Archive for May, 2015

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.”