The Slack Wire

What Exactly Does Mexico Export to the US?

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

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

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

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

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

OK, so why does this matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

What Does Crowding Out Even Mean?

Paul Krugman is taking some guff for this column where he argues that the US economy is now at potential, or full employment, so any shift in the federal budget toward deficit will just crowd out private demand.

Whether higher federal spending (or lower taxes) could, in present conditions, lead to higher output is obviously a factual question, on which people may read the evidence in different ways. As it happens, I don’t agree that current output is close to the limits of current productive capacity. But that’s not what I want to write about right now. Instead I want to ask: What concretely would crowding out even mean right now?

Below, I run through six possible meanings of crowding out, and then ask if any of them gives us a reason, even in principle, to worry about over-expansionary policy today. (Another possibility, suggested by Jared Bernstein, is that while we don’t need to worry about supply constraints for the economy as a whole, tax cuts could crowd out useful spending due to some unspecified financial constraint on the federal government. I don’t address that here.) Needless to say, doubts about the economic case for crowding-out are in no way an argument for the specific deficit-boosting policies favored by the new administration.

The most straightforward crowding-out story starts from a fixed supply of private savings. These savings can either be lent to the government, or to business. The more the former takes, the less is left for the latter. But as Keynes pointed out long ago, this simple loanable-funds story assumes what it sets out to prove. The total quantity of saving is fixed only if total income is fixed. If higher government spending can in fact raise total income, it will raise total saving as well. We can only tell a story about government and business competing for a given pool of saving if we have already decided for some other reason that GDP can’t change.

The more sophisticated version, embodied in the textbook ISLM model, postulates a fixed supply of money, rather than saving. [1] In Hicks’ formulation, money is used both for transactions and as the maximally liquid store of wealth. The higher is output, the more money is needed for transactions, and the less is available to be held as wealth. By the familiar logic of supply and demand, this means that wealthholders must be paid more to part with their remaining stock of money. The price wealthholders receive to give up their money is interest; so as GDP rises, so does the interest rate.

Unlike the loanable funds story with fixed saving, this second story does give a logically coherent account of crowding out. In a world of commodity money, if such ever was, it might even be literally true. But in a world of bank-created credit money, it’s at best a metaphor. Is it a useful metaphor? That would require two things. First, that the interest rate (whichever one we are interested in) is set by the financial system. And second, that the process by which this happens causes rates to systematically rise with demand. The first premise is immediately rejected by the textbooks, which tell us that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” But we needn’t take this at face value. There are many interest rates, not just one, and the spreads between them vary quite a bit; logically it is possible that strong demand could lead to wider spreads, as banks stretch must their liquidity further to make more loans. But in reality, the opposite seems more likely. Government debt is a source of liquidity for private banks, not a use of it; lending more to the government makes it easier, not harder, for them to also lend more to private borrowers. Also, a booming economy is one in which business borrowers are more profitable; marginal borrowers look safer and are likely to get better terms. And rising inflation, obviously, reduces the real value of outstanding debt; however annoying this is to bankers, rationally it makes them more willing to lend more to their now less-indebted clients. Wicksell, the semi-acknowledged father of modern central banking theory, built his big book around the premise that in a credit-money system, inflation would give private banks no reason to raise interest rates.

And in fact this is what we see. Interest rate spreads are narrow in booms; they widen in crises and remain wide in downturns.

So crowding out mark two, the ISLM version, requires us to accept both that central banks cannot control the economically relevant interest rates, and that private banks systematically raise interest rates when times are good. Again, in a strict gold standard world there might something to this — banks have to raise rates, their gold reserves are running low — but if we ever lived in that world it was 150 or 200 years ago or more.

A more natural interpretation of the claim that the economy is at potential, is that any further increase in demand would just  lead to inflation. This is the version of crowding out in better textbooks, and also the version used by MMT folks. On a certain level, it’s obviously correct. Suppose the amount of money-spending in an economy increases. Then either the quantity of goods and services increases, or their prices do. There is no third option: The total percent increase in money spending, must equal the sum of the percent increase in “real” output and the percent increase in average prices. But how does the balance between higher output and higher prices play out in real life? One possibility is that potential output is a hard line: each dollar of spending up to there increases real output one for one, and leaves prices unchanged; each dollar of spending above there increases prices one for one and leaves output unchanged. Alternatively, we might imagine a smooth curve where as spending increases, a higher fraction of each marginal dollar translates into higher prices rather than higher output. [2] This is certainly more realistic, but it invites the question of which point exactly on this curve we call “potential”. And it awakens the great bane of postwar macro – an inflation-output tradeoff, where the respective costs and benefits must be assessed politically.

Crowding out mark three, the inflation version, is definitely right in some sense — you can’t produce more concrete use values without limit simply by increasing the quantity of money borrowed by the government (or some other entity). But we have to ask first, positively, when we will see this inflation, and second, normatively, how we value lower inflation vs higher output and income.

In the post-1980s orthodoxy, we as society are never supposed to face these questions. They are settled for us by the central bank. This is the fourth, and probably most politically salient, version of crowding out: higher government spending will cause the central bank to raise interest rates. This is the practical content of the textbook story, and in fact newer textbooks replace the LM curve — where the interest rate is in some sense endogenous — with a straight line at whatever interest rate is chosen by the central bank. In the more sophisticated textbooks, this becomes a central bank reaction function — the central bank’s actions change from being policy choices, to a fundamental law of the economic universe. The master parable for this story is the 1990s, when the Clinton administration came in with big plans for stimulus, only to be slapped down by Alan Greenspan, who warned that any increase in public spending would be offset by a contractionary shift by the federal reserve. But once Clinton made the walk to Canossa and embraced deficit reduction, Greenspan’s fed rewarded him with low rates, substituting private investment in equal measure for the foregone public spending. In the current contest, this means: Any increase in federal borrowing will be offset one for one by a fall in private investment —  because the Fed will raise rates enough to make it happen.

This story is crowding out mark four. It depends, first, on what the central bank reaction function actually is — how confident are we that monetary policy will respond in a direct, predictable way to changes in the federal budget balance or to shifts in demand? (The more attention we pay to how the monetary sausage gets made, the less confident we are likely to be.) And second, on whether the central bank really has the power to reliably offset shifts in fiscal policy. In the textbooks this is taken for granted but there are reasons for doubt. It’s also not clear why the actions of the central bank should be described as crowding out by fiscal policy. The central bank’s policy rule is not a law of nature. Unless there is some other reason to think expansionary policy can’t work, it’s not much of an argument to say the Fed won’t allow it. We end up with something like: “Why can’t we have deficit-financed nice things?” “Because the economy is at potential – any more public spending will just crowd out private spending.” “How will it be crowded out exactly?” “Interest rates will rise.” “Why will they rise?” “Because the federal reserve will tighten.” “Why will they tighten?” “Because the economy is at potential.”

Suppose we take the central bank out of the picture. Suppose we allow supply constraints to bind on their own, instead of being anticipated by the central planners at the Fed. What would happen as demand pushed up against the limits of productive capacity? One answer, again, is rising inflation. But we shouldn’t expect prices to all rise in lockstep. Supply constraints don’t mean that production growth halts at once; rather, bottlenecks develop in specific areas. So we should expect inflation to begin with rising prices for inputs in inelastic supply — land, oil, above all labor. Textbook models typically include a Phillips curve, with low unemployment leading to rising wages, which in turn are passed on to higher prices.

But why should they be passed on completely? It’s easy to imagine reasons why prices don’t respond fully or immediately to changes in wages. In which case, as I’ve discussed before, rising wages will result in an increase in the wage share. Some people will object that such effects can only be temporary. I’m not sure this makes sense — why shouldn’t labor, like anything else, be relatively more expensive in a world where it is relatively more scarce? But even if you think that over the long-term the wage share is entirely set on the supply side, the transition from one “fundamental” wage share to another still has to involve a period of wages  rising faster or slower than productivity growth — which in a Phillips curve world, means a period above or below full employment.

We don’t hear as much about the labor share as the fundamental supply constraint, compared with savings, inflation or interest rates. But it comes right out of the logic of standard models. To get to crowding out mark five, though, we have to take one more step. We have to also postulate that demand in the economy is profit-led — that a distributional shift from profits toward wages reduces desired investment by more than it increases desired consumption. Whether (or which) real economies display wage-led or profit-led demand is a subject of vigorous debate in heterodox macro. But there’s no need to adjudicate that now. Right now I’m just interested in what crowding out could possibly mean.

Demand can affect distribution only if wage increases are not fully passed on to prices. One reason this might happen is that in an open economy, businesses lack pricing power; if they try to pass on increased costs, they’ll lose market share to imports. Follow that logic to its endpoint and there are no supply constraints — any increase in spending that can’t be satisfied by domestic production is met by imports instead. For an ideal small, open economy potential output is no more relevant than the grocery store’s inventory is for an individual household when we go shopping. Instead, like the household, the small open economy faces a budget constraint or a financing constraint — how much it can buy depends on how much it can pay for.

Needless to say, we needn’t go to that extreme to imagine a binding external constraint. It’s quite reasonable to suppose that, thanks to dependence on imported inputs and/or demand for imported consumption goods, output can’t rise without higher imports. And a country may well run out of foreign exchange before it runs out of domestic savings, finance or productive capacity. This is the idea behind multiple gap models in development economics, or balance of payments constrained growth. It also seems like the direction orthodoxy is heading in the eurozone, where competitiveness is bidding to replace inflation as the overriding concern of macro policy.

Crowding out mark six says that any increase in demand from the government sector will absorb scarce foreign exchange that will no longer be available to private sector. How relevant it is depends on how inelastic import demand is, the extent to which the country as a whole faces a binding budget or credit constraint and, what concrete form that constraint faces — what actually happens if international creditors are stiffed, or worry they might be? But the general logic is that higher spending will lead to a higher trade deficit, which at some point can no longer be financed.

So now we have six forms of crowding out:

1. Government competes with business for fixed saving.

2. Government competes with business for scarce liquidity.

3. Increased spending would lead to higher inflation.

4. Increased spending would cause the central bank to raise interest rates.

5. Overfull employment would lead to overfast wage increases.

6. Increased spending would lead to a higher trade deficit.

The next question is: Is there any reason, even in principle, to worry about any of these outcomes in the US today? We can decisively set aside the first, which is logically incoherent, and confidently set aside the second, which doesn’t fit a credit-money economy in which government liabilities are the most liquid asset. But the other four certainly could, in principle, reflect real limits on expansionary policy. The question is: In the US in 2017, are higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher wages or a weaker balance of payments position problems we need to worry about? Are they even problems at all?

First, higher inflation. This is the most natural place to look for the costs of demand pushing up against capacity limits. In some situations you’d want to ask how much inflation, exactly, would come from erring on the side of overexpansion, and how costly that higher inflation would be against the benefits of lower unemployment. But we don’t have to ask that question right now, because inflation is by conventional measures, too low; so higher inflation isn’t a cost of expansionary policy, but an additional benefit. The problem is even worse for Krugman, who has been calling for years now for a higher inflation target, usually 4 percent. You can’t support higher inflation without supporting the concrete action needed to bring it about, namely, a period of aggregate spending in excess of potential. [2] Now you might say that changing the inflation target is the responsibility of the Fed, not the fiscal authorities. But even leaving aside the question of democratic accountability, it’s hard to take this response seriously when we’ve spent the last eight years watching the Fed miss its existing target; setting a new higher target isn’t going to make a difference unless something else happens to raise demand. I just don’t see how you can write “What do we want? Four percent! When do we want it? Now!” and then turn around and object to expansionary fiscal policy on the grounds that it might be inflationary.

OK, but what if the Fed does raise rates in response to any increase in the federal budget deficit, as many observers expect? Again, if you think that more expansionary policy is otherwise desirable, it would seem that your problem here is with the Fed. But set that aside, and assume our choice is between a baseline 2018-2020, and an alternative with the same GDP but with higher budget deficits and higher interest rates. (This is the worst case for crowding out.) Which do we prefer? In the old days, the low-deficit, low-interest world would have been the only respectable choice: Private investment is obviously preferable to whatever government deficits might finance. (And to be fair, in the actual 2018-2020, they will mostly be financing high-end tax cuts.) But as Brad DeLong points out, the calculation is different today. Higher interest rates are now a blessing, not a curse, because they create more running room for the Fed to respond to a downturn. [3] In the second scenario, there will be some help from conventional monetary policy in the next recession, for whatever it’s worth; in the first scenario there will be no help at all. And one thing we’ve surely learned since 2008 is the costs of cyclical downturns are much larger than previously believed. So here again, what is traditionally considered a costs of pushing past supply constraints turns out on closer examination to be a benefit.

Third, the danger of more expansionary policy is that it will lead to a rise in the wage share. You don’t hear this one as much. I’ve suggested elsewhere that something like this may often motivate actual central bank decisions to tighten. Presumably it’s not what someone like Krugman is thinking about. But regardless of what’s in people’s heads, there’s a serious problem here for the crowding-out position. Let’s say that we believe, as both common sense and the textbooks tells us, that the rate of wage growth depends on the level of unemployment. Suppose  we define full employment in the conventional way as the level of unemployment that leads to nominal wage growth just equal to productivity growth plus the central bank’s inflation target. Then by definition, any increase in the wage share requires a period of overfull employment — of unemployment below the full employment level. This holds even if you think the labor share in the long run is entirely technologically determined. A forteori it holds if you think that the wage share is in some sense political, the result of the balance of forces between labor and capital.

Again, I’m simply baffled how someone can believe at the same time that the rising share of capital in national income is a problem, and that there is no space for expansionary policy once full employment is reached. [4] Especially since the unemployment target is missed so often from the other side. If you have periods of excessively high unemployment but no periods of excessively low unemployment, you get a kind of ratchet effect where the labor share can only go down, never up. I think this sort of cognitive dissonance happens because economics training puts aggregate demand in one box and income distribution in another. But this sort of hermetic separation isn’t really sustainable. The wage share can only be higher in the long run if there is some short-run period in which it rises.

Finally, the external constraint. It is probably true that more expansionary fiscal policy will lead to bigger trade deficits. But this only counts as crowding out if those deficits are in some sense unsustainable. Is this the case for the US? There are a lot of complexities here but the key point is that almost all our foreign liabilities (and all of the government’s) are denominated in dollars, and almost all our imports are invoiced in dollars. Personally, I think the world is still more likely to encounter a scarcity of dollar liquidity than a surfeit, so the problem of an external constraint doesn’t even arise. But let’s say I’m wrong and we get the worst-case scenario where the world is no longer willing to hold more dollar liabilities. What happens? Well, the value of the dollar falls. At a stroke, US foreign liabilities decline relative to foreign assets (which are almost all denominated in their home currencies), improving the US net international investment position; and US exports get cheaper for the rest of the world, improving US competitiveness. The problem solves itself.

Imagine a corporation with no liabilities except its stock, and that also paid all its employers and supplies in its own stock and sold its goods for its own stock. How could this business go bankrupt? Any bad news would instantly mean its debts were reduced and its goods became cheaper relative to its competitors’. The US is in a similar position internationally. And if you think that over the medium term the US should be improving its trade balance then, again, this cost of over-expansionary policy looks like a benefit — by driving down the value of the dollar, “irresponsible” policy will set the stage for a more sustainable recovery. The funny thing is that in other contexts Krugman understands this perfectly.

So as far as I can tell, even if we accept that the US economy has reached potential output/full employment, none of the costs for crossing this line are really costs today. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m missing something. but it really is incumbent on anyone who argues there’s no space for further expansionary policy to explain what concretely would be the results of overshooting.

In short: When we ask how close the economy is to potential output, full employment or supply constraints, this is not just a factual question. We have to think carefully about what these terms mean, and whether they have the significance we’re used to in today’s conditions. This post has been more about Krugman than I intended, or than he deserves. A very large swathe of established opinion shares the view that the economy is close to potential in some sense, and that this is a serious objection to any policy that raises demand. What I’d like to ask anyone who thinks this is: Do you think higher inflation, a higher “natural” interest rate, a higher wage share or a weaker dollar would be bad things right now? And if not, what exactly is the supply constraint you are worried about?

 

[1] The LM in ISLM stands for liquidity-money. It’s supposed to be the combination of interest rates and output levels at which the demand for liquidity is satisfied by a given stock of money.

[2] OK, some people might say the Fed could bring about higher inflation just by announcing a different target. But they’re not who I’m arguing with here.

[3] Krugman himself says he’d “be a lot more comfortable … if interest rates were well clear of the ZLB.” How is that supposed to happen unless something else pushes demand above the full employment level at current rates?

[4] It would of course be defensible to say that the downward redistribution from lower unemployment would be outweighed by the upward redistribution from the package of tax cuts and featherbedding that delivered it. But that’s different from saying that a more expansionary stance is wrong in principle.

Rogoff on the Zero Lower Bound

I was at the ASSAs in Chicago this past weekend. [1] One of the most interesting panels I went to was this one, on Advances in Open Economy Macroeconomics. Among other big names, Ken Rogoff was there, as the discussant for a rather strange paper by Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas and Helene Rey.

The Gourinchas and Rey paper, like much of mainstream macro these days, made a big deal of how different everything is at the zero lower bound. Rogoff wasn’t having it. Here’s a rough transcript of what he said:

The obsession with the zero lower bound is encouraging all kinds of wacko ideas. People are saying that at the ZLB, productivity increases are bad (Eggertsson/Krugman/Summers), protectionism is good (Eichngreen), price flexibility is bad, and so on.

But there is an emerging literature that says economists are taking the zero lower bound too literally. In fact, getting negative rates is not that hard. So before you take seriously these, let’s say, very creative ideas, it would be simpler to think about getting rid of the zero bound.

There are lots of ways to do it. I talk about some in my book, but people already understood this back in the 1930s. There was Robert Eisler’s proposal to have banks accept cash deposits at a discount, for instance, which would have effectively created negative rates. If Keynes had read Eisler, he might have gone in a different direction. [2] It’s a very old idea — Kublai Khan did something similar. There will be pushback from the financial sector, of course, who think negative rates will be costly for them, but fundamentally it is not hard to do.

These rather striking comments crystallized something in my mind. What is the big deal about the ZLB? For mainstream macroeconomists, including Gourinchas and Rey in this paper, the reason the ZLB matters is that it prevents the central bank form setting an interest rate low enough to keep output at potential. [3] It’s precisely this that makes inapplicable the conventional analysis of a nonmonetary problem of allocating scarce resources between alternative ends, and requires thinking about other entry points. If the central bank can’t solve the problem of aggregate demand then you have to take it seriously, with all the wacko and/or creative stuff that follows.

In the dominant paradigm, this is a specific technical problem of getting interest rates below zero. Solve that, and we are back in the comfortable Walrasian world. But for those of us on the heterodox side, it is never the case that the central bank can reliably keep output at potential — maybe because market interest rates don’t respond to the policy rate, or because output doesn’t respond to interest rates, or because the central bank is pursuing other objectives, or because there is no well-defined level of “potential” to begin with. (Or, in reality, all four.) So what people like Gourinchas and Rey, or Paul Krugman, present as a special, temporary state of the economy, we see as the general case.

One way of looking at this is that the ZLB is a device to allow economists like Krugman and Gourinchas and Rey — who whatever their scholarly training, are aware of the concrete reality around them — to make Keynesian arguments without forfeiting their academic respectability. You can understand why someone like Rogoff sees that as cheating. We’ve spent decades teaching that the fundamental constraint on the economy is the real endowment of resources and technology; that saving boosts growth; that trade is always win-win; that money and finance matter only in the short run (and the short run is tolerably short). The practical problem of negative policy rates doesn’t let you forget all of that.

Which, if you turn it around, perhaps reflects well on the ZLB crowd. Maybe they want to forget all that? Maybe, you could say, they take the zero lower bound seriously because they don’t take it literally. That is, they treat it as a hard constraint precisely because they are aware that it is only a stand-in for a deeper reality.

 

[1] The big annual economics conference. It stands for Allied Social Sciences Association — the disciplinary imperialism is right there in the name.

[2] This was an odd thing for Rogoff to say, since of course while Keynes didn’t discuss Eisler as far as I know, he talks at length about the similar proposals for depreciating cash of Silvio Gesell and Major Douglas. Notoriously he says these “brave cranks and heretics” have more to offer than Marx.

[3] Gourinchas and Rey are reality-based enough to say “the policy rate,” not “the interest rate.”

 

EDIT: Added the seriously-but-not-literally phrasing as suggested by Steve Roth on Twitter.

2016 Books

Here’s what I read in 2016. There’s probably a couple books I’m forgetting.

 

Munif – Cities of Salt. Munif was a dissident Saudi writer who spent his later life in exile in Syria. I happened to pick up this book on a recent visit to hi son Yasser’s house (we went to grad school together) and couldn’t put it down. It’s set in the 1930s in an unnamed Arabian country, and tells the stories of ordinary people who are variously enriched, displaced, and wrecked by the establishment of the oil industry. It has a bit of the structure of something like One Hundred Years of Solitude, though without the magic. One unusual thing about it is its use of collective protagonists — various individuals drift in and out, but a great deal of the narration is from the point of view of “the villagers,” “the pipeline workers,” “the townspeople,” etc. Munif’s sympathies are obviously with those uprooted by the alliance of American business and indigenous royalty, and with their overt and covert resistance to it, but he’s also clear-eyed about the limits to their capacity for collective action and their lack of any usable political language for what is happening to them. It’s the first book in a series. Two others are available in English, beautifully translated by Peter Theroux; the remaining two sadly are not, apparently because Theroux has been occupied translating books by Naguib Mahfouz.

 

Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. These stories were mostly just ok. I picked them up because, like everybody, I loved the Thomas Cromwell novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. (The tv miniseries was also quite good.) But what she’s doing here doesn’t work as well. What she’s doing is mostly something very specific: writing realistic fiction with the conventions of the gothic. Almost all of them are written from the perspective of subordinates and outsiders, and almost all of them involve a building sense of unease and dislocation. Sometimes this mix of social realism and horror succeeds, as in the title story and in The School of English, about a servant who was raped by her employer under circumstances that never quite come into focus. But more often it doesn’t, like in the embarrassing misfire Harley Street, where the shocking revelation is that two of a woman’s coworkers are lesbians. Oh well. I hope she’s working on the third Cromwell book.

 

Beckert – Empire of Cotton: A Global History. This magnificent book is certainly the best nonfiction I read this year. Perhaps the best way to show the concrete reality of capitalism is by following the chain of a single commodity from start to end — Mardi Gras Made in China s a classic example. With cotton Beckert has picked the ur-commodity. It’s all here: from the rise of Europe and the origins of wage labor, through imperialism and emancipation, the changing organization and financing of trade, to the developmental state. He’s especially good on two points. First, that the organization of production always comes down to control of labor. Second, that incorporation into the global economy didn’t simply mean swapping one mix of commodities produced and consumed for another, but a thorough reorganization of society, not just once but continuously as people’s life choices and circumstances became increasingly dependent on developments in distant markets. And he has an almost miraculous ability to produce exactly the right quote, the perfectly telling anecdote, at every point in the story. I’d love to know how he organizes his files.

 

Davis – Late Victorian Holocausts. I assigned it for a class – one of the best ways of finally getting to something you should have read years ago. It’s an extraordinary book — as suggested by the title, a comprehensive guide to Europe’s war against humanity in the 19th century, but also a timely exploration of the political and social consequences of climate change — a sort of prequel to my friend Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos. Davis is a master of this kind of thing — he somehow combines the core historical narrative, the political-economic analysis, the key statistical information and the telling quotes in a completely organic way. (I happened to reread a bit of City of Quartz recently and it’s the same — holds up very well.) The Brazil, China and Africa chapters are powerful, but the stuff on India is just brutal. The name Richard Temple should have the same resonance as the name Josef Mengele.

 

Bagchi – Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital. This is I’d planned to assign parts of this in my economics history class but in the end I didn’t use it. It’s a global history with a particular focus on assessing historical changes in wellbeing, especially in the periphery of the Europe-centered world system. In some ways it seems like an attempt to put Sen’s ideas about capabilities and functionings into a historical framework. It’s not a bad book, but the stories I wanted to use it for are told more vividly elsewhere, like the Beckert and Davis books.

 

Coates – Between the World and Me. I don’t have anything really to add to what everyone else has said about this book. It deserves the praise it’s gotten. If you haven’t read it, you should.

 

Isherwood – A Single Man. A lovely little novel about a bereaved gay academic in early-1960s California. Although all the specifics are captured very well, in some ways all these are beside the point. The real subject is the way our unitary self dissolves, on closer examination, into various roles we play, personae we adopt, based on the circumstances we find ourselves in. I suppose the bereaved part of the package is the most important for this purpose, since it removes the central, stabilizing social context of the narrator’s life. I guess the pre-stonewall gay part is important too, since it deprives him of a standard set of social forms and rituals that would make sense of his new condition. But the core idea is conveyed as well by the scene of him observing himself driving on an LA freeway: “an impassive anonymous chauffeur-figure with little will or individuality of its own, the very embodiment of muscular co-ordination, lack of anxiety, tactful silence, driving its master to work.” One other thing I like about this book: It’s one of the only campus novels that somehow manages to tip into neither nasty satire nor sententious harrumph. He conveys both that teaching is an almost religious vocation, standing intercessor between your students and a world that’s much bigger and older and deeper than them; and that it’s just a job. The Tom Ford movie entirely misses the point.

 

Hicks The Crisis in Keynesian Economics and Critical Essays in Monetary Theory. I read through quite a few essays in these collections after reading some fascinating pieces by Axel Leijonhufvud on Hicks and his work.  I didn’t get as much out of them as I had hoped. Hicks famously described his later work as a struggle to escape from the neoclassical framework of his best-known work, Value and Capital, but I don’t know how well he succeeded. I think I prefer Leijonhufvud’s Hicks to Hicks’ Hicks.

 

Reardon – Handbook of Pluralist Economic Education. I wrote a review of this, which should be coming out in the Review of Keynesian Economics at some point.

 

Diski – In Gratitude. I’ve been reading Diski’s essays and reviews for a while in the London Review of Books (which is objectively better than the NYRB, by the way). This is her memoir of, first, being semi-adopted by the novelist Doris Lessing as a teenager, and, later, dying of cancer. It’s a lovely book. It’s a playful but rigorous self-inventory; like a lot of the best memoirs, it conveys the the sense of being a spontaneous confession while benefiting from careful construction.

 

Lewin – The Soviet Century. I picked this up at a Verso event. I’m not sorry I read it, but I wouldn’t really recommend it. (Any ideas what one book you should you read on the history of the Soviet Union?) It’s chronological but not comprehensive — he’s really only interested here in how the system worked politically — how decisions were made, carried out, and justified.  There’s some interesting material here on the day to day realities of the Soviet administration. But there’s not enough context on what concrete outcomes resulted all this reshuffling of departments and reassignment of personnel. (The iconic red army soldier on the cover is a bit of a tease – there’s almost nothing here on World War II itself, only its repercussions for bureaucratic politics.) Lewin is evidently a Trotskyist of some sort — we are constantly being reminded of how stalin betrayed the promise of the revolution and the genuine accomplishments of the 1920s. As far as perspectives on the Soviet Union go, this is a respectable one, but it seems like at this point we should be aiming for a dispassionate account of how the system worked and what it did and did not do, without reenacting the debates of 100 years ago.

 

Hood – 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York. I’d expected this classic history to be, you know, sandhogs battling the Manhattan schist. There is some of that, but much more about the political and financial aspects of the story which, to me, are even more interesting. It develops and complicates the vague — “private subways abetted real estate speculation but became unprofitable after WWI so the government took them over” story I’d vaguely had in my head before.

The book does support the idea that the economics of private subways only really make sense in conjunction when they’re built by large-scale real estate developers; no other private actor can internalize their positive externalities. But the private to public transition is more complicated. It is true that, thanks to inflation and the nickel fare, the private lines saw big losses in the 1920s and 1930s. But because of the long-term contracts signed before the war, under which the city owned the tracks on which the privately-owned trains ran, the losses were mostly borne by the public; the private companies were mostly profitable. So the private-public question was less economic, and more directly ideological, than I had realized. Early on, there was very strong resistance to the idea of government-operated subways — state legislation forbidding public operation was passed when proposals were first floated. Public subways were explicitly seen as a step toward socialism. But a bit later, in the Progressive era, there was a serious push for a government run subway as a sort of public option to compete with August Belmont’s monopoly, and the Public Service Commission briefly operated some short connecting lines. this early foray into public subways was abandoned, but only as a result of complex set of negotiations counterbalancing the goals of holding down fares through competition; extending the existing system in a rational way; and encouraging development of outlying areas. (The last goal also supported by the progressives in order to move workers out of dense immigrant neighborhoods in Manhattan.) As is often the case when you read history, what in retrospect looks like a logically unfolding inevitable development, on clsoer examination could easily have gone in other ways.

 

Saki – The Unrest Cure. Oscar Wilde’s wit without his weirdness (mostly) or his politics (at all). Kept me occupied for half a dozen subway rides.

 

Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. These remarkable books deserve much more than I can write about them. Luckily, lots of other people have written about them! Purely as fiction, they are highly effective – they are the sort of novels you can’t stop reading, but that you constantly want to stop reading to make them last longer, and to think about what you’ve just read. As to the substance: Some people see the tragedy of the book that Lila, the central character, never leaves Naples — that her talent and energy and intelligence go to waste there, instead of developing into some useful and rewarding career as they would have elsewhere. I don’t agree. I don’t think we’re meant to imagine that anything important would have been better if she’d followed the narrator Elena to a middle-class, professional life in the North. I think we should take the narrator seriously in her reflections at the start of the third book. She says that she once saw the stasis, brutality and hopelessness of her childhood neighborhood as geographically specific. So she thought the solution was to

get away for good, settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled … Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong… the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth… And shrewdness means hiding from from oneself the true state of things.

I think if there’s a failure in the book, it’s the shrewd, practical Elana’s. I think Lila’s choice is the one we’re meant to admire — to keep trying to push through the immovable barriers of corrupt, violent Naples. To me, she comes across as almost Dostoyevskyan figure, a Myshkin unable to make the reasonable compromises we all make with an unreasonable world. In this reading, the radical political milieu of the middle books is more than just dramatic backdrop, though it certainly functions as that. The insurgent New Left of the 1970s, whatever its failures, was reacting to same basic problem as Lila — what do you do when you find the world you’ve been born unjust, nonsensical, and intolerable? Of course the usual answer is you do what you can to make things a bit better, incrementally — after all they are getting better — that way, with luck, lies a respected and remunerative career. This choice — which, again, almost all of us make — is represented in the books by the repulsive Nino. Whereas Lila (and the communist Pasquale, the books’ most purely admirable figure) represents the other choice, not to reconcile yourself. I feel like the books could have taken their epigraph from Mario Savio: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

 

Streeck – Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. I originally read this hoping to write a review of it. But I took too long and now Streeck has another one. Still planning to write the review, which will now have to be of the two books, so will save my thoughts til then.

 

Eicher – The New Cosmos. I like reading about science and I loved Carl Sagan as a kid, so this was an easy sell. I enjoyed reading it — if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’d probably enjoy it too — but I wouldn’t say it’s anything special. He does make a strong case that demoting Pluto from planethood was the wrong call.

 

Ascher The Works and The Heights. I got these two books mainly to read to my son, who like many five-year-olds is very interested in public works, infrastructure and engineering. (Brian Hayes’ magnificent Infrastructure, with its gorgeous photos, has been preferred dinnertime reading for a while.) But they aren’t kids’ books — I learned quite a lot from them — especially from The Works, which is about all the normally unregarded machinery and labor that makes New York City, well, work. Did you know about the Sandy Hook pilots, who still guide freighters into New York Harbour? Did you know that New York is one of the few major cities where storm runoff and sewage flow together, and that until the 1980s, the upper west side of Manhattan had no sewage treatment facilities and dumped its raw waste right into the Hudson? Did you know that New York still has an operational steam-tunnel system, which provides the heat for many of Manhattan’s iconic buildings as well as steam for dry cleaners, hospitals, etc.? Did you know that six inches of snow is the cutoff for all the city’s garbage trucks to be converted to snowplow service? I didn’t know any of that, and it’s good stuff to know.

 

Johnson – The Making of Donald Trump. At my parents’ house at Christmastime, my father was reading this. Laura picked it up and started saying, “Wait! did you ever hear this…?”, so I started reading it too. It’s a page turner. Now personally, I think it’s a mistake to personalize the political situation; I think we’re better off talking about what “the Republicans will do” than what “Trump will do.” And of course the fundamental terms of politics don’t change with elections. Still, I hadn’t realized just how vile this person is. Did you know that he cut off the medical coverage of his newborn grandnephew in neonatal intensive care, to force the parents to settle an inheritance dispute? Good times.

Thoughts and Links for December 21, 2016

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse

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

The headline in the online edition spells it right out:

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

The print edition is wordier but even clearer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to the political economy point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

Demand and Productivity

I’m picking up, after some months, the project I was working on over the summer on potential output. Obviously the political context is different now. But the questions of what potential output actually means, how tightly it binds, and how close the economy is to it at any given moment, are not going away. Previous entries: onetwothreefour, and five.

*

You’ve probably heard the story about Ed Rensi, the former McDonald’s CEO who claimed the company’s move to replace cashier’s with self-serve kiosks was a response to minimum wage increases.

“I told you so,” he writes. “In 2013, when the Fight for $15 was still in its growth stage, I and others warned that union demands for a much higher minimum wage would force businesses with small profit margins to replace full-service employees with costly investments in self-service alternatives.”

Is this for real? Maybe not: The shift toward kiosks has been happening for a while, so it’s not just a response to the recent minimum wage hikes; and it may not end up reducing labor costs anyway.

But let’s say the move is as as Rensi claims. Then we should call it what it is: an increase in labor productivity. With fewer workers McDonald’s will produce just as many hamburgers; in other words, production per worker will be higher. [1]

As I’ve suggested, this sort of thing is a real problem for a certain strand of minimum wage advocacy. Advocates like to point to productivity gains in response to higher wages as an argument in their favor. (The gains are usually imagined in terms of loyalty, motivation, lower turnover, etc. rather than machines, but functionally it’s the same.) But productivity gains can only reduce the job losses from a minimum wage increase if those losses are large; they are not consistent with a story in which employment stays the same. [2]

But at the macro level, this dynamic has different implications. If the McDonald’s case is typical — if higher labor costs regularly lead to higher productivity — then we need to rethink our idea of supply constraints. There is more space for expansionary policy than we usually think.

Let’s start at the beginning. Suppose there is some policy change, or some random event, that boosts desired spending in the economy. It could be more government spending, it could be lower interest rates, it could be a rise in exports. What happens then?

In the conventional story, higher spending normally leads to greater production of goods and services, which in turn requires higher employment. This leaves fewer people unemployed. Lower unemployment increases the bargaining power of workers, forcing employers to bid up nominal wages. [3] These higher wages are passed on to prices, leading to higher inflation. When inflation reaches whatever level is considered price stability, then we say the economy is at full employment, or at potential output. (In this story the two are equivalent.) If spending continues to rise past this point, the responsible authorities (normally the central bank) will intervene to bring it back down.

This is the story you’ll find in any good undergraduate macroeconomics textbook. It’s a reasonable story, as far as these things go. In the strong form it’s usually given in, it implies a hard limit to how much demand can increase before inflation starts rising unacceptably. Once the pool of unemployed workers falls to the “full employment” level, any further increase in employment will lead to rapid increases in money wages, which will be passed on one for one to inflation.

One place this chain can break is that new workers are not necessarily drawn from the ranks of the currently unemployed — that is, if the size of the laborforce is endogenous. Insofar as people counted as out of the laborforce are in fact available for employment (or net immigration responds to demand), an increase in output doesn’t have to reduce the ranks of the officially unemployed. In other words, the official unemployment rate may underestimate the space available for raising output via increased employment. This motivates the question of how much the the fall in laborforce participation since 2007 is due to demographics, and how much is due to weak demand.

The conventional story can also break down at two other places if productivity growth is endogenous. First, output can increase without a proportionate increase in employment. And second, wages can rise without a proportionate rise in prices.

It’s useful to think about this in terms of a couple of accounting identities, which in my opinion should be part of every macroeconomics textbook. [4] The first is obvious (but worth spelling out), the second a little less so:

(1) growth in demand = percent change in labor productivity + percent change in employment + inflation

(2) percent change in nominal wages = percent change in labor productivity + percent change in labor share + inflation

The standard story is that productivity change on its own due to technology, and the labor shared is fixed and can be ignored in this context. If productivity and labor share can be taken as given, then an increase in demand (money spent on final goods and services) must lead to higher inflation if either employment fails to rise, or if it rises only with higher wages. In this story, if nominal wages rise thanks to a lower unemployment rats, that will pass on one for one to inflation. Pick up an advanced undergraduate textbook like Blanchard or Krugman or Carlin and Soskice, and you will find a Phillips curve of exactly this form, with exactly this story behind it. [5] Policy discussions at central banks conducted in same terms.

This is what underlies idea of hard supply constraints. Output growth is dictated by the fixed, exogenous growth of the laborforce and of productivity. If changes in demand push the economy off that fixed trajectory, all you’ll get is higher or lower inflation. Concretely: To keep inflation at 2 percent, unemployment must be such as to generate nominal wage growth 2 points above the technologically-determined growth of productivity.

But an alternative story is that variation in demand can lead to adjustment in one of the other terms. One possibility is that the laborforce adjusts, as participation rates vary in response to demand conditions. This is what is most often meant by hysteresis: persistent deviations in unemployment from the “natural” level lead to people entering or exiting the laborforce. That implies that even when headline unemployment rates are fairly low, further increases in employment may be possible without a rise in wages. Another possibility is that while higher employment will lead to (or require) higher wages, the wage increase is not passed on to prices but comes at the expense of profits instead. This is Anwar Shaikh’s classical Phillips curve; I’ve written about it here before.

A third possibility is that higher wages are accompanied by higher productivity. Again, this appears as a problem when we are talking about wage increases from legislation, union contracts, or similar developments. But it’s not a problem if the wage increases are thanks to low unemployment. In this case, the joint movement of wages and productivity just means that output can rise higher — that supply constraints are softer. That’s what I want to focus on now.

There are a number of reasons why productivity might rise with wages. Some of them simply amount to mismeasurement of employment — it appears that output per worker is rising but really the effective number of workers is. Others are more fundamental. If productivity responds strongly and persistently to demand, it blurs the distinction between aggregate supply and aggregate demand, to the point that it’s not clear what “potential output” even means.

*

Suppose we do find a consistent pattern where, if demand is strong, unemployment is low, and wages are rising rapidly, then productivity growth is high. What could be happening?

1. Increased hours. If we measure productivity as output per worker, as we usually do, then an increase in average hours worked will show up as an increase in productivity. There is a cyclical component to this — in recessions, employers reduce hours as well as laying off workers. According to the BLS, seasonally adjusted weekly hours fell from 34.4 prior to the recession to a low of 33.7 in summer 2009. While a 2 percent fall in hours might seem small, it’s a big change in less than two years, especially when you consider that real output per worker normally rises by less than 2 percent a year.

2. Workers moving into real jobs from pseudo-employment or disguised unemployment. In any economy there are activities that are formally classified as jobs but are not employment in any substantive sense — you can take these “jobs” without anyone making a decision to hire you, and they don’t come with a wage or any similar claim on any established production process. Joan Robinson’s examples were someone who gathers firewood in a poor country, or sells pencils on streetcorners in a richer one. You could add work in family businesses and various kinds of self-employment and commission-based work to this category. In countries with traditional rural sectors — not the US — work on a family farm is the big item here. These activities absorb people who are unable to find formal jobs; the marginal product of additional workers here is normally very low. So if higher demand draws people from this kind of disguised unemployment back into regular jobs, measured productivity will rise.

3. Workers may be more fully utilized at their existing jobs. Because hiring and firing is costly, business don’t immediately adjust staffing in response to changes in sales. when demand falls, businesses will initially keep some redundant workers because paying them is cheaper than laying them off and replacing them later; and when demand rises, businesses will first try to get more work out of existing employees rather than paying the costs of hiring more. Some of this takes the form of the hours adjustment above, but some of it simply takes the form of hiring “too little” or “too much” labor for the current level of production. These changes in the utilization of existing labor will show up as changes in labor productivity.

4. Higher wages may lead to more capital-intensive production. This is the McDonald’s story: When labor gets more expensive (or scarcer), businesses use more capital instead. This is presumably what people mean when they say “Econ 101” shows that rising wages lead to less employment (assuming they mean anything at all). This may be seen as a negative when it’s a question of raising wages through legislation or unions, but it shouldn’t be when it’s a question of rising wages due to labor scarcity. Insofar as businesses can substitute machines for labor, rising wages will not be passed on to prices, so there is more space to push unemployment down.

5. Productivity-boosting innovations may be more likely when demand is strong and wages rise. This is a variant of the previous story. Now instead of high wage leading business to adopt more capital-intensive techniques from those already available, they redirect innovation toward developing new labor-saving techniques. Conceptually this is not a big difference, but it implies a different signal in the data. In the previous case we would expect  the productivity improvements to be associated with higher investment and to be concentrated at the firms actually experiencing higher wages costs; in this case they might not be.

6. The composition of employment may shift toward higher-productivity sectors. This might happen for either of two reasons. First, higher wages will disproportionately raise costs for more labor-intensive sectors; these higher costs may be absorbed by profits or by prices, but either way they will presumably depress growth in those sectors to the benefit of less labor-intensive, more productive ones. Second, it may so happen that the more income-elastic sectors are also higher-productivity ones. In the short run this is presumably true since durables and investment goods are both capital-intensive and income-elastic. Over the longer run, the opposite is more likely — the composition of demand slowly but steadily shifts toward lower-productivity sectors.

7. The composition of employment may shift toward higher-productivity firms. This sounds similar but it’s a different story. Technical change isn’t an ineffable output-raising essence diffusing across society, it’s embodied in specific new production processes and new businesses — Schumpeter’s new plant, new firms, new men. This means that productivity increases often require new or growing firms to attract workers away from established ones. Given the “frictions” in the labor market, this will require offering a wage significantly above the going rate. And on the other side the fact that the least productive firms can’t afford to pay higher wages will cause them to decline or exit, which also raises average productivity. When wages are flat, on the other hand, low-productivity firms can continue operating. In this sense, higher wages are an integral part of productivity growth. [6]

8. There may be increasing returns in production. It may literally be the case that output per worker rises — at the firm, industry or economy-wide level — when the number of workers rises. Or this may be a more abstract version of some of the stories above. It’s worth noting that increasing returns is an area where the intuitions of people with economics training diverge sharply from people who look at the economy through other lenses. To almost anyone except an economist, it’s obvious that  costs normally fall as more of something is produced. [7]

All of these stories imply that higher demand should lead to higher measured labor productivity. But to figure out how strong this relationship is in reality, we’ll look at different data depending on which of these stories we think it works through.

Another important difference between the stories is they imply different domains over which the relationship should operate. The first three suggest a more or less immediate response of productivity to changes in demand, but also one that cannot continue indefinitely. There’s limits to how much hours per worker can rise and how much additional effort can be extracted from the existing workforce, and a limited pool of disguised unemployment to draw from. (The last is not true in developing countries, where the “latent reserve army” in subsistence agriculture may be effectively unlimited.) The other mechanisms are presumably slower, requiring a sustained “high-pressure economy.”  With these stories, increased demand may push the economy up against supply constraints, with rising inflation, bottlenecks, and so on; but if it keeps pushing against them, eventually they’ll give. In this case, potential output is a medium-term constraint — over longer periods it can adjust to actual output, rather than the reverse.  So in the opposite of conventional story, a temporary increase in inflation can lead to a permanent increase in output. People like Laurence Ball say exactly this about hysteresis, but they are usually thinking of the longer-run adjustment coming on the laborforce side.

If we follow this a step further, we could even say that in the long run, the big problem isn’t that excessively high wages do lead to the substitution of capital for labor but that excessively low wages don’t. People like Arthur Lewis argue that it’s the low wages of poor countries that have led to low productivity there, and not vice versa; there’s a well-known argument that the reason the industrial revolution happened first in Britain rather than in China or India (or Italy or France) is not that that the necessary technical innovations were present only in Britain. They were present many places; it was the uniquely high cost of British labor that made them profitable to adopt for production.

*

I think that productivity does respond to demand. I think this is a good reason to doubt whether the US economy close to “potential output” today, and to doubt what, if anything, this concept actually means. But I also think we need to be clearer about how they are linked concretely. If we want to tell a story about productivity responding to demand, it makes a difference which of the stories above we have in mind. Heterodox people, it seems to me, are too quick to just invoke Verdoorn’s law (productivity rises with output), and justify it with some vague comments about how labor is used more efficiently when it is scarce. [8] Does this apparent law work via substitution of machines for labor, or through fuller utilization of existing employees’ times, or through reallocation of labor to more productive firms and/or industries, or through a labor-saving-bias in technical change, or pure increasing returns, or what? If you’re just making a formal model it may not matter. But if we want to connect the model to concrete historical developments, it certainly does.

Personally, I am most interested in the reallocation stories. They shift our idea of the fundamental constraint on capitalist economies from biophysical resources, to coordination. The great difficulty for any program of raise or transform production —  industrialization, wartime mobilization, decarbonization — isn’t the limited supply of “real” resources, but the speed at which people’s productive activity can be redirected in a coordinated way. This connects with the historical fact that the more rapid and the larger scale is economic development, the more it requires some form of central planning. And it implies that at the most basic level, what the capitalist provides is not money or means of production, but cooperation.

To tell this story, it would be nice if big shifts in productivity growth took the form of changes in the composition of employment, rather than higher output per worker in given jobs. That may or may not be there in the data. For the more immediate question of how much space there is in the US for further expansion, it doesn’t matter as much which of these stories is at work, as long as we can show that at least some of them are. [9]

In the next post or two — which I hope to write in the next week, but we’ll see — I will ask what we can say about the link between demand and productivity based on historical US data. In particular, it’s fairly straightforward to decompose changes in output per worker into three components: within-industry output per hour, within-industry hours per worker, and shifts in the employment between industries. Splitting up productivity growth this way cannot, of course, directly establish a causal link with demand. but it can help clarify which stories are plausible and which are not.

 


 

[1] Throughout this discussion, I use “productivity” to mean labor productivity — output per worker or per hour. There is also “total factor productivity,” which purports to be a measure of output for a given input of labor and capital. This concept, which IMF chief economist Paul Romer memorably called “phlogiston,” is measured as the residual from a production function — the output growth the function does not explain. Since construction of the production function requires several unobseravable parameters, total factor productivity cannot be derived even in principle from economic data. It’s a fun toy for economic theory but useless for describing the behavior of actual economies.

Nonetheless it is widely used — for instance by the CBO as discussed here. As Nathan Tankus pointed out to me the other day, under the ARRA Medicare payments to hospitals are reduced each year based on an estimate of TFP growth for the economy as a whole. It’s a great example of the crackpot wonkery of the law’s authors.

[2] Unless productivity improvements all take the form of higher quality, rather than higher output per worker.

[3] This unemployment-money wages relationship was the original Phillips curve, but it’s better now to refer to it as a wage curve.

[4] It’s a topic for another time, but I think it would be very natural to replace the “aggregate supply” framework of the textbooks with these two identities.

[5] Other textbooks, like Mankiw, base the wage-unemployment relationship on a labor-supply curve rather than a bargaining relationship. Graduate textbooks, of course, replace the institutional detail of workers and employers with a single representative agent, in order to make more space for playing with math.

[6]  Andrew Glyn and his coauthors have a good discussion of this in the context of the postwar boom in  Capitalism Since 1945 (p. 122-123).

[7] For example, here’s Laurie Winkless in Science and the City, which happens to be sitting nearby:

Bessemer’s system rapidly began to change the world of steel manufacturing, and by 1875, costs had dropped to $32 (£23) per tonne. as always, in the supply-and-demand equation, the availability of cheap, high-quality steel made it immensely popular, leading to another huge drop in the price per tonne.

Winkless has made the mistake of studying the actual history of the steel history. If she were an economist, she would know that in the world of supply and demand, immense popularity makes prices rise, not fall!

[8] In Shaikh’s Capitalism, for example, there are a number of models that rely on the claim that productivity rises with output. It’s a big book and I may well have missed a part where he explains more fully why this is true. But as far as I can tell, all he says is that higher unit labor costs “provide a strong incentive for firms to raise productivity.”

[9] The politics of this question under Trump are for another time. But certainly Jeff Spross is right that we don’t want to oppose Trump’s (dubious) plans for a big stimulus by embracing the politics of austerity. We should not respond to Trump by reflexively insisting that the US is already at full employment, and by mocking “vulgar Keynesians” who think there might still be problems for macro policy to solve.

 

EDIT: Fixed the footnote numbering, which was garbled before.

Blogging in the Age of Trump

I haven’t written anything for this blog in the past month. Or rather, I’ve written quite a bit, but nothing I’ve felt comfortable posting. No surprise why.

On the one hand, I have — like everyone — opinions about the election, and the coming Trump presidency and broader Republican ascendancy. But none of those opinions seem especially insightful or original or coherent, and most of them I don’t hold with great confidence. I’m also not sure that this space is the right one for discussions of political strategy: Readers of this blog don’t constitute the kind of community for which the question “what should we do?” makes sense.

But on the other hand, it doesn’t feel right — it doesn’t feel possible — to just go on posting about the same economic questions as before, as if nothing has changed. Even if, in important ways, nothing has. And it still seems too soon to know where the terrains of struggle will be under the new administration, or to guess how the economic debates will reorient themselves along the new political field lines.

I’ve felt stuck. I know I’m not the only one who feels like they have nothing useful to say.

But you still have to get up in the morning, you still have to go to your job, you have to teach your classes, you have to write blog posts. So, back to work.

At Jacobin: Socializing Finance

(Cross-posted from Jacobin. A shorter version appears in the Fall 2016 print issue.)

 

At its most basic level, finance is simply bookkeeping — a record of money obligations and commitments. But finance is also a form of planning – a set of institutions for allocating claims on the social product.

The fusion of these two logically distinct functions – bookkeeping and planning – is as old as capitalism, and has troubled the bourgeois conscience for almost as long. The creation of purchasing power through bank loans is hard to square with the central ideological claim about capitalism, that market prices offer a neutral measure of some preexisting material reality. The manifest failure of capitalism to conform to ideas of how this natural system should behave, is blamed on the ability of banks (abetted by the state) to drive market prices away from their true values. Somehow separating these two functions of the banking system –  bookkeeping and planning –  is the central thread running through 250 years of monetary reform proposals by bourgeois economists, populists and cranks. We can trace it from David Hume, who believed a “perfect circulation” was one where gold alone were used for payments, and who doubted whether bank loans should be permitted at all; to the 19th century advocates of a strict gold standard or the real bills doctrine, two competing rules that were supposed to restore automaticity to the creation of bank credit; to Proudhon’s proposals for giving money an objective basis in labor time; to Wicksell’s prescient fears of the instability of an unregulated system of bank money; to the oft-revived proposals for 100%-reserve banking; to Milton Friedman’s proposals for a strict money-supply growth rule; to today’s orthodoxy that dreams of a central bank following an inviolable “policy rule” that reproduces the “natural interest rate.” What these all have in common is that they seek to restore objectivity to the money system, to legislate into existence the real values that are supposed to lie behind money prices. They seek to compel money to actually be what it is imagined to be in ideology: an objective measure of value that reflects the real value of commodities, free of the human judgements of bankers and politicians.

*

Socialists reject this fantasy. We know that the development of capitalism has from the beginning been a process of “financialization” – of extension of money claims on human activity, and of representation of the social world in terms of money payments and commitments. We know that there was no precapitalist world of production and exchange on which money and then credit were later superimposed: Networks of money claims are the substrate on which commodity production has grown and been organized.  And we know that the social surplus under capitalism is not allocated by “markets,” despite the fairy tales of economists.  It is allocated by banks and other financial institutions, whose activities are not ultimately coordinated by markets either, but by planners of one sort or another.

However decentralized in theory, market production is in fact organized through a highly centralized financial system. And where something like competitive markets do exist, it is usually thanks to extensive state management, from anti-trust laws to all the elaborate machinery set up by the ACA to prop up a rickety market for private health insurance. As both Marx and Keynes recognized, the tendency of capitalism is to develop more social, collective forms of production, enlarging the domain of conscious planning and diminishing the zone of the market. (A point also understood by some smarter, more historically minded liberal economists today.) The preservation of the form of markets becomes an increasingly utopian project, requiring more and more active intervention by government. Think of the enormous public financing, investment, regulation required for our “private” provision of housing, education, transportation, etc.

In  world where production is guided by conscious planning — public or private — it makes no sense to think of  money values as reflecting the objective outcome of markets, or of financial claims as simply a record of “real’’ flows of income and expenditure. But the “illusion of the real,” as Perry Mehrling somewhere calls it, is very hard to resist. We must constantly remind ourselves that market values have never been, and can never be, an objective measure of human needs and possibilities. We must remember that values measured in money – prices and quantities, production and consumption – have no existence independent of the market transactions that give them quantitative form. We must recognize the truth that Keynes – unlike so many bourgeois economists – clearly stated: a quantitative comparison between disparate use-values is possible only when they actually come into market exchange, and only on the terms given by the concrete form of that exchange. It is meaningless to compare  economic quantities over widely separated periods of time, or in countries at very different levels of development. On such questions only qualitative, more or less subjective judgements can be made.

It follows that socialism cannot be described in terms of the quantity of commodities produced, or the distribution of them. Socialism is liberation from the commodity form. It is defined not by the disposition of things but by the condition of human beings. It is the progressive extension of the domain of human freedom, of that part of our lives governed by love and reason.

There are many critics of finance who see it as the enemy of a more humane or authentic capitalism. They may be managerial reformers (Veblen’s “Soviet of engineers”) who oppose finance as a parasite on productive enterprises; populists who hate finance as the destroyer of their own small capitals; or sincere believers in market competition who see finance as a collector of illegitimate rents. On a practical level there is much common ground between these positions and a socialist program. But we can’t accept the idea of finance as a distortion of some true market values that are natural, objective, or fair.

Finance should be seen as a moment in the capitalist process, integral to it but with two contradictory faces. On the one hand, it is finance (as a concrete institution) that generates and enforces the money claims against social persons of all kinds — human beings, firms, nations — that extend and maintain the logic of commodity production. (Student loans reinforce the discipline of wage labor, sovereign debt upholds the international division of labor.)

Yet on the other hand, the financial system is also where conscious planning takes its most fully developed form under capitalism. Banks are, in Schumpeter’s phrase, the private equivalent of Gosplan, the Soviet planning agency. Their lending decisions determine what new projects will get a share of society’s resources, and suspend — or enforce — the “judgement of the market” on money-losing enterprises. A socialist program must respond to both these faces of finance.  We oppose the power of finance if we want to progressively reduce the extent to which human life is organized around the accumulation of money. We embrace the planning already inherent in finance because we want to expand the domain of conscious choice, and reduce the domain of blind necessity. “It is a work of culture — not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.”

*

The development of finance reveals the progressive displacement of market coordination by planning. Capitalism means production for profit; but in concrete reality profit criteria are always subordinate to financial criteria. The judgement of the market has force only insofar as it is executed by finance. The world is full of businesses whose revenues exceed their costs, but are forced to scale back or shut down because of the financial claims against them. The world is full of businesses that operate for years, or indefinitely, with costs in excess of their revenues, thanks to their access to finance. And the institutions that make these financing decisions do so based on their own subjective judgement, constrained ultimately not by some objective criteria of value, but by the terms set by the central bank.

There is a basic contradiction between the principles of competition and finance. Competition is imagined as a form of natural selection: Firms that make profits reinvest them and thus grow, while firms that make losses can’t invest and must shrink and eventually disappear. This is supposed to be a great advantage of markets.

But the whole point of finance is to break this link between profits yesterday and investment today. The surplus paid out as dividends and interest is available for investment anywhere in the economy, not just where it was generated. Conversely, entrepreneurs can undertake new projects that have never been profitable in the past, if they can convince someone to bankroll them. Competition looks backward: The resources you have today depend on how you’ve performed in the past. Finance looks forward: The resources you have today depend on how you’re expect (by someone!) to perform in the future. So, contrary to the idea of firms rising and falling through natural selection, finance’s darlings — from Amazon to Uber and the whole unicorn herd — can invest and grow indefinitely without ever showing a profit. This is also supposed to be a great advantage of markets.

In the frictionless world imagined by economists, the supercession of markets by finance is already carried to its limit. Firms do not control or depend on their own surplus. All surplus is allocated centrally, by financial markets. All funds for investment comes from financial markets and all profits immediately return in money form to these markets. This has two contradictory implications. On the one hand, it eliminates  any awareness of the firm as a social organism, of the activity the firm carries out to reproduce itself, of its pursuit of ends other than maximum profit for its “owners”. The firm, in effect, is born new each day by the grace of those financing it.

But by the same token, the logic of profit maximization loses its objective basis. The quasi-evolutionary process of competition – in which successful firms grow and unsuccessful ones decline and die  – ceases to operate if the firm’s own profits are no longer its source of investment finance, but both instead flow into a common pool. In this world, which firms grow and which shrink depends on the decisions of the financial planners who allocate capital between them. Needless to say it makes no difference if we move competition “one level up” – money managers also borrow and issue shares.

The contradiction between market production and socialized finance becomes more acute as the pools of finance themselves combine or become more homogenous. This was a key point for turn-of-the-last-century Marxists like Hilferding (and Lenin), but it’s also behind the recent fuss in the business press over the rise of index funds. These funds hold all shares of all corporations listed on a given stock index; unlike actively managed funds they make no effort to pick winners, but hold shares in multiple competing firms. Per one recent study, “The probability that two randomly selected firms in the same industry from the S&P 1500 have a common shareholder with at least 5% stakes in both firms increased from less than 20% in 1999 to around 90% in 2014.”

The problem is obvious: If corporations work for their shareholders, then why would they compete against each other if their shares are held by the same funds? Naturally, one proposed solution is more state intervention to preserve the form of markets, by limiting or disfavoring stock ownership via broad funds. Another, and perhaps more logical, response is: If we are already trusting corporate managers to be faithful agents of the rentier class as a whole, why not take the next step and make them agents of society in general?

And in any case the terms on which the financial system directs capital are ultimately set by the central bank. Its decisions — monetary policy in the narrow sense, but also the terms on which financial institutions are regulated, and rescued in crises – determine not only the overall pace of credit expansion but the criteria of profitability itself. This is acutely evident in crises, but it’s implicit in routine monetary policy as well. Unless lower interest rates turn some previously unprofitable projects into profitable ones, how are they supposed to work?

At the same time, the legitimacy of the capitalist system — the ideological justification of its obvious injustice and waste —  comes from the idea that economic outcomes are determined by “the market,” not by anyone’s choice. So the planning has to be kept out of site. Central bankers themselves are quite aware of this aspect of their role. In the early 1980s, when the Fed was changing the main instrument it used for monetary policy, officials there were concerned that their choice preserve the fiction that interest rates were being set by the markets. As Fed Governor Wayne Angell put it, it was essential to choose a technique that would “have the camouflage of market forces at work.”

Mainstream economics textbooks explicitly describe the long-term trajectory of capitalist economies in terms of an ideal planner, who is setting output and prices for all eternity in order to maximize the general wellbeing. The contradiction between this macro vision and the ideology of market competition is papered over by the assumption that over the long run this path is the same as the “natural” one that would obtain in a perfect competitive market system without money or banks. Outside of the academy, it’s harder to sustain faith that the planners at the central bank are infallibly picking the outcomes the market should have arrived at on its own. Central banks’ critics on the right — and many on the left — understand clearly that central banks are engaged in active planning, but see it as inherently illegitimate. Their belief in “natural” market outcomes goes with fantasies of a return to some monetary standard independent of human judgement – gold or bitcoin.

Socialists, who see through central bankers’ facade of neutral expertise and recognize their close association with private finance, may be tempted by similar ideas. But the path toward socialism runs the other way. We don’t seek to organize human life on an objective grid of market values, free of the distorting influence of finance and central banks. We seek rather to bring this already-existing conscious planning into the light, to make it into a terrain of politics, and to direct it toward meeting human needs rather than reinforcing relations of domination. In short: the socialization of finance.

*

in the U.S. context, this analysis suggests a transitional program perhaps along the following lines.

Decommodify money. While there is no way to separate money and markets from finance, that does not mean that the routine functions of the monetary system must be a source of private profit. Shifting responsibility for the basic monetary plumbing of the system to public or quasi-public bodies is a non-reformist reform – it addresses some of the directly visible abuse and instability of the existing monetary system while pointing the way toward more profound transformations. In particular, this could involve:

 1. A public payments system. In the not too distant past, if I wanted to give you some money and you wanted to give me a good or service, we didn’t have to pay a third party for permission to make the trade. But as electronic payments have replaced cash, routine payments have become a source of profit. Interchanges and the rest of the routine plumbing of the payments system should be a public monopoly, just as currency is.

 2. Postal banking. Banking services should similarly be provided through post offices, as in many other countries. Routine transactions accounts (check and saving) are a service that can be straightforwardly provided by the state.

 3. Public credit ratings, both for bonds and for individuals. As information that, to perform its function, must be widely available, credit ratings are a natural object for public provision even within the overarching logic of capitalism. This is also a challenge to the coercive, disciplinary function increasingly performed by private credit ratings in the US.

 4. Public housing finance. Mortgages for owner-occupied housing are another area where a patina of market transactions is laid over a system that is already substantively public. The 30-year mortgage market is entirely a creation of regulation, it is maintained by public market-makers, and public bodies are largely and increasingly the ultimate lenders. Socialists have no interest in the cultivation of a hothouse petty bourgeoisie through home ownership; but as long as the state does so, we demand that it be openly and directly rather than disguised as private transactions.

 5. Public retirement insurance. Providing for old age is the other area, along with housing, where the state does the most to foster what Gerald Davis calls the “capital fiction” – the conception of one’s relationship to society in terms of asset ownership. But here, unlike home ownership, social provision in the guise of financial claims has failed even on its own narrow terms. Many working-class households in the US and other rich countries do own their own houses, but only a tiny fraction can meet their subsistence needs in old age out of private saving. At the same time, public retirement systems are much more fully developed than public provision of housing. This suggests a program of eliminating existing programs to encourage private retirement saving, and greatly expanding Social Security and similar social insurance systems.

Repress finance. It’s not the job of socialists to keep the big casino running smoothly. But as long as private financial institutions exist, we cannot avoid the question of how to regulate them. Historically financial regulation has sometimes taken the form of “financial repression,” in which the types of assets held by financial institutions are substantially dictated by the state. This allows credit to be directed more effectively to socially useful investment. It also allows policymakers to hold market interest rates down, which — especially in the context of higher inflation — diminishes both the burden of debt and the power of creditors. The exiting deregulated financial system already has very articulate critics; there’s no need to duplicate their work with a detailed reform proposal. But we can lay out some broad principles:

1. If it isn’t permitted, it’s forbidden. Effective regulation has always depended on enumerating specific functions for specific institutions, and prohibiting anything else. Otherwise it’s too easy to bypass with something that is formally different but substantively equivalent. And whether or not central banks are going to continue with their role as the main managers of aggregate demand —  increasingly questioned by those inside the citadel as well as by outsiders — they also need this kind of regulation to effectively control the flow of credit.

2. Protect functions, not institutions. The political power of finance comes from ability to threaten routine social bookkeeping, and the security of small property owners. (“If we don’t bail out the banks, the ATMs will shut down! What about your 401(k)?”) As long as private financial institutions perform socially necessary functions, policy should focus on preserving those functions themselves, and not the institutions that perform them. This means that interventions should be as close as possible to the nonfinancial end-user, and not on the games banks play among themselves. For example: deposit insurance.

3. Require large holdings of public debt. The threat of the “bond vigilantes” against the US federal government has  been wildly exaggerated, as was demonstrated for instance by the debt-ceiling farce and downgrade of 2012. But for smaller governments – including state and local governments in the US – bond markets are not so easily ignored. And large holdings of pubic debt also reduce the frequency and severity of the periodic financial crises which are, perversely, one of the main ways in which finance’s social power is maintained.

4. Control overall debt levels with lower interest rates and higher inflation. Household leverage in the US has risen dramatically over the past 30 years; some believe that this is because debt was needed to raise living standards of living in the face of stagnant or declining real incomes. But this isn’t the case; slower income growth has simply meant slower growth in consumption. Rather, the main cause of rising household debt over the past 30 years has been the combination of low inflation and continuing high interest rates for households. Conversely, the most effective way to reduce the burden of debt – for households, and also for governments – is to hold interest rates down while allowing inflation to rise.

As a corollary to financial repression, we can reject any moral claims on behalf of interest income as such. There is no right to exercise a claim on the labor of others  through ownership of financial assets. To the extent that the private provision of socially necessary services like insurance and pensions is undermined by low interest rates, that is an argument for moving these services to the public sector, not for increasing the claims of rentiers.

Democratize central banks. Central banks have always been central planners. Choices about interest rates, and the terms on which financial institutions will be regulated and rescued, inevitably condition the profitability and the direction as well as level of productive activity. This role has been concealed behind an ideology that imagines the central bank behaving automatically, according to a rule that somehow reproduces the “natural” behavior of markets.

Central banks’ own actions since 2008 have left this ideology in tatters. The immediate response to the crisis have forced central banks to intervene more directly in credit markets, buying a wider range of assets and even replacing private financial institutions to lend directly to nonfinancial businesses. Since then, the failure of conventional monetary policy has forced central banks to inch unwillingly toward a broader range of interventions, directly channeling credit to selected borrowers. This turn to “credit policy” represents an admission – grudging, but forced by events – that the anarchy of competition is unable to coordinate production. Central banks cannot, as the textbooks imagine, stabilize the capitalists system by turning a single knob labeled “money supply” or “interest rate.” They must substitute their own judgement for market outcomes in a broad and growing range of asset and credit markets.

The challenge now is to politicize central banks — to make them the object of public debate and popular pressure.  In Europe, the national central banks – which still perform their old functions, despite the common misperception that the ECB is now the central bank of Europe – will be a central terrain of struggle for the next left government that seeks to break with austerity and liberalism. In the US, we can dispense for good with the idea that monetary policy is a domain of technocratic expertise, and bring into the open its program of keeping unemployment high in order to restrain wage growth and workers’ power. As a positive program, we might demand that the Fed aggressively using its existing legal authority to purchase municipal debt, depriving rentiers of their power over financially constrained local governments as in Detroit and Puerto Rico, and more broadly blunting the power of “the bond markets” as a constraint on popular politics at the state and local level. More broadly, central banks should be held responsible for actively directing credit to socially useful ends.

Disempower shareholders. Really existing capitalism consists of narrow streams of market transactions flowing between vast regions of non-market coordination. A core function of finance is to act as the weapon in the hands of the capitalist class to enforce the logic of value on these non-market structures. The claims of shareholders over nonfinancial businesses, and bondholders over national governments, ensure that all these domains of human activity remain subordinate to the logic of accumulation. We want to see stronger defenses against these claims – not because we have any faith in productive capitalists or national bourgeoisies, but because they occupy the space in which politics is possible.

Specifically we should stand with corporations against shareholders. The corporation, as Marx long ago noted, is “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself.” Within the corporation, activity is coordinated through plans, not markets; and the orientation of this activity is toward the production of a particular use-value rather than money as such. “The tendency of big enterprise,” Keynes wrote, “is to socialize itself.” The fundamental political function of finance is to keep this tendency in check. Without the threat of takeovers and the pressure of shareholder activists, the corporation becomes a space where workers and other stakeholders can contest control over production and the surplus it generates – a possibility that capitalist never lose sight of.

Needless to say, this does not imply any attachment to the particular individuals at the top of the corporate hierarchy, who today are most often actual or aspiring rentiers  without any organic connection to the production process. Rather, it’s a recognition of the value of the corporation as a social organism; as a space structured by relationships of trust and loyalty, and by intrinsic motivation and “professional conscience”; and as the site of consciously planned production of use-values.

The role of finance with respect to the modern corporation is not to provide it with resources for investment, but to ensure that its conditional orientation toward production as an end in itself is ultimately subordinate to the accumulation of money. Resisting this pressure is no substitute for other struggles, over the labor process and the division of resources and authority within the corporation. (History gives many examples of production of use values as an end in itself, which is carried out under conditions as coercive and alienated as under production for profit.) But resisting the pressure of finance creates more space for those struggles, and for the evolution of socialism within the corporate form.

Close borders to money (and open them to people). Just as shareholder power enforces the logic of accumulation on corporations, capital mobility does the same to states. In the universities, we hear about the supposed efficiency  of unrestrained capital flows, but in the political realm we hear more their power to “discipline” national governments. The threat of capital flight and balance of payments crises protects the logic of accumulation against incursions by national governments.

States can be vehicles for conscious control of the economy only insofar as financial claims across borders are limited. In a world where capital flows are large and unrestricted, the concrete activity of production and reproduction must constantly adjust itself to the changing whims of foreign investors. This is incompatible with any strategy for  development of the forces of production at the national level; every successful case of late industrialization has depended on the conscious direction of credit through the national banking system. More than that, the requirement that real activity accommodate cross-border financial flows is  incompatible even with the stable reproduction of capitalism in the periphery. We have learned this lesson many times in Latin America and elsewhere in the South, and are now learning it again in Europe.

So a socialist program on finance should include support for efforts of national governments to delink from the global economy, and to maintain or regain control over their financial systems. Today, such efforts are often connected to a politics of racism, nativism and xenophobia which we must uncompromisingly reject. But it is possible to move toward a world in which national borders pose no barrier to people and ideas, but limit the movement of goods and are impassible barriers to private financial claims.

In the US and other rich countries, it’s also important to oppose any use of the authority – legal or otherwise – of our own states to enforce financial claims against weaker states. Argentina and Greece, to take two recent examples, were not forced to accept the terms of their creditors by the actions of dispersed private individuals through financial markets, but respectively by the actions of Judge Griesa of the US Second Circuit and Trichet and Draghi of the ECB. For peripheral states to foster development and serve as vehicle for popular politics, they must insulate themselves from international financial markets. But the power of those markets comes ultimately from the gunboats — figurative or literal — by which private financial claims are enforced.

With respect to the strong states themselves, the markets have no hold except over the imagination. As we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years — most dramatically in the debt-limit vaudeville of 2011-2013 — there are no “bond vigilantes”; the terms on which governments borrow are fully determined by their own monetary authority. All that’s needed to break the bond market’s power here is to recognize that it’s already powerless.

In short, we should reject the idea of finance as an intrusion on a preexisting market order. We should resist the power of finance as an enforcer of the logic of accumulation. And we should reclaim as a site of democratic politics the social planning already carried out through finance.

Making Sense of Changes in State-Local Debt

In a previous post, I pointed out that state and local governments in the US have large asset positions — 33 percent of GDP in total, down from nearly 40 percent before the recession. This is close to double state and local debt, which totals 17 percent of GDP. Among other things, this means that a discussion of public balance sheets that looks only at debt is missing at least half the picture.

On the other hand, a bit over half of those assets are in pension funds. Some people would argue that it’s misleading to attribute those holdings to the sponsoring governments, or that if you do you should also include the present value of future pension benefits as a liability. I’m not sure; I think there are interesting questions here.

But there are also interesting questions that don’t depend on how you treat the existing stocks of pension assets and liabilities. Here are a couple. First, how how do changes in state credit-market debt break down between the current fiscal balance and other factors, including pension fund contributions? And second, how much of state and local fiscal imbalances are financed by borrowing, and how much by changes in the asset position?

Most economists faced with questions like these would answer them by running a regression. [1] But as I mentioned in the previous post, I don’t think a regression is the right tool for this job. (If you don’t care about the methods and just want to hear the results, you can skip the next several paragraphs, all the way down to “So what do we find?”)

Think about it: what is a regression doing? Basically, we have a variable a that we think is influenced by some others: b, c, d … Our observations of whatever social process we’re interested in consist of sets of values for a, b, c, d… , all of them different each time. A regression, fundamentally, is an imaginary experiment where we adjusted the value of just one of b, c, d… and observed how a changed as a result. That’s the meaning of the coefficients that are the main outputs of a regression, along with some measure of our confidence in them.

But in the case of state budgets we already know the coefficients! If you increase state spending by one dollar, holding all other variables constant, well then, you increase state debt by one dollar. If you increase revenue by one dollar, again holding everything else constant, you reduce debt by one dollar. Budgets are governed by accounting identities, which means we know all the coefficients — they are one or negative one as the case may be. What we are interested in is not the coefficients in a hypothetical “data generating process” that produces changes in state debt (or whatever). What we’re interested in is how much of the observed historical variation in the variable of interest is explained by the variation in each of the other variables. I’m always puzzled when I see people regressing the change in debt on expenditure and reporting a coefficient — what did they think they were going to find?

For the question we’re interested in, I think the right tool is a covariance matrix. (Covariance is the basic measure of the variation that is shared between two variables.) Here we are taking advantage of the fact that covariance is linear: cov(x, y + z) = cov(x, y) + cov(x, z). Variance, meanwhile, is just a variable’s covariance with itself. So if we know that a = b + c + d, then we know that the variance of a is equal to the sum of its covariances with each of the others. In other words, if y = Σ xn then:

(1) var(y) = Σ cov(y, xn)

So for example: If the budget balance is defined as revenue – spending, then the variance of some observed budget balances must be equal to the covariance of the balance with revenue, minus the covariance of the balance with spending.

This makes a covariance matrix an obvious tool to use when we want to allocate the observed variation in a variable among various known causes. But for whatever reason, economists turn to variance decompositions only in few specific contexts. It’s common, for instance, to see a variance decomposition of this kind used to distinguish between-group from within-group inequality in a discussion of income distribution. But the same approach can be used any time we have a set of variables linked by accounting identities (or other known relationships) and we want to assess their relative importance in explaining some concrete variation.

In the case of state and local budgets, we can start with the identity that sources of funds = uses of funds. (Of course this is true of any economic unit.) Breaking things up a bit more, we can write:

revenues + borrowing = expenditure + net acquisition of financial assets (NAFA).

Since we are interested in borrowing, we rearrange this to:

(2) net borrowing = expenditure – revenue + NAFA = fiscal balance – NAFA

But we are not simply interested in borrowing,w e are interested in the change in the debt-GDP ratio (or debt-GSP ratio, in the case of individual states.) And this has a denominator as well as a numerator. So we write:

(3) change in debt ratio = net borrowing – nominal growth rate

This is also an accounting identity, but not an exact one; it’s a linear approximation of the true relationship, which is nonlinear. But with annual debt and income growth rates in the single digits, the approximation is very close.

So we have:

(4) change in debt ratio = expenditure – revenue + NAFA – nominal growth rate * current debt ratio

It follows from equation (1) that  the variance of change in the debt ratio is equal to the sum of the covariances of the change with each of the right-side variables. In other words, if we are interested in understanding why debt-GDP ratios have risen in some years and fallen in others, it’s straightforward to decompose this variation into the contributions of variation in each of the other variables. There’s no reason to do a regression here. [2]

So what do we find?

Here’s the covariance matrix for combined state and local debt for 1955 to 2013.  “Growth contrib.” refers to the last term in Equation (4). To make reading the table easier, I’ve reversed the sign of the growth contribution, fiscal balance and revenue; that means that positive values in the table all refer to factors that increase the variance of debt-ratio growth and negative values are factors that reduce it. [3]

Debt Ratio Growth Growth Contrib. Fiscal Balance Revenue Expenditure NAFA & Trusts
Debt Ratio Growth 0.18
Growth Contrib. (-) 0.10 0.11
Fiscal Balance (-) 0.03 0.04 0.13
Revenue (-) 0.08 0.24 0.12 5.98
Expenditure 0.11 0.28 -0.01 5.86 5.87
NAFA & Trusts 0.06 -0.05 0.13 -0.01 -0.14 0.23

How do we read this? First of all, note the bolded terms along the main diagonal — those are the covariance of each variable with itself, that is, its variance.  It is a measure of how much individual observations of this variable differ from each other. The off-diagonal terms, then, show how much of this variation is shared between two variables. Again, we know that if one variable is the sum of several others, then its variance will be the sum of its covariances with each of the others.

So for example, total variance of debt ratio growth is 0.18. (That means that the debt ratio growth  in a given year is, on average, about 0.4 percentage points above or below the average growth rate for the full period.) The covariance of debt-ratio growth and (negative) growth contribution is 0.10. So a bit over half the debt-ratio variance is attributable to nominal GDP growth. In other words, if we are looking at why the debt-GDP ratio rises more in some years than in others, more of the variation is going to be explained by the denominator of the ratio than the numerator. Next, we see that the covariance of debt growth with the (negative) fiscal balance is 0.03. In other words, about one-sixth of the variation in annual debt ratio growth is explained by fiscal deficits or surpluses.

This is important, because most discussions of state and local debt implicitly assume that all change in the debt ratio is explained this way. But in fact, while the fiscal balance does play some role in changes in the debt ratio — the covariance is greater than zero — it’s a distinctly secondary role.  Finally, the last variable, “NAFA & Trusts,” explains about a third of variation in debt ratio growth. In other words, years when state and local government debt is rising more rapidly relative to GDP, are also years in which those governments are adding more rapidly to their holdings of financial assets. And this source of variation explains about twice as much of the historical pattern of debt ratio changes, as the fiscal balance does.

Since this is probably still a bit confusing, the next table presents the same information in a hopefully clearer way. Here see only the covariances with debt ratio growth — the first column of the previous table — and they are normalized by the variance of debt ratio growth. Again, I’ve flipped the sign of variables that reduce debt-ratio growth. So each value of the table shows the share of variation in the growth of state-local growth ratios that is explained by that component. There is also a second column, showing the same thing for state governments only.  

Component State + Local State Only
Nominal Growth (-) 0.52 0.30
Fiscal Balance (-) 0.17 0.31
Revenue (-) -0.41 0.07
Expenditure 0.58 0.24
… of which: Interest 0.06 0.03
Trust Contrib. and NAFA 0.33 0.37
… of which: Pensions 0.01 0.02

I’ve added a couple variables here — interest payments under expenditure and pension contributions under NAFA and Trusts. Note in particular the small value of the latter. Pension contributions are quite stable from year to year. (The standard deviation of state/local pension contributions as a percent of GDP is just 0.07, versus around 0.5 for nontrust NAFA.)  This says that even though most state and local assets are in pension funds, pension contributions contribute only a little to the variation in asset acquisition. Most of the year to year variability is in governments’ acquisition of assets on their own behalf. This is helpful: It means that if we are interested in understanding variation in the growth of debt over time, or the role of assets vs. liabilities in accommodating fiscal imbalances, we don’t need to worry too much about how to think about pension funds. (If we want to focus on the total increase in state debt, as opposed to the variation over time, then pensions are still very important.)

If we compare the overall state-local sector with state governments only, the picture is broadly similar, but there are some interesting differences. First of all, nominal growth rates are somewhat less important, and the fiscal balance more important, for state government debt ratio. This isn’t surprising. State governments have more flexibility than local ones to independently adjust their spending and revenue; and state debt ratios are lower, so the effect on the ratio from a given change in growth rates is proportionately smaller. For the same reason, the effect of interest rate changes on the debt ratio, while small in both cases, is even smaller for the lower-debt state governments. [4]

So now we have shown more rigorously what we suggested in the previous post: While the fiscal balance plays some role in explaining why state and local debt ratios rise at some times and fall at others, it is not the main factor. Nominal growth rates and asset acquisition both play larger roles.

Let’s turn to the next question: How do state and local government balance sheets adjust to fiscal imbalances? Again, this is just a re-presentation of the data in the first table, this time focusing on the third column/row. Again, we’re also doing the decomposition for states in isolation, and adding a couple more items — in this case, the taxes and intergovernmental assistance components of revenue, and the pension contribution component of NAFA. The values are normalized here by the variance of the fiscal balance. The first four lines sum to 1, as do the last three. In effect, the first four rows of the table tells us where fiscal imbalances come from; the final three tell us where they go.


Component State + Local State Only
Revenue, of which: 0.94 1.01
… Taxes 0.50 0.93
… Intergovernmental 0.18 -0.04
Expenditure (-) 0.06 -0.01
Trust Contrib. and NAFA, of which: 1.04 0.92
… Pensions 0.10 -0.49
Borrowing (-) -0.04 0.08

So what do we see? Looking at the first set of lines, we see that state-local fiscal imbalances are entirely expenditure-driven. Surprisingly, revenues are no lower in deficit years than in surplus ones. Note that this is true of total revenues, but not of taxes. Deficit years are indeed associated with lower tax revenue and surplus years with higher taxes, as we would expect. (That’s what the positive values in the “taxes” row mean.) But this is fully offset by the opposite variation in payments from the federal government, which are lower in surplus years and higher in deficit years. During the most recent recession, for example, aggregate state and local taxes declined by about 0.4 percent of GDP. But federal assistance to state and local governments increased by 0.9 percent of GDP. This was unexpected to me: I had expected most of the variation in state budget balances to come from the revenue side. But evidently it doesn’t. The covariance matrix is confirming, and quantifying, what you can see in the figure below: Deficit years for the state-local sector are associated with peaks in spending, not troughs in revenue.

muni-budgets
Aggregate State-Local Revenue and Expenditure, 1953-2013

Turning to the question of how imbalances are accommodated, we find a similarly one-sided story. None of the changes in state-local budget balances result in changes in borrowing; all of them go to changes in fund contributions and direct asset purchases. [5] For the sector as a whole, in fact, asset purchases absorb more than all the variation in fiscal imbalances; borrowing is lower in deficit years than in surplus years. (For state governments, borrowing does absorb about ten percent of variation in the fiscal balance.) Note that very little of this is accounted for by pensions — less than none in the case of state governments, which see lower overall asset accumulation but higher pension fund contributions in deficit years. Again, even though pension funds account for most state-local assets, they account for very little of the year to year variation in asset purchases.

So the data tells a very clear story: Variation in state-local budget balances is driven entirely by the expenditure side; cyclical changes in their own revenue are entirely offset by changes in federal aid. And state budget imbalances are accommodated entirely by changes in the rate at which governments buy or sell assets. Over the postwar period, the state-local government sector has not used borrowing to smooth over imbalances between revenue and spending.

 

[1] The interesting historical meta-question, to which I have no idea of the answer, when and why regression analysis came to so completely dominate empirical work in economics. I suspect there are some deep reasons why economists are more attracted to methodologies that treat observed data as a sample or “draw” from a universal set of rules, rather than methodologies that focus on the observed data as the object of inquiry in itself.

[2] I confess I only realized recently that variance decompositions can be used this way. In retrospect, we should have done this in our papers in household debt.

[3] Revenue and expenditure here include everything except trust fund income and payments. In other words, unlike in the previous post, I am following the standard practice of treating state and local budgets separate from pension funds and other trust funds. The last line, “NAFA and Trusts”, includes both contributions to trust funds and acquisition of financial assets by the local government itself. But income generated by trust fund assets, and employee contributions to pension funds, are not included in revenue, and benefits paid are not included in expenditure. So the “fiscal balance” term here is basically the same as that reported by the NIPAs and other standard sources.

[4] This is different from households and the federal government, where higher debt and, in the case of households, more variable interest rates, mean that interest rates are of first-order importance in explaining the evolution of debt ratios over time.

[5] It might seem contradictory to say that a third of the variation in changes in the debt ratio is due to the fiscal balance, even though none of the variation in the fiscal balance is passed through to changes in borrowing. The reason this is possible is that those periods when there are both deficits and higher borrowing, also are periods of slower nominal income growth. This implies additional variance in debt growth, which is attributed to both growth and the fiscal balance. There’s some helpful discussion here.

 

(This post is based on a paper in process. I probably will not post any more material from this project for the next month or so, since I need to return to the question of potential output.)