Friday, May 10

Krugman Perpetuates Myth of the Zero Lower Bound

Professor Paul Krugman
Professor Krugman just published a column where he deserves kudos for sticking his neck on the line and predicting that the Bernanke Fed is not creating a bubble in bonds, and "probably not" in stocks either.

While the argument on whether or not Bernanke is blowing bubbles is interesting and worthy of discussion (although only time will tell for sure), that's not what this post is about.

In the column Krugman makes a somewhat tangential comment about what economists often refer to as the 'zero lower bound problem' on where a central bank can set interest rates. Here's Krugman's quote:
"True, it (the Fed) can’t cut rates any further because they’re already near zero and can’t go lower. (Otherwise investors would just sit on cash.)"
Krugman's statement is problematic for several reasons:

First, it's misleading and patently false of Dr. K to say that the Fed "can’t cut rates any further" when in fact it can. There is no economic or natural law which prevents the Fed from setting nominal rates at exactly zero, or at a negative rate.

Whether they should be set at zero or negative is another question. In short, Dr. K needs to replace "can't" with something like "could but shouldn't because...".

Second, I suggest that it would be helpful if Dr. K was a little more precise so that people understand why the Fed "can't" (shouldn't) set zero or negative rates but Denmark's central bank can set a negative deposit rate, and now Drahgi at the ECB is openly discussing this as well.

To be clear, I'm not endorsing negative rates. I'm only saying that negative rates are possible and that some central banks are experimenting with negative rates as a policy tool.

And finally, yes, perhaps if the Fed were the only central bank to pursue a negative rate policy then investors may sit on cash, move their money elsewhere, etc. But if enough central banks around the world kept driving rates further and further into negative territory then it would be very surprising if this didn't help generate inflation, in which case people would probably not be sitting on cash as Dr. K suggests but rather spending it before money lost its purchasing power.

The long perpetuated myth of the zero lower bound is starting to be challenged more and more, and for a more detailed academic discussion of the zero lower bound myth see here

Thursday, May 9

Bad QOTD: "Mobile broadband demand on board aircraft is exploding"

The story with Qualcomm's very poorly worded 'exploding' quote is here, and the reminder of what can go wrong when introducing new technology on flights is in the below video.

Friday, March 22

The PolyCapitalist's New Bitcoin Price Target Is...

As regular TPC readers will know I'm rather fond of alternative currencies like Bitcoin, the Little Virtual Currency that Could.

And so too now is the U.S. Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen.

As the above linked-to WSJ article notes the exchange rate for Bitcoin has been on a tear of late, with the currency trading up 57% during this week alone.

The recent runup in Bitcoin's price has apparently been driven by events in the Eurozone, as well as the additional credibility conferred on the currency now that FinCin has officially acknowledged its interest in virtual currencies like Bitcoin and outlined its criminal enforcement plans. If you're long Bitcoin getting the Fed's attention is apparently a good thing (at least in the short-term).

Now, naturally, readers of blogs like this one have one big question on their minds: where is the price of Bitcoin heading next? 

For the answer to that question I'll turn this post over to the brand new PolyCapitalist Research Department (PCRD), which is my crack team of ambitious research quants. All male 20-somethings straight out of the best schools. Take it away, PCRD!

PCRD: Thank you, TPC. We are very pleased to announce that we are initiating research coverage of Bitcoin with an opening price target of....

TPC: Now, now wait just a minute, hold on there PCRD. As the head of this blog I feel we have a responsibility to our readers. So before you guys go out and announce a price target maybe we should first discuss how you went about valuing Bitcoin?

PCRD: We're so glad you asked us that, TPC, as we put a lot of work into this. First, we developed a rich quantitative data set. For example, we researched what a Bitcoin can buy in the real world and what those items cost in traditional currencies such as U.S. dollars. We also looked at what if any exchange rate conversion expenses exist. And so on.

TPC: That sounds like an excellent start. What else did you do to determine the proper price of a Bitcoin?

PCRD: We next built a rather detailed MS Excel model which factored in other data, such as price trends, liquidity analysis, and other temporal factors.

TPC: Excellent. Did you perform any further analysis?

PCRD: Yes we did. We also stress tested our model by running several different scenarios based around Black Swan type events. For example, we ran a Monte Carlo simulation on the impact to Bitcoin's exchange rate with the euro if Cyprus left the Eurozone.

TPC: Or a Black Swan 'outlier' like another Bitcoin market crash?

Pin-up found in the PCRD cubicles
PCRD: Uh, right!

TPC: Ok, great. So I'm dying to know what price target you guys came up with for Bitcoin?

PCRD: Well, as robust as our modeling was we decided to scrap what the spreadsheet told us and just use the price target set by the guys over at They seem have a better feel for Bitcoin's momentum and how this market is going to play out. They also seem like real stand-up fellas, and they even refer to their "Bitcoin exit strategies".

TPC: Got it. Yeah. Um. Guys, I really appreciate all the work you have been doing but I think we're going hold off on setting a Bitcoin price target for now. Better yet, I think we're just going to close down the entire PCRD.

Sunday, March 17

What Happened to Cyprus's Deposit Insurance Scheme?

So much for all quiet on the Eurozone front, a quiet which barring election rumblings from Italy has largely been enjoyed since Drahgi's LTRO blitz.

While it's unclear whether this weekend's 'bailing in' of Cyrpiot depositors will prove the trigger point for the final Eurozone reckoning, what is clear is that all the 'crazies' who have been stashing their money under their mattresses perhaps weren't so crazy after all.

One thing I'm curious about, which I haven't seen discussed in any detail anywhere else, are the mechanics behind what happened to Cyprus's deposit insurance scheme.

For example, is the insurance scheme, like the entire Cypriot banking system, insolvent? If yes, by how much? Could it be recapitalized through a tax? Etc.

The high level details of Cyprus's deposit insurance program, which goes by the name Deposit Protection Scheme (DPS), are discussed on the Central Bank of Cyprus's webpage here. As has been widely reported, depositors in Cypriot banks are supposed to be fully insured for €100.000 "per depositor, per bank".

Some reports state that if Cyprus's banks were allowed to fail then the small, fully insured depositors would be made whole. So do depositors who have €100.000 or less of insurable deposits have recourse for legal action in Cyprus?

One thing is clear: if I were a Cypriot depositor I would much rather have cash right now than shares in an insolvent bank.

Tuesday, March 5

Understanding the Wealth Effect (2013 Edition)

What tool is available to a U.S. central banker who is faced with a) sluggish economy b) high unemployment c) and near-zero interest rates combined with d) an unwillingness to set negative nominal interest rates?

Enter the 'wealth effect'.

From Wikipedia:
The wealth effect is an economic term, referring to an increase in spending that accompanies an increase in perceived wealth. 
Consumption may be tied to relative wealth. People should spend more when one of two things is true: when people actually are richer, objectively, or when people perceive themselves to be richer—for example, the assessed value of their home increases, or a stock they own goes up in price.
Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on what side of the trade you're on), we've seen this story before and we very well know how it ends. The only question that we don't know the answer to is when will today's bubble turn to bust.

Tuesday, February 19

Video: Are Large Banks Too Big for Trial?

As perhaps part of the growing evidence that Too Big to Fail is becoming a bipartisan issue (more on this here), the below video incredibly has already garnered 150,000 page views at the time of this post.

Paraphrasing the key exchange:

Warren's Q: "When was the last time regulators took a bank charged with wrongdoing to trial?"

Regulator's A: "Uhh, we'll have to get back to you on that."

Saturday, December 15

Google + Kurzweil: "What an amazing, slightly terrifying combination"

I disagree with Jon Mitchell's take on the fantastic news that Ray Kurzweil has joined Google in a full-time role in Mountain View as Director of Engineering.

Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil joins Google
Pairing the iconoclastic futurist/inventor with arguably the most innovative technology company in the world is not scary but very exciting (although I catch Jon's drift).

Much as it did when it hired Vint Cerf, one of the internet's father figures, Google has once again boosted its nerd/geek street cred with the addition of Kurzweil to its roster of science and tech luminaries.

This is definitely a coup for Larry Page & Co. Not quite on the same level as when Princeton's fledgling Institute for Advanced Study landed Einstein. But after the Pope of Science made his way to New Jersey many of the leading physicists, mathematicians and scientists of the day followed. No doubt Kurzweil's arrival in Mountain View should have a similar effect in drawing today's pioneers in the areas where Ray has made significant contributions, such as speech recognition and artificial intelligence.

Ray begins his new gig on December 17. Congrats to Ray and Google, and we anxiously await the results of your collaboration!

Monday, November 26

When the UK Previously Looked to a Canadian to Run the Bank of England

Just a quick historical note on the somewhat stunning news that Mark Carney, the current head of the Bank of Canada (and a Canadian citizen), has been asked and has accepted the job of running the Bank of England.

Graham Towers and Montagu Norman 
I say 'somewhat' because students of history may know that as Montagu Norman's 24 year reign at the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street was winding down the then head of the Bank of Canada, Graham Towers (also a Canadian citizen), was considered as a leading candidate to replace Norman.

Norman and Towers worked closely together during World War II to support the price of sterling during the Battle for Britain, and much of the UK's gold (as well as France's) was sent to Canada to protect it in the event of a Nazi amphibious invasion of Britain. However, for reasons possibly lost to posterity Towers was either never offered or accepted the job.

Analogies about how England's national football coach is often  foreigner and how the Carney choice really isn't all that different are of course flooding the media airwaves right now. Perhaps the economic, patriotic, and security considerations that come with heading the national football club and central bank aren't really as far apart as one might think?

An issue which isn't under much doubt is that Mark Carney, like Graham Towers in his day, is simply a very good candidate for the job.

Looking ahead, the one thing that is certain is that Mr. Carney will have very big shoes to fill. Even with the financial crisis and the challenges faced by the City of London over the past several years, there can be little doubt that Sir Mervyn King has proven to be one of the finest central bankers of his age. Sir Mervyn recently gave an excellent lecture at the LSE on inflation targeting, which can be viewed here.

Another point is that the Carney choice further confirms London's status as the most welcoming of the major financial centers to foreigners and capital alike. Take that New York!