Saturday, December 31, 2011

Buses are another matter

From Matt Turner:

First, two commonly suggested responses to traffic congestion—expansions of the road and public transit network—do not appear to have their desired effect:  road and public transit expansions should not be expected to reduce congestion.  Second, traffic levels do not help to predict which cities build roads. Therefore, new roads allocated to metropolitan areas on the basis of current rules are probably not built where they are most needed, which suggests that more careful reviews of highway expansion projects be required. Third, reductions in travel time caused by an average highway expansion are not sufficient to justify the expense of such an expansion. Whether or not other benefits of these expansions may justify their expense remains unresolved. In any case, expansions of the bus network are more likely to pass a cost–benefit test than expansions of the highway network

No wonder he can't understand benefit cost analysis.

In his advocacy for California High Speed Rail, Will Doig can't even get the population of California right.    He says during the century, the population will more than double from 25 million to 60 million.  Well, at the beginning of this century, the census population was around 34 million.

Of course, you can find this out in thousands of places.  He might start here--at the Census web site.  But of course, it is a lot easier just to make stuff up, which is something that rail advocates enjoy doing.  They are about as reliable as the intelligent design people--just cuddlier and not as dangerous.

Choice words from William Black (h/t Rik Osmer)

He writes:

If one had to pick one person in the private sector most responsible for causing the global financial crisis it would be Wallison.  As I explained, he is the person, who with the aid of industry funding, who has pushed the longest and the hardest for the three “de’s.”  It was the three “de’s” combined with modern executive and professional compensation that created the intensely criminogenic environments that have caused our recurrent, intensifying crises.  He complained during the build-up to the crisis that Fannie and Freddie weren’t purchasing more affordable housing loans.  He now claims that it was Fannie and Freddie’s purchase of affordable housing loans that caused the crisis.  He ignores the massive accounting control fraud epidemics and resulting crises that his policies generate.  Upon reading that Fannie and Freddie’s controlling officers purchased the loans as part of a fraud, he asserts that the suit (which refutes his claims) proves his claims.

The piece is long, but worth reading in its entirety. 

Stegman as Geithner's Advisor on Housing

The news that Michael Stegman will be taking a leave from MacArthur to advise Tim Geithner on housing is very good.  It is important for three reasons: (1) Mike has been a leading sensible voice on housing issues for at least 30 years; (2) Treasury has recognized the importance of having an in-house housing person at a senior level; (3) Mike will remind Geithner than users of housing are at least as important as those who lend for housing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jeremy Stein for Fed Governor (reprise)

Personally, I am a big fan of Stein's work. The shortest way to explain why is to list the titles of his five most cited papers:

  • Herd Behavior and Investment
  • A Unified Theory of Underreaction, Momentum Trading and Overreaction in Asset Markets
  • Rick Management: Coordinating Investment and Financing Policies
  • Bad News Travels Slowly: Size, Analyst Coverage and the Profitability of Momentum Strategies
  • Internal Capital Markets and the Competition for Corporate Resources.

Stein has spent his career trying to figure out how capital markets really work instead of pledging fealty to models that don't work very well.  I can't think of a better intellectual qualification for a Federal Reserve Board member.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joe Nocera nails it

He writes:

...Peter Wallison, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, almost single-handedly created the myth that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the financial crisis. His partner in crime is another A.E.I. scholar, Edward Pinto, who a very long time ago was Fannie’s chief credit officer. Pinto claims that as of June 2008, 27 million “risky” mortgages had been issued — “and a lion’s share was on Fannie and Freddie’s books,” as Wallison wrote recently. Never mind that his definition of “risky” is so all-encompassing that it includes mortgages with extremely low default rates as well as those with default rates nearing 30 percent. These latter mortgages were the ones created by the unholy alliance between subprime lenders and Wall Street. Pinto’s numbers are the Big Lie’s primary data point.

Two things: First, Pinto and Wallison's definition of "subprime" is any loan that goes to a neighborhood they wouldn't live in or  to a person they wouldn't have lunch with.  According to the American Housing Survey, there were around 52 million mortgages outstanding in the US in 2009.  This means that according to Wallison and Pinto,  the median borrower is a subprime borrower.  I guess this means they think that that half of homeowners with mortgages should be renting in Potterville.

Second, Nocera should in his piece put quotes around the word "scholar."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Simon Johnson underlines a problem..that could point to a solution.

He writes:

Santa Claus came early this year for four former executives of Washington Mutual, which failed in 2008. The executives reached a settlement with the FDIC, which sued them for taking huge financial risks while “knowing that the real estate market was in a ‘bubble.’ ” The FDIC had sought to recover $900 million, but the executives have just settled for $64 million, almost all of which will be paid by their insurers; their out-of-pockets costs are estimated at just $400,000.
To be sure, the executives lost their jobs and now must drop claims for additional compensation. But, according to the FDIC, the four still earned more than $95 million from January 2005 through September 2008. This is what happens when financial executives are compensated for “return on equity” unadjusted for risk. The executives get the upside when things go well; when the downside risks materialize, they lose nothing (or close to it).
Just thinking aloud here, but if bank executives were compensated based on return on assets (i.e., the returns to both debt and equity), rather than return on equity, a lot of the misaligned incentives in their pay packages would go away.  Among other things, it would discourage races to the bottom.

Why Fannie and Freddie will likely last

I was talking with SF Chronicle columnist Kathleen Pender yesterday, and she shared a trenchant observation:  now that Congress has figured out a way to use the GSEs to raise revenue (via raising G-fees), it will always have an incentive to keep them.  Specifically, Congress has now tied itself to the GSEs, because it will take awhile for increased G-fees to repay the cost of the payroll tax cut.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why to worry about Chinese house prices.

Getting good data from China is problematic, but it is pretty clear house prices there are falling (see here, here and here).  At first blush, this shouldn't cause too much worry, because the Chinese use far less leverage to buy houses than Americans, and so the probability of being upside down there remains pretty low.

The problem, however, is that municipalities in China have lots of debt.  The actual amount is controversial, but the fact that it is a lot is not.  Chinese municipalities service debt using land sales.  So if property values fall a lot.....

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It is possible to hold the following two views at the same time

(1) The executives for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be held to account for their contributions to the crisis; and

(2) Compared with banks, shadow and otherwise, Fannie and Freddie were pikers in their contributions to the crisis.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why don't economists have more influence in the White House?

I was talking to someone who was an official in the adminstration about this.  The person told me the problem is, in part, that economists have poor social skills.  Maybe as part of grad school there should be a one credit charm school elective.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

I really don't understand what the President is thinking today.

I do not understand his definition of "common sense."

High rates of births to very young mothers has been a scourge of central cities.  Young mothers are less likely to finish high school than girls who don't have children, as are the children of young mothers. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Who would pay a 73 percent income tax? Not necessarily the rich.

A paper which is receiving considerable attention (see here, here and here) is Diamond and Saez's Journal of Economic Perspectives piece on optimal marginal tax rates.  They put the rate at 73 percent, and declare it an optimum because it would maximize revenue that could then be used for other things.  In particular, they argue that the utility lost to the rich would be much less than the utility gained by lower income people via government programs.  I do believe that many government programs leave people better off, but I am skeptical about whether the optimal size of government is that which is supported by a revenue maximizing income tax.

In any event, one aspect of the paper bothers me: if one searches for the word "incidence," it is not found.  Incidence reflects who really bears the burden of a tax.  If one taxes a person or a business, they might absorb it, or they might pass it on to someone else.

The formula for the incidence of a tax on those who demand a taxed good is (Supply Elasticity)/(Supply Elasticity - Demand Elasticity).  (I apologize for not having elegant formulas--I don't know how to paste them into Blogger).  Because demand curves are generally downward sloping, demand elasticity has a negative sign, so in a sense, the incidence reflects how relatively elastic supply is relative to the sum of the absolute values of the elasticities of demand and supply.

Now let's think about supply elasticity at the revenue maximizing point.  It is exactly one, in that the reduction in labor offered exactly offsets any increase in the rate.  To illustrate, let us just assume for a moment that demand elasticity is -1.  Then half the incidence of the tax is on the supplier of labor or capital (a.k.a. the rich) and half the incidence is on the demander.  This means that the burden on the rich person is 36.5 percent, not 73 percent.

What we do know is that as tax rates fall, the supply elasticity of the wealthy falls.  Why?  Because we know at lower tax rates, raising rates raises revenue-the supply response to an increase in taxes is smaller.  Let's assume that at a 50 percent marginal tax rate, the elasticity of labor supply for the rich is .25.  Now the incidence on demanders is .25/1.25, or 20 percent of the tax burden; it is 80 percent on the rich.  hence with a 50 percent tax rate, the effective tax on the rich is 40 percent, or higher than it would be with a 73 percent rate!

These arguments all depend on assumed elasticity parameters, and so it is important to estimate them as best as possible.  I should also note that I am all for raising taxes, including on myself, to pay for the many government services that I do support.  Somedays I think that if I could change the tax code, I would just raise my own taxes by ten percent and then have policy that assured that everyone with income greater than mine would pay an effective tax rate no lower than mine.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Is it gloom, or is it underwriting?

More depressing house price numbers from Core logic this morning, with prices falling 1.3 percent month-over month.  The National Association of Realtors says buyer traffic is down.

The fundamentals for buying right now are actually good.  Trulia's most recent calculation of the cost of owning vs the cost of renting shows that in 74 percent of cities, the cash flow cost of owning is less than the cash flow cost of renting, and I don't think this takes into account the tax benefits of owning.  One city where the price to rent ratio is out of whack--New York--has such a strange housing market that it is hard to know what to make of it; the other outlier is Fort Worth, and I really don't know what to make of that.

Since the Trulia calculations were released, rents are up a bit, house prices are down a bit, and mortgage interest rates have fallen, so buying should be even more attractive relative to renting.  To bring things a little closer to home, I am currently refinancing my house, and should I get the new mortgage, there is simply no way I could rent my house for less than the cost of owning (and I am including "hidden" costs of owning, such as maintenance).

So why aren't we seeing a surge in buying?  The first possibility is that people expect rents, and therefore house prices, to fall.  I think falling rent in the near future is unlikely--multifamily vacancies have dropped a lot, and there has not been much new construction. The second is that people are gloomy about their income prospects, and don't want to be caught up in an illiquid investment like a house.  This is likely.  And third, there may be households who want to buy--who might have even qualified to buy in the years before the subprime nonsense--who simply can't get a loan.  Until lenders are more forward looking, it is hard to imagine housing getting off the floor. 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Mark Thoma on the Ec 10 Walk-out

I really liked this:

I was going to stay out of this, partly because I don't find this particular expression of the protest very compelling, but I'll add one thing. A big part of the problem is what we are not supposed to talk about in economics, the politics that surrounds the profession and, in particular, policy prescriptions (and don't let Mankiw kid you, through the things he chooses to link, say on his blog, etc., he plays the political game, and plays it fairly well). The fact that one introductory class at Harvard has this much power to affect the national narrative is part of the problem not the solution. It is yet another reminder of just how concentrated power is in this society, and where it lies. Would a protest at a typical state university have gotten as much publicity? Nope. But when it's the institution that educates the rich and powerful, suddenly we are supposed to take note. And we do.

I started blogging in part because I was fed up with the way in which economic issues were presented at CNN and other mainstream news outlets prior to the Bush reelection. Those with the power to get on the air would make claims that were supposedly based upon economics, but were clearly false or at least highly misleading, and they would do so without an effective challenge from the hosts/anchors or other guests. It clearly had an effect on the national conversation, but it was all based upon using economics as a political rather than an analytical tool. So I don't think the problem is what we teach in economics courses, though we could certainly improve in some dimensions. Most courses are careful to cover market failures, etc., and how those problems can be solved through various types of interventions. The problem is the way economics is used by those with a political agenda. If the powerful had an interest in promoting ideas about market failure and the need for government to fix the problem, we'd hear about these ideas endlessly in the media. But those with power want the ability to use it unconstrained by government or any other force, and it should be no surprise that anti-government, anti-regulation, and anti-tax ideas come to dominate the conversation.
One strange thing about introductory economics: it emphasized the virtues of competitive markets.  Yet if markets are competitive, agents can't earn economic (i.e., abnormally large) profits.  Consider the implications of this as certain members of the political class praise the "job-creators."

Friday, December 02, 2011

New rule: if you are going to call yourself an economist, you need to know the meaning of a confidence interval

I was listening to NPR on the drive in to work this morning, and a heard a man who was labeled "an economist," say that the job growth numbers were disappointing, because measured job growth in November was 120,000, whereas the consensus forecast for job growth was 130,000.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the 90 percent confidence interval of the monthly job growth estimate for the estalishment survey at 100,000.  This means the standard error of the estimate is about 56,000, so the difference between the BLS estimate and the consensus forecast number was less than .2 standard errors, which is essentially zero.  I suppose Mr. Economist would be happy had the number come in at 140,000, which would have been above expectations.

One needn't have a Ph.D. in economics to understand confidence intervals--one undergraduate course in statatistics will do the trick.  Yet week after week, I hear people who call themselves economists yammering on about small movements in numbers that are as likely noise as anything else. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I now work for the Sol Price School of Public Policy as well as the Marshall School of Business at USC

The Price Family gave a $50 million gift for the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development to be remained the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.  Mr Price was an alum of USC, as is his grandson.

Mr. Price was the force behind Price Club, which later merged with Costco.  He was known for paying his workers well, treating his customers well, and not overpaying his executives.  He was ahead of his time with respect to racial integration and urban renewal.  Sometimes I feel an internal tension, because I admire both success in business and care a lot about social justice.  If all successful people in business were like Mr. Price, I would feel no such tension.  His obituary in the San Diego Jewish World contained the following:
“Most of life is luck,” he said in an 1985 newspaper interview. “Obviously you have to have the will and intensity, and in my case discipline and idealism had a lot to do with it. But if you move back a step, even that is luck."
I can't think of a better way to look at life.  And whether you need mustard or Johnny Walker Black, there is no better place to go than Costco.  I am proud to now work at a school named for him.

Why I think Raphael Bostic is more likely right about FHA than Joe Gyourko/AEI/WSJ

A healthy debate has taken place between HUD Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic and Wharton Professor Joe Gyourko on the financial future of FHA.  While FHA is thinly capitalized, Raphael argues that will likely survive, while Joe thinks a large taxpayer finance bailout is looming.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Raphael is a colleague of mine at USC, but Joe invited me to be a visiting faculty member at Wharton for a semester.  I think highly of them and am grateful to them both.

I have two reasons to bet on Raphael's view:

(1)  At the time the dumbest mortgage business was being done, FHA was out of the picture.  While FHA's market share is typically in the neighborhood of 12-15 percent, during the period 2003-2007, its market share ranged from 3.77 to 9.66 percent.    FHA did not lower its underwriting standards to that of the shadow banking sector (a sector that was not subject to the Community Reinvestment Act, by the way) in order to keep market share--the government insurance program was far more disciplined than the private sector.

FHA's market share increased dramatically in 2009 and 2010, in large part because the private sector abandoned the low downpayment market.  In 2010 in particular, FHA gained market share despite raising its prices and tightening its underwriting.    FHA was also ramping up its market share after house prices collapsed.  While house prices have not been robustly rising since late 2008, they have not been falling precipitously either.  One could argue that the private sector has been backward looking, while the public sector has been more forward looking.

(2) The second reason I have is more speculative, and is something that I am currently in the middle of researching, but I want to put it out there as a hypothesis (and a hunch).  I suspect that there is such a thing as "burn-out" in default--if a household goes through a difficult time without defaulting, it becomes decreasingly likely to default.  Part of the reason for this is amortization, but that is a small reason.  More important, people who refuse to default even when their measured characteristics suggest that they should have revealed that they are "different," and in a manner that is unobservable.  

Now again, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I did not forecast the size of GSE losses, so maybe I shouldn't be taken that seriously.  But I think my first argument will stand up, and as I do more research, I will know more about the second.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Does slowing people down slow down the economy?

As my family and I were traveling back to LA from my parents' place in Arizona this weekend, we had to stop at three checkpoints.  Each stop delayed us--I would guess the average delay was 5-10 minutes.  One check point bragged that it had arrested around 100 people--about 70 for immigration violations and 30 for crimes--over the course of 2011.

According to this web site, one of the highways I travelled on carries 10,000 cars per day.  Let's say the average stop takes five minutes, the average car has 1.3 people in it, and the value of people's time averages $15 per hour.  This means that each arrest costs a little under $60,000; perhaps there is a deterrent effect as well.  Is this worth it?  I really don't know.

But I can't help but notice that over the last ten years, the US, as a matter of security policy, has really gummed up the ability of people to get easily from one place to another. Is it a coincidence that the economy has underperformed over this time?  Perhaps.  I can't think of a way to run a regression to test the relationship between ease of travel and economic performance--but that doesn't mean that someone else can't.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Remembering the date

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

Monday, November 21, 2011

More four year degrees won't solve the current problem

David Brooks and Thomas Friedman have recently taken to arguing that the solution to our income distribution woes is to encourage and enable more people to go to college.  I want to leave aside for a second the fact that our educational problems are much deeper than that--that our high school graduation rate is declining is to me the most alarming education statistic.

Rather, it is worth looking at what has happened to earnings by educational attainment over the past eight years.  The census has put out data for 2002-2010, and here is what it (Table A-6) shows:

Median earnings for men with a high school degree fell 12.1 percent between 2002-2010; earnings for women with a high school diploma fell 8.5 percent between 2002-2010; for men with college degrees, it was a fall of 8.0 percent; for women with college degrees it was flat.  So yes, education is increasing income inequality in that those with college degrees are losing less than those with high school diplomas.

I am the sort of person who would be fine with a GINI of .5 (a number the reflects lots of inequality) if it meant that the people who are materially worst off can live at a decent standard of living.  But currently, those who play by the rules (and I mean really play by the rules) are seeing their living standards erode.  Homilies about sending more people to college are at the moment pretty much beside the point.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Raphael Bostic takes on Joe Gyourko

The Assistant Secretary of PDR (and USC colleague) writes:

This week, HUD released its annual report to Congress on the financial status of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Mutual Mortgage Insurance (MMI) Fund.  The report demonstrates the long-term strength of the Fund while not shying away from the challenges it faces in the near-term due to ongoing stresses in the housing market.  While the independent actuary reports older books of business underwritten during the bubble years of 2000-2008 are expected to produce losses of more than $26 billion, it also finds that FHA has a very strong platform going forward, with insurance on loans booked since January 2009 posting an estimated net economic value of $18 billion. Indeed, the actuary reports that the Fund still retains positive capital, and that it should be able to rebuild capital to the statutory requirement of two percent of insurance-in-force very quickly once housing markets across the county exhibit sustained growth.

Notwithstanding findings of the independent actuary that the FHA MMI Fund retains positive capital four years into the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, a report commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) suggests that FHA both lacks an actuarially sound program and is in current need of a significant capital infusion. 

Read the whole thing. It has actually stunned me how well FHA says done relative to AEI's paragon of virtue, the private market.  Of course, it was the private labels security market that drove down FHA's market share during the worst of the lending market. FHA loans actually always required underwriting; underwriting in the private sector often disappeared.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Read CRL on Disparities in Mortgage Lending

The Center for Responsible Lending's research team of Carolina Reid (who has been working tirelessly at developing data on subprime mortgages for some time now), Roberto Quercia, We Li and Debbie Grunstein Bocian has produced Lost Ground, 2011: Disparities in Mortgage Lending and Foreclosures. They argue
1) The nation is not even halfway through the foreclosure
crisis. Among mortgages made between
2004 and 2008, 6.4 percent have
ended in foreclosure, and an additional 8.3 percent are
at immediate, serious risk.

(2) Foreclosure patterns are strongly
linked with patterns of risky
The foreclosure rates are consistently
worse for borrowers who received high-risk loan products
that were aggressively marketed
before the housing crash, such as
loans with prepayment penalties,
hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages
(ARMs), and option
Foreclosure rates are highest in
neighborhoods where these
loanswere concentrated.

(3)The majority of people affected
by foreclosures have been
white families. However, borrowers of
color are more than twice as
likely to lose their home as
white households. These higher
rates reflect the fact that African
Americans and Latinos were
consistently more likely to receive
high-risk loan products, even
after accounting for income and
credit status.
It is really striking how African-Americans and Hispanics were steered into crappy loans, even controlling for income and credit history. Beyond all this, the web site accompanying the report has really nicely organized data on severely delinquent loans and loans in foreclosure by state, race, ethnicity and MSA.

Holmen Jenkins makes me spit out my coffee this morning.

He spins this scenario:

Take this case: Workers in a rail yard see men in suits prowling around. Rumors fly the company is being sold. One worker buys call options on his employer's stock and, because the rumors turn out to be right, is hauled up on insider-trading charges. Had the rumors been wrong, had the worker lost money, had the men in suits been federal railroad inspectors, think the feds would have filed a case?
The natural lesson we draw from this little piece of fiction: if Spencer Bachus buys a short position after he meets with Ben Bernanke, it's ok.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sometimes you have to hold your nose

Reporter Jim Puzzanghera  of the LA Times asked me today whether I would restore conforming loan limits in certain high cost areas to their pre-October 1 729,250 level.  He wrote:

Although he'd like to see more data, Green thinks it's probably a smart move to increase the loan limits. And he agreed that the move was unlikely to hurt the FHA's finances. 
"My gut answer is, I'd probably raise it back right now," Green said. "The downside of not raising it is potentially pretty bad."
I really dislike the idea of subsidizing mortgages that only households earning more than $200,000 per year can afford.  At the same time, however, Nick Timiraos last week wrote:

Potentially more revealing is this data point from California, which has a higher share of markets affected by the declines: applications for purchase loans with balances between $625,500 and $729,750 were down by 25% from September and by 33% from one year ago. By contrast, overall purchase-loan applications in California were down by just 12% and 3%, respectively.
Housing is still very weak and many borrowers are underwater.  I wanted to see if lowering loan limits would lead the private sector to step in--I am not seeing any evidence that it is.  Beyond the data cited in the Timiraos story, flow of funds data show that private lending in other sectors of the economy remains moribund.

Maybe it is worth waiting for another month of data before the old limits are restored.  But it is not worth worsening things in the market to make a point.

Harry Frankfurt and Herman Cain

The Washington Post sends me to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal interview with Herman Cain on Libya.

Watching the cringe inducing answers reminded me of one of may favorite books of the last decade or so: Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit. I am writing this from my house, and my copy of the book is in my office, so let me pull a quote from the book that is featured in a Slate review:

Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. ...The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

I am not naive. Among my favorite presidents, three--FDR, LBJ, and Bill Clinton--were excellent liars. They were not, however, bullshitters. Herman Cain is.

Monday, November 14, 2011

David Barker writes that Congress is indeed subject to insider trading laws

He points me to a paper by Donna Nagy.  I will be curious to see if a prosecutor does anything with it.

Why on earth is Congress exempt from insider trading rules?

Just asking.

Tyler Cowen channels Mr Potter

Tyler Cowen writes about how more income inequality will lead to more hard work and discipline.

Mr. Potter agrees.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Prescience of Rudiger Dornbusch

As events have unfolded in Europe over the past year, I keep thinking back to an article written by Rudiger Dornbusch in Foreign Affairs.  The summary:

The battle for the common currency may be remembered as one of the more useless in Europe's history. The euro is hailed as a solution to high unemployment, low growth, and the high costs of welfare states. But the deep budget cuts required before integration are already causing pain and may trigger severe recessions. If the European Monetary Union goes forward, a common currency will eliminate the adjustments now made by nominal exchange rates, and the central bank will control money with an iron fist. Labor markets will do the adjusting, a mechanism bound to fail, given those markets' inflexibility in Europe.

He wrote the piece in 1996. It is now behind a pay-wall, but if you have access to a university library, you can probably get access to the piece.

I know this makes me elitist, but...

...people running for president should actually know stuff.  Jon Huntsman does, which seems to disqualify him immediately.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What's the real difference between Brookings and AEI?

With Brookings, I need to read the study to know how it turns out.

With AEI, I don't need to read the study to know how it turns out. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Do Richwine and Briggs show that, on average, teachers are overpaid? I don't think so. (Warning: a little wonky)

A recent study by John Richwine and Andrew Biggs of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute purports to show that teachers are on average overpaid.   I do not find their evidence convincing, and the reasons have less to do with their affilitations than the technical nature of their work.  My problems with their paper are:

(1) They estimate a reduced form, which means it is difficult to interpret the meaning of their coefficients.

(2) Even if we accept their reduced form, there are issues in how the authors specify their explanatory variables.

(3) The authors' specification has a serious selectivity problem and

(4) Most disturbingly, they ignore their most convincing spefication, a specification that supports the idea that teachers get paid 10 percent less in wages than those in other professions.

Let's turn to each problem in turn:

(1) Underlying any wage equation is a supply curve for labor and a demand curve for labor.  Let's write these out:

L(s) = a + bw +cX1+ e1
L(d) =d - fw +gX2 + e2

X1 and X2 are vestors of explanatory variables, e1 and e2 are residuals from a regression equation. 

Let's say one of the elements in X2 is years of education--the demand for labor goes up in years of education after controlling for wages.  The coefficient g that is multiplied by years of education is thus easy to interpret--it is a wage premium associated with education.

The problem is that the authors estimate a reduced from,  where they put L(s)=L(d).  The resulting equation they arrive at is

w = d/(b+f)+gX2/(b+f)+e2/(b+f)-a/(b+f)-cX1/(b+f)-e1/(b+f)

If  X2 is education, and is in both the supply and deman equation, the reduced form wage equation reduces to:
w=(d-a)/(b+f) +(g-c)X1/(b+f)+(e2-e1)/(b+f)

So the coefficient on X1 is (g-c)/(b+f). This coefficient helps with prediction of wages, but it does not allow us to disintangle the stuctural foundation of wages.  This why why when we are trying to determine the impact of policy on outcomes, reduced forms are problematic.

(2) The authors assume that wages are linear in years of education.  This is clearly not true--the impact of  education on wages tends to fall into "buckets;" < 12 years, 12-15 years, 16 years, and > 16 years.  You get the idea.  Their mis-specification of the educational variable could bias their other findings.

(3) People who select themselves into teaching might have skills that do not show up in educational levels or on aptitude tests.  I have lots of education and do well on aptitude tests, but I think I would be at sea teaching second graders and REALLY at sea teaching middle schoolers.  Teaching students at these levels requires patience, insight and social skills that are not measured by aptitude tests.

The authors point to the interesting fact that people generally make less money when they move from teaching to non-teaching jobs.  There are alternative interpretations to there.  One is that teaching is a hard job, and so people willingly leave at lower wages.  The second is that those who select out of teaching are those who have decided they are not very good at it.

(4) The most disturbing part of the paper is this:

"Table 2 shows how teacher salaries change depending on whether education or AFQT is included in the regression. The first row is the "standard" regression based on our CPS analysis in the previous section: Years of education are controlled for, but AFQT is not. The standard regression shows a teacher salary penalty of 12.6 percent.

The second row includes both education and AFQT in the same regression. The impact on teacher wages is small: The penalty decreases by less than two percentage points. The third row again includes AFQT but now omits education. With this specification, the change is dramatic: The teaching penalty is gone, replaced by a statistically insignificant premium.

How to interpret these results? On the one hand, the difference in IQ between teachers and other college graduates

by itself has only a small effect on estimates of the teacher penalty. As the second row indicates, teachers with both the same education and AFQT score as other workers still receive 10.7 percent less in wages.

However, as we have shown, education is a misleading measure of teacher skills in several ways. In addition to the IQ difference between teachers and non-teachers, the education major is among the least challenging fields of study, and years of education subsequently have little to no effect on teacher quality. This suggests that eliminating education as a control variable and letting AFQT alone account for skills (as in the third row) may provide the most accurate wage estimates.

Replacing education with an objective measure of skills eliminates the observed teacher penalty, indicating that non-teachers with the same education as a typical teacher will likely have more applicable skills. We emphasize that a job is not necessarily less important or less challenging when the credentials for it are easier to obtain. Indeed, effective teachers are highly valuable to society and the economy."

So the authors have a regression with both education (which reflects Spence-type signalling, among other things) and IQ. The reduction in the R-squared when education is dropped suggests that after controlling for IQ, the coefficient on education continues to be statistically different from zero. When both IQ and education are included, teachers suffer a 10 percent wage discount relative to the private sector. Yet the authors ignore this result for the rest of the paper.

(FWIW, I really admire Michelle Rhee).

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Pulling out David Min's Graph from Mike Konczal's piece

Beyond reproducing Mike's post, I want to underline this graph from David Min:

This punches a hole in the argument that Pinto and Wallison make that Fannie and Freddie were making "dangerous loans" when they moved to higher LTV and lower FICO lending.  Their models allowed for offsets--if one had a very low LTV, one could get by with a relatively low FICO, and vice versa.  The private label market allowed for lending standards that were crappy in all dimensions.

Mike Konczal gives Six Reasons not to believe the meme that Fannie and Freddie caused the crisis

Reproduced with his kind permission:

1. Private markets caused the shady mortgage boom: The first thing to point out is that the both the subprime mortgage boom and the subsequent crash are very much concentrated in the private market, especially the private label securitization channel (PLS) market. The Government-Sponsored Entities (GSEs, or Fannie and Freddie) were not behind them. The fly-by-night lending boom, slicing and dicing mortgage bonds, derivatives and CDOs, and all the other shadiness of the mortgage market in the 2000s were Wall Street creations, and they drove all those risky mortgages.
Here’s some data to back that up: “More than 84 percent of the subprime mortgages in 2006 were issued by private lending institutions… Private firms made nearly 83 percent of the subprime loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers that year.”
As Center For American Progress’s David Min pointed out to me, the timing doesn’t work at all: “But from 2002-2005, [GSEs] saw a fairly precipitous drop in market share, going from about 50% to just under 30% of all mortgage originations. Conversely, private label securitization [PLS] shot up from about 10% to about 40% over the same period. This is, to state the obvious, a very radical shift in mortgage originations that overlapped neatly with the origination of the most toxic home loans.”

2. The government’s affordability mission didn’t cause the crisis: The next thing to mention is that the “affordability goals” of the GSEs, as well as the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), didn’t cause the problems. Randy Krozner summarized one of the better studies on this so far, finding that “the very small share of all higher-priced loan originations that can reasonably be attributed to the CRA makes it hard to imagine how this law could have contributed in any meaningful way to the current subprime crisis.” The CRA wasn’t nearly big enough to cause these problems.
I’d recommend checking out “A Closer Look at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: What We Know, What We Think We Know and What We Don’t Know by Jason Thomas and Robert Van Order for more on the GSEs’ goals, which, in addition to explaining how their affordability mission is a distraction, argues that subprime loans were only 5 percent of the GSEs’ losses. The GSEs also bought the highly rated tranches of mortgage bonds, for which there was already a ton of demand.

3. There is a lot of research to back this up and little against it: This is not exactly an obscure corner of the wonk world — it is one of the most studied capital markets in the world. What has other research found on this matter? From Min:
Did Fannie and Freddie buy high-risk mortgage-backed securities? Yes. But they did not buy enough of them to be blamed for the mortgage crisis. Highly respected analysts who have looked at these data in much greater detail than Wallison, Pinto, or myself, including the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission majority, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and virtually all academics, including the University of North Carolina, Glaeser et al at Harvard, and the St. Louis Federal Reserve, have all rejected the Wallison/Pinto argument that federal affordable housing policies were responsible for the proliferation of actual high-risk mortgages over the past decade.
The other side has virtually no research conducted that explains their argument, with one exception that I’ll cover below.

4. Conservatives sang a different tune before the crash: Conservative think tanks spent the 2000s saying the exact opposite of what they are saying now and the opposite of what Bloomberg said above. They argued that the CRA and the GSEs were getting in the way of getting risky subprime mortgages to risky subprime borrowers.
My personal favorite is Cato’s “Should CRA Stand for ‘Community Redundancy Act?’” from 2000 (here’s a write-up by James Kwak), which argues a position amplified in its 2003 Handbook for Congress financial deregulation chapter: “by increasing the costs to banks of doing business in distressed communities, the CRA makes banks likely to deny credit to marginal borrowers that would qualify for credit if costs were not so high.” Replace “marginal” with Bloomberg’s “on the cusp” and you get the same idea.

Bill Black went through what AEI said about the GSEs during the 2000s and it is the same thing — that they were blocking subprime loans from being made. In the words of Peter Wallison in 2004: “In recent years, study after study has shown that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are failing to do even as much as banks and S&Ls in providing financing for affordable housing, including minority and low income housing.”

5. Expanding the subprime loan category to say GSEs had more exposure makes no sense: Some argue that the GSEs had huge subprime exposure if you create a new category that supposedly represents the risks of subprime more accurately. This new “high-risk” category is associated with a consultant to AEI named Ed Pinto, and his analysis deliberately blurs the wording on “high-risk” and subprime in much of his writings. David Min broke down the numbers, and I wrote about it here. Here’s a graphic from Min’s follow-up work, addressing criticism:
Even this “high risk” category isn’t risky compared to subprime and it looks like the national average. When you divide it by private label, the numbers are even worse. Private label loans “have defaulted at over 6x the rate of GSE loans, as well as the fact that private label securitization is responsible for 42% of all delinquencies despite accounting for only 13% of all outstanding loans (as compared to the GSEs being responsible for 22% of all delinquencies despite accounting for 57% of all outstanding loans).” The issue isn’t this fake “high risk” category, it is subprime and private label origination.
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) panel looked carefully at this argument and also ended up shredding it. So even those who blame the GSEs can’t get the numbers to work when they make up categories.

6. Even some Republicans don’t agree with this argument: The three Republicans on the FCIC panel rejected the “blame the GSEs/Congress” approach to explaining the crisis in their minority report. Indeed, they, and most conservatives who know this is a dead end, tend to take a “it’s a whole lot of things, hoocoodanode?” approach.

Peter Wallison blamed the GSEs when he served as the fourth Republican on the FCIC panel. What did the other three Republicans make of his argument? Check out these released FCIC emails from the GOP members. They are really fun, because you can see the other Republicans doing damage control and debating whether Wallison and Pinto were on the take for making this argument — because the argument makes no sense when looking at the data.

There are lots of great quotes: “Re: peter, it seems that if you get pinto on your side, peter can’t complain. But is peter thinking idependently [sic] or is he just a parrot for pinto?”, “I can’t tell re: who is the leader and who is the follower,” “Maybe this email is reaching you too late but I think wmt [William M. Thomas] is going to push to find out if pinto is being paid by anyone.” And then there’s the infamous event where Wallison emailed his fellow GOP member: “It’s very important, I think, that what we say in our separate statements not undermine the ability of the new House GOP to modify or repeal Dodd-Frank.”

The GSEs had a serious corruption problem and were flawed in design — Jeff Madrick and Frank Partnoy had a good column about the GSEs in the NYRB recently that you should check out about all this — but they were not the culprits of the bubble

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

It is time to kill California High Speed Rail

Lisa Schweitzer notes that the cost estimate has been raised to nearly $100 billion (which she says still might understate the cost).

Let's do a little math about this--$100 billion throws off about $5 billion per year. If low income people work 200 250 days a year, and we were to fully subsidize the $5 LA metro day pass (and if I have my zeros right), we could fund 5 4 million people's transit per year.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How my taxes are raised matters

I need to pay higher taxes.  To get to fiscal balance, I need to pay higher taxes.  To fund the things I support, such as national health insurance, more Section 8 housing, and a robust military, I need to pay higher taxes.  But I am not paying them alone--to pay more without others paying more is a gesture, and would not solve anything.

The federal government can get at me one of two ways: it can scale back or eliminate my deductions, or it can raise my rates.  If my mortgage interest deduction goes away, for example, my federal tax liability would increase by around 10 percent; alternatively, the federal government could just charge me a ten percent surtax on income.

If my income is taxed, the impact on my desire to work is ambiguous.  On the one hand, because the cost of leisure would fall, I would have an incentive to work less.  On the other hand, if I want to restore my previous after tax standard of living, I would have an incentive to work more.

If you take away my mortgage interest deduction, however, the impact is not ambiguous--I will have an incentive to work more.  Leisure is no less expensive (there is no substitution effect), but my desire to restore my previous income remains as before.  

Monday, October 24, 2011

The new HARP might help...

From this morning's New York Times:

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said it was easing the terms of the two-year-old Home Affordable Refinance Program, which helps borrowers who have been making mortgage payments on time but have not been able to refinance as home values have dropped...

...To encourage banks to participate in the program, FHFA is revamping it to protect lenders from having to buy back HARP loans if underwriting problems are later found. Banks will only have to verify that borrowers have made at least six of their last mortgage payments and the new rules eliminate the need for appraisals in most cases.FHFA said government-controlled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will waive certain fees for borrowers that refinance into loans with a shorter term, such as 15 years, aiming to spur homeowners to pay down the amount they owe at a faster rate.
The elimination of the requirement for an appraisal will make a big difference.  So will the waiver of fees for those who shorten terms.  Lower interest rates and shorter terms will help borrowers get right-side up faster.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Type I error, Type II error, and voting

No matter how our registration laws are set up, we will make errors: either people who are eligible to vote will be prevented from doing so, or people who are not eligible to vote will be allowed to do so.  Type I error falsely rejects a null hypothesis, while Type II error falsely fails to reject a null hypothesis.

If the null is that people who should be eligible to vote should be allowed to vote, then the new voter registration laws  being propagated around the country will produce more Type I error.  Two points here--I suspect that the new laws will create a lot more Type I error than precent Type II error.  Also, to me, Type I error is more serious than Type II error--preventing eligible voters from voting is a more egregious error than  allowing ineligible voters to vote.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Another impediment to short sales?

This morning, I participated in a conference in Lakewood on housing sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez.   A HUD representative made me aware of an issue I hadn't known about before: how mortgage insurance is giving lenders an incentive to foreclose, rather than agree to short sales.

Apparently, a number of lenders bought mortgage insurance on particular mortgages from private mortgage insurance companies.  To clarify, the lenders did not require borrowers to purchase the mortgage insurance, but rather bought mortgage insurance (and paid the cost) on their own.

Under the terms of the policies, the lenders get a pay-off from the PMI companies is they foreclose on a property, but not if they modify a loan or allow for a short sale.  Consequently, lenders are better off foreclosing than modifying, even if the foreclosure produces lower proceeds than a modification.

This is yet another perverse incentive that is contrary to the policy aim of stabilizing the housing market.  I have no idea how widespread this is, but if it is common, it is yet another problem.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Plane and train envy

One of the privileges of my job is I get to travel a lot.  In the past year, I have been to Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore.  All three cities have great airports, and nice, clean, comfortable, fast rail transportation from their central cities to their airports.

By comparison, many airport terminals in the US--including two of our biggest international airports, LAX and JFK--are embarrassing, and transportation options to them are limited.  Perhaps such things don't matter much to economic performance--it is easy to overstate the wonders of nice infrastructure when the cost is being hidden via subsidies.  Nevertheless, there is something about the ability of Asian cities to do infrastructure well that makes me envious.   

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lucid is the eye of the beholder

Ed Glaeser celebrates Tom Sargent in a recent Bloomberg column (h/t my father).  The following statement really struck me:
Two of his lucid monographs, “Macroeconomic Theory” and “Dynamic Economic Theory,” have long been mainstays of macroeconomic education
I am guessing pretty much anyone who went to grad school in econ in the late 1980s was subjected to "Macroeconomic Theory."  It has indeed become a useful reference to me, but lucid is about the last word I would use to describe it.  Lucid writers (within the realm of their academic work) include Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman and....Ed Glaeser.  Michael Intriligator manages to make dynamic optimization intuitive.  I just don't see how Sargent gets in the same category.

Friday, October 14, 2011

For free trade to fulfill its promise, the national government must redistribute income

As a card-carrying economist, I like trade--overall, it potentially enriches countries that engage in it.  The problem is the meaning of enrichment.

Trade theory says that trade enlarges the pie that people share.  But among the most important contributions to trade theory is the Samuelson-Stolper Theorem, which says that relatively scarce factors of production see their returns fall when trade is introduced.  In the context of an economy like the US, this means that low skilled workers see their wages fall in the presence of trade.  The trajectory of wages in the US over the past 20 years or so is consistent with the predictions of Samuelson and Stolper.

NAFTA was sold to the US public as something that would make everyone better off.  And in principle, it could have done so, had some of the gains to those who benefited from NAFTA been redistributed to those who lost as a result of it.  Instead we got the NAFTA but not redistribution.  This likely explains the widening disparity of incomes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Urban Population Share and Carbon Footprints

I am teaching Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City to my undergrads right now; he has a chapter called "Is there anything greener than blacktop."  Just for fun, I plotted urban land share by state (source Demographia) against CO2 emissions per capita by state.  Here is what you get:

The regression line is log-linear.  An R2 of .28 on a bivariate relationship is not awful.  One should never make claims based on such things, but they are kind of fun to look at.

A couple of thoughts on the passing of Steve Jobs

(1) I wish we could have a tax code that could somehow discriminate between the truly productive rich and the, well, rich.  While I agree with Elizabeth Warren that no one gets rich by himself, there are rare people who really do know how to spend their own money better than the government.  The social returns to Steve Jobs must be remarkable.

(2) When politicians (and others) pay fealty to a market economic, their implicit assumption is that markets are competitive and exhibit, among other things, industrial (if not firm specific) constant returns to scale.  But successful enterprises like Apple often exhibit increasing returns to scale, at least for awhile, and certainly do not produce commodities sold into a competitive market.  Apple's innovation gives ii market pricing power, which is why it is so successful.  Without that pricing power, there might never be an Apple.  Yet the fact that success often requires market power implies that policies based on an assumption of a competitive equilibrium might be misplaced, perhaps disastrously so.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

My testimony to Senate Finance Committtee on Housing and Tax Reform

I testified today.  Here is how the written testimony opens:

Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Hatch, I want to thank you for the opportunity today to present my views on the issue of housing and tax reform.  My name is Richard Green, and I am a professor in the School of Policy, Planning and Development and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.  I have published extensively on the issue of the Mortgage Interest Deduction, and in particular published a paper co-authored with Dennis Capozza and Patric H. Hendershott on housing and fundamental tax reform for the Brookings Institution[1].

My general philosophy is that the tax code should be as broad-based and efficient as possible, while maintaining vertical and horizontal equity to the best extent possible.  I find many of the ideas proposed by Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka to be quite appealing, and to me, in an ideal world, we would have something quite similar to the tax code they propose, albeit with an earned income tax credit added.  That said, we are manifestly not in an ideal world, and issues of transition matter.  As I wrote in 1996, a rapid change in tax policy could have a traumatic impact on the economy, so it is important that congress phase in any major changes to tax policy involving housing.

That said, I have long thought that the Mortgage Interest Deduction is a residual of the 1913 tax code, accomplishes little that its supporters claim for it, pushes capital away from plant and equipment toward housing, and benefits high income (although perhaps not very high income) households more than the remainder of the country.

I will divide my remarks into 8 parts; (1) I will argue that the Mortgage Interest Deduction is a residual of the 1913 tax code, and was not created to encourage homeownership; (2) that those on the margin of homeowning get little-to-no benefit from the Mortgage Interest Deduction, and that the policy therefore does little to encourage homeownership; (3) that the Mortgage Interest Deduction does encourage those who would be homeowners anyway to purchase larger houses than they otherwise would; (4) that even in the absence of the Mortgage Interest Deduction, owner-occupants receive a large tax benefit; (5) that phasing out the Mortgage Interest Deduction would encourage households to pay down their mortgages more quickly, and would therefore encourage households to rely less on leverage; (6) household deleveraging would lead to greater market stability, but would also mean that the revenues generated by the elimination of the deduction would be smaller than static estimates suggest; (7) at a time when the housing market remains quite weak, it is important that the Mortgage Interest Deduction be phased out carefully; (8) that if we do wish to encourage homeownership via tax policy, a targeted, refundable credit would be more effective than the current Mortgage Interest Deduction.

[1] Dennis Capozza, Richard Green and Patric Hendershott (1996), Taxes, Mortgage Borrowing and Residential Land Prices in H. Aaron and W. Gale, ed. The Economic Effects of Fundamental tax Reform, Washington, DC Brookings Institution Press: 171-210

Friday, September 30, 2011

There is no reason to be upset with BofA for its new debit-card fees.

The ATM Debit-card fee is transparent and easy to understand.  This is far preferable to the spate of fees (such as overdraft insurance charges) that were opaque and confounding.  If Bank of America wants to charge for a service, they should be free to do so. 

Will the private market step in?

Conforming loan limits in San Berardino and Riverside Counties in California will drop from $500,000 to $417,000 tomorrow; in LA and Orange Counties it will drop from $729,750 to $625,500. 

So we have a natural experiment in "crowding in."  Will the private lending sector fill the gaps?

Austerity is a problem, but so is fear

Paul Krugman this morning argues that fear of fear is phony.  He is almost certainly correct that fear is not the number one problem at the moment--if I had to pick a number one issue, it would be austerity measures at the state and local levels of government.  Tracy Gordon of Brookings has a nice picture:

 Cuts in state and local government jobs (police officers, school teachers, firefighters, DMV workers) are putting a drag on employment growth.  Moreover, this picture understates the problem, because total compensation to many state and local workers has been cut.

But I do think fear is part of the problem, at least in one sector of the economy.  It seems to me that there are business opportunities in lending that are going unanswered.  The pendulum for underwriting has swung so far to caution that according to the Flow of Funds Accounts, net lending declined in the second quart of 2011.  More specifically, net bank lending dropped by $181 billion on an annualized basis in the first quarter and by $129 billion in the second quarter.  Net lending is the difference between volume of new loans and volume of repayment of old loans. I do find it plausible that one of the sources of the tight lending environment is a fear of regulators.

One more point.  if it weren't for lending by the monetary authority, net lending in the second quarter would have fallen by $860 billion on an annualized basis.

My friend (and co-author) Andy Reschovsky wins Steve Gold award

It was nice to read about it this morning:

University of Wisconsin–Madison economist Andrew Reschovsky will be honored in November with the 2011 Steve Gold Award, which recognizes a person who has made a significant contribution to public financial management in the field of intergovernmental relations and state and local finance.
The Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Tax Association give the award each year in memory of Steve Gold, an active member of all three organizations whose career and life tragically were shortened by illness.
"I knew Steve Gold, which makes receiving this award even more meaningful," says Reschovsky, a professor of public affairs and applied economics in UW–Madison's La Follette School of Public Affairs. "As a public finance economist, Steve believed his role was to communicate to policymakers about research and analysis. His emphasis on the link between scholarship and practice and on policy-oriented work on public finance has very much influenced my career."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren on the need to facilitate refinances (h/t Kurt Paulsen)

He says at a meeting in Stockholm:

There are several proposals that attempt to facilitate refinancing for homeowners who have been negatively impacted by the drop in housing prices. These proposals do face hurdles, including how to address private mortgage insurance and second liens. However, a program that made it possible for many homeowners to refinance, even if they were upside down, would likely provide significant reductions in mortgage payments to individuals who are likely to have a relatively high propensity to consume. Clearly getting more money into the hands of homeowners who would spend it could help to fuel GDP growth. This would reduce one of the impediments to a more significant effect from the monetary policy actions taken to date.

I hasten to add that there is already a government program to allow underwater borrowers to refinance, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). This program allows underwater borrowers with Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loans to refinance at lower rates. Unfortunately, the program has helped fewer borrowers than was originally hoped. Fed Governor Betsy Duke outlined some of the potential reasons why, in the talk I mentioned earlier. They include loan-level price adjustments (LLPAs) that raise interest rates for many borrowers and thereby reduce the benefit of refinancing; originator worries about “buybacks” forced on them by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; junior lien-holder resistance to re-subordinating their loans; and mortgage insurance policies.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is now investigating whether there are ways to enhance the program to benefit more borrowers.[Footnote 15] As this work proceeds, I hope the FHFA considers dropping or reducing LLPAs in cases when a GSE loan is refinanced into another GSE loan. Such a refinance actually reduces the GSE’s credit risk (they already guarantee the existing mortgage and the homeowner will be able to take advantage of lower rates, freeing up cash flow).

Am I posting this because I agree with it?  Yes. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hard Choices

Los Angeles (and other large cities) have food deserts--places with limited access to fresh, healthful, relatively inexpensive food.  Low-income people living in food deserts are at a particular disadvantage, because they can't afford cars, and therefore often do not have access to supermarkets. A common hypothesis is that poor kids eat unhealthy food because they don't have access to healthy food.  (I think this is only partially true--kids also eat unhealthy food because they like it.  For that matter, I still love McDonald's fries, I just try to limit my intake, and am in part able to because I have access to better alternatives).

Tesco's Fresh and Easy, a chain that develops and operates small grocery stores that feature fresh fruit and vegetables at reasonable prices, has decided on a business strategy of locating in food deserts.  This is potentially a great thing for kids who live in these places (especially if Fresh and Easy can figure out how to take WIC vouchers).  But this begs the question of how they are able to sustain such a business model.  Two answers present themselves--they are a non-union shop, and they rely heavily on automation.  Specifically, Fresh and Easy features self check-out, and so the store doesn't have to hire checkers.   Self check-out also makes it hard for Fresh and Easy to accept paper certificates, such as WIC vouchers, as payment.

So the cost of Fresh and Easy is that it may drive down wages for grocery workers a bit, and it may reduce employment for grocery workers.  The benefit is that it gives low-income children access to reasonably priced, good quality, fresh foods.  My personal social welfare function says to me that feeding kids inexpensively and well dominates most other considerations, but let's not pretend that there isn't a trade-off.

Michio Kaku on CERN's Challenge to Relativity

In this morning's WSJ:

Reputations may rise and fall. But in the end, this is a victory for science. No theory is carved in stone. Science is merciless when it comes to testing all theories over and over, at any time, in any place. Unlike religion or politics, science is ultimately decided by experiments, done repeatedly in every form. There are no sacred cows. In science, 100 authorities count for nothing. Experiment counts for everything.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A reminder: Ronald Reagan raised capital gains taxes

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 actually did two things that required the affluent to pay higher taxes: it raised the effective tax rate on long-term capital gains from 20 to 28 percent, and it eliminated the ability to write passive losses against ordinary income.  This meant that after 1986, Warren Buffett's taxes would have been at least as high as his secretary's.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Read Taylor Branch's Atlantic Piece on the NCAA

Let me pull out two paragraphs from the powerful story:

Educators are in thrall to their athletic departments because of these television riches and because they respect the political furies that can burst from a locker room. “There’s fear,” Friday told me when I visited him on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill last fall. As we spoke, two giant construction cranes towered nearby over the university’s Kenan Stadium, working on the latest $77 million renovation. (The University of Michigan spent almost four times that much to expand its Big House.) Friday insisted that for the networks, paying huge sums to universities was a bargain. “We do every little thing for them,” he said. “We furnish the theater, the actors, the lights, the music, and the audience for a drama measured neatly in time slots. They bring the camera and turn it on.” Friday, a weathered idealist at 91, laments the control universities have ceded in pursuit of this money. If television wants to broadcast football from here on a Thursday night, he said, “we shut down the university at 3 o’clock to accommodate the crowds.” He longed for a campus identity more centered in an academic mission.


“Scholarship athletes are already paid,” declared the Knight Commission members, “in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education.” This evasion by prominent educators severed my last reluctant, emotional tie with imposed amateurism. I found it worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning the whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.
I love college athletics (I am thrilled that I have gotten to attend three Rose Bowls in which Wisconsin played) and admire many college athletes.  I not only envy their athletic prowess, I am amazed at the varsity athlete who can manage a B average in a difficult major while playing a sport.

But the NCAA system gives these athletes a raw deal.  Among other things, the system makes it difficult for athletes in revenue generating sports to get a real college experience--practice and games can leave students too tired to focus on class (yes, I know some athletes have no interest in class to begin with, but in my experience they are a distinct minority).  If the "pay" is supposed to be an education, the least we as colleges and universities can do is make sure athletes get one.