Friday, April 24, 2015

New book on the Brazilian economy

If you read in Portuguese this book by Professor Carlos Medeiros is a must. If you don't, learn Portuguese, and read his book. Meanwhile read this paper, on a different topic.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Strange bedfellows on TPP

I had noted before that Obama was on the same side than some Republicans on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and on the role of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in general. Yesterday, Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in favor of fast track authority, which they avoid saying is giving power to Obama and strangely suggest it would empower Congress, and the TPP.

So not only is Obama for TPP, and he thinks that Elizabeth Warren is wrong in opposing it, but he agrees with Ryan and Cruz. By the way, Hillary is not much better on the free trade (and Bill signed NAFTA), even though it seems that she has not endorsed the TPP deal... yet. So mainstream Dems are on trade in bed with corporations, together with the GOP, which is pretty unified on this topic as far as I can tell. The recurrent problem is that there is no party for labor anymore. And not just in the US.

PS: For theoretical arguments against Free Trade go here and here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Blanchard on rethinking macroeconomic policy

Here is Blanchard's summary of the last conference. Nothing much happening in all fairness, and certainly little impact on the policy advice that the IMF provides. On regulation, perhaps higher reserves is Blanchard's solution, and on monetary policy a higher target (which he does not discuss this time) and perhaps a defense of QE. But he only asks whether "the Fed [should] return to intervening only at the short end of the yield curve, or are there good reasons for continuing to intervene along the curve?" No mention that intervening at the long end provides space for expansionary fiscal policy by reducing interest rates (the real reason for QE).

On fiscal policy the same. There is an admission that, contrary to Reinhart and Rogoff, there is no threshold above which debt-to-GDP hurts economic growth. The discussion of the debt-to-GDP ratio has vanished from the last WEO (Apr. 2015). This is good, since in the previous one (Oct., 2014) the IMF still argued that: "many advanced economies have little fiscal space available given still-high debt-to-GDP ratios and the need for further consolidation." Blanchard repeats the language of the last WEO. He says:
"But how to assess what the right goal is for each country? This remains to be done. It has become clear that there is no magic debt-to-GDP number. Depending on the distribution of future growth rates and interest rates, on the extent of implicit and explicit contingent liabilities, one country’s high debt may well be sustainable, while another's low debt may not. Conceptually and analytically, the right tool is a stochastic debt sustainability analysis (something we already use at the IMF when designing programmes). The task of translating this into simple, understandable goals remains to be done."
Interestingly, the policy advice remains the same. For example, on Japan the last WEO says that: "risks to public debt sustainability remain a key concern given high public debt ratios, and a credible medium-term strategy for fiscal adjustment with specific measures is urgently needed to maintain market confidence." And for the US: "the priority remains to agree on a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation plan to prepare for rising aging-related fiscal costs; this plan will need to include higher tax revenue." In Europe, you ask? Well, for the IMF: "in a number of countries, elevated public debt and high fiscal deficits highlight the need for fiscal consolidation." And with lower oil prices: "most oil exporters need to recalibrate their medium-term fiscal consolidation plans." So oil importers might have more fiscal space, wouldn't they? But WEO tells us that: "continued fiscal consolidation, steady implementation of reforms, and external financing are needed to maintain macroeconomic stability" in those countries too. Wait, who doesn't need fiscal consolidation according to Blanchard and his WEO report?

If there is no magic number, they found a loophole and are arguing for a magic range it seems. Whatever the situation fiscal consolidation seems to be a solution. Given that Blanchard's conference is about rethinking policy, not theory, which presumably is doing fine, shouldn't one expect some change in policy advice?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcomes

Campaign season started, and it is way too long if you think about it. At any rate, the discussion of how the GOP is for equality of opportunities, not outcomes, is already in the air. Sen. Marco Rubio has already suggested that.

If we assume that social mobility is a proxy for equality of opportunity and take some measure of inequality, say a Gini, as a proxy of equality of outcomes, one might get a sense of their relation. The figure below is from the book The Spirit Level and shows the data for a few countries.
Social mobility is measured as the correlation of income between different generations. As it turns, it seems that there might be a negative relation between inequality of outcomes, which is high in the US and the UK, with equality of opportunity (social mobility), which is low in those same countries.

Note that this is a limited set of countries, and that social mobility is not exactly equality of opportunity. But this is indicative that equality of opportunity might also lead to equality of outcomes. My guess is that many GOP candidates that pay leap service to the idea of equality (of opportunity) would not like this kind of result.

PS: Graph below is more comprehensive.

Source is  available here.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

On the blogs

Crowding In and the Paradox of Thrift -- Krugman praises Blanchard and the IMF research department. He too has rediscovered, but it was a few years back in his case, the accelerator. No word from him on why then all IMF policy advice is based on supply side reforms and why Blanchard thinks the priority in the US is fiscal consolidation. My take here. Note that here you have the typical organized hypocrisy story, the research department says reasonable things (accelerator), while the policy advice continues to be the same.

The economist's manifesto -- Tim Harford ask economists for policy advice. Often a terrible idea. Proposals are to abolish national insurance entirely (in my view the worst of all proposals) and replace it with higher rates of income tax, increase property taxes, to spend more on urban development, and R&D and infrastructure. Wren-Lewis proposes a rule for monetization of fiscal deficits when interests rates are at the zero bound. Not too bad.

What Causes Recessions? -- Noah Smith gives the traditional New Keynesian answer, shocks and price rigidities. No mention of endogenous cycles, meaning those that result from the normal functioning of the system. On that go here.

Claudio Sardoni on the possibility of a Marxist explanation of the current crisis

New ROKE paper by Claudio Sardoni. From the abstract:
The object of the paper is to explore whether, or to what extent, a Marxian explanation of the current capitalist crisis is possible. The answer is that, although Marx’s theory offers important insights to understanding the ultimate causes of capitalist crises, it is not able to provide a fully satisfactory explanation of typical crises of contemporary capitalism. In particular, Marx’s analysis cannot account for the long periods of stagnation following the eruption of financial and economic crises. In Marx’s analytical context, crises are followed by recovery and growth in a relatively short span of time. It is argued that the main reason for Marx’s inability to explain crises of contemporary capitalism is that he developed his analysis by considering free-competitive economies, whereas modern economies are characterized by monopolistic competition. A more satisfactory explanation of the current crisis requires going beyond Marx’s original contributions.
Read rest here (subscription required).

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sanford Schram on how the welfare system is designed to keep the poor poorer

Sanford Schram, professor of political science at Hunter College, argues that the welfare system in the United States, as it is currently institutionalized, marks the poor as deviant, and, thus, manufactures their otherness in order to reinforce, or buttress, anti-welfare antipathy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Off the air

On my way to give the keynote speech at the Omicron Delta Epsilon International Economics Honor Society induction ceremony at San Francis College. If it's filmed, which is unlikely, I'll post it. Back tomorrow.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Yellen and Taylor on the Taylor Rule

 In her last speech, Janet Yellen argued that:
"For example, the Taylor rule is Rt = RR* + πt + 0.5(πt -2) + 0.5Yt, where R denotes the federal funds rate, RR* is the estimated value of the equilibrium real rate, π is the current inflation rate (usually measured using a core consumer price index), and Y is the output gap. The latter can be approximated using Okun’s law, Yt = -2 (Ut – U*), where U is the unemployment rate and U* is the natural rate of unemployment. If RR* is assumed to equal 2 percent (roughly the average historical value of the real federal funds rate) and U* is assumed to equal 5-1/2 percent, then the Taylor rule would call for the nominal funds rate to be set a bit below 3 percent currently, given that core PCE inflation is now running close to 1-1/4 percent and the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent. But if RR* is instead assumed to equal 0 percent currently (as some statistical models suggest) and U* is assumed to equal 5 percent (an estimate in line with many FOMC participants’ SEP projections), then the rule’s current prescription is less than 1/2 percent."
The point is clear, given the uncertainty about what the natural rate of unemployment and the equilibrium or natural rate of interest actually are, then there is some space for keeping the Fed Funds rate close to zero, where it is.

John B. Taylor cited the passage above to criticize Yellen's view. He said:
"So the main argument is that if one replaces the equilibrium federal funds rate of 2% in the Taylor rule with 0%, then the recommended setting for the funds rate declines by two percentage points. The additional slack due to a lower natural rate of unemployment is much less important. But little or no rationale is given for slashing the equilibrium interest rate from 2% percent to 0%. She simply says 'some statistical models suggest' it. In my view, there is little evidence supporting it, but this is a huge controversial issue, deserving a lot of explanation and research which I hope the Fed is doing or planning to do."
Taylor is okay with not having a clue about the natural rate of unemployment (tells you something about a theory that depends on a variable they never know where it is), but seems to think that the natural rate of interest is really 2%. I haven't seen the empirical analysis that shows that the natural rate of interest is 2%.

Frankly, if the methodology is the same as used for the natural rate of unemployment, meaning some average of the actual rates, I'd be somewhat underwhelmed. And I'm not even going to discuss the logical problems of the natural rate of unemployment (yes, there is no such thing). But if Taylor were right, we should have inflation around the corner. He has been complaining about the Fed policy for a while, and inflation hawks have suggested that hyperinflation would follow Fed expansionary policy for six years now. The question is when would Taylor and the inflation hawks be satisfied that inflation is not accelerating? The answer is probably never. The new Taylor rule should be hike the rate of interest in every circumstance then.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

IMF wants austerity and social security reform in the US

Blanchard presenting the WEO Report at the Spring Meetings

The new edition of the bi-annual World Economic Outlook is out (there is one in April and one in October). Olivier Blanchard, from MIT, and the IMF's Economic Counsellor since 2008, is the intellectual force behind the report. In the IMF's view, in the case of the United States:
"The next prominent policy challenge will be a smooth normalization of monetary policy. Building political consensus around a medium term fiscal consolidation plan and supply-side reforms to boost medium-term growth—including simplifying the tax system, investing in infrastructure and human capital, and immigration reform—will continue to be a challenge." [Italics added]
Fiscal consolidation is IMF speak for austerity. Austerity is really about less spending, and higher taxes, but fiscal consolidation should be about the results, meaning lower deficits and debt. Note that austerity is NOT the best way to get fiscal consolidation. Also, normalization of monetary policy can only mean higher interest rates. So for the IMF we are at the natural rate, or so it seems.

In the case of the US labor markets are seen as flexible enough, so immigration is seen as central for keeping real wages low, rather than further deregulation. Yes, supply side reforms are often about lowering real wages. They do not provide much in terms of what austerity would mean. Again from the report:
"Addressing the issue of potential growth will require implementation of an ambitious agenda of supply-side policies in a fractious political environment. Forging agreement on a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation plan is a high priority... [This] will require efforts to lower the growth of health care costs, reform social security, and increase tax revenues." [Italics added]
Reform social security is IMF speak for cutting and delaying benefits, and increasing payroll taxes. Not necessarily privatize it, although some might be in favor of that at the IMF. So supposedly in the US the priority is to promote austerity by reforming social security. The New IMF is great.

On the plus side, the IMF has rediscovered the accelerator (I checked a few older versions and have seen no trace of the accelerator in the last couple of reports) and the report shows:
"estimates of how much investment weakness can be explained by output dynamics based on investment models estimated at the individual-country level. The analysis is based on the conventional accelerator model of investment... A key assumption is that firms adjust their capital stock gradually toward a level that is proportional to output. In addition, firms are assumed to invest to replace capital that depreciates over time... The empirical literature has found strong support for this model, as in Oliner, Rudebusch, and Sichel 1995 and Lee and Rabanal 2010 for the United States, and, more recently, in IMF 2014a and Barkbu and others 2015 for European economies."
Funny, so supply responds to demand, that is, firms adjust their supply capacity to expected demand, but all reforms for growth are based on supply side factors. Yeah, way to use the right theory, but keep the wrong policy advice.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)

Open Veins

Galeano, famous for The Open Veins of Latin America, among several other books, has passed away. He was a leading voice of the Latin American left, as The Guardian elegantly put it, which is a more accurate description than the 'anti-capitalist' epithet used by Reuters.

I inherited the copy of the book pictured above from my mom, who loved Galeano's books, in the 1980s, I guess, when I decided to study economics. I can't say that I was influenced by his book, even though Galeano thanks one of my teachers, Carlos Lessa.* He wasn't an economist, and I normally wouldn't post about it. But I decided to post something since, not long ago, a friend told me he had disavowed the book.

If one reads the accounts of his rejection of the book, it seems that it was the language, the vocabulary of the left in the early 1970s, which Galeano seemed to suggest that was heavy and dated, what led to his criticism of his work. Also, as he got older, and found mistakes in the book (sadly he doesn't specify which ones), his older self tended to be less satisfied with the result. Note, however, that in this discussion about what message he would like Obama to get from the book, after Chávez gave the US president a copy, he summarizes the basic point, which he seems to still uphold. In his words, he wanted Obama to get:"a certain idea about the fact that no richness is innocent. Richness in the world is a result of other people's poverty. We should begin to shorten the abyss between haves and have-nots."

A cursory look at the book might give you the not altogether incorrect sense that Open Veins provides a simplified version of Dependency Theory. Galeano was a popularizer of the kind of political economy that can be broadly defined as Structuralist. One not all together different from the one used for consumption in American universities, which simplifies and blames underdevelopment on developed countries, and that sees limited space for development in the periphery.** And, in that sense, it is a good thing that Galeano could say: "Reality has changed a lot, and I have changed a lot." But it is unclear that he threw the baby out with the bath water.

* If I had to say a book that influenced my choice to study economics, that I read in high school, it was Osvaldo Sunkel's El marco histórico del proceso de desarrollo y de subdesarrollo, which has a message that is not altogether different from Open Veins, namely that underdevelopment is part of the same process that caused development. Think of the Industrial Revolution in England, that goes hand in hand with deindustrialization in India. Industry and empire, as another historian would put it, are tied together.

** For alternative and more sophisticated versions see here.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the blogs

DRAFT For “Rethinking Macroeconomics” Conference Fiscal Policy Panel -- Brad DeLong says that government debts should be bigger, since the old Domar functional finance g>r rule indicates that governments in developed countries tended to be on the sustainable side of debt accumulation.

Macro teaching and the financial crisis -- Simon Wren-Lewis praises the Carlin and Soskice textbook. The new edition adds the stuff from their three equation model, and is probably the most up-to-date mainstream New Keynesian textbook around. I got my copy last month, and have many problems with the book, in particular the resistance of getting rid of the natural rate concept.

A Quick Point on Models  -- JW Mason on models. A bit older (I missed it), but worth reading. Yes models are about regularities, and you can measure capital for sure. BTW, what you cannot do, and Piketty does in his model, is to assume that there is a negative relation between capital intensity and its remuneration.

Notes on Frantz Fanon -- Branko Milanovic on why Fanon was all wrong, but you should still read it. I have my copy somewhere, that my mom gave me back in the 1980s. Not sure I would re-read as Branko did.