Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Ending the Reign of the Administrative Law Judge

The system of checks and balances that the Constitution established is an essential safeguard against government overreach. Yet, the ever growing administrative state often undermines fundamental checks and balances. “Fourth branch” agencies frequently take on legislative, executive, and judicial roles simultaneously. And to make matters worse, administrative officials are much less accountable to the people than their counterparts in the traditional three branches.

One especially alarming example of the breakdown of essential separation of powers within the administrative state is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s use of administrative law judges (ALJs). ALJs adjudicate most of the SEC’s enforcement actions. They have the authority to impose significant civil penalties and can bar respondents from working in the securities industry.

Monetarism With Chinese Characteristics

Monetarism is often misunderstood, overlooked, forgotten, or even derided. Yet its basic logic, resting on the quantity theory of money, is evident and remains important in a world of pure fiat monies.

Most major central banks have abandoned monetary targeting in favor of setting interest rates to achieve long-run price stability and full employment. China is an exception. Since 1998, the People’s Bank of China (PBC) has used money growth targets to guide monetary policy aimed at maintaining stable nominal income growth and preventing excess inflation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: PBC Monetary Framework[1]

That said, the PBC’s use of monetary targeting is embedded within China’s centrally planned and largely nationalized financial system. The PBC is subject to oversight by the State Council; the financial system is dominated by state-owned banks; capital markets are highly regulated; and interest rates and exchange rates are distorted. Just as the Chinese government refers to its unique mix of markets, statism, and communist ideology as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” we can call the PBC’s monetary targeting “monetarism with Chinese characteristics.”

Why There Is No Fiscal Case for the Fed’s Large Balance Sheet

It is well known that the Federal Reserve System expanded its assets more than four-fold during and after the 2007-09 financial crisis by making massive purchases of mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries. The balance sheet has not returned to normal since. Total Fed assets stand today at $4.45 trillion, up from less than $1 trillion before the crisis. Whether, when, and how to normalize the size of the Fed’s balance sheet have been under discussion for years.

Economist-blogger David Andolfatto — not speaking for his employer the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis — now offers “a public finance argument” for “keeping the Fed’s balance sheet large.” Viewing the Fed as a financial intermediary, he observes that “The Fed transforms high-interest government debt into low-interest Fed liabilities (money),” and that this is a profitable business.

Curiously, Andolfatto omits to mention two important details: the Fed enjoys such a spread only because it is — for the first times in its history — (a) borrowing short and lending very long, also known as practicing “duration transformation” or “playing the yield curve,” and (b) heavily invested in mortgage-backed securities. The Fed is borrowing short by currently paying 0.75% (not 0.50% as Andolfatto reports) on zero-maturity bank reserves. It lends long by holding 10-year and longer Treasuries (paying 2.42% and up as of 17 Feb. 2017) and long-term mortgage-backed securities.

On Shrinking the Fed’s Balance Sheet

If you’re a regular Alt-M reader (and may the frost never afflict your spuds if you are), I needn’t tell you that I’m the last person to exalt the pre-2008 Federal Reserve System. Among other things, I blame that system for fueling the 2003-2006 boom, and for creating a credit famine afterwards. I also blame it for contributing to the dot.com boom of the 90s, for the rise of Too Big to Fail in the 80s, for the  inflation of the 70s, and for the disintermediation crisis of 1966, to look no further back than that.

Yet for all its flaws that old-time Fed set-up was a veritable monetary Shangri-La compared to the one now in place. For while the newfangled Federal Reserve System is no less capable of mischief than the old one was, it also has the Fed playing a far larger role than before in commandeering and allocating scarce credit.

The Road to Cordray’s Removal Just Got Longer

The plot thickens in the ongoing battle for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the controversial agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  Yesterday, a federal appeals court decided it would grant rehearing of last year’s case, PHH v. CFPB, which held the agency’s structure to be unconstitutional.  The decision issued last year not only ruled the agency’s structure to be unconstitutional, but also placed the director under the president’s authority, giving the president the power to fire the director at will.  Now that the court will rehear the case, its earlier decision is no longer binding, meaning the president can no longer rely on it if he wishes fire Director Richard Cordray.

Why Do We Pay So Much More for No Progress?

That is the question asked by Scott Alexander and John Cochrane in discussing high school education, college and infrastructure spending. Despite rising funding, it is not clear outcomes are improving.

Scott highlights the example of K-through-12 public education where spending has increased substantially since 1970 but test scores have remained stagnant. He asks:

Which would you prefer? Sending your child to a 2016 school? Or sending your child to a 1975 school, and getting a check for $5,000 every year?

On college he presents a similar counterfactual:

Would you rather graduate from a modern college, or graduate from a college more like the one your parents went to, plus get a check for $72,000?  (or, more realistically, have $72,000 less in student loans to pay off)

He also highlights the rising cost of infrastructure spending through the example of a New York City subway:

1900…it’s about the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $100 million/kilometer today… In contrast…a new New York subway line being opened this year costs about $2.2 billion per kilometer

As Scott outlines, the underlying crisis here is made all the worse by the fact that new technologies and globalization should have put downward pressure on the costs of provision.

Two questions arise: why is this happening and what can be done about it?

This requires a huge amount of research. Certainly it cannot be answered in a blog post. But I want to suggest an analytical framework for thinking about these examples that can be applied in each case to work out what is going wrong. This is all the more necessary because the absence of meaningful prices in the public sector makes measuring productivity much more difficult than in the full market sector of the economy.

Rather than merely comparing money spent to outcomes, we can break things down as follows:

Taxpayer dollars -> Inputs -> Production process -> Outputs -> Outcomes (quality-adjusted outputs)

Take schooling. We pay money in through taxes.  These are used to fund the labor (teachers, administrators etc), to build schools, and to pay for the goods and services used within schools. The schools then operate. And those inputs work to produce measurable outputs in terms of number of children being taught, hours of teaching, exams prepared for etc. But what we really care about is outcomes, which are linked to but not quite the same thing (think test scores). This is best thought of as a measure of quality-adjusted output. Productivity (to the extent we can measure it) can be thought of as the ratio of outputs to inputs, whereas what we ultimately care about here is improving the effectiveness of money spent (outcomes over taxpayer dollars).

Are Payday Loans Harmful?

Payday loans are small, short-term, unsecured loans. The typical borrower can not easily borrow elsewhere, and the interest rates on payday loans are quite high. These factors generate enormous criticism of payday lenders for “exploiting” borrowers.

Economists Susan Payne Carter and William Skimmyhorn of the United States Military Academy provide evidence on this criticism:

We evaluate the effect that payday loan access has on credit and labor market outcomes of individuals in the U.S. Army. … We find few adverse effects of payday loan access on service members when using any of [our empirical] methods, even when we examine dozens of subsamples that explore potential differential treatment effects.

This should not be a surprise: for people with poor credit, payday loans can be better than the alternatives. These include going to a loan shark, which is even more expensive; or not borrowing, even to fund crucial medical care, or a rental payment that avoids eviction, or travel to secure a job.