Archive

Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

Profits and Health Care: A Beneficial Connection

March 17, 2017 4 comments

I usually try to avoid political commentary in this space, because it has become so personal to so many people. If I point out that a particular program of the “left” is smart, or cleverly put together, then half of my readership is annoyed; if I point out the same about the right, then half of my readership is angry. It doesn’t really make sense to waste article space except on those occasions when a policy has a clear effect on inflation over time, such as when the structure of the ACA made it clear that it would put upward pressure on inflation (as I pointed out in 2013) or in response to someone else’s flawed analysis of a policy, as I did last year when I tackled the San Francisco Fed for their weak argument about how the ACA would hold down inflation because the government would demand lower prices. Actually, there is no policy I have written about more than the ACA over the years – but again, this was economic commentary and not political commentary.

This article will be short, but different in that I am writing it to express frustration with the absolute lack of intellectual clarity on the part of the Republicans in making a particular argument that immediately impacts the debate over health care but also extends far into other policies. And, because the argument is simple, direct, and has tremendous empirical support, I couldn’t restrain myself. I expect this article will not be picked up and syndicated in its usual channels since it isn’t directly about economics or markets, but it needed to be said.

I’ve been stewing about this topic since Tuesday (March 14th), when I happened to catch part of the daily White House press briefing. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked a question about the President’s health care proposal, and tap danced away from the question:

Q    Thanks, Sean.  You mentioned the call with the CEO of Anthem Health.  Can you tell me what this proposal of the President means for health insurance companies?  Will their profits go up or down under the President’s proposal?

SPICER:  Well, I don’t think that’s been the focus of the President’s proposal.  It’s not about them, it’s about patients.  But I think what it means for them is that they finally get to create more choice and more plans and allow people to choose a plan that fits them.  Right now, they don’t have that choice.  And, frankly, in more and more markets, companies like Anthem, UnitedHealth, Signa are pulling out — Aetna — because they don’t have the choice and because of the government mandate.  I think what we want to do is allow competition and choice to exist so that they can offer more options for the American people.

Q    But will those companies make more money under the President’s plan or less?

SPICER:  I don’t know the answer to that.  That’s not been the focus of what we’re doing now.  And at the end of the day, right now they’re pulling out of market after market, leaving the American people with fewer and fewer choices.  So right now it’s not a question of — from the last I checked, I think many of them were doing pretty well, but it’s the American people and its patients that are losing under the current system.  So I think that there’s a way you can do a little of both.

Spicer’s response was the usual drivel that the Republicans have adopted when they run in fear from any question that includes the word “profits.” To summarize, the question was basically, “you’re doing this to throw a sop to fat-cat insurance companies, aren’t you?” and the answer was “we don’t think about that. No idea. Profits? Who said anything about profits? It’s about patients and choice. And, if anyone gets more profits, it wasn’t on purpose and we didn’t have anything to do with it.”

But this was actually a softball question, and the answer ought to have been something like this:

Q    But will those companies make more money under the President’s plan or less?

BIZARRO SPICER: Well, I hope so. After all, the insurance companies want every person in America to have health care – which is the same thing that we want – because the more people they sell their product to, the more money they can make. The insurance companies want to sell insurance to every person in the U.S. The insurance companies also want costs to be lower, and constantly strive to lower the cost of care, because the lower that costs are, the more profit they can make in the short run. But they don’t want lower costs at the expense of health – clearly, the best outcome for their profits is that most people covered by insurance are healthy and so don’t require the insurance they’ve paid for. So, if we just get out of the way and let companies strive for better profits, we are likely to get more coverage, lower costs, and a healthier population, and that is the goal of the President’s plan.

The reason we don’t already have these things is that laws we have previously passed don’t allow insurance companies to offer certain plans, to certain people, which both sides want but which politicians think are “unfair” for one reason or another. Trying to create a certain preconceived Utopian outcome while limiting profits of insurance companies is what caused this mess in the first place.

If you want to beautify gardens in this city, does it make sense to limit the amount of money that gardeners can make? If you did, you would find fewer gardens got tended, and gardeners would not strive to make improvements that they didn’t get paid for. We can see this clearly with gardeners. Why is it so hard to understand with the companies that tend to the nation’s health? Next question.

For some reason, Republicans think that saying “profits are good” is the same thing as saying “greed is good” and leads to caricatures of conservatives as cigar-smoking industrialists. But while at some level it is the desire for a better material outcome – which I suppose is greed, but aren’t there degrees of greed? – that drives the desire for profit, we cannot dismiss the power of self-interest as a motive force that has the effect of improving societal outcomes. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” after all.

Of course, Republicans must also remember that profit without competition is a different animal. If an insurance company creates an innovation that lowers medical care costs, but does not face competitive pressure, then the benefit of the innovation accrues to the company alone. There is no pressure in such circumstances for the company to lower the price to the customer. But consider what happened to air fares after the deregulation of 1978, or to the cost of telephone service when the AT&T monopoly was broken up in 1984, as competition was allowed and even encouraged. Competition, and the more brutal the better, is what causes companies to strive for an edge through innovation, and it’s also what causes the benefit of that edge to eventually be accrued by the end customer. The government didn’t invent cell phones. Motorola did, in order to try and gain an edge against AT&T,[1] but until the telephone monopoly was broken up there were no commercial versions of the cell phone. The first cell phones cost $10,000 in 1983, about $25,000 in today’s dollars, but now they are ubiquitous and cost about 2% as much in real terms. But this didn’t happen because of a government program to drive down the cost of cell phones. It was the profit motive, combined with competition. All that government did was create the conditions that allowed innovation and competition to happen. And wouldn’t we like health care to be as ubiquitous and cheap as cell phones are?

This is not a hard thing to get right. It isn’t hard for people to understand. But for some reason, it seems incredibly hard for politicians to believe.

Note that nothing I have written here should be construed as an opinion about the President’s health care plan, which I have not read. My remarks are only meant to reflect on the utter inability of Republicans to properly convey the reasons that a different approach – one where the government’s involvement is lessened, rather than increased – would make more sense.

[1] The first cell phone call was made by the inventor, Martin Cooper at Motorola, who called his competition with it: the head of the cellular program at AT&T. According to him, he said “Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a handheld, portable, real cellular phone” and he said it got really quiet on the other end of the line.

That Smell in the Fed’s Elevator

March 7, 2017 4 comments

A new paper that was presented last week at the 2017 U.S. Monetary Policy Forum has garnered, rightly, a lot of attention. The paper, entitled “Deflating Inflation Expectations: The Implications of Inflation’s Simple Dynamics,” has spawned news articles such as “Research undercuts Fed’s two favorite U.S. inflation tools”(Reuters) and “Everything the Market Thinks About Inflation Might Be Wrong,”(Wall Street Journal) the titles of which are a pretty decent summary of the impact of the article. I should note, because the WSJ didn’t, that the “five top economists” are Stephen Cecchetti, Michael Feroli, Peter Hooper, Anil Kashyap, and Kermit Schoenholtz, and the authors themselves summarize their work on the FiveThirtyEight blog here.

The main conclusion – but read the FiveThirtyEight summary to get it in their own words – is that the momentum of the inflation process is the most important variable (last year’s core inflation is the best predictor of this year’s core inflation), which is generally known, but after that they say that the exchange rate, M2 money supply growth, total nonfinancial credit growth, and U.S. financial conditions more broadly all matter more than labor market slack and inflation expectations.

Whoops! Who farted in the Fed’s elevator?

The Fed and other central banks have, for many years, relied predominantly on an understanding that inflation was caused by an economy running “too hot,” in that capacity utilization was too high and/or the unemployment rate too low. And, at least since the financial crisis, this understanding has been (like Lehman, actually) utterly bankrupt and obviously so. The chart below is a plain refutation of the notion that slack matters – although much less robust than the argument from the top economists. If slack matters, then why didn’t the greatest slack in a hundred years cause deflation in core prices? Or even get us at least close to deflation?

I’ve been talking about this for a long time. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that! Chapters 7-10 of my book “What’s Wrong With Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All” concerns the disconnect between models that work and the models the Fed (and most Wall Street economists) insist on using. In fact, the chart above is from page 91. I have talked about this at conferences and in front of clients until I am blue in the face, and have become accustomed to people in the audience staring at me like I have two heads. But the evidence is, and has long been, incontrovertible: the standard “expectations-augmented-Phillips-Curve” makes crappy predictions.[1] And that means that it is a stupid way to manage monetary policy.

I am not alone in having this view, but until this paper came out there weren’t too many reputable people who agreed.

Now, I don’t agree with everything in this paper, and the authors acknowledge that since their analysis covers 1984-present, a period of mostly quiescent inflation, it may essentially overstate the persistence of inflation. I think that’s very likely; inflation seems to have long tails in that once it starts to rise, it tends to rise for some time. This isn’t mysterious if you use a monetary model that incorporates the feedback loop from interest rates to velocity, but the authors of this paper didn’t go that far. However, they went far enough. Hopefully, this stink bomb will at last cause some reflection in the halls of the Eccles building – reflection that has been resisted institutionally for a very long time.

[1] And that, my friends, is the first time I have ever used “crap” and “fart” in the same article – and hopefully the last. But my blood pressure is up, so cut me some slack.

Do Shortages Cause Lower Prices?

September 19, 2016 3 comments

This is a quick post this morning because it is rainy and I am grumpy and feel like complaining.

Over the weekend I saw a post from a major market news website. I don’t want to name the website, because what they wrote was embarrassingly obtuse. I wouldn’t like it if someone cited my blog when I write something obtuse, so I won’t link to theirs. Consider it professional courtesy.

Here is what they wrote: “The global bond selloff was blamed largely on fears the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan will eventually run out of bonds to buy.”

At this point, time yourself to see how long it takes you to figure out what’s wrong with that sentence. Score yourself with this table:

1 second or less: Congratulations! You have excellent common sense.

2-30 seconds: You have good common sense but maybe spend too much time around markets.

31-2 minutes: You are smart enough to figure this out, but you watch too much financial TV.

Over 2 minutes: You can be a Wall Street economist!

“I don’t see anything wrong” : You can write for the blog in question.

I could give an answer key, but in the interest of ranting let me present instead an analogy:

In a certain town there is a grocery store, whose proprietor sells apples for 50 cents. One day, a man walks in, flags down the proprietor, and says, “Hello kind sir. I see you have apples for sale. I would like to buy your apples. You see, I have bought all of the apples in this state, and in the surrounding state. I have bought every apple in this town. In fact, I have bought almost all of this year’s harvest. So, I’d like to buy your apples because I have money to buy apples and you have the only apples left.”

The proprietor responds, “Great! I will sell them to you for a nickel each!”

Because, you see, since the apple buyer has just about run out of apples to buy, the price of apples should fall. Right? Well, that’s exactly the point the blog made about bonds: because investors fear the ECB and BOJ will eventually run out of bonds to buy, bond prices fell. If there are really investors out there who think that when the supply of something declines, its price will fall…please introduce me to them, because I’d like to trade with them.

The fact that global central banks continue to buy bonds is the single, best reason to think that yields may not rise. In normal times, bond yields would be rising right now to reflect the fact that inflation is rising, just about everywhere we measure inflation (maybe not in Japan – core inflation in Japan was rising thanks to more-rapid money growth, but when the BOJ lowered rates into negative territory it lowered money velocity and may have squashed the recent rise). But if central banks are buying every bond they can, then prices are more likely to stay high and yields low – even in places like the US where the central bank is not currently buying bonds, because a paucity of Japanese and European bonds tends to increase the demand for US bonds. The risk to the bulls is actually that central banks stop buying bonds.

Maybe that is the weird reasoning that the blog in question was employing: once there are no bonds, central banks will have to stop buying them. And when the central banks stop buying bonds, their prices should fall. Ergo, when there are no bonds to buy the prices should fall. Sure, that makes sense!

Shooting Blanks

August 2, 2016 4 comments

Almost eight years after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the first of many central bank quantitative easing programs, it appears the expansion – the weakest on record by several measures – is petering out. The Q2 growth rate of GDP was 1.2% annualized, meaning that the last three quarters were +0.9%, +0.8%, +1.2%. That’s not a recession, but it’s also not an expansion to write home about.

But why? Why after all of the quantitative easing? Is the effectiveness waning? Is it time for more?

I read recently about how many economists are expecting the Bank of England to increase asset purchases (QE) this Thursday in an attempt to counteract the depressing effects of Brexit on growth. Some think the increase will be as much as £150 billion. That’s impressive, but will it help?

I also read recently about how the Bank of Japan “disappointed investors” by not increasing asset purchases except incrementally. The analysts said this was disappointing because the BOJ’s action was “not enough to cause growth.”

That’s because no amount of money printing is enough to cause growth. No amount.

It seems like people get confused with this concept, including many economists, because we use units of currency. So let’s try illustrating the point a different way. Suppose I pay you in candy bars for the widgets you produce. Suppose I pay you 10 candy bars, each of which is 10 ounces, for each widget. Now, if I start paying you 11 candy bars instead of 10, then the price has risen and you want to produce more widgets, right? This, indirectly, is what economists are thinking when they think about the effect of monetary policy.

But suppose that I pay you 11 candy bars, but now each candy bar is 9.1 ounces instead of 10 ounces? I suspect you will not be fooled into producing more widgets. You will realize that I am still paying you 100 ounces of candy per widget. You are not fooled by the fact that the unit of account changed in intrinsic value.

Now, when the central bank adds to the money supply, but doesn’t change the amount of stuff the economy produces (they don’t have the power to direct production!), then all that changes is the size of the unit of account – the candy bar, or in this case the dollar – and the number of dollars you need to buy a widget goes up. That’s called inflation. And the only way that printing more money can cause production to increase is if you don’t notice that the value of any given unit of currency has declined. That is, only if I say I’m paying you 11 candy bars – but you haven’t noticed they are smaller – will you respond to the change in terms. This is called “money illusion,” and it is why money printing does not cause growth in theory…and, as it turns out, in practice.[1]

There is nothing terribly strange or unpredictable about what is going on in global growth in terms of the response to monetary policy. The only thing strange is that eight years on, with numerous observations on which to evaluate the efficacy of quantitative easing, the conclusion appears to be that it might not be quite as effective as policymakers had thought. And therefore, we need to do lots more of it, the thought process seems to go. But anything times zero is zero. Central banks are not shooting an inaccurate, awkward weapon in the fight to stimulate growth, which just needs to be fired a lot more so that something eventually hits. They are shooting blanks. And no amount of shooting blanks will bring down the bad guy.

[1] I address this aspect of money, and other aspects that affect inflation, in my book What’s Wrong With Money: The Biggest Bubble of All.

Twits and Brits

June 27, 2016 1 comment

I want to talk today about some of the really important pieces of information that circulated this weekend. First, I am certain that everyone is familiar with the following chart, which made the rounds after the Brexit vote. It shows an enormous surge in the search term “What is the EU” after the Brexit vote was completed:

noaxisThis chart, or something very much like it, was all over the place. Oh, wait! I just realized that I forgot to put the axes on the chart! Here it is with a few more relevant pieces of information – incidentally the same information that was left off the original chart. It turns out that it wasn’t the chart I thought it was. Sorry about that…they looked the same.

waxis

(For the record, after an extended period of indolence, on Thursday I went for a run; on Friday I went for a run before putting on any other shoes first; on Saturday I went for a run and then later put on different shoes to go to a cocktail party.)

Is it too much to ask that people seeking to insult the British voters at least put some effort into their attempt? Ignore for a moment the simple fact that we don’t know who was searching this – it might well have been the people who voted to Remain, after all – and so the story line that the people who voted Leave were just morons gets no support from this chart. It also turns out that this was the second-most-searched term only for one small time segment: early in the morning after the vote. By 5am it was eclipsed by questions about the weather. Oh my – it seems the Britons also don’t know what weather is! Also, as the Telegraph’s skeptical story (linked above) points out, the raw number of people asking the question was only on the order of 1,000 – it was just a massive increase since it hadn’t been previously asked very much. This is where not having axes matters…it turns out this is a non-story, and nonsense.

Another piece of nonsense I want to point out is more general. I have seen several Twitter polls and other polls in something like this form:

Q: What effect do you think that Brexit will have on the global economy?

a) Deeply contractionary

b) Moderately contractionary

c) Somewhat contractionary

d) Expansionary

Now this is nonsense because the actual result not only has nothing to do with opinion, it’s not even clear why we would care about people’s opinion in this case (unless we are trying to show how pervasive the negative news stories are, or something). Polls work comparatively well when there is not a lot of information inequality – for example, when each person is asked about his or her own vote. But the poll above is analogous to this poll:

I submit that only me, and my valet, have the information sought by this poll; all other respondents have zero information. Therefore…what’s the value of the poll? Unless I or my valet are respondents, precisely zero; if we are, then the value is inverse to the number of other respondents diluting the response of the people who know.

Similarly, there is likely some information asymmetry among respondents to the poll about the effect of Brexit on the global economy. I would respectfully suggest that most people who are responding are saying what they have heard, or what they fear, or what they hope, while some people – macroeconomists, for example – might have actual models. To be sure, those models are probably only slightly better than the fearful and hopeful assumptions put into them, but the point is that this poll is nonsense in the same way that polling people about what they expect inflation next year to be is nonsense. The vast majority of respondents have no way to evaluate the question in a structured way, so what you are capturing is no more and no less than what people are worried about, which is itself just a reflection of what they’re seeing and hearing…for example, on Twitter.

(For what it’s worth, I think that thanks to the weakening of sterling Brexit is likely to be mildly stimulative to the UK economy, as well as somewhat inflationary, and slightly contractionary and disinflationary to the rest of the world. But the question about global effects is a trick question. Obviously, global production and consumption are unlikely to change much in real terms just due to the arrangement of trade flows. More friction in the system to the extent that Europe puts up significant trade barriers against the UK – something I don’t view as terribly likely – will lower global output slightly and raise global prices.)

These flash polls and Google trends data are part and parcel of the Twitterization of discourse. They have in common the fact that they can be snapshot and draw eyeballs and clicks, whether or not there is any content to the observations. In these cases, and in many others, there isn’t.

Here’s a thought: why don’t we wait a few months, or better yet a few years, before we judge the impact of Brexit? Sometimes, having actual data is even better than a Twitter poll.

Categories: Analogy, Europe, Good One, Rant, UK

Britain Survived the Blitz and Will Survive Brexit

June 24, 2016 6 comments

So I see today that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says this is the worst crisis he has seen. Bigger than the 1987 Crash? Bigger than Long Term Capital? Bigger than the internet bubble collapse? Bigger than the Lehman (et. al.) collapse? Really?

As humans, we tend to have short memories and (ridiculously) short planning horizons. Greenspan, especially in his apparent dotage, has a shorter memory even than he had previously – maybe this is convenient given his record. I don’t want to comment on his planning horizon as that would seem uncharitable.

Why is Brexit bad? The trade arrangements and treaties do not suddenly become invalid simply because the UK has voted to throw off the shackles of her overlords and return to being governed by the same rules they’ve been governed by basically since the Magna Carta. But Jim Bianco crystallized the issue for me this week. He pointed out that while Brussels could let this be a mostly painless transition, it has every incentive to make it as painful as possible. In Jim’s words, “if it isn’t painful then hands shoot up all over Europe to be the next to leave.” That’s an astute political observation, and I think he’s right. The EU will work hard to punish Britain for having the temerity to demand sovereignty.

But Britain survived the Blitz; they will survive Brexit.

Indeed, Britain will survive longer than the Euro. The sun is beginning to set on that experiment. The first cracks happened a few years ago with Greece, but the implausibility of a union of political and economic interests when the national interests diverge was a problem from the first Maastricht vote. Who is next? Will it be Greece, Spain, Italy, or maybe France where the anti-EU sentiment is higher even than it is in the UK? The only questions now are the timing of the exits (is it months, or years?) and the order of the exits.

As I said, as humans we not only have short memories but short planning horizons. From a horizon of 5 or 10 years, is it going to turn out that Brexit was a total disaster, leading to a drastically different standard of living in the UK? I can’t imagine that is the case – the 2008 crisis has had an effect on lifestyles, but only because of the scale and scope of central bank policy errors. In Iceland, which addressed the imbalances head-on, life recovered surprisingly quickly.

These are all political questions. The financial questions are in some sense more fascinating, and moreover feed our tendency to focus on the short term.

A lot of money was wagered over the last few weeks on what was a 52-48 proposition the whole way. The betting markets were skewed because of assumptions about how undecideds would break, but it was never far from a tossup in actual polling (and now perhaps we will return to taking polling with the grain of salt it is usually served with). Markets are reacting modestly violently today – at this writing, the US stock market is only -2.5% or so, which is hardly a calamity, but bourses in Europe are in considerably worse shape of course – and this should maybe be surprising with a 52-48 outcome. I like to use the Kelly Criterion framework as a useful way to think about how much to tilt investments given a particular set of circumstances.

Kelly says that your bet size should depend on your edge (the chance of winning) and your odds (the payoff, given success or failure). Going into this vote, betting on Remain had a narrow edge (52-48) and awful odds (if Remain won, the payoff was pretty small since it was mostly priced in). Kelly would say this means you should have a very small bet on, if you want to bet that outcome. If you want to bet the Leave outcome, your edge was negative but your odds were much better, so perhaps somewhat larger of a bet on Brexit than on Bremain was warranted. But that’s not the way the money flowed, evidently.

Not to worry: this morning Janet Yellen said (with the market down 2.5%) that the Fed stood ready to add liquidity if needed. After 2.5%? In 1995 she would have had to come out and say that every week or two. A 2.5% decline takes us back to last week’s lows. Oh, the humanity!

Just stop. The purpose of markets is to move risk from people who have it to people who want it. If, all of a sudden, lots of people seem to have too much risk and to want less, then perhaps it is because they were encouraged into taking too much risk, or encouraged to think of the risk as being less than it was. I wonder how that happened? Oh, right: that’s what the Fed called the “portfolio balance channel” – by removing less-risky assets, they forced investors to hold more-risky assets since those assets now constitute a larger portion of the float. In my opinion (and this will not happen soon), central banks might consider letting markets allocate risk between the people who want it and the people who don’t want it, at fair prices. Just a suggestion.

One final point to be made today. I have seen people draw comparisons between this episode and other historical episodes. This is refreshing, since it reflects at least some thoughtful attempt to remember history. Not all of these are apt or useful comparisons; I saw one that this is the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment of this generation and that’s just nuts. Europe is not a military powderkeg at the moment and war in Europe is not about to begin. But, to the extent that trade barriers begin to rise again, the idea that this may be a “Smoot-Hawley” moment is worth consideration. The Smoot-Hawley tariff is generally thought to have added the “Great” to the phrase “Great Depression.” I think that’s probably overstating the importance of this event – especially if everybody decides to respect Britons’ decision and try to continue trade as usual – but it’s the right idea. What I want to point out is that while rising tariffs tend to produce lower growth and lower potential growth, they also tend to produce higher inflation. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe is one big reason that inflation outcomes over the last few decades have been lower than we would have expected for the amount of money growth we have had. The US has gone from producing all of its own apparel to producing almost none, for example, and this is a disinflationary influence. What would happen to apparel prices if the US changed its mind and started producing it all domestically again? Give that some thought, and realize that’s the protectionist part of the Brexit argument.

We can cheer for a victory for independence and freedom, while continuing to fight against any tendency towards economic isolationism. But I worry about the latter. It will mean higher inflation going forward, even if the doomsayers are right and we also get lower growth from Brexit and the knock-on effects of Brexit.

Fed Nonsense and Error Bars

February 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Today’s news was the Employment number. I am not going to talk a lot about the number, since the January jobs number is one of those releases where the seasonal adjustments totally swamp the actual data, and so it has even wider-than-normal error bars. I will discuss error bars more in a moment, but first here is something I do want to point out about the Employment figure. Average Hourly Earnings are now clearly rising. The latest year-on-year number was 2.5%, well above consensus estimates, and last month’s release was revised to 2.7%. So now, the chart of wage growth looks like this.

ahe

Of course, I always point out that wages follow inflation, rather than leading it, but since so many people obsess about the wrong inflation metric this may not be readily apparent. But here is Average Hourly Earnings, y/y, versus Median CPI. I have shown this chart before.

aheandmedian

The salient point is that whether you are looking at core CPI or PCE or Median CPI, and whether you think wages lead prices or follow prices, this number significantly increases the odds that the Fed raises rates again. Yes, there are lots of reasons the Fed’s intended multi-year tightening campaign is unlikely to unfold, and I am one of those who think that they may already be regretting the first one. But a number like this will tend to convince the hawks among them otherwise.

Speaking of the Fed, last night I attended a speech by Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, sponsored by Market News International. Every time I hear a Fed speaker speak, afterwards I want to put my head into a vise to squeeze all of the nonsense out – and last night was no different. Now, Dr. Mester is a classically-trained, highly-accomplished economist with a Ph.D. from Princeton, but I don’t hold that against her. Indeed, credit where credit is due: unlike many such speakers I have heard in the past, Dr. Mester seemed to put more error bars around some of her answers and, in one of the best exchanges, she observed that we won’t really know whether the QE tool is worth keeping in the toolkit until after monetary conditions have returned to normal. That’s unusual; most Fed speakers have long been declaring victory. She is certainly a fan and an advocate of QE, but at least recognizes that the chapter on QE cannot yet be written (although I make what I think is a fair attempt at such a chapter in my book, due out in a month or so).

But the problem with the Federal Reserve boils down to two things. First, like any large institution there is massive groupthink going on. There is little true and significant diversity of opinion. For example there are, for all intents and purposes, no true monetarists left at the Fed who have any voice. Daniel Thornton at the St. Louis Fed was the last one who ever published pieces expressing the important role of money in monetary policy, and he retired a little while back. As another example, it is taken as a given that “transparency” is a good thing, despite the fact that many of the questions posed last night to Dr. Mester boiled down to problems that are actually due to too much transparency. I doubt seriously whether there has ever been a formal discussion, internally, of the connection between increased financial leverage and increased Fed transparency. Many of the problems with “too big to fail” institutions boil down to too much leverage, and a transparent Fed that carefully telegraphs its intentions will tend to increase investor confidence in outcomes and, hence, tend to increase leverage. But I cannot imagine that anyone at the Fed has ever seriously raised the question whether they should be giving less, rather than more, information to the market. It is significantly outside of chapter-and-verse.

The second problem is that the denizens of the Fed overestimate their knowledge and their ability  to know certain things that may simply not be knowable. Again, Dr. Mester was a mild exception to this – but very mild. When someone says “We think the overnight rate should normalize more slowly than implied by the Taylor Rule,” but then doesn’t follow that up with an explanation of why you think so, I grow wary. Because economics in the real world, practiced honestly, should produce a lot of “I don’t know” answers. It may be boring, but this is how the question-and-answer with Dr. Mester should have gone:

Q: What do you think inflation will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think short rates will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2017?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really, really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the consensus is at the Fed about the optimal pace of raising rates?

A: I don’t know. Each person on the Committee has a point estimate, each of which has really wide error bars. Collectively, we have an average that has even wider error bars. We cannot therefore usefully characterize what the path of the short rate will look like. At all.

Indeed, this is part of the problem with transparency. If you are going to be transparent, there is going to be pressure to provide “answers.” But a forecast without an error bar is just a guess. The error bars are what cause a guess to become an estimate. So we get a “dot plot” with a bunch of guesses on it. The actual dot plot, from December, looks like this:

dotplot

But the dot plot should look more like this, where the error bars are all included.

betterdotplotObviously, we would take the latter chart as meaning…correctly…that the Fed really has very little idea of where the funds rate is going to be in a couple of years and cannot convincingly reject the hypothesis that rates will be basically unchanged from here. That’s simultaneously transparent, and very informational, and colossally unhelpful to fast-twitch traders.

And now I can release the vise on my head. Thank you for letting me get the nonsense out.

%d bloggers like this: