Archive for the 'Jack Hirshleifer' Category

Susan Woodward Remembers Armen Alchian

Susan Woodward, a former colleague and co-author of the late great Armen Alchian, was kind enough to share with me an article of hers forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Corporate Finance dedicated to Alchian’s memory. I thank Susan and Harold Mulherin, co-editor of the Journal of Corporate Finance for allowing me to post this wonderful tribute to Alchian.

Memories of Armen

Susan Woodward

Sand Hill Econometrics

Armen Alchian approached economics with constructive eccentricity. An aspect became apparent long ago when I taught intermediate price theory, a two-quarter course. Jack Hirshleifer’s new text (Hirshleifer (1976)) was just out and his approach was the foundation of my own training, so that was an obvious choice. But also, Alchian and Allen’s University Economics (Alchian and Allen (1964)) had been usefully separated into parts, of which Exchange and Production: Competition, Coordination, and Control (Alchian and Allen (1977)), the “price theory” part, available in paperback. I used both books.

Somewhere in the second quarter we got to the topic of rent. Rent is such a difficult topic because it’s a word in everyone’s vocabulary but to which economists give a special, second meaning. To prepare a discussion, I looked up “rent” in the index of both texts. In Hirshleifer (1976), it appeared for the first time on some page like 417. In Alchian & Allen (1977), it appeared, say, on page 99, and page 102, and page 188, and pages 87-88, 336-338, and 364-365. It was peppered all through the book.

Hirshleifer approached price theory as geometry. Lay out the axioms, prove the theorems. And never introduce a new idea, especially one like “rent” that collides with standard usage, without a solid foundation. The Alchian approach is more exploratory. “Oh, here’s an idea. Let’s walk around the idea and see what it looks like from all sides. Let’s tip it over and see what’s under it and what kind of noise it makes. Let’s light a fire under it and just see what happens. Drop it ten stories.” The books were complements, not substitutes.

While this textbook story illustrates one aspect of Armen’s thinking, the big epiphanies came working on our joint papers. Unusual for students at UCLA in that era, I didn’t have Armen as a teacher. My first year, Armen was away, and Jack Hirshleifer taught the entire first year price theory. Entranced by the finance segment of that year, the lure of finance in business school was irresistible. But fortune did not abandon me.

I came back to UCLA to teach at the dawn of personal computers. Oh they were feeble! There was a little room on the eighth floor of Bunche Hall where there were three little Compaq computers—the ones with really tiny green-on-black screens. Portable, sort of, but not like a purse. Armen and I were regulars in this word processing cave. Armen would get bored and start a conversation by asking some profound question. I’d flounder a bit and tell him I didn’t know and go back to work. But one day he asked why corporations limit liability. Whew, something to say. It is not a risk story, but about facilitating transferable shares. Limit liability, then shareholders and contracting creditors can price possible recovery, and the wealth and resources of individual shareholder are then irrelevant. When liability tries to reach beyond the firm’s assets to those of individual shareholders, shareholder wealth matters to value, and this creates reasons for inhibiting share transfers. You can limit liability and still address concern about tort creditors by having the firm carrying insurance for torts.

Armen asked “How did you figure this out?” I said, “I don’t know.” “Have you written it down?” “No, it doesn’t seem important enough, it would only be two pages.” “Oh, no, of course it is!” He was right. What I wrote at Armen’s insistence, Woodward (1985), is now in two books of readings on the modern corporation, still in print, still on reading lists, and yes it was more than two pages. The paper by Bargeron and Lehn (2015) in this volume provides empirical confirmation about the impact of limited liability on share transferability. After our conversations about limited liability, Armen never again called me “Joanne,” as in the actress, Joanne Woodward, wife of Paul Newman.

This led to many more discussions about the organization of firms. I was dismayed by the seeming mysticism of “teamwork” as discussed in the old Alchian & Demsetz paper. Does it not all boil down to moral hazard and hold-up, both aspects of information costs, and the potential for the residual claimant to manage these? Armen came to agree and that this, too, was worth writing up. So we started writing. I scribbled down my thoughts. Armen read them and said, “Well, this is right, but it will make Harold (Demsetz) mad. We can’t say it that way. We’ll say it another way.” Armen saw it as his job to bring Harold around.

As we started working on this paper (Alchian and Woodward (1987)), I asked Armen, “What journal should we be thinking of?” Armen said “Oh, don’t worry about that, something will come along”. It went to Rolf Richter’s journal because Armen admired Rolf’s efforts to promote economic analysis of institutions. There are accounts of Armen pulling accepted papers from journals in order to put them into books of readings in honor of his friends, and these stories are true. No journal impressed Armen very much. He thought that if something was good, people would find it and read it.

Soon after the first paper was circulating, Orley Ashenfelter asked Armen to write a book review of Oliver Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (such a brilliant title!). I got enlisted for that project too (Alchian and Woodward (1988)). Armen began writing, but I went back to reread Institutions of Capitalism. Armen gave me what he had written, and I was baffled. “Armen, this stuff isn’t in Williamson.” He asked, “Well, did he get it wrong?” I said, “No, it’s not that he got it wrong. These issues just aren’t there at all. You attribute these ideas to him, but they really come from our other paper.” And he said “Oh, well, don’t worry about that. Some historian will sort it out later. It’s a good place to promote these ideas, and they’ll get the right story eventually.” So, dear reader, now you know.

This from someone who spent his life discussing the efficiencies of private property and property rights—to basically give ideas away in order to promote them? It was a good lesson. I was just starting my ten years in the federal government. In academia, thinkers try to establish property rights in ideas. “This is mine. I thought of this. You must cite me.” In government this is not a winning strategy. Instead, you need plant an idea, then convince others that it’s their idea so they will help you.

And it was sometimes Armen’s strategy in the academic world too. Only someone who was very confident would do this. Or someone who just cared more about promoting ideas he thought were right than he cared about getting credit for them. Or someone who did not have so much respect for the refereeing process. He was so cavalier!

Armen had no use for formal models that did not teach us to look somewhere new in the known world, nor had he any patience for findings that relied on fancy econometrics. What was Armen’s idea of econometrics? Merton Miller told me. We were chatting about limited liability. Merton asked about evidence. Well, all public firms with transferable shares now have limited liability. But in private, closely-held firms, loans nearly always explicitly specify which of the owner’s personal assets are pledged against bank loans. “How do you know?” “From conversations with bankers.” Merton said said, “Ah, this sounds like UCLA econometrics! You go to Armen Alchian and you ask, ‘Armen, is this number about right?’ And Armen says, ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ So you use that number.”

Why is Armen loved so much? It’s not just his contributions to our understanding because many great thinkers are hardly loved at all. Several things stand out. As noted above, Armen’s sense of what is important is very appealing. Ideas are important. Ideas are more important than being important. Don’t fuss over the small stuff or the small-minded stuff, just work on the ideas and get them right. Armen worked at inhibiting inefficient behavior, but never in an obvious way. He would be the first to agree that not all competition is efficient, and in particular that status competition is inefficient. Lunches and dinners with Armen never included conversations about who was getting tenure where or why various papers got in or did not get in to certain journals. He thought it just did not matter very much or deserve much attention.

Armen was intensely curious about the world and interested in things outside of himself. He was one of the least self-indulgent people that I have ever met. It cheered everybody up. Everyone was in a better mood for the often silly questions that Armen would ask about everything, such as, “Why do they use decorations in the sushi bar and not anywhere else? Is there some optimality story here?” Armen recognized his own limitations and was not afraid of them.

Armen’s views on inefficient behavior came out in an interesting way when we were working on the Williamson book review. What does the word “fair” mean? In the early 1970’s at UCLA, no one was very comfortable with “fair”. Many would even have said ‘fair’ has no meaning in economics. But then we got to pondering the car repair person in the desert (remember Los Angeles is next to a big desert), who is in a position to hold up unlucky motorists whose vehicles break down in a remote place. Why would the mechanic not hold up the motorist and charge a high price? The mechanic has the power. Information about occasional holdups would provoke inefficient avoidance of travel or taking ridiculous precautions. But from the individual perspective, why wouldn’t the mechanic engage in opportunistic behavior, on the spot? “Well,” Armen said, “probably he doesn’t do it because he was raised right.” Armen knew what “fair” meant, and was willing to take a stand on it being efficient.

For all his reputation as a conservative, Armen was very interested in Earl Thompson’s ideas about socially efficient institutions, and the useful constraints that collective action could and does impose on us. (see, for example, Thompson (1968, 1974).) He had more patience for Earl that any of Earl’s other senior colleagues except possibly Jim Buchanan. Earl could go on all evening and longer about the welfare cost of the status rat race, of militarism and how to discourage it, the brilliance of agricultural subsidies, how no one should listen to corrupt elites, and Armen would smile and nod and ponder.

Armen was a happy teacher. As others attest in this issue, he brought great energy, engagement, and generosity to the classroom. He might have been dressed for golf, but he gave students his complete attention. He especially enjoyed teaching the judges in Henry Manne’s Economics & Law program. One former pupil sought him out and at dinner, brought up the Apple v. Microsoft copyright dispute. He wanted to discuss the merits of the issues. Armen said oh no, simply get the thing over with ASAP. Armen said that he was a shareholder in both companies, and consequently did not care who won, but cared very much about what resources were squandered on the battle. Though the economics of this perspective was not novel (it was aired in Texaco v Pennzoil few years earlier), Armen provided in that conversation a view that neither side had an interest in promoting in court. The reaction was: Oh! Those who followed this case might have been puzzled at the subsequent proceeding in this dispute, but those who heard the conversation at dinner were not.

And Armen was a warm and sentimental person. When I moved to Washington, I left my roller skates in the extra bedroom where I slept when I visited Armen and Pauline. These were old-fashioned skates with two wheels in the front and two in the back, Riedell boots and kryptonite wheels, bought at Rip City Skates on Santa Monica Boulevard, (which is still there in 2015! I just looked it up, the proprietor knows all the empty swimming pools within 75 miles). I would take my skates down to the beach and skate from Santa Monica to Venice and back, then go buy some cinnamon rolls at the Pioneer bakery, and bring them back to Mar Vista and Armen and Pauline and I would eat them. Armen loved this ritual. Is she back yet? When I married Bob Hall and moved back to California, Armen did not want me to take the skates away. So I didn’t.

And here is a story Armen loved: Ron Batchelder was a student at UCLA who is also a great tennis player, a professional tennis player who had to be lured out of tennis and into economics, and who has written some fine economic history and more. He played tennis with Armen regularly for many years. On one occasion before dinner Armen said to Ron, “I played really well today.” Ron said, “Yes, you did; you played quite well today.” And Armen said, “But you know what? When I play better, you play better.” And Ron smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I said, “Ron, is it true?” He shrugged again and said, “Well, a long time ago, I learned to play the customer’s game.” And of course Armen just loved that line. He re-told that story many times.

Armen’s enthusiasm for that story is a reflection of his enthusiasm for life. It was a rare enthusiasm, an extraordinary enthusiasm. We all give him credit for it and we should, because it was an act of choice; it was an act of will, a gift to us all. Armen would have never said so, though, because he was raised right.


Alchian, Armen A., William R. Allen, 1964. University Economics. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA.

Alchian, Armen A., William R. Allen, 1977 Exchange and Production: Competition, Coordination, and Control. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA., 2nd edition.

Alchian, Armen A., Woodward, Susan, 1987. “Reflections on the theory of the firm.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics. 143, 110-136.

Alchian, Armen A., Woodward, Susan, 1988. “The firm is dead: Long live the firm: A review of Oliver E. Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism.” Journal of Economic Literature. 26, 65-79.

Bargeron, Leonce, Lehn, Kenneth, 2015. “Limited liability and share transferability: An analysis of California firms, 1920-1940.” Journal of Corporate Finance, this volume.

Hirshleifer, Jack, 1976. Price Theory and Applications. Prentice hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Thompson, Earl A., 1968. “The perfectly competitive production of public goods.” Review of Economics and Statistics. 50, 1-12.

Thompson, Earl A., 1974. “Taxation and national defense.” Journal of Political Economy. 82, 755-782.

Woodward, Susan E., 1985. “Limited liability in the theory of the firm.” Journal of Institutional and Theorectical Economics. 141, 601-611.

Repeat after Me: Inflation’s the Cure not the Disease

Last week Martin Feldstein triggered a fascinating four-way exchange with a post explaining yet again why we still need to be worried about inflation. Tony Yates responded first with an explanation of why money printing doesn’t work at the zero lower bound (aka liquidity trap), leading Paul Krugman to comment wearily about the obtuseness of all those right-wingers who just can’t stop obsessing about the non-existent inflation threat when, all along, it was crystal clear that in a liquidity trap, printing money is useless.

I’m still not sure why relatively moderate conservatives like Feldstein didn’t find all this convincing back in 2009. I get, I think, why politics might predispose them to see inflation risks everywhere, but this was as crystal-clear a proposition as I’ve ever seen. Still, even if you managed to convince yourself that the liquidity-trap analysis was wrong six years ago, by now you should surely have realized that Bernanke, Woodford, Eggertsson, and, yes, me got it right.

But no — it’s a complete puzzle. Maybe it’s because those tricksy Fed officials started paying all of 25 basis points on reserves (Japan never paid such interest). Anyway, inflation is just around the corner, the same way it has been all these years.

Which surprisingly (not least to Krugman) led Brad DeLong to rise to Feldstein’s defense (well, sort of), pointing out that there is a respectable argument to be made for why even if money printing is not immediately effective at the zero lower bound, it could still be effective down the road, so that the mere fact that inflation has been consistently below 2% since the crash (except for a short blip when oil prices spiked in 2011-12) doesn’t mean that inflation might not pick up quickly once inflation expectations pick up a bit, triggering an accelerating and self-sustaining inflation as all those hitherto idle balances start gushing into circulation.

That argument drew a slightly dyspeptic response from Krugman who again pointed out, as had Tony Yates, that at the zero lower bound, the demand for cash is virtually unlimited so that there is no tendency for monetary expansion to raise prices, as if DeLong did not already know that. For some reason, Krugman seems unwilling to accept the implication of the argument in his own 1998 paper that he cites frequently: that for an increase in the money stock to raise the price level – note that there is an implicit assumption that the real demand for money does not change – the increase must be expected to be permanent. (I also note that the argument had been made almost 20 years earlier by Jack Hirshleifer, in his Fisherian text on capital theory, Capital Interest and Investment.) Thus, on Krugman’s own analysis, the effect of an increase in the money stock is expectations-dependent. A change in monetary policy will be inflationary if it is expected to be inflationary, and it will not be inflationary if it is not expected to be inflationary. And Krugman even quotes himself on the point, referring to

my call for the Bank of Japan to “credibly promise to be irresponsible” — to make the expansion of the base permanent, by committing to a relatively high inflation target. That was the main point of my 1998 paper!

So the question whether the monetary expansion since 2008 will ever turn out to be inflationary depends not on an abstract argument about the shape of the LM curve, but about the evolution of inflation expectations over time. I’m not sure that I’m persuaded by DeLong’s backward induction argument – an argument that I like enough to have used myself on occasion while conceding that the logic may not hold in the real word – but there is no logical inconsistency between the backward-induction argument and Krugman’s credibility argument; they simply reflect different conjectures about the evolution of inflation expectations in a world in which there is uncertainty about what the future monetary policy of the central bank is going to be (in other words, a world like the one we inhabit).

Which brings me to the real point of this post: the problem with monetary policy since 2008 has been that the Fed has credibly adopted a 2% inflation target, a target that, it is generally understood, the Fed prefers to undershoot rather than overshoot. Thus, in operational terms, the actual goal is really less than 2%. As long as the inflation target credibly remains less than 2%, the argument about inflation risk is about the risk that the Fed will credibly revise its target upwards.

With the both Wickselian natural real and natural nominal short-term rates of interest probably below zero, it would have made sense to raise the inflation target to get the natural nominal short-term rate above zero. There were other reasons to raise the inflation target as well, e.g., providing debt relief to debtors, thereby benefitting not only debtors but also those creditors whose debtors simply defaulted.

Krugman takes it for granted that monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, but that impotence is not inherent; it is self-imposed by the credibility of the Fed’s own inflation target. To be sure, changing the inflation target is not a decision that we would want the Fed to take lightly, because it opens up some very tricky time-inconsistency problems. However, in a crisis, you may have to take a chance and hope that credibility can be restored by future responsible behavior once things get back to normal.

In this vein, I am reminded of the 1930 exchange between Hawtrey and Hugh Pattison Macmillan, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Industry, when Hawtrey, testifying before the Committee, suggested that the Bank of England reduce Bank Rate even at the risk of endangering the convertibility of sterling into gold (England eventually left the gold standard a little over a year later)

MACMILLAN. . . . the course you suggest would not have been consistent with what one may call orthodox Central Banking, would it?

HAWTREY. I do not know what orthodox Central Banking is.

MACMILLAN. . . . when gold ebbs away you must restrict credit as a general principle?

HAWTREY. . . . that kind of orthodoxy is like conventions at bridge; you have to break them when the circumstances call for it. I think that a gold reserve exists to be used. . . . Perhaps once in a century the time comes when you can use your gold reserve for the governing purpose, provided you have the courage to use practically all of it.

Of course the best evidence for the effectiveness of monetary policy at the zero lower bound was provided three years later, in April 1933, when FDR suspended the gold standard in the US, causing the dollar to depreciate against gold, triggering an immediate rise in US prices (wholesale prices rising 14% from April through July) and the fastest real recovery in US history (industrial output rising by over 50% over the same period). A recent paper by Andrew Jalil and Gisela Rua documents this amazing recovery from the depths of the Great Depression and the crucial role that changing inflation expectations played in stimulating the recovery. They also make a further important point: that by announcing a price level target, FDR both accelerated the recovery and prevented expectations of inflation from increasing without limit. The 1933 episode suggests that a sharp, but limited, increase in the price-level target would generate a faster and more powerful output response than an incremental increase in the inflation target. Unfortunately, after the 2008 downturn we got neither.

Maybe it’s too much to expect that an unelected central bank would take upon itself to adopt as a policy goal a substantial increase in the price level. Had the Fed announced such a goal after the 2008 crisis, it would have invited a potentially fatal attack, and not just from the usual right-wing suspects, on its institutional independence. Price stability, is after all, part of dual mandate that Fed is legally bound to pursue. And it was FDR, not the Fed, that took the US off the gold standard.

But even so, we at least ought to be clear that if monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, the impotence is not caused by any inherent weakness, but by the institutional and political constraints under which it operates in a constitutional system. And maybe there is no better argument for nominal GDP level targeting than that it offers a practical and civilly reverent way of allowing monetary policy to be effective at the zero lower bound.

Is Finance Parasitic?

We all know what a parasite is: an organism that attaches itself to another organism and derives nourishment from the host organism and in so doing weakens the host possibly making the host unviable and thereby undermining its own existence. Ayn Rand and her all too numerous acolytes were and remain obsessed with parasitism, considering every form of voluntary charity and especially government assistance to the poor and needy a form of parasitism whereby the undeserving weak live off of and sap the strength and the industry of their betters: the able, the productive, and the creative.

In earlier posts, I have observed that a lot of what the financial industry does is not really productive of net benefits to society, the gains of some coming at the expense of others. This insight was developed by Jack Hirshleifer in his classic 1971 paper “The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity.” Financial trading to a large extent involves nothing but the exchange of existing assets, real or financial, and the profit made by one trader is largely at the expense of the other party to the trade. Because the potential gain to one side of the transaction exceeds the net gain to society, there is a substantial incentive to devote resources to gaining any small, and transient informational advantage that can help a trader buy or sell at the right time, making a profit at the expense of another. The social benefit from these valuable, but minimal and transitory, informational advantages is far less than the value of the resources devoted to obtaining those informational advantages. Thus, much of what the financial sector is doing just drains resources from the rest of society, resource that could be put to far better and more productive use in other sectors of the economy.

So I was really interested to see Timothy Taylor’s recent blog post about Luigi Zingales’s Presidential Address to the American Finance Association in which Zingales, professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Business School, lectured his colleagues about taking a detached and objective position about the financial industry rather than acting as cheer-leaders for the industry, as, he believes, they have been all too inclined to do. Rather than discussing the incentive of the financial industry to over-invest in research in search of transient informational advantages that can be exploited, or to invest in billions in high-frequency trading cables to make transient informational advantages more readily exploitable, Zingales mentions a number of other ways that the finance industry uses information advantages to profit at expense of the rest of society.

A couple of xamples from Zingales.

Financial innovations. Every new product introduced by the financial industry is better understood by the supplier than the customer or client. How many clients or customers have been warned about the latent defects or risks in the products or instruments that they are buying? The doctrine of caveat emptor almost always applies, especially because the customers and clients are often considered to be informed and sophisticated. Informed and sophisticated? Perhaps, but that still doesn’t mean that there is no information asymmetry between such customers and the financial institution that creates financial innovations with the specific intent of exploiting the resulting informational advantage it gains over its clients.

As Zingales points out, we understand that doctors often exploit the informational asymmetry that they enjoy over their patients by overtreating, overmedicating, and overtesting their patients. They do so, notwithstanding the ethical obligations that they have sworn to observe when they become doctors. Are we to assume that the bankers and investment bankers and their cohorts in the financial industry, who have not sworn to uphold even minimal ethical standards, are any less inclined than doctors to exploit informational asymmetries that are no less extreme than those that exist between doctors and patients?

Another example. Payday loans are a routine part of life for many low-income people who live from paycheck to paycheck, and are in constant danger of being drawn into a downward spiral of overindebtedness, rising interest costs and financial ruin. Zingales points out that the ruinous effects of payday loans might be mitigated if borrowers chose installment loans instead of loans due in full at maturity. Unsophisticated borrowers seems to prefer single-repayment loans even though such loans in practice are more likely to lead to disaster than installment loans. Because total interest paid is greater under single payment loans, the payday-loan industry resists legislation requiring that payday loans be installment loans. Such legislation has been enacted in Colorado with favorable results. Zingales sums up the results of recent research about payday loans.

Given such a drastic reduction in fees paid to lenders, it is entirely relevant to consider what happened to the payday lending supply In fact, supply of loans increased. The explanation relies upon the elimination of two inefficiencies. First, less bankruptcies. Second, the reduction of excessive entry in the sector. Half of Colorado’s stores closed in the three years following the reform, but each remaining stores served 80 percent more customers, with no evidence of a reduced access to funds. This result is consistent with Avery and Samolyk (2010), who find that states with no rate limits tend to have more payday loan stores per capita. In other words, when payday lenders can charge very high rates, too many lenders enter the sector, reducing the profitability of each one of them. Similar to the real estate brokers, in the presence of free entry, the possibility of charging abnormal profit margins lead to too many firms in the industry, each operating below the optimal scale (Flannery and Samolyk, 2007), and thus making only normal profits. Interestingly, the efficient outcome cannot be achieved without mandatory regulation. Customers who are charged the very high rates do not fully appreciate that the cost is higher than if they were in a loan product which does not induce the spiral of unnecessary loan float and thus higher default. In the presence of this distortion, lenders find the opportunity to charge very high fees to be irresistible, a form of catering products to profit from cognitive limitations of the customers (Campbell, 2006). Hence, the payday loan industry has excessive entry and firms operating below the efficient scale. Competition alone will not fix the problem, in fact it might make it worse, because payday lenders will compete in finding more sophisticated ways to charge very high fees to naïve customers, exacerbating both the over-borrowing and the excessive entry. Competition works only if we restrict the dimension in which competition takes place: if unsecured lending to lower income people can take place only in the form of installment loans, competition will lower the cost of these loans.

One more example of my own. A favorite tactic of the credit-card industry is to offer customers zero-interest rate loans on transferred balances. Now you might think that banks were competing hard to drive down the excessive cost of borrowing incurred by many credit card holders for whom borrowing via their credit card is their best way of obtaining unsecured credit. But you would be wrong. Credit-card issuers offer the zero-interest loans because, a) they typically charge a 3 or 4 percent service charge off the top, and b) then include a $35 penalty for a late payment, and then c), under the fine print of the loan agreement, terminate the promotional rate on the transferred balance, increasing the interest rate on the transferred balance to some exorbitant level in the range of 20 to 30 percent. Most customers, especially if they haven’t tried a balance-transfer before, will not even read the fine print to know that a single late payment will result in a penalty and loss of the promotional rate. But even if they are aware of the fine print, they will almost certainly underestimate the likelihood that they will sooner or later miss an installment-payment deadline. I don’t know whether any studies have looked into the profitability of promotional rates for credit card issuers, but I suspect, given how widespread such offers are, that they are very profitable for credit-card issuers. Information asymmetry strikes again.

Forget the Monetary Base and Just Pay Attention to the Price Level

Kudos to David Beckworth for eliciting a welcome concession or clarification from Paul Krugman that monetary policy is not necessarily ineffectual at the zero lower bound. The clarification is welcome because Krugman and Simon Wren Lewis seemed to be making a big deal about insisting that monetary policy at the zero lower bound is useless if it affects only the current, but not the future, money supply, and touting the discovery as if it were a point that was not already well understood.

Now it’s true that Krugman is entitled to take credit for having come up with an elegant way of showing the difference between a permanent and a temporary increase in the monetary base, but it’s a point that, WADR, was understood even before Krugman. See, for example, the discussion in chapter 5 of Jack Hirshleifer’s textbook on capital theory (published in 1970), Investment, Interest and Capital, showing that the Fisher equation follows straightforwardly in an intertemporal equilibrium model, so that the nominal interest rate can be decomposed into a real component and an expected-inflation component. If holding money is costless, then the nominal rate of interest cannot be negative, and expected deflation cannot exceed the equilibrium real rate of interest. This implies that, at the zero lower bound, the current price level cannot be raised without raising the future price level proportionately. That is all Krugman was saying in asserting that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero lower bound, even though he couched the analysis in terms of the current and future money supplies rather than in terms of the current and future price levels. But the entire argument is implicit in the Fisher equation. And contrary to Krugman, the IS-LM model (with which I am certainly willing to coexist) offers no unique insight into this proposition; it would be remarkable if it did, because the IS-LM model in essence is a static model that has to be re-engineered to be used in an intertemporal setting.

Here is how Hirshleifer concludes his discussion:

The simple two-period model of choice between dated consumptive goods and dated real liquidities has been shown to be sufficiently comprehensive as to display both the quantity theorists’ and the Keynesian theorists’ predicted results consequent upon “changes in the money supply.” The seeming contradiction is resolved by noting that one result or the other follows, or possibly some mixture of the two, depending upon the precise meaning of the phrase “changes in the quantity of money.” More exactly, the result follows from the assumption made about changes in the time-distributed endowments of money and consumption goods.  pp. 150-51

Another passage from Hirshleifer is also worth quoting:

Imagine a financial “panic.” Current money is very scarce relative to future money – and so monetary interest rates are very high. The monetary authorities might then provide an increment [to the money stock] while announcing that an equal aggregate amount of money would be retired at some date thereafter. Such a change making current money relatively more plentiful (or less scarce) than before in comparison with future money, would clearly tend to reduce the monetary rate of interest. (p. 149)

In this passage Hirshleifer accurately describes the objective of Fed policy since the crisis: provide as much liquidity as needed to prevent a panic, but without even trying to generate a substantial increase in aggregate demand by increasing inflation or expected inflation. The refusal to increase aggregate demand was implicit in the Fed’s refusal to increase its inflation target.

However, I do want to make explicit a point of disagreement between me and Hirshleifer, Krugman and Beckworth. The point is more conceptual than analytical, by which I mean that although the analysis of monetary policy can formally be carried out either in terms of current and future money supplies, as Hirshleifer, Krugman and Beckworth do, or in terms of price levels, as I prefer to do so in terms of price levels. For one thing, reasoning in terms of price levels immediately puts you in the framework of the Fisher equation, while thinking in terms of current and future money supplies puts you in the framework of the quantity theory, which I always prefer to avoid.

The problem with the quantity theory framework is that it assumes that quantity of money is a policy variable over which a monetary authority can exercise effective control, a mistake — imprinted in our economic intuition by two or three centuries of quantity-theorizing, regrettably reinforced in the second-half of the twentieth century by the preposterous theoretical detour of monomaniacal Friedmanian Monetarism, as if there were no such thing as an identification problem. Thus, to analyze monetary policy by doing thought experiments that change the quantity of money is likely to mislead or confuse.

I can’t think of an effective monetary policy that was ever implemented by targeting a monetary aggregate. The optimal time path of a monetary aggregate can never be specified in advance, so that trying to target any monetary aggregate will inevitably fail, thereby undermining the credibility of the monetary authority. Effective monetary policies have instead tried to target some nominal price while allowing monetary aggregates to adjust automatically given that price. Sometimes the price being targeted has been the conversion price of money into a real asset, as was the case under the gold standard, or an exchange rate between one currency and another, as the Swiss National Bank is now doing with the franc/euro exchange rate. Monetary policies aimed at stabilizing a single price are easy to implement and can therefore be highly credible, but they are vulnerable to sudden changes with highly deflationary or inflationary implications. Nineteenth century bimetallism was an attempt to avoid or at least mitigate such risks. We now prefer inflation targeting, but we have learned (or at least we should have) from the Fed’s focus on inflation in 2008 that inflation targeting can also lead to disastrous consequences.

I emphasize the distinction between targeting monetary aggregates and targeting the price level, because David Beckworth in his post is so focused on showing 1) that the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet under QE has been temoprary and 2) that to have been effective in raising aggregate demand at the zero lower bound, the increase in the monetary base needed to be permanent. And I say: both of the facts cited by David are implied by the fact that the Fed did not raise its inflation target or, preferably, replace its inflation target with a sufficiently high price-level target. With a higher inflation target or a suitable price-level target, the monetary base would have taken care of itself.

PS If your name is Scott Sumner, you have my permission to insert “NGDP” wherever “price level” appears in this post.

The Real Problem with High-Frequency Trading

Everybody seems to be talking about Michael Lewis’s new book (Flash Boys), which has been featured on 60 Minutes and reviewed twice by the New York Times. The book is about something called high-frequency trading, which, I will admit, with some, but not too much, embarrassment, I know almost nothing about. Actually, the first time I heard of the existence of high-frequency trading was from a commenter on a post I wrote almost two years ago, about which I will have something more to say in a moment. Michael Lewis’s book is a polemic against high-frequency trading, alleging that it enables high-frequency traders to rig the stock market and exploit ordinary traders. Lewis makes his case by telling the story of a group of hedge-funds that have banded together to create an alternative trading platform IEX, thereby avoiding contact with the high-frequency platforms, which, according to Lewis and the heroes of his tale, is exploiting everyone else on the stock market.

Lots of other people have weighed in on both sides, some defending high-frequency trading against Lewis’s accusations, pointing out that high-frequency trading has added liquidity to the market and reduced bid-ask spreads, so that ordinary investors are made better off, not worse off, as Lewis charges, and others backing him up. Still others argue that any problems with high-frequency trading are caused by regulators, not by high-speed trading as such.

I think all of this misses the point. Lots of investors are indeed benefiting from the reduced bid-ask spreads resulting from low-cost high-frequency trading. Does that mean that high-frequency trading is a good thing? Um, not necessarily.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s go back to the earlier post I just mentioned. I called it “Soak the Rich?” Here’s what I said then, discussing research by Edward Saez suggesting that marginal tax rates could be increased without reducing economic growth, an idea that, to many economists, including moi, seems counterintuitive.

Is there any way of explaining why raising top marginal rates to very high levels would not cause a loss of real income? Here’s an idea. The era of low marginal tax rates in the US has been associated with a huge expansion in the US financial sector. . . . What has been the social payoff to this expansion of finance? I am not so sure. Over a century ago, Thorstein Veblen wrote his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, followed some years later by his essay “The Engineers and the Price System.” He distinguished between engineers who actually make things that people use and financiers who simply make investments on behalf of the leisure class, adding no value to society. This was a vulgar distinction, premised on the unwarranted assumption that finance is unproductive simply because it generates no tangible physical product. On that criterion, Veblen would have ranked pretty low as a contributor to social welfare. Mainstream economists felt pretty comfortable dismissing Veblen because he was presuming that only physical stuff can be valuable.

However in 1971, Jack Hirshleifer, one of my great teachers at UCLA, wrote a classic article “The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity.” The great insight of that article is that the private value of information, say, about what the weather will be tomorrow, is greater than its value to society. The reason is that if I know that it will rain tomorrow, I can go out today and buy lots of cheap umbrellas (suppose I live in Dallas during a drought), and then sell them all tomorrow at a much higher price than I paid for them. The example does not depend on my having a monopoly in umbrellas; I sell every umbrella that I have at the rainy-day market price for umbrellas instead of the sunny-day price. The gain to me from getting that information exceeds the gain to society, because part of my gain comes at the expense of everyone who sold me an umbrella at the sunny-day price but would not have sold to me yesterday had they known that it would rain today.

Our current overblown financial sector is largely built on people hunting, scrounging, doing whatever they possibly can, to obtain any scrap of useful information — useful, that is for anticipating a price movement that can be traded on. But the net value to society from all the resources expended on that feverish, obsessive, compulsive, all-consuming search for information is close to zero (not exactly zero, but close to zero), because the gains from obtaining slightly better information are mainly obtained at some other trader’s expense. There is a net gain to society from faster adjustment of prices to their equilibrium levels, and there is a gain from the increased market liquidity resulting from increased trading generated by the acquisition of new information. But those gains are second-order compared to gains that merely reflect someone else’s losses. That’s why there is clearly overinvestment — perhaps massive overinvestment — in the mad quest for information.

So I am inclined to conjecture that over the last 30 years, reductions in top marginal tax rates may have provided a huge incentive to expand the financial services industry. The increasing importance of finance also seems to have been a significant factor in the increasing inequality in income distribution observed over the same period. But the net gain to society from an expanding financial sector has been minimal, resources devoted to finance being resources denied to activities that produce positive net returns to society. So if my conjecture is right — and I am not at all confident that it is, but if it is – then raising marginal tax rates could actually increase economic growth by inducing the financial sector and its evil twin the gaming sector — to release resources now being employed without generating any net social benefit.

And here is one of the comments I received to my post.

An example in your favor: the construction of a more direct fiber cable from NYC to Chicago in order to save 20-30 microseconds for HFTs for around $300mm and talk of a similar venture from London (Europe) to Tokyo for five times that amount. I am sure there are sound business reasons for the construction and use of such networks but on a society level a definition of insanity?

So there you have it, high-frequency trading is a new way for traders to exploit — before their competitors can — any slight and fleeting information advantage that they have expended so much effort and so many resources to acquire. In other words, with the opportunity to engage in high-frequency trading, the incentive to search for, and uncover, slight and fleeting information advantages is growing ever larger, and the waste of valuable resources in the quest for such advantages is increasing parri passu.

Felix Salmon nails this point in his review of Flash Boys, observing that Michael Lewis writes his book as a tale of good guys versus bad guys. It’s true the interests of his protagonists and antagonists are diametrically opposed. But his notion, that one side is somehow better than the other, is simply asserted without proof or evidence.

You never know which side Lewis is going to pick in his books. In The Big Short, for instance, he sided with, of all people, the hedge funds who helped destroy the world by making multibillion-dollar bets against the U.S. economy in the highly complex world of mortgage-bond derivatives. And now, in Flash Boys, he sides with a small group of stock traders, funded by some of New York’s most notorious hedge fund billionaires, who have created their own private stock exchange, IEX. Truth be told, the IEX guys are a lot more sympathetic than the guys shorting mortgages. But by creating an oppositional narrative of what he explicitly describes as “good guys and bad guys,” Lewis runs the risk of turning a highly complex issue into an unhelpfully simplistic morality tale.

What Lewis has done is to find a group of traders who find that their attempts to trade on their information advantages are being stymied by the trading strategies devised by high-frequency traders. Lewis’s guys are certainly aggrieved. But just because they have a grievance does not make them any more admirable than the high-frequency traders. Vladimir Putin has lots of grievances, too, but those grievances don’t justify his actions or his arguments. Both sides are engaged in an essentially zero-sum battle for trivial informational advantage that they can exploit at the expense of informationally disadvantaged professional traders. (All traders are sometimes informationally disadvantaged. Their goal is to be informationally advantaged often enough to turn a profit.) Lewis, channeling the story of his IEX heroes, attempts to paint “average investors” as the victims. but Salmon effectively punctures that self-serving pretense.

“[Lewis] interviews a righteous avenger by the name of John Schwall, an IEX employee with justice on his mind:

“As soon as you realize that you are not able to execute your orders because someone else is able to identify what you are trying to do and race ahead of you to the other exchanges, it’s over,” he said. “It changes your mind.” He stewed on the situation; the longer he stewed, the angrier he became. “It really just pissed me off,” he said. “That people set out in this way to make money from everyone else’s retirement account. I knew who was being screwed, people like my mom and pop, and I became hell-bent on figuring out who was doing the screwing.”

Schwall tells Lewis that HFT is “ripping off the retirement savings of the entire country through systematic fraud,” and Lewis just allows the quote to sit there, damningly, even if he would never come out and put it that way himself. After all, the fact of the matter is that of all the various actors screwing your mom and pop out of the money in their retirement account, high-frequency traders are at the very bottom of the list. If, that is, they’re on the list at all.

If your mom has a brokerage account, or a mutual fund manager, or generally entrusts her retirement savings to any kind of intermediary, then the fees charged by her broker or fund manager will dwarf any profits being skimmed from her by HFT. And if your pop invests in the market himself—if he’s among those people with a TD Ameritrade or E-Trade or Schwab account, the “easy kill” for the high-frequency algorithms, then, in reality, he is the one big winner of the high-frequency game.

Of course, the stock market is a game with winners and losers: Every time one person is buying, another person is selling. If you sell before a stock goes up, you’re a loser, but if you sell before it goes down, you’re a winner. And if you’re making your own decisions of what to buy and sell, and at exactly what price, then there is no room to blame anybody but yourself if you make bad decisions. The trading fees and the stock prices, for individual investors, are all completely transparent.

If you’re a big investor, that’s not the case. Brad Katsuyama, when he was at Royal Bank of Canada, would see thousands of shares available for sale at a certain price—but when he tried to buy them, they would suddenly disappear, and he would be forced to pay more. That was the high-frequency traders, front-running his order.

Retail investors don’t run into this problem. If they see a stock available for $50.00, they can buy it at $50.00—not $50.01 or anything higher. They get exactly what they want, at exactly the price they want, which is also the best price in the market, and they get it immediately, in a way that makes big investors rather jealous. . . .

If your mom or your pop buys or sells a stock, that order will almost certainly never make its way to any stock exchange: It will be filled by a high-frequency trading shop that is happy to pay good money for the privilege of doing so. The high-frequency traders do make money from the retail investors—but mainly they do so the old-fashioned way, just by being on the right side of the trade.

If an HFT shop simply fills every single retail order at the best price in the market, then over the course of a day, and certainly over the course of a year, it will make a decent profit. Retail investors, in aggregate, are dumb money: If you take the opposite side of their trades, you’re going to do just fine. Especially when you also buy stock off them for a penny or two less than you will sell the same stock to them. That’s called NBBO—the national best bid/offer—and it simply reflects the fact that there’s always a small gap between the highest price that someone is willing to buy, and the lowest price that someone is willing to sell.

That’s why HFTs love to give retail investors what they want: It turns out that retail investors are very good at making very bad decisions all on their own. What’s more, if you’re an HFT seeing what retail is doing at any given moment, you can use that information to inform your stock-market trades elsewhere. So mom and pop end up making you a lot of money, without your ripping them off in the slightest.

So what we have here is a war between professional traders, the practitioners of l’haute finance. The rest of us are merely bystanders in their battle, with no particular reason to consider one side or the other as representing justice, fairness, or the common good. On the contrary, their perpetual battle for new and better mechanisms for gaining temporary informational advantage make the rest of us worse off, possibly because they are causing greater volatility in them market, though that is a suggestion made by Salmon for which there is no conclusive evidence, but by diverting productive resources into socially unproductive zero-sum activities, using valuable physical and human capital to produce temporary informational advantages with little, if any, net social value, being merely the instrumentality by which to extract wealth from others who are informationally disadvantaged.

I am not a fan of Thorstein Veblens; his celebration of engineering over finance at least partly reflected a crude misunderstanding of the operation of the price system and a failure to grasp the difference between engineering efficiency and economic efficiency. But lurking in his diatribes, there may have been some inkling that much of what financiers do is a waste of real resources in a battle over the surplus generated by the real economy. It is depressing to reflect on the fact that when more than a century ago Veblen was complaining that financiers, though less productive, were more highly remunerated than engineers, the engineers were still out there designing bridges, and railroads, and other wonders of late nineteenth and early twentieth century technology, while, now in the twenty-first century, the engineers are actually employed by the financiers to design complex high-frequency trading systems, connecting New York and Chicago with fiber-optic cable to speed up trading by fractions of a second, and designing complicated software to implement trading strategies designed to exploit socially useless informational advantages. Does that sound like progress?

Falling Real Interest Rates, Winner-Take-All Markets, and Lance Armstrong

In my previous post, I suggested that real interest rates are largely determined by expectations, entrepreneurial expectations of profit and household expectations of future income. Increased entrepreneurial optimism implies that entrepreneurs are revising upwards the anticipated net cash flows from the current stock of capital assets, in other words an increasing demand for capital assets. Because the stock of capital assets doesn’t change much in the short run, an increased demand for those assets tends, in the short run, to raise real interest rates as people switch from fixed income assets (bonds) into the real assets associated with increased expected net cash flows. Increased optimism by households about their future income prospects implies that their demand for long-lived assets, real or financial, tends to decline as household devote an increased share of current income to present consumption and less to saving for future consumption, because an increase in future income reduces the amount of current savings needed to achieve a given level of future consumption. The more optimistic I am about my future income, the less I will save in the present. If I win the lottery, I will start spending even before I collect my winnings. The reduced household demand for long-lived assets with which to provide for future consumption reduces the value of such assets, implying, for given expectations of their future yields, an increased real interest rate.

This is the appropriate neoclassical (Fisherian) framework within which to think about the determination of real interest rates. The Fisherian theory may not be right, but I don’t think that we have another theory of comparable analytical power and elegance. Other theories are just ad hoc, and lack the aesthetic appeal of the Fisherian theory. Alas, the world is a messy place, and we have no guarantee that the elegant theory will always win out. Truth and beauty need not the same. (Sigh!)

Commenting on my previous post, Joshua Wojnilower characterized my explanation as “a combination of a Keynesian-demand side story in the first paragraph and an Austrian/Lachmann subjective expectations view in the second section.” I agree that Keynes emphasized the importance of changes in the state of entrepreneurial expectations in causing shifts in the marginal efficiency of capital, and that Austrian theory is notable for its single-minded emphasis on the subjectivity of expectations. But these ideas are encompassed by the Fisherian neoclassical paradigm, entrepreneurial expectations about profits determining the relevant slope of the production possibility curve embodying opportunities for the current and future production of consumption goods on the one hand, and household expectations about future income determining the slope of household indifference curves reflecting their willingness to exchange current for future consumption. So it’s all in Fisher.

Thus, as I observed, falling real interest rates could be explained, under the Fisherian theory, by deteriorating entrepreneurial expectations, or by worsening household expectations about future income (employment). In my previous post, I suggested that, at least since the 2007-09 downturn, entrepreneurial profit expectations have been declining along with the income (employment) expectations of households. However, I am reluctant to suggest that this trend of expectational pessimism started before the 2007-09 downturn. One commenter, Diego Espinosa, offered some good reasons to think that since 2009 entrepreneurial expectations have been improving, so that falling real interest rates must be attributed to monetary policy. Although I find it implausible that entrepreneurial expectations have recovered (at least fully) since the 2007-09 downturn, I take Diego’s points seriously, and I am going to try to think through his arguments carefully, and perhaps respond further in a future post.

I also suggested in my previous post that there might be other reasons why real interest rates have been falling, which brings me to the point of this post. By way of disclaimer, I would say that what follows is purely speculative, and I raise it only because the idea seems interesting and worth thinking about, not because I am convinced that it is empirically significant in causing real interest rates to decline over the past two or three decades.

Almost ten months ago, I discussed the basic idea in a post in which I speculated about why there is no evidence of a strong correlation between reductions in marginal income tax rates and economic growth, notwithstanding the seemingly powerful theoretical argument for such a correlation. Relying on Jack Hirshleifer’s important distinction between the social and private value of information, I argued that insofar as reduced marginal tax rates contributed to an expansion of the financial sector of the economy, reduced marginal tax rates may have retarded, rather than spurred, growth.  The problem with the financial sector is that the resources employed in that sector, especially resources devoted to trading, are socially wasted, the profits accruing to trading reflecting not net additions to output, but losses incurred by other traders. In their quest for such gains, trading establishments incur huge expenses with a view to obtaining information advantages by which profits can be extracted as a result of trading with the informationally disadvantaged.

But financial trading is not the only socially wasteful activity that attracted vast amounts of resources from other (socially productive) activities, i.e., making and delivering real goods and services valued by consumers. There’s a whole set of markets that fall under the heading of winner-take-all markets. There are some who attribute increasing income inequality to the recent proliferation of winner-take-all markets. What distinguishes these markets is that, as the name implies, rewards in these markets are very much skewed to the most successful participants. Participants compete for a reward, and rewards are distributed very unevenly, small differences in performance implying very large differences in reward. Because the payoff at the margin to an incremental improvement in performance is so large, the incentives to devote resources to improve performance are inefficiently exaggerated. Because of the gap between the large private return and the near-zero social return from improved performance, far too much effort and resources is wasted on achieving minor gains in performance. Lance Armstrong is but one of the unpleasant outcomes of a winner-take-all market.

It is also worth noting that competition in winner-take-all markets is far from benign. Sports leagues, which are classic examples of winner-take-all markets, operate on the premise that competition must be controlled, not just to prevent match-ups from being too lopsided, but to keep unrestricted competition from driving up costs to uneconomic levels. At one time, major league baseball had a reserve clause. The reserve clause exists no longer, but salary caps and other methods of controlling competition were needed to replace it. The main, albeit covert, function of the NCAA is to suppress competition for college athletes that would render college football and college basketball unprofitable if it were uncontrolled, with player salaries determined by supply and demand.

So if the share of economic activity taking place in winner-take-all markets has increased, the waste of resources associated with such markets has likely been increasing as well. Because of the distortion in the pricing of resources employed in winner-take-all markets, those resources typically receiving more than their net social product, employers in non-winner-take-all markets must pay an inefficient premium to employ those overpaid resources. These considerations suggest that the return on investment in non-winner-take-all markets may also be depressed because of such pricing distortions. But I am not sure that this static distortion has a straightforward implication about the trend of real interest rates over time.

A more straightforward connection between falling real interest rates and the increase in share of resources employed in winner-take-all markets might be that winner-take-all markets (e.g., most of the financial sector) are somehow diverting those most likely to innovate and generate new productive ideas into socially wasteful activities. That hypothesis certainly seems to accord with the oft-heard observation that, until recently at any rate, a disproportionate share of the best and brightest graduates of elite institutions of higher learning have been finding employment on Wall Street and in hedge funds. If so, the rate of technological advance in the productive sector of the economy would have been less rapid than the rate of advance in the unproductive sector of the economy. Somehow that doesn’t seem like a recipe for increasing the rate of economic growth and might even account for declining real interest rates. Something to think about as you watch the Lance Armstrong interview tomorrow night.

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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