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Articles for the ‘Essentials of Economics 6e: Ch 11’ Category

The political business cycle – mark II

During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”

In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.

To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.

But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.

The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:

Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.

But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.

If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.

Articles
Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)

Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)

Questions

  1. Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
  2. Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
  3. For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
  4. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
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Riding the Japanese roller coaster

Sustained economic growth in Japan remains elusive. Preliminary Quarterly Estimates of GDP point to the Japanese economy having contracted by 0.4 per cent in the final quarter of 2015. This follows on from growth of 0.3 per cent in the third quarter, a contraction of 0.3 per cent in the second and growth of 1 per cent in the first quarter. Taken as a whole output in 2015 rose by 0.4 per cent compared to zero growth in 2014. The fragility of growth means that over the past 20 years the average annual rate of growth in Japan is a mere 0.8 per cent.

Chart 1 shows the quarter-to-quarter change in real GDP in Japan since the mid 1990s (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). While economies are known to be inherently volatile the Japanese growth story over the past twenty or years so is one both of exceptional volatility and of repeated bouts of recession. Since the mid 1990s Japan has experienced 6 recessions, four since 2008.

Of the four recessions since 2008, the deepest was that from 2008 Q2 to 2009 Q1 which saw the economy shrink by 9.2 per cent. This was followed by a recession from 2010 Q4 to 2011 Q2 when the economy shrunk by 3.1 per cent, then from 2012 Q2 to 2012 Q4 when the economy shrunk by 0.9 per cent and from 2014 Q2 to 2014 Q3 when output fell another 2.7 per cent. As a result of these four recessionary periods the economy’s output in 2015 Q4 was actually 0.4 per cent less than in 2008 Q1.

Chart 2 shows the annual levels of nominal (actual) and real (constant-price) GDP in trillions of Yen (¥) since 1995. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). Over the period actual GDP has fallen from ¥502 trillion to ¥499 trillion (about £3 trillion at the current exchange rate) while GDP at constant 2005 prices has risen from ¥455 trillion to ¥528 trillion.

Chart 2 reveals an interesting phenomenon: the growth in real GDP at the same time as a fall in nominal GDP. So why has the actual value of GDP fallen slightly between 1995 and 2005? The answer is quite simple: deflation.

Chart 3 shows a protracted period of economy-wide deflation from 1999 to 2013. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). Over this period the GDP deflator fell each year by an average of 1.0 per cent. 2014 and 2015 saw a pick up in economy-wide inflation. However, the quarterly profile through 2015 shows the pace of inflation falling quite markedly. As we saw in Japan’s interesting monetary stance as deflation fears grow, policymakers are again concerned about the possibility of deflation and the risks that poses for growth.

As Chart 4 helps to demonstrate, a significant factor behind the latest slowdown in Japan’s growth is household spending. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). In 2015 household spending accounted for about 57 per cent by value of GDP in Japan. In the last quarter of 2015 real household spending fell by 0.9 per cent while across 2015 as a whole real household spending fell by 1.3 per cent. This follows on from a 0.8 per cent decrease in spending by households in 2014.

The recent marked weakening of household spending is a significant concern for the short term growth prospects of the Japanese economy. The roller coaster ride continues, unfortunately it appears that the ride is again downwards.

Data
Quarterly Estimates of GDP Japanese Cabinet Office
Japan and the IMF IMF Country Reports
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD

Articles
Japan’s economy contracts in fourth quarter BBC News, (15/2/16)
Japanese economy shrinks again, raising expectations of more stimulus Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (15/2/16)
Japan’s economy shrinks again as Abenomics is blown off course Guardian, Justin McCurry (15/2/16)
Japan’s economy contracts in latest setback for Abe policies New Zealand Herald, (15/2/16)
Japan’s ‘Abenomics’ on the ropes as yen soars, markets plunge Daily Mail, (15/2/16)
Japan economy shrinks more than expected, highlights lack of policy options CNBC, Leika Kihara and Tetsushi Kajimoto (15/2/16)

Questions

  1. Why is the distinction between nominal and real important in analysing economic growth?
  2. How do we define a recession?
  3. Of what importance is aggregate demand to the volatility of economies?
  4. Why are Japanese policymakers concerned about the prospects of deflation?
  5. What policy options are available to policymakers trying to combat deflation?
  6. Why is the strength of household consumption important in affecting the path of an economy?
  7. Why has Japan experienced an increase in real GDP but a fall in nominal GDP between 1995 and 2015?
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An oil glut

The demand for oil is growing and yet the price of oil, at around $46 per barrel over the past few weeks, remains at less than half that of the period from 2011 to mid 2014. The reason is that supply has been much larger than demand. The result has been a large production surplus and a growth in oil stocks. Supply did fall somewhat in October, which reduced the surplus in 2015 Q3 below than of the record level in Q2 – but the surplus was still the second highest on record.

What is more, the modest growth in demand is forecast to slow in 2016. Supply, however, is expected to decrease through the first three quarters of 2016, before rising again at the end of 2016. The result will be a modest rise in price into 2016, to around $56 per barrel, compared with an average of just over $54 per barrel so far for 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below).

But why does supply remain so high, given such low prices? As we saw in the post The oil industry and low oil prices, it is partly the result of increases in supply from large-scale investment in new sources of oil over the past few years, such as the fracking of shale deposits, and partly the increased output by OPEC designed to keep prices low and make new investment in shale oil unprofitable.

So why then doesn’t supply drop off rapidly? As we saw in the post, A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2), even though shale oil producers in the USA need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable, the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel. This means that shale oil production will continue until the end of the life of the wells. Given that wells typically have a life of at least three years, it could take some time for the low prices to have a significant effect on supply. According to the US Energy Information Administration’s forecasts, US crude oil production will drop next year by only just over 5%, from an average of 9.3 million barrels per day in 2015 to 8.8 million barrels per day in 2016.

In the meantime, we can expect low oil prices to continue for some time. Whilst this is bad news for oil exporters, it is good news for oil importing countries, as the lower costs will help aid recovery.

Webcasts
IEA says oil glut could worsen through 2016 Euronews (13/11/15)
IEA Says Record 3 Billion-Barrel Oil Stocks May Deepen Rout BloombergBusiness, Grant Smith (13/11/15)

Articles
IEA Offers No Hope For An Oil-Price Recovery Forbes, Art Berman (13/11/15)
Oil glut to swamp demand until 2020 Financial Times, Anjli Raval (10/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3bn barrels BBC News (13/11/15)
Global oil glut highest in a decade as inventories soar The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (12/11/15)
The Oil Glut Was Created In Q1 2015; Q3 OECD Inventory Movements Are Actually Quite Normal Seeking Alpha (13/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3 billion barrels Arab News (14/11/15)
OPEC Update 2015: No End To Oil Glut, Low Prices, As Members Prepare For Tense Meeting International Business Times, Jess McHugh (12/11/15)
Surviving The Oil Glut Investing.com, Phil Flynn (11/11/15)

Reports and data
Oil Market Report International Energy Agency (IEA) (13/11/15)
Short-term Energy Outlook US Energy Information Administration (EIA) (10/11/15)
Brent Crude Prices US Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Questions

  1. Using demand and supply diagrams, demonstrate (a) what has been happening to oil prices in 2015 and (b) what is likely to happen to them in 2016.
  2. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant in explaining the magnitude of oil price movements?
  3. What are oil prices likely to be in five years’ time?
  4. Using aggregate demand and supply analysis, demonstrate the effect of lower oil prices on a national economy.
  5. Why might the downward effect on inflation from lower oil prices act as a stimulus to the economy? Is this consistent with deflation being seen as requiring a stimulus from central banks, such as lower interest rates or quantitative easing?
  6. Do you agree with the statement that “Saudi Arabia is acting directly against the interests of half the cartel and is running OPEC over a cliff”?
  7. If the oil price is around $70 per barrel in a couple of years’ time, would it be worth oil companies investing in shale oil wells at that point? Explain why or why not.
  8. Distinguish between short-run and long-run shut down points. Why is the short-run shut down price likely to be lower than the long-run one?
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What would Keynes say?

Here are two thought-provoking articles from The Guardian. They look at macroeconomic policy failures and at the likely consequences.

In first article, Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s Economics Editor, argues that Keynesian expansionary fiscal and monetary policy by the USA has allowed it to achieve much more rapid recovery than Europe, which, by contrast, has chosen to follow fiscal austerity policies and only recently mildly expansionary monetary policy through a belated QE programme.

In the UK, the recovery has been more significant than in the eurozone because of the expansionary monetary policies pursued by the Bank of England in its quantitative easing programme. ‘And when it came to fiscal policy, George Osborne quietly abandoned his original deficit reduction targets when the deleterious impact of an over-aggressive austerity strategy became apparent.’

So, according to Larry Elliott, Europe should ease up on austerity and governments should invest more though increased borrowing.

‘This is textbook Keynesian stuff. Unemployment is high, which means businesses are reluctant to invest. The lack of investment means that demand for new loans is weak. The weakness of demand for loans means that driving down the cost of borrowing through QE will have little impact. Therefore, it is up to the state to break into the vicious circle by investing itself, something it can do cheaply and – because there are so many people unemployed and businesses working well below full capacity – without the risk of inflation.’

In the second article, Paul Mason, the Economics Editor at Channel 4 News, points to the large increases in both public- and private- sector debt since 2007, despite the recession. Such debt, he argues, is becoming unsustainable and hence the world could be on the cusp of another crash.

Mason quotes from the Bank for International Settlements Quarterly Review September 2015 – media briefing. In this briefing, Claudio Borio,
Head of the Monetary & Economic Department, argues that:

‘Since at least 2009, domestic vulnerabilities have developed in several emerging market economies (EMEs), including some of the largest, and to a lesser extent even in some advanced economies, notably commodity exporters. In particular, these countries have exhibited signs of a build-up of financial imbalances, in the form of outsize credit booms alongside strong increases in asset prices, especially property prices, supported by unusually easy global liquidity conditions. It is the coincidence of the reversal of these booms with external vulnerabilities that should be watched most closely.’

We have already seen a fall in commodity prices, reflecting the underlying lack of demand, and large fluctuations in stock markets. The Chinese economy is slowing markedly, as are several other EMEs, and Europe and Japan are struggling to recover, despite their QE programmes. The USA is no longer engaging in QE and there are growing worries about a US slowdown as growth in the rest of the world slows. Mason, quoting the BIS briefing, states that:

‘In short, as the BIS economists put it, this is “a world in which debt levels are too high, productivity growth too weak and financial risks too threatening”. It’s impossible to extrapolate from all this the date the crash will happen, or the form it will take. All we know is there is a mismatch between rising credit, falling growth, trade and prices, and a febrile financial market, which, at present, keeps switchback riding as money flows from one sector, or geographic region, to another.’

So should there be more expansionary policy, or should rising debt levels be reduced by tighter monetary policy? Read the articles and then consider the questions.

I told you so. Obama right and Europe wrong about way out of Great Recession The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/11/15)
Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? The Guardian, Paul Mason (1/11/15)

Questions

  1. To what extent do the two articles (a) agree and (b) disagree?
  2. How might a neo-liberal economist reply to the argument that what is needed is more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies?
  3. What is the transmission mechanism whereby quantitative easing affects real output? Is it a reliable mechanism for policymakers?
  4. What would make a financial crash less likely? Is this something that governments or central banks can influence?
  5. Why has productivity growth been so low in many countries? What would increase it?
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What do the USA, UK and Africa have in common?

Economic growth is vital to an economy: it helps to create jobs and is crucial in stimulating confidence, both for businesses and consumers. Growth comes from various sources, both domestic and external, and so for each individual country it’s not just its growth rate that is important, but the growth rates of other countries, in particular those it trades with.

Recent data suggest that the global economy could be on the downturn and here we consider three countries/continents.

The US economy has been doing relatively well and we saw discussion by the Federal Reserve as to whether the economy was in a position to be able to handle an increase in interest rates. Although rates didn’t rise, there was a general consensus that a rate rise would not significantly harm the economy. However, perhaps those opinions may now be changing with the latest information regarding US growth. In the second quarter of 2015, growth was recorded at 3.9%, but according to the Department of Commerce, it fell to 1.5% for the third quarter. Though it’s still a solid growth rate, especially compared to other economies, it does represent a significant fall from quarter to quarter.

Many analysts suggest that this slowing is just a blip, partly the result of running down stocks, but it’s also a trend that has occurred in the UK. Although the fall in growth in the UK (see series IHYR) has been less than in the USA, it is still a fall. Annual growth was recorded at 2.7% in quarter 1, but fell to 2.4% in quarter 2 and to 2.3% in quarter 3 (with GDP in quarter 3 only 0.5% higher than in quarter 2). A big cause of this slowdown in growth has been a fall in manufacturing output and it is the service sector that prevented an even larger slowdown.

And it’s not just the West that is experiencing declining growth. The IMF has warned of a slowdown in economic growth in Africa. Although the absolute annual rate of growth at 3.75% is high compared to the UK, it does represent the slowest rate of growth in the past six years. One key factor has been the lower oil prices. Although this has helped to stimulate consumer spending in many countries, it has hit oil-producing countries.

With some of the big players experiencing slowdowns, world economic growth may be taking something of a dive. The Christmas period in many countries is when companies will make significant contributions to their annual sales, and this year these sales are going to be vital. The following articles consider the slowdowns in growth around the world.

Articles
US growth slows despite spending free Financial Times, Sam Fleming and Richard Blackden (29/10/15)
US economic growth slows in third quarter as businesses cut back The Guardian, Dominic Rushe (30/10/15)
US economic growth slows sharply BBC News (29/10/15)
US Q3 gross domestic product up 1.5% vs 1.6% growth expected CNBC, Reuters (29/10/15)
US growth cools in third quarter Wall Street Journal, Eric Morath (29/10/15)
UK economic growth slows to 0.5% in third quarter BBC News (27/10/15)
GDP growth in the UK slows more than expected to 0.5% The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (27/1015)
UK growth slows as construction and manufacturing output shrinks The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (27/10/15)
UK economy loses steam as GDP growth slows to 0.5% Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (27/10/15)
No UK growth without services BBC News, Robert Peston (27/10/15)
IMF warns of African economic slowdown BBC News (27/10/15)
African growth feels the strain from China’s slowdown Financial Times, Andrew England (27/10/15)
Tax credits: George Osborne ‘comfortable’ with ‘judgement call’ BBC News (22/10/15)
IMF revises down Sub-Saharan Africa 2015 growth Wall Street Journal, Matina Stevis (27/10/15)

WEO publications
World Economic Outlook, October 2015: Adjusting to Lower Commodity Prices IMF (6/10/15)
Global Growth Slows Further, IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook IMF Podcast, Maurice Obstfeld (6/10/15)
Transcript of the World Economic Outlook Press Conference IMF (6/10/15)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (October 2015 edition)

Questions

  1. How do we measure economic growth?
  2. Using an AD/AS diagram, explain why economic growth has fallen in (a) the US, (b) the UK and (c) Africa.
  3. How have oil prices contributed towards recent growth data?
  4. Why has the IMF forecast slowing growth for Africa and how dependent is the African economy on growth in China?
  5. Which sectors are contributing towards slower growth in each of the 3 countries/continents considered? Can you explain the reason for the downturn in each sector?
  6. What do you think should be done regarding interest rates in the coming months?
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What’s the outlook for the global economy?

The International Monetary Fund has just published its six-monthly World Economic Outlook (WEO). The publication assesses the state of the global economy and forecasts economic growth and other indicators over the next few years. So what is this latest edition predicting?

Well, once again the IMF had to adjust its global economic growth forecasts down from those made six months ago, which in turn were lower than those made a year ago. As Larry Elliott comments in the Guardian article linked below:

Every year, economists at the fund predict that recovery is about to move up a gear, and every year they are disappointed. The IMF has over-estimated global growth by one percentage point a year on average for the past four years.

In this latest edition, the IMF is predicting that growth in 2015 will be slightly higher in developed countries than in 2014 (2.0% compared with 1.8%), but will continue to slow for the fifth year in emerging market and developing countries (4.0% in 2015 compared with 4.6% in 2014 and 7.5% in 2010).

In an environment of declining commodity prices, reduced capital flows to emerging markets and pressure on their currencies, and increasing financial market volatility, downside risks to the outlook have risen, particularly for emerging market and developing economies.

So what is the cause of this sluggish growth in developed countries and lower growth in developing countries? Is lower long-term growth the new norm? Or is this a cyclical effect – albeit protracted – with the world economy set to resume its pre-financial-crisis growth rates eventually?

To achieve faster economic growth in the longer term, potential national output must grow more rapidly. This can be achieved by a combination of more rapid technological progress and higher investment in both physical and human capital. But in the short term, aggregate demand must expand sufficiently rapidly. Higher short-term growth will encourage higher investment, which in turn will encourage faster growth in potential national output.

But aggregate demand remains subdued. Many countries are battling to cut budget deficits, and lending to the private sector is being constrained by banks still seeking to repair their balance sheets. Slowing growth in China and other emerging economies is dampening demand for raw materials and this is impacting on primary exporting countries, which are faced with lower exports and lower commodity prices.

Quantitative easing and rock bottom interest rates have helped somewhat to offset these adverse effects on aggregate demand, but as the USA and UK come closer to raising interest rates, so this could dampen global demand further and cause capital to flow from developing countries to the USA in search of higher interest rates. This will put downward pressure on developing countries’ exchange rates, which, while making their exports more competitive, will make it harder for them to finance dollar-denominated debt.

As we have seen, long-term growth depends on growth in potential output, but productivity growth has been slower since the financial crisis. As the Foreword to the report states:

The ongoing experience of slow productivity growth suggests that long-run potential output growth may have fallen broadly across economies. Persistently low investment helps explain limited labour productivity and wage gains, although the joint productivity of all factors of production, not just labour, has also been slow. Low aggregate demand is one factor that discourages investment, as the last World Economic Outlook report showed. Slow expected potential growth itself dampens aggregate demand, further limiting investment, in a vicious circle.

But is this lower growth in potential output entirely the result of lower demand? And will the effect be permanent? Is it a form of hysteresis, with the effect persisting even when the initial causes have disappeared? Or will advances in technology, especially in the fields of robotics, nanotechnology and bioengineering, allow potential growth to resume once confidence returns?

Which brings us back to the short and medium terms. What can be done by governments to stimulate sustained recovery? The IMF proposes a focus on productive infrastructure investment, which will increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply, and also structural reforms. At the same time, loose monetary policy should continue for some time – certainly as long as the current era of falling commodity prices, low inflation and sluggish growth in demand persists.

Articles
Uncertainty, Complex Forces Weigh on Global Growth IMF Survey Magazine (6/10/15)
A worried IMF is starting to scratch its head The Guardian, Larry Elliott (6/10/15)
Storm clouds gather over global economy as world struggles to shake off crisis The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (6/10/15)
Five charts that explain what’s going on in a miserable global economy right now The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (6/10/15)
IMF warns on worst global growth since financial crisis Financial Times, Chris Giles (6/10/15)
Global economic slowdown in six steps Financial Times, Chris Giles (6/10/15)
IMF Downgrades Global Economic Outlook Again Wall Street Journal, Ian Talley (6/10/15)

WEO publications
World Economic Outlook, October 2015: Adjusting to Lower Commodity Prices IMF (6/10/15)
Global Growth Slows Further, IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook IMF Podcast, Maurice Obstfeld (6/10/15)
Transcript of the World Economic Outlook Press Conference IMF (6/10/15)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (October 2015 edition)

Questions

  1. Look at the forecasts made in the WEO October editions of 2007, 2010 and 2012 for economic growth two years ahead and compare them with the actual growth experienced. How do you explain the differences?
  2. Why is forecasting even two years ahead fraught with difficulties?
  3. What factors would cause a rise in (a) potential output; (b) potential growth?
  4. What is the relationship between actual and potential economic growth?
  5. Explain what is meant by hysteresis. Why may recessions have a permanent negative effect, not only on trend productivity levels, but on trend productivity growth?
  6. What are the current downside risks to the global economy?
  7. Why have commodity prices fallen? Who gains and who loses from lower commodity prices? Does it matter if falling commodity prices in commodity importing countries result in negative inflation?
  8. To what extent can exchange rate depreciation help commodity exporting countries?
  9. What is meant by the output gap? How have IMF estimates of the size of the output gap changed and what is the implication of this for actual and potential economic growth?
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Down down deeper and down, or a new Status Quo?

If you asked virtually any banker or economist a few years ago whether negative (nominal) interest rates were possible, the answer would almost certainly be no.

Negative real interest rates have been common at many points in time – whenever the rate of inflation exceeds the nominal rate of interest. People’s debts and savings are eroded by inflation as the interest due or earned does not keep pace with rising prices.

But negative nominal rates? Surely this could never happen? It was generally believed that zero (or slightly above zero) nominal rates represented a floor – ‘a zero lower bound’.

The reasoning was that if there were negative nominal rates on borrowing, you would effectively be paid by the bank to borrow. In such a case, you might as well borrow as much as you can, as you would owe less later and could pocket the difference.

A similar argument was used with savings. If nominal rates were negative, savers might as well withdraw all their savings from bank accounts and hold them as cash (perhaps needing first to buy a safe!) Given, however, that this might be inconvenient and potentially costly, some people may be prepared to pay banks for looking after their savings.

Central bank interest rates have been hovering just above zero since the financial crisis of 2008. And now, some of the rates have turned negative (see chart above). The ECB has three official rates:

The interest rate on the main refinancing operations (MRO), which provide the bulk of liquidity to the banking system.
The rate on the deposit facility, which banks may use to make overnight deposits with the Eurosystem.
The rate on the marginal lending facility, which offers overnight credit to banks from the Eurosystem.

The first of these is the most important rate and remains above zero – just. Since September 2014, it has been 0.05%. This rate is equivalent to the Bank of England’s Bank Rate (currently still 0.5%) and the Fed’s Federal Funds Rate (currently still between 0% and 0.25%).

The third of the ECB’s rates is currently 0.3%, but the second – the rate on overnight deposits in the ECB by banks in the eurozone – is currently –0.2%. In other words, banks have to pay the ECB for making these overnight deposits (deposits that can be continuously rolled over). The idea has been to encourage banks to lend rather than simply keeping unused liquidity.

In Nordic countries, the experiment with negative rates has gone further. With plenty of slack in the Swedish economy, negative inflation and an appreciating krona, the Swedish central bank – the Riksbank – cut its rates below zero.

Many City analysts believe that the Riksbank will continue cutting, reducing its key interest rate to minus 0.5% by the end of the year [it is currently 0.35%]. Switzerland’s is already deeper still, at minus 0.75%, while Denmark and the eurozone have joined them as members of the negative zone.

But the nominal interest rate on holding cash is, by definition, zero. If deposit rates are pushed below zero, then will more and more people hold cash instead? The hope is that negative nominal interest rates on bank accounts will encourage people to spend. It might, however, merely encourage them to hoard cash.

The article below from The Telegraph looks at some of the implications of an era of negative rates. The demand for holding cash has been increasing in many countries and, along with it, the supply of banknotes, as the chart in the article shows. Here negative interest are less effective. In Nordic countries, however, the use of cash is virtually disappearing. Here negative interest rates are likely to be more effective in boosting aggregate demand.

Article
How Sweden’s negative interest rates experiment has turned economics on its head The Telegraph, Peter Spence (27/9/15)

Data
Central bank and monetary authority websites Bank for International Settlements
Central banks – summary of current interest rates global-rates.com

Questions

  1. Distinguish between negative real and negative nominal interest rates.
  2. What is the opportunity cost of holding cash – the real or the nominal interest rate forgone by not holding it in a bank?
  3. Are there any dangers of central banks setting negative interest rates?
  4. Why may negative interest rates be more effective in Sweden than in the UK?
  5. ‘Andy Haldane, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) … suggested that to achieve properly negative rates, the abolition of cash itself might be necessary.’ Why?
  6. Why does Switzerland have notes of SF1000 and the eurozone of €500? Should the UK have notes of £100 or even £500?
  7. Why do some banks charge zero interest rates on credit cards for a period of time to people who transfer their balances from another card? Is there any incentive for banks to cut interest rates on credit cards below zero?
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The rise of the machines

What will production look like in 20 years time? Will familiar jobs in both manufacturing and the services be taken over by robots? And if so, which ones? What will be the effect on wages and on unemployment? Will most people be better off, or will just a few gain while others get by with minimum-wage jobs or no jobs at all?

The BBC has been running a series looking at new uses for robots and whether they will take people’s jobs? This complements three reports: one by Boston Consulting one by Deloitte and an earlier one by Deloitte and Michael Osborne and Carl Frey from Oxford University’s Martin School. As Jane Wakefield, the BBC’s technology reporter states:

Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University has suggested that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.

Jobs at threat from machines include factory work, office work, work in the leisure sector, work in medicine, law, education and other professions, train drivers and even taxi and lorry drivers. At present, in many of these jobs machines work alongside humans. For example, robots on production lines are common, and robots help doctors perform surgery and provide other back-up services in medicine.

A robot may not yet have a good bedside manner but it is pretty good at wading through huge reams of data to find possible treatments for diseases.

Even if robots don’t take over all jobs in these fields, they are likely to replace an increasing proportion of many of these jobs, leaving humans to concentrate on the areas that require judgement, creativity, human empathy and finesse.

These developments raise a number of questions. If robots have a higher marginal revenue product/marginal cost ratio than humans, will employers choose to replace humans by robots, wholly or in part? How are investment costs factored into the decision? And what about industrial relations? Will employers risk disputes with employees? Will they simply be concerned with maximising profit or will they take wider social concerns into account?

Then there is the question of what new jobs would be created for those who lose their jobs to machines. According to the earlier Deloitte study, which focused on London, over 80% of companies in London say that over the next 10 years they will be most likely to take on people with skills in ‘digital know-how’, ‘management’ and ‘creativity’.

But even if new jobs are created through the extra spending power generated by the extra production – and this has been the pattern since the start of the industrial revolution some 250 years ago – will these new jobs be open largely to those with high levels of transferable skills? Will the result be an ever widening of the income gap between rich and poor? Or will there be plenty of new jobs throughout the economy in a wide variety of areas where humans are valued for the special qualities they bring? As the authors of the later Deloitte paper state:

The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors.

The issues of job replacement and job creation, and of the effects on income distribution and the balance between work and leisure, are considered in the following videos and articles, and in the three reports.

Videos
What is artificial intelligence? BBC News, Valery Eremenko (13/9/15)
What jobs will robots take over? BBC News, David Botti (15/8/14)
Could a robot do your job? BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: The robots that work alongside humans BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: Will you be replaced by a robot? BBC News, John Maguire (14/9/15)
Will our emotions change the way adverts work? BBC News, Dan Simmons (24/7/15)
Could A Robot Do My Job? BBC Panorama, Rohan Silva (14/9/15)

Articles
Technology has created more jobs in the last 144 years than it has destroyed, Deloitte study finds Independent, Doug Bolton (18/8/15)
Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/8/15)
Will a robot take your job? BBC News (11/9/15)
Intelligent Machines: The jobs robots will steal first BBC News, Jane Wakefield (14/9/15)
Robots Could Take 35 Per Cent Of UK Jobs In The Next 20 Years Says New Study Huffington Post, Thomas Tamblyn (14/9/15)
The new white-collar fear: will robots take your job? The Telegraph, Rohan Silva (12/9/15)
Does technology destroy jobs? Data from 140 years says no Catch news, Sourjya Bhowmick (11/9/15)

Reports
Takeoff in Robotics Will Power the Next Productivity Surge in Manufacturing Boston Consulting Group (10/2/15)
Agiletown: the relentless march of technology and London’s response Deloitte (November 2014)
Technology and people: The great job-creating machine Deloitte, Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole (August 2015)

Questions

  1. Which are the fastest growing and fastest declining occupations? To what extent can these changes be explained by changes in technology?
  2. What type of unemployment is caused by rapid technological change?
  3. Why, if automation replaces jobs, have jobs increased over the past 250 years?
  4. In what occupations is artificial intelligence (AI) most likely to replace humans?
  5. To what extent are robots and humans complementary rather than substitute inputs into production?
  6. “Our analysis of more recent employment data also reveals a clear pattern to the way in which technology has affected work.” What is this pattern? Explain.
  7. Why might AI make work more interesting for workers?
  8. Using a diagram, show how an increase in workers’ marginal productivity from working alongside robots can result in an increase in employment. Is this necessarily the case? Explain.
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People’s quantitative easing

Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, is proposing a number of radical economic policies. One that has attracted considerable attention is for a new form of QE, which has been dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing’.

This would involve newly created money by the Bank of England being directly used to fund spending on large-scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects. Rather than the new money being used to purchase assets, as has been the case up to now, with the effect filtering only indirectly into aggregate demand and even more indirectly into aggregate supply, under the proposed scheme, both aggregate demand and aggregate supply would be directly boosted.

Although ‘conventional’ QE has worked to some extent, the effects have been uneven. Asset holders and those with large debts, such as mortgages, have made large gains from higher asset prices and lower interest rates. By contrast, savers in bank and building society accounts have seen the income from their savings decline dramatically. What is more, the indirect nature of the effects has meant time lags and uncertainty over the magnitude of the effects.

But despite the obvious attractiveness of the proposals, they have attracted considerable criticism. Some of these are from a political perspective, with commentators from the right arguing against an expansion of the state. Other criticisms focus on the operation and magnitude of the proposals

One is that it would change the relationship between the Bank of England and the government. If the Bank of England created money to fund government projects, that would reduce or even eliminate the independence of the Bank. Independence has generally been seen as desirable to prevent manipulation of the central bank by the government for short-term political gain. Those in favour of people’s QE argue that the money would be directed into a National Investment Bank, which would then make the investment allocation decisions. The central bank would still be independent in deciding the amount of QE.

This leads to the second criticism and that is about whether further QE is necessary at the current time. Critics argue that while QE of whatever type was justified when the economy was in recession and struggling to recover, now would be the wrong time for further stimulus. Indeed, it could be highly inflationary. The economy is currently expanding. If banks respond by increasing credit, the velocity of circulation of narrow money could rise and broad money supply grow, providing enough money to underpin a growing economy.

Many advocates of people’s QE accept this second point and see it as a contingency plan in case the economy fails to recover and further monetary stimulus is deemed necessary. If further QE is not felt necessary by the Bank of England, then the National Investment Bank could fund investment through conventional borrowing.

The following articles examine people’s QE and look at its merits and dangers. Given the proposal’s political context, several of the articles approach the issue from a very specific political perspective. Try to separate the economic analysis in the articles from their political bias.

Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal
The Economy in 2020 Jeremy Corbyn (22/7/15)

Articles
People’s quantitative easing — no magic Financial Times, Chris Giles (13/8/15)
How Green Infrastructure Quantitative Easing would work Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy (12/3/15)
What is QE for the people? Money Week, Simon Wilson (22/8/15)
QE or not QE? A slippery slope to breaking the Bank EconomicsUK.com, David Smith (23/8/15)
We don’t need “People’s QE”, basic economic literacy is enough Red Box, Jonathan Portes (13/8/15)
Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of ‘quantitative easing for people’ feasible? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/8/15)
Corbynomics: Quantitative Easing for People (PQE) Huffington Post, Adnan Al-Daini (7/9/15)
Corbyn’s “People’s QE” could actually be a decent idea FT Alphaville, Matthew C. Klein (6/8/15)
Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘People’s QE’ would force Britain into three-year battle with the EU The Telegraph, Peter Spence (15/8/15)
Would Corbyn’s ‘QE for people’ float or sink Britain? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/8/15)
Strategic Quantitative Easing – public money for public benefit New Economics Foundation blog, Josh Ryan-Collins (12/8/15)
People’s QE and Corbyn’s QE Mainly Macro blog, Simon Wren-Lewis
You can print money, so long as it’s not for the people The Guardian, Zoe Williams (4/10/15)

Questions

  1. What is meant by ‘helicopter money’? How does it differ from quantitative easing as practised up to now?
  2. Is people’s QE the same as helicopter money?
  3. Can people’s QE take place alongside an independent Bank of England?
  4. What is meant by the velocity of circulation of money? What happened to the velocity of circulation following the financial crisis?
  5. How does conventional QE feed through into aggregate demand?
  6. Under what circumstances would people’s QE be inflationary?
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A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe

In the late 2000s, Zimbabwe experienced hyperinflation. As a post on this site in January 2009 said, two estimates of the inflation rate were made: one of 5 sextillion per cent (5 and 21 zeros); the other of 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion per cent (65 and 107 zeros). In January 2009, in a last attempt to save the Zimbabwean currency, a new series of banknotes was issued, including a Z$100 trillion note.

Prices were typically being adjusted at least twice a day and people had to carry large bags of money around even to buy a couple of simple items. The currency was virtually worthless. As the Guardian article below states:

Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe left pensions, wages and investments worthless and spread poverty as everyday items became unaffordable. It also caused severe cash shortages, because the government could not afford to print bank notes to keep pace with inflation.

The solution was to allow other currencies, mainly the US dollar and the South African rand, to be used alongside the local currency. Although the Zimbabwean currency was still legal tender, it effectively went out of use. Prices stabilised and since then inflation has been in single figures.

But many people still have stocks of the virtually worthless old currency, either in cash or in savings accounts. The Zimbabwean government has now said that it will exchange Zimbabwean dollar notes for US dollars at the rate of US$1 = Z$250tn (250,000,000,000). People have until September to do so. Up to now, they have mainly been used to sell as souvenirs to tourists! For people with Zimbabwean dollars in their bank accounts, they will get a minimum of US$5. For amounts beyond Z$175,000tn they will get an additional US dollar for each Z$35,000tn.

Historical examples of hyperinflation
As case study 15.5 in Economics 9e’s MyEconLab points out, several countries experienced hyperinflation after the First World War. In Austria and Hungary prices were several thousand times their pre-war level. In Poland they were over 2 million times higher, and in the USSR several billion times higher.

Germany in the 1920s
But even these staggering rates of inflation seem insignificant beside those of Germany. Following the chaos of the war, the German government resorted to printing money, not only to meet its domestic spending requirements in rebuilding a war-ravaged economy, but also to finance the crippling war reparations imposed on it by the allies in the Treaty of Versailles.

From mid 1921 the rate of monetary increase soared and inflation soared with it. By autumn 1923 the annual rate of inflation had reached a mind-boggling 7,000,000,000,000 per cent! As price increases accelerated, people became reluctant to accept money: before they knew it, the money would be worthless. People thus rushed to spend their money as quickly as possible. But this in turn further drove up prices. (The note shown above is in old billions, where a billion was a million million. So the note was for 50,000,000,000,000 marks.)

For many Germans the effect was devastating. People’s life savings were wiped out. Others whose wages were not quickly adjusted found their real incomes plummeting. Many were thrown out of work as businesses, especially those with money assets, went bankrupt. Poverty and destitution were widespread.

By the end of 1923 the German currency was literally worthless. In 1924, therefore, it was replaced by a new currency – one whose supply was kept tightly controlled by the government.

Serbia and Montenegro 1993–5
After the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992, the economy of the remaining part of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) collapsed. The government relied more and more on printing money to finance public expenditure. Prices soared.

The government attempted to control the inflation by imposing price controls. But these simply made production unprofitable and output fell further. The economy nosedived. Unemployment exceeded 30 per cent.

In October 1993, the government created a new currency, the new dinar, worth one million old dinars. In other words, six zeros were knocked off the currency. But this did not solve the problem. Between October 1993 and January 1994, prices rose by 5 quadrillion per cent (5 and fifteen zeros). Normal life could not function. Shops ran out of produce; savings were wiped out; barter replaced normal market activity.

At the beginning of January 1994 a ‘new new dinar’ was introduced, worth 1 billion new dinars. On 24 January this was replaced by a ‘novi dinar’ pegged 1 to 1 against the Deutsche Mark. This was worth approximately 13 million new new dinars. The novi dinar remained pegged to the Deutsche Mark and inflation was quickly eliminated.

Zimbabweans get chance to swap ‘quadrillions’ for a few US dollars The Guardian (13/6/15)
175 Quadrillion Zimbabwean Dollars Are Now Worth $5 Bloomberg, Godfrey Marawanyika and Paul Wallace (11/6/15)
Zimbabwe is paying people $5 for 175 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe dollars phased out BBC News Africa (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe ditches its all but worthless currency Financial Times (12/6/15)
Zeroing in Thomson Reuters, Breaking News, Edward Hadas (12/6/15)

Old articles
Could inflation fell Mugabe? BBC News (28/7/08)
ZIMBABWE: Inflation at 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent IRIN (21/1/09)
The Worst Episode of Hyperinflation in History: Yugoslavia 1993-94 Roger Sherman Society, Thayer Watkins (31/7/08)

Questions

  1. Why have several governments in the past been prepared to allow hyperinflation to develop?
  2. Itemise the types of cost imposed on people by hyperinflation.
  3. Does anyone gain from hyperinflation?
  4. What are the solutions to hyperinflation?
  5. What difficulties are there in eliminating hyperinflation? What costs are imposed on people in the process?
  6. Why might the causes of hyperinflation be described as always political?
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