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Microsoft Buys Activision

Photo from the Wall Street Journal

When a firm decides to expand, it has two main choices: 1) Grow internally, or 2) grow by purchasing (or merging with) another. When Microsoft decided to increase its ability to produce and distribute video games, it chose to grow by acquiring Activision Blizzard, maker of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft among other games. Microsoft’s main objective in buying Activision was to increase the number of games it would have available on its Game Pass cloud-based game streaming service.

Traditionally, people have played video games like Call of Duty on video game consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation. This arrangement is similar to how at one time many people watched movies on DVD or Blu-ray players. Today, more people stream movies by subscribing to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Disney+. With these cloud-based movie streaming services, people watch movies on their computers, tablets, or smartphones without having to download them.

With Game Pass, Microsoft is trying to bring the streaming model to video games. If successful, gameplayers would no longer need a video game console, being able to instead play the game on any internet-connected device, including a smartphone.  So far, cloud-based gaming has been growing fairly slowly because games contain much more data than do movies, which makes it more difficult to adapt them to streaming. Microsoft hopes that after successfully converting Activision’s popular games to streaming, it will give a boost to its Game Pass service. 

Microsoft also indicated that it acquired Activision to help it expand its ability to offer products in the “metaverse,” which is a so far not fully developed version of the internet in which people can interact using augmented reality or virtual reality. Most industry observers believe that given that at this point few metaverse services and products are available, the contribution of Activision to the expansion of Game Pass was likely Microsoft’s main motivation in acquiring the company.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision would appear to benefit consumers because it would allow them to stream Activision’s games. Prior to being acquired, Activision apparently had no plans to launch its own game streaming service. In that sense, the acquisition brought together a firm with a popular product (video games) and a firm that had a better way of distributing the product (Game Pass). Still, some industry observers wondered whether the acquisition might lead to an antitrust investigation by either the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission. (We discuss antitrust policy in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.6.)

Antitrust investigations are most common when two firms in the same industry merge because that type of horizontal merger raises the possibility that the new, larger firm may have greater market power, which would increase its ability to raise prices.  Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision is an example of a vertical merger, or a merger between firms at different stages of the production of a good or service. Activision’s game content would be combined with Microsoft’s Game Pass system of distributing games.

The federal government doesn’t typically challenge vertical mergers because they rarely impose a burden on consumers, as horizontal mergers may. But officials in the Biden Administration have promised stricter scrutiny of mergers involving large tech firms, like Microsoft. In response to the possibility of antitrust action against its acquisition of Activision, Microsoft argued that it wouldn’t “be withdrawing games from existing platforms, and our strategy is player-centric—gamers should be able to play the games they want where they want. We believe this acquisition will only increase competition, but it is ultimately up to regulators to decide.” 

Sources:  Kellen Browning, “It’s Not Complicated. Microsoft Wants Activision for Its Games,” New York Times, January 19, 2022; Cara Lombardo, Kirsten Grind, and Aaron Tilley, “Microsoft to Buy Activision Blizzard in All-Cash Deal Valued at $75 Billion,” Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2022; Sarah E. Needleman, Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2022; and Stefania Palma, James Fontanella-Khan, Javier Espinoza, and Richard Waters, “’Too Big to Be Ignored’: Microsoft-Activision Deal Tests Regulators,” ft.com, January 22, 2022.

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President Biden Makes Three Nominations to the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors

Sarah Bloom Raskin. (Photo from the Wall Street Journal)
Lisa Cook (Photo from Michigan State via the Wall Street Journal)
Philip Jefferson (Photo from Davidson College via the Wall Street Journal)

The terms of the seven members of the Fed’s Board of Governors are staggered with a new 14-year term beginning each February 1 of even-numbered years. That system of appointments was intended to limit turnover on the board with the aim of avoiding sudden swings in monetary policy. But because in practice board members often resign before their terms have expired and because presidents sometimes delay making appointments to empty positions, presidents sometimes face the need to make multiple appointments at the same time. In January 2022, President Joe Biden nominated the following three people—one lawyer and two economists—to positions on the board:

  • Sarah Bloom Raskin is the Colin W. Brown Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law at Duke University. She served on the Board of Governors from 2010 to 2014 before resigning to become deputy secretary of the Treasury, a position she held until 2017. If confirmed by the Senate, she would serve as the board’s vice chair for supervision, becoming the second person to hold that position, which was established by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. The vice chair for supervision has important responsibility in leading the Fed’s regulation and supervision of banks.
  • Philip Jefferson is the Paul B. Freeland Professor of Economics, vice president for academic affairs, and dean of the faculty at Davidson College. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia in 1990. He previously taught at Swarthmore College and served a year as an economist at the Board of Governors.
  • Lisa Cook is a professor of economics at Michigan State University. She received her PhD in economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1997. She served on the Council of Economic Advisers from 2011 to 2012 during the Obama Administration. 

Before taking their positions, the three nominees must first be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. At this point, it’s unclear whether any of the three nominees will encounter significant opposition to their confirmation. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has raised some concerns about Raskin’s nomination, arguing that she:

“has specifically called for the Fed to pressure banks to choke off credit to traditional energy companies and to exclude those employers from any Fed emergency lending facilities. I have serious concerns that she would abuse the Fed’s narrow statutory mandates on monetary policy and banking supervision to have the central bank actively engaged in capital allocation.”

If confirmed, the nominees will join these other four board members:

  • Jerome Powell has been nominated by President Biden to a second term as Fed Chair that, if the Senate votes favorably on the nomination, would begin in February 2022. Powell was first nominated to the board by President Obama in 2011 and nominated by President Trump to his first term as chair, which began in February 2018. 
  • Lael Brainard was first nominated to the board by President Obama in 2014. President Biden has nominated Brainard to serve as vice-chair of the board. If confirmed, she would succeed in that position Richard Clarida who resigned in January 2022.
  • Christopher Waller was nominated by President Trump to a term on the board in 2020. He had previously served as director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. He received his PhD in economics from Washington State University and served as a professor of economics at Notre Dame University and the University of Kentucky. His term expires in 2030.
  • Michelle Bowman was nominated by President Trump to a term on the board in 2018. Bowman had served as the state bank commissioner of Kansas and as an executive at a local bank in Kansas. She has a law degree from Washburn University. She was reappointed to a full 14-year term in 2020. 

Sources: Senator Toomey’s statement on Sarah Bloom Raskin’s nomination can be found here.  An overview of the membership of the Board of Governors can be found here on the Federal Reserve’s website. An Associated Press article covering President Biden’s nominations can be found here.  

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Macroeconomics or Microeconomics? Is a Lack of Competition in Some Industries Behind the Increase in Inflation?

Photo from the Wall Street Journal

In January 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that inflation, measured as the percentage change in the consumer price index (CPI) from December 2020 to December 2021, was 7 percent. That was the highest rate since June 1982, which was near the end of the Great Inflation that lasted from 1968 to 1982. The following figure shows the inflation rate since the beginning of 1948. 

What explains the surge in inflation? Most economists believe that it is the result of the interaction of increases in aggregate demand resulting from very expansionary monetary and fiscal policy and disruptions to supply in some industries as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. (We discuss movements in aggregate demand and aggregate supply during the pandemic in the updated editions of Economics, Chapter 23, Section 23.3 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 13, Section, 13.3.)

But President Joe Biden has suggested that mergers and acquisitions in some industries—he singled out meatpacking—have reduced competition and contributed to recent price increases. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has made a broader claim about reduced competition being responsible for the surge in inflation: “Market concentration has allowed giant corporations to hide behind claims of increased costs to fatten their profit margins. [Corporations] are raising prices because they can.” And “Corporations are exploiting the pandemic to gouge consumers with higher prices on everyday essentials, from milk to gasoline.”

Do many economists agree that reduced competition explains inflation? The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago periodically surveys a panel of more than 40 well-known academic economists for their opinions on significant policy issues. Recently, the panel was asked whether they agreed with these statements:

  1. A significant factor behind today’s higher US inflation is dominant corporations in uncompetitive markets taking advantage of their market power to raise prices in order to increase their profit margins.
  2. Antitrust interventions could successfully reduce US inflation over the next 12 months.
  3. Price controls as deployed in the 1970s could successfully reduce US inflation over the next 12 months.

Large majorities of the panel disagreed with statements 1. and 2.—that is, they don’t believe that a lack of competition explains the surge in inflation or that antitrust actions by the federal government would be likely to reduce inflation in the coming year. A smaller majority disagreed with statement 3., although even some of those who agreed that price controls would reduce inflation stated that they believed price controls were an undesirable policy. For instance, while he agreed with statement 3., Oliver Hart of Harvard noted that: “They could reduce inflation but the consequence would be shortages and rationing.”

One way to characterize the panel’s responses is that they agreed that the recent inflation was primarily a macroeconomic issue—involving movements in aggregate demand and aggregate supply—rather than a microeconomic issue—involving the extent of concentration in individual industries. 

The panels responses can be found here

Sources for Biden and Warren quotes: Greg Ip, “Is Inflation a Microeconomic Problem? That’s What Biden’s Competition Push Is Betting,” Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2022; and Patrick Thomas and Catherine Lucey, “Biden Promotes Plan Aimed at Tackling Meat Prices,” Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2022; and https://twitter.com/SenWarren/status/1464353269610954759?s=20

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Lawrence Summers Remains Pessimistic about Inflation

By LHSummers – I had this photo taken of me for personal puposes. Previously published: My website, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23123636

Lawrence Summers, professor of economics at Harvard University and secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, has been outspoken in arguing that monetary and fiscal have been too expansionary. In February 2021, just before Congress passed the American Rescure Plan, which increased federal government spending by $1.9 trillion, Summers cautioned that “there is a chance that macroeconomic stimulus on a scale closer to World War II levels than normal recession levels will set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation, with consequences for the value of the dollar and financial stability.”

In a brief CNN interview found at this LINK, Summers indicates that he remains concerned that inflation may persist at high levels for a longer period than many other economists, including policymakers at the Federal Reserve, believe.

Source for quote: Lawrence H. Summers, “The Biden Stimulus Is Admirably Ambitious. But It Brings Some Big Risks, Too,” Washington Post, February 4, 2021.

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Glenn’s Article from the Atlantic: “Even My Business-School Students Have Doubts About Capitalism”

Glenn’s new book that this article is adapted from

Link to the article on the Atlantic’s site.

During a lecture in my Modern Political Economy class this fall, I explained—as I have to many students over the course of four decades in academia—that capitalism’s adaptation to globalization and technological change had produced gains for all of society. I went on to say that capitalism has been an engine of wealth creation and that corporations seeking to maximize their long-term shareholder value had made the whole economy more efficient. But several students in the crowded classroom pushed back. “Capitalism leaves many people and communities behind,” one student said. “Adam Smith’s invisible hand seems invisible because it’s not there,” declared another.

I know what you’re thinking: For undergraduates to express such ideas is hardly news. But these were M.B.A. students in a class that I teach at Columbia Business School. For me, those reactions took some getting used to. Over the years, most of my students have eagerly embraced the creative destruction that capitalism inevitably brings. Innovation and openness to new technologies and global markets have brought new goods and services, new firms, new wealth—and a lot of prosperity on average. Many master’s students come to Columbia after working in tech, finance, and other exemplars of American capitalism. If past statistics are any guide, most of our M.B.A. students will end up back in the business world in leadership roles.

The more I thought about it, the more I could see where my students were coming from. Their formative years were shaped by the turbulence after 9/11, the global financial crisis, the Great Recession, and years of debate about the unevenness of capitalism’s benefits across individuals. They are now witnessing a pandemic that caused mass unemployment and a breakdown in global supply chains. Corporate recruiters are trying to win over hesitant students by talking up their company’s “mission” or “purpose”—such as bringing people together or meeting one of society’s big needs. But these gauzy assertions that companies care about more than their own bottom line are not easing students’ discontent.

Over the past four decades, many economists—certainly including me—have championed capitalism’s openness to change, stressed the importance of economic efficiency, and urged the government to regulate the private sector with a light touch. This economic vision has yielded gains in corporate efficiency and profitability and lifted average American incomes as well. That’s why American presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have mostly embraced it.

Yet even they have made exceptions. Early in George W. Bush’s presidency, when I chaired his Council of Economic Advisers, he summoned me and other advisers to discuss whether the federal government should place tariffs on steel imports. My recommendation against tariffs was a no-brainer for an economist. I reminded the president of the value of openness and trade; the tariffs would hurt the economy as a whole. But I lost the argument. My wife had previously joked that individuals fall into two groups—economists and real people. Real people are in charge. Bush proudly defined himself as a real person. This was the political point that he understood: Disruptive forces of technological change and globalization have left many individuals and some entire geographical areas adrift.

In the years since, the political consequences of that disruption have become all the more striking—in the form of disaffection, populism, and calls to protect individuals and industries from change. Both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have moved away from what had been mainstream economists’ preferred approach to trade, budget deficits, and other issues.

Economic ideas do not arise in a vacuum; they are influenced by the times in which they are conceived. The “let it rip” model, in which the private sector has the leeway to advance disruptive change, whatever the consequences, drew strong support from such economists as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, whose influential writings showed a deep antipathy to big government, which had grown enormously during World War II and the ensuing decades. Hayek and Friedman were deep thinkers and Nobel laureates who believed that a government large enough for top-down economic direction can and inevitably will limit individual liberty. Instead, they and their intellectual allies argued, government should step back and accommodate the dynamism of global markets and advancing technologies.

But that does not require society to ignore the trouble that befalls individuals as the economy changes around them. In 1776, Adam Smith, the prophet of classical liberalism, famously praised open competition in his book The Wealth of Nations. But there was more to Smith’s economic and moral thinking. An earlier treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, called for “mutual sympathy”—what we today would describe as empathy. A modern version of Smith’s ideas would suggest that government should play a specific role in a capitalist society—a role centered on boosting America’s productive potential(by building and maintaining broad infrastructure to support an open economy) and on advancing opportunity (by pushing not just competition but also the ability of individual citizens and communities to compete as change occurs).

The U.S. government’s failure to play such a role is one thing some M.B.A. students cite when I press them on their misgivings about capitalism. Promoting higher average incomes alone isn’t enough. A lack of “mutual sympathy” for people whose career and community have been disrupted undermines social support for economic openness, innovation, and even the capitalist economic system itself.

The United States need not look back as far as Smith for models of what to do. Visionary leaders have taken action at major economic turning points; Abraham Lincoln’s land-grant colleges and Franklin Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill, for example, both had salutary economic and political effects. The global financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic alike deepen the need for the U.S. government to play a more constructive role in the modern economy. In my experience, business leaders do not necessarily oppose government efforts to give individual Americans more skills and opportunities. But business groups generally are wary of expanding government too far—and of the higher tax levels that doing so would likely produce.

My students’ concern is that business leaders, like many economists, are too removed from the lives of people and communities affected by forces of change and companies’ actions. That executives would focus on general business and economic concerns is neither surprising nor bad. But some business leaders come across as proverbial “anywheres”—geographically mobile economic actors untethered to actual people and places—rather than “somewheres,” who are rooted in real communities.

This charge is not completely fair. But it raises concerns that broad social support for business may not be as firm as it once was. That is a problem if you believe, as I do, in the centrality of businesses in delivering innovation and prosperity in a capitalist system. Business leaders wanting to secure society’s continuing support for enterprise don’t need to walk away from Hayek’s and Friedman’s recounting of the benefits of openness, competition, and markets. But they do need to remember more of what Adam Smith said.

As my Columbia economics colleague Edmund Phelps, another Nobel laureate, has emphasized, the goal of the economic system Smith described is not just higher incomes on average, but mass flourishing. Raising the economy’s potential should be a much higher priority for business leaders and the organizations that represent them. The Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce should strongly support federally funded basic research that shifts the scientific and technological frontier and applied-research centers that spread the benefits of those advances throughout the economy. Land-grant colleges do just that, as do agricultural-extension services and defense-research applications. Promoting more such initiatives is good for business—and will generate public support for business. After World War II, American business groups understood that the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe would benefit the United States diplomatically and commercially. They should similarly champion high-impact investment at home now.

To address individual opportunity, companies could work with local educational institutions and commit their own funds for job-training initiatives. But the U.S. as a whole should do more to help people compete in the changing economy—by offering block grants to community colleges, creating individualized reemployment accounts to support reentry into work, and enhancing support for lower-wage, entry-level work more generally through an expanded version of the earned-income tax credit. These proposals are not cheap, but they are much less costly and more tightly focused on helping individuals adapt than the social-spending increases being championed in Biden’s Build Back Better legislation are. The steps I’m describing could be financed by a modestly higher corporate tax rate if necessary.

My M.B.A. students who doubt the benefits of capitalism see the various ways in which government policy has ensured the system’s survival. For instance, limits on monopoly power have preserved competition, they argue, and government spending during economic crises has forestalled greater catastrophe.

They also see that something is missing. These young people, who have grown up amid considerable pessimism, are looking for evidence that the system can do more than generate prosperity in the aggregate. They need proof that it can work without leaving people and communities to their fate. Businesses will—I hope—keep pushing for greater globalization and promoting openness to technological change. But if they want even M.B.A. students to go along, they’ll also need to embrace a much bolder agenda that maximizes opportunities for everyone in the economy.

Link to the Amazon listing of Glenn’s new book.

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How Do We Know When the Economy Is at Maximum Employment?

Photo from the Wall Street Journal

According to the Federal Reserve Act, the Fed must conduct monetary policy “so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” Neither “maximum employment” nor “stable prices” are defined in the act.

The Fed has interpreted “stable prices” to mean a low rate of inflation. Since 2012, the Fed has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent. When the Fed announced its new monetary policy strategy in August 2020, it modified its inflation target by stating that it would attempt to achieve an average inflation rate of 2 percent over time. As Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated: “Our approach can be described as a flexible form of average inflation targeting.” (Note that although the consumer price index (CPI) is the focus of many media stories on inflation, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation is changes in the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The PCE is a broader measure of the price level than is the CPI because it includes the prices of all the goods and services included in consumption category of GDP. “Core” means that the index excludes food and energy prices. For a further discussion see, Economics, Chapter 25, Section 15.5 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5.) 

There is more ambiguity about how to determine whether the economy is at maximum employment. For many years, a majority of members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) focused on the natural rate of unemployment (also called the non-accelerating rate of unemployment (NAIRU)) as the best gauge of when the U.S. economy had attained maximum employment. The lesson many economists and policymakers had taken from the experience of the Great Inflation that lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s was if the unemployment rate was persistently below the natural rate of unemployment, inflation would begin to accelerate. Because monetary policy affects the economy with a lag, many policymakers believed it was important for the Fed to react before inflation begins to significantly increase and a higher inflation rate becomes embedded in the economy.

At least until the end of 2018, speeches and other statements by some members of the FOMC indicated that they continued to believe that the Fed should pay close attention to the relationship between the natural rate of unemployment and the actual rate of unemployment. But by that time some members of the FOMC had concluded that their decision to begin raising the target for the federal funds rate in December 2015 and continuing raising it through December 2018 may have been a mistake because their forecasts of the natural rate of unemployment may have been too high. For instance, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic noted in a speech that: “If estimates of the NAIRU are actually too conservative, as many would argue they have been … unemployment could have averaged one to two percentage points lower” than it actually did.

Accordingly, when the Fed announced its new monetary policy strategy in August 2020, it indicated that it would consider a wider range of data—such as the employment-population ratio—when determining whether the labor market had reached maximum employment. At the time, Fed Chair Powell noted that: “the maximum level of employment is not directly measurable and [it] changes over time for reasons unrelated to monetary policy. The significant shifts in estimates of the natural rate of unemployment over the past decade reinforce this point.”

As the economy recovered from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Fed faced particular difficulty in assessing the state of the labor market. Some labor market indicators appeared to show that the economy was close to maximum employment while other indicators showed that the labor market recovery was not complete. For instance, in December 2021, the unemployment rate was 3.9 percent, slightly below the average of the FOMC members estimates of the natural rate of unemployment, which was 4.0 percent. Similarly, as the first figure below shows, job vacancy rates were very high at the end of 2021. (The BLS calculates job vacancy rates, also called job opening rates, by dividing the number of unfilled job openings by the sum of total employment plus job openings.) As the second figure below shows, job quit rates were also unusually high, indicating that workers saw the job market as being tight enough that if they quit their current job they could find easily another job. (The BLS calculates job quit rates by dividing the number of people quitting jobs by total employment.) By those measures, the labor market seemed close to maximum employment.

But as the first figure below shows, total employment in December 2021 was still 3.5 million below its level of early 2020, just before the U.S. economy began to experience the effects of the pandemic. Some of the decline in employment can be accounted for by older workers retiring, but as the second figure below indicates, employment of prime-age workers (those between the ages of 25 and 54), had not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. 

How to reconcile these conflicting labor market indicators? In January 2022, Fed Chair Powell testified before the Senate Banking Committee as the Senate considered his nomination for a second four-year term as chair. In discussing the state of the economy he offered the opinion that: “We’re very rapidly approaching or at maximum employment.” He noted that inflation as measured by changes in the CPI had been running above 5 percent since June 2021: “If these high levels of inflation get entrenched in our economy, and in people’s thinking, then inevitably that will lead to much tighter monetary policy from us, and it could lead to a recession.” In that sense, “high inflation is a severe threat to the achievement of maximum employment.”

At the time of Powell’s testimony, the FOMC had already announced that it was moving to a less expansionary monetary policy by reducing its purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities and by increasing its target for the federal funds rate in the near future. He argued that these actions would help the Fed achieve its dual mandate by reducing the inflation rate, thereby heading off the need for larger increases in the federal funds rate that might trigger a recession. Avoiding a recession would help achieve the goal of maximum employment.

Powell’s remarks did not make explicit which labor market indicators the Fed would focus on in determining whether the goal of maximum employment had been obtained. It did make clear that the Fed’s new policy of average inflation targeting did not mean that the Fed would accept inflation rates as high as those of the second half of 2021 without raising its target for the federal funds rate. In that sense, the Fed’s monetary policy of 2022 seemed consistent with its decades-long commitment to heading off increases in inflation before they lead to a significant increase in the inflation rate expected by households, businesses, and investors. 

Note: For a discussion of the background to Fed policy, see Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.5 and Chapter 27, Section 17.4, and Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.5 and Chapter 17, Section 17.4.

Sources: Jeanna Smialek, “Jerome Powell Says the Fed is Prepared to Raise Rates to Tame Inflation,” New York Times, January 11, 2022; Nick Timiraos, “Fed’s Powell Says Economy No Longer Needs Aggressive Stimulus,” Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2022; and Federal Open Market Committee, “Meeting Calendars, Statements, and Minutes,” federalreserve.gov, January 5, 2022.

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New Information on Fed Policy Affects Stock and Bond Prices

Jerome Powell (photo from the Wall Street Journal)

Most economists believe that monetary policy actions, such as changes in the Fed’s pace of buying bonds or in its target for the federal funds rate, affect real GDP and employment only with a lag of several months or longer. But monetary policy actions can have a more immediate effect on the prices of financial assets like stocks and bonds. 

Investors in financial markets are forward looking because the prices of financial assets are determined by investors’ expectations of the future. (We discuss this point in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2, Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2, and Money, Banking and the Financial System, Chapter 6.) For instance, stock prices depend on the future profitability of firms, so if investors come to believe that future economic growth is likely to be slower, thereby reducing firms’ profits, the investors will sell stocks causing stock prices to decline.

Similarly, holders of existing bonds will suffer losses if the interest rates on newly issued bonds are higher than the interest rates on existing bonds. Therefore, if investors come to believe that future interest rates are likely to be higher than they had previously expected them to be, they will sell bonds, thereby causing their prices to decline and the interest rates on them to rise. (Recall that the prices of bonds and the interest rates (or yields) on them move in opposite directions: If the price of a bond falls, the interest rate on the bond will increase; if the price of a bond rises, the interest rate on the bond will decrease. To review this concept, see the Appendix to Economics and Microeconomics Chapter 8, the Appendix to Macroeconomics Chapter 6, and MoneyBankingand the Financial System, Chapter 3.)

Because monetary policy actions can affect future interest rates and future levels of real GDP, investors are alert for any new information that would throw light on the Fed’s intentions. When new information appears, the result can be a rapid change in the prices of financial assets. We saw this outcome on January 5, 2022, when the Fed released the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting held on December 14 and 15, 2021. At the conclusion of the meeting, the FOMC announced that it would be reducing its purchases of long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities.  These purchases are intended to aid the expansion of real GDP and employment by keeping long-term interest rates from rising. The FOMC also announced that it intended to increase its target for the federal funds rate when “labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee’s assessments of maximum employment.”

When the minutes of this FOMC meeting were released at 2 pm on January 5, 2022, many investors realized that the Fed might increase its target for the federal funds rate in March 2022—earlier than most had expected. In this sense, the release of the FOMC minutes represented new information about future Fed policy and the markets quickly reacted. Selling of stocks caused the S&P 500 to decline by nearly 100 points (or about 2 percent) and the Nasdaq to decline by more than 500 points (or more than 3 percent). Similarly, the price of Treasury securities fell and, therefore, their interest rates rose. 

Investors had concluded from the FOMC minutes that economic growth was likely to be slower during 2022 and interest rates were likely to be higher than they had previously expected. This change in investors’ expectations was quickly reflected in falling prices of stocks and bonds.

Sources: An Associated Press article on the reaction to the release of the FOMC minutes can be found HERE; the FOMC’s statement following its December 2021 meeting can be found HERE; and the minutes of the FOMC meeting can be found HERE.

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President Biden Decides to Reappoint Jerome Powell as Fed Chair

Jerome Powell (photo from the New York Times)

When Congress established the Federal Reserve System in 1913, it intended to make the Fed independent of the rest of the federal government. (We discuss this point in the opener to Macroeconomics, Chapter 15 and to Economics, Chapter 25. We discuss the structure of the Federal Reserve System in Macroeconomics, Chapter 14, Section 14.4 and in Economics, Chapter 24, Section 24.4.) The ultimate responsibility for operating the Fed lies with the Board of Governors in Washington, DC. Members of the Board of Governors are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to 14-year nonrenewable terms. Congress intentionally made the terms of Board members longer than the eight years that a president serves (if the president is reelected to a second term).

The president is still able to influence the Board of Governors in two ways:

  1. The terms of members of the Board of Governors are staggered so that one term expires on January 31 of each even-number year. Although this approach means that it’s unlikely that a president will be able to appoint all seven members during the president’s time in office, in practice, many members do not serve their full 14-year terms. So, a president who serves two terms will typically have an opportunity to appoint more than four members of the Board.
  2. The president nominates one member of the Board to serve a renewable four-year term as chair, subject to confirmation by the Senate.

The terms of Fed chairs end in the year after the year a president begins either the president’s first or second term. As a result, presidents are often faced with what is at times a difficult decision as to whether to reappoint a Fed chair who was first appointed by a president of the other party.

For example, after taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, faced the decision of whether to nominate Fed Chair Ben Bernanke to a second term to begin in 2010. Bernanke had originally been appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican. Partly because the economy was still suffering the aftereffects of the financial crisis and the Great Recession, President Obama decided that it would potentially be disruptive to financial markets to replace Bernanke, so he nominated him for a second term.

After taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump, a Republican, had to decide whether to nominate Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who had been appointed by Obama, to another term that would begin in 2018. He decided not to reappoint Yellen and instead nominated Jerome Powell, who was already serving on the Board of Governors. Although a Republican, Powell had been appointed to the Board in 2014 by Obama.

President Biden’s reasons for nominating Powell to a second term to begin in 2022 were similar to Obama’s reasons for nominating Bernanke to a second term: The U.S. economy was still recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the strains the pandemic had inflicted on the financial system. He believed that replacing Powell with another nominee would have been potentially disruptive to the financial system.

There had been speculation that Biden would choose Lael Brainard, who has served on the Board of Governors since 2014 following her appointment by Obama, to succeed Powell as Fed chair. Instead, Biden appointed Brainard as vice chair of the Board. In announcing the appointments, Biden stated: “America needs steady, independent, and effective leadership at the Federal Reserve. That’s why I will nominate Jerome Powell for a second term as Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and Dr. Lael Brainard to serve as Vice Chair of the Board of Governors.”

Sources: Nick Timiraos and Andrew Restuccia, “Biden Will Tap Jerome Powell for New Term as Fed Chairman,” wsj.com, November 22, 2021; and Jeff Cox and Thomas Franck, “Biden Picks Jerome Powell to Lead the Fed for a Second Term as the U.S. Battles Covid and Inflation,” cnbc.com, November 22, 2021.

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The U.S. Dollar in the World Economy

The U.S. dollar is the most important currency in the world economy. The funds that governments and central banks hold to carry out international transactions are called their official foreign exchange reserves. (See Macroeconomics, Chapter 18, Section 18.1 and Economics, Chapter 28, Section 28.1.) There are 180 national currencies in the world and foreign exchange reserves can be held in any of them. In practice, international transactions are conducted in only a few currencies. Because the U.S. dollar is used most frequently in international transactions, the majority of foreign exchange reserves are held in U.S. dollars. The following figure shows the composition of official foreign exchange reserves by currency as of mid-2021.

Over time, the percentage of foreign exchange reserves in U.S. dollars has been gradually declining, although the dollar seems likely to remain the dominant foreign reserve currency for a considerable period. Does the United States gain an advantage from being the most important foreign reserve currency? Economists and policymakers are divided in their views. At the most basic level, dollars are claims on U.S. goods and services and U.S. financial assets. When foreign governments, banks, corporations, and investors hold U.S. dollars rather than spending them, they are, in effect, providing the United States with interest-free loans. U.S. households and firms also benefit from often being able to use U.S. currency around the world when buying and selling goods and services and when borrowing, rather than first having to exchange dollars for other currencies.

But there are also disadvantages to the dollar being the dominant reserve currency. Because the dollar plays this role, the demand for the dollar is higher than it would otherwise be, which increases the exchange rate between the dollar and other currencies. If the dollar lost its status as the key foreign reserve currency, the exchange rate might decline by as much as 30 percent. A decline in the value of the dollar by that much would substantially increase exports of U.S. goods. Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, has noted that the result might be “a shift in the composition of what America exports from Treasury [bonds and other financial securities] … toward John Deere earthmoving equipment, Boeing Dreamliners, and—who knows—maybe even motor vehicles and parts.”

As shown in the following figure, the importance of the U.S. dollar in the world economy is also indicated by the sharp increase in the demand for dollars and, therefore, in the exchange rate during the financial crisis in the fall of 2008 and during the spread of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020. (The exchange rate in the figure is a weighted average of the exchange rates between the dollar and the currencies of the major trading partners of the United States.) As an article in the Economist put it: “Last March, when suddenly the priority was to have cash, the cash that people wanted was dollars.”

Sources: International Monetary Fund, “Currency Composition of Official Foreign Exchange Reserves,” data.imf.org; Alina Iancu, Neil Meads, Martin Mühleisen, and Yiqun Wu, “Glaciers of Global Finance: The Currency Composition of Central Banks’ Reserve Holdings,” blogs.imf.org, December 16, 2020; Barry Eichengreen, Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 173; “How America’s Blockbuster Stimulus Affects the Dollar,” economist.com, March 13, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 

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The Case of the Missing Highways

In November 2021, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the trillion dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, often referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIF). The bill included funds for:

  • Highways and bridges
  • Buses, subways, and other mass transit systems
  • Amtrak, the federally sponsored corporation that provides most intercity railroad service in the United States, to modernize and expand its service
  • A network of charging stations for electric cars
  • Maintenance and modernization of ports and airports
  • Securing infrastructure against cyberattacks and climate change
  • Increasing access to clean drinking water
  • Expansion of broadband internet, particularly in rural areas
  • Treating soil and groundwater pollution

As with other infrastructure bills, although the federal government provides funding, much of the actual work—and some of the funding—is the responsibility of state and local governments. For instance, nearly all highway construction in the United States is carried out by state highway or transportation departments. These state government agencies design new highways and bridges and contract primarily with private construction firms to do the work.

Because state and local governments carry out most highway and bridge construction, Congress doesn’t always achieve the results they intended when providing the funding.  Bill Dupor, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has discovered a striking example of this outcome. In 2009, in response to the Great Recession of 2007–2009, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). (We discuss the ARRA in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.5 and Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.5.) Included in the act was $27.5 billion in new spending on highways. This amount represented a 76 percent increase on previous levels of  federal spending on highways. As Dupor puts it, Congress and the president had “great hopes for the potential of these new grants to create and save construction jobs as well as improve highways.”

Surprisingly, though, Dupor’s analysis of data on the condition of bridges, on miles of highways constructed, and on the number of workers employed in highway construction shows that the billions of dollars Congress directed to infrastructure spending under ARRA had little effect on the nation’s highways and bridges and did not increase employment on highway construction.

What happened to the $27.5 billion Congress had appropriated? Dupor concludes that after receiving the federal funds most state governments:”cut their own contributions to highway capital spending which, in turn, … [freed] up those funds for other uses. Since states were facing budget stress from declining tax revenues resulting from the recession, it stands to reason that states had the incentive to do so.”

He finds that following passage of ARRA many states cut their spending on highway infrastructure while at the same time increasing their spending on other things. For instance, Maryland cut its spending on highways by $73 per person while increasing its spending on education by $129 per person. 

Can we conclude that that Congressional infrastructure spending under ARRA was a failure and the funds were wasted? To answer this question, first keep in mind that when it authorizes an increase in infrastructure spending, Congress often has two goals in mind:

  1. To maintain and expand the country’s infrastructure
  2. To engage in countercyclical fiscal policy

The first goal is obvious but the second can be important as well. Typically, Congress is most likely to authorize a large increase in infrastructure spending during a recession. When the ARRA was passed in the spring of 2009, Congress and President Obama were clear that they hoped that the increased spending authorized in the bill would reduce unemployment from the very high levels at that time.  (Economists and policymakers debated whether additional countercyclical fiscal policy was needed at the time Congress passed the BIF in late 2021. Although the Biden administration argued that the spending was needed to increase employment, some economists argued that the BIF did little to deal with the supply problems then plaguing the economy.)

We discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.2 (Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.2), how expansionary fiscal policy can increase real GDP and employment during a recession. If Dupor’s analysis is correct, Congress failed to achieve its first goal of improving the country’s infrastructure. But Dupor’s findings that states, in effect, used the federal infrastructure funds for other types of spending, such as on education, means that Congress did meet its second goal. That conclusion holds if in the absence of receiving the $27.5 billion in funds from ARRA, state governments would have had to cut their spending elsewhere, which would have reduced overall government expenditures and reduced aggregate demand. 

As this discussion indicates, the details of how fiscal policy affects the economy can be complex. 

Sources: Gabriel T. Rubin and Eliza Collins, “What’s in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill? From Amtrak to Roads to Water Systems,” wsj.com, November 6, 2021; Bill Dupor, “So Why Didn’t the 2009 Recovery Act Improve the Nation’s Highways and Bridges?” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, Second Quarter 2017, pp. 169-182; Greg Ip, “President Biden’s Economic Agenda Wasn’t Designed for Shortages and Inflation,” wsj.com, November 10, 2021; and Executive Office of the President, “Updated Fact Sheet: Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” whitehouse.gov, August 2, 2021. 

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What’s Next for China?

Xi Jinping

When Deng Xiaoping assumed control of China following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, he was in charge of one of the poorest countries in the world. The average person in China survived on the equivalent of $3 per day and the bulk of the population worked on government-run collective farms. Deng’s response to this dismal situation was a series of economic reforms that led China away from Mao’s socialist regime toward a free market economy. The results have been spectacular.

Since 1978, when Deng’s reforms began, real GDP per capita in China has increased from $381 (in 2010 prices) to $10,431 in 2020. Today, China is a solidly middle-income country on a par with Mexico or Indonesia. According to World Bank data, in 1981 more than 875 million people in China lived in extreme poverty. By 2019, fewer than 1 million did. The world has never seen such a high economic growth rate sustained over such a long period or as dramatic a reduction in poverty in such a short period. Deng brought about an increase in the material well-being of his people unrivaled in history.

But, as we discuss in the Apply the Concept in Section 11.5 of Chapter 11 in Macroeconomics (Section 21.5 in Chapter 21 of Economics), despite Deng’s success he failed to resolve a conflict at the heart of the Chinese system:  Deng and the other party leaders saw their economic reforms as strengthening socialism and not as replacing socialism with capitalism. They had no intention of undermining the role of the Communist Party in Chinese society or of introducing democracy. The result is the peculiar situation China now finds itself in under current leader Xi Jinping: A country that extensively relies on free markets ruled by an autocratic regime that justifies its dictatorship as necessary for the preservation of socialism.

In 2022, at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi seems likely to be elected to a third term as leader of the Communist Party, breaking with the tradition since Deng of leaders serving only two terms. Like Mao, Xi’s apparent intention is to retain his office indefinitely. Xi’s speeches indicate that he believes that China is following a path like the one that Karl Marx, writing in the 1800s, believed countries would follow, which would culminate in a socialist economy. He sees Mao as having reasserted China’s independence from Europe and the United States, although at his death China remained largely rural and agricultural with very little scope for market activity. Deng continued the evolution of the economy by establishing a market system that raised incomes and allowed for industrial development. Xi sees himself as finishing the process by leading China to become a “modern socialist nation” by 2035.

As we discuss in the Apply the Concept, there are a number of obstacles to China’s continued economic growth, obstacles that appear to have increased during 2021 as Xi’s plans have become clearer.

  1. As part of his plan to transition China to being a socialist nation, Xi has increased government regulation of China’s economy. He has imposed large fines on technology firms such as Alibaba and Tencent and on the ride-hailing firm Didi. A government proclamation effectively ended the for-profit school tutoring industry, which seven of ten Chinese students had been using. This government action raised concern among the owners of some small and medium-sized businesses that their investments in their firms could be wiped out arbitrarily without notice. Wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs were also being pressured to devote more funds to charity. Whether increased government regulation will result in entrepreneurs pulling back from the investment needed to sustain economic growth remains to be seen. 
  2. Over the decades since market reforms began, the Chinese economy had been cutting reliance on production by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in favor of production by private firms. Recently, some observers have concluded that Xi plans to increase the share of the economy controlled by SOEs, although his public statements have emphasized the need for SOEs to become more efficient and for the government to reduce its subsidies to these firms. Many of China’s trading partners, including the United States, have objected to these subsidies. If the importance of SOEs in the Chinese economy should increase, it would likely further slow economic growth and increase the frictions between China and its trading partners. 
  3. Economic growth has been slowing down. Between 1978 and 2011, per capita real GDP grew at an annual average rate of 8.9 percent. Between 2012 and 2020 that growth rate slowed to 6.0 percent. Although compared with most other countries, a 6 percent growth rate is quite high, some economists believe that the Chinese government has been overstating the true growth rate. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it, “real growth has long been one of the ways officials are evaluated in China, and so there is a strong incentive to inflate it—and substantial evidence that has happened.”
  4. China’s population is rapidly aging. Its birthrate of 1.3 children born per woman during her lifetime is well below the rate of 2.1 needed to maintain the population. The working age population has been declining since 2011, as the fraction of the population over 65 has been increasing. Although the populations of Europe, the United States, and other high-income countries have also been aging, those countries have more resources than does China to provide support to retired people, as with the Social Security and Medicare programs in the United States. Because China’s average retirement age is only 54, while its average life expectancy is 77 years, an increasing number of retirees is being supported by a decreasing number of workers. The Chinese government has announced plans to raise the official retirement age but the government has abandoned past attempts to do so in the face of public protests.
  5. The economy’s excessive reliance on investment in real estate. Particularly during the past five years, real estate investment has been an important contributor to the growth of the Chinese economy, accounting for as much as 25 percent of GDP (as opposed to only about 7 percent in the United States). But the difficulties that the Evergrande real estate development firm encountered during 2021 seemed to be an indication that what has been the largest real estate boom in history may be ending. In some cities as many as 40 percent of apartments are empty, making it difficult for Evergrande and other developers to make the interest payments on their loans and bonds. The Chinese government has issued regulations that limit borrowing by real estate developers in an attempt to reduce what the government sees as speculative building of apartments. Whether the government can reduce the importance of real investment in the economy without causing a significant reduction in the economy’s growth rate is uncertain. 
  6. Increasing political problems with other countries. The Chinese government has drawn sharp international criticism for a number of actions: Its repression of the more than one million members of a Muslim minority in western China; its ending the political independence of Hong Kong; the expansion of its military and its threatening actions towards Taiwan (which the Chinese government believes is part of China); and its failure to be forthcoming with information about the origins of the Covid-19 virus. An additional source of disagreements with other governments has been disputes over international trade. Both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as governments in Europe, have been critical of the Chinese government forcing foreign firms that operate in China to transfer intellectual property to Chinese firms, an action that is in violation of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) rules. The growth of Chinese exports has been greatly helped by China’s membership in the WTO, which may be threatened by what other governments see as China’s violations of WTO rules.

The actions that Xi Jinping takes in the coming years are likely to have a large effect on not just the Chinese economy, but on the world economy. 

Sources: Stella Yifan Xie, “China’s Economy Faces Risk of Yearslong Real-Estate Hangover,” wsj.com, November 8, 2021; “Xi Jinping Is Rewriting History to Justify His Rule for Years to Come,” economist.com, November 6, 2021; Sofia Horta e Costa, “Chinese Developer Controlled by Government Is Latest to Plunge,” bloomberg.com, November 8, 2021; Kevin Rudd, “What Explains Xi’s Pivot to the State?” wsj.com, September 19, 2021; “At 54, China’s Average Retirement Age Is Too Low,” economist.com, June 26, 2021; Nathaniel Taplin, “China’s Economic Data: A Guide for the Dazed and Confused,” wsj.com, January 4, 2021; Stella Yifan Xie and Mike Bird, “The $52 Trillion Bubble: China Grapples With Epic Property Boom,” wsj.com, July 16, 2020; the World Bank; and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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The Congressional Budget Office’s Changing Forecasts of U.S. Economic Growth

There are many macroeconomic forecasts. Some forecasts are made by private economists, including those who work for Wall Street Investment firms. Other forecasts are made by economists who work for the government. Perhaps the most widely used macroeconomic forecasts are those published by economists who work for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO is a nonpartisan agency within the federal government that provides estimates of the economic effects of government policies as part of the process by which Congress prepares the federal budget. One important aspect of the CBO’s work is to estimate future federal government budget deficits.

To forecast the size of future deficits, the CBO needs to forecast growth in key macroeconomic variables, including GDP. Faster growth in the U.S. economy should result in faster growth in federal tax revenues and slower growth in federal government transfer payments, including payments the federal government makes under the unemployment insurance system, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. When revenues grow faster than expenditures, the federal budget deficit shrinks.

The CBO’s forecasts of potential GDP provide perhaps the most best known projections of the future economic growth of the U.S. economy. The CBO calculates its forecasts of potential GDP by forecasting the variables that potential GDP depends on. As we’ve seen in Macroeconomics, Chapters 10 (Economics, Chapters 20), the two key variables in determining the growth in real GDP are the growth in labor productivity—the ratio of real GDP to the quantity of labor—and the growth of the labor force.

How well has the CBO forecast future U.S. economic growth? Or, equivalently, how well has the CBO forecast potential GDP. Each year the CBO publishes forecasts of potential GDP for the following 10 years and for longer periods—typically 40 or 50 years. Claudia Sahm, an economic consultant and opinion writer and formerly an economist at the Federal Reserve and the White House, has noted that the CBO’s 10-year forecasts of potential GDP have not been good forecasts of the actual growth of real GDP. Over the past 15 years, the CBO has also carried out surprisingly large downward revisions of its forecasts of potential GDP.

The figure below is similar to one prepared by Sahm and shows the forecasts of potential GDP the CBO published in 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020 for the following 10 years. (For Sahm’s Twitter thread discussing her figure, click HERE.) That is, in 2005, the CBO issued a forecast of potential GDP for the years 2005–2015. In 2010, the CBO issued a forecast of potential GDP for the years 2010–2020, and so on. Note that for ease of comparison, all GDP values in the figure are set equal to a value of 100 in 2005.

Each straight line on the chart represents the CBO’s forecast of potential GDP over the 10 years following the year in which the forecast was published. For example, the top blue line represents the forecasts the CBO made in 2005 of the values of potential GDP for the years 2005 to 2015. The bottom blue line shows the actual values of real GDP for the years from 2005 to 2020. Note how at each five year interval, the CBO’s forecasts of potential GDP shifted down.

We can look at a few examples of how far off the CBO’s projections were. For instance, if the economy had grown as rapidly between 2005 and 2015 as the CBO forecast it would in 2005, real GDP would have been about 15 percent higher than it actually was. In other words, the U.S. economy would have produced about $2.5 trillion more in goods and services than it actually did. Similarly, if the economy had grown as rapidly between 2010 and 2019 as the CBO forecast it would in 2010, real GDP in 2019 would have been about 7.5 percent (or about $1.5 trillion) higher than it actually was. 

Why has the CBO persistently overestimated the future growth rate of the U.S. economy? The main source of error has been the CBO’s overestimation of the growth in labor force productivity. They have also slightly overestimated the growth of the labor force. Claudia Sahm has a more basic criticism of the CBO’s approach to estimating potential GDP. She argues that if real GDP grows slowly during a period, perhaps because monetary and fiscal policies are insufficiently expansionary, the CBO will incorporate the lower actual real GDP values when it updates its forecasts of potential GDP. This approach can raise questions as to whether the CBO is actually measuring potential GDP as most economist’s define it (and as we define it in the textbook): The level real GDP attains when all firms are producing at capacity. Other economists share these concerns. For instance, Daan Struyven, Jan Hatzius, and Sid Bhushan of the Goldman Sachs investment bank, argue that the CBO’s estimate of potential GDP understates the true capacity of the U.S. economy by 3 to 4 percent.

The CBO’s substantial adjustments to its forecasts of potential GDP are another indication of how volatile the U.S. economy has been since the beginning of the 2007–2009 recession.

Sources:  Tyler Powell, Louise Sheiner, and David Wessel, “What Is Potential GDP, and Why Is It So Controversial Right Now,” brookings.edu, February 22, 2021; and Congressional Budget Office, “Budget and Economic Data,” various years. 

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We Will Never See Anything Like It Again: Movements in Real GDP during the Covid-19 Recession

There are a number of ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic was unlike anything the United States has experienced since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Most striking from an economic perspective were the extraordinary swings in real GDP. The following figure shows quarterly changes in real GDP seasonally adjusted and calculated at an annual rate. There were three recessions during this period (shown by the shaded areas).

The first of these recessions occurred during 2001 and was similar to most recessions in the United States since 1950 in being short and relatively mild. Real GDP declined by 1.5 percent during the third quarter of 2001. The recession of 2007–2009 was the most severe to that point since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The worst periods of the 2007–2009 were the fourth quarter of 2008, when real GDP declined by 8.5 percent—the largest decline to that point during any quarter since 1960—and the first quarter of 2009, when real GDP declined by 4.6 percent. 

Turning to the 2020 recession, during the first quarter of 2020, only at the end of which did Covid-19 begin to seriously affect the U.S. economy, real GDP declined by 5.1 percent. Then in the second quarter a collapse in production occurred unlike anything previously experienced in the United States over such a short period: Real GDP declined by 31.2 percent. But that collapse was followed in the next quarter by an extraordinary recovery in production when real GDP increased by 33.8 percent—by far the largest increase in a single quarter in U.S. history.

The following figure shows the changes in the components of real GDP during the second and third quarters of 2020. In the second quarter of 2020, consumption spending declined by about the same percentage as GDP, but investment spending declined by more, as many residential and commercial construction projects were closed. Exports declined by nearly 60 percent and imports declined by nearly as much as many ports were temporarily closed. In the third quarter of 2020, many state and local governments relaxed their restrictions on business operations and the components of spending bounced back, although they remained below their levels of late 2019 until mid-2021. 

Even when compared with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the movements in real GDP during the Covid-19 pandemic stand out for the size of the fluctuations. The official U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data on real GDP are available only annually for the 1930s. The following figure shows the changes in these annual data for the years 1929 to 1939. As severe as the Great Depression was, in 1932, the worst year of the downturn, real GDP declined by less than 13 percent—or only about a third as much as real GDP declined during the worst of the 2020 recession.

We have to hope that we will never again experience a pandemic as severe as the Covid-19 pandemic or fluctuations in the economy as severe as those of 2020.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Note: Because the BEA doesn’t provide an estimate of real GDP in 1928, our value for the change in real GDP during 1929 is the percentage change in real GDP per capita from 1928 to 1929 using the data on real GDP per capita compiled by Robert J. Barro and José F. Ursúa. LINK

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The Effect of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Income Inequality

During 2020, Congress and President Donald Trump responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with very aggressive fiscal policy initiatives. First, in March 2020, Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act increased the federal government’s expenditures by $1.9 trillion. Then, in December 2020, in response to the continuing effects of the pandemic, Congress and President Trump included an additional $915 billion in expenditures related to Covid-19 in the Consolidated Appropriations Act.  These two fiscal policy actions included payments directly to households and supplemental unemployment insurance payments. Higher income households were not eligible for the direct payments (often referred to as “stimulus payments”). Higher income households were also less likely to be unemployed and so were less likely to receive the supplemental unemployment insurance payments.

In Chapter 17, Section 17.4, we discuss the unequal distribution of income in the United States. Because the federal payments were targeted toward lower and middle income households, did the payments result in a decline in income inequality? Table 17.6 in Chapter 17, shows a common measure of the distribution of income: Households in the United States are divided into five income quintiles, from the 20 percent with the lowest incomes to the 20 percent with the highest incomes, along with the fraction of total income received by each of the five groups. The following table displays the distribution of income using this measure for 2019 and 2020. (We also include the data for the share of income received by the 5 percent of households with the highest incomes.) Note that the definition of income used in the table includes tax payments households make in that year in addition to payments—including the stimulus payments—received from the government. The income is also “equivalence adjusted,” which means that income is adjusted to account for how many adults and children are in a household.

YearLowest 20%Second 20%Middle 20%Fourth 20% Highest 20%Highest 5%
20194.7%10.4%15.7%22.6%46.6%19.9%
20205.1%10.9%16.0%22.8%45.2%18.9%
Percentage change in income share8.7%4.8%2.1%0.8%−3.0%−5.1%

The table shows that the distribution of income in the United States became somewhat more equal during 2020, with the share of income going to each of the first four quintiles increasing, while the income of the highest quintile declined.  The income share of the lowest quintile increased the most—by 8.7 percent—while the income share of the top 5 percent of households decreased by 5.1%. In that section of Chapter 17, we discuss the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of how unequal the distribution of income is. The Gini coefficient ranges between 0 and 1 with higher values indicating a more unequal distribution. Between 2019 and 2020, the Gini coefficient decline from 0.416 to 0.399, or by 4.1 percent, which measure the extent to which the income distribution became more equal. 

Will the reduction in income inequality the United States experienced during 2020 persist? It seems likely to, at least through 2021, given that in March 2021, Congress and President Joe Biden enacted the American Recovery Act, which included payments to households of up to $1,400 per eligible household member. As with the payments to households made during 2020, high-income households were not eligible. Congress also extended supplemental unemployment insurance payments through early September 2021 in states that were willing to accept the payments. 

What about after federal stimulus payments to households end? (As of late 2021, it appeared unlikely that Congress and President Biden planned on enacting any further payments.) One indication that some of the reduction in inequality might be sustained comes from the sharp increases in the wages of many low-skilled workers. For instance, in October 2021, the wages (as measured by their average hourly earnings) of workers in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes workers in restaurants and hotels, increased by nearly 12 percent over the previous year. For all workers in the private sector, wages increased by about 5 percent over the same period. Many of the workers in this industry have low incomes. So, the fact that their wages were increasing more than twice as fast as wages in the overall economy indicates that at least some low-income workers were closing the earnings gap with other workers.

Sources: Emily A. Shrider, Melissa Kollar, Frances Chen, and Jessica Semega, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-270, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020, Washington, DC, U.S. Government Printing Office, September 2021, Table C-3; and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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What Is the Economic Payoff to Free Community College?

Northampton County Community College in Pennsylvania

People who graduate from college earn significantly more and have lower unemployment rates than do people who have only a high school degree. (We discuss this issue in Chapter 16, Section 16.3.) As the following table shows, in 2020, people with a bachelor’s degree had average weekly earnings of $1,305 and had an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, while people who had only a high school degree had weekly earnings of $781 and an unemployment rate of 9.0 percent. People with an associate’s degree from a two-year community college were in between the other two groups.

Educational attainmentMedian usual weekly earnings ($)Unemployment rate (%)
Doctoral degree1,8852.5
Professional degree1,8933.1
Master’s degree1,5454.1
Bachelor’s degree1,3055.5
Associate’s degree9387.1
Some college, no degree8778.3
High school diploma7819
Less than a high school diploma61911.7
Total1,0297.1

Not surprisingly, attempts to reduce income inequality have often included plans to increase the number of low-income people who attend college. In 2021, President Joe Biden proposed a plan that would cover the tuition of most first-time students attending community college in states that agreed to participate in the plan. The plan was estimated to cost $109 billion over 10 years and would potentially cover 5.5 million students. As of late 2021, it appeared unlikely that Congress would enact the plan but similar plans have been proposed in the past making the economic payoff to free community college an important policy issue.

There are many federal, state, and local programs that already cover some or all of the tuition and fees for some community college students. The state and local programs are often called “promise programs.” The name refers to what is usually considered the first such program, which began in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2005. There are now more than 200 promise programs in 41 states. The programs differ in the percentage of a student’s tuition and fees that are covered and on which students are eligible. The plan proposed by President Biden would have differed from existing programs in being more comprehensive—covering community college tuition for all high school graduates who had not previously attended college.

We can’t offer here a full assessment of the economic effects that might result from a  nationwide free community college, but we can briefly summarize some of the very large number of economic studies of community colleges. Hieu Nguyen of Illinois Wesleyan University has studied the effects of the Tennessee Promise program, which beginning in fall 2015, has covered that part of the tuition not covered by federal or other state programs for any Tennessee high school graduate who enrolls in a public two-year college in the state. Nguyen’s analysis finds that the program had a very large effect, increasing “full-time first-time undergraduate enrollment at the state’s community colleges by at least 40%.” Some policymakers and economists are concerned that promise programs may divert some students into attending community college who would otherwise have enrolled in a four-year college. As the table shows, on average, people who graduate from a four-year college have higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than people who graduate from a two-year college. Nguyen analysis indicates that this problem was not significant in Tennessee. He finds that the Tennessee Promise program resulted in only a 2 percent decline in enrollment in Tennessee’s public four-year colleges. 

Oded Gurantz of the University of Missouri studied the Oregon Promise program, which like the Tennessee Promise program, covers the part of tuition at Oregon two-year colleges not covered by federal or other state programs with the difference that it awards $1,000 per year to students whose tuition is completely covered from other sources. The program began in 2016. Guarantz finds that although the program did increase the enrollment in two-year colleges by four to five percent, initially nearly all of the increase was the result of students shifting away from four-year colleges. He finds that in later years the program was effective in increasing enrollment in both two-year and four-year colleges. 

Elizabeth Bell of Miami University finds that a narrowly focused Oklahoma program that covers tuition and fees at a single two-year college—Tulsa Community College—succeeds in substantially increasing the number of students who transfer to a four-year college and, to a lesser extent, increasing the fraction of students who receive degrees from four-year colleges.

A number of researchers have studied the returns to individuals from attending community college. As with the returns from four-year colleges, choice of major can be very important. Michael Grosz of the Federal Trade Commission found that, controlling for the individual characteristics of students, receiving a degree in nursing from a California community college “increases earnings by 44 percent and the probability of working in the health care industry by 19 percentage points.”  

Jack Mountjoy of the University of Chicago has compiled a large data set for the state of Texas that links enrollment in all public and private universities in the state to students’ earnings later in life. Mountjoy uses the data to analyze the effects of community college on upward mobility. The upward mobility of students who attend a community college is increased if the students would otherwise not have attended college but hindered if they attend a community college rather a four-year college they were qualified to attend. Mountjoy notes that survey evidence indicates that 81 percent of students enrolling in two-year colleges intend to ultimately receive a degree from a four-year college, buy only 33 percent transfer to a four-year college within six years and only 14 percent ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree.

Because so few students who enroll in a two-year college ultimately receive a degree from a four-college, promise programs run the risk of actually reducing the number of students who receive bachelor’s degrees by diverting some students from four-year colleges to two-year colleges. Mountjoy’s analysis of the Texas data indicates that “broad expansions of 2-year college access are likely to boost the upward mobility of students ‘democratized’ into higher education from non-attendance, but more targeted policies that avoid significant 4-year diversion may generate larger net benefits.” He notes that for low-income students, “2-year college enrollment may involve other labor market benefits … beyond modest increases in formal educational attainment, such as better access to employer networks, short course sequences teaching readily-employable skills, and improved job matching.”

Mountjoy’s results reinforce a point made by some other economists and policymakers: Programs that provide free community college for all students may be a less effective way for governments to spend scarce funds than are programs that focus on boosting the ability of low-income students to attend and complete both two-year and four-year colleges. Many low-income students face barriers beyond difficulty affording tuition, including the lost earnings from time spent in class and studying rather than working, child care expenses, and paying for textbooks and other learning materials. In addition, providing free tuition at community colleges to all students may end up subsidizing college attendance for some middle and high-income students who would have attended college without the subsidy and may provide an incentive for some students to enroll in two-year colleges who would have been better off enrolling in four-year colleges.

Sources:  Julie Bykowicz and Douglas Belkin, “Why Biden’s Plan for Free Community College Likely Will Be Cut From Budget Package,” wsj.com, October 21, 2021; Michel Grosz, “The Returns to a Large Community College Program: Evidence from Admissions Lotteries,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy; Vol. 12, No. 1, February 2020; 226-253; Hieu Nguyen, “Free College? Assessing Enrollment Responses to the Tennessee Promise Program,” Labour Economics, Vol. 66, October 2020; Oded Guarantz, “What Does Free Community College Buy? Early Impacts from the Oregon Promise,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 39, No. 1 October 2020, pp. 11-35; Elizabeth Bell, “Does Free Community College Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence From a Regression Discontinuity Design,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 43, No. 2, June 2021, pp. 329-350; Michael Grosz, “The Returns to a Large Community College Program: Evidence from Admissions Lotteries,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Volume 12, No. 1, February 2020; pp. 225-253; Jack Mountjoy, “Community Colleges and Upward Mobility,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 29254, September 2021; Allison Pohle, “What Does Biden’s Plan for Families Mean for Community College, Pre-K?” wsj.com, April 28, 2021; Meredith Billings, “Understanding the Design of College Promise Programs, and Where to Go from Here,” brookings.edu, September 18, 2018; and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Projections: Education Pays,” Table 5.1, September 8, 2021. 

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The Demographics of Covid-19 Mortality

Few diseases affect all demographic groups equally.  For example, the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic killed an unusually large number of young adults. Estimates are that half of deaths in the United States during that pandemic occurred among people aged 20 to 40. In recent flu seasons, the elderly have much higher mortality rates than do other age groups. For instance, during the 2018–2019 flu season, people 65 and older died at a rate more than 10 times greater than people 18 to 49 years old.  The very young also have comparatively high mortality rates from the flu. In 2018–2019, children 0 to 4 years-old died at a rate six times higher than children 5 to 17 years-old.

When the Covid-19 virus began to spread widely in the United States in the spring of 2020, some epidemiologists expected that it would affect different demographic groups in about the same way that the flu does. In fact, though, while people 65 and older were particularly at risk, young children were less affected by Covid-19 than they are by the flu. The following chart prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) displays for the United States data on Covid deaths by age group as of early November 2021.

The blue bars show the percentage of total deaths from Covid since the beginning of the pandemic represented by that age group and the gray bars show the percentage that group makes up of the total U.S. population. Therefore, an age group that has a gray bar longer than its blue bar was proportionally less affected by the virus and an age group that has a blue bar longer its gray bar was proportionally more affected by the virus. The chart shows that people over age 65 experienced particularly high mortality rates. Strikingly, people over age 85 accounted for nearly 30 percent of all deaths in the United States, while making up only 2 percent of the U.S. population. 

The following chart displays data on Covid deaths by gender. Men account for about 49 percent of the U.S. population but have accounted for about 54 percent of Covid deaths.

Finally, the following chart displays data on Covid deaths by race or ethnicity. Hispanic, Black, and American Indian or Alaskan Native people have experienced proportionally higher Covid mortality rates than have Asian or white people.

What explains the disparity in mortality rates across demographic groups? With respect to age, we would expect older people to have weaker immune systems and therefore be more likely to die from any illness. In addition, early in the pandemic many older people in nursing homes died of Covid before it was widely understood that the disease spread through aerosols and that keeping people close together inside unmasked made it easy for the virus to spread. The very young have immature immune systems, which might have made them particularly susceptible to Covid, but for reasons not well understood, they turned not to be.

There continues to be debate over why men have experienced a higher mortality rate from Covid than have women. Vaccination rates among men are somewhat lower than among women, which may account for part of the difference. In an opinion column in the New York Times, Dr. Ezekiel  Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania noted that researchers at Yale University have observed “that there are well-established differences in immune responses to infections between men and women.” But why this pattern should be reflected in Covid deaths is unclear at this point.

Medical researchers and epidemiologists have also not arrived at a consensus in explaining differences in mortality rates across racial or ethnic groups. Groups with higher mortality rates have had lower vaccination, which explains some of the difference. Groups with higher mortality rates are also more likely to suffer from other conditions, such as hypertension, that have been identified as contributing factors in some Covid deaths. These groups are also less likely to have access to health care than are the groups with lower mortality rates. The CDC notes that: “Race and ethnicity are risk markers for other underlying conditions that affect health, including socioeconomic status, access to health care, and exposure to the virus related to occupation, e.g., frontline, essential, and critical infrastructure workers.”

Sources: Ezekiel J. Emanuel, “An Unsolved Mystery: Why Do More Men Die of Covid-19?” nytimes.com, November 2, 2021; Daniela Hernandez, “Covid-19 Vaccinations Proceed Slowly Among Older Latino, Black People,” wsj.com, March 2, 2021; Anushree Dave, “Half-Million Excess U.S. Deaths in 2020 Hit Minorities Worse,” bloomberg.com, October 4, 2021; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity,” cdc.gov, September 9, 2021; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Demographic Trends of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US reported to CDC,” cdc.gov, November 5, 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “2018–2019 Flu Season Burden Estimates,” cdc.gov; and Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 2006, pp. 15-22.

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Should Tariffs Be Used to Slow Climate Change?

Why do countries impose tariffs on imported goods? As we discuss in Economics Chapter 9 and MacroeconomicsChapter 7 (particularly in Section 5 of these chapters) countries primarily use tariffs to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Protectionism appeared to be the main motivation when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on imports of steel, aluminum, and some other products from China, Canada, and countries in the European Union. It was also the main reason that the Biden administration decided in 2021 to retain many of those tariffs.

The other main justification for imposing tariffs is for reasons of national security. For instance, as we note in the textbook, the United States would not want to import its jet fighter engines from China. In fact, the Trump administration relied on Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 when it imposed tariffs, particularly tariffs on steel and aluminum. The Biden administration also cited this section of the law when continuing the tariffs. (In October 2021, the Biden administration negotiated with the European Union a partial reduction of these tariffs.) Under that section of the law, if the president decides that imports of a good threaten nationals security, “he shall take such action, and for such time, as he deems necessary to adjust the imports of such article and its derivatives so that such imports will not so threaten to impair the national security.” In other words, presidents have the power to impose tariffs on imports of a good if they assert that doing so protects the national security of the United States.

When they invoked this section of the law, both the Trump and Biden administrations were criticized for stretching its application beyond what Congress had intended. Critics argue that using this section of the law to impose tariffs on such close allies of the United States as the countries of the European Union was a violation of Congress’s intent because it was unlikely that imports of steel or aluminum from Europe threaten the national security of the United States.

If used as intended, Section 232 is a rare example of imposing tariffs for reasons other than protecting domestic industries. (It’s worth noting that during the 1800s and early 1900s, before there was a federal income tax, Congress relied on revenues from tariffs as the main source of funds to the federal government. In recent years tariff revenues have been very small compared with income taxes and the federal government’s other sources of revenue.) In 2021, some policymakers were proposing using tariffs for another purpose unrelated to protecting domestic industries: Slowing climate change.

In November 2021, the United States and the European Union announced that they would explore imposing tariffs on imports of steel from countries that impose few regulations on carbon emissions from steel mills. (These climate tariffs are sometimes referred to as border carbon adjustments (BCAs).) The tariffs might be extended to include imports of aluminum, chemicals, and cement. The rationale for these tariffs is that in the United States and Europe, steel producers must install expensive equipment to reduce carbon emissions or must pay a tax on those emissions.

These regulations raise the cost of producing steel and, therefore, the price of steel produced in Europe and the United States. As a result, U.S. and European firms that use steel, such as automobile companies, have an incentive to import lower-priced steel from countries that have few regulations on carbon emissions. According to one estimate, the production of steel being imported into the United States generates 50 percent to 100 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than does the production of domestic steel.  An article in the Wall Street Journal noted that a report from a consulting firm argued that “the emissions that many developed countries claim to have eliminated were ‘outsourced to developing countries,’ which generally have fewer resources to invest in cleaner and more advanced technology.”

Critics of using tariffs as a means of slowing climate change note that there are other measures that countries can use to reduce their own CO2 emissions and that attempts to use economic coercion to prod countries into changing policies have not generally been successful. They also note that Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 was intended to be used only for reasons of national security but has been used by the Trump and Biden administration more broadly to protect domestic industries. They fear that the same thing may happen if climate tariffs are allowed under international agreements: The tariffs may be used to protect domestic industries for reasons that have nothing to do with reducing climate change. In fact, an article on barrons.com noted that the agreement between the United States and the European Union to impose climate tariffs on steel imports was “aimed, according to administration officials, at countering the flood of cheap steel from China, which accounts for roughly 60% of production worldwide.”

In addition, some economists and policymakers fear that imposing climate tariffs may undermine the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which do not authorize countries to impose tariffs for this reason. This outcome is particularly likely if some countries see the tariffs as aimed more at protecting domestic industries than at slowing climate change. As we discuss in Section 5 of Chapter 9 in Economics (Macroeconomics Chapter 7), the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) resulted in decades of multilateral negotiations that greatly reduced tariffs. The tariff reductions spurred a tremendous expansion in world trade, which significantly increased incomes in the United States and most other countries—although it also disrupted some domestic industries in those countries. If the WTO were to cease to be effective, the world might return to the situation of the 1930s and earlier when countries used tariffs for a variety of policy reasons. The trade war of the 1930s, during which most countries raised tariff rates, led to a collapse in world trade and helped to worsen the Great Depression. 

If climate tariffs become common, the effect on both the climate and on the international trading system may be significant. 

Sources:  Josh Zumbrun, “U.S.-EU Steel Tariffs Deal Is Onerous for Smaller Importers,” wsj.com, November 5, 2021; Yuka Hayashi and Jacob M. Schlesinger, “Tariffs to Tackle Climate Change Gain Momentum. The Idea Could Reshape Industries,” wsj.com, November 2, 2021; By Reshma Kapadia, “The EU Tariff Deal Doesn’t Mean the Trade War With China Is Over,” barrons.com, November 2, 2021; Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter, “Democrats Propose Tax on Carbon-Intensive Imports in Budget,” bloomberg.com, July 14, 2021; and Billy Pizer, “The Trade Tool that Could Unlock Climate Ambitions,” barrons.com, November 5, 2021.

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Are Plant-Based Eggs the Wave of the Future?

In Chapter 12 of the textbook, we discuss developments over the years in the intensely competitive egg market. Many of the 65,000 egg farmers in the United States have continued to produce eggs using traditional methods. But some egg farmers have adopted cage-free methods that allow chickens to have sufficient room to move around. Using cage-free methods increases a farmer’s costs but some consumers are willing to pay more for these eggs. More recently, some egg farmers have turned to selling “pastured eggs” laid by chickens that are allowed to roam freely outside. Raising pastured eggs has even higher costs than raising eggs using cage-free methods, but pastured eggs also sell for higher prices.

As consumer willingness to spend on eggs produced in ways that involve more humane treatment of chickens increases, we’d expect that egg farmers will adapt by embracing these methods. But in 2021, a development occurred in the egg market that was much more difficult for egg farmers to respond to. Some consumers have been moving away from animal products to plant-based replacements. These consumers have a variety of concerns about animal products: Some consumers have ethical concerns about consuming any animal products, others believes consuming these products may have negative health effects, while others are concerned by what they believe to be the negative effects of farming on the environment.

Many people are familiar with the Impossible company’s “impossible burger,” a hamburger made from soy and potatoes rather than from beef. But it’s less well known that several companies have begun selling eggs made from plants. San Francisco-based Eat Just, Inc. has begun selling in the United States eggs made from mung beans and in October 2021 was authorized to begin selling these eggs in Europe. The Swiss firm Nestlé under its Garden Gourmet brand has also begun selling in Europe eggs made from soy.  Nestlé’s eggs are sold in liquid form and  are primarily intended as a substitute for natural eggs in cooking. 

As of late 2021, plant-based eggs have captured only a tiny slice of the egg market. But if their popularity should increase significantly, it will be bad news for egg farmers. While many egg farmers have been able to adapt to changes in how they produce eggs, they lack the specialized equipment to produce plant-based eggs or access to the distribution and marketing resources necessary to sell them.

The market for eggs may be about to be disrupted in a way that will force many egg farmers out of the industry.

Sources: Corinne Gretler and Thomas Buckley, “Nestlé Tests Plant-Based Frontier With Vegan Eggs and Shrimp,” bloomberg.com, October 6, 2021;  Aine Quinn, “Fake Eggs From Mung Beans Get Closer to Reality in Europe,” bloomberg.com, October 20, 2021; Jon Swartz, “Eat Just’s Plant-Based Egg Products to Come to Another 5,000 Retail Outlets,” marketwatch.com, September 2, 2020;  Deena Shanker, “Faux-Egg Maker Eat Just Raises $200 Million More in Latest Round,” bloomberg.com, March 3, 2021; and Jon Emont, “Real Meat That Vegetarians Can Eat,” wsj.com, March 6 2021. 

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Streaming Conquers the Music Industry

Listening to recorded music seems like a basic, uncomplicated activity, but as we discuss in the opening to Chapter 14, few markets have been as disrupted by technological change over the years as the market for recorded music.  The following graph shows the distribution of revenue received by firms in the recording industry by type of music format. The data are first available for 1973. 

From the 1930s to the mid-1960s, nearly all recorded music was sold on vinyl records. In the 1960s, 8-track tapes began to compete with vinyl records. In 1973, recording companies received about 71 percent of their revenue from selling vinyl records, 24 percent from selling 8-track tapes, and 5 percent from selling cassette tapes. Cassette tapes became increasingly popular after Sony introduced the Walkman, a portable cassette player, in 1979.  The popularity of cassettes contributed to a sharp decline in sales of vinyl records.  The share of vinyl records in revenue received from sales of recorded music dropped from 71 percent in 1975 to only 2 percent in 1990. The greater portability of cassette tapes was a significant advantage over 8-track tapes, which were most frequently used in players built into automobiles. By 1983, 8-track tapes had largely disappeared from the market.

The introduction of digital compact discs (CDs) in the early 1980s ended the rapid rise in sales of cassette tapes. By the end of the 1980s, sales of cassette tapes began to decline rapidly and their share of the market had fallen to less than 2 percent by the early 2000s. 

As discussed in the opening to Chapter 14, the development by engineers in Germany of the MP3 file format made it possible to store the contents of a music CD on a file small enough to be downloaded from the internet. Apple’s opening its iTunes online music store in 2003 increased sales of music downloads, which peaked at 40 percent of the market in 2012. In that year, recording companies earned about 8 percent of their revenue from payments from streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music.

Steaming music has become increasingly popular and by 2020, 75 percent of industry revenue was earned from streaming. Ten percent was earned from “sound exchange,” which refers to revenue recording companies receive when music is used in a movie, television series, advertisement, or online video. (Some industry analysts consider sound exchange to be a form of streaming. Using that definition raises streaming’s share to 85 percent of the market.) Downloads had a market share of only 5 percent, about the same as the share of vinyl records, which had increased from a low point of less than 1 percent in 2007. CD sales continue to slowly decline and make up about 4 percent of the market. 

In Chapter 14, we discuss the streaming market as an example of oligopolistic competition.  When a market expands as rapidly as music streaming has, competition can be less intense because it’s possible for firms to increase their revenue as the market expands without having to attract customers from competitors. Typically when a market matures and the increase in total revenue levels off, competition can become more intense. We may see that development in the market for streaming music in coming years.

Source: Data from Recording Industry Association of America, “U.S. Sales Database.”

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The Biden Administration’s New Approach to Antitrust Policy

Chair Lina Khan of the Federal Trade Commission

For the past few decades, across different presidential administrations, antitrust policy has typically involved the following key points, which we discuss in Chapter 15, Section 15.6:

  1. Responsibility for antitrust policy is divided between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ). 
  2. For horizontal mergers, the DOJ and the FTC have published numerical guidelines that provide a benchmark for their decisions on whether to oppose a merger and give firms a good idea of whether a proposed merger will be allowed.
  3. Antitrust enforcement is focused on consumer well-being, so a merger that increases monopoly power while at the same time improving economic efficiency will be allowed if the net effect of the merger is to increase consumer surplus.
  4. If firms disagree with a merger decision from the FTC or the DOJ, those agencies typically file a law suit in a federal court to enforce their decision. Therefore, antitrust policy ultimately depends on how the federal courts interpret the antitrust laws. (We list the most important antitrust laws in Chapter 15, Table 15.2.)

During the 2020 presidential campaign President Joe Biden did not announce a detailed policy towards antitrust and the issue played only a small role in the campaign. Late in the campaign, a Biden spokesman did state that, “growing economic concentration and monopoly power in our nation today threatens our American values of competition, choice, and shared prosperity.” Once in office, Biden’s appointments to key antitrust positions favored a more aggressive approach to antitrust policy.

The views of most Biden appointees were similar to those of Louis Brandeis who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939. Brandeis was not familiar with economics and his views on antitrust as stated in his articles and court decisions can be contradictory.

But Robert Bork of the University of Chicago in his book the Antitrust Paradox provided an influential interpretation of Brandeis’s views. According to Bork, in the early twentieth century, “the dominant goal [of antitrust policy] was the protection of consumer welfare, though Justice Louis Brandeis … was the first to give operative weight to the conflicting goal of small-business welfare.” Bork argued that an implication of Brandeis’s views was that antitrust enforcement might end up “protecting the inefficient [firms] from competition.”  Similarly, Daniel Crane of the University of Michigan refers to the “’Brandeisian’ tradition, associated with US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, [which] is often described as … supporting atomistic competition because of its beneficial effects on personal liberty and autonomy.”

President Biden has appointed several people who support the Brandeis approach to antitrust including Lina Khan of Columbia University as chair of the FTC; Tim Wu of Columbia University as an adviser to the president; and Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as deputy director of the National Economic Council. John Cassidy, an economics writer for the New Yorker, summarized their position:

“Proponents of the New Brandeis-ism contend that these agencies should act proactively—carrying out broad investigations, publishing reports, and establishing rules of conduct for companies with a great deal of market power, including tech platforms and broadband providers.”

In July 2021, President Biden issued an executive order creating a White House Competition Council. According to a statement from the White House, the purpose of the council is to: “to coordinate the federal government’s response to the rising power of large corporations in the economy.” Also in July 2021, the FTC under Chair Khan’s leadership voted to move away from the consumer welfare standard for judging anticompetitive business strategies, including merging or acquiring other firms and certain pricing decisions, such as cutting prices to below those charged by smaller rivals. The result of the FTC’s new approach is that the agency will  take action against business strategies that are not directly in violation of the federal antitrust laws. The FTC is particularly concerned by strategies used over the years by large technology firms such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. 

The Biden administration’s redirection of antitrust policy has run into criticism. An article in the Wall Street Journalquoted the president of the Consumer Technology Association as stating that: “The consumer-welfare standard grounds competition policy in objective facts and evidence. By protecting consumers rather than competitors, we ensure antitrust decisions are not subjective or political.” The “consumer-welfare standard” is the standard that had been used under previous presidential administrations as we outlined in points 2. and 3. above. A possible barrier to the Biden administration’s change in policy is that ultimately it is up to the federal courts to decide the legality of a business strategy. In recent decades, the federal courts have consistently required that for a strategy to be declared illegal it must be a violation of the antitrust laws.

Until the FTC or the DOJ use the new standard to bring actions against firms and until the courts either uphold or dismiss those actions, it won’t be possible to know whether the Biden administration’s antitrust policy will end up being much different from the policies of previous administrations. It could be a number of years before actions brought under the new standard make their way through the court system. 

Sources: Brent Kendall, “New Policy Gives FTC Greater Control Over How Companies Do M&A,” wsj.com, October 29, 2021; Executive Office of the President, “Fact Sheet: Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” whitehouse.gov, July 9, 2021; John D. McKinnon, “FTC Vote to Broaden Agency’s Mandate Seen as Targeting Tech Industry,” wsj.com, July 1, 2021; John Cassidy, “The Biden Antitrust Revolution,” newyorker.com, July 12, 2021;  David McCabe and Jim Tankersley, “Biden Urges More Scrutiny of Big Businesses, Such as Tech Giants,” nytimes.com, September 16, 2021; Daniel A. Crane, “Rationales for Antitrust: Economics and Other Bases,” in Roger D. Blair and D. Daniel Sokol, The Oxford Handbook of International Antitrust Economics, Vol. 1, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; Robert H. Bork, The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself, New York: Basic Books, 1978; and Kenneth G. Elzinga and Micah Webber, “Louis Brandeis and Contemporary Antitrust Enforcement,” Touro Law Review, 2015, Vol. 33, No. 1 , Article 15.

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Cheesecake Factory Adopts a New Strategy

The restaurant industry was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Taco Bell had their revenues hold up the best because many of their customers were experienced in using their drive-through windows, which typically remained open except during the worst of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020. Restaurants that rely on table service suffered steeper declines in revenue because even when local governments allowed them to be open, they were typically required to operate at reduced capacity. In addition, through most of 2021, some consumers were reluctant to spend an hour or more eating indoors for fear of contracting the virus.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Cheesecake Factory had been increasing in popularity, drawing customers from both more formal table service restaurants and from fast food-food restaurants. But because of their reliance on indoor dining, many fast-casual restaurants suffered sharp declines in revenue. For instance, in the spring of 2020, Cheesecake Factory was losing $6 million per week and at one point had less than $100 million remaining on hand to meet its costs.

As we discuss in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, firms in a monopolistically competitive like restaurants have difficulty earning an economic profit in the long run. Normally, economic profit is eliminated by entry of new firms. But during the pandemic, the process was speeded up as what had been profitable business strategies suddenly no longer were.

Cheesecake Factory had been earning an economic profit by following a strategy that differentiated it from similar restaurant chains. At 10,000 square feet, the dining rooms in its restaurants are much larger than in other fast-casual restaurants and Cheesecake Factory has many more items on its menus.  Both these features turned into liabilities during the pandemic because before the pandemic Cheesecake Factory’s revenue would exceed its costs only if its restaurants were operated close to their capacity. In many cities, well into 2021, government restrictions required restaurants to operate at reduced capacity. In addition, like most other restaurants, as it reopened Cheesecake Factory had trouble attracting enough servers and cooks—a particular problem given the large number of items on its menus.

Cheesecake Factory returned to profitability in 2021 by adopting a new strategy of emphasizing delivering orders and having orders available for pickup at its restaurants (“to-go” orders). This strategy was successful in part because Cheesecake Factory executives made the decision during 2020 to continue to pay its 3,000 managers during the period when most of its restaurants were closed. Doing so meant having to raise $200 million from investors to pay the managers’ salaries. Keeping managers on payroll meant that the firm had the staff on hand to successfully manage the increase in to-go and delivery orders.

The success of the strategy was helped by the fact that cheesecake turned out to be a more popular delivery item than the firm had expected. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted the firm’s president as saying that people were ordering it for a delivery throughout the day, including people “who are just getting slices at nine o’clock at night delivered to their house.” The firm has doubled its to-go orders compared with before the pandemic and its overall sales per restaurant have increased from an average of $11 million before the pandemic to $12 million in 2021.

Is Cheesecake Factory’s recent success sustainable? In emphasizing to-go and delivery orders, Cheesecake Factory initially had an advantage over its competitors because it had retained thousands of managers who could implement this new strategy. But this advantage may not last long for two reasons: 1) as the effects of the pandemic lessen, consumers may want to return to indoor dining, so the volume of to-go and delivery orders may decline; and 2) to the extent that consumers have permanently reduced their demand for indoor dining, competitors can copy Cheesecake Factory’s approach. Many competitors in fact have devoted more resources to to-go and delivery orders and the market for this type of dining is becoming as competitive as the market for in-door dining.

Cheesecake Factory has one other advantage: Cheesecake turned out to be a particularly popular food for delivery and cheesecake sales have become a larger percentage of the firm’s revenues since the beginning of the pandemic. Although, because the word “cheesecake” is in the firm’s name, it may retain some advantage among consumers who want to order a delivery of cheesecake, competitors can easily also add cheesecake to their delivery menus.

So, our general conclusion holds that it is very difficult for firms in a monopolistically competitive industry to earn an economic profit in the long run. 

Sources:  Heather Haddon, “How Cheesecake to Go Saved the Cheesecake Factory,” wsj.com, October 29, 2021; Teresa Rivas, “Cheesecake Factory Stock Is Falling Because Sales Took a Nose Dive,” barrons.com, July 29, 2020; Rick Clough, “Cheesecake Factory Settles SEC Charges over Covid Statements,” bloomberg.com, December 4, 2020; Tomi Kilgore, “Cheesecake Factory Stock Jumps after Upbeat Sales Update,” marketwatch.com, June 2, 2021.

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Is Subsidizing Electric Cars an Effective Way to Slow Climate Change?

Some governments have been subsidizing purchases of electric vehicles, or more broadly, fuel-efficient vehicles to slow climate change. How well do such policies work? Are they more or less efficient than other policies intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? 

A subsidy is a payment by the government that provides an incentive for people to take an action they otherwise wouldn’t, such as buying an electric car. Subsidies have the potential downside that they may involve payments to people to do something they would have done anyway.  For instance, in the United States in 2021, buyers of electric cars were eligible for a credit of up to $7,500 against their federal income taxes. Suppose that you become aware of this subsidy only after you have already purchased an electric car. In that case, the federal government has wasted $7,500 because you would have bought the electric car even without the subsidy. The same would be true if you knew about the subsidy before you bought but because of the subsidy you bought a higher-priced electric car rather than a lower-priced one.

These complications make it difficult for policymakers to assess the efficiency of subsidizing fuel-efficient cars as a means of slowing climate change. Two recent academic papers address this difficulty.  

Chia-Wen Chen of Academia Sinica in Taiwan, We-Min Hu of National Chengchi University in Taiwan, and Christopher Knittel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have analyzed a Chinese government program that subsidizes the purchase of fuel-efficient cars. Because the study used data from 2010 and 2011, these vehicles were fuel-efficient gasoline powered cars rather than electric cars.  They find that only about 44 percent of the subsidies went to car buyers who would otherwise not have bought a fuel-efficient car. “Thus, about 56 percent of the program’s payments were ineffective ….” 

The authors calculate that the subsidy cost about $89 per metric ton of carbon dioxide reduced, which is high relative to other policies, such as a carbon tax. With a carbon tax, the government taxes energy consumption on the basis of the carbon content of the energy. (We discuss a carbon tax in the opener to Chapter 5.) The authors conclude: “Paying more than $89 for a metric ton of carbon dioxide is not a cost effective way to reduce carbon dioxide; if the main policy objective of China’s subsidy program on fuel-efficient vehicles was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, then our results suggest that it was an ineffective way to achieve this goal.”

Jianwei Xing of Peking University, Benjamin Leard of Resources for the Future, and Shanjun Li of Cornell University analyze the efficiency of the U.S. federal income tax credit for purchasing an electric vehicle. As with the study just discussed, they find that consumers who use the credit to buy an electric vehicle were likely to have otherwise bought a hybrid vehicle (a vehicle that combines an electric motor with a gasoline engine) or a relatively fuel-efficient gasoline powered car. They also find, as with the other study, that the federal subsidy is inefficient because while it increased electric vehicle sales by 29 percent, “70 percent of the [tax] credits were obtained by households that would have bought an EV without the credits.”

Because the design of a particular subsidy for buying an electric car will affect the subsidy’s efficiency, these studies are not conclusive evidence that all programs of subsidizing electric cars will be inefficient. But their results show that two existing programs in large markets—China and the United States—are, in fact, inefficient.  

As we note in Chapter 5, many economists favor a carbon tax as a way to reduce carbon emissions rather than policies, such as the federal electric vehicle tax credit, that target a particular source of carbon emissions. Economists can contribute to debates over public policy by using economic principles to identify programs that are more or less likely to efficiently achieve policy goals. They can also, as the authors of these two papers do, use statistical methods to analyze the effects of particular policies. 

Sources: Chia-Wen Chen, We-Min Hu, and Christopher R. Knittel, “Subsidizing Fuel-Efficient Cars: Evidence from China’s Automobile Industry,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Vo. 13, No. 4, November 2021, pp. 152-184; Jianwei Xing, Benjamin Leard, and Shanjun Li, “What Does an Electric Vehicle Replace,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 25771, February 2021.

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Sticker Shock in the Market for Used Cars

The term “sticker shock” was first used during the 1970s to describe the surprise car buyers experienced when seeing how much car prices had risen.  Because inflation during that decade was so high, anyone who hadn’t bought a car for several years was unprepared for the jump in car prices. During 2020 and 2021, sticker shock returned, particularly to the used car market. Prices were increasing so rapidly that even people who had purchased a car a year or two before were surprised by the increases. 

The following graph shows U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on inflation in the market for used cars in the months since January 2015. Inflation is measured as the percent change from the same month in the previous year in the used cars and trucks component of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI is the most widely used measure of inflation. Used car prices began rising in August 2020, peaking at a 45 percent increase in June 2021. Inflation at such rates over a period longer than a year is very unusual in any of components of the CPI. 

What explains the extraordinary burst of inflation in used car prices during 2020 and 2021? Three factors seem to have been of greatest importance:

  1. A decline in the supply of new cars resulting from a shortage in semiconductors caused an increase in new car prices. Rising new car prices led some consumers who would otherwise have bought a new car to enter the used car market, increasing the demand for used cars.
  2. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some people became reluctant to ride buses and other mass transit, increasing the demand for both new and used cars.
  3. As the pandemic increased in severity in the spring of 2020, most rental car companies decided to purchase fewer new cars for their fleets. After keeping a car in its fleet for one year, rental car companies typically sell the car to used car dealers for resale. Because rental car companies were selling them fewer cars, used car dealers had fewer cars on their lots. So the supply of used cars declined. 

We can use the demand and supply model to explain the jump in used car prices. As shown in the following figure, the demand curve for used cars shifted to the right from D1 to D2, as some consumers who would otherwise have bought new cars, bought used cars instead, and as some people swithced from public transportation to driving their cars to work. At the same time, the supply of used cars shifted to the left from S1 to S2 because used car dealers were able to buy fewer used cars from rental car companies. The result was that the price of used cars rose from P1 to P2 at the same time that the quantity of used cars sold fell from Q1 to Q2.

Sources: Yueqi Yang, “U.S. Used-Car Prices, Key Inflation Driver, Surge to Record,” bloomberg.com, October 7, 2021; Nora Naughton, “Looking to Buy a Used Car? Expect High Prices, Few Options,” wsj.com, May 10, 2021; Cox Automotive, “13-Month Rolling Used-Vehicle SAAR,” coxautoinc.com, October 15, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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Can People be “Nudged” into Getting Vaccinated?

In Economics, Chapter 10, Section 10.4, when discussing behavioral economics, we mentioned Richard Thaler’s idea of nudges, which are small changes that government policymakers or business managers can make that may affect people’s behavior. Underlying the concept of nudges is the assumption that at least some of the time people may not be making fully rational decisions (We discuss in the chapter the reasons why people may not always make fully rational decisions.)  An example of a nudge is a business automatically enrolling employees into retirement savings plans to overcome the tendency of many people to be unrealistic about their future behavior. 

Once vaccines for the Covid-19 virus became widely available to the general adult population in 2021, some government policymakers were concerned that not enough people were being vaccinated to quickly curb the pandemic. Some people who declined to be vaccinated had carefully thought through the decision and declined the vaccine either because they believed they were at only a small risk of developing a severe case of Covid-19 or for other reasons. But some people who were not vaccinated intended eventually to receive the injection but for various reasons had not yet done so. The second group were potentially candidates for being nudged into becoming vaccinated.

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Tom Chang of the University of Southern California and colleagues reports an experiment that measured the effect of nudges intended to increase the likelihood of someone becoming vaccinated.  The study was conducted in Contra Costa Country in northern California with 2,700 Medicaid (a state run system of health care offered to people with low incomes) recipients who agreed to participate. The study took place between May and July 2021 after all adults in the county had been eligible for several weeks to receive a vaccine. Half the people involved in the experiment received three nudges:  1) a video noting the positive effects of being vaccinated, 2) a financial incentive of either $10 or $50 if they received a vaccination within two weeks, and 3) “a highlighted convenient link to the county’s new public vaccination appointment scheduling system or just a message about getting vaccinated without a link.” The other half of the people involved in the experiment received none of these nudges.

The authors’ statistical analysis of the results of the experiment indicates that none of the nudges individually or in combination significantly raised vaccination rates. Do these results show conclusively that nudges are ineffective in increasing Covid-19 vaccination rates? The authors note that the people involved in this experiment were not representative of the U.S. population. All had low incomes (which made them eligible for Medicaid), they were relatively young, and were more likely to be Black or Hispanic than is true of the overall U.S. population. The study also took place just before the peak in the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19 at a time when infection rates appeared to be declining. So, while for these reasons the study cannot be called a definitive, it does provide some evidence that nudges may not be effective in changing behavior towards vaccinations. 

Source: Tom Chang, Mireille Jacobson, Manisha Shah, Rajiv Pramanik, and Samir B. Shah, “Financial Incentives and other Nudges Do Not Increase Covid-19 Vaccinations among the Vaccine Hesitant,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 29403, October 2021.

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Elon Musk Makes Tesla a Multinational

In 1901, U.S. Steel became the world’s first corporation with a stock market value greater than $1 billion.  In October 2021, Tesla joined Alphabet (Google’s corporate parent), Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft as the only U.S. corporations whose stock market value exceeds $1 trillion. (The Saudi Arabian Oil Company is the only non-U.S. firm with a market value above $1 trillion.) 

As large U.S. corporations developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a key problem facing them was how to allocate the firms’ scarce financial capital across competing uses. (A thorough—and lengthy!—discussion of the development of the modern U.S. corporation is Alfred Chandler’s book, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business.) By 1940, many large corporations had formed executive committees comprised of the chief executive officer (CEO), the chief operating officer (COO), and other so-called C-suite executives.

Executive committees typically don’t become involved in the day-to-day operations of the firms, leaving those responsibilities to lower level managers. Instead, executive committees devote most of their time to strategic issues such as whether to introduce new products, where to locate sales and production facilities, and how much of the firm’s resources to devote to research and development and to marketing. The decisions that an executive committee concentrates on involve how best to allocate the firm’s financial capital, funds that come from investors who buy the firm’s stocks and bonds and from the firm’s retained earnings—the firm’s profits that aren’t distributed as dividends to the firm’s shareholders. In allocating these funds, executive committees face trade-offs of the type we discuss in Chapter 2. For instance, if a U.S.-based firm uses funds to build a factory in another country, it may not have the funds to expand its domestic factories.

Allocating the firm’s financial capital will not have much effect on the firm’s profits in the short run but can be the main determinant of the firm’s profitability—and even its survival—in the long run. For instance, the failure of Blockbuster Video to expand into offering rentals of DVDs by mail or to offering a movie streaming service, resulted in the company shrinking from having 4,000 stores in the early 2000s to a single store today. In contrast, the decision in 2018 by U.S. pharmaceutical firm Pfizer to partner with BioNTech, a small German firm, to develop vaccines using messenger RNA (or mRNA) biotechnology proved very profitable for Pfizer (and saved many lives) when the Covid-19 virus led to a worldwide epidemic.

At Tesla, CEO Elon Musk has final say on strategic decisions, a situation typical of many large firms where a single executive, through stock ownership, has control of the company. One of his key decisions has been where to locate his production facilities. In making this decision, Musk faces trade-offs in how to use the scarce funds the firm has available for expanding production capacity. Building a facility in one place means not being able to fund building a facility in another place. In addition, funds used to build new factories is not available to increase research and development on autonomous cars or on other improvements to car design or technology. 

Initially, Tesla operated a single factory in Fremont, California. Built in 1962, the factory had been owned by General Motors and then jointly by GM and Toyota before being sold to Tesla in 2010. In 2019, Tesla began construction of a second factory in Shanghai, China and in 2021 was awaiting final governmental approval to build a factory in Grünheide, Germany.

Why would Tesla, or another U.S. firm, decide to build factories in other countries? The simplest answer is that firms expand their operations outside the United States when they expect to increase their profitability by doing so. Today, most large U.S. corporations are multinational firms with factories and other facilities overseas.  Firms might expect to increase their profits through overseas operations for five main reasons:

  1. To avoid tariffs or the threat of tariffs. Tariffs are taxes imposed by countries on imports from other countries. Sometimes firms establish factories in other countries to avoid having to pay tariffs.

2. To gain access to raw materials. Some U.S. firms have expanded abroad to secure supplies of raw materials. U.S. oil firms—beginning with Standard Oil in the late nineteenth century—have had extensive overseas operations aimed at discovering, recovering, and refining crude oil.

3. To gain access to low-cost labor. In recent decades, some U.S. firms have located factories or other facilities in countries such as China, India, Malaysia, and El Salvador to take advantage of the lower wages paid to workers in those countries.

4. To reduce exchange-rate risk. The exchange rate tells us how many units of foreign currency are received in exchange for a unit of domestic currency. Fluctuations in exchange rates can reduce the profits of a firm that exports goods to other countries. (We discuss this point in more detail in Economics, Chapter 28, Section 28.3 and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 18, Section 18.3.)

5. To respond to industry competition. In some instances, companies expand overseas as a competitive response to an industry rival. The worldwide competition for markets between Pepsi and Coke is an example of this kind of expansion.

All of these reasons, apart from 2., likely played a role in Tesla’s decision to build factories in China and Germany.

In 2021, Tesla was building a factory in Austin, Texas. It was also moving its corporate headquarters from California to Texas. With these actions, the firm may have been responding to lower taxes in Texas and lower housing costs for its workers.

In October 2021, Tesla’s $1 trillion stock market value seemed very high relative to the profits it was currently earning and also because it made Tesla’s value greater than the values of the next nine largest car makers combined. The price of its stock reflected the expectation among investors that Tesla’s profits would increase in future years. Tesla’s decisions about locating its new factories would play a key role in determining whether that expectation turns out to be correct. 

Sources: Rebecca Elliott and Dave Sebastian, “Tesla Surpasses $1 Trillion in Market Value as Hertz Orders 100,000 Vehicles,” wsj.com, October 25, 2021; Al Root, “How Tesla Gained $175 Billion in Value From Hertz’s $4 Billion Order. It Makes Perfect Sense,” barrons.com, October 26, 2021; Bojan Pancevski and Jared S. Hopkins, “How Pfizer Partner BioNTech Became a Leader in Coronavirus Vaccine Race,” wsj.com, October 22, 2020; William Boston, “Tesla Awaits Green Light for Production in Germany,” wsj.com, October 12, 2021; Niraj Chokshi, “Tesla Will Move Its Headquarters to Austin, Texas, in Blow to California,” nytimes.com, October 13, 2021; and Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977; and Tesla.com.

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Is the U.S. Economy Heading “Back to the ‘60s”?

A recent publication by economists Regis Barnichon, Luiz E. Oliveira, and Adam H. Shapiro at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco asks that provocative question. “The ‘60s” is a reference to the events that led to the U.S. economy experiencing more than 10 years of high inflation rates. Below is a graph similar to Chapter 15, Figure 15.1 in Macroeconomics (Economics, Chapter 25, Figure 25.1) that shows the inflation rate in the United States as measured by the percentage change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for each year since 1952. Economists call the years from 1968 though 1982 the “Great Inflation” because inflation was greater during that period than during any other period in the history of the United States.

As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2 (Economics, Chapter 27, Section 27.2), many economists believe that the Great Inflation began as a result of the Federal Reserve attempting to keep the unemployment rate below the natural rate of unemployment for a period of several years. As predicted by the Phillips Curve, the inflation rate increased and, as Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps had argued would likely happen, the expected inflation rate eventually increased. The inflation was made worse during the 1970s by two supply shocks resulting from sharp increases in oil prices.

Is the United States on the edge of repeating the experience of the Great Inflation? Earlier this year, Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote a paper arguing that the U.S. economy was at significant risk of experiencing a significant acceleration in inflation. His paper included a figure similar to the one below showing the combinations of inflation and unemployment during each year of the 1960s. The figure shows a substantial acceleration in inflation over the course of the decade.

Blanchard notes that: 

“The history of the Phillips curve is one of shifts, largely due to the adjustment of expectations of inflation to actual inflation. True, expectations have [currently] been extremely sticky for a long time, apparently not reacting to movements in actual inflation. But, with such overheating, expectations might well deanchor. If they do, the increase in inflation could be much stronger.” 

….

“If inflation were to take off, there would be two scenarios: one in which the Fed would let inflation increase, perhaps substantially, and another—more likely—in which the Fed would tighten monetary policy, perhaps again substantially. Neither of these two scenarios is ideal. In the first, inflation expectations would likely become deanchored, cancelling one of the major accomplishments of monetary policy in the last 20 years and making monetary policy more difficult to use in the future. In the second, the increase in interest rates might have to be very large, leading to problems in financial markets.”

The authors of the San Francisco Fed publication are more optimistic. They begin their discussion by observing that because of the pandemic, the state of the labor market is more difficult to assess than in most years. They note that the unemployment rate of 4.8 percent in September 2021 was only slightly below the average unemployment rate over the past 30 years and well above the low unemployment rates of 2019 and early 2021. So, on the basis of the unemployment rate, policymakers at the Fed and in Congress might conclude that the inflation the U.S. economy is experiencing is not the result of overly tight labor markets such as those of the late 1960s. But the job openings rate(sometimes called the vacancy rate) is telling a different story. Job openings are positions that are both available to be filled within the next 30 days and for which firms are actively recruiting applicants from outside the firm. (According to the BLS: “The job openings rate is computed by dividing the number of job openings by the sum of employment and job openings and multiplying that quotient by 100.”)

The authors of the San Francisco Fed study note that “the vacancy rate is well above its 30-year average … and has surpassed its historic highs from the late 1960s … indicating that employers are having a difficult time filling positions. Confirming this high vacancy rate, the fraction of small businesses reporting that job openings are hard to fill is at historic highs ….” The figures below show the vacancy rate and the unemployment rate since January 2016.

The authors combine the unemployment rate and the vacancy rate into a statistic—the vacancy-to-unemployment ratio—that they demonstrate has historically done a better job of explaining movements in inflation than has the unemployment rate.  They expect that expansionary fiscal policy will result in an increase in vacancy-to-unemployment ratio and, therefore, an increase in the inflation rate. But they share the view of Blanchard and many other economists that a key issue is “the stability of longer-run inflation expectations.” 

We know that in the 1960s, several years of rising inflation made long-run inflation expectations unstable—in terms of the discussion in Chapter 17, the short-run Phillips curve shifted up. We don’t yet know what will happen to inflation expectations in late 2021 and in 2022, so we can’t yet tell how persistent current rates of inflation will be. 

Sources: Regis Barnichon, Luiz E. Oliveira, and Adam H. Shapiro, “Is the American Rescue Plan Taking Us Back to the ’60s?,” FRBSF Economic Letter, No. 2021-27, October 18, 2021; Olivier Blanchard, “In Defense of Concerns over the $1.9 Trillion relief Plan,” piie.com, February 18, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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Elkhart County, Indiana Rides the Surge in Spending on Consumer Durables

More than 80 percent of the recreational vehicles (RV) sold in the United States are manufactured in Elkhart County, Indiana. As we discuss in the opener to Chapter 22 in Economics (Chapter 12 in Macroeconomics), being dependent on sales of expensive durable goods like RVs means that the county is particularly vulnerable to the business cycle, with local firms experiencing rising sales during economic expansions and sharply falling sales during economic recessions. Accordingly, the unemployment rate in the county fluctuates much more during the business cycle than is typical—as shown in the above graph.

For example, during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the unemployment rate in the country rose from a low of 3.9 percent in May 2007 to a high of 20 percent in March 2009, before declining during the following economic recovery.  Just before the start of the Covid-19 recession of 2020, the unemployment rate in Elkhart was 2.8 percent. It then soared to 30.8 percent in April. 

But, as we discuss in the chapter, the recovery from the 2020 recession was unusually rapid, although uneven. Many services industries, such as restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters continued to struggle well into 2021 as firms had difficulty attracting workers and as some consumers remained reluctant to spend time inside in close contact with other people. In contrast, consumer spending on durable goods was far above its pre-pandemic level, as well as being above the rate at which it had been growing during the years before the pandemic. The two graphs below show real consumer spending on durables and on services up through August 2021.

During 2021, sales of RVs through August were 50 percent higher than in the same period in 2020 and were on a pace to reach record annual sales. The success of the RV industry has led to rising incomes in Elkhart County, which, in turn, has allowed the area to attract other industries, including a logistics center that when completed will be the largest industrial building in Indiana and an Amazon warehouse that when completed will provide 1,000 new jobs. Rising incomes have also supported other businesses, such as community theaters, art galleries, and a recently reopened 1920s-era hotel.

In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal ranked Elkhart County first in its rating of metropolitan areas as measured by the index it compiles with realtor.com. The index “identifies the top metro areas for home buyers seeking an appreciating housing market and appealing lifestyle amenities.” If consumers continue to buy more goods and fewer services, it could be bad news for restaurants and other service industries, but good news for places like Elkhart that depend on goods-producing industries. 

Sources: Nicole Friedman, “RV Capital of America Tops WSJ/Realtor.com Housing Index in Third Quarter,” wsj.com, October 19, 2021; Business Wire, “Amazon Announces New Robotics Fulfillment Center and Delivery Station in Elkhart County, Creating More Than 1,000 New, Full-Time Jobs,” businesswire.com, October 7, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Hotel Elkhart Grand Opening Celebrated in Elkhart, Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, October 4, 2021; Construction Review Online, “Elkhart County Logistics Facility to Bring about 1,000 jobs in Indiana,” constructionreviewonline.com, August 16, 2021; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; and RV Industry Association.

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WeWork Gets SPAC’d

In 2021, SPACs were the hottest trend on the stock market and had become the leading way for companies to go public. A public company is one with shares that trade on the stock market. Private firms make up more than 95 percent of all firms in the United States. Most will never become public firms because they will never grow large enough for investors to have sufficient information on the firms’ financial health to be willing to buy the firms’ stocks and bonds.

But some firms, particularly technology firms, grow rapidly enough that they are able to become public firms. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Uber, Facebook, Snap, and other firms have followed this path. When these firms went public, they did so using an initial public offering (IPO). (We briefly discuss IPOs in Economics and Microeconomics, Chapter 8, Section 8.2 and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 6, Section 6.2.) With an IPO, a firm uses one or more investment banks to underwrite the firm’s sales of new stocks or bonds to the public. In underwriting,investment banks typically guarantee a price for stocks or bonds to the issuing firm, sell the stocks or bonds in financial markets or directly to investors at a higher price, and keep the difference, known as the spread.

Beginning in 2020 and continuing through 2021, an increasing number of firms have used a different means of going public—merging with a SPAC. SPAC stands for special-purpose acquisition company and is a firm that holds only cash—it doesn’t sell a good or service—and only has the purpose of merging with another firm that wants to go public. Once a merger takes place, the acquired firm takes the place of the SPAC in the stock market. For instance, a SPAC named Diamond Eagle Acquisition merged with online sports betting site DraftKings in April 2020. Once the merger had been completed, DraftKings took Diamond Eagle’s place on the stock market, trading under the stock symbol DKNG. By 2021, the value of SPAC mergers had risen to being three times as much as the value of IPOs.

Some firms intending to go public prefer SPACs to traditional IPOs because they can bargain directly with the managers of the SPAC in determining the value of the firm. In addition, IPOs are closely regulated by the federal government’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In particular, the SEC monitors whether an investment bank is accurately stating the financial prospects of a firm whose IPO the bank is underwriting. The claims that SPACs make when attracting investors are less closely monitored. SPAC mergers can also be finalized more quickly than can traditional IPOs.

The experience of WeWork illustrates how some firms that have struggled to go public through an IPO have been able to do so by merging with a SPAC. Adam Neumann and Miguel McLevey founded WeWork in 2010 as a firm that would rent office space in cities, renovate the space, and then sub-lease it to other firms. In 2019, the firm prepared for an IPO that would have given the firm a total value of more than $40 billion. But doubts about the firm’s business model led to an indefinite postponement of the IPO and Neumann was forced out as CEO.

WeWork was reorganized under new CEO Sandeep Mathrani and went public in October 2021 by merging with BowX Acquisition Corporation, a SPAC. Although WeWork’s stock began trading (under stock symbol WE) at a price that put the firm’s value at about $9 billion—far below the value it expected at the time of its postponed IPO two years before—investors seemed optimistic about the firm’s future because its stock price rose sharply during the first two days it traded on the stock market. 

Some policymakers are concerned that individual investors may not have sufficient information on firms that go public through a merger with a SPAC. Under one proposal being considered by Congress, financial advisers would only be allowed to recommend investing in SPACs to wealthy investors. The SEC is also considering whether new regulations governing SPACS were needed. Testifying before Congress, SEC Chair Gary Gensler sated: “There’s real questions about who’s benefiting [from firms going public using SPACs] and [about] investor protection.” 

It remains to be seen whether SPACs will retain their current position as being the leading way for firms to go public.

Sources: Dave Sebastian, “WeWork Shares Rise on First Day of Trading, Two Years After Failed IPO,” wsj.com, October 21, 2021; Peter Santilli and Amrith Ramkumar, “SPACs Are the Stock Market’s Hottest Trend. Here’s How They Work,” wsj.com, March 29, 2021; Benjamin Bain, “SPAC Marketing Heavily Curtailed in House Democrats’ Draft Bill,” bloomberg.com, October 4, 2021; and Dave Michaels, “SEC Weighs New Investor Protections for SPACs,” wsj.com, May 26, 2021.

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Economies of Scale in Ocean Shipping and U.S. Retailers’ Response to Pandemic Supply Chain Problems

Beginning in the 1950s, several companies pioneered in developing modern shipping containers that once arrived at docks can be lifted by cranes and directly attached to trucks or loaded on to trains for overland shipping. As economist Marc Levinson was the first to discuss in detail in his 2004 book, The Box, container shipping, by greatly reducing transportation costs, helped to make the modern global economy possible. (We discuss globalization in Economics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 and Chapter 21, Section 21.4, and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 7, Section 7.1 and Chapter 11, Section 11.4.) 

Lower transportation costs meant that small manufacturing firms and other small businesses that depended on selling in local markets faced much greater competition, including from firms located thousands of miles away. The number of dockworkers declined dramatically as the loading and unloading of cargo ships became automated. Ports such as New York City, San Francisco, and Liverpool that were not well suited for handling containers because they lacked sufficient space for the automated equipment and the warehouses, lost most of their shipping business to other ports, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and London. Consumers in all countries benefited because lower transportation costs meant they were able to buy cheaper imported goods and had a much greater variety of goods to choose from.

In the decades since the 1950s, shipping firms have continued to exploit economies of scale in container ships. (We discuss the concept of economies of scale in Econimics and Microeconomics, Chapter 11, Section 11.6.) Today, shipping containers have been standardized at either 20 feet or 40 feet long and the largest ships can haul thousands of containers. Levinson explains why economies of scale are important in this industry:

“A vessel to carry 3,000 containers did not require twice as much steel or twice as large an engine as a vessel to carry 1,500. [Because of automation, a] larger ship did not require a larger crew, so crew wages per container were much lower. Fuel consumption did not increase proportionally with the vessel’s size.”

To take advantage of these economies of scale, the ships needed to sail fully loaded. The largest ships can sail fully loaded only on routes where shipping volumes are highest, such as between Asia and the United States or between the United States and Europe. As a result, as Levinson notes, the largest ships are “uneconomic to run on most of the world’s shipping lanes” because on most routes the costs per container are higher for the largest ships for smaller ships. (Note that even these “smaller ships” are still very large in absolute size, being able to haul 1,000 containers.) 

Large U.S. retail firms, such as Walmart, Home Depot, and Target rely on imported goods from Asian countries, including China, Japan, and Vietnam. Ordinarily, they are importing goods in sufficient quantities that the goods are shipped on the largest vessels, which today have the capacity to haul 20,000 containers. But during the pandemic, a surge in demand for imported goods combined with disruptions caused by Covid outbreaks in some Asian ports and a shortage of truck drivers and some other workers in the United States, resulted in a backlog of ships waiting to disembark their cargoes at U.S. ports. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in southern California were particularly affected. By October 2021, it was taking an average of 80 days for goods to be shipped across the Pacific, compared with an average of 40 days before the pandemic.

Some large U.S. firms responded to the shipping problems by chartering smaller ships that ordinarily would only make shorter voyages. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “the charters provide the big retailers with a way to work around bottlenecks at ports such as Los Angeles, by rerouting cargo to less congested docks such as Portland, Ore., Oakland, Calif., or the East Coast.”  Unfortunately, because the smaller ships lacked the economies of scale of the larger ships, the cost the U.S. firms were paying per container were nearly twice as high. (Note that this result is similar to the cost difference between a large and a small automobile factory, which we illustrated in Economics and Microeconomics, Figure 11.6.)

Unfortunately for U.S. consumers, the higher costs U.S. retailers paid for transporting goods across the Pacific Ocean resulted in higher prices on store shelves. Shopping for presents during the 2021 holiday season turned out to be more expensive than in previous years. 

Sources: Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Second edition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016; Sarah Nassauer and Costas Paris, “Biggest U.S. Retailers Charter Private Cargo Ships to Sail Around Port Delays,” wsj.com, October 10, 2021; and Melissa Repko, “How Bad Are Global Shipping Snafus? Home Depot Contracted Its Own Container Ship as a Safeguard,” cnbc.com, June 13, 2021. 

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The Many Uses of Elasticity: An Example from Law Enforcement Policy

In this chapter, we have studied several types of elasticities, starting with the price elasticity of demand. Elasticity is a general concept that economists use to measure the effect of a change in one variable on another variable. An example of a more general use of elasticity, beyond the uses we discussed in this chapter, appears in a new academic paper written by Anne Sofie Tegner Anker of the University of Copenhagen, Jennifer L. Doleac of Texas A&M University, and Rasmus LandersØ of Aarshus University. 

The authors are interested in studying the effects of crime deterrence. They note that rational offenders will be deterred by government policies that increase the probability that an offender will be arrested. Even offenders who don’t respond rationally to an increase in the probability of being arrested will still commit fewer crimes because they are more likely to be arrested. Governments have different policies available to reduce crime. Given that government resources are scarce, efficient allocation of resources requires policymakers to choose policies that provide the most deterrence per dollar of cost.

The authors note “we currently know very little about precisely how much deterrence we achieve for any given increase in the likelihood that an offender is apprehended.” They attempt to increase knowledge on this point by analyzing the effects of a policy change in Denmark in 2005 that made it much more likely that an offender would have his or her DNA entered into a DNA database: “The goal of DNA registration is to deter offenders and increase the likelihood of detection of future crimes by enabling matches of known offenders with DNA from crime scene evidence.”

The authors find that the expansion of Denmark’s DNA database had a substantial effect on recidivism—an offender committing additional crimes—and on the probability that an offender who did commit additional crimes would be caught. They estimate that “a 1 percent higher detection probability reduces crime by more than 2 percent.” In other words, the elasticity of crime with respect to the detection probability is −2.

Just as the price elasticity of demand gives a business manager a useful way to summarize the responsiveness of the quantity demanded of the firm’s product to a change in its price, the elasticity the authors estimated gives a policymaker a useful way to summarize the responsiveness of crime to a policy that increases the probability of catching offenders.  

Source: Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer L. Doleac, and Rasmus LandersØ, “The Effects of DNA Databases on the Deterrence and Detection of Offenders,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Vol. 13, No. 4, October 2021, pp. 194-225. 

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Is Bitcoin the New Gold?

As we discuss in the chapter, initially, bitcoin was thought of as a way to buy and sell goods and services. Some stores accepted bitcoin and allowed customers to make payment by scanning a bar code with a phone. Some websites offered merchants a way to process purchases made with bitcoins in a manner similar to the way merchants process credit card payments.

In practice, though, swings in the value of bitcoin have been much too large to make it a good substitute for cash, checks, or credit cards in everyday transactions. For instance, at the beginning of 2015, one bitcoin was worth about $300. Over the following five years, the price of bitcoin rose as high at $17,000 before falling to about $8,000 at the beginning of 2020. During 2021, the volatility of bitcoin prices increased, rising as high as $62,000 in April and falling as low as $30,000 in July before rising back above $60,000 in October. (The following chart shows movements in the price of bitcoin from early July to mid-October 2021; the vertical axis shows the price as dollars per bitcoin.)

Some economists have suggested that rather being a medium of exchange, like dollar bills, bitcoin has become a speculative asset, like gold. Bitcoin shares with gold the characteristic that ultimately its total supplied is limited. The supply of Bitcoin can’t increase beyond 21 million, a limit that is expected to be reached in 2030. The gold stock slowly increases as mines produce more gold, although the output of mines is small compared with the existing stock of gold. Some investors and speculators are reassured that, in contrast to the assets in M1 and M2 that can increase as much as the Fed chooses, gold and bitcoin have limits on how much they can increase.

Will Bitcoin Be a Good Hedge Against Inflation? Can It Be Useful in Diversifying a Portfolio?

Some investors and speculators believe that the limited quantities of gold and bitcoin available make them good hedges against inflation—that is, they believe that the prices of gold and bitcoin will reliably increase during periods of inflation.  In fact, though, gold has proven to be a poor hedge against inflation because in the long run the price of gold has not reliably increased faster than the inflation rate. There is no good economic reason to expect that over the long run bitcoin would be a good inflation hedge either.

From a broader perspective than as just an inflation hedge, some economists argue that gold has a role to play in an investor’s portfolio—which is the collection of assets, such as stocks and bonds, that an investor owns. Investors can reduce the financial risk they face through diversification, or spreading their wealth among different assets. For instance, an investor who only holds Apple stock in her portfolio is subject to more risk than an investor with the same dollar amount invested in a portfolio that holds the stocks of multiple firms as well as non-stock investments. An investor obtains the benefits of diversification best by adding assets to her portfolio that are not well correlated with the assets she already owns—that is the prices of the assets she adds to her portfolio don’t typically move in the same direction as the prices of the assets she already owns.

For instance, during a typical recession sales of consumer staples, like baby diapers and laundry detergent, hold up well, while sales of consumers durables, like automobiles, usually decline significantly. So adding shares of stock in Proctor & Gamble to a portfolio that already has many shares of General Motors achieves diversification and reduces financial risk because movements in the price of shares of Proctor & Gamble are likely not to be highly correlated with movements in the price of shares of General Motors.

Studies have shown that during some periods movements in gold prices are not correlated with movements in prices of stocks or bonds. In other words, gold prices may rise during a period when stock prices are declining. As a result, an investor may want to add gold to her portfolio to diversify it. To this point, bitcoin hasn’t been around long enough to draw firm conclusions about whether adding bitcoin to a portfolio provides significant diversification, although some investors believes that it does. 

Finance professionals are divided in their opinions on whether bitcoin is a good substitute for gold in a financial portfolio. In an interview, billionaire investor Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s hedge fund, noted that while he believes that bitcoin may serve as a hedge against inflation, but if he could only hold gold or bitcoin, “I would choose gold.” His preference for gold is due in part to his belief that the federal government may increase regulation of bitcoin and that regulators might eventually even decide to ban it. A businessinsider.com survey of 10 financial experts found them divided with five preferring gold as an investment and five preferring bitcoin.

Sources: Jade Scipioni, “Bitcoin vs. Gold: Here’s What Billionaire Ray Dalio Thinks,” cnbc.com, August 4, 2021; and Isabelle Lee and Will Daniel, “Bitcoin vs. Gold: 10 Experts Told Us Which Asset They’d Rather Hold for the Next 10 Years, and Why,” businessinsider.com, February 20, 2021.

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New 10/17/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss economic impact of infrastructure spending & the supply-chain challenges.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impact of the recent infrastructure bill and what role fiscal policy plays in determining shovel-ready projects. Also, they explore the vast impact of the economy-wide supply-chain issues and the challenges companies face. Until the pandemic, we had a very efficient supply chain but now we’re seeing companies employ the “just-in-case” inventory method vs. “just-in-time”!

Some links referenced in the podcast:

Here’s Alan Cole’s blog: https://fullstackeconomics.com/how-i-reluctantly-became-an-inflation-crank/

Neil Irwin wrote a column referencing Cole here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/10/upshot/shadow-inflation-analysis.html

Here’s a Times article on the inefficiency of subway construction in NYC:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/nyregion/new-york-subway-construction-costs.html

A recent article on the state of CA’s bullet train:  https://www.kcra.com/article/california-bullet-trains-latest-woe-high-speed/37954851

A WSJ column on goods v. services: https://www.wsj.com/articles/at-times-like-these-inflation-isnt-all-bad-11634290202

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The Pandemic and Hidden Inflation

If the price of your meal is the same, but the service is slow and the menu is limited you have experienced hidden inflation.

Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics gather data on prices of goods and services from stores in 87 cities and from websites. The BLS constructs the consumer price index (CPI) by giving each price a weight equal to the fraction of a typical family’s budget spent on that good or service. (We discuss the construction of the CPI in Chapter 9, Section 9.4 of Macroeconomics and Chapter 19, Section 19.4 of Economics.) Ideally, the BLS tracks prices of the same product over time. But sometimes a particular brand and style of shirt, for example, is discontinued. In that case, the BLS will use instead the price of a shirt that is a very close substitute.

A more difficult problem arises when the price of a good increases at the same time that the quality of the good improves. For instance, a new model iPhone may have both a higher price and a better battery than the model it replaces, so the higher price partly reflects the improvement in the quality of the phone.  The BLS has long been aware of this problem and has developed statistical techniques that attempt to identify that part of price increases that are due to increases in quality. Economists differ in their views on how successfully the BLS has dealt with this quality bias to the measured inflation rate. Because of this bias in constructing the CPI, it’s possible that the published values of inflation may overstate the actual annual rate of inflation by 0.5 percentage point. So, for instance, the BLS might report an inflation rate of 3.5 percent when the actual inflation rate—if the BLS could determine it—was 4.0 percent.

During 2021, a number of observers pointed to a hidden type of inflation occurring, particularly in some service industries. For example, because many restaurants were having difficulty hiring servers, it was often taking longer for customers to have their orders taken and to have their food brought to the table.  Because restaurants were also having difficulty hiring enough cooks, they also limited the items available on their menus. In other words, the service these restaurants were offering was not as good as it had been prior to the pandemic. So even if the restaurants kept their prices unchanged, their customers were paying the same price but receiving less. 

Alan Cole, who was formerly a senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, noted on his blog that “goods and services are getting worse faster than the official statistics acknowledge, suggesting that our inflation problem has actually been bigger than the official statistics suggest.” As examples, he noted that “hotels clean rooms less frequently on multi-night stays,” “shipping delays are longer, and phone hold times at airlines are worse.” In a column in the New York Times, economics writer Neil Irwin made similar points: “Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of [restaurant] tables, floors and bathrooms.”  And: “People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer.”

A column in the Wall Street Journal on business travel by Scott McCartney was headlined “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast.” McCartney noted that many hotels continue to advertise free hot breakfasts on their websites and apps but have stopped providing them. He also noted that hotels “have suffered from labor shortages that have made it difficult to supply services such as daily housekeeping or loyalty-group lounges,” in addition to hot breakfasts.

The BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for these types of deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin notes: “Customer service preferences—particularly how much good service is worth—varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?”

As we noted earlier, most economists believe that the failure of the BLS to fully account for improvements in the quality of goods results in changes in the CPI overstating the true inflation rate.  This bias may have been more than offset since the beginning of the pandemic by deterioration in the quality of services resulting in the CPI understating the true inflation rate. As the dislocations caused by the pandemic gradually resolve themselves, it seems likely that the deterioration in services will be reversed. But it’s possible that the deterioration in the provision of some services may persist. Fortunately, unless the deterioration increases over time, it would not continue to distort the measurement of the inflation rate because the same lower level of service would be included in every period’s prices.

Sources: Alan Cole, “How I Reluctantly Became an Inflation Crank,” fullstackeconomics.com, September 8, 2021; Scott McCartney, “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast—and Other Amenities Travelers Miss,” wsj.com, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” nytimes.com, October 14, 2021.

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The College Majors of U.S. Billionaires

Jim McKelvey, cofounder of Square and undergraduate economics major

Each year, Forbes magazine compiles a list of the 400 richest people in the United States. A recent article in Forbes reports on the college majors of these billionaires. Forbes was able to find that information for 357 of the 400. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 65 chose business, making it the most popular undergraduate major.  

Economics was the second most popular major, with 58 having chosen it, followed closely by engineering with 55. There is a substantial drop to the next most popular major—politics and government—with 22 of the 400 billionaires having chosen it. Given that we often associate billion dollar fortunes with the founders of tech companies, it may be surprising that only 17 of the 400 majored in computer science. Included among them, though, is Jeff Bezos, who majored in computer science and engineering at Princeton and who holds first place on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. 

The article quotes Jim McKelvey, cofounder of credit card processor Square, as observing about economics: “There are a few basic concepts in economics that help in business. Micro and especially game theory are helpful to predict customer behavior. And macro has been super helpful ever since I joined the board of the Federal Reserve.” McKelvey currently serves as deputy chair of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Source: Matt Durot, “Want to Be a Billionaire? These Are the Most Popular Majors of the Richest Americans,” forbes.com, October 8, 2021. LINK

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Card, Angrist, and Imbens Win Nobel Prize in Economics

David Card
Joshua Angrist
Guido Imbens

   David Card of the University of California, Berkeley; Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Guido Imbens of Stanford University shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics (formally, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel). Card received half of the prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (about 1.14 million U.S. dollars) “for his empirical contributions to labor economics,” and Angrist and Imbens shared the other half “for their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.” (In the work for which they received the prize, all three had collaborated with the late Alan Krueger of Princeton University. Card was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as stating that: “I’m sure that if Alan was still with us that he would be sharing this prize with me.”)

The work of the three economists is related in that all have used natural experiments to address questions of economic causality. With a natural experiment, economists identify some variable of interest—say, an increase in the minimum wage—that has changed for one group of people—say, fast-food workers in one state—while remaining unchanged for another similar group of people—say, fast-food workers in a neighboring state. Researchers can draw an inference about the effects of the change by looking at the difference between the outcomes for the two groups. In this example, the difference between changes in employment at fast-food restaurants in the two states can be used to measure the effect of an increase in the minimum wage.

Using natural experiments is an alternative to the traditional approach that had dominated empirical economics from the 1940s when the increased availability of modern digital computers made it possible to apply econometric techniques to real-world data. With the traditional approach to empirical work, economists would estimate structural models to answer questions about causality. So, for instance, a labor economist might estimate a model of the demand and supply of labor to predict the effect of an increase in the minimum wage on employment.

Over the years, many economists became dissatisfied with using structural models to address questions of economic causality. They concluded that the information requirements to reliably estimate structural models were too great. For instance, structural models require assumptions about the functional form of relationships, such as the demand for labor, that are not inferable directly from economic theory. Theory also did not always identify all variables that should be included in the model. Gathering data on the relevant variables was sometimes difficult. As a result, answers to empirical questions, such as the employment effects of the minimum wage, differed substantially across studies. In such cases, policymakers began to see empirical economics as an unreliable guide to economic policy.

In a famous study of the effect of the minimum wage on employment published in 1994 in the American Economic Review, Card and Krueger pioneered the use of natural experiments.  In that study, Card and Krueger analyzed the effect of the minimum wage on employment in fast-food restaurants by comparing what happened to employment in New Jersey when it raised the state minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.05 per hour with employment in eastern Pennsylvania where the minimum wage remained unchanged.  They found that, contrary to the usual analysis that increases in the minimum wage lead to decreases in the employment of unskilled workers, employment of fast-food workers in New Jersey actually increased relative to employment of fast-food workers in Pennsylvania. 

The following graphic from Nobel Prize website summarizes the study. (Note that not all economists have accepted the results of Card and Krueger’s study. We briefly summarize the debate over the effects of the minimum wage in Chapter 4, Section 4.3 of our textbook.)

Drawing inferences from natural experiments is not as straightforward as it might seem from our brief description. Angrist and Imbens helped develop the techniques that many economists rely on when analyzing data from natural experiments.

Taken together, the work of these three economists represent a revolution in empirical economics. They have provided economists with an approach and with analytical techniques that have been applied to a wide range of empirical questions. 

For the annoucement from the Nobel website click HERE.

For the article in the Wall Street Journal on the prize click HERE (note that a subscription may be required).

For the orignal Card and Krueger paper on the minimum wage click HERE.

For David Card’s website click HERE.

For Joshua Angrist’s website click HERE.

For Guido Imbens’s website click HERE.

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Solved Problem: The Fed’s Policy Dilemma

Supports:  Macroneconomics Chapter 15, Section 15.3; Economics Chapter 25, Section 25.3; and Essentials of Economics Chapter 17, Sections 17.3.

Solved Problem: The Fed’s Policy Dilemma

   In the fall of 2021, the inflation rate was at its highest level since 2008. The unemployment rate was above 5 percent, which was much lower than in the spring of 2020, but still well above its level of early 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic. In testifying before Congress, Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated that he believed the high inflation rate was transitory and in the longer run “inflation is expected to drop back toward our longer-run 2 percent goal.”

But Powell also stated that if inflation continued to remain high the Fed would face a policy dilemma. “Almost all of the time, inflation is low when unemployment is high, so interest rates work on both problems.” But in contrast, in the fall of 2021 both the unemployment and inflation rates were high: “That’s the very difficult situation we find ourselves in.”

a. Briefly explain what Powell meant by saying that almost all of the time “interest rates work on both problems.”

b. Why did macroeconomic conditions in the fall of 2021 present Fed policymakers with a “very difficult” situation?

Source: Kate Davidson and Nick Timiraos, “Powell Says Fed Faces ‘Difficult Trade-Off’ if Inflation Doesn’t Moderate,” Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2021; and Chair Jerome H. Powell, “Testimony Before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C.” September 28, 2021, federalreserve. gov..

Solving the Problem

Step 1:   Review the chapter material. This problem is about the policy situation the Fed faces when the unemployment and inflation rates are both high, so you may want to review Chapter 15, Section 15.3, “Monetary Policy and Economic Activity,” and the discussion of staflation, including Figure 13.7, in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, “Macroeconomic Equilibrium in the Long Run and the Short Run.”

Step 2:   Explain what Powell meant by “interest rates work on both problems.” We’ve seen that in the typical recession the unemployment rate increases while the inflation rate decreases. We’ve also seen that if the economy is above potential GDP, the unemployment rate is very low but the inflation rate increases. (To review these facts, see Chapter 10, Section 10.3 “The Business Cycle.”) The Fed uses changes in its target for the federal funds rate to affect the level of real GDP and the price level, as it attempts to hit its policy goals of high employment and price stability.

So “almost all of the time,” the Fed can use interest rates–changes in the target for the federal funds rate–to work on the problems of high unemployment and high inflation–depending on which is occuring during a particular period.

Step 3: Explain why macroeconomic conditions in the fall of 2021 presented Fed policymakers with a “very difficult” situation. As Powell observes, “almost all the time” Fed policy is focused on reducing either high unemployment or high inflation, but not both. As we note in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, economists refer to a situation when the unemployment and inflations rates are both high at the same time as a period of stagflation. If the inflation rate is high, then expansionary monetary policy–a low target for the federal funds rate–will reduce the unemployment rate but make an already high inflation rate even higher. Similarly, if the unemployment rate is high, then contractionary monetary policy–a high target for the federal funds rate–will reduce the inflation rate but make an already high unemploument rate even higher. A very difficult policy dilemma for the Fed!

How did Fed policymakers expect to resolve this difficulty? In his testimony, Powell explained that he believed that the high inflation rate the U.S. economy was experiencing during the fall of 2021 was transitory and would begin to decline once the supply problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic were resolved in the coming months. Referring to the supply problems he noted that “These aren’t things that we [the Fed] can control.” Therefore, the Fed did not intend to use policy to address the high inflation rate and could continue to pursue an expansionary monetary policy to push the labor market back to full employment.

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Coming Attractions: Hubbard and O’Brien Principles of Economics Updated

It’s customary for textbook authors to note that “much has happened in the economy” since the last edition of their book appeared. To say that much has happened since we prepared our last edition in 2019 would be a major understatement. Never in the lifetimes of today’s students and instructors have events like those of 2020 and 2021 occurred. The U.S. and world economies had experienced nothing like the Covid-19 pandemic since the influenza pandemic of 1918. In the spring of 2020, the U.S. economy suffered an unprecedented decline in the supply of goods and services as a majority of businesses in the country shut down to reduce spread of the virus. Many businesses remained closed or operated at greatly reduced capacity well into 2021. Most schools, including most colleges, switched to remote learning, which disrupted the lives of many students and their parents.

During the worst of the pandemic, total spending in the economy declined as the unemployment rate soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Reduced spending and closed businesses resulted in by far the largest decline in total production in such a short period in the history of the U.S. economy. Congress, the Trump and Biden administrations, and the Federal Reserve responded with fiscal and monetary policies that were also unprecedented.

Our updated Eighth Edition covers all of these developments as well as the policy debates they initiated. As with previous editions, we rely on extensive digital resources, including: author-created application videos and audio recordings of the chapter openers and Apply the Concept features; figure animation videos; interactive real-time data graphs animations; and Solved Problem whiteboard videos.

Glenn and Tony discuss the updated edition in this video:

Sample chapters will be available by October 15.

The full Macroeconomics text will available in early to mid December.

The full Microeconomics text will be available in mid to late December.

If you would like to view the sample chapters or are considering adopting the updated Eighth Edition for the spring semester, please contact your local Pearson representative. You can use this LINK to find and contact your representative.

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New 09/03/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report, Fed comments, and financial stability!

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the recent jobs report falling short of expectations. They also discuss the comments of Fed Chairman Powell’s comments at the Federal Reserve’s recent Jackson Hole conference. They also get to some of the recommendations of a Brookings Task Force, co-chaired by Glenn Hubbard, on ways to address financial stability. Use the links below to see more information about these timely topics:
Powell’s Jackson Hole speech: 

https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/files/powell20210827a.pdf 

The report of Glenn’s task force: 

https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/financial-stability_report.pdf 

The most recent economic forecasts of the FOMC: 

https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/files/fomcprojtabl20210616.pdf

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Menu Costs in the Digital Age

Inflation imposes a number of costs on households and firms (see our discussion in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.7 and Macroeconomics, Chapter 19, Section 19.7). Economists call the costs to firms of changing prices menu costs. For instance, when supermarkets raise prices, employees have to spend time changing the prices posted on shelves. 

When restaurants raise prices, they have to print new menus (hence the general name economists give to these costs). Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, the trend toward having digital menus rather than paper ones increased.  But even with digital menus, a restaurant incurs some costs, as this sign in a coffee shop indicates. An employee has to update the digital menu to reflect the new prices and, in the meantime, the shop may experience friction from customers who see one price on the digital menu and are charged a higher price when they pay at the register. 

H/T Lena Buonanno

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WELCOME BACK! New 08/20/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien return to discuss delta variant & inflation!

Join authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien as they return for a new academic year! The issues have evolved but the importance of these issues has not waned. We discuss the impact of closures related to the delta variant has on the economy. The discussion extends to the active fiscal and monetary policy that has reintroduced inflation as a topic facing our economy. Many students have little or no experience with inflation so it is a learning opportunity. Check back regularly where Glenn & Tony will continue to wrestle with these important economic concepts and relate them to the classroom!

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What’s Going on with Inflation?

   The U.S. inflation rate has accelerated. As the following figure shows, in mid-2021, inflation, measured as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year (the blue line), rose above 5 percent for the first time since the summer of 2008.

As we discuss in an Apply the Concept in Chapter 25, Section 25.5 (Chapter 15, Section 15.5 of Macroeconomics), the Fed prefers to measure inflation using the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The PCE price index is a measure of the price level similar to the GDP deflator, except it includes only the prices of goods and services from the consumption category of GDP. Because the PCE price index includes more goods and services than the CPI, it is a broader measure of inflation. As the red line in the figure shows, inflation as measured by the PCE price index is generally lower than inflation measured by the CPI. The difference is particularly large during periods in which CPI inflation is especially high, as it was during 2008, 2011, and 2021.

Prices of food and energy are particularly volatile, so the measure of inflation the Fed focuses on most closely is the PCE price index, excluding food and energy prices (the green line in figure). The figure shows that this measure of inflation is more stable than either of the other two measures. For instance, during June 2021, measured by the CPI, inflation was 5.3 percent, but was 3.5 percent when measured by the PCE, excluding food and energy.

In the summer of 2021, even inflation measured by the PCE, excluding food and energy, is running well above the Fed’s long-run target rate of 2 percent. Why is inflation increasing? Most economists and policymakers believe that two sets of factors are responsible:

  1. Increases in aggregate demand. Consumption spending (see the first figure below) has increased as the economy has reopened and people have returned to eating in restaurants, going to the movies, working out in gyms, and spending at other businesses that were closed or operating at reduced capacity. Households have been able to sharply increase their spending because household saving (see the second figure below) soared during the pandemic in response to payments from the federal government, including supplemental unemployment insurance payments and checks sent directly to most households. The increase in federal government expenditures that helped fuel the increase in aggregate demand is shown in the third figure below.

Fed policy has also been strongly expansionary, with the target for the federal funds kept near zero and the Fed continuing its substantial purchases of Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities. The continuing expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet through the summer of 2021 is shown in the last of the figures below. The Fed’s asset purchases have help keep interest rates low and provided banks with ample funds to loan to households and firms. 

2. Reductions in aggregate supply. The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, reducing the goods available to consumers.  In the summer of 2021, not all of these supply chain issues had been resolved. In particular, a shortage of computer chips had reduced output of motor vehicles. New cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans were often selling above their sticker prices. High prices for new vehicles led many consumers to increase their demand for used vehicles, driving up their prices. Between July 2020 and July 2021, prices of new vehicles rose 6.4 percent and prices for used vehicles rose an extraordinary 41.7 percent.

Supply issues also exist in some service industries, such as restaurants and hotels, that have had difficulty hiring enough workers to fully reopen. 

Economists and policymakers differ as to whether high inflation rates are transitory or whether the U.S. economy might be entering a prolonged period of higher inflation. Most Federal Reserve policymakers argue that the higher inflation rates in mid-2021 are transitory. For instance, in a statement following its July 28, 2021 meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee noted that: “Inflation has risen, largely reflecting transitory factors.”  Although the statement also noted that inflation is “on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time.”

In a speech at the end of July, Fed Governor Lael Brainard expanded on the Fed’s reasoning:

“Recent high inflation readings reflect supply–demand mismatches in a handful of sectors that are likely to prove transitory…. I am attentive to the risk that inflation pressures could broaden or prove persistent, perhaps as a result of wage pressures, persistent increases in rent, or businesses passing on a larger fraction of cost increases rather than reducing markups, as in recent recoveries. I am particularly attentive to any signs that currently high inflation readings are pushing longer-term inflation expectations above our 2 percent objective.”

“Currently, I do not see such signs. Most measures of survey- and market-based expectations suggest that the current high inflation pressures are transitory, and underlying trend inflation remains near its pre-COVID trend…. Many of the forces currently leading to outsized gains in prices are likely to dissipate by this time next year. Current tailwinds from fiscal support and pent-up consumption are likely to shift to headwinds, and some of the outsized price increases associated with acute supply bottlenecks may ease or partially reverse as those bottlenecks are resolved.”

Brainard’s remarks highlight a point that we make in Chapter 27, Section 27.1 (Chapter 17, Section 17.1 of Macroeconomics): The expectations of households and firms of future inflation play an important part in determining current inflation. Inflation can rise above and fall below the expected inflation rate in response to changes in the labor market—which affect the wages firms pay and, therefore, the firms’ costs—as well as in response to fluctuations in aggregate supply resulting from positive or negative supply shocks—such as the pandemic’s negative effects on aggregate supply. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has argued that with households and firms’ expectations still well-anchored at around 2 percent, inflation was unlikely to remain above that level in the long run.

Some economists are less convinced that households and firms will continue to expect 2 percent inflation if they experience higher inflation rates through the end of 2021. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board summed up this view: “One risk for the Fed is that more months of these price increases will become what consumers and businesses come to expect. To use the Fed jargon, prices would no longer be ‘well-anchored.’ That may be happening.”

As we discuss in Chapter 27, Sections 27.2 and 27.3 (Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3), during the late 1960s and early 1970s, higher rates of inflation eventually increased households and firms’ expectations of the inflation rate, leading to an acceleration of inflation that was difficult for the Fed to reverse. 

Earlier this year, Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, formerly a professor of economics at MIT and director of research at the International Monetary Fund, raised the possibility that overly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies might result in the Fed facing conditions similar to those in the 1970s. The Fed would then be forced to choose between two undesirable policies:

“If inflation were to take off, there would be two scenarios: one in which the Fed would let inflation increase, perhaps substantially, and another—more likely—in which the Fed would tighten monetary policy, perhaps again substantially. Neither of these two scenarios is ideal. In the first, inflation expectations would likely become deanchored, cancelling one of the major accomplishments of monetary policy in the last 20 years and making monetary policy more difficult to use in the future. In the second, the increase in interest rates might have to be very large, leading to problems in financial markets. I would rather not go there.”

In a recent interview, Lawrence Summers of Harvard University, who served as secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, made similar points: 

“We have inflation that since the beginning of the year has been running at a 5 percent annual rate. …. Starting at high inflation, we’ve got an economy that’s going to grow at extremely high rates for the next quarter or two. … I think we’re going to find ourselves with a new normal of inflation above 3 percent. Then the Fed is either going to have to be inconsistent with all the promises and commitments it’s made [to maintain a target inflation rate of 2 percent] or it’s going to have to attempt the task of slowing down the economy, which is rarely a controlled process.”

Clearly the pandemic and the resulting policy responses have left the Fed in a challenging situation.

Sources: Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, “Federal Reserve Press Release,” federalreserve.gov, July 28, 2021; Lael Brainard, “Assessing Progress as the Economy Moves from Reopening to Recovery,” speech at “Rebuilding the Post-Pandemic Economy” 2021 Annual Meeting of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, Aspen, Colorado, federalreserve.gov, July 30, 2021; Wall Street Journal editorial board, “Powell Gets His Inflation,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2021; Olivier Blanchard, “In Defense of Concerns over the $1.9 Trillion Relief Plan,” piie.com, February 21, 2012; “Former Treasury Secretary on Consumer Prices, U.S. Role in Global Pandemic, Efforts,” wbur.org, August 22, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://fred.stlouisfed.org.

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Glenn and Donald Kohn on the Report of the Task Force on Financial Stability

   Glenn co-chairs the Task Force on Financial Stability with Donald Kohn, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution and formerly vice-chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The Task Force on Financial Stability was formed by the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago and the Hutchins Center on Fiscal & Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution to make recommendations intended to increase the stability of the U.S. financial system.

On June 29, 2021, the Task Force issued a report, which can be found HERE. Glenn and Donald Kohn discuss the reports findings in an opinion column published on bloomberg. com.

The Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C.

Our Financial Early Warning System Is Broken

The U.S. financial system emerged from the reforms that followed the 2008 global crisis stronger than it had been going in. But the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 demonstrated how much was left undone: Although banks weathered the storm well, financial disruptions elsewhere — in money market funds, in the Treasury market — necessitated extraordinary measures to prevent an even greater economic disaster.

A group that we co-chair, the Task Force on Financial Stability, has just released a report on how to make the system more resilient. Among other things, we see the need for a structural change: Overhaul the agencies tasked with identifying and addressing threats outside traditional banks.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform of 2010 created two new entities focused on systemic risk. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, which included the Treasury Secretary and the heads of all the major financial regulatory agencies, was supposed to foster collaboration in finding and fixing dangerous buildups, wherever they might arise. And the Office of Financial Research, formed within Treasury and equipped with subpoena power, was supposed to provide the FSOC with the data and analysis needed to do the job well.

This financial early warning system didn’t operate as intended. The FSOC’s efforts to impose special scrutiny on certain systemically important non-bank institutions, such as insurance companies, ran into legal and political headwinds. Its member agencies often proved reluctant to encroach on one another’s turf, and the FSOC lacked the power to compel action. The OFR never subpoenaed anything, for fear of making enemies. Ultimately, the Trump administration deemphasized and defunded the whole apparatus.

As a result, the U.S. was much less prepared for the shock of the pandemic than it could have been. A rush to cash triggered runs on certain money-market mutual funds, threatened the flow of credit to everyone from homebuyers to municipalities, and — in a troubling departure from the usual “flight to quality” — caused the prices of Treasury securities to fall sharply. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve had to go to extreme lengths and pledge trillions of dollars to restore stability.

Regulators’ objective should not be merely to put out fires once they see smoke, but to prevent the dangerous accumulation of combustible material. New threats will emerge in unexpected ways; solutions will prompt unanticipated responses. So regulation must be dynamic, requiring an ongoing assessment process, not just periodic changes. To meet that challenge, we urge a restructuring of the FSOC and the OFR.

  1. Congress should give each FSOC member agency an explicit financial stability mandate, and require each to establish a similarly focused office to inform its rule making. This would force agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to consider systemic-risk issues that they can otherwise too often neglect.
  2. Only the Treasury Secretary should issue the FSOC’s annual report, avoiding the consensus-building process among member agencies that can weaken identification of risks and accountability for dealing with them. While each agency would write a separate appendix, the Secretary would bear ultimate responsibility. The report should include a look back at what risks were missed, why, and how they will be addressed. To ensure the subject gets adequate attention, a new under-secretary for financial stability should act as the secretary’s point person.
  3. The OFR should receive a clear new mandate to gather the data that policymakers need (and, today, often lack). To underscore its importance, it should be renamed the Comptroller for Data and Resilience — echoing the stature of the Comptroller of the Currency — and its head should have a voting seat at the FSOC, a level of authority that would help the government recruit talent and experience to the post.

As the pandemic begins to recede, concern over financial stability should not. We don’t know what major shock will next hit the economy and financial system. But a process to scan for risks and adapt to them should be front and center.

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Glenn’s Take on the Proposal at the G7 Meeting to Impose a Minimum Tax on Corporate Profits

   The G7 (or Group of 7) is an organization of seven large economies: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Only democratic countries are included, so China is not a member. At a recent meeting attended by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the group agreed to adopt a uniform corporate tax rate of at least 15 percent.

Glenn discusses this decision in the following opinion column published in the Financial Times.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for Economy, at a recent meeting of the G7.

Governments Should Tax Cash Flow, Not Global Corporate Income

From the Biden administration’s inception, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has championed a global minimum tax for corporations. While the US walked back from a request for a 21 per cent rate (which was linked to an objective of raising the current US corporate tax of 21 per cent to between 25 and 28 per cent), it did lock in with G7 finance ministers a rate of at least 15 per cent. Secretary Yellen praised the move: “That global minimum tax would end the race to the bottom in corporate taxation, and ensure fairness for the middle class and working people in the US and around the world.”

It is tough to argue that corporate income shouldn’t pay its “fair share”. But the global minimum tax raises both political and economic questions.

Politics first. Approval in the US is likely to be tough. The minimum tax is estimated by the OECD to raise as much as $50bn-$80bn per year, much of it from successful American firms. Revenue to the US Treasury would be part of this amount, but small relative to the substantial expansion in spending proposed by the Biden administration. Will other governments engage their own political costs to achieve a deal that may be ephemeral if it fails to get US legislative approval? Even if the deal succeeds, might it hand a competitive victory to China? As a non-party to G7 or OECD proposals, could it not use both tax rates and subsidies to draw more investment to China?

But it is on economics that the global minimum tax draws more sensitive questions in two areas. The first is the design of the tax base. The second addresses the foundational question of the problem policymakers are trying to solve and whether the new minimum tax is the best way to do so.

A 15 per cent rate is not particularly useful without an agreement on what the tax base is. Particularly for the US, home to many very profitable technology companies, the concern should arise that countries will use special taxes and subsidies that effectively target certain industries. The US has had a version of a minimum tax of foreign earnings since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 enshrined GILTI (Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income) provision into law. The Biden administration wants to use the new global minimum tax to raise the GILTI rate and expand the tax base by eliminating a GILTI deduction for overseas plant and equipment investments.

For a 15 per cent minimum rate to make sense, countries would need a uniform tax base. Presumably, the goal of the new minimum tax is to limit the benefits to companies of shifting profits to low-tax jurisdictions, not to distort where those firms invest. The combination of a global minimum tax with the broad base advocated by the Biden administration could reduce cross-border investments and reduce the profitability of large multinational firms.

A still deeper economic issue is that of who bears the tax burden. I noted above that projected revenue increases are small compared to G7 government spending levels. It is not corporations who would pay more, but capital owners generally and workers, according to contemporary economic views of who bears the burden of the tax.

There is a better way to achieve what Yellen and her finance minister colleagues are trying to accomplish. To begin with, countries could allow full expensing of investment. That approach would move the tax system away from a corporate income tax toward a cash flow tax, long favoured by economists. In this revision, the minimum tax would not distort new investment decisions. It would also push the tax burden on to economic rents—profits in excess of the normal return to capital—better satisfying the apparent G7 goal of garnering more revenue from the most profitable large companies. And such a system would be simpler to administer, as multinationals would not need to set up different ways to track deductible investment costs over time in different countries.

In the debate leading up to the 2017 US tax law changes, Congress considered a version of this idea in a destination-based cash flow tax. Like a value added tax, this would tax corporate profits based on cash flows in a given country. The reform, which foundered on the political desirability of border adjustments, limits tax biases against investment and boosts tax fairness.

Returning to the numbers: countries with large levels of public spending relative to gross domestic product, as the Biden administration proposes, fund it mainly with value added taxes, not traditional corporate income taxes. A better global tax system is possible, but it starts with a verdict of “not GILTI.”

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Glenn on Keynes, Hayek, and What It Will Take to Return to Full Employment

   Glenn wrote the following opinion column for the New York Times.

How to Keep the Economy Booming — And Meet the Demand for Workers

In recent economic news, optimists and pessimists could both find evidence to support their outlooks.

The May jobs report showed a gain of 559,000 jobs in May and a decline in the unemployment rate to 5.8 percent. It also showed a marked improvement from last month’s weaker showing across a number of sectors, and average hourly earnings continued to rise. Ahead of the monthly report, the unemployment insurance weekly claims report on Thursday showed the number of new unemployment insurance claims fell from 405,000 the week before to 385,000 — lower than levels typically indicative of a recession (400,000). This is the first time this has happened since the pandemic-induced closures began. Further wage growth should help draw more workers back to the labor force.

Yet at the same time, the recent jobs report showed a big miss relative to the expected gain of 650,000 jobs. Constraints in supply chains and business reopenings still complicate the return to work. And workers still aren’t out of the woods: Thursday’s report indicated the total number of already unemployed individuals claiming benefits hasn’t dropped since mid-March. If job creation is robust, that contrast between falling new claims and those still on the jobless rolls is odd.

What explains these confounding tensions? To unpack them, consider the legacies of the economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek.

In his day, Keynes argued for boosting aggregate demand during a recession to keep workers afloat — a prescription that has clearly shaped the ultra-stimulative fiscal and monetary policies from both the Trump and the Biden administrations. His influence also resonates in the recent jobs reports: The coming rebound in the consumption of services — restaurant meals, entertainment and travel — will lift demand above its prepandemic level, and reopening and abundant consumer cash, bolstered by policy, will increase the demand for workers.

While Keynes may have lit the path to recovery after last spring’s cataclysmic job loss, he offers little to guide us through the coming labor-supply crunch. If policy actively disincentivizes the unemployed from returning to the fold, as recent reports suggest, there will be no one in place to meet the coming surge in demand, imperiling our economic rehabilitation.

To preserve the still-shaky recovery, we must now turn to Hayek, the godfather of free-market thinking. He argued that policy should allow workers to adjust to changes in the economy. Looking ahead, policymakers must consider curbing elevated unemployment benefits and a focus on old, prepandemic jobs in order to let workers and the economy adjust to new activities and new jobs that are more promising in the postpandemic world. We don’t want unemployed workers to find the postpandemic economy has passed them by.

As demand revives, supply will need to keep pace. Those in some industries, like carmakers, can simply sell off excess inventories, something that is already happening. Tool and machinery makers can increase imports to keep up. But eventually, demand must be met by higher domestic production from workers. Once businesses are freed from pandemic restrictions, we can expect to see some improvements in supply.

But holding back a faster improvement in employment and output are the very challenges Hayek identifies, including slowing down the process of matching dislocated workers to new, postpandemic jobs. That is to say, demand growth with supply constraints won’t produce the sustainable jobs recovery we need.

Many workers are taking their time to find a new job or are choosing to work less, thanks to their generous pandemic unemployment insurance benefits. These benefits provided extra income for those who lost their jobs early in the crisis. As a result, the economy’s adjustment to a postpandemic paradigm will be slow. These benefits also slow future gains in the form of higher wages workers might earn from a new and better job. But as Hayek tells us, the longer it takes for these workers to rejoin the work force, the longer it will take for them to gain these benefits.

In the coming months, we will be able to assess the potency of dealing with these forces of supply and demand by comparing employment gains in the 25 states choosing to end federal pandemic benefit supplements with the 25 states retaining them. While employment is likely to rise quickly as the pandemic fades and extra unemployment insurance benefits fall away, unemployment rates are still likely to remain high relative to prepandemic levels for another year.

If we look ahead, wage gains should be robust for those employed, particularly for lower-skilled service-sector workers — especially if some employees delay returning to work. Those higher real wages are good news for recipients.

A less welcome wild card would be inflationary pressures, fueled by demand outstripping supply. Those pressures could be a brief blip in an adjusting economy. Or they could suggest a reduction in purchasing power from higher inflation for an extended period. Higher recent inflation readings in consumer prices are a cause for concern.

Whether this happens hinges on whether the federal government and the Federal Reserve dial back their extra Keynesian demand support in time to avoid increases in expected inflation. Inflation risks robbing them of purchasing power gains from their higher wages.

The latest jobs report, then, favors a more Hayekian solution — with a nudge: Policy should support returning to work and matching workers to jobs by supporting re-employment and training for new skills, not just boosting demand. That shift offers the best chance for a sustained lift in jobs as well as demand as the pandemic recedes. In the matter Keynes v. Hayek, then: Let Hayek now prevail.

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The Debate over Macro Policy

   The current debate over monetary and fiscal policy has been particularly wide-ranging, touching on many of the issues we discuss in the policy chapters of the principles textbook.

Here are links to recent contributions to the debate.

Glenn and Tony discuss fiscal policy in a podcast HERE.

And monetary policy in a podcast HERE.

We discuss the Fed’s new monetary policy strategy HERE.

We discuss the current state of the labor market HERE.

The President’s Council of Economic Advisers discusses the need for additional fiscal policy measures in this POST on their blog.

An article on politico.com summarizes the debate HERE.

Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary Larry Summers has argued that fiscal and monetary policy have been too expansionary. A recent op-ed by Summers appears in the Washington Post HERE (subscription may be required).

Jason Furman, who was chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama gives his take on the division of opinion among academic economists in this Twitter THREAD.

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Solved Problem: Why Is Starbucks Closing Stores in New York City?

Supports:  Econ Chapter 12, Section 12.4, “Deciding Whether to Produce or Shut Down in the Short Run,” and Section 12.5, “‘If Everyone Can Do It, You Can’t Make Money at It’: The Entry and Exit of Firms in the Long Run”; and Essentials: Chapter 9, Section 9.4 and Section 9.5.

Photo from the Associated Press.

Solved Problem: Why Is Starbucks Closing Stores in New York City?

   In May 2021, many businesses in the United States began fully reopening as local governments eased restrictions on capacity imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19. An article on crainsnewyork.com discussed the decisions Starbucks was making with respect to its stores in New York City. Starbucks intended to keep some stores open, some stores would be permanently closed, and “about 20 others that are currently in business will shutter when their leases end in the next year.” Analyze the relationship between cost and revenue for each of these three categories of Starbucks stores: 1) the stores that will remain permanently open; 2) the stores that will not reopen; and 3) the stores that will remain open only until their leases expire. In particularly, be sure to explain why Starbucks didn’t close the stores in category 3) immediately rather than waiting until the their leases expire.

Source: Cara Eisenpress, “Starbucks Closing Some City Locations as It Moves to a Smaller, Pickup Model,” crainsnewyork.com, May 19, 2021.

Solving the Problem

Step 1:   Review the chapter material. This problem is about the break-even price for a firm in the short run and in the long run, so you may want to review Chapter 12, Section 12.4, “Deciding Whether to Produce or to Shut Down in the Short Run,” and Section 12.5, “‘If Everyone Can Do It, You Can’t Make Money at It’: The Entry and Exit of Firms in the Long Run.”

Step 2:   Explain why stores in category 1) will remain permanently open. We know that firms will continue to operate a store if the revenue from the store is greater than or equal to all of the store’s costs—both its fixed costs and its variable costs.  So, Starbucks must expect this relationship between revenue and cost to hold for the stores that it will keep permanently open.

Step 3: Explain why Starbucks will not reopen stores in category 2). Firms will close a store in the short run if the loss from operating the store is greater than the store’s fixed costs. Put another way, the firm won’t be willing to lose more than the store’s fixed costs. We can conclude that Starbucks believes that if it reopens stores in category 2) its loss from operating those stores will be greater than the stores’ fixed costs.

Step 4: Explain why Starbucks will operate some stores only until their leases expire and then will shut them down. If a firm’s revenue from operating a store is greater than the store’s variable costs, the firm will operate the store even though it is incurring an economic loss. If it closed the store, it would still have to pay the fixed costs of the store, the most important of which in this case is the rent it has to pay the owner of the building the store is in. By operating the store, Starbucks will incur a smaller loss than by immediately closing the store. But recall that there are no fixed costs in the long run. The stores’ leases will eventually expire, eliminating that fixed cost. So, in the long run, a firm will close a store that is incurring a loss. Because Starbucks doesn’t believe that in the long run it can cover all the costs of operating stores in category 3, it intends to operate them until their leases expire and then shut them down.

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Glenn Is Interviewed by the Financial Times

The Financial Times recently interviewed Glenn. Here is an edited version. The full interview can be found here.

Financial Times (Gillian Tett, editor-at-large for the United States): Gross domestic product data show that the economy is rebounding very fast from the pandemic; the Federal Reserve just said that it doesn’t intend to raise rates any time soon; and President Joe Biden has pledged a massive fiscal package. So what is your forecast for the American economy?

Glenn:  Re-opening as the virus recedes would always lead to a very significant pop in GDP growth. So the near-term is not really the big question. There will certainly be a transitory increase in inflation. But I think the Fed on balance is correct, that boost is likely to be transitory. My worry is when I hear the Fed talk, as its chair Jay Powell has done, about wanting to watch for labor market “re-healing” to finish. The problem in the labor market is [largely] structural. Just running the economy hot by the Fed doesn’t fix that.

On fiscal policy, this is not just a “boost”.… The American Rescue Plan was intended as stimulus. But the American Jobs Act, the American Families Plan, those are really a remaking of the size of government. It has to be paid for and arithmetically can’t be paid for by taxes on the rich. There’s just not enough there. So the honest conversation with the American people is a matter of public choice: if you want a big government that does what President Biden wants [it to do], you’ll have to pay for it. 

GT: How confident are you that inflation pressures are transitory?

GH: One can never be completely confident, but I think if the Fed had a clearer policy story I could be confident that commodity price increases are transitory. What worries me is the Fed thinking it can lean against structural changes in the labor market with monetary policy. One might worry a bit about inflation risks in the long-term—some of the structural headwinds against inflation to do with demography and growth in the emerging world, particularly in China, are going away. 

GT: Do you think that the Fed should be indicating that it’s willing to raise rates if inflation rises?

GH: I think the Fed is unlikely to do that. [But] one of the reasons you are seeing implied volatility in rates and credit markets so high relative to equities, is the fear in the bond market that, maybe, the Fed is saying one thing but if backed into the corner could do another. Remember that the Fed bought around half of Treasury issues last year, and owns 40 per cent of all of the outstanding 10-year plus maturity treasuries, so the Fed’s thoughts there, which aren’t really clear to the bond market, are very, very important. 

GT: Larry Summers has said this is way too much [stimulus], way too fast and will create inflation risks. You and Larry don’t often agree, but would you agree on this? 

GH: I would agree on the risk, but it’s [not] the problem that is worrying me the most. What worries me even more is [in trying to] create a government that large . . .  if you want a government that does those things, tax burdens will have to be higher.

If you look at the math on the tax burden, the [proposed] corporate tax increase or capital gains tax increase are not remotely large enough. The other structural thing that worries me is that I do see productivity reductions and investment reductions as a result of these large tax increases. 

GT: Biden said if you are earning less than $400,000 a year you will not see your taxes go up. 

GH: Well, it’s just not true, [neither] in the near-term [nor] the long-term. Take the corporate tax. Many economists have concluded that much of the burden of the corporate tax is borne by workers. In the 1970s and early 1980s, we thought it was capital that bore the burden of the corporate taxes. [But] that is not what economists believe today. So you simply cannot say that people who make less than $400,000 aren’t going to bear a part of the burden of the tax. 

Likewise with capital gains, the president says: “I’m only going after 0.3 per cent of taxpayers,” meaning [those] that make more than a million dollars a year and have capital gains. But those individuals don’t have 0.3 per cent of the capital gains—they likely have the bulk of them. So if there are any effects on risk-taking, on saving and investment, the [risks] are very large.

Those effects are borne by the economy, not by the top 0.3 per cent …. And in the longer term … if you look at the budget math here, there’s going to be a large revenue hole. Somebody has to pay for it. 

GT: Well, what about that “somebody” being companies? 

GH: Let’s put the tax changes into two buckets. On the rates, I don’t think we want to go as high as the president is proposing, certainly not back to the old rates. On the base, president Biden is proposing a tax increase by base broadening—it’s a very, very big change. I expect companies will acknowledge they need to pay some minimum level, but the math isn’t going to add up.

GT: What about taxes under the guise of climate change action, such as a fuel tax or value added tax?

GH: I think it’s a great idea. For years I have supported a carbon tax because I do believe that it is one of the best ways to deal with climate change. I’m very skeptical of subsidies in green things but if you put a price on carbon, businesspeople will rush around and innovate and do it efficiently and it does not have to be regressive .…

About [a value-added tax] VAT—there is no question that if we want the government President Biden is suggesting, you absolutely have to have a VAT.

European states that have much bigger [state sectors] than the American state as a share of GDP are not financed with taxes on capital. In fact, in many European countries capital taxes are lower than they are in the United States. They’re financed by consumption taxes [such as the VAT]. 

GT: Why do you think Biden’s package is undermining productivity? 

GH: Let me just take one step back. Some discussions of secular stagnation come from insufficient aggregate demand. Another school of thought thinks that structurally we have a problem with productivity growth, in terms of the supply side of the economy and the economy’s potential to grow. That is where I’m coming from. The tax plans are definitely anti-investment, as the lack of capital deepening explains low productivity growth and capital gains tax increases can affect risk-taking. There’s certainly nothing to enhance productivity [in Biden’s plans] and a lot to discourage productivity. 

It is not just the tax policy. I worry about a monetary policy that could lead to zombification of firms—an environment of very low interest rates that sustain low-productivity firms. To President Biden’s credit, pieces of what he’s proposing that are true infrastructure could, in fact, raise productivity, but that is a small part of what he’s actually calling infrastructure. 

GT: Are you concerned about a future debt crisis?

GH: Well, we are the reserve currency country, and we are borrowing in our currency, so I think a slow and steady malaise is more likely. To give a practical example, the Medicare trust fund could run out of money within a year or so, social security within five or so years. That will force discussions in Washington as to whether the public may wish to have a government this size. 

GT: So you don’t expect a debt crisis per se because of the reserve currency status?

GH: [Not] at the moment.

GT: Should Republicans be co-operating to create a bipartisan bill? 

GH: You could get bipartisan support for a new “GI bill” to prepare workers to adjust from the Covid world. For example, support in community colleges.

I’m not talking about free community college but supply side support—increasing their capacity to train people. Where you won’t get bipartisan support is [for] the notion that we need to move away from a work-supported social insurance system to a broader cradle-to-grave safety net.

The administration really fuzzed that up by calling it an infrastructure bill. Infrastructure doesn’t have to be just roads and bridges and airports—it could be broadband. But not healthcare. 

GT: Are childcare support and elderly support part of “infrastructure”?

GH: No—those are social spending. 

GT: One of the interesting ways you frame this debate is with the contrast between Keynes and Hayek, i.e. whether you’re trying to prop up the current system or encourage more rapid transformation. What do you mean?

GH: You could think of Covid [in terms of] a Keynesian response — we have a collapse in demand. The Keynesian response is not fanciful. But Hayek would say the new world after Covid isn’t going to look like the old world, so why support every single business? Both are right. We did a good job in policy on the Keynesian part. [But] we’ve done less well [thinking about Hayek]. 

GT: What do you think about Larry Summer’s concept of secular stagnation? 

GH: There’s a scene in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge asks, [something like] “are these the shadows of things that are or might be?”. I feel the same way about Bob Gordon’s descriptions of the American economy — Larry and Bob are talking about the shadows of things that could be if we have bad enough public policy, going back to the anti-productivity story. But I don’t think they’re inevitable. 

Every businessperson with whom I speak is pretty optimistic about the technology frontier in productivity. If there’s a reason for pessimism, it’s more about the political system’s ability and willingness to let that productivity growth [run free].

GT: Do you think that the Republican party knows what it stands for with economics?

GH: … [An] approach Republicans could take is to go past the neoliberalism to liberalism (with a small L), to Adam Smith. He was anti-mercantilist—that’s what got him angry in The Wealth of Nations—and he was very interested in the ability of everybody in the economy to compete.

So a new Republican agenda might do more to help people compete—that sounds more like Lincoln, or like Roosevelt’s GI bill. In that lies a new agenda. But I don’t see the party really moving in that direction. 

GT: What about the second book of Smith’s, The Theory of Moral Sentiments?

GH: Smith referred to “mutual sympathy”, which today we would call empathy. Forward-leaning businesspeople and business leaders think that way. I don’t see [the environmental, social, and governance] ESG [approach to investing] as somehow an enemy of shareholders—this isn’t Milton Friedman versus socialism—it’s more a matter of what really is in the long-term interest of the firm.

Remember, Smith railed against the British East India Company, which he thought of as a cancer. He thought you had to be very careful in the social framing of corporations. Businesspeople today need to understand the corporate structure is a social gift. In fact, capitalism is a social gift. If the public doesn’t want it, it won’t happen. 

GT: I have a book coming out in a few weeks’ time that stresses this social and cultural aspect of business and finance and economics, and argues that business leaders need to move beyond tunnel vision to use lateral vision. Do you agree with this? 

GH: Yes. When I teach students political economy, I remind them that great thinkers like a Friedman or Hayek or Smith wrote [for] the times in which they lived. Friedman and Hayek were writing in response to a very slovenly and inefficient corporatist economic system and were horrified by fascism. If Ronald Reagan were with us today, I don’t think he would be the 1980s Ronald Reagan. If Friedman and Hayek were with us today, they might have a different view. Context shifts.

GT: Friedman was also operating when people assumed that they could outsource the difficult social decisions to government and when there wasn’t radical transparency and customers, clients and employees couldn’t see exactly what firms were doing. Does that matter?

GH: Yes. If Friedman were here he might correctly remind us that there are big social externalities no one company can fix. But there is no reason businesspeople can’t be leaders. When the Marshall Plan was passed, that was not because Congress in its great wisdom decided to do something. It was because the business community came together and said: “Good Lord, we are going to have communism in western Europe and what’s that going to do to our economic system?” They pushed Congress. I understand that [today business is] afraid. But it’s not an excuse not to act. At many companies, their own employees are going to put pressure [on them to act]. 

GT: You are starting to see a level of company collaboration which was unimaginable when we had Thatcherism and Reaganism. Will this last? 

GH: I do [think so] and Hayek would have celebrated this co-ordinated response because it bubbled up from the bottom. If you compare the production of vaccines, which was largely a private-sector activity, to the distribution of vaccines, which was more a public-sector activity, I think we know which one seemed to work better.

There are things that could help that—imagine if Biden put applied research centers all around the country that were linked with universities. That might help companies fix localities, as well as solving big problems like vaccines. 

GT: Are you concerned that we have an ESG bubble?

GH: I am, in several aspects. We are running the risk of industrial policy and rent seeking, with just subsidizing “green things.” I also worry about how CEOs can deal with this—you don’t want the CEO spending half of his or her day responding to social concerns.

GT: What about protectionism? Can the Republicans present an alternative voice on this? 

GH: I hope so, but I’m not sure. Like almost all economists … I believe in free trade. So why is something that is obvious in Econ 101 not so popular with the public?

I think for two reasons. One is whenever your Econ 101 professor talked about the gains from trade, he or she always [had] the idea that there would be losers, but compensation would somehow occur—and it hasn’t.

[Second] free trade is one of those examples, like the old classical gold standard, of a system that’s outside-in. You have to sign up for the rules of the game and then you just adjust. I think we need to go back to a period that says, look, we do need to understand domestic constituencies. That could mean much more support for training, it could be wage insurance, it could be lots of things rather than just saying free trade. 

GT: So it’s about trying to talk about free trade with both parts of Adam Smith. 

GH: Yes, exactly. Even Smith, who was the champion for openness, would not have countenanced whole areas just being left behind. Smith talked a lot about places—he said something like a man is a sort of luggage that’s hard to move, meaning you really have to look after places, not just jobs . . . its culture. 

GT: Hey, anthropology can mingle with economics! 

GH: Exactly—two social sciences, peas in a pod. 

GT: So what’s happening to the economics profession? With issues like [the debate around Larry Summers’ criticism of Biden’s policies] are we seeing a tribal warfare break out between economists? Is there a rethink of economics? Is Biden moving away from them?

GH: Well, let me start with some good news: the young stars in the [economics] profession today tend to be people who are talking about big problems with new tools and techniques, ranging from development to monetary policy to labor markets. I think that’s entirely healthy. 

I think the government needs people who have big macro views [too]. If I were in Janet Yellen’s shoes, I’d want to be talking to economists who could continue to give me that perspective, but also get micro perspectives from labor and financial markets. So there needn’t be a war. [But] I do worry from the way the Biden administration is talking about policies that economists just aren’t very involved at all. That’s not the first administration I’ve seen that happen—but it is a concern for the economics profession. 

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Guest Post from Eva Dziadula of Notre Dame on Using Behavioral Economics to Improve Test Scores

Eva is an Associate Teaching Professor at the University of Notre Dame, where she is also a fellow of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, and the Pulte Institute for Global Development.  She received her PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2014.

Last June, we interviewed Eva on our podcast. That podcast can be found HERE.

Can a Behavioral Nudge with Small Commitment Lead to Better Exam Scores?

So Covid brought challenges…. we can’t really even count them. In the world of education, it meant switching to online delivery and while that may be hard on us professors, it also requires a lot more from students. Learning from home requires more discipline, there is a degree of freedom (statistics pun intended). There is also a lack of accountability that typically comes with attending an in-person class where the professor can call you out for not being prepared. This is what non-traditional students who have a job, a family, go through on a regular basis even without Covid. The often opt for online classes in the first place. It can also be a tougher adjustment for students who come from traditionally underrepresented groups in higher education, as they may not grow up watching their parents make lists, prioritize, and manage time that would promote college success. Is there something that could help alter students’ behavior and overcome this inequality?

In all of our introductory economic models, we assume that agents are rational. If that assumption is violated, we cannot really predict how they will respond to incentives and our models would lose their predictive power. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Richard Thaler for his contributions to behavioral economics. The art and science of “irrationality”. Well, about time as we seem to violate rationality a lot! We know we should study, we know we should not procrastinate, yes we know but… These choices can have serious long-term consequences, so it is important to study our behaviors and why we make decisions that perhaps do not appear rational. And it is important to study how we could alter certain behaviors. Research has shown that simply nudging students with a text message doesn’t really lead to improvements in academic performance. A 2019 NBER working paper summarized it pretty well: “The Remarkable Unresponsiveness of College Students to Nudging and What We Can Learn from It.” [The paper can be found HERE.] 

In our paper “Microcommitments: The Effect of Small Commitments on Academic Performance,” we set out to test whether a text message nudge accompanied by a small commitment can “push” students in the right direction. In economics, the gold standard of answering questions like this is a randomized controlled trial. If assignment is not random and students are selected into treatment and control groups, then we would not be able to identify the role of the intervention, as these groups may be responding differently in the first place. For example, imagine we tested the nudge with commitment on a group of women and men served as the “placebo” control group. If we find higher exam scores for women, then it may be because of the nudge with commitment but it is also entirely possible that women could have scored higher regardless, this is referred to as a selection bias. We overcome this by randomly assigning almost 1,000 students from the University of Notre Dame, Florida Atlantic University, and University of Illinois into two groups, which after close examination of observable characteristics look very similar. This is called a balance test. After randomization, the two groups have a similar proportion of women, similar average SAT, GPA, age, family structure, their procrastination tendencies, self-efficacy, study habits, etc. Some of the students are enrolled in regular in-person classes, and some are enrolled in a hybrid/online classes. 

After the first exam of the semester, which will serve as a baseline comparison, the experiment begins! Both groups receive text messages in the morning with content related to material covered in class. Students know they are not required to submit their answers and it is not mandatory, these messages are just extra practice on how to think as an economist. The control group received the content as a simple text message. The treatment group’s text message also had “I commit” to click. Then at 4pm, they also got a follow up text with “I did it” click. This is the commitment device we are testing and it is the only difference between the treatment and control groups, everything else is identical. The research question is: Does a small commitment (really to yourself, as it is not required) compel you to complete the task and does this engagement then improve your future exam score? The regression estimation allows us to hold everything else constant, so we are adhering to our ceteris paribus condition.

It turns out that the small commitment does make a difference! In fact, the positive results on the exam which followed the experiment is driven by students in hybrid and online classes who scored 3.5 percentage points higher than students in the control group which received the same message content but did not receive the commitment! We find no effect on the academic performance among students in regular in-person classes. It appears that this simple intervention partially substitutes for the lack of instructor contact for students in hybrid and online classes. We also find that students who tend to procrastinate and those with lower GPA benefit from the commitment device more, which then acts as an equalizing force in terms of academic performance and could have positive implications for social mobility and economic equity. Who would have thought that making a small promise to yourself could actually make a difference!!!

References: Felkey, Amanda J, Eva Dziadula, Eric P Chiang, and Jose Vazquez. 2021. “Microcommitments: The Effect of Small Commitments on Academic Performance.” AEA Papers and Proceedings 111: 1–6. [The paper can be found HERE.]

Oreopoulos, Philip, and Uros Petronijevic. 2019. “The Remarkable Unresponsiveness of College Students to Nudging and What We Can Learn from It.” [The paper can be found HERE.]

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Mickey Takes His Econ Final! Has the O’Brien Family Dog Bitten Off More Than He Can Chew?

How am I supposed to study with all of the distractions around here?
Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to study outside today.
The stress of studying got to me!
You were expecting me to walk to my review session?
I got an A! Summer here I come!