Illuminating GDP

Satellites are great. It is hard to imagine living without them. GPS navigation is just the tip of the iceberg. Taking advantage of the immense amounts of information collected over decades, scientists have been using satellite imagery to study a broad array of questions, ranging from agricultural land use to the impact of climate change to the geographic constraints on cities (see here for a recent survey).

One of the most well-known economic applications of satellite imagery is to use night-time illumination to enhance the accuracy of various reported measures of economic activity. For example, national statisticians in countries with poor information collection systems can employ information from satellites to improve the quality of their nationwide economic data (see here). Even where governments have relatively high-quality statistics at a national level, it remains difficult and costly to determine local or regional levels of activity. For example, while production may occur in one jurisdiction, the income generated may be reported in another. At a sufficiently high resolution, satellite tracking of night-time light emissions can help address this question (see here).

But satellite imagery is not just an additional source of information on economic activity, it is also a neutral one that is less prone to manipulation than standard accounting data. This makes it is possible to use information on night-time light to monitor the accuracy of official statistics. And, as we suggest later, the willingness of observers to apply a “satellite correction” could nudge countries to improve their own data reporting systems in line with recognized international standards….

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What Should the Fed Own?

The Federal Reserve began to consider just how far its balance sheet consolidation should go well before the tapering actually began nearly a year ago. Earlier staff analyses pointed to a gradual runoff of long-term debt that could take years to reduce Fed assets to a new long-run equilibrium. More recently, market observers have speculated about an early end to consolidation that would result in a higher steady-state level.

Yet, as a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights, policymakers and analysts have devoted less attention to the mix of assets that the Fed should select once the balance sheet shrinks to its long-run equilibrium and policymakers allow it to expand slowly—say, in line with the increase of demand for currency.

In this post, we argue that the Fed should aim in normal times—when the economy is expanding and absent any financial strains—for a portfolio that has minimal liquidity, maturity and credit risk. In practical terms, this means that their portfolio should be composed largely of Treasury bills and short-term notes, with an average maturity that is very short….

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Financial Crisis: The Endgame

Ten years ago this month, the run on Lehman Brothers kicked off the third and final phase of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009. In two earlier posts (here and here), we describe the prior phases of the crisis. The first began on August 9, 2007, when BNP Paribas suspended redemptions from three mutual funds invested in U.S. subprime debt, kicking off a global scramble for safe, liquid assets. And the second started seven months later when, in response to the March 2008 run on Bear Stearns, the Fed provided liquidity directly to nonbanks for the first time since the Great Depression, completing its crisis-driven evolution into an effective lender of last resort to solvent, but illiquid intermediaries.

The most intense period of the crisis began with the failure of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. Credit dried up; not just uncollateralized lending, but short-term lending backed by investment-grade collateral as well. In mid-September, measures of financial stress spiked far above levels seen before or since (see here and here). And, the spillover to the real economy was rapid and dramatic, with the U.S. economy plunging that autumn at the fastest pace since quarterly reporting began in 1947.

In our view, three, interrelated policy responses proved critical in arresting the crisis and promoting recovery. First was the Fed’s aggressive monetary stimulus: after Lehman, within its mandate, the Fed did “whatever it took” to end the crisis. Second was the use of taxpayer resources—authorized by Congress—to recapitalize the U.S. financial system. And third, was the exceptional disclosure mechanism introduced by the Federal Reserve in early 2009—the first round of macroprudential stress tests known as the Supervisory Capital Assessment Program (SCAP)—that neutralized the worst fears about U.S. banks.

In this post, we begin with a bit of background, highlighting the aggregate capital shortfall of the U.S. financial system as the source of the crisis. We then turn to the policy response. Because we have discussed unconventional monetary policy in some detail in previous posts (here and here), our focus here is on the stress tests (combined with recapitalization) as a central means for restoring confidence in the financial system….

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Sources of Finance: Internal versus External

It ought not be surprising that borrowing can be difficult. In good times, households usually can obtain financing to purchase a house or car. But these loans are secured with collateral that is easy to resell. Even so, some measures suggest that it is currently more difficult than under “normal” conditions to obtain mortgage finance (see the Urban Institute’s Housing Credit Availability Index on page 16).

With firms, credit has been rising significantly in recent years—across advanced and emerging economies alike (see the BIS measures through 2017 here). Yet, commercial borrowers, especially small and medium sized enterprises, complain loudly when they feel that their ability to succeed is being hampered by overly cautious lenders. And, since lenders often find it difficult to both assess a business’s prospects and to monitor effort once a loan is made, aside from periods of euphoria borrowing can be quite difficult.

As we discuss in our primers on adverse selection and moral hazard, information asymmetries make external funding—either through equity or debt—expensive. And, while the entire financial system is designed to reduce these costs, they are still quite high….

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Trump v. Fed

Last month, interrupting decades of presidential self-restraint, President Trump openly criticized the Federal Reserve. Given the President’s penchant for dismissing valuable institutions, it is hard to be surprised. Perhaps more surprising is the high quality of his appointments to the Board of Governors. Against that background, the limited financial market reaction to the President’s comments suggests that investors are reasonably focused on the selection of qualified academics and individuals with valuable policy and business experience, rather than a few early-morning words of reproof.

Nevertheless, the President’s comments are seriously disturbing and—were they to become routine—risk undermining the significant benefits that Federal Reserve independence brings. Importantly, the criticism occurred despite sustained strength in the economy and financial markets, and despite the stimulative monetary and fiscal policies in place….

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GDP: One size no longer fits all

Even the most casual reader of financial and economic news knows that the speed of economic growth matters. Businesses―manufacturers, service providers, and retailers, among others―need to know so that they can decide how much to invest in new production facilities, how many people to employ, and what to stock on their shelves. Fiscal policymakers need to know so that they can estimate government revenue and expenditure. And monetary policymakers need to know so that they can adjust their policies in an effort to ensure low, stable inflation and strong, stable, and balance growth.

But, does it make sense for all of these people―firms, households and governments―to focus on fresh estimates of GDP? How much attention should we pay to any new number? That is, when the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) announces that their initial estimate of growth for the quarter just ended is 2% or 3% or (as it was last week) 4%, what should we think?

While GDP was once a key cyclical indicator, its value has declined substantially. In this post, we highlight three reasons: timeliness, seasonal adjustment and revisions. Not surprisingly, in the era of big data, those who need information on growth are increasingly turning to more timely indicators customized to their needs….

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Bank Capital and Stress Tests: The Foundation of a Thriving Economy

We submitted this statement to the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit of the Committee on Financial Services of the U.S. House of Representatives for its hearing on July 17, 2018.

We appreciate the opportunity to submit the following statement on the occasion of the hearing entitled “Examining Capital Regimes for Financial Institutions.” We welcome the Subcommittee’s further examination of the existing regulatory approach for prudentially regulated financial institutions.

We are academic experts in financial regulation with extensive knowledge of the financial industry. Our experience includes working with private sector financial institutions, government agencies and international organizations. In our view, a strong and resilient financial system is an essential foundation of a thriving economy. The welfare of every modern society depends on it. The bedrock of this foundation is that banks’ capital buffers are sufficient to withstand significant stress without recourse to public funds. Furthermore, it is our considered view that the benefits of raising U.S. capital requirements from their current modest levels clearly outweigh the costs.

To explain this conclusion, we start with a definition of bank capital, including a discussion of its importance as a mechanism for self-insurance. We then turn to capital regulation and a discussion of stress testing….

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Cyber Instability

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, they also attacked the U.S. financial system. In addition to destroying critical financial infrastructure, the collapse of the twin towers closed the New York Stock Exchange and disrupted the payments system that links U.S. intermediaries, threatening to shut down banks, ATM machines and credit card operations across the country. Only extraordinary intervention by the Federal Reserve kept the system afloat (see, for example, Rosengren).

We have long argued that financial stability is a vital common resource (see here). As ECB Board member Cœuré suggests in the opening quote, the same applies to financial cybersecurity—the protection of financial information and communications technologies (ICT) and their associated networks from failures and attacks. The events of 9/11 and their aftermath dramatically highlighted the link between stability and cybersecurity. Moreover, because our financial system is so deeply reliant on ICT and on large, global networks, these two objectives are more closely linked than ever before: ensuring one means guarding the other.  

In this post, we highlight the pervasiveness of cyberthreats as a source of operational risk in finance. Consistent with the Presidential Policy Directive 21 and a recent Presidential Executive Order aimed at strengthening cybersecurity, the U.S. government has designated financial services infrastructure as critical to national and economic security (see here). Nevertheless, numerous challenges—ranging from the availability of reliable data to the ever-changing nature of the attacks themselves—make the goal of safeguarding financial ICT networks very difficult. To be effective, cybersecurity efforts require mechanisms for preventing successful attacks, limiting their impact, and promoting quick, reliable recovery. Reducing vulnerability and contagion while boosting cyberresilience is a very tall order….

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Fiscal Sustainability: A Primer

Nobody likes taxes, so public spending frequently exceeds revenues, leading governments to borrow. These budget deficits are a flow that add to the stock of debt. Since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, public debt in a number of advanced economies has surged. In the United States. the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently projected that―in the absence of policy changes―federal debt held by the public is headed for record highs (as a ratio to GDP) in coming decades.

Importantly, there is a real (inflation-adjusted) limit to how much public debt a government can issue (see Sargent and Wallace). Beyond that limit, the consequences are outright default or, if the debt is in domestic currency bonds that the central bank acquires, inflation that erodes its real value leading to a partial default.

Ultimately, debt sustainability requires that a country’s ratio of public debt to GDP stabilize. Otherwise, debt eventually will rise above the real limit and trigger default or inflation. In this note, we derive and interpret a simple debt-sustainability condition. The condition states that the government primary surplus―the excess of government revenues over noninterest spending—must be at least as large as the stock of outstanding sovereign debt times the difference between the nominal interest rate the government has to pay and the rate of growth of nominal GDP. If it is not, then the ratio of debt to GDP will explode….

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Inflation Policy

Inflation in the United States remains at levels that most people don’t really notice. Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.8 percent from May 2017 to May 2018. And, when you look at core measures, the trend is still below 2 percent.

With inflation and inflation expectations still so benign, it is no wonder that despite solid economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years the Federal Open Market Committee continues to act quite gradually (see their June 2018 statement). Inflation could well turn up in the near term—perhaps by more than the policymakers expect. But, for reasons that we will explain, if we were on the FOMC, we would stay the planned course: remain vigilant, but certainly not panic.

We start with a look at the data. What we see is that trend inflation has stayed reasonably close to the Fed’s medium-term target of 2 percent for the past two decades. There have been occasional deviations, like the temporary rise in 2008 and again in 2011, but overall, the path is remarkably stable….

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Banks and Money, Or Watch out What You Wish For

On 10 June 2008, a large majority of voters in Switzerland rejected a proposal that all commercial bank demand deposits be held at the central bank. This Vollgeld referendum was another incarnation of the justifiable public revulsion to financial crises and the bailouts that inevitably accompany them. Vollgeld proponents claimed that a system in which the central bank is the sole issuer of “money” will be more stable.

Serious people debated the wisdom of this proposal. One of Switzerland’s premier monetary economists, Philippe Bacchetta, wrote passionately in opposition. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, argued in favor. And Swiss National Bank Chairman Thomas Jordan discussed the many dangers in detail.

It should come as no surprise that, had we had been among the Swiss voters, we would have voted “no.” In our view, the Vollgeld (sovereign money) initiative combined aspects of narrow banking with those of retail central bank digital currency. We see these as misguided, distorting the credit allocation mechanism and more likely to reduce than improve financial stability (see here and here). In the remainder of this post, we explain why….

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Italeave: Mother of all financial crises

After years of calm, fears of a currency redenomination—prompted by the attitudes toward monetary union of Italy’s now-governing parties and the potential for another round of early elections—revived turbulence in Italian markets last week. We have warned in the past that an Italian exit from the euro would be disastrous not only for Italy, but for many others as well (see our earlier post).

And, given Italy’s high public debt, a significant easing of its fiscal stance within monetary union could revive financial instability, rather than boost economic growth. Depositors fearing the introduction of a parallel currency (to finance the fiscal stimulus) would have incentive to shift out of Italian banks into “safer” jurisdictions. Argentina’s experience in 2001, when the introduction of quasi-moneys by the fiscal authorities undermined monetary control, is instructive….

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To Form a More Perfect Union

On 31 May 2018, Vítor Constâncio completes 18 years on the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (ECB)—8 as Vice President and 10 as Governor of the Bank of Portugal before that. Ahead of his departure, Vice President Constâncio delivered a valedictory address setting out his views on what needs to be done to make European Monetary Union (EMU) (and what people on the continent refer to as the “European Project”) robust.

Before we get to his proposals, we should emphasize that we continue to view political shifts as the biggest challenge facing EMU (see our earlier posts here and here). The rise of populism in recent euro-area member elections is not conducive to the risk-sharing needed to sustain EMU over the long run. Without democratic support, investor fears of redenomination risk—associated with widening bond yield spreads and, possibly, runs on the banking systems of some national jurisdictions—will continue to resurface whenever political risks spike or local economic fortunes ebb. This latent vulnerability—resembling that of a fixed-exchange rate regime with free movement of capital—diminishes the prospect for strong and stable economic growth in the region as a whole.

Turning to the need for change, the current framework has three significant shortcomings…

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Making Unelected Power Legitimate

Through what administrative means should a democratic society in an advanced economy implement regulation? In practice, democratic governments opt for a variety of solutions to this challenge. Historically, these approaches earned their legitimacy by allocating power to elected officials who make the laws or directly oversee their agents.

Increasingly, however, governments have chosen to implement policy through agencies with varying degrees of independence from both the legislature and the executive. Under what circumstances does it make sense in a democracy to delegate powers to the unelected officials of independent agencies (IA) who are shielded from political influence? How should those powers be allocated to ensure both legitimacy and sustainability?

These are the critical issues that Paul Tucker addresses in his ambitious and broad-ranging book, Unelected Power. In addition to suggesting areas where delegation has gone too far, Tucker highlights others—such as the maintenance of financial resilience (FR)—where agencies may be insufficiently shielded from political influence to ensure effective governance. His analysis raises important questions about the regulatory framework in the United States.

In this post, we discuss Tucker’s principles for delegating authority to an IA. A key premise—that we share with Tucker—is that better governance can help substitute where simple policy rules are insufficient for optimal decisions….

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Finance and the Blockchain: A Primer

Blockchain is all the rage. We are constantly bombarded by reports of how it will change the world. While it may alter many aspects of our lives, our suspicion is that they will be in areas that we experience only indirectly. That is, blockchain technology mostly will change the implementation of invisible processes—what businesses think of as their back-office functions.

In this post, we briefly describe blockchain technology, the problem it is designed to solve and the impact it might have on finance.

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