Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An Economist's Take on Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies: It's a Giant Scam and the Mother of All Bubbles

Bitcoin has climbed over $10,000 (when I first drafted this post last week, it was at just $8,200). The cryptocurrency market now appears like a full stock market of fake stocks, with a market cap of $245 billion (update a week later: $345 billion), more than 1% of the capitalization of the US stock market. My take on bitcoin is the standard boring economists' take: bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are the mother of all irrational bubbles. The South Seas Bubble, Tulip Mania, the Nifty Fifty, and the bubble were all similar. And, if you'd listened to me (and us economists), you're continuing to live in relative poverty as your friends get rich, with money and wealth coming out of nowhere and millionaires minted overnight.
Pictured here with Nobel Prize Winner Robert Shiller,
fortunate to experience a balmy -7 degrees in Moscow. He
also believes that bitcoin is in a huge bubble.

Despite my view that this is a standard bubble, I tried to buy bitcoin last summer (back at the bargain price of $4,000...), in part because I wanted to see how easy it was to use bitcoin to send money back to the US from Russia. After all, the logic behind bitcoin is that it is a super easy, cheap and fast way to send money. Exactly what I needed. The difficulty I went through in trying to purchase bitcoin only confirmed my worst fears of why I think it is a scam/ponzi scheme. Part of the problems I faced were no doubt specific to me, as a US national living in Russia. Many bitcoin exchanges are country specific, and didn't like my Russian IP address. Others did, but required a lot of information, including a picture of my with an ID, and also a picture of me with a bank statement with my home address (in the US) written on it. I ended up never getting approved, and never got a straight answer from some of these exchanges on why not. Probably, they are just minting money so fast why should they invest in customer support.

But all the information required, even if I had been approved immediately, kind of shoots down some of the logic. If I'm a drug-dealer looking to accept payment in bitcoin, I'm still going to have to provide a lot of information to the exchanges. And, while my troubles may have been unique, bitcoin isn't that easy to use. Your grandma isn't going to be buying groceries or trading bitcoin anytime soon. Indicative of the inconvenience of buying bitcoin, there is a closed-end investment fund which traded on the stock-market that owns only bitcoin, and was recently trading at twice the par value of bitcoin (see Figure below). That is, people who wanted to buy bitcoin in their brokerage accounts were too lazy to cash out their accounts and buy bitcoin directly, so they paid double the price to avoid the hassle.

Grayscale Bitcoin Investment Trust

In addition, the fees associated with buying bitcoins in Russia using rubles, sending them to myself in the US, and then converting them back into dollars are at least an order of magnitude larger than just buying dollars using my currency broker, and then sending money to myself directly. The total cost of my normal fees for doing this set of transactions run about $25 for a $10,000 transaction using the banking system and my currency broker. By contrast, I'm told the bitcoin broker in Russia charges 3%, and one in the US (Coinbase) charges 2% per transaction (maybe this is now 1.49% for Coinbase users in the US, although it looks as though they charge 4% to fund an account using Visa/Mastercard), plus whatever the bitcoin miners charge (perhaps .2%?). Even the miner's fees are calculated in a super non-transparent way. It's probably that way for a reason. 

Theoretically, some other problems with bitcoin is that there is free entry. Anyone can create an infinite amount of cryptocurrency out of thin air. The marginal cost is zero. The saving grace is that there are network effects -- a currency becomes more valuable the more people that use it, and so it will be tough for other cryptocurrencies to displace bitcoin. However, that can't explain why there are thousands of cryptocurrencies with huge market caps. Only 1-2 of these will ultimately be the victor, and bitcoin is likely to be one of them.

Another issue with bitcoin/cryptocurrencies long-term is that if they ever did replace actual currencies in everyday transactions, governments could really lose out. The Federal Reserve would lose control over monetary policy, for example, and to the extent cryptocurrencies enable drug smugglers and hackers and others to evade the authorities and paying taxes, this should be something which governments will have a real interest in illegalizing. Thus, there is no endgame where bitcoin replaces the US dollar, the Chinese Yuan, or the Euro as the primary currency of a major economy. It is simply too volatile, and there will be nothing to stabilize its value.

The real economic argument for bitcoin is not that it actually provides cheap transaction fees, but rather that it is a really good scam/meme. It's techy, it's complicated, and few people understand it. Those who spent the time to learn how it really works then become part of the cult and evangelize over it. It could be compared to the spread of a religion: If many people very fervently buy into it, it could be a bubble that lasts a long time. This is the optimistic case for bitcoin. There are a group of Japanese in Brazil who went to their graves believing that Japan didn't lose WWII, and it was just US propaganda that suggested otherwise. The bitcoin true believers/dead-enders may hold bitcoin until the day they die, giving it a positive value for a long time to come.

Or, it could be more like the spread of a disease (I'm stealing this from Robert Shiller). To grow, the disease needs a lot of new people to infect. Once about 20-30% of the people are infected, it's growth will be at a maximum. But, over time, there are fewer and fewer new people to infect, as most people have had the disease, and the rate of new infections crashes. Bitcoin may not be so different -- the early adopters buy in, sending the price up. The higher price means more news, and is a positive feedback loop as the mainstreamers start to buy. Doubt creeps into the minds of naysayers, who might have believed it to be a scam initially, but now see the price soaring, against their predictions.

Usually the moment to sell is after almost everyone who is a quick adopter has already adopted, the median person has too, and the moment at which people who are typically late adopters start to invest. At that point, the economy will run out of suckers, and the price will start to stagnate and fall. Legend has it that Joe Kennedy sold his stocks in 1929 after a shoeshine boy started giving him stock tips. An older family member of mine was day-trading tech stocks in the 1990s, and then bought a condo in Florida in 2006. This person is my bellwether.

Given this may be a reason to buy in the near term, before the late adopters get wind (and, damnit!, why didn't I realize early on that this was a good scam!), be warned that just as the positive feedback loop works well on the way up, and it can work in reverse on the way down. A few bad days, and panic selling can ensue. Once it crashes, a generation of people could be so turned off by crypto they'll never touch it again.

What crypto does is settle the debate over whether fundamentals drive stock prices and exchange rates. I gave a talk at LSE a few weeks ago on my research on exchange rates and manufacturing, and someone stated their belief that exchange rates are driven by fundamentals (monetary policy) and so it was monetary policy which drove my results and not exchange rates, per se. However, as we see with bitcoin, which isn't driven by any kind of fundamental economic value, as it pays no dividends and has high transaction fees, bubbles can happen and markets aren't that efficient. (OK, even if you believe in bitcoin, how much do you believe in Sexcoin, Dogecoin, or "Byteball bites", the latter of which has a market cap of a cool $187 million...) There is never going to be a day when everyday people use "byteball bites" to buy groceries.

It also shows another reason why governments might want to tax windfall profits or large capital gains at a higher rate. Those profiting from cryptocurrency are incredibly lucky. Their "investments" don't leave any reason to deserve favorable income treatment relative to wage income. Stock market earnings are similar. Luck is involved just as much as skill.

Lastly, though, let me state my agreement with others that government-sponsored electronic currencies are probably a thing of the near future. If an electronic currency allows every transaction (or most transactions) to be traced by the government, it can cut down on illegal activity, narcotics, and tax evasion. A government could really very easily broaden the tax base, and raise more revenue while cutting taxes on law abiding citizens. This will probably help developing countries (like Russia) where tax evasion is rampant the most. I guess this will happen soon. Greece should do this and leave the Euro system (but not the EU!). Obviously, a digital currency also solves the problem of the zero lower bound on interest rates, reason enough to do it. Were I the Autocrat of All the Russians, I'd have implemented this already.

In any case, I don't want to give anyone investment advice. I have no clue what will happen to the price of bitcoin, although that should be a warning. I hope none of my friends miss out on the huge boom as bitcoin goes from $10,000 to $100,000 just because they read this. Just be for-warned that what goes up must come down. If you do ride the wave up, think about taking something off the table and try to remain diversified. (That goes for the US stock market too, which also now looks quite overvalued...) Once your parents start to buy bitcoin, that's probably a good time to cash out.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A comment on "The Long-term Decline in US Manufacturing" by Jeff Frankel

Jeff Frankel guest posts over at Econbrowser about "The Long-Term Decline in US Manufacturing"

The theme is a familiar one on this blog. He posts some interesting data, and I agree with him about the determinants of the long-run decline.  He shares my "favorite" graph:

However, I also had a few other thoughts:

(1) If you extrapolate forward on the US Man. Emp. as a share of total, it becomes negative within several decades. Obviously, it can’t be negative, and thus the slope needed to flatten out at some point. Instead, in the early 2000s, it looks to have been below trend. By contrast, the pace of decline for agriculture did flatten out. But, since there is no clear counterfactual, I’m not sure this series tells us that much, in the end. Another problem is that the sudden loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs may have been part of the reason for the slow growth in overall employment after 2000, which is the view of Ben Bernanke. If Detroit loses 80% of its tradable-sector jobs, and as a result, 80% of its retail and government jobs, then it’s share of tradable-sector jobs wouldn’t change. Then we could conclude that the loss of manufacturing jobs is not what hurt Detroit.

(2) I think it would be good to separate factors affecting the long-run decline as a share of employment, which is mostly fast technological growth and to a lesser extent sectoral shift toward services, and factors affecting the level of manufacturing employment in the early 2000s. The recent decline in the level, which happened alongside the trade deficits, is probably what the public is more concerned with. Trade really does seem to be a dominant factor in the collapse of the level in that period. And the shock does seem large enough to have had macro effects and helped push the economy into a liquidity trap, as Ben Bernanke seems to think.

(3) If you do another international comparison, between US manufacturing output as a share of world output, things don’t look as good. Especially vis-a-vis countries like Germany and Korea, much less China.

I agree with Jeff that protectionism now isn’t the right policy solution. However, US-China relative prices have been set in Beijing for the last 30 years, with China having a clearly undervalued exchange rate during much of that period. Why wouldn’t we have been better off with a free trade regime, with prices set by market forces? Also, if you believe prices matter, why wouldn’t this undervaluation have caused a decline in tradable sector jobs over this period? And, after a long period of the US being overvalued, why do you think the US tradable sector wouldn’t be smaller than it would have been otherwise?
I discussed these issues on this blog previously, and on my own blog:

Lastly, Brad Setser links to an interesting NYT article on the new rise in China's protected automotive industry. It's a great reminder how the US and China do not have free trade in practice, but also to the extent which the Chinese government has internalized Hamiltonian infant-industry protection.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Robert Lawrence's New Manufacturing Paper: Confusing Trends and Levels

Perhaps Lawrence's new paper isn't quite as bad as I imagined when I first saw this on twitter, at least with some interesting data, although there isn't much there, as the "analysis" is done by simple plots of aggregate data. My expectations for him were quite low, though, and so I still have plenty of points of contention.

The main issue is that the central argument is against a straw man. He toggles back and forth seamlessly between two related, but different issues with different causes. One is the long-run decline of manufacturing employment as a share of total employment. This long-run decline is, in fact, caused by faster productivity growth so in that he is correct. However, as far as I know, no economists actually dispute this. And when Trump cites China for the declining in US manufacturing, he is talking about the level, not this "as a share of GDP" bullshit. The rather sudden decline in the level of manufacturing employment in the early 2000s is a different issue than the long-run decline in the share. This was caused mostly by trade, and also by slow demand growth (which isn't necessarily unrelated to the trade shock), but it was not caused by productivity growth. At first, it's unclear which of the two Lawrence is talking about, and given that he says many people believe trade is the cause, it makes it sound as though he is talking about the 2nd. However, then he switches back to arguing the first point.

He then plots this figure, which is meant to show that China didn't cause a deviation from the US's long-run trend in its share of US manufacturing employment.

However, as I've discussed before on this blog, I don't think one can infer much about the health of the manufacturing sector based on whether manufacturing employment/total employment is above or below its long-run trend. The reason is that the long-run trend implies negative employment within several decades (see above), which can't happen, so naturally it must flatten out at some point, precisely like agriculture has done. But, there is no clear counterfactual for what the share of manufacturing employment "should" be. Secondly, the slow growth in overall employment after 2000 was likely caused in part by the swift loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs (see my previous post, and here). Detroit lost many of its tradable sector jobs, but then also lost lots of retail and government jobs as revenues dried up. Its share of manufacturing jobs could also well be on its long-run trend. One could then conclude, erroneously, that the loss of tradable-sector jobs in Detroit is not what caused its decline.

Lawrence says that, even in the period of the China shock, fast productivity growth caused the loss of many more manufacturing jobs than China. But, that's not what I found in my paper. I found instead that productivity growth was normal after 2000, and only a normal number of jobs were lost due to productivity growth after 2000, comparable to any decade before. (Below is the evolution of VA per worker. The growth rate looks pretty constant -- nothing to suggest a very sudden decline in the level of manufacturing employment.)

In addition, productivity for the median manufacturing sector actually declines in the 2000s. This is offset by very fast productivity growth in the top sector, growth which may not have actually happened.

Another hole in the story that after 2000, the main contributor to the decline in manufacturing was fast productivity growth and low demand is that these two factors imply that the US should have had a trade surplus, not a large trade deficit (see the trade balance in blue plotted vs. two measures of real exchange rates, more about the differences between them here). To be sure, I also find slow demand growth after 2000 (particularly for the 2007-2010 period), although, once again, I believe this was caused in part from the collateral damage from trade and the collapse in manufacturing employment.

I was also slightly annoyed that when he cites Autor, Dorn, and Hanson (2013) for 985,000 jobs lost due to China (out of 5 million total) rather than the follow-up paper by Acemoglu, Autor, Dorn, Hanson and Price (2016), which includes a longer time period and arrives at 1.475 million jobs lost due to the China shock and input/output linkages in manufacturing, and 3.1 million jobs overall, but this is a minor quibble. But, even this estimate does not include the exchange rate shock in the early 2000s, or do anything special for China's WTO accession and the MFA agreement in particular, which almost certainly cost the US jobs in the textile sector. Also, it is also computed with quite conservative methodology -- they multiplied their regression coefficients by the R-squared of the regression.

There are also holes in his analysis with the international comparison. Most of the manufacturing jobs lost in Germany after 1990 were in East Germany. Second, the only Asian, or "capital account" country in his basket is Japan, a country that has been stuck in a liquidity trap for a quarter of a century. There's no Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, or China. He also doesn't look at levels of manufacturing employment.

One particularly egregious error he makes is to show the decline in spending on consumer goods using 2010 as the last year, without realizing that this was the end of the worst recession since the Great Depression! The problem is that consumer durables slump badly in a depression, so his table is mostly picking up cyclical effects. He then remarks, that, surprisingly, as countries are coming out of a recession the share of goods consumption picks up, without any trace of irony.

In any case, the central message of the paper is clear: Robert Lawrence means to let trade off the hook, one way or another. But he builds his case on trickery. And his pro-status quo position is also not likely to be a winning political strategy for the Democrats in the next election -- it's bad economic analysis and bad politics, and, if followed, likely to lead to precisely the outcome Robert Lawrence, and yours truly, want to avoid.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Did the Rise of China Help or Harm the US? Let's not forget Basic Macro

This is a question which was posed to me after I presented last week at the Federal Reserve Board in DC. Presenting there was an honor for me, and I got a lot of sharp feedback. It's also getting to the point where I need to start thinking about my upcoming AEA presentation alongside David Autor and Peter Schott, two titans in this field who both deserve a lot of credit for helping to bring careful identification to empirical international trade, and for challenging dogma. After all, before 2011, as far as I know the cause of the "Surprisingly Swift" decline in US manufacturing employment had not been written about in any academic papers. This was despite the fact that the collapse was mostly complete by 2004, and was intuitive to many since it coincided with a large structural trade deficit. (Try to explain that one with your productivity boom and slow demand growth, Robert Lawrence...)

On one hand, there is now mounting evidence that the rise of Chinese manufacturing harmed US sectors which compete with China. This probably also hurt some individual communities and people pretty badly, and might also have triggered an out-migration in those communities. On the other hand, typically the Fed offsets a shock to one set of industries with lower interest rates helping others, while consumers everywhere have benefited from cheaper Chinese goods. Which of these is larger? I can't say I'm sure, but of these shocks mentioned so far, I would probably give a slight edge to the benefit of lower prices and varieties. However, I suspect, even more importantly, Chinese firms have also been innovating, more than they would have absent trade, which means the dynamic gains in the long-run have the potential to be larger than any of these static gains/losses you might try to estimate courageously with a model.

Many (free!) trade economists use the above logic (perhaps minus the dynamic part), and conclude that no policies are needed to help US manufacturing right now.  However, I think this view misses 4 other inter-related points, and in addition does not sound to me like a winning policy strategy for the Democrats in 2020. And a losing strategy here means more Trumpian protectionism.

First, when a trade economists' free trade priors lead them to argue that the rise of China was beneficial for the US, they forget that China and the US do not and did not have free trade between them. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg. Or google, or Siemens, or the numerous other companies who have had their intellectual property stolen. (Of course, the Bernie folks also need to remember that it is probably rich Americans who have been hit the worst by China's protectionism -- IP piracy certainly harms Hollywood and Silicon Valley, probably quite badly, while Mark Zuckerberg may be the most harmed individual).  It might be that the rise of China was beneficial to the US, but would have been even more beneficial had China not had a massively undervalued exchange rate for much of the past 30 years. If you disagree with this assessment, then you, like Donald Trump, are not exactly carrying the torch of free trade. (What's wrong with having the market set prices, tavarish?)

Another problem with the view that everything is A-OK in trade is that China's surpluses are now reduced, but reduced due to a huge reduction in demand and growth in the US and Europe. That's not a good way to solve imbalances. See diagram below, drawn on assumption that the exchange rate is held fixed: A shift down in US demand (increase in Savings, SI shifts right) left income depressed, but improved the trade balance from CA0 to CA1. However, if US demand increases/savings decline, the US won't go back to the Full Income/Employment and CA(balanced) equilibrium. For that, we'll still need to devalue the exchange rate (shifting up the XM line with a devaluation, it shifts down with an appreciation). As they say, it takes a lot of Harberger triangles to plug an Okun Gap.

Sure, you might object that it is less obvious that China is overvalued now. You might have heard stories about capital wanting to flood out of China, not in. But, this is because the exchange rate is set largely by capital flows and not by the structural trade balance. All this indicates is that monetary policy is relative tight in the US/Europe, not that the structural trade balance is in equilibrium. It isn't.

The third factor that most economists neglect when they think about the rise of China is the issue of hysteresis, defined weakly as "history matters". Clearly, being overvalued for an extended period of time will shrink your tradables sector. Yes, it can also decrease your exchange rate, but it will for sure decrease the equilibrium exchange rate you need to balance your trade. And if your exchange rate is being set in Beijing, or by the ZLB, then you can forget about a quick return to normality.

The chart below shows that US dollar appreciations are followed by a shift up in the relation between the US trade balance and the RER. Undervalued periods (just 1979) is followed by a shift to the southwest. Thus, shifts NWs are shifts in the direction of a shrinking (in relative terms) US tradables sector/income. The trade balance itself won't be hysteretic, as movements NW reduce imports, but the intercept of the exchange rate/trade balance slope will be.

This is all as Krugman foretold in 1988...

To put hysteresis another way, consider the event study diagram below of the 1980s US dollar appreciation (from my paper here). The dollar appreciated 50% (black), and as a result, employment in the more tradable sectors (blue dotted line) fell about 10% relative to the more closed sectors (red line). The interesting thing, though, is that after relative prices returned to fundamentals, employment in the more open sectors came back only slowly, if at all.

The above makes clear that a temporary shock has a persistent impact. But, could it actually lower income? Well, imagine for a second what would happen if the US dollar were very overvalued for a long period of time, say, due to policy. Eventually, it would lose all of its tradable sectors. Then, what would happen to income and the exchange rate when it floated again? Would things go back to normal overnight? Or would it take some time to build up the tradable sector capacity back to where it used to be? In the meantime, you would be likely to have a vastly lower exchange rate, which means you can afford less, which means you are poorer. Also, in an inflation-targeting regime, if a period of overvaluation coincides with a recession, and you shoot for just 2% coming out, then you might never recover your hysteretic tradable-sector losses. Thus, it isn't that free trade is bad, but having an artificially overvalued exchange rate is.

   Wait, there's more. You might be thinking -- is there really a Macro effect of a trade shock? Won't the Fed just offset a trade shock by lowering interest rates? In that case, won't a trade shock just alter what gets produced and not how much is produced? For a small shock, the answer is probably yes. But, for a large shock that pushes you close to the zero lower bound, like the 2000-2001 shock did, there is no guarantee. The Fed likely would have responded more aggressively to the 2001 recession if not for the ZLB. Secondly, lower interest rates from the Fed work in part through exchange rate adjustment. If the ZLB comes into play, the exchange rate will be over-appreciated relative to what it needs to be for a full-employment equilibrium. This may imply more tradable-sector job losses. And, if China is pegged to the US, that adjustment won't happen. And, as my students can all tell you, monetary policy becomes ineffective with a fixed exchange rate and open capital market. Sure, the US had a floating rate, but being pegged by China, and essentially by other East Asian economies following the Asian Financial Crisis, leaves you with much the same result.

    So, am I then proposing Trumpian protectionist policies? Not necessarily. You see, while US growth is still slow, the US is not at the ZLB any more. The Fed can cut interest rates, and spur growth and weaken the dollar, helping manufacturing. The beauty of this strategy is that it solves multiple problems at once. And, there are certainly specific trade issues that the US could raise with China, in addition to exchange rates. It would, of course, be strange to push on the issue of exchange rates while US interest rates are too high. A higher inflation target would also be a passive way of discouraging China from holding so many dollar reserves. But, I think a possible winning political strategy would be a high nominal GDP target, which will also weaken the dollar, and also campaign on a push to defend US corporate interests in China on specific trade issues, including the exchange rate.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ancestry and Development: the Power Pose of Economics?

I was fortunate to be invited to present at George Mason this week. I was very impressed with the lively atmosphere of brilliant scholars. George Mason certainly has had an outsized impact on the economics community, and also likely on economic policy in the US given its admirable commitment to participating in the public dialogue.

In any case, they asked me to present my work joint with Ju Hyun Pyun, taking down the "genetic distance to the US predicts development" research, which Andrew Gelman blogged about here.

It was the first time I had thought about this research in some time. This has evolved into an Amy Cuddy "Power Pose" situation, in which Spolaore and Wacziarg refuse to admit that there is any problem with their research, and continue to run income-level regressions and write papers using genetic distance which do not include a dummy for sub-Saharan Africa, but exclude that region instead. (For example, they have a paper dated September 2017, "Ancestry and Development: New Evidence", which continues to exclude SSA. Surprise, surprise, they continue not to cite us. Note that here, both I and they are really talking about genetic distance, not ancestry generally...)

In their comments over at Gelman's blog, they also stressed that "our results hold when we exclude Sub-Saharan Africa and so cannot be driven solely by those countries". 

I am skeptical of excluding observations which are essentially counterexamples. Within sub-Saharan Africa, the correlation between genetic distance to the US and development is slightly positive (Fig. 3 below), rather than negative, so excluding these observations is self-serving. One can also see that there is a significant positive relationship between genetic distance to the US and development for Asia, another counterexample. 

Another reason to be skeptical is that if we exclude sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, there is also not significant correlation, although, to be fair to these guys, the sign is correct.

Thus, the remaining question is how robust the genetic distance-development relationship is in Europe. In fact, there is already a paper, by Giuliano,Spilimbergo, and Tonon, saying that the impact of genetic distance on both trade and GDP in Europe is not robust. Note, the early drafts of that paper also said something about GDP in Europe, while the published version stripped out GDP precisely because the referees -- likely Spolaore or Wacziarg -- wouldn't allow it.

I also went back to look at what my referees had said about this paper. Wacziarg has now posted regressions on his website used by this referee, so I gather that he must be the author. Interestingly, Romain had some very choice words for this paper, even though Paula Giuliano is a colleague: “Regarding the paper by Giuliano, Spilimbergo and Tonon, the authors of this paper are clearly referring to an old (2006) version, which contained numerous errors and imprecisions.”

I'm curious, Romain, if you're out there, what kind of "errors and imprecisions" this paper by your colleague had.

In any case, I decided to check if Giuliano, Spilimbergo, and Tonon were really that careless, or whether Spolaore and Wacziarg were, once again, wrong.

Thus, on the metro ride from Dupont Circle to George Mason, I fired up Stata to check how robust the results were when we exclude sub-Saharan Africa. Admittedly, it took me several regressions (see below) to get this correlation to disappear. The key control was a dummy for former communist countries, or controlling for Eastern and Western Europe separately. In each of the regressions below, I've excluded sub-Saharan Africa. In column (1), I include controls for absolute latitude and a dummy for Europe. In column (2), I include a dummy for Western Europe instead (excluding former communist countries). In column (3), I include dummies for former Soviet Union countries (FSU) separately, and, unfortunately, the results are no longer significant at 95%. In column (5), I also add in "Percentage of land area in the tropics and subtropics", and now the coefficient on genetic distance falls to -3.7, but with standard errors of 3.6.

Hence, it would seem that genetic distance to the US is not a good predictor of income levels, even if you exclude SSA, which are counter-examples. Only caveat here is that I spent about 30 minutes coding this up while extremely jet-lagged. 

It's amazing to me that these two Harvard PhDs would want to continue to push this, and to stake their reputations on this. To me, there are a lot of ways I would like to spend both my research time, and my free time. Even if I was them, I don't see why continuing with this project appeals to them so much. They now have written an additional 5-6 papers, it seems, repeating the same mistakes, even after they became aware that their results are not robust. The answer must be that now they perceive themselves to be in a life-or-death situation in which their reputations are at stake. They really need this correlation they discovered to be robust. And so they continue to churn out papers using this measure. In fact, I suspect no one really cares. That's why it's surprising they haven't moved on.

Another thing which is strange about their new paper, is that in the comments over at Gelman, they said that their paper was mainly about the country-difference pair regressions. I showed that these results, too, are not robust once one separates out poor sub-Saharan Africa from richer North Africa, and includes a full set of continent fixed effects. I should add that Spolaore and Wacziarg claim that when they run these same regressions, their results are robust. However, they won't provide us with their data or regressions to check. Nevertheless, in their new paper, they've gone back to the cross-country income regressions, which they previously conceded were not robust. I guess they were hoping that their comments over at Gelman's blog (and at Marginal Revolution) would be forgotten.

In any case, if Spolaore and Wacziarg want to respond with more gibberish, I'll yield to them the floor. I do wonder what kind of evidence they would want to see that would convince them that there is nothing here. Figures (3) and (4) are already pretty damning, not to mention the table after it. I'm sure they'll continue to be as defiant as ever, which should provide some comic relief for the rest of us.

Update: I have put in another request to Wacziarg and Spolaore for their data. I wouldn't hold your breath. I'd be willing to bet my life savings that they will not provide their data and code. They do provide their new genetic distance data, presumably so that other people can use it and cite them. I downloaded this data to test robustness. Stay tuned for results!

Update 2: Someone writes in, directing me to a link to the debunked genopolitics work on whether there is a "voting gene".