The Slack Wire

Five, Ten or Even Thirty Years

Neel Kashkari is clearly a very smart guy. He’s been an invaluable voice for sanity at the Fed these past few years. Doesn’t he see that something has gone very wrong here?

Kashkari:

When people borrow money to buy a house, or businesses take out a loan to build a new factory, they don’t really care about overnight interest rates. They care about what interest rates will be for the term of their loan: 5, 10 or even 30 years. [*] Similarly, when banks make loans to households and businesses, they also try to assess where interest rates will be over the length of the loan when they set the terms. Hence, expectations about future interest rates are enormously important to the economy. When the Fed wants to stimulate more economic activity, we do that by trying to lower the expected future path of interest rates. When we want to tap the brakes, we try to raise the expected future path of interest rates.

Here’s the problem: recession don’t last 5, 10 or even 30 years. Per the NBER, they last a year to 18 months.

Mainstream theory says we have a long run dictated by supply side — technology, demographics, etc. On average the output gap is zero, or at least, it’s at a stable level. On top of this are demand disturbances or shocks — changes in desired spending — which produce the businesses cycle, alternating periods of high unemployment and normal growth or rising inflation. The job of monetary policy is to smooth out these short-term fluctuations in demand; it absolves itself of responsibility for the longer-run growth path.

If policy responding to demand shortfalls lasting a year or two, how is that supposed to work if policy shifts have to be maintained for 5, 10 or even 30 years to be effective?

If the Fed is faced with rising inflation in 2005, is it supposed to respond by committing itself to keeping rates high even in 2010, when the economy is sliding into depression? Does anyone think that would have been a good idea? (I seriously doubt Kashkari thinks so.) And if it had made such a commitment in 2005, would anyone have worried about breaking it in 2010? But if the Fed can’t or shouldn’t make such a commitment, how is this vision of monetary policy supposed to work?

If monetary policy is only effective when sustained for 5, 10 or even 30 years, then monetary policy is not a suitable tool for managing the business cycle. Milton Friedman pointed this out long ago: It is impossible for countercyclical monetary policy to work unless the lags with which it takes effect are decidedly shorter than the frequency of the shocks it is supposed to respond to. The best you can do, in his view, is maintain a stable money supply growth that will ensure stable inflation over the long run.

Meanwhile, conventional monetary policy rules like the Taylor rule are defined based on current macroeconomic conditions — today’s inflation rate, today’s output gap, today’s unemployment rate. There’s no term in there for commitments the Fed made at some point in the past. The Taylor rule seems to describe the past two or three decades of monetary policy pretty well. Now, Kashkari says the Fed can influence real activity only insofar as it is setting policy over the next 5, 10 or even 30 year’s based on today’s conditions. But what the Fed actually will do, if the Taylor rule continues to be a reasonable guide, is to set monetary policy based on conditions over the next 5, 10 or even 30 years. So if Kashkari takes his argument seriously, he must believe that monetary policy as it is currently practiced is not effective at all.

In the abstract, we can imagine some kind of rule that sets policy today as some kind of weighted average of commitments made over the past 5, 10 or even 30 years. Of course neither economic theory nor official statements describe policy this way. Still, in the abstract, we can imagine it. But in practice? FOMC members come and go; Kashkari is there now, he’ll be gone next year. The chair and most members are appointed by presidents, who also come and go, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Whatever Kashkari thinks is the appropriate policy for 2022, 2027 or 2047, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be there to carry it out. Suppose that in 2019 Fed chair Kevin Warsh  looks at the state of the economy and says, “I think the most appropriate policy rate today is 4 percent”. Is it remotely plausible that that sentence continues “… but my predecessor made a commitment to keep rates low so I will vote for 2 percent instead”? If that’s the reed the Fed’s power over real activity rests on it, it’s an exceedingly thin one. Even leaving aside changes of personnel, the Fed has no institutional capacity to make commitments about future policy. Future FOMC members will make their choices based on their own preferred models of the economy plus the data on the state of the economy at the time. If monetary policy only works through expectations of policy 5, 10 or even 30 years from now, then monetary policy just doesn’t work.

There are a few ways you can respond to this.

One is to accept Kashkari’s premise — monetary policy is only effective if sustained over many years — and follow it to its logical conclusion: monetary policy is not useful for stabilizing demand over the business cycle. Two possible next steps: Friedman’s, which concludes that stabilizing demand at business cycle frequencies is not a realistic goal for policy, and the central bank should focus on the long-term price level; and Abba Lerner’s, which concludes that business cycles should be dealt with by fiscal policy instead.

The second response is to start from the fact — actual or assumed — that monetary policy is effective at smoothing out the business cycle, in which case Kashkari’s premise must be wrong. Evidently the effect of monetary policy on activity today does not depend on beliefs about what policy will be 5, 10 or even 30 years from now. This is not a hard case to make. We just have to remember that there is not “an” interest rate, but lots of different credit markets, with rationing as well as prices, with different institutions making different loans to different borrowers. Policy is effective because it targets some particular financial bottleneck. Perhaps stocks or inventories are typically financed short-term and changes in their financing conditions are also disproportionately likely to affect real activity; perhaps mortgage rates, for institutional reasons, are more closely linked to the policy rate than you would expect from “rational” lenders; perhaps banks become more careful in their lending standards as the policy rate rises. One way or another, these stories depend on widespread liquidity constraints and the lack of arbitrage between key markets. Generations of central bankers have told stories like these to explain the effectiveness of monetary policy. Remember Ben Bernanke? His article Inside the Black Box is a classic of this genre, and its starting point is precisely the inadequacy of Kashkari’s interest rate story to explain how monetary policy actually works. Somehow or other policy has to affect the volume of lending on a short timeframe than it can be expected to move long rates. Going back a bit further, the Fed’s leading economist of the 1950s, Richard Roosa, was vey clear that neither the direct effect of Fed policy shifts on longer rates, nor of interest rates on real activity, could be relied on. What mattered rather was the Fed’s ability to change the willingness of banks to make loans. This was the “availability doctrine” that guided monetary policy in the postwar years. [2] If you think monetary policy is generally an effective tool to moderate business cycles, you have to believe something like this.

Response three is to accept Kashkari’s premise, yet also to believe that monetary works. This means you need to adjust your view of what policy is supposed to be doing. Policy that has to be sustained for 5, 10 or even 30 years to be effective, is no good for responding to demand shortfalls that last only a year or two at most. It looks better if you think that demand may be lacking for longer periods, or indefinitely. If shifts in demand are permanent, it’s not such a problem that to be effective policy shifts must also be permanent, or close to it. And the inability to make commitments is less of a problem in this case; now if demand is weak today, theres a good chance it will be weak in 5, 10 or even 30 years too; so policy will be persistent even if it’s only based on current conditions. Obviously this is inconsistent with an idea that aggregate demand inevitably gravitates toward aggregate supply, but that’s ok. It might indeed be the case that demand deficiencies an persist indefinitely, requiring an indefinite maintenance of lower rates. There’s a good case that something like this response was Keynes’ view. [3] But while this idea isn’t crazy, it’s certainly not how central banks normally describe what they’re doing. And Kashkari’s post doesn’t present itself as a radical reformulation of monetary policy’s goals, or mention secular stagnation or anything like that.

I don’t know which if any of these responses Kashkari would agree with. I suppose it’s possible he sincerely believes that policy is only effective when sustained for 5, 10 or even 30 years, and simply hasn’t noticed that this is inconsistent with a mission of stabilizing demand over business cycles that turn much more quickly. Given what I’ve read of his I feel this is unlikely. It also seems unlikely that he really thinks you can understand monetary policy while abstracting from banks, finance, credit and, well, money — that you can think of it purely in terms of an intertemporal “interest rate,” goods today vs goods tomorrow, which the central bank can somehow set despite controlling neither preferences nor production possibilities. My guess: When he goes to make concrete policy, it’s on the basis of some version of my response two, an awareness that policy operates through the concrete financial structures that theory abstracts from. And my guess is he wrote this post the way he did because he thought the audience he’s writing for would be more comfortable with a discussion of the expectations of abstract agents, than with a discussion of the concrete financial structures through which monetary policy is transmitted. It doesn’t hurt that the former is much simpler.

Who knows, I’m not a mind reader. But it doesn’t really matter. Whether the most progressive member of the FOMC has forgotten everything his predecessors knew about the transmission of monetary policy, or whether he merely assumes his audience has, the implications are about the same. “The Fed sets the interest rate” is not the right starting point for thinking about monetary policy manages aggregate demand.

 

[1] This is a weird statement, and seems clearly wrong. My wife and I just bought a house, and I can assure you we were not thinking at all about what interest rates would be many years from now. Why would we? — our monthly payments are fixed in the contract, regardless of what happens to rates down the road. Allowing the buyer to not care about future interest rates is pretty much the whole point of the 30-year fixed rate mortgage. Now it is true that we did care, a little, about interest rates next year (not in 5 years). But this was in the opposite way that Kashkari suggests — today’s low rates are more of an inducement to buy precisely if they will not be sustained, i.e. if they are not informative about future rates.

I think what may be going on here is a slippage between long rates — which the borrower does care about — and expected short rates over the length of the loan. In any case we can let it go because Kashkari’s argument does work in principle for lenders.

[2] Thanks to Nathan Tankus for pointing this article out to me.

[3] Leijonhufvud as usual puts it best:

Keynes looked forward to an indefinite period of, at best, unrelenting deflationary pressure and painted it in colors not many shades brighter than the gloomy hues of the stagnationist picture. But these stagnationist fears were based on propositions that must be stated in terms of time-derivatives. Modern economies, he believed, were such that, at a full employment rate of investment, the marginal efficiency of capital would always tend to fall more rapidly than the long rate of interest. … When he states that the long rate “may fluctuate for decades about a level which is chronically too high” one should … see this in the historical context of the “obstinate maintenance of misguided monetary policies” of which he steadily complained.

Readings: A Couple New Papers on Fiscal Policy

From the NBER working paper series — essential reading if you want to follow what the mainstream of the profession is up to — here are a couple interesting recent papers on fiscal policy. They offer some genuinely valuable insights, while also demonstrating the limits of orthodoxy.

Geographic Cross-Sectional Fiscal Spending Multipliers: What Have We Learned?
Gabriel Chodorow-Reich
NBER Working Paper No. 23577

Gabriel Chodorow-Reich has a useful new entry in the burgeoning literature on the empirics of fiscal multipliers — a review of the now-substantial work on state-level multipliers. Most of these papers are based on spending under the 2009 stimulus (the ARRA) — since many components of its spending were set by formulas not responsive to local economic conditions, cross-state variation can reasonably be considered exogenous. (Another reason the ARRA features so heavily in these papers is, of course, that the revival of mainstream interest in fiscal multipliers is mostly a post-crisis phenomenon.) Other studies estimate local multipliers based on  other public spending with plausibly exogenous regional variation, such as that involved in a military buildup or response to a natural disaster.

How do these local multipliers translate into the national multiplier we are usually more interested in? There are two main differences, pointing in opposite directions. On the one hand, states are more open than the US as a whole (or than other large countries, though perhaps not more than small European countries). This means more spillover of demand across borders, meaning a smaller multiplier. On the other hand, since states don’t conduct their own monetary policy (and since the US banking system is no longer partitioned by state) the usual channels of crowding out don’t operate at the state level. This implies a bigger multiplier. It’s hard to say which of these effects is bigger in general, but when interest rates are constrained, by the zero lower bound for example, crowding out doesn’t happen by that channel at the national level either. So at the zero lower bound, Chodorow-Reich argues, the national multiplier should be unambiguously greater than the average state multiplier.

Based on the various studies he discusses (including a couple of his own), he estimates a state-level multiplier of 1.8.  He subtracts an arbitrary tenth of a point to allow for financial crowding out even at the ZLB, giving a value of 1.7 as a lower bound for the national multiplier. This is toward the high end of existing estimates. For whatever reason, Chodorow-Reich makes no effort to even guess at the impact of the greater openness of state-level economies. But if we suppose that the typical import share at the state level is double the national import share, then a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that a state-level multiplier of 1.7 implies a national multiplier somewhere above 2.0. [1]

It’s a helpful paper, offering some more empirical support for the new view of fiscal policy that seems to be gradually displacing the balanced-budget orthodoxy of the past generation. But it must be said that it is one of those papers that presents some very interesting empirical results and is evidently attempting to deal with a concrete, policy-relevant question about economic reality — but that seems to devote a disproportionate amount of energy to making its results intelligible within mainstream theory. We’ll really have made progress when this kind of work can be published without a lot of apologies for the use of “non-Ricardian agents.”

The Dire Effects of the Lack of Monetary and Fiscal Coordination
Francesco Bianchi, Leonardo Melosi
NBER Working Paper No. 23605

The subordination of real-world insight to theoretical toy-train sets is much worse in this paper. But there is a genuine insight in it — that when you have a fiscal authority targeting the debt-GDP ratio and a monetary authority targeting inflation (or equivalently, unemployment or the output gap), then when they are independent their actions can create destabilizing feedback loops. In the simple case, suppose the monetary authority responds to higher inflation by raising interest rates. This raises debt service costs, forcing the fiscal authority to reduce spending or raise taxes to meet its debt target. The contractionary effect of this fiscal shift will have to be offset by the central bank lowering rates. This process may converge toward the unique combination of fiscal balance and interest rate at which both inflation and debt ratio are at their desired levels. But as Arjun Jayadev and I have shown, it can also diverge, with the interactions the actions of each authority provoking more and more violent responses from the other.

I’m glad to see some mainstream people recognizing this problem. As the authors note, the basic point was made by Michael Woodford. (Unsurprisingly, they don’t cite this recent paper by Peter Skott and Soon Ryoo, which carefully works through the possible dynamics between the two policy rules. [2]) The implications, as the NBER authors correctly state, are, first, that fiscal policy and monetary policy have to be seen as jointly affecting both the output gap and the public debt; and that if preventing a rising debt ratio is an important goal of policy, holding down interest rates and/or allowing a higher inflation rate are useful tools for achieving it. Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t really develop these ideas — the meat of it is a mathematical exercise showing how these results can occur in the world of a representative agent maximizing its utility over infinite time, if you set up the frictions just right.

 

[1] For the simplest case, suppose the multiplier is equal to (1-m)[1/(1-mpc)], where m is the marginal propensity to import and mpc is the marginal propensity to consume. Then if the state level import propensity is 0.4 and the state level multiplier is 1.7, that implies an mpc of 0.65. Combine that with a national import propensity of 0.2 and you get a national multiplier of 2.3.

[2] The paper was published in Metroeconomica in 2016, but I’m linking to the unpaywalled 2015 working paper version.

 

New Article on Financialization

I have a new article forthcoming in Development and Change, on the political economy of financialization, coauthored with Arjun Jayadev and Enno Schroeder. Abstract:

We discuss the political economy of financialization in three settings: The US, the euro area, and India. The quantitative growth and increased social prominence of financial institutions and markets, we suggest, can be usefully seen in terms of the constraints or “discipline” they impose on other private and public decision makers. The role of finance in allocating real resources may be less important than its role in supporting the claims and authority of wealth-owners vis-a-vis other social actors. In the US, this is most visible in the pressure nonfinancial corporations face to increase payouts to shareholders. In Europe, the financial constraints on national governments are more salient. Tightening these constraints is openly acknowledged as the major benefit of financial integration. On the other hand, the constraints financialization imposes on policy may also limit the extent to which finance can in fact be liberalized. This countervailing pressure is visible in the great expansion of central bank’s balance sheets and management of financial markets over the past decade. It is even more clearly visible in India, where the conflict between financialization and concrete policy goals has sharply limited the extent of liberalization, despite consistent rhetorical support.

Full article here.

Reading Notes: Demand and Productivity

Here are two interesting articles on demand and productivity that people have recently brought to my attention.

The economic historian Gavin Wright — author of the classic account of the economic logic of the plantation — just sent me a piece he wrote a few years ago on the productivity boom of the 1990s. As he said in his email, his account of the ‘90s is very consistent with the suggestions I make in my Roosevelt paper about how strong demand might stimulate productivity growth.

In this article, Wright traces the idea that high wage regions will experience faster productivity growth back to H. J. Habbakuk’s 1962 American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century. Then he assembles a number of lines of evidence that rapid wage growth drove the late-1990s productivity acceleration, rather than vice versa.

He points out that the widely-noted “productivity explosion” of the 1920s — from 1.5 percent a year to over 5 percent — was immediately preceded by a period of exceptionally strong wage growth: “The real price of labor in the 1920s … was between 50 and 70 percent higher than a decade earlier.” [1] The pressure of high wages, he suggests, encouraged the use of electricity and other general-purpose technologies, which had been available for decades but only widely adopted in manufacturing in the 1920s. Conversely, we can see the productivity slowdown of the 1970s as, at least in part, a result of the deceleration of wage growth, which — Wright argues — was the result of institutional changes including the decline of unions, the erosion of the minimum wage and other labor regulations, and more broadly the shift back toward “‘flexible labor markets,’ reversing fifty years of labor market policy.”

Turning to the 1990s, the starting point is the sharp acceleration of productivity in the second half of the decade. This acceleration was very widely shared, including sectors like retail where historically productivity growth had been limited. The timing of this acceleration has been viewed as a puzzle, with no “smoking gun” for simultaneous productivity boosting innovations across this range of industries over a short period. But “if you look at the labor market, you can find a smoking gun in the mid-1990s. … real hourly wages finally began to rise at precisely that time, after more than two decades of decline. … Unemployment rates fell below 4 percent — levels reached only briefly in the 1960s… Should it be surprising that employers turned to labor-saving technologies at this time?” This acceleration in real wages, Wright argues, was not the result of higher productivity or other supply-side factors; rather “it is most plausibly attributed to macroeconomic conditions, when an accommodating Federal Reserve allowed employment to press against labor supply for the first time in a generation.”

The productivity gains of the 1990s did, of course, involve new use of information technology. But the technology itself was not necessarily new. “James Cortada [2004] lists eleven key IT applications in the retail industry circa 1995-2000, including electronic shelf levels, scanning, electronic fund transfer, sales-based ordering and internet sales … with the exception of e-business, the list could have come from the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wright, who is after all a historian, is careful not to argue that there is a general law linking higher wages to higher productivity in all historical settings. As he notes, “such a claim is refuted by the experience of the 1970s, when upward pressures on wages led mainly to higher inflation…” In his story, both sides are needed — the technological possibilities must exist, and there must be sufficient wage pressure to channel them into productivity-boosting applications. I don’t think anyone would say he’s made a decisive case , but if you’re inclined to a view like this the article certainly gives you more material to support it.

*

A rather different approach to these questions is this 2012 paper by Servaas Storm and C. W. M. Naastepad. Wright is focusing on a few concrete episodes in the history of a particular country, which he explores using a variety of material — survey and narrative as well as conventional economic data. Storm and Naastepad are proposing a set of general rules that they support with a few stylized facts and then explore via of the properties of a formal model. There are things to be learned from both approaches.

In this case the model is simple: output is demand-determined. Demand is either positive or negative function of the wage share (i.e. the economy is either wage-led or profit-led). And labor productivity is a function of both output and the wage, reflecting two kinds of channels by which demand can influence productivity. And an accounting identity says that employment growth is qual to output growth less labor productivity growth. The productivity equation is the distinctive feature here. Storm and Naastepad adopt as “stylized facts” — derived from econometric studies but not discussed in any detail — that both parameters are on the order of 0.4: An additional one percent growth in output, or in wages, will lead to an 0.4 percent growth in labor productivity.

This is a very simple structure but it allows them to draw some interesting conclusions:

– Low wages may boost employment not through increased growth or competitiveness, but through lower labor productivity. (They suggest that this is the right way to think about the Dutch “employment miracle of the 1990s.)

– Conversely, even where demand is wage-led (i.e. a shift to labor tends to raise total spending) faster wage growth is not an effective strategy for boosting employment, because productivity will rise as well. (Shorter hours or other forms of job-sharing, they suggest, may be more successful.)

– Where demand is strongly wage-led (as in the Scandinavian countries, they suggest), profits will not be affected much by wage growth. The direct effect of higher wages in this case could be mostly or entirely offset by the combination of higher demand and higher productivity. If true, this has obvious implications for the feasibility of the social democratic bargain there.

– Where demand is more weakly wage-led or profit-led (as with most structuralists, they see the US as the main example of the latter), distributional conflicts will be more intense. On the other hand, in this case the demand and productivity effects work together to make wage restraint a more effective strategy for boosting employment.

It’s worth spelling out the implications a bit more. A profit-led economy is one in which investment decisions are very sensitive to profitability. But investment is itself a major influence on profit, as a source of demand and — emphasized here — as a source of productivity gains that are captured by capital. So wage gains are more threatening to profits in a setting in which investment decisions are based largely on profitability. In an environment in which investment decisions are motivated by demand or exogenous animal spirits (“only a little more than an expedition to the South Pole, based on a calculation of benefits to come”), capitalists have less to fear from rising wages. More bluntly: one of the main dangers to capitalists of a rise in wages, is their effects on the investment decisions of other capitalists.

What Recovery: Reading Notes

My Roosevelt Institute paper on potential output came out last week. (Summary here.) The paper has gotten some more press since Neil Irwin’s Times piece, including Ryan Cooper in The Week and Felix Salmon in Slate. My favorite headline is from Boing Boing: American Wages Are So Low, the Robots Don’t Want Your Jobs.

In the paper I tried to give a fairly comprehensive overview of the evidence and arguments that the US economy is not in any meaningful sense at potential output or full employment. But of course it was just one small piece of a larger conversation. Here are a few things I’ve found interesting recently on the same set of issues. .

Perhaps the most important new academic contribution to this debate is this paper by Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Mauricio Ulate, on estimates of potential output, which came out too late for me to mention in the Roosevelt report. Their paper rigorously demonstrates that, despite their production-function veneer, the construction of potential output estimates ensures that any persistent change in growth rates will appear as a change in potential. It follows that there is “little value added in estimates of potential GDP relative to simple measures of statistical trends.” (Matthew Klein puts it more bluntly in an Alphaville post discussing the paper: “‘Potential’ output forecasts are actually worthless.”) The paper proposes an alternative measure of potential output, which they suggest can distinguish between transitory demand shocks and permanent shifts in the economy’s productive capacity. This alternative measure gives a very similar estimate for the output gap as simply looking at the pre-2008 forecasts or extrapolating from the pre-2008 trend.  “Our estimates imply that U.S. output remains almost 10 percentage points below potential output, leaving ample room for policymakers to close the gap through demand-side policies if they so chose to.” Personally, I ‘m a little less convinced by their positive conclusions than by their negative ones. But this paper should definitely put to the rest the idea (as in last year’s notorious CEA-chair letter) that it is obviously wrong — absurd and unserious — that a sufficient stimulus could deliver several years of 4 percent real growth, until GDP returned to its pre-recession trend. It may or may not be true, but it isn’t crazy.

Many of the arguments in my paper were also made in this valuable EPI report by Josh Bivens, reviving the old idea of a “high pressure economy”. Like me, Bivens argues that slow productivity growth is largely  attributable to low investment, which in turn is due to weak demand and slow wage growth, which blunts the incentive for business to invest in labor-saving technology. One important point that Bivens makes that I didn’t, is that much past variation in productivity growth has been transitory; forecasts of future productivity growth based on the past couple of years have consistently performed worse than forecasts based on longer previous periods. So historical evidence gives us no reason see the most recent productivity slowdown as permanent. My one quibble is that he only discusses faster productivity growth and higher inflation as possible outcomes of a demand-driven acceleration in wages. This ignores the third possible effect, redistribution from from profits to wages — in fact a rise in the labor share is impossible without a period of “overfull” employment.

Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari wrote a long post last fall on “diagnosing and treating the slow recovery.” Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that he poses the question at all. There’s a widespread view that once you correct for demographics, the exceptional performance of the late 1990s, etc., there’s nothing particularly slow about this recovery — no problem to diagnose or treat.

Another more recent post by Kashkari focuses on the dangers of forcing the Fed to mechanically follow a Taylor rule for setting interest rates. By his estimate, this would have led to an additional 2.5 million unemployed people this year. It’s a good illustration of the dangers of taking the headline measures of economic performance too literally. I also like its frank acknowledgement that the Fed — like all real world forecasters — rejects rational expectations in the models it uses for policymaking.

Kashkari’s predecessor Narayan Kocherlakota — who seems to agree more with the arguments in my paper — has a couple short but useful posts on his personal blog. The first, from a year ago, is probably the best short summary of the economic debate here that I’ve seen. Perhaps the key analytic point is that following a period of depressed investment, the economy may reach full employment given the existing capital stock while it is still well short of potential. So a period of rapid wage growth would not necessarily mean that the limits of expansionary policy have ben reached, even if those wage gains were fully passed through to higher prices. His emphasis:

Because fiscal policy has been too tight, we have too little public capital. … At the same time, physical investment has been too low… Conditional on these state variables, we might well be close to full employment.  … But, even though we’re close to full employment, there’s a lot of room for super-normal growth. Both capital and TFP are well below their [long run level].  The full-employment growth rate is going to be well above its long-run level for several years.  We can’t conclude the economy is overheating just because it is growing quickly.

His second post focuses on the straightforward but often overlooked point that policy should take into account not just our best estimates but our uncertainty about them, and the relative risks of erring on each side. And if there is even a modest chance that more expansionary policy could permanently raise productivity, then the risks are much greater on the over-contractionary side. [1] In particular, if we are talking about fiscal stimulus, it’s not clear that there are any costs at all. “Crowding out” is normally understood to involve a rise in interest rates and a shift from private investment to public spending. In the current setting, there’s a strong case that higher interest rates  at full employment would be a good thing (at least as long as we still rely on as the main tool of countercyclical policy). And it’s not obvious, to say the least, that the marginal dollar of private investment is more socially useful than many plausible forms of public spending. [2] Kashkari has a post making a similar argument in defense of his minority vote not to raise rates at the most recent FOMC meeting. (Incidentally, FOMC members blogging about their decisions is a trend to be encouraged.)

In a post from March which I missed at the time, Ryan Avent tries to square the circle of job-destroying automation and slow productivity growth. One half of the argument seems clearly right to me: Abundant labor and low wages discourage investment in productivity-raising technologies. As Avent notes, early British and even more American industrialization owe a lot to scarce labor and high wages. The second half of the argument is that labor is abundant today precisely because so much has been displaced by technology. His claim is that “robots taking the jobs” is consistent with low measured productivity growth if the people whose jobs are taken end up in a part of the economy with a much lower output per worker. I’m not sure if this works; this seems like the rare case in economics where an eloquent story would benefit from being re-presented with math.

Along somewhat similar lines, Simon Wren-Lewis points out that unemployment may fall because workers “price themselves into jobs” by accepting lower-wage (and presumably lower-productivity) jobs. But this doesn’t mean that the aggregate demand problem has been solved — instead, we’ve simply replaced open unemployment with what Joan Robinson called “disguised unemployment,” as some of people’s capacity for work continues to go to waste even while they are formally employed. “But there is a danger that central bankers would look at unemployment, … and conclude that we no longer have inadequate aggregate demand…. If demand deficiency is still a problem, this would be a huge and very costly mistake.”

Karl Smith at the Niskanen Center links this debate to the older one over the neutrality of money. Central bank interventions — and aggregate demand in general — are understood to be changes in the flow of money spending in the economy. But a lon-standing tradition in economic theory says that money should be neutral in the long run. As we are look at longer periods, changes in output and employment should depend more and more on real resources and technological capacities, and less and less on spending decisions — in the limit not at all. If you want to know why GDP fell in one quarter but rose in the next (this is something I always tell my undergraduates) you need to ask who chose to reduce their spending in the first period and who chose to increase it in the first. But if you want to know why we are materially richer than our grandparents, it would be silly to say it’s because we choose to spend more money. This is the reason why I’m a bit impatient with people who respond to the fact that, relative to the pre-2008 trend, output today has not recovered from the bottom of the recession, by saying “the trend doesn’t matter, deviations in output are always persistent.” This might be true but it’s a radical claim. It means you either take the real business cycle view that there’s no such thing as aggregate demand, even recessions are due to declines in the economy’s productive potential; or you must accept that in some substantial sense we really are richer than our grandparents because we spend more money. You can’t assert that GDP is not trend-stationary to argue against an output gap today unless you’re ready to accept these larger implications.

The invaluable Tom Walker has a fascinating post going back to even older debates, among 19th century anti-union and pro-union pamphleters, about whether there was a fixed quantity of labor to be performed and whether, in that case, machines were replacing human workers. The back and forth (more forth than back: there seem to be a lot more anti-labor voices in the archives) is fun to read, but what’s the payoff for todays’ debates?

The contemporary relevance of this excursion into the archives is that economic policy and economic thought walks on two legs. Conservative economists hypocritically but strategically embrace both the crowding out arguments for austerity and the projected lump-of-labor fallacy claims against pensions and shorter working time. They are for a “fixed amount” assumption when it suits their objectives and against it when it doesn’t. There is ideological method to their methodological madness. That consistency resolves itself into the “self-evidence” that nothing can be done.

That’s exactly right. When we ask why labor’s share has fallen so much over the past generation, we’re told it’s because of supply and demand — an increased supply of labor from China and elsewhere, and a decreased demand thanks to technology. But if it someone says that it might be a good idea then to limit the supply of labor (by lowering the retirement age, let’s say) and to discourage capital-intensive production, the response is “are you crazy? that will only make everyone poorer, including workers.” Somehow distribution is endogenous when it’s a question of shifts in favor of capital, but becomes exogenously fixed when it’s a question of reversing them.

A number of heterdox writers have identified the claim that productivity growth depends on demand as Verdoorn’s law (or the Kaldor-Verdoorn Law). For example, the Post Keynesian blogger Ramanan mentions it here and here. I admit I’m a bit dissatisfied with this “law”. It’s regularly asserted by heterodox people but you’ll scour our literature in vain looking for either a systematic account of how it is supposed to operate or quantitative evidence of how and how much (or whether) it does.

Adam Ozimek argues that the recent rise in employment should be seen as an argument for continued expansionary policy, not a shift away from it. After all, a few years ago many policymakers believed such a rise was impossible, since the decline in employment was supposed to be almost entirely structural.

Finally, Reihan Salam wants to enlist me for the socialist flank of a genuinely populist Trumpism. This is the flipside of criticism I’ve sometimes gotten for making this argument — doesn’t it just provide intellectual ammunition for the Bannon wing of the administration and its calls for vast infrastructure spending,  which is also supposed to boost demand and generate much faster growth? Personally I think you need to make the arguments for what you think is true regardless of their political valence. But I might worry about this more if I believed there was even a slight chance that Trump might try to deliver for his working-class supporters.

 

[1] Kocherlakota talks about total factor productivity. I prefer to focus on labor productivity because it is based on directly observable quantities, whereas TFP depends on estimates not only of the capital stock but of various unobservable parameters. The logic of the argument is the same either way.

[2] I made similar arguments here.

 

EDIT: My comments on the heterodox literature on the Kaldor-Verdoorn Law were too harsh. I do feel this set of ideas is underdeveloped, but there is more there than my original post implied. I will try to do a proper post on this work at some point.

The Big Question for Macroeconomic Policy: Is This Really Full Employment?

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog. This is a summary of my new paper What Recovery? The Case for Continued Expansionary Policy, also discussed in Neil Irwin’s July 26 article in the Times.

 

“Right now,” wrote Senator Chuck Schumer in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, “millions of unemployed or underemployed people, particularly those without a college degree, could be brought back into the labor force” with appropriate government policies. With this seemingly anodyne point, Schumer took sides in a debate that has sharply divided economists and policymakers: Is the US economy today operating at potential, with enough spending to make full use of its productive capacity? Or is there still substantial slack, unused capacity that could be put to work if someone — households, businesses or governments — decided to spend more? Is there an aggregate-demand problem that government should be trying to solve?

It’s difficult to answer this question because the economic signals seem to point in conflicting directions. Despite the recession officially ending in June 2009 and the economy enjoying steady growth for the past eight years, GDP is still far below the pre-2008 trend. If we compare GDP to forecasts made before the recession, the gap that opened up during the recession has not closed at all — in fact, it continues to get wider. Meanwhile, the official unemployment rate — probably the most watched indicator for the state of aggregate demand — is down to 4.4%, well below the level that was considered full employment even a few years ago. But this positive performance only partially reflects an increase in the number of Americans with jobs; mostly it comes from a decline in the size of the labor force — people who have or are seeking jobs. The fraction of the adult population employed is down to 60 percent from 63 percent a decade ago (and nearly 65 percent at the end of the 1990s).

Is this decline in the fraction of people employed the inevitable result of an aging population and similar demographic changes, or is it a sign that, despite the low measured unemployment rate, the economy is still far short of full employment? The Federal Reserve — one of the main sites of macroeconomic policy — has already indicated its belief that full employment has been reached by raising interest rates 3 times since December 2016. Fed Chair and Janet Yellen are evidently convinced that the economy has reached its potential — that, given the real resources available, output and employment are as high as can reasonably be expected.

Other policymakers have been divided on the question, in ways that often cut across partisan lines. Senator Schumer’s statement — that the decline in employment is not an inevitable trend but rather a problem that government can and should solve — is a sign of new clarity coming to this murky debate. Along with his call for $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, it’s an important acknowledgement that, despite the progress made since 2008, the country remains far from full employment.

In a new paper out this week, we at the Roosevelt Institute offer support for the emerging consensus that the economy needs policies to boost demand. The paper reviews the available data on where the economy is relative to its potential. We find that the balance of evidence suggests there is still a great deal of space for more expansionary policy.

We offer several lines of argument in support of this conclusion.

GDP has not recovered from the recession. GDP remains about 10 percent below both the long-term trend and the level that was predicted by the CBO and other forecasts prior to the 2008–2009 recession. There is no precedent in the postwar period for such a persistent decline in output. During the sixty years between 1947 and 2007, growth lost in recessions was always regained in the subsequent recovery.

The aging population does not explain low labor force participation. It is true that an aging population should contribute to lower employment, since older people are less likely to work than younger people. But this simple demographic story cannot explain the full fall in employment. Starting from the employment peak in 2000, aging trends only explain about half the decrease in employment that has actually occurred. And there are good reasons to think that even this overstates the role of demographics. First, during the same period, education levels have increased. Historically, higher education has been associated with higher employment rates, just as a share of elderly people has been associated with less employment; statistically, these two effects should just about cancel out. Second, the post-recession fall in employment rates is not concentrated in older age groups, but among people in their 20s — something that a demographic story cannot explain.

The weak economy has held back productivity. About half the shortfall in GDP relative to the pre-2008 trend is explained by exceptionally slow productivity growth — that is, slow growth in output per worker. While many people assume that productivity is the result of technological progress outside the reach of macroeconomic policy, there are good reasons to think that the productivity slowdown is at least in part due to weak demand. Among the many possible links: Business investment, which is essential to raising productivity, has been extraordinarily weak over the past decade, and economists have long believed that demand is a central factor driving investment. And slow wage growth — a sign of labor-market weakness — reduces the incentive to adopt productivity-boosting technology.

Only a demand story makes sense. The overall economic picture is hard to understand except in terms of a continued demand shortfall. If employment is falling due to demographics, that should be associated with rising productivity and wages, as firms compete for scarce labor. If productivity growth is slow because there aren’t any more big innovations to make, that should be associated with faster employment growth and low profits, as firms can no longer find new ways to replace labor with capital. But neither of these scenarios match the actual economy. And both stories predict higher inflation, rather than the persistent low inflation we have actually encouraged. So even if supply-side stories explain individual pieces of macroeconomic data, it is almost impossible to make sense of the big picture without a large fall in aggregate demand.

Austerity is riskier than stimulus. Finally, we argue that, if policymakers are uncertain about how much space the economy has for increased demand, they should consider the balance of risks on each side. Too much stimulus would lead to higher inflation — easy to reverse, and perhaps even desirable, given the continued shortfall of inflation relative to the official 2 percent target. An overheated economy would also see real wages rise faster than productivity. While policymakers often see this as something to avoid, the decline in the wage share over the past decade cannot be reversed without a period of such “excess” wage growth. On the other hand, if there is still an output gap, failure to take aggressive steps to close it means foregoing literally trillions of dollars of useful goods and services and condemning millions of people to joblessness.

Fortunately, the solution to a demand shortfall is no mystery. Since Keynes, economists have known that when an economy is operating below its potential, all that is needed is for someone to spend more money. Of course, it’s best if that spending also serves some useful social purpose; exactly what that should look like will surely be the subject of much debate to come. But the first step is to agree on the problem. Today’s economy is still far short of its potential. We can do better.

Links for July 17, 2017

The action is on the asset side. Arjun Jayadev, Amanda Page-Hoongrajok and I have a new version of our state-local balance sheets paper up at Washington Center for Equitable Growth. It’s moderately improved from the version posted here a few months ago. I’ll have a blogpost up in the next day or two laying out the arguments in more detail. In the meantime, here’s the abstract:

This paper … makes two related arguments about the historical evolution of state-local debt ratios over the past 60 years. First, there is no consistent relationship between state and local budget deficits and changes in state and local government debt ratios. In particular, the 1980s saw a shift in state and local budgets toward surplus but nonetheless saw rising debt ratios. This rise in debt is fully explained by a faster pace of asset accumulation as a result of increased pressure to prefund future expenses… Second, budget imbalances at the state level are almost entirely accommodated on the asset side – both in the aggregate and cross-sectionally, larger state-local deficits are mainly associated with reduced net asset accumulation rather than with greater credit-market borrowing. …

 

What recovery? One of the central questions of U.S. macroeconomic policy right now is whether the slow growth of output and employment over the past decade are the result of supply-side factors like demographics and an exhaustion of new technologies, or whether — despite low measured unemployment — we are still well short of potential output. Later this month, I’ll have a paper out from the Roosevelt Institute making the case for the latter — that there is still substantial space for more expansionary policy. Some of my argument is anticipated by this post from Simon Wren-Lewis, which briefly lays out several ways in which a demand shortfall can have lasting effects on the economy’s productive capacity — discouraged workers leaving the labor force; reduced investment by business; and slower technical progress, because a slack economy is less favorable for innovation. He concludes: “There is no absence of ideas about how a great recession and a slow recovery could have lasting effects. If there is a problem, it is more that this simple conceptualization” — textbook model in which demand has only short-run effects — “has too great a grip on the way many people think.”

Along the same lines, here is a nice post from Adam Ozimek on the “mystery” of low wage growth. The mystery is that despite low unemployment, annual wage growth (as measured by the Employment Costs Index) has remained relatively low – 2 to 2.5 percent, rather than the 3 to 3.5 percent we’d expect based on historical patterns. (Ozimek doesn’t mention it, but total compensation growth — including benefits — is even lower, less than one percent for the year ending March 2017.) But, he points out, this historical relationship is based on measured unemployment; if we use the employment-population ratio instead, then recent wage gains are exactly where you’d expect historically. So the behavior of wages is another piece of evidence that the official unemployment rate is underestimating the degree of labor market slack, and that the fall in the employment-population ratio reflects — at least in part — weak demand rather than the inevitable result of worse demographics (or better video games).

 

The bondholders’ view of the world.  Matthew Klein has a very enjoyable post at FT Alphaville taking apart the claim (from three prominent academics) that “The French Revolution began with the bankruptcy of the ancient regime.” This is, of course, supposed to illustrate the broader dangers of allowing sovereigns to stiff bondholders. But in fact, as Klein points out, the old regime did not default on in its loans — Louis XVI went to great lengths to avoid bankruptcy, precisely because he was afraid of the reaction of creditors. Further: It was the monarchy’s efforts to avoid default — highly unpopular taxes and spending cuts, then the calling of the Estates General to legitimate them — that set in motion the events that led to the Revolution. So the actual history — in which a government was overthrown after choosing austerity over bankruptcy — has been reversed 180 degrees to fit the prevailing myth of our times: that good and bad political outcomes all depend on the grace of the bond markets. As Klein says, this might seem like a small mistake, but it is deeply revealing about how ideology operates: “ Whoever introduced it must have been working off what he thought was common knowledge that didn’t need to be checked. There is no citation.”

Klein’s piece is also, in passing, a nice response to that silly Jacob Levy post which argues that democracy and popular sovereignty are myths and that modern states have always been ruled by the bondholders. Levy offers zero evidence for this claim; his post is of interest only as a signpost for where elite discourse may be heading.

 

Don’t blame Germany. Here is a very useful paper from Enno Schroeder and Oliver Piceck estimating the effects of an increase in German demand on other European economies. They use an input-output model to estimate the effect of an increase in spending in Germany on output and employment in each of the other 10 largest euro-area countries. One of the things I really like about this is that it does not depend on either econometrics or on any kind of optimization; rather, it is simply based on the observable data of the distribution of consumption spending and of intermediate inputs by various industries over different industries and countries, along with the fraction of household income consumed in various countries. This lets them answer the question: If spending in Germany increased by a certain amount and the composition of spending otherwise remained unchanged, what would the effect be on total spending in various European countries? Yes, they ignore possible price changes; but I don’t think it’s any less reasonable than the conventional approach, which goes to the opposite extreme and assumes prices are everything. And even if you want to add a price story, this approach gives you a useful baseline to build on.

Methodology aside, their results are interesting and a bit surprising: They find that the spillovers from Germany to other European countries are surprisingly small.

Our main finding suggests that if Germany’s final demand were to exogenously increase by one percent of GDP, then France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal’s GDP would grow by around a 0.1 percent, their unemployment rates would be reduced by a bit over 0.1 points, and their trade balances would improve by approximately 0.04 points. The spillover effects on Greece are significantly smaller.

Given how much larger Germany is than most of these countries, and how tightly integrated European economies are understood to be, these are surprisingly small numbers. It seems that a large proportion of German demand still falls on domestic goods, while imports come largely from the euro area — particularly, in the case of intermediate goods, from the former Warsaw Pact countries. As a result, even

if a German demand boom were to materialize, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal would not benefit much in terms of growth and external adjustment. The real beneficiaries would be small neighbors (e.g. Austria and Luxembourg) and emerging economies in Eastern Europe that are well integrated into German supply chains (e.g. Czech Republic and Poland).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that more expansionary policy in Germany isn’t desirable for other reasons. (For one thing, German workers badly need raises.) But for the balance of payments problems in Southern Europe, other solutions are needed.

 

Today’s conventional is yesterday’s unconventional, and vice versa. Here is a useful NBER paper from Mark Carlson and Burcu Duygan-Bump on the conduct of monetary policy in the 1920s. As they point out, much of today’s “unconventional” policy apparatus was standard at that point, including large purchases of a range of securities — quantitative easing avant le lettre. As I’ve written on this blog before (here and here and here) discussion of monetary policy is made needlessly confusing by economists’ habit of treating the policy instrument as having a direct, immediate link to macroeconomic outcomes, which can be derived from first principles. Whereas anyone who reads even a little history of central banking finds that the ultimate goal of control over the pace of credit expansion has been pursued by a wide range of instruments and intermediate targets in different settings.

Also on the mechanics of monetary policy, I liked these two posts from the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Economics blog. They do something which should be standard but isn’t — walk through step by step the balance sheet changes associated with various central bank policy shifts. In my experience, teaching monetary policy in terms of balance sheet changes is much more straightforward than with the supply-and-demand diagrams that are the basic analytic tool in most textbooks. The curves at best are metaphors; the balance sheets tell you what actually happens.

At the Left Forum: What’s the Alternative to Neoliberalism?

At the Left Forum last month, I was on a panel with Miles Kampf-Lassin, Kate Aronoff and Darrick Hamilton, on “What Would a Left Alternative to Neoliberalism Look Like?” My answer was that neoliberalism is a radical, utopian project to reshape all of society around markets and property claims; if you want an alternative, just look at the world around us. This is an argument I’ve also made in Jacobin and The New Inquiry.

The panel was recorded by someone from Between the Lines. At some point there’s suppose to be a transcript. In the meantime, the audio is here:

.

 

Posts in Three Lines

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been doing real work, some of which will be appearing soon. But if I were blogging, here are some of the posts I might write.

*

Lessons from the 1990s. I have a new paper coming out from the Roosevelt Institute, arguing that we’re not as close to potential as people at the Fed and elsewhere seem to believe, and as I’ve been talking with people about it, it’s become clear that your priors depend a lot on how you think of the rapid growth of the 1990s. If you think it was a technological one-off, with no value as precedent — a kind of macroeconomic Bush v. Gore — then you’re likely to see today’s low unemployment as reflecting an economy working at full capacity, despite the low employment-population ratio and very weak productivity growth. But if you think the mid-90s is a possible analogue to the situation facing policymakers today, then it seems relevant that the last sustained episode of 4 percent unemployment led not to inflation but to employers actively recruiting new entrants to the laborforce among students, poor people, even prisoners.

Inflation nutters. The Fed, of course, doesn’t agree: Undeterred by the complete disappearance of the statistical relationship between unemployment and inflation, they continue to see low unemployment as a threatening sign of incipient inflation (or something) that must be nipped in the bud. Whatever other effects rate increases may have, the historical evidence suggests that one definite consequence will be rising private and public debt ratios. Economists focus disproportionately on the behavioral effects of interest rate changes and ignore their effects on the existing debt stock because “thinking like an economist” means, among other things, thinking in terms of a world in which decisions are made once and for all, in response to “fundamentals” rather than to conditions inherited from the past.

An army with only a signal corps. What are those other effects, though? Arguments for doubting central bankers’ control over macroeconomic outcomes have only gotten stronger than they were in the 2000s, when they were already strong; at the same time, when the ECB says, “let the government of Spain borrow at 2 percent,” it carries only a little less force than the God of genesis. I think we exaggerate power of central banks over real economy, but underestimate their power over financial markets (with the corollary that economists — heterodox as much as mainstream — see finance and real activity as much more tightly linked than they are).

It’s easy to be happy if you’re heterodox. This spring I was at a conference up at the University of Massachusetts, the headwaters of American heterodox economics, where I did my Phd. Seeing all my old friends reminded me what good prospects we in the heterodox world have – literally everyone I know from grad school has a good job. If you are wondering whether your prospects would be better at a nowhere-ranked heterodox economics program like UMass or a top-ranked program in some other social science, let me assure you, it’s the former by a mile — and you’ll probably have better drinking buddies as well.

The euro is not the gold standard. One of the topics I was talking about at the UMass conference was the euro which, I’ve argued, was intended to create something like a new gold standard, a hard financial constraint on governments. But that that was the intention doesn’t mean its the reality — in practice the TARGET2 system means that national central banks don’t face any binding constraint , unlike under the gold standard the central bank is “outside” the national monetary membrane. In this sense the euro is structurally more like Keynes’ proposals at Bretton Woods, it’s just not Keynes running it.

Can jobs be guaranteed? In principle I’m very sympathetic to the widespread (at least among my friends on social media) calls for a job guarantee. It makes sense as a direction of travel, implying a commitment to a much lower unemployment rate, expanded public employment, organizing work to fit people’s capabilities rather than vice versa, and increasing the power of workers vis-a-vis employers. But I have a nagging doubt: A job is contingent by its nature – without the threat of unemployment, can there even be employment as we know it?

The wit and wisdom of Haavelmo. I was talking a while back about Merijn Knibbe’s articles on the disconnect between economic theory and the national accounts with my friend Enno, and he mentioned Trygve Haavelmo’s 1944 article on The Probability Approach in Econometrics, which I’ve finally gotten around to reading. One of the big points of this brilliant article is that economic variables, and the models they enter into, are meaningful only via the concrete practices through which the variables are measured. A bigger point is that we study economics in order to “become master of the happenings of real life”: You can contribute to economics in the course of advancing a political project, or making money in financial markets, or administering a government agency (Keynes did all three), but you will not contribute if you pursue economics as an end in itself.

Coney Island. Laura and I took the boy down to Coney Island a couple days ago, a lovely day, his first roller coaster ride, rambling on the beach, a Cyclones game. One of the wonderful things about Coney Island is how little it’s changed from a century ago — I was rereading Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities the other day, and the title story’s description of a young immigrant couple walking the boardwalk in 1909 could easily be set today — so it’s disconcerting to think that the boy will never take his grandchildren there. It will all be under water.

Links for May 5, 2017

Some economics content, for this rainy Friday afternoon:

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On other blogs, other wonders.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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