Trump’s Tariffs: A Dissent

Last week, the Washington Post ran an article by Jim Tankersley on what would happen if Trump got his way and the US imposed steep tariffs on goods from Mexico and China. I ended up as the objectively pro-Trump voice in the piece. The core of it was an estimates from Mark Zandi at Moody’s that a 45% tariff on goods from China and a 35% tariff on goods from Mexico (I don’t know where these exact numbers came from) would have an effect on the US comparable to the Great Recession, with output and employment both falling by about 5 percent relative to the baseline. About half this 5 percent fall in GDP would be due to retaliatory tariffs from China and Mexcio, and about half would come from the US tariffs themselves. As I told the Post, I think this is nuts.

Let me explain why I think that, and what a more realistic estimate would look like. But first, I should say that Tankersley did exactly what one ought to do with this story — asked the right question and went to a respected expert to help him answer it. The problem is with what that expert said, not the reporting. I should also say that my criticisms were presented clearly and accurately in the piece. But of course, there’s only so much you can say in even a generous quote in a newspaper article. Hence this post.

I haven’t seen the Moody’s analysis (it’s proprietary). All I know is what’s in the article, and the general explanation that Tankersley gave me in the interview. But from what I can tell, Zandi and his team want to tell a story like this. When the US imposes a tariff, it boosts the price of imported goods but leads to no substitution away from them. Instead, higher import prices just mean lower real incomes in the US. Then, when China and Mexico retaliate, that does lead to substitution away from US goods, and the lost exports reduce US real incomes further. But only under the most extreme assumptions can you get Zandi’s numbers out of this story.

While this kind of forecasting might seem mysterious, it mostly comes down to picking values for a few parameters — that is, making numerical guesses about relationships between the variables of interest. In this case, we have to answer three questions. The first question is, how much of the tariff is paid by the purchasers of imported goods, as opposed to the producers? The second question is, how do purchasers respond to higher prices — by substituting to domestic goods, by substituting to imports from other countries, or by simply paying the higher prices? Substitution to domestic goods is expansionary (boosts demand here), substitution to imports from elsewhere is neutral, and paying the higher prices is contractionary, since it reduces the income available for domestic spending. And the third question is, how much does a given shift in demand ultimately move GDP? The answer to the first question gives us the passthrough parameter. The answer to the second question gives us two price elasticities — a bilateral elasticity for imports from that one country, and an overall elasticity for total imports. The answer to the third question gives us the multiplier. Combine these and you have the change in GDP resulting from the tariff. Of course if you think the initial tariffs will provoke retaliatory tariffs from the other countries, you have to do the same exercise for those, with perhaps different parameters.

Let’s walk through this. Suppose the US — or any country — increases taxes on imports: What can happen? The first question is, how is the price of the imported good set — by costs in the producing country, or by market conditions in the destination? If conditions in the destination country affect price — if the producer is unable or unwilling  to raise prices by the full amount of the tariff — then they will have to accept lower revenue per unit sold. This is referred to as pricing to market or incomplete passthrough, and empirical studies suggest it is quite important in import prices, especially in the US. Incomplete passthrough may result in changing profit margins for producers, or they may be able to adjust their own costs — wages especially — in turn. Where trade is a large fraction of GDP, some of the tax may eventually be translated into a lower price level in the exporting country.

Under floating exchange rates, the tariff may also lead a depreciation of the exporting country currency relative to the currency of the country imposing the tariff. This is especially likely where trade between the two countries is a large share of total trade for one or both of them. In this case, a tariff is more likely to cause a depreciation of the Mexican peso than of the Chinese renminbi, since the US accounts for a higher fraction of Mexico’s exports than of China’s, and the renminbi is actively managed by China’s central bank.

Taking all these effects together, passthrough for US imports is probably less than 0.5. In other words, the  majority of a tariff’s impact will probably be on dollar revenue for producers, rather than dollar costs for consumers. So a 10 percent tariff increases costs of imported goods by something less than 5 percent and reduces the revenue per unit of producers by something more than 5 percent.

The fraction of the tax that is not absorbed by lower exporter profit margins, lower wages in the export industry or a lower price level in the exporting country, or by exchange rate changes, will be reflected in higher prices in the importing country. The majority of trade goods for the US (as for most countries) are intermediate and capital goods, and even imported consumption goods are almost never purchased directly by the final consumer. So on the importing side, too, there will be firms making a choice between accepting lower profit margins, reducing wages and other domestic costs, or raising prices. Depending on exactly where we are measuring import prices, this might further reduce passthrough.

Let’s ignore this last complication and assume that a tax that is not absorbed on the exporting-country side is fully passed on to final price of imported goods. Purchasers of imported goods now respond to the higher price either by substituting to domestic goods, or substituting to imported goods from some third country not subject to the tax, or continuing to purchase the imports at the higher price. To the extent they substitute to domestic goods, that will boost demand here; to the extent they substitute to third-country goods, the tax will have no effect here.

These rates of substitution are described by the price elasticity of imports, computed as the ratio of the percentage change in the price, to the resulting percentage change in the quantity imported. So for instance if we thought that a 1 percent increase in the price of imported goods leads to a 2 percent fall in the quantity purchased, we would say the price elasticity is 2. There are two elasticities we have to think about — the bilateral elasticity and the overall elasticity. For example, we might think that the bilateral elasticity for US imports from China was 3 while the overall price elasticity for was 1. In that case, a 1 percent increase in the price of Chinese imports would lead to a 3 percent fall in US imports from China but only one-third of that would be through lower total US imports; the rest would be through higher imports from third countries.

To the extent the higher priced imported goods are purchased, this may result in a higher price of domestic goods for which the imports are an input or a substitute; to the extent this happens, the tax will raise domestic inflation but leave real income unchanged. For the US, import prices have a relatively small effect on overall inflation, so we’ll ignore this effect here. If we included it, we would end up with a smaller effect.

To the extent that the increase in import prices neither leads to any substitution away from the imported goods, nor to any price increase in domestic goods, it will reduce real incomes in the importing country, and leave incomes in the exporting country unchanged. Conversely, to the extent that the tariff is absorbed by lower wages or profit margins in the exporting country, or leads to substitution away from that country’s goods, it reduces incomes in the exporting country, but not in the importing country. And of course, to the extent that there is no substitution away from the taxed goods, government revenue will increase. Zandi does not appear to have explicitly modeled this last effect, but it is important in thinking about the results — a point I’ll return to.

Whether the increase in import prices increases domestic incomes (by leading to substitution to domestic goods) or reduces them, the initial effect will be compounded as the change in income leads to changes in other spending flows. If, let’s say, an increase in the price of Chinese consumer goods forces Americans to cut back purchases of American-made goods, then the workers and business owners in the affected industries will find themselves with less income, which will cause them to reduce their spending in turn. This is the familiar multiplier. The direct effect may be compounded or mitigated by financial effects — the multiplier will be larger if you think (as Zandi apparently does) that a fall in income will be accompanied by a fall in asset prices with a further negative effect on credit and consumption, and smaller if you think that a trade-induced change in income will be offset by a change in monetary (or fiscal) policy. In the case where central bank’s interest rate policy is always able to hold output at potential, the multiplier will be zero — shocks to demand will have no effect on output. This extreme case looked more reasonable a decade ago than it does today. In conditions where the Fed can’t or won’t offset demand impacts, estimates of the US multiplier range as high as 2.5; a respectable middle-of-the-road estimate would be 1.5.

Let’s try this with actual numbers.

Start with passthrough. The overwhelming consensus in the empirical literature is that less than half of even persistent changes in exchange rates are passed through to US import prices. This recent survey from the New York Fed, for instance, reports a passthrough of about 0.3:

following a 10 percent depreciation of the dollar, U.S. import prices increase about 1 percentage point in the contemporaneous quarter and an additional 2 percentage points over the next year, with little if any subsequent increases.

The factors that lead to incomplete passthrough of exchange rate movements — such as the size of the US market, and the importance exporters of maintaining market share — generally apply to a tariff as well, so it’s reasonable to think passthrough would be similar. So a 45% tariff on Chinese goods would probably raise prices to American purchasers by only about 15%, with the remainder absorbed by profits and/or wages at Chinese exporters.

Next we need to ask about the effect of that price on American purchases. There is a large literature estimating trade price elasticities; a sample is shown in the table below. As you can see, almost all the import price elasticities are between 0.2 and 1.0. (Price elasticities seem to be greater for US exports than for imports; they also seem to be higher for most other countries than for the US.) The median estimates is around 0.5 for overall US imports. Country-specific estimates are harder to find but I’ve seen values around 1.0 for US imports from both China and Mexico. Using those estimates, we would expect a 15% increase in the price of Chinese imports to lead to a 15% fall in imports from China, with about half of the substitution going to US goods and half going to imports from other countries. Similarly, a 10% increase in the price of goods from Mexico  (a 35% tariff times passthrough of 0.3) would lead to a 10% fall in imports from Mexico, with half of that being a switch to US goods and half to imports from elsewhere.

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Selected trade elasticity estimates for the US. The last column indicates if “price” was measured with an import price index (P), the exchange rate (E), or competitiveness, i.e. relative wages (C). The “P” estimates are most relevant for a tariff.

Finally, we ask how the combination of substitution away from imports from Mexico and China, and the rise in price of the remaining imports, would affect US output. US imports from China are about 2.7 percent of US GDP, and imports from Mexico are about 1.7 percent of GDP. So with the parameters above, substitution to US goods raises GDP by 7.5% x 2.7% (China) plus 5% x 1.7% (Mexico), or 0.29% of GDP. Meanwhile the higher prices of the remaining imports from China and Mexico reduce US incomes by 0.22 percent, for a net impact of a trivial one twentieth of one percent of GDP. Apply a standard multiplier of 1.5, and the tariffs boost GDP by 0.08 percent.

You could certainly get a larger number than this, for instance if you thought that passthrough of a tariff would be substantially greater than passthrough of exchange rate changes. And making US import demand just a bit less price-elastic is enough to  turn the small positive impact into a small negative one. But it would be very hard to get an impact of even one percent of GDP in either direction. And it would be almost impossible to get a negative impact of the kind that Zandi describes. If you assume both that the tariffs are fully passed through to final purchasers, and that US import demand is completely insensitive to price then with a multiplier of 1.5, you get a 2.7 percent reduction in US GDP. Since this is close to Zandi’s number, this may be what he did. But again, these are extreme assumptions, with no basis in the empirical literature. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but you need to justify them; just saying the magic word “proprietary” is not enough. (Imagine all the trouble Jerry Friedman could have saved himself with that trick!)

And the very low price elasticity you need for this result has some funny implications. For instance, it implies that when China intervenes to weaken their currency, they are just impoverishing themselves, since — if demand is really price-inelastic — they are now sending us the same amount of goods and getting fewer dollars for each one. I doubt Zandi would endorse this view, but it’s a logical corollary of the ultra-low elasticity he needs to get a big cost to the US from the initial tariff. Note also that the low-elasticity assumption means that the tariff creates no costs for China or Mexico: their exporters pass the increased tariff on completely to US consumers, and lose no sales as a result. It’s not clear why they would “retaliate” for this.

Let’s assume, though, that China and Mexico do impose tariffs on US goods. US exports to China and Mexico equal 0.7 and 1.3 percent of US GDP respectively. Passthrough is probably higher for US exports — let’s say 0.6 rather than 0.3. Price elasticity is also probably higher — we’ll say 1.5 for both bilateral elasticities and for overall export elasticity. (In the absence of exchange-rate changes, there’s no reason to think that a fall in exports to China and Mexico will lead to a rise in exports to third countries.) And again, we’ll use a multiplier of 1.5. This yields a fall in US GDP from the countertariffs of just a hair under 1 percent. Combine that with the small demand boost from the tariff, and we get an overall impact of -0.9 percent of GDP.

I admit, this is a somewhat larger hit than I expected before I worked through this exercise. But it’s still much smaller than Zandi’s number.

My preferred back-of-the-envelope for the combined impact of the tariffs and countertariffs would be a reduction in US GDP of 0.9 percent, but I’m not wedded to this exact number. I think reasonable parameters could get you an impact on US GDP anywhere from positive 1 percent to, at the worst, negative 2 percent or so. But it’s very hard to get Zandi’s negative 5 percent. You need an extremely high passthrough for both import and export prices, plus extremely price-inelastic US import demand and extremely price-elastic demand for US exports — all three parameters well outside the range in the empirical literature.  At one point a few years ago, I collected about 20 empirical estimates of US trade elasticities, and none of them had a price elasticity for US exports greater than 1.5. But even with 100% passthrough, and a generous multiplier of 2.0, you need an export price elasticity of 4 or so to get US GDP to fall by 5 points.

Still, while Zandi’s 5 percent hit to GDP seems beyond the realm of the plausible, one could perhaps defend a still-substantial 2 percent. Let’s think for a moment, though, about what this would mean.

First of all, it’s worth noting — as I didn’t, unfortunately, to the Post reporter — that tariff increases are, after all, tax increases. Whatever its effect on trade flows, a big increase in taxes will be contractionary. This is Keynes 101. Pick any activity accounting for 5 percent of GDP and slap a 40 percent tax on it, and it’s a safe bet that aggregate income will be lower as a result. The logic of the exercise would have been clearer if the tariff revenue were offset by a cut in some other tax, or increase in government spending. (Maybe this is what Trump means when he says Mexico will pay for the wall?) Then it would be clearer how much of the predicted impact comes from the tariff specifically, as opposed to the shift toward austerity that any such a big tax increase implies. The point is, even if you decide that a 2 percent fall in US GDP is the best estimate of the tariff’s impact, it wouldn’t follow that tariffs as such are a bad idea. It could be that a big tax increase is.

Second, let’s step back for a moment. While Mexico and China are two of our largest trade partners, they still account for less than a quarter of total US trade. Given passthrough of 0.3, the 45/35 percent tariff on Chinese/Mexican goods would raise overall US import prices by about 3 percent. Even with 100 percent passthrough, the tariffs would raise overall import prices by just 10 percent. The retaliatory tariffs would raise US export prices by about half this — 5 percent with full passthrough. (The difference is because these two countries account for a smaller share of US exports than of US imports). Now, let’s look at the movements of the dollar in recent years.

dollar exrate

Since 2014, the dollar has risen 15 percent. That’s a 15 percent increase in the price of US goods in all our export markets — three times the impact of the hypothetical Mexican and Chinese tariffs. But before that, from 2002 to 2008, the dollar fell by over 20 percent. That raised the price of US imports by twice as much as the hypothetical Trump tariff. And so on on back to the 1970s. If you believe Zandi’s numbers, then the rise in the dollar over the past two years should already have triggered a severe recession. Of course it has not. It would be foolish to deny that movements of the dollar have had some effect on US output and employment. But no one,  I think, would claim impacts on anything like this scale. Still, one thing is for sure: If you believe anything like Zandi’s numbers on the macro impacts of trade price changes, then it’s insane to allow exchange rates to be set by private speculators.

So if Zandi is wrong about the macro impact of tariffs, does that mean Trump is right? No. First of all, while I don’t think there’s any way to defend Zandi’s claim of a very large negative impact on GDP of a tariff (or of a more respectable, but economically equivalent, depreciation of the dollar), it’s almost as hard to defend a large positive impact. Despite all the shouting, the relative price of Chinese goods is just not a very big factor for aggregate demand in the US. If the goal is stronger demand and higher wages here, there are various things we can do. A more favorable trade balance with China (or Mexico, or anywhere else) is nowhere near the top of that list. Second, the costs of the tariff would be substantial for the rest of the world. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that China, over the past generation, has seen perhaps the largest rise in living standards in human history. We can debate how critical exports to the US were in this process, but certainly the benefits to China of exports to the US were vastly greater than whatever costs they created here.

But the fact that an idea is wrong, doesn’t mean that we can ignore evidence and logic in refuting it. Trumpism is bad enough on the merits. There’s no need to exaggerate its costs.

 

UPDATE: My spreadsheet is here, if you want to play with alternative parameter values.

 

Links for March 25

Some links, on short-termism, trade, the Fed and other things.

Senators Tammy Baldwin and Jeff Merkley have introduced a bill to limit activist investors’ ability to push for higher payouts. The bill, which is cosponsored by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, would strengthen the 13D disclosure requirements for hedge funds and others acquiring large positions in a corporation. This is obviously just one piece of a larger agenda, but it’s good to see the “short-termism’ conversation leading to concrete proposals.

I’m pleased to be listed as one of the supporters of the bill, but I think the strongest endorsement is this furious reaction from a couple of hedge fund dudes. It’s funny how they take it for granted that shareholder democracy is on the same plane as democracy democracy, but my favorite bit is, “Shareholders do not cause bad management, just as voters do not cause bad politicians.” This sounds to me like an admission that shareholders are functionless parasites — if they aren’t responsible for the quality of management, what are we paying them all those dividends for?

I wrote a twitter essay on why the US shouldn’t seek a more favorable trade balance.

Jordan Weissman thinks I was “a bit ungenerous” to Trump.

My Roosevelt Institute colleague Carola Blinder testified recently on reform of the Fed, making the critical point that we need to take monetary policy seriously as a political question. “Contrary to conventional thinking, the rules of central banking are not neutral: Both monetary policy and financial supervision have profound effects on income and wealth inequality … [and] are the product of political contestation and compromise.” Relatedly, Mark Thoma suggests that the Fed “cares more about the interests of the rich and powerful than it does the working class”; his solution, as far as I can tell, is to hope that it doesn’t.

Matt Bruenig has a useful post on employment by age group in the US v the Nordic countries. As he shows, the fraction of people 25-60 working there is much higher than the fraction here (though workers here put in more hours). This has obvious relevance for the arguments of the No We Can’t caucus that there’s no room for more stimulus, because demographics.

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A reminder: “Ricardian equivalence” (debt and tax finance of government spending have identical effects on private behavior) was explicitly denied by David Ricardo, and the “Fisher effect” (persistent changes in inflation lead to equal movements of nominal interest rates, leaving real rates unchanged) was explicitly denied by Irving Fisher. One nice thing about this piece is it looks at how textbooks describe the relationship between the idea and its namesake. Interesting, Mankiw gets Fisher right, while Delong and Olney get him wrong: They falsely attribute to him the orthodox view that nominal interest rates track inflation one for one, when in fact he argued that even persistent changes in inflation are mostly not passed on to nominal rates.

Here is a fascinating review of some recent books on the Cold War conflicts in Angola. One thing the review brings out was how critical the support of Cuba was to South Africa’s defeat there, and how critical that defeat in turn was to the end of apartheid. We tend to take it for granted that history had to turn out as it did, but it’s worth asking if, in the absence of Castro’s commitment to Angola, white rule in South Africa might have ended much later, or not at all.

 

Links for March 14

A few things elsewhere on the web, relevant to recent conversations here.

1. Michael Reich and his colleagues at the Berkeley Center for Labor Research have a new report out on the impacts of a $15 minimum wage in New York. It does something I wish all studies of the minimum wage and employment would do: It explicitly decomposes the employment impact into labor productivity, price, demand and labor share effects. Besides being useful for policy, this links nicely to the macro discussion of alternative Phillips curves.

2. I like Susan Schroeder’s idea of creating a public credit-rating agency. It’s always interesting how the need to deal with immediate crises and dysfunctions creates pressure to socialize various aspects of the financial system. The most dramatic recent example was back in the fall of 2008, when the Fed began lending directly to anyone who needed to roll over commercial paper; but you can think of lots of examples, including QE itself, which involves the central bank taking over part of banks’ core function of maturity transformation.

3. On the subject of big business’s tendency to socialize itself, I should have linked earlier to Noah Smith’s discussion of “new industrialism” (including my work for the Roosevelt Institute) as the next big thing in economic policy. Eric Ries’ proposal for creating a new, nontransferable form of stock ownership reminded me of this bit from Keynes: “The spectacle of modern investment markets has sometimes moved me towards the conclusion that  the purchase of an investment [should be] permanent and indissoluble, like marriage, except by reason of death or other grave cause… For this would force the investor to direct his mind to the long-term prospects and to those only.”

4. In comments to my recent post on the balance of payments, Ramanan points to a post of his, making the same point, more clearly than I managed to. Also worth reading is the old BIS report he links to, which explicitly distinguishes between autonomous and accommodative financial flows. Kostas Kalaveras also had a very nice post on this topic a while ago, noting that in Europe TARGET2 balances function as a buffer allowing private financial flows and current account balances to move independently from each other.

5. I’m teaching intermediate macroeconomics here at John Jay, as I do most semesters, and I’ve put some new notes I’m using up on the teaching page of this website. It’s probably mostly of interest to people who teach this stuff themselves, but I did want to call attention to the varieties of business cycles handout, which is somewhat relevant to current debates. It’s also an example of how I try to teach macro — focus on causal relationships between observable aggregates, rather than formal models based on equilibrium conditions.

How to Think about the Balance of Payments: The US Position 2012-2013

In the previous post, I suggested that we should think of the various trade and financial flows in the balance of payments as evolving more or less independently, with imbalances between them normally accommodated by passive buffers rather than being closed by any kind of price adjustment. In that post I focused on the prewar gold standard. Here is a more recent example of what I’m talking about.

From 2012 to 2013 there was a general “risk on” shift in financial markets, with fears of a new crisis receding and investors focusing more on yield and less on safety and liquidity. In a risk-off environment investors prefer the safety of US assets even if yields are very low; in a risk-on environment, as we were moving toward in 2013, they prefer higher-yielding non-US assets.

Now, how was this shift in asset demand accommodated in the balance of payments? Orthodox theory suggests that there should be some offsetting change in interest rates and/or exchange rate expectations to keep demand for US and non-US assets balanced. But this didn’t happen — interest rate differentials didn’t close, and “risk-on” is associated with a falling rather than a rising dollar. And in fact, there was a large net outflow of portfolio investment: Net acquisition of foreign assets was $250 billion higher in 2013 than 2012, and net foreign acquisition of US assets by foreigners was $250 billion lower. Orthodox theory also says that if there is a net shift in investment flows, there should be an offsetting change in the current account. But the US current account shifted only $60 billion toward surplus, compared with the $500 billion net shift in portfolio flows. In a country with a fixed exchange rate, we would expect the remaining portfolio outflow to be accommodated by a fall in foreign exchange reserves. but of course the dollar floats, and the Fed does not hold significant reserves.

In fact, the entire shift was accommodated within the US banking system, most importantly by a rise in foreign-held deposits of $400 billion. Now this is an increase in US foreign liabilities, but it does not reflect a decision by anyone to borrow from abroad. It simply reflects the mechanics of international financial transactions. When an American spends money to purchase a foreign asset, the “money” they are using is a deposit at an American bank. When the asset is purchased, that deposit is transferred to the foreign asset-seller (or some intermediary), turning the deposit into a foreign liability of the bank. So the shift of portfolio investment out of the US does not require any change in prices (or incomes) to generate an offsetting flow into the US. The foreign liabilities that finance the purchase of foreign assets are generated mechanically in the course of the transaction itself.

Eventually, the effort to close out this residual long dollar position might produce downward pressure on the value of the dollar. And if the dollar does depreciate, that may increase demand for other US assets or for US exports sufficient to absorb the deposits. But there is no guarantee that either of these things will happen. And certainly they will not happen quickly. What we know for sure is that buffering within the banking system can offset quite large flows for substantial periods of time — in this case, a shift in portfolio flows of a couple percent of GDP sustained over a year. It might be that, with sufficient time, net sales of US assets might be large enough to push their price down, raising the yield enough to compensate for the lower safety premium. Or it might be that the downward pressure on the dollar will eventually lead to a big enough depreciation to raise US net exports enough to balance the portfolio outflow — but this will be a very long process, if it happens at all. It’s quite likely the portfolio will reverse for its own reasons (like a shift back toward “risk off”) before these adjustments even get started. Alternatively, liquidity constraints within the banking system may exhaust its buffering capacity before any other adjustment mechanism comes into play, requiring active intervention by the state or a catastrophic adjustment of the current account. (Presumably not in the case of the US, but often enough elsewhere.)

In practice, where we see payments balance maintained smoothly, it’s more likely because the underlying patterns of trade and investment are balanced and stable enough to not strain the buffering capacity of the banking system, rather than thanks to the operation of any adjustment mechanism.

 

How to Think about the Balance of Payments

There are many payments between countries — trade in goods and services, profits and interest paid to foreign capitalists, portfolio investment, FDI and bank lending, transactions between governments. All of these payments must balance out one way or another.

International-finance orthodoxy since David Hume has been about identifying an automatic mechanism that ensures that all these flows balance. This mechanism should take the form of a price adjustment, whether of the price level, the exchange rate, or the interest rate.

An alternative Keynesian approach is to make aggregate income the adjusting variable that maintains the balance of payments equality, just as it is in maintaining the domestic savings-investment balance. This is the idea behind balance of payments constrained growth.

Balance of payments constrained growth is certainly an improvement on the price adjustment mechanisms of orthodoxy. But I think it would be even better to consider both as items on a menu of things that may happen when a payments imbalance develops. The beginning of wisdom here is to recognize that there is no general mechanism that maintains payments balance. Changes in relative prices, exchange rates, interest rates or incomes may all play a role, depending on the timeframe we are considering and on the countries involved and the source of the imbalance.

Our theory of balance of payments adjustments should not begin with the universal logic of either orthodox or b.o.p.-constrained growth models, but with a concrete historical enumeration of the various sources of payments imbalance and the various kinds of adjustment in response to them.

We also need to consider other kinds of adjustment mechanisms, in particular, accommodation by buffers. This will always be the dominant mechanism if we are considering a short enough period. In the first instance, payments balance is maintained because there are some actors in the system who will passively take the other side of any open foreign exchange positions. The familiar example of this is a central bank that holds foreign exchange reserves: When it intervenes in the foreign exchange market, it passively allows its reserve position to adjust to accommodate whatever net demand there is for foreign currency. But there are also private buffers. In particular, there’s not nearly enough recognition of the special role of banks in the payments system, which requires them to take open foreign exchange positions when other units engage in cross-border transactions. An inflow of foreign investment, for instance, will in the first instance always result in a an increase in foreign assets in the banking system of the receiving country and foreign liabilities in the banking system of the investing country. How large are the imbalances that can be buffered in this way, and how long the banking system will passively maintain its open position without some other adjustment mechanism coming into play, are open questions. But there is no question that in the short run, the balance of payments is maintained through this sort of passive buffering, and not through any adjustment of either prices or incomes.

We also need to recognize the role of active policy in maintaining payments balance. We tend to think of policy “interventions” as modifications or “shocks” to an underlying structure of payments, but official actions may be an important adjustment mechanism by which that structure is maintained in the first place. This includes both bilateral or multilateral actions that generate offsetting official financial flows in the face of imbalances (important even in the19th century, in the form of central bank cooperation) and unilateral actions to limit outflows, including capital controls, import restrictions and so on.

The right starting point, I think, is to think of the various financial and trade flows as evolving essentially independently. If they happen to more or less balance, then the available buffers and whatever limited price adjustment is possible will be enough to maintain balance. If they don’t happen to balance, then the expected outcome is a crisis of some sort, ending with state intervention and/or a change in the “fundamental” parameters. There is no automatic mechanism that maintains balance. Where we see smooth payments balance over a long period time, it is probably because international payments are being actively managed by the authorities, or because productive capacities, import demands, asset preferences of foreign investors and so on have evolved to fit the existing pattern of payments, rather than vice versa.

The classic case is the London-centered gold standard system of the 19th century. Despite what someone like Barry Eichengreen will tell you, price flexibility was not an important element in the stability of this system. While prices and wages did rise and especially fall more freely before World War One, they almost always did so in parallel across trading partners, not in the opposite way that would offset trade imbalances. Instead, the system depended on the following institutionally specific features.

1. A large fraction of non-British savings, especially from Latin America and other less-developed countries, were held in London. This meant that many “international” payments simply involved a transfer from one British bank account to another, with no cross-border settlement required.

2. British foreign investment primarily funded purchases of British capital goods, so that financial outflows and exports naturally rose and fell together without the need for price adjustments.

3. The capital goods so purchased (for railroads especially) were largely used to produce exports to Britain, offsetting interest and divided payments back to London.

4. Slower growth in Britain was associated with lower interest rates there. So the slowdown in import payments abroad (due to lower incomes) was offset by an increase in foreign lending, which was quite interest-sensitive.

5. Within Europe central banks actively cooperated to offset any payments imbalances that did occur. On several occasions where there a net flow of gold from London to Paris seemed to be developing, the Bank of France made large loans to the Bank of England so that no actual gold had to move. In addition, the belief that gold convertibility would be maintained, or if suspended soon restored at the old parity, meant if a payments imbalance led to a deviation of the market exchange rate from the official parity, it would generate large speculative flows toward the depreciated currency.

6. Outside of Europe, crises and defaults were integral to the operation of the system. While interest-sensitive foreign lending meant that for England (and to some extent other European countries, and later the US), imports and financial outflows tended to move in opposite directions, higher interest rates could not reliably generate financial inflow for peripheral countries. Instead, the normal adjustment process for large imbalances was a catastrophic one in which large deficits periodically led to suspension of convertibility and default.

7. Over the longer run, the “fundamentals” in the periphery were shaped to produce payments balance at prevailing prices, rather than prices adjusting to fundamentals. Foreign investment financed development of export industries suiting the needs of the investing country, with higher-wage countries specializing in higher-value products. In settler colonies, migrant flows strengthened trade and financial links with the mother country.

Bottom line: there was no adjustment mechanism. Stability depended on the contingent fact that the prevailing “shocks” had roughly balanced effects on payment flows. Small imbalances were absorbed by buffers (which in the pre-WWI system included the cost of transporting gold). Large imbalances were actively managed or else led to the system breaking down, either locally, or globally as with the war.

For the gold standard era, I think the best statement of this perspective is Triffin’s “Myths and Realities of the So-Called ‘Gold Standard’.” Alec Ford’s The Gold Standard 1880-1914: Britain and Argentina is also very good (as is Barry Eichengreen’s discussion of it.) Peter Temin makes essentially this argument in his Lessons from the Great Depression — that the gold standard worked before World War I but broke down in the 1920s not because prices were more flexible before the war, but because in the prewar period it did not have to deal with big imbalances in trade and financial flows as developed after. Keynes makes the same larger point, as well as all seven of the specific points above, but at scattered places in his writing and correspondence rather than — as far as I know — in any single text. This perspective is in the same spirit as the “surplus recycling mechanism” that Varoufakis talks about in The Global Minotaur and elsewhere, the idea that there is no price mechanism that tends to bring about payments balance and so some specific institution is needed to offset persistent surpluses and deficits. (Though of course Varoufakis is focused on the more recent period.) The point that productive capacities are shaped by relative prices, rather than vice versa, was made by development economists like Arthur Lewis — it’s stated very clearly in his Evolution of the World Economic Order.

Obviously, the specifics will be different today. But I think the same basic perspective on the balance of payments still applies. Where payments balance exists, it is because of institutional factors that tend to generate offsetting disturbances to trade and financial flows, and because the international structure of production has evolved to generate balance at existing relative prices, rather than because prices have adjusted. And when imbalances do develop, they are accommodated first by passive buffers, and then either actively managed by authorities or else produce a breakdown in the system.

 

Note: I wrote most of this post in February 2015 and then for some reason never put it up. It really should have links, but given that it’s already sat around for over  year I decided to just put it up as-is. Since the original post was very long, I’ve split it into two parts. The second half is here

 

We’ve Always Had Free Trade with Eastasia

There’s nothing like trade to provoke full-throated defenses of economic orthodoxy. How many other topics are there where people would even use the phrase to mean what is correct, obvious, not to be questioned? For example,  Binyamin Applebaum in yesterday’s Times: On Trade, Trump Breaks with 200 Years of Economic Orthodoxy.

Donald J. Trump’s blistering critique of American trade policy boils down to a simple equation: Foreigners are “killing us on trade” because Americans spend much more on imports than the rest of the world spends on American exports. …

Add a few “whereins” and “whences” and that sentiment would conform nicely to the worldview of the first Queen Elizabeth of 16th-century England, to the 17th-century court of Louis XIV, or to Prussia’s Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in the 19th century. The great powers of bygone centuries subscribed to the economic theory of mercantilism…

Etc. Restrictions on trade aren’t just mistaken, they’re  exotic, primitive, un-American, part of a dusty storybook world of kings and queens and whences.

I admit, this is an issue where I’m a bit of a heterodox bubble. I’ve been reading people like Ha-Joon Chang  so long, I forget how pervasive is the idea that the US has always practiced free trade (except for one terrible mistake in the 1930s.) I forget how unquestioned the myth of free trade is in the larger economic conversation. Because of course it is a myth. Here is Chang:

Between 1816 and the end of the Second World War, the U.S. had one of the highest average tariff rates on manufacturing imports in the world… The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which Bhagwati portrays as a radical departure from a historic free-trade stance, only marginally (if at all) increased the degree of protectionism in the U.S. economy…

The following quote from Ulysses Grant, the Civil War hero and president of the United States from 1868 to 1876 clearly shows how the Americans had no illusions about [free trade]. “For centuries England has relied on protection, has carried it to extremes and has obtained satisfactory results from it. There is no doubt that it is to this system that it owes its present strength. After two centuries, England has found it convenient to adopt free trade because it thinks that protection can no longer offer it anything. Very well then, Gentlemen, my knowledge of our country leads me to believe that within 200 years, when America has gotten out of protection all that it can offer, it too will adopt free trade.”

Or here’s Paul Bairoch, whose book remains the esential reference on trade policy historically:

One should not forget that modern protectionism was born in the United States. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretaary of the Treasury, drew up his famous Report on Manufactures, which is considered to be the first formulation of modern protectionist theory. … The major contribution of Hamilton is the idea that industrialization is not possible wothout tariff protection. He was apparently the first to have used the term ‘infant industries.’ …

from 1861 to the end of World War II was [a period] of strict protectionism … the tariff in force from 1866 to 1883 provided for import duties averaging 45% for manufactured goods… When the United States caught up with European industry, … [that] rendered obsolete the ‘infant industries’ agument… The Republican party based its case for introducing the Mckinley Tariff of 1890 on the need to safeguard the wage levels of American workers

The McKinley Tariff, which raised duties to an average of 50 percent, became law, and its sponsor went on to be elected president. Applebaum might have mentioned McKinley. He might have mentioned Grant. He might have mentioned Abraham Lincoln, who as Chang points out, built his early campaigns as much on support for tariffs as on opposition to slavery. He might have mentioned Hamilton — I hear he’s really hot right now. But of course he didn’t: In America we’ve always practiced free trade. So instead we get Queen Elizabeth and Chancellor Bismarck.

What Is Foreign Investment For?

The top of the front page in today’s Financial Times shows Steve Forbes’ scowling face with the caption, “We want our money!” Really, that should be there every day — it could be their new logo.

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Further down the page, the big story is the election of the opposition candidate Mauricio Macri as president of Argentina. I’ll wait to see what Marc Weisbrot has to say before guessing what this means substantively for the direction of the Argentine state. What I want to call attention to now is the consistent theme of the coverage.

The front page headline in the FT is “Markets cheer Argentina’s new order”; the opening words of the article are “Investors hailed the election of Mauricio Macri….” After mentioning his call for the leaders of Argentina’s central bank to step down — the apparent unobjectionableness of which is evidence on the real content of central bank “independence” — the first substantive claims of the article are that “markets reacted positively” and that “Macri has promised to eliminate strict exchange controls” — evidently the most important policy issue from the perspective of the FT reporter.

Over the fold, we learn again that “Investors yesterday cheered the election of Mauricio Macri”; that “dollar bonds issued by Argentina … extended their winning streak”; and that “markets have hoped for an end to ‘Kirchnerismo’.” The only people quoted in the article other than Macri himself are three European investment bankers. One says that “Macri understands what the country needs to do to regain the confidence of international investors and get the country back on its feet” — presumably in that order. Another instructs the new government that “Argentina must normalise relations with the capital markets and start attracting the all- important foreign investors”.

The accompanying think piece explains that among the “most pressing issues” for Macri are that “the country is shut out of international markets by its long court case with holdout creditors” and that “the economy suffers from a web of distortions, including energy subsidies that can shrink a household’s monthly energy bill to the price of a cup of coffee.” (The horror!) It emphasizes again that Macri’s only firm policy commitment at this point is to remove capital controls, and suggests that “Argentina will need to have recourse to multilateral financial support.” The conclusion: “The biggest area where Macri needs to effect change is the investment climate. Investors have cheered his rise … but Mr Macri’s job is to convert Argentina into a destination for real money investment rather than hedge fund speculation … a decisive change for a country that … is unique in having lost its ‘rich nation status’.”

So that’s the job of the president of Argentina, making the country a destination for real money. Good to have that clear!

Now, you might say, if you don’t want to read every story through the frame of “Is it good for the bondholders,” then why are you reading the FT? Fair enough — but the FT is a good newspaper. (The Forbes story is fascinating.) Anyway, it’s worth being reminded every so often that in the higher consciousness of the bourgeoisie, nations and all other social arrangements exist only in order to generate payments to owners of financial assets. [1]

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The question I’m interested in, though, is the converse one — are the bondholders good for Argentina? The claim that foreign investors are “all-important” is obviously an expression of the extraordinary narcissism of finance. But is there a rational core to it? Are foreign investors at least somewhat important?

This is a question that critical economists need to investigate more systematically. Even among heterodox writers, there’s a disproportionate focus on the development of the financial superstructure and the ways in which it can break down. [2] The importance of this superstructure for the concrete activities of social production and reproduction is too often taken for granted. Or else we make the case against free cross-border financial commitments too quickly, without assessing what might be the arguments for them.

So, concretely, what is the benefit to Argentina of regaining “access to the markets,” to enjoying the goodwill of foreign investors, to being a destination for real money? To answer this properly would involve citing lots of literature and looking at data. I’m not going to do that. The rest of this post is just me thinking through this issue, without directly referring to the literature. One result of this is that the post is too long.

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Let’s start by distinguishing foreign direct investment (FDI) from portfolio investment.

The case for FDI is essentially that there are productive processes that can be carried out successfully only if owned and managed by foreigners. Now, obviously there are real advantages to the ways in which production is organized in rich countries, which poorer countries can benefit from adopting. But the idea that the only way this technical knowledge can reach poorer countries is via foreign ownership rests, I think, on racism, that simple. The claim that domestically-owned firms cannot adopt foreign technology is contradicted by, basically, the entire history of industrialization.

A more plausible advantage of foreign ownership is that foreign companies have more favorable access to markets and supply networks. It would be at least defensible to claim that Polish manufacturing has benefited from integration into the German auto industry — not because German management has any inherent superiority, but because German car companies are more likely to source from their own subsidiaries than from independent Polish firms. I don’t see this kind of argument being made for Argentina. When we hear about “regaining the confidence of international investors,” that pretty clearly means owners of financial wealth considering whether to include Argentine assets in their portfolios, not multinational corproations considering expanding their operations there. In other words, we are interested in portfolio investment.

So what are the benefits that are supposed to come from attracting portfolio inflows? I wonder if the people quoted in the FT piece, or the author of it, ever even ask this question. This may be a case where the debate over what “capital” means is not just academic. If financial wealth is conflated with concrete means of production, then it’s natural to think that the goodwill of the owners of the first is all-important, since obviously no productive activity can take place without the second. But purchasers of Argentine stocks and bonds are not, in fact, providing the country with new machines or software or engineers or land. (For this reason, I prefer to avoid the terms “capital flows” and “capital mobility”.) What then are the bond buyers providing?

Macroeconomically, it seems to me that there are really only two arguments to be made for portfolio inflows. First, they allow a current account deficit to be financed. Second, they might allow the interest rate to be lower. Beyond macro considerations, we might also want to keep international investors happy because of their political influence, or because they control access to the international (or even domestic) payments system. And of course, if a country is already committed to free financial flows then this commitment will only be sustainable if net financial inflows are kept above a certain level. But that just begs the question of why you would make such a commitment in the first place.

Let’s consider these arguments in turn.

‘The first benefit, that portfolio inflows allow a country to have a deficit on current account, is certainly real. I think this is the only generally credible macroeconomic story for the benefits of capital account liberalization.

In a world with no international financial flows, countries would have to a balanced current account (or in practice balanced trade, since most income flows are the result of past financial flows) in every period. But there might be good reasons for some countries. to have transitory or persistent trade imbalances If a country’s trade balance moves toward deficit for whatever reason, the ability to reduce foreign assets and increase foreign liabilities allows the movement back toward balance to be deferred. If faster growth would lead to higher import demand (which cannot be limited otherwise) or requires specific imported intermediate or capital goods (that cannot be financed otherwise) then the foreign exchange provided by portfolio inflows can allow faster growth than would otherwise be possible.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about the practical value of portfolio inflows as finance of current account deficits. But there’s nothing wrong with the argument in principle. If that is the argument you are making, though, you have to be clear about the implications.

First, if this is your argument, then saying that Argentina has suffered because of its lack of access to foreign capital markets, is equivalent to saying that Argentina suffered because of its inability to run a trade deficit. I don’t think this is what people are saying — and it would not be plausible if they were, since Argentina has had a large trade surplus over the whole Kirchner period. No help from foreign investors would have been needed to reduce that surplus.

Second, if the benefit of portfolio flows is to finance current account imbalances, then only the net flows matter. There is no purpose to the large offsetting gross flows — you could just as well have the central bank alone borrow from abroad, and then sell the resulting foreign exchange at the market price (or distribute it in some other way). That would deliver all the macroeconomic benefits of international financial flows and avoid one of the major costs — the central bank’s inability to act as lender of last resort or resolve financial crises when financial institutions have liabilities that cannot be settled with central bank’ money.

Again, the only unambiguous macroeconomic reason to support capital-account liberalization, or to make attracting portfolio inflows a priority, is if you want to see larger current account deficits. In an undergraduate textbook, this is the whole story — to say that international lending permits countries to substitute present for future expenditure, or to raise investment above domestic saving, are just different ways of saying it permits current account deficits. If you think larger current account imbalances are unnecessary or dangerous, then, it’s not clear what the macroeconomic function of portfolio investment is supposed to be. The only thing that portfolio investment directly provides is foreign exchange.

The second possible macroeconomic benefit is that foreign portfolio investment allows the interest rate to be lower than it otherwise could be. This is certainly possible as a matter of logic. Let’s imagine a firm with an investment project that will generate income in the future. The firm needs to issue liabilities in order to exercise claims on the labor and other inputs it needs to carry out the project. Wealth owners must be willing to hold the liabilities of entrepreneur on terms that make the project viable; if they demand a yield that is too high, the project won’t go forward. But there may be some foreign intermediary that is both willing to hold entrepreneur’s liabilities on more favorable terms, and issues liabilities that wealth owners are more willing to hold. In this case, the creation of financial claims across borders is a necessary condition for the project to go forward. Note that this case covers all the macroeconomic benefits of diversification, risk-bearing, etc. — the ability to hold an internationally diversified portfolio may be very valuable to wealth owners, but that matters to the rest of us only insofar as that value allows real activity to be financed on more favorable terms.

That story makes sense where there is no domestic financial system, or a very underdeveloped one; it’s a good reason why financial self-sufficiency is not a realistic goal for small subnational units. But it’s not clear to me how it applies to a country with its own banking system and its own central bank. Is it plausibly the case that in the absence of financial flows, the Argentine central bank would be unable to achieve an interest rate as low as would be macroeconomically desirable? Is it plausibly the case that there are productive enterprises in Argentina that are unable to secure domestic-currency loans from the local banking system even given expansionary policy by the central bank, but would be able to do so from foreign lenders?  [3]

If this is your argument, you should at least be able to identify the kinds of firms (or I suppose households) that you think should be borrowing more, are unable to secure loans from the domestic banking system, but would be able to borrow internationally. (Or that would be able to borrow more from domestic banks, if the banks themselves could borrow internationally.)

It’s hard for me to see how a reasonably developed banking system with a central bank could be constrained in its ability to provide domestic-currency liquidity by a lack of portfolio inflows. And I doubt that’s what the gentlemen from Credit Suisse etc. are saying. On the contrary, the usual claim is that portfolio flows reduce the feasible range of domestic interest rates. Of course the people saying this never explain why it is desirable — the ability to conduct financial transactions across borders is just presented as a fact of life, to which policy must adapt. [4]

In any case, my goal here isn’t to dispute the arguments for the importance of portfolio inflows, but to clarify what they are, and their logical implications. Do you think that the benefits of portfolio flows are that they finance current account deficits and allow easier credit than the domestic bank system could provide? Then you can’t, for instance, turn around and blame the euro crisis on current account deficits and too-easy credit. Or at least, you can’t do that and still hold up “free movement of capital” as one of the central virtues of the system.

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There are two other non-macroeconomic arguments you sometimes hear for the importance of foreign investors, focused less on what they offer than with what they can threaten. First, the political importance of international creditors in the US and other states may allow them to use the power of those states against government they are unhappy with.

Historically, this is the decisive argument in factor of keeping foreign investors happy. Through most of the period from the 1870s through the 1950s, the possible consequences of a poor “investment climate” included gunboats in your harbor, the surrender of tariff collection and other basic state functions to creditor governments, military coups, even the end of your national existence. [5] (Let’s not forget that the pretext for the war in which the United States claimed half of Mexico’s territory was the mistreatment of American businessmen there.)

That sort of direct state violence in support of foreign creditors has been less common in recent decades, though of course we shouldn’t exclude the possibility of its revival. But there are less overt versions. The extraordinary steps taken by the Judge Griesa on behalf of Argentina’s holdout creditors go far beyond anything the investors could have done on their own. If the point of the FT pieces is that Argentina needs to settle with its creditors because otherwise it will face endless, escalating harassment from the US legal system, then they may have a point. I’d just like them to come out and say it.

A related argument is that failure to get on good terms with finance as a cartel of asset owners, will mean loss of access to finance as a routine service. The version of this you hear most often is that defaulting on or otherwise annoying foreign investors will result in loss of access to trade finance. So that even if the country has a current account in overall balance, its imports and/or exports will be restricted by a sudden need to conduct trade on a pure cash basis. I’ve seen this claim made much more than I’ve seen any evidence for it — which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, of course. But who are the providers of trade finance? Are they so resolutely class-conscious that they would refuse otherwise profitable transactions out of solidarity with their investor brethren? It doesn’t seem terribly likely — if foreign investors are willing to continue buying sovereign bonds post-default, as they unequivocally are, it’s hard to see them refusing this basic financial service to private businesses. Or coming back to Argentina, is there any evidence that the demand for Argentine exports was reduced by the default, or that Argentina was unable to convert its foreign exchange earnings into imports because foreign exporters couldn’t finance the usual 60- or 90- or whatever-day delay before receiving payment?

Another version of this argument — which Nathan Cedric Tankus in particular made in the case of Greece — is that a country that breaks with its creditors will lose access to the routine payment system — credit cards and so on — since it is all administered by foreign banks. In the case of a eurosystem country this may have some plausibility, at least as an acute problem of the transition — over a longer term, I can’t see any reason why this is a service that can’t be provided domestically. But leave aside how plausible they are, let’s be clear what these claims mean. They are arguments that foreign investors matter not because of anything of value they themselves provide, but because of their ability to provoke a sort of secondary strike or embargo by other segments of finance if they don’t get what they want. These are political arguments, not economic ones. In the longer view, they also support Keynes’ argument that finance should be “homespun” wherever possible. If trade finance really is so critical, and so readily withdrawn, wouldn’t it be wise to develop those facilities yourself?

The final argument is that, if you have committed yourself to permitting the free creation of cross-border payment commitments, you will be unable to honor those commitments without a sufficient willingness of foreign units to take net long positions in your country’s assets. [6]

This one is correct. If, let’s say, banks in Argentina have accumulated large foreign currency liabilities (on their own, or more likely, as counterparties to other units accumulating net foreign asset positions) then their ability to meet their survival constraint will at some point depend on the willingness of foreign units to continue holding their liabilities. And unlike in the case of a bank with only domestic-currency liabilities, the central bank cannot act as lender of resort. In other words, the central bank can always maintain the integrity of the payment system as long as its own liabilities serve as the ultimate means of settlement; but it loses this ability insofar as the balance sheets of the domestic financial system includes commitments to pay foreign moneys. [7]

This, probably, is the real practical content of stories about how important it is to maintain the goodwill of footloose capital. If you don’t honor your promises to foreign investors, you won’t be able to honor your promises to foreign investors. The weird circularity is part of the fact of the matter.

 

[1] Needless to say, not every political development is covered this way. The fact that the bondholder’s view of the world so dominates coverage of Argentine politics is evidently related to the specific way that Argentina is integrated into the global circuits of capital.

[2] I really wish people would stop talking about “the crisis” as some kind of watershed or vindication for radical ideas.

[3] I emphasize domestic currency. Of course domestic banks cannot provide foreign -currency loans. But again, this is only a macroeconomic issue if the country is running a trade deficit. Otherwise, the foreign exchange needed for imports will, in the aggregate, be provided by exports. The same goes for arguments that portfolio flows allow the central bank to target a lower interest rate, as opposed to achieving one.

[4] It would be worth going back and seeing what positive arguments the original framers of the policy trilemma made in favor of “capital mobility.” Or is it just treated as unavoidable?

[5] In the 19th century, “default might even be welcomed as a way of enhancing political influence.”

[6] It would be more conventional to express this thought in the language of capital mobility or international financial flows, but I think the metaphor of “capital” as a fluid “flowing” from one country to another is particularly misleading here.

[7] The capacity of the central bank to maintain payments integrity by substituting its own liabilities for impaired institutions’ is preserved even in the case of foreign-currency liabilities insofar as the central bank’s liabilities are accepted by foreign units. So the development of unlimited swap lines between major central banks represents, at least potentially, an important relaxation of the external constraint and a closer approximation of at least the rich-country portion of the global economy to an ideal closed economy. I’m glad to see that the question of swap lines is being taken up by MMT.

Lessons from the Greek Crisis

The deal, obviously it looks bad. No sense in spinning: It’s unconditional surrender. It is bad.

There’s no shortage of writing about how we got here. I do think that we — in the US and elsewhere — should resist the urge to criticize the Syriza government, even for what may seem, to us, like obvious mistakes. The difficulty of taking a position in opposition to “Europe” should not be underestimated. It’s one of the ironies of history that the prestige of social democracy, earned through genuine victories by and for working people, is now one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of those who would destroy it. For a sense of the constraints the Syriza government has operated under, I particularly recommend this interview with an unnamed senior advisor to Syriza, and this interview with Varoufakis.

Personally I don’t think I can be a useful contributor to the debate about Syriza’s strategy. I think those of us in the US should show solidarity with Greece but refrain from second-guessing the choices made by the government there. But we can try to better understand the situation, in support of those working to change it. So, 13 theses on the Greek crisis and the crisis next time.

These points are meant as starting points for further discussion.  I will try to write about each of them in more detail, as I have time.

Continue reading Lessons from the Greek Crisis

New-Old Paper on the Balance of Payments

Four or five years ago, I wrote a paper arguing that the US current account deficit, far from being a cause of the crisis of 2008, was a stabilizing force in the world economy. I presented it at a conference and then set it aside. I recently reread it and I think the arguments hold up well. If anything the case that the US, as the center of the world financial system, ought to run large current account deficits indefinitely looks even stronger now, given the contrasting example of Germany’s behavior in the European system.

I’ve put the paper up as a working paper at John Jay economics department site. Here’s the abstract:

Persistent current account imbalances need not contribute to macroe- conomic instability, despite widespread claims to the contrary by both mainstream and Post Keynesian economists. On the contrary, in a world of large capital inflows, a high and stable level of world output is most likely when the countries with the least capacity to generate capital inflows normally run current account surpluses, while the countries with the greatest capacity to generate capital inflows (the US in particular) normally run current account deficits. An emphasis on varying balance of payments constraints is consistent with the larger Post Keynesian vision, which emphasizes money flows and claims are not simply passive reflections of “real” economic developments, but exercise an important influence in their own right. It is also consistent with Keynes’ own views. This perspective helps explain why the crisis of 2008 did not take the form of a fall in the dollar, and why reserve accumulation in East Asia successfully protected those countries from a repeat of the crisis of 1997. Given the weakness of the “automatic” mechanisms that are supposed to balance trade, income and financial flows, a reduction of the US current account deficit is likely to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, global macroeconomic instability.

You can read the whole thing here.

What Has Happened to Trade Balances in Europe?

It has gradually entered our awareness that the Greek trade account is now balanced. Greece no longer depends on financial markets (or official transfers, or remittances from workers abroad) to finance its imports. This is obviously important for negotiations with the “institutions,” or at least it ought to be.

I was wondering, how general is this shift toward a positive trade balance. In the FT last week, Martin Wolf pointed out that over the past five years, the Euro area as a whole has shifted from modest trade deficits to substantial trade surpluses, equal to 3 percent of euro-area GDP in 2013. He does not break it down by country, though. I decided to do that.

Euro area trade ratios, 2008 and 2013. The size of the dots is proportional to total 2008 trade.

Here, from Eurostat, are the export-import ratios for the euro countries in 2008 and 2013. Values greater than one on the horizontal axis represent a trade surplus in 2008; only a few northern European countries fall in that group. Meanwhile, in seven countries imports exceeded exports by 10 percent or more. By 2013, the large majority of the euro area is in surplus, while not a single country has an excess of imports over exports of more than 5 percent. The distance above the diagonal line indicates the improvement from 2008 to 2013; this is positive for every euro-area country except Austria, Finland and Luxembourg, and the biggest improvements are in the countries with the worst ratios in 2008. The surplus countries, apart from Finland, more or less maintained their surpluses; but the deficit countries all more or less eliminated their deficits.

So does this mean that austerity works? Yes and no. It is certainly true that Europe’s deficit countries have all achieved positive trade balances in the past few years, even including countries like Greece whose trade deficits long predated the euro. On the other hand, it’s also almost certainly true that this has more to do with the falls in domestic demand rather than any increase in competitiveness.

This is shown in the second figure, which gives the ratio of 2013 imports to 2008 exports on the vertical axis, and 2013 exports to 2008 imports on the horizontal axis. (This is in nominal euros.) Here a point on the diagonal line equals and equal growth rate of imports and exports. Most countries are clustered around 15% growth in imports and exports; these are the countries that had balanced trade or surpluses in 2008, and whose trade ratios have not changed much in the past five years. Only one country, Estonia, has export growth substantially above the European average. But all the former deficit countries have import growth much lower than average. (As indicated by their position to the left of the main cluster.) It’s evident from this diagram that the move toward balanced trade in the deficit countries is about throttling back imports, not boosting exports. This suggests that it has more to do with slow income growth than with lower costs.

Again, the sizes of the dots are proportional to 2008 trade volumes.

Still, the fact remains, trade deficits have almost been eliminated in the euro area. Liberal critics of the European establishment often say “not every country in Europe can be a net exporter” as if that were a truism. But it’s not even true, not in principle and evidently not in practice. It turns out it is quite possible for every country in the euro to run a trade surplus.

The next question is, with whom has the euro area’s trade balanced improved? Europe outside the euro, to begin with. The country with the biggest single increase in net imports from the euro zone is, surprisingly, Switzerland, whose deficit with the euro area has increased by close to 60 billion. Switzerland’s annual trade deficit with the euro area is now 75 billion, about a quarter of the area’s overall trade surplus. Norway and Turkey have increased their deficits by about 15 billion each. The rest of the increase in net exports are accounted for by increased surpluses with Africa (26 billion), the US (27 billion), and Latin America (35 billion, about half to Brazil), and a decreased deficit with Asia (135 billion, including a 55 billion smaller deficit with China, 30 billion smaller with Japan and 20 billion with Korea). Net exports to Australia have also increased by 10 billion.

Why do I bring this up? One, I haven’t seen it discussed much and it is interesting.

But more importantly, the lesson of the Europe-wide shift toward trade surpluses is that austerity can succeed on its own terms. I think there’s a tendency for liberal critics of austerity to assume that the people on the other side are just confused, or blinkered by ideology, and that there’s something incoherent or self-contradictory about competitiveness as a Europe-wide organizing principle. There’s a hope, I think, that economic logic will eventually compel policymakers to do what’s right for everyone. Personally, I don’t think that the masters of the euro care too much about the outcome of the struggle for competitiveness; it’s the struggle itself — and the constraints it imposes on public and private choices — that matters. But insofar as the test of the success of austerity is the trade balance, I suspect austerity can succeed indefinitely.

UPDATE: In comments Kostas Kalaveras points to a report from the European Commission that includes a similar breakdown of changes in trade balances across the euro area. There’s some useful data in there but the interpretation is that almost all the adjustment has been structural rather than cyclical. This is based on estimates of declining potential output in the periphery that I think are insane. But it’s interesting to see how official Europe thinks about this stuff.