ASSA 2023: New Orleans!

Today the largest annual gathering of economists begins, in-person for the first time in 3 years. It won’t be as big as the pre-Covid conferences, but I’m excited to spend a few days in New Orleans for the first time since I moved away in 2017. I lived there for 4 years; in the eventful 5 years since my knowledge likely became somewhat out of date, but I hope I can still provide some guidance for those new to the city.

For most people the main destination is the French Quarter. People are right about this; it is great to walk through to see the old colonial buildings, hear the street music, and eat the food. Some of the ASSA hotels are in the Quarter, but for those staying downtown or in the Warehouse district its definitely worth the walk. The Quarter is a big, diverse place, not only for tourists. Bourbon Street is the tourist trap. It is probably worth seeing once, but be prepared for crowds, loud music, and touts trying to get you into bars and strip clubs. The standard advice now is to skip Bourbon St and hang out on Frenchman street instead- which is in the Marigny, just east of the Quarter. There are two blocks entirely packed with bars / jazz clubs. Any evening you will have at least 5 shows to choose from, usually jazz, usually with no cover. Café du Monde is the other Quarter attraction that everyone does, and with good reason. They have decent coffee, and great beignets (a donut / fried dough sort of thing drowned in powdered sugar). There is often a long line to get a table or to get to-go, but usually not for both at once. There is a river walk just south of Café Du Monde, and the Jackson Brewery building is just east- there is a good place to sit and look at the river beside their food court.

In a short trip it would be entirely reasonable to just stay in the Quarter. But if you’d like to get out, the main attraction of New Orleans to me is the parks. Audobon Park is west of the Quarter in Uptown. It stretches from the Mississippi river to the Tulane and Loyola campuses. City Park is north of the Quarter in Mid-City, and is home to the Art Museum and Sculpture Garden. Both can be reached by trolley, and both are full of lovely ponds and interesting waterfowl. At the big lake in city park you can rent kayaks, or get a ride in a gondola.

People associate New Orleans with Cajun food, but most of the Cajuns settled to the west. The traditional New Orleans cuisine is Creole- a blend of the Italian, French, and other settlers. When I think about what makes restaurants attractive, I think about three things- food, prices, and everything else (service, wait times, ambience). In New Orleans it is very easy to find places with great food at good prices, but rare to find good places that also have short wait times and good service (Commander’s Palace, the best restaurant in the city, is already booked solid). My restaurant recommendations are the thing most likely to be out of date, so I’ll keep it short:

  • Central Grocery- original home of the Mufalleta, a creole sandwich. In the French quarter. 
  • Dat Dog- fancy hot dogs (mostly sausages) with more toppings than you could ever want to choose from (including crawfish etouffee). One location is on Frenchman St- you can often hear live jazz from the bars by while sitting on their balcony. Cheap.
  • Hotel Monteleone- classy bar, often with live jazz, home to the rotating Carousel bar. One of many good places to try old New Orleans cocktails like the Sazerac. I’ll be staying here trying to get a spot on the Carousel.

New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the US, almost like a Caribbean island (it practically is an island, surrounded by lakes, rivers, and swamps). The highs (food, music, knowing how to have a good time) are higher than just about anywhere else here, though the lows are also lower. One of the most special things about it is Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras day isn’t until February 21st this year, but Mardi Gras is really a whole season in New Orleans- and the first parade, Krewe of Joan of Arc, starts right in the Quarter on Friday January 6th (Twelfth Night).

Enjoy the city, and let me know if you’d like to meet up.

Air Travel Prices Have Not “Soared” Since 1980 — They’ve Been Cut in Half

Winter holiday travel is notoriously frustrating. This year was especially bad if you were flying on Southwest. But that frustration about delayed and cancelled flights seems to have caused a big increase in pundits criticizing the airline industry generally. Here’s one claim I’ve seen a few times lately, that airline prices have “soared” as airlines consolidated.

Reich’s claim that there are 4 airlines today is strange — yes, there are the “Big Four” (AA, United, Delta, and Southwest), but today there are 14 mainline carriers in the US. There have been many mergers, but there has also been growth in the industry (Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit are all large, low-cost airlines founded since 1980).

But is he right that prices have increased since 1980? Using data from the Department of Transportation (older data archived here), we can look at average fare data going back to 1979 (the data includes any baggage or change fees). In the chart below, I compare that average fare data (for round-trip, domestic flights) to median wages. The chart shows the number of hours you would have to work at the median wage to purchase the average ticket.

The dip at the end is due to weird pandemic effects in 2020 and 2021, so we can ignore that for the moment (early analysis of the same data for 2022 indicates prices are roughly back to pre-pandemic levels, consistent with the CPI data for airfare).

The main thing we see in the chart is that between 1980 and 2019, the wage-adjusted cost of airfare was cut in half. Almost all of that effect happened between 1980 and 2000, after which it’s become flat. That might be a reason to worry, but it’s certainly not “soaring.”

Of course, my chart doesn’t show the counterfactual. Perhaps without several major mergers in the past 20 years, price would be even lower. Perhaps. But research which tries to establish a counterfactual isn’t promising for that theory. Here’s a paper on the Delta/Northwest merger, suggesting prices rose perhaps 2% on connecting routes (and not at all on non-stop routes). Here’s another paper on the USAir/Piedmont merger, which shows prices being 5-6% higher.

There are probably other papers on other mergers that I’m not aware of. And maybe all of these small effects from particular mergers add up to a large effect in the aggregate. But, as my chart indicates, even if the consolidation has led to some price increases, they weren’t enough to overcome the trend of wages rising faster than airline prices.

One last note: the average flight today is longer than in 1979. I couldn’t find perfectly comparable data for the entire time period, but between 1979 and 2013, the average length of a domestic flight increased by 20%. So, if I measured the cost per mile flown, the decline would be even more dramatic.

Can Central Banks Go Bankrupt?

Finnish crisis researcher Tuomas Malinen has for some time been predicting the collapse of the Western financial system, starting with the melt-down of the European Central Bank. Malinen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Helsinki, offers his views on his substack and elsewhere. He correctly warned in early/mid 2021 of coming inflation, which would present central bankers with severe challenges.

Among other things, by raising interest rates (to counter inflation), the banks necessarily cause the value of bonds to drop. However, a lot of the assets of the central banks consist of medium and long term bonds, especially those issued by sovereign governments. We have come to the point where some central banks are technically insolvent: the current cash value of their liabilities exceed their assets.

Is that a problem? Most authors I found did not seem to think so. For a normal private bank, as soon as the word got out that it was insolvent, customers would rush to withdraw their funds, in a classic “run on the bank”. Customers who waited too late to panic would simply lose their money, since there would not be enough assets on the bank’s balance sheet to cover all withdrawals.

However, no one seems to be in a hurry to beat down the doors of the Fed and demand their money. Most of the liabilities of the Fed are (a) paper currency in circulation, and (b) “Reserve” accounts of major banks at the Fed.

Bandyopadhyay, et al. note that negative equity in central banks (including those of smaller countries) is not uncommon; at any given time, about one out of seven central banks worldwide in the 2014-2017 timeframe suffered operating losses, some of which were large enough to wipe out their capital. However, most central banks are owned by, or have some other synergistic  relationship to , the governments of their respective countries. For instance, there is a standard contractual relationship between the Bank of England (BOE) and the British government. Thus, when the BOE recently fell into arrears, the government provided them with additional funds. This was apparently a routine non-event. (I don’t know where the government came up with those additional funds; did they just issue more bonds, which in turn were purchased by the BOE?)

The Fed, as a privately-owned public/private hybrid, technically has a more arms-length distancing from the U.S. Treasury. For instance, the Fed is not supposed to buy government bonds directly from the government. Rather, the government sells them to large banks, who in turn sell them to the Fed (if the Fed is buying). It is possible for the U.S. Treasury to transfer funds to the Fed to recapitalize it; but for now, the Fed is just booking losses as a “deferred asset”. Voila, the magic of central bank accounting. The presumption is that sometime in the future, the Fed will receive enough net income to overcome these losses.

The biggest debate is over the fate of the European Central Bank (ECB). Its relation to sovereign governments is even more arms-length; it is difficult to see all the European countries, with their own budget issues, agreeing to cough up money to give to ECB. As Malinen sees it, this likely leads to the “deferred asset” accounting scheme to handle negative equity for the ECB. He worries, “Will the markets or the banks trust the ECB after losses starts to mount forcing the Bank to operate with (large) negative equity? We simply do not know.” This is a weighty issue. As we noted earlier, “money” is in the end a social construct, an item of trust among parties for future payments of value. Central banks are the lenders of last resort, the source of money when it has dried up elsewhere; they regularly have to step into financial liquidity crises to inject more money to keep the system going. If people stopped accepted the keystroke-created money from central banks, the whole economy could freeze up.

A more sanguine view of central bank negative equity issues from MMT proponent Bill Mitchell. In his “Central banks can operate with negative equity forever” Mitchell heaps scorn on the very idea that central banks could run into solvency problems. He states that a “government bailout” is an inconsequential paper operation, merely transferring money from the left pocket to the right pocket of the government/central bank joint entity (as he views it). Furthermore, central banks have the capability of creating money out of thin air, so they can always meet their obligations and therefore can never be deemed insolvent:

The global press is full of stories lately about how central banks are taking big losses and risking solvency and then analysing the dire consequences of government bailouts of the said banks. All preposterous nonsense of course. It would be like daily news stories about the threat of ships falling off the edge of the earth. But then we know better than that. But in the economic commentariat there are plenty of flat earthers for sure. Some day, humanity (if it survives) will look back on this period and wonder how their predecessors could have been so ignorant of basic logic and facts. What a stupid bunch those 2022 humans really were.

Your happiness is why your sports team stopped being good

Equities are an excellent long-term investment in part because they offer nearly zero value outside their prospect to grow in value. Ownership of a share of a publicly traded firm exists as nothing more than byte in a digital ledger, asbsent any aesthetic or collectible value. In contrast, a beautiful painting or a bottle of whiskey offers consumption value. You can speculate on the future value of such assets, but the prospective consumption value will always be baked into the market equilibrium price. If you want to maximize the expected growth in the market value of your holdings, focus on investment assets that have near-zero consumption value. It is because of your sports team’s failure to invest solely in assets based on their value as inputs into the production of wins that they suck and should immediately fire everyone.

Yes, in years past your sports team used to be bad. They were bad for many reasons. They were poorly managed. Fewer resources were invested in your team. They existed in a less attractive city to live for prospective players and other employees. They were badly coached and never listented to you.

But then a miracle happened.

I can’t speak to the specific miracle(s) that happened to your team, but it likely includes one or more players undervalued by the market that came into your team’s employ only to subsequently reveal their true value through the quality of their play. They were outstanding and, in turn, your team started regularly winning at a rate previously considered unachievable. Supporters grew emotionally attached to their outstanding players. They hung banners, wore jerseys, gifted bobbleheads to wide-eyed children. Being a fan of your team began to pay emotional dividends that went beyond simply cheering for a winning team. It meant being a part of something emblematic of teamwork, a source of collective joy.

And that’s where it all began to go wrong.

Players are employees. They signed contracts reflecting their market value which was itself a collective estimation of their future output. Your team benefited from employing this underpriced input, freeing up resources otherwise constrained by either finances or a cartel…I mean league-mandated salary cap. Contracts aren’t forever, though, and those contracts are starting to run out. You beat the market once, but those assets are now properly valued. Furthermore, the uncertainty discount that applied before is long-gone, replaced by the premium that applies to a sure thing. Whether or not you can afford them, they will no longer offer any advantage, in terms of freed up resources, relative to any other player in the market.

But that’s not your biggest problem.

Your team’s biggest problem is you, the fan. You are emotionally attached to this cohort of players that brought you previously unknown levels of success. Success you’ve grown maybe just a bit accustomed to. Returning to past, lower, standards of quality, of winning, will not return you to your previous level of contentment. You’re gonna complain. Gripe. Call in. Tweet. Boo. You demand they retain these players you’re emotionally attached to so you might maintain the standards of winning you are entitled to.

We haven’t even gotten to the bad part yet.

There’s going to be a de facto auction for the players whose contracts are up. A bidding war. And in that bidding war the team that values them the most is going to get them. Which is obviously the team whose fans are desperate to retain their beloved heroes. Congratulations, you’re now a textbook example of the the winner’s curse. You’re going to win an auction already buoyed, not by the average value in the market but by the teams that have overestimated their future value. That certainty premium probably got a little too big because at least one poorly managed team doesn’t seem to appreciate that playing thousands of minutes of professional level sports takes a grinding toll on the body and that eventually leads to injuries at worst, athletic decline at best. But you’ve paid even more for these players than that the team that over-valued them the most because the team used to be so bad for so long and then they showed up and the team stopped being bad and you love them for it.

The rest of the market is evaluating them as inputs into the production of wins. You’re getting additional consumption value out of having their specific last names on your jerseys. Of seeing their faces and hearing their voices and remembering the good times. You’re getting the warm fuzzies of a good hang. And every dollar you pay for that hang is one less dollar to spend on other players. Other inputs into the production of wins.

So you need to ask yourself, next time you’re mad that your team isn’t good anymore, why are they bad? Is it bad luck? Limited resources? Poor management? Or is it because of you and your insistence on getting more out of supporting a sports team than just victories accumulated within a ledger that accounts for competitive success that you in no way contributed to?

Maybe your sports team is bad because you were part of a fanbase that wanted more than just wins. A fanbase that wanted to let the emotional investments they made in specific humans pay out for just a little bit longer. Your sports team is bad because you are rationally maximizing the emotional consumption value out of supporting them. It’s your fault and that is totally ok.

But if this goes on much longer they probably should fire everyone.

New Textbook for Game Theory and Behavioral Economics

Game Theory and Behavior is extremely readable. Carpenter and Robbett have a great set of examples (e.g. the poison drink dilemma from The Princess Bride). I think the book has been developed from teaching a course that resonates with undergraduates today. The authors are both experimental economists, so there is natural integration with lab results from experiments with games.

Topics covered include:

Game Theory and standard definitions

Solving Games

Sequential Games

Bargaining

Markets

Social Dilemmas

Voting

Behavioral Extensions of Standard Theory

In their words:

This book provides a clear and accessible formal introduction to standard game theory, while at the same time addressing how people actually behave in these games and demonstrating how the standard theory can be expanded or updated to better predict the behavior of real people. Our objective is to simultaneously provide students with both the theoretical tools to analyze situations through the logic of game theory and the intuition and behavioral insights to apply these tools to real world situations. The book was written to serve as the primary textbook in a first course in game theory at the undergraduate level and does not assume students have any previous exposure to game theory or economics. 

Not every book on game theory would be described as extremely readable. The authors do present mathematical concepts and solutions and practice problems. I want to be clear that I’m not implying that their book is not rigorous. They present game theory as primarily an intuitive and important framework for decisions instead of as primarily a mathematical object, which should go over well with most undergraduate students.

The following are questions that occurred to me as I was writing this post, with ChatGTP replies.

Cleaning Data and Muddying Water

I’ve praised IPUMS before. It’s great.

The census data in particular is vast and relatively comprehensive. But, it’s not all perfect.

Consider three variables:

  • Labforce, which categorizes whether someone is employed
  • Occ1950, which categorizes occupation types
  • Edscor50, which imputes a relative education score based on occupation

These all seem like appropriate variables that a labor economist might want to control for when explaining any number of phenomena. There is a problem. Edscor50, and the several measures like it, are occupation based. Specifically, the scores use details about 1950 occupations to impute educational details. There are similar indices used for earnings, income, status, socioeconomic status, and prestige.

Cool.

Continue reading

Most Improved Data

The US government is great at collecting data, but not so good at sharing it in easy-to-use ways. When people try to access these datasets they either get discouraged and give up, or spend hours getting the data into a usable form. One of the crazy things about this is all the duplicated effort- hundreds of people might end up spending hours cleaning the data in mostly the same way. Ideally the government would just post a better version of the data on their official page. But barring that, researchers and other “data heroes” can provide a huge public service by publicly posting datasets that they have already cleaned up- and some have done so.

I just added a data page to my website that highlights some of these “most improved datasets”:

  • the IPUMS versions of the American Community Survey, Current Population Survey, and Medical Expenditure Panel Survey
  • The County Business Patterns Database, harmonized by Fabian Eckert, Teresa C. Fort, Peter K. Schott, and Natalie J. Yang
  • Code for accessing the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages by Gabriel Chodorow-Reich
  • The merged Statistics of US Business, my own attempt to contribute

I hope to keep adding to this page as I find other good sources of unofficial/improved data, and as I create them (one of my post-tenure goals). See the page for more detail on these datasets, and comment here if you know of existing improved datasets worth adding, or if you know of needlessly terrible datasets you think someone should clean up.

Tough Year for Investing (with one little-known, totally safe exception)

There’s still a few more days left in the year, but at this point it is safe to say, unfortunately, that it was a very bad year for investing. This Google chart shows most of the bad news. Note: nothing in this post is investment advice about the future, just a summary of the past.

The S&P 500, the typical benchmark for US equities, was down 20%. Bonds, usually a safe haven, were down over 14% as measured by the Vanguard Total Bond fund (more on bonds later).

Gold, the traditional hedge against bad times, was flat. I guess that’s not so bad. But gold is also traditionally considered a hedge against inflation, and inflation will probably end up being somewhere in the range of 5-7% this year (depending on your preferred index). So in real terms, even gold was down. And the supposed new hedge against fiat currency? Bitcoin is down 65% (crypto has other potential redeeming features, but inflation hedging was supposed to be one of them).

Did anything do well? Oil was basically flat too, starting and ending the year in the $75-80 range. Of course, oil companies did very well this year — Exxon is up over 70%, since prices were elevated for much of the year. But picking individual stocks is always fraught with danger. For example, you might think electric car companies would have done well in the past year, given the high gas prices for much of the year, yet Tesla was down over 70% (I won’t speculate here about why, but it may have other idiosyncratic explanations).

There is one boring, sleeper investment that would have earned you a decent return. Not a massive return, but one that will likely be slightly higher than the rate of price inflation (once we have complete inflation data). And the investment is totally safe, and by April you would have known exactly your rate of return for the full year: 8.5%.

That investment? Series I Savings Bonds, issued by the US Treasury. Series I Bonds pay a fixed rate of return for 6 months, which you know at the time you buy it. The interest rate rests every 6 months based on the rate of CPI inflation. If you invested in these bonds in January 2022, you would have earned 3.56% for 6 months, and then you would have earned 4.81% for the second half of 2022. And this was all known as early as April 2022 (though not officially confirmed by the Treasury until May).

While a lot of people were talking about the possibility of high inflation at the beginning of 2022, I don’t recall many people advising anyone to buy these bonds. It’s not a super well known investment, and not super exciting. Plus each investor is capped at $10,000 per year in most cases, so you couldn’t have moved all your money into I Bonds. Another restriction is that you lose some of the interest if you pull the money out before 5 years.

Still, this was one bright spot in an otherwise terrible year for most broad investment types.

“Let whoever needs to die, die”:  China’s Abrupt COVID Reopening To Achieve Rapid Herd Immunity and Resumption of Industrial Production, at the Cost of a Million Deaths

I noted a month ago that President Xi and the CCP have taken credit for relatively low (reported) deaths from COVID, due to strict lockdown protocols. By “strict” we mean locking down whole cities and blockading residents in their apartment buildings for months at a stretch. However, public protests rose to an unprecedented level, and so the Chinese government has done a surprising full 180 policy change, towards almost no restrictions.

According to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel in the Wall Street Journal, the way this policy is being carried out has the makings of a mass human tragedy:

Zero Covid was always untenable and had to be ended. But it could have been done responsibly.

Among other things, that would involve buying Pfizer and Moderna bivalent vaccines and administering them to the elderly and other high-risk people, and purchasing Paxlovid and molnupiravir to treat those who test positive. Supplies of these products are ample. Authorities could continue mask mandates to reduce transmission. And China could institute a rigorous wastewater testing program to identify potential SARS-CoV-2 variants as soon as possible – and commit to sharing the data with the world.

Due to nationalistic pride, China has spurned the purchase of effective mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, pushing instead the less-effective in-house vaccine.

Readers may recall in the early days of COVID spread in the West, masking and social distancing were promoted, not because they would prevent everyone from ultimately becoming infected, but because these measures would “flatten the curve” (i.e. reduce the peak load on hospitals at any one time, but instead spread it out over time). China is headed into a very un-flattened infection curve; some 800 million people (10% of the world’s population) may get COVID in the next 3 months, overwhelming hospitals and leading to over a million deaths. Besides the near-term human costs, this concentration of active COVID cases is likely to lead to a slew of new, even more virulent variants which will affect the rest of the world, along with China. What should help mitigate the situation is that the newer, most virulent variants of COVID may be somewhat less fatal than the original strain.

Why is the Chinese government doing it this way? Well, the sooner the country gets through mass exposure to the virus, the sooner everyone can get back to their factories and start producing stuff again. If in the process a bunch of (mainly older) people die, well, that’s just the price of progress. Let ‘er rip…

From MSN:

[U.S.] Epidemiologist and health economist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding estimate that 60 per cent of China’s population is likely to be infected over the next 90 days. “Deaths likely in the millions—plural,” he added.

According to Eric, bodies were seen piled up in hospitals in Northeast China. “Let whoever needs to be infected infected, let whoever needs to die die. Early infections, early deaths, early peak, early resumption of production,” the epidemiologist said terming it to be summary of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) current goal.

But don’t expect any acknowledgement of mass death from the official Chinese media. Just as the initial COVID outbreak was denied and censored by the Chinese propaganda machine, so the current surge is being minimized. From Barrons:

On Friday, a party-run newspaper cited an official estimate of half a million daily new cases in the eastern city of Qingdao. By Saturday, the story had been amended to remove the figure, an AFP review of the article showed….

Several posts on the popular Weibo platform purporting to describe Covid-related deaths appeared to have been censored by Friday afternoon, according to a review by AFP journalists.

They included several blanked-out photos ostensibly taken at crematoriums, and a post from an account claiming to belong to the mother of a two-year-old girl who died after contracting the virus.

Posts about medicine shortages and instances of price gouging were also taken down, according to censorship monitor GreatFire.org.

And social media users have posted angry or sardonic comments in response to the perceived taboo around Covid deaths.

Many rounded on a state-linked local news outlet after it reported Wu Guanying — designer of the mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics — had died of a “severe cold” at the age of 67.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention just reported zero COVID deaths for December 25 and 26.