Saturday, December 20, 2014

Islamic Banking from a U.S. Angle

Earlier this week I offered some "Snapshots of Islamic Banking"  with a global perspective. I then learned about "Islamic Banking, American Regulation," by Renee Haltom, published in Econ Focus from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. The focus of Haltom's article is n the subtitle to her article: "For some American Muslims, Sharia-compliant banks are an important part of the financial landscape." As I read Haltom's article, I was struck by some of the claims concerning whether, at least in cases, Islamic banks--including those in US markets--are mostly just relabelling the same flows of capital, with essentially the same risk characteristics, as conventional banks.  Here's Haltom describing the presence of Islamic banking in the U.S. market:
"The United States’ Muslim population is roughly equal to that of the United Kingdom, a country that houses $19 billion in Islamic financial institution assets, more than 20 banks, and six that provide Sharia-compliant products exclusively. Yet our market for Islamic financial products is much smaller. There's no single list of participating firms or aggregate estimate of assets, but one can find roughly a dozen firms that routinely offer Islamic banking and investment products to businesses and consumers, though several don’t even market such products on their websites. ...
Islamic finance came to the United States in the 1980s when two institutions opened on the West Coast. ... The institutions operational today provide services in several states, most prevalently where the Muslim population is concentrated. University Islamic Financial (a subsidiary of University Bank) based in Ann Arbor, Mich., serving the large Muslim population of metropolitan Detroit and surrounding states, is the first and only exclusively Sharia-compliant bank in the United States — it offers no other products. Devon Bank in Chicago is the only other bank regularly offering Islamic financing products. Reston, Va.- based Guidance Residential is the largest nonbank financial institution offering Islamic finance services, having provided more than $3 billion — which it claims is nearly 80 percent of the total — in musharaka mortgage financing in 22 states since its doors opened in 2002. California-based LARIBA is another large Islamic mortgage lender, and it also provides business financing.

 To what extent are Islamic banks different from conventioanl banks? Haltom cites some of the evidence: 
"To critics, Islamic finance is a distinction without a difference. According to research by Feisal Khan, an economics professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, most Islamic finance transactions are economically indistinguishable from traditional, debt- and interest-based finance. Where there is principal and a payment plan, there is an implied interest rate, Khan argued in a 2010 article. He is not the first economist to make such a claim. Many Islamic scholars argue that murabaha contracts don't share risk and thus are not Sharia-compliant — and experts estimate that such contracts constitute up to 80 percent of the global Islamic finance volume.  Other economists have noted that the terms of Islamic financial contracts often move with market interest rates. In the United States, Islamic financial products are frequently marketed with information about implied interest rates to allow customers to compare prices or simply to comply with American regulation. A study of Malaysia, the world's largest Islamic finance market, found that Islamic deposit rates fluctuate in step with market interest rates."
U.S. financial authorities seem to agree.

Banks here [in the U.S.] are normally prohibited from taking on partnership or equity stakes in real estate, a provision meant to limit speculation. But in Islamic finance, the bank assumes formal ownership. Regulators in the United States have held, however, that Islamic finance is compatible with the prohibition on real estate investments in some cases. In 1997, the United Bank of Kuwait (UBK), which then had a branch in New York, requested interpretive letters from its regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), on ijara and murabaha mortgage products. The OCC approved them on the very grounds that they were economically equivalent to traditional products.
In the OCC's view, because the purchase and sale transactions are executed simultaneously, the bank's ownership is merely for "a moment in time," and therefore the Islamic contracts avoid the type of risk that real estate restrictions were intended to limit. (The joint ownership that defines musharaka contracts, on the other hand, is not currently approved for use by banks and is used in the United States only by nonbank mortgage lenders.) From an accounting standpoint, the transaction appears as a loan (an asset) on the bank's balance sheet. The borrower is responsible for maintaining the property and paying all expenses, and in the event of default, the bank may sell it to recover what is owed, as in a mortgage. ... 
Possibly because the products are unfamiliar to many investors, there is a smaller secondary market for Islamic financial products, so it has been harder for Islamic mortgage lenders to remain liquid, hindering the market's growth. In the United States, housing agencies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae started buying Islamic mortgage products in 2001 and 2003, respectively, to provide liquidity, and they are now the primary investors in Islamic mortgages. By 2007, one firm, Guidance Residential, was relying on more than $1 billion in financing from Freddie Mac. ...
Of course, there are a wide range of Islamic banks around the world, and they have a range of practices, so generalizations about the extent to which they are or are not similar to conventional banks are likely to be hazardous. But as Islamic banking grows, it will be interesting to watch whether it seems to be seeking ways to mimic conventional banking, albeit with different labels, or whether it is leading to greater use of financial contracts with distinctive risk-sharing properties. As one exmaple, there now appears to be an emerging market for Islamic bonds, called sukuk. Rather than being based on an explicit interest rate, they are tied to payment streams from tangible assets. Haltom explains:

In the 1990s, the first international accounting standards were developed for Islamic finance, and the first market emerged for Islamic bonds. Those bonds, called sukuk, tie investments to tangible assets that issue payment streams based on their revenues, much like securitized equity financing. ...

Another factor is that non-Muslim governments are moving toward issuing sukuk to draw the investment of oil-rich Muslim countries. In June, the United Kingdom issued more than $330 million in sukuk — compared with more than $100 billion in global sukuk offerings in 2013 — becoming the first country outside the Islamic world to do so. Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to make London "one of the great capitals of Islamic finance anywhere in the world." Luxembourg, Hong Kong, and South Africa have announced plans for their own offerings. Sukuk may also provide liquid assets to help domestic Islamic banks manage their balance sheets.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Real or Artificial Christmas Tree?

My family always had real Christmas trees when I was growing up. I've always had real trees as an adult. Living in my own little bubble, it thus came as a shock to me to learn that, of the households that have Christmas trees, over 80% use an artificial tree, according to Nielsen survey results commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association (which largely represents sellers of artificial trees). But in a holiday season where the focus is often on whether we are naughty or nice, what choice of tree has greater environmental impact?

There seem to be two main studies often quoted on this subject: "Comparative Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Artificial vs. Natural Christmas Tree," published by a Montreal-based consulting firm called ellipsos in February 2009, and"Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of an Artificial Christmas Tree and a Natural Christmas Tree," published in November 2010 by a Boston consulting firm called PE Americas on behalf of the aforementioned American Christmas Tree Association.Both studies assume the artificial tree is manufactured in China and transported to North America. (If readers know of other recent published studies, please send me a link!)

(Note: This post first appeared on December 24, 2012. It has been slightly edited.)

Here are some of the main messages I take away from these studies:

1) One artificial tree has greater environmental impact than one natural tree. However, an artificial tree can also be re-used over a number of years. Thus, there is some crossover point, if the artificial tree is used for long enough, that its environmental effect is less than an annual series of trees. For example, the ellipsos study finds that an artificial tree would need to be used for 20 years before its greenhouse gas effects would be less than those of an annual series of natural trees. The PE Americas study offers a wide range of scenarios, and summarizes, but here is the situation "for the base case when individual car transport distance for tree purchase is 2.5 miles each way. Because the natural tree provides an environmental benefit in terms of Global Warming Potential when landfilled, and Eutrophication Potential when composted or incinerated, there is no number of years one can keep an artificial tree in order to match the natural tree impacts in these cases. ... For all other scenarios, the artificial tree has less impact provided it is kept and reused for a minimum between 2 and 9 years, depending upon the environmental indicator chosen."

2) The full analysis needs to look at effects across all the full life-cycle of the tree, whether natural or artificial. This seems to involve the following steps.

Under what conditions is the tree manufactured or cultivated, with what use of energy, fertilizer, and logging methods? By what combination of transportation mechanisms is the finished tree moved to the home? A substantial share of artificial trees are manufactured in China and then shipped to North America. What are the different issues in use of the tree, including use of water and emissions of fumes? What is the end-of-life for the tree? For example, the carbon in a natural tree will be stored for some decades if the tree goes into a landfill, but not if if is composted or incinerated.

3) The full analysis also needs to look at a range of possible effects. For example, the PE America study looked at "global warming potential (carbon footprint), primary energy demand, acidification potential, eutrophication potential, and smog potential." Here's a figure showing 14 categories of analysis from the ellipsos study, with a comparison between natural and artificial trees on a number of dimensions.

The ellipsos study sums up this way: "When aggregating the data in damage categories, the results show that the impacts for human health are approximately equivalent for both trees, that the impact for ecosystem quality are much better for the artificial tree, that the impacts for climate change are much better for the natural tree, and that the impacts for resources are better for the natural tree ..."

4) In the context of many other holiday and everyday activities, the environmental effects of the tree are small. The studies offer some comparisons of the environmental effects of the tree compared with the electricity used to light the tree, the driving by a household to pick up the tree, and even the environmental effect of the tree stand.

For example, in comparing Primary Energy Demand for the tree and the energy demand for lighting the tree. For an artificial tree, the PE Americas study reports: "The electricity consumption during use of 400 incandescent Christmas tree lights during one Christmas season is 55% of the overall Primary Energy Demand impact of the unlit artificial tree studied, assuming the worst‐case scenario that the artificial tree is used only one year. For artificial trees kept 5 and 10 years respectively, the PED for using incandescent lights is 2.8 times and 5.5 times that of the artificial tree life cycle." For a natural tree: "The life cycle Primary Energy Demand impact of the natural tree is 1.5 ‐ 3.5 times less (based on the End‐of‐Life scenario) than the use of 400 incandescent Christmas tree lights during one Christmas season."

In comparing the environmental effects of driving with those of the tree, ellipsos writes: "Due to the uncertainties of CO2 sequestration and distance between the point of purchase of the trees and the customer’s house, the environmental impacts of the natural tree can become worse. For instance, customers who travel over 16 km from their house to the store (instead of 5 km) to buy a natural tree would be better off with an artificial tree. ... [C]arpooling or biking to work only one to three weeks per year would offset the carbon emissions from both types of Christmas trees."

The PE Americas report strikes a similar theme: "Initially, global warming potential (GWP) for the landfilled natural tree is negative, in other words the life cycle of a landfilled natural tree that is a GWP sink. Therefore, the more natural trees purchased, the greater the environmental global warming benefit (the more negative GWP becomes). However, with increased transport to pick up the natural tree, the overall landfilled natural tree life cycled becomes less negative. When car transport becomes greater than 5 miles (one‐way), the overall life cycle of the natural tree is no longer negative, and there is a positive GWP contribution."

Even the tree stand for a natural tree has an environmental cost that can be considered in the same breath with the costs of a natural tree. PE Americas: "The tree stand is a significant contributor to the overall impact of the natural tree life cycle with impacts ranging from 3% to 41% depending on the impact category and End‐of‐Life disposal option."

I would add that the environment effect of the ornaments on the trees may be as large or greater than the effect of the tree itself. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that America imported $1 billion in Christmas tree ornaments from China (the leading supplier) between January to September 2012, but only $140 million worth of artificial Christmas trees. Thus, spending on ornaments is something like six times as high as spending on trees. The choice of what kind of lights on the tree, or whether to drape the house and front yard with lights, is a more momentous environmental decision than the tree itself.

Of course, these kinds of comparisons don't even try to compare the environmental cost of the tree with the cost of the presents under the tree, or the long-distance travel to attend a family gathering. Thus, the PE Americas study concludes: "Consumers who wish to celebrate the holidays with a Christmas tree should do so knowing that the overall environmental impacts of both natural and artificial trees are extremely small when compared to other daily activities such as driving a car. Neither natural nor artificial Christmas tree purchases constitute a significant environmental impact within most American lifestyles." Similarly, ellipsos writes: "Although the dilemma between the natural and artificial Christmas trees will continue to surface every year before Christmas, it is now clear from this LCA study that, regardless of the chosen type of tree, the impacts on the environment are negligible compared to other activities, such as car use."

Certainly, celebrations at holidays and big events can sometimes be exorbitant and over the top. But the use of a Christmas tree, and the choice between a natural tree or an artificial tree, is a small-scale luxury. If the environmental issue is bothering you, even knowing these facts, make a resolution to use your artificial tree for a few more years, rather than replacing it, or to save some energy in January by driving less or being more vigilant about turning off unneeded lights. Gathering around the tree should be one less reason for moralizing around the holidays, not one more. So celebrate with good cheer and generous moderation.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Macroprudentialism (An E-book)

In the old days of macroeconomics, say up to 2007, macroeconomic policy was almost entirely about fiscal and monetary policies. But in the last few years, an alternative called "macroprudential policy" has risen up. The notion is to affect the macroeconomy by using financial regulations about the permissable extent of bank capital and collateral lrequirements, consumer borrowing, margin requirements for financial trades, rules governing what derivatives are allowable, and more. Janet Yellen has argued that when it comes to financial stability, and the risks it poses to macroeconomic stability, macroprudential policy needs to play a primary role. Here's a discussion of the past use of what we would now call macroprudential tools in the U.S. economy.

For a useful starting point to the topic, Dirk Schoenmaker has edited an e-book called Macroprudentialism, a eBook from the Duisenberg School of Finance and the Center for Economic Policy Press, which includes 15 short chapters from various perspectives. Here is a scattering of some of the comments about macroprudential regulation that especially struck me.

Anil K Kashyap, Dimitrios P Tsomocos and Alexandros P. Vardoulakis: "While virtually every central banker in the world is on record supporting the concept of ‘macroprudential regulation’, there is still no agreed upon definition of what it means or how best it should be implemented.

Paul Tucker: "Legislators have typically favoured rules-based regulation. That is for good reason: it
helps to guard against the exercise of arbitrary power by unelected officials. But a static rulebook is the meat and drink of regulatory arbitrage, which is endemic in finance.  Finance is a ‘shape-shifter’.
That makes it hard to frame a regime that keeps risk-taking in the system as a whole within tolerable bounds. Instead, excessive risk-taking is likely to migrate to less regulated or unregulated parts of the system. Thus, with the re-regulation of de jure banks currently underway, some of the economic substance of banking will, again, inevitably re-emerge elsewhere. For example, anybody holding low-risk securities can, in principle, build themselves a shadow bank by lending out their securities for cash and investing the proceeds in a riskier credit portfolio. ...

"This shape-shifting dynamic can leave policymakers in a game of catch-up, responding only as each metamorphosis becomes systemically significant. Unless they are empowered to respond flexibly, it is a game they are doomed to lose. By the time the products of regulatory arbitrage are evidently systemically significant, those in the driving street will likely have the lobbying power to delay or derail reform. The powerful forces mobilised to oppose reform of the globally significant US money market fund industry illustrate that in capital letters.

"A number of implications for the design of macroprudential regimes flow from these features of the financial world. First, it will not be sufficient for bank regulation to be dynamically adjusted. It will also be necessary, for example, to vary minimum collateral (margin, haircut) requirements in derivatives and money markets when a cyclical upswing is morphing into exuberance; to tighten the regime applying to a corner of finance that is shifting from systemic irrelevance to a systemic threat; and to tighten the substantive standards, not only the disclosure standards, applying to the issuance
of securities when the pattern of aggregate issuance is driving or facilitating excessive borrowing by firms or households. That means, second, that if finance remains free to innovate, adapt and reshape itself, every kind of financial regulator must be in the business of preserving stability. That needs to be incorporated into their statutory mandates and, more generally, into the design of regulatory agencies."

Charles A. E. Goodhart: "As the Global Financial Crisis struck, central banks were saddled with two objectives at the same time: price stability and financial stability. With the policy interest rate
predicated to achieve price stability, we needed a second instrument to maintain financial stability; hence macroprudential instruments. ... As long as macroprudential instruments are able to vary the capital ratio applicable to loans, they could be effective, but only time will show how effective. ... I have argued that central banks have now been allocated responsibility for financial stability, whether keen to do so or not. If so, it would seem odd not to also give them command over the main levers (i.e. instruments) for achieving such stability. Moreover, several of these instruments involve either imposing requirements on banks – e.g. state-varying capital requirements – or changes to the central bank’s own portfolio – e.g. acting as market-maker of last resort via credit expansion (CE) – that would seem necessarily to be within the natural province of central bank decision-making."

Claudio Borio: "There is no doubt that macroprudential frameworks must be part of the solution to the perennial quest for the so far elusive goal of lasting financial stability. Adopting a more systemic orientation in prudential arrangements is essential. But intellectual pendulums have a habit of swinging too far. There is a risk of entertaining unrealistic expectations about what macroprudential schemes can do on their own. If these expectations become entrenched in policy, there is even an outside risk that, far from being part of the solution, macroprudential frameworks could paradoxically
become part of the problem. Complacency is always not too far around the corner. If the quest for financial stability has proved so elusive, it must be for a reason. Put differently, macroprudential policy must be part of the answer but it cannot be the whole answer. Other policies also need to play their part, not least monetary and fiscal policy. And making the most of macroprudential frameworks calls for a mix of ambition and humility – ambition to make systematic use of the available tools;
humility in recognising their limitations.

Wolf Wagner: The typical regulatory cycle looks as follows. An unwanted behaviour in the financial
system is observed and is attributed to a market failure. Policymakers devise a policy that specifically targets this failure. Upon implementation, it is then discovered that the policy does not work. This is because financial institutions circumvent the spirit of the policy by shifting into economically equivalent activities that are not affected by regulation. In addition, the responses of market participants often lead to undesirable outcomes in other parts of the financial system. The apparent failure of regulation in turn leads to a series of new, and increasingly complex, measures, which by themselves bring about further unintended consequences. ...

Naively designed macroprudential policies are likely to have unintended effects. Due to the inherently complex nature of systemic policies, the scope for such side effects is much larger than for traditional policies, and may easily come to outweigh the benefits. Policymakers need to step up their efforts in making sure that new macroprudential policies are incentive-compatible and do not distort the behaviour of participants in the financial system.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Snapshots of Islamic Banking

Islamic banking is apparently being rebranded with a new name, "participation banking," at leat according to the World Islamic Banking Competitiveness Report 2014–15: Participation Banking 2.0, which is published by the firm that used to be called Ernst & Young, before it was rebranded to EY in 2013.

The idea of Islamic banking has been around for awhile now: for example, the Journal of Economic Perspectives (where I've worked since 1987 as managing editor) ran an article touching on the subject back in the Fall 1995 issue "Islamic Economics and the Islamic Subeconomy" (9:4, 155-173). Then as now, there is some contoversy over the extent to which Islamic banking involves changing the labels on financial contracts without (much) altering the financial flows, or whether it represents a fundamentally different kind of banking arrangement. I remember talking to a friend at a U.S. mortgage financing firm who told me that if someone walks in the door and wants to apply for a mortgage, he would reach into a file in his desk and pull out the paperwork. If they said they wanted an Islamic mortgage, he would reach into a different file in his desk and pull out differentpaperwork with different wording and a religious stap of approval--but from the company's internal accounting point of view, the two sets of paperwork described identical obligations about payments.

For a more recent overview of how Islamic banking works from an academic point of view, one starting point is "Islamic vs. Conventional Banking: Business Model, Efficiency and Stability," by
Thorsten Beck, Asli Demirgüç-Kunt and Ouarda Merrouche, an October 2010 Policy Research Working Paper from the World Bank. They write:
Sharia-compliant finance does not allow for the charging of interest payments (riba) as only goods and services are allowed to carry a price. On the other hand, Sharia-compliant finance relies on the idea of profit-, loss-, and risk-sharing, on both the liability and asset side. In practice, however, Islamic scholars have developed products that resemble conventional banking products, replacing interest rate payments and discounting with fees and contingent payment structures. In addition, leasing-like products are popular among Islamic banks, as they are directly linked to real-sector transactions. Nevertheless, the residual equity-style risk that Islamic banks and its depositors are taking has implications for the agency relationships on both sides of
the balance sheet as we will discuss below. ... Together, our empirical findings suggest that conventional and Islamic banks are more alike than previously thought. Differences in business models – if they exist at all – do not show in standard indicators based on financial statement information. Other differences, such as cost efficiency, seem to be driven more by country rather than bank type differences.
So how does it work to have a "bank" which can't charge interest to borrowers, nor pay interest to consumers? The answer helps to explain why EY and others are starting to use the name "participation banking." Kuran explained in JEP in 1995:
The literature on Islamic banking does not specify how a depositor and his bank, or the bank and a borrower, are to apportion risk. It insists only that each of the parties to a financial contract must bear some share of the risk. In principle, one side could carry just one-twentieth of the risk, although some writers caution that the risk shares must conform to customary notions of fairness.
Thus, Islamic banks accept various kinds of deposits, which have varying degrees of participation in profits that a bank earns from its lending. However, while the "profit share" received by ordinary bank depositors typically does fluctuate a bit in the short-term, it looks a lot like an interest payment in the medium- and the long-run. Indeed, some Islamic banks also pay "bonuses" to depositors when they feel it is useful.

On the lending side, there are again a variety of financial contracts with different risk-sharing properties. Kuran describes one of them:

Let us say a cash-poor industrialist needs a new computer. His Islamic bank buys the computer, marks up its price, and then transfers to him the computer's ownership; in return, our industrialist agrees to pay the bank the marked-up price in a year's time. If the predetermined markup rate were identical to the prevailing interest rate, this murābaha contract would be essentially equivalent to an interest-based contract. But there would still be one difference, which Islamic economics considers critical: during the period when the computer was owned by the bank, the bank would carry all the risks of ownership, including those of theft, fire, and breakage. In practice, however, the bank's ownership generally lasts just a few seconds, so its exposure to risk is negligible. Ordinarily, therefore, murābaha serves as a cumbersome form of interest.
Or as the Beck, Demirgüç-Kunt and Merrouche team explains:
Similarly, operating leases (Ijara) where the bank keeps ownership of the investment good and rents it to the client for a fee are feasible financial transactions under Sharia-law. While the discounting of IOUs and promissory notes is not allowed under Sharia-law as it would involve indirect interest rate payments, a similar structure can be achieved by splitting such an operation into two contracts, with full payment of the amount of the IOU on the one hand, and a fee or commission for this pre-payment, on the other hand.
In short, Islamic banking is also "participation banking" because it requires a degree of participation by bank depositors, banks, and those who are receiving financing. But the extent of participation often seems to be flexible.

The EY report sidesteps these kinds of issues completely, but offers some snapshots of the current size of the Islamic banking or participation banking sector, and some business challenges confronting it. Apparently Islamic banks in six countries -- Qatar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia Turkey, and UAE -- represent over 80% of the global assets of "participation" banks. Growth in participation banking has been rapid in recent years.

However, participation banking remains a minority of the banking sector in most countries where it exists (as shown on the vertical axis). Thus, Islamic banks must compete against conventional banks.

Although Islamic banking has been growing briskly, the EY report notes two difficulties for participation banks looking ahead. First, the return on equity has been slightly lower in participation banks over time. Second, EY looked at 2.2 million comments in online sources about satisfaction with Islamic banks. The report concludes: "Results show that for many Participation banks, consumer satisfaction is, at best, mediocre. ... Participation banks need to seriously strengthen customer experience on offer ..."

Thus, the business challenge for Participation banks is clear. They can point to prominent endorsements from Islamic scholars, which should give them a competitive edge in countries with a substantial Muslim population, and Islamic banks can surely sustain themselves with this loyal pool of potential customers. But do depositors and those receiving finance from Islamic banks end up, over time and on average, with financial products that are on nonreligious dimensions inferior to what they would have preferred? On the other side, if Islamic banks use carefully chosen relabelling of financial flows so that they offer products that are largely identical in terms of financial flows and risk characteristics to what is available from conventional banks, then their identity as "Islamic" banks and their built-in pool of loyal customer may diminish. After all, I'm confident that a number of conventional banks can find ways to link themselves with Islamic values in the minds of many bank depositors and businesses, too.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Uncertainty and Management: Interview with Nicholas Bloom

Renee Haltom interviews Nicholas Bloom in Econ Focus, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (Second Quarter, 2014, pp, 22-26).  I've worked with Bloom twice in articles for the Journal of Economic Perspectives. In the Winter 2010 issue, he wrote with John Van Reenen abou their research on "Why Do Management Practices Differ across Firms and Countries?" (24:1, 203-24). In the Spring 2014 issue, he wrote about "Fluctuations in Uncertainty," (28:2, 153-76). These two subjects are also the central topics in this interview.

Jumps in Uncertainty

The old example of an uncertainty shock that I used in my Ph.D. work in the early 2000s was 9/11. This eventgenerated a spike in every measure of uncertainty. Then the Great Recession hit, and this made the 9/11 uncertainty spike look like a small blip. Measures of uncertainty — like the VIX index of stock market volatility [the Chicago Board Options Exchange Market Volatility Index], which measures the market’s expected volatility over the next 30 days — went up by about 500 percent. Similarly, newspaper indices of uncertainty jumped up by about 300 percent. Even the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book had a surge of discussion of uncertainty — before the Great Recession, each month had about three or four mentions of the word “uncertain,” but after the Great Recession it hit nearly 30.
Interestingly, the Great Depression of 1929-1933 was another period where there was broad concern over uncertainty. Newspaper coverage of uncertainty and stock market volatility rose sharply in this period. In fact, one of Ben Bernanke’s key papers before he became Fed chairman was, amazingly, on how uncertainty can impair investment. Christina Romer, chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Great Recession, had studied uncertainty too. So some of the key policymakers in Washington at the time were acutely aware of what uncertainty could do to an economy. 

How Policy Can Generate Uncertainty
It may be that policy actions generate more uncertainty damage than help. One reason is that policymakers have an incentive to be policy hyperactive. I saw this when I worked in the U.K. Treasury. Politicians had to be seen as acting in response to bad events; otherwise, the public and media claimed they were not responding or, worse, claimed they didn’t care. So politicians would act, often based on partial information or hastily developed ideas, when often the best course would be to stay calm and inactive. So hasty or unpredictable policy response to recessions can actually make the recessions worse. A classic example is the accelerated depreciation allowance that Congress debated introducing for several months after the 9/11 attacks. Many commentators argued that this delayed the recovery as businesses waited to see what the decision would be. In fact, the Nov. 6, 2001, FOMC minutes even contained an explicit discussion of the damaging policy uncertainty this introduced.

Uncertainty and the Great Recession
The full experiment is this: If you held everything else constant and did not have the rise in uncertainty, what would have happened to the drop in economic output? I think, based on some rough calculations I lay out in my 2014 Journal of Economic Perspectives paper, that the recession would have been about one-third less. So I think uncertainty was a major factor, though not the biggest factor, which I think was a combination of the housing and financial crises.

On the Importance of Management to Productivity Differences

Economists have, in fact, long argued that management matters. Francis Walker, a founder and the first president of the American Economic Association, ran the 1870 U.S. census and then wrote an article in the first year of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, “The Source of Business Profits.” He argued that management was the biggest driver of the huge differences in business performance that he observed across literally thousands of firms. Almost 150 years later, work looking at manufacturing plants shows a massive variation in business performance; the 90th percentile plant now has twice the total factor productivity of the 10th percentile plant. Similarly, there are massive spreads across countries — for example, U.S. productivity is about five times that of India. Despite the early attention on management by Francis Walker, the topic dropped down a bit in economics, I think because “management” became a bad word in the field. Early on I used to joke that when I turned up at seminars people would see the “M-word” in the seminar title and their view of my IQ was instantly minus 20. Then they’d hear the British accent, and I’d get 15 back.
Some Drivers of Good Management 

I think the key driver of America’s management leadership has been its big, open, and competitive markets. If Sam Walton had been based in Italy or in India, he would have five stores by now, probably called “Sam Walton’s Family Market.” Each one would have been managed by one of his sons or sons-in-law. ... 
The absence of rule of law is a killer for good management. If you take a case to court in India, it takes 10 to 15 years to come to fruition. In most developing countries, the legal system is weak; it is hard to successfully prosecute employees who steal from you or customers who do not pay their invoices, leading firms to use family members as managers and supply only narrow groups of trusted customers. This makes it very hard to be well managed — if most firms have the son or grandson of the founder running the firm, working with the same customers as 20 years ago, then it shouldn’t be surprising that productivity is low. These firms know that their sons are often not the best manager, but at least they will not rampantly steal from the firms.
Future Research on Management 

These have been major milestones in management technologies, and they’ve changed the way people have thought. They were clearly identified innovations, and I don’t think there’s a single patent among them. These management innovations are a big deal, and they spread right across the economy. In fact, there’s a management technology frontier that’s continuously moving forward, and the United States is pretty much at the front with firms like Walmart, GE, McDonald’s, and Starbucks. And then behind the frontier there are a bunch of laggards with inferior management practices. In America, these are typically smaller, family-run firms. ... 
Anything that can be said to be “high” or “low” can be quantified, and economics is good at this; it’s one of our strengths as a social science. ... There’s an old saying: What gets measured gets managed. I think in economics it’s what gets measured gets researched. ...  Likewise with management — we hope if we can build a new multifirm and multicountry database, we can spur the development of the field.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Economic Gains from Shale Oil and Gas

It's clear that extracting oil and gas from shale formations has led to an economic boom in North Dakota. But what is a plausible estimate of how it will affect the U.S. economy as a whole? The Congressional Budget Office addresses this question in "The Economic and Budgetary Effects of Producing Oil and Natural Gas From Shale" (December 2014). To set the stage for their findings, it's useful to remember three points.

1) The amount of energy used relative to GDP has been declining in the U.S. for decades, with the ongoing shift to an economy where the role for services is relatively larger compared to manufacturing. Here's a figure showing energy consumption relative to GDP, with the ratio in 1950 set equal to 1.0. You can see that even in the last couple of decades, since about 1990, the ratio has fallen by about one-third (from .6 to .4). And the projections are that in the next few decades, the ratio will fall by almost another 50% (from .4 to .2).  When energy is less important to an economy, it follows that cheaper and more available energy has less of an effect.

Graph of primary energy consumption, as explained in the article text

2) Oil prices are set in a global market, because oil is transported fairly easily around the world. Thus, any effect of additional U.S. oil production on prices is relatively mild, because it is spread over the global economy. However, natural gas is not transported easily all around the world, and won't be without some major infrastructure investments. So additional U.S. production of natural gas can have a more substantial effect on natural gas prices in the U.S. over the next few decades.

3) When thinking about how shale oil and gas benefit the economy over the long-term, you can't just look at revenues from these products or jobs in these areas. Over the long run, more investment in this area is offset to some extent by less investment in other areas (both in energy and in other industries), and more workers in this area are offset to some extent by fewer workers in other areas.
With the US. economy in or recovering from recession in the last six years, the investment and job-creation benefits of additional energy have been especially important, because they are a bright spot in an economy with a lot of slack. Over the longer term, the broader gains from shale oil and gas across the economy arise from a reallocation of labor and capital toward more productive uses. This includes not just those actually drilling for oil and gas, but all the downstream effects of, say, electrical utilities and manufacturing companies that can benefit from lower natural gas prices.

Taken as a group, these points suggest that the economic effects of shale oil and gas on the U.S. economy are real and positive, but perhaps less than some commentators may be implying

There's no dispute that the unconventional drilling techniques have dramatically increased U.S. output of oil and natural gas--in fact, making the U.S. the single largest natural producer. The CBO writes (footnotes omitted):
Recent advances in combining two drilling techniques, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, have allowed access to large deposits of shale resources—that is, crude oil and natural gas trapped in shale and certain other dense rock formations. ... Virtually nonexistent a decade ago, the development of shale resources has boomed in the United States, producing about 3.5 million barrels of tight oil per day and about 9.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf ) of shale gas per year. Those amounts equal about 30 percent of U.S. production of liquid fuels (which include crude oil, biofuels, and natural gas liquids) and 40 percent of U.S. production of natural gas.
Here's a figure showing overall U.S. production and consumption of natural gas and "liquid" fuels like oil. As you can see, the projections are that the U.S. will be producing more natural gas than it consumes in the near future, but will continue to consume more oil than it produces. Given the current high costs of shipping natural gas outside of North America, it makes some sense (on both economic and environmental grounds) to find ways to expand use of natural gas for electricity generation and manufacturing in place of oil or coal--and indeed, such a shift is already taking place.

The CBO report looks at economic gains from shale oil and gas in the short run, and the long run.  In the short-run, it lists the following.

Increased Output of Oil and Gas. Shale development has increased U.S. output of tight oil and shale gas, raising GDP. The market value of shale gas produced in 2013 (reflecting the contributions of both the gas industry and the other industries that supply goods and services used to produce shale gas) was about $35 billion. In the same
year, the market value of tight oil, including natural gas plant liquids produced by hydraulic fracturing, was about $160 billion. Combined, sales of shale gas and tight oil therefore totaled about $195 billion, or roughly 1.2 percent of GDP.
Increased Investment in the Oil and Gas Industry and in Supporting Industries. Shale development has probably raised GDP in recent years through greater spending on the development of new wells. Between 2004 and 2012, investment in the oil and gas extraction industry increased from 0.4 percent of GDP to 0.9 percent. ...
Increased Investment and Production in Other Industries. Industries that use natural gas intensively—such as the steel, petrochemical, fertilizer, and electricity industries—have expanded production to take advantage of energy prices that are lower than they would have been without shale development.  ...
Increased Demand. Higher employment resulting from shale development, along with a larger capital stock resulting from increased investment in the development and use of shale resources, has led to higher household income and thus greater demand for goods and services. Some of that increased demand has been met by the additional production from the energy-intensive industries described above. However, much of the increase has been for products supplied by firms that do not directly benefit from lower natural gas and oil prices. In order to meet the increased demand, those firms have increased employment and investment, which has raised GDP still further in the short term.
What about economic benefits in the longer run? Here's a sample of the CBO analysis:

Shale development will raise GDP in the longer term in two ways: increasing the productivity of existing labor and capital, and increasing the amount of labor and capital in use. CBO estimates that, as a result, real GDP will be 0.7 percent higher in 2020 and 0.9 percent higher in 2040 than it would have been without shale development, although those estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty. The longer-term effects of shale development on GDP will probably be smaller than the near-term effects described above ...
Shale development raises GDP by increasing the productivity of labor and capital. That increased productivity is projected to make GDP  0.4 percent higher in 2020 and 0.5 percent higher in 2040 than it would have been in the absence of shale development. ... CBO estimates that the value of the tight oil and shale gas produced in both 2020 and 2040 will be about 1.3 percent of real GDP. But in the absence of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, CBO estimates, the labor and capital now projected to be used
to produce that output would contribute only about 1.0 percent to GDP in 2020 and about 0.9 percent in 2040. The boost to GDP from reallocating labor and capital into the production of tight oil and shale gas is the difference between those estimates: about 0.3 percent of GDP in 2020 and 0.4 percent in 2040. ... 
The rest of the increased productivity comes from labor and capital that are used more efficiently elsewhere in the economy because of increased consumption of oil and
gas. As energy-intensive products and methods of production grow cheaper, the same amount of output can be produced with less labor and capital. For example, as the cost of generating electricity from gas has fallen, some electric utilities have increased their productivity by switching from coal to gas. Through such shifts, GDP will be about 0.1 percent higher in both 2020 and 2040 than it would have been without shale development, CBO estimates. ... 
Shale development will also raise GDP by increasing the amounts of labor and capital used in the economy, in CBO’s assessment. That increase will happen in at least two ways. First, the increase in output generated by higher productivity that was described above will result in additional income; part of that income will be saved and then invested, increasing the capital stock. Second, the higher productivity will increase wages, improving the return to workers from each hour of work and encouraging them to work more. Because of those effects, CBO estimates, GDP will be 0.3 percent higher in 2020 and about 0.4 percent higher in 2040 than it would have been without shale
development. ... 
Shale development confers an economic benefit that raises the standard of living in the
United States but does not show up as greater GDP. Specifically, increased net exports of natural gas and oil boost the value of the dollar, making imports cheaper and allowing consumers to buy more and businesses to invest more for a given quantity of exports and a given amount of GDP. CBO has not quantified that effect, however.

Reading about a gain of 0.7% of GDP, it's easy to feel a little disappointed or dismissive? All this fuss over 0.7%? Why bother? But to choose a convenient number, say that U.S. GDP is about $20 trillion in 2020. Then, 0.7% would be equal to $140 billion of economic gains. Shale oil and gas is no panacea for the long-run issues facing the U.S. economy, and America is in no way on a path to becoming a resource-dependent economy like Russia or Venezuela. But the U.S. economy is so enormous that no single industry is capable of making a huge difference, not all by itself. Instead, the future of the U.S. economy will need a number of key industries to step up--and it looks as if oil and gas drilling can be one of them.

P.S. In this post, I've not discussed the environmental issues involved with shale oil and gas. However, in previous posts I've argued that if certain "golden rules" of environmental protection are applied, the environmental benefits plausibly outweigh the costs. Indeed, I support what I call the "Drill Baby Carbon Tax," which would combine moving ahead on developing U.S. fossil fuel resources with all deliberate speed, but also imposing a tax to reduce emissions of carbon, as well as taking step to address other air pollutants and greenhouse gas issues.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Focusing Behavioral Economics on Development Professionals

A torrent of research in economics and psychology in the last quarter-century has focused on looking at how people actually make decisions. As many of us who have vowed to start a diet or get more exercise or save more money can attest, the ways in which real-world people make decisions can get in the way of how we actually behave in accomplishing our goals. The 2015 World Development Report from the World Bank, with the theme of "Mind, Society, and Behavior," offers an useful overview of the way in which these issues of "behavioral economics" affect the welfare of low-income people around the world. But at least to me, the the single most striking part of the report is that it focuses the lens of behavioral economics not just on people in low-income countries, but also on development professionals themselves.

The first few chapters of the report are organized around three groups of common behavioral biases
"First, people make most judgments and most choices automatically, not deliberatively: we call this “thinking automatically.” Second, how people act and think often depends on what others around them do and think: we call this “thinking socially.” Third, individuals in a given society share a common perspective on making sense of the world around them and understanding themselves: we call this “thinking with mental models.”" The next six chapters explore how these factors play out in the context of poverty, early childhood development, houshold finance, productivity, health, and climate change.

This part of the report is full of interesting studies. For example, here is an example about thinking automatically:
Fruit vendors in Chennai, India, provide a particularly vivid example. Each day, the vendors buy fruit on credit to sell during the day. They borrow about 1,000 rupees (the equivalent of $45 in purchasing parity) each morning at the rate of almost 5 percent per day and pay back the funds with interest at the end of the day. By forgoing two cups of tea each day, they could save enough after 90 days to avoid having to borrow and would thus increase their incomes by 40 rupees a day, equivalent to about half a day’s wages. But they do not do that. ... Thinking as they always do (automatically) rather than deliberatively, the vendors fail to go through the exercise of adding up the small fees incurred over time to make the dollar costs salient enough to warrant consideration.
In this as in many other examples, it can sometimes seems in the behavioral economics literature that people are trapped by their own inconsistancies and unable to accomplish their own desires--unless they are nudged along by assistance from beneficent and well-intended aid of an all-seeing policymaker. But the lessons of behavioral economics apply to everyone, the policymaker as much as the typical citizen. The World Bank report, greatly to its credit, applies some of the exercises that reveal behavioral biases directly to its own development professionals. It's should come as no surprise, of course, that they exhibit similar biases to everyone else.

One example of "thinking automatically" is a "framing effect"--that is,  how a question is framed has a strong influence on the outcome. A typical finding is that that people are loss-averse, meaning that they react differently when a choice is framed in terms of losses than if the same options are offered, but phrased instead in terms of gains. Here's the WDR:

One of the most famous demonstrations of the framing effect was done by Tversky and Kahneman (1981). They posed the threat of an epidemic to students in two different frames, each time offering them two options. In the first frame, respondents could definitely save one-third of the population or take a gamble, where there was a 33 percent chance of saving everyone and a 66 percent chance of saving no one. In the second frame, they could choose between a policy in which two-thirds of the population definitely would die or take a gamble, where there was a 33 percent chance that no one would die and a 66 percent chance that everyone would die. Although the first and second conditions frame outcomes differently—the first in terms of gains, the second in terms of losses—the policy choices are identical. However, the frames affected the choices students made. Presented with the gain frame, respondents chose certainty; presented with a loss frame, they preferred to take their chances. The WDR 2015 team replicated the study with World Bank staff and found the same effect. In the gain frame, 75 percent of World Bank staff respondents chose certainty; in the loss frame, only 34 percent did. Despite the fact that the policy choices are equivalent, how they were framed resulted in drastically different responses.
As another example, the ability to interpret straightforward numerical data diminishes when that data describes a controversial subject. In one devilishly clever experiment, people were divided into two random groups and presented with the same data pattern. However, some were told that the data was about the non-emotive subject of how well a skin cream worked, while others were told that it was about the effectiveness of gun control laws. People were quite accurate at describing the findings of data when it referred to skin cream, but they became much less accurate if the same data were supposed to be describing gun control. The World Bank researchers took this same data. The experts who were given this data as applying to skin cream interpreted in clearly. But the experts who were given the same data as applying to whether a higher minimum wage reduced the poverty rate became much less accurate--apparently because their interpretation was clouded by preexisting prejudices.

Yet another example focuses on the issue of sunk costs. A problem in many projects, including development projects, is that once a lot of money has been spent there is pressure not to abandon the project, even when it becomes clear that the project is doomed. Here's the scenario from the WDR:

The WDR 2015 team investigated the susceptibility of World Bank staff to sunk cost bias. Surveyed staff were randomly assigned to scenarios in which they assumed the role of task team leader managing a five-year, $500 million land management, conservation, and biodiversity program focusing on the forests of a small country. The program has been active for four years. A new provincial government comes into office and announces a plan to develop hydropower on the main river of the forest, requiring major resettlement. However, the government still wants the original project completed, despite the inconsistency of goals. The difference between the scenarios was the proportion of funds already committed to the project. For example, in one scenario, staff were told that only 30 percent ($150 million) of the funds had been spent, while in another scenario staff were told that 70 percent ($350 million) of the funds had been spent. Staff saw only one of the four scenarios. World Bank staff were asked whether they would continue the doomed project by committing additional funds. While the exercise was rather simplistic and clearly did not provide all the information necessary to make a decision, it highlighted the differences among groups randomly assigned to different levels of sunk cost. As levels of sunk cost increased, so did the propensity of the staff to continue.
A final example looks at mental models that development experts have of the poor. What do development experts think that the poor believe, and how does it compare to what the poor actually believe? For example, development experts were asked if they thought individuals in low-income countries would agree with the statement: "What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me."  The development experts thought that maybe 20% of tthe poorest third would agree with this statment, but about 80% actually did. In fact, the share of those agreeing with the statement in the bottom third of the income distribution was much the same as for the upper two-thirds--and higher than the answer the devleopment experts gave for themselves!

Similarly, development experts thought that about half of those in the bottom third of the income distribution would agree with the statement: "I feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life." This estimate turns out to be roughly true for Nairobi, an overstatement for Lima, and wildly out of line with beliefs in Jakarta. Presumably, these kinds of answers are important in thinking about how to present and frame development policy.

As a final example, the development experts thought that about 40% of the bottom third in the income distribution would agree with the statement: "Vaccines are risky because they can cause sterilization." Turns out that this is accurate for Lima, but a wild overstatment for Nairobia and Jakarata. Again, such differences of opinions are obviously quite important in designing a public health campaign to encourage more vaccination.

The report summarizes the implications of these kinds of studies unflinchingly:
Experts, policy makers, and development professionals are also subject to the biases, mental shortcuts (heuristics), and social and cultural influences described elsewhere in this Report. Because the decisions of development professionals often can have large effects on other people’s lives, it is especially important that mechanisms be in place to check and correct for those biases and influences. Dedicated, well-meaning professionals in the field of development—including government policy makers, agency officials, technical consultants, andfrontline practitioners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—can fail to help, or even inadvertently harm, the very people they seek to assist if their choices are subtly and unconsciously influenced by their social environment, the mental models they have of the poor, and the limits of their cognitive bandwidth. They, too, rely on automatic thinking and fall into decision traps. Perhaps the most pressing concern is whether development professionals understand the circumstances in which the beneficiaries of their policies actually live and the beliefs and attitudes that shape their lives ..."
The deeper point here is of course not just about the World Bank or development experts, but about all policymakers--and especially policymakers who are seeking to use findings from behavioral economics nudge ordinary citizens to alternative courses of action. Policymakers are subject to thinking automatically, social pressures, and misguided mental models as well. Some of the possible answers involve finding ways to challenge groupthink, perhaps by having a group designated to make the case for the other side, or by finding another way to force a more thorough consideration and discussion of alternatives. Another suggestion is that "development professionals should “eat their own dog food”: that is, they should try to experience firsthand the programs and projects they design."

In a US context, perhaps every member of Congress should have to do the following: fill out their own taxes personally by hand, and suffer the legal penalties for any mistakes; personally order health insurance from one of the newly-created exchanges; and personally fill out applications for that parents must complete for college student loans and that must be completed for Food Stamps and Medicaid assistance. We are too often governed by people who have gotten used to paying others to fill out the paperwork of life.

Full disclosure: I reviewed and offered suggestions on an intermediate version of this report several months ago, and was paid an honorarium for doing so.