Tag Archive for 'Megan McArdle'


Note to self: holidaying in Greece will soon be cheap

Megan McArdle directs the world to this piece in the FT.  From the FT article:

The European Commission said on Tuesday it would endorse Athens’ plan to bring back under control the public sector deficit, which last year reached almost 13 per cent of gross domestic product.

Under a three-year plan, the Greek government seeks to cut the national budget deficit to less than 3 per cent of GDP by the end of 2012.

and:

In response to criticism that earlier plans had not included sufficient spending cuts, Mr Papandreou also announced an across-the-board freeze in public sector wages which, together with cuts in allowances, would reduce the public sector wage bill by 4 per cent. The government has also pledged to raise the retirement age.

If the Greek government can achieve this without massive, nation-wide strikes, I’ll be terrifically impressed.  Megan’s comments:

Everyone is expressing optimism. But while this sort of belt-tightening is necessary for Greece to stay in the EU, it’s going to come at a huge cost. Greece is already in recession–that’s why its budget problems loom so large–and the fiscal contraction will only make them deeper. Meanwhile, the EU will be setting its interest rates to meet the needs of larger, healthier members (and inflation-hawk bondholders). Tight fiscal and monetary policy means a long, painful period ahead for the Greeks.

This is the dilemma that faced Argentina with its monetary peg to the dollar; ultimately, it led to devaluation and default. We will see if Greece can whether [sic] it better.

I don’t think that this sort of belt-tightening is strictly necessary in the near term.  Germany will, again, fund a bail-out if it really comes down to it because, if nothing else, the loss to Germany of a member of the EU dropping the currency is greater than the loss to Germany of paying for Greece’s debt.

It’s clearly necessary in the long term that Greece get it’s fiscal house in order, but since they’re in such a severe recession, this isn’t really the time to do it (financial market pressure aside).  This is, in essence, the same debate that is gripping America, although there the pressure to address the deficit is coming from a successful political strategy of the opposition rather than, much as that same opposition might like, pressure from the markets.

Ultimately, what the EU needs is individual states to be long-term fiscally stable and to have pan-Europe automatic stabilisers so that areas with low unemployment essentially subsidise those with high unemployment.  Ideally it would avoid straight inter-government transfers and instead take the form of either encouraging businesses to locate themselves in the areas with high unemployment, or encouraging individuals to move to areas of low unemployment.  The latter is difficult in Europe with it’s multitude of languages, but not impossible.

In a perfect world where all regions of the EU currency zone were equally developed, this would simply replace the EU development grants.  But this isn’t a perfectly world …


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).


The death throes of US newspapers?

Via Megan McArdle’s excellent commentary, I discovered the Mon-Fri daily circulation figures for the top 25 newspapers in the USA.  Megan’s words:

I think we’re witnessing the end of the newspaper business, full stop, not the end of the newspaper business as we know it. The economics just aren’t there. At some point, industries enter a death spiral: too few consumers raises their average costs, meaning they eventually have to pass price increases onto their customers. That drives more customers away. Rinse and repeat . . .

[…]

The numbers seem to confirm something I’ve thought for a while: we’re eventually going to end up with a few national papers, a la Britain, rather than local dailies. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (sorry, conservatives!) are weathering the downturn better than most, and it’s not surprising: business, politics, and national upper-middlebrow culture. But in 25 years, will any of them still be printing their product on the pulped up remains of dead trees? It doesn’t seem all that likely.

For those of you that like your information in pictoral form, here it is:

First, the data.  Look at the Mean/Median/Weighted Mean figures.  That really is an horrific collapse in sales.

US_Newspaper_circulation_data

Second, the distribution (click on the image for a full-sized version):

US_Newspaper_circulation_distribution

Finally, a scatter plot of year-over-year change against the latest circulation figures (click on the image for a full-sized version):

US_Newspaper_circulation_scatterplotAs Megan alluded in the second paragraph I quoted, there appears to be a weak relationship between the size of the paper and the declines they’ve suffered, with the bigger papers holding up better.  The USA Today is the clear exception to that idea.  Indeed, if the USA Today is excluded from the (already very small!) sample the R^2 becomes 30%.

To really appreciate just how devestating those numbers are, you need to combine it with advertising figures.  Since newspapers take revenue from both sales (circulation) and advertising, the fact that advertising revenue has also collapsed, as it always does in a recession, means that newspapers have taken not just one but two knives to the chest.

Here’s advertising expenditure in newspapers over recent years, taken from here:

Year Expenditure (millions of dollars) Year-over-year % change
2005 47,408
2006 46,611 -1.7%
2007 42,209 -9.2%
2008 34,740 -17.7%

Which is ugly.  Remember, also, that this expenditure is nominal.  Adjusted for inflation, the figures will be worse.

So what do you do when your ad sales and your circulation figures both fall by over 15%?  Oh, and you can’t really cut costs any more because, as Megan says:

For twenty years, newspapers have been trying to slow the process with increasingly desperate cost cutting, but almost all are at the end of that rope; they can’t cut their newsroom or production staff any further and still put out a newspaper. There just aren’t enough customers who are willing to pay for their product what it costs to produce it.

Which, in economics speak, means that the newspaper business has a large fixed cost component that isn’t particularly variable even in the long run.

Tyler Cowen, in an excellent post that demonstrates precisely why I read him daily, says:

I believe with p = 0.6 that the world is in for a “great disruption.”  It has come to MSM first but it will not end there.  In the longer run I am optimistic about the results of this change — computers will free up lots of human labor — but in the meantime it will have drastic implications for income redistribution, across both individuals and across economic sectors.  For a core metaphor, the internet displacing paid journalism and classified ads is a good place to start.  The value of newspapers has been sucked into Google.

[…]Once The Great Disruption becomes more evident, entertainment will be very very cheap.

Which may well be true, but will be cold comfort for all of those traditional journalists out there.


Once more on bankers’ pay

Megan McArdle makes a perfectly sensible point when she writes:

More than one smart analyst thinks that the yearly bonus regime encouraged both traders and their managers to take excess risk. I’m not sure, as an empircal matter, that I buy this argument. Most of those bankers who were allegedly gambling for free with (implicit) taxpayer money in fact lost half or more of their own fortunes in the ensuing crash. From this I infer that they did not, in fact, realize that they were gambling.

I still think that some regulation on bonuses is warranted. Indeed, I think it warranted precisely because the bankers didn’t fully appreciate the risks they were taking. By holding bonuses in escrow for, say, five years, we serve to increase the risk aversion of those bankers.  Megan implies partial agreement with the conclusion, if not the logic, a little later on:

But enforcing, say, a multi-year bonus scheme wouldn’t be terribly destructive, and it might help.

Continuing immediately on, she writes:

On the other hand, if the government starts meddling with the level of compensation, this will be disturbing both because it will not do good things for the American financial services industry, and because, well, who the hell is the government to start telling private firms that are not receiving any taxpayer money how much to pay their employees?

In general I’d agree, but we should also consider the recent work by Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef suggesting that remuneration in the finance sector relative to the rest of the economy for a given level of education has been especially high lately.  Here is an ungated version of their paper.  Here is the abstract:

We use detailed information about wages, education and occupations to shed light on the evolution of the U.S. financial sector over the past century. We uncover a set of new, interrelated stylized facts: financial jobs were relatively skill intensive, complex, and highly paid until the 1930s and after the 1980s, but not in the interim period. We investigate the determinants of this evolution and find that financial deregulation and corporate activities linked to IPOs and credit risk increase the demand for skills in financial jobs. Computers and information technology play a more limited role. Our analysis also shows that wages in finance were excessively high around 1930 and from the mid 1990s until 2006. For the recent period we estimate that rents accounted for 30% to 50% of the wage differential between the financial sector and the rest of the private sector. [emphasis added]

… which is prima facie evidence in support of some sort of regulation on remuneration in the finance sector.


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.