Monday, August 7, 2017

Alternatives to Bubbles

There was no housing bubble is, I guess, a new thing going around.  It isn't entirely new in that a few people have mentioned it or endorsed it for years, but it is new in the sense of drawing more adherents and tentative supporters these days.  Karl Smith via Alex Tabarrok is who I am responding to today.  I am going to start with his alternative theory and work backwards a little.

Let me then tie all this together by advancing a theory: there was no bubble in either housing or commercial real estate. There was, however, a massive increase in liquidity driven by financial innovation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That increase in liquidity allowed real estate markets to behave more like stock or commodity markets. In good time, prices would rise rapidly as money poured into capital markets. During recessions, prices would retreat as money retreated to safer havens.  

Wonderful!  A direct theory we can talk about without having to infer what was really meant and end up arguing past each other because of a lack of common ground.  So my first major objection is
 During recessions, prices would retreat as money retreated to safer havens.  
A prediction.  Now Karl Smith includes in his post graphs of home prices, both real an nominal (another wonderful thing to include) covering the 'bubble' and recovery, so we can check to see if this is an accurate description of what happened.  The short answer is no, it isn't.  The graphs show nominal housing prices peaked in July 2006, and real housing prices peaked in December 2005, so real prices peaked almost 2 years prior to the start of the recession and about 20 months prior to the stock markets as the S&P peaked in October 2007.  Importantly the S&P didn't just peak a year to a year and a half later, it rose significantly during that period, from the 1260-1270 range in late 2005 to peak of over 1550 in October, more than a 20% rise no matter what you look at (peak to peak, moving averages, whatever).

That rise is significant because the two markets (housing and stock) diverged in momentum.  Housing peaked and then drifted sideways and a little down while stocks pushed quite a bit higher, it is unlikely that the two markets were responding to a single cause.  In fact if you were to oversimplify and offer two alternate explanations in this way

1.  The recession drove money out of the housing market and caused the decline
2.  The housing decline caused the recession

#1 is almost certainly false.  This is a major, but not fatal*, blow to the proposed theory.  There are logical holes in several other steps in this post along the way.  Another here

As mentioned, nominal values have rebounded strongly over the past six years, despite a weak economy, increased financial regulation, and a backlog of foreclosures. This rise in nominal values is key because it is tied to the viability of mortgage contracts. Suppose homebuyers in 2007 had gotten caught up in bubble fever, taken on a mortgage that was a bit too much for them to afford, and then watched the value of their investment collapse. Well, if they could have ridden the wave out for 10 years, then they could have gotten back out at least what they put in. Ten years is a long time, and according to the NAHB, it’s a bit less than how long the median homeowner stayed put through the 90s and early 2000s.

Followed by

Riding the bust out would have been tough, but not wildly out of the ordinary for the average homebuyer. Yet, it only took this long because inflation has been extraordinarily low, rarely rising to two percent a year. A faster rate of inflation would have brought homeowners out of the dip even sooner.
Why is Kevin Smith choosing nominal instead of real here?  Yes there is an intuition that if nominal prices rebound you can sell the house and get out from under your obligation but the real loss still exists.  In terms of opportunity costs if you held onto your house by selling stocks and bonds during this period or by not buying stocks and bonds while plowing money into your mortgage payments then you missed what has been a major run up in other markets.  Even if your choice was literally to sell the S&P at its absolute peak in 2007 to maintain your mortgage payments you have forgone a roughly 60% nominal increase on that money.

Housing has been a terrible investment for people who bought between 2000 and 2010 in opportunity cost terms.  Note this line
A faster rate of inflation would have brought homeowners out of the dip even sooner.

This is wrong on two levels.  First housing prices from 2007-2017 failed to keep pace with inflation, it is not assured that a higher inflation rate would have caused a faster rise in nominal home prices. Secondly the higher inflation rate could well have meant (and probably would have meant) larger real losses for the homeowners.

I understand that the argument stems from a simplified view of the housing bubble, but Smith here is using slight of hand to waive away the costs.  Yes if someone held onto their house they probably could have eventually sold it and not taken a nominal loss, and fully repaying their mortgage a decade or so later.  However this is just shifting the losses that investors took on the securities and shifting them onto the homeowners.  The fact that 10 years later homeowners are still realizing real losses (and not just opportunity cost losses which are much larger, simple inflation adjusted losses), and eyeballing the trend line from the 2012 trough it would be reasonable to expect at least another 4-5 years before those real losses hit zero, is a major point of strength for the housing bubble side.

Buying into a bubble suggests that you are paying irrationally high prices that are premised only on the notion of “some-greater-fool” coming along and rescuing from your mistake. As we can see that is not the case. 
This statement only makes sense if you assume that those who held onto their house could do so at no cost.  The bigger fool in this case is the fool who held onto his house for 10 years so that he could then sell it at no gain, rather than invest more profitably in virtually any other asset class over that period.

*  It has been noted by some that the housing price fall was fairly modest up through August 2008 and fell aggressively as the financial crisis unfolded, which allows for a theory along the lines of "the decline in housing wasn't enough to start the recession, but the crisis was enough to drive housing far lower".  I find this unconvincing as the financial crisis was actually initiated by investors demanding that additional collateral be put up by major institutions (along with some actual fraud), which is a direct way of saying that the market was anticipating a greater chance of a failed repayment than it had done in the recent past.  It is hard for me to believe that recession is the direct cause of the housing decline when the most important events for the housing decline preceded the corresponding portions of the recession.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Risk Neutral

An expansion on some thoughts in response to a comment by Kevin Erdman on Arnold Kling's blog.

Kevin highlight's a point about risk which is valuable, that people who buy debt (ie bonds) are generally risk averse and people who buy equity (ie stocks) are generally risk tolerant.  The conclusion though is incorrect because he looks only at the buyers, and not the sellers of the assets.  If buying bonds is risk aversion then selling bonds should be seen as risk tolerance, with the opposite relationship for equity, let's look at both how this is true and the implications.

First why are bonds less risky than equity?  First it is because they (typically) have a claim on the underlying capital.  If you buy equity in Ford and they go belly up then your equity will be wiped out.  If you buy debt from ford and they go belly up your debt will be converted to equity and you are now a proud new owner of a fraction of Ford's physical capital, their manufacturing plants, their patents, and anything else worth selling or using.  So you have this natural buffer where even if the overall business fails there is some value to be extracted from the ruins, which an equity holder doesn't have.  Secondly it takes a much larger blow to the company to decrease the coupon payments.  A decline in sales will take a whack at the equity, and the market value of bonds, but the actual income stream won't be effected until the blow is large enough to interrupt the coupon payments.

That is from the investor's perspective, now from the companies perspective this is reversed.  When a company sells equity they give up a ownership stake in exchange for cash, if the stock price falls afterwards the company doesn't have to give part of that cash back.  A stock issuance is low risk from the companies perspective, the total market capitalization could fall to a single penny and they don't have to repay a cent of it, the investor takes on all of that risk.  Now a bond issuance, they borrow money and promise to pay it back with the company assets as collateral.  If they cannot make the payments the entire company is potentially forfeit.  Any risk that the investor is insulated from must be passed on to the company.

This inverse relationship is pretty straightforward.  If Ford wants to build a new assembly line they can fund it through debt or equity, but funding from one or the other doesn't (shouldn't) alter the risk inherent in that capital expenditure, what funding from one or the other does is shift the risk and reward profile.  If they issue through debt and it is a huge success the bondholders get their coupon payments and Ford gets all the upside of a major and profitable investment.  If they fund through equity the shareholders get the upside of that profit stream.  If it is a failure Ford has risked the company's assets and will have to sell them off to make their bondholders whole.  If it fails and they have funded through equity the share holders take the (majority of the) loss, and the company retains all its other assets.

In a perfect world/market these things balance out perfectly every time.  Total risk is constant, and distribution of risk is matched with compensation for exposure to it.  Where it is a problem is when one group can offload risk onto a third party without compensation.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

When aren't they efficient?

The approach to markets, especially betting markets, supposes that they are efficient or trending towards efficiency.  There is a specific circumstance where markets no longer trend toward efficiency, that is basically never discussed.

Walk into a convince store, look at the dozen drinks on display.  How many choices are there?  Not 12, 13.  1 for each drink, and 1 for not purchasing a drink at all.  Take 130 people, each day each of the dozen drinks gets bought 10 times, and 10 times the "no purchase" is exercised.

10 people day after day are not buying drinks.  If they are $1 each then after a year you have 10 people with $365 that they are willing to use on drinks if there was one they liked.  This (potentially) opens up a brand new niche in the market, as the daily savings allows for a new product to enter the market.  One day on the shelves a specialty drink will appear, aimed at satisfying this segment.  Perhaps it will be priced at $2, perhaps $20.

Strip away the savings, instead of a dollar spent every time, give each of the 130 people a coupon for 1 drink that expires at the end of each day.  Now there is no build up of savings and so no incentive to create a more expensive drink for those with particular (or peculiar) tastes.

This is the major flaw in electoral "markets", votes can't be rolled over in anticipation of a better candidate 2, 4 or 40 years down the line.  Marginalized groups tend to stay marginalized and powerful groups powerful thanks to the absence of this mechanism.

Now we are potentially living in an even more dangerous time.  Financial markets have become so entangled that there is no fundamental way to "save" outside of it.  Sell stocks because you are worried about the economy?  What are you going to do with the cash?  The solvency of banks is directly tied to the solvency of the US Treasury, which is tied back to the strength of the economy.

Whenever someone makes the following mistake, "markets aren't worried about default because if they were interest rates on government debt would be higher" simply ask them this "Where should I put my money if I am afraid of a government default in my country?".

Sunday, October 9, 2016

People don't appreciate scale

Marginal Revolution links to a Minimum Garaunteed job proposal, that is incredibly naive.

The guaranteed job will consist of a variety of mental and physical tasks that can be easily monitored either online or within existing institutions. The mental tasks might be activities such as keyboarding practice, doing arithmetic exercises on an internet training program, doing exercises in word processing, doing spread sheets, reading reports and summarizing them, or completing online courses. The physical tasks might include doing specific exercises, digging holes and filling them, moving weights, and other similar type activities. The goal of these activities is not to produce usable output for society, but to provide work activities by which people can translate their time into income. To the degree possible, these working experiences will provide training in skills and an introduction to customs and behavior useful in the real-world market jobs

The US labor force is currently around 160 million people, with a 5% UE rate some 8 million people are going to be eligible for this work, assuming only 1 in 10 decides to take the government up on the offer and assuming that zero people out of the labor force get pulled back in the Federal Government will be providing jobs for 800,000 people at any one time.  Of course the "safety net" is most important during times of trouble, during the last recession the UE rate peaked near 10%, to provide jobs during a period like that would result in the government running an industry of 1.6 million people.  Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the US and has fewer than 1.5 million employees here.

Of course the honor system doesn't work so you need to have people oversee these activities, and managers to organize and watch the overseers (and again and again), along with payroll, legal departments (for when someone claims repetitive stress disorders from doing to prescribed activities), HR departments so people can complain that their website is down/they didn't get paid/their disabilities aren't catered to, coders on the front and back end of websites and all manner of other positions.

It is basically inevitable that this program, if it was at all successful, would become the single largest employer of people in the US, its "employees" will almost certainly agitate to form a union at some point (with some bizarre potential complications) and all of this is going to have to be designed in a way to double in size within a few months during a recession.

The most obvious blind spot in politics these days is that the sheer size of proposed solutions are generally brushed aside. I mean if Wal-Mart can build a labor force of 1.5 million over decades, then surely the government can build something even bigger with a few pen strokes, a few good intentions and a 5 page proposal outlining the finer points.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Self driving cars and PSST

Arnold Kling thinks that self driving cars will push people away from car ownership almost entirely, and underesitmates the complexity of car ownership.

If Uber and Lyft are reliable and affordable, then you do not need to own a car. 

He does, to his credit, say "if", but the reliable and affordable are never going to be affordable enough.  Kling's view of the economy is summed up by his description of Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade (PSST), whereby complex relationships are constantly trying to find an equilibrium, he would be good to think of the complex relationships Americans (in particular) have with their cars, and how that could be replicated in the real world.

First off lots of people customize their cars, and I am not talking about rims and paint jobs.  One of our cars has two kids seats in it, with straps adjusted to their sizes, a collapsable stroller in the trunk along with a fair amount of dirt, bits of snacks wedged into the seats, and various toys and children's books scattered about.  For a ride sharing company to meet my individual demand for a car they are going to need at the ready a car with two kids seats of the right size near my house, not have a passenger shortly after me allergic to peanuts, and not care or charge for cleaning out dog hair, mulch or topsoil.  I may be unusual in the specific things that I do with my car, but I am hardly unusual in that I do specific things with my car.

The second problem is one of use patterns.  The issue with rentals of any kind is that there is always a peak load that needs to be filled.  Hotels are expensive not because it costs $36,500 ($100 a night) a year to build, rent, maintain and profit off a single hotel room but because most nights hotel rooms sit empty, and then a handful of times a year they are packed to the brim.  It is a fact of life that the times that you want to use X are usually the times lots of other people want to use X.  For the majority of people to use Uber or Lyft instead of their own cars their fleets will have to be large enough to accommodate the peak load on roads, you know, rush hour.  Not only will they have to be big enough to handle the average load, but they will also need to be big enough to handle the worst traffic days when an accident, breakdown or construction doubles commute times, and all the 9 am traffic who, theoretically, would be riding around in cars that the 8 am traffic used is suddenly stranded and running an hour late.

Lastly fully automated autos are going to reduce a lot of the non financial costs of driving.  The boredom of sitting in traffic will be replaced by entertainment, the discomfort many feel sitting in car seats can be replaced with better designs now that the steering wheel is out of the way, and the safety risks of driving should be mitigated.  An economist should expected that self driving cars will reduce the costs of driving, and so should increase the incidence of driving.  This should mean people get more use and value out of owning their individual car(s), which will push back heavily against corporate ownership.

Friday, August 19, 2016

It can't all be money

I'm only two years behind on this debate about fractional reserve banking.  Since I am writing for no one I can summarize it very quickly.  John Tamny says that the money multiplier doesn't exist and Warren Gibson says that it does.  As usual the answer comes down to definitions.  Warren Gibson says that credits in your checking account (or anything part of M1) is money-

Most definitely, because it fits the definition perfectly: a generally accepted medium of exchange

I will focus on the last 3 worlds of this line, but first a silly example.  Suppose the Federal reserve prints up trillions of dollars worth of crisp, clean bills.  It packs them on trucks, ships them down to Cape Canarveral, loads them onto a shuttle and blasts them into space where it escapes the Earth's orbit and sails away into the cold, black emptiness of space.  Is this money?  It all looks, feels and matches the legal definition of money back on Earth, but how would it effect the prices of goods and services?  The obvious answer is that it wouldn't, and so the economic answer is that it isn't money.  What if the Fed printed that money, but then locked it in an underground vault and held it there never intending to use it?  Same answer, so when we talk about money part of the definition has to be about the accessibility of that money.  On to fractional reserve banking.

Adam takes $100 and deposits it in his bank, his bank says "come back anytime and get it", then lends $90 out to Bill who deposits that $90 into a different bank.  This bank also says "come back anytime and get it", and then promptly loans out $81 to Charles, and so on and so on.  If you take the sum total of everyone's bank account once the process has completed there would be $1,000 totaled across them.  This is where Warren Gibson gets the idea that the "money supply" must be $1,000, Tammy is a finance guy though, so he looks at the broader picture.  Every dollar created after the initial deposit is an asset and a liability.  When Adam's bank makes the $90 loan they create a $90 asset, but the also saddle themselves with a $90 deficit that they owe to Adam.  Back to accessibility.

Can $1,000 be withdrawn from the banking system and be spent?  No.  If Adam withdraws his $100, then his bank has to run to Bill and demand their $90 back (assuming all deposits and loans are callable at any time), Bill runs to his bank to withdraw the $90, who has to run to Charles to get the $81.  No matter how you slice it only $100 can be withdrawn from the system and then spent on goods and services, and there is no way to get the effect of $1,000 on goods and services.

This is exactly the effect that full reserve Austrians cite when they state that Fractional Reserve Banking is fraudulent, there is no way for all people in the line to effectively use their individual deposits.  If some guy in the middle of the chain withdraws his $50 to spend then that immediately prevents Adam from ever accessing his full $100, while also calling in every loan made beyond that $50 deposit.

As far as empirical (anecdotal!) evidence, I think it is on the side of Tamny.  Japan has a massive public debt, which has been building for a few decades now, the level of reserves held by the Japanese Central bank have exploded, and yet the only inflation seen in the immediate past was a short term blip when the sales tax increase went into effect.  If M1 is money, if government bonds paying near zero are also money (which flows from the same definition as Gibson tries to use) and if inflation is due to increases in the money supply, then you can't escape the prediction that Japan should be crumbling amid hyper inflation.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Inflation and UE in Japan

Two graphs presented by Scott Sumner

First Japanese GDP deflator

Quick eyeball description.  Inflation from 1981-1993, no inflation from 1994-1998, deflation from 1999-2013 and inflation from 2014-2015.

Japanese UE rate

Quick eyeball description.  Declining UE from 2005-2007, flat UE from 2007-2008, rising UE in 2009, declining UE from 2010-2015.

What is the correlation between inflation and the UE rate with the information given?  We have two periods of declining UE rates, both of which occur mostly under deflation, one period of rising UE, under deflation, and one period of inflation with declining UE (eyeballing looks like the same trend in decline that it had under the previous deflationary regime).

What happens if we take UE under the full range given to us by the GDP deflator graph?
Now we also have rising UE from 1981-1988 alongside inflation.  In a matrix of inflation, deflation, rising UE and falling UE there are 4 combinations (ignoring flat for both).  We see all 4 combinations over a 35 year period in these graphs.
Correlation between inflation and UE in Japan = none. 

What is Sumner's conclusion about Abenomics? 
I thought the monetary “arrow” would be a modest success, as they were on the right track but not doing enough.  In fact, so far the monetary arrow has been an overwhelming success, beyond almost anyone’s wildest dreams.
 Which leads to obvious questions: who gets credit for the drop in the UE rate from 2010-2012 (Abe's party wins an election in late 2012) under deflationary pressures?  Why is there no apparent change in the decline in UE rate after Abe is elected?  Or again after the CB started targeting 2% inflation?