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.


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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.


E.g., Sunday, December 17, 2017
E.g., Sunday, December 17, 2017
Question:
My wife and I live in the US and are trying to plan for a retirement abroad. We wish to retire to my wife's native Brazil, and one of my principal concerns while we save our nest egg is accounting for the relationship between inflation and exchange rates after retirement, which I do not understand well. The BRL has had fairly high inflation since it's inception in the mid 90's, on average around 7% per year. Due to the inflation of the Real, and my familiarity with investing in the US, I am inclined to leave our assets in USD, and transfer funds into BRL as needed for the duration of our retirement. The exchange rate between BRL and USD also seems to vary wildly, from R$1.50 per USD all the way up to just under $R4.00.

So if we're looking into the future and we predict that the BRL will have an inflation rate of 7% per year, and the USD will have inflation of 3% per year, obviously the cost to live in Brazil will grow much faster than in the US. If that's true, over a period of 30-40 years, in theory, should the exchange rate become more favorable to the USD as the value of the BRL is eroded due to inflation? If so, is there a way I can replicate that effect in my retirement planning? Thank you for hearing my question. Please reach out to my email address if any clarification is needed.
Answer:

First, a disclaimer. Whatever is written below is not actual investment advice; it is general economics discussion, a dinner table conversation, no more.

It is certainly a great thing to be planning your retirement to such a...

Question:
Hi, I gross $52,500 a year in Suffolk County Long Island, NY. How does my personal income compare to other income earners on Long Island? Somewhere in the middle or on the low side?
Answer:

None of us here have direct expertise on this issue. You may look at: http://www.longislandindex.org/data_posts/household-income-distribution/ for more...

Question:
A recent Economist article www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21639587-beware-heavily-traded-stocks-drop-pops reports on an academic paper that seems to offer a mechanical rule for beating the stock market by a substantial margin. Is this a disproof of the efficient market hypothesis or is there some trick?
Answer:

Assume that you decide to buy a new cell phone. Are you going to buy iPhone or Xiaomi, some unknown brand? For a typical US consumer, you have about 40% chance to buy iPhone, but almost 0% chance to buy Xiaomi. An iPhone costs you about $600, but...

Question:
I came across a company recently which farms mussels off the coast of a small town in Bulgaria, and I started thinking about its structure in the economy. I know since it produces a homogenous product along with hundreds of other mussel farmers, it must be in perfect competition; however this mussel company also sold locally on top of selling to suppliers. This means it was the only mussel supplier (locally) in the town, and as far as I know that's a monopoly. My question is, what would this company's graphs look like? Would it be more like a perfect competition, or a monopoly? Although it is the only supplier in the town, it sells the mussels at the same price if not cheaper to locals as it does to suppliers, which I know unlike monopolies. Would there be any deadweight loss in a company like this? Is it inefficient or is it more efficient than normal? Consumers can buy mussels from the supermarket, but local supermarkets all get their supply of mussels from this one local company. Please help me understand!
Answer:

The local mussel farm has a cost advantage in supplying in its own town mostly because it saves on transportation costs. Even with that cost advantage, the local firm may not be able to fully exert monopoly power on the local market. It is easy...

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:
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:
Stock Market Question.

There is something very basic and fundamental about how the stock market works that I have never understood and always wondered about.

I understand that a company issues a certain fixed number of shares so the value of those shares are subject to the law of supply and demand. However, it seems like, at any given moment I, and anyone else, can buy or sell any number of shares at the current stock price. So what is the actual mechanism that determines the change in stock price?

If I look at the stock price of company X and see it is selling for $100 per share I, and anyone else, can decide to buy one share at the market price of $100, or one million shares at the market price of $100. So what actually makes the stock price of company X actually move up to $100.01 per share or down to $99.99 per share? It doesn't seem like the stock price would move up unless all available shares were already purchased, or down unless there were people willing to sell shares for less than the market asking price at any given moment.
Answer:

The answer is that stock prices are indeed determined by supply and demand. If you see no change in price when you trade, it is because the amounts you are trading are relatively small. If you try to buy or sell a particularly large amount at one...

Question:
I've read that the total bank bailout was just under 30 trillion dollars http://ritholtz.com/2011/12/bailout-total-29-616-trillion-dollars/ I don't understand the purpose of the bailout: why did the Federal Reserve give out money to the banks instead of buying up the bad mortgages? I thought that money doesn't trickle down, but instead grows and multiplies from below. Am I misunderstanding the purpose of the bailout?
Answer:

Without questioning the specific numbers cited in the study, I would argue that much of the total does not represent a bailout of banks in a conventional sense. For example, $10T in central bank liquidity swaps refers to agreements between the...

Question:
This is more of a speculative, hypothetical question. I’m working on a novel in which the wealth of the previous generation is distributed randomly into the next generation. The wealth isn’t distributed equally – in other words, there are the same number of wealthy people from one generation to the other, but there’s no predicting who those new people will be. Once the new generation has the money, they can spend it as they like. So I’ve been speculating – how would that economy look different than our own? Wealthy families wouldn’t be able to pass on wealth – instead, a young person in a slum could be the lucky recipient. What kind of economy would that create?
Answer:

Thank you for your question. The economies would look very different. Your hypothetical world seems analogous to one that imposes a 100% estate tax and uses a lottery to transfer any tax collected back to the economy. Naturally, individuals...

Question:
I was wondering if there are any threats that could cause regression or the stop of progression in the arena football league. I know the Arena football league is trying to expand in order to create more revenue but their business models have been poor in the past. Wondering what's your take on the subject and what environmental factors could prohibit this development
Answer:

If I understand your question correctly, you are asking about factors that will determine the success or failure of the Arena Football League.  As with any firm or industry, ‘economic’ success or failure depends on the ability of the firm or...

Question:
If budgets have to be approved by Congress before they get signed by the President, why does the Congress again have to approve an increase in the borrowing limits?

If govt debt is at $10 trillion, and Congress approves a budget with a budget deficit of $1 trillion, isn't it implied that the administration can implement the budget only by borrowing an extra trillion?
Answer:

Just to be clear, “the debt limit is the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the...

Question:
I read a summary of perfect competition which said that:
1. All market participants have perfect knowledge.
2. Excess profit is only possible in the short run.

If all participants have perfect knowledge, wouldn't all producers instantly know about excess profit opportunities, causing all of them to switch to producing that product at the same time, causing the price to crash and all of them to experience losses? Or, with second-order knowledge, wouldn't they all know that they all knew about the opportunity, and none of them would switch?

Is there a resolution to this perfect market dilemma?
Answer:

"I read a summary of perfect competition which said that: 1. All market participants have perfect knowledge."

An assumption that a market M for a good Q is a "perfectly competitive market" is not a presumption of perfect knowledge...

Question:
Hello,

I was wondering whether a recession is the opposite of inflation or is it the opposite of economic growth. What is it, really, the opposite of?

Thank you
Answer:

A recession is a period of general economic decline, a contraction in the GDP for six months (two consecutive quarters) or longer. In that sense, they represent negative growth.

Question:
I would like to understand how the National Negotiated barrow and gilt price relate to Peoria and interior Missouri live hogs price, futures hog contracts and profit for the farmer, and if possible have a margin profit table from 2013 up to date.
Answer:

To explore the relationship between the Peoria live hog price, Interior Missouri live hog price, National negotiated prior day purchase base price, National negotiated slaughter base price, CME lean hog futures price, and farrow to finish profit...

Question:
Are there any studies that address the weighted effects of different causes for loss of manufacturing jobs such as automation secular changes in purchasing and international trade?
Answer:

You can try

David H. Autor & David Dorn & Gordon H. Hanson, 2016. "The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade," Annual...

Question:
I have a question about the Federal Reserve system at the heart of our monetary system. I have heard many accounts and explanations. I am very wary of anything I read in the news, and even more wary of what our government does. Was the act actually concocted on a private island by powerful, wealthy bankers? Was president Wilson actually remorseful of the passage of the act and its effect? Was the act passed under less than the usual standard of congressional consensus and due process? Can you comment on debt as a dynamic within the Fed? Should the public be wary of the lack of transparency? I have absolutely no faith in our system's ability to promote anyone else's interest, except the wealthy and big business. Any cause for optimism otherwise? Can you suggest a good book on the Fed? Thanks.
Answer:

The Federal Reserve has a long history as the nation’s central bank. While there have undoubtedly been many changes in the U.S. economy, banking, and the financial sector since the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, much of the structure...

Question:
Although I studied economics at an undergraduate level and have spent almost a decade working for financial advisers, I've never understood the idea of target inflation ranges or why some countries are described as 'struggling with low inflation'. Is inflation a measure of the rising cost of living? Or is it a measure of the declining value of money? Perhaps it's both i.e. some sort of inverse relationship? Why do economies target an inflation range? I can't understand why we would want the cost of living to rise or want the value of our money to fall. If a country has low inflation, does that mean the cost of living is increasing at a low rate? And wouldn't that be a good thing for the population? Taking that a step further, wouldn't it be even better if the cost of living was declining over time (I believe that's called deflation)? Why is deflation a bad thing? Thanks in advance!
Answer:

If prices are not rising at all over time or even falling, it would act as an disincentive for firms to produce goods for the market. For durables, if people expect prices to fall, they will wait. Since most financial contracts are denominated in...

Question:
So, my question might be more philosophical than economical, but it's wracking my brain and I can't seem to find an answer.

It is about currency and how our money is no longer backed by "gold." Money (i.e. coins and bills) in essence is the same as chips at a casino. At the end of the day, if I choose, I could cash in my chips and get something of value for them. MONEY.

Back in the day, before Jimmy Carter, it was the same way, that, at any time, I could cash in my MONEY for GOLD. (which although has no intrinsic value, is determined to HAVE value.)

So, here is my question.....and I hope I explain it well. A lot of people out there are asking "why can't we just print more money and solve the poverty problem?" Terms like "inflation" and the "devaluing of the dollar" are the usual buzz answers to that question. Also, people give the example that if the government were to print more money and just give everyone $50,000, then everyone would go out and buy things, thus making THINGS more in short supply, thus driving up the price of things. (simple supply/demand economics) But this is where I'm curious. With TRUE unemployment probably somewhere around 15% in this country, if DEMAND rose, then companies would WANT to hire more people and build more processing plants to keep up with demand and raise their profits. So, the influx of cash (printed money) would seem to solve the unemployment problem.

So, here is where I'm confused.....if I apply the same idea of "printing more money and handing it out to the public" to my casino example, then that would be like the casino giving everyone at the poker table an extra $100 in chips to play with. But here's the catch. I understand the PROBLEM with doing that at the casino, because if you give people all these extra chips, then at the end of the night, when people CASH OUT, there will not be enough money in the vault to pay for all the chips. Hence the problem.

But how does that relate to American economics since there is no "cashing out" procedure. If the government gave everyone a bunch more money, there is no "checks and balances" since no one, at the end of the day, goes to the cashier station and exchanges their "chips" (money in this case) for something of value.

Exchanging your chips at the end of the day for MONEY back (which has value in our eyes) makes sense, hence why you can't give out more chips than the money you have in the vault. But it seems the American dollar is not a paper representation of the "money in the vault" no one goes to cash in their money in America.

So I don't understand how currency works and why we can't just print more money since it really isn't representative of anything of value.

Please explain, as I cant find a good answer anywhere online.

(I hope this question wasn't convoluted.)

Thank you so much for your time
Answer:

Let me try to remove some of the confusion. Imagine the only good in the economy is corn and corn costs $1 a pound, and imagine you and all others earn $100 a month. Each month you buy 100 lbs of corn exchanging $1 for 1 lb of corn; so the real...

Question:
What correlations exist, if any, between a country's age distribution and its economic output? Additionally, does the relative shape of a country's population pyramid seem to give any indication of future performance in (a sector of) the stock market? I have read that a country with an age distribution like an inverted pyramid (more older people than young people) requires a greater investment in healthcare, and the opposite shape (non-inverted pyramid) requires a greater investment in education. Therefore, is it a stretch to conclude that the healthcare sector in a country with an inverted pyramid age distribution will fair better than it would with a non-inverted pyramid in the same country?

Also, is there a name for the sub-field of economics that studies how demographics is related to economy?
Answer:

The question of how demographics relate to economic issues (e.g., poverty, economic growth) has been at the forefront of economics ever since its infancy as a science. For instance, Rev. Malthus (1766-1834) controversially suggested that...

Question:
In light of the recent layoffs at John Deere and its suppliers, how does the agriculture sector rate compared to the rest of the economy that seems to be rebounding? How long can we expect sluggish commodity prices?
Answer:

As the layoffs suggest, a large part of agriculture, in this case the crop sector of agriculture, has seen a significant reduction in prices and incomes over the past two years. This drop in prices and incomes can mainly be linked to a surge in U...

Question:
Why is the growth of GDP so important? I understand that we want living standards to go up in the aggregate, but if the economy produced the same amount of goods/services per year for, say, three years, would that be catastrophic in itself (i.e., aside from policymakers and economists freaking out about it)?
Answer:

The event that you are referring to is what economists call recessions. During recessions, GDP drops or grows significantly below normal times for a period of usually less than two years. Recessions are dreaded by many but not all economists....

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:
In a recent article in the New York Times about free trade, the author talks about the negative impact on the US of low cost Chinese goods entering the market not being experienced by Germany and other European countries. The article goes on to explain that part of the reason is low US interest rates caused in part by a low American savings rate.

Why would a low savings rate put downward pressure on rates? If savings is capital available to be borrowed, and less savings means less capital available, shouldn't that put upward pressure on rates (everything else being equal)? Isn't that a fundamental economic principle? Restricted supply in the face of fixed demand = increasing price (interest rates)?

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/business/economy/on-trade-angry-voters...

"Mr. Autor suggests that Americans’ low savings rate was a big part of the story, coupled with foreigners’ appetite for accumulating dollar assets, which helped keep American interest rates low and the dollar strong, in that way fueling a persistent trade deficit."
Answer:

To a certain extent, the quoted sentence is tautological.

As an accounting identity, from the GNP accounts, the Balance of Trade (positive is a surplus) = (Savings – Investment) + (Taxes – Government Spending)

Hence, a balance of...

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:
I am trying to better understand the concept of interest rates rising and its impact on the FED or BOE, ECB etc (i.e. the lender/creditor) themselves rather than everyone else which is often mentioned. The definition of an interest rate is as follows: An interest rate is the rate at which interest is paid by borrowers (debtors) for the use of money that they borrow from lenders (creditors). I feel I understand the principles behind why they raise and lower rates to stave off inflation, etc. I'm just trying to understand this part a bit more about where the money from increased (or decreased) interest goes (e.g the cycle from the other way around)?
Answer:

The implementation of monetary policy – e.g., how exactly a central bank raises interest rates – differs across countries and even over time within countries. These differences imply there is not a single answer to your question, but for...

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