Happy 2010, everyone. To kick off the new year, I am in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. As Paul Kedrosky notes, there are lots of sessions on the financial crisis and its aftermath. Perhaps not surprisingly, many presentations have a pessimistic tone. But there are pockets of optimism, including Robert Shiller’s luncheon speech about the potential benefits of continued financial innovation.
One of Shiller’s ideas is that the federal government should issue a new kind of security that would pay quarterly dividends based on the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). More specifically, each security would entitle its owner to one-trillionth of America’s gross domestic product (GDP). These “Trills” would be perpetual, like common stock in a private company, and would be backed by the government’s full faith and credit.
I will leave to others to argue the pros and cons of Trills. What caught my attention was Shiller’s estimate of how much they would be worth. With GDP around $14 trillion, each Trill would pay about $14 in annual dividends this year. That dividend would then increase (or, of course, decrease) as the economy grows (or contracts) in the future.
How much you would be willing to pay for a Trill? In principle, that should depend on your expectations of future GDP growth and your choice of what discount rate to apply to cash flows that track GDP. Oh, and if you worry about the U.S. government defaulting (still a very low risk), you might include a discount for that as well.
Shiller’s own answer is $1,400. In other words, he thinks Trills would be priced with a yield of about 1%. Trill owners would be willing to accept that low yield because they would expect future economic growth to boost dividends–and, therefore, Trill values–in the future.
That figure feels a bit high to me, but not unreasonable. For example, you could justify a $1,400 per Trill valuation if you believe that nominal GDP growth will be 4 percent and that an appropriate discount rate would be 5 percent.
If you take Shiller’s estimate seriously, it is just a short step to placing a value on the U.S. economy as a whole. If one trillionth of the economy is worth $1,400, then the entire economy would be worth $1.4 quadrillion.