Links for May 25, 2016

Deliberately. The IMF has released its new Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece. Frances Coppola has the details, and they are something. Per the IMF,

Demographic projections suggest that working age population will decline by about 10 percentage points by 2060. At the same time, Greece will continue to struggle with high unemployment rates for decades to come. Its current unemployment rate is around 25 percent, the highest in the OECD, and after seven years of recession, its structural component is estimated at around 20 percent. Consequently, it will take significant time for unemployment to come down. Staff expects it to reach 18 percent by 2022, 12 percent by 2040, and 6 percent only by 2060.

Frances adds:

For Greece’s young people currently out of work, that is all of their working life. A whole generation will have been consigned to the scrapheap. …

The truth is that seven years of recession has wrecked the Greek economy. It is no longer capable of generating enough jobs to employ its population. The IMF estimates that even in good times, 20 percent of adults would remain unemployed. To generate the jobs that are needed there will have to be large numbers of new businesses, perhaps even whole new industries. Developing such extensive new productive capacity takes time and requires substantial investment – and Greece is not the most attractive of investment prospects. Absent something akin to a Marshall Plan, it will take many, many years to repair the damage deliberately inflicted on Greece by European authorities and the IMF in order to bail out the European banking system.

For some reason, that reminds me of this. Good times.

Also, here’s the Economist, back in 2006:

The core countries of Europe are not ready to make the economic reforms they so desperately need—and that will change, alas, only after a diabolic economic crisis. … The sad truth is that voters are not yet ready to swallow the nasty medicine of change. Reform is always painful. And there are too many cosseted insiders—those with secure jobs, those in the public sector—who see little to gain and much to lose. … One reason for believing that reform can happen … is that other European countries have shown the way. Britain faced economic and social meltdown in 1979; there followed a decade of Thatcherite reform. … The real problem, not just for Italy and France but also for Germany, is that, so far, life has continued to be too good for too many people.

I bet they’re pretty pleased right now.



Polanyism. At Dissent, Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber have a very nice introduction to Karl Polanyi. One thing I like about this piece is that they present Polanyi as a sort of theoretical back-formation for the Sanders campaign.

The vast majority of Sanders’s supporters … are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi. …

One of the divides within the Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has been between a social-democratic and a “progressive” but market-friendly vision of addressing social problems. Take, for example, health care. Sanders proposes a single-payer system in which the government pays and health care directly, and he frames it explicitly in the language of rights: “healthcare is a human right and should be guaranteed to all Americans regardless of wealth or income.” … Sanders offers a straightforward defense of decommodification—the idea that some things do not belong in the marketplace—that is at odds with the kind of politics that the leadership of the Democratic Party has offered … Polanyi’s particular definition of socialism sounds like one Sanders would share.


Obamacare and the insurers. On the subject of health care and decommodification, I liked James Kwak’s piece on Obamacare.

The dirty not-so-secret of Obamacare … is that sometimes the things we don’t like about market outcomes aren’t market failures—they are exactly what markets are supposed to do. …  at the end of the day, Obamacare is based on the idea that competition is good, but tries to prevent insurers from competing on all significant dimensions except the one that the government is better at anyway. We shouldn’t be surprised when insurance policies get worse and health care costs continue to rise.

It’s too bad so many intra-Democratic policy debates are conducted in terms of the radical-incremental binary, it’s not really meaningful. You can do more or less of anything. Would be better to focus on this non-market vs market question.

In this context, I wish there’d been some discussion in the campaign of New York’s new universal pre-kindergarten, which is a great example incremental decommodification in practice. Admittedly I’m a bit biased — I live in New York, and my son will be starting pre-K next year. Still: Here’s an example of a social need being addressed not through vouchers, or tax credits, or with means tests, but through a universal public services, provided — not entirely, but mainly and increasingly — by public employees. Why isn’t this a model?


The prehistory of the economics profession. I really liked this long piece by Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger on the early history of the American Economics Association. The takeaway is that the AEA’s early history was surprisingly radical, both intellectually and in its self-conception as part of larger political project. (Another good discussion of this is in Michael Perelman’s Railroading Economics.) This is history more people should know, and Steinbaum and Weisberger tell it well. I also agree with their conclusion:

That [the economics profession] abandoned “advocacy” under the banner of “objectivity” only raises the question of what that distinction really means in practice. Perhaps actual objectivity does not require that the scholar noisily disclaim advocacy. It may, in fact, require the opposite.

The more I struggle with this stuff, the more I think this is right. A field or discipline needs its internal standards to distinguish valid or well-supported claims from invalid or poorly supported ones. But evaluation of relevance, importance, correspondence to the relevant features of reality can never be made on the basis of internal criteria. They require the standpoint of some outside commitment, some engagement with the concrete reality you are studying distinct from your formal representations of it. Of course that engagement doesn’t have to be political. Hyman Minsky’s work for the Mark Twain Bank in Missouri, for example, played an equivalent role; and as Perry Mehrling observes in his wonderful essay on Minsky, “It is significant that the fullest statement of his business cycle theory was published by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.” But it has to be something. In economics, I think, even more than in other fields, the best scholarship is not going to come from people who are only scholars.


Negative rates, so what. Here’s a sensible look at the modest real-world impact of negative rates from Brian Romanchuk. It’s always interesting to see how these things look from the point of view of market participants. The importance of a negative policy rate has nothing to do with the terms on which present consumption trades off against future consumption, it’s about one component of the return on some assets relative to others.


I’m number 55. Someone made a list of the top 100 economics blogs, and put me on it. That was nice.

Links for May 11

My dinner with Axel. Last fall, Arjun Jayadev and I had a series of conversations with Axel Leijonhufvud at his home in California; videos and transcript are now up at the INET site, along with a collection of his writings. I’m very grateful to have had this chance to talk with him; Leijonhufvud is one of two or three economists who’ve most influenced my thinking. He’s also a charming and delightful storyteller, which I hope comes through in the interviews. I’ll be writing something soon, I hope, about Axel’s work and its significance, but in the meantime, check out the interview.


The mind of Draghi. This speech by Mario Draghi offers a nice glimpse into the thinking of central bankers circa 2016. The fundamental point is the idea of a long run “real” or “natural” rate of interest, which policy cannot affect. This idea, and the corollary that the economic world we actually observe is in some sense a false, unreal, artificial or “distorted” sublunary version of the true ideal, is, I think, the central site of tension between economic ideology and economic reality today. But there are other particular points of interest in the speech. First, the frank acknowledgement that the big problem with zero rates is that they reduce the profitability of financial institutions. (By the same logic, Draghi should want to do away with public education since  it reduces the profitability of private schools, and with law enforcement since it reduces the profitability of private security firms.) And second, the claim that one reason for the problem of low interest rates is … excessive government debt!

A temporary period of policy rates being close to zero or even negative in real terms is not unprecedented by any means. Over the past decades, however, we have seen long-term yields trending down in real terms as well, independent of the cyclical stance of monetary policy.

The drivers behind this have been, among others, rising net savings as ageing populations plan for retirement, relatively less public capital expenditure in a context of high public indebtedness, and a slowdown in productivity growth reducing the profitability of investment.

Yes, for years we have been warned that excessive government debt is that interest rates will get too high, increasing borrowing costs for the government and crowding out of private investment. But now it turns out that excessive government debt is also responsible for rates that are too low. Truly, to be a central banker in these times one must be a Zen master.


Business cycle measurement ahead of theory … or heading in an entirely different direction. I’m very excited about a series of posts Merijn Knibbe is doing for the World Economics Association. They are on the incompatibility of the concepts used in the construction of national accounts and other macroeconomic data, with the concepts used in macroeconomic theory. I’ve wanted for a while to make the case for a consistent economic nominalism, meaning that we should treat the money payments we actually observe as fundamental or primitive, and not merely as manifestations of some deeper “real” economy. Knibbe is now doing it. The first installment is here.


Kaminska on “deglobalization”. Izabella Kaminska is always worth reading, but this piece from last week is even more worth reading than usual. I particularly like her point that the international role of the dollar means that the US is to the world as Germany is to the eurozone:

the dollarisation of the global economy … has created a sort of worldwide Eurozone effect, wherein every country whose own currency isn’t strong or reputable enough to be used for trade settlement with commodity producers is at the mercy of dollar flows into its own country. Just like Greece, they can’t print the currency that affords them purchasing power on the global market.

The logical corollary, which she doesn’t quite spell out, is that the US, thanks to its willingness to run trade deficits that supply dollars to the rest of the world, has fulfilled its international role much more responsibly than Germany has.

Only the Debt Is National

Imagine this set of transactions.

1. A bank in rich country A makes a loan of X to the government of poor country B. Let’s say for concreteness that A is the United States, B is Nigeria, and X is $1 billion. So now we have a liability of $1 billion of the Nigerian government to the US bank, and deposit of $1 billion at the US bank owned by the government of Nigeria.

(Nigeria might just as well be Egypt or Mexico or Argentina or Greece or Turkey or Indonesia. And the United States might just as well be Germany or the UK. )

2. The deposit at the bank is transferred from ownership of the government to ownership of some private individual. It’s easy to imagine ways this can be done.

3. The residents of Nigeria, via their government, still have a liability of $1 billion to the bank, obliging them to make annual payments equal to the interest rate times the principal. In this case, let’s say the interest rate is 5%, so debt service is $50 million.

4. The payments can be met by running an annual export surplus of $50 million. As long as this $50 million annual payment is maintained, interest payments can be made and the principal rolled over; the debt will remain forever.

5. The private individual from step 2 moves from Nigeria to the United States, eventually becoming a citizen there.

The result of this: a family in the United States has wealth of $1 billion (plus whatever they already had, of course). Meanwhile, the people of Nigeria make payments of $50 million each year to the United States forever, in the form of uncompensated exports. In their important book Africa’s Odious Debts and related work, Boyce and Ndikumana demonstrate that this story describes much of sub-Saharan Africa’s foreign debt. It applies elsewhere in the world as well.

I wonder how various people evaluate this scenario. Do we agree there is something wrong here? And if so, what, and what is the solution?

The orthodox view, as far as I can tell, is: what’s the problem? People should pay their debts. Nigeria (or Argentina etc.) is a person, it has borrowed, it must pay. The fact that some private individual chooses to hold their wealth in one country rather than another has nothing to do with it.

More generally, the dominant view today is that the ability to carry transactions like those describe above is an unmixed blessing; in fact it’s the whole point of the international system. The three pillars of the European union are free movement of people, free movement of goods, and free movement of finance.  Argentina’s Macri is hailed as a hero — by Obama among others — for removing capital controls.  If you are committed to capital mobility, then it’s hard to see where the objection would be. Third World governments and New York banks are consenting adults and can contract on any terms they choose. And of course the fact that a possessor of wealth happens to be located in one country cannot, in a liberal order, be an objection to them owning an asset somewhere else.

Maybe it’s the last step that is the issue? Outside of Europe, the free movement of people does not have the same place in the economic catechism as the free movement of money or goods. And even in Europe it’s a bit shaky. Still, most governments are happy enough to welcome rich immigrants. (A few months ago, my FT dislodged a glossy pamphlet, a racially ambiguous woman in a bikini on the cover, advertising citizenship by investment in various Caribbean countries.)  This post was provoked by a Crooked Timber post by Chris Bertram; I’d be curious what he, or other open-borders advocates like my friend Suresh Naidu, would say about this scenario. Does an unrestricted right of human beings to cross borders imply an unrestricted right to transfer property claims across them also?

If the solution is not limits on movement of people, perhaps it is limits on cross-order transfers of financial claims, that is, capital controls. This used to be common sense. It’s not entirely straightforward where capital controls would operate in the sequence above; the metaphor of “capital” as a substance that moves across borders is unhelpful. But in some way or other capital controls would prevent the individual in country B from coming into possession of the bank deposit in country A.

There are two problems with this solution, one practical and the other more fundamental. The practical problem is that many routine transactions — payment for imports say — involve the creation of bank deposits in one country payable to some entity in another. It is hard to distinguish prohibited financial transactions from permitted payments for goods and services — and as Boyce and Ndikumana document, capital flight is usually disguised as current account transactions, for instance by over-invoicing for imports. Eric Helleiner [1] quotes Jacob Viner: “Because of the difficulty of distinguishing between capital account and current account transactions, capital controls could be made effective only by ‘censorship of communications and by crushing penalties for violation.'” [2]

The more fundamental problem is that these transactions — and capital flight in general – may be perfectly legal by the rules in force when they take place. Or if formally illegal, they are usually carried out by high government officials and/or members of the country’s elite. So the government of the poor country is unlikely to aggressively apply any restrictions that do exist. A subsequent government might well feel differently — but what claim do they have on a private bank account in a foreign country?

The problems with making capital controls effective were recognized clearly in the runup to Bretton Woods. In White’s 1942 draft for the agreements — again quoting Helleiner — “governments were required (a) not to accept or permit deposits or investments from any member country except with the permission of the government of that country, and (b) to make available to the government of any member country at its request all property in form of deposits, investments or securities of the nationals of the member country.” Even this wouldn’t be enough, of course, in the case where the wealthowner ceases to be a national. And it might not help in the case of a corrupt government that doesn’t want to repatriate private funds — though it might, if (as was also discussed) countries with balance of payments problems were required to draw on foreign exchange in private hands before being granted official assistance. In any case, it seems challenging to impose effective capital controls without granting the government control of all foreign assets — which will often require the cooperation of the country where those assets are held.

Needless to say nothing like this was included in the Bretton Woods agreements as signed. The US government would not even accept its allies’ pleas to assist in repatriating flight capital to help with the acute balance of payments difficulties following the war. Now it’s true, Second Circuit Judge Griesa recently claimed even more extensive authority that the government of Argentina would have had under White’s proposals, seizing the US assets of third parties who’d received payments from the Argentine government. But that was strictly to make payments to creditors. No such access to foreign assets is generally available.

This situation can arise even if governments themselves don’t even have to borrow abroad. As we recently saw in the case of Ireland, a government can strictly limit its debt and still find itself with unmanageable foreign liabilities. If private institutions — especially banks, but potentially nonfinancial corporations as well — borrow abroad, government that wishes to keep them operational  in a crisis may have to assume their liabilities. Or at least, they will be strongly urged to do so by all the guardians of orthodoxy. What, are you going to just let the banks fail? Meanwhile, any foreign claims generated by the activities of the banks before they failed are out of reach.

Financial commitments create obligations; when circumstances change, sometimes they can’t be met. Someone isn’t going to get what they were promised. In modern economies, the state (often in the guise of the central bank) steps in to assume or redenominate claims, to impose an ex post consistency on the inconsistent contracts signed by private agents. But with foreign-currency commitments to foreigners the authorities’ usual tools aren’t available. And just as important, there are other authorities — the ECB in the case of Greece, the US federal court system in the case of Argentina — that are ready to use their privileged position in the larger payments system to enforce the claims of creditors. In effect, while domestic contracts are always subject to political renegotiation, foreign contracts are — or can be made to seem — objective fact.

What we’ve ended up with is a situation in which private parties have an absolute right to make whatever financial commitments they choose, and national governments have an absolute duty to honor the resulting balance sheet commitments. Wealth belongs to individuals, but debt belongs to the people. They are bound by past government commitments forever.

Or as Marx observed, “The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of modern peoples is their national debt. …in England all public institutions are designated ‘royal’; as compensation for this, however, there is the ‘national’ debt. ” 



[1] The Helleiner book, along with Fred Block’s Origins of International Economic Disorder, is still the best thing I know on the evolution of international monetary arrangements since World War II. Has anything better been written in the 20 years since it came out?

[2] This brings out two general points on financial regulation that I’d like to develop more. First, it is one thing to establish different rules for different kinds of activity, but the classification has to actually match up with the legal and accounting categories in which actual economic transactions are organized. The category of “banks” is a currently relevant example. This is part of the larger issue of what I call the money view, or economic nominalism — we need a perspective that regards money payments and the labels they bear as fundamental, rather than seeing them as reflections of some underlying structure. Second, and relatedly, it is hard for individual regulations to be effective in a setting in which anything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted, since for any regulated transaction there will normally be unregulated ones that are economically equivalent.