Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 23 October 2017

Dani Rodrik talks straight on trade

Dani Rodrik’s new book is a challenging read (in the good sense) for any liberal in the UK living through Brexit, or in the US contemplating whether Trump will destroy NAFTA. For example Chapter 2 starts with Theresa May’s statement about a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere, and the rest of the chapter is about how that statement contains an essential truth. Although Rodrik admits he himself looks like the perfect specimen of a global citizen, he argues convincingly that for most people the nation state represents their feelings of identity, of economic inequality, and provides their security (or not) after global shocks. Furthermore, he argues, that is how it should be.

His enemy in this Chapter is what he calls hyperglobalisation. To quote:
“We push markets beyond what their governance can support. We set global rules that defy the underlying diversity in needs and preferences. We downgrade the nation-state without compensating improvements in governance elsewhere. The failure lies at the heart of globalisation’s unaddressed ills as well as the decline in our democracies’ health”

The next chapter considers the Eurozone as a case study of failing to appreciate these points. He argues, as many economists do, that this means either a much fuller political union or abandoning the monetary union. My own view is that the latter will not happen, and the former should not happen for all the reasons he gives in the previous chapter. What I think needs to be explored is combining a monetary union with national autonomy over fiscal policy in such a way that both prevents bailouts, by allowing default when inevitable, and otherwise allows the ECB to act as a sovereign lender of last resort. Only if that fails can we conclude that that the Eurozone has to go to political union or different currencies.

Returning to this reader being challenged, in a chapter entitled ‘The Perils of Economic Consensus’ he writes:
“Even in the case of Brexit, where the weight of both evidence and theory predicts adverse economic results, economists would have been well advised to emphasize their uncertainty over their confidence.”

If we mean ‘well advised’ in the sense of being more convincing, I doubt very much if this is true. Here I am always reminded of debates I have often seen on TV between a climate change scientist and a climate change skeptic. The scientist typically expresses exactly the uncertainties in the way Rodrik suggests they should, while the skeptic on the other hand, who is normally not a scientist, seem totally confident in the views they express. Unfortunately most viewers of this debate are not scientists, and we know people are attracted to those who are confident and self assured. The contrast is between scientific and political discourse: here is another example. But given this, doesn’t the ‘be modest’ imperative need to be modified by context?

Of course one of the things Rodrik is best known for is in challenging the economists' consensus that trade agreements are always good, which I mentioned here and which he discusses in the book. As more and more economists are now realising, he was right to make that challenge. Perhaps the two perspectives can be reconciled as follows. The problem with the free trade advocates is that they were keeping quiet about known issues with their analysis because they thought it would give ammunition to ‘the other side’. As far as academic analysis of Brexit is concerned, and confining ourselves to the economic impact alone, I do not think the same applies.

There are plenty more challenges in the book to what often goes as established economic wisdom. For example he argues against the idea that development would be hindered by worrying about workers rights in developing countries. He argues that state or crony capitalism has in many cases been a successful route to economic development. But mainly there is a wealth of intelligent, informed and often enlightening discussion about routes to economic development, the power of ideas over interests, why current unrest has generally not benefited the left and so on and so on.

In that sense the title of the book is rather misleading. Although it is discussed a lot, this is hardly just a book about trade. Indeed the subtitle “Ideas for a sane world economy” conveys a better picture of what it is about. The book is based on a collection of articles written for Project Syndicate and elsewhere, and occasionally the joins show. But that feeling quickly gets lost in a wealth of stimulating arguments and ideas that I defy anyone to find dull. This is a fascinating book to read, and I cannot think of anyone who would not learn a great deal from reading it.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Forecast errors compared

And a coda defends experts against Aditya Chakrabortty

A recent conversation got me thinking about different types of macroeconomic forecast error, and what implications they might have for macroeconomics. I’ll take three, from a UK perspective although the implications go well beyond. The errors are the financial crisis, the lack of a downturn immediately after Brexit, and flat UK productivity.

The immediate cause of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was the US housing market crash, but that alone should have caused some kind of downturn in the US, with limited implications for the rest of the world. What caused the GFC was the lack of resilience of banks around the world to a shock of this kind.

Were there any indications of this lack of resilience? Here is an OECD series for banking sector leverage in the UK: the ratio of bank assets to capital. The higher the number, the more fragile banks are becoming.

UK Banking sector leverage: Source OECD

The first and perhaps most important problem with forecasting the financial crisis was that macro forecasters were not looking at data like this. For most it was not on their radar, because banks, let alone bank leverage, played no role in their models. It was a sin of omission, a big gap in our macro understanding. (Whether, if forecasters had been having to forecast this data, they would have predicted a crisis is improbable, but some would have at least noted it as an issue.)

Moving on to the second mistake, it is often said (correctly) that forecasters are very bad at predicting turning points or dramatic changes. But many did predict such a change immediately following the Brexit vote: a sharp and immediate slowdown in demand caused by the uncertainty of Brexit. It didn’t happen. The main reason was consumption, which held up by more than people were expecting, given the fall in real incomes that was likely to come from the Brexit depreciation. There are two and a half obvious explanations for this. First, because of Leave propaganda half the population thought Brexit would make them at least no worse off. Second, those who did anticipate the rise in import prices may have taken the opportunity to buy consumer durables made overseas to beat the prospective price increase. The half is that the Bank cut interest rates a bit.

None of these effects are very new. They may not have been incorporated into the forecasters’ models, but they could in principle have been incorporated using the forecaster’s judgement, although getting the quantification right would have been very difficult. In the end we got the slowdown, but delayed until the first half of this year, as Leavers began to face reality and the higher import prices came through, so it was an error of timing more than anything else (although it was apparently enough to make MP Liz Truss change her mind and support Brexit!). You could describe it as an unchallenging error, because it could easily be explained using existing ideas. It is the kind of error that forecasters make all the time, and which makes forecasting so inaccurate.

The third error was UK productivity, which I talked about at length here. Until the GFC, macro forecasters in the UK had not had to think about technical progress and how it became embodied in improvements in labour productivity, because the trend seemed remarkably stable. So when UK productivity growth appeared to come to a halt after the GFC, forecasters were largely in the dark. What many like the OBR did, which is to assume that previous trend growth would quickly resume, was not the extreme that some people suggest. It was instead a compromise between continuing no growth and reverting to the previous trend line, the second being what had happened in previous recessions.

My point of writing about this again is that I think this third error is much more like the GFC mistake than the post-Brexit vote mistake. In both cases something important that forecasters were used to taking for granted started behaving in a way that had not happened since WWII. Standard models were used to treating technical progress as an unpredictable random process. Now it is just possible that this is still the case, and the absence of technical progress in the UK and to a lesser extent elsewhere is just one of those things that will never be explained. But for the UK at least the coincidence with the GFC, austerity and now Brexit seems too great. As as I showed in the earlier post growth has not been exactly zero but has oscillated in a way that could be related to macro events.

If there is some connection, both in the UK and elsewhere, between the decline in economic productivity growth and macroeconomic developments, then this suggests an important missing element in macromodels. And like the financial sector, there is an existing body of research that economists can draw on, which is endogenous growth theory. There are examples of that happening already.

But I want to end with a plea. After the financial crisis too many people who should have know better said that failing to predict the financial crisis meant that all existing mainstream macroeconomics was flawed. It was rubbish, but such attitudes did not help when some of us were arguing against austerity on the basis of standard macroeconomic ideas and evidence. Now with UK productivity, we have Aditya Chakrabortty saying that experts at the OBR “are guilty of a similar un-realism and they have proven just as impervious to criticism” as people like Boris Johnson or Liam Fox. Not content with this nonsense, he says “This age of impossibilism is partly their creation”.

This is just wrong. Look at the elements of neoliberal overreach. Economists didn’t start calling for tight immigration controls and using immigrants as a scapegoat for almost everything. Most academic economists did not call for austerity. Almost all economists did not want to get rid of our trade agreements with the EU. Even if economists had warned about the financial crisis they would have been ignored because of the political power of finance. If all economists had thought productivity would continue flat we would have just had more austerity. [1] And in making this basic mistake, it is ironically Aditya Chakrabortty who has joined Michael Gove and other Brexiteers in having had enough of experts.

[1] Less expected productivity growth means lower future output which means lower future tax receipts which means, given the government’s austerity policy, more cuts in public spending.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The lesson monetary policy needs to learn

It seemed obvious to write a post about the Peterson Institute’s recent conference on ‘Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy’, but nowadays I find it more efficient to let Martin Sandbu do the job. We agree most of the time, and he does these things better than I do. It allows me to write something only in the unlikely event that I disagree, or if I want to take the discussion further.

I only have one quibble with Martin’s column yesterday. I think Bernanke’s suggestion that following a large recession (where interest rates hit their lower bound) central banks revert to a temporary price level target is rather more than the tweak he suggests. In addition, as Tony Yates pointed out, level of NGDP targets do not resolve the asymmetry problem that Bernanke’s suggestion is designed to address.

I also thought I could illustrate Martin’s final point that “admitting one has got things badly wrong is a prerequisite for doing better” by looking at some numbers. If we look at consumer prices, average inflation between 2009 and 2016 was 1.1% in the Euro area, 1.4% in the US and 2.2% in the UK. The UK was a failure too: average consumer price inflation should have been higher than 2.2%, because we had a large VAT hike and depreciation that monetary policy rightly saw through. If we look at GDP deflators we get a clearer picture, with 1.0%, 1.5% and 1.6% for the EZ, US and UK respectively.

You might think errors of that size are not too bad, and anyway what is wrong with inflation being too low. You would be wrong because in a recovery period these errors represent lost resources that, as the Phillips curve appears to be currently so flat, could be considerable. Or in other words the recovery could have been a lot faster, and interest rates could now be well off the lower bound everywhere, if policy had been more expansionary.

What I really wanted to add to Martin’s discussion was to suggest the main problem with monetary policy over this period, particularly in the UK and the Eurozone. It is not, in my view, the failure to adopt a levels target, or even the ECB raising rates in 2011 (although that was a serious and costly mistake). In 2009, when central banks would have liked to stimulate further but felt that interest rates were at their lower bound, they should have issued a statement that went something like this:
“We have lost our main instrument for controlling the economy. There are other instruments we could use, but their impact is largely unknown, so they are completely unreliable. There is a much superior way of stimulating the economy in this situation, and that is fiscal policy, but of course it remains the government’s prerogative whether it wishes to use that instrument. Until we think the economy has recovered sufficiently to raise interest rates, the economy is no longer under our control.”

I am not suggesting QE did not have a significant positive impact on the economy. But its use allowed governments to imagine that ending the recession was not their responsibility, and that what I call the Consensus Assignment was still working. It was not: QE was one of the most unreliable policy instruments imaginable.

The criticism that this would involve the central bank exceeding its remit and telling politicians what to do is misplaced. Members of the ECB spent much of the time telling politicians the opposite, Mervyn King did the same in a more discreet way, while Ben Bernanke eventually said in essence something milder than the above. Under the Consensus Assignment we have invested central banks with the task of managing the economy because we think interest rates are a better tool than fiscal policy. As such it is beholden on them to tell us when they can no longer do the job better than government.

A better criticism is that a statement of that kind would not have made any difference, and we could spend hours discussing that. But this is about the future, and who knows what the political circumstances will be then. It is important that governments acknowledge that the Consensus Assignment no longer works if central banks believe there is a lower bound for interest rates, and this has to start by central banks admitting this. Economists like Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and myself have been saying these things for so long and so often, but I think central banks still have problems fully accepting what this means for them.       

Saturday, 14 October 2017

How Neoliberals weaponise the concept of an ideal market

This new book by Colin Crouch will perplex many on the left who simply believe neoliberalism has to be overthrown. Indeed the author starts his book by talking about the Grenfell Tower disaster, which he along with many others believe epitomises the failings of neoliberalism. Yet he writes that the book
“is not a contribution to the demonology of neoliberalism, but an attempt at a nuanced account. Only in that way can we assess its capacity for reform.”

Such an account can of course also be justified on the basis of intellectual curiosity, but in addition the author sees some positive aspects of the ideology: He summarises these as
“the discipline of price and calculation [recognising efficiency and opportunity cost}; helping us appreciate the limitations of democratic government; facilitating trade and reducing barriers to it; and facilitating links among people [reducing national divisions].”

So what exactly is neoliberalism? He defines it as
“a political strategy that seeks to make as much of our lives as possible conform to the economist’s ideal of a free market”

The problems and deficiencies of this strategy come when the conditions required for the free market to be ideal do not hold, and the author’s long discussion of these problems would be useful for any economics undergraduate.

One of these conditions for an ideal market is competition: a free market is an ideal from a social point of view if (alongside many other conditions) each good is produced by a very large number of producers. The author recognises, for obvious reasons, that most neoliberals (as opposed, perhaps, to ordoliberals) tend not to go around wanting to break up monopolies and reduce monopoly power. As a result, he distinguishes between market-neoliberals who might, and corporate-neoliberals who would not. He talks about past competition (that may have resulted in monopoly) and current competition. As Luigi Zingales describes it rather well here, business tends to be in favour of a competitive market before it enters it, but once it has a dominant position in that market it is happy to put up barriers to further competition.

The author goes on to discuss conflicts between corporate and market neoliberalism, and much else besides. I think it is a great book, free from unnecessary jargon that you often find elsewhere. It got me thinking about the concept of neoliberalism again as you can see below. Whether that is a good thing or not, I would encourage you to read the book. The author also of course discusses whether he thinks neoliberalism can save itself. For his answer to that question you will have to read the book.

Now, for what it is worth, are some of the thoughts the book inspired. They go back to the distinction between market-neoliberals and corporate-neoliberals. It seems a little odd to define an ideology as the evangelisation of the free market, and then go on to say most neoliberals happen to exclude a crucial component of that free market (competition) when it suits them. I am quite prepared to believe that some of the people who first wrote about neoliberalism many years ago (and perhaps one or two today) could be described as what the author calls market-neoliberals, but as I have suggested in the past I think neoliberalism has evolved (or if you like been distorted) by ‘big money’ or capital to become a tool for self justification.

As a result, I would tend to suggest a slightly different definition that seems to work quite well today. The definition would be: 
neoliberalism is a political strategy promoting the interests of big money that utilises the economist’s ideal of a free market to promote and extend market activity and remove all ‘interference’ in the market that conflicts with these interests.

This replaces a definition based on following an idea (the author’s market neoliberalism), by one of interests promoting an idea so long as it suits those interests.

This alternative definition seems to fit two cases I have used in the past to question more conventional ideas. Large banks benefit hugely from an implicit subsidy provided by the state (being bailed out when things go wrong), but neoliberals do not worry too much about this form of state interference in the market (whereas economists do). Regulations on the other hand they do complain about. It is a very selective focus on market interference.

The second is executive pay. This is always justified by neoliberals as being something determined by the free market, when obviously it is not. Yet if you pretend that there is a market in executives and salaries etc are set by that market and not the remuneration committees of firms, then you are being a good neoliberal by defending these salaries. This example is interesting because it involves defending one part of ‘big money’ (CEOs or some workers in finance) at the expense of another (shareholders). It is why I do not talk about the interests of capital in my definition. 

Is this alternative definition simply negating the power of ideas and going back to good old interests? Only in part. Interests utilise an idea because the idea is a powerful persuasive tool. There is an obvious lesson for the left here. Because neoliberals promote the concept of an ideal market only when it suits them, so opposing neoliberalism does not necessarily mean opposing the concept of an ideal market. The left should utiliise the same concept to oppose monopoly power, for example. The idea of a free market is too powerful an idea to cede to the other side. 

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The impact of austerity in the UK

When they do their forecast evaluation report, the OBR also look at the impact of fiscal policy on GDP. Here is the relevant chart from their report published yesterday.

There is a useful innovation compared to previous years, which comes close to an something I suggested a few months ago. The orange bar shows the impact of fiscal measures implemented in that year. The total effect of fiscal policy is this plus the impact of previous fiscal policy actions unwinding.

Suppose for example that fiscal policy reduced GDP by 1% in year 1, but its impact on the level of GDP was expected to decay by half in year 2. If no fiscal policy was enacted in year 2, then fiscal policy in year 1 would increase growth in year 2 by 0.5%. Why might the impact of fiscal policy on the level of GDP decay over time? The obvious explanation is that monetary policy ensures that it does by stabilising the level of GDP. This assumption is problematic when interest rates are stuck at their lower bound, which is why it is useful to publish the within year estimates as well as the total estimates,

You can see when this matters from 2012 onwards. We have a run of years where the total impact of austerity on growth is zero or positive, but only because of the unwinding of previous austerity. If monetary policy, or anything else, had not been able to offset earlier fiscal tightening, then instead the impact of austerity would be to reduce growth in all those years. In that (extreme) case the level of GDP in 2016/17 would be over 4% below what it would otherwise have been without any fiscal tightening from 2010/11.

As the OBR’s assessment of fiscal impact is in their publication on forecast errors, they naturally talk about whether there is any relationship between the two. This year they included this chart.

It is important to understand what we are looking at here. It is not whether there is a correlation between fiscal consolidation and GDP. As we have seen the OBR assumes there is, and indeed their calculations were the source of my estimate that the average household had by 2013 lost a total of £4,000 worth of resources as a result of austerity. The foolishness of austerity in 2010 was not that the OBR underestimated its impact, but that it left us vulnerable to negative shocks because interest rates were at their lower bound. The shock that hit in 2012 was the Euro crisis and the impact of austerity there.

What the chart above might tell us is whether the OBR have in fact underestimated the impact of austerity i.e the numbers in Chart E are too small. Each year there are hundreds of potential reasons for forecast errors, of which underestimating the impact of austerity is just one. So the best we can expect, if the OBR are underestimating the impact of fiscal policy, is a negative relationship going through zero between the two variables in Chart D but with lots of random variation on top. That is what we see in Chart D.

The myth of No Deal

It suits the government to keep talking about the possibility of No Deal for as long as the first stage negotiations continue, for three reasons. First, there is of course the remote possibility that the other side will believe it and make some concessions to avoid it. Second, as concessions are made on the UK side, it becomes a palliative to Brexiteers: maybe the Lion will roar in the end. Third, when the deal is finally done, the collective response might be relief that No Deal has been avoided rather than indignation at the terms.

But how can I be confident that No Deal will not actually happen? First, there has as yet been nothing done to prepare for that consequence, as Chris Cook outlines. Now you could rightly respond that this government is not known for its rational planning so this means little. But the lack of planning means that No Deal will bring UK chaos: not just firms leaving or going bust but highly visual dislocations like lorries clogging up ports and motorways. It would look like total economic incompetence, like Black Wednesday on steroids. It might mean the Conservatives lose not one but two or three general elections.

That is not the legacy that May wants. The second reason No Deal will not happen is that she wants to be remembered, despite everything else, as the Prime Minister that got the deal done without destroying her party. The only way I can see of that not happening, given the pro-Brexit nature of Conservative Party members, is if she is unseated by Brexiteers. 

The chaos argument still applies. So those who try to remove May before a deal is done will be putting the terms of Brexit above party loyalty: not something you normally associate with Conservatives, but as Raphael Behr argues that is just what many Brexiteers might do. (An exception is surely Boris Johnson, who sees Brexit as his route to power and would prefer the safer route of the inevitable leadership election after the deal is done.) But they would need good cause, and the details of citizens rights, the divorce bill or even the terms of transition seem unlikely to be enough. What could trigger a revolt is if the EU presses the border issue at the first stage as I outlined here, forcing May to agree to stay in the customs union permanently or more likely abandon the DUP. Even then, there may be enough Remain MPs to block the challenge or enough members may choose to compromise rather than risk electoral oblivion.      

Yet although No Deal is very unlikely to happen, it will remain a myth long after the deal is done. It will become the excuse used by Brexiteers for why the post-EU period turns out to be no better and perhaps worse than its predecessor. If only we had ‘true Brexit’, they will say, things would have been different. Ironically a deal is useful to Brexiteers in that it gives them a story for why the sunlit uplands that they described during the referendum campaign did not come to pass.

However we should still be concerned about No Deal rhetoric for the following reason. If you were the head of a firm having to decide to make an investment which would lose money if there was No Deal, would you have the confidence based on the analysis above to go ahead with that investment right now? I think you would be far more likely to postpone until you saw what happened. In addition there are all the EU nationals in the UK who continue to face a horrible uncertainty about their status under No Deal, as well as the prospective EU immigrants who will not come for that reason. Talk of No Deal, even if it is cheap talk, has real economic and social costs.    

Monday, 9 October 2017

Economists: too much ideology, too little craft

Paul Krugman argued yesterday that the belief in the need for new economic thinking after the financial crisis was incorrect, but led to some crazy but influential ideas that suited big money and the political right. While I agree with a lot of what Paul says, I would want to add something. These thoughts are strongly influenced by the fact that I’m in the middle of reading Dani Rodrik’s new book, called ‘Straight Talk on Trade’ (of which hopefully more in a later post).

In the preface to that book he tells the story of how 20 odd years ago he asked an economist to endorse a previous book of his called ‘Has Globalisation Gone Too Far?’. The economist said he couldn’t, not because he disagreed with anything in the book, but because he thought the book would “provide ammunition to the barbarians”. Dani Rodrik argues that this attitude is still commonplace. That attitude is, of course, both very political and very unscientific.

I suspect that something similar might have been going on before the financial crisis among economists working in finance. Paul Krugman is certainly correct that mainstream economics contained models that could explain much of why the GFC happened, so little new thinking was required in that sense. But one reason why so few mainstream economists used those models before the event owed at least something to an ideological aversion to regulation, and perhaps also not wanting to bite the hand that feeds you.

One of the features of mainstream economics today is the huge diversity of models that are around. Academic prestige tends to come to those who add to that number. But how do you decide which model to use when investigating a particular problem? The answer is by looking at evidence about applicability. That is not a trivial task because of the probabilistic and diverse nature of economic evidence, and Dani Rodrik describes that process as more of a craft than a science.

So, in the case of the GFC, good craft was in seeing that new methods of spreading risk were vulnerable to system wide events. Good craft was to see, if you had access to the data, that rapid increases in bank leverage should always be a concern. And more generally that arguments that ‘this time was different’ do not generally end well.

In my own discipline, I can think at least one area that should not have got off the ground if the craft of model selection had been applied well. RBC models were never going to describe business cycles because we know increases in unemployment in a downturn are involuntary. If you do not apply the craft well, then what can replace it is ideology, politics or simple groupthink. This is not just an issue for some individual economists, but can sometimes be a concern for the majority.