Archive for October, 2008
| Peter Klein |
When Greenspan was appointed Fed chair in 1987 the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy profile noting, among Greenspan’s other eccentricities, that he was a follower of Ayn Rand, generally regarded as a strong advocate of laissez faire. But Greenspan is doctrinaire only “at a high philosophical level,” wrote Leonard Silk, reassuringly. Murray Rothbard, who knew Greenspan in the 1950s, when both were friends with Rand, got a kick out of that line:
There is one thing, however, that makes Greenspan unique, and that sets him off from his Establishment buddies. And that is that he is a follower of Ayn Rand, and therefore “philosophically” believes in laissez-faire and even the gold standard. But as the New York Times and other important media hastened to assure us, Alan only believes in laissez-faire “on the high philosophical level.” In practice, in the policies he advocates, he is a centrist like everyone else because he is a “pragmatist.” . . .
Thus, Greenspan is only in favor of the gold standard if all conditions are right: if the budget is balanced, trade is free, inflation is licked, everyone has the right philosophy, etc. In the same way, he might say he only favors free trade if all conditions are right: if the budget is balanced, unions are weak, we have a gold standard, the right philosophy, etc. In short, never are one’s “high philosophical principles” applied to one’s actions. It becomes almost piquant for the Establishment to have this man in its camp.
Today Tyler Cowen, writing on Anna Schwartz’s very good interview with the WSJ, calls Bernanke a person “with libertarian sympathies,” which I find puzzling, since I can’t recall any evidence of this sympathy in Bernanke’s writings or policy actions. Perhaps he is a sympathetic libertarian “at a high philosophical level.”
| Peter Klein |
Says Charles Calorimis in the Saturday WSJ. First, as Calorimis points out, there wasn’t any deregulation. (Jacob Weisberg, what part of this can’t you understand?) Indeed, by any reasonable measure, government has grown more under George W. Bush than under any administration since LBJ — after this month, perhaps since FDR. Specifically, Calomiris notes:
Financial deregulation for the past three decades consisted of the removal of deposit interest-rate ceilings, the relaxation of branching powers, and allowing commercial banks to enter underwriting and insurance and other financial activities. Wasn’t the ability for commercial and investment banks to merge (the result of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed part of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act) a major stabilizer to the financial system this past year? Indeed, it allowed Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch to be acquired by J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, and allowed Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to convert to bank holding companies to help shore up their positions during the mid-September bear runs on their stocks.
Even more to the point, subprime lending, securitization and dealing in swaps were all activities that banks and other financial institutions have had the ability to engage in all along. There is no connection between any of these and deregulation. On the contrary, it was the ever-growing Basel Committee rules for measuring bank risk and allocating capital to absorb that risk (just try reading the Basel standards if you don’t believe me) that failed miserably. The Basel rules outsourced the measurement of risk to ratings agencies or to the modelers within the banks themselves. Incentives were not properly aligned, as those that measured risk profited from underestimating it and earned large fees for doing so.
That ineffectual, Rube Goldberg apparatus was, of course, the direct result of the politicization of prudential regulation by the Basel Committee, which was itself the direct consequence of pursuing “international coordination” among countries, which produced rules that work politically but not economically.
Update: Here’s Larry White on the phantom deregulation.
| Peter Klein |
My friends in sociology don’t like being ignored by politicians and by the general public. Well, one thing we’ve learned over the last several weeks is that academic economics, too, has virtually no influence on public policy. It’s increasingly clear that the majority of academic economists oppose, often strongly, the AIG rescue, the Paulson plan, the Fed’s move into the commercial-paper market, the Treasury’s acquisition of equity stakes in large banks, and the new round of financial-market regulations that’s just around the corner. Even Greg Mankiw, who sort-of favors the bailout, worries that his pal Ben hasn’t worked hard enough to convince his fellow academic economists.
What do we learn from all this? That economists are poor communicators? That economics is an inherently difficult subject? Or that politicians and special-interest groups willfully ignore what economics teaches about scarcity, tradeoffs, incentives, and the general welfare?
Surely the poor state of economics education plays some role. I’m not an admirer of Paul Krugman’s newspaper columns, but I respect the fact that he’s willing to write for the general public. (If only his columns had some economics in them!) Very few elite economists concern themselves with public education. Ultimately, however, the blame rests with politicians — that uniquely vile breed of humanity — and the special interests they serve. Maybe Albert Jay Nock had it right after all. Economists keep thinking, writing, and teaching, not because anybody in power is listening, but in hope that somewhere out there is a Remnant, however small, keeping the flame alive.
| Lasse Lien |
Here is an interesting paper from the NBER working paper series. Bolton, Brunnermeier and Veldkamp show that it can be optimal for organizations to hire an irrational manager. Irrational in the sense that the manager is less likely to revise strategy as new information becomes available (i.e. is resolute).
The basic setup is that in the first stage the manager receives a signal about the state of the environment and formulates an initial strategy. In the second stage the organizational members act, deciding how closely the will align their actions to the proposed strategy. The actions of individual members are chosen given their knowledge about the manager’s type and a private signal about the environment. The latter may lead them to anticipate a revision of the strategy. In the third stage the manager receives a second signal about the state of the environment, and in the fourth and final stage the leader decides on the final strategy and payoffs are realized.
The essence of the argument is that the less likely the manager is to revise strategy, the better the coordination of the individual members actions. So there is a time-consistency problem that is reduced when a manager is resolute in the sense of not updating as much as optimal adaptation would suggest, and this is known by followers. The paper also supplies interesting discussions of what happens if the leader can commit to not revising strategy (instead of being a resolute “type”), and the cost of resoluteness if the manager can learn from followers.
One can always quibble about the assumptions made in game-theoretic models. An example here would be the assumption that there is no coordination problem after the manager announces his/her final strategy, only in the period between the initial strategy announcement, and the arrival of the second signal about the environment. But definitely a good read, which nicely captures the trade-off between coordination and adaptation. Hereby recommended (the paper, that is, not the hiring of irrational managers or politicians).
| Peter Klein |
Ok, so let me get this straight. Credit got all constipated from banks’ misguided feast on crappy assets. My thought (see, especially, the most recent posts in this archive) was that maybe bank managers need better incentives.
I guess I must have been wrong, because the government is now putting a quarter trillion in non-voting stock. Well, that’s one way to fix the misalignment of manager-shareholder incentives — undermine the shareholders’ incentives too.
The Banks get below cost capital grants. Loans would cost 11 to 12 percent. The government gives them cash at 5 percent for five years and 10 percent thereafter with optional repayment; it is senior preferred stock. Large banks cumulate foregone dividends on the preferred; small banks do not. Existing shareholders still get dividends at past levels (no increases) and the government cannot vote any of its stock. Why ever pay it back? . . .
Lehman, J.P. Morgan and AIG look like AAA suckers. They paid dearly for their capital infusions. Greenberg, the ex-CEO of AIG and a major shareholder, is, sensibly, asking the government to renegotiate the AIG bailout package. The lesson for future crises? Stall, stall, stall.
After supposedly bailing out the fat cats on Wall Street, no politician wants to be accused of evicting struggling families. Once you understand this, all of your anxiety should melt away. Why pay your mortgage if foreclosure is off the table, and if you know that lower payments, and possibly a reduced loan amount, would result? A tarnished a credit rating is a small price to pay for such a benefit.
Unfortunately, this boon will not extend to those foolish individuals who either made large down payments or resisted the temptation of cashing out equity. The large amount of home equity built up by these suckers, I mean homeowners, means that in the case of default foreclosure remains a financially attractive option. As a result, these loans will be much less likely to be turned over to the government.
| Peter Klein |
It’s next month in Chicago. The high-powered lineup includes Joel Mokyr, Avner Greif, Robert Merges, Lynne Kiesling, Stan Liebowitz, Scott Stern, my old classmates Emerson Tiller and Rich Brooks, and many more. Harold Demsetz gives the keynote. Wish I were going.
| Peter Klein |
All this talk about bad loans reminds me of the famous “workout” scene from Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, better known as the “saddlebags” scene. It must be the most brilliant, accurate, and entertaining account of a bank calling a loan ever written. You can read most of the scene (from chapter 2) here; if you haven’t read it before, you’re in for a treat. (Unfortunately the excerpt ends before the climax of the scene in which Harry Zales, the bank’s workout specialist, ends his speech that reduces the hapless borrower, Atlanta real-estate mogul Charlie Croker, to a nervous, sweating wretch with his arm raised triumphantly, middle finger pointed to the skies.)
If that scene were to be written today, however, the ending would be different. Just before the workout is over the heroic central banker or Treasury secretary would bound into the room, explaining that the bank should restructure Croker’s loan after all (in the story, Croker has defaulted on a $515 million loan — a mere trifle), and that he will write the bank a check on the spot to cover Croker’s obligation. Gotta maintain adequate liquidity in the system, after all! Upon leaving the room, the central banker or Treasury secretary also extends his middle finger — this time in the direction of the taxpayer.
| Peter Klein |
More than one commentator has compared the economy in the current crisis to an alcoholic in the early stages of withdrawal. Going back on the bottle makes everything feel good again, but only puts off the inevitable. Ultimately, there can be no recovery without a painful rehab.
Keeping in mind Bob Higgs’s strictures about the misuse of metaphors, the illustration does serve a useful purpose. It helps demonstrate, as I’ve argued before, that the problem is not that overall lending is too low, but that the wrong loans were made by the wrong lenders to the wrong people (and, by extension, the wrong mortgage-backed securities boughy by the wrong investors, and so on). They key to recovery is not injecting “liquidity” into the system, but reallocating financial resources to the right borrowers and investors. In short, the worst thing we can be doing now is propping up the bad investments made during the boom, bailing out the unwise borrowers, lenders, and investors, putting off the liquidiation and reallocation that are ultimately necessary for recovery. All we have done over the last few weeks is give the alchoholic a few more drinks.
Paul Krugman’s Nobel citation, while focusing on his contributions to trade theory, mentions briefly his more recent work on financial crises. On this topic Krugman is more-or-less an unreconstructed, liquidity-trap Keynesian (Shawn Ritenour calls him a ”paleo-Keynesian”). Krugman once wrote a popular piece about the Austrian approach to the business cycle, which he called the “hangover theory” of recessions. You can get a sense of how seriously Krugman takes the argument by his dismissive tone, writing for example about “those supposedly deep Austrian theorists” who failed to realize that total spending equals total consumption plus total investment. Clearly, he has read the Austrians as carefully as he has read Bertil Ohlin. Still, his essay gave Roger Garrison, John Cochran, and David Gordon the opportunity to respond with essays explaining the Austrian theory. (Krugman, characteristically, is unaware that the Austrian account of cycles is built on a particular theory of capital. If bad investments were made during the boom, he says, “Well, fine. Junk the bad investments and write off the bad loans. Why should this require that perfectly good productive capacity be left idle?” Um, Paul, it’s called asset specificity.)
Update: Here’s another response to Krugman (and Tyler Cowen) by Bob Murphy.
| Peter Klein |
I don’t have time for a thoughtful and intelligent post on Paul Krugman’s Nobel Prize, so a few snippets from other commentators will have to do for now.
In a surprise twist, Paul Krugman (Princeton) was announced the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. Surprise not because he does not deserve it — Krugman’s work on trade theory is widely acknowledged — but because the Nobel committee passed over Jagdish Bhagwati (Columbia), who has lobbied for it for years. As Professor Bhagwati’s main work is also on trade theory, it makes it unlikely he will get the Nobel any time soon. (Bhagwati was also Krugman’s teacher at MIT.) This announcement also dents the hopes of Anne Krueger, another top trade theorist.
What is perhaps most interesting about Krugman’s choice is that he stopped doing economics almost 10 years ago and has instead been a columnist for the New York Times. This is good news: shows that you can have a second life and still get dividends on the first.
Funny how most economist like Tyler [Cowen] are “most fond of Krugman’s pieces on economic geography, in particular on cities and the economic rationales for clustering” when in fact Krugman added very little to a body of knowledge that is more than a century old. But it was new to most economists.
An anonymous economic grographer:
I did my graduate school training in the mid 1990s when economic geographers and regional scientists would bitch slap Krugman behind closed doors, yet were grateful that he was bringing them respectability among mainstream economists. Interestingly, Krugman published his first significant piece of work on the issue (Geography and Trade, 1991) at about the same time that the University of Pennsylvania was shutting down its regional science department (1993). But in his modest opinion, Regional Science was just a bunch of techniques or tools lacking an integrative framework (one way to avoid looking bad by being so obviously ignorant about it when he first began writing on location theory and the like).
Paul Krugman, speaking at a 1999 conference in honor of Bertil Ohlin (HT to Neel):
Let me begin with an embarrassing admission: until I began working on this paper, I had never actually read Ohlin’s Interregional and International Trade. I suppose that my case was not that unusual: modern economists, trained to think in terms of crisp formal models, typically have little patience with the sprawling verbal expositions of a more leisurely epoch. To the extent that we care about intellectual history at all, we tend to rely on translators — on transitional figures like Paul Samuelson, who extracted models from the literary efforts of their predecessors. And let me also admit that reading Ohlin in the original is still not much fun: the MIT-trained economist in me keeps fidgeting impatiently, wondering when he will get to the point — that is, to the kernel of insight that ended up being grist for the mills of later modelers.
| Peter Klein |
Spotted on Sheldon Richman’s blog:
Exploit Price Discrepancies, Not People!
(It links to Mises’s “Profit and Loss.”)
| Peter Klein |
Martin Shubik reviews Jean-Philippe Touffut’s edited volume Augustin Cournot: Modelling Economics (Elgar, 2007) for EH.Net. Contributors deal with Cournot’s contributions to economics, probability theory, and statistics, with mixed results (according to Shubik, who thinks Cournot’s contributions to game theory deserved more ink). Shubik thinks Cournot was “not only was a mathematician and probabilist, he was an excellent modeler linking the economic world with basic abstract models . . . [particularly the] modeling and application of a mutually consistent expectations model to oligopoly and economic competition.”
Shubik opens the review with this interesting (if a touch immodest) anecdote:
In the early 1950s, when I was a graduate student at Princeton, I had two academic heroes. They were Cournot and Edgeworth (in my lesser Pantheon were Jevons and Walras). As soon as John Nash discussed his thesis on noncooperative games with me, I pointed out to him that his solution which was mathematically highly general was in essence the one that Cournot had applied to economics and had presented in his great book of 1838. The solution called for individual mutually consistent expectations. At that time game theory in either cooperative or noncooperative form was virtually ignored in economics. It seemed to me that this natural extension of Cournot, whose work was unknown to Nash, was going to extend the scope of oligopolistic studies considerably. Nash and I were joined by John Mayberry in writing an article accepted by _Econometrica_ (“A Comparison of Treatments of a Duopoly Situation,” 1953, 141-54.) This, I believe was the first treatment of oligopoly expanding on Cournot’s work utilizing modern game theory. The mathematical tools were being forged to expand vastly the noncooperative equilibrium methods to economics so brilliantly started by Cournot.
In his introduction to Menger’s Principles Hayek expresses surprise that Menger, unlike Jevons and Walras, seemed unfamiliar with Cournot.
| Peter Klein |
Jay Barney, Dave Ketchen, and Mike Wright are editing a special issue of the Journal of Management on “Resource-Based Theory: Twenty Years of Accomplishments and Future Challenges.” Proposals should be submitted between 1 March and 1 April 2009 for an issue to appear in 2011, the 20th anniversary of the 1991 special issue of JOM that helped establish the field (particularly with Barney’s paper, “Firm Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage,” which has 9,889 cites on Google Scholar as of this posting). The full call for papers is below the fold. (more…)
| Peter Klein |
Earlier I complained that public discussions of the current financial situation are largely devoid of analysis. A recent example: virtually no one has explained why the commercial-paper market is ”frozen.” We’re told that even firms with good commercial prospects can’t turn over their short-term notes, leaving them desperately short on working capital. In other words, there is real economic value to be created by extending short-term credit to these firms, but no one is willing to lend. $20 bills on the sidewalk, indeed! Presumably there is some kind of Stiglitz and Weiss (1981) story underlying these claims — banks cannot distinguish good from bad borrowers, so they refuse to lend to anyone — but nobody has bothered to spell it out, or to explain how indiscriminate Fed purchases of commercial paper solves the problem. Ah, well, perhaps to ask for analysis makes one a stuffy and unrealistic fundamentalist.
Bob Higgs notes that not only is the analysis largely absent, the data are wildly inconsistent with the kinds of claims being made.
The Federal Reserve System publishes comprehensive data on commercial paper issuance, commercial paper outstanding, and interest rates on commercial paper. I presume that these data give us a clearer picture of what’s going on in the markets than a covey of hyperventilating Wall Street commentators. (more…)
| Peter Klein |
Hayek’s amazingly precocious intellect and creative genius are on full display in these works. Thus, before the age of thirty, Hayek already had fully mastered and begun to synthesize and build upon the major contributions of his predecessors in the Austrian tradition. These included, in particular: Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of capital and interest; Knut Wicksell’s further elaborations on Böhm-Bawerk’s capital theory and his own insights into the “cumulative process” of changes in money, interest rates and prices; Ludwig von Mises’s groundbreaking theories of money and business cycles; and the general analytical approach of the broad Austrian school from Menger onward that focused on both the subjective basis and the dynamic interdependence of all economic phenomena.
There is something else about Hayek that becomes apparent when reading his contributions in this volume. The young Hayek was a great economic controversialist, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. His entire macroeconomic system was forged within the crucible of the great theoretical controversies of the era. His opponents were some of the great (and not so great) figures in interwar economics: Keynes, W.T. Foster and W. Catchings, Ralph Hawtrey, Irving Fisher, Frank Knight, Joseph Schumpeter, Gustav Cassel, Alvin Hansen, A.C. Pigou, Arthur Spiethoff to name a few. Hayek took on all comers without fear or favor and inevitably emerged victorious. As Alan Ebenstein notes, “Hayek came to be seen in Cambridge, as Robbins and LSE’s point man in intellectual combat with Cambridge.”
Hayek’s views are essential to understanding the current mess, though it’s hard to summarize Hayek’s business-cycle theory in a bumper-sticker slogan that, say, Barney Frank could understand.
| Peter Klein |
The Society for Entrepreneurship Scholars runs a manuscript “boot-camp” to help junior faculty and graduate students in entrepreneurship, as well as established scholars from other disciplines who are new to the entrepreneurship field, get a manuscript ready for publication in a top-tier journal. Bill Schulze and Sharon Alvarez are chairing the conference this year, to be held 11-13 December at the Solitude Mountain Resort near Salt Lake City. A team of senior scholar-mentors, including Rajshree Argawal, Julio DeCastro, Greg Dess, David Deeds, Harry Sapienza, and me, will work with participants to get their manuscripts in shape. There’s also great networking and, this year, great skiing.
| Dick Langlois |
I know I’m swimming over my head in macro-infested waters, but I thought I would think out loud some more about the housing mess. In my previous post on the subject (and comments), I posed the question whether a politically influenced (exogenous) lowering of credit standards was more of a culprit than monetary policy (or other macro forces) in causing the housing bubble and subsequent collapse. So I looked at an NBER Working Paper by John Taylor at Stanford that’s been out for a few months. Taylor argues that it was indeed Fed policy that caused the run-up in housing prices. He rejects the alternative possibilities (A) that most of the liquidity fueling the boom was money rushing in to the U.S. from overseas or (B) that it was the increased liquidity that came from securitization and financial innovation. Most interestingly, he argues — as have others, though I can’t find a good reference — that a large part of the reduction in lending standards was endogenous. Foreclosure risk was (is) anticorrelated with an increase in housing prices; so in the run-up, risk of foreclosure was actually declining ceteris paribus. Partly because of the complex and often impenetrable structure of housing finance, lenders took these foreclosure rates as stable in the long term. Moreover, as others have pointed out, lenders were concerned less with default in the run-up than with the risk of early repayment as people refinanced the equity out of their houses (or sold quickly for speculation, as Liebowitz says). All of this meant that lenders considered it optimal to lower credit standards.
This story strikes me as having a Hayekian flavor to it, though I don’t know if Peter and his commentators would agree. It also has something of Leijonhufvud about it, as Taylor’s main message is that the Great Moderation was a matter of the Fed sticking to the program — staying within the “corridor” — and not deviating as it did in 2003-2006, presumably in an effort to stimulate the economy after the Internet crash. The deviation of 2003-06 was “comparable to the turbulent 1970s.”
| Nicolai Foss |
The European Society for New Institutional Economics, the semi-formal Euro branch of ISNIE, runs a yearly School on New Institutional Economics, usually taking place on Corsica. Organized by Eric Brousseau, the School has now run for seven consecutive years. The line-up is impressive, including Oliver Williamson, Sid Winter, Avinash Dixit, Doug North, Giovanni Dosi, Dick Langlois, Joanne Oxley, Jackson Nickerson, Lee Alston and many other luminaries. The great thing is that the PPTs of their talks are online (here)! Enjoy.
| Peter Klein |
The “Austrian” school of economics gets frequent mention on this blog. It even comes up in mainstream discussions of the financial crisis. But what exactly is it? Why do I care so much about the economy of Austria (or, I’m sometimes asked, Australia)?
The label “Austrian” describes a particular tradition in economic analysis, one that dates back to Viennese economist Carl Menger’s 1871 Principles of Economics (hence the geographic identifier). The Austrian approach is usually associated, particularly in applied fields like organization and strategy, with Hayek’s ideas about dispersed, tacit knowledge, Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurial discovery, and an emphasis on time, subjectivity, process, and disequilibrium. Even Lachmann’s “radical subjectivism” is getting some play. Various Fosses and Kleins have also argued that Austrian capital theory has some implications for entrepreneurship.
Despite this renewed interest in the Mengerian tradition, the Austrian approach to “basic” economic analysis — value, production, exchange, price, money, capital, and intervention — hasn’t gotten much attention at all. Indeed, it’s widely believed that the Austrian approach to mundane topics such as factor productivity, the substitution effect of a price change, the effects of rent control or the minimum wage, etc. is basically the same as the mainstream approach, just without math or with a few buzzwords about “subjectivism” or the “market process” thrown in. Even many contemporary Austrians hold this view.
In a new paper, “The Mundane Economics of the Austrian School,” I suggest instead that the Austrians offer a distinct and valuable approach to basic economic questions, an approach that should be central to research by Austrians on theoretical and applied topics in economics and business administration. (more…)
| Peter Klein |
I first studied macroeconomics back in the dark days before the microfoundations revolution had filtered down into the undergraduate curriculum. We learned Y = C + I + G and that was about it. Fluctuations in aggregate demand cause fluctuations in aggregate output, Hayek be damned. Relative price changes — between markets at the same place in the time-structure of production, or between higher- and lower-order sectors — were completely ignored.
Supposedly mainstream macroeconomics has moved beyond this crude level of aggregation. But you’d never know if from the discussions of the last few weeks. “Banks” aren’t “lending” enough. “Businesses” and “consumers” can’t get “loans.” “Firms” have too many “bad assets” on their books. The key question, though, is which ones? Which banks aren’t lending to which customers? Which firms have made poor investments? Newsflash: a loan isn’t a loan isn’t a loan. I hate to break it to the Chattering Class, but not every borrower should get a loan. The relevant question, in analyzing the current mess, is which loans aren’t being made, to whom, and why? The critical issues revolve around the composition of lending, not the aggregate amount. Focusing on total lending, total liquidity, average equity prices, and the like merely obscures the key questions about how resources are being allocated across sectors, firms, and individuals, whether bad investments are being liquidated, and so on. (more…)
| Peter Klein |
OK, it’s bailout related, so the humor is macabre, but here goes, courtesy of the Financial Times:
Iceland in emergency talks to prevent bank meltdown
When even the ice is melting, it’s getting serious.