Links for May 5, 2017

Some economics content, for this rainy Friday afternoon:

 

Turbulence. Over at INET, Arjun Jayadev has posted the next in our series of “rebel masters” interviews with dissenting economists. This one is with Anwar Shaikh, who is, I’m sure, familiar to readers of this blog. Shaikh’s work resists summary, but the

broad thesis revolves around the idea that there is an alternative tradition-embedded in the classical approach of Smith, Ricardo and Marx which insists on understanding the world on its own terms rather than from an idealized economy from which the real world deviates. This approach focuses on what is termed “real competition” wherein competition between firms, each seeking to get the highest price they can, leads to a “turbulent gravitation” of prices around values. As such, there is never an equilibrium, but a dancing around some key deeper parameters.

As with all these interviews, there’s also some discussion of his own political and intellectual development, as well as of the content of his work.

I haven’t made a serious effort to read Shaikh’s big new book Capitalism. Given its heft, I suspect it will function more as a reference work, with people going to specific sections rather than reading it from front to back. (I know one person who is using it as an undergraduate textbook, which seems ambitious.) But if you want an admiring but not uncritical overview of the book as a whole, this review in New Left Review by John Grahl could be a good place to start. It’s written for people interested in the broad political economy tradition; it’s focused on the broad sweep of the argument, not on Shaikh’s position within current debates in heterodox economics.

 

The rich are different from you and me. [1] At Washington Center for Economic Growth, Nick Bunker calls attention to some new research on income inequality over the past 15 years. The key finding is that since the end of the 1990s, the rise in income inequality is almost all due to income from S-corporations (pass-through companies, partnerships, etc.) at the very top of the distribution. As a result, rising inequality shows up in tax data, but not in Social Security data, which captures only labor income. What do we take from this? First, the point I’ve made periodically on this blog: Incomes at the top are mainly capital income, not labor income. But there’s also a methodological point — the importance of constantly walking back and forth between your theoretical construct, the concrete social reality it hopes to explain, and the data (collected by somebody, according to some particular procedures) that stands between them.

 

What are foreign investors for? At FT Alphaville, Matthew Klein has a very interesting post on capital controls. As he notes, during the first decade of the euro, Spain was the recipient of one of “the greatest capital flows of all time,” with owners of financial assets all over Europe rushing to trade them for claims on Spanish banks. This created immense pressure on Spanish banks to increase lending, which in the event financed a runup in real estate prices and an immense quantity of never-to-be-occupied houses and hotels. (It’s worth noting in passing that this real estate bubble developed without any of the securitization that so mesmerized observers of the American bubble.) Surely, Klein says,

if you accept the arguments for regulating cross-border financial movements in any situation, you have to do the same for Spain. The country raised bank capital requirements and ran large fiscal surpluses, but none of that was enough. Plus, it didn’t have the luxury of a floating currency. Both the boom and bust would clearly have been smaller if foreigners had been prevented from buying so many Spanish financial assets, or even just persuaded to buy fewer bonds and more stocks and direct equity.

This seems right. But we could go a step farther. What’s the point of capital mobility?  If you don’t in fact want bank balance sheets expanding and shrinking based on the choices of foreign investors, what benefit are those investors providing to your economy? They provide foreign exchange (allowing you to run current account deficit), they provide financing (allowing credit to expand more), they substitute their judgement of future for domestic actors’. These are exactly the problems in the Spanish case. What is the benefit, even in principle, that Spain got from allowing these inflows?

 

There’s always a first time. Also from Matthew Klein, here is a paper from the Peterson Institute looking at historical fiscal balances and making the rather obvious point that there is little historical precedent for the surpluses the Greek government is expected in order to  pay its conquerors creditors. It is not quite true that no country has ever sustained a primary surplus of 3.5 percent for a decade a more, as Greece is expected to do; but such episodes are exceedingly rare.

My one criticism of Klein’s piece is that it is a little too uncritical of the idea that “market rates” are just a fact about the world. The Peterson paper also seems to regard interest rates as set by markets in response to more or less objective macroeconomic variables. Klein notes in passing that the interest rate Greece pays on its borrowing will depend on official choices like whether Greek debt is included in the ECB’s bond-buying programs. But I think it’s broader than this — I think the interest rate on Greek bonds is entirely a policy choice of the ECB. Suppose the ECB announced that they were fixing the interest rate on Greek bonds at 1 percent, and that they’d buy them as long as the yield was above this. Then private lenders would be happy to hold them at 1 percent and the ECB would not have to make any substantial purchases. This is how open market operations work – when a central bank announces a policy rate, they can move market rates while buying or selling only trivial amounts. If the ECB wished to, it could put Greece on a stable debt path and open up space for a less sociocidal budget, without the need for any commitment of public funds. But of course it doesn’t wish to.

 

Capital with Chinese characteristics. This new paper on wealth and inequality in China from Piketty, Zucman and Li Yang is an event; it’s a safe bet it’s going to be widely cited in the coming years. The biggest contribution is the construction of long-run series on aggregate wealth and the distribution of wealth and  income for China. Much of the paper is devoted, appropriately, to explaining how these series were produced. But they also draw several broad conclusions about the evolution of the Chinese economy over the apst generation.

First, while the publicly-owned share of national wealth has declined, it is still very high relative to other industrialized countries:

China has ceased to be communist, but is not entirely capitalist; it should rather be viewed as a “mixed economy” with a strong public ownership component. … the share of public property in China today is somewhat larger than – though not incomparable to – what it was in the West during the “mixed economy” regime of the post-World War 2 decades (30% in China today vs. 15-25% in the West in the 1950s-1970s). … Private wealth was relatively small in 1978 (about 100% of national income), and now represents over 450% of national income. Public wealth [has been] roughly stable around 250% of national income.

It’s worth noting that the largest component of this increase in private wealth is housing, which largely passed from public to private hands, The public sector, by Piketty and coauthors’ measures, continues to own about half of China’s non-housing wealth, including the majority of corporate equity, and this fraction seems to have increased somewhat over the past decade.

Second, income distribution has become much more unequal in China over the past generation, but seems to still be more equal than in the United States:

In the late 1970s China’s inequality… [was] close to the levels observed in the most egalitarian Nordic countries — while it is now approaching U.S. levels. It should be noted, however, that … inequality levels in China are still significantly lower than in the United States…. The bottom 50% earns about 15% of total income in China (19% in rural China, 23% in urban China), vs. 12% in the U.S. and 22% in France. For the time being, China’s development model appears to be more egalitarian than that of the United States, and less than Europe’s. Chinese inequality levels seem to have stabilized in recent years (the biggest increase in inequality took place between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s)

The third story — much less prominent in the article, and of less important, but of particular interest to me — is what explains the observed rise in the ratio of wealth to national income. Piketty et al. suggest that 50-70 percent of the rise can be explained, in accounting terms, by the observed rates of saving and investment and their estimate of depreciation, while the remaining 30-50 percent is due to valuation changes. But in a footnote they add that this includes a large negative valuation change for China’s net foreign wealth, presumably attributable to the appreciation of the renminbi relative to the dollar. So a larger share of the rise in domestic wealth relative to income must be accounted for by valuation changes. (The data to put an exact number on this should be available in their online appendices, which are comprehensive as always, but I haven’t done it yet.)

This means that a story that conflates wealth with physical capital, and sees its growth basically in terms of net investment, will not do a good job explaining the actual growth of Chinese capital. (The same goes for the growth in capital relative to income in the advanced countries.) The paper explains the valuation increase in terms of a runup in the value of private housing plus

changes in the legal system reinforcing private property rights for asset owners (e.g., lifting of rent control, changes in the relative power of landlords and tenants, changes in the relative power of shareholder and workers).

This seems plausible to me. But I wish Piketty and his coauthors — and even more, his admirers — would take this side of the story more seriously. If we want to talk about the “capital” we actually see in public and private accounts, a theory that sees it growing through net investment is not even roughly correct. We really do have to think of capital as a social relation, not a physical substance.

 

On other blogs, other wonders.

Here’s a video of me chatting with James Parrott about robots.

Who’d have thought that Breitbart is the place to find federal government employment practices held up as an ideal?

At PERI, Anders Fremstad and Mark Paul have a nice paper on the distributional impact of different forms of carbon taxes.

Also at PERI, another whack at the Reinhart-Rogoff piñata.

I’ll be speaking at this Dissent thing on May 22.

 

 

[1] This phrase has an interesting backstory. The received version has it that it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line, to which Ernest Hemingway replied: “Yes. They have more money.” But in fact, Hemingway was the one who said the rich were different, at a lunch with Maxwell Perkins and the critic Mary Colum, and it was Colum who delivered the putdown. (The story is in that biography of Perkins.) In “Hills like White Elephants,” Hemingway, for reasons that are easy to imagine, put the “rich are different” line in the mouth of his frenemy Fitzgerald, and there it’s stayed.

At Dissent: A Cautious Case for Economic Nationalism

I have an article in the new issue of Dissent, arguing that “As long as democratic politics operates through nation-states, any left program will require some degree of delinking from the global economy.”

My piece is part of a special section on “Capitalism Today.” There will be an accompanying event at the New School on May 22, with Jamie Galbraith, Julia Ott, Mark Levinson and me.

I’ve made similar arguments to this article’s in a number of posts on this blog:

Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse
Only the Debt Is National
How to Think about the Balance of Payments
What Is Foreign Investment For?
Lessons from the Greek Crisis
Prices and the European Crisis, Continued

One thing that’s probably not as clear as it should be in the Dissent piece, is that the case for delinking is much stronger for most other countries than for the United States. For most countries, free trade and, even more, free capital mobility, drastically reduce the choices available to national governments. (This “disciplining” of the state by foreign investment is sometimes acknowledged as its real function.) For the US, I don’t think this is true – I don’t think the threat of capital flight meaningfully constrains policy here. And in particular I don’t think it makes sense to see a more positive trade balance as necessary or even particularly desirable to boost demand, for reasons laid out here and here.

 

Links and Thoughts for Feb. 17

Minimum wages are good for poor people. Here is an important paper from Arin Dube on the impact of minimum wage increases on family income. Using a variety of approaches, he asks what the record of minimum wage changes tells us about how the effects of the minimum at different points in the income distribution. The core finding is that, in his preferred specification, the elasticity of income at the 10th percentile with respect to the minimum wage is around 0.4 – that is, a one percent increase in the minimum wage will raise income for poor families by close to half a percent. This is, to my mind, a really big number – it suggests that pay at most low-wage jobs is tightly linked to the minimum wage, and that criticism of minimum wages as being badly targeted at low income households is off the mark. Tho to be fair, he also finds that minimum wage increases don’t do much for the very bottom of the distribution, where there is not much wage income to begin with. But beyond whatever this ammo this gives for minimum wage supporters, this is a great example of how you should approach this kind of question as a social scientist. The paper gets out of the box of qualitative debates about job loss that have dominated this debate and makes a positive, quantitative claim about what minimum wages actually do.

This is the effect of a doubling of the state minimum wage on family income, per Dube.

 

Why prefund? I’m still trying to finish this interminable paper on state and local government balance sheets. But one of the big things I’ve learned is that the biggest constraint these governments face is not the terms on which they can borrow, but the extent to which they are required to prefund future expenses. The idea that pensions should be fully funded has a solid basis for private employers but it’s not at all clear that the same arguments apply for governments. It’s good to see that some professionals in state and local finance have come to the same conclusion. Here is a new paper from the Haas Institute on exactly this question. It makes a strong case that the requirement to fully fund public employee pensions is costly and unnecessary, and is an important factor in local government budget crises.

 

Privilege: still exorbitant. Here’s a nice analysis of the international role of the dollar. This is the same argument I tried to make in my Roosevelt Institute piece on trade policy last summer. The Economist says it better:

Unlike other aspects of American hegemony, the dollar has grown more important as the world has globalised, not less. … As economies opened their capital markets in the 1980s and 1990s, global capital flows surged. Yet most governments sought exchange-rate stability amid the sloshing tides of money. They managed their exchange rates using massive piles of foreign-exchange reserves … Global reserves have grown from under $1trn in the 1980s to more than $10trn today.

Dollar-denominated assets account for much of those reserves. Governments worry more about big swings in the dollar than in other currencies; trade is often conducted in dollar terms; and firms and governments owe roughly $10trn in dollar-denominated debt. … the dollar is, on some measures, more central to the global system now than it was immediately after the second world war. …

America wields enormous financial power as a result. It can wreak havoc by withholding supplies of dollars in a crisis. When the Federal Reserve tweaks monetary policy, the effects ripple across the global economy. Hélène Rey of the London Business School argues that, despite their reserve holdings, many economies have lost full control over their domestic monetary policy, because of the effect of Fed policy on global appetite for risk.

… During the heyday of Bretton Woods, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a French finance minister (later president), complained about the “exorbitant privilege” enjoyed by the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. America’s return on its foreign assets is markedly higher than the return foreign investors earn on their American assets…  That flow of investment income allows America to run persistent current-account deficits—to buy more than it produces year after year, decade after decade.

Exactly right. You can have free capital mobility, or you can have a balanced trade for the US. But you can’t have both, as long as the world depends on dollar reserves.

 

Greece: still a catastrophe. Over at Alphaville, Matthew Klein makes a strong case that Greece’s experience in the euro has been uniquely catastrophic – no modern balance of payments crisis elsewhere has led to anything like as large and as sustained a fall in output and employment. Martin Sandbu objects, arguing that the Greek catastrophe is the result of austerity, not of the single currency per se. Which is true, but also, it seems to me, misses the point. The problem with the euro — as Klein more or less says — isn’t mainly that it precludes devaluation, but that it surrenders authority over the basic tools of macroeconomic policy to a foreign authority — an authority, as it turns out, that has been happy to see Greece burn pour encourager les autres.

 

The myth of capital strike. I was more on Team Streeck than Team Tooze in their great LRB showdown. But this followup post by Tooze is very smart. Mostly he’s just trying to bring some much-needed order to a complicated set of debates about the role of private finance, credit markets, central banks and the state. But he also scores, I think, a stronger point against Streeck than in the LRB review: Streeck exaggerates the threat of capital strike in modern “managed-money” economies. As Tooze says:

Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland even Italy and France all experienced bond market attacks. But this is because they were left by the ECB in a situation which was as though they had borrowed their entire sovereign debt in a foreign currency with no central bank support. … That peculiarity is the result of deliberate political construction. To generalize and reify it into a general theory of capitalist democracy in crisis is highly misleading.

I think Tooze is right: behind the apparent power of the bondholders there’s always either a hostile central bank, or else other, stronger countries.

 

Things are speeding up here at the end. From Credit Suisse, here is an interesting discussion of longevity of firms in the S&P 500.

There is a general sense that the rate of change is accelerating and that corporate longevity is shrinking. This assertion appears frequently in the business press. Our research shows a more nuanced picture. Indeed, a common measure of corporate longevity, turnover of the companies in the S&P 500, shows that longevity has lengthened in recent years.

 

A hell of a way to run a railroad. For New Yorkers who are bored of the things they are mad about and want something new to be mad about: The Port Authority capital plan approved this week includes $1.5 billion for Cuomo’s pointless LaGuardia AirTrain. Of course it would be too much to ask that we extend the existing transit system, we have to create a special new system for airport travelers only. But Cuomo’s plan is useless even for them.

 

Strikes: still declining. Various people have been sharing a graph of strikes “involving 1000 or more workers” on Facebook. I expressed some doubts about this – it’s obviously true that the US has seen a drastic decline in strikes and in worker militance in general, but how well is this captured by a series that only includes the largest strikes? Andrew Bossie replies, showing that for the earlier period where we have more comprehensive strike data, it matches the 1000+ series pretty well. Fair enough.

 

Welfare is not only for whites. Here is a useful corrective from Matt Bruenig to claims that the welfare state disproportionately serves white Americans.  I assume the idea behind these arguments is to disarm claim that welfare is just for “them.” But the politics could cut other way – it’s equally easy to see “welfare goes to whites” as a move to advance the idea that racial justice and economic justice are unrelated, even conflicting, goals. Anyway, whatever it rhetorical uses, we still need a clear and honest assessment of how things work. Which Matt as usual provides.

 

TPP is dead … or is it? My collaborator Arjun Jayadev has a nice piece in The Hindu (circulation 1.4 million, not far off the New York Times) on the legacy of the late, unlamented Trans-Pacific Partnership. It can be hard to rememebr, amid the shrieks and shudders and foul smells coming from the Oval Office, how destructive and, in its own way, insane, was the pre-Trump liberal consensus for free trade and endless war.

 

Just give people nice things is a sound basis for policy. When we decided peoples’ houses shouldn’t burn down, we didn’t provide savings accounts for private fire insurance, we hired firefighters and built fire stations. If the broad left takes power again, enough with too-clever-by-half social engineering. Help people and take credit.”

What Exactly Does Mexico Export to the US?

One of the many ways conventional economic theory hinders our discussions of trade is it gets us thinking about goods “produced” in one country and “consumed” in another. Mexicans grow tomatoes, drill oil, sew shirts, and assemble cars; Americans eat, burn, wear and drive them.

Most trade in the real world does not look like this. What you have, rather, are commodity chains, where different parts of the production process take place in different countries. In most cross-border transactions, the buyers are not consumers, or even distributors, but producers who use the imported goods as inputs. And in many cases, the relevant transactions are not arm’s-length market exchanges, but transfers within a single corporate structure. Even the final purchasers may not be consumers: In general, investment goods and exports have higher imported content than consumption goods do.

Case in point: US-Mexico trade. What with the latest eruption from DC, I was curious what US imports from Mexico actually look like. [1] Here’s what the Census says:

$ millions % of total
Consumer goods 84,572 26.6
   food 22,432 7.0
   autos 23,434 7.4
   clothing 5,257 1.7
   others 33,448 10.5
Industrial inputs 89,583 28.1
   oil 13,689 4.3
   other raw materials 7,568 2.4
   auto parts 53,175 16.7
   other intermediate goods 15,152 4.8
Investment goods 113,312 35.6
   computers 41,778 13.1
   vehicles 31,943 10.0
   other machinery/equipment 39,590 12.4
Services and other 30,872 9.7
Total 318,338 100

As you can see, consumer goods account for only about a quarter of US imports from Mexico. Given that a large fraction of the service imports are tourism, the total share of consumption in US imports from Mexico will be a bit higher, between 30 and 35 percent. [2] (But presumably tourism would not be affected by a tariff.) The remainder is divided about evenly between industrial inputs (raw materials plus intermediate goods like cloth, steel, auto parts, etc.) and investment goods. Machinery and equipment, including computers, account for an impressive 25 percent of Mexican exports to the US. Petroleum products, despite the widespread perception of Mexico as an oil exporter, account for less than 5 percent.

OK, so why does this matter?

Well, it’s enough, to begin with, that most of us have a distorted idea of what “trade” involves. It’s always dangerous to talk about something at a high level of abstraction without a clear sense of the concrete reality involved — even if, in a given case, the abstract description works fine.

But in this case I don’t think it works fine. I think our model of one country and producing and the other consuming, misleads us in some important ways about the likely impact of something like Trump’s tariff.

First of all, the fact that trade is normally part of a longer commodity chain helps explain why trade flows are often insensitive to changes in relative prices. Notice, for instance, the $50 billion auto parts imported from Mexico — about one-seventh of total Mexican exports to the US. Some of these parts may be generic but most presumably represent investment by the parent company in a specialized supply chain. There’s little or no short-run possibility of substituting components from elsewhere in response to changes in relative prices. In any case, insofar as the importer and exporter are part of the same corporate structure, the relevant price is an administered one that presumably has more to do with internal accounting practices than with exchange rates, tariffs or other macro phenomena. This kind of trade is the excluded category in orthodox trade theory — it doesn’t responds rapidly to changes in prices, but neither does it reflect any fundamental differences in natural resources or other “endowments” between countries.

The second reason the composition of trade matters is when we look at the distributional impact. If Mexican exports were just corn tortillas, as some people seem to imagine, it would be relatively easy to answer “who pays” for a tariff. You just estimate the price elasticities of supply and demand and do the math. (OK, maybe not that easy.) But with a high proportion of intermediate and investment goods it’s much trickier. Especially since there are profits collected at a number of points along the commodity chain, so an increase in the price of Mexican imports at the border is not necessarily passed on to ultimate consumers. Some fraction will presumably come out of the various rents along the way. Even the broad claim that it must ultimately be Americans who pay doesn’t hold, since a large fraction of imports are inputs for export industries.

The third reason follows directly. Insofar as the final users of imports are exporters, tariffs and other relative-price changes will have less of an effect on the trade balance. In the old days of import-substitution industrialization people took this problem seriously — they recognized that the effective rate of protection  for a given industry might be quite different from the statutory rate, depending on how dependent the industry was on imported inputs. In this case, if a large fraction of Mexican imports are destined for US export industries — and they are — then a tariff on Mexican goods will improve US competitiveness less than the textbook analysis would predict.

Finally,  the disproportionately large share of intermediate and investment goods in international  trade should factor into how we think about trade in general. The more I study this stuff, the more I get the sense of international trade and finance as a world unto itself — sitting on top of, dependent on, the rest of the economy, but irrelevant to most of the routine activity of extracting human labor to meet human needs. Imports are purchased to make exports, which will be purchased to make more exports to somewhere else.

An exaggeration? Yes, but maybe not an extreme one. Somewhere in Civilization and Capitalism, Fernand Braudel describes the early modern world as an archipelago of towns scattered around the margins of an interior world — whether in France or India — that remained focused on immediate, local needs. The boundary regions were more connected to each other than to their own hinterlands perhaps only a few miles away. Mutatis mutandis (and there’s a lot of mutatis!) I think something like this applies today. Traders and producers for trade are mostly much more integrated with each other than with the rest of us. Your t-shirt is a valid counterexample, but not necessarily a representative one.

In summary: Most US imports from Mexico are intermediate and investment goods, not consumer goods. A tariff on Mexican goods is more likely to raise costs for US businesses — including for US exporters — than to lead people to substitute American-made goods for Mexican ones.

 

[1] This is my own categorization of the more detailed breakdown given by the census. I’ve included computers with investment goods because most computer expenditure in the US is by businesses, not households. Yes, some computers are purchased by households, but on the other hand some autos are purchased by businesses, so it probably balances out.

[2] Under the conventions of the national accounts, when someone from country A visits country B as a tourist, their spending there counts as a service export from country B to A.

 

 

UPDATE: I feel obliged to point out that I anticipated the latest iteration of “Mexico will pay for the wall’ towards the end of this post from last summer.

UPDATE 2: As Peter K. points out in comments, my line about trade within corporate supply chains not responding to relative costs doesn’t really make sense as written. As he reasonably asks, in that case why would they relocate production to lower-cost areas in the first place? What I should have said is that intra-corporate trade (1) isn’t responsive to *short-run* changes in relative prices and (2) is responsive to long-run changes, but on the supply side, not the demand side. I.e. if there were a large persistent rise in prices in Mexico relative to the US, that might well eventually reduce Mexican exports, but the main way this would happen would be firms disinvesting in production capacity there. Not expenditure switching by consumers in response to higher prices.

Thoughts and Links for December 21, 2016

Aviation in the 21st century. I’m typing this sitting on a plane, en route to LA. The plane is a Boeing 737-800. The 737 is the best-selling commercial airliner on earth; reading its Wikipedia page should raise some serious doubts about the idea that we live in an era of accelerating technological change. I’m not sure how old the plane I’m sitting on is, but it could be 15 years; the 800-series was introduced in its present form in the late 1990s. With airplanes, unlike smartphones, a 20-year old machine is not dramatically — is not even noticeably — different from the latest version. The basic 737 model was first introduced in 1967. There have been upgrades since then, but to my far from expert eyes it’s striking how little changed tin 50 years. The original 737 carried 120 passengers, at speeds of 800 km/h on trips of up to 3,000 km, using 6 liters of fuel per kilometer; this model carries 160 passengers (it’s longer) at speeds of 840 km/h on trips of 5,500 km, using 5 liters of fuel per kilometer. Better, sure, but probably the main difference you’d actually notice from a flight 50 years ago is purely social: no smoking. In any case it’s pretty meager compared that with the change from 50 years earlier, when commercial air travel didn’t exist. The singularity is over; it happened on or about December 1910.

 

Unnatural rates. Here’s an interesting post on the New York Fed’s Liberty Street blog challenging the ideas of “natural rates” of interest and unemployment. good: These ideas, it seems to me, are among the biggest obstacles to thinking constructively about macroeconomic policy. Obviously it’s example of, well, naturalizing economic outcomes, and in particular it’s the key ideological element in presenting the planning by the central bank as simply reproducing the natural state of the economy. But more specifically, it’s one of the most important ways that economists paper over the disconnect between the the economic-theory world of rational exchange, and the real world of monetary production. Without the natural rate, it would be much hard to  pretend that the sort of models academic economists develop at their day jobs, have any connection to the real-world problems the rest of the world expects economists to solve. Good to see, then, some economists at the Fed acknowledging that the natural rate concepts (and its relatives like the natural rate of unemployment) is vacuous, for two related reasons. First, the interest rate that will bring output to potential depends on a whole range of contingent factors, including other policy choices and the current level of output; and second, that potential output itself depends on the path of demand. Neither potential output nor the natural rate reflects some deep, structural parameters. They conclude:

the risks associated with monetary easing are asymmetric. That is, excessive easing can be reversed, but excessive tightening may cause irreversible damage to the economy’s potential output.

In the research described in this blog, we focus on the effect of recessions on human capital. Recessions may affect potential output through other channels as well, such as lower capital accumulation, lower labor force participation, slow productivity growth, and so forth. Our research would suggest that to the extent that these mechanisms are operative, a monetary policy that seeks to track measured natural rates—of unemployment, interest rates, and so forth—might be insufficiently accommodative to engineer a full and quick recovery after a large recession. Such policies fall short because in a world with hysteresis, “natural” rates are endogenous. Policy should set these rates, not track them.

Also on a personal level, it’s nice to see that the phrases “potential output,” “other channels,” “lower labor force particiaption,” and “slow productivity growth” all link back to posts on this very blog. Maybe someone is listening.

 

More me being listened to: Here is a short interview I did with KCBS radio in the Bay area, on what’s wrong with economics. And here is a nice writeup by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing of “Disgorge the Cash,” my Roosevelt paper on shareholder payouts and investment.

 

Still disgorging. Speaking of that: There were two new working papers out from the NBER last week on corporate finance, governance and investment. I’ve only glanced at them (end of semester crunch) but they both look like important steps forward for the larger disgorge the cash/short-termism argument. Here are the abstracts:

Lee, Shin and Stultz – Why Does Capital No Longer Flow More to the Industries with the Best Growth Opportunities?

With functionally efficient capital markets, we expect capital to flow more to the industries with the best growth opportunities. As a result, these industries should invest more and see their assets grow more relative to industries with the worst growth opportunities. We find that industries that receive more funds have a higher industry Tobin’s q until the mid-1990s, but not since then. Since industries with a higher funding rate grow more, there is a negative correlation not only between an industry’s funding rate and industry q but also between capital expenditures and industry q since the mid-1990s. We show that capital no longer flows more to the industries with the best growth opportunities because, since the middle of the 1990s, firms in high q industries increasingly repurchase shares rather than raise more funding from the capital markets.

And:

Gutierrez and Philippon – Investment-less Growth: An Empirical Investigation

We analyze private fixed investment in the U.S. over the past 30 years. We show that investment is weak relative to measures of profitability and valuation… We use industry-level and firm-level data to test whether under-investment relative to Q is driven by (i) financial frictions, (ii) measurement error (due to the rise of intangibles, globalization, etc), (iii) decreased competition (due to technology or regulation), or (iv) tightened governance and/or increased short-termism. We do not find support for theories based on risk premia, financial constraints, or safe asset scarcity, and only weak support for regulatory constraints. Globalization and intangibles explain some of the trends at the industry level, but their explanatory power is quantitatively limited. On the other hand, we find fairly strong support for the competition and short-termism/governance hypotheses. Industries with less entry and more concentration invest less, even after controlling for current market conditions. Within each industry-year, the investment gap is driven by firms that are owned by quasi-indexers and located in industries with less entry/more concentration. These firms spend a disproportionate amount of free cash flows buying back their shares.

I’m especially glad to see Philippon taking this question up. His Has Finance Become Less Efficient is kind of a classic, and in general he somehow seems to manages to be both a big-time mainstream finance guy and closely attuned to observable reality.  A full post on the two NBER papers soon, hopefully, once I’ve had time to read them properly.

 

 

“Sets” how, exactly? Here’s a super helpful piece  from the Bank of France on the changing mechanisms through which central banks — the Fed in particular — conduct monetary policy. It’s the first one in this collection — “Exiting low interest rates in a situation of excess liquidity: the experience of the Fed.” Textbooks tell us blandly that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” This ignores the fact that there are many interest rates in the economy, not all of which move with the central bank’s policy rate. It also ignores the concrete tools the central bank uses to set the policy rate, which are not trivial or transparent, and which periodically have to adapt to changes in the financial system. Post-2008 we’ve seen another of these adaptations. The BoF piece is one of the clearest guides I’ve seen to the new dispensation; I found it especially clarifying on the role of reverse repos. You could probably use it with advanced undergraduates.

Zoltan Pozsar’s discussion of the same issues is also very good — it adds more context but is a bit harder to follow than the BdF piece.

 

When he’s right, he’s right. I have my disagreements with Brad DeLong (doesn’t everyone?), but a lot of his recent stuff has been very good. Here are a couple of his recent posts that I’ve particularly liked. First, on “structural reform”:

The worst possible “structural reform” program is one that moves a worker from a low productivity job into unemployment, where they then lose their weak tie social network that allows them to get new jobs. … “Structural reforms” are extremely dangerous unless you have a high-pressure economy to pull resources out of low productivity into high productivity sectors.

The view in the high councils of Europe is that, when there is a high-pressure economy, politicians will not press for “structural reform”: there is no obvious need, and so why rock the boat? Politicians kick every can they can down the road, and you can only try “structural reform” when unemployment is high–and thus when it is likely to be ineffective if not destructive.

This gets both the substance and the politics right, I think. Although one might add that structural reform also often means reducing wages and worker power in high productivity sectors as well.

Second, criticizing Yellen’s opposition to more expansionary policy,which she says is no longer needed to get the economy back to full employment.

If the Federal Reserve wants to have the ammunition to fight the next recession when it happens, it needs the short-term safe nominal interest rate to be 5% or more when the recession hits. I believe that is very unlikely to happen without substantial fiscal expansion. … In the world that Janet Yellen sees, “fiscal policy is not needed to provide stimulus to get us back to full employment.” But fiscal stimulus is needed to create a situation in which full employment can be maintained…. if we do not shift to a more expansionary fiscal policy–and the higher neutral rate of interest that it brings–now, what do we envision will happen when the next recession arrives?

This is the central point of my WCEG working paper — that output is jointly determined by the interest rate and the fiscal balance, so the “natural rate” depends on the current stance of fiscal policy.  Plus the argument that, in a world where the zero lower bound is a potential constraint — or more broadly, where the expansionary effects of monetary policy are limited — what is sometimes called “crowding out” is a feature, not a bug. Totally right, but there’s one more step I wish DeLong would take. He writes a lot, and it’s quite possible I’ve missed it, but has he ever followed this argument to its next logical step and concluded that the fiscal surpluses of the 1990s were, in retrospect, a bad idea?

 

Farmer on government debt. Also on government budgets, here are some sensible observations on the UK’s, from Roger Farmer. First, the British public deficit is not especially high by historical standards; second, past reductions in debt-GDP ratios were achieved by growth raising the denominator, not surpluses reducing the numerator; and third, there is nothing particularly desirable about balanced budgets or lower debt ratios in principle. Anyone reading this blog has probably heard these arguments a thousand times, but it’s nice to get them from someone other than the usual suspects.

 

Deviation and trend. I was struck by this slide from the BIS. The content is familiar;  what’s interesting is that they take the deviation of GDP from the pre-criss trend as straightforward evidence of the costs of the crisis, and not a demographic-technological inevitability.

 

Cap and dividend. In Jacobin, James Boyce and Mark Paul make the case for carbon permits. I used to take the conventional view on carbon pricing — that taxes and permits were equivalent in principle, and that taxes were likely to work better in practice. But Boyce’s work on this has convinced me that there’s a strong case for preferring dividends. A critical part of his argument is that the permits don’t have to be tradable — short-term, non transferrable permits avoid a lot of the problems with “cap and trade” schemes.

 

 

Why teach the worst? In a post at Developing Economics, New School grad student Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven forthrightly makes the case for teaching “the worst of mainstream economics” to non-economists. As it happens, I don’t agree with her arguments here. I don’t think there’s a hard tradeoff between teaching heterodox material we think is true, and teaching orthodox material students will need in future classes or work. I think that with some effort, it is possible to teach material that is both genuinely useful and meaningful, and that will serve students well in future economics class. And except for students getting a PhD in economics themselves — and maybe not even them — I don’t think “learning to critique mainstream theories” is a very pressing need. But I like the post anyway. The important thing is that all of us — especially on the heterodox side — need to think more of teaching not as an unfortunate distraction, but as a core part of our work as economists. She takes teaching seriously, that’s the important thing.

 

 

Apple in the balance of payments. From Brad Setser, here’s a very nice example of critical reading of the national accounts. Perhaps even more than in other areas of accounts, the classification of different payments in the balance of payments is more or less arbitrary, contested, and frequently changed. It’s also shaped more directly by private interests — capital flight, tax avoidance and so on often involve moving cross-border payments from one part of the BoP to another. So we need to be even more scrupulously attentive with BoP statistics than with others to how concrete social reality gets reflected in the official numbers. The particular reality Setser is interested in is Apple’s research and development spending in the US, which ought to show up in the BoP as US service exports. But hardly any of it does, because — as he shows — Apple arranges for almost all its IP income to show up in low-tax Ireland instead. To me, the fundamental lesson here is about the relation between statistical map and economic territory. But as Setser notes, there’s also a more immediate policy implication:

Trade theory says that if the winners from globalization compensate the losers from globalization, everyone is better off. But I am not quite sure how that is supposed to happen if the winners are in some significant part able to structure their affairs so that a large share of their income is globally (almost) untaxed.

 

Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse

In my Jacobin piece on finance, I observed in passing that financial commitments across borders — what’s sometimes called capital mobility — enforce the logic of markets on national governments. This disciplining role has been on vivid display in the euro area over the past few years. Here, courtesy of yesterday’s Financial Times, is a great example of the obverse: If a state does want to resist liberal “reforms”, it needs to limit financial flows across the border.

The headline in the online edition spells it right out:

Renminbi stalls on road to being a global currency. New capital controls lead to doubt, especially over hopes of forcing economic reform.

The print edition is wordier but even clearer:

Renminbi reaches its high water mark. Fresh capital controls cast doubt over the push to increase the global use of its global currency. But what does that mean for the Chinese policymakers who saw it as a ‘Trojan horse’ to force through economic reform?

The whole article is fascinating. On the substance it’s really quite good — anyone who teaches international finance or open-economy macroeconomics should bookmark it to share with students. Along with the political-economy question I’m interested in here, it touches on almost all the most important points you’d want to make about what determines exchange rates. [1]

The article’s starting point is that for most of the past decade, international use of the Chinese renminbi (Rmb) has been steadily increasing. Some people even saw a future rival to the dollar. For most of the period, the renminbi was appreciating against the dollar, and the Chinese government was loosening restrictions on cross-border financial transactions. But recently those trends have reversed:

The share of China’s foreign trade settled in its own currency has shrunk from 26 per cent to 16 per cent over the past year while renminbi deposits in Hong Kong — the currency’s largest offshore centre — are down 30 per cent from a 2014 peak of Rmb1tn. Foreign ownership of Chinese domestic financial assets peaked at Rmb4.6tn in May 2015; it now stands at just Rmb3.3tn. In terms of turnover on global foreign exchange markets, the renminbi is only the world’s eighth most-traded currency — squeezed between the Swiss franc and Swedish krona — barely changed from ninth position in 2013.

What appeared to be structural drivers supporting greater international use of the Chinese currency now appear more like opportunism and speculation.

Large financial outflows — including capital flight by Chinese wealthholders and currency speculators reversing their bets — have led the renminbi to lose 10 percent of its value against the dollar over the past year or so. The Chinese central bank (the People’s Bank of China, or PBoC) has had to use a substantial part of its dollar reserves to keep the renminbi from depreciating even further.

… the PBoC remains active in the foreign exchange market as buyer and seller. Over the past 18 months, this has mostly meant selling dollars from foreign exchange reserves to counteract the depreciation pressure weighing on the renminbi.

This strategy has been expensive, contributing to a decline in reserves from $4tn in June 2014 to $3.1tn at the end of November. Defenders of the PBoC believe such aggressive action to curb depreciation has been worth the price because it prevented panic selling by global investors. Critics counter that costly forex intervention has merely delayed an inevitable exchange-rate adjustment.

For years, the IMF, US Treasury and other outside experts have urged China to embrace a floating exchange rate. In theory, such a step should eliminate the need to tighten capital controls or to spend precious foreign reserves on propping up the exchange rate. Instead, the currency would weaken until inflows and outflows balance.

In the age of Trump, it’s worth stressing this point: The Chinese central bank has been intervening to make the renminbi stronger, not weaker — to keep Chinese goods relatively expensive, not cheap. This has been true for a while, actually, although you can still find prominent liberals complaining about China boosting its exports through “currency manipulation”.  Also, as the article notes, the Washington Consensus line has been that China should end foreign-exchange interventions and abolish capital controls, allowing the renminbi to depreciate even further.

For most countries, continuing to spend down reserves would be the only alternative to uncontrolled depreciation. But China, unlike most countries, has maintained effective controls over cross-border financial flows, so it has another option: limiting the ability of households and businesses to trade renminbi claims for dollar ones.

The State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the regulator, last week said it would continue to encourage outbound investment deals that support the country’s efforts to transform its economy… But the agency said it would apply tighter scrutiny to acquisitions of real estate, hotels, Hollywood studios and sport teams.

That will probably mean fewer food-additive tycoons buying second-tier UK football clubs. It also suggests a crackdown on fake trade invoices, Hong Kong insurance purchases and gambling losses in Macau — all channels used to spirit money out of China. …

“They are trying to squeeze out all the low quality or suspicious or fraudulent outbound investment. But they have also made it clear they support genuine high-quality investment,” says Mr Qu.

These moves come on top of other limits on financial outflows. This passage highlights a couple additional points. First, effective controls on financial flows require controls on cross-border transactions in general. Second, there’s no sharp line between macro policy aimed at the exchange rate or other monetary aggregates, and micro-interventions aimed at channeling credit in particular directions.

Now to the political economy point:

China’s recent moves to tighten approvals for foreign acquisitions by Chinese companies, as well as other transactions that require selling renminbi for foreign currency, cast further doubt on China’s commitment to currency internationalisation.

“There is a fundamental conflict between preserving stability and allowing the freedom and flexibility required of a global currency,” says Brad Setser, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US Treasury official. “Now that the cost is becoming clear, Chinese policymakers may be realising they are not willing to do what it takes to maintain a global currency. Capital controls certainly set back the cause of renminbi internationalisation but they may well be the appropriate step given the outflow pressures.”

As a topic for banking conferences and think-tank seminars, renminbi internationalisation could not be beaten. It offered a way to express dissatisfaction with the US dollar-dominated monetary system, as laid bare by the 2008 financial crisis, while signalling an eagerness to do business with China’s large, fast-growing economy.

For China’s reform-minded central bank, however, renminbi internationalisation … offered something else: a Trojan horse that could be used to persuade Communist party leaders in Beijing and financial elites to accept reforms that were, in reality, more important for China’s domestic financial system than for the renminbi’s international status. Since 2010, when the internationalisation drive began, many of those reforms have been adopted…

This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over. Real or imagined pressure from the outside — from international creditors , institutions like the IMF, “the markets” in general — is needed to push through a liberal agenda that would not be accepted on its own merits. This is true in China, with its multiple competing power centers and effective if disorganized popular protests, just as it is for countries with more formally democratic political systems. What’s unusual about China’s case is that the “reform” side may no longer be winning.

What’s  unusual about this article is that it’s spelled out so clearly. “Trojan horse”: Their words, not mine.

The article continues:

The totem of currency internationalisation also served as justification for China’s moves over the past half-decade to open up its domestic financial markets to foreign investment, a process known as capital account liberalisation, that has been crucial to the global push of the renminbi. If foreign investors are to hold large quantities of China’s currency, they must have access to a deep and diverse pool of renminbi assets — and the peace of mind of knowing that they are free to sell those assets and convert proceeds back into their home currency as needed.

Again, thinking of classroom use, this is a nice illustration of liquidity preference.

Until last week, regulators had also steadily loosened approval requirements for foreign direct investment, in to and out of the country.  But those reforms occurred at a time when capital inflows and outflows were roughly balanced, which meant that liberalisation did not create strong pressure on the exchange rate. Now, the situation is very different. Beijing faces a stark choice. Either row back on freeing up capital flows — as it has already begun to do this year — or relinquish control of the exchange rate and accept a hefty devaluation.

We used to talk about a trilemma: A country cannot simultaneously peg its currency, set interest rates at the level required by the domestic economy, and allow free financial flows across its borders. At most you can manage two of the three. But it’s becoming clear that for most countries it’s  more of a dilemma: If you allow free capital mobility, you can’t control either the exchange rate or domestic credit conditions. International financial shifts are so large, and so unpredictable, that for most central banks they’ll overwhelm anything that can be done with conventional tools.

And when you accept free capital mobility, with its dubious rewards, it’s not just control over interest rates and exchange rates you’re giving up. In the absence of  controls over international financial flows, the whole range of economic policy — of public decisions in general — is potentially subject to the veto of finance. If you need foreign wealth-owners to voluntarily hold your assets, the only way to keep them happy — so goes the approved catechism — is to adopt the full range of market-friendly reforms. The FT again:

Economists argue that the fate of renminbi internationalisation ultimately depends on far-reaching economic reforms rather than short-term responses to rising capital outflows.

The list of course starts with privatization of state-owned companies and continues with deregulating finance.

“When you reimpose capital controls after having rolled them back, it can sometimes have a perverse effect,” says Mr Prasad… “What they need to do is something much harder — actually to get started on the broader reform agenda and show that they are serious about it. Right now the sense is that there is very little happening on other reforms.”

This is what it comes down to: If China is going to reach the grail of international-currency status, it is going to have to focus on the “reform” agenda dictated by financial markets — it’s going to have to earn their trust and prove it is “serious.” What exactly are the benefits of that status for China? It’s far from clear. (Of course it’s an attractive prospect for Chinese individuals who own lots of renminbi-denominated assets.) But it doesn’t matter as long as it serves as a seemingly objective basis for continued liberalization, which otherwise might face serious resistance.

“The question is which is to be the master — that’s all.”

 


 

[1] It doesn’t, of course, mention uncovered interest parity, the idea that interest rate differences between currencies exactly offset expected exchange rate changes. This doctrine dominates textbook discussion of exchange rate movements but plays no role in any real-life discussion of them.

What to Do about the Trade Deficit: Nothing

Roosevelt Institute has a new roundup of policy advice for the next administration. There is a lot of useful stuff in there, which perhaps I’ll post more on later. My own contribution is on international trade. Here’s the summary:

It is natural to look to measures to improve the trade balance — through a weaker dollar, or through tariffs or other direct limits on imports — as a way to raise demand and boost output and employment. While the U.S. has done little to boost net exports in recent decades, there is increasing public discussion of such measures today…

We argue that while the orthodox view is wrong about trade being macroeconomically neutral, measures to improve the U.S. trade balance would nonetheless be a mistake. All else equal, a more favorable trade balance will raise demand and boost employment. But all else
is not equal, thanks to the special role of the U.S. in the world economy. The global economy today operates on what is effectively a dollar standard: The U.S. dollar serves as the international currency, the way gold did under under the gold standard. In part for this reason, the U.S. can finance trade deficits indefinitely while most other countries cannot. For many of our trade partners, any reduction of net exports would imply unsustainable trade deficits. So policies intended to improve the U.S. trade balance are likely to instead lead to lower growth elsewhere, imposing large costs on the rest of the world with little or no benefits here.

We do not deny that the trade deficit has negative effects on demand and employment in the U.S., but we argue this is only a reason to redouble efforts to boost domestic demand. The solution to the contractionary effects of the trade deficit is not a costly, and probably futile, effort to move toward a trade surplus, but rather measures to boost investment in both the public and private sector.

You can read the rest of my piece here.

There were a couple figures that didn’t make it into the final piece. Here is one, showing the stability of the international role of the dollar over the past 20 years.

dollars

The dotted line shows the share of central bank reserves held in dollars (source). The heavy line shows the share of foreign-exchange transactions that involve the dollar (source). About two-thirds of foreign exchange reserves are held in dollars, and close to 90 percent of foreign-exchange transactions involve the dollar and some other currency. These shares have not diminished at all over the past 20 years, despite continuous US trade deficits.

In my opinion, the international role of the dollar makes it exceedingly unlikely that the US could face a sudden outflow of foreign investment. (And given that US liabilities are overwhelmingly dollar-denominated, it is not clear what the costs of such an outflow would be.) It also makes it highly unlikely that the US can achieve balanced trade through conventional measures, unless we come up with some other mechanism to provide the rest of the world with dollar liquidity.

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.