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High Point

Weighing the
Corporate Tax

Interview with
John Cochrane




Has College Become a Riskier Investment? The payoff has
become more uncertain — but you’re probably still better off going

Econ Focus is the
economics magazine of the
Federal Reserve Bank of
Richmond. It covers economic
issues affecting the Fifth Federal
Reserve District and
the nation and is published
on a quarterly basis by the
Bank’s Research Department.
The Fifth District consists of the
District of Columbia,
Maryland, North Carolina,
South Carolina, Virginia,
and most of West Virginia.

John A. Weinberg




Kartik Athreya

Digital Currency: New private currencies like Bitcoin offer
potential — and puzzles

Aaron Steelman

David A. Price


Kathy Constant

The High Point Initiative: Can giving drug dealers a second
chance actually reduce crime?

Renee Haltom
Jessie Romero
Tim Sablik


Lisa Kenney

Ties That Bind: In U.S. food aid efforts, humanitarian relief and
domestic interests both hurt and help each other

Taxing the Behemoths: Many policymakers say that
corporations aren’t paying their fair share, but corporate taxes
may have hidden costs



President’s Message/Hitting the Target
Upfront/Regional News at a Glance
Federal Reserve/Reaching for Yield
The Profession/Getting the Word Out
Jargon Alert/Present Value
Research Spotlight/Agricultural Policy and Market Distortions
Policy Update/First Designations of ‘Systemically Important’ Firms
Around the Fed/The IT Revolution
Economic History/The Rise and Fall of Circuit City
Interview/John Cochrane
Book Review/Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the
Industrial Revolution
40 District Digest/Workforce Investment in Times of Need and
Fiscal Constraint
48 Opinion/A Different Recovery for Household Spending

Jamie Feik
Charles Gerena
Rick Kaglic
Ann Macheras
Karl Rhodes
Caroline Tan

Published quarterly by
the Federal Reserve Bank
of Richmond
P.O. Box 27622
Richmond, VA 23261

Subscriptions and additional
copies: Available free of
charge through our website at
or by calling Research
Publications at (800) 322-0565.
Reprints: Text may be reprinted
with the disclaimer in italics below.
Permission from the editor is
required before reprinting photos,
charts, and tables. Credit Econ
Focus and send the editor a copy of
the publication in which the
reprinted material appears.
The views expressed in Econ Focus
are those of the contributors and not
necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank
of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.
ISSN 2327-0241 (Print)
ISSN 2327-025X (Online)

Hitting the Target

n January 2012, for the first time in its 100-year
history, the Federal Reserve announced an explicit
inflation target. Naming an explicit target strengthens the Fed’s commitment to maintaining price stability,
but it also triggers commentary when inflation deviates
from that target — in this case, 2 percent. For most of this
year, headline inflation has been relatively low, between
1 percent and 1.5 percent. (Headline inflation includes food
and energy prices, which tend to be more volatile than the
prices of other goods.) This led to speculation that the Fed
would — or should — continue to pursue accommodative
monetary policy longer than it otherwise might.
But policymakers don’t necessarily change course every
time inflation strays from the central bank’s target, whether
that target is implicit or explicit. Our goal is for inflation to
average 2 percent over time (within a narrow range), not for
inflation to be exactly 2 percent all the time. That’s because
the inflation rate in any given period can be buffeted by a
variety of factors, some of which may prove to be transitory,
such as an increase in the price of oil due to political conflict
in an oil-producing country or a rise in import prices due to
a falling dollar. But, as Milton Friedman famously described
it, monetary policy affects the economy only with long and
variable lags. If policymakers overreact to temporary factors,
their actions are likely to take effect only after those factors
have subsided, leading to policy that doesn’t match current
market conditions.
These examples involve factors that push inflation above
its target level, but similar reasoning applies when inflation
is below target. One factor in the low inflation rate earlier
this year was an unusually slow rise in the price of medical
services, a result of cuts in Medicare reimbursements due
to sequestration. Falling energy and import prices also
dampened inflation. But these factors appear likely to be
One way for the central bank to gauge future pressures on
supply and demand, and thus on prices, is to monitor inflation expectations. People and firms make decisions based on
what they think inflation will be in the future; all else equal,
the actions they take then have an effect on actual inflation.
The textbook example is a labor negotiation: If union members expected an increase in the inflation rate to 5 percent,
for example, they would demand a higher wage increase to
compensate. The firm would then raise prices in order to
cover its higher labor costs.
If long-term inflation expectations are well anchored,
however — if the public believes that the central bank is
committed to price stability — it’s less likely that people will
alter their behavior in a way that affects inflation. Currently,
the various gauges of inflation expectations suggest that
long-term expectations are stable, and that inflation is


likely to move back up toward
2 percent over the medium
term. One indicator is the
difference in yield between
inflation-indexed Treasury
securities and regular Treasury
securities. This measure
suggests that market participants expect inflation to
average close to 2 percent over
the next five years and a bit
more than that over the next
10 years.
There also are various surveys that ask people directly
about their expectations. From one survey period to
another, there is some variation in short-term inflation
expectations, but long-term expectations are consistent
with the Fed’s target. Currently, those surveys indicate that
economists and businesspeople expect inflation to return to
2 percent within the next year or two, and to average 2 percent over the next decade. Consumers expect inflation to be
a bit higher, around 3 percent, roughly the same level they
have expected for the past two decades.
The fact that inflation expectations are stable does
not imply that policymakers can be complacent. On the
contrary, we must constantly monitor a broad range of data
for signs that a persistent change in inflation might be in the
offing. Indeed, the stability of inflation expectations is
strong evidence that market participants anticipate that the
Fed will take the actions necessary to keep inflation close to
2 percent over time.
If changes in inflation do appear to be persistent, then we
must adopt appropriate policies to ensure that those
changes don’t become embedded in expectations. As we
learned the hard way in the late 1960s and 1970s, once
market participants expect higher inflation, it is difficult
and costly for the central bank to change those expectations.
By acting promptly — but not precipitously — when
economic conditions warrant, we will preserve the price
stability that is fundamental to economic growth.





Regional News at a Glance

Conceived to Fail?

Bankrupt Patriot Coal Questions Its Origin
ost bankrupt companies don’t question the
legitimacy of their own existence, but Patriot
Coal has done exactly that. Patriot, a St. Louis-based
company with most of its mines in West Virginia, filed
for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. As part of the case,
the company and its creditors’ committee investigated
whether its former owner, Peabody Energy, committed
a “fraudulent transfer” by spinning it off in 2007.
One creditor, the United Mine Workers of America
(UMWA), made that claim in federal court in January
2013. The union alleged that Peabody created Patriot as
a dumping ground for subsidiaries with unsustainable
liabilities for retiree health care benefits and other
burdensome “legacy obligations.”
According to the UMWA, Peabody intentionally
undercapitalized Patriot from the start. As a group, the
Peabody subsidiaries that moved to Patriot were insolvent at the end of 2006, but as part of the spinoff
Peabody agreed to retain the health care liabilities for
some of the retired workers. This agreement and some
smaller balance sheet transfers were more than enough
to make Patriot solvent when its stock debuted on Nov.
1, 2007. (Even so, the spinoff cut Peabody’s health care
obligations by about $550 million.)
The companies further agreed that if Patriot’s
retiree health care obligations ever decreased,
Peabody’s obligations would decline proportionately.
But when Patriot asked the bankruptcy court for permission to significantly reduce its obligations, Patriot



Retired miners took to the streets of St. Louis to protest
proposed cuts in funding for health care benefits.



and the UMWA filed suits seeking to prevent Peabody
from reducing its obligations as well. The UMWA and
other creditors also asked Patriot to investigate claims
that it had been designed to fail.
Peabody and Patriot officials declined to be interviewed, but a statement on Peabody’s website disputes
the charge that Patriot was conceived to fail. “Patriot
was highly successful following its launch more than
five years ago, with significant assets, low debt levels,
and a market value that more than quadrupled in less
than a year,” Peabody states. Patriot’s stock soared from
$18.75 on Nov. 1, 2007, to $80.69 on June 18, 2008, and
the company earned net income of $142.7 million in
2008 and $127.2 million in 2009.
Peabody’s online statement says Patriot should have
bolstered its financial position during those good years
instead of purchasing Magnum Coal, a spinoff of St.
Louis-based Arch Coal. Magnum added about $500
million to Patriot’s legacy obligations, but in a conference call with analysts in 2008, Mark Schroeder,
Patriot’s chief financial officer, downplayed the risk.
The Magnum subsidiaries “do have legacy liabilities,
like Patriot has legacy liabilities,” he said. “We’re very
familiar with how to work with those, how to control
those costs. We are not afraid of legacy liabilities.”
Four years later, amid declining demand, lower
prices, and higher costs, the company cited “unsustainable labor-related legacy liabilities” as one of the problems forcing it into Chapter 11. When it entered bankruptcy, Patriot reported legacy liabilities of $1.8 billion,
including obligations to provide health care benefits to
several thousand UMWA retirees and their dependents.
As part of Patriot’s reorganization, the bankruptcy
court gave the company permission in May to significantly reduce its funding of retiree health care benefits
by transferring them to a trust that will be administered
by UMWA appointees. Patriot agreed to help fund the
trust with an ownership stake in the reorganized company, profit sharing, royalty payments, and “a portion of
future recoveries from certain litigation.”
Those recoveries materialized in October 2013,
when Peabody agreed to contribute $310 million over
four years to help fund the trust and settle all Patriot
and UMWA claims involving the Patriot bankruptcy.
The settlement, however, leaves the question of
Patriot’s legitimacy unanswered.

Back on the Market

IPO Succeeds for Northern Va.-based Hilton
n December, McLean, Va.-based Hilton Worldwide Holdings completed an initial public offering (IPO) of 117.6 million shares priced at $20 apiece.
The sale raised $2.35 billion, making it the largest
IPO ever for a hotel company, ahead of the $1.09
billion raised by Hyatt Hotels in 2009. At the IPO
share price, Hilton has a stock market value of about
$19.7 billion.
Private equity firm Blackstone Group, which
acquired Hilton in the summer of 2007, did not sell
any of its shares and maintains a 76 percent stake in
the company. Blackstone’s record-setting purchase of
Hilton for $26.3 billion during the heady days of the
real estate boom gave the firm control of Hilton’s
portfolio of nearly 3,000 franchised and companyowned hotels, including brands such as Hampton Inn
and Embassy Suites, as well as the historic Waldorf
Astoria hotel in New York City.
But when the real estate market turned south
and the economy plunged into recession just a few
months later, Blackstone’s acquisition, which had


been financed largely by debt, looked much less
favorable. Businesses and households alike cut back
on travel expenses, and the entire hospitality industry
Since that time, the hotel market has shown signs
of recovery, returning to pre-recession levels of
growth in occupancy and average revenue per room.
Many analysts expect this trend to continue for
another three to four years, in part because construction of new hotels largely stalled during the downturn
and supply is constrained. According to Hilton’s
IPO filing, Blackstone has added more than 1,000
new properties and 170,000 new rooms to Hilton’s
portfolio, largely through franchising, since taking
the company private six years ago.
Hilton moved its headquarters from Beverly
Hills, Calif., to McLean in 2009; it employs roughly
7,400 people in the Washington, D.C., area. Hilton
reported net income of $352 million and total revenue
of $9.3 billion for 2012, up 39 percent and 6 percent,
respectively, from the previous year.

Be Careful Crossing the Street in Maryland

State Upholds Rare Negligence Rule
n July, Maryland’s Court of Appeals, the highest
court of the state, decided to uphold a rule that
bars plaintiffs from winning payouts on negligence
lawsuits if they were at fault in any way. That means if
you’re hit by a car while jaywalking, you might walk
(or limp) away empty-handed.
In Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, a soccer
coach in Fulton, Md., was severely injured when a set
of goal posts fell on him — but only after he had
jumped on and swung from them. The jury concluded
that the soccer association was negligent by failing to
make sure the posts were secured to the ground, but
the coach was found to be negligent, too, by misusing
the equipment. As a result, he was denied all damages.
The legal standard, adopted through judicial
action by Maryland’s courts in 1847, is called “contributory negligence.” The court argued in its recent
opinion that the state’s legislature had rejected
dozens of bills over the years seeking to move away


from the standard, so it would be inappropriate for
the court to override clear legislative intent.
Meanwhile, 46 other states have abandoned
contributory negligence: Outside of Maryland, it
survives only in the District of Columbia, North
Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama. Elsewhere, damages
aren’t all or nothing. Instead, damages are reduced by
the percentage of the harm a jury determines the
plaintiff caused, a newer doctrine known as “comparative negligence.” (In most of those 46 states, the
plaintiff ’s recovery is eliminated if he or she is more
than 50 percent responsible for the injury.)
The nation’s shift away from contributory negligence occurred with stunning speed, at least by tort
law standards: Between 1968 and 1985, 38 states
adopted comparative negligence. Why the (relatively)
sudden change? The widespread adoption of product
liability laws after the mid-1960s, which now govern
the bulk of negligence lawsuits that manufacturers



face, has reduced business groups’ interest in opposing the shift to comparative negligence, argued
economist Christopher Curran of Emory University
in a 1992 article. That may have made room for the
legal profession to lobby for comparative negligence,
since it increases the need for legal services to
quibble in courts over precise margins of negligence,
according to Curran.

Another possibility is that courts and legislatures
began to view contributory negligence as an outdated
standard that harshly punishes victims for minor
mistakes — or, in the words of the Coleman case’s
dissenting judges, a “dinosaur” that the court should
have extinguished “with the force of a modern
asteroid strike.”
— R E N E E H A LT O M

Wage War

D.C. Living Wage Bill Prompts Retailer Pushback
n July, the Washington, D.C., city council
approved a bill requiring large retailers to pay a
“living wage” of $12.50 per hour, 50 percent higher
than the city’s minimum wage of $8.25. The Large
Retailer Accountability Act applied only to retailers
with gross annual revenues of $1 billion and stores
occupying 75,000 square feet or more. Mayor Vincent
Gray vetoed the bill on Sept. 12 amid complaints from
affected companies.
Since 1994, when Baltimore introduced the
nation’s first living wage law, more than 140 jurisdictions have enacted such provisions. Living wages
typically are higher than the minimum wage and
apply only to companies receiving some form of business assistance or contracting with the city or state.
(See “Above the Minimum,” Region Focus, Fall 2004.)
The D.C. bill was somewhat unusual in that it was not
limited to businesses receiving assistance and it targeted retailers rather than government contractors.
The wage requirements would have been waived for
large retailers with a unionized workforce.
Wal-Mart, which plans to build at least five stores
employing about 300 workers each in D.C., argued
that this exemption would unfairly punish it relative
to its competitors in the city, such as Giant Food and
Safeway, both of which employ union workers. WalMart threatened to cancel its expansion if the law
went into effect. In his letter to the city council
explaining his veto decision, Gray called the bill a
“job killer.”
Economic theory predicts that raising the cost of
a good (in this case labor) reduces demand for that
good, and empirical evidence on wage floors largely
confirms this theory. In a review of the data on living
wage provisions, David Neumark, director of the
Center for Economics and Public Policy at the
University of California, Irvine, along with Matthew
Thompson and Leslie Koyle of Charles River





Artist’s rendering of the Wal-Mart under construction
at Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Associates, a consulting firm, found that, on average,
a 50 percent increase in living wages reduces employment for low-skill workers by between 2.4 and 2.8
percentage points.
“We have a lot of evidence from minimum wages
generally, and somewhat less from living wages, that
those laws reduce employment for low-skilled
workers a little bit,” says Neumark.
Still, it’s possible that the benefits of higher
income for those with jobs could offset the job
losses. The data suggest that living wages may lower
overall poverty, but not much. “There’s very weak
evidence statistically that actual urban poverty falls
slightly when living wage laws are implemented,”
says Neumark.
Following the mayor’s veto decision, Wal-Mart is
moving ahead with its construction plans. It recently
opened two new hiring centers and anticipates opening two of the retail stores by year-end.
Meanwhile, the debate over how to encourage job
and wage growth continues. In August, Washington
had an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, and nearly a
fifth of the population lives below the poverty line.


Reaching for Yield

Are the Fed’s low interest rate
policies pushing investors
toward risk?
t may surprise some people to learn that the Federal
Reserve, despite being one of the nation’s most important financial regulators, sometimes intentionally
encourages investors to take on risk.
That’s a key function of monetary policy after a recession.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has called it “a return to
productive risk-taking.” When the Fed lowers the federal
funds interest rate, its main policy instrument, other market
rates tend to fall, making it more attractive for entrepreneurs to raise money for startups and for existing businesses
to expand capacity. That’s one way low interest rates help to
spur economic recoveries.
But what about people who earn a living by lending
money? The world’s largest investors are insurance companies, pension funds, and mutual funds, which collectively
hold $24 trillion in assets. They invest heavily in bonds,
together holding $4.7 trillion in corporate and foreign
bonds, among other types, so their returns are very sensitive
to interest rates. These investors often owe their clients
guaranteed payouts through insurance policies, annuities,
and pensions. In those cases, a low interest rate environment
doesn’t just squeeze profits, it could risk insolvency.
“When interest rates fall, they may have no alternative
but to seek out riskier investments,” wrote economist
Raghuram Rajan, then the chief economist of the
International Monetary Fund, back in 2005. He was one of
the first to raise concerns that investors are forced to “reach
for yield” when interest rates are low. “If they stay with low
return but safe investments, they are likely to default for
sure on their commitments, while if they take riskier but
higher return investments, they have some chance of
survival.” (Rajan recently left the University of Chicago to
head the central bank of India.)
His words were written in what was then a period of
remarkably low interest rates. They’re even lower today.
The Fed’s policy rates have been effectively at zero since
December 2008, and the Fed has said they’ll stay there until
unemployment comes down significantly. Not only have
short-term rates been lower and for a longer period than in
any episode since the Great Depression, but long-term rates
are remarkably low as well, thanks to the Fed’s unconventional monetary policies like quantitative easing and
“Operation Twist.” For the world’s biggest bond investors,
returns have been squeezed at all parts of the yield curve.


This time, some Fed policymakers have also voiced concerns about reaching for yield. Fed Governor Jeremy Stein
has been the most vocal, detailing what he views as causes of
excessive risk in a February speech, and Bernanke and Vice
Chair Janet Yellen have said that the Fed is watching the
They all agree on one thing: Greater risk-taking — and
the failure of any one firm if those bets go bust — is not
necessarily a concern for policymakers. The problem could
be if many investors suffer losses on these risks at the same
time, or if they enter into them in ways that could bring
other institutions down. With the financial crisis fresh in
regulators’ memories, should the Fed be concerned that its
low rates are planting the seeds for the next crisis?

Rationalizing a Reach
Why would rational, self-interested investors willingly take
on too much risk? To be clear, reaching for yield is not about
investors making mistakes. Nor is it about the normal competitive forces that make firms anxious to outperform one
another. These forces are always present, and there’s no
reason to believe they change much over time.
There are several reasons investors might suddenly take
on more risk than usual. Banks whose capital has been
depleted following a financial crisis, leaving them vulnerable
in the event of any new losses, might make “Hail Mary”
investments to try to restore their financial positions,
especially if they think a government safety net is waiting.
Financial innovation might create new opportunities to
take advantage of gaps in regulation. In fact, Stein said in
February, any time the rules of the game change — new
regulations, accounting standards, or performance-measurement, governance, and compensation structures — an
unintended consequence can be new incentives for risk.
But the kind of reaching for yield that Stein, Yellen,
Bernanke, and Rajan have discussed recently stems from low
interest rates. When nominal market interest rates are generally high, investment managers have no problem earning
enough to cover their liabilities or reach their investment
goals. But after a recession, the central bank may cut interest rates to boost the economy. For a while, risk premia
remain elevated, pushing overall market interest rates
higher, so investors have little need to search for yield. As
risk premia recede, however, investors may become desperate for higher returns and shift toward riskier investments.
Life insurers, for example, are a significant chunk of the
financial sector. They hold $5.7 trillion in assets, more than a
third the size of the entire traditional banking sector,
and hold 17 percent of all corporate and foreign bonds
outstanding in the United States. Life insurance companies



Interest Rates Are Rarely as Low as They Have Been Recently

Baa Corporate Bonds
Aaa Corporate Bonds
10-Year Treasury
Federal Funds Rate

SOURCE: Moody’s and Haver Analytics. Data through November 2013.

collect payments from their clients that they invest in order
to repay under prescribed conditions. When interest rates
fall, the insurer falls further from the return that ensures its
ability to make those payouts. Moreover, some life insurance
products come with riders that guarantee minimum returns
regardless of what the insurer can actually earn on its investments. In 2010, nearly 95 percent of all life insurance policies
contained a minimum interest rate guarantee of at least
3 percent, and 70 percent of life insurer annuities with such
guarantees had a minimum of at least 3 percent — in a
period in which long-term Treasuries, a good indicator of
insurers’ returns, traded close to or below 3 percent, according to a recent Chicago Fed study.
That study found that the low interest environment has
been hard on life insurers. The returns of large insurers
become more sensitive to interest rates in low-rate environments, they found. The stock prices of insurance companies
fell in recent years while the rest of the market rose, and
45 percent of life insurance company CFOs said in a 2012
survey that prolonged low interest rates are the single
greatest threat to their business model.
Hedge funds may also have incentive to reach for yield,
Rajan argued in 2005. Hedge fund managers are compensated based on the amount by which their nominal returns
exceed some minimum threshold. When market interest
rates are high, compensation is high without the hedge fund
having to gamble excessively for it. If rates are low, the fund
may risk missing the threshold entirely. The only way to
generate high returns may be to add risk.
But aren’t investment managers required by regulations
or the preferences of their clients to stay within certain risk
buckets? They are. But risk measures, such as credit ratings,
are necessarily broad; investments have finer degrees of risk
not captured by broad measures. It’s not hard for investment
managers to take on more risk — through investments that
are longer-term, more complex, less liquid, or more leveraged — while staying within requirements.
Risk measurements are like weight classes for boxers,
says Bo Becker, professor of finance at the Stockholm
School of Economics. “Weight is really important to how
powerful you are as a boxer,” Becker notes. “There’s a lot of
gaming around weight classes — it’s really ideal to be at the
top of the class. You see the same thing with a professional


investment manager who is given a risk bucket. They still
have scope to take on a lot of risk or a little risk.”
Regulators can use judgment to probe beneath objective
measures of risk; in fact, the 2010 Dodd-Frank regulatory
reform act requires them to do just that, moving away from
credit ratings. But that’s harder to do in the case of complex
securities, such as certain “structured” bonds that are built
on other assets rather than being a claim to something real,
like a commodity or a stake in a company. The more illiquid
or complex the investment, the harder it is to assess risk,
which is why reaching for yield may be more likely to occur
in opaque areas of financial markets. Ultimately, the DoddFrank Act’s move to abandon ratings doesn’t solve the
problem, Becker says, because for any functional definition
of risk, there will always be gradation that is hard for regulators to see.
Delegated investment management — when investors
manage funds owned by somebody else — has grown
considerably over the last 50 years, starting with the rise of
insurance companies and pensions. “The scope for reaching
for yield is bigger than ever,” Becker says.
But that doesn’t mean reaching for yield is always
happening. That’s where long periods of low interest rates
come in. Market interest rates are rarely as low as they have
been recently (see chart). From the 1970s until the early
2000s, bond yields were relatively high. After the tech bust
in the early 2000s, the Fed’s policy rate hit 1 percent in June
2003, near a record low. It stayed there for a year, spurring
concerns such as those raised by Rajan. Thus, the Fed has
not had to confront the possibility of reaching for yield until
the past decade.

Reaching for Evidence
The evidence of reaching for yield is hard to come by, which
is one of the challenges for regulators. “It’s hard to see in
price data because you don’t have any reference on what’s a
fair price,” says Viral Acharya, professor of economics and
finance at the New York University Stern School of
Observers have been pointing to some market-based
signs of excessive risk, but with little certainty about what
they mean. A particular concern recently — and a major
theme of this year’s annual August gathering of prominent
economists in Jackson Hole, Wyo. — is that very low interest rates could be fueling speculative asset bubbles around
the globe. For example, Christine Lagarde, managing
director of the International Monetary Fund, noted that
cumulative net flows to emerging markets have risen by
more than $1 trillion since 2008, an estimated $470 billion
above trend. A recent study from the New York Fed found
that low Treasury yields have been the main factor driving
excess returns in the U.S. stock market to a historic high.
Sometimes the evidence is not in prices, but in asset
managers suddenly doing something new. “You’ll see certain
kinds of asset managers engage in a lot more of a particular
activity than others,” Acharya says.

In a study from earlier this year, Becker and Victoria
Ivashina at Harvard Business School published some of the
limited hard evidence that exists of those activities.
Insurance companies are required by regulation to hold a
certain amount of capital based on the risk level of their
portfolios, to increase the chances that they can meet their
liabilities even in bad times. But they systematically buy the
riskiest bonds available within the “safe” asset categories
that equate to low capital requirements, Becker and Ivashina
found. Leading up to the financial crisis, insurance companies held 72 percent of all the issuances of the safest quartile
of investment-grade bonds, but 88 percent of the riskiest
quartile of those bonds. By comparison, pension and mutual
funds, which aren’t constrained by capital requirements, did
not engage in this behavior. (That doesn’t mean pension and
mutual funds don’t reach for yield; it would just manifest
itself differently, Becker and Ivashina argued.)
Both interest rates and risk premia were particularly low
by historical standards during this period. Reaching-foryield behavior disappeared during the crisis, when investors
were likely to be more cautious. But as soon as the crisis
receded, reaching for yield ramped up again. They also found
that reaching for yield is correlated with higher bond
issuance by riskier firms, which obtain funding more
cheaply than they would under normal conditions.
Another reason reaching for yield is challenging to identify is that it won’t necessarily show up in price data at all —
for example, yields on junk bonds converging toward riskfree rates. Risk doesn’t necessarily appear in rates because it
can also be manifested in subtler, nonprice ways, Stein said
in his February speech. For example, investors can make
loans with fewer “covenants,” which are safety thresholds
that can protect the bond holder. Or they can agree to low
levels of “subordination,” which means they are among
the last of all investors to be paid out, and thus the first to
bear losses.
There is some evidence that reaching for yield may be
taking these forms, Stein said. Research by Robin
Greenwood and Samuel Hanson at Harvard Business School
found these nonprice risks tend to be correlated with the
amount of bonds being issued by risky borrowers. The highyield share of issuances, in turn, has recently been above its
historical average, Stein said. Additionally, issuance of
“covenant-lite” loans and other nonprice risk characteristics
in 2012 were comparable to just before the financial crisis.
For policymakers, the concern is whether the risks have
systemic implications. Even if riskier bets turn out badly for
a few or even many firms, that doesn’t mean we’ll experience
another financial crisis. For the risks to have systemic implications, they may have to be combined with other risky
behaviors. One is leverage — funding risky activities by
borrowing. A firm is on the hook for paying those debts
back even if its investments go bad, leaving it at risk for
insolvency. Low interest rates, of course, make borrowing
and therefore leverage more attractive. Another risky
behavior could be maturity transformation, or funding long-

term investments with short-term instruments, such as
repurchase agreements, that are subject to runs as investors
quickly pull back at the first sign of trouble. Both behaviors
could leave investors especially vulnerable to market reversals, and some economists have argued that they were key
sources of systemic risk prior to the recent financial crisis.
Normally, markets should be expected to place limits on
risk-taking; investors have an incentive to withdraw funding
when things get out of hand — when single firms take
excessive risks or when entire asset classes start to look overvalued. Economists have long debated why investors might
sometimes think they will be shielded from bad outcomes.
Some favor behavioral explanations, such as investors herding into similar risks because they know a bad outcome
won’t make them look worse relative to competitors who
took the same risks. Another possibility is that the market’s
ability to limit risk-taking is reduced when investors expect
the government to step in and prevent losses, as it did
during the financial crisis.

What Policy Could Do
Fed policymakers have said the evidence of reaching for
yield, especially with the potential for serious systemic
effects, is still limited. But since the financial crisis, regulators have become more eager to explore hypotheticals.
That discussion has focused on which of the Fed’s tools is
most appropriate to fight reaching-for-yield behavior should
it escalate. There are two choices: monetary policy or regulation. Before the crisis, central bankers argued that
monetary policy should not be used to pop asset bubbles
preventatively, a view so widely held that it was dubbed the
“Jackson Hole consensus.”
Bernanke and Mark Gertler at New York University
encapsulated that consensus in a 1999 paper: “policy should
not respond to changes in asset prices, except insofar as they
signal changes in expected inflation.” Central banks cannot
identify asset bubbles in advance, they argued, and even if
they could, monetary policy is too blunt a tool; it could only
deflate an asset bubble by taking down the rest of the economy with it. Historically, central banks have tended to use
monetary policy only to clean up the residue from bubbles
after they burst.
Regulation, instead, has been the preferred tool for managing risk. It is certainly a more precise tool. The 2010
Dodd-Frank Act instructed the Fed and other regulators to
take a macroprudential approach to financial regulation —
that is, to ramp up their surveillance of risks that spread
from one institution to the next, such as those that might
result from excessive leverage or maturity transformation.
The downside of regulation has always been that examiners
will never be able to see every place that risk lies. Stein
argued that seemingly innocuous cases of reaching for yield
can imply that more of it is happening where we can’t see it.
“So we should be humble about our ability to see the whole
picture,” he said.
For that reason, Stein said, regulators might not want to


rule out tighter monetary policy as a tool for limiting risky
behavior. “[W]hile monetary policy may not be quite the
right tool for the job, it has one important advantage relative
to supervision and regulation — namely that it gets in all
the cracks.”
Would using monetary policy in this way be trying
to exert too much influence over investor behavior,
causing market distortions? Some policymakers, including
Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, have argued —
though not in the context of reaching for yield — that trying
to affect markets through monetary policy in anything other
than a broad-based way is not an appropriate role for the
Fed. In several 2013 appearances, Bernanke said that while
reaching for yield was a risk, it didn’t appear to be prevalent
enough to outweigh the benefits of easier monetary policy
to support the economic recovery — which itself can aid
financial stability.

A Moot Point For Now?
Longer-term market rates have risen recently following
discussion from Bernanke about the Fed’s potential exit

from the stimulative policies it employed during the
recession that have kept interest rates low. On May 22,
Bernanke said the Fed could slow, or “taper,” its monthly
$85 billion purchases of new assets by the end of the year if
the economic recovery remained on track. Long-term
Treasury yields immediately jumped in response, reaching as
high as they had been in more than two years. Investors
quickly fled from emerging market equities, and their
currencies fell.
The market volatility in response to the tapering discussion is a sign of reaching-for-yield behavior being unwound,
Acharya says. “It’s clear that there will be dislocations if they
are unwinding with even the hint of a taper,” he says.
Slowing down new asset purchases is a less strong step
than selling the stock of assets the Fed already holds, which
is itself a far cry from actually raising the federal funds rate.
But even if interest rates don’t return to their record lows for
a while, regulators may continue to view reaching for yield as
a concern as monetary policy moves into a less aggressive
phrase — and as bond investors continue to struggle with
low returns.

Becker, Bo, and Victoria Ivashina. “Reaching for Yield in the
Bond Market.” Forthcoming in the Journal of Finance.
Berends, Kyal, Robert McMenamin, Thanases Plestis, and
Richard J. Rosen. “The Sensitivity of Life Insurance Firms to
Interest Rate Changes.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago
Economic Perspectives, Second Quarter 2013.
Rajan, Raghuram G. “Has Financial Development Made the World
Riskier?” Paper presented at “The Greenspan Era: Lessons for the
Future,” a symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of
Kansas City in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Aug. 25-27, 2005.

Stein, Jeremy. “Overheating in Credit Markets: Origins,
Measurement, and Policy Responses.” Speech at the “Restoring
Household Financial Stability After the Great Recession:
Why Household Balance Sheets Matter” research symposium
sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, St. Louis, Mo.,
Feb. 7, 2013.
Yellen, Janet. “Assessing Potential Financial Imbalances in an
Era of Accommodative Monetary Policy.” Speech at the 2011
International Conference at the Bank of Japan, Tokyo, Japan,
June 1, 2011.

about a current economic issue or trend. The essays are based on
research by economists at the Richmond Fed.
December 2013

How Risky Are Young Borrowers?
Look for our next Economic Brief

The Effects of Fiscal Policy Uncertainty
To access the Economic Brief and other research publications,




Getting the Word Out

hanks to blogs, online databases of working papers,
and other outlets on the Web, an economist doesn’t
need a Nobel Prize and hundreds of articles in
academic journals to make a big splash.
Take a paper written in 1999 by economists John Lott,
now of the Crime Prevention Research Center, and
William Landes at the University of Chicago. It challenged
the relationship between concealed weapons laws and the
incidence of mass shootings. More than a decade later, the
paper remains among the most downloaded works on the
Social Science Research Network (SSRN), a free online
repository. It also continues to be widely cited, despite the
fact that it has never been published in an academic journal.
The Internet has created more outlets for research
economists to disseminate their work in progress and
participate in policy discussions. Still, getting published in
top-tier journals remains an achievement that is valued in
the academic world. In fact, it may grow in importance.
Faced with information overload, people turn increasingly
to sources that they know and trust, and top-tier journals
have long been relied upon to separate the wheat from
the chaff.
Traditionally, if economists wanted to disseminate their
work widely, the usual route would be to present a working
paper at conferences or seminars at universities, gather
feedback, and make refinements. Then the work would
be submitted to a well-known, peer-reviewed academic
journal like the American Economic Review, where it would be
refereed by other economists before its acceptance.
With this seal of quality, the paper would be more likely to
get cited in other research and in economics textbooks —
and being widely cited helps economists gain tenure at
universities, get promoted, and win grants.
Things are changing now, according to Daniel Klein, an
economics professor at George Mason University. Klein
edits Econ Journal Watch, which critiques journal articles
and follows trends in the economics profession. “Getting
ideas out there is a lot easier. You’ve got these other types of
discourse that can gain attention and do have some cultural
power” outside of academia, he notes. “It’s all part of much
broader communications, information technology, and
cultural changes.”
From the 1970s to 1990s, the average length of the review
process at economics journals increased — editors were
taking longer to review submissions and requiring more
revisions. Although editors are working to reduce production lags, Klein believes some economists are weary of
jumping through hoops to get published. “Some of these
new outlets don’t confine themselves the way the most
prestigious journals tended to do,” he notes.


Last April, Klein used SSRN to circulate a paper based on
his recent experiments with a feature of Google Books that
graphs how often a selected word or phrase is mentioned in
published work. Less than a month later, Tyler Cowen talked
about the paper in his Marginal Revolution blog and David
Brooks quoted it in his New York Times column.
Will Internet publishing ever become a viable alternative
to traditional journals? David Laband, chair of the School
of Economics at Georgia Tech, is optimistic. Laband
has studied publication trends in academic journals and
the economics field in general. “The nature of the outlets
from which we can choose to indicate relevance to the
scientific community and beyond has broadened very
considerably,” he notes. “I’m quite certain that unpublished
manuscripts attract a larger share of citations now than 30
years ago.”
Yet there is a downside risk of having more options for
circulating economic research, particularly the new crop
of journals that are only published online and haven’t
established a reputation.
“There is increased uncertainty that work published in an
online journal that you may not have heard of before is actually significant research,” Laband says. Hence, he suggests,
economists increasingly use the reputation of top journals as
a proxy for quality.
In addition, posting an unpublished paper on a personal
website or getting cited by a popular blog doesn’t get the
author far in academia. “It’s hard for material published
outside of the established journals to get a lot of establishment respect, even if it is widely read and influential,”
Klein notes.
As a result, top journals remain a magnet for research
economists. A January 2013 study of the top five economics
journals by economists David Card and Stefano DellaVigna
of University of California at Berkeley found that submissions have almost doubled since 1990, growing fastest
since 2000.
Getting the attention of the blogosphere may not get the
attention of a university tenure committee or push the frontiers of economic research. For economists who value the
role of the public intellectual, however, the online revolution
is a breakthrough. Not everyone can have a New York Times
column, but anyone can opine in a blog.
Also, Laband believes that the profession will benefit
from the greater ability of researchers to reach out to lay
audiences. “One of our functions as academics is not just to
conduct research and contribute to the corpus of scientific
knowledge,” he explains. It is also to “inform nonscientists
about the importance of economics in their everyday lives.
We teach.”


Present Value

he Jumbo Lotto jackpot hit $500 million, and
someone bought the winning ticket, but no one
has come forward. A week goes by and still no
winner emerges. What’s taking so long?
West Virginia billionaire Lucky Ducky has the winning
ticket, but he’s trying to determine the best way to collect
his money. Should he take one lump sum of $334.1 million
now — or 30 annual payments of $16.67 million that would
add up to $500 million over 29 years? (The 30 payments
would span 29 years because he would receive the first
payment on day one.)
Ducky’s analysis begins with the Jumbo Lotto’s
calculation of present value, an estimate of how much the
30 payments over time would be worth
on day one. The lottery has determined that the present value of the
30 payments is $334.1 million. Using
the present-value formula, Ducky
discovers that the lottery has based
its calculation on an interest rate of
1.4 percent. In other words, if he took
the lump sum and invested it at
1.4 percent compounded annually, he
would end up with $500 million in
29 years.
“When accountants compute the
present value of future cash flows, all they are really doing is
mathematically backing out the interest for that period of
time,” says Joe Hoyle, an accounting professor at the
University of Richmond. The key is deciding which interest
rate to employ.
Ducky feels certain he can do better than 1.4 percent.
His portfolio of corporate bonds has been generating an
average annual return of 6 percent over many years. So it
would seem clear that he should take the lump sum. But
Ducky realizes that the lottery’s present-value calculation is
only a starting point. What about income taxes? What about
the potential returns on investing the 30 annual payments as
he receives them? When he factors in combined federal and
state taxes of 49.9 percent and expected annual returns
of 6 percent, the 30-payments option generates $397.6 million over 29 years, while the lump-sum option produces
$395.1 million during that time. So the 30 payments generate
$2.5 million more, but is that worth the wait?
At this point, Ducky turns to his team of accountants,
attorneys, and economists, but they only raise more questions. Does he want to make large charitable contributions
at some point? Does he expect taxes to go up or down?
What about interest rates? What about inflation?
Present-value analysis can be tricky, even when the future




income stream being discounted is as predictable as annual
lottery payments. Most people will never win the lottery, but
present-value analysis helps individuals and corporations
evaluate trade-offs between receiving payments now versus
receiving them later. Decisions about pension plan payouts,
for example, are similar to Ducky’s dilemma. A prospective
retiree could use present-value analysis to help her determine whether it would be better to take a lump sum now or
monthly payments for the rest of her life. In this context,
the analysis raises a vitally important question: How long
does she expect to live?
Life expectancy also is important when corporations
use present value to evaluate potential investments. For
example, if a regulated utility is thinking about building a nuclear power
plant, the company would estimate
the annual cash flows that the plant
would produce over the course of its
useful life. The utility would choose a
life span and an interest rate (perhaps
its regulated rate of return) to determine whether the present value
of the proposed plant’s cash flows
would exceed the cost of building it.
But in the nuclear power plant
example, yet another important consideration looms. How much would it cost to clean up the
plant at the end of its useful life? This question takes the
capital-budgeting exercise beyond mere present value to the
more comprehensive concept of net present value. To calculate the net present value, the utility must compare the
present value of the plant’s future cash inflows to the present
value of its future cash outflows — including the costs of
building, operating, and winding down the plant.
“If the present value of the cash inflows is greater than
the present value of the cash outflows, then the proposed
plant has a positive net present value, and you assume that it
is a good investment,” Hoyle says.
Compared with the uncertainties of investing in a nuclear
power plant, Ducky’s present-value analysis seems pretty
simple. Ultimately, he decides to take the lump sum and
pay the taxes up front because he thinks the top federal
income tax rate is likely to increase during the next 29 years.
He also expects greater inflation and higher real interest
rates. Ducky’s analysis shows that if historically low rates of
interest, inflation, and taxation persist, the 30 payments
would generate $2.5 million more than the lump-sum distribution, but he is willing to wager that one or more of those
rates will rise significantly, making the lump-sum option the
better bet.




Agricultural Policy and Market Distortions

at income distribution, economic and governance strucovernments around the world have intervened
tures, ideology, and political organization. In poorer nations,
heavily in the agricultural sector. When governwhere agricultural taxes are usually the most substantial
ments do so — whether through tariffs, export
source of revenue, policymakers tend to place more of the
subsidies, import quotas, or high taxes on farmers — they
tax burden on farmers. But over the course of development,
distort trade markets by interfering with normal supply
political and other factors tend to produce a less antiand demand. For example, when an advanced country
agricultural stance. Historically, officials have exchanged
imposes a tariff on a foreign good to protect local
redistributive policies for political support during times of
producers, it encourages consumers to buy more of a
economic growth, when income gaps between rural and
domestically produced product than they otherwise would.
urban populations typically widen, prompting farmers to
Such policies can disadvantage farmers in developing
lobby politicians for favorable measures. Not surprisingly,
countries, who then face a harder time selling their crops
sectors with a comparative disadvantage are more likely to
on the global market. Since three-quarters of the world’s
seek government help.
poorest people derive their income from agriculture,
Political democratization, which often comes with develaccording to the World Bank, measures that reduce world
opment, tends to further this process. Theory suggests
trade can worsen poverty.
that countries will adopt more redistributive policies as
The prospects for reform of agricultural policies depend
they democratize, simply because
on what motivates such policies
there tend to be more have-nots
to begin with. In a recent
“Political Economy of Public Policies:
to vote for redistribution. The
article, Kym Anderson of the
Insights from Distortions to Agricultural
authors note that the very factors
University of Adelaide in
and Food Markets.” Kym Anderson,
that make it difficult for farmers
Australia, Gordon Rausser of the
to organize politically — namely,
University of California, Berkeley,
Gordon Rausser, and Johan Swinnen.
geographic dispersion — can renand Johan Swinnen of the
Journal of Economic Literature, June 2013,
der them more powerful in a
University of Leuven in Belgium
vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 423-477.
democracy. There are, however,
provide a comprehensive overno rules of thumb that apply to
view of evolving agriculture
every country; notably, the authors argue, China has moved
policies to understand what causes some countries to change
away from taxing farmers in the last 40 years without
their protective stance toward agriculture as they develop.
broadly liberalizing its political system.
Their first task is to identify where countries have stood
Social and political developments have created a new
historically. They measure price distortions by the “nominal
range of forces that could determine the shape of future
rate of assistance” (NRA), which assesses the effect of
agricultural policy, though it’s not always clear how. For
government policy on nominal returns to agriculture, and the
example, research has only begun to illuminate the effects
“relative rate of assistance” (RRA), which measures the
that international developments in the last 20 years — the
extent of a government’s intervention in agriculture relative
North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade
to other sectors. They find that richer countries have tended
Organization, and enlargement of the European Union,
to adopt a pro-agricultural bias (higher NRAs and RRAs),
among others — have had on agricultural policy. In light of
while developing countries have had an anti-agricultural
new social trends, farmers have increasingly sought political
bias (lower NRAs and RRAs). In other words, wealthier
support from food producers as a way to offset the burden of
nations have typically enacted trade policies that protected
regulations concerning animal welfare, genetically modified
domestic farmers from foreign competition, while developfoods, and the environment. In addition, the rise of two new
ing countries have tended to tax their farmers more heavily
major players in the global market, China and India, creates
than producers in other sectors.
new opportunities to understand how agricultural policies
Since the 1980s, the average RRAs of both groups have
shift as countries develop.
been converging toward zero — meaning that governments
Studying agricultural policy through the economics of
have started treating agricultural and non-agricultural sectors
political decision-making can illuminate barriers to the
more equally. Still, in both rich and poor countries, a strong
reform of distortive policies. The authors argue that better
anti-trade bias persists in agricultural policy despite efforts to
understanding these barriers — and thus, perhaps, how to
open markets for other goods.
What causes a country to change policy as it develops?
overcome them — provides a sense of “cautious optimism”
The authors survey the political economy literature, looking
for the future course of agricultural policy.






First Designations of ‘Systemically Important’ Firms

he Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, created an
interagency group called the Financial Stability
Oversight Council, or FSOC, to identify risks
to the country’s financial stability. Among its tasks is
designating nonbank financial institutions as systemically
important financial institutions, or SIFIs — that is, determining which institutions, in the event of distress, would
pose a threat to the stability of the financial system. FSOC
has recently made its first three designations: In July, it
designated General Electric Capital Corp. and American
International Group (AIG), and in September, it designated Prudential Financial, Inc.
Following the designations, the institutions become
subject to supervision by the Fed and must comply with
certain financial standards. They must also undergo
periodic stress tests and develop a “living will” (a plan for
winding down without government aid). Prudential had
sought to head off designation; it was designated after it
unsuccessfully appealed a preliminary decision by FSOC.
GE Capital and AIG did not object to their designations.
FSOC has stated that it uses a three-stage process to flag
institutions that may be systemically important. Its first
stage, highly preliminary, is to use publicly available data and
regulatory data on various quantitative factors to narrow the
list of firms; among these are asset size, credit default swaps
(CDS), outstanding debt, and leverage. (In looking at CDS,
the Council considers all CDS for which the firm is the
reference entity.) In stage two, it further analyzes the threat
posed by each of the remaining firms to financial stability
using both quantitative and qualitative information. Each
company that proceeds to stage three is notified that it is
under consideration and is offered the opportunity to
provide information before FSOC reaches a decision.
For each of the designations, the Council released
detailed analyses of what it saw as the relevant facts. With
regard to GE Capital, a General Electric subsidiary with
$539 billion in assets, FSOC emphasized that the scale of its
activities as a provider of credit and as an issuer of commercial paper and other debt gave it strong interconnections
with financial markets. It suggested that because money
market mutual funds are major purchasers of GE Capital’s
commercial paper, financial distress at the firm could cause
those funds to “break the buck,” leading to a run on money
market funds in general.
In addition, if distress at GE Capital impaired its ability
to borrow, it might have to liquidate assets rapidly, possibly
leading to a fire sale that would drive down the prices of
assets held by other large financial firms. FSOC also noted
that some 52 percent of GE Capital’s assets were based
abroad and 42 percent of its revenues came from abroad,




making it more difficult to resolve rapidly and thereby
increasing the threat to U.S. financial stability.
In designating AIG, the Council determined that AIG’s
traditional insurance and annuity products could be the
basis of systemic risk. (AIG was rescued by the federal government during the 2007-2008 financial crisis after suffering
major losses on CDS, a nontraditional insurance product.)
It found that the traditional products offered by AIG could
give rise to systemic risk in several ways. First, many firms
are connected to AIG in its role as insurer. FSOC acknowledged that losses to policyholders would be reduced by state
guaranty associations, but noted that distress at AIG could
put “unprecedented strain” on that system.
Second, many of AIG’s life insurance and annuity
products “have features that would make them vulnerable to
rapid and early withdrawals by policyholders,” creating a
possible need for AIG to liquidate assets quickly. Finally,
AIG’s critical role in certain commercial insurance markets
would be difficult to replace within a short time. FSOC also
noted that holders of CDS for which AIG is the reference
entity would be at risk from distress at the company, as
would holders of its securities.
FSOC set out rationales for its designation of Prudential
similar to those for its designation of AIG. Several
FSOC members dissented. The dissenters were two voting
members of the Commission — Edward DeMarco, acting
director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and S. Roy
Woodall, a former Kentucky insurance commissioner and a
former president of the National Association of Life
Companies — and one nonvoting member, John Huff, head
of the Missouri Department of Insurance. They argued that
FSOC had misunderstood the business of insurance and
overstated Prudential’s risks to the financial system.
The effect of designation on the firms and their markets
remains an open question, observes Richmond Fed bank
structure manager Sabrina Pellerin. For some firms, designation as a SIFI could prove beneficial in that it may be
interpreted by investors and customers as an implicit federal guarantee — despite provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act
limiting federal rescues. For other firms, new capital, leverage, and liquidity requirements from designation may create
a net burden.
“The idea of insurance companies being regulated
similarly to banks raises questions about whether they will
be at a competitive disadvantage next to other firms in the
industry,” Pellerin says.
Whatever the effects, FSOC’s rationales for its first
designations will likely be studied by insurers, asset management companies, and other nonbanks that may become
candidates for SIFI-hood.


The IT Revolution

“Is the Information Technology Revolution Over?” David M.
Byrne, Stephen D. Oliner, and Daniel E. Sichel, Board of
Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Finance and
Economics Discussion Series Working Paper No. 2013-36,
March 2013.

abor productivity is an important indicator of economic growth. If workers can produce more output
within a given time, there is room for expansion without
sparking higher prices. That’s one reason economists have
been trying to figure out why growth in labor productivity has slowed since the mid-2000s.
Researchers from the Board of Governors of the Federal
Reserve System, the American Enterprise Institute, and
Wellesley College look at this complex question in a working
paper published last spring. They focus on whether advances
in computer hardware, software, and communication equipment continue to boost labor productivity. Their conclusion:
The use of information technology (IT) and efficiency gains
in the production of IT still contribute to productivity
growth, but less so than during the tech boom of the late
1990s and early 2000s. At the same time, semiconductor
technology has continued to advance rapidly, promising to
return productivity growth to its long-run average.
There are other possible explanations for the slower
growth in labor productivity in recent years. “The economy
has taken a long time to recover from the financial crisis and
Great Recession,” the authors note, “as the repair of balance
sheets has proceeded slowly and as uncertainty about the
pace of the recovery has held back investment.” Another
explanation is that the economy “has entered a long period
of stagnation as the easy innovations largely have been
exploited already.”


“Big Banks in Small Places: Are Community Banks Being
Driven Out of Rural Markets?” R. Alton Gilbert and David C.
Wheelock, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, May/June
2013, pp. 199-218.

ne economic sector that has been transformed by the
IT revolution is financial services. Community banks
traditionally have had the upper hand over large banks in
rural markets thanks to knowledge of their local customer
base. Technological advances increasingly have enabled the
nation’s largest banks to serve those markets effectively.
Still, according to a recent paper from the Federal Reserve
Bank of St. Louis, community banks remain competitive.
In addition to government policies that have allowed the
consolidation of banking assets and deposits into the vaults
of fewer institutions, advances in information-processing


technology may have favored larger banks. “Such advances
have lowered the costs of obtaining ‘hard’ information about
potential borrowers, such as audited financial statements
and standardized credit reports,” note the researchers.
“At the same time, these changes have also lowered the cost
to banks of monitoring deposit and loan accounts and
managing large branch networks.”
Indeed, the smallest banks with less than $1 billion in
assets saw their share of deposits in rural counties and small
towns shrink during the 1980s and 1990s, according to
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation data. Their share of
rural county deposits changed little between 2001 and 2012,
however, as did the share held by the largest banks with
more than $50 billion in assets.
Why? Rural counties may be less profitable for large
banks, explain the paper’s authors. “[They] have generally
experienced slower population and economic growth than
urban areas in recent years, and large banks may have chosen
to focus their operations in urban markets and cede business
to smaller banks in slower-growing and less-profitable
rural markets.”
“Urban Decline in Rust-Belt Cities.” Daniel Hartley, Federal
Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Economic Commentary 2013-06,
May 2013.

magine a city losing more than 40 percent of its population, going from a thriving metropolis to a shell of
its former self. Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh
endured such population losses between 1970 and 2006.
Some neighborhoods in these Rust-Belt cities emptied at
a slower rate than others, according to research published by
the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Economist Daniel
Hartley finds that the areas with the lowest house prices had
the steepest population declines.
Hartley also finds that in Cleveland and Detroit the
steepest drops in income occurred in communities in the
middle range of home prices, likely the result of lowerincome families moving into these areas to take advantage
of lower overall prices for housing. In contrast, the neighborhoods with the highest priced homes in Pittsburgh and
Buffalo saw their average incomes surge between 1970 and
2006, something that did not happen in the highest priced
communities in Cleveland or Detroit.
“This reflects the fact that these [Pittsburgh and Buffalo]
neighborhoods are situated near centers of higher education,
which have attracted highly skilled residents,” surmises
Hartley. “By contrast, some of the neighborhoods closest to
Cleveland’s major higher education institutions are outside
the city limits.”




C O V E R



The payoff has become more uncertain — but you’re probably
still better off going



bankruptcy, suggesting that many of these people are truly
unable, not just unwilling, to pay them.
Some of the increased downside risk can be chalked up to
the Great Recession, but other new research suggests it may
be a longer-term trend. And it is becoming scarier to take the
college gamble: The cost of college has grown more than
twice as fast as inflation in the last 30 years. An investment
adviser would say that risk, not just return, should determine
your investments. If the cost of college is rising and the
payoffs are more uncertain, should fewer people be going?

Betting on Brains
The labor market has always paid a premium for college
graduates, and that premium has grown sharply over the past
30 years or so. Economists say that is mostly due to “skillbiased technical change” — technology has been reshaping
the distribution of skills needed by employers. For example,
employers have demanded a larger number of highly
educated workers to match their increasingly sophisticated
technologies, as well as shrewd thinkers to function in
increasingly complex and connected global markets.
A college degree can serve as both proof of learned skills and
a signal of innate analytical ability. Skill-biased change aids
most those already at the high end of the distribution of ability and preparedness, which is why it is widely viewed as one
of the leading explanations for growing income inequality.
The gains add up over a lifetime: The median college
graduate makes almost $2.3 million over their lifetime,
compared with $1.3 million for someone with only a high
school diploma, according to a study by Anthony Carnevale,
Stephen Rose, and Ban Cheah at the Georgetown University
Center on Education and the Workforce.
But recent research indicates that skill-biased technical
change may have hit a plateau. In a working paper this year,
Paul Beaudry and David Green of the University of British
Columbia and Benjamin Sand of York University found that
the demand for skilled workers has actually been falling
since the tech bust in 2000. But you can’t see this by comparing the earnings of college graduates with nongraduates.
Their study follows a branch of research that says it is the
tasks you perform, not the education you have, that determine your income: whether you are performing cognitive,
routine, or manual work.


ountless studies over 50 years nearly all say the same
thing: Going to college will probably make you
richer. You don’t even need a fancy study to see it.
It’s visible in the basic data: The median person
with a bachelor’s degree earns about $48,000
per year, compared with $27,000 for a high school
graduate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. College
grads also have lower unemployment — as of November,
3.4 percent for people with a bachelor’s degree or more,
and 7.3 percent for people with only a high school diploma.
But not everyone earns the median. Some college
graduates become CEOs, while others can’t even find jobs
in their field of major.
Unequal outcomes from college have always been a fact
of life, but there is evidence that the dispersion of outcomes
has increased. Economists have known this to be true at the
top of the ladder for some time. In the late 1970s, the most
fortunate 10 percent of graduates made around $963,000
more in their lifetimes than the median, but they now make
$2.3 million more, adjusted for inflation, according to a
recent study by Christopher Avery at the Harvard University
Kennedy School of Government and Sarah Turner at the
University of Virginia. And according to new evidence,
there is now more variance on the downside too.
For example, in 1970, just 1 percent of taxi drivers
and roughly 3 percent of bank tellers had a college
degree. The number rose to about 15 percent in 2010,
even though the key skills in those professions
did not change much over time, according to a
study by Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart,
and Jonathan Robe at the Center for College
Affordability and Productivity, a Washington,
D.C.-based nonprofit. A survey by consulting firm
McKinsey & Company suggests that as many as
120,000 of the nation’s 1.7 million 2012 college
graduates who wanted to work elsewhere took jobs as
waiters, salespeople, cashiers, and the like.
There’s also the fact that graduates are having an
increasingly hard time repaying their student
loans. Delinquency rates on student loans have
jumped in the last year, and are now higher than
those for mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards.
Student loans are hard to discharge even in

All About the Benjamins
Before 18-year-olds start burning their acceptance letters,
however, they should know that the college premium is still
very much intact.
How is that possible? The true value of an investment
takes into account the opportunity cost — what you could
make under the best alternative. Beaudry says graduates
taking low-skilled jobs are flooding that market, pushing
down wages for jobs typically held by people with only a high
school education. So even though real wages for cognitive
tasks have fallen by 2 percent since the 2000s due to declining demand, they have fallen by 8 percent for manual tasks
due to an abundance of labor.
College graduates even tend to earn more if they take the
same job as someone with only a high school education.

Underemployment Hits Young Grads Hardest
Percent of grads in a job not requiring a bachelor’s degree

Recent College Grads (Ages 22-27)


The reason that distinction matters is that it shows
that skill-biased technical change hasn’t necessarily left
low-skilled workers in the dust. Work by Daron Acemoglu
and David Autor, both at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, among others, has shown that technology has
increased opportunities for people at the top and bottom of
the skill distribution — that is, people performing both
highly cognitive work and manual or service-based tasks.
Who’s been hurt are people in the middle — those performing routine tasks like clerical, office support, and some sales
work — whose jobs have been automated or outsourced out
of existence.
What Beaudry and his co-authors found is that the
demand for cognitive skills — the managerial, professional,
and technical jobs typically held by college graduates —
reversed around 2000. They can’t say for certain that it’s
because skill-biased technical change has run its course for
now, but “the timing on all fronts just fits so closely with the
2000 tech bust that we think that’s the most credible way of
reading it,” Beaudry says. They looked at young workers, for
whom emerging labor market trends are often most visible.
In the 2000s, high-skilled workers have increasingly taken
manual jobs — they’ve gone into household services,
physical labor, and other jobs typically held by people without a college degree — bumping many low-skilled workers
out of the market entirely. For a while this phenomenon was
unfelt because of the housing boom, Beaudry says, but real
wages for high-skilled workers have actually been falling for
a decade or more.
Their story meshes with a recent study from Jaison Abel
and Richard Deitz at the New York Fed. They found that
young college graduates are taking low-skilled jobs now
more than any time in recent history. The proportion who
are “underemployed” dropped dramatically over the course
of the 1990s as the tech boom readily absorbed new highskilled workers (see chart). But during each of the jobless
recoveries in the 2000s, underemployment of recent college
grads rose sharply, Deitz says. It is now as high as it was in
1995, before the tech boom really amplified the effects of
skill-biased technical change.

All College Grads (Ages 22-65)





NOTE: Data through 2012. Gray bars denote recessions.
SOURCE: Original chart by Abel and Deitz (2013)

The average college-educated food service manager earns
$1.5 million over his lifetime, but just $1 million with only a
high school diploma, according to the Georgetown study
that calculated lifetime earnings. The average collegeeducated cashier makes $300,000 more over his lifetime
than with just a high school diploma.
In short, the income you can expect to earn out of college
may be falling, but it’s an even better investment nowadays
compared with stopping at high school. The college
premium is actually rising, Beaudry says, “just not for a
nice reason.”
In fact, only 14 percent of people with a high school
diploma earn more than the median worker with a college
degree, the Georgetown researchers found. That the percentage is even that high is due largely to the occupations
they choose. A high school-educated firefighter makes more
than a college-educated museum curator on average, but
that is because of factors like physical ability and risk.
What appears to be happening is that the gains from
college that Gen Xers experienced are taking longer for
millennials to achieve. Between 2009 and 2011, a startling
56 percent of 22-year-old college graduates took jobs
that didn’t require a bachelor’s degree. The proportion
falls rapidly from there, however. For 30-year-old college
graduates, underemployment in that time frame was at the
historical norm for all college grads. That number is about
one-third — and has been remarkably steady over the last
two decades, across booms and recessions alike (see chart).
In Beaudry’s estimates, too, the wages for older college
graduates have kept up pretty well, he says.
Beaudry’s advice to students? Be patient. “The process
after college might be very long and hard, and you might
take some jobs that don’t seem very attractive, but eventually you might get into the areas where you want to be
working,” he says. “It’s about having your expectations
aligned so that afterward you’re not completely disappointed and saying, ‘Wow, I was told this would pay off quickly.’”

College Dropouts
There is one group for whom college may not be worth the
investment: people who aren’t likely to finish.


That is actually a sizeable group. Though college enrollments have been climbing steadily for decades — rising from
one-third of 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates in 1980
to one-half in 2010 — completion rates have been stagnant
for about 50 years. Only half of Americans who enroll in
college get a degree, compared with more than 70 percent in
many other developed countries. (The Fifth District performs well relative to the rest of the country. See chart. The
University of Virginia has the highest completion rate
among flagship universities at 92.7 percent of students
graduating within six years.)
If you don’t graduate, the labor market basically treats
you as if you hadn’t attended college at all, a phenomenon
known as the “sheepskin” effect. You’ll earn a bit more for
each additional year of college, but the large bump only
comes with a diploma. According to U.S. Census figures, the
average college graduate earns $26,922 more per year than
the average high school graduate, but the average college
dropout earns only $3,092 more.
Indeed, it’s possible for the dropout to end up financially
worse off than the student who never attended. Of everyone
who enters college expecting to get a bachelor’s degree,
more than half leave with no degree and an average of $7,413
in debt, according to the study by Avery and Turner. Among
only students who borrowed, the average debt burden for
dropouts is $14,457.
Although the labor market doesn’t heavily reward fractions of a college experience, those years still might not be a
waste. Most students don’t enter college knowing everything about their aptitude, tastes, and labor market
prospects. Time in college provides that, even if it doesn’t
result in a degree. The financial worth of the option to drop
out at will, which can save one from the investment
toward a career path they wouldn’t be better off taking, is called the “option value” of college.
The option value is especially important for
students who are on the fence between low and
high abilities, whose returns from college are the
most uncertain. Kevin Stange at the
University of Michigan Ford School of
Public Policy recently estimated that the
option value is worth 14 percent of the
total expected return to college enrollment
and is greatest — up to 35 percent — for
marginal students. Without the option to
drop out, some people who today have
degrees despite entering college unprepared may never have enrolled in the
first place, forgoing the primary engine of
economic mobility.
It’s somewhat puzzling that the proportion of dropouts has remained steady over
time despite the rising college premium.
One reason, according to many critics of
our educational system, is that too many
students arrive unprepared. Another is


that students have increasingly complicated lives, says
Cecelia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of
Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and
an economist who has studied the returns to education. “If
you’re 18 and dependent on your parents, that really frees
your mind and time to focus on your studies. But if you’re 25
with two children and an ex-husband, there are physical limits to the time you can spend on school.”
Rouse argues that our student population has gotten
older and more nontraditional. The fraction of full-time
students at four-year schools who work rose steadily
from 1970 to 2000, according to Judith Scott-Clayton at
the Teachers College at Columbia University. The average
working student put in 22 hours per week before the Great
Recession, when the number fell to eight hours per week.
The dropout phenomenon also matters to people not
personally at risk. A student who graduated at the top of his
high school class can’t assume he’ll do as well in college; for
one thing, the least-qualified students may drop out or not
matriculate at all. An average performer could easily end up
closer to the bottom in college, Avery and Turner noted,
which means he may need to expect less than the average
salary — or be willing to work harder than he did in high
school to compete.

Making Smart Investments
On balance, students still seem to think that college is the
right choice, because they keep pouring in and taking on
debt. Student loans are the only type of consumer debt that
continued to grow during the recent recession, and they now
stand at roughly $1 trillion — second only to mortgages.
Even though college is still a good risk, the payout has
become less certain and, if Beaudry is right, smaller. In light
of rising college costs, that means the investment has to be
approached more carefully than in the past. One of the most
important decisions is how much to pay for college, especially if debt is going to be a factor. Not only does financing
increase the total cost of education, but monthly payments
hit in the years of lowest earnings.
The New York Times recently profiled a 26-year-old
woman who graduated from New York University with an
interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies.
She was earning $22 per hour as a photographer’s assistant,
but had $97,000 in student loan debt. She acknowledged
that, in retrospect, she could have made different choices or
she could have pursued that field at a less expensive school.
Humanities majors are the lowest earners, with starting
salaries of just $37,000 in 2012, barely above the wages of the
average high school graduate. The McKinsey study found
that more than half of recent college graduates would
choose a different major or school if they could do it all over
again. In that study, as well as others, graduates were more
likely to be working in their field of choice if they studied
health, education, or STEM fields — and less likely if they
studied liberal arts, humanities, or communications.
Fortunately, debt burdens like the NYU student’s are

Fifth District Scores on College Completion
Percent of students at four-year institutions who graduated within six years, 2010

rare. Only 10 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients leave
college with more than $40,000 in debt, according to the
College Board. Graduates of for-profit colleges have the
highest debt burdens of any sector, and still only one-quarter
of them have debt above $50,000, Avery and Turner calculated. Among all graduates who took out student loans, the
median debt burden was $20,000 as of the 2007-2008
school year.
Part of the reason debt burdens don’t seem as high as the
headlines suggest they should be is that the average price
that students actually face is much lower. The average instate tuition at a public four-year school was $8,660 in the
2012-2013 school year. But thanks to student aid, which
almost 80 percent of full-time undergrads receive, and tax
benefits, the average student paid just $2,910, according to
the College Board. For private nonprofit colleges, the
published cost was $29,060, but the average net tuition cost
faced by students was $13,380.
What really matters for choosing how much debt to
incur is your ability to pay it back. Personal finance experts
suggest that a manageable threshold for student debt payments is about 10 percent of income. Avery and Turner
calculated what that would mean for the median student,
who, as of 2008, graduated with about $20,000 in student
debt. That equates to a $212 monthly payment over a 10-year
period, so they would need to earn just over $25,000 to keep
payments under the 10 percent threshold. The median
earnings of a bachelor’s holder is nearly twice that.
Economists are used to sorting through the data on payoffs and debt, but can students? They might understand that
college graduates tend to have better labor market
prospects, Avery says. “It’s intuitive that they would understand that because they’ve had summer jobs.” But he says
they’re less able to understand the right debt burden to
undertake. “Long-term financial planning isn’t something
that 18-year-olds are going to be good at,” he says. “They’ve
never confronted the repayment of a loan, and even if they
had, the behavioral impulse is to borrow, to downweigh the
future and overweigh present consumption.”







SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Education,

At the same time, he says, some students even underinvest. Half of students who work more than 20 hours per
week don’t have federal Stafford loans. These students not
only potentially forgo the federal interest subsidy but
also place themselves at greater risk of dropping out.
“If I wanted to point to an area where students are not
doing what they should be doing, that’s where I would start,”
he says.
The complexity of the loan process is one common deterrent. Turner and Caroline Hoxby at Stanford University
found that a program helping low-income students with
information about financial aid and applying to college not
only increased their application rates, but also their matriculation and academic success in higher-ranked programs —
at a cost of just $6 per student.
That such small interventions can make the difference
between going to college or not suggests students don’t
always follow the straight-forward investment model when
deciding whether and how to pursue higher education,
wrote Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic at the
University of Toronto in a recent survey piece on the returns
to college. “There is more than just a financial cost-benefit
analysis to look at,” Deitz says. “There are preferences, what
people want to do.”
On that subject, students know something economists

Abel, Jaison R., and Richard Deitz. “Are Recent College Graduates
Finding Good Jobs?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic
Press Briefing, June 27, 2013.
Avery, Christopher, and Sarah Turner. “Student Loans: Do College
Students Borrow Too Much — Or Not Enough?” Journal of
Economic Perspectives, Winter 2012, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 165-192.
Beaudry, Paul, David A. Green, and Benjamin M. Sand.
“The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks.”
National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 18901,
March 2013.

Carnevale, Anthony P., Stephen J. Rose, and Ban Cheah.
“The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings.”
Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce,
Aug. 5, 2011.
Oreopoulos, Philip, and Uros Petronijevic. “Making College
Worth It: A Review of Research On The Returns to Higher
Education.” National Bureau of Economic Research
Working Paper No. 19053, May 2013.
Stange, Kevin M. “An Empirical Investigation of the Option Value
of College Enrollment.” American Economic Journal: Applied
Economics, January 2012, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 49-84.



Editor’s Note: Facts and figures for this article are as of Dec. 16, 2013.

New Private Currencies Like Bitcoin
Offer Potential — and Puzzles

t all started with a pizza delivery. On May 18, 2010, a
Florida programmer named Laszlo Hanyecz posted
in an online forum that he was interested in buying
a couple of pizzas with bitcoins. Bitcoins were a new digital
currency that had launched about a year and a half earlier.
They existed only inside computers; the underlying software generated more virtual coins at a fixed rate and relied
on cryptography to prevent fraud.
Software experts, unable to find any major flaws in the
system, were intrigued. So were individuals looking for alternatives to government-issued currencies in the wake of the
financial crisis and subsequent bailouts, which they viewed
as an example of the kind of government excess that led to
devalued currencies. While the bitcoins themselves had
many of the trappings of real money, ultimately they were
just bits of data in cyberspace. Could they really be used to
buy anything?
Hanyecz wanted to find out. He offered 10,000 bitcoins
to anyone willing to bring him two large pizzas. Some
bitcoin trading among enthusiasts had occurred prior to
Hanyecz’s offer, but there hadn’t been any real market for
them. A few days later, Hanyecz triumphantly posted
evidence of his successful transaction: a picture of two Papa
John’s pizzas. It was an important moment for the currency,
leading to the creation of a “Pizza Index” to track the dollar
value of the 10,000 bitcoins Hanyecz used for his purchase.
Bitcoin’s value has exploded since. In late November 2013,
the Pizza Index breached $12 million, when a single bitcoin
was briefly worth more than an ounce of gold. Growing
value has also meant increased recognition and use.
According to, a site that tracks Bitcoin
acceptance, there are more than 400 physical stores in the
United States that accept bitcoins as payment, and hundreds
more worldwide.
“I’ve accepted bitcoins as payment in my legal practice,”
says Patrick Murck, general counsel for the Bitcoin
Foundation, a nonprofit working to promote wider use of
the currency. “Sometimes you’ll go to a restaurant and split
the check, so I’ll reimburse somebody in bitcoins. There’s a
sushi joint in San Francisco that takes bitcoins. And the list
is growing every day.”
But Bitcoin has also raised a number of questions. For
regulators, the fact that transactions in digital currencies are




virtually anonymous, like cash, raises the concern that these
systems could be used to mask illegal activities. In May, the
Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which is
part of the Treasury Department, designated Liberty
Reserve, another digital currency, a “financial institution of
primary money laundering concern” under Section 311 of the
Patriot Act. This allowed authorities to shut down Liberty
Reserve’s alleged $6 billion money laundering operation, the
biggest in United States history, according to FinCEN director Jennifer Shasky Calvery.
So what is Bitcoin? A vehicle for criminal activity or the
next step in the evolution of money? Or both?

The Origins of Money
Money has taken many different forms throughout history.
Some early societies valued goods in terms of cattle, Native
American tribes used shells, and for a time Roman soldiers
were paid in salt (from which we get the word “salary”).
Later, societies turned to precious metals like gold and silver
for use as money. But how did goods like these become
Classical economists recognized that money arose out of
a need to address the inefficiency of barter, which requires
that each party has something the other wants. In his 1776
book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith observed that
money arose initially as a commodity that “few people would
be likely to refuse in exchange for the produce of their
industry.” Having a good that everyone wants makes trading
much easier; over time, such goods became universally
accepted as media of exchange. Gold and silver, to take a
common example, were initially valued for their beauty, and
their natural scarcity meant they were always in demand,
which helped them retain value. This made them useful as
media of exchange. They also had a number of other properties that made them well-suited for use as money: They were
durable, portable, and divisible into smaller units (it was
much easier to make change out of gold than cows).
In the 19th century, British economist Henry Thornton
observed that coined money came to be valued more as a
measure of the value of other goods than for its inherent
value as a precious metal. Therefore, it was more efficient
for societies to convert to paper notes to track the value
of exchange. These notes were originally “IOUs” that were

Bitcoin Market Price




At first glance, bitcoins lack the inherent value or government authority to get them off the ground as an accepted
currency. But in surprising ways, they resemble the gold and
silver coins of ancient times.
Upon registering, Bitcoin users are given a unique address
and a computer file in which to store their bitcoins — their
“digital wallet.” To send bitcoins to other users, you just need
to know their address. Members of the community known
as “miners” use computer resources to solve complex problems and verify transactions by adding them to the public
record. Roughly every 10 minutes, this process generates
new bitcoins, which are awarded to the miners. The
difficulty of the problems scales to ensure that this rate
remains constant even if the number of miners increases.
The number of coins generated in these intervals decreases
over time, however, such that the total supply will ultimately cap at about 21 million.
In that sense, one could think of bitcoins like gold and
silver, which are discovered and mined over time and have a
finite total quantity on the planet. And in terms of volatility,
bitcoins more closely mirror the larger price swings of gold
and silver than smaller movements of dollars and yen. The
price of a single bitcoin soared from around $13 in January to
$1,200 in November, an increase of more than 9,000 percent. In between, prices have fluctuated wildly, sometimes
rising and falling by hundreds of dollars a day (see graph).


Getting off the Ground

But unlike gold and silver, bitcoins have no nonmonetary use
or value — they’re just bits of computer data. This quality
aligns more closely with fiat money, which also has no nonmonetary use or value — it’s just bits of paper. Bitcoins are
not issued or backed by any government or central
authority, however. The program is open-source and maintained by the entire community of users. And unlike a
government, those users don’t have the ability to expand the
money supply.
So how should economists think about Bitcoin? In an
April working paper, Selgin suggested that there should be
four categories for money rather than just two. He argues
that even the traditional categories of commodity and fiat
rely on two characteristics: scarcity and nonmonetary use.
“A commodity money has nonmonetary use and is naturally
or inevitably scarce; a fiat money has no nonmonetary use
value and is scarce only by design,” writes Selgin.
This leads to two other possible forms of money: money
with nonmonetary use that is not naturally scarce but can be
made scarce by a central authority, and money that has no
nonmonetary use but is naturally scarce. Selgin calls items in
this latter category “synthetic commodities.” Prior to the
first Gulf War in 1990, Iraq’s currency, the dinar, was printed
in the United Kingdom using Swiss-engraved plates. After
the war began, sanctions on Iraq prevented importation of
these Swiss dinars, freezing their supply in Iraq’s economy.
In response, Saddam Hussein’s government severed ties
with the old dinars and issued its own dinars, which were of
poorer quality and easier targets for counterfeiters. People
preferred to keep using the Swiss dinars, despite the fact
that they had no nonmonetary use and were no longer
accepted or designated as legal tender by any government.
Selgin classifies bitcoins as synthetic commodities like
the Swiss dinars, but even that currency had the benefit of
government backing to get it off the ground. What led anyone to accept Hanyecz’s pizza offer? They may have simply
believed that enough people would eventually accept bitcoins as money to make the transaction worthwhile. Recent
developments in economic theory contend that the value of
money comes in part from its ability to function as a recordkeeping device. But, more fundamentally, the value of
money as a medium of exchange depends on individuals’


redeemable for the precious metals, but eventually governments suspended redeemability in favor of fiat money —
paper currency not backed by any valuable commodity at all.
So what gives modern money its value? One argument
sometimes advanced by economists is that the value of fiat
money comes from a memory of the value of commodity
money. Under this explanation, if a country initially had a
convertible commodity-based currency, and then the government discontinued convertibility (as the United States
did in 1971), the currency would continue to circulate
because the infrastructure and assumption of value were
already in place. Other explanations stress the importance
of users’ faith in the issuing entity. Legal tender laws could
also be the key, since governments can create their own
demand for paper money (through “fiat”) by making it the
legal form of payment for public debts, or taxes. But these
arguments all suggest that establishing a private currency
with no past tie to a commodity or any government backing,
like Bitcoin, should be difficult.
“Say you’re going around this primitive economy and you
want to trade,” explains George Selgin, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia. “Someone shows up in
the marketplace with a handful of little paper notes with a
portrait and some numbers on them. You’re not going to
look at those notes and say, ‘Oh, I bet everyone wants these.’
Until they’re adopted as money, they’re not anything. If they
were money, then it would make sense for people to accept
them. But who wants to go first?”

SOURCE:, Mt. Gox (USD) trading data


expectations that it will be widely accepted by other people
in the economy. In a 1989 paper, Nobuhiro Kiyotaki of
Princeton University and Randall Wright of the University
of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed economic models in which
certain goods arose naturally as media of exchange. They
concluded that “the value of any medium of exchange, and
especially fiat money, ultimately depends at least partially
on faith.”

Building Bitcoin Business
Bitcoin’s growing value has started to attract the attention of
entrepreneurs outside the original core of supporters. In
July, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, known for their
involvement in the history of Facebook, filed with the
Securities Exchange Commission to create an exchangetraded fund for bitcoins. Their aim is to make it easier for
people to invest in the currency. In a December report, Bank
of America Merrill Lynch noted that Bitcoin could “emerge
as a serious competitor to traditional money transfer
While Bitcoin seems to be generating new business
opportunities each day, many investors still have questions.
Chief among them: What are the actual financial rules that
govern digital currencies?
“We don’t know that much,” says Reuben Grinberg, an
associate in the financial institutions group at the law firm
Davis Polk & Wardwell. Grinberg wrote one of the earliest
academic papers on Bitcoin while in law school and now
works with business clients interested in the digital
currency. “To some extent, we’re in the same place we were
when the Internet first started and people weren’t sure what
laws were going to apply. Would we take existing laws and
just apply them or come up with a whole set of new laws?”
Bitcoin is not the first digital currency to raise this question. E-gold, created in 1996 by Douglas Jackson, was a
digital currency backed by real gold and other precious metals. It allowed users to instantly and largely anonymously
send payments via the Web using commodity-backed cash.
E-gold gained popularity with people seeking an alternative
to fiat money, but it also attracted those who were interested in anonymously conducting illegal transactions and
laundering money. In 2005, the FBI and Secret Service raided Jackson’s offices, and in 2007, he was indicted on federal
charges of money laundering and operating an unlicensed
money transmitting business.
Some similarities between Bitcoin and e-gold have made
authorities and potential users wary. Like e-gold, Bitcoin
users do not have to provide identifying information when
they register. And like e-gold, Bitcoin has a history of being
used to facilitate illegal transactions. In October, the FBI
shuttered Silk Road, an online marketplace for illegal goods
and services. Transactions on the Silk Road were conducted
exclusively in bitcoins, and according to the FBI report, the
site generated sales revenue of more than 9.5 million bitcoins during its lifetime.
As digital currencies become more prevalent, financial


regulators have expressed concern that they could be used to
hide illegal activity. The Bank Secrecy Act, as enforced by
FinCEN, requires that financial institutions register with
the government and follow certain anti-money laundering
precautions, such as collecting data on users and transactions and reporting suspicious activity. According to
guidance released in March, FinCEN expects administrators
or exchanges of digital currencies to comply with these rules
as well. To make the point clear, in May the Department of
Homeland Security temporarily froze assets held by Mt.
Gox, one of the primary Bitcoin exchanges, on charges that
it was operating as a money transmitter without a proper
license. Mt. Gox has since registered with FinCEN as a
money transmitter and has taken steps to collect identification information from users.
Murck, the Bitcoin Foundation general counsel, thinks it
is a good thing that regulators are clarifying their expectations for digital currencies, but he says there are still many
misconceptions about Bitcoin.
“Bitcoin isn’t really anonymous,” he says. “It’s pseudonymous, and that means private. The difference is that there is
a Bitcoin address, and that doesn’t necessarily tie to any
identifiable information by its nature. But somebody could
very easily link a person to a Bitcoin address, and once
they’ve done that, they have full transparency to all the
activity that’s ever happened on that address because the
ledger is public.”
Murck’s biggest worry is that regulators move to clamp
down on digital currencies before they have all the facts. In
late May his organization was issued a cease-and-desist order
from the California Department of Financial Institutions.
Although he says the letter appears to have been a misunderstanding (the Bitcoin Foundation does not actually buy or
sell bitcoins), it does raise the specter of oversight by
state-level financial regulators — a potentially expensive
proposition for a currency with global reach.
“Say there’s a big crackdown on Bitcoin from the regulatory and law-enforcement community here in the U.S.,”
Murck says. “Most likely what that means for Bitcoin is that
U.S. consumers and all the companies will go somewhere
else. But if regulators and law enforcement drive all the good
players out of the states, how much more difficult does their
job become when everything moves overseas and goes dark
on them?”
Calvery, the director of FinCEN, has said repeatedly that
it is not their intention to regulate digital currencies out of
“I think innovation in the financial services industry
holds out great promise on so many levels for commerce and
for social reasons like providing services to the unbanked,”
she said in an American Banker interview following the
issuance of FinCEN’s guidance. “But like any financial services, it comes with an obligation, and those obligations to
protect the U.S. financial system from money laundering
need to be taken seriously.”
continued on page 27

Can giving drug dealers a second chance actually reduce crime?

harles Myres started dealing drugs when he was
11 years old. He was arrested for the first time when
he was 15 and was in and out of court for the next
four years. In many cities, he would be a statistic today,
one of the nearly 800,000 black men who are currently in
prison or jail. But instead, Myres — a tall, slim 23-year-old
who wears his hair in neat braids — has started a landscaping business with his brother and is raising three children
with his girlfriend.
Myres happened to be a drug dealer in High Point, N.C.,
a city of about 100,000 people between Greensboro and
Winston-Salem. In 2004, fed up with decades of high crime
and drug violence, the police embarked on a new strategy to
combat the city’s open-air drug markets: Instead of locking
up all the dealers, they would offer some a second chance.
The plan worked. Violent crime decreased dramatically
and the drug markets remain closed. Inspired by the success,
in 2008 the Department of Justice (DOJ) began a drug market intervention program that provided grants and training
to implement the High Point model in more than 30 cities
nationwide, including six in the Fifth District. As the
country debates the best way to combat drugs and drug
violence, the High Point initiative offers an alternative to
the traditional model of arrest and imprisonment.


The High Point Model
The traditional model wasn’t working in High Point, where
open-air drug markets — dealers standing on corners and in
parking lots to sell drugs to people who drove up in cars —
had developed in several neighborhoods throughout the city.
“We made dozens of arrests every month,” says Marty
Sumner, chief of the High Point Police Department
(HPPD). Sumner was assistant chief when the drug market
initiative began. “And as soon as we arrested someone, there
were five more people to take his place.”
Crack cocaine arrived in High Point in the 1980s, as it did
in many other areas of the country. In neighborhoods that
used to house workers for the region’s textile and furniture
mills, vacant homes became hideouts for dealers and
addicts. Businesses moved away, the dealers became more
brazen, and over time, the remaining residents became
resigned to the conditions. “You had total disinvestment in
the community,” Sumner says. “Nobody cared and nobody
called, because they saw it every day. They’d given up hope
that we could change anything.”
In the mid-1990s, the HPPD had worked with David
Kennedy, then a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of
Government, on a program to reduce gun violence. Kennedy
is currently the director of the Center for Crime Prevention
and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The

program had been successful, but in 2003 there was a noticeable rise in violent crime; the number of murders, rapes,
robberies, and assaults increased more than 10 percent over
the year before, from 784 to 867. At that point, the city had
the second-highest per capita violent crime rate in the state.
Chief Jim Fealy believed that the open-air drug markets
were the primary source of the violence and decided to ask
Kennedy for help shutting them down.
Kennedy was the architect of a new method of policing
called “focused deterrence,” which involves carefully targeting a select group of chronic offenders in a crime hot spot.
The basic model is that police, prosecutors, and the community work closely together to identify the offenders who
are the source of the problem. Then, the police inform the
offenders at a group meeting that law enforcement is aware
of their activities and watching them closely. If the dealers
change their behavior, they won’t be arrested, but if they
continue, they will be prosecuted harshly. Community
leaders are present at these meetings to inform the offenders that their behavior will no longer be tolerated by their
families and neighbors and to offer social services. Kennedy
describes three basic messages: “First, your own community
needs this to stop. They care about you but they hate what’s
going on and it has to stop. Second, we would like to help
you. And third, this is not a negotiation. We’re not asking.”
The first application was in 1995 in Boston, where there
was a very high youth homicide rate. Police realized that the
violence was a gang problem, and that although a small number of gang members actually did the killing, all the
members committed lots of other crimes. So the police
informed the gang members that “the price to the group for
a killing will be attention to every crime that everybody in
the group is committing. Using drugs, selling drugs, violating
probation, driving unregistered cars, everything,” Kennedy
says. “It turned out that when all the groups were put on
prior notice, the killing dropped off really quickly and
dramatically.” Operation Ceasefire reduced gun violence by
68 percent within a single year, according to the National
Institute of Justice, the research branch of the DOJ.

A New Day in High Point
The key to implementing the model in High Point was to
decide that the problem was not drugs per se but rather
how they were being sold. Open-air drug markets breed
“complete chaos in the public space,” Sumner says. Buyers
come from out of town, prostitutes know they can find both
drugs and clients, and dealers battle each other for turf and
customers. “It used to look like a McDonald’s drive-through
here. You couldn’t even turn on to the street because of all
the cars lined up to buy drugs,” says Lt. Anthro Gamble, who


Violent Crime in High Point, 1990-2011







Total Violent


SOURCE: High Point Police Department

was a narcotics officer at the time. If the city could shut
down the markets — even if they didn’t get rid of drugs
completely — they could reduce the violence and create
stability in the affected neighborhoods.
After analyzing the city’s crime data, the police decided
to target the West End neighborhood first. They held a
series of public meetings to explain the initiative to the community and ask for their support, and then the narcotics
agents went to work. They spent months observing the drug
market to identify the dealers, and built cases against them
using informants and undercover drug purchases.
One surprise was that the problem was limited to a relatively small number of dealers. “I figured there would be
over 100 people that were really involved in the drug dealing.
It seemed like they were everywhere,” says Jim Summey, a
former minister in the West End and the executive director
of the High Point Community Against Violence (HPCAV),
a nonprofit organization that works closely with the police
department. But when police analyzed the data, there were
actually only 16 active street dealers in that market.
Of those 16, four were arrested right away because police
and prosecutors thought that they were too violent or had
too many pending charges to be offered a second chance.
The remaining 12 dealers were each sent a letter explaining
that they had been the subject of an undercover investigation, and that they were invited to a “call-in” where they
would be offered help in exchange of quitting dealing. “You
will not be arrested,” the letter read. “This is not a trick. You
will receive a one-time offer of help and hear how the rules
are being changed for you.”
On May 18, 2004, nine of the invited 12 dealers showed
up. They were shown the evidence against them, as well as
arrest warrants lacking only a judge’s signature. Pictures of
the men who had already been arrested were taped to empty
chairs. The police informed them if they stopped dealing
immediately, they wouldn’t be arrested, but if they were
caught again, they would be zealously prosecuted.
Social workers, ministers, family members, and other citizens were also at the call-in to share the message that the
community cared about the dealers, but that it would no
longer tolerate their behavior. The HPCAV offered to help
them connect with social services or job training programs.


The gamble the police and the community were
making was that the dealers would respond rationally
to the change in their cost-benefit calculation. Before
the meeting, the dealers perceived the risk of being
caught as very small; low-level drug dealers can conduct hundreds of transactions between arrests. But
now, the dealers were being told that they would be
arrested and they would go to prison. “They had to
make a different decision when they left there that
night. They couldn’t walk out of here and go right back
to work tomorrow,” says Sumner.
The calculation changed for Myres, who was part of
a 2010 initiative in the Washington Drive neighborhood. “You’ve got to weigh out your options,” he says.
“So I just walked out and started a new day.”
He wasn’t the only one — the West End drug market
closed down overnight. One hundred days after the call-in,
violent crime in the West End was down 75 percent; four
years later, it was still down 57 percent. Over the next six
years, High Point repeated the intervention in four additional neighborhoods with the same success. Citywide, the
number of violent crimes has decreased 21 percent since
2004, even though the population has increased 14 percent.
(See chart.) The recidivism rate among called-in dealers is
about half the North Carolina average. (In 2008, the city saw
an uptick in violence that was associated with gangs;
the police re-enlisted Kennedy’s help to develop a focuseddeterrence program for gang violence and saw the crime
rates come back down.)
Before the initiative, some feared that the drug markets
would simply reopen in other parts of the city. But there are
several reasons that hasn’t happened, according to Sumner.
First, most of the customers were people who drove in from
out of town. Once the market was gone, they couldn’t wait
around for it to be re-established. In addition, it takes years
for the conditions to develop that allow an open-air drug
market to take hold; it isn’t the kind of business that can
easily pick up and move.
Other cities that have tried the High Point model, such
as Seattle, Nashville, Tenn., and Rockford, Ill., have had
similar results. In Rockford, for example, nonviolent crime
decreased 31 percent and violent crime decreased 15 percent
following the drug market initiative. In the Fifth District,
cities including Durham, N.C., Roanoke, Va., and Baltimore
are currently undergoing training on the process.



Gang Initiative


Drug Market Initiative

Violent Crime Task Force


A Nation of Inmates
Nationwide, however, incarceration is still the preferred
method of law enforcement. The United States has the
highest incarceration rate in the world: About 720 people
per 100,000 are in prison or jail, for a total of 2.3 million.
(Prisons are operated by state governments and the Federal
Bureau of Prisons. Jails are operated by sheriffs and local
governments and are designed for people awaiting trial or
serving short sentences, typically under one year.) In Russia,
the rate is 477 per 100,000; in China, it’s 121 per 100,000

(or 170 per 100,000 if people held in administrative detention are included). In most European countries, the rate is
less than 150 per 100,000.
The rate hasn’t always been so high; until the early 1970s,
it was only about 100 people per 100,000. But in 1975, an
influential study concluded that efforts to rehabilitate criminals were failures, a finding that helped to shift the goal of
imprisonment from rehabilitation to simply incapacitation.
At the same time, the country was ramping up its war on
drugs and citizens wanted politicians to get tough on crime.
Incarceration rates were further increased by the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing in the 1980s and
“three strikes” laws in the 1990s. As a result, the prison
population has increased by about 500 percent over the
past 35 years, compared with 45 percent for the population
as a whole.
Maintaining that population is expensive: The average
annual cost to keep a single person in prison is about
$29,000 per year. In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons
spent $6.6 billion. The states spent nearly $50 billion on
corrections in 2010, the most recent year for which data are
available, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Spending time in prison is costly for the inmates as
well. Prisoners disproportionately have low levels of
education — about half haven’t completed high school or its
equivalent — and going to prison further decreases the
likelihood that they will eventually earn a high school
diploma or GED. Once they have been released, former
inmates have lower earnings and higher unemployment rates
than people with similar work experience and education,
according to research by Becky Pettit at the University of
Washington and Bruce Western at Harvard University. In
addition to the fact that convicted felons are barred from
working at many companies and government agencies, there
is a strong stigma associated with prison, as Devah Pager of
Princeton University has found. She sent pairs of fake job
seekers out to apply for real jobs with identical resumes,
except that one was randomly assigned to have a criminal
record. The job seekers with records were 50 percent less
likely to receive a call back from prospective employers.
High incarceration rates also affect entire communities,
particularly black communities. Although black people
make up 13 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, they
are 37 percent of the prison population. One out of every
nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is in prison,
compared with one out of every 57 white men, according to
Pettit and Western. “There are neighborhoods where virtually all the men end up going to lockup,” Kennedy says. Not
only does that create hardship for the women and children
of those communities, it also can breed antagonism toward

law enforcement, which makes it difficult to police those
neighborhoods effectively.
Reducing that antagonism was a major goal of the High
Point model, says Kennedy. “The initiative was designed to
get rid of the overt drug market, in a way that didn’t lead to
all these men going to prison, and in a way that could reset
relationships between the residents and the police.”

From Drug Market to Suburb?
Resetting those relationships required the High Point police
to change the way they respond to complaints. Previously, if
someone called and said they thought there was a crack
house next door, a detective would start investigating, but
that investigation would be invisible to the person who
made the call; the caller would think that the police were
unresponsive. Now, an officer goes out, knocks on the door
immediately, and maintains a visible presence until the issue
is resolved. That puts criminals on notice, but perhaps more
important, it creates a two-way street between the police
and the community, with citizens involved in enforcing community standards. “I remember one community meeting
where people wanted to take the police’s head off,” says
Gretta Bush, president of the HPCAV. “But when the
question was asked, ‘How many times did you call the
police?’ nobody raised their hand. It really evened the playing field for the community to realize, it’s just as much me
and what I’m not doing.”
Critics of the High Point model say that it doesn’t
actually solve the drug problem; it just pushes it underground. That’s okay with Kennedy, who says that eliminating
all drugs isn’t the goal. Instead, it’s to create basic safety and
stability. “I know neighborhoods where young men are
selling drugs and using drugs, but they’re not carrying guns
and they’re not selling drugs on people’s front lawns. And
the name for those neighborhoods is the suburbs.”
It’s also true that despite the HPCAV’s offers of help,
most of the former drug dealers have not gone back to
school or found jobs. But from the law-enforcement perspective, Sumner says, as long as the violence has stopped,
the community has won, regardless of the outcomes for the
individual dealers.
The former drug market neighborhoods have not turned
into the suburbs. The people who live there are still poor;
the homes have sagging porches and peeling paint, and
unemployment is high. But some businesses have returned,
and the city is tearing down former crack houses and building new homes. Where children once weren’t allowed to go
outside, a young girl pushes her baby sister in a stroller and a
group of boys play basketball in the street. Myres has one
word to describe the neighborhood these days: “Quiet.” EF

Kennedy, David. “Drugs, Race, and Common Ground: Reflections
on the High Point Intervention.” National Institute of Justice Journal,
March 2009, No. 262.

Western, Bruce, and Becky Pettit. “Collateral Costs:
Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility.” The Pew Economic
Mobility Project and the Public Safety Performance Project,
September 2010.


USAID distributes food commodities worldwide
through Food for Peace, the largest food aid program
in the United States. Here, USAID supplies arrive
in Tunisia to benefit Libyan refugees.





budget goes toward shipping and storage costs. According to
the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),
less than 40 percent of food aid funding from 2003 to 2012
actually went toward food commodities. The rest covered
storage and transportation costs — 25 percent each — as
well as general administrative activities.
Rising transportation costs have caused the volume of
food delivered to dip significantly over the last decade,
falling from 5 million cubic tons to 1.8 million cubic tons
annually. Even as food aid budgets increased, the number of
starving people assisted by American food aid abroad
dropped during the last three years from 15.5 million to 10.7
Economists generally agree the tied aid policy makes the
U.S. food aid program slower and less efficient. But they also
agree that the program seeks to accomplish more than just
humanitarian objectives. Tied aid benefits American producers, who enjoy the added business and guaranteed
overseas markets for their crops. In a practical sense, it’s
unclear whether these two goals — supporting the domestic
sector and pursuing a humanitarian mission — are at odds
with one another: If donating food did not provide any benefits to the domestic economy, would Congress authorize
it at all?

Origins of Tied Aid
The genesis of American food aid, says economics and agriculture professor Christopher Barrett of Cornell University,


n November 1996, more than 100 government leaders
convened in Rome for the World Food Summit, a fiveday conference called to address widespread nutrition
problems and global capacity to meet future food needs.
After nine meetings, the summit ended on Nov. 17 with a
pledge to cut the number of chronically undernourished
people — then at 841 million — in half by 2015.
In his closing remarks, Romano Prodi, prime minister of
Italy and chairman of the summit, was optimistic. “If each of
us gives his or her best, I believe that we can meet and even
exceed the target we have set for ourselves,” he declared.
“Twenty years from now, that is how history will judge.”
But just under two decades later, the world is far from
meeting that objective. Thanks in part to the global recession and rising food prices, the number of hungry has gone
up, not down: According to the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations, there were nearly 870
million hungry people from 2010 to 2012.
One way the United States tries to help reduce hunger is
through food aid. As the world’s largest donor country, the
United States allocates about $1.4 billion a year toward food
aid, roughly half of the world’s total. Sub-Saharan Africa is
by far the largest recipient region of U.S. food aid, followed
by Asia. (See charts.)
But not all of that money is spent on food itself. Because
of the “tied aid” approach, in which a set amount of donated
food must be grown in the United States and transported on
U.S.-flagged ships, a large portion of the federal food aid

people change food habits and become used to American
was really “surplus disposal.” Thanks to a policy of price supfood. And when that aid stops, they will become clients of
port for agricultural commodities — in which the
food production in the U.S.” As an example, Mousseau’s
government bought large amounts of grain to stabilize marresearch has pointed to South Korea, which he says was one
kets when food prices were low — the United States faced
of the largest beneficiaries of U.S. food aid in the 1950s and
huge agricultural surpluses by the 1950s. Food aid presented
1960s and has since become among the biggest buyers of
an easy way to clear that excess supply and save on storage
American agricultural goods.
The current food aid program was officially established
in 1954 through the Agricultural Trade Development and
A Subsidy That Slows
Assistance Act, better known as Public Law 480. Seven years
The environment that prompted the tied aid system in the
later, President John F. Kennedy renamed the program Food
1950s is no longer present. Food surpluses shrank in the late
for Peace, declaring, “Food is strength, and food is peace,
1980s when the government began rolling back its aggresand food is freedom, and food is a helping hand to people
sive price support policies. To justify keeping food aid tied,
around the world whose good will and friendship we want.”
lawmakers have argued that the existing program helps
The program was revised under President Lyndon
American farmers and shipping companies, ensures higherJohnson by the Food for Peace Act of 1966 (FPA). Since its
quality food donations, and enhances America’s reputation
inception, FPA has been the main legislative vehicle for
authorizing food aid, making up 50 percent to 90 percent of
Indeed, though food aid accounted for less than 1 percent
total annual food aid spending from 2002 to 2011. (To a
of total U.S. farm income in 2011, it has been important to
lesser extent, the U.S. government also provides food assisthe overall output of certain American food producers and
tance through other channels, including the Food for
shippers. According to a report by Mousseau, food aid from
Progress Program, which is aimed at promoting developthe mid-1980s to the mid-2000s made up about 34 percent
ment.) FPA consists of four primary programs, the most
of total American dry milk powder exports, 16 percent of
widely used of which is Title II, the “emergency and private
rice exports, and 12 percent of wheat exports, as well as more
assistance” program. Through Title II, U.S. food commodithan half of U.S. soybean oil exports. Thanks to the Cargo
ties are donated to meet emergency and nonemergency
Act, the shipping industry received about $260 million from
needs, including promoting economic development, typifood aid transportation in 2002, a number that the charity
cally in response to cases of malnutrition, famine, natural
organization Oxfam International says made up more than
disaster, and civil strife. All U.S. food aid given under Title II
one-third of total program costs that year.
must be grown within this country. (A small exception existTied aid might also be a way to subsidize American proed from 2009 to 2012, when the United States donated
ducers without upsetting U.S. trade partners. Subsidies,
locally grown food through a $60 million pilot program.)
which often come in the form of cash grants, interest-free
Moreover, under the Cargo Preference Act, 50 percent of
loans, tax breaks, or depreciation write-offs, have received
food aid must be delivered on U.S.-flagged ships; from 1985
pushback in the international sphere because of their tento 2012, that requirement was 75 percent.
dency to distort markets by crowding out other exporters
Initially, FPA seemed like a win-win situation: Friendly
and causing prices to fluctuate. (See also “Agricultural Policy
developing countries in need of food would receive free supand Market Distortions,” page 11.) During the 2005 Doha
plies from the United States, and in turn the United States
Round negotiations — an ongoing series of trade talks that
would have somewhere to send its agricultural surpluses.
began in 2001 among members of the World Trade
Officials also reasoned that donating
Organization — participating nations,
food would support foreign policy
including the United States, discussed
Top Food Aid Donors, 2011
goals, improve America’s image, and
ways to correct trade distortions in
help develop strategic partnerships in
global agricultural markets. The effort
the Cold War era.
ended with an agreement to eliminate
In addition, policymakers believed
all export subsidies by 2013. Mousseau,
Other Countries
tied aid could help capture new marthough, argues that food aid has
kets by introducing American goods
become a means for the United States
United States
into recipient countries. “It was offito circumvent free trade norms
cially and explicitly an objective of
because it “is seen not as a subsidy, but
USAID to change food habits in
as humanitarian relief and a way to help
developing countries,” says Frederic
poor countries.”
Mousseau, consultant for internaBecause transporting food abroad
tional relief agencies and policy
takes time, the tied aid system slows
European Commission
director at the Oakland Institute, an
down America’s overall food donation
on contribution to total volume
international policy research and
efforts. The Congressional Research
of food aid donated
advocacy group. “After years of aid,
Service reported that the tied aid
SOURCE: World Food Programme


Recipients of Global Food Aid



Sub-Saharan Africa
Latin America




Middle East and N. Africa
Eastern Europe


SOURCE: World Food Programme

system delays food shipments by at least four months. A
study by Barrett and Cornell University colleagues Elizabeth
Bageant and Erin Lentz concluded that it cost taxpayers an
extra $140 million in 2006 to ship food on U.S.-flagged
ships, while the Oakland Institute estimated that tied aid
more than doubles the overall cost of the food assistance
In a separate study, Barrett, Lentz, and Simone Passarelli,
also at Cornell, found that procuring the food locally —
meaning in or near the recipient country — reduced transportation time by nearly 14 weeks. For Barrett, that
improvement is a worthwhile trade-off. “As soon as you recognize that the main thing food aid can do is meet
humanitarian objectives, then what you most want is flexibility, because time matters, and your budgets are limited.”
Reliance on tied aid among other donor countries has
declined in part to reduce these inefficiencies and increase
flexibility. In the past 15 years, the European Union (EU),
Canada, and Australia have all untied their food aid programs, and the amount of global food aid that is tied has
declined from 60 percent in the 1980s to less than 25 percent
today. In fact, Mousseau says, the United States is the only
country still legally required to tie food aid.

Political Economy
Given the recent trend among donor countries to untie food
aid programs, why has the United States not chosen to follow suit? According to political economist Jennifer Clapp at
the University of Waterloo, the answer lies partially in the
structures of the federal authorities responsible for food
assistance. For the EU, Australia, and Canada — which have
all untied their food aid programs — untying occurred when
food aid was run by foreign assistance and development
ministries instead of agricultural agencies, which Clapp says
insulated it from agricultural lobby groups. Both Australia
and Canada also have parliamentary government systems,
which means the legislature’s ruling party and prime minister enjoy a more unified relationship, enabling more rapid
policy change and facilitating reform. Making changes to the
U.S. food aid program is much more difficult.
Some observers have wondered whether inefficiency is
simply the price to pay for any food aid. Concerns that


untying aid would hurt American producers could make it
difficult for Congress to do so, especially for representatives
from agricultural and shipping districts. It’s hard to maintain
support for food aid programs, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.,
told the Washington Post in May, unless they also benefit powerful stakeholders. President George W. Bush recommended
untying food aid in every budget from 2006 to 2009, and he
was rebuffed each time by Congress. Research supports the
idea that food aid flows are linked to the composition of
political parties represented in government: Economist
Jared Pincin of The King’s College found that the greater the
variety of political parties in the donor government’s legislature, the higher the allocation of food aid, suggesting food
aid has been used as a tool to promote the needs of divergent
If hunger relief and domestic concerns are inextricably
bound, this would hardly be the first time that political realities made strange bedfellows in the world of food policy. For
40 years, Congress tied the provision of food stamps to its
recurring farm bill, seen as the only way to amass enough
support to pass either. The two were separated for the first
time this summer, when controversial proposed cuts to the
food stamps program held up the farm bill vote.
For people focused only on humanitarian gains, the question is whether untying the United States’ food aid program
would significantly reduce the volume of its food donations.
When the European Union untied food aid in 1996, it saw a
decline in total food aid delivered, according to data from
the World Food Programme. Though Clapp points out that
this trend has been one of the most powerful arguments
among tied aid advocates for keeping aid tied, she cautions
that there may be other factors at play. European governments have been gradually shifting focus from providing
food commodities to funding infrastructural improvements
that expand long-term access to food — causing total food
shipments to decline but not necessarily indicating reduced
government support for combating hunger. Neither
Australia nor Canada have observed declines in food aid output after untying aid in 2006 and 2008, respectively.

Trying to Untie
In his 2014 budget, President Barack Obama proposed partially untying food aid to allow up to 45 percent of aid
authorized under USAID’s International Disaster
Assistance (IDA) account to be procured locally or provided
through cash transfers and vouchers. Obama’s proposal also
recommended expanding the food aid program by almost
30 percent to $1.8 billion; dividing FPA funding across three
USAID-controlled accounts, the majority of which would
go to IDA; creating new emergency food assistance funds;
and eliminating food aid monetization — a practice in which
food is donated to a country’s government or to nongovernmental organizations that sell the commodities below
market value to finance their development programs.
The Obama administration said it expected these changes
to expand the food aid program’s reach to 4 million more

people annually, increase the total volume of food delivered,
and speed up delivery by up to 14 weeks.
Though it remains to be seen whether Obama’s budget
will pass, its sentiments have some bipartisan support
on Capitol Hill. Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel,
D-N.Y., proposed a joint amendment to the House of
Representatives farm bill in June 2013 that would have
allowed up to 45 percent of all U.S. food aid to be bought in
or near recipient regions. The amendment was rejected last
June, though the vote was close. Royce has also partnered
with Rep. Karen Bass, R-Calif., to introduce the Royce-Bass
Food Aid Reform Act, which would eliminate requirements
that food aid be grown in the United States and transported
on U.S.-flagged ships.
There are other ways that researchers suggest food aid
policy could be changed to maximize benefits to recipient
countries. One would be to focus on promoting “food sovereignty” — in other words, reducing a recipient country’s

reliance on international aid, similar to what the European
Union has been doing recently. The United States could also
switch to a cash vouchers and transfers system, donating
money instead of food commodities in a system similar to
the domestic food stamp program. This transition could give
recipients more flexibility in deciding where and what kind
of food to purchase, and would reorient the program more
exclusively toward humanitarian objectives, even if at the
expense of domestic benefits.
Barrett is optimistic that such reforms are on the
horizon. “I have a very hard time believing that the
American people and Congress are not willing to contribute
anything to humanitarian relief if nobody in the United
States is making money off it,” he says. On the other hand, if
60 years of history are any indication, the U.S. government
may well continue to structure food aid to benefit both
humanitarian relief and domestic interests, especially in
times of slow economic growth.

Barrett, Christopher B., Elizabeth R. Bageant, and Erin C. Lentz.
“Food Aid and Agricultural Cargo Preference.” Cornell University
Policy Brief, November 2010.

Kripke, Gawain. “Food Aid or Hidden Dumping? Separating
Wheat from Chaff.” Oxfam Briefing Paper, Oxfam International,
March 2005.

Hanrahan, Charles E. “International Food Aid Programs:
Background and Issues,” Congressional Research Service,
May 20, 2013.

Mousseau, Frederic. “Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World
Hunger In Our Time.” The Oakland Institute, 2005.


continued from page 20

Grinberg believes that the businesses now involved with
Bitcoin are taking those obligations seriously. “The grownups have entered the room, and they are trying to follow the
rules. On top of that, they often have a deep well of experience in the financial services industry, which should give
some comfort to the regulators that it’s not just a bunch of
money launderers,” he says.

Currency Evolved
For regulators and many businesses, this is still a learning
period. The European Central Bank released a study on
digital currencies in October 2012, concluding that “authorities need to consider whether they intend to formalise or
acknowledge and regulate these [currencies].” In the United
States, regulators have thus far been cautiously optimistic
about Bitcoin. In written testimony submitted to a
November Senate hearing, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke
said that digital currencies “may hold long-term promise,

particularly if the innovations promote a faster, more secure
and more efficient payment system.” Other countries, such
as China, have restricted the use of Bitcoin, seeing it as a
potential threat to financial stability.
Murck thinks Bitcoin still has some more growing to do
before it is ready for mass consumption, but he is optimistic.
Even if Bitcoin doesn’t end up as the digital currency of
choice, there could be others. Litecoin, a digital currency
“mined” like Bitcoin but with a higher virtual stock of 84 million coins, has been billed as the “silver” to Bitcoin’s “gold.”
And there are others springing up seemingly every week.
Selgin sees potential opportunities for monetary policy
using money based on a synthetic commodity, like Bitcoin. If
economists and central bankers could agree upon optimal
monetary rules, then it might be possible to design a digital
currency that carries out those rules automatically.
“It does provide some interesting food for monetary
thought,” he says.

Grinberg, Reuben. “Bitcoin: An Innovative Alternative Digital
Currency.” Hastings Science and Technology Law Journal, Winter 2012,
vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 159-208.
Kiyotaki, Nobuhiro, and Randall Wright. “On Money as a Medium

of Exchange.” Journal of Political Economy, August 1989,
vol. 97, no. 4, pp. 927-954.
Selgin, George. “Synthetic Commodity Money.” Working Paper,
April 10, 2013.


Many policymakers say that corporations aren’t paying their fair share,
but corporate taxes may have hidden costs

n May 21, Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook appeared
before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on
Investigations. Committee members praised the
innovative products developed by the California-based
computer giant, but they were less pleased with the
achievements of its accounting department. They took
turns grilling Cook on why the company had shifted billions of dollars in profits to its overseas subsidiaries, thereby
avoiding payment of U.S. corporate taxes on those gains.
Concern over declining corporate tax revenues has been
mounting for some time. In 2012, the corporate income tax
brought in $242 billion in revenue, but as a share of federal
revenue, it has fallen from about 30 percent in the 1950s to
around 10 percent today — making it a distant third to
the individual income tax and the payroll tax. It has also
declined as a share of GDP, from 6 percent in the mid-1950s
to about 2 percent (see chart). Some policymakers have
argued that the income shifting practiced by multinational
corporations is a major reason for the decline in corporate
income tax revenue.
But others have said that U.S. companies have good
reason to avoid the tax. After accounting for average state
taxes, the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in
the developed world at 39 percent, compared with a GDPweighted average of about 30 percent among other
developed nations. Thus, some argue the U.S. rate should be
much lower. How much lower? According to many economists, it should be zero.
“The only reason not to eliminate the corporate tax
would be if there were no way to raise the amount of revenue
you need without it, and I personally believe it would be easy
to raise as much revenue as we need without taxing things


Corporate Income Tax as a Share of Federal Revenue and GDP





% of Federal Revenue

SOURCE: U.S. Office of Management and Budget



% of GDP

that don’t cause harm,” says Robert Frank, an economist at
Cornell University. Frank has proposed replacing the tax on
corporate income with taxes on things that cause externalities, such as pollution or traffic congestion.
Ultimately, analyzing the merits and flaws of the corporate income tax boils down to two questions: Who pays and
at what cost?

Who Pays?
One reason economists have suggested abandoning the
corporate income tax is that it’s not entirely clear who
actually bears the burden. It’s tempting to say that the corporation pays. It is, after all, a tax on company profits. But a
corporation is just a legal entity, and ultimately only people
can pay taxes. So who pays the corporate tax?
There are a few possibilities. The shareholders, as owners
of the corporate capital, could pay. Alternatively, the workers
might pay if the tax is passed on in the form of lower wages.
Finally, the consumers could pay if the tax is passed on in the
form of higher prices. Early research on the subject by economist Arnold Harberger, now at the University of California,
Los Angeles, seemed to suggest that capital owners were the
ones who paid. In a 1962 paper, Harberger modeled a closed
economy (one with no international trade) with two economic sectors, corporate and noncorporate. He found that
the burden of the corporate income tax would fall entirely
on capital. In response to the tax, capital would move from
the corporate sector to the noncorporate sector seeking
higher returns, which would reduce the productivity of
capital in that sector. In this way, the tax would affect all
capital in the economy. Since the owners of capital tended to
be individuals with higher income, a corporate income tax
was seen as making the tax code more progressive.
In the time since Harberger’s paper, commerce has
become much more global, allowing capital to move not just
within the domestic economy but across borders. According
to a 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report, while less than
1 percent of all U.S. companies are multinational, they have
accounted for 31 percent of growth in real private sector
GDP since 1990. This has made it even trickier to determine
who pays the corporate tax in the long run. If capital moves
abroad to lower-tax jurisdictions in search of a higher return,
workers in the home country are left with less capital,
making them less productive. As a result, wages may decline.
R. Alison Felix, an economist at the Kansas City Fed,
studied the effect of corporate taxes on wages at the state
level. She found that a 1 percentage point increase in
the marginal state corporate tax reduces wages by between

0.14 and 0.36 percent. Studies of international data have also
indicated that labor may bear some of the burden of the corporate tax, but estimates of how much vary wildly from less
than half of the tax to all of it. Moving to a larger scale, it
becomes more difficult to accurately measure the effects of
the corporate tax on wages because they make up vastly
different proportions of the economy. Labor income makes
up about 63 percent of GDP, while corporate income is only
about 2 percent.
Jane Gravelle, a senior specialist in economic policy at
the Congressional Research Service (CRS), says some of the
empirical studies that found that labor bore a significant portion of the burden of the corporate tax yielded implausible
results, suggesting that they suffered from statistical errors.
In a paper with Thomas Hungerford, a public finance specialist at CRS, she reran the studies and found no conclusive
evidence that wages suffered under higher corporate taxes.

At What Cost?
Although it is not entirely clear who pays the corporate tax,
nearly all taxes create some market inefficiency in the form
of deadweight loss. This inefficiency arises because taxes
create a wedge between what buyers pay and what sellers
receive, which leads to an outcome in which both parties
would gain from more production. In the case of the corporate income tax, the effect of the tax can strongly influence
the decisions companies make, such as how to finance
In general, corporations raise funds in two ways, by issuing new stock (equity) or by borrowing money, and the
corporate tax affects this choice. If a company raises money
through debt, it can deduct the interest on that debt. But if
a company raises money by issuing stock, any dividends paid
out on the newly issued shares are not deductible. In fact,
dividends are taxed twice: once at the corporate level, and
once at the individual level when paid out to shareholders.
As a result, the effective tax rate on equity financing ends up
being much higher than the tax on debt. In a 2007 report,
the Treasury Department estimated that equity financing
has an effective marginal tax rate of about 40 percent, while
debt has an effective rate of -2 percent.
“Debt financing ends up being much preferred,” says
David Kautter, director of the Kogod Tax Center at
American University.
This set of incentives has consequences: All else equal,
firms that are highly leveraged have a greater risk of bankruptcy if they fall on hard times than companies that finance
with equity.
“When the economy turns down, you’re carrying around
all this weight with you, and your margin for error becomes
narrower,” explains Kautter.
In addition to encouraging debt financing, the corporate
tax may also incentivize companies to retain earnings rather
than pay out dividends. Because dividends are taxed twice, a
company may retain earnings to keep shareholders’ overall
tax liability lower. This could deny shareholders the ability

to reinvest those funds in other projects, potentially creating
market inefficiencies.
In fact, because of the double taxation, one might expect
that companies would not pay out any dividends at all. But
that isn’t the case. In 2010, companies paid out 60 percent of
post-tax profits in dividends. Economists are divided in
explaining why so many corporations choose to pay dividends when the tax treatment is less favorable. It could be
that dividends signal strength to investors, and not paying
them out could make it difficult for a company to retain or
attract investors.
Finally, the tax code gives multinational corporations
an incentive to keep earnings abroad rather than bring
them home. If a U.S.-based corporation has a subsidiary in
another country, it pays taxes at that country’s rate on any
profits made by that subsidiary. But unlike a company based
in that country, U.S. corporations must also pay the U.S. tax
on that income when it is “repatriated,” or paid out as dividends by the parent company. The companies are given a tax
credit equal to the difference between the U.S. rate and the
foreign rate, but they also have the option to defer paying
the U.S. tax by keeping the money in foreign subsidiaries and
investing it abroad. Many multinationals choose to do just
that. According to estimates by the Joint Committee on
Taxation, deferral is one of the largest sources of lost corporate tax revenue, equaling $36.8 billion in 2012. This
behavior can lead to economically inefficient choices.
“It might be that your best investment of foreign earnings is back here in the United States. But when you factor in
the cost of bringing the money back, it’s not. So this money
gets trapped, basically,” says Kautter.
The data reveal the inefficiency of U.S. multinational
profit shifting. In a 2013 CRS study, Gravelle looked at the
profits of U.S. foreign subsidiaries in a variety of countries.
In large developed nations, such as France or Germany, U.S.
multinational profits constituted less than 1 percent of GDP
on average. But in notable tax havens such as Bermuda
or the Cayman Islands, profits were many times total GDP.
“These numbers clearly indicate that the profits in these
countries do not appear to derive
from economic motives related U.S. Company Foreign Profits
to productive inputs or markets,” Relative to GDP, 2008
Profits as
wrote Gravelle.
Percentage of GDP
One of the reasons such
profit shifting has become a Canada
problem recently has to do with
the growth of companies that Germany
derive much of their profit from Japan
intangibles, such as patents, United Kingdom
trademarks, or advertising. U.S. Bahamas
tax law requires companies that Bermuda
transfer components to sub- British Virgin Islands
sidiaries to pay the “arm’s length” Cayman Islands
price. This means the companies Marshall Islands
can’t charge their subsidiary a SOURCE: Gravelle, CRS Report “Tax Havens:
discounted price in order to International Tax Avoidance and Evasion”


declare less taxable income from the sale; they have to
charge the going market price. For physical goods, it is easy
to come up with comparisons to ensure the company is playing by the rules. But with intangibles, it gets trickier. If
Apple or Google sell a patent to their subsidiary, what is the
going market price for that patent? Without easy market
comparisons, companies can shift intangibles to tax-free
countries at low prices, avoiding taxes in the United States.
“I have come to believe that the big problem is not the
inefficient allocation of capital between domestic and foreign uses, but the profit shifting,” says Gravelle.

Repeal or Reform?
So how should the United States solve its corporate tax
woes? Should the tax just be eliminated and replaced, as
Frank and other economists suggest? That could create
additional problems if other taxes remained unchanged.
Most businesses in the United States don’t pay corporate
income tax directly; instead, their income is taxed at the
individual level. These flow-through enterprises allocate
their income among owners who include it in their individual income tax filings. But in the case of publicly traded
corporations, Eric Toder, a co-director of the Urban
Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, argues
that this method is difficult to apply because it is harder to
allocate income among owners when shares change hands
frequently. In this case, if there were no corporate income
tax, shareholders would be able to escape tax by retaining
profits within a corporation.
“If you want to have an income tax, you have to tax
corporate income,” Toder says.
To address this problem, some have suggested combining
the individual and corporate income taxes. In 1992, the
U.S. Treasury Department released a report on a proposed
Comprehensive Business Income Tax (CBIT). Under the
CBIT, shareholders would exclude dividends and interest
received from corporations from their individual taxable
income. Corporations, on the other hand, would not be able
to deduct interest and dividends from taxable income. This
would, in theory, remove the incentive to finance using debt
rather than equity and also avoid the double taxation of
dividends. There have been other integration proposals as
well, such as giving shareholders a tax credit for corporate
taxes paid on dividends. Tax integration has thus far not had
legislative success in the United States, however.

Regarding profit shifting overseas, some legislators have
advocated switching from a worldwide corporate tax to a
territorial tax, which means only domestic corporate income
is taxed. As of 2012, more than 80 percent of Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development countries had
a territorial tax. If corporations with foreign subsidiaries
repatriate income, those profits are taxed only by the country where the subsidiary operates. In theory, this policy
would lead multinational corporations to invest more of
their income at home, since they don’t have to pay an additional tax when they bring the money back. In 2009, Japan
became one of the latest developed nations to switch to a
territorial tax system. But according to a 2013 research paper
by the Research Institute of Economy, Trade, and Industry, a
Japanese think tank, the change may not have had the
desired effect. If corporations already repatriated earnings
before the switch, they increased such activities after the
territorial tax went into effect. But companies that did not
repatriate earnings under the old system did not start doing
so under the territorial tax.
Another proposal is to lower the U.S. corporate tax rate
to something more in line with other developed nations,
providing a greater incentive for corporations to repatriate
foreign earnings. This might not change the behavior of
companies interested in profit shifting purely to avoid taxation, though.
“If a company is trying to reduce its income tax rate from
35 percent to zero, I don’t know why it wouldn’t do the same
at a 28 or 25 percent rate,” says Toder.
A 2010 Senate bill proposed financing a reduction in the
tax rate by eliminating a number of deductions, including
deferral. Under that system, companies headquartered in
the United States would be taxed on income immediately,
regardless of where that income is earned.
“If you eliminate deferral, you’d eliminate the repatriation problem and the profit shifting problem,” says Gravelle.
But Gravelle notes that even if the United States were to
drastically lower its rate, other countries could respond by
lowering theirs, minimizing the impact. In the end, solving
corporate tax problems may take a team effort.
“It’s hard for one country to solve this problem on its
own,” says Kautter. “But if you can get the global community to focus on it, then maybe you can keep the profit
shifting to a minimum, which would allow you to compete
without a lot of the complexity and distortion.”

Auerbach, Alan J. “Who Bears the Corporate Tax? A Review of
What we Know.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working
Paper No. 11686, October 2005.
Felix, R. Alison. “Do State Corporate Income Taxes Reduce
Wages?” Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review,
Second Quarter 2009, pp. 77-102.
Gravelle, Jane G. “Tax Havens: International Tax Avoidance and



Evasion.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress,
January 2013.
Gravelle, Jane G., and Thomas L. Hungerford. “Corporate Tax
Reform: Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service
Report for Congress, December 2012.
Makoto, Hasegawa, and Kiyota Kozo. “The Effect of Moving to a
Territorial Tax System on Profit Repatriations: Evidence from
Japan.” RIETI Discussion Paper Series 13-E-047, May 2013.


The Rise and Fall of Circuit City

The Richmond-based retailer
became wildly successful — and
then disappeared
ne of the great success stories of American retailing, Circuit City got its start in 1949 as a tiny
storefront in Richmond, Va. From that modest
beginning, founder Sam Wurtzel quickly built the company
into a national chain, and his son Alan turned it
into a household name. By 2000, Circuit City employed
more than 60,000 people at 616 locations across the
United States.
Circuit City is also one of American retailing’s great failures. In November 2008, the 59-year-old company filed for
bankruptcy. Within months, it closed its stores and liquidated more than $1 billion worth of merchandise, and on March
8, 2009, the last Circuit City store turned off its lights for
good. Today there are few reminders of the groundbreaking
retailer; the company’s 700,000-square-foot headquarters
complex outside Richmond is filling up with new tenants,
and the empty stores have been taken over by new retailers.
In part, Circuit City was just one of the many victims of
the financial crisis and recession, which also brought down
other large national retailers such as Linens ’n Things and
The Sharper Image. And businesses fail even during the
best of economic times, as part of the natural process of
“creative destruction” that is the engine of capitalism. But at
business schools across the country, Circuit City’s story is
taught as an example of what can happen when success
breeds complacency.



From Tire Store to Fortune 500
In 1949, New Yorker and serial entrepreneur Sam Wurtzel
was having his hair cut in Richmond on his way to a family
vacation in North Carolina. The barber mentioned that the
first television station in the South had opened in Richmond
less than a year earlier. Wurtzel, fresh from a failed importexport business, thought this new entertainment device
might be his next opportunity.
The first experimental television stations began operating in the early 1940s, and commercial broadcasting began
after World War II. Few households owned sets at the time
of Wurtzel’s barbershop visit, but the medium was growing
rapidly: The number of TV stations in the United States
nearly tripled in 1949, from 27 to 76. Through a friend,
Wurtzel knew someone at Olympic Television, a small
manufacturer in Long Island City; through relatives, he had
connections to bankers and businesspeople in Richmond.
Within a month, Wurtzel had moved his family from New

Circuit City got its start as Wards TV, which had a
bustling showroom in Richmond, Va., in 1960.

York to Virginia and was selling televisions out of the front
half of a tire store on Broad Street, a few blocks west of
downtown Richmond.
Wurtzel thought his last name might be hard for people
to pronounce, so he named his store Wards, an acronym for
his family’s names: W for Wurtzel, A for his son Alan, R for
his wife, Ruth, D for his son David, and S for Sam. Rather
than try to compete directly with the big department stores,
he catered to lower-income consumers by offering installment payment plans. He also developed a unique sales
technique: free in-home demonstrations. A salesman would
drop off a television at a customer’s home for the night, free
of charge, and offer to pick it back up the next day. Once the
set was in a family’s home, they nearly always bought it.
Wurtzel had correctly foreseen the growing consumer
demand for televisions — the number of households with
sets grew from under 1 million in 1949 to 20 million by 1953
— and Wards TV grew quickly. In 1952, Wurtzel started
selling appliances to capitalize on the post-war demand
for refrigerators, washing machines, and electric stoves.
Richmond was soon home to four Wards TV locations.
Wurtzel soon decided to join another retail trend: discount stores. The first discount store — a huge retail space
offering a smorgasbord of merchandise below the manufacturer’s list price — opened in New England in 1953, and the
format spread quickly. In 1960, the discount chain National
Bellas Hess invited Wurtzel to open a store-within-a-store
called a “licensed department” at their new Atlanta location.
Wurtzel quickly followed up with licensed departments in
Norfolk, Va., and Camden, N.J., and in December 1961 he
took Wards TV public to finance a nationwide expansion.
Excited by its success, the company embarked on a brash


expansion strategy and nearly went bankrupt in 1975. But led
by Wurtzel’s son Alan, who had become CEO in 1972, the
company closed or sold a number of unprofitable outlets,
and by the late 1970s it was ready to start expanding again.
It did so with a new name and a new retail model inspired
by the early discount stores: the Circuit City “superstore.”
The superstores featured a large showroom attached to an
even larger warehouse, with custom-built display areas to
show off the merchandise. Most significantly, there was no
central checkout area and customers couldn’t pick up
merchandise themselves. Instead, there were multiple sales
terminals throughout the store and commissioned salespeople helped the customers make their purchases.
Those sports-jacketed salespeople were central to
Circuit City’s business model, which depended on selling
big-ticket, high-margin items and lots of extended service
plans. They were also what customers wanted at the time.
“Circuit City was at their strongest when consumers didn’t
really understand what they were buying and were nervous
about it,” says Doug Bosse, a strategy professor at the
University of Richmond. “When my family bought our first
VCR, it was $600. That was a pretty big chunk of a family’s
discretionary budget. You would go into Circuit City and
talk to a salesperson and ask for advice, and have them teach
you on the floor how it would work in your family room.”
Circuit City superstores, which sold both electronics and
appliances, spread rapidly, from just eight in 1983 to 53 by
1987, in addition to the company’s 37 smaller electronicsonly stores.
Just like Wards TV, Circuit City was in the right market
at the right time. As the baby boomers came of age and the
country entered the 1980s boom, consumer demand for
VCRs, CD players, and microwave ovens exploded. Factory
shipments of consumer electronics doubled between 1980
and 1986, and the share of households with a VCR grew from
1 percent in 1980 to nearly 70 percent by the end of the
decade. As Alan Wurtzel wrote in his memoir Good to Great
to Gone, “I often thanked my lucky stars that Sam had
decided to go into the retail electronics business and not the
retail shoe business.”
Wurtzel stepped down in 1986 and was succeeded by
Rick Sharp, an executive vice president, who served as CEO
until 2000. During Sharp’s tenure, sales increased from
$1 billion to $12.6 billion, earnings increased from $22 million to $327 million, and the number of stores increased
from 69 to 616. In 1995, Circuit City entered the Fortune
500 at number 280, climbing as high as 151 by 2003. Circuit
City was so successful that management expert Jim Collins
featured the company in his 2001 book Good to Great, a study
of the country’s most profitable companies.
But Sharp championed two projects that might have
been the beginning of the end, according to Collins,
who wrote about Circuit City again in his 2009 book
How the Mighty Fall. The first project was CarMax,
which applied “big box” retailing to used-car sales.
The initial CarMax opened in Richmond in 1993 and was


immediately successful, and the chain expanded to 40
outlets by 2000. Circuit City spun off CarMax in 2002,
and today there are more than 120 locations.
Less successful was a new DVD technology, called
DIVX, which launched in 1998. The premise was that
consumers could buy a DIVX-encrypted movie and then
watch it on a special DVD player as many times as they
wanted within a 48-hour period. In theory, DIVX was more
convenient than renting tapes from a video store, but consumers didn’t like it and other electronics stores refused
to stock DIVX movies. Circuit City abandoned the idea
within a year.
The issue was not the success or failure of these projects
per se; CarMax was a great move, and DVIX was “costly
but not critically wounding,” according to Wurtzel. But in
Collins’ analysis, the attention paid to these projects meant
that the management team and the board weren’t paying
attention to the company’s core business — or to the growing threat of Best Buy.

Sacking the City
Best Buy got its start in 1966 as Sound of Music, an audio
specialty store with several locations in Minnesota. In 1981,
the Roseville, Minn., store was destroyed by a tornado, so
founder Richard Schulze and his employees gathered up the
merchandise, stacked it on tables in the parking lot, and
advertised a huge “Tornado Sale.” Customers lined up
around the block, and the success prompted Schulze to
pursue a discount sales strategy. Sound of Music changed its
name to Best Buy in 1983 and opened its first of many superstores in Burnsville, Minn.
While the basic model was similar to Circuit City, Best
Buy stores had a central checkout and allowed customers to
pick out their own merchandise on the floor. And unlike
Circuit City, Best Buy carried a wide variety of low-margin
products to get customers in the door, such as computer
peripherals, videogames, and CDs. Best Buy’s store and
staffing models were a better fit for consumers’ changing
preferences; as consumer electronics became cheaper and
more ubiquitous, customers no longer needed or wanted a
salesperson to help them with many of their purchases.
Circuit City, on the other hand, stuck to its commissionbased sales force and its reliance on high-margin products,
and watched Best Buy take over its market share.
But Circuit City didn’t see Best Buy as a threat. “We
thought we were smarter than anybody,” says Alan Wurtzel,
who remained on the board of directors until 2001. “But the
time you get in trouble is when you think you know the
In 2000, Circuit City’s earnings and stock price were at
their all-time high — but Best Buy’s earnings were higher,
and it was also beating Circuit City in profit per store,
total sales, and U.S. market share. Under the new CEO,
Alan McCollough, the company began making changes, but
the moves appeared to backfire. For example, in 2001
Circuit City stopped selling appliances, which made up

between 10 percent and 15 percent of the business.
Appliances were expensive to move and store, and getting
rid of them freed up space for new products. But getting
rid of them also meant Circuit City missed out on the
residential real estate boom, when appliance sales soared.
In addition, the move was confusing to both employees
and customers, and it might have helped the competition.
“Best Buy still sold major appliances, and guess what, they
also had TVs and computers and videogames,” says Tom
Wulf, a former Circuit City manager and trainer who
directed the 2010 documentary A Tale of Two Cities: The
Circuit City Story. “We were basically pushing our customers
out the door, saying we don’t want to sell to you anymore.”
In 2003, Circuit City finally decided to eliminate its commissioned sales force. In one day, the company fired 3,900 of
its highest-paid salespeople, with plans to replace them with
2,100 hourly associates. The move crushed employee morale
and productivity. “Anyone who was working in the store
thought, gee, if I’m too successful they’re going to fire
me, because I’ll be making too much money,” Wulf says.
“So there was no incentive anymore to take good care of the
In Wurtzel’s opinion, it was “economically essential
to reduce the cost of sales and to reduce commissions as a
percentage of sales,” but the change was badly mismanaged.
“The preferable way to have done it is to be open and honest
with the salespeople, to do it sensitively and reluctantly,”
he says. “Instead, it was done secretly and behind their
backs, and they walked into work one morning and were told
they were out of work.”
Over the next five years, Circuit City’s management
made a series of questionable decisions, including buying a
Canadian electronics chain, embarking on a round of store
expansions, and laying off 3,400 more of the company’s most
experienced salespeople in 2007. “It’s not a story where
they did one thing really badly,” says Bosse. “It’s a story
of hundreds and hundreds of smaller decisions that added up
to be destructive.”
Perhaps the most damaging move was a series of stock
buybacks. Despite declining sales, Circuit City had a lot of
cash on hand from spinning off CarMax in 2002 and selling
a private-label credit card bank in 2003. Under pressure
from shareholders, Circuit City spent almost $1 billion
between 2003 and 2007 buying back stock at an average of
$20 per share. But the purchases couldn’t offset the fact that
Circuit City’s business was failing, and the stock was worth
only $4.20 per share by the end of 2007. The ultimate result
was that Circuit City didn’t have any cash on hand to
weather the economic storm that was coming.

Everything Must Go
Circuit City filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on November
10, 2008, and announced a restructuring plan that included
closing 155 stores. But in the midst of the financial crisis, the
plan wasn’t enough to satisfy the company’s creditors, and
when Circuit City couldn’t find a buyer, a bankruptcy judge
ordered the company to liquidate.
At the time of the filing, Circuit City had 567 stores and
about 34,000 employees nationwide. And although layoffs
had begun at headquarters several years earlier, the company
was still one of Richmond’s largest employers, with about
2,000 people. Many employees remained hopeful that
Circuit City would find a way to bounce back; the company
had rebounded from near bankruptcy once before. “Up until
the day they announced the liquidation, there was still a
group of associates that were quite hopeful about the
Phoenix rising again, the company being reborn and coming
out of the ashes,” Wulf says.
When that didn’t happen, many of those same employees
lost their life savings. Circuit City had offered an employee stock purchase program, whereby employees could
invest up to 10 percent of their salary in company stock —
which became worthless. “All those years of investing
meant nothing in the end,” says Wulf. “It really ruined some
people’s lives.”
Circuit City’s departure left a huge hole in the commercial real estate market as well, which was a loss not only for
the landlords but also for the nearby coffee shops and
restaurants that catered to Circuit City employees. Other
Richmond companies also suffered or closed.
While business failures are painful for the people
affected, however, they are an inevitable and even a
necessary feature of capitalism, which the late Joseph
Schumpeter, an Austrian-American economist, described as
“the perennial gale of creative destruction.” Circuit City
isn’t the only company to have been surpassed by a similar
competitor, and in the long run the economy and consumers
might be better off with Barnes & Noble instead of Borders
or Kroger instead of A&P — or eventually with an online
retailer instead of any of them.
If Circuit City had done things differently, would it still
be around today? Maybe. It’s possible the company could
have found a way to “combine the strengths of Circuit City,
which was very high touch, with the strategic vision of Best
Buy, which was low prices and mass merchandising,” as
Wurtzel says. But it’s also possible that the company was
bound to be swept aside by Schumpeter’s “perennial gale,”
leaving behind only bittersweet memories for ex-employees
and a cautionary tale for everyone else.

Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and
Others Don’t. New York: Harper Business, 2001.

Wurtzel, Alan. Good to Great to Gone: The 60 Year Rise and Fall of
Circuit City. New York: Diversion Books, 2012.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. 3rd ed.
1942. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.



John Cochrane
There are many similarities between physics and economics. Both fields explore movement — of objects in
one case, and economic variables in the other — and
they use many of the same mathematical tools and
techniques. It is not uncommon for economists to
follow theoretical physics as a hobby.
Economist John Cochrane takes his interest in
physics up a level — or, more accurately, several levels:
He flies unpowered planes, known as gliders, competitively. Many people would find that hobby less daunting
than another way Cochrane spends his nonresearch
time: discussing reforms to the financial system, the
tax code, and health care in newspaper and magazine
articles and on his blog, The Grumpy Economist.
Cochrane is known for arguing against the popular
view that more regulation is needed to fix the financial
system; typically, he says, regulation ends up encouraging risk-taking. He has also studied the fiscal theory of
the price level, the somewhat controversial view that
large fiscal deficits can overpower the central bank’s
attempts to control inflation. His wide-ranging work
has made Cochrane a key voice in the public policy
debates of the last several years.
Cochrane joined the faculty of the University of
Chicago’s economics department in early 1985, and
moved to its Booth School of Business in 1994. He is
also a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and is
the author of Asset Pricing, one of the most commonly
used graduate textbooks for finance. Aaron Steelman
interviewed Cochrane at his office in Chicago in late
August 2013. Renee Haltom and Lisa Kenney contributed to the interview.


EF: Does the 2010 Dodd-Frank regulatory reform act
meaningfully address runs on shadow banking?
Cochrane:: It tries, but I don’t think it actually does much
about runs. I think Dodd-Frank repeats the same things
we’ve been trying over and over again that have failed, in
bigger and bigger ways. The core idea is to stop runs by
guaranteeing debts. But when we guarantee debts, we give
banks and other institutions an incentive to take risks. In
response, we unleash an army of regulators to stop them


from taking risks. Banks get around the regulators, there is a
new run, we guarantee more debts, and so on.
The deeper problem is the idea that we just need more
regulation — as if regulation is something you pour into a
glass like water — not smarter and better designed regulation. Dodd-Frank is pretty bad in that department. It is a
long and vague law that spawns a mountain of vague rules,
which give regulators huge discretion to tell banks what to
do. It’s a recipe for cronyism and for banks to game the
system to limit competition.
Runs are a feature of how banks get their money, not
really where they invest their money. So a better approach,
in my view, would be to purge the system of run-prone
financial contracts — that is, fixed-value promises that are
payable on demand and cause bankruptcy if not honored,
like bank deposits and overnight debt. Instead, we subsidize
short-term debt via government guarantees, tax deductibility, and favorable regulation, and then we try to regulate
financial institutions not to overuse that which we subsidize.
EF: So what do you think is the most promising way to
meaningfully end “too big to fail”?
Cochrane: You have to set up the system ahead of time so
that you either can’t or won’t need to conduct bailouts.
Ideally, both.


Editor’s Note: This is an abbreviated version of EF’s conversation with John Cochrane. For the full interview, go to our website:

Cochrane: In my opinion, QE has
On the first, the only way to preJust as people say
commit to not conducting bailouts
essentially no effect. Interest rates
is to remove the legal authority to
are zero, so short-term bonds are a
a certain branch of
bail out. Ex post, policymakers will
perfect substitute for reserves. QE
economics is a dead field
always want to clean up the
creates a minor change to the matudamage from crises and worry about
rity structure of government debt
with all the big questions
moral hazard another day. Ulysses
— and doubly minor because the
answered, it is in fact poised Fed’s effort to shorten maturity is
understood he had to be tied to the
mast if he was going to ignore the
essentially matched by the
for revolutionary changes.
sirens. You also have to let people
Treasury’s new sales of long-term
know, loudly. The worst possible sysIt’s a really exciting moment bonds. We’ve had much larger
tem is one in which everyone thinks
changes in the quantity and maturito be working in finance.
bailouts are coming, but the governty structure of debt in the past with
ment in fact does not have the legal
no big effect on the level of interest
authority to bail out.
rates. You have to buy some new theory of very long-lasting
On the second, if we purge the system of run-prone
flow effects, but I think coming up with new theories to
financial contracts, essentially requiring anything risky to be
justify policies ex post is a particularly dangerous kind of
financed by equity, long-term debt, or contracts that allow
suspension of payment without forcing the issuer to bankSo I don’t think the theory suggests QE can have a big
ruptcy, then we won’t have runs, which means we won’t have
effect. What about the evidence? Most of it comes from
crises. People will still lose money, as they did in the tech
announcement effects. Even there, it’s pretty weak: a 15-orstock crash, but they won’t react by running and forcing
so basis point change in interest rates in return for a pledge
needless bankruptcies.
to buy trillions in Treasuries. But interpreting announcements is tricky, and tells you a lot less about QE’s
effectiveness than you might think.
EF: Do you think there’s any reason to believe recesMarkets tell you what they think will happen — mixed
sions following financial crises should necessarily be
with what risks they’re willing to take — but not why. If the
longer and more severe, as Carmen Reinhart and
Fed announces more QE or delayed tapering of QE and
Kenneth Rogoff have famously suggested?
bond prices rise on that announcement, is that because QE
itself is moving the markets? Or is it because bond investors
Cochrane: Reinhart and Rogoff only showed that recesthink, “Wow, the Fed is scared, so it will keep interest rates
sions following financial crises have been, on average, longer
low for a lot longer than we expected”? Without a solid
and more severe — not even “always,” let alone “necessarily.”
economic reason to believe QE on its own has much of an
I don’t believe they advanced a theory, either, so they really
effect, the latter interpretation seems more likely.
just documented a historical regularity, a correlation and not
Also, the market’s reaction to an announcement doesn’t
a cause. So no, I don’t believe that, at least not yet. Lots of
tell you for how long QE could have an effect. QE advocates
people tell a story in which it takes a long time to “delevertake these reaction estimates, assume they are causal, and
age,” “restore balance sheets,” and to work “excess debt” out
assume they are permanent. There are more than $17 trillion
of the system, but just what that means and why it takes a
in U.S. Treasury bonds outstanding, and another $1 trillion
long time hasn’t been adequately modeled and tested yet.
are being issued every year. Why would the Fed buying even
An alternative explanation for the correlation is that gov$1 trillion of them — in exchange for reserves, which are
ernments tend to do particularly bad things in the wake of
really just floating-rate overnight debt — have a permanent
financial crises. They tend to bail out borrowers at the
effect? Microstructure studies might see price pressure in
expense of lenders, overregulate finance, pass high marginal
Treasury markets but for a day, not for years. Also, if market
tax rate wealth transfers, alter property rights, and introduce
reactions prove anything, they prove that markets think
other distortions. Mortgage foreclosure used to take a few
QE has an effect. But this is a policy we’ve never seen before,
months, and now it can take two years. And then people wonso we don’t have much rational expectations-based reason
der why lenders aren’t willing to lend at low rates anymore.
for believing markets are right about it. Markets are great at
The Great Depression seems like a classic case of countercorrelations and unconditional forecasting, and less so at
productive policies being put in place after a financial crisis
structural cause and effect for things they have never seen
that made the whole episode much deeper and longer.
So neither the theory nor the evidence make me think
EF: What are your thoughts on quantitative easing (QE)
— the Fed’s massive purchases of Treasuries and other
QE is effective. But the good news is that we therefore can’t
assets to push down long-term interest rates — both on
worry too much about its reversal. It’s neither going to cause
its effectiveness and on the fear that it’s going to lead to
hyperinflation, nor need it cause much trouble when the
Fed “tapers.”


EF: Both fiscal and monetary policies have been on
extreme courses recently. What are your thoughts on
how they might affect each other as they move back to
normal levels?
Cochrane: This is my main research focus right now, fiscalmonetary interactions. In the United States, we’ve had 50
years of experience without severe fiscal problems, so we’ve
kind of forgotten about the fact that over longer spans of
history, fiscal policy and monetary policy were always linked.
Big inflations have tended to follow bankrupt governments.
Monetary policy will be different in the shadow of huge
debts. For example, suppose the Fed wants to raise interest
rates to 5 percent tomorrow. The Treasury would then have
to start rolling over its debt at that higher interest rate,
which means a net flow of about $800 billion of extra deficit
that has to come from somewhere — more taxes or less
spending eventually. Will Congress still say, “Sure, go ahead
and tighten”? After World War II, we had a similarly huge
debt and Congress simply instructed the Fed to keep interest rates low to finance the debt. That could happen again.
How independent can monetary policy be in the shadow of
huge debts?
EF: That relates to the fiscal theory of the price level,
the theory that inflation ultimately comes from government debt, as opposed to the central bank printing
money. Why do you find that theory attractive?
Cochrane: In some sense, the fiscal theory of the price level
is still about money. A government that borrows in its own
currency will print money rather than default. That will
cause inflation. But inflation can rise long before the money
gets printed, and that’s what I mean by fiscal inflation.
People see the central bank’s eventual bailout coming, and
they run from the government’s debt. First they buy alternative assets, such as stocks or houses. When those prices rise,
people buy goods and services, driving up prices. In that
situation, there’s nothing a central bank can do; fiscal events
take over. People don’t want debt of any maturity or liquidity, so exchanging one type of government debt for another
— that’s all a central bank does — loses its effectiveness.
More deeply, the fiscal theory of the price level is an
answer to the question of why money has value. That’s the
most fundamental question of monetary economics. Why
can I give the store a piece of paper and get a cup of coffee
in return? As Adam Smith argued, it’s because the government takes those pieces of paper, and only those pieces
of paper, for your taxes.
I’ve been searching all my professional life for a theory of
inflation that is both coherent and applies to the modern
economy. That might sound like a surprising statement,
especially from someone at Chicago, home of MV=PY. But
although MV=PY is a coherent theory, it doesn’t make sense
in our economy today. We no longer have to hold an inventory of some special asset — money — to make transactions.


I use credit cards. We pretty much live in an electronic
barter economy, exchanging interest-paying book entries,
held in quantities that are trillions of dollars greater than
needed to make transactions. The gold standard is a coherent theory too, but it doesn’t apply today either. The
prevailing theory of inflation these days has nothing to do
with money or transactions: The Fed sets interest rates,
interest rates affect “demand,” and then demand affects
inflation through the Phillips Curve. That theory isn’t
coherent either. So I’ve been looking for a new theory: What
is the basic theory of inflation? Where do we start before we
add frictions and complications? I became attracted to the
fiscal theory of the price level because it is the only theory
that answers that question in a clean, compelling way that is
compatible with modern institutions.
We’ve got the big picture of the fiscal theory, but it turns
out that its predictions are quite subtle. Figuring out how it
can plausibly account for what we see, before we even begin
more formal testing, is hard. There is a lot of work to be
done there, so that’s my big research agenda.
EF: Switching gears to finance specifically, what do
you think are some of the big unanswered questions
for research?
Cochrane: I’ll tell you about the ones I work on, but there
surely are others. And often you don’t know there was a big
question until you’ve answered it.
One big unresolved issue in finance is why risk premiums
are so big and why they vary so much over time. You can look
at the spread between what you have to pay to borrow and
what the U.S. government pays in order to see that risk premiums are big and varying.
There is a good macroeconomic story. In a business cycle
peak, when your job and business are doing well, you’re willing to take on more risk. You know the returns aren’t going
to be great, but where else are you going to invest? And in
the bottom of a recession, people recognize that it’s a great
buying opportunity, but they can’t afford to take risk.
Another view is that time-varying risk premiums come
instead from frictions in the financial system. Many assets
are held indirectly. You might like your pension fund to buy
more stocks, but they’re worried about their own internal
things, or leverage, so they don’t invest more.
A third story is the behavioral idea that people misperceive risk and become over- and under-optimistic. So those
are the broad range of stories used to explain the huge timevarying risk premium, but they’re not worked out as solid
and well-tested theories yet.
The implications are big. For macroeconomics, the fact
of time-varying risk premiums has to change how we think
about the fundamental nature of recessions. Time-varying
risk premiums say business cycles are about changes in people’s ability and willingness to bear risk. Yet all of
macroeconomics still talks about the level of interest rates,
not credit spreads, and about the willingness to substitute

John Cochrane
➤ Present Position
you buy it, you keep it, without preconsumption over time as opposed to
AQR Capital Management
mium increases, when you get sick),
the willingness to bear risk. I don’t
Distinguished Service Professor of
portable across jobs, marriages, and
mean to criticize macro models.
Finance at the University of Chicago
states, transferable to other insurTime-varying risk premiums are just
Booth School of Business
ance companies, and accompanied
technically hard to model. People
➤ Previous Appointments
with large deductibles.
didn’t really see the need until the
University of California, Los Angeles;
There is no market failure prefinancial crisis slapped them in the
Anderson Graduate School of
venting this from happening. People
Management Visiting Professor of
want this, and companies want to sell
Large time-varying risk premiums
Finance (2000-2001); University of
it to them. But the market has been
might also change how we think
Chicago Department of Economics
killed by regulation, including the tax
about monetary policy. It has become
(1985-1994); Junior Staff Economist,
deduction for employer-provided
a common argument that too-low
Council of Economic Advisers
group plans but not employer contriinterest rates cause risk premiums to
butions to individual insurance, state
decline. I’m pretty skeptical: I don’t
regulations, the prohibition against
know of any economic model that
➤ Other Positions
selling insurance across state lines,
links Fed-induced changes in the
Research Associate, National Bureau
and others. The kind of private
level of short-term interest rates to
of Economic Research; Senior Fellow,
Hoover Institution; Co-Director, Famahealth insurance I described is now
risk premiums, and it smacks of new
Miller Center for Research in Finance;
effectively illegal under the ACA.
theories to justify preconceived poliAdjunct Scholar, Cato Institute
So I would start by simply allowcies. Still, the “reach for yield” story
ing the economically ideal insurance
is bandied about so much, we should
➤ Education
to exist, and rebuilding this individget to the bottom of it. [See
S.B. (1979), Massachusetts Institute of
ual market from there, for example,
“Reaching for Yield” on page 5.]
Technology; Ph.D. (1986), University of
converting employer-based group
I’m seeing a new enthusiasm for
California at Berkeley
plans to individual policies. Then, we
work on the trading process, and
could pay for health care the way we
there are deep questions to be
➤ Selected Publications
pay for vet care, home repair, car
answered. How does information get
Author of Asset Pricing, a widely used
repair, or anything else. If the dog is
incorporated into prices? How does
textbook, and numerous articles in such
sick, bring her in. Don’t wait six
trading work? Is high frequency
journals as the American Economic
Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics,
weeks to get a referral. There’s no
trading helping or hurting? Is the
Econometrica, Journal of Finance, Journal
state board saying that your vet
extensive regulation of trading
of Monetary Economics, and Journal of
insurance must include “free” toenail
helping or hurting?
Economic Perspectives
clipping and ear trimming.
And of course, the financial crisis
spurred a whole new research agenda
EF: Do you think something like medical savings
— or maybe the revitalization of an old agenda — in finance.
accounts have any hope of being adopted on a large scale?
The crisis, the run, the evolution of shadow banking, financial innovation, real estate finance, banking regulation are all
Cochrane: Medical savings accounts are a great idea,
hot topics on which we’re making a lot of progress.
although the need for special savings accounts for medicine,
As often happens, just as people say a certain branch of
retirement, college, and so on is a sign that the overall tax on
economics is a dead field with all the big questions
saving is too high. Why tax saving heavily and then pass this
answered, it is in fact poised for revolutionary changes. It’s a
smorgasbord of complex special deals for tax-free saving?
really exciting moment to be working in finance.
If we just stopped taxing saving, a single “savings account”
would suffice for all purposes!
EF: You’ve written a lot about health care recently.
What is the problem with that sector? If you could start
There are too many other distortions right now for
from a clean slate, what would you do?
medical savings accounts to work all by themselves. Medical
savings accounts give you cash, so they are predicated on the
Cochrane: The big problem is vast overregulation and
idea that if you show up with dollars, there will be a competfundamentally misguided regulation. Like Dodd-Frank, the
itive supplier offering you efficient, well-priced services at a
Affordable Care Act (ACA) just layers on more of the same
competitive price. And that doesn’t exist right now. If you
regulatory approach that failed before.
walk into a hospital without insurance, they’re going to
Health insurance should be there to protect your wealth
charge you $500 for a Band-Aid.
against large, unanticipated shocks. There is no more reason
That’s part of the deeper problem, and it’s the other half
it should pay for routine expenses than your car insurance
of my answer to, “If you could start with a clean slate.”
should pay for oil changes. Insurance should be individual,
We need supply competition. There is no point in having
not tied to your job, guaranteed-renewable (meaning, once
people pay with their own money if the Southwest Airlines


and Wal-Mart of medicine can’t disrupt big, entrenched,
inefficient providers. Instead, our government protects
incumbent insurance companies and hospitals from this
kind of innovation and competition.
As for “hope,” the ACA is phasing health savings
accounts out, so the “hope” would have to be that major
parts of the ACA are repealed. That’s a question of politics,
not economics.
EF: You wrote an op-ed on an “alternative maximum
tax.” What’s the idea there?
Cochrane: The alternative maximum tax is not my favorite
nor a perfect tax code. It’s a Band-Aid. Our current tax code
is a chaotic mess and an invitation to cronyism, lobbying,
and special breaks. The right thing is to scrap it. Taxes
should raise money for the government in the least distortionary way possible. Don’t try to mix the tax code with
income transfers or support for alternative energy,
farmers, mortgages, and the housing industry, and so on.
Like roughly every other economist, I support a two-page
tax code, something like a consumption tax. Do government
transfers, subsidies, and redistribution in a politically
accountable and economically efficient way, through
on-budget spending.
But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, our tax system puts in place much higher marginal
rates than most people acknowledge. People keep focusing
on federal income taxes alone, where marginal rates top out
around 40 percent. But that leaves out state, county, and
local income taxes, plus sales taxes, estate taxes, excise taxes,
property taxes, corporate taxes, and many others. If you earn
an extra dollar for your employer, how much do you actually
get when it’s all added up? I have not been able to find any
decent comprehensive calculations of marginal tax rates.
In a New York Times column, Greg Mankiw came up with
90 percent for himself, and he left out sales taxes and a
bunch of other taxes.
The idea behind the alternative maximum tax is this:
Choose any rate, even say, 50 percent or 70 percent.
Whatever we decide is the “enough is enough” point. If
someone could show they’ve paid that percentage of their
income in tax to some level of government, they don’t have
to pay any more. If the people who say that nobody pays that
much are correct, great, then it can’t hurt.
Like I said, it’s not perfect. This is an average rate, and
marginal rates really matter. It doesn’t address the large
effective marginal tax rates that poor people feel from
means-tested benefits. But it’s a way to check that all of the
creeping, extra things don’t add up to a horribly distortionary tax code even though each individual element may
not seem excessive.
We have an alternative minimum tax to make sure clever
taxpayers don’t exploit the insane complexity of the tax code
and escape. Given that same insane complexity, why not
have an alternative maximum too?


EF: Which economists have influenced you the most?
Cochrane: There are many; I’m reluctant to answer because
I’ll forget to mention someone. So with that proviso,
Bob Lucas, Tom Sargent, Lars Hansen, and Gene Fama
stand out as enormous intellectual influences. Lucas and
Sargent are masters of mixing theory and facts, thinking
hard about what the equations mean, and reading historical
episodes. Writing theory that matters. I was floundering
around thinking about random walks when I first got to
Chicago, and Lucas walked into my office and pointed out
that decade averages were very stable; he handed me my first
big paper on a silver platter. People think of Lucas as a
theorist, but he has a talent for organizing facts in a really
revealing way.
I learned most of what I know about asset pricing by running back and forth between Gene Fama’s and Lars Hansen’s
offices and trying to put it all together. They are each
absolutely brilliant but in different ways. Hansen has an
unjustified reputation for writing hard papers. In fact, once
you spend a few months figuring it out, you see that he has
brilliantly simplified the problem, just in a different space.
And Gene is the Darwin of finance. He has this amazing talent for putting all the facts together and finding the simple
story underlying them. He makes it all look so easy in the
rearview mirror.
I was also very influenced by my days in grad school.
George Akerlof, Tom Rothenberg, and Roger Craine taught
me things that ring to this day. Akerlof and Craine both got
me thinking about money and where inflation comes from.
Akerlof wrote and taught about how MV=PY doesn’t make
sense; the “Irving Fisher on his Head” paper, for example.
He was after a different point — slopes of the LM curve, and
the effectiveness of fiscal policy — but his critiques of
MV=PY were deep. I would not have run into that at
Chicago, which was still kind of the home of monetarism.
That’s really what began my search for the foundations of
inflation that is now expressing itself in work on the fiscal
theory of the price level. Learning from Tom Rothenberg
was a life-changing experience on how to do empirical work
that all of his students remember.
My heroes also taught me, by example, a lot about how to
be an economist. Think about the facts and the theory, with
no party or academic politics. Debates are sharp but never
personal. Don’t play games or try to impress people.
Relentlessly simplify and clarify your work. Turn in your referee reports on time. Cite generously. Value people for their
ideas, and pay no attention to academic rank. And so on.
Most of all, always remain open to new ideas. I still
remember the moment I became an economist: when my
first micro classes overturned some of the common ideas
I had at the time. There is no better moment than when
I make some pronouncement, and a colleague says “No,
John, you’re totally wrong, and here’s why,” and convinces
me. My heroes are all like this, and I’m attracted to people
with that attitude.


Reconsidering a Revolution
PRESS, 2013, 295 PAGES

he British Industrial Revolution, the burst of
developments in manufacturing that lasted from
1760 to the mid-18th century, has often been treated
harshly by historians and others. The Oxford economic
historian Arnold Toynbee, who popularized the term, called
the Industrial Revolution “a period as disastrous and as
terrible as any through which a nation has ever passed.”
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Hard Times were literary
mortar rounds aimed at it. The poet William Blake referred
to the factories of the era as “dark Satanic Mills.”
Yet it seems many of the working poor did not share the
view that times were rotten. In Liberty’s Dawn, University of
East Anglia historian Emma Griffin sifts through hundreds
of personal histories left behind by workers of the time
(almost all of them men) and finds a record of growing
economic opportunity and political engagement.
“He is a misanthrope indeed,” wrote one, “who would
wish the old days or customs back again.”
While conceding that the abuses during the Industrial
Revolution were real — including long hours, dangerous
conditions, and child labor — Griffin draws from the
workers’ accounts to create a portrait of the improvements
that the revolution brought to them. Foremost among these
was the availability of employment. In Britain’s allegedly
idyllic preindustrial age, work could be hard to come by, and
farm jobs commonly brought bare subsistence wages. The
economic growth that came with industrialization, however,
brought not only abundant and steady factory jobs, but also
easier entry into the skilled trades.
Beyond lifting many Britons out of subsistence, Griffin
reports, the Industrial Revolution “changed the balance of
power in the master-servant relationship.” Abundant jobs
made it tenable for workers to respond to petty oppressiveness from their employers by moving on to work elsewhere.
A worker who became fed up with humble submission could
reject it. Among the rebels she cites is a farmhand, George
Mitchell, who resolved to leave after a hard day’s work ended
in an argument with his employer; he gave two weeks’ notice
and took a job at a stone quarry in the next town, doubling
his income in the process.
Industrialization may have also made it easier for couples


to marry. Studies of church records have suggested that the
average marriage age of men, which was 27 before the
Industrial Revolution, fell to 25 by the 1800s; that of women
fell from 26 to 23. Griffin finds in the workers’ memoirs that
the decision to marry was tied closely to personal prosperity
and surmises that the economics of the times enabled young
men and women to marry earlier. Young marriage, no longer
the privilege of a few, was common in industrial areas,
while it appears to have remained rare in the agricultural
Perhaps the most far-reaching effect of industrialization,
on Griffin’s account, was the spread of literacy among workers. To be sure, the Industrial Revolution, with its use of
child labor, blunted any growth that might have otherwise
taken place in elementary education; on average, the
workers in her study started work at the age of just 10. Yet
literacy was more common than might be expected. It seems
puzzling at first. Of one worker, Emanuel Lovekin, who
went to the coal mines as a child, Griffin asks: “How was a
man whose schooling ended at the age of seven and a half
able to write an autobiography of 7,000 words?”
The answer is that industrial Britain produced educational opportunities for teens and adults. After Lovekin as a teen
“began to feel very Strongley the desieries to learn to read,”
in his words, he attended a local night school. He also
became involved in a Methodist Sunday school, first as a student and later as a teacher. Others like him took part not
only in night schools (both commercial and charitable), but
also in mutual improvement societies. The latter were small
groups of workers who pooled their money to buy books and
then discussed or debated them. For some men, mutual
improvement societies became a means of gaining the skills
for political organizing and served as a route into politics.
In contrast to the gains made by men, it is clear that
women generally did not share in the new employment or
educational opportunities (apart from access to Sunday
schools) — no doubt a result, in large part, of cultural attitudes toward women’s work and roles.
If taken as a scientific study, Griffin’s account is open to
methodological objections, especially as to the unrepresentative nature of the memoirs. By definition, only the workers
who grasped the opportunities for literacy left behind
written accounts of their lives. In addition, her book would
have been strengthened by a fuller account of other
historical work that has been sympathetic to the Industrial
Revolution and its effects on the lower classes, such as
that of the late R. M. Hartwell. Still, Liberty’s Dawn offers
fascinating and colorful first-person views of the period that,
at least in material terms, launched the modern age.



Economic Trends Across the Region

Workforce Investment in Times of Need and Fiscal Constraint
BY J A M I E F E I K , R I C K K AG L I C , A N D A N N M AC H E R A S

he Great Recession profoundly impacted the Fifth
District’s labor markets. From the peak in the
region’s employment in February 2008 to its low
point two years later, almost 850,000 jobs in the district
were lost, and nearly a quarter of those jobs have yet to be
recovered. In addition to the safety net of the unemployment insurance program, laid-off workers and those struggling to enter the job market were able to use federally
funded workforce programs to receive job searching
assistance, job training, and even help with other social
services to support their participation in the labor market.
Although most dislocated workers re-enter employment
without the support of government assistance, the federal
government has long been in the business of helping to
train workers to meet the needs of employers, with the
added benefit of simultaneously reducing affected workers’
reliance on government aid.
Current concerns over federal government spending,
however, will inevitably affect workforce programs, whose
funding has already declined on balance over the past 15
years. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA), the primary
source of funding for workforce training, is intended to
bring control and accountability for workforce programs to
the state and local level and improve coordination with
various social programs that benefit job seekers. With the
exception of additional short-term funding through the
2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA),
allocations of WIA funds have been declining fairly steadily
since program year 2002. Furthermore, the peculiarities of
the formulas for allocating WIA funds among the states led
to changes in funding levels during the recession and its
aftermath that perhaps seem counterintuitive given the
high levels of unemployment. Using the Fifth District to
illustrate, one of the hardest-hit states, South Carolina, lost
WIA dollars while Virginia gained, due to relative changes in
unemployment and the formula-driven allocation scheme
for WIA funding.
Analysis of the net impact of WIA for several states has
shown a positive return on the investment over the lifetime
of program participants. Despite evidence of the program’s
benefits, funding for the WIA has remained a challenge
since its inception. Demand for participation in the nation’s
workforce development programs remains high, even as
continued budget constraints make future funding even
more uncertain.


Federally Funded Workforce Efforts
The three main components of workforce development
services in the United States are the job search assistance


and job matching program, adult workforce training
program, and dislocated worker program. The job matching
program provides a structure by which workers can find
employers who may be looking for someone with their
particular skill sets, and vice versa; this structure benefits
the economy more generally in that it reduces frictions in
labor markets. The workforce training programs are
designed to build up the knowledge and skills of participants
by providing resources to help them attain the skills that are
in demand by employers in their areas, helping to close the
skills mismatch and get those workers into (or back
into) suitable employment. Workforce training programs
primarily serve economically disadvantaged adults over the
age of 21 who face barriers to employment, and dislocated
workers who have lost jobs due to changes in technology or
industry trends. In addition, some programs focus specifically on at-risk youth between the ages of 14 and 21, and
provide job readiness assessment in addition to training.
The WIA is the latest federal initiative designed to prepare workers for employment or re-employment. There are
several key aspects of WIA that differ from its predecessor
program (the Job Partnership Training Act of 1982). One key
difference lies in the way services are provided to workers
and employers. According to the Department of Labor, the
agency that oversees the WIA on the federal level, the
programs work through a nationwide network of “One Stop
Career Centers” where job seekers are offered “training
referrals, career counseling, job listings, and similar employment-related services” in a single location.
Another key difference is a higher level of state and local
control over the program, as well as more private sector
representation on local workforce investment boards, which
are composed of local elected officials, private industry
representatives, and workforce training providers. WIA
funds are allocated to the states and, in turn, distributed to
the local investment boards that are in the best position to
recognize the skill shortages within their areas and to foster
relationships with the workers and employers.
A third important difference is the way that training is
delivered to workers. WIA introduced Individual Training
Accounts (ITAs), which is a training voucher program for
eligible participants, and required states to vet training
providers and compile Eligible Training Provider (ETP) lists.
The ITAs provided states and beneficiaries more flexibility
in their training options, while the ETP lists added an
element of accountability for states and training services
providers by requiring documented success in offering
training that leads to unsubsidized employment and meets
local employer needs.

One may think of WIA outlays as investments in human
capital, investments that ultimately pay returns to program
participants, employers, and society more generally. The
goal of workforce development efforts is to make workers
more employable and productive. Individual workers then
earn returns from jobs and higher compensation. Employers
benefit from better trained and presumably more productive employees. And society profits from increased
availability of goods and services, reductions in income
supports (such as unemployment insurance payments, food
stamps, Medicaid, etc.), and greater tax revenues over the
long run.
Attempts to measure the return on investment (ROI)
from these outlays have been limited by the availability of
data and the uncertainty in quantifying the benefits derived
by society, among other factors. One analysis that provides
a compelling framework has been set out by Kevin
Hollenbeck of the Upjohn Institute for Employment
Research. In a 2012 working paper, Hollenbeck weighed the
costs of postsecondary job preparation training in
Washington state against the benefits derived by program
participants and the public (taxpayers), together constituting the benefit to society as a whole. Hollenbeck’s efforts
suggested that after absorbing a slightly negative return over
the first 10 quarters of the investment (-0.11 percent), the
ROI over the worker’s lifetime was between 4.8 percent and
6.7 percent. Earlier work by Hollenbeck reached similar
conclusions with regard to programs in Indiana and Virginia.

thresholds. One must keep in mind that when the WIA was
enacted and these rules were written, sustained unemployment rates of greater than 6.5 percent were far rarer than
they became in the wake of the Great Recession, so the
threshold may seem low by today’s standards.
The dislocated worker program is geared more toward
putting idled workers back to work. Its funding formula
therefore uses more cyclical measures of labor market conditions to determine the level of duress in the state’s labor
market and, consequently, how much of the appropriated
funds the state will receive. The first formula input is the
state’s share of total nationwide unemployment. The second
criterion is the state’s share of excess unemployment, that is,
its share of unemployed workers in excess of 4.5 percent of
the labor force. (Again, one must keep in mind the unemployment rates that prevailed at the time the rules were
written.) The third determinant is the state’s share of total
long-term unemployment, which the WIA defines as 15
weeks of unemployment or longer.

WIA Spending Since the Recession

Congress responded to the sharp run-up in the ranks of the
unemployed in the early stages of the Great Recession by
allocating additional funding to WIA programs through
ARRA. This funding included a supplemental $2.9 billion in
combined funding for WIA’s youth, adult, and dislocated
worker programs for program year 2008, even though the
program year was nearly 75 percent over. Congress tucked
the additional funding into the 2008 program year in order
Allocating Funds Among the States
to keep with the spirit of ARRA spending more generally,
The WIA program has been continuing more or less
which was to get the funds working in the economy as
unchanged since its inception in 1998, although it has been
quickly as possible. Since states have the flexibility to spread
awaiting reauthorization since 2003. There have been
their program year allotment over the subsequent two
several attempts at reauthorizing the Act, but none has sucprogram years (if conditions warrant), the placement of the
ceeded. Congress continues to appropriate funds annually to
ARRA funds in the nearly finished 2008 program year
support it, however. In program year 2001 (the program year
meant that states had just two years and three months to
starts on July 1 and ends on June 30 of the following year),
spend the funds rather than the standard three years. Most
$3.3 billion was appropriated for the WIA, but by program
of those funds were used by the time program year 2010
year 2007, the funding level had fallen to $2.9 billion — a
rolled around. Fifth District jurisdictions received about
decline of 11.4 percent.
$220.4 million in supplemental WIA funding through alloThe funds Congress provides through WIA flow into
cations from the ARRA in program year 2008. That nearly
three major programs — youth activities, adult activities,
doubled the roughly $238.7 million regular allotment.
and the dislocated workers program. Funds
Long after the ARRA moneys had been
for these programs are allocated to the states
spent, the need for labor matching and trainusing formulas based on need. The first
ing services remained high in the district and
two of these funding streams are geared
in the rest of the nation, but the funds availThe need for labor
toward helping economically disadvantaged
able to provide those services did not keep
matching and training
individuals. Thus, when determining a
pace. The number of unemployed workers in
services remained high
state’s allotment for youth and adult prothe United States increased by roughly 110
in the Fifth District and
grams, the Department of Labor takes into
percent between 2007 and 2010 — yet the
in the rest of the
consideration such factors as areas of subfunds dedicated to all WIA programs in the
stantial unemployment (contiguous areas
50 states and the District of Columbia
nation, but the funds
with an average unemployment rate of
were 10.4 percent lower in program year 2011
available to provide
6.5 percent) and the state’s share of economithan in program year 2008 in nominal dollars
those services did not
cally disadvantaged youth and adults using
(outside of the emergency funding in the
keep pace.
decennial Census data and standard poverty




Number of Unemployed Workers (Thous.)
In the Fifth District, unemployment increased much
more than in the United States as a whole during the same
timeframe (125 percent), which resulted in a relatively
smaller decline in WIA funds. In program year 2011,
nominal WIA funding to the jurisdictions covered by the
Richmond Fed was 4.7 percent lower than in program year
2008 (see chart below).
Of the Fifth District’s jurisdictions, Virginia, Maryland,
and North Carolina showed the most significant increases in
the number of unemployed workers during this period, with
the growth rate in each far exceeding the nationwide average. In contrast, the rise in the ranks of the unemployed fell
below the nationwide average in the District of Columbia,
South Carolina, and West Virginia (see adjacent table).
Given their particularly sharp rise in unemployment, it is
not surprising that Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina
saw WIA funding climb through the Great Recession,
although the gains in funds did not keep pace with the
increases in unemployment.
While funding in these three states did not keep pace
with the surge in unemployment, consider the plight of
workforce development programs in the other three Fifth
District jurisdictions. WIA funding actually fell in nominal
terms in the District of Columbia, South Carolina, and
West Virginia. So despite the fact that these three jurisdictions saw a combined net increase of 101 percent in their
unemployment levels, WIA funding fell by a total of 37 percent in nominal dollars — far more than the overall decline
in WIA funding at the national level.
Because the amount of WIA funding a state receives is
not a function of the absolute deterioration in the area’s
labor market, but rather a function of how it performs
relative to nationwide averages, jurisdictions where labor
market deterioration exceeded the nationwide average
saw an increase in their WIA allotment. In contrast, those
jurisdictions “fortunate” enough to experience less (but still
significant) deterioration in labor market conditions saw
their funding decline.
A look at the funding formula for the dislocated workers

Allocation of WIA Funding

PY 2007
PY 2008
PY 2009
PY 2010
PY 2011
PY 2012
PY 2013



NOTE: PY=Program Year
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, State Statutory Formula





Percent Change

United States




Fifth District




District of








North Carolina




South Carolina








West Virginia




SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics/Haver Analytics

program illustrates the math. A state’s allocation for this
program is based on its share of total unemployment, its
share of excess unemployment, and its share of long-term
unemployment. Each variable is assigned equal weighting
in the dislocated worker formula (one-third). Comparing
the two extreme cases of funding changes in the district
(South Carolina and Virginia) before and after the recession
shows why some states saw increased funding while others
experienced declines.
In the 12-month period used to calculate dislocated
worker allotments for program year 2008, unemployment in
the United States was very low by historical standards,
averaging 4.5 percent, which coincides with the “excess
unemployment” standard. Rates varied considerably by
state, however. South Carolina was one of many in which the
unemployment rate exceeded the BLS’s excess unemployment threshold, while Virginia was one of many where the
unemployment rate fell below it (see chart on next page). In
fact, despite having a workforce that was only one-half the
size of Virginia’s, South Carolina had more unemployed
workers for program year 2008 (see table on next page).
Revisiting the first two funding formula factors — share of
total unemployment and share of excess unemployment —
it is readily evident that South Carolina was receiving disproportionately large multiples for both. (The other
component of the funding formula, long-term unemployment, did not affect the relative comparison between South
Carolina and Virginia that year.)
The Great Recession altered the landscape as unemployment rose dramatically across the nation, with significant
implications for states’ WIA funding formulas. No longer
were unemployment rates higher than the excess threshold
in some states while lower in others; in the 12-month period
used to calculate WIA allotments for program year 2011,
every state except North Dakota saw its unemployment
rate surge beyond 4.5 percent. For South Carolina, a state
with higher-than-average unemployment prior to the recession, this resulted in a reduction in its share of the nation’s
total unemployment. But for states like Virginia with
lower-than-average unemployment before the downturn, it
meant a higher share. Similar trends played out with the

Unemployment Rates
revenues for the government and a reduced
reliance on taxpayer-funded programs like
Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy
PY 2011
Families, and food stamps. The cost-benefit
analysis of state WIA programs assessed by
Upjohn Institute researchers found that the
benefits to society appeared to outweigh the
costs. In other words, the return on taxpayers’
investment in workforce development programs
appeared to be a good one.
Despite that, the environment facing work1.5
force development entities is an increasingly
challenging one in which the need for skills
U.S. Fifth District DC
matching remains high even as federal funding
NOTE: PY=Program Year
PY 2008: avg 12 months ending 9/30/07; PY 2011: avg 12 months ending 9/30/10
for workforce training is dwindling. (Despite
SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics/Haver Analytics
elevated levels of unemployment, employers
frequently cite a dearth of workers with the skills
needed to fill open positions.) In addition to the longer-term
other two funding formula factors as well.
trend toward fewer budget dollars, sequestration has
In an environment where the budget pie isn’t expanding
reduced total WIA funding for program year 2013 by
and the measures of distress are relative, a state with high
5.2 percent in the United States. In the Fifth District, only
unemployment levels to begin with can see funding levels
Maryland and North Carolina have received an increase in
decline, even though labor markets have worsened everytheir WIA allocations for program year 2013, while Virginia,
where. In the Fifth District, that means states like
Maryland, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., face a
Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia received more WIA
reduction in funding. In addition, the U.S. Department of
dollars during the recession at the expense of states like
Labor applied the full sequester to the base allocation (comSouth Carolina and West Virginia, even though labor market
posed of half of the adult and dislocated worker allotments)
conditions deteriorated there, too.
that is paid on July 1, resulting in a severe reduction in funds
available for the first quarter of the program year (starting
What Happens Next?
July 1, 2013). Meanwhile, participation in WIA programs
Economists and analysts who follow government finances
grew by 53.7 percent in the Fifth District from program years
long ago recognized that the wide gap between revenue
2008 to 2011 and remains high. Local workforce investment
collections and public expenditures that came out of the
boards must meet the challenge of reduced funding by careGreat Recession would ultimately lead to hard decisions
ful cost management, more strategic investment in training
regarding spending priorities. A primary concern was
options, and, where possible, additional sources of funding
whether governments would choose, or be forced, to cut
for outside grants and corporate support.
spending in programs that have the potential to enhance
society in the long term. To be sure,
WIA costs money in the form of proData Factors for PY 2008 and PY 2011 State Formula Allotments (Thous.)
gram administration and tuition. But
Regular Unemployment
Excess Unemployment
Long Term Unemployment
for all the costs associated with
PY 2011
PY 2011
PY 2011
PY 2008
PY 2008
PY 2008
preparing disadvantaged and dislocated workers to enter or re-enter the
United States
labor force, there are benefits to the
District of
individuals who receive training and
services through WIA and benefits
North Carolina
that accrue beyond those individuals.
For the individuals, studies have
South Carolina
suggested that the benefits come in
the form of reduced spells of unem14.0
West Virginia
ployment, increases in lifetime
earnings, and better fringe benefits
NOTE: Formula for state allotments is:
associated with better jobs. For socie1/3: State relative share of total (regular) unemployed (PY 2008: avg 12 months ending 9/30/07; PY 2011: avg 12 months ending
ty, shorter spells of unemployment
1/3: State relative share of excess unemployed (PY 2008: avg 12 months ending 9/30/07; PY 2011: avg 12 months ending 9/30/10)
translate into less expenditure on
1/3: State relative share of long-term unemployed (PY 2008: Calendar year 2006; PY 2011: average 12 months ending 9/30/10)
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, State Statutory Formula Funding.
unemployment insurance benefits.
Higher earnings bring in more tax


PY 2008



























Professional/Business Services Employment (000s) 155.3
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change






Government Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change



















Unemployment Rate (%)




















Building Permits
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change







House Price Index (1980=100)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change







Nonfarm Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change
Manufacturing Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Y/Y Percent Change
Civilian Labor Force (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Real Personal Income ($Mil)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change



Nonfarm Employment

Unemployment Rate

Real Personal Income

Change From Prior Year

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013

Change From Prior Year

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013




02 03 04

05 06 07 08 09 10




02 03 04

05 06 07 08 09 10


12 13

02 03 04

05 06 07 08 09 10

Nonfarm Employment
Metropolitan Areas

Unemployment Rate
Metropolitan Areas

Building Permits

Change From Prior Year

Change From Prior Year

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013

05 06 07 08 09 10




12 13

05 06 07 08 09 10





02 03 04



05 06 07 08 09 10

Fifth District

Services Revenues Index

Manufacturing Composite Index

House Prices

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013

First Quarter 2002 - First Quarter 2013













02 03 04

05 06 07 08 09 10


12 13

02 03 04

United States

Change From Prior Year



12 13


02 03 04



Change From Prior Year

02 03 04

12 13

United States

Fifth District



05 06 07 08 09 10


12 13

02 03 04

05 06 07 08 09 10

Fifth District


United States



1) FRB-Richmond survey indexes are diffusion indexes representing the percentage of responding firms
reporting increase minus the percentage reporting decrease.
The manufacturing composite index is a weighted average of the shipments, new orders, and employment
2) Building permits and house prices are not seasonally adjusted; all other series are seasonally adjusted.

Real Personal Income: Bureau of Economic Analysis/Haver Analytics.
Unemployment rate: LAUS Program, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
Employment: CES Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
Building permits: U.S. Census Bureau,
House prices: Federal Housing Finance Agency,


12 13


Washington, DC
Nonfarm Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Hagerstown-Martinsburg, MD-WV










Asheville, NC

Charlotte, NC

Durham, NC




Unemployment Rate (%)




Building Permits
Q/Q Percent Change




Y/Y Percent Change




Greensboro-High Point, NC

Raleigh, NC

Wilmington, NC




Y/Y Percent Change




Unemployment Rate (%)







Unemployment Rate (%)
Building Permits
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Nonfarm Employment ( 000s)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Nonfarm Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change

Building Permits
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change


Baltimore, MD


Winston-Salem, NC

Charleston, SC

Columbia, SC













Greenville, SC

Richmond, VA

Roanoke, VA




Y/Y Percent Change




Unemployment Rate (%)







Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA

Charleston, WV















Nonfarm Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change
Unemployment Rate (%)
Building Permits
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Nonfarm Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change

Building Permits
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Nonfarm Employment (000s)
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change
Unemployment Rate (%)
Building Permits
Q/Q Percent Change
Y/Y Percent Change

Huntington, WV

For more information, contact Jamie Feik at (804) 697-8927 or e-mail




A Different Recovery for Household Spending

increased about 30 percent, on average, between the early
conomic statistics tell us that the bottom of the
1970s and the 2000s. Women’s earnings became less volatile
Great Recession — and, thus, the starting point of
while men’s became more so. Although the findings are
our current recovery — took place in June 2009,
skewed by increased variability at the top of the income
four years ago. Things have been getting better during the
distribution, there is also evidence that volatility has
recovery, but they’re still not that great. Growth has been
increased for lower-income workers.
anemic, averaging about 2 percent per year since the
Finally, a swath of workers in the middle of the income
recovery began, compared with more than 3 percent
and skill distribution has been affected by technology trends
from 1950 to 2000. While unemployment has fallen to
and other trends that have left the demands for their skills
7 percent, its lowest rate since November 2008, much
relatively stagnant or declining as their jobs become autoof that decline has been the result of people dropping out
mated. At the same time, these trends have resulted in
of the labor force, making it harder to gauge just how much
increased relative demand for high-skill
improvement in labor market conditions we’ve actually seen.
It seems likely that it will be workers and some low-skill ones. This
relative decline of the middle tier of
The fact that growth in economic
a considerable time
workers is sometimes referred to as
output is still relatively slow invites a
a “hollowing out” of the workforce.
closer look at its largest component:
before consumers
Like the increase in income volatility,
household spending on goods and
again treat their housing
hollowing out began in earnest well
services. Consumption spending by
equity as a source
before the Great Recession; it dates to
households represents nearly 70 peraround 1980.
cent of GDP. What hints can it give us
of spending money on the
But if rising income volatility and
about our recent past — and, perhaps,
scale that they did
hollowing out both preceded the recesour future?
during the boom years.
sion, why didn’t we see negative effects
Like GDP, household consumption
on spending earlier? Why did spending
spending settled into a new, lower trend
continue to grow during the 1990s and 2000s (up to the
rate after the recession, at least for now. It has been growing,
financial crisis) at roughly its historical pace?
but weakly. In terms of constant (inflation-adjusted) dollars,
The answer may be that those years were exceptional in
it has averaged 2.2 percent annual growth during the recovways that masked the downward spending pressures.
ery, markedly less than the 2.9 percent growth it saw from
Normally, we expect consumption spending to be driven by
2001 to 2007.
people’s labor incomes and their beliefs about their future
To be sure, there are a number of reasons why this is
labor incomes. In the 1990s and 2000s, households seem to
unsurprising. The scale of the dislocation during the Great
have drifted away from this principle.
Recession — in terms of both unemployment and loss of
One likely reason is the run-up in house prices,
wealth — was bound to leave an impression. Indeed, some
contributing to rising household wealth, which buoyed
have wondered whether the Great Recession scarred an
consumption growth. Another plausible reason is the
entire generation, in much the same way a generation was
expansion of consumer credit during this period. Moreover,
scarred by the Great Depression. Milton Friedman and
these two effects probably reinforced one other; people
Anna Schwartz, in their book A Monetary History of the
felt wealthier, and therefore used tools such as credit cards
United States, noted that the Depression instilled “an exagand home equity lines of credit to tap into that wealth.
gerated fear of continued economic instability, of the danger
Today, in most parts of the country, it seems likely that it
of stagnation, of the possibility of recurrent unemploywill be a considerable time before consumers again treat
ment.” The Great Recession will surely not have a long-term
their housing equity as a source of spending money on
effect of the same magnitude, but it is reasonable to assume
the scale that they did during the boom years. Thus, the
that it is part of the reason for the trend in household spendlonger-term trends affecting income growth and volatility
ing that we are seeing today.
prospects for many households may well continue, for some
In addition, household spending is likely influenced by
time, to keep household spending on its present track of
a pattern of greater volatility in income, a pattern that was
relatively slower growth.
in place before the recession. Research by Karen Dynan of
the Brookings Institution, Douglas Elmendorf of the
Congressional Budget Office, and Daniel Sichel of Wellesley
John A. Weinberg is senior vice president and director
College has found that the volatility of household income
of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.




Canadian Stability
As most of the financial world was engulfed by crisis in 2007
and 2008, Canada had no large failures, no bailouts, and only
a mild recession. In fact, Canada has tended to avoid financial
crises altogether. Some credit Canada’s tighter regulation and
smaller number of subprime loans. But economists say the
real source of its resiliency is its banking system’s structure,
established centuries ago.

Mass Transit
Now that Charlotte, N.C., and Norfolk, Va., have light rail lines,
has the reality of light rail lived up to the promise?

Credit Scoring
Credit scores are so pervasive that it seems like we’ve
never been without them. But computerized credit scoring
became widespread only in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Since then, it has had major effects on the market for
small-business credit. It also has improved households’ access
to credit — though driving up the rate of personal bankruptcies
in the process.

Federal Reserve
In the summer of 1914, the onset of war
sparked a financial crisis in the United
States. It was the perfect opportunity
to test the mettle of the newly formed
Federal Reserve System. There was just one
problem: It wasn’t up and running yet.
Instead, the nation turned to a set of
emergency measures, stemming the panic
and demonstrating that the Fed might
not have been the only viable system for
preventing bank runs.

The Profession
Over the past several decades, economic
history has increasingly been weeded
out of the training of economists. Did
the Great Recession bring a new appreciation for that field as we learn from
past mistakes?

District Digest
What do we know about the economics
of crime in the Fifth District? As job opportunities improve in the District, the effect
on crime is surprisingly inconsistent among
different types of offenses and different
places. So is the effect of law enforcement.

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Federal Reserve Bank
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Richmond, VA 23261

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1914: The Richmond Fed’s
first building at 1109 E. Main St.

of Richmond Fed history in a new
collection on our website.
for oral histories, videos, articles, and
interviews with past presidents
and employees.

Guarding the vault in 1955

Sorting checks in 1961

Manning a security post in 1955