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Updates from Chicago Booth

What causes stock market crashes, from Shanghai to Wall Street
By Michael Maiello – The Shanghai Stock Exchange reached a historic peak in June 2015, and then plunged, losing almost 40 percent of its value in a month. This crash of the world’s second-largest stock market evoked comparisons to the 1929 Wall Street collapse, and provided a laboratory for testing an enduring explanation of its causes.

It has long been theorized that the 1929 crash reflected “leverage-induced fire sales,” according to University of International Business and Economics’ Jiangze Bian, Chicago Booth’s Zhiguo He, Yale’s Kelly Shue, and Tsinghua University’s Hao Zhou. They acknowledge that the theory has been well-developed to explain how excessive leverage makes investors sell in emergency conditions, accelerating market crashes. But they suggest that, until now, the empirical research has been lacking—and the China crash finally offers empirical evidence.

The researchers analyzed account-level data for hundreds of thousands of investors in China’s stock market. Because leverage was introduced in mainland China only in 2010, Bian, He, Shue, and Zhou were able to examine the implications of leverage-limiting regulations imposed in this decade. During the first half of 2015, there were two sources of leverage for Chinese investors—regulated brokerage houses and nonregulated online lending platforms. The latter, along with other nonbank lenders such as trust companies, formed the shadow-banking industry in China. The researchers thus studied the effects of each type of borrowing. more>

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Why artificial intelligence isn’t boosting the economy—yet
By Alex Verkhivker – Measured productivity has been declining for more than a decade in the United States and abroad. It calls to mind Solow’s paradox, a 1987 observation by the Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow, who noted that one “can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the same thing is happening with artificial intelligence, or AI, according to MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT PhD candidate Daniel Rock, and Chicago Booth’s Chad Syverson.

AI is a once-in-a-lifetime, general-purpose technology that promises to provide an “engine of growth,” they write. This was also true of the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine.

And yet, the researchers point out, the steam technologies that drove the US industrial revolution took nearly 50 years to show up in rising productivity statistics. And the first 25 years after the development of the electric motor and internal combustion engine were associated with a productivity slump, with growth of less than 1.5 percent a year. Then in 1915, the pace of economic expansion doubled for 10 years.

In these cases, the researchers find signs of what they call “the productivity J-curve,” a period in economic data when productivity growth is underestimated, followed by a period when it’s overestimated. This dynamic may have also applied to the computer-powered information-technology era, with 25 years of slow productivity growth followed by a decadelong acceleration, from 1995 through 2005.

Why does this happen? more>

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The safest bank the Fed won’t sanction – A ‘narrow bank’ offers security against financial crises
By John H. Cochrane – One might expect that those in charge of banking policy in the United States would celebrate the concept of a “narrow bank.” A narrow bank takes deposits and invests only in interest-paying reserves at the Fed. A narrow bank cannot fail unless the US Treasury or Federal Reserve fails. A narrow bank cannot lose money on its assets. It cannot suffer a run. If people want their money back, they can all have it, instantly. A narrow bank needs essentially no asset risk regulation, stress tests, or anything else.

A narrow bank would fill an important niche. Right now, individuals can have federally insured bank accounts, but large businesses need to handle amounts of cash far above deposit insurance limits. For that reason, large businesses invest in repurchase agreements, short-term commercial paper, and all the other forms of short-term debt that blew up in the 2008 financial crisis. These assets are safer than bank accounts, but, as we saw, not completely safe.

A narrow bank is completely safe without deposit insurance. And with the option of a narrow bank, the only reason for companies to invest in these other arrangements is to try to harvest a little more interest. Regulators can feel a lot more confident shutting down run-prone alternatives if narrow bank deposits are widely available. more>

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Viewing FICO scores spurs better financial habits
By Carla Fried – When it comes to financial matters, consumers tend to have a lot of confidence but a dearth of knowledge.

More than 400,000 customers of Sallie Mae, a private college-loan lender and servicer, were included in a study that tracked whether a quarterly email letting them know how to view their FICO score for free on Sallie Mae’s website might lead to better financial habits.

The FICO score is the ubiquitous financial report card businesses use to size up the creditworthiness of consumers.

Tatiana Homonoff, Rourke O’Brien, and Abigail Sussman find that Sallie Mae borrowers who received a quarterly email “nudge” were 65 percent more likely to log in to the website and view their FICO scores than customers who did not get the inbox prompt. Moreover, during the two-year study period that ended last June, participants who received the messages saw their FICO scores rise and were less likely to be delinquent in paying their bills. more>

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How to make money on Fed announcements—with less risk
By Dee Gill – Andreas Neuhierl and Michael Weber find gains of about 4.5 percent when investors bought or shorted markets in the roughly 40 days before and after Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announcements that ran counter to market expectations. Investors can make money on these “surprises,” even if they did not take positions before the announcements, the findings suggest.

Markets routinely forecast the content of FOMC announcements, which reveal the Fed’s new target interest rates, and usually react when the Fed does not act as expected. An FOMC announcement is an expansionary surprise when its new target rate is lower than the market forecasts and contractionary when it’s higher than expectations.

Share prices moved predictably ahead of and following both types of surprises, the study notes. Prices began to rise about 25 days ahead of an expansionary surprise, for about a 2.5 percent gain during that time. Before a contractionary surprise, prices generally fell. The researchers find that the movements occured in all industries except mining, where contractionary surprises tended to push share prices higher. more>

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How poverty changes your mind-set
Understanding psychology may be key to addressing the problem
By Alice G. Walton – In a 2013 study published in Science, researchers from the University of Warwick, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of British Columbia find that for poor individuals, working through a difficult financial problem produces a cognitive strain that’s equivalent to a 13-point deficit in IQ or a full night’s sleep lost. Similar cognitive deficits were observed in people who were under real-life financial stress. Theirs is one of multiple studies suggesting that poverty can harm cognition.

But it was the fact that cognition seems to change with changing financial conditions that Chicago Booth’s Anuj K. Shah, along with Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton’s Eldar Shafir, two authors of the Science paper, were interested in getting to the root of.

They suspected that poverty might essentially create a new mind-set—one that shifts what people pay attention to and therefore how they make decisions.

“Some say you really have to understand the broad social structure of being poor, and what people do and don’t have access to,” says Shah. “Others say that poor individuals have different values or preferences. We stepped back and asked: ‘Is there something else going on?’” more>

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Blockchain’s weakest links
By Chana R. Schoenberger – Blockchain” has become a business buzzword. Commentators, thought leaders, and business experts are highlighting how the distributed-ledger technology promises to revolutionize business and logistics. Universities are teaching courses in blockchain. Blockchain jobs are “booming in Asia,” reports CNBC.

Blockchain “lets us imagine a world that’s not dominated by Google, Facebook, or, for that matter, the [US National Security Agency], one where we, the people, the core components of global society, get to say how our data is managed,” reads The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything.

It’s a lot of attention for what is essentially an accounting technology. The plumbing behind financial services is generally unaccustomed to such publicity.

Companies are expected to spend $2.1 billion on blockchains by 2018, and $9.2 billion by 2021, according to research firm IDC. But first, like any new technology or market—and blockchain is both, in some sense—it has to overcome a few issues to prove its staying power.

For starters, there are different types of blockchains, and researchers have identified some potentially severe challenges facing the most ubiquitous type, known as “proof-of-work.” The choices companies and others make in the near future about which system to use, and how to use it, will determine how blockchain systems progress—and if blockchain does indeed mark a next era of tech.

Because bitcoin mining is a proof-of-work system, miners use electricity to run computers as they race to solve math problems to earn the right to validate the next block in a blockchain, and thereby win a bitcoin reward. This has raised another big concern with Nakamoto’s system: energy use.

As Bitcoin prices surged, so did mining and its impact on the power grid. If Bitcoin were a country, it would rank 39th in worldwide energy usage, behind the Philippines (38th) and ahead of Austria (40th), more>

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Why we’re all impact investors now
By Chana R. Schoenberger – Laurence “Larry” Fink, the founder and CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, which has more than $6 trillion in assets under management, issued an open letter to CEOs this past January—and reportedly sent many of them into a tizzy.

Fink’s letter said society is demanding that companies, public and private, need to “serve a social purpose,” benefiting not just shareholders but also employees, customers, and neighbors. And, he explained, from that point forward, BlackRock would be “eager to participate in discussions about long-term value creation and work to build a better framework for serving all your stakeholders.”

Executives, he wrote, should be able to answer their questions about the company’s actions. For example, what role does the company play in the community? How is it managing its impact on the environment? Is it working to create a diverse workforce?

“The time has come for a new model of shareholder engagement,” he wrote.

For nearly 50 years, many have been guided by the idea, laid out most famously by Milton Friedman, that the most appropriate way to create social change is to give profits to investors, and taxes to the government, and use that money to make an impact. more>

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The secrets of shopping
By Amy Merrick – A woman suffering from a headache walks into a drugstore. She faces a shelf of remedies: mostly bottles of branded aspirin, such as Bayer. Next to those colorful, heavily advertised boxes are store-brand packages of generic aspirin. The woman puts the generic into her basket and goes home.

A quartet of researchers find that she’s not alone, as sophisticated shoppers—such as doctors or pharmacists, the people most likely to know whether the extra few dollars spent on a brand are worth it—opt to buy generic headache drugs more often.

In fact, a doctor or pharmacist is 18 percentage points more likely than the typical shopper to buy a private-label headache remedy. The magnitude of the difference surprised one of the researchers, Matthew Gentzkow, Richard O. Ryan Professor of Economics and Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth.

“The effects are really big across a lot of health-care categories,” Gentzkow says. The researchers estimate that if all US consumers were to start shopping like pharmacists, they could save a collective $410 million a year on headache remedies. more>

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No, America is not more divided than ever before
By Howard R. Gold – It may seem sometimes like the United States is coming apart. “While rural America watches Duck Dynasty and goes fishing and hunting, urban America watches Modern Family and does yoga in the park,” write Chicago Booth’s Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica.

“The economically better-off travel the world and seek out ethnic restaurants in their neighborhoods, while the less well-off don’t own a passport and eat at McDonald’s.” Conservatives, they write, favor masculine names for boys while liberals prefer more-feminine names, and men play video games while women browse Pinterest.

These kinds of cultural splits can have economic, social, and political consequences in that they may ultimately reduce social cohesion within a country. But according to Bertrand and Kamenica, who measured cultural divisions over time, the cultural gap in the US is largely stable—not widening.

The data reveal that divisions definitely exist. Watching certain movies or television shows, reading certain magazines, or buying particular consumer products are predictable markers of traits such as how much money people make or how far they got in school. more>

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