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:
I’m a student at Centennial High School in Pueblo, Colorado. I had a few questions about being an economist. What is it like being an economist? What do you do on a day-to-day basis? What benefits do you get from being an economist?
Answer:

Economics is a science, and the goal of all sciences is to better understand phenomena that we observe in the real world. In social sciences, like economics, the focus is on phenomena related to human behavior; and for economists, the...

Question:
What is the impact of production being directed towards what appears to be endless product differentiation, for example multiple flavours of toothpaste or shampoo variations which ultimately do nothing to improve individual well being? Does this form of market operation generate employment or is it a waste of productive capacity that might be better directed towards activity that genuinely increases well being. For example, creating products that delivers a real benefit.
Answer:

Does the market provide too many or too few products, relative to some social optimum benchmark? It turns out that this question does not have a simple answer. It depends on whether or not consumers are well (perfectly) informed about products'...

Question:
If you have a large amount (lets say 50%) of your wealth tied up in a single foreign currency and your home currency depreciated what would be the effects? Would you be better off or worse off than someone with all their wealth in their home currency? What are the variables that would determine if you are better or worse off?
Answer:

Your wealth in terms of home currency will increase whereas in terms of foreign currency it will decrease. If your home country prices remain the same, it means your real wealth has also increased. So, broadly, it depends on when and where, home...

Question:
I gave an economic presentation the other day and we were talking about how the Chinese devalued their currency to make their exports cheaper to the world, and essentially position themselves better to the American consumer. Someone asked me then why doesn't the U.S. simply follow suit. I answered that every country could not do this because it would end up being a zero sum game and that everybody would eventually lose and that it would not be sustainable. Furthermore, with the U.S. dollar the reserve currency of the world, the amount of volatility in the market place would skyrocket if the U.S. did the same thing. What else could I have said or is there another angle to tackle the question?
Answer:

China’s total trade (exports+imports) as percentage of GDP is about twice that of the US. In this sense, the US is a relatively closed economy and therefore its monetary policy is (and ought to be) more domestically oriented. Second, Chinese...

Question:
I am trying to get an estimate for 2014 arc-co corn and soybean payments for Monona and Harrison counties.
Answer:

ISU Extension has created tools to explore the potential benefits/payments from the programs in the 2014 Farm Bill. These tools are available from www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/...

Question:
Is it true that large banks can borrow funds at close to 0% interest rates from the Fed and turn around and buy US bonds paying higher interest rates with the borrowed funds?
Answer:

Yes, large banks can in principle borrow funds at close to 0% from the FED and turn around and invest them on higher paying US bonds. But, when large banks do this, they push up the market price of these US bonds (being large players in the...

Question:
Hi there, thanks for taking the time to answer my question.

I understand the basics of measuring GDP based on the product, income, and expenditure approaches, but I am stuck on a simple question: how are household savings accounted for using the expenditure approach if they are not invested?

In other words, say I earn $100, spend $98, and deposit $2 in a non-interest earning savings account. If the $2 (along with a lot more money, presumably) gets lent out to a company that builds a factory, then clearly that would be investment, but what if it just sits in the savings account? Does that count as “residential investment”?
Answer:

There are two components to investment in the national income identity. In addition to expenditure on capital equipment and buildings by firms, investment also includes additions to business inventories (goods that firms did not sell). So if you...

Question:
I watched President Obama’s speech this last week, and I didn’t understand something. He said he’s cut the deficit by 2/3. Yet, we need the debt ceiling raised in order to avoid a government shutdown. Why? If I were to pay down 2/3’s of my debt, I would have a larger amount of credit available to me. What am I missing?
Answer:

You are missing a key difference between the federal budget deficit and the public debt level. The deficit shows by how much the federal government expenditures exceeded its revenues in a given fiscal year; the deficit is measured per year. In...

Question:
In the recent Canadian federal election, the winning Liberal party's platform included running a "small" fiscal deficit of about C$10B each year for 3 years to invest in infrastructure. The commentary about this that most surprised me was this would not increase the accumulated debt, and in fact would still contribute to reducing the debt, albeit more slowly.

Does that make sense? My understanding is that any fiscal year you end up with a deficit means you're borrowing more to make up the shortfall, and thus adding to the accumulated debt. Or are there technical aspects during the year that do otherwise?
Answer:

Given that the standard definition of government spending does not include the repayment of maturing debt, your understanding is correct. In particular, during the three years of running the deficit as planned, the Canadian federal government...

Question:
In corporate finance, operating expenses and capital expenses are tracked separately. Total opex within a fiscal calendar goes against revenues to net at EBITDA. Capex is recorded as fixed assets and amortized over x years to net at net earnings. (I know I'm simplifying things.) Importantly, the company's treasury function provides funding for Capex through a mix of cash flow and issuing debt. This seems clean.

My confusion is how this is reported (at least in public spheres) with governments. When we talk about a government's deficit, we seem to be including operating shortfalls (Opex or where existing programs spending is greater than revenues) plus Capex.

Say my government is running a $10B deficit and no change occurs in revenues and in program spending in the next fiscal year. If they propose a new infrastructure project (say railway) that will cost $$20B starting that year, what would be the deficit? I expect the $20B (assuming it actually stays at that level) would eventually be added to the accumulated debt but only the amortized allocation of it would be recorded as a part of the deficit.

Is that how it's supposed to be? Is that what they actually do? It seems the press never makes a distinction between these, which only confuses the public and obfuscates debate about spending.
Answer:

In your example, the infrastructure investment of $20B will be included in the next fiscal year expenditures in the full amount. Thus, the deficit during the next fiscal year will be $10B + $20B = $30B. Also, the debt level at the end of the next...

Question:
I'm just an average joe, but I thought I had a decent grasp on inflation and top down economics. I don't understand, however, why the cost of EVERYTHING continues to rise in leaps and bounds. Yesterday, I went to Sam's Club and passed on a can of cashews priced at $18. I'm certain last year I was debating whether or not they were worth $13. I'm almost certain that the cost of picking and packing nuts hasn't increased that dramatically; how can they justify an almost 50% increase in price? I've noticed that the cost of eggs has increased everywhere; a dozen eggs are almost $4, the expensive ones used to be $1 and some change. Am I to believe it costs 400% more now than it did five years ago for chickens to lay eggs? The cost of butter has increased at the same rate of eggs, so I can see whatever is affecting the chickens are affecting the cows as well... This question was prompted when I noticed that the $18 cashews were close to the same price as the honey which was comparable to the price of shrimp. No way you can tell me it costs the same to harvest honey, nuts and shrimp! For whatever reasons I know that the cost of gasoline has increased 400% since I first started driving less than twenty years ago; although it is declining significantly now, but why does a gallon of milk cost more than a gallon of gas? Who is controlling this stuff?
Answer:

Let me answer the last question first. The markets are controlling the prices, based on supply and demand. So, depending on how you want to look at it, either everyone or no one is controlling the prices. Let’s dive into the factors that have...

Question:
If it could be shown that rising GDP is associated with rising levels of anxiety, would you favor deducting psychological costs to obtain the true value of GDP?
Answer:

Thanks for your very interesting question. GDP measures the market value of production. It is not intended to be a measure of aggregate well-being but it is often used as such. Economists generally recognize that GDP is an imperfect indicator of...

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...

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:
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 have a question about nomenclature related to resources and commodities. Am I right to say that a natural resource is something that is not refined or changed and sold on as a resource. Am I then also right to say that a commodity is a refined natural resource or product?

If possible could you folks better describe the raw product that comes from the ground as sold, vs the raw product that is transformed (in some way) then sold?

I think of wheat as a resource. I think of cereal as a commodity. Is that right?
Answer:

Here is a definition that I found on an OECD website https://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=1740. It is as good as any definition I have seen.

The...

Question:
I have simple question and I hope you could help me with it. Why when someone books for one week for international flight during vacation time, it will be cheaper than two weeks, and two weeks cheaper than three weeks? Why is that from an economic prospective?
Answer:

I always thought that it was the other way around: the closer you are to the departure date the higher the price. Airlines have some market power and use pricing overtime as a way to second degree price discriminate: Consumers who plan long ahead...

Question:
Hi, quick question: can a tariff be counted as a fiscal policy measure? Currently studying the great depression and curious to know if the Smoot-Hawley act which raised US tariff on 20,000 imports counts as a contractionary Policy fiscal policy. My thinking behind this is it did involve the raising of taxes on imported goods,and increasing taxes are usually considered a contractionary fiscal policy measure. Please help. Thanks.
Answer:

In discussing the impact of economic policy on aggregate demand and the balance of trade in open economies, international economists often talk about two types of (non-monetary) policies: “expenditure reduction policies” and “expenditure...

Question:
I don't understand why deflation, or even the zero-bound liquidity trap are not easily escaped by printing money.

I understand why deflation is debilitating, and why the zero-bound inhibits monetary policy. Why can't central banks just print money, and turn it over to their national governments to generate inflation? As a bonus, those governments would then have more money to spend - presumably to the benefit of their populations.

I do understand that high inflation carries its own problems (I remember the 1970s) but could a central bank facing perennially low interest rates not just run the presses until inflation began to approach its target level?
Answer:

In the US at least, financing Govt expenditure/budget deficit by using more Federal Reserve notes is not an “usual” option (the way it is in India for example) is primarily because the central bank’s independence from the Treasury and the Govt’s...

Question:
I have a question about utilities; specifically: How to compare them among competing options for funding.

There is a wonderful new technology that is able to vaporize garbage (also known as "Municipal Solid Waste", or MSW). The output of this process consists of only three things: Synthetic gas, a metal alloy, and a glass-like slag. All three have commercial value. No pollution is created in the course of this transformation.

As you may know, markets for energy and metals are in the doldrums. The falling prices indicate a reduced utility for these commodities, and that creates a headwind for the sale of this new technology.

On the other hand, citizens hate landfills more than ever. No one wants to live near a garbage dump, so doing away with landfills has high utility.

My question, therefore, is this: How do I compare the falling utility of process outputs (the syngas, metal, and slag) with the increasing utility of eliminating landfills altogether? The physical outputs can be priced in the open market, but civic satisfaction is hard to measure.

Many thanks for any guidance you might have.
Answer:

When trying to quantify "civic satisfaction," we need to determine what a community is willing to pay, in dollar terms, to remove the landfill. Typically this is done with randomized surveys, but unfortunately it appears that economists have not...

Question:
Is the oil surplus caused by the economic slowdown in China?
Answer:

No. The world consumes about 100 million barrels of oil per day. US consumes 20 million, while China consumes 10 million barrels per day. Thus, whether China is in a recession or not, its economy will not have a significant effect on the world...

Question:
Can you tell me a price range (per acre) that Central Iowa farmland sales have fallen within the last 6 months or so and is that price generally trending up or down? I am specifically interested in Webster County.
Answer:

Thank you for your question. Yes, we have recently developed a new Iowa Land Value web-portal which allows you to visualize the trends in Iowa land values at the county, district and state level. It is available at...

Question:
Why did China’s banking system grow so much since 2000 if the PBOC was actively increasing the RRR and withdrawing liquidity through FX Reserve purchases?
Answer:

First of all, I want to make it clear that, when a central bank increases its FX reserves, it supplies local currencies and increases liquidity in the money market. But this is certainly not the reason that China’s banking system grew so much....

Question:
Why has Saudi Arabia released so much oil for sale that prices for that have dropped so fast? Does that country have a lot of debt? Does it relate indirectly to the economic slow down in China?
Answer:

Currently, Saudi Arabia’s foreign exchange reserve is about $600 billion. Saudi’s oil export is about 8 million barrels per day, or about 2800 million barrels per year. At $100 per barrel, their revenue from oil exports would be about $280...

Question:
The way the economy is today, would it be bad if rich countries (US, EU and Japan) print money and instead of doing the QE (top bottom) inserted the money on a bottom up approach? And I know about the risk of inflation, but isn't it what we want right now? A little bit?

1) I'm talking here about rich countries with deflation or very little inflation, so a bit more of extra money in the market wouldn't be bad (it would be up to them to calculate this amount)

2) The money could be give to the poorest in the society. This money would go straight back to the economy since lower classes save very little (usually they spend the extra money or pay debts). So instead of the trickle down economics (which usually doesn't work) we would have a trickle up economics. Australia did it just after the 2008 GFC and it was one of the only developed countries that didn't go into recession. (although it took the money from its budget).

3) The QE amounted in trillions of dollars and not much of this money went to the real economy in terms of investment and the creation of jobs. A lot of it created an inflation of assets such as the growth of the stock market in US, a housing price hike in world cities such as NY, London, Sydney, LA and so on and even Art prices exploded...but not much to the real economy.

4) Corporations don't need more money in the form of tax breaks and cheap loans (they are swimming in cash). They need consumers to consume! So they know they have a market and be confident to invest in new projects. And with the squeeze of the middle class in rich countries, we are not consuming as much as we need to keep the economy growing.

5) I don't know how much money would be enough to kick start (or improve) the economy of Japan, Europe and US without a dangerous inflation but it could be done in 4 installments along the year to the poorest families. Image something like 4 x 200 USD in one year. This money would make a big difference for low-income families and would flood directly to the economy...and companies would know that the money would come and they could prepare themselves.

6) The dollar is pretty strong now and it's becoming a problem for the US and the rest of the world. So printing a bit might not hurt much.

7) A few years ago negative interest rates were seen as something out of this world. But now Japan, Switzerland and Sweden have it. We just need to think out of the box to improve this economy in a more inclusive way....no middle class, no economy and no democracy!

8) Obviously, this wouldn't work with developing countries with weak currencies and inflation...but for US, EU and Japan...why not?
Answer:

There are several issues here. First, the US central bank, the Fed, is an independent monetary authority and does what it thinks best to keep inflation and unemployment low. They cannot be "asked" to print more money or change interest rates....

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