Emerging and Frontier Markets: Policy Tools in Times of Financial Stress

By Dimitris Drakopoulos, Rohit Goel, Fabio Natalucci, and Evan Papageorgiou After the unprecedented hit to economic activity in emerging market economies from the COVID-19 pandemic, their economic output is projected to shrink by 3.3 percent in 2020. Central banks across emerging markets responded swiftly and forcefully with an unprecedented response of their own. They did […]

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Europe Needs to Maintain Strong Policy Support to Sustain the Recovery

By Alfred Kammer The pandemic is exacting a heavy toll on Europe. More than 240,000 people have lost their lives. Millions have suffered the illness themselves, the loss of loved ones, or major disruption in their work, their businesses, and their daily lives. The economic impact of the pandemic has been enormous. Our latest Regional […]

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This isn’t a Keynesian business cycle

In the standard Keynesian business cycle model, consumption is driven by changes in disposable income. This underlies the famous “multiplier” concept. But the Keynesian model doesn’t fit this particular business cycle (nor does the monetarist model.)

The current condition of the US economy is very weird. Housing is booming and many retailers are doing OK. Meanwhile, many services that involve human interaction are still deeply depressed, and likely to remain so until there is a vaccine or cure (or herd immunity.) Fiscal stimulus can’t fix that, although I believe their is a humanitarian argument for additional unemployment compensation during an unusual crisis like this one.

This graph shows the unusual and “unKeynesian” nature of the current business cycle:

Those are supposed to be positively correlated.  Disposable income took another dive in August, but consumption actually increased.  The economy is not being held back by a lack of income.  Where people feel they can spend safely, they are doing so.  To get back to full employment we need to address the pandemic.  If we do so, the labor market will recover very quickly (assuming any sort of half decent monetary policy.)

Today’s jobs report highlights the weird nature of this “business cycle”.  In October 2009, unemployment peaked at 10.0%.  It took 35 months for the unemployment rate to fall below 8%.  In July, the unemployment rate was 10.2%.  It took two months for the rate to fall below 8%.  And those two months were a period of severe “fiscal austerity” when Keynesian economists told us we could expect the recovery to stall. In fairness to the Keynesians, if the pandemic continues then I expect the unemployment rate to level off soon, as certain service sectors will remain severely depressed.

Whatever you want to call this, it isn’t you grandad’s recession.

PS.  I agree with Jim Bullard, who’s views are discussed in an excellent Tim Duy post.

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Lesson of Abenomics

With the recent resignation of Shinzo Abe, there have been a number of articles analyzing the record of Abenomics. There seems to be pretty general agreement on two points:

1. Japan’s economy improved after Abe took office at the beginning of 2013. Deflation came to an end, nominal GDP began rising, the public debt was brought under control, and unemployment fell to just over 2%.

2. The policy was not completely successful. Most notably, inflation continued to run well below the 2% target set by the Bank of Japan.

I believe that summary is correct. Where I part company with other pundits is in the lessons that Abenomics offers for monetary and fiscal policy. The Economist is fairly typical:

The first lesson is that central banks are not as powerful as hoped. Before Abenomics, many economists felt Japan’s persistent deflationary tendencies stemmed from a reversible mistake by the Bank of Japan (boj). It had combined fatalism with timidity, blaming deflation on forces outside its control, and easing monetary policy half-heartedly. In 1999 Ben Bernanke, later a Fed chairman, called on the boj to show the kind of “Rooseveltian resolve” that America’s 32nd president showed in fighting the Depression. . . .

The central bank is doing everything it can to revive private spending. Until it succeeds, though, the government has to fill whatever gap in demand remains. The shortfall in private spending is what makes government deficits necessary.

This seems to be the consensus as to the “lessons” of Abenomics.  Monetary stimulus is not enough; you also need fiscal stimulus.  And yet if you look at the actual record of Abenomics, there’s not a shred of evidence to support this claim, indeed the opposite seems to be the case.

For nearly two decades before Abe took office, Japan ran perhaps the largest combined monetary/fiscal stimulus in human history, at least during peacetime.  Remember, combined fiscal/monetary stimulus is the new consensus, the policy that most pundits in academia and the media now favor.  And what was the result of this massive stimulus?  Basically zero growth in nominal aggregate demand for almost two decades, a record even worse than seen in slow growing Italy.  If you’d told economists in the early 1990s that over the following 20 years Japan would mostly hold interest rates close to zero and increase the national debt from less than 70% of GDP to roughly 230% of GDP, and still have virtually no growth in nominal GDP, they would have responded that we need to abandon the standard textbook model of economics, as what we are teaching our students is clearly wrong.  Instead, we responded to this amazing analytical failure by doubling down on the very same flawed theory.

The massive fiscal stimulus came to an end with Prime Minister Abe.  Taxes were raised several times and the national debt leveled off at just over 230% of GDP.  Instead of a combined monetary fiscal stimulus, Abe relied on monetary stimulus and fiscal austerity.  And the Japanese economy actually improved!

I must admit that I am perplexed as to how my fellow economists draw their “lessons” from this record.  When people question monetary stimulus by pointing to the fact that Japan fell short of its 2% inflation target under Abe, I respond, “so do more”.  This doesn’t seem to convince anyone.  People seem to think I’m cheating, coming up with a theory that’s unfalsifiable.  “Yeah, you can always say they didn’t do enough.”

But when it comes to fiscal policy, this skepticism goes right out the window.  If I point out that the huge Japanese fiscal stimulus of 1992-2012 failed boost aggregate demand, they say the Japanese should have done even more fiscal stimulus, as if boosting the national debt from less than 70% to 230% of GDP is not enough.  When I point out that the Bush tax cuts of 2008 failed, they say the tax cuts should have been even bigger.  When I point out that the Obama stimulus of 2009 led to an unemployment rate that was far higher than proponents predicted even in the absence of stimulus, they say the stimulus should have been even bigger.  When I point out that the economy actually sped up in 2013, despite widespread Keynesian predictions that it would slow due to austerity, they say that without austerity it would have improved even more.  When I point out that the economy did not fall off the cliff at the end of July when Congress failed to renew the fiscal stimulus, they say it would have improved even more with additional stimulus (even though the fall in unemployment in August was the second largest in history.)

Now it’s certainly possible that I’m wrong and the Keynesians are right about fiscal stimulus.  Counterfactuals are tricky.  Maybe in all of these cases if they had only done more the results would have been better.  But in that case I’m honestly confused as to why I’m not allowed to argue the BOJ should have done more monetary stimulus.  Especially since while fiscal stimulus might become costly in the future if interest rates rise above zero, monetary stimulus is actually profitable, as central banks earn income on the assets they purchase with zero interest base money.  It’s monetary policy that seems to have truly unlimited “ammunition”, not fiscal policy.

Nonetheless, I’ve been beating my head against the wall for so long on this issue that I feel I need to change the argument.  Thus I’ve recently focused not so much on the claim that Japan needed to do more, rather that Japan needed to do different.  The ultra-low rates and massive QE are actually a symptom of previous tight money mistakes.

For example, the yen was about 124 to the dollar in mid-2015.  Today it’s roughly 105 to the dollar.  If Japan had simply pegged the yen to the dollar at 124 back in 2015, Japanese interest rates actually would have been higher over the following 5 years, mirroring the rise in interest rates in the US during this period (due to interest parity).  Monetary policy would have looked tighter to the Keynesian skeptic who (wrongly) feels that the actual Japanese monetary policy was highly expansionary, and ineffective.  And yet because the yen would have been far weaker, Japan would have actually experienced higher inflation than otherwise.  Indeed Lars Svensson made essentially this argument back in 2003, when he described a “foolproof” way for Japan to escape a liquidity trap.  He also noted that the higher nominal interest rates would be nothing to worry about, as this policy would have reduced the real interest rate in Japan, due to higher inflation expectations.

There are political difficulties with pegging the yen to the dollar, but Japan could have achieved a similar result by setting an aggressive price level target combined with a “whatever it takes” approach to QE.

So today I say to Japan, “don’t do more, do different.”

And I say to my fellow economists, “use the same criterion for drawing lessons from monetary policy as you use for drawing lessons from fiscal policy.”

PS.  Some economists do econometric tests of fiscal policy efficacy.  Elsewhere, I’ve criticized those tests for ignoring monetary offset.

 

 

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What do models tell us?

Josh Hendrickson has a new post that defends the use of models that might in some respects be viewed as “unrealistic”. I agree with his general point about models, and also his specific defense of models that assume perfect competition. But I have a few reservations about some of his examples:

Ricardian Equivalence holds that governments should be indifferent between generating revenue from taxes or new debt issuances. This is a benchmark. The Modigliani-Miller Theorem states that the value of the firm does not depend on whether it is financing with debt or equity. Again, this is a benchmark. Regardless of what one thinks about the empirical validity of these claims, they provide useful benchmarks in the sense that they give us an understanding of when these claims are true and how to test them. By providing a benchmark for comparison, they help us to better understand the world.

With all that being said, a world without “frictions” is not always the correct counterfactual.

Taken as a whole, this statement is quite reasonable.  But I would slightly take issue with the first sentence, which is likely to mislead some readers.  Ricardian Equivalence doesn’t actually tell the government how it “should” feel about the issue of debt vs. taxes, even if Ricardian Equivalence is true.  Rather it says something like the following:

If the government believes that debt issuance is less efficient than tax financed spending because people don’t account for future tax liabilities, that belief will not be accurate if people do account for future tax liabilities.

But even if people do anticipate the future tax burden created by the national debt, heavy public borrowing may still be less efficient than tax-financed spending because taxes are distortionary, and hence tax rates should be smoothed over time.

I happen to believe Ricardian Equivalence is roughly true, but I still don’t believe the government should be indifferent between taxes and borrowing.  Similarly, I believe that rational expectations is roughly true, and yet also believe that monetary shocks have real effects due to sticky wages.  I believe that the Coase Theorem is true, but also believe that the allocation of resources depends on how legal liability is assigned (due to transactions costs).  Models generally don’t tell us what we should believe about a given issue; rather they address one aspect of highly complex problems.

Here’s Hendrickson on real business cycle theory:

Since the RBC model has competitive and complete markets, the inefficiency of business cycles can be measured by using the RBC as a benchmark. In addition, if your model does not add much insight relative to the RBC model, how valuable can it be?

[As an aside, I agree with Bennett McCallum that either the term ‘real business cycle model’ means a model where business cycles are not caused by nominal shocks interacting with sticky wages/prices, or else the term is meaningless.  There is nothing “real” about a model where nominal shocks cause business cycles.]

Do RBC models provide a useful benchmark for judging inefficiency?  Consider the following analogy:  “A model where there is no gravity provides a useful benchmark for airline industry inefficiency in a world with gravity.”  It is certainly true that airlines could be more fuel efficient in a world with no gravity, but it’s equally true that they have no way to make that happen.  I don’t believe that gravity-free models tell us much of value about airline industry efficiency.

In my view, the concept of efficiency is most useful at a policy counterfactual.  Thus monetary policy A is inefficient if monetary policy B or C produces a better outcome in terms of some plausible metric such as utility or GDP or consumption.  (I do understand that macro outcomes are hard to measure (especially utility), but unless we have some ability to measure outcomes then no one could claim that South Korea is more successful than North Korea.  I’m not that pessimistic about our knowledge of the world.)

In my view, you don’t measure inefficiency by comparing a sticky price model featuring nominal shocks against a flexible price RBC model, rather you measure efficiency by comparing two different types of monetary policies in a realistic model with sticky prices.

That’s not to say that there are not aspects of RBC models that are useful, and indeed some of those innovations might provide insights into thinking about what sort of fluctuation in GDP would be optimal.  But I don’t believe you can say anything about policy efficiency unless you first embed those RBC insights (on things like productivity shocks) into a sticky wage/price model, and then compare policy alternatives with that model.  I view sticky prices as 90% a given, much like gravity.  (The other 10% is things like minimum wage laws, which can be impacted by policy.)

PS.  Just to be clear, I agree with Hendrickson on the more important issues in his post.  My support for University of Chicago-style perfect competition models definitely puts me on “team Hendrickson”, especially when I consider the direction the broader profession is moving.

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IMF Lending During the Pandemic and Beyond

By Robert Gregory, Huidan Lin, and Martin Mühleisen In the face of unprecedented uncertainty and the severe economic impact triggered by COVID-19, the Fund continues to adapt its lending. At the same time, it aims to ensure realistic targets, uphold the credibility of programs, and foster national ownership. To date, the Fund has provided financial […]

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One Thing Rationally Ignorant Voters Don’t Know

A Twitter follower of mine just praised president Trump for saving money by donating his salary back to government departments (I didn’t bother to add  the many justified “sic”):

“He takes a ZERO salary from the american people. How much did americans paid for Obama, Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, etc?”

Is this a significant saving for “the American people,” that is, American taxpayers? To check that, the voter must do some simple calculations. But even among those voters who can easily find the data sources and do the calculations, “rational ignorance” (as public choice economists say) will prevent most from doing it. Rational ignorance is the fact that the voter remains rationally ignorant of politics because he or she, individually, has no impact. It’s not as when he buys a car: he pays the money and gets the car he ordered. Politics and voting are very different: Why take the trouble and cost of finding information when your vote is not going to change the result of the election anyway? You’ll get the same political car anyway. Add partisanship to the mixture, and a perfect anti-Enlightenment storm is forming.

So let’s calculate if we should be grateful to the president for being so thrifty with public money. The annual salary of the president is $400,000—which means at most $300,000 after tax. This corresponds to 1/16,000,00o (one sixteen-millionth) of the annual expenditures of the federal government, which were roughly $4.8 trillion ($4,800,000,000,000) in 2019, before the pandemic struck. It can be easily calculated that in 2019 (note again: before the pandemic), the amount by which Trump increased the annual expenditures of the federal government was a bit more than $600 billion ($600,000,000,000) compared to the last year of Obama’s presidency (see https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=vzfE).

Thus, by foregoing his presidential salary, Trump saved the American taxpayer $300,000 a year and, by the end of 2019, was spending $600,000,000,000 more of their money on an annual basis. This means that what Trump saved the taxpayers is 1/2,000,000 (one two-millionth) of what he ended up spending over and above what Obama spent during his last year. (It is of course much worse since the beginning of 2020.)

Many taxpayers, if they knew, would have preferred that Trump ran with his $300,000 and showed frugality with the trillions of dollars of federal expenditures. According to USA Today, two previous presidents, also very wealthy, John Kennedy and Herbert Hoover, also donated their salaries. But they did not increase annual federal expenditures by half a trillion dollars.

PS: Thanks to Jon Murphy for his comments on a draft of this post.

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How Strong Infrastructure Governance Can End Waste in Public Investment

By Gerd Schwartz, Manal Fouad, Torben Hansen, and Geneviève Verdier COVID-19 has had a profound impact on people, firms, and economies all over the world. While countries have ramped up public lifelines to individuals and firms they will face enormous challenges to recover from the pandemic, amidst low economic activity and unprecedented levels of debt. […]

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Good News from Georgia

Start with the state’s economy, which had a relatively low jobless rate of 7.6% in July. Construction was never shut down, and schools in much of the state are opening for classroom instruction. The state expected a budget shortfall of $1 billion for the year but the actual deficit was $210 million. Mr. Kemp says sales tax revenue is rebounding and the state hasn’t exhausted its $700 million reserve fund.

This is from a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Georgia’s Pandemic Progress,” August 24, 2020 (electronic) and August 25 (print).

Recall all the flak that Governor Brian Kemp got for opening too soon. Well, it paid off.

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What if the economy does not tank in August?

In late July, there were increasingly frantic claims in the media that failure to enact another massive fiscal package would hurt the economy. I’ve pointed out that disposable income growth in 2020 has been astounding, and argued that a lack of fiscal stimulus is not the problem. So what will people say if the economy does not tank in August?

One prediction I can make with near 100% certainty is that a continued recovery in August would not be viewed as evidence against the (old) Keynesian view of fiscal stimulus and in favor on the New Keynesian/monetarist view. The efficacy of fiscal stimulus is now accepted almost as a matter of faith, despite the 2013 debacle. Instead, other explanations will be sought.

Here’s the headline and subhead to a new Bloomberg piece by Conor Sen:

The Stealth Sunbelt Virus Turnaround Will Boost the Economy

Even without a new stimulus package, there are reasons for optimism.

It’s worth noting that those reasons for optimism were typically not cited in late July, before the recent data on falling unemployment claims and rising stock prices.  So we need to figure out whether the “reasons for optimism” reflect new economic data, or actual external shocks that would justify an increased level of optimism.  I suspect it’s the recent economic data.

Sen cites the recent Covid-19 data from Arizona, which has indeed improved sharply in recent weeks, after a very bad July.  But Arizona is only a tiny fraction of the overall economy.  Here is daily Covid-19 fatality data for the US:

Deaths peaked at just over 2000/day in April, fell to just over 500/day in late June, and then doubled again by late July.  Ignoring day of the week fluctuations in Covid reporting, the first half of August is still near the July peaks.  So one does not see the Arizona improvement in the national fatality data.

On the other hand, reported new cases are trending downward nationwide, although they are still several times higher than in June. (The recent decline is a bit smaller than it might appear to the naked eye, as the most recent two days are weekend data (reported Sunday and Monday), and today will probably see a jump upward).

This decline may partly reflect reduced testing, but a portion of the decline is almost certainly real.  The question is whether that’s enough to explain a modest improvement in the economy in August, despite the end of fiscal stimulus.  I doubt whether consumers are that sensitive to a drop in reported cases that is not showing up (yet) in the fatality data, but I can’t rule it out.

Even so, you have to wonder how important fiscal policy actually is if a fairly modest improvement in Covid-19 can explain why dire economic predictions don’t seem to be coming true.  If anything, I believe this supports my claim that it’s the virus, not a lack of disposable income, which is driving the economy right now.

PS.  I always need to point out that a major increase in the budget deficit was appropriate this year.  I am merely questioning stimulus for stimulus sake, such as giving $1200 to middle class people with jobs and giving unemployed people more than they earned on their previous jobs.  I favored the provisions that expanded unemployment compensation to a wider range of people during recent months.  So I’m not suggesting that doing nothing right now is appropriate; rather this post is aimed at the macroeconomic effects of using fiscal stimulus as a tool to boost disposable income.

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