Monday, July 6, 2015

Can Greece Leave?

Is Grexit even possible?

It strikes me that the best Greece can do with a Drachma is to create a two-currency system, sort of like Cuba or Venezuela, or at best Argentina; countries whose politics the Greek government seems to admire, and whose economies its may soon resemble.

Calomiris and sticky prices

Charles Calomiris has a very interesting Forbes oped on Greece, with a much deeper insight.
My proposal begins with government action to write down the value of all euro-denominated contracts enforced within Greece. This “redenomination” would make all existing contracts – wages, pensions, deposits, and loans – legally worth only, say, 70% of their current nominal value. This policy would kill several birds with one stone. It would significantly reduce pensions, relieving fiscal pressure and satisfying troika demands for fiscal sustainability. It would do so in a way that would also mitigate the purchasing power consequences for pensioners, because an across-the-board redenomination would lower prices throughout the economy, making the reduction in nominal pensions more bearable. By applying redenomination to deposits and loans, banks’ health would be revived – their loans would now be payable and therefore more valuable, and their net worth would consequently rise. The 30% wage reduction would further reduce fiscal problems and make Greek producers competitive, and operate as an “internal devaluation” to raise demand for Greek products and tourism. Most importantly, this internal devaluation – by solving the problems of fiscal deficits, non-competitiveness and bank insolvency – would inspire confidence in Athens’ ability to stay within the eurozone, which should bring deposits back into the banking system to fuel a rebirth of lending.
I think this is about half right, but a very good idea lies in here.

"an across-the-board redenomination would lower prices throughout the economy"? Not necessarily. Why would any store lower prices just because it gets to lower wages and rent? Prices are not a "contract."

Thus, the redenomination should probably come with a (say) one week price control. Every price must be lowered 30% over what it was the previous day, for a week,  Just long enough for each store to see that its competitors and suppliers has also really lowered prices.  Then stores can do what they want.

China crash?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China is doing everything in the textbook to ignite a "bubble."

I dislike that usually undefined term, which carries a lot of normative baggage. But there are a set of steps that governments often take unwittingly and are later criticized for. China's doing them on purpose. And these steps quite often precede large market declines.

Short sales ban: Financial Times: "opened a probe into market manipulation"  ... "The investigation is likely to focus on short selling."  The usual witch hunt, with Chinese characteristics. Owen Lamont has a splendid paper on what often follows short-sales bans. The weekend before TARP and Lehman, the US instituted a short-sales ban on bank stocks, just in case there was someone out there who did not know banks were in trouble and they should sell now. Europe instituted a CDS selling ban in the first PIGS crisis...

Lending to encourage highly leveraged speculation: Wall Street Journal: "Under the planned move, China’s central bank will indirectly help investors borrow to buy shares in a market that had already seen a rapid buildup in debt from so-called margin financing." Procyclical credit supply is named by just about every account of a "bubble" followed by a crash.

Prices depend on supply and demand. As well as increasing demand, limit supply: "A halt to new stock listings."

And more. Quartz offers "A complete list of the Chinese government’s stock-market stimulus (that we know about)" including  "People’s Bank of China will “provide liquidity assistance” to China Securities Finance Corp., a company owned by the stock regulator. The company will use the money to lend to brokerages, which could then make loans to investors to buy stocks."

This scenario often ends badly.

The only thing I can think of that can actually stop a crash is for the central bank to directly print money to buy stocks. And not just a little bit. A pre-announced and limited quantity won't work. The US QE took billions to alter bond prices a few basis points at most. One has to commit to a price floor and a "do what it takes" amount of money, no matter how large or inflationary. I don't know of it ever being tried. It will be interesting to see if China goes that far. They could hide the fact with extensive bailouts of people "borrowing" to buy stocks, or otherwise cover losses or promise to cover losses.

Of course, the right strategy is to leave it alone. The whole point of stocks is that they go down on occasion, without runs, without defaults, and without financial distress. Unless the people and institutions holding them are highly leveraged. Didn't we just learn this lesson?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Greece vs Puerto Rico and what's "systemic."

How is a Greek default different from a Puerto Rican default?

Answer: because Puerto Rico doesn't have its own banking system. It can't shut down banks. Banks in Puerto Rico are not loaded up on Puerto Rico debt, so depositors are not in danger if the state government defaults.

Puerto Rico, like Greece, uses a common currency. But there is no question of PRexit, that people wake up one morning and their dollar bank accounts are suddenly PR Peso bank accounts. So they have no reason to run and get cash out.

Banks in New York are also not loaded up on Puerto Rico debt. US bank regulators haven't said that those banks can pretend Puerto Rico debt is risk free.

If a Puerto Rican bank fails, any large US bank can quickly take it over and keep it running.

A Puerto Rican government default will be a mess. Just like the default of a large business in Puerto Rico. But it will not mean a bank run, crisis, and economic paralysis.

So here is a big lesson of the Greek debacle: In a currency union, sovereign debt must be able to default, without shutting down the banks, just as corporations default. Banks must not be loaded up on their country's sovereign debt. Bank regulation must treat sovereign default just like corporate default. It can happen, and banks must diversified and capitalized to survive it.  Banks must be free to operate across borders.  A common currency needs a firm commitment that it will not be abandoned.

In financial regulation, the big debate rages over what is "systemic,"  with the latest absurd idea to extend that designation to equity asset managers. (More later.) All that discussion starts with statements that  sovereign debt or anything backed by sovereign debt or sovereign guarantees is safe and per se not "systemic." Sovereign debt still counts as risk free in almost all banking regulation.

Greece should reinforce the lesson: Sovereign debt is a prime source of "systemic" danger. That is especially true of small governments in a currency union. A government is just a highly leveraged financial institution and insurance company.

Wrong answers:

- Fiscal union. The US is not necessarily going to bail out Puerto Rico. Or Illinois. Or their creditors. People keep saying a currency union needs fiscal union, but it is not so.

- National deposit insurance is really not central either. The banks operating in Puerto Rico are not in danger, so they don't need deposit insurance protection.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Kashyap on Greece

Anil Kashyap has an excellent summary of the Greek debt crisis.

He sees government printed IOUs as a much better solution to the banking and payments crisis than for Greece to exit the euro and try to reestablish the Drachma. I agree entirely.

His summary goes back to the beginning, and reminds us that Greece did not get bailed out; Greece's creditors (mainly european banks) got bailed out.

Wages and inflation

Marty Feldstein has a very interesting opinion piece on Project Syndicate. His main point is that micro distortions from social programs (and taxes, labor laws, regulations etc.) are leading many people not to work, and is well stated.

An introductory paragraph poses a puzzle to me, however,
Consider this: Average hourly earnings in May were 2.3% higher than in May 2014; but, since the beginning of this year, hourly earnings are up 3.3%, and in May alone rose at a 3.8% rate – a clear sign of full employment. The acceleration began in 2013 as labor markets started to tighten. Average compensation per hour rose just 1.1% from 2012 to 2013, but then increased at a 2.6% rate from 2013 to 2014, and at 3.3% in the first quarter of 2015.
These wage increases will soon show up in higher price inflation. 
This is a common story I hear. However I hear another story too -- the puzzle that the share of capital seems to have increased, and that real wages have not kept up with productivity.

So, maybe we should cheer -- rising real wages means wages finally catch up with productivity, and do not signal inflation. The long-delayed "middle class" (real) wage rise is here.

I'd be curious to hear opinions, better informed than mine, about how to tell the two stories apart.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

4% growth

I wrote last week on the simple factual question of whether and how often the US has experienced 4% real GDP growth in the past.

The deeper question, is that growth possible again? I answered yes, it's surely possible as a matter of economics. 

A few have asked me "why do so many of your colleagues disagree?" It's a question I hate. It's hard enough to understand the economy, I don't pretend to understand how others respond to media inquiries. And I don't like the invitation to squabble in public. 

It has taken me some time to reflect on it, though, and I think I have a useful answer. I think we actually agree.

As I read through the many economists' quotes in the media, I don't think there is in fact substantial disagreement on the economic question -- is it economically possible for the U.S. to grow at 4% for a decade or more? Their caution is political. They don't think that any of the announced candidates (at least with a prayer of being elected) will advocate, let alone get enacted, a set of policies sufficiently radical to raise growth that much. 

This is a sensible position. When I answer the question, is 4% growth for a decade economically possible, my answer is whether the most extreme pro-growth policies would yield at least that result. A  short list:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Last Greek thoughts

A few salient points that don't seem to be on the top of the outpouring of Greece commentary.

1. Greece seems to be coming to a standstill.  Kerin Hope at FT  (HT Marginal Revolution):
... many [Greeks] have simply stopped making payments altogether, virtually freezing economic activity.
Tax revenues for May, for example, fell €1bn short of the budget target, with so many Greek citizens balking at filing returns. 
The government, itself, has contributed to the chain of non-payment by freezing payments due to suppliers. That has had a knock-on effect, stifling the small businesses that dominate the economy and building up a mountain of arrears that will take months, if not years, to settle.
“Business-to-business payments have almost been paused,” one Athens businessman says. “They are just rolling over postdated cheques.”
 Around 70 per cent of restructured mortgage loans aren’t being serviced because people think foreclosures will only be applied to big villa owners,” one banker said.
2.  If a Greek goes to the ATM and takes out a load of cash, where does that cash come from? The answer is, basically, that the Greek central bank prints up the cash. Then, the Greek central bank owes the amount to the ECB. The ECB treats this as a loan, with the Greek central bank taking the credit risk. If the Greek government defaults, the Greek central bank is supposed to make the ECB good on all the ECB's lending to Greece.  It's pretty clear what that promise is worth.

Some observations on what these stories mean.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Econ 1

John Taylor is offering his Economics 1, the introductory economics course for Stanford undergraduates, as a free online class. Class starts Monday, June 22.

John's blog post here, and registration page here.

Yes, Martha, apparently there is a free lunch.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Roy's plan

I found two novel (to me) and interesting points in the heath insurance reform plan  put forward by Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute. (His Forbes articles here.)

First, the ACA establishes that it is ok to help people by subsidizing their purchase of private health insurance. It is not necessary to provide completely free insurance, medicaid, VA, medicare, and so on.

Yes, the health insurance you can buy has been salted up with extras, competition severely restricted, and large insurers so deeply in bed with their regulators that to call insurance "private" is a stretch and "competitive" a dream. But people do have to pay something, if they want better coverage they have to pay more, and the insurers are still nominally private companies.

Second, it is ok to ask people to contribute pretty substantial copayments.  That's a vital component to getting a functioning health care market.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Source: Wall Street Journal
Today's (June 18) Wall Street Journal has two noteworthy pieces on tax reform, "Rubio's tax mistake" in the Review and Outlook and Rand Paul's "Blow Up the Tax Code and Start Over" Perhaps now that pretty much everyone agrees the tax code is a mess, something will be done about it.

Paul is sure to be pilloried about the 14.5% rate and whether it will generate enough growth to sustain tax revenues and pay for 20% of GDP spending.

But the structure of the tax code is far more important than the rate. It is refreshing to hear a serious presidential candidate stand up to say
"...repeal the entire IRS tax code—more than 70,000 pages—and replace it with a low, broad-based tax of [rate deliberately deleted] on individuals and businesses. I would eliminate nearly every special-interest loophole. The plan also eliminates the payroll tax on workers and several federal taxes outright, including gift and estate taxes, telephone taxes, and all duties and tariffs. 

It's not exactly the structure I would advocate, but close enough. And close enough even if 14.5% becomes 20%. Or adds higher brackets at higher incomes.  We should talk about the structure separately from the rates to avoid all these distractions.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Noah Smith Writing Lesson

Source Noah Smith
Noah Smith has a good review of the writing in Deirdre McCloskey's review of Thomas Piketty's book.

A lesson for students learning to write papers: Don't needlessly annoy readers before you get to your point. If a reader disagrees, finds something wrong, or insufficiently documented, of if you offend a reader, he or she will leave without getting to the main point.  Once a reader finds one thing he or she thinks is wrong, he or she will distrust the rest of the argument. Grand methodological statements and criticisms of swaths of literature are especially dangerous.

Noah's post is a great example. As you can see, Noah never got to the main point of McCloskey's review, and happily admits it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Four percent?

Timothy Noah from Politico called yesterday to ask if I thought four percent growth for a decade is possible. Story here. In particular he asked me if I agreed with other economists, later identified in the story, who commented that it has never happened in the US so presumably it is impossible.

This prompts me to look up the facts, presented in the charts at left. The top graph is annual GDP growth. The bottom graph gives decade averages. Data here. The red lines mark the 4% growth point. Notice the sad disappearance of growth in the 2000s.

Judge for yourself how far out of historical norms a goal of 4% growth is.

By my eye, avoiding a recession and returning to pre-2000 norms gets you pretty close.  A strong pro-growth policy tilt, cleaning up the obvious tax, legal, and regulatory constraints drowning our Republic of Paperwork (HT Mark Steyn) only needs to add less than a percent on top of that. 4% might be too low a target!

Note the question asks about real GDP not per capita. Adding capitas counts. If you want total GDP to grow, regularizing the 11 million people who are here and letting people who want to come and work and pay taxes counts toward the number. You may argue with the wisdom of that policy, but the point here is about numbers.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Asset Pricing Summer School

I’m going to offer my online course “Asset Pricing” over the summer. The intent is a “summer school” for PhD students, either incoming or between the first year of foundation courses and the second year of specialized finance courses.

At least one university is going to use this more formally: Require completion of the class for their PhD students (either incoming or between first and second year,) and organize a TA and group meetings around the class. We have found that this sort of social organization helps a lot for students to get through online classes.

Greek roll-over

The latest Greek debt "crisis" poses an interesting puzzle. (Quotes because it's hard to call something that's been going on this long a "crisis.") Greece needs to come up with $300 million euros by Friday to pay off the IMF. And the most likely source of this money is... the IMF.

What's going on here? Obviously, Greece was going to need decades to pay off loans, in the sense of running primary surpluses to actually work down debt. Why lend Greece money for a short amount of time, then institute regular "crises" about rolling over the debt?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Bank at the Fed

"Segregated Balance Accounts" is a nice new paper by Rodney Garratt, Antoine Martin, James McAndrews, and Ed Nosal.

Currently, large depositors, especially companies, have a problem. If they put money in banks, deposit insurance is limited. So, they use money market funds, overnight repo, and other very short-term overnight debt instead to park cash. If you've got $10 million in cash, these are safer than banks. But they're prone to runs, which cause little financial hiccups like fall 2008.

But there is a way to have completely run-free interest-paying money, not needing any taxpayer guarantee: Let people and companies invest in interest-paying reserves at the Fed. Or, allow narrow deposit-taking: deposits channeled 100% to reserves at the Fed.

(I'm being persnickety about language. I don't like the words "narrow banking." I like "narrow deposit-taking" and "equity-financed banking," to be clear that banking can stay as big as it wants.)

That's essentially what Segregated Balance Accounts are. A big depositor gives money to a bank, the bank invests it in reserves. If the bank goes under, the depositor immediately gets the reserves, which just need to be transferred to another bank. This gets around the pesky limitation that the Fed is not supposed to take deposits from people and institutions that aren't legally banks.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Betting on Grexit

A capital flight mechanism I hadn't thought of, from  Hans-Werner Sinn (HT Marginal revolution)
Basically, Greek citizens take out loans from local banks, funded largely by the Greek central bank, which acquires funds through the European Central Bank’s emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) scheme. They then transfer the money to other countries to purchase foreign assets (or redeem their debts),... 
 In January and February, Greece’s TARGET debts increased by almost €1 billion ($1.1 billion) per day, owing to capital flight by Greek citizens and foreign investors. At the end of April, those debts amounted to €99 billion. 
I knew Greeks are taking money out of bank deposits, and parking it abroad, and that in the end this money came from the ECB. When a Greek depositor wants his or her money, the Greek bank gets it from the Greek central bank, who gets it from the ECB, which prints it (metaphorically). It had not occurred to me that of course borrowing every cent you can from a Greek bank and parking it abroad is just as smart.

Of course, If Greece leaves the Euro, the Greek central bank goes bust, the ECB loses and Greek borrowers or ex-depositors keep their euros.

Hans-Werner seems to think capital controls are a good idea to stop this run. I think the likely imposition of capital controls is just why people are running in the first place. Similarly, if both Greece and Europe were to credibly say that Greek government default will not mean leaving the euro that would also stop the run.

But news for the day is this interesting run on the borrowing side, not just the depositor side.

Friday, May 29, 2015

On writing well

The WSJ notable and quotable picked a lovely snippet from “On Writing Well” (1976) by William Zinsser, who died May 12 at age 92. 
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. 
Who can understand the clotted language of everyday American commerce: the memo, the corporate report, the business letter, the notice from the bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? What member of an insurance plan can decipher the brochure explaining the costs and benefits? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it. 
But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
Though each sentence is spare,  Zinsser includes some long and concrete lists. Notice how effective that combination is.

From the New York Times Obituary
His advice was straightforward: Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece. 
He conveyed that himself with lively turns of phrase: 
“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough,” ... 
“Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence,” ..
Zinsser's book was an inspiration to me.  I highly recommend it to economists and PhD students. (My reading list for a PhD writing workshop.)

Measure your time. You may think you're a social scientist, but in fact you're a writer.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Small shoes and headroom

I talked with Kathleen Hays and Michael McKee on Bloomberg Radio last week, and they asked (twice!) a question that comes up often in thinking about Fed policy: shouldn't the Fed raise rates now, so it has some "headroom" to lower them again if another recession should strike?

I could only answer with my standard joke: That's like the theory that you should wear shoes two sizes too small because it feels so good to take them off at the end of the day.

But the question comes up so often, it's worth thinking about a little more seriously. Under what views about the economy does this common idea make any sense?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tucker and Bagehot at Hoover

I had the pleasure last week of attending the conference on Central Bank Governance And Oversight Reform at Hoover, organized by John Taylor.

Avoiding the usual academic question of what should the Fed do, and the endless media question will-she-or-won't she raise rates, this conference focused on how central banks should make decisions. Particularly in the context of legislation to constrain the Fed coming from Congress, with financial dirigisme and "macro-prudential" policy an increasing temptation, I found these moments of reflection quite useful.

Some of the issues: Should the Fed follow an "instrument rule," like the Taylor rule? Should it have "goal," like an inflation target, but then wide latitude to do what it takes to attain that goal? What structures should implement such a rule? Implicit in a rule that the Fed should do things, like target inflation and employment, is an implicit rule that it should ignore others, like asset prices, exchange rates and so on. (I think this is much too often overlooked. As financial reform should start by delineating what is not systemic, and hence exempt from regulation, monetary policy rules should start by saying what the Fed should ignore.) Should that limitation be more explicit? What's the right governance structure? Should we keep the regional Feds? How should Fed meetings be conducted? Is "transparency" the enemy of productive debate? How much discretion can an agency have while remaining independent?  And so on.

I was going to post thoughts on he whole conference, but John Taylor just posted an excellent summary, so I'll just point you there.

My job was to discuss Paul Tucker's (ex Deputy Governor of the Bank of England) thoughtful paper, "How Can Central Banks Deliver Credible Commitment and be “Emergency Institutions" Paul's paper starts to think deeply about independent regulatory agencies in general, and monetary and fiscal policy together. My discussion is narrower. I'll pass on the discussion (pdf here) as today's blog post, as it might be interesting to blog readers.

Comments on “How Can Central Banks Deliver Credible Commitment and be “Emergency Institutions” By Paul Tucker
May 21 2015

Let me start by summarizing, and cheering, Paul’s important points.

The standard view says that perhaps monetary policy should follow a rule, but financial-crisis firefighting needs discretion; a big mop to clean up big messes; flexibility to “do what it takes”; “emergency” powers to fight emergencies.

I think Paul is telling us, politely, that this is rubbish. Crisis-response and lender-of-last-resort actions need rules, or “regimes,” even more than monetary policy actions need rules. At a basic level any decision is a mapping from states of the world to actions. “Discretion” just means not talking about it.

More deeply, you need rules to constrain this mapping, to pre-commit yourself ex-ante against actions that you will choose ex-post, and regret. Monetary policy rules guard against “just this once” inflations. Lender of last resort rules guard against “just this once” bailouts and loans.

But you need rules even more, when the system responds to its expectations of your actions. And preventing crises is all about controlling this moral hazard.