Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Food aid and civil war: is there a link?

It looks like the answer is yes. There is a new NBER working paper out on Aiding Conflict: The Impact of U.S. Food Aid on Civil War by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian.

The abstract reads:
This paper examines the effect of U.S. food aid on conflict in recipient countries. To establish a causal relationship, we exploit time variation in food aid caused by fluctuations in U.S. wheat production together with cross-sectional variation in a country's tendency to receive any food aid from the United States. Our estimates show that an increase in U.S. food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries. Our results suggest that the effects are larger for smaller scale civil conflicts. No effect is found on interstate warfare.
If you are starving, you can't fight?

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Great thinkers in economics?

Palgrave-Macmillan has a book series on "Great thinkers in economics". Titles in the series include Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall, Joseph A. Schumpeter and John Maynard Keynes, about which I would think no one could complain.

But the series also includes the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith, Michal Kalecki, Joan Robinson, Piero Sraffa, Gunnar Myrdal, Nicholas Kaldor, Dennis Robertson, Franco Modigliani and Roy Harrod.

First, are these really the greatest thinkers economics has to offer? What of, for example, Menger, Jevons, Walras, Marx, Mill - both James and J.S. - Ricardo, Malthus, Mises, Hayek, Arrow, Becker, Coase, Buchanan, Tullock or Milton Friedman?

Second, isn't there a somewhat obvious Keynesian, largely Post-Keynesian, bias to the books so far published?

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The nature of the firm and its financing

The AFA presidential address by Raghuram Rajan is now out as an NBER working paper. The abstract reads:
The nature of the firm and its financing are closely interlinked. To produce significant net present value, an entrepreneur has to transform her enterprise into one that is differentiated from the ordinary. To achieve the control that will allow her to execute this strategy, she needs to have substantial ownership, and thus financing. But it is hard to raise finance against differentiated assets. So an entrepreneur has to commit to undertake a second transformation, standardization, that will make the human capital in the firm, including her own, replaceable, so that outside financiers obtain rights over going-concern surplus. I argue that the availability of a vibrant stock market helps the entrepreneur commit to these two transformations in a way that a debt market would not. This helps explain why the nature of firms and the extent of innovation differ so much in different financing environments.
The idea that the entrepreneur has to be replaceable is important, without this a firm would die with its founder or would die if the founder tried to leave the firm. For a firm to have any chance of outlasting its founder, the human capital of the founder has to be made replaceable.

"The quality of new music has not fallen since Napster."

With issues around Megaupload being in the news, this summary, by Linda Gorman, of an NBER working paper - "Copyright Protection, Technological Change, and the Quality of New Products: Evidence from Recorded Music Since Napster" - from the latest NBER Digest makes the point that "The quality of new music has not fallen since Napster."
Napster was the first widely used program that allowed music lovers to share music by exchanging MP3 files, thereby allowing millions of people to enjoy music without paying for it. Recorded music revenues plunged, raising a concern that piracy would stem the flow of good new music. In Copyright Protection, Technological Change, and the Quality of New Products: Evidence from Recorded Music Since Napster (NBER Working Paper No. 17503), Joel Waldfogel explores the possibility that technological changes in the music industry "may have altered the balance between technology and copyright law for digital products." Despite music industry claims that digital piracy harms consumers by undercutting its revenues and reducing the amount of new music that it can bring to market, he constructs indexes of music quality based on critics' best-of lists, airplay, and sales that show no evidence of a decline in music quality since Napster.

Waldfogel's first index of music quality is based on critics' retrospective lists of the best music (for example, "best of the decade"). It encompasses 88 different rankings from the United States, England, Canada, and Ireland, and covers more than 16,000 musical works from 1960 to 2007. Statistically combining information from these sources results in an overall quality index that rises between 1960 and 1970, declines through the 1980s, rises again in the mid-1990s, declines in the latter half of the 1990s, and is stable for the period after 2000. Waldfogel concludes that although the index was falling prior to the appearance of Napster, it is stable after 2000 and thus shows no evidence of a decline in quality.

His second and third indexes are derived from data on radio airplay and sales of music. Music is aired on radio less, and sells less, as it gets older; but if a vintage is better, it will receive more sales or airplay after accounting for such depreciation. Using data on the frequency with which songs originally released as early as 1960 were aired on the radio from 2004 to 2008, Waldfogel constructs an airplay-based vintage quality index suggesting that music quality rose from 1960 to 1970, fell until at least 1985, and rose substantially after 1999. The analogous sales-based index is derived from Recording Industry Association of America Gold (sales greater than 500,000 copies) and Platinum (sales greater than one million copies) certifications. The sales-based index echoes the result of other indexes: it rises from 1960 to 1970, falls to the 1980s, and then rises sharply after 1999.

Based on the movements of these three indexes over time, Waldfogel concludes that "the quality of new music has not fallen since Napster." The post-Napster flow of product appears to be as strong as or stronger than it was before Napster, with independent labels accounting for a growing share of successful albums. Although it is impossible to determine whether creative output is as high as it would have been without Napster, the evidence does not suggest that innovations in digital technology, and associated changes in effective copyright protection, reduced the quality or quantity of new music.
So the effects of technological changes in the music industry may not be as the industry would have us believe.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Odd things you read

I've been reading parts of Roger Backhouse's book "The Ordinary Business of Life: A history of economics from the ancient world to the twenty-first century". From what I've read thus far the book is, by and large, a good read for the general reader with an interest in the history of economic thought. But every so often you come across something strange. For example at one point Backhouse writes,
Politically, the Austrians were conservatives [...].
How you can conclude that economists like Mises, Hayek or Rothbard were conservatives I'm not sure. Mises, for example, wrote a book on "Liberalism: The Classical Tradition" while Hayek wrote a very famous essay on "Why I'm Not a Conservative". All this seems very non-conservative to me.

Later Backhouse writes,
The term 'transaction costs' was first used by Marschak in 1950, but the idea has a long history.
Actually the term was used at least 10 years before Marschak. Tibor de Scitovszky in an article - A Study of Interest and Capital - published in the journal Economica in 1940 wrote,
One reason must be liquidity preference, another, perhaps equally important one, seems to be the high transaction costs (brokerage charges, stamp duties, commissions, etc.) on long-term securities. (Emphasis added.).
The idea of transaction costs or frictions was explained by John Hicks in 1935,
The most obvious sort of friction, and undoubtedly one of the most important, is the cost of transferring assets from one form to another
Backhouse also writes that
Transaction costs are the costs of transferring ownership from one person to another.
Coase pointed out that activities could be organized in two ways. One is through the market. The other is by management within the firm. Both methods involve transaction costs, but the costs are different.
If the costs are different then I would think one of them isn't a transaction cost. In fact I would interpret Coase as saying only the market costs are transactions costs. In his 1937 paper "The Nature of the Firm" Coase attributed the existence of the firm to the cost of using the price mechanism and Coase's point about about firms is that they suppress the price mechanism. Costs inside a firm are management costs or some such thing.

Related, if transaction costs are defined as the costs of transferring ownership - which seems reasonable - then how can costs within a firm be transaction costs? Ownership isn't transferred within a firm.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Views change with time, even in economics

In his classic book "A History of Economic Analysis" Joseph Schumpeter argued that there was one general equilibrium system and Walras had given it to us.
As far as pure theory is concerned, Walras is in my opinion the greatest of all economists. His system of economic equilibrium [...] is the only work by an economist that will stand comparison with the achievements of theoretical physics. Compared with it, most of the theoretical writings of the period - and beyond - [...] look like boats beside a liner, like inadequate attempts to catch some particular aspect of Walrasian truth.
Compare this with the view, I have noted before, of a later great of the history of economic thought, Mark Blaug,
We may conclude that GE theory as such is a cul-de-sac: it as has no empirical content and never will have empirical content. Moreover, even as research programme in social mathematics, it must be condemned as an almost total failure.
The high watermark for Walrasian general equilibrium was arguably Debreu's 1959 book "Theory of Value" but is Till Duppe right when he says of Debreu’s influence today that,
[f]rom the point of view of today Debreu’s influence on the body of economics could be called zero, in that general equilibrium theory (GET) is the economics of yesterday.
The question all this raises in my mind is, If Blaug and Duppe are right then does this explain why so much of post-1970 economics, e.g. contract theory, game theory, theory of the firm, industrial organisation etc, turned its back on general equilibrium theory and has worked within a partial equilibrium framework?

For the case of contract theory Bernard Salanie has argued,
The theory of contracts has evolved from the failures of general equilibrium theory. In the 1970s several economists settled on a new way to study economic relationships. The idea was to turn away temporarily from general equilibrium models, whose description of the economy is consistent but not realistic enough, and to focus on necessarily partial models that take into account the full complexity of strategic interactions between privately informed agents in well-defined institutional settings.
What will the next great writer on the history of economic thought make of the 20th century giants of the field? As far as general equilibrium theory is concerned, Will he be a supporter of Schumpeter or Blaug?

EconTalk this week

David Rose of the University of Missouri, St. Louis and the author of The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the book and the role morality plays in prosperity. Rose argues that morality plays a crucial role in prosperity and economic development. Knowing that the people you trade with have a principled aversion to exploiting opportunities for cheating in dealing with others allows economic actors to trust one another. That in turn allows for the widespread specialization and interaction through markets with strangers that creates prosperity. In this conversation, Rose explores the nature of the principles that work best to engender trust. The conversation closes with a discussion of the current trend in morality in America and the implications for trust and prosperity.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The DIY economy

The standard neoclassical (Arrow-Debreu) approach to general equilibrium has been criticised by many economists, for many reasons. Mark Blaug, for example, has written,
We may conclude that GE theory as such is a cul-de-sac: it as has no empirical content and never will have empirical content. Moreover, even as research programme in social mathematics, it must be condemned as an almost total failure.
When looking at the production side of the model a common criticism made is that the model has not reason for the existence of firm. As Foss, Lando and Thomsen summarise it:
The pure analysis of the market institution leaves almost no room for the firm (Debreu 1959). Under the assumption of a perfect set of contingent markets, as well as certain other restrictive assumptions, the model describes how markets may produce efficient outcomes. The question how organizations should be structured does not arise, because market-contracting perfectly solves all incentive and coordination issues. By assumption, firm behaviour (profit maximization) is invariant to institutional form (e.g. ownership structure). The whole economy can operate efficiently as one great system of markets, in which autonomous agents enter into very elaborate contracts with each other. However, by treating the firm itself as a black box, where internal structure, contracts, etc. disappear from the picture, there are many other issues that the theory cannot address. For example, the theory does not tell us why firms exist.
Nicolai Foss uses a few less words to make this point when he notes
With perfect and costless contracting, it is hard to see room for anything resembling firms (even one-person firms), since consumers could contract directly with owners of factor services and wouldn't need the services of the intermediaries known as firms.
In other words the neoclassical model is DIY on steroids!!

Interestingly, in addition to the above comment on GE Mark Blaug notes that the fictional auctioneer famous from Walras's model of general equilibrium isn't in fact due to Walras.
[..] Walras never mentioned the concept of a fictional auctioneer announcing and changing prices until an equilibrium price is agreed upon - this is one of those historical myths that subsequent generations invented [..]
One wonders who invented the idea.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

EconTalk this week

Nassim Taleb, author of Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about antifragility, the concept behind Taleb's next book, a work in progress. Taleb talks about how we can cope with our ignorance and uncertainty in a complex world. Topics covered include health, finance, political systems, the Fed, your career, Seneca, shame, heroism, and a few more.

Monday, 16 January 2012

When is a contract incomplete?

Things you think about over a sunny weekend.

One way to think about the different types of contracts modelled in contract theory is to divide contract theory into three groups: complete contacts, comprehensive contracts and incomplete contracts. Complete contracts are those which are written in a zero transaction cost, Arrow-Debreu type, world. Such contracts can be made continent on all variables in all states of the world. They result in the first-best being achieved in all states of world. Comprehensive contracts are those written under conditions of asymmetric information, that is, in a world with moral hazard and/or adverse selection. Such contracts are "constrained optimal" in that they are optimal given the existence of the information asymmetry. Comprehensive contracts maximise the objective function of the agent subject to the informational constraint. Incomplete contracts do not maximise the objective function of the agent, they result in "money being left on the table", even taking into account any informational asymmetries. A standard incomplete contracts model will be a symmetric information model and thus neither moral hazard or adverse selection are driving the model's results. The issue for incomplete contracts is generally argued to be one of "non-verifiability" rather than asymmetric information. That is, the informational problem with incomplete contracts is between that contracting parties and the courts rather than between the contracting parties themselves, as in asymmetric information models.

In the law and economics literature it is argued that there are two forms of incompleteness: obligationally incomplete [OI] and informationally incomplete (or insufficiently state contingent) [II] contracts. A contract is obligationally incomplete if it does not fully describe the obligrations of each party in every state of the world. That is, the contract has a "gap" and thus will be silent on what should happen in any state of the world which falls within the "gap". The problem here is why should a contract be ever be obligationally incomplete since it should be possible to complete a contract with an obligration that applies to a broadly enough defined set of contingencies at a reasonable cost. A contract is informationally incomplete if it fails to describe an efficient set of obligations in each possible state of the world. As Oliver Hart puts it
[...] the contract might not specify what is to happen if the supplier's factory burns down, because this is not anticipated [OI]; or the contract might say that the supplier must always supply one widget, rather than a number of widgets that varies with the state of the world, because it is too costly to distinguish between different states of the world [II].
A problem here is that if a contract with an inefficient set of obligations specified is incomplete then why are asymmetric information contracts not incomplete?

Eric Maskin writes that
I will consider a contract to be “incomplete” if it is not as fully contingent on the state of the world” (the resolution of uncertainty about the future) as the parties to the contract might like it to be.
This seems to mean that asymmetric information contracts are incomplete. But in a footnote Maskin says
This definition is so broad that it covers many contracts in the literature that are not normally considered "incomplete", e.g., insurance contracts with adverse selection.
So moral hazard and adverse selection contracts are not, it seems, incomplete contracts. The issue is that asymmetric contracts are verifiable, the variable on which the incentive contract is written is assumed to be observable and verifiable so that the courts can fully enforce the contract. As noted above the standard assumption for incomplete contracts is that they are incomplete because some relevant variable is not verifiable, to the courts. Another way to look at this is that if performance of the terms of a contract would result in the gains from trade not being fully exploited, given the information that the contracting parties and the courts have available to them at the time performance takes place, then the contract is incomplete. Under the assumptions of complete or comprehensive contracting any gains from trade available are always exploited to the fullest extent possible.

But the assumption of non-verifiability has its own problems as Maskin and Tirole have pointed out. Maskin and Tirole argue that information which is observable to the contracting parties (symmetric information) can be made verifiable (to a third party) by the use of ingenious revelation mechanisms. The contracting parties write into their contract a game which when played gives the appropriate incentives for them to truthfully reveal their private information in equilibrium. This undermines the non-verifiability approach to incomplete contracts.

To deal with the Maskin and Tirole critique, Hart and Moore developed the 'reference point' approach to incomplete contracts. Very briefly the Hart and Moore reference point theory argues that when the parties meet at date 0 there is uncertainty about the state of the world. This uncertainty is resolved shortly before date 1. There is symmetric information throughout, but the state is not verifiable. A date 0 contract serves as a reference point for the contracting parties' feelings about entitlements at date 1. Specifically, neither party feels entitled to an outcome outside those permitted by the contract but within the contract there can be disagreement about the appropriate outcome. To simplify matters, it is supposed that each party feels entitled to their best possible outcome permitted by the contract. Of course, this means that usually at least one party will be disappointed or "aggrieved" by any particular outcome. Hart and Moore assume that no outcome from a transaction is perfectly contractible even at date 1. In particular, they assume that each party has the discretion to provide "perfunctory" performance rather than "consummate" performance. Performing at the lower perfunctory level rather than the higher consummate level is referred to as shading and it is assumed that shading cannot be penalised by a court. A court can, however, enforce the perfunctory level of performance. When a party is aggrieved he shades, by an amount theta times his level of aggrievement where 0< theta <=1. Consummate performance does not cost significantly more than perfunctory performance to whomever is providing the good or service, and a party will provide consummate performance if he feels "well treated" but not otherwise. Shading hurts the other party and causes a deadweight loss. The important point here is that the reference point approach does not suffer from the Maskin and Tirole critique but get around it by introducing a number of ad hoc behavioural assumptions, e.g. aggrievement and shading.

After all of this we find that M'hand Fares argues that the difference between complete and incomplete contracts is not verifiability at all but the ability to commit to not renegotiating the initial contract.
In the controversy on the theoretical foundations of the property rights approach, Hart and Moore [...] and Maskin and Tirole [...] point out that a key distinction between complete and incomplete contracting is the ability of risk neutral parties to commit not to renegotiate the initial contract. The renegotiation design issue in contract solutions to the hold-up problem restates this view in a more general fashion as a contrast between (i) a world where contract can determine the entire relationship between the parties and (ii) a world where contract can only influence an existing underlying game between them, that is, the renegotiation game. This implies that the capacity of a contract to influence this game defines its 'incompleteness' or 'degree of incompleteness' [...]: the more a contract is able to design the renegotiation game, the less it is incomplete.
So in the end we are left with Jean Tirole's point that,
[f]or all its importance, there is unfortunately no clear definition of "incomplete contracting" in the literature. While one recognizes one when one sees it, incomplete contracts are not members of a well-circumscribed family; at this stage an incomplete contract is rather defined as an ad hoc restriction on the set of feasible contracts in a given model. The concept of "ad hoc restriction" is of course subjective: to give it some content, we will [...] take the standard approach to contract theory as the benchmark. The methodology developed in the last thirty years to treat moral hazard, adverse selection, and implementation problems provides a well-defined delineation of the set of feasible outcomes by incentive constraints. Incomplete contracting then relates to a focus on a subset of feasible outcomes through the imposition of restrictions on the set of allowable contracts.
Thus I'm left asking, When is a contract incomplete?

Peter Boettke on Austrian Economics

Professor Pete Boettke of George Mason University was recently interviewed by "The Browser" on Austrian Economics.

A take home message:
Analytically, the biggest difference between the Austrians and their mainstream brethren is a focus on processes of adjustment and changing conditions, as opposed to static or equilibrium states of affairs. In a supply and demand curve, a standard economist would focus on the price and quantity vector that would clear the market. The Austrians want to talk about all the exchanges and activity that take place that results in that vector being discovered and the market being cleared.

Imagine if refrigeration wasn’t an option and you had some fish to sell. You start selling them at $10 a fish, and this many people buy the fish. After a while it slows down and you still have some fish remaining. As the day wears on you’re trying to get rid of the fish because they’re going to spoil. So you adjust your price down, you sell it at $8 a fish, or $6 a fish or $5 a fish. Eventually the market clears and all the fish find a buyer. In standard economics, we talk about the price and quantity vector that would clear that market, and the formal techniques of economics – a series of simultaneous equations – would get us to that vector. The Austrians don’t disagree with that price and quantity vector. But they want to talk about all the activity, a lot of which is what we call entrepreneurship – people adjusting the price, arbitrage opportunities and so on. Eventually you get to that vector, but your focus isn’t on the vector, it’s on all the stuff that goes on before it’s discovered.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

EconTalk his week

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy and Research talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the financial crisis. Baker sees the crisis as part of a broader set of phenomena--rising inequality and declining unionization. Baker is highly critical on both economic and political grounds of the policy attempts to stimulate the economy as well as the governance structure of the Federal Reserve. The conversation closes with a discussion of potential innovations to lower the budgetary cost of health care.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Partical privatisation good, full privatisation better

Given that the current government wants to partially privatise several SOEs the question to ask is, What effect will this have on firm performance? Some insight into this question is offered by a recent paper in the Scottish Journal of Political Economy (Volume 59, Issue 1, pages 1–27, February 2012). The paper "What Drives the Operating Performance of Privatised Firms?" by Laura Cabeza García and Silvia Gómez Ansón argues that the greater the amount of privatisation the better the performance of the firm. Not an entirely surprising result as the full force of market discipline can only be applied if the firm is fully in private hands but it is something for the government to keep in mind. It would suggest that any performance improvements due to the government's privatisation plans will be modest.

The abstract reads,
Using a panel data analysis of Spanish privatised firms, we study how different factors influence the operating performance of divested companies. The results show that it is not privatisation per se but other factors that matter. After controlling for possible sample selection bias related to government timing of divestments, we find that the greater the relinquishment of State control and the smaller the percentage of ownership held by managers and/or employees, the better the firms’ post-privatisation performance. Moreover, privatisations that are accompanied by liberalisation programmes and occur during buoyant economic cycles turn out to be more successful. (Emphasis added.)

Thursday, 5 January 2012

EconTalk this week

Scott Sumner of Bentley University and the blog The Money Illusion talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the state of monetary policy, the actions of the Federal Reserve over the past two years and the state of the economy. Sumner argues that monetary policy has been too tight and helped create the crisis. He disputes the relevance of the so-called liquidity trap and argues that aggressive monetary policy is both possible and desirable. The conversation closes with a discussion of what we have learned and failed to learn during the crisis.