Tag Archives: Neighborhood Effects

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.



Does economic freedom matter among wealthy countries?

In response to my last post, alert Neighborhood Effects reader Shane Phillips writes:

Are there charts like these that just compare the nations in the top quintile? It’s good to know that economic freedom leads to these positive outcomes, but knowing the difference between the Central African Republic, for example, and the US doesn’t really tell me as much as the US vs other modern, developed countries would.

This is a great question and the answer is yes, there has been some attempt to examine these relationships in a sub-set of wealthier countries. One area in which this has been done is in the literature looking at the effect of government size on economic growth. Government size, remember, is just one aspect of economic freedom (in the EFW, the other components are “legal system and property rights,” “sound money,” “freedom to trade internationally,” and “regulation”).

Speaking broadly, most economists who have looked at this, tend to approach the question with the following theoretical relationship in mind:

government size and growth in theory

In other words, at low levels of government spending, additional spending may be able to increase growth by financing things like property protection and public goods. But at higher levels of government spending, marginal increases in government size detract from growth as taxes become more distortionary and as government becomes less effective.

Andreas Bergh and Magnus Henrekson have a very nice survey of this literature. The whole study is worth a read, but one of the more important findings is that while the relationship is fairly ambiguous when all countries are included, it is less-so when you look at the sub-sample of wealthy countries:

The literature on the relationship between the size of government and economic growth is full of seemingly contradictory findings. This conflict is largely explained by variations in definitions and the countries studied. An alternative approach—of limiting the focus to studies of the relationship in rich countries, measuring government size as total taxes or total expenditure relative to GDP and relying on panel data estimations with variation over time—reveals a more consistent picture. The most recent studies find a significant negative correlation: An increase in government size by 10 percentage points is associated with a 0.5 to 1 percent lower annual growth rate.

To me this suggests that the theoretical prediction may not be far from the mark. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that government size is generally negatively correlated with other aspects of economic freedom. So the freer, more-developed countries are often the ones with the largest public sectors. This helps explain why the relationship isn’t consistent across a larger sample: some of the countries with the smallest size governments are also those with the most regulation, the most barriers to trade, etc.

What about economic freedom more broadly defined? Has this been studied among the subset of relatively wealthy and relatively economically-free countries? I’m unaware of any formal studies, but as it turns out I’ve done some simple correlations myself. In the chart below, I graph economic freedom along with per capita GDP in OECD countries. The relationship is positive and statistically significant, though I’d caution that it is a small sample size and I have no control variables.

economic freedom and per capita GDP in OECDOne nice thing about focusing on the subset of OECD countries is that doing so allows me to examine the relationship between economic freedom and median income (which isn’t readily available for non-OECD countries). Per capita measures are problematic because they are sensitive to outliers. A handful of super-wealthy people in the U.S. or Luxembourg may give the false impression that everyone is wealthy. The median, however, doesn’t have this problem because it is unaffected by the levels at the extremes of the sample. Here the relationship is in terms of median income:

economic freedom and median income in oecdAs before, the same caveat applies: This is statistically significant; but it is a small sample and I have no control variables.

The Bush Tax Cuts

This episode should have advocates of limited government asking themselves an important question: are tax cuts without spending cuts good for the cause of limited government? Decades ago, Milton Friedman answered this question with a resounding yes. Cut taxes, he counseled, and starve the beast. With less revenue, spending will fall too. Tax cutters from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have been convinced of “starve the beast” ever since.

But there is another Nobel laureate with free market bona fides who begs to differ. James Buchanan, a founding father of public choice economics—which uses the tools of economics to shed light on the incentives of policy makers—has long questioned “starve the beast.” When politicians are legally and politically permitted to run deficits, he warned, they will simply fund government by borrowing. In this case, tax cuts give voters the illusion that government spending is cheap. And with government seeming less-costly, voters will be happy to have more of it.

That’s me, writing on the Bush Tax Cuts in the latest issue of Reason. It was part of broader piece, edited by Peter Suderman on the fiscal cliff and it includes great essays by Charles Blahous, James Pethokoukis, Veronique de Rugy, Tad DeHaven, Susan Dudley, Maya MacGuineas, and Marc Goldwein. The whole piece can be found here.

Also this week, I did a podcast with the Heartland Institute on the Bush Tax Cuts, based on my research with Andrea Castillo.

Finally, Lars Christensen has some insightful comments on our paper here.

On behalf of all of us at Mercatus and Neighborhood Effects, Happy Holidays to all.


Welcome, Emily. Congratulations, Tate

You may have noticed a familiar name in the Neighborhood Effects cue. When she was working on her MA in economics here at Mercatus, Emily Washington used to contribute to this blog. We are pleased that after a stint in commercial real estate, Emily is now back at Mercatus. As the new Associate Director of State Outreach, she will help connect state policy makers with Mercatus scholars and their research. Luckily, she has also agreed to resume writing on this blog.

And speaking of transitions, another great writer and Mercatus alum, Tate Watkins, is now blogging over at Reason.com. His post on the Internet Tax is my favorite (but read them all).

Economic Freedom In Decline

Today, the Fraser Institute released the 2011 version of the Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of Beloit College, the index is an annual measure of economic freedom. Drawing on 42 data points gathered from each of 141 countries, it assigns each nation an economic freedom score. The score reflects the degree to which citizens in the nation enjoy economic freedom as characterized by “personal choice, voluntary exchange coordinated by markets, freedom to enter and compete in markets, and protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.”

Chapter 3 of the new report features an essay by Jean-Pierre Chauffour, lead economist of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region. In Figure 3.1, reproduced below, Chauffour shows the relationship between economic freedom and the log of per capita income (adjusting for purchasing power parity).

But economic freedom seems to be about more than just per capita income. Readers of Neighborhood Effects know that scores of peer-reviewed studies have examined the relationship between economic freedom and all sorts of measures of well being. The overwhelming evidence is that economic freedom is positively related to things humans like (per capita income of the poor, life expectancy, access to clean water, etc.) and negative related to things humans don’t like (poverty, child labor, etc.). Some of the most sophisticated studies have even tried to disentangle cause and effect.

So where do we stand? The data are lagged, so this year’s report now calculates economic freedom through 2009. There are some bright spots. For example:

The chain-linked summary ratings of Uganda, Zambia, Nicaragua, Albania, and Peru have improved by three or more points since 1990.

There is also some bad news:

 ….In contrast, the summary ratings of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, United States, and Malaysia fell by eight tenths of a point or more between 1990 and 2009, causing their rankings to slip.

In fact, those countries that slipped the most since 2000 were: Argentina, Iceland, Ireland, the United States, and Venezuela.

To see just how far the U.S. has fallen, consider the graph below. The first phase shows the U.S. (chain-linked) economic freedom score from 1970 through 2000. It is slow and steady progress the whole way. The second phase shows the U.S. score from 2000 onward. It is a dramatic and precipitous drop. Notice, by the way, that the ascendant periods lasts through three presidents of two different parties. The descent also seems to have persisted irrespective of the party in office. It seems that the policies that impact economic freedom are not strongly related to partisanship.

Mercatus has its own state-level measure of economic freedom, developed by Jason Sorens of the University of Buffalo (SUNY) and William Ruger of Texas State University.


Addendum: Here is Arnold Kling on the report. Here is David Henderson. Here is Mark Steyn. Here is Robert Lawson.

Haiti’s Road Home: Rebuilding Lessons from the Gulf Coast

The Louisiana Road Home program was established to provide up to $150,000 for homeowners rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Almost 5 years after the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, the Louisiana Recovery Authority estimates that one third of grant recipients have yet to rebuild and return home. Why? Garett Jones and Neighborhood Effects blogger Daniel Rothschild offered a few reasons last year in Forbes:

While initially designed to rapidly provide rebuilding assistance to residents, [the Road Home program] was loaded down with caveats and clauses meant to engineer a particular rebuilding plan, rather than allow the rebuilding to emerge spontaneously. Government rules became government direction, and private decision making was shoved into the back corner….

The biggest problem with Road Home was that it caused people to wait for promised federal help, and indeed, some people are still waiting. The initial promise of quick and easy government assistance combined with inept program administration and a 57-step application process mean that even [nearly five] years after Katrina, thousands of homeowners are still waiting for their checks…. So government action delayed private action and government plans crowded out local solutions.

Haiti — and the international commission that will direct its reconstruction — should heed lessons from the Gulf Coast recovery.

Yet development economist Jeffrey Sachs, like many other experts, advocates a centralized reconstruction strategy for the country. “There should be one overarching framework. There should be one major multi-donor bank account to finance the heavy outlays required for Haiti’s recovery. There should be a highly professional executive team co-ordinating the international support efforts.”

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission grants Sach’s wish. It will determine which reconstruction projects deserve funding and then disperse the $9.9 billion pledged by donors. But it must beware entangling Haitians in obstacles that plagued Gulf Coast rebuilders — crowding out of local solutions, creating bureaucratic red tape that delays recovery, and unintentionally encouraging inaction as citizens wait for government or international panaceas.

Evidence from the Road Home program suggests that the federal government’s Katrina recovery strategy encouraged residents to battle for grants rather than innovate creative solutions to overcome their challenges. The international community’s reconstruction strategy in Haiti must avoid doing the same.

Bob Nelson on Utah’s Land Management

Neighborhood Effects blogger Bob Nelson had an op-ed in Friday’s Salt Lake Tribune arguing that Utah should offer to take control of federal lands in the state:

The largest area of Utah public land, 22.8 million acres, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the Interior Department. Another 8.1 million acres is in the national forest system managed by the U.S. Forest Service in the Agriculture Department. On these lands, the most important decisions concern matters such as the number of cows that will be allowed to graze, the levels of timber harvesting, the leasing of land for oil and gas drilling, the prevention and fighting of forest fires and the areas available to off-road recreational vehicles.

Except in Utah and other parts of the American West, where the federal government still holds about half the total land area, such matters are the responsibility of private land owners and of state and local governments. It is time to end this antiquated system which has failed the test of time. Despite the possession of hundreds of millions of acres of land, and vast oil and gas, coal and other valuable mineral resources, the federal lands proved to be a money-losing proposition.

Read the whole thing here.

In 2008, Bob wrote about how local control of federal lands in California can lead to more effective fire management. And, of course, Bob is the author of one of Neighborhood Effects’ all-time most-read posts, wherein he argued that the US Senate is obsolete.

A Strange Tale of Education Budgets

Maine’s legislature recently engaged in a strange exercise. A representative introduced a bill to eliminate local referenda on educational budgets. The bill read in part:

A regional school unit’s budget must be approved at a regional school unit budget meeting and by a budget validation referendum as provided in section 1486.

The very next day, the bill’s sponsor disavowed the measure, after he was inundated by constituent mail opposing the proposal. After hearing Representative Howard McFadden’s mea culpa, the education committee unanimously voted the bill down, allowing localities to retain control of local education spending.

The issue was far from dead, however. The education committee was also considering a separate bill which contained a referendum-killing provision, ostensibly to enable easier school-consolidation measures.

Ultimately, a “tidal wave” of constituent input convinced the education committee to unanimously abandon the measure. For now Mainers retain the right to control local education spending, and judging by the hue-and-cry voters raised, by a significantly popular margin.

School consolidation in Maine is problematic. The state is divided into two radically different polities. Southern/Coastal Maine is relatively affluent and densely populated, while Northern and Central Maine are sparsely populated and less affluent.

Consolidation makes sense in many respects, but the economics are questionable. Some towns, like Fayette, have no higher education facilities, but have a voucher-style tuition system to send students to any of the surrounding high-schools, including a local private high school.

This kind of school choice introduces a modicum of competition into local systems, and allows families to choose the school that is best suited to their particular needs.

Instead of removing local control via consolidation measures, Maine’s education committee should consider measures introducing more personal and local choice.

Previously on Neighborhood Effects, Emily Washington wrote about education competition and Eileen Norcross detailed the struggles of D.C.’s controversial voucher system. Eileen also recently co-authored an issue of Mercatus On Policy on educational competition.

(H/T Maine Heritage Policy Center.)

“A Very Smart Person”

Mercatus Senior Fellow and Neighborhood Effects leading lady Eileen Norcross appeared on Fox Business this afternoon, discussing her recent article in Reason. She discussed the fiscal situation in New Jersey, and how it got so bad. From the Abbot court cases to public sector unions, she covers a lot of ground. Watch the interview here.

In the Reason article she dives into the union stranglehold on state finance in more depth:

Since 1990 local governments have added 45,500 new jobs. Nearly all of them are represented by one of a dozen unions, which have helped secure some of the plushest public sector jobs in the nation. It’s easy to see how property taxes have grown at twice the rate of inflation over the past decade. A government worker in New Jersey earns an average of $58,963, a police officer averages $84,223 (the second highest in the nation), and six-figure public sector salaries are commonplace. Compare this to neighboring Philadelphia, where the average police salary is $49,000. According to one estimate, of the $23 billion New Jersey raised in property taxes in 2008, $18 billion was spent on police, municipal, and teacher salaries.The tab for public workers doesn’t end there. Factor in the state’s pension plan, currently under-funded by $34 billion. The New Jersey Taxpayers’ Association calculates pension payouts for the average teacher range from $1.6 million to $2.5 million, per retiree. For the average police officer, that range totals between $3.2 million and $6 million, per retiree.

Census Data on State Government Revenues

This morning, the US Census Bureau released the 2008 Annual Survey of State Government Finances showing — no surprise here — that state revenues were significantly down in 2008, while expenditures were actually up by an average of 6.7 percent. State debts nationwide total over $1 billion.

From the press release:

State governments took in nearly $1.7 trillion in total revenues in fiscal year 2008, a 15.8 percent decrease from 2007, according to new data on state government finances released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The largest share of those revenues came from taxes ($780.7 billion), which made up 46.5 percent. The decline was primarily because of a decrease in insurance trust revenue, which fell by $377.7 billion (72.7 percent).


Total state government expenditures increased 6.2 percent from fiscal year 2007, totaling slightly more than $1.7 trillion in 2008. Education ($546.8 billion), public welfare ($412.1 billion) and highways ($107.2 billion) represented the top three outlays, accounting for nearly two-thirds of all state government total expenditures.

A state-by-state table is available from the Census Bureau here in Excel format, or here from Neighborhood Effects here in PDF format.