GDP is often used as a measure of wellbeing, even though it is really only a measure of the market value of a nation’s output or an indicator of economic activity. But although higher consumption can improve living standards, it is only one contributor to wellbeing, whether at individual or social level.
There are essentially four types of problems from using GDP as a measure of how society is doing.
The first is that it does not include (as negative figures) many external costs, such as pollution, stress and family breakdown related to work.
The second is that it includes things that are produced to counteract the adverse effects of increased production, such as security, antidepressants, therapy and clean-up activities.
The third is that it ignores things that are produced and do contribute to wellbeing and yet are not traded in the market. Examples include volunteer work, the ‘output’ of clubs and societies, work within the home, production from allotments and various activities taking place in the ‘underground economy’ to avoid taxation.
The fourth is the sustainability of economic growth. If we deplete natural resources, the growth of today may be at the cost of the wellbeing of future generations.
Then there is the question of the distribution of the benefits of production. Although GDP figures can be adjusted for distribution, crude GDP growth figures are not. If a few wealthy get a lot richer and the majority do not, or even get poorer, a growth in GDP will not signify a growth in wellbeing of the majority.
Then there is the question of the diminishing marginal utility of income. If an extra pound to a rich person gives less additional wellbeing than an extra pound to a poor person, then any given growth rate accompanied by an increase in inequality will contribute less to wellbeing than the same growth rate accompanied by a decrease in inequality.
The first article below criticises the use of crude indicators, such as the growth in GDP or stock market prices to signify wellbeing. It also looks at some alternative indicators that can capture some of the contributions to wellbeing missed by GDP figures.
Want to know how society’s doing? Forget GDP – try these alternatives The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley (27/1/17)
The Increasingly Inadequate Measurement Of Productivity The Market Mogul, Chris Woods (20/1/17)
Why GDP fails as a measure of well-being CBS News, Mark Thoma (27/1/16)
Limitations of GDP as Welfare Indicator The Sceptical Economist, zielonygrzyb (31/7/12)
- Should GDP be abandoned as an indicator?
- How could GDP be refined to capture more of the factors affecting wellbeing?
- Go through each of the indicators discussed in the first article above and consider their suitability as an indicator of wellbeing.
- “Everywhere you look, there are better benchmarks than these tired old financial yardsticks.” Identify three such indicators not considered in the first article and discuss their suitability as measures of economic performance.
- How might the benefit you gain from free apps be captured?
- Consider the suitability of these alternatives to GDP.
Interest rates have been at record lows across the developed world since 2009. Interest rates were reduced to such levels in order to stimulate recovery from the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the resulting recession. The low interest rates were accompanied by extraordinary increases in money supply under various rounds of quantitative easing in the USA, UK, Japan and eventually the eurozone. But have such policies done harm?
This is the contention of Brian Sturgess in a new paper, published by the Centre for Policy Studies. He maintains that the policy has had a number of adverse effects:
||There will be nothing left in the monetary policy armoury when the next downturn occurs other than even more QE, which will compound the following problems.
||It has had little effect in stimulating aggregate demand and economic growth. Instead the extra money has been used to repair balance sheets and support unprofitable businesses.
||It has inflated asset prices, especially shares and property, which has encouraged funds to flow to the secondary market rather than to funding new investment.
||The inflation of asset prices has benefited the already wealthy.
||By keeping interest rates down to virtually zero on savings accounts, it has punished small savers.
||By rewarding the rich and penalising small savers, it has contributed to greater inequality.
||By keeping interest rates down to borrowers, it has encouraged households to take on excessive amounts of debt, which will be hard to service if interest rates rise.
||It has lowered the price of risk, thereby encouraging more risky types of investment and the general misallocation of capital.
Sturgess argues that it is time to end the policy of low interest rates. Currently, in all the major developed economies, central bank rates are below the rate of inflation, making the real central bank interest rates negative.
He welcomes the two small increases by the Federal Reserve, but this should be followed by further rises, not just by the Fed, but by other central banks too. As Sturgess states in the paper (p.12):
In place of ever more extreme descents into the unknown, central banks should quickly renormalise monetary policy. That would involve ending QE and allowing interest rates to rise steadily so that interest rates can carry out their proper functions. Failure to do so will leave the global financial system vulnerable to potential shocks such as the failure of the euro, or the fiscal stresses in the US resulting from the unfinanced spending plans announced by Donald Trump in his presidential campaign.
Although Sturgess argues that the initial programmes of low interest rates and QE were a useful response to the financial crisis, he argues that they should have only been used as a short-term measure. However, if they were, and if interest rates had gone up within a few months, many argue that the global economy would rapidly have sunk back into recession. This has certainly been the position of central banks. Sturgess disagrees.
Damaging low interest rates and QE must end now, think thank warns The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (23/1/17)
QE has driven pension deficits up, think-tank argues Money Marketing, Justin Cash (23/1/17)
Hold: The ECB keeps interest rates and QE purchases steady as Mario Draghi defends loose policy from hawkish critics City A.M., Jasper Jolly (19/1/17)
Preparing for the Post-QE World Bloomberg, Jean-Michel Paul (12/10/16)
Stop Depending on the Kindness of Strangers: Low interest rates and the Global Economy Centre for Policy Studies, Brian Sturgess (23/1/17)
- Find out what the various rounds of quantitative easing have been in the USA, the UK, Japan and the eurozone.
- What are the arguments in favour of quantitative easing as it has been practised?
- How might interest rates close to zero result in the misallocation of capital?
- Sturgess claims that the existence of ‘spillover’ effects has had damaging effects on many emerging economies. What are these spillover effects and what damage have they done to such economies?
- How do low interest rates affect interest rate spreads?
- Have pensioners gained or lost from QE? Explain how the answer may vary between different pensioners.
- What is meant by a ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ rate of interest (see section 3.2 in the paper)? Why, according to Janet Yellen (currently Federal Reserve Chair, writing in 2005), is this somewhere between 3.5% and 5.5% (in nominal terms)?
- What are the arguments for and against using created money to finance programmes of government infrastructure investment?
- Would helicopter money be more effective than QE via asset purchases in achieving faster economic growth? (See the blog posts: A flawed model of monetary policy and New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink.)
- When QE comes to an end in various countries, what are the arguments for absorbing rather than selling the assets purchased by central banks? (See the Bloomberg article.)
In two recent speeches, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, and the Bank’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, have reflected on the growing inequality in the UK and other countries. They have also answered criticisms that monetary policy has exacerbated the problem. As, Andy Haldane puts it:
It is clear monetary policy has played a material role in lifting all boats since the financial crisis broke. …[But] even if monetary policy has lifted all boats, and could plausibly do so again if needed, that does not mean it has done so equally. In particular, concerns have been expressed about the potential distributional effects of monetary policy.
Jan Vlieghe [member of the Monetary Policy Committee] has recently looked at how monetary policy may have affected the fortunes of, among others, savers, pension funds and pensioners. The empirical evidence does not suggest these cohorts have been disadvantaged to any significant degree by the monetary policy stance. For most members in each cohort, the boost to their asset portfolios and the improved wages and profits due to a stronger economy more than offset the direct loss of income from lower rates [of interest on savings accounts].
Andy Haldane’s speech focused largely on regional inequality. He argued that productivity has grown much more rapidly in the more prosperous regions, such as London and the South East. This has resulted in rising inequality in wages between different parts of the UK. Policies that focus on raising productivity in the less prosperous regions could play a major role in reducing income inequality.
Mark Carney’s speech echoed a lot of what Andy Haldane was saying. He argued that expansionary monetary policy has, according to Bank of England modelling, “raised the level of GDP by around 8% relative to trend and lowered unemployment by 4 percentage points at their peak”. And the benefits have been felt by virtually everyone. Even savers have generally gained:
That’s in part because, to a large extent, the thrifty saver and the rich asset holder are often one and the same. Just 2% of households have deposit holdings in excess of £5000, few other financial assets and don’t own a home.
But some people still gained more from monetary policy than others – enough to contribute to widening inequality.
Losers from the lost decade
Mark Carney looked beyond monetary policy and argued that the UK has experienced a ‘lost decade’, where real incomes today are little higher than 10 years ago – the first time this has happened for 150 years. This stalling of average real incomes has been accompanied by widening inequality between various groups, where a few have got a lot richer, especially the top 1%, and many have got poorer. Although the Gini coefficient has remained relatively constant in recent years, there has been a widening gap between the generations.
For both income and wealth, some of the most significant shifts have happened across generations. A typical millennial earned £8000 less during their twenties than their predecessors. Since 2007, those over 60 have seen their incomes rise at five times the rate of the population as a whole. Moreover, rising real house prices between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s have created a growing disparity between older home owners and younger renters.
This pattern has been repeated around the developed world and has led to disillusionment with globalisation and a rise in populism. Globalisation has been “associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities”. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
And populism has been reflected in the crisis in Greece, the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election, the rise of the National Front in France, the No vote in the Italian referendum on reforming the constitution and the rise in anti-establishment parties and sentiment generally. Mainstream parties are beginning to realise that concerns over globalisation, inequality and a sense of disempowerment must be addressed.
Solutions to inequality
As far as solutions are concerned, central must be a rise in general productivity that increases potential real income.
Boosting the determinants of long-run prosperity is the job of government’s structural, or supply-side policies. These government policies influence the economy’s investment in education and skills; its capacity for research and development; the quality of its core institutions, such as the rule of law; the effectiveness of its regulatory environment; the flexibility of its labour market; the intensity of competition; and its openness to trade and investment.
But will this supply-side approach be enough to bring both greater prosperity and greater equality? Will an openness to trade be accepted by populist politicians who blame globalisation and the unequal gains from international trade for the plight of the poor? Carney recognises the problem and argues that:
For the societies of free-trading, networked countries to prosper, they must first re-distribute some of the gains from trade and technology, and then re-skill and reconnect all of their citizens. By doing so, they can put individuals back in control.
For free trade to benefit all requires some redistribution. There are limits, of course, because of fiscal constraints at the macro level and the need to maintain incentives at the micro level. Fostering dependency on the state is no way to increase human agency, even though a safety net is needed to cushion shocks and smooth adjustment.
Redistribution and fairness also means turning back the tide of stateless corporations.
… Because technology and trade are constantly evolving and can lead to rapid shifts in production, the commitment to reskilling all workers must be continual.
In a job market subject to frequent, radical changes, people’s prospects depend on direct and creative engagement with global markets. Lifelong learning, ever-greening skills and cooperative training will become more important than ever.
But whether these prescriptions will be accepted by people across the developed world who feel that the capitalist system has failed them and who look to more radical solutions, whether from the left or the right, remains to be seen. And whether they will be adopted by governments is another question!
Roscoe Lecture Bank of England on YouTube, Mark Carney (5/12/16)
One Car, Two Car, Red Car, Blue Car Bank of England, Andrew Haldane (2/12/16)
The Spectre of Monetarism: Roscoe Lecture, Liverpool John Moores University Bank of England, Mark Carney (5/12/16)
Articles: Andrew Haldane speech
Bank of England chief economist says monetary stimulus stopped ‘left behind’ from drowning Independent, Ben Chu (2/12/16)
BoE’s Andrew Haldane warns of regional growth inequality BBC News (2/12/16)
‘Regions would have faced contraction’ without rate cuts and money printing Belfast Telegraph (2/12/16)
Bank of England chief: UK can be transformed if it copies progress on Teesside Gazette Live, Mike Hughes (2/12/16)
Articles: Mark Carney speech
Governor’s ‘dynamite’ warning on wages and globalisation Sky News, Ed Conway (6/12/16)
Mark Carney warns Britain is suffering first lost decade since 1860 as people across Europe lose trust in globalisation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan and Peter Foster (5/12/16)
Mark Carney: we must tackle isolation and detachment caused by globalisation The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/12/16)
Bank of England’s Carney warns of strains from globalization Reuters, William Schomberg and David Milliken (6/12/16)
CARNEY: Britain is in ‘the first lost decade since the 1860s’ Business Insider UK, Oscar Williams-Grut (7/12/16)
Carney warns about popular disillusion with capitalism BBC News (5/12/16)
Some fresh ideas to tackle social insecurity Guardian letters (7/12/16)
Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2016 (MPSE) Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Adam Tinson, Carla Ayrton, Karen Barker, Theo Barry Born, Hannah Aldridge and Peter Kenway (7/12/16)
OECD Income Distribution Database (IDD): Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income Statistical bulletins ONS
- Has monetary policy aggravated the problem of inequality? Explain.
- Comment on Charts 11a and 11b on page 19 of the Haldane speech.
- Does the process of globalisation help to reduce inequality or does it make it worse?
- If countries specialise in the production of goods in which they have a comparative advantage, does this encourage them to use more or less of relatively cheap factors of production? How does this impact on factor prices? How does this affect income distribution?
- How might smaller-scale firms “by-pass big corporates and engage in a form of artisanal globalisation; a revolution that could bring cottage industry full circle”?
- Why has regional inequality increased in the UK?
- What types of supply-side policy would help to reduce inequality?
- Explain the following statement from Mark Carney’s speech: “For free trade to benefit all requires some redistribution. There are limits, of course, because of fiscal constraints at the macro level and the need to maintain incentives at the micro level”.
- Mark Carney stated that “redistribution and fairness also means turning back the tide of stateless corporations”. How might this be done?
The first article below, from The Economist, examines likely macroeconomic policy under Donald Trump. He has stated that he plans to cut taxes, including reducing the top rates of income tax and reducing taxes on corporate income and capital gains. At the same time he has pledged to increase infrastructure spending.
This expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to be accompanied by accommodating monetary policy. Interest rates would therefore rise to tackle the inflationary pressures from the fiscal policy. One effect of this would be to drive up the dollar and therein lies significant risks.
The first is that the value of dollar-denominated debt would rise in foreign currency terms, thereby making it difficult for countries with high levels of dollar debt to service those debts, possibly leading to default and resulting international instability. At the same time, a rising dollar may encourage capital flight from weaker countries to the US (see The Economist article, ‘Emerging markets: Reversal of fortune’).
The second risk is that a rising dollar would worsen the US balance of trade account as US exports became less competitive and imports became more so. This may encourage Donald Trump to impose tariffs on various imports – something alluded to in campaign speeches. But, as we saw in the blog, Trump and Trade, “With complex modern supply chains, many products use components and services, such as design and logistics, from many different countries. Imposing restrictions on imports may lead to damage to products which are seen as US products”.
The third risk is that the main beneficiaries of Trump’s likely fiscal measures will be the rich, who would end up paying significantly less tax. With all the concerns from poor Americans, including people who voted for Trump, about growing inequality, measures that increase this inequality are unlikely to prove popular.
That Eighties show The Economist, Free Exchange (19/11/16)
The unbearable lightness of a stronger dollar Financial Times (18/11/16)
- What should the Fed’s response be to an expansionary fiscal policy?
- Which is likely to have the larger multiplier effect: (a) tax revenue reductions from cuts in the top rates of income; (b) increased government spending on infrastructure projects? Explain your answer.
- Could Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to crowding out? Explain.
- What would protectionist policies do to (a) the US current account and (b) dollar exchange rates?
- Why might trying to protect US industries from imports prove difficult?
- Why might Trump’s proposed fiscal policy lead to capital flight from certain developing countries? Which types of country are most likely to lose from this process?
- Go though each of the three risks referred to in The Economist article and identify things that the US administration could do to mitigate these risks.
- Why may the rise in the US currency since the election be reversed?
Some commentators have seen the victory of Donald Trump and, prior to that, the Brexit vote as symptoms of a crisis in capitalism. Much of the campaigning in the US election, both by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left focused on the plight of the poor. Whether the blame was put on immigration, big government, international organisations, the banks, cheap imports undercutting jobs or a lack of social protection, the message was clear: capitalism is failing to improve the lot of the majority. A small elite is getting significantly richer while the majority sees little or no gain in their living standards and a rise in uncertainty.
The articles below look at this crisis. They examine the causes, which they agree go back many years as capitalism has evolved. The financial crash of 2008 and the slow recovery since are symptomatic of the underlying changes in capitalism.
The Friedman article focuses on the slowing growth in technological advance and the problem of aging populations. What technological progress there is is not raising incomes generally, but is benefiting a few entrepreneurs and financiers. General rises in income may eventually come, but it may take decades before robotics, biotechnological advances, e-commerce and other breakthrough technologies filter through to higher incomes for everyone. In the meantime, increased competition through globalisation is depressing the incomes of the poor and economically immobile.
All the articles look at the rise of the rich. The difference with the past is that the people who are gaining the most are not doing so from production but from financial dealing or rental income; they have gained while the real economy has stagnated.
The gains to the rich have come from the rise in the value of assets, such as equities (shares) and property, and from the growth in rental incomes. Only a small fraction of finance is used to fund business investment; the majority is used for lending against existing assets, which then inflates their prices and makes their owners richer. In other words, the capitalist system is moving from driving growth in production to driving the inflation of asset prices and rental incomes.
The process whereby financial markets grow and in turn drive up asset prices is known as ‘financialisation’. Not only is the process moving away from funding productive investment and towards speculative activity, it is leading to a growth in ‘short-termism’. The rewards of senior managers often depend on the price of their companies’ shares. This leads to a focus on short-term profit and a neglect of long-term growth and profitability – to a neglect of investment in R&D and physical capital.
The process of financialisation has been driven by deregulation, financial innovation, the growth in international financial flows and, more recently, by quantitative easing and low interest rates. It has led to a growth in private debt which, in turn, creates more financial instability. The finance industry has become so profitable that even manufacturing companies are moving into the business of finance themselves – often finding it more profitable than their core business. As the Foroohar article states, “the biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself.”
So will the election of Donald Trump, and pressure from populism in other countries too, mean that governments will focus more on production, job creation and poverty reduction? Will there be a movement towards fiscal policy to drive infrastructure spending? Will there be a reining in of loose monetary policy and easy credit?
Or will addressing the problem of financialisation and the crisis of capitalism result in the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor, but this time through more conventional channels, such as increased production and monopoly profits and tax cuts for the rich? Trump supporters from among the poor hope the answer is no. Those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries think the answer will be yes and that the solution to over financialisation requires more, not less, regulation, a rise in minimum wages and fiscal policies aimed specifically at the poor.
Can Global Capitalism Be Saved? Project Syndicate, Alexander Friedman (11/11/16)
American Capitalism’s Great Crisis Time, Rana Foroohar (12/5/16)
The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing review – work matters less than what you own The Guardian, Katrina Forrester (26/10/16)
- Do you agree that capitalism is in crisis? Explain.
- What is meant by financialisation? Why has it grown?
- Will the policies espoused by Donald Trump help to address the problems caused by financialisation?
- What alternative policies are there to those of Trump for addressing the crisis of capitalism?
- Explain Schumpeter’s analysis of creative destruction.
- What technological innovations that are currently taking place could eventually benefit the poor as well as the rich?
- What disincentives are there for companies investing in R&D and new equipment?
- What are the arguments for and against a substantial rise in the minimum wage?