Rabu, 15 Maret 2023

On marking to market and risk management

Two more thoughts:

1) In the SBV debacle, many of my colleagues and friends jump to the conclusion, we should just mark all assets to market and forget about this "hold to maturity" business.

Not so fast. Like all imperfect patches, there is some logic to it. Suppose you have a $100 payment that you have to make in 10 years. To cover that payment, you buy a $100 face value Treasury zero coupon bond. Done, zero risk. 

Now interest rates rise. The value of your asset has fallen in value! It's only worth, say, $90! Are you underwater? No, because when the time comes, you still will have exactly $100 to make the needed payment. 

You will quickly answer, well, mark both assets and liabilities to market. The $100 payment is now also worth $90, so marking both sides to market would reveal no change. But there is a lot of unneeded volatility here. And in most cases, the $100 payment is not tradeable on a market, while the $100 asset is. So now, you're going to be balancing marking to market vs. marking to model. Add the regulator's and many participant's distrust of market prices, which are always seemingly "illiquid," "distressed," in a state of "fire sale," "dysfunctional," and so forth. Add the pointlessness of it all. In this situation we all know that you can make the payment in 10 years. Lock it up and ignore it. Call the asset "hold to maturity." 

Of course, suppose the point of that asset is to make sure that depositors with $100 accounts can always get their money back by selling the asset. Well, now we have Silicon Valley Bank. 

Hence the imperfect fudge of current accounting and regulation rules. "Hold to maturity" assets don't get marked to market, and indeed there are penalties for selling them to meet current needs. Lots of "liquidity" and other rules are supposed to make sure there are adequate short run liabilities to stop a run. Those were of course completely absent in SBV's case -- a truly spectacular failure of elementary regulation. 

In short, mark to market makes sense to assess if a bank can make its payments and avoid failure tomorrow. Hold to maturity makes a bit of sense to assess if a bank can make its payments and avoid failure years from now, when both long term assets and long term liabilities come due. That is, if it survives that long. 

2) There is a lot of criticism of SBV bank management and board for being underinvested in risk management and over invested in lobbying, political connections, donations to politically popular causes, and so forth. Ex post, their choice of managerial investments looks brilliant! What brought in the millions to stem a run, I ask you? In today's highly political banking system, they made optimal choices. To an economist, many puzzling actions are just an optimal answer to a different question. 

Update: Ok, I went too far with that one. Management are out, shareholders wiped out. I'll stick with the idea that uninsured depositors did a great job of monitoring -- they monitored that the bank had the political chops to demand and get a bailout of uninsured depositors! 

From a correspondent: 

"It seems to me now that SVB was really a money market fund with the addition of a bit of equity and breaking all the SEC asset and liquidity rules that MMFs are subject to. " 

Or, it was really a mutual fund (money market funds with $1 values can't invest in long term bonds, long term bond funds must have floating NAV) that was violating rules on floating NAV! 

Small bank thoughts

 Three small thoughts. 

1) There is much commentary that bank troubles will interfere with the Fed's plan to lower inflation by raising rates. Actually, this is a feature not a bug. The main mechanism by which, in the Fed's view, raising interest rates slows the economy and lowers inflation is by "constricting credit," "tightening financial conditions," lowering borrowing that finances investment and consumer durables purchases.  The Fed didn't want runs, no, but it wants the result. If you don't like that, well, we need to think of other ways to contain inflation, like taking the fiscal gasoline off the fire. 

2) On uninsured deposits. A correspondent suggests that the Fed simply mandate that all large depositors participate in the sorts of services, there for the asking, that split large accounts into multiple $249k accounts spread over multiple banks, or sweeps into money market funds. 

I don't think that mandating this system is a good idea. If you're going to do that, of course, you might as well just insure all deposits and keep it simple. 

But the suggestion prompts doubt over the oft repeated notion that we want large sophisticated depositors to monitor banks. Anyone who was large and sophisticated enough to monitor banks had already gamed the system to make sure their accounts were insured, at some nontrivial cost in fees and trouble. The only people left with millions in checking accounts were, sort of by definition, financially unsophisticated or too busy running actual companies to bother with this sort of thing. Sort of like taxes. 

We might as well give in, that all deposits are here forth insured. If so, of course, then banks are totally gambling with the house's money. But we also have to give in that if they can't spot this elephant in the room, asset risk regulation is hopeless. The only workable answer (of course) is narrow deposit taking -- all runnable deposits invested in reserves and short term treasuries; fund portfolios of long term debt with long-term borrowing (CDs for example) and lots of equity.

3) Liquidity and fixed value are no longer necessarily tied together. I still don't quite get why better payment services are not attached to floating value funds. Then we wouldn't need run-prone bank accounts at all. 


Selasa, 14 Maret 2023

How many banks are in danger?

With amazing speed and impeccable timing, Erica Jiang, Gregor Matvos, Tomasz Piskorski, and Amit Seru analyze how exposed the rest of the banking system is to an interest rate rise.

Recap: SVB failed, basically, because it funded a portfolio of long-term bonds and loans with run-prone uninsured deposits. Interest rates rose, the market value of the assets fell below the value of the deposits. When people wanted their money back, the bank would have to sell at low prices, and there would not be enough for everyone. Depositors ran to be the first to get their money out. In my previous post, I expressed astonishment that the immense bank regulatory apparatus did not notice this huge and elementary risk. It takes putting 2+2 together: lots of uninsured deposits, big interest rate risk exposure. But 2+2=4 is not advanced math. 

How widespread is this issue? And how widespread is the regulatory failure? One would think, as you put on the parachute before jumping out of a plane,  that the Fed would have checked that raising interest rates to combat inflation would not tank lots of banks. 

Banks are allowed to report the "hold to maturity" "book value" or face value of long term assets. If a bank bought a bond for $100 (book value) or if a bond promises $100 in 10 years (hold to maturity value), basically, the bank may say it's worth $100, even though the bank might only be able to sell the bond for $75 if they need to stop a run. So one way to put the issue is, how much lower are mark to market values than book values? 

The paper (abstract):  

The U.S. banking system’s market value of assets is $2 trillion lower than suggested by their book value of assets accounting for loan portfolios held to maturity. Marked-to-market bank assets have declined by an average of 10% across all the banks, with the bottom 5th percentile experiencing a decline of 20%. 

... 10 percent of banks have larger unrecognized losses than those at SVB. Nor was SVB the worst capitalized bank, with 10 percent of banks have lower capitalization than SVB. On the other hand, SVB had a disproportional share of uninsured funding: only 1 percent of banks had higher uninsured leverage. 

... Even if only half of uninsured depositors decide to withdraw, almost 190 banks are at a potential risk of impairment to insured depositors, with potentially $300 billion of insured deposits at risk. ... these calculations suggests that recent declines in bank asset values very significantly increased the fragility of the US banking system to uninsured depositor runs.


we use bank call report data capturing asset and liability composition of all US banks (over 4800 institutions) combined with market-level prices of long-duration assets. 

How big and widespread are unrecognized losses?

The average banks’ unrealized losses are around 10% after marking to market. The 5% of banks with worst unrealized losses experience asset declines of about 20%. We note that these losses amount to a stunning 96% of the pre-tightening aggregate bank capitalization.

Percentage of asset value decline when assets are mark-to- market according to market price growth from 2022Q1 to 2023Q1

Most banks operate with (to my mind) tiny slivers of capital -- 10% or less. So 10% decline in asset value is a lot! (Banks get money by issuing stock and borrowing. The capitalization ratio is how much money banks get by issuing stock/assets. Capital is not reserves, liquid assets "held" to satisfy depositors.) In the right panel, the problem is not confined to small banks and small amounts of dollars. 

But...all of this is slightly old data. How much worse will this get if the Fed raises interest rates a few more percentage points? A lot. 

To runs, it takes 2+2 to get 4. How widespread is reliance on uninsured, run-prone deposits? (Or, deposits that were run-prone until the Fed and Treasury ex-post guaranteed all deposits!) Here SVB was an outlier. 

The median bank funds 9% of their assets with equity, 65% with insured deposits, and 26% with uninsured debt comprising uninsured deposits and other debt funding....SVB did stand out from other banks in its distribution of uninsured leverage, the ratio of uninsured debt to assets...SVB was in the 1st percentile of distribution in insured leverage. Over 78 percent of its assets was funded by uninsured deposits.

But it is not totally alone 

the 95th percentile [most dangerous] bank uses 52 percent of uninsured debt. For this bank, even if only half of uninsured depositors panic, this leads to a withdrawal of one quarter of total marked to market value of the bank. 

Uninsured deposit to asset ratios calculated based on 2022Q1 balance sheets and mark-to-market values 

Overall, though, 

...we consider whether the assets in the U.S. banking system are large enough to cover all uninsured deposits. Intuitively, this situation would arise if all uninsured deposits were to run, and the FDIC did not close the bank prior to the run ending. ...virtually all banks (barring two) have enough assets to cover their uninsured deposit obligations. ... there is little reason for uninsured depositors to run.

... SVB, is [was] one of the worst banks in this regard. Its marked-to-market assets are [were] barely enough to cover its uninsured deposits.

Breathe a temporary sigh of relief. 

I am struck in the tables by the absence of wholesale funding. Banks used to get a lot of their money from repurchase agreements, commercial paper, and other uninsured and run-prone sources of funding. If that's over, so much the better. But I may be misunderstanding the tables. 

Summary: Banks were borrowing short and lending long, and not hedging their interest rate risk. As interest rates rise, bank asset values will fall. That has all sorts of ramifications. But for the moment, there is not a danger of a massive run. And the blanket guarantee on all deposits rules that out anyway. 

Their bottom line

There are several medium-run regulatory responses one can consider to an uninsured deposit crisis. One is to expand even more complex banking regulation on how banks account for mark to market losses. However, such rules and regulation, implemented by myriad of regulators with overlapping jurisdictions might not address the core issue at hand consistently 

I love understated prose.

There does need to be retrospective. How are 100,000 pages of rules not enough to spot plain-vanilla duration risk -- no complex derivatives here -- combined with uninsured deposits? If four authors can do this in a weekend, how does the whole Fed and state regulators miss this in a year? (Ok, four really smart and hardworking authors, but still... ) 

Alternatively, banks could face stricter capital requirement... Discussions of this nature remind us of the heated debate that occurredafter the 2007 financial crisis, which many might argue did not result in sufficient progress on bank capital requirements...

My bottom line (again) 

This debacle goes to prove that the whole architecture is hopeless: guarantee depositors and other creditors, regulators will make sure that banks don't take too many risks. If they can't see this, patching the ship again will not work. 

If banks channeled all deposits into interest-paying reserves or short-term treasury debt, and financed all long-term lending with long-term liabilities, maturity-matched long-term debt and lots of equity, we would end private sector financial crises forever. Are the benefits of the current system worth it? (Plug for "towards a run-free financial system." "Private sector" because a sovereign debt crisis is something else entirely.) 

(A few other issues stand out in the SVB debacle. Apparently SVB did try to issue equity, but the run broke out before they could do so. Apparently, the Fed tried to find a buyer, but the anti-merger sentiments of the administration plus bad memories of how buyers were treated after 2008 stopped that. Beating up on mergers and buyers of bad banks has come back to haunt our regulators.) 


(Thanks to Jonathan Parker) It looks like the methodology does not mark to market derivatives positions. (It would be hard to see how it could do so!) Thus a bank that protects itself with swap contracts would look worse than it actually is. (Translation: Banks can enter a contract that costs nothing, in which they pay a fixed rate of interest and receive a floating rate of interest. When interest rates go up, this contract makes a lot of money! )

Amit confirms,

As we say in our note, due to data limitations, we do not account for interest rate hedges across the banks. As far as we know SVB was not using such hedges...

Of course if they are, one has to ask who is the counterparty to such hedges and be sure they won't similarly blow up. AIG comes to mind. 

He adds: 

note we don’t account for changes in credit risk on the asset side. All things equal this can make things worse for borrowers and their creditors with increases in interest rates. Think for a moment about real estate borrowers and pressures in sectors such as commercial real estate/offices etc. One could argue this number would be large.  

So don't sleep too well.  

From an email correspondent: 

Besides regulation, accountancy itself is a joke. KPMG Gave SVB, Signature Bank Clean Bill of Health Weeks Before Collapse.  

How can unrealised losses near equal to a bank's capital be ignored in the true and fair assessment of its financial condition (the core statement of an audit leaving out all the disclaimers) just because it was classified as Held to Maturity owing some nebulous past "intention" (whatever that was ever worth) not to sell?

It strikes me that both accounting and regulation have become so complicated that they blind intelligent people to obvious elephants in the room.  

Sabtu, 11 Maret 2023

Silicon Valley Bank Blinders

The Silicon Valley Bank failure strikes me as a colossal failure of bank regulation, and instructive on how rotten the whole edifice is. I write this post in an inquisitive spirit. I don't know the details of how SVB was regulated, and I hope some readers do and can chime in. 

As reported so far by media, the collapse was breathtakingly simple. SVB paid a bit higher interest rates than the measly 0.01% (yes) that Chase offers. It attracted large deposits from venture capital backed firms in the valley. Crucially, only the first $250,000 are insured, so most of those deposits are uninsured. The deposits are financially savvy customers who know they have to get in line first should anything go wrong. SVB put much of that money into long-maturity bonds, hoping to reap the difference between slightly higher long-term interest rates and what it pays on deposits.  But as we've known for hundreds of years, if interest rates rise, then the market value of those long-term bonds fall. Now if everyone comes asking for their money back, the assets are not worth enough to pay everyone back.  

In sum, you have "duration mismatch" plus run-prone uninsured depositors. We teach this in the first week of an MBA or undergraduate banking class. This isn't crypto or derivatives or special purpose vehicles or anything fancy. 

Where were the regulators? The Dodd Frank act added hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations, and an army of hundreds of regulators. The Fed enacts "stress tests" in case regular regulation fails. How can this massive architecture fail to spot basic duration mismatch and a massive run-prone deposit base? It's not hard to fix, either. Banks can quickly enter swap contracts to cheaply alter their exposure to interest rate risk without selling the whole asset portfolio. 

Michael Cembalist assembled numbers. This wasn't hard to see. 

Even Q3 2022 -- a long time ago -- SVB was a huge outlier in having next to no retail deposits (vertical axis, "sticky" because they are insured and regular people), and a huge asset base of loans and securities. 

Michael then asks 

.. how much duration risk did each bank take in its investment portfolio during the deposit surge, and how much was invested at the lows in Treasury and Agency yields? As a proxy for these questions now that rates have risen, we can examine the impact on Common Equity Tier 1 Capital ratios from an assumed immediate realization of unrealized securities losses ... That’s what is shown in the first chart: again, SVB was in a duration world of its own as of the end of 2022, which is remarkable given its funding profile shown earlier.

Again, in simpler terms. "Capital" is the value of assets (loans, securities) less debt (mostly deposits). But banks are allowed to put long-term assets into a "hold to maturity" bucket, and not count declines in the market value of those assets. That's great, unless people knock on the door and ask for their money now, in which case the bank has to sell the securities, and then it realizes the market value. Michael simply asked how much each bank was worth in Q42002 if it actually had to sell its assets. A bit less in each case -- except SVB (third from left) where the answer is essentially zero. And Michael just used public data. This is not a hard calculation for the Fed's team of dozens of regulators assigned to each large bank. 

Perhaps the rules are at fault? If a regulator allows "hold to maturity" accounting, then, as above, they might think the bank is fine. But are regulators really so blind? Are the hundreds of thousands of pages of rules stopping them from making basic duration calculations that you can do in an afternoon? If so, a bonfire is in order. 

This isn't the first time. Notice that when SBF was pillaging FTX customer funds for proprietary trading, the SEC did not say "we knew all about this but didn't have enough rules to stop it." The Bank of England just missed a collapse of pension funds who were doing exactly the same thing: borrowing against their long bonds to double up, and forgetting that occasionally markets go the wrong way and you have to sell to make margin calls. (That's week 2 of the MBA class.)  

Ben Eisen and Andrew Ackerman in WSJ ask the right question (10 minutes before I started writing this post!) Where Were the Regulators as SVB Crashed? 

“The aftermath of these two cases is evidence of a significant supervisory problem,” said Karen Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, a regulatory advisory firm for the banking industry. “That’s why we have fleets of bank examiners, and that’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”

The Federal Reserve was the primary federal regulator for both banks.

Notably, the risks at the two firms were lurking in plain sight. A rapid rise in assets and deposits was recorded on their balance sheets, and mounting losses on bond holdings were evident in notes to their financial statements.


“Rapid growth should always be at least a yellow flag for supervisors,” said Daniel Tarullo, a former Federal Reserve governor who was the central bank’s point person on regulation following the financial crisis...

In addition, nearly 90% of SVB’s deposits were uninsured, making them more prone to flight in times of trouble since the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. doesn’t stand behind them.

90% is a big number. Hard to miss.  The article echoes some confusion about "liquidity"

SVB and Silvergate both had less onerous liquidity rules than the biggest banks. In the wake of the failures, regulators may take a fresh look at liquidity rules,...

This is absolutely not about liquidity. SBV would have been underwater if it sold all its securities at the bid prices. Also 

Silvergate and SVB may have been particularly susceptible to the change in economic conditions because they concentrated their businesses in boom-bust sectors...

That suggests the need for regulators to take a broader view of the risks in the financial system. “All the financial regulators need to start taking charge and thinking through the structural consequences of what’s happening right now,” she [Saule Omarova] said

Absolutely not! I think the problem may be that regulators are taking "big views," like climate stress tests. This is basic Finance 101 measure duration risk and hot money deposits. This needs a narrow view! 

There is a larger implication. The Fed faces many headwinds in its interest rate raising effort. For example, each point of higher real interest rates raises interest costs on the debt by about $250 billion (1 percent x 100% debt/GDP ratio). A rate rise that leads to recession will lead to more stimulus and bailout, which is what fed inflation in the first place. 

But now we have another. If the Fed has allowed duration risk to seep in to the too-big to fail banking system, then interest rate rises will induce the hard choice between yet more bailout and a financial storm. Let us hope the problem is more limited - as Michael's graphs suggest. 

Why did SVB do it? How could they be so blind to the idea that interest rates might rise? Why did Silicon Valley startups risk cash, that they now claim will force them to bankruptcy, in uninsured deposits? Well, they're already clamoring for a bailout. And given 2020, in which the Fed bailed out even money market funds, the idea that surely a bailout will rescue us should anything go wrong might have had something to do with it. 

(On the startup bailout. It is claimed that the startups who put all their cash in SVB will now be forced to close, so get going with the bailout now. It is not startups who lose money, it is their venture capital investors, and it is they who benefit from the bailout. 

Let us presume they don't suffer sunk cost fallacy. You have a great company, worth investing $10 million. The company loses $5 million of your cash before they had a chance to spend it. That loss obviously has nothing to do with the company's prospects. What do you do? Obviously, pony up another $5 million and get it going again. And tell them to put their cash in a real bank this time.) 

How could this enormous regulatory architecture miss something so simple? 

This is something we should be asking more generally. 8% inflation. Apparently simple bank failures. What went wrong? Everyone  I know at the Fed are smart, hard working, honest and dedicated public servants. It's about the least political agency in Washington. Yet how can we be seeing such simple o-ring level failures? 

I can only conclude that this overall architecture -- allow large leverage, assume regulators will spot risks -- is inherently broken. If such good people are working in a system that cannot spot something so simple, the project is hopeless. After all, a portfolio of long-term treasuries is about the safest thing on the planet -- unless it is financed by hot money deposits. Why do we have teams of regulators looking over the safest assets on the planet? And failing? Time to start over, as I argued in Towards a run free financial system

Or... back to my first question, am I missing something? 



A nice explainer thread (HT marginal revolution). VC invests in a new company. SVB offers an additional few million in debt, with one catch, the company must use SVB as the bank for deposits. SVB invests the deposits in long-term mortgage backed securities. SVB basically prints up money to use for its investment! 

"SVB goes to founders right after they raise a very, very expensive venture round from top venture firms offering:

- 10-30% of the round in debt

- 12-24 month term

- interest only with a balloon payment

- at a rate just above prime 

For investors, it also seems like a no-downside scenario for your portfolio: Give up 10-25 bps in dilution for a gigantic credit facility at functionally zero interest rate.

If your PortCo doesn't need it, the cash just sits. If they do, it might save them in a crunch. The deals typically have deposit covenants attached. Meaning: you borrow from us, you bank with us.

And everyone is broadly okay with that deal. It's a pretty easy sell! "You need somewhere to put your money. Why not put it with us and get cheap capital too?"


1) Old Eagle Eye's comment below is fascinating. I am getting the sense that the rules actually preclude putting 2+2=4 together here. Copied here in toto

SIVB did have a hedge put on during 2022, but it was limited to its available-for-sale securities ("AFS"). It was precluded from hedging its interest rate risk in held-to-maturity securities ("HTM") by U.S. GAAP rules. [My emphasis] Here is the explanation found at PwC:

[PWC Viewpoint Commentary: "The notion of hedging the interest rate risk in a security classified as held to maturity is inconsistent with the held-to-maturity classification under ASC 320, which requires the reporting entity to hold the security until maturity regardless of changes in market interest rates. For this reason, ASC 815-20-25-43(c)(2) indicates that interest rate risk may not be the hedged risk in a fair value hedge of held-to-maturity debt securities." "ASC 815-20-25-12(d) provides guidance on the eligibility of held-to-maturity debt securities for designation as a hedged item in a fair value hedge."]

[Extracted subsection:

"Chapter 6: Hedges of financial assets and liabilities. 

"6.4 Hedging fixed-rate instruments

" Hedging held-to-maturity debt securities

"ASC 815-20-25-12(d)

"If the hedged item is all or a portion of a debt security (or a portfolio of similar debt securities) that is classified as held to maturity in accordance with Topic 320, the designated risk being hedged is the risk of changes in its fair value attributable to credit risk, foreign exchange risk, or both. If the hedged item is an option component of a held-to-maturity security that permits its prepayment, the designated risk being hedged is the risk of changes in the entire fair value of that option component. If the hedged item is other than an option component of a held-to-maturity security that permits its prepayment, the designated hedged risk also shall not be the risk of changes in its overall fair value."]

Source: PWC Viewpoint ( Publication date: 31 Jul 2022

Update 2: Thanks to anonymous below for a pointer to a good New York Times article about SVB, what the Fed knew and when. Apparently the bank's supervisors knew about problems for a long time before the bank failed. Whether this is good or bad news for the regulatory project I leave to you. 

Sabtu, 04 Maret 2023

Economic Journal Home Bias

Home Bias in Economics Journals is an interesting new paper by Dirk Bethmann, Felix Bransch, Michael Kvasnicka, and Abdolkarim Sadrieh (via Marginal Revolution).

...Researchers from Harvard, but also nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and from Chicago (co-)author a disproportionate share of articles in their respective home journal.... We study this question in a difference-in-differences framework, using data on both current and past author affiliations and cumulative citation counts for articles published between 1995 and 2015 in the QJE, JPE, and American Economic Review (AER), which serves as a benchmark. We find that median article quality is lower in the QJE if authors have ties to Harvard and/or MIT than if authors are from other top-10 universities, but higher in the JPE if authors have ties to Chicago. We also find that home ties matter for the odds of journals to publish highly influential and low impact papers. Again, the JPE appears to benefit, if anything, from its home ties, while the QJE does not. 

On the bottom end as well, 

articles with a Chicago aliation in the JPE are less likely to be amongst the group of relatively low impact articles (i.e., to rank among the 25% or 10% of least cited articles published in the three journals in a year) than articles in the JPE authored by researchers from other top-10 institutions. 

Those are the what, but not the why. These findings naturally provoke some thought from my time at Chicago, and as JPE editor. 

While I was at the JPE there was an explicit ethic about these matters. Yes, the JPE  publishes papers by Chicago faculty, but only the best ones.  Faculty were expected to self-select the best papers, especially innovative ones that have trouble elsewhere, but are likely to have impact t. That ethic was even stronger for Chicago PhD dissertations. The JPE really really discouraged Chicago Ph.D. dissertations, and only very rarely published them. (I'm curious how much of the JPE/QJE difference comes down to dissertations rather than faculty papers). 

When I was there, there were only four editors, all based at Chicago. There was also a rule that a second editor had to sign off on any revision and on any publication decision. This was wonderful discipline, and I learned a lot from my fellow editors' view of papers. That procedure also helps to enforce the higher bar standard. All being from the same institution helped a well to produce collegiality, as well as interest in keeping up the brand. 

Some of my hardest times as editor came from rejecting colleagues' pretty good but not good enough papers. For colleagues, I also was strict about the one revision rule, and rejecting a few promising but still not ready papers from colleagues (and friends) caused more heartache.

The JPE also had a culture of decisive editing. The referees provide advice, but the editor makes decisions. This culture leads to publishing the kind of innovative papers that referees may disparage,  especially when an author crosses field boundaries and invades sensitive turf. 

In this way a home journal, run by a small number of long-term editors, with an institutional reputation, is different than an association journal, with a large board of coeditors who serve short times, and act independently.  

I benefited from the JPE's policies. Sherwin Rosen published "Time consistent health insurance" over referee objections, though of course asking for a revision that addressed those objections. "The Random Walk in GNP," my first big paper, was published in the JPE after being rejected elsewhere. "Determinacy and Identification," a sprawling new-Keynesian critique, could never have been published anywhere else. "A simple test of consumption insurance" (as well as Barb Mace's "Full Insurance" which inspired my paper, a worthy exception to the rule against PhD theses) would likely have had a terrible time anywhere else. John Campbell and I might have published By Force of Habit elsewhere,  but the JPE editor was important to boiling it down and focusing it. 

Was it a good idea for the JPE to publish these, or would the world be better if half had spent another few years batting from journal to journal, and half ended up not published at all? Of course, perhaps there were  other, better, papers from outsiders that the JPE could have published. You judge. 

I also have plenty of papers rejected by the JPE, even desk rejected. And most of my papers get rejected by at least 3 or 4 journals before finding a home. Welcome to the club. 

Things have changed. The JPE is a much bigger journal, with a big and spread out editorial board. Other journals, like the AER, have also expanded and added sub journals. Perhaps the concept of a small general interest journal, run by decisive editors willing to take some risk in the quest of innovative papers, publishing papers that at least two of four editors can understand and judge, is out of date; nostalgia for a simpler time.  I hope the new JPE retains the special character that made the old JPE so good. 

Kamis, 02 Maret 2023

Fair tax full text

From the Wall Street Journal Feb 2. After 30 days I can post full text. 

A Consumption Tax Is the Shock Our Broken System Needs

Something remarkable happened last month. On Jan. 9, Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter introduced the “Fair Tax” bill to the House of Representatives, and secured a promise of a floor vote. The bill eliminates the personal and corporate income tax, estate and gift tax, payroll (Social Security and Medicare) tax and the Internal Revenue Service. It replaces them with a single national sales tax. Business investment is exempt, so it is effectively a consumption tax. Each household would get a check each month, so that purchases up to the poverty line are effectively not taxed.

Mainstream media and Democrats instantly deplored the measure. Mother Jones said it would “turbocharge inequality.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal called it a “tax cut for the rich, period.” The New Republic asserted that consumption taxes are “always a dumb idea”—but presumably not in Europe, where 20% value-added taxes finance welfare states—and called it a “Republican dream to build a wealth aristocracy.”

Even the Journal’s editorial board disapproved, though mostly on politics rather than substance, admitting a consumption tax “might make sense” if Congress were “writing the tax code from scratch.” The board worried that we might end up with income and sales taxes, like Europe. And the tax change won’t pass, making it is a “masochistic vote” that it will “give Democrats a potent campaign issue.”

But our income and estate tax system is broken. It has high statutory rates with a Swiss cheese of exemptions, immense cost, unfairness and distortion. Former President Trump’s taxes are Exhibit A, no longer making headlines because we learned that he simply aggressively exploits the complex rules and deductions that Congress offers to wealthy politically connected real-estate investors.

A consumption tax, with none of the absurd complexity of our current taxes, is the answer. It funds the government with the least economic distortion. A consumption tax need not be regressive. It’s easy enough to exempt the first few thousand dollars of consumption, or add to the rebate.

More important, the progressivity of a whole tax and transfer system matters, not of a particular tax in isolation. If a flat consumption tax finances greater benefits to people of lesser means, the overall system could be more progressive than what we have now. A consumption tax would still finance food stamps, housing, Medicaid, and so forth. And it would be particularly efficient at raising revenue, meaning there would potentially be more to distribute—a point that has led some conservatives to object to a consumption tax.

Others complain that the rate will be high. An effective 30% consumption tax, added to state sales taxes as high as 10%, could add up to a 40% or greater rate. But taxes overall must finance what the government spends. Collecting it in one tax rather than lots of smaller taxes doesn’t change the overall rate. It’s better for voters to see how much the government takes.

A range of implicit subsidies will disappear. Good. Subsidies should be transparent. Money for electric cars, health insurance, housing, and so forth should be appropriated and sent as checks, not hidden as tax deductions or credits. They can still be as large as Congress and voters wish. However, it is vital to keep the tax at a flat rate and not try to redistribute income or subsidize industries by different tax rates.

Will there be some problems of compliance and evasion? Probably, but sales taxes or value-added taxes are hardly new, untested ideas. The Fair Tax bill addresses many objections and real-world concerns, and more refinements can follow. A value-added tax or personal-consumption tax can achieve similar goals.

This is a big moment. For a long time, consumption taxes have been debated in academic articles, books, think-tank reports, administration white papers and so forth. When the U.S. eventually decides to reform the tax code, consumption taxes will be the obvious answer. It is great news that real elected politicians like Rep. Carter get it, and are willing to stick their necks out to try to get it passed.

No, it’s not likely to pass this year, or next. All great reforms take time. The 8-hour workday and Social Security started as wild-eyed dreams of the socialist party. Civil rights took bill after bill being voted down. The income tax took a long time. But if we never talk about the promised land and only squabble over the next fork in the road, surely we will never get there.

Lessons from Sargent and Leeper

At the AEI fiscal theory event last Tuesday Tom Sargent and Eric Leeper made some key points about the current situation, with reference to lessons of history. 

Tom's comments updated his excellent paper with George Hall "Three World Wars" (at pnas,  summary essay in the Hoover Conference volume). Tom and George liken covid to a war: a large emergency requiring immense expenditure. We can quibble about "require" but not the expenditure. 

(2008 was a little war in this sense as well.) Since outlays are well ahead of receipts, these huge temporary expenditures are financed by issuing debt and printing money, as optimal tax theory says they should be. 

In all three cases, you see a ratcheting up of outlays after the war. That's happening now, and in 2008, just as in WWI and WWII. 

After WWI and WWII, there is a period of primary surpluses -- tax receipts greater than spending -- which helps to pay back the debt. This time is notable for the absence of that effect. 

We see that most clearly by plotting the primary deficits directly. The data update since Tom and George's original paper (dots) makes that clear. To a fiscal theorist, this is a worrisome difference. We are not following historical tradition of regular, full employment, peacetime surpluses. 

The two world wars were also financed by a considerable inflation. The important consequence of inflation is that it inflates away government debt. Essentially, we pay for part of the war by a default on debt, engineered via inflation. 

1947 is an interesting case. As now, inflation broke out, the Fed left interest rates alone, and the inflation went away once it had inflated away enough debt. That too is an interesting episode in the debate whether the Fed must move rates more than one for one to keep inflation from spiraling away. 

The effect of inflation is clearer in the next graph, which plots the real return on government bonds: 

Yes, the inflation of 1920 did inflate away a lot of the WWI debt, though the deflation of 1921 brought a lot of that back. (This is an episode we would do well to remember more! The price level doubled from 1916 through 1920. It then retreated by a third in 1920-1921. There was a sharp recession, but the economy recovered very quickly with no stimulus or heroic measures. The conventional wisdom that wringing out WWI inflation caused the UK 1920s doldrums needs to consider this counterexample. But back to our point) 

This is also consistent with standard optimal tax theory, which says that in the event of a disaster that happens once every 50 years or so, it is right to execute a "state contingent default" (Lucas and Stokey), and inflation is a natural way to do it. 

But... "state contingent default" is supposed to happen at the beginning of a war. These inflations happened at the end of the war. How did governments sell bonds to people who should have expected them to be inflated away? Yes, there were some price controls and financial repression, but it's still an important puzzle to standard public finance theory.  

My concern, of course, is that we've had two once in a hundred year events in a row (2008, 2020), I can think of lots more that might come soon, and you can only do this occasionally. Hit people over the head a few too many times and they start to duck. We will head to the next crisis with no history of steady surpluses in good times, 100% debt to GDP ratio, and a painful reminder of what happens if you lend to the US right in the rear view mirror. 

We start the H5N1/Taiwan war crisis with the same debt we had at the end of WWII. And who owns the debt leads to some fascinating speculation which I'll let you fill in with your chat GPT.  

Tom closed by echoing my favorite bright idea for avoiding the debt limit: Since the limit applies to par value not market value, the Treasury can issue all the perpetuities it wants. That's far better than the trillion dollar coin, though I suspect the Supreme Court would take just as dim a view of it. 

Eric  brought up a great point from his super Recovery of 1933 paper with Margaret Jacobson and Bruce Preston. 
In 1933, we had a disastrous deflation. The gold standard is a lovely fiscal commitment device to try to contain inflation, but it has an Achilles heel. If there is a deflation, the government has to raise taxes to pay an unexpected real windfall to bondholders. In 1933, the Roosevelt Administration abrogated the gold standard. It was a default on the legal terms of the bonds. And look what happened to inflation! 

Eric also brought up a second central point of his 1933 paper: The Roosevelt Administration separated the budget into a "regular" budget, in which we should expect deficits to be paid back, and an "emergency" budget, unbacked (in our language) by expected surpluses. That cleverly allowed inflationary finance in 1933, but once the "emergency" was over in 1941, it preserved the US reputation for repaying wartime debts with subsequent surpluses, and allowed it to borrow for WWII. This loss of "back to normal," of expectations that we are now in "regular" not "emergency" finance is worrisome today. 

Finally, Eric brought some nice evidence to bear on the question, why 2020 but not 2008? Well, in part, we can look at statements of public officials. In 2008, they explicitly said, deficit now, repayment later. In 2020 they explicitly said the opposite. 

("Offsets" is Washington-speak for "taxes" or later spending cuts.) Don't read a pejorative in this analysis. If you want to borrow, finance crisis expenditures and not create inflation, you "maintain the norm." If you want to create a "state contingent default" and pay for crisis expenditures by inflating away debt, you have to "violate the norm." That is darn hard -- ask the Japanese. How do you convince people you're not going to repay some part of the debt, despite a good reputation, but just some part, and if WWII comes along you're good for additional debts? Well, announcing your intentions helps!  

And it worked. We very quickly inflated away the debt. Creating a state contingent default via inflation is not easy. Still to be seen though is whether we can return to "normal" "Hamilton norm" once it's over. 

Robert Barro also had great comments, but more directed at the book and with no great graphs to pass along. Thanks anyway!

Fiscal inflation and interest rates

Economics is about solving lots of little puzzles. At a July 4th party, a super smart friend -- not a macroeconomist -- posed a puzzle I sho...