Friday, August 1, 2014

The Enigma of Russia's Economy

The usual and most basic starting point to understanding a national economy is to look at trends and patterns over a long period of time, and then to look at episodes of divergence from those long-term trends. But applying this most basic analysis to Russia's economy doesn't work well.

For starters, that economy underwent a dramatic transformation in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up into constituent parts and the economy moved away from central planning. It simply isn't meaningful to compare pre-1991 economic statistics generated by the intentions of central planners to post-1991 economic statistics based on the results of market patterns. Moreover, in the less-than-quarter-century one can search for long-run patterns in Russia's economic statistics, the economic data is dominated by short-term factors: Russia's bumpy transition away from central planning in the 1990s; its debt default in 1998; the ongoing contraction in the rule of law after Vladimir Putin became president in 2000; the take-off in global oil prices in the 2000s, which greatly benefited Russia as an oil exporter; and the effects on Russia of the global financial crisis around 2008-2009.

In a "Reality Check" article  by Clifford G. Gaddy and Barry W. Ickes in the Summer 2014 issue of the Milken Institute Review, they present a graph of average annual growth rates in Russia's economy where many of these factors are at play. The sharp declines in economic growth in the 1990s are probably overstated, because Russia's economic output in 1991 was inflated by all the peculiar practices of the earlier central planners, and Russia's economic statistics for the 1990s failed to capture much  of the unreported "underground" economy.   Russia's economic growth in the 2000s looks so good in large part because of the boom in oil prices.

A recent IMF study trying to identify Russia's growth patterns put it this way: "Russia’s trend growth is volatile. The transition from a centrally planned to a market economy started in 1991, hence time series are relatively short compared to other countries. The size and depth of structural reforms during the 1990’s, the financial crisis and default in 1998, followed by the oil boom in the 2000’s, and subsequent GFC [global financial crisis], make identification of a stable “long run” growth trend a very hard task."

But with these deep uncertainties about understanding the underlying path of Russia's economy duly noted, it seems plausible that Russia's economic growth is struggling. The chart above showing rates of economic growth shows slower growth since the 2008 downturn, and especially slow growth in 2013.
Gaddy and Ickes write: "In the final months of 2013, before the confrontation created by the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s leaders were focused on a different crisis: the surprising and disturbing fact that an economy they thought was going to grow at 4 percent might not even expand by 1 percent. This “growth crisis” sparked heated exchanges –but no consensus – about how to restore momentum to the economy."

The IMF report says it this way: "[T]he Russian economy appears to be operating close to full capacity, amid weak investment, and low growth." With a low birthrate, ill-health, and an aging workforce, Russia's workforce is declining, and will fall by about 20% between 2005 and 2025. Here's a workforce figure from the IMF:

One way to get a sense of the dismal state of Russia's private sector is to look at the ratio of stock price to earnings for Russian companies. For the stock markets of emerging market economies as a whole, the price/earnings ratio is about 12. As one example, the stock market of Zimbabwe has a price earning ratio of 12. However, in the stock markets of economies like Iran, Argentina, and Russia, the price/earnings ratio is about 5-6. In other words, when investors look at earnings from a Russian company, they are much less certain than they would be when thinking about the typical emerging market economy about whether those earnings reflect an underlying economic reality (as opposed to a set of accounting tricks), or whether the profits are likely to continue.

Of course, it's easy to generate a list of proposals to boost Russia's economy, but most such proposals either have no chance of being enacted, or wouldn't help Russia's economy, or both. Gaddy and Ickes sum up Russian policy proposals in this way:
One can’t help but be reminded of the old Soviet joke about the collective farm director and his chickens. The chickens are dying at an alarming rate, so much so that Moscow sends in its top expert. “I have an idea,” the expert says. “Switch out the rectangular troughs for triangular ones.” He promises to come back in two weeks to monitor the progress. “So?” he asks on his return. “It didn’t work,” the director replies. “The chickens kept dying.” “I have a better idea,” the expert says. “Paint the coops green.” Two weeks pass, and he’s back. “The chickens kept dying,” the director says. Again, a new idea. Again he returns to hear that the chickens keep dying. One day, the expert comes back, and the director announces, “All the chickens are dead.” “What a shame,” the expert says. “I had so many more great ideas. …”
As Gaddy and Ickes add: "Today’s experts pose no similar threat, since their “great ideas” will never be put into practice." (If this sort of humor appeals to you, an earlier post with some of the old jokes about the Soviet economy is here.)

Gaddy and Ickes conclude: "Russia does face a growth crisis. This is just dawning on people. It should have been recognized earlier. It wasn’t, because several years of growth produced by the oil-price induced transfer of wealth to Russia from the outside were mistaken for “normal” growth. ... Today, many compete in proposing magic solutions to return to growth, proposals that are not feasible economically or politically. Meanwhile, there is one path that is both: the resource track." In other words, they suggest that the main economic option for boosting growth that might also be politically acceptable is to open up to foreign investment in the energy

Russia's shaky economic prospects matter more broadly than just to the Russian people. Since 2000, Vladimir Putin has mostly been able to cut an implicit deal with the Russian people. On one side, freedom, the rule of law, and democracy are curtailed. On the other side, compared to the 1990s when Russia was in shock from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Putin offered an economy that was growing, not shrinking, and asserted a more active role for Russia as a player in international relations. There are doubtless a lot of reasons why Russia under Putin has been pushing the boundaries of acceptable international behavior in recent years, before trampling those boundaries altogether in Ukraine. But surely one contributing reason is that when Putin is providing less in terms of domestic economic growth, he feels some pressure to raise the decibel level on Russian assertiveness in international affairs.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Summer 2014 Journal of Economic Perspectives

My job as Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives helps to pay the household bills. (Speed-typing these blog posts is a volunteer activity.) All issues of JEP back to the first issue in 1987 are freely available on-line, courtesy of the American Economic Association. I've been running JEP since the first issue in 1987, so I think of this as issue #109. The Summer 2014 issue is how available on-line, although it will take another three weeks or so for paper copies to arrive in the mailboxes of subscribers. I'm sure I'll do some blog posts about specific papers in this issue in the next couple of weeks. But for now, here's the compact table of contents, and after that, a longer list of the papers that includes abstracts.

Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer 2014, Volume 28, Issue 3
Table of Contents

Symposium: Entrepreneurship

"The Role of Entrepreneurship in US Job Creation and Economic Dynamism," by Ryan Decker, John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin and Javier Miranda
Full-Text Access

"Entrepreneurship as Experimentation," by William R. Kerr, Ramana Nanda and Matthew Rhodes-Kropf
Full-Text Access

"Seeking the Roots of Entrepreneurship: Insights from Behavioral Economics," by Thomas Astebro, Holger Herz, Ramana Nanda and Roberto A. Weber
Full-Text Access

Symposium: Classic Ideas in Development

"The Lewis Model: A 60-Year Retrospective," by Douglas Gollin
Full-Text Access

"The Missing "Missing Middle"," by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Benjamin A. Olken
Full-Text Access

"Informality and Development," by Rafael La Porta and Andrei Shleifer
Full-Text Access

"Do Poverty Traps Exist? Assessing the Evidence," by Aart Kraay and David McKenzie
Full-Text Access

Symposium: Academic Production

"Page Limits on Economics Articles: Evidence from Two Journals," by David Card and Stefano DellaVigna
Full-Text Access

"What Policies Increase Prosocial Behavior? An Experiment with Referees at the Journal of Public Economics," by Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and Laszlo Sandor
Full-Text Access

"The Effects of an Anti-Grade-Inflation Policy at Wellesley College," by Kristin F. Butcher, Patrick J. McEwan and Akila Weerapana
Full-Text Access

"The Research Productivity of New PhDs in Economics: The Surprisingly High Non-success of the Successful," by John P. Conley and Ali Sina Onder
Full-Text Access

Articles and Features

"The Economics of Fair Trade," by Raluca Dragusanu, Daniele Giovannucci and Nathan Nunn
Full-Text Access

"Evaluating Counterterrorism Spending," by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart
Full-Text Access

"Recommendations for Further Reading," by Timothy Taylor
Full-Text Access



Symposium: Entrepreneurship

"The Role of Entrepreneurship in US Job Creation and Economic Dynamism"
Ryan Decker, John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin and Javier Miranda

An optimal pace of business dynamics—encompassing the processes of entry, exit, expansion, and contraction—would balance the benefits of productivity and economic growth against the costs to firms and workers associated with reallocation of productive resources. It is difficult to prescribe what the optimal pace should be, but evidence accumulating from multiple datasets and methodologies suggests that the rate of business startups and the pace of employment dynamism in the US economy has fallen over recent decades and that this downward trend accelerated after 2000. A critical factor in accounting for the decline in business dynamics is a lower rate of business startups and the related decreasing role of dynamic young businesses in the economy. For example, the share of US employment accounted for by young firms has declined by almost 30 percent over the last 30 years. These trends suggest that incentives for entrepreneurs to start new firms in the United States have diminished over time. We do not identify all the factors underlying these trends in this paper but offer some clues based on the empirical patterns for specific sectors and geographic regions.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Entrepreneurship as Experimentation"
William R. Kerr, Ramana Nanda and Matthew Rhodes-Kropf

Entrepreneurship research is on the rise but many questions about the fundamental nature of entrepreneurship still exist. We argue that entrepreneurship is about experimentation; the probabilities of success are low, extremely skewed, and unknowable until an investment is made. At a macro level, experimentation by new firms underlies the Schumpeterian notion of creative destruction. However, at a micro level, investment and continuation decisions are not always made in a competitive Darwinian contest. Instead, a few investors make decisions that are impacted by incentive, agency, and coordination problems, often before a new idea even has a chance to compete in a market. We contend that costs and constraints on the ability to experiment alter the type of organizational form surrounding innovation and influence whe n innovation is more likely to occur. These factors not only govern how much experimentation is undertaken in the economy, but also the trajectory of experimentation, with potentially very deep economic consequences.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Seeking the Roots of Entrepreneurship: Insights from Behavioral Economics"
Thomas Astebro, Holger Herz, Ramana Nanda and Roberto A. Weber

There is a growing body of evidence that many entrepreneurs seem to enter and persist in entrepreneurship despite earning low risk-adjusted returns. This has lead to attempts to provide explanations—using both standard economic theory and behavioral economics—for why certain individuals may be attracted to such an apparently unprofitable activity. Drawing on research in behavioral economics, in the sections that follow, we review three sets of possible interpretations for understanding the empirical facts related to the entry into, and persistence in, entrepreneurship. Differences in risk aversion provide a plausible and intuitive interpretation of entrepreneurial activity. In addition, a growing literature has begun to highlight the potential importance of overconfidence in driving entrepreneurial outcomes. Such a mechanism may appear at face value to work like a lower level of risk aversion, but there are clear conceptual differences—in particular, overconfidence likely arises from behavioral biases and misperceptions of probability distributions. Finally, nonpecuniary taste-based factors may be important in motivating both the decisions to enter into and to persist in entrepreneurship.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

Symposium: Classic Ideas in Development

"The Lewis Model: A 60-Year Retrospective"
Douglas Gollin

The Lewis model has remained, for more than half a century, one of the dominant theories of development economics. This paper argues that the power of the model lies in the simplicity of its central insight: that poor countries contain enclaves of economic activity just as rich countries contain enclaves of poverty; and that a proximate explanation for the difference in income per capita across countries is that there are large differences in the relative sizes of their "modern" and "traditional" sectors. But while the Lewis model contains a powerful and compelling macro narrative, its details have proved somewhat elusive to scholars and students who have followed, and its policy implications are unclear. This paper identifies several key insights of the Lewis model, discusses several different interpretations of the model, and then reviews modern evidence for the central propositions of the model. In closing, we consider the relevance of Lewis for current thinking about development strategies and policies.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"The Missing "Missing Middle""
Chang-Tai Hsieh and Benjamin A. Olken

Although a large literature seeks to explain the "missing middle" of mid-sized firms in developing countries, there is surprisingly little empirical backing for existence of the missing middle. Using microdata on the full distribution of both formal and informal sector manufacturing firms in India, Indonesia, and Mexico, we document three facts. First, while there are a very large number of small firms, there is no "missing middle" in the sense of a bimodal distribution: mid-sized firms are missing, but large firms are missing too, and the fraction of firms of a given size is smoothly declining in firm size. Second, we show that the distribution of average products of capital and labor is unimodal, and that large firms, not small firms, have higher average products. This is inconsistent with many models explaining "the missing middle" in which small firms with high returns are constrained from expanding. Third, we examine regulatory and tax notches in India, Indonesia, and Mexico of the sort often thought to discourage firm growth and find no economically meaningful bunching of firms near the notch points. We show that existing beliefs about the missing middle are largely due to arbitrary transformations that were made to the data in previous studies.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Informality and Development"
Rafael La Porta and Andrei Shleifer

In developing countries, informal firms account for up to half of economic activity. They provide livelihood for billions of people. Yet their role in economic development remains controversial with some viewing informality as pent-up potential and others viewing informality as a parasitic organizational form that hinders economic growth. In this paper, we assess these perspectives. We argue that the evidence is most consistent with dual models, in which informality arises out of poverty and the informal and formal sectors are very different. It seems that informal firms have low productivity and produce low- quality products; and, consequently, they do not pose a threat to the formal firms. Economic growth comes from the formal sector, that is, from firms run by educated entrepreneurs and exhibiting much higher levels of productivity. The expansion of the formal sector leads to the decline of the informal sector in relative and eventually absolute terms. A few informal firms convert to formality, but more generally they disappear because they cannot compete with the much more-productive formal firms.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Do Poverty Traps Exist? Assessing the Evidence"
Aart Kraay and David McKenzie

A "poverty trap" can be understood as a set of self-reinforcing mechanisms whereby countries start poor and remain poor: poverty begets poverty, so that current poverty is itself a direct cause of poverty in the future. The idea of a poverty trap has this striking implication for policy: much poverty is needless, in the sense that a different equilibrium is possible and one-time policy efforts to break the poverty trap may have lasting effects. But what does the modern evidence suggest about the extent to which poverty traps exist in practice and the underlying mechanisms that may be involved? The main mechanisms we examine include S-shaped savings functions at the country level; "big-push" theories of development based on coordination failures; hunger-based traps which rely on physical work capacity rising nonlinearly with foo d intake at low levels; and occupational poverty traps whereby poor individuals who start businesses that are too small will be trapped earning subsistence returns. We conclude that these types of poverty traps are rare and largely limited to remote or otherwise disadvantaged areas. We discuss behavioral poverty traps as a recent area of research, and geographic poverty traps as the most likely form of a trap. The resulting policy prescriptions are quite different from the calls for a big push in aid or an expansion of microfinance. The more-likely poverty traps call for action in less-traditional policy areas such as promoting more migration.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

Symposium: Academic Production

"Page Limits on Economics Articles: Evidence from Two Journals"
David Card and Stefano DellaVigna

Over the past four decades the median length of the papers published in the "top five" economic journals has grown by nearly 300 percent. We study the effects of a page limit policy introduced by the American Economic Review (AER) in mid-2008 and subsequently adopted by the Journal of the European Economic Association (JEEA) in 2009. We find that the imposition of a 40-page limit on submissions led to no change in the flow of new papers to the AER. Instead, authors responded by shortening and reformatting their papers. For JEEA, in contrast, we conclude that the page-limit policy led authors of longer papers to submit to other journals. These results imply that the AER has substantial monopoly power over submissions, while JEEA faces a very competitive market. Evidence from both journals, and from citations t o published papers in the top journals, suggests that longer papers are of higher quality than shorter papers, so the loss of longer submissions at JEEA may have led to a drop in quality. Despite a modest impact of the AER's policy on the average length of submissions, the policy had little or no effect on the length of final accepted manuscripts.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"What Policies Increase Prosocial Behavior? An Experiment with Referees at the Journal of Public Economics"
Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and Laszlo Sandor

We evaluate policies to increase prosocial behavior using a field experiment with 1,500 referees at the Journal of Public Economics. We randomly assign referees to four groups: a control group with a six-week deadline to submit a referee report; a group with a four-week deadline; a cash incentive group rewarded with $100 for meeting the four-week deadline; and a social incentive group in which referees were told that their turnaround times would be publicly posted. We obtain four sets of results. First, shorter deadlines reduce the time referees take to submit reports substantially. Second, cash incentives significantly improve speed, especially in the week before the deadline. Cash payments do not crowd out intrinsic motivation: after the cash treatment ends, referees who received cash incentives are no slower than those in the four-week deadline group. Third, social incentives have smaller but significant effects on review times and are especially effective among tenured professors, who are less sensitive to deadlines and cash incentives. Fourth, all the treatments have little or no effect on rates of agreement to review, quality of reports, or review times at other journals. We conclude that small changes in journals' policies could substantially expedite peer review at little cost. More generally, price incentives, nudges, and social pressure are effective and complementary methods of increasing prosocial behavior.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"The Effects of an Anti-grade-Inflation Policy at Wellesley College"
Kristin F. Butcher, Patrick J. McEwan and Akila Weerapana

Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on rece ipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"The Research Productivity of New PhDs in Economics: The Surprisingly High Non-success of the Successful"
John P. Conley and Ali Sina Onder

We study the research productivity of new graduates from North American PhD programs in economics from 1986 to 2000. We find that research productivity drops off very quickly with class rank at all departments, and that the rank of the graduate departments themselves provides a surprisingly poor prediction of future research success. For example, at the top ten departments as a group, the median graduate has fewer than 0.03 American Economic Review (AER)-equivalent publications at year six after graduation, an untenurable record almost anywhere. We also find that PhD graduates of equal percentile rank from certain lower-ranked departments have stronger publication records than their counterparts at higher-ranked departments. In our data, for example, Carnegie Mellon' s graduates at the 85th percentile of year-six research productivity outperform 85th percentile graduates of the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Berkeley. These results suggest that even the top departments are not doing a very good job of training the great majority of their students to be successful research economists. Hiring committees may find these results helpful when trying to balance class rank and place of graduate in evaluating job candidates, and current graduate students may wish to re-evaluate their academic strategies in light of these findings.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

Articles and Features
"The Economics of Fair Trade"
Raluca Dragusanu, Daniele Giovannucci and Nathan Nunn

Fair Trade is a labeling initiative aimed at improving the lives of the poor in developing countries by offering better terms to producers and helping them to organize. Although Fair Trade-certified products still comprise a small share of the market--for example, Fair Trade-certified coffee exports were 1.8 percent of global coffee exports in 2009--growth has been very rapid over the past decade. Whether Fair Trade can achieve its intended goals has been hotly debated in academic and policy circles. In particular, debates have been waged about whether Fair Trade makes "economic sense" and is sustainable in the long run. The aim of this article is to provide a critical overview of the economic theory behind Fair Trade, describing the potential benefits and potential pitfalls. We also provide an assessment of the empirical evidence of the impacts of Fair Trade to date. Because coffee is the largest single product in the Fair Trade market, our discussion here focuses on the specifics of this industry, although we will also point out some important differences with other commodities as they arise.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Evaluating Counterterrorism Spending"
John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart

In this article, we present a simple back-of-the-envelope approach for evaluating whether counterterrorism security measures reduce risk sufficiently to justify their costs. The approach uses only four variables: the consequences of a successful attack, the likelihood of a successful attack, the degree to which the security measure reduces risk, and the cost of the security measure. After measuring the cost of a counterterrorism measure, we explore a range of outcomes for the costs of terrorist attacks and a range of possible estimates for how much risk might be reduced by the measure. Then working from this mix of information and assumptions, we can calculate how many terrorist attacks (and of what size) would need to be averted to justify the cost of the counterterrorism measure in narrow cost-benefit terms. To illustrate this appr oach, we first apply it to the overall increases in domestic counterterrorism expenditures that have taken place since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and alternatively we apply it to just the FBI's counterterrorism efforts. We then evaluate evidence on the number and size of terrorist attacks that have actually been averted or might have been averted since 9/11.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Recommendations for Further Reading"
Timothy Taylor
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Deflation: The Case for Worrying Less

One of the arguments as to why monetary policy should continue to be loose, both for the Federal
Reserve in the United States and for other central banks around the world, is to avoid the risk of a bout of deflation. But is that fear overstated? The Bank of International Settlements offers a discussion "The costs of deflation: what does the historical record say?" in its 84th Annual Report published last month. (For those not familiar with BIS, it's a Swiss-based international organization that has been around since 1930, and serves as a main forum for consultation and cooperation between central banks.

When looking at historical episodes of deflation, the BIS offers a simple comparison. Look at the five years before and after an episode of deflation started for a range of countries, and see what happened to growth of real GDP during that time. As a starting point, consider pre-World War I episodes of deflation from 1860-1901 in ten countries:  Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands,  Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States. Some of these countries had multiple episodes of deflation during this time: for example, the U.S. economy had episodes of deflation starting in 1866, 1881, and 1891. When you match up the five years before and after the starting point of an episode of deflation with the path of GDP growth, here's what you get. The red line shows the price level (which peaks at time zero, because that's how the figure is constructed), and blue line shows the path of GDP relative to that time zero. For this time period, the onset of deflation on average doesn't seem to have any effect on economic growth.

How about during the early interwar period, meaning the 1920s and early 1930s? Here, the path of GDP growth across the 10 countries in this sample is definitely faster before the start of price deflations rather than after--but it remains positive. BIS writes: "In the early interwar period (mainly in the 1920s), the number of somewhat more costly (“bad”) deflations increased: output still rose, but much more slowly – the average rates in the pre- and post-peak periods were 2.3% and 1.2%, respectively. (Perceptions of truly severe deflations during the interwar period are dominated by the exceptional experience of the Great Depression, when prices in the G10 economies fell cumulatively up to roughly 20% and output contracted by about 10%.)"

Finally, what about more recent deflations from 1990 to 2013? For this time period, the sample now includes episodes of deflation in 13 places: Australia, China;l the euro area, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden,  Switzerland, and the United States (in the third quarter of 2008). The recent episodes of deflation have been much shorter: thus, the red line showing the price level dips slightly, but then starts rising again after about a year. The path of GDP growth looks much the same in the five years before and after the deflation. As BIS writes: "The deflation episodes during the past two and a half decades have, on average, been much more akin to the
good types experienced during the pre-World War I period than to those of the early interwar period ..."

BIS suggests four lessons that can be taken from this exercise.

"First, the record is replete with examples of “good”, or at least “benign”, deflations in the sense that they coincided with output either rising along trend or undergoing only a modest and temporary setback. ...
"The second important feature of deflation dynamics revealed by the historical record is the general absence of an inherent deflation spiral risk – only the Great Depression episode featured a deflation spiral in the form of a strong and persistent decline in the price level; the other episodes did not. ...   The evidence, especially in recent decades, argues against the notion that deflations lead to vicious deflation spirals. In addition, the fact that wages are less flexible today than they were in the distant past reduces the likelihood of a self-reinforcing downward spiral of wages and prices. ..."
"Third, it is asset price deflations rather than general deflations that have consistently and significantly harmed macroeconomic performance. Indeed, both the Great Depression in the United States and the Japanese deflation of the 1990s were preceded by a major collapse in equity prices and, especially, property prices. These observations suggest that the chain of causality runs primarily from asset price deflation to real economic downturn, and then to deflation, rather than from general deflation to economic activity. ... 
"Fourth, recent deflation episodes have often gone hand in hand with rising asset prices, credit expansion and strong output performance. Examples include episodes in the 1990s and 2000s in countries as distinct as China and Norway. There is a risk that easy monetary policy in response to good deflations, aiming to bring inflation closer to target, could inadvertently accommodate the build-up of financial imbalances. Such resistance to “good” deflations can, over time, lead to “bad” deflations if the imbalances eventually unwind in a disruptive manner."
In short, the grim experience of the 1930s and its combination of deflation and Great Depression looks like a special case. The typical deflation is not accompanied by a steep recession. Nothing here argues that deflation is desirable or worth seeking to encourage. But the greater danger of economic recessio or Depression seems to arise not out of price deflation, but instead when asset prices bubbles overinflate, and then burst.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Universal Basic Income: A Thought Experiment

Pretty much all current public programs to assist households with low incomes suffer from the same seemingly unavoidable problem: As the household's income rises, the amount of assistance provided by the public program is phased out. For example, a person who earns an extra $100 might find that eligibility for public assistance has been reduced by $50. Economists call this reduction in benefits as income rises a "negative income tax," and it is not unusual for studies to find that certain working poor families face negative income tax rates in the range of 50% of the marginal dollar earned, 60%, or even higher (for examples, see here and here). These high negative income tax rates diminish work incentives for those with low incomes.

There's a way out called "universal basic income." Ed Dolan explores "The Pragmatic Case for a Universal Basic Income" in the Third Quarter 2014 issue of the Milken Institute Review (free registration may be required for access).

The idea of a universal basic income is that every U.S. citizen would be entitled to a chunk of money each year. This amount would not vary based on income level, or employment, or disability, or age, or any other reason.  Specifically, when a low-income person works and earns income, the universal basic income check would not be reduced in any way.  The "negative income tax" rate is zero percent.

The idea of a universal basic income raises obvious questions. How much would it be per person? How would it be financed? Are the politics of such a program conceivable? Let's tackle these in turn.

How much? Dolan suggests that we aim at having a universal basic income that reaches the poverty line. The current poverty line for a family of three is roughly $18,000. Thus, in round number terms, the goal might be to have a universal basic income of $6,000 per person, perhaps paid every other week. (One can easily imagine having a number that is a little higher for adults and a little lower for children, or keeping some of the money for children in trust and giving it to them over the first decade or so of adulthood, but let's not make this example too fancy.)

How would this amount be financed? The starting point is that this program would replace programs currently aimed at those with low incomes: for example, it would replace welfare, Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Credit. For the sake of this thought experiment, Dolan suggests not including public policies that help low-income families with education or health (like Medicaid). The other programs for supporting low-income Americans spend roughly $500 billion.

But remember, the universal basic income goes to everyone, not just those with low incomes. Thus, Dolan suggests that a second source of revenue would be to eliminate a number of tax deductions and deferrals, including the mortgage-interest deduction, the deferral of income taxes on retirement, and the deduction of charitable contributions. He also proposed eliminating the personal exemption. (In keeping his argument separate from health care financing issues, Dolan does not propose touching the tax exemption for compensation paid in the form of employer-provided health insurance.) These changes would raise about $1.2 trillion. Most middle-income and upper-middle income families, who either do not itemize deductions at all or don't have that many deductions to itemize, would come out ahead with $6,000 per person rather than using these tax provisions, although those at the highest income levels who make substantial use of these provisions would end up paying more.

Finally, Dolan suggests that Social Security recipients can have a choice: they can either receive the Social Security payments they are already entitled to by law, or they could instead receive the universal basic income. Those receiving the lowest Social Security payments now would benefit from this choice, and the rest of the elderly would be unaffected by the plan.

Taking these steps together, Dolan estimates that the U.S. could fund a universal basic income of $5,800 per person. In addition, consider some of the side benefits. Work incentives for those with low incomes would be greatly improved. The need for government to set up and enforce complicated eligibility rules for those with low incomes would be eliminated. The tax code could be greatly simplified, and many more people could file very simple tax returns. At the most basic level, everyone in the United States would be guaranteed an amount close to the poverty level of income.

What about the politics of a universal basic income? It's no surprise that many who lean liberal like the idea of guaranteeing a basic income. However, the idea has a reasonable number of conservative and libertarian supporters, who like the idea of a program that addresses the basic concern over helping those with low incomes, but in a clean, clear way that involves much less interference of eligibility rules and phase-ins and phase-outs in people's lives. Dolan claims that there are lively debates over a universal basic income happening behind the scenes between those with very different political persuasions.

The idea of a universal basic income is appealing to me in theory, but I have a hard time believing that once enacted, the U.S. political process would be willing or able to leave it alone. One one side, those who favor higher tax rates for those with high incomes would immediate start trying to figure out ways to claw back payments to those with high incomes. On another side, there would be continual pressures to reinstate programs like Food Stamps, or targeted welfare payments for certain types of families, or favored tax provisions for home-buying or charitable contributions or retirement. There would be continual political pressure to alter the amount of a universal basic income, as well. The U.S. political system does not excel at replacing complexity with simplicity, and then leaving well enough alone.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Decline of Milk

All those "Got Milk?" advertisements are trying to push back against the tide: U.S. milk consumption has been falling for several decades. Jeanine Bentley of the US Department of Agriculture lays out some "Trends in U.S. Per Capita Consumption of Dairy Products, 1970-2012" (June 2, 2014). Here's the decline in milk.

The decline seems to be part of a generational shift in what people choose to drink. Bentley explains:
"A 2013 ERS [Economic Research Service] study found that while Americans continue to drink about 8 ounces of fluid milk when they drink milk, they are consuming it less frequently than in the past. Americans are especially less apt to drink milk at lunchtime and with dinner. National food consumption surveys reveal that Americans born in the early 1960s drank milk 1.5 times a day as teenagers, 0.7 times a day as young adults, and 0.6 times a day in middle age. In contrast, Americans born in the early 1980s entered their teenage years drinking milk just 1.2 times a day and were drinking milk 0.5 times a day as young adults. Competition from other beverages—especially carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices, and bottled water—is likely contributing to the changes in frequency of fluid milk
consumption. In addition, substitutes for cow’s milk (including nut milks, coconut milk, and soy milk) have provided alternatives for consumers."
For the overall category of dairy products, the decline in milk consumption has been partially offset by a rise in cheese consumption: "Over the last four decades, Americans have increased their consumption of cheese, especially Italian varieties such as mozzarella, parmesan, and provolone. In 2012, cheese availability was 33.5 pounds per person, almost triple the amount in 1970 at 11.4 pounds. Availability of Italian cheeses increased to 14.9 pounds per person from 2.1 pounds in 1970. Since 2005, availability of American cheese has remained around 13 pounds per person. The inclusion of cheese in time-saving convenience foods and in commercially manufactured and prepared foods such as frozen pizza, macaroni and cheese, and pre-packaged cheese slices has increased consumption. The popularity of cheese-rich Italian and Tex-Mex cuisines has also contributed to increased cheese consumption."

Nonetheless, with the decline in milk consumption, dairy consumption has been falling over time. 

(In case you are wondering what the "availability" of milk means in the figure title, here is Bentley's explanation: "ERS’s [Economic Research Service's] food availability data calculate the annual supply of a commodity available for humans to eat by subtracting measurable nonfood use (farm inputs, exports, and ending stocks) from the sum of domestic supply (production, imports, and beginning stocks). Per capita estimates are determined by dividing the total annual supply of the commodity by the U.S. population for that year. Although these estimates do not directly measure actual quantities ingested, they serve as a proxy for Americans' food consumption over time.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Beware Faraway Shareholder Meetings

An old trick in Washington policy circles is to obscure unwelcome news by releasing it late on Friday afternoon--and if it can be Friday afternoon of a three-day weekend, so much the better. Many companies seem to have another method of obscuring unwelcome news: they schedule their annual shareholder meeting to a more remote location. Yuanzhi Li and David Yermack present the evidence in "Evasive Shareholder Meetings." An overview of the paper is freely available in the NBER Digest for July 2014. The actual paper is National Bureau of Research Working Paper #19991 (March 2014), and while it is not freely available, many readers will have access through library subscriptions.

Li and Yermack look at data on 10,000 annual shareholder meetings held between 2006 and 2010. In one set of companies that in a certain year choose to hold their shareholder meeting at least 1,000 miles from the corporate headquarters. After such meetings, the company is more likely to announce unfavorable quarterly earnings, and also experiences an stock market return 3.7% less than a benchmark for the overall stock market over the following six months.

Similarly, when a company holds its shareholder meeting at least 50 miles from a major airport, its stock underperforms the market benchmarks in the following six months. When companies hold their meeting both more than 50 miles a major airport and more than 50 miles from corporate headquarters, the company's stock underperforms the market by 6.8% in the six months after the meeting.

Just to be clear, this effect is not rooted in effects from companies that are already known to be performing poorly, or already facing controversy, before the shareholder meeting occurs. Li and Yermack summarize (citations omitted):

We find little evidence that meetings are moved to distant locations when a firm has had  a bad year, or when public information suggests that firms should expect confrontation; in fact, analysis of the agendas for the meetings in our sample suggests that companies are more likely to meet near headquarters when they expect hostile shareholder proposals or board elections that may be subject to protest voting. This may occur because the company is more comfortable arranging security, working with law enforcement, and controlling access to the meeting site in its own jurisdiction. Companies may also be relatively unconcerned with the publicity value of controversial agenda items, since these are known by everyone in advance and often have easily predictable outcomes.
Instead, we find that managers schedule long-distance meetings when the firm is experiencing adverse operating performance that is not already known to the market. Company stocks perform very poorly in the aftermath of remote meetings, and part of this result stems from disappointing quarterly earnings announcements following these meetings. By moving the meeting far away, the managers might forestall shareholder or news media questioning that could lead to the early disclosure of adverse news. ...
Scheduling a meeting far from headquarters provides a straightforward opportunity for managers to discourage attendance. Research shows that firms tend to have high ownership in their local communities and that local analysts tend to forecast stock performance better than distant analysts. A long-distance shareholder meeting would inevitably reduce participation from both of these cohorts as well as the local business press, who may be the most knowledgeable people about the company. ...
The poor performance of companies following long-distance meetings suggests that management knows adverse news when choosing the location of these meetings, and it may move them far from headquarters as part of a scheme to suppress negative news for as long as possible. While this motivation seems understandable, it is less obvious why shareholders fail to decode such an unambiguous signal at the time the meeting location is announced.
Of course, now that this research has been published, investors are going to be on the lookout. Companies that schedule shareholder meetings far from corporate headquarters or far from a major airport should at a minimum expect to come under greater scrutiny--and perhaps even see an immediate fall in their stock price, on the presumption that a faraway shareholder meeting is a negative signal about future earnings.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Long-Term Budget Deficits

Much of the sound and fury about U.S. budget deficits involves what should happen in the next year or so. Of course, short-run decisions about red ink do matter, and have a way of bleeding over into long-term decisions. But this focus on the short-term also risks missing the longer-term context of how U.S. government deficits and debt have changed since the Great Recession started in 2007, and where they are headed in the next couple of decades. For this purpose, my go-to starting point is "The 2014
Long-Term Budget Outlook" published  this month by the Congressional Budget Office.

Here's an overview of the basic CBO budget forecast, which shows some of the costs of the current path, but as I will explain, is probably to optimistic. This "extended baseline" forecast is based on existing law, including any ways in which the law requires future changes: for example, if current law requires a tax to be changed a few years in the future, that future change is included in this forecast. This figure shows government spending and revenues as a share of GDP. The gap between them doesn't look large, but remember that with the US GDP now in the range of $17 trillion, a gap of 1 percentage point is a deficit of $170 billion.

I'd draw two lessons from this figure. First, you can see the large jump in accumulated federal debt during the Great Recession, from less than 40% of GDP in 2008 to 74% of GDP in 2014. Federal debt relative to GDP is now at the second-highest level in US history, trailing only the explosion of debt used to finance the fighting of World War II. Second, federal debt in the longer term is projected to rise more slowly in the next few years, but to keep rising to 106% of GDP by 2039--which would be equal to the debt/GDP level in 1946.

Here's a figure showing the government debt/GDP ratio throughout U.S. history. You can see the previous debt/GDP peaks at the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1980s and early 1990s. According to the CBO, the U.S. government is currently on autopilot to set an unwelcome new record.

The discussion of the effects of large budget deficits often seems to be an argument over the possibility of catastrophic debt overload and the risk of Greek-style or Argentinian-style debt defaults. But arguing over catastrophe misses the real and near-term costs of the higher budget deficits. The CBO lists three of them.

First, the current high level of government debt, and the projections for the next 25 years, mean that the U.S. government lacks fiscal flexibility. Before previous debt spikes, we had started with a relatively low debt/GDP ratio, and so we had room to borrow as needed. But with the debt/GDP ratio already at 74% and rising, we now lack that flexibility. I sometimes say that the U.S. could afford to fight the Great Recession with large budget deficits. But having done so, it wouldn't be nearly as easy to enact a similar deficit boost in the future if economic or foreign policy considerations might seem to warrant it.

Second, the current spending patterns of the U.S. government are starting to crowd out everything except health care, Social Security, and interest payments. The bottom three lines on this graph show rising government spending on major health care programs (like Medicare and Medicaid), on Social Security, and on interest payments on past borrowing. The top dark green line shows spending on everything else the government does, falling steadily as a share of GDP over time. Again, this is the projection based on current law.

Third, large government borrowing means less funding is available for private investment. CBO writes: "Large federal budget deficits over the long term would reduce investment, resulting in lower national income and higher interest rates than would otherwise occur. Increased government borrowing would cause a larger share of the savings potentially available for investment to be used for purchasing government securities, such as Treasury bonds. Those purchases would crowd out investment in capital goods—factories and computers, for example—which makes workers more productive. Because wages are determined mainly by workers’ productivity, the reduction in investment would reduce
wages as well, lessening people’s incentive to work."

These long-run dangers don't mean that an abrupt large reduction in budget deficits should happen immediately, when the economy is still struggling to generate a respectable recovery. But it does mean that we should be thinking seriously about small changes for the near future that will phase into larger effects over the next couple of decades.

I said earlier that this scenario is optimistic. I don't mean that the CBO has biased its baseline estimates: indeed, the report goes through in some detail the underlying projections behind these numbers about productivity and economic growth, health care costs and life expectancy, and interest rates (which affect the costs of financing government borrowing). But the baseline estimate, by law and custom, focuses on what is specifically in the law. This seemingly sensible rule offers a temptation to politicians, who can enact spending cuts or tax increases that aren't scheduled to start for five or 10 years. These proposals make the projected deficits look better over the next five or ten years, and then the policies can be changed later.

Thus, CBO calculates an "alternative fiscal scenario," in which it sets aside some of these spending and tax changes that are scheduled to take effect in five years or ten years or never. Remember that the extended baseline scenario projected that the debt/GDP ratio would be 106% by 2039. In the alternative fiscal scenario, the debt-GDP ratio is projected to reach 183% of GDP by 2039. As the report notes: "CBO’s extended alternative fiscal scenario is based on the assumptions that certain policies that are now in place but are scheduled to change under current law will be continued and that some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period will be modified. The scenario, therefore, captures what some analysts might consider to be current policies, as opposed to
current laws."

What changes are assumed in the alternative fiscal scenario? As one example, the category of "Other Non-Interest Spending" in the chart above does not plummet: "Federal noninterest spending apart from that for Social Security, the major health care programs (net of offsetting receipts), and certain refundable tax credits would rise after 2024 to its average as a percentage of GDP during the past two decades—rather than fall significantly below that level, as it does in the extended baseline."

On the tax side, the usual political trick is to have various tax deductions or credits scheduled too expire in the future, which makes the projected deficit appear lower, except that when the time comes for expiration the tax provisions are renewed again. Thus, the baseline revenue estimates rise from 17.6% of GDP in 2014 to 18.3% of GDP by 2024 and 19.4% of GDP by 2034 (and keep rising after that). In the alternative fiscal scenario," tax revenue rises to 18.1% of GDP, which is "slightly higher than the average of 17.4 percent over the past 40 years," notes the CBO--but then tax revenues don't continue to rise above that level.

My own judgement is that the path of future budget deficits in the next decade or so is likely to lean toward the alternative fiscal scenario. But long before we reach a debt/GDP ratio of 183%, something is going to give. I don't know what will change. But as an old-school economist named Herb Stein used to say, "If something can't go on, it won't."