Author: Jo Michell

Associate Professor, Economics, UWE, Bristol

Brexit voting patterns, education and geography

Rob Calvert Jump and Jo Michell

We have a “featured graphic” article on Brexit voting patterns and education forthcoming in Environment and Planning A. The electronic version is here, and an ungated pre-print is here.

It is by now well established that education is one of the most statistically important demographic factors in “explaining” the Brexit vote. It also has substantial predictive power. What has not been explored, to our knowledge, is the extent to which educational attainment and geography interact: scatter plots and regressions tell us how variables move together, but they don’t (usually) include information about geographical patterns.

The figure below demonstrates why such information might be important (hi-res version here). The maps show colour-coded Leave vote percentages by local authority. Black outlines denote authorities for which the proportion of the population with less than five GCSEs is below the national average of around 36%. The match between low GCSE attainment and Brexit votes is striking: only 4 of the 85 local authorities that voted Remain had lower than average high school educational attainment: Liverpool, Sefton, the Wirral, and Leicester (researchers have recently speculated that Liverpool’s Remain vote was influenced by the city’s boycott of The Sun) Conversely, there is only a single local authority, North Kesteven in the East Midlands, with better than average educational attainment and a Leave vote share of 60% or higher.

Map of Leave votes and educational attainment

Choropleth map and cartogram hex map of Leave vote share and educational attainment in England and Wales by local authority.

Areas of below-average educational attainment and strong Leave voting show a clear geographical structure: clusters extend from the east coast into Essex and Kent in the south, and into the West Midlands and the north west of England in the north. The correlation does not hold so well in Wales, Cumbria, Northumberland and County Durham, where several local authorities with below-average GCSE attainment returned Leave votes between 50% and 60%.

Simple bivariate correlations like this are of course likely to be confounded by other factors that covary with aggregate educational attainment: age is the most obvious. To test the extent to which this may be driving the result, we construct a measure of age-adjusted educational attainment, which adjusts for the age and sex structure of the local authority – the details are in the paper. The figure below shows how this measure correlates with Leave voting (hi-res version).

Map of Leave votes shares and age-adjusted educational attainment

Choropleth map and cartogram hex map of Leave vote share and age-adjusted educational attainment in England and Wales by local authority

Once age and sex are adjusted for, the extent to which low GSCE attainment is clustered strongly among parts of the east coast, the West Midlands and the North West is even more apparent. Again the match with strong Leave votes is striking. Adjusting for age and sex removes many of the local authorities returning Leave votes between 50% and 60% from the “below average” educational attainment category, although parts of Wales are still apparent “outliers”. The area of below average (adjusted) educational attainment also extends into Remain-voting East London and Manchester.

How should these patterns be interpreted in light of the various narratives seeking explain the Brexit vote? These can broadly be divided into those emphasising cultural divergence between socially liberal Remain voters and socially conservative Leave voters, and those emphasising economic drivers such as inequality, austerity, and the effects of globalisation. Since educational attainment is closely correlated with both social attitudes and economic success, our results could be invoked in favour of either set of narratives. We therefore caution against drawing any firm conclusions on the basis of these results. The distribution of strong Brexit votes and below average educational attainment does raise potential problems, however, for narratives of the vote based on an assumed North-South divide. More on this soon.

 

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Kelton and Krugman on IS-LM and MMT

The MMT debates continue apace. New critiques — the good, the bad and the ugly — appear daily. Amidst the chaos, a guest post on Alphaville from three MMT authors stood out: the piece responded directly to various criticisms while discussing the policy challenges associated with controlling demand and inflation when fiscal policy is the primary macro stabilisation tool. These are the debates we should be having.

Unfortunately, it is one step forward, two steps backwards: elsewhere Stephanie Kelton and Paul Krugman have been debating across the pages of the Bloomberg and the New York Times websites. The debate is, to put it politely, a mess.

Krugman opened proceedings with a critique of Abba Lerner’s Functional Finance: the doctrine that fiscal policy should be judged by its macroeconomic outcomes, not on whether the financing is “sound”. Lerner argued that fiscal policy should be set at a position consistent with full employment, while interest rates should be set at a rate that ensures “the most desirable level of investment”. Krugman correctly notes the lack of  precision in Lerner’s statement on interest rates. He then argues that, “Lerner neglected the tradeoff between monetary and fiscal policy”, and that if the rate of interest on government debt exceeds the rate of growth, either the debt to GDP ratio spirals out of control or the government is forced to tighten fiscal policy.

Kelton hit back, arguing that Krugman’s concerns are misplaced because interest rates are a policy variable: the central bank can set them at whatever level it likes. Kelton points out that Krugman is assuming a “crowding out” effect: higher deficits lead to higher interest rates. Kelton argues that instead of “crowding out”, Lerner was concerned about “crowding in”: the “danger” that government deficits would push down the rate of interest, stimulating too much investment. Putting aside whether this is an accurate description of Lerner’s view, MMT does diverge from Lerner on this issue: since MMT rejects a clear link between interest rates and investment,  the MMT proposal is simply to set interest rates at a low level, or even zero, and leave them there.

So far, this looks like a straightforward disagreement about the relationship between government deficits and interest rates: Krugman says deficits cause higher interest rates, Kelton says they cause lower interest rates (although she also says interest rates are a policy variable — this apparent tension in Kelton’s position is resolved later on)

Krugman responded. This is where the debate starts to get messy. Krugman takes issue with the claim that the deficit should be set at the level consistent with full employment. He argues that at different rates of interest there will be different levels of private sector spending, implying that the fiscal position consistent with full employment varies with the rate of interest. As a result, the rate of interest isn’t a pure policy variable: there is a tradeoff between monetary and fiscal policy: with a larger deficit, interest rates must be higher, “crowding out” private investment spending.

Krugman’s argument involves two assumptions: 1) there exists a direct causal relationship between the rate of interest and the level of private investment expenditure, and, 2) the central bank will react to employment above “full employment” with higher interest rates. He illustrates this using an IS curve and a vertical “full employment” line (see below). He declares that “this all seems clear to me, and hard to argue with”.

250219krugman1-jumbo

At this point the debate still appears to remain focused on the core question: do government deficits raise or lower the rate of interest? By now, Krugman is baffled with Kelton’s responses:

It seems as if she’s saying that deficits necessarily lead to an increase in the monetary base, that expansionary fiscal policy is automatically expansionary monetary policy. But that is so obviously untrue – think of the loose fiscal/tight money combination in the 1980s – that I hope she means something different. Yet I can’t figure out what that different thing might be.

This highlights two issues: first, how little of MMT Krugman has bothered to absorb, and, second, how little MMTers appear to care about engaging others in a clear debate. Kelton, following the MMT line, is tacitly assuming that all deficits are monetised and that issuing bonds is an additional, and possibly unnecessary, “sterilisation” operation. Under these assumptions, deficits will automatically lead to an increase in central bank reserves and therefore to a fall in the money market rate of interest. But Kelton at no point makes these assumptions explicit. To most people, a government deficit implicitly means bond issuance, in correspondence with the historical facts.

So Krugman and Kelton have two differences in assumptions that matter here. First, Krugman assumes a mechanical relationship between interest rates and investment and thus a downward sloping IS curve, while Kelton rejects this relationship. Second, they are assuming different central bank behaviour. Krugman assumes that the central bank will react to fiscal expansion with tighter monetary policy in the form of higher interest rates: the central bank won’t allow employment to exceed the “full employment” level. Kelton assumes, firstly, that fiscal policy can be set at the “full employment” level, without any direct implications for interest rates and, secondly, that deficits are monetised so that money market rates fall as the deficit expands.

The “debate” heads downhill from here. Krugman asks several direct questions, including “[does] expansionary fiscal policy actually reduce interest rates?”. Kelton responds, “Answer: Yes. Pumping money into the economy increases bank reserves and reduces banks’ bids for federal funds. Any banker will tell you this.” Even now,  neither party seems to have identified the difference in assumptions about central bank behaviour.

The debate then shifts to IS-LM. Krugman asks if Kelton accepts the overall framework of discussion — the one he previously noted “all seems clear to me, and hard to argue with”. Kelton responds that, no, MMT rejects IS-LM because it is “not stock-flow consistent”, while also correctly noting that Krugman simply assumes that investment is a mechanical function of the rate of interest.

In fact, Krugman isn’t even using an IS-LM model — he has no LM curve — so the “not stock flow consistent” response is off target. The stock-flow issue in IS-LM derives from the fact that the model solves for an equilibrium between equations for the stock of money (LM), and investment and saving (IS) which are flow variables. But without the LM curve it is a pure flow model: Krugman is assuming, as does Kelton, that the central bank sets the rate of interest directly. So Kelton’s claim that “his model assumes a fixed money supply, which paves the way for the crowding-out effect!” is incorrect.

Similarly, Kelton’s earlier statement that Krugman “subscribes to the idea that monetary policy should target an invisible ‘neutral rate'” makes little sense in the context of Krugman’s IS model: there is no “invisible” r* in a simple IS model of the type Krugman is using: the full employment rate of interest can be read straight off the diagram for any given fiscal position.

Krugman then took to Twitter, calling Kelton’s response “a mess”, while still apparently failing to spot that they are talking at cross purposes. Kelton hit back again arguing that,

The crude, IS-LM interpretation of Keynes demonstrates that, under normal conditions, an increase in deficit spending will push up interest rates and lead to some crowding-out of investment spending. There is no room for a technical analysis of monetary operations in that framework.

Can this discussion be rescued? Can MMT and IS-LM be reconciled? The answer, I think, turns out to be, “yes, sort of”.

I wasn’t the only person pondering this question: several people on Twitter went back to this post by Nick Rowe where he tries to “reverse engineer” MMT using the IS-LM model, and comes up with the following diagram:

Rowe-IS-LM
Does this help? I think it does. In fact, this is exactly the diagram used by Victoria Chick in 1973, in The Theory of Monetary Policy, to describe what she calls the “extreme Keynesian model” (bottom right):

Chick-Theory-Monetary-Policy-scaled

So how do we use this diagram to resolve the Krugman-Kelton debate? Before answering, it should be noted that MMTers are correct to point out problems with the IS-LM framework. Some are listed in this article by Mario Seccareccia and Marc Lavoie who conclude that IS-LM should be rejected, but “if one were to hold one’s nose,” the “least worst” configuration is what Chick calls the “extreme Keynesian” version.

To see how we resolve the debate, and at the risk of repeating myself, recall that Krugman and Kelton are talking about two different central bank reactions. In Krugman’s IS model, the central bank reacts to looser fiscal policy with higher interest rates. Kelton, on the other hand, is talking about how deficit monetisation lowers the overnight money market rate. Kelton’s claim that a government deficit reduces “interest rates” is largely meaningless: it is just a truism. Flooding the overnight markets with liquidity will quickly push the rate of interest to zero, or whatever rate of interest the central bank pays on reserve balances. It is a central bank policy choice: the opposite of the one assumed by Krugman.

But what effect will this have on the interest rates which really matter for investment and debt sustainability: the rates on corporate and government debt? The answer is “it depends” — there are far too many factors involved to posit a direct mechanical relationship.

This brings a problem that is lurking in the background into sight. Both Kelton and Krugman are talking about “interest rates” or “the interest rate” as if there were a single rate of interest, or that all rates move together — the yield curve shifts bodily with movements of the policy rate. As the chart below shows, even for government debt alone this is a problematic assumption.

yc

Now, in the original IS-LM model, the LM curve is supposed to show how changes in the government controlled “money supply” affects the long term bond rate of interest. This is because, for Keynes, the rate of interest is the price of liquidity: by giving up liquidity (money) in favour of bonds, investors are rewarded with interest payments. But the problem with this is that we know that central banks don’t set the “money supply”: they set a rate of interest. So, it has become customary to draw a horizontal MP curve, allegedly representing an elastic supply of money at the rate of interest set by the central bank. But note that in switching from a sloping to a horizontal LM curve, the “interest rate” has switched from the long bond rate to the rate set by the central bank.

So how is the long bond rate determined in the horizontal MP model? The answer is it isn’t. As in the more contemporary three-equation IS-AS-MP formulation, it is just assumed that the central bank fixes the rate of interest that determines total spending. In switching from the upward sloping LM curve to a horizontal MP curve, the crude approximation to the yield curve in the older model is eliminated.

What of the IS curve? Kelton is right that a mechanical relationship between interest rates and investment (and saving) behaviour is highly dubious. If we assume that demand is completely interest-inelastic, then we arrive at the “extreme Keynesian” vertical IS curve. But does Kelton really think that sharp Fed rate hikes will have no effect on total spending? I doubt it. As Seccareccia and Lavoie note, once the effects of interest rates on the housing market are included, a sloping-but-steep IS curve seems plausible.

Now, does the “extreme Keynesian” IS-LM model, all the heroic assumptions notwithstanding, represent the MMT assumptions? I think, very crudely, it does. The government can set fiscal policy wherever it likes, both irrespective of interest rates and without affecting interest rates: the IS curve can be placed anywhere along the horizontal axis. Likewise, the central bank can set interest rates to anything it likes, again without having any effect on total expenditure. This seems a reasonable, if highly simplified approximation to the standard MMT assumptions that fiscal policy and monetary policy can be set entirely independently of each other.

But is it useful? Not really, other than perhaps in showing the limitations of IS-LM. The only real takeaway is that we deserve a better quality of economic debate. People with the visibility and status of Kelton and Krugman should be able to identify the assumptions driving their opponent’s conclusions and hold a meaningful debate about whether these assumptions hold — without requiring some blogger to pick up the pieces.

Misunderstanding MMT

MMT continues to generate debate. Recent contributions include Jonathan Portes’ critique in Prospect and Stephanie Kelton’s Bloomberg op-ed downplaying the AOC and Warren tax proposals.

Something that caught my eye in Jonathans’ discussion was this quote from Richard Murphy: “A government with a balanced budget necessarily denies an economy the funds it needs to function.” This is an odd claim, and not something that follows from MMT.

Richard has responded to Jonathan’s article, predictably enough with straw man accusations, and declaring, somewhat grandiosely, that “the left and Labour really do need to adopt the core ideas of modern monetary theory … This debate is now at the heart of what it is to be on the left”

Richard included a six-point definition of what he regards to be the core propositions of MMT. Paraphrasing in some cases, these are:

  1. All money is created by the state or other banks acting under state licence
  2. Money only has value because the government promises to back it …
  3. … because taxes must be paid in government-issued money
  4. Therefore government spending comes before taxation
  5. Government deficits are necessary and good because without them the means to make settlement would not exist in our economy
  6. This liberates us to think entirely afresh about fiscal policy

Of these, I’d say the first is true, with some caveats, the second and third are partially true, and the fourth is sort of true but also not particularly interesting. I’ll leave further elaboration for another time, because I want to focus on point five, which is almost a restatement of the quote in Jonathan’s Prospect piece.

This claim is neither correct nor part of MMT. I don’t believe that any of the core MMT scholars would argue that deficits are required to ensure that there is sufficient money in circulation. (Since Richard uses the term “funds” in the first quote and “means [of] settlement” in the second, I’m going to assume he means money).

To see why, consider what makes up “money” in a modern monetary system. Bank deposits are the bulk of the money we use. These are issued by private banks when they make loans. Bank notes, issued by the Bank of England make up a much smaller proportion of the money in the hands of the public. Finally, there are the balances that private banks hold at the Bank of England, called reserves.

What is the relationship between these types of money and the government surplus or deficit? The figure below shows how both deposits and reserves have changed over time, alongside the deficit.

uk-money-supply-deficit

Can you spot a connection between the deficit and either of the two money measures? No, that’s because there isn’t one — and there is no reason to expect one.

Reserves increase when the Bank of England lends to commercial banks or purchases assets from the private sector. Deposits increase when commercial banks lend to households or firms. Until 2008, the Bank of England’s inflation targeting framework meant it aimed to keep the amount of reserves in the system low — it ran a tight balance sheet. Following the crisis, QE was introduced and the Bank rapidly increased reserves by purchasing government debt from private financial institutions. Over this period, and despite the increase in reserves, the ratio of deposits to GDP remained pretty stable.

The quantity of neither reserves nor deposits have any direct relationship with the government deficit. This is because the deficit is financed using bonds. For every £1bn of reserves and deposits created when the government spends in excess of taxation, £1bn of reserves and deposits are withdrawn when the Treasury sells bonds to finance that deficit.

This is exactly what MMT says will happen (although MMT also argues that these bond sales may not always be necessary). So MMT nowhere makes the claim that deficits are required to ensure that the system has enough money to function.

It is true that the smooth operation of the banking and financial system relies on well-functioning markets in government bonds. During the Clinton Presidency there were concerns that budget surpluses might lead the government to pay back all debt, thus leaving the financial system high and dry.

But the UK is not in any danger of running out of government debt. Government surpluses or deficits thus have no bearing on the ability of the monetary system to function.

The macroeconomic reason for running a deficit is straightforward and has nothing to do with money. The government should run a deficit when the desired saving of the private sector exceeds the sum of private investment expenditure and the surplus with the rest of the world. This is not an insight of MMT: it was stated by Kalecki and Keynes in the 1930s.

If a debate about MMT really is at “the heart of what it is to be on the left” then Richard might want to take a break to get up to speed on MMT (and monetary economics) before that debate continues.

A belated reply to Fazi and Mitchell on Brexit

Bruno Bonizzi and Jo Michell

In a Jacobin article earlier this year, Thomas Fazi and Bill Mitchell argued in favour of a hard Brexit. We published a reply, also in Jacobin. Fazi and Mitchell (FM) responded with accusations of strawman arguments, false claims, bias and muddled thinking. We intended to write a reply at the time, but other commitments got in the way. However we believe that FM’s reply was sufficiently inaccurate – and in places, dishonest –  that a reply is required, even if belatedly.

Brexit predictions

In our Jacobin article we noted that pre-referendum predictions of immediate recession following a Leave vote were produced for political effect, while economists emphasised the likely longer run costs. FM dispute this interpretation, citing as evidence a letter signed by over 200 economists, warning of the likely economic effects of Brexit. One of us (Jo Michell) has some knowledge of this letter, having not only signed it but also having played a role in coordinating signatories – signatories which include a good cross-section of the UK heterodox economics community.

FM quote the letter as follows:

Focusing entirely on the economics, we consider that it would be a major mistake for the UK to leave the European Union …

The uncertainty over precisely what kind of relationship the UK would find itself in with the EU and the rest of the world would also weigh heavily for many years. In addition, there is a sizeable risk of a short-term shock to confidence if we were to see a Leave vote on June 23rd. The Bank of England has signalled this concern clearly, and we share it.

Compare FM’s edit with the original text of the letter below (our bold text).

Focusing entirely on the economics, we consider that it would be a major mistake for the UK to leave the European Union.

Leaving would entail significant long-term costs. The size of these costs would depend on the amount of control the UK chooses to exercise over such matters as free movement of labour, and the associated penalty it would pay in terms of access to the single market. The numbers calculated by the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, the OECD and the Treasury describe a plausible range for the scale of these costs.

The uncertainty over precisely what kind of relationship the UK would find itself in with the EU and the rest of the world would also weigh heavily for many years. In addition, there is a sizeable risk of a short-term shock to confidence if we were to see a Leave vote on June 23rd. The Bank of England has signalled this concern clearly, and we share it.

Can you see what they did there?

The first substantial paragraph of the letter — conveniently deleted by FM – focuses on the long-term costs. Midway through the second paragraph, is the following sentence: “In addition, there is a sizeable risk of a short-term shock to confidence…” (our emphasis). The letter is clearly worded: we believe that Brexit entails long-term costs and, additionally, a risk of negative short-term effects.

FM also comment – referring to the first line of the letter – “And nothing ‘entirely’ economics about that. They were trying to influence the Referendum outcome in favour of Remain.”

Of course we were trying to influence the referendum outcome – that was the point of the letter – because, on the basis of the economics, we believe Brexit to be a mistake.

Finally, FM state, “This letter was published in the Times newspaper and so received widespread coverage.” This is genuinely funny. The (paywalled) letter was almost universally ignored by the UK press – to the point that Tony Yates’ frustration became a running joke on UK economics Twitter.

FM then highlight a report published by NIESR shortly before the vote. Again FM edit their quote carefully, removing the qualifier “albeit not unanimous” from the sentence “there is a degree, albeit not unanimous, of consensus that leaving the EU would depress UK economic activity in both the short term (via uncertainty) and the long term (via trade).” Aside from the quotation, FM devote no attention to the actual contents of the report, which summarises various Brexit macro modelling exercises, include the Treasury’s long term forecasts and both long and “near term” forecasts from the OECD, LSE and NIESR themselves. With the exception of the LSE modelling exercise, all are produced using NIESR’s NiGEM model.

What do the projections show? First note that the “near term” projections run until 2020, while the longer term projections run till 2030. The long-run projections of a hard Brexit do indeed predict a large hit to GDP. The shorter run scenarios suggest a smaller hit to GDP, of between 2.6% and 3.3%, by 2020. Does this prove, as FM argue, that economists “catastrophically failed in relation to the short-run impacts of the Brexit vote”?

At risk of stating the obvious, 2020 is four and half years after the referendum vote and beyond the Article 50 period: Brexit will have happened (this is the assumption in the projections, anyway). A 3% hit to GDP by 2020 seems perfectly plausible. But saying something is plausible is not the same as saying it is certain. In the case of both the economists’ letter to the Times and FM’s next piece of evidence, an Observer poll of economists, FM choose to ignore a crucial word: risk. Stating that there is a risk something will happen is not the same as saying it will happen. Fazi is a journalist. But Mitchell, an economics professor, really should understand the distinction between risk and certainty.

So, what of those statements that a hard Brexit increases the risk of a negative economic shock by 2020? Is the projection of 3% hit to GDP by 2020 in the wake a no-deal Brexit a “catastrophic failure”? How is the UK doing since the referendum?

GDP growth came to a halt in the first quarter of 2018 after declining steadily in the wake of the Brexit vote. Despite a bounce back in the summer, the UK growth rate is currently the lowest of the G7 economies. Of course, we don’t have the counterfactual — and since UK growth is pretty much entirely dependent on household spending, consumer credit and retail, this slowdown could have come at almost any point. But with the household savings rate and net lending now negative — and clearly unsustainable — further reductions in consumer demand seem inevitable.

What of manufacturing – the great hope of the pro-Brexit Left? Corbyn recently made the case that pound devaluation in the wake of Brexit will lead to a revival of manufacturing. But the UK pound has been depreciating for decades — alongside a widening current account deficit and a steady decline in manufacturing. Investment spending in car manufacturing has halved since the Brexit vote. Several major manufacturers including BMW, Siemens and Airbus have warned that they will cease manufacturing in the UK in the event of a hard Brexit. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) issued a warning that 860,000 skilled manufacturing jobs are at risk in the event of a hard brexit. Leaked government reports predict that low-income, Leave-voting ex-manufacturing areas of the UK will be hardest hit by a hard Brexit. This week, the European boss of Ford warned that a no-deal Brexit would be “disastrous” for UK manufacturing. AstraZeneca has announced a freeze in manufacturing investment in the UK. We could go on.

Booming Brexit Britain?

In our original reply to FM, we took issue with their attempt to paint the post-referendum period as a boom. FM claim we have misrepresented them: “to their discredit, Bonizzi and Michell are just making stuff up when they make that claim about us.” Here is the section of FM’s original article we referred to:

UK exports are at their strongest position since 2000. As the Economist recently put it: “Britain’s long-suffering makers are enjoying a once-in-a-generation boom,” as the shifts induced by Brexit engender a much-needed “rebalancing” from boom-and-bust financial services towards manufacturing. This is also spurring a growth in investment. Total investment spending in the UK — which includes both public and private investment — was the highest of any G7 country during 2017: 4 percent compared to the previous year.

The reader can decide if we are “just making stuff up”.

Having attacked us for our interpretation of the above quote, FM even go on, without a hint of irony, to quote the same Economist sentence – arguing that pound devaluation and growing export demand has led to a “virtuous circle” in which manufacturers are experiencing a   “once-in-a-generation boom … manufacturing is seeing its strongest growth since the late 1990s …”

This reinforces a point we made in our Jacobin article: FM seem to have trouble with the distinction between levels and growth rates. Manufacturing may have grown strongly in 2017 – before going into reverse and contracting at the start of 2018 – but this is in large part the result of “base effects”. Because UK manufacturing is now so small – output is still below pre-crisis levels – even small increases register as large percentage growth rates. This is not the same thing as a manufacturing “boom”.

FM made the same error in their original piece when discussing investment, where they incorrectly stated that “Total investment spending in the UK … was the highest of any G7 country during 2017” – actually it was the lowest. Now, we are prepared to accept that FM believed they were claiming that investment growth was highest – it was just a typo – but that isn’t what they wrote. Upon investigation, we discovered that FM’s error was in fact the result of carelessly pasting together two directly quoted half-sentences from the FT. Pointing out this error is not sleight of hand, and discussing base effects isn’t “throwing in some cloud” – whatever that means. (It is also good form to use quotation marks when cutting and pasting someone else’s text.)

Defenders of mainstream macro?

Next up, FM try and paint us as defenders of mainstream economics, arguing that “Bonizzi and Michell’s defense of the economics professions is thus very hard to comprehend.” This comes at the end of a long and incoherent section in which FM conflate DSGE modelling, gravity models of international trade, support for austerity and a number of other things – while, of course, stating that “it was obvious to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists as early as the late 1990s that a crisis was brewing”.

FM appear to think that, because we find negative long term Brexit predictions to be plausible, we are defending every failure of economics modelling and policy over the last three decades. Clearly they haven’t bothered to check our views on this. When they conflate these issues by writing, “same models, same approach, same catastrophic errors”, they demonstrate their ignorance. DSGE macro models and gravity models may both have important flaws – but they are not the same.

Trade graphs, EU utopianism, nativism and the Irish border

There are multiple further sections in FM’s reply – on the interpretation of trade graphs, the importance of racism and the far-right, and whether the EU is a “utopia”. These are as incoherent and inaccurate as the points refuted above. To give just one more example, FM state that “… the contention by Bonizzi and Michell that the EU is the only thing preventing the UK from plunging into a quasi-fascist dystopia is untenable.” – a contention that is nowhere to be found in anything we have written. Elsewhere, FM abandon even the pretence of debate, and resort to throwing in statements like, “Hello! Is anyone there?”

FM claim – inaccurately – that in their articles and book, they have covered all the points we raise. But we raised one issue in our Jacobin article that FM conspicuously ignore in their reply: the Irish border. We wrote:

The UK government’s current position of aiming to leave the customs union without creating a hard border in Ireland is akin to a Venn diagram in which there is no intersection between the circles. For this reason, Theresa May is currently proposing two incompatible approaches, both of which are unacceptable to the EU.

As has since become overwhelmingly apparent, those who want to argue for a hard Brexit need to spell out a solution to the Irish border issue. Perhaps now would be a good time for FM to tell us theirs?

Finally, we note that in their incoherent attempt to conflate mainstream economics and opposition to Brexit, FM quote Ann Pettifor. In response to FM’s attack on us, Ann tweeted the following: “Bill Mitchell & Fazi need reminding that it is rise of nationalism & even fascism in Europe that is the threat. Progressives should lead – not walk away & vacate political space to the Far Right.”

Fazi and Mitchell have not engaged with our arguments in good faith. Their attack is not a serious attempt to engage in debate or respond to the points we raised. In a number of places it is transparently dishonest. Anyone who follows Fazi and Mitchell’s lead on these crucial issues should take a long hard look.

Should we fear the robots? Automation, productivity and employment

Special session at the British Academy of Management conference

Monday 3 September, 12.30-14.00, Room 2X242

Bristol Business School, UWE, Coldharbour Lane, BS16 1QY

A panel discussion on productivity, automation and employment, with

Frances Coppola, Finance and Economics Writer

Daniel Davies, Investment Banking Analyst

Duncan Weldon, Head of Research, Resolution Group

Chaired by Jo Michell, UWE Bristol.

Since the 2008 crisis, UK productivity has stagnated. At the same time, fears are growing that robots will challenge humans for an ever wider range of jobs. This panel brings together leading economists to discuss these apparently contradictory trends – and what should be done about them.

This is a special session so all are welcome. Conference registration is not required.

The full conference programme can be downloaded here

For more details please contact Jo Michell on jo.michell@uwe.ac.uk

 

 

 

Graph showing UK public sector net borrowing

Labour’s economic policy is not neoliberal

At what point does over-use of a term as an insult render it meaningless? Richard Murphy tested the boundary yesterday when he accused John McDonnell’s economic advisor James Meadway of delivering “deeply neoliberal, and profoundly conventional thinking”. This was prompted by a negative comment James made about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

In response, Richard posted a list of MMT-inspired leading questions which, wisely in my opinion, James declined to answer. Richard then accused James – and by implication Labour – of not standing up to “the bankers” (including Mark Carney) and remaining wedded to conventional/mainstream/neoclassical/neoliberal thinking (Richard seems to regard these as equivalent terms). Labour is therefore signed up, in Richard’s view, to deliver “more Tory economic policy” and “more austerity”.

This is, to put it politely, nonsense.

At the heart of the debate is the decision taken by Labour, early in Corbyn’s leadership, to adopt a fiscal rule. This commits a Labour government to balancing the books on current spending with a rolling five year target, subject to a “knockout” when interest rates are close to zero. The rule has been a source of contention since it was announced. (I expressed misgivings about its announcement.)

My preference would be for a bit more wriggle room. The two dangers that must be balanced when setting fiscal policy are insufficient demand and private sector unwillingness to finance public deficits. Insufficient demand results in unemployment or underemployment, weak wage and productivity growth, and inadequate social provision. The dangers on the flipside are unsustainable borrowing costs and, particularly if this is countered using the power of the central bank, inflation. The relative weighting given to financial market conditions and inflation in the UK is almost always too high. But this doesn’t mean the correct weight is zero, as less-sophisticated advocates of MMT sometimes appear to think.

The first danger arises when the desired saving of the private sector exceeds private sector investment. In such a situation, achievement of “full employment output” requires a government deficit – give or take the current account. Standard macroeconomics largely assumes this problem away by arguing that, outside of the zero lower bound, interest rates can always be set at a level which will induce the optimal level of demand. Consequently, monetary policy is the only tool required. I disagree with this view: I think it’s quite possible for economies to be demand-constrained and thus require fiscal demand management across a range of possible interest rates.

But on balance I think the fiscal rule has enough flexibility to allow a Labour government to maintain sensible levels of aggregate demand. In any recession in the foreseeable medium-term future it is hard to imagine that interest rates will not be cut to near zero. In this case the rule will be suspended and fiscal policy can be used “with all means necessary”. Second, the rule doesn’t preclude significant increases in government investment spending – a central part of the Labour policy programme. Government investment spending is likely to have strong multiplier effects and should help to rebalance demand in the UK’s consumption-driven economy. Finally, the rolling five year window allows for adapting the pace of current spending to negative economic shocks.

I can also see good political reasons for the rule. It provides an immediate rebuttal to those who try to perpetuate the deeply dishonest but highly successful Tory strategy of depicting Labour as the party of fiscal irresponsibility. As I understand it, the rule was formulated by Simon Wren-Lewis and Jonathan Portes, two highly credible progressive economists. Simon has been one of the most consistent and articulate critics of Tory austerity. To accuse them, as Richard is doing, of “delivering neoliberal thinking” is ludicrous.

Aside from the straightforward inaccuracies, there is a deeper problem with Richard’s argument. He equates, as do some MMT advocates, radical or progressive policy with fiscal policy. There is no question that Labour’s economic programme would mark a decisive shift in macro management: it would be the end of austerity. (Austerity was never really about managing demand and debt, in my opinion: it was cover for the ideological aim of shrinking the state.) But the truly radical aims in Labour’s programme – although not yet fully fleshed out – are on the supply side: structural reforms, but not of the sort pushed by the IMF.

There is merit to this approach, in my view. Yes, the UK economy is demand-constrained. Aside from the direct human costs, austerity has almost certainly done long-run damage to the supply-side. It must end. But over the longer run the UK faces profound challenges from an ageing population, wide geographical disparities, and the potential risks and benefits of automation. It makes sense to focus on the supply side: to have an industrial strategy. A progressive supply-side policy is not an oxymoron. (I remain concerned about how such a programme can be reconciled with a hard Brexit, as some on the Left advocate.)

I have more sympathy with MMT than James. I see it essentially as a US-focused political campaign based around a single policy: the job guarantee. I am not convinced by the policy, but it is the focus of progressive economic and political action in the US. Stephanie Kelton has done an excellent job of debunking simple deficit scaremongering. But to claim, as Richard is doing, that rejecting MMT means accepting wholesale neoliberal orthodoxy is silly – as are several of the views that Richard attributes, without justification, to James.

The left deserves a better standard of economics debate.

Argentina: From the “confidence fairy” to the (still devilish) IMF

Guest post by Pablo Bortz and Nicolás Zeolla, Researchers at the Centre of Studies on Economics and Development, IDAES, National University of San Martín, and CONICET, Argentina.

In recent days, it has become customary to recall the issuance of a USD 2.75 billion 100-year bond in June 2017. This was the most colourful event of the short-lived integration of Argentina into international capital markets, beginning in December 2015. Last week, Argentina returned to the front pages of the financial press when the government requested financial assistance to the IMF amidst capital flight and a run against the peso that authorities were struggling to stop.

This is the most recent episode in the typical cycle of an emerging economy entering financial markets, suffering a balance of payments crisis and adopting an IMF-sponsored stabilization program. It starts with the claim that we are now a respected member of the international community, with presence in the Davos forum, and the promise that this time, finally, the international “confidence fairy” will awaken and investment will flood the country because of all the profit opportunities this forgotten economy has to offer. When the fairy proves to be an hallucination, we find ourselves at the steps of the IMF, facing demands, as always, for fiscal consolidation and structural reform.

When explaining this story, it is important to have some background on the Argentineans’ fascination with the dollar, and on some very recent political history. Because of its history of financial crises and its underdeveloped capital markets, there are very few savings instruments available to the non-sophisticated investor: real estate, term deposits, and dollars. Real estate prices are denominated in dollars, but you need a lot of dollars (relative to income) to buy a house. So buying dollars is pretty much a straightforward investment in uncertain times, i.e. most of the time.

Added to that, Argentina has a higher degree of exchange rate pass-through than other developing countries. The main exporters also dominate the domestic market for cooking oil and flour; oil and energy prices are dollarized; and exchange rate movements are very closely followed at times of wage bargaining. Unlike other emerging countries, and despite the sneering of some government officials, in a semi-dollarized (or bimonetary) economy such as Argentina exchange-rate pass-through is alive and kicking, which discourages large devaluations.

It is important to remember that the previous administration of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had implemented pervasive capital and exchange controls, which led to the development of a (relatively small) parallel market, with almost a 60% gap between the official and the parallel exchange rate. As soon as the Macri government took power in December 2015, it lifted all exchange rate controls. The official exchange rate (10 pesos per dollar) moved towards the parallel (16 pesos per dollar), and it is one of the reasons for the increase in the inflation rate, from 24% in 2015 to 41% by the end of 2016.

The new authorities also made two big moves. One was cancelling all the debt with vulture funds with new borrowing. This officially marked the return of Argentina to international capital markets. The second move, by the central bank (now lead by Federico Sturzenegger, an MIT graduate and disciple of Rudi Dornbusch), was the adoption of an inflation-targeting regime, with a mind-set that preferred freely floating exchange rates, and not much concern for current account deficits[1].

But looking at the external front, one may even be forgiven for asking: why did this crisis take so long to burst? Argentina was haemorrhaging dollars for many years, and with no sign of reversal: since 2016 the domestic non-financial sector acquired an accumulated amount of USD 41 billion in external assets. During the same period, the current account deficit totalled another USD 30 billion, in the form of trade deficit, tourism deficit, profit remittances by foreign companies and increasing interest payments.

The well-known factor that allowed all these trends to last until now is the foreign borrowing spree that involved the government, provinces, firms, and the central bank, including the inflow from short-term investors for carry trade operations. In the case of debt issuance, since 2016 the central government, provinces and private companies, have issued a whopping USD 88 billion of new foreign debt (13% of GDP).  In the case of carry trade operations, since 2016 the economy recorded USD 14 billon of short-term capital inflows (2% of GDP). The favourite peso-denominated asset for this operations were the debt liabilities of the central bank called LEBAC (Letters of the Central Bank).  Because of this, the outstanding stock of this instrument has now become the centre of all attention.

It is important to understand the LEBACs. They were originally conceived as an inter-bank and central bank liquidity management instrument. Since the lifting of foreign exchange and capital controls and the adoption of inflation targeting, the stock of LEBACs grew by USD 18 billion. Moreover, the composition of holders has changed significantly since 2015: At that time, domestic banks held 71% of the stock, and other investors held 29%. In 2018 that proportion has reverted to 38% banks/62% to other non-financial institution holders, which includes other non-financial public institutions (such as the social security administration) (17%), domestic mutual investment funds (16%), firms (14%), individuals (9%), and foreign investors (5%). This is shown in Graph 1 and Table 1. That means that a large part of all the new issuance of LEBAC is held by investors outside the regulatory scope of the central bank, especially individuals and foreign investors. This represents a potential source of currency market turbulence because these holdings could easily be converted into foreign currency, causing a large FX depreciation.

LEBACs

Holders of LEBACs, May 2018 %
Financial institutions 39%
Non-financial public sector 17%
Mutual Investment Funds 16%
Firms 14%
Individuals 9%
Foreign investors 5%

Source: Authors’ calculation based on Central Bank of Argentina

What was the trigger of the recent sudden stop and reversal of capital flows? Supporters of the central bank authorities point towards the change in the inflation target last December, when the Chief of Staff Marcos Peña (the most powerful person in cabinet) and the Economy Minister Nicolas Dujovne moved the target from 10% to 15%. In light of the change in the target, the central bank started to gradually lower interest rates from as high as 28,75% to 26.5%, while inflation remained unabated, giving rise to rumours about the government’s internal political disputes. However, inflation remained stubbornly high even before the change in the target; and there were also some minor foreign exchange runs both before and after that announcement. In the meantime, the government did reduce the budget deficit. The problem is not of fiscal origin: one has to look to the external front.

Other analysts point towards the reversal of the global financial cycle of cheap credit, which has led to devaluation of emerging markets’ currencies across the board. The turning point, in this interpretation, was when the 10-year rate on US Treasury bonds reached the 3% threshold. In a similar vein, others highlight a tax on non-residents’ financial profits that was going to come into place on May 1st, that triggered the sell-off by foreign investors. Indeed, the run was primarily driven by foreign hedge funds and big banks (notably, JP Morgan) closing their positions in pesos and acquiring dollars. However, the impact on Argentina dwarfed the devaluations, reserve losses and interest rate increments in other developing countries.

Finally, some blame the patently disastrous response of the central bank to the first indicators of a capital flight. The run accelerated in the last three weeks. The CB initially sold all the dollars that foreign banks demanded, in an attempt to control the exchange rate, without increasing interest rates. Then the devaluation accelerated, and the central bank started to increase the interest rate, to 30, to 33, and finally to 42%. Its intervention in the exchange market was equally erratic.[2]

These points have some validity, but are insufficient to explain the full extent of the run.  The reason is that investors could enter the country and could leave it without no restriction whatsoever. The main problem is the total deregulation of the financial account and the foreign exchange market, for domestic and foreign investors. The government borrowed heavily in international markets and the central bank offered large financial gains, while the external front deteriorated and domestic non-sophisticated investors were demanding dollars at increasing speed. The most infamous and egregious measure of all is the abolition of the requirement that exporters sell their foreign currency in the foreign exchange market. Instead of having an assured supply of dollars, the central bank is now forced to lure them with a high interest rate. In such a context, where capital can move freely, anything and everything is an excuse to cash in and get out. It is therefore a mistake to focus only on individual issues. The problem is the setting – the whole policy framework.  Now, the central bank is caught between only two alternatives when choosing interest rates: either to encourage carry-trade operations, or to suffer steep devaluations.

The decision to ask for an IMF loan was in the offing for some time but was rushed during the run against the peso. The government’s first intention was to obtain a Flexible Credit Line, the best (or the least evil) of all the IMF facilities, because it provides a decent amount of money with few conditionalities, or at least its minor cousin, the Precautionary and Liquidity Line (PLL), with less money but still not many conditionalities. The IMF, instead, told Argentine negotiators that there was no room for the PLL, and they would have to apply instead for the dreaded Stand-By Arrangements. All the international support and “credibility” that the Argentine government claimed to have was of no use when it came to the moment for banking on it.

But resorting to an IMF loan was not an unavoidable decision.[3] There were other ways to obtain dollars and to cap the foreign exchange run. The government could have forced exporters to sell their foreign currencies; they could have negotiated a swap agreement with some major central bank; or they could have erected barriers to capital outflows.

The report also shows what is to be expected from now on. The IMF will ask for tough measures on labour market flexibility (which was already on the government table), further cuts to public employment, wages, transfers and pensions, and lifting of the greatly reduced trade barriers. The devaluation has already happened, but it should be mentioned that previous devaluations failed to encourage exports, while they only fostered inflation.

It is impossible to forecast what will happen in 2019. On the economic front, there are at least four big risks. The first is a recession, because of the negative impact of devaluation on private consumption. The second refers to an acceleration in the inflation rate and its distributive effects. Nobody expects now that the 2018 inflation rate will be below the 2017 number (25%), and with further devaluations, inflation could spiral to new highs. A third risk, which will be persistent throughout the year, is the eventual demand for dollars by the non-bank LEBAC holders. The fourth one is a possible (though not likely) bank run. Banks have USD 22 billion of deposits denominated in dollars. Any bank-run will directly hit reserves.

This very short experience is another example of the typical boom-and-bust cycle of emerging economies borrowing heavily in foreign currency with totally deregulated financial flows and foreign exchange markets, while experiencing growing current account imbalances. If one were to obtain some “new” corollaries, we would have to point to the failure of the inflation-targeting policy framework in a semi-dollarized economy with no capital controls. The IT regime did not reduce contract indexation; exchange rate flexibility did not reduce the pass-through. And relying on the “confidence fairy” is no path to development; it is rather a highway to hellish institutions. We Argentineans thought we had rid ourselves of that devil.

 

[1] The inflation target, however, was set at very optimistic levels, was never achieved in the two years since the adoption of the IT regime, and was changed last December, something that many say had an influence in recent events.

[2] Some say that this behaviour was not a bug but a feature, since it allowed foreign banks to profit in their investments and leave the country at favourable interest rates. Others, in a less conspirative but equally perverse logic of action, say that the erratic initial response was an attempt by the central bank to prove the wrongfulness of the Ministry of Economy’s approach and regain full control of monetary policy. The unfolding of events is consistent with this argument, with the caveat that even after regaining political power, the central bank proved to be still unable of stopping the run for three weeks.

[3] In fact, when the news of the SBA came, the run actually accelerated, because one of the expected IMF conditions was a devaluation of between 10 to 25%, according to the last Article 4 Consultation Report. That might help to explain why the government wasted a loan from the BIS in less than 2 weeks.

 

“A remarkable national effort”: the dismal arithmetic of austerity

Rob Calvert Jump and Jo Michell

In a recent tweet, George Osborne celebrated the fact that the UK now has a surplus on the government’s current budget. Osborne cited an FT article noting that “… deficit reduction has come at the cost of an unprecedented squeeze in public spending. That squeeze is now showing up in higher waiting times in hospitals for emergency treatment, worse performance measures in prisons, severe cuts in many local authorities and lower satisfaction ratings for GP services.”

It is a measure of how far the debate has departed from reality that widespread degradation of essential public services can be regarded as cause for celebration.

The official objective of fiscal austerity was to put the public finances back on a sustainable path. According to this narrative, government borrowing was out of control as a result of the profligacy of the Labour government. Without a rapid change of policy, the UK faced a fiscal crisis caused by bond investors taking fright and interest rates rising to unsustainable levels.

Is this plausible? To answer, we present alternative scenarios in which actual and projected austerity is significantly reduced and examine the resulting outcomes for national debt.

Public sector net debt (the headline government debt figure) in any year is equal to the debt at the end of the previous year plus the deficit plus adjustments,

jump-deficit-eqn

where PSND  is the public sector net debt at the end of financial year, PSNB is total public sector borrowing (the deficit) over the same year, and ADJ is any non-borrowing adjustment. This adjustment can be inferred from the OBR’s figures for both actual data and projections. In our simulations, we simply take the OBR adjustment figures as constants. Given an assumption about the nominal size of the deficit in each future year, we can then calculate the implied size of the debt over the projection period.

What matters is not the size of the debt in money terms, but as a share of GDP. We therefore also need to know nominal GDP for each future year in our simulations. This is less straightforward because nominal GDP is affected by government spending and taxation. Estimates of the magnitude of this effect – known as the fiscal multiplier – vary significantly. The OBR, for instance, assumes a value of 1.1 for the effect of current government spending.  In order to avoid debate on the correct size of the nominal multiplier, we assume it is equal to zero.[1] This is a very conservative estimate and, like the OBR, we believe the correct value is greater than one. The advantage of this approach is that we can use OBR projections for nominal GDP in our simulations without adjustment.

We simulate three alternative scenarios in which the pace of actual and predicted deficit reduction is slowed by a third, a half and two thirds respectively.[2] The evolution of the public debt-to-GDP ratio in each scenario is shown below, alongside actual figures and current OBR projections based on government plans.

jump-deficit2

jump-deficit

Despite the fact that the deficit is substantially higher in our alternative scenarios, there is little substantive variation in the implied time paths for debt-to-GDP ratios.  In our scenarios, the point at which the debt-to-GDP ratio reaches a peak is delayed by around two years. If the speed of deficit reduction is halved, public debt peaks at around 97% of GDP in 2019-20, compared to the OBR’s projected peak of 86% in the current fiscal year. Given the assumption of zero nominal multipliers, these projections are almost certainly too high: relaxing austerity would have led to higher growth and lower debt-to-GDP ratios.

Now consider the difference in spending.

Halving the speed of deficit reduction would have meant around £10 billion in extra spending in 2011-12, £8 billion in 2012-13, £19 billion in 2013-14, £21 billion in 2014-15, £29 billion extra in 2015-16, and £37 billion extra in 2016-17.  To put these figures into context, £37 billion is around 30% of total health expenditure in 2016-17.  The bedroom tax, on the other hand, was initially estimated to save less than £500 million per year.  These are large sums of money which would have made a material difference to public expenditure.

Would this extra spending have led to a fiscal crisis, as supporters of austerity argue? It is hard to see how a plausible argument can be made that a crisis is substantially more likely with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 97% than of 86%. Several comparable countries maintain higher debt ratios without any hint of funding problems: in 2017, the US figure was around 108%, the Belgian figure around 104%, and the French figure around 97%.

It is now beyond reasonable doubt that austerity led to increases in mortality rates – government cuts caused otherwise avoidable deaths. These could have been avoided without any substantial effect on the debt-to-GDP ratio. The argument that cuts were needed to avoid a fiscal crisis cannot be sustained.

 

[1] There is surprisingly little research on the size of nominal multipliers – most work focuses on real (i.e. inflation adjusted) multipliers.

[2] We calculate the actual (past years) or projected (future years) percentage change in the nominal deficit from the OBR figures and reduce this by a third, a half and two thirds respectively. The table below provides details of the middle projection where the pace of nominal deficit reduction is reduced by half.

jump-deficit-table

Austerity and household debt: a macro link?

For some time now I’ve been arguing that not only does austerity have real effects but also financial implications.

When the government runs a deficit, it produces a flow supply of safe assets: government bonds. If the desired saving of the private sector exceeds the level of capital investment, it will absorb these assets without government spending inducing inflationary tendencies.

This was the situation in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. Attempted deleveraging led to increased household saving, reduced spending and lower aggregate demand. Had the government not run a deficit of the size it did, the recession would have been more severe and prolonged.

When the coalition came to power in 2010 and austerity was introduced, the flow supply of safe assets began to contract. What happens if those who want to accumulate financial assets — wealthy households for the most part — are not willing to reduce their saving rate? If there is an unchanged flow demand for financial assets at the same time as the government reduces the supply, what is the result?

Broadly speaking there are two possible outcomes: one is lower demand and output: a recession. If growth is to be maintained, the only option is that some other group must issue a growing volume of financial liabilities, to offset the reduction in supply by the government.

In the UK, since 2010, this group has been households — mostly households on lower incomes. As the government cut spending, incomes fell and public services were rolled back. Unsurprisingly, many households fell back on borrowing to make ends meet.

The graph below shows the relationship between the government deficit and the annual increase in gross household debt (both series are four quarter rolling sums deflated to 2015 prices).

hh2

From 2010 onwards, steady reduction in the government deficit was accompanied by a steady increase in the rate of accumulation of household debt. The ratio is surprisingly steady: every £2bn of deficit reduction has been accompanied by an additional £1bn per annum increase in the accumulation of household debt.

Note that this is the rate at which gross household debt is accumulated — not the “net financial balance” of the household sector. The latter is highlighted in discussions of “sectoral balances”, and in particular the accounting requirement that a reduction in the government deficit be accompanied by either an increase in the deficit of the private sector or a reduction in the deficit with the foreign sector.

Critics of the sectoral balances argument make the point that the net financial balance of the household sector is not the relevant indicator. Most household borrowing takes place within the household sector, mediated by the financial system. Savers hold bank deposits and pension fund claims, while other households borrow from the banks. The gross indebtedness of the household sector can therefore either increase or decrease without any change in the net position. Critics therefore see the sectoral balances argument argue as incoherent because it displays a failure to understand basic national accounting. This view has been articulated by Chris Giles and Andrew Lilico, among others.

For the UK, at least, this criticism appears misplaced. The chart below plots four measures of the household sector financial position along with the government deficit. The indicators for the household sector are the net financial balance, gross household debt as a share of both GDP and household disposable income, and the household saving ratio. The correlation between the series is evident.

hh3

The relationship between the government deficit and the change in gross household debt is surprisingly stable. The figure below plots the series for the full period for which data are available from the ONS: from 1987 until 2017. With the exception of the period 2001-2008, where there is a clear structural break, the relationship is persistent.

hh1

Why should this be the case? One needs to be careful with apparently stable relationships between macroeconomic variables — they have a habit of breaking down. One reason for caution is that the composition of household debt has changed over the period shown: in the pre-2008 period most of the increase was mortgage borrowing, while post-crisis, consumer debt in the form of credit cards, car loans and so on has played an increasing role. Nonetheless, a hypothesis can be advanced:

If one group of households saves a relatively constant share of income — and this represents the majority of total saving in the household sector — then variance in the supply of assets issued by public sector must be matched either by variations in output and employment or by variance in the issuance of financial liabilities by other sectors. If monetary policy is used to maintain steady inflation and therefore relatively stable output and employment, changes in the cost of borrowing may induce other (non-saver) households to adjust their consumption decisions in such a way that stabilises output.

Put another way, if the contribution of government deficit spending to total demand varies and saving among some households is relatively inelastic, avoiding recessions requires another sector (or sub-sector) to go into deficit in order that total demand be maintained.

This hypothesis fits with the observation that the household saving ratio falls as the rate of gross debt accumulation increases. Paradoxically, the problem is not too little household saving but too much, given the volume of investment. If inelastic savers were willing to reduce their saving and increase consumption in response to lower government spending, then recession could be avoided without an increase in household debt. A better solution would be an increase in the business investment of the private sector: it is the difference between saving and investment that matters.

There is a clear structural break in the relationship between the deficit and household debt, starting around 2001. This is likely the result of the global credit boom which gathered pace after Alan Greenspan cut the target federal funds rate from 6.5% in 1999 to 1% in 2001. During this period, the financial position of the corporate sector shifted from deficit to surplus, matched by large rises in the accumulation of household debt. With the outbreak of crisis in 2008, the previous relationship appears to re-emerge.

Careful econometrics work is required to try and disentangle the drivers of rising household debt. But relationships between macroeconomic variables with this degree of stability are unusual. Something interesting is going on here.

EDIT: 22 November

Toby Nangle left a comment suggesting that it would be good to show the data on borrowing by different income levels. It’s a good point, and raises a complex issue about the distribution of lending and borrowing within the household sector. This is something that J. W. Mason and others have been discussing. I need another post to fully explain my thinking on this, but for now, I’ll include the following graph:

hh4

This is calculated using an experimental new dataset compiled by the ONS which uses micro data source to try and produce disaggregated macro datasets. Data are currently only available for three years — 2008, 2012, and 2013 — but I understand that the ONS are working on a more complete dataset.

What this shows is that in 2008, at the end of the 2000s credit boom, only the top two income quintiles were saving: the bottom 60% of the population was dissaving. In 2012 and 2013, the household saving ratio and financial balance had increased substantially and this shows up in the disaggregated figures as positive saving for all but the bottom quintile.

I suspect that as the saving ratio and net financial balance have subsequently declined, and gross debt has increased, the distributional pattern is reverting to what it looked like in 2008: saving at the top of the income distribution and dissaving in the lower quintiles.

Dilettantes Shouldn’t Get Excited

A new paper on DSGE modelling has caused a bit of a stir. It’s not so much the content of the paper — a thorough but unremarkable survey of the DSGE literature and a response to recent criticism — as the tone that has caught attention. The paper begins:

“People who don’t like dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models are dilettantes. By this we mean they aren’t serious about policy analysis… Dilettantes who only point to the existence of competing forces at work – and informally judge their relative importance via implicit thought experiments – can never give serious policy advice.”

The authors, Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum and Mathias Trabandt, make a number of claims, most eye-catchingly: “the only place that we can do experiments is in dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models.” They then list a number of policy questions that are probably best answered using a combination of time series econometrics and careful thinking. After their survey of the literature, the authors conclude — without recourse to evidence — “… DSGE models will remain central to how macroeconomists think about aggregate phenomena and policy. There is simply no credible alternative to policy analysis in a world of competing economic forces.”

The authors seem to have been exercised in particular by recent comments from Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote:

“I believe that most of the core constituents of the DSGE model are flawed—sufficiently badly flawed that they do not provide even a good starting point for constructing a good macroeconomic model. These include (a) the theory of consumption; (b) the theory of expectations—rational expectations and common knowledge; (c) the theory of investment; (d) the use of the representative agent model (and the simple extensions to incorporate heterogeneity that so far have found favor in the literature): distribution matters;(e) the theory of financial markets and money; (f) aggregation—excessive aggregation hides much that is of first order macroeconomic significance; (g) shocks—the sources of perturbation to the economy and (h) the theory of adjustment to shocks—including hypotheses about the speed of and mechanism for adjustment to equilibrium or about out of equilibrium behavior.”

Stiglitz is not the only dilettante in town. He’s not even the only Nobel prize-winning dilettante — Robert Solow has been making these points for decades now. The Nobels are not alone. Brad Delong takes a similar view, writing that “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”. (You should also read his response to the new paper, and some of the comments on his blog).

Back in 2010, John Mulbaer wrote that “While DSGE models are useful research tools for developing analytical insights, the highly simplified assumptions needed to obtain tractable general equilibrium solutions often undermine their usefulness. As we have seen, the data violate key assumptions made in these models, and the match to institutional realities, at both micro and macro levels, is often very poor.”

This is how a well-mannered economist politely points out that something is very wrong.

The abstract from Paul Romer’s recent paper on DSGE macro summarises the attitude of Christiano at. al.:

“For more than three decades, macroeconomics has gone backwards… Macroeconomic theorists dismiss mere facts … Their models attribute fluctuations in aggregate variables to imaginary causal forces that are not influenced by the action that any person takes. [This] hints at a general failure mode of science that is triggered when respect for highly regarded leaders evolves into a deference to authority that displaces objective fact from its position as the ultimate determinant of scientific truth.”

What is the “scientific” argument for DSGE? It goes something like this. In the 1970s, macroeconomics mostly consisted of a set of relationships which were assumed to be stable enough to inform policy. The attitude taken to underlying microeconomic behaviour was, broadly, “we don’t have an exact model which tells us how this combination of microeconomic behavours produces the aggregate relationship but we think this is both plausible and stable enough to be useful”.

When the relationships that had previously appeared stable broke down at the end of the 1970s — as macroeconomic relationships have a habit of doing — this opened the door for the Freshwater economists to declare all such theorising to be invalid and instead insist that all macro models be built on the basis of Walrasian general equilibrium. Only then, they argued, could we be sure that the macro relationships were truly structural and therefore not invariant to government policy.

There was also a convenient side-effect for the Chicago School libertarians: state-of-the-art Walrasian general equilibrium had reached the point where the best that could be managed was to build very simple models in which all markets, including the labour market, cleared continuously — basically a very crude “economics 101” model with an extra dimension called “time”, and a bit of dice-rolling thrown in for good measure. The result — the so-called “Real Business Cycle model” — is something like a game of Dungeons and Dragons with the winner decided in advance and the rules replaced by an undergrad micro textbook. The associated policy recommendations were ideologically agreeable to the Freshwater economists.

Economics was declared a science and the problems of involuntary unemployment, business cycles and financial instabilty were solved at the stroke of a pen. There were a few awkward details: working out what would happen if there were lots of different individuals in the system was a bit tricky — so it was easier just to assume one big person. This did away with much of the actual microeconomic “foundations” and just replaced one sort of assumed macro relationship with another — but this didn’t seem to bother anyone unduly. There were also some rather inconvenient mathematical results about the properties of aggregate production functions that nobody likes to talk about. But aside from these minor details it was all very scientific. A great discovery had been made: business cycles were driven by the unexplained residual from an internally inconsistent aggregate production function. A new consensus emerged — aside from sniping from Robert Solow and a few heterodox cranks — that this was the only way to do scientific macroeconomics.

if you wanted to get away from the Econ 101 conclusions and argue, for example, that monetary policy could have some short-run effects, you now had no choice other than to start with the new model and add “frictions” or “imperfections” — anything else was dilettantism. The best-known of these epicycle-like modifications is the “Calvo Fairy” — the assumption that not all prices adjust instantly following a policy change. This allowed those less devoted to extreme free-market politics to derive old favourites such as the expectations-augmented Phillips curve in this strange new world.

Simon Wren-Lewis describes this hard reset of the discipline as follows: “Freshwater created a revolution and won, and were in a position to declare Year Zero: only things done properly (i.e consistently microfounded) are true macro. That was good for a new generation, who could rediscover past knowledge but because they (re)did it ‘properly’ avoid any acknowledgement of what had come before.” The implication is that all pre-DSGE macro is invalid and, from Year Zero onwards, anyone doing macro without DSGE is not doing it “properly”.

This is where the story gets really odd. If, for instance, the Freshwater people had said “there are some problems with your models not fitting the data, and by the way, we’ve managed to add a time dimension to Walrasian general equilibrium, cool huh?” things might have turned out OK. The Freshwater people could have amused themselves playing optimising Dungeons and Dragons while everyone else tryed to work out why the Phillips curve had broken down.

Instead, somehow, the Freshwater economists managed to create Year Zero: everyone now has to play by their rules. For the next 30 years or so, instead of investigating how economies actually functioned, macroeconomists worked out how to get the new model to reproduce the few results that were already well known and had some degree of stability — basically the Phillips Curve. What they didn’t do was produce any new understanding of how economies worked, or develop models with any out of sample predictive power.

On what basis do Christiano et al. then argue that DSGE is the only game in town for making macro policy and,  more bizarrely, the only place where we can do “experiments”? One can certainly do experiments with a DSGE model — but you are experimenting on a DSGE model, not the economy. And it’s fairly well established by now that the economy doesn’t behave much like any benchmark DSGE model.

What Christiano et. al. are attempting to do is reimpose the Year Zero rules: anyone doing macro without DSGE is not doing it “properly”. But on what basis is DSGE macro “done properly”? What is the empirical evidence?

There are two places to look for empirical validation — the micro data and the macro data. Why look at micro data for validation of a macro model? The answer is that Year Zero imposed the requirement that all macro models be deduced — one logical step after another — from microeconomic assumptions. As Lucas, the leading revolutionary put it, “If these developments succeed, the term ‘macroeconomic’ will simply disappear from use and the modifier ‘micro’ will become superfluous. We will simply speak, as did Smith, Ricardo, Marshall and Walras of economic theory”

Is the microeconomic theory correct? The answer is “we don’t know”. It is a set of assumptions about how individuals and firms behave which is all but impossible to either validate or falsify.

The use of the deductive method in economics originated with Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy in 1819 and is summarised by Nassau Senior in 1836:

“The economist’s premises consist of a very few general propositions, the result of observation, or consciousness, and scarely requiring proof … which every man, as soon as he hears them, admits as familiar to his thoughts … [H]is inferences are nearly as general, and, if he has reasoned correctly, as certain, as his premises”

Nearly two hundred years later, Simon Wren-Lewis’ description of the method of DSGE macro is remarkably similar:

“Microeconomics is built up in a deductive manner from a small number of basic axioms of human behaviour. How these axioms are validated is controversial, as are the implications when they are rejected. Many economists act as if they are self evident.”

What of the macroeconomic results — perhaps we shouldn’t worry whether the microfoundations are correct if the macro models fit the data?

The Freshwater version of the model concluded that all government policy has no effect and that any changes are driven by an unexplained residual. The more moderate Saltwater version, with added Calvo fairy, allowed a rediscovery of Milton Friedman’s main results: an expectations-augmented Phillips Curve and short-run demand effects from monetary policy. The model has two basic equations: aggregate demand (the IS relationship) and aggregate supply (the Phillips curve) along with a policy response rule.

The first, the aggregate demand relationship, is based on an underlying assumption about how households behave in response to changes in the rate of interest. Unfortunately, not only does the equation not fit the data, the sign of the main coefficient appears to be wrong. This is likely because, rather than trying to understand the emergent properties of many interacting agents, modellers took the short-cut of assuming that the one big person assumed to represent the economy would simply replicate the behaviour of a single textbook-rational individual — much like assuming that the behaviour of an ant colony would be the same as that of one big textbook ant. It’s hard to see how one can make an argument that this has advanced knowledge beyond what you could glean from a straightforward Keynesian or Modigliani consumption function. What if, instead, we’d spent 30 years looking at the data and trying to work out how people actually make consumption and investment decisions?

What of the other relationship, the Phillips Curve? The Financial Times has recently published a series of articles on the growing, and awkward, realisation that the Phillips Curve relationship appears to have once again broken down. This was the theme of a recent all-star conference at the Peterson Institute. Gavyn Davies summarises the problem: “Without the Phillips Curve, the whole complicated paraphernalia that underpins central bank policy suddenly looks very shaky. For this reason, the Phillips Curve will not be abandoned lightly by policy makers.”

The “complicated paraphernalia” Davies refers to are the two basic equations just described. More complex versions of the model do exist, which purport to capture further stylised macro relationships beyond the standard pair. This is done, however, by adding extra degrees of freedom — justified as essentially arbitrary “frictions” — and then over fitting the model to the data. The result is that the models are pretty good at “predicting” the data they are trained on, and hopeless at anything else.

30 years of DSGE research have produced exactly one empirically plausible result — the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve. It was already well known. There is an ironic twist here: the breakdown of the Phillips Curve in the 1970s gave the Freshwater economists their breakthrough. The breakdown of the Phillips Curve now — in the other direction — leaves DSGE with precisely zero verifiable achievements.

Christiano et al.’s paper is welcome in one respect. It confirms what macroeconomists at the top of the discipline think about those lower down the academic pecking order — particularly those who take a critical view. They have made public what many of us long suspected was said behind closed doors.

The best response I can think of once again comes from Simon Wren-Lewis, who seems to have seen Christiano et. al coming:

“That some macroeconomists (I call them microfoundations purists) can argue that you should model and give policy advice based not on what you see but on what you can microfound represents something that I cannot imagine any philosopher of science taking seriously (after they had stopped laughing).”