and they ridicule the opposition as softies unwilling to accept that there is no easy way to overcome our economic problems. Gain requires pain, but we should note that the tough policies Very Serious People embrace usually impose the pain on other people -- often the poor and disadvantaged. When they are asked to step up and pay more taxes to reduce the deficit, for example, their tune generally changes.
Henry Farrell, an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University says, "Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one's innate biases and prejudices." I'm not sure that fully captures the desire to appear tough and disciplined, to be seen as the one willing to say what needs to be done no matter how hard it is, but it did lead me to think about the degree to which I, and other economists, are influenced by our political leanings. To what extent do our politics determine our economics? ...

July 28, 2015

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'Should Central Bankers Stick to Talking about Monetary Policy?'

Posted: 28 Jul 2015 12:42 AM PDT

Simon Wren-Lewis on whether "central bankers need to keep quiet about policy matters that are not within their remit":

Should central bankers stick to talking about monetary policy?: Few disagree that the recent remarks on corporate governance and investment made by Andy Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank of England) are interesting, and that if they start a debate on short-termism that would be a good thing. As Will Hutton notes, Hillary Clinton has been saying similar things in the US. The problem Tony Yates has (and which Duncan Weldon, the interviewer, alluded to in his follow-up question) is that this is not obviously part of the monetary policy remit.
Haldane gave an answer to that, which Tony correctly points out is somewhat strained. ...
I have in the past said very similar things to Tony...
However I am beginning to have second thoughts about my own and Tony's views on this. First, it all seems a bit British in tone. Tony worked at the Bank, and I have been involved with both the Bank and Treasury on and off, so we are both steeped in a British culture of secrecy. I do not think either of us are suggesting that senior Bank officials should never give advice to politicians, so what are the virtues of keeping this private? In trying to analyse how policy was made in 2010, it is useful to have a pretty good idea of what advice the Bank's governor gave politicians because of what he said in public, rather than having to guess. ...
It is often said that central bankers need to keep quiet about policy matters that are not within their remit as part of an implicit quid pro quo with politicians, so that politicians will refrain from making public their views about monetary policy. Putting aside the fact that the ECB never got this memo, I wonder whether this is just a fiction so that politicians can inhibit central bankers from saying things politicians might find awkward (like fiscal austerity is making our life difficult). In a country like the UK with a well established independent central bank, it is not that clear what the central bank is getting out of this quid pro quo. And if it stops someone with the wide ranging vision of Haldane from raising issues just because they could be deemed political, you have to wonder whether this mutual public inhibition serves the social good.

The danger is that the Fed will become politicized as a result of taking sides on hotly debated political/policy questions. This is from a post in February of 2007:

...Should the Federal Reserve Chair talk only about matters directly related to monetary policy, or is it okay to discuss broader issues such as inequality, minimum wages, and Social Security without making the direct connection to monetary policy evident?...:

Willem Buiter: Martin's Column "Why America will need some elements of a welfare state", refers extensively to a recent speech by Ben Bernanke...

I believe it is a serious mistake for central bankers to express public views on politically contentious issues outside their mandates. The mistake is no less serious for being made so commonly by central bankers all over the world.

Central bank Governors have a lengthy and unfortunate track record of holding forth in public on matters that are outside the domains of their mandate (in the case of the Fed, monetary policy and financial stability)... With the exception of the Governors of the Bank of England and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, every Governor on the block appears to want to share his or her views on necessary or desirable fiscal, structural and social reforms. Examples are social security reform and the minimum wage, subjects on which Alan Greenspan liked to pontificate when he was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Jean-Claude Trichet cannot open his mouth without some exhortation for fiscal restraint or structural reform rolling out. In the case of Chairman Bernanke's speech, equality of opportunity, income distribution, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency are clearly not part of the (admittedly broad) three-headed mandate of the Fed: maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates. ...

When the Head of a central bank becomes a participant, often a partisan participant, in public policy debates on matters beyond the central bank's mandate..., the institution of the central bank itself is politicised and put at risk of becoming a partisan-political football. This puts at risk the central bank's operational independence in the management of monetary policy and in securing financial stability.

Central bankers, Mr. Bernanke included, should 'stick to their knitting' (if I may borrow Alan Blinder's phrase). Being the head of an institution with the national and global visibility of the Fed or the ECB gives one an unparalleled platform for addressing whatever one considers the great issues of the time. The temptation to climb that unique pulpit must be near-irresistible. Nevertheless, unless the text for the sermon concerns monetary policy or financial stability, that temptation is to be resisted in the interest of the institutional integrity and independence of the central bank.

As I've said before, I agree.

Fiscal policy has a clear connection to monetary policy through the government budget constraint, and there are also times -- e.g. recently -- when monetary policy needs the help of fiscal policy (if the Fed is forced to shoulder the entire burden, it can bring other risks). So I have no problem with the Fed chair raising fiscal policy issues (as Bernanke did, though not forcefully enough perhaps). I have a bit more trouble when the topic is inequality (e.g. Yellen's big speech on this -- and the subsequent reaction from the right). It's harder to see how that is connected to the Fed's policy mandate, and with Republicans already out to take away as much of the Fed's powers as they can, it was a bad time to tick them off.

Maybe this is too cautious. Perhaps Federal Reserve officials should feel free to address whatever topic they'd like. But the Fed's independence was instrumental during the Great Recession -- without it, monetary policy would have been as terrible as fiscal policy and things would have been much worse -- and I'd rather not take any risks.

Is Content Aggregation Harmful?

Posted: 28 Jul 2015 12:33 AM PDT

This is from the NBER (Project Syndicate, are you listening?):

Content Aggregation by Platforms: The Case of the News Media, by Lesley Chiou and Catherine Tucker, NBER Working Paper No. 21404, July 2015: ... In recent years, the digitization of content has led to the prominence of platforms as aggregators of content in many economically important industries, including media and Internet-based industries (Evans and Schmalensee, 2012).
These new platforms consolidate content from multiple sources into one place, thereby lowering the transactions costs of obtaining content and introducing new information to consumers. ... For these reasons, platforms have attracted considerable legal and policy attention. ...
Our results indicate that ... the traffic effect is large, as aggregators may guide users to new content. We do not find evidence of a scanning effect...
Our empirical distinction between a scanning effect where the aggregator substitutes for original content and a traffic effect where the aggregator is complementary, is useful for analyzing the potential policy implications of such business models. The fact we find evidence of a "traffic effect" even with a relatively large amount of content on an aggregator, is perhaps evidence that the "fair use" exemptions often relied on by such sites are less potentially damaging to the original copyright holder than often thought.

On the comment that the benefits outweigh the harm "even with a relatively large amount of content on an aggregator," when I post an entire article, as I did yesterday with this Vox EU piece, a surprisingly high percentage of you still click through to the original.

With video, at least in most cases, there is code available to put the video on your site. You play it and it has ads, branding, etc. I've always thought (or maybe hoped) content providers should do the same thing. Provide an embed button that allows me to duplicate an article -- it would come with ads, links to other content on their site, etc. -- on my site. Reads of the article would go way up (not from just my site, I mean if they allowed everyone to do this), and it would increase the number of people who see ads associated with their content (so they could charge more).

'Are We Overestimating Inflation (Again?)'

Posted: 28 Jul 2015 12:24 AM PDT

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Are we overestimating inflation (again?): Twenty years ago, a group of experts – the "Boskin Commission" – concluded that the U.S. consumer price index (CPI) systematically overstated inflation by 0.8 to 1.6 percentage points each year. Taking these findings to heart, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) got to work reducing this bias, so that by the mid-2000s, experts felt it had fallen by as much as half a percentage point.
We bring this up because there is a concern that as a consequence of the way in which we measure information technology (IT), health care, digital content and the like, the degree to which conventional indices overestimate inflation may have risen. ...
When indices like the consumer price index (CPI) or the personal consumption expenditure price index (PCE) persistently overstate inflation, there are important consequences. So long as the upward bias is constant, central bankers can (and do) modify their inflation targets. Yet, these price indexes also are used to adjust entitlement benefits without correcting for any persistent bias. And, they can have an important impact on public discourse. In particular, upward bias means that the median real wage may have risen substantially over past decades, in contrast to reported stagnation.
If the overstatement of inflation has increased during the past decade, this also has profound consequences. For one thing, the reported slowdown in annual productivity growth – from something like 2½% in the decade prior to the crisis to about 1% today – could be more apparent than real. For another, true inflation may be even further below the Federal Reserve's long-run objective of 2% on the PCE than current readings imply.
There is good reason to think that the price mismeasurement problem has gotten worse, but quantifying that deterioration is another thing. The impact on inflation may turn out to be small – perhaps an extra ¼% annually – leaving it well within the range of uncertainty that the Boskin Commission highlighted 20 years ago. ...

After presenting their analysis, they end with:

So, what's the bottom line? We have little doubt that inflation has been overstated for decades. That means that the rise of U.S. real output, real income, productivity, and living standards has been understated materially over the long run. In recent years, IT price mismeasurement probably has worsened this growth and productivity bias significantly. But the potential impact of IT mismeasurement on measures of consumer price inflation – which has been the source of much discussion – is small compared to what a worsening bias in health care prices would imply.

[There is a large controversy surrounding the Boskin report that I am ignoring.]

Links for 07-28-15

Posted: 28 Jul 2015 12:06 AM PDT

July 27, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Paul Krugman: Zombies Against Medicare

Posted: 27 Jul 2015 12:42 AM PDT

Despite what you might hear from conservatives, Medicare is "eminently sustainable":

Zombies Against Medicare, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Medicare turns 50 this week, and it has been a very good half-century. Before the program went into effect, Ronald Reagan warned that it would destroy American freedom; it didn't, as far as anyone can tell. What it did do was provide a huge improvement in financial security for seniors and their families, and in many cases it has literally been a lifesaver as well.
But the right has never abandoned its dream of killing the program. So it's really no surprise that Jeb Bush recently declared that while he wants to let those already on Medicare keep their benefits, "We need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others." ...
The ... reason conservatives want to do away with Medicare has always been political: It's the very idea of the government providing a universal safety net that they hate, and they hate it even more when such programs are successful. But ... they usually shy away from making their real case...
What Medicare's would-be killers usually argue, instead, is that the program as we know it is unaffordable — that we must destroy the system in order to save it... And the new system they usually advocate is ... vouchers that can be applied to the purchase of private insurance.
The underlying premise here is that Medicare as we know it is incapable of controlling costs, that only the only way to keep health care affordable going forward is to rely on the magic of privatization.
Now, this was always a dubious claim. .... In fact, Medicare costs per beneficiary have consistently grown more slowly than private insurance premiums... Indeed, Medicare spending keeps coming in ever further below expectations...
Right now is, in other words, a very odd time to be going on about the impossibility of preserving Medicare, a program whose finances will be strained by an aging population but no longer look disastrous. One can only guess that Mr. Bush is unaware of all this, that he's living inside the conservative information bubble, whose impervious shield blocks all positive news about health reform.
Meanwhile, what the rest of us need to know is that Medicare at 50 still looks very good. It needs to keep working on costs, it will need some additional resources, but it looks eminently sustainable. The only real threat it faces is that of attack by right-wing zombies.

'Poor Little Rich Kids? The Determinants of the Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth'

Posted: 27 Jul 2015 12:33 AM PDT

Genes are not as important as people think:

Poor Little Rich Kids? The Determinants of the Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth, by Sandra E. Black, Paul J. Devereux, Petter Lundborg, and Kaveh Majlesi, NBER Working Paper No. 21409 Issued in July 2015: Wealth is highly correlated between parents and their children; however, little is known about the extent to which these relationships are genetic or determined by environmental factors. We use administrative data on the net wealth of a large sample of Swedish adoptees merged with similar information for their biological and adoptive parents. Comparing the relationship between the wealth of adopted and biological parents and that of the adopted child, we find that, even prior to any inheritance, there is a substantial role for environment and a much smaller role for genetics. We also examine the role played by bequests and find that, when they are taken into account, the role of adoptive parental wealth becomes much stronger. Our findings suggest that wealth transmission is not primarily because children from wealthier families are inherently more talented or more able but that, even in relatively egalitarian Sweden, wealth begets wealth.

[Open link]

'Debt Miracle: Why the Country that Borrowed the Most Industrialized First'

Posted: 27 Jul 2015 12:24 AM PDT

"When we consider the dangers of debt in today's world, we should keep an eye on its potential benefits as well.":

Debt miracle: Why the country that borrowed the most industrialized first, by Jaume Ventura and Hans-Joachim Voth, Vox EU: Towering debts, rapidly rising taxes, constant and expensive wars, a debt burden surpassing 200% of GDP. What are the chances that a country with such characteristics would grow rapidly? Almost anyone would probably say 'none'.
And yet, these are exactly the conditions under which the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain. Britain's government debt went from 5% of GDP in 1700 to over 200% in 1820, it fought a war in one year out of three (most of them for little or no economic gain), and taxes increased rapidly but not enough to keep pace with the rise in spending.
Figure 1 shows how war drove up spending and led to massive debt accumulation – the shaded grey areas indicate wars, and they are responsible for almost all of the rise in debt. Over the same period, Britain moved a large part of its population out of agriculture and into industry and services – out of the countryside and into cities. Population grew rapidly, and industrial output surged (Crafts 1985). As a result, Britain became the first country to break free from the shackles of the Malthusian regime.

Figure 1. Debt accumulation and government expenditure in the UK, 1690-1860


Until now, scholars mostly thought of the effect of government borrowing on growth as either neutral or negative. One prominent view held that investment in private industry would have been higher had Britain fought and borrowed less (Williamson 1984). Another argument is that private savings decisions undid the potentially negative effects of massive borrowing – because debt eventually has to be repaid, private agents anticipated rising taxes in the future and neutralized the effects of debt accumulation (Barro 1990).
The revolution that wasn't
In a recent paper, we argue that Britain's borrowing binge was actually good for growth (Ventura and Voth 2015). To understand why massive debt accumulation may have accelerated the Industrial Revolution, we first consider what should have happened in an economy where entrepreneurs suddenly start to exploit a new technology with high returns. Typically, we would expect capital to chase these investment opportunities – anyone with money should have tried to put their savings into new cotton factories, iron foundries and ceramics manufacturers. Where they didn't have the expertise to invest directly, banks and stock companies should have recycled funds to direct savings to where returns where highest.
This is not what happened. Financial intermediation was woefully inadequate – it failed to send the money where it should have gone. As one prominent historian of the British Industrial Revolution argued:
"the reservoirs of savings were full enough, but conduits to connect them with the wheels of industry were few and meagre … surprisingly little of [Britain's] wealth found its way into the new industrial enterprises …." (Postan 1935).
There were many reasons for this, but deliberate financial repression by the government was one of them. Usury limits, the Bubble Act, the Six Partner Rule that limited the size of banks – all of them were designed to stifle private intermediation, in part so as to facilitate access to funds for the government (Temin and Voth 2013).
Without effective intermediation, new sectors had to self-finance – rates of return stayed high because so little fresh capital entered to chase the sky-high returns. Allen calculated that the profit rate for capital rose from 10% in the 1770s to over 20% by the 1830s – capital's share of national income more than doubled (Allen 2009).
Why debt helped
The inefficiency of private intermediation is crucial for debt to play a beneficial role. By issuing bonds on a massive scale, the government effectively pioneered a way – unintentionally – to put money in the pockets of entrepreneurs in the new sectors.
How did it do that? Before the availability of government debt, Britain's rich and mighty – the nobility – overwhelmingly invested in land and land improvements. Status was closely tied to land, but improving it was not a profitable enterprise. Many forms of investment yielded a return of 2% of less. No wonder that noblemen were disenchanted with landed investment: By the 1750s, the first nobles were switching massively out of land and into government debt. The Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel advised: "every landowner ought to have as much property (as his estate) in consols or other securities…" (Habbakuk 1994). Many nobles obliged, shifting into an asset with a superior risk-return profile. As Lord Monson put it: "What an infernal bore is landed property. No certain income can be reckoned upon. I hope your future wife will have consols. . . " (Thompson 1963).
The shift from investing in liming, marling, draining, and enclosure into government debt liberated resources – labor that could no longer be profitably employed in the countryside had to look for employment elsewhere. Because so much of English agricultural labor was provided by wage laborers, the switch to government debt pushed workers off the land. Unsurprisingly, wages failed to keep pace with output; real wages, adjusted for urban disamenities, probably fell over the period 1750-1830. What made life miserable for the workers, as eloquently described by Engels amongst others, was a boon to the capitalists. Their profit rates continued to rise as capital received an ever-larger share of the pie – while the share of national income going to labor and land contracted. Higher profits spelled more investment in new industries, and Britain's industrial growth accelerated.
By putting debt at the center of our interpretation of the Industrial Revolution, we can provide a unified explanation for a number of features that have so far seemed puzzling. Growth was relatively slow, especially in the beginning (Crafts 1985) – but technological change was probably quite rapid (Temin 1997). Government borrowing slowed capital formation on impact – but structural change was rapid over the period as a whole. Rates of return were high in industry, but little capital chased these returns. Wages failed to keep up with productivity despite the rapid move out of the countryside and into the cities. By emphasizing how government debt issuance 'healed' the negative consequences of financial frictions, we can jointly explain rapid structural change and slow growth; rapid technological change and poor wage growth; massive government borrowing and the first take-off into sustained growth.
Good-bye to Downton
The issuance of government debt also accelerated social change – the rise of the capitalists and the decline of nobility. Without it, rates of profit in industry would have been less, and the decline and fall of the nobility as a dominant economic force would have taken much longer.
The solution that would have ensured the fastest growth – a much better financial system – would have preserved England's social hierarchy entirely. Financial investment from the nobility would have flowed into new sectors via banks and the stock market, allowing the top 1% to earn high returns. The rise of the capitalists would have been long-delayed or been avoided altogether.
The bigger picture
How much of the situation in industrializing England has any relevance for the world as it is now? Is this a tale from a distant island and period of which we know little – to paraphrase Chamberlain – or does it hold lessons for the present? Financial frictions are still very prominent even in the most developed countries today; changing the profitability of revolutionary sectors should have first-order effects on the long-run rate of growth. The issuance of government debt may still crowd out investment that is, overall, inefficient.
These efficiency-enhancing effects of government debt may be all the more important in developing countries. There, the added benefits of debt that we did not discuss – such as providing a safe store of value, and a certain source of liquidity (Holmstrom and Tirole 1998) – may tilt the overall scoresheet even more in favor of government borrowing. None of this is to say that debts may not become excessive (Reinhart and Rogoff 2009) – but when we consider the dangers of debt, we should keep an eye on its potential benefits as well.
Allen, R (2009), "Engel's pause: A pessimist's guide to the British Industrial Revolution", Explorations in Economic History 46 (2): 418–35.
Barro, R J (1987), "Government spending, interest rates, prices, and budget deficits in the United Kingdom, 1701–1918", Journal of Monetary Economics 20 (2): 221–47.
Crafts, N F R (1985), British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Habakkuk, H J (1994), Marriage, Debt, and the Estates System: English Landownership, 1650-1950, Clarendon Press.
Holmstrom, B R, and J Tirole (1998), "Private and Public Supply of Liquidity", Journal of Political Economy 106(1): 1-40.
Postan, M M (1935), "Recent trends in the accumulation of capital", The Economic History Review 6 (1): 1–12.
Temin, P (1997), "Two views of the British industrial revolution", The Journal of Economic History 57(1): 63-82.
Temin, P and H-J Voth (2013), Prometheus Shackled: Goldsmith Banks and England's Financial Revolution After 1700, Oxford University Press.
Thompson, F M L (1963), "English landed society in the nineteenth century", English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century.
Reinhart, C M, and K Rogoff (2009), This Time is Different, Princeton University Press.
Williamson, J G (1984), "Why was British growth so slow during the industrial revolution?" The Journal of Economic History 44(3): 687-712.
Ventura, J and H-J Voth (2015), "Debt into growth: How government borrowing accelerated the Industrial Revolution", CEPR DP No. 10652.

Links for 07-27-15

Posted: 27 Jul 2015 12:06 AM PDT

'The F Story about the Great Inflation'

Posted: 26 Jul 2015 09:48 AM PDT

Simon Wren-Lewis:

The F story about the Great Inflation: Here F could stand for folk. The story that is often told by economists to their students goes as follows. After Phillips discovered his curve, which relates inflation to unemployment, Samuelson and Solow in 1960 suggested this implied a trade-off that policymakers could use. They could permanently have a bit less unemployment at the cost of a bit more inflation. Policymakers took up that option, but then could not understand why inflation didn't just go up a bit, but kept on going up and up. Along came Milton Friedman to the rescue, who in a 1968 presidential address argued that inflation also depended on inflation expectations, which meant the long run Phillips curve was vertical and there was no permanent inflation unemployment trade-off. Policymakers then saw the light, and the steady rise in inflation seen in the 1960s and 1970s came to an end.
This is a neat little story, particularly if you like the idea that all great macroeconomic disasters stem from errors in mainstream macroeconomics. However even a half awake student should spot one small difficulty with this tale. Why did it take over 10 years for Friedman's wisdom to be adopted by policymakers, while Samuelson and Solow's alleged mistake seems to have been adopted quickly? Even if you think that the inflation problem only really started in the 1970s that imparts a 10 year lag into the knowledge transmission mechanism, which is a little strange.
However none of that matters, because this folk story is simply untrue. There has been some discussion of this in blogs (by Robert Waldmann in particular - see Mark Thoma here), and the best source on this is another F: James Forder. There are papers (e.g. here), but the most comprehensive source is now his book, which presents an exhaustive study of this folk story. It is, he argues, untrue in every respect. Not only did Samuelson and Solow not argue that there was a permanent inflation unemployment trade-off that policymakers could exploit, policymakers never believed there was such a trade-off. So how did this folk story arise? Quite simply from another F: Friedman himself, in his Nobel Prize lecture in 1977.
Forder discusses much else in his book, including the extent to which Friedman's 1968 emphasis on the importance of expectations was particularly original (it wasn't). He also describes how and why he thinks Friedman's story became so embedded that it became folklore....