In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
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.)
Project Syndicate is an organisation which produces articles on a range of economic, political and social topics written by eminent scholars, political and business leaders, policymakers and civic activists. It then makes these available to news media in more than 150 countries. Here we look at four such articles which assess the outlook for the European and global economies and even that of capitalism itself.
The general tone is one of pessimism. Despite unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and negative nominal interest rates, the global recovery is anaemic. As the Nouriel Roubini articles states:
Unconventional monetary policies – entrenched now for almost a decade – have themselves become conventional. And, in view of persistent lacklustre growth and deflation risk in most advanced economies, monetary policymakers will have to continue their lonely fight with a new set of ‘unconventional unconventional’ monetary policies.
Perhaps this will involve supplying additional money directly to consumers and/or business in a so-called ‘helicopter drop’ of money. Perhaps it will be supplying money directly to governments to finance infrastructure projects – a policy dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing‘. Perhaps it will involve taxing the holding of cash by banks to encourage them to lend.
The Hans-Werner Sinn article looks at some of the consequences of the huge amount of money created through QE and continuing to be created in the eurozone. Although it has not boosted consumption and investment nearly as much as desired, it has caused bubbles in various asset markets. For example, the property market has soared in many countries:
Property markets in Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg have practically exploded throughout the crisis, as a result of banks chasing borrowers with offers of loans at near-zero interest rates, regardless of their creditworthiness.
The German property boom could be reined in with an appropriate jump in interest rates. But, given the ECB’s apparent determination to head in the opposite direction, the bubble will only grow. If it bursts, the effects could be dire for the euro.
The Jean Pisani-Ferry article widens the analysis of the eurozone’s problems. Like Roubini, he considers the possibility of a helicopter drop of money, which “would be functionally equivalent to a direct government transfer to households, financed by central banks’ permanent issuance of money”.
Without such drastic measures he sees consumer and business pessimism (see chart) undermining recovery and making the eurozone vulnerable to global shocks, such as further weakening in China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Finally, Anatole Kaletsky takes a broad historical view. He starts by saying that “All over the world today, there is a sense of the end of an era, a deep foreboding about the disintegration of previously stable societies.” He argues that the era of ‘leaving things to the market’ is coming to an end. This was an era inspired by the monetarist and supply-side revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that led to the privatisation and deregulation policies of Reagan, Thatcher and other world leaders.
But if the market cannot cope with the complexities of today’s world, neither can governments.
If the world is too complex and unpredictable for either markets or governments to achieve social objectives, then new systems of checks and balances must be designed so that political decision-making can constrain economic incentives and vice versa. If the world is characterized by ambiguity and unpredictability, then the economic theories of the pre-crisis period – rational expectations, efficient markets, and the neutrality of money – must be revised.
… It is obvious that new technology and the integration of billions of additional workers into global markets have created opportunities that should mean greater prosperity in the decades ahead than before the crisis. Yet ‘responsible’ politicians everywhere warn citizens about a ‘new normal’ of stagnant growth. No wonder voters are up in arms.
His solution has much in common with that of Roubini and Pisani-Ferry. “Money could be printed and distributed directly to citizens. Minimum wages could be raised to reduce inequality. Governments could invest much more in infrastructure and innovation at zero cost. Bank regulation could encourage lending, instead of restricting it.”
So will there be a new era of even more unconventional monetary policy and greater regulation that encourages rather than restricts investment? Read the articles and try answering the questions.
Unconventional Monetary Policy on Stilts Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/4/16)
Europe’s Emerging Bubbles Project Syndicate, Hans-Werner Sinn (28/3/16)
Preparing for Europe’s Next Recession Project Syndicate, Jean Pisani-Ferry (31/3/16)
When Things Fall Apart Project Syndicate, Anatole Kaletsky (31/3/16)
- Explain how a ‘helicopter drop’ of money would work in practice.
- Why has growth in the eurozone been so anaemic since the recession of 2009/10?
- What is the relationship between tightening the regulations about capital and liquidity requirements of banks and bank lending?
- Explain the policies of the different eras identified by Anatole Kaletsky.
- Would it be fair to describe the proposals for more unconventional monetary policies as ‘Keynesian’?
- If quantitative easing was used to finance government infrastructure investment, what would be the effect on the public-sector deficit and debt?
- If the inflation of asset prices is a bubble, what could cause the bubble to burst and what would be the effect on the wider economy?
Let’s say that the world slides back into recession, or at least, the eurozone, the USA and other major economies. This is not unthinkable, given the determination of many countries to reduce public-sector deficits and debt, concerns about slowing growth in China and other major developing countries, and worries about various geo-political developments, such as conflict in the Middle East and the possible exit of Greece from the euro and the shock waves this might send. If it happened, what could governments and central banks do to stimulate aggregate demand? The problem is, according to the linked articles below, the world has largely run out of policy instruments.
In normal times, the main policy instruments for stimulating aggregate demand are cuts in interest rates (monetary policy) and increases in government expenditure and/or tax cuts (fiscal policy). But with interest rates currently at virtually zero, there is little scope for further cuts. And with governments attempting to ‘repair’ their balance sheets by cutting deficits, there is little appetite for increasing deficits again.
It is possible that central banks could engage in further quantitative easing. Indeed, the ECB is only just starting its large QE programme, involving monthly bond purchases of €60bn until at least September 2016 (totalling €1.14tr at that point). But QE leads to market distortions, such as increased asset prices (e.g. share and house prices), made higher and more unstable by speculation. By providing ‘cheap money’, it also encourages potentially risky investments.
The articles below considers the dilemma and looks at six possible options for policy makers suggested by Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC. But are they realistic? Read the articles and then consider the questions.
Financial crisis fixes leave policymakers short of ammo for next recession The Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/5/15)
How to get the economy working for us Guardian Letters, Mary Mellor; Colin Hines; Martin London; William Dixon and David Wilson (2/6/15)
HSBC’s Stephen King Outlines “Economic Nightmare” ValueWalk (14/5/15)
HSBC: Central Banks Are Running Low on Ammunition Bloomberg, Julie Verhage (13/5/15)
If the US economy is signalling an iceberg, bad news: we’re out of lifeboats The Guardian, Nils Pratley (13/5/15)
Policy makers lack the firepower to fight another US recession Financial Times, Stephen King (18/5/15)
The new surrealism Global Economics Quarterly, Stephen King (Q2, 2015)
- What are the risks to global recovery?
- Why has recovery from the 2008/9 recession been slower than that from previous recessions?
- What are the traditional instruments for combatting a recession?
- Why might central banks be wary of engaging in further rounds of quantitative easing?
- What is meant by ‘helicopter money’? Would this be a better solution to a recession than quantitative easing?
- Go through the other five policy options identified by Stephen King and discuss the suitability of each one.
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.
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)
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)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (7/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)
- What are the particular ‘headwinds’ facing the global economy?
- Why is the outlook for the global economy more pessimistic now than six months ago?
- Why are increasing levels of debt and asset price rises a threat to Chinese economic growth?
- Why may China be more able to deal with high levels of debt than many other countries?
- In what ways are commodity prices an indicator of the confidence of investors about future economic growth?
- What are the determinants of long-term economic growth? Why are potential economic growth rates lower today than in the 2000s?
- How might governments today boost long-term economic growth?
- 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?
- If confidence is a major determinant of investment, how might bodies such as the IMF boost confidence?
- Why does the IMF caution against over-aggressive attempts to reduce budget deficits?