Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Savings and the Decline of Small Business Entry

A recent paper from the Brookings Institute raises an important observation that businesses are “becoming older,” that is, the age profile of American business is increasingly dominated by older firms.  One reason is that the entry rate of new businesses has been steadily declining for decades. 

While this decline has been witnessed across firm size, it has been most dramatic among small firms.  One potential contributor to the decline in new small businesses is the long run decline in the personal savings rate.  According to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners, the number one, by a long shot, source of capital for new businesses is the personal savings of the owner.  For firms with employees, about 72 percent relied upon personal/family savings for start-up capital.  The other dominate sources of capital, credit cards and home equity, were much less frequently used.  Recent legislative changes (2009 Card Act) and a volatile housing market have made those sources less reliable in recent years.

The chart below compares the trend in entry rates for new business establishments with less than five employees with the personal savings rate.  The correlation between the two is 0.62.  While both the decline in business entry and savings are likely driven by common macroeconomic factors, it seems plausible that if households have fewer saving, they are also less likely to be able to start a business.  My preferred response would be to eliminate policies, such as those in the tax code or current monetary policy, which penalize savings.  I suspect others might have different suggestions.

FSOC’s Arbitrary, Ever-Changing Double Standard

In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress, without irony, decided the best way to end “too big to fail” was to have a committee of regulators label certain companies “too big to fail.”  That committee, established under Title I of Dodd-Frank, is called the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) and is chaired by the Treasury Secretary. Like so much of Dodd-Frank, FSOC gets to write its own rules. Unfortunately FSOC won’t even write those rules, but instead it has decided that it knows systemic risk when it sees it. This has led to an ad hoc process that almost makes the bailouts of 2008 look systematic.

Compare the process for asset management firms and that for insurance companies. In late 2013, the Treasury released a report on the asset management industry. It was widely viewed as an attempt to make the case for labeling some asset management firms “systemic.”  The report was widely criticized. Such criticism did not stop FSOC from conducting a public conference on the asset management industry in May 2014.  Whether it was the public reaction to the conference or the paper, FSOC has largely abandoned labeling asset managers as “too big to fail.”  That was an appropriate outcome as firms in that industry are not systemic and shouldn’t be lead to expect a federal rescue.

Now don’t get me wrong: A shoddy report and a conference do not constitute a thorough process. As someone who has overseen a rulemaking process, I can say they do not even meet the basics of the Administrative Procedures Act. But just when that process seemed wholly inadequate, along comes the “process” for insurance companies.

Not unexpectedly, AIG went along without a peep. Given its role in the crisis that’s not a surprise. But there’s been no report or even a conference on whether insurance companies pose systemic risk. Completing either one would, of course, require FSOC to define systemic risk and to offer some minimal metrics. Instead, what we have is unelected bureaucrats simply making it up as they go along.

And here I was thinking Dodd-Frank was meant to end the haphazard behavior of regulators in 2008 and lead us towards a predictable rules-based approach to ending systemic risk!

The Future of Dollarization in Ecuador

A new “monetary and finance” law that was approved by Ecuador’s National Assembly in July, is expected to be signed into law any day now. Many suspect that this marks the beginning of the end for dollarization in Ecuador, which began in January of 2000. But the underlying threat to dollarization is the incessant growth of public spending. Losing dollarization would be a sad development, considering it is what has protected Ecuadorians from one of the worst evils of populism: high inflation.

The remarkable contribution dollarization has made to the Ecuadorian economy is worth noting. A 2010 study published by Ecuador’s central bank (BCE) analyzed the first decade of the absence of independent monetary policy and found that average GDP growth increased from -6.3 percent during the 1990s to 4.4 percent during the 2000s; annual inflation decreased from a high of 90 percent in September of 2000 to single digits within a year, and has averaged 3 percent since 2004. Additionally, interest rates went down immediately, thereby reducing the cost of capital. According to the World Bank, the percentage of Ecuadorians living on less than $2 a day (PPP) decreased from 37.7 percent in 2000 to 10.6 percent in 2009.

Of course, there are many problems dollarization cannot solve and the positive outcomes above are not solely due to it. But it probably has been one of the main factors contributing to Ecuadorian growth prior to and during our current “revolutionary” government. In fact, Ecuador owes its superior economic performance today–compared the two most prominent populist nations in the region, Argentina and Venezuela–mostly to dollarization.

Need for Short-Term Loans Is No Joke

I’m a little behind on my comedy watching, as I get a regular dose just living in Washington DC, but last week comedians John Oliver and Sarah Silverman focused an entire segment on payday lending, which are short-term advances against a future paycheck.  Matt Yglesias at Vox has posted the video, as well as making the important point “people end up at payday lenders because stuff happens.”  Yglesias is correct here: there is an undeniable need for short-term credit products. Even Dodd-Frank recognized this need by creating a government subsidized payday loan product (Section 1205 of Dodd-Frank).

The alternative to payday proposed by Oliver and Silverman?  Do anything else but payday. I’m sympathetic to such. A payday loan should never be your first choice. I hope to never have to use a payday lender. But then, I hope my car never breaks down either. Silverman goes as far as suggesting just steal instead. I’d hope she was joking but it seems so many in Washington have already taken that advice to heart.

Yglesias’s alternative is at least a little more thoughtful than stealing: he suggests allowing the postal service to offer short term loans, because apparently he believes the USPS could offer payday “without taking nearly as big a cut”.  Now “big” is subjective but scholars have examined this question. In research reported in 2012 in Regulation, UC-Davis Professor Victor Stango compared the performance of traditional payday loans to those offered by credit unions. Some of his conclusions: “there is little to suggest that credit unions can offer a payday loan with competitive terms. Existing credit union payday loans often have total borrowing costs that are quite close to those on standard payday loans.” Maybe the USPS has a better cost structure than the typical credit union, but that seems unlikely as the USPS isn’t exactly known for its efficiency.

Professor Stango also reports survey evidence that payday borrowers highly value the convenience of payday lender’s hours and locations. Yglesias doesn’t address this, but last time I went to a Post Office, the hours were about as convenient (or less so) than that of a traditional bank. And of course USPS isn’t exactly known for its consumer friendly approach.  In all, it seems highly unlikely that without a major revamp and cultural change that the USPS could be a serious competitor to payday. Perhaps as important, the USPS would likely be viewed as “too big to fail”, so that allowing USPS to make high risk payday loans could easily result in a taxpayer bailout. Getting USPS into payday makes about as much sense as getting Fannie Mae into subprime mortgages.

Oh wait, we did that.

The EU’s Anti-Austerity Hypocrites

The European Union (EU) is still in the midst of an economic slump. Many members of the political class in Brussels claim that fiscal austerity is to blame. But, this diagnosis is wrong. The EU’s problem is one of monetary, not fiscal, austerity. Money matters. Just look at the accompanying chart. Private credit in the Eurozone has been shrinking since March 2012.

Never mind. The EU fiscal austerity bandwagon keeps rolling on with Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister and current President of the EU, holding the reins. Indeed, Renzi recently went so far as to form an anti-austerity coalition with France and Spain. According to the coalition, its members simply cannot impose further spending cuts. They assert that their budgets have been cut to the bone. This claim is ludicrous. 

<--break->There is nothing to cut in Italy? Get real. Senior civil servants are being paid over 12 times the national average salary. As for France and Spain, their civil servants are “well paid,” too. It’s time for the public to stop listening to the EU’s anti-austerity hypocrites and start looking at the numbers.

The Export-Import Bank and Its Victims: Which Industries Bear the Brunt

The Export-Import Bank of the United States is a government-run export credit agency, which provides access to favorable financing for the foreign customers of some U.S. companies.  For several months, Washington has been embroiled in a debate over whether to reauthorize the Bank’s charter, which will otherwise expire on September 30.  While Republican House leadership remains publicly committed to shutting down the Bank, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced reauthorization legislation last night, setting the stage for a post-August recess showdown.

Reauthorization buffs contend that Ex-Im fills a void left by private sector lenders unwilling to provide financing for certain transactions and, by doing so, contributes importantly to U.S. export and job growth.  Rather than burdening taxpayers, the Bank generates profits for the U.S. Treasury, helps small businesses succeed abroad, encourages exports of green goods, contributes to development in sub-Saharan Africa, and helps “level the playing field” for U.S. companies competing in export markets with foreign companies benefitting from their own governments’ generous export financing programs.  Accordingly, failure to reauthorize the Bank’s charter would be akin to unilateral disarmament.

But those justifications – two rationalizations, really, and a few token appeals to liberal sensibilities intended to create the illusion of a bipartisan imperative for reauthorization – are unpersuasive or non-responsive to Ex-Im’s critics.  By effectively superseding the risk-based decision-making processes of legions of private-sector, profit-maximizing financial firms with the choices of a handful of bureaucrats using non-market benchmarks and pursuing often opaque, political objectives, Ex-Im risks taxpayer dollars.  That Ex-Im is currently self-sustaining and generating revenues is entirely beside the point and is no more reassuring than a drunk driver rationalizing that he made it home safely last night so there’s no danger in drunk driving tonight.

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.