The WSJ discovers long and variable leads

Jared Pincin directed me to a new example of long and variable leads, from the Wall Street Journal:

The European Central Bank begins its much-anticipated purchases of sovereign bonds on Monday, and ECB President Mario Draghi says the program known as quantitative easing is working before it has even begun. He’s right about that, as strange as it sounds, and therein lies the paradox of Europe’s dive into QE: It may already have had the most effect it is going to have through Mr. Draghi’s salesmanship and Europe’s will to believe.

Recall how the ECB got here. Demands have grown for years for an ECB program to match the bond purchases by central banks in the U.S., U.K. and Japan. Mr. Draghi started hinting at a willingness to play along in his August speech at the global central banking conference at Jackson Hole, Wyo. By the time Mr. Draghi in September announced a plan to buy private securities, investors viewed it as a stepping-stone to buying sovereign debt too.

As investors came to view QE as inevitable, prices responded, especially the price of the euro. As a result of Mr. Draghi’s open-mouth operations to talk down the euro—coupled with an expectation that interest rates might rise soon in the U.S.—the euro has declined steadily against the dollar and other currencies. On Thursday it hit an 11-year low of $1.10, compared to about $1.40 last summer.

In other news, the rapid improvement in the labor market, which began in early 2013 with fiscal austerity and accelerated in 2014 with the end of extended unemployment insurance benefits, continues into 2015.  Unemployment is now down to 5.5%, from 10% in October 2009 and 8% in early 2013.  Job growth continues at a rate far faster that the growth of the working age population.  Conservative structuralists and inflation fearmongers were wrong, as were liberal austerity fearmongers and those who denied extended UI insurance affected unemployment.  Who was right?  The same group that’s been right about almost everything else since 2008.

Monetary policy drives NGDP, which drives the business cycle.  When you pay people not to work, you get less work.  What a pity that Keynesian economics emerged from the 1930s, instead of Hawtreynomics.

The criminalization of currency and the zero bound

Evan Soltas has a very good post on the surprisingly low interest rates observed in several European countries.  He points out that there are significant costs of holding currency:

But nobody really seems to have a good handle on what the new, negative lower bound might be. So how much would it actually cost, I wondered, to store $10,000 in currency for a year?

This seems to me a decent, and admittedly entertaining, way of getting a rough estimate of a lower bound. I picked $10,000 because it’s about twice the average balance of a savings account in the U.S., giving me a conservative estimate of the average percentage cost.

A safe deposit box at a bank seems to cost around $100 a yearafter insurance. Then the average cost of storing currency is about 1 percent annually — maybe a bit more if you buy a safe.

Yet, rather obviously, having $10,000 in a deposit box is not the same thing as having $10,000 in a bank account. You can spend from your bank account using a credit card, or you can go to an ATM and withdraw cash. You can’t do the same with a safety deposit box.

How much is that convenience worth? It seems like a hard question, but we have a decent proxy for that: credit card fees, counting both those to merchants and to cardholders. That’s because the credit-card company is making exactly the same calculus as we are trying to make — how much can we charge before we make people indifferent between currency and credit cards? The data here suggest a conservative estimate is 2 percent annually.

So my rough guess is that the average depositor is probably better off keeping their money at a bank up to a nominal interest rate of -3 percent annually. (This is also what other people said, in an extremely informal poll, would be the most they would accept.) But, from an economic perspective, what we really care about is the marginal depositor — that is, who has the lowest cost of currency storage?

And here, I am at a loss. Are there are efficiencies of scale in currency storage? What does the marginal cost curve for currency storage look like?

I’ve only seen safety deposit boxes in pictures, but I’d guess they could hold considerably more than $10,000, in packets of crisp $100 bills.  Maybe $100,000. On the other hand there are risks such as fire and theft, which don’t occur with T-bills.  But even those risks may be fairly low.  So I think Evan is correct to emphasize the convenience factor.  However, Paul Krugman raises some other good points:

In normal times, we invoke the convenience of money — its extra liquidity — to explain why people hold money at zero or at any rate low interest rates when there are other safe assets offering higher yields. We think of money demand as determined by people increasing their holdings up to the point where the opportunity cost of holding money, the interest rate on other safe assets, equals its utility from increased liquidity.

Once interest rates on safe assets are zero or lower, however, liquidity has no opportunity cost; people will saturate themselves with it. That’s why we call it a liquidity trap! And what this means is that the marginal dollar of money holdings is being held solely as a store of value — the medium of exchange utility is irrelevant.

I like this argument, but I have a nagging feeling that Soltas must be right about the convenience factor.  I just can’t think of any other reason for the surprisingly large negative rates in Europe.  So let me throw out one other way of thinking about the vague term “convenience.”  Here are some things you should know about currency:

1.  Bringing more than $10,000 in cash into the US triggers alarm bells at the border.

2.  Taking more than $10,000 in cash out of a bank triggers alarm bells.  Indeed frequent cash transactions of $5000 can be enough to trigger a report to the government, under the “know your customer” rules.

3.  If you are pulled over for a missing taillight and have an envelope with lots of cash in your car, the police in the US can seize the money.  If you’ve committed no crime and are willing to spend a lot of money on attorneys and many months of your time, you can eventually get the money back.  But it’s very costly to do so.

Just to be clear, there is no law against holding large amounts of cash in the US. But the government considers it to be a sort of quasi-crime, evidence of wrongdoing.  They strongly dislike people who deal in large amounts of currency.

Why should it matter if the government is very hostile to your behavior, as long as you’ve committed no crime?  It shouldn’t matter, but let’s not be naive.  If you are a wealthy person or a business, it’s almost impossible to go through life without breaking laws.  The tax code and other regulations are so complex that wealthy people and businesses are easy pickings for any prosecutor that wants to make his name nailing the next Michael Milken.  (Disclosure: I’ve gone through life with just one email account, and today I find out that you aren’t supposed to use your job email for personal use.  Hillary, I feel your pain.)

I may be totally off base on this, but I’d like to hear from people that work in the investment banking world.  How would your boss feel if you suddenly suggested investing billions of dollars or euros or francs in currency, and then storing this currency in hundreds of safety deposit boxes?  And suppose you justified this investment on the basis that the return would be higher than you’d earn on government debt?  I suspect the idea of all that currency would give most big institutions a queasy feeling, and would make wealthy individuals worry that the government might begin to take a very close look at their books  . . .  if you know what I mean.

What do you think?

PS.  Back in the old days it was acceptable to hold large amounts of currency, indeed banks held $100,000 currency notes.  That was before the US government criminalized all sorts of business behavior that used to be acceptable.   Perhaps that’s why even during the worst of the Great Depression, the interest rate never went more than one or two basis points negative, if my memory is correct.

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PPS.  I also recommend Alex Tabarrok’s post on the police in Ferguson, which shows that innocent low-income blacks and Hispanics also have plenty to fear from the police.  The people with the least to fear are academics, government bureaucrats, and others of that type.  No wonder they are so naive about the downside of big and powerful governments.

A new argument against libertarianism

David Henderson has a post discussing a Henry Farrell piece on the Silk Road. Farrell shows that when markets like drugs are made illegal lots of nasty side effects can occur.  He concludes that this is an argument against libertarianism:

The libertarian hope that markets could sustain themselves through free association and choice is a chimera with a toxic sting in its tail. Without state enforcement, the secret drug markets of Tor hidden services are coming to resemble an anarchic state of nature in which self-help dominates.

Paul Krugman agrees:

a truly brilliant essay . . . an awesome read.

OK everyone, take a deep breath.  Let’s keep the comment section civil.  Krugman is a distinguished Nobel Prize winner.  This is the world we are condemned to live in.  I think Deirdre McCloskey best expressed my frustration.

I don’t care how one defines capitalism, as long as it’s not defined as evil incarnate.

Unfortunately, everyone from the Pope to Paul Krugman increasingly seem to prefer exactly that definition.

Real wage bleg

Paul Krugman has a column discussing the plight of America’s workers:

The point is that extreme inequality and the falling fortunes of America’s workers are a choice, not a destiny imposed by the gods of the market. And we can change that choice if we want to.

We all know that workers have done very poorly in recent decades, but exactly how do we know this?  Michael Darda sent me an email pointing out that real wages have been rising since about 1994 (ironically when NAFTA was enacted), after falling during previous decades.  Here’s a graph showing hourly real wages, where I use the wage series excluding the higher paid managers.  I presume that’s the series people are discussing. I use the PCE price index, which the Fed seems to think is best (I find all price indices to be equally arbitrary.)

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Obviously I must have made some sort of mistake.  Which data series are the Democrats using to get so hysterical about real wages in America?

PS.  Or maybe I misunderstood the complaint.  Maybe the left thinks average real wages are fine and that inequality is the problem.  In that case workers making more than average (more than $20.80/hour) should see their wages cut while those making less than average should see their pay increase.  Good luck with that platform, given that a sizable chunk of low wage workers are non-voting teens and immigrants.

PS.  Evan Soltas is back blogging, and has some very interesting new posts, including one on wage compression.  Soon I’ll discuss his post on the cost of holding currency.

The great unwashed masses (there’s weakness in numbers)

Over at Econlog I have a new post pointing out that back in 2006 New Keynesians like Brad DeLong believed in monetary offset.  I should clarify one point, however. I am basically talking about the New Keynesian elite, the people who follow the latest developments in macroeconomics.

A paper by Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern (2006) points to a 2003 survey done by the AEA that showed that most economists favored using fiscal stimulus for purposes of fine-tuning the economy.  Read that again, I didn’t say “most Keynesians,” I said most economists.  Fiscal skeptics like Krugman and DeLong were right-of-center economists back in those days.

The problem here is that most economists get their ideas on macroeconomics from studying the Keynesian cross model in EC101, and also using common sense (obviously if G goes up, then C+I+G must go up.)  But by 2006 the Keynesian cross model was horribly outdated, and common sense is almost useless in economics.  Indeed you could argue that it is a lack of common sense that separates the elite economists like Krugman from their mediocre colleagues.

In a 1997 article Paul Krugman called those holding this consensus view “Vulgar Keynesians.” Here Krugman makes the same mistake I made (when discussing the paradox of thrift and the widow’s cruse.):

Such paradoxes are still fun to contemplate; they still appear in some freshman textbooks. Nonetheless, few economists take them seriously these days. There are a number of reasons, but the most important can be stated in two words: Alan Greenspan.

After all, the simple Keynesian story is one in which interest rates are independent of the level of employment and output. But in reality the Federal Reserve Board actively manages interest rates, pushing them down when it thinks employment is too low and raising them when it thinks the economy is overheating. You may quarrel with the Fed chairman’s judgment–you may think that he should keep the economy on a looser rein–but you can hardly dispute his power. Indeed, if you want a simple model for predicting the unemployment rate in the United States over the next few years, here it is: It will be what Greenspan wants it to be, plus or minus a random error reflecting the fact that he is not quite God.

Krugman and I both believed that there were “few economists” who stilled believed that nonsense back in the late 1990s, when in fact most economists believed that nonsense as late as 2003.  Krugman had the Pauline Kael problem, he didn’t know most economists; he knew Bernanke, Svensson, Woodford and other Princeton economists. My problem was that I didn’t know most economists, I read Bernanke, Svensson, Woodford and Krugman, and assumed they were representative.

Of course Krugman has now joined the vulgar Keynesians, citing the new circumstances of near-zero interest rates.  I suppose he finds strength in numbers, such as the 350 economists who warned that fiscal austerity in 2013 would produce a recession.  Indeed I’ve seen Krugman cite a poll of 50 economists, almost all of which thought fiscal stimulus had a positive effect.

Unfortunately, most economists are far behind the times in macro theory.  By joining up with most economists, Krugman has allied himself with the least informed segment of the profession.  It would be like suddenly becoming a protectionist, and citing the fact that 90% of Americans think Chinese imports cause unemployment.  Come to think of it, isn’t Krugman also making that argument?

Economics is the queen of the counterintuitive sciences.  And no parts of economics are more counterintuitive than stabilization policy and trade.  Krugman was wrong in thinking the majority agreed with him in 1997.  But Krugman’s right that he’s now in with the overwhelming majority of economists.  I’m in the tiny, tiny minority of economists who think the economy has needed demand stimulus but that fiscal stimulus is ineffective.  But this is one case where there is weakness in numbers. I’m perfectly happy being in a tiny minority, if it’s the same minority that Krugman and DeLong and the other elite NKs belonged to a decade ago.

PS.  To be fair, the 350 warned about fiscal austerity slightly worse than the $500 billion reduction in the deficit in calendar 2013 that actually occurred, but still . . .