September 28, 2009

Must There Be a Safe Haven for Savings?

Tyler Durden wrote a post at Zero hedge on Friday that points out the massive move from long term bonds to shorter term bills in foreign purchases of US government securities. The surge in the short-term market, even at the face of extremely low interest rates, is a clear sign of a run to safety.

An overall stampede to safety is somewhat detrimental to overall wellbeing, because of excessive liquidation of productive assets. It should be resisted by governments. Savers should be encouraged to either put their savings into proper investment or cease saving in the first place.

I wonder what would happen, if the US government would simply refuse to sell additional short term securities. As the interest rates for the existing securities have nowhere to fall to, the possible set of outcomes is:
  1. Buyers would move into longer term government securities. This would be good for the government, as it would get a better control of the long term cost of the debt. It would also lower the overall price level of longer term debt.
  2. Buyers would move into the private sector market for short term securities or bank deposits. This would be a positive thing, as there is a real shortage of short term funding for the private sector.
  3. Buyers would stop buying any securities at all. Instead they would make real investments. This would be good for overall employment and economic development.
  4. Buyers would reduce savings and start to consume more. As previous, this would be helpful to employment. It would not be a bad outcome for the Chinese, for example.
  5. Buyers would move their savings into commodities and other speculative plays. This scenario would probably have some adverse effects.
  6. Buyers would keep their money in cash. This would be a bad outcome, but highly improbable, as the savings would be threatened by inflation.
All but the first outcome could result in an overall increase in the interest rates that would be paid by the US Treasury.

The question is, would a denial of such an absolute safe haven for savers be an overall improvement, or would it cause even more disruption? What adverse effects would such a move present?

September 25, 2009

Pricing and Utilization of Pharmaceuticals - Nonsense from Greg Mankiw

Greg Mankiw shared his wisdom with us in an editorial in the New York Times last week:
Imagine that someone invented a pill even better than the one I take. Let’s call it the Dorian Gray pill, after the Oscar Wilde character. Every day that you take the Dorian Gray, you will not die, get sick, or even age. Absolutely guaranteed. The catch? A year’s supply costs $150,000.

Anyone who is able to afford this new treatment can live forever. Certainly, Bill Gates can afford it. Most likely, thousands of upper-income Americans would gladly shell out $150,000 a year for immortality.
The true costs of pharmaceuticals are mostly incurred at the development phase. The actual cost of production is insignificant. No medication costs anything like $150,000 per year to produce.

So, if thousands of people are willing to pay $150,000 per year, then quite possibly tens of millions of people are willing to pay $150 per year, which would most probably bring many times the income to the drug company. Modern pharmaceuticals are simply not the hand-crafted luxury items that Mankiw is trying to portray them as. (Some of the more egregious items used in older traditions are a bit different.)

When it comes to the cost of the actual medication, any expansion of health care coverage only needs to increase the aggregate cost of medication by the price of the additional production, which really isn't very much at all. Wider utilization of a drug actually decreases the burden on individual users, as the cost of development is borne by more people.

September 22, 2009

Rational Expectations in a Recession

Paul Krugman wrote a (bit self-serving) post about the differences of viewpoints between the "saltwater" and "freshwater" economists in the US.

In this article there is one bit of economic orthodoxy that I don't quite get:

Think about the story of unemployment I’ve just described. It’s a story in which a contraction in the money supply can produce a recession – but only as long as people don’t know that there’s a recession! You see, if people do know that there’s a recession, they know that the low prices they’re being offered reflect low overall demand, not specifically low demand for their products.

I'd say that en expectation of a smooth change in the overall price level in a recession is certainly not what anybody would expect in a recession.

When the general population hears the word "recession" they think of an economic disturbance. This disturbance manifests itself as a shock-wave. In this wave, most of the people quite rationally anticipate a possible loss of income, which can be passed on to expenses only with a considerable delay.

This anticipation causes people to cut down on spending, which just reinforces the initial drop in demand. It's the prisoner's dilemma with millions of participants. Betting against the shock-wave would not be too rational.

This phenomenon is not that different from a "traffic wave" that can bring a whole highway to a complete standstill even if there is no apparent reason whatsoever. However, it is quite rational to expect congestion in dense traffic, because it happens.

These kinds of issues make the economic models that assume perfection for human beings quite dangerous. As can be seen in the video of traffic waves below, even small human errors accumulate to drastic disturbances in a tightly coupled system.

To mitigate these problems, "shock-absorbers" should be built into the economy. These absorbers would eat some of the efficiency of the system. On the other hand, so do shock absorbers in vehicle suspension, if the focus is on the short term. (Shock absorbers actually do increase the initial impact of a pothole.) We really have to reach a better trade-off between efficiency and reliability in the financial system.

These economic shock absorbers could take the form of increased transaction costs, or possibly taxation of capital gains that would discourage short-term gains.

The Estonian Laboratory of "Free" Market Economics

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of writes an opinion piece about the "debt deflation laboratory" of the Baltics. His writing is thoroughly one-sided, as usual, but he has some valid points.
Professor √úlo Ennuste from Tallinn University says the private net wealth of Estonia's people has fallen below zero. I know of no other country in the world where this has occurred, though Latvia may be deeper in hock. Estonia's foreign debt is 116pc of GDP, second highest in Eastern Europe.

It is not a good moment for the poster-child of the flat-tax revolution, but those crowing the end of "Margaret Thatcher's Baltic Model" neglect half the story. Estonia's euro peg is anything but free-market. It makes Tallinn dance, awkwardly, to Frankfurt's distant tune. It stoked the boom by enticing people to borrow cheap at eurozone rates: it is now prolonging the bust.


The government could spend more. The national debt is just 5pc of GDP. It chooses not to do so. Such ultra-orthodoxy shows admirable discipline. Estonians will be a shining example to us all if they pull it off – and hold their society together.
Prof. Ennuste has some dubious figures. It's hard to believe that Estonian private assets would be worth less than 116% of GDP. There are other inaccuracies in the article as well.

However, the criticism against the Baltic currency peg policies is perfectly reasonable. Deflation (or "internal devaluation", as the euphemism goes) brings undeserved short term gains to those who are in cash assets. It will also encourage liquidation of real capital in a scramble to cash.

Keeping the currency pegged while maintaining completely disparate interest rates made absolutely no sense from the start. It was a source of "free money" to anyone who borrowed in Euros and invested in local currencies. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a free lunch and never will. This "free money" virtually guaranteed a foreign currency denominated credit bubble.

The Euro is the wrong point of fixation. After all, the Euro has no inherent value of its own at all. The only meaningful measure of the value of a currency is against real goods and assets.

It might be absolutely impossible to avoid a degree of deflation after a humongous credit-fueled asset bubble, but at least one shouldn't be aggravating it, unless the objective is a massive overshoot in the downside.

A commenter "John" strongly disagrees with the opinions of Evans-Pritchard:
Estonia won't benefit from a devaluation, it will merely create instantaneous inflation, because the country is so small and so intertwined with neighboring economies.
Inflationary policy is exactly what Estonia needs right now, as it is headed for a deflationary spiral that will not stop before a serious overshoot. If currency reserves are not exhausted, the deflation will eventually come to a stop when foreign money comes in for hunting bargains. At that point the Estonian people might truly have lost their net wealth. They will be forced to sell their crown jewels just to survive.

"John" continues:
Instead a devaluation would destroy the last beacon of stability, the protection of value that the currency offers.
Currency is of no inherent value whatsoever, only real investments are. In the short term, the currency may look like a means to preserving wealth. However, this doesn't mean that people in aggregate are maintaining their wealth.

Even though the "value" of the currency is steady, or even grows in comparison to real goods, the quantity of currency shrinks through deleveraging. The grand total is actually shrinking. This reflects the real value that is destroyed through liquidation.

To all those who like comparisons to Zimbabwe: The Baltic policy is the mirror image of the Zimbabwean policy. In both cases the central bank and government is aggravating an already adverse trend. Hyper-deflation is not much nicer than hyper-inflation.

The Baltic states truly are a laboratory for the Chicago school of economics, with flat taxes, efficient market theories and all. I feel sorry for the human guinea pigs of the Baltic states.