Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Hamilton’s Good for the Ten-Spot

I recently objected to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s proposed demotion of Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill. Hamilton was not only the first and most distinguished Treasury Secretary, but was also an accomplished professional in many other fields outside the confines of finance.

During his varied career, Alexander Hamilton was a profound journalist. His most famous journalistic project was a series of 85 opinion pieces that called for the ratification of the Constitution. These essays are called The Federalist Papers, and are the most cited sources by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Federalist Papers were published in 1787 and 1788 in New York City’s Independent Journal. These important essays — written under pseudonyms by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — were of very high quality and set the stage for the Constitutional Convention and the resulting product.

Leon Trotsky on the Weapon of Taxation

“You ought not to forget that the credit system and the tax apparatus remain in the hands of the workers’ state and that this is a very important weapon in the struggle between state industry and private industry….

The pruning knife of taxation is a very important instrument.  With it the workers’ state will be able to clip the young plant of capitalism, lest it thrive too luxuriously.”

–Leon Trotsky, The First 5 Years of the Comintern, Vol 2 (London, New Park, 1945) p. 341

“Deprived” My Foot

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing that Greece is being “deprived of fresh Euros” by the ECB, or by the European Commission, or that those bodies are “moving toward cutting off its money supply.” That’s to say nothing of the Greek government’s suggestion that Greece is being “blackmailed” by these authorities.

Such talk seems to suggest that Eurozone members are like so many helpless hatchlings, their outstretched beaks agape in anticipation of the ECB’s regular and solicitous regurgitations of liquid sustenance.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I’d like to take a stab at putting this misguided metaphor to rest.

Consider for a moment, then, how two other Balkan states — Kosovo and Montenegro — manage to get hold of the euros they need to support their economies. Although the euro is their official currency, neither is part of the Eurozone, and neither has had a formal agreement of any sort with ECB such as could allow it to count on being able to borrow euros from that institution, strings or no strings, in a pinch.

Yet neither territory complains of being “deprived” of euros by European authorities, much less of being “blackmailed” by them. Nor do Panama, Ecuador, and El Salvador — all dollarized Latin American nations — complain that the Fed isn’t sufficiently forthcoming with dollars. (Panama did once have reason to complain of blackmail, when the U.S. blocked paper dollar shipments there as part of its effort to topple Manuel Noriega. But that was a special case.) If the ECB and the Fed won’t deal directly with these countries, on any terms, how do they manage to get their hands on the euros or dollars they need to keep their banking systems and their economies functioning, if not thriving?

Remove Lew, Not Hamilton

On June 17th, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew shocked many, including former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, when he proclaimed that Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) – the first and foremost Treasury Secretary – would be demoted and share the ten-dollar bill with a yet unnamed woman. Undaunted by wide-spread criticism, Secretary Lew continued to press his case at an event at the Brookings Institution on July 8th. Asked about the ten-dollar bill’s selection, Secretary Lew insipidly claimed that the ten-dollar bill was the “next up” for redesign to help combat forgery. The diminution of Hamilton, for whatever reason, is simply indefensible.

Just how great was Hamilton? A recent scholarly book by Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen, Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich, begins its pantheon of greats with a chapter on Alexander Hamilton. It is aptly titled “The Creator.”

After the Constitution was ratified and George Washington was elected President, the new federal government lacked credibility. Public finances hung like a threatening cloud over the government. Recall that paper money and debt were innovations of the colonial era, and that, once the Revolutionary War began, Americans used these innovations to the maximum. As a result, the United States was born in a sea of debt. A majority of the public favored a debt default. Alexander Hamilton, acting as Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, was firmly against default. As a matter of principle, he argued that the sanctity of contracts was the foundation of all morality. And as a practical matter, Hamilton argued that good government depended on its ability to fulfill its promises.

Hamilton won the argument and set about digging the country out of its financial debacle. Among other things, Hamilton was – what would today be called – a first-class financial engineer. He established a federal sinking fund to finance the Revolutionary War debt. He also engineered a large debt swap in which the debts of individual states were assumed by the newly created federal government. By August 1791, federal bonds sold above par in Europe, and by 1795, all foreign debts had been paid off. Hamilton’s solution for America’s debt problem provided the country with a credibility and confidence shock.

Doesn’t the 76th Secretary of Treasury have better things to do than to diminish the presence of our 1st and most distinguished Secretary of Treasury?

How Not to Stress Test: UK Edition

Anyone who follows the  stress tests conducted by the Fed and various European banking authorities can’t help poking fun at them.  After all, it’s hard to repress a chuckle when, time and again, a bank passes one of these tests with flying colors only to end up failing not long afterwards.  Whether it’s Iceland in 2008, Ireland in 2010, or Cyprus in 2013, the story is the same: all three national banking systems collapsed shortly after being signed off as safe following regulatory stress tests.

When putting banks to such a test, a central bank or other banking authority starts by imagining  one or more “stressful” scenarios to which banks might be exposed, uses a bunch of models to determine how those scenarios will affect the banks’ capital adequacy (that is, their ratio of capital to assets), and then passes or fails banks depending on whether their capital remains adequate at the end of the test.

The Bank of England reported the results of its first set of annual stress tests in December.  Its message was a reassuring one: the UK banks are safe.  Unfortunately, there’s no good reason to trust that assessment than there was to trust the others, for the Bank of England’s stress tests are also deeply flawed, in ways that, besides obscuring the significant vulnerability of the UK banking system, actually tend to accentuate it.

For starters, the tests are based on a “risk-weighted asset” metric, which depends on models that underestimate banks’ risks.  Worse still, these models are eminently gameable, and banks have every incentive to game them, since doing so can reduce their capital requirements and allow them to distribute greater false profits.

Abundant research—from the Bank of England itself, among other authorities—has convincingly established that lower risk-weighted asset scores do not necessarily mean lower risk.  In fact, the risks are often greater; they just happen to be among those that are invisible to the risk measure.  We saw precisely this problem in 2008–2009, when UK banks appeared to be well capitalized using risk-weighted asset metrics, but actually turned out to be massively undercapitalized when the financial crisis hit.

Yet More Empirical Evidence That Yes, Federal Student Aid Fuels College Price Inflation

For a few years, I have been posting an evolving list of empirical studies that have found that federal student aid programs help fuel rampant college price inflation. Why? Because I continually encounter people, often who work for or in higher education, who insist that there is no meaningful empirical evidence of big subsidies enabling big price increases, even if the possibility makes mammoth intuitive and theoretical sense.

A few days ago a new entry arrived for the list, a paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It finds that student loans have big inflationary effects, especially at four-year private schools not focused on top academic performers, and that Pell Grants have smaller direct effects, but also likely lead to reductions in aid funded by institutions. It is yet one more study that shows that, contrary to the hopes of the American Council on Education–the premiere higher ed advocacy group–the inflationary effect of student aid is absolutely a subject that should “play a major role” in discussions about college affordability.

And now, the updated list:

David O. Lucca, Taylor Nadauld, and Karne Shen, “Credit Supply and the Rise in College Tuition: Evidence from the Expansion in Federal Student Aid Programs,” Staff Report No. 733, July 2015.

Dennis Epple, Richard Romano, Sinan Sarpça, and Holger Stieg, “The U.S. Market for Higher Education: A General Equilibrium Analysis of State and Private Colleges and Public Funding Policies,” NBER Working Paper No. 19298, August 2013.

Lesley J. Turner, “The Incidence of Student Financial Aid: Evidence from the Pell Grant Program,” Columbia University, April 2012.

Stephanie Riegg Cellini and Claudia Goldin, “Does Federal Student Aid Raise Tuition? New Evidence on For-Profit Colleges,” NBER Working Paper No. 17827, February 2012.

Nicholas Turner, “Who Benefits from Student Aid? The Economic Incidence of Tax-Based Federal Student Aid,Economics of Education Review 31, no. 4 (2012): 463-81.

Bradley A. Curs and Luciana Dar, “Do Institutions Respond Asymmetrically to Changes in State Need- and Merit-Based Aid? ” Working Paper, November 1, 2010.

John D. Singell, Jr., and Joe A. Stone, “For Whom the Pell Tolls: The Response of University Tuition to Federal Grants-in-Aid,” Economics of Education Review 26, no. 3 (2006): 285-95.

Michael Rizzo and Ronald G. Ehrenberg, “Resident and Nonresident Tuition and Enrollment at Flagship State Universities,” in College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It, edited by Caroline M. Hoxby, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Bridget Terry Long, “How Do Financial Aid Policies Affect Colleges? The Institutional Impact of Georgia Hope Scholarships,” Journal of Human Resources 30, no. 4 (2004): 1045-66.

Rebecca J. Acosta, “How Do Colleges Respond to Changes in Federal Student Aid,” Working Paper, October 2001.

What Greek “Austerity”?

It’s hard to find anything written or spoken about Greece that doesn’t contain a great deal of hand wringing about the alleged austerity – brutal fiscal austerity – that the Greek government has been forced to endure at the hands of the so-called troika. This is Alice in Wonderland economics. It supports my 95% rule: 95% of what you read about economics and finance is either wrong or irrelevant.

The following chart contains the facts courtesy of Eurostat. Social security spending as a percentage of GDP in Greece is clearly bloated relative to the average European Union country—even more so if you only consider the 16 countries that joined the EU after the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. To bring the government in Athens into line with Europe, a serious diet would be necessary – much more serious than anything prescribed by the troika.

Social Security Fund