Robert Armstrong, US finance editor at the Financial Times, penned a helpful opinion piece in Tuesday’s paper, in which he tries to account for the disconnect between financial markets and the real economy in recent years, the Covid-19 correction notwithstanding. As he says:
“Until last Friday, it looked as if stock markets had lost all track of reality. In the world, we saw spiralling unemployment and political disarray. In the markets, especially the huge American market, exuberance.”
“The market, however, is already acting like it is the fourth of July. The S&P 500 has risen to within 5 per cent of its all-time high.”
This is despite the fact that
“Covid-19 has put working- and middle-class people under immense strain, while the asset-owning classes have felt relatively little pain.”
which is a potential source of political unrest and, in the end, political and economic change.
He accounts for this by positing a self-reinforcing cycle between rising inequality and rising financial markets, in the US in particular, drawing on a recent working paper by Atif Mian, Ludwig Straub and Amir Sufi. It is quite a long and technical paper, so rather than go through it, I will quote from Armstrong’s article, in which he summarises the key points: Continue reading →
One of the major economic phenomena of our time seems to be an enormous accumulation of elite wealth amidst rising inequality within nations, even while output and productivity growth, particularly since the Great Recession, have been mediocre across much of the world.
In his book Capitalism without Capital, Alan Shipman draws together a wealth of economic ideas, from the theory of the global savings glut and the Cambridge controversies in the theory of capital to Thomas Piketty’s writings on inequality, to argue that we are living in an era of abundant ‘wealth’ alongside a shortage of real productive capital assets. It is growth in the latter which remains the driver of rising living standards for the majority. Continue reading →
The Economist magazine recently published a special report on the world economy, looking at the ‘problem’ of low inflation. More than ten years have passed since the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession, and inflation is now strikingly low in many rich economies. This is despite unemployment falling to historically low levels in countries such as the US, UK and Germany, although it remains much higher in a number of European countries that have yet to recover from the worst of the eurozone crisis.
Normally economists expect wages to rise faster as unemployment falls below some critical level and the labour market tightens, and at some point this has tended, at least in the past, to lead to higher inflation.
In the US and UK, wage growth has been picking up, but inflation has remained low, and has even undershot central banks’ inflation targets. Wage increases are relatively good news for workers after a decade of sluggish or stagnant earnings growth, but remain weak compared to those seen prior to the recession. Continue reading →
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.
Donald Trump’s signature policy of 2017, the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cut taxes sharply for the richest earners and corporations. As so often in recent decades, many Republicans claimed that this would pay for itself via the increased revenue generated by faster economic growth, which would incorporate higher investment and higher wages for ordinary Americans. There would therefore be little need to cut spending to prevent the deficit from rising.
Such supply-side policies are part of the essence of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which boils down to the argument that making the richest members of society richer will make everyone richer, including those at the bottom. As with previous such policies, this remains to be seen, but the signs are not good.
On the other hand the US budget deficit is rising and is set to rise further. The national debt is also now growing faster than previously. While growth has been stimulated for a while, perhaps more from the demand-side than the supply-side, it seems that it is now slowing once more. This is a long way from the vaunted economic miracle from the President’s State of the Union address. Continue reading →
There is a nice piece in this week’s New Statesman by economics commentator Grace Blakeley on the dangers of the unresolved eurozone crisis, with Germany at its heart. With growth in the eurozone currently slowing, after a brief spurt, unemployment is set to remain unsatisfactorily high in a number of countries, not least Greece and Spain. Germany itself is teetering on the brink of recession.
As Blakeley argues, resolving the crisis requires the northern states of the currency block to expand domestic demand. This is particularly necessary in Germany, the largest economy in the eurozone, which is running a current account surplus of nearly eight percent of GDP. It is thus overly dependent on external demand, and growth in world trade.
What the piece misses, maybe in order to avoid unnecessary complexity, is that a decade of wage stagnation in the 2000s, while rendering German exporters more competitive and profitable, and boosting employment, has also squeezed household incomes and raised national savings relative to investment. This is reflected in the aforementioned large current account surplus, which is by definition equal to the gap between domestic savings and investment. Continue reading →
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to be elected to the US Congress, has made headlines recently with her arguments for much greater marginal rates of tax on the highest earners. Oxford University’s Simon Wren-Lewis yesterday posted this helpful piece on some of the economics and politics of such a policy. He is broadly in favour, and makes a good case for it.
Wren-Lewis is something of a New Keynesian, coming from the centre-left of mainstream thinking. The post covers plenty of ground, but tends to only focus on the microeconomics, while neglecting the macroeconomics, of higher taxes and redistribution. Continue reading →
The Economist magazine has an interesting article this week questioning the sustainability of the Chinese growth model and drawing some parallels between it and the Soviet Union in the post-war period.
During the last 40 years, the rapid development of China has been perhaps the most extraordinary example of economic transformation in human history, both in speed and scale. The economy grew by around ten percent per year for three decades. Growth has in recent years begun to slow, but is apparently still humming along at more than six percent, a decent clip by any standard. Hundreds of millions of its population have escaped from poverty and the new ‘workshop of the world’ has flooded the world with cheaper goods.
But cracks have begun to show, particularly since the financial crisis of a decade ago. The Chinese government’s response to a collapse of exports was to ramp up lending from state-owned banks and embark on a massive spending spree on infrastructure. Continue reading →
David Pakman’s videos are well worth watching for his incisive and progressive analyses of US current affairs. But on the question of the global role of the US dollar, which he describes below, I think he is wrong. Watch this short video first, before reading my critique below.
Is the US dollar’s dominant role in world trade and reserve policy an exorbitant privilege or an exorbitant burden? I go with the latter. The argument that it is a privilege and benefits the US economically is often made. This argument draws the conclusion that the US is able to borrow and spend beyond its means as a result. The US current account deficit is therefore a good thing, as it reflects the higher consumption and lower savings that can be sustained. It also apparently allows the US to sustain a higher level of debt, whether on the part of the private sector or the government, which boosts aggregate spending or demand.
But as Michael Pettis argues in his book The Great Rebalancing, it is perhaps just as accurate to say that the dominance of the US dollar in global payments and reserves forces the US to consume beyond its means. It results in lower US savings relative to investment, reflected in the current account deficit, and higher savings relative to investment in the rest of the world.
The stronger demand for US dollars in the rest of the world produces a stronger dollar than would otherwise be the case. This makes US exports more expensive abroad, and imports cheaper in the US, and will thus tend to widen the trade deficit (exports minus imports) and the current account deficit, other things being equal. Production and employment will be lower among US exporters, who will find it harder to compete with rivals abroad. US firms producing for the domestic market will similarly find it harder to compete with cheaper imports.
Larger trade and current account deficits act to drain demand from the US economy. A larger capital account surplus is the flipside of a larger current account deficit, and represents the net inflow of funds required to fund the latter, or what the US is borrowing from the rest of the world. These funds will either be used to fund domestic investment, which can be productive or unproductive, or to fund domestic consumption.
The result is that the US savings rate will be lower relative to the US investment rate than it would otherwise have been. The savings rate could fall, while the investment rate stays the same, necessarily leading to a higher rate of consumption. Or the savings rate could remain the same, while investment, whether productive or unproductive, rises.
If the new investment is productive, and generates flows of income in the future greater than its overall cost, then the US economy will end up larger and more productive, while employment should be higher. If the new investment is unproductive, such as takes place in a housing bubble, then this will ultimately raise the debt burden and slow future growth in output and employment.
So a larger current account deficit need not be a negative factor for an economy, if the funds borrowed from abroad are used to fund productive investment. But this only tends to be the case for an economy which is short of domestic sources of finance for investment. For an economy like the US, with sophisticated and liquid financial markets, there is little evidence that domestic investment is constrained by a shortage of domestic saving. So capital inflows will tend not to lead to higher productive investment, but rather to higher unemployment or higher debt.
The capital inflows to the US, resulting in a capital account surplus, and reflected in the gap between domestic investment and savings, described by some commentators as a shortage of savings, are the consequence of excessive savings relative to investment in the rest of the world, or a ‘savings glut’.
Savings and investment must be equal for the world economy as a whole, but can be out of balance for individual countries. If savings rise in one country but investment does not, the surplus must be exported abroad, and lead either to higher investment or lower savings in the rest of the world, so that global savings and investment continue to balance.
The US can only be a net borrower from the rest of the world and therefore continue to run a current account deficit if foreign economies are net savers in aggregate relative to the US. Economies such as China, Japan and Germany have run the largest current account surpluses (meaning that they are net savers) in recent years. It is their policies as much as those in the US which lead to a lower savings rate in the latter.
This is because, for the world as a whole, the balance of payments must balance! Current account deficits in some countries must be offset by current account surpluses in others. The major surplus countries are avoiding significant appreciations of their currencies by accumulating dollar reserves. They do this in part to sustain relatively weak currencies which boosts net exports by making their exporters more competitive.
These surplus countries are relying on their exporting sectors to boost demand, growth and employment because the growth in their domestic demand is relatively weak. So any rapid appreciation of their currencies would hobble their exporters and growth would falter. It would also probably take some time for the necessary adjustment and certain economic reforms in order for domestic demand to take up the slack.
The surplus countries therefore have a strong incentive to sustain the status quo, which helps to maintain the dollar as the dominant world currency, keeping it stronger than it otherwise would be. This is the exorbitant burden which the US, and ultimately the world, must carry.
All this played a significant role in causing the global imbalances which led to the Great Recession of 2008. These imbalances need to be resolved in order for the world to begin a new period of sustained growth. So Trump and his advisers may be on to something when they complain about the US trade deficit. It may therefore be a good thing if the dollar becomes less widely used for global trade and the accumulation of reserves, whether this is intended or not. Everything else being equal, a decline in the dollar would help the US economy rebalance in the longer run, boosting growth and employment and reducing the debt burden.
Is there a solution to all this, which would go beyond Trump’s muddled bluster? There is, and it has been around since the formation of the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944. It was then that Keynes proposed the creation of an international currency, bancor, which would be used to prevent excessive international payments imbalances and the unsustainable buildup of debt, which he strongly believed would tend to stifle growth. His US counterpart Harry Dexter White rejected the idea.
We have been left with Special Drawing Rights (SDR), a basket of international currencies maintained by the IMF, which were created in 1969 as the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and managed international payments began to unravel.
If, as Keynes had hoped, something like the SDR were used more widely, then global payments imbalances should be less severe and more easily resolved. But this would, in the short to medium run, and contrary to the arguments of many economists, benefit the US economy and harm the major surplus countries which would be less able to run up large current account surpluses by keeping their currencies relatively weak and boosting their exports. Despite this, the argument should be made that it would create a more balanced global economy, and more sustainable growth.
Perhaps the trick is to appeal to the right vested interests, since ultimately consumers in the current surplus countries would benefit. Exporters in the US, and also in other major and long-standing current account deficit nations, such as the UK, would gain too.
As ever, one can’t ignore the politics. For Trump, whose muddled policies are currently encouraging a stronger dollar, a successful reduction in the US current account deficit might reflect a reduced global role for the US, as Pakman argues in the video, but a less dominant dollar would ultimately be good for US growth and stability. There might be some debate over whether the outcome would be making America ‘great’ again or not. But more widely-used SDR would also be a good thing for the prosperity and stability of the global economy, though this is perhaps a long way off, if it happens at all. Politics will get in the way of good economics, and not for the first time.
I refer to the work of Michael Pettis quite often on this blog. He strikes me as a highly original thinker, combining macroeconomics, finance, development, political economy and economic history in a way which provides a deep understanding of world economic events.
He recently posted here about what he sees as the two main models of economic development which nations have used to transform their economies at certain times in history: the high wages model, and the high savings model.
Models of development can be described as a set of policies and institutions which aim to develop the economy and achieve sustained rises in productivity and output via industrialisation and the advancement of technology.
For Pettis, both models aim to raise wages and productivity, but they are distinct from one another in how they drive the investment which makes this possible. Continue reading →