Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Blogging Useful?

I started this enterprise back in April as an experiment. I work at various levels - academic papers, teaching, textbooks - and I learn something in each medium that I can use in the others. I saw other people writing blogs and thought: Why not? What do I have to lose? Some people I talk to worry that this will burn up a lot of time, but I find it doesn't. It's actually useful discipline for me, that forces me to pick up institutional details and facts about data that I otherwise would be too lazy to spend time on. If no one else is learning anything, at least I am. As Neil Young said once (or something like this - you can find this somewhere in your blu ray Neil Young Archives): "I do this for me. F*** the audience." Actually, that's not really true. I do care what you think.

Now, sometimes this is a tough business. I have opinions, or I wouldn't do this. I've aired plenty of those opinions in public outside of the blogosphere without much adverse reaction, but apparently there is a segment of the blogosphere where opinions like this are seen as the equivalent of attacking someone's religion. My friend Kartik Athreya certainly suffered for posting something on his personal web site suggesting that economic research published in traditional venues might be somehow superior to a typical blog entry. I would characterize most of the reaction as bullying. I can see why people who write blogs would be upset that someone would express disdain for what they do, and I understand that the freewheeling and democratic nature of the blogosphere is refreshing. However, most assistant professors in serious research universities who are worried about getting tenure are not going to learn their economics from blogs. I would not counsel my graduate students to devote any of their precious time to reading blogs. Kartik's opinions are not unique. I think they are widely held in academia, though of course I have not taken a poll.

Yesterday I was feeling a little down about this whole enterprise, but I think I feel better this morning. What makes me feel bad is perhaps surprising. While one might think that free entry into blogging would produce a plethora of opinions and freewheeling exchange of ideas, the outcome is actually rather monolithic and intolerant, at least in terms of what I see in the macroeconomics blogosphere. The blog readers I find to be fair, for the most part (though people drop occasional turds in my comment box), but the blog writers (at least the guys with the big audiences) are prone to exaggeration, ideological rigidity, and misrepresentation of positions they oppose. I feel that it's not fair to pick on people who aren't endowed with some power. For me, Woodford (I know him well and he is a nice guy and has a sense of humor), Kocherlakota (a good friend - he's not going to take my criticism personally), and certainly Krugman (never met the guy, and I'm sure he doesn't give a hoot what I say about him) are fair game. Picking on some poor guy working at the Richmond Fed who is relatively unknown outside of the macro conference circuit and the group of scholars working on bankruptcy is not really fair.

Anyway, to get to the point, here's my game plan from now on. What I'm shooting for here is more Neil Young (old, irreverent, maybe a little sloppy, but aiming for integrity, with a Canadian lack of pedigree) than Lady Gaga. I don't want a large audience, as that would mean going for the Macro 101 Keynesian-Cross approach of most of the macro blogosphere. Trying to keep Krugman honest is obviously a waste of time. Krugman's blog writing and his recent NYT columns are like Fox News or organized religion. It's either obvious to you what its faults are, or you are committed to it, and I'm not going to change your mind.

One last point. Where are the women in the macro blogosphere? All the bloggers are men, and any non-anonymous commenters I get are also male. Look at the pictures of my followers - a bunch of men except for the Canada Goose. There has to be something wrong if we're scaring the women off. Obviously too much aggression is floating around.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fed Term Deposit Facility

The Fed conducted its first auction of funds through its new term deposit facility on Monday, as described here. Recall that the term deposit facility allows banks with reserve accounts to effectively tie up reserve funds in an account that cannot be used in intraday transactions and cannot count towards overnight reserve requirements. The idea, as I have discussed before (though I couldn't find the relevant blog piece) is that this promotes inflation control by somehow tying up reserves so that they cannot "escape." I have also argued that this is misguided - the Fed can achieve all the inflation control it needs, and at lower cost, by setting the interest rate on reserves appropriately.

Now, what happened in the auction? $2 billion in 28-day term deposits were offered, and an amount greater than $11 billion was the amount tendered. I have no idea how an auction like this might go, but this looks like healthy demand, though of course you would have to see all the prices that were associated with the $11 billion quantity to determine that. The "stop out rate" was 0.27%, which is the lowest accepted bid rate. Since the interest rate on reserves is currently 0.25%, the Fed does not have to pay much of a premium to get a bank to commit to locking up reserves for 28 days. Of course this is due to the fact that there is a huge quantity of reserves in the system, so a marginal unit of reserves has close to zero value in making intraday transactions or in satisfying reserve requirements. Thus, these term deposits are not costing the Fed much more than liquid reserves, though presumably it costs something to run the auction. One would expect though, that as the quantity of reserves falls, the margin between the term deposit rate and the interest rate on reserves will rise.

Correction: This was not the first auction. That was actually in mid-June. See this.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Replies to Comments on "Kocherlakota Sells Out"

In a previous post, I gave Narayana Kocherlakota a hard time about his stand on New Keynesian economics. A couple of commenters characterized this as unnecessarily vitriolic and personal. Of course it was personal. I have an enormous amount of respect for Narayana, but he is a public figure now, with some influence on public policy in this country, and I expect a lot from him. I have said nice things about him before (see this piece), but if I disagree with what he says, I think I should say so. Economists need thick skins to survive, and I can assure you that Narayana has one as well.

Now, some of you seem to think, like Narayana, that New Keynesian economics is coherent. A while back I took the time to study what New Keynesians were doing. This research program was getting a lot of attention, and I wanted to see if there was something to it. I came to the conclusion that New Keynesian Economics had nothing to offer in its current form, and since then I have taken the opportunity to criticize this stuff whenever the opportunity arises. Here are some critical pieces I have written (two of these with Randy Wright, which also provide a constructive alternative):

1. Richmond Fed Economic Quarterly piece.
2. "New Monetarist Economics: Methods"
3. "New Monetarist Economics: Models"

What is incoherent about New Keynesian Economics? As represented in Woodford's "Interest and Prices," the paradigm has the following problems, among others:

1. Firms whose prices are "stuck" in the current period behave suboptimally, and in ways that drive all of the results.
2. These models are stated to be immune from the Lucas Critique, but for a number of reasons (e.g. fixed decision rules for price-setting) they are not.
3. The framework is supposed to be about analyzing monetary policy, but does not contain the most basic elements of what monetary policy is about, i.e. the quantities on the central bank's balance sheet. Recent work by Curdia and Woodford tries to correct this problem, but in a somewhat pathetic way.

Some people wondered what I meant by the current predictions of New Keynesian models being laughable. I'm not sure why this was not obvious. The example I gave, which is typical, was of a New Keynesian model that was currently predicting that the nominal interest rate should be less than -5%. What would you think if I offered up a model that predicted that the unemployment rate should be -5%, and tried to interpret this in terms of what policymakers should actually do? Should you take me seriously? Of course not. We all know that arbitrage dictates that "the" nominal interest rate cannot fall below zero. The zero lower bound should be in the model, as should "quantitative easing," if we think that is important.

In my comment in reply to a commenter to "Kocherlakota Sells Out," I mentioned that I wasn't currently concerned about the unemployment rate, which of course drew the reaction that I was insensitive to the plight of the poor. As I have pointed out in a number of previous posts, I think that the US economy is recovering nicely. However, the behavior of the labor market and productivity is unusual. My conjecture, based on readily available aggregate observations and nothing more, is that this unusual behavior (including the high unemployment rate) is due to sectoral reallocation in the United States, away from manufacturing and housing, and toward services, and within the manufacturing sector. As such, there is little the government can do about it, except to wait for the reallocation to work itself out, and ease the transition with relatively generous unemployment insurance benefits.

China, Savings, and the Current Account Surplus

I just returned from Shanghai China where, as it turns out, one cannot access Google blog sites, which explains why I have been silent for a while. While there I learned a little more about the financial system in China, and have some things to say about recent issues related to China’s exchange rate policy and US deficits.

The savings rate in China is very high, and much of the high quantity of savings is accounted for by households. Financial institutions in China are not well-developed, with the banking system dominated by state-owned banks which lend on favorable terms to state-owned enterprises but give short shrift to private firms. There are significant barriers to entry for foreign banks, which account for about 2% or 3% of market share. A significant fraction of Chinese savings gets channeled through Chinese financial institutions into US Treasury securities, thus lowering rates of return on those securities. US (and other) firms, looking for high rates of return, invest directly in China, so some of the savings which exits China comes back as foreign investment. However, given the obstacles to foreign investment in China, there are plenty of would-be high-return projects that go without funding. The phenomenon of high savings in China creating a Chinese current account surplus and driving down real rates of interest in the world is sometimes called a “savings glut” (Bernanke coined this term I think). However, it is more useful to think of this as being associated with an underdeveloped, indeed an obstructed, Chinese financial system, which does not efficiently channel savings into investment.

Now, for a long time, Americans have been bashing China over its exchange rate policy. The idea seems to be that the nominal exchange rate is “artificially low” or “undervalued,” so that China is somehow forcing us to buy its goods at too low a price. In the meantime, as the argument goes, the Chinese are being far too frugal, in the process making our interest rates so low that our housing market goes crazy and causes us to go into a panic. Something should be done. After a long period of whining from the United States, China finally changed its exchange rate policy, but of course that’s still not good enough for our friend Paul Krugman.

What China does with its nominal exchange rate is of minor importance for the issues at hand here. Consider the following. Suppose that China had allowed its financial system to develop like its manufacturing sector. This would have involved a relaxation of barriers to starting up private banks and of restrictions on the activities of foreign financial institutions in China (to create a stable financial system, the Chinese would of course had to establish appropriate regulations to prevent excessive risk-taking). What would the result have been? Domestic savings in China would have been channeled into domestic investment in China, investment would have been much higher, and the current account surplus would have been much lower. Indeed, with a large enough investment boom in China, there would be a Chinese current account deficit currently, and the world real interest rate would be much higher.

What would things have looked like in the United States? Our government would be paying much higher interest rates on its debt and running a higher deficit, and foreigners might be thinking a lot harder about whether it was a good idea to lend to our government. We would also be running a current account surplus and working a lot harder to send goods off to China as inputs into their investment projects. Do you think we would like that world better than the one we are currently living in? Maybe Krugman would think we had struck the appropriate balance, but I think most of us in the United States would think that we were worse off.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kocherlakota Sells Out

In the middle of an otherwise innocuous educational piece, Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Fed, in discussing "successes" in macroeconomic modeling, has a section on "Pricing Frictions: The New Keynesian Synthesis." Here is Narayana's description of how the "real world" works:
If the Federal Reserve injects a lot of money into the economy, then there is more money chasing fewer goods. This extra money puts upward pressure on prices. If all firms changed prices continuously, then this upward pressure would manifest itself in an immediate jump in the price level. But this immediate jump would have little effect on the economy. Essentially, such a change would be like a simple change of units (akin to recalculating distances in inches instead of feet).

In the real world, though, firms change prices only infrequently. It is impossible for the increase in money to generate an immediate jump in the price level. Instead, since most prices remain fixed, the extra money generates more demand on the part of households and in that way generates more production. Eventually, prices adjust, and these effects on demand and production vanish. But infrequent price adjustment means that monetary policy can have short-run effects on real output.
This is a more-or-less mainstream textbook description of how the Keynesian "transmission mechanism" works in some kind of IS-LM, AD-AS model, or (as of course is no accident) the so-called "microfounded" version in Woodford's Interest and Prices, or Clarida, Gali, and Gertler's survey piece in the Journal of Economic Literature.

For me, this was more than a little puzzling, as the Narayana I knew would have thought the worldview represented in standard Keynesian economics was hopelessly naive. But read on, it gets better (or worse, depending on whether you want a good chuckle or actually care about the state of policymaking in the world). We then get this:
Because of these considerations, many modern macro models are centered on infrequent price and wage adjustments. These models are often called sticky price or New Keynesian models. They provide a foundation for a coherent normative and positive analysis of monetary policy in the face of shocks. This analysis has led to new and important insights. It is true that, as in the models of the 1960s and 1970s, monetary policymakers in New Keynesian models are trying to minimize output gaps without generating too much volatility in inflation. However, in the models of the 1960s and 1970s, output gap refers to the deviation between observed output and some measure of potential output that is growing at a roughly constant rate. In contrast, in modern sticky price models, output gap refers to the deviations between observed output and efficient output. The modern models specifically allow for the possibility that efficient output may move down in response to adverse shocks. This difference in formulation can lead to strikingly different policy implications.
1. "...a foundation for a coherent normative and positive analysis..." No way. Woodford's view of the world is not coherent, and it certainly isn't a normative theory - the Taylor rule has never been shown to be an optimal response to anything. Also forget the "positive analysis." One would think that New Keynesians would be thoroughly embarrassed by the financial crisis, which obviously has nothing to do with sticky prices, and left them at a loss for policy prescriptions. What is most laughable are the attempts of people like this to make sense out of estimated Taylor rules that predict (very) negative nominal interest rates currently.
2. "This analysis has lead to new and important insights." First, there is nothing new in New Keynesian economics, which is successful in good part because it is completely unobjectionable to (i.e. the same as) Old Keynesian economics. Some people might tell you that it's forward looking price-setting that makes the difference, but I don't buy it. Second, New Keynesian economics leaves me empty. There is nothing "important" going on there.
3. As implemented by policymakers, there is absolutely no difference in the old notion of the output gap and the new one. It may be the case that, in Woodford's "Interest and Prices," the core model is essentially a monopolistic-competition real-business-cycle framework, and the output gap is clearly defined as the difference between what output is, and what it would be with flexible prices. In practice, take a look at how Glenn Rudebusch does it here. Rudebusch's output gap is the difference between the unemployment rate and the CBO's measure of the natural rate. But that seems to come from this paper, where the natural rate is
the unemployment rate that arises from all sources other than fluctuations in demand associated with business cycles.
This is basically an Old Keynesian natural rate, and if you look at the time series for the natural rate in the paper, it's clear that it will not differ much from what you get from fitting something like an HP filter to the unemployment rate series. So much for progress.

However you look at this, it's not good. Narayana either believes these things, or he doesn't. If he does, too bad for us. If not, maybe this sells well with some people but, again, too bad for us.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Employment Pessimism

The April employment report from the BLS seems to have been greeted widely as shockingly bad news. For example, see this story. Here's the key paragraph, which is representative of the viewpoint you will see almost everywhere:
The headline numbers for May suggested reason for optimism — employers added 431,000 jobs and the jobless rate fell to 9.7 percent, from 9.9 percent in April. But the underlying numbers showed that almost all of the growth came from the 411,000 workers hired by the federal government to help with the Census. Most of those jobs will end in a few months.
Now, I'm not sure exactly what numbers are being used here. The news reports focus on seasonally adjusted establishment survey numbers. The increase of 431,000 is in seasonally adjusted payroll employment from March to April. However, I'm not sure whether the 411,000 workers hired to do the census is a raw number or a seasonally adjusted number, or whether it is coming directly from the federal government or from the establishment survey. Indeed, in the seasonally unadjusted data, the change in federal employment from March to April was (guess what?) 411,000. If we look at the unadjusted data, the total gain in employment from March to April is 1,090,000, of which 711,000 is coming from the private sector and 379,000 from the government.

This is now beginning to look somewhat better for the private sector, but of course private sector employment tends to grow at a high rate in the spring, coming off its low point in January. It's clearly important to account for seasonal variation in some manner. However, let's forget the above numbers for the time being and focus on year-over-year percentage changes in establishment survey employment, and see what that tells us. I have provided the chart.

Now, I don't see any reason for pessimism in this picture. Year-over-year employment growth is increasing at a very rapid rate currently, and there is a lot more strength than was the case after the last recession. While government employment has increased 3.3% (April 2009 to April 2010), government employment is currently 17.8% of the total, so most of the strength in the employment picture is coming from the private sector.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Two Fed Presidents and Financial Externalties

You can find an interesting contrast between a policy paper written by Narayana Kocherlakota, Minneapolis Fed President, and a speech by Jeff Lacker, the Richmond Fed President. Narayana thinks that the financial sector is fraught with externalities. For example:
It is important to distinguish my notion of a risk externality from two other types of externalities that are mentioned in discussions of bank regulation. One of these is a systemic externality. The failure of a given Bank X may affect the profitability of many other firms in the economy even though Bank X has no direct contracts with those firms. In this sense, any decision by Bank X that increases its probability of failure has a systemic implication, because it also increases the expected losses by the entire financial—and indeed economic—system.2

My notion of a risk externality is also distinct from what might be termed a fire sale externality. During financial crises, many financial institutions may have to sell assets or collateral at the same time. These simultaneous sales will put downward pressures on the assets’ prices. A given financial institution will not internalize the impact of its sales on the price of other institutions’ assets.
According to Kocherlakota, then, there are three important externalities, a risk externality (the primary focus of his paper), a systemic externality, and a fire sale externality. Now, let's turn to Lacker, who says:
First, I am skeptical of the characterization of systemic risk as an externality that leads market participants to undervalue or ignore risks. Those spillovers are usually ascribed to the interconnectedness that is said to be more prevalent among financial firms. But those interconnections are all the result of mutually agreed-upon contracts. Creditors have voluntarily chosen their counterparties, and they have no inherent reason to neglect the implied exposure to their counterparties' counterparties. Similarly, financial asset owners have voluntarily agreed to a range of potential returns, and they have no inherent reason to neglect any particular possibilities. Interconnectedness, by itself, is not a market failure.

Skepticism is also warranted, I believe, regarding the systemic consequences of an individual firm's failure, no matter how interconnected. Arguments that one firm's failure can spark costly runs at other firms rely on the logic of panics as self-fulfilling prophecies. While this logic is correct as far as it goes, it provides an unsatisfactory guide for policymakers, because it does not provide a means for determining whether creditors are justified in pulling away from other firms. After all, news that one firm has failed can be genuinely informative about fundamental prospects at other firms with similar exposures.

I do think there is a fundamental deficiency in the way our financial markets have performed. And you could describe this deficiency as an externality that leads both to the overexposure to risks in the financial system and to contagious reactions of markets to problems at one institution. But this externality is the product of government policy — namely, the provision of government protection to creditors through an ambiguous, implicit financial safety net. The widespread belief that some financial firms are too big or too "systemically important" to fail and their creditors will benefit from government support increases those firms' appetite for risk. In this setting, allowing a firm to fail creates contagion by forcing market participants to adjust their beliefs about the extent of future government protection.
Obviously, Lacker has a very different view of the world.

Now, since Kocherlakota sees the financial crisis as in part an externality problem, this gets him thinking about how we can use standard Pigouvian taxation to solve the problem. There's nothing new about that of course. For example, some of the IMF's taxation proposals (see my piece here) have that flavor.

Kocherlakota's idea is the following. Large financial institutions understand that they are too big to fail, and that they will inevitably be bailed out in a crisis. We would like to prevent these large financial institutions from taking on a level of risk that is in excess of what is socially optimal. However, monitoring what these financial institutions are up to is difficult and costly. Why not let the market help this solution along, much like a cap-and-trade arrangement for a pollution externality? Kocherlakota proposes a solution, somewhat reminiscent of Charlie Calomiris's subordinated debt proposal (see here), described as follows:
Here’s what I have in mind. Suppose that, for every relevant financial institution, the government issues a “rescue bond.” The rescue bond pays a variable coupon equal to 1/1,000 of the transfers actually made from the taxpayer to the financial institution or its stakeholders. (I pick 1/1,000 out of the air; any fixed fraction will do.) Much of the time, this coupon will be zero. However, just like the financial institution’s stakeholders, the owners of the rescue bond will occasionally receive a large payment. In theory, or in a perfectly functioning market, the price of this bond is exactly equal to the 1/1,000 of the expected discounted value of the transfers to the financial institution’s stakeholders. Thus, the government should charge the financial institution a tax equal to 1,000 times the price of the bond.
Well, that seems appealing, but doomed to failure I think. As I discussed here, a key problem in the financial crisis was that assets were not correctly priced. If we can't price mortgage-backed securities, we do not have the ability to price rescue bonds correctly either. Further, the approach appears to warrant that the payoffs on the rescue bonds should include all of the benefits that financial institutions receive from the government. How do we account for the effects of monetary policy on asset prices, which could benefit banks and other financial intermediaries? What about the benefits from access to the discount window? Conclusion: There is no cheap fix here - you just have to bear the pain of figuring out how to correctly regulate the financial institutions. But if Canadians can do it right, we can too. I like this quote from Lacker's speech:
A compelling alternative premise, one that I personally believe is most likely to emerge as the consensus assessment among future scholars, is that the incentives created by the financial safety net were the chief cause of the financial crisis. Richmond Fed economists have conservatively estimated that in 1999, 18 percent of the U.S. financial sector was covered, or believed to be covered, by the implicit safety net.5 Another 27 percent received explicit protection such as deposit insurance, meaning that a total of 45 percent of financial sector liabilities benefited from explicit or implicit government safety net support. The implicit coverage was accounted for almost entirely by the housing government sponsored entities (GSEs) and several large commercial banks — all of which were important players in the build-up of risks related to housing finance over the last decade.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Bank of Canada Tightens

The Bank of Canada announced a reconfiguration in its monetary policy stance. In case you do not know the institutional setup, the Bank of Canada lends at the "Bank Rate," roughly equivalent to the discount rate, and accepts deposits at the "deposit rate," the equivalent of the interest rate on reserves (IROR) in the US. The policy target rate is the overnight rate. For some time now, the Bank of Canada has set the target overnight rate at 0.25%, and the deposit rate was also 0.25%. The Bank Rate was 0.5%. Consistent with that, the Bank had aimed to have a positive quantity of reserves in the system overnight (a significant quantity, but modest by current Fed standards). The change in policy is the following. The deposit rate stays at 0.25%, the target overnight rate increases to 0.5%, and the Bank Rate is now set at 0.75%. The relationship among the three rates is identical to what it was pre-financial crisis, i.e. the Bank Rate is the target rate plus 25 basis points; the deposit rate is the target rate minus 25 basis points.

Given that the Fed is now in a regime where it pays interest on reserves, it is useful to pay attention to how the Bank of Canada conducts policy - they have been doing this for a long time now (and with no reserve requirements as well). What the Bank understands is that, if they want a positive quantity of reserves in the system overnight, the target rate has to be equal to the deposit rate. In the US, the fed funds rate can be lower than the IROR because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do not earn interest on their reserve accounts with the Fed, and there is some friction (which nobody seems to understand completely, as far as I know) which inhibits arbitrage. As I have said in the past, the relevant policy rate in the US currently is the IROR, given the positive quantity of excess reserves in the system.

The Bank of Canada has an inflation target of 2% per annum, which they appear to be concerned about. If you read their description of the state of the Canadian economy here, they are New Keynesian Taylor Rule policymakers - they care about output gaps. Note that the recession in Canada looks broadly similar to the US one, in terms of the path followed by GDP - their last couple of GDP numbers came in quite strong. However, the labor market picture is different - for example the unemployment rate is considerably lower than in the US (by the way, I couldn't find conveniently accessible Canadian data, other than downloading from the StatCan site - can anyone help me?), and on average it is usually higher (due to differences in unemployment insurance for example). Canada also has a somewhat booming housing market - very different from here of course. Their resource sector (commodity price fluctuations aside) seems to be looking quite good as well.