Thursday, March 26, 2015

A New Structure for U. S. Federal Debt

A new paper by that title, here.

I propose a new structure for U. S. Federal debt. All debt should be perpetual, paying coupons forever with no principal payment. The debt should be composed of the following:
  1. Fixed-value, floating-rate debt: Short-term debt has a fixed value of $1.00, and pays a floating rate. It is electronically transferable, and sold in arbitrary denominations. Such debt looks to an investor like a money-market fund, or reserves at the Fed. 
  2. Nominal perpetuities: This debt pays a coupon of $1 per bond, forever. 
  3. Indexed perpetuities: This debt pays a coupon of $1 times the current consumer price index (CPI).
  4. Tax free: Debt should be sold in a version that is free of all income, estate, capital gains, and other taxes. Ideally, all debt should be tax free. 
  5. Variable coupon: Some if not all long-term debt should allow the government to vary the coupon rate without triggering legal default. 
  6. Swaps: The Treasury should manage the maturity structure of the debt, and the interest rate and inflation exposure of the Federal budget, by transacting in simple swaps among these securities.
Of these, I think the first is the most important. Think of it as Treasury Electronic Money, or reserves for all. Why?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jumps and diffusions

I learned an interesting continuous time trick recently. The context is a note, "The fragile benefits of endowment destruction" that I wrote with John Campbell, about how to extend our habit model to jumps in consumption. The point here is more interesting than that particular context.

Suppose one time series \(x\), which follows a diffusion, drives another \(y\). In the simplest example, \[dx_t = \sigma dz_t \] \[ dy_t = y_t dx_t. \] In our example, the second equation describes how habits \(y\) respond to consumption \(x\). The same kind of structure might describe how invested wealth \(y\) responds to asset prices \(x\), or how option prices \(y\) respond to stock prices \(x\).

Now, suppose we want to extend the model to handle jumps in \(x\), \[dx_t = \sigma dz_t + dJ_t.\] What do we do about the second equation? \(y_t\) now can jump too. On the right hand side of the second equation, should we use the left limit, the right limit, or something in between?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hospital Supply

In my view, health care supply restrictions are more important than the insurance or demand features that dominate public discussion. If you are spending your own money, yes, you shop for a good deal. But spending your own money in the face of restricted supply is like hailing a cab to LaGuardia at 5 o'clock on a rainy pre-Uber Friday afternoon. We need to free up innovative, disruptive health-care supply. Let the Southwest Airlines, Walmarts, Amazons and Apples in.

But where are the supply restrictions? Alas it's not as simple as the NY taxi commission. Supply restrictions are spread all over Federal, state and local law and regulation, and usually hidden.

So, I was interested to discover an interesting supply restriction in this editorial in the Wall Street Journal last week.
Last year the Daughters of Charity Health System sought to sell its six insolvent hospitals in California to Prime for $843 million including debt and pension liabilities. State law requires the AG [California Attorney General Kamala Harris] to approve nonprofit hospital acquisitions. Ms. Harris attached several poison pills at the urging of the SEIU [Service Employees International Union], which forced Prime last week to withdraw its offer.
State law requires the AG [Attorney General] to approve nonprofit hospital acquisitions. How could this go wrong?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Borio, Erdem, Filardo and Hofmann on the Costs of Deflation

Claudio Borio, Magdalena Erdem, Andrew Filardo and Boris Hofmann have a nice paper, "The costs of deflations: a historical perspective"

Deflation remains the looming zombie apocalypse of international monetary commentary.  Before we argue too much about cause and effect, it's nice to get the correlations straight. And the correlation between deflation and poor growth is much weaker than most people think:


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Levine on the Keynesian Illusion

David Levine has a very nice post on the Keynesian Illusion.

David Levine's analogy for Stimulus
Some big themes: Standard Keynesian economics violates budget constraints. He explains it well, but it is sure to occasion the usual venom from with the "Say's law fallacy" brigade that has a lot of trouble understanding the difference between budget constraints and equilibrium conditions.

David does a lot without equations. That broadens the appeal, but equations can be useful. For example equations clarify that crucial difference between budget constraints and equilibrium conditions. Equations can put to rest silly controversies. We might not still be writing papers, books, and blog posts about what "Keynes really meant," 80 years after the fact, or using "Say's law" as rotten tomatoes, if Keynes had written some equations.  Cynically, maybe the lesson is that lack of equations -- or even an equations appendix or citation -- keeps debate going and your name in the papers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Arezki, Ramey, and Sheng on news shocks

I attended the NBER EFG (economic fluctuations and growth) meeting a few weeks ago, and saw a very nice paper by Rabah Arezki, Valerie Ramey, and Liugang Sheng, "News Shocks in Open Economies: Evidence from Giant Oil Discoveries" (There were a lot of nice papers, but this one is more bloggable.)

They look at what happens to economies that discover they have a lot of oil.

An oil discovery is a well identified "news shock."

Standard productivity shocks are a bit nebulous, and alter two things at once: they give greater productivity and hence incentive to work today and also news about more income in the future.

An oil discovery is well publicized. It incentivizes a small investment in oil drilling, but mostly is pure news of an income flow in the future. It does not affect overall labor productivity or other changes to preferences or technology.
Rabah,Valerie, and Liugang then construct a straightforward macro model of such an event.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Duffie and Stein on Libor

Darrell Duffie and Jeremy Stein have a nice paper, "Reforming LIBOR and Other Financial-Market Benchmarks" I learned some important lessons from the paper and discussion.

Libor is the "London interbank offering rate." If you have a floating rate mortgage, it is likely based on Libor plus a percentage.
In its current form, LIBOR is determined each day (or “fixed”), not based on actual transactions between banks but rather on a poll of a group of panel banks, each of which is asked to make a judgmental estimate of the rate at which it could borrow.
As soon as money changes hands, there is an incentive to, er, shade reports in the direction that benefits the trading desk.
Revelations of widespread manipulation of LIBOR and other benchmarks, including those for foreign exchange rates and some commodity prices, have threatened the integrity of these benchmarks.. 
or report a rate that makes your bank look better (lower rate) than it really is:
During the financial crisis of 2007-2009...Some banks did not wish to appear to be less creditworthy than others... The rates reported by each of the panel of banks polled to produce LIBOR were quickly published, alongside the name of the reporting bank, for all to see. As a result, there arose at some banks a practice of... understating true borrowing costs when submitting to a LIBOR poll. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Marginal Revolution on Kleptocracy

I don't often just post links, but sometimes a post is so good, and so complete, it just needs reading without comment.

Marginal Revolution on Kleptocracy

Ok, one comment. The mainstream media are focused on the racial element. This problem is much deeper than race.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mankiw on dynamic scoring

Greg Mankiw has a nice op-ed on dynamic scoring

The issue: When the congressional budget office "scores" legislation, figuring out how much it will raise or lower tax revenue and spending, it has been using "static" scoring. For example, it assumes that a tax cut has no effect on GDP, even if the whole point of the tax cut is to raise GDP.

This is obviously inaccurate. But, as Greg points out, there is a lot of uncertainty in dynamic scoring.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Doctrines Overturned

(This post is based on a few talks I've given lately. There's not much terribly new. But the effort to revisit, clarify and repackage may be useful even if you're a devoted blog reader, as it is to me.)

The Future of Monetary Policy / Classic Doctrines Overturned

Everyone is hanging on will-she or won't-she raise rates by 25 basis points.

I think this focus misses the more interesting questions for current monetary policy. The last 10 years or so are a remarkable experience, a Michelson-Morleymoment, which overturn long-held monetary policy doctrines. The plan to raise rates via interest on reserves in a large balance sheet completely changes the basic mechanism by which monetary policy is said to affect the economy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On RRP Pro and Con

Thanks to a comment on the last post, I found The Fed working paper explaining Fed's thinking about overnight reverse repurchases, Overnight RRP Operations as a Monetary Policy Tool: Some Design Considerations by Josh Frost, Lorie Logan, Antoine Martin, Patrick McCabe, Fabio Natalucci, and Julie Remache.

(I should have found it on my own, as it's the top paper on the Fed's working paper list.) Cecchetti and Shoenholtz also comment here

My main question was just what "financial stability" concerns the Fed has with RRP, and this paper explains.

Run Free Video



This is a talk I gave at the joint Mercatus/Cato "After Dodd-Frank" conference last spring.  It's based on Toward a Run-Free Financial System.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Liftoff Levers

I read the minutes of the January FOMC meeting. (I was preparing for an interview with WSJ's Mary Kissel) There is a lot more interesting here, and a lot more important, than just when will the Fed raise rates.

Mainstream media missed the interesting debate on "liftoff tools." Maybe the minute the Fed starts talking about "ON RRP" (overnight reverse repurchase agreements) people go to sleep.

Background

Here's the issue.  Can the Fed raise rates? In the old days there were $50 billion of reserves that did not pay interest. The Fed raised rates, so the story goes, by reducing the supply of reserves. Banks needed reserves in proportion to deposits, so they offered higher rates to borrow reserves.

Now, there are about $3 trillion of reserves, far more than banks need, and reserves pay interest. They are investments, equivalent to short-term Treasuries. If the Fed reduce their quantity by anything less than about $2,950 trillion, banks won't start paying or demanding higher interest.  And the Fed is not planning to reduce the supply of reserves at all. It's going to leave them outstanding and pay higher interest on reserves.

But why should that rise transfer to other rates? Suppose you decide that the minimum wage is too low, so you pay your gardener $50 per hour. Your gardener is happy. But that won't raise wages at McDonalds and Walmart to $50. This is what the Fed is worried about -- that it might end up paying interest to banks, but other interest rates don't follow.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Pennacchi on Narrow Banking

I stumbled across this nice article, "Narrow Banking" by George Pennacchi. The first part has a informative capsule history of U.S. banking.

George defines a spectrum of "narrow" banks. For example he includes prime money market funds -- borrow money, promise fixed value instant withdrawal, buy Greek bank commercial paper. But that is "narrower" than traditional lending, as the assets are short term and usually marketable.

Some interesting tidbits:
Prior to the twentieth century, British and American commercial banks lent almost exclusively for short maturities. Primarily, loans financed working capital and provided trade credit for borrowers who were expected to obtain cash for repayment in the near future
Therefore,
... the typical structure of these early banks contrasts with the modern view of banks, according to which the received wisdom is that “[t]he principal function of a bank is that of maturity transformation---coming from the fact that lenders prefer deposits to be of a shorter maturity than borrowers, who typically require loans for longer periods” (Noeth & Sengupta 2011, p.8)....maturity transformation was often considered a violation of prudent banking.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Regulation and competition

From taxis to banks, regulation is quickly captured to stifle competition. Only it's usually polite not to say it out loud. Today's WSJ has a lovely little piece, Regulation is Good for Goldman confirming the former and violating the latter pattern.
the Goldman Sachs CEO explained how higher regulatory costs are crushing the competition.
“More intense regulatory and technology requirements have raised the barriers to entry higher than at any other time in modern history,” said Mr. Blankfein. “This is an expensive business to be in, if you don’t have the market share in scale...
he said his bank is “prepared to have this relationship with our regulators”—and the regulators are prepared to have a deep relationship with Goldman—“for a long time.”
.. it is unusual to see a financial CEO like Mr. Blankfein state the effect so candidly. Goldman can afford to hire battalions of lawyers and lobbyists to commune with regulators... As ever, powerful government mainly helps the powerful.
I have met several people who started financial companies in the pre-Dodd-Frank era. They all say there is no way they could start their businesses now. Working out of the garage, you can't afford a multi-million dollar compliance department.

Run-Free Funds Expand

Louise Bowman at Euromoney reports
Fidelity Investments has announced plans to convert up to $125 billion-worth of prime US money market funds (MMFs) into government-only funds –
Meaning, funds that invest only in government securities.
...a move that is a direct consequence of the new SEC regulations covering this business that were announced in July.
...From October next year, MMFs must hold at least 99.5% of total portfolio assets in cash or government securities and repos collateralized by such instruments to be exempt from new regulations imposing fees and gates on such funds in times of stress. The rules are designed to slow deposit runs and reduce systemic risk
In case you missed it, in the financial crisis the Reserve Fund, which held a lot of Lehman debt, suffered a run, and too big to fail quickly expanded to money market funds.

What are they invested in now?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

WIlliamson on Fisher, Phillips and Fjords

Steve Williamson has an excellent blog post "Pining for the Fjords" Point 1, the Phillips curve is dead, UK version. (And, too many are cheering, "Long live the Phillips curve!"). Point 2, Steve seems to have signed on to the new-Fisher view that a zero rate fixed for a long time, with apparently credible fiscal policy, will drag inflation slowly down, not up.

Point 1: The Phillips curve in the UK.

Source: Steve Williamson
Steve:
 ...from peak unemployment during the recession, the unemployment rate drops about 2 1/2 points, while the inflation rate drops about 3 points... Presumably utilization has been rising in the U.K., but inflation is dropping like a rock.
See his post for early and late samples, core inflation, etc.
The Phillips curve is not resting, sleeping, or pining for the fjords. It is dead, deceased, passed away. It has bought the farm. Rest in peace.
 Or, borrowing another picture from Steve,

Steve continues
The Bank Rate has been set at 0.5% since March 2009. Here's the latest inflation projection from the Bank: (Inflation returns to 2% now that unemployment has decreased.) So, like Simon, the Bank seems not to have learned that the parrot is dead. In spite of a long period in which inflation is falling while the economy is recovering, they're projecting that inflation will come back to the 2% target.
The best part, which you might miss at the bottom of his post
...20 years of zero-lower-bound experience in Japan and recent experience around the world tell us that sticking at the zero lower bound does not eventually produce more inflation - it just produces low inflation.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds

Once again, the news is full of opinions that Greece might be forced to leave the Euro. Once again, it makes little sense to me. U.S. corporations, municipalities, and even states default, and do not have to leave the dollar zone as a result.

Most recently, the story goes, if Greek banks can't use their Greek government bonds as collateral with the ECB, the Greek government will have to leave the euro so it can print Drachmas to bail out the banks. There are of course many ways in which this makes little sense -- if the bank has promised Euros, then a Drachma bailout does not stop a default. The government would have to pass a law "converting" euro deposits to Drachmas. But consider the story anyway.

Another common story right now: If Greece were to default, it would have a hard time borrowing to fund primary deficits. By leaving, it can print up Drachmas to pay bills.

OK, here's the obvious solution: Greece can print up small-denomination zero-coupon bearer bonds, essentially IOUs. They say "The Greek government will pay the bearer 1 euro on Jan 1 2016." Greece can roll them over annually, like other debt. Mostly, they would exist as electronic book entries in bank accounts, but Greece can print up physical notes too.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Bachmann, Berg and Sims on inflation as stimulus

RĂ¼diger Bachmann, Tim Berg, and Eric Sims have an interesting article, "Inflation Expectations and Readiness to Spend: Cross-Sectional Evidence" in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

Many macroeconomists have advocated deliberate, expected inflation to "stimulate" the economy while interest rates are stuck at the lower bound. The idea is that higher expected inflation amounts to a lower real interest rate. This lower rate encourages people to spend today rather than to save, which, the story goes, will raise today's level of output and employment.

As usual in macroeconomics, measuring this effect is hard. There are few zero-bound observations, fewer still with substantial variation in expected inflation.  And as always in macro it's hard to tell causation from correlation, supply from demand, because from despite of any small inflation-output correlation we see.

This paper is an interesting part of the movement that uses microeconomic observations to illuminate such macroeconomic questions, and also a very interesting use of survey data. Bachman, Berg, and Sims look at survey data from the University of Michigan. This survey asks about spending plans and inflation expectations. Thus, looking across people at a given moment in time, Bachman, Berg, and Sims ask whether people who think there is going to be a lot more inflation are also people who are planning to spend a lot more. (Whether more "spending" causes more GDP is separate question.)

The answer is... No. Not at all. There is just no correlation between people's expectations of inflation and their plans to spend money.

In a sense that's not too surprising. The intertemporal substitution relation -- expected consumption growth = elasticity times expected real interest rate -- has been very unreliable in macro and micro data for decades. That hasn't stopped it from being the center of much macroeconomics and the article of faith in policy prescriptions for stimulus. But fresh reminders of its instability are welcome.

At first blush, this just seems great. Finally, micro data are illuminating macro questions.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Uber and Occupational Licenses

I enjoy moments of agreement, and common sense in publications where it's usually absent. Eduardo Porter writing in the New York Times on the lessons of Uber vs. Taxis for occupational licensing is a nice such moment.
[Uber's] exponential growth confirms what every New Yorker and cab riders in many other cities have long suspected: Taxi service is woefully inefficient. It also raises a question of broader relevance: Why stop here?

Just as limited taxi medallions [and ban on surge pricing, and the mandated shift change  -JC] can lead to a chronic undersupply of cabs at 4 p.m., the state licensing regulations for many occupations are creating bottlenecks across the economy, raising the prices of many goods and services and putting good jobs out of reach of too many Americans.

... like taxi medallions, state licenses required to practice all sorts of jobs often serve merely to cordon off occupations for the benefit of licensed workers and their lobbying groups, protecting them from legitimate competition.

...“Lower-income people suffer from licensing,” Professor Krueger told me. “It raises the costs of many services and prevents low-income people from getting into some professions.
This is an all too often overlooked effect of so much government-induced cartelization. The costs of higher prices are paid by middle and lower income people. And many job opportunities are denied to lower income people.