Doc Selgin’s QE Eye Test

Some weeks ago, I made some critical observations concerning the Fed’s contribution to  the recovery.  In particular, I complained that, despite the decidedly mixed and ambiguous results of empirical assessments thus far, the view that Quantitative Easing has been a smashing success seemed well on its way to becoming official dogma, if not a more generally-held article of faith.

Even so, I was taken aback by the off-hand manner in which Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer declared a QE victory, in the course of a speech given two weeks ago at the International Monetary Conference in Toronto.   Did the Fed’s policies work?  According to Fischer, “The econometric evidence says yes.  So does the evidence of one’s eyes” (my emphasis).

In fact, as I’ve already noted, the econometric evidence concerning the effectiveness of QE is hardly decisive.  For one thing, most studies have looked only at the interest-rate effects of the Fed’s purchases, without troubling to ask whether those effects translated into any definite changes in spending, output, and employment.  For another, the interest-rate effect estimates are themselves not to be trusted.   A fairly recent IMF study on “Foreign Investor Flows and Sovereign Bond Yields in Advanced Economies,” for example, notes — en passant as it were — that, controlling for such flows, the Fed’s large-scale asset purchases resulted, not in the 90-200 basis point decline in long-term rates reported in various other studies, but in a decline of just thirty basis points, which is peanuts.  Other studies may, in other words, have conflated the effects of the Fed’s asset purchases with those of concurrent “flights” from lower-quality Eurozone securities to higher-quality Treasuries.

But why bother with fancy econometrics when one can simply refer, as Vice Chairman Fischer did, to the “evidence of one’s eyes”?   Fischer, apparently, found in that evidence compelling proof that QE worked wonders.  Fischer actually mentions only one piece of evidence, to wit: the fact that “the recent inauguration of the ECB’s QE policy seemed to have an immediate effect not only on European interest rates, but also on longer-term rates in the United States.”  But here, as with other inferences drawn by looking at interest-rate movements, connecting the dots isn’t nearly as easy as Fischer supposes.

Evidence that some good has come from the ECB ‘s belated easing is, in any event, not evidence that the Fed’s easing did any good.  Try as I might, I just can’t seem to get my eyes to focus on any clear and unambiguous evidence that it did.  Has Fischer, I wonder, been looking at the same things I’ve looked at?  If so, is he perhaps looking through rose-colored glasses, or is it my own vision or prescription that’s faulty?

With such questions in mind, I decided to put the matter to a test.  Call it Doc Selgin’s QE Eye Test, or Eye QE Test, or whatever else you wish to call it.  The instructions are simple: eyeball the following charts, gathered from various internet sources, recording all sorts of basic information pertaining to Quantitative Easing on one hand and the post-2008 recovery on the other.  Then decide for yourself whether the evidence of your eyes agrees with Mr. Fischer’s relatively sunny impression, or with my own much gloomier one.

Trade Promotion Authority and the TiSA’s Immigration “Smoking Gun”

A widespread criticism of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which remains in limbo after a surprising legislative mess last Friday, has come from conservative skeptics who believe that TPA will permit President Obama to change US immigration laws unilaterally.  Originally a fringe argument, it gained momentum earlier this month when WikiLeaks published the confidential draft negotiating texts on the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), which is currently under negotiation.  Among those texts was an Annex on “Movement of Natural Persons” – one of the standard “modes” of supply (Mode 4) negotiated in trade agreements that cover services.  The leaked annex, TPA critics claimed, was “smoking gun” proof that President Obama was, in fact, secretly negotiating with foreign governments to liberalize US immigration restrictions without congressional input, and that TPA would grant him the power to lift such restrictions in the very near future.  The facts surrounding TPA, TiSA and global services trade, however, effectively rebut such claims.

BACKGROUND

Before getting to these facts, it’s important to understand just what TiSA is.  The TiSA is a plurilateral free trade agreement on services being negotiated among 27 participants (including the US and EU).  TiSA began in 2012 but only picked up momentum over the last year or so, as the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round, which also included services, faded.

If signed and implemented, TiSA would likely represent a major economic win for the United States, given that (i) the vast majority of the US economy is services; (ii) the United States has a large comparative advantage in global services; and (iii) unlike goods, global trade in services remains relatively restricted.  TiSA’s basic goals include that each participant offer to all other parties, at a minimum, the best commitments that it has made in preferential FTAs, and, importantly, the eventual “multilateralization” of the agreement into the WTO such that it is open for accession by all WTO Members.  As such, the architecture and principles of the TiSA reflect those of WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which was finalized in 1995 and covers all WTO Members including the United States.  Any final, multilateralized TiSA deal would be a very good thing for those who support free markets and, of course, the US global economies.

Despite these benefits, the leaked TiSA has caused an uproar among skeptical (and in many cases, anti-immigration) conservatives.  (It’s also upset anti-trade liberals who see the deal as “global deregulation,” but that’s a canard for another time.)  As mentioned, however, there are a lot facts that undermine the argument that the TiSA represents an immigration “smoking gun.”

Rising Religious Persecution: Islam Threatens Minorities

All religious faiths are victims of persecution somewhere. Over the last year “a horrified world has watched the results of what some have aptly called violence masquerading as religious devotion” in several nations, observed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its latest annual report.

The Commission highlighted 27 countries for particularly vicious treatment of religious minorities. Nine states make the first tier, “Countries of Particular Concern,” in State Department parlance.

Burma. Despite recent reforms, noted the Commission, “these steps have not yet improved conditions for religious freedom and related human rights in the country, nor spurred the Burmese government to curtail those perpetrating abuses.”

China. President Xi Jinping’s attempt to tighten the state’s control over all dissent has impacted believers, who “continue to face arrests, fines, denials of justice, lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases, the closing or bulldozing of places of worship.”

Eritrea. Everyone suffers under a repressive, fanatical, and isolationist regime: “The government regularly tortures and beats political and religious prisoners; however, religious prisoners are sent to the harshest prisons and receive some of the cruelest punishments.”

Iran. Persecution has increased since the ascension of President Hassan Rouhani as president: “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”

North Korea. Despite a handful of official churches, “Genuine freedom of religion or belief is non-existent. Individuals secretly engaging in religious activities are subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and sometimes execution.

Ukraine: The World’s Second-Highest Inflation

I estimate the current annual implied inflation rate in Ukraine to be 92%. This is the world’s second-highest inflation rate, far lower than Venezuela’s 480% but slightly higher than Syria’s 75%.

Ukraine's Annual Inflation Rates

I regularly estimate the annual inflation rates for Ukraine. To calculate those inflation rates, I use dynamic purchasing power parity (PPP) theory. I computed the 92% rate by using black-market exchange rate data that the Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project has collected over the past year.

A recent front-page feature article in the New York Times attests to the severity of Ukraine’s inflation problem. Danny Hakim’s reportage contains many anecdotes that are consistent with my inflation estimates based on PPP. For example, chocolate that used to cost 80 Ukrainian hryvnia per kilogram has dramatically increased to 203 Ukrainian hryvnia per kilogram over the past 17 months – a 154% increase. On an annualized basis, this amounts to an inflation rate of 93% – almost exactly the same number I obtained when applying the scientific PPP methodology.

As evidence of the Alice in Wonderland nature of Ukraine’s current state of affairs, President Petro Poroshenko penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on June 11. The title of his unguarded, gushing piece perfectly reflects the sentiments contained in his article: We’re Making Steady Progress in Ukraine, Despite Putin.

The President failed to even allude to Ukraine’s inflation problem. He is apparently unaware of the harsh realities facing the citizens of his country. He is also apparently unaware that his finance minister, Natalie Jaresko, whom he praises to high heaven, was recently in Washington, D.C., where she used a new Ukrainian law as cover to threaten a sovereign debt default. The reportage on these threats appeared in London’s Financial Times on June 11, the same day the Wall Street Journal published President Poroshenko’s op-ed.

It is time for Ukraine to get real.

Today’s Trade Vote Is Getting A Partial Do-Over Next Week—Here’s Why

A very unexpected outcome during a series of votes on trade policy in the House of Representatives has managed to confuse pretty much everyone today. 

The most important and controversial bill in the package was Trade Promotion Authority, which narrowly passed the House 219-211 with 28 Democrats in favor and 54 Republicans opposed.  Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) will enable the President to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (and other) trade negotiations and submit a final agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote. 

But in order for TPA to go to the President’s desk, the House must also pass Trade Adjustment Assistance.  That’s because TAA was included together with TPA in the bill the Senate passed last month. 

Normally, Democrats support TAA, which is an entitlement program for people whose jobs are displaced due to import competition.  Many Republicans oppose TAA as a useless, big-government entitlement program.  House leadership chose to hold two separate votes on TAA and TPA to prevent Republicans from voting no on the package out of opposition to TAA. 

That strategy may have backfired.  Because advancing TPA required passage of TAA, Democrats were able to scuttle the whole thing by voting no on TAA.

But it’s not over yet.  Republican leadership is planning a do-over on the TAA vote in order to salvage TPA.  So there’s likely going to be another vote on TAA early next week.  In the meantime, Republican leadership and President Obama will be madly lobbying their respective party members to muster enough support.

For practical purposes, this result means that Congress has kicked the can down the road for a few more days.  Today’s vote was definitely not a win for the President or GOP leadership, but they haven’t been defeated either.  They can still pull out a victory if they can win enough votes next week to pass TAA—a bill that was defeated today by a solid 126-302.

The Miracle of Air-Conditioning

With the temperature in Washington, D.C. in the mid-90s, it is perhaps worthwhile to recall what life was like before the arrival of air-conditioning. Below are a few excerpts from a New Yorker essay about air conditioning penned by the great Arthur Miller in 1998:

Exactly what year it was I can no longer recall—probably 1927 or ’28—there was an extraordinarily hot September, which hung on even after school had started and we were back from our Rockaway Beach bungalow. Every window in New York was open, and on the streets venders manning little carts chopped ice and sprinkled colored sugar over mounds of it for a couple of pennies. We kids would jump onto the back steps of the slow-moving, horse-drawn ice wagons and steal a chip or two; the ice smelled vaguely of manure but cooled palm and tongue…

Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s. Babies cried in the darkness, men’s deep voices murmured, and a woman let out an occasional high laugh beside the lake…

Given the heat, people smelled, of course, but some smelled a lot worse than others. One cutter in my father’s shop was a horse in this respect, and my father, who normally had no sense of smell—no one understood why—claimed that he could smell this man and would address him only from a distance…

There were still elevated trains then, along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues, and many of the cars were wooden, with windows that opened. Broadway had open trolleys with no side walls, in which you at least caught the breeze, hot though it was, so that desperate people, unable to endure their apartments, would simply pay a nickel and ride around aimlessly for a couple of hours to cool off. …

American Mathematical Society: Hurdles to U.S. Tech. Improvement

Allow me to liberally paraphrase a piece from the current issue of the AMS’s publication “Notices.” Thereafter, I’ll contrast my version with the original.

The US presents particular obstacles to achieving technological improvement at a national scale, deriving from its social and economic diversity and also from an entrenched tradition of entrepreneurship and private industry which precludes a federal role in any primary initiatives. Yet to achieve real improvement at scale requires some national coherence.

The laws of physics are the same in Florida and Montana; it makes little sense in a highly mobile population for more than one cell phone technology to exist within our borders. It would be like building a national railway system with different gauge tracks in each state.

Readers will no doubt realize that this argument is undermined by the substantial advances Americans have witnessed in Cell phone technology over the years, despite—perhaps even because of—the existence of alternative suppliers developing different hardware and operating systems. All the while, we are somehow still able to call/text one another without worrying whether our interlocutor is an Apple addict or an aficionado of Android. And scale hasn’t proven to be a problem. Apple and Google have managed to serve very, very large numbers of people indeed.