Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Make social security contributions more visible

Any tax on labor income reduces the labor supply depresses the labor supply, this is no secret. Theory also tells us that whether the employer or the employee pays any withheld tax does not matter. Contributions to pension plans, which are typically paid by both employers and employees, look like a tax on the pay stub and should thus obey the same principle. Well not quite.

Iñigo Iturbe-Ormaetxe argues that the size of the pension fund contribution says something about the future benefits. If the employer contribution remains hidden, the employee is not aware what great benefit he is getting. Were he to pay the whole contribution, after a corresponding pay rise that is revenue neutral to the employer, the employer would be happier about his pay and would increase his labor supply. It would work similarly if the employer would simply indicate on the pay stub her contribution. This assertion is backed with a crude cross-country regression of employment rates in the OECD which shows that at least male employment rates a negatively affected by employer contributions, but not by employee contributions.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tax reform: Politics has more weight than Economics

One of the great frustration as an economist is to know what is best and being told it is "politically unfeasible." And why is it typically unfeasible? Because the "right" people do not like it, because it sounds complicated, and because populists would have a feast opposing it, or a combination of the three. How much is this frustration really justified?

Micael Castanheira, Gaëtan Nicodème and Paola Profeta look at the reform of labor income taxation in Europe and find that it is very consistent with the theory that politics shapes taxes more than economists. Indeed, the size of the ruling party or coalition is the main factor: instead of a compromise, which would likely be close to the outcome a social planner to choose, the rulers select what is best for them without regard for the others, or just enough regard to prevent a revolt (that is my interpretation). And then people blame economists when things do not go right.

I'll go weep in a corner now.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Market failure and political outcomes

In a perfect economic world, perfect competition and the lack of frictions or externalities make it possible to obtain the most efficient outcome. But once any of those assumptions is lost, outcomes are going to be worse than the first best. In particular, once there are rents to be obtained, from frictions or imperfect competition, the beneficiaries of those rents will try to protect them. And they will try to influence political outcomes in their favor.

Madhav Aney, Maitreesh Ghatak and Massimo Morelli argues that this influence peddling reinforces the market failures. As an example, they take a model of misallocation of entrepreneurial talent due to the imperfect observability of that talent. The resulting power structure then votes on institutions that reinforce such a class structure and thus amplify misallocations and market failures.

Now think about the apparently ever-increasing proportion of lawyers in the political class.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Was medieval seigniorage welfare improving?

The presence of coins improves social welfare, as it allows for more trades than barter would allow. Coin minting also provides income to the minting authority, as it can buy stuff with coins that have more value than their production cost. This is called seigniorage. This was also the case in medieval times, where "seigneurs" would mint gold or silver coins with somewhat less metal content than indicated and thus get income. One would thus think that these minters would be profit maximizing, and thus enhance welfare only as a by-product.

Angela Redish and Warren Weber say this is not quite true. They build a random matching model of commodity money, where the supply of silver is exogenous. They derive the welfare maximizing size and quantity of coins as a function of the quantity of silver and the probability of acceptance of cash. Using data from medieval Venice and England, they find that the model predictions follow remarkably well the historical record. This probably means that authorities were benevolent. I say probably because they may have acted in the same way out of selfishness, but that is not documented in the paper. Indeed, the model assumes than any holder of silver can mint, while in reality a limited number of people could do that.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How to tax addictions

Addiction is most often a problem of self-control. If one is not capable of factoring in the future consequences of one's actions, one way to make this is taken into account is to distort prices appropriately. This is what taxes (and subsidies) are good at. While we know rather well how to design taxes on externalities born by others or the community, the case is more difficult for externalities inflicted on future selves.

Luca Bossi, Paul Calcott and Vladimir Petkov get on the case i the context of externalities, self-control issues and imperfect competition, as applicable for cigarettes and their highly concentrated industry. They also implement time-consistent taxes to accommodate the addiction, which means that people or government would not want to deviate from the social optimum. Taxes are thus state dependent and described by a rule. One important result is that combining addiction and imperfect competition leads to lower taxes that previously reported, because prices are already higher to start with if providers are oligopolistic. Were some drugs to be legalized, one has thus to keep in mind that the new market structure matters in the design of the new taxes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Keep CEOs off outside boards

Should CEOs take outside mandates? For share holders the question boils down to firm performance. If this allows the CEO to peak in management practices at better places or even collude, then this is good for the bottom line. If the CEO dilutes his efforts by being unfaithful, then this hurts the company. In the end, we needs to see what the data says.

Benjamin Balsmeier, Achim Buchwald and Heiko Peters look at CEOs from the 100 largest German firms in a panel dataset. And it does not look good. Firms with CEOS directors elsewhere have a return on assets over one percentage point lower. You would think that this should have consequences. Yet, such CEOs are less likely to be ousted than loyal ones. This may corroborate the entrenchment hypothesis, as I discussed before. The lack of competition at top clearly shows.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teenage achievement and the house price bubble

The general economic context of where and when you grow up matters. Think, for example, of those raised during the Great Depression in the US or World War II in Europe who are likely to be very careful with their spending, never through anything away and finish their plates. In this regard, what should we expect from those reaching adulthood in the past years?

Daniel Cooper and María José Luengo-Prado study the impact on teenagers of the house price boom before the current crisis in the United States on educational outcomes. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), they find that a 1% higher house price at age 17 leads to a 0.8% higher income as adult if the parents owned the home, 1.2% lower if they were tenants, after conditioning for socio-economic characteristics. These are big numbers. They can be justified by the observation that higher house prices allows more collateral to borrow for education. Indeed households with a below median non-housing wealth saw even a 1.6% boost in their child's future income. To explain the impact on tenants, I suppose one can explain it with higher tuition in reaction to larger loans, which tenants cannot afford as well.

The consequences from the recent house price crash are daunting in this context. And given that state are disengaging themselves from financing their public colleges, leading to even higher tuition, the outlook is even worse.

Monday, August 22, 2011

File sharing and the structure of the music market

For as long as music has existed, artists have lived from performing. The advent of packaged music (radio, TV, disk, tape or CD) has changed little to this, as the new medium has been more about promoting the artist than making money for the artist, with few exceptions. The ones making money from sales are the record companies, and the appearance on file-sharing is challenging their business model while not affecting the artist's way of living. In fact, the latter appreciate the zero marginal cost promotion. But the record companies want to survive.

Ralf Dewenter, Justus Haucap and Tobias Wenzel study the interaction of record and ticket sales under the assumption that both benefit from each other. Clearly, the impact of file sharing is ambiguous: it may increase record sales if people discover an artist through file-sharing and attend a show. But some potential sales are lost when a very close substitute is available for free. The solution for the record companies to to take over the management of concerts as well. Whether the artists want to go along with that is another question.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Do we need awards in Economics?

I do not like awards. They always create jealousies, and one cannot help that whenever a committee is involved, something may not have gone right. I am thus quite happy that economists give very few awards. It makes their CVs look bad compared to other scientists, but that is the price for a relative peace in the profession.

But we still have some prizes. The Nobel one, which is not really part of the Nobel family but is still attributed much prestige is always under much scrutiny. And in the end, the right people tend to win it. There have been a few controversial cases, Myrdal, Hayek, Buchanan and Ostrom come to mind as example where quite a few eyebrows were raised, but overall this award works well.

The American Economic Association gives an award that is considered to be even more difficult to get than the Nobel Prize: the Clark Medal, given to an American aged under 40. It is difficult to get because only one is awarded every year (no joint winners) and until recently it was given every second year. When comparing to the Nobel Prize, it is relevant to understand that American get a vast majority of them.

Now let us have a look at the past few year for the Clark award:
2011: Jonathan Levin, PhD MIT, Faculty at Stanford
2010: Esther Duflo, PhD MIT, Faculty at MIT
2009: Emmanuel Saez, PhD MIT, Faculty Harvard then Berkeley
2007: Susan Athey, PhD Stanford, Faculty at MIT then Stanford and Harvard
2005: Daron Acemoglu, PhD LSE, Faculty at MIT
2003: Steven Levitt, PhD MIT, Fellow at Harvard then faculty at Chicago
2001: Matthew Rabin, PhD MIT, Faculty at Berkeley
1999: Andrei Shleifer, PhD MIT, Faculty at Princeton, Chicago and Harvard

Do you see a pattern? Well I do, and others have, too. I am not saying these awardees are not bright and promising economists, but is there really no other qualifying economists that could have received it? Of course, John List comes to mind, who has no connection with MIT (or Harvard). But it actually worse than that. The award is given by a small committee, designated by the AEA. The AEA leadership is stacked with people with MIT and Harvard connections, so they also nominate their friends to the various committees, and you see the result.

It is even worse. In 2010, Ester Duflo was considered to be in the pool of strong candidates for the award. Guess who was on the awarding committee? Abhijit Banerjee, her PhD advisor, frequent co-author and colleague at MIT. In such a situation, an ethical person would decline the invitation to serve on the committee. That does not seem to have crossed the mind of Banerjee, who may be used to this cronyism.

There is another award, this time given by the European Economic Association: the Yrjö Jahnsson Award, to an European economist under age 45. It is given every two years, but can have several recipients. This awards has looked much cleaner because the committees and awardees have been distributed all over Europe. Europeans are indeed very sensitive to this. The last one was a shocker, though. Armin Falk won it to the surprise of many. And guess who chaired the awarding committee? His advisor, Ernst Fehr. Again, ethics would have indicated that if Falk had a chance of winning it, Fehr should have recused himself not just from chairing the committee, but from participating in it. In retrospect, this is not Fehr's first wrongdoing: two years earlier he was also on the committee when Fabrizio Zilibotti co-won the award. Zilibotti is a colleague of Fehr in Zurich.

I think we should do away with these two awards. It simply does not work.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Trust in private money

Money does not have to be supplied by government. Private money could work under some circumstances, and it has in particular been argued that competition should be beneficial. While previous attempts have failed, the wider availability of information, rating agencies (gasp) and information technology could make it happen. So it is of interest to find out what those circumstances are.

Ramon Marimon, Juan Pablo Nicolini and Pedro Teles say that money is an experience good, as you only observes its quality after the exchange is performed. This leads to serious limitations. If issuer of currency cannot commit to not inflate in the future, then competition over currency in the present has no bite. Building a reputation can solve this to some degree, but building the necessary trust means that future rewards must be larger that immediate gains from inflating. That implies that full efficiency cannot be attained: inflation needs to remain positive, while full efficiency implies negative inflation so that money has the same return as a risk-free bond. Unfortunately it also implies that there is indeterminacy and any inflation rate could happen. Oh well, may be the government could step in to help achieve efficiency...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Public consumption and the business cycle

One aspect of government purchases the current crisis has highlighted is how volatile they can be. Quite obviously, they are influenced by politics, to the point of complete reversal between massive spending and severe belt-tightening within months as in the US and the UK. But there could also be a more systematic component that is linked to the business cycle. After all, the government may be trying to improve the welfare of its constituents and for example substitute public consumption for lacking private consumption, or the same for investment.

Ruediger Bachmann and Jinhui Bai look at this using an augmented real business cycle model. They claim that 25-40% of the variance of public consumption can be accounted for by shocks to total factor productivity once implementation lags and costs of public consumption, as well as taste shocks to public vs. private consumption. I am no particular fan of taste shocks, as they are the symptoms of a modeler who is giving up on trying to explain something and simply equates the error term in the Euler equation to a shock. Then much is driven by how this shock is calibrated, in this case to match a four year electoral cycle and some data moments. When I think about shocks in this context, I think indeed about who is in power to decide on public expenditures. But that is not completely exogenous. Indeed, the state of the economy has an impact on who gets elected or reelected. And this can be calibrated without trying to match the data moments one is trying to explain.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Job referrals can be more efficient than open search

I a perfect world with heterogeneous workers and jobs, the matches are those that maximize efficiency. But when information about the quality of either is private and cannot be revealed credibly, the economy quickly looses efficiency. The solution is then to make hiring and firing easy, so that good matches can be found by trial and error. Employers also try to gather information about their potential employees, and their socio-demographic characteristics are certainly among them. While this looks like discrimination, it is OK if it is only statistical discrimination. But one can improve on this.

Christian Dustmann, Albrecht Glitz, and Uta Schönberg study job referrals from co-workers. They find that typically shunned minority workers are more likely to be hired the more other minority workers are already present, a clear sign of job referral. In addition, these workers earn on average higher wages and are more likely to stay in such firms. In some sense, this shows that job search networks can be better than open competition under some circumstances. One could even stretch the argument to claim that favoritism could be beneficial.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Penis size and growth

Understanding why some countries are poor and why some grow than others is probably one of the most important questions in Economics. The traditional tool to tackle this challenge has been growth regressions: use cross-country data and regress the GDP growth rate on various indicators that could be relevant in order to find which matter most. These regressions have been abused over the years, especially as there are obvious endogeneity and collinearity issues. Also, the results are driven by a multitude of (poor) countries where data quality is quite horrendous. The worst is probably all the data mining that is going on in this literature, which culminated with Xavier Sala-i-Martin's two million regressions.

Tatu Westling uses a variable the previous literature completely ignored: the average length of the erect human penis. Adding this variable to the regression shows a U-shaped relationship for the GDP level, explaining 15% of its variation. The optimal penile length is 13.5 cm, and 16cm is disastrous. For GDP growth, the relationship is negative, explaining 20% of the dispersion. This is not negligible, and more than institutional variables that are thought to be the key to growth and convergence.

I wonder how many people will take these results seriously and try to get policy recommendations from it. Westling hypothesize about the impact of self-confidence. The paper is very well written, taking the 'male organ hypothesis' very seriously, but in truth tongue-in-cheek. Very different from this study on flag colors I wrote about previously.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sustainable retirement pension reform?

With increasing longevity, it is obvious that something needs to be done to keep pension systems around the world sustainable. The main options are postponing the normal retirement age, lowering retirement benefits or increasing contributions. The typical studies that compare these options and are thrown around in the public arena are done by accountants and actuaries, who do not take into account the changing incentives of market participants. Economists can do better.

Peter Haan and Victoria Prowse take up the challenge and estimate a very complex life-cycle model for Germany. It includes idiosyncratic risk, consumption and labor supply decisions and a complex tax structure. They find that the 6.4 year increase in life expectancy over the next 40 years needs to be met either by an increase in the full-pension age by 4.3 years or a reduction of benefits by 38%. The first approach markedly increases the unemployment rate. This is ironic in Europe where a reduction of that age is typically viewed as a way to reduce chronic unemployment among the young. The other option would markedly increase savings, as people have to fend for themselves more. Consumption of retirees is higher in the first option though.

Am I satisfied with this study? It is much better than what you typically see, yet I want more. The easy bit is that one could actually determine whose welfare increases under which option. That could help in understanding the (political) feasibility of such reforms. And maybe a combination of them turns out best. More critically, the model does not attempt to consider the consequences in the changes in aggregate supply. Lengthening the work age this much increases the work force dramatically and must have consequences for aggregate, and thus individual, wages. Also, while the matching probabilities and wages of retirement age workers are estimated from current data, I do not think these estimates apply once more previous retirees are forced into this pool. The new ones have different qualities compared to those who would have continued working anyway. Therefore, I see more work to be done.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Procrastination in team work

Teamwork can turn out very bad when moral hazard is present: if people do not trust each other or care about each other, nothing gets done. When doing research, we are lucky to be able to choose our co-authors, but even then things can turn for the worse if a team member looses interest. And we remember how bad it is when a team is forced upon you during our studies. Now, this is all very loose reasoning, let us get on firmer ground.

Philipp Weinscheink studies team production in a dynamic game with moral hazard. If all players are rewarded equally, they will all wait until the last moment to participate. This is very like what we often see in political negotiations with a deadline, where nothing happens until the last moment, and player consciously wait for the last moment. The same often happens at collective agreement bargaining. And of course, the outcomes are far from optimal, as the debt ceiling mess in the US has recently shown.

If the rewards are not equally distributed, the outlook is better. Quite obviously, those who are rewarded better will tend to procrastinate less. But they are not necessarily better off that those less rewarded, as they put more effort. Thus, second-best contracts are unequal ones. But all this falls apart if some players have limited liability (which means they have better outside options) or if some can sabotage. Then everyone will wait until the last moment and very little gets done. Think about the US situation again...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Has the US economic policy been Keynesian for centuries?

Suppose the abstract of a paper starts with "It is demonstrated that the US economy has on the long-term in reality been governed by the Keynesian approach to economics independent of the current official economical policy." My first reaction is that of puzzlement, as I would not have thought as the US being particularly keen on Keynesian policy, except for the recent years (which are not considered in the quoted study). But again, data may speak differently from policy intentions, so let us dig deeper.

A. (Agung?) Johansen and Ingve Simonsen come to this stunning conclusion by looking at the correlation between (nominal?) (federal?) public debt and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. One can first question whether public debt is a good indicator of Keynesian policy. Public deficits or even public expenses would be better. And does the DJIA represent the US economy? It is certainly not an indicator of current activity, but rather of expected present value of future profits from a particular class of firms.

Whatever. Let us go with that. The analysis is done by computing over the 1791-2000 sample a sliding correlation between these two indicators over a five-year window. Surprise, the correlation is zero most of the time, except during some wars when it is strongly positive (and strongly negative during the second war with the Seminole Indians). From this they conclude the Keynesian policy was mostly pursued during wars. Now let us take a step back: the authors show that there is by their definition no Keynesian policy during peacetime. But during wartime, the government is credited with a policy geared towards expansion of the DJIA. They, one may ask, if this is the government overwhelming policy, as the authors seem to believe, why did the US wait so long to get into the two World Wars when the opportunity was there? I cannot make sense of all this.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Land titling and access to credit

It is widely believe that a key ingredient of economic development is the accessibility of credit. Indeed, entrepreneurs typically need credit to develop their business plans, and much of capital accumulation is performed through credit. But no one is going to grant credit on a promise, some collateral is needed. And that is a problem in many developing economies, as people hold little property and even land is communal or without clear property rights. Hence the idea that distribution of untitled land, with well-established property rights, should provide collateral to a large fraction of the population and make credit possible. How does this work in practice?

Caio Piza and Maurico Moura study the case of a major land titling initiative in Brazil. They use an interesting natural experiment. Two neighboring and very similar communities of the city of Corosco (correction: Osasco) were to get property titles for every inhabitant, but five year apart (2007 and 2012). This leads to a nice control group, which allows to overcome the problem of the endogeneity of ownership rights of a typical study by using a difference-in-difference approach. Indeed, the authors conducted a survey in 2007 before the titling, and another one in 2008. In addition, the context here is urban, which is unusual for a titling study. It appears access to credit increases by 22 percentage points, or about a half, within 18 months of titling. This is major. I do not think such large estimates have been found in rural studies. And given that developing countries become increasingly urbanized, this is very interesting.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Convergence in recessions

Growth theory and data teach us that, at least in developed countries, economies tend to converge in the long run: the dispersion across regions or nations of per capita income (or similar indicators) tends to decline. While this is a long term phenomenon, there is a priori no reason to believe this is a constant process.

Eldon Ball, Carlos San Juan and Camilo Ulloa study total factor productivity in agriculture across US states. While they indeed find a general trend towards convergence, it turns out that its speed is much faster during recessions. Why would this happen? If we follow Schumpeter, the worst firms should be dropping out during a recession, thereby relatively increasing TFP in the worst areas. And voilà, you have faster convergence. But only farm-level data would tell whether my conjecture is true.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What if the US looses its reserve currency privilege?

Since the Bretton Woods agreement in 1945, the United States have enjoyed the so-called "Exhorbitant Privilege." During the fixed exchange rate regime, the US could conduct monetary policy without regard to what was happening in other countries. The US dollar was a reserve currency, which also helped the US maintain low interest rates and a guarantee that US dollars (and Treasury bonds) would always find a buyer. With flexible exchange rates, not much has changed. But with the recent shenanigans in a Congress that considered reneging on its debt, the likelihood of this advantage changing has dramatically increased. What would the consequences of the loss of the Exhorbitant Privilege be?

Wenli Cheng and Dingsheng Zhang study this scenario using a general equilibrium model where a peripheral country (say, the Asian economies) pegs its currency to the money of a central country (say, the United States), the latter being used as the vehicle currency for international trade. In addition, the foreign exchange reserves of the periphery are invested in government bonds of the center. This means that no matter what current account deficit of the center, it is always financed by the periphery. Yet the center may be tempted to inflate it away. This limitless and to some extend free borrowing is the Exhorbitant Privilege.

Now remove it by assuming that the periphery does not want to invest in the center, either because it views the Treasury bonds are excessively risky or because it does not peg to the dollar any more. This would lead to a dramatic readjustment of the terms of trade to favor the tradable sector of the center. This decpraciation of the dollar would be more pronounced of the center is incapable of raising taxes and finances its debt with inflation. This already all sounds familiar.

Friday, August 5, 2011

About very large risk aversion estimates

The equity premium puzzle is an enduring challenge to our estimates of risk aversion. Indeed, as Rajnish Mehra and Edward Prescott have highlighted, the only way to reconcile a standard model with the observed long-term equity premium is to assume a risk aversion coefficient of 10, while micro-estimate hover around two. This puzzle has been resolved a little bit in various way, most prominently by taking into habit persistence and some other deviations of the standard CRRA or CARA utility functions. But all this still boils down to a risk aversion parameter that is linked by an identity to the intertemporal elasticity of substitution (it is the inverse). But we know how to disentangle the two.

Xiaohong Chen, Jack Favilukis and Sydney Ludvigson estimate a model with the recursive preferences of Larry Epstein and Stanley Zin and Philippe Weil. This is not obvious to do because to estimate the coefficient of risk aversion in this context, one needs a measure of claims to future consumption. Here this is overcome by estimating nonparametrically the continuation value of the consumption process from within the model. The result is that the elasticity of intertemporal substitution is above one, and the coefficient of risk aversion is somewhere between 17 and 60. These are huge numbers. But they still imply a rather modest and sometimes even negative risk premium.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Aid and remittances as hedges against food price shocks

Food is a substantial part of household expenses in developing economies, and in many of the latter foreign aid and remittances from emigrants provide a substantial part of national income. As world food prices have been subject to large fluctuations lately, causing much grief and even riots, it is natural to ask whether aid and remittances can provide some smoothing against the effects of these fluctuations.

Jean-Louis Combes, Christian Ebeke, Mireille Ntsama Etoundi and Thierry Yogo use a cross-country panel data set to study this question. First, they confirm that food fluctuations have a notable impact on aggregate consumption, especially in the poorest economies. Second they find that aid and remittances do help, and remittances seem to be more efficient at hedging. Indeed, an aid-to-GDP ratio of 29% is theoretically necessary to absorb food price fluctuations, while 9% is sufficient is for remittances. Only Mozambique and Nicaragua satisfy the first, while a few more countries satisfy the second.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How is China now planning its economy?

Since 1978, China has undergone a fundamental and very successful reform from a planned economy towards a market economy. But one should still keep in mind that this is still an autocratically governed country where technocrats call the shots at all levels. China is still working with five-year plans and the economy is still tied to administrative goals. SO how does economic planning work in China nowadays?

Gregory Chow offers some insights, in particular on how this planning has recently become more important due to the global economic crisis. Administratively, policy is guided by the five-year plans, which interestingly have recently included new sections on welfare and management of society, making apparent some worries about the adverse effects of market economies and rapid development (or democracy when people can complain?). The remarkable part of these plans is that explicit targets are set, and policy is in a major way oriented towards these targets. Of course, the government still controls directly a considerable number of state-owned enterprises. And it has the traditional tools of policy in a market economy at its disposal to influence the rest of the economy. These policies are coordinated at all levels thanks to the very central nature of government.

In some sense it would also be good for market economies to also set some targets for policy. In fact, this is what politicians should be arguing about and then let technocrats put policy in place to achieve these targets. I would not mind targets like putting a man on Mars by 2020, making sure everyone in covered by health insurance by 2015, get 50% of commuting kilometers on public transportation, or defense expenses being completely dedicated to defense (and not attack) by 2015, for example. In fact, the World Bank has well-defined targets for developing economies. In do not see why this should not be applicable for developed ones. At least it would make governments capable of rallying support for some goals and be explicitly accountable.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Policy risk and the business cycle

The US economy seems stuck in its tracks, and many blame uncertainty about future public policy, including me. Indeed, private firms are currently sitting on a lot of cash and are making very good profits, yet they are not investing or hiring. This really looks like a wait-and-see game. But it this justification well-founded or is it just a cheap excuse to justify higher than usual profits in the face of high unemployment?

Benjamin Born and Johannes Pfeifer put some structure into these arguments by taking a standard New Keynesian model and adding uncertainty about monetary and fiscal policy. They measure this by looking at tax rates and monetary policy shocks with time-varying volatility. Previous literature already looked at the impact of aggregate uncertainty, which policy makers can do little about. But policy uncertainty is another matter. And there is hope, as Born and Pfeifer show that the impact of policy uncertainty is not that important (but much larger than uncertainty about productivity shocks) thanks to monetary policy reaction through a Taylor Rule. So that is somewhat reassuring, but then the size of the current policy uncertainty is an order of magnitude larger than when this paper was written, and monetary policy is bound by non-negative nominal interest rates.