Tag Archives: Federal Reserve

Has the Sequester Hurt the Economy?

Several weeks ago, Steve Forbes argued that the federal government spending cuts known as the “sequester” are actually having beneficial effects on the US economy, and not slowing growth as many economists and pundits in the media have claimed. Forbes’s statement attracted critics, and many economists have expressed skepticism about the sequester too. One economist even went so far as to say, “The disjunction between textbook economics and the choices being made in Washington is larger than any I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

So have the sequester cuts hurt the economy? One possible answer comes from a new paper by Scott Sumner of Bentley University. Sumner argues that cuts to government spending don’t have serious deleterious macroeconomic effects when the Federal Reserve is targeting inflation. This is because the Fed ensures that prices stay stable under an inflation targeting regime, which keeps demand stable even in the face of government spending cuts. Similarly, when the Fed stabilizes the price level it also offsets any beneficial effects that fiscal stimulus might have, which helps explain the lackluster results from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the “stimulus”).

Implicit in Sumner’s theory is that expansionary austerity, or the idea that the economy can grow even in the face of large government spending cuts, is indeed possible. Some of my colleagues at the Mercatus Center have described other ways in which expansionary austerity is possible.

Luckily, there are still things Congress can do to improve the economic outlook, even as spending cuts take hold. Lawmakers can enact policies that boost the performance of the real economy. By this I mean policies that increase the amount of real goods and services the economy produces, as opposed to policies that affect demand (i.e. spending).

One example is reforming the regulatory system, which discourages production of all sorts. With over 174,000 pages of federal regulations in place, there must be a few obsolete or duplicative rules that can be eliminated to relieve the burden on businesses and entrepreneurs. Congress could also reform the tax code, with its perverse incentives and countless carve outs for special interests.

Starting new government programs isn’t likely to do much to benefit growth. New projects take too long to implement, politicians waste too much money on silly boondoggles, and monetary policy will likely offset any beneficial effects anyway. If Congress wants to do something to improve growth, it should focus on creating a regulatory and tax environment that encourages investment and entrepreneurial risk taking.

Should Illinois be Downgraded? Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

No one disputes that Illinois’s pension systems are in seriously bad condition with large unfunded obligations. But should this worry Illinois bondholders? New Mercatus research by Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions finds that recent downgrades of Illinois’s bonds by credit ratings agencies aren’t merited. He models the default risk of Illinois and Indiana based on a projection of these states’ financial position. These findings are put in the context of the history of state default and the role the credit ratings agencies play in debt markets. The influence of credit ratings agencies in this market is the subject a guest blog post by Marc today at Neighborhood Effects.

Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

by Marc Joffe

Prices play a crucial role in a market economy because they provide signals to buyers and sellers about the availability and desirability of goods. Because prices coordinate supply and demand, they enabled the market system to triumph over Communism – which lacked a price mechanism.

Interest rates are also prices. They reflect investor willingness to delay consumption and take on risk. If interest rates are manipulated, serious dislocations can occur. As both Horwitz and O’Driscoll have discussed, the Fed’s suppression of interest rates in the early 2000s contributed to the housing bubble, which eventually gave way to a crash and a serious financial crisis.

Even in the absence of Fed policy errors, interest rate mispricing is possible. For example, ahead of the financial crisis, investors assumed that subprime residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) were less risky than they really were. As a result, subprime mortgage rates did not reflect their underlying risk and thus too many dicey borrowers received home loans. The ill effects included a wave of foreclosures and huge, unexpected losses by pension funds and other institutional investors.

The mis-pricing of subprime credit risk was not the direct result of Federal Reserve or government intervention; instead, it stemmed from investor ignorance. Since humans lack perfect foresight, some degree of investor ignorance is inevitable, but it can be minimized through reliance on expert opinion.

In many markets, buyers rely on expert opinions when making purchase decisions. For example, when choosing a car we might look at Consumer Reports. When choosing stocks, we might read investment newsletters or review reports published by securities firms – hopefully taking into account potential biases in the latter case. When choosing fixed income most large investors rely on credit rating agencies.

The rating agencies assigned what ultimately turned out to be unjustifiably high ratings to subprime RMBS. This error and the fact that investors relied so heavily on credit rating agencies resulted in the overproduction and overconsumption of these toxic securities. Subsequent investigations revealed that the incorrect rating of these instruments resulted from some combination of suboptimal analytical techniques and conflicts of interest.

While this error occurred in market context, the institutional structure of the relevant market was the unintentional consequence of government interventions over a long period of time. Rating agencies first found their way into federal rulemaking in the wake of the Depression. With the inception of the FDIC, regulators decided that expert third party evaluations were needed to ensure that banks were investing depositor funds wisely.

The third party regulators chose were the credit rating agencies. Prior to receiving this federal mandate, and for a few decades thereafter, rating agencies made their money by selling manuals to libraries and institutional investors. The manuals included not only ratings but also large volumes of facts and figures about bond issuers.

After mid-century, the business became tougher with the advent of photocopiers. Eventually, rating agencies realized (perhaps implicitly) that they could monetize their federally granted power by selling ratings to bond issuers.

Rather than revoking their regulatory mandate in the wake of this new business model, federal regulators extended the power of incumbent rating agencies – codifying their opinions into the assessments of the portfolios of non-bank financial institutions.

With the growth in fixed income markets and the inception of structured finance over the last 25 years, rating agencies became much larger and more profitable. Due to their size and due to the fact that their ratings are disseminated for free, rating agencies have been able to limit the role of alternative credit opinion providers. For example, although a few analytical firms market their insights directly to institutional investors, it is hard for these players to get much traction given the widespread availability of credit ratings at no cost.

Even with rating agencies being written out of regulations under Dodd-Frank, market structure is not likely to change quickly. Many parts of the fixed income business display substantial inertia and the sheer size of the incumbent firms will continue to make the environment challenging for new entrants.

Regulatory involvement in the market for fixed income credit analysis has undoubtedly had many unintended consequences, some of which may be hard to ascertain in the absence of unregulated markets abroad. One fairly obvious negative consequence has been the stunting of innovation in the institutional credit analysis field.

Despite the proliferation of computer technology and statistical research methods, credit rating analysis remains firmly rooted in its early 20th century origins. Rather than estimate the probability of a default or the expected loss on a credit instruments, rating agencies still provide their assessments in the form of letter grades that have imprecise definitions and can easily be misinterpreted by market participants.

Starting with the pioneering work of Beaver and Altman in the 1960s, academic models of corporate bankruptcy risk have become common, but these modeling techniques have had limited impact on rating methodology.

Worse yet, in the area of government bonds, very little academic or applied work has taken place. This is especially unfortunate because government bond ratings frame the fiscal policy debate. In the absence of credible government bond ratings, we have no reliable way of estimating the probability that any government’s revenue and expenditure policies will lead to a socially disruptive default in the future. Further, in the absence of credible research, there is great likelihood that markets inefficiently price government bond risk – sending confusing signals to policymakers and the general public.

Given these concerns, I am pleased that the Mercatus Center has provided me the opportunity to build a model for Illinois state bond credit risk (as well as a reference model for Indiana). This is an effort to apply empirical research and Monte Carlo simulation techniques to the question of how much risk Illinois bondholders actually face.

While readers may not like my conclusion – that Illinois bonds carry very little credit risk – I hope they recognize the benefits of constructing, evaluating and improving credit models for systemically important public sector entities like our largest states. Hopefully, this research will contribute to a discussion about how we can improve credit rating assessments.



Don’t like the fiscal cliff? You’ll hate the fiscal future.

Absent an eleventh-hour deal—which may yet be possible—the Federal government will cut spending and raise taxes in the New Year. In a town that famously can’t agree on anything, nearly everyone seems terrified by the prospect of going over this fiscal cliff.

Yet for all the gloom and dread, the fiscal cliff embodies a teachable moment. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we should think of the fiscal cliff as the Ghost of the Fiscal Future. It is a bleak lesson in what awaits us if we don’t get serious about changing course.

First, some background. Over the last four decades, Federal Government spending as a share of GDP has remained relatively constant at about 21 percent. This spending was financed with taxes that consumed about 18 percent of GDP and the government borrowed to make up the difference.

After a decade of government spending increases and anemic economic growth, federal spending is now about 24 percent of GDP (a post WWII high, exceeded only by last year’s number) and revenues are about 15 percent of GDP (the revenue decline can be attributed to both the Bush tax cuts and to the recession).

But the really telling numbers are yet to come.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office now projects that, absent policy change, when my two-year-old daughter reaches my age (32), revenue will be just a bit above its historical average at 19 percent of GDP while spending will be nearly twice its historical average at 39 percent of GDP. This is what economists mean when they say we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem: spending increases, not revenue decreases, account for the entirety of the projected growth in deficits and debt over the coming years.

Why is this so frightful? The Ghost of the Fiscal Future gives us 3 reasons:

1) As spending outstrips revenue, each year the government will have to borrow more and more to pay its bills. We have to pay interest on what we borrow and these interest payments, in turn, add to future government spending. So before my daughter hits college, the federal government will be spending more on interest payments than on Social Security.

2) When the government borrows to finance its spending, it will be competing with my daughter when she borrows to finance her first home or to start her own business. This means that she and other private borrowers will face higher interest rates, crowding-out private sector investment and depressing economic growth. This could affect my daughter’s wages, her consumption, and her standard of living. In a vicious cycle, it could also depress government revenue and place greater demands on the government safety net, exacerbating the underlying debt problem.

This is not just theory. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have examined 200-years’ worth of data from over 40 countries. They found that those nations with gross debt in excess of 90 percent of GDP tend to grow about 1 percentage point slower than otherwise (the U.S. gross debt-to-GDP ratio has been in excess of 90 percent since 2010)

If, starting in 1975, the U.S. had grown 1 percentage point slower than it actually did, the nation’s economy would be about 30 percent smaller than it actually is today. By comparison, the Federal Reserve estimates that the Great Recession has only shrunk the economy by about 6 percent relative to its potential size.

3) Things get worse. The CBO no longer projects out beyond 2042, the year my daughter turns 32. In other words, the CBO recognizes that the whole economic system becomes increasingly unsustainable beyond that point and that it is ludicrous to think that it can go on.

What’s more, if Congress waits until then to make the necessary changes, it will have to enact tax increases or spending cuts larger than anything we have ever undertaken in our nation’s history. As Vero explains:

By refusing to reform Social Security, lawmakers are guaranteeing automatic benefit cuts of about 20-something percent for everyone on the program in 2035 (the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2035, the combined retirement and disability trust funds will run dry in 2033, and both will continue to deteriorate).

In other words, if we fail to reform, the fiscal future will make January’s fiscal cliff look like a fiscal step. I’ve never understood why some people think they are doing future retirees a favor in pretending that entitlements do not need significant reform.

You might think that we could tax our way out of this mess. But taxes, like debt, are also bad for economic growth.

But it is not too late. Like Scrooge, we can take ownership of the time before us. We can make big adjustments now so that we don’t have to make bigger adjustments in a few years. There is still time to adopt meaningful entitlement reform, to tell people my age to adjust our expectations and to plan on working a little longer, to incorporate market incentives into our health care system so that Medicare and Medicaid don’t swallow up more and more of the budget.

Some characterize these moves as stingy. In reality, these types of reforms would actually make our commitments more sustainable. And the longer we wait to make these inevitable changes, the more dramatic and painful they will have to be.

For all the gloom and dread, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was Scrooge’s savior. In revealing the consequences of his actions—and, importantly, his inactions—the Ghost inspired the old man to take ownership of the “Time before him” and to change his ways.

Let us hope that Congress is so enlightened by the Ghost of the Fiscal Cliff.

Net Worth is Down and that May Explain Why Stimulus Wasn’t Particularly Effective

This week saw the release of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. The news isn’t good. Median net worth fell 38.8 percent from 2007 to 2010. Predictably, the unhealthy diagnosis has occasioned a healthy dose of political posturing. For its part, the White House was quick to note that “the entire decline in household wealth took place before President Obama came into office” and that total wealth “has risen every year since he came into office.”

E21, in turn, pointed out that it was a little odd for the White House to emphasize the aggregate numbers rather than the median:

The claims made by the White House are disingenuous (at best) because they ignore the median U.S. household and focus instead on the increase in overall wealth, which has largely come from gains in the stock market. The White House is essentially saying that we shouldn’t worry about the plight of the typical family because Warren Buffett’s stock holdings have gone up in value by tens of billions of dollars since March 2009. The focus on aggregate household net worth is extremely comical when compared to previous statements made by the President and others in his Administration about the country’s lamentable concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a “fortunate few.” Someone should ask President Obama if this means we needn’t worry about income disparities anymore because total household income is up nearly 20% on an inflation-adjusted basis over the past 10 years?

Framing aside, there is an important policy implication of such a large fall in net worth. Richard Clarida of Columbia University explained this point way back in March of 2009:

There is a second reason while the bang of the fiscal package will likely lag behind the bucks. Even if the global financial system soon restores some semblance of order and function, the collapse in global equity and housing market values has so impaired household wealth that private consumption (which represents 60% to 70% of GDP in G7 countries) is likely to lag – not lead – economic growth for some time, as households rebuild their balance sheets the old-fashioned way – by boosting their saving rates.

In our working paper last fall, Veronique and I explained this point further:

The current recession has resulted in an unprecedented collapse in net wealth. In other words, it is a deep “balance sheet”‖recession. But with personal wealth diminished and private credit impaired, some economists believe that stimulus is likely to be less effective than it would be in a different type of recession. This is because consumers are likely to use their stimulus money to rebuild their nest eggs, i.e., to pay off debts and save, not to buy new products as Keynesian theoreticians want them to.

The White House is interested in escaping blame for the collapse in median net wealth. That’s understandable; that’s what White Houses do. It is harder to escape from the policy implications of a balance sheet recession.

Unemployment Insurance and Unemployment Spells

There was an odd article about the latest Nobelists in the Washington Post today. Jeannine Aversa, Louise Nordstrom and Karl Ritter write:

Some Republicans argue that extending unemployment benefits – as Congress has done on multiple occasions since the recession – can actually make unemployment worse by taking away the incentives to finding work. Liberal economists dismiss that.

The article goes on to rightly take Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) to task for claiming that one of the Nobelists, Peter Diamond, is unqualified to serve on the Federal Reserve.

Then, a few paragraphs from the end, we learn:

Taken together, [the Nobelists’] work has suggested, for instance, that unemployment benefits can have the unintended consequences of prolonging unemployment. That’s because the aid can make it less costly to be out of work – even as it improves employers’ chances of finding the right workers, as Diamond’s research concluded.

Diamond wrote that workers “become more selective in the jobs they accept” because of the employment aid. In the long run, he found, that makes for better matches and increases the economy’s efficiency because companies and workers are better suited to one another.

But I thought only Republicans believed that unemployment benefits prolong periods of unemployment?

Here is how I might have characterized it:

Some Republicans argue that extending unemployment benefits – as Congress has done on multiple occasions since the recession – can actually make unemployment worse by taking away the incentives to finding work. This is a standard result in labor economics, one that is supported by the left-leaning economists who won the Nobel Prize on Monday. But not everyone thinks this is a bad thing. Diamond, for one, has argued that while unemployment benefits may extend the period of unemployment, they may result in better matches, increasing the economy’s efficiency.   

Local Government Credit Crunch Compliments of the Federal Budget

According to Nicole Gelinas of City Journal, the size of federal spending is about to consume debt markets, crowding out municipal debt. In the third quarter of 2008, federal government debt increased 39 percent , “the largest quarterly growth rate recorded” according to the Federal Reserve.

This, in effect, shoves non-federal bonds off the table by oversaturating the market.

Gelinas also posits that if the stimulus stifles recovery, localities will face default – really bad news, because municipal debt doesn’t have a federal guarantee. If municipalities seek one, they might not get it. The federal government is deeply overcommitted.

The federal stimulus meant to bail out Main Street is moving more like a budgetary virus, robbing cities of their ability to maneuver and chart the best fiscal course during rough times.