Saturday, May 9, 2015

Spring 2015 Journal of Economic Perspectives On-line

Since 1986, my actual paid job (as opposed to my blogging hobby) has been Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The journal is published by the American Economic Association, which several years back made the decision--much to my delight--that the journal would be freely available on-line, from the current issue back to the first issue in 1987. The journal's website is here. I'll start here with Table of Contents for the just-released Spring 2015 issue. Below are abstracts and direct links to all the paper. I will probably blog about some of the individual papers in the next week or two, as well.

Symposium: The Bailouts of 2007-2009

"A Retrospective Look at Rescuing and Restructuring General Motors and Chrysler," by Austan D. Goolsbee and Alan B. Krueger

The rescue of the US automobile industry amid the 2008-2009 recession and financial crisis was a consequential, controversial, and difficult decision made at a fraught moment for the US economy. Both of us were involved in the decision process at the time, but since have moved back to academia. More than five years have passed since the bailout began, and it is timely to look back at this unusual episode of economic policymaking to consider what we got right, what we got wrong, and why. In this article, we describe the events that brought two of the largest industrial companies in the world to seek a bailout from the US government, the analysis that was used to evaluate the decision (including what the alternatives were and whether a rescue would even work), the steps that were taken to rescue and restructure General Motors and Chrysler, and the performance of the US auto industry since the bailout. We close with general lessons to be learned from the episode.
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"The Rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," by W. Scott Frame, Andreas Fuster, Joseph Tracy and James Vickery

The imposition of federal conservatorships on September 6, 2008, at the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation—commonly known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—was one of the most dramatic events of the financial crisis. These two government-sponsored enterprises play a central role in the US housing finance system, and at the start of their conservatorships held or guaranteed about $5.2 trillion of home mortgage debt. The two firms were often cited as shining examples of public-private partnerships—that is, the harnessing of private capital to advance the social goal of expanding homeownership. But in reality, the hybrid structures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were destined to fail at some point, owing to their singular exposure to resident ial real estate and moral hazard incentives emanating from the implicit guarantee of their liabilities. We describe the financial distress experienced by the two firms, the events that led the federal government to take dramatic action in an effort to stabilize housing and financial markets, and the various resolution options available to US policymakers at the time; and we evaluate the success of the choice of conservatorship in terms of its effects on financial markets and financial stability, on mortgage supply, and on the financial position of the two firms themselves. Conservatorship achieved its key short-run goals of stabilizing mortgage markets and promoting financial stability during a period of extreme stress. However, conservatorship was intended to be a temporary fix, not a long-term solution, and more than six years later, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still remain in conservatorship.
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"An Assessment of TARP Assistance to Financial Institutions," by Charles W. Calomiris and Urooj Khan

Six years after the passage of the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, commonly known as TARP, it remains hard to measure the total social costs and benefits of the assistance to banks provided under TARP programs. TARP was not a single approach to assisting weak banks but rather a variety of changing solutions to a set of evolving problems. TARP's passage was associated with significant improvements in financial markets and the health of financial intermediaries, as well as an increase in the supply of lending by recipients. However, a full evaluation must also take into account other factors, including the risks borne by taxpayers in the course of the bailouts; moral-hazard costs that could result in more risk-taking in the future; and social costs related to perceived unfairness. Our evaluation is organized in five parts: 1) What did policymakers do? 2) What are the proper objectives of interventions like TARP assistance to financial institutions? 3) Did TARP succeed in those economic objectives? 4) Were TARP funds allocated purely on an economic basis, or did political favoritism play a role? 5) Would alternative policies, either alongside or instead of TARP, and alternative design features of TARP, have worked better?
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"AIG in Hindsight," by Robert McDonald and Anna Paulson

The near-failure on September 16, 2008, of American International Group (AIG) was an iconic moment in the financial crisis. Two large bets on real estate made with funding vulnerable to bank-run-like dynamics pushed AIG to the brink of bankruptcy. AIG used securities lending to transform insurance company assets into residential mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, ultimately losing at least $21 billion and threatening the solvency of the life insurance companies. AIG also sold insurance on multisector collateralized debt obligations, backed by real estate assets, ultimately losing more than $30 billion. These activities were apparently motivated by a belief that AIG's real estate bets would not suffer defaults and were "money-good." We find that these securities have in fact suffered write-downs and that the stark "money-good" claim can be rejected. Ultimately, both liquidity and solvency were issues for AIG.
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"Legal, Political, and Institutional Constraints on the Financial Crisis Policy Response," by Phillip Swagel

As the financial crisis manifested itself and peaked in 2007 and 2008, the response of US policymakers and regulators was shaped in important ways by legal and political constraints. Policymakers lacked certain legal authorities that would have been useful for addressing the crisis, notably to use public capital to stabilize the banking sector or to deal with the failure of large financial firms such as insurance companies and investment banks that were outside the scope of bank regulators' authority to resolve deposit-taking commercial banks. Legal constraints were keenly felt at the US Department of the Treasury, where I served as a senior official from December 2006 to January 2009. Treasury had virtually no emergency economic authority at the onset of the crisis in 2007, with the exception of the Treasury's Exchange Stabilization Fund, which was intended for use in exchange rate interventions. As the systemic risks of the financial crisis became apparent, the initial policy response largely fell to the Federal Reserve, which had the authority to act under emergency circumstances. There will inevitably be another financial crisis, and the response will be shaped by both the lessons learned from recent history and the statutory and political changes in the wake of the crisis. The paper thus concludes by discussing changes in constraints since the crisis, with a focus on two developments: 1) the political reality that there will not in the near future be another wide-ranging grant of fiscal authority as was given with the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and 2) the new legal authorities provided in the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, commonly known as the Dodd-Frank law.
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Symposium: Disability Insurance

"Understanding the Increase in Disability Insurance Benefit Receipt in the United States," by Jeffrey B. Liebman

The share of working-age Americans receiving disability benefits from the federal Disability Insurance (DI) program has increased significantly in recent decades, from 2.2 percent in the late 1970s to 3.6 percent in the years immediately preceding the 2007-2009 recession and 4.6 percent in 2013. With the federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund currently projected to be depleted in 2016, Congressional action of some sort is likely to occur within the next several years. It is therefore a good time to sort out the competing explanations for the increase in disability benefit receipt and to review some of the ideas that economists have put forth for reforming US disability programs.
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"The Rise and Fall of Disability Insurance Enrollment in the Netherlands," by Pierre Koning and Maarten Lindeboom
As recently as 15 years ago, the high level of Disability Insurance (DI) enrollment was considered to be one of the major social and economic problems of the Netherlands; indeed, the Netherlands was characterized as the country with the most out-of-control disability program of OECD countries. But since about 2002, the Netherlands has seen a spectacular decline in its Disability Insurance enrollment rate. Radical reforms to the Dutch DI system were implemented over the period 1996 to 2006. We cluster these reforms in three broad categories: 1) reducing the incentives of employers to move workers to disability; 2) increased gatekeeping; and 3) tightening disability eligibility criteria while enhancing worker incentives. The reforms appear to have been very effective. Since 2002, yearly DI inflow ra tes dropped from 1.5 percent in 2001 to about 0.5 percent of the insured population in 2012. We argue that particularly the interaction of employer incentives and formal employer obligations has contributed to the substantial decrease in DI inflow. On the downside, however, it seems workers with bad health have sorted into temporary employment—without employers bearing the financial responsibility of their benefit costs.
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"Disability Benefit Receipt and Reform: Reconciling Trends in the United Kingdom," by James Banks, Richard Blundell and Carl Emmerson

The UK has enacted a number of reforms to the structure of disability benefits that has made it a major case study for other countries thinking of reform. The introduction of Incapacity Benefit in 1995 coincided with a strong decline in disability benefit expenditure, reversing previous sharp increases. From 2008 the replacement of Incapacity Benefit with Employment and Support Allowance was intended to reduce spending further. We bring together administrative and survey data over the period and highlight key differences in receipt of disability benefits by age, sex, and health. These disability benefit reforms and the trends in receipt are also put into the context of broader trends in health and employment by education and sex. We document a growing proportion of claimants in any age group with mental and behavioral disorders as their principal health condition. We also show the decline in the number of older working age men receiving disability benefits to have been partially offset by growth in the number of younger women receiving these benefits. We speculate on the impact of disability reforms on employment.
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"Reforming LIBOR and Other Financial Market Benchmarks," Darrell Duffie and Jeremy C. Stein

LIBOR is the London Interbank Offered Rate: a measure of the interest rate at which large banks can borrow from one another on an unsecured basis. LIBOR is often used as a benchmark rate—meaning that the interest rates that consumers and businesses pay on trillions of dollars in loans adjust up and down contractually based on movements in LIBOR. Investors also rely on the difference between LIBOR and various risk-free interest rates as a gauge of stress in the banking system. Benchmarks such as LIBOR therefore play a central role in modern financial markets. Thus, news reports in 2008 revealing widespread manipulation of LIBOR threatened the integrity of this benchmark and lowered trust in financial markets. We begin with a discussion of the economic role of benchmarks in reducing market frictions. We explain how manipulation occurs in practice, and illustrate how benchmark definitions and fixing methods can mitigate manipulation. We then turn to an overall policy approach for reducing the susceptibility of LIBOR to manipulation before focusing on the practical problem of how to make an orderly transition to alternative reference rates without raising undue legal risks.
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"Bitcoin: Economics, Technology, and Governance," by Rainer B√∂hme, Nicolas Christin, Benjamin Edelman and Tyler Moore

Bitcoin is an online communication protocol that facilitates the use of a virtual currency, including electronic payments. Bitcoin's rules were designed by engineers with no apparent influence from lawyers or regulators. Bitcoin is built on a transaction log that is distributed across a network of participating computers. It includes mechanisms to reward honest participation, to bootstrap acceptance by early adopters, and to guard against concentrations of power. Bitcoin's design allows for irreversible transactions, a prescribed path of money creation over time, and a public transaction history. Anyone can create a Bitcoin account, without charge and without any centralized vetting procedure—or even a requirement to provide a real name. Collectively, these rules yield a system that is understood to be more flexible, more private, and less amenable to regulatory oversight than other forms of payment—though as we discuss, all these benefits face important limits. Bitcoin is of interest to economists as a virtual currency with potential to disrupt existing payment systems and perhaps even monetary systems. This article presents the platform's design principles and properties for a nontechnical audience; reviews its past, present, and future uses; and points out risks and regulatory issues as Bitcoin interacts with the conventional financial system and the real economy.
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"Systematic Bias and Nontransparency in US Social Security Administration Forecasts," by Konstantin Kashin, Gary King and Samir Soneji
We offer an evaluation of the Social Security Administration demographic and financial forecasts used to assess the long-term solvency of the Social Security Trust Funds. This same forecasting methodology is also used in evaluating policy proposals put forward by Congress to modify the Social Security program. Ours is the first evaluation to compare the SSA forecasts with observed truth; for example, we compare forecasts made in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s with outcomes that are now available. We find that Social Security Administration forecasting errors—as evaluated by how accurate the forecasts turned out to be—were approximately unbiased until 2000 and then became systematically biased afterward, and increasingly so over time. Also, most of the forecasting err ors since 2000 are in the same direction, consistently misleading users of the forecasts to conclude that the Social Security Trust Funds are in better financial shape than turns out to be the case. Finally, the Social Security Administration's informal uncertainty intervals appear to have become increasingly inaccurate since 2000. At present, the Office of the Chief Actuary, at the Social Security Administration, does not reveal in full how its forecasts are made. Every future Trustees Report, without exception, should include a routine evaluation of all prior forecasts, and a discussion of what forecasting mistakes were made, what was learned from the mistakes, and what actions might be taken to improve forecasts going forward. And the Social Security Administration and its Office of the Chief Actuary should follow best practices in academia and many other parts of government and make their forecasting procedures public and replicable, and should calculate and report calibrated un certainty intervals for all forecasts.
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"Recommendations for Further Reading," by Timothy Taylor
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