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

Deeper in debt

‘The world is sinking under a sea of debt, private as well as public, and it is increasingly hard to see how this might end, except in some form of mass default.’ So claims the article below by Jeremy Warner. But just how much has debt grown, both public and private? And is it of concern?

The doomsday scenario is that we are heading for another financial crisis as over leveraged banks and governments could not cope with a collapse in confidence. Bank and bond interest rates would soar and debts would be hard to finance. The world could head back into recession as credit became harder and more expensive to obtain. Perhaps, in such a scenario, there would be mass default, by banks and governments alike. This could result in a plunge back into recession.

The more optimistic scenario is that private-sector debt is under control and in many countries is falling (see, for example, chart 1 in the blog Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers for the case of the UK). Even though private-sector debt could rise again as the world economy grows, it would be affordable provided that interest rates remain low and banks continue to build the requisite capital buffers under the Basel III banking regulations.

As far as public-sector debt is concerned, as a percentage of GDP its growth has begun to decline in advanced countries as a whole and, although gently rising in developing and emerging economies as a whole, is relatively low compared with advanced countries (see chart). Of course, there are some countries that still face much larger debts, but in most cases they are manageable and governments have plans to curb them, or at least their growth.

But there have been several warnings from various economists and institutes, as we saw in the blog post, Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures. The question is whether countries can grow their way out of the problem, with a rapidly rising denominator in the debt/GDP ratios.

Only mass default will end the world’s addiction to debt The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (3/3/15)

Questions

  1. What would be the impact of several countries defaulting on debt?
  2. What factors determine the likelihood of sovereign defaults?
  3. What factors determine the likelihood of bank defaults?
  4. What is meant by ‘leverage’ in the context of (a) banks; (b) nations?
  5. What are the Basel III regulations? What impact will they have/are they having on bank leverage?
  6. Expand on the arguments supporting the doomsday scenario above.
  7. Expand on the arguments supporting the optimistic scenario above.
  8. What is the relationship between economic growth and debt?
  9. Explain how the explosion in global credit might merely be ‘the mirror image of rising output, asset prices and wealth’.
  10. Is domestic inflation a good answer for a country to the problems of rising debt denominated (a) in the domestic currency; (b) in foreign currencies?
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Russia’s economic challenges: Good or bad for business?

Many important economic changes have occurred over the past two years and many have occurred in the past two months. Almost all economic events create winners and losers and that is no different for the Russian economy and the Russian population.

There is an interesting article plus videos on the BBC News website (see link below), which consider some of the economic events that, directly or indirectly, have had an impact on Russia: the fall in oil prices; the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine; the fall in the value of the rouble (see chart); the sanctions imposed by the West.

Clearly there are some very large links between events, but an interesting question concerns the impact they have had on the everyday Russian consumer and business. Economic growth in Russia has been adversely affected and estimates suggest that the economy will shrink further over the coming year. Oil and gas prices have declined significantly and while this is good news for many consumers across the world, it brings much sadder tidings for an economy, such as Russia, that is so dependent on oil exports.

However, is there a bright side to the sanctions or the falling currency? The BBC News article considers the winners and losers in Russia, including families struggling to feed their families following spending cuts and businesses benefiting from less competition.

Russia’s economic turmoil: nightmare or opportunity? BBC News, Olga Ivshina and Oleg Bodyrev (5/2/15)

Questions

  1. Why has the rouble fallen in value? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate this.
  2. What does a cheap rouble mean for exporters and importers within Russia and within countries such as the UK or US?
  3. One of the businesses described in the article explain how the sanctions have helped. What is the explanation and can the effects be seen as being in the consumer’s interest?
  4. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past few months. Why is this so detrimental to Russia?
  5. What is the link between the exchange rate and inflation?
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The negotiation game

Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, is also an economist and an expert in game theory and co-author of Game Theory: a critical text. He is now putting theory into practice.

He wishes to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s debt repayments. He argues not that some of the debt should be written off, but that the terms of the repayment are far too tough.

Greece’s problem, he argues, was wrongly seen as one of a lack of liquidity and hence the Troika (of the EU, the ECB and the IMF) provided a large amount of loans to enable Greece to keep servicing its debts. These loans were conditional on Greece following austerity policies of higher taxes and reduced government expenditure. But this just compounded the problem as seen by Yanis Varoufakis. With a shrinking economy, it has been even more difficult to repay the loans granted by the Troika.

The problem, he argues, is essentially one of insolvency. The solution is to renegotiate the terms of the debt to make it possible to pay. This means reducing the size of the budget surplus that Greece is required to achieve. The Troika is currently demanding a surplus equal to 3% of GDP in 2015 and 4.5% of GDP in 2016.

The Syriza government is also seeking to link repayments to economic growth, by the issue of growth-linked bonds, whose interest rate depends on the rate of economic growth, with a zero rate if there is no growth in real GDP. He is also seeking emergency humanitarian aid

At the centre of the negotiations is a high stake game. On the one hand, Germany and other countries do not want to reduce Greece’s debts or soften their terms. The fear is that this could unleash demands from other highly indebted countries in the eurozone, such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland. Already, Podemos, Spain’s anti-austerity party is rapidly gaining support in Spain. On the other hand, the new Greek government cannot back down in its fundamental demands for easing the terms of its debt repayments.

And the threats on both sides are powerful. The Troika could demand that the original terms are met. If they are not, and Greece defaults, there could be capital flight from Greece (even more than now) and Greece could be forced from the euro. The Greeks would suffer from further falls in income, which would now be denominated in a weak drachma, high inflation and financial chaos. But that could unleash a wave of speculation against other weaker eurozone members and cause a break-up of the currency union. This could seriously harm all members and have large-scale repercussions for the global economy.

So neither side wants Greece to leave the euro. But is it a game of chicken, where if neither side backs down, ‘Grexit’ (Greek exit from the euro) will be the result? Yanis Varoufakis understands the dimensions of the ‘game’ very well. He is well aware of the quote from Keynes, ‘If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.’ He will no doubt bring all his gaming skills to play in attempting to reach the best deal for Greece.

Greece’s last minute offer to Brussels changes absolutely nothing The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (10/2/15)
The next card Yanis Varoufakis will play The Conversation, Partha Gangopadhyay (8/2/15)
Senior European official: ‘The Greeks are digging their own graves’ Business Insider, Mike Bird (10/2/15)
Greece: The Tie That Doesn’t Bind New York Times, Paul Krugman (9/2/15)
Greek finance minister says euro will collapse if Greece exits Reuters, Gavin Jones (8/2/15)
Greece is playing to lose the debt crisis poker game The Guardian, Project Syndicate and Anatole Kaletsky (9/2/15)
Greek markets find sliver of hope Financial Times, Elaine Moore, Kerin Hope and Daniel Dombey (10/2/15)
Greece: What are the options for its future? BBC News, Jamie Robertson (12/2/15)
‘If I weren’t scared, I’d be awfully dangerous’ The Guardian, Helena Smith (13/2/15)
Greek debt crisis: German MPs back bailout extension BBC News (27/2/15)

Questions

  1. Is a deal over the terms of repayment of Greek debt a zero sum game? Explain whether it is or not.
  2. What are Keynes Bisque bonds (or GDP-indexed bonds)? Do a Web search to find out whether they have been used and what their potential advantages and disadvantages are. Are they a good solution for both creditors and Greece in the current situation?
  3. What is meant by a ‘debt swap’? What forms can debt swaps take?
  4. Has Greece played its best cards too early?
  5. Should Greece insist on debt reduction and simply negotiate around the size and terms of that reduction?
  6. Are Greece’s new structural reform proposals likely to find favour with other EU countries and the Troika?
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Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures.

According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, global debt is now higher than before the financial crisis. And that crisis was largely caused by excessive lending. As The Telegraph article linked below states:

The figures are as remarkable as they are terrifying. Global debt – defined as the liabilities of governments, firms and households – has jumped by $57 trillion, or 17% of global GDP, since the fourth quarter of 2007, which was supposed to be the peak of the bad old credit-fuelled days. In 2000, total debt was worth 246% of global GDP; by 2007, this had risen to 269% of GDP and today we are at 286% of GDP.

This is not how policy since the financial crisis was supposed to have worked out. Central banks and governments have been trying to encourage greater saving and reduced credit as a percentage of GDP, a greater capital base for banks, and reduced government deficits as a means of reducing government debt. But of 47 large economies in the McKinsey study, only five have succeeded in reducing their debt/GDP ratios since 2007 and in many the ratio has got a lot higher. China, for example, has seen its debt to GDP ratio almost double – from 158% to 282%, although its government debt remains low relative to other major economies.

Part of the problem is that the lack of growth in many countries has made it hard for countries to reduce their public-sector deficits to levels that will allow the public-sector debt/GDP ratio to fall.

In terms of the UK, private-sector debt has been falling as a percentage of GDP. But this has been more than offset by a rise in the public-sector debt/GDP ratio. As Robert Peston says:

[UK indebtedness] increased by 30 percentage points, to 252% of GDP (excluding financial sector or City debts) – as government debts have jumped by 50 percentage points of GDP, while corporate and household debts have decreased by 12 and 8 percentage points of GDP respectively.

So what are the likely consequences of this growth in debt and what can be done about it? The articles and report consider these questions.

Articles
Instead of paying down its debts, the world’s gone on another credit binge The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/15)
Global debts rise $57tn since crash BBC News, Robert Peston (5/2/15)
China’s Total Debt Load Equals 282% of GDP, Raising Economic Risks The Wall Street Journal, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (4/2/15)

Report
Debt and (not much) deleveraging McKinsey Global Institute, Richard Dobbs, Susan Lund, Jonathan Woetzel, and Mina Mutafchieva (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘leverage’.
  2. Why does a low-leverage economy do better in a downturn than a high-leverage one?
  3. What is the relationship between deficits and the debt/GDP ratio?
  4. When might an increase in debt be good for an economy?
  5. Comment on the statement in The Telegraph article that ‘In theory, debt is fine if it is backed up by high-quality collateral’.
  6. Why does the rise is debt matter for the global economy?
  7. Is it possible for (a) individual countries; (b) all countries collectively to ‘live beyond their means’ by consuming more than they are producing through borrowing?
  8. What is the structure of China’s debt and what problems does this pose for the Chinese economy?
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Influences on the UK current account

Newspaper headlines this week read that the UK’s balance of trade deficit has widened to £34.8bn, the largest since 2010. And when you exclude services, the trade in goods deficit, at £119.9bn is the largest ever in nominal terms and is also likely to be the largest as a percentage of GDP.

So far so bad. But when you look a little closer, the picture is more mixed. The balance of trade deficit (i.e. on both goods and services) narrowed each quarter of 2014, although the monthly figure did widen in December 2014. In fact the trade in goods deficit increased substantially in December from £9.3bn to £10.2bn.

At first sight the widening of the trade deficit in December might seem surprising, given the dramatic drop in oil prices. Surely, with demand for oil being relatively inelastic, a large cut in oil prices should significantly reduce the expenditure on oil? In fact the reverse happened. The oil deficit in December increased from £598m to £940m. The reason is that oil importing companies have been stockpiling oil while low prices persist. Clearly, this is in anticipation that oil prices will rise again before too long. What we have seen, therefore, is a demand that is elastic in the short run, even though it is relatively inelastic in the medium run.

But the trade deficit is still large. Even when you strip out oil, the deficit in December still rose – from £8.7bn to £9.2bn. There are two main reasons for this deterioration.

The first is a strong pound. The sterling exchange rate index rose by 1.8% in December and a further 0.4% in January. With quantitative easing pushing down the value of the euro and loose monetary policies in China and Australia pushing down the value of their currencies, sterling is set to appreciate further.

The second is continuing weakness in the eurozone and a slowing of growth in some major developing countries, including China. This will continue to dampen the growth in UK exports.

But what of the overall current account? Figures are at present available only up to 2014 Q3, but the picture is bleak (see the chart). As the ONS states:

The current account deficit widened in Q3 2014, to 6.0% of nominal Gross Domestic Product GDP, representing the joint largest deficit since Office for National Statistics (ONS) records began in 1955.

This deterioration in performance can be partly attributed to the recent weakness in the primary income balance [see]. This also reached a record deficit in Q3 2014 of 2.8% of nominal GDP; a figure that can be primarily attributed to a fall in UK residents’ earnings from investment abroad, and broadly stable foreign resident earnings on their investments in the UK

The primary income account captures income flows into and out of the UK economy, as opposed to current transfers (secondary income) from taxes, grants, etc. The large deficit reflects a decline in the holding by UK residents of foreign assets from 92% of GDP in 2008 to 67% by the end of 2014. This, in turn, reflects the poorer rate of return on many of these assets. By contrast, the holdings of UK assets by foreign residents has increased. They have been earning a higher rate of return on these assets than UK residents have on foreign assets. And so, despite UK interest rates having fallen, as the quote above says, foreign residents’ earnings on their holding of UK assets has remained broadly stable.

Articles
UK trade deficit last year widest since 2010 BBC News (6/2/15)
UK’s trade deficit widens to 2010 high as consumers take advantage of falling oil The Telegraph, Peter Spence (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit widens to four-year high The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit hits four-year high Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (6/2/15)

Data
Balance of Payments ONS (topic link)
Summary: UK Trade, December 2014 ONS (6/2/15)
Current account, income balance and net international investment position ONS (23/1/15)
Pink Book – Tables ONS

Questions

  1. Distinguish between he current account, the capital account and the financial account of the balance of payments.
  2. If the overall balance of payments must, by definition, balance, why does it matter if the following are in deficit: (a) trade in goods; (b) the current account; (b) income flows?
  3. What would cause the balance of trade deficit to narrow?
  4. Discuss what policies the government could pursue to reduce the size of the current account deficit? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side policies.
  5. Why has the sterling exchange rate index been appreciating in recent months?
  6. What do you think is likely to happen to the sterling exchange rate index in the coming months? Explain.
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Currency wars – a zero-sum game?

One effect of an expansionary monetary policy is a depreciation of the exchange rate. Take the case of countries using a combination of a reduction in central bank interest rates and quantitative easing (QE). A fall in interest rates will encourage an outflow of finance; and part of the money created through quantitative easing will be used to purchase foreign assets. Both create an increased demand for foreign currencies and drive down the exchange rate.

The latest case of expansionary monetary policy is that employed by the ECB. After months of promising to ‘do whatever it takes’ and taking various steps towards full QE, the ECB finally announced a large-scale QE programme on 22 January 2015.

With people increasingly predicting QE and with the ECB reducing interest rates, so the euro depreciated. Between March 2014 and 21 January 2015, the euro depreciated by 20.2% against the dollar and the euro exchange rate index depreciated by 9.7%. With the announced programme of QE being somewhat larger than markets expected, in the week following the announcement the euro fell a further 2.3% against the dollar, and the euro exchange rate index also fell by 2.3%. The euro is now at its lowest level against the US dollar since April 2003 (see chart).

The depreciation of the euro will be welcome news for eurozone exporters. It makes their exports cheaper in foreign currency terms and thus makes their exports more competitive. Similarly Japanese exporters were helped by the depreciation of the yen following the announcement on 31 October 2014 by the Bank of Japan of an increase in its own QE programme. The yen has depreciated by 7.7% against the dollar since then.

But every currency cannot depreciate against other currencies simultaneously. With any bilateral exchange rate, the depreciation of one currency represents an appreciation of the other. So just as the euro and yen have depreciated against the dollar, the dollar has appreciated against the euro and yen. This has made US goods less competitive relative to eurozone and Japanese goods.

The danger is that currency wars will result, with monetary policy being used in various countries to achieve competitive depreciations. Already, the Swiss have been forced, on 15 January, to remove the cap with the euro at SF1 – €0.833. Since then the Swiss franc has appreciated by some 15% to around SF1 – €0.96. Will the Swiss now be forced to relax their monetary policy?

The Danish and Canadian central banks have cut their interest rates, hoping to stem an appreciation of their currencies. On 28 January, the Monetary Authority of Singapore sold Singapore dollars to engineer a depreciation. The Singapore dollar duly fell by the most in over four years.

But are these policies simply beggar-my-neighbour policies? Is it a zero-sum game, where the gains to the countries with depreciating currencies are exactly offset by losses to the those with appreciating ones? Or is there a net gain from overall looser monetary policy at a time of sluggish growth? Or is there a net loss from greater currency volatility, which will create greater uncertainty and dampen cross-border investment? The following article explore the issues.

Articles
Massive Devaluation of the Euro Seeking Alpha, Sagar Joshi (26/1/15)
Devaluation and discord as the world’s currencies quietly go to war The Observer (25/1/15)
Why is dollar strong vs. 18 trillion of USA’s debt? Pravda, Lyuba Lulko (26/1/15)
Central Bankers Ramp Up Currency Wars Wall Street Journal, Anjani Trivedi, Josie Cox and Carolyn Cui (28/1/15)
The Raging Currency Wars Across Europe The Market Oracle, Gary_Dorsch (29/1/15)
Why ECB action is likely to stoke global currency wars Financial Times, Ralph Atkins (22/1/15)
Euro slides as ECB launches QE Financial Times (22/1/15)
Will Australia join the Currency Wars? The Daily Reckoning, Australia, Greg Canavan (23/1/15)
Australia’s central bank cuts rates to record low; currency plunges and stocks spike The Telegraph (3/2/15)
Singapore loosens monetary policy Financial Times, Jeremy Grant (28/1/15)
Currency Wars Have a Nuclear Option Bloomberg, Mark Gilbert (12/2/15)

Questions

  1. Explain how quantitative easing results in depreciation. What determines the size of the depreciation?
  2. How is the USA likely to react to an appreciation of the dollar?
  3. In the UK, who will benefit and who will lose from the depreciation of the euro?
  4. What are the global benefits and costs of a round of competitive depreciations?
  5. How does the size of the financial account of the balance of payments affect the size of a depreciation resulting from QE?
  6. What determines a country’s exchange-rate elasticity of demand for exports? How does this elasticity of demand affect the size of changes in the current account of the balance of payments following a depreciation?
  7. Might depreciation of their currencies reduce countries’ commitment to achieving structural reforms? Or might it ‘buy them time’ to allow them to introduce such reforms in a more carefully planned way and for such reforms to take effect? Discuss.
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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)
The biggest debt write-offs in the history of the world The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (2/2/15)

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 and podcasts
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)
Richest 1% ‘Will Own Half The World’s Wealth By 2016′ ITN on YouTube, Sarah Kerr (19/1/15)
The Price of Inequality BBC Radio 4, Robert Peston (3/2/15 and 10/2/15)

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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