Inflation and Price Measurement: A Primer

People use a variety of statistics to gauge how the economy is doing. It is fairly straightforward to measure nominal GDP, so the challenge of estimating real economic growth arises from the need for accurate measures of prices. Price measurement also is key for inflation-targeting central bankers, who need a number as a guide and for public accountability. To be credible, that number must be based on an index constructed using established scientific methods.

Reflecting a set of well-known (and nearly insurmountable) difficulties, measured inflation has an upward bias. That is, the inflation numbers that statistical agencies report are consistently higher than the theoretical construct we would like to compute. As a consequence of this upward bias in inflation measurement, our estimates of growth in real output and real incomes are systematically too low.

The big question today is whether the bias in inflation measurement, and hence the bias in the measurement of growth, has increased in recent years. As Martin Feldstein describes in detail, the answer to this question is important, as it affects how we collectively view long-run progress. If published statistics show sluggish real growth, as well as slow growth in real wages and incomes, then people may be unduly pessimistic. A worsening bias would add to that pessimism.

In practice, however, careful recent analysis suggests that inflation measurement bias has not changed much since the early 2000s….

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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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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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Understanding Bank Capital: A Primer

Over the past 40 years, U.S. capital markets have grown much faster than banks, so that banks’ share of credit to the private nonfinancial sector has dropped from 55% to 34% (see BIS statistics here).  Nevertheless, banks remain a critical part of the financial system. They operate the payments system, supply credit, and serve as agents and catalysts for a wide range of other financial transactions. As a result, their well-being remains a key concern. A resilient banking system is, above all, one that has sufficient capital to weather the loan defaults and declines in asset values that will inevitably come.

In this primer, we explain the nature of bank capital, highlighting its role as a form of self-insurance providing both a buffer against unforeseen losses and an incentive to manage risk-taking. We describe some of the challenges in measuring capital and briefly discuss a range of approaches for setting capital requirements. While we do not know the optimal level of capital that banks (or other intermediaries) should be required to hold, we suggest a practical approach for setting requirements that would promote the safety of the financial system without diminishing its efficiency....

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Time Consistency: A Primer

The problem of time consistency is one of the most profound in social science. With applications in areas ranging from economic policy to counterterrorism, it arises whenever the effectiveness of a policy today depends on the credibility of the commitment to implement that policy in the future.

For simplicity, we will define a time consistent policy as one where a future policymaker lacks the opportunity or the incentive to renege. Conversely, a policy lacks time consistency when a future policymaker has both the means and the motivation to break the commitment.

In this post, we describe the conceptual origins of time consistency. To emphasize its broad importance, we provide three economic examples—in monetary policy, prudential regulation, and tax policy—where the impact of the idea is especially notable....

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Free Riding in Finance: A Primer

Many features of our financial system—institutions like banks and insurance companies, as well as the configuration of securities markets—are a consequence of legal conventions (the rules about property rights and taxes) and the costs associated with obtaining and verifying information. When we teach money and banking, three concepts are key to understanding the structure of finance: adverse selection, moral hazard, and free riding. The first two arise from asymmetric information, either before (adverse selection) or after (moral hazard) making a financial arrangement (see our earlier primers here and here).

This primer is about the third concept: free riding. Free riding is tied to the concept of a public good, so we start there. Then, we offer three examples where free riding plays a key role in the organization of finance: credit ratings; schemes like the Madoff scandal; and efforts to secure financial stability more broadly....

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Moral Hazard: A Primer

The term moral hazard originated in the insurance business. It was a reference to the need for insurers to assess the integrity of their customers. When modern economists got ahold of the term, the meaning changed. Instead of making judgments about a person’s character, the focus shifted to incentives. For example, a fire insurance policy might limit the motivation to install sprinklers while a generous automobile insurance policy might encourage reckless driving. Then there is Kenneth Arrow’s original example of moral hazard: health insurance fosters overtreatment by doctors. Employment arrangements suffer from moral hazard, too: will you shirk unpleasant tasks at work if you’re sure to receive your paycheck anyway?

Moral hazard arises when we cannot costlessly observe people’s actions and so cannot judge (without costly monitoring) whether a poor outcome reflects poor fortune or poor effort. Like its close relative, adverse selection, moral hazard arises because two parties to a transaction have different information. This information asymmetry manifests itself in two ways. Where adverse selection is about hidden attributes, affecting a transaction before it occurs, moral hazard is about hidden actions that have an impact after making an arrangement.

In this post, we provide a brief introduction to the concept of moral hazard, focusing on how various aspects of the financial system are designed to mitigate the challenges it causes....

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Adverse Selection: A Primer

Information is the basis for our economic and financial decisions. As buyers, we collect information about products before entering into a transaction. As investors, the same goes for information about firms seeking our funds. This is information that sellers and fund-seeking firms typically have. But, when it is too difficult or too costly to collect information, markets function poorly or not at all.

Economists use the term adverse selection to describe the problem of distinguishing a good feature from a bad feature when one party to a transaction has more information than the other party. The degree of adverse selection depends on how costly it is for the uninformed actor to observe the hidden attributes of a product or counterparty. When key characteristics are sufficiently expensive to discern, adverse selection can make an otherwise healthy market disappear.

In this primer, we examine three examples of adverse selection: (1) used cars; (2) health insurance; and (3) private finance. We use these examples to highlight mechanisms for addressing the problem....

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The Phillips Curve: A Primer

Economists have debated the relationship between inflation and unemployment at least since A.W. Phillips’s study of U.K. data from 1861 to 1957 was published 60 years ago. The idea that a tight or slack labor market should result in faster or slower wage gains seems like a natural corollary to standard economic thinking about how prices respond to deviations of demand from supply. But, over the years, disputes about this Phillips curve relationship have been and remain fierce.

As the U.S. labor market tightens, and unemployment approaches levels we have not seen in more than 15 years, the question is whether inflation is going to make a comeback. More broadly, how useful is the Phillips curve as a guide for Federal Reserve policymakers who wish to achieve a 2-percent inflation target over the long run?

To anticipate our conclusion, despite evidence of a negative relationship between wage inflation and unemployment, central banks ought not rely on a stable Phillips curve for setting monetary policy.

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GDP-linked Bonds: A Primer

Gross government debt in advanced economies has surpassed 105% of GDP, up from less than 75% a decade ago. Some countries with especially large debts—including Greece (177%), Italy (133%) and Portugal (129%)—are viewed not only as a risk to the countries themselves, but to others as well. As a result, policymakers and economists have been looking for ways to make it easier to manage these heavier debt burdens.

One prominent suggestion is that countries should issue GDP-linked bonds that tie the size of debt payments to their economy's well-being. We find this idea attractive, and see the expanding discussion of the viability of GDP-linked bonds both warranted and useful (see here and here). However, the practical issues associated with GDP data revision remain a formidable obstacle to the broad issuance and acceptance of these instruments....

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A Primer on Securities Lending

Securities lending (SL) is one of the less-well-publicized shadow banking activities. Like repurchase agreements (repo) and asset-backed commercial paper, SL can be a source of very short-term wholesale funding, allowing a shadow bank to engage in the kind of liquidity, maturity and credit transformation that banks do. And, like other short-term funding sources, it can suddenly dry up, making it a source of systemic risk. When funding evaporates, fire sales and a credit crunch follow.

Indeed, SL played a supporting role in the 2007-09 financial crisis, being partly responsible for the collapse of the large insurance company AIG when the market seized in September 2008 (see chart). While SL has not garnered the attention of capital and liquidity regulation or central clearing, or even repo markets, it is still worth understanding what securities lending is and the risks it poses. That is the purpose of this post...

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A Primer on Helicopter Money

Helicopter money is not monetary policy. It is a fiscal policy carried out with the cooperation of the central bank. That is, if the Fed were to drop $100 bills out of helicopters, it would be doing the Treasury’s bidding.

We are wary of joining the cacophony of commentators on helicopter money, but our sense is that the discussion could use a bit of structure...

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A Primer on Central Bank Independence

Central bank independence is controversial. It requires the delegation of powerful authority to a group of unelected officials. In a democracy, this anomaly naturally raises questions of legitimacy. It also raises fears of the concentration of power in the hands of a select few.

An independent central bank is a device to overcome the problem of time consistency: the concern that policymakers will renege in the future on a policy promise made today ....

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