Tag Archive for 'Greg Mankiw'

US treasury interest rates and (disin|de)flation

This Bloomberg piece from a few days ago caught my eye.  Let me quote a few hefty chunks from the article (highlighting is mine):

Bond investors seeking top-rated securities face fewer alternatives to Treasuries, allowing President Barack Obama to sell unprecedented sums of debt at ever lower rates to finance a $1.47 trillion deficit.

While net issuance of Treasuries will rise by $1.2 trillion this year, the net supply of corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities and debt tied to consumer loans may recede by $1.3 trillion, according to Jeffrey Rosenberg, a fixed-income strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Shrinking credit markets help explain why some Treasury yields are at record lows even after the amount of marketable government debt outstanding increased by 21 percent from a year earlier to $8.18 trillion. Last week, the U.S. government auctioned $34 billion of three-year notes at a yield of 0.844 percent, the lowest ever for that maturity.
Global demand for long-term U.S. financial assets rose in June from a month earlier as investors abroad bought Treasuries and agency debt and sold stocks, the Treasury Department reported today in Washington. Net buying of long-term equities, notes and bonds totaled $44.4 billion for the month, compared with net purchases of $35.3 billion in May. Foreign holdings of Treasuries rose to $33.3 billion.
A decline in issuance is expected in other sectors of the fixed-income market. Net issuance of asset-backed securities, after taking into account reinvested coupons, will decline by $684 billion this year, according to Bank of America’s Rosenberg. The supply of residential mortgage-backed securities issued by government-sponsored companies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is projected to be negative $320 billion, while the debt they sell directly will shrink by $164 billion. Investment- grade corporate bonds will decrease $132 billion.

“The constriction in supply is all about deleveraging,” Rosenberg said.
“There’s been a collapse in both consumer and business credit demand,” said James Kochan, the chief fixed-income strategist at Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based Wells Fargo Fund Management, which oversees $179 billion. “To see both categories so weak for such an extended period of time, you’d probably have to go back to the Depression.”

Greg Mankiw is clearly right to say:

“I am neither a supply-side economist nor a demand-side economist. I am a supply-and-demand economist.”

(although I’m not entirely sure about the ideas of Casey Mulligan that he endorses in that post — I do think that there are supply-side issues at work in the economy at large, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that they are the greater fraction of America’s macroeconomic problems, or that demand-side stimulus wouldn’t help even if they were).

When it comes to US treasuries, it’s clear that shifts in both demand and supply are at play.  Treasuries are just one of the investment-grade securities on the market that are, as a first approximation, close substitutes for each other.  While the supply of treasuries is increasing, the supply of investment-grade securities as a whole is shrinking (a sure sign that demand is falling in the broader economy) and the demand curve for those same securities is shifting out (if the quantity is rising and the price is going up and supply is shifting back, then demand must also be shifting out).

Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have been going on for a while about invisible bond market vigilantes, criticising the critics of US fiscal stimulus by pointing out that if there were genuine fears in the market over government debt, then interest rates on the same (which move inversely to bond prices) should be rising, not falling as they have been.  Why the increased demand for treasuries if everyone’s meant to be so afraid of them?

They’re right, of course (as they so often are), but that’s not the whole picture.  In the narrowly-defined treasuries market, the increasing demand for US treasuries is driven not only by the increasing demand in the broader market for investment-grade securities, but also by the contraction of supply in the broader market.

It’s all, in slow motion, the very thing many people were predicting a couple of years ago — the gradual nationalisation of hither-to private debt.  Disinflation (or even deflation) is essentially occurring because the government is not replacing all of the contraction in private credit.

More on the US bank tax

Further to my last post, Greg Mankiw — who is not a man to lightly advocate an increase in taxes on anything, but who understands very well the problems of negative externalities and implicit guarantees — has written a good post on the matter:

One thing we have learned over the past couple years is that Washington is not going to let large financial institutions fail. The bailouts of the past will surely lead people to expect bailouts in the future. Bailouts are a specific type of subsidy–a contingent subsidy, but a subsidy nonetheless.

In the presence of a government subsidy, firms tend to over-expand beyond the point of economic efficiency. In particular, the expectation of a bailout when things go wrong will lead large financial institutions to grow too much and take on too much risk.
What to do? We could promise never to bail out financial institutions again. Yet nobody would ever believe us. And when the next financial crisis hits, our past promises would not deter us from doing what seemed expedient at the time.

Alternatively, we can offset the effects of the subsidy with a tax. If well written, the new tax law would counteract the effects of the implicit subsidies from expected future bailouts.

My desire for a convex (i.e. increasing marginal rate of) tax derives from the fact that the larger financial institutions are on the receiving end of larger implicit guarantees, even after taking their size into account.

Update:  Megan McArdle writes, entirely sensibly (emphasis mine):

That implicit guarantee is very valuable, and the taxpayer should get something in return. But more important is making sure that the federal government is prepared for the possibility that we may have to make good on those guarantees. If we’re going to levy a special tax on TBTF banks, let it be a stiff one, and let it fund a really sizeable insurance pool that can be tapped in emergencies. Like the FDIC, the existance of such a pool would make runs less likely in the shadow banking system, but it would also protect taxpayers. Otherwise, with our mounting entitlement liabilities, we run the risk of offering guarantees we can’t really make good on.

I agree with the idea, but — unlike Megan — I would allow some of it to be collected directly as a tax now on the basis that the initial drawing-down of the pool came before any of the levies were collected (frustration at the political diversion of TARP funds to pay for the Detroit bailout aside).

Not raising the minimum wage with inflation will make your country fat

Via Greg Mankiw, here is a new working paper by David O. Meltzer and Zhuo Chen: “The Impact of Minimum Wage Rates on Body Weight in the United States“. The abstract:

Growing consumption of increasingly less expensive food, and especially “fast food”, has been cited as a potential cause of increasing rate of obesity in the United States over the past several decades. Because the real minimum wage in the United States has declined by as much as half over 1968-2007 and because minimum wage labor is a major contributor to the cost of food away from home we hypothesized that changes in the minimum wage would be associated with changes in bodyweight over this period. To examine this, we use data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System from 1984-2006 to test whether variation in the real minimum wage was associated with changes in body mass index (BMI). We also examine whether this association varied by gender, education and income, and used quantile regression to test whether the association varied over the BMI distribution. We also estimate the fraction of the increase in BMI since 1970 attributable to minimum wage declines. We find that a $1 decrease in the real minimum wage was associated with a 0.06 increase in BMI. This relationship was significant across gender and income groups and largest among the highest percentiles of the BMI distribution. Real minimum wage decreases can explain 10% of the change in BMI since 1970. We conclude that the declining real minimum wage rates has contributed to the increasing rate of overweight and obesity in the United States. Studies to clarify the mechanism by which minimum wages may affect obesity might help determine appropriate policy responses.

Emphasis is mine.  There is an obvious candidate for the mechanism:

  1. Minimum wages, in real terms, have been falling in the USA over the last 40 years.
  2. Minimum-wage labour is a significant proportion of the cost of “food away from home” (often, but not just including, fast-food).
  3. Therefore the real cost of producing “food away from home” has fallen.
  4. Therefore the relative price of “food away from home” has fallen.
  5. Therefore people eat “food away from home” more frequently and “food at home” less frequently.
  6. Typical “food away from home” has, at the least, more calories than “food at home”.
  7. Therefore, holding the amount of exercise constant,  obesity rates increased.

Update: The magnitude of the effect for items 2) – 7) will probably be greater for fast-food versus regular restaurant food, because minimum-wage labour will almost certainly comprise a larger fraction of costs for a fast-food outlet than it will for a fancy restaurant.

US government debt

Greg Mankiw [Harvard] recently quoted a snippet without comment from this opinion piece by Kenneth Rogoff [Harvard]:

Within a few years, western governments will have to sharply raise taxes, inflate, partially default, or some combination of all three.

Reading this sentence frustrated me, because the “will have to” implies that these are the only choices when they are not.  Cutting government spending is the obvious option that Professor Rogoff left off the list, but perhaps the best option, implicitly rejected by the use of the word “sharply“, is that governments stabilise their annual deficits in nominal terms and then let the real growth of the economy reduce the relative size of the total debt over time.  Finally, there is an implied opposition to any inflation, when a small and stable rate of price inflation is entirely desirable even when a country has no debt at all.

Heck, we can even have annual deficits increase every year, so long as the nominal rate of growth plus the accrual of interest due is less than the nominal growth rate (real + inflation) of the economy as a whole and you’ll still see the debt-to-GDP ratio falling over time.

Via Minzie Chinn [U. of Wisconsin], I see that the IMF has a new paper looking at the growth rates of potential output, and the likely path of government debt in the aftermath of the credit crisis.  Using the the historical correlation between the primary surplus, debt, and output gap, they ran some stochastic simulations of how the debt-to-GDP ratio for America is likely to develop over the next 10 years.  Here’s the upshot (from page 37 of the paper):


Here is their text:

Combining the estimated historical primary surplus reaction function with stochastic forecasts of real GDP growth and real interest rates—and allowing for empirically realistic shocks to the primary surplus—imply a much more favorable median projection but slightly larger risks around the baseline. If the federal government on average adjusts the primary surplus as it has done in the past—implying a stronger improvement in the primary balance than under the baseline projections—the probability that debt would exceed 67 percent of GDP by year 2019 would be around 40 percent (Figure 4). Notably, with 80 percent probability, debt would be lower than the level it would reach under staff’s baseline by 2019. [Emphasis added]

So I am not really worried about debt levels for America.  To be frank, neither is the the market, either, despite what you might have heard.  How do I know this?  Because the market, while clearly not perfectly rational, is rational enough to be forward-looking and if they thought that US government debt was a serious problem, they wouldn’t really want to buy any more of that debt today.  But the US has been selling a lot of new bonds (i.e. borrowing a lot of money) lately and the prices of government bonds haven’t really fallen, so the interest rates on them haven’t really gone up.  Here is Brad DeLong [Berkeley]:

[A] sharp increase in Treasury borrowings is supposed to carry a sharp increase in interest rates along with it to crowd out other forms of interest sensitive spending, [but it] hasn’t happened. Hasn’t happened at all:

Treasury marketable debt borrowing by quarterTreasury yield curve

It is astonishing. Between last summer and the end of this year the U.S. Treasury will expand its marketable debt liabilities by $2.5 trillion–an amount equal to more than 20% of all equities in America, an amount equal to 8% of all traded dollar-denominated securities. And yet the market has swallowed it all without a burp…

I don’t want to bag on Professor Rogoff. The majority of his piece is great: it’s a discussion of fundamental imbalances that need to be dealt with. You should read it. It’s just that I’m a bit more sanguine about US government debt than he appears to be.

The Chrysler bankruptcy

This is not a post about how Chrysler might work going forward, nor a post about how dastardly the hold-outs are.  This is a post about the distribution of haircuts and the move from White House-led negotiation to bankruptcy court.

There are broadly four groups of creditors:  The (sole remaining) shareholder, the union/pension-fund, the bond holders and the US government.

Clearly the shareholder should be wiped out.  The question is how much of a haircut everybody else should take.

I believe that by law, the US government would take the smallest haircut (get the largest fraction of their money back) as they’re super-senior, then the bond holders in decreasing order of seniority and the union/pension fund should get the biggest kick in the teeth.  The hold-outs were secured creditors, which means that if the company is liquidated they get a pretty senior claim on the proceeds.

[Update: Duh.  The government isn’t a super-senior bond holder, it’s a preferred share holder, which means that it’s claims, in principle, ought to be subordinate to the bond holders]

As I understand it, the deal on the table had the order differently.  The unions were getting back something like 60c on the dollar, the government 45c on the dollar and the bondholders 25c on the dollar (those numbers are made-up, but indicative).

That conflict between what would normally happen and the deal on offer was what gave rise to this sort of comment from Greg Mankiw:

The Rule of Law — Not!

Via the WSJ, here is the view from a “secured (sic) creditor” of Chrysler:

“Like many others I made the mistake of buying what I believed was ‘value,'” Mr. Gwin says, adding that investors who bought at the time believed the loans were worth more than their market price. “We did not contemplate having our first liens invalidated by a sitting president,” he adds.

As the President intervenes in more and more industries, a key question is how he does it and what he is trying to achieve. Is he trying to reorganize insolvent firms while, as much as possible, preserving the rights of stakeholders as established under existing contracts? Or is he trying to achieve a “fair” outcome as he judges it, regardless of preexisting rules and agreements? I fear it may be the latter, in which case politics may start to trump the rule of law.

Mankiw has an uncanny ability to irritate me at times and although he has a bloody good point, even a vitally important point, this post did irritate me because I suspect that most bankruptcy arrangements aren’t fair, for a few reasons:

First, bond-holders, like equity holders, are ultimately speculators.  We differentiate the seniority of their claims legally, but the fact is that a guy holding a Chrysler bond is just as much of a punter as the dude holding one of the shares.  They (presumably) had the same access to information about Chrysler’s future and they (hopefully) both knew that their investment came with risk.  The idea of one subset of one factor of production being largely protected from the risk of the company’s failure is silly.

Second, employees are not speculators in the same way that the providers of capital are.  The cost of taking your money out of a company’s bonds or shares and moving it to another company is negligible.  The cost of taking your labour out and moving it to another company is significant.  At the very least, you are often geographically tied down while your money is not.  Therefore the socially optimal decision would help insure the employees against the risk of the company failing but leave the capital to insure itself.  Since US unemployment benefits (the public insurance framework) is so measly, it seems reasonable to grant employees partial access to the assets of the company.

Third, in every company to some extent (although varying depending on the industry), the employees are the company.  At an extreme, ask what a law firm would be worth if you fired all the lawyers.  Therefore, even if labour were perfectly mobile, there is a game-theoretic basis for giving the employees a stake in the game:  Principal-Agent problems exist all the way down to the floor sweepers.  This is an argument for German-style capitalism where the workers are also minority shareholders.  You might argue against workers’ representatives on the board of directors, but I do think they ought to have a share holding.

Fourth, even if all of the above balanced out to zero, there might (might!) be be beneficial social welfare to ensuring that the company is an ongoing concern rather than liquidated.  When they pushed Chrysler into bankruptcy, the hold-outs were doing so because they would get more money under liquidation than the deal on the table.  If there is a benefit to social welfare in keeping the company open, there ought to be a way to force the bond-holders to take a hefty haircut rather than liquidating the assets, even – and this is where Professor Mankiw might really get upset – if it wasn’t Pareto improving (the needs of the many …).

Nevertheless – and this is why Mankiw managed to get under my skin on this occassion – I am glad that Chrysler has gone into bankruptcy.

I am glad because even though I largely agree with the White House’s proposal, and even if my four points are all true, it is not the job of the executive to be making these decisions.    There are entire institutions set up for it.  The bankruptcy courts and the judges who preside over them specialise in this stuff.  By all means the White House might make a submission for consideration (as the executive of the country, not just as a stakeholder), but it should be up to the judge to decide.

I suspect, or at least like to imagine, that Barack Obama knows all this already (he is a constitutional lawyer, after all) and that he pushed the negotiation down the path it has taken because politically he needed to be seen to be trying to “save” Chrysler from bankruptcy and economically ne needed to avoid the market turmoil that would have ensued from a sudden move to bankruptcy rather than the tortuously gradual one we have seen.