Category: Economics

The Edward Nelson books on Milton Friedman

Two volumes, such a wonderful book, for sure one of the best of the year.  Not quite a biography, more a study of Friedman’s career, but his career was his life so this is a wonderful biography too.  Here is one excerpt:

Friedman was a student of business cycles who was prone to say that he did not believe there was a business cycle.  He was a trenchant critic of reserve requirements as a monetary policy tools and a strong advocate of financial deregulation, yet he had many favorable things to say about moving to a regime of 100 percent reserve requirements.  he stressed the looseness of the relationship between money and the economy, yet critics saw his policy prescriptions as predicated on a tight relationship.  He criticized in detail the way the Federal Reserve allowed the money stock to adjust to the state of the economy, yet he was often characterized as treating empirical money-stock behavior as exogenous.  He made fundamental contributions to the development of Phillips-curve theory, yet he was averse to conducting discussion of inflation prospects using Phillips-curve analysis.  He spent much of his first two decades as a researcher working on labor unions and the use of market power in setting prices, yet for the subsequent five decades he found himself accused by critics of predicating his economic analysis on an atomistic labor market, a one-good model, or perfectly competitive firms.

Here is Scott Sumner on the book.  Highly recommended, here is the Amazon link, and volume II.

Mexico stimulus facts of the day

“The combination of continued reopening with strong remittances and a US-led global recovery has allowed Mexico to close the gap with other Latin American economies, outperforming all of them in the first half of 2021,” said Marcos Casarín, chief economist for the region at Oxford Economics. The consultancy’s recovery tracker shows Mexico is returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity more quickly than any other Latin American country. “Mexico will grow 6.0 per cent this year and it could be higher,” said former finance minister and academic Carlos Urzúa, citing the spillover effects of US fiscal stimulus and increased remittances from Mexicans working across the border. These could reach $55bn this year and are “much more important than oil”, he added.

Here is more from the FT.

Incentives for Organ Donation

Lottery tickets for vaccination seems to have been reasonably succesful. What else could we use incentives for? Al Roth sends us to kidney surgeon Arthur Matas’s argument for testing incentives for organ donation:

A regulated system of incentives for donation could provide a sizable increase in the number of kidneys available for transplant. Yet incentives for kidney donation are illegal in the US.
…Initially, the concept of incentives for living donation can be unsettling (some have said “repugnant”4). Yet ethicists worldwide have argued that there is no ethical reason to prohibit incentives. And studies show that the public is in favor of incentives. Additionally, dialysis is more expensive than transplant; a regulated system of incentives would be cost saving to the health care system.

We accept kidney donation. Any successful argument against incentivized donation must be able to differentiate it from our currently accepted conventional donation. Notably, incentives are legal for plasma, sperm, and egg donation or surrogate motherhood, and certainly there are risks involved with egg donation and surrogate motherhood. Gill and Sade5 argue that the only difference between donating and selling is monetary self-interest, and monetary self-interest alone does not warrant legal prohibition.

It is time to move past the feelings that incentives are wrong to the reality that as a result of a potentially preventable shortage of organs, patients on the waiting list are dying or becoming too sick to transplant….It is time for professional societies and patient groups to advocate for changing the law to allow trials of incentives for donation.

See many previous posts at MR on organ donation and blood donation.

Has Uncovered Interest Parity been resolved?

For a long time it was wondered whether excess returns were available from investing in the higher nominal interest rate albeit riskier currencies.  After all, what was truly the population rather than the sample risk?  Perhaps this is the closest we will come to answering those questions:

We document five novel facts about Uncovered Interest Parity (UIP) deviations vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar for 34 currencies of advanced economies and emerging markets. First, the UIP premium co-moves with global risk aversion (VIX) for all currencies, whereas only for emerging market currencies there is a negative comovement between the UIP premium and capital inflows. Second, the comovement of the UIP premium and the VIX is explained by changes in interest rate differentials in emerging markets, and by expected changes in exchange rates in advanced countries. Third, country risk measured by the degree of policy uncertainty can explain both the negative comovement of the UIP premium with capital inflows and the positive comovement of the UIP premium with VIX going through interest rate differentials in emerging markets. Fourth, there are no overshooting and predictability reversal puzzles—for any currency—when using exchange rate expectations to calculate the UIP premium. Fifth, the classical Fama puzzle disappears in advanced economies in expectations, but it remains for emerging markets. As a result, while global investors expect zero excess returns and earn positive returns in the short-run and negative returns in the long-run by investing in advanced country currencies, the same global investors always expect and earn positive excess returns from emerging market currencies. These results imply that in advanced countries the UIP premium is largely due to deviations from rational expectations and full information, whereas in emerging markets, the UIP premium is a risk premium. Global investors charge an “excess” premium to compensate for policy uncertainty in emerging markets —a premium that is over and above the expected and actual depreciation of these currencies.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Ṣebnem Kalemli-Özcan and Liliana Varela.

Fully public tax information?

Our model predicts that transparency reduces the individual bargaining power of workers, leading to lower average wages. A key insight is that employers credibly refuse to pay high wages to any one worker to avoid costly renegotiations with others under transparency.

Here is the paper by Zoe B. Cullen and Bobak Paksad-Hurson, which focuses on pay transparency, not taxes per se.

Why was pre-Covid unemployment so low?

Here is a recent paper by Andreas Hornstein and Marianna Kudlyak, noting that when the authors write “current” they are (were) referring to pre-Covid times:

Current unemployment, as of 2019Q4, is so low not because of unusually high job finding rates out of unemployment, but because of unusually low entry rates into unemployment. The unusually low entry rates, both from employment and from out of the labor force, reflect a long-run downward trend, and have lowered the unemployment rate trend over the recent decade. In fact, the difference between the current unemployment rate and unemployment rates at the two previous cyclical peaks in 2000 and 2007 is more than fully accounted for by the decline in its trend. This suggests that the current low unemployment rate does not indicate a labor market that is tighter than in 2000 or 2007.

Of course these results have significance for the common view that we need to “run the labor market hot” to get back to a desirable state of affairs.  What we need is for the necessary adjustments to take place to restore a new and sustainable equilibrium.

*Ages of American Capitalism*

The author is Jonathan Levy (U. Chicago) and the subtitle is A History of the United States, noting it is mostly an economic history from a left-mercantilist, nation-building point of view.  So far on p.95 I quite like the book, here is one excerpt:

Ironically enough, in some respects Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty came to resemble the eighteenth-century British empire.  Congress revoked all internal taxes.  The military budget was cut in half.  A provision of the 1789 Constitution, the Commerce Clause, granted Congress the authority to regulate commerce “among the several states,” forbidding interstate mercantilist discrimination.  The result was to check state discrimination, opening up a unitary commercial space and increasing the extent of markets and thus the demand for goods.  Empires, while forging common political jurisdiction, accommodate pluralism and difference in rule, often so that different elements in the empire might engage in commerce.  In this respect, the Louisiana Purchase, in essence, handed the United States its own version of a West Indies in the lower Mississippi Valley.  By 1810 already 16 percent of the U.S. slave population lived in the trans-Appalachian West.  New slave-based triangular trades appeared on the North American continent, in a great counterclockwise national wheel of commerce.

741 pp. of text in this one, I am curious to see what comes next.  And my colleague Steven Pearlstein wrote a very good review of the book.

Nach dem Gleichgewicht auflösen

Swiss-based multinationals such as commodities trader Glencore will receive subsidies and other incentives under plans Switzerland is drawing up to maintain its competitive tax rates, even as the country prepares to sign-up to the G7’s new plan for a global minimum tax on big businesses.

Bern is consulting its cantonal governments — which set their own corporate tax rates — to examine how measures such as research grants, social security deductions and tax credits could create a “toolkit” to offset any changes to headline tax rates, officials told the Financial Times.

Here is the full FT story by Sam Jones.

Austin Vernon on El Salvadoran bitcoin acceptance, from my email

Sent this to [redacted, a man of substance] yesterday. LN = Lightning Network, Bitcoins layer 2 scaling solution based on channels:

As far as I understand it, everyone using LN in El Salvador has primarily been using Strike. Classic crypto conundrum in that they had to centralize to get it to work. There is a Twitter thread with the CEO where he shows they had to block their software using most non Strike LN nodes because there were so many failed payments.

Also looks like you submit USD and they have some kind of centralized payment system to manage the transactions to the Bitcoin layer 1 chain.

I imagine this is a big improvement for people in El Salvador and I’ve heard Strike has already been popular, but I don’t see it as what is being touted as.

Additionally to the email above:

There was an out at the end of the law that says you don’t have to accept Bitcoin if you are too poor. But a basic smartphone with the app means you can accept it. There is a small town where a donor gave the town Bitcoin and forced them to use it as currency and even started doing a private UBI in Bitcoin. Some of the stores started taking it. Strike is only available in the US and El Salvador. So in a truth is stranger than fiction, the idea probably got jumpstarted by a surfer that loved both a beach town and bitcoin. Helps that El Salvador uses the dollar. The legislators would just have to drive to the town to see how it works rather than read about it.

To me this is more like a new kind of bank than some decentralized currency takeover, because Strike is relatively centralized. Being like a bank probably implies some of the same advantages and vulnerabilities of a regular bank. The PR is nice! Not having to get cash at a Western Union that might be far (and where you can get robbed) could have more impact than cheaper fees. It will be a few years before the technology exists to do this in a more decentralized way. Interesting nonetheless.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

…democratic rule and high state capacity combined produce higher levels of income inequality over time. This relationship operates through the positive effect of high-capacity democratic context on foreign direct investment and financial development. By making use of a novel measure of state capacity based on cumulative census administration, we find empirical support for these claims using fixed-effects panel regressions with the data from 126 industrial and developing countries between 1970 and 2013.

Here is the paper by Mart Trasberg and Hector Bahamonde, via Kevin Lewis.

The coming regulation of bank crypto

A $100 exposure in bitcoin would result in a minimum capital requirement of $100, Basel said. The standards would apply to assets created for decentralised finance (DeFi) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), but potential central bank digital currencies were outside the scope of the consultation, it added.

Here is more from the FT.  While that is an entirely understandable move, the net result will be to hinder the incorporation of crypto into the traditional banking system, and speed the growth of non-bank crypto institutions.  How they will try to regulate those is of course the more important question.

DeFi is the killer app for crypto

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, let me just give you one segment from the end:

And if the question is whether crypto is good for anything, there is now at least one clear answer: Crypto enables DeFi. You don’t have to like every consequence of that reality, but a reality it is.

You could say that crypto is a Trojan horse of a new and quite different financial system. If you have ever dealt with U.S. banks, and suffered through their bureaucracy and mediocre software, you might conclude that they are ripe for  disruption. Banks in other countries may be even more vulnerable.

Obviously, as DeFi grows, questions of government oversight and control will come to the fore. Still, it seems unlikely that DeFi institutions will be regulated out of existence. DeFi can be run on platforms outside of the U.S., and American and European regulators cannot shut it down any more than they can prevent me from placing an online bet on a Mexican soccer game.

Keep in mind that significant swaths of the developing world currently use micro-credit, where borrowing rates of interest are often 50% or 100% on an annualized basis. It is likely that some of those countries will experiment with DeFi as an alternative method of credit allocation, regardless of whether those new institutions satisfy U.S. regulators in every regard.

If you are baffled by a lot of DeFi, well … welcome to the club. The confusing and ever-changing nature of DeFi helps explains why the prices of crypto assets are so volatile. If DeFi lies in part behind the demand for crypto, and you don’t know exactly where DeFi is headed, the future for crypto is also highly uncertain. It is very unusual to have such a highly visible window on what is essentially the value of a bunch of startups.

Recommended, and here are some earlier posts by Alex on DeFi.  And here is a new essay on DeFi.

Bitcoin as legal tender in El Salvador

Here is FT coverage, I still feel I don’t know the whole story, but bitcoin will be legal tender and furthermore:

The government will set up a trust at the Development Bank of El Salvador to enable automatic conversion of bitcoin to dollars. The law will take effect 90 days after its publication in the official gazette.

“The entry of bitcoins will be equivalent to an increase in the country’s monetary supply, which will temporarily boost El Salvador’s economic activity, but will also pressure inflation higher and with that, interest rates will rise,” Gabriela Siller, head of economic analysis at Banco Base in Mexico, said in a note to clients.

Here are a few observations:

1. El Salvador already uses the U.S. dollar, so there is not much loss of monetary sovereignty here.

2. Maybe the easing into bitcoin is intended to lower the cost of sending remittances from the U.S., which are fundamental to the El Salvadoran economy?  According to the FT, remittances are about one-fifth of gdp, and transfer charges can be steep.

3. Is this all just?: “You don’t have to move to Puerto Rico to avoid capital gains tax, you can just invest in El Salvador!  We’re going to precommit to accepting your bitcoin so you will plan around that.”

3b. Isn’t it suspicious that their legislature approved the legal tender law by such an overwhelming margin?  Is it that they all have read and digested so many Medium crypto essays?  Or do they just see this as “a deal”?

4. I don’t see why this should increase price inflation in El Salvador.  Prices are denominated in dollars, and El Salvadorans, or for that matter visiting tourists, already had the option of converting their crypto into dollars before buying more pupusas.

5. Even in the United States the retail demand for bitcoin transactional use has been quite low.  Making merchants in El Salvador take bitcoin seems like a PR move to me.  What does it mean to make a low-tech merchant in the countryside “take bitcoin”?  How is he supposed to take it?  Do the abuelas in the market have to set up Coinbase accounts?

6. Could this be a transitional or bridge move to ease El Salvador away from the U.S. dollar and to replace it with a native currency?

7. Is the increasingly authoritarian government of El Salvador looking to PR moves to boost its international legitimacy?

8. Given all the surrounding publicity, it does seem that “they really mean it,” and the government will try to “get something” out of the initiative.

I will keep you posted as I learn more.  But as a general rule, if Central America is the laboratory for your ideas, beware before leaping to conclusions too quickly!  At the very least do go visit the country you are wondering about, and, in trying to understand the equilibrium, have the country more prominent in your mind than the innovation.

High discounts and high unemployment

Unemployment is high when financial discounts are high. In recessions, the stock market falls and all types of investment fall, including employers’ investment in job creation. The discount rate implicit in the stock market rises, and discounts for other claims on business income also rise. A higher discount implies a lower present value of the benefit of a new hire to an employer. According to the leading view of unemployment—the Diamond-Mortensen-Pissarides model—when the incentive for job creation falls, the labor market slackens and unemployment rises. Thus high discount rates imply high unemployment.

That is from Robert E. Hall, published 2017.