Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Report delves into Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac

A story today by Bloomberg News tries to flesh out the work Newt Gingrich did for Freddie Mac and his relationship with the mortgage company.

When Gingrich was asked at a GOP presidential debate about his Freddie Mac work, the former House speaker said he acted as a "historian," did no lobbying and warned of the company's "insane" business model.
The Bloomberg story says Gingrich was "asked to build bridges" with Republicans in Congress and "develop an argument on behalf of the company's public-private structure that would resonate with conservatives seeking to dismantle it."

The story cites unnamed sources.
If Gingrich concluded Freddie Mac's business was "risky," the story says, "he didn't share those concerns with Richard Syron," Freddie Mac's CEO at the time.

A statement posted on Gingrich's campaign website after the Nov. 9 debate says the Gingrich Group offered "strategic advice" on a number of issues, including "how to reach out to more conservatives."
Here's what the Gingrich statement said on that point:
The Gingrich Group stressed that Freddie Mac must be open to reform of their lending practices but that by stressing the historical success of public-private partnerships in achieving public goods at a minimum of taxpayer money and bureaucracy.

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Non-conformism in academia

In economics, there is the mainstream and various heterodox fractions that do not identify with the mainstream or each other. Too many, the heterodox seem like annoying and useless chatter. But they fulfill an important role, which is to keep those in the mainstream on their toes. This is part of the scientific process: challenge long and widely held views to check whether they are still valid. And even if the challenge is wrong, it makes those in the mainstream think about the axioms the build their theories on.

Vela Velupillai makes the case that dissenters are typically silenced by the mainstream, but may prevail in the long-run, citing many examples of mathematical economics, in particular the work of Pietro Sraffa. And this is really what tenure is good for: a dissenter will have much trouble publishing but may ultimately still contribute a lot to scientific advances.

We are in times were dissenters seems to have a more receptive audience. Indeed, the current crisis is seen by some as a failure of Economics, thus it is easy to criticize it. But it also highlights that dissenting can be very distracting if it is poorly focused, uniformed and populist. In this regard the recent dissenting by Colander, Krugman and Stiglitz has, I think been counterproductive, as I have occasionally discussed here. It is good to criticize the fundamental assumptions of the mainstream. It is better, but not necessary to offer alternatives. But it is counterproductive to dissent on the basis of a old read of the literature, and a literature that has in the meanwhile evolved to address these supposedly new criticisms.

Heterodox Economics has thus gained a fresh wind, simply because it is different from the mainstream. But what does it have to offer? Peter Skott, a heterodox economist himself, argues that it is still far from being an viable alternative. While heterodox approaches usually reject microeconomic foundations in macroeconomics, they should not throw out the baby with the bath water, i.e., ignore microeconomics altogether. And while the heterodox analysis for income distribution has focused on the labor income share, the large changes in income inequality happened within labor income. Finally, the heterodox literature is just as guilty of ignoring many of the suddenly relevant intricacies of the world of finance.

There is still a lot of work to do, and instead of pursuing an excess of mutual accusations and claiming Economics is useless, it seems much more appropriate to put more resources into making it better, heterodox or mainstream. After all, medical research was not defunded when the HIV/AIDS epidemic made ravages.

Monday, November 14, 2011

About beer

Beer has been an important part of human well-being, and this for thousands of years. While the economic literature has dealt rather little with it, many great papers have significantly evolved at the pub. Still, I have previously reported on a conference on the Economics of beer, and open source beer.

Now, let us talk about the economic history of beer, thanks to Eline Poelmans and Johan Swinnen. Brewing in the middle ages was he realm of monasteries, with rather small output and a lot of product diversity. With technological advances and reduction in transportation costs, commercial breweries took over and especially over the last hundred years they lead a remarkable trend towards consolidation. After all those mergers and acquisitions, product diversity was considerably reduced. This is all changing now, and tastes have become more sophisticated and local micro-breweries are on the upswing. In some ways, beer has become more like wine.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why are school counselors so bad?

Recent news articles following up on the Occupy X movement have focused on youth unemployment and student debt. One aspect of this that strikes me are the absurdly bad choices students make. And from discussions with undergraduate students I ahad over the years, school counselors shares share part of the blame.

For one, they keep sending students into supposedly easy majors, even if job prospects are slim. If a student cannot handle the rigors of a serious university education, he should not be in university. He is less likely to get grants, more likely to take longer to graduate and then be in debt, less likely to get well-paying jobs there after and thus will face students debts for many years. Also, students with ambitions in better majors are told to switch to easier majors when they face difficulties, instead of helping them to overcome these difficulties. This is in particular the case for ethnic minorities and women, and one then wonders why they are underrepresented in science and technology. The problem is that counselors perpetuate or even amplify prejudices. An example is Neil deGrasse Tyson who was told that as a black he should go to basketball, not physics, and was not offered the help white students were getting when he struggled with classes, when blacks are not expected to excel in physics.

Also, counselors seem to obsessed with finding the "right college," which often an obscure little university where every major has only two or three faculty, and turn out to be expensive. The usual explanation is that the students needs small classes. This seems like another case of someone who is going to be highly in debt for a long time. And to come to Economics, the major is filled with undergraduates who did not get in or got kicked out of the business school, most often for failing on business mathematics and statistics. And what do counselors tell them? Get into a similar major, like Economics (or Psychology), ignoring that those quantitative skills are even more needed.

Why do counselors give such bad advice? I do not have an answer beyond wild guesses. But my casual observation tells me that the best psychologists or education professionals do not espouse this career, and for a good reason: on average the entry salary for a graduate of a Masters program in school counseling is an astounding US$33,000. In some sense, this is the bottom of the barrel that is trying to give advice to people on how to avoid falling to the bottom of the barrel. That is hardly inspiring. Schools should hire at least a few people who had successful careers to show how it is done, for example retirees.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Miss sharing with future generations? You are not missing much

Markets are not complete. Two major ways in whuch they are not complete is that we have borrowing constraints and that we cannot exchange with future generations. The latter can be a big deal when we think about the valuation of future amenities (like the environment) or long term risks. In particular, future generations could make us behave in certain ways if they could influence some of today's markets. This is precisely why the overlapping generation literature emerged, and a principal conclusion of it is that the government needs to intervene, in particular by providing an security that lives beyond generations: the government bond. While there is obviously a welfare cost to the lack of future generations on current markets, how large is it? The literature tells us the welfare benefit of the government bond is large.

Roel Mehlkopf just defended a dissertation on this topic, focusing on risk. In a nutshell, the cost is not that large, and it all has to do with distortions on the labor market. For one, those you ex-post need to transfer to another generation face a commitment problem in the sense that they want to reduce their labor supply, for example by retiring early. Once you take this into account, there is little to redistribute, and it can even be welfare-decreasing to transfer. This rationalizes why pension funds needs to be solvent at all times, even if they are solvent in the long run. One important implication is that when cuts are necessary in pensions, they should be larger for the young workers, as this reduces the labor market distortions.

Also, the dissertation points out that comparing to a situation with fictitious markets between non-overlapping generations can be misleading. Indeed, this implies that they all have the same weight in a social welfare sense. But there can be good reason for a social planner to deviate from this, and the analysis above, fr example, implies that future generations benefit more from risk sharing than current ones (who are at least partially locked in by past decisions). This should entice the social planner to give more weight to current generations, even beyond normal discounting of the future. And as only current generations for for the current government, we are not far from that optimum.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Physiology and Malthus

The Malthus model of economic growth (or the lack thereof) is now standard fare in undergraduate education. Basically, it shows that there is a limit to the size of an economy that hinges on decreasing returns to labor in production and on mortality increasing as standards of living, as measured by GDP per capita, decrease. Those two critical assumptions are based on observations that were certainly valid at Matlhus' times, and are likely to still be true today.

Carl-Johan Dalgaard and Holger Strulik go a little bit further in this theory. As more food is available, people grow taller. But being tall requires more food to sustain the body, which provides an additional reason for stagnation. This makes it more difficult to break loose from this "development trap" and may explain why economies stagnated for so long. But as Malthusian theory, this dies not explain why the economy suddenly exploded in the 19th century.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Acquiring a firm for its workforce

Why do firms get merged or acquired? In the end, the hope is that it increases firm value, although the stock market response is often negative. It may also be for (anti-)competitive reasons, as firm try to buy the challengers. Or it may be to acquire a patent portfolio, technology, or access to a client list or new markets. I may forget some other good reasons.

Paige Ouimet and Rebecca Zarutskie show that mergers and acquisitions can also be the result of a drive to get access to the other firm's pool of workers. This is particularly true when the labor market is tight and the workers carry high human capital. Interestingly, wage tend to increase and turnover tends to decrease after such mergers. Thus not all employees should be afraid of M&As.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why is funeral insurance so popular in Africa?

Probably the oldest form of insurance is existence is funeral insurance, which takes cares of burial (and now cremation) costs at death. In developed economies, its popularity has vanished, while it is still very common in Africa. One reason could be that when life insurance is available, people believe it is sufficient to cover funeral costs, and the beneficiaries are committed to take care of this. When life insurance is not available or when not commitment can be elicited from descendants, then funeral insurance ensure your body is properly disposed of.

Erlend Berg writes a model along those lines and finds that only middle income should favor funeral insurance. The rich do not face a tight budget constraint and the poor cannot afford it. Then using a marketing survey conducted in South Africa finds results that are consistent with the model. This lack of commitment in Africa for financial matters is pervasive. It is, for example, at the heart of the strange institution that ROSCAs are.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why top MBA programs do not disclose grades

I have always been puzzled by the policy of many top MBA programs not to disclose the grades of their students. Even more puzzling is that they by and large manage to enforce this policy even from their top students, who should obviously want to signal that they are at the top of their class.

Daniel Gottlieb and Kent Smetters wondered about this as well. Such policies are voted by the students (who in the US own the grades) on the argument that it allows them to take more difficult classes without adverse consequences. Yet the evidence is that they learn less when such a policy is in place, which explains the general opposition to it from faculty. So, one can conclude that students are lazy (nothing new here), but is such a policy limited to top MBA programs? Why not in lesser programs, or other professional schools?

Gottlieb and Smetters point out that students have two signals for potential employers: their grades and the selectivity of the program. They are also risk averse, and at the start of their studies do not know how well they will do. In top schools, the selectivity signal is very strong and the students rely on it, while the "average" grade is superior in expected terms. In lesser schools, the selectivity signal is much weaker, and hence students try to distinguish themselves on the labor market in other ways, for example with grades.

To some extend, the same is happening on the Economics PhD market. When you look at the recommendation letters form the top schools, all candidates are the best in a generation in their field (I am exaggerating on a little). Thus the letter looses a lot of its value, and all that remains is the entrance selectivity of the PhD program. Lower ranked programs are much keener to differentiate their students and push the particularly good ones.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Adaptive versus rational expectations

There was a time where macroeconomics was ruled by adaptive (or backward-looking) expectations, like the much-ridiculed chartists. Then there was a revolution and rational (typically forward-looking) expectations were widely adopted, realizing that people are not stupid and will try to use the available information, including what other agents may do, to figure out what the future holds. Rationality, and in particular rational expectations, has recently come under attack because models failed to predict recent bubbles and crashes. I think this is mistaken, as detailed on several occasions on this blog.

Gregory Chow, however, longs for a return to adaptive expectations for three other reasons. The first is that it is empirically more plausible. Exhibit A is a regression of the stock prices of 50 blue chips in Taiwan on current dividends and past dividend growth. Despite a lowly R2 of 0.111, the fact that the coefficient on dividend growth is positive and significant is taken as evidence of adaptive expectations. I do not find this convincing, as a similar result could emerge with rational expectations if the dividend growth process is persistent.

The second reason is that "there is no reason to believe that the expected values [computed from an econometric model of the rational expectations] will have a sum, after discounting, which equals the actual current price." I think the underlying reasoning is that a statistician can only use a linear combination of past observations, thus economic agents will, too, and this all looks like adaptive expectations. But economic agents, and nowadays statisticians, are more sophisticated than that, and a gigantic literature in finance has shown that, for example, non-linearities and endogenous volatility, too name a few, are important. Even though statisticians have become much more sophisticated, they are still running behind economic agents and are far removed from being linearly backward-looking.

The third reason is that macroeconomists started using rational expectations simply because it was required to deal with the Lucas Critique, empirical evidence be damned. While I can be sympathetic to the argument that rational expectations was adopted without much direct empirical evidence, I also believe that economic agents do try and avoid systematic mistakes and that their expectations contain at least some rationality. And as much literature has shown, a modicum of rationality can bring markets darn close to prices that look like perfectly rational ones.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is index-based weather insurance useful?

Whenever you are facing a risk, you want to be able to hedge against it (at least if you are risk averse). For this, there are all sorts of insurance policies. There are also markets in all sorts of instruments that allow you to find the right contingent claim for your situation. This includes farmers (and others) who want to hedge against meteorological risks. If you crop yields depend on weather patterns, you are looking for securities that pay out depending on some weather statistic. And they are available and have been heavily pushed by aid agencies in developing countries.

Chiratan Banerjee and Ernst Berg say they may not be such a great idea. They take the examples of rice farmers in the Philippines who bought wind-speed based indexes on the hypothesis that rice yields are lower when there are typhoons. But rice is remarkably resistant to typhoons and wind in general, the reason why it is so popular in the region in the first place. This means that rice farmers are heavily over-insured. That is especially bad and farmers are now confused about the concept of insurance as it looks like they face more risk than before.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Unemployment insurance in developing economies?

There is no doubt that absent moral hazard, insuring against unemployment shocks is welfare improving. But moral hazard, either through the unemployed not searching hard enough or rejecting job offers, can have a vicious effect on welfare if it is sufficiently widespread and successful. In addition, as unemployment insurance contributions typically do not depend on unemployment risk, only bad risks want to participate, and the insurance collapses without mandatory participation. With all this in mind, does it make sense to implement unemployment insurance in developing economies, where there is a large informal sector that makes mandatory contributions difficult to enforce and where moral hazard is, of course, rampant?

David Bardley and Fernando Jaramillo show that introducing unemployment insurance actually makes the formal sector more attractive and that we should thus not worry that much about the current level of informality. The presented model, however, does not allow for someone to collect UI benefits while working in the informal sector, a very real possibility that could easily overturn the results.