Lee Ohanian

Lee E. Ohanian


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Lee Ohanian is a consultant to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, a professor of economics at the University of California–Los Angeles, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has been affiliated with the Bank since 1993 and has also taught at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University, and the Stockholm School of Economics.

Lee’s research focuses on macroeconomic policy, business cycle theory, and economic growth. Recently he has examined the dynamics of major depressions, and he is writing a macroeconomics textbook with Thomas Cooley. His work has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Political Economy, the American Economic Review, Econometrica, and the Review of Economic Studies.

Lee received his B.A. in economics from the University of California–Santa Barbara in 1979 and his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1993. Before earning his Ph.D., he worked as an economist in the airline and banking industries. He is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and, with Jeremy Greenwood, directs the NBER working group Macroeconomics Across Time and Space.

Foreclosure Delay and the U.S. Labor Market

The time required to complete a home foreclosure rose substantially during the Great Recession, due both to lender bottlenecks in processing foreclosures and to government policies intended to slow the foreclosure process. This paper shows that foreclosure delay had the unintentional benefit of giving unemployed homeowners additional time to search for high-paying jobs.
Our economic model analyzes foreclosure delay as equivalent to extending additional credit to unemployed homeowners that is paid back if the homeowners find jobs and fulfill their delinquent mortgage obligations before foreclosure is completed. Model simulations estimate that foreclosure delay during the recession improved the quality of new employment matches, raised national income by about 0.3 percent and increased homeownership by about 800,000 units.

Competition and the Decline of the Rust Belt

The decline of the heavy manufacturing industry in the American “Rust Belt” is often thought to have begun in the late 1970s, when the United States suffered a significant recession. But theory suggests, and data support, that the Rust Belt’s decline started in the 1950s when the region’s dominant industries faced virtually no product or labor competition and therefore had little incentive to innovate or become more productive.
As foreign imports increased and manufacturing shifted to the American South, the Rust Belt’s share of manufacturing jobs and total jobs declined dramatically. Eventually the region’s manufacturers began to innovate, resulting in a stabilization of employment share at a significantly lower level. Our model suggests that this factor—lack of competitive pressure—accounts for about two-thirds of the Rust Belt’s decline in employment share.
These results imply that vigorous competitive pressure in both product and labor markets is important for creating the incentives for firms to continuously innovate, create and grow, and that government policy should encourage such competition.

Pay with Promises or Pay as You Go? Lessons from the Death Spiral of Detroit?

As part of compensation, municipal employees typically receive promises of future benefits. Motivated by the recent bankruptcy of Detroit, we develop a model of the equilibrium size of a city and use it to analyze how pay-with-promises schemes interact with city growth. The paper examines the circumstances under which a death spiral arises, where cutbacks of city services and increases in taxes lead to an exodus of residents, compounding financial distress. The model is put to work to analyze issues such as the welfare effects of having cities absorb pension risk and how unions affect the likelihood of a death spiral.

Paychecks or Promises? Lessons from the Death Spiral of Detroit

Pay-with-promises compensation plans accumulate liability for future employee benefits, such as retiree health insurance. A simple economic model demonstrates that such plans can exacerbate fiscal crises faced by cities that experience external economic shocks, such as the departure of a major employer. City leaders often raise taxes and/or reduce public services to pay off legacy employee debts, and such steps encourage residents to move out, reducing the tax base and raising fiscal stress. Pay-as-you-go compensation plans are more prudent; they settle liabilities to employees paycheck by paycheck.

Accounting for the Great Recession

The 2007-09 U.S. recession was much different from other U.S. recessions since World War II. It was also unlike recent recessions in other advanced economies. Qualitatively, it closely resembles the Great Depression, particularly in its large impact on labor markets. This policy paper describes defining characteristics of the recent recession, analyzes distortions in economic relationships during it and other recessions, and examines two hypotheses for the Great Recession’s severity and length in the United States.
Empirical examination indicates that the decline in economic output and income in the recent U.S. recession (unlike the others mentioned) was due exclusively to severe distortion in labor markets, a key commonality with the Great Depression.
Analysis of potential distortions in economic relationships reveals virtually no deviation in productivity and very little distortion in capital investment during the 2007-09 U.S. recession. By contrast, U.S. labor markets exhibited extremely large distortion; labor income was essentially being taxed at nearly 13 percent.
Two hypotheses for the Great Recession—financial markets dysfunction and poor government policy—are discussed in the context of these diagnostic findings. The paper ultimately concludes that serious questions remain regarding the financial explanation. The policy explanation is more promising, but requires significant further research.

Does Neoclassical Theory Account for the Effects of Big Fiscal Shocks? Evidence From World War II

There is much debate about the usefulness of the neoclassical growth model for assessing the macroeconomic impact of fiscal shocks. We test the theory using data from World War II, which is by far the largest fiscal shock in the history of the United States. We take observed changes in fiscal policy during the war as inputs into a parameterized, dynamic general equilibrium model and compare the values of all variables in the model to the actual values of these variables in the data. Our main finding is that the theory quantitatively accounts for macroeconomic activity during this big fiscal shock.

Back to the Future with Keynes

This article analyzes Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”—an essay presenting Keynes’s views about economic growth into the 21st century—from the perspective of modern growth theory. I find that the implicit theoretical framework used by Keynes to form his expectations about the 21st-century world economy is remarkably close to modern growth models, featuring a stable steady-state growth path driven by technological progress. On the other hand, Keynes’s forecast of employment in the 21st century is far off the mark, reflecting a mistaken view that the income elasticity of leisure is much higher than that of consumption.

Deflation and the International Great Depression: A Productivity Puzzle

This paper presents a dynamic, stochastic general equilibrium study of the causes of the international Great Depression. We use a fully articulated model to assess the relative contributions of deflation/monetary shocks, which are the most commonly cited shocks for the Depression, and productivity shocks. We find that productivity is the dominant shock, accounting for about 2/3 of the Depression, with the monetary shock accounting for about 1/3. The main reason deflation doesn’t account for more of the Depression is because there is no systematic relationship between deflation and output during this period. Our finding that a persistent productivity shock is the key factor stands in contrast to the conventional view that a continuing sequence of unexpected deflation shocks was the major cause of the Depression. We also explore what factors might be causing the productivity shocks. We find some evidence that they are largely related to industrial activity, rather than agricultural activity, and that they are correlated with real exchange rates and non-deflationary shocks to the financial sector.

Latin America in the Rearview Mirror

Latin American countries are the only Western countries that are poor and that aren’t gaining ground on the United States. This paper evaluates why Latin America has not replicated Western economic success. We find that this failure is primarily due to TFP differences. Latin America’s TFP gap is not plausibly accounted for by human capital differences, but rather reflects inefficient production. We argue that competitive barriers are a promising channel for understanding low Latin TFP. We document that Latin America has many more international and domestic competitive barriers than do Western and successful East Asian countries. We also document a number of microeconomic cases in Latin America in which large reductions in competitive barriers increase productivity to Western levels.

Why Did Productivity Fall So Much During the Great Depression?

This study assesses five common explanations for the large decline in U.S. total factor productivity (TFP) during the Great Depression: changes in capacity utilization, factor input quality, and production composition; labor hoarding; and increasing returns to scale. The study finds that these factors explain less than one-third of the 18 percent TFP decline between 1929 and 1933. The rest of the decline remains unexplained. The study offers a potential explanation: declines in organization capital, the knowledge firms use to organize production, caused by breakdowns in relationships between firms and their suppliers, for example. As some firms failed during the Depression, efficiency in surviving firms decreased; managers had to shift time away from production in order to establish new relationships, and firms had to shift to unfamiliar technologies that initially were operated inefficiently.

Are Phillips Curves Useful for Forecasting Inflation?

This study evaluates the conventional wisdom that modern Phillips curve-based models are useful tools for forecasting inflation. These models are based on the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (the NAIRU). The study compares the accuracy, over the last 15 years, of three sets of inflation forecasts from NAIRU models to the naive forecast that at any date inflation will be the same over the next year as it has been over the last year. The conventional wisdom is wrong; none of the NAIRU forecasts is more accurate than the naive forecast. The likelihood of accurately predicting a change in the inflation rate from these three forecasts is no better than the likelihood of accurately predicting a change based on a coin flip. The forecasts include those from a textbook NAIRU model, those from two models similar to Stock and Watson’s, and those produced by the Federal Reserve Board.

The Great U.K. Depression: A Puzzle and Possible Resolution

Between 1913 and 1929, real GDP per person in the UK fell 1 percent, while this same measure of economic activity rose about 25 percent in the rest of the world. Why was Britain so depressed in a decade of strong economic activity around the world? This paper argues that the standard explanations of contractionary monetary shocks and an overvalued nominal exchange rate are not the prime suspects for killing the British economy. Rather, we argue that large, negative sectoral shocks, coupled with generous unemployment benefits and housing subsidies, are the primary causes of this long and deep depression.

New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis

There are two striking aspects of the recovery from the Great Depression in the United States: the recovery was very weak and real wages in several sectors rose significantly above trend. These data contrast sharply with neoclassical theory, which predicts a strong recovery with low real wages. We evaluate the contribution of New Deal cartelization policies designed to limit competition and increase labor bargaining power to the persistence of the Depression. We develop a model of the bargaining process between labor and firms that occurred with these policies, and embed that model within a multi-sector dynamic general equilibrium model. We find that New Deal cartelization policies are an important factor in accounting for the post-1933 Depression. We also find that the key depressing element of New Deal policies was not collusion per se, but rather the link between paying high wages and collusion.

Re-Examining the Contributions of Money and Banking Shocks to the U.S. Great Depression

This paper quantitatively evaluates the hypothesis that deflation can account for much of the Great Depression (1929–33). We examine two popular explanations of the Depression: (1) The “high wage” story, according to which deflation, combined with imperfectly flexible wages, raised real wages and reduced employment and output. (2) The “bank failure” story, according to which deflationary money shocks contributed to bank failures and to a reduction in the efficiency of financial intermediation, which in turn reduced lending and output. We evaluate these stories using general equilibrium business cycle models, and find that wage shocks and banking shocks account for a small fraction of the Great Depression. We also find that some other predictions of the theories are at variance with the data.

The Macroeconomic Effects of Big Fiscal Shocks: The Case of World War II

The Great Depression in the United States from a Neoclassical Perspective

Can neoclassical theory account for the Great Depression in the United States—both the downturn in output between 1929 and 1933 and the recovery between 1934 and 1939? Yes and no. Given the large real and monetary shocks to the U.S. economy during 1929–33, neoclassical theory does predict a long, deep downturn. However, theory predicts a much different recovery from this downturn than actually occurred. Given the period’s sharp increases in total factor productivity and the money supply and the elimination of deflation and bank failures, theory predicts an extremely rapid recovery that returns output to trend around 1936. In sharp contrast, real output remained between 25 and 30 percent below trend through the late 1930s. We conclude that a new shock is needed to account for the Depression’s weak recovery. A likely culprit is New Deal policies toward monopoly and the distribution of income.

Aggregate Returns to Scale: Why Measurement is Imprecise

The extent to which there are aggregate returns to scale at the level of aggregate production has important implications both for the types of shocks generating business cycles and for optimal policy. However, prior attempts to measure the extent of these returns using instrumental variable techniques have yielded quite imprecise estimates. In this article, we show that the production shocks implied by a range of returns to scale that encompasses both large increasing returns and large decreasing returns are almost identical. This makes clear that there is a fundamental reason for the imprecision of prior estimates and casts doubt on our ability to generate more precise estimates

Complex Eigenvalues and Trend-Reverting Fluctuations

Autoregressions of quarterly or annual aggregate time series provide evidence of trend-reverting output growth and of short-term dynamic adjustment that appears to be governed by complex eigenvalues. This finding is at odds with the predictions of reasonably parameterized, convex one-sector growth models, most of which have positive real characteristic roots. We study a class of one-sector economies, overlapping generations with finite life spans of L greater than or equal to 3, in which aggregate saving depends nontrivially on the distribution of wealth among cohorts. If consumption goods are weak gross substitutes near the steady state price vector, we prove that the unique equilibrium of a life cycle exchange economy converges to the unique steady state via damped oscillations. We also conjecture that this form of trend reversion extends to production economies with a relatively flat factor-price frontier, and we test this conjecture in several plausible parameterizations of 55-period life cycle economies.

The Defining Moment: A Review Essay

This paper reviews The Defining Moment, edited by Michael D. Bordo, Claudia Goldin, and Eugene N. White. The volume studies how the Great Depression changed government policies, including changes in monetary policy, fiscal policy, banking policy, agricultural policy, social insurance, and international economic policy. I argue that a theory of policy evolution is required to answer how the Great Depression affected these policies. In the absence of this theory, the contributors provide insight into the question by showing how policies changed sharply in the 1930s with little or no historical precedent or by showing how policies were tied to political or other considerations unique to the period. While this volume doesn’t always provide answers to the questions posed, it does raise a fundamental issue in the analysis of government policy: Why during some crisis periods are bad policies adopted, whereas during other periods, they are not?

The Demand for Money and the Nonneutrality of Money

Many economists have worried about changes in the demand for money, since money demand shocks can affect output variability and have implications for monetary policy. This paper studies the theoretical implications of changes in money demand for the nonneutrality of money in the limited participation (liquidity) model and the predetermined (sticky) price model. In the liquidity model, we find that an important connection exists between the nonneutrality of money and the relative money demands of households and firms. This model predicts that the real effect of a money shock rose by 100 percent between 1952 and 1980, and subsequently declined 65 percent. In contrast, we find that the nonneutrality of money in the sticky price model is invariant to changes in money demands or other monetary factors. Several researchers have concluded from VAR analyses that the effects of money shock over time are roughly stable. This view is consistent with the predictions of the sticky price model, but is harder to reconcile with the specific pattern of time variation predicted by the liquidity model.

Is There a Trend Break in U.S. GNP? A Macroeconomic Perspective

Unit root tests against trend break alternatives are based on the premise that the dating of the trend breaks coincides with major economic events with permanent effects on economic activity, such as wars and depressions. Standard economic theory, however, suggests that these events have large transitory, rather than permanent, effects on economic activity. Conventional unit root tests against trend break alternatives based on linear ARIMA models do not capture these transitory effects and can result in severely distorted inference. We quantify the size distortions for a simple model in which the effects of wars and depressions can reasonably be interpreted as transitory. Monte Carlo simulations show that in moderate samples, the widely used Zivot-Andrews (1992) test mistakes transitory dynamics for trend breaks with high probability. We conclude that these tests should be used only if there are no plausible economic explanations for apparent trend breaks in the data.

Dynamic Equilibrium Economies: A Framework for Comparing Models and Data

We propose a constructive, multivariate framework for assessing agreement between (generally misspecified) dynamic equilibrium models and data, a framework which enables a complete second-order comparison of the dynamic properties of models and data. We use bootstrap algorithms to evaluate the significance of deviations between models and data, and we use goodness-of-fit criteria to produce estimators that optimize economically relevant loss functions. We provide a detailed illustrative application to modeling the U.S. cattle cycle.

Capital-Skill Complementarity and Inequality: A Macroeconomic Analysis

The notion of skilled-biased technological change is often held responsible for the recent behavior of the U.S. skill premium, or the ratio between the wages of skilled and unskilled labor. This paper develops a framework for understanding this notion in terms of observable variables and uses the framework to evaluate the fraction of the skill premium’s variation that is caused by changes in observables. A version of the neoclassical growth model is used in which the key feature of aggregate technology is capital-skill complementarity: the elasticity of substitution is higher between capital equipment and unskilled labor than between capital equipment and skilled labor. With this feature, changes in observables can account for nearly all the variation in the skill premium over the last 30 years. This finding suggests that increased wage inequality results from economic growth driven by new, efficient technologies embodied in capital equipment.

Shrinking Money and Monetary Business Cycles

In the postwar period velocity has risen so sharply in the U.S. that the ratio of money to nominal output has fallen by a factor of three. We analyze the implications of shrinking money for the real effects of a monetary shock in two classes of equilibrium monetary business cycle models: limited participation (liquidity) models and predetermined (sticky) price models. We show that the liquidity model predicts that a rise in velocity leads to a substantial reduction in the real effects of a monetary shock. In sharp contrast, we show that the real effects of a monetary shock in the sticky price model are largely invariant to changes in velocity. We provide evidence that suggests that the real effects of monetary shocks have fallen over the postwar period.

Reassessing Aggregate Returns to Scale with Standard Theory and Measurement

Constant returns to scale is a central construct of neoclassical theory. Previous studies argued that one must adopt a specification of the production function with substantial unobserved service variation to reconcile constant returns with the data. Some economists have argued that this finding has not resolved the size of returns to scale, since factor service variation is unobserved, and there is no generally accepted theory to guide specification of this alternative framework. In this paper we show that the stochastic version of the neoclassical growth model delivers an orthogonality condition which can be used to estimate returns to scale. Rather than the standard finding of increasing returns, we show that standard theory and conventional measures of output and inputs yield estimates of constant returns to scale at the aggregate level. Our estimates also suggest that factor service variation is not an important determinant of output fluctuations.