solve for equilibrium

The ECB bond-buying plan

“The ECB is once again intervening as the last line of defense,” said Jacques Cailloux, chief European economist at Royal Bank of Scotland in London. “The intervention will put a halt to the bond market crash that some member states faced. However, the ECB is now in for the long haul and will potentially have to buy up to half of the Italian and Spanish traded debt, the biggest risk-pulling effort ever engineered in Europe.”

Here is the articleThis analysis by Paul Krugman probably won’t be beaten, and more here.

Arguably it’s now a question of who stares down whom.  If you do not doubt German resolve, bet on the ECB and lend money to Italy fairly cheaply.  If you fear that Italy suffers from its own version of the great stagnation, and doesn’t have good enough political institutions to make decent reforms (and now the hammer of the private capital markets is partially removed), maybe the ECB will cry uncle at some point and give up.  Knowing that, confidence will not return and the speculators will continue to pounce.  We’ll see soon enough what the markets think.

As I am posting this, Dow futures are off about 250 points, although that bad news could be traced to numerous causes.

Speculative attack games can be hard to predict for the marginal cases (personally I am skeptical), but the general uncertainty resulting from the U.S. debt fight, and the resultant “flight to safety” isn’t helping matters.  It’s another way in which our fiscal nonsense brings some very real costs, and quickly.  Have you seen that France might suffer a downgrade from AAA?  In the abstract, that makes sense.  Why should they be safer than the US?  Again, our stupidity makes the European mess harder to resolve by shifting the focal equilibrium from a good outcome to a bad, scary outcome.

*On What Matters, vol. I*, review of Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit is one of my favorite philosophers, and favorite writers at that, so for many years I have been looking forward to his next book, which is now out.  The main argument is that rule consequentialism, properly understood Kantianism, and contractualism all can be understood as a broadly consistent moral theory, all climbing up the same mountain from different sides.

The text is recognizably Parfit, but I am not convinced by its major arguments, and I also believe the Parfitian method — any reader of him will understand this reference — does not succeed in all of the new areas under consideration.

The philosophical patron saints of the book are Kant and Sidgwick, and I would suggest also Bloomsbury.  Parfit is an extreme rationalist and he thinks (hopes?) we can find, and agree upon, the right answers to moral questions.  (At the same time he deeply fears that we cannot, and he is a philosophic conservative as Keynes was.)  What’s missing is Hume, not the Hume of is-ought worries but the Hume who came to terms with the tensions between the arguments of philosophy and the experience of everyday human life.

My favorite features of the Parfit book include the early comparison of Kant and Sidgwick and the general concern with the frequency and intensity of moral disagreement.

Parfit at great length discusses optimific principles, namely which specifications of rule consequentialism and Kantian obligations can succeed, given strategic behavior, collective action problems, non-linearities, and other tricks of the trade.  The Kantian might feel that the turf is already making too many concessions to the consequentialists, but my concern differs.  I am frustrated with this very long and very central part of the book, which cries out for formalization or at the very least citations to formalized game theory.

If you’re analyzing a claim such as — “It is wrong to act in some way unless everyone could rationally will it to be true that everyone believes such acts to be morally permitted” (p.20)  — words cannot bring you very far, and I write this as a not-very-mathematically-formal economist.

Parfit is operating in the territory of solution concepts and game-theoretic equilibrium refinements, but with nary a nod in their direction.  By the end of his lengthy and indeed exhausting discussions, I do not feel I am up to where game theory was in 1990.

I read the standard game-theoretic results as implying that ethics is a far more indeterminate enterprise than Parfit might like to see.  Any particular specification of rule consequentialism tends to require increasingly baroque refinements to cover all the different possible kinds of situations.  At the end we’re not left with much in the way of a rule at all, other than a general injunction to tell people to do something good and then to rejigger the rule itself, or complicate it with more contingencies, to cover the required ground.

To pose a simple example: “maximize your marginal impact” won’t as an injunction address a lot of environmental problems.  “Maximize your average impact” fails in cases where you are truly decisive.  What might other more complex rules be, and what are the expectations those rules are making about the behavior of others, what you infer from their behavior, what they infer from your inference, and so on.  The path out of these boxes takes us very far away from a rules concept that say Sidgwick might have found intuitive.

Hume has been locked out of the room and he is not allowed to re-enter in the form of Parfit having a dialogue with Cho and Kreps.

Now maybe, just maybe, that game-theoretic messiness does not have to be fatal for rule-consequentialism.  Still, I propose a rewrite.  Cut or severely limit the hundreds of pages on this topic, start with what game theory already is showing, describe that mess in philosophic, conceptual terms, and then consider whether that mess is compatible with the analogous messes found in Kantianism and contractualism,  Maybe it can be shown that they are (broadly) the same mess.  Nonetheless, such a collection of messes may be surrounding the same mountain but they will not scale it and Parfit would have to gaze once again into the abyss of, what is to him, ethical nihilism.  (Cut back to David Hume for a different attitude.  Perhaps Parfit’s very strong philosophic and personal desire to succeed and solve the whole problem draws him from the path that will get us up the mountain some small degree.)

For these reasons I see the biggest and most central part of the book as a failure, possibly wrong but more worryingly “not even wrong” and simply missing the questions defined by where the frontier — choice theory and not just philosophic ethics — has been for some time.

On other points, the criticisms of subjective and desire-based theories are good, but I view Parfit’s conclusions as already having been established.

The talk of Kantian dignity, and of “treating people as a mere means” I do not think can be well-defined.  I kept on wanting to see the Marginal Revolution (the real one, the 1871 one) inform this discussion.

I very much agree with Parfit’s argument that no one — not even evil people — should deserve to suffer.  I also agree with Parfit’s notion of the irreducibly normative.

Until the material on consequentialism is nailed, I don’t think the integration with contractualism can work.

I would describe the Parfitian method as “the postulation of bold, minimalist claims, explored by the use of brilliant hypotheticals and counterexamples.”  In Reasons and Persons the Parfitian method works because the potential for philosophic vagueness is limited by the vividness of the counterfactual (or real world) examples.  Most readers of that book are still thinking about split brains, the Repugnant Conclusion, and Future Tuesday Indifference, among numerous other examples.  You could question whether all of the terms were pinned down rigorously, but you still knew that the thought experiment was making you rethink some of your priors.  In the subject areas of On What Matters the semantics are too slack, too open to multiple interpretation, and too many of the central concepts cry out for formalization.  There are not compelling new metaphors and examples to pin down the discourse.  Parfit’s greatest strength is as an imaginer, often outside of traditional philosophic dimensions, and yet here he is so concerned with justifying his disagreements with his peers and colleagues.  Their ghosts and comments and discourses are shackling him, and if you visit the best pages of Reasons and Persons you will see they hardly mention the names of other philosophers at all, much less current philosophers.

I do not wish to put you off Parfit.  He is a philosopher of major importance and, non-trivially, one of the most philosophical philosophers, perhaps ever.  He lives, thinks, feels, breathes, and exudes philosophy in a way which is, in and of itself, a major contribution to human thought and being.  Reading him is an unforgettable and illuminating experience.  His best arguments have great real world import.

It is stunning to read the last three pages of the preface, which list everybody who gave him comments.  It’s a long list, but I’m not sure it was the right list to have chosen.

Addendum: Here is Peter Singer’s review.  Here is a review from Constantine Sandis.

Unemployment, Recessions and Barter: A Test

Nick Rowe explains that the essence of New Keynesian/Monetarist theories of recessions is the excess demand for money (Paul Krugman’s classic babysitting coop story has the same lesson). Here’s Rowe:

The unemployed hairdresser wants her nails done. The unemployed manicurist wants a massage. The unemployed masseuse wants a haircut. If a 3-way barter deal were easy to arrange, they would do it, and would not be unemployed. There is a mutually advantageous exchange that is not happening. Keynesian unemployment assumes a short-run equilibrium with haircuts, massages, and manicures lying on the sidewalk going to waste. Why don’t they pick them up? It’s not that the unemployed don’t know where to buy what they want to buy.

If barter were easy, this couldn’t happen. All three would agree to the mutually-improving 3-way barter deal. Even sticky prices couldn’t stop this happening. If all three women have set their prices 10% too high, their relative prices are still exactly right for the barter deal. Each sells her overpriced services in exchange for the other’s overpriced services….

The unemployed hairdresser is more than willing to give up her labour in exchange for a manicure, at the set prices, but is not willing to give up her money in exchange for a manicure. Same for the other two unemployed women. That’s why they are unemployed. They won’t spend their money.

Keynesian unemployment makes sense in a monetary exchange economy…it makes no sense whatsoever in a barter economy, or where money is inessential.

Rowe’s explanation put me in mind of a test. Barter is a solution to Keynesian unemployment but not to “RBC unemployment” which, since it is based on real factors, would also occur in a barter economy. So does barter increase during recessions?

There was a huge increase in barter and exchange associations during the Great Depression with hundreds of spontaneously formed groups across the country such as California’s Unemployed Exchange Association (U.X.A.). These barter groups covered perhaps as many as a million workers at their peak.

In addition, I include with barter the growth of alternative currencies or local currencies such as Ithaca Hours or LETS systems. The monetization of non-traditional assets can alleviate demand shocks which is one reason why it’s good to have flexibility in the definition of and free entry into the field of money (a theme taken up by Cowen and Kroszner in Explorations in New Monetary Economics and also in the free banking literature.)

During the Great Depression there was a marked increase in alternative currencies or scrip, now called depression scrip. In fact, Irving Fisher wrote a now forgotten book called Stamp Scrip. Consider this passage and note how similar it is to Nick’s explanation:

If proof were needed that overproduction is not the cause of the depression, barter is the proof – or some of the proof. It shows goods not over-produced but dead-locked for want of a circulating transfer-belt called “money.”

Many a dealer sits down in puzzled exasperation, as he sees about him a market wanting his goods, and well stocked with other goods which he wants and with able-bodied and willing workers, but without work and therefore without buying power. Says A, “I could use some of B’s goods; but I have no cash to pay for them until someone with cash walks in here!” Says B, “I could buy some of C’s goods, but I’ve no cash to do it with till someone with cash walks in here.” Says the job hunter, “I’d gladly take my wages in trade if I could work them out with A and B and C who among them sell the entire range of what my family must eat and wear and burn for fuel – but neither A nor B nor C has need of me – much less could the three of them divide me up.” Then D comes on the scene, and says, “I could use that man! – if he’d really take his pay in trade; but he says he can’t play a trombone and that’s all I’ve got for him.”

“Very well,” cries Chic or Marie, “A’s boy is looking for a trombone and that solves the whole problem, and solves it without the use of a dollar.

In the real life of the twentieth century, the handicaps to barter on a large scale are practically insurmountable….

Therefore Chic or somebody organizes an Exchange Association… in the real life of this depression, and culminating apparently in 1933, precisely what I have just described has been taking place.

What about today? Unfortunately, the IRS doesn’t keep statistics on barter (although barterers are supposed to report the value of barter exchanges).  Google Trends shows an increase in searches for barter in 2008-2009 but the increase is small. Some reports say that barter is up but these are isolated, I don’t see the systematic increase we saw during the Great Depression. I find this somewhat surprising as the internet and barter algorithms have made barter easier.

In terms of alternative currencies, the best data that I can find shows that the growth of alternative currencies in the United States is small, sporadic and not obviously increasing with the recession. (Alternative currencies are better known in Germany and Argentina perhaps because of the lingering influence of Heinrich Rittershausen and Silvio Gesell).

In sum, the increase in barter and scrip during the Great Depression is supportive of the excess demand for cash explanation of that recession, even if these movements didn’t grow large enough, fast enough to solve the Great Depression. Today there seems to be less interest in barter and alternative currencies than expected, or at least than I expected, given an AD shock and the size of this recession. I don’t draw strong conclusions from this but look forward to further research on unemployment, recessions and barter.

Can vigilant creditors limit excess bank risk-taking?

I had promised to address that question.  Ideally, enforceable bond covenants should limit bank risk-taking, and ensure major bank solvency, but is that feasible?  I see a few problems with the idea:

1. It is very hard for a government or central bank to precommit to a "no bailout" policy.  This is partly because of powerful special interests, but most of all because political time horizons are short.  Most bailouts do patch things up in the short run, whether or not you like their longer-run consequences.  Bondholders know this, and they are less vigilant ex ante.

2. Bondholders don't and can't have much idea what is going on inside the trading book of a bank.  It doesn't matter how financially sophisticated the bondholders are; the point is that the trading book must remain fairly confidential and a lot of risk can be put in the trading book.

3. Some of the creditors — the short-term creditors — may be in on the deal.  They lend money to the banks, under the premise that risky strategies will be executed.  The short-term, collateralized creditors may not themselves be bearing much risk, given their superior "flight" capabilities and they also may be receiving a slight premium for such lending.

4. The net risk of a bank position is not determined solely by the bank's portfolio.  Say a bank lends money to homeowners and then those homeowners increase their leverage.  The bank is now in a riskier position, and de facto a more leveraged position, althoug it's measured leverage hasn't gone up a whit.

5. Experience with the ICE clearinghouse — one form of bank creditor — so far suggests that it serves bank interests, and indeed is largely controlled by the banks, rather than restraining them.

6. Let's say a no-bailout policy was credible, as indeed it was in the 19th century (there were no bailout facilities).  What does the equilibrium look like?  Is there less long-term lending to banks and more short-term lending?  Would that make banks more or less stable?  Few people think this is a positive development for countries.  Would banks be more subject to "capital flight" risk?

We also could expect greater mutualization of banks, as was the case before deposit insurance, and we could expect experimentation with corporate forms other than limited liability.  My view is this is what would be required to limit excess bank risk-taking.  Yet I believe that, for better or worse, it is politically impossible.  In a nutshell, big government needs big finance (or much higher taxes).

One reason that bailouts are so politically popular (not in rhetoric, but in their practice and in their effects) is that they make financial crises less common but, when they come, more severe because more leverage has built up.  That change in the structure of returns is usually a political winner, call it "Ticking Time Bomb."

Why did global trade fall so much during the Great Recession?

Jonathan Eaton, Sam Kortum, Brent Neiman, John Romalis report:

The ratio of global trade to GDP declined by nearly 30 percent during the global recession of 2008-2009. This large drop in international trade has generated significant attention and concern. Did the decline simply reflect the severity of the recession for traded goods industries? Or alternatively, did international trade shrink due to factors unique to cross border transactions? This paper merges an input-output framework with a gravity trade model and solves numerically several general equilibrium counterfactual scenarios which quantify the relative importance for the decline in trade of the changing composition of global GDP and changes in trade frictions. Our results suggest that the relative decline in demand for manufactures was the most important driver of the decline in manufacturing trade. Changes in demand for durable manufactures alone accounted for 65 percent of the cross-country variation in changes in manufacturing trade/GDP. The decline in total manufacturing demand (durables and non-durables) accounted for more than 80 percent of the global decline in trade/GDP. Trade frictions increased and played an important role in reducing trade in some countries, notably China and Japan, but decreased or remained relatively flat in others. Globally, the impact of these changes in trade frictions largely cancel each other out.

In my view they have nailed it.  To the extent international trade consists of durables, that is why trade declined so sharply, because durables purchases fell.  Contractions in trade credit had much less of a role.

I should add, by the way, that this paper proves the value of real business cycle theory.  Even Keynesian economics (and other AD-deficiency theories) rely on RBC for many of the core mechanisms of business cycle transmission and persistence.  

Don’t Play Games with Your Kids

Seeing that my 9-year old was reading The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma I thought this was an excellent opportunity to teach my kids some game theory. Thus, I explained the prisoner's dilemma and offered the 9 and 12 year old the opportunity to cheat or cooperate with substantial cash payoffs.

My kids are competitive so I didn't foresee any problems. Yet the kids kept cooperating. Did they not understand the game? Alas, it soon became clear that they understood all too well. Silly me. I had neglected to take into account that the opportunity to take money from Daddy greatly raised the payoff to (cooperate, cooperate). (As an aside this did increase somewhat my belief in Steve Landsburg's unusual interpretation of some experimental games).

Ok, I was losing money but no problem, I resolved to change the game on the fly greatly increasing the payoff to cheat. Only I miscalculated. In my eagerness to drive the kids to the (cheat, cheat) equilibrium I raised the payoff to cheat so high that they did best by (cheat, cooperate) followed by a side-payment to split the spoils. Of course the kids saw that right away. Daddy loses again.

Having satisfied myself that the kids understood strategic thinking, unfortunately even better than me, I ended the game. But now I was a substantial sum of money in the hole. What to do? I resolved to auction off some money with an all-pay auction. Success! As usual, I managed to sell a dollar for well over a dollar. Even the kids didn't see their way past that one.

Having regained some dignity I sent the kids to bed. Still the kids were up on net. What could I do? Finally, after some thought I figured out how I could rebalance our portfolios and at the same time teach the kids all about Ricardian Equivalence and (appropriately) the Rotten Kid Theorem. All I had to do was give them less for Christmas. Daddy wins!

(Well, at least until I explained my clever idea to my wife. Nuff said.)

France outlaws discount pricing for eBooks

A mobilization by French publishers at last month’s Frankfurt Book Fair has proven successful: Last Tuesday the French Senate voted for a law imposing a fixed price on eBooks for sale within French territory – that is, just as with print books in France, everyone has to sell a given ebook for the same price. No discounting.

Here is more; solve for the equilibrium!  Oddly, in the United States, the market has been moving toward an approximation of this outcome, at least for new books, though not for classics.  Probably both prices need to fall, though perhaps they will in rough tandem.  I believe the equilibrium value of a hardcover or e-version of a bestseller is below $10, given the recent shift out of the supply curve for the written word.

Peter A. Diamond

Here is Diamond's home page, here is Diamond on Wikipedia.  Diamond has been at MIT since 1970 and he is considered one of the bulwarks there, having produced many excellent students, including Bernanke and Andrei Shleifer.  Here is the bit of most current interest:

On April 29, 2010, Diamond was announced by Barack Obama as one of three nominees to fill the three vacancies then present on the Federal Reserve Board, along with Janet Yellen and Sarah Bloom Raskin.[5] On August 5 the Senate returned Diamond's nomination to the White House, effectively rejecting his nomination. Ben Bernanke, the current Chairman of the Fed, was once a student of Diamond.

Some of Diamond's early work was in capital theory, as he outlined the conditions under which, in dynamic growth models, the level of capital could be inefficient.  Read this paper, from 1965, which is still his most frequently cited work.  It helped produce a standard framework for thinking about national debt and economic growth.

Diamond has contributed plenty to the theory of optimal taxation, in particular when linear commodity taxes are optimal and how to use the tax system for redistribution.  See this paper with James Mirrlees (also a Nobel Laureate) and also this one.  One implication is that taxing inputs often leads to more distortion than taxing outputs and you can think of this as one possible motivation for a consumption tax.

Here is Diamond's 1982 paper on macro and search theory, which I think of as his most influential.  The abstract is classic Diamond:

Equilibrium is analyzed by a simple barter model with identical risk-neutral agents where trade is coordinated by a stochastic matching process.  It is shown that there are multiple rational expectations equilibria, with all non-corner solution equilibria inefficient.  This implies that an economy with this type of trade friction does not have a unique rate of natural unemployment.

The relationship to the current day U.S. is striking.  One point he stresses is that subsidization of production can make sense and also that there can be real costs of converging to the lowest possible rate of unemployment too quickly.  This remains an important "framework" paper for analyzing the interaction of search and aggregate demand.  His other 1982 search paper implies that labor mobility will be less than is socially optimal.  This paper on search theory shows that unemployment compensation can lead to better job matches, by limiting crowding externalities in the job market.

He and Olivier Blanchard wrote a classic piece on the Beveridge Curve, which is about the relationship between job vacacies and the unemployment rate.  Some commentators cite the Beveridge Curve as evidence for structural unemployment, although this is controversial.

Diamond has written a great deal on social security, often at the applied level.  Here is his paper criticizing social security privatization in Chile for its high costs.  Here is his survey on social security reform proposals.  Here is his paper on macro and social security reform.  Here is a very good European talk he gave on pension issues.  Diamond wrote a book with Peter Orszag on social security and he has been a major influence on Democratic Party thinking on this issue; the book looks closely at progressive price indexing rather than wage indexing of benefits.  Here is a CBO summary and analysis of the plan.  Much of Diamond's more formal social security analysis stresses risk-sharing issues and in general he often points out that social security proposals, including Bush's privatization idea, are not well-grounded in rigorous analysis.

Here Diamond tells us not to expect 7 percent stock returns for the ongoing future.

Diamond has many interests, here is his survey on contingent valuation and whether some number is better to use than no number at all.  He and Stiglitz wrote a famous paper on risk and risk aversion.

Personally, my favorite Diamond paper is this short gem on the evaluation of infiinite utlity streams; it will make your head spin, as it asks whether we have coherent means of thinking about prospects with infinite utility and in general how intertemporal utility streams should be ordered.  See also his related paper on stationary utility, co-authored with T.J. Koopmans.

Here is his short introduction on behavioral economics.

I think of Diamond as the classic MIT economist, especially of the earlier, pre-Acemoglu generation.  Lots of theoretical rigor, though sometimes his theory pieces don't have a simple or simply analytic punchline.  There is greater concern with risk, and stability conditions, and dynamic and border conditions, than you would see in a Chicago theory paper.  There is a strong emphasis on the ability of government to implement welfare-improving schemes of the sort found in social democracies.  The approach is quite technocratic — solve and advise.  Public choice and political economy considerations take a back seat.  High IQ.  Of the MIT economists, he has done the most to pursue the Samuelson tradition of having a universal method and very broad interests.  His papers remain central to public finance, welfare economic, intertemporal choice, search theory, macroeconomics, and other areas.  His policy impact on social security has been significant.

Addendum: Levitt comments on Diamond.

The new financial regulation bill

NEW REGULATORY AUTHORITY: Gives federal regulators new authority to seize and break up large troubled financial firms without taxpayer bailouts in cases where the firm's collapse could destabilize the financial system. Sets up a liquidation procedure run by the FDIC. Treasury would supply funds to cover the
up-front costs of winding down the failed firm, but the government would have to put a "repayment plan" in place. Regulators would recoup any losses incurred from the wind-down afterwards by assessing fees on financial firms with more than $50 billion in assets.

OVERALL A GOOD PROVISION, ALTHOUGH THE ACTUAL INCIDENCE OF THESE FEES IS TRICKIER THAN THE DESCRIPTION INDICATES.

FINANCIAL STABILITY COUNCIL: Would establish a new, 10-member Financial Stability Oversight Council, comprising existing regulators charged with monitoring and addressing system-wide risks to the nation's financial stability. Among its duties, the council would recommend to the Fed stricter capital, leverage and other rules for large, complex financial firms that are judged to threaten the financial system. In extreme cases, it would have the power to break up financial firms.

I'M NOT ENTHUSIASTIC, THOUGH PERHAPS IT WILL JUST BE A WASH.  NONETHELESS IT REFLECTS A BAD AND DANGEROUS ATTITUDE ABOUT WHAT REGULATORS ARE CAPABLE OF.

VOLCKER RULE: Would curb propriety trading by the largest financial firms, though banks could make de minimus investments in hedge and private-equity funds. Those investments would be limited to 3% or less of a bank's Tier 1 capital. Banks would be prohibited from bailing out a fund in which they are invested.

IT'S HARD TO TELL WHAT ACTUAL RESTRICTIONS WILL BE IN PLACE AND MOST LIKELY THERE WILL BE MAJOR LOOPHOLES.  YOU DON'T HAVE TO HATE THIS PROPOSAL — RECALL THE POPULARITY OF "NARROW BANKING" PROPOSALS IN THE 1990S AS A KIND OF SECOND-BEST REFORM, CONSIDERED BY MANY MARKET-ORIENTED ECONOMISTS.  FURTHERMORE IF MARKETS ARE PRETTY LIQUID, KEEPING THE BANKS OUT OF THESE MARKETS MAY NOT HARM MUCH AT ALL.  STILL, I'LL PREDICT THIS DOESN'T DO ANY GOOD.

DERIVATIVES: Would for the first time extend comprehensive regulation to the over-the-counter derivatives market, including the trading of the products and the companies that sell them. Would require many routine derivatives to be traded on exchanges and routed through clearinghouses. Customized swaps could still be traded over-the-counter, but they would have to be reported to central repositories so regulators could get a broader picture of what's going on in the market. Would impose new capital, margin, reporting, record-keeping and business conduct rules on firms that deal in derivatives.

I WAS AN EARLY PROPONENT OF THIS IDEA MYSELF, BUT LATELY I'VE STARTED TO WORRY ABOUT HOW WELL CAPITALIZED THIS CLEARINGHOUSE WILL NEED TO BE.  I'LL STILL COUNT IT AS A NET PLUS, BUT I DON'T THINK WE'VE THOUGHT IT THROUGH VERY WELL.

SWAPS SPIN-OFF: Would require banks to spin off only their riskiest derivatives trading operations into affiliates, in a late-night compromise struck to scale back a controversial provision championed by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.). Banks would be able to retain operations for interest-rate swaps, foreign-exchange swaps, and gold and silver swaps among others. Firms would be required to push trading in agriculture, uncleared commodities, most metals, and energy swaps to their affiliates.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS.  MAYBE THE AFFILIATES ARE NOT "TOO BIG TO FAIL" BUT WHAT REALLY MATTERS ARE THE COUNTERPARTIES ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRANSACTION.  WE STILL BAILED OUT LTCM, REMEMBER THAT?

CONSUMER AGENCY: Would create a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau within the Federal Reserve, with rulemaking and some enforcement power over banks and non-banks that offer consumer financial products or services such as credit cards, mortgages and other loans. The new watchdog would have authority to examine and enforce regulations for all mortgage-related businesses; banks and credit unions with assets of more than $10 billion in assets; pay day lenders, check cashers and certain other non-bank financial firms. Auto dealers won a hard-fought exemption from the Bureau's reach.

WE'LL SEE.

PRE-EMPTION: Would allow states to impose their own stricter consumer protection laws on national banks. National banks could seek exemption from state laws on a case-by-case, state-by-state basis if a state law "prevents or significantly interferes" with the bank's ability to do business – a higher bar than federal regulators currently must meet to pre-empt state rules. State attorneys-general would have power to enforce certain rules issued by the new consumer financial protection bureau.

THIS SHIFTS THE WORDING OF THE LAW, BUT DOES IT CHANGE THE POLITICAL EQUILIBRIUM?  AGAIN, "WE;LL SEE."

FEDERAL RESERVE OVERSIGHT: Would mandate a one-time audit of all of the Fed's emergency lending programs from the financial crisis. The Fed also would disclose, with a two-year lag, details of loans it makes to banks through its discount window as well as open market transactions – activity the Fed currently doesn't disclose. Would eliminate the role of bankers in picking presidents at the Fed's 12 regional banks. Would also limit the Fed's 13(3) emergency lending authority by barring the central bank from using it to aid an
individual firm, requiring the Treasury Secretary to approve any lending program and prohibiting the participation of insolvent firms.

A MISTAKE, BUT THIS COULD HAVE BEEN MUCH WORSE.

OVERSIGHT CHANGES: Would eliminate the Office of Thrift Supervision, but after a fight, the Fed retained oversight of thousands of community banks. Would empower the Fed to supervise the largest, most complex financial companies to ensure that the government understands the risks and complexities of firms that could pose a risk to the broader economy.

OVERALL I AM PRO-FED AND SO THIS PLANK COULD HAVE BEEN MUCH WORSE, FORTUNATELY WE HAVE NOT REALLOCATED FED POWERS IN A MAJOR WAY TO LESSER REGULATORS.

BANK CAPITAL STANDARDS: Would set new size- and risk-based capital standards, including a prohibition on large bank holding companies treating trust-preferred securities as Tier 1 capital, a key measure of a bank's strength. Would grandfather trust-preferred securities for banks with less than $15 billion in assets, enabling them to continue treating the securities as Tier 1 capital. Larger banks would have five years to phase-out trust-preferred securities as Tier 1 capital.

IT'S BASEL III WHICH WILL REALLY MATTER AND WE SHOULDN'T EXPECT MUCH FROM THAT FORUM.  WE'RE DROPPING THE BALL ON A MAJOR ISSUE.

BANK FEE: Would mandate the Oversight Council to impose a special assessment on the nation's largest financial firms to raise up to $19 billion to offset the cost of the bill. The fee would apply to financial institutions with more than $50 billion in assets and hedge funds with more than $10 billion in assets, with entities deemed high risk paying more than safer ones. The fee would be collected by the FDIC over five years, with the funds placed in separate fund in the Treasury and would not be usable for any other purpose for 25 years, after which any left-over funds would go to pay down the national debt.

THIS IS FOR PR, SO THE POLITICIANS CAN CLAIM TAXPAYERS WON'T BE ON THE HOOK AGAIN.  RIGHT.  ALSO, STUDY TAX INCIDENCE THEORY AND GET BACK TO ME.

DEPOSIT INSURANCE: Would permanently increase the level of federal deposit insurance for banks, thrifts and credit unions to $250,000, retroactive to January 1, 2008.

ALREADY DONE, SO TO SPEAK.

MORTGAGES: Would establish new national minimum underwriting standards for home mortgages. Lenders would be required for the first time to ensure that a borrower is able to repay a home loan by verifying the borrower's income, credit history and job status. Would ban payments to brokers for steering borrowers to high-priced loans. 

DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS.

SECURITIZATION: Banks that package loans would, broadly, be required to keep 5% of the credit risk on their balance sheets. Would direct bank regulators to exempt from the rules a class of low-risk mortgages that meet certain minimum standards. Regulators could permit alternative risk-retention arrangements for
the commercial mortgage-backed securities market.

WASTE OF TIME.  YOU CAN JUST AS EASILY ARGUE THE PROBLEM WAS INSUFFICIENT SECURITIZATION.  AND HOW HAVE SIMILAR RULES WORKED OUT FOR THE SPANISH?

CREDIT RATING AGENCIES: Would revamp the credit-rating industry, establishing a new quasi-government entity designed to address conflicts of interest inherent in the credit-rating business after the SEC studies the matter. Would also allow investors to sue credit-rating firms for a "knowing or reckless" failure to conduct a reasonable investigation, a lower liability standard than the firms were lobbying to get. Would establish a new oversight office within the SEC with the ability to fine ratings agencies and empowers the SEC to
deregister a firm that gives too many bad ratings over time.

THE BEST EQUILIBRIUM IS TO HAVE DISCREDITED RATINGS AGENCIES, NOT REVAMPED AND REREGULATED AGENCIES.

INVESTMENT ADVICE: Would give the SEC the authority to raise standards for broker dealers who give investment advice after the agency studies the issue. Would permit, but not require, the SEC to hold broker dealers to a fiduciary duty similar to the standard to which investment advisers are held.

COULD EASILY END UP MEANING NOTHING.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE: Would give shareholders of public corporations a non-binding vote on executive pay and "golden parachutes," and would give the SEC the authority to grant shareholders proxy access to nominate directors.

COULD EASILY END UP MEANING NOTHING.

HEDGE FUNDS: Would require hedge funds and private equity funds to register with the SEC as investment advisers and to provide information on trades to help regulators monitor systemic risk.

COULD EASILY END UP MEANING NOTHING.

INSURANCE: Would create a new Federal Insurance Office within the Treasury Department to monitor the insurance industry, recommending to the systemic risk council insurers that should be treated as systemically important. Would require the new office to report to Congress on ways to modernize insurance
regulation.

I AGREE WE SHOULD NOT TRUST STATE-LEVEL REGULATORS WITH FIRMS SUCH AS AIG, BUT LET'S HAVE MODEST EXPECTATIONS ABOUT WHAT THIS OFFICE WILL ACHIEVE.  IT PROBABLY WOULDN'T HAVE STOPPED THE AIG DEBACLE EITHER.

  -By Victoria McGrane, Dow Jones Newswires

THE BOTTOM LINE: THE GOOD PARTS OF THE BILL AREN'T NEARLY AS GOOD AS THEY SHOULD BE, AND THE BAD PARTS BECAME MUCH BETTER WITH TIME.  THE BIGGEST OMISSIONS ARE SIMPLE AND TOUGHER RESTRICTIONS ON LEVERAGE AND REFORM OF THE MORTGAGE AGENCIES.  OVERALL CONSIDER THIS A VICTORY FOR THE STATUS QUO AND YOU SHOULD REALIZE THAT THE UNDERLYING PROBLEMS HAVE NOT BEEN SOLVED.

Criticisms of the recalculation argument

1. Sectoral shock theories of unemployment have a long lineage, including search theory, David Lilien (1982), Fischer Black, work by Steve Davis and John Haltiwanger, Mortensen and Pissarides, plus some recent writing by Michael Mandel and much earlier Franklin Fisher's work on disequilibrium adjustment.  Avent and Yglesias suggest that Kling is making up his own macro but the innovation is simply to call the adjustment process "recalculation," to give it a more Austrian gloss.  Mortensen and Pissarides are sometimes mentioned in the context of future Nobel Prize winners.

Or try Brainard and Cutler (nowadays both Obama-linked), who note sectoral shifts are especially likely to account for unemployment episodes of long duration.  Here is a list of some of the relevant real shocks.

2. Ryan's summary of the argument involves several strawmen.  Various polemic phrases are used throughout his post, including "makes no sense" and "nuts."  When you read language like that, it often indicates the writer has not worked hard enough to imagine a sensible version of the idea he is criticizing.

3. Here are a few claims I do believe and in most cases I am on the record:

a. The AD shock today is very real, albeit overemphasized by many relative to sectoral shocks.

b. There is an optimum delay on the recalculation process.  An economy can't always do all the recalculation all at once and that is one way of thinking about why some bailouts have been necessary, plus automatic stabilizers.

c. Reemployment does not in general proceed in accordance with an optimum, especially during major shocks.  This follows from many (not all) of the models cited above.

d. The new, on-its-way optimum may well involve new government expenditures in various areas on a permanent basis; pick port security if you want one non-controversial example.

You can believe all those propositions, as I do, and still think that the recalculation argument means that, in absolute terms, significant parts of the current stimulus won't be very effective.  As James Hamilton has pointed out, a big chunk of the problem is something other than insufficient aggregate demand and so more stimulus doesn't translate necessarily into better outcomes.  In other words, we're spending lots of money for smaller "bang" than was advertised.

You might disagree with those conclusions, combined with propositions a-d, but they're not "nuts."  There's a disconnect between the emotional content of the polemic Avent wants to level and the information content in his post. 

3. Matt suggests that some of the critiques do not apply to most of the stimulus.  He notes that aid to the states is a big chunk of the stimulus, as is tax cuts and increased transfer payments.  On the transfer payments, see my point 2d; you may or may not like them but most analysts conclude, following the Bush experience, that such programs aren't very good stimulus.  So the recalculation idea doesn't much apply there but the stimulus idea doesn't much apply either. 

On aid to the states, the recalculation problem applies very directly (Matt says it doesn't but I don't see where in his post he gives a reason for that view).  You can think that some form of state-level aid is necessary, as I do, and still see the recalculation idea as explaining why a big state-level ouch is coming in about two years' time.  When (if?) the stimulus is not renewed, a painful sectoral reallocation will have to take place and right now we are only postponing that pain.  By the way, it would be nice if state governments played along by having a coherent long-run fiscal plan but right now at least half of them are not doing this, thereby worsening the forthcoming ouch.  Wait until you see what happens with state universities in two years' time.  Ouch, ouch, and triple ouch. 

Overall the recalculation idea does apply to large chunks of the stimulus, albeit not all of it.

4. We should be especially skeptical of gdp measures when: a) governments care about those measures especially much, and b) we face trade-offs between temporary and permanent gains and we are choosing the temporary gains.  Fiscal theories of cyclical movements, as outlined by Rogoff and the like, deserve to make a comeback and I predict they will.  In fact you can add those theories to the list above at #1.

The bottom line is this: if you're trying to use the recalculation idea to explain why the fiscal stimulus should be zero, that in my view will fail.  If you're using the recalculation idea to explain why the stimulus has a lower rate of return than many people think, it hasn't much been dented by the recent criticisms.  After all, if the problem were just insufficient AD, a solution would be ready at hand.  But it isn't and it's not just because Obama isn't "tough enough" to propose a bigger stimulus.  It's a genuinely difficult problem to solve.

I may soon consider Scott Sumner's very good recent posts on real shocks and the business cycle.

The reshaping of the stimulus: public choice thoughts

The topic is why some of the aid to state governments was cut and Matt Yglesias, after citing conservative supporters of such aid, reports:

I genuinely don’t understand why it’s [politics] failing to function in this particular way. It seems to me that there ought to be strong interest-group politics behind state and local financial aid coming from public employees, and senators of all parties should be facing strong pressure from governors back home to do this.

Ross Douthat comments as well.  I believe that if state-level governments fail to do a good job, the blame is put on governors and state-level legislators, not U.S. Senators.  Voters have theories of responsibility, rather than theories of causality, and that subtle difference occasionally becomes very important.  (And the governors then have to make up the funds by squeezing some of their constituencies.)  In the meantime, for better or worse, three Senators are on the evening news, for days on end, and they are described as "bipartisan."  One of Obama's problems is that other peoples' attempts to copy his memes and strategies make it harder for those same strategies to succeed.  There is a common pool of "good publicity for being bipartisan" and now many players are rushing to exhaust it, even if that means pushing policy changes of low quality.

I believe also that many of the Republicans in the House wanted to vote for the stimulus bill but they had no cover and also their donors are dead set against.  Precisely because so many Republicans voted for TARP, there is a feeling that a line in the sand must be drawn.  If fewer Republicans had voted yes on TARP, and thus more Republicans could have voted yes on the stimulus, a bipartisan restructuring could have reallocated the spending more wisely than it did.  The attempted Republican re-establishment of long-spent ideological credibility is precisely what opens up room for some "moderate" political entrepreneurship. 

Alternatively, maybe you can predict what will come out of the House-Senate committee and then solve backwards for the equilibrium strategies.

Intelligent agent modeling in economics

One request was this:

The role and future of intelligent agent modeling in economics.

Call me a stuck up sticky bit but I don’t see a bright future for this technique.  We already have, and have had, computable general (and partial) equilibrium models for decades.  In those models you try to estimate the parameters from empirical data.  The models rarely impress me but there are plenty of situations, such as estimating the effects of changes in the tax code, where we don’t have anything better.  And so those models survive, and will continue to survive.

What’s the important innovation behind intelligent agent modeling?  To introduce lots of arbitrary assumptions about behavior?  Greater realism?  Complexity?  Considerations of computability?  Learning?  We already have enough "existence theorems" as to what is possible in models, namely just about everything.  The CGE models already have the problem of oversensitivity to the initial assumptions; in part they work because we use our intuition to calibrate the parameters and to throw out implausible results.  We’re going to have to do the same with the intelligent agent models and the fact that those models "sound more real" is not actually a significant benefit.

What can be done will be done and so people will build intelligent models for at least the next twenty years.  But it’s hard for me to see them changing anyone’s mind about any major outstanding issue in economics.  What comes out will be a function of what goes in.  In contrast, regressions and simple models have in many cases changed people’s minds.

Sometimes a theory model tells you there are many many equilibria, as in much of game theory.
I believe that result is to be taken seriously and we should conclude
that many different things can happen in that situation.  I am
suspicious of trying to solve for the correct or most likely
equilibrium by introducing many more specific assumptions.

In my possibly overdogmatic view, economics is most useful when its models are relatively simple and intuitive.  We’ve run out of new models which are simple and intuitive.  So the theory game is over.  The standard, old data sets have been data mined to death.  We’re now on to the "can you build/create your own data set?" game.  That game can and will last for a long time; in some ways it will favor go-getter extroverts just as the theory game favored introverts.

I don’t yet see that there is a new game in town.  My preferred reform of economics involves more history and anthropology, I might add.

Addendum: Bob Murphy asks:

It may be apocryphal for all I know, but I once read that the editor
of the journal to whom Einstein sent his paper on special relativity
put it down and realized that physics would never be the same (or
something like that).

Is something like that even possible in economics?  What would it be like?  Say, the Lucas critique times 10?

The answer is no, in my view this is not possible, for reasons given above.

These days there are so many sentences to ponder

If you’re running an insolvent bank, and you get a slug of equity from
Treasury, your shareholders will thank you if you use that equity to
take some very large risks. If they pay off and you make lots of money,
then their shares are really worth something; if they fail and you lose
even more money, well, there was never really any money for them to
begin with anyway.

That’s Felix Salmon: read the whole thing.  Read this too.  Here is Megan McArdle on the pooling equilibrium.  Here is a good article on how Paulson "sold" his plan to the bankers.  And here are yet some more sentences to ponder:

So it in the end, we have what is basically an economic loan, but structured
in a way to game bank capital adequacy requirements. What strange times we live
in when Treasury and the Fed have to engineer a deal to circumvent their own
regulations.

Hypergamy is the word of the day.

Yes, men are also, to their own detriment, continually surrounded with images of exceptionally attractive women. But this has less practical import, because–to say it once more–women choose.

Or:

The decline of matrimony is often attributed to men now being able to “get what they want” from women without marrying them. But what if a woman is able to get everything she wants from a man without marriage? Might she not also be less inclined to “commit” under such circumstances?

This essay is not politically correct and at times it is misogynous and yes I believe the author is evil (seriously).  The main behavioral assumption is that women are fickle.  So they are monogamous at points of time but not over time; Devlin then solves for the resulting equilibrium, so to speak.  The birth rate falls, for one thing.  The piece also claims that the modern "abolition" of marriage strengthens the attractive at the expense of the unattractive.  Some of you will hate the piece.  I disagree with the central conclusion, and also the motivation, but it does seem to count as a new idea.  If you’re tempted, read it.

I thank Robin Hanson for the pointer.

Logic of Life – Chapter 2: Game Theory isn’t Always about the Games We Play

This review is cross posted on orgtheory.net, the management & social science blog.


    It’s a pleasure to be back at the Marginal Revolution. Let me start out by agreeing with Tyler and Bryan. Tim Harford is one of the leading popular social science writers and we’re lucky to have him.


    Today, I’ll focus on Chapter Two of Tim’s book, "Las Vegas: The Edge of Reason." In this chapter, Harford describes game theory. In a nutshell, game theory studies any situation where (a) you have multiple people striving to achieve a goal and (b) your actions depend on the actions of the other people in the game. By most accounts, game theory is one of the great accomplishments of modern social science. Once you realize that people’s actions are both utility maximizing and interdependent, then game theory can help you model just about any form of cooperation or conflict.


    Harford discusses the basic concepts of game theory with vivid examples ranging from poker, to nuclear war, to quitting smoking. And, as expected, game theory usually provides a great deal of insight. Harford shows how game theory can also be enormously useful, even life saving. Harford recounts how economist Thomas Schelling realized that some situations might encourage participants to jump the gun and initiate devastating conflict. What Schelling realized is that these dangerous games had low information, such as the US misunderstanding a Soviet action, and starting nuclear war. Schelling advocated increased communication between the US and Soviet leadership, including the creation of the hotline between Moscow and the US, which helped defuse tensions in later Cold War disputes.


    I’ll finish this post with my one big criticism of game theory, at least the basic version described by Harford and taught in intro courses. In game theory 101, you assume that people develop optimal strategies in response to other rational actors. One huge problem with a lot of these models is that the games are very complicated. It’s hard to imagine most people perform the mental acrobatics of game theory actors.


    One response is that game theory is empirically well supported, which suggests that some process drives people to the strategies described by game theory. For example, Harford describes how economists and mathematicians used game theory to sort through the insanely complex game of poker and that the optimal game theory strategy was actually fairly similar to what world class poker players do.


    So game theory is supported, right? Not so fast. Game theory has two parts (a) a description of optimal strategies, and (b) a prediction that people will actually solve the game and find these strategies. In my view, game theory 101 is well supported, in poker at least, on point (a), but not (b). In other words, world class poker players rarely sit around and do backwards induction, or any other flavor of equilibrium analysis, but they still obtain strong strategies through trial and error.


    What I suspect is that world class poker emerged from an evolutionary process. Very smart people can figure out certain strategies, but nobody can figure out the whole game by themselves, lest they become full time mathematicians. The typical world class poker player probably inherits a bunch of rules that were tested by earlier generations, and adds a few new twists. Competition weeds out bad rules. Even Steve Levitt, star economist, Harvard & MIT grad, developed his own idiosyncratic strategy, rather than solve the game himself.*


    In the end, game theory is really a first step in understanding complex interactions. The next step is developing an evolutionary theory of games where actors inherit a tool box of strategies from previous generations of players. Already, there is a fairly well developed genre of game theory taking this approach, but I welcome the day when it becomes refined enough so that it can account not just the strategies of leading poker players, but how these strategies emerged from generations of competition.


*According to the news reports, he developed his own "weird style" rather than completely solve the poker game. But it works for him! What would Johnny von Neumann say?