Category: Economics

Rent control doesn’t always lower rents

Using a 1994 law change, we exploit quasi-experimental variation in the assignment of rent control in San Francisco to study its impacts on tenants and landlords. Leveraging new data tracking individuals’ migration, we find rent control limits renters’ mobility by 20 percent and lowers displacement from San Francisco. Landlords treated by rent control reduce rental housing supplies by 15 percent by selling to owner-occupants and redeveloping buildings. Thus, while rent control prevents displacement of incumbent renters in the short run, the lost rental housing supply likely drove up market rents in the long run, ultimately undermining the goals of the law.

That is from a new AER piece by Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade and Franklin Qian.

How deregulatory is the Trump administration?

Here is an email from a loyal, anonymous MR reader:

Critics of the administration’s much-ballyhooed deregulatory efforts argue that there’s not really that much there; they contend the White House and agencies have been tinkering around the margins (and helping out special interest groups), but not really addressing regulation’s economic cost. They argue there’s been virtually nothing done to address the bloated corpus of 100 years of accumulated federal regulation, and there’s been no legislative action to change regulatory processes.

The administration’s defenders and their fiercest critics alike argue that Trump has taken a machete to the regulatory state. But aside from naming a few rule changes here or there, they don’t offer much concrete support for their claim.

What’s the steel man case that Trump has broken the back of the administrative state? Some hypothes

1. They haven’t made things worse. After eight years of an administration that was seen (fairly or not) as hostile to business, just taking the boot off the throat of entrepreneurs is a major step forward. Small-business optimism is at pre-crisis levels. The last two years have seen the fewest economically significant final rules promulgated since 1990. Beyond formal rules, the administration has ended the abuse of “dear colleague” letters, guidance documents, and sue-and-settle.

2. Related to #1, there’s been no new legislation along the lines of Sarbanes-Oxley or Dodd-Frank that will take as long as a decade to get regulations worked out. That takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the system.

3. Enforcement has been curtailed. The administrative state is a threat because its enforcement is so capricious and subject to questionable extralegal adjudication. The Trump administration has responded by simply not enforcing many regulations. EPA inspections are down by half; CFPB is asleep at the switch. Enforcement heads are basically emulating Ron Swanson, for the better.

4. The 14 uses of the Congressional Review Act in early 2017 should in fact count as highly deregulatory; it was of course more than had ever been done with this tool in the past. Okay, so the regs in question weren’t yet final or hadn’t been in effect for very long. That’s just playing a baselines game; the bottom line is tens of billions of dollars of costs were cut over what would have been.

5. The record-breaking number of appellate judges appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate will shift the judiciary to be more skeptical of regulators’ self-aggrandized power. Justice Gorsuch is champing at the bit to eliminate Auer and Chevron deference; overruling these precedents would be game-changing.

6. There’s been more taking place than you think. No, there hasn’t been a huge shakeup of federal departments, but those kinds of things are mostly for show anyway; federal power remains more or less constant, responsibilities just get shifted around. Benefit-cost analyses and regulatory impact analyses done by most agencies are sloppy at best and mostly just a Soviet-style effort to justify what’s already been decided, so they don’t capture the magnitude of what’s happening.

What has happened? The president has appointed people who take regulatory analysis seriously and understand opportunity cost. Some of the deregulation has been in areas most sensitive to the costs of regulation, like labor and energy. ACA individual mandate? Gone. HUD is taking steps to push housing deregulation at the local level; this has gotten almost no attention.

7. There’s more that would have been done but for the “deep state.” It’s a matter of public choice economics, not AM radio conspiracies, that regulators may not be enthusiastic about deregulating. For instance, Trump’s much-trumpeted two-out-one-in executive order for federal regulations was largely kneecapped by OMB so that over 90% of new regulations are deemed exempt from the order. Given inherent resistance to change (again, for perfectly understandable reasons, this is not a conspiracy), it’s amazing that anything has been done at all!

Marty Weitzman’s Noah’s Ark Problem

Marty Weitzman passed away suddenly yesterday. He was on many people’s shortlist for the Nobel. His work is marked by high-theory applied to practical problems. The theory is always worked out in great generality and is difficult even for most economists. Weitzman wanted to be understood by more than a handful of theorists, however, and so he also went to great lengths to look for special cases or revealing metaphors. Thus, the typical Weitzman paper has a dense middle section of math but an introduction and conclusion of sparkling prose that can be understood and appreciated by anyone for its insights.

The Noah’s Ark Problem illustrates the model and is my favorite Weitzman paper. It has great sentences like these:

Noah knows that a flood is coming. There are n existing species/libraries, indexed i = 1, 2,… , n. Using the same notation as before, the set of all n species/libraries is denoted S. An Ark is available to help save some species/libraries. In a world of unlimited resources, the entire set S might be saved. Unfortunately, Noah’s Ark has a limited capacity of B. In the Bible, B is given as 300 x 50 x 30 = 450,000 cubits. More generally, B stands for the total size of the budget available for biodiversity preservation.

…If species/library i is boarded on the Ark, and thereby afforded some protection, its survival probability is enhanced to Pi. Essentially, boarding on the Ark is a metaphor for investing in a conservation project, like habitat protection, that improves survivability of a particular species/library. A particularly grim version of the Noah’s Ark Problem would make the choice a matter of life or death, meaning that Pi= 0 and Pi= 1. This specification is perhaps closest to the old testament version, so I am taking literary license here by extending the metaphor to less stark alternatives.

Weitzman first shows that the solution to this problem has a surprising property:

The solution of the Noah’s Ark Problem is always “extreme” in the following sense…In an optimal policy, the entire budget is spent on a favored subset of species/libraries that is afforded maximal protection. The less favored complementary subset is sacrificed to a level of minimal protection in order to free up to the extreme all possible scarce budget dollars to go into protecting the favored few.

Weitzman offers a stark example. Suppose there are two species with probabilities of survival of .99 and .01. For the same cost, we can raise the probability of either surviving by .01. What should we do?

We should save the first species and let the other one take its chances. The intuition comes from thinking about the species or libraries as having some unique features but also sharing some genes or books. When you invest in the first species you are saving the unique genes associated with that species and you are also increasing the probability of saving the genes that are shared by the two species. But when you put your investment in the second species you are essentially only increasing the probability of saving the unique aspects of species 2 because the shared aspects are likely saved anyway. Thus, on the margin you get less by investing in species 2 than by investing in species 1 even though it seems like you are saving the species that is likely to be saved anyway.

The math establishing the result is complex and, of course, there are caveats such as linearity assumptions which might reverse the example in a particular case but the thrust of the result is always operating: Putting all your eggs in one basket is a good idea when it comes to saving species.

Weitzman gets the math details right, of course!, but he knows that Noah isn’t a math geek.

Noah is a practical outdoors man. He needs robustness and rugged performance “in the field.” As he stands at the door of the ark, Noah desires to use a simple priority ranking list from which he can check off one species at a time for boarding. Noah wishes to have a robust rule….Can we help Noah? Is the concept of an ordinal ranking system sensible? Can there exist such a simple myopic boarding rule, which correctly prioritizes each species independent of the budget size? And if so, what is the actual formula that determines Noah’s ranking list for achieving an optimal ark-full of species?

So working the problem further, Weitzman shows that there is a relatively simple rule which is optimal to second-order, namely:

Where R is an index of priority. Higher R gets you on the ark, lower R bars entrance. D is a measure of a species distinctiveness–this could be measured, for example, by the nearest common ancestor metric. U is a measure of the special utility of a species beyond its diversity (Pandas are cute, goats are useful etc.) C is the cost of a project to increase the probability of survival and Delta P is the increase in the probability of survival so Delta P/C is the cost of increasing the probability of survival per dollar. Put simply we should invest our dollars where they have the most survival probability per dollar multiplied by a factor taking into account diversity and utility.

The rule is simple and sensible and and it has been used occasionally. Much more could be done, however, to optimize dollars spent on conservation and Weitzman’s rule gives us the necessary practical guidance. RIP.

Has monetary policy lost its power?

No, says my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one of the opening bits:

The most striking fact about the current situation is that not one of the world’s major central banks has announced that it would like to see a higher rate of price inflation. Have you heard support for a 3% inflation rate lately from the heads of the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan or the U.S. Federal Reserve? It is therefore no surprise that central banks don’t seem to matter much.

In essence, central banks would like to make marginal contributions to stimulating the economy, without incurring the political wrath from a higher rate of price increase. The powers they have lost are political, not economic.

On these and related questions, I am grateful to the writings of Scott Sumner over the years.  And in sum:

In fact, when it comes to macroeconomics, the current malaise is not just political but also cultural: It is a paralysis of the spirit to achieve and excel. Conventional economic theory has not been proved wrong, at least not yet. There is just a fading willingness to apply it.

Shruti Rajagopalan update

Next week Dr. Shruti Rajagopalan (also an Emergent Ventures winner) will be joining Mercatus as a senior research fellow, focused on Indian political economy, property rights, and economic development.

Shruti earned her PhD from George Mason in 2013 and most recently she is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY. She is also a fellow of the Classical Liberal Institute at NYU, and will be teaching at the newly-formed Indian School of Public Policy in New Delhi.

Welcome Shruti!

You can follow Shruti on Twitter here.

Short Selling Reduces Crashes

Image result for coyote cliffShort sellers are often scapegoated for market crashes but a rational market requires rational buyers and sellers. When the markets are dominated by irrational exuberance only the short sellers are speaking sanity. Short-sellers, therefore, should make prices more informative and reduce the Wile E. Coyote moment when it suddenly dawns on the irrational that gravity exists.

Deng, Gao and Kim test the theory and find it holds up; lifting restrictions on short sales reduces prices crashes.

We examine the relation between short-sale constraints and stock price crash risk. To establish causality, we take advantage of a regulatory change from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)’s Regulation SHO pilot program, which temporarily lifted short-sale constraints for randomly designated stocks. Using Regulation SHO as a natural experiment setting in which to apply a difference-in-differences research design, we find that the lifting of short-sale constraints leads to a significant decrease in stock price crash risk. We further investigate the possible underlying mechanisms through which short-sale constraints affect stock price crash risk. We provide evidence suggesting that lifting of short-sale constraints reduces crash risk by constraining managerial bad news hoarding and improving corporate investment efficiency. The results of our study shed new light on the cause of stock price crash risk as well as the roles that short sellers play in monitoring managerial disclosure strategies and real investment decisions.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

Paris fact of the day

The number of people living in the Paris departement, or administrative area, dropped by an average of 11,900 people a year between 2011 and 2016, the most recent figures available, according to the national statistics agency. Paris’s urbanism institute, Apur, forecasts that the decline of the inner city population will continue for about another six years.

It is a sharp contrast with the urban renaissance that has taken place in many of the world’s major cities over the past 20 years, but Paris is not alone.

New York City shed a net 39,500 people in 2018 and 37,700 the year before, reversing the previous upward trend.

In London, the population is still growing, bolstered by births and international immigration; but when it comes to internal migration, the net movement of people out of the UK city totalled more than 100,000 in the year to June 2018.

That is from Judith Evans in the FT on shrinking cities.

Addicted to Fines

Governing: Like many other rural jurisdictions, towns in south Georgia have suffered decades of a slow economic decline that’s left them without much of a tax base. But they see a large amount of through-traffic from semi-trucks and Florida-bound tourists. And they’ve grown reliant on ticketing them to meet their expenses. “Georgia is a classic example of a place where you have these inextricable ties between the police, the town and the court,” says Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Any city that’s short on revenue is going to be tempted to use the judicial system.”

… in hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the country, fines are used to fund a significant portion of the budget…In some extreme cases, local budgets are funded almost exclusively by fines. Georgetown, La., a village of fewer than 500 residents, was the most reliant on fines of all reviewed nationally. Its 2018 financial statement reported nearly $500,000 in fines, accounting for 92 percent of general revenues. Not far behind is Fenton, La., which reported more than $1.2 million in fines, or 91 percent of 2017 general fund revenues.

In To Serve and Collect (forthcoming Journal of Legal Studies) Makowsky, Stratmann and myself find that the allure of fine and forfeiture revenue can distort policing by shifting arrests towards crimes and misdemeanors with greater potential for revenue rather than greater social harm.

There is, however, some good news. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to states and localities and that is putting pressure of them to reform. My co-author Mike Makowsky has a good suggestion:

The way governments allocate fine revenue also matters. The majority deposit it into their general fund, but many in Oklahoma, for example, route the money to separate police or public safety funds. That’s a mistake, says Michael Makowsky, an economics professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. “You want to separate officer incentives from the revenues they generate,” he says. One solution he proposes is to route fines and fees to state governments. States would then redistribute all the funds back as block grants based on population or other metrics, effectively removing incentives to issue tickets.

The Governing report is good and links to more data.

Tattoos and time preferences

Survey and experimental evidence documents discrimination against tattooed individuals in the labor market and in commercial transactions. Thus, individuals’ decision to get tattooed may reflect short-sighted time preferences. We show that, according to numerous measures, those with tattoos, especially visible ones, are more short-sighted and impulsive than the non-tattooed. Almost nothing mitigates these results, neither the motive for the tattoo, the time contemplated before getting tattooed nor the time elapsed since the last tattoo. Even the expressed intention to get a(nother) tattoo predicts increased short-sightedness and helps establish the direction of causality between tattoos and short-sightedness.

That is from a new paper by Bradley J. Ruffle and Anne E. Wilson, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Good Economics for Hard Times*

Yes, that is the new and forthcoming book by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, and it tells you what they really think about everything.  Everything in mainstream economic policy debate, at least.

So far I have read only the first chapter, on migration, but I found it informative, highly readable, and (unlike many other popular books) subtle.  I am excited to read the rest of the book, in the meantime here is one short excerpt:

Mahesh found these would-be [Nepali] migrants were in fact somewhat overoptimistic about their earnings prospects.  Specifically, they overestimated their earning potential by around 25 percent, which could be for any number of reasons, including the possibility the recruiters who go to them with job offers lie to them.  But the really big mistake they made was that they vastly overestimated the chance of dying while they were abroad.  A typical candidate for migration thought that out of a thousand migrants, over a two-year stint, about ten would come back in a box.  The reality is just 1.3.

Here is the table of contents:

1. MEGA: Make Economics Great Again

2. From the Mouth of the Shark

3. The Pains from Trade

4. Likes, Wants and Needs

5. The End of Growth?

6. In Hot Water

7. Player Piano


9. Cash and Care

Due out November 12, you can pre-order here.

*Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success*

That is the new book by Dietrich Vollrath, strongly recommended, it is a primer on the current state of knowledge about economic growth.  Tightly argued, and a remarkable amount is covered in 216 pp. of regular text.  Here is one excerpt:

Although there were plenty of changes in the individual markups firms charge, many of them actually fell over the last twenty years.  What explained the overall rise in markups from 1.18 to 1.67 was that spending shifted away from firms with low markups and toward firms with high markups.  Which high markup firms did we shift our spending to?  Well, a lot of service firms, including those involved in communications, technology, health care, and education.  In short, the rise in economic profits and markups we see at the aggregate level is part of the overall shift toward services we discussed a few chapters ago.

Here is where things get a little weirder.  Baqaee and Farhi show that the shift toward high-markup firms was good for productivity growth.  Whatever the source of a high markup, it indicates a product that is very valuable relative to its marginal cost.  If we take the inputs required to produce a low-markup product and use them to instead produce a high-markup product, then we have raised the value of what we produce.  As this increase in value came from reallocating our existing inputs toward a different use, rather than from accumulating new physical or human capital, the shift in spending toward high-markup firms shows up as an increase in productivity growth.

More books should be like this, it actually tries to teach the reader something!  And succeeds.  Definitely recommended.  Due out in January, you can pre-order here.

*The Economist’s Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society*

That is the new and forthcoming book by New York Times writer Binyamin Appelbaum.  I did not agree with all of the perspectives in the book, but enjoyed reading it, and found no errors of fact in it (rare for a book on free market economics!).  I was happy to give it this blurb:

“I very much enjoyed reading The Economists’ Hour, an entertaining and well-written look at how market-oriented ideas rose from the academy and transformed nations. I do not agree with each and every perspective, but found this a valuable and highly recommendable book, which I devoured in a single sitting.”

The text even covers Walter Oi, who is arguably the most accomplished blind economist to have lived.  Lots more on Laffer, Friedman, Alfred Kahn, Aaron Director, Thomas Schelling, the Chile episode, and more.

Starbucks monetary policy

Starbucks has around $1.6 billion in stored value card liabilities outstanding. This represents the sum of all physical gift cards held in customer’s wallets as well as the digital value of electronic balances held in the Starbucks Mobile App.* It amounts to ~6% of all of the company’s liabilities.

This is a pretty incredible number. Stored value card liabilities are the money that you, oh loyal Starbucks customer, use to buy coffee. What you might not realize is that these balances  simultaneously function as a loan to Starbucks. Starbucks doesn’t pay any interest on balances held in the Starbucks app or gift cards. You, the loyal customer, are providing the company with free debt.

Starbucks isn’t the only firm to get free lending from its customers. So does PayPal. That’s right, customers who hold PayPal balances are effectively acting as PayPal’s creditors. Customer loans to PayPal currently amount to over $20 billion. Like Starbucks, PayPal doesn’t pay its customers a shred of interest. But Starbucks’s gig is way better than PayPal’s. PayPal is required to store customer’s funds in a segregated account at a bank, or invest them in government bonds (see tweet below). So unfortunately for PayPal, it earns a paltry amount of interest on the funds that customers have lent it.

Here is more from JP Koning.

Would a payroll tax cut help avoid a recession?

Right now, probably not.  Here is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column:

The inclination in American politics is to cut the payroll tax on the worker side, not the employer side. That is the opposite of what should be done.

In a recession, the usual problem is that too many people are seeking too few jobs. The reluctance lies on the side of the employer, not the worker. So cutting the taxes paid by the worker won’t help much. In contrast, cutting the taxes paid by the employer might at least boost the demand for workers and thus stimulate employment.

In the long run, according to economic theory, it does not matter whether you cut payroll taxes for workers or employers; eventually wages will adjust so that the true, tax-adjusted set of wage offers ends up the same. But for the purposes of fighting a near-term recession, it matters very much whose taxes are cut.

Do read the whole thing.  Do note, however, that I am not currently expecting a recession, I just don’t see enough pointers in that direction, and furthermore most of the time recessions do not happen.