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Articles for the ‘Essentials of Economics 6e: Ch 14’ Category

The need for fiscal integration in the eurozone

In a speech in Dublin on 28 January 2015, titled ‘Fortune favours the bold‘, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, compared the UK economy to that of the 19-nation eurozone. While he welcomed the ECB’s recently announced quantitative easing programme, he argued that the current construction of the eurozone is unfinished and still has two fundamental weaknesses that have not been addressed.

The first is the fragmented nature of banking:

With limited cross-border banking in the euro area, savings don’t flow to potential investments. Euro-area corporates’ cash balances have risen to the tune of €420 billion, or 3% of GDP, since the crisis, for example. Modest cross-border equity flows mean inadequate risk sharing.

The second is the lack of an integrated fiscal policy.

For complete solutions to both current and potential future problems, the sharing of fiscal risks is required.

It is no coincidence that effective currency unions tend to have centralised fiscal authorities whose spending is a sizeable share of GDP – averaging over a quarter of GDP for advanced countries outside the euro area.

… If the eurozone were a country, fiscal policy would be substantially more supportive. However, it is tighter than in the UK, even though Europe still lacks other effective risk sharing mechanisms and is relatively inflexible. A more constructive fiscal policy would help recycle surplus private savings and mitigate the tail risk of stagnation. It would also bridge the drag from structural reforms on nominal spending and would be consistent with the longer term direction of travel towards greater integration.

But fiscal integration requires a political will to transfer fiscal surpluses from the stronger countries, such as Germany, to the weaker countries, such as those in southern Europe.

Overall, the financial and fiscal position in the eurozone is strong:

Gross general government debt in the euro area is roughly the same as in the UK and below the average of advanced economies. The weighted average yield on 10-year euro area sovereign debt is around 1%, compared to 1½% in the UK. And yet, the euro area’s fiscal deficit is half that in the UK. Its structural deficit, according to the IMF, is less than one third as large.

But, unlike the UK, where, despite the rhetoric of austerity, automatic fiscal stabilisers have been allowed to work and the government has accepted a much slower than planned reduction in the deficit, in the eurozone fiscal policy remains tight. Yet unemployment, at 11½%, is twice the rate in the UK and economic growth, at around 0.7% is only one-quarter of that in the UK.

Without a eurozone-wide fiscal policy the problem of slow growth is likely to persist for some time. Monetary policy in the form of QE will help and structural reforms will help to stimulate potential output and long-term growth, but these policies could be much more effective if backed up by fiscal policy.

Whether they will be any time soon is a political question.

Speech
Fortune favours the bold Bank of England. Mark Carney (29/1/15)

Articles
Bank of England’s Carney urges Europe to take plunge on fiscal union Reuters, Padraic Halpin (28/1/15)
Bank Of England’s Mark Carney Attacks ‘Timid’ Eurozone Recovery Attempts Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (29/1/15)
BoE’s Mark Carney calls for common eurozone fiscal policies Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (28/1/15)
Carney attacks German austerity BBC News, Robert Peston (28/1/15)
Bank of England governor attacks eurozone austerity The Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/1/15)

Questions

  1. Compare the financial and fiscal positions of the UK and the eurozone.
  2. In what way is there a ‘debt trap’ in the eurozone?
  3. What did Mark Carney mean when he said, ‘Cross-border risk-sharing through the financial system has slid backwards.’?
  4. What options are there for the eurozone sharing fiscal risks?
  5. What would a ‘more constructive’ fiscal policy, as advocated by Mark Carney, look like?
  6. How do the fiscal policies of other currency unions, such as the UK (union of the four nations of the UK) or the USA (union of the 50 states) or Canada (union of the 10 provinces and three territories), differ from that of the eurozone?
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An end to Greek austerity?

After Syriza’s dramatic victory in the Greek election, it is now seeking to pursue its manifesto promises of renegotiating the terms of Greece’s bailout and bringing an end to austerity policies.

The bailout of €240bn largely involved debt restructuring to give Greeks more time to pay. A ‘haircut’ (reduction) on privately held bonds, estimated to be somewhere between €50bn and €110bn, was more than offset by an increase of €130bn in loans granted by official creditors.

The terms of the bailout negotiated with the ‘Troika’ of the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF, had forced the previous Greek government to make substantial fiscal adjustments. These have included large-scale cuts in government expenditure (including public-sector wages), increases in taxes, charges and fares, and selling state assets through an extensive programme of privatisation.

Although Greece is now regarded as having achieved a structural budget surplus (a surplus when the economy is operating at potential output: i.e. with a zero output gap), the austerity policies and a decline in inward investment have dampened the economy so much that, until last year, the actual budget deficit and public-sector debt continued to rise as tax revenues plummeted.

Since 2007, GDP has fallen by nearly 27% and the unemployment rate is around 26%. The fall in GDP has made the achievement of a reduction in the debt/GDP ratio that much harder. General government debt has risen from 103% of GDP in 2007 to 176% in 2014, and the budget deficit, although having peaked at 12.2% of GDP in 2013, has only been brought down through huge cuts.

As a report to the European Parliament from the Economic Governance Support Unit argues on page 27:

With less front-loaded fiscal adjustment, the EU-IMF financing envelope for Greece would have needed to expand, in what is already the largest financial assistance programme in percent of GDP in recent global history. On the other hand, a less rapid fiscal adjustment may have helped to preserve some of the productive capacity that, in the course of the adjustment, was destroyed.

The new government, although pledging not to default on debt, is insistent on renegotiating the debt and wants to achieve a high level of rescheduling and debt forgiveness. As the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, says:

On existing loans, we demand repayment terms that do not cause recession and do not push the people to more despair and poverty. We are not asking for new loans; we cannot keep adding debt to the mountain.

But, just as the Greek government is insistent on renegotiating its debt, so the German government and others in the EU are insisting that Greece sticks to the terms of the bailout and carries on with its current programme of debt reduction. Another haircut, they maintain, is out of the question.

We must wait to see how the negotiations play out. We are in the realms of game theory with various possible threats and promises on either side. It will be interesting to how these threats and promises are deployed.

New Leader in Greece Now Faces Creditors New York Times, Liz Alderman (26/1/15)
Syriza’s historic win puts Greece on collision course with Europe The Guardian, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (26/1/15)
Greece Q&A: what now for Syriza and EU austerity? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/1/15)
Greek elections: Syriza gives eurozone economic headache BBC News, Prof Dimitri Mardas (26/1/15)
How a Syriza government would approach the eurozone The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico (19/1/15)
Australian economists urge Greek debt forgiveness as Syriza election win looks likely ABC News, Michael Janda (26/1/15)
Will Syriza win rock the global economy? CBS News, Nick Barnets (26/1/15)
Syriza should ignore calls to be responsible Irish Times. Paul Krugman (27/1/15)
Syriza Victory in Greek Election Roils European Debate Over Austerity Wall Street Journal, Marcus Walker (25/1/14)
Greece markets hit by debt default fears BBC News (28/1/15)
Why Europe Will Cave to Greece Bloomberg, Clive Crook (29/1/15)
Greece and the euro: Take the money and run The Economist, Buttonwood (28/1/15)
Tanking markets send dire warning to Greece’s new government Fortune, Geoffrey Smith (28/1/15)

Questions

  1. Why has Greek debt continued to rise despite extremely tight fiscal policy?
  2. How is the structural deficit defined? What difficulties arise in trying to measure its size?
  3. Would there have been any way of substantially reducing the Greek budget deficit without driving Greece into a deep recession?
  4. What are the arguments for and against cancelling a large proportion of Greek debt? Is there a moral hazard involved here?
  5. Will the recently announced ECB quantitative easing programme help to reduce Greece’s debt?
  6. Are negotiations about debt forgiveness a zero sum game? Explain.
  7. What are the likely impacts of the Syriza victory on the global economy?
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The rich discuss poverty

The World Economic Forum has been holding its annual meeting in the up-market Swiss ski resort of Davos. Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people attend these meetings, including political leaders, business leaders and representatives of various interest groups.

This year, one of the major topics has been the growth in inequality across the globe and how to reverse it. According to a report by Oxfam, Wealth: Having it all and wanting more:

The richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 per cent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014.

Of the remaining 52 per cent of global wealth, almost all (46 per cent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population. The other 80 per cent share just 5.5 per cent and had an average wealth of $3851 per adult – that’s 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 per cent.

Currently, the richest 85 people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. It might seem odd that those with the wealth are talking about the problem of inequality. Indeed, some of those 85 richest people were at the conference: a conference that boasts extremely luxurious conditions. What is more, many delegates flew into the conference in private jets (at least 850 jets) to discuss not just poverty but also climate change!

Yet if the problem of global inequality is to be tackled, much of the power to do so lies in the hands of these rich and powerful people. They are largely the ones who will have to implement policies that will help to raise living standards of the poor.

But why should they want to? Part of the reason is a genuine concern to address the issues of increasingly divided societies. But part is the growing evidence that greater inequality reduces economic growth by reducing the development of skills of the lower income groups and reducing social mobility. We discussed this topic in the blog, Inequality and economic growth.

So what policies could be adopted to tackle the problem. Oxfam identifies a seven-point plan:

Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals;
Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education;
Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth;
Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers;
Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee;
Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal;
Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.

But how realistic are these policies? Is it really in the interests of governments to reduce inequality? Indeed, some of the policies that have been adopted since 2008, such as bailing out the banks and quantitative easing, have had the effect of worsening inequality. QE drives up asset prices, particularly bond, share and property prices. This has provided a windfall to the rich: the more of such assets you own, the greater the absolute gain.

The following videos and articles look at the problem of growing inequality and how realistic it is to expect leaders to do anything significant about it.

Videos
Income inequality is ‘brake on growth’, Oxfam chief warns Davos France 24, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/15)
Davos dilemma: Can the 1% cure income inequality? Yahoo Finance, Lizzie O’Leary and Shawna Ohm (21/1/15)

Articles
Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016 Oxfam blogs, Jon Slater (19/1/15)
Global tax system can cut inequality The Scotsman, Jamie Livingstone (23/1/15)
A new framework for a new age Financial Times, Tony Elumelu (23/1/15)
The global elite in Davos must give the world a pay rise New Statesman, Frances O’Grady (22/1/15)
New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1% The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington (19/1/15)
Davos is starting to get it – inequality is the root cause of stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/1/15)
Inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s engineered. That’s how the 1% have taken over The Guardian, Suzanne Moore (19/1/15)
Why extreme inequality hurts the rich BBC News, Robert Peston (19/1/15)
Eurozone stimulus ‘reinforces inequality’, warns Soros BBC News, Joe Miller (22/1/15)
Hot topic for the 1 percent at Davos: Inequality CNBC, Lawrence Delevingne (21/1/15)
Global inequality: The wrong yardstick The Economist (24/1/15)
A Richer World (a compendium of articles) BBC News (27/1/15)

Data
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS

Questions

  1. Why has inequality increased in most countries in recent years?
  2. For what reasons might it be difficult to measure the distribution of wealth?
  3. Which gives a better indication of differences in living standards: the distribution of wealth or the distribution of income?
  4. Discuss the benefits and costs of using the tax system to redistribute (a) income and (b) wealth from rich to poor
  5. Go through each of the seven policies advocated by Oxfam and consider how practical they are and what possible objections to them might be raised by political leaders.
  6. Why is tax avoidance/tax evasion by multinational companies difficult to tackle?
  7. Does universal access to education provide the key to reducing income inequality within and between countries?
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WTO rules over China

One thing that economists often argue for is free trade. It promotes competition, allows greater choice and generates efficiency gains through specialisation to name a few of the advantages. Barriers to trade have gradually been brought down across the global economy, but some do still exist.

Although free trade does have many advantages, there are also arguments for barriers to trade, especially for developing or emerging economies. In some cases, barriers to trade can help a country to develop a particular industry or offer protection to a new sector from the giants of the world. In the case of China, it had a quota system in place since 2009 to restrict exports of ‘rare earth materials’, such as Tungsten and Molybdenum. Many of the hi-tech products that China specialises in require these rare minerals during production and, as the dominant producer of these minerals, Beijing had imposed restrictions on exporting them in an attempt to develop these industries.

However, other countries had raised concerns about the quota system being used, suggesting that by restricting exports of rare earth minerals, China was driving up their price. It was also suggested that the restrictions benefited domestic producers, at the expense of foreign competitors, given that domestic producers were able to access the raw materials at cheaper prices.

A complaint was made to the World Trade Organization in March 2014 by the USA, supported by the EU, Canada and Japan. Following an investigation by a WTO panel, the panel found that China had failed to show sufficiently that the quotas were justified. After an appeal by China, the panel’s findings were upheld in August by the WTO.

In response to the failure of its appeal, China has just announced that it is removing the quotas on exports of rare earth materials. However, this is unlikely to be the end of the story, as other policies may well be imposed, including a resources tax; and an export licence is still required. The following articles consider this battle.

China axes rare earth export quotas Financial Times, Lucy Hornby (5/1/15)
China scraps quotas on rare earths after WTO complaint BBC News (5/1/15)
China ends rare-earth minerals export quotas Wall Street Journal, Chuin-Wei Yap (5/1/15)
China scraps rare earth export controls after losing WTO appeal Bloomberg (6/1/15)
China abolishes rare earth export quotas: state media Reuters (4/1/15)

Questions

  1. What are the benefits of free trade?
  2. Why do some countries choose to impose protectionist measures and what type of measures can be put in place?
  3. Using a diagram, explain the impact that export quotas would have on Chinese firms using these rare minerals and also on foreign firms.
  4. Why have other countries argued that export quotas push up prices of these minerals?
  5. What other policies might China put in place in order to protect its industries?
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Oil prices continue to fall

Over the past three months oil prices have been falling. From the beginning of September to the end of November Brent Crude has fallen by 30.8%: from $101.2 to a four-year low of $70.0 per barrel (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). The fall in price has been the result of changes in demand and supply.

As the eurozone, Japan, South America and other parts of the world have struggled to recover, so the demand for oil has been depressed. But supply has continued to expand as the USA and Canada have increased shale oil production through fracking. As far as OPEC is concerned, rather than cutting production, it decided at a meeting on 27 November to maintain the current target of 30 million barrels a day.

The videos and articles linked below look at these demand and supply factors and what is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming months.

They also look at the winners and losers. Although falling prices are likely in general to benefit oil importing countries and harm oil exporting ones, it is not as simple as that. The lower prices could help boost recovery and that could help to halt the oil price fall and be of benefit to the oil exporting countries. But if prices stay low for long enough, this could lower inflation and even cause deflation (in the sense of falling prices) in many countries. This, in turn, could dampen demand (see the blog post, Deflation danger). This is a particular problem in Japan and the eurozone. Major oil importing developing countries, such as China and India, however, should see a boost to growth from the lower oil prices.

Some oil exporting countries will be harder hit than others. Russia, in particular, has been badly affected, especially as it is also suffering from the economic sanctions imposed by Western governments in response to the situation in Ukraine. The rouble has fallen by some 32% this year against the US dollar and nearly 23% in the past three months alone.

Then there are the environmental effects. Cheaper oil puts less pressure on companies and governments to invest in renewable sources of energy. And then there are the direct effects on the environment of fracking itself – something increasingly being debated in the UK as well as in the USA and Canada.

Videos
Oil price at four-year low as Opec meets BBC News, Mark Lobel (27/11/14)
Opec losing control of oil prices due to US fracking BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (4/12/13)
How the price of oil is set – video explainer The Telegraph, Oliver Duggan (28/11/14)
How Oil’s Price Plunge Impacts Wall Street Bloomberg TV, Richard Mallinson (28/11/14)
Oil Prices Plummet: The Impact on Russia’s Economy Bloomberg TV, Martin Lindstrom (28/11/14)

Articles
Oil prices plunge after Opec meeting BBC News (28/11/14)
Crude oil prices extend losses Financial Times, Dave Shellock (28/11/14)
Oil price plunges after Opec split keeps output steady The Guardian, Terry Macalister and Graeme Wearden (27/11/14)
Falling oil prices: Who are the winners and losers? BBC News, Tim Bowler (17/10/14)Hooray for cheap oil BBC News, Robert Peston (1/12/14)
Russian Recession Risk at Record as Oil Price Saps Economy Bloomberg, Andre Tartar and Anna Andrianova (28/11/14)
Rouble falls as oil price hits five-year low BBC News (1/12/14)

Data
Brent Spot Price US Energy Information Administration (select daily, weekly, monthly or annual: can be downloaded to Excel)
Spot exchange rate of Russian rouble against the dollar Bank of England

Questions

  1. Use a diagram to illustrate the effects of changes in the demand and supply of oil on oil prices.
  2. How does the price elasticity of demand and supply of oil affect the magnitude of these price changes?
  3. Explain whether (a) the demand for and (b) the supply of oil are likely to be relatively elastic or relatively inelastic? How are these elasticities likely to change over time?
  4. Distinguish between the spot price and forward prices of oil? If the three-month forward price is below the spot price, what are the implications of this?
  5. Analyse who gains and who loses from the recent price falls.
  6. What are the effects of a falling rouble on the Russian economy?
  7. What are likely to be the effects of further falls in oil prices on the eurozone economy?
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Japan’s arrows missing their target

Since coming to office two years ago, Shinzo Abe’s government has been determined to revive the Japanese economy. The policy has involved ‘three arrows‘: expansionary fiscal policy, expansionary monetary policy and supply-side reforms. But figures just out show that the Japanese economy is back in recession. The economy shrank by 0.4% in quarter 3, having shrunk by 1.9% in quarter 2.

This has come as a huge disappointment for Mr Abe, who has staked his political reputation on escaping from deflation and achieving sustained economic growth. In response, he has called a general election to put a revised economic plan to the electorate.

The main cause of the reversal into recession has been an increase in the sales tax on all goods, which has dampened spending. The tax rise, planned by the previous government, was to help reduce the deficit and start tackling the huge public-sector debt, which, at over 230% of GDP, is by far the highest in the developed world. Another rise in sales tax is due in October 2015 – from 8% to 10%. Mr Abe hopes to cancel the rise and it is this that he may put to the electorate.

So what is the outlook for Japan? Will quarter 4 show economic growth, or will pessimism have set in? Will the Bank of Japan introduce even more quantitative easing, or will it wait for the latest increase in QE to take effect (see the blog post, All eased out: at least for the USA and UK)?

The following articles look at the implications of the latest news, both for Japan and globally, and at the options for the government and central bank.

Articles
Japanese economy falls into surprise recession Independent, Maria Tadeo (17/11/14)
Japan’s economy makes surprise fall into recession BBC News (17/11/14)
Coming to a crunch: Time is running out for Abenomics The Economist (20/11/14)
Japan’s economy: Delay the second consumption tax hike The Economist (17/11/14)
Defying Expectations, Japan’s Economy Falls Into Recession New York Times, Jonathan Soble (16/11/14)
Japan shocks as economy slips into recession CNBC, Li Anne Wong (17/11/14)
Japan Unexpectedly Enters Recession as Abe Weighs Tax: Economy Bloomberg, Keiko Ujikane and Toru Fujioka (17/11/14)
The world should be wary: Japan’s economic woes are contagious The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/11/14)
Why is Japan heading to the polls? BBC News (18/11/14)

Previous news items on this site
A new economic road for Japan? (January 2013)
A J-curve for Japan? (May 2013)
Japan’s three arrows (June 2013)
Abenomics – one year on (December 2013)
Japan’s recovery (January 2014)
Japan’s CPI: An Update (May 2014)
All eased out: at least for the USA and UK (November 2014)

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

Questions

  1. Give details of the Japanese government’s three arrows.
  2. Discuss the pros and cons of the rise in the sales tax. Is it possible for the rise in the sales tax to increase the size of the public-sector deficit?
  3. What have been the effects of Japanese government policies on (a) prices of goods and services; (b) living standards; (c) asset prices?
  4. Who have been the gainers and losers of the policies?
  5. How is the Japanese situation likely to effect the value of the yen? How is this, in turn, likely to affect its trading partners? Could this set off a chain reaction?
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Gloomy assessments of the global economic outlook

In two posts recently, we considered the pessimistic views of Robert Peston about the prospects for the global economy (see Cloudy skies ahead? and The end of growth in the West?). In this post we consider the views of Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Lord Adair Turner, the former head of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) (which was replaced in 2013 by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority).

Christine Lagarde was addressing an audience at Georgetown University in Washington DC. The first four links below are to webcasts of the full speech and subsequent interviews about the speech. She gives a more gloomy assessment of the global economy than six months ago, especially the eurozone economy and several emerging economies, such as China. There are short- to medium-term dangers for the world economy from political conflicts, such as that between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But there are long-term dangers too. These come from the effects of subdued private investment and low infrastructure spending by governments.

Her views are backed up by the six-monthly World Economic Outlook, published by the IMF on 7 October. There are links below to two webcasts from the IMF discussing the report and the accompanying datasets.

In the final webcast link below, Lord Turner argues that there is a “real danger of a simultaneous slowdown producing a big setback to growth expectations.” He is particularly worried about China, which is experiencing an asset price bubble and slowing economic growth. Other emerging economies too are suffering from slowing growth. This poses real problems for developed countries, such as Germany, which are heavily reliant on their export sector.

Webcasts
The Challenges Facing the Global Economy: New Momentum to Overcome a New Mediocre IMF Videos, Christine Lagarde (full speech) (2/10/14)
Christine Lagarde downbeat on global economy BBC News Canada, Christine Lagarde interviewed by Katy Kay (2/10/14)
IMF’s Lagarde on Global Economy, Central Banks Bloomberg TV, Christine Lagarde interviewed by Tom Keene (2/10/14)
Lagarde: Global economy weaker than envisioned 6 months ago, IMF to cut growth outlook CNBC (2/10/14)
IMF Says Uneven Global Growth Disappoints IMF Videos, Olivier Blanchard (7/10/14)
Time Is Right for an Infrastructure Push IMF Videos, Abdul Ablad (30/9/14)
China slowdown poses ‘biggest risk to global economy’ The Telegraph, Adair Turner (4/10/14)

Articles
Global Growth Disappoints, Pace of Recovery Uneven and Country-Specific IMF Survey Magazine (7/10/14)
Global economy risks becoming stuck in low growth trap The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/10/14)
American Exceptionalism Thrives Amid Struggling Global Economy Bloomberg, Rich Miller and Simon Kennedy (4/10/14)
World Bank cuts China growth forecast for next three years BBC News (6/10/14)
Beware a Chinese slowdown The Guardian, Kenneth Rogoff (6/10/14)
IMF says economic growth may never return to pre-crisis levels The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/10/14)
IMF goes back to the future with gloomy talk of secular stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/10/14)

Data
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (7/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)

Questions

  1. What are the particular ‘headwinds’ facing the global economy?
  2. Why is the outlook for the global economy more pessimistic now than six months ago?
  3. Why are increasing levels of debt and asset price rises a threat to Chinese economic growth?
  4. Why may China be more able to deal with high levels of debt than many other countries?
  5. In what ways are commodity prices an indicator of the confidence of investors about future economic growth?
  6. What are the determinants of long-term economic growth? Why are potential economic growth rates lower today than in the 2000s?
  7. How might governments today boost long-term economic growth?
  8. What are the arguments for and against governments engaging in large-scale public investment in infrastructure projects? What would be the supply-side and demand-side effects of such policies?
  9. If confidence is a major determinant of investment, how might bodies such as the IMF boost confidence?
  10. Why does the IMF caution against over-aggressive attempts to reduce budget deficits?
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Big Mac wages

At least once a year The Economist publishes its ‘hamburger standard’ exchange rates for currencies. It is a light-hearted attempt to see if currencies are exchanging at their purchasing-power parity rates. The test is the price at which a ‘Big Mac’ McDonald’s hamburger sells in different countries!

According to this simplified version of the purchasing-power parity theory, exchange rates should adjust so that a Big Mac costs the same in dollars everywhere (see Economics 8th edition Box 25.4).

These Big Mac exchange rates can be used to compare various prices and incomes between countries. The article linked below from The Guardian compares minimum wages between European countries in Big Mac terms.

There are 25 countries across Europe which have minimum wages. A clear pattern of minimum wage rates can be seen: although actual exchange rates understate the purchasing power of incomes in poorer European countries compared to richer ones, minimum wages, even in purchasing-power standard terms, are still higher in the richer countries.

Luxembourg’s minimum wage buys you just about three Big Macs in an hour, while most of northern Europe (and France) between 2–2.5 Big Macs. Moving south, the minimum wage nets about one Big Mac an hour. As we progress east, it begins to cost more than an hour of work on the minimum wage in order to afford a Big Mac.

Of course, there are other factors determining the dollar price of a Big Mac other than the failure of exchange rates to reflect purchasing-power parities. Nevertheless, using the Big Mac index in this way does give a useful preliminary snap shot of differences in what minimum wages can buy in different countries.

Articles
Comparing the minimum wage across Europe using the price of a Big Mac The Guardian datablog, Alberto Nardelli (25/9/14)
Minimum wage statistics Eurostat (Sept/14)

Data
Earnings Database Eurostat

Questions

  1. What is meant by ‘purchasing-power parity exchange rates’?
  2. Why may actual exchange rates not accurately reflect the purchasing power of currencies within countries?
  3. Using the link to Eurostat article above, compare Big Mac minimum wages with (a) actual minimum wages and (b) minimum wages expressed in purchasing-power standard terms.
  4. Using the links to the Eurostat article and Eurostat data, describe how the proportion of employees earning minimum wages varies across European countries. What factors determine this proportion?
  5. Using the same links, describe how the monthly minimum wage as a proportion of average monthly earnings varies across European countries. Explain these differences.
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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.

The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.

And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.

So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?

There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.

The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.

Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.

This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.

There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.

As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.

Articles
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)

Data
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
StatExtracts OECD
Statistics database European Central Bank

Questions

  1. What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
  2. How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
  3. What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
  4. Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
  5. What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
  6. Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
  7. How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
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The effects of Scottish independence: a question of known unknowns?

Economic journalists, commentators and politicians have been examining the possible economic effects of a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September. For an economist, there are two main categories of difficulty in examining the consequences. The first is the positive question of what precisely will be the consequences. The second is the normative question of whether the likely effects will be desirable or undesirable and how much so.

The first question is largely one of ‘known unknowns’. This rather strange term was used in 2002 by Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, in the context of intelligence about Iraq. The problem is a general one about forecasting the future. We may know the types of thing that are likely happen, but the magnitude of the outcome cannot be precisely known because there are so many unknowable things that can influence it.

Here are some known issues of Scottish independence, but with unknown consequences (at least in precisely quantifiable terms). The list is certainly not exhaustive and you could probably add more questions yourself to the list.

Will independence result in lower or higher economic growth in the short and long term?
Will there be a currency union, with Scotland and the rest of the UK sharing the pound and a central bank? Or will Scotland merely use the pound outside a currency union? Would it prefer to have its own currency or join the euro over the longer term?
What will happen to the sterling exchange rate with the dollar, the euro and various other countries?
How will businesses react? Will independence encourage greater inward investment in Scotland or will there be a net capital outflow? And either way, what will be the magnitude of the effect?
How will assets, such as oil, be shared between Scotland and the rest of the UK? And how will national debt be apportioned?
How big will the transition costs be of moving to an independent Scotland?
How will independence impact on Scottish trade (a) with countries outside the UK and (b) with the rest of the UK?
What will happen about Scotland’s membership of the EU? Will other EU countries, such as Spain (because of its concerns about independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque country), attempt to block Scotland remaining in or rejoining the EU?
What will happen to tax rates in Scotland, with the new Scottish government free to set its own tax rates?
What will be the consequences for Scottish pensions and the Scottish pensions industry?
What will happen to the distribution of income in Scotland? How might Scottish governments behave in terms of income redistribution and what will be its consequences on output and growth?

Of course, just because the effects cannot be known with certainty, attempts are constantly being made to quantify the outcomes in the light of the best information available at the time. These are refined as circumstances change and newer data become available.

But forecasts also depend on the assumptions made about the post-referendum decisions of politicians in Scotland, the rest of the UK and in major trading partner countries. It also depends on assumptions about the reactions of businesses. Not surprisingly, both sides of the debate make assumptions favourable to their own case.

Then there is the second category of question. Even if you could quantify the effects, just how desirable would they be? The issue here is one of the weightings given to the various costs and benefits. How would you weight distributional consequences, given that some people will gain or lose more than others? What social discount rate would you apply to future costs and benefits?

Then there are the normative and largely unquantifiable costs and benefits. How would you assess the desirability of political consequences, such as greater independence in decision-making or the break-up of a union dating back over 300 years? But these questions about nationhood are crucial issues for many of the voters.

Articles
Scottish Independence would have Broad Impact on UK Economy NBC News, Catherine Boyle (9/9/14)
Scottish independence: the economic implications The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/9/14)
Scottish vote: Experts warn of potential economic impact BBC News, Matthew Wall (9/9/14)
The economics of Scottish independence: A messy divorce The Economist (21/2/14)
Dispute over economic impact of Scottish independence Financial Times, Mure Dickie, Jonathan Guthrie and John Aglionby (28/5/14)
10 economic benefits for a wealthier independent Scotland Michael Gray (6/3/14)
Scottish independence, UK dependency New Economics Foundation (NEF), James Meadway (4/9/14)
Scottish Jobs and the World Economy Scottish Economy Watch, Brian Ashcroft (25/8/14)
Scottish yes vote: what happens to the pound in your pocket? Channel 4 News (9/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (7/9/14)
Economists can’t tell Scots how to vote BBC News, Robert Peston (16/9/14)

Books and Reports
The Economic Consequences of Scottish Independence Scottish Economic Society and Helmut Schmidt Universität, David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann (eds) (August 2014)
The potential implications of independence for businesses in Scotland Oxford Economics, Weir (April 2014)

Questions

  1. What is a currency union? What implications would there be for Scotland being in a currency union with the rest of the UK?
  2. If you could measure the effects of independence over the next ten years, would you treat £1m of benefits or costs occurring in ten years’ time the same as £1m of benefits and costs occurring next year? Explain.
  3. Is it inevitable that events occurring in the future will at best be known unknowns?
  4. If you make a statement that something will occur in the future and you turn out to be wrong, was your statement a positive one or a normative one?
  5. What would be the likely effects of Scottish independence on the current account of the balance of payments (a) for Scotland; (b) for the rest if the UK?
  6. How does inequality in Scotland compare with that in the rest of the UK and in other countries? Why might Scottish independence lead to a reduction in inequality? (See the chapter on inequality in the book above edited by David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann.)
  7. One of the problems in assessing the arguments for a Yes vote is uncertainty over what would happen if there was a majority voting No. What might happen in terms of further devolution in the case of a No vote?
  8. Why is there uncertainty over the amount of national debt that would exist in Scotland if it became independent?
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