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The Economic Freedom of the World: 2017 Annual Report is out today. Co-published in the United States by the Fraser Institute (Canada) and the Cato Institute, it continues to find a strong relationship between economic freedom on the one hand, and prosperity and other indicators of human well-being on the other.

The United States ranks 11 out of 159 countries, indicating a slight improvement recently in its rating, but its economic freedom remains far below what it was in the year 2000, when it began a long decline. Since 1970, the index has typically ranked the United States among the top four countries. The top countries in this year’s report are Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland and Ireland. The least economically free countries are the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Venezuela.

There is an important innovation in this year’s report: it takes into account inequality in the economic freedoms enjoyed by men and women. Some countries don’t afford women the same level of such freedoms as men, so the index, for the first time, adjusts for these disparities. In her chapter, Rosemarie Fike explains the data and methodology that she used to create a gender disparity index, one that was then used to adjust the economic freedom ratings.

Most countries are only slightly affected (or are not at all affected) by the gender adjustment on the index. However, some 20 countries saw notable changes to their scores. Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, for example, dropped significantly in the index. Over time, the world has seen shifts in the unequal economic freedoms of men and women. The overall level of gender disparity in economic freedom in the world has decreased since 1970. Women are enjoying more economic freedom than before. The locus of inequality has also changed. From 1970 to 1990, African countries dominated the list of nations with the worst gender disparity scores; since 1995, countries in the Middle East and North Africa now dominate that list. Another finding: the greater the level of economic freedom, the more likely that men and women will receive equal legal treatment.

Another chapter looks at the relationship between economic freedom and anti-immigrant populist parties. Although it is often asserted that globalization is causing much of that populist sentiment, authors Krishna Chaitanya Vadlamannati and Indra de Soysa find that countries with lower levels of economic freedom and higher levels of state welfare spending see more support for nativist, populist parties. It appears that some of the policies intended to provide social protection from the market might be encouraging populist politics.

Read about those and other findings in the new report here

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, is impossible to defend with a straight face. The Act requires that all people and goods travelling from one U.S. port to another be carried on U.S. owned, flagged and crewed ships. The rationale usually offered these days in support of the Act is that it protects American jobs, and that our military needs to have a fleet of ships it can borrow in case of some sort of emergency. Neither can be taken seriously.

For starters, the Jones Act probably costs us jobs. The high shipping costs engendered by the Jones Act encourage businesses to ship more things via rail or truck. Where that’s not possible (as with Puerto Rico), it incentivizes businesses to import goods, rather than buy from a domestic customer and pay the prohibitively expensive toll the Jones Act imposes. In either case, fewer jobs result.

The Act makes it cheaper for U.S. livestock farmers to buy grain from overseas than from American sources, and forces states such as Maryland and Virginia to import their road salt rather than buy it from Ohio. The East Coast of the U.S. cannot afford to get lumber from the Pacific Northwest. And shipping oil from Texas to New England costs about three times as much as shipping it to Europe.

The Jones Act survives because it’s hard for people to see what it costs them. As long as constituents aren’t complaining, politicians are happy with the status quo - especially since ship builders will write big checks to anyone willing to protect the Act. 

The recent relaxation of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico has the potential (albeit slight) to change this calculus, but since it is scheduled to only last for ten days, the residents of this island won’t see how much they could potentially save from not having this burden. 

And those savings would be immense: In a study I recently did with Russ Kashian, we estimated that U.S. consumers would save billions of dollars if we got rid of the Jones Act. And places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska would benefit most of all, since they are overly dependent upon shipping prices.

However, as those are only two low population states and a territory with no voting representation, their inconveniences won’t resonate much with Congress. 

In the wake of this month’s hurricanes that pummeled the Gulf states and Puerto Rico, an archaic piece of U.S. corporate welfare is coming under much-needed scrutiny.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, requires that all people and goods transported by water between U.S. ports be transported on U.S.-built ships, with U.S. owners, registered and sailing under the U.S. flag, and crewed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The law originally was justified as ensuring a robust U.S. merchant marine in wartime, but it really is (and probably always has been) a cynical sop to American shipbuilders, shipping companies, and (ostensibly) their employees because it gives them an oligopoly that allows them to charge higher prices. Policy analysts have long understood this; for instance, a 1991 Regulation article by Federal Maritime Commission member Rob Quartel chastised the law for creating “America’s Welfare Queen Fleet.”

Traditionally, Jones Act criticism has focused on its financial harm to American consumers. One recent estimate is the law results in higher prices totaling $1.8 billion a year, which is about $5.50 for each American man, woman, or child. But now there’s growing evidence that it also exacts a cost in human lives.

In the new issue of Regulation, North Carolina State University economist Thomas Grennes argues that, because American-built vessels are significantly more expensive than comparable ships built elsewhere, American shipping companies operating under the Jones Act delay replacing their older vessels. As a result, American-flagged vessels are nearly three times older on average than comparable foreign vessels. International data show that as ships age, they become more dangerous for their crew. Indeed, the 2015 sinking of the El Faro, a Jones Act vessel, raised troubling questions about the law’s role in the deaths of the ship’s 33-member crew.

Now, the Gulf hurricanes are showing another deadly aspect of the Jones Act.

As President Trump recently noted, “you can’t just drive” truckloads of emergency and rebuilding supplies and workers to Puerto Rico; they must be transported by plane and boat. That desperately needed relief is dramatically slowed and made more expensive by the Jones Act’s artificial barrier on what ships can move supplies from the U.S. mainland to the stricken island—and what ships do carry those supplies must be diverted from other transport work between U.S. ports.

The White House recently temporarily suspended the Jones Act for emergency supplies heading to the ravaged Gulf states, using a provision intended for national defense purposes. Now the Trump administration is being asked to do the same for Puerto Rico.

But instead of temporarily suspending the law under a dubious “defense” claim, Congress and the White House could simply repeal it. After all, pointless corporate welfare shouldn’t be opposed just during emergencies.

Legislation to end the Jones Act could be drafted quickly and easily; for a rough draft, lawmakers could use Sen. John McCain’s 2015 effort to repeal the law. The new bill could then be brought directly to the floors of the House and Senate for approval, and then taken to the president for his signature. 

Given congressional leaders’ statements of concern for the people of Puerto Rico, and given the Trump White House’s vows to pare back unjustified regulations and “drain the swamp,” repeal of this harmful piece of corporate welfare should be a slam dunk. Unless, of course, lawmakers have different priorities than helping consumers, protecting sailors, and aiding the desperate people of Puerto Rico.

Dormant for a while, the debate over India’s demonetization program of last fall has been revived by new evidence. The new evidence on note returns and GDP vindicates the critics, and has the defenders in strategic retreat.

To recap: On November 8, 2016, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the nation by announcing the immediate “demonetization” of the two largest rupee currency notes (Rs 500, worth about $7.50, and Rs 1000, worth about $15). Noteholders would have only 50 days to turn them in for new Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes. The move, Modi promised, would sharply penalize holders of unaccounted “black money,” namely tax evaders, bribe-takers, professional criminals, and terrorists. Their currency hoards would become worthless — a welcome one-time wealth loss — or they would expose themselves to detection by trying to swap or deposit large batches. Anyone depositing a large sum in old notes would face scrutiny by tax authorities.

In order to keep the move a surprise (the better to catch the black money holders), new notes to replace all the discontinued notes had not been printed in advance. The cancelled notes represented 86% of the currency in circulation, and more than half of M1 (currency plus checking deposits), India having a highly cash-intensive economy with half the population unbanked. As criminals were far from the main users of currency, the impact was unavoidably felt well beyond the black-money set. A serious currency shortage immediately arose, with predictable consequences. Honest wage laborers in the huge cash economy went unpaid, honest construction projects came to a standstill, honest shopkeepers saw sales dry up, and honest businesses failed. Honest people wasted billions of hours waiting in queues to exchange old notes for the trickle of new notes.

As Shruti Rajagopalan and I noted in November last year, there was also a fiscal angle: for every billion of old rupee notes not turned in (for fear of being scrutinized), the government could issue a replacement billion and pocket it as one-time seigniorage revenue. For example:

if 20% of the old notes are never turned in, the government’s revenue windfall is up to Rs 2.9 trillion ($42.5 billion).

The destruction of the private wealth of non-redeeming old-note holders, combined with the revenue windfall to the government, makes the currency policy effectively a large capital levy, a massive one-shot transfer of wealth from the private to the public sector.

We speculated: “The wealth transfer to government may help to explain Prime Minister Modi’s enthusiasm for the currency cancellation and re-issue, despite its likely ineffectuality against black money.”

Economically literate defenders of demonetization have been fewer than critics. The most prominent defenders have been the well-known trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University together with his former students Vivek Dehejia and Pravin Krishna, and with his Columbia colleague Suresh Sundaresan.

In a December 2017 piece in the prominent Times of India, Bhagwati, Krishna, and Sundaresan (hereafter BKS) praised the demonetization program as “a courageous and substantive economic reform that, despite the significant transition costs, has the potential to generate large future benefits.” BKS recognized that “the process is inconvenient, and subjects many households to hardships,” but thought it worthwhile for “potentially increasing transparency and expanding the tax base and revenues to the government from taxes and surcharges.” The fiscal angle was foremost: since “unaccounted deposits will be taxed, this will yield a windfall for the government permitting large increases in social expenditures.” In addition, it would promote a “switch into digital transactions” and “put a major dent in counterfeiting.”

In an Op-Ed published on December 27, Bhagwati, Dehejia, and Krishna (hereafter BDK) defended the demonetization program entirely on the grounds that it would impose an effective capital levy. It was, they wrote, “a policy designed, in effect, as a one-time tax on black money.” They noted that the government’s revenue gain would not come just from replacing unreturned notes. Under “voluntary disclosure” rules promulgated after the initial announcement, depositors of old notes who acknowledged their holdings as illegitimate would also pay: “deposits of unaccounted money will be taxed at 50% — with a further 25% taken by the government … as an interest-free loan for a period of four years.” Thus there would be a one-time fiscal gain to the government not only from notes never returned, but also from notes returned under such terms.

BDK proposed the size of the revenue gain as a sufficient criterion for judging the success of the program: “at least from the perspective of its effectiveness in dealing with the black money issue, success has to be measured by the sum of tax revenue generated [from the 50% tax on acknowledged black deposits] and black money destroyed [i.e. revenue from replacing unreturned notes].” For the sake of illustration, they supposed (calling it an “estimate”) “that one-third [Rs5 trillion] of the approximately Rs15 trillion in demonetised notes is black money.” Then if by the end of the turn-in period “Rs1 trillion is unreturned, as is believed, and we further assume that only half of the remaining Rs4 trillion of black money that is returned falls within the tax net, the net gain works out to Rs1 trillion of black money destroyed and 50% times 2 trillion = Rs1 trillion in tax revenue.” With such a total fiscal gain of Rs2 trillion, “the government could reasonably claim this as a successful outcome.”

In a commentary on the BDK piece, Rajagopalan and I pointed out that, from the economist’s point of view, the costs of any measure must be taken into account before judging it worthwhile or efficient. What matters is effectiveness per unit cost. Unlike the earlier BKS piece, BDK had simply neglected the costs incurred in collecting revenue or suppressing black money through demonetization. We noted a think tank’s estimate of Rs. 1.28 trillion in losses during the transitional period from expenses of printing new notes, lost income of those waiting in queues, additional costs to banks tied up with exchanging currency, and (the largest item) lost business sales due to the currency shortage. It was then too early to replace the estimate of lost business with measured effects on GDP, but we noted that one percentage point of lost annual growth equals Rs1.45 trillion. These costs need to be set against the revenue. Even if the revenue were as high as Rs2 trillion, collecting it at a deadweight cost of 64% or more would be a very bad bargain.

Doesn’t it matter that the transfer in this case is coming from bad actors whose welfare one may disregard? No. In the above reckoning, as in standard tax analysis, the pure wealth-transfer losses of taxpayers don’t figure in the deadweight loss calculation, which only counts the costs associated with extracting the transfer.

BDK had noted in passing the argument “that the short- to medium-run economic impact post 8 November will be contractionary” due to a “temporary liquidity shortage induced by an insufficiently fast replacement of old notes with new notes.” But they dismissed on theoretical grounds that “this is not necessarily the only outcome possible.” Government could avoid a currency shortage by promptly providing new notes, they reckoned. This was a very odd line to take seven weeks into demonetization, given that the government was not in fact providing new notes sufficiently fast, and when the evidence of currency shortage was plain to see. Alternatively, they proposed, hoarded currency could come out from under mattresses, be deposited in banks, and actually expand M1 “via the classical money multiplier.” This was an odd line to take given that expansion of deposits (even should it happen) would not remedy the currency shortage being suffered by the unbanked half of India’s population.

In March 2017, Bhagwati was quoted by the Indian newspaper Firstpost making the surprising claim in an email interview that demonetization had actually promoted economic growth: “On the effects of demonetisation on growth, I should say that I was the one economist who had argued (with my co-authors), from first principles, that demonetisation would increase, not diminish, growth. And that is exactly what appears to have happened.” The factual basis for saying that it appeared to have happened was not clear.

In a March 30 piece, BDK cited a new 2016Q4 GDP report as showing that GDP had suffered “only a modest dip … of roughly half of a percentage point” below pre-demonetization projections. This was not an increase in growth. But they counted it a victory compared to “the economic disaster that the critics had imagined.”

The debate over demonetization was revived this month (September 2017) after the Reserve Bank of India finally announced the count of returned currency. It announced that 99 percent of the discontinued notes, Rs 15.28 trillion out of Rs 15.44 trillion, had been returned. As Vivek Kaul has noted, “The conventional explanation for this is that most people who had black money found other people, who did not have black money, to deposit their savings into the banking system for them.”

The trivial size of unreturned currency of course obliterates BDK’s projection of a government seigniorage windfall.

What about BDK’s other projected source of revenue, the 50% tax on acknowledged black deposits? Whereas in BDK’s scenario, black currency holders would make Rs2 trillion in voluntary-disclosure deposits, which would yield Rs 1 trillion in revenue, the actual collections under the scheme were reported in April at Rs 23 billion, or 2.3% of the BDK-imagined sum. Such paltry revenues mean that demonetization, from the fiscal perspective, was all pain and no gain.

The accumulating evidence on economic growth, meanwhile, has become damning. Between July and September 2016, India’s GDP grew 7.53 percent. Between January and March 2017 it grew 5.72 percent. Former head of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan, now returned to the University of Chicago, links the drop to demonetization: “Let us not mince words about it — GDP has suffered. The estimates I have seen range from 1 to 2 percentage points, and that’s a lot of money — over Rs2 lakh crore [i.e. trillion] and maybe approaching Rs2.5 lakh crore.” Kaul adds that GDP does not well capture the size of the informal cash sector, where the losses from demonetization were greatest.

In response to the RBI report and GDP data, and to their credit, BDK have substantially retreated from claims of success to what can be regarded as the claim that there is still a chance to break even. They have recently written:

First off, it must be conceded that if demonetisation is to be judged narrowly on the basis of the triple rationale originally advanced … , it would at best be unclear if it could be accounted a success. For, little black money was literally “destroyed” and there is scant evidence that the policy had much if any impact on counterfeiting or terror finance.

Although they acknowledge that they “overestimated the quantum of black money that would ultimately be unreturned” and thus overestimated the seigniorage gain, they still contend that the “money deposited into bank accounts can also generate fiscal gain, as these will invite the scrutiny of tax officials.” For about two-thirds of the deposits of old currency by value, even though no admission was made and thus no 50% tax was paid, the sums deposited were large and “are mostly open to scrutiny by tax officials.” Thus it is conceivable that tax investigators may eventually squeeze taxes and fines out of them, and it is premature to rule this out.

Conceivable, but unlikely. The investigatory capacity of the tax authority is finite and it already has its hands full, as Vivek Kaul spells out in detail.

BDK concede: “Should, however, the government fail in identifying and taxing black money deposits in any significant quantity, we can all conclude that demonetisation will have failed in achieving its primary goal.” Welcome as this reasonable concession is, the converse does not follow: whether even significant eventual revenue counts as success depends on how it compares to the sizable costs of demonetization. A deadweight burden of less than 100% seems highly unlikely.

BDK add an odd coda. They acknowledge transition costs in the program actually followed, but suggest that it could have been otherwise:

in principle, had demonetisation occurred without transition costs — for instance, if old notes could have been seamlessly converted or deposited within a few days after 8 November, or if demonetisation had been pre-announced to occur with a lag, allowing time for an orderly remonetisation — there could only have been largely upside gain without any downside cost.

It is hard to square this with BDK’s earlier statements that demonetization without secrecy would have been pointless because it would not have caught out the black money holders. Are BDK saying that if the aim had been merely to introduce new notes with better anti-counterfeiting features, the Modi government’s demonetization program was an unnecessarily costly way of doing it? Well yes, the critics have said that all along. High transition costs were a feature and not a bug of the dramatic scheme to penalize black money by surprise.

[Cross-posted from]

One federal statute says that Rony Estuardo Perez-Guzman, who claims refugee status, isn’t eligible for asylum. Another one says that he is. Whose duty is it to reconcile this glaring legislative contradiction, and how should it be remedied?

Mr. Perez-Guzman fled to the United States to escape violence and persecution in Guatemala. He was stopped by border patrol agents and deported, but reentered the United States because he still feared for his life. The asylum statute (8 U.S.C. § 1158) guarantees the right of “any alien … physically present in the United States … irrespective of such alien’s status” to apply for asylum. The reinstatement statute (8 U.S.C. § 1231) states that an individual who has previously been removed from the United States “may not apply for any relief under this chapter” (which includes asylum). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the two statutes conflict—so far so good—and are therefore are ambiguous, which is where the judicial mischief starts. A finding of statutory ambiguity often leads courts to simply defer to administrative agency interpreting the statute, which here means the Justice Department refused to let Perez-Guzman apply for asylum.

Perez-Guzman has petitioned the Supreme Court to review his case. Cato has filed an amicus brief supporting that petition and challenging the lower-court holding that statutory conflict triggers Chevron deference (named after the 1984 Supreme Court case that created the doctrine).

Chevron deference provides that courts must defer to administrative agency interpretations of the authority granted to them by Congress (1) where the intent of Congress is intentionally ambiguous and (2) where the interpretation is reasonable or permissible. The Court has curtailed Chevron by carving out important limitations, which mean that Chevron deference will not apply without an implicit congressional delegation for an agency to “fill in the gaps” in ambiguous statutory language.

The notion that Congress intentionally drafts ambiguous language so an agency may interpret that language as it sees fit is itself suspect as a matter of the separation of powers: our Constitution doesn’t allow a delegation of legislative power to the executive. But the notion that Congress commits that same folly by drafting directly conflicting statutory language is ludicrous.

The Administrative Procedure Act mandates that courts interpret statutory provisions and determine the applicability of agency actions; it attempts to reinforce the importance of the separation of powers. Chevron asks us to forget all about it. Expanding the doctrine further, to incorporate not just ambiguous statutes but conflicting ones will further erode the rule of law.

If the Court wants a way to resolve these conflicting statutes, it should look to the “rule of lenity.” It provides that in construing ambiguous criminal statutes, courts should resolve the ambiguity in favor of the defendant. The rule is also applied in deportation statutes. It reflects the fundamental principle that Congress must speak clearly if it wants to impose on an individual an especially severe deprivation of liberty—which deportation most assuredly is. When removal from the country is at stake, courts shouldn’t defer to an agency interpretation that commands a greater infringement on liberty than a statute requires (however restrictive or expansive that statute may be).

The Supreme Court should review Perez-Guzman v. Sessions, restore the balance of constitutional power, and reclaim the judiciary’s authority to say what the law is.

The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have released a framework for tax reform legislation that they hope to pass in coming months.

There were few surprises in the framework. The pro-growth elements that party leaders have championed for months are there, including: 

  • Cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent.
  • Cutting the top rate for businesses that pay under the individual code from 40 to 25 percent.
  • Expensing business equipment purchases.
  • Replacing the worldwide corporate tax system with a territorial system.
  • Repealing the estate or death tax.
  • Repealing the individual and corporate alternative minimum taxes.
  • Simplifying the individual tax rate structure to 12, 25, and 35 percent.

The other main tax cut in the plan is a doubling of the standard deduction, which would not do much for growth but would simplify the system.  

The framework suggests that reforms may impose a higher individual rate than 35 percent “to ensure that the wealthy do not contribute a lower share of taxes paid than they do today.” But why shouldn’t high-earners pay less tax? They pay a hugely disproportionate share of federal income taxes today, and they generally have the most dynamic responses to tax cuts.

High-earners generally add more to economic growth than other taxpayers. They are investors, executives, doctors, and other highly skilled individuals. Basic theory indicates that it is the highest tax rates that do the most economic damage. Indeed, tax damage rises rapidly as tax rates rise. If Congress is going to cut any individual tax rates, it should cut the highest rates.

That said, the most important goal for tax reform right now is to cut the corporate tax rate, and the GOP framework moves boldly in that direction. High corporate tax rates reduce capital investment, and that ultimately suppresses wages and opportunities for U.S. workers.

On the whole, the GOP is on the right track. Now they need to really hustle and move specific legislation through Congress and finally deliver a reform plan to the president’s desk.

Some recent comments on tax reform are here, here, here, here, and here.

A week ago Walter Olson noted, quoting the Washington Post, that

D.C. lawmakers are preparing to take a break from further beefing up labor standards [in] an abrupt shift for a city whose leaders have been in the vanguard of the national campaign for workers’ rights….

“Businesses like certainty, and if we’re constantly changing the tax burden or the tax environments, or constantly changing the regulatory burden, then it becomes more difficult to do business in the District,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has proposed a moratorium through the end of 2018 on bills that would negatively affect businesses.

Meanwhile, at the very moment that councilmembers are promising to stop adding new burdens to businesses and job creation, the Council is debating a new rule that would require employers who offer their workers free parking to offer that same benefit—in cash—to workers who want to walk, bike, or ride public transit to work instead.

“This bill would be easy to implement,” says one bike commuter, “because it builds on DC’s Commuter Benefits Law, which requires all employers with 20 or more employees to provide them with the option to use their own pre-tax money to pay for transit.” Easy for the regulators, anyway. Maybe even easy for business HR departments, since “the systems employers already have to make” for other mandated benefits can be adjusted. But each new mandate requires some new learning for HR officers, some effort to notify employees, some adjustment to the payroll software. Those burdens add up.

Not to worry, though! Businesses might even save money under this proposed new mandate:

Proponents point out that the bill could even wind up benefiting employers in the long run. According to the World Resource Institute, converting a non-active employee into a bike commuter saves $3,000 in employer health care costs and reduced absenteeism.

Critics insist that corporations are greedy, crafty, always focused on the bottom line. And yet they believe that there are all these free lunches—these $20 bills lying on the sidewalk waiting to be picked up, as economists say—that businesses are just missing. Just maybe, when businesses oppose new regulations, they have a better sense of their costs and opportunities than councilmembers and activists do.

D.C. currently has an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, higher than the national average of 4.4 and much higher than the D.C. metropolitan area rate of 3.9 percent. If the Council would like to see some of those suburban jobs move into the District, it might consider reducing the burdens on business. 

Want to increase college-going while saving some dough? Scholarship tax credit programs may be for you, or so indicates a new report from the Urban Institute.

The report, from co-authors Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn, finds that the low-income students who enrolled in private schools via the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program were about 15 percent—or 6 percentage points—more likely to enroll in college than statistically matched public school students. The effect was greater the longer kids were in the program. There was also a small, more tenuous positive effect on associate degree attainment for scholarship users. Topping it all off, while cost was not the focus of the report, the authors note that the superior outcomes were achieved at a saving to the state: “The positive effects are noteworthy in light of the evidence that the FTC program more than covers the foregone tax revenue through reduced spending on the public schools many participants would have attended.”

There are, of course, important caveats to the findings. First, this was not a random assignment study, so unobserved characteristics such as differing degrees of motivation between scholarship users and matched public school students could not be well controlled for. Next, the study only looked at students entering Florida public colleges, though this might have underestimated the program’s positive effects due to low-income private school students tending more to attend private or out-of-state colleges than their public school peers. Finally, there is good reason to question whether credentials represent much increase in real, useful, learning.

Even with these caveats, this is clearly encouraging evidence for school choice. Alas, some of the early media reports about the study seem to want to temper it with mentions of a few recent choice evaluations, focused on standardized test scores, that have not been so hot. Of course, those studies have important caveats too, but more important, the articles I have seen about the Urban report have mentioned the recent spate of negative reports while ignoring the many positive studies that preceded them. Fortunately, the Urban authors give readers one more useful nugget, noting, “Until recently, this research showed neutral to positive effects of private school choice on student achievement.”

The choice debate will continue, but most of the evidence remains on the side of freedom.

The “big news” from Janet Yellen’s recent press conference, which was hardly news at all to those who have followed the Fed’s past announcements, was that Fed officials, having long promised to eventually undo much if not all of the vast balance sheet growth brought about by the Fed’s various QE operations, and having delayed paying the piper for as long as pressure from without permitted, are finally about to get started.

But don’t imagine that Fed staff have been idle during the long delay. On the contrary: they spent much of it developing their highly scientific balance-sheet reduction strategy, first revealed back in June. As the Fed doesn’t seem to have given that highly scientific plan a name, I hope I may take the liberty of proposing one. Let’s call it “Operation SNAIL.”

In case you haven’t guessed, the acronym stands for “Stall Now And Inch-along Later.” For if there’s any clear point to the strategy the Fed has chosen, it’s to shrink as slowly as possible — more slowly, even, than it would if it merely allowed maturing assets to passively roll-off its balance sheet.

A purely passive unwind would, to be sure, have been problematic, for it would have meant slimming down at a very uneven pace, with bunches of assets rolling off the Fed’s balance sheet during some intervals, and relatively few rolling off in others.

The Fed has chosen to address only the first of these problems, by placing varying limits or “caps” on the value of assets it will allow to roll-off its balance sheet during any particular month. Starting in October with maximum roll-offs of $6 billion in Treasuries and $4 billion in MBS, it plans to increase the caps by those same amounts every three months for a year, after which they’ll remain fixed at $30 billion for Treasury securities and $20 billion for MBS. Whenever the value of maturing assets of either sort exceeds its assigned cap, the Fed plans to reinvest the difference.

Following this plan it will take until sometime in 2020 for the Fed to slim-down from its current $4.5 trillion in assets to a bit more than $3 trillion, or well over three times its (not exactly svelte) size before the crisis. It’s a diet of sorts, to be sure. But then, so is skipping the cheesecake now and then.

In his Econbrowser blog post on the subject, James Hamilton illustrates the progress of the Fed’s unwind in several nice charts, including the one reproduced below.  Besides showing the slow pace of the unwind, the chart also shows that $3 trillion or so is as low as the Fed is likely to go: by the end of 2020, it’s balance sheet will start swelling once again.

In comparison, were the Fed committed to getting its balance sheet back on its pre-crisis trajectory by the end of 2020,  it would be planning on slimming down by at least another $500 billion, and perhaps by as much as another $1 trillion.

Why So Slow? Why So Little?

Were the Fed’s plan the only way for it to achieve a smooth unwind, its snail-like pace might be justified. But it isn’t: the Fed might easily have provided for a smooth unwind, at a faster pace, by combining higher roll-off caps with occasional active asset sales during low roll-off periods.

And what about the limited extent of its planned diet? Hamilton argues, correctly, that so long as the Fed sticks to its present operating framework, the volume of reverse repos it conducts, as well as the value of Treasury balances held with it, will remain highly volatile, and that it will take “a lot of reserves sloshing around the system to cover that kind of variation.” However, as Hamilton also notes, such changes as would make all that extra cash unnecessary are neither revolutionary nor difficult to implement. Instead, they consist of things like “changing the way it conducts reverse repos, using temporary open-market operations to add or withdraw reserves as needed to offset changes in the Treasury balance, or moving to a true corridor system for controlling interest rates” (my emphasis).

Hamilton’s last suggestion brings us to the true crux of the matter, which is that, despite all its talk of “normalization,” which to the general public means getting back to its pre-crisis ways, the Fed has no intention of normalizing its operating procedures. That is, it doesn’t plan to return to its pre-crisis, zero-IOER “corridor” system, or to any other sort of corridor arrangement. Instead, it wants to keep the (leaky) “floor”-type system it introduced in October 2008. In a floor system, banks are kept flush with excess reserves, and monetary control is exercised, not be adjusting the quantity of reserves so as to achieve a particular equilibrium federal funds rate, but by manipulating the interest rate the Fed pays on banks’ required and excess reserves holdings, alone or along with the Fed’s overnight reverse-repo (ON-RRP) rate. Because an abundant supply of excess bank reserves is a necessary feature of any floor-type operating system, the Fed’s decision to retain such a system is the proximate reason why it’s planning to stay pudgy.

Budget Maximizing Bureaucrats

I wrote “proximate” because the question remains: why is the Fed so hung-up on its post-crisis floor system? If you think the answer is “Because it allows for improved monetary control,” kindly let me know your address and hat size so I can mail you a dunce cap. For far from it being the case that the Fed’s new operating system has proven its worth as a means of overall monetary control, it is largely owing to that system that the Fed has failed for the better part of six years now to hit its two-percent inflation target.

If that failure strikes you as inconsequential, or even desirable, consider that its cause — a flawed monetary transmission mechanism that lacks the usual link between growth in the stock of bank reserves on one hand and growth in the broad money stock on the other — poses the grave risk of a far more spectacular failure the next time we face a substantial decline in the velocity of broad money like the one that struck in 2008. And if you don’t believe that, consider that the Fed’s moneyless (“Portfoli-O-Matic”) transmission mechanism has already had one “stress test” — the one administered between late 2008 and 2015, which it failed miserably, by proving incapable of transforming $3.5 trillion in fresh reserves into more than a few percentage points of NGDP growth, or far fewer than were required to restore that growth to its pre-crisis path.

If successful monetary control isn’t the Fed’s first priority, what is? In a word, fatness itself. That is, the Fed likes having a big balance sheet for the same reason that bureaucracies generally like having big budgets to play with. A big budget translates into more generous salaries, lavish facilities, and, other perks. Most importantly, it enhances to the Fed’s prestige.

And if you don’t think Fed officials care about prestige, you may be entitled to a second dunce cap, because they care very much indeed. According to someone I know who was part of the Fed’s deliberations at the time (but who prefers to remain anonymous for now), “the prestige of the central bank” was the answer he was given when he wondered out loud, before a gaggle of top Fed officials in the 1990s, what the Fed had to lose by dispensing with reserve requirements, as central banks in most other advanced economies had already done by then. It was chiefly owing to this desire to maintain its prestige that the Fed sought then, and has sought ever since, to come up with various schemes for making up for the erosion of demand for its liabilities caused by banks’ resort to sweep accounts.

Because it allows a central bank to expand its balance sheet arbitrarily without unduly altering its overall monetary policy stance, a floor system is a central bank bureaucrat’s dream-come-true. It allows the central bank to vastly increase its size and earnings, ergo its prestige. It also makes it easier than ever for the central bank to effectively buy-off two powerful interests that might otherwise look askance at its aggrandizement, namely, (1) the U.S. Treasury and (2) the banking industry. That the biggest banks and most politically influential banks receive a disproportionate share of the Fed’s interest payments only adds to the scheme’s overall efficacy.

Since the late 2000s, seigniorage passed along from the Fed to the Treasury has almost tripled in real terms. At the same time, the Fed’s expenses, which account for that portion of its earnings that it doesn’t pass on to the Treasury, have also grown substantially, mostly owing to its interest payments on bank reserves. According to The Economist, and as can be seen from the chart reproduced from it below, the Fed will pay out $27 billion in interest this year, and is expected to pay out $50 billion in 2019. Once its planned unwind is complete, the Fed expects to continue paying out about $10 billion a year in interest, which is still a tidy bit of baksheesh.

Source: “Is the Federal Reserve Giving Banks a $12bn Subsidy?” The Economist, March 18, 2017

Cracking Yellen’s Code

If the Fed’s unwinding plan is really based on its determination to maintain its current, bureaucratically advantageous operating system, how did Yellen manage to avoid revealing any hint of this in her recent press conference?  The answer is that she didn’t: the hints are there, as they were in some of Yellen’s past press conferences. Only the hints were so cleverly ciphered that Yellen could be understood to being saying just the opposite of what she was really saying!

Specifically, in reply to questions about the Fed’s future plans for monetary control, Yellen says that the Fed intends to use changes in “the fed funds rate” rather than adjustments to its balance sheet as its chief means of monetary control. This reply could be taken to mean that it won’t be engaging again in Quantitative Easing, and that it plans to return eventually to pre-2008 style fed funds rate targeting. The interpretation squares well, after all, with the Fed’s claim that it is intent on “normalizing” monetary policy.

But that interpretation is wrong. What Yellen’s words really mean is that the Fed plans to keep its current IOER-based operating system going. The changes in the “fed funds rate” to which Yellen refers are really changes to the Fed’s IOER and ON-RRP rates, which define the upper and lower bounds, respectively, of the Fed’s current fed funds rate “target range.” It follows that when Yellen says that the Fed won’t be implementing monetary policy by means of balance sheet changes, she doesn’t just mean that it will no longer engage in post-2008 style Quantitative Easing. She also means that it won’t be making use of conventional (that is, pre-2008 style) open-market operations to influence an otherwise market-determined federal funds rate. All this in turn requires that banks be kept flush with excess reserves, and that the Fed maintain a correspondingly enlarged balance sheet.

How do I know this? Do I have a specially-made Enigma-type machine designed to crack Fed code? I do not. But I have talked to Fed officials, and kept up with Fed publications, and all indications from those support my understanding, as does the theory of bureaucratic behavior to which I referred previously.*

In other words, I might be wrong. But who wants to bet on it?


* For example, the New York Fed just recently published a Liberty Street post defending the Fed’s interest payments on required reserves, and promising a follow-up post that will address “the payment of interest on excess reserve balances and discuss some of the benefits to the financial system of operating in a reserve-abundant regime.” The lack of any reference to the costs of operating a “reserve-abundant” regime gives the game away.

[Cross-posted from]