The Futility of Stimulus

George Selgin has recently focused on the failure of Federal Reserve policy to finance a normal recovery. The Fed has greatly expanded its balance sheet and created a large quantity of excess reserves, which, for a variety of reasons, commercial banks have not mobilized into credit creation. Instead, banks seem content to earn the 25 basis points of interest the Fed now pays on reserves.

This anomalous behavior shows up in the M1 money multiplier, which is at record lows – less than half its value before the financial crisis. The Fed is creating reserves, but commercial banks are not creating as much bank money as has been historically true. Compounding this is the fact that the velocity of M1 – the rapidity with which each dollar is spent annually – has hit a 40-year low. Consequently, the Fed’s efforts to produce monetary stimulus have failed.

(A similar story can be told for other money supply measures. Data and charts can be found at FRED, the online data center at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.)

I do not think economists fully understand all of the factors contributing to this policy failure. But Selgin has surely identified one relevant factor, the payment of interest on reserves. On the margin, it creates a disincentive for commercial banks to create money and credit in a normal fashion. There are also fiscal reasons for ending the payments, as they reduce the payments the Fed makes to the Treasury. As it is, the payment of interest on reserves constitutes a fiscal transfer from taxpayers to commercial banks. In a normal world, I would endorse his call to end the interest paid on reserves.

We do not live in a normal world. The Fed has replaced liquid, short-term assets on its balance sheet with illiquid, long-term assets. Normally, to raise the Fed Funds rate, the Fed would sell Treasury bills. It has none to sell. Analysts and pundits speculate on when the Fed will raise interest rates. They should be asking how the Fed will raise interest rates.

Stanford’s John Taylor thinks the Fed will need to increase the interest rate paid on reserves to accomplish that goal. Markets through arbitrage would then increase the interest rates banks pay each other to borrow reserves. I suspect he is correct, with two caveats. First, there is no longer much of a market for federal funds. Banks aren’t lending each other reserves. Second, there are other possible mechanisms for raising short-term interest rates like the tri-party, reverse repo facility at the New York Fed. This, and other facilities, are untested as a means to implement a policy change. Their use would put monetary policy in unchartered waters.

To sum up, monetary policy has failed to simulate economic activity. It has failed even to finance a normal economic recovery. In pursuing a failed stimulus policy, the Fed has tied its policy hands going forward. At some point, interest rates will need to rise. The Fed will need to rely on novel means to accomplish a turn in policy. Paying higher interest rates on bank reserves may be one method. It is an unpleasant reality. It is only one consequence of the Fed’s experiment with extraordinary monetary policy.

A Pattern of Problems in American Cities

Last December the federal Department of Justice concluded an investigation of the Cleveland Police Department.  That investigation found a pattern of excessive force in violation of the Constitution.  On Monday, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson agreed to a legal settlement with the feds to overhaul his police department’s policies and practices regarding the use of force and how it handles complaints and monitors the actions of its officers.  This is just the most recent police department to be scrutinized.  Following the riot in Baltimore, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Dept of Justice would be launching a pattern and practice investigation of that police department as well.  Local policymakers in Baltimore, Cleveland, and elsewhere, have let serious problems fester in their police departments and addressing those deficiencies is long overdue.  At the same time, we should also remember that policymakers are also doing a generally poor job on a broader range of issues, including the schools.  As it happens, our friends at Reason did a short film a while back titled “Saving Cleveland.”  The film covers several important issues and what needs to be done.

Last week, Cato hosted an event on Capitol Hill, Lessons from Baltimore, which covers additional issues not in the Reason film.  Policing, body cameras, and social welfare spending.  That event can be viewed here.

Is the TPP a Huge Deal or No Big Deal?

As more journalists and commentators discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we’ve seen very conflicting descriptions of the agreement.  For some, the TPP isn’t about trade at all but about giving power to corporations and ending U.S. sovereignty, or about containing China and building U.S. influence in Asia.  When commentators do focus on the potential economic impact of the agreement, they either describe the TPP as a very big deal or as a very small one.  It all depends on your perspective.

My colleague Simon Lester has written about problems in how GDP gains from the TPP have been estimated.  I’d like to take issue with a different figure commonly cited to bolster the idea of the TPP’s hugeness—that the 12 countries involved account for almost 40% of global GDP.  This number is correct but highly misleading as a gauge of the TPP’s economic significance.

For one thing about 22.5% of global GDP comes from the United States.  So, one could claim accurately that the U.S.–Jordan Free Trade Agreement covers almost a quarter of the global economy.  Also, most of the remainder comes from Canada and Mexico, with whom the United States already has a free trade agreement.  In fact, the United States has free trade agreements with all but five countries in the TPP negotiations.

The only large economy country in the TPP that the United States doesn’t already have a free trade agreement with is Japan.  So, if you’re going to measure the “size” of the TPP, it would be best understood as a U.S.–Japan free trade agreement.  That’s a pretty big deal, actually, but it’s not two-fifths of the world.

Free Trade Is Good for Poor People

A piece in the New York Times today suggests that rich people are more likely than poor people to support free trade:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal making its way through Congress is the latest step in a decades-long trend toward liberalizing trade — a somewhat mysterious development given that many Americans are skeptical of freer trade.

But Americans with higher incomes are not so skeptical. They — along with businesses and interest groups that tend to be affiliated with them — are much more likely to support trade liberalization. Trade is thus one of the best examples of how public policy in the United States is often much more responsive to the preferences of the wealthy than to those of the general public.

Skepticism toward free trade among lower-income Americans is often substantial. Data from a 2013 CBS/New York Times poll show that 58 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 per year preferred to limit imports to protect United States industries and jobs, while only 36 percent preferred the wider selection and lower prices of imported goods available under free trade. But the balance of opinion reversed for those making over $100,000. Among that higher-income group, 53 percent favored free trade versus 44 percent who wanted to limit imports.

Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey released on Wednesday found that a plurality of Americans making under $30,000 per year say that their family’s finances have been hurt by free trade agreements (44 percent) rather than helped (38 percent). By contrast, those making more than $100,000 per year overwhelmingly believe free trade has been beneficial — 52 percent said trade agreements have helped their family’s finances versus only 29 percent who said they have hurt.

I am sometimes skeptical of polls on these issues, mainly due to badly phrased questions.  But regardless, I would be interested to see if the answers were affected by information on who actually pays the most in tariff revenue (as a percentage of their income), which, it turns out, is poor people:

Paid Leave’s Effects on Job Prospects

Expanded maternity and child care benefits are expected to be a pillar of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. These policies seek to make it easier for women to balance the challenges of being a working mother. While they may well be well-intentioned, but they backfire. The New York Times highlighted the downside.

First, the article focused on maternal leave policies in Spain:

Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

The results in Chile were similar:

How School Choice Improves Public Schools

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that district school bureaucrats are “proceeding with an ambitious plan to offer a wider range of education options.”

Superintendent Robert Avossa is leaving the 96,000-student district for the larger Palm Beach County system in Florida. Ken Zeff, who takes over as interim superintendent next week, shares Avossa’s view that parents want and deserve choices.

An array of choices may lessen the exodus of by parents who want a non-traditional setting for their children. More than 15 percent of Fulton families opted for private schools this school year.

While Fulton has increased its number of district-approved charter schools, the AJC reports more than 1,600 families are on charter school wait lists for next fall, largely in south Fulton where school performance is not as high as north Fulton. 

(North Fulton is one of the state’s most affluent areas and boasts some of the highest achieving high schools in Georgia. Its schools are a major draw for new families moving to the metro region.)

Not every student learns in the same way so Fulton is expanding school design options.

“This is not an attempt to dismantle traditional public schools,” said Zeff in an AJC news story by Fulton Schools reporter Rose French. “Traditional-model schools are performing great for a lot of kids. But some parents want and some students would do better in a different environment.”

In other words, when parents chose schools other than their child’s assigned district school–perhaps using Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships–the government school system responded by being more responsive to parental demands. 

Patients and Doctors, not the FDA, Should Choose Right Medicine

Good ideas in Congress rarely have a chance. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is sponsoring legislation to speed drug approvals, but his initial plan was largely gutted before he introduced it last month.

Drug discovery is an uncertain process. Companies consider between 5,000 and 10,000 substances for every one that ends up in the pharmacy. Of those, only one-fifth actually makes money—and must pay for everything.

As a result, the average per drug cost exceeds $1 billion, most often thought to be between $1.2 and $1.5 billion. Some estimates run more.

Naturally, the Food and Drug Administration insists that its expensive regulations are worth it. Unfortunately, while the agency undoubtedly prevents some bad pharmaceuticals from getting to market, it delays or blocks far more good products.

The average delay in winning approval of a new drug rose from seven months in 1962, when the FDA’s power was dramatically increased, to 30 months in 1967. Approval time now is estimated to run as much as 20 years.

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