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

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Working More for Less

I had an interested chat with a colleague of mine the other day about the labor market. In the course of conversation, he mentioned that he used to teach a class in labor economics. Naturally, an important lesson included the theory of labor supply. Pretty much the first question asked is how the supply of labor can be expected to change in response to a change in the return to labor (the real wage). 

My colleague said that for years he would preface the theoretical discussion with a poll. He would turn to the class and ask them to imagine themselves employed at some job. Then imagine having your wage doubled for a short period of time. How many of you would work more? (The majority of the class would raise their hands.) How many of you would not change your hours worked? (A minority of hands). How many of you would work less? (A sprinkling of hands). At the end of the polling, he'd start teaching a standard theory of labor supply and using it to interpret the poll results (substitution vs. wealth effects).

My colleague administered this poll for over a decade. The results were always the same. (How satisfying.)
Then, one day, for no apparent reason, he decided to mix it up a little bit. Instead of asking the class to imagine an increase in the wage rate, he asked his students to consider a decrease in their wage rate. He was expecting a symmetrically opposite response. To his shock, a majority of the class responded that they would work more. Only a minority replied that they would work less or not change their hours.

Surely, this was an anomaly? But when he repeated the experiment with another class, he got the same result. He mentioned it to a colleague of his, who then ran the same experiment with his class and he too confirmed the result. What was going on here? If true, then employers can apparently get more labor out their workers by lowering their wages?!
The phenomenon here seems related to the evidence of "income targeting" among some groups of workers; see, for example, the classic study of New York taxi drivers by Camerer, Babock, Lowenstein and Thaler (QJE May, 1997). Evidently, inexperienced taxi drivers tend to work less when the return to working is high, and work more when the return to working is low. This behavior doesn't quite square with the phenomenon reported by my colleague. The effect there appeared to be asymmetric: students reported willing working more at a lower wage, but also reported willing working more at a higher wage. In both cases, however, it seems that the existence of some fixed obligation (e.g., monthly food and rent payments) plus no ready access to credit could explain why workers might be willing to work longer hours when the return to work declines.

I'm not sure if these findings shed any light on the state of the labor market today. But it is interesting to speculate. Conventional supply/demand analysis isn't always the best guide. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Does the Floor System Discourage Bank Lending?

David Beckworth has a new post up suggesting that the Fed's floor system has discouraged bank lending by making interest-bearing reserves a relatively more attractive investment; see here. I've been hearing this story a lot lately, but I can't say it makes a whole lot of sense to me.

Here's how I think about it. Consider the pre-2008 "corridor" system where the Fed targeted the federal funds rate. The effective federal funds rate (FFR) traded between the upper and lower bounds of the corridor--the upper bound given by the discount rate and the lower bound given by the zero interest-on-reserves (IOR) rate. The Fed achieved its target FFR by managing the supply of reserves through open-market operations involving short-term treasury debt.

Consider a given target interest rate equal to (say) 4%. Since the Fed is financing its asset holdings (USTs yielding 4%) with 0% reserves, it is making a profit on the spread, which it remits to the treasury. Another way of looking at this is that the treasury has saved a 4% interest expense on that part of its debt purchased by the Fed (the treasury would have had to find some additional funds to pay for that interest expense had it not been purchased by the Fed).

Now, suppose that the Fed wants to achieve its target interest rate by paying 4% on reserves. The supply of reserves need not change. The yield on USTs need not change. Bank lending need not change. The only thing that changes is that the Fed now incurs an interest expense of 4% on reserves. The Fed's profit in this case go to zero and the remittances to the treasury are reduced accordingly. From the treasury's perspective, it may as well have sold the treasuries bought by the Fed to the private sector instead.

But the question here is why one would think that moving from a corridor system to a floor system with interest-bearing reserves inherently discourages bank lending. It is true that bank lending is discouraged by raising the IOR rate. But is it not discouraged in exactly the same way by an equivalent increase in the FFR? If I am reading the critics correctly (and I may not be), the complaint seems to be more with where the policy rate is set, as opposed to anything inherent in the operating system. If the complaint is that the IOR has been set too high, I'm willing to agree. But I would have had the same complaint had the FFR been set too high under the old corridor system.

Alright, now let's take a look at some of the data presented by David. Here, I replicate his Panel A depicting the evolution of the composition of bank assets.
David wants to direct our attention to the period after 2008 when the Fed flooded the banking system with reserves and started paying a positive IOR rate. The large rise in the orange line since 2008 was due almost entirely to reserves and not other safe assets. This suggests that banks were motivated to hold interest-bearing reserves instead of private-sector interest-bearing assets (loans). He writes:
Something big happened in 2008 that continues to the present that caused banks to allocate more of their portfolios to cash assets and less to loans. While the financial crisis surely was a part of the initial rebalancing, it is hard to attribute what appears to be 10-year structural change to the crisis alone. Instead, it seems more consistent with the critics view that the floor system itself has fundamentally changed bank portfolios allocation.
I think the diagram above is rather misleading since all it shows is portfolio composition and not the level of bank lending. Here's what the picture looks like when we take the same data and deflate it by the GDP instead of bank assets,

According to this picture, bank lending is close to 50% of GDP, not far off its historical average and considerably higher than in the decade following the S&L crisis (1986-1995). Here's what commercial and industrial loans as a ratio of GDP looks like:
It's no surprise that bank lending contracted during and shortly after the crisis. One could even make the argument that paying positive IOR contributed to the contraction. But as I mentioned above, one could have made the same argument had the FFR been kept at 25bp. Again, this criticism has less to do with the operating system than it does with where the policy rate was set. In any case, note that commercial and industrial loans are presently above their pre-crisis levels (as a ratio of GDP). 

To sum up, I do not believe that a floor system inherently discourages bank lending as some critics appear to be arguing. Now that the Fed is paying IOR, reserves are essentially viewed by banks as an alternative form of interest-bearing government debt. New regulations since the crisis have induced banks to load up on safe government assets. But as the following figure shows, this has not come at the expense of private lending.
Banks are lending about as much as they have over the past 50 years (relative to GDP). Bank lending as a ratio of bank assets may be low, but this is because banks are loaded up on safe assets--not because they've cut back on their lending activity.