Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. Andre Gide


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Employment Along the Canada-U.S. Border (Part 2)

This is a follow-up to my earlier post: Employment Along the Canada-U.S. Border. In that post, I reported employment ratios and participation rates for three regions: Canada, U.S. states that bordered Canada, and U.S. states that did not border Canada. The main conclusion was that U.S. border states behave a lot more like non-border states, than they do Canada.

In this post, I (well, my fine research assistant, Lily, actually) report the same data but controlling for age and sex. In particular, I restrict attention to "prime age" workers--the age range 25-54 years old. I also divide the groups by sex. Here is what we get.


 
Participation rates for prime-age males has been declining steadily over time, but the decline seems to be much more dramatic in the U.S. Again, the border states follow their southern, rather than northern, counterparts.


The declining participation rates among men have been offset in part by the rising participation rates among prime-age women. Since about 2000, the participation rate among Canadian prime-age women continues to rise and remain stable, while in the U.S., the participation rate declines a bit. Again, the border states look more like their southern counterparts.


The great Canadian slump is evident in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the employment to population ratio of prime-age males in both countries were roughly the same. The most recent recession hit the U.S. more severely than in Canada. Again, note that the border states followed their U.S. counterparts more closely than their Canadian neighbors.


According to this data, Canadian prime-age women were hardly affected by the recent recession.The pattern here is similar to the labor force participation rates described above.

While we can't say for sure just by looking at this data, I suspect that national policy differences are driving much of the different behavior here. But before I start looking for what these policy differences might be, I'll ask my trusty R.A. to look at sectoral decompositions.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Inflation expectations and real treasury yields

My colleague Kevin Kliesen supplies me with the following updates on inflation expectations and real treasury yields.

The first two plots show not very much action since the beginning of the year. The latest data show a recent tick down in inflation expectations, and a tick up in real yields:
 


Here is what the data looks like since 2007. Following some volatile behavior during the crisis, inflation expectations have roughly remained stable since 2009.



The interesting behavior since that time was fall yields and a flattening of the yield curve (nominal and real).  That downward trend appears to have reversed in mid 2013 (the taper tantrum), but has more or less remained stable since then (with the exception of the 2-year real, which has declined somewhat).

So while the real yield curve has steepened as of late, real yields are still well below where they were before the crisis (especially at the short end).

Friday, March 14, 2014

Employment Along the Canada-U.S. Border

I've written about differences in the Canadian and U.S. labor markets before; see here.  I see that Steve Williamson has recently chimed in as well with this: Why are Canadians Working so Much More than Americans?

A question that interested me is to what extent this cross-country difference is driven by regional considerations. That is, we know that most of the Canadian population lives and works near the U.S. border (the 49th parallel):



Now consider creating a new country consisting of U.S. border states: Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine (I exclude Alaska, Idaho, and Pennsylvania). If we were to combine these border states with Canada, the region of interest would look roughly like this (map is a little off, but you get the idea):



The question is this: Would you expect the labor market in the U.S. border states to look more like the Canadian labor market or more like the U.S. labor market?

There is good reason to believe, I think, that the demographics across the two countries are pretty similar (though certainly not identical). If the type of economic activity along the border is roughly similar across the two countries, then one might reasonably expect similar labor market behavior in Canada and the border states. But this is not what we see at all.

Here is a plot of the participation rate (employment plus unemployment as a ratio of the working age population):

 

The U.S. border states look a lot more like the rest of the U.S. and not like Canada at all. Here is a plot of the employment rate (employment as a ratio of the working age population):
 


 
Once again, the border states look more like the U.S. in general, rather than Canada.

A preliminary conclusion is as follows: [1] If Canada-U.S. demographics are roughly similar; and [2] if U.S. border states are roughly similar to their Canadian counterparts in terms of sectoral composition; then the differences we observe between the two countries (in terms of labor market activity) are quite possibly driven by policy differences.

Exactly what sort of policy differences we are talking about here remains an open question.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

2008

Like many people out there, I am eagerly awaiting the release of the full transcripts of the Fed's monetary policy meetings for 2008. When they come out (and it should be very soon), you will be able to find them here.

I expect that the media will have a field day with these. No doubt a number of Fed officials will have said things that, with the benefit of hindsight, they wish they had not said, or said somewhat differently.

Jim Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed, recently gave a speech on the subject titled: The Notorious Summer of 2008. The slides associated with that speech are available here.

Bullard makes some very good observations.

First, many people think of the financial crisis as beginning in the fall of 2008, with the collapse of Lehman and AIG. In fact, the crisis had been underway for more than a year at that point (August 2007). The fact that the crisis had gone on for over a year without major turmoil suggested to many that the financial system was in fact relatively stable--it seemed to be absorbing various shocks reasonably well. Throughout this period of time, the Fed reacted with conventional monetary policy tools--lowering the Fed Funds target rate from over 5% to 2% over the course of a year.

So what happened? Essentially, an oil price shock. By June 2008, oil prices had more than doubled over the previous year. The real-time data available to decision-makers turned out to greatly underestimate the negative impact of this shock (and other factors as well). The rapidly slowing economy served to greatly exacerbate financial market conditions.

The Bear Sterns event occurred in March 2008. The firm was purchased by J.P. Morgan with help (bailout, depending on one's perspective) from the Fed. Bullard identifies two problems with that deal. One, it suggested that all financial firms larger than Bear could expect some form of insurance from the Fed. Two, while the deal was successful in calming down markets, it possibly had the effect of lulling them into a false sense of security.

Of course, we then had the infamous Lehman event in the fall of 2008. But as Bullard points out, everyone knew that Lehman's was in trouble for at least a year--surely investors were prepared for this. And in any case, investors would have properly insured themselves, no?

Well, no. The big insurer, of course, turned out to AIG. Evidently, very few people had any idea about the potential problems with AIG at the time (which, by the way, was outside the scope of Fed supervision). And so, it was the Lehman-AIG event that brought all financial firms under heightened suspicion--and it was this event that drove the financial crisis from September 2008 and onwards.

We all know how the Fed reacted at the time, and since then. The interesting question here is what the Fed might have done differently in the time leading up to the start of the crisis in 2007 and beyond? It is important to answer this question, I think, in the context of policy making that is constrained to operate with the use real-time data (that is frequently subject to significant revisions as time unfolds).

In any case, it will be interesting to eavesdrop on the discussions that occurred in 2008.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Are negative interest rates really the solution?

Miles Kimball believes that the zero lower bound (ZLB) constitutes a significant economic problem (he is not alone, of course). His viewpoint is expressed clearly in the title of his post: America's Huge Mistake on Monetary Policy: How Negative Interest Rates Could Have Stopped the Recession in its Tracks.

That's quite the bold claim. But what is the reasoning behind it? Yes, I can see how a price floor can distort allocations and make things worse than they otherwise might have been if prices were flexible. But would interest rate flexibility really have prevented the recession?

Suppose I wanted to teach this idea in my intermediate macro class, using conventional tools. How would I do it? (Maybe it can't be done, but if not, then someone present me with an alternative.) I think I might start with the following standard diagram depicting the aggregate supply and demand for loanable funds (the foundation of the so-called IS curve):



Suppose the economy starts at point A. (I am assuming a closed economy, so aggregate saving equals aggregate investment.) The real interest rate is positive.

Next, suppose that there is a collapse in investment demand. For the purpose of the present argument, the reason for this collapse is immaterial. It might just be psychology. Or it might be the consequence of a rationally pessimistic downward revision over the expected future after-tax return to capital spending. In either case, the economy moves to a point like B, assuming that the interest rate is flexible.

But, suppose that the Fed is credibly committed to a 2% inflation target. Moreover, suppose that the nominal interest rate cannot fall below zero (the ZLB). Then, when the nominal interest rate hits the ZLB, the real rate of interest is -2%.

If this was a small open economy, the gap between desired saving and desired investment at -2% would result in positive trade balance (as domestic savers would divert their saving to more attractive foreign investments, over the dismal domestic investment opportunities). But in a closed economy, saving must equal investment and so, as the story goes, domestic GDP must decline to equilibrate the market for loanable funds. As domestic income falls (and as people become unemployed), desired domestic savings decline (the Desired Saving function moves from the Full Employment position, to the Under Employment position, in the diagram above).

Now, if this is a fair characterization of the situation as Miles sees it (and it may not be--I am sure he will let us know), then I would say sure, I can see how the ZLB can muck things up a bit. The economy is at point C, but it wants to be at point B (conditional on the pessimistic outlook).

But while point B might constitute an improvement over point C, it does not mean an end to the recession. Domestic capital spending is still depressed, and ultimately, the productive capacity of the economy will diminish. I'm not sure I see how a negative interest rate is supposed to prevent a recession, or get the economy out of a recession, if the fundamental problem is the depressed economic outlook to begin with.

If anyone out there has another way of looking at the problem, please send it along.

***

Update:  Here is a reply from Gerhard Illing:



Hello David,

I am not sure if that is what you are asking for, but at least within the standard NKM framework (with negative time preference shocks)  it is fairly straightforward to illustrate that eliminating the ZLB would allow monetary policy to perfectly stabilize the economy at the natural rate. I just finished a sort of “textbook” version (allowing for an explicit analytical solution) of that framework.
In terms of your graph (with the nominal interest rate as adjustment tool to time preference shocks under sticky prices) it looks as follows:

 


Presumably you are not happy with the NKM framework as a realistic description of current issues - but within that logic, these arguments follow naturally, in particular if you are on the “secular stagnation” trip.

And here is a further elaboration, provided by Gerhard:
 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Monitoring Japan


I am as curious as anyone in ascertaining the effects of Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's QE experiment. Miles Kimball points us here to an early assessment by Marcos Nunes, who writes:
Shinzo Abe was elected in December 2012 on a promise to revive growth and put an end to deflation. How have his promises ‘performed’ one year after taking power? The ‘performance’ will be illustrated by a set of charts.
Nunes focuses on Japanese macroeconomic data beginning roughly with Abe's appointment as PM. But that's only about a year's worth of data. What I want to do here is compare these recent measurements with a longer sample, beginning in the year 2000 (the shaded region in my diagrams correspond to the Koizumi era, which I have written about before here).

First up is Japanese inflation (headline and core):




The evidence unfolding here really does seem to suggest that QE matters for inflation. My coauthor Li Li and I have recently remarked on this here.  Next, let's look at NGDP and RGDP growth:




Well, you know...this does not look so great, does it? While it is true that both NGDP and RGDP are growing, similar growth experiences are evident even in the earlier deflationary periods. Sure, it's nice to see RGDP growth rising recently, but it's still far too early to tell whether it will be sustained. And in any case, note the relatively robust period of growth during the "Koizumi boom" period--an era of deflation and fiscal austerity.

The exchange rate and the stock market:



 
So the stock market was booming late in the Koizumi era, the exchange rate stable, and core inflation negative. What about trade patterns? Take a look here:



 
I'll let you make up your own mind. Now for some comparisons with the Eurozone. First, a comparison of broad money growth:



Next, a comparison of inflation rates:



 And finally, a comparison of RGDP growth rates:



So sure, the Eurozone is underperforming as of late, and prospects in Japan are looking relatively good. How good in Japan relative to the Koizuma era, I'm not sure. And how much of the recent Japanese performance can be attributed to QE, one can only speculate. All that I conclude from this data is that QE may be influencing the inflation rate and the exchange rate. But whether it is having a quantitatively significant impact on the real economy is far less certain.

Addendum:

A comment by Noah Smith below suggests that Japanese CPI and GDP deflator are behaving quite differently. This indeed appears to be the case.


So, since about the time of the Asian financial crisis, the relative prices of non-consumer goods and services has declined steadily.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A bit more on the economics of Bitcoin

I'm still trying to understand the details of how cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin work. But the general principles involved seem clear enough, so let me start by explaining (what I think) these are. I'll let the experts out there fill in the gaps (and correct any errors I may have made). So what follows is basically an introductory lecture I would deliver to a class on the subject.

This is about the payment system: the way we pay and get paid for things. Any payment system has to solve the following two problems:

    [1] How to transfer credits across accounts in an honest, secure, and reliable manner;
     and
    [2] How to manage the total supply of credits over time.

The earliest (and arguably still most important) payment system relies on informal communal record-keeping. In small communities (villages, networks consisting of close friends, or work colleagues, clubs, etc.) a lot of what gets produced and consumed relies on what one might call "social credit" designed to exploit multilateral gains to trade (even when bilateral gains to trade are absent). In small groups, it is relatively easy for many members of the community to keep track of individual contributions to, and individual withdrawals from, the collective good. I may sometimes ask a favor of a team member even if we both know I have no direct way to return the favor personally. At the same time, I may be asked to deliver a favor to a team member even if we both know he/she has no direct way to return the favor personally. We just do these things because it is in our collective self-interest. In such reciprocal "gift-giving" economies, the currency that facilitates exchange consists of individual reputations (credit histories). If credit histories are easily observed by members of the community, then its difficult to misrepresent or distort your credits, or steal credits from others. If you try to do so, and if you are caught, you may be ostracized from the community, or worse. (

I mention this idea of "communal monitoring" because some form of it seems to play a critical role in the practical application of the Bitcoin protocol.

As a practical matter, the "social credit" system described above seems to work well for small groups, but not so well for larger communities. It's tough to keep track of the individual credit histories of thousands or millions of people, let alone ensure that such records remain a true representation of history. In large communities, many individuals become "anonymous" to one another. Anonymity here means that anything they do in a transient bilateral meeting will not be observed and recorded by the community. That's too bad because efficiency may have dictated that a gift be made in such a meeting. The gift might have been made if the gift-giver received (a social) credit for his/her sacrifice. But if no social credit is forthcoming (because nobody can see it), then the trade does not take place, even though it should have (in an ideal world).

One solution to this problem is monetary exchange. That is, imagine that there exists a set of durable, divisible, portable, recognizable physical object that is hard to steal/counterfeit (the way that reputations need to be hard to steal or counterfeit). Then contributors (workers) could build up credit by accumulating this object, and recipients (consumers) could draw down their credit by spending this object. As it circulates in this manner, this object becomes money. According to this interpretation, money is nothing more than a substitute for the missing (excessively costly) communal record-keeping technology (see Ostory 1973, Townsend 1987, and Kocherlakota 1998).

In a monetary economy, there is no explicit communal monitoring going on. If money is difficult to steal/counterfeit, then the only way I could have acquired it is by working for it (or by having someone else who worked for it bequeath it to me as a gift). When I show up at my local Starbucks and ask for a triple grande latte, they won't hand over my drink until I show evidence my contributions to society. The evidence is in the form of the money that I earned from work. As I hand over my money, I debit my wallet and credit the Starbucks wallet. This transfer of credits involves no intermediary--it is a "self-serve" accounting mechanism.

Of course, many exchanges do take place via intermediaries like banks and clearinghouses. A check drawn on my bank account is an instruction to debit my account and credit another account. The accounts sit on the books of a third party--the intermediary. The money in this case need not even take a physical form -- it can exist simply as a book-entry object. Today, these book-entry objects take the form of electronic digits, and these digits are debited and credited across accounts managed by banks with instructions from debit card technology.

O.K., well suppose that you do not trust the government (or central bank) and their paper money. Suppose you want the convenience of electronic money (so no commodity money). And moreover, suppose you do not want to rely on a third party like a bank. Maybe you don't trust them, or you do not like their fees, or the records of your purchases they keep, or the fact that your identity is associated with your account. What is the alternative?

What we want is some way to replicate the cash experience using electronic digits instead of physical currency. Recall that in bilateral cash transactions, the accounting is done on a self-service basis without the help of the community or some other third party. When it comes to digital money transferred over the internet across a large network of users, self-serve accounting is not likely to be practical. The self-serve part will have to be replaced by some communal monitoring service (obviously not a delegated third party, since this is what we are trying to avoid). I'll try to explain why in a moment, but first let me considered an idealized world where the relevant information is costlessly accessible to all members of the community.

Digital cash with communal record-keeping and communal monetary policy

Digital cash consists of information encoded electronically as bits. For concreteness, let's call digital cash "e-coins" and assume that an e-coin takes the form of a unique N-digit serial number.

[A1] Assume that the serial numbers of every e-coin created are recorded in a public data bank for all to see.

There is an initial money supply (50 bitcoins in the case of the Bitcoin protocol) and a publicly known protocol that governs money creation. In a nutshell, money growth can only occur by "communal consent." In the present context, you can think of monetary policy as a rule for money creation (and distribution), where the rule can only be changed by communal consent.

Members of the community possess "computer wallets" where e-coins are stored in an encrypted file and managed by a computer app (you can download these programs for free). Computer wallets have a public address, like a P.O. box (the identity of the wallet is not known, and a person may own several wallets). So people can send money to your wallet, but only you can extract money from your wallet (only you possess a private digital key for this purpose).

[A2] The e-coin content of every wallet is part of the public database.

So here's how things might work. Suppose a buyer wants to send an e-coin to a seller. Essentially, the buyer sends a message to the community: I wish to send e-coin SN01234 to [seller's wallet address]. A digital signature ensures that this message could only have originated from the buyer's wallet.

[A3] All messages are publicly observable.

 (The italicized sentences above emphasize the assumed information structure. For Bitcoin, there is even more information than this: the entire transaction history of every wallet is part of the public database.)

Now, if every member can costlessly scan and verify every element of the public database, the transaction process should be straightforward. First, the seller can see that the buyer does indeed own e-coin SN01234. Second, by comparing SN01234 to the public database of serial numbers outstanding, the seller can see that SN01234 is unique and was not counterfeited by the buyer. Third, the seller can see that the buyer is not trying to "double spend" SN01234 (e.g., by simultaneously offering it to another merchant's wallet).

The practical problem with this protocol is not that information assumptions [A1]-[A3] are violated. The information is available. There's just so much of it that not everyone can be expected to absorb it all instantaneously. It is time lag that opens the door for scammers. The task of legitimizing, recording, and updating the database has to be delegated in some manner. In the Bitcoin protocol, the task is not delegated to any single third party, rather it is delegated to members of the community who wish to "volunteer" their monitoring services.

Now, the precise details of how this public monitoring and record-keeping is done presently escapes me. The basic idea is that the monitoring activity must be made costly, because otherwise there is an incentive for scammers to announce that their scam deals (e.g., attempts to double spend) are legitimate. In Bitcoin, the monitors (miners) are required to solve a complicated mathematical problem (consumes energy and CPU time), the answer to which is easily verifiable. I think that (somehow) the verification of this answer also verifies the legitimacy of the transaction (someone help me out here).

But if it is costly for miners to verify transactions, what motivates them to do it? There is a reward, of course. In Bitcoin, the reward comes in two forms: newly minted bitcoin and/or service fees. So in the Bitcoin protocol, the verification costs are partly financed via seigniorage. I do not understand the exact mechanics of this process, in particular, the cryptographic techniques involved, and how the parameters are varied over time (for example, to ensure that the supply of bitcoins never exceeds 21 million). Maybe some smart person can explain it to me in plain language. (Here is a good attempt).

Before I leave this part of the discussion, I want to make a remark about the "mining" activity in Bitcoin. A lot of people, including Paul Krugman, appear confused about it. I initially shared in this confusion. Mining actual gold for the purpose of increasing the money supply is indeed socially wasteful. That's because an existing supply of gold can be stretched into an arbitrarily large supply of real money balances via an appropriate deflation. But the mining activity in Bitcoin is not a social waste--it is the cost associated with operating a payment system of this particular form when people have an incentive to cheat. The analog here is the cost associated with opening and maintaining your checking account at a bank.

Is Bitcoin a good money?

One could argue that the USD is at least partially backed by its ability to discharge real tax obligations. But bitcoins truly are purely fiat in nature (they have no intrinsic use in either consumption or production). Does this mean that the value of bitcoins must eventually crash to zero (their fundamental value)? No.

Bitcoins are information -- record-keeping devices. You can't eat my credit history either, but some companies would value (and pay for) this information nevertheless. So as long as Bitcoin conveys accurate information, its value can persist indefinitely. (There is, of course, the threat of entry, though Bitcoin appears to have a substantial early-mover advantage.)

One problem with Bitcoin as a currency is that its purchasing power sometimes fluctuates violently and at high frequency. As I have argued before, a desirable property of a monetary instrument is that it possess a relatively stable short-run rate of return. (A stable long-run rate of return is nice, but not essential, since other assets than money can be utilized as long-term stores of wealth.). Let's take a look at the USD price of bitcoin:


Holy cow. (Wish I had bought in at 5 cents!)

What accounts for this price volatility? (By comparison, the real rate of return on USD over the same period of time was a relatively stable -1% p.a.). Well, it might have something to do with the thinness of the USD/BTC market (can anyone point me to some evidence?). Or it might have something to do with the fact that bitcoin is not a unit of account (even if it is a medium of exchange, prices are usually denominated in USD). Both of these problems might diminish over time as the popularity of the instrument grows.

But my own take on this is that the price volatility reflects the perception that the supply of bitcoins is (relatively) fixed. This, combined with large fluctuations in the demand for bitcoin, naturally results in huge rate of return volatility. We saw the same thing under gold standard monetary regimes (where gold was a unit of account). In principle, an "elastic" supply of currency (even the credible threat of an elastic supply) can be used to offset sudden changes in demand to keep the rate of return (inflation rate) on money relatively stable.

Trust

My colleague, Francois Velde of the Chicago Fed, has a nice primer on Bitcoin. (It delves into the mechanics of the cryptography involved, but I still find many parts of his discussion a little vague.) But in terms of what sort of trust is involved in Bitcoin and similar endeavors, I like what he has to say here:
[B]itcoin protocol is based on open-source software. Bitcoin is what bitcoin users use. The general principles of bitcoin and its early versions are attributed to an otherwise unknown Satoshi Nakamoto; improvements, bug fixes, and repairs have since been carried out by the community of bitcoin users, dominated by a small set of programmers.

Although some of the enthusiasm for bitcoin is driven by a distrust of state-issued currency, it is hard to imagine a world where the main currency is based on an extremely complex code understood by only a few and controlled by even fewer, without accountability, arbitration, or recourse.
 Yes, it's hard to imagine. But maybe it's because we lack imagination? Only time will tell.