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Archive for February, 2010

One of the themes of this blog is that economics is everywhere in daily life. Property rights, for example, are at the heart of everyday battles over overhead bins, shoveled-out parking spaces, and food in shared refrigerators.

Continuing in that vein, a friend recently sent me a link to an amusing piece about sharing guacamole. I hesitate to link to it, since this is a family oriented blog, and the piece is decidedly R-rated and NSFW. So I will hide the link under the fold. The basic set-up is that a sort-of-advice columnist named Chris provides humorous answers to reader questions.

In slightly edited form, here’s the bit about sharing guacamole:

[Dear] Chris: My fiancée makes amazing Guacamole, but it leads to the following problem: she only makes one bowl of it, which we then share. The issue is, I like to utilize small amounts of Guac on each chip in order to maximize the amount of time I get to enjoy the sweet green stuff, while she likes to heap massive amounts on each chip, in an effort to eat less chips (which [...] I find laughable). This drives me crazy as I always end up with the short end of the Guac stick, and so lately I have been separating the Guac into two equally-sized bowls once she’s made it, in an effort to preserve my fair share. She thinks this qualifies as me being [a jerk] and says I “must have failed sharing in Kindergarten”, but on the contrary, I think it’s her poor sharing that’s lead to the whole situation.

[Dear Letter-Writer:] Well, the obvious solution here is for her to make MORE guac. The other solution? Ask her the recipe, and then begin making it yourself. As head chef of the household, you are in full control of when that guacamole will be presented for consumption. I cook for my wife because it allows me the freedom to eat half of what I’ve made before it even reaches the table.

Furthermore, the strategy of using less guac per chip is fatally flawed. It’s guacamole. All guac is first come, first serve. You must heap as much guac onto one chip as humanly possible (as your fiancée does), only do it at a much faster rate. Think guacamole isn’t a race? IT IS. The faster you eat, the more you get. That’s how it works. And it’s a crucial strategy to exploit when dealing with guacamole, nachos, pizza, wings, and other shared food. Do not hesitate. Don’t even [...] chew. You inhale [...] until there’s nothing left for her. That’s what I do.

If you were out to eat with your guy friends at a Mexican restaurant, and you ordered guacamole for all to share, would you get [mad] at your friends for digging in too quickly? [Heck] NO. That guac is chum, and you are the sharks. ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK. Never play defense with appetizers.

There you have it, the world’s best explanation of the tragedy of the commons. Garrett Hardin eat your heart out. Let’s just hope we never find ourselves at a Mexican restaurant with Chris.

The letter-writer deserves kudos for endorsing the standard (and effective) economist solution to this problem: well-defined property rights. And his fiancée? Maybe she’s a fan of recent Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom.

(more…)

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The economy grew briskly last quarter. According to the second estimate by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, gross domestic product increased at a 5.9% annual pace in the fourth quarter of 2009, a bit higher than BEA’s first 5.7% estimate.

As usual, I think the best way to understand this report is to see what sectors contributed the most or least to reported growth:

Almost two-thirds of the growth reflects businesses restocking their shelves and warehouses: inventories accounted for 3.8 percentage points of the overall 5.9% of growth.

Consumer spending grew at a modest 1.7% pace and thus added 1.2 percentage points to overall growth (consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the economy and 70% x 1.7% = 1.2%). That’s down from the previous quarter, when cash-for-clunkers boosted car purchases. Housing investment also slowed, again in the wake of earlier efforts–the tax credit for new home buyers–that had boosted growth in the third quarter.

Business investment in equipment and software showed signs of life, growing at a healthy 18% pace. That added 1.1 percentage points to growth, about half of which was offset by the ongoing decline in business investment in structures.

Government spending fell slightly during the quarter. Stimulus efforts boosted non-defense spending by the federal government, but that increase was more than offset by a decline in defense spending and in state and local spending.

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The Lost Budget Decade

Budget aficionados have long warned that the U.S. budget is on an unsustainable path. That’s old news (but important).

The new news, which I hope you’ve noticed, is that those warnings have become more urgent over the past year or so. Why? Because our future problems have moved much closer.

Over at the Committee for Economic Development, Joe Minarik has a nice chart that illustrates how rapidly the budget outlook deteriorated:

Joe’s chart shows two projections of the U.S. publicly-held debt. The blue line shows the history of the debt (measured relative to the size of the economy), as well as a projection of the future debt based on analyses by the Congressional Budget Office released in late 2007. The red line shows a similar projection, but based on CBO budget analyses released in January of this year.

As you can see, the day of debt reckoning has moved much closer. For example, our debt will hit 60% of GDP twelve years earlier than forecast (which Joe rounds down to a decade). And, of course, it will keep rising thereafter.

Bottom line: The warnings of budget experts have become much more urgent because our room for maneuver has gotten much smaller.

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As I discussed briefly yesterday, Treasury has announced plans to revitalize its Supplementary Financing Program (SFP), which will effectively mop up $200 billion in excess reserves over the next two months. Even though this is a Treasury action, it strikes me as an important step (with many yet to come) in the Fed’s exit strategy.

The boost in the SFP has created some confusion among observers, however, because of the limited information that Treasury and the Fed have provided about the rationale for the move. Indeed, as one reader pointed out to me, Ben Bernanke makes no mention of the SFP in his prepared testimony today. (Anyone know if he was asked about it in Q&A?)

Over at Econbrowser, Jim Hamilton provides an excellent summary of the SFP and the possible implications of its rebirth. He concluding thoughts:

Still, one is led to wonder whether there might be a connection between today’s announcement about the SFP and last week’s announcement of an increase in the Fed’s discount rate. Numerous Fed officials encouraged us to interpret the latter as a routine and technical management tool. Are the discount hike and SFP renewal separate and purely technical developments, or is something more involved?

If you are interested in these issues, I encourage you to read his entire post.

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As Confucius Lao Tzu once said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The Fed faces just such a journey today: returning monetary policy to normal as the economy heals. And in case you didn’t notice, the Fed has already taken three steps down the road.

Step 1 was the termination of various special credit facilities (e.g., the Term Auction Facility) that were created to provide liquidity during the crisis.

Step 2 was last week’s sort-of-surprise announcement that the Fed was increasing the discount rate from 0.5% to 0.75%.

Step 3 is today’s announcement that Treasury is reviving the Supplementary Financing Program (SFP). Over the next two months, Treasury will issue $200 billion in bills for the SFP and then place the proceeds in its account at the Fed. The SFP will thus mop up $200 billion of liquidity that Fed asset purchases have injected into the monetary system.

Treasury began the SFP in September 2008 when the Fed needed help sterilizing the monetary impact of the programs it created to provide liquidity to the financial sector. The program peaked at more than $500 billion in late 2008, and then began to decline as sterilization ceased to be a Fed concern and as the federal debt limit began to loom. With the recent increase of the debt limit, Treasury again has room for the SFP, hence today’s announcement.

Update: Thanks to Brooks for pointing to Lao Tzu as the source of the famous quote; many sites attribute it to Confucius, but those claiming Lao Tzu seem more credible. If you start Googling or Binging this topic, you can also explore such amusing issues as: How do you spell Lao Tzu? Didn’t he really say “a journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet”? And “wait a minute, the ancient Chinese didn’t use miles, did they?”

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A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of creative bookkeeping.

In an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal (“Debt Deals Haunt Europe“), Charles Forelle and Susanne Craig provide more examples of the “aggressive” bookkeeping that European nations have deployed to satisfy the deficit and debt targets of the Growth and Stability Pact.

Greece, of course, takes honors in the field, not just for its recent use of derivatives to hide liabilities (see my earlier post), but also for other creative moves in the past. For example, the authors report that Greece:

insisted to the Eurostat statistics authority that large portions of its military spending were “confidential” and thus excluded from deficit calculations. In 2000, Greece reported that it spent €828 million ($1.13 billion) on the military—about a fourth of the €3.17 billion it later said it spent. Greece admitted to underreporting military spending by €8.7 billion between 1997 and 2003.

Such shenanigans are hardly unique to the Greeks. Other players include:

  • Portugal, which “classified subsidies to the Lisbon subway and other state enterprises as equity purchases” in 2001, and
  • France, which “arranged a deal with the soon-to-be privatized France Telecom in 1997 under which the company paid the government a lump sum of more than €5 billion. In return, France agreed to assume pension liabilities for France Telecom workers. The billions from France Telecom helped narrow France’s budget gap.”

Although dated, these examples illustrate some basic strategies that governments use to conceal the size of their deficits and debts: pretend the spending does not exist (Greece), pretend that spending is really an investment (Portugal), or pretend the future pension liabilities aren’t real (France).

A topic for another day is how these strategies may have been used in the United States. Suffice it to say that strategy three–ignoring future pension costs–is widespread both in governments and the private sector.

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Last week, the Council of Economic Advisers released its 2010 Economic Report of the President (ERP). I haven’t had time to read it yet, but I did take a quick spin through looking at the charts and getting a feel for it.

The first thing I noticed is that the folks at the CEA have made an important innovation: the ERP now includes references to the academic studies, government reports, etc. on which it bases some of its conclusions. That’s a welcome break from a long-standing tradition (which I never really understood) that the ERP didn’t include references.

A second useful innovation is that the ERP is available in eBook formats, including for my beloved Kindle. Not to add to their already enormous workload, but I look forward to the 2011 or 2012 version having dynamic graphics and live links to the references.

Here are some of the charts that I particularly liked:

1. The boom and bust of house prices. By this measure, house prices are still historically high–except for the bubble.

2. The declining role of banks in the financial sector. Note the growth of mutual funds and ABS issuers.

3. How rising health care costs may consume a rising share of employee compensation. (Note, however, that by setting the axis at $30,000 rather $0, the chart visually exaggerates the effect.)

4. How the rate of being uninsured varies with age.

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In my testimony to the Senate Budget Committee the other day, I recommended that Congress set specific fiscal targets for bringing our out-of-control deficits and debt under control. My particular suggestion? Get the publicly-held debt down to 60% of GDP in 2020.

By budgeting  standards, that makes for a great bumper sticker: “60 in 20“.

But as the New York Times points out in two articles today, a measurable target isn’t enough. You also need to make sure that the government doesn’t game the accounting to hide its liabilities.

Exhibit A is Greece. The story was originally broken by Der Spiegel earlier in the week, and is described in the NYT by Louise Story, Landon Thomas Jr., and Nelson D. Schwartz in “Wall St. Helped Greece to Mask Debt Fueling Europe’s Crisis“:

As worries over Greece rattle world markets, records and interviews show that with Wall Street’s help, the nation engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels. …

Instruments developed by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and a wide range of other banks enabled politicians to mask additional borrowing in Greece, Italy and possibly elsewhere.

In dozens of deals across the Continent, banks provided cash upfront in return for government payments in the future, with those liabilities then left off the books. Greece, for example, traded away the rights to airport fees and lottery proceeds in years to come.

Critics say that such deals, because they are not recorded as loans, mislead investors and regulators about the depth of a country’s liabilities.

The winning quote:

“Politicians want to pass the ball forward, and if a banker can show them a way to pass a problem to the future, they will fall for it,” said Gikas A. Hardouvelis, an economist and former government official who helped write a recent report on Greece’s accounting policies.

Exhibit B are all the contingent liabilities of the United States government, of which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been the most prominent (and expensive). In “Future Bailouts of America,” Gretchen Morgenson interviews budget expert Marvin Phaup (now at George Washington University and previously a colleague of mine at the Congressional Budget Office). She writes:

“If we are extending the safety net, extending the implied guarantee to the debts of a lot of other financial institutions, and we know those guarantees are valuable and costly, then we ought to start budgeting for it,” Mr. Phaup sad in an interview. “We can’t reduce the costs of these subsidies if we can’t recognize them.” …

As the number of firms with implicit government backing has risen because of the crisis, so too have the expected costs of those commitments, Mr. Phaup said. And yet, under current budget policy, those costs will be ignored until the recipient of the guarantee collapses — the precise moment when the guarantee is likely to cost taxpayers the most.

If we are going to set an explicit target for the publicly-held debt–60 in 20!–, we need to think carefully about what politicians may strategically omit from the calculation of the 60.


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Instant Runoff Voting Awards the Oscar

As even the most casual film buff knows by now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the field of nominees for Best Picture. This year ten films have been nominated for the Oscar, up from five in recent years. Nominees include Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, the Blind Side, and Up.

What I didn’t realize until today is that to accommodate this expansion, the Academy also changed its voting process. Under the old system, members of the Academy voted for their favorite film, just like Americans vote for President (well, if you ignore that whole Electoral College thing). Each member got one vote, and the flick with the most votes won. Simple, but, if you think about it, problematic. In principle, a film that 21% of the members love and 79% despise could bring home the golden statuette. And with the expansion to 10 films, that minority could be as little as 11%.

As Hendrik Hertzberg describes in this week’s New Yorker, the new, improved system is instant run-off voting:

Members—there are around fifty-eight hundred of them—are being asked to rank their choices from one to ten. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting’s over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters’ second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there’s still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters’ second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty per cent.

This scheme, known as preference voting or instant-runoff voting, doesn’t necessarily get you the movie (or the candidate) with the most committed supporters, but it does get you a winner that a majority can at least countenance. It favors consensus.

I’ve long been a fan of instant runoff voting (IRV) in elections to public office. Why? Because it eliminates the downside of voting for a third-party candidate. In a race between D and R, you may worry that voting for third-party candidate I is “throwing your vote away.” That worry disappears with IRV. You can give I your number one vote and either D or R your number 2 vote. If I loses in the first round, you’ll be disappointed. But you won’t have wasted your vote since your second-place vote now becomes operative.

Hertzberg speculates that the switch to IRV may affect the  Oscar race:

[H]ere’s why it may also favor “The Hurt Locker.” A lot of people like “Avatar,” obviously, but a lot don’t—too cold, too formulaic, too computerized, too derivative. (Remember “Dances with Wolves”? “Jurassic Park”? Everything by Hayao Miyazaki?) “Avatar” is polarizing. So is James Cameron. He may have fattened the bank accounts of a sizable bloc of Academy members—some three thousand people drew “Avatar” paychecks—but that doesn’t mean that they all long to recrown him king of the world. (As he has admitted, his people skills aren’t the best.) These factors could push “Avatar” toward the bottom of many a ranked-choice ballot.

On the other hand, few people who have seen “The Hurt Locker”—a real Iraq War story, not a sci-fi allegory—actively dislike it, and many profoundly admire it. Its underlying ethos is that war is hell, but it does not demonize the soldiers it portrays, whose job is to defuse bombs, not drop them. Even Republicans (and there are a few in Hollywood) think it’s good. It will likely be the second or third preference of voters whose first choice is one of the other “small” films that have been nominated.

For a nice graphic illustrating how IRV may work in the Oscars, see this USA Today piece.

For a summary of recent IRV advances, see this Huffington Post piece.

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Most of official Washington was closed today in the wake of Snowmageddon. But not the Senate Budget Committee, which went ahead as planned with its hearing “Crisis and Aftermath: The Economic Outlook and Risks for the Federal Budget and Debt.

The three witnesses were Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland (famous for her work with Ken Rogoff on the history of financial crises), Simon Johnson of MIT (famous for his blog, The Baseline Scenario), and yours truly.

You can find my written testimony here. You can watch the hearing from a link on the website.

The gist of my message was:

Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. If current policies continue, we will run trillion-dollar deficits in the years ahead—even after the economy recovers—and the public debt will rise faster than our ability to pay it. Persistent deficits and rising debt will undermine American prosperity, threaten beneficial social programs, and weaken our position in the world.

Those threats deserve immediate attention but our economy remains fragile. Payroll employment has fallen by 8.4 million jobs since the start of the recession, and long-term unemployment is at record levels. Recent data have provided some glimmers of hope—strong GDP in the fourth quarter and a decline in the unemployment rate in January—but our economy has a very long way to go.

Policymakers thus face a difficult challenge of balancing concern about current economic conditions with a meaningful response to our looming fiscal crisis. In thinking about that balance, they should keep five points in mind:

1. Don’t expect a rapid recovery. The recession does appear to be behind us, but the economy has much healing ahead of it.

2. Uncertainty has been holding the economy back. Uncertainty discourages investment and hiring and therefore undermines growth. The good news is that economic uncertainty has declined sharply over the past year, creating an environment more conducive to growth. The bad news, however, is that policy uncertainties are enormous. From expiring tax provisions, to uncertainty about the rules-of-the-road in the financial sector, to major policy initiatives on health insurance, climate change, etc., businesses and families are uncertain about the future policy environment. That discourages investment and hiring. Some of these uncertainties are unavoidable as Congress deals with important issues. But lawmakers should look for opportunities to reduce unnecessary policy uncertainty.

3. Persistent deficits and rising debts pose a serious risk to long-term economic growth. Concerns about the near-term economic outlook should not deter Congress from taking steps to strengthen our fiscal position over the next decade. Although major steps toward fiscal consolidation should not take effect in 2010 and 2011, Congress should begin to plan now for deficit reduction and debt stabilization in later years. That plan should include clear goals (e.g., a target trajectory for the debt-to-GDP ratio) and credible means for achieving them. President Obama outlined some steps in this direction in his budget, but I believe they fall far short of what is required. Under his official budget the debt would grow faster than the economy in every single year. That’s unacceptable.

The President has proposed that a fiscal commission be tasked with stabilizing the debt-to-GDP in 2015 and beyond. That proposal is worth serious consideration. However, I believe any commission should have a more ambitious goal–e.g., reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio to 60% by the end of the budget window. In addition, I wonder whether a commission created by executive order will have sufficient political legitimacy and power to have much effect.

4. A credible plan to reduce future deficits would help keep long-term interest rates low, thus strengthening the current recovery.

5. In the long-term, bringing our deficits under control will require both spending restraint and increased revenues. Spending restraint should receive greater emphasis both because spending is the primary driver of our long-run budget imbalances and because higher government spending may slow economic growth. Given the government’s existing commitments, however, it is unlikely that spending restraint alone can put our nation on a sustainable fiscal trajectory. As policymakers consider how to finance a larger government, they should therefore give special attention to making our tax system more efficient. That means thinking about ways to tax consumption rather than income, ways to broaden the tax base rather than increase rates, and, ways to tax undesirable things like pollution rather than desirable things like working, saving, and investing.

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