Posts in category Free exchange


Business and financeFree exchange

The Nobel in economics rewards a pioneer of “nudges”

NOT long ago, the starting assumption of any economic theory was that humans are rational actors who maximise their utility. Economists summarily dismissed anyone insisting otherwise. But over the past few decades, behavioural economists like Richard Thaler have progressively chipped away at this notion. They combine economics with insights from psychology to show how heavily economic decisions are influenced by cognitive biases. On September 9th Mr Thaler’s work was recognised at the highest level when the Nobel Committee awarded him this year’s prize in economics. Mr Thaler thus becomes one of very few behavioural economists to win the prize.

Mr Thaler’s has been a prolific career, spanning over four decades, the last two of them at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. His research has touched on subjects as varied as asset prices, personal savings and property crime. For example, Mr Thaler developed a theory of mental accounting, which explains how people making financial decisions look only at the narrow…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Bitcoin is fiat money, too

FINANCIERS with PhDs like to remind each other to “read your Kindleberger”. The rare academic who could speak fluently to bureaucrats and normal people, Charles Kindleberger designed the Marshall Plan and wrote vast economic histories worthy of Tolstoy. “Read your Kindleberger” is just a coded way of saying “don’t forget this has all happened before”. So to anyone invested in, mining or building applications for distributed ledger money such as bitcoin or ethereum: read your Kindleberger.

Start with A Financial History of Western Europe, in which Kindleberger documents how many times merchants in different centuries figured out clever ways of doing the exact same thing. They made transactions easier, and in the process created new deposits and bills that increased the supply of money. In most cases, the Bürgermeister or the king left these innovations in place, but decided to control the supply of money and credit themselves. It is good for the king to be in charge of his own creditors. But also, it has…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

The case against shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet

AS EXPECTED, the Federal Reserve announced on September 20th that it will soon begin reversing the asset purchases it made during and after the financial crisis. From October, America’s central bank will stop reinvesting all of the money it receives when its assets start to mature. As a result, its $4.5trn balance-sheet will gradually shrink. However, the Fed did not give any clues as to what the endpoint for the balance sheet should be. This is an important question. There are strong arguments for keeping the balance-sheet large. In fact, it might be better were the Fed not shedding any assets at all. 

Most commentators view a large balance-sheet, which is the result of quantitative easing (QE), as an extraordinary economic stimulus. Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chair, seems to agree: at a press conference after the Fed announcement, she said the balance-sheet should shrink because the stimulus it provides to the economy is no longer needed. But the claim that the balance-sheet is stimulating the economy is far from an…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Is there a wage growth puzzle in America?

TODAY’S labour market report showed that the American economy created 156,000 net new jobs in August. That was a bit less than expected, but payrolls are still growing comfortably faster than the working-age population. Despite having created over 2m jobs in the last year, pushing unemployment below 4.5% for the last five months, wage growth remains muted, at around 2.5%, compared to more like 3.5% the last time unemployment was comparably low. In a recent article for the print edition, I anlysed one potential explanation for weak wage growth: retirements of high-earnings baby-boomers.

Scott Sumner has taken issue with the premise of my piece. He…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

The hubris of ten-year budgets

IN February of 2001, Alan Greenspan, then still the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and still called the “Maestro”, testified to the Senate Budget Committee. The committee wanted to get started on the tax cuts George W. Bush had promised during his campaign. Mr Greenspan gave them his qualified blessing, with an argument that now sounds incredible: he was worried that America would pay down its debt too soon. 

That week the Clinton administration’s Office of Management and Budget had released its final ten-year budget projections. Firms had just completed several years of capital investments in desktop computers, and workers had become more productive. This had increased corporate revenue, and consequently taxes paid to the government. A long bull market in stocks meant that the Treasury was taking in more in capital gains taxes, too. “The experience of the last five to seven years,” said Mr Greenspan, “has truly been without precedent.” The Clinton administration had apparently left Washington with a gift. The…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Podcast: Vorsprung durch Angst

Germany is admired for a stable economy and holding on to blue-collar jobs but derided for its persistent trade surpluses. Our economics editor John O’Sullivan examines what Chancellor Merkel’s government might do next. Also, how “total immersion” could drive the masses to virtual reality. And why banks are de-risking to avoid penalties. Hosted by Simon Long.

 

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Business and financeFree exchange

Podcast: The Italian bailout job

Italy has been forced to bail out two banks at a cost of as much €17bn euros ($19 bn). Is that the end of the bleeding in Italy’s financial sector? Also, as the iPhone turns ten, we look at how Apple is evolving. And Catherine Mann, Chief Economist at the OECD, tells us how to government can help workers made jobless by globalisation. Hosted by Simon Long.

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Business and financeFree exchange

A new paper rekindles a tiresome debate on immigration and wages

WHAT effect do immigrants have on native wages? It’s perhaps one of the most important questions of labour economics. It’s also one that is largely unanswerable. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to separate cause and effect. If a country with high rates of immigration also sees strong wage growth, we can’t assume that immigrants are boosting wages—it may well be the case that the migrants are choosing to move to places with stronger economies.

One approach to getting around this problem is to find a natural experiment in which either the supply of or demand for labour changes exogenously. Perhaps the most famous example of such an event in labour economics is the Mariel Boatlift. In 1980, Fidel Castro, then president of Cuba, eased emmigration restrictions. Some 125,000 Cubans moved to the United States that year. Almost instantaneously, the labour supply of Miami increased by 55,000.

The Mariel migrants were overwhelmingly low-skilled workers—less than half had high-school degrees. In 1990, David Card, now an…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Why the Fed is likely to raise rates, despite low inflation

CREDIBILITY is a thing you have to worry about with toddlers. You cannot reason with them. The best you can hope to do is respond consistently to undesirable behaviour. Get this wrong and your work becomes harder. If your correspondent doesn’t actually go and hide the box of Legos every time he has to count to three, for example, his child will not find his threats to be credible, and will fail to respond to them. 

This is the problem the Federal Reserve has now with financial markets. For six months the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has been carefully managing its speeches, meeting minutes and economic projections to one end: convince debt markets that it will raise the benchmark interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point at its June meeting. It has succeeded. FedWatch, a tool that estimates how markets think monetary policy will go, pegs the probability of a June rate hike at 91%. This leaves the committee with a familiar…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Europe inches closer to a plan for fixing its financial flaws

DONALD TRUMP and Theresa May may have done more to push Europeans together, and open up an opportunity for reform of its institutions, than any pro-European American president or British prime minister could ever have dreamt. The Commission’s “Reflection paper on the deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union”, issued on May 31st, points the way towards a package deal that could be acceptable to Northern and Southern euro area countries. But some key elements are still missing.

Encouragingly, the Commission sets out a tight calendar for completing the banking union, with the creation of a common deposit insurance scheme and a common backstop for the European Resolution fund intended to be in place by 2019. These two elements are crucial if we are to stop the banks posing an existential risk to the states where they operate.

But avoiding the “diabolic loop” between banks and states also requires cutting the…Continue reading

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Business and financeFree exchange

Donald Trump’s budget ignores what is actually ailing American workers

PRESIDENTIAL budget requests, all of them, are worth exactly nothing. They carry no force of legislation. They land, heavy, bound and shrink-wrapped, so they can be immediately binned as Congress continues its now yearly stumble toward a “continuing resolution”—a supposedly temporary legislative act that in recent decades has almost entirely replaced the statutory budget process. The request from the President is the least consequential part of something that is completely broken. It functions like a bumper sticker on an old car. It only tells you about the person who’s driving. 

Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina who won his seat in the Tea-Party wave of 2010, runs Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. Mr Mulvaney has created the budget his wing of the Republican party always wanted: government as a service, paid for by its clients, the taxpayers. If you receive more than you pay, the system has failed, and must be fixed. The marketing copy that accompanied the budget calls this…Continue reading

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