Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Don’t Trust Economists

Sometimes a picture really does tell a thousand words. Here’s a chart, based on data from the Philadelphia Fed, showing actual economic results compared to the predictions of professional economists. As you can see, my profession does a wretched job. Comparisons based on predictions from the IMF, OECD, CBO, and OMB doubtlessly would generate equally embarrassing results. This does not mean economists are idiots (insert obvious joke here), but it is an additional reason why Keynesianism is misguided. If economists are unable to predict what’s going to happen with the economy in the near future, why should we expect anything positive when politicians tinker with short-run economic performance? That’s especially the case when they pass so-called stimulus legislation that increases the burden of government spending.

This doesn’t mean that economists - and others - are never accurate with predictions. But I am quite confident that we will never see an economic model that successfully predicts future economic fluctuations.

h/t: James Montier, via Paul Kedrosky, via Andrew Sullivan

A Double Dip for Housing?

Washington is fretting this week over news that mortgage applications fell dramatically in November. Coupled with earlier indications of renewed softening in the housing market, there is growing fear that housing is headed for a “double-dip downturn” that could further damage the economy. As a result, Federal Reserve policymakers are considering additional stimulus, while the National Association of Realtors is suggesting an(other) extension of the “temporary” homebuyer tax credit.

Remarkably, neither policymakers nor the media are asking the obvious question: Given all of the emergency interventions in housing that government has undertaken, and the fact that the housing market continues to erode, do such interventions do much good?

Since the bursting of the bubble in 2006, the great unknown has been whether housing prices will revert to their historical trend (and possibly to below trend for a short period), or stabilize at some permanently higher level because a portion of the bubble (aided perhaps by public policy) would prove enduring. There is good reason to expect reversion to trend, but the economy can surprise us.

Let’s use an example to understand this better. The graph below depicts the course of house prices for my hometown of Hagerstown, MD, an area within commuting range of suburban DC that was hit particularly hard by the bubble and its deflation. The black line is a house price index computed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency for 1989–2009. The red line is an extended linear trendline drawn using index data from the period 1989–2002. (You can do the same analysis for your area using these FHFA data.) The question, then, is whether house prices will fall all the way back to the trendline or will stabilize at a level above the trendline. 

Figure

The sharp downward slope at the end of the price line and  the latest housing news suggest that Hagerstown is destined to revert to trend (perhaps after a period below trend). I’ve drawn similar figures for several other locations and they show similar patterns. It looks like the nation’s housing markets, for the most part, are reverting to trend.

When this crisis first began in 2007, Bush administration officials vowed to “stabilize house prices at the highest possible level.” However, despite their efforts and those of the Obama administration, Congress, and the Fed,  reversion to trend appears inevitable. At best, those efforts may have slowed the reversion — in which case, I suppose the Bush goal has been met.

It can be argued that a gentler reversion to trend may be more tolerable than a sharp return. On the other hand, there are fears that a lengthy softening of the housing market will lead to more defaults, less worker mobility, continued weak consumption, and a long period of high unemployment and stagnant wages for those who are working. Perhaps a sharp return would be the quickest way to shed the ill effects of the bubble.

This leaves us with a final question that policymakers, the media, and the public should be grappling with: If all of these emergency housing interventions only result in a slower reversion to trend, then is that benefit worth the cost?

Credit Card Dementia and Boundary Cases

credit cardsThe most interesting libertarian-related conversation I’ve read today comes from Rortybomb, by way of Andrew Sullivan, with commentary by Megan McArdle. Here’s a challenge to libertarians from Rortybomb, aka Mike Konczal:

I want to pitch to the credit card and financial industry a new innovative online survey. It is targeted for older, more mature long-time users of our services. We’ll give a $10 credit for anyone who completes it. Here is a sense of what the questions will look like:

- 1) What is your age?
- 2) What day of the week are you taking this survey?
- 3) Many rewards offered are for people with more active lifestyles: vacations, flights, hotels, rental cars. Do you find that your rewards programs aren’t well suited for your lifestyle?
- 4) What is the current season where you live? Are any seasons harder for you in getting to a branch or ATM machine?
- 5) Would rewards that could be given as gifts to others, especially younger people, be helpful for what you’d like to do with your benefits?
- 6) Would replacing your rewards program with a savings account redeemable for education for your grandchildren be something you’d be interested in?
- 7) Write a sentence you’d like us to hear about anything, good or bad!
- 8 ) How worried are you you’ll leave legal and financial problems for your next-of-kin after your passing?

Did you catch it? Questions 1,2,4,7 are taken from the ‘Mini-mental State Examination’ which is a quick test given by medical professionals to see if a patient is suffering from dementia. (It’s a little blunt, but we can always hire some psychologist and marketers for the final version. They’re cheap to hire.) We can use this test to subtly increase limits, and break out the best automated tricks and traps mechanisms, on those whose dementia lights up in our surveys. Anyone who flags all four can get a giant increase in balance and get their due dates moved to holidays where the Post Office is slowest! We’d have to be very subtle about it, because there are many nanny-staters out there who’d want to coddle citizens here…

I smell money – it’s like walking down a sidewalk and turning a corner and then there is suddenly money all over the sidewalk. One problem with hitting up sick people, single mothers, college kids who didn’t plan well and the cash-constrained poor with fees and traps is that they’re poor. Hitting up people with a lifetime of savings suffering from dementia is some real, serious money we can tap as a revenue source.

Clearly, only an evil person (or a libertarian!) would allow a scam like this one. Megan responds, I think rightly:

I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a hard question for libertarians. I mean, I might argue that preventing people from ripping off the marginally mentally impaired would, in practice, be too difficult. Crafting a rule that prevented companies from identifying people who are marginally impaired might well be impossible – I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could devise subtler tests than “What day of the week is it?” And while the seniors lobby is probably in favor of not ripping off seniors, they’re resolutely against making it harder for seniors to do things like drive or get credit, which is the result that any sufficiently strong rule would probably have.

But it’s pretty much standard libertarian theory that you shouldn’t take advantage of people who do not have the cognitive ability to make contracts. Marginal cases are hard not because we think it’s okay, but because there is disagreement over what constitutes impairment, and the more forcefully you act to protect marginal cases, the more you start treating perfectly able-minded adults like children.

The elderly are a challenge precisely because there’s no obvious point at which you can say: now this previously able adult should be treated like a child. Either you let some people get ripped off, or you infringe the liberty, and the dignity, of people who are still capable of making their own decisions.

I’d add two responses of my own.

First, I can’t believe there’s all that much money to be had here. Anyone who wanders into Tiffany’s and back out again without remembering what they bought is, generally speaking, a bad credit risk. Mildly irresponsible people – those who slightly overspend, then have to make it up later – those are probably great for creditors. Lesson learned: If you’re not demented, don’t be irresponsible. (If you are demented, you’re not going to follow my advice anyway.)

Second, I am always amazed at how border cases are dragged out, again and again, as if they proved something against libertarianism. Border cases – How old before you can vote? How demented before a contract doesn’t bind? – are a problem in all political systems, because all systems start with a presumed community of citizens and/or subjects. We always have to draw boundaries between the in-group and the outliers before we have a polity in the first place.

What makes the classical liberal/libertarian approach so valuable is in fact that it draws so few boundaries. Where other systems depend on class boundaries, race boundaries, religious boundaries, and so forth – with annoying boundary issues at every stop along the way – libertarians make it as simple as I think it can be. We presume that all mentally competent adults are worthy of liberty until they prove themselves otherwise.

The boundary cases are still there, but they are fewer and more tractable. Konczal just wandered into one of them. It proves much less than he thinks.

Popping Bubbles

David Leonhardt’s column today in the New York Times, in reaction to Ben Bernanke’s recent speech at the American Economic Association meetings, asks an important question:

If the Federal Reserve failed to detect the housing bubble when it occurred, why should we entrust it with that role in the future?

But he doesn’t follow the logic of his question far enough and instead embraces a financial equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, as if technical solutions exist and could be implemented if politics got out of the way.

In our recent Policy Analysis, Jagadeesh Gokhale and I examine a more complete list of technical and political problems that stand in the way of asset bubble management. Can bubbles be detected using scientific techniques (econometric models) with little controversy? We argue no.

Would stopping bubbles involve the simple implementation of a technical solution such as raising interest rates, or would they instead involve trade-offs with other policy goals? We argue the latter.

Even if bubbles could be detected easily with no controversy and policy solutions involved no tradeoffs, could the Fed maintain political support by stopping booms if the benefits of such a policy (preventing busts after financial bubbles burst) were never observed? We argue no.

And finally, even if all the previous problems were solved, how would raising interest rates reduce the supply of capital to housing markets given that a rate increase would increase the supply of capital to the United States and interest rates for both long-term and short-term housing loans have become decoupled from federal funds rates?

Our reasoning, like Bernanke’s, suggests that the events of 2008 were not the result of “bad” monetary policy. However, we believe that granting additional regulatory authority to the Fed will not prevent similar episodes because of the technical and political difficulties we describe in our paper.

Did the Fed Buying MBS Make a Difference?

Recent years have witnessed a multitude of new Federal Reserve programs aimed at bringing stability to our financial markets.  One of the largest programs has been the Fed’s purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  The program was initially announced in November 2008 with the goal of buying up to $500 billion, later expanded to $1.25 trillion.  Clearly we are talking a lot of money.

The ultimate objective of the FED MBS purchase program was, in the words of the Fed, to reduce mortgage rates “relative to what they otherwise would have been.”  Did the Fed meet this objective?  According to a new study by Stanford University Economists Johannes Stroebel and John Taylor the Fed did not. 

More specificially, the professors “find that the MBS program has no significant effect.  Movements in prepayment risk and default risk explain virtually all of the movements in mortgage spreads.”  So while it is clear that mortgage rates declined over the time the Fed has operated the MBS purchase program, those declines were due to factors outside of the Fed’s control.

Professors Stroebel and Taylor only look at the claimed benefits of the Fed’s MBS purchase program, leaving aside the issue of cost.  Since any losses on MBS purchased by the Fed reduces the amount of funds transferred from the Fed to Treasury, these losses are ultimately borne by the taxpayer, as that reduction will have to be made up elsewhere.  With close to a trillion in purchases, even minor declines in value can result in large losses for the taxpayer.  For instance, a 5% loss in value would translate to $50 billion loss to the taxpayer.  Another good reason to audit the Fed.

The Bailout Bowl

Neal McCluskey wrote an op-ed on the ways that taxpayers subsidize college football bowl games. As a college football fan, it pains me that I can’t even get a respite from big government on game day. This Wednesday’s matchup between Central Michigan and Troy will be particularly insulting to taxpayers because it’s the annual GMAC Bowl.

GMAC, the former in-house financing arm of General Motors, has been sponsoring the bowl game since 2000, when it paid $500,000 for the right. More recently, the firm was battered by the collapse of GM and the housing market, and it was allowed to restructure as a bank holding company, which made it eligible for TARP bailout funds. The federal government has given GMAC $12.5 billion in return for 35.4 percent ownership stake in the company. However, the bailout just got larger. From last week’s Wall Street Journal:

The Treasury Department on Wednesday said it will provide GMAC Financial Services with an additional $3.8 billion in capital and assume a majority stake in the firm. The money, along with adjustments to existing aid already provided to the firm, aims to close a capital shortfall identified by government stress tests in May. The additional aid brings the total U.S. investment in GMAC to $16.3 billion and raises the government’s ownership interest to 56 percent from the current 35 percent. In exchange for committing more funds, the Treasury will appoint a total of four directors to the company’s board instead of two as previously planned. The company will also continue to be subject to pay limits set by U.S. pay czar Kenneth Feinberg.

Whatever GMAC is currently paying to sponsor the bowl game, it’s not a large sum compared to the billions in billion funds it has received. Nonetheless, it is a poke in the eye to bailout-fatigued taxpayers that a government-owned corporate failure continues to blow money on a largely irrelevant football game.

People used to think of the government’s proper role in the game of business as a neutral referee between competing companies. Today, when private companies lose the game, Uncle Sam can step in to be the quarterback. Although Uncle Sam isn’t any good at the game, he’s able to change the rules to benefit his team at the competition’s expense. In addition, Uncle Sam’s team doesn’t pay his exorbitant salary –- the competition and the fans (i.e., taxpayers) foot the bill.

Bernanke Still Doesn’t Get It

Yesterday, at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a continued defense of the Fed’s monetary policies earlier this decade. Essentially he believes that monetary policy did not contribute to the housing bubble.  He also makes clear that he believes that the excessively loose policy stance of the Fed after the dot-com bubble burst was appropriate given the level of unemployment at that time.   Given that today’s unemployment level is even worse, Bernanke has offered us a clear indication that monetary policy will remain excessively loose for the foreseeable future, regardless of the Fed’s inability to actually create jobs.

Bernanke’s remarks also illustrate the contradictions in his own thinking.  At one point he comments that it would have been inappropriate for the Fed to response to increases in energy prices, because such prices were viewed as temporary; yet elsewhere he indicates that most market participants viewed house price increases as permanent, yet the Fed felt it was appropriate to ignore those, for what reason we do not know.  No where in his remarks does he address the impact of ignoring the single largest item behind consumer spending:  housing.

Perhaps the weakest link in Bernanke’s arguments is presenting the false choice of either monetary policy or mortgage underwriting standards.  How about accepting that both played a role.  Sadly when discussing underwriting standards, Bernanke continues to miss the most essential element: downpayment requirements.  Nowhere in his discussion of mortgage defaults does he seem to recognize the role of equity.