My Conversation with Larry Summers

September 20, 2017
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Larry was in superb form, and we talked about mentoring, innovation in higher education, monopoly in the American economy, the optimal rate of capital income taxation, philanthropy, Hermann Melville, the benefits of labor unions, Mexico, Russia, and China, Fed undershooting on the inflation target, and Larry’s table tennis adventure in the summer Jewish Olympics. Here is the podcast, video, and transcript.

Here is one excerpt:

SUMMERS: Second, the VIX — people tend to underappreciate this. The volatility of the market moves very much with the level of the market. The reason is that if a company has $100 of debt and $100 of equity, and then the stock market goes up, it’s 50/50 levered.

If the stock market goes up by $100, then it has $100 of debt and $200 of equity and it’s only one-third levered. So when the stock market goes up, its volatility naturally goes down. And the stock market has gone way up over the last 10 months. That’s a factor operating to make its volatility go significantly down.

It’s also the case if you look at surprises. The magnitude of errors in the consensus estimates of company profits or the consensus estimates of industrial production or what have you, numbers have been coming in close to consensus to an unusual degree over the last few months.

I think all those things contribute to the relatively low level of the VIX, but those are more in the way of ex post explanations. If you had told me everything that was going on in the world and asked me to guess where the VIX would be, I would expect it to have been a little higher than it is right now.

And:

COWEN: If there’s an ongoing demand shortfall, as is suggested by many secular stagnation approaches, does that mean monopoly cannot be a major economic problem because that’s from the supply side, and that the supply side constraint isn’t really binding if you think of there as being multiple Lagrangians. Forgive me for getting technical for a moment. Do you see what I’m saying?

SUMMERS: That wouldn’t have been the way I’d have thought about it, Tyler, but what you’re saying might be right. I think I’d be inclined to say that, if there’s more monopoly, there’s more money going to monopoly firms where there’s a low propensity to spend it, both because the firms don’t invest and because the owners of the firms tend to be rich or endowments that have a low propensity to spend.

So the greater monopoly power, to the extent that it exists, is one factor operating to raise savings and reduce investment which contributes to demand shortfalls and secular stagnation.

I also think that there’s likely to be less entry in competition in markets that aren’t growing rapidly than there is in markets that are growing rapidly. There’s a sense in which less demand over time creates its own lack of supply.

And:

COWEN: What mental qualities make for a good table tennis player?

SUMMERS: Judging by my performance, qualities that I do not possess.

[laughter]

SUMMERS: I think a deft wrist, a certain capacity for concentration, and a great deal of practice. While I practiced intensely in the run-up to the activity, there were other participants who had been practicing intensely for decades. And that gave them a substantial advantage.

Recommended!

If you think you know someone who is very smart, Larry is almost certainly smarter.

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