Category Archives: Economics

The economics of cheap drone delivery


Tyler Cowen

Let’s say 30-minute drone delivery to your home were legal, well-run, and, for purposes of argument, free or done at very low cost. You would buy smaller size packages and keep smaller libraries at home and in your office. Bookshelf space would be freed up, you would cook more with freshly ground spices, the physical world would stand a better chance of competing with the rapid-delivery virtual world, and Amazon Kindles would decline in value. Given that the storage costs for goods would fall (more storage by specialists, accompanied by later delivery), expected inflation would more likely be converted into price hikes today. The liquidity premium of money (NB: not currency) would rise and the liquidity premium of goods would fall. Some drug markets would be taken off the streets and the importance of gang “turf” would fall.

Addendum: What do we know about network economies in drone delivery systems? FedEx and UPS and USPS, taken together, dominate the market for physical delivery of parcels to homes. How much room would there be in the market for “lone drone” operators?

 Amazon is developing Amazon PrimeAir .

Brink Lindsey: Why Growth Is Getting Harder

 I just read Brink Lindsey’s new policy analysis Why Growth Is Getting Harder. Bearing in mind Seekerblog’s cautionary tagline from Niels Bohr, Brink’s outlook for growth deserves careful reading and reflection. From the executive summary:

Consider the four constituent elements of economic growth tracked by conventional growth accounting: (1) growth in labor participation, or annual hours worked per capita; (2) growth in labor quality, or the skill level of the workforce; (3) growth in capital deepening, or the amount of physical capital invested per worker; and (4) growth in so-called total factor productivity, or output per unit of quality-adjusted labor and capital. Over the course of the 20th century, these various components fluctuated in their contributions to overall growth. The fluctuations, however, tended to offset each other, so that weakness in one element was compensated for by strength in another. In the 21st century, this pattern of offsetting fluctuations has come to a halt as all growth components have fallen off simultaneously.

The simultaneous weakening of all the components of economic growth does not mean that slow growth is inevitable from here on out. The trends for one or more of them could reverse direction tomorrow. Nevertheless, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the conditions for growth are less favorable than they used to be. In other words, growth is getting harder.

On October 29 Tyler Cowen, author of the excellent The Great Stagnation, will join Brink for a Cato Forum, on the subject of this paper. The forum will be available live and later in the archives as audio and video.

Is Slow Growth the New Normal?

Featuring Brink Lindsey, Vice President for Research, Cato Institute; Tyler Cowen, Professor, George Mason University; and Martin Baily, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; moderated by Annie Lowrey, Reporter, New York Times.

12:00pm Hayek Auditorium

More from Brink Lindsey The Boy Who Cried Wolf Was Eventually Right

“We are reaching end times for Western affluence,” warns economist Stephen King (insert obligatory horror joke here) in yesterday’s New York Times. King, who has authored a book entitled When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence, joins the ranks of economic Cassandras like Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon, both of whom have made waves with pessimistic takes on the U.S. economy’s prospects. Like Cowen and Gordon, King couches his claims in overstatements that make it easier for skeptical readers to dismiss his arguments. Peel away the hype, though, and these growth pessmists are still fundamentally correct. The wolf really is at the door this time. In other words, the growth outlook really is darkening.

Krugman and I were both wrong about the Fed and interest rates

Tyler Cowen:

In 2011 Krugman wrote (and here)

Like Bernanke, I don’t believe that the flow of Fed purchases has been an important factor holding bond rates down, and hence don’t believe that they will jump when the purchases end.

I don’t think I ever wrote this view up, but I was of the same opinion nonetheless.  It no longer seems this is true.  We’ve had a significant run-up in rates from mere talk about slowing down Fed purchases.

So which other views about the current macroeconomy will we need to revise?  That’s what I’ve been thinking about for most of today.  The major possibilities are not comforting.  I can’t be talked into them by a day or two of market data, but we do need to look more seriously at:

1. The low rates really have been an artifact of Fed policy, at least to a much higher degree than many of us had thought.

2. Emerging markets tanked on the Fed communication, and so we have indeed been exporting bubbles through a ‘reach for yield’ mechanism.

Yikes, and those are not mutually exclusive.  I still don’t see either of these as theoretically strong, for reasons outlined by Krugman and for further reasons outlined by me here, but of course theory has its limits.  In my post from two weeks ago I will raise my p = 0.05 to p = 0.15, at least.

One also might try to argue #3, namely:

3. Interest rates still haven’t moved ‘a lot.’  Obviously there is no fact of the matter as to what is ‘a lot,’ but I admit to being surprised and Krugman also now seems to have different views, so I don’t think we can throw out the new data as irrelevant.

All of this remains in great flux.

Ryan Avent: The negative rates we need

I like this Free Exchange/Beckworth formulation of NGDPLT policy:

The negative rates we need David Beckworth responds to Mr Garcia with an idea to operationalise the fiscalist-monetarist synthesis:

First, the Fed adopts a NGDP level target. Doing so would better anchor nominal spending and income expectations and therefore minimize the chance of ever entering a liquidity-trap. In other words, if the public believes the Fed will do whatever it takes to maintain a stable growth path for NGDP, then they would have no need to panic and hoard liquid assets in the first place when an adverse economic shock hits.

Second, the Fed and Treasury sign an agreement that should a liquidity trap emerge anyhow and knock NGDP off its targeted path, they would then quickly work together to implement a helicopter drop. The Fed would provide the funding and the Treasury Department would provide the logistical support to deliver the funds to households. Once NGDP returned to its targeted path the helicopter drop would end and the Fed would implement policy using normal open market operations. If the public understood this plan, it would further stabilize NGDP expectations and make it unlikely a helicopter drop would ever be needed.

This two-tier approach to NGDP level targeting should create a foolproof way to avoid liquidity traps. It should also reduce asset boom-bust cycles since NGDP targets avoid destablizing responses to supply shocks that often fuel swings in asset prices. This approach is consistent with Milton Friedman’s vision of monetary policy, would impose a monetary policy rule, and provide a solid long-run nominal anchor. Finally, per Cardiff Garcia’s request it would satisfy both fiscalists and monetarists. What is there not to like about it?

OPEC and Shale Oil

Megan McArdle has on a single page most of what you need to know about cartel economics. Note: the explosion of shale oil and gas is not for purely technical reasons.

(…snip…) Here's the thing about cartels: without legal enforcement, they pretty much never work. The incentive to cheat, and take extra profits by producing a little more than your quota, is too high . . . so pretty soon everyone is cheating, and your cartel doesn't really exist any more.

OPEC has managed to flagrantly violate this general economic truism for a few decades now. Saudi Arabia is one of the main reasons that it's been able to hold together for so long, even after the price crash of the mid 1980s. Until the Chinese economic boom drove global oil demand right up against the limits of the industry's pumping capacity, causing prices to spike, Saudi Arabia's excess capacity kept prices roughly stable, in the neighborhood of $25-$35 a barrel. Which, probably not coincidentally, is well under the break-even price for shale oil projects.

(…snip…) Better for the cartel for prices to fall to the point where current fracking projects are just barely economic.

But this will not be better for Venezuela, et al. Venezuela is experiencing ongoing shortages of basic goods like toilet paper because of its economic mismanagement. Algeria reportedly needs an oil price of $121 a barrel to cover planned spending–and has already experienced riots over food and housing. Iran is experiencing runaway inflation thanks to sanctions; falling oil prices will only make this worse. That's why they so desperately want the cartel to keep prices over $100 a barrel.

For them, however, the strength of the cartel is also its weakness. In some sense Saudi Arabia is the cartel because they're the ones who can afford–and will stick to–production cuts. Venezuela can make all the demands they want. But unless they can afford to cut their production, they will ultimately have to accept whatever the gulf states decide.


Pay Attention to Sweden!

Rioting in Sweden is the sort of phrase that sounds as if it should be oxymoronic, like ‘Evil in Candyland’ or ‘Violence among Episcopalians’.  And indeed, the rioting seems rather tame by American or British standards–cars set ablaze, stones hurled at first responders.  In the New York of my childhood, not so far from where I grew up, there were neighborhoods that used to call this sort of thing ‘Saturday night’.  


It looks to me as if the great task of the next few decades will be to find ways to employ all the people on the margins productively, and with dignity.  But this is not, mostly, the question that most public policy debates are engaged in addressing.  That question is hard, and no one has a good answer, so instead we debate technical questions about stimulus multipliers and minimum wages, and have the occasional knock down, drag out fight about who has a moral right to how much cash.  There’s nothing wrong with those debates, and I myself have been a spirited participant.  But the harder questions have much more important answers.

Today’s insight from Megan McArdle. You’ll be rewarded for reading the whole essay.

Why are SMR (Small Modular Reactors) so important?

Just a quick note on the captioned topic. I am completely confident that SMR's are the future, though the range of power production will not always be limited to “small”, and the nuclear design will certainly not be limited to today's PWR (pressurized-water-reactor) technology. I wrote this note today in reply to the following comment:

It would not solve the waste problem which the IFR and LFTR probably would solve.

There isn't a “waste problem” because there is no technical issue with unburnt fuel, there is a political problem. If uranium wasn't so cheap the economics would have driven greater reprocessing.

It's important not to confuse the IFR or LFTR contributions with the concept of “mass manufacturing”. Remove the “S” and you have “MR” or Manufactured Reactor which is what is significant.

It isn't SMR-PWR vs. IFR/LFTR, it is volume manufacturing and the safety, quality and cost control that goes with the process-control that is important. When affordable, reliable power becomes a hot political issue – then I think that both fast reactors and thorium reactors will have their opportunities to compete. And both will be manufactured in quantity, where safety will be inherent in both the engineering and the process, not in ridiculously costly inspections.

So when you think of SMR don't think narrowly of current technology – which is constrained by what can be shoved through sclerotic regulators like NRC. Think instead a range of sizes of fast, high-temperature or thermal reactors.

It's also important to keep in mind that what the OECD countries do does not really matter that much w/r/t global warming. It is what the fast-developing countries like China, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, or Uganda do. Those countries need cheap, reliable electricity that they can deploy without first creating a safety/technical culture and the associated infrastructure. One or two gigawatt mega-reactors are not appropriate and will not be adopted in those markets. At the right price 25 to 250 MW reactors that can be buried and refueled in 10 or 30 years – these just might be adopted by countries that don't give a damn about global warming. Let us hope…

We can also hope for a new politics where Bill Gates would have been able to build Terrapower in the USA instead of being forced to go to China. Frankly I think that will not happen – England's reforms would not have happened without the New World to generate the innovation. We don't know where the new models for US/EU will come from or what they will be like. But they might originate in Chile, Shanghai or Estonia.


The bitcoin demand crisis?


As I write there are about 11 million bitcoins minted. There will be about 21 million bit coins when the increasingly power-hungry crypto algorithm stops minting fresh coins. Is it money? What is driving the enormous surge in trading prices? At the moment the total market cap is less than Facebook paid for Instagram (which was a company of nine people at the time?)

For some bitcoin perspective, read Zachary M. Seward’s  Quartz series – where Zachary attempts to unravel the future of bitcoin. This is a good place to get some perspective on the crypto-currency: Example: 

(…) Last time I wrote about bitcoin’s surge, I cast doubt on the popular theory that it’s due to the crisis in Cyprus and asked for better ideas. (Here’s my email address.) The best explanations I received were the simplest: bitcoin is going through a “demand crisis,” as Quartz reader Rees Sloan put it. That’s as obvious as it sounds—increasing demand for the currency is pushing its value higher—but framing it as a crisis emphasizes some other truths: As bitcoin’s value rises, so does interest in it, which drives the price up even further, leading people who own bitcoins to expect even more gain, making them reluctant to sell, reducing the available supply of bitcoins, driving the price still higher, leading to more interest, which…


That’s great publicity if you’re a bitcoin speculator, riding this surge to $100 before dumping the currency on a very eager market. It’s less encouraging if you believe in the idea of bitcoin as a truly alternative currency, unencumbered by sovereign governments, a refuge from the turbulence of monetary unions and fiat money. If that’s the bet you’re making on bitcoin, brace yourself: Just today, the value of a single bitcoin swung between $75.00 and $95.70.

Market forces tend to ruin good ideas.

 Full disclosure – we have no position in bitcoin And AFAIK there is no way to short bitcoin. If there was…

Scott Sumner: interest rates and monetary policy (Mishkin forgotten, again)

Reacting to some confusion in the comments, Scott Sumner wrote Further comments on interest rates and monetary policy

People are still confused about my views on monetary policy and interest rates.  First of all, no one should assume that they understand what I’ve said in the past on these issues.  This stuff is very nuanced, very counterintuitive, and I’m not a very talented writer.  So let’s try to first see what is actually true, and then think about what I’ve said:

1.  Interest rates are not a reliable indicator of monetary policy.  I’ve said that 100 times.

2.  NGDP growth is a reliable indicator of monetary policy.  I’ve said that 100 times.

{snip lots of important details}

To summarize:

1.  Over long periods of time long term bond yields do tend to track GDP growth (and levels) pretty well.  So I’m likely to have made some generalizations in that area equating low rates and tight money.  Japan still has tight money! They have low expected NGDP growth.  And they still have low rates.

2.  As far as the immediate market reaction to monetary announcements, I’ve always argued that it is highly unpredictable, but that there are certain principles that seem useful.  An announcement likely to dramatically change the future path of policy is more likely to lead to a ‘perverse’ reaction in bond yields, than would a one-time injection of money.  I wish I could say more, but I’m often just as confused as you are.

{snip lots more important discussion]

As you might expect there is much discussion following Scott’s post – where prof. Sumner commented as follows – this is the point of my post (excerpted)

(…) I’ve often said (and so did Arnold Kling) that much of my thesis is nothing but the NK dogma we’ve been teaching our grad students for 20 years (before 2008):

1. Zero fiscal multiplier.

2. Monetary policy drives NGDP

3. Low rates don ‘t mean easy money.

4. Highly expansionary monetary policy is likely to raise long term rates.

5. Fed is never out of ammo, even when rates are zero.

So why did I start blogging? BECAUSE ALMOST THE ENTIRE ECONOMICS PROFESSION SUDDENLY SEEMED TO FORGET WHAT WAS IN MISHKIN’S TEXTBOOK IN EARLY 2009. That’s why I got into blogging. But yes, nothing new here. There are other aspects of MM that are genuinely new, but not the fact that easy money can raise rates.


What really happened in Cyprus: My interview with Athanasios Orphanides, former central bank governor

Greg Ip, at The Economist, closes with this Q&A:

What will the implications be for Europe and the stabilization of the euro zone?

This is similar to the blunder in Deauville with PSI that injected credit risk into sovereign government debt. The governments have created risk in what before last week were considered perfectly safe deposits. This is going to have a chilling effect on deposits in any bank in a country perceived to be weak. This will mean the cost of funding will increase in the periphery of Europe and as a result, the cost of financing for businesses and households will increase. That will add to the divergences we already have and make the recession in the periphery of Europe deeper than it already is. This is really a disaster for European economic management as a whole

This is by far the best explanation of what has happened in Europe. Read the whole thing.