All posts tagged macroeconomics

Book review: Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse by Thomas E. Woods Jr.

This book describes the Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) in a more readable form than it’s usually presented. Its basic idea that malinvestment creates business cycles, and that central bank manipulation of interest rates can cause malinvestment, is correct. But when Woods tries to argue that only errors by a government can cause business cycles, his ideological blinders become obvious. He’s mostly right when he complains about government mistakes, and mostly wrong when he denies the existence of other problems.

He asks why businesses made a “cluster of errors” that added up to a big problem rather than independent errors which mostly canceled each other out. The only answer he can find is misleading signals sent by the Fed’s manipulation of interest rates. He doesn’t explain why businessmen fail to learn from the frequent and widely publicized patterns of those Fed actions. It’s unclear why groupthink needs a strong cause, but one obvious possibility that Woods ignores is that most people saw a persistent trend of rising housing prices, and didn’t remember large drops in housing prices over a region as large as the U.S.

He shows no understanding of the problems associated with sticky wages which are a key part of the better arguments for Keynesian approaches.

He wants to credit ABCT with having predicted this downturn. If you try to figure out when was the last time it didn’t predict a downturn (the early 1920s?), this seems less impressive than, say, Robert Shiller’s track record for predicting when bubbles burst.

His somewhat selective use of historical evidence carefully avoids anything that might present a picture more complex than government being the sole villain. He describes enough U.S. economic expansions to present a clear case that credit expansion contributed to the ensuing bust, and usually points to a government activity which one can imagine caused excessive credit expansion. But he’s unusually vague about the causes of the expansion that led to the panic of 1857. Could that be because he wants to overlook the role that new gold mining in California played in that inflationary cycle?

He mostly denies that free market approaches have been tested for long enough to see whether we would avoid business cycles under a true free market. He points to a few downturns when he says the government followed a wise laissez faire policy, and compares the shortness of those downturns with a few longer downturns where the government made some attempts to solve the downturns. When doing this, he avoids mention of the downturns where massive government actions were followed by mild recessions. Any complete survey comparing the extent of government action with the ensuing economic conditions would provide a much murkier picture of the relative contributions of government and market error than Woods is willing to allow.

The most interesting claim that I hadn’t previously heard is that a large decrease in the money supply in 1839-1843 coincided with healthy GNP growth, which, if true, is hard to explain without assuming Keynesian and monetarist theories explain a relatively small fraction of business cycle problems. My attempts to check this yielded a report at saying GDP in 2005 dollars rose from $31.37 in 1839 to $34.84 in 1843, but GDP per capita in 2005 dollars dropped from $1884 in 1839 to $1869 in 1843. Declining GDP per capita doesn’t sound very prosperous to me (although it’s a mild enough decline to provide little support for Keynesians/monetarists).

He tries to blame the “mistakes” of credit rating agencies on an SEC-created cartel of rating agencies. That “cartel” does have some special privileges, but he doesn’t say what stops bloggers from expressing opinions on bond risks and developing reputations that lead to investors using those opinions in addition to the “cartel”‘s ratings (Freerisk is a project which is planning a sophisticated alternative). I say that anyone who understands markets would expect the yield on the bonds to provide as good an estimate of risk as any alternative. Credit rating agencies must be performing some other function in order to thrive. An obvious function is to mislead bosses and/or regulators who don’t understand markets into thinking that the people making investment decisions are making choices that are safer than they actually are. It appears that the agencies performed that function well, and helped many people avoid being fired for poor choices.

His discussion of whether WWII spending cured the Great Depression points out that mainstream theories falsely predicted a return to depression in 1946. But it’s unclear whether all versions of Keynesianism make that mistake, and it’s unclear how ABCT could predict the U.S. would be much more prosperous in 1946 than at the start of the war.
Here’s an alternative explanation that lies in between those theories: wages were being kept too high for supply and demand to balance through 1941. Inflation and changes in government policy toward wage levels during WW2 eliminated the causes of that imbalance.

Arnold Kling has a good quasi-Austrian alternative here and here.

Book review: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 by Paul Krugman.

Large parts of this book accurately describe some processes which contribute to financial crises, but he fails to describe enough of what happened in crises such as in 2008 to reach sensible policy advice.

He presents a simple example of a baby-sitting co-op that experienced a recession via a Keynesian liquidity trap, and he is right to believe that is part of what causes recessions, but he doesn’t have much of an argument that other causes are unimportant.

His neglect of malinvestment problems contributes to his delusion that central banks reach limits to their power in crises where interest rates approach zero. The presence or absence of deflation seems to provide a fairly good estimate of whether liquidity trap type problems exist. If you recognize that malinvestments are part of the problem that caused crises such as that of 2008, the natural conclusion is that the Fed solved most of the liquidity trap type problem within a few months of noticing the severity of the downturn. There is ample reason to suspect that the economy is suffering from a misallocation of resources, such as workers who developed skills as construction workers when perfect foresight would have told them to develop skill in careers where demand is expanding (nurses?). Nobody knows how to instantly convert those workers into appropriate careers, so we shouldn’t expect a quick fix to the problems associated with that malinvestment. It appears possible for he Fed to make that malinvestment have been successful investment by dropping enough dollars from helicopters to create an inflation rate that will make home buying attractive again. Krugman’s suggested fiscal stimulus looks almost as poor a solution as that to anyone who sees malinvestment as the main remaining problem.

His claim that central bank policy is ineffective is misleading because he pretends that controlling interest rates is all that central banks do to “stimulate” the economy. If instead you focus on changes in the money supply (which central banks can sometimes cause with little effect on interest rates), you’ll see they have plenty of power to inflate.

He dismisses the problem of sticky wages as if it were minor or inevitable. But if you understand the role that plays in unemployment, and analyze Singapore’s policy of automatically altering payroll taxes to stabilize jobs, you should see that’s more cost-effective than the fiscal stimulus Krugman wants.

I’m not satisfied with his phrasing of lack of “effective demand” being caused by people “trying to accumulate cash”. If we apply standard financial terminology to changes the value of a currency (e.g. saying that there’s a speculative bubble driving up the value of the currency, or that there’s a short squeeze – highly leveraged firms have what amounts to a big short position in dollars), then it seems more natural to use the intuitions we’ve developed for the stock market to fluctuations in currency values.

He doesn’t adequately explain why most economists don’t want a global currency. He says labor mobility within the area that standardizes on a currency is important for it to work well. I’m unconvinced that much mobility is needed for a global currency to work better than the mediocre alternatives, but even if it is, I’d expect economists to advocate a combination of a global currency and reducing the barriers to mobility. How much of economists dislike for a global currency is due to real harm from regional fluctuations and how much is it due to politicians rewarding people like Krugman for biasing their arguments in ways that empower the politicians? Or do they not give it much thought because they’ve decided it’s politically infeasible even if desirable?

His description of the shadow banking system clarifies quite well how regulatory efforts to avoid crises failed. His solution of regulating like a bank anything that acts like a bank would work well if implemented by an altruistic government. But his “simple rule” is too vague for his intent to survive in a system where politicians want to bend the rules to help their friends.

Book review: The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World by Alan Greenspan.
The first half of this book provides a decent history of the past 40 years, with a few special insights such as descriptions of how most presidents in that period worked (he’s one of the least partisan people to have worked with most of them). The second half is a discussion of economics of rather mixed quality (both in terms of wisdom and ability to put the reader to sleep).
He comes across as a rather ordinary person whose private thoughts are little more interesting that his congressional testimony.
One of the strangest sections describes the problems he worried would result from a projected paydown of all federal government debt. He does claim to have been careful not to forget the possibility those forecasts could be mistaken. But his failure to mention ways that forecasts of Social Security deficits could be way off suggests he hasn’t learned much from that mistake.
He mentions a “conundrum” of falling long-term interest rates in 2004-2005, when he had expected that rising short-term rates would push up long-term rates. I find his main explanation rather weak (it involves technology induced job insecurity leading to lower inflation expectations). But he then goes on to describe a better explanation (but is vague about whether he believes it explains the conundrum): the massive savings increase caused largely by rapid growth in China. I suspect this is a powerful enough force that Deng Xiaoping deserves more credit than Greenspan for the results that inspired the label Maestro.
The book is often more notable for what it evades than what it says. It says nothing about his inflationary policies in 2003-2004 or his favorable comments about ARMs and how they contributed to the housing bubble.
He gives a brief explanation of how Ayn Rand converted him to an Objectivist by pointing out a flaw in his existing worldview, but he is vague about his drift away from Objectivism. His description of the 1995 government “shutdown” as a crisis is fairly strong evidence of a non-Randian worldview, but mostly he tries to avoid controversies between libertarianism and the policies of politicians he likes.
He often praises markets’ abilities to signal valuable information, yet when claiming that the invasion of Iraq was “about oil”, he neglects to mention the relevant market prices. Those prices appear to discredit his position (see Leigh, Wolfers and Zitzewitz’ paper What do Financial Markets Think of War in Iraq?).
He argues against new hedge fund regulations on the grounds that hedge funds change their positions faster than regulators can react. He is right about the regulations that he imagines, but it’s unfortunate that he stops there. The biggest financial problems involve positions that can’t be liquidated in a few weeks. It seem like it ought to be possible for accounting standards to provide better ways for institutions to communicate to their investors how leveraged they are and how sensitive their equity is to changes in important economic variables.
He argues against using econometric models to set Fed policy, citing real problems with measuring things like NAIRU and GDP, but if he was really interested in scientifically optimizing Fed policy, why didn’t he try to create models based on more relevant and timelier data (such as from the ISM?) the way he did when he had a job that depended on providing business with useful measures? Maybe he couldn’t have become Fed chairman if he had that kind of desire.
I listened to the cd version of this book because I got it as a present and listening to it while driving had essentially no cost. I wouldn’t have bought it or read the dead tree version.

Early this week, the Federal Reserve Board lowered interest rates at an unexpected time by a surprisingly large amount.
I see three possible explanations, which I think are about equally likely.

  • The Fed has evidence that the economy is slowing more than markets have realized.
  • The Fed has evidence that some big financial institutions have troubles that are endangering the careers of some influential people, and is bailing out those institutions in hopes that those people will use their influence to enhance the job security of the people in charge of the Fed.
  • Bernanke isn’t interested in the kind of publicity he can get by maximizing the total number of rate cuts. He realizes that a steady, predictable series of small rate cuts doesn’t stimulate the economy as well as cutting rates far enough that it isn’t easy to predict that more rate cuts will be needed (for one thing, making further rate cuts predictable creates incentives to postpone borrowing to when rates are lower). If that’s what’s happening, it’s not going to work as well as he would like this time, because the markets think the Fed is following the predictable rate cut strategy that gives them publicity for doing something at the time that the average person is most concerned about recession.

In related news, Singapore has a system which is designed to stabilize the economy rather than to provide politicians with opportunities to claim credit for doing something about the economy.
China is imposing widespread price controls and suffering power shortages which hinder production. If China were like the U.S., I’d say it’s trying to recreate the experience the U.S. had in the early 1970s. But the way Chinese politics work, the central government probably will allow local authorities to use a lot of discretion in enforcing the price controls, so the price controls will probably only produce shortages in a few industries that are dominated by large state-owned firms.

Up to two months ago, I was not too excited by the claims of a bubble in the Chinese stock market. Maybe the stocks that trade only in China were at bubble levels, but the ones that trade in the U.S. or Hong Kong still looked like mostly good investments.
Much has changed since then. On October 17, PetroChina rose 14.5%, more than doubling in about two months. That was a one day gain in market capitalization of almost $60 billion, and a two month gain of $247 billion (doubling the market capitalization). I’ve seen similar but less dramatic rises in smaller Chinese stocks that trade in the U.S., but less on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
By comparison, the largest rises in market capitalization that I’ve been able to find in the technology stock bubble of 1999-2000 were a $50 billion one day rise in Microsoft on December 15, 1999, and a $250 billion rise (doubling) in Cisco which took four months.
I’m not saying that Chinese stocks are clearly overvalued yet, and I’m still holding some stocks in smaller Chinese companies that I don’t feel much urgency about selling. But the unusually strong and long lasting Chinese economic expansion, combined with the unusually frothy action in the stock market, are what I’d expect to be causes and symptoms of a bubble.
Bubbles in the U.S. have peaked when real interest rates rise to higher than normal levels. The Chinese government is keeping real interest rates near zero, and seems to think it can keep nominal interest rates stable and reduce inflation. That would be an unusual accomplishment under most circumstances. When combined with a stock market bubble, I suspect it could only be accomplished with drastic restrictions on economic activity, which would involve instabilities that the Chinese government has been trying to avoid by stabilizing things such as interest rates.
Without a rise in interest rates or drastic restrictions of some sort, it’s hard to see what will stop the rise in Chinese stocks. So I’m guessing we’ll see a bigger bubble than the U.S. has experienced. It’s effects will likely extend well beyond China.

Richard Timberlake’s article in the June 2006 issue of Liberty makes some arguments about the causes of the Great Depression that are tempting to believe but at best only partly convincing.
Much of the article is about the Fed becoming dominated by followers of the real bill doctrine. While he presents evidence that leaders of the Fed liked the doctrine, and I can imagine that following that doctrine could explain much of the 1930-1932 contraction. But if the Fed was fully following that doctrine and that were the primary cause of the contraction, the narrow measures of the money supply (which are the ones most directly under the Fed’s control) would have contracted, when they actually expanded during 1930-1932. So I doubt that the Fed was as influenced by the doctrine as Timberlake suggests. But as a factor contributing to the Fed’s caution about expanding the money supply further, it’s fairly plausible, and causes me to be a bit more skeptical of the Fed’s competence than I was before.
The more interesting part of the article is the attempt to deny that the gold standard did anything to cause the contraction. Timberlake notes that the Fed’s gold reserves remained well above the legally required minimum, and claims that shows the Fed wasn’t constrained from expanding the money supply by risks to the gold standard. But that’s true only if the legally required reserves were either sufficient to cover all potential claims or to convince holders of paper dollars that all likely claims would be satisfied. I’m not aware of any clear reason to think this was the case, and it’s easy to imagine that the Fed knew more than Timberlake does about how eager holders of paper dollars would have been to demand gold if the Fed’s gold reserves had dropped further. So I’m still inclined to think that the Fed’s restraint in late 1931 and 1932 resulted from a somewhat plausible belief that it couldn’t do more without taking excessive risk that the gold standard would fail and that we would be stuck with the kind of inflation-prone system that we ended up with anyway.

Book Review: The Armchair Economist: Economics And Everyday Experience by Steven Landsburg
This short and eloquent book does a mostly excellent job of explaining to non-economists how economic reasoning works in a wide variety of mostly non-financial areas. But it’s frustrating how he can get so much right but still demonstrate many annoying oversimplifications that economists’ biases make them prone to.
For example, on page 145 he claims that a trash collection company could cheaply prohibit Styrofoam peanuts in the trash by checking everyone’s trash once a year and fining violators $100,000. But anyone who thinks about the economics of such fines will be able to imagine massive costs from people disputing who is responsible for peanuts in the trash. Maybe there are cultures in which such fines would ensure negligible violations, but there are probably as many cultures in which disputes over people putting peanuts in someone else’s trash cans would produce more waste than the peanuts do.
His suggestion of applying antitrust laws to politicians is almost right, but ignores the public choice problems of ensuring that laws marketed as antitrust laws do anything to prevent monopoly. The details of antitrust laws are complex and boring enough that few people other than special interests pay attention to them, so special interests are able to twist the details to turn the laws into forces that protect monopolies.
On page 183 he says “Flood the economy with money and the nominal interest rate goes up in lockstep with inflation”. Given a sufficiently long-term perspective, this is an arguably decent approximation. But he’s disputing the common sense of a typical reporter who is more interested in a short-term perspective under which those changes clearly do not happen in lockstep (on page 216 he provides hints at a theory of why there’s a delayed reaction).
He makes some good points about the similarities between environmentalism and religion, but it seems these points blind him to non-religious motives behind environmentalism. He says on page 227 about relocating polluting industries: “To most economists, this is a self-evident opportunity to make not just Americans but everybody better off.” Maybe if he included a payoff to the U.S. workers whose jobs went overseas, this conclusion would be plausible. But it’s hard enough to figure out how such a payoff should be determined that I suspect he simply ignored that problem.

Book Review: Nanofuture: What’s Next For Nanotechnology by J. Storrs Hall
This book provides some rather well informed insights into what molecular engineering will be able to do in a few decades. It isn’t as thoughtful as Drexler’s Engines of Creation, but it has many ideas that seem new to this reader who has been reading similar essays for many years, such as a solar energy collector that looks and feels like grass.
The book is somewhat eccentric in it’s choice of what to emphasize, devoting three pages to the history of the steam engine, but describing the efficiency of nanotech batteries in a footnote that is a bit too cryptic to be convincing.
The chapter on economics is better than I expected, but I’m still not satisfied. The prediction that interest rates will be much higher sounds correct for the period in which we transition to widespread use of general purpose assemblers, since investing capital in producing more machines will be very productive. But once the technology is widespread and mature, the value of additional manufacturing will decline rapidly to the point where it ceases to put upward pressure on interest rates.
The chapter on AI is disappointing, implying that the main risks of AI are to the human ego. For some better clues about the risks of AI, see Yudkowsky’s essay on Creating Friendly AI.

The 2004 Accelerating Change Conference focused much more on current changes than last year’s attempts at providing long-term visions led me to expect.

The one topic that excited me was a virtual world called Second Life. While it might sound superficially like just a virtual Burning Man, the designers are serious enough about their nationbuilding to encourage commerce, both within the system and via currency exchanges such as The Gaming Open Market with other worlds. Their VP of Product Development Cory Ondrejka described Hernando de Soto’s book The Mystery of Capital as "must reading". They have been careful to insure that people have few incentives to take disputes arising in the virtual world to meatspace courts. For instance, they once banned a vandal from the game who owned a fair amount of land; they auctioned off the land and sent him a check for most of the proceeds – $1600.

Some of their customers are doing well enough in the virtual world that the company that runs Second Life has trouble offering them a salary good enough to compete with what they’re making in virtual life.

They don’t seem as concerned about the highly deflationary effects of their monetary policy as I expect they ought to be. Why will people buy their land (the sale of which seems to be their main source of income) if they can earn a safe and sure return by just holding the local currency?

The responsiveness of the company to citizen complaints (e.g. simplifying and later abolishing taxes in response to tax revolts) is fairly strong evidence that a non-monopolistic dictator is better than a democracy with monopoly power.