Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Summer 2017 Journal of Economic Perspectives Available Online

I was hired back in 1986 to be the Managing Editor for a new academic economics journal, at the time unnamed, but which soon was launched as the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The JEP is published by the American Economic Association, which back in 2011 decided--to my delight--that it would be freely available on-line, from the current issue back to the first issue. Here, I'll start with Table of Contents for the just-released Summer 2017 issue, which in the Taylor household is sometimes known as issue #121. Below that are abstracts and direct links for all of the papers. I will almost certainly blog about some of the individual papers in the next week or two, as well.


Symposium: The Global Monetary System

"International Monetary Relations: Taking Finance Seriously," by Maurice Obstfeld and Alan M. Taylor
In this essay, we highlight the interactions of the international monetary system with financial conditions, not just with the output, inflation, and balance of payments goals usually discussed. We review how financial conditions and outright financial crises have posed difficulties for each of the main international monetary systems in the last 150 years or so: the gold standard, the interwar period, the Bretton Woods system, and the current system of floating exchange rates. We argue that even as the world economy has evolved and sentiments have shifted among widely different policy regimes, there remain three fundamental challenges for any international monetary and financial system: How should exchange rates between national currencies be determined? How can countries with balance of payments deficits reduce these without sharply contracting their economies and with minimal risk of possible negative spillovers abroad? How can the international system ensure that countries have access to an adequate supply of international liquidity—financial resources generally acceptable to foreigners in all circumstances? In concluding, we evaluate how the current international monetary system answers these questions.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"The Safe Assets Shortage Conundrum," by Ricardo J. Caballero, Emmanuel Farhi and Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas
A safe asset is a simple debt instrument that is expected to preserve its value during adverse systemic events. The supply of safe assets, private and public, has historically been concentrated in a small number of advanced economies, most prominently the United States. Over the last few decades, with minor cyclical interruptions, the supply of safe assets has not kept up with global demand. The reason is straightforward: the collective growth rate of the advanced economies that produce safe assets has been lower than the world's growth rate, which has been driven disproportionately by the high growth rate of high-saving emerging economies such as China. The signature of this growing shortage is a steady increase in the price of safe assets; equivalently, global safe interest rates must decline, as has been the case since the 1980s. The early literature, brought to light by Ben Bernanke's famous "savings glut" speech of 2005, focused on a general shortage of assets without isolating its safe asset component. The distinction, however, has become increasingly important over time, particularly in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis and its sequels. We begin by describing the main facts and macroeconomic implications of safe asset shortages. Faced with such a structural conundrum, what are the likely short- to medium-term escape valves? We analyze four of them, each with its own macroeconomic and financial trade-offs.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Dealing with Monetary Paralysis at the Zero Bound," by Kenneth Rogoff
Recently, the key constraint for central banks is the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates. Central banks fear that if they push short-term policy interest rates too deeply negative, there will be a massive flight into paper currency. This paper asks whether, in a world where paper currency is becoming increasingly vestigial outside small transactions (at least in the legal, tax compliant economy), there might be relatively simple ways to finesse the zero bound without affecting how most ordinary people live. Surprisingly, this question gets little attention compared to the massive number of articles that take the zero bound as given and look for out-of-the-box solutions for dealing with it. In an inversion of the old joke, it is a bit as if the economics literature has insisted on positing "assume we don't have a can opener," without considering the possibility that we might be able to devise one. It makes sense not to wait until the next financial crisis to develop plans. Fundamentally, there is no practical obstacle to paying negative (or positive) interest rates on electronic currency and, as we shall see, effective negative rate policy does not require eliminating paper currency.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

Symposium: The Modern Corporation

"Is the US Public Corporation in Trouble?" by Kathleen M. Kahle and René M. Stulz
We examine the current state of the US public corporation and how it has evolved over the last 40 years. After falling by 50 percent since its peak in 1997, the number of public corporations is now smaller than 40 years ago. These corporations are now much larger and over the last twenty years have become much older; they invest differently, as the average firm invests more in R&D than it spends on capital expenditures; and compared to the 1990s, the ratio of investment to assets is lower, especially for large firms. Public firms have record high cash holdings and, in most recent years, the average firm has more cash than long-term debt. Measuring profitability by the ratio of earnings to assets, the average firm is less profitable, but that is driven by smaller firms. Earnings of public firms have become more concentrated—the top 200 firms in profits earn as much as all public firms combined. Firms' total payouts to shareholders as a percent of earnings are at record levels. Possible explanations for the current state of the public corporation include a decrease in the net benefits of being a public company, changes in financial intermediation, technological change, globalization, and consolidation through mergers.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"The Agency Problems of Institutional Investors," by Lucian A. Bebchuk, Alma Cohen and Scott Hirst
Financial economics and corporate governance have long focused on the agency problems between corporate managers and shareholders that result from the dispersion of ownership in large publicly traded corporations. In this paper, we focus on how the rise of institutional investors over the past several decades has transformed the corporate landscape and, in turn, the governance problems of the modern corporation. The rise of institutional investors has led to increased concentration of equity ownership, with most public corporations now having a substantial proportion of their shares held by a small number of institutional investors. At the same time, these institutions are controlled by investment managers, which have their own agency problems vis-á-vis their own beneficial investors. We develop an analytical framework for understanding the agency problems of institutional investors, and apply it to examine the agency problems and behavior of several key types of investment managers, including those that manage mutual funds—both index funds and actively managed funds—and activist hedge funds. We show that index funds have especially poor incentives to engage in stewardship activities that could improve governance and increase value. Activist hedge funds have substantially better incentives than managers of index funds or active mutual funds. While their activities may partially compensate, we show that they do not provide a complete solution for the agency problems of other institutional investors.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"Towards a Political Theory of the Firm," by Luigi Zingales
The revenues of large companies often rival those of national governments, and some companies have annual revenues higher than many national governments. Among the largest corporations in 2015, some had private security forces that rivaled the best secret services, public relations offices that dwarfed a US presidential campaign headquarters, more lawyers than the US Justice Department, and enough money to capture (through campaign donations, lobbying, and even explicit bribes) a majority of the elected representatives. The only powers these large corporations missed were the power to wage war and the legal power of detaining people, although their political influence was sufficiently large that many would argue that, at least in certain settings, large corporations can exercise those powers by proxy. Yet in economics, the commonly prevailing view of the firm ignores all these elements of politics and power. We must recognize that large firms have considerable power to influe nce the rules of the game. I call attention to the risk of a "Medici vicious circle," in which economic and political power reinforce each other. The possibility and extent of a "Medici vicious circle" depends upon several nonmarket factors. I discuss how they should be incorporated in a broader "Political Theory" of the firm.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials

"A Skeptical View of Financialized Corporate Governance," by Anat R. Admati
Managerial compensation typically relies on financial yardsticks, such as profits, stock prices, and return on equity, to achieve alignment between the interests of managers and shareholders. But financialized governance may not actually work well for most shareholders, and even when it does, significant tradeoffs and inefficiencies can arise from the conflict between maximizing financialized measures and society's broader interests. Effective governance requires that those in control are accountable for actions they take. However, those who control and benefit most from corporations' success are often able to avoid accountability. The history of corporate governance includes a parade of scandals and crises that have caused significant harm. After each, most key individuals tend to minimize their own culpability. Common claims from executives, boards of directors, auditors, rating agencies, politicians, and regulators include "we just didn't know," "we couldn't have predicted," or "it was just a few bad apples." Economists, as well, may react to corporate scandals and crises with their own version of "we just didn't know," as their models had ruled out certain possibilities. Effective governance of institutions in the private and public sectors should make it much more difficult for individuals in these institutions to get away with claiming that harm was out of their control when in reality they had encouraged or enabled harmful misconduct, and ought to have taken action to prevent it.
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"The Causes and Costs of Misallocation," by Diego Restuccia and Richard Rogerson
Why do living standards differ so much across countries? A consensus in the development literature is that differences in productivity are a dominant source of these differences. But what accounts for productivity differences across countries? One explanation is that frontier technologies and best practice methods are slow to diffuse to low-income countries. The recent literature on misallocation offers a distinct but complementary explanation: low-income countries are not as effective in allocating their factors of production to their most efficient use. We provide our perspective on three key questions. First, how important is misallocation? Second, what are the causes of misallocation? And third, beyond the direct cost of lower contemporaneous output, are there additional costs associated with misallocation? A summary of our answers is as follows: Misallocation appears to be a substantial channel in accounting for productivity differences across countries, but the measured magnitude of the effects depends on the approach and context. Researchers have not yet found a dominant source of misallocation; instead, many specific factors seem to contribute a small part of the overall effect. Beyond the static cost of misallocation, we believe that the dynamic effects of misallocation on productivity growth are significant and deserve much more attention going forward.
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"Federal Budget Policy with an Aging Population and Persistently Low Interest Rates," Douglas W. Elmendorf and Louise M. Sheiner
Some observers have argued that the projections for high and rising debt pose a grave threat to the country's economic future and give the government less fiscal space to respond to recessions or other unexpected developments, so they urge significant changes in tax or spending policies to reduce federal borrowing. In stark contrast, others have noted that interest rates on long-term federal debt are extremely low and have argued that such persistently low interest rates justify additional federal borrowing and investment, at least for the short and medium term. We analyze this controversy focusing on two main issues: the aging of the US population and interest rates on US government debt. It is generally understood that these factors play an important role in the projected path of the US debt-to-GDP ratio. What is less recognized is that these changes also have implications for the appropriate level of US debt. We argue that many—though not all—of the factors that may be contributing to the historically low level of interest rates imply that both federal debt and federal investment should be substantially larger than they would be otherwise. In conclusion, although significant policy changes to reduce federal budget deficits ultimately will be needed, they do not have to be implemented right away. Instead, the focus of federal budget policy over the coming decade should be to increase federal investment while enacting changes in federal spending and taxes that will reduce deficits gradually over time.
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"How Digitization Has Created a Golden Age of Music, Movies, Books, and Television," Joel Waldfogel
Digitization is disrupting a number of copyright-protected media industries, including books, music, radio, television, and movies. Once information is transformed into digital form, it can be copied and distributed at near-zero marginal costs. This change has facilitated piracy in some industries, which in turn has made it difficult for commercial sellers to continue generating the same levels of revenue for bringing products to market in the traditional ways. Yet despite the sharp revenue reductions for recorded music, as well as threats to revenue in some other traditional media industries, other aspects of digitization have had the offsetting effects of reducing the costs of bringing new products to market in music, movies, books, and television. On balance, digitization has increased the number of new products that are created and made available to consumers. Moreover, given the unpredictable nature of product quality, growth in new products has given rise to substantial increases in the quality of the best products. Although there were concerns that consumer welfare from media products would fall, the opposite scenario has emerged—a golden age for consumers who wish to consume media products.
Full-Text Access | Supplementary Materials


"Retrospectives: Friedrich Hayek and the Market Algorithm," by Samuel Bowles, Alan Kirman and Rajiv Sethi
Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992) is known for his vision of the market economy as an information processing system characterized by spontaneous order: the emergence of coherence through the independent actions of large numbers of individuals, each with limited and local knowledge, coordinated by prices that arise from decentralized processes of competition. Hayek is also known for his advocacy of a broad range of free market policies and, indeed, considered the substantially unregulated market system to be superior to competing alternatives precisely because it made the best use of dispersed knowledge. Our purpose in writing this paper is twofold: First, we believe that Hayek's economic vision and critique of equilibrium theory not only remain relevant, but apply with greater force as information has become ever more central to economic activity and the complexity of the information aggregation process has become increasingly apparent. Second, we wish to call into question Hayek's belief that his advocacy of free market policies follows as a matter of logic from his economic vision. The very usefulness of prices (and other economic variables) as informative messages—which is the centerpiece of Hayek's economics—creates incentives to extract information from signals in ways that can be destabilizing. Markets can promote prosperity but can also generate crises. We will argue, accordingly, that a Hayekian understanding of the economy as an information-processing system does not support the type of policy positions that he favored. Thus, we find considerable lasting value in Hayek's economic analysis while nonetheless questioning the connection of this analysis to his political philosophy.

"Recommendations for Further Reading," by  Timothy Taylor