Monday, June 28, 2010

Screwy Employment Policy

Did you realize that only 40% of the German population is employed? it's like the liberal dream... strong welfare state protections, low employment, low dynamism and growth (and less resultant 'unrest', though also less resultant technology and innovation). If they weren't able to use the Euro to strongarm other countries into financing a trade surplus, though, they'd be so screwed...
Hat tip on the statistic to Tyler Cowen, who also translated the German.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why A Lot of South American Countries are Screwed for a Really, Really Long Time

I came across these this morning while going through my regular news sources, and thought it should be shared. Others reading this have a far better grounding in South American issues, I don't claim to be an expert, but it is an important set of points that usually gets ignored by specialists.
Lots of South America has a commodity-dependent economy (lots of farming, oil/lithium, lumber, etc).
Interestingly (and we always forget this), Canada, Australia and Norway have economies that are nearly as commodity-dependent as the third world, but they end up ok. The reason why they can survive in a commodity dependent economy is a) they have a floating currency and the ability to run one (including encouraging foreign investment when currency values make that tempting by NOT expropriating foreign assets), and b) they are considered credible business partners who won't purposefully inflate their currency to pay off debt, so they can borrow in their local currency and benefit from moderate unintentional inflation. Without these features, every time commodity prices fluctuated, they'd end up with whipsaw government windfalls and shortfalls, with associated political/societal instability (which I'd posit is a pretty good predictor of many types of corruption).
South America, and for that matter, most OPEC countries, have few of those features. Most countries are clearly not able to run a currency - look at how many currency crises they have and how many situations a la Kirchner seizing the central bank's foreign monetary reserves they face - and they clearly have massive inflation problems and have no ability to convince the international capital markets of their credibility from an expropriation standpoint or a purposeful inflation standpoint. It's hard to thrive when nobody internationally takes you seriously.
Some countries are better than others - Brazil and Russia, for example, retain a degree of credibility on a lot of issues that their neighbors do not, partially because their size makes the reward side of risk-reward more appealing (with no incremental risk for size) and partially because of a reasonably predictable set of policies by third-world standards. I can't speak for a few isolated countries like Chile because I don't look to invest there much. But for a lot of places, especially in South America, this definitely applies.

If interested, I'd encourage you to read both of these:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pettis on China

"Why haven't we seen more inflation in China?  China has seen very sharp productivity growth in the tradable goods sector, and according to the standard economic model, any country experiencing very rapid productivity growth in the tradable goods sector will see a rise in the real value of its exchange rate.

This can occur in two ways.  One way is for the nominal exchange rate to rise.  In a market in which the central bank does not intervene, the nominal currency would rise automatically as demand for renminbi exceeds demand for dollars.  In an intervened market, in response to surging reserves the central bank would simply re-peg at increasingly higher rates (although central banks are often very late when it comes to revaluing their currencies).

If the nominal exchange rate doesn't rise, the resulting net current account inflows should cause excess domestic monetary expansion, which means, ultimately, that domestic prices must rise.  This is just another name for inflation.  A country that runs large and persistent trade surpluses and a pegged exchange rate should gradually see an erosion of those trade surpluses as rising domestic prices increase the external price of that country's exports.

For the past decade, the rapid growth in Chinese productivity has far exceeded that of its trade partners, and has also far exceeded the growth in domestic wages.  The natural result should have been a gradual but strong appreciation of the renminbi.  But the level of the renminbi is set by the People's Bank of China, and its total appreciation in the past decade has been much less than the relative growth in productivity – and I am ignoring other factors that should have put even more upward pressure on the currency, like low interest rates, subsidized capital and real estate, and socialized credit risk.  As a result China has seen a surge in its trade surplus.  As a share of global GDP China's recent trade surpluses (roughly 0.6-0.7% of global GDP) are easily the highest recorded in the last 100 years.

This is all the more striking when you consider that the two previous record holders, the US in the late 1920s (with a trade surplus equal roughly to 0.4% of global GDP) and Japan in the late 1980s (0.5% of global GDP), were relatively much larger economies.  The US represented more than 30% of global GDP in the late 1920s, and Japan represented 15% of global GDP in the late 1980s.  By contrast China represents only 8% of global GDP today.

The huge resulting current account inflows, reinforced by net capital account inflows as foreign money poured into China to take advantage of cheap assets and subsidized costs, forced an expansion in domestic money supply far beyond the needs of the Chinese economy.  Normally, such rapid money growth should have pushed China into an inflationary spiral, which would have then forced a rebalancing of the Chinese economy away from excess reliance on a trade surplus.  Remember that rebalancing in China primarily means that household consumption must rise as a share of GDP, and this can occur in both good ways (a surge in consumption) or bad ways (a sharp drop in GDP growth).  Spiraling inflation would probably force GDP growth to drop relative to consumption.

Financial repression

But this inflation didn't happen.  There have periods of inflation in China in recent years, and even a brief inflationary scare in 2007 and 2008, but on average inflation has been far less than what was needed to revalue the currency sufficiently.

So what happened?  Why has inflation been muted – as it has by the way in other countries that followed the so-called Asian growth model, including most importantly Japan in the past several decades?

Two months ago University of Chicago economist, Robert Aliber, came to speak at my central banking seminar at the Guanghua School of Peking University.  In a fascinating discussion he explained that in fact there was another possible resolution of the imbalances caused by relatively rapid productivity growth in the tradable goods sector.

He pointed out that if the nominal exchange rate is not allowed to rise, policymakers can still contain inflation by what economists call financial repression, made possible by their control over the banking system in countries where banks completely dominate the financial system.  In the Chinese context, financial repression exists because the vast bulk of Chinese savings is in the form of bank deposits, and the deposit rate is set at extremely low levels.

This has the effect of transferring large amounts of income away from net savers, which for the most part consists of Chinese households, and in favor of net users of capital.  Net users, of course, consist primarily of large, capital intensive businesses, real estate developers, infrastructure investors and local and central governments, including the People's Bank of China, the largest net borrower of renminbi in China.  Net savers are forced into subsidizing net users, in other words.

The consequence is that monetary growth is channeled not into household demand but rather into the production of more goods, and the inflationary impact of monetary expansion is muted.  Financial repression is an alternative to currency appreciation or inflation.

The cost of low interest rates

But according to Aliber's model, financial repression has a cost.  It leads to overinvestment, asset bubbles, and rising excess capacity.  By keeping the cost of capital in China very low – perhaps as much as 5-8% below a rate that would impose a fair distribution of the benefits of economic growth between savers and users of capital – it results in a surge in investment which, allied with large-scale socialization of credit risk, can lead at first to a rapid increase in economically viable investment but ultimately, if left unchecked, results in capital continuing to pour into investment long after its returns are uneconomical.

I think it is pretty clear that during the last few years, and perhaps even longer, we have migrated into a state where the correctly valued costs of Chinese investment in infrastructure, real estate development, manufacturing capacity, and government spending, exceed the economic benefits...

China's financial repression is also at the heart of the imbalance in the Chinese economy.  By transferring large amounts of wealth from the household sector to net borrowers (perhaps as much as 5-10% of GDP annually, as I explain in an earlier entry), it creates the large growth differential between national GDP and household income that is at the root of China's very high savings and very low consumption levels.

I should add that if much of this investment is non-economic, as I believe it is, this will exacerbate even further the differential.  Why?  Because the total economic cost of the investment (which must include the real debt forgiveness implied by excessively low interest rates), and which will be borne over the future as the cost are amortized in the form of debt repayment, exceeds the total economic value of the investment (which must include externalities), which will accrue upfront.  This means that we get more investment-driven growth today and less consumption-driven growth tomorrow.

More on Cap-and-Trade

Given the unemployment rate and the awful domestic and international government budget situations, it becomes particularly salient to point out that no country has ever thrived economically on restricted energy demand. In fact, one reason why the US manufacturing base could grow so much more than similarly developed countries over the 50s+ is that the US had much cheaper energy than everyone else and they could supply it themselves for a long time (this is, of course, only one factor among many). Electricity usage is often used to measure the accuracy of government headline growth numbers, because a lot of second and third world countries (USSR and China the largest among them) just lie about their GDP numbers, and electricity usage correlates almost one-to-one with growth and is harder to fake.
Greater efficiency of energy use is a good thing, and there's definitely a lot of low-hanging fruit, but it's not enough - either you have to restrict yourself economically (very bad for jobs, international security, etc) or you have to develop an alternative that is cost-competitive with fossil fuels without subsidy. If you start curbing productive emissions before there's a replacement ready, you may actually stymie long term efforts because it's hard to justify pouring money into R&D when nobody has a job, even if that's the economically optimal outcome on a societal level. What I'm saying is that whatever demand-side improvements you'd like to see, the big step has to be on the supply side, and that's not perfectly stimulated by demand-side reforms like cap-and-trade.
Given that, what you'd ideally want to see is a high cap (perhaps only 5% or 10% less than what we emit right now) that's reduced over time (so corporations see value in improving efficiency but productive emissions keep going). This has the potential to be a logistical nightmare, so there needs to be a method of measurement that's not SarbOx-style costly for small businesses. If there's no logistical mechanism to spare small businesses, then you need to restrict your carbon taxation/cap to large companies only. It also needs to be able to assess imports. You're still going to lose some jobs to locales without carbon taxation overseas (largely in export-driven industries), but it's almost unavoidable if you're capping anything at all (if there are better ways to spur energy efficiency, let me know, because it seems that improving low-hanging fruit-style energy usage consists of projects that are either a) not efficient from a project-cost or management-time perspective or b) subject to significant institutional inertia or lack of focus).
This needs to be accompanied by a lot of spending quickly on things like a smart grid and R&D tax credits (which are actuallly getting eliminated as part of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts) and subsidies to gas stations to put in battery charging stations/hydrogen tanks/natural gas tanks. It's funny that we're spending so much on genuinely atrocious and unproductive stimulus when we actually have a bunch of useful stimulus right in front of us.
I'm actually a really big fan of the Pickens plan - take the natural gas we use in electricity and shift it to fueling the car fleet, and replace that electricity production with wind. Both wind and solar will require a lot of grid upgrades to be viable but grid work is textbook "good" government spending on a legitimate public good.
The pity politically is that the climate-change activists keep framing this in terms of climate change. Whether or not you think climate change can be averted by US climate action (Although we certainly have to try, I reserve judgment on that, because we're not the only country of interest here), reducing oil imports at the very least would have substantial security benefits and economic currency/trade deficit and indirect budget deficit benefits, and reducing oil imports and reducing carbon emissions necessarily have to go hand-in-hand. The downside of not acting is way worse than the downside of acting, but by framing this as an environment issue instead of a "this is how we fight Chinese currency dominance and save our jobs!" issue or a "this is how we stop financing terrorism" issue or something along the lines, you're gonna have the same hackneyed crap coming out of both parties. You're also much more likely to get Republicans on board if you acknowledge that natural gas (lower emissions per energy unit than coal or oil) has to be part of the solution, and that a lot of major oil-producing states are going to benefit from wind power (which is what makes the Pickens plan so beautiful politically, if it were framed correctly).

A is for Austerity, F is for Financing...

And when you can't get an A, you may as well have an easier time getting an F:
 Japanese women are seeking men who invest in government bonds, according to an advertisement being run by the Ministry of Finance.

"I want my future husband to be diligent about money," a 27-year-old woman says in an ad being run in free magazines promoting a fixed-rate, three-year note that Japan started selling last week. "Playboys are no good." She's one of five women featured in the page, which says "Men who hold JGBs are popular with women!!"

The ministry commissioned the ads to appeal to citizens for money at a time when record government borrowing threatens to outstrip demand. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who took office yesterday, said he doesn't have an instant fix to rein in the world's largest public debt.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The United States of Feeling Connections


"Tuesday night's speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.

Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," Payack said.

He singled out this sentence from Obama as unfortunate: "That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation's best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge -- a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation's secretary of energy."

"A little less professorial, less academic and more ordinary," Payack recommended. "That's the type of phraseology that makes you (appear) aloof and out of touch.""

Don't we have a requirement for everyone to go to school til they're 16 in this country? Isn't that 10th grade? Is it that unreasonable to write a 10th-grade level speech?
I criticize Obama a lot, but it's usually for his policy. The obsession on both sides (though largely on the right) with presidents being like "the working man" and not being any smarter than the rest of us is sickening - we should be electing our wisest people to be leaders, and wisdom necessarily incorporates intelligence beyond the average person (Intelligence isn't the only factor, of course, but it is one)
The fact that anyone thinks this is significant is ridiculous.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Snooki gets political

"Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi criticized President Barack Obama's policies as anti-tanning.

"I don't go tanning anymore because Obama put a 10% tax on tanning," she said. "And I feel like he did that intentionally for us."

Responding to simple economic incentives, the orange-hued TV star has switched to spray tans.

Snooki also offered some praise for Obama's former Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain. "McCain would never put a 10% tax on tanning because he's pale and he'd probably want to be tan," she said."

Counterproductive Tobacco Measures

There are a number of considerations on the table for ways to regulate the tobacco industry above and beyond the typical cigarette taxes. Many of these involve marketing - further restrictions on advertising, restrictions on placement of cigarettes in a store, restrictions on packaging colors, restrictions on varieties of brands, etc.
Tobacco is a strange good because on a societal level, the "utility" from using tobacco is not considered when looking at usage regulations or optimal industry structure. I agree with this assessment - cigarettes should not be considered a "good", where having more of it is better, holding all else equal and assuming free trade. Instead, they should be considered a "bad", where you pay for it but the less you have of it, the better (this contrasts with externality products, like pollution, where you don't pay for it, you'd pay to get rid of it). My normative assessment, and that of anti-tobacco activists, is that the fact that people who use tobacco have some expectation of utility when they use it - whether this is a teen trying to feel rebellious or an adult addict trying to avoid withdrawal - should not really be considered on a public health level. That "utility" is something we're perfectly happy to throw out, because we see those people as making irrational choices.
This is all fine and good, but it has some very interesting results in terms of optimal policy. Specifically, there is a divergence in policy between minimizing cigarette usage and punishing cigarette producers.
If you want to minimize cigarette usage, a bunch of traditional economic axioms get thrown out.
- you should encourage monopoly, because it leads to inflated prices and customer resentment which can sap demand.
- along the same lines, you want there to be substantial brand strength and you don't want cigarettes to become a commodity, which would depress prices.
The latter is significantly affected by some of the anti-tobacco policies. Restricting packaging colors and varieties, for example, significantly reduces brand strength, which encourages lower quality cigarettes which cost less because consumers start picking on the basis of price instead of brand. Even assuming that low-quality cigarettes have the identical safety consequences as high-quality cigarettes (I doubt it, because of pesticide use and also externalities such as how land is used to grow the tobacco), the net effect is to increase the number of cigarettes per package and to reduce the cost of cigarettes - in effect, making it behave like every other commodity, where producers compete on the basis of quantity produced and low cost instead of brand, quality and taste. Gross margins are high enough on cigarettes (even including excise taxes, which are about 75% of cigarette costs-of-goods-sold) that there is some substantial room to cut prices on cigarettes. This is not a good thing if you believe that cigarette usage is the appropriate target. You could even see a major smuggling uptick, because taxes are very high and it's no longer as important to have a particular brand of cigarette, which has crime implications.
This isn't likely to be a complete switch to commoditization, but changes happen on the margin, and marginal commoditization probably increases cigarette usage by people who have already decided to smoke.
This isn't to say that cigarette marketing is a good thing - ideally, you'd like non-smokers exposed to as little pro-cigarette propaganda as possible - but instead that conditional on you deciding to start smoking, brand differentiation is a good thing - if someone manages to become a smoker even despite ideally low pro-cigarette propaganda, you want them to perceive VERY large differences between brands. To sum it up succinctly, pricing power by tobacco companies is a very, very good thing if you want fewer people to smoke.
Of course, this is predicated on actually wanting to minimize cigarette usage. If you conflate this goal with punishing cigarette companies, then you're going to support every anti-differentiation and anti-pricing power measure listed above because they would shrink cigarette company margins. I don't think cigarette companies are the most wonderful people alive, but they are making a product that's unfortunately legal, and they are responding to demand (tobacco use on the margin is demand-pulled, not supply-pushed), so it seems stupid to demonize them as evil at the expense of actually reducing smoking rates.
[As a side note, the argument that cigarette taxation is regressive is stupid. A regressive tax is bad when it's taxing people who are poor in a way that they can't control. This isn't a "goods" tax - whether that good be labor, consumption or anything else - it's a behavior tax, and thus taxing it does not qualify as regressive even if poor people constitute more smokers than wealthier people. If you had to pay a fine if you committed murder, would you call that unfair to the poor because there are more poor murderers? No, because everyone is equally capable of avoiding that fine by behaving in a way they're supposed to behave anyway - not murdering.]

Monday, June 14, 2010

One way to get people to stop smoking

Education largely fails to get people to not smoke - studies have demonstrated that on the margin, only higher cigarette prices are effective - but I'd bet you that a very specifically targeted education could be more effective. If kids start smoking regardless of health effects because they perceive the risks as "distant" but the perceived rewards as "immediate", perhaps hammering home advertising to this end would be helpful:
There is very little that is more immediate in your average teenage male's mind that is more "immediate" than trying to pick up girls, so a public health campaign centered around it may use psychological jiu jitsu better than your typical "smoking causes lung cancer - look what you could look like at 60!" campaign.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An alternative take on interchange fee regulation

"Payment cards are a secure,  inexpensive, welfare-increasing payment mechanism largely unlike any other in history. Rather than increasing consumer welfare in any meaningful sense, interchange fee legislation represents an attempt by some merchants to shift costs away from their businesses and onto card issuing banks and cardholders. In particular, bank-issued credit cards offer a dramatic improvement in the efficiency and availability of consumer credit by shifting credit risk from merchants onto banks in exchange for the cost of the interchange fee—currently averaging less than 2% of purchase value. Merchants' efforts to cabin these fees would harm not only consumers but also the merchants themselves as commerce would depend more heavily on less-efficient paperbased payment systems. The consequence of interchange fee legislation, as Australia's experiment with such regulation demonstrates, would be reduced access to credit, higher interest rates for consumers, and the return of the much-loathed annual fee for credit cards. Interchange fee regulation threatens to constrain credit for consumers and small businesses as the American economy begins to convalesce from a serious "credit crunch," and should be accordingly rejected. "
hadn't thought of it that way. Interesting. Also didn't know Australia's already tried this.

Statistics are only worth the honesty put into them

The Obama administration is trying to introduce a new poverty measure, which measures relative distribution rather than an absolute level required for safe food, clothing and shelter. I don't know about you, but I define poverty as "being unable to buy the things you need", not "having less money than a CEO".
There's a political agenda here, of course - poverty can look stubborn or increasing even as everyone's standard of living keeps going up, which gives heavy redistributionists ammunition.
The Bush administration's information and statistics were not the most robust, but unfortunately, the Obama administration is looking even worse on this front - remember the surveys they were using to try and measure "jobs created or saved?"

Monday, June 7, 2010

On the Israel backlash

A few interesting reads on Israel and Turkey:
and by the way, because everyone is bending over backwards to try and avoid saying this, there IS something deceptively anti-Semitic in Israel's criticism. Why is Israel the target of everyone's opprobrium when by any reasonable metric, they are significantly better than a) any of their neighbors and b) most of the world from a humanitarian perspective? Is this a "departure from expectations" thing - where you only criticize people when they act worse than you expect, and because Israel is a democracy and everywhere else there is a theocracy we ignore the ridiculous humanitarian problems elsewhere? Seriously, let's not forget that the only two countries in history to ever notify residents before attacks are Israel and the US, because they don't want to kill civilians. Helen Thomas' recent remarks are a decent highlight - perhaps people oppose Israel, but most of their solutions involve Jews as well as Israelis, because the media of that entire region equates the two and thus any coexistence necessarily involves Judaism. The UN hasn't listed Israel as the only state of nuclear concern - instead of North Korea or Iran - for reasons that are "opposed to Israel's actions but not to Judaism at all!".

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Poor Corporate Governance, and Regulations vs Torts


"The White House's designated point man in the crisis, Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, was still publicly reaffirming his trust in the BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, as recently as two weeks ago, more than a month after the rig exploded. This is baffling, and then some, given BP's atrocious record prior to this catastrophe. In the last three years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, BP accounted for "97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors" — including 760 citations for "egregious, willful" violations (compared with only eight at the two oil companies that tied for second place). Hayward's predecessor at BP, ousted in a sex-and-blackmail scandal in 2007, had placed cost-cutting (and ever more obscene profits) over safety, culminating in the BP Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 and injured 170 in 2005. Last October The Times uncovered documents revealing that BP had still failed to address hundreds of safety hazards at that refinery in the four years after the explosion, prompting the largest fine in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

Though this isn't what Rich means, this does shine an interesting light on the nature of regulation vs torts as mechanisms of ensuring corporate governance, and methods of effective regulation.

Regulation clearly failed with BP - it was a poorly governed company (seriously, for one company to account for 97 percent of safety violations is not an indicator of corporate greed, it's an indicator of the danger of outlier-poor corporate governance - another reason for a substantial overhaul of corporate boards).  Torts in the face of violations, however, will certainly reform the company going forward. In this particular case, it's a devastatingly large disaster, but not all torts are.

Amount of regulation doesn't seem to be the problem here - 760 violations!? - but quality of regulations does seem to be. For BP to be allowed to operate with the safety record it had, and also for all of the deepwater drillers to be allowed to operate with no concept of how to stop a major leak (and no advance in safety since the 70s) is pretty appalling. Instead of regulating more and getting mired in bureaucracy (with its necessary web of politics, exceptions and favoritism), perhaps regulating simpler and creating more substantive consequences for misbehavior would be better? This goes for financial reform, as well - a bank regulator is never going to understand what a bank is doing, but it can certainly make it costly for a bank to not understand what it's doing itself (this is a reason I love my "accelerating bailout tax" idea and the contingent convertible debt ideas - they're results oriented, not micromanagement).

It's like the rule in the Navy for people who run ships aground. If you're a captain and your ship runs aground, you never get another ship, regardless of whether it was your fault... it forces every captain to sweat bullets to keep his/her ship from running aground, and it's a much better system than "if waves are between 10 and 15 feet, keep 40 feet from known reefs and if waves are between 16 and 20 feet keep 60 feet away", which would just be "more regulation" and creates incentives for "creative response", which is the term for firms who obey the letter of the law but skirt intent (reminds me of the tax credit program intended to reward paper companies who cut CO2 emissions last year, but ended up incentivizing firms to switch away from carbon-efficient processes to produce more carbon - does anyone have a link to this?). The calls for "more regulation" are highly misguided - "more decentralized and better-enforced regulation" and "very significant incentives for self policing, with monitoring to make sure you're actually doing so (a la the safety violations with which BP was charged but never forced to fix)" are much better approaches.

(By the way... for Rich to link Anthem Blue Cross to Toyota, the irresponsible banks and BP is unconscienably stupid. Anthem Blue Cross's reaction wasn't skirting regulations, it was a direct result of them.)