A Lesson in Inventing Your Own Statistics

Nothing makes me happier than pointing out when someone is wrong.

I admit, that’s a pretty sad life. And for some unfathomable reason that doesn’t endear me to the person who uttered the incorrect statement – which it really should as I’m correcting some mistaken belief of theirs, assisting them on the path to truth.

Perhaps, as Jonathan Haidt teaches us, my endeavour is a hopeless one as approaching truth is forever clouded by confirmation bias. Polarization runs rampant and scientific disciplines are scarred by replication crises and publication bias.

I don’t take issue with any of those points: reduce my ambitions to “a little less wrong” and what follows still holds.

A few days after the Riksbank had upped its interest rate to 0% last month, Daniel Lacalle, a Spanish economist, author and fund manager – and whose musings are usually quite insightful – decided to vent his (questionable) objections to central banks and negative interest rates (NIRP) in a very strange way:

  1. Deliver a bunch of vague one-liners about monetary policy and unsustainable capital markets.
  2. Make shit up about Sweden and Swedish capital markets.

Obviously, I don’t mind too much the rhetoric of those who vehemently oppose central banks, but I do mind people pulling numbers out of their behinds and just inventing things about the world that clearly are not true.

So let’s do some fact-checking.

It’s apparently really bad for governments to have public debt – and negative interest rates allegedly work like crack-cocaine for politicians in their endless desire for more and more and more underfunded expenditures. Spend away, minister!

Except that many (non-crisis) countries such as Sweden aren’t borrowing. In fact, Sweden’s debt-to-GDP ratio is at its lowest point since 2012 and has been dropping like a stone since about the time that the Riksbank first lowered its policy rate to below 0%. In fact, as the Riksbank sits on over 35% of the outstanding government debt, there’s been quite a scramble among commercial banks to meet their capital requirements; there aren’t enough bonds to go around. The big macro debate in Sweden right now is over how much more the government ought to spend given that the debt is so small.

My favorite part is when Lacalle starts inventing numbers to support his case. Strangely enough, he’s arguing that NIRP fuels an unsustainable boom such that increasing share prices and property prices (things that most of us individually tend to think are good or at least harmless) are, in Lacalle’s mind, actually evidence of how bad life is.

Ye, I too hate it when my retirement fund or house go up in value.

  1. Sweden’s “Real estate price index has increased 50 percent (from 160 points to 240).”

The official statistics agency, Statistics Sweden, reports a +17 increase in broad real estate indices since early 2015, but they only include data until late-2018. The index is also on a completely different level, suggesting that Lacalle used some other source. 

Using numbers from Ekonomifakta we find house price increases of 9% and 19% across various regions from Q1 2015 (when the Riksbank NIRP policy began) to Q3 2019. Again, wrong index numbers so couldn’t have been Lacalle’s source.

But maybe house prices have increased some in the last few months such that Lacalle’s 50% number is correct? No, they’ve been flat, reports the realtor industry organization Svensk Mäklarstatistik.

Searching high and low for a Swedish house price index that conforms to Lacalle’s peculiar range (160 to 240), I finally found a promising one at Trading Economics:

Trading econ Sweden House Price Index.png

Interestingly enough, Lacalle seems to have misread the chart; the index value for Feb 2015 is around 190 – not 160 – producing a much more reasonable +26% increase over the last five years. Even that, as we’ve seen with the more reputable sources above, might be tad exaggerated.

2. Sweden’s stock market is up “more than 20%”

Next up: the stock market – always a grateful subject for unsubstantiated rants.

“more than 20%” is cheating as technically anything above “20%” would work. Curiously enough, no index for the Swedish stock market shows those numbers between Feb 18, 2015, and today:

  • OMXS30, a commonly quoted index that does not include dividends, is up 8% since then.
  • Using indices that do account for (reinvested) dividends, OMXSPI shows 27.5% gain since NIRP was introduced;
  • OMXS30GI shows a 30.5% gain;
  • and OMXSCAPGI reports a 52% return.

Then again, if gradually increasing stock markets are a bad thing, then why didn’t Lacalle go with the highest, most inflated number he could find?

3. “Average residential index” is apparently up 27%

Not a statistics I’m familiar with, but I refer the reader to (1) above for sources on property prices.

4. “nonreplicable assets have risen between 30 and 70 percent”

First: that’s quite a range, Sir.
Second: ye, I’ve never heard that term before (let alone something to measure it) – and neither, it seems, has Google. I suspect Lacalle invented some more numbers to complement his already fake-y statistics. 

Tl;dr – don’t just make shit up, kids. Do look into your claims before you mindless utter them. You may be entitled to your own opinion (actually not really), but you can’t just believe whatever you want, making shit up along the way.

One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)

yesnoimputedrent

What dominates the millennial economic experience? Impossibly high house prices in areas where jobs are available. I agree with the Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement that locally popular, long-term harmful restrictions on new buildings are the key cause of this crisis. So I enjoyed learning some nuances of the issue from a new Governance Podcast with Samuel DeCanio interviewing John Myers of London YIMBY and YIMBY Alliance.

Myers highlights the close link between housing shortages and income and wealth inequality. He describes the way that constraints on building in places like London and the South East of England have an immediate effect of driving rents and house prices up beyond what people relying on ordinary wages can afford. In addition, this has various knock-on effects in the labour market. Scarcity of housing in London drives up wages in areas of high worker demand in order to tempt people to travel in despite long commutes, while causing an excess of workers to bid wages down in deprived areas.

One of the aims of planning restrictions in the UK is to ‘rebalance’ the economy in favour of cities outside of London but the perverse result is to make the economic paths of different regions and generations diverge much more than they would do otherwise. Myers cites a compelling study by Matt Rognlie that argues that most increased wealth famously identified by Thomas Piketty is likely due to planning restrictions and not a more abstract law of capitalism.

Rognlie also inspires my friendly critique of Thomas Piketty and some philosophers agitating in his wake just published online in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy: ‘The mirage of mark-to-market: distributive justice and alternatives to capital taxation’.

My co-author Charles Delmotte and I argue that for both practical and conceptual reasons, radical attempts to uproot capitalism by having governments take an annual bite out of everyone’s capital holdings are apt to fail because, among other reasons, the rich tend to be much better than everyone else at contesting tax assessments. Importantly, such an approach is not effectively targeting underlying causes of wealth inequality, as well as the lived inequalities of capability that housing restrictions generate. The more common metric of realized income is a fairer and more feasible measure of tax liabilities.

Instead, we propose that authorities should focus on taxing income based on generally applicable rules. Borrowing an idea from Philip Booth, we propose authorities start including imputed rent in their calculations of income tax liabilities. We explain as follows:

A better understanding of the realization approach can also facilitate the broadening of the tax base. One frequently overlooked form of realization is the imputed rent that homeowners derive from living in their own house. While no exchange takes place here, the homeowner realizes a stream of benefits that renters would have to pay for. Such rent differs from mark-to-market conceptions by conceptualizing only the service that a durable good yields to an individual who is both the owner of the asset and its consumer or user in a given year. It is backward-looking: it measures the value that someone derives from the choice to use a property for themselves rather than rent or lease it over a specific time-horizon. It applies only to the final consumer of the asset who happens also to be the owner.

Although calculating imputed rent is not without some difficulties, it has the advantage of not pretending to estimate the whole value of the asset indefinitely into the future. While not identical and fungible, as with bonds and shares, there are often enough real comparable contracts to rent or lease similar property in a given area so as to credibly estimate what the cost would have been to the homeowner if required to rent it on the open market. The key advantage of treating imputed rent as part of annual income is that, unlike other property taxes, it can be more easily included as income tax liabilities. This means that the usual progressivity of income taxes can be applied to the realized benefit that people generally draw from their single largest capital asset. For example, owners of a single-family home but on an otherwise low income will pay a small sum at a small marginal rate (or in some cases may be exempted entirely under ordinary tax allowances). By contrast, high earners, living in large or luxury properties that they also own, will pay a proportionately higher sum at a higher marginal rate on their imputed rent as it is added to their labor income. Compared to other taxes on real estate, imputed rent is more systematically progressive and has significant support among economists especially in the United Kingdom (where imputed rent used to be part of the income tax framework).

This approach to tax reform is particularly apt because a range of international evidence suggests that the majority of contemporary observed increases in wealth inequality in developed economies, at least between the upper middle class and the new precariat, can be explained by changes in real estate asset values. Under this proposal, homeowners will feel the cost of rent rises in a way that to some extent parallels actual renters.

For social democrats, what I hope will be immediately attractive about this proposal is that it directly takes aim at a major source of the new wealth inequality in a way that is more feasible than chasing mirages of capital around the world’s financial system. For me, however, the broader hope is the dynamic effects. It will align homeowners’ natural desire to reduce their tax liability with YIMBY policies that lower local rents (as that it is what part of their income tax will be assessed against). If a tax on imputed rent were combined with more effective fiscal federalism, then homeowners could become keener to bring newcomers into their communities because they will share in financing public services.

Another Housing Bubble?

Last year I wandered down the street to an open house for sale. Even though I announced myself as a looky-loo, the agent welcomed me. We sat around talking and eating cookies for an hour; no prospects showed up.

It was a nice day today and I decided to walk to another open house thinking I’d again look around and chat with the agent. Hardly – the place was mobbed! It looks great in this picture but the reality is it’s stuck way up on a hill with a steep driveway and no garage. It’s 80 years old and although it’s been fixed up cosmetically it’s nothing to write home about; not in my book anyway. Nevertheless, I’m betting they’ll have multiple offers before this first day on the market is over.

This is the San Francisco Peninsula which is by no means representative of the whole country but I hear that Las Vegas has turned around too, as have tony places in New York. Why? Although I can’t prove it, I believe a good part the gusher of money that the Fed has been printing is now making its way into housing. The stock market has stalled, the bond market is in retreat, gold has plummeted, and that pretty much leaves housing.

So although the basic premise of monetary stimulus is plausible, it just doesn’t work. The new money seems to go careening around the economy in search of the Next Big Thing. Bubbles form and collapse, malinvestments are revealed and the cycle starts anew. What’s different this time is that it’s been such a short time since the collapse of the previous housing bubble to what looks like the start of another.

If these wasteful cycles of boom and bust are to end, the Fed must cease its stimulus programs. But it can’t. When the Fed dropped just a hint last week that it might start “tapering” off its bond-buying (money-printing) program, the bond market panicked. Why should we care about the bond market? For one thing, the average maturity of the federal debt is just a couple of years. Maturing debt must be rolled over into new debt, and if the new debt carries higher interest rate, the total annual interest payment could quickly swell from a “mere” $345 billion for the current fiscal year toward a trillion dollars per year, swamping any efforts to contain spending, like the $80 billion sequester that just took effect. We could end up needing a bailout from China.

The Fed will very likely continue or even accelerate its bond buying, depending on who occupies Bernanke’s seat come January. We should expect continuing cycles of bubbles and busts and the real possibility of some very nasty fiscal consequences.

Elites and Housing Segregation: What Gives?

Virginia Postrel has a provocative post on How Elites Built America’s Economic Wall up at Bloomberg (ht Wilson Mixon). The gist of the post is summed up as follows:

Housing prices have always been steeper in high-income places, but the difference is much greater than it used to be […] This segregation has social and political consequences, as it shapes perceptions — and misperceptions — of one’s fellow citizens and “normal” American life. It also has direct and indirect economic effects. “It’s a definite productivity loss,” Shoag says. “If there weren’t restrictions and you could build everywhere, it would be productive for people to move. You do make more as a waiter in LA than you do in Ohio. Preventing people from having that opportunity to move to these high-income places, making it so expensive to live there, is a loss.” That’s true not only for less-educated workers but for lower earners of all sorts, including the artists and writers who traditionally made places like New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe cultural centers.

This excerpt gets a high place for my Obvious Statement of the Year Award, but are elites listening? Government regulations hurt workers and drive out competition. This is a given, but I have some questions I thought readers could help me answer.

My questions are both broad and messy: Continue reading

Who Stole Our Trillions?

When asked about the recent bankruptcy of the City of San Bernardino, California Governor Jerry Brown had this to say:  “We have to realize this country has been dealt a very heavy blow: trillions and trillions of dollars in the wealth of America has been destroyed by very powerful people, some of whom have never been punished.”

Let’s see what sense we can make of this.  “Wealth of America” presumably means real assets: homes, businesses, land, etc.  Taken literally, this makes no sense.  Where are the smoldering ruins?  The financial crisis did a lot of damage but little or no physical damage.  What did happen is that malinvestments were revealed.  Tracts of houses built in places like the California Central Valley on the presumption that home values could never decline were left empty or unfinished.  Wealth was indeed destroyed: not tangible wealth but wealth in the sense of people’s expectations of ever-rising future house prices.

The housing crash was a necessary if painful cleanup of the damage done by policies that created the boom in the first place.  What were those policies? A rough summary:

  • Government policies aimed at expanding homeownership.  Loans to marginal buyers were encouraged by government-sponsored entities, particularly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
  • Low interest rates engineered by the Greenspan Fed during 2001-2005.
  • Tax deductions for mortgage interest.
  • And yes, private greed.  Institutions like Countrywide were churning out low-doc loans, no-doc loans, neg-am loans and God knows what else in defiance of common sense.  They were, of course, responding to incentives as a dog would respond to a piece of meat left on the kitchen counter.  But they are not dogs and should have known better.

Now, what about those trillions and trillions?  Indeed, total real (inflation-adjusted) household wealth has fallen by moImagere than a trillion in the last few years – all the way back to 2005 levels.  In other words, a lot of illusory “wealth” that was the result of the government-created boom has been taken off the books.  Painful?  Sure, you can no longr refi and take cash out for a vacation.  Your house is no longer an ATM.  We’ve sobered up and that’s good.

It’s so easy for a politician like Brown to spout sound-bite demagoguery and get away with it.  The majority of voters, full of nonsense fed to them by public mis-education, lap it up.  The truth is often complicated and ill-suited to sound bites.  That’s why economics can be both frustrating and satisfying.  Personally, I find it satisfying to try to understand the truth and convey it in class or in a blog.   I urge bright young people to consider economics as a career and consider people like GMU professor and prolific writer Don Boudreaux as a role model.