Category: Economics

Seven lessons about blackmail

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

Every now and then, a few apparently random news events come together and influence how you see the world. My most recent lesson is that blackmail and blackmail risk are a lot more common than I had thought.


…the main villains in these privacy losses are not the big internet companies. While it is murky exactly how the Bezos photos leaked, it seems to have involved old-fashioned spying and the interception of text messages (and possibly a renegade brother). Silicon Valley didn’t sell his data. As for Northam, the yearbook is from the pre-digital era, dug up in a school library. This information was not on the internet, though of course it did play a role in spreading it.

Third, billionaires can be pretty useful. As Bezos asked in his open letter on Medium: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” In this case, both the billionaire and the medium of communication are the good guys.

Fourth, fears of a new era of blackmail based on Photoshopped images and so-called deep fakes (phony but convincing video) may be overblown, or at least premature. In the cases of both Bezos and Northam, the authenticity of the source material (text messages and photos) is not really being questioned, and both stories are receiving intense scrutiny. Rather, the debate is over the provenance and significance of the information.

There is much more at the link.

Women in Economics: Elinor Ostrom

Our first episode in the Women in Economics series is an introduction to Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom have long been a part of the intellectual foundations of “Masonomics”. Both the Ostroms were past presidents of the Public Choice Society, for example, as were Jim Buchanan, Gordon Tullock and Vernon Smith. The Mason Economics department was thrilled when Ostrom won the Nobel as there has been and continues to be fruitful interaction between public choice, experimental economics and institutional analysis.

At the Women in Economics website you can also find Ostrom’s Nobel Prize address, more on the tragedy of the commons, and other resources.

Especially valuable for in-depth research are Vlad Tarko’s biography of Elinor Ostrom and Paul Dragos Aligica and Peter Boettke’s introduction to The Bloomington School.

Life without the Export-Import Bank

In terms of total revenue, Boeing, the aerospace giant, had its best year ever in 2018, with worldwide sales of $101.1 billion.

Exports were particularly robust. Commercial jet deliveries to foreign airlines rose from 763 in 2017 to 806 last year. Overall, the company has a 5,900-order backlog for airplanes worth a staggering $412 billion, according to The Post last week…

For the past 3½ years, Ex-Im, as the trade-finance agency is known, has been essentially paralyzed, yet Boeing has gone from strength to strength…

In the end, Ex-Im survived, as a legal entity. Crucially, though, Senate Republican foes of the bank refused to confirm a quorum for the bank’s board; without a quorum, Ex-Im cannot approve loan transactions larger than $10 million.

As a result of this ploy, the bank has been unable to aid foreign sales of Boeing or other makers of big-ticket goods since June 2015.

And yet, in that time, Boeing has done awesomely well.

It’s not just Boeing that has survived or thrived during Ex-Im’s paralysis. Another company that received heavy Ex-Im support, construction-equipment-maker Caterpillar, achieved a record profit per share in 2018. Caterpillar’s outlook for 2019 is somewhat less rosy, due to broad economic factors such as the slowdown in China, but Ex-Im, or the lack thereof, hardly registers in analyst forecasts.

Here is more from Charles Lane.

Buy (or Rent) Coal! The Coasean Climate Change Policy

Since climate change and what to do about it are in the news it’s time to re-up an underrated idea, buy coal! Carbon taxes increase the price of carbon and induce economic and technological substitution towards lower-carbon sources of fuel in the countries that adopt them. As carbon-tax countries reduce fuel use, however, non carbon-tax countries see the price of their fuel decline. Thus, unless all countries join the tax-coalition, there is leakage. Supply-side policies are an alternative to demand supply policies. The United States, for example, could buy out and close coal mines, including giving the workers substantial retirement/reallocation bonuses, thus reducing the world supply of coal which is still the largest source of C02 emissions.

You can get rich by hitting an oil gusher, but coal is relatively expensive to mine and to transport. Thus, it’s relatively cheap to buy out coal mines because you aren’t buying the coal, you’re buying the right to leave the coal in the ground. Cutting the supply of coal raises its price which will increase the quantity supplied in other countries. Thus, there is the potential for supply leakage as well as demand leakage. It’s probably easier to use more coal when the price of coal falls (electricity, for example, can be generated in a variety of ways) than it is to mine more coal when the price rises. In other words, the elasticity of the demand for coal is greater than the elasticity of supply so supply leakage is probably less than demand leakage. Furthermore, supply leakage can be handled by buying out supply in the non-coalition countries. As Noah Smith pointed out with the graph at right (data) US CO2 emissions are actually falling while the rest of the world keeps rising (as they catch up in per-capita terms) so addressing the CO2 emissions problem requires bringing countries like China and India on board.

Coal use in China is very high and increasing. India has been canceling coal plants as solar becomes cheaper but coal is still by far the largest source of power in India. Thus, there is plenty of opportunity to buy out, high-cost coal mines in China and India.

It might seem odd to buy Chinese and Indian coal mines but we buy Chinese and Indian labor, why not a coal mine? Moreover, it’s important to understand that the policy is to buy only up to the point that it benefits both parties. Buying coal isn’t foreign aid, it’s a pollution reduction plan just like a carbon tax or R&D investment and because we can buy barely-profitable coal mines and avoid the problem of leakage this is a low-cost method to reduce CO2 emissions.

Collier and Venables worry that foreign voters won’t like foreign investors buying up coal mines, although foreign investment is hardly uncommon and foreigners do protect rainforests by buying the right to cut them down. In any case, Collier and Venables suggest a cap-extract and trade program. Under cap-extract there is a cap on global extractions of carbon (not use) but rights to extract can be traded. Since it’s more valuable to extract say oil than coal what this would mean is that payments would flow from mostly developed countries to developing countries which makes it clear that we are all in the boat together.

Even without a cap-extract and trade program, however, there are other factors that make buying coal attractive to people in selling countries, namely coal is killing them even putting aside the dangers of climate change.

NYTimes: Burning coal has the worst health impact of any source of air pollution in China and caused 366,000 premature deaths in 2013, Chinese and American researchers said on Thursday.

Coal is responsible for about 40 percent of the deadly fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere, according to a study the researchers released in Beijing.

India’s air quality is even worse than China’s and is responsible for some 1.2 million early deaths annually. A 25% cut in pollution in India could increase life-expectancy by 1.3 years and in some highly polluted cities such as Delhi by 2.8 years. Not all pollution comes from coal but a substantial amount does.

Buyers might worry that a foreign government will take their money and later renege on the deal. There are lots of ways to deal with this problem–turn the coal fields into a national park, for example, or develop them for housing. But let’s turn a problem into a solution. Instead of buying coal, we could rent it. In other words, buy the right to delay mining the coal for say 10 years. Given the rate of improvement in solar, many coal plants will be uneconomic in 10 years and given the rate of improvement in living standards and the consequent increased demand for clean air, many coal plants in India and China could well be unpolitical in 10 years. Thus, it is true that some solutions are naturally in the offing, but for exactly this reason some coal plants are going to be working extra hours in the next decade to squeeze out what profit they can while they still can. We can avoid this last push of CO2 into the atmosphere by buying up the right to extract and holding it for a decade.

A program to leave coal in the ground could easily pay for itself in lives saved and climate stabilized.

Sovereign Bonds since Waterloo — better than you had thought

This paper studies external sovereign bonds as an asset class. We compile a new database of 220,000 monthly prices of foreign-currency government bonds traded in London and New York between 1815 (the Battle of Waterloo) and 2016, covering 91 countries. Our main insight is that, as in equity markets, the returns on external sovereign bonds have been sufficiently high to compensate for risk. Real ex-post returns averaged 7% annually across two centuries, including default episodes, major wars, and global crises. This represents an excess return of around 4% above US or UK government bonds, which is comparable to stocks and outperforms corporate bonds. The observed returns are hard to reconcile with canonical theoretical models and with the degree of credit risk in this market, as measured by historical default and recovery rates. Based on our archive of more than 300 sovereign debt restructurings since 1815, we show that full repudiation is rare; the median haircut is below 50%.

That is from Josefin Meyer, Carmen M. Reinhart, and Christoph Trebesch in a new NBER working paper.

Facts about UBI

A UBI would direct much larger shares of transfers to childless, non-elderly, non-disabled households than existing programs, and much more to middle-income rather than poor households. A UBI large enough to increase transfers to low-income families would be enormously expensive. We review the labor supply literature for evidence on the likely impacts of a UBI. We argue that the ongoing UBI pilot studies will do little to resolve the major outstanding questions.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Hilary W. Hoynes and Jesse Rothstein.

The wisdom of Ramez Naam, on climate change

From his tweetstorm here are a few bits:

Our biggest climate problems – the sectors that are both large and that lack obvious solutions, are: a) Agriculture and land use changes (AFOLU in the graphic) and b) Manufacturing / Industry. Together, these are 45% of global emissions. And solutions are scarce. 11/

I’m not saying that clean electricity or transport are solved. They’re not. But in electricity, we have solar, wind, batteries growing & getting cheaper & on path for 70-80% decarbonization *at least*. Same with electric cars and trucks. We have momentum in those sectors. 12/

We do NOT have momentum in reducing carbon emissions of agriculture or manufacturing. In agriculture, livestock methane emissions + deforestation to graze livestock are biggest problems. And meat consumption is doubling in next 40 yrs. This should scare you more than coal. 13/

In industry, despite progress in recycling steel, *primary* steel production is still incredibly carbon intensive. As is cement. As is much of manufacturing. We haven’t reached the “solar cheaper than coal” or “EVs cheaper than gasoline” tipping points there. We need to. 14/

If the US is serious about climate policy, it ought to focus on these two sectors – agriculture and industry – that are soon to be the two largest emissions sources, and lack solutions. We should press to invent solutions, drive them down in price, and spread them globally. 16/

Do read the whole thing.

Biblical Adverse Selection

And Jesus said, Behold, two men went forth each to buy a new car.

And the car of the first man was good and served its owner well; but the second man’s was like unto a lemon, and worked not.

But in time both men grew tired of their cars, and wished to be rid of them. Thus the two men went down unto the market, to sell their cars.

The first spoke to the crowd that had gathered there, saying honestly, My car is good, and you should pay well for it;

But the second man went alongside him, and bearing false witness, said also, My car is good, and you should pay well for it.

Then the crowd looked between the cars, and said unto them, How can we know which of ye telleth the truth, and which wisheth falsely to pass on his lemon?

And they resolved themselves not to pay for either car as if it were good, but to pay a little less than this price.

Now the man with a good car, hearing this, took his car away from the market, saying to the crowd, If ye will not pay full price for my good car, then I wish not to sell it to you;

But the man with a bad car said, I will sell you my car for this price; for he knew that his car was bad and was worth less than this price.

But as the first man left, the crowd returned to the second man and said, If thy car is good, why then dost thou not leave to keep the car, when we will pay less than it is worth? Thy car must be a lemon, and we will pay only the price of a lemon.

The second man was upset that his deception had been uncovered; but he could not gainsay the conclusion of the market, and so he sold his car for just the price of a lemon.

And the crowd reasoned, If any man cometh now to sell his car unto us, that car must be a lemon; since we will pay only the price of a lemon.

And Lo, the market reached its Nash equilibrium.

From username42 on Reddit. Hat tip: Michael Lane.

Your challenge: Explain an economics principle the King James Way.

The meaning of death, from an economist’s point of view

A few days ago Garett Jones came to my office door and asked “what do we really know about labor supply?”  I said we might as well extend the query to labor demand.  In any case, here was part of my answer, paraphrased of course:

I’ve been much influenced by having kept a dining guide blog/website for almost thirty years, and seeing so many places come and go.  On one hand, I see the stickiness of plans.  A restaurant opens up, and the proprietor has the intent to be a certain thing.  They’re not going to take the pupusas off the menu, just because the price of corn has gone up.  Similarly, increases in the minimum wage might not much alter the hiring plans of the restaurant.  The very act of starting a business selects, to some extent, for people who stick to their plans.  The dishes still need to be washed, and many owners are not at the margins of considering serious automation.

That said, sooner or later these restaurants pass from the scene.  And when the El Salvadoran place closes, there is a real competition across competing food visions.  Will it be pupusas, roast chicken, or kebab?  Once again, relative prices will exert their influence, on both the supply and demand sides of the market.  In fact, pupusa places are slightly in retreat, as they cannot always bid for their higher area rents — it is hard to sell a pupusa for more than a few dollars and at the same time the requisite labor is harder not easier to come by and demand seems stagnant at best.

Similarly, if the minimum wage is high, the new restaurant, if indeed it is even a restaurant, will economize on the number of laborers required to make the food.  The plan for a true Bengali sweets shop will not get off the ground.  You might see storage space or a less labor intensive means of food preparation.

We thus come to a truth that is both happy and sad: death and turnover are how relative prices imprint their impact on the world.

And that, to an economist, is the meaning of death.

Further new results on the marginal rate of income taxation

I study optimal income taxation when human capital investment is imperfectly observable by employers. In my model, Bayesian employer inference about worker productivity drives a wedge between the private and social returns to human capital investment by compressing the wage distribution. The resulting positive externality from worker investment implies lower optimal marginal tax rates, all else being equal. To quantify the significance of this externality for optimal taxation, I calibrate the model to match empirical moments from the United States, including new evidence on how the speed of employer learning about new labor market entrants varies over the worker productivity distribution. Taking into account the spillover from human capital investment introduced by employer inference reduces optimal marginal tax rates by 13 percentage points at around 100,000 dollars of income, with little change in the tails of the income distribution. The welfare gain from this adjustment is equivalent to raising every worker’s consumption by one percent.

That is from the Harvard job market paper of Ashley C. Craig, via Steven Hamilton.

If the gdp deflator is off, which financial investments should you make?

Many people suggest that we are under-measuring the benefits of innovation, and thus real rates of economic growth are much higher than we think.  That in turn means the gdp deflator is off and real rates of interest are considerably higher than we think.  Someday we will all realize the truth and asset prices will adjust.

Let’s say that view is correct (not my view, by the way), how should that change your investment decisions?

One implication, it seems to me, is that you should short the goods and services which are being produced so rapidly under this regime.  If that is hard to do, short their substitutes.  Say the new innovative growth is coming from the internet sector, and internet activity is a good substitute for collecting stamps (which seems to be true), well short stamps if you can.  At least get them out of your diversified portfolio.

Similarly, you may wish to invest in companies which produce goods not easily substituted for over the internet.  One observer has mentioned “perfume” to me in this connection, though I do not have the expertise to render a judgment.

More generally, if real rates of return are high, but not perceived as high by most investors (who are still victims of fallacious “great stagnation” arguments and the like), at some point those investors will learn.  With more rapid growth enriching the future, and with the realization of such, there will be a sudden demand to shift funds into the present, so as to equalize marginal utilities.  So bond prices will fall and that means you should short bonds and buy puts on bonds.

Don’t load up on land and public utilities.  Incumbent firms also may fall in value.

You also might fear this new technological progress will bring some fantastic but hard-to-afford new goods and services.  How about life extension or immortality but priced at $10 million?  The way to hedge that risk is to invest in life extension companies, but even more than their earnings prospects might dictate.  That is the best way to insure against life extension being too costly to afford.  Note that poorer investors should do this, but the very wealthy do not need to.

What else?

I thank B. and S. and Alex T. for relevant discussions connected to this post.

Valentine’s day markets in everything

Looking to get yourself a present this Valentine’s Day? The El Paso Zoo has you covered. It will name a cockroach after your ex and then feed it to a meerkat live on camera.

You can message the zoo on Facebook with your ex’s name, then wait patiently for February 14 to watch the roach get devoured during the “Quit Bugging Me” meerkat event, which will live-stream on Facebook and the zoo’s website. The names of those exes will also be displayed around the meerkat exhibit and on social media starting February 11. The zoo calls it “the perfect Valentine’s Day gift.”

Here is the story, via LegalNomads.  Just when I think I have all of these covered, one comes along that is worse than anything I was expecting…

A new idea (really)

I am not convinced by the argument which follows (see Cowen’s Third Law), but I am committed to passing new ideas along, and the researchers — Liu, Mian, and Sufi — have a strong track record.  Here goes:

A unique prediction of the model is that the value of industry leaders increases more than the value of industry followers in response to a decline in the interest rate, and, importantly, the magnitude of the relative increase in value of the leaders versus followers when the interest rate declines is larger at a lower initial level of the interest rate.


The model’s prediction is confirmed in the data.

And finally:

The model provides a unified explanation for why the decline in long-term interest rates has been associated with rising market concentration, reduced dynamism, a widening productivity gap between leaders and followers, and slower productivity growth.

I will ponder this further, anyway here is the link to the paper, 88 pp. long.  If they are right, this is big, big news.  Here is a WSJ summary.

For further background, see also Alex’s earlier post about population/labor force decline and economic stagnation.  It is easier for me to believe that their real interest rate effect is working through the propagation mechanism of population and labor force participation.  Furthermore, I have read too many papers which seem to imply that real interest rates do not much, within normal limits, have a big effect on firm investment decisions.  Their model would seem to imply the opposite, and I would like them to test their implied elasticity against the actual elasticities other researchers have measured.

Paul Romer’s advice for the World Bank

First, outsource the bank’s research upon which it depends for identifying problems and proposing solutions. Diplomacy and science cannot both thrive under the same roof. One consequence of the bank’s commitment to diplomacy is its necessary embrace of the helpful ambiguity that makes it possible for multilateral institutions to allow “Chinese Taipei” compete in the Olympic Games without “Taiwan, China” having a seat in the UN. Dispassionate examination makes clear that what the bank does to maintain conformity on the diplomatic front is not compatible with scientific research.

All that matter in science are the facts. When complex political sensitivities are allowed to influence research by stifling open disagreement, it ceases to be scientific. For good reasons, the bank’s shareholders have chosen to protect its diplomatic function, at the expense of its research.

Outsourcing research would be a better, more efficient way for the bank to establish the facts needed to do its job. This would also be an investment in the universities that make the discoveries that drive human progress.

Here is the full piece.  What do you all think?