Wednesday, March 25, 2009

For Übergeeks Only: Why Krugman Is Wrong

A couple of days ago, Paul Krugman wrote a widely cited post where he argued that the Geithner plan would amount to a huge subsidy for banks. The taxpayers, he fretted, would once again be taken to the cleaners. To fill in some background: in the Geithner plan Treasury funds are combined 1:1 with private equity; together they go to the FDIC and obtain a non-recourse loan six times greater than the original principal. Private investors decide how to invest while the Treasury piggy-backs on their expertise, splitting the proceeds with them.

Krugman is skeptical. The fact that the loans are non-recourse, he writes, would mean that investors would likely take greater risks since their losses are capped, costing the taxpayer dearly. I know... he won a Nobel Prize and I didn't. But he's wrong and I'm going to prove it.

Here's the example Krugman cites:
Suppose that there’s an asset with an uncertain value: there’s an equal chance that it will be worth either 150 or 50. So the expected value is 100.

But suppose that I can buy this asset with a nonrecourse loan equal to 85 percent of the purchase price. How much would I be willing to pay for the asset?

The answer is, slightly over 130. Why? All I have to put up is 15 percent of the price — 19.5, if the asset costs 130. That’s the most I can lose. On the other hand, if the asset turns out to be worth 150, I gain 20. So it’s a good deal for me.
Here is what he means. A bid of $130.50 makes the average outcome of the scenarios $0. That is the breakeven point... a higher bid than that will, on average, result in a loss:
In another post, he explains that "two-state numerical examples" are the natural way to think about these things. Really? Just out of curiousity, what would happen if we went to a three-state numerical example?
Huh. When you add a middle scenario, all of a sudden the breakeven point has gone down to $116.28. Of course, in real life outcomes don't isolate themselves into two faraway islands. What if we kept on adding scenarios...
Wow. It looks like if we modelled this more like real life the overbidding Krugman writes about diminishes. If there were an infinite number of scenarios between $50 and $150, as there would be in real life, the degree of overbidding might even be reduced to single digits.

Let's also ask ourselves: is the spread of uncertainty likely to be as wide as Krugman's example? Think about it. There's a 3x spread between the high value and the low value. This would be like saying that a security with a face value of a dollar could as easily cost 25 cents as 75 cents. Remember that investors will have information about the payment history and location and credit history of the borrower, and remember that they have a wealth of prior experience on how similar borrowers have performed before. Isn't it likely they will be able to make far better projections than that? What if we narrowed the scope of uncertainty?
That makes a huge difference. Now the rational investor is only overbidding by just under 5%. But okay, let's say we overshot when we narrowed the spread of the scenarios. After all, no one can really predict economic performance, and that will certainly be a significant variable. Let's widen the scenarios a little to say... 40% on either side. But let's not pretend that there's an equal chance of getting extreme scenarios as opposed to the middle scenarios. Let's weigh the scenarios on a bell-shaped curve, giving more weight to the likelier middle scenarios, and less weight to the unlikelier extreme scenarios:
Still, a rational investor is only overbidding by around 5%. But I hear you say: 5% of a trillion bucks is an awful lot of money. It sure is. But there are other factors we have not considered yet.

First of all, the FDIC loans are low-interest... but they're not no-interest. The government will be making some money on the loans that do happen to perform.

But more importantly, there is a fallacy in our calculations. We're pretending investors are eager to risk capital just for the sake of breaking even. That's crazy. On the day the Geithner plan was rolled out, Bill Gross of PIMCO went on CNBC saying he expected returns in the "low teens." For any investment where the entirety of your capital is at risk, that is the minimum you should expect. So the bids are going to be lower than the breakeven price; they need to factor in their profit. Notice also that profit expectations increase as the range of uncertainty we mentioned above, the risk, increases.

Nor should we forget that it's not cheap to pore over loan tapes and make calculations that are far, far more sophisticated than the ones we've just done. Expenses will be at least 1%... probably more. Lower the bid by that amount. (Meanwhile, our government will have no such expenses.)

Together, these underbidding effects will dwarf any overbidding due to the capped losses. While there is no guarantee that the U.S. will not lose money on this deal, it is far likelier that we will profit. As many economists before, Prof. Krugman has let his theory come untethered from reality.

Update: I forgot to decrease the cap amount as the bid decreases! Still, that doesn't change the numbers too much. In the final case, I still have a number just slightly above 5%. I'll update with correct numbers later. 1:32PM: The numbers are now corrected.

Monday, March 9, 2009

How Long Does Obama Have?

Everyone seems to be asking themselves how long Obama has before the American people start getting -- as Andrew Sullivan puts it -- pissy. Nate Silver looks at polling data and guesses that it will be a year and a half. Blumenthal is skeptical, but not very specific.

I'd like to approach the question not from current poll data but from historical analogy. The other harsh recession since the great depression was the 1981-82 slump, when Reagan was in power. Like Reagan, Obama is a President with a pretty strong connection to the American people, so the comparison is apt that way. Let's look at the unemployment rate since that seems to be the measure that's most connected to popular anxiety, even if it is a trailing indicator for the economy.

Unemployment started going up in July 1981 and peaked in December 1982. Reagan's popularity bottomed around 45% in January of 1983, so it never really cratered. It was above 50% until October 1982. That seems to confirm Nate Silver's guess: about a year and a half, maybe a little less. I would just add two things: Reagan's recession began during his term. He was quite effective in blaming it on Carter, but the timing surely didn't help him. Obama's recession is more closely identified with his predecessor because it was already a year old when he stood on the Capitol steps to take the oath. Also, I would note how fast Reagan's popularity rebounded as the economy improved. Even though the unemployment rate was still above 10% half way through 1983, the economy was showing signs of recovery, so his approval rating was steaming back up to 60% by the fall of that year. Which is to say, if we start getting a visible recovery by Spring 2010, Obama's numbers may not fall below 50% at all.