Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Alright, Hamilton!

20 June 2015

The latest currency news is that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is going to put a woman’s face on US currency for the first time. That is good news, of course, and way overdue. But the devil is in the details, and so far the details are not good. I say this as a believer in women’s equality and in modern economics.

First, the bill in question is the ten-dollar bill. Why the tenner? Of the four bills we use regularly — the one, five, ten, and twenty — this is the most redundant and the one we see the least of. You need those ones and fives to make change and pay for drinks, and twenties are what come out of the ATM. If you didn’t see a ten spot for a whole month, would you even notice? So it reeks a bit of tokenism to put a woman on our least important of the top four bills. The names that have been mentioned are fine — Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sojourner Truth, etc. — but Lew’s suggestion that there might be multiple ten dollar bills, with different women’s faces, seems to compound the tokenism. There’s not one woman in US history who’s important enough to warrant her own bill?

The other big problem is that the current occupant of the ten-dollar bill is the perhaps the most deserving American of a spot on our currency: Alexander Hamilton. As one of the authors of The Federalist and then as the first Treasury Secretary, Hamilton consistently advocated for the building blocks of a modern, functioning economy, as opposed to the feudal system of slave agriculture that dominated the South or the “nation of small farmers” that Thomas Jefferson idealized (despite being a rather large slaveholding farmer himself). Hamilton’s was a lonely position at a time when about 90% of the American population lived in rural areas and was engaged in farming. And Jefferson, then as now, was the more popular, inspirational, romantic figure of the two. But Hamilton eventually prevailed, as the nation industrialized and adopted a modern system of banking, including two central banks which finally eventually evolved into the Federal Reserve System in 1913. When a central bank does its job properly, recessions, deflation, and financial panics are less severe. Their track record is far from perfect, to be sure, but that’s a debate for another thread. Jefferson opposed a central bank, as did his fellow Founding Virginian and successor, James Madison, who had the bad timing to let its lease expire just before the War of 1812, when the nation could have really used a central bank. Madison relented after the war and Congress chartered a new central bank, but its lease was allowed to expire in another bit of ill timing, just before the Panic of 1837. (more…)

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Ireland

24 June 2013

My first Huffington Post column was posted last week. It’s on Ireland’s economy, against the backdrop of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Check it out.

Or, if you already did, check this out instead:

If markets could talk

21 June 2013

The stock market would be telling the Fed something like this:

Image

Sounds crazy, but that’s how present discounted value works. (And thanks to my daughter for the meme.)

This week the Dow fell 3% this after Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s announcement that eventually the economy would get better and then the Fed would gradually take its foot off the accelerator. That is, the Fed would taper off its quantitative easing (QE; emergency mass purchases of long-term bonds) when unemployment (now 7.6%) fell to 7.0% and then, as announced before, would start raising short-term interest rates back toward normal levels when unemployment fell to 6.5%. He didn’t say this was going to happen soon, and reiterated that the (near-) zero interest rate policy would continue until unemployment falls to 6.5%. Granted, he sounded mildly optimistic that the economy would recovery sooner than expected, but he presented no new data on that score, so it’s an easy prediction to shrug off. Not that the markets did.

The present-discounted-value approach to stock pricing says that a stock is worth its company’s expected future profits in all years to come, divided by a discount factor that is based on the long-term interest rate. The lower the interest rate, the higher the stock’s price should be. The odd thing here is that if the economy picks up, corporate profits should too, which should offset the higher interest rates that Bernanke is hinting at. It may be that corporate profits are already high and are not always easy to predict, whereas long-term interest rates are known now. The 10-year Treasury bond rate rose from 2.2% to 2.5% after Bernanke’s announcement, a 14% increase that is right about in line with the 15% drop in stock prices. (The 10-year Treasury yield is still at a near-historic low, by the way.)

The financial media tend to report any significant-looking drop in stock prices as an economic calamity, overlooking the most basic facts about the stock market, namely that it is volatile and its short-term swings have very little macroeconomic impact. The less we worry about short-term market reaction to the Fed, the better off we’ll be. Jared Bernstein has an excellent piece on the Fed’s announcement, to which I don’t have much to add, only to say that I don’t see much new in the announcement, other than some optimistic predictions and an exit strategy for QE (which had to end sometime).

The only downgrade that matters

22 December 2012

Remember these words: “means of extinguishment.” The full quote is “The creation of debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment,” and it’s from Alexander Hamilton, the father of our national debt. Hamilton believed that the federal government could do the nation a big favor by carrying a debt as long as it had sufficient revenue streams to eventually pay it off; such an arrangement, he said, would give the US “immortal credit,” which could come in very handy whenever we had pressing needs or good public investment opportunities that justified borrowing more money.

This has been on my mind because the (yawn) “fiscal cliff” negotiations, whatever their outcome, are really just the latest round in an endless series of self-destructive battles over whether to honor our own budget commitments by raising the debt ceiling so that we can pay for them. I’ve written about Congress’s debt-ceiling looniness before, and how it would be better not to have such votes at all. Think the proposed budget has too big a deficit? Fine, then don’t vote for it. But to vote for it and then refuse to pay for it is not only cynical and hypocritical, but sows suspicion that the government is a deadbeat.

Standard & Poor’s (S&P) famously downgraded the federal government’s debt in August 2011 (from AAA to AA+), and the other two major bond rating agencies (Moody’s, Fitch) are threatening to do the same if Congress can’t reach some kind of agreement to reduce the debt/GDP ratio in the long term. After the subprime scandal, in which the rating agencies routinely rubber-stamped dodgy subprime mortgage-backed securities as AAA, these agencies have zero credibility, but that doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. The S&P said its downgrade “was pretty much motivated by all of the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling. . . . It involved a level of brinksmanship greater than what we had expected earlier in the year.” Yes — if Congress can’t be counted upon to honor its own commitments, which include paying back the principal and interest on previously issued Treasury bonds, then why should bond buyers regard Treasury bonds as completely safe? The more Congress continues to play these games, the more rational it is to conclude that maybe Treasury bonds are not so safe. (more…)

Labor Day joke

5 September 2011

Q: If there’s a Labor Day, why isn’t there a Capital Day?

A: Every day is Capital Day.

Alan Krueger, impeccable choice

29 August 2011

. . . to be the new chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Krueger is a world-class economist who has produced much fascinating, groundbreaking research, and he has ample Washington policy experience. Although Krueger is typically classified as a labor economist, not a macroeconomist, his research is far-ranging and his opinions on macro issues, as expressed in his columns and Economix blog posts for the New York Times, look sensible and well supported.

On the other hand (and there has to be an “other hand” — I’m an economist, after all!), will Obama listen to him? Christina Romer and Austan Goolsbee, Krueger’s predecessors at CEA, gave Obama excellent advice about the need for a strong fiscal stimulus but he ignored it, opting for a stimulus only about half as large as they urged. Neither of them could possibly have agreed with this summer’s bizarre pivot away from jobs toward deficit reduction at a time of 9% unemployment, not to mention the way it opened up the president to Republican debt-default brinkmanship.  No wonder Goolsbee was so delighted to leave the job.

The usually excellent Ezra Klein was on “The Rachel Maddow Show” tonight, and for once I’d say he got it wrong. He said Krueger’s policy work experience with Larry Summers in the Clinton and Obama administrations and his tennis partnering with Tim Geithner make him just another insider, not a real change. I see no evidence that Krueger is as willing as Summers or Geithner to kowtow to Wall Street interests, and at this point even Summers seems to be calling for a fiscal stimulus instead of short-term deficit reduction. It looks to me like Krueger is cut from similar nuanced-Keynesian cloth as Romer and Goolsbee, but better connected. The CEA chair who plays doubles with Geithner has a better shot of making a difference.

Taking their chances on the wall of debt

29 July 2011

This morning’s surprise news is that, after last night’s fiasco in which House Speaker John Boehner could not round up enough votes for his own deficit reduction plan, 10-year Treasury bond prices are not only not down, they’re actually up, by a good bit. Interest rates on Treasuries, which move in the opposite direction as T-bond prices, are down 10 basis points to 2.84% (as of 11:14 a.m.). What gives?

Well, for one, the bond market may not have been expecting much from Boehner. The media had already been saying that he’s a much-weakened House Speaker, after watching his failure to rein in his Tea Party faithless. And any House Republican plan would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate anyway.

Another possibility is that as it becomes more likely that the government bumps up against the current debt ceiling on Aug. 2, that counterintuitively, T-bonds might actually be seen as safer, as Chris Isidore writes in CNNMoney. Why? Because the single biggest actor on the U.S. economic stage, the federal government, would be officially dysfunctional, even more so than it is now. Today through Aug. 1, at least, the government can meet all of its financial obligations. If Aug. 2 is indeed D-Day, then on Aug. 2 the government becomes a deadbeat, at least to somebody. And quite likely, it would not be T-bondholders. This assumes that (1) the government would still be allowed to issue more debt in order to pay off its maturing debt and (2) the Treasury would prioritize the interest on that maturing debt above its other obligations. As notes on NPR this morning, most commentators seem to agree that it is in the national interest to not stiff any of our bondholders, as an actual default would surely cause interest rates to skyrocket. If Aug. 2 is the beginning of Treasury triage time, then the government would more likely stiff someone else, like government employees (please please start with members of Congress!) and government claimants who lack political clout (i.e., not seniors or the military). This creates a lot of chaos, as people don’t know when they’ll be paid, which makes them less likely to spend or repay money and creates pressure on credit markets. In sum, the market reaction may just be the usual “flight to safety” that occurs when markets think conditions are about to get worse and also more chaotic. This would be consistent with the beating that stocks have been taking lately.

It may also be that the bond market is reacting to other news, like the dreadful GDP figures that just came out today. Real GDP in the second quarter grew just 1.3% (worse than the consensus forecast of 1.8%), and first quarter growth was revised drastically downward to 0.4% (from 1.9%). These numbers are “growth recession” territory (where the economy grows but not fast enough to generate enough jobs to keep unemployment from rising), consistent with the rise in unemployment (from 9.0% to 9.2%) over the last few months. As with the debt-ceiling brinkmanship, these new signs of economic weakness are a plausible reason to pull money out of stocks and put it into Treasury bonds.

But why Treasury bonds, you ask, and not another safe haven? The simple answer seems to be that there are woefully few alternatives. As Isidore puts it:

‘U.S. Treasuries are such a massive market — about $9.8 trillion — that they dwarf the markets of other so-called “safe havens” such as gold, top-rated corporate debt or the bonds of other countries with AAA ratings.’

So worldwide investors still like their chances on the wall of debt that is U.S. Treasuries.

P.S. Richard Thompson’s duet partner here is not Linda Thompson, but Christine Collister.

Pouring water on a drowning man

10 July 2011

Today’s New York Times editorial, “The Worst Time to Slow the Economy,” says it all. Voting against raising the debt ceiling is foolish even in the best of times, and it’s insanity right now. Congress already voted to raise the debt ceiling, or to do the equivalent, when it passed a budget with a deficit. It makes no sense for Congress to vote on the budget again.

Is the economy already in a double-dip recession? The rising unemployment rate (up to 9.2% for June, as announced on Friday, or 16.2% using the more inclusive U-6 unemployment rate) suggests it might be. See John Nichols’s column in The Nation for a good account of the unemployment crisis. Nichols says this is President Obama’s biggest problem, pointing out that no president since FDR has won reelection when unemployment was over 8%. (Nichols said over 7%, but he may have meant “over 7% and change,” as Reagan won reelection in 1984 when unemployment was about 7.5%. But at least it was falling, as it was for FDR in 1936 and 1940.)

While Nichols is correct that high unemployment is Obama’s biggest problem, it’s still true that the debt-ceiling impasse is Obama’s biggest worry. An act of supreme self-sabotage like not raising the debt ceiling could put the economy into free fall. As far as I can tell, Republicans who say it’s no big deal, like most of their presidential candidates, either (1) cynically are hoping it brings about an economic avalanche that sweeps Obama out of power or (2) cluelessly believe the Tea Party rhetoric about how “spending” has caused our current woes and think any shock that compels spending cuts will actually be good for the economy. It’s as if they were taught government purchases were a negative entry into GDP instead of a positive, i.e., GDP = Consumption + Investment + Net eXports – Government purchases, instead of GDP = C + I + G + NX.

If we’re lucky, the Constitution — in particular, the line in the 14th Amendment that says “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned” — will save the day. The whole concept of a debt ceiling as something that Congress can refuse to raise, even to pay off previously issued debt, looks unconstitutional to me. (Former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett has forcefully raised this option.) But then again, it’s up to the Supreme Court to make that determination, and, as far as I know, nobody has asked them to yet. Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, in a New York Times op-ed that I otherwise tended to find unconvincing, points out that someone with standing would have to sue the government and that “increased interest rates would have already inflicted terrible damage by the time the Supreme Court ruled on the matter.”

So maybe the Constitution won’t ride to the rescue. Is there hope for a long-term bipartisan budget deal that could convince Congressional Republicans to raise the debt ceiling? And could such a deal be amenable to those of us who don’t want to shred the social safety net? I guess we’ll find out in a couple weeks.

Bummer in the summer (updated)

22 June 2011

In today’s press conference Bernanke acknowledges the obvious: the economy is worse than we thought and likely to stay that way into 2012.  The Fed lowered its official economic growth forecasts and raised its unemployment rate forecasts for 2011-2012. After almost two years of slow but steady recovery and myriad positive straws that one could grasp, the last couple of months have brought mostly lousy news, notably the latest jobs report, which showed a gain of just 54,000 jobs last month, only about a quarter or a sixth as many as we’d need to get unemployment down to normal levels in five years or so.

It’s notable that the imminent end of the Fed’s quantitative easing, all $600 billion of which will be over by the end of the month, brings few calls for another round — everyone seems to agree that we’re in a liquidity trap, in which further monetary stimulus fails to stimulate, because interest rates are already practically 0%, banks are not eager to lend, and companies are not eager to invest in new capital.*

Our best hope, it seems to me, is an almost nihilistic one: the economy somehow recovers on its own, through black-box mechanisms that we still don’t really understand. Business confidence returns, hiring finally picks up, and the economy roars forth. This may be a vain hope, but the “animal spirits” of investors (and consumers) that Keynes wrote about in The General Theory are not really visible, despite the several monthly surveys of business sentiment that are out there.

Our next best hope is another fiscal stimulus. It won’t be like the first one, which is about to run out and was too small anyway, not with a Republican majority in the House that believes spending = death and doesn’t even want to avert a financial crisis by raising the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agree to massive long-term spending cuts. But I could see the two parties agreeing on a big set of tax cuts, which is the usual form that a fiscal stimulus takes anyway (e.g., 1964, 1981, 2001).  That has a couple of disadvantages: (1) the “multiplier” effect of a tax cut on GDP is typically empirically estimated to be smaller than that of a spending increase of equal size, because not all of a tax cut gets spent; (2) tax cuts are hard to reverse, as everyone hates seeing their taxes go up, so they could make the long-term debt problem much worse. Still, it’s probably the only politically viable option for a fiscal stimulus.

* The last part of that statement (companies are not eager to invest in new capital) is less true than I had thought. As the Wall Street Journal article linked to below notes, a survey of banks indicated that small businesses were demanding more loans, at least in the first quarter of the year.

UPDATE: This Associated Press article from the next day’s newspapers adds some helpful detail. The headline from the Syracuse Post-Standard’s version of that article says it all: “Slow Economy a Puzzle: Fed chief flummoxed, says troubles could last a while.” My quick take:

(1) The economy has long been in a liquidity trap (Krugman’s definition, i.e., a slump in which monetary policy is no longer effective).

(2) Bernanke has long suspected this himself, but as Fed Chairman he feels obligated to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy, via unusual, unprecedented channels “that just might work” like QE2.

(3) QE2 has failed to measurably stimulate the economy, because the economy was in a liquidity trap.

(4) Liquidity trap or not, it’s not easy for the Fed to just throw in the towel, so a QE3 might well happen. But I doubt the Street will get all that excited about it, considering what a dud QE2 seems to have been.

4,000 hits

14 August 2009

Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, and this blog.