Inequality, global imbalances and crisis

Tracing a connection between rising inequality and the Great Recession of 2008 is appealing to leftist economists. It suggests that what they see as two of the potential downsides of capitalism and in particular the neoliberal economic order can perhaps be mitigated via appropriate policies. Thus, a more egalitarian capitalism can become less prone to crisis or recession.

Of course, what is appealing as social and economic outcomes is not a good enough reason to investigate linkages between them, though I suspect that I am far from the only one who is drawn to particular ideas as a matter of bias.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that as a starting point, followed by economic analysis of the chosen object of study.

An article in the latest issue of the heterodox Cambridge Journal of Economics explores the potential linkages between the distribution of income and current account imbalances in a simplified model of the global economy consisting of the US, Germany and China, prior to the 2008 recession.

These three countries had the largest current account imbalances in absolute terms in the run-up to the recession. The US ran a deficit, and Germany and China were running surpluses. Since these imbalances have been pinpointed by some economists as a cause of the recession itself, analysing them is important. Continue reading


Useful bubbles

Plenty of economists are critical of the apparent irrationality of financial bubbles, which have occurred throughout the history of capitalism. That they recur despite the efforts of governments to regulate the markets and prevent their worst excesses suggests that, at least to some degree, they are inevitable.

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, famously termed the dot-com bubble in the 1990s a bout of “irrational exuberance”.

In an interesting and iconoclastic piece written back in 2004, John Eatwell of Cambridge University considered the possibility of what he termed “useful bubbles”.  In his own words, he was attempting to “row against [a] powerful tide of condemnation”, but was defining “useful in a very limited way – that is, as producing some positive consequences”, despite the potential for panics and crashes. Continue reading

Martin Wolf on Rethinking Economics

Martin Wolf is Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times, and a journalist whose pieces are frequently interesting and informative. Since the financial crisis of 2008 he has become more critical of the mainstream economic thinking which surely played a role in bringing on the crisis and shaping its consequences.

He has written the forward to the book I am reading at the moment: Rethinking Economics – An introduction to pluralist economics (2018). The book contains short introductions to the main heterodox (non-mainstream) schools of thought by leading thinkers from each school, including Post-Keynesian, Marxist, Austrian, Institutionalist, Feminist, Behavioural, Complexity, Co-operative and Ecological.

The project has been coordinated by the Rethinking Economics movement, which is leading calls for changes in the way economics is taught towards a more open, accessible and pluralist approach. Continue reading

Is full employment possible under capitalism?

An interesting interview with Robert Pollin on the Real News Network, in which he discusses the possibility of achieving full employment under capitalism. He considers the ideas on this subject of Marx, Keynes, Kalecki and Friedman.

For me, the historical record seems to support the ideas of Kalecki and Marx, in that achieving full employment may be possible, but sustaining it is much more difficult. This is because it tends to change the balance of power in society in favour of the workers, which the employers don’t like. If high inflation or a squeeze on profits is to be avoided, a new bargain between employers and workers is necessary.

The solution is thus a political one, and leads to a different kind of capitalism. It may be possible for a while but, once again, history suggests that this is hard to sustain, and that a squeeze on profits will result, leading to a slowdown in investment and growth and subsequently to a rise in unemployment once again. This also lends support to the ‘classical’ ideas of Anwar Shaikh on wages and unemployment, which I discuss here.

Heterodox critiques of quantitative easing

Following last week’s quote from Michael Hudson on quantitative easing (QE), here are some other insightful perspectives which for me offer explanatory power, given the course of economic and financial events over the decade since the crisis began.

The aim of QE is to reduce long-term interest rates, boost private sector lending, and raise asset prices to generate a positive wealth effect on private spending. Altogether, these are meant to raise private sector consumption and investment, and thus economic growth.

Richard Koo, economist at Nomura and originator of the theory of balance sheet recessions, has outlined the potential problem of the ‘QE Trap’ (2015). While QE might have the effect of mitigating such a recession, once the recovery is underway, its withdrawal could lead to slower growth than otherwise. In other words, over the longer term, its overall effect might be negligible or even negative: Continue reading

Michael Hudson on Quantitative Easing

Plenty of economists, investors and others have been wondering what will happen to financial markets and the real economy as monetary stimulus in the form of Quantitative Easing is wound down by central banks from the US to the Eurozone in the face of stronger growth.

I will be writing more about it next week, considering the perspectives of critic Richard Koo among others, but here is Michael Hudson from, as ever, his iconoclastic and insightful ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (p.189-91): Continue reading

We do not live in a post-industrial age (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 9)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismFrom Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism:

“We may be living in a post-industrial society in the sense that most of us work in shops and offices rather than in factories. But we have not entered a post-industrial stage of development in the sense that industry has become unimportant. Most (although not all) of the shrinkage in the share of manufacturing in total output is not due to the fall in the absolute quantity of manufactured goods produced but due to the fall in their prices relative to those for services, which is caused by their faster growth in productivity (output per unit of input). Now, even though de-industrialization is mainly due to this differential productivity growth across sectors, and thus may not be something negative in itself, it has negative consequences for economy-wide productivity growth and for the balance of payments, which cannot be ignored. As for the idea that developing countries can largely skip industrialization and enter the post-industrial phase directly, it is a fantasy. Their limited scope for productivity growth makes services a poor engine of growth. The low tradability of services means that a more service-based economy will have a lower ability to export. Lower export earnings means a weaker ability to buy advanced technologies from abroad, which in turn leads to slower growth. (p.88-9)

…[E]ven the rich countries have not become unequivocally post-industrial. While most people in those countries do not work in factories any more, the manufacturing sector’s importance in their production systems has not fallen very much, once we take in to account the relative price effects. But even if de-industrialization is not necessarily a symptom of industrial decline (although it often is), it has negative effects for long-term productivity growth and the balance of payments, both of which need reckoning. The myth that we now live in a post-industrial age has made many governments ignore the negative consequences of de-industrialization.

As for the developing countries, it is a fantasy to think that they can skip industrialization and build prosperity on the basis of service industries. Most services have slow productivity growth and most of those services that have high productivity growth are services that cannot be developed without a strong manufacturing sector. Low tradability of services means that a developing country specializing in services will face a bigger balance of payments problem, which for a developing country means a reduction in its ability to upgrade its economy. Post-industrial fantasies are bad enough for the rich countries, but they are positively dangerous for developing countries.” (p.101)