Thursday, March 27, 2014

Back To This...

It's been a while since I posted a Gary Larson. This one is one of my all time favorites. I suppose it could serve as a kind of allegory for those experts who think our labor market is being restrained by a skills-mismatch between employers and the unemployed. Or maybe it just makes me laugh.

Anyway, please visit my new site as well for a more serious take on economic news and analysis.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

We've Expanded!

Unlike the U.S. Economy during the duration of this blog, our operation has just undergone a substantial expansion. Please visit us at  for news, commentary, a whole host of spreadsheet models and all your favorite FRED Data Transformations.

Meanwhile, this blog will revert to what it once was, a less serious and tedious platform that isn't shy about posting Gary Larson and bad puns, as well as economics.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Self-Indulgent Argument Time: Leverage is a Feature, Not a Bug

Time to pay homage to this blog's silly title and go on a bit of a rant. I'm going to voice what on the face of itself may appear to be an absurd, reactionary promulgation, but here goes: Limits on financial leverage imposed on banks are counter-productive.

In fact, not only have I concluded that limits on leverage are wrong, I'll go one step further: I'm willing to postulate that nine out of every ten people in favor of strict leverage limits haven't really thought through the dynamics of their position, or perhaps are a bit unclear of the parameters of the issue entirely.

Here's the reason why. When all is said and done, "financial intermediation" and "leverage" are actually the same thing. Synonymous. By-words for each other. When a bank accepts a dollar in deposit from a customer and lends $0.90 of it out (keeping $0.10 on reserve at the Fed of course), that increases the bank's leverage, because it has issued a liability in the form of the deposit and acquired an asset with the proceeds in the form of the loan + the reserve it now claims on the Fed. If this leverage- and- risk- multiplying transaction sounds suspiciously like old fashioned "banking," its because it is. Banks borrow funds from net creditors and lend them to net debtors, pocketing the spread between interest paid to the creditors and that charged to the debtors.

Pundits and commentators eager to reign in the "big banks" and Wall Street in general often portray the phenomena of leverage in a far more exotic form, as if it were a fundamentally unsound and dangerous proposition. In the parlance of the cognoscenti, banks "gamble with borrowed money," which is actually the same thing as lending out deposits.

As Alan Greenspan wrote in the memoirs, when considering the implication of an argument, it can help clarify the point if one carries the argument to its logical extreme and see if it makes sense. If the answer to financial stability is strict limits on bank leverage, why not ban leverage entirely? Wealthy shareholders could get together and pool their money into capital funds, and lend it out to borrowers, while accepting no deposits from the common sort of people who presently use banks and thus increase those bank's leverage. The rest of us could resort to stuffing our life savings under the mattress, or bury it in the desert and hope no one finds out. Come to think of it, it makes me wonder if the whole financial regulation movement hasn't been secretly underwritten by the safe manufacturing industry from the very start.

Crimea, Putin, and the End of Economic Unilateralism

The specter of American decline has loomed large in the imaginations of the talking heads in the media and in politicians who offer purported solutions to avoid calamity. We hear about unfair Chinese trade practices hollowing out American industry, the test scores of students in South Korea and Finland relative to our own, or the inevitable collapse of the dollar as its value strains under the weight of our perennial current account deficits.

While most of this has is genesis in hype and speculation, one fact cannot go unacknowledged: the economic hegemony of the United States, and the resulting ability of U.S. policymakers to wield near omnipotent power of foreign governments and institutions, is at an end. This new state of affairs is made painfully evident by the ease of which Vladimir Putin has walked into Crimea and conducted an effective annexation, despite clear objections from Washington, and Brussels to boot.

The reason Mr. Putin has (correctly) calculated that he can get away with this hitherto unthinkable maneuver is simple: He's got the economic muscle to back it up. While Russia's economy may have many critical structural weaknesses that preclude its workers from enjoying standards of living on par with those in Western Europe and North America, it does pull in hundreds of billions of dollars per annum in the form of natural gas and crude oil exports. As a result, Russia has accrued in the neighborhood of $500 billion in foreign exchange reserves, to which is adds every year by dint of its secular current account surplus. This war chest gives the Kremlin the confidence and ability to literally march to its own tune, secure in the knowledge that it can pay its bills regardless of ire it may cause on Capitol Hill. And with demand for fossil fuels ever increasing from developing economies, don't count on this windfall to dry up on any foreseeable time horizon.

The point of all this is not that the primacy of the United States is over, but rather that Washington must accustom itself to playing more of a "first among equals" role on the international political stage. The alternative is for future U.S. Presidents and policymakers to make bold proclamations and draw lines in the sand- lines over which our competitors will be increasingly non-hesitant to march.