Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Krugman's Claim that Europe Does as Well as the US

Krugman argues here that Europe's economy is just as productive and vibrant as the United States' even though Europe is saddled with high taxes, a generous social safety net, and a generally greater role for government in the economy.

His evidence is that even though the United States' growth rate in GDP over the last 15 years appears to be higher than Europe's, if one adjusts for the growth in population, the GDP growth rates are almost identical.

I give Krugman credit for bringing up the reasonable idea of making an adjustment for population growth. I have argued for many years that Japan's "lost decade" in the 1990s, in which its GDP growth rate was approximately 1.5 pts less than ours, could be explained almost entirely by the difference in our population growth rates.

Of course, one could argue that a low population growth rate is a consequence of having poor economic policies. Immigration to your country is less attractive to foreigners than it would otherwise be, and perhaps residents are discouraged from having children.

That being said, the whole idea of comparing growth rates to see which economy is more efficient is stupid. One should look at the overall GDP per capita, wealth level, and standard of living to gauge which economy is doing better. The growth rate is not really of much importance if your standard of living is 28% lower. See here for a list of countries ranked by GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP).

On top of that, it would seem that growing at the same rate is no great accomplishment for an economy operating at lower productivity. It is much easier to copy what works from a more efficient economy (as the Soviet Union did in the 1930s from the West, as Japan did in the 1950s and 1960s from the United States, and as China is doing now from everybody).

Just to make a simple comparison, France's GDP per capita (PPP adjusted) is 28% lower than that of the US's. That's what we should be focused on -- not whether France has just barely managed to match our GDP growth rate over the last 15 years. The French are still poorer on average, and the most likely reason is the stifling amount of government control over their economy.

Oh, and one final note. The Europeans are getting a free ride off of the United States in many ways, and yet they still have a lower standard of living. The main area is defense, where the US essentially shoulders the entire burden of keeping the world peace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why Didn't the Tech Bubble Cause a Financial Crisis?

On Friday, Paul Krugman had this to say about why the collapse of the tech stock bubble in 2000 didn't bring about the same sort of financial crisis we just experienced.

The short answer is that while the stock bubble created a lot of risk, that risk was fairly widely diffused across the economy. By contrast, the risks created by the housing bubble were strongly concentrated in the financial sector. As a result, the collapse of the housing bubble threatened to bring down the nation’s banks. And banks play a special role in the economy. If they can’t function, the wheels of commerce as a whole grind to a halt.

Why did the bankers take on so much risk? Because it was in their self-interest to do so. By increasing leverage — that is, by making risky investments with borrowed money — banks could increase their short-term profits. And these short-term profits, in turn, were reflected in immense personal bonuses. If the concentration of risk in the banking sector increased the danger of a systemwide financial crisis, well, that wasn’t the bankers’ problem.

Krugman's op-eds are usually infuriating because he writes a lot of false stuff that he knows to be false. In this case, I'm willing to concede that he genuinely doesn't understand what he's talking about.

The true short answer is that the Nasdaq bubble collapse was not an outlier event. It was seen as a reasonably high probability event by everybody throughout the financial system. Options on internet stocks were trading with implied volatility of hundreds of percent per annum, and long-term options on even the boring S&P 500 index were trading at over 20% implied volatility -- extraordinarily high by historical standards. So when the Nasdaq fell over 75% and the S&P fell almost 50% over a period of 18 months, financial professionals were not terribly surprised.

Here's another way to put it. No bank or money manager fund was making non-recourse loans on a stock with a 20% downpayment and no ability to demand variation margin. Yet, that's what a traditional, conservative mortgage on a home is essentially. So when stocks fall 50%, it's not a big shock to the financial system. Few people consider stock market wealth to be as real or as stable as AAA-rated bonds for example.

Homes, on the other hand, had enjoyed low price volatility and had not fallen in nominal price on a nationwide basis since World War II. So when homes across the country fall 35% in nominal price (and over 50% if you look at where most of the mortgage loans were made), this is obviously going to cause a lot of distress throughout the financial system. AAA-rated bonds went from 100 cents on the dollar to 10 cents in some cases. The entities owning AAA-rated bonds did not think they were taking risk. Losses like that simply did not appear on their radar screens. This was very different from the wealth destruction during the tech bubble collapse.

All things considered, I'd have to say that the turmoil caused by the housing fiasco has been pretty mild. The reason is that we have the advantage of a fiat currency system, in which the government can print money at will. The government has made a lot of mistakes which exacerbated the problem, but since the collapse of Lehman in September 2008, the Fed has handled things relatively well (the Treasury less so, but it's done more good than harm).

Friday, January 1, 2010

Are Cars More Dangerous Than Terrorists?

A reader of Andrew Sullivan's daily dish had this to say in response to Bill Maher's point that cars are more dangerous than terrorists.

In 2008 there were 34,017 deaths (and nearly 100,000 major injuries) related to automobile accidents in the United States. Terrorists would have to blow up 113 Boeing 777-200s each year in order to kill that many people! That is, they'd have to blow up all but six of the 777-200's (which hold 301 people in a 3-tier international setup) currently owned by American Airlines, United Airlines and Continental Airlines (together they own 119 777-200s) and would have to do so every single year, which is probably faster than they can be built. And yet there is hardly any talk of defending the American people from their Buick!

The argument that we shouldn't worry so much about terrorism because cars kill more people than terrorists is seductive to faux intellectuals like Bill Maher. The more general point is that we as a society accept all kinds of risks which are greater than the historical, statistical danger due to terrorism. I'll focus on the comparison to cars because, as far as we know today, the largest risk of violent death in the US comes from car accidents.

The first reason that the analogy is simplistic is that the car is a necessity in modern life. The benefit we derive from cars vastly outweighs the cost. In terms of deaths and injuries, cars almost certainly save far more lives than they end prematurely. There is no benefit to us from terrorism that I can think of, but plenty of costs in addition to the direct damage and fatalities. Second, most car-related casualties happen due to negligence or recklessness, and those casualties usually happen to the people who are directly responsible. One can reduce the risk of traveling in a car dramatically by wearing a seatbelt, driving carefully, and maintaining the car in good working order. Third, society has already come to terms with the risk. This is not something that can be easily duplicated in other areas. Traveling by plane is still far safer than driving the equivalent number of miles in a car, but far more people are afraid of dying in a plane crash than in a car crash. This may be irrational, but it is a reality. Terrorists can dramatically raise the fear associated with flying (rational or not), and if they do that they can degrade our standard of living as they already have done to a significant extent since 9/11.

Finally, it is not clear how effective terrorists can be if they become encouraged by success. The daily dish reader is correct that it is extremely unlikely terrorists could cause as many deaths per year as cars do simply by blowing up planes. But success at blowing up planes encourages more people to join the terrorist/jihadist cause and emboldens the leaders of that cause. It's possible that such success actually increases the probability of nuclear terrorism. Even Bill Maher would understand that a small nuclear explosion in a US city would dramatically change our society for the worse.