Elizabeth Warren on Structural vs Technocratic Financial Reform

Michael Stephens | April 16, 2015

From yesterday’s session of the 24th Annual Minsky Conference in Washington, D.C.:

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Not All Macro Models Failed to Predict the Crisis

Michalis Nikiforos |

Noah Smith has a post on the failure of macro theory to predict the crisis. He concedes that DSGE models did very badly on this score, but, he continues, “There are no other models out there that did forecast the crisis” and there is no better alternative.

The word “better” is important here because some “angry heterodox” people have pointed Smith to at least one alternative—Wynne Godley’s Seven Unsustainable Processes—that had in fact predicted the crisis. However, Smith rejects this as “basically just chartblogging” [emphasis added]. He writes that

Yeah, sure, if you put out hand-wavey reports saying “capitalism sux, there’s gonna be a crash!” every year or two, you’re eventually going to be able to say “see, I told you so”. But that’s no replacement for real modeling.[sic]

First of all, there is nothing wrong with chartblogging. In fact, Noah Smith is a chartblogger—an excellent one.

Having said that, is Godley’s argument just hand-wavey-capitalism-sux-chartblogging or is there something more to it (perhaps even some real modeling)?

To begin with, Godley’s argument in the Seven Unsustainable Processes (which is a policy paper) is based on his theoretical work. Godley was one of the major proponents of what is today called Stock-Flow Consistent methodology. Some of his books and his writings (with real models and everything) are here, here, and here.

(The other major proponent of this methodology was James Tobin. His lecture when he was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was a manifesto of this methodology.)

Based on this theoretical work, in the 1990s Godley built a more policy-oriented macroeconomic model at the Levy Economics Institute. The simulations in the Seven Unsustainable Processes were produced with this model (and are thus far from chartblogging).

To understand the argument of the Seven Unsustainable Processes we need to keep two things in mind. First of all, the analysis is Keynesian, so it is aggregate demand that drives output, employment, and growth. These Keynesian results do not stem from imposing rigidities on an otherwise supply-side neoclassical model.

A second important piece of the analysis is a simple macroeconomic identity that comes straight from the National Accounts:

(Private Expenditure – Income) + (Government Expenditure – Income) = Current Account Deficit

In other words, the sum of the private sector and government sector deficit is always equal to the current account deficit. Accounting consistency requires that the flows expressed in the three balances accumulate into related stocks. For example, if the private sector is running a deficit, that will (ceteris paribus) tend to decrease its net worth and increase its debt and debt-to-income ratio.

The examination of these financial balances in relation to income (or GDP) is important because it gives clues about (i) central structural characteristics of an economy, (ii) which component of demand is driving growth, and finally (iii) what net assets/income ratio for each sector is implied from the current situation.

Having said this, we can now go to the crisis and the question of whether Godley actually predicted it or not. continue reading…

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How Greece Has Been “Helped”

Gennaro Zezza | April 10, 2015

How has the Greek government used international loans?

Using the data available from the flow of funds published by the Bank of Greece and the sectoral accounts published by the Hellenic Statistical Institute (ElStat), we have the following:

Table 1. Greece. Use of international loans (billion euro)
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014* Sum
Sources of funds
1. Long-term loans from abroad 24.3 30.0 110.0 30.8 5.3 200.5
Uses of funds
2. Purchases of securities held abroad 19.9 24.4 44.3 8.0 10.7 107.4
3. Purchases of financial sector equities 0.2 0.9 0.0 19.0 0.0 20.2
4. Capital transfers 3.6 3.7 8.6 23.3 1.4 40.7
5. Interest payments 13.2 15.1 9.7 7.3 5.3 50.6
6. Residual = 1 – (2+3+4+5) -12.7 -14.2 47.3 -26.8 -12.1 -18.4
NB: * First three quarters for 2014

We start by estimating the funds received, using the table on “Financial liabilities broken down by holding sector,” and taking the line “Long-term loans received from abroad.” The largest part of these funds has been used to reduce the existing stock of debt held abroad: line 2 in Table 1 is obtained by the change in government long-term debt securities held abroad, which has been negative from 2010 onwards. A negative change in liabilities amounts to purchasing back the existing stock of debt(1). Another large part has been transferred to the domestic financial sector, either by purchasing equities (line 3 in Table 1, obtained from the data on flows of financial assets purchased by the government and issued by the domestic financial sector) or through capital transfers (line 4 in Table 1, which reports total capital transfers of the government).

If we add the total expenditure of the government on interest payments (line 5), we get that, overall, the international loans have not been sufficient to meet these expenses.

It could be argued that, had the Greek government not recapitalized Greek banks, a major banking crisis would have had even harsher consequences for the population of Greece. On the other hand, since these funds have not reached the Greek population, all debtors (households with mortgages, non-financial firms) who have experienced a severe drop in their income (for households) or sales (for firms) may be unable to meet their financial obligations, and this will imply a new, possibly large, fall in the value of the assets of the Greek financial sector, requiring more government intervention.

The only way to have addressed the Greek public debt problem, which was indeed a problem of foreign debt, in a sustainable way should have been to strengthen the Greek economy in its ability to produce and sell abroad enough to cover for its imports. Greece needed an investment plan; as Joseph Stiglitz just said at the ongoing INET conference in Paris, the “EU addresses the imbalances by making deficit countries starve instead of increasing their exports” (as tweeted by INET).


Notes
(1) In 2010 and 2011 a large negative value in the flow of government securities held abroad was matched, for a total of roughly 20 billion euros, by an increase in the flow held by the Greek financial sector.

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How Do We End the Inequality Feedback Loop?

Michael Stephens | April 7, 2015

“As Hyman Minsky argued, there are many varieties of capitalism, some more stable than others—and, we can add, some more equitable than others.” — Pavlina Tcherneva

Pavlina Tcherneva has revisited her (in)famous inequality chart, which showed an ever-rising majority of the income growth during post-1970s economic expansions being captured by the wealthy (specifically the top 10 percent of income earners). In a recently released policy note, “When a Rising Tide Sinks Most Boats: Trends in US Income Inequality,” she has updated the numbers through 2013 and broken down the top decile further (top 1 percent and 0.01 percent), compared the results of including or excluding capital gains, and looked at what happens to the distribution of income growth when we expand our scope to the entire business cycle (Tcherneva looks at NBER-dated GDP cycles as well as “income cycles” based on real income data from Piketty and Saez).

Here are some of the results:

  • The capital gains discussion yields a somewhat counterintuitive result: when you exclude capital gains, the distribution of income growth between the top 1 percent and bottom 99 percent appears more unequal. Tcherneva explains that this is because even though the bottom 99 percent have barely any capital gains income to speak of (2 percent of their income), their shrinking wage incomes meant that, from 2009-13, these meager capital gains were making the difference between declining (excl. cap gains) and merely stagnating (incl. cap gains) incomes for the bottom 99 percent.
  • When we look at entire economic cycles (peak-to-peak GDP or peak-to-peak income) rather than just the expansion periods, the picture doesn’t look any better. In fact, it’s worse. As Tcherneva notes, although the wealthy tend to lose disproportionately more of their income very early on during downturns, they recover faster and stronger than the bottom 90 percent: “Since the ’70s, when we look at the period beginning only one year after a downturn [and ending at the subsequent peak of the income cycle], the cycle delivers between 78 percent and 107 percent of the income growth to the wealthiest 10 percent of families.” In other words, she writes, “the way we grow recovers the incomes of the top 10 percent first.”
  • She also includes the chart below, which, though not quite as striking at first glance, becomes even more galling as you let it sink in. The chart shows the shares of income growth captured by the bottom 99.99 percent and the top 0.01 percent. By contrast with the other charts (90 percent vs. 10 percent and 99 percent vs. 1 percent), the blue bar is still bigger than the red, but keep in mind we’re talking about a tiny fraction of a fraction of the population in that red bar — around 16,000 families — and as you can see, they gobbled up practically one-third of all the income growth in the last full expansion period (2001-07), with the same worrying trend suggesting itself.

Tcherneva_Levy Institute_When a Rising Tide Sinks Most Boats_Fig3

Tcherneva also comments on the need to reorient our broader policy approach (such that it exists) to combating inequality. One of the points she makes is that we give up too much terrain when we focus disproportionately on raising top marginal income tax rates. continue reading…

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Modern Money, Financial Reform, and the Euro Experiment—an Interview with Randall Wray

Michael Stephens | March 28, 2015

Below is the wide-ranging interview L. Randall Wray gave to EKO – Público TV in Spain as part of the launch of the Spanish edition of his Modern Money Primer (questions in Spanish):

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Public Banking and Boom Bust Boom

L. Randall Wray | March 24, 2015

While in Spain for the launch of my Modern Money Primer in Spanish, I gave a long interview for Public Television. Parts of that interview are interspersed in this segment on public banking. My interview is in English (with Spanish subtitles), while the rest is in Spanish. Other portions of my interview will be broadcast later.

The Boom Bust Boom movie on Minsky will be released next month. Watch for it. I do not know how widely it will be distributed, but it is well worth seeing. Here’s a nice piece from The Guardian:

To Move Beyond Boom and Bust, We Need a New Theory of Capitalism

By Paul Mason, The Guardian UK

23 March 15

his is the year that economics might, if we are lucky, turn a corner. There’s a deluge of calls for change in the way it is taught in universities. There’s a global conference at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, where the giants of radical economics – including Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – will get their biggest ever mainstream platform. And there’s a film where a star of Monty Python talks to a puppet of Hyman Minsky.

Terry Jones’s documentary film Boom Bust Boom hits the cinemas this month. Using puppetry and talking heads (including mine), Jones is trying to popularise the work of Minsky, a US economist who died in 1996 but whose name has become for ever associated with the Lehman Brothers crash. Terrified analysts labelled it the “Minsky moment”.

Minsky’s genius was to show that financially complex capitalism is inherently unstable. Under conditions of stability, firms, banks and households will, over time, move from a position where their income pays off their debt, to one where it can only meet the interest payments on it. Finally, as instability rises, and central banks respond by expanding the supply of money, people end up borrowing just to pay back interest. The price of shares, homes and commodities rockets. Bust becomes inevitable.

This logical and coherent prediction was laughed at until it came true. Mainstream economics had convinced itself that capitalism tends towards equilibrium; and that any shocks must be external. It did so by reducing economic thought to the construction of abstract models, which perfectly describe the system 95% of the time, but break down during critical events.

In the aftermath of the crisis – which threatens some countries with a phase of stagnation lasting decades – Minsky’s insight has been acknowledged. But his supporters face a problem. The mainstream has a model; the radicals do not. The mainstream theory is “good enough” to run a business, a finance ministry or a central bank – as long as you are prepared, in practice, to ignore that theory when faced with crises.

Read the rest here.

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Greek Debt, German History, and the Moral High Ground

Michael Stephens | March 19, 2015

Dimitri Papadimitriou takes on the assumption that European leaders demanding the continuation of large fiscal surpluses from Greece can claim the moral high ground. The economics behind these demands are unrealistic, and the insistence on full debt repayment is both immoral and imprudent—not to mention deaf to the lessons of history:

“Greece’s government and people have indulged in excesses and corruption; now it is time to pay the price.” The argument for full repayment of Greece’s debt is well known, easily understood, and widely accepted, particularly in Germany. Sacrifice, austerity and repayment are righteous, fair, and just.

That view is coloring this and next week’s coming meetings between Greece and its international lenders, and with European leaders. A revision of Greece’s debt terms has not been on the agenda.

European leadership insists that repayment is possible, and that Greece’s economy will take off, if only Greeks are willing to bite the bullet and economize. The quasi-religious ground under the wishful thinking on economic growth is that with deep financial pain comes high moral ground.

Exactly the opposite case makes far more sense …

[…]

In the aftermath of [World War II], Germany was the beneficiary of the largest debt restructuring deal in history. Today, German leaders have positioned themselves as the moral gatekeepers of justice in Europe, with a firm stance against any debt forgiveness. …

Continue reading: “Greek Debt: Do the Right Thing” (HuffPo)

Related: The Greek Public Debt Problem

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The State of Labor, New Models of Organizing, and the Future of Work

Michael Stephens | March 18, 2015

The Levy Institute and SEIU 775 are cosponsoring a labor workshop at Bard College on April 20th. The workshop, which is free and open to the public, will focus on three major themes, each corresponding to a panel: The State of the American Labor Movement, The Future of Work, and New Models of Organizing and Worker Power.

The flyer for the event, including the schedule and list of participants, is below (click to enlarge; download pdf here):

Bard Labor Workshop_Flyer p1

Bard Labor Workshop_Flyer p2crop

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The Plunging Euro and Its Muddled Cheerleaders

Jörg Bibow | March 16, 2015

Greg Ip had a couple of pieces on currency wars and gyrations in the Wall Street Journal last week (here and here), essentially arguing that talk about currency warfare is much beside the point and that exchange rate gyrations are merely benevolent side-effects of monetary policies that will inevitably make the whole world better off. The Financial Times had an editorial on the ECB’s QE and the euro plunge that ran along the same lines, bluntly declaring that “any criticism from outside the eurozone that the fall in the single currency will kick off a global currency war [was] misplaced.” And Bloomberg summed it all up by proclaiming that the whole currency war talk is a “load of baloney,” fearing that the currency war nonsense talk might lead to trade restrictions, which would do real harm.

While the Financial Times sees no cause for alarm at all it seems, Greg Ip’s alarm bells would only go off if China were to retaliate by weakening the renminbi.

So there appears to be a consensus that all is currently for the best in all possible currency worlds. As ever so often, the consensus may be seriously off track here.

Consider Greg Ip’s main point, which is that monetary easing cannot do any harm by weakening a currency because it simply forces other central banks to follow suit, which eases the global monetary stance, which is all for the good. Well, the argument fails to distinguish situations in which all countries share common monetary policy requirements from situations in which that is not the case. The former kind of situation prevailed right after the Lehman bankruptcy, when the Federal Reserve’s easing provided the scope for a global monetary easing. This benevolent alignment didn’t last very long, however, as the U.S. monetary stance proved to be excessively easy for numerous countries in the emerging world — countries that may today be held back by the financial fragilities that were created at that time. Fast forward, recovery in the U.S. appears to be leading the world economy today, creating the opposite kind of challenges. So is the Federal Reserve prodding everyone else to tighten too, to the benefit of the world? Or are the ECB’s QE adventures prodding the Federal Reserve to change course, to the benefit of the world and the U.S.? If neither is the case, will the resulting exchange rate gyrations really benefit the wider world — unless China devalues its currency, that is?

The new consensus overlooks that it matters to the global economy whether important countries are mainly driven by domestic demand growth or mainly freeload on net exports.

The evolution of current account imbalances and contributions of net exports to GDP growth in the key countries featured in talks about currency wars is revealing.

The U.S. had persistent negative net exports GDP growth contributions and a rising current account deficit prior to the crisis of 2008-09. The crisis then halved the U.S. current account deficit. And post-crisis QE and dollar depreciation saw U.S. domestic demand growth stimulate (disappointingly meager) U.S. GDP growth while net exports made a broadly neutral contribution as the U.S. current account deficit was contained overall. Suffice to mention that U.S. energy production was an important swing factor in this outcome. The U.S. non-energy external balance has deteriorated with the U.S. recovery.

Japan ran huge current account surpluses prior to the crisis. As the favored carry-trade currency, the yen was cheap at the time. When crisis struck, the yen appreciated sharply at first, and Japan’s current account imbalance has since disappeared as net exports made negative GDP growth contributions in the last four years. More recently, the yen’s appreciation was partly reversed by means of QE starting in 2013 when the Japanese authorities also initiated a program to stimulate domestic demand.

The eurozone had a broadly balanced external position prior to the global crisis. Internally, however, diverging competitiveness positions led to huge imbalances, which then imploded. As the eurozone authorities’ policy response suffocated domestic demand, positive GDP growth contributions from net exports were the currency union’s only lifeline. The eurozone has a surging current account surplus, the biggest in the world today, with Germany and the Netherlands as the lead stars.

It is true that China had by far the biggest current account surplus prior to the global crisis. But China has also gone through by far the biggest rebalancing since. China’s current account surplus halved in absolute terms; in relative terms it plunged from 10 percent of GDP to roughly 2 percent within a short period of time. In fact, the country has experienced quite persistent negative GDP growth contributions from net exports since the crisis.

In essence, in the years since the global crisis, China was the number one global growth engine, while the eurozone was the world’s outstanding drag on growth, undermining a proper recovery. Germany’s bilateral trade and current account balances vis-à-vis China are in surplus today.

The latest monetary policy initiatives and currency gyrations should be read against this background. The consensus suggests that euro devaluation through the ECB’s belated QE is just fine, a measure for the general good of the world. Apparently the plunging euro is not designed to augment and sustain the eurozone’s freeloading on external growth; it is not the mechanism by which the eurozone exports its homemade mess to innocent bystanders. By contrast, as Greg Ip states explicitly, if the Chinese authorities were to devalue the renminbi, that could be seen as beggar-they-neighbor policy, an attempt to steal demand from their trading partners. Apparently, China is obliged to provide positive growth stimuli to the global economy and must not try to contain the damage that eurozone freeloading has on its development.

Surely Dr. Schäuble and Germany’s export industry can only applaud the new consensus. Never mind the shallow double standards on which it rests. Or do we all begin to adopt the kind of logic that prevails in Dr. Schäubles “parallel universe”* — making it yet another German export success?

 

* Back in September 2013, Dr. Schäuble famously suggested (see my comment) that critics of the brilliant eurozone crisis management undertaken under his stewardship were living in a “parallel universe where well-established economic principles no longer apply.” Eurozone crisis management has been so brilliant that the world now enjoys its fruits at a super-competitive euro exchange rate. Bravo! More cheerleading please.

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Beyond the Debt Negotiations: Greece’s New Deal?

Michael Stephens | March 10, 2015

The negotiations over Greece’s public debt and the terms of its bailout agreement have understandably taken center stage. Behind all the twists and turns, the key consideration is that even if the public debt could be repaid through continuing with austerity policies — and there is little reason to believe it can — it would still be a mistake, for both moral and pragmatic reasons. But dealing with Greek debt and the impossible terms of the agreement signed by the previous government is just the first step in dealing with Greece’s needless humanitarian crisis.

As noted, our own Rania Antonopoulos, senior scholar and director of the Levy Institute’s Gender Equality and the Economy program, has joined the new Syriza government as Deputy Minister of Labor. Particularly germane to her new role in helping to combat unemployment, Antonopoulos has done extensive research on direct job creation policies for Greece, featuring estimates of the macroeconomic and employment payoffs and the fiscal impact, as well as work on setting up systems of monitoring and evaluation.

At the last Minsky conference in Athens, she spoke about the necessity for a targeted job guarantee or employer-of-last-resort proposal in the context of the perilous state of the Greek labor market, including discussion of the scale of the program, estimated macroeconomic outcomes, and potential financing:

Antonopoulos was also recently interviewed by Deutsche Welle on the subject of this targeted direct job creation policy (the whole interview can be found here):

Have Greece’s existing job support programs been successful?

The problem with the existing programs is that they focus on reskilling. They offer a maximum of two months or 80 hours of pay support, with the intention of helping people get some initial work experience.

But the main problem in Greece is lack of aggregate demand and consequent lack of jobs, not lack of skills. In fact, large numbers of highly qualified professionals have been leaving the country. And 80 hours isn’t enough to learn a new professional skill anyway. Also, the agencies managing the retraining programs ate up 75 percent of the available budget. Only 25 percent went to the unemployed as wages.

What kind of jobs do you envision creating?

We’ll work with local communities and initiatives to identify socially useful jobs. A key aim is to match people’s existing skills with socially needed tasks. We also want to stimulate economic activities that move in the direction of the new government’s development priorities.

Those priorities include renewable energy and sustainable fisheries, cooperative structures for locally produced food, organic farming… Plenty of initiatives have sprung up, but they need some support. The unemployed people trying to make them happen would be very happy to have wage support until they become sustainable independent businesses.

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