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November 13, 2012

(Fiscal) Cliff Notes

Since it is indisputably the policy question of the moment, here are a few of my own observations regarding the "fiscal cliff." Throughout, I will rely on the analysis of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as reported in the CBO reports titled An Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022 and Economic Effects of Policies Contributing to Fiscal Tightening in 2013.

Since the CBO analysis and definitions of the fiscal cliff are familiar to many, I will forgo a rehash of the details. However, in case you haven't been following the conversation closely or are in the mood for a refresher, you can go here first for a quick summary. This "appendix" also includes a description of the CBO's alternative scenario, which amounts to renewing most expiring tax provisions and rescinding the automatic budget cuts to be implemented under the provisions of last year's debt-ceiling extension.

On, then, to a few facts about the fiscal cliff scenario that have caught my attention.

1. Going over the cliff would put the federal budget on the path to sustainability.

If reducing the level of federal debt relative to gross domestic (GDP) is your goal, the fiscal cliff would indeed do the trick. According to the CBO:

Budget deficits are projected to continue to shrink for several years—to 2.4 percent of GDP in 2014 and 0.4 percent by 2018—before rising again to 0.9 percent by 2022. With deficits small relative to the size of the economy, debt held by the public is also projected to drop relative to GDP—from about 77 percent in 2014 to about 58 percent in 2022. Even with that decline, however, debt would represent a larger share of GDP in 2022 than in any year between 1955 and 2009.

Such would not be the case should the status quo of the CBO's alternative scenario prevail. Under (more or less) status quo policy, the debt-to-GDP ratio would rise to a hair under 90 percent by 2022:


The current debt-to-GDP ratio of 67 percent is already nearly double the 2007 level, which checked in at about 36 percent. However, though the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio over the past five years is smaller in percentage terms, a jump to 90 percent from where we are today may be more problematic. There is some evidence of "threshold effects" that associate negative effects on growth with debt levels that exceed a critical upper bound relative to the size of the economy. At the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's 2011 Economic Symposium, Steve Cecchetti offered the following observation, based on his research with M.S. Mohanty and Fabrizio Zampolli:

Using a new dataset on debt levels in 18 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries from 1980 to 2010 (based primarily on flow of funds data), we examine the impact of debt on economic growth....

Our results support the view that, beyond a certain level, debt is bad for growth. For government debt, the number is about 85 percent of GDP.

Of course, causation is always a tricky thing to establish, and Cecchetti et al. are clear that their estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty. Still, it is clear that the fiscal cliff moves the level of debt in the right direction. The status quo does not.

2. The fiscal cliff moves in the direction of budget balance really fast.

By the CBO's estimates, over the next three years the fiscal cliff would reduce deficits relative to GDP by about 6 percentage points, from the current ratio of 7.3 percent to the projected 2015 level of 1.2 percent.

Deficit reduction of this magnitude is not unprecedented. A comparable decline occurred in the 1990s, when the federal budget moved from deficits that were 4.7 percent of GDP to a surplus equal to 1.4 percent of GDP. However, that 6 percentage point change in deficits relative to GDP happened over an eight-year span, from 1992 to 1999.

It is probably also worth noting that the average annual rate of GDP growth over the 1993–99 period was 4 percent. The CBO projects real growth rates over the next three years at 2.7 percent, which incorporates two years of growth in excess of 4 percent following negative growth in 2013.

The upshot is that, though the fiscal cliff would move the federal budget in the right direction vis à vis sustainability, it does so at an extremely rapid pace. I'm not sure speed kills in this case, but it sounds pretty risky.

3. The fiscal cliff heavily weights deficit reduction in the direction of higher taxation.

Over the first five years off the cliff, almost three-quarters of the deficit reduction relative to the CBO's no-cliff alternative would be accounted for by revenue increases. Only 28 percent would be a result of lower outlays:


The balance shifts only slightly over the full 10-year horizon of the CBO projections, with outlays increasing to 34 percent of the total and revenues falling to 66 percent.

Particularly for the nearer-term horizon, there is at least some evidence that this revenue/outlay mix may not be optimal. A few months back, Greg Mankiw highlighted this, from new research by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi:

This paper studies whether fiscal corrections cause large output losses. We find that it matters crucially how the fiscal correction occurs. Adjustments based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of output losses than tax-based ones. Spending-based adjustments have been associated with mild and short-lived recessions, in many cases with no recession at all. Tax-based adjustments have been associated with prolonged and deep recessions.

Of course, that in the end is a relatively short-run impact. It does not directly confront the growth aspects of the policy mix associated with fiscal reform. Controversy on the growth-maximizing size of government and the best growth-supporting mix of spending and tax policies is longstanding. The dustup on a Congressional Research Services report questioning the relationship between top marginal tax rates and growth is but a recent installment of this debate.

Here's what I think we know, in theory anyway: Government spending can be growth-enhancing. Tax increases can be growth-retarding. It's all about the tradeoffs, the details matter, and unqualified statements about the "right" thing to do should be treated with suspicion. (If you are an advanced student of economics or otherwise tolerant of a bit of a math slog, you can find an excellent summary of the whole issue here.)

In other words, there are lots of decisions to be made—and it would probably be better if those decisions are not made by default.

Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 


November 13, 2012 in Federal Debt and Deficits, Fiscal Policy, Taxes | Permalink

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"Tax increases can be growth-retarding." That has yet to be demonstrated. On the other hand, we do know that tax increases can be growth-enhancing. This has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Posted by: Kaleberg | November 14, 2012 at 10:46 PM

We could make it sustainable by moving revenue to 20% of GDP and reducing spending to 18% GDP. That would leave a 2% surplus as far as the eye could see and pay off the national debt in 45 years.

Fiscal Cliff is half of the solution that we need. Entitlement reform is the other half.

Posted by: John | November 15, 2012 at 09:10 AM

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October 17, 2011

State and local fiscal fortunes: Follow the money (collected)

Last week, we found ourselves in conversation with some colleagues discussing the issue of state and local fiscal conditions, which by pure coincidence coincided with the announcement that the city of Harrisburg, Pa., filed for bankruptcy. In the course of conversation, our attention was drawn to an interesting fact. Prior to 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data through 2008, annual growth of total revenues at the state and local level was closely aligned with direct expenditures at the same level. Since 2000, however, this pattern has decidedly changed. The main reason is the dramatic volatility of total revenue:

Revenues at the state and local level come from many sources. Taxes from income, sales, and property, of course, but also from various fees and charges associated from education, utilities, ports and airports, and so on. In addition, revenues come from transfers from the federal government and, importantly, asset income from trust fund portfolios.

In fact, the primary source of the increased volatility in state and local government revenues since 2000 is large swings in revenue going into insurance trust funds to finance compulsory or voluntary social insurance programs operated by the public sector.

Insurance trust revenue is derived from contributions, assessments, premiums, or payroll "taxes" required of employers and employees. It also includes any earnings on assets held or invested by such funds. Not surprisingly then, the volatility of insurance trust revenue is partly tied to volatility in financial markets, as the chart below clearly illustrates.

Though fluctuations in insurance fund revenues have been the largest source of fluctuations in overall state and local revenues over the past decade or so, volatility in general revenue is still an issue. Ups and downs in income tax revenues have been particularly sharp since 2000.

Interestingly, Census Bureau data for state government finances show tax revenue growth turned negative in 2009.

In research that focuses specifically on revenue variability at the state level, UCLA law professor Kirk Stark notes the possibility that state revenues have too much reliance on the same income-centric tax base that characterizes the federal revenue code:

"Perhaps the most obvious (yet little discussed) federal inducement for the design of state and local tax systems is the fact that Congress has established an elaborate and detailed legal framework for certain taxes—including, most notably, the individual and corporate income taxes—but not for others. The very existence of the Code, Treasury Regulations, IRS administrative guidance, and federal judicial case law creates an almost irresistible incentive for the states to adopt individual and corporate income taxes. The availability of the federal income tax base as a starting point in calculating state tax liability is an unqualified benefit. …

"At the same time, however, there are potentially significant costs associated with having states piggyback on the federal income tax. Taxes that might be suitable for use by a central level of government are not necessarily appropriate for use by state or local governments. Some of the most volatile state revenue sources are those upon which states rely by virtue of piggybacking on the federal income tax."

The theme of Professor Stark's article is the role that federal policy might play in generating revenue volatility at the state level:

"Through various inducements and limitations embedded in federal law, the federal government has stacked the deck in favor of state revenue volatility, unwittingly exacerbating the subnational fiscal crises that it is then called upon to mitigate through bailouts and general fiscal relief."

Some other examples of how federal tax policy can have an impact on state and local policy according to Stark include "differential treatment of alternative tax sources within the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes" and "various specific provisions in federal law that limit state taxing authority."
Professor Stark is clear on the point that the research in this area has defied simple generic conclusions about how state and local tax codes can be constructed to minimize revenue volatility. And the work is largely silent on how the volatility question fits into the broader question of optimal tax-system design. But it is hard to argue with this conclusion:

"If the federal government is interested in reducing the likelihood and severity of future state fiscal crises, it should consider changes to federal law that would eliminate the current bias in favor of volatile state tax systems."

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed



and

John Robertson John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

October 17, 2011 in Economic Growth and Development, Fiscal Policy, Taxes | Permalink

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Very good blog! Always an interesting read!

This article as well. It's title might be somewhat misleading, however.

To assess the fortunes of States and Cities, spending, or more precisely, what they *should* be spending, appears more relevant than the variance of income.

It is hard to make the numbers work when future pension obligations are included in the liabilities, volatility of earnings notwithstanding (e.g. Illinois).

Again, keep up with the good work!
SamK

Posted by: SamK | October 19, 2011 at 10:01 AM

But volatility of some of local revenues seems to me a good idea because it is anti-cyclical, just like for the Union budget: taxes go down when incomes go down. Since the USA includes a fiscal Union supposedly if a locality has a sudden drop in revenues the Union budget should support distressed localities (with safeguards).

The alternative would be for local taxes to rise sharply as a percentage of income when local economic activity is depressed, which sounds mad to me.

Unless the idea is to shift most of the local taxation burden to low income residents, via taxes on transactions that are largely independent of income and on expenditures that have very little elasticity to price; for example by replacing local taxes on income with local taxes on food sales, or rents, and with masses increases in fees on services like water supply and garbage collection and public transport.

Also, the "insurance fund" story is simply the old accounting strategy: to book "estimated" gigantic expected capital gains and impossibly high returns on the insurance fund, and cut income taxes on wealthy residents with the resulting "savings", and then when the insurance fund investments as expected fail to deliver during a recession, recommend a massive cut in services or a switch from income related to consumption related taxes to cover the shortfall.

Both strategies are not mad, just politics of a very specific sort.

Posted by: Blissex | October 20, 2011 at 05:45 PM

«Not surprisingly then, the volatility of insurance trust revenue is partly tied to volatility in financial markets, as the chart below clearly illustrates.»

There is another note as to this: why ever is there *any* volatility in these insurance funds? USA treasuries have not been that volatile.

Comparing insurance fund assets with stock market valuations seems crazy to me, as it seems to imply that local government insurance funds are invested speculatively instead of prudently, and from the graph it seems that they volatility is even greater than that of the S&P500, which means that they haven't even been invested in index funds, but in stock-picking speculative strategies.

The graph actually seems to suggest a massive breakdown in the fiduciary duties of local government investment managers, as if their goal was not just to book massive gains to justify cutting local taxes, but also to push up stock market prices via extremely leveraged speculation to pursue a further set of political goals. That would be madness.

Posted by: Blissex | October 20, 2011 at 05:57 PM

That the volatility of investment funds is much higher than that of the S&P seems to imply that the funds contain a significant amount of highly speculative leveraged instruments, for example stock derivatives.

I personally think that there is no reason whatever to invest local government funds in anything other than treasuries (like OASDI does) on both prudential and return grounds.

But it seems that politicians of many local governments instead thought that Orange County was a laudable model and Mr. Citron a hero prophet.

Posted by: Blissex | October 21, 2011 at 05:50 AM

I think the biggest inducement to states having income taxes is the federal deduction for state income taxes paid. The deduction causes part of the state's tax burden to be shifted to the federal government. If a small state like Hawaii can impose and administer a highly successful broad-based gross receipts tax, I don't think the mere existence of tax code is enough by itself to attract a state to the net income tax. After all, one state could also copy another's code. Just keeping up with changes in the federal income tax imposes a burden on tax administrators.

Posted by: don | October 27, 2011 at 06:30 PM

The U.S. Census Bureau released 2009 state and local government data on October 31: http://www.census.gov/govs/estimate/

Posted by: Jeff | November 01, 2011 at 10:34 AM

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May 19, 2011

The long and short (runs) of tax reform

In an earlier part of my career, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about fiscal policy issues. The evolution of my responsibilities eventually moved my attentions in a somewhat different direction, but you never really forget your first research love. With questions of debt, government spending, and taxes at the top of the news, it isn't hard for my old fondness for the topic to reemerge.

So, in that context, I had a somewhat nostalgic response to an item at Angry Bear, written by contributor Dan Crawford. In essence, the Crawford post formally (through statistical analysis) asks the question "How is GDP growth related to marginal tax rates (that is, the tax rate applied to your last dollar of income)?" More specifically, Crawford analyzes how gross domestic product (GDP) growth next year is related to the marginal tax rate faced by the average individual and the marginal tax rate faced by the highest-income taxpayers.

I don't intend to quibble with the specifics of that experiment per se but rather highlight an aspect of taxation and tax reform that I think should not be forgotten. That is, the short run is no place for a decent discussion of tax policy to be hanging out. To say that more formally, the largest effects of tax policy accrue over time, and it is probably not a good idea to be too focused on the immediate—say, next year's—effects of any given policy or change in policy.

The following chart is based on tax reform experiments in a paper I co-authored over a decade ago with Alan Auerbach, Larry Kotlikoff, Kent Smetters, and Jan Walliser. (Note that the chart does not appear in the paper, but I created it using data from the paper—a publicly available version of the paper can be found here.) The chart depicts the cumulative percentage increases in national income that would be realized (in our model) in the years following three different tax reforms.

The three experiments depicted in this chart were as follows:

"[The clean income tax] replaces the progressive taxation of wage income with a single rate that is also applied to capital income. In addition, the clean income tax eliminates the major federal tax-base reductions including the standard deduction, personal and dependent exemptions, itemized deductions, the deductibility of state income taxes at the federal level, and preferential tax treatment of fringe benefits...


"Our flat tax experiment modifies the clean consumption tax by including a standard deduction of $9500. In addition, housing wealth, which equals about half of the capital stock, is entirely exempt from taxation."


Parenthetically, the "clean consumption tax"

"...differs from the clean income tax by including full expensing of investment expenditures. This produces a consumption-tax structure. Formally, we specify the system as a combination of a labor-income tax and a business cash-flow tax."


Finally,

"Our [flat tax with transition relief] experiment adds transition relief to the flat tax by extending pre-reform depreciation rules for capital in place at the time of the tax reform."


Here's what I want to emphasize in all of this. If the change in policy you might be considering involves a reduction in effective marginal tax rates (implemented via a combination of changes in statutory rates and adjustments in deductions and exemptions), the approach taken by Crawford in his Angry Bear piece is probably acceptable. The clean income tax reform is in the spirit of Crawford's calculations, and in our results the long-run impact on output is realized almost immediately. If, however, the tax reform involves changing the tax base in a fundamental way (in both versions of our flat tax experiments the base shifts from income to consumption), then the ultimate effects are felt only gradually. In our flat tax experiments, the longer-run effects on income are in the neighborhood of three times as large as the near-term effects.

All of the experiments described were done under the assumption of revenue neutrality, so questions of the right policy for budget balancing exercises weren't explicitly addressed. (Nor is it the nature of the experiment contemplated in the Angry Bear post.) Nonetheless, they do suggest that deficit reduction exercises that involve changes in tax rates and the tax base will have differential effects over time, and realizing the full benefits of tax reform may require a modicum of patience.

Note: A user-friendly description of the paper that the chart above is based on appeared in an Economic Commentary article published by the Cleveland Fed.

Update: Though the item at Angry Bear was posted by Dan Crawford, Mike Kimel actually wrote it. I apologize for the mistake and draw your attention to Kimel's follow-up post.


Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

May 19, 2011 in Deficits, Fiscal Policy, Taxes | Permalink

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Dan Crawford posted the analysis. Mike Kimmel wrote it. Just thought I should mention it.

Posted by: kharris | May 20, 2011 at 10:39 AM

So when does your theoretical chart reflect the dramatic plunge that has occurred in real nations with flat taxes (e.g. Iceland)? Must be in year 14, right?

Posted by: Devin | May 20, 2011 at 11:36 AM

Minor correction: Dan posted it, but Mike Kimel actually wrote it.

Posted by: Ken Houghton | May 20, 2011 at 12:20 PM

Dave,

Hi. Thanks for mentioning the post. I modified it to take into account some of your comments. (New version here: http://www.angrybearblog.com/2011/05/tax-rates-and-economic-growth-over-ten.html)

Now I use the tax rates in any given year to explain annualized growth rates over the subsequent ten years. Additionally, I've included quadratic forms of both the top and bottom rates, which allows me to compute growth maximizing rates at both ends of the scale.

It turns out that the growth maximizing top marginal rate isn't much changed from the first post (i.e., 67%), but the optimal bottom marginal rate is zero. I think that indicates that using historical US data at least, a flat tax is a bad idea, as the top and bottom marginal rates would be identical if rates were flat.

With respect, given the choice between the outcomes predicted by a simulation, and historical outcomes, I'd go with the historical outcomes.

Best regards.

Posted by: Mike Kimel | May 24, 2011 at 07:23 PM

Dave, I would be interested is learning more as to why this is the case...i.e. why would a change into a flat tax have minimal short-term effects (yet meaningful long-term effects)?

Posted by: Chris | May 26, 2011 at 07:45 PM

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April 18, 2011

Can Keynesians be anti-Keynesian?

Follow any policy debate, and you are sure to find a list of economists who support or inspire those on both sides of the issue. In The Economist, we find some of those on the roster for the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, and why:

"When Republicans proposed slashing billions of dollars from federal spending this year, Democrats circulated predictions by economists that jobs and growth would be hit. John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, countered with an economic expert of his own: John Taylor of Stanford University. 'Nothing could be more contrary to basic economics, experience and facts,' Mr. Taylor asserted on his blog, which Mr. Boehner cited. By cutting government spending, he said, the Republicans would 'crowd in' private investment and create jobs.

"… if there is one ideology that unites today's Republicans, it is Keynesianism, whose nefarious influence they are determined to stamp out. 'Young Guns,' the book-sized manifesto of Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, leading Republican House members, devotes several pages to the evils of Keynesian activism and its exponents in the administration."

One of the interesting things about the article is that among the economists cited as being among the critics of "Keynesianism," you find the names John Taylor, Robert Mundell, and Kenneth Rogoff. I find that list interesting because if you follow the links I attached to those names you will find work with models that are decidedly Keynesian in structure. Works by Taylor and Rogoff are, in fact, seminal contributions to the "New Keynesian" paradigm that dominates macroeconomics today.

As far as I know, none of these men have repudiated the basic worldview that motivates the referenced work. In fact, as recently as last year John Taylor approvingly described, as he has many times, a key characteristic of the paradigm for monetary policy that was in place the decades before the financial crisis:

"… the central bank has a strategy, or rule, to adjust the interest rate depending on economic conditions: In general, the interest rate rises by a certain amount when inflation increases above its target and the interest rate falls when by a certain amount when the economy goes into a recession."

I added the emphasis to the last part of that passage as it is a feature of the so-called Taylor rule that is entirely built on the foundation of the New Keynesian model.

How, then, to explain the Keynesian predilections of the economists mentioned as presumed carriers of the anti-Keynesian mantle? The source of the confusion, I think, goes back to the historical, but somewhat obsolete, distinction between so-called Keynesianism and monetarism. The latter was, of course, personified in Milton Friedman and his dispute with what was the orthodoxy in the three decades following the Great Depression. Lost in the early-days labeling, however, was the fact that the disputes were more about the empirical details of theory rather than the theory itself.

In particular, Friedman did not deny the effectiveness of policy in principle but rather its wisdom or impact in practice. This sentiment is exactly the one he expressed in his prescient and transformative 1968 presidential address to the American Economics Association:

"In the United States the revival of belief in the potency of monetary policy was strengthened also by the increasing disillusionment with fiscal policy, not so much by its potential to increase aggregate demand as with the practical and political feasibility of so using it."

In a recent essay on Friedman's views about the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy, Tim Congdon notes Friedman's views on the issue:

"Friedman offered two informal theoretical arguments for the virtual irrelevance of fiscal policy, as he saw it. The second was that fiscal policy is much harder to adjust in a sensitive short-term way than monetary policy. But the first was the more telling and deserves detailed discussion.… In Friedman's words, 'I believe it to be true… that the Keynesian view that a government deficit is stimulating is simply wrong.' The explanation was the wider effects of the way the budget deficit is financed. To quote again, 'A deficit is not stimulating because it has to be financed, and the negative effects of financing it counterbalance the positive effects, if there are any, on spending.' "

Though Congdon emphasizes different channels (associated with the mix of monetary and fiscal policy associated with deficit spending), those who follow such things may recognize in Friedman's remarks the notion of Ricardian equivalence:

"This is the idea that increased government borrowing may have no impact on consumer spending because consumers predict tax cuts or higher spending will lead to future tax increases to pay back the debt.

"If this theory is true, it would mean a tax cut financed by higher borrowing would have no impact on increasing aggregate demand because consumers would save the tax cut to pay the future tax increases."

My point is not to dispute or defend the truth of the Ricardian proposition. My point is that it has absolutely nothing to do with whether one believes (or does not believe) that the New Keynesian framework is the right way to view the world. The essential policy implications of the New Keynesian idea (like the old Keynesian idea) is that changes in gross domestic product can be driven by changes in desired spending by households, businesses, foreigners, and the government in sum. You can believe that and still believe in fiscal policy ineffectiveness, as long as you believe that total spending is unaltered by a particular policy intervention.

There are, of course, plenty of arguments against fiscal policy activism that do not require adherence to Ricardian equivalence, in total or in part. The most obvious would be the position that any short-term rush from stimulative policies is more than reversed in the long run by the negative consequences of higher tax rates on productive activity, or the redirection of private investment to lower return public spending. Again, the point is that a self-professed adherent to a Keynesian reality need suffer no doubts about the coherence of his or her intellectual framework if he or she objects to fiscal policies aimed at juicing the economy through greater government spending.

This whole discussion may seem like a bit of inside baseball, and perhaps it is. But the stakes in this debate are high, as clearly illustrated by today's announcement from rating agency Standard & Poor's that it reduced its outlook to negative on the triple-A credit rating of the United States. In my view, productive discussions about the truly pressing issues of our day are unlikely unless we understand where the disagreements lie—and where they do not.

Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed



April 18, 2011 in Deficits, Federal Debt and Deficits, Fiscal Policy | Permalink

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I'm a rank amateur, so please let me know where I go wrong.

Fiscal stimulus is government spending, and government spending comes from either taxes or borrowing (bonds). Since raising taxes is pretty much the worst possible policy in a recession, let's assume the stimulus is entirely borrowed.

Bonds are repaid via future taxes, hence the idea of Ricardian equivalence. However there's always uncertainty in the future. To the extent the public believes the recession is due to a temporary market failure which the stimulus can repair ("nothing to fear but fear itself")... to the extent they believe the stimulus may be offset by future spending cuts... Ricardian equivalence will fail. So 0 < R < 1.

Now let's compare to monetary stimulus. It's also funded by the sale of bonds* but this time the public sells them to the Fed. Except all bonds originate at the Treasury, and additional demand from the Fed must ultimately cause additional supply. This is especially likely since recessions often cause a flight to safety, sending organic bond demand high. And, primary dealers are required to sell.

So the only difference is whether the Treasury sells bonds to the public or to the Fed. The Fed destroys bonds and even refunds the coupons, so R = 0. The cost of the procedure is inflationary pressure. And inflation... also stimulates the economy,** by spurring investors to renew existing contracts and seek higher nominal returns. So Friedman was right, though maybe not as right as he thought or for the reasons he gave.

That's the financing issue. What about Taylor's crowding out? Here I think there are more teeth: http://lumma.org/microwave/#2010.07.18

-Carl

* Unless the Fed has been doing something weird, like you know, buying MBS. Those are money-quantity neutral if the payments are destroyed. So I don't get all the talk about an exit strategy. The Fed can simply hold its MBS to maturity, alternatively destroying or reinvesting the payments as part of its overall operations.

** Provided inflation expectations remain anchored. I think.

Posted by: Carl Lumma | April 18, 2011 at 11:03 PM

Essentially there is no difference between Keynesianism and its opponents like monetarism. They all agree on the basic notion that money is equivalent to cash balances (though how you can define money as something that is not spent and then try to relate it to total income or total expenditure is beyond me).

Keynes argued about the tension between bonds and cash balances. Friedman added stuff like equity and consumer durables and Keynesians like Tobin did not disagree.

Keynes's classic money equation
M = M1 + M2 = L1(Y) + L2(r)
where M2 is the speculative demand for money
simply reduces to monetarism if speculative demand is zero.

Posted by: Philip George | April 19, 2011 at 04:59 AM

Both Carl and Philip make good points. Carl's contribution is noting "uncertainty". Ricardian equivalence doesn't hold for, at least, two reasons: 1) the future is irreducibly uncertain, and 2) most people outside of finance and economics recognize this basic fact and thus heavily weight the present observable economic activity from employment-producing fiscal stimulus and assign very little weight to the distribution of possible future tax rates. Thus they don’t save their current earnings to pay the tax man. If you believe that people use future tax rates in their present consumption calculus, please provide me the probability distribution and parameters that they are using for their calculations.

Technically, Keynes posited that inflation stimulates the economy by increasing people's expectations of the marginal efficiency of capital (i.e., the return on invested capital). When capital is plentiful the marginal efficiency is low and people are not motivated to invest it in new capital projects that employ people and resources. This leads to the similarity with Friedman. People compare the marginal efficiency of capital to the schedule of interest rates when they decide to invest (notice that marginal efficiency of capital is not always equal to the interest rate as Classical, Neo-Classical, Monetarists, Neo-Classical Keynesian Synthesis [in the long run] schools all assume). Thus, when the marginal efficiency of capital (return on invested capital) is greater than the interest rate people invest, when it's not they don't.

So, there are 2 options, in general: raise the marginal efficiency of capital through boosting confidence ("animal spirits") and/or use an “exogenous” force to employ people to build capital (e.g., fiscal stimulus). Keynes also believed that you could lower the interest rate below the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital by increasing the money supply as Friedman would advocate. However, Keynes believed this was inefficient because there is no substitute for money so as people demand more and more in uncertain times as they struggle to build a security blanket made of dollars big enough and they just let them sit in bank accounts, under mattresses, or in Treasuries (Keynes’s used the word “hoard”). This idle money cannot increase employment (Keynes's main goal for moral and economic reasons).

This is exactly what we have seen--corporations haven't really invested and banks haven't lent (due to lack of willingness and now they claim lack of demand) thus it's left to the government to spend and increase employment. One might point to increases in the equity markets as a mechanism for saved money to go towards employment producing investment. But, remember that an overwhelming amount of money that has flowed to asset markets post the crisis was in the secondary markets and not primary issuance (e.g., IPOs). Thus, the money is simply trading hands based on past investments that employed people to build the products or provide the services of the businesses represented by the ownership stakes provided by stocks. Outside of employing people in the financial community, this “spending” doesn’t employ many people. This is why you see a tight labor market for people in finance and a weak market for construction workers.

Posted by: Joshua Packwood | April 19, 2011 at 07:14 PM

Keynesians are anti-keynesian. Monetarists are keynesian. What a confusion!
Have any of you ever tried marxist economic theory for a change?

Posted by: wskarma | April 20, 2011 at 04:56 AM


Thanks, Dave for a thought-provoking and brave post. A few comments. First, neo-Keynesianism dominates the world of applied macroeconomics because it has empirical content. The theory can be tested and implications for policy made based on parameters derived from experience. True tests come when events occur outside the historical norms, such as what has occurred in the past few years, and in general the theory has stood up well.

As a result, this paradigm dominates the applied world, where there are quantitative benchmarks for performance. Unfortunately in other realms the theory does not dominate, and in fact is ridiculed. The first such realm is academia. Here, neoclassical theory has all but squeezed the neo-Keynesian paradigm from the classroom. The grip of the neoclassicals is such that one can barely find a neo-Keynesian article in a major journal. The benchmark in this world now is model elegance. Abstract optimization is prized far over empirical validity. The fact that these models rely on unfounded assumptions such as rational expectations and efficient markets and that recessions are the result of productivity shocks are not subjects for discussion. No $100 bills on the sidewalk, but trillions in losses.

The second realm is policy. If we give conservatives the benefit of the doubt as to their motives (a significant assumption), then what they feel is a strong aversion to government action of nearly any type. This explains the mental gymnastics of the economists you cite whose research has been based on an empirically valid theory, but whose implications run into their ideology. The resulting cognitive dissonance is an embarrassment to them and to the profession. I put it this way: a Keynesian would say that the government should pull the Chilean miners out of the mine, while a conservative would say it's not effective because either it would encourage future miners to be relaxed on the job or because the cost would imply that the private sector would be crowded out and less money would be spent on safety.

One last point: your last line on S&P and the US debt rating. Of course, the problem is serious and needs attention. But please do not encourage these guys by citing them as a source of authority on these matters. Their track record on sovereign debt is abysmal, to say nothing of securitized products. Their incentives are highly questionable and their use by investors as a crutch is a key factor behind the financial collapse we have just gone through. Please devote your efforts to unwinding them and encouraging independent analysis.


Posted by: Rich888 | April 20, 2011 at 09:56 AM

I believe the concept that, with a Federal deficit, one would spend less now because taxes are going to be higher in the future is just not in the American conciousness.

Indeed, I see as the other way around: people pulling income into these low tax years, and then increasing spending now, rather than have the income in what might be higher tax years in the future.

But this is an empirical question. Surely polls have been done: "Are you spending less now, because taxes might be higher in the future?" To which the answer, "What are you talking about?" should be a possible choice.

[this comment occured because of a Krugman link]

Posted by: David Fields | April 20, 2011 at 09:59 AM

David Fields has it correct. The future for 70% of Americans is the bill due at the end of the month, not the marginal efficiency of capital.

Posted by: DR | April 20, 2011 at 11:34 AM

I would think that David Field's comments on testing Ricardian equivalences with the American public might be applied to corporations as well. If corporations were concerned about future taxes, we would see that factored into the tax rate used in DCF analysis for longer-term projects. There would be increased tax-rate assumptions in later years, or at least future tax rates would be factored into the sensitivity analysis.

It would be easy enough to poll corporate finance managers to find out if this was in fact happening, and then try to calculate what impact that had on the acceptance of business projects. My suspicion is that it might have an impact, but at much less than Ricardian equivalence.

John

Posted by: Ragweed | April 21, 2011 at 03:06 PM

"If we give conservatives the benefit of the doubt as to their motives (a significant assumption), then ..."

If you are going to claim to give conservatives the benefit of doubt as to their motives, then you should do so. You do no such thing. It would be as if a conservative said: "If we give liberals the benefit of doubt as to their motives, then we should assume [the same exact things we already assume without giving them the benefit of doubt]." If you are unable to accurately or objectively describe the positions and motives without your own biases, try not to claim that you are in fact doing so.

Posted by: sparky | April 22, 2011 at 07:36 AM

Keynes did not ponder what drove the economies of the world in order to get published or to achieve tenure. He eschewed elaborate mathematical economics, even though his intellect and mathematical skill fully permitted him to engage in such analysis. Rather, he was practical, and looked for an explanation in the Great Depression of why what he observed was as it was. A highly successful investor, he spent the first hour of every day doing the equivalent now of reading the WSJ and the Financial Times. He also had worked for the British treasury. He was directly responsible for financing the First World War for Britain. From these practical, real life experiences, he arrived at economic conclusions that are indeed the paradigm by which most operate today, including Mr. Taylor. So, the Young Guns have cited economists who have stood on the shoulders of Keynes.

Last, we make a grave policy error if we fail to recognize that the steps of governmental intervention taken by Chairman Bernanke, the Congress, and Secretary Paulson, in the early fall of 2008, are the chief reason that we did not see in late 2009 and early 2010 unemployment go to 20%. Forgotten, for example, in the current discussion of cutting government spending, is the effect the stimulus package had on state governments, which would otherwise have severely curtailed expenditure. The federal government used its collective strength to avoid the kind of reamplification of recessionary tendencies that would have been the inevitable result of such state layoffs.

Finally, it does not help to analyze these economic issues in terms of conservative and liberal, or Republican and Democrat. As the collapse of communism demonstrates, rigid adherence to a purely ideological notion of economics is doomed to fail. Rather, the policy issues should be addressed in a practical way, avoiding dogma and with a keen eye to the demonstrable.

Posted by: Michael Egan | May 24, 2011 at 10:14 PM

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November 23, 2010

Federal Reserve policies focused

This blog posting was originally an article in the Sunday, November 21, edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The article was written by Atlanta Fed Senior Vice President and Research Director David Altig.

On Nov. 3, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—the group within the Federal Reserve charged with formulating monetary policy for the United States—announced its plans to purchase, over the course of the next eight months, up to $600 billion worth of longer-term Treasury securities.

In many circles (maybe including yours), this decision has generated some controversy. A good deal of the controversy revolves around the view that this monetary policy decision is aimed at buying up government debt for the purpose of making it easier for the country to continue on the path of deficit spending. This view is inaccurate.

I understand the concerns that are triggered when the Fed announces a significant Treasury purchase program at a time when the fiscal situation is so challenging and unsettled. Be it the hyperinflations of Germany's Weimar Republic in the period between the two world wars; Hungary after World War II; or the more recent case of Zimbabwe, most of us have heard or read of extreme examples of countries that ended up creating big problems trying to finance government by printing money.

Generating government revenues via the printing press is a policy that is often referred to as "monetizing the debt." I think the emphasis in that sentence should be on the word policy. A policy is really a sort of rule—sometimes explicit, sometimes only implicit—that lays out a decision maker's objectives and how they are going to be attained. The objective of a policy of monetizing the debt is to create inflation as a means of lowering the burden of government debt by lowering the value of the debt and interest the government must repay in inflation-adjusted terms.

Monetizing debt is decidedly not the current policy of the Federal Reserve, at least not according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Speaking at a recent conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Chairman Bernanke was unequivocal: "We are not in the business of trying to create inflation."

So what business is the Fed in?

In short, the Fed's so-called dual mandate charges the FOMC with promoting sustainable growth and low and stable inflation. Though the economy is moving forward, it is doing so at a pace that is only slowly yielding job growth. This forward momentum has not yet proved robust or sustained enough to dent the unemployment rate.

More important, the economic landscape at the end of the summer was colored by the continuation of a declining inflation trend that was bleeding into expectations about the probability of deflation. In a still-recovering economy with very low interest rates, the emergence of deflation expectations would be a most unwelcome development that could seriously impede the prospect for continued recovery.

As Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has said, stabilizing inflation expectations is a key to policy success, and "managing inflation expectations requires following through with policy actions consistent with stated objectives—in this case ensuring that inflation trends remain in a desired zone. The FOMC's November decision should be seen in that light."

The policy represented by the November decision appears to be working. As markets came to expect the November announcement, price expectations that had been declining all summer began to stabilize and have now returned to pre-summer levels.

Could the policy be too successful? That is, there a risk that the policy will overshoot and replace declining inflation rates with too-high inflation rates?

There are, of course, always risks to action and inaction. Now that the FOMC's action has apparently mitigated the risk of a recovery-threatening disinflationary spiral, at some point it will be appropriate to turn attention to inflation risks. As President Lockhart recently commented, we at the Atlanta Fed are confident these decisions will be made independent of fiscal considerations.

The current focus is on rising commodity prices, and the Federal Reserve, including the Atlanta Fed, is watching those developments too.

As one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks charged with bringing a real-time sense of the economy to the monetary policy process, the Atlanta Fed queries hundreds of contacts every month. In general, our contacts, while acknowledging some rising cost pressures, do not indicate they are likely to respond with price hikes of their own.

But we will keep asking, watching for signs that things are changing, and preparing in the event that a change in course is warranted.

And this vigilance is precisely the point. Intentions do matter, and President Lockhart has made his very clear: "Rest assured, should inflation begin to move above desired levels, I am confident the FOMC will work hard to keep it from getting away from us."

By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 

November 23, 2010 in Federal Debt and Deficits, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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I don't like the QE2 because it seems the govt is always behind the curve on economic developments. The reason the economy is stagnant is not due to Fed policy-but fiscal policy.

Money is available-it's just no one wants it.

BTW, in a survey of some leading commodity prices about a week ago, there are no signs of inflation. I compared December delivery 2010 to 2011. The increase in prices this year compared to 2009 can purely be assigned to weather.

Maybe read Farmer's Almanac or consult a Medicine Man to find out how weather will affect crops next year!! ; )

Posted by: Jeff | November 29, 2010 at 12:29 PM

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October 27, 2010

Real estate and municipal revenue

In September, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Center for Real Estate Analytics sponsored a conference to examine the impact the real estate downturn is having on public sector finances.

It's no secret that state and local governments are currently experiencing substantial revenue declines. One popular explanation is that deteriorating local real estate conditions are responsible for a portion of that decline, but it turns out that this explanation is not the main cause, at least not yet. One of the sessions in the conference featured attempts by three economists from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (Lutz, Molloy, and Shan) and two from Florida State University (Doerner and Ihlanfeldt) to estimate the direct impact of the decline in real estate values on local tax revenues. Both papers examined the multiple channels of influence between the decline in real estate values and local revenues.

The largest channel, of course, is the decline in property tax income related to declining assessed property values. Of course, property owners don't pay property taxes based on the current value of their home. They pay based on an assessment that is at least a year old. Thus, the decline in property values takes considerable time to work its way through the assessment process and into property tax revenues. Consequently, declines in property values have only more recently started to be reflected in lower property tax revenues. Experts expect the decline in those revenues to continue for another couple of years, with the worst shortfall two or three years out. Some of the assessments are fairly gloomy.

To illustrate that point, I've pulled a few charts from the Lutz, Molloy, and Shan paper. The first chart illustrates the decline in revenues led by individual and sales taxes. Notably, property tax collections grew at an increasing rate in 2009 over 2008.

102610a
(enlarge)

The next chart directly depicts the relationship (or the short-run lack thereof) between housing price growth changes and property tax revenue. Lags in changes in assessments and the ability of local governments to change property tax rates can go a long way in explaining why overall property tax revenue continues to grow.

102610b
(enlarge)

Finally, Lutz, Molloy, and Shan broke down the data by some states, and I include the case of Georgia below. (The Ihlanfeldt and Doerner paper does something similar—and in great detail for the state of Florida.) The Georgia case clearly shows the effect of the lags: property values rose through the first part of the last decade and, even though tax rates were falling, overall tax revenue rose. Post-2007, however, market values of homes declined while the aggregate assessed values continued to rise through 2009 (along with property tax revenue).

102610c
(enlarge)

It is hard to imagine the trend of aggregate increased assessed valuation continuing. If the assessed values begin to track the market values, pressures will emerge on the government entities that depend on property taxes. The picture suggests that tax rates and/or spending on programs are likely to change notably during the coming few years.

By Tom Cunningham, vice president and associate director of research and acting director of the Center for Real Estate Analytics at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

October 27, 2010 in Economic Growth and Development, Fiscal Policy, Taxes | Permalink

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I think many, if not all, munincipalities change the mill rate of the tax assessment to collect the tax revenue needed. As in, they take their budget and divide THAT by the new lower total property values in the district to arrive at the new (higher) rate of individual parcel tax liability, so a lower property value does not necessarily mean lower taxes! Lower tax revenues are the result of income, sales, and other taxes, not property taxes.

Posted by: Thrill | November 01, 2010 at 01:22 PM

I disagree Thrill. I think that this is a fantastic post. In Illinois, virtually all property tax revenue goes to pay for local schools.

When a house is valued at 500k and resells at 300k, the property tax won't remain the same. Government revenue should decrease.

Posted by: Jeff | November 04, 2010 at 07:53 PM

You would only get a 3 BR if there were one male and one female child. Bear in mind, as well, that you may not get any voucher at all, if your area has a waiting list. The funding for Sec 8 is not unlimited, and it's generally a 'first come, first served' situation. There are many Sec 8 areas of the country in which the lists are so lengthy that they aren't even accepting applications.

Posted by: Poplar Bluff Real Estate | November 08, 2010 at 06:59 AM

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December 08, 2009

Another rescue plan comes in below the original price tag

Though the tab to taxpayers could still be substantial when all is said and done, it now appears the taxpayer cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) will be substantially lower than was thought not too long ago:

"The Obama administration expects the cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program to be $200 billion less than projected, helping to reduce the size of the budget deficit, a Treasury Department official said yesterday.

"The administration forecast in August that the TARP would ultimately cost $341 billion, once banks had repaid the government for capital injections and other investments. Congress authorized $700 billion for the program in October 2008."

There is precedent for such good news. Travel back for a moment to the formation and operation of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), the agency formed to purchase and sell the "toxic assets" of failed financial institutions following the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. As noted in a postmortem by Timothy Curry and Lynn Shibut of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the cost projections for the RTC ballooned in the early days of its operations:

"Reflecting the increased number of failures and costs per failure, the official Treasury and RTC projections of the cost of the RTC resolutions rose from $50 billion in August 1989 to a range of $100 billion to $160 billion at the height of the crisis peak in June 1991..."

In the end, however, the outcome, though higher than the very first projections, came in well below the figures suggested by the worst case scenario:

"As of December 31, 1999, the RTC losses for resolving the 747 failed thrifts taken over between January 1, 1989, and June 30, 1995, amounted to an estimated $82.7 billion, of which the public sector accounted for $75.6 billion, or 91 percent, and the private sector accounted for $7.1 billion, or 9 percent."

While people may debate the approaches taken, it is heartening to see evidence that TARP, like the RTC before it, is ultimately costing considerably less than estimated.

By David Altig, senior vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

December 8, 2009 in Deficits, Federal Debt and Deficits, Financial System, Fiscal Policy | Permalink

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TARP should be judged on the basis of its effects on the financial system, and not its cost. So far looks like its working.

Visit econdashboards.com

Posted by: ZZ | December 08, 2009 at 10:56 PM

Since the expressed purpose was to 'save Main Street' by handing out the future to Wall Street, the plan has decidedly not worked. Main Street has been pulled through the knothole anyway, and paid for the experience.

Posted by: wally | December 09, 2009 at 09:25 AM

Please. Give us a break. What about trillions of dollars in guarantees given to various institutions. How about junk MBS paper bought by the federal reserve and GSE's. Lets not pretend that the cost to tax payer is going to be minimal. This is going to end badly but only for the tax payers. The banks will make out like bandits.

Posted by: sartre | December 10, 2009 at 01:10 AM

Interesting. An interview I read with Kashkarian had him stating that "700 billion" was a number pulled out of thin air. They had no idea how much to ask, so they decided to ask for as large a number as they could get.

I am glad they didn't go over it. However, I am dismayed at the outcomes learned. The government now wants to create more bureaucracy to oversee the financial system. The TARP has created even more concentration-bringing with it anti-competitive oligopolies.

We need to restructure the marketplace, not re or over regulate it.

Posted by: jeff | December 10, 2009 at 11:41 AM

You're omitting the other expenditures by the government to ensure that these loans would be repaid.

At the time TARP was authorized, they didn't envision spending 850 billion dollars to stimulate the economy and 1.8 trillion dollars to inflate asset prices.

The cost is going to be much higher over time because the Federal government will be running trillion dollar deficits for some time.

Posted by: Les | December 14, 2009 at 09:31 AM

You are ignoring a couple of *extremely* important facts:

The banks are "healthier" and able to buy their way out of TARP (perhaps only for awhile - a disgusting TARP II is not beyond belief) because:

1) The Fed (backed by the Treasury) has bought a trillion dollars worth of crappy MBS assets from the banks - at insanely inflated prices given their risks.

The default risks have therefore been transferred to the taxpayers - who will bleed out for years to come in order to transfuse degenerate banks.

Some success.

2) Savers have had the present value of their savings expropriated due to the zero interest rate policies pursued to save our scummy banks.

Again, some success.

Posted by: cas127 | December 15, 2009 at 08:43 AM

The banks also received massive tax breaks in the stimulus which are inflating the value of the shares that were exchanged for cash from the government. There's a good article in todays Washington Post.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/15/AR2009121504534.html

Posted by: Les | December 15, 2009 at 09:20 PM

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May 29, 2009

A new accord?

As days go in the U.S. Treasury market, Wednesday was a rough one. Bloomberg News described the day's developments as follows:

"The difference in yields between Treasury two- and 10-year notes widened to a record on concern surging sales of U.S. debt will overwhelm the Federal Reserve's efforts to keep borrowing costs low. …

"The unprecedented government borrowing has created concern about a rise in consumer prices. Policy makers have expanded the Fed's balance sheet to $2.2 trillion while excess reserves at U.S. banks have increased to $896.3 billion.

" 'Inflation is in the headlight of many investors,' wrote Andrew Brenner, co-head of structured products and emerging markets in New York at MF Global Inc., in a note to clients today."

By cosmic coincidence, I was reading that story in Tokyo as I prepared to chair a session at the Bank of Japan's 2009 International Conference on Financial System and Monetary Policy Implementation in which Marvin Goodfriend (Carnegie-Mellon professor and former Richmond Fed policy adviser) presented his thinking on keeping the central bank's inflation objectives firmly in hand at a time of rapidly rising government debt and large increases in the Fed's balance sheet. Professor Goodfriend's case is laid out in a paper titled "Central Banking in the Credit Turmoil: An Assessment of Federal Reserve Practice" (which was also presented at a conference devoted to research on the interactions between monetary and fiscal policy—that is, government spending and tax—co-sponsored by Princeton University's Center for Economic Policy Studies and Indiana University's Center for Applied Economics and Policy Research). Goodfriend pulls no punches:

"The 1951 'Accord' between the United States Treasury and the Federal Reserve was one of the most dramatic events in U.S. financial history. The Accord ended an arrangement dating from World War II in which the Fed agreed to use its monetary policy powers to keep interest rates low to help finance the war effort. The Truman Treasury urged that the agreement be extended to keep interest rates low in order to hold down the cost of the huge Federal government debt accumulated during the war. Fed officials argued that keeping interest rates low would require inflationary money growth that would destabilize the economy and ultimately fail.

"The so-called Accord was only one paragraph, but it famously reasserted the principle of Fed independence so that monetary policy might serve exclusively to stabilize inflation and the macroeconomic activity. …

"The enormous expansion of Fed lending today—in scale, in reach beyond depository institutions, and in acceptable collateral—demands an accord for Fed credit policy to supplement the accord on monetary policy. A credit accord should set guidelines for Fed credit policy so that pressure to misuse Fed credit policy for fiscal purposes does not undermine the Fed's independence and impair the central bank's power to stabilize financial markets, inflation, and macroeconomic activity."

Goodfriend's "new accord" amounts to asserting a set of principles that would reinforce price stability as the central goal of monetary policy, set the Fed down the road of extricating itself from the extraordinary credit market interventions of the past year-and-a-half, and join the central bank and Treasury in common cause toward the goal of doing everything possible to make sure that the Fed and Treasury don't go there again.

The paper was provocative, but it also raised a couple of fundamental questions. In particular, what is the degree of autonomous fiscal risk-taking appropriate to allocate to a central bank? If such powers are granted, how often and under what conditions ought those powers be exercised? And how far should the powers reach? If, as Goodfriend states, "the central bank's power to stabilize financial markets, inflation, and macroeconomic activity" requires lender-of-last-resort interventions—and hence pure credit policy interventions—what does that imply about the appropriate scope of monetary and regulatory authorities going forward? If the "shadow banking system" is the de facto banking system of the modern era—as Yale University's Gary Gorton argued in a paper presented at the Atlanta Fed's annual Financial Markets Conference held earlier this month—is the central bank's lender-of-last-resort function meaningful if narrowly construed (that is, if it fails to reach the shadow banking system)?

These, really, are first-order questions. On to the debate.

By David Altig, senior vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

May 29, 2009 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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There seems to me be some danger that the Federal Reserve may use its fiscal powers to lend rather too much support to banks at the expense of taxpayers. Banks enjoy something of the advantage of an employee with the office closest to the boss.

Posted by: don | May 29, 2009 at 07:29 PM

This is a fantastic debate to have. My hope is that the debate is kept out of the political sphere, but realistically I don't think that will be possible.

Is the Fed assuming too much risk that makes it too big to fail? What checks and balances need to be in place so that it can't, or are current checks and balances enough?

Clearly, Treasury Secretaries, President's of the US, and Congress have various viewpoints that can change like the breeze. So maybe it's better to redo the Feds charter and mission to encompass the new activities.

Personally, the sooner the Fed can empty its balance sheet of these new securities, the better.

Posted by: Jeff | June 03, 2009 at 08:06 AM

Is not the real problem to much of this that the Fed claims ownership of the money that is printed for it, then "lends" it to the US government? It did nothing to earn the money and does NOT own it, ongoing since 1913 ! Our national debt is a scam on the American public based on that horrid law that even Pres. Wilson decried as he signed it. Ron Paul's HR1207 MUST get out of committee...or FIRE mr. Barney Frank (chair)..for that and many other reasons!

Posted by: Tom Lamar | June 13, 2009 at 07:45 PM

Agree with don.

Posted by: Celeb Buster | July 31, 2009 at 10:53 AM

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February 24, 2009

Foreclosure mitigation: What we think we know

One of the most important challenges facing policymakers today is reducing the rate of mortgage foreclosures. It is a goal many think is at the heart of a sustained recovery in the U.S. economy. But as past attempts to reduce financial stress on homeowners have shown, the task is not easy. One of the complicating factors in formulating successful foreclosure mitigation policy is getting at the heart of the relationship between negative equity (the situation where the remaining mortgage balance is greater than the value of the house) and actual foreclosure.

Economic theory poses one categorical prediction about this relationship, which is that negative equity is a necessary condition for default. In other words, if a borrower is not in a position of negative equity, then he or she should never default. This conclusion follows simply from the fact that positive equity implies a borrower can sell the house, pay off the mortgage, and keep the difference—a better outcome under any circumstance compared with stopping payment on the mortgage and leaving the home.

What economic theory does not say is that if a borrower has negative equity, he or she should always default. The reason for this is that the owner could always default in the future, and thus there is value in waiting to see if house prices recover. Now, this value to waiting differs across borrowers and is sensitive to both the depth of negative equity and a borrower's financial situation. Why does a borrower's financial health matter? Well, the cost of waiting includes the monthly mortgage payment the borrower must continue to make. Borrowers who have plenty of wealth and a steady stream of income will be more willing to continue making payments than borrowers who are in financial distress, perhaps related to an unemployment spell or some other adverse financial shock.

So why does all of this matter in terms of thinking about a successful foreclosure mitigation program? Well, the appropriate policy prescription depends on the particular reason a borrower is currently considering default. I think it is useful to break things down in terms of three (not necessarily mutually exclusive) groups of mortgage borrowers:

  • those in unaffordable mortgages from the very beginning, who were implicitly relying on increasing house prices to refinance or sell for a profit;
  • those who have been hit by an adverse, but temporary, income/financial shock; and
  • those who purchased the house for strictly investment purposes and now see little or no hope of making a profit.

Borrowers may find themselves with unaffordable mortgages for many reasons. One might be an unscrupulous mortgage broker, who steered the borrower into an unaffordable subprime loan in order to generate high origination fees. Another, related situation would be an unaffordable interest rate reset on a subprime adjustable-rate mortgage. Finally, some mortgages may be permanently unaffordable because a buyer misrepresented income or assets during the origination process, a situation made easier by the growth of low documentation mortgages.

A large part of the administration's new housing plan—summarized succinctly by the New York Times, with lots of commentary (negative and positive) rounded up at Economist's View—is reasonably interpreted as being directed squarely at borrowers in the unaffordable-mortgage group. If policy is to be aimed at helping this group, the prescription is to offer the borrower a permanent reduction in monthly payments, whether it comes from lowering the interest rate, lengthening the maturity, and/or reducing the outstanding principal balance on the loan. The measuring stick often used in such plans is the debt-to-income ratio (DTI), which is the borrower's monthly mortgage and/or total required debt payments relative to his or her gross monthly income. While the administration's plan would succeed in lowering DTIs, the policy is temporary in nature (five years), and it is unclear what would happen to these borrowers after the plan runs its course—especially if negative equity is still an issue.

Many borrowers might have been able to afford their mortgages while employed but can no longer do so after they have lost their jobs. When housing prices are rising and homeowners enjoy positive equity, then distressed borrowers are able to sell their homes to pay off their mortgages. Alternatively, such borrowers can undertake cash-out refinances to gain some much-needed liquidity. Note that problems can occur for people in this situation even when positive future equity is a realistic hope. If the borrower is unemployed and liquidity constrained, the cost of waiting to default is very high and potential future price gains are of little value. Default in this case is much more likely, even though future prospects might be reasonably good. In this case, foreclosure-prevention policy could simply be used to eliminate the financial friction. In this case a lender would offer "forbearance," in which the borrower pays significantly lower payments for some period, with the arrears made up (with interest) later on. In this light, it is notable that the administration's key payment reduction plan has a five-year window.

However, one important concern regarding the plan is that servicers/investors don't have enough incentives to substantially decrease current DTI ratios. For example, if a household has a DTI of 60 or 70 because of a job loss, the servicer is responsible for modifying the loan to get DTI down to 38 and then still has to kick in a 50 percent match to further reduce it to 31. The costs borne by the servicer/investor are much larger than those borne by the government, which may not be such a bad thing in principal but in practice may result in low participation rates.

Note also that while permanent relief is the prescribed course for borrowers in the unaffordable-mortgage group, temporary relief is indicated for those in the temporary economic distress group. This highlights the difficulties in constructing policies when the underlying sources of stress differ by individual. The existence of a class of borrowers that purchased and financed residential real estate primarily for investment purposes further complicates matters. People in this group are in much different circumstances than those in the other groups and will default much more ruthlessly. A so-called "ruthless defaulter" has given up hope of positive future equity and hence there are no potential price gains to value. Under the theory of ruthless default, one effective policy intervention is to lower the outstanding balance of the mortgage so that positive equity—or even the hope of positive equity in the near future—is restored. Alternatively, the lender could forestall default at least temporarily by cutting the monthly payment below the cost of renting an otherwise observable house.

Aimed as it is at owner-occupied housing, the administration's plan does not offer direct assistance to those in the investment class. That may not be too surprising, as it is hard to generate much political sympathy for a group carrying a label like "ruthless defaulter." In addition, the perverse incentives of government assistance that usually go by the name of moral hazard are arguably more severe for individuals who purchase properties for investment purposes. However, abandoned properties do add to the stock of unsold homes, independent of who owned them or why they owned them. This does not necessarily argue for policy relief for investment buyers, but it is potential issue that bears watching.

Finally, there may be commentators with the view that loan modifications are a failing proposition as a few studies have shown extremely high default rates on modifications performed in early 2008 (for example, see OCC and OTS Mortgage Metrics Report, Third Quarter 2008). But, according to the table below (based on my calculations), the problem seems to be that the wrong type of modification was being performed. Approximately two-thirds of the modifications performed by servicers in the first two quarters of 2008 had the effect of increasing the principal balance of the mortgage and, as a result, also increased the borrower's monthly mortgage payment. In light of the above discussion, we should not be surprised by high re-default rates on these loans. On the other hand, there is reason to believe that successful implementation of payment reduction programs may indeed help to stem the pace of foreclosures.

  # Loans
Modified
Interest
Rate
Reductions
Principal
Balance
Reductions
Principal
Balance
Increases
Term
Extensions
    # %  
total
# %  
total
# %  
total
# %  
total
Q107 13,900 200 1.25 600 3.75 13,100 81.88 2,100 13.13
Q207 21,600 700 3.00 200 0.86 20,700 88.84 1,700 7.30
Q307 24,600 700 2.55 300 1.09 23,600 86.13 2,800 10.22
Q407 32,300 3,600 9.65 1,000 2.68 28,000 75.07 4,700 12.60
Q108 33,000 7,100 18.11 400 1.02 25,500 65.05 6,200 15.82
Q208 41,200 10,600 22.36 900 1.90 30,100 63.50 5,800 12.24
Q308 52,600 17,300 28.22 200 0.33 36,000 58.73 7,800 12.72
Source: Lender Processing Services

By Kristopher Gerardi, research economist and assistant policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed

February 24, 2009 in Fiscal Policy, Housing | Permalink

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"those in unaffordable mortgages from the very beginning, who were implicitly relying on increasing house prices to refinance or sell for a profit;

those who purchased the house for strictly investment purposes and now see little or no hope of making a profit."

I am one who would say that there should be no help for the people in these groups. They were gambling, purely, and should take their own losses. F- them, and investor-horses they rode in on.

And a question: you say, "The costs borne by the servicer/investor are much larger than those borne by the government, which may not be such a bad thing in principal but in practice may result in low participation rates." But isn't the relevant question, at least for servicers/investors, whether those costs are more than they would face if there were more foreclosures? Isn't that always the question for them in doing loan mods? If the servicers don't participate on those terms, aren't they then assuming that their foreclosure losses won't be that bad? I mean, I have no sympathy for the investors; they were careless, and should lose.

One of the things I object to in the mortgage bailout plan is the notion that the government can or should prevent house prices from falling further. The problem with this is that prices in many markets are still fairly inflated relative to incomes; that is, they're still basically unaffordable. As long as prices remain unaffordable, there are going to be a lot of foreclosures--it's just prolonging the pain. The only good long-term solution is to allow prices to reach a level that's actually affordable to buyers under normal (pre-bubble) credit standards. The housing market shouldn't get more stimulus--it should get less!

My wife and I make a decent, middle-class income, and yet we can't find reasonably affordable houses in our area. And now the government wants to use our tax money to make sure it stays that way! And to pay the mortgages of fools who got in over their heads. Do they understand why we might resent that a wee little bit?


Posted by: Moopheus | February 24, 2009 at 12:14 PM

Could you please clarify why some loan modifications have resulted in increases in total principal balances and in monthly principal repayments? I suppose that an increase in the former could be OK if it were accompanied by a decrease in the latter (i.e., if cash flow was the dominant issue) and that an increase in the latter could be OK if it were accompanied by an decrease in the former (i.e., if negative equity was the dominant issue), but why on earth would a loan modification be expected to work if both the total principal balance and the monthly repayments increased? That doesn't make any sense to me.

Posted by: Rich F | February 24, 2009 at 01:20 PM

No, I answer my own question: the reason servicers and investors will resist participation in a deal in which they have to take a loss on the loan mod is they want to pressure the government to give them a better deal, and protect them against any loss. It would be a bad and stupid move for the government to give in to them, but the Fed and the Treasury seem to have a hard time saying no to Wall Street.

Posted by: Moopheus | February 24, 2009 at 01:46 PM

Your entire premise is based on treating a symptom (foreclosures), rather than the cause (house prices). By any historical metric, house prices are too high (rent-price ratios, income-house price ratios, Case-Shiller, OFHEO, etc.). When house prices drop to prices that are affordable and cost competitive with other forms of shelter, a bottom will naturally form. Government intervention is not the right solution for this problem.

Posted by: uber_snotling | February 24, 2009 at 04:35 PM

I have been waiting for the housing to becom affordable to me in my area, and have been renting since 2002. I have an above average income. Why should I pay for those who live in a big house that they cannot afford for while I'm still renting?

The key problem is the housing is still too expensive. The natural market force is driving down the price. Why does the government wants to keep it expensive? Why does the idiotic government want to waste tax money paid by those who are renting, in order to keep the housing expensive to these renters?

Posted by: alex | February 24, 2009 at 05:20 PM

Hi Rich,

The reason why some payments go up on a loan mod is because the homeowner may have had a Pay Option ARM and was accruing negative equity.

When the payment is modified to a fixed rate loan, even if the rate is lower, the loan is now fully amortized.

I'm assuming that these homeowners actually READ their loan mod documents this time around but perhaps that's a false assumption.

If they couldn't afford the modified payment but signed anyways, this was just a step to buy the homeowner more time to possibly sell or to save up money before ruthlessly defaulting later.

Posted by: Jillayne Schlicke | February 24, 2009 at 05:34 PM

"Could you please clarify why some loan modifications have resulted in increases in total principal balances and in monthly principal repayments?"

What happens in a lot of cases is not a real loan mod, but a repayment plan, where past due amounts are added to the principal, and the payments are readjusted (upward) to reflect the new balance. And you're right--it's not a great deal for the borrower, which is why these "mods" have a high rate of failure. The borrower stands a better chance if the amount of actual debt is reduced, but then the lender has to be willing to write off the difference.

Posted by: Moopheus | February 25, 2009 at 12:01 PM

"One of the most important challenges facing policymakers today is reducing the rate of mortgage foreclosures."

Dave, please can you explain WHY? If home ownership is at 'unsustainable levels', if debt/income ratios are 'too high', then why should policymakers prevent an adjustment? This is not intended to be partisan/political, I'm genuinely interested in the rationale behind your opening sentence. Thanks, MW.

Posted by: MW | February 26, 2009 at 08:51 AM

Is there a way out of this mess. Let the finger pointing begin. All the Rep. are say :look at the Dems. they are screwing up!" But 8 years of asleep at the wheel can not be fixed overnight.

Posted by: Orlando | February 28, 2009 at 04:44 PM

I second Moopheus...

I also want to know why is it good to keep house prices artificially high?

Also, if we were to help underwater homeowners (for the sake of saving the economy) this thing has to be done such that irresponsible homeowners profit at the expense of taxpayers. They need to give-up something in return. For instance, some "option value", such that if their house appreciate, they have to repay the government.

Posted by: FC | March 02, 2009 at 08:16 PM

I think that the idea is that foreclosures represent a sort of collective action problem: Individual banks would like to foreclose and resell, but if everyone's doing it, prices are driven lower, more mortgages go underwater, and the cycle repeats. In today's market foreclosed homes often sit unoccupied, steadily losing value.

So by keeping people in their homes, even with modified loans, the banking system overall is better off. The goal is to stem the panic and reduce write-downs on toxic mortgage assets.


I've been wondering what would happen if, rather than setting up all of these hoops for homeowners and banks, the government simply imposed a temporary, $10,000 per foreclosure on banks per foreclosure? This would cost taxpayers nothing and would provide an incentive for banks to modify their own loans.

Posted by: Tom | March 02, 2009 at 08:36 PM

I understand the logic of the $10,000 (or whatever amount) per foreclosure. This is a good idea. The only problem I see is that banks would factor in this expense in future morgages.

Anyway, and I know I am being repetitive, I do believe that current homeowners need to pay back any help received. Besides an "option" triggered by appreciation, another idea is to void the tax exemption on capital gains when selling the house for all homeowners who get relief from the government.

Posted by: FC | March 03, 2009 at 01:42 PM

We can't artificially manipulate prices. We need the market to correct naturally.

Posted by: Brian Dickerson | May 20, 2009 at 11:39 AM

I like your break out of the 3 different homeowner categories. We tend too often to lump all homeowners in need of loan modification into the same category. But sadly, I believe from all the horror stories I constantly hear form distressed home owners or former owners through my mortgage business that many, many lenders are much more proned to go the foreclosure route than to do what I believe is the right thing for both the home owner and the bank's bottom line.

Posted by: Ron Stone | August 07, 2009 at 12:20 PM

I don't understand why banks don't take more measures to try to prevent foreclosure when it costs them a ton of money. It would be beneficial for the homeowners as well as the lenders.

Posted by: Gilbert | November 26, 2009 at 12:12 PM

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February 18, 2009

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in pictures

A year-by-year look at where the money goes:

Note: The dollar amounts listed below are denominated in millions of dollars.

090218a

090218b

090218c

090218d

090218e

090218f

090218g

Which adds up to:

 

090218h

Finally, the relative size of each year's spending:

090218i

Some other breakdowns of how the money will be allocated can be found here and here.

There you have it.

By David Altig, senior vice president and research director, and Courtney Nosal, economic research analyst, at the Atlanta Fed

February 18, 2009 in Fiscal Policy | Permalink

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David - THANK YOU. I've been trying to get various media outlets to do something similar for weeks now. Despite their increased predilections for graphics nobody really bit.

On that note perhaps you'd care to take the next step and map the various components to impact timeframes, perhaps with judgments about effects. Contemplate an array with "columns" defined by s.t., intermediate and strategic impacts. And then project the speed vs multiplier impacts.
Possible, interesting, good tracking and on-going evaluation tool ?

Posted by: dblwyo | February 18, 2009 at 06:27 PM

Very useful. Do the figures above refer to fiscal or calendar year? Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Andrea De Michelis | February 19, 2009 at 05:44 AM

WP graphics just before the House confirmation. Complements your graphics.

http://sanjaybapna.wordpress.com/2009/02/09/the-stimulus-package/

Posted by: Sanjay Bapna | February 19, 2009 at 09:46 PM

Thanks, useful stuff. As I was scrolling, I was thinking, "yeah, but, what is the total breakdown between years and groups" and the next charts appeared!

Posted by: Paul | February 20, 2009 at 12:16 AM

Thanks for this. It helps visualize rather than just hear numbers.

Posted by: jeff | February 21, 2009 at 05:57 PM

Hi Dave and Courtney,

Thanks. Don't know if you guys are still seeing the commments to this post, but I was wondering about the year-by-year totals. I get something closer to 20% (spending alone or with revenue reductions) in 2009. Am I interpretting this incorrectly?

Posted by: Guhan | March 11, 2009 at 04:14 AM

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