Bankrupt US Public Sector Pension Schemes

In a Hoover Institution Essay, Joshua Rauh describes the extent to which US states and communities under fund public sector pensions.

Even under states’ own disclosures and optimistic assumptions about future investment returns, assets in the pension systems will be insufficient to pay for the pensions of current public employees and retirees. Taxpayer resources will eventually have to make up the difference.

Despite the implementation of new Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) guidelines, most public pension systems across the United States still calculate both their pension costs and liabilities under the assumption that their contributed assets will achieve returns of 7.5–8 percent per year.

But new GASB disclosures allow Rauh to estimate the size of the funding gap. He finds

unfunded accumulated benefits of $3.412 trillion under Treasury yield discounting. These are the unfunded debts that would be owed even if all plans froze their benefits at today’s promised levels.

Puerto Rico’s Debt Restructuring

On Econofact, Daniel Bergstresser provides background information on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. From his text:

  • Unlike U.S. municipalities, a U.S. territory cannot resort to Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy act.
  • The island’s economy benefited from corporate tax exemptions (until 2006) and from tax exemptions on interest paid by municipal bonds issued by Puerto Rico and its agencies (“triple tax exemption”).
  • Total bond indebtedness (face value) amounts to over $70 billion, about 70 percent of the island’s GDP. The island owes an additional $50 billion in unfunded pension obligations to its state employees and retirees. Different government-sponsored entities issued the debt, apparently representing different claims on the Commonwealth’s revenue streams.
  • Puerto Rican issuers were downgraded from investment grade status in 2014. In March 2015, governor Padilla announced that the island’s debt was unpayable.
  • Resolution has been delayed by disagreement about the borrowers’ capacity to repay.
  • Puerto Rico defaulted on its general obligation debt in June of 2016 and President Obama signed the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act” (PROMESA) law. This created an oversight board with the authority to oversee the island’s budget and facilitate restructuring talks. The law also created a bankruptcy-like “Title III” mechanism. The oversight board placed a moratorium on debt collection by the island’s creditors until May 1, 2017. On May 3 the island entered the debt restructuring process. Chief Justice John Roberts has assigned the case to U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, and the first hearing in that case is scheduled to occur on May 17.

Fintech Regulation in Switzerland: Open Questions

In the NZZ, Jürg Müller reports about the developing regulatory framework for fintechs in Switzerland. A proposal by the federal finance department drew—reasonable—criticism by various lobbies and industry associations, including the CFA Society Switzerland.

Die CFA Society Switzerland will das systemrelevante Bankensystem von anderen Finanzdienstleistern trennen. Dafür sei eine präzisere Bankendefinition nötig, als sie heute vorgenommen werde. Nur Banken sollen demnach dem Bankengesetz unterstehen. Finanzdienstleister, die kein traditionelles Bankengeschäft betreiben und keine Liquiditätsrisiken eingehen, sollen einem anderen Regulierungsmodell unterstehen. Dabei sollen je nach Tätigkeit unterschiedliche funktionale Lizenzen zum Zuge kommen – dieser letzte Punkt wird von vielen Vernehmlassungsteilnehmern ebenfalls eingefordert.

Schliesslich identifiziert die CFA Society Switzerland auch zentrale Fintech-Themen, die in der Vernehmlassung aussen vor gelassen wurden. Eine dieser Lücken sei der direkte Zugang zur Schweizerischen Nationalbank (SNB). Aus heutiger Sicht sei nicht ersichtlich, weshalb nur Banken elektronisches Zentralbankgeld halten dürften. Auf Anfrage wollte die SNB zu dieser Forderung keine Stellung nehmen. Andere Zentralbanken wie die Bank of England zeigen sich solchen Ideen gegenüber derweil aufgeschlossen. Auch einzelne Schweizer Ökonomen wie beispielsweise Dirk Niepelt stehen allgemein zugänglichem elektronischem Notenbankgeld positiv gegenüber.

Link to my article mentioned above.

Zimbabwe’s Monetary Policy

On his blog, JP Koning provides an account of recent monetary policy in Zimbabwe:

  • The country dollarized in 2008.
  • The central bank offered USD deposit accounts for banks, specifically for inter bank payments. But these accounts were not fully backed by USDs, or the central bank rationed access to USDs for other reasons (early 2016).
  • Banks got squeezed, bank customers started a run, and the government imposed withdrawal limits. Retailers started to charge higher prices for “plastic money” (USD denominated bank deposits) than for USD cash.
  • In November 2016, the central bank introduced another parallel currency, “bond notes.” The government promised that bond notes would be fully backed and redeemable in USD cash (via the African Export Import Bank) but it defaulted on that promise too. Redeeming bond notes now is as difficult as cashing in deposits.
  • Bond notes and deposits trade at a discount vis-a-vis USD cash. But the government forbids retailers to charge different prices.
  • Gresham’s law works its way.

Predictors of Default

On Science of Us, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reports about predictors of loan repayment choices.

… language that potential borrowers use is a strong predictor of their probability of paying back. And it is an important indicator even if you control for other relevant information lenders were able to obtain about those potential borrowers, including credit ratings and income. …

Here are the phrases used in loan applications by people most likely to pay them back: debt-free, lower interest rate, after-tax, minimum payment, graduate.

And here are the phrases used by those least likely to pay back their loans: God, promise, will pay, thank you, hospital.

Social Insurance in Switzerland

Information from the Swiss Federal Social Insurance Office on the social insurance system in Switzerland:

  • Brief Overview: HTML. Longer overview: PDF.
  • Social Insurance Accounts with links to data, in German (Schweizerische Sozialversicherungsstatistik): PDF.
  • Pocket statistics, in English: PDF. In German: PDF.

DSGE Models for Monetary Policy Analysis

In a VoxEU eBook, Refet Gürkaynak and Cédric Tille collect the views of central bank and academic economists on DSGE models. In the introduction to the eBook, Gürkaynak and Tille summarize these views as follows:

… there is agreement on the place of DSGE models in policy analysis. All see these models as part of the policymaker tool kit, while understanding their limitations and perceiving a similar road ahead.

Money and Credit in Germany

In its April 2017 Quarterly Report, the Deutsche Bundesbank discusses the role of banks in the creation of money. Findings from a wavelet analysis indicate that in Germany, money and credit move in parallel in the long run.

In an appendix, the report mentions possible welfare costs of curbing maturity transformation, with reference to Diamond and Dybvig’s work. This is not convincing. Unlike in the typical (microeconomic) banking model, aggregate central bank provided money need not be scarce, so there is no a priori social need for the private sector to create money.

Does Greece Need Official Debt Relief?

In a Peterson Institute working paper, Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Eike Kreplin, and Ugo Panizza conclude that the answer to that question depends on your assumptions.

The authors compare several scenarios, including

  • scenarios A–C, the baseline scenario of the European institutions and two more pessimistic variants;
  • scenario I which underlies the IMF reasoning and which assumes that “Greece will not undertake the structural reforms needed to achieve higher potential growth”;
  • and scenario D, which corresponds to what Greece committed to when the third program was agreed, and which represents the German position.

They assume that interest rates on privately held debt rise with the debt-to-GDP ratio, and they use two “sustainability” metrics: The debt-to-GDP ratio (should fall), and gross financing needs as a share of GDP (should be smaller than 20%).

When running Monte Carlos simulations, the authors find that for each scenario, the assumptions about growth and primary surpluses are consistent with the conclusions drawn by the different institutions:

  • In A (borderline) and D, debt is “sustainable.”
  • Not so in B, C, and I, due to “accelerating substitution of official debt by more expensive borrowing from private sources”.

The authors then evaluate the plausibility of the scenario assumptions. They conclude that “international evidence does not support an adjustment path that envisages a primary surplus of above 3.5 percent for more than three to four years on a continuous basis and for more than seven years on an average basis” rendering B and C the most plausible scenarios, and suggesting that the debt is “unsustainable.”

In reaching their conclusions, the authors assume that primary surpluses in Greece will react to debt, inflation, and growth in line with the experience in other (developed) economies. (This means, for example, that surpluses rise as the debt burden increases, which seems to contradict the notion of debt overhang.) This is unconvincing, of course, if one takes the view underlying scenario D which presumes that feasible promises are kept. Or stated differently: Greece might well be able but not willing to pay—after all, in this very case official creditor intervention could have made sense in the first place although private lenders charged high interest rates. (With Harris Dellas, we make this argument precise in a paper in the Journal of International Economics.) Related, one can think of many reasons why the historical experience in other countries may be uninformative for the Greek case. The authors address one concern: They focus on episodes with very high debt-to-GDP ratios and find that in these cases, primary surpluses are maintained for longer. Moreover, there is the important question of measurement: The Greek debt-to-GDP ratio is not easily comparable with the ratio in other countries, see here and here, and most likely overstated.

Zettelmeyer, Kreplin, and Panizza make the case for a delay of Greece’s return to capital markets. In the conclusions, they write that

the debt relief measures put on the table by the Eurogroup in May 2016 could be sufficient to restore debt sustainability, but only if these measures are taken to an extreme. This means accepting an extremely long maturity extension of EFSF debts. In addition, it requires either substantial additional interest rate deferrals, or locking in significantly lower funding costs and hence lower interest rates than the EFSF currently expects, or a combination of both. While these measures are feasible within the red lines described by the Eurogroup, they are likely to be politically and/or technically difficult. Unless the EFSF manages to eke out substantial extra interest relief through creative long-term funding operations, its exposure to Greece will likely have to rise, possibly for decades, before it starts falling. A private sector creditor would not accept this type of restructuring because it gives the debtor country a strong incentive to default (or at least renegotiate) when the debt is at its peak.

… one way out of this dilemma would be to delay Greece’s return to capital markets, continuing to finance Greece through ESM programs until its private sector spreads are much lower than they are now. … this approach would lower the total need for debt relief and/or fiscal effort required to restore Greece to debt sustainability. While it would lead to a significant increase in official creditor exposure to Greece—requiring perhaps €100 billion of extra ESM financing—this is less than the rise in EFSF exposure that would be required in the Eurogroup’s approach, which aims to return Greece to private capital markets in 2018 while relying mainly on EFSF maturity extensions and interest rate deferrals … total official exposure to Greece would decline faster if ESM financing were to continue than if it were to end in 2018.

Importantly, they also point to the incentive effects of debt restructuring:

If [the threat of Grexit is essential to maintain incentives for reform] keeping the sword of Grexit … would help reduce debt levels only so long as Greece is being financed with cheap official funds. If, however, Greece returns to capital markets, any beneficial incentives of this approach would likely be offset by the risk premiums that private lenders would charge to a country whose euro membership remains at risk.

The official creditors will have to make up their minds: Not only the return on their lending is at stake, but also reform in Greece.

Historical Living Standards in International Comparison

On VoxEU, Peter Lindert summarizes his recent work on long-term international comparisons of living standards. Lindert compares nominal incomes per capita, deflated by historical prices (for staple goods). He makes five points:

The real income gap between Northwest Europe and the major Asian countries was greater since the 1500s than even Maddison had estimated.

Contrary to all previous estimates, Mughal India around 1600 was already far behind both Japan and Northwest Europe.

Within Europe, the new estimation procedure shows little bias in Maddison’s estimates.

Average incomes in North America were already higher than in Britain or France in the late 17th century, long before Maddison’s c.1900 catching up date for the US versus Britain. A similar ‘frontier advantage’ has now emerged from estimates for Australia in 1870.

Adding what is known about the ability to buy luxuries and capital goods raises the income of Western Europe relative to all other regions, except possibly resource-rich North America.

Kenneth Arrow’s Work

On VoxEU, Steven Durlauf offers an excellent overview over Kenneth Arrow’s work. Durlauf emphasizes five areas of research:

  • The impossibility theorem, in the tradition of Condorcet.
  • General equilibrium theory and the welfare theorems, in the tradition of Walras.
  • Decision-making under uncertainty, the Arrow-Pratt measures of risk aversion and contingent commodities.
  • Imperfect information, in the context of medical care and as a source of statistical discrimination.
  • Economics of knowledge, anticipating the endogenous growth literature.

Durlauf closes:

Like Faust, limitless curiosity and passion for knowledge meant that Arrow strove without relenting; but unlike Faust, Arrow needed no redemption. His intellectual integrity was pristine and unparalleled at every stage of his life. His character was as admirable and admired as his intellect. Arrow’s personal and scholarly example continues to inspire, nurture, and challenge.

The Kremlin and Russian Criminals

From the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Galeotti reports about ties between Russian criminal networks and the Kremlin. From the summary:

The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.

Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.

Mankiw on the Congressional Tax Plan

In the New York Times, Greg Mankiw applauds the tax reform plan discussed in Congress. He emphasizes four points:

  • The reform would move the US tax system toward international norms, from worldwide to territorial taxation.
  • It would move the system from income towards less distorting consumption taxation, by allowing businesses to deduct investment spending immediately.
  • The reform would change the origin-based into a destination-based system (taxing imports and exempting exports, a.k.a. “border adjustment”), with similarities to a value-added tax, making it harder to game the system. “[T]he immediate impact of the change would be to discourage imports and encourage exports. … the dollar would appreciate … The movement in the exchange rate would offset the initial impact on imports and exports.”
  • The reform would abolish tax deductions for interest payments to bondholders, eliminating incentives for corporate leverage. “A business’s taxes would be based on its cash flow: revenue minus wage payments and investment spending. How this cash flow is then paid out to equity and debt holders would be irrelevant.”

Swiss Franc Exchange Rate Index

The Swiss National Bank has updated its exchange rate indices. In an SNB Economic Studies paper, Robert Müller describes how. The upshot is that the SNB considers the Swiss Franc slightly less overvalued than before. From the abstract:

The key aspects of the revision are: the application of the weighting method used by the IMF, which takes into account so-called third-market effects; continuous updating of the countries incorporated into the index; and calculation of a chained index. The methodological changes in the calculation of the new index have only a slight effect on the development of the nominal index. However, the difference between the nominal and real index (CPI-based) has increased with the new calculation. This is explained by the fact that countries with a greater weighting in the new index have higher average rates of inflation than those whose weighting has been reduced.

On the State of Macroeconomics

In a paper, Ricardo Reis defends macroeconomics against various critiques. He concludes:

I have argued that while there is much that is wrong with macroeconomics today, most critiques of the state of macroeconomics are off target. Current macroeconomic research is not mindless DSGE modeling filled with ridiculous assumptions and oblivious of data. Rather, young macroeconomists are doing vibrant, varied, and exciting work, getting jobs, and being published. Macroeconomics informs economic policy only moderately and not more nor all that differently than other fields in economics. Monetary policy has benefitted significantly from this advice in keeping inflation under control and preventing a new Great Depression. Macroeconomic forecasts perform poorly in absolute terms and given the size of the challenge probably always will. But relative to the level of aggregation, the time horizon, and the amount of funding, they are not so obviously worst than those in other fields. What is most wrong with macroeconomics today is perhaps that there is too little discussion of which models to teach and too little investment in graduate-level textbooks.