Doing Business, and Politics

The World Bank’s Doing Business project claims to provide

objective measures of business regulations and their enforcement across 190 economies and selected cities at the subnational and regional level.

In the Wall Street Journal, Josh Zumbrun and Ian Talley report that the ranking must be revised.

Over time, World Bank staff put a heavy thumb on the scales of its report by repeatedly changing the methodology that was used to calculate the country rankings, Mr. Romer said.

The focus of the World Bank’s corrections will be changes that had the effect of sharply penalizing the ranking of Chile under the most recent term of Chile’s outgoing president, Michelle Bachelet.

Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist, apologized.


In the FT, Leslie Hook reports that activist investors want Apple

to address concerns over smartphone addiction and the mental health effects of phone use among children.

They refer to psychologist Jean Twenge according to whom teenagers today (“the iGen”)

… are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones. …

12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009. …

Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.

The last observation does not hold in the cross section, however; more “social” teenagers spend more time with friends both online and offline.

Inequality in the United States

… meanwhile, inequality in the US remains more of an issue.

On Alphaville, Kadhim Shubber summarizes a DB Global Markets Research study on US inequality:

  • More than 30% of US households have zero or negative non-home wealth.
  • Wealth is increasingly concentrated among the old, and among the wealthy.

Observers paint the picture of an increasingly dysfunctional society.

And they point to the relevance of inequality for political polarization and accountability.

Inequality in Switzerland

In a paper, Reto Föllmi and Isabel Martínez document trends in income and wealth inequality in Switzerland over the last 100 years.

Daniel Hug reports in the NZZaS (figures below taken from NZZaS).

Data (World Wealth and Income Database, based on tax records).

Some findings:

  • Income inequality has been rather stable and is modest …
  • … although social mobility as reflected in educational attainment is low.
  • Income inequality at the very top has increased.
  • The top 1% of income recipients earn at least CHF 300 000 annually (net income before tax), the top 0.01% at least CHF 4 million.
  • Wealth is distributed much more unequally. The top 1% own roughly 40%, slightly more than in the United States and twice as much as in France and the UK.
  • The wealth distribution is more equal if retirement savings in the second and third pillar are accounted for. PAYG funded pensions (first pillar) also contribute towards reducing inequality after taxes and transfers, much more so than taxes.

“Regulierung und Wettbewerb (Regulation and Competition),” FuW, 2017

Finanz und Wirtschaft, December 13, 2017. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, December 15, 2017. HTML.

  • Regulation is about aligning private and social trade-offs.
  • When banks cause negative externalities, good regulatory interventions increase banks’ costs.
  • Externalities may differ across countries, so nothing suggests that regulation induced costs should be the same internationally.

Swiss Perfectionism

In Der Bund, Adrian Sulc comments on the Swiss National Bank’s perfectionism.

Keine andere Schweizer Organisation kommuniziert so professionell wie die SNB, keine andere Organisation kann so gut dichthalten.

Perfectionism is costly.

Der Personalbestand ist in den letzten fünf Jahren um 18 Prozent auf 795 Vollzeitstellen gestiegen. … Die durchschnittlichen Lohnkosten pro Mitarbeiter betragen mittlerweile 155 000 Franken pro Jahr. Dies weil gemäss Nationalbank fast ausschliesslich Spezialisten aus Wirtschaft und IT eingestellt wurden.

Blockchain Based Equity Settlement in Australia

In the FT, Jamie Smyth reports that the Australian Securities Exchange plans to introduce a blockchain based equity clearing and settlement system.

ASX will operate the system on a secure private network with known participants. The participants must comply with regulation, according to the ASX, which said its system had nothing to do with blockchain technology deployed by cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

Cash Demand

On VoxEU, Clemens Jobst and Helmut Stix argue that

… cash balances for transactions comprise only a modest share of overall cash demand (a rough estimate of 15% might be a good guess across richer economies). … changes in currency in circulation are dominated by motives like hoarding. While transaction demand is reasonably well researched … still too little is known about non-transaction demand in general, and recent increases in particular.

Forecasting In Finance

It’s the time of the year when financial advisors feel obliged to produce forecasts for the coming year. This is often a waste of time, for the writers and the readers.

In the Wall Street Journal, James Mackintosh writes that

[f]orecasting is difficult, but this year showed exactly how pointless it can be: Markets performed opposite of virtually all predictions.

Previous blog post.

Laptops in Class Hinder Learning

In the New York Times, Susan Dynarski argues that students learn less when they use laptops, tablets and the like during lectures.

… a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces.

She points to studies arguing that “laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning” and “multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students.”

Previous blog post.

Real Interest Rates in the Long Run

On Bank Underground, Paul Schmelzing looks at real interest rates over the last 700 years and finds that

… the past 30-odd years more than hold their own in the ranks of historically significant rate depressions. But the trend fall seen over this period is a but a part of a much longer ”millennial trend”. It is thus unlikely that current dynamics can be fully rationalized in a “secular stagnation framework”.



Tax Evasion and Tax Rates

High rates of tax evasion are not necessarily a consequence of high tax rates. In an NBER working paper, Annette Alstadsæter, Niels Johannesen, and Gabriel Zucman provide estimates of countries’ wealth holdings in “tax havens.” Based on BIS statistics the authors find that:

  • Wealth on the order of 10% of global GDP is held offshore.
  • In Scandinavia, the number is much smaller.
  • In continental Europe, it equals roughly 15%.
  • In some Gulf and Latin American countries, almost 60%.
  • In Russia, the richest citizens hold the majority of their wealth abroad.

Neoliberalism—Narrow and Broad

In the Boston Review, Dani Rodrik discusses neoliberalism and argues that

mainstream economics shades too easily into ideology, constraining the choices that we appear to have and providing cookie-cutter solutions.

Rodrik emphasizes that sound economics implies context specific policy recommendations.

And therein lies the central conceit, and the fatal flaw, of neoliberalism: the belief that first-order economic principles map onto a unique set of policies, approximated by a Thatcher–Reagan-style agenda.

But he also stresses that the

principles [of economics] are not entirely content free. China, and indeed all countries that managed to develop rapidly, demonstrate their utility once they are properly adapted to local context. Conversely, too many economies have been driven to ruin courtesy of political leaders who chose to violate them.

In Rodrik’s view

[e]conomists tend to be very good at making maps, but not good enough at choosing the one most suited to the task at hand.

I have argued elsewhere that the main job of economists is to create maps, not to choose among them. See also the earlier post on Ariel Rubinstein’s excellent discussion of Rodrik’s recent book.

Conference on “Aggregate and Distributive Effects of Unconventional Monetary Policies” at the Study Center Gerzensee

Jointly with the Council on Economic Policies and the Swiss National Bank, the Study Center Gerzensee organized a conference on Aggregate and Distributive Effects of Unconventional Monetary Policies. The program can be viewed here.

Climate Science Special Report (and Tax Policy)

From About this Report:

[T]he U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) oversaw the production of this stand-alone report of the state of science relating to climate change and its physical impacts. …

The USGCRP is made up of 13 Federal departments and agencies that carry out research and support the Nation’s response to global change. The USGCRP is overseen by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR) of the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability (CENRS), which in turn is overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The agencies within USGCRP are the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce (NOAA), the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior, the Department of State, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

From the Executive Summary:

… it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence. …

The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally. Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century. With significant reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less.

In the New York Times, Lisa Friedman and Glenn Thrush write that the report contradicts positions of the Trump administration on climate change.

While there were pockets of resistance to the report in the Trump administration, according to climate scientists involved in drafting the report, there was little appetite for a knockdown fight over climate change among Mr. Trump’s top advisers …

The White House put out a statement Friday that seemed to undercut the high level of confidence of the report’s findings. …

Responsibility for approving the report fell to Gary D. Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, who generally believes in the validity of climate science and thought the issue would have been a distraction from the tax push, according to an administration official with knowledge of the situation.

“Blockchain from a Central Bank Perspective”

An excellent conference organized by the Monetary Law Forum Switzerland focused on blockchain use cases from a central bank perspective. Program, links to slides.

I discussed the macroeconomic perspective and argued for “reserves for all.”

Some related links: Nivaura and Allen & Overy (backing Nivaura). OTC Swiss Blockchain, by Roman Bischoff.