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I Agree with Milton Friedman!

Mon, 06/15/2015 - 13:02

By James Kwak

In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman asks what types of inequality are ethically justifiable. In particular (pp. 164–66):

“Inequality resulting from differences in personal capacities, or from differences in wealth accumulated by the individual in question, are considered appropriate, or at least not so clearly inappropriate as differences resulting from inherited wealth.

“This distinction is untenable. Is there any greater ethical justification for the high returns to the individual who inherits from his parents a peculiar voice for which there is a great demand than for the high returns to the individual who inherits property? …

“Most differences of status or position or wealth can be regarded as the product of chance at a far enough remove. The man who is hard working and thrifty is to be regarded as ‘deserving’; yet these qualities owe much to the genes he was fortunate (or fortunate?) enough to inherit.”

I think Friedman is correct here. This is basically the same point that I made in my earlier post: the money that you make because you are smart and hard working is the product of good fortune just as much as the money that you inherit directly from your parents.

Read more at Medium.

What Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Really All About?

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 10:54

By Simon Johnson

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the United States and 11 other countries.  It is comprised of two main parts: reductions in tariffs (and related non-tariff barriers), of the kind typically seen in trade agreements; and new rules for foreign direct investment and intellectual property rights, which have not previously been prominent in FTAs.

The new rules part has become controversial.  The case for introducing an investor-state dispute settlement seems less than compelling – this would favor foreign investors over domestic investors, not an idea that sits well with the standard idea of equality before the law (going back at least 800 years) and a direct contradiction to the usual principles of FTAs (emphasizing non-discrimination across types of investors).  As currently formulated, it would also be open to considerable abuse.  And the precise rules under consideration for patent protection appear likely to reduce access to affordable medicines in both our trading partners and potentially also in the United States.

As a result, advocates of TPP are now emphasizing the benefits of tariff reductions in terms of boosting US exports.  But the administration’s claims in this regard are greatly exaggerated and the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is unfortunately refusing to fully discuss the broader trade impact, including the precise impact of higher imports into the United States.

In an interview with Politico this week, Ambassador Michael Froman, listed some examples of high tariffs on American goods in other countries – and emphasized that these might come down as part of TPP.

There are two main problems with Mr. Froman’s list.  First, he naturally picked the relatively few goods that have such tariffs.  We have free trade agreements already with many of the countries in TPP (details here), so most tariffs are already quite low.

There are some high tariffs on some US agricultural goods, including going into Japan.  But when the US Department of Agriculture looked at the entire trade impact (i.e., exports from and imports into the U.S.) – with a focus on food and related commodities – they found a total likely effect on US GDP of precisely zero.

The USDA is presumably expert on the agricultural side of trade and their measures of tariffs match up in detail with what Mr. Froman talks about.  Mr. Froman and his colleagues should explain exactly why specialists within the Obama administration do not agree with the USTR assessment of the likely TPP impact.

We should, of course, also look at all other dimensions of trade – including manufacturing and services.  Here also Mr. Froman makes some claims about the great benefits of reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers.

The best independent research on this topic is by Peter A. Petri, Michael G. Plummer, and Fan Zhai, and – as a model of transparency – the details of their relevant work are available on-line.

Included in these very helpful materials is a page with the details of their results specifically on trade.  (Some of this work is available through the Peterson Institute for International Economics, where I am a senior fellow; I’ve not been involved in this project in any way.)

To understand the precise size and nature of potential GDP gains from TPP in this framework, you should look at the Excel spreadsheet posted under “Adding Japan and Korea to the TPP” (the fourth set of links).  The spreadsheet name is “Macro-TPP-7-Mar-13”.

There are two scenarios worth considering – what the authors call TPP11 (which is the TPP without Japan) and TPP12 (including Japan).  Some version of TPP12 is now likely, although we don’t know the full extent of trade liberalization in any country that will be in the final agreement, and well informed observers express skepticism about the extent to which Japan will really open to US agriculture or to autos and auto parts (where we have long-standing difficulties selling in Japan due to profound non-tariff barriers).

In 2025, according to this model, the baseline Gross Domestic Product for the US is $20,273bn.  Under TPP11, this falls (very slightly) to $20,268.0bn.  Perhaps this is a rounding error, but the fact that the increase in trade could lower US GDP should give us pause.  (The authors themselves prefer to emphasize “income gains” in the spreadsheet, which attempt to adjust for changing relative prices between 2007 and 2025 – a sensible but difficult exercise.  The income gains measured this way are $23 billion under TPP11, a tiny increase precisely because we have extensive FTAs with these countries already.)

All the GDP gains to the US from TPP (via trade) come from adding Japan to the agreement, to get TPP12 GDP of $20,312.9 billion in 2025.  (Looking at “income gains”, 69 percent of the headline improvement of $76.6 billion for the US is due to Japan.  Most of this is not due to trade but actually due to increased US foreign direct investment in Japan, including in the service sector.)

No matter how you look at it, the positive impact on GDP (measured at 2007 relative prices) is miniscule: roughly $40 billion in a total economy of $20 trillion, i.e., 0.2 percent.  And all of this positive impact comes from the details of what Japan allows in (and what we give in return, including with tariff reductions on light trucks/sports utility vehicles.)  The devil really is in these details, as Representative Sander Levin (D., MI) has emphasized.

In addition, it is entirely possible that any such increase in GDP or income may be associated with widening inequality or a fall in median wages – we know that the distributional impact of such trade agreements is typically much larger than the total GDP effect.  We really need to see what is in TPP in order to assess this dimension of the impact, but the relevant details are a closely held state secret.  Labor standards are a particular worry here, particularly with respect to Mexico.  Will there be sufficient prior actions, before TPP goes into effect?  Relying on vague promises of enforceable labor standards simply will not work.

Mr. Froman’s rhetoric implies effects that are far beyond what is in the numbers.  In terms of any claims about a net positive impact on US GDP, TPP is mostly a free trade agreement with Japan, and it is much more about potentially liberalizing FDI into Japan than it is about increasing trade.

Seen in this context, it is ironic – and disturbing – that Mr. Froman refuses to include language in TPP that would discourage currency manipulation , i.e., central bank intervention in the foreign exchange markets that causes a country’s currency to depreciate, boosting exports and reducing imports.  The Petri, Plummer, Fan work assumes no manipulation of this kind takes place.  But if Japan were to manipulate its currency in the future as it has in the past, this would more than wipe out any US gains from TPP.

When you strip out the distractions, TPP comes down to essentially three things:

  • A free trade agreement with Japan. We need to see the details of that, including the FDI dimension, to understand if there will be GDP gains for the US or not.  The impact on US inequality and median wages also remains at best unclear.
  • Investor State Dispute Settlement. This is of very dubious value to residents of the United States, at least unless the administration agrees to introduce greater safeguards against abuse.
  • Greater protection for pharmaceutical patents. This will almost certainly reduce access to affordable medicines, both in the US and in our trading partners.

There are also vague claims about improving labor and environmental standards.  But, as far as outsiders can discern, any agreement along these dimensions will not require actions before TPP goes into effect.  Enforceability of such clauses after the fact is typically weak or nonexistent.

TPP is a very important potential trade agreement, primarily because it will establish the rules that can be included in this kind of deal going forward, including with other countries such as China.  But in this kind of arrangement, it is essential to examine and understand the details in order to comprehend the full nature of the commitments (as well as the gains or losses).

Just saying “tariffs will fall greatly, so exports will increase” – and implying big gains from this for the US economy – is not convincing and not even remotely accurate.

Instead of thinking hard about these details, Congress is poised to pass the Trade Promotion Authority – with the goal of making it easier to pass TPP irrespective of the crucial details.  This is not likely to lead to a good set of rules in TPP.

Over at Medium: Geo-Engineering Doesn’t Reduce Long-Term Risk

Mon, 06/01/2015 - 15:42

By James Kwak

Mark Buchanan — who is actually a physicist, after all — makes a compelling argument against relying on geo-engineering to deal with our climate change problem. For one thing, some of the proposed technologies simply won’t work, because they do nothing about the fact that the poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. For another, the geo-engineering fairy is being used to lobby against other approaches — conservation and renewable energy sources — that would deal with climate change at its source.

Another reason to be skeptical of geo-engineering is the effect it has on the risk profile of humanity’s future. Technology has produced some amazing things in the past century. But, with zero exceptions that I can think of, they weren’t things that our species needed to survive, or to prevent widespread natural and societal devastation. If we’re talking about technologies that can make our lives better in all sorts of ways, like the Internet or DNA sequencing or quantum computing, then risk is good: we want to place lots of bets that have a high chance of failure but high potential returns.

Read more at Medium.

Over at Medium: Organized Crime on Wall Street

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 10:23

By James Kwak

One of the central dramas of the early seasons of The Wire is the cat-and-mouse game between Avon Barksdale’s drug operation and the detectives of the Major Crimes Unit. The drug dealers started off using pagers and pay phones. When the police tapped the pagers and the phones, Barksdale’s people switched to “burner” cell phones that they threw away before the police could tap them. By Season 4, Proposition Joe advised Marlo Stanfield not to use phones at all.

Well, apparently, Wall Street currency traders don’t watch The Wire. I don’t think anyone was surprised to learn that major banks including JPMorgan, Citigroup, Barclays, RBS, and UBS conspired to manipulate currency prices — something that regulators have been investigating for over a year and a half. One common strategy was cooperating to time large transactions in order to manipulate daily benchmark rates at which other client transactions are executed.

Read more at Medium.

Why Is The White House Threatening To Veto An Imaginary Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)?

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 17:33

By Simon Johnson

At today’s daily briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest communicated the president’s threat to veto any trade promotion authority (TPA) that “could undermine the independence or ability of the Federal Reserve to make monetary policy decisions”.  (The question was posed at minute 42:50, Mr. Earnest’s answer starts at 43:31, and the lead up to this quote starts around 45:20.)

Mr. Earnest’s statement seems clear enough, but what potential TPA is he talking about?  Either the White House is confused or some other communications strategy is at work here.  Either way, Mr. Earnest is describing some imaginary version of TPA that is simply not on the congressional table.

He most certainly cannot be accurately describing the bipartisan Portman-Stabenow amendment, currently before the Senate.  This amendment specifically goes out of its way to state that it would not “restrict the exercise of domestic monetary policy.”

Here is the full text:

 “In section 102(b), strike paragraph (11) and insert the following:

“(11) Currency manipulation.–The principal negotiating objective of the United States with respect to unfair currency exchange practices is to target protracted large-scale intervention in one direction in the exchange markets by a party to a trade agreement to gain an unfair competitive advantage in trade over other parties to the agreement, by establishing strong and enforceable rules against exchange rate manipulation that are subject to the same dispute settlement procedures and remedies as other enforceable obligations under the agreement and are consistent with existing principles and agreements of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Nothing in the previous sentence shall be construed to restrict the exercise of domestic monetary policy.”

The Portman-Stabenow amendment is focused entirely on “protracted large-scale intervention in one direction in the exchange markets,” i.e., the situation when a foreign central bank acquires a massive amount of foreign assets (typically dollars) in a successful attempt to keep their currency undervalued – and therefore their exports much cheaper than they would otherwise be.

This is not something that the Federal Reserve does – nor anything that it is likely to do in the foreseeable future.

Reference to the IMF principles and agreements here has a clear meaning for anyone who follows international currency and macroeconomic issues.  The US Treasury was involved in drafting the IMF agreements in the 1940s and has kept a firm hand on the pen at every stage of the way since – including the very latest versions.  There is no way that any serious person could claim – or even imagine – that relying on IMF principles would impede the operation of the Federal Reserve and its monetary policy.

Congressman Sandy Levin, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, made this point forcefully this afternoon in a major floor speech – and put the issue in exactly the right broader context with regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a whole.

“The International Monetary Fund has up-to-date guidelines that define currency manipulation and are intended to prevent it. There is nothing wrong with the spirit or even the letter of those guidelines. Unfortunately, the IMF cannot enforce those guidelines because currency manipulators are able to essentially stall action in that forum.”

“Arguments that prohibiting currency manipulation in TPP is impossible, for political or technical reasons, remind us of previous claims about trade agreements not being able to help defend forests or discourage child labor.”

“For example, some prominent people have asserted that U.S. monetary policy would be put at risk if currency disciplines are included in TPP. I responded to that argument in a highly detailed blog post months ago. I have seen no serious rebuttal of the points I made in that post – or to similar and related points made by Simon Johnson, Fred Bergsten, and many other notable economists, ranging from Art Laffer to Paul Krugman. Nevertheless, those who oppose currency disciplines continue to raise this false argument.”

“TPP should address instances in which countries buy large amounts of foreign assets over long periods of time to prevent an appreciation of their exchange rate despite running a large current account surplus. The Federal Reserve does not engage in such practices. That is why the U.S. already agreed to and even insisted upon what is in the current IMF guidelines.”

“And now there is the claim that including currency disciplines in TPP would be a “poison pill” and that our trading partners would walk away from the table. There is no way to accurately judge this issue until it is properly brought to the negotiating table. To the contrary, the fact that the Administration says this only creates the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is irresponsible to make this claim. Indeed, our trading partners in TPP would greatly benefit from these disciplines. Many of them are the victims of manipulation every bit as much as we are.”

“A progressive trade agreement for workers and the middle class must address currency manipulation, which has caused millions of job losses and contributed to wage stagnation over the past decade. President Obama is right that we should write the rules and not accept the status quo. But if we fail to address currency manipulation in TPP, we are essentially letting China write the rules and are accepting an unacceptable status quo.”

Over at Medium: “Payout Baby!!!”

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 15:00

By James Kwak

“In my many years of experience working in compliance, do you know how many fixed and variable annuities I’ve seen being invested in IRAs??? Countless.

“Investing a tax deferred investment within a tax deferred account simply does not make sense, except for very very few exceptions. … And when brokers answered me honestly as to why they picked annuities over mutual funds or even plain vanilla stocks??? Payout baby!!!”

That’s a compliance officer at Wells Fargo talking about the kinds of abuses that brokers — who advise clients about where to put their money, even if they aren’t “registered investment advisers” — inflict on their customers. For context: The benefit of an annuity is that taxes on earnings are deferred until withdrawals — but you get that benefit in any IRA, so there’s no point in putting an annuity (which has higher costs than an ordinary mutual fund) in an IRA. Yet in this case the brokers were pushing annuities because of the (legal) kickbacks they were getting from the annuity providers.

Read more at Medium.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): This Is Not About Ricardo

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 05:06

By Simon Johnson and Andrei Levchenko

The Obama administration is lobbying hard for Congress to pass a trade promotion authority (TPA) and to quickly approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that is on the verge of being finalized.

The administration and its supporters on this issue, including leading Republicans, argue that the case for TPP rests on basic economic principles and is only strengthened by the findings of modern research.  On both counts their claims are greatly exaggerated – particularly with regard to the notion that more trade, on these terms, is necessarily better for the United States.

There is a strong theoretical and empirical case – dating back to David Ricardo in 1817 – that freer trade should make countries better off. However, modern-day trade agreements, including those currently being negotiated, are very different from earlier experiences with trade liberalization.

The TPP is not only – perhaps not even mostly – about freer trade, and thus who gains and who loses is very much dependent on what exactly are the details of the agreement. The exact nature of the provisions matters and at this point, because the TPP text is not available to the public, we cannot be sure whom this trade agreement will help or hurt within the United States or elsewhere.

Outside of agriculture, international trade is already substantially liberalized, and thus the gains from further reductions in tariffs are most likely limited by the fact that tariffs are already quite low.

And the scope of modern-day trade agreements has expanded – primarily into areas in which the economic theory case for mutual benefits is far from clear.

Perhaps the most prominent example is intellectual property rights (IPRs), including patents.  Contrary to the mutual benefits of international trade in general, there is no clear-cut theoretical case that stronger enforcement of IPRs will benefit all parties.

In the world in which the developing countries can imitate technologies of developed countries, improving intellectual property rights protection in developing countries is actually likely to make them worse off.  This is intuitive: ignoring the developed countries’ IPRs allows developing countries to adopt better technologies faster, increasing welfare there.  In the case of medicines, for example, forcing lower income countries to fully respect all patents will mean more expensive treatments and less access to life-saving drugs.

What is more, it may even be the case that the developed countries themselves will benefit from weaker IPRs in the poorer countries (though of course this is not a necessary outcome).  This is because poorer countries tend to have lower wages, and as production shifts to the poor countries due to imitation, prices paid by rich countries’ consumers fall.  Helpman (1993) contains the modern classic exposition of these results.  (Precise references to the research cited here are at the end of this article.)

The second example is provisions that require liberalization of inward investment in oligopolistic industries.  For instance, recent US trade agreements with Central America/Dominican Republic, Peru, Panama, and Colombia contain specific clauses liberalizing investment in the financial services industry (as well as government procurement and investment more broadly).  Again, the theoretical case that these provisions will be mutually beneficial is not straightforward.

For instance, if an industry is uncompetitive, countries may gain from retaining the domestic oligopolistic firms.  Entry by foreign firms may not increase competition but instead primarily result in transferring the profits abroad.  Brander and Spencer (1985) develop these ideas for cross-border trade; a recent paper by Fiorini and LeBrand (2015) focuses on inward investment by foreign firms.

The third example is the potential for a negative impact of international trade on the quality of domestic institutions. The standard argument for mutual gains from trade assumes that international exchange of goods does not lead to changes in the institutional environment – including who has secure property rights (as in land), as well as enforceable rights as a worker (including occupational safety standards).

There have been historical episodes in which trade booms led to worse institutional outcomes, such as property expropriation by elites.  Do and Levchenko (2009) develop a theoretical model of one possible mechanism for such an effect.  Historical instances of this include the cotton boom in Central America (Do and Levchenko, 2006), and sugar in the Caribbean (Dippel, Greif, and Trefler, 2015).

To be clear, we are not saying that this is a likely impact of TPP.  But it is a possible impact of any free trade agreement (or other form of trade liberalization).  This only confirms the point that the details matter in terms of determining who does well and who may do very badly.

We remain confident that there is a potential TPP that could be negotiated that would involve gains for all trading partners.  But whether this is the case depends completely on the specific rules that are being written.

Given that these rules are secret (from us), we have no way of judging what is or is not in the TPP.  Congress will vote soon on TPA, to greatly increase the odds of passing TPP, without there being first a proper public discussion of the TPP details.  This is not a triumph of democracy – and it is not likely to lead to better economic policymaking.

Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT Sloan.  Andrei Levchenko is an associate professor at the University of Michigan.

References

Brander, James A. and Barbara J. Spencer, 1985. “Export subsidies and international market share rivalry,” Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(1-2), pages 83-100, February.

Dippel, Christian, Avner Greif, and Dan Trefler, 2015, “Trade Rents and Coercive Labor Market Institutions,” NBER Working Paper 20958,

Do Quy-Toan and Andrei A. Levchenko, 2006, “Trade, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Institutions,” IMF Working Paper 06/56, February.

Do Quy-Toan and Andrei A. Levchenko, 2009, “Trade, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Institutions,” Journal of Economic Theory, 144:4, 1489-1520, July.

Fiorini, Matteo and Mathilde Lebrand, 2015 “Foreign Lobbying, Barriers to FDI, and Investment Agreements,” mimeo, EUI.

Helpman, Elhanan, 1993. “Innovation, Imitation, and Intellectual Property Rights,” Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 61(6), pages 1247-80, November.

Preventing Currency Manipulation

Tue, 05/19/2015 - 20:31

By Simon Johnson

As Congress debates the trade promotion authority, TPA, the issue of currency manipulation remains firmly on the table.  The administration and Republican leadership insist that language discouraging currency manipulation should not be included in the TPA (and also not in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, a trade agreement currently under negotiation).  Many Democrats and Republicans continue to argue in favor of prohibiting currency manipulation.

On Tuesday, the Treasury Department and White House claimed that the amendment proposed by Senators Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Deborah Stabenow (D., Michigan) would actually impede the ability of the Federal Reserve to conduct monetary policy.  This is absurd.  The Portman-Stabenow amendment clearly and precisely addresses protracted one-way intervention in foreign exchange markets, i.e., large-scale purchases of foreign assets by a central bank.  The Federal Reserve does not engage in such activities – nor will it engage in this kind of intervention in the foreseeable future.  US monetary policy involves buying and selling domestic assets.  The Fed does not buy foreign assets on any significant scale.  There is nothing in this amendment that would impede the workings of US monetary policy.  To suggest otherwise is to mischaracterize the nature of this amendment.

There are instead three main issues of substance worth further consideration.

First, can we measure currency manipulation?  The answer here is clear: yes.  It is true that there is often disagreement about the extent to which a particular currency is undervalued or overvalued (a point made by Ian Talley in the Wall Street Journal).  But the most important episodes of prolonged competitive undervaluation are the ones that do the most damage – and in these instances, for example with China in the early 2000s – there is no disagreement.

A country with a massively undervalued exchange rate will accumulate a lot of foreign exchange reserves while running a current account surplus – and its stock of foreign assets will become large relative to its own economy (and relative to the world economy, if the country in question is big).  There was really no ambiguity about what China was doing.  Unfortunately, however, there were political problems that prevented the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury from being sufficiently clear on the nature and extent of this manipulation.  (I was the chief economist at the IMF from early 2007 through August 2008.)

Second, do countries currently manipulate their exchange rates on a massive scale?  For the most part, the extent of manipulation is at a relative low (as Robert Samuelson argues in the Washington Post).  But this does not mean that we should forget about this issue – the incentive to manipulate (keep an exchange rate undervalued in order to boost a country’s exports) will likely return in the future, for example when a country experiences a slowdown in growth.  In fact, the Treasury Department is raising concerns along these lines with regard to South Korea’s current behavior.

And the fact that manipulation is relatively less important in country strategies at this moment – for example, in China and Japan – means that this is a good moment in which to negotiate the issue.  This is not about confrontation with current policies; it is about preventing future action that can be damaging to the US economy.

When currency manipulation again becomes significant – and when it does great damage to parts of US manufacturing and to our service sector – it will be too late to attempt a negotiated response.  Now is likely the best time to shift official thinking on what can be regarded as reasonable trade practices for the coming decades.

Third, if the US insists on addressing currency manipulation in the TPP, would this derail the agreement?  No, it would not – precisely because the US would be taking up this issue in a constructive negotiated framework.

Look carefully at the countries involved in TPP – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.  All of them have a great deal to fear from other countries manipulating exchange rates so as to gain an unfair competitive advantage.  If we can shift the rules so as to strongly discourage currency manipulation, this will help all our trading partners.

The most effective – and completely fair – way forward is to have countries voluntarily agree not to manipulate their currencies.  Everyone understands that there is some leeway provided by how any such negotiated guidelines would operate (and how currency undervaluation is measured).

The point is to get our major trading partners to agree not to undervalue their currencies on a massive scale.   When it next happens on that scale, there will be no ambiguity.  But it will also be too late to do anything about it in a negotiated framework.

President Obama is right that the TPP is about writing the rules for the next century of international trade.  We should want to get these rules right.

Over at Medium: The Importance of Taxing Capital

Tue, 05/19/2015 - 06:43

By James Kwak

“At present, when zero interest rates make capital costs as low as they have ever been but corporate profits are at record levels, there needs to be much less concern with capital costs and more concern with the distributional aspects of capital taxation.”

That’s Larry Summers — with whom I have often disagreed in the past — at a Brookings event on the tradeoff between equality and efficiency. For most of our lives, government policy in the United States and most of the developed world has been focused (at least in theory) on efficiency: colloquially speaking, making the pie bigger rather than worrying about how the pie is divided up. Rising tide, boats, you know the rest: Laffer Curve, unleashing the job creators, and so on. Inequality is something we profess to regret while doing nothing about it.

Read more at Medium.

Why Your Wages Aren’t Going Up

Wed, 05/13/2015 - 14:40

By James Kwak

Unemployment is down to 5.4%! Yay!

That was the summary of last week’s unemployment report. Yet the two-track “recovery” — about to enter its seventh year — continues. Average hourly wages increased by only 0.1% in April and 2.2% for the past twelve months, which amounts to basically nothing when you take inflation into account.

This is what the new normal looks like. Wages barely rise during periods of economic “expansion” (you know, the opposite of recession), then fall when unemployment spikes during a recession. In the long run, that means that average real earnings actually go down, and household income can only keep up if people work more hours. Yet the number of full-time jobs is lower today than it was before the financial crisis.

Read more at Medium.

Greg Mankiw Forgot What He Teaches

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 07:59

By James Kwak

I’ve written several times about what I call the Economics 101 ideology: the overuse of a few simplified concepts from an introductory course to make sweeping policy recommendations (while branding any opponents as ignorant simpletons). The most common way that first-year economics is misused in the public sphere is ignoring assumptions. For example, most arguments for financial deregulation are ultimately based on the idea that transactions between rational actors with perfect information are always good for both sides — and most of the people making those arguments have forgotten that people are not rational and do not have perfect information.

Mark Buchanan and Noah Smith have both called out Greg Mankiw for a different and more pernicious way of misusing first-year economics: simply ignoring what it teaches — or, in this case, what Mankiw himself teaches. At issue is Mankiw’s Times column claiming that all economists agree on the overall benefits of free trade, so everyone should be in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, among other trade agreements.

Read more at Medium.

The Dysfunctions of Sodor Railways

Thu, 04/30/2015 - 20:38

By James Kwak

The neolithic political ideology of Thomas and Friends is so overbearing and obvious that it’s not worth writing about (except in parody, which I won’t attempt here). Duncan Weldon has taken up the more interesting question of what Thomas, Percy, and their friends can tell us about the economy of Sodor, that strange island trapped somewhere off the coast of Great Britain and in a weird time warp that vaguely resembles the mid-twentieth century.

Like Duncan, I have watched plenty of Thomas videos, in my case in the company of my three-year-old son Henry. One thing that has often struck me about Sodor Railways is the vast amount of excess capacity. The most common plotline goes like this: Some engine has a job to do. However, said engine chooses to do something else out of vanity, unwillingness to go out in bad weather, curiosity, or something similar. Late in the episode, either the engine realizes the error of his ways and does his job, or some other engine does it for him. In either case, the original engine learns his lesson: that it is best to be Really Useful and not to cause Confusion and Delay. (Only, he never really learns the lesson — see the next episode.)

Read more at Medium.

Say It Ain’t So, Ben

Sun, 04/19/2015 - 10:30

By James Kwak

Is it the money?

No.

Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, the man who saved the global economy, is becoming an adviser for Citadel, a hedge fund management company. Bernanke will provide advice to Citadel’s fund managers and will also meet with its clients (that is, the limited partners who invest in those funds).

It’s easy to see why Citadel wants Bernanke. He’s a smart man. He knows the inner workings of the world’s central banks as well as anyone. Although he won’t be a registered lobbyist, he can pick up the phone and get anyone in the world to answer, if he wants to. And, perhaps most importantly for the bottom line, the wow factor of having Bernanke meet with investors will help immeasurably with sales — bringing investments in the door.

The bigger question, as always, is why Bernanke wants Citadel.

Read more at Medium.

No More Cheating: Restoring the Rule of Law in Financial Markets

Wed, 04/15/2015 - 13:20

By Simon Johnson

The political debate about finance in the US is often cast as markets versus regulation, as if “more regulation” means the efficiency of private sector decisions will necessarily be impeded or distorted. But this is the wrong way to think about the real policy choices that – like it or not – are now being made. The question is actually what kind of markets do you want: fair and well-functioning, with widely shared benefits; or deceptive, dangerous, and favoring just a relatively few powerful people?

In a speech on Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., MA) laid out a vision for better financial markets. This is not a left-wing or pro-big government agenda. Senator Warren’s proposals are, first and foremost, pro-market. She wants – and we should all want – financial firms and markets that work for customers, that encourage innovation, and that do not build up massive risks which can threaten the financial system and bring down the economy.

Senator Warren puts forward two main sets of proposals. The first is to more strongly discourage the deception of customers. This is hard to argue against. Some parts of the financial sector are well-run, providing essential services at reasonable prices and with sound ethics throughout. Other parts of finance have drifted, frankly, into deceiving people – on fees, on risks, on terms and conditions – as a primary source of profits. We don’t allow this kind of cheating in the non-financial sector and we shouldn’t allow it in finance either.

The unfortunate and indisputable truth is that our rule-making and law-enforcement agencies completely fell asleep prior to 2008 with regard to protecting borrowers and even depositors against predation. Even worse, since the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors proved hard or near impossible to awake from this slumber.

We need simple, clear rules that ensure transparency and full disclosure in all financial transactions – and we need to enforce those rules. This is what was done with regard to securities markets after the debacle of the early 1930s. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), for which Senator Warren worked long and hard, has started down a sensible road towards smarter and simpler regulation. The CFPB needs to go further – including on auto loans – and for this it needs renewed political support.

The second proposal is to end the greatest cheat of all – the implicit subsidies received by the largest financial institutions, structured so as to encourage excessive and irresponsible risk-taking. These consequences of these subsidies have already caused massive macroeconomic damage – this is why our crisis in 2008-09 was so severe and the recovery so slow. Yet we have made painfully little progress towards really ending the problems associated with some very large financial firms – and their debts – being viewed by markets and policymakers as being too big to fail.

If you could visit a casino with the prospect of keeping all your winnings, while your losses would be partially or completely paid by someone else, how much would you gamble? You would bet a huge amount – presumably as much as the house allows. Big banks are run by smart, rational people. The incentives they face – which themselves have worked long and hard to retain – are not acceptable from a broader social point of view.

Senator Warren wants to cut through the complex morass of modern regulation. Force the biggest half dozen banks to become smaller, simpler, and more transparent. Limit the tax deductibility of interest for large highly leveraged financial institutions, so they choose to fund themselves with relatively more equity and less debt.

And reform the emergency powers of the Federal Reserve – to strengthen its ability to deal with genuine disasters while also ensuring an appropriate level of democratic review and control. The days of secretive bailouts should end.

Senator Warren’s main point is this:

“without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact – clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008.”

Of course you cannot outlaw all cheating or prevent all forms of future potential macroeconomic problems. But the legislative framework and presidential priorities matter. This is demonstrated by what happened since the 1980s, when the deregulation of finance distorted incentives in very ways that proved very dangerous.

We can choose now to make markets function better. Put in place simpler, clearer rules and enforce them.

This is a completely centrist agenda. As a result, there is real potential here for bipartisan policy initiatives – and there are senators on both sides of the aisle who show signs of being willing to go to bat for exactly these kinds of sensible pro-market ideas.

All presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat, would be smart to embrace this agenda.

It Can Wait. Really.: The Real Solution to Notification Overload

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 09:21

By James Kwak

Beeping iPads! Buzzing phones! Zapping watches! Soon, apparently, we won’t be able to complete a thought without being interrupted by some “intelligent” piece of technology.

The solution, according to Steven Levy, is yet more technology:

a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time. . . .

the automated intake of our information will allow us to “know by wire,” as super-smart systems learn how to parcel things out in the least annoying and most useful fashion. They will curate better than any human can.

First of all, I’m skeptical. So is Levy, apparently; just a few paragraphs up, he writes, “the idea of One Feed to Rule Them All is ultimately a pipe dream.” The same factors that make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized feed make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized stream of notifications.

Read more at Medium …

Good Ideas Are Not Enough

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 09:20
By James Kwak

Dan Davies put together a brilliant roundup of the clever business models that financial technology startups are pitching to their investors — and why most of them are deeply flawed. Some of them apply much more broadly than to just the financial services industry. Number three, for example — “Hoping that a load of people who actively mistrust each other will trust you instead” — is a decent description of the business-to-business marketplaces that Ariba was trying to build when I worked there back at the beginning of the millennium.

I’d like to add two more general principles that apply to technology companies that are trying to serve the financial services industry — mainly learned during my years working at an insurance software company before going to law school.

Read more on Medium …

(I’m going to try switching to a Brad DeLong-style approach in which I put the beginnings of my Medium posts here, and then you can decide if you want to read more or not. I can’t put the whole post here because they have thirty-day exclusivity.)

Vaguely Monthly Roundup

Wed, 04/08/2015 - 15:27

By James Kwak

Did you know that blogging is dead? That’s what I hear, anyway. I plan to say something about it once I figure out if I have anything to say on it.

Anyway, as you have probably noticed, I do most of my sporadic writing over at Medium these days. Since I last checked in here, I wrote stories about:

I also posted an essay by Walt Glazer about inequality.

You can see all of my Medium stories here, or you can read the whole Bull Market publication (now including Brad DeLong!).