Published in the May/June issue of the Financial Analysts Journal (vol. 72, no. 3). I'm not sure it it's gated, so you can find a working paper (from 2013!) version here. Abstract: Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price–earnings ratio, or ...

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"EconWeekly" - 5 new articles

  1. New(ish) paper on the Shiller CAPE ratio, by J. Siegel
  2. Robots for everything: Teaching assistants
  3. "I still hold out some hope": James Bullard on the U.S. becoming Japan
  4. Q1 GDP nowcasts
  5. Brief comments on the elections in Spain
  6. More Recent Articles

New(ish) paper on the Shiller CAPE ratio, by J. Siegel

Published in the May/June issue of the Financial Analysts Journal (vol. 72, no. 3). I'm not sure it it's gated, so you can find a working paper (from 2013!) version here.


Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price–earnings ratio, or CAPE ratio, has served as one of the best forecasting models for long-term future stock returns. But recent forecasts of future equity returns using the CAPE ratio may be overpessimistic because of changes in the computation of GAAP earnings (e.g., “mark-to-market” accounting) that are used in the Shiller CAPE model. When consistent earnings data, such as NIPA (national income and product account) after-tax corporate profits, are substituted for GAAP earnings, the forecasting ability of the CAPE model improves and forecasts of US equity returns increase significantly.

The gist of the paper:

"In this article, I offer an alternative explanation of the elevated CAPE ratio. The nature of the earnings series that is substituted into the CAPE model has not been consistently calculated for the long period over which Shiller has estimated his CAPE equations. Changes in accounting practices since 1990 have depressed reported earnings during economic downturns to a much greater degree than in the earlier years of Shiller’s sample."
"Companies report their earnings in two principal ways: reported earnings (or net income) and operating earnings. Reported earnings are earnings sanctioned by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), an organization founded in 1973 to establish accounting standards. Those standards—the generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP—are used to compute the earnings that appear in annual reports and that are filed with government agencies (earnings filed with the IRS may differ from those filed elsewhere). GAAP earnings, which are the basis of the Standard & Poor’s
reported earnings series that Shiller used in computing the CAPE ratio, have undergone significant conceptual changes in recent years. 

A more generous earnings concept is operating earnings, which often exclude such “one-time” events as restructuring charges (expenses associated with a company’s closing a plant or selling a division), investment gains and losses, inventory write-offs, expenses associated with mergers and spinoffs, and depreciation or impairment of “goodwill.” But the term operating earnings is not defined by the FASB, and companies thus have some latitude in interpreting what is and what is not excluded. In certain circumstances, the same charge may be included in the operating earnings of one company and omitted from those of another. Because of these ambiguities, several versions of operating earnings are calculated."
"The definition of reported earnings has undergone substantial changes in the last two decades. In 1993, the FASB issued Statement of Financial Accounting Standards (FAS) No. 115, which stated that securities of financial institutions held for trading or “available for sale” were required to be carried at fair market value. FAS Nos. 142 and 144, issued in 2001, required that any impairments to the value of property, plant, equipment, and other intangibles (e.g., goodwill acquired by purchasing stock above book value) be marked to market.9 These new standards, which required companies to “write down” asset values regardless of whether the asset was sold, were especially severe in economic downturns, when the market prices of assets are depressed. Furthermore, companies were not allowed to write tangible fixed assets back up, even if they recovered from a previous markdown, unless they were sold and recorded as “capital gain” income."
 "A distortion related to the Standard & Poor’s methodology for computing the P/E of an index—what I call the “aggregation bias”—overestimates the effective ratio of the index when a few companies generate large losses, as happened during the financial crisis. S&P adds together the dollar profits and losses of each S&P 500 company, without regard to the weight of each company in the index, to compute the aggregate earnings of the index. This procedure would be correct if each company were a division of the same conglomerate and one wished to determine the P/E of that conglomerate"
"Because of changes in the definition of GAAP earnings, it is important to use a definition of corporate profits that has not changed over time, as in the series computed by the national income economists at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), which compiles the national income and product accounts (NIPAs)."
"In forecasting future 10-year real stock returns, the highest R squared is achieved by using NIPA profits for specifications of the CAPE regression, with either the price index portfolio or the total return portfolio."

Siegel offers alternative estimates of how over-valued the S&P is, according to each CAPE measure, as well as estimates of future returns. The CAPE that uses the NIPA profit measure produces the lowest over-valuation and the highest expected returns. I'm generally sceptical of such estimates, so I won't go into those details.

What I got from this paper is a reminder that the S&P measure of profits (and perhaps other measures that rely on reported earnings) has changed over time, due to accounting changes, so one has to be careful when using it.


Robots for everything: Teaching assistants

From the Washington Post:

(Thanks to @JustinWolfers for his tweet.)

My thoughts after reading this article:

1. Robots can be more valuable when there is more technology in the environment.  In this example, a chatbot was superior to humans in the context of a massive online open course (MOOC),
"where students often drop out and generally don’t receive the chance to engage with a human instructor. With more human-like interaction, Goel expects online learning could become more appealing to students and lead to better educational outcomes." 
This brings up the possibility of increasing returns to capital, at least up to a point. Here, the internet made MOOC's possible, which in turn made robots more valuable.

2. If it's important to make the interaction with the bot human-like, make your robots more human: program them to respond with a delay, to make mistakes, etc. In this example:
"I had the same doubt last week [whether the TA was a chatbot] because we were getting such speedy responses from TAs."
3. Context may be important for how well customers accept artificial intelligence. In this example, the users were taking an AI-related class, so it's natural the chatbot would be welcome:
" 'A really fun thing in this class has been once students knew about Jill they were so motivated, so engaged. I’ve never seen this kind of motivation and engagement,' Goel said. 'What a beautiful way of teaching artificial intelligence.' "

"I still hold out some hope": James Bullard on the U.S. becoming Japan

Refreshingly outspoken James Bullard, from the St. Louis Fed, gives an interview to the New York Times. Some great quotes (emphasis mine):

"The general rule of thumb within the Fed is that labor market data trumps G.D.P. data.
"Once major central banks hit the zero lower bound, the key issue was whether central banks would be able to keep inflation expectations consistent with inflation targets.
"I think the Brexit vote, there are a couple of aspects of this that make it much less of an international macroeconomic event. It’s a scheduled event; you can track which way the vote is going to go by looking at polling; and it’s a long-term strategic vote on the part of the U.K. The day after Brexit — even if they vote to leave — nothing would actually change in terms of the trade arrangements. Those would continue for at least two years." 
"The norm in central banking, away from the zero bound, is to say, “We have set the policy rate exactly where we think it should be for today, given everything that’s going on in the economy, and in the future we’ll look at the data.” You didn’t do this kind of dot-plot thing. [...] I’ve wondered if we should get back to something that’s more akin to that. We don’t want to give unintentional commitments." 
"I’ve actually argued that unconventional policy works reasonably well. But it’s far less clear how it works, or how effective it is." 
"I’ve always been worried that the long run here is the Japanese outcome. I still hold out hope that that’s not the case, but I am worried about it, and it’s been going on for a very long time. If you talk to people in Tokyo, they say, 'Well, we’ve been through this and tried all these things, and you guys are just following us.' I hope that’s not exactly true. [...] I still hold out some hope.
"I’m not as big an advocate of fiscal policy as some other people. It’s very hard to do very much on a business cycle time scale, given the fact that you’ve got to work with Congress.
"At some point something will happen and we’ll be back in recession, and by almost any reckoning we will not have much that we can do in the way of lowering our policy rate."

Q1 GDP nowcasts

Atlanta Fed's nowcast of Q1 GDP (0.6%) was really close to preliminary estimate announced today by BEA (0.5%). Atlanta's was much closer than the New York Fed's nowcast (0.8%). The question is which of the two nowcasts will be closer to the final estimate, after revisions (available in late June).

Gavyn Davies and Juan Antolín-Díaz explain why these two nowcasts can differ so much from each other, and from their own nowcast at Fulcrum Asset Management. The Atlanta Fed's approach consists of "bean counting," i.e. they mimick the way the BEA calculates GDP by aggregating monthly data as they are released. The New York Fed's and Fulcrum's methodologies are both dynamic factor models, which extract a "common factor" from multiple time series (not only those used by BEA to estimate GDP). This underlying growth can then be scaled to match certain properties of the GDP time series (as the New York Fed does), or not be scaled (which is the approach they prefer at Fulcrum).

Brief comments on the elections in Spain

A little closer to Italy. The fragmentation of the vote was the expected and actual result of yesterday's general election. Incumbent Partido Popular (PP - moderate right) won the most votes, but came far short of the majority it had obtained in 2011.

The main other party, Partido Socialista (PSOE - moderate left) might be able to form a government coalition with the new Podemos (far left), but they will still need the support of a motley crew of smaller parties in order to reach the 176-seat majority. Another possibility is a core coalition of PSOE with Ciudadanos (C's - center), plus somebody else. But that seems even less likely, as Ciudadanos promised during the campaign that they wouldn't join forces with either Podemos or nationalist parties. A grand coalition of PP and PSOE, à la Germany, would be unpalatable for PSOE - and its demise as the leading party on the left.

Source: El País.

After the first vote to form a government, which the incumbent prime minister will presumably lose, the parties have two months to form a government coalition before they must call fresh elections.

Any coalition will be uneasy and precarious. Partido Popular has made bitter enemies during its four years in government. It's been an acrimonious election campaign. The programs differ wildly across parties. Whatever government they form, I think significant advances on important legislation are unlikely over the next four years (labor market, changes to the Constitution, education, Catalonia's independence referendum).

Another important (and surprising to me) result was the decline of nationalist parties in Catalunya and Euskadi, and the rise, in those same regions, of the new left-wing party, Podemos. As a pro-referendum force, Podemos could actually do more for the independence cause than either the Catalan or Basque nationalists on their own. Yesterday's elections gave Podemos 69 seats, more than all the nationalist parties combined ever got in any general election. It's still doubtful, however, whether Podemos will be part of the new government. Moreover, those 69 seats won't belong to a single parliamentary group, as Podemos is itself an umbrella brand that includes a cluster of regional, left-wing parties with their own agendas.

Messy. Bumpy. And thoroughly entertaining.

Election results, town by town
Can you spot which two regions are different?
Source: El País.


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