Tuesday, 29 July 2014

EconTalk this week

Sam Altman, president of startup accelerating firm Y Combinator, talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Y Combinator's innovative strategy for discovering, funding, and coaching groundbreaking startups, what the company looks for in a potential startup, and Silicon Valley's attitude toward entrenched firms. The two also discuss Altman's thoughts on sectors of the economy that are ripe for innovation and how new firms are revolutionizing operations in these industries.

A direct link to the audio is available here.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Trade and the poor

A interesting new NBER working paper on Measuring the Unequal Gains from Trade by Pablo D. Fajgelbaum and Amit K. Khandelwal. The abstract reads:
Individuals that consume different baskets of goods are differentially affected by relative price changes caused by international trade. We develop a methodology to measure the unequal gains from trade across consumers within countries that is applicable across countries and time. The approach uses data on aggregate expenditures across goods with different income elasticities and parameters estimated from a non-homothetic gravity equation. We find considerable variation in the pro-poor bias of trade depending on the income elasticity of each country's exports and imports. Non-homotheticities across sectors imply that trade typically favors the poor, who concentrate spending in more traded sectors. (Emphasis added.)
So trade helps the poor given the fact that the poor concentrate their spending in the traded sectors of the economy. Fajgelbaum and Khandelwal writes,
We also find important effects from sectoral heterogeneity. As in the single-sector setting, the pro-poor bias increases with a country’s income elasticity of exports. But, in contrast with the single-sector estimation, the multi-sector model implies a strong pro-poor bias of trade in every country. On average over the countries in our sample, the real income loss from closing off trade are 57 percent for the 10th percentile of the income distribution and 25 percent for the 90th percentile.5 This bias in the gains from trade toward poor consumers hinges on the fact that these consumers spend relatively more on sectors that are more traded, while high-income individuals consume relatively more services, which are the least traded sector. Additionally, low-income consumers happen to concentrate spending on sectors with a lower elasticity of substitution across source countries. As a result, the multi-sector setting implies larger expenditures in more tradeable sectors and a lower rate of substitution between imports and domestic goods for poor consumers; these two features lead to larger gains from trade for the poor than the rich.

Deirdre McCloskey on the great enrichment

From the IEA comes this short video of Professor Deirdre McCloskey. Deirdre McCloskey, Author of The Bourgeois Era series, speaks to ieaTV about inequality, the amazing growth in the wealth of the working class over the past three hundred years and how wealth and commerce has been viewed over the centuries.

Deirdre is the Distinguished Professor in English, Economics, History and Communication at the University of Illinois. As a self-described "postmodern free-market quantitative Episcopalian feminist Aristotelian", she has worked on numerous areas of economic history, including British economic 'failures' during the 19th Century. She has written fourteen books and edited another seven.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Interesting blog bits

  1. Andrew Cohen on Libertarianism and Parental Licensing
    Back in December of 2011, I posted “Licensing Parents,” defending a view Hugh LaFollette had introduced into philosophical literature in 1980: that the state should license parents (LaFollette further defended this stance in 2010; see Note 1). LaFollette is not a libertarian and as I indicated then, I disagree with him about a lot–including the need to license medical doctors and lawyers. I nonetheless think he is right that we ought to license parents. In this post, I explain why libertarians—or at least minarchist BH-libertarians—ought to endorse parental licensing.
  2. Bryan Caplan on The Economist on Overparenting
    Though I'm no fan of The Economist's editorials, their science coverage remains outstanding. Check out their latest piece on overparenting.
  3. Ryan Bourne on ‘Does good broadcasting require compulsion?’ The question the BBC won’t address
    I got to thinking about how helpful this interview style would be when I read the BBC’s own Director of Policy James Heath’s response to my response to his original blog post on why the licence fee is the right method of funding for the BBC. Rather than focusing on the arguments that I had made as to why a licence fee – a compulsory charge applied to everyone who wants to watch any live television – was indefensible and unnecessary, Heath instead used his article to outline why the BBC itself was of value to us.
  4. Thorsten Beck, Hans Degryse, Ralph De Haas and Neeltje van Horen on When arm’s length is too far
    The small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) were among the most severely affected in the Global Crisis. This column discusses new evidence on how different lending techniques affect lending in bad and good times. Data from 21 countries in central and eastern Europe show that ‘relationship lending’ alleviates credit constraints during a cyclical downturn but not during a boom period. The positive impact of relationship lending in an economic downturn is strongest for smaller and more opaque firms and in regions where the downturn is more severe.
  5. Linda Goldberg, Signe Krogstrup, John Lipsky and Hélène Rey ask Why is financial stability essential for key currencies in the international monetary system?
    The dollar’s dominant role in international trade and finance has proved remarkably resilient. This column argues that financial stability – and the policy and institutional frameworks that underpin it – are important new determinants of currencies’ international roles. While old drivers still matter, progress achieved on financial-stability reforms in major currency areas will greatly influence the future roles of their currencies.
  6. David Saha on The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: Review of the debate on economic blogs
    An early draft of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) sparked an intensive public debate over possible advantages and disadvantages. This column reviews some arguments in favour of the Partnership and against it. While there is some debate over how large the economic benefit could be in the face of already relatively low trade barriers, critics claim that the deal will lower standards of consumer protection, provision of public services, and environmental protection in the EU.
  7. Tim Woratall on Don't Believe What You Read; Google Doesn't Avoid Tax
    It’s the results reporting season over in my native UK again and once again, as regular as the seasons themselves roll around, we’ve spluttering pieces in the press about how Google avoids all of this tax that it should justly and righteously pay. Which means it must be the time of year for me to point out that Google doesn’t in fact avoid paying UK corporation tax, whatever you might be being told in the newspapers.
  8. John Cochrane on Lucas and Sargent Revisited
    The economics blogosphere has a big discussion going on over Bob Lucas and Tom Sargent's classic "After Keynesian Macroeconomics."

FEE video: John Blundell - Lessons from Margaret Thatcher

John Blundell speaks about his experience with Margaret Thatcher at "An Evening at FEE" on May 21st, 2011.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Complexity and the art of public policy

Complexity science is changing the way we think about social systems and social theory. Unfortunately, economists’ policy models have not kept up and are stuck in either a market fundamentalist or government control narrative. In this audio from VoxEU.org Roland Kupers argues for a new, more flexible policy narrative, which envisions society as a complex evolving system that is uncontrollable but can be influenced.

A direct link to the audio is available here.

Employee satisfaction, labour market flexibility, and stock returns around the world

In a new NBER working paper Alex Edmans, Lucius Li, and Chendi Zhang study the relationship between employee satisfaction and abnormal stock returns around the world, using lists of the “Best Companies to Work For” in 14 countries. They show that employee satisfaction is associated with positive abnormal returns in countries with high labour market flexibility, such as the U.S. and U.K., but not in countries with low labour market flexibility, such as Germany. I wonder New Zealand would come in this ranking.

These results are consistent with high employee satisfaction being a valuable tool for recruitment, retention, and motivation in flexible labour markets, where firms face fewer constraints on hiring and firing. In contrast, in regulated labour markets, legislation already provides minimum standards for worker welfare and so additional expenditure may exhibit diminishing returns. The results have implications for the differential profitability of socially responsible investing (“SRI”) strategies around the world. In particular, they emphasise the importance of taking institutional features into account when forming such strategies.

The conclusions of the paper:
This paper studies how the relationship between employee satisfaction and stock returns depends critically on the level of a country’s labor market flexibility. The alphas documented by Edmans (2011, 2012) for the U.S. are not anomalous in a global context, in terms of economic significance, and do extend to several other countries. However, they do not automatically generalize to every country – being listed as a Best Company to Work For is associated with superior returns only in countries with high labor market flexibility. These results are consistent with the idea that the recruitment, retention, and motivational benefits of employee satisfaction are most valuable in countries in which firms face fewer constraints on hiring and firing. These benefits are lower in countries with inflexible labor markets, leading to a downward shift in the marginal benefit of expenditure on employee welfare. Moreover, in such countries, regulations already provide a floor for worker welfare, leading to a movement down the marginal benefit curve. Both forces reduce the marginal benefit of investing in worker satisfaction, and thus being listed as a Best Company may reflect an agency problem.

The results emphasize the importance of the institutional context for both managers and investors. Edmans (2011, 2012) uses long-run stock returns as the dependent variable to mitigate concerns about reverse causality from firm performance to employee satisfaction – any publicly- available performance measure should be incorporated into the stock price at the start of the return compounding window. However, these papers do not make strong claims about causality, as it may be that a third, unobservable variable (e.g. management quality) drives both employee satisfaction and stock returns. Even if their results are interpreted as causal, it is not the case that managers can hope to increase stock returns by investing in employee satisfaction, as a positive link only exists in countries with high labor market flexibility. Turning to investors, a strategy of investing in firms with high employee satisfaction will only generate superior returns in countries with high labor market flexibility. Given that the vast majority of empirical asset pricing studies that uncover alpha are based on U.S. data, the results emphasize caution in applying these strategies overseas. This caution is especially warranted for strategies that are likely to be dependent on the institutional or cultural environment, such as socially responsible investing strategies. Just as the value of employee satisfaction depends on the flexibility of labor markets and existing regulations on worker welfare, the value of other SRI screens such as gender diversity, animal rights, environmental protection, and operating in an ethical industry also likely depend on the context.
The role of labour market flexibility for the results of the paper is interesting. New Zealand is not in their data set and I wonder how flexible our labour markets would look internationally.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Urbanisation makes the world more unequal

A recent article, by Kristian Behrens and Frédéric Robert-Nicoud, at VoxEU.org deals with the above issue and argues that large cities are more unequal than the nations that host them. The article contends that this is because large cities disproportionately reward talented superstars and disproportionately 'fail' the least talented. Cities should thus be the primary focus of policies to reduce inequality and its adverse consequences for society. Now the obvious question is Why should there be policies to reduce inequality? Are the authors attacking inequality when their real concern is with poverty?

The basic argument of the article is,
Large cities are more unequal than the nations that host them. For example, income inequality in the New York Metro Area (MSA) is considerably higher than the US average and similar to that of Rwanda or Costa Rica. Large cities are also more unequal than smaller towns. Figure 1 plots the relationship between population size and the Gini index of income inequality for a 2007 cross-section of US MSAs (solid line). The relationship is clearly positive. This holds true even when considering that large cities host more educated people on average (dashed line); income inequality cannot be entirely explained by higher educational attainment in large cities.

How can we then explain the size-inequality nexus? Researchers have proposed two main explanations so far, both of which have to do with city composition.

First, large cities may differ systematically in their industrial structure and the functions they perform. Large cities host, for example, more business services and the higher-order functions of finance and R&D, whereas small and medium-sized cities host larger shares of lower-order services and manufacturing. Consequently, larger cities are more skilled. However, industry composition explains only about one fifth of the observed skill variation across cities (Hendricks 2011). Furthermore, that variation cannot fully account for observed income inequality.

Second, large cities attract a disproportionate fraction of households at the bottom and at the top of the income distribution [ ... ]. Central cities of US MSAs attract, for example, poor households because they offer better access to public transportation [ ... ]. Large cities also attract rich households because they reward their skills more highly than smaller cities – a ‘superstar effect’ in ‘superstar cities’ [ ... ].

This is the second potential source to the positive relationship in Figure 1: returns to skill are increasing in city size [ ... ].
The argument for the second issue is that while larger cities increase the income of everyone, the top 5% benefit substantially more than the bottom quintile. The article continues,
In a recent study we propose a simple theory to explain why this happens [ ... ]. In our theory, large cities are places that disproportionately reward the most talented people (the ‘superstars’) and that disproportionately fail the least talented (‘selection’). In a nutshell, larger cities provide incentives for the most able to self-select into activities that offer high payoffs to the successful. However, the risk of failure associated with those activities also increases because workers in larger cities compete against more numerous and better rivals.

Disproportionate rewards for the most skilled – and failure for the less skilled – then drives income inequality. Both channels are stronger in larger cities, thus establishing the positive link between city size and inequality, even when abstracting from differences in industry composition and educational attainment.

The theory also predicts that increasing globalisation among global cities will translate into larger urban income inequality. Just as large cities provide large local markets to reward skills, larger global markets serve the same function. One novel aspect of our analysis is to emphasise the existence of both a direct effect of increasing globalisation on inequality (the ‘superstar effect’) and an indirect effect that goes through increasing urbanisation and the growth of cities. Cities are more ‘valuable places’ in a globalised world, which may serve to explain increasing urbanisation. The latter is positively linked to inequality, an aspect that has not been much analysed until now.
But perhaps the most interesting bit of the article are the caveats they put at the end.
We conclude with two words of caution. First, nominal income inequality (which is measured) is not equivalent to real income inequality (which is not directly measurable). Insofar as large cities offer a wider range of cheaper goods and services than small cities do, and if this pattern is especially pronounced for the least well off, then actual real urban inequality may be less severe than nominal inequality [ ... ]. Actually, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser claims that the large poverty rates of central cities are a testimony of their success, not their failure: they attract poor households by catering better to their needs [ ... ].

Second, fighting (urban) inequality does not require aggressive local redistributive policies, for such policies attract the poor and repulse the rich, leading to the bankruptcy of local governments, such as the fiscal crisis that hit New York City in the 1970s.
If inequality really is the issue then you may ask, Inequality of what? Is nominal/real income inequality what we should be worried about or is consumption inequality the real issue?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Theoretical v. applied economics

"Then, as now, applied economists, “realitics”, as Sir John Clapham called them, and theoretical economists (‘analytics’) were often a race apart who neither properly understood nor appreciated each other’s roles and approaches. Then, as now, views differed on whether or not theory had to be directly applicable in explanations of ‘real world’ observations and much misunderstanding occurred because the separation between logically coherent ‘high theory’ in its own domain and, a separate issue, its direct applicability, was not made by protagonists in an argument. Or, if it were, one side would be concerned with the former, the other with the latter, without either making this understanding explicit."
(Stephanie Blankenburg and Geoffrey Harcourt (2007), ‘The Debates on the Representative Firm and Increasing Returns: Then and Now’ In Philip Arestis, Michelle Baddelely and John S. L. McCombie (eds), Economic Growth, New Directions in Theory and Policy, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 44–64.)

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Housing affordability

Paul Cheshire - Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography at LSE, and twice visitor to the econ department at Canterbury - asks, What lies behind Britain’s crisis of housing affordability? His answer is that it is nothing to do with foreign speculators but decades of planning policies that constrain the supply of houses and land and turn them into something like gold or artworks. He also exposes myths about the social and environmental benefits of ‘greenbelts’.

Cheshire writes,
When things go wrong, it is always handy to blame foreigners and currently even the liberal press are blaming them for our crisis of housing affordability. The problem is not 50 luxury houses empty on London’s Bishops Avenue (as The Guardian reported in January) or foreign speculators buying luxury flats to keep empty in London. It is that we have not been building enough houses for more than 30 years – and those we have been building have too often been in the wrong place or of the wrong type to meet demand.
This is what explains the crisis of housing affordability: we have a longstanding and endemic crisis of housing supply – and it is caused primarily by policies that intentionally constrain the supply of housing land. It is not surprising to find that house prices increased by a factor of 3.36 from the start of 1998 to late 2013 in Britain as a whole and by a factor of 4.24 over the same period in London.
and he adds,
What also happens – and this is central to our ‘blame the foreigners and speculators’ scapegoating – is that houses are converted from places in which to live into the most important financial asset people have; and the little land you can build them on becomes not just an input into house construction but a financial asset in its own right.

In other words, what policy is doing is turning houses and housing land into something like gold or artworks – into an asset for which there is an underlying consumption demand but which is in more or less fixed supply. So the price increasingly reflects its expected value relative to other investment assets. In the world as it has been since the financial crash of 2007/08, with interest rates at historic lows and great uncertainty in global markets, artworks and British houses have been transformed into very attractive investment assets.
The more tightly we control the supply of land and houses, the more housing and housing land become like investment assets. In turn, the stronger the incentives for their owners to treat them as an option to hold in the expectation of future price rises.

So to blame speculators for housing shortages and rising prices is simply incorrect. It is our post-war public policy that has converted a good that is in principle in quite elastic supply into a scarce and appreciating asset.
And what of greenbelts?
Supporters of urban containment policies argue that Britain is a small island and we are in danger of ‘concreting it over’. But this is a myth: greenbelts in fact cover one and a half times as much land as all our towns and cities put together.
So the second myth about greenbelts is that they are ‘green’ or environmentally valuable. They are not because intensive farmland is not. Moreover, there is little or no public access to greenbelt land except where there are viable rights of way. Greenbelts are a handsome subsidy to ‘horseyculture’ and golf. Since our planning system prevents housing competing, land for golf courses stays very cheap. More of Surrey is now under golf courses – about 2.65% – than has houses on it.

The final myth about greenbelts is that they provide a social or amenity benefit. The reality is that a child in Haringey gets no welfare from the fact that five miles away in Barnet, there are 2,380 hectares of greenbelt land; or in Havering another 6,010 hectares.

What SERC research has shown is that the only value of greenbelts is for those who own houses within them. What greenbelts really seem to be is a very British form of discriminatory zoning, keeping the urban unwashed out of the Home Counties – and of course helping to turn houses into investment assets instead of places to live.
So the solution to our crisis of housing affordability is not to blame speculators or foreign buyers but to sort ourselves out. We need to allow more land to be released for development while protecting our environmentally and amenity-rich areas more rigorously than we do at present.

Building on greenbelt land would only have to be very modest to provide more than enough land for housing for generations to come: there is enough greenbelt land just within the confines of Greater London – 32,500 hectares – to build 1.6 million houses at average densities. Building there would also reduce pressure to build on playing fields and amenity-rich brownfield sites such as the Hoo Peninsula and improve the quality of housing.
Basic message: release more land for building houses. Now I wonder if any other country could learn from this idea.


Investor-owned firms as cooperatives

Having written a couple of posts recently on cooperatives, see here and here, I thought to compare cooperatives with investor-owned firms, the main form of firm in the economy. While investor-owned firms dominate the economy what is not often realised is that they can be seen as a form of producer cooperative. This argument is due to Henry Hansmann, "Ownership of the Firm", Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, Vol. 4, No. 2. (Autumn, 1988), pp. 267-304.

Hansmann begins by noting that
In the discussion that follows it will be helpful to have a term to comprise all persons who transact with a firm, either as purchasers of the firm's products or as suppliers to the firm of some factor of production, including capital. Such persons—whether they are individuals or other firms—will be referred to here collectively as the firm's "patrons."

Most firms are owned by persons who are also patrons. This is conspicuously true of producer and consumer cooperatives.
He then notes that this is also true of the standard business firm, which is owned by persons who lend capital to the firm. In fact, Hansmann argues, the standard investor-owned firm is in a sense nothing more than a special type of producer cooperative—a lenders' cooperative, or capital cooperative.

To show this Hansmann starts by looking at the structure of a typical producer cooperative.
A representative example is a dairy farmers' cheese cooperative, in which a cheese factory is owned by the farmers who provide the raw milk for the cheese. The firm pays the members a predetermined price for their milk on the occasion of each sale. (In keeping with conventional usage, the term "member" will be used here to refer to the patron-owners of cooperatives.) This price is usually set low enough so that the cooperative is almost certain to make a profit from its operations. Then, at the end of the year, profits that have been earned from the manufacture and sale of the cheese are distributed pro rata among the members according to the amount of milk they have sold to the cooperative during the year. Voting rights are held only by those who sell milk to the firm, either on the basis of one-member-one-vote or with votes apportioned according to the volume of milk each member sells to the firm. Some or all of the members may have capital invested in the firm. In principle, however, this is unnecessary: the firm could borrow all of the capital it needs. In any case, even where members invest in the firm, those investments typically take the form of preferred stock that carries no voting rights and is limited to a stated maximum rate of dividends. Upon liquidation of the firm, the net asset value—which may derive from retained earnings or from increases in the value of rights held by the firm—is divided pro rata among the members, usually according to some measure of the relative value of their cumulative patronage.

In short, ownership rights are held exclusively by virtue of the fact, and to the extent, that one sells milk to the firm. On the other hand, not all farmers who sell milk to the firm need be owners; the firm may purchase some portion of its milk from nonmembers, who are simply paid a fixed price and do not participate in net earnings or control. (Consumer cooperatives are set up similarly, with net earnings and votes apportioned according to the amounts that a member purchases from the firm.)
Now what of the standard business firm?
A business corporation is also organized in this fashion, except that it is owned not by persons who supply the firm with some commodity, such as milk, but rather by some or all of the persons who lend capital to the firm. To see the analogy clearly, it helps to characterize the transactions in a business corporation in somewhat stylized terms: The members each lend the firm a given sum. For this they are paid a fixed interest rate, set low enough so that the firm has a reasonable likelihood of running at a profit. Then at regular intervals, or upon liquidation, the firm's net earnings (after all contractual expenses, including wages and the cost of materials as well as the fixed interest rate on the capital borrowed from the members, have been paid) are distributed pro rata among the lender-members according to the amount they have lent. The firm may also have lenders who are not members. These lenders, commonly banks or bondholders, simply receive a fixed market interest rate and have no share in profits or participation in control.

As it is, in a business corporation the interest rate that is paid to lender- members (that is, shareholders) is generally set at zero for the sake of convenience. Moreover, the loans from members are not arranged annually or for other fixed periods, but rather are perpetual; the principal can generally be withdrawn only upon dissolution of the firm. In the typical cooperative, by contrast, members generally remain free to vary their volume of transactions with the firm over time, and even to terminate their patronage altogether. This distinction is not, however, fundamental. Investor-owned firms can be, and sometimes are, structured so that the amount of capital invested by each member can be redeemed at specified intervals or even (as in a simple partnership) at will. Conversely, cooperatives can be, and often are, structured so that members have a long-term commitment to remain patrons. Electricity generation and transmission cooperatives, for example, commonly insist that their members (which are local electricity distribution cooperatives) enter into requirements contracts that run for thirty-five years.

Indeed, we can view business corporation statutes as simply specialized versions of the more general cooperative corporation statutes. In principle, there is no need to have separate business corporation statutes at all; business corporations could just as well be organized under a well-drafted general cooperative corporation statute. Presumably we have separate statutes for business corporations simply because it is convenient to have a form that is specialized for the most common form of cooperative—the lenders' cooperative—and to signal more clearly to interested parties just what type of cooperative they are dealing with. (All quotes, Hansmann 1988: 270-2. Footnotes deleted.)
So the standard business firm can be seen as a form of cooperative, a capital cooperative. Not that it is often thought of in this way.

Do large modern retailers pay premium wages?

An important question given the grow we have seen in larger retailers in New Zealand and around the world. The question is studied in this new NBER working paper Do Large Modern Retailers Pay Premium Wages? by Brianna Cardiff-Hicks, Francine Lafontaine, Kathryn Shaw. The abstract reads,
With malls, franchise strips and big-box retailers increasingly dotting the landscape, there is concern that middle-class jobs in manufacturing in the U.S. are being replaced by minimum wage jobs in retail. Retail jobs have spread, while manufacturing jobs have shrunk in number. In this paper, we characterize the wages that have accompanied the growth in retail. We show that wage rates in the retail sector rise markedly with firm size and with establishment size. These increases are halved when we control for worker fixed effects, suggesting that there is sorting of better workers into larger firms. Also, higher ability workers get promoted to the position of manager, which is associated with higher pay. We conclude that the growth in modern retail, characterized by larger chains of larger establishments with more levels of hierarchy, is raising wage rates relative to traditional mom-and-pop retail stores.
So the short answer seems to be yes, at least for the U.S., but to me the interesting thing is the sorting effect with better working employed at the bigger retailers. Is this a version of the Henry Ford $5 a day idea?
Henry Ford’s friend and general manager, James Couzens, came up with the innovative idea of paying the workers enough to keep them from leaving. $5 a day, said Couzens. Henry, himself a multimillionaire, countered that $3 a day was more than enough, then a few days later he grudgingly agreed to $4 before eventually caving in to Couzen’s insistence. Finally, in January 1914, Ford doubled the wages of his workers to an unheard-of $5 a day. Ford was swamped with job applications and absenteeism dropped from 10% to 0.5%.