Tuesday, 25 January 2011

parental pride

As a general rule, if your PhD student does well, it's his/her accomplishment; when they screw up, it's the advisors fault. And yet, I sometimes can't help mild pangs of fatherly pride... for example, have a look at the fly-out list for UCLA-Economics over at the Econ Jobs Wiki:

Maximilian Kasy (UC Berkeley), Christian Dippel (University of Toronto), Rafael Dix-Carneiro (Princeton), Zhipeng Liao (Yale), Kei Kawai (Northwestern), Myrto Kalouptsidi (Yale), Keith Ericson (Harvard), Alexander Torgovitsky (Yale), Dan Lu (University of Chicago), Peter Koudijs (Pompeau Fabra)

Yup, they are still struggling with the spelling of UPF a bit, but my doctoral student Peter Koudijs is the only European on that list. Fly-outs are not offers (yet), of course. But the change in visibility of our doctoral candidates in recent years has been very gratifying. No doubt, having had some great students and placements in recent years (for example, Nico Voigtländer and Davide Debortoli) has helped. Fingers crossed for the final leg of the jobmarket for all UPF doctoral candidates!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Love letters from the tax authority can work wonders

Dina Pomeranz (Harvard/MIT) gave a jobtalk yesterday. She conducted a clever experiment with the help of the Chilean tax authorities. Sending vaguely threatening letters to firms that are suspected of VAT evasion, they look at what happens to the amounts declared not just by the firm itself, but by suppliers and clients. Interestingly, she can show how collection goes up along the value added chain. In particular, there is a big effect for final sales reporting, where the self-reinforcing nature of VAT does not apply -- which in turn suggests that it is working pretty well at other stages of the value added chain.

Funnily enough, the New York Times published an article on the same day that Dina was here, on the unexpectedly large tax haul for the Spanish authorities in 2010 -- up by a quarter, equivalent to some €10 bn. Perhaps the autorities here should try and send a few, vaguely menacing letters? As it happens, I had the new Catalan Director General for Economics and Finance, Albert Carreras, in my office this week. Albert is a colleague at UPF, and the outgoing dean there - and many moons ago advised me when I studied at EUI. We talked about budget woes and possible taxes. I might drop him a line with Dina's paper...

Friday, 14 January 2011

You read it here first...

The Economist has come round to my conclusion of last spring, namely that the Greek sovereign debt case is a no-hoper... I hate to say "I told you so", but the simple debt dynamics of Greece are just too grim [see "Greece and 1+1 of debt dynamics"].

Meanwhile, the forex market is celebrating the "success" of the Portuguese and Spanish debt auctions. The Euro shot up against the dollar since Tuesday. It is true - the auctions didn't go as bad as feared. Yields still up by a 100 bp, and close to 7% for Portugal's 10 year bond. You can apply the same logic that I used for Portugal. Current debt stock is not as bad as Greece's, at 85% of GDP, but the Economist calculates that they need a swing in the primary balance of 8%. That's a very big number. Foreign bondholders will get scared long before any Portuguese politician can deliver on this. With fully 2/3 or debt held abroad, I agree with Paul Krugman, who observed in the NYTimes that with a few more successes like the last one, Portugal will be bust for sure.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Now I know it isn't just me...

For years, I used to joke with my co-author Mauricio Drelichman that the best way to make progress on our papers would be to sit in the office, take another office chair, push it hard against one's kneecaps, and then force oneself to be immobile for the next 4-10 hours. That's what being on an airplane is like, and these days I get a phenomenal amount of work done in flight. Give me a good run to Vancouver, where Mauricio works and lives, and we can put a major revision of one of our papers to bed. What exactly is it? I think it's partly the absence of disruptions - no phone calls, emails, nobody "just dropping by", no regular seminar or lunch appointment. Three times 1.5 h is much less productive than 4.5 h uninterrupted. I think it's also the sheer discomfort. The only way to mentally disconnect from one's miserable surroundings (let's be honest, where is the delight suggested by glamorous airline ads in being stuck in metal tube re-breathing the same air?) is to focus on something else - in this case, work.

Fresh from the New York Times comes the news that there may be another reason why this works, for some - the feeling that one is about to run out of battery power focuses the mind on "just get it done". Sir Raymond Carr, the master of my old college in Oxford, always gave the same advice to incoming Ph.D. students - just write. And doing that seems much easier for Simon Sinek when the battery indicator is slowly crawling towards zero -- see "Fly Me Anywhere, I Just Need To Work". Maybe, enterprises and academic departments should contain "productivity rooms" where we deliberately replicate the misery of airline travel, at what would surely be a low cost. In case of a sudden loss of concentration, masks will automatically... no, let's not take it that far.

Incidentally, Sinek is working on a book that emphasizes the importance of explaining intent to providers, employees, etc. I haven't seen the manuscript, but I hope he points out the analogy with what the German army called Auftragstaktik -- which involved explaining the point of a mission to humble sergeants and privates, so that they could make decisions on the fly about how to best adapt the means to the purpose of the whole exercise. It made for great combat efficiency, and I always thought it odd that an undemocratic country with a pretty authoritarian culture should evolve such a tactic, while the armies of Western democracies in WWI and II mostly believed in often bizarre micro-management, mostly with disastrous effect. The best book on this and other aspects of military HR I have ever read is Martin van Creveld's Fighting Power (a comparison of the US and German armies in WW II).