Saturday, February 7, 2009

Government and "Economic Shocks"

Elected officials, in general, have two fundamental incentives; the first is to get elected or re-elected; and the second is to do some good. The first is very straightforward and easily understandable. The second…well, the second creates a question…do some good…for whom? Generally, this question can be answered by saying that “for whom?” refers to people that will elect the officials…or will re-elect them.

Elected officials are often asked to behave in ways that reflect the common good…that ignore total self-interest. But, the very cynical argue that you can count on one hand the number of times that an elected official acted in ways that were solely for the good of all and did not reflect just self-interest. Others would argue that the number is larger than that…but to understand the elected official you must not ignore the fact that his or her position depends upon them acting in their own self-interest.

If a subset of the electorate elects an official, they do so on the expectation that the official will represent them and support their interests. If the official does not represent the subset’s interest to the degree that they expect the official to…then they have incentive to support another candidate. So, elected officials really only have one incentive in running for office…to get elected or to get re-elected.

The point here is that elected officials may have incentives that are different from the incentives that exist within the economic system. For example, if economic growth is slowing down…elected officials or those appointed by elected officials may have an incentive to stimulate the economy and increase employment if an election is near at hand. If elected officials or those appointed by elected officials express concern that the stock market may collapse, they may try and keep interest rates extremely low in order to avoid a stock market correction or a readjustment to a more realistic level. If elected officials or those appointed by elected officials believe that every American…or almost every American…should own a home, they will create and support programs that encourage such a result.

Every one of these efforts…and many more like them…can be traced back to efforts to get elected officials re-elected…and they are all aimed at a “good” thing…or a “good” cause. No one can disagree with the basic attempt by the elected officials or those appointed people.

Each of these efforts, however, is what the economist would call a “shock” to the economic system. Each of these efforts represents a response to a different set of incentives than those that exist within the functioning of markets and relationships in the economic system, itself. Economic models attempt to separate out the different factors that are at work within an economic system. Factors that do not respond to the regular incentives that exist within the economic system are called “exogenous” variables and changes in these variables are introduced independently of the system. Other variables that respond to the incentives that exist within the system, both those created by other non-exogenous variables as well as to the incentives created by the exogenous variables are called “endogenous” variables.

The importance of this distinction is that many of the “shocks” that an economic system receives is of the “exogenous” variety and are introduced into the economy for reasons other than allowing the economic system to work out all the incentives and dis-incentives that currently exist. In effect, these “exogenous” shocks are often aimed at preventing the economic system to work itself out in the direction it is going. And, as stated above, many of these interventions are for the “good” of the economy or for the “good” of, at least, some of the people in the economy.

The fact of the matter is that we don’t really have good theory to examine how these “exogenous” shocks come about. If we did, obviously, then they could be incorporated into the economic model and would become “endogenous” variables. Therefore, these “exogenous” shocks…government decisions…must stay exogenous and be introduced as they happen or are expected to happen.

Economics is a study of human behavior. Therefore, the predictions that come from economic models are going to be highly imprecise. Economic models are all incomplete and fallible. We just can’t do better than that when dealing with human behavior. Some situations lend themselves to more consistent behavior that allow for the making of better predictions…but other situations…like government decision making…are not systematic and so are almost impossible to model. And, we are finding out through the research in areas such as behavioral economics and behavioral finance that some situations that were, in the past, assumed to be fairly regular, are not that regular and need to be modeled with much less confidence about the accuracy of their predictions.

The name of John Maynard Keynes has surfaced a lot these days…and I am going to refer back to something that he wrote that, I believe, pertains to this very issue. In his commentary of the great economist Alfred Marshall after the great man died, Keynes discusses what makes an exceptional economist. In terms of Marshall, Keynes remarked that he was very learned in history. And then Keynes followed up on this by saying that anyone that wanted to be a top level economist needed to incorporate history into his or her explanation of how things worked. And, Keynes did not mean by history, incorporating a huge amount of statistical data into the model building process. Keynes was referring to the need to understand specific individuals and how those individuals made decision…how they were affected by their time…and how they were affected by their own experience and upbringing. He concluded that good economics required a good knowledge of history and biography…not something that is often taught in Ph. D. programs in economics or finance.

The point of this post is that in the policy making issues that government has to deal with we cannot just rely on assumptions of completely self-correcting free market economic systems where the incentives generated within the system are sufficient to work themselves out in a deterministic fashion. These systems will be continuously impacted by “exogenous” shocks that will bump the system one way or another, preventing the system from working itself out into a “new equilibrium” where everything is OK. These systems…for better or for worse…will be buffeted by these “exogenous” shocks and this will mean that we, in order to understand what is happening or what has happened, will need to introduce history and biography into the analysis we are going through. That is…economics cannot stand alone and provide all the answers.

This leads us into the position that we can…and must…look for bumps and shifts in the economy that are caused by governmental interference…usually with good intentions…and see how the government changes incentives…and how these changed incentives can divert the economy from one path onto another.

A good example of this comes in situations that create what economists call “moral hazard”…actions that lead people to do perverse things that they would not do under other circumstances. For example, people have to take risks in what they do…starting a business, buying a home, investing in securities, and so on. If a situation arises in which the people that have done one or more of these things get into dire straights…that is, they may face foreclosure or bankruptcy…elected officials can decide…for good reason…to protect them in some way. This presents a situation of “moral hazard” because those people that get protected may, in the future, decide to take on even higher levels of risk and make the economic or financial system more fragile. One can applaud of condemn actions that create “moral hazard” but it is a judgment decision. The elected officials must make a decision relating to the trade off between avoiding a bad situation now…protecting the people who have gotten in trouble…versus not protecting the people now and facing a economic or financial catastrophe. Where you set the tradeoff is a personal decision.

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