Economics

Her new The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers is a tour de force of economics, anthropology, Pierre Bourdieu, management theory, and anecdotes about Sony and Facebook and UBS and Cleveland Clinic.

It turns out Gillian wrote her doctoral thesis in anthropology on Islamic marriage practices in Tajikistan.

In Mississippi, 7.3% of all workers in the state are manufacturing workers who make less than $15 an hour. Losing many of these jobs would have a serious negative impact on the state.

Because of its sample size, the CPS is of more limited use for small geographies. However, there is a relatively large number of observations for Los Angeles County, CA. Almost 400,000 manufacturing workers live in the county, and 55% of them make less than $15 an hour. Many of these workers will be affected by $15 minimum wages that have been approved for the City of Los Angeles and the unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County.

This data suggest that if the minimum wage was increased to $15 an hour across the U.S., it would impact a significant number of manufacturing workers, with some states being hit harder than others. This reflects the fact that lifting the minimum wage to $15 an hour would not just be quantitatively larger than previous U.S. experience, but qualitatively different in that it would affect a different set of workers and industries. Leisure/hospitality and retail make up 54% of the workers who make less than $8 an hour, but only 34% of those making less than $15 an hour. As the minimum wage rises it affects other sectors. For manufacturing, at least, the effect is likely to be greater.

That is from Adam Ozimek, more at the link.

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with Luigi next Wednesday, eight days from now (do sign up!).  He is a brilliant and multi-faceted economist, and an Italian — what should I ask him?

From the FT:

The likes of Zambia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, and Ivory Coast have all issued foreign currency dominated sovereign bonds in recent years.

Ghana is one African nation with a history of debt crises (pdf), and also dating back to the 1980s (pdf).  Tanzania was another offender, both current and past (pdf), and for a while a lot of lending to Africa dried up and that limited the number of possible debt crises.  But now…?

Here is Amadou Sy at Brookings, telling us it is not yet time to worry.  Here is the African Development Bank worrying a bit more than that:

Today, a third of African countries have debt to GDP ratios in excess of 40 percent. The outstanding sovereign debt for Africa as a whole increased 2.6 times between 2009Q2 and 2015Q2. In contrast, total debt in developing countries rose 2.3 times over the same period. The appreciation of the dollar has raised the nominal currency values of dollar denominated debts. Thus Africa’s outstanding bond debt is already 29 percent higher today in real terms than it would have been had the dollar remained at its March 2011 level…

Here is Andrew England at the FT:

A recent note by Fathom Consulting highlighted a 40 per cent year-on-year dip in Chinese imports from Africa for July. Martyn Davies, chief executive of Frontier Advisory, a group that specialises in Africa-China investment, says there is anecdotal evidence of an easing in Chinese activity on the continent. “The hurdle rates of Chinese sovereign wealth investment, or part sovereign wealth fund invested projects in Africa have been raised so the capital is more discerning and seeks greater profitability,” he says.

Here is my previous post on which countries are most likely to experience the next financial crises.

This is quite long, so it goes under the fold…class starts tomorrow night! Read More →

Romer on Urban Growth

by on August 31, 2015 at 7:25 am in Economics | Permalink

Here’s one bit from an excellent interview of Paul Romer on urban development:

Q. How are economics and planning and development of cities related each other?

Urban Expansion is an exception to the usual rule that an economy does not need a plan. Creating new built urban area requires a plan for the public space that will be used for mobility (sidewalks, bus lanes, bike lanes, auto lanes …) and for parks. At a minimum, this plan should provide for a network of arteries big enough to allow bus travel and dense enough that no location is more than 0.5 km from such an artery. This is the only thing that needs to be planned up front for land that is not yet developed. Everything else can wait. But if informal development comes first, it is too late. The area will never have enough public space to allow successful urban development.

I think Romer is correct. What surprised me most when studying Gurgaon in India was that despite strong demand, there wasn’t a lot of common infrastructure being built. The transaction costs of ex-post planning were simply too high.

In addition to transport arteries, I would also mention the importance of setting aside space and access points for sewage, electricity, and information arteries. It’s not even necessary that government provide these services or even the plan itself (private planning of large urban areas is also possible) but a plan has to be made. By reserving space for services in advance of development, developers and residents can greatly improve coordination and maximize the value of a city.

A simple, minimal urban plan is analogous to the rules of the game.

Macau fact of the day

by on August 31, 2015 at 6:55 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

Gross domestic product in Macau, China’s semi-autonomous gambling haven, fell by more than a quarter in the three months to June as the junket-fuelled growth model comes under attack from Beijing.

The economy contracted by a whopping 26.4 per cent in the second quarter, following declines of 24.5 per cent in the first quarter and 17.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2014.

Stunning as the figure is, it’s not surprising, nor does it signal a collapse for the economy. Macau’s unemployment rate is just 1.8 per cent as construction booms and millions of Chinese visitors cross the border to shop, play some baccarat and attend an increasingly diverse array of Las Vegas style entertainment shows.

That is from Fast FT.

Remember back in 2009, and a bit thereafter (pdf), when so many people were praising China’s very activist, multi-trillion fiscal stimulus?

Yet some of us at the time insisted this would only push off and deepen China’s adjustment problems.  There was already excess capacity and high debt and favored state-owned industries, and the stimulus was making all of those problems worse and only postponing a needed adjustment.  The Chinese incipient contraction was based on structural problems, not a simple lack of aggregate demand.  As I wrote in 2012:

To keep its investments in business, the Chinese government will almost certainly continue to use political means, like propping up ailing companies with credit from state-owned banks. But whether or not those companies survive, the investments themselves have been wasteful, and that will eventually damage the economy. In the Austrian perspective, the government has less ability to set things right than in Keynesian theories.

Furthermore, it is becoming harder to stimulate the Chinese economy effectively. The flow of funds out of China has accelerated recently, and the trend may continue as the government liberalizes capital markets and as Chinese businesses become more international and learn how to game the system. Again, reflecting a core theme of Austrian economics, market forces are overturning or refusing to validate the state-preferred pattern of investments.

How’s that debate going?  While the final outcome remains uncertain, Austrian-like perspectives on China are looking pretty good these days.

Just as you go to war with the army you’ve got, so must a country conduct fiscal stimulus with the policy instruments it has.  And most forms of Chinese fiscal stimulus make their imbalances worse rather than better.  Yet dreams of fiscal stimulus as an answer to the macro problems on the table never die:

Sangwon Yoon writes for Bloomberg:

China is sliding into recession and the leadership will not act quickly enough to avoid a major slowdown by implementing large-scale fiscal policies to stimulate demand, Citigroup Inc.’s top economist Willem Buiter said.

The only thing to stop a Chinese recession, which the former external member of the Bank of England defines as 4 percent growth on “the mendacious official data” for a year, is a consumption-oriented fiscal stimulus program funded by the central government and monetized by the People’s Bank of China, Buiter said.

“Consumption-oriented” is the key word there.  I don’t blame Buiter for speaking precisely, but few readers will pick up on his careful use of words.  Still, switching to more consumption is a surrender to lower rates of economic growth, not a way of keeping the growth rate high.  That is a good idea, but a funny kind of stimulus.

In the meantime, the consumption sector in China seems to be faring poorly.  On the way up, investment rose at the expense of consumption, but on the way down they are falling together.  Funny how things like that work out, and it does suggest that a consumption-oriented stimulus maybe can break the fall but it won’t restore prosperity.

It’s striking how little recent discussion I’ve seen of China’s much-heralded fiscal stimulus of 2008-2009.

This is an object lesson in relying too much on short-run macro models, or models in which sticky prices are the only imperfections, or models where the quality of investment is not a factor.  Whatever you think of the American Great Recession, the Chinese case is very, very different.

Should the Fed tighten?

by on August 30, 2015 at 12:14 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

1. I do not know what the Fed should do, and I do not know what the Fed will do.  I don’t even like that phrase “should the Fed tighten?,” but the superior “what kind of multi-dimensional expectational monetary path should the Fed indicate?” is awkward.

2. Starting in 2008, I thought money was too tight during 2007-2011, and in general I am not afraid of upping the dose of inflation, ngdp, however you wish to express it.  I have never had “tight money” in my blood, so to speak.

3. There is good evidence from vacancies and the like that labor markets are fairly tight right now, equities are high and apparently China-robust, and we just had a gdp report of 3.8%.  So something other than more monetary loosening ought not to be out of the question.  Those variables simply cannot be irrelevant for the Fed’s current choice.

4. There is not a stable Phillips curve.  So the lack of strong price inflation does not carry clear labor market implications, nor does it mean we can boost employment through looser money.

5. Often I buy the “asymmetry argument.”  That suggests more price inflation probably won’t hurt us much, but monetary tightening could damage labor markets, so why tighten?  Paul Krugman among others makes this argument.

6. Now the risks look fairly symmetric.  The first reason is that zero short rates for so long might be encouraging excess risk-taking in the financial sector.  This can be the “reach for yield” argument, which in spite of its lack of replicable econometric support commands a lot of loyalty from serious observers within the financial sector itself.

7. The second reason for symmetric risks is that zero short rates for so long might be encouraging zombie companies:

The end of ultra-low interest rates may bode ill for the productivity of British businesses, which is already poor. Output per hour is still lower than before the crisis of 2007, whereas in America and even France it has grown. Tight monetary policy should be bad for productivity, since it makes business investment more expensive. As the cost to businesses of borrowing has fallen by more than half since 2008, investment by firms has risen by 20%. The worry now is that dearer borrowing will curb the investment binge, making productivity even more dismal.

Yet there is another side to the productivity equation. Kristin Forbes, a member of the MPC, points out that, as in Japan in the 1990s, cheap borrowing may allow inefficient “zombie firms” to survive for longer than they normally would. In Britain interest payments as a share of profits have fallen from about 25% in 2009 to 10% today, bringing down company liquidations with them. As they stagger on, zombie firms hold down average productivity levels in their industry and, as a result, put a lid on wage growth. Rising interest rates could slowly start to sort the wheat from the chaff.

That is from from The Economist and of course you can adapt it for an American context.

8. Those two arguments might be meaningful with only a chance of say fifteen percent each, but that still would put the risks in a broadly symmetric position.  I don’t see that the critics have made the case that a mere quarter point rate increase should be so damaging.

9. The contrarian in me rebels when I see article after article, blog post after blog post, consider the monetary policy problem in only two dimensions, namely as would be expressed by a Phillips curve.  See #4.  The “nice view” of monetary policy, as Faust and Leeper suggest (pdf), is probably wrong.

10. If I were at the Fed, I would consider a “dare” quarter point increase just to show the world that zero short rates are not considered necessary for prosperity and stability.  Arguably that could lower the risk premium and boost confidence by signaling some private information from the Fed.  But it’s a risk too — what if the zero rates are necessary?

11. The prospect of a stronger dollar, and the subsequent hit on American exports, remains a domestic reason not to let rates rise.  I doubt if it is a global Benthamite reason, but it is probably a reason held by some within the Fed.

12. The biggest piece of information here is that both Janet Yellen and Stanley Fischer both seem genuinely uncertain as to what the Fed should do.  No, they haven’t been absorbed by the hard money Borg.  They have their own version of these arguments and it seems they see the risks as being relatively symmetric, and thus the correct monetary policy choice is far from obvious.  No one has yet said anything that is smarter or more potent in Bayesian terms than what they probably are thinking.

13. Let’s say the Fed did decide to allow rates to rise.  How exactly would they make that happen?  How hard would it prove to accomplish?  That’s an under-discussed angle to all of this.  And the Fed might either wish to postpone this curiosity or get it over with, another set of symmetric risks.

We’ll know more soon.

There is a new opinion of sorts:

The Democratic Party platform now calls for a $15 per hour national minimum wage for all hourly workers after delegates voted in an amendment proposed by progressive activists during the Democratic National Committee Meeting here on Friday.

The pointer is from Conor Sen.

Here is the academic paper, by William Easterly, and Laura Freschi, and Steven Pennings:

Economic development is usually analyzed at the national level, but the literature on creative destruction and misallocation suggests the importance of understanding what is happening at much smaller units. This paper does a development case study at an extreme micro level (one city block in New York City), but over a long period of time (four centuries). We find that (i) development involves many changes in production as comparative advantage evolves and (ii) most of these changes were unexpected (“surprises”). As one episode from the block’s history illustrates, it is difficult for prescriptive planners to anticipate changes in comparative advantage, and it is easy for regulations to stifle creative destruction and to create misallocation. If economic growth indeed has a large component for increases in productivity through reallocation and innovation, we argue that the micro-level is important for understanding development at the national level.

It is a block on Greene St., near NYU, and so a section of this paper focuses on whorehouses.  History made them do it.  Here is the interactive site.  I am in general a big believer in this kind of micro-history, which remains undervalued in the economics profession.

The pointer is from Kottke.

Kieran Healy has a new paper on that topic (pdf), by the way a paper with a very short title (but this is a family blog).  Here is his opening paragraph:

Nuance is not a virtue of good sociological theory. Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise, and almost without exception when nuance is mentioned is is because someone is asking for more of it.  I shall argue that, for the problems facing Sociology at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that is intellectually interesting, empirically generative, or practically successful.
And yet I find this paper has a lot of…nuance.  But of course Healy is consistent, it is “Actually Existing Nuance” he is railing against…

I very much enjoyed this Live Chat, and I thank the participants for all of their stimulating questions and remarks.  Here is one excerpt:

Ben Casnocha:

How do you think your career and life would have been different if blogging, twitter, and digital media had be ubiquitous in your teens and 20’s? Would you have still pursued an academic path or would you have become a full-time columnist/commentator/speaker earlier on? I seem to recall you saying at one point that you’re glad the internet didn’t exist early on in your life as it gave you the time to read the classics and develop a substantive base of knowledge.

Tyler Cowen:

I am glad I was forced to live in “book culture” and “meat space’ for my first forty years. Or maybe thirty-five years would have been enough. People these days have lost the sense of information being scarce, and counterintuitively that makes it harder for them to develop profound thoughts. It’s like practicing chess by asking the computer right away, all the time, what the right move is.

[and later] …contemporary academic is overly bureaucratized and there is a very good chance I would [if I were starting today] look for another model of success and contentment. It is an open question whether or not I could find one. Whatever its limitations, there is still a followable formula for academic success, which of course is part of the problem.

Other topics include when is the best age to live in various parts of the world, Alban Berg and Rilke, Marc Andreessen, my one hidden talent, Rene Girard, labor market networks, optimal travel into the past, and which is the most underrated or overrated wisdom tradition.  Do read the whole thing.

Claims about China

by on August 27, 2015 at 9:13 pm in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

Pay close attention to the 500+ stocks in China that are still frozen. Earlier it was reported virtually all these firms borrowed money with pledged stock near the peak of the market in May and June.  If these reports are true, it is likely that given the length of time these stocks have remained frozen, that these firms would be in technical bankruptcy.  That would be a major blow and cause all kinds of panic so clearly something will be worked out to soften the blow here.  These 500 firms might be the epicenter.

That is from Christopher Balding, the piece makes other points of interest as well.

This is from a recent working paper (pdf) by Miguel Morin:

When the adoption of a new labor-saving technology increases labor productivity, it is an open question whether the economy adjusts in the medium-term by decreasing employment or increasing output. This paper studies the effects of cheaper electricity on the labor market during the Great Depression. The first-stage of the identification strategy uses geography as an instrument for changes in the price of electricity and the second-stage uses labor market outcomes from the concrete industry—a non-traded industry whose location decisions are independent of the instrument. The paper finds that electricity was an important labor-saving technology and caused an increase in capital intensity and labor productivity, as well as a decrease in the labor share of income. The paper also finds that firms adjusted to higher labor productivity by decreasing employment instead of increasing output, which supports the theory of technological unemployment.

You will note of course that the short-, medium- and long-run effects here are quite different, and of course electricity is a major boon to mankind.  Still, technological unemployment is not just the fantasy of people who have failed to study Ricardo.

Here is a short summary of the paper, via Romesh Vaitilingam.