Christopher Phelan

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Since 1998, Christopher Phelan has served in various capacities with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, where he is currently an advisor to the Research Department. He is a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota and has taught economics at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

He received A.B. and A.M. degrees in economics and computer science from Duke University and the University of Chicago. In 1990 he received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. His research agenda focuses on dynamic contracting, government reputation, game theory, and macroeconomics.

Chris’s work has appeared in numerous journals, including the Journal of Economic Theory, Econometrica, the Review of Economic Studies, and the Journal of Monetary Economics. He serves as referee for various economics journals and was an associate editor for the Journal of Economic Theory.

Reputation and Sovereign Default

This paper presents a continuous-time model of sovereign debt. In it, a relatively impatient sovereign government’s hidden type switches back and forth between a commitment type, which cannot default, and an optimizing type, which can default on the country’s debt at any time, and assume outside lenders have particular beliefs regarding how a commitment type should borrow for any given level of debt and bond price. We show that if these beliefs satisfy reasonable assumptions, in any Markov equilibrium, the optimizing type mimics the commitment type when borrowing, revealing its type only by defaulting on its debt at random times. Further, in such Markov equilibria (the solution to a simple pair of ordinary differential equations), there are positive gross issuances at all dates, constant net imports as long as there is a positive equilibrium probability that the government is the optimizing type, and net debt repayment only by the commitment type. For countries that have recently defaulted, the interest rate the country pays on its debt is a decreasing function of the amount of time since its last default, and its total debt is an increasing function of the amount of time since its last default. For countries that have not recently defaulted, interest rates are constant.

Insuring Against Adverse Outcomes at Birth

To what extent should government policy try to equalize economic outcomes due to differences among individuals in their most basic, innate circumstances: the kind of family they’re born into, their level of intelligence, their marketable talents, their health? Should policy tilt economic resources away from “genetic winners” and toward less fortunate newborns?
This paper points to the usefulness of considering different perspectives regarding at-birth risks. It argues that law and policy need to focus on allowing tools for parents to mitigate the real risk to themselves associated with having children of possibly different birth circumstances.
Specific policies would (a) allow deeper insurance markets (provided by private market or government) where parents-to-be would, in return for an insurance premium, receive a payment if their child is born with an expensive medical condition or disability, and (b) allow parents maximum discretion in formulating estate plans so as to provide for that child’s future needs.

Should We Worry About Excess Reserves?

Banks in the United States have the potential to increase liquidity suddenly and significantly—from $12 trillion to $36 trillion in currency and easily accessed deposits—and could thereby cause sudden inflation. This is possible because the nation’s fractional banking system allows banks to convert excess reserves held at the Federal Reserve into bank loans at about a 10-to-1 ratio. Banks might engage in such conversion if they believe other banks are about to do so, in a manner similar to a bank run that generates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Policymakers could guard against this inflationary possibility by the Fed selling financial assets it acquired during quantitative easing or by Congress significantly raising reserve requirements.

On the Ethics of Redistribution

Analysts of optimal policy often advocate for redistributive policies within developed economies using a behind-the-veil-of-ignorance criterion. Such analyses almost invariably ignore the effects of these policies on the well-being of people in poor countries. We argue that this approach is fundamentally misguided because it violates the criterion itself.

Too Correlated to Fail

In this paper, we argue that the anticipation of bailouts creates incentives for banks to herd in the sense of making similar investments. This herding behavior makes bailouts more likely and potential crises more severe. Analyses of bailouts and moral hazard problems that focus exclusively on bank size are therefore misguided in our view, and the policy conclusion that limits on bank size can effectively solve moral hazard problems is unwarranted.

The “Banks” We Do Need

Banks are prone to panic-induced runs due to their traditional structure of short-term, unconditional liabilities and long-term, illiquid assets. To avoid systemic crises caused by such panics, governments tend to bail out failing banks. Traditional banking systems thus impose external costs. Three major theoretical benefits are often used to justify a banking system that relies on short-term debt despite these costs: (1) maturity transformation, (2) efficient monitoring of bank managers and (3) facilitation of financial transactions. In a previous paper, we argued that the first two justifications, while seemingly compelling, actually suggest financial arrangements very different from our current system. In this paper, we examine the third justification, that a banking system reliant on short-term debt is essential for the facilitation of transactions. We find, in fact, that this reliance is more costly than generally recognized and, moreover, that socially beneficial financial transactions can and should be provided at less cost and risk by both restricting and broadening the payments system. Transactions should be restricted to institutions that continuously mark to market the value of their assets and issue equity claims to owners. Such accounts should also be broadened to include financial vehicles that are readily available, thanks to advances in information and communication technologies, and possibly quite different from current banks.

What Assets Should Banks Be Allowed to Hold?

Banks are vulnerable to self-fulfilling panics because their liabilities (such as demand deposits and certificates of deposit) are short term and unconditional, and their assets (such as mortgages and business loans) are long term and illiquid. To prevent wider financial fallout from such panics, governments have strong incentive to bail out bank debtholders. Paradoxically, expectations of such bailouts can lead financial systems to rely excessively—from a societal perspective—on short-term debt to fund long-term assets. Fragile banking systems thus impose external costs, and regulation may therefore be socially desirable.
In light of this fragility and cost, we examine two of the major theoretical benefits from the reliance of the banking system on short-term debt: (1) maturity transformation and (2) efficient monitoring of bank managers. We argue that while both justifications may be compelling, they point us to financial regulations very different from the ones currently in place. These theoretical justifications suggest that the assets funded by banks should not have close substitutes in publicly traded markets, as is currently the case.

Incentive Compensation in the Banking Industry: Insights from Economic Theory

How can banks and similar institutions design optimal compensation systems? Would such systems conflict with the goals of society? This paper considers a theoretical framework of how banks structure job contracts with their employees to explore three points: the structure of a socially optimal compensation system; the structure of a compensation system that is privately optimal, given the reality of government-guaranteed bank debt; and policy interventions that can lead from the second structure to the first. Analysis reveals a potential policy option: providing proper incentives to banks by charging debt default insurance premiums that depend on the compensation structure banks choose. If policymakers consider this unwise or impractical, then it may be useful for government to regulate bank compensation more directly.

A Simple Model of Bank Employee Compensation

Private Monitoring with Infinite Histories

This paper develops new recursive methods for studying stationary sequential equilibria in games with private monitoring. We first consider games where play has occurred forever into the past and develop methods for analyzing a large class of stationary strategies, where the main restriction is that the strategy can be represented as a finite automaton. For a subset of this class, strategies which depend only on the players’ signals in the last k periods, these methods allow the construction of all pure strategy equilibria. We then show that each sequential equilibrium in a game with infinite histories defines a correlated equilibrium for a game with a start date and derive simple necessary and sufficient conditions for determining if an arbitrary correlation device yields a correlated equilibrium. This allows, for games with a start date, the construction of all pure strategy sequential equilibria in this subclass.

Opportunity and Social Mobility

This study argues that both unequal opportunity and social mobility are necessary implications of an efficient societal arrangement when incentives must be provided.

Inequality and Fairness

This study uses John Rawls’ behind-the-veil of ignorance device as a fairness criterion to evaluate social policies and applies it to a contracting model in which the terms equality of opportunity and equality of result are well defined. The results suggest that fairness and inequality—even extreme inequality—are compatible. In a static world, when incentives must be provided, fairness implies equality of opportunity, but inequality of result. In a dynamic world of long-lived individuals, fairness implies not only inequality of result, but also, eventually, infinite inequality of result. If each period of the dynamic model is interpreted as a generation, then eventual infinite inequality holds for opportunity as well, as long as fairness is from the perspective of the first generation. If preferences of later generations are taken into account, then inequality of opportunity still occurs, although not at extreme levels.

Public Trust and Government Betrayal

This paper presents a simple model of government reputation which captures two characteristics of policy outcomes in less developed countries: governments which betray public trust do so erratically, and, after a betrayal, public trust is regained only gradually.

On the Irrelevance of the Maturity Structure of Government Debt Without Commitment

This paper presents a government debt game with the property that if the timing of debt auctions within a period is sufficiently unfettered, the set of equilibrium outcome paths of real economic variables given the government has access to a rich debt structure is identical to the set of equilibrium outcome paths given the government can issue only one-period debt.

Explaining the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level

Many traditional macroeconomic models do not have determinate predictions for the path of inflation: even for a given specification of money supplies, many paths of inflation are consistent with equilibrium. According to the fiscal theory of the price level, fiscal policy can be used to select which of these many paths actually occur. This article explains the fiscal theory of the price level and discusses its empirical and policy implications. The article argues that the theory is equivalent to giving the government an ability to choose among equilibria.

Sequential Equilibria in a Ramsey Tax Model

This paper presents a full characterization of the equilibrium value set of a Ramsey tax model. More generally, it develops a dynamic programming method for a class of policy games between the government and a continuum of consumers. By selectively incorporating Euler conditions into a strategic dynamic programming framework, we wed two technologies that are usually considered competing alternatives, resulting in a dramatic simplification of the problem.

A Recursive Formulation for Repeated Agency with History Dependence

There is now an extensive literature regarding the efficient design of incentive mechanisms in dynamic environments. In this literature, there are no exogenous links across time periods because either privately observed shocks are assumed time independent or past private actions have no influence on the realizations of current variables. The absence of exogenous links across time periods ensures that preferences over continuation contracts are common knowledge, making the definition of incentive compatible contracts at a point in time a simple matter. In this paper, we present general recursive methods to handle environments where privately observed variables are linked over time. We show that incentive compatible contracts are implemented recursively with a threat keeping constraint in addition to the usual temporary incentive compatibility conditions.