Posted in Economics, Financial Markets, General Musings, Politics and Policy at 8:49 am

Barring some miraculous breakthrough over the next 24-48 hours, it would seem that time is running out for a pre-July 20 agreement and there are really only two choices left:

1) Negotiate a short term deal – bridge financing to clear the IMF arrears and make the July 20 ECB payment, and another month or two to allow time for a real agreement to be negotiated. The problem here is that all parties are sick of kicking the can further and a short term deal only makes sense if there is consensus on the broad outlines of a program and it’s just a matter of more time being needed to finalize the details. This is clearly not the case here.

2) Begin planning for an orderly Grexit. No one wants to go down this path, but if the only choices are to start planning for an orderly Grexit now or have an unplanned, disorderly Grexit in two weeks……..


The misguided war against shareholder value management

Posted in Economics, Financial Markets, General Musings, Politics and Policy at 8:53 am

Lots of criticism against shareholder value management and stock-based compensation for executives has appeared in the press recently.



There’s nothing wrong with shareholder value management, which simply states that when evaluating corporate investment decisions, a company’s management should A) ignore accounting fictions that have no bearing on cash flow and B) take into account their overall cost of capital, which includes both debt and equity.

Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with aligning management’s incentives with those of the owner’s of the firm via the issue of stock options or restricted shares.

As is often the case, the problem is with the execution of the above. The root cause is short-termism itself. Stock buybacks, one time dividends, and other financial engineering practices may drive the stock price higher in the short run but it does not lead to long run value creation, which was the whole point of shareholder value management. Likewise, the way we have structured stock grants to executives is not aligning their long term interests with shareholders, it’s incentivizing them to extract as much in the way of economic rents from the companies they run in as short a time as possible. The combination of these two factors is leading to disaster. The solution is to fix the implementation, not to scrap the fundamental ideas themselves.


The acrimonious debate over inequality

Posted in Economics, General Musings, Politics and Policy at 10:37 am

A big part of the problem is that the terminology – “inequality” – is terrible.

Literally no one, including the most strident leftist, believes that everyone, from the brain surgeon to the floor sweeper to the unemployed person unwilling to work should receive the same exact income and possess the same exact wealth. A much better term would be “increasing concentration” rather than increasing inequality. Framing the problem as an increasing concentration of wealth and income would resonate much better with the American public and do a much better job of conveying the intended idea.


Spain becomes the 4th EU country to get bailed out

Posted in Economics, Financial Markets, General Musings, Politics and Policy at 7:41 am

Yesterday, the EU agreed to provide Spain with a 100 billion Euro ($125 billion) rescue package.

The money will go into a fund called FROB (Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring) modeled loosely after the US TARP prgram.  The Spanish government will be responsible for paying back the loan, but they are constrained in how they can use the money; essentially, it has to be used to recapitalize their banks.

It appears this will calm the markets, but for how long?

Why is “calming the markets” always the proximate (and often the ultimate) goal?  Spain has an overall unemployment rate over 24%, with unemployment levels hovering around 50% for the young.  GDP growth was negative in 2009 and 2010, barely positive in 2011, and now has gone negative again for the first half of 2012 with consensus estimates for all of 2012 coming in around -1.5%.  The housing market is in shambles after a boom and bust.  Where are the plans to address crisis-level unemployment and jump start economic growth?  Where are the plans to fix the housing market?

It’s interesting to note the similarities between Spain and Ireland, both of which pursued fiscally responsible policies prior to the financial crisis.  Spain ran budget surpluses in 2006, 2007, and 2008.  In 2009, Spain’s public debt was under 60% of GDP, well below the EU average.   Even now, after the crisis, it only stands at around 68% of GDP.  Like Ireland, Spain is not a tale of fiscal profligacy, it’s a story of a country that experienced the collapse of an asset price bubble followed by a banking crisis.  Awhile back, Paul Krugman noted that Rogoff and Reinhart got the correlation between public debt as a % of GDP and economic crisis correct, but they had the causation reversed.  An economic crisis causes public debt to skyrocket, not vice versa.  Spain is a perfect example.

Where do we go from here?   What will the political repercussions be, both in Spain and in the rest of the EU?  Will Ireland and others demand a renegotiation of their bailouts to remove or reduce the austerity measures attached to them?  What impact will this have on the Greek elections?  Will the contagion spread to Italy next?


Microfoundations of the crisis

Posted in Economics, General Musings at 3:08 pm

Lots of interesting discussion all around regarding neoclassical economics and DSGE models (see recent blog postings by Krugman, Keen, et al).

Let’s cut to the chase:

Between November 2007 and October 2009, the unemployment rate increased from 4.7% to 10.0% and the size of the workforce shrank by almost 9 million jobs.  Many businesses closed or ran idle as sales plummeted.

What exactly caused almost 9 million jobs to be lost over a period of less than two years and output to tumble?

Did workers suddenly decide that they valued leisure over labor to a much higher degree than they previously thought and so voluntarily chose to stop working?

Did workers suddenly decide that they wanted significantly higher wages and so priced themselves out of the market?

Did real capital (plants, equipment, etc.) suddenly become less productive?

Was there some sudden change in technology that rendered production techniques LESS efficient?

Did the available physical quantity of some critical raw material suddenly plummet?

If the answer to the above five questions is “no, obviously not” then DSGE models not only failed to PREDICT the crisis, they are also incapable of EXPLAINING the crisis.

DSGE models rely on an exogenous shock to initiate a change in economic activity (downturn or upswing).  Neither a fall in house prices nor an increase in oil prices counts as exogenous, these are simply markets in action (examples of exogenous shocks here would be tornadoes destroying homes or embargoes against oil producing nations).  So where is the initial exogenous shock?

Once the initial shock (which still hasn’t been identified) occurs, DSGE models rely on various “frictions” to explain how the economy could remain in a depressed state for a period of time rather than immediately returning to a full employment equilibrium.  Sticky wages are probably the most frequent friction assumed.  Before we ask “why wages don’t fall during a recession” we should ask “why should wages fall”.  Every first year econ student is told that the price of labor (the wage rate) is determined by supply and demand and that supply is determined by the marginal disutility of labor (the work/leisure tradeoff) and demand is determined by the marginal productivity of labor.  Why should we simply assume that the “true” price of labor is suddenly lower than the market price and that the reason there’s a discrepancy is because wages are “sticky”?  What if there is no discrepancy and the market price for labor is correct (one would think this would be an economist’s first reaction)?  We are making the hidden assumption that pricing errors are the only thing that can cause a market to fail to clear.  Back to the question of supply and demand – if we are going to argue that the price of labor should be lower, we need to explain why, in terms of the marginal disutility and marginal productivity of labor.  In other words, either workers have suddenly become lazier or they have suddenly become less productive.  Which is it and why?

I would like the DSGE proponents to clearly articulate the cause of the above, without reference to money, finance, or anything else outside the framework of their models.  I want to see the “microfoundations of the crisis” if you will.


From Occupation to……….

Posted in General Musings, Politics and Policy at 8:51 pm

The OWS protesters have gotten everyone’s attention now, and started a conversation (that probably should have taken place in late 2008 or early 2009, but better late than never); it’s now time to move from just occupation to an actual program for moving forward.

Some suggestions:

Get rid of all of the demands that aren’t related to the economy.  Issues like animal rights, gay marriage, and other social issues are creeping into the conversation.  They’re all fine issues that deserve a hearing of their own.  However, with regard to what is trying to be accomplished here, they’re a distraction.

Have both a short term agenda and a long term agenda.  We have a lot of short term problems right now.  Many are symptoms of longer term issues.  Both sets of issues have to be addressed, but sequence and priority is critical.

Keep the agenda points short and concise.  Limit the number of them.  Don’t get mired in the details.

Here’s a good starting point:

Short Term

  • Focus on jobs.  The government should make jobs a top priority until the unemployment rate falls below 5%.  Bring the full power of fiscal and monetary policy to bear, and if necessary, pursue direct works programs.
  • Focus on housing.  The housing market is fundamentally broken.  It needs to be fixed.  The economy will not recover until it’s fixed.  Doing nothing is not an option.
  • Focus on education.  The economy of the future demands a better educated workforce.  People shouldn’t have to become lifetime debt slaves to acquire a college degree and a secure future.

Long Term

  • Realign finance.  Financial institutions should exist to fund productive investment by matching savers/lenders with investors/borrowers.  The economy can’t function without a working financial system.  Unfortunately, it’s been turned into a casino where heads the big banks win and tails the taxpayers pick up the losses.
  • Develop an industrial policy.  Historically, this has meant a combination of trade restrictions like quotas/tariffs with subsidies to business.  That’s not what we need now.  What we need is a policy that takes into account the needs of all stakeholders – importers, exporters, labor, management, business owners both small and large.
  • Save the middle class.  This is what all of the short term and long term agenda points mentioned thus far lead up to.  A vibrant, growing, and upwardly mobile middle class is what has made America great.  For generations, people were inspired by the idea that their children would do better than them.  That idea is fading rapidly.  We need to change that.  It will take action – a large middle class is NOT something that just comes about naturally, it’s not a natural outgrowth of capitalism or any other ism; disabuse yourself of that false notion.

This is the sort of agenda that will resonate with the American people.  The statistics on the decline of the American middle class are indisputable.  When confronted with this, the 1% will have no choice but to remain silent or change the subject.  Keep pushing.


The question that needs to be asked at the next GOP debate

Posted in General Musings, Politics and Policy at 4:26 pm

“If you were president, and you received a call at 2AM stating that Greece has defaulted, the contagion has already begun to spread to several other European countries, and a number of large European banks are hours away from bankruptcy and about to trigger a repeat of the 2007-2009 financial crisis, what would you do?

“Before you answer, Mr. Candidate, understand the following.  In 2008, the US exported $325 billion in goods and services to Europe; in 2009, that figure dropped to $258 billion due largely to the financial crisis and recession.  That effect alone was enough to trim over a half a percentage point off of GDP growth, and Europe was not the center of that crisis.  In this case, we could likely expect the impact on US GDP to be an immediate multiple of that.  However, that’s not the biggest problem.  The biggest problem is that US Money Market funds have nearly $1 trillion in exposure to European banks.  Once again, the entire US financial system, and much of the world financial system, are roughly 24 hours away from complete collapse.”

“The Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the Secretary of the Treasury have been meeting all night and are prepared to brief you on the situation as well as lay out their plan for avoiding catastrophe.  It involves extending unlimited liquidity lines to the ECB and other central banks as well as massive capital injections into the largest domestic banks.  We have the chairmen of the SEC and CFTC along with the president of the NYSE on standby to dial in.”

The answers to this question should be quite illuminating for a number of different reasons.  They will immediately demonstrate which candidates have a grasp of economic policy issues and which do not.  This represents a crisis situation that demands a solution, and will demonstrate candidates’ capability to respond to an emergency.  It is a specific question that demands specific answers, rather than ideology, handwaving, and spinning of past accomplishments.



Posted in General Musings, Politics and Policy at 7:01 am

Obama’s “pivot to jobs” was amazingly short – roughly one week in duration.  Apparently, we’ve now returned to deficit reduction as the primary focus, with the President unveiling his new millionaire’s tax proposal.  This is absurd.  Deficit reduction is not the most important issue facing the country right now.   In fact, it should be pretty close to the bottom of the list of priorities. When the economy has been growing at a rate >3% per year for at least two years AND unemployment is below 6% and, then we can focus on deficit reduction.   Although I have a hunch that once we reach that point, there won’t be much to talk about since most of the deficit “problem” will have resolved itself.  As of right now though, it’s a distraction, and anything we do to reduce the deficit will make the economy WORSE.


A simple solution to the housing market problem

Posted in Economics, Financial Markets, General Musings, Politics and Policy at 4:02 pm

Forced debt to equity conversions have been proposed as a solution to make insolvent banks solvent again.  The idea is that some portion of a bank’s outstanding debt is converted into equity in order to restore a positive net worth (assets – liabilities).  There’s no reason why this same approach could not be taken with private homeowners.

Let’s look at a simplified example:

Home purchaser takes out a $100k bank loan to buy a $100k house.
Assets = $100k, liabilities = $100k, net worth = $0.

House price drops to $80k.  Now:

Assets = $80k, liabilities = $100k, net worth = -$20.

Undertake the debt to equity conversion:

Loan reduced to house market value = $80k.
In exchange, bank gets $20k equity = ($20k/$80k) = 25% ownership stake in house.

The homeowner essentially gives up 25% of future increases in home value in order to not be underwater now.

At some point in the future, the house will be sold.  When that happens, one of the following scenarios will play out.

Scenario 1 – House sells for <$80k.  Bank gets fraction of its $80k loan back.  Bank gets nothing on its equity.  Homeowner gets nothing.

Scenario 2 – House sells for $80k.  Bank gets all of its $80k loan back.  Bank gets nothing on its equity.  Homeowner gets nothing.

Scenario 3 – House sells for >$80k.  Bank gets all of its $80k loan back.  Bank gets 25%*(Home price – $80k) on its equity.  Homeowner gets 75%*(Home price – $80k).

At a sale price of $160k, the bank recoups all of its initial loan ($80k modified loan + 25%*$80k = $100k).  The bank makes a net profit on any final sale price over $160k.

The homeowner will also receive an option to buy out the bank’s equity at any point in the future for 25% * (Market value – $80k) plus some pre-determined premium.

This program would be open to all homeowners, banks would have no say in the matter.  Obviously, homeowners who are not underwater would not have any reason to participate.

Is this solution perfect?  No.

Is it preferable to a taxpayer-funded mortgage forgiveness program whereby the government pays banks to forgive a portion of underwater loans?  Yes.

Is it preferable to doing nothing and having the debt overhang doom the economy to a decade or more of below-potential GDP and high unemployment?  Yes.

I’m well aware of the difficulties involved.  The loan writedowns would impair bank earnings for a period of time (though there would now be future upside).  The impact on mortgage services, MBS, CDOs, and the holders of MBS and CDOs would be messy.  There would be lawsuits.  Again, it must be measured against the alternatives and not some utopian fantasy world where all debts will be eventually paid in full and no losses have to be taken.

What I’ve laid out above is a simplified, stylistic version.  All sorts of modifications could be made to improve it.  The percentage of debt converted could be increased to provide additional monthly payment relief.  The equity structure could be modified to give the bank a bigger percentage claim on the first $20k in price appreciation.  Other terms of the loan could be modified.  The point here is just to lay out a set of guiding principles; the details can be hashed out later.


Barro on “Regular Economics vs Keynesian Economics”

Posted in Economics, General Musings at 8:47 am

Very odd statement:


Barro’s “regular economics” describes a world that is always operating at 100% capacity with zero unemployed labor or idle capital.  Thus, resource and technology constraints mean that there is a real tradeoff between government spending and private spending and between current consumption and investment spending.

“Keynesian economics” describes a world that is not operating at capacity, and therefore has unemployed labor and idle capital.  In such a world, it is possible to increase government spending and private spending simultaneously, or to increase consumption and investment simultaneously.  In fact, doing so moves the operation of the economy closer to its capacity.

Which world best describes our current state of affairs?