Wednesday, December 26, 2007

How Much Time Do Americans Allocate to Religion?

This past November I presented a paper at the SSSR/ASREC annual meetings that looked at the relationship between the business cycle and religiosity (see previous posting on this paper). I was privileged to present my paper in a session where Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin gave their paper titled "Measuring Religious Commitment and Secularization Through Time-Use Data." This paper examines the standard labor economic question of how individuals in the United States allocate their time, with special emphasis on how much time is spent on religious and spiritual activities. The study looks at allocation of time for a typical weekday as well as for the presumably religious Sunday.

This study uses data from data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey (ATUS) over the years 2003 to 2006. Ariela and Barry explain that the "ATUS asks people to keep a diary and describe in detail their daily activities, without the prompts or cues that are a feature of interviewer surveys. There is therefore no reference to religion or any other domain. This methodology reduces over-reporting of religious practice by minimizing the tendency towards a social desirability bias that has been identified as a problem of many surveys of American religion especially of Sunday worship." This study, therefore, provides a more robust measure of religiosity in America than past studies.

Okay, what exactly do they find? Here are some key excerpts:

"The average American spends a total of 3 minutes on 'religious and spiritual activities' on the normal weekday. This is because only 4.4% of the population actually reports participating in this form of behavior. Among this small minority of participants, 1.12 hours on average are actually spent on religious activities. Weekdays are for work and ATUS confirms this. The average American spends 4.55 hours working on the normal weekday. Participants in work are 58% of the adult population and among these workers the time spent on work related activities averages 7.81 hours."

3 minutes a day? Wow! If us highly religious Americans spend only 3 minutes on average a weekday on religious and spiritual activities, then what is the time spent on religious and spiritual activities in other advanced economies that are less religious?

"This imbalance between work and religious activities on ordinary weekdays is to be expected though the actual figures are stark. One can assume that Sundays will be much different. Sunday is historically the Lord’s Day and a day of rest when government and educational facilities are closed as are many business establishments. Indeed the average American spends a total of 33 minutes on religious activities on a Sunday that is 11 times the amount of a weekday. In fact 25% of Americans attend Sunday worship services; more that 6 times the weekday norm. The average worshipper spends 2.06 hours on religious activities on a Sunday. Sunday is evidently the time for religion but participation at the beginning of the 21st Century is very much a minority interest."

Here again, I wonder what is the time spent on religious and spiritual activities on Sundays in other advanced economies?

"The ATUS findings indicate that the pattern of the traditional American Sunday has changed and the U.S. is becoming a more secular society."
Below are two tables from the paper.

So even on Sundays, religious and spiritual activities are far from the most important activity. In fact, the work category on this 'holy' day is allocated more time. One discussant made the point that maybe these numbers understate/overstate the quality of time allocated to each activity. This point made me wonder if it were possible to have a positive productivity shock to religious and spiritual activities? If so, less time would be needed to generate the same religious and spiritual outcome. Could this possibility explain some of the relatively low share of time allocated to religious and spiritual activities?

Monday, December 24, 2007

More on Stabilization Policy

Mark Thoma had an interesting post on stabilization policy in the form of changes in tax rates. He makes the following points:

(1) Changes in tax rates to 'lean against the wind' during the business cycle should be temporary.

(2) Changes in tax rates to 'lean against the wind' should be consistently applied. Cut taxes when output falls below its potential, but also increase taxes when output exceeds its potential.

(3) As a result of (1) and (2), the budget should balanced over the business cycle. There should be no sustained budget deficits.

(4) Political realities make (1) - (3) difficult to implement in practice. Always count on a politician to cut taxes when the economy weakens, but never expect one to increases taxes during an unsustainable economic boom. Throw in the upward spending bias of most politicians and sustained budget deficits become an almost certainty.

(5) The number of steps in implementing even a thoughtful countercyclical fiscal policy makes this form of stabilization policy almost intractable. If anything, the implied lag in implementing fiscal policy could make it destabilizing rather than stabilizing. (However, automatic stabilizers do provide timely but limited countercyclical aggregate demand management. See related post on structural versus cyclical budget balances here.)

For all these reasons fiscal policy typically plays second fiddle to monetary policy when it come to stabilization policy. However, given the challenges the Fed the ECB have had with credit markets some observers like Martin Feldstein and Lawrence Summers are suggesting fiscal policy supplement monetary policy. Over at the WSJ, David Weasel provides a good overview of this view. Meanwhile, Greg Mankiw tells us that monetary policy is up to the task now at hand and that Congress and the White House (i.e. fiscal policy) should do "absolutely nothing."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Probability of A Recession in 2008

From Intrade, here is the market's wisdom on the latest probability for a U.S. recession in 2008.
Note that it spiked in September, came down in October and then picked up again in late November and has stayed there ever since. Does this pattern sound familiar? Take a look at the below graph.

Non-Profound Conclusion: the economic outlook is tied very closely to the credit market outlook.

Is 'Pump Priming' the Solution?

Is 'pump priming' the solution to the weakness in our economy? Does the U.S. economy need a a large policy-induced positive aggregate demand shock? Nouriel Roubini and Larry Summers both scream "Yes!"

As I discussed in a previous posting, Nouriel's view is that monetary policy easing now will not put off the necessary real adjustments needed "for the credit excesses, the asset bubbles, the reckless leverage, the lack of minimal appropriate supervision and regulation of financial markets of the last few years." He goes on to say a "sharp recession is unavoidable and necessary to cleanse the financial system and the economies from such excesses." Nouriel, however, is concerned that the looming recession of 2008 could turn into the next Great Depression if massive monetary easing is not attempted now. Consequently, he is calling for central banks of the world to aggressively cut interest rates.

In a similar vein, Larry Summers is calling (also see here) for dramatic action since he believes that "slow growth is a near certainty, that a recession is more than a 50% chance, and that there's a distinct possibility of a more serious recession that will lead to the worst economic performance since the late 1970s and early 1980s.
" Larry is therefore calling for a $50 -$75 billion tax cut and spending package by the federal government as well as more aggressive easing by the Federal Reserve.

Do these calls for more 'pump-priming' make sense? Ken Rogoff says no. He notes "[s]harper Fed interest rate cuts today might well mute the housing price collapse, at least in nominal terms. However, if the Fed should ease too far, too fast, it could get hit by a boomerang a couple of years down the road, in the form of sustained higher inflation." I would add that contrary to Nouriel's assertions it may also mean a postponment of the necessary economic adjustements needed in the housing and financial sector.

Maybe Nouriel and Larry are right and we should nip this one in the bud with a massive policy-induced positive aggregate demand shock. No need to go through the Great Depression again. On the other hand, I keep going back to Japan and its lost decade that started in the 1990s. There too was massive government intervention in a post-bubble bursted economy. Some argue this intervention allowed banks and other sectors of the economy from making the painful changes that were needed to bring back robust economic growth (although without the intervention the deflationary pressures may have been worse). Are we headed down that path? Will the massive government stimulus to the macroeconomy proposed by Nouriel and Larry put off the needed economic adjustments until a later, more painful time? Or are they correct?

Monday, December 17, 2007

More on the Solvency Crisis

Here are several interesting pieces that lend support to the view that more liquidity--even if creatively injected through the new term action facility--will not solve the lack of interbank lending. The reasons is because this is not crisis of liquidity, but of solvency.
John M. Berry

This is more of a credit and confidence problem than a liquidity one similar to that which followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center... The issue now is the large losses -- both announced and unannounced -- that many financial institutions have experienced from securities backed by subprime mortgages, many of which have gone into default.
Stephen Cecchetti
(This is a great piece for understanding the new term action facility)

Why are big private banks unwilling to lend to each?
Clearly, they were worried about the quality of the assets on the balance sheets of the potential borrowers. My guess is that banks were having enough trouble figuring out the value of the things they owned, so they figure that other banks must be having the same problems. The result has been paralysis in inter-bank lending markets. Banks have not been able to fund themselves. And, as I will discuss in a moment, non-US banks faced an added problem – they could not get dollars. This was either because they could not get euros or pounds to then sell for dollars, or once they got their domestic currency they were unable to make the exchange.

Is Nouriel Roubini Losing his Religion?

Nouriel Roubini is one of the few economists to early on make the call that our current financial quagmire was a solvency crisis rather than one of just illiquidity. As a result, Nouriel concluded back in August that "liquidity injections and lender of last resort bail out of insolvent borrowers--however necessary and unavoidable during a liquidity panic--will not work; they will only postpone and exacerbate the eventual and unavoidable insolvencies." I found his reasoning then and now to be compelling.

Recently, however, it appears that Nouriel has begun to lose his religion. He wrote a post to his blog a few days titled "Why monetary policy easing is warranted even in the current insolvency crisis." In this piece, Nouriel makes that argument that there should be global easing of monetary policy so as to

"... reduce the length of such a recession and dampen its depth. Monetary policy may be impotent in affecting the likelihood of a economic downturn... but it is not impotent in affecting how deep and long such a recession will be."

Nouriel goes on to say he believes monetary policy can dampen the severity of the recession without (1) postponing the needed real economic adjustments, (2) creating new asset bubbles elsewhere, or (3) generating excessive inflationary pressures. So Nouriel now is articulating the following: let the recession happen, but do not let it get out of hand. In other words, let's avoid the Great Depression scenario of the 1930s where bad policies let a normal recession--that may have been necessary to purge the excesses of the 1920s--turn ugly.

The Great Depression is one scenario. Let me propose another one that I believe fits our current situation better: Japan in the 1990s. Here, there was an asset bubble that popped and similarly led to rot in the banking system--large amount of non-performing loans--that was not quickly removed. The rot, in turn, contributed to a stagnant economy for almost a decade. The non-performing loans and government support programs in Japan sound eerily familiar to the situations in the U.S. today. If the Japan scenario is the right one, then Nouriel's proposal simply postpones and potentially creates more problems down the road.

Paul Krugman
, who has not lost his religion on this topic, says the following
How will it all end? Markets won’t start functioning normally until investors are reasonably sure that they know where the bodies — I mean, the bad debts — are buried. And that probably won’t happen until house prices have finished falling and financial institutions have come clean about all their losses. All of this will probably take years. Meanwhile, anyone who expects the Fed or anyone else to come up with a plan that makes this financial crisis just go away will be sorely disappointed

I hope Nouriel's concerns over a Great Depression type scenario are wrong, but the alternative Japan scenario is not much better. Hang in there world.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Laffer Curve Showdown at the Mark Thoma Corral

Okay, it is not quite a showdown at the OK Corral, but Mark Thoma comes out swinging in a response to Justin Fox and Brad DeLong who suggest there is some truth to the Laffer curve. First, a recap of the statements that caused Mark to respond:

Brad DeLong: "As I read the evidence, Arthur Laffer is probably right at the top end: reducing the top tax rate from 70% to 50% is probably a revenue gainer and surely not much of a loser. From 50% to 28% is, I think, very different: a big revenue loser."

Justin Fox
: (from initial posting) "Some tax cuts do raise revenues, of course.... (later posting) Just two off the top of my head: The 1964 Kennedy reduction of the top marginal income tax rate from 91% to 70% (it was enacted after JFK's assassination, but it was his bill), the 1981 Reagan reduction of the top marginal rate from 70% to 50%. I'm not at all an expert on this, but I don't think it's too controversial among economists to assert that those particular changes (but not the rest of the of Kennedy and Reagan tax legislation) were a break-even or better for the Treasury... The common thread is that these were cuts in punitively high marginal rates. They paid off in large part because they removed incentives to shelter income from taxes."

Mark begins his response by quoting two intermediate macroeconomic texts that essentially say "large budget deficits of the early 1980s = failure of the Laffer curve." He then goes on to say that one cannot look at the 1960s tax cut in isolation since the Fed monetized the public debt, providing an added economic stimulus that masks the true budget deficit reality. What I believe Mark is getting at here in this latter point--and something that is too often glossed over in these Laffer curve debates--is that one should distinguish between the structural budget balance and the cyclical budget balance when passing judgement on the merits of the Laffer curve. Okay, I will give him that point, but it cuts both ways. The Reagan budget deficits--that are supposedly evidence against the Laffer curve according to the cited textbooks--must also be parsed for the structural and cyclical components. After all, the sharpest post-WWII economic downturn occured during Reagan's tax cuts. What part of Reagan's deficits were due to the double-dip recessions in the early 1980s versus his tax policy?

The Congressional Budget Office provides data to answer this and other structural vs. cyclical budget balance questions. The figure below (click here for a larger picture) shows this decomposition as a percent of GDP from 1962 to 2006. (Other adjustments in figure consist of deposit insurance, receipts from auctions of licenses to use the electromagnetic spectrum, timing adjustments, and contributions from allied nations for Operation Desert Storm.)

Consistent with Mark's claim, this figure does show a positive cyclical contribution to the overall budget balance following the 1964 tax cut. The cyclical contribution, however, only turns positive in 1964 so one could argue it came from the tax cut itself. Regarding Reagan, the cyclical component clearly dragged down the budget balance during the early-to-mid 1980s, although the structural budget balance was the most important component overall. This figure also makes clear that both cyclical and structural forces were at work with Clinton--it was a combination of his tax policies and a booming economy that generated the budget surplus.

I am not sure this figure settles any questions, but it does highlight the importance of distinguishing between a structural budget balance and a cyclical budget balance. Personally, I find the nuanced Laffer curve view--if I can call it that--of Justin Fox, Brad DeLong, and Greg Mankiw a reasonable position to hold.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Rogoff on the Dollar's Reserve Status

Kenneth Rogoff tells us why the dollar's decline does not necessarily mean the loss of reserve status:

"The good news for Americans is that there is enormous inertia in the world trading and financial system. It took many decades and two world wars before the British pound lost its super-currency status. Nor is there any obvious successor to the dollar yet. Indeed, the sub-prime crisis has made the European financial system look just as vulnerable as that of the US. Likewise, while the Chinese Yuan might be king in 50 years, China's moribund financial system will prevent it from being crowned anytime soon. A huge share of world trade is denominated in dollars, even if some Opec presidents, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, openly preach mutiny. Central banks still hold more than 50% of their foreign exchange reserves in dollars."

Read the rest of the article.

Why the U.S. Needs A Recession to Correct Global Imbalances

I have argued in previous postings that past monetary policy profligacy in the United States has contributed to the global imbalances (here, here, here, and here). Here is an article by Gilles Saint‑Paul that takes a similar view and follows this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion: the current easing by the Federal Reserve puts off the correction of these imbalances--and allows them to continue to build--until a later time when correcting them will be more painful.

It is refreshing to see a thoughtful article on global imbalances that does not bow at the altar of the 'saving glut' goddess. This article takes seriously the 'liquidity glut' view of global imbalances and shows why the conduct of monetary policy for the world's reserve currency can be distortionary for the global economy.

: Saint-Paul mentions Volker's recessions in the early 1980s. See here for comments on this experience

Update II: Bill C at Twenty-Cent Paradigms cautions us not to put too much faith in the ability of monetary policy to correct the global imbalances.

How the US imbalances can be corrected
Gilles Saint‑Paul

There is agreement among many analysts that the Fed should pursue a low interest rates policy in order to prevent the US credit crisis from degenerating into a recession. On what grounds are we told that? The bottom line is that monetary policy is supposed to fine-tune the economy by targeting inflation and the output gap. Thus, monetary policy is supposed to become tighter when there are fears of inflation, and looser when there are fears of a recession and no sign of inflation. Consequently, the fed’s recent moves to lower interest rates seem perfectly orthodox.

This focus on macroeconomic aggregates ignores any other effect that interest rates can have on the economy. It totally ignores that interest rates are a price which affects many allocative decisions and has important distributive consequences. In 2001, the Fed engaged in a policy of drastic reduction of interest rates, for fear that the conjunction between the end of the so-called “Internet bubble” and the attacks of September 11 would drive the US economy into a recession. These considerations were compounded by the increasingly popular view that inflation was no longer a problem. The strong expansion of the late 1990s had been accompanied with little inflationary pressures and there were fears that the deflationary experience of Japan might hit the United States.

The result of these policies is that the US was in a regime of very low real interest rates. From 2002 to 2004, the federal funds rate did not exceed some 1.5 %, while inflation moved from 1.6 % to 2.7 % during that period. Thus short-term real interest rates were clearly negative. As for longer maturities, some real rates fell to 1.5 %. Many would argue that this was the right thing to do; GDP stayed at its potential level, or below it, and the incipient increase in unemployment was reversed.

The problem is that low interest rates not only stimulate the economy, they do plenty of other things. In other words, focusing only on GDP has costs and may generate mounting problems—the low rates policy makes a current recession better, but the next one may be worse.

One reason why the US economy is less inflation-prone than in the past is that a bigger share of any increase in domestic demand is absorbed by imports: the economy is more open than it used to be. Thus, instead of having “overheating” because demand is greater than supply, the gap between the two is filled by trade deficits. Hence, low rates stimulated consumer spending and the trade balance deteriorated by two percentage points of GDP. The US is rapidly accumulating foreign debt and that may lead to a brutal correction with a sharp drop in consumer spending and a large depreciation of the real exchange rate. In fact, that correction may have already begun. Yet the Fed is not supposed to look at the net foreign asset position of the US economy, even though both its deterioration and rising inflation are the symptom of the same problem – excess domestic demand.

The other issue is asset prices. When interest rates are very low, and expected to remain so, asset prices can be very high. In fact, when interest rates fall below the growth rate, assets become impossible to price. Consider, for example, a share that pays a dividend which grows at 5 % a year. With a 2% interest rate, it is profitable to buy that asset regardless of its price, because I only need to hold it for a sufficiently long time for the dividends to eventually exceed the interest payments. So the price of the asset is in principle infinite. In fact, people do not live forever, so they will have to sell the asset back at some point; but one can show that any change in markets' expectations about that future price can be validated by a corresponding change in the current price—so, the current price can be anything.

In particular, low interest rates may start asset bubbles. One mechanism is as follows. As the price starts rising due to lower interest rates, irrational speculators start buying the asset on the grounds that the price increases are going to continue. That fuels the price increase which may eventually develop into a bubble where all speculators, including the rational ones, pay a high price for the asset because they expect the price to be even higher in the future. So one by-product of the fall in interest rates is that real house prices started to go up very quickly.
To summarise, the low interest rate policy led to a wrong intertemporal price of consumption – consumption was too cheap today relative to the future – which led to excess spending and trade deficits. It also led to a mis-pricing of housing, which led to excess residential investment and excess borrowing by households. That is the price that was paid to make the 2001-2002 slowdown milder.

These imbalances have to be corrected. In principle, consumer spending can be brought down without the economy having to go through a recession, provided there is a sharp real depreciation of the US dollar, which would shift the structure of demand away from domestic spending and in favour of exports. On the other hand, the correction in house prices is likely to be contractionary. Some consumers have borrowed against the capital gains they made on their house, to purchase, for example, a second house or consumer durables. They are going to cut their consumption since they are more likely to become insolvent. As the collateral value of their houses falls, consumers will get less credit; hence a further drop in consumption. Furthermore, the securities backed by mortgages, subprime or otherwise, have been used as collateral by financial institutions; that collateral is worth less, thus reducing credit between those institutions. As a consequence, they will have more trouble lending to firms, so that investment will also be hit. The housing bubble has jeopardised the financial sector both because people have borrowed to hold it and because institutions have used the corresponding securities as collateral.

Because of this gloomy scenario, the Fed has been under pressure to cut rates. The problem is that such a policy is likely to perpetuate the current imbalances. Indirectly, it amounts to bailing out the poor loans and poor investment decisions made by many banks and households in the last five years. The bail-out comes at the expense of savers and new entrants in the housing market. The signal sent by the Fed is that it is sound to join any market fad or bubble provided enough people do so, because one will be rescued by low interest rates once things turn sour. Worse, the more people join, the greater the lobby in favour of an eventual bail-out.

All this suggests that the US has to go through a recession in order to get the required correction in house prices and consumer spending. Instead of pre-emptively cutting rates, the Fed should signal that it will not do so unless there are signs of severe trouble (and there are no such signs yet since the latest news on the unemployment front are good) and decide how much of a fall in GDP growth it is willing to go through before intervening. As an analogy, one may remember the Volcker deflation. It triggered a sharp recession which was after all short-lived and bought the US the end of high inflation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

High Oil Prices Will Save the World Economy?

Daniel Gros makes an interesting argument in the Financial Times today. Current high oil prices, he says, may just save the world economy from the intensifying credit squeeze. How so?

"The core of the issue is simple: oil producers tend to save about half of their windfall gains from higher oil prices. If the oil price stays around $90 a barrel, oil producers will increase their current account surpluses by $200bn-$300bn a year. The question will then be: who is willing and able to run corresponding deficits?"

In other words, the oil producing nations generate far more income than they spend and thus have excess savings. The excess savings will be lent out to (or used to buy assets from) countries willing to live beyond their means (i.e. run current account deficit). Since the world economy is being weighed down once again by tightening credit conditions that have emerged from the subprime mess, this injection of excess savings will provide the needed infusion of funding to keep the world economy going. Daniel Gros goes on to say,

"This prognosis implies, provided oil prices stay high, an ex ante savings surplus (in which surplus countries offer more savings than needed by deficit countries). That should lead to lower global real interest rates and/or higher asset prices – depending on the way petrodollars are recycled."

So excess savings from the oil exporters will keep real interest rates low and push asset prices back up. While I find this to be an interesting argument, I also find it confusing. Are we not in this current credit quagmire, in part, because of similar past excess savings from these same countries (and Asia) finding its way into the U.S. economy? (I say "in part" because I believe past U.S. monetary policy also played an important role) And why will there be more ex ante savings surplus this time around? If it is that oil prices are higher now, then why has there not been any impact already? I hope Daniel Gros is right and we soon see a lowering of spreads and easing of credit markets.

If, in fact, there will be more loanable funds coming to credit markets how will the underlying real economic distortions be worked out? Brad Sester provides one possibility in his posting "Should China buy Countrywide?": sell off U.S. assets, particularly troubled financial institutions invested in U.S. housing. He quotes Stephen Jen who says,

“We all know that SWFs [sovereign wealth funds] will have a very difficult time in the future, because of their vilified reputation. Buying cheap, strategic assets and appearing to be rescuing the US will carry immense long-term reputational benefits. More SWFs should jump in now, in my view. Countrywide would not be a bad choice. How much does it cost? Three weeks’ of reserve growth for China? Also, this may be the best time to buy US banks and financial institutions, as there would be the least political impediment to such inflows."

One implication, then, is that the excess savings will save the day as
foreigners indirectly (or directly in some cases) buy up the excess U.S. housing inventory. This brings a whole new meaning to home ownership in America.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Is History Repeating Itself?

As we watch the dollar continue to free fall, one thing that really strikes me is how similar these recent developments are to those taking place before the break up of the Bretton Woods System in the early 1970s. Back then, the periphery countries were importing a loose, inflationary monetary policy from the dominant anchor economy, the U.S. The periphery countries also had piled up large amount of dollar reserves that eventually lost value when the system cracked in 1971-1973. Today, the dominant anchor country once again is the U.S. and is exporting a loose, inflationary policy to the periphery countries (i.e. Asia and the Gulf States) who have acquired vast dollar reserves. These countries too are now taking a huge capital loss as the dollar falls. Will this system, called by some the Bretton Wood II System, also crack like the original? Are we living through a time where economic history is repeating itself?

Part of what got me thinking about these historical patterns was the lead article and a subsequent longer piece in the Economist on the dollar's fall. These articles do a nice job explaining the structural reasons--the pressures from the huge U.S. current account deficits are finally being felt--the and cyclical reasons--the increasingly probability of U.S. recession and further rate cuts--for the falling dollar. The Economist also provides an interesting discussion of whether this decline means the U.S. dollar will lose its reserve currency status (answer: not necessarily) and what it means for the global economy. I then followed up by reading Brad Sester's discussion on these same Economist articles. He especially makes a good case that contrary to conventional wisdom, central banks can have a meaningful influence in foreign exchange markets--just look at the influence of the BRICs and the Gulf States.

What a fascinating time to be alive... as long as I keep my job!