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Insider Trading: The Unknowable Crime

Posted on May 16, 2016 by Thaya Brook Knight, Ilya Shapiro

Under our criminal justice system, ignorance of the law is no defense.  But what if the law is undefined?  Or what if it seems to change with every new case that’s brought?  What if unelected judges (with life tenure) started to invent crimes, piece by piece, case by case?  Holding people accountable for knowing the law is just only if the law is knowable, and only if those creating the law are accountable to the people. 

On Friday, Cato filed an amicus brief in Salman v. U.S. that is aimed at limiting the reach of just such an ill-defined, judicially created law. “Insider trading” is a crime that can put a person away for more than a decade, and yet this crime is judge-made and, as such, is ever-changing. Although individuals may know generally what is prohibited, the exact contours of the crime have remained shrouded, creating traps for the unwary.

The courts, in creating this crime, have relied on a section of the securities laws that prohibits the use of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance” in connection with the purchase or sale of a security. The courts’ rationale has been that by trading on information belonging to the company, and in violation of a position of trust, the trader has committed a fraud.  The law, however, does not mention “insiders” or “insider trading.”  And yet, in 2015 alone, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged 87 individuals with insider trading violations.  

Broadly speaking, insider trading occurs when someone uses a position of trust to gain information about a company and later trades on that company, without permission, to receive a personal benefit.  But what constitutes a “benefit”?  The law doesn’t say.

Left to their own devices, the SEC has pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a “benefit,” making it more and more difficult for people to know when they are breaking the law.  In the case currently before the Court, Bassam Salman was charged with trading on information he received from his future brother-in-law, Mounir Kara, who had, in turn, received the information from his own brother, Maher.  The government has never alleged that Maher Kara received anything at all from either his brother or Salman in exchange for the information.  The government has instead claimed that the simple familial affection the men feel for each other is the “benefit.”  Salman’s trade was illegal because he happens to love the brothers-in-law who gave him the inside information.

Under this rationale, a person who trades on information received while making idle talk in a grocery line would be safe from prosecution while the same person trading on the same information heard at a family meal would be guilty of a felony.  Or maybe not.  After all, if we construe “benefit” this broadly, why not say that whiling away time chit-chatting in line is a “benefit”?    

No one should stumble blindly into a felony.  We hope the Court will take this opportunity to clarify the law and return it to its legislative foundation.  Anything else courts tyranny. 

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The IMF Predicts a Collapse of Venezuela's Bolivar

Posted on May 16, 2016 by Steve H. Hanke

In January, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) told us that Venezuela’s annual inflation rate would hit 720 percent by the end of the year. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook, which was published in April, stuck with the 720 percent inflation forecast. What the IMF failed to do is tell us how they arrived at the forecast. Never mind. The press has repeated the 720 percent inflation forecast ad nauseam.

Since the IMF’s 720 percent forecast has been elevated to the status of a factoid, it is worth a bit of reflection and analysis. We can reverse engineer the IMF’s inflation forecast to determine the Bolivar to U.S. greenback exchange rate implied by the inflation forecast.

When we conduct that exercise, we calculate that the VEF/USD rate moves from today’s black market (read: free market) rate of 1,110 to 6,699 by year’s end. So, the IMF is forecasting that the bolivar will shed 83 percent of its current value against the greenback by New Year’s Day, 2017. The following chart shows the dramatic plunge anticipated by the IMF.

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A Monetary Policy Primer, Part 4: Stable Prices or Stable Spending?

Posted on May 16, 2016 by George Selgin

Changes in the general level of prices are capable, as we’ve seen, of eliminating shortages or surpluses of money, by adding to or subtracting from the purchasing power of existing money holdings.  But because such changes place an extra burden on the price system, increasing the likelihood that individual prices will fail to accurately reflect the true scarcity of different goods and services at any moment, the less they have to be relied upon, the better.  A better alternative, if only it can somehow be achieved, or at least approximated, is a monetary system that adjusts the stock of money in response to changes in the demand for money balances, thereby reducing the need for changes in the general level of prices.

Please note that saying this is not saying that we need to have a centrally-planned money supply, let alone one that’s managed by a committee that’s unconstrained by any explicit rules or commitments.  Whether such a committee would in fact come closer to the ideal I’m defending than some alternative arrangement is a crucial question we must come to later on.  For now I will merely observe that, although it’s true that unconstrained central monetary planners might manage the money stock according to some ideal, that’s only so because there’s nothing that such planners might not do.

The claim that an ideal monetary regime is one that reduces the extent to which changes in the general level of prices are required to keep the quantity of money supplied in agreement with the quantity demanded might be understood to imply that what’s needed to avoid monetary troubles is a monetary system that avoids all changes to the general level of prices, or one that allows that level to change only at a steady and predictable rate.  We might trust a committee of central bankers to adopt such a policy.  But then again, we could also insist on it, by eliminating their discretionary powers in favor of having them abide by a strict stable price level (or inflation rate) mandate.

Monetary and Non-Monetary Causes of Price-Level Movements

But things aren’t quite so simple.  For while changes in the general price level are often both unnecessary and undesirable, they aren’t always so.  Whether they’re desirable or not depends on the reason for the change.

This often overlooked point is best brought home with the help of the famous “equation of exchange,” MV = Py.   Here, M is the money stock, V is its “velocity” of circulation, P is the price level, and y is the economy’s real output of goods and services.  Since output is a flow, the equation necessarily refers to an interval of time.  Velocity can then be understood as representing how often a typical unit of money is traded for output during that interval.  If the interval is a year, then both Py and MV stand for the money value of output produced during that year or, alternatively, for that years’ total spending.

From this equation, it’s apparent that changes in the general price level may be due to any one of three underlying causes: a change in the money stock, a change in money’s velocity, or a change in real output.

Once upon a time, economists (or some of them, at least) distinguished between changes in the price level made necessary by developments in the “goods” side of the economy, that is, by changes in real output that occur independently of changes in the flow of spending, and those made necessary by changes in that flow, that is, in either the stock of money or its velocity.   Deflation — a decline in the equilibrium price level — might, for example, be due to a decline in the stock of money, or in its velocity, either of which would mean less spending on output.  But it could also be due to a greater abundance of goods that, with spending unchanged, must command lower prices.  It turns out that, while the first sort of deflation is something to be regretted, and therefore something that an ideal monetary system should avoid, the second isn’t.  What’s more, attempts to avoid the second, supply-driven sort of deflation can actually end up doing harm.  The same goes for attempts to keep prices from rising when the underlying cause is, not increased spending, but reduced real output of goods and services.  In short, what a good monetary system ought to avoid is, not fluctuations in the general price level or inflation rate per se, but fluctuations in the level or growth rate of total spending.

Prices Adjust Readily to Changes in Costs

But what about those “sticky” prices?  Aren’t they a reason to avoid any need for changes in the price level, and not just those changes made necessary by underlying changes in spending?  It turns out that they aren’t, for a number of reasons.[1]

First of all, whether a price is “sticky” or not depends on why it has to adjust.  When, for example, there’s a general decline in spending, sellers have all sorts of reasons to resist lowering their prices.  If the decline might be temporary, sellers would be wise to wait and see before incurring price-adjustment costs.  Also, sellers will generally not profit by lowering their prices until their own costs have also been lowered, creating what Leland Yeager calls a “who goes first” problem.  Because the costs that must themselves adjust downwards in order for sellers to have a strong motive to follow suit include very sticky labor costs, the general price level may take a long time “groping” its way (another Yeager expression) to its new, equilibrium level.  In the meantime, goods and services, being overpriced, go unsold.

When downward pressure on prices comes from an increase in the supply of goods, and especially when the increase reflects productivity gains, the situation is utterly different.  For gains in productivity are another name for falling unit costs of production; and for competing sellers to reduce their products’ prices in response to reduced costs is relatively easy.  It is, indeed, something of a no-brainer, because it promises to bring a greater market share, with no loss in per-unit profits.  Heck, companies devote all sorts of effort to being able to lower their costs precisely so that they can take advantage of such opportunities to profitably lower their prices.  By the same token, there is little reason for sellers to resist raising prices in response to adverse supply shocks. The widespread practice of “mark-up pricing” supplies ample proof of these claims.  Macroeconomic theories and models (and their are plenty of them, alas) that simply assign a certain “stickiness” parameter to prices, without allowing for the possibility that they respond more readily to some underlying changes than to others, lead policymakers astray by overlooking this important fact.

A Changing Price Level May be Less “Noisy” Than a Constant One

Because prices tend to respond relatively quickly to productivity gains and setbacks, there’s little to be gained by employing monetary policy to prevent their movements related to such gains or setbacks.  On the contrary: there’s much to lose, because productivity gains and losses tend to be uneven across firms and industries, making any resulting change to the general price level a mere average of quite different changes to different equilibrium prices.  Economists’ tendency — and it hard to avoid — to conflate a “general” movement in prices, in the sense of a change in their average level, with a general movement in the across-the-board sense, is in this regard a source of great mischief.  A policy aimed at avoiding what is merely a change in the average, stemming from productivity innovations, increases instead of reducing the overall burden of price adjustment, introducing that much more “noise” into the price system.

Nor is it the case that a general decline or increase in prices stemming from productivity gains or setbacks itself conveys a noisy signal.  On the contrary: if things are generally getting cheaper to produce, a falling price level conveys that fact of reality in the most straightforward manner possible.  Likewise, if productivity suffers — if there is a war or a harvest failure or OPEC-inspired restriction in oil output or some other calamity — what better way to let people know, and to encourage them to act economically, than by letting prices generally go up?  Would it really help matters if, instead of doing that, the monetary powers-that-be decided to shrink the money stock, and thereby MV, for the sake of keeping the price level constant?  Yet that is what a policy of strict price-level stability would require.

Reflection on such scenarios ought to be enough to make even the most die-hard champion of price-level or inflation targeting reconsider.  But in case it isn’t, allow me to take still another tack, by observing that, when policymakers speak of stabilizing the price level or the rate of inflation, they mean stabilizing some measure of the level of output prices, such as the Consumer Price Index, or the GDP deflator, or the current Fed favorite, the PCE (“Personal Consumption Expenditure”) price-index.  So long as changes in total spending (“aggregate demand”) are the only source of changes in the overall level of prices,  those changes will tend to affect input as well as output prices, so policies that stabilize output prices will also tend to stabilize input prices.   General changes in productivity, in contrast, necessarily imply changes in the relation of input to output prices: general productivity gains (meaning gains in numerous industries that outweigh setbacks in others) mean that output prices must decline relative to input prices; while general productivity setbacks mean that output prices must increase relative to input prices.  In such cases, to stabilize output prices is to destabilize input prices, and vice versa.

So, which?  Appeal to menu costs supplies a ready answer: if a burden of price adjustment there must be, let the burden fall on the least sticky prices.  Since “input” prices include wages and salaries, that alone makes a policy that would impose the burden on them a poor choice, and a dangerous one at that.  As we’ve seen, it means adding insult to injury during productivity setbacks, when wage earners would have to take cuts (or settle for smaller or less frequent raises).  It also increases the risk of productivity gains being associated with asset-price bubbles, because those gains will inspire corresponding boosts to aggregate demand which, in the presence of sticky input prices, can cause profits to swell temporarily.  Unless the temporary nature of the extraordinary profits is recognized, asset prices will be bid up, but only for as long as it takes for costs to clamber their way upwards in response to the overall increase in spending.

What About Debtor-Creditor Transfers?

But if the price level is allowed to vary, and to vary unexpectedly, doesn’t that mean that the terms of fixed-interest rate contracts will be distorted, with creditors gaining at debtors expense when prices decline, and the opposite happening when they rise?

Usually it does; but, when price-level movements reflect underlying changes in productivity, it doesn’t.  That’s because productivity changes tend to be associated with like changes in  “neutral” or “full information” interest rates.  Suppose that, with each of us anticipating a real return on capital of four percent, and zero inflation, I’d happily lend you, and you’d happily borrow, $1000 at four percent interest.  The anticipated real interest rate is of course also four percent.  Now suppose that productivity rises unexpectedly, raising the actual real return on capital by two percentage points, to six percent rather than four percent.  In that case, other things equal, were I able to go back and renegotiate the contract, I’d want to earn a real rate of six percent, to reflect the higher opportunity cost of lending.  You, on the other hand, can also employ your borrowings more productively, or are otherwise going to be able (as one of the beneficiaries of the all-around gain in productivity) to bear a greater real interest-rate burden, other things equal, and so should be willing to pay the higher rate.

Of course, we can’t go back in time and renegotiate the loan.  So what’s the next best thing?  It is to let the productivity gains be reflected in proportionately lower output prices — that is, in a two percent decline in the the price level over the course of the loan period — and thus in an increase, of two percentage points, in the real interest rate corresponding to the four percent nominal rate we negotiated.

The same reasoning applies, mutatis mutandis, to the case of unexpected, adverse changes in productivity.  Only the argument for letting the price level change in this case, so that an unexpected increase in prices itself compensates for the unexpected decline in productivity, is even more compelling.  Why is that?  Because, as we’ve seen, to keep the price level from rising when productivity declines, the authorities would have to shrink the flow of spending.  Ask yourself whether doing that will make life easier or harder for debtors with fixed nominal debt contracts, and you’ll see my point.

Next: The Supply of Money


[1] What follows is a brief summary of arguments I develop at greater length in my 1997 IEA pamphlet, Less Than Zero.  In that pamphlet I specifically make the case for a rate of deflation equal to an economies (varying) rate of total factor productivity growth.  But the arguments may just as well be read as supplying grounds for preferring a varying yet generally positive inflation rate to a constant rate.

[Cross-posted from]

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Fifty Years after the Cultural Revolution

Posted on May 16, 2016 by David Boaz

May 16, 1966, is regarded as the beginning of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China. Post-Maoist China has never quite come to terms with Mao’s legacy and especially the disastrous Cultural Revolution

Many countries have a founding myth that inspires and sustains a national culture. South Africa celebrates the accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the founder of that nation’s modern, multi-racial democracy. In the United States, we look to the American Revolution and especially to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. 

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The ideas of the Declaration, given legal form in the Constitution, took the United States of America from a small frontier outpost on the edge of the developed world to the richest country in the world in scarcely a century. The country failed in many ways to live up to the vision of the Declaration, notably in the institution of chattel slavery. But over the next two centuries, that vision inspired Americans to extend the promises of the Declaration—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to more and more people.

China, of course, followed a different vision, the vision of Mao Zedong. Take Mao’s speech on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”

Tragically, and unbelievably, this vision appealed not only to many Chinese but even to Americans and Europeans, some of them prominent. But from the beginning, it went terribly wrong, as should have been predicted. Communism created desperate poverty in China. The “Great Leap Forward” led to mass starvation. The Cultural Revolution unleashed “an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness” in which “tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed.” Estimates of the number of unnatural deaths during Mao’s tenure range from 15 million to 80 million. This is so monstrous that we can’t really comprehend it. What inspired many American and European leftists was that Mao really seemed to believe in the communist vision. And the attempt to actually implement communism leads to disaster and death.

When Mao died in 1976, China changed rapidly. His old comrade Deng Xiaoping, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, had learned something from the 30 years of calamity. He began to implement policies he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which looked a lot like freer markets: decollectivization and the “responsibility system” in agriculture, privatization of enterprises, international trade, liberalization of residency requirements.

The changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world—more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that is eroding the continuing authoritarianism of the political system. On its 90th birthday, the CCP still rules China with an iron fist. There is no open political opposition, and no independent judges or media. And yet the economic changes are undermining the party’s control, a challenge of which the party is well aware. In 2008, Howard W. French reported in the New York Times:

Political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.

Much remains unfree here. The rights of public expression and assembly are sharply limited; minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Province, are repressed; and the party exercises a nearly complete monopoly on political decision making.

But Chinese people also increasingly live where they want to live. They travel abroad in ever larger numbers. Property rights have found broader support in the courts. Within well-defined limits, people also enjoy the fruits of the technological revolution, from cellphones to the Internet, and can communicate or find information with an ease that has few parallels in authoritarian countries of the past.

The Chinese Communist Party remains in control. And there’s a resurgence of Maoism under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, as my former colleague Jude Blanchette is writing about. But at least one study finds ideological groupings in China divided between statists who are both socialist and culturally conservative, and liberals who tend toward “constitutional democracy and individual liberty, … market-oriented reform … modern science and values such as sexual freedom.” 

Xi’s government struggles to protect its people from acquiring information, routinely battling with Google, Star TV, and other media. Howard French noted that “the country now has 165,000 registered lawyers, a five-fold increase since 1990, and average people have hired them to press for enforcement of rights inscribed in the Chinese Constitution.” People get used to making their own decisions in many areas of life and wonder why they are restricted in other ways. I am hopeful that the 100th anniversary of the CCP in 2021 will be of interest mainly to historians of China’s past and that the Chinese people will by then enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under a government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed. 

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