schools

On ‘heterodox’ macroeconomics

Image reproduced from here

Noah Smith has a new post on the failure of mainstream macroeconomics and what he perceives as the lack of ‘heterodox’ alternatives. Noah is correct about the failure of mainstream macroeconomics, particularly the dominant DSGE modelling approach. This failure is increasingly – if reluctantly – accepted within the economics discipline. As Brad Delong puts it, DSGE macro has ‘… proven a degenerating research program and a catastrophic failure: thirty years of work have produced no tools for useful forecasting or policy analysis.’

I disagree with Noah, however, when he argues that ‘heterodox’ economics has little to offer as an alternative to the failed mainstream.

The term ‘heterodox economics’ is a difficult one. I dislike it and resisted adopting it for some time: I would much rather be ‘an economist’ than ‘a heterodox economist’. But it is clear that unless you accept – pretty much without criticism – the assumptions and methodology of the mainstream, you will not be accepted as ‘an economist’. This was not the case when Joan Robinson debated with Solow and Samuelson, or Kaldor debated with Hayek. But it is the case today.

The problem with ‘heterodox economics’ is that it is self-definition in terms of the other. It says ‘we are not them’ – but says nothing about what we are. This is because includes everything outside of the mainstream, from reasonably well-defined and coherent schools of thought such as Post Keynesians, Marxists and Austrians, to much more nebulous and ill-defined discontents of all hues. To put it bluntly, a broad definition of ‘people who disagree with mainstream economics’ is going to include a lot of cranks. People will place the boundary between serious non-mainstream economists and cranks differently, depending on their perspective.

Another problem is that these schools of thought have fundamental differences. Aside from rejecting standard neoclassical economics, the Marxists and the Austrians don’t have a great deal in common.

Noah seems to define heterodox economics as ‘non-mathematical’ economics. This is inaccurate. There is much formal modelling outside of the mainstream. The difference lies with the starting assumptions. Mainstream macro starts from the assumption of inter-temporal optimisation and a system which returns to the supply-side-determined full-employment equilibrium in the long run. Non-mainstream economists reject these in favour of assumptions which they regard as more empirically plausible.

It is true that there are some heterodox economists, for example Tony Lawson and Ben Fine who take the position that maths is an inappropriate tool for economics and should be rejected. (Incidentally, both were originally mathematicians.) This is a minority position, and one I disagree with. The view is influential, however. The highest-ranked heterodox economics journal, the Cambridge Journal of Economics, has recently changed its editorial policy to explicitly discourage the use of mathematics. This is a serious mistake in my opinion.

So Noah’s claim about mathematics is a straw man. He implicitly acknowledges this by discussing one class of mathematical Post Keynesian models, the so-called ‘stock-flow consistent’ models (SFC). He rightly notes that the name is confusing – any correctly specified closed mathematical macro model should be internally consistent and therefore stock-flow consistent. This is certainly true of DSGE models.

SFC refers to a narrower set of models which incorporate detailed modelling of the ‘plumbing’ of the financial system alongside traditional macro Keynesian behavioural assumptions – and reject the standard inter-temporal optimising assumptions of DSGE macro. Marc Lavoie, who originally came up with the name, admits it is misleading and, with hindsight, a more appropriate name should have been chosen. But names stick, so SFC joins a long tradition of badly-named concepts in economics such as ‘real business cycles’ and ‘rational expectations’.

Noah claims that ‘vague ideas can’t be tested against the data and rejected’.  While the characterisation of all heterodox economics as ‘vague ideas’ is another straw man, the falsifiability point is important. As Noah points out, ‘One of mainstream macro’s biggest failings is that theories that don’t fit the data continue to be regarded as good and useful models.’ He also notes that big SFC models have so many parameters that they are essentially impossible to fit to the data.

This raises an important question about what we want economic models to do, and what the criteria should be for acceptance or rejection. The belief that models should provide quantitative predictions of the future has been much too strongly held. Economists need to come to terms with the reality that the future is unknowable – no model will reliably predict the future. For a while, DSGE models seemed to do a reasonable job. With hindsight, this was largely because enough degrees of freedom were added when converting them to econometric equations that they could do a reasonably good job of projecting past trends forward, along with some mean reversion.  This predictive power collapsed totally with the crisis of 2008.

Models then should be seen as ways to gain insight over the mechanisms at work and to test the implications of combining assumptions. I agree with Narayana Kocherlakota when he argues that we need to return to smaller ‘toy models’ to think through economic mechanisms. Larger econometrically estimated models are useful for sketching out future scenarios – but the predictive power assigned to such models needs to be downplayed.

So the question is then – what are the correct assumptions to make when constructing formal macro models? Noah argues that Post Keynesian models ‘don’t take human behaviour into account – the equations are typically all in terms of macroeconomic aggregates – there’s a good chance that the models could fail if policy changes make consumers and companies act differently than expected’

This is of course Robert Lucas’s critique of structural econometric modelling. This critique was a key element in the ‘microfoundations revolution’ which ushered in the so-called Real Business Cycle models which form the core of the disastrous DSGE research programme.

The critique is misguided, however. Aggregate behavioural relationships do have a basis in individual behavour. As Bob Solow puts it:

The original impulse to look for better or more explicit micro foundations was probably reasonable. It overlooked the fact that macroeconomics as practiced by Keynes and Pigou was full of informal microfoundations. … Generalizations about aggregative consumption-saving patterns, investment patterns, money-holding patterns were always rationalized by plausible statements about individual – and, to some extent, market-behavior.

In many ways, aggregate behavioural specifications can make a stronger claim to be based in microeconomic behaviour than the representative agent DSGE models which came to dominate mainstream macro. (I will expand on this point in a separate blog.)

Mainstream macro has reached the point that only two extremes are admitted: formal, internally consistent DSGE models, and atheoretical testing of the data using VAR models. Anything in between – such as structural econometric modelling – is rejected. As Simon Wren-Lewis has argued, this theoretical extremism cannot be justified.

Crucial issues and ideas emphasised by heterodox economists were rejected for decades by the mainstream while it was in thrall to representative-agent DSGE models. These ideas included the role of income distribution, the importance of money, credit and financial structure, the possibility of long-term stagnation due to demand-side shortfalls, the inadequacy of reliance on monetary policy alone for demand management, and the possibility of demand affecting the supply side. All of these ideas are, to a greater or lesser extent, now gradually becoming accepted and absorbed by the mainstream – in many cases with no acknowledgement of the traditions which continued to discuss and study them even as the mainstream dismissed them.

Does this mean that there is a fully-fledged ‘heterodox economics’ waiting in the wings waiting to take over from mainstream macro? It depends what is meant – is there complete model of the economy sitting in a computer waiting for someone to turn it on? No – but there never will be, either within the mainstream or outside it. But Lavoie argues,

if by any bad luck neoclassical economics were to disappear completely from the surface of the Earth, this would leave economics utterly unaffected because heterodox economics has its own agenda, or agendas, and its own methodological approaches and models.

I think this conclusion is too strong – partly because I don’t think the boundary between neoclassical economics and heterodox economics is as clear as some claim. But it highlights the rich tradition of ideas and models outside of the mainstream – many of which have stood the test of time much better than DSGE macro. It is time these ideas are acknowledged.

What do immigration numbers tell us about the Brexit vote?

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a chart from The Economist which plotted the percentage increase in the foreign-born population in UK local authority areas against the number of Leave votes in that area. I also quoted the accompanying article: ‘Where foreign-born populations increased by more than 200%, a Leave vote followed in 94% of cases.’

00-economist

This generated lots of responses, many of which rightly pointed out the problems with the causality implied in the quote. These included the following:

  • Using the percentage change in foreign-born population is problematic because this will be highly sensitive to the initial size of population.
  • Majority leave votes also occurred in many areas where the number of migrants had fallen.
  • Much of the result is driven by a relatively small number of outliers while the systemic relationship looks to be flat.
  • The number of points where foreign-born populations had increased by more than 200% were small relative to the total sample: around twenty points out of several hundred.

Al these criticisms are valid. With hindsight, the Economist probably shouldn’t have published the chart and article – and I shouldn’t have tweeted it. But the discussion on Twitter got me interested in whether the geographical data can tell us anything interesting about the Leave vote.

I started by trying to reproduce the Economist’s chart. The time period they use for the change in foreign-born population is 2001-2014. This presumably means they used census data for the 2001 numbers and ONS population estimates for 2014. My attempt to reproduce the graph using these datasets is shown below. The data points are colour-coded by geographical region and the size of the data point represents the size of the foreign-born population in 2014 as a percentage of the total. (The chart is slightly different to the one I previously tweeted, which had some data problems.)

01-chart-f-inc-hybrid-trans

Despite the problems described above, the significance of geography in the vote is clear – this is emphasised in the excellent analysis published recently by the Resolution Foundation and by Geoff Tily at the TUC (see also this in the FT and this in the Guadian).

Of the English and Welsh regions, it is clear that the Remain vote was overwhelmingly driven by London (The chart above excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted to Remain). Other areas which have seen substantial growth in foreign-born populations and also voted to Remain are cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool.

A better way to look at this data is to plot the percentage point change in foreign population instead of the percentage increase. This will prevent small initial foreign-born populations producing large percentage increases. The result is shown below. For this, and rest of the analysis that follows, I’ve used the ONS estimates of the foreign-born population. This reduces the number of years to 2004-2014, but excludes possible errors due to incompatibility between the census data and ONS estimates. It also allows for inclusion of Scottish data (but not data from Northern Ireland). I’ve also flipped the X and Y axes: if we are thinking of the Leave vote as the thing we wish to explain, it makes more sense to follow convention and put it on the Y axis.

02-chart-f-pp-ons

There is no statistically significant relationship between the two variables in the chart above. The divergence between London, Scotland and the rest of the UK is clear, however. There also looks to be a positive relationship between the increase in foreign-born population and the Leave vote within London. This can be seen more clearly if the regions are plotted separately.

03-chart-f-region-pp-ons

The only region in which there is statistically significant relationship in a simple regression between the two variables is London. A one percent increase in the foreign-born population is associated with a 1.5 percent increase in the Leave vote (with an R-squared of about 0.4). The chart below shows the London data in isolation.

04-chart-f-pp-ons-london

The net inflow of migrants appears to have been greatest in the outer boroughs of London – and these regions also returned highest Leave votes. There are a number of possible explanations for this. One is that new migrants go to where housing is affordable – which means the outer regions of London. These are also the areas where incomes are likely to be lower. There is some evidence for this, as shown in the chart below: there is a negative relationship – albeit a weak one – between the increase in the foreign-born population and the median wage in the area.

05-chart-london-wage-pp-inc

Returning to the UK as a whole (excluding Northern Ireland), the Resolution foundation finds that there is a statistically significant relationship between the percentage point increase in foreign-born population and Leave vote when the size of the foreign-born population is controlled for. This is confirmed in the following simple regression, where FB.PP.Incr is the percentage point increase in the foreign-born population and FB.Pop.Pct is the foreign-born population as a percent of the total.

Coefficients:
 Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|) 
(Intercept) 57.19258 0.71282 80.235 < 2e-16 ***
FB.PP.Incr 0.90665 0.17060 5.314 1.87e-07 ***
FB.Pop.Pct -0.64344 0.05984 -10.752 < 2e-16 ***
---
Signif. codes: 0 ~***~ 0.001 ~**~ 0.01 ~*~ 0.05 ~.~ 0.1 ~ ~ 1

Residual standard error: 9.002 on 363 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared: 0.2475, Adjusted R-squared: 0.2433 
F-statistic: 59.69 on 2 and 363 DF, p-value: < 2.2e-16

It is clear that controlling for the foreign-born population is, in large part, controlling for London. This is illustrated in the chart below which shows the foreign-born population as a percentage of the total for each local authority in 2014, grouped by broad geographical region. The boxplots in the background show the mean and interquartile ranges of foreign-born population share by region. The size of the data points represents the size of the electorate in that local authority.

06-chart-f-ons-fp-electorate-boxes

This highlights a problem with the analysis so far – and for others doing regional analysis on the basis of local authority data. By taking each region as a single data point, statistical analysis misses the significance of differences in the size of electorates. This is important because it means, for example, that the Leave vote of 57% from Richmondshire, North Yorksire with around 27,000 votes cast is given the same weight as the Leave vote of 57% in County Durham, with around 270,000 votes cast.

This can be overcome by constructing an index of referendum voting weighted by the size of the electorate in each area. This index is constructed so that it is equal to zero where the Leave vote was 50%, negative for areas voting Remain, and positive for areas voting Leave. The magnitude of the index represents the strength of the contribution to the overall result. Plotting this index against the percentage point change in the foreign population produces the following chart. Data point sizes represent the number of votes in each area.

07-chart-leave-weighted

Again, there is no statistically significant relationship between the two variables, but as with the unweighted data, when controlling for the foreign population,  a positive relationship does exist between the increase in foreign-born and Leave votes.

The outliers are different to those seen in the unweighted voting data, however – particularly in areas with a strong leave vote. This can be seen more clearly by removing the two areas with the strongest Remain votes: London and Scotland. The data for the rest of England and Wales only are shown below.08-chart-leave-weighted-nss

There is a clear split between the strong Leave outliers and the strong Remain outliers. The latter are Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff. When weighted by size of vote, The previous outliers for Leave – Eastern areas such as Boston and South Holland – are replaced by towns and cities in the West Midlands and Yorkshire and with the counties of Cornwall and County Durham.

Overall, while there is a relationship between net migration inflows and Leave votes – at least when controlling for the size of the foreign-born population – it is only a small part of the story. The most compelling discussions I’ve seen of the underlying causes of the Leave vote are those which emphasise the rise in precarity and the loss of social cohesion and identity in the lives of working people, such as John Lanchester’s piece in the London Review of Books (despite the errors), the excellent follow-up piece by blogger Flip-Chart Rick, and this piece by Tony Hockley. As Geoff Tily argues, the geographical distribution of votes strongly suggests economic dissatisfaction was a key driver of the Leave vote, which pitted ‘cosmopolitan cities’ against the rest of the country. This is compatible with the pattern shown above, where the strongest Leave votes are concentrated in ex-industrial areas and the strongest Remain votes in the ‘cosmopolitan cities’.

The chart below shows the weighted Leave vote plotted against median gross weekly pay.09-wages

Scotland as a whole is once again the outlier, while much of the relationship appears to be driven by London, where wages are higher and the majority voted Remain. Removing these two regions gives the following graph.

10-wages

Aside from the outlier Remain cities, there is a negative relationship between median pay and weighted Leave votes. The statistical strength of this relationship is relatively weak, however.

Putting all the variables together produces the following regression result:

Coefficients:
 Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|) 
(Intercept) 80.98722 12.18838 6.645 1.12e-10 ***
FB.PP.Incr 2.46269 0.57072 4.315 2.06e-05 ***
FB.Pop.Pct -1.61904 0.21781 -7.433 7.72e-13 ***
Median.Wage -0.12539 0.02404 -5.216 3.08e-07 ***
---
Signif. codes: 0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 29 on 362 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared: 0.2977, Adjusted R-squared: 0.2919 
F-statistic: 51.15 on 3 and 362 DF, p-value: < 2.2e-16

Leave votes are negatively associated with the size of the foreign-born population and with the median wage, and positively associated with increases in the foreign-born. The R^2 value of 0.3 suggests this model has some predictive power, but could certainly be improved.

Coefficients:
 Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|) 
(Intercept) 107.61139 13.30665 8.087 9.97e-15 ***
FB.PP.Incr 2.92817 0.49930 5.865 1.04e-08 ***
FB.Pop.Pct -2.34394 0.27140 -8.636 < 2e-16 ***
Median.Wage -0.14360 0.02313 -6.210 1.50e-09 ***
RegionEast Midlands -9.07601 5.44978 -1.665 0.09672 . 
RegionLondon 9.44698 8.34896 1.132 0.25861 
RegionNorth East -4.11112 8.02869 -0.512 0.60893 
RegionNorth West -16.69448 5.51048 -3.030 0.00263 ** 
RegionScotland -61.65217 5.76312 -10.698 < 2e-16 ***
RegionSouth East -4.60717 4.64123 -0.993 0.32156 
RegionSouth West -18.73821 5.55187 -3.375 0.00082 ***
RegionWales -27.65673 6.53577 -4.232 2.96e-05 ***
RegionWest Midlands 4.06613 5.83469 0.697 0.48633 
RegionYorkshire and The Humber 4.72398 6.61676 0.714 0.47574 
---
Signif. codes: 0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 24 on 352 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared: 0.5323, Adjusted R-squared: 0.515 
F-statistic: 30.82 on 13 and 352 DF, p-value: < 2.2e-16


Adding regional dummy variables improves the fit of the model substantially – increasing the value of R^2 to around 0.5. This suggests – unsurprisingly – there are differences between regions which are not captured in the three variables included here.

Immigration brings both benefits and costs – but no reason to leave

If UK voters decide to leave the European Union, it will be for one reason above all. From the outset, nationalism bordering on xenophobia has been a defining feature of the Leave campaign. Having lost the argument on broader economic issues, it looks likely the Leave camp will fight the final month of the campaign on immigration. The scapegoating of migrants for the UK’s economic problems will become increasingly unrestrained as the referendum date approaches.

It is not difficult to understand why the Leave camp has chosen to focus on immigration: it is the issue which matters most to those likely to vote for Brexit. Fear that immigration undermines living standards and increases precarity is strong. The anti-European political right has harnessed this fear in a cynical attempt to exploit the insecurity of working class voters in the era of globalisation.

It is countered by Remain campaign statements emphasising that immigration is good for the economy: there are fiscal benefits, immigrants bring much-needed skills and –  because migrants are mostly of working age – immigration offsets the effects of an ageing population.

These claims are well-founded. But immigration has both positive and negative effects. Like other facets of globalisation, the impact of immigration is felt unevenly.

At its simplest, the pro-immigration argument is that migrants find work without displacing native workers, thus increasing the size of the economy. This argument is a valid way to dispel the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy and counter naive arguments that immigration automatically costs jobs. But it does not prove immigration is necessarily positive: an increasing population also puts pressure on housing, the environment and public services.

A stronger position is taken by those who claim that immigration increases GDP per capita – migrants raise labour productivity. It is difficult to interpret the evidence on this, since productivity is simultaneously determined by many factors. But even those who argue that the evidence supports this position find the effect to be very weak. Positive effects on productivity are likely to due to skilled migrants being hired as a result of the UK ‘skills gap’.

But not all – or even most – immigrants are in highly skilled work. Despite being well-educated, many come looking for whatever work they can find and are willing to work for low wages. A third of EU nationals in the UK are employed in ‘elementary and processing occupations’. What is the effect of an increasing pool of cheap labour looking for low-skilled work? The evidence suggests there is little effect on employment rates over the long run. There may, however, be displacement effects in the short run. In particular, when the labour market is slack – during recessions – the job prospects of low-paid and unskilled workers may be damaged by migrant inflows.

The evidence on wages likewise suggests effects are small, but again there appears to be some impact of immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers. There is also evidence of labour market segmentation: migrants are disproportionately represented in the seasonal, temporary and ‘flexible’ (i.e. precarious) workforce.

Further, much of the evidence on employment and wages comes from a period of high growth and strong economic performance. This may not be a reliable guide to the future. It is possible that more significant negative effects could emerge, particularly if the economy remains weak.

Economists on the Remain side downplay the negative effects of immigration, presenting it as unequivocally good for the UK economy. It is undoubtedly difficult to present a nuanced argument in the short space available for a media sound-bite. But it is possible that the line taken by the Remain camp plays into the hands of the Leave campaign.

Aside from the skills they bring – around a quarter of NHS doctors are foreign nationals – the main benefit of immigration is the effect on demographics. Without inward migration, the UK working age population would have already peaked. But ageing cannot be postponed indefinitely.

Rapid population growth leads to pressures on public services, housing and infrastructure unless there are on-going programmes of investment, upgrading of infrastructure and house building. Careful planning is required to ensure that public services are available before migrants arrive – otherwise there will be a period while services are under pressure before more capacity is added.

Long-run investment in public services, infrastructure and housing is exactly what the UK has not been doing. Instead, we are more than five years into an unnecessary austerity programme. Our infrastructure is ageing and suffers from lack of capacity. Wages have yet to recover to pre-crisis levels. Government services continue to be cut, even as the population increases.

Those who face pressure on their standard of life from weak wage growth and rising housing costs will understandably find it difficult to disentangle the causes of their problems. For many, immigration will not be the reason – but it will be more visible and tangible than austerity, lack of aggregate demand and weak labour bargaining power.

The root of the problem is that the UK is increasingly a low-wage, low-skill economy. There is a shortage of affordable housing and public services are facing the deepest cuts in decades. None of these problems would be solved by the reorganised Conservative government that would take power immediately following a vote to leave the EU. Instead, it is clear that much of the Leave camp favours a Thatcherite programme of further cuts and deregulation.

Campaigners for Leave will continue to use immigration as a way to take Britain out of the EU. They are wrong. This is cynical exploitation of genuine problems and fears faced by many low-wage workers.  Immigration is not a reason to leave the European Union.

But the status quo of high immigration alongside cuts to public services and wage stagnation cannot continue indefinitely. If high levels of migration are to continue, as looks likely, the UK government must consider how to accommodate the rapidly increasing population. Government services must keep pace with population increases. Pressures will be particularly acute in London and the South East.

We must also be more open in admitting that immigration has both costs and benefits – it does not affect the population evenly. Liberal commentators should acknowledge the concerns of those facing the negative effects of immigration. In doing so, they may lessen the chances that voters fall for the false promises of the Leave campaign.

 

This article is part of the EREP report on the EU referendum ‘Remain for Change‘. The authors of the report are:

John Weeks, Professor Emeritus of Development Economics at SOAS
Ann Pettifor, Director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics
Özlem Onaran, Professor of economics, Director of Greenwich Political Economy Research Centre
Jo Michell, Senior Lecturer in economics, University of the West of England
Howard Reed, Director of Landman Economics.
Andrew Simms, co-founder New Weather Institute, fellow of the New Economics Foundation.
John Grahl, Professor of European Integration, Middlesex University.
Engelbert Stockhammer, Professor, School of Economics, Politics and History, Kingston University
Giovanni Cozzi, Senior Lecturer in economics, Greenwich Political Economy Research Centre
Jeremy Smith, Co-director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics, convenor of EREP

 

 

There is nothing “simple” about the European Commission’s securitisation proposal

On May 23, 2016, 83 scholars from Europe wrote to the European Parliament to call for a careful consideration of the European Commission’s proposals for a new market for STS securitisations, part of the Capital Markets Union agenda. Members of the ECON Committee of the European Parliament are currently working on this proposal. Read the full letter here  – Open letter to MEPs – STS securitisation.

 

 

Why isn’t the Commission talking about government debt?

One more cue to how controversial government debt markets are in Euroland these days.

The European Commission’s progress report on Capital Markets Union, manages to make no reference whatsoever to the issue of government bond markets, their life after the ECB’s QE (bound to end someday) and their critical role in capital markets integration. It’s all about securitisation, corporate bond market liquidity and covered bonds.

Compare this with early views on what it takes to create a market-based financial system in Euroland. In May 1999, Alexandre Lamfalussy, recently appointed head of EuroMTS  and former head of the European Monetary Institute (that would become the ECB), had this to say:

 “We’ve seen an accelerated move to a market-centric system from the bank-centric system that has tended to prevail in Europe,” Lamfalussy said in London last month. “I have no doubt that a market-centric system is more efficient, but there’s a question whether it is stable.” The key to stability, he concludes – for the pricing of corporate as well as public debt – is a liquid and transparent government debt market.’

This is a story of shadow money – the ongoing struggle to define a social contract for liabilities issued against sovereign collateral.

Who is writing the IMF’s recent history?

No, this is not a blog about the impossible triangle IMF-Commission-Greece. I am skeptical anything new can be said about it.

It’s about something perhaps more fundamental: the IMF’s willingness to confront its inglorious past on the free movement of capital.

A couple of months ago, in February 2016, the Fund released a working paper by Atish Ghosh and Mahvash Qureshi, of the Research Department. That paper traces the historical processes through which capital controls became anathema to policy communities around the world, including the IMF. It doesn’t hide behind pretty memes (capital flow management) and technical language: visceral opposition to capital controls,  it argues, arose from the free market ideology of the 1980s and 1990s! It’s the politics.

The IMF Research Department, that paper shows, doesn’t need to hide behind closed doors to read Keynes, Eric Helleiner or Kevin Gallagher* . It can now do it in the open.

Skeptics of IMF’s revolutionary transformations (and I am one, as I argued here for IMF’s view of capital controls and here for global banking), would point to the institutional pathologies of the IMF. The Research Department has far greater liberty to engage in/with heterodox  alternatives, but that doesn’t always translate into profound institutional change.

What is different here: Lagarde has just nominated Atish Ghosh, together with the Princeton historian Harold James, to ‘chronicle defining moments in the Fund’s history’.

Professor James and Mr. Ghosh will write the Fund’s official history from 2000 to 2015, a period characterized by the global financial crisis, the crisis in Europe, and the growing role of emerging and developing countries in the world economy — all defining moments in the Fund’s history

This history  will include the pre-2008 near fall in oblivion (‘assisted’ by Venezuela’s oil money helping large countries pay back the IMF), the Eastern European and then Greek/Irish/Portuguese adventures, Blanchard’s reign with shifts on capital controls, on DSGE ‘supremacy’, on fiscal multipliers, on ‘we need to build analytical capacity for understanding global finance’. Cant wait to read it.

Daniela Gabor

*odd that the paper does not reference Helene Rey’s dilemma, but small miracles…

 

capital

Economics: science or politics? A reply to Kay and Romer

Romer’s article on ‘mathiness’ triggered a debate in the economics blogs last year. I didn’t pay a great deal of attention at the time; that economists were using relatively trivial yet abstruse mathematics to disguise their political leanings didn’t seem a particularly penetrating insight.

Later in the year, I read a comment piece by John Kay on the same subject in the Financial Times. Kay’s article, published under the headline ‘Economists should keep to the facts, not feelings’, was sufficiently cavalier with the facts that I felt compelled to respond. I was not the only one – Geoff Harcourt wrote a letter supporting my defence of Joan Robinson and correcting Kay’s inaccurate description of her as a Marxist.

After writing the letter, I found myself wondering why a serious writer like Kay would publish such carelessly inaccurate statements. Following a suggestion from Matteus Grasselli, I turned to Romer’s original paper:

Economists usually stick to science. Robert Solow was engaged in science when he developed his mathematical theory of growth. But they can get drawn into academic politics. Joan Robinson was engaged in academic politics when she waged her campaign against capital and the aggregate production function …

Solow’s mathematical theory of growth mapped the word ‘capital’ onto a variable in his mathematical equations, and onto both data from national income accounts and objects like machines or structures that someone could observe directly. The tight connection between the word and the equations gave the word a precise meaning that facilitated equally tight connections between theoretical and empirical claims. Gary Becker’s mathematical theory of wages gave the words ‘human capital’ the same precision …

Once again, the facts appear to have fallen by the wayside. The issue at the heart of the debates involving Joan Robinson, Robert Solow and others is whether it is valid to  represent a complex macroeconomic system (such as a country) with a single ‘aggregate’ production function. Solow had been working on the assumption that the macroeconomic system could be represented by the same microeconomic mathematical function used to model individual firms. In particular, Solow and his neoclassical colleagues assumed that a key property of the microeconomic version – that labour will be smoothly substituted for capital as the rate of interest rises – would also hold at the aggregate level. It would then be reasonable to produce simple macroeconomic models by assuming a single production function for the whole economy, as Solow did in his famous growth model.

Joan Robinson and her UK Cambridge colleagues showed this was not true. They demonstrated cases (capital reversing and reswitching) which contradicted the neoclassical conclusions about the relationship between the choice of technique and the rate of interest. One may accept the assumption that individual firms can be represented as neoclassical production functions, but concluding that the economy can then also be represented by such a function is a logical error.

One important reason is that the capital goods which enter production functions as inputs are not identical, but instead have specific properties. These differences make it all but impossible to find a way to measure the ‘size’ of any collection of capital goods. Further, in Solow’s model, the distinction between capital goods and consumption goods is entirely dissolved – the production function simply generates ‘output’ which may either be consumed or accumulated. What Robinson demonstrated was that it was impossible to accurately measure capital independently of prices and income distribution. But since, in an aggregate production function, income distribution is determined by marginal productivity – which in turn depends on quantities – it is impossible to avoid arguing in a circle . Romer’s assertion of a ‘tight connection between the word and the equations’ is a straightforward misrepresentation of the facts.

The assertion of ‘equally tight connections between theoretical and empirical claims’, is likewise misplaced. As Anwar Shaikh showed in 1974, is it straightforward to demonstrate that Solow’s ‘evidence’ for the aggregate production function is no such thing. In fact, what Solow and others were testing turned out to be national accounting identities. Shaikh demonstrated that, as long as labour and capital shares are roughly constant – the ‘Kaldor facts’ – then any structure of production will produce empirical results consistent with an aggregate Cobb-Douglas production function. The aggregate production function is therefore ‘not even wrong: it is not a behavioral relationship capable of being statistically refuted’.

As I noted in my letter to the FT, Robinson’s neoclassical opponents conceded the argument on capital reversing and reswitching: Kay’s assertion that Solow ‘won easily’ is inaccurate. In purely logical terms Robinson was the victor, as Samuelson acknowledged when he wrote, ‘If all this causes headaches for those nostalgic for the parables of neoclassical writing, we must remind ourselves that scholars are not born to live an easy existence. We must respect, and appraise, the facts of life.’

What matters, as Geoff Harcourt correctly points out, is that the conceptual implications of the debates remain unresolved. Neoclassical authors, such as Cohen and Harcourt’s co-editor, Christopher Bliss, argue that the logical results,  while correct in themselves, do not undermine marginalist theory to the extent claimed by (some) critics. In particular, he argues, the focus on capital aggregation is mistaken. One may instead, for example, drop Solow’s assumption that capital goods and consumer goods are interchangeable: ‘Allowing capital to be different from other output, particularly consumption, alters conclusions radically.’ (p. xviii). Developing models on the basis of disaggregated optimising agents will likewise produce very different, and less deterministic, results.

But Bliss also notes that this wasn’t the direction that macroeconomics chose. Instead, ‘Interest has shifted from general equilibrium style (high-dimension) models to simple, mainly one-good models … the representative agent is now usually the model’s driver.’ Solow himself characterised this trend as ‘dumb and dumber in macroeconomics’. As the great David Laidler – like Robinson, no Marxist –  observes, the now unquestioned use of representative agents and aggregate production functions means that ‘largely undiscussed problems of capital theory still plague much modern macroeconomics’.

It should by now be clear that the claim of ‘mathiness’ is a bizarre one to level against Joan Robinson: she won a theoretical debate at the level of pure logic, even if the broader implications remain controversial. Why then does Paul Romer single her out as the villain of the piece? – ‘Where would we be now if Solow’s math had been swamped by Joan Robinson’s mathiness?’

One can only speculate, but it may not be coincidence that Romer has spent his career constructing models based on aggregate production functions – the so called ‘neoclassical endogenous growth models’ that Ed Balls once claimed to be so enamoured with. Romer has repeatedly been tipped for the Nobel Prize, despite the fact that his work doesn’t appear to explain very much about the real world. In Krugman’s words ‘too much of it involved making assumptions about how unmeasurable things affected other unmeasurable things.’ So much for those tight connections between theoretical and empirical claims.

So where does this leave macroeconomics? Bliss is correct that the results of the Controversy do not undermine the standard toolkit of methodological individualism: marginalism, optimisation and equilibrium. Robinson and her colleagues demonstrated that one specific tool in the box – the aggregate production function – suffers from deep internal logical flaws. But the Controversy is only one example of the tensions generated when one insists on modelling social structures as the outcome of adversarial interactions between  individuals. Other examples include the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu results and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.

As Ben Fine has pointed out, there are well-established results from the philosophy of mathematics and science that suggest deep problems for those who insist on methodological individualism as the only way to understand social structures. Trying to conceptualise a phenomenon such as money on the basis of aggregation over self-interested individuals is a dead end. But economists are not interested in philosophy or methodology. They no longer even enter into debates on the subject – instead, the laziest dismissals suffice.

But where does methodological individualism stop? What about language, for example? Can this be explained as a way for self-interested individuals to overcome transaction costs? The result of this myopia, Fine argues, is that economists ‘work with notions of mathematics and science that have been rejected by mathematicians and scientists themselves for a hundred years and more.’

This brings us back to ‘mathiness’. DeLong characterises this as ‘restricting your microfoundations in advance to guarantee a particular political result and hiding what you are doing in a blizzard of irrelevant and ungrounded algebra.’ What is very rarely discussed, however, is the insistence that microfounded models are the only acceptable form of economic theory. But the New Classical revolution in economics, which ushered in the era of microfounded macroeconomics was itself a political project. As its leading light, Nobel-prize winner Robert Lucas, put it, ‘If these developments succeed, the term “macroeconomic” will simply disappear from use and the modifier “micro” will become superfluous.’ The statement is not greatly different in intent and meaning from Thatcher’s famous claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Lucas never tried particularly hard to hide his political leanings: in 2004 he declared, ‘Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.’ (He also declared, five years before the crisis of 2008, that the ‘central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades.’)

As a result of Lucas’ revolution, the academic economics profession purged those who dared to argue that some economic phenomena cannot be explained by competition between selfish individuals. Abstract microfounded theory replaced empirically-based macroeconomic models, despite generating results which are of little relevance for real-world policy-making. As Simon Wren-Lewis puts it, ‘students are taught that [non-microfounded] methods of analysing the economy are fatally flawed, and that simulating DSGE models is the only proper way of doing policy analysis. This is simply wrong.’

I leave the reader to decide where the line between science and politics should be drawn.

UK Economy is more unbalanced than ever

This article is taken from EREP’s 2016 budget report.

At the end of February, Chancellor George Osborne made an admission: ‘the economy is smaller than we thought in Britain’. The tone has changed since November when, following the unexpected discovery of a spare £27bn by the OBR, the Chancellor triumphantly declared, ‘our long term economic plan is working.’ As it turns out, the UK economy is around one per cent, or £18bn, smaller than the OBR predicted, leaving the Chancellor with at least £5bn in missing tax revenues this year alone, and more in future years (estimated at £9bn per year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies). There is no chance he will keep to his own misguided fiscal rule.

EREP have consistently argued that the supply-side optimism implicit in the OBR forecasts was unwarranted. We were right. Economic indicators across the board have deteriorated significantly since the November forecast. Even the service sector, the single remaining engine of the UK’s imbalanced economy, is now showing signs of mechanical failure. The Markit UK services PMI – a key indicator of activity in the services sector – fell sharply in February. There is no chance that UK growth will be 2.4% in 2016, as claimed by the Chancellor in November.

Osborne’s tax shortfall is the result of much lower than predicted wages and prices. The broadest measure of inflation, the GDP deflator, has fallen to zero, while wage growth has slowed substantially to around two per cent – the OBR had predicted wage growth of three to four per cent over the rest of this parliament.

Despite weakening wage growth, retail sales have remained strong: the most recent figures showed year-on-year spending increases in excess of two per cent. Retail sales strength has driven in part by lower prices resulting from the sharp decline in oil prices. But while households in other major economies largely saved the windfall from lower oil prices, those in the UK spent it, and more. The UK household savings ratio, at 4.4% of disposable income, is now the lowest on record.

hh-s-ratio

And despite weakening wage growth, the UK economy is now entirely reliant on continued household consumption spending. Contrary to Osborne’s claim that growth ‘is more balanced than in the past’, the UK trade deficit is a drag on economic activity and business investment –  which only recently regained pre-crisis levels – fell sharply in February.

How have UK households increased spending despite wages remaining well below pre-crisis levels? Unsecured consumer credit is growing at around nine per cent per annum – the fastest rate since 2005. At over 140% of disposable income, UK household debt is higher than in the US, Japan or the largest European nations. Even the optimistic and now-discredited OBR forecasts predicted the household debt-to-income ratio would need to rise to 160% by 2020 for growth to be maintained and the deficit eliminated.

A recent report by the Money Advice Service – an independent body set up by the government – reports that 8.2 million adults in the UK – one in six of the population – are over-indebted. Among poorer regions, such as the Welsh valleys, the figure rises to one in four. The problem is particularly acute among young people, those in rented accommodation and those with children.

It is exactly these groups – working families and young people – whom the Chancellor will target in the next round of austerity. In the previous Parliament, austerity was targeted at the most marginalised: the sick, the disabled and the unemployed. Since these people have least voice in society, they are unable to put up resistance. Cutting the incomes of working families will be more difficult, as Osborne’s U-turn on tax credits shows.

By reducing working peoples’ incomes, Osborne is attempting push the burden of debt onto the household sector. The strategy will fail – without wage growth, consumer spending will eventually be constrained, dampening growth and pushing Osborne’s deficit-reduction strategy yet further off track. That deficit reduction is not really the ultimate aim of Osborne’s strategy is made plain by his intention to continue cutting tax for those on higher incomes.

There is no long-term economic plan; Osborne’s strategy is one of redistribution by taking from those who least can afford it. As the latest figures show, his strategy has backfired.

 

The report’s authors include:

Ann Pettifor & Jeremy Smith on “The British economy is even “smaller” than the Chancellor asserts”

John Weeks on the Chancellor’s “Growing record in fiscal mismanagement”

Jo Michell on “A weakening economy, reliant on consumption and debt”

Graham Gudgin & Ken Coutts on “A history of missing fiscal targets”

Richard Murphy on “Tax in the 2016 budget”

Information on EREP is available here.

The ECB as lender of last resort….or on the short memory of central bankers

ECB President Draghi speaks to France's Central Bank Governor Noyer and ECB Member of Executive Board Praet in Barcelona

Peter Praet, member of the Executive Board of the ECB, gave an interesting speech on the ECB’s lender of last resort (LOLR) activities in crisis on February 10, 2016.

The ECB, he argued, had a two-folded approach: a ‘monetary approach’ LOLR and a ‘credit approach’ LOLR.

The ‘monetary’ LOLR, following the classic advice from Walter Bagehot, lent European banks base money (reserves) if these banks had acceptable collateral. The purpose:

to create new reserves, on demand, for cash-stripped banks with viable business models, and thus to help these banks go through an emergency liability substitution operation without being forced to make large- scale fire sales of assets that would lead to insolvency

This approach, he suggests, was used in the first phase of the crisis, immediately after Lehman, when banks became reluctant to lend to each other, and in the second phase, the European sovereign debt crisis. In his account, the ECB bears no responsibility for either, the crisis being rather a combination of the confidence fairy and the sovereign-bank loop, somehow only ‘diabolical’ in Europe:

The second phase of the crisis came as a consequence of a much more targeted and disruptive loss of confidence: the sovereign debt crisis. This was special to Europe; it brought on the development of redenomination risk and thereby threatened the integrity of our currency. Banks’ exposures to selected governments came under intense market scrutiny and entire national banking systems lost access to wholesale funding.

The ‘credit’ approach involved the provision of emergency liquidity assistance – the now famous ELA. In contrast to the ‘monetary’ LOLR, this involves a more discretionary approach, whereby national central banks assume the responsibility, and the potential costs, for supporting banks without eligible collateral.

Imagine that Praet decides to read his own research before writing this speech. He chooses a 2008 paper he wrote with Valerie Herzberg, entitled ‘Market liquidity and banking liquidity’, while both were at Bank of Belgium. Here is a copy-paste of their arguments:

  1. Interbank funding is itself becoming increasingly dependent on market liquidity as a growing proportion of interbank transactions is carried out through repurchase agreements.
  2. This increasing reliance on secured operations means that (European) banks are mobilising a growing fraction of their securities portfolio as collateral.
  3. Banks are increasingly mobilising their traditional government and corporate bond portfolios to finance less liquid, but higher yielding forms of assets that again can be reused as collateral.
  4. In periods of stress, margin and collateral requirements may increase if counterparties have retained the right to increase haircuts or if margins have fallen below certain thresholds.
  5. Asset liquidity may no longer depend on the characteristics of the asset itself, but rather on whether vulnerable counterparts have substantial positions that need liquidating.

This, we argue with Cornel Ban in our paper ‘Banking on bonds’, is the untold story of the European sovereign debt crisis. Not a story of a confidence fairies and redenominations risks, but of rapidly growing European repo markets before the crisis (1 above), of European banks mobilizing their portfolios of European government debt as collateral (2 and 3), of runs on collateral markets, including the government bond markets of the European periphery (4), that reflected more the funding pressures of large banks involved in US shadow banking than the fiscal probity of sovereigns (5). The European sovereign debt crisis was a story of fragile collateral in market-based banking, rather than the convenient eruption of redenomination risk.

More importantly, we argue, the ECB increased stress in collateral markets exactly as Praet predicted in point 4: in its lender of last resort operations, the ECB increased margin and collateral requirements, made margin calls, and in general worsened funding conditions at critical junctures in the crisis, both for European banks and European sovereigns.

Thus, we show that the ECB has played a critical role in trying to energize the integration of national repo markets in the Eurozone in the early 2000s. It decided to treat all Eurozone governments as equal collateral for its collateral framework – the terms on which it lends, via repo operations, against collateral. With this, it hoped private repo markets would follow suit, and accelerate integration of European financial markets. Anticipating objections that this effectively encouraged fiscal indiscipline in Europe (objections so loudly formulated by 2005 by Willem Buiter that Trichet was forced to defend the ECB’s collateral decisions in the European Parliament), the ECB adopted the risk practices of repo market participants: daily mark-to-market, margin calls and haircuts.

In doing so, the ECB could argue that its collateral policies had no substantive impact on government bond markets for two reasons. First, banks had little incentive to use government bonds to borrow from the central bank, since its repos carried higher haircuts than private repo transactions (where haircuts were zero for government debt) and ECB-held collateral could not be re-used in the repo market. Second, the ECB stressed that its collateral policie accommodated market views of credit quality. If markets distrusted Germany, its bonds would fall in market value. Like any repo market participant, the ECB would mark German collateral to market and make margin calls. Rather than disrupt, the ECB argued that its collateral policies reinforced private market discipline.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.26.17

By trying to strike a delicate balance between its financial integration priorities and its independence, the ECB made a radical departure from how central banks in EMU countries had previously managed lending operations, including lender of last resort. These central banks rarely marked to market and never made margin calls when lending to banks (except the Dutch central bank), and few used initial haircuts.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.00.12

By 2012, the ECB recognized that market collateral practices matter, but refused to include its own practices in that analysis. Vitor Constâncio noted that ‘the decline in collateral values translates in additional collateral calls possibly compounded with higher haircuts and margins requirements. A system in which financial institutions rely substantially on secured lending tends to be more pro-cyclical than otherwise’. He could have added: ‘ a system in which the central bank relies substantially on secured lending tends to be more pro-cyclical than otherwise’. The graph below is illustrative – it shows that the ECB was making increasingly large margin calls throughout 2012, and those calls only diminished once it announced OMT.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.01.05

Short memory vs. politics and accountability? Had Praet followed through with his 2008 analysis, he would have had to make the ECB an active actor in the crisis. The dominant narrative that he reproduces in his 2016 speech –  that it miraculously came to the rescue of inept governments in the periphery – does not hold under scrutiny of his 2008 predictions. The European public – including governments – would have good reason to hold ECB accountable for its disruptive role in the European crisis.

China’s economy at a crossroads

With impecable timing, we are organising a one day conference on China in Copenhagen, on January 26. The blurb below, program and registration here.

Since the global financial crisis, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China matters for the stability and growth of the world economy. Yet questions of how, why and to what extent have not been settled. Pessimists predict a hard landing that will spread deflationary pressures across the world, while optimists retain their faith in the ability of China to learn from its experiments and keep the engine running. In this conference, we engage regulators, academics and market participants in a conversation that explores critical questions of macroeconomic rebalancing, debt and currency management, RMB internationalization, monetary policy and capital account liberalization.

Speakers
Christopher Balding, Peking University, HSBC Business School
Luke Deer, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Sydney
Daniela Gabor, Associate Professor, University of West England
Tao Guan, Senior Fellow at CF 40, former Director-General of Balance of Payments Department, State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE)
Patrick Hess, Senior Financial Market and China Expert, European Central Bank
Hu Hongbo, First Political Secretary, Chinese Embassy of Copenhagen
Yang Jiang, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies
Zhang Jun, Director of China Centre for Economic Studies, Fudan University
Annina Kaltenbrunner, Lecturer, Leeds University Business School
George Magnus, Associate at Oxford University’s China Centre
Allan von Mehren, Chief Analyst and Head of International Macro, Danske Bank
Anders Svendsen, Chief Analyst, Emerging Markets Division, Nordea
Niels Thygesen, Professor Emeritus, University of Copenhagen
Jakob Vestergaard, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies
Ming Zhang, Director, Department of International Investment, Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Beijing