Kamis, 25 Mei 2023

Work requirements

The debate over work requirements for social programs is hot and heavy. I'll chime in there as I don't think even the Wall Street Journal Editorial pages have stated the issue clearly from an economic point of view.  As usual, it's getting obfuscated in a moral cloud by both sides: How could you be so heartless as to force unfortunate people to work, vs. how immoral it is to subsidize indolence, and value of the "culture" of self-sufficiency. 

Economics, as usual, offers a straightforward value-free way to think about the issue: Incentives. When you put all our social programs together, low income Americans face roughly 100% marginal tax rates. Earn an extra dollar, lose a dollar of benefits. It's not that simple, of course, with multiple cliffs of infinite tax rates (earn an extra cent, lose a program entirely), and depends on how many and which programs people sign up for. But the order of magnitude is right. 

The incentive effect is clear: don't work (legally). As Phil Gramm and Mike Solon report

Since 1967, average inflation-adjusted transfer payments to low-income households—the bottom 20%—have grown from $9,677 to $45,389. During that same period, the percentage of prime working-age adults in the bottom 20% of income earners who actually worked collapsed from 68% to 36%.

36%. The latter number is my main point, we'll get to cost later. Similarly, the WSJ points to  a report by Jonathan Bain and Jonathan Ingram at the Foundation for Government Accountability that

there are four million able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps, and three in four don’t work at all. Less than 3% work full-time.


Incentives are a budget constraint to government policy, hard and immutable. Your feelings about people one way or another do not move the incentives at all. A gift of money with an income phase-out leads people to work less, and to require more gifts of money.  That's just a fact. 

What to do? 

One answer is, remove the income phaseouts. Give food stamps, medicaid, housing subsidies,  earned income tax credits, and so forth, to everyone, and don't reduce them with income. Then the disincentive to work is much reduced. (There is still the "income effect," but in my judgement that's a lot smaller for most people in this category.) 

Rather obviously, that's impractical. Even the US, even if r<g or MMT are true, would run out of money quickly. That's the problem with Universal Basic Income. Even $20,000 x 331 million = $6.6 trillion, essentially the entire federal budget right there, and $20,000 of total support is a lot less than people with $0 income get right now. (Gramm, Ekelund and Early, and Casey Mulligan estimate about $60,000 is the right number here.)  Put another way, to eliminate the work disincentive in the social programs, we would have to jack up marginal tax rates on everyone to such stratospheric levels that nobody works. You can't escape disincentives. 

So, support for the unfortunate must be limited somehow. That's why we limit it to people below a certain income level. But even if each individual program maintains a reasonable marginal phaseout, they add up across programs, and next thing you know we're back to 100% phase out. 

Posit that work is still desirable,  to earn some money, to contribute to your fellow citizens, to reduce the need for income assistance, and to build human capital.  (Plus the more ephemeral goals all sides of the debate ascribe to work -- self reliance, life meaning, self-respect, participation in society, and so forth. I promised no moral or sociological arguments, but these values being shared by both sides of the debate, I can make a little exception. Nobody thinks that an entire lifetime of living on a government check, doing nothing but drink take drugs and play video games all day, makes for a desirable society, no matter who they vote for.)  

If so, if the social safety net creates a 100% marginal tax rate on work, and if abandoning income phaseouts will bankrupt the state, then we have a problem. 

Work requirements are an imperfect method to try to replace the incentive to work that social programs eliminate. Our government does this sort of thing all over to transfer income but contain the disincentives: Subsidize gas, and then regulate against its use for example. 

It is inefficient, as you can tell from the brouhaha. It's much more efficient to get people to work by saying "if you earn a dollar, you can keep it," rather than "if you earn a dollar we'll take it away from you but we're going to force you to work." As the WSJ details here and often, the rules are complex, and people and governments game them. Just who should work? Progressives will quickly find a sick single mother taking care of elderly parents and commuting to some horrible fast food job who falls through the cracks, and they are right. Rules and bureaucracies are very rough substitutes for market incentives. More importantly, if you're working for money, you find the best job you can, you work hard, you look for better opportunities. If you're working to satisfy a bureaucratic work requirement in the face of a 100% tax rate, you find the easiest job you can, you don't care about the money and thereby the social productivity of the work, and you do as little as possible. 

So I'm not defending work requirements as a perfect offset to a 100% marginal tax rate. But they are there for a reason, as a very rough offset to some of the huge disincentives that means-tested programs pose. The point today is that we should start to understand and debate work requirements in this framework. If you're going to remove market incentives, you need some replacement. 

By the way, supposedly socialist Europe, after its experience with "the dole" in the early 1990s, is much more heard-hearted about these sorts of incentives than we are. Progressives who think we should both emulate nordic countries and also expand our safety net should go look at nordic countries. 

Is there a better way? I've long played with the idea of limiting help by time rather than by income. That's how unemployment insurance works. We understand that replacing people's paycheck forever if they lose their job has bad incentive effects. Unemployment is understood as a temporary misfortune, and understanding the incentives, you get unemployment checks for a limited amount of time. Could not many other programs aimed at misfortune also be limited by time -- but then allow you to keep each extra dollar of earnings? Perhaps even unemployment should be a fixed amount of time, and you can keep receiving it for the full (normally) 26 weeks even if you get a job. 

The trouble with that, of course, is that some people will not get their acts together in the required time, and then you have to be heartless. But is it not just as heartless to say to a person who had been on food stamps, earned income tax credit, social security disability and housing voucher, "well, congrats on getting  a job, and a good one, that pays $60,000 per year. Now we're taking away all your benefits. Enjoy the $1?" 

Also, the safety net does include a detailed bureaucracy to determine who is needy. Disability, unemployment, and so forth look hard at these issues. Replicating that with a different set of rules for each program seems mighty wasteful. 

Another wild idea: Good economists all understand that consumption, not income, is the right measure of well being. That's why consumption taxes are a good idea, and we should measure consumption diversity not income diversity. (I don't use the word "inequality" anymore as it prejudices the right answer.) One advantage of a consumption tax is that it would be easier to condition benefits on consumption rather than income. If you work and save the results, you can keep your benefits. 

One last point, which maybe should be the first point. It is a bit scandalous that income phase outs in social programs take away benefits based on market income, but not social program income. If you have food stamps and earn an extra $10,000 of income, you can lose your foods stamps. If you get housing worth $10,000, you don't lose anything. Ditto in the entire social program system. This is an immense distortion towards putting effort into obtaining more social programs rather than working. Phasing out based on consumption, including cash and non cash benefits, would make a lot more sense. But one could phase out benefits based on which other benefits you receive too. Disincentives come from the social program and tax system overall, and any hope of continuing disincentives and saving money must take a similar integrated system approach. 

The argument also is over how much money the programs cost. That leads to "how could you be so heartless" vs. "but the country will go broke," also going nowhere. A focus on incentives offers the way out. Fix the incentives, and we end up helping people who need it a lot better, we end up with a lot fewer people who need help, and spend a lot less money. Win win win. 

There is no clean answer. A main lesson of economics is that there is always a tradeoff between help and disincentives, between insurance and moral hazard. We can make this tradeoff a lot more efficient than it is, but we can't totally eliminate the tradeoff. 

The bottom line remains, this discussion would be a lot more productive discussion if we talked about the constraint posed by incentives, rather than the usual moral mudslinging.    


So work requirements are a little tightened, but not if you have Medicaid. WTF? Medicaid is limited by income. The incentive spaghetti here would be fun to unravel. Of course, we have an  additional reason to stay below the income cap for Medicaid. We have an additional incentive to sign up for Medicaid, which may be the idea here. "Get a job, lose your food stamps, or sign up for this free government program." Hmm. Feel free to riff on this one in the comments... 



Rabu, 24 Mei 2023

Hoover Monetary Policy Conference Videos

The videos from the Hoover Monetary Policy Conference are now online here.  See my previous post for a summary of the conference. 

The big picture is now clearer to me. Phil Jefferson rightly asked, what do you mean off track? Monetary policy is doing fine. Interest rates are, in his view, where they should be. He argued the case well. 

But now I have an answer: The Fed has had three significant institutional failures: 1) Its inflation target is 2%, yet inflation exploded to 8%. The Fed did not forecast it, and did not see it even as it was happening. (Nor did many other forecasters, pointing to deeper conceptual problems.) 2) In the SVB and subsequent mess, the Fed's regulatory apparatus did not see or do anything about plain vanilla interest-rate risk combined with uninsured deposits. 3) I add a third, that nobody else seems to complain about: In 2020 starting with treasury markets, moving on to money market funds, state and local financing,  and then an astonishing "whatever it takes" that corporate bond prices shall not fall, the Fed already revealed that the Dodd-Frank machinery was broken. (Will commercial real estate be next?) 

Yet there is very little appetite for self-examination or even external examination. How did a good institution, filled with good, honest, smart and devoted public servants fail so badly? That's not "off-track" that's a derailment. 

Well, two sessions at the conference begin to ask those questions, and the others aimed at the same issues. Hopefully they will prod the Fed to do so as well, or at least to be interested in other's answers to those questions. 

(My minor contributions: on why the Taylor rule is important here, where I think I did a pretty good job; and comments on why inflation forecasts went so wrong at  1:00:16 here.)

Bradley Prize speech, video, and thanks

The videos and speeches of the Bradley prize winners are up. My video here (Grumpy in a tux!), also the speech which I reproduce below. All the videos and speeches here (Betsy DeVos and Nina Shea) My previous interview with Rick Graeber, head of the Bradley foundation. 

Bradley also made a nice introduction video with photos from my childhood and early career. (A link here to the introduction video and speech together.) And to avoid us spending all our talks on thanking people, they had us write out a separate thanks. That seems not to be up yet, but I include mine below. I am very thankful, humbled to be included in such august company, and not so boorish that I would not have spent my whole talk without mentioning that, absent the separate opportunity to say so. 

Bradley prize remarks (i.e. condense three decades of policy writing into 10 minutes): 

Creeping stagnation ought to be recognized as the central economic issue of our time. Economic growth since 2000 has fallen almost by half compared with the last half of the 20th Century. The average American’s income is already a quarter less than under the previous trend. If this trend continues, lost growth in fifty years will total three times today’s economy. No economic issue — inflation, recession, trade, climate, income diversity — comes close to such numbers.

Growth is not just more stuff, it’s vastly better goods and services; it’s health, environment, education, and culture; it’s defense, social programs, and repaying government debt.

Why are we stagnating? In my view, the answer is simple: America has the people, the ideas, and the investment capital to grow. We just can’t get the permits. We are a great Gulliver, tied down by miles of Lilliputian red tape.  

How much more can the US grow? Looking around the world, we see that even slightly better institutions produce large improvements in living standards. US taxes and regulations are only a bit less onerous than those in Canada and the UK, but US per capita income is 40% greater. Bigger improvements have enormous effects. US per capita income is 350% greater than Mexico’s and 950% greater than India’s. Unless you think the US is already perfect, there is a lot we can do. 

How can we improve the US economy? I offer four examples.

I don’t need to tell you how dysfunctional health care and insurance are. Just look at your latest absurd bill. 

There is no reason that health care cannot be provided in the same way as lawyering, accounting, architecture, construction, airplane travel, car repair, or any complex personal service. Let a brutally competitive market offer us better service at lower prices. There is no reason that health insurance cannot function at least as well as life, car, property, or other insurance. It’s easy to address standard objections, such as preexisting conditions, asymmetric information, and so on.

How did we get in this mess? There are two original sins. First, in order to get around wage controls during WWII, the government allowed a tax deduction for employer-based group plans, but not for portable insurance. Thus preexisting conditions were born: if you lose your job, you lose health insurance. Patch after patch then led to the current mess. 

Second, the government wants to provide health care to poor people, but without visibly taxing and spending a lot. So, the government forces hospitals to treat poor people below cost, and recoup the money by overcharging everyone else. But an overcharge cannot stand competition, so the government protects hospitals and insurers from competition. You’ll know health care is competitive when, rather than hide prices, hospitals spam us with offers as airlines and cell phone companies do.  

There is no reason why everyone’s health care and insurance must be so screwed up to help the poor. A bit of taxing and spending instead — budgeted, appropriated, visible — would not stymie competition and innovation. 

Example 2: Banking offers plenty of room for improvement. In 1933, the US suffered a great bank run. Our government responded with deposit insurance. Guaranteeing deposits stops runs, but it’s like sending your brother-in-law to Las Vegas with your credit card, what we economists call an “incentive for risk taking.” The government piled on regulations to try to stop banks from taking risks. The banks got around the regulations, new crises erupted, new guarantees and regulations followed. This spring, the regulatory juggernaut failed to detect simple interest rate risk, and Silicon Valley Bank had a run, followed by others. The Fed and FDIC bailed out depositors and promised more rules. 

This system is fundamentally broken. The answer: Deposits should flow to accounts backed by reserves at the Fed, or short-term treasuries. Banks should get money for risky loans by issuing stock or long term debt that can’t run. We can end private-sector financial crises forever, with next to no regulation. 

There is a lesson in these stories. If we want to improve regulations, we can’t just bemoan them. We must understand how they emerged. 

As in health and banking, a regulatory mess often emerges from a continual patchwork, in which each step is a roughly sensible repair of the previous regulation’s dysfunction. The little old lady swallowed a fly, a spider to catch the fly, and so on. Now horse is on the menu. Only a start-from-scratch reform will work.

Much regulation protects politically influential businesses, workers, and other constituencies from the disruptions of growth. Responsive democracies give people what they want, good and hard. And in return, regulation extorts political support from those beneficiaries. We have to fix the regulatory structure, to give growth a seat at the table.  

Economists are somewhat at fault too. They are taught to look at every problem, diagnose “market failure,” and advocate new rules to be implemented by an omniscient, benevolent planner. But we do not live in a free market. When you see a problem, look first for the regulation that caused it.

Example 3: Taxes are a mess, with high marginal rates that discourage work, investment and production; disappointing revenue; and massive, wasteful complexity. How can the government raise revenue while doing the least damage to the economy? A uniform consumption tax is the clear answer. Tax money when people spend it. When earnings are saved, invested, plowed into businesses that produce goods and services and employ people, leave them alone.

Example 4: Bad incentives are again the unsung central problem of our social programs.  Roughly speaking, from zero to about sixty thousand dollars of income, if you earn an extra dollar, you lose a dollar of benefits. Fix the incentives, and more people will get ahead in life. We will also better help the truly needy, and the budget.

Some more general points unite these stories:

Focus on incentives. Politics and punditry are consumed with taking from A to give to B. Incentives are far more important for economic growth, and we can say something objective about them. 

Find the question. Politics and punditry usually advance answers without stating the question, or shop around for questions to justify the same old answers. Most people who disagree with the consumption tax really have different goals than funding the government with minimum economic damage. Well, what do you want the tax system to do? State the question, let’s find the best answer to the question, and we can make a lot of progress.

Look at the whole system. Tax disincentives come from the total difference between the value your additional work creates and what you can consume as a result. Between these lie payroll, income, excise, property, estate, sales, and corporate taxes, and more, at the federal, state, and local level. Greg Mankiw figured his all-in marginal tax rate at 90%, and even he left out sales, property, and a few more taxes. Social-program disincentives come from the combined phaseout of food stamps, housing subsidies, medicaid or Obamacare subsidies, disability payments, tax credits, and so on, down to low-income parking passes. And look at taxes and social programs together. A flat tax that finances checks to worthy people is very progressive government, if you want that. Looking at an individual tax or program for its disincentives or progressivity is silly. 

The list goes on. Horrible public education, labor laws, licensing laws, zoning, building and planning restrictions, immigration restrictions, regulatory barriers, endless lawsuits, prevailing-wage and domestic-content rules, are all sand in the productivity gears. Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to money and inflation yet! 

And that just fixes our current economy. Long-term growth comes from new ideas. Many economists say we have run out of ideas; growth is ending; slice the pie. I look out the window and I see factory-built mini nuclear power plants that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is strangling; I see a historic breakthrough in artificial intelligence, facing an outcry for the government to stop it. I see advances in biology that portend much better health and longevity, but good luck getting FDA approval or increasingly politicized research funding.

Many conservatives disparage this “incentive economics” as outdated and boring. That attitude is utterly wrong. Incentives, and the freedom, rights, and rule of law that preserve incentives, remain the key to tremendous and widespread prosperity. And it is hard work to understand and fix the incentives behind today’s problems.

Yes, supply is less glamorous than stimulus. “Fix regulations” is a tougher slogan than “free money for voters.” Efficiency requires detailed reform in every agency and market, the Marie-Kondo approach to our civic life. But it’s possible. And we don’t need to reform all the dinosaurs. As we have seen with telephones, airlines, and taxis, we just need to allow new competitors, to allow the buds of freedom to grow.

Many people ask, “How can we get leaders to listen?” That’s the wrong question. Believe in democracy, not bending the emperor’s ear. Take action. My fellow prizewinners have grabbed the levers of influence that belong to citizens of our free society, and done hard work of reforming its institutions. And ideas matter. The Hoover Institution motto is “ideas defining a free society.” The Bradley Foundation tonight celebrates good ideas, and is devoted to spreading them. When voters, media, the chattering classes, and institutions of civil society understand, advance and apply these ideas, politicians will swiftly follow.   


Growth: Real GDP 1950:I was $2186 billion, and per capita $14500; in 2000:I, $12935 and per capita $45983; in 2022:IV, $20182 and per capita 60376. From these numbers, average log real GDP growth 1950-2000 was 3.56% From 2000-2002, 1.96%. In per capita terms,  2.31% and  1.20%. (2.31-1.20)x22 = 24.4. 

Cross-country comparison: Calculations based on purchasing-power-adjusted GDP per capita: US $69,287, Canada $52,790, UK $50,890, Mexico $19,587, India $7,242. Source: The PPP adjustment tries to take account that some things are cheaper in other countries. Converting at the exchange rate produces even larger differences. US $70.248, Canada $51,987, UK $46,510, Mexico $10,065, India $2,256. Source:



I have been fortunate to benefit from the effort, time, wisdom and affection of so many people, and many institutions that supported their efforts.

Of course it starts with my parents, Eric and Lydia Cochrane. They expected children to think and speak at the family dinner table. They exposed me to different cultures, on the south side of Chicago and in Italy, sometimes beyond my desires. They set an example by how they lived: They steadfastly followed their intellectual pursuits with extreme honesty. They treated people with a radical egalitarianism. And then left me alone to pursue my own passions. 

I was lucky to learn from some extraordinary and dedicated teachers, at the Ancona Montessori School, the U of C Lab school, Italian public schools, and Kenwood high school. There, in an inner city public school, Arlene Gordon (Math), Judith Stein (English) Walter Sherrill (Chemistry) and especially Joel Hofslund (Physics) gave me absolutely first rate experience. Thanks also to Ed Shands’ patient coaching of our swim team. 

I moved on to MIT to study physics. This was more impersonal, and a difficult time for me, but as it turned out a superb education in the kind of mathematical modeling essential to economics. 

I went on to study economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Faculty took PhD teaching seriously, not just of their own research, and I soaked it up. I thank especially my advisers, Roger Craine, Tom Rothermberg, and George Akerlof.  Many of their lessons are vivid today, but like my parents they provided only gentle guidance and feedback on my own imperfect quests. 

I was supremely luck to land a job at the University of Chicago. I learned a tremendous amount in the wide open collegial atmosphere at Chicago, thanks in large part to Lars Hansen and Gene Fama, but also colleagues too numerous to mention in this short space.  Generations of MBA and PhD students also pushed me hard to understand economics and became lifelong friends and colleagues. 

At just the right moment Hoover came calling, allowing me the time and institutional support to blossom as a public intellectual and commenter as well as an academic. A special thanks to John Raisin for that. 

No man is an island. The world of ideas is a conversation. Everything I know has been shaped by teachers, friends, colleagues, collaborators, students, journal editors, referees, and others who took the time and effort to help me think about things. 

Many small interactions have had a crucial effect on my life. A coffee conversation at a conference with John Campbell resulted in our best known academic paper. A lunch conversation with Luigi Zingales produced my first public writing during the financial crisis. As a result, Amity Shlaes invited me to a conference. Howard Dickman, then at the Wall Street Journal, liked my presentation and asked, “Why don’t you write opeds for us?” I answered, “Why don’t you stop rejecting them?” My oped career was born. And so forth. I thank these and many more, and lady luck who put us together. 

Of course my greatest thanks go to my wonderful wife, Elizabeth Fama. We met the night I returned to Chicago. It was love at first sight. We were engaged on the second date. She has been my best friend and constant companion ever since, though marriage to a passionate researcher, busy teacher and lover of time consuming sports cannot have been easy. Together we raised four amazing children, Sally, Eric, Jean, and Lake, who fill my heart with love, and now that they are grown a bit of nostalgia. 

Walter Russell Mead and Grapes of Wrath Episode II

Walter Russell Mead has a nice essay in Tablet on California. This excerpt struck me. You too were probably dragged through "Grapes of Wrath" at some point in school, or you've seen the movie. But what happens next? Mead's insight hadn't occurred to me. Spoiler: 

Ma Joad might have ended up as the “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” leaving her garden of white gardenias to become the terror of Colorado Boulevard in her ruby-red Dodge. Rose of Sharon would be a Phyllis Schlafly-loving Reagan activist reunited with her husband, now owner of a small chain of franchise fast-food outlets. 

A longer excerpt:   

 John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the suffering of a group of bankrupt former farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to arrive, desperate and penniless, in an unwelcoming California.

 In Steinbeck’s novel—carefully crafted, one must note, to check all the boxes that censorious communist and far-left writers used at the time to evaluate whether a given novel was genuinely proletarian and progressive—the Joad clan heads west in a broken-down Hudson sedan. Tough matriarch Ma Joad holds the clan together. Her unmarried daughter Rose of Sharon endures unspeakable suffering and, in the redemptive if melodramatic climax to the novel, feeds a starving father with the breastmilk she had hoped to give to her stillborn baby. Rose’s brother Tom becomes a fearless defender of the oppressed, supporting unionization drives and risking imprisonment and death to stand up for the common man.

The left saw those migrants as the harbingers of the socialist future of the United States. But the Okies of the Central Valley and the Southland did not become the foundation of a new Democratic majority. Instead, they became the core of Ronald Reagan’s electoral base. By the 1950s they were living the American dream, and they liked it.

The Grapes of Wrath remains a landmark of American literature, but if Steinbeck had returned to his characters 30 or 40 years later, he’d have had a very different story to write. Ma Joad might have ended up as the “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” leaving her garden of white gardenias to become the terror of Colorado Boulevard in her ruby-red Dodge. Rose of Sharon would be a Phyllis Schlafly-loving Reagan activist reunited with her husband, now owner of a small chain of franchise fast-food outlets. Tom Joad, converted at one of Billy Graham’s Southern California evangelistic crusades, would be pastoring a megachurch in the Orange County suburbs. All of them would be worried about the new waves of desperate, penniless immigrants coming over the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande.

The transformation of the 1930s migrant wave from desperate climate refugees to surfing suburbanites was an economic and social miracle that changed the trajectory of American life. 

The larger point of the article: 

The great question hanging over California and the future of the United States today is whether and how the same kind of change can happen to the latest wave of immigrants. Will the dusty, desperate migrants scuffing over the border someday become affluent homeowners and staunchly patriotic defenders of the American way? Can California’s promise be renewed for a new generation? 

The truth is that we already have everything we need to make California golden once again. The highway to wealth that transformed the horizons of the Okies is still open. The obstacles to growth are mostly in our heads."

Rabu, 17 Mei 2023

Bob Lucas and his papers

My first post described a few anecdotes about what a warm person Bob Lucas was, and such a great colleague. Here I describe a little bit of his intellectual influence, in a form that is I hope accessible to average people.

The “rational expectations” revolution that brought down Keynesianism in the 1970s was really much larger than that. It was really the “general equilibrium” revolution. 

Macroeconomics until 1970 was sharply different from regular microeconomics. Economics is all about “models,” complete toy economies that we construct via equations and in computer programs. You can’t keep track of everything in even the most beautiful prose. Microeconomic models, and “general equilibrium” as that term was used at the time, wrote down how people behave — how they decide what to buy, how hard to work, whether to save, etc.. Then it similarly described how companies behave and how government behaves. Set this in motion and see where it all settles down; what prices and quantities result. 

But for macroeconomic issues, this approach was sterile. I took a lot of general equilibrium classes as a PhD student — Berkeley, home of Gerard Debreu was strong in the field. But it was devoted to proving the existence of equilibrium with more and more general assumptions, and never got around to calculating that equilibrium and what it might say about recessions and government policies. 

Macroeconomics, exemplified by the ISLM tradition,  inhabited a different planet. One wrote down equations for quantities rather than people, for example that “consumption” depended on “income,” and investment on interest rates. Most importantly, macroeconomics treated each year as a completely separate economy. Today’s consumption depended on today’s income, having nothing to do with whether people expected the future to look better or worse. Economists recognized this weakness, and a vast and now thankfully forgotten literature tried fruitlessly to find “micro foundations” for Keynesian economics. But building foundations under an existing castle doesn’t work. The foundations want a different castle. 

Bob’s “islands” paper is famous, yes, for a complete model of how unexpected money might move output in the short run and not just raise inflation. But you can do that with a half a page of simple math, and Bob’s paper is hard to read. It’s deeper contribution, and the reason for that difficulty, is that Bob wrote out a complete “general equilibrium” model. People, companies and government each follow described rules of behavior. Those rules are derived as being the optimal thing for people and companies to do given their environment. And they are forward-looking. People think about how to make their whole lives as pleasant as possible, companies to maximize the present value of profits. Prices adjust so supply = demand. Bob said, by example, that we should do macroeconomics by writing down general equilibrium models. 

General equilibrium had also been abandoned by the presumption that it only studies perfect economies. Macroeconomics is really about studying how things go wrong, how “frictions” in the economy, such as the “sticky” wages underlying Keynesian thinking, can produce undesirable and unnecessary recessions. But here too, Bob requires us to write down the frictions explicitly. In his model, people don’t see the aggregate price level right away, and do the best they can with local information. 

That is the real influence of the paper  and Bob’s real influence in the profession. (Current macroeconomic modeling reflects the fact that the Fed sets interest rates, and does not control the money supply.) You can see this influence in Tom Sargent’s textbooks. The first textbook has an extensive treatment of Keynesian economics. It’s about the most comprehensible treatment there is — but it is no insult to Tom to say that in that book you can see how Keynesian economics really doesn’t hang together. Tom describes how, the minute he learned from Bob how to to general equilibrium, everything changed instantly. Rational expectations was, like any other advance, a group effort. But what made Bob the leader was that he showed the rest how to do general equilibrium. 

This is the heart of my characterization that Bob is the most important macroeconomist of the 20th century. Yes, Keynes and Friedman had more policy impact, and Friedman’s advocacy of free markets in microeconomic affairs is the most consequential piece of 20th century economics. But within macroeconomics, there is before Lucas and after Lucas.  Everyone today does economics the Lucas way. Even the most new-Keynesian article follows the Lucas rules of how to do economics. 

Once you see models founded on complete descriptions of people, businesses, government, and frictions, you can see the gaping holes in standard ISLM models. This is some of his stinging critique, such as “after Keynesian macroeconomics.” Sure, if people’s income goes up they are likely to consume more, as the Keynesians posited. But interest rates, wages, and expectations of the future also affect consumption, which Keynesians leave out. “Cross equations restrictions” and “budget constraints” are missing. 

Now, the substantive prediction that monetary policy can only move the real economy via unexpected money supply growth did not bear out, and both subsequent real business cycles and new-Keynesianism brought persistent responses. But the how we do macroeconomics part is the enduring contribution. 

The paper still had enduring practical lessons. Lucas, together with Friedman and Phelps brought down the Phillips curve. This curve, relating inflation to unemployment, had been (and sadly, remains) at the center of macroeconomics. It is a statistical correlation, but like many correlations people got enthused with it and started reading it as stable relationship, and indeed a causal one. Raise inflation and you can have less unemployment. Raise unemployment in order to lower inflation. The Fed still thinks about it in that causal way. But Lucas, Friedman, and Phelps bring a basic theory to it, and thereby realize it is just a correlation, which will vanish if you push on it. Rich guys wear Rolexes. That doesn’t mean that giving everyone a Rolex will have a huge “multiplier” effect and make us all rich. 

This is the essence of the “Lucas critique” which is a second big contribution that lay readers can easily comprehend. If you push on correlations they will vanish. Macroeconomics was dedicated to the idea that policy makers can fool people. Monetary policy might try to boost output in a recession with a surprise bit of money growth. That will wok once or twice. But like the boy who cried wolf, people will catch on, come to expect higher money growth in recessions and the trick won’t work anymore. 

Bob showed here that all the “behavioral” relations of Keynesian models will fall apart if you exploit them for policy, or push on them, though they may well hold as robust correlations in the data. The “consumption function” is the next great example. Keynesians noticed that when income rises people consume more, so write a consumption function relating consumption to income. But, following Friedman’s great work   on consumption, we know that correlation isn’t always true in the data. The relation between consumption and income is different across countries (about one for one) than it is over time (less than one for one). And we understand that with Friedman’s theory: People, trying to do their best over their whole lives don’t follow mechanical rules. If they know income will fall in the future, they consume a lot less today, no matter what today’s current income. Lucas showed that people who behave this sensible way will follow a Keynesian consumption function, given the properties of income overt the business cycle. You will see a Keynesian consumption function. Econometric estimates and tests will verify a Keynesian consumption function. Yet if you use the model to change policies, the consumption function will evaporate. 

This paper is devastating. Large scale Keynesian models had already been constructed, and used for forecasting and policy simulation. It’s natural. The model says, given a set of policies (money supply, interest rates, taxes, spending) and other shocks, here is where the economy goes. Well, then, try different policies and find ones that lead to better outcomes. Bob shows the models are totally useless for that effort. If the policy changes, the model will change. Bob also showed that this was happening in real time. Supposedly stable parameters drifted around. (This one is also very simple mathematically. You can see the point instantly. Bob always uses the minimum math necessary. If other papers are harder, that’s by necessity not bravado.) 

This devastation is sad in a way. Economics moved to analyzing policies in much simpler, more theoretically grounded, but less realistic models. Washington policy analysis sort of gave up. The big models lumber on, the Fred’s FRBUS for example, but nobody takes the policy predictions that seriously. And they don’t even forecast very well. For example, in the 2008 stimulus, the CEA was reduced to assuming a back of the envelope 1.5 multiplier, this 40 years after the first large scale policy models were constructed. Bob always praised the effort of the last generation of Keynesians to write explicit quantitative models, to fit them to data, and to make numerical predictions of various policies. He hoped to improve that effort. It didn’t work out that way, but not by intention. 

This affair explains a lot of why economists flocked to the general equilibrium camp. Behavioral relationships, like what fraction of an extra dollar of income you consume, are not stable over time or as policy changes. But one hopes that preferences, — how impatient you are, how much you are willing to save more to get a better rate of return — and technology — how much a firm can produce with given capital and labor — do not change when policy changes. So, write models for policy evaluation at the level of preferences and technology, with people and companies at the base, not from behavioral relationships that are just correlations. 

Another deep change: Once you start thinking about macroeconomics as intertemporal economics — the economics that results from people who make decisions about how to consume over time, businesses make decisions about how to produce this year and next — and once you see that their expectations of what will happen next year, and what policies will be in place next year are crucial, you have to think of policy in terms of rules, and regimes, not isolated decisions. 

The Fed often asks economists for advice, “should we raise the funds rate?” Post Lucas macroeconomists answer that this isn’t a well posed question. It’s like saying “should we cry wolf?” The right question is, should we start to follow a rule, a regime, should we create an institution, that regularly and reliably raises interest rates in a situation like the current one? Decisions do not live in isolation. They create expectations and reputations. Needless to say, this fundamental reality has not soaked in to policy institutions. And that answer (which I have tried at Fed advisory meetings) leads to glazed eyes. John Taylor’s rule has been making progress for 30 years trying to bridge that conceptual gap, with some success.  

This was, and remains, extraordinarily contentious. 50 years later, Alan Blinder’s book, supposedly about policy, is really one long snark about how terrible Lucas and his followers are, and how we should go back to the Keynesian models of the 1960s. 

Some of that contention comes back to basic philosophy.  The program applies standard microeconomics: derive people’s behaviors as the best thing they can do given their circumstances. If people pick the best combination of apples and bananas when they shop, then also describe consumption today vs. tomorrow as the best they can do given interest rates. But a lot of economics doesn’t like this “rational actor” assumption. It’s not written in stone, but it has been extraordinarily successful. And it imposes a lot of discipline. There are a thousand arbitrary ways to be irrational.  Somehow though, a large set of economists are happy to write down that people pick fruit baskets optimally, but don’t apply the same rationality to decisions over time, or in how they think about the future. 

But “rational expectations” is really just a humility condition. It says, don’t write models in which the predictions of the model are different from the expectations in the model. If you do, if your model is right, people will read the model and catch on, and the model won’t work anymore. Don’t assume you economist (or Fed chair) are so much less behavioral than the people in your model. Don’t base policy on an attempt to fool the little peasants over and over again. It does not say that people are big super rational calculating machines. It just says that they eventually catch on. 

Some of the contentiousness is also understandable by career concerns. Many people had said “we should do macro seriously like general equilibrium.” But it isn’t easy to do. Bob had to teach himself, and get the rest of us to learn, a range of new mathematical  and modeling tools to be able to write down interesting general equilibrium models. A 1970 Keynesian can live just knowing how to solve simple systems of linear equations, and run regressions.  To follow Bob and the rational expectations crowd, you had to learn linear time-series statistics, dynamic programming, and general equilibrium math. Bob once described how tough the year was that it took him to learn functional analysis and dynamic programming. The models themselves consisted of a mathematically hard set of constructions. The older generation either needed to completely retool, fade away, or fight the revolution. 

Some good summary words: Bob’s economics uses"rational expectations,” or at least forward-looking and model-consistent expectations. Economics becomes “intertemporal," not “static” (one year at a time). Economics is “stochastic” as well as “dynamic,” we can treat uncertainty over time, not just economies in which everyone knows the future perfectly. It applies “general equilibrium" to macroeconomics. 

And I’ve just gotten to the beginning of the 1970s. 

When I got to Chicago in the 1980s, there was a feeling of “well, you just missed the party.” But it wasn’t true. The 1980s as well were a golden age. The early rational expectations work was done, and the following real business cycles were the rage in macro. But Bob’s dynamic programming, general equilibrium tool kit was on a rampage all over dynamic economics. The money workshop was one creative use of dynamic programs and interetempboral tools after another one, ranging from taxes to Thai villages (Townsend). 

I’ll mention two. Bob’s consumption model is at the foundation of modern asset pricing. Bob parachuted in, made the seminal contribution, and then left finance for other pursuits. The issue at the time was how to generalize the capital asset pricing model. Economists understood that some stocks pay higher returns than others, and that they must do so to compensate for risk. The understood that the risk is, in general terms, that the stock falls in some sense of bad times. But how to measure “bad times?” The CAPM uses the market, other models use somewhat nebulous other portfolios. Bob showed us that at least in the purest theory, that stocks must pay higher average returns if they fall when consumption falls. (Breeden also constructed a consumption model in parallel, but without this “endowment economy” aspect of Bob’s) This is the purest most general theory, and all the others are (useful) specializations. My asset pricing book follows. 

The genius here was to turn it all around. Finance had sensibly built up from portfolio theory, like supply and demand: Given returns, what stocks do you buy, and how much to you save vs. consume? Then, markets have to clear find the stock prices, and thus returns, given which people will buy exactly the amount that’s for sale and consume what is produced. That’s hard. (Technically, finding the vector of prices that clears markets is hard. Yes, N equations in N unknowns, but they’re nonlinear and N is big.)  

Bob instead imagined that consumption is fixed at each moment in time, like a desert island  in which so many coconuts fall each day and you can't store them or plant them. Then, you can just read prices from people’s preferences. This gives the same answer as if the consumption you assume is fixed had derived from a complex production economy. You don’t have to solve for prices that equate supply and demand. Brilliantly, though prices cause consumption to individual people, consumption causes prices in aggregate. This is part of Bob’s contribution to the hard business of actually computing quantitative models in the stochastic dynamic general equilibrium tradition. 

Bob, with Nancy Stokey also took the new tools to the theory of taxation. (Bob Barro also was a founder of this effort in the late 1980s.) You can see the opportunity: we just learned how to handle dynamic (overt time, expectations of tomorrow matter to what you do today) stochastic (but there is uncertainty about what will happen tomorrow) economics (people make explicit optimizing decisions) for macro. How about taking that same approach to taxes? The field of dynamic public finance is born. Bob and Nancy, like Barro, show that it’s a good idea for governments to borrow and then repay, so as to spread the pain of taxes evenly over time. But not always. When a big crisis comes, it is useful to execute a “state contingent default.” The big tension of Lucas-Stokey (and now, all) dynamic public finance: You don’t want any capital taxes for the incentive effects. If you tax capital, people invest less, and you just get less capital. But once people have invested, a capital tax grabs revenue for the government with no economic distortion. Well, that is, if you can persuade them you’ll never do it again. (Do you see expectations, reputations, rules, regimes, wolves in how we think of policy?) Lucas and Stoney say, do it only very rarely to balance the disincentive of a bad reputation with the need to raise revenue in once a century calamities. 

Bob went on, of course, to be one of the founders of modern growth theory. I always felt he deserved a second Nobel for this work. He’s absolutely right. Once you look at growth, it’s hard to think about anything else. The average Indian lives on $2,000 per year. The average American, $60,000. That was $15,000 in 1950. Nothing else comes close. I only work on money and inflation because that’s where I think I have answers. For us mortals, good research proceeds where you think you have an answer, not necessarily from working on Big Questions. 

Bob brilliantly put together basic facts and theory to arrive at the current breakthrough. Once you get out of the way, growth does not come from more capital, or even more efficiency. It comes from more and better ideas. I remember being awed by his first work for cutting through the morass and assembling the facts that only look salient in retrospect. A key one: Interest rates in poor countries are not much higher than they are in rich countries. Poor countries have lots of workers, but little capital. Why isn’t the return on scarce capital enormous, with interest rates in the hundreds of percent, to attract more capital to poor countries? Well, you sort of know the answer, that capital is not productive in those countries.  Productivity is low, meaning those countries don't make use of better ideas on how to organize production.  

Ideas too are produced by economics, but, as Paul Romer crystallized, they are fundamentally different from other goods. If I produce an idea, you can use it without hurting my use of it. Yes, you might drive down the monopoly profits I gain from my intellectual property. But if you use my Pizza recipe, that’s not like using my car. I can still make Pizza, where if you use my car I can’t go anywhere. Thus, the usual free market presumption that we will produce enough ideas is false. (Don’t jump too quickly to advocate government subsides for ideas. You have to find the right ideas, and governments aren’t necessarily good at subsidizing that search.) And the presumption that intellectual property should be preserved forever is also false. Once produced it is socially optimal for everyone to use it. 

I won’t go on. It’s enough to say that Bob was as central to the creation of idea-based growth theory, which dominates today, as he was to general equilibrium macro, which also dominates today.

Bob is an underrated empiricist. Bob's work on the size distribution of firms (great tweet summary by Luis Garicano) similarly starts from basic facts of the size distribution of firms and the lack of relationship between size and growth rates. It's interesting how we can go on for years with detailed econometric estimates of models that don't get basic facts right. I loved Bob's paper on money demand for the Carnegie Rochester conference series. An immense literature had tried to estimate money demand functions with dynamics, and was pretty confusing. It made a basic mistake, by looking at first differences rather than levels and thereby isolating the noise and drowning out the signal. Bob made a few plots, basically rediscovered cointegration all on his own, and made sense of it all. And don't forget the classic international comparison of inflation-output relations. Countries with volatile inflation have less Phillips curve tradeoff, just as his islands model featuring confusion between relative prices and the price level predicts. 

One last note to young scholars. There is a tendency today to value people by the number of papers they produce, and how quickly they rise through the ranks. Read Bob’s CV. He wrote about one paper a year, starting quite late in life. But, as Aesop said, they were lions. In his Nobel prize speech, Bob also passed on that he and his Nobel-winning generation at Chicago always felt they were in some backwater, where the high prestige stuff was going on at Harvard and MIT. You never know when it might be a golden age. And the AER rejected his islands paper (as well as Akerlof's lemons). If you know it's good, revise and try again. 

I will miss his brilliant papers as much as his generous personality. 

Update: See Ivan Werning's excellent "Lucas Miracles" for an appreciation by a real theorist. 

Selasa, 16 Mei 2023

Hoover Monetary Policy Conference

Friday May 12 we had the annual Hoover monetary policy conference. Hoover twitter stream here.  Conference webpage and schedule here (update 5/24 now contains videos.) As before, the talks, panels, and comments will eventually be written and published. 

The Fed has experienced two dramatic institutional failures: Inflation peaking at 8%, and a rash of bank failures. There were panels focused on each, and much surrounding discussion.  

We started with a little celebration of the 30th anniversary of Taylor (1993), which put the Taylor rule on the map. As Andy Levin pointed out in the discussion, academic immortality comes when they omit the number after your name. Rich Clarida, Volker Weiland and I quickly outlined some academic influence. John Lipsky added some very interesting commentary on how the Taylor rule was important on Wall Street, and specifically from his experience at Salomon Bros. 

The second panel on financial regulation was a smash. Anat Admati chaired, with presentations by Darrell Duffie, Randy Quarles, and Amit Seru. 

Duffie showed how online banking has taken over, and the combination of twitter and online banking makes runs happen much faster than before. You don't have to stand in line, you can all push "withdraw" at once. He also showed a glaring hole in liquidity regulations: A bank cannot count as liquidity its ability to use the discount window at the Fed. 

Seru covered some of his recent work, showing just how many banks have lost 10% or more of their asset value, and thus the value of their equity. (Nobody mentioned commercial real estate, the next shoe to drop.) They gently disagreed, Darrel viewing more liquidity and better liquidity rules as the main solution, and Amit more equity. All seemed to agree that the current regulatory mechanism is fundamentally broken. 

Randy gave a thoughtful, eloquent, and impassioned talk laying to rest the common notion that "deregulation" caused SVB to fail. It would have passed all the stress tests. This will be important to read when the papers are all available. I take the implication that the regulatory structure is, again, fundamentally broken. No, more of the current regulations would not have helped. But Randy didn't say that. 

Peter Henry next presented "Disinflation and the Stock Market: Third World Lessons for First World Monetary Policy" (a paper with Anusha Chari), discussed by Josh Rauh and Chaired by Bill Nelson. A key innovation, they use stock market reactions to measure whether disinflations are a success on a cost/benefit basis. Large inflations seem to end with stock market expansions. Moderate disinflations don't really do much for stock markets. Most disinflationary reforms fail.

Over lunch, Haruhiko Kuroda, Former Governor, Bank of Japan updated us on the Japanese situation. He is confident 2% inflation will return soon. 

Niall Ferguson and Paul Schmelzing presented "The Safety Net: Central Bank Balance Sheets and Financial Crises 1587-2020," (with Martin Kornejew and Moritz Schularick), with Barry Eichengreen discussing and Michael Bordo chair. A taste: 

The paper concludes that lender of last resort operations do work, and also create moral hazard. Barry had an eloquent discussion, noting among other things that not all balance sheet expansions are the same. Look for those in the written versions. 

Next, Mickey Levy presented The Fed: Bad Forecasts and Misguided Monetary Policy, Steve Davis discussing and  Jim Wilcox chair. The Fed -- and most industry analysts -- completely missed 8% inflation, both ahead of time and as it was happening. Why? How can the Fed do better? (And why is the Fed not asking this question?) 

To me, it looks like the forecast is not much more than an AR(1) reversion to 2% inflation. The paper has a good summary of how Fed forecasts are made, along with recommendations for institutional improvement.  

Steve Davis had an excellent discussion, pointing to a central incentive problem. The Fed uses forecasts to try to shape expectations. Like pubic health authorities, it can be afraid to reveal actual fears. I also see conceptual flaws -- not much attention to supply or fiscal policy, using the Phillips curve as a causal model and as a model in itself, too much attention to the one-period link from expected inflation to inflation, and too much attention to the forecast rather than risk management; what do we do if things come out differently. 

The conference day ended with the traditional policy panel, with Jim Bullard (talk here), Philip Jefferson (talk here), Jeff Lacker, and Charlie Plosser, Chaired by John Taylor. 

Bullard pointed to the huge fiscal stimulus as a source of inflation, warming my heart. He opined that this stimulus is fading, making him hopeful for a soft landing. He presented the following chart. 

This is a very interesting measure of how much "stimulus" is sitting out there in the economy. The government did write a lot of checks, that went straight to people's bank accounts, and eventually were spent, driving up inflation. On the other hand, I am still a bit shocked that we're running $1 trillion deficit despite beyond-full employment and output revving at every bit that the "supply" side of the economy can produce. What's your measure of fiscal stimulus? Which forecasts inflation? This is a very provocative and interesting idea. 

Jefferson gave a great talk. He has the measured cadence of a seasoned central banker, but speaks very clearly and directly.  He started by announcing his appointment as vice-chair, which got a well deserved ovation. He then jumped right in: 
The title of the conference "How to Get Back on Track: A Policy Conference" is potent. Its intent and ambiguity are striking. First, the title presupposes that U.S. monetary policy is currently on the wrong track. Second, the webpage for this conference advances a puzzling definition of the phrase "on track." How so? According to the Hoover webpage, "A key goal of the conference is to examine how to get back on track and, thereby, how to reduce the inflation rate without slowing down economic growth" (emphasis added).1 As this audience knows, there are macroeconomic models that permit disinflation with no slowdown in economic growth, but the assumptions underlying these models are very strong. It's not clear, at least to me, why such a strict metric would be used to assess real-world monetary policymaking....

I loved this. It shows he took the time to read up on the conference, and I love seeing basic premises challenged. Later, this struck me as thoughtful: 

I want to share with you a few strategic principles that are important to me. First, policymakers should be ready to react to a wide range of economic conditions with respect to inflation, unemployment, economic growth, and financial stability. The unprecedented pandemic shock is a good reminder that under extraordinary circumstances it will be difficult to formulate precise forecasts in real time. Our dual mandate from the Congress is especially helpful here. It provides the foundation for all our policy decisions. Second, policymakers should clearly communicate monetary policy decisions to the public. Our commitment to transparency should be evident to the public, and monetary policy should be conducted in a way that anchors longer-term inflation expectations. Third—and this is where I am revealing my passion for econometrics—policymakers should continuously update their priors about how the economy works as new data become available. In other words, it is appropriate to change one's perspective as new facts emerge. In this sense, I am in favor of a Bayesian approach to information processing.

The first point brings us back to the problem that the Fed has so far been too silent about: How did it miss 8% inflation? And how to operate when such huge misses are possible? The Fed seems to have been making a forecast, then announcing a policy path that works for the forecast, and then trying to stick to it. In this first principle you see a quite different view. Let's call it data-dependent rather than time-dependent. 

This is a conference about the Taylor rule. Should the Fed look at more than inflation and employment? Well, yes and no according to these comments. And when models are not certain, distrust and update.

Plosser and Lacker previewed an upcoming paper on the Fed's deviation from rules. Stay tuned. 

The evening started with a delightful speech by Sebastian Edwards on Latin American inflation. Stay tuned for that too. 

Videos should be up soon, and written versions as fast as we can get authors to turn them in. This is just a teaser!  

Update: Videos are now up, with some more commentary here.

Senin, 15 Mei 2023

Bob Lucas

I just got the sad news that Bob Lucas has passed away. He was truly a giant among economists, and a wonderful warm person. 

I will only pass on three remembrances that others will not likely mention. 

Bob was incredibly welcoming to me, a young brash and fairly untutored young economist from Berkeley.  

In the fall of 1985 I gave what was no doubt the most disastrous first seminar by a new assistant professor in the Department's history. It was something about random walks and real business cycles, and was going nowhere. Bob stopped by my office, and expressed doubt about this random walk stuff. He said, if you look at longer and longer horizons, GNP volatility goes down. At least I had the wit to recognize what had just been handed to me on a silver platter, dropped everything and wrote the "Random walk in GNP," my first big paper. Without that, I doubt I would be where I am today. Thank you Bob.  He and Nancy were kind to us socially as well. 

The first Lucas paper that I recall reading, while I was still at Berkeley, was his review of a report to the OECD.  I don't think anyone else writing about Bob will mention this masterpiece. If you get annoyed by policy blather, read this article. Reading it as a grad student, I loved the way he sliced through loose prose like warm butter. No BS with Bob. Only clear thinking please. I mentioned it later, and he laughed saying he wrote it in a bad mood because he was getting divorced. Like "After Keynesian Macroeconomics," Bob could wield a pen. 

Much later,  I attended a revelatory money workshop. Bob presented an early version of, I think, "Ideas and growth."  In the model, people have ideas, and bump into each other randomly and share ideas. Questioner after questioner complained that there wasn't any economics in the model. Why not put in some incentive for people to bump in to each other, or something non mechanical. Time after time, Bob answered each suggestion that he had tried it, but it didn't make much difference to the outcome, so he stripped it out of the model. Clearly, he had been playing with this model over a year, working to eliminate  needless ingredients, not to add more generality. It's great to see the production function at work. 

Bob is known as a theorist, but he had a great handle on empirical work as well. His Carnegie Rochester money demand paper basically reinvented cointegration, and saw clearly what dozens of others missed. "Mechanics of economic development" starts by putting together facts. "International evidence on inflation-output tradeoffs" 1973 makes one stunning graph. And more. 

There is so much to say about Bob the great economist, superb colleague and tremendous human being, but I will stop here for now. RIP Bob. And thank you. 


Ben Moll has a lovely twitter thread about Bob as a thesis adviser. Bob covered Ben's thesis draft with useful comments. Bob read my early papers and did the same thing. This encouraged a culture of comments. Though a young assistant professor, I took it as a duty to write comments on Bob's papers! And some of them actually helped. This was the culture of the economics department in the 1980s, not common. Bob helped quite a few people and JPE authors to see what their papers were really about, making dramatic improvements.  

The outpouring on twitter is remarkable. More remarkable, here is a man for whom we could celebrate every single paper as pathbreaking. Yet the outpouring is all about his wonderful personal qualities. 

A correspondent reminds me of one last story. Bob's divorce agreement specified half of his Nobel prize, which he paid. Asked  by a reporter if he had regrets, he answered "A deal's a deal." 

Next post, focused on intellectual contributions. 

FTPL 50% off sale

Princeton University Press has a 50% off sale on all books, including the (overpriced, sorry) Fiscal Theory of the Price Level.  The splash page also offers 30% off if you give them your email, but I'm not sure if they add. 

Sabtu, 13 Mei 2023

Missing mortgage contract innovation

From WSJ 

"Many Americans who want to move are trapped in their homes—locked in by low interest rates they can’t afford to give up. 

These “golden handcuffs” are keeping the supply of homes for sale unusually low and making the market more competitive and pricey than some forecasters expected.   

The reluctance of homeowners to sell differentiates the current housing market from past downturns and could keep home prices from falling significantly on a national basis, economists say."

What's going on? US 15 or 30 year fixed-rate mortgages have a catch -- you can't take it with you. If interest rates go up, and you want to move, you can't take the old mortgage with you. You have to refinance at the higher interest rate. It's curiously asymmetric, as if interest rates go down you have the right to refinance at a lower rate. 

As a result, yes, people stay in houses they would rather sell in order to keep the low interest rate on their fixed rate mortgage. They then don't free up houses that someone else would really rather buy. (In California, the right to keep paying low property taxes, which reset if you buy a new house also keeps some people where they are. And everywhere, transfer taxes add a small disincentive to move.) 

This is a curious contract structure. Why can't you take a mortgage with you, and use it to pay for a new house? Sure, mortgages with that right would cost more; the rate would be a bit higher initially. But fixed rate mortgages already cost more than variable rate mortgages, and people seem willing to pay for insurance against rising rates. I can imagine that plenty of people might want to buy that insurance to make sure they can live in a house of given cost, though not necessarily this house.  Conversely, fixed-rate mortgages that did not give the right to refinance, where you have to pay a penalty to get out of the contract if rates go down, would also be cheaper up front, yet people aren't screaming for those. 

Even the right to refinance at a lower rate is weird. A straightforward mortgage would have a 30 year fixed rate, but automatically lower that rate as other interest rates go down. Instead, you have to go through the formalities of refinancing, which adds a lot of fixed costs to the decision. I know a lot of very sophisticated finance people. Not one has ever reported that they've really solved the complex option pricing problem, when is it optimal to refinance a conventional mortgage?

The 15 and 30 year fixed rate mortgage, with right to refinance, is peculiar to the US. You can't make a psychological argument for it. Most of Europe has variable rate mortgages. And a lot less interest rate risk on bank balance sheets! 

So why are we here, and given that we are here why does this strange contract seem so resistant to innovation. I think the answer is simple: 15 and 30 year fixed rate mortgages were a creation of the federal government during the Great Depression. And today the vast majority of mortgages are securitized via Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, VA etc, along with a generous government guarantee. Those have to conform to specific contract structures. You can't innovate better contracts and then pass the loan on via government agencies. (Commenters, correct me if I'm wrong. My recollection of the history is foggy here.) 

This all points to an interesting and usually unsung problem with extensive government intervention in the mortgage market: It freezes contract terms. Contracts that might be very popular -- such as the right to transfer the mortgage to a new house, or the right to settle up in both directions, marking the mortgage to market so you can pay a new higher rate -- don't get innovated. 


The is not, of course, a particularly original thought. Alexei Alexandrov, Laurie Goodman, and Ted Tozer at Urban Institute have a nice article advocating streamlined refinancing. They also point out the Fed should care, as it wants interest rates faced by borrowers to adjust more quickly. Ted Tozer points out that you can leave it behind -- a new buyer can assume an existing mortgage. However this feature doesn't often get used. 

I once was at the Swedish central bank talking about monetary policy. They were worried about raising interest rates. I presumed they were worried that too big to fail banks would have trouble. No, they said. In Sweden practically all mortgages are floating rate. And you can't just mail in the keys and default on mortgages. If you default, they take all your assets and garnish your wages. (So much for soft hearted socialist Scandinavia.  They are actually quite attuned to incentives.) The banks were going to be fine. They were worried that if they raised interest rates, people would do anything to pay their higher mortgage rates, and this would tank consumption. Talk about effective monetary policy! At the time however they were worried about house prices, and didn't want effective monetary policy. Long story short, mortgage contracts matter.  

(Martin Flodén, Matilda Kilström, Jósef Sigurdsson and Roine Vestman document this "cashflow channel" in the Economic Journal. It's on the back of my mind also in the search for better mechanisms to understand whether and how higher interest rates lower inflation.)  

Roger Baris writes: 

I thought you might want to know a bit about the Danish mortgage market, which basically has the features both you and the Urban Institute mention.

1. A very old securitization market. Created in the early 19th century to help rebuild Copenhagen after the Brits shelled it when Denmark complied with Napoleon's "Continental System" which blockaded trade with England. I guess the Brits really hated being cut off from all that fine Danish butter and bacon.

2. At the initiation of the mortage, the borrower basically swaps his commitment to pay a 30-yr, fixed rate mortgage for bonds in a large, largely homogeneous  (with respect to maturity and interest rate) bond issuance. The bonds are then sold at the prevailing market price, with the proceeds providing the financing for the house buyer.

3. The loan is prepayable at any time. Like the UI proposal, the originating bank (which continues to service the loan) actually prompts borrowers with high interest rates to prepay (since the bank earns some fees in the process and therefore has an economic motivation). There is no re-underwriting of the loan at this point so long as the amount of the loan does not increase. This is a very quick and very cheap process. This is used if interest rates fall (in which case, the borrower's new loan is instantly securitized into a new bond issuance with uniform characteristics, with an equivalent amount of the old bond being prepaid) or if the borrower wants to prepay the loan for a house move. (If I remember correctly, the loan may be also be "portable" to a new house but in this case, the value of the new house has to be re-underwritten.)

4. Note that the servicer in a US mortage is contractually forbidden to prompt prepayments in this manner, although enforcement of this provision is sometimes difficult, as you can imagine.

5. If interest rates rise, conversely, the borrower has the option (if he/she wants to prepay the loan for any reason, especially a house move) of going into the bond market (which is highly liquid with large, uniform pools) and buying an equivalent face amount of bonds (at a discount because rates have risen) and then delivering these bonds to extinguish his/her mortgage liability.

6. In practice, all the bond market activity (both at issuance and extinguishing) is handled for the borrower by a mortgage bank.

 The net effect of all of this - the loan prepayment right, the "portability" and the option to deliver bonds to extinguish a loan - is to make the embedded interest rate option in a Danish fixed-rate mortgage more optimal than the same option in a US mortgage. This means that, as you would expect, the borrower pays a higher "spread" on the loan from the beginning in return for the greater optionality.

PS. The Danish mortgage system also has some interesting characteristics in terms of mutualizing risk; these characteristics also interact with the interest rate option. 

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...