Prosperity, congestion, and the case for regional policy

Economic prosperity has its downsides. In the UK, London and the South East have proved to be the most dynamic parts of the country in generating income and wealth in recent decades. But the way such outcomes have been managed has left these regions with a now all too familiar problem: congestion.

It is not just the roads. There is also a housing shortage, which has contributed to soaring house prices, particularly in London, where average prices have roughly doubled since the recession.

There are different ways to look at these kinds of outcomes. We could call them symptoms of ‘overcrowding’: there are too many people. Alternatively one could praise the job-creating capacity of the UK economy, and particularly in these regions. Job-creation attracts workers from other regions of the country, as well as from abroad; immigration plays a role. Continue reading

Free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 7)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismThese telling extracts from Ha-Joon Chang‘s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism come from ‘Thing 7’ (p.63-5):

“Contrary to what is commonly believed, the performance of developing countries in the period of state-led development was superior to what they have achieved during the subsequent period of market-oriented reform. There were some spectacular failures of state intervention, but most of these countries grew much faster, with more equitable income distribution and far fewer financial crises, during the ‘bad old days’ than they have done in the period of market-oriented reforms. Moreover, it is also not true that almost all rich countries have become rich through free-market policies. The truth is more or less the opposite. With only a few exceptions, all of today’s rich countries, including Britain and the US – the supposed homes of free trade and free markets – have become rich through the combinations of protectionism, subsidies and other policies that today they advise the developing countries not to adopt. Free-market policies have made few countries rich so far and they will make few rich in the future.”

To illustrate the above, a brief country case study:

“[This] country’s trade policy has literally been the most protectionist in the world for the last few decades, with an average industrial tariff rate at 40-55 per cent. The majority of the population cannot vote, and vote-buying and electoral fraud are widespread. Corruption is rampant, with political parties selling government jobs to their financial backers. The country has never recruited a single civil servant through an open, competitive process. Its public finances are precarious, with records of government loan defaults that worry foreign investors. Especially in the banking sector, foreigners are prohibited from becoming directors while foreign shareholders cannot even exercise their voting rights unless they are resident in the country. It does not have a competition law, permitting cartels and other forms of monopoly to grow unchecked. Its protection of intellectual property rights is patchy, particularly marred by its refusal to protect foreigners’ copyrights…

…[the country described above]…is the USA, around 1880…one of the fastest-growing – and rapidly becoming one of the richest – countries in the world…[following] policy recipes that go almost totally against today’s neo-liberal free-market orthodoxy.”

Minsky on stagflation and the limits to state intervention

MinskyCanItHappenAgainGovernment can be a major force for promoting progressive economic and social development. History tells us that this is rarely sustained indefinitely: the political pendulum swings back and forth, and development proceeds unevenly across space and time.

I was reminded of some of the potential limits to state intervention by the quote below from Hyman Minsky in his collection of essays Can “It” Happen Again? , published in 1982. “It” refers to the Great Depression of the 1930s. His Financial Instability Hypothesis argued that ‘stability is destabilising’: periods of successful economic performance tend to encourage an increasingly risky financial structure, leading eventually to a financial crisis. This outcome could take decades to occur, but it seems that he was proved right by the crisis and recession of 2008-9. Continue reading

Stock buybacks and building a more equitable economy

This video tells the story of how a relatively equitable capitalist growth model in the 1950s and 60s gave way to rising inequality and weaker investment. For Professor William Lazonick, the economy of the US (and other advanced nations) currently generates “profits without prosperity”.

After World War II, average wages across the economy tended to increase in line with productivity, so that ordinary workers shared in rising economic efficiency over time. However, since the 1970s, the link has been broken as productivity continued to rise, while wages stagnated. This trend has been largely sustained to the present day.

The video discusses these changes in the US economy, and focuses on the phenomenon of stock buybacks, which shift firm resources away from productivity-raising investment in new technology and a more highly-skilled workforce towards short-term financial gains for CEOs and investors. Lazonick discusses possible solutions to these problems.

Supporting an ageing population: the need for a new economic strategy

workersThe UK, in common with all rich nations and some poorer ones too, faces an ageing population. The health and social care needed to support this needs to be well-funded, which requires sufficient wealth creation across the country.

At the moment, the UK’s productivity lags significantly behind other rich countries and needs to be seriously addressed by whichever government takes office after the upcoming election. The growth of productivity, or how much output is produced from given inputs (land, labour, capital, entrepreneurship etc), is the key to a rising standard of living. It makes possible choices between, for example, more work for a higher income, or more leisure for the same income.

The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott here discusses these issues and makes a strong case for an ambitious industrial and regional policy to boost productivity growth. As he says, the average productivity in the UK’s Greater South-East, including London, is higher than that in Germany. If the average productivity of the UK as a whole is well behind that in Germany, as well as France and the US, this means that there is a strong regional dimension to the problem. The rest of the UK lags well behind the Greater South-East, and this is a major reason for the country’s high level of regional income inequality. Continue reading

Richard Koo explains balance sheet recessions

Economist Richard Koo is well known for his concept of  a ‘balance sheet recession’. In this short video he explains how the recent Great Recession, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Japan’s economic stagnation since the 1990s are all examples of this, and what can be done about it.

A number of somewhat iconoclastic economists have explored the nature and consequences of asset-price bubbles, fueled by the accumulation of private sector debt, and their subsequent collapse, followed by private sector deleveraging (paying down debt). They include Koo, Michael Pettis, Steve Keen and Michael Hudson, the latter three being influenced by the late Hyman Minsky and his Financial Instability Hypothesis. The four of them proffer somewhat different solutions to the long stagnation that can follow the collapse of a debt-fueled asset-price bubble, which we are arguably still living through.

Koo favours a fiscal stimulus in which government spending exceeds revenue at a rate sufficient to prevent the economy collapsing as a large number of firms use their cash flow to pay down debt, rather than invest. This is what has been done intermittently in Japan. Koo argues that without the stimulus the Japanese economy would have experienced its own Great Depression, rather than simply years of stagnation.

Keen and Hudson favour a Modern Debt Jubilee in which much private debt is simply forgiven and wiped out, allowing households and firms to raise their spending on consumption and investment and drive economic recovery.

Pettis focuses his analysis on the current account imbalances across the global economy which in his view caused the build-up of debt. The unwinding of these imbalances is required to secure a more sustainable global recovery.

There is something to be said for the ideas of all of the above. I am keen to compare them and integrate the most important aspects, as their thinking overlaps to a significant extent. That will be the subject of a future post! In the meantime, I can definitely recommend watching the video as an introduction to Koo’s thinking.