Prices and the European Crisis, Continued

In comments to yesterday’s post on exchange rates and European trade imbalances, paine (the e. e. cummings of the econosphere) says,

pk prolly buys your conclusion. notice his post basically disparaging forex adjustment solutions on grounds of short run impact. but long run adjustment requires forex changes.

I don’t know. I suppose we all agree that exchange rate changes won’t help in the short run (in fact, I’m not sure Krugman does agree), but I’m not convinced exchange rate changes will make much of a difference even in the long run; and anyway, it matters how long the long run is. When the storm is long past the ocean is flat again, and all that.

Anyway, what Krugman actually wrote was

We know that huge current account imbalances opened up when capital rushed to the European periphery after the euro was created, and reversing those imbalances must involve a large real devaluation.

We “know,” it “must”: not much wiggle room there.

So this is the question, and I think it’s an important one. Are trade imbalances in Europe the result of overvalued exchange rates in the periphery, and undervalued exchange rates in the core, which in turn result from the financial flows from north to south after 1999? And are devaluations in Greece and the other crisis countries a necessary and sufficient condition to restore a sustainable balance of trade?

It’s worth remembering that Keynes thought the answer to these kinds of questions was, in general, No. As Skidelsky puts it in the (wonderful) third volume of his Keynes biography, Keynes rejected the idea of floating exchange rates because

he did not believe that the Marshall-Lerner condition would, in general, be satisfied. This states that, for a change in the value of a country’s currency to restore equilibrium in its balance of payments, the sum of the price elasticities for its exports and imports must be more than one. [1] As Keynes explained to Henry Clay: “A small country in particular may have to accept substantially worse terms for its exports in terms of its imports if it tries to force the former by means of exchange depreciation. If, therefore, we take account of the terms of trade effect there is an optimum level of exchange such that any movement either way would cause a deterioration of the country’s merchandise balance.” Keynes was convinced that for Britain exchange depreciation would be disastrous…

Keynes’ “elasticity pessimism” is distinctly unfashionable today. It’s an article of faith in open-economy macroeconomics that depreciations improve the trade balance, despite rather weak evidence. A recent mainstream survey of the empirical literature on trade elasticities concludes,

A typical finding in the empirical literature is that import and export demand elasticities are rather low, and that the Marshall-Lerner (ML) condition does not hold. However, despite the evidence against the ML condition, the consensus is that real devaluations do improve the balance of trade

Theory ahead of measurement in international trade!

(Paul Davidson has a good discussion of this on pages 138-144 of his book on Keynes.)

The alternative view is that the main relationship is between trade flows and growth rates. In models of balance-of-payments-constrained growth, countries’ long-term growth rates depend on the ratio of export income-elasticity of demand and import income-elasticity of demand. More generally, while a strong short-run relationship between exchange rates and trade flows is clearly absent, and a long-run relationship is mostly speculative, the relationship between faster growth and higher imports (and vice versa) is unambiguous and immediate. [2]

So let’s look at some Greek data, keeping in mind that Greece is not necessarily representative of the rest of the European periphery. The picture below shows Greece’s merchandise and overall trade balance as percent of GDP (from the WTO; data on service trade is only available from 1980), the real exchange rate (from the BIS) and real growth rate (from the OECD; three-year moving averages). Is this a story of prices, or income?

The first thing we can say is that it is not true that Greek deficits are a product of the single currency.  Greece has been running substantial trade deficits for as far back as the numbers go. Second, it’s hard to see a relationship between the exchange rate and trade flows. It’s especially striking that the 20 percent real depreciation of the drachma from the late 1960s to the early 1970s — quite a large movement as these things go — had no discernible effect on Greek trade flows at all. The fall in income since the crisis, on the other hand, has produced a very dramatic improvement in the Greek current account, despite the fact that the real exchange rate has appreciated slightly over the period. It’s very hard to look at the right side of the figure and feel any doubt about what drives Greek trade flows, at least in the short run.

Now, it is true that, prior to the crisis, the Euro era was associated with somewhat larger Greek trade deficits than in earlier years. (As I mentioned yesterday, this is entirely due to increased imports from outside the EU.) But was this due to the real appreciation Greece experienced under the Euro, or to the faster growth? It’s hard to judge this just by looking at a figure. (That’s why God gave us econometrics — though to be honest I’m a bit skeptical about the possibility of getting a definite answer here.) But here’s a suggestive point. Greece’s real exchange rate appreciated by 25 percent between 1986 and 1996. This is even more than the appreciation after the Euro. Yet that earlier decade saw no growth of the Greek trade deficit at all. It was only when Greek growth accelerated in the early 2000s that the trade deficit swelled.

I think Yanis Varoufakis is right: It’s hard to see exit and devaluation as solutions for Greece, in either the short term or the long term. There are good reasons why, historically, European countries have almost never let their exchange rates float against each other. And it’s hard to see fixed exchange rates, in themselves, as an important cause of the crisis.

[1] Skidelsky gives the Marshall-Lerner condition in its standard form, but the reality is a bit more complicated. The simple condition applies only in cases where prices are set in the producing country and fully passed through to the destination country, and where trade is initially balanced. Also, it should really be the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition. Joan Robinson was robbed!

[2] Krugman wrote a very doctrinaire paper years ago rejecting the idea of balance of payments constraints on growth. I’ve quoted this here before, but it’s worth repeating:

I am simply going to dismiss a priori the argument that income elasticities determine economic growth, rather than the other way around. It just seems fundamentally implausible that over stretches of decades balance of payments problems could be preventing long term growth… Furthermore, we all know that differences in growth rates among countries are primarily determined by differences in the rate of growth of total factor productivity, not by differences in the rate of growth of employment. … Thus we are driven to supply-side explanations…
The Krugmans and DeLongs really have no one to blame but themselves for accepting that all the purest, most dogmatic orthodoxy was true in the long run, and then letting long-run growth take over the graduate macro curriculum.

UPDATE: I should add that as far as the trade balance is concerned, what matters is not just a country’s growth, but its growth relative to its trade partners. This may be why rapid Greek growth in the 1970s was not associated with a worsening trade balance — this was the trente glorieuse, when all the major European countries were experiencing similar income growth. Also, in comments, Random Lurker points to a paper suggesting that another factor in rising Greek imports was the removal of tariffs and other trade restrictions after accession to the EU. I haven’t had time to read the paper properly yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is an important part of the story.

Also, I was discussing this at the bar the other night, and at the end of the conversation my very smart Brazilian friend said, “But devaluation has to work. It just has to.” And she knows this stuff far better than I do, so, maybe.

Do Prices Matter? EU Edition

The Euro crisis. One thing sensible people agree on is that the crisis has little or nothing to do with fiscal deficits  (government borrowing), and everything to do with current account deficits (international borrowing, whether public or private.) And one thing sensible people do not agree on, is how much those current account deficits are due to relative costs, or competitiveness.

A thorough dissection of competitiveness in the European context is here; Merijn Knibbe has some good posts critiquing it at the Real World Economics Review. Krugman, on the other hand, defends the competitiveness story, suggesting that the alternative to believing that relative prices drive trade flows, is believing in the “doctrine of immaculate transfer.” What he means is, the accounting identity that net capital flows equal net trade flows doesn’t in itself provide the mechanism by which trade adjusts to financial flows. A country with an increasing net financial inflow must, in an accounting sense, experience an increasing current account deficit; but you still need a story about why people choose to buy more from, or are able to sell less to, abroad.
So far, one can’t disagree; but the problem is, Krugman assumes the story has to be about relative prices. It’s not the case, though, that relative prices are the only thing that drive trade flows. At the least, incomes do too. If German wages fall, German goods may become more cost-competitive; but in any case, German workers will buy less of everything, including vacations in Greece. Similarly, if Greek wages rise, Greek goods may be priced out of international markets; but in any case Greek workers will buy more of everything, including manufactured goods from Germany. Estimating the respective impacts of relative prices and incomes on trade flows, or the elasticities approach, is one of the lost treasures of the economics of 1978. Both income and price elasticities solve the immaculate transfer problem, since capital flows from northern to southern Europe were associated with faster growth of both income and prices in the south. But their implications for policy going forward are quite different. If the problem is relative prices, a devaluation will fix it; this is what Krugman believes. If the problem is income elasticities, on the other hand, then balanced trade within Europe will require some mix of structural reforms (easier said than done), permanently faster growth in the north than the south, or — blasphemy! — restrictions on trade.
Let’s pose two alternatives, understanding that the truth, presumably, is somewhere in between. In the one case, EU current account imbalances are due entirely to countries’ over- or undervalued currencies. In the other case, current account imbalances are due entirely to differences in growth rates. One thing we do know: In the short run — a year or two — the latter is approximately true. In the short run, the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition is almost certainly not satisfied, so a change in prices will have the “wrong” effect on foreign exchange earnings, or at best — if the country’s imports and exports are both priced in foreign currency — have no effect. In the long run, it’s less clear. Do prices or incomes matter more? Hard to say.
So what is the evidence one way or the other? One simple suggestive strand of evidence is the intra- and extra-European trade balances of various countries in the EU. To the extent that trade flows have been driven by price, the deficit countries should have seen larger deficits with other EU countries than with other countries, and the surplus countries similarly should have seen larger surpluses within the union than outside it. Those countries whose currencies would otherwise, presumably, have appreciated relative to other EU members should have shifted their net exports towards Europe; those countries whose currencies would otherwise have depreciated should have shifted their net exports away. Is that what we see?
As is often the case with empirical work, the answer is: Yes and no. From Eurostat, here are trade balances as percent of GDP, within and outside the currency union, for selected countries and selected years.
Intra-EU Trade Balance
1999 2007-2008 2011
Germany  2.0% 4.8% 2.1%
Ireland 19.0% 7.4% 12.6%
Greece -10.0% -9.6% -5.3%
Spain -2.9% -4.0% -0.6%
France -0.3% -3.1% -4.3%
Italy 0.5% 0.5% -0.2%
Netherlands 14.8% 24.5% 27.9%
Austria -3.9% -3.0% -5.0%
Extra-EU Trade Balance
1999 2007-2008 2011
Germany  1.2% 2.8% 4.0%
Ireland 6.1% 7.8% 15.1%
Greece -3.9% -9.1% -4.4%
Spain -2.1% -5.1% -3.8%
France 1.0% -0.1% 0.0%
Italy 0.8% -1.2% -1.4%
Netherlands -11.8% -17.5% -20.5%
Austria 1.4% 2.7% 1.9%
What we see here is sort of consistent with the competitiveness story, and sort of not. Germany did increase its intra-EU net exports about twice as much as its extra-EU net exports over the pre-crisis decade, just as a story centered on relative prices would predict. And on the flipside, the fall in Irish net exports over the pre-crisis decade was entirely with other EU countries, again consistent with the Krugman story. 
But for the other countries, it’s not so simple. The increase of the Euro-era Greek deficit, for instance, was entirely the result of increased imports from non-Euro countries. Euro-area trade, and non-Euro exports, were approximately constant in the ten years from 1999. This is more consistent with a story of rapid Greek income growth, than uncompetitively high Greek prices. Similarly, the movement toward current account deficit of Spain was mostly, and of Italy entirely, a matter of trade with non-EU countries. This is not consistent with the relative-price story, which predicts that intra-EU trade imbalances should have grown relative to extra-EU imbalances. Note also that today, Germany’s net exports to the rest of the EU area are no higher than when the Euro was created, while Greece and Spain have substantially improved their intra-EU balances; but all three countries have moved further toward imbalance with extra-EU countries. This, again, is not consistent with a story in which trade imbalances are driven primarily by the relative price distortions created by the single currency.
Conclusion: Krugman is right that how much relative prices have contributed to intra-European current account imbalances, is a question on which reasonable people can disagree. But as a doctrinaire Keynesian, I remain an elasticity pessimist. It seems to me that we should at least seriously consider a story in which European current account imbalances are due to relatively rapid income growth in the periphery, and slow income growth in Germany, as opposed to changes in competitiveness. A story, in other words, in which a Greek exit from the Euro and devaluation will not do much good.
UPDATE: While I was writing this, Merijn Knibbe had more or less the same thought.

(How) Was the Problem of Depression-Prevention Solved?

Krugman says that Friedman-style monetarism is really just a special case of postwar Keynesian analysis. I agree. (New Keynesianism in turn is just another name for monetarism.) To get monetarist conclusions out of an ISLM-type model, all you need is an income-elasticity of money demand that is both (a) stable and (b) large relative to the interest-elasticity of money demand.

Of course, for this to work the “money” that’s demanded has to be the same as the “money” that the central bank supplies, which requires a particular, and now largely vanished, kind of financial structure, as we’ve been discussing below. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Rather, it’s this other bit:

This time the Fed did all that Friedman denounced it for not doing in the 1930s. The fact that this wasn’t enough amounts to a refutation of Friedman’s claim that adequate Fed action could have prevented the Depression.

Do we think this is right? It doesn’t seem right to me. If unemployment in the 1930s had peaked at below 10%, instead of 25%; if industrial production had fallen by one eighth, instead of by over half; if fixed investment had fallen by 20%, instead of by 80% (yes, business investment halted almost entirely in the early 30s); if we’d had one or two quarters of deflation, instead of four years; — then I think we would say that the Depression had indeed been prevented. Krugman is implicitly assuming here today’s economy couldn’t collapse the way it did in the 1930s, but how do we know that’s true?

We always ask, why was the Great Recession so deep? But you could just as well turn the question around and ask why, despite initial appearances, did it turn out to be not nearly as deep as the Depression?

I can think of four families of answers. One is the one that Krugman is implicitly rejecting — that policy was better this time. I think most people who tell this story — including some on the left — would emphasize the rescue of the banking system. Disgusting as it is to see the same smug assholes who caused the crisis handed truckloads of money, if nature had taken its course and the big banks had been allowed to fail, we might really have had a Depression. That’s one story. You might also mention fiscal policy, which, while inadequate, has clearly helped, but it’s hard to see that explaining more than a few points of the difference.

The second answer would be that the sheer size of government makes a Depression-scale collapse of demand impossible, regardless of policy. In 1929, with government final demand only a couple percent of GDP, autonomous spending basically was investment spending, especially if we think at the global level so exports wash out. Today, by contrast, G is significantly larger than I (about 20 vs 15 percent of GDP), so even if private investment had collapsed at the same scale as in 1929-1933, the percentage fall in autonomous demand would have been much less. (And of course that fact alone helped keep private investment from collapsing.) Interestingly, despite Hyman Minsky’s association with stories about finance, this, and not anything to do with the financial system, was why his answer to the question Can “It” Happen Again was, No. Policy is secondary; big government itself is the ballast that stabilizes the economy.

Third would be that the shock in 1929 was greater than the shock in 2007. Of course that would require that you specify the shock, and assumes that you think the causes of the crises were basically exogenous. We could compare a story of the 1920s about radically changed trade patterns as a result of WWI, or about the transition agriculture to industry, to a story for the more recent crisis about the housing bubble, or global imbalances, or the transition from industry to services. If you believe a story like that, there’s no reason you couldn’t argue that their exogenous shock was bigger than our exogenous shock, and that’s the real difference.

Last, you could argue that private demand is inherently more stable today than it was before WWII. Price stickiness, say, usually cast as a villain in macroeconomic stories, could have prevented outright deflation; and greater debt-financing of consumption, again usually seen as part of the problem, could have helped stabilize consumption demand in the face of falling incomes. Or financial markets are less subject to short-term fluctuations in sentiment. (Haha. I crack myself up.)

Personally, I would lean toward door number two. But the important thing is just to reframe the question — not why was the recession so bad, but why wasn’t it worse? If someone ever did an IGM-style survey of economists, but of the good guys, it would be a good thing to ask.

Are Recessions All About Money: Quasi-Monetarists and Babysitting Co-ops

Today Paul Krugman takes up the question of the post below, are recessions all about (excess demand for) money? The post is in response to an interesting criticism by Henry Kaspar of what Kaspar calls “quasi-monetarists,” a useful term. Let me rephrase Kaspar’s summary of the quasi-monetarist position [1]:

1. Logically, insufficient demand for goods implies excess demand for money, and vice versa.
2. Causally, excess demand for money (i.e. an increase in liquidity preference or a fall in the money supply) is what leads to insufficient demand for goods.
3. The solution is for the monetary authority to increase the supply of money.

Quasi-monetarists say that 2 is true and 3 follows from it. Kaspar says that 2 doesn’t imply 3, and anyway both are false. And Krugman says that 3 is false because of the zero lower bound, and it doesn’t matter if 2 is true, since asking for “the” cause of the crisis is a fool’s errand. But everyone agrees on 1.

Me, though, I have doubts.


An overall shortfall of demand, in which people just don’t want to buy enough goods to maintain full employment, can only happen in a monetary economy; it’s correct to say that what’s happening in such a situation is that people are trying to hoard money instead (which is the moral of the story of the baby-sitting coop). And this problem can ordinarily be solved by simply providing more money.

For those who don’t know it, Krugman’s baby-sitting co-op story is about a group that let members “sell” baby-sitting services to each other in return for tokens, which they could redeem later when they needed baby-sitting themselves. The problem was, too many people wanted to save up tokens, meaning nobody would use them to buy baby-sitting and the system was falling apart. Then someone realizes the answer is to increase the number of tokens, and the whole system runs smoothly again. It’s a great story, one of the rare cases where Keynesian conclusions can be drawn by analogizing the macroeconomy to everyday experience. But I’m not convinced that the fact that demand constraints can arise from money-hoarding, means that they always necessarily do.

Let’s think of the baby-sitting co-op again, but now as a barter economy. Every baby-sitting contract involves two households [2] committing to baby-sit for each other (on different nights, obviously). Unlike in Krugman’s case, there’s no scrip; the only way to consume baby-sitting services is to simultaneously agree to produce them at a given date. Can there be a problem of aggregate demand in this barter economy. Krugman says no; there are plenty of passages where Keynes seems to say no too. But I say, sure, why not?

Let’s assume that participants in the co-op decide each period whether or not to submit an offer, consisting of the nights they’d like to go out and the nights they’re available to baby-sit. Whether or not a transaction takes place depends, of course, on whether some other participant has submitted an offer with corresponding nights to baby-sit and go out. Let’s call the expected probability of an offer succeeding p. However, there’s a cost to submitting an offer: because it takes time, because it’s inconvenient, or just because, as Janet Malcolm says, it isn’t pleasant for a grown man or woman to ask for something when there’s a possibility of being refused. Call the cost c. And, the net benefit from fulfilling a contract — that is, the enjoyment of going out baby-free less the annoyance of a night babysitting — we’ll call U.

So someone will make an offer only when U > c/p. (If say, there is a fifty-fifty chance that an offer will result in a deal, then the benefit from a contract must be at least twice the cost of an offer, since on average you will make two offers for eve contract.) But the problem is, p depends on the behavior of other participants. The more people who are making offers, the greater the chance that any given offer will encounter a matching one and a deal will take place.

It’s easy to show that this system can have multiple, demand-determined equilibria, even though it is a pure barter economy. Let’s call p* the true probability of an offer succeeding; p* isn’t known to the participants, who instead form p by some kind of backward-looking expectations looking at the proportion of their own offers that have succeeded or failed recently. Let’s assume for simplicity that p* is simply equal to the proportion of participants who make offers in any given week. Let’s set c = 2. And let’s say that every week, participants are interested in a sitter one night. In half those weeks, they really want it (U = 6) and in the other half, they’d kind of like it (U = 3). If everybody makes offers only when they really need a sitter, then p = 0.5, meaning half the contracts are fulfilled, giving an expected utility per offer of 2. Since the expected utility from making an offer on a night you only kind of want a sitter is – 1, nobody tries to make offers for those nights, and the equilibrium is stable. On the other hand, if people make offers on both the must-go-out and could-go-out nights, then p = 1, so all the offers have positive expected utility. That equilibrium is stable too. In the first equilibrium, total output is 1 util per participant per week, in the second it’s 2.5.

Now suppose you are stuck in the low equilibrium. How can you get to the high one? Not by increasing the supply of money — there’s no money in the system. And not by changing prices — the price of a night of baby-sitting, in units of nights of baby-sitting, can’t be anything but one. But suppose half the population decided they really wanted to go out every week. Now p* rises to 3/4, and over time, as people observe more of their offers succeeding, p rises toward 3/4 as well. And once p crosses 2/3, offers on the kind-of-want-to-go-out nights have positive expected utility, so people start making offers for those nights as well, so p* rises further, toward one. At that point, even if the underlying demand functions go back to their original form, with a must-go-out night only every other week, the new high-output equilibrium will be stable.

As with any model, of course, the formal properties are less interesting in themselves than for what they illuminate in the real world. Is the Krugman token-shortage model or my pure coordination failure model a better heuristic for understanding recessions in the real world? That’s a hard question!

Hopefully I’ll offer some arguments on that question soon. But I do want to make one logical point first, the same as in the last post but perhaps clearer now. The statement “if there is insufficient demand for currently produced goods, there must excess be demand for money” may look quite similar to the statement “if current output is limited by demand, there must be excess demand for money.” But they’re really quite different; and while the first must be true in some sense, the second, as my hypothetical babysitting co-op shows, is not true at all. As Bruce Wilder suggests in comments, the first version is relevant to acute crises, while the second may be more relevant to prolonged periods of depressed output. But I don’t think either Krugman, Kaspar or the quasi-monetarists make the distinction clearly.

EDIT: Thanks to anonymous commenter for a couple typo corrections, one of them important. Crowd-sourced editing is the best.

Also, you could think of my babysitting example as similar to a Keynesian Cross, which we normally think of as the accounting identity that expenditure equals output, Z = Y, plus the behavioral equation for expenditure, Z = A + cY, except here with A = 0 and c = 1. In that case any level of output is an equilibrium. This is quasi-monetarist Nick Rowe’s idea, but he seems to be OK with my interpretation of it.

FURTHER EDIT: Nick Rowe has a very thoughtful response here. And my new favorite econ blogger, the mysterious rsj, has a very good discussion of these same questions here. Hopefully there’ll be some responses here to both, soonish.

[1] Something about typing this sentence reminds me unavoidably of Lucky Jim. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? Summary of the quasi-what?

[2] Can’t help being bugged a little by the way Krugman always refers to the participants as “couples,” even if they mostly were. There are all kinds of families!

Political Economy 101

When he’s right, he’s right:

everything we’re seeing makes sense if you think of the Right as representing the interests of rentiers, of creditors who have claims from the past — bonds, loans, cash — as opposed to people actually trying to make a living through producing stuff. Deflation is hell for workers and business owners, but it’s heaven for creditors. … thinking of what’s happening as the rule of rentiers, who are getting their interests served at the expense of the real economy, helps make sense of the situation.

Or, almost right. Because it isn’t just the Right…

EDIT: It’s interesting to note how reflexively DeLong shied away from this thought when it occurred to him a while back, with the ludicrous-on-its-face argument that only “coupon-clippers with their portfolios 100% in government bonds” could have an interest in deflation. The existence of rentiers as a distinct social class is an unthought in respectable circles. Which shows how impressively disrespectable Krugman is becoming.

Krugman: Irish Monk or Norse Raider?

Paul Krugman is fond of describing the current state of macroeconomics as a dark age — starting around 1980, the past 50 years’ progress in economics was forgotten. True that. If we want to tell a coherent story about the operation of modern capitalist economies, we could do a lot worse than start with the mainstream macro of 1978.

Thing is, as Steve Keen among others has pointed out, liberal New Keynesians like Krugman are every bit as responsible for that Dark Age as their rivals at Chicago and Minnesota. Case in point: His widely-cited 1989 paper on Income Elasticities and Real Exchange Rates. The starting point of the paper is that floating exchange rates have not, in general, adjusted to balance trade flows. Instead, relative growth rates have roughly matched the growth in relative demand for exports, so that trade flows have remained roughly balanced without systematic currency appreciation in surplus countries or depreciation in deficit countries. Krugman:

The empirical regularity is that the apparent income elasticities of demand for a country’s imports and exports are systematically related to the country’s long-term rate of growth. Fast-growing countries seem to face a high income elasticity of demand for their exports, while having a low income elasticity of demand for imports. The converse is true of slow-growing countries. This difference in income elasticities is, it turns out, just about sufficient to make trend changes in real exchange rates unnecessary.

The obvious explanation of this regularity, going back at least to 1933 and Roy Harrod’s International Economics, is that many countries face balance-of-payments constraints, so their growth is limited by their export earnings. Faster growth draws in more imports, forcing the authorities to increase interest rates or take other steps that reduce growth back under the constraint. There are plenty of clear historical examples of this dynamic, for both poor and industrialized countries. The British economy between the 1940s and the 1980s, for instance, repeatedly experienced episodes of start-stop growth as Keynesian stimulus ran up against balance of payments constraints. Krugman, though, is having none of it:

 I am simply going to dismiss a priori the argument that income elasticities determine economic growth… It just seems fundamentally implausible that over stretches of decades balance of payments problems could be preventing long term growth… Furthermore, we all know that differences in growth rates among countries are primarily determined in the rate of growth of total factor productivity, not differences in the rate of growth of employment; it is hard to see what channel links balance of payments due to unfavorable income elasticities to total factor productivity growth. Thus we are driven to a supply-side explanation…

Lucas or Sargent couldn’t have said it better!

Of course there is a vast literature on balance of payments constraints within structuralist and Post Keynesian economics, exploring when external constraints do and do not bind  (see for instance here and here), and what channels might link demand conditions to productivity growth. [1] Indeed, Keynes himself thought that avoiding balance-of-payments constraints on growth was the most important goal in the design of a postwar international financial order. But Krugman doesn’t cite any of this literature. [2] Instead, he comes up with a highly artificial model of product differentiation in which every country consumes an identical basket of goods, which always includes goods from different countries in proportion to their productive capacities. In this model, measured income elasticities actually reflect changes in supply. But the model has no relation to actual trade patterns, as Krugman more or less admits. Widespread balance of payments constraints, the explanation he rejects “a priori,” is far more parsimonious and realistic.

But I’m not writing this post just to mock one bad article that Krugman wrote 20 years ago. (Well, maybe a little.) Rather, I want to make two points.

First, this piece exhibits all the pathologies that Krugman attributes to freshwater macroeconomists — the privileging of theoretical priors over historical evidence; the exclusive use of deductive reasoning; the insistence on supply-side explanations, however implausible, over demand-side ones; and the scrupulous ignorance of alternative approaches. Someone who at the pinnacle of his career was writing like this needs to take some responsibility for the current state of macroeconomics. As far as I know, Krugman never has.

Second, there’s a real cost to this sort of thing. I constantly have these debates with friends closer to the economics mainstream, about why one should define oneself as “heterodox”. Wouldn’t it be better to do like Krugman, clamber as far up the professional ladder as you can, and then use that perch to sound the alarm? But the work you do doesn’t just affect your own career. Every time you write an article, like this one, embracing the conventional general-equilibrium vision and dismissing the Keynesian (or other) alternatives, you’re sending a signal to your colleagues and students about what kind of economics you think is worth doing. You’re inserting yourself into some conversations and cutting yourself off from others. Sure, if you’re Clark medal-winning Nobelist NYT columnist Paul Krugman, you can turn around and reintroduce Keynesian dynamics in some ad hoc way whenever you want.  But if you’ve spent the past two decade denigrating and dismissing more  systematic attempts to develop such models, you shouldn’t complain when  you find you have no one to talk to. Or as a friend says, “If you kick out Joan Robinson  and let Casey Mulligan in the room, don’t be surprised if you spend all  your time trying to explain why the unemployed aren’t on vacation.”

[1] “In practice there are many channels linking slow growth imposed by a balance of payments constraint to low productivity, and the opposite, where the possibility of fast output growth unhindered by balance-of-payments problems leads to fast productivity growth. There is a rich literature on export-led growth models (including the Hicks supermultiplier), incorporating the notion of circular and cumulative causation (Myrdal 1957) working through induced investment, embodied technical progress, learning by doing, scale economies, etc. (Dixon and Thirlwall, 1975) that will produce fast productivity growth in countries where exports and output are growing fast. The evidence testing Verdoorn’s Law shows a strong feedback from output growth to productivity growth.”

[2] Who was it who talked about “the phenomenon of well-known economists ‘rediscovering’ [various supply-side stories], not because  they’ve transcended the Keynesian refutation of these views, but because  they were unaware that there had ever been such a debate”?

More Anti-Krugmanism

[Some days it feels like that could be the title for about 40 percent of the posts on here.]

Steve Keen takes up the cudgels. (Via.)

There is a pattern to neoclassical attempts to increase the realism of their models… The author takes the core model – which cannot generate the real world phenomenon under discussion – and then adds some twist to the basic assumptions which, hey presto, generate the phenomenon in some highly stylised way. The mathematics (or geometry) of the twist is explicated, policy conclusions (if any) are then drawn, and the paper ends.

The flaw with this game is the very starting point, and since Minsky put it best, I’ll use his words to explain it: “Can ‘It’ – a Great Depression – happen again? And if ‘It’ can happen, why didn’t ‘It’ occur in the years since World War II? … To answer these questions it is necessary to have an economic theory which makes great depressions one of the possible states in which our type of capitalist economy can find itself.”

The flaw in the neoclassical game is that it never achieves Minsky’s final objective, because the “twists” that the author adds to the basic assumptions of the neoclassical model are never incorporated into its core. The basic theory therefore remains one in which the key phenomenon under investigation … cannot happen. The core theory remains unaltered – rather like a dog that learns how to walk on its hind legs, but which then reverts to four legged locomotion when the performance is over.


Any theory is an abstraction of the real world, but the question is which features of the world you can abstract from, and which, for the purposes of theory, are fundamental. Today’s consensus macroeconomics [1] treats intertemporal maximization of a utility function (with consumption and labor as the only arguments) under given endowments and production functions, and unique, stable market-clearing equilibria as the essential features that any acceptable theory has to start from. It treats firms (profit-maximizing or otherwise), money, credit, uncertainty, the existence of classes, and technological change as non-essential features that need to be derived from intertemporal maximization by households, can be safely ignored, or at best added in an ad hoc way. And change is treated in terms of comparative statics rather than dynamic processes or historical evolution.

Now people will say, But can’t you make the arguments you want to within standard techniques? And in that case, shouldn’t you? Even if it’s not strictly necessary, isn’t it wise to show your story is compatible with the consensus approach, since that way you’ll be more likely to convince other economists, have more political influence, etc.?

If you’re a super smart micro guy (as are the two friends I’ve recently had this conversation with) then there’s probably a lot of truth to this. The type of work you do if you genuinely want to understand a labor market question, say, and the type of work you do if you want to win an argument within the economics profession about labor markets, may not be exactly the same, but they’re reasonably compatible. Maybe the main difference is that you need fancier econometrics to convince economists than to learn about the world?

But if you’re doing macroeconomics, the concessions you have to make to make your arguments acceptable are more costly. When you try to force Minsky into a DSGE box, as Krugman does; or when half of your paper on real exchange rates is taken up with models of utility maximization by households; then you’re not just wasting an enormous amount of time and brainpower. You’re arguing against everyone else trying top do realistic work on other questions, including yourself on other occasions. And you’re ensuring that your arguments will have a one-off, ad hoc quality, instead of being developed in a systematic way.

(Not to mention that the consensus view isn’t even coherent on its own terms. Microfoundations are a fraud, since the representative household can’t be derived from a more general model of utility maximizing agents; and it seems clear that intertemporal maximization and comparative statics are logically incompatible.) 

If we want to get here, we shouldn’t start from there. We need an economics whose starting points are production for profit by firms employing wage labor, under uncertainty, in a monetary economy,  that evolves in historical terms. That’s what Marx, Keynes and Schumpeter in their different ways were all doing. They, and their students, have given us a lot to build on. But to do so, we [2] have to give up on trying to incorporate their insights piecemeal into the consensus framework, and cultivate a separate space to develop a different kind of economics, one that starts from premises corresponding to the fundamental features of modern capitalist economies.

[1] I’ve decided to stop using “mainstream” in favor of “consensus”, largely because the latter term is used by people to describe themselves.

[2] By “we,” again, I mean heterodox macroeconomists specifically. I’m not sure how much other economists face the same sharp tradeoff between winning particular debates within the economics profession and building an economics that gives us genuine, useful knowledge about the world.

Toward a Unified Theory of Anti-Krugmanism

You know, there’s a fundamental parallel between what’s wrong with Krugman’s takes on monetary policy and on trade.

In the first case, his argument is that the interest rate (a price, administered to be sure) would normally equilibrate savings and investment at something like full employment. It’s the barrier to that price’s adjustment in the form of the zero lower bound that causes income to adjust instead, leading to the Great Recession (and the need for fiscal policy). Similarly trade flows are normally equilibrated by the adjustment of the exchange rate, a price. It’s barriers to that price’s adjustment, in the form of the Euro and the RMB-dollar peg, that cause income to adjust instead, leading to austerity in peripheral Europe and unemployment in the United States.

From a Post Keynesian perspective, these are kludges that get good conclusions from bad premises.

From a Post Keynesian (or for that matter Keynesian straight-up) perspective, flexible interest rates and exchange rates have never reliably delivered macroeconomic balance. Income adjustments aren’t a once-in-a-lifetime feature of the current conjuncture, they’re a routine and central feature of capitalism.

New Keynesian economists like Krugman can see that macroeconomic reality today doesn’t conform to the textbook, where prices smoothly converging to market-clearing levels. (Well, maybe to the 1978 edition.) But they’re not going to throw the textbook away, so the departures are explained as a series of ad hoc special cases. And so the textbook has a way of sneaking back in whenever their attention is elsewhere. That’s why Krugman insists something big changed when the federal funds rate hit zero, even though the federal funds rate has been more or less disconnected from most longer rates for a decade or more. And that’s why he insists that the Asian crisis countries were better off than Greece, etc. because they could devalue their currencies instead of resorting to austerity, when it seems clear that devaluations contributed little to Asian countries’ improved current account balances after 1997; they drastically cut domestic spending, just as peripheral Europe is being forced to. When he’s looking right at a non-price adjustment mechanism, he can see it; but wherever he’s not looking, he assumes that prices are doing their thing.

Or at least that’s how it looks to me.

Net and Gross, or What We Can and Cannot Learn from Balance Sheets

One of the less acknowledged of the secret sins of economists, it seems to me, is the failure to distinguish between net and gross quantities, or to treat the net numbers if they were all that mattered. Case in point, the issue of deleveraging, where the good guys — the anti-austerians — are trying to get an accounting-identity argument to do more work than it it’s capable of. A good example is this post from Peter Dorman (which Krugman liked), which points out that in a closed economy one agent’s debt is always another agent’s asset, and total consumption must equal total income. So the only way that one agent can reduce its net liabilities is for another’s to increase, just as the only way some agents can spend less than their income is for others to spend more. In this sense increased public debt is just the flipside of private-sector deleveraging; arguments that the public sector should reduce its debt along with the private sector are incoherent. QED, right? Except, this argument proves too much. It’s true that one agent’s net financial position can’t improve unless another’s gets worse. But the same accounting logic also means that financial claims across the whole economy always sum to zero. Total net worth is always equal to the sum of tangible assets, no matter what happens on the financial side. [1] So it’s not clear what leveraging and develeraging could even mean in these terms. So, since the words evidently do mean something, it seems they’re not being used in those terms. It seems to me that when people talk about (de)leveraging, they are almost always talking about gross financial claims, not net, relative to income. A unit that adds $1,000 in debt and acquires a financial asset valued at $1,000 is more leveraged than it was before. And in this gross sense, it is perfectly possible for the public and private sector to simultaneously deleverage. Consider the following very simple economy, with just two agents:

Income Assets Liabilities Net Worth
A 1 4 3 1
B 1 5 2 3
Total 2 9 5 4
Income Assets Liabilities Net Worth
A 1 3 2 1
B 1 4 1 3
Total 2 7 3 4

The transition from T1 to T2 involves simultaneous deleveraging — in the economically meaningful sense — by both the agents in the economy, and no national accounting identities are violated. What would this look like in practice? To some extent, it could simply mean netting out offsetting financial claims, but that only really works within the financial sector; nonfinancial actors don’t generally hold financial assets and liabilities at the same time without some good institutional reason. (A firm may both receive and extend trade credit, but those two lines on the balance sheet can’t be netted out unless we want to go back to a cash-on-the-barrelhead economy. A typical middle-class household has both retirement savings and a mortgage and student-loan debt; both the borrowing and saving are sufficiently subsidized and tax-favored that it makes sense to add to the IRA rather than paying off the debt. [2]) To the extent that this kind of deleveraging does take place within the nonfinancial sector, it requires that units reduce their gross saving, i.e. their acquisition of financial assets — a suggestion that will seem even more paradoxical to conventional wisdom than the claim that private-sector deleveraging requires increased public debt. [3] But there’s another approach. Most borrowing by households and nonfinancial firms and households is undertaken to finance the acquisition of a tangible asset — in the table above, we should really divide the assets column into tangible assets and financial assets. For the low net worth units, most assets are tangible; for middle-class households, the house is by far the biggest asset, while property, plant and equipment is generally the biggest item on the asset side of a nonfinancial firm’s balance sheet. So the most natural way for the private sector and the public sector to deleverage is through a transfer of tangible assets from debtor to creditor units, combined with the extinction of the debts associated with the assets. This is, in essence, what privatization of public assets is supposed to do, when the IMF imposes it as part of a structural adjustment program. And more to the point, it’s what the foreclosure process, in its herky-jerky way, is doing in the housing market. At the end of the road, there’s a lot less mortgage debt — and a lot more big suburban landlords. [4] And the private sector has reduced its leverage, without any increase in the public sector’s. (Of course, we could just extinguish the debt and skip the asset-transfer part. But that default could be a means of deleveraging is one of those thoughts you’re not allowed to have.) Now, all this said, I completely agree with Dorman’s conclusion, that reducing public debt would hinder rather than help deleveraging. (Or rather, what he thinks is his conclusion; the real logic of his argument is that nothing can help or hinder deleveraging, since — like motion — it does not exist.) But the reason has nothing to do with balance sheets. It is because I believe that fiscal consolidation will reduce aggregate income — the denominator in leverage. I reckon Dorman (and Krugman) would agree. But this an empirical claim, not one that can be deduced from national accounting identities.
[1] Or the sum of tangible assets and base money, if you don’t treat the latter as a liability of the government. This is a question that gets people remarkably worked up, but it’s not important to this argument. (Or to any other, as far as I can tell.) [2] Actually I suspect many middle-class households are saving more than is rational — they’re acquiring financial assets when paying down debt would have a higher return. But anyone who knows me knows how comically unsuited I am to have opinions on anyone else’s personal finances. [3] Reducing debt and and expenditure simultaneously doesn’t help, since one unit’s expenditure is another’s income. For financial deleveraging to work, people really do have to save less. [4] Who might or might not end up being the banks themselves.

No More ZLB

Can we please stop talking about the zero lower bound?

Krugman today insists that we do, in fact, face a problem of inadequate demand. And he’s right! But he glosses this as an “excess supply of savings even at a zero interest rate,” which isn’t right at all.

Let’s be clear: There is not “an” interest rate, certainly not a zero one. There are various interest rates, and the ones that are relevant to saving and investment remain high. The BAA corporate bond rate (the red line in the figure below) is currently at 5.7 percent — pretty much exactly where it was in the first half of 2005. And given that inflation is substantially lower than it was five years ago, that particular real interest rate is not only not zero, it’s gone up.

The real question is, can reducing the federal funds rate reduce the economically important interest rates? Now, obviously the answer is No if the fed funds rate (the blue line in the graph) is as low as it can go; in this sense the ZLB is real. But the answer can also be No when the fed funds rate is well above zero, if there’s no reliable link between the overnight Treasury rate and the rates businesses borrow at; and that seems to have been the case since sometime in the ’90s. As the figure shows, the Fed’s recent rate reductions didn’t reduce bond rates at all, even before the Fed Funds rate hit zero; and all the hikes earlier in the decade didn’t raise bond rates either. You’d see a similar picture if you looked at any other economically relevant interest rate. In general, as my friend Hasan Comert shows in his just-defended dissertation, the Fed lost control of the important interest rates some time ago. So the best thing you can say for the zero lower bound, is that arriving there has dramatized a truth that should have been evident for some time already.

As usual, Keynes got it right: “The acuteness and the peculiarity of our contemporary problem arises out of the possibility that the average rate of interest which will allow a reasonable average level of employment is one so unacceptable to wealth-owners that it cannot be readily established merely by manipulating the quantity of money. … The most stable, and the least easily shifted, element in our contemporary economy has been hitherto, and may prove to be in future, the minimum rate of interest acceptable to the generality of wealth-owners.” The failure of interest rates to move to a level compatible with full employment is not a technical problem, but a structural one.