Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Forecasting Profitability": A New Study of Uncertainty and Investment

I hope macroeconomists don't overlook this new paper from the development literature: Forecasting Profitability, an NBER working paper by Mark Rosenzweig and Christopher R. Udry, provides an extremely concrete and clean example of how uncertainty can matter for an economy.  (They don't actually use the word uncertainty, because it's apparently not as much of a buzzword in other fields of economics right now as it is in macro.)

The uncertainty studied in this paper concerns the weather. The authors note that "in India the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has been issuing annual forecasts of the monsoon across the subcontinent since 1895, and it is widely reported in the Indian media that farmers’ livelihoods depend upon the accuracy of the forecast." From the introduction [emphasis added]:
"It is well‐established that agricultural profits in developing countries depend strongly on
weather realizations. It is similarly well‐known from the development economics literature that farmers without access to good insurance markets act conservatively, investing less on their farms and choosing crop mixes and cultivation techniques that reduce the volatility of farm profits at the expense of lower expected profits. Economists have focused valuable attention on policies and programs that can provide improved ex post mechanisms for dealing with the consequences of this variability. For example, innovations in insurance can spread risk across broader populations, or improved credit or savings institutions can permit more effective consumption‐smoothing over time...
Economists, however, have paid little attention to directly improving farmers’ capacity to deal
with weather fluctuations by improving the accuracy of forecasts of inter‐annual variations in weather. Like actuarially fair insurance, a perfectly accurate forecast of this year’s weather pattern, provided before a farmer makes his or her production decisions for the season, eliminates weather risk. However, a perfect forecast permits the farmer to make optimal production choices conditional on the realized weather and thus achieve higher profits on average compared with a risk‐neutral or perfectly‐insured farmer. The profit and welfare gains associated with improvements in the accuracy of long‐range forecasts (forecasts that cover, for example, an entire growing season) are potentially enormous, given the tremendous variability in profits and optimal investment choices across weather realizations."
Here's a bit about the methodology and results:
"In this paper we used newly‐available panel data on farmers in India to estimate how the
returns to planting‐stage investments vary by rainfall realizations using an IV strategy in which the Indian forecast of monsoon rainfall serves as the main instrument. We show that the Indian forecasts significantly affect farmer investment decisions and that these responses account for a substantial fraction of the inter‐annual variability in planting‐stage investments, that the skill of the forecasts vary across areas of India, and that farmers respond more strongly to the forecast where there is more forecast skill and not at all when there is no skill. Our profit‐function estimates indicate that Indian farmers on average under‐invest, by a factor of three, when we compare actual levels of investments with the optimal investment level that maximizes expected profits over the full distribution of rainfall realizations.
We also used our estimates to quantify how farmers’ responses to the forecast affect both the
level and variability in profits... These indicated that farmer’s use of the forecasts increased average profit levels but also increased profit variability compared with farmers without access to forecasts. Indeed, based on the actual behavior of the farmers, our estimates indicated that they do better than farmers who would undertake optimal, unconstrained investments but have no forecasts when rainfall realizations are high, but worse under adverse rainfall conditions. Finally, we also assessed how profit levels would increase in the future as forecast skill increases under current climate conditions and under conditions predicted by climate models. These exercises indicate that even modest skill improvements would substantially increase average profits, and slightly more so in a warmed climate."
Obviously, weather realizations affect farmers' livelihood. But the precision with which farmers can predict the weather ahead of time also affects their livelihood: less precision (more uncertainty) reduces investment and reduces expected profits. The above allusion to "a warmed climate" is an example of what an "uncertainty shock" could be in this context. If climate change increases weather volatility, then without an improvement in forecast skill, there would be more uncertainty. The model in the paper can get at quantifying the impact of that uncertainty shock. The paper also mentions a new government policy aimed at improving the economy through reducing uncertainty. Monsoon Mission, launched in India in 2012, has a five-year budget of $48 million to support research on improving weather forecasting ability.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Diversity in Economics

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, in an interview earlier this month, pointed out that there are no women on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). There also happen to be no female ministers in the Treasury. Carney suggested,
“What we have to do at the Bank of England is grow top female economists all the way through the ranks. That adds to the diversity in macroeconomic thinking, it adds to qualified candidates for the MPC including qualified candidates to be a future governor.” 
This seems like a reasonable message, but Philip Booth at the Institute of Economic Affairs wonders "why Osborne and Cameron are not hauling Carney in for a dressing down." He makes a deeply confusing comparison between Carney and Larry Summers, and then adds:
"It is worth noting that I am quite comfortable with the idea that the sexes are complementary and that, in any business, social or family situation, they may (on average) bring different characteristics to the table. However, if Carney holds this position, there are some interesting conclusions because, if it is accepted that women (on average) might exhibit certain skills in greater preponderance than men, then the opposite may have to be accepted too. But, let’s move on…"
Before moving on, though, what are these "interesting" conclusions? If men do exhibit certain skills (like passive-aggressive ellipses usage) in greater preponderance than women, do we really know that each of these man-skills are beneficial for monetary policymaking? 

Booth writes, "Surely, there can only be two reasons [for Carney's remarks] – that Carney believes that there are intrinsic differences between the ways in which men and women reason and assess evidence or that their social experiences are different from those of men who have similar career patterns."

Really, can these be the only two reasons? Isn't it also plausible that Carney thinks the lack of women on the MPC is a sign that some qualified candidates are, for various and perhaps subtle reasons, not making it into or up the ranks, and that excluding part of a talent pool is a generally bad idea? It is not just that the social experiences are different for men and women who have similar career patterns-- different social experiences also lead men and women to having different career patterns. Does Booth himself think that it is just a big coincidence that there are zero women out of nine on the committee? Surely his manly math skills are good enough that he doesn't chalk that up to random chance. So even though Booth is chiding Carney for implying that men and women are intrinsically different, he seems to be working off of some "interesting" assumptions himself.

Next, Booth manages to list eight female economists, but doesn't personally think that any of them would add diversity to the MPC. He thinks Gillian Tett might add diversity to the group, "but it is the fact that she is an anthropologist that ensures that her views add diversity, not the fact that she is a woman." (In fact, a survey of 400 economists documents notable differences of opinion between the genders.) Then he gets to the most telling paragraph:
"It does not follow that adding those women who choose to become economists to a group of male economists adds to the diversity of thinking of the group of economists. It may be the case...that those women who ‘add diversity’ in intellectual life do not choose to become economists. This would mean that women contribute to diversity in society but not necessarily to diversity amongst economists."
He is inadvertently proving Carney's point, just as he is trying to tear it down. If he thinks that intellectually diverse women do not choose to become economists, he needs to ask himself why that is. It might help to read Neil Irwin's article about what happens when a certain female economist does "contribute to diversity":
Yellen has a perfectly solid relationship with Bernanke, as best as I can tell, but she’s more of her own thinker within the institution. She has spent her time as vice chairwoman urging Bernanke and her other fellow policymakers to shift policy to try to do more to combat unemployment, and thinking through ways to do just that...And people dealing with her within the Fed have viewed her not so much as Bernanke’s emissary but as her own intellectual force within the organization.
Felix Salmon summarizes Irwin's reasons why the White House is uneasy about Yellen:
"The first is the 'team player' attack: Yellen is an independent thinker more than she is a loyal deputy to Bernanke... She never became part of the boys’ club which was making enormous decisions on a daily basis in the fall of 2008... The 'team player' argument, then, is basically the 'one of us' argument, thinly disguised. Which is the first place that the sexism comes in...
This second reason essentially takes the 'team player' argument past its breaking point, to the point at which the Obama team is basically saying 'Yellen needs to share our biggest weaknesses.'"
I hope this post was not too much of a rant. I just wanted to make the point that Governor Carney's remarks are perfectly acceptable and in fact welcome.

Monday, August 19, 2013

What Does Abenomics Feel Like?

Depending on whom you ask and when, Abenomics is or is not working, and Japan is or is not entering a recovery. What if you ask the people of Japan?

The closest thing to asking them is looking at the Bank of Japan's Opinion Survey on the General Public's Views and Behavior, a quarterly survey with a nationwide sample of 4,000 individuals who are at least 20 years old. The results from the June 2013 survey were recently released, giving us a glimpse of how the general public of Japan is experiencing economic life under Abe.

When asked, in the abstract, about the "growth potential" of the Japanese economy, responses are less pessimistic than in previous quarters.  But when asked about their own household's experience, the situation still looks pretty bleak. In one question, respondents are asked, "What do you think of your household circumstances compared with one year ago?" Only 4.9% say they are better off, while 39.2% say they are worse off, and the rest say it is difficult to tell. While not great, these numbers are a minor improvement over a year prior, when only 3.6% said they were better off and 47% said they were worse off. Of the households who reported worse circumstances, 73% said a reason was that their income decreased and 42% said a reason was that their income was not likely to increase in the future (they could choose multiple options).

The 4.9% of households who thought their circumstances improved were also asked why. About 22% responded that their interest income and dividend payments increased and 26% said it was because the value of their assets increased. Insofar as Abenomics has led to a rising Nikkei, this has only been enough to lead about one or two percent of households to notice improvements in their circumstances. (More households might have benefited from the rise, but not enough to offset other challenges.) The stock market rise greatly increased the net profits of regional banks, but the benefits don't seem to have been widely spread.

Positive inflation and higher inflation expectations are cornerstone goals of Abenomics. Deflation has plagued the Japanese economy since the latter half of the 1990s. Japan's CPI less food and energy rose 0.2% from a year earlier in June, the largest rise since 2008. At Bloomberg, Toru Fujioka and Andy Sharp report that "the world’s third-biggest economy may be starting to shake off 15 years of deflation." Fujioka and Sharp declare this a "Boost for Abe," and write that "the increase in consumer prices could stoke inflation expectations and encourage companies and consumers to spend more, bolstering the economic recovery."

The June 2013 survey shows that consumers are noticing rising prices and expect prices to continue to rise. In particular, 50.5% of survey respondents felt that prices had gone up in the previous year, and over 80% expect prices to go up over the next year. However, of the respondents who noticed rising prices, 81.6% described the price rise as "rather unfavorable." This makes it seem unlikely that stoked inflation expectations will encourage consumers to spend more. In fact, 44.8% of respondents plan to decrease their spending over the next year, and only 6.1% plan to increase spending.

I previously wrote a post about how Europeans really dislike inflation, even when it is low, but I think the reason Japanese consumers dread rising prices is different. If price inflation is not accompanied by wage inflation--and is not expected to be-- then the pass-through from inflation expectations to consumer spending is broken. Fujioka and Sharp quote Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management, saying “business executives must have forgotten how to increase pay after decades of deflation." Japanese companies are reluctant to raise base pay. In June, while average total monthly cash earnings, including overtime and bonuses, rose 0.1%, regular pay fell 0.2%. The rise in total earnings was attributable to higher summer bonuses. Over 80% of survey respondents are slightly or quite worried about working conditions such as pay, job position, and benefits.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Index

The title of Matt O'Brien's recent post--"Uncertainty Isn't Killing the Recovery"-- summarizes a slurry of recent articles. O'Brien writes, "as Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post points out, uncertainty has actually fallen a lot the past few months, but hiring hasn't picked up." Tankersley's title proclaims a similar message: "'Uncertainty' Isn't a Problem Anymore."

The boldest title of all (no surprise) comes from Paul Krugman: "Another Bad Story Bites The Dust."

I thought about following the Very Descriptive Titles trend and calling my post "Whoa, Whoa, Wait a Minute Guys," or "Let's Not Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater Just Yet" or "Uncertainty Might Matter So Maybe We Should Let Smart People Keep Studying It If They Want." (But I was too much of a nerd to resist the title I actually chose, which I will eventually explain.) Legitimate criticism of political discourse is one thing. But we shouldn't, in the meanwhile, dismiss a large, promising, and growing area of research.

The recent articles find fault with the Economic Policy Uncertainty index of Scott Baker and Nick Bloom of Stanford and Stephen Davis of the University of Chicago. The index is based in part on how often major newspapers talk about phrases related to economic policy uncertainty. The basic idea of the criticism has to do with uncertainty a la Heisenberg. The non-technical version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that, in observing something, we change it. The usual context is quantum mechanics, but it applies in other contexts too. In this context, the idea is that once the Economic Policy Uncertainty index was publicized, conservative politicians and pundits found it a useful talking point, and by talking and writing about it so much, they actually drove the index higher. So what the economists were observing--the frequency of mentions of uncertainty-related phrases-- was actually altered by the attempt to observe it.

This is a valid, but not devastating point. First, we don't know how large this "Heisenberg effect" is. Conservative punditry could have had only a small effect on the index. Second, it is not that hard to think of ways to improve the index to minimize this problem. Simplest idea: exclude articles that include the exact phrase "economic policy uncertainty index" or the words Baker, Bloom, Davis, Stanford, or Chicago. Slightly less simple idea: Aren't there really sophisticated quantitative text analysis tools available these days that could measure the amount of uncertainty in the tone of economics/business articles? Third, and most important, is that there is much more to Baker, Bloom, and Davis' research than the index itself. Bloom's 2007 paper, "The Impact of Uncertainty Shocks"--written before the construction of the index-- helped kick off a surge of macroeconomic uncertainty research. Many of Baker, Bloom, and Davis' contributions, and those of authors they have motivated, have been theoretical. A slightly flawed measure beats no measure at all if it encourages researchers to pay attention to an important subject. And I would venture to guess that the vast majority of these researchers are not motivated by a political agenda. They are motivated by the desire to understand something they think might really matter.

For what it's worth, I think the Economic Policy Uncertainty index does have decent construct validity. The creators of the index make an analogous index for Europe. In an unpublished working paper, I make a totally different uncertainty index for Europe, based on the how uncertain professional forecasters are in their probabilistic forecasts for GDP growth 2-years ahead. (I chose Europe instead of the US because of data availability.) My uncertainty measure is plotted along with the Economic Policy Uncertainty index below; the correlation coefficient is 0.8. The fact that they are created by totally different methodologies, from totally different data sources, and yet are this highly correlated, makes me think that there is at least some measurement validity.

I appreciate John Aziz's more moderately-titled post, "On Policy Uncertainty," in which he writes:
Krugman is right to... trash those who view the sluggishness of the recovery as solely Obama’s fault. But he’s wrong, I think, to throw policy uncertainty out of the window entirely as a proximate cause of some of the problem’s we’re now facing.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Raghuram Rajan is Not Paul Volcker

Raghuram Rajan will take over leadership of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on September 4. The BBC lists some of the challenges facing the Indian economy, including a large current account deficit, weak rupee, the slowest growth in a decade (around 5%), and inequality, adding, "Many believe that the single biggest failure of the government's economic policies in recent years has been the inability to control inflation in general and food prices in particular."

It's clear that Rajan will have his work cut out for him, but what kind of work will that be? 

"The monetary situation is such that he may be forced to act as India’s Paul Volcker, hiking up rates and perhaps even orchestrating a recession to get the currency and inflation under control," writes Dylan Matthews. Matthews notes that "By law, India’s central bank doesn’t have much political independence, as Rajan serves at the pleasure of the government and can be sacked at any time. That could deter him from making tough moves against inflation that could have unpopular implications for growth. But Subramanian thinks he’ll have a great deal of flexibility in practice, even if the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party comes to power again."

There is a tendency to want to frame the challenges of the Indian economy in terms of a power struggle between monetary and fiscal authorities-- an "unseemly battle of wits over interest rates," according to Rajrishi Singhal at Bloomberg.  Singhal describes how the Finance Ministry has piled pressure on Rajan's predecessor, RBI Governor Duvvuri Subbarao, to keep rates low. The idea is that, if only the new Governor can stand up to "bullying" and raise rates, then inflation and the rupee can be stabilized. But India in 2013 is not the U.S. in 1979, and Raghuram Rajan need not imitate Paul Volcker.

A central banker's role in India is much different than a central banker's role in the United States or Europe. Monetary policy, remember, is ultimately based on frictions. Prices and inflation are nominal variables. In a frictionless economy, there is no role for monetary policy. It is because of certain frictions that monetary policy can have short-run effects, and these frictions provide the justification for using monetary policy to stabilize economic fluctuations over the business cycle. The optimal monetary policy depends on the nature and magnitude of these frictions. Sticky prices and sticky information are the two categories of frictions most used in the analysis of monetary policy. Both have similar implications for how monetary policy should generally work.

The theory behind the Taylor rule is based on the sticky price friction. The rule recommends a relatively high interest rate or “tight” policy when inflation or employment is relatively high, and a relatively low interest rate in the opposite scenario. According to the Taylor rule, India's policy rates are currently too low. As Ashok Rao writes (in a very excellent post), "A healthy Taylor rule requires an accurate estimate of the output gap which is founded on long-run trend growth. “Trend” growth is a useless concept in countries like India and China, whose growth rates have both a high mean and variance."

But there may be a more fundamental reason why the Taylor rule is not suitable for India. The Taylor rule is based on the sticky price friction, which may not be the dominant friction. Amartya Lahiri suggests that the dominant friction is asset market segmentation (emphasis added).
A well-known feature of the Indian economy is that access to asset markets and instruments is extremely limited. About 140 million households in India do not have access to any formal banking at all. Consequently, less than half of all individuals have access to any formal financial services...It is thus abundantly clear that there is endemic and widespread segmentation in asset markets in India with only a small subset of India having access to formal asset markets. But curiously, discussions about monetary policy in India are completely divorced from this asset market segmentation."
How does asset market segmentation impact the monetary policy calculus? In this case the central bank needs to use monetary policy to provide insurance to those that are absent from these markets. This policy imperative can naturally imply very different monetary policy responses relative to when prices are sticky.
Rajesh Singh, Amartya Lahiri, and Carlos Vegh study optimal monetary policy in environments with segmented asset markets. As Lahiri summarizes,
Intuitively, the role of policy under this friction is to protect households that are excluded from asset markets from excessive fluctuations in their consumption levels. When output is high, consumption of these households tends to rise due to (a) higher income; and (b) higher real money balances as the exchange rate tends to appreciate. By expanding money supply, the central bank can inflate away some of the increase in real balances and thereby moderate the rise in consumption. This procyclicality of the optimal monetary policy is clearly at odds with the Taylor rule prescription that monetary policy should be countercyclical.
The authors also find that asset market segmentation has surprising effects on optimal exchange rate regimes (effectively the opposite of the Mudellian model). They come down in favor of targeting monetary aggregates instead of targeting the exchange rate. The model of Singh et al. is admittedly very stylized and I have found no existing tests of its empirical implications. So I am certainly not actually recommending that Rajan rush to lower interest rates. Nor am I suggesting that Rao's proposal of a rule-based exchange rate policy should be off the table.

Rather, I just intend to highlight the topsy-turvy theoretical results that can arise when we alter the foundations of our models; in particular, when we acknowledge lack of financial inclusion as a significant friction. I also believe that an important role for Rajan, perhaps more important than any decision about interest rates, will be in reforming the financial system and promoting financial inclusion. I am very optimistic on this front. The Financial Times reports that "economists who know Mr Rajan well say helping hundreds of millions of Indians get access to efficient financial services is close to his heart." In 2008, he wrote "A Hundred Small Steps," a report on financial sector reforms. I am most impressed by his inclusion in Chapter 3, "Broadening Access to Finance," of this chart, which shows the interest rates actually paid by people in each income quartile.

It appears that he is quite sensitive to the severity of asset market segmentation in India and to the fact that interest rate movements are not evenly transmitted across all segments of the population.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Financial Innovation and Speculation

Financial innovation is generally presumed to facilitate diversification and risk sharing. A new paper by Alp Simsek, "Speculation and Risk Sharing with New Financial Assets," suggests that increased speculation may be an additional effect of financial innovation.

The key insight underlying Simsek's theoretical model, and a fact ignored by the traditional literature on financial innovation and portfolio risk, is that market participants are likely to disagree about how to value financial assets. His thesis is that "belief disagreements change the implications of financial innovation for portfolio risks." An existing large literature analyzes the implications of belief disagreements for trading volume and asset prices, but the novelty of Simsek's paper is to analyze the implications of belief disagreements on portfolio riskiness.

In the model, traders take positions in a set of financial assets, allowing them to share and diversify some of their income risks. Suppose traders have heterogeneous beliefs about the payoffs of some asset. The introduction of a new asset leads to riskier portfolios through two channels. First is a direct channel. An investor who is more optimistic than average about the asset’s payoff may take a positive net position in the asset even if her background risk covaries positively with the asset payoff. This is a speculative bet, since it increases the riskiness of her portfolio. Second is a less direct channel called the hedge-more/bet-more effect, through which a new asset amplifies risky bets about existing assets. To illustrate this effect, Simsek gives an example of two currency traders taking positions in the Swiss franc (existing asset) and the euro (new asset):
"Traders have different views about the franc but not the euro, perhaps because they disagree about the prospects of the Swiss economy but not the euro zone. First, suppose traders can only take positions on the franc. In this case, traders do not take too large speculative positions because the franc is affected by several sources of risks, some of which they don’t disagree about. Traders must bear all of these risks, which makes them reluctant to speculate. Next suppose the euro is also introduced for trade. In this case, traders complement their positions in the franc by taking opposite positions in the euro. By doing so, traders hedge the risks that also affect the euro, which enables them to take purer bets on the franc. When traders are able to take purer bets, they also take larger and riskier bets. Consequently, the introduction of the euro in this example increases portfolio risks even though traders do not disagree about its payoff."
A very interesting portion of the paper concerns the endogenous introduction of new assets. New assets do not just exogenously appear in practice. Rather, they are introduced by agents with profit incentives. The literature on endogenous financial innovation tends to emphasize the risk-sharing motive as a driving force. But is the risk-sharing motive for financial innovation still dominant even with belief disagreement? Simsek writes:
"I address this question by introducing a profit-seeking market maker that innovates new assets for which it subsequently serves as the intermediary. The market maker’s expected profits are proportional to traders’ willingness to pay to trade the new assets. Thus, traders’ speculative trading motive and their risk-sharing motive create innovation incentives... When belief disagreements are sufficiently large, the endogenous assets maximize the average variance among all possible choices. Intuitively, the market maker innovates speculative assets that enable traders to bet most precisely on their disagreements, completely disregarding the risk-sharing motive."
Simsek explicitly avoids drawing any policy implications from his results, "because financial innovation might also affect welfare through various other channels not captured in this model." Simsek's paper is motivated by the proliferation of new financial assets in recent years, such as new types of futures, swaps, options, and exotic derivatives. I presume that he has in mind the possibility that the introduction of these assets played a role in the financial crisis, through the theoretical mechanisms detailed in his paper. There are many other historical episodes in which the introduction of a new type of asset was followed by a speculative episode. In the seventeenth century, for example, tulip bulbs took on the role of an asset; intense speculation and an eventual market crash followed. Shares of the South Sea Company were also a new sort of asset upon their introduction in the 18th century, and also prompted speculation.