Category: Economics

A reverse Austrian business cycle theory

Did tight money from the Fed place too high a penalty on deposit funding of mortgages?:

Between 2003 and 2006, the Federal Reserve raised rates by 4.25%. Yet it was precisely during this period that the housing boom accelerated, fueled by rapid growth in mortgage lending. There is deep disagreement about how, or even if, monetary policy impacted the boom. Using heterogeneity in banks’ exposures to the deposits channel of monetary policy, we show that Fed tightening induced a large reduction in banks’ deposit funding, leading them to contract new on-balance-sheet lending for home purchases by 26%. However, an unprecedented expansion in privately-securitized loans, led by nonbanks, largely offset this contraction. Since privately-securitized loans are neither GSE-insured nor deposit-funded, they are run-prone, which made the mortgage market fragile. Consistent with our theory, the re-emergence of privately-securitized mortgages has closely tracked the recent increase in rates.

Here is the full NBER working paper by Itamar Drechsler, Alexi Savov, and Philipp Schnabl.

Density is Destiny: Economists Predict the Far Future

In a paper that just won the JPE’s Robert Lucas Prize, Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg model the evolution of the world economy over the next 400-600 years! Is it laughable or laudatory? I’m not entirely sure. The paper does have an insight that I think is very important, in addition to a number of methodological advances.

If we look around the world today we see that the places with the densest populations, such as China and India, are poor. But in the long-run of history that doesn’t make sense. As Paul Romer, and others, have emphasized, ideas are the ultimate source of wealth and more people means more ideas. As a result, innovation and GDP per capita should be higher in places and times with more people. The fact that China and India are poor today is an out-of-equilibrium anomaly that happened because they were slower than the West to adopt the institutions of free markets and capitalism necessary to leverage ideas into output. China and India weren’t relatively poor in the past, however, and they won’t be relatively poor in the future. With that in mind, a key long-run prediction of Desmet, Krisztian Nagy and Rossi-Hansberg becomes clear. If people are not allowed to migrate then the places that are densest today will not only equal the West, they will overtake the West in innovation and productivity.

One of the key determinants of these patterns is the correlation between GDP per capita and population density. As we mentioned above, the correlation is negative and weak today, and our theory predicts that, consistent with the evidence across regions in the world to-day, this correlation will become positive and grow substantially over the next six centuries, as the world becomes richer. Two forces drive this result. First, people move to more productive areas, and second, more dense locations become more productive over time since investing in local technologies in dense areas is, in general, more profitable. Migration restrictions shift the balance between these two mechanisms. If migration restrictions are strict, people tend to stay where they are, and today’s dense areas, which often coincide with developing countries, become the most developed parts of the world in the future…. In comparison, most of today’s high-productivity, high-density locations in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia fall behind in terms of both productivity and population.

Thus, if migration restrictions are strict, density is destiny and the dense parts of the world will rule. But what if migration restrictions are loosened?

… if migration restrictions are lifted, then people today move to the high-productivity regions such as Europe and the United States and these regions become denser and so remain the high-productivity regions in the future. World welfare in this scenario goes up by a factor of three.

It’s much better to remove migration restrictions today because we get to a much richer world, faster. In addition, population is better distributed in accordance with natural amenities. All is not perfectly rosy, however, in the free migration scenario. So let’s conclude with a few sentences that would make Hari Seldon proud.

[in the free migration scenario]…growth in utility drops substantially in the short run as many people move to areas with high real GDP; hence these areas be-come more congested and become worse places to live (lower amenities). This initial loss in growth is, however, compensated in the long run by a large surge in productivity growth after year 2200.

Should climate change limit the number of kids you have?

No, or so says I in my latest Bloomberg column., here is the closing bit:

Let’s not give up by ceasing to have children.

Finally, leave aside the implausibility of these arguments and consider their assumptions. What you’ll find is zero-sum thinking, negative value judgments about large families, and an attempt to use guilt and shame to steer social and environmental policy. I suspect that is why these arguments are finding some traction, not because they are the result of any careful cost-benefit calculations.

So if you are both worried about climate change and considering starting a family, I say: Put aside the unhelpful mess of emotions some participants in this debate are trying to stir up. Instead, focus on how your decision might boost future innovation. As a bonus, you might find that one of the better approaches to climate change is actually pretty fun.

Super simple arguments, with credit to Paul Romer and Alex T. and Bryan and Ross Douthat as well.

How Much Time Do Criminals Really Serve?

Many people were surprised at Paul Manafort’s relatively light sentencing for bank fraud, filing fake tax returns, and failure to report foreign assets and compared his sentence of 47 months to other cases of seemingly lesser crimes given longer prison terms. A viral tweet thread from public defender Scott Hechinger began:

For context on Manafort’s 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36-72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room.

Anecdotes, however, run the risk of misleading if they are not representative. The Bureau of Justice Statistics just released Time Served in State Prison 2016. Stealing laundry quarters sounds like larceny (no break in). The average time served for larceny was 17 months and the median time served was 11 months.

Hechinger also notes this outrageous case:

15 years in prison for drug possession. You shouldn’t need more info than that to be outraged. But then learn: Juanita is a mother of 6. Her 18 year old is now head of household. Raising 5 kids. Crime is not even a felony in Oklahoma anymore.

The average time served for drug possession was 15 months and the median time 10 months. Arguably too long but a far cry from 15 years.

For a serious violent crime like robbery, taking property by force or threat of force, the average time served was considerably higher, 4.7 years and the median time served 3.2 years.

You can see the table below for more data. Judge for yourselves, but for most crimes mean and median time served don’t seem to me to be obviously too high. Moreover, keep in mind that most crimes do not result in an arrest let alone a conviction or time served.

In 2017, for example, victims reported 2,000,990 serious violent crimes (rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault). In the same year there were approximately 446,510 arrests for these crimes (crime definitions may not line up exactly). In other words, the chance of being arrested for a serious violent crime was only 22%. Data on convictions are harder to obtain but convictions are far fewer than arrests. In 2006 (most up-to-date data I could find but surely lower today) there were 175,500 convictions for serious violent crimes. Thus, considerably fewer than 10% of violent crimes result in a conviction (175,500/2,000,990=8.7%).

Put differently, the expected time served for a serious violent crime is less than 5 months*. Do you want to reduce expected time served? What I would like to do is put more police on the street to increase the certainty of arrest and conviction. If we double the conviction rate, I’d happily halve time served.

I support decriminalization of many crimes, shorter sentences for some crimes and fewer scarlet letter punishments. I want to reduce bias and variability in the criminal justice system. But I do not want to return to the crime rates of the past. Even as crime rates fall, we should be careful about declaring the war won and going home. We are under policed in the United States and despite anecdotes that rightly shock the conscience, average time served is not that high, especially given very low arrest and conviction rates.

* Using the normalized percent of total releases for rape, robbery and assault to form the weighted average. Corrected from an early version that said 14 months.

Do female board members matter?

Maybe less than you might think, at least once you adjust for geographic distance:

Recent literature has shown that gender diversity in the boardroom seems to influence key monitoring decisions of boards. In this paper, we examine whether the observed relation between gender diversity and board decisions is due to a confounding factor, namely, directors’ geographic distance from headquarters. Using data on residential addresses for over 4,000 directors of S&P 1500 firms, we document that female directors cluster in large metropolitan areas and tend to live much farther away from headquarters compared to their male counterparts. We also reexamine prior findings in the literature on how boardroom gender diversity affects key board decisions. We use data on direct airline flights between U.S. locations to carry out an instrumental variables approach that exploits plausibly exogenous variation in both gender diversity and geographic distance. The results show that the effects of boardroom gender diversity on CEO compensation and CEO dismissal decisions found in the prior literature largely disappear when we account for geographic distance. Overall, our results support the view that gender-diverse boards are “tougher monitors” not because of gender differences per se, but rather because they are more geographically remote from headquarters and hence more reliant on hard information such as stock prices. The findings thus suggest that board gender policies, such as quotas, could have unintended consequences for some firms.

Here is the paper by Zinat S. Alam, Mark A. Chen, Conrad S. Ciccotello, and Harley E. Ryan.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Does a Carbon Tax Reduce CO 2 Emissions? Evidence From British Columbia

From Felix Pretis:

Using difference-in-differences and a novel break-detection approach I show that the introduction of a carbon tax has not ‘yet’ led to a significant reduction in aggregate CO2 emissions in British Columbia, Canada. Despite the lack of detectable aggregate effect, there are heterogeneous emission reductions across sectors: the tax led to a reduction in emissions from transportation incl. personal vehicles (-5%), buildings (-5%), waste processing (-3%), and light manufacturing, construction and forestry (-11%). Introducing a new method to assess policy based on breaks in difference-in-differences fixed effect panel models, I demonstrate that neither the carbon tax, nor the carbon price and emissions trading schemes introduced in other Canadian provinces are detected as significant interventions in aggregate emissions. The absence of significant aggregate reductions in emissions is consistent with existing evidence that current carbon taxes (and prices) are too low to be effective.

Since current carbon taxes are already not so popular, I don’t take this as especially good news.  For the pointer I thank Warren Smith.

My Conversation with Raghuram Rajan

Here is the transcript and audio, we covered so much, here is the CWT summary:

How much has the U.S. actually fixed the financial system? Does India have the best food in the world? Why does China struggle to maintain a strong relationship with allies? Why are people trading close-knit communities for isolating cities? And what types of institutions are we missing in our social structure? Listen to Rajan’s thorough conversation with Tyler to dive into these questions and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: A lot of observers have suggested to me that the notion of a kind of Anglo-American liberalism as ascendant in India is now a dead idea, that ideologically, India has somehow shifted, and the main currents of thought, including on the so-called right, are just really not liberalism anymore. Do you have a take on that view?

RAJAN: I’m not sure I would agree. I would say that we’ve had a government over the last five years which has elements of the majoritarian, Hindu nationalist group in it. But I would argue the country, as a whole, is still firmly secular, liberal in the Nehruvian idea, which is that we need a country which is open to different religions, to different ethnicities, to different beliefs if we are to stay together.

And democracy plays an important role here because it allows some of the pressures which build up in each community to essentially get expressed and therefore diffuses some of the pressure. So I think India’s ideal is still a polyglot coming together in this country.

COWEN: But someone like Ramachandra Guha — what he symbolizes intellectually — do you think that would be a growing part of India’s future? Or that will dwindle as colonial ties become smaller, the United States less important in global affairs?

RAJAN: I think that an open, liberal, tolerant country is really what we need for the next stage of growth. We are now reaching middle income. We could go a little faster. We should go a little faster there.

Once we reach middle income, to grow further, I think we need an intellectual openness, which only the kind of democracy we have — the open dialogue, a respectful dialogue — will generate the kinds of innovative forces that will take us more to the frontier.

So I keep saying, and I say this in the book, we’re very well positioned for the next stage of growth, from middle to high income. But we first have to reach middle income.

And:

COWEN: Will current payments companies end up as competitors to banks or complements to the banking system? Or are they free riders on the banking system?

RAJAN: I think they’re trying to figure out their space. As of now, sometimes they’re substituting for . . . Certainly, my daughter uses her payment system completely separate from her bank account. But longer term, we’ll find ways of meshing these in and reduce the costs of making payments. Those costs are really too high at this point, and reducing those costs makes a lot of sense.

COWEN: Will banks ever be truly excellent at doing software?

RAJAN: I think we will have a combination of the guys who are truly good at software — the fintech companies — merging with banks who know how to do the financial side. They’ll bring each of their talents together. I’ve seen a lot of fintech people who have no clue as to what finance is really about. And I’ve seen a lot of banks who have no clue as to what tech is about. I think some merger will happen over time.

There is much more at the link.  And here is Raghu’s new book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave Community Behind.

The Daily Beast Hit Piece on Amazon

The Daily Beast hit piece on Amazon, ‘Colony of Hell’: 911 Calls From Inside Amazon Warehouses, insinuates (while denying that this is what they are doing) that Amazon warehouses are an unsafe space that generates mental health problems. The upshot is this:

Between October 2013 and October 2018, emergency workers were summoned to Amazon warehouses at least 189 times for suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental-health episodes, according to 911 call logs, ambulance and police reports reviewed and analyzed by The Daily Beast.

The reports came from 46 warehouses in 17 states—roughly a quarter of the sorting and fulfillment centers that comprise the company’s U.S. network. Jurisdictions for other Amazon warehouses either did not have any suicide reports or declined requests for similar logs.

So how many employees does this cover? No answer. Note also the weasel words, jurisdictions which “did not have any suicide reports or declined requests” are not included. So that could mean that a majority of fulfillment centers reported no serious mental health problems. Basically the report is devoid of useful information.

As far as I can tell from the report, there were no actual suicides at Amazon warehouses during this time period. Nevertheless, let’s try to do some back of the envelope calculations. Amazon has about 125,000 full time workers in its fulfillment centers but in a typical year they will double that during holiday season so say 250,000 employees in a year. The US suicide rate for working age adults is 17.3 per 100,000 so over five years we would expect 216 suicides and many more “suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental-health episodes”. Indeed, the National Institute for Mental Health reports that 0.5% of Americans aged 18 years or over attempted suicide in 2016 so we would expect 6,250 suicide attempts in a population of Amazon-sized workers (250000*.005*5=6,250). Of course, the Daily Beast’s numbers don’t cover all fulfillment centers, most suicides wouldn’t occur at work and there are a variety of other issues so cut these numbers down as you see fit. For any reasonable estimate, however, there is no reason, in this data, to think that Amazon’s numbers are in any way unusual for a large employer.

The CDC does have some limited data on suicide by occupation and the real outlier is the construction and extraction industry which has a suicide rate over 50 per hundred thousand, several times the national average.

Moreover, if you really want to find out what it’s like to work at an Amazon fulfillment center don’t look at anecdotes, look instead to the over 5 thousand reviews for this job at Indeed.com which gives Amazon 3.6 stars out of 5. Not stellar but not bad either. Costco, one of the most beloved and best ranked employers in the United States, has a rating of 4.2.

It’s obvious that there is a political impetus to go after big tech companies. Whatever one’s thoughts about that, we shouldn’t let propaganda infect our decisions.

Does common ownership really matter?

We derive a measure that captures the extent to which overlapping ownership structures shift managers’ incentives to internalize externalities. A key feature of the measure is that it allows for the possibility that not all investors are attentive to whether a manager’s actions benefit the investor’s overall portfolio. Empirically, we show that potential drivers of ownership overlap, including mergers in the asset management industry and the growth of indexing, could in fact diminish managerial motives. Our findings illustrate the importance of accounting for investor inattention and cast doubt on the possibility that the growth of common ownership has had a significant impact on managerial incentives.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Erik P. Gilje, Todd Gormley, and Doron Y. Levit.

Opioids and the Labor Market

Do not believe those who tell you the only labor market problems have been demand side!:

This paper studies the relationship between local opioid prescription rates and labor market outcomes. We improve the joint measurement of labor market outcomes and prescription rates in the rural areas where nearly 30 percent of the US population lives. We find that increasing the local prescription rate by 10 percent decreases the prime-age employment rate by 0.50 percentage points for men and 0.17 percentage points for women. This effect is larger for white men with less than a BA (0.70 percentage points) and largest for minority men with less than a BA (1.01 percentage points). Geography is an obstacle to giving a causal interpretation to these results, especially since they were estimated in the midst of a large recession and recovery that generated considerable cross-sectional variation in local economic performance. We show that our results are not sensitive to most approaches to controlling for places experiencing either contemporaneous labor market shocks or persistently weak labor market conditions. We also present evidence on reverse causality, finding that a short-term unemployment shock did not increase the share of people abusing prescription opioids. Our estimates imply that prescription opioids can account for 44 percent of the realized national decrease in men’s labor force participation between 2001 and 2015.

The fact that the demand side blade of the scissors can be powerful does not imply the supply side blade does not matter, no matter how many snide tweets you may read to the contrary.

The paper is by Dionissi Aliprantis, Kyle Fee, and Mark E. Schweitzer at the Cleveland Fed.

Via Ilya Novak.

The Spirit Level Delusion

The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett made a big splash a decade ago by showing many correlations between inequality and various problems. In a recent talk, Pickett summarized the thesis of the book with the graph at right.

Even at the time, however, there were peculiarities in the data–for example, some countries were dropped without explanation and data with different definitions were spliced together–as pointed out by Christopher Snowdon in the Spirit Level Delusion. Adding in a few more countries, for example, made many of the correlations disappear.

Snowdon now has a nice post with another test. Suppose we run the same or similar regressions using today’s data? If the relationships are robust we ought to see the same correlations or even stronger correlations given the increase in inequality.

Here, for example, is a key graph from The Spirit Level on inequality and life-expectancy.

If, however, we use the same countries but today’s most up-to-date figures on inequality and life-expectancy we find no correlation.

If we add the four countries that are unequivocally richer than Portugal and were excluded from The Spirit Level for no good reason (South Korea, Hong Kong, Slovenia and the Czech Republic (now known as Czechia)), there is a statistically significant association with inequality but it is in the opposite direction to that predicted by The Spirit Level hypothesis, with greater inequality correlating with longer life expectancy (r2=0.145, R=0.385, p-value=0.0495).

After examining a variety of data. Snowdon summarizes:

In summary, most of the biggest claims made by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level look even weaker today than they did when the book was published. Only one of the six associations stand up under W & P’s own methodology and none of them stand up when the full range of countries is analysed. In the case of life expectancy – the very flagship of The Spirit Level – the statistical association is the opposite of what the hypothesis predicts.

If The Spirit Level hypothesis were correct, it would produce robust and consistent results over time as the underlying data changes. Instead, it seems to be extremely fragile, only working when a very specific set of statistics are applied to a carefully selected list of countries.

It’s certainly possible that inequality has a causal effect on various issues (both positive and negative) but it seems that such effects are small and subtle enough to require much more than cross-sectional country-level data to uncover.

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

Evidence for the Continental Axis Hypothesis

One of the most striking hypotheses in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was that technology diffused more easily along lines of latitude than along lines of longitude because climate changed more rapidly along lines of longitude making it more difficult for both humans and technologies to adapt. Thus, a long East-West axis, such as that found in Eurasia, meant a bigger “market” for technology and thus greater development.

A few pieces of evidence are suggestive:

Laitin and Robinson (2011) and Laitin et al. (2012) report that linguistic diversity has been historically more persistent across lines of latitude than longitude, suggesting that population movements were more prevalent East-West relative to North-South. Ramachandran and Rosenberg (2011) report similar evidence based on the geographic distribution of genetic variation. While these studies speak to greater movements of populations East-West relative to North-South, they do not speak directly to the diffusion of technologies and development. Alternatively, Olsson and Hibbs (2005) provide a cross-country analysis in which a variable measuring East-West orientation of major landmasses correlates significantly with present-day income levels. This finding explicitly links continental orientation to income levels. However, it does not speak directly to the  mechanisms (e.g., more diffusion of technologies) leading to this correlation.

In Did Technology Transfer More Rapidly East-West than North-South?, from which I just quoted, Pavlik and Young offer more direct evidence on the natural direction of technological diffusion:

We employ Comin et al.’s (2010) data on ancient and early modern levels of technology adoption in a spatial econometric analysis. Historical levels of technology adoption in a (present-day) country are related to its lagged level as well as those of its neighbors. We allow the spatial effects to differ depending on whether they diffuse East-West or North-South. Consistent with the continental orientation hypothesis, East-West spatial effects are generally positive and stronger than those running North-South.

Very cool!

The Brother Earnings Penalty

This paper examines the impact of sibling gender on adolescent experiences and adult labor market outcomes for a recent cohort of U.S. women. We document an earnings penalty from the presence of a younger brother (relative to a younger sister), finding that a next-youngest brother reduces adult earnings by about 7 percent. Using rich data on parent-child interactions, parents’ expectations, disruptive behaviors, and adult outcomes, we provide a first step at examining the mechanisms behind this result. We find that brothers reduce parents’ expectations and school monitoring of female children while also increasing females’ propensity to engage in more traditionally feminine tasks. These factors help explain a portion of the labor market penalty from brothers.

That is by Angela Cooks and Eleonora Patacchin in Labour Economics.  Once again, family niche effects seem to matter.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Theranos was Fraudulent, What About Its Patents?

In Launching the Innovation Renaissance I argued that patents should be given for specific inventions rather than just for broad “ideas”:

Thomas Edison invented and patented numerous products: the light bulb, the phonograph, movie film and much else besides. (At one point the patent office required that patents be accompanied by working models.) The invention of products typically requires the expenditure of sunk costs in a way that the creation of ideas does not. Today it is not necessary to implement an idea to patent it, and many patentable ideas are so broadly phrased that they could not be implemented in a model.

Edison famously said that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” A patent system should reward the 99 percent perspiration, not the 1 percent inspiration. In inventing the light bulb, for example, Edison laboriously experimented with some 6,000 possible materials for the filament before hitting upon bamboo. If Edison were to patent the light bulb today, he would not need to go to such lengths. Instead, Edison could patent the use of an “electrical resistor for the production of electro-magnetic radiation,” a patent that would have covered oven elements as well as light bulbs.

Daniel Nazer, who holds the Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, points out in an excellent article that giving patents for vaguely stated ideas was exactly the problem with Theranos and its so-called patents.

Holmes found a more receptive audience at the USPTO. She says she spent five straight days at her computer drafting a patent application. The provisional application, filed in September 2003 when Holmes was just 19 years old, describes “medical devices and methods capable of real-time detection of biological activity and the controlled and localized release of appropriate therapeutic agents.” This provisional application would mature into many issued patents. In fact, there are patent applications still being prosecuted that claim priority back to Holmes’ 2003 submission.

But Holmes’ 2003 application was not a “real” invention in any meaningful sense. We know that Theranos spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to develop working diagnostic devices. The tabletop machines Theranos focused on were much less ambitious than Holmes’ original vision of a patch. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Holmes’ first patent application was little more than aspirational science fiction written by an eager undergraduate.

…Two legal doctrines are relevant here. The “utility” requirement of patent law requires that the invention work. And the “enablement” requirement means that the application has to describe the invention with enough detail to allow a person in the relevant field to build and use it. If the applicant herself can’t build the invention with nearly unlimited time and money, it does not seem like the enablement requirement could possibly be satisfied.

The USPTO generally does a terrible job of ensuring that applications meet the utility and enablement standards.

Despite never having built a working product, Theranos accumulated hundreds of patents. These patents are now the only thing of value left but the patents aren’t valuable because of breakthrough science, the patents are valuable because they can be used to force people who do breakthrough science to cough up part of their return.

As Nazer puts it:

Accused of having lied to investors and endangered patients, the company leaves us with a parting gift: a portfolio of landmines for any company that actually solves the problems Theranos failed to solve.