Does McCain Subscribe To The Laffer Hypothesis?

So Arthur Laffer — still arguing the improbable “supply side” proposition that cutting income tax rates generally raises total tax revenue — is apparently now a special adviser to John McCain. And McCain has taken on a big consignment of the snake oil, to Greg Mankiw’s dismay. The political temptation for a Republican candidate to promise both lower tax rates and higher revenues is irresistible. The policy-makers who cut taxes when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, came to power subscribed to this claim. Remarkably, at the same time, the economists who were the chief economic advisers to Reagan and Bush during these tax cuts disavow the proposition that they increase revenue (Murray Weidenbaum, Martin Feldstein, Glenn Hubbard, Mankiw…) . Almost all serious economists – let us say Ph.D. economists – disagree with this proposition, with only a microscopic handful of exceptions like Laffer. Indeed some of the advisers who defend the Reagan and Bush economic policies claim that this formulation of supply side economics is a caricature, and was not the true rationale of the tax cuts. This wishful thinking is directly at odds with quotes from the presidents themselves and their Treasury secretaries and other economic officials, to the effect that tax cuts stimulate income so much as to produce more tax revenue. Laffer is not a straw man. (See my next post.)

Even more interesting, the academic defenders of the Republican tax cuts often offer a proposition that is diametrically opposed to the defense offered by their political masters. This is the famous “starve the beast” hypothesis: the claim that if you deprive the government of tax revenue, it will reduce government spending, which is of course viewed as a worthy objective. If this proposition were true, and the supply side hypothesis were also true, it would lead to the nonsensical proposition that Republican presidents should raise tax rates in order to reduce tax revenue (Laffer) and thereby reduce government spending (Starve the Beast). I challenge some candidate to run on that platform !

As it happens, there is abundant empirical evidence against both the Lafferite hypothesis and the Starve the Beast hypothesis. In other words, just because two propositions are diametrically opposed doesn’t mean they are not both wrong. I hope that in this election campaign, the media do something they have failed to do in the past. If McCain proposes extending the Bush tax cuts, he should at least be forced to choose between the Lafferite defense, which tends to be driven more by political expediency, and the “Starve the Beast” defense, which has more support among at least some reputable Republican economists. Only then can the rest of us know which of the two propositions to refute.

The NYT Should Have Paid More Attention To The Nordhaus Estimates Before The Iraq War

At the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq, estimates of its long-run cost range from $1.2-$1.7 trillion by my former colleague Peter Orszag, now Director of the Congressional Budget Office, to $23 trillion by my current colleague Linda Bilmes with another former colleague Joe Stiglitz (in a book that is appropriately getting lots of attention, including for example from John Cusack). The important point is that the costs far exceed the $50-$60 billion that the White House predicted ahead of time.

A story in today’s New York Times proclaims “Estimates of Iraqi War Cost Were Not Close to Ballpark.” It turns out that the pre-war estimates they are talking about are those that came from the Bush Administration. At the very end, the article finally mentions “Only one economist, William D. Nordhaus of Yale, seems to have come close. In a paper in December 2002, he offered a worst-case scenario of $1.9 trillion, ‘if the war drags on, occupation is lengthy, nation building is costly.’” You might not guess from the NYT story that Bill Nordhaus’s study was the only thorough independent professional attempt to estimate the cost of invading Iraq ahead of time. (At least it is the only one that I was aware of.)

The question is why the media did not give more attention to the Nordhaus estimates, and less attention to the Administration’s crazily over-optimistic forecasts, while there was still time for the nation to make an intelligent policy choice. The media’s omission was all the more conspicuous in that by December 2002 the White House’s crazily over-optimistic forecasts of the federal budget overall had already become apparent. And they are all still at it.

Falling Interest Rates Explain Rising Commodity Prices

If strong economic growth is not the explanation for the large increases since 2001 in prices of virtually all mineral and agricultural commodities, then what is? One wouldn’t want to try to reduce commodity markets to a single factor, nor to claim proof of any theory by a single data point. Nevertheless, the developments of the last six months provided added support for a theory I have long favored: real interest rates are an important determinant of real commodity prices. High interest rates reduce the demand for storable commodities, or increase the supply, through a variety of channels:

  • by increasing the incentive for extraction today rather than tomorrow (think of the rates at which oil is pumped, copper mined, forests logged, or livestock herds culled)
  • by decreasing firms’ desire to carry inventories (think of oil inventories held in tanks)
  • by encouraging speculators to shift out of spot commodity contracts (think gold), and into treasury bills.

All three mechanisms work to reduce the market price of commodities, as happened when real interest rates where high in the early 1980s. A decrease in real interest rates has the opposite effect, lowering the cost of carrying inventories, and raising commodity prices, as happened in the 1970s, and again during 2001-2004. It’s the original “carry trade.”

The theoretical model can be summarized as follows:

A monetary expansion temporarily lowers the real interest rate (whether via a fall in the nominal interest rate, a rise in expected inflation, or both – as now). Real commodity prices rise. How far? Until commodities are widely considered “overvalued” — so overvalued that there is an expectation of future depreciation (together with the other costs of carrying inventories: storage costs plus any risk premium) that is sufficient to offset the lower interest rate (and other advantages of holding inventories, namely the “convenience yield”). Only then do firms feel they have high enough inventories despite the low carrying cost. In the long run, the general price level adjusts to the change in the money supply. As a result, the real money supply, real interest rate, and real commodity price eventually return to where they were. The theory is the same as Rudiger Dornbusch’s famous theory of exchange rate overshooting, with the price of commodities substituted for the price of foreign exchange.There was already some empirical evidence to support the theory: Monetary policy news and real interest rates, along with other factors, do appear to be significant determinants of real commodity prices historically. (For a simpler illustration, see graph below).

But the events since August 2007 provide a further data point. As economic growth has slowed sharply, both in the US and globally, the Fed has reduced interest rates, both nominal and real. Firms and investors have responded by shifting into commodities, not out. This is why commodity prices have resumed their upward march over the last six months, rather than reversing it.

World Growth Can No Longer Explain Soaring Commodity Prices

It is hard to remember now, but mineral and agricultural commodities were considered passé less than ten years ago. Anyone who talked about sectors where the product was as clunky and mundane as copper, corn, and crude petroleum, was considered behind the times. In Alan Greenspan’s phrase, GDP had gotten “lighter;” the economy was becoming weightless, “dematerializing.” Agriculture and mining no longer constituted a large share of the New Economy, and did not matter much in an age dominated by ethereal digital communication, evanescent dotcoms, and externally outsourced services. The Economist magazine in a 1999 cover story forecast that oil might be headed for a price of $5 a barrel.

Since then, of course, we have seen tremendous increases in the prices of most mineral and agricultural commodities, many of them hitting records in nominal and even real terms (see graph). Oil is now well above $100 a barrel, and gold has just crossed the $1000 an ounce line.

The question is why.

There could well be merit to many of the explanations that have been offered for the rise in the price of oil. One is the “peak oil hypothesis,” and another is geopolitical uncertainty in Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela and – above all – the Gulf. Corn prices have been impacted by American subsidies for biofuel. And other special microeconomic factors are relevant in other specific sectors. But it cannot be a coincidence that mineral and agricultural prices have risen virtually across the board. Some macroeconomic explanation is called for.

The popular explanation since 2004 has been rapid growth in the world economy. The strongest growth has of course been coming from China and other recently minted manufacturing powerhouses in Asia, but the expansion has been unusually broad-based – including up to last year the United States and even a reinvigorated Europe. So growth has pushed up demand for energy, minerals, farm products, and other industrial inputs, right?

This reigning explanation now looks suspect. Since last summer the US economy has slowed down noticeably, and is probably entering a recession. Despite talk of decoupling, it is clear that other countries are also slowing down at least to some extent. In its most recent forecast, the IMF World Economic Outlook revised downward the growth rate for virtually every region, including China. The overall global growth rate for 2008 has been marked down by 1.1% (from 5.2 % in July 2007, just before the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit, to 4.1 % as of January 29, 2008). And prospects continue to deteriorate. Yet commodity prices have found their second wind over precisely this period! Up some 25% or more since August 2007, by a number of indices. So much for the growth explanation.

How to explain commodity prices up while the economy turns down? I will offer my answer in my next posting, tomorrow.

Q: So What Should I Invest In? A: Munis

“What should I invest in?” We economists get asked this question all the time. Many members of the profession believe that Efficient Markets theory forbids us from giving an answer – beyond recommending “a well-diversified portfolio.” Perhaps a few of us won’t countenance a question that ends with a preposition. But the rest of us would like to be helpful. Even so, the past year has been a difficult time to give an answer.

One can no longer recommend euros or commodities, as the (somewhat predictable) appreciations there have already taken place, over the last five years. As for equities, corporate bonds, and housing, they have all been measurably overvalued for awhile. Even if one believed that the corrections in those three markets were now largely complete, it would be hard to predict that their rates of return on average over the next 25 years will be anywhere near as great as over the preceding 25 years. But, complains the investor, I have to hold something.

One US asset class strikes me as undervalued relative to the rest: municipal bonds. AAA-rated munis of each maturity pay a higher yield than Treasuries of the same maturity. The differential is as high as 50 basis points for the 2-year and 30-year maturities. Yet state and local bonds are tax-exempt while treasuries and corporate bonds are not. Thus the differential in after-tax rates of return is even larger. (I am only recommending munis for the taxable part of the portfolio of a taxed investor, of course. Put equities in the tax-exempt part.)

The obvious reason why state and local governments might have to pay more to attract investors is risk of default. But it is likely that investors fear default on munis more widely than they should. Default is rare, notwithstanding the long memories left by financial troubles in New York City and Orange County in decades past. (Furthermore, when there is a default, holders of munis usually enjoy a higher recovery rate than holders of corporate bonds.)

Why the misperception on the part of investors? Academic research seems to regard the discrepancy between after-tax returns on munis and corporate bonds as an unresolved puzzle.

But perhaps the answer lies in something so crude as the different rating scales that are applied to municipal versus corporate bonds. The front page of today’s New York Times (”Does Wall Street underrate Main Street?“) reports that state and local officials “complain that ratings firms assign municipal borrowers low credit scores compared with corporations. Taxpayers ultimately pay the price, the officials say, in the form of higher fees and interest costs on public debt. ‘Taxpayers are paying billions of dollars in increased costs because of the dual standard used by the rating bureaus,’ said Bill Lockyer, treasurer of California, who is leading a nationwide campaign to change the way the bonds are rated. ”

Moody’s is completely explicit about the difference in yardsticks. A state bond with a rating of A1, which is four notches below Aaa, would be rated Aaa if it were a corporate bond with the same default risk. A corporate bond rated Ba has a 20 per cent history of defaulting within ten years, whereas a municipal bond with the apparently-same rating of Ba has a default history under 1 per cent.

This is all familiar to knowledgeable investors. But not all investors are knowledgeable. I wonder if this elementary difference in labeling is enough to affect behavior?

In any case, next time I get asked at a cocktail party what to invest in – after the usual disclaimers, including the point that as the economy slows down defaults on state, local, and corporate bonds alike are bound to rise — I am going to say “munis.”