Ask an Economist

Welcome to Ask an Economist, a public service of the Department of Economics at Iowa State University, designed to answer your economic questions.

Our talented faculty and alumni can answer questions on a variety of economic topics to help you make more informed choices about your day-to-day decisions--or to just add a more reasoned voice when talk of the economy comes up around the dinner table.

If we answer your question, we'll post it along with the answer here. (Questions may be edited or adapted from their original form.)

Note: We do not do homework, give financial advice, or provide research support.

Ask an Economist

Question:
Has the advent of the 401K retirement plan impacted the stock market? It seems to me that the massive flow of cash that must be invested immediately would drive up prices. I understand that prior to 401Ks, retirement plans tended to invest in the host company's stock rather than the general market.
Answer:

In principle, if most companies offering retirement plans switched to 401(k)'s simultaneously and no new stocks were issued (i.e., no change on the supply side of the stock market), I would expect a substantial increase in the stock prices, as...

Question:
My name is Bob Galask and I grew up in Iowa (Fort Dodge). I've been in the diamond business in Los Angeles for over 35 years. Much of that time has been spent in Asia, particularly Thailand where I still have a diamond cutting factory. I've developed extensive connections in Thailand, Burma, India, Taiwan and Indonesia as well as a strong familiarity with most Asian countries and customs.

My question is, are there opportunities to purchase, process and export Iowa agricultural products? Pigs ears, gluten, chicken feet, ginseng, farm equipment etc., I'd be amenable to any opportunities.. I'll be in Iowa next week visiting friends and family. I'd appreciate any feedback be it positive or negative from any members of your staff.
Answer:

Yes, there are definitely opportunities to export Iowa agricultural products.  The U.S. Census Bureau currently calculates that Iowa companies exported $13.2...

Question:
I am part of a group of 5 students who wish to rent a house with 5 rooms of uneven size. We each have different budgets.

Initially, a suggestion was made that we just hunted for a house with a rental cost 5 times the person with the lowest budget and then allocate the rooms by lottery.

However, this seems a sub optimal approach, since some of us would happily pay extra if we could get a slightly larger house and then pay extra for the larger rooms.

Given some of us are prepared to pay more for a larger room in the house, how can we match the rooms with each person's budget and willingness to pay extra for a larger rooms?

Further it would be great if any solution was generic to a range of potential rental houses, each of which has rooms of varying size (as we are looking at a number of houses).

I originally thought that we could have an auction for the rooms, but noted that the aggregate bids must add up to the cost to rent the whole house. I then thought we could do relative bids (how much extra we would be willing to pay for the largest room compared with the second largest and so on), but this approach left the possibility that the solution would produce bids higher than someone's individual budget.

This seems to be an optimisation problem constrained by each individuals personal budget and the rental cost of the house as a whole.

Do you have any ideas how to solve this?

Regards

Justin
Answer:

Roughly speaking, you need to compute the aggregate valuation of the students for each house.  They should then rent the house for which the gap between their aggregate valuation and the house’s rent is the largest.  They can then...

Question:
http://money.cnn.com/2016/07/07/news/economy/japan-yen-options-brexit/index.html

- Is it a good time to invest in the Yen?
in part it's a bad idea since contractionary policies are/will be implemented to slow its growth rate, but on the other hand it's great because it's value is constantly growing despite the implemented policies.

- does having negative interest rates means that people need to pay in order to keep their money in the bank? is this a contractionary monetary policy?
Answer:

first part:

It appears from the news analysis that Yen has appreciated too quickly against dollars and policymakers are concerned. Implicitly, yen appears to be overvalued in the short run. It is never a good idea to invest in a currency...

Question:
Hello!

I would humbly like to inquire whether this theory explains the drift apart of labor productivity and worker wage as a result of the progress of mechanization. And also I would like to know if it is new and worthy of exhaustive research.

"Increased productivity does not cause nor correspond with an increase in labor compensation. Wages increase in relation to the need for added and specialized skills and the relative scarcity of available labor possessing these. This carries over to skills needed to deploy and operate capital. If capital needs labor with added and specialized skills for it to operate, it will drive the need for higher paid, more specialized workers. The more autonomous the capital is corresponds with an increasingly inverse or stagnant relationship between real labor compensation and increased productivity. Productivity, in itself, is not a driver of added worth to labor." - Michael Nogle July 4, 2016

I am an avid student of history, and social studies, including economics, in my pursuit to gain my secondary teaching credentials. I also have two master degrees, one in liberal studies. I came up with this as a result of these studies. I believe the logic is sound and cannot think of specific areas where my model does not fit. My training in liberal studies has taught me that it is time to ask specialists for further insight.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Mike Nogle
Answer:

Your proposed theory of wage setting appears to be consistent with the way that most economists would approach this issue.  That is, most economists would accept that an individual’s wage is determined by the “human capital” – i.e., skills,...

Question:
I am an amerian citizen and have been considering applying to graduate school in London for a while now, and have finally found multiple programs of interest and have a plan in motion to raise enough money to be a financially stable unemployed student. Due to recent events (Brexit) I am trying to determine if it is financially feasible to continue pursuing obtaining a degree in London. Would school become more affordable for someone like me being an international student there? What about the cost of living? Or is it too early to determine all of this?
Answer:

It’s hard to answer your question since the situation in Britain is in flux. I can only mention a few considerations that may be relevant.

One is the exchange rate.  The British Pound has fallen in response to the Brexit vote. ...

Question:
http://imgur.com/4uBj6mc

How do I read what is the most profitable? I want to buy low and sell high. Something called item-flipping.
Answer:

I’m not able to read (too small) the table. Regardless, I think the question relates to flipping stocks. Admittedly, my expertise is much more in commodity futures markets, but I believe the theory/rationale holds across markets. As such, my...

Question:
Please advise my going to become an Economist. I was an average mathematics major as an undergraduate with a G.P.A. of 3.19 overall with a bachelor's degree in Applied Mathematics. I have about the average IQ for economists, but I know nothing about economics now that I am 41 this year, I am thinking of starting anew in a brand new area of applied mathematics; is this advisable at this late of a life to switch career from Mathematics to Economics given that the two shared a common bond in Mathematical Economics and are theoretical in Microeconomics?

Would the transition be better than if I had pursue Pure Mathematics instead, because my experiences has been lately in proof making? What can I look forward to? How and what should I be looking into, to start off, if Economics is a good choice? I am a highly curious person. Plus, I have worked hard, I have been doing pure mathematics on my own since 2004 until presently; but, it has been slow going; so, I thought that by going into something that has a better return in investments of my intellectual energy, I should try Microeconomics?
Answer:

The prospect of a mid-life career change would be daunting for anyone.  In the end, you’ll have to make that difficult decision on your own.  But I can give you a few tips on how you might begin to explore whether a career in economics...

Question:
Is there an economic theory that describes the relative value of money amongst different strata of the population? For example, $100 might seem like a lot to an Economics professor, seem like almost nothing to a pro baller and might seem unimaginable to someone in true poverty. Thanks!
Answer:

I am guessing, by money, you mean income. Yes, the notion that $100 means something very different to people with varying incomes is a basic tenet of economics. The question is, what do people do with that $100. If they consume (buy stuff) it,...

Question:
News commentators appear to universally deride Donald Trump's suggestion that the National Debt be renegotiated, whatever that means. What would really happen if the US decided to cancel its outstanding debt, or at least selective portions based on who's holding it, e.g. hostile governments, unfair trading partners, etc. Assume that the Washington will enact whatever legislation to avoid or minimize the economic and political shocks, at least in the US, e.g. issue new currency, start massive infrastructure spending program.
Answer:

US government debt is considered the safest asset in the world. The US borrows at a low interest rate while it lends at a higher interest rate, an “exorbitant privilege” sometimes resented by the foreigners. Over the past two decades, a higher...

Question:
Is bitcoin meet the definition of money? if so How?
Answer:

Money refers to any asset that is widely used and accepted as a form of payment. It must be a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value (assets like stocks, bonds are all stores of value meaning they can be traded for goods at a...

Question:
If a business owner employs workers in a third world country, is it better (for the workers) to pay them in strong American dollars vs paying them with the local currency? Considering the American dollar will likely be stronger than that of a third world country, the workers will have more economic power with greenbacks than their own national currency.
Answer:

If the third world country has low and stable inflation, then it should not matter much; after all, there is a market exchange rate between say $1 and Indian rupees (these days, $1 = Rs. 60) and whether you pay an Indian worker $1 or Rs 60 should...

Question:
What are the major pieces of literature on Agricultural economics as well as the household names when it comes to Agricultural economic research?

I am mathematics major student with an MA in Economics, I am developing an insatiable interest in Agricultural economics and would like to read more on research in this area. I would like to be guided on the body of literature making names in this field.

I will particularly be interested in works that apply econometric techniques using time series econometrics and forecasting, panel data.
Answer:

Handbook of Agricultural Economics

Editors: Bruce L. Gardner and Gordon C. Rausser

Volume 1, Part A, Pages 3-741 (2001)

Agricultural Production

Volume 1, Part B, Pages 745-1209 (2001)

Marketing, Distribution and...

Question:
I have been thinking about open market operations that the federal reserve performs to control the money supply and I have a question that I do not fully understand and it is bothering me. An answer to this question will be really appreciated.

Question: Let’s say that if the central bank is keeping the base money at 6% of the GDP then as the GDP expands then the central bank will also have to increase the money supply to keep it at 6% of the GDP. In that case the central bank will perform open market operations to pump extra money in the economy by buying treasury bills. Some of those treasury bills that central bank has on its balance sheet will mature and the central bank will have to replenish those by buying new treasury bills to keep the money supply constant at 6% GDP. So as the economy grows larger and larger, the central bank will be holding more and more treasury bills on its balance sheet and will have to conduct more and more open market operations to replenish the maturing treasury bills? Does that also imply that in an ideal world with no recession and constant GDP growth the central bank will always increase its balance sheet and the balance sheet of the central bank will not go down? Also, if the federal debt is paid off somehow then the central bank cannot use the treasury bill for open market operations so will they use some other type of instruments such as etfs to conduct open market operations? Thank you very much.
Answer:

The money supply and the size of the central bank’s balance sheet are closely connected. Currently and historically, the sum of currency and bank reserves (a narrow definition of the money supply) account for almost all of the Fed’s liabilities....

Question:
I stumbled across a link regarding a Financial Settlement Tax (not FTT) from Scott Smith who is running a presidential campaign. The idea is to tax financial payments estimated to be $4515 trillion per annum in the US:

“The Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, known as the BIS, publishes an annual report known as the Red Book, which reports on the volume of payments for most of the major nations in the world. The Federal Reserve keeps track of payments in the United States and provides the data to the BIS for publication in the Red Book. The Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures at the BIS oversees the publication of the Red Book. International Financial Settlement payments are recorded and published and 1/10 of 1% could be deducted and transparently reported on the Internet.”

My questions are below:
1) Roughly what percentage of settlements would disappear with a 0.1% tax? My guess is there’s a significant percentage of very low margin trades that would end with such a tax.

2) Since you can’t take nearly 30% from the economy without someone noticing, what distortion(s) would be introduced in the market?
Answer:

1) There is no way to tell even approximately without a well calibrated model. As you suggested, very small profit margin trades will no longer be conducted. However, there are other, potentially much more important routes. First, many small...

Question:
Should Internet companies like Uber and Airbnb be regulated?
Answer:

Should Uber and Airbnb be regulated? As a matter of fact, these companies, like any other in the United States, need to comply with a large number of regulations that cover for example workers compensation and health care. But should Uber and...

Question:
What are the signs of a bubble about to burst, such as the housing market in San Francisco or tech bubble?
Answer:

It’s logically impossible to predict the bursting of a bubble. If it were possible, everyone would sell before the bubble burst. The selling would cause the bubble to burst earlier. But then people would anticipate the earlier bursting and sell...

Question:
If I run a manufacturing company and I pay people to do work, presumably those hours are in the manufacturing sector when it comes to measuring the nations's productivity. If I also pay consultants [who's hours belong in the service sector] to help with that manufacturing volume, are those hours counted as service or as manufacturing?
Answer:

The output determines which sector a particular activity falls under. If the output is a good (product), then it falls under the manufacturing sector. If the output is a service, then it falls under the service sector.

In your particular...

Question:
What would be the economic impact of eliminating the federal income tax system and replacing it with a national consumption tax such as the FairTax?
Answer:

This policy change would redistribute income from lower to higher income households because the current income tax is progressive while the flat tax would not be as progressive, if at all.

The change would also lead to the double taxation...

Question:
When I attended ISU and graduated with an M.S. in economics in 1967, I was taught that government debt was largely a good thing, as it was (then) mostly money owed to ourselves. It also provided a useful tool for the Fed. to use for controlling the money supply by buying or selling bonds. Has general economic thought changed with the large amount of debt being taken on by government spending, quantitative easing, and a larger percentage of our debt being owned by foreign powers (China, etc.). Do we now believe that our national debt is not such a "good" thing?
Answer:

Your understanding is correct that government debt is “good” in the sense that it serves as a useful tool for conducting both monetary and fiscal policy. By allowing federal, state, and municipal governments to borrow, it lets these entities...

Question:
In his answer to my previous question, Dr. Orazem states that 'Iowa's small towns are surviving' (compared to Nebraska). Are they? A vast majority of Iowa school districts have seen declining enrollments for years/decades, many/most of the small rural main streets that I see appear to be in serious decline, and the towns in general seem to be losing both population and vitality. I travel a lot through rural Iowa and it sure doesn't feel like most of these small towns are surviving. Am I incorrect? If my eyeball test and what I think are accurate demographic data aren't sufficient, how do we determine if rural towns are surviving? Thanks much. Just trying to wrap my head around issues related to small Iowa town vitality and the accompanying implications for schools.
Answer:

I think it is important in establishing policy to work from facts and not perceptions. While rural towns are getting smaller on average, not all are. While schools are consolidating in rural areas, they are also consolidating in cities as like...

Question:
Given the increasing population migration to more urban centers - and maybe the possible validation of Richard Florida's 'creative cities' theory - what viable economic models are we seeing for smaller, rural Iowa communities, most of which are really struggling to maintain population and economic viability? In other words, is there any hope for these once thriving rural towns and, if so, what does that look like?
Answer:

It is useful to begin by noting that Nebraska has a higher proportion of its population living in urban areas (73%) than Iowa (64%). The reason is that Nebraska has only 4 metropolitan areas (Lincoln, Grand Island, Sioux City, Omaha), all of...

Question:
Why aren't citizens who have given up looking for work not included in the unemployment numbers?
Answer:

Various measures of the U.S. labor market are prepared and published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor. The (civilian) labor force (L) is defined to be the summation of those in the non-institutionalized and non-...

Question:
Iowa’s 2016 current gubernatorial race is starting to heat up. Democratic challengers, as are all politicians, citing "job creation" as a major platform focus of their political campaign. In his 2010 campaign, Terry Branstad set a "job creation" goal for his 5th term as Iowa's governor at 200,000 new jobs. The Governor now claims to have created 130,000 Iowa jobs to date. How many "new" jobs has the Governor actually created and how many "net" jobs have been created in Iowa since January 2011?
Answer:

Governors really do not create jobs. Their departments of economic development, as well as other departments, may provide assistance, subsidies, and other types of aid to industries, but they do not create the jobs. The industries create the jobs...

Question:
I am student and recently have come across 2 equations which explain basically the same thing. It's about the real interest rate. One equation tells us: real interest = nominal interest - inflation The other one says: 1+real interest = ((1+inflation) / (1+nominal interest)) Which one is correct? Which one should we use? Thank you!
Answer:

The nominal interest rate associated with an asset (for example, a deposit in an interest-bearing savings account) is the rate at which the dollar value of the asset increases over time. The corresponding real interest rate is the rate at which...

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