Austerity and Growth: Missing the Point

Michael Stephens | May 22, 2015

The pseudo-debate about whether Keynesians and other fellow travellers ought to be embarrassed when governments that engage in fiscal austerity nevertheless experience positive economic growth rates has become a distraction.

For countries like the US and the UK, it is possible under current circumstances for governments to implement budget cuts and still see their economies grow. But the truth of that statement is not fatal to the Keynesian-inspired critique of austerity policies; it is not by any means the end of the story. The more meaningful question is this: What would have to happen in these economies for significant growth to occur in the midst of budget tightening?

Finding an answer to that last question is one of the strengths of the approach to thinking about the economy pioneered by Wynne Godley, and fleshed out further in the Levy Institute’s strategic analysis series. This approach also provides a clear understanding of how deeply irresponsible it is to cut government spending under present economic conditions: because the danger, given the state of the US and UK economies, is not just that budget cuts might slow down the economy, but that they might not.

Let’s look at the United States in particular. In their just-released report, Dimitri Papadimitriou, Greg Hannsgen, Michalis Nikiforos, and Gennaro Zezza point out that, with the exception of a short cycle in the ’70s, “there has been no other recovery in the modern history of the US economy in which government spending decreased in real terms.”

Exceptional Austerity_Levy Institute Strategic Analysis_May 2015

The Congressional Budget Office is predicting that the budget deficit will continue to shrink over the next few years, from 2.8 percent of GDP in 2014 to 2.4 percent in 2018. At the same time, the authors note, the CBO is telling us that GDP will grow at 2.8 percent, 3 percent, 2.7 percent, and 2.1 percent in 2015, ’16, ’17, and ’18, respectively. If we assume that both of those forecasts (for the budget deficit and GDP growth) come true, what would the rest of the economy need to look like?

The United States has run current account deficits, which act as a drag on economic growth, for decades. And despite the recent increase in net exports of petroleum products, which has helped keep the US trade deficit from returning to its sky-high precrisis levels, there is little reason to think that the external deficit will substantially improve over the next few years (if anything, the authors argue, it is likely to get worse. There’s more on recent developments in the foreign sector beginning on p. 6 of the report).

That being the case, GDP growth rates of the sort projected by the CBO can only come to pass on the basis of a rise in private sector spending. In fact, Papadimitriou et al. show that private sector spending would have to expand so much that it would exceed private sector income for the first time since the crisis. In other words, growth would depend on rising private indebtedness.

If the dollar continues to appreciate further and the economies of US trading partners end up performing worse than the IMF expects (a very real possibility, the authors point out, given the optimism of IMF forecasts), this increase in private sector spending over income — and thus the increase in the private debt-to-income ratio — would have to be even larger. Here’s what that would look like (in the chart below, “Scenario 1″ corresponds to slower growth among US trading partners [by 1 percent of GDP annually], “Scenario 2″ to a 25 percent appreciation of the dollar over the next four years, and “Scenario 3″ to a combination of the two):

Austerity and Private Debt_Levy Institute Strategic Analysis_May 2015

If private spending doesn’t blow up in this way, the CBO’s optimistic growth projections won’t come about. But if growth does occur, it can only do so (given the external deficit) through a process that raises the debt-to-income ratio of the private sector. As the authors point out, this is precisely the same process that led to the Great Recession and its aftermath.

What’s worse, the state of income inequality in the United States is such that this increase in private debt will be borne disproportionately by households in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. Unlike the federal government, which can service its debt through mere keystrokes, US households cannot sustain rising debt ratios of the sort portrayed in the chart above (though the amount of public hand-wringing spent on the debt of the former, as compared to the latter, would suggest the opposite). As Papadimitriou et al. write:

“Increased borrowing of one kind or another can often be sustained for a long time … but eventually, retrenchment takes place relative to incomes. The consequences of any further retrenchment in debt-financed consumer spending would be felt throughout industries that produce for the US consumer, and again, as we noted above, the recovery in real private domestic consumption is already weak relative to any previous recovery.”

To bring this back to the tired discussions surrounding austerity policies: yes, it is possible for the United States to have both tight budgets and rising GDP over the next few years. Fiscal conservatism doesn’t make economic growth impossible in the near term — it makes it impossible to grow without increasing financial fragility. In the absence of a significant increase in net exports, keeping the government budget on its current track will lead to either stagnation or an acute crisis.

Austerians in the United States and elsewhere have been allowed to portray themselves as the champions of steely-eyed realism and prudence. In reality, unless their budget proposals come attached with some workable plan to substantially reduce trade deficits, they are courting private-debt-driven financial crises. In any meaningful sense, they are the true practitioners of fiscal irresponsibility.


Working Paper Roundup 5/15/2015

Michael Stephens | May 15, 2015

Financing the Capital Development of the Economy: A Keynes-Schumpeter-Minsky Synthesis
Mariana Mazzucato and L. Randall Wray
“Over [the postwar] period, the financial system grew rapidly relative to the nonfinancial sector … To a large degree, this was because finance, instead of financing the capital development of the economy, was financing itself. At the same time, the capital development of the economy suffered perceptibly. If we apply a broad definition—to include technological advances, rising labor productivity, public and private infrastructure, innovations, and the advance of human knowledge—the rate of growth of capacity has slowed. …

The key goal of this paper is to reconsider and discuss the role of finance … that is, how to restructure it to serve the ‘real’ economy, rather than itself, in order to produce both innovation-led growth and full employment. This requires bringing together the thinking of Keynes, Minsky, and Schumpeter, as well as understanding the role of the public sector as doing much more than fixing static market failures.”

Direct Estimates of Food and Eating Production Function Parameters for 2004–12 Using an ATUS/CEX Synthetic Dataset
Tamar KhitarishviliFernando Rios-Avila, and Kijong Kim
“This paper evaluates the presence of heterogeneity, by household type, in the elasticity of substitution between food expenditures and time and in the goods intensity parameter in the household food and eating production functions. We use a synthetic dataset constructed by statistically matching the American Time Use Survey and the Consumer Expenditure Survey. We establish the presence of heterogeneity in the elasticity of substitution and in the intensity parameter. […]

Our results suggest that the effectiveness of economic policies aimed at encouraging healthful cooking and eating habits is likely to vary by household type. Despite this variation, the elasticity of substitution is low for all household types, underscoring the challenges that monetary compensation-based policies may face in effecting a change in food production and eating behavior. Although we apply our dataset to food and the eating production process, the applicability of the dataset extends to the examination of the substitutability in other household production processes.”

On the Determinants of Changes in Wage Inequality in Bolivia
Gustavo Canavire-Bacarreza and Fernando Rios-Avila
“Contrary to the trend in the developed world, Latin American countries have shown a sharp decline in wage inequality during the past decade (2000–12). Bolivia has also experienced this decline, especially in the second part of the past decade. Using the methodology of RIF regression decomposition, we found that after 2006, wages increased across the wage distribution, with the largest changes observable at lower quintiles. … Among other factors, we find that there has been a sharp reduction in returns on higher education at the top of the distribution, as well as increases for returns for low educated workers, which has contributed to the decline of wage inequality. Similarly, wages in occupations with traditionally highly paid jobs have consistently decreased, further contributing to the wage inequality decline. It is possible that the observed changes in inequality are related to increases of the minimum wage, which have multiplicative effects on public-sector wage rates due to salary structures. …

It remains to be seen, however, if these improvements are long lasting, since the reduction in labor income inequality has not been accompanied by improvements in workers’ characteristics (education, experience, and skill). Although improvements in the working conditions (wages) of the most vulnerable populations is an important step toward reducing income inequality, to the extent that these changes are not accompanied by equal gains in workers’ productivity, the reductions in inequality might not be sustainable in the long run.”

Does Keynesian Theory Explain Indian Government Bond Yields?
Tanweer Akram and Anupam Das
“This paper empirically investigates the determinants of changes in Indian government bonds’ nominal yields. Changes in short-term interest rates, after controlling for other crucial variables such as changes in the rates of inflation and economic activity, take a lead role in driving changes in the nominal yields of Indian government bonds. This vindicates Keynes’s theories, and suggests that his views on long-term interest rates are also applicable to emerging markets. Higher fiscal deficits do not appear to raise government bond yields in India.”

Emerging Markets and the International Financial Architecture: A Blueprint for Reform
Jan Kregel
“If emerging markets are to achieve their objective of joining the ranks of industrialized, developed countries, they must use their economic and political influence to support radical change in the international financial system. This working paper recommends John Maynard Keynes’s ‘clearing union’ as a blueprint for reform of the international financial architecture that could address emerging market grievances more effectively than current approaches. […]

From the point of view of the current difficulties facing emerging market economies, the basic advantage of the clearing union schemes is that there is no need for an international reserve currency, no market exchange rates or exchange rate volatility, and no parity to be defended. Notional exchange rates can be adjusted to support development policy, and there is no need to restrict domestic activity to meet foreign claims. Indeed, there is no need for an international lender or bank, since debt balances can be managed within the clearing union. The external adjustment occurs by creating an incentive for export surplus countries to find outlets to spend their credits, which may be in support of developing countries. The system thus supports global demand. Since all payments and debts are expressed in national currency, independence in national policy actions and policy space are preserved. In modern terminology, countries retain monetary sovereignty within the constraint of external balance, which should correspond to full utilization of domestic resources.”


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.:


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…


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).

(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.


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…


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):


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.


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


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