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    Where is QE2 Going?

    Nov 6 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Financial Markets, Money and Monetary Policy • 441 Views

    Did you ever wonder how things really happen? We read about quantitative easing and hear some gigantic number but then…what? Who does it and how?

    In a Planet Money podcast, journalists visit the Fed and observe how one person implements Fed policy. It all began during 2008 with frozen financial markets, mortgage related securities that no one want to buy or sell, and a $1.25 trillion assignment. One way to rescue wounded financial institutions was to buy securities from them. They get the money. The Fed gets the securities. And then, with more to lend and spend, the banks can lower interest rates and start money moving.

    For QE1, at the Fed, several people, daily, sat in front of a computer, selecting securities and then buying them. Keeping track of totals, when they were done, they had spent $1,249,999,999,999.39, 61 cents less than their goal. In this interactive graphic, the Washington Post explains the pros and cons.

    Now, QE2 is about to begin.

    The Economic Lesson

    Discussing the Great Depression, during 2002, Ben Bernanke told economist Milton Friedman, “You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.” (from In Fed We Trust) Dr. Bernanke was referring to the inadequacy of the Federal Reserve’s response during the 1930s. Now, as the Chair of the Fed, through QE1 and QE2, the Federal Reserve has been flooding the economy with money through its purchases of securities so that, as he said, “…we won’t do it again.”

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    Trash and Trade

    Nov 5 • Economic Thinkers, International Trade and Finance • 447 Views

    A WSJ article tells us “Memo to All Staff: Dump Your Trash.” But should they?
    According to the article, Texas state workers, Phoenix city workers, and Dartmouth college professors have all been told to take out the trash. Texas, as a result, is saving close to $825,000 on janitorial expenses. Dartmouth says its goal is to increase recycling but also it is saving money.

    As economists, we can ask the cost of taking out the trash. With cost defined as sacrifice, we have to consider how trash time would have been used. Would college professors use their time more productively on an alternative endeavor? Correspondingly will society pay because unskilled labor has less work?

    The Economic Lesson

    For every decision, there is an alternative that we decided not to do. That alternative is called the opportunity cost of the decision. Sometimes, seemingly wise decisions are less optimal when we realize we could have used our time more wisely.

    19th century economic thinker David Ricardo based his support of free trade on opportunity cost. He said that everyone will benefit when nations trade because then, by specializing, each nation can use its time and resources optimally. 


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    Outsourcing and Immigration

    Nov 4 • Businesses, Demand, Supply, and Markets, Developing Economies, International Trade and Finance, Labor • 357 Views

    A recent economics paper provides a surprising solution to those who believe outsourcing is a problem.

    The story, as explained by George Mason economist Tyler Cowen, involves the connection between offshore jobs and immigration. Traditionally, economists say that offshore jobs are great for efficiency because of lower costs. This new study implies that not only can we achieve lower costs here, but also we benefit because of the higher skilled jobs that new domestic facilities create.

    For example, assume a factory that assembles widgets cheaply in a developing nation can bring its work back to the U.S. because of less expensive immigrant labor. In addition, it will need management and technical support to run the plant. The result? We can enjoy lower unemployment for different types of labor while unskilled immigrants fill a gap in domestic labor markets.

    The Economic Lesson

    Combating a 9.6% unemployment rate is complicated. We need to be aware of the mismatching and delays explained by this year’s economics Nobel prize winners, of the connection between immigration and outsourcing, and of the importance of innovation. How can a fiscal stimulus target these objectives? 

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    The PIIG’s Progress

    Nov 3 • Economic Debates, Government, International Trade and Finance, Macroeconomic Measurement • 395 Views

    Almost everyone seems to be debating the same issues. Spend less, tax more, or both?

    Now perhaps Portugal has made some progress. Hoping to bring its budget deficit down to 4.6% of GDP in 2011, their VAT will ascend to 23%. But will they cut public sector pay 5%? They vote in several days. Last spring, Italy announced a civil servant wage freeze. Meanwhile Ireland, with the highest budget deficit in the EU (Luxembourg was the least indebted in the EU) announced that its spending cuts and refusal to pay into a pension reserve fund were achieving some success. Interestingly, Spain said it has made progress but, the areas it will not cut include pensions and unemployment benefits. Finally, Greece. Maybe some progress with spending cuts but tax revenue is a challenge.

    What does all of this mean? Markets are not optimistic. The price of insurance, a credit default swap, on PIIG’s debt has risen.

    The Economic Lesson

    A credit default swap is like an insurance policy. Instead of diminishing the impact of a house fire or a jewelry loss, this kind of insurance lowers the risk of a financial investment. Yes, credit default swaps were central to AIG’s financial debacle because AIG sold much more “insurance” than they could possibly cover. Managed appropriately, as described in this econtalk discussion, credit default swaps perform a valid financial role.

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    Environmental Dilemmas

    Nov 2 • Developing Economies, Economic Debates, Environment, Macroeconomic Measurement, Thinking Economically • 418 Views

    It’s the same question. Economic development or conservation?

    During April, the headline said, “Uganda Seeks to Reconcile Oil-Nature.” Now, in Tanzania, “Proposed Serengeti Highway Is Lined With Prospects and Fears.” The places differ but the issues are the same. In Uganda, the debate concerns oil drilling. In Tanzania, it is road building. Privately and publicly, oil will generate revenue for Uganda. Similarly, northern Tanzania will benefit from a new road that will bisect the Serengeti Park. It will facilitate medical care, carry much-needed goods, enable the spread of electricity and cell phone service. And, both projects, will irreparably harm priceless wildlife.

    What to do? An economist would suggest assessing the externalities.

    The Economic Lesson

    Economists see positive externalities wherever a transaction between two parties affects a third individual or group in some beneficial way. They see negative externalities when the impact on a third party is harmful. Vaccines usually have positive externalities while pollution is the typical example of a negative externality.

    Taking externalities an economic step further, we can look at cost. On a demand and supply graph, the equilibrium price of a decision that has a positive externality is too high because of the benefits experienced by society. Correspondingly, the equilibrium price of a decision with negative externalities is too cheap because of the associated costs that result.



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