Pandemic of inequality

The Levy Institute has just published a short paper on the inequalities associated with the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. It can be found here. A summary of the paper is below.

The costs of the COVID-19 pandemic—in terms of both the health risks and economic burdens—will be borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable segments of US society. In this public policy brief, Luiza Nassif-Pires, Laura de Lima Xavier, Thomas Masterson, Michalis Nikiforos, and Fernando Rios-Avila demonstrate that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to widen already-worrisome levels of income, racial, and gender inequality in the United States. Minority and low-income populations are more likely to develop severe infections that can lead to hospitalization and death due to COVID-19; they are also more likely to experience job losses and declines in their well-being.

The authors argue that our policy response to the COVID-19 crisis must target these unequally shared burdens—and that a failure to mitigate the regressive impact of the crisis will not only be unjust, it will prolong the pandemic and undermine any ensuing economic recovery efforts. As the authors note, we are in danger of falling victim to a vicious cycle: the pandemic and economic lockdown will worsen inequality; and these inequalities exacerbate the spread of the virus, not to mention further weaken the structure of the US economy.

The authors focus on the greater likelihood of ill health among the poorest in the population, and how they are more likely to suffer serious complications should they contract Covid-19.

They also repeat the case often made in papers from the Levy Institute, that high levels of inequality have weakened aggregate demand and growth, not least in the US. This has been associated with high levels of household and corporate debt, and played a major role in the historically weak recovery from the 2008 crisis. If steps are not made to reduce inequality, not least in access to healthcare, the US economy is likely to continue to perform poorly over the long term. This will be in addition to the shocks resulting from the response to the pandemic itself.

Neoclassical economics and the severity of the coronavirus crisis. — LARS P. SYLL

This training in economics makes politicians and bureaucrats incapable of understanding a crisis like this. They are, however, very susceptible to the advice of economists. They therefore enacted policies that reduced our capacity to cope with a pandemic, crafted systems of production and distribution that drastically amplified its damaging impact when it did arrive, and […]

via Neoclassical economics and the severity of the coronavirus crisis. — LARS P. SYLL

Minskyan processes and the coronavirus shock

The Levy Institute has a brief paper here by Michalis Nikiforos on how the shock of the coronavirus pandemic has hit already fragile economies, making the likely eventual economic outcomes particularly damaging. His main focus is the US, but the analysis can be applied to other advanced economies.

The abstract of the paper is below:

The spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) is a major shock for the US and global economies. Research Scholar Michalis Nikiforos explains that we cannot fully understand the economic implications of the pandemic without reference to two Minskyan processes at play in the US economy: the growing divergence of stock market prices from output prices, and the increasing fragility in corporate balance sheets.

The pandemic did not arrive in the context of an otherwise healthy US economy—the demand and supply dimensions of the shock have aggravated an inevitable adjustment process. Using a Minskyan framework, we can understand how the current economic weakness can be perpetuated through feedback effects between flows of demand and supply and their balance sheet impacts.

In the paper’s conclusion, he outlines the necessary policy response including, importantly, that:

“unlike the response to the 2007-9 crisis, the assistance provided to large corporations come with strings attached – so that they do not return to the same old (destabilizing) practices once the emergency has passed.”

This was written before the $2 trillion US support package passed through Congress. It seems as if the author’s hope has not been fulfilled.

Some (political economy) thoughts on the response to Covid-19 – capitalism, socialism and the role of the state

The big state is back with a vengeance, if it ever went away. The apparent suddenness and rapid escalation of the spread of the coronavirus has called forth an almost equally rapid increase in the scope of state intervention in many nations. Countries that had spurned a move to state capitalism have suddenly found themselves having to embrace it.

Authoritarian state capitalist, though ostensibly communist, China, took a while to respond to the outbreak, but once it did, it acted forcibly and, for now at least, it seems to have stemmed the tide. But democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan seem also to have responded relatively effectively to the outbreak, at least compared with many other countries.

The UK government has so far pledged a massive fiscal programme of stimulus, including wage subsidies, bridging loans for firms, and at the time of writing is about to announce support for the self-employed as well. Private sector rail company franchises have been suspended in the wake of collapsing ticket sales. The health service has been promised whatever it needs financially to deal with the virus. Private firms are being asked to switch production to medical supplies as fast as possible. The post-crash decade of austerity was already somewhat at an end, but now it has been dramatically, inevitably put into reverse gear. Continue reading

Heiner Flassbeck – Harz IV and the purpose of economics

Here is the latest post from Heiner Flassbeck, formerly of UNCTAD, and who now runs his own consultancy which focuses on macroeconomic questions.

The post explores how a decade of wage repression following the Harz IV reforms in Germany resulted in weak growth in wages relative to productivity, which in turn weakened growth in domestic demand and led to a boom in exports. The piece contains some useful charts comparing the growth in foreign and domestic demand in Germany and France.

These trends created major economic imbalances in the eurozone which in the long run proved unsustainable as they weakened economic performance in the region and were a major factor behind the global financial and eurozone crises.

Whether you are a supporter or detractor of the ‘European project’, these arguments should not be ignored. They point to the need for reforms to the structure of policymaking in the eurozone, particularly in Germany, it being the largest country with the largest current account surplus. Such reforms are needed in order to promote widespread prosperity and help to safeguard the future of the region. On the other hand, if this need is neglected, the disruptive breakup of the eurozone cannot be ruled out.

Flassbeck concludes as follows:

“In order to counter the centrifugal forces in Europe, Germany must lead the way by withdrawing its reforms and normalising wage developments. On the other hand, Germany would undoubtedly be hit hard economically in an exit scenario of Italy or France. It would have to reckon with its production structure, which is extremely export-oriented and which was formed in the years of monetary union, being subjected to a hard adjustment. The German recession is already showing how susceptible the country is to exogenous shocks.

The basic decision in favour of the euro can still be justified today with good economic arguments. The dominant economic theory, however, has ignored these arguments from the outset and politically disavowed them. Built on monetarist ideas in the European Central Bank and crude ideas about competition between nations in the largest member state, the monetary union could not function. All those who want to save Europe as a political idea must now realise that this can only be achieved with a different economic theory and a different economic policy that follows from it. Only if the participation of all members of society in economic progress is guaranteed under all circumstances and the competition of nations is abandoned can the idea of a united Europe be saved.”

A Sputtering Car Goes into Reverse: The German Recession and its Consequences — flassbeck economics international

Heiner Flassbeck and Patrick Kaczmarczyk write that amidst global political and economic fragility, the downturn in the Germany economy adds to the uncertainty in a world that, as Paul Krugman put it, has a “Germany problem”. It not only raises questions and doubts over the future of the largest European economy but, …More …

via A Sputtering Car Goes into Reverse: The German Recession and its Consequences — flassbeck economics international

Richard Koo on global stagnation, globalisation and the trade war

In the short video below, Richard Koo, originator of the idea of balance sheet recessions, argues that the current global economic stagnation is largely due to private sector firms as a whole in most of world’s largest economies acting as net savers rather than net borrowers and investors, despite very low interest rates. This is weakening aggregate demand and is compounded by the failure of the other sectors in the major economies, namely households and governments, to compensate by borrowing and spending to counter this weakness.

Of course, the US government is running a budget deficit, which has sustained moderate growth there, but for the largest economies taken together, private sector saving is proving to be a drag on continued recovery.

Koo doesn’t go into the reasons for this behaviour, although he has argued elsewhere that the private sector in many countries is attempting to save in order to pay down high levels of debt, producing a balance sheet recession, or stagnation at best. Fiscal policies that boost demand as well as policies that increase private investment opportunities in general would help to counter this.

He also touches on the US-China trade war as adding to global weakness, and notes that it is unlikely to end anytime soon, due to the job losses in the US which decades of current account deficits have reflected. As Koo puts it, free trade has created enough losers economically to make it a political problem in the US, and one that contributed to the election of Trump.

Aside from the trade war, it is quite likely that rising inequality has contributed to global weakness. With much of the income from economic growth accruing to the already wealthy, who save a larger proportion of it than poorer groups, significant increases in consumption in advance of the financial crisis relied on higher household debt since it is less able to be supported by rising wages for the majority.

In economies such as Germany and Japan, the result has been weaker growth, rising public debt in Japan, and a soaring current account surplus in Germany, while in the US and UK the result has been higher household debt and current account deficits. These trends sustained each other for some time, but the resolution of such imbalances may well be the source of much of the current global turmoil which has followed the crisis of more than a decade ago.

This interpretation suggests a need for policies which reduce inequality and increase wages, boosting consumption in a more sustainable fashion, and therefore increasing private investment opportunities. Greater public investment in infrastructure would also help. In a number of countries this has been constrained by policies focusing on austerity and reducing public debt, which have in many ways proved economically and socially damaging.

Heiner Flassbeck on the global economy: the problem of Europe

In the video below from the Real News Network, former economist at UNCTAD, Heiner Flassbeck, discusses some of the problems besetting today’s global economy and claims that they have deep historical roots. Germany may be heading for a recession due to shrinking exports linked to the ongoing US-China trade war and weak demand in Europe.

Flassbeck argues that the cause of sluggish global demand lies in the weakness of corporate investment compared to corporate saving alongside stagnant wages and the insufficient response of governments in Europe to counter this with more expansionary fiscal policy.

This has been brewing since the 1970s. The US under Reagan, Bush junior and most recently Trump has on a number of occasions responded to sluggish growth with higher fiscal deficits. The exception came under Clinton, when a booming economy and fiscal tightening produced several years of budget surpluses, which ultimately proved unsustainable.

In contrast, many European economies have remained wedded to tighter fiscal policies and austerity in the run-up to the creation of the euro. Since 2000 Germany has relied on foreign demand to drive growth, and now runs, in absolute terms, the largest current account surplus in the world.

Corporate surpluses are also excessively large in Japan, but the government continues to run a moderately large budget deficit which absorbs some of these savings and sustains aggregate demand to a degree. The German government is now running a budget surplus, which withdraws demand from the economy, leaving net exports as the driver of growth.

Ideally, corporations would use more of their retained earnings for investment, rather than running up surpluses as they are doing at the moment, particularly in Germany. This would increase spending on the demand side, and the capital stock on the supply side, boosting growth in output and some combination of employment and productivity.

In the absence of strong corporate investment growth, sufficient demand to support economic growth has to come from household consumption, net exports, or from the government. With insufficient household income growth, Germany has relied excessively on growth in exports enabled by sluggish wage increases for twenty years. In a weakening global economy, it is now suffering again and could be on the brink of recession.

A more sustainable return to healthy economic growth and fuller employment with rising living standards would see household incomes rising for the majority through significant wage increases, stimulating consumption and providing greater incentives for companies to increase investment in new capacity and employment. Also needed is some degree of fiscal expansion which includes public investment in necessary infrastructure and support for those on the lowest incomes.

The corporate sector surplus (the excess of savings over investment) in a number of large economies needs to shrink as wages and household incomes rise alongside corporate investment. This would lessen the need to rely on large and persistent fiscal deficits, which have supported demand in Japan on and off for well over two decades but have not by themselves created the conditions for a return to more balanced economic growth over the longer term. It would also lessen the need for consumption to be excessively dependent on rising debt, as in the UK and US.

More balanced global growth and reduced inequality within countries which have seen the latter soar since the end of the 1970s can be achieved together.

Flassbeck does not really discuss the reasons behind excessive corporate savings relative to investment, aside from a brief reference to neoliberalism, and he ignores the problem of private debt in China, but the interview is interesting and worth a watch.

Michael Hudson: debts that can’t be paid, won’t be

JisforJunkEconAnother excerpt in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s heterodox ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (2017, p.72):

“Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be”: Over time, debts mount up in excess of the ability of wide swathes of the economy to pay, except by transferring personal and public property to creditors.

The volume of debt owed by businesses, families and governments typically is as large as gross domestic product (GDP) – that is 100%. If the average interest rate to carry this debt is 5%, the economy must grow by 5% each year just to pay the interest charges. But economies are not growing at this rate. Hence, debt service paid to the financial sector is eating into economies, leaving less for labor and industry, that is, for production and consumption.

Greece’s debt has soared to about 180% of GDP. To pay 5% interest means that its economy must pay 9% of GDP each year to bondholders and bankers. To calculate the amount that an economy must pay in interest (not including the FIRE* sector as a whole), multiply the rate of interest (5%) by the ratio of debt to GDP (180%). The answer is 9% of GDP absorbed by interest charges. If an economy grows at 1% or 2% – today’s norm for the United States and eurozone – then any higher interest rate will eat into the economy.

Paying so much leaves less income to be spent in domestic markets. This shrinks employment and hence new investment, blocking the economy from growing. Debts cannot be paid except by making the economy poorer, until ultimately it is able to pay only by selling off public assets to rent extractors. But privatization raises the economy’s cost of living and doing business, impairing its competitiveness. This process is not sustainable.

The political issue erupts when debts cannot be paid. The debt crisis requires nations to decide whether to save the creditors’ claims for payment (by foreclosure) or save the economy. After 2008 the Obama administration saved the banks and bondholders, leaving the economy to limp along in a state of debt deflation. Economic shrinkage must continue until the debts are written down.

*Finance, Insurance and Real Estate

The debt we don’t talk about

Private debt. Richard Vague, who used to be in the business of consumer credit, now researches such things. Here he talks to INET, which supports a network of mainly progressive economists, from leading thinkers to students.

When Vague started his research into trends in private debt across a number of major economies, he found that it was difficult to find a lot of the necessary data, from the nineteenth century through the roaring twenties to 1980s Japan.

He also touches on the need for debt restructuring after a major crisis such as the Great Recession, perhaps in the form of a ‘debt jubilee’. As he puts it, we saved the banks, but we did much less for ordinary households.

Worth watching.