Monthly Archives: May 2010

A Loaded Question

There is perhaps little that is more frustrating than when intelligent people in the United States always attributing financial market shocks to the inherent instability of banking. The reason that I say this is because these assertions are often based on U.S. experiences and not overall banking experiences. For example, the Canadian banking system has performed quite admirably — especially compared to the U.S. — in a number of instances in which financial factors were thought to be central to economic fluctuation (e.g. the Great Depression, the current recession).

This poses an important question. What is different about the Canadian banking system? I have a very clear hypothesis that draws on the work of George Selgin and others that suggests that legal restrictions have typically been the culprit throughout U.S. banking history (although we might expect them to be marginally less so in the present context given some relatively recent de-regulation) as well as other policies that generate misaligned incentives.

However, what I am truly interested in is the opposing opinion. What makes U.S. banking different fundamentally from Canadian banking? And, as a follow-up, why would a return of Glass-Steagal be preferable to reforms that make us more like Canada?

Won’t Does Not Imply Can’t

Scott Sumner has written an excellent post on monetary policy and the difference between whether policy can work and whether the policy will be tried.

Thoughts on Ireland

I have found the Irish experience of the worldwide recession to be one of the most intriguing. From 1990 up until the beginning of the recession, the Irish economy grew over four-fold. However, since the recession began the economy has contracted by almost 20%. Part of my interest in Ireland is due to the fact that with the economy growing as rapidly as it did during its “Celtic Tiger” phase, rising productivity should have put downward pressure on prices. However, Ireland uses the Euro as its currency. As a result, it is possible (likely?) that monetary policy was comparatively loose in Ireland compared to other European Union members. Thus, if monetary policy became tight following a negative aggregate demand shock, this could potentially explain — at least in part — why the contraction was so severe in Ireland as one would expect to see a number of projects financed as a result of loose monetary policy fail. I haven’t yet delved sufficiently into the data to examine this more rigorously, but nevertheless, I find this to be an interesting hypothesis.

As one would expect with such a severe economic contraction, Ireland experienced substantially rising budget deficits from the resulting decline in tax revenue. In addition, Ireland experienced a severe banking crisis. Interestingly enough, Ireland was actually out in front of some of these issues. They quickly (in political terms) responded by attempting to get their fiscal house in order and creating a “bad bank” (a concept that was floated in the U.S. as well). The fiscal austerity measures have resolved Ireland’s short term debt problems. Recent increases in Irish bond yields seem to have more to do with Greece than with Ireland.

Nonetheless, the real issue is the bad bank. The amount of potential losses to the Irish government are substantially large. Morgan Kelly writes over at VoxEU that:

This debt would probably be manageable, had the Irish government not casually committed itself to absorb all the gambling losses of its banking system. If we assume – optimistically, I believe – that Irish banks eventually lose one third of what they lent to property developers, and one tenth of business loans and mortgages, the net cost to the Irish taxpayer will be nearly one third of GDP.

Adding these bank losses to its national debt will leave Ireland in 2012 with a debt-GDP ratio of 115%. But if we look at the ratio in terms of GNP, which gives a more realistic picture of the Ireland’s discretionary tax base, this is a debt-GNP ratio of 140% – above the ratio that is currently sinking Greece. Even if bank losses are only half as large as we expect, Ireland is still facing a debt-GNP ratio of 125%.

Again, the central bank is an issue. For example, if Ireland had an independent central bank, it might be able to have been able to have the central bank absorb some of these losses through non-standard open market purchases of non-performing loans — a policy I am not recommending, by the way. On the other hand, although the government acted quickly on these issues, the development of the bad bank has potentially set Ireland up as the next Greece once these losses are realized.

UPDATE: Simon Johnson piles on.

Quote of the Day

“I’m puzzled as to why speculators haven’t raised their expectation of euro inflation and correspondingly punished the euro more than they have. (I’m personally hoping they wake up soon, because I’m planning a trip to Greece at the end of the month and I want a cheap euro to compensate me for the risk of being caught in an Athens riot!)”

Larry White

On the arithmetic of unemployment

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit writes:

JOBLESS RATE RISES TO 9.9%. UNEXPECTEDLY! But the spin is positive:

Employers added 290,000 jobs in April, the Labor Department said on Friday. It revised figures for February and March to show 121,000 more jobs were added than previously thought. The unemployment rate, however, rose to 9.9 percent as the size of the labor force increased. . . . Analysts polled by Reuters had expected nonfarm payrolls to rise 200,000 last month and the jobless rate to remain unchanged at 9.7 percent.

All the economic news is good, it’s just that unemployment is up. . . . .

I hate spin as much as the next guy, but this is simple arithmetic. The unemployment rate is calculated by taking the number of unemployed and dividing by the labor force (those working and actively looking for work). The unemployment rate rises when the number of unemployed workers increases. Such increases can occur when individuals who do not have jobs re-enter the labor force or when individuals lose their jobs. Given that the labor force increased by 800,000 workers last month — the largest increase since 1983 — there is substantial reason to believe that the unemployment rate rose as a result of re-entrants and is not a reflection of bad news.

Correspondingly, a much better indicator at turning points is aggregate hours because it can provide additional information about the direction of employment. Below is a graph of the aggregate hours index, calculated by the BLS, for the last year.

While aggregate hours are still below the base year (2002), they have been increasing since late 2009. In other words, employment is increasing. The numbers aren’t being spun.

Ernie Harwell Passes Away

I just learned that long-time Detroit Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away this evening at the age of 92. Harwell was a major part of my childhood. Before the days when nearly every baseball game was broadcast on television, I used to lay in my bedroom and listen to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey call Tiger games on WJR — sometimes with the radio tucked under the pillow. Ernie’s voice was familiar, cordial, and entertaining. As a young boy listening to the games I used to wonder how Ernie knew where everybody was from (when a foul ball was hit into the stands, he would say “that one was caught by the man from Saginaw” — or some other surrounding city). It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that he was simply making this up. (In Ernie Harwell’s audio scrapbook, he says that he used to have fans say to him, “hey, let a man from Gross Pointe catch one today” or whatever city they were from.)

Ernie Harwell had a profound impact on my childhood. For a time, I wanted to be a baseball announcer — in large part because of Ernie. Sitting here quietly I can still hear the crack of the bat and the noise of the crowd behind the natural sound of Ernie’s voice.

At the conclusion of Ernie’s last broadcast, he said the following:

The Tigers have just finished their 2002 season and I have just finished my baseball broadcasting career and it is time to say goodbye, but I think goodbye’s are sad and I’d much rather say ‘hello’. Hello to a new adventure. I am not leaving folks. I’ll still be with you, living my life in Michigan, my home state surrounded by family and friends. And rather than goodbye allow me to say thank you. Thank you for letting me be part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your workplace, and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. Now I might have been a small part of your life, but you’ve been a very large part of mine and it’s my privilege to share with you the greatest game of all. Now God has a new adventure for me and I’m ready to move on. So I leave you with a deep sense of appreciation for your loyalty and support. I thank you very much and God bless all of you.

Today, God has another new adventure for you Ernie. Wherever you are, I hope you are at peace and that you are watching the Tigers. Thank you for the memories.

Sumner on Counterfactuals

Scott Sumner has written an excellent post on the evolution of economic policies, counterfactuals, and misplaced ideological views. Here is an excerpt:

Counteractuals are tricky. Without a plausible alternative timeline, a before and after comparison is nearly meaningless. Growth in the Soviet Union slowed sharply after the 1960s, and then again after the 1970s and 1980s. By 1992, when free market economic reforms first began, Russia was already in a deep depression. What caused the depression? Obviously economic reforms! It doesn’t matter that the more aggressive Soviet bloc reformers did better than Russia. It doesn’t matter that those slowest to reform (the Ukraine) did even worse. Or that those communist countries than never reformed (North Korea) did even worse than that. It must have been the reforms.

The 1970s were the turning point in modern history. Statism was exposed as a flawed economic system. The more idealistic countries like Denmark and New Zealand reformed most rapidly when new information showed that markets worked better than government. You’ve heard me talk ad nauseum about Denmark, which is number one in all sorts of rankings, from free markets to happiness to equality to civic virtue. But I actually looked at all 32 economies with per capita income above $20,000/year (i.e. as rich as Portugal.) Interestingly, just as Denmark was number one in both markets and civic virtue, the same country placed dead last in both the free markets and civic virtue rankings. And what is the country with both the lowest level of civic virtue and the least reformed statist economic system among 32 developed countries on four different continents?

You’ve probably guessed it by now . . . Greece.

Read the whole thing.