Category Archives: Notes

Switzerland Peps Up SMEs

How Switzerland peps up SMEs: Banks are encouraged to extend credit (at 0%). The treasury guarantees the loans. The SNB refinances banks and accepts the guaranteed loans as collateral. Fast and efficient. Eventually, some of these loans will turn into grants of course. But that’s ok; the first-best response to a shock with asymmetric effects does involve transfers if markets are incomplete.

Data and Research on the Coronavirus

The first of a long sequence of nice papers on the virus by economists are out:

  • Martin Eichenbaum, Sergio Rebelo, and Mathias Trabandt (2020), The Macroeconomics of Epidemics. NBER wp 26882. (My comments on Twitter.)
  • James Stock (2020), Coronavirus Data Gaps and the Policy Response to the Novel Corona Virus. Mimeo. Conclusion: There is an urgent need to reliably estimate the asymptomatic rate—the share among the infected who do not show strong symptoms.

Data:

Oxford University’s government response tracker.

Coronavirus link database.

Blog by Klaus Wälde on case numbers in Germany.

 

Updated: 26 March 2020, 18:15.

Marshall Islands CBDC

The Marshall Islands CBDC project moves forward. Algorand, the project partner, reports that

blockchain for the world’s first national digital currency, the Marshallese sovereign (SOV), will be built using Algorand technology. The SOV will circulate alongside the US dollar and help the Marshall Islands efficiently operate in the global economy.

Coronavirus: Effects on Course Program in Gerzensee

The Central Bankers Course ”Monetary Policy, Exchange Rates, and Capital Flows” has been postponed to 2021.

Doctoral courses currently take place as usual, subject to the following restrictions:

  • Participants are not allowed to attend Study Center Gerzensee events nor enter the Center’s premises for 14 days after returning from areas where the Coronavirus has spread. As of 2 March 2020, these areas are China, South Korea, Singapore, Iran, and Northern Italy defined as Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and all other Italian regions further north.
  • Participants with symptoms of any mild or severe sickness are not allowed to attend Study Center Gerzensee events nor to check in at the Study Center.
  • Participants who experience symptoms after check in must stay in their hotel room and wait for instructions by local authorities.

On the Future of Payments and Settlement

In its Quarterly Review, the BIS offers nice perspectives on the future of payments. Morten Bech and Jenny Hancock survey innovations in payments, and where the problems lie. Tara Rice, Goetz von Peter and Codruta Boar examine the fall in the number of correspondent banks. Morten Bech, Umar Faruqui and Takeshi Shirakami discuss cross border payments. Morten Bech, Jenny Hancock, Tara Rice and Amber Wadsworth discuss securities settlement. And Raphael Auer and Rainer Böhme explore design choices of a retail CBDC.

e-krona Pilot

The Riksbank starts a pilot project with Accenture to develop a technical solution for a retail e-krona.

Users shall be able to hold e-kronor in a digital wallet, make payments, deposits and withdrawals via a mobile app. The user shall also be able to make payments via wearables, such as smart watches, and cards.

The pilot runs for a year, on a distributed ledger, according to the Riksbank’s press release. More detailed information is contained in this note.

 

 

 

Pretend Economists

In Foreign Affairs, Paul Romer criticizes “pretend economists” who pretend that economics—and they themselves—can answer normative questions on scientific grounds. He argues that “pretend economists” open the field to corruption.

The alternative is to make honesty and humility prerequisites for membership in the community of economists. The easy part is to challenge the pretenders. The hard part is to say no when government officials look to economists for an answer to a normative question. Scientific authority never conveys moral authority. No economist has a privileged insight into questions of right and wrong, and none deserves a special say in fundamental decisions about how society should operate. Economists who argue otherwise and exert undue influence in public debates about right and wrong should be exposed for what they are: frauds.

Edward Snowden’s “Permanent Record”

An intriguing description of America’s intelligence community and the industry surrounding it; the slippery slopes; and Snowden’s motivation for following his conscience rather than the money. From the book, how we got here:

[After 9/11] [n]early a hundred thousand spies returned to work at the agencies with the knowledge that they’d failed at their primary job, which was protecting America. …

In retrospect, my country … could have used this rare moment of solidarity to reinforce democratic values and cultivate resilience in the now-connected global public. Instead, it went to war. The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision. I was outraged, yes, but that was only the beginning of a process in which my heart completely defeated my rational judgment. I accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts, and I repeated them as if I were being paid for it. … I embraced the truth constructed for the good of the state, which in my passion I confused with the good of the country.

And what to make of it:

Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. … Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or won’t have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbor – or to the crowds of principled dissidents I was following on my phone who were protesting halfway across the planet, hoping to gain just a fraction of the freedom that my country was busily dismantling. …

Any elected government that relies on surveillance to maintain control of a citizenry that regards surveillance as anathema to democracy has effectively ceased to be a democracy.

Buy the book from a key contractor of the intelligence community. Reviews on goodreads. Youtube video of the 2013 presentation by CIA CTO Gus Hunt which Snowden discusses in the book.

Digital Dollar Project

Accenture, the Digital Dollar Foundation, and FTI Consulting are pushing for a digital USD. They have formed the Digital Dollar Project

to advance exploration of a United States Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). The purpose of the Project is to encourage research and public discussion on the potential advantages of a digital dollar, convene private sector thought leaders and actors, and propose possible models to support the public sector. The Project will develop a framework for potential, practical steps that can be taken to establish a dollar CBDC.

Central Banks Zoom In on CBDC

According to a BIS press release, several leading central banks collaborate with the BIS on matters relating to the introduction of CBDC:

The Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, the Sveriges Riksbank and the Swiss National Bank, together with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), have created a group to share experiences as they assess the potential cases for central bank digital currency (CBDC) in their home jurisdictions.

The group will assess CBDC use cases; economic, functional and technical design choices, including cross-border interoperability; and the sharing of knowledge on emerging technologies. It will closely coordinate with the relevant institutions and forums – in particular, the Financial Stability Board and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI).

The group will be co-chaired by Benoît Cœuré, Head of the BIS Innovation Hub, and Jon Cunliffe, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and Chair of the CPMI. It will include senior representatives of the participating institutions.

Wealth Inequality and Wealth Taxes

In a series of blog posts, John Cochrane criticizes the Saez-Zucman proposal for higher wealth taxes. In posts #1 to #4 he argues that economic arguments for wealth taxes are inconsistent or not convincing. In post #5 he concludes that Saez-Zucman truly are motivated by political objectives which are grounded in the view that wealth of the rich is ill-gotten or that the rich have a disproportionate, negative influence on politics.

Saez and Zucman want to confiscate billionaires’ wealth, because they think billionaires have too much political power, billionaires all got their money unjustly, and somehow though big government cronyism is the problem, bigger government is the answer.

Cochrane rejects this view.

Debt, Deficits, and MMT

One of the American Economic Association sessions in this year’s ASSA Meetings focused on “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT) and (maybe somewhat unfairly in the same session) on last year’s presidential address by Olivier Blanchard, which suggested that persistently low interest rates on public debt render government budget constraints non-binding.

Greg Mankiw concluded in his paper that “MMT contains some kernels of truth, but its most novel policy prescriptions do not follow cogently from its premises,” in line with my own assessment.

Papers by Richard Evans, Michael Boskin, Jasmina Hasanhodzic, as well as by Johannes Brumm, Laurence Kotlikoff, and Felix Kubler argued that Blanchard’s conclusions are not robust, for various reasons.

Redrawing the Map of Global Capital Flows

Redrawing the Map of Global Capital Flows: The Role of Cross-Border Financing and Tax Havens, by Antonio Coppola, Matteo Maggiori, Jesse Schreger, and Brent Neiman:

We start with the dataset of global mutual fund and exchange traded fund (ETF) holdings provided by Morningstar and assembled in Matteo Maggiori, Brent Neiman and Jesse Schreger (2019a, henceforth MNS). For each position in the data, we link the security’s immediate issuer to its ultimate parent. The resulting data can then be used to create a mapping that transforms cross-border positions from a residency to nationality basis and that sheds light on how global firms finance themselves. …

First, in the case of bonds, positions are almost always reallocated away from Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and other tax havens. Under nationality, these positions are often associated with developing countries like Brazil, China, India, and Russia, which may reflect the fact that developing countries find it easier to issue offshore than onshore, where the legal system and institutional quality may be of concern to foreign investors. Reallocating positions from tax havens to developed countries is also common, though, perhaps because tax havens allow them to access international investors with less onerous rules governing the withholding of taxes on interest payments. These patterns may also reflect tax-driven profit-shifting, whereby one unit of a company raises money at a low interest rate in a low-tax regime and loans it at a higher interest rate to an affiliated unit in a high-tax regime.

Second, in the case of equities, we find that many developed-country investments in tax havens are actually associated under nationality with China. Many of these positions are in securities issued through Variable Interest Entities (VIE), a structure designed to avoid China’s capital controls and the legality of which may rest on tenuous ground. Relatedly, we see a large share of equities reallocated by our algorithm away from Ireland and to developed countries, an adjustment reflecting the popularity of “tax inversions” there.

Third, in the case of asset-backed securities, for several investor countries, we find large reallocations toward the domicile of the investor, often because the underlying assets are found there. For example, our reallocation matrix records that 73.4 percent of U.S. investment in Cayman Islands’ asset-backed securities should instead be thought of as U.S. domestic investment, largely because those securities are backed by U.S. mortgages.

Sand Dollar

The Central Bank of the Bahamas introduces CBDC, according to a press release (December 2019).

The intended outcome of Project Sand Dollar is that all residents in The Bahamas would have use of a central bank digital currency, on a modernized technology platform, with an experience and convenience—legally and otherwise—that resembles cash. It is expected that this will allow for reduced service delivery costs, increased transactional efficiency, and an improved overall level of financial inclusion. The anonymity feature of cash is not being replicated, although the Sand Dollar infrastructure would incorporate strict attention to confidentiality and data protection.

Men and Women

On Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok reported (in December 2019) that

[m]en and women are different. A seemingly obvious fact to most of humanity but a long-time subject of controversy within psychology. New large-scale results using better empirical methods are resolving the debate, however, in favor of the person in the street. The basic story is that at the broadest level (OCEAN) differences are relatively small but that is because there are large offsetting differences between men and women at lower levels of aggregation. Scott Barry Kaufman, writing at Scientific American, has a very good review of the evidence:

On the Declining Political Support for Economic Unions

In an NBER working paper, Gino Gancia, Giacomo Ponzetto, and Jaume Ventura propose a theory of declining public support for economic unions: Broad gains from trade in differentiated goods make way for distributive conflict due to specific factors:

… this is partly due to the growth of trade between countries that are increasingly dissimilar. … political support for international unions can grow with their breadth and depth as long as member countries are sufficiently similar. However, differences in economic size and factor endowments can trigger disagreement over the value of unions between and within countries. The model is consistent with some salient features of the process of European integration and statistical evidence from survey data.

Treasury Direct

A common argument against retail central bank digital currency (CBDC) is that CBDC would undermine financial stability by allowing the general public to swiftly move funds from banks to a government account. But in several countries such swift transfers are possible already today—in the US through Treasury Direct.

(The argument also has conceptual flaws, see the paper On the Equivalence of Public and Private Money with Markus Brunnermeier.)

U.S. Money Markets

For over a year the federal funds rate has increased relative to the rate the Fed pays on excess reserves. In mid September 2019, the federal funds rate increased abruptly, triggering the Fed to inject fresh funds. In parallel, the repo market rates spiked dramatically.

On the Cato Institute’s blog, George Selgin argues that structurally elevated demand collided with reduced supply. He mentions explicit and implicit regulation; Treasury General Account (TGA) balances; the NY Fed’s foreign repo pool (Japanese banks); and the administration’s $1 trillion deficit which required primary dealers to underwrite newly-issued government debt.

The bottom line is that regulators have managed to raise the biggest banks liquidity needs enough to compel them to sit on most of the banking system’s seemingly huge stock of excess reserves, and to do so even as repo markets present them with an opportunities to earn five times what those reserves are yielding just by lending them out overnight.

… So there you have it: a host of developments adding to banks’ demand for excess reserves, while others gradually chipped away at the stock of such reserves. Add a spike in primary dealers’ demand for short-term funding, a coinciding round of tax payments that transferred as many reserves to the TGA, and binding intraday liquidity requirements at the banks holding a large share of total system excess reserves, and you have the makings of last month’s perfect repo-market storm.

David Andolfatto and Jane Ihrig concur. On the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ On the Economy Blog, they already argued in March 2019 that banks feel compelled to hoard reserves rather than lending against treasuries:

Why should banks prefer reserves to higher-yielding Treasuries? One explanation is that Treasuries are not really cash equivalent if funds are needed immediately. In particular, for resolution planning purposes, banks may worry about the market value they would receive in the sale of or agreement to repurchase their securities in an individual stress scenario.

Consistent with this possibility, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Supervision Randal Quarles noted, “Occasionally we hear that banks feel they are under supervisory pressure to satisfy their [high-quality liquid assets] with reserves rather than Treasury securities.”

To quantify this liquidity consideration, a recent post on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Liberty Street Economics blog suggests that the eight domestic Large Institution Supervision Coordinating Committee’s banks collectively may want to hold $784 billion in precautionary reserves to cover their immediate liquidity needs in times of stress.

Andolfatto and Ihrig argue that the precautionary reserves hoarding by banks could substantially be reduced if the Fed offered a standing repo facility:

The Fed could easily incentivize banks to reduce their demand for reserves by operating a standing overnight repurchase (repo) facility that would permit banks to convert Treasuries to reserves on demand at an administered rate. This administered rate could be set a bit above market rates—perhaps several basis points above the top of the federal funds target range—so that the facility is not used every day …

With this facility in place, banks should feel comfortable holding Treasuries to help accommodate stress scenarios instead of reserves. The demand for reserves would decline substantially as a result. Ample reserves—and therefore the size of the Fed’s balance sheet—could in fact be much closer to their historical levels.

A standing repo facility could effectively impose a ceiling on repo rates. And as Andolfatto and Ihrig argue it would also have other benefits. In a follow up post, Andolfatto and Ihrig emphasize that,

[w]hile U.S. Treasuries are given equal weight with reserves in the calculation of high-quality liquid assets (HQLA) for the LCR, they are evidently not considered equivalent for resolution purposes.

Internal liquidity stress tests apparently assume a significant discount on Treasury securities liquidated in large volumes during times of stress, so that Treasuries are not treated as cash-equivalent. We have heard that banks occasionally feel under supervisory pressure to satisfy their HQLA requirements with reserves rather than Treasuries.

On the NewMonetarism blog, Stephen Williamson offers a longer-term perspective. He appears more skeptical as far as bank liquidity requirements as a possible explanation for the recent interest rate spikes are concerned. In Williamson’s view a floor system that requires even more reserves in the banking system than currently present is ineffective and should be replaced. He writes (my emphasis):

Before the financial crisis, the Fed intervened on the supply side of the overnight credit market by varying the quantity of its lending in the repo market so as to peg the fed funds rate. … a corridor system, as the central bank’s interest rate target was bounded above by the discount rate, and below by the interest rate on reserves, which was zero at the time. But, the Fed could have chosen to run a corridor by intervening on the other side of the market – by varying the quantity of reverse repos, for example. Post-financial crisis, the Fed’s floor system is effectively a mechanism for intervening on the demand side … With a large quantity reserves outstanding, those financial institutions holding reserves accounts have the option of lending to the Fed at the interest rate on reserves, or lending in the market – fed funds or repo market. Financial market arbitrage, in a frictionless world, would then look after the rest. By pegging the interest rate on excess reserves (IOER), the Fed should in principle peg overnight rates.

The problem is that overnight markets – particularly in the United States – are gummed up with various frictions. … Friction in U.S. overnight credit markets … is nothing new. Indeed, the big worry at the Fed, when “liftoff” from the 0-0.25% fed funds rate trading range occurred in December 2015, was that arbitrage would not work to peg overnight rates in a higher range. That’s why the Fed introduced the ON-RRP, or overnight reverse-repo, facility, with the ON-RRP rate set at the bottom of the fed funds rate target range, and IOER at the top of the range. The idea was that the ON-RRP rate would bound the fed funds rate from below.

… if total reserves outstanding are constant and general account balances go up, then reserve balances held in the private sector must go down by the same amount. The Fed permits these large and fluctuating Treasury balances, apparently because they think this won’t matter in a floor system, as it shouldn’t. … Another drain on private sector reserve balances is the foreign repo pool. … if the problem is low reserve balances in the private sector, those balances could be increased by about $300 billion if the Fed eliminated the foreign repo pool.

… The key problem is that the Fed is trying to manage overnight markets by working from the banking sector, through the stock of reserves. Apparently, that just won’t work in the American context, because market frictions are too severe. In particular, these frictions segment banks from the rest of the financial sector in various ways. The appropriate type of daily intervention for the Fed is in the repo market, which is more broadly-based. If $1.5 trillion in reserve balances isn’t enough to make a floor system work, without intervention through either a reverse-repo or repo facility, then that’s a bad floor system. … Make the secured overnight financing rate the policy rate, and run a corridor system. That’s what normal central banks do.

Some background information:

  • NY Fed commentary on monetary policy implementation.
  • Description (2009) of the primary dealer system, by Barry Ritzholtz.
  • NY Fed staff report (2015) on US repo and securities lending markets, by Viktoria Baklanova, Adam Copeland and Rebecca McCaughrin.

In the FT, Cale Tilford, Joe Rennison, Laura Noonan, Colby Smith, and Brendan Greeley “break down what went wrong, what happens next, and whether markets can avoid another cash crunch” (with many figures).

This post was updated on November 21, 11:09 pm; and on November 26 (FT article).

India’s Unified Payments Interface

In the FT, Benjamin Parkin reports about the transformation of India’s payments landscape.

Behind the boom is an innovation launched by the Indian government in 2016: the unglamorous sounding Unified Payments Interface, or UPI, which allows immediate mobile payments directly between bank accounts.

Conceived as a public utility, the service is transforming India’s cash-dependent economy into fertile soil for mobile-money apps. … Both the volume and value of transactions had more than doubled in a year.

Harvard’s Admissions Policy

A paper by Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler, and Tyler Ransom offers some glimpses.

The lawsuit Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard University provided an unprecedented look at how an elite school makes admissions decisions. Using publicly released reports, we examine the preferences Harvard gives for recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff (ALDCs). Among white admits, over 43% are ALDC. Among admits who are African American, Asian American, and Hispanic, the share is less than 16% each. Our model of admissions shows that roughly three quarters of white ALDC admits would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs. Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged.

Where the Phillips Curve is Alive, Contd

In an NBER working paper, Laurence Ball and Sandeep Mazumder question the puzzles of first, missing disinflation and subsequently, missing inflation in the Euro area. From the abstract:

… we measure core inflation with the weighted median of industry inflation rates, which is less volatile than the common measure of inflation excluding food and energy prices. We find that fluctuations in core inflation since the creation of the euro are well explained by three factors: expected inflation (as measured by surveys of forecasters); the output gap (as measured by the OECD); and the pass-through of movements in headline inflation. Our specification resolves the puzzle of a “missing disinflation” after the Great Recession, and it diminishes the puzzle of a “missing inflation” during the recent economic recovery.

See also the paper by James Stock and Mark Watson.