Archive for the 'Financial markets' Category

Nov 06 2012

A closer look at the crowding-out effect

To spend or not to spend. That is the question. In order to determine whether or not a government should increase its budget deficit in order to stimulate economic activity in its economy, it is important to determine whether said deficit spending will lead to a net increase in the nation’s GDP or a net decrease in GDP. Obviously, if increasing the debt to pay for a government spending package leads to lower aggregate demand in the economy, then it should not be undertaken. However, if a deficit-financed spending package leads to an overall increase in output and national income, it may be justified.
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To understand the circumstances under which a government stimulus package will increase or decrease overall output in the economy, we must compare two competing possible impacts of a government stimulus. The multiplier effect of government spending refers to a theory which says that any increase in government spending will lead to further increases in private spending, as households enjoy more income and thus consume more and firms, which earn more revenues due to the government’s increased spending, make new capital investments, contributing to the stimulus provided by government and leading to an overall increase in GDP that exceeds the increase in government spending.
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The crowding-out effect, on the other hand, refers to the theory that any increase in government spending, when financed by a larger deficit, will lead to a net decrease in private expenditures, as firms and households face higher interest rates due to the governments’ intervention in private financial markets. Government spending will crowd out private spending, thus any increase in spending will be off-set by a decrease in private spending, possibly even reducing overall income in the nation.
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This post will focus on the second of these effects, and attempt to explain the circumstances under which crowding-out is likely to occur, and those under which it is unlikely to occur.
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Deficit-financed government spending refers to any policy that increases government expenditures without increasing taxes, or one that reduces taxes without reducing government expenditures. In either case, a government must increase the amount of borrowing it does to pay for the policy, which means governments must borrow from the private sector by issuing new debt in the form of government bonds.
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When a government must borrow to spend, it has to attract lenders somehow, which may require the government to offer higher rates of return on its bonds. The impact this has on the supply of private savings, which refers to the funds available in commercial banks for lending and borrowing in the private sector, will be negative. In other words, the supply of loanable funds in the private sector will decrease.
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The graph below shows the market for loanable funds in a nation. The supply curve represents all households and other savers who put their money in private banks, in which they earn a certain interest rate on their savings. The demand for loanable funds represents private borrowers in the nation, who demand funds for investments in capital and technology (firms) and durable goods and real estate investments (households). The demand for loanable funds is inversely related to the real interest rate in the economy, since higher borrowing costs mean less demand for funds to pay for investment and consumption.
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When a government needs to borrow money to pay for its deficit, private savers (represented by Slf above) will find lending money to the government more attractive than saving in private banks, since the relative interest rate on government bonds is likely to rise. This should reduce the supply of loanable funds in the private sector, making them more scarce and driving up borrowing costs to households and firms. This can be seen below:
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In the illustration above, a government’s deficit spending crowds-out private spending, as firms and households find higher interest rates less attractive and thus demand less funds for investment and consumption. Private expenditures fall from Qe to Q1; therefore any increase in economic output resulting from the increase in government spending may be off-set by the fall in private spending. Crowding-out has occurred.
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Another way to view the crowding-out effect is to think about the impact of increased government borrowing on the demand for loanable funds. Demand represents all borrowers in an economy: households, firms and the government. An increase in public debt requires the government to borrow funds from the private sector, so as the supply of loanable funds fall, the demand will also increase, although not from the private sector, rather from the government. The effect this has can be seen below:
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In the graph above, both the reduced supply of loanable funds resulting from private savers lending more to the government and the increased demand for loanable funds resulting form the government’s borrowing from the private sector combine to drive the equilibrium interest rate up to IR2. The private quantity demanded now falls from Qe to Qp, while the total amount of funds demanded (from the private sector and the government  now is only Qp+g. This illustration thus shows how an increase in government borrowing crowds out private spending but also leads to an overall decrease in the amount of investment in the economy.
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Based on the two graphs above, a deficit-financed government spending package will definitely crowd-out private spending to some extent, and in the case of the second graph will even lead to a decrease in overall expenditures in the economy. This analysis could be used to argue against government spending as a way to stimulate economic activity. But this analysis makes some assumptions that may not always be true about a nation’s economy, namely that the equilibrium level of private investment demand and the supply of loanable funds occurs at a positive real interest rate. There are two possibilities that may mean the crowding-out effect does not occur. They are:
  • If the private demand for loanable funds is extraordinarily low, or
  • If the private supply of loanable funds is extraordinarily high.
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When might these conditions be met? The answer is, during a deep recession. In a recession, household confidence is low, therefore private consumption is low and savings rates tend to rise, increasing the supply of funds in private banks. Also, firms’ expectations about the future tend to be weak, as low inflation or deflation make it unlikely that investments in new capital will provide high rates of return. Home sales are down and consumption of durable goods (which households often finance with borrowing) is depressed. Essentially, during a recession, private demand from borrowers is low and private supply from households is high. If the economy is weak enough, the loanable funds market may even exhibit an equilibrium interest rate that is negative. This could be shown as follows:
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Notice that due to the exceedingly low demand and high supply of loanable funds, 0% acts as a price floor in the market. In other words, since interest rates cannot fall below 0%, there will be an excess supply of funds available to the private sector. Such a scenario is known as a liquidity trap. The level of private investment will be very low at only Qd. Banks cannot loan out all their excess reserves, and even though borrowing money is practically free, borrowers aren’t willing to take the risk to invest in capital or assets that may have negative rates of return, a prospect that is not unlikely during a recession.
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So what happens when government deficit spends during a “liquidity trap”, as seen above? First of all, the government need not offer a very high rate to borrow in such an economy. Private interest rates will be close to zero, so even a 0.1% return on government bonds will attract lenders. So the supply of loanable funds may decrease, and demand may increase, but crowding-out will not occur because there is almost no private investment spending to crowd out! Here’s what happens:
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Here we see the same shifts in demand and supply for loanable funds as we saw in our first graph, except now there is no increase in the interest rate resulting from the government’s entrance into the market. Since private interest rates stay at 0%, the private quantity of funds demanded for investment remains the same (Qp), while the increased government borrowing leads to an increase in overall spending in the economy from Qp to Qp+g. Rather than crowding-out private spending, the increase in government spending has no impact on households and firms, and leads to a net increase in overall spending in the economy.
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If the government spends its borrowed funds wisely, it is possible that private spending could be crowded-in, which means that the boost to total output resulting from the fiscal stimulus may increase firm and household confidence and shift the private demand for loanable funds outwards, increasing the level of private investment and consumption, further stimulating economic activity.
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So what have we shown? We have seen that in a healthy economy, in which households and firms are eager to borrow money to finance their spending, and in which savings rates are not exceedingly high, government borrowing may drive up private interest rates and crowd-out private spending. But during a deep recession, in which consumer spending is depressed and firms are not investing due to uncertainty and savings rates are higher than what is historically normal, an increase in government spending financed by a deficit will have little or no impact on the level of private investment and consumption. In such a case, governments can borrow cheaply (at just above 0%), and increase the overall level of demand in the economy without harming the private sector.
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Crowding-out is a valid economic theory, but its likelihood of occurring must be evaluated by considering the actual level of output and employment in the economy. In a deflationary setting, in which savings is high and private spending is low, government may have the opportunity to boost demand and stimulate growth without driving up borrowing costs in the private sector and decreasing the level of household and firm expenditures.

6 responses so far

Sep 13 2011

Sample IB Economics Internal Assessment Commentary – Understanding the ECB’s bond-purchasing program

Once again, my IB Economics students are working on yet another Internal Assessment Commentary, this time on syllabus section 3, Macroeconomics. Since they found my sample Microeconomics commentary so helpful, I thought I’d punch out a quick sample of a macro commentary for them and for anyone else who is working on their IB Economcis Internal Assessment.

The commentary below (not including the selection from the article) is 749 words in length. This does NOT include words in the graphs, so let’s not have that debate in the comment section. The new IB economics internal assessment model (first examinations 2013) will not count words on graphs, so this sample commentary is perfectly suited for the new assessment model. If you’re a 2012 student, you would be wise to count words in graphs as part of your word count.

If you like what you see, or have any quesitons, please leave your comments below the post.

Article highlights:

An Impeccable Disaster – NYTimes.com

Paul Krugman clearly explains the problems faced by two or Europe’s largest economies today:

So why is Spain — along with Italy, which has higher debt but smaller deficits — in so much trouble? The answer is that these countries are facing something very much like a bank run, except that the run is on their governments rather than, or more accurately as well as, their financial institutions.

Here’s how such a run works: Investors, for whatever reason, fear that a country will default on its debt. This makes them unwilling to buy the country’s bonds, or at least not unless offered a very high interest rate. And the fact that the country must roll its debt over at high interest rates worsens its fiscal prospects, making default more likely, so that the crisis of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And as it does, it becomes a banking crisis as well, since a country’s banks are normally heavily invested in government debt.

Now, a country with its own currency, like Britain, can short-circuit this process: if necessary, the Bank of England can step in to buy government debt with newly created money. This might lead to inflation (although even that is doubtful when the economy is depressed), but inflation poses a much smaller threat to investors than outright default. Spain and Italy, however, have adopted the euro and no longer have their own currencies. As a result, the threat of a self-fulfilling crisis is very real — and interest rates on Spanish and Italian debt are more than twice the rate on British debt.

Commentary:

The European Central Bank (ECB) is engaging in a new form of monetary policy in which it buys government bonds directly from the Spanish and Italian governments. Essentially, the goal is to bring down the interest rates on Italian and Spanish government bonds, which should reassure private investors that Italy and Spain will be able to pay them back and thus reduce the upward pressure on interest rates in the Eurozone, a situation which threatens to reverse the already sluggish recovery from the recessions of 2008 and 2009.

Monetary policy refers to a central bank’s manipulation of the money supply and interest rates, aimed at either increasing interest rates (contractionary monetary policy) or reducing interest rates (expansionary monetary policy). The ECB is currently buying government bonds from European governments, effectively increasing the supply of money in Europe with the hope that more government and private sector spending will move the Eurozone economy closer to its full employment level of output, at which workers, land and capital resources are fully employed towards the production of goods and services.

If successful, the ECB’s “quantitative easing”, as the new type of monetary policy is known, should bring down interest rates on government bonds and thereby reallocate loanable funds towards Italy and Spain’s public and private sectors.  The increase in supply of loanable funds should bring down the private interest rates available to borrows (businesses and households), making private investment more attractive.

The ECB’s bond purchases make it cheaper for Italy and Spain to borrow, lowering the interest rates on their bonds, restoring confidence among international investors, who may be more willing to save their money in Italy in Spain. The inflow of loanable funds into these economies (seen as an increase in the supply of loanable funds from S1 to S2) should bring down private borrowing costs (the real interest rate), encouraging more firms to invest in capital and more households to finance the consumption of durable goods, increasing aggregate demand and moving the Eurozone economy back towards its full employment level of output, from AD1 to AD2 in the graph on the right.

In certain circumstances, monetary easing like this could be inflationary, but in reality inflation is unlikely to occur given the large output gap in Europe at present (represented above as the distance between Y1 and the dotted line, signifying the full employment level of output). Any increase in aggregate demand will lead to economic growth (an increase in output), but little or no inflation due to the excess capacity of unemployed labor, land and capital resources in the European economy today.

With private sector borrowing costs increasing due to growing uncertainty over their deficits and debts, the Italian and Spanish governments will find expansionary fiscal policies (tax cuts and increased government expenditures) are unrealistic options for achieving the goal of full employment. The ECB, however, as Krugman argues, should continue to play an increasing role in the expansion of credit to cash strapped European governments, with the aim of keeping interest rates low to prevent the crowding-out of private spending that often occurs in the face of large budget deficits. Inflation, always a concern for central bankers, should be a low priority in Europe’s current recessionary environment. Only when consumer and investor confidence is restored, a condition that requires low borrowing costs, will private sector spending resume and the Euro economies can begin creating jobs and increasing their output again.

In the short-term, Italy and Spain should take advantage of the ECB’s bond-buying initiative, and make meaningful, productivity-enhancing investments in infrastructure, education and job training. If their economies are to grow in the future, Eurozone countries must become more competitive with the rapidly expanding economies of Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere in the developing world.

In the medium-term, the Eurozone countries must demonstrate a commitment to fiscal restraint and more balanced budgets. Eliminating loopholes that allow businesses and wealthy individuals to avoid paying taxes, for example, is of utmost importance. Also, increasing the retirement age, downsizing some of the more generous social welfare programs and increasing marginal tax rates on the highest income earners would all send the message to investors that these countries are commited to fiscal discipline. Then, in time, their dependence on ECB lending will decline and private lenders will once again be willing to buy Eurozone government bonds at lower interest rates, allowing for continued growth in the private sector.

9 responses so far

Aug 25 2011

The joys and sorrows of the strong Swiss franc

Last Friday my favorite podcast, NPR’s Planet Money, did a feature story called “Switzerland’s too Strong for it’s own Good”. The gist of the story is that the uncertainty over budget deficits and the national debt in the US and Eurozone at this time are causing international investors to put their money into the Swiss franc and Swiss franc denominated assets. Switzerland’s reputation for financial discipline and fiscal responsibility makes it a safe-haven for international investors feeling jittery over the large budget deficits in Euro countries and in the United States.

The Planet Money team discusses why the rising value of the franc poses a threat to the Swiss economy. To understand just how much the franc (CHF) has strengthened against the currencies of its trading partners, examine the graph below, which shows the rise (and recent decline) in the value of the CHF against the currency of Switzerland’s neighbors, the Euro.

As can be seen, earlier this year on CHF was worth only around 0.76 euros, but as recently as August 10 one CHF could buy nearly 0.95 worth of goods from Euro countries. Of course, cheaper imports is a benefit to Swiss households, but what we need to realize is that this upward trend in the value of the CHF also means that all Swiss goods are becoming more expensive to European consumers. And here’s the problem with the stronger franc. Over 50% of Switzerland’s output is exported to the rest of the world (meaning a large proportion of Switzerland’s workers depend on strong exports), and the more expensive the country’s currency, the more expensive the goods produced by Swiss businesses become in the countries with which Switzerland trades.

A simple example would help: A Swiss chocolate bar that sells for two CHF would have cost a European consumer only 1.50 euros in February of this year (when one CHF = 0.75 Euro). But in early August the same bar of chocolate would have cost the European consumer 1.90 Euro, an increase in price of nearly 30%. This may not seem like much to a casual observer, but when you realize that Switzerland’s biggest exports are capital goods and financial services, which cost far more than 2 CHF, a 30% price hike placed on foreign consumers is much more noticeable. If a train engine that sold for 1 million Euros suddenly costs a European transport agency 1.3 million Euros, you can imagine such a transaction would become much less appealing, and demand for Swiss rail engines will begin to fall, putting Swiss jobs at risk.

Here on the ground in Switzerland, the effects of the strong franc have definitely not gone unnoticed. One point of discussion in the podcast is the fact that Swiss retailers have strangely not begun lowering the prices for their imported products. For example, one would expect that a bike shop selling bikes made by American companies in Taiwan would be able to lower its price for those bikes as one franc now buys about 30% more US goods than it could earlier this year. Logically, a $1000 bike that used to cost 1,100 CHF for a Swiss bike shop to import now only costs that shop around 800 CHF to import. The Swiss consumer should begin to see lower retail prices reflecting the lower costs to Swiss importers. Strangely, however, this has not materialized, and most retailers have kept their prices at the same level they were before the rise of franc’s value.

Perhaps retailers are unwilling to lower their prices because they are uncertain whether or not the franc will remain strong, and they would not want to have to be in a situation in which the franc suddenly weakens and their costs rise once again. Perhaps retailers are simply enjoying the greater profits resulting from falling costs and the same high prices. However, as a consumer myself living in Switzerland, I would guess that this is not the case, because I and many other people I know here have reduced the quantity of goods we buy from Swiss retailers. In the age of online shopping, it is now cheaper than ever to order goods like bicycles, clothing and electronics from foreign retailers through the internet.

For example, I recently ordered a bicycle from the United States that sells for $1,100 there. At current exchange rates, I was able to order this bike for only 800 CHF from the US. The same bike in Switzerland has a retail price on it reflecting the US dollar/CHF exchange rate of several years ago, and sells for 1,500 CHF. Of course, any imported product is charged a duty by customs, but even after paying around 160 CHF in duties, I still am saving nearly 500 CHF on this bike. The result is Swiss bike shops selling foreign brands have experienced a decline in sales as consumers like myself have chosen to order their good from foreign retailers, whose prices are much lower due to the stronger franc.

As an American working in Switzerland, I also benefit from the strong franc in that all of my debts are in dollars. I own a house in the States, and still have about four years left on my student loans from grad school. The strong franc reduces the burden of these debts and allow me to keep more of my income in Switzerland, sending home less and less money each month to cover the same expenses back home.

The big question on everyone in Switzerland’s minds right now is whether the rise of the franc will continue, or whether it will return to an equilibrium exchange rate against the euro and the dollar closer to levels seen earlier this year. Swiss exporters (chocolate companies, watch makers and train engine manufacturers) are hoping the franc will fall again. Households, on the other hand, will continue to enjoy the cheap online shopping opportunities, and may eventually enjoy cheaper retail products in Switzerland if importers become more comfortable lowering their prices to reflect the lower costs of their imports.

I predict that the rise in the franc is over, but that in the next few months it will reach an equilibrium against the dollar and the euro somewhere well above its historic level (around 1.5 francs per Euro and around 1.1 francs per dollar). I believe the franc will settle around 1.1 CHF per Euro and around 0.85 CHF per dollar. Once these exchange rates have settled and the wild fluctuations of the last month come to an end, Swiss exporters and importers alike will begin adjusting their costs and prices to reflect the more stable equilibrium to which we will become accustomed.

Living and working in one of Europe’s and the world’s strongest, most fiscally sound economies has its advantages. But in a world of free trade and floating exchange rates, panic among investors abroad has the potential to fire a devastating blast into the ship that is a healthy economy like Switzerland’s. But over time, just like in any speculative bubble, the rise in the value of the franc will stop, it will begin to fall once again, and everyone will come to their senses as import and export prices once again begin to reflect the true exchange rates between the franc and the currencies of its trading partners.

Discussion questions: 

  1. Strong is always better, right? A strong army, a strong economy, a strong leader. But when it comes to currencies, strong is often not better. Why is a strong currency potentially harmful to a nation’s economy?
  2. How would an increase in online shopping among Swiss households affect the prices Swiss retailers are able to charge for their imported products?
  3. How would a Swiss exporting firm, such as Rolex (a watch manufacturer) be affected by the rising value of the Swiss franc? What would such a firm have to do to keep its products at a competitive price in foreign markets?

No responses yet

Aug 16 2011

Too much debt or not enough demand? A summary of the debate over America’s fiscal future

As yet another school year begins, we once again find ourselves returning to an atmosphere of economic uncertainty, sluggish growth, and heated debate over how to return the economies of the United States and Europe back onto a growth trajectory. In the last couple of weeks alone the US government has barely avoided a default on its national debt, ratings agencies have downgraded US government bonds, global stock markets have tumbled, confidence in the Eurozone has been pummeled over fears of larger than expected deficits in Italy and Greece, and the US dollar has reached historic lows against currencies such as the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen.

What are we to make of all this turmoil? I will not pretend I can offer a clear explanation to all this chaos, but I can offer here a little summary of the big debate over one of the issues above: the debate over the US national debt and what the US should be doing right now to assure future economic and financial stability.

There are basically two sides to this debate, one we will refer to as the “demand-side” and one we will call the “supply-side”. On the demand-side you have economists like Paul Krugman, and in Washington the left wing of the Democratic party, who believe that America’s biggest problem is a lack of aggregate demand.

Supply-siders, on the other hand, are worried more about the US national debt, which currently stands around 98% of US GDP, and the budget deficit, which this year is around $1.5 trillion, or 10% of GDP. Every dollar spent by the US government beyond what it collects in taxes, argue the supply-siders, must be borrowed, and the cost of borrowing is the interest the government (i.e. taxpayers) have to pay to those buying government bonds. The larger the deficit, the larger the debt burden and the more that must be paid in interest on this debt. Furthermore, increased debt leads to greater uncertainty about the future and the expectation that taxes will have to be raised sometime down the road, thus creating an environment in which firms and households will postpone spending, prolonging the period of economic slump.

The demand-siders, however, believe that debt is only a problem if it grows more rapidly than national income, and in the US right now income growth is almost zero, meaning that the growing debt will pose a greater threat over time due to the slow growth in income. Think of it this way, if I owe you $98 and I only earn $100, then that $98 is a BIG DEAL. But if my income increases to $110 and my debt grows to $100, that is not as big a deal. Yes, I owe you more money, but I am also earning more money, so the debt burden has actually decreased.

In order to get US income to grow, say the demand-siders, continued fiscal and monetary stimulus are needed. With the debt deal struck two weeks ago, however, the US government has vowed to slash future spending by $2.4 trillion, effectively doing the opposite of what the demand-siders would like to see happen, pursuing fiscal contraction rather than expansion. As government spending grows less in the future than it otherwise would have, employment will fall and incomes will grow more slowly, or worse, the US will enter a second recession, meaning even lower incomes in the future, causing a the debt burden to grow.

Now let’s consider the supply-side argument. The supply-siders argue that America’s biggest problem is not the lack of demand, rather it is the debt itself. Every borrowed dollar spent by the goverment, say the supply-siders, is a dollar taken out of the private sector’s pocket. As government spending continues to grow faster than tax receipts, the government must borrow more and more from the private sector, and in order to attract lenders, interest on government bonds must be raised. Higher interest paid on government debt leads to a flow of funds into the public sector and away from the private sector, causing borrowing costs to rise for everyone else. In IB and AP Economics, this phenomenon is known as  the crowding-out effect: Public sector borrowing crowds out private sector investment, slowing growth and leading to less overall demand in the economy.

Additionally, argue the supply-siders, the increase in debt required for further stimulus will only lead to the expectation among households and firms of future increases in tax rates, which will be necessary to pay down the higher level of debt sometime in the future. The expectation of future tax hikes will be enough to discourage current consumption and investment, so despite the increase in government spending now, the fall in private sector confidence will mean less investment and consumption, so aggregate demand may not even grow if we do borrow and spend today!

This debate is not a new one. The demand-side / supply-side battle has raged for nearly a century, going back to the Great Depression when the prevailing economic view was that the cause of the global economic crisis was unbalanced budgets and too much foreign competition. In the early 30′s governments around the world cut spending, raised taxes and erected new barriers to trade in order to try and fix their economic woes. The result was a deepening of the depression and a lost decade of economic activity, culminating in a World War that led to a massive increase in demand and a return to full employment. Let’s hope that this time around the same won’t be necessary to end our global economic woes.

Recently, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria had two of the leading voices in this economic debate on his show to share their views on what is needed to bring the US and the world out of its economic slump. Princeton’s Paul Krugman, a proud Keynesian, spoke for the demand-side, while Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff represented the supply-side. Watch the interview below (up to 24:40), read my notes summarizing the two side’s arguments, and answer the questions that follow.

Summary of Krugman’s argument:

  • Despite the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s (a ratings agency) there appears to be strong demand for US government bonds right now, meaning really low borrowing costs (interest rates) for the US government.
  • This means investors are not afraid of what S&P is telling them to be afraid of, and are more than happy to lend money to the US government at low interest rates.
  • Investors are fleeing from equities (stocks in companies), and buying US bonds because US debt is the safest asset out there. The market is saying that the downgrade may lead to more contractionary policies, hurting the real economy. Investors are afraid of contractionary fiscal policy, so are sending a message to Washington that it should spend more now.
  • The really scary thing is the prospect of another Great Depression.
  • Can fiscal stimulus succeed in an environment of large amounts of debt held by the private sector? YES, says Krugman, the government can sustain spending to maintain employment and output, which leads to income growth and makes it easier for the private sector to pay down their debt.
  • With 9% unemployment and historically high levels of long-term unemployment, we should be addressing the employment problem first. We should throw everything we can at increasing employment and incomes.
  • Is there some upper limit to the national debt? Krugman says the deficit and debt are high, but we must consider costs versus benefits: The US can borrow money and repay in constant dollars (inflation adjusted) less than it borrowed. There must be projects the federal government could undertake with at least a constant rate of return that could get workers employed. If the world wants to buy US bonds, let’s borrow now and invest for the future!
  • If we discovered that space aliens were about to attack and we needed a massive military buildup to protect ourselves from invasion, inflation and budget deficits would be a secondary concern to that and the recession would be over in 18 months.
  • We have so many hypothetical risks (inflation, bond market panic, crowding out, etc…) that we are afraid to tackle the actual challenge that is happening (unemployment, deflation, etc..) and we are destroying a lot of lives to protect ourselves from these “phantom threats”.
  • The thing that’s holding us back right now in the US is private sector debt. Yes we won’t have a self-sustaining recovery until private sector debt comes down, at least relative to incomes. Therefore we need policies that make income grow, which will reduce the burden of private debt.
  • The idea that we cannot do anything to grow until private debt comes down on its own is flawed… increase income, decrease debt burden!
  • Things that we have no evidence for that are supposed to be dangerous are not a good reason not to pursue income growth policies.
  • When it comes down to it, there just isn’t enough spending in the economy!

Summary of Rogoff’s argument:

  • The downgrade was well justified, and the reason for the demand for treasuries is that they look good compared to the other options right now.
  • There is a panic going on as investors adjust to lower growth expectations, due to lack of leadership in the US and Europe.
  • This is not a classical recession, rather a “Great Contraction”: Recessions are periodic, but a financial crisis like this is unusual, this is the 2nd Great Contraction since the Depresssion. It’s not output and employment, but credit and housing which are contracting, due to the “debt overhang”.
  • If you look at a contraction, it can take up to 4 or 5 years just to get back where you started.
  • This is not a double dip recession, because we never left the first one.
  • Rogoff thinks continued fiscal stimulus would worsen the debt overhang because it leads to the expectation of future tax increases, thus causing firms and households increased uncertainty and reduces future growth.
  • If we used our credit to help facilitate a plan to bring down the mortgage debt (debt held by the private sector), Rogoff would consider that a better option than spending on employment and output. Fix the debt problem, and spending will resume.
  • Rogoff thinks we should not assume that interest rates of US debt will last indefinitely. Infrastructure spending, if well spent, is great, but he is suspicious whether the government is able to target its spending so efficiently to make borrowing the money worthwhile.
  • Rogoff thinks if government invests in productive projects, stimulus is a good idea, but “digging ditches” will not fix the economy.
  • Until we get the debt levels down, we cannot get back to robust growth.
  • It’s because of the government’s debt that the private sector is worried about where the country’s going. If we increase the debt to finance more stimulus, there will be more uncertainty, higher interest rates, possibly inflation, and prolonged stagnation in output and incomes.
  • When it comes down to it, there is just too much debt in the economy!

Discussion Question:

  1. What is the fundamental difference between the two arguments being debated above? Both agree that the national debt is a problem, but where do the two economists differ on how to deal with the debt?
  2. The issues of “digging ditches and filling them in” comes up in the discussion. What is the context of this metaphor? What are the two economists views on the effectiveness of such projects?
  3. Following the debate, Fareed Zakaria talks about the reaction in China to S&P’s downgrade of US debt. What does he think about the popular demands in China for the government to pull out of the market for US government bonds?
  4. Explain what Zakaria means when he describes the relationship between the US and China as “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)”.
  5. Should the US government pursue a second stimulus and directly try to stimulate employment and income? Or should it continue down the path to austerity, cutting government programs to try and balance its budget?

20 responses so far

Feb 28 2011

Wall Street, used cars, and the market failure of asymmetric information

This post is an introduction to the Academy Award winning documentary, ‘Inside Job’ for introductory Economics students

What do Wall Street investment bankers and used car salesmen have in common? Sometimes, the less their customers know about the products they’re selling, the more profits they both stand to earn. Imperfect information in markets can lead to market failure, and at its core, the failures of global financial markets during 2008 – 2009 was a result of imperfect information.

Last night, the film ‘Inside Job’ won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 2010. The film focuses on the changes in the financial industry in between 2000 and 2007 that led to an overall increase in the level of risk undertaken by home mortgage lenders, investment banks, and ultimately the broader investment community the banking system serves.

The mis-aligned incentives motivating Wall Street banks and the asymmetry of information between the buyers and sellers of financial products, as well as the creation of new, complex derivative markets that allowed investment banks to bet against the very assets they were assembling and selling off to investors, contributed to the collapse of credit markets in 2007 and 2008 and ultimately a contraction of the level of economic activity worldwide during the “Great Recession” of 2008 and 2009.

The article below is an attempt to introduce the seemingly incomprehensible nature of global financial markets and understand what occurred in them between 2000 and 2007 in the context of an introductory Economics unit on Market Failure.

Imperfect Information as a Market Failure:

Imagine this. You’re in the market for a used car. You go to the used car dealership, speak with a salesman, and he takes you through rows of automobiles, telling you the features of each one and assuring you that each of his cars has been inspected by a third party garage for reliability. You find this re-assuring; after all you wouldn’t want to buy a car that hasn’t passed a basic inspection, since you don’t want it to break down once you’ve driven it off the lot.

After an hour or so of poking around the lot, you pick out the perfect car. A silver 2006 Audi, a great year for Audis, says the dealer. You have his word that it has been closely inspected and is in top notch shape. So you hand over $20,000 for the Audi and drive it off the lot, satisfied with your purchase.

What would you say, however, if you knew that soon after driving off the lot, the very salesman who convinced you to buy that Audi purchased an insurance policy that would pay the salesman $20,000  in the case that it broke down. Would that knowledge have made you question your purchase?

What would you say if you found out that the “third party garage” the salesman used to inspect the car actually followed orders from the dealer himself, and was 100% dependent on that dealer’s business. Therefore, the mechanic was under significant pressure to give each of the cars sent to him a high mark in its inspection. By doing so, the garage mechanic assures that the dealer is able to easily sell cars to the buyers who trust that the mechanic has given an honest appraisal of the car’s mechanical reliability. Since the dealer can sell cars given high inspection marks  for higher prices, the dealer is then able take out insurance policies that pay a greater amount when the car ultimately breaks down.

Would all of this knowledge have made you questions your purchase and the price you paid for your Audi? Chances are, if there had been perfect information in the market for used cars, you, and countless other people, would not have been willing to pay the price you paid for your Audi. Fewer used cars would have been sold, and they would have sold for lower prices. The existence of asymmetric information results in an over allocation of resources towards the market for mechanically unsound used cars.

So what does the story above have to do with the global financial crisis? Believe it or not, the fundamental cause of the near collapse of the global financial system in recent years is almost identical to our story about the used-car salesman, the corrupt garage mechanic, the dubious insurance policies and the sucker buyer, who was stuck driving a crappy car that broke down within days of driving it off the lot.

Financial Market Failure:

Between 2000 and 2007, financial innovation led to unprecedented increases in the availability of low interest loans to millions of low income American households for whom home mortgages traditionally would have been unobtainable. Banks which issued these “sub-prime” loans to households with very poor credit were able to sell them to Wall Street investment banks, which were re-packaging individual home mortgages with  thousands of similar loans from all over the United States into asset-backed securities, a form of bond that could then be sold to an investor to whom the interest payments made by the homeowners would accrue over the lifespans of the mortgages included in the bond.

Investment banks turned to the big credit rating agencies (Standard and Poors, Moody’s), who inspected the make-up of these asset backed securities, declared them investment grade and gave them AAA ratings, essentially giving a thumbs up to the institutional investors who ultimately bought these bonds from the investment banks. An AAA rating assured investors who bought the bonds that they were very safe investments, in essence that they were in “good mechanical order”, just like the Audi you drove off the lot after being told it was in good mechanical order.

The investors who ultimately bought these bonds were not small time investors like you and me, rather they were institutions, such as state pension funds, hedge funds, money market funds, sovereign wealth funds, and so on, who often times used taxpayers money to buy bonds from big investment banks on Wall Street (such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns). These investors were assured by the banks that the bonds were of the highest quality and would therefore earn the investors interest payments for years, even decades. In addition, because of the high ratings given to these bonds by the rating agencies, the investors believed they would always be able to sell the bond if they needed the money back they had originally used to buy it.

The information given to investors was not always correct, however, it turned out that many of Wall Street banks assembling and selling these bonds were also betting against them in a parallel market for derivatives known as credit default swaps.

Here’s the catch… the Wall Street banks that bought millions of low-income Americans’ mortgages (the “sub-prime” type) were just like that used car salesman. They knew the bonds of their creation were of poor quality, but just had to get the investors to believe they were in good mechanical order to “get them off the lot” into the hands of an investor.

And just like the sleazy car salesman, as soon as the banks started selling these bonds to investors, they began taking out insurance policies against them in the case that they should lose their value. An insurance policy that pays out when the value of a bond collapses is called a “credit default swap” (CDS), and the market for these  became a multi-billion dollar industry in which big Wall Street banks bought insurance on the very bonds they created and sold to institutional investors, essentially betting that their own bonds would collapse in value. Of course, none of the investors knew the banks were betting against their own bonds, because this knowledge would have surely wiped out demand for them and led to collapse in business for the Wall Street banks.

The rating agencies inspecting the asset backed securities assembled from bad mortgages were just like the corrupt garage mechanic giving all the 2006 Audis a “thumbs up” to make them easier for the car dealership to sell. By giving sub-prime mortgage backed securities “investment grade” AAA ratings, the rating agencies made it easier for investment banks to sell them to sucker investors for high prices, which in turn enabled investment banks to take out insurance policies (CDSs) against them. And since the rating agencies knew the banks wanted AAA ratings for bonds that should have been given “junk bond” status, the agencies continued to give them the highest rating, since they were dependent on the Wall Street banks for their business.

In the end, just like the 2006 Audi you drove off the lot was of poor mechanical integrity and broke down just days after you dropped $20,000 on it, most of the bonds assembled and sold on to investors by Wall Street banks were themselves of very poor quality. The underlying assets, the sub-prime mortgages themselves, were made to American households who could not possibly pay them back, Americans whose incomes were so low that the monthly payment for the home loan often exceeded the income of the borrower himself.

Ultimately, when sub-prime mortgage borrowers began defaulting on their loans, the Wall Street investment banks that had assembled them into asset backed securities and the institutional investors who bought these bonds found themselves holding trillions of dollars worth of loans that were no longer being repaid. For the banks, however, things weren’t all that bad, because just like the corrupt car salesman, they had taken out hundreds of billions of dollars in insurance on the bonds, which assured that when they finally went bad, the banks, which had passed on most of the bonds to investors, could simply collect the insurance payouts from the issuers of credit default swaps.

Who were the insurance companies stupid enough to insure crappy bonds, you ask? You may have heard of AIG (American Insurance Group). This was the insurance company insuring most of the sub-prime mortgage backed bonds. When all the bonds started to go bad AIG quickly ran out of money as it paid the investment banks out the insurance they owed. When AIG ran out of cash, the US government stepped in and gave AIG $85 billion of taxpayer money in September 0f 2008, assuring that the Wall Street banks with insurance through AIG collected 100% of their insurance money.

Show Me the Market Failure:

So what makes this a “market failure” in the economic sense of the term? Well, the existence of imperfect information in the automobile market led to an over allocation of resources towards the market for used cars. Because the buyers were being duped by the sellers and the corrupt garage mechanics, demand for used cars was too high and the price they were being sold for was too high. With more perfect information, consumers would have demanded fewer cars and they would have been sold for a lower price.

With more perfect information in the financial markets, far fewer investors would have been willing to pay the prices they did for the bonds the Wall Street banks assembled from sub-prime mortgages. Far less credit would have been made available to low income American home buyers. Far fewer sub-prime mortgage loans would have been made, and fewer Americans would have purchased homes that they could not afford in the first place.

In addition, if the institutional investors who were ultimately stuck holding these bonds had known that the investment banks selling them were simultaneously buying insurance policies against them, the investors would have been much more wary about investing in them. Also, if the investors had known that the rating agencies giving the bonds AAA, investment grade ratings were essentially following orders from the investment banks, giving the bonds the high ratings the Wall Street bosses wanted them to get, then the investors would have  been less willing to buy the bonds and less credit would have ended up in the hands of low-income American home buyers.

The market for financial services failed because too many resources were allocated towards the provision of loans to low-income American households. With more perfect information about the value of the under-lying assets included in the bonds being sold by Wall Street banks (the sub-prime mortgages), and with the knowledge that the banks themselves were betting against the bonds they assembled and sold, far fewer investors would have been willing to buy the bonds and far less credit would have been made available to American home buyers.

A market failure exists anytime the free market produces at a level of output greater or less than that which is deemed socially optimal. Given the huge surplus of unsold homes in the United States right now, and the collapse of many institutional investors’ portfolios on whose financial strength hundreds of millions of real people around the world depend for their very livelihoods, it can be safely argued that the imperfect information in the market for mortgage-backed securities (bonds) led to an over allocation of resources towards homes for low income Americans.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is perfect information needed for a market to be perfectly efficient? How does imperfect information lead to a mis-allocation of resources in a market?
  2. In the case of financial markets, what information, if known by those who invested in sub-prime mortgage-backed securities, would have helped correct the market failure and prevented the global financial crisis?
  3. Another type of market failure we study in Microeconomics is negative externalities. Did the over-allocation of resources towards home loans for low income households create any negative externalities when the assets backed by the loans ultimately lost their value? What are some of the social costs of too many loans being made to low income borrowers in the early 2000′s?
  4. Some argue that the financial crisis was not a market failure, but a regulatory failure, meaning the government failed to notice the actions of Wall Street banks and stop them before they caused a financial crisis? To what extent should the government intervene in the functioning of free markets to assure that information asymmetry does not lead to similar crises in the future?
  5. Suggest one regulation the government could have enacted to prevent the over-allocation of capital towards the sub-prime mortgage market?

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