Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Dave Dayen Is Wrong

And not in a good way, when he says:

I understand that Republicans are just playing the culture war game here, trying to link Warren and the loony left. I don’t know how that will play in, er, Massachusetts. And the world has moved on from the Hard Hat riots and the 1972 campaign. The hard hats have been brutalized just as much as the rest of us in this economy.

No, no, no.

The “hard hats” have been brutalized much more than “the rest of us” in this economy. And the economy before that. And, basically, every one since 1986,* Bruce Bartlett’s protestations notwithstanding.

Note especially that having all those English Literature and Anthropology majors with degrees hasn’t hurt.

*The data only breaks down from 1992 onward, so you’ll have to wait for my tribute to the 1986 “tax reform” act.

cross-posted from Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo

Presimetrics Review

Noted for the record: author Piaw Na reviews Mike Kimel‘s Presimetrics at Piaw’s Blog:

This is a great book to read if you’ve got a statistical bent and are willing to follow the data rather than your pre-conceived notions….Many people like to say that they’re data-driven, but most people actually have prejudices that lead them to believe what they believe, as opposed to actually looking into data and correlations. This book goes a long way towards providing those who want data the actual data with which to base their beliefs on….This is the kind of book that deserves to sell better than it does. Highly Recommended.

I left out all the good parts, so Go Read the Whole Thing.

Economists:Entrepreneurs::Blind Men:Interior Decorators

As part of my continuing series of Analogies that Should Be on the SAT, this is what Famous Entrepreneurs do (h/t Brad DeLong):

In the IBM PC era, Steve drove innovation forward with the Macintosh. This, like the Apple II, was squarely aimed at expanding the use of PCs to everyone, the “computer for the rest of us.” Everyone now knows that this was innovating too fast, and that cheaper, duller IBM machines running Microsoft’s dull clone of an earlier operating system would become the standard. But do you know how Steve changed when he realized that “the rest of us” were not going to buy the Mac? He learned that the most important early customers for Macs were corporate marketing departments (those graphics!) and worked hard to create, as he told me not long after, “the best computer company for those corporate marketers we can.”

This is what Nobel Prize-winning economists do (h/t Noah):

As Thomas J. Sargent, one of the leading proponents of the Rational Expectations Hypothesis recounted, “after about five years of doing [standard statistical tests] on rational expectations models, I recall Bob Lucas and Ed Prescott both telling me that those tests were rejecting too many good models.

“Real entrepreneurs don’t wallow in vision, they sell product.” “Real” economists, otoh…

Weekend Reflection Points

The lead article in the current AER is available here (gated, apparently, though the link isn’t working; h/t Tom Bozzo [on FB] and Brad DeLong; I was using the paper copy). The most interesting part so far: the authors only considered the documented costs of air pollution—not land, not water—in deriving the (embarrassingly negative) ROI figures for coal and oil.

As Cousin Lucia and Tom Zeller, Jr., note today, the cost of water pollution makes oil power plants an even worse option.

In such a context, Europe in general and Germany (the top maker of solar panels until China recently passed them) in particular rubs in our faces that they’re winning on the alternative-energy sources front (h/t Barry Ritholtz):

The 15 mile-per-hour winds that buffeted northern Germany on July 24 caused the nation’s 21,600 windmills to generate so much power that utilities such as EON AG and RWE AG (RWE) had to pay consumers to take it off the grid.

Rather than an anomaly, the event marked the 31st hour this year when power companies lost money on their electricity in the intraday market because of a torrent of supply from wind and solar parks. The phenomenon was unheard of five years ago.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., it is no secret that Brad and Robert Waldmann are on one (affirmative) side of the TARP-was-a-success argument, and I’m on the other.* But even the Success crowd may pause to wonder if the short-term “profit” was a good long-term strategy:

Some large U.S. banks would have stronger capital bases to better deal with today’s market stresses had regulators not relaxed bailout repayment criteria in late 2009, a new government audit showed on Friday.

Bank of America (BAC.N) Citigroup (C.N), Wells Fargo (WFC.N) and PNC Financial (PNC.N) were allowed exit the Troubled Asset Relief Program without raising as much equity capital as initially prescribed by the Federal Reserve, the TARP Special Inspector General said in the report.

Following bank stress tests earlier in 2009, the Fed gave several banks guidance that they must raise $1 in common equity for every $2 in TARP bailout funds repaid — a formula meant to enable them to withstand future stresses.

But this standard — which was never previously made public — was quickly relaxed, allowing Bank of America, Citi and Wells Fargo to repay taxpayers nearly simultaneously in December 2009,** raising a combined $49.1 billion in equity capital.

Enforcement of the $1 in equity for every $2 repaid guidance would have required $57.5 billion in equity capital to be raised by the three institutions. PNC was later allowed to exit TARP under similar relaxed guidance. [emphasis mine]

The most recent SIGTARP report (28 July 2011), uses the word “Bailout” only once in its 304 pages—and that’s in the title of testimony by Sheila Bair, ““Statement of Sheila C. Bair, Chairman, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on The Changing Role of the FDIC before the Subcommittee on TARP, Financial Services, and Bailouts of Public and Private Programs; Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House Of Representatives.”

Noted for the record: Patch uses the same article (with minor customization) in multiple locales, highlighting it as a “local” piece. I defer to Felix as to whether this is in keeping with the rest of their “business model.”

As Dan Becker can tell you, the small business “ownership society” is not for the faint of heart. Nor, as anyone who thinks about it for more than three seconds can tell you, is it a primary driver of employment growth. Yet when the most visible and successful Management Consultancy in the United States thinks about growth, its two primary points are “take monies from the government” and “expand small businesses.” But give them credit for recognizing a point that is often obscured by H1-B trolls technology firm leaders such as Meg Whitman:

[I]t’s not just the young who can help fill the skills gap; older, experienced workers can play a part, too. In the US aerospace sector, 60 percent of the workforce is over 45. A practical response would be for governments to remove barriers—particularly those related to the provision of health care and to benefits rules—that prevent older workers from staying in the workforce longer. Germany and the Netherlands raised the participation rate of the 55-to-64 age group by 21 and 24 percentage points, respectively, between 1990 and 2009. In the Netherlands, there were significant changes to pensions and welfare benefits to improve incentives to work longer, coupled with initiatives to change public perceptions, improve employability, and reduce discrimination against older workers. [emphasis mine]

It’s nice to see McKinsey endorsing Medicare For All.

*As a general rule, the Econ-first analysts are affirmatives, the finance-grounded ones are negative. If you have to think about why that would be: one group makes its living finding $100 bills on the sidewalk that the other one swears cannot exist. As the Mark Thomas of the world would note, the issue of priors might need to be addressed.

**The reason December 2009 is important is that it meant that monies that otherwise would have to have been used to shore up capital were instead paid out as bonuses by the now-uncontrolled banks, or, in Reuterspeak, “keen to escape executive compensation restrictions associated with the bailout funds.”

Netflix Toasts Itself

I was going to write something about Reed Hastings’s inane email, but Wired covered the main point, even if they did bury the lede:

However, it’s impossible to see how the split itself benefits customers. The price and plan changes that flustered many of them months ago remain in place, but the company now directs them to two web sites with two search indexes, two completely separate sets of recommendations, two entries on their credit card statements, and so forth.

When Erik Loomis (now known as the sane political blogger at LG&M) noted the issues with Netflix splitting the company way back in July, there were some objections from the Twitterati that his post didn’t address any of the reasons Netflix had to make the change,* apparently ignoring that markets have to have both a buyer and a seller to function. As “Divorced One Like Bush” recently noted, there are business strategies you can use, and there are business strategies that work against you.

But rarely does one see a company deliberately opt for a business strategy that works against them.**

*One of the more prominent of those is now staunchly defending the company’s latest CF, but did have the decency to quote a respondent: “I admire the umbrage your taking on behalf of netflix and their ungrateful customers.”

**Well, maybe not so rarely, but at least Tyco management made no secret that it was determined to enrich itself at the expense of the companies it acquired and is now spinning off.

cross-posted from Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo


by Mike Kimel

Can someone explain to me why people volunteer at for-profit hospitals? I can understand volunteering at a not-for-profit hospital, but how is volunteering at a for-profit hospital different from, say, volunteering at Exxon-Mobil or Wal-Mart?

Unemployment, Unemployment Benefits and Severance Packages: A Modest Thought Experiment

by Mike Kimel

Most economists believe that unemployment benefits increase the unemployment rate. The idea is that even having a relatively small income coming in (from unemployment) can encourage people to stay jobless just a little while longer. And no doubt there are people who play the unemployment compensation game fairly well.

Now, consider severance packages. These days they aren’t uncommon. There are differences in how different states treat severance packages, but as I understand it, in general, if a jobless worker received a severance package equivalent to X weeks of pay in lump sum form, that makes the worker ineligible to receive unemployment benefits for what would otherwise be the first X weeks worth of claims. Which, would imply that for an unemployed worker, there is zero incentive to be jobless during the first X weeks of unemployment, but a jump in the incentive to be jobless beginning in week X + 1. One presumes, therefore, a greater probability of people turning down proffered job offers in weeks X-1 or X (when unemployment benefits are imminent) than in week 1 or 2 (when there is a much longer wait to get unemployment benefits).

If this solves the problem of anyone looking for a thesis topic at a Freshwater school, your thanks are all the payment I need but I do appreciate cookies.

If You Believe the Market Reacts to Information

The bad news of the day is that about $5B ($5,000,000,000) more than previously believed went to buy goods made in China, Japan, non-major South and Central American countries, and other places outside the U.S. Per the Vampire Squid (tm Matt Taibbi), this should cause a revision to Q2 US GDP from 1.3% to 0.9%.

The good news of the day is that weekly unemployment claims were “only” 395,000. (Let’s ignore the detail that last week was originally reported as 398K—breaking the streak—but is now 402K.)

The net result, at least as of 2:00pm is that the major equity indices are up by at least 3.80% (DJIA). The early articles claim that was because of the “good” news.

And the scary thing is, they’re correct. In the 193 weeks since the recession started,* there have only been 39 where initial claims were below 395,000, and two (including the current, possibly-to-be-revised week) that were at that level.

But, especially as none of Harry Reid’s appointees to The Grand Ripoff appear to believe that Jobs would do more good for balancing the budget than the Super Commission, it appears that three-quarters of that August body will be working solely on the numerator, not the denominator, of the Debt/GDP ratio.

Notes Toward Modeling a Risk-Free Rate with Default Possibilities

Brad DeLong asks why it hasn’t been done, if it hasn’t been done.  The biggest problem I can see is that you don’t know how insane the participants are—and that will have a major effect on how much damage is done when.

Don’t get me wrong; the damage is already being done; it has been since at least May, and if Barack H. Obama weren’t an idiot, he would have been mentioning that over the past two months.  Unfortunately, the sun is yellow on our world, and counterfactuals are masturbatory, not participatory, acts.

So let’s start with what we know:

i= r + πe

Nick Rowe apparently would have us believe his (completely understandable) claim that i would not be directly affected by a short-term default. This strikes me as absurd.
Even when the economy is working on all cylinders–where G contributes something around 10-15% of growth at most—reducing G to zero for a week is about 2% of 15% or 0.2%-0.3%—noticeable, but arguably rounding error against the difference between π and πe. So, if you assume a short-term issue, you get something like those legendary two weeks from 11-22 September 2001, when only the Saudi Royal Family was spending anything, writ somewhat smaller only because Gunderstates the effect on r.)

We can concede that inflation expectations themselves aren’t going to go up independently: any additional borrowing cost will be a drag on r, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that i will be fairly steady—again, working a very short-term issue.

But, as often happens, we leave out a variable in our assumptions, simply because we define i as the risk-free rate of return.  Let’s put it back in:

i= (r + πe)*(1+ Pd)

Where (1+Pd) is 100% plus the probability that there will not be a default. (Note that in a model environment, Pd=0, otherwise, we would not call it risk-free: actors have the power to make and manage budgets, including the power to tax to pay for services desired by their plutocrats constituents.)

Finance people will recognize this reduced form equation:.  (1+ Pd)= β, the risk of the stock or portfolio in excess of the risk of the market.  For convenience, let’s just call this version Ω. So,

i= (r + πe)*Ω

Next comes the hard part: term structure.  Or, as Robert said in a similar context, are you talking about the Federal Funds rate, or the rate on three-month Treasury Bills?

Well, that depends on how long we expect the issue to be an issue.  If Barack “I’m an idiot who stands for nothing and you’ll vote for me anyway because my opponent will be insane” Obama treated this “crisis” the way he treated the last (real) one, he would insist on getting a clean bill raising the debt ceiling passed through both Houses and on his desk for signing by the end of next week.  If he takes it as another chance to blow Cass Sunstein and the rest of his University of Chicago buddies, then it’s a complicated bill that will get a few Congressmen killed* and several others de-elected, and we might be talking weeks.

Right now, the markets are assuming the former.  Let’s be optimistic and assume they’re correct.

Four weeks ago, there was a Treasury Bill auction that produced a yield of  0.00%.  Extending that bill does no harm at all—not even to expected debt totals. (Investors mileage may vary, but they bought it with full knowledge of the timing.  And there were 10% again behind them bidding at the same rate.)

Some specific Notes and probably Bonds—it is August—will have coupon payments due on the 15th. But those are coupons, not principal repayment, so again we’re not talking much value of the Note or Bond itself, once you hit five years or so.

Bills will be a problem.  Short-term notes will be a problem.  Fed Funds is uncharted territory.  Tripartite Repo specifically, and Repo in general will be a major problem due to questions of collateral value.  And guess who uses those the most?  Hedge fundsThe people who have been financing John Boehner’s and Eric Cantor’s campaigns.

So the term structure looks like it would if you’re going into a recession: short-term rates rise significantly, while the longer term securities shift upward a bit. (Select Notes and Bonds with near-term coupons kink the curve, but there’s no certain arbitrage there, especially with transaction costs.  Cheapest-to-deliver calculation is also affected in the futures market. I could go on, but let’s just pretend—correctly—that these are minor issues.)

Because now our “baseline” rate is no longer risk-free—and we’re not certain what Pd is over time.  We know it will return to zero at some point, and we presume (at least at the beginning) that it will be soon. But we also know that there already are follow-on effects, and that they will only get worse. Even if we ignore the effect on G (and therefore i) of a short-term default, we lose our bearings for a while.

So the big question is collateral and spreads.  Been posting Treasuries to borrow against?  Yields up due to Pd > 0, so prices down, so less flow. And probably haircuts due to uncertainty of any return to “risk-free.” Posting Treasuries with a coupon due?  Haircut! Posting Treasuries with a near-term coupon?  Haircut! Posting Munis?  Think Michael Jordan (or Telly Savalas, if you’re Of a Certain Age).  So you can borrow less, and probably have to sell some of your assets.

Which ones?  If we’re lucky, it’s longer-term Treasuries, and some of the yield curve inversion mentioned earlier is reduced.  But the market is going to be less liquid than usual, so maybe some of those other bonds get sold—corporates, for instance.  The bid-offer on Munis is basically going to be zero-coupon bonds at a high discount. (Think fast about how many state and local municipal projects depend on some form of Federal funding.  Then realize that your estimate is probably low by an order of magnitude.)  Or corporations that are dependent on government funds (DoD providers, automobile fleets, interstate paving contractors, power supply and distribution companies, etc.)

In a ridiculously oversimplified model, the spreads simply expand by Ω, with a possible adjustment downward based on direct exposure to government financing. This, again, probably understates the effect.

So, in a closed economy, everyone gets to pretend things are close to the same—just more expensive, with a lot of damage to hedge funds and municipalities and borrowing costs and credit lines. So money supply drops significantly (multiplier effect reduction) even without Fed intervention.  You get an Economic Miracle: reduced supply and higher yields.

But we don’t live in a closed economy.  So there’s another factor.  And I’m running out of Greek letters, so let’s just use an abbreviation everyone knows:

i= (r + πe)*Ω*d(FXd)

where d(FXd) is the change in the FX rate due to the default adding uncertainty to cash flows.

That’s right: we get not one but two economic miracles:  (1) domestically, a reduced supply of risk-free securities produces higher yields and (2) internationally, higher yields lead to a depreciation of the domestic currency.

Anyone still wonder why no one wants to build the full model?

*No, I don’t want this to be the scenario.  But if you offered me the bet, I wouldn’t take the under at 0.99.

The "Standard" of The Price of Gold is This Century’s DeBoers

I’m writing a few long posts—you’ve been warned—but that machine doesn’t have Internet access right now.* So I’m just going to point to Kash, who writes about something else:

In looking at the data I was struck by how small (relatively) the worldwide market for gold really is. That means that relatively small inflows of funds into the market for gold could potentially have very large effects on the price of gold. And that in turn means that the price of gold could be very sensitive to a number of factors that have nothing to do with economic conditions or inflation….

[M]oving just 0.1% of the financial wealth of US households into gold could be enough to have a dramatic impact on the price of gold. Note that the same can not be said of other asset prices that we care about; it would be difficult to discern any price effects whatsoever of a move of an additional $50 billion more or less per year into the stock market (valued at over $50 trillion around the world), the bond market (also with a total value in the tens of trillions of dollars), or real estate.

[A] good advertising campaign by gold producers could be enough to move the price of gold. Imagine that an effective, sustained advertising campaign, targeted at wealthy, conservative individuals in the US, is able to persuade 25,000 of them per month to switch a portion of their financial assets into gold….Such an advertising campaign would have the effect of pushing $15 billion per year into the market for investment gold — very possibly enough to have a significant impact on the price of gold, given how small the overall market for gold is.

[A] very similar thing happened to the market for diamonds in the middle of the 20th century. The DeBeers diamond cartel used an incredibly successful advertising campaign in the 1950s to cement the idea of the diamond as the premier gemstone, and in so doing permanently changed the value of diamonds.

Whether or not you like that analogy, the central point here is a very simple one. Since the market for gold is so small, its price may be strongly affected by things that have nothing to do with the state of the economy.

Kash’s analysis—read the whole thing—should drive the final stake through the heart of the idea that, in the current economy, gold is anything more than what I quoted Warren Buffett as saying it is more than a year and one-half ago.

*In this context, does anyone know how to add the Windows Live Writer app to a Droid X?