Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Real Rate of Interest

Knut Wicksell was one of the early economists to propose a 'natural' rate of interest.  Early proponents of the Austrian school of economics jumped on this idea and it forms the basis of the Austrian business cycle theory.

Knut Wicksell
Wicksell wrote in his book, Interest and Prices, "There is a certain rate of interest which is neutral to commodity prices, and tends neither to raise nor to lower them.  This is necessarily the same as the rate of interest which would be determined by supply and demand if no use were made of money and all lending were effected in the form of real capital goods.  It comes to much the same thing to describe it as the current value of the natural rate of interest on capital."

Wicksell does not put a number on this natural rate, but merely asserts that it exists.  This begs the question, ‘what is the natural rate of interest?’  Frederic Mishkin studied this question by using the familiar Fisher real interest rate equation and applying it.   He uses US Treasury notes (which are viewed as ‘riskless’ assets) and subtracting the rate of inflation from them to obtain the real interest rate.   His finding was that real interest rates were not constant, which suggests there is not a constant natural interest rate.

Mishkin’s use of US Treasury notes is suspect because, that is a market which has a large amount of government intervention.  The preferred channel of US monetary policy is the Federal Funds rate, but in order to set the Federal Funds rate, the Fed uses Treasury notes which are close substitutes (typically 30 day notes).   Note Figure 1 to see how closely they parallel each other.  Figure 2 shows two different types of interest rates minus inflation, Treasury notes and the average rate for Moody’s AAA corporate bonds.  Figure 3 shows the spread between the same two (Moody’s minus Treasury).  Figure 2 confirms Mishkin’s idea that the real or natural rate of interest is not constant, but it also provides a hint at how much the Federal Reserve is holding down key interest rates.  Figure 3 shows spreads of above 4% happened in the early 1990’s, the early 2000’s, and recently.  Figure 2 also shows that real interest rates (even when measured by AAA corporate rates) can go negative as they did in the mid and late 1970’s.

These graphs also show that real interest rates have been trending downward since the early 1980’s.  Perhaps it could be said that Treasury notes are substantially less risky than even AAA Corporate bonds.  This could certainly be true, but the increasing trend of the spread seems to fly in the face of experience.  Are AAA corporations really becoming less likely to repay their debts relative to the US government over a thirty year period?  One could just as easily speculate that the opposite is true and that the Federal Reserve is just taking an increasing role within the Treasury market.


Mishkin, Frederic.  “The Real Interest Rate: An Empirical Investigation.”  Boston: National Bureau of Economic
Research.  1981.  Working Paper.
Wicksell, Knut.  Interest and Prices.  New York: August Kelley.  1962.  Print.  (originally published: 1898)
FRED (1).  “1 Year Treasury Constant Maturity-CPI All Urban Consumers All Items, Moody’s Seasoned Aaa
Corporate Bond Yield- CPI All Urban Consumers All Items.”  Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Internet.
(last accessed 4/15/13). <>
FRED (2).  “1-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Rate, Effective Federal Funds Rate.”  Federal Reserve Bank of St.
Louis. Internet.  (last accessed 5/5/13).  <>

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Problem of Water


Man, like every living thing, has a natural relationship with water. He demands water to survive; and as a function of derived demand in the procurement of practically all types of food, which he also needs to survive. Water rights have played an important role in the development of agriculture and the creation of property rights that flowed from that activity. Modern day Egypt surrounding the Nile river, was the first permanent agricultural settlement, and formed the first distinct property rights. These settlements were originally linked to free peasants, but were modified as tribalism became more formalized into the political Pharaoh (feudal) system over time. (Barnes, 15)

Water rights have always been a very political process. This is because of water’s role in the success of civilizations. Water is often considered a common resource because it is often rivalrous and impossible to exclude others. This, of course, makes it susceptible to all of the pitfalls of common resources. Economic theory would predict that it would be overdrawn, and investment in it would be minimal. This is often the case, but governments attempt step in to attempt to regulate this common resource in a way that provides access and creates a market. In doing so, they also, often, create monopolies.

How does the government create a market when it has simultaneously eliminated all competition? It is difficult for policy makers to successfully mimic true equilibrium absent political pressures; adding them in it is almost certainly impossible. (Hayek, 3)  Yet it is finding this true equilibrium which will preserve the resource that these regulators seek to manage the best. Only by finding this true equilibrium will market distortions be removed. Privatization is one option that solves common resource issues, but some aspects of freshwater are difficult or impossible to privatize fully. Another possibility is to explore is the concept of collective voting rules for tightly defined property holders. Because perfect solutions are unlikely but this remains a problem of over-consumption because of imperfect market mechanism, it is important to find a better solution.

Water Rights

Property rights have historically been attached to land, but water rights have often been as important or more than the land itself. Richard Ely and Edward Morehouse, authors of the foundational agricultural economics text, Elements of Land Economics, formalize water’s uses as “ (1) for purposes of consumption, such as drinking water, domestic use, in manufacturing; (2) for navigation; (3) for the food products and resources it may contain such as fish, clams, oysters, kelp.” (Ely & Morehouse, 150)  It was outside of the scope of their text, but energy production could also be added to that list as hydro-power is another major use of water. Property rights have historically meant that owners possess and may use all the land below the surface including the water within it.

Water presents a challenge for fully delineating property rights. A property owner that has water beneath the land of his property may find it difficult to exclude a neighboring property owner from extracting water from their own property. (Barzel, 2)  The water aspect of their property rights is difficult for the owner to protect, and thus rivalrous despite delineated properties. Water that is below the surface does not respect lines of property and thus there is a dynamic nature of water rights with regard to a property holder’s rights. The rule of capture is a concept that courts have upheld which gives property holders the right to extract water, oil, etc. even if it was originally from an adjacent property below the surface. (Gordon, 281)  Aquifers and other forms of ground water thus often take on properties of commons despite the fact that they are often privately held as property holders maximize extraction from what is essentially a shared resource. Also, while the property owner may own water below the surface of his land, and/or access to a substantial aquifer, he does not have control of the hydrological cycle which is a variable that contributes to the make-up of water on land and below. (Ely & Morehouse, 151)

Water property rights are also often defined in relation to waterways such as rivers. Rivers are rarely, if ever, private and take on more explicit commons attributes. Water rights relating to rivers and other communal surface water resources are generally drawn into two types in the United States. The first is the riparian doctrine, which is based on the English Common law and allows for adjacent land owners to have reasonable use of the water. The second is the doctrine of prior appropriation. This concept focuses on five major facets: seniority, beneficial use, diversion, forfeiture, and private property. (Naeser & Smith, 501) These are two fundamentally different approaches to viewing water resource use.

In the eastern United States, the riparian doctrine is dominant.  Each adjoining land owner has the right to use water, and no single, similarly situated user receives greater consideration from another. (Ostrom & Ostrom, 6)  The doctrine of prior appropriation gives seniority greater rights, hence its name. It stems from the case of Yunker v. Nichols in 1872, which rejected aspects of the riparian doctrine citing the local arid climate. (Hess, 649)  Senior users may shut out junior users and unused rights may be forfeited which creates a system of tiered water property rights. (Naeser & Smith, 501)  Senior rights holders are given fixed water withdrawal rights as measured in cubic feet per second and these rights are transferable. (Liebecap, 122)  Economist Terry Anderson argues that the prior appropriation doctrine of the West is an imperfect privatization strategy. (Anderson, 29)

Figures 1-4

Total Fresh Ground and Surface Water Withdrawals

                      1990                                                                             1995

                      2000                                                                             2005
 (National Atlas)

Figures 1-4 show a stark difference in water withdrawal between the western United States where prior appropriation rules are in place versus the eastern United States where riparian rights are in place. Western states clearly have greater levels of withdrawal than eastern states. An important fact to note is that these maps are drawn up by county, and western states tend to have larger counties than eastern states which provide its own distortion. Still, a higher proportion of counties west of the Rocky Mountains have moderate to high levels of water withdrawal than eastern.

Another important thing to note about figures 1-4 is that in the east, counties with moderate to high levels of water withdrawal are more likely to be counties with higher population. In the west, the counties with high water withdrawal are counties with lower levels of population or rural areas. This is especially true in central California, which has a large concentration of high water withdrawal counties. This can be observed as an effect of western irrigation and the system of prior appropriation water rights.

Paradoxically, the prior appropriation system is designed for the Western United States because water was considered more scarce there than in the east. (Naeser & Smith, 501)  This law has led to higher levels of extraction rather than lower. This is due to the favoritism created by the law, where some individual’s property rights are given precedence over others, with property transfers still allowed. These aspects of the laws incentivize senior property holders will maximize their extraction whether they need it or not. In effect, they have created transitional gains traps.

Access to clean water is also seen as a human right by the United Nations which clearly stated this in its International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. “The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements.” (Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights)  160 nations have signed and ratified this covenant, but there are a couple notable exceptions such as the United States, Malaysia, Myanmaar, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and other smaller states. Many nations have amended their ratifications in various ways often stating that it is consistent with prior statutes or Constitutions. (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights)

Isaiah Berlin wrote that rights which provide for equality of opportunity are positive liberty, while rights that provide for equality of income or resources are negative liberty. (Berlin, 1) These are two competing ideas of equality, and are actually paradoxes of one another. In solving the issue of resource inequality, negative liberty removes resources, and is thus unequal from a property rights point of view. Positive liberty similarly provides for equality of opportunity, but it leads to societies of unequal incomes and ownership as a result of natural productivity inequalities and practically infinite differentials of individual choice.

The concept of water as a human right is a clear example of negative liberty. There are many attempts to create welfare transfers relating to water. Keeping the price of water down in proportion to even small incomes is an important goal for most politicians. Different types of water subsidies are common throughout the world, but the ironic aspect of this is that most water subsidies are not designed to help the poor, but instead to hold down irrigated water prices for agricultural businesses.

Water Usage
Water usage is often broken down by domestic use, industrial use, and agricultural use with agricultural use being by far the largest user. This is not a new phenomenon, but the growth in agricultural usage has also had much steeper growth than either domestic or industrial usage. This growth effect tends to go towards industrial uses as countries move along the Kuznet’s curve. Much of this growth is due to the price of water for agriculture being subsidized in various ways. Prices transmit information about utility, scarcity, and expectations of future valuations. When any item is subsidized, this price undergoes a distortion, and the purchaser is unable to make decisions that are based on important factors of utility, scarcity and future expectations.

Figure 5

(Enger & Smith, 465)

Figure 6

(Enger & Smith, 466)

The proportions in figure six give us a glimpse into what makes up figure seven’s time series changes. The continents that have more development (North America, Europe) have higher proportions of industrial water usage. The ones with lower development (Africa, Asia, and Central America) have higher agricultural usage. Oceania runs contrary to the rest of the group. This is perhaps explained by them having the least population density due to being a collection of island nations. It suggests that as nations and continents develop, they use resources more efficiently.
Agricultural usage involves local groundwater (including aquifers where available) and irrigation, often in combination. Agriculture is often set in a watershed. The earliest example of the Nile River watershed is an example of this, but in North America the Missouri River, the Arkansas Red-White River, and the Ohio River all form tributaries into the larger Mississippi River basin. The topography of each one of these river basins fosters their own agricultural development. When available, farmers often also dig wells to use aquifers such as the Ogallala aquifer.

Figure 7

Map of Ogallala Aquifer

(Withgott & Brennan, 417)

Unusual and specialized rules for agricultural water rights are one method of price distortion. These rules are often sought for by the farmers and businessmen that are governed by them, to acquire advantage or value over their competitors. (Stigler, 3)  Often these distortions result in higher profits for farmers and producers, but they also trickle down to consumers in the form of lower prices for food and other agricultural commodities. It is an indirect and complicated form of price supports. Keeping the prices of food down is a method that public policy makers with the idea that they are pro-growth. (Brown, 84)

Figure 8

Water Availability Difference from Water Use

(Withgott & Brennan, 425)

 Domestic uses of water are what often come to mind when critics speak of the waste and over-consumption of modern society. Critics often advise to use low flow or compost toilets as a method of saving the environment. They also mention turning off the faucet while doing activities such as brushing teeth, washing dishes, etc. Their reasons for these changes are usually altruism based on a notion of resource depletion. The physicalist fallacy is an interesting one for non-renewable resources, but it is misapplied for renewable ones such as water.

Water is a renewable resource which goes through the hydrological cycle. When it is used in an urban or non-urban setting, a step is added to reduce the pollution in the returned water to standardized levels. In urban settings, this means using scaled waste water treatment facilities to treat water and return it to the ecosystem. In many of these cases, the price of treating waste water is included in the water delivery price. In most cases, it dwarfs the price of the fresh water extraction, treatment and delivery. In rural settings, septic systems and leech ponds perform similar filtration tasks on a smaller scale before returning the water to the ecosystem. These systems separately paid for by individual consumers, although waste water treatment facilities often subsidize septic draining as a method of preventing pollution. The returned water may re-enter the active hydrologic cycle in the form of vaporization or return to ground water stock through surface absorption when the water is further filtered through natural processes.

How Is Domestic Water Priced?

Urban water utilities are often referred to as a natural monopoly. (Allen, Buchanan & Colberg, 327)  It would be difficult to have multiple sets of pipes for multiple producers going throughout a city and into individual homes. Water is also quite heavy so the transfer cost between local water supplies and delivered water supplies over a medium to large distance can be quite considerable. Therefore, even when there are multiple sources of water treatment for a city, there is generally a single water utility, or water board that makes individual, monopolistic decisions over the water supply and pricing for a city. There are usually strict institutional rules set over the company, and its pricing can be subject to political pressure. Still, there are many pitfalls of monopolies such as abstraction of marginal cost reduction and other profit making priorities because their rate of profit is usually static. Because of their price controls, there is not motivation for production controls. (Allen, Buchanan & Colberg, 329)  Underpricing and its corresponding over-consumption are still endemic and problematic to the utility and population at large.

One reason besides pipes that water utilities are natural monopolies is their considerable capital costs. There are many long term durable goods that must be financed and paid off. Many of these durable goods are purchased with loans that are subsidized by the state and federal government. These capital goods must be priced into water rates over the lifetime of the goods and loans. Future capital planning is also an important issue to improve capacity and efficiency to meet future needs better. (Raftelis, 13)  This invites the creation of steady state investment estimates. It also invites even greater investment for projected future efficiencies designed at delivering water more efficiently through technical innovation. (Acemo─člu, et al, 132) As populations rise, this becomes a more important issue as resource use per capita changes, especially as non-point pollution increases simultaneously. (Solow, 313)  Would-be monopoly profits can be can be redirected towards innovation because profits are regulated. At the same time, this innovation is likely not to be especially efficient in terms of return on investment for the same reasons.

Increasing environmental standards from the Federal government and political demands from local constituencies place pressures for increasingly clean water on both ends. Studies are performed so that water pricing is not higher than 2-3% of median income for both water and waste water treatment. (Raftelis, 5)  This makes the practice of water pricing one of reverse engineering rather than operating at marginal costs equals marginal revenues plus regulated monopoly profit. The marginal costs are determined by transmission and delivery costs (which are averaged from varying distances and thus varying costs), cleaning costs, waste water treatment, and various administrative and customer service costs.
The actual decision making process is typically voted upon by water board members. These members are generally appointed in step with the institutional rules of the water board or utility. Their voting preferences are generally reflected by who placed them on that board in a normal public choice bureaucrat role. Ultimately, the decision making rationale for these long term investments are loosely based on not exceeding 2-3% of median income and principles of budget maximization. Water prices have significant menu costs because water prices are generally decided for the year. Thus, marginal costs are actually estimated for the future year from expectations which are based on the recent past. These are done with statistical methods of inference with confidence level spreads, but are open to important events that could dramatically change the price structure. A dramatic uptick in inflation, for instance, could be very problematic for water rates.

Water utilities are also very good at measuring demand, because they are able, in real time, to see consumption rates. These are generally averaged, but a form of pricing technology could be introduced to increase efficiency and reduce stress on the system. Instead of using set rates based on the factors that have just been explained, one could construct a normalized range of prices and place that on daily demand schedules. One issue of water demand is that it is quite variable from hour to hour. It is pretty steady for day to day if seasonally variable.

By creating a range of prices, the utility could charge higher prices during hours of peak demand. These hours tend to be between three p.m. and five p.m. when both businesses and residential consumers are demanding simultaneously. Lower prices within the range could be used at night during periods of low demand. (Mushkin, 288)  These changes could have dramatic effects on efficiencies for the operator which could reduce overall costs and provide significant increases in welfare for consumers. One drawback of having a complicated rate structure is that complicated monopoly prices can drive down consumption. (Rubinstein, 474)  A better informed consumer, that is the consumer that has more information and is actually able to process it correctly will likely make better decisions within their bounded rationality framework. (Carter & Milon, 265)

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figure 11

(Statistical Abstract (s) 1995-2012)

Water utilities attempt to keep water rates between 1-1.5% of median incomes. (Raftelis, 5) Figures 10-11 show this figure. Figure 9 shows average annual consumption in dollars. It shows stable prices with slight increases until 2004, when prices begin a significant increasing slope. These are nominal prices, so inflation is not controlled for. Figures 10-11 are proportions and are thus not directly influenced by inflation. The recession can be seen by the sharper uptick from 2008 to 2009. It is easy to see that all four regions are well below the recommended 1-1.5% of median incomes in figures 10-11. It is also easy to see the relative stability, especially in the proportions. The strongest factor for the variability in 2008 to 2009 was likely the reduction in incomes and corresponding discretionary spending.


Privatization has been a successful remedy for commons issues all throughout the world. The Tragedy of the Commons, as Garrett Hardin has pointed out, is that when property rights are non-existent or vague, users maximize extraction and minimize reinvestment. Privatizing water is also an easier remedy than many other commons, because there are already businesses making regulated profits, so the market would not have major structural adjustments to make. The strong issues holding back privatization efforts are anti-corporate and anti-globalist protesters, and the rather public nature of water.
Privatization is sometimes seen as a failure of government management of the commons and sometimes as a failure of law. (Bakker, 19)  How can a public utility whose market is a monopoly on a basic human need fail? By underpricing and under investing in its infrastructure. As indicated in the water pricing, often water boards act under the budget maximization principle, but other times they are constrained by politicians to hold down the price of water. As durable goods, many utility capital projects rarely need to be replaced, but when they do, planning and long term financial servicing are needed. A common problem in urban settings is for pipes to be neglected, and for them to begin leaking. This is not a large concern in ecosystems where water is plentiful, but in especially arid climates, this can be a significant short circuit in the water delivery system. Often times, these pipes are neglected in poor areas, or they do not exist there at all.
At the same time, pricing is held down below steady state investment levels for political purposes, and other investments are not made in the infrastructure. Water can leak out of leaky pipes and represent a significant loss of water to the producer. These capital projects also often need increases in prices that are politically impossible unless privatization is done simultaneously. Privatization does not always or generally mean that water becomes a laissez-faire commodity, but it does mean that the water company can begin pricing it more naturally. An eye towards current profits, and an outlook on future investment and future profits as well.

Where government bureaucracy maximizes marginal costs as a method of extraction, private industries keep marginal costs as low as possible as a method of maximizing profits. They are also keen to speculate on future earnings and their rights to them. (Posner, 33)  This speculation both competes with future earnings potential against present value, but also more appropriately values the rarity of the present values.

Conclusion: Management of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom has a different concept of what she terms ‘pooled common resources.’ These are similar to the rights today, except the institutional rules have changed. Ostrom calls for tiers of property holders, those with access and those with withdrawal. Those with access rights would have full representation in a small group of relevant stakeholders who have, in a sense, collective ownership and thus are able to appreciate gains or losses more than a bureaucrat. These voters then decide the future operations based on the following: management, exclusion, and alienation. (Schlager & Ostrom, 251)

Both privatization and the collective voting rights over the commons are better than the doctrine of prior appropriation. The doctrine of prior appropriation seems have many trappings of the commons, and it also can magnifies some of the worst aspects of them. Because the transitional gains trap associated with it guarantees maximum extraction from senior land owners, if only to lease to more junior ones. Changing these systems will likely be extremely challenging. Special interest groups will be well funded and be well entrenched. Voters will very likely be rationally ignorant about this issue. There are some aspects of commons that are likely impossible to resolve fully. Thus any solutions, such as Privatization or Shared Pooled Resources, are unlikely to provide fully delineated property rights. Perhaps in the future, increases in technology will create better monitoring that will enable further delineation which could enable even better laws.


Acemoglu, Daron, et al. “The Environment and Directed Technical Change” American
  Economic Review. Pittsburgh: American Economic Association. Vol. 102, No. 1.
  February 2012. Journal.
Allen, Clarke, James Buchanan, Marshall Colberg. Prices, Income and Public Policy. New
  York: McGraw-Hill. 1954. Print.
Anderson, Terry. Water Crisis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1983. Print.
Bakker, Karen. Privatizing Water. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2010. Print.
Barnes, Harry. An Economic History of the Western World. New York: Harcourt, Brace and
  Company. 1937. Print.
Barzel, Yoram. Economic Analysis of Property Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University
  Press. 1989. Print.
Berlin, Isaiah. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University
  Press. 1969. Print. (1958)
Brown, Gilbert. Ed.: Theodore Schultz. Distortions of Agricultural Incentives. Bloomington:
  Indiana Press. 1978. Print.
Carter, David and J. Walter Milon. “Price Knowledge in Household Demand for Utility
  Services” Land Economics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Vol 81, No.2.
  May 2005. Journal.
Ely, Richard and Edward Morehouse. Elements of Land Economics. New York: Macmillan
  Company. 1924. Print.
Enger, Eldon and Bradley Smith. Environmental Science. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2006.
Gordon, Wendell. Institutional Economics. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1980. Print.
Hayek, Friedrich. “The Pretence of Knowledge” American Economic Review. Pittsburgh:
  American Economic Association. Vol. 79, No. 6. Dec. 1989. Journal. (1974)
Hess, Ralph Henry. “The Colorado Water Right” Columbia Law Review. New York: Columbia
  Law Review Association. Vol. 16, No. 8. December 1916. Journal.
Libecap, Gary. “Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman’s “Some
  Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” American Economic Review. Pittsburgh: American
  Economic Association. Vol. 101, No. 1. February 2011. Journal.
Mushkin, Selma. Public Prices for Public Products. Washington D.C.: Urban Institute. 1972.
Naeser, R.B. and M. Griffin Smith. ED.: R. Coopey and T. Tvedt. “Water as Property in the
  American West.” A History of Water volume two: The Political Economy of Water.
  London: I.B. Tauris. 2006. Print.
Ostrom, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom. “Legal and Political Conditions of Water Resource
  Development.” Land Economics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Vol. 48, No.
  1. 1972. Journal.
Posner, Richard. Economic Analysis of the Law. Boston: Little, Brown, & co. 1972. Print.
Raftelis, George. Comprehensive Guide to Water and Wastewater Financing and Pricing. Boca
  Raton: Lewis Publishers. 1993. Print.
Rubinstein, Ariel. “On Price Recognition and Computational Complexity in a Monopolistic
  Model.” Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 101, No. 3. June 1993. Journal.
Schlager, Edella and Elinor Ostrom. “Property Rings Regimes and Natural Resources” Land
  Economics. Vol. 68, No. 3. August 1992. Journal.
Solow, Robert. “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function” The Review of
  Economics and Statistics. Boston: M.I.T. Press. Vol. 39, No. 3. August 1957. Journal.
Stigler, George. “The Theory of Economic Regulation” Bell Journal of Economics.
  Washington D.C.: Rand Corporation. Vol. 2, No. 1. Journal.
Withgott, Jay and Scott Brennan. Environment third edition. San Francisco: Pearson. 2008.
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “The Right to Water” New York: United
  Nations. 2002. Web.
  0389e94/$FILE/G0340229.pdf (last accessed: 4/22/12)
National Atlas. “Map Maker” (last
  accessed (5/3/12)
Statistical Abstract. Washington D.C.: Census. Print. (years: 1995-2012)
  “The Right to Water” International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. New
  York: United Nations. Treaty.
  20I/Chapter%20IV/IV-3.en.pdf (last accessed: 4/22/12)

(This is an essay that I wrote for my Environmental Economics class.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Is Ben Bernanke an Inflation Dove?

This week Tennessee Senator Bob Corker (R) called Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke “the biggest dove since World War II.”  He means to say that Bernanke has not done enough to prevent inflation.  This sets up an interesting question: How do Fed Chairmen stack up next to one another on key variables such as unemployment and price stability?

Figure One is a key component of my survey, but I'll break it down by tenure.  The figures were taken as percent change from previous month and annualized from those figures for each term.  It will go from the Fed Chairman with the lowest average inflation to the highest.
Figure 1

Federal Reserve Performance by Chairmen:

Eugene Meyer (1930-1933)

(photo: Harris & Ewing)
Eugene Meyer presided over the worst parts of the Depression, including the failure of many banks including the Bank of United States.  His average annualized inflation rate is -9.8% and his average annualized change in GDP is a staggering -19.7%.


Roy Young (1927-1930)

Roy Young presided during the Stock Market crash of 1929.  He had an average inflation rate of -1.6%.


Daniel Crissinger (1923-1927)

(photo: Harris & Ewing)
Crissinger's era is also considered to be the Benjamin Strong era, because Strong was Governor of the Bank of New York and exerted significant influence on Federal Open Market Committee meetings.  Crissinger's average inflation rate was 0.6%.


William Martin (1951-1970)

(photo: Federal Reserve)
William McChesney Martin is perhaps the ideal central banker.  He practiced under the gold standard and the Bretton-Woods system.  He did not write books on monetary policy, but he did unorthodox maneuvers such as the original Operation Twist.  He spoke against inflation constantly, but promoted removing elements of the gold standard during his tenure.  The practice of regional Fed Governors sharing their information days before Federal Open Market Committee meetings originated with him and led to many unanimous votes.

"Any presumed benefits that flow from inflation are based on self-deception.  We will certainly grow faster and stronger if we do not pretend that we can enrich ourselves depreciating our currency.  Stable prices and a sound currency that both we and the rest of the world can rely upon is the only seal that is morally and economically defensible."

His average inflation rate was 2%; his average change in GDP was 6.6% and his average change in unemployment was -0.1%.


Benjamin Bernanke (2006-present)

(photo: Gerald Ford School of Public Policy)
Bernanke has overseen a major financial crisis and the Great Recession, and is still attempting to return the unemployment rate to its natural rate (between 5-6%).  His average inflation rate is currently 2.2%; his average change in GDP is currently 3.2% and his current average change in unemployment is 0.4%.


Thomas McCabe (1948-1951)

McCabe negotiated the 1951 Accord which re-established Federal Reserve independence.  During the war, Marriner Eccles agreed that interest rates would be kept accommodatingly low irregardless of price stability factors because funding the nation during the war was a national priority.  The 1951 Accord ended this accommodation.  His average inflation rate was 2.7% and his average change in GDP was 6.5%.


Alan Greenspan (1987-2006)

(photo: Financial Times)
Greenspan's tenure started rocky in October 1987 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 22.6% in one day.  The rest of his term have been called the great moderation because it was known as a long period of only slight recessions and generally modest growth.  His average inflation rate was 3%; his average change in GDP was 5.6% and his average change in unemployment was -0.1%.


Charles Sumner Hamlin (1914-1916)

(photo: Harris & Newman)

The first head of the Federal Reserve.  His average inflation rate was 3.9%.


Marriner Eccles (1934-1948)

The Federal Reserve board building in Washington D.C. is named after Eccles.  He is another looming Fed figure along with New York Fed Governor Benjamin Strong.  He presided over the 1937 recession within the Great Depression and Fed operations during World War II.  He acquiesced to President Roosevelt by making monetary policy accommodating during World War II and the post-war period resulting in the nation's most significant inflation event (see figure 1).  His average inflation rate was 4.3% and his average change in GDP was 11%.


Eugene Black (1933-1934)

Black was one of the first Fed heads to use activist monetary methods.  He was promoted from Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to being Chairman of the Board of Governors after his easy lending policies in the early 1930's showed that significantly fewer banks in the Atlanta region failed.  His average inflation rate was 5% and his average change in GDP was 6.6%.


Paul Volcker (1979-1987)

(photo: Harvard Ethics)
Paul Volcker is known as the ultimate inflation hawk.  So why is he so far down this list?  Volcker's place on this list also shows a major defect in the methodology of this list.  Each Chairman's average begins with their first month as Chairman, but because the methods and channels of monetary transmission are muted at best, their impact is only felt months later.  It would be impossible to make a uniform number of months after because the methods of Fed communication have varied significantly over the century.

Volcker entered as chairman when inflation was significantly high, and he raised interest rates into double digits to control it.  Unfortunately he also caused a significant recession by these actions, but it did kill the major inflation of the 1970's.  His average inflation rate was 5.6%; his average change in GDP was 8% and his average change in the unemployment rate was 0.1%.


Arthur Burns (1970-1978)

Arthur Burns was one of the foremost monetary theorists of the 20th Century, but his reputation was harmed by his tenure at the Federal Reserve and the inflation that started and continued during his tenure.  The prolonged period of inflation was accompanied by recessions creating a condition of "stagflation" which combined economic stagnation and inflation.  The "Nixon shock" took place during his term when Nixon abruptly ended the gold standard by issuing an executive order.  He was the first academic economist to head the Federal Reserve.  He taught future Nobel laureate Milton Friedman at Rutgers University and was heavily influential within the monetarist school of economic thought.  His average inflation rate was 6.3%; his average change in GDP was 9.5% and his average change in the unemployment rate was 0.5%, the highest of the survey.


William Harding (1916-1922)

(photo: Federal Reserve)

Harding's tenure included the end of World War I, a significant recession, and a notably quick recovery from that recession.  His average inflation was 7.2%.


G. William Miller (1978-1979)

Miller is notable for being the only Fed Chairman that also served as Secretary of the Treasury Department.  His average inflation rate was 10.7%, the highest of the survey.  His average change in GDP was 12.3%, the highest of the survey, and his average change in unemployment was -0.7%, the biggest drop in the survey.

So was Senator Corker being crazy when he called Federal Reserve a dove on inflation?  No, the Federal Reserve has taken unprecedented steps to provide the market accommodation in response to deflationary forces (see Figure 2).  He is being ignorant of Bernanke's results and the results of his predecessors.  As I've said time and time again, the challenge for Bernanke (as with any central banker in a recession) is two-fold: both to be accommodating enough, but then perhaps more difficultly to pull back appropriately.  Bernanke's moment to pull back has not happened yet, but it will likely be a challenge as well because so much of the Fed's asset purchases have been somewhat less than liquid.

Figure 2