I have three articles in the latest issue of the quarterly Cayman Financial Review, on whose editorial board I serve. The first is the Letter from the Editorial Board, which explores my thoughts on restoring more market discipline of bank risk taking rather than piling on more government regulations: http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2015/04/22/Changing-direction-on-bank-regulation/ The second is the second installment of The Kabul Bank Scandal series, http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2015/04/22/The-Kabulbank-Scandal–Part-II/ And the third is my review of Martin Wolf’s new book, “Shifts and Shocks.” http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2015/04/22/%E2%80%9CThe-Shifts-and-the-Shocks%E2%80%9D-by-Martin-Wolf/ If any of these topics interest you please click on its link.
Month: April 2015
Economics Lesson: Is deflation bad?
Fortunately the key insights about inflation or deflation are fairly intuitive and easy to understand. Stable prices—i.e., zero inflation—is best, fully anticipated inflation (or deflation) is second best, and inflation/deflation surprises are bad. If you would like a bit more detail, read on.
Inflation refers to the rate at which the value of money (average prices usually measure by a consumer price index—CPI) changes over time. Zero inflation, constant purchasing power of a currency over time in its local market (e.g. the value of the US dollar in the US), is best because all of the other factors impacting the supply and demand for individual goods that potentially change their prices relative to other goods and services can be expressed in terms of a constant unit account, a constant measuring rod. This makes comparing prices stated in that unit of account, especially over time, much easier. Imagine if the length or weight of something had to be expressed in units of weights and measure that themselves were always changing. Economic resources are better allocated to the satisfaction of public demand when the relative scarcity of each good and service can be clearly discerned. Decisions about the allocation of resources (whether to build a new factory to produce a new product or more of an old one and/or to hire more workers, etc.) are necessarily forward looking. The entrepreneurs’ question is what will people pay for something next year and the year after and what will it cost to produce it and how does this compare with producing something else. This is more difficult to do when the forecast of prices need to mix in the changing value of the currency in which they are stated.
However, a decent second best is a rate of inflation (positive or negative) that is steady and predictable. The inflation target of 2 percent chosen by many central banks, if reliably achieved, provides an example. If the inflation rate is fully and correctly anticipated, whether positive or negative, all other relative prices, including interest rates and wage contracts, can and will take the anticipated rate into account when setting prices in contracts for the future (e.g., a wage contract). If borrowers and lenders are willing to contract for a loan for five years at 3% per year with zero inflation in the value of the money borrowed and repaid, they would both be willing to undertake the same loan at 5% if they both expected inflation of 2% per year over those five years. If that expectation were rather uncertain, a suitable risk premium would need to be added to the interest rate. If everyone expected with certainty a 2% deflation over the same period, the loan would carry a 1% nominal rate. In both of these examples, the so-called real rate of interest—the rate adjusted for inflation—would be 3%. Thus, modest deflation does no harm if everyone fully and correctly anticipates it.
As an aside for the more advanced students, Milton Friedman explained why a fully anticipated, mild deflation was actually good because it would reduce or eliminate the opportunity cost of holding money and thus encourage people to hold larger cash balances on average without any cost to themselves or society. The money we hold in our wallets or nightstands or in our checking accounts at the bank is like any other inventory of goods that shop keepers keep on their shelves. Without an adequate inventory of what they sell, they would occasionally run out and miss some potential sales. But it cost money to hold an inventory of something. The cost can be measured by the interest you could have earned investing the money you spent to acquire the inventory (called “opportunity cost” by economists), plus any storage costs. Deflation reduces the opportunity cost of holding money by generating a real return from holding it (it is worth more in the future).
Unanticipated inflation, however, is bad because contracts written in dollar terms (so called “nominal” terms) will turn out to have a different real value than was expected. Normally a voluntary contract benefits both parties to it; it is win win. But when the inflation outcome was not anticipated, it will produce unexpected winners and losers. Debtors benefit from unanticipated inflation and creditors lose. More to the point in our current, over indebted environment, a deflation that was not anticipated when the money was borrowed, will increase the real value of the money that must be repaid. Lenders will benefit from the unexpected windfall only if borrowers actually repay their loans. But the unexpected increase in the real value of the debt being repaid may result in a larger number of defaults. So central banks are trying to avoid deflation, or more accurately are trying to achieve their inflation targets (generally 2%) in order to avoid making the economy’s excessive indebtedness even worse.
The above discussion concerns the value of a currency in its own country. But given the very extensive commerce across borders and the fact that most countries use their own currencies, cross border payments require exchanging one currency for the other. If the exchange rates of all currencies were fixed and never changed, the above analysis would apply globally as well. However, the exchange rates of many currencies, such as the USD/Euro rate, vary continuously and sometimes very significantly. The USD/Euro rate has fallen (i.e., the dollar has appreciated) 30% in the last 12 months (on April 9, 2015). This represents an enormous and very disruptive shock to the value of US trade with Europe, increasing the cost of our exports and reducing the cost of imports from Europe by very large, unpredicted amounts. Following the collapse of the gold standard, which fixed the exchange rates of most currencies, in the early 1970s, a costly financial market of insurance against exchange rate movements has developed. The total daily value of FX related transactions (spot, forwards, swaps, options) are estimated at around 4 trillion US dollars. Yes, that is daily and yes, that is trillions. These added costs of international trade would be eliminated if all or most countries returned to credibly fixed exchange rates or better still one globally used currency. The enormous gains in the standard of living from this trade could be extended even further.
The world is now “blessed” with a variety of monetary policy regimes. All of them aim in one way or another to deliver stable value for their currency either domestically or relative to another currency. The major industrial countries generally target inflation domestically and allow the exchange rates of their currency to float against other currencies. Many smaller countries fix or target the exchange rate of their currency to the US dollar or the Euro or the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) thus causing the domestic values of their currencies to reflect the inflation rates of the currency to which they are fixed.
Two major reforms would establish a global monetary system with stable money (zero inflation). The first would be to change the IMF’s international reserve asset, the SDR, from a currency whose value is determined by a basket of key currencies (the USD, Euro, UK pound, and Japanese Yen) and allocated on the basis of political decisions, to a currency whose value is determined by a basket of real goods that is issued on the basis of market demand in accordance with currency board rules. These reforms are explained in more detail in earlier articles such as https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/the-u-s-dollar-and-the-sdr-as-international-reserve-currencies/ and https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/a-hard-anchor-for-the-dollar/. The above reforms in the SDR would include an international agreement to replace the US dollar and Euro in international pricing and payments with the reformed SDR, which I call the Real SDR. http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/
The second reform would follow naturally given the greater stability of the Real SDR. Countries would fix the exchange rate of their national currencies to the Real SDR or replace them all together with the Real SDR (the equivalent of dollarization). If all or most countries did this, the world would enjoy the benefits described above of a global currency with a completely predictable and stable value relative to a “typical household consumption basket” across the globe. It is worth fighting for.
Balancing Religious Freedom and Civil Rights
The adoption last week of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has set off a loud public debate about religious freedom and civil rights. The debate is over the best balance between our cherished beliefs in both religious freedom and civil rights, which includes tolerance of those with religious beliefs different than ours. A standard formulation of the scope of individual freedom is that it is our right to live and do as we like as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others to do the same. How we should put meat on those bones is the essence of ongoing, serious public debate.
I have blogged on this challenging topic a number of times starting with the following in November 2008: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/church-and-state-in-america/ and followed in April 2010 by: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/when-values-clash/
and in August 2013: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/liberty-and-the-overly-prescriptive-state/
and in December 2013: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/more-on-the-balance-between-the-public-and-private-sectors/
and most recently in February 2014: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/arizona-and-religious-and-person-liberty/
Indiana’s RFRA is similar but not identical to the law of the same name signed into law by President Clinton in 1993 with overwhelming bipartisan support. These laws and other efforts to balance religious and other individual freedoms against the expectation of tolerance are based on the First Amendment to the US Constitution reproduced below (the first item in the Bill of Rights) and the guarantee of equal protection under the law contained in the Fourteenth Amendment adopted after the Civil War, in part to remove discrimination against African Americans. Success in establishing a good balance is critical to a healthy, vibrant and free civil society and depends more on social attitudes than on laws. David Brooks provides an insightful and balanced discussion of this issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/opinion/david-brooks-religious-liberty-and-equality.html?_r=4
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It is quite beyond my limited legal knowledge to tease out exactly what the Indiana law provided (it has already been amended to address the fears that it was an excuse for discrimination). Much has been written on the subject, some of it uninformative and/or inflammatory, others wise and insightful. I would like instead to outline the spirit and attitude of a proper balance between religious freedom and civil rights that makes sense to me.
Most of us assume that our freedom to believe what we choose and to express those beliefs publicly includes what some others might disagree with or consider “wrong” or obnoxious, such as racial prejudice. Freedom of speech means nothing if not the right to state what most of us consider wrong. The right to say stupid or repugnant things should never be confused with accepting or encouraging such views. Particular condemnation should be directed to those who use their freedom of speech purposely to offend rather than to defend their beliefs. The best defense against bigotry, whether racist or homophobic, is to use our freedom of speech to counter such views and to promote the virtues of respect, diversity, and tolerance of alternative beliefs (as long as they do not limit our own). In short, building broadly shared attitudes of respect toward the rights of our fellow men (and women) are necessary for the maintenance of a decent, free society.
What might this mean in practice? In my private life I should never have to associate with people I don’t like. I should not have to invite them into my home or my club. It was absolutely right that the Boy Scouts of America were allowed to exclude gays and that we were allowed verbally to attack them for such misguided behavior. They are gradually coming around to a more enlightened policy with better long run results than if forced by law to open up to members they did not want. Churches are quite rightly not forced to accept members that do not embrace their beliefs or otherwise satisfy whatever their membership requirements are.
The above examples are obvious. The difficulties begin to arise when we move outside our homes and private groups. Aside from the obvious question of why two lesbians in Texas insisted on the services of a photographer for their wedding who refused to accept their request (were they looking for a fight or the best photographer), I think any service provider should be free to choose their customers just as customers are free to choose where to shop. While mafia dons and other murderers and bad people have a right to legal representation, why should a particular objecting lawyer be required to provide it?
Should a Christian bookstore be required to sell the bible or whatever to atheists or Jews? For starters it would be quite contrary to their goals and evangelical nature to refuse to do so, but should they have the choice? Should Muslims be required to touch and serve pork or should Mormons be required to tend the cocktail and coffee bars of their employers? Once again it is hard to see why this is raised to the level of public policy. If a Mormon doesn’t want to serve alcohol (though it wasn’t a problem for the Mormon owned Marriot Hotel to do so), she doesn’t have to and shouldn’t work for a bar. For larger operations, such as restaurants with a bar, it is not that difficult for the manager to assign employees to tasks that respect their religious or ethical beliefs. The free market, profit motive would lead employers to do just that.
For many, the pace of progress against discrimination in the more public sphere of commerce and certainly in government bodies was not fast enough leading to the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; but exempted private clubs and the renting of the bed room in my basement. If you are open for business to the general public you are not allowed to discriminate on the above bases. The LGBT community has been working to add sexual orientation to the above list, something that was missing in the original Indiana RFRA law.
The recent Hobby Lobby decision of the Supreme Court (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) concerned the mandate in Obama Care for employers to provide government specified contraceptives as part of the employee health plans. The Christian family owners objected to the mandatory inclusion in the list of what is often called the morning after pill. Raising wages sufficient to compensate employees for the cost of buying their own insurance would sacrifice the tax exception (i.e., subsidy) of employee provided health insurance. The Court ruled to allow closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s interest. Such exemptions are allowed for churches and directly religious organizations but this was the first time that the Court has recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief.
This whole situation has more objectionable parts than I can count. First, it is bad policy to give a tax break for employer offered health insurance. For one thing, tying heath insurance to ones employer makes it more difficult for employees to change jobs and increases the cost to them of losing a job. Second, it is outrageous that the federal government is dictating the list of contraceptives that an insurance policy must provide and that everyone must have such policies. This is before we get to the issue of which, if any, private companies should be exempt from such requirements and for what reasons. Such micro management of our lives by the government has gone way too far and makes the balancing of rights I have been discussing much more complicated and difficult. A tradition of polite accommodation of differences generally trumps efforts to spell it all out in law.
Marriage equality, i.e., extending the same right to marry enjoyed by heterosexual couples, takes away no rights from traditional couples other than perhaps to be spared the anger/horror/sadness over something someone else is doing. Get over it. Having to serve LGBT couples commercially does not imply agreeing or disagreeing with their status. Fortunately society is moving rapidly to accept the virtue of extending the institution of marriage to LGBT couples. If marriage is a good thing for loving committed couples, it should be available to all such couples. Those people and religious groups that continue to disapprove are free to as long as they do not deprive others of their freedoms and rights.
Economics Lesson: Income Inequality
French economist Thomas Piketty’s bestselling book on wealth inequality, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” has become the focus of a debate over increasing income inequality in the US and many other countries. I have not read the book, which apparently presents lots of interesting data, the use and interpretation of which is also being debated. A recent paper on Piketty worth reading is by a young PhD candidate at MIT: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/03/19/meet-the-26-year-old-whos-taking-on-thomas-pikettys-ominous-warnings-about-inequality/
The issue that interests me in this note is the great divide in attitudes toward inequality and thus the policies proposed to address it. Some people think income inequality, or at least too much of it, is bad per se. Thus taxing the rich and redistributing the proceeds to middle and lower income families is the solution. For me, and many others, the issue is whether the wealthy (to simplify) earned their income fair and square (to be explained below) and is thus a just reward for their contributions to the economy providing an important incentive for their efforts. To the extent that they have not (monopoly power, government favors, etc.) the solution is to attack and remove the policies and impediments to competitive markets that made their exorbitant incomes possible.
If it is not desirable (fair) for some people to be wealthy when others are not, the collateral damage from income redistribution may be a price worth paying. This collateral damage is well known. If the wealthy cannot keep the income they get from their efforts and/or from their investments in innovative technology, miracle drugs, or the companies that produce what we want and provide our jobs, they will reduce their efforts and investments, thus reducing the income available to us all and available to redistribute. At the other end—recipient—of the redistribution, if the programs through which middle and lower income families receive such income are not well designed they will reduce incentives to work and or misallocate resources further reducing the income available to redistribute. The policy issues become how to design such programs and what is the optimal balance between the “good” effect of more equal income distribution and the bad effects of lower income.
In my book of moral principles, disapproval of the higher incomes of others per se is due to envy, and envy is not a virtue and should be resisted. There is some evidence that many people care both about their absolute income and their income relative to others. Such envy should be discouraged in my view. My standard of morality in this area is that people deserve what they fairly earn but this requires an understanding and agreement on what income is fair. Economists have a straightforward definition of “fair” income. Profits (revenue in excess of costs) earned without artificial government help (subsidies, regulations that keep out or discourage competitors, or state sanctioned monopolies) are fair because they are the (ultimately) competitive return on providing something people value. With competition, profits will be normal, what economists call a normal rate of return on investment.
Unless the government interferes, excessive profits (those above a normal rate of return) will ultimately be competed away as others enter the field to grab some of the high return. While the inventor and developer of a new technology or product may enjoy a quasi monopoly return initially, as long as there are no artificial impediments to competition, i.e. as long as the monopoly is contestable, returns will ultimately become normal. George Will provides some relevant and interesting cases drawn from a new book by John Tamny. “With the iPod, iPhone and iPad, unique products when introduced, Jobs’ Apple created monopolies. But instead of raising their prices, Apple has cut them because ‘profits attract imitators and innovators.’ Which is one reason why monopolies come and go.” “Since 2000, the price of a 50-inch plasma TV has fallen from $20,000 to $550.” “Henry Ford doubled his employees’ basic wage in 1914, supposedly to enable them to buy Fords. Actually, he did it because in 1913 annual worker turnover was 370 percent. He lowered labor costs by reducing turnover and the expense of constantly training new hires.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-income-inequality-benefits-everybody/2015/03/25/1122ee02-d255-11e4-a62f-ee745911a4ff_story.html
There are many examples of profits that are not normal or contestable, which by definition are unfair. Those on my side of this issue would look for the government favors or interferences that made them possible and seek to remove them. There is no doubt, for example, that US monetary and regulatory policies have made possible lopsided returns from one-sided risk taking by Wall Street (the moral hazard of tax payer bail outs when excessive bank risk taking goes wrong). These policies need to be reformed in order to make the economy fairer and more efficient. See my Letter from the Editorial Board in the next issue of the Cayman Financial Review.
A very large political/policy battlefield in America today is between those who wish to redistribute income to make it more equal and those who want to make income distribution more equal by reducing or removing the economic rents generated by excessive and inappropriate government regulations and subsidies. They are each motivated by dramatically different philosophies and conceptions of what is fair and what is good. We might call these positions “egalitarianism” and “capitalism.” The motivation of an egalitarian to redistribute income from the rich to the poor is dramatically different than the desire of virtually all American’s to provide what Ronald Reagan called an adequate social safety net for the truly disadvantaged and those who have fallen off the ladder. I am on the side of capitalism.