Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What Is Economics According To Keynes?

This might be an appropriate way to end the semester. I will not be keeping to my regular schedule until the next semester starts. Here is the quote from Keynes:
“The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.”

I saw this in Know What You’re Protesting by Harvard Economis Greg Mankiw in Sunday's NY Times.

Economists also like parables and fables. Perhaps these are part of the apparatus or techniques that Keynes mentioned. So here is a post from January 2010 on this.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman wrote the following in Slate magazine back in the 1990s:
“Economic theory is not a collection of dictums laid down by pompous authority figures. Mainly, it is a menagerie of thought experiments--parables, if you like--that are intended to capture the logic of economic processes in a simplified way. In the end, of course, ideas must be tested against the facts. But even to know what facts are relevant, you must play with those ideas in hypothetical settings.”

Here is the link to the article the quote is from: The Accidental Theorist. He has a brilliant example of how labor saving technology does not increase unemployment.

University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg wrote the following in his book The Armchair Economist: Economics & Everyday Life:
“But as Aesop discovered some time ago, the details of reality can disguise essential truths that are best revealed through simple fictions. Aesop called them fables and economists call them models." (p. 34)

"Economists love fables. A fable need not be true or even realistic to have an important moral. No tortoise ever really raced against a hare, yet “Slow but steady wins the race” remains an insightful lesson.” (p. 40)

So when you see an economics professor draw PPFs on the board which show the tradeoff between houses and cars or when we draw supply and demand curves, we know that these are "simple fictions." But, by assuming, for example, that there is a society that makes only two goods and has one resource (labor, say), we can learn something important, like the The Law of Increasing Opportunity Cost.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Keynes vs. Hayek

Probably most people have seen this video or know about it. We watched it in my macro classes this week. There are actually two videos. Here they are in order. My class saw the second one. Then there is a link to readings over these issues.

Fear the Boom and Bust

Fight of the Century: Keynes vs. Hayek Round Two

Get the Story Behind the Fight of the Century

If you want to tell Russ Roberts, the economics professor who made the video, what you think, go to Fight of the Century in the classroom

Fight of the Century with Polish subtitles

Friday, December 02, 2011

Economist Mark Thoma on making dollars available to troubled European banks

Mark Thoma teaches at the University of Oregon. This is from his Wednesday article at CBS Money Watch. See Will the Fed's move to help Europe hurt the U.S.? Here it is:

"(MoneyWatch) Central banks in the U.S., England, Canada, Japan and Switzerland along with the European Central Bank announced on Wednesday that they are taking steps to make dollars readily available to troubled banks in Europe. The plan is to reduce the cost of loans between central banks -- these are known as liquidity swaps -- so that dollars are cheaper to obtain.

What are the central banks doing?

The worry is that the financial troubles in Europe will cause problems similar to when Lehman failed in the U.S. An event such as a default on government loans, a bank failure or even just the fear that such events are just around the corner can cause short-term money markets to tighten up. If this happens, then it will be harder for banks to obtain the money they need to fund their operations. Many banks make money by borrowing short and lending long, and make a profit on the spread between short and long interest rates. When the short-term money markets dry up, these banks lose the ability to obtain the money they need to stay liquid and that puts them in danger of failing.

Why are the central banks taking this step?

One reason is to make sure that the banks have the liquidity they need to stay afloat. A widespread domino-like cascade of bank failures would be disastrous and this provides insurance against that possibility. In addition, even without bank failures a loss of liquidity is troublesome. As liquidity dries up, interest rates rise and the loans that businesses and consumers need become harder or impossible to get. That can have a large negative impact on economic activity.

How does the plan work?

These swaps are loans between central banks. For example, the Federal Reserve in the U.S. might swap dollars for euros with the European Central Bank, and then the European Central Bank can lend those dollars to banks that are in trouble.

Why can't the European Central Bank provide liquidity in euros? Why are dollars needed?

The dollar is still considered a safe haven, and when troubles erupt in financial markets, the demand for dollars goes up considerably. Providing extra euros doesn't help when the banks want to be in dollars.

Is there any possible downside? As a taxpayer, will it cost me money to help the Europe mess?

Since these are loans between central banks -- the U.S. Fed will not lend to any foreign banks directly -- there is essentially no risk to the U.S. If the Fed makes a loan to the European Central Bank, and the ECB lends the money to a bank that later fails, it is the ECB that is on the hook for losses, not the U.S. The European Central Bank would still be obligated to pay back the U.S. in full.

The other possible downside is that the short-term expansion in the Fed and other central bank balance sheets that would come with these loans will stoke inflation fears. But since these loans have an expiration date (i.e. the balance sheet will be expected to contract at some point in the future), this shouldn't be a big problem.

Finally, note that while this move can ease financial market conditions, it does nothing to address the underlying problems creating those conditions. So this is no substitute for the difficult decisions that Europe must make to overcome its troubles."