Larry Summers

Don’t Get Into a Knife Fight with Larry Summers

Larry Summers is not happy with Joseph Stiglitz’s piece The Myth of Secular Stagnation, which argues that the idea of secular stagnation as put forward by Summers and others was little more than a mask for poor economic policy and performance under the Obama administration.

Those responsible for managing the 2008 recovery (the same individuals bearing culpability for the under-regulation of the economy in its pre-crisis days, to whom President Barack Obama inexplicably turned to fix what they had helped break) found the idea of secular stagnation attractive, because it explained their failures to achieve a quick, robust recovery. So, as the economy languished, the idea was revived: Don’t blame us, its promoters implied, we’re doing what we can.

Larry responds:

I am not a disinterested observer, but this is not the first time that I find Stiglitz’s policy commentary as weak as his academic theoretical work is strong.

…In all of my accounts of secular stagnation, I stressed that it was an argument not for any kind of fatalism, but rather for policies to promote demand, especially through fiscal expansion. In 2012, Brad DeLong and I argued that fiscal expansion would likely pay for itself. I also highlighted the role of rising inequality in increasing saving and the role of structural changes toward the demassification of the economy in reducing demand.

…Stiglitz condemns the Obama administration’s failure to implement a larger fiscal stimulus policy and suggests that this reflects a failure of economic understanding. He was a signatory to a November 19, 2008 letter also signed by noted progressives James K. Galbraith, Dean Baker, and Larry Mishel calling for a stimulus of $300-$400 billion – less than half of what the Obama administration proposed. So matters were less clear in prospect than in retrospect.

Indeed, Stiglitz’s piece is difficult to understand as economic commentary because it’s hard to see much daylight between Stiglitz and Summers on actual diagnosis or policy. Stiglitz, for example, points to secular reasons for stagnation when he writes:

The fallout from the financial crisis was more severe, and massive redistribution of income and wealth toward the top had weakened aggregate demand. The economy was experiencing a transition from manufacturing to services, and market economies don’t manage such transitions well on their own.

Gautti Eggerstson is not as entertaining as Summers but he offers useful background.

My Conversation with Larry Summers

Larry was in superb form, and we talked about mentoring, innovation in higher education, monopoly in the American economy, the optimal rate of capital income taxation, philanthropy, Hermann Melville, the benefits of labor unions, Mexico, Russia, and China, Fed undershooting on the inflation target, and Larry’s table tennis adventure in the summer Jewish Olympics. Here is the podcast, video, and transcript.

Here is one excerpt:

SUMMERS: Second, the VIX — people tend to underappreciate this. The volatility of the market moves very much with the level of the market. The reason is that if a company has $100 of debt and $100 of equity, and then the stock market goes up, it’s 50/50 levered.

If the stock market goes up by $100, then it has $100 of debt and $200 of equity and it’s only one-third levered. So when the stock market goes up, its volatility naturally goes down. And the stock market has gone way up over the last 10 months. That’s a factor operating to make its volatility go significantly down.

It’s also the case if you look at surprises. The magnitude of errors in the consensus estimates of company profits or the consensus estimates of industrial production or what have you, numbers have been coming in close to consensus to an unusual degree over the last few months.

I think all those things contribute to the relatively low level of the VIX, but those are more in the way of ex post explanations. If you had told me everything that was going on in the world and asked me to guess where the VIX would be, I would expect it to have been a little higher than it is right now.

And:

COWEN: If there’s an ongoing demand shortfall, as is suggested by many secular stagnation approaches, does that mean monopoly cannot be a major economic problem because that’s from the supply side, and that the supply side constraint isn’t really binding if you think of there as being multiple Lagrangians. Forgive me for getting technical for a moment. Do you see what I’m saying?

SUMMERS: That wouldn’t have been the way I’d have thought about it, Tyler, but what you’re saying might be right. I think I’d be inclined to say that, if there’s more monopoly, there’s more money going to monopoly firms where there’s a low propensity to spend it, both because the firms don’t invest and because the owners of the firms tend to be rich or endowments that have a low propensity to spend.

So the greater monopoly power, to the extent that it exists, is one factor operating to raise savings and reduce investment which contributes to demand shortfalls and secular stagnation.

I also think that there’s likely to be less entry in competition in markets that aren’t growing rapidly than there is in markets that are growing rapidly. There’s a sense in which less demand over time creates its own lack of supply.

And:

COWEN: What mental qualities make for a good table tennis player?

SUMMERS: Judging by my performance, qualities that I do not possess.

[laughter]

SUMMERS: I think a deft wrist, a certain capacity for concentration, and a great deal of practice. While I practiced intensely in the run-up to the activity, there were other participants who had been practicing intensely for decades. And that gave them a substantial advantage.

Recommended!

If you think you know someone who is very smart, Larry is almost certainly smarter.

Larry Summers on the new Republican tax plan

He summarizes the plan as follows:

The central concept put forward by Mr Ryan, which appears to have the support of Mr Trump, is to turn corporate income tax from a tax on the return to capital into a tax only on extraordinary profits. This would be done by taxing corporate cash flows. In addition to the major reduction of the overall rate, the system would change in three fundamental ways. First, all investment outlays can be written off in the year they occur rather than over time. Second, interest payments to bondholders, banks and other creditors will no longer be deductible. Third, companies will be able to exclude receipts from exports in calculating their taxable income and will not be permitted to deduct payments to foreign suppliers or affiliates from income.

I found this to be the paragraph I had not seen elsewhere:

Second, the tax change will capriciously redistribute income, increase uncertainty and place punitive burdens on some sectors. Think of a retailer who imports goods from abroad for 60 cents, incurs 30 cents in labour and interest costs, and then earns a 5 cent margin. With a 20 per cent tax, and no ability to deduct import or interest costs, the taxes will substantially exceed 100 per cent of profits even if there is some offset from a stronger dollar. Businesses that invest heavily, hire extensively and export a large part of their product will have negative taxable income on a chronic basis. It is hard to imagine that the political process will allow annual multibillion-dollar refunds, so they too may be victimised. Then there are the still unresolved questions of what the rules will be on interest deductibility for banks and of the treatment of businesses organised as partnerships that do not pay corporate taxes.

Here is the FT link, probably gated for most of you, WaPo link here.  Summers also argues the plan will worsen inequality, strengthen the dollar (possibly leading to EM crises), lead to a trade war, and erode the long-term tax base.

Just to refresh your memories here is Jared Bernstein on the same plan (mixed but mostly negative), and Martin Feldstein (positive).

Larry Summers reviews Robert Gordon

Many rightly wonder about mis-measurement of productivity as new products become available and quality improves. Gordon is compelling in arguing that productivity growth is indeed significantly underestimated. He is also more persuasive than I expected in arguing that, if anything, this understatement was greater decades ago than it has been recently. In part this is because there were more of these transformational changes that are inherently hard to assimilate in standard frameworks. In part it is because the statisticians do a much better job than they once did of taking account of quality change.

And:

The question of how to square developments that are large enough to have a major impact on wage and employment patterns with the paucity of measured productivity growth looms for future research.

Do read the whole thing, again my review of Gordon is here.

Larry Summers sounds pretty pessimistic here

…whoever you think the four most likely Americans to be the next president of the United States—who are probably Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton—none of them are in favor of TPP. That has to say something about the political—the political environment.

And this:

The Economist had a remarkable statistic. The IMF makes forecasts for every country every April. There have been 220 instances across several decades and some number of countries where growth was positive in year T and negative in year T+1. Of those 220 instances, the IMF predicted it in April in precisely zero of those 220 instances. So the fact that there’s a sense of complacency and relative comfort should give very little comfort.

The dialogue, with Richard N. Haass, is interesting throughout.  Haass seems to be too negative about India and Pakistan.

Three paragraphs of Larry Summers

A number of considerations make me doubt the US economy’s capacity to absorb significant increases in real rates over the next few years. First, they were trending down for 20 years before the crisis started and have continued that path since. Second, there is at least a significant risk that as the rest of the world struggles there will be substantial inflows of capital into the US leading to downward pressure on rates and upward pressure on the dollar, which in turn reduces demand for traded goods.

Third, the increases in demand achieved through low rates in recent years have come from pulling demand forward, resulting in lower levels of demand for the future. For example, lower rates have accelerated purchases of cars and other consumer durables and created apparent increases in wealth as asset prices inflate. In a sense, monetary easing has a narcotic aspect. To maintain a given level of stimulus requires continuing cuts in rates.

Fourth, profits are starting to turn down and regulatory pressure is inhibiting lending to small and medium sized businesses. Fifth, inflation mismeasurement may be growing as the share in the economy of items such as heathcare, where quality is hard to adjust for, grows. If so, apparent neutral real interest rates will decline even if there is no change in properly measured rates.

I already had read the FT piece, but Neil Irwin on Twitter directed my attention to the importance of those paragraphs in particular.  I do not always agree with Summers, but pondering his conundrums is never a mistake.

Larry Summers on technological unemployment in history

This bit is from the Q&A session:

LS: So, I guess I think there is both a, you know, Keynes as usual I think was pretty smart and you know, Keynes began his essay on economic possibilities for our grandchildren by saying that there was this really pressing cyclical problem that had to do with demand which was really important but not all that profoundly fundamental. And there was this more fundamental thing which was that technology was marching on and he thought the dis-employment effects would show up as everybody working 15 hour weeks. And it doesn’t look like that’s quite what they’re showing up as. But the basic idea that technological progress comes with reduced labor input, sometimes it’s early retirement, sometimes it’s people who aren’t able to get themselves employed, sometimes, it’s lower hours, but that is basically the story of the last 150 years.

So, I would not back off of my putting a lot of weight on technology as something important here.

The talk and dialogue (pdf) are on macro more generally, interesting throughout.  In general I believe there should be more transcribed and summarized dialogues, both the NBER and Brookings have had intellectual success with that format.

Very good Larry Summers FT review of Mian and Sufi

It is here, he mostly really likes the book but thinks they are not sophisticated enough in their policy prescriptions.  Here is one good excerpt on whether the federal government should have worked harder to institute mortgage cramdowns:

First, there was the risk of bringing down the system in an effort to save it. Banks had substantial mortgage holdings and especially large quantities of subordinated second mortgages and home equity lines of credit, which would have been wiped out if mortgage principal had been reduced in a way that respected the seniority of first mortgages. We recognised that large-scale principal reduction would draw in a large number of mortgages that were not delinquent and would otherwise be paid in full. As a consequence, there was the risk of sucking hundreds of billions of dollars out of the banking system. Given that government funds for capital infusions were scarce and that each dollar of bank capital supports $12 of lending, we worried that the spending gains from reducing mortgage debt might well be exceeded by the spending losses from reducing the flow of capital. This fear may have been exaggerated. If they think so, Mian and Sufi owe an explanation as to why.

Second, there was the issue of chilling future lending… This was not a small concern, as the automobile industry was in freefall and consumer confidence was deteriorating very rapidly.

Third, there was the danger of prolonging the housing market’s problems. Even the relatively limited programmes in place have spent as much as a third of their money delaying, rather than avoiding, foreclosures. All that we heard at the time suggested that a significant part of the reason why the housing market was dead was that no one wanted to buy because of a fear that it had further to fall. Delaying inevitable foreclosures with relief risked exacerbating this problem and risked larger foreclosure discounts when houses were ultimately sold.

The wisdom of Larry Summers

Already there are more American men on disability insurance than doing production work in manufacturing.

There is also this:

The determinants of levels of consumer spending have been much studied by macroeconomists. The general conclusion of the research is that an increase of $1 in wealth leads to an additional $.05 in spending. This is just enough to offset the accumulation of returns that is central to Piketty’s analysis.

That is from this very good Summers review of Piketty.

Larry Summers on WhatsApp and sluggish investment

Joe Weisenthal reports:

Ponder for example that the leading technological companies of this age, I think for example of Apple and Google, find themselves swimming in cash and facing the challenge of what to do with a very large cash hoard. Ponder the fact that WhatsApp has a greater market value than Sony with next to no capital investment required to achieve it. Ponder the fact that it used to require tens of millions of dollars to start a significant new venture. Significance new ventures today are seeded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the information technology era. All of this means reduced demand for investment with consequences for the flow of – with consequences for equilibrium levels of interest rates.

I don’t completely follow that argument (does it show up in the producer price index numbers?), but I pass it along to stimulate your thought.  Ashok Rao has excellent commentary:

…software (the blue line) is still only 15 percent of private investment and not significantly higher than points in the past two decades when interest rates were a lot higher. On the other hand, residential investment as a share of private investment, hasn’t changed much in structure since the mid-’60s and is still very sensitive to changes in the interest rate.

The full (short) piece on Summers is here.

Larry Summers on finance

It is certainly true that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of highly paid people in finance over the last generation. Recent studies reveal that most of the increase has resulted from an increase in the value of assets under management. (The percentage of assets that financiers take in fees has remained roughly constant.) Perhaps some policy could be found that would reduce these fees but the beneficiaries would be the owners of financial assets – a group that consists mainly of very wealthy people.

I hope you can fight through the FT gate here, the piece is interesting throughout.

Addendum: Ungated link is here.

Larry Summers on the risk of bubbles and excess leverage

He explains it very well in a single paragraph:

The second strategy, which has dominated U.S. policy in recent years, is lowering relevant interest rates and capital costs as much as possible and relying on regulatory policies to ensure financial stability. No doubt the economy is far healthier now than it would have been in the absence of these measures. But a growth strategy that relies on interest rates significantly below growth rates for long periods virtually ensures the emergence of substantial financial bubbles and dangerous buildups in leverage. The idea that regulation can allow the growth benefits of easy credit to come without cost is a chimera. The increases in asset values and increased ability to borrow that stimulate the economy are the proper concern of prudent regulation.

Note that “build-ups in leverage” will do enough of the work of the argument if you are allergic to citation of “bubbles.”

Wassily Leontief and Larry Summers on technological unemployment

Here is a very interesting piece from 1983 (jstor), Population and Development Review, it is called “Technological Advance, Economic Growth, and the Distribution of Income,” here is one excerpt:

In populous, poor, less developed countries, technological unemployment has existed for a long time under the name of “disguised agricultural unemployment”; in Bangladesh, for instance, there are more people on the land than are needed to cultivate it on the basis of any available technology.  Industrialization is counted upon by the governments of most of these countries to relieve the situation by providing — as it did in the past — much additional employment.

If I may put this into my own terminology, Leontief is suggesting that at some margins fixed proportions mean many agricultural laborers, or would-be laborers, are ZMP or zero marginal product.

Haven’t you ever wondered how some traditional economies can have unemployment rates which are so high?  Those are “structural” problems, yes, but of what kind?

By the way, Brad DeLong cites Larry Summers on ZMP workers:

My friend and coauthor Larry Summers touched on this a year and a bit ago when he was here giving the Wildavski lecture. He was talking about the extraordinary decline in American labor force participation even among prime-aged males–that a surprisingly large chunk of our male population is now in the position where there is nothing that people can think of for them to do that is useful enough to cover the costs of making sure that they actually do it correctly, and don’t break the stuff and subtract value when they are supposed to be adding to it.