Late January sees the annual global World Economic Forum meeting of politicians, businesspeople and the great and the good at Davos in Switzerland. Global economic, political, social and environmental issues are discussed and, sometimes, agreements are reached between world leaders. The 2019 meeting was somewhat subdued as worries persist about a global slowdown, Brexit and the trade war between the USA and China. Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Theresa May were all absent, each having more pressing issues to attend to at home.
There was, however, a feeling that the world economic order is changing, with the rise in populism and with less certainty about the continuance of the model of freer trade and a model of capitalism modified by market intervention. There was also concern about the roles of the three major international institutions set up at the end of World War II: the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO (formerly the GATT). In a key speech, Angela Merkel urged countries not to abandon the world economic order that such institutions help to maintain. The world can only resolve disputes and promote development, she argued, by co-operating and respecting the role of such institutions.
But the role of these institutions has been a topic of controversy for many years and their role has changed somewhat. Originally, the IMF’s role was to support an adjustable peg exchange rate system (the ‘Bretton Woods‘ system) with the US dollar as the international reserve currency. It would lend to countries in balance of payments deficit to allow them to maintain their rate pegged to the dollar unless it was perceived to be a fundamental deficit, in which case they were expected to devalue their currency. The system collapsed in 1971, but the IMF continued to provide short-term, and sometimes longer-term, finance to countries in balance of payments difficulties.
The World Bank was primarily set up to provide development finance to poorer countries. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the WTO were set up to encourage freer trade and to resolve trade disputes.
However, the institutions were perceived with suspicion by many developing countries and by more left-leaning developed countries, who saw them as part of the ‘Washington consensus’. Loans from the IMF and World Bank were normally contingent on countries pursuing policies of market liberalisation, financial deregulation and privatisation.
Although there has been some movement, especially by the IMF, towards acknowledging market failures and supporting a more broadly-based development, there are still many economists and commentators calling for more radical reform of these institutions. They advocate that the World Bank and IMF should directly support investment – public as well as private – and support the Green New Deal.
- What was the Bretton Woods system that was adopted at the end of World War II?
- What did Keynes propose as an alternative to the system that was actually adopted?
- Explain the roles of (a) the IMF, (b) the World Bank, (c) the WTO (formerly the GATT).
- What is meant by an adjustable exchange rate system?
- Why did the Bretton Woods system collapse in 1971?
- How have the roles of the IMF, World Bank and WTO/GATT evolved since they were founded?
- What reforms would you suggest to each of the three institutions and why?
- What threats are there currently to the international economic order?
- Summarise the arguments about the world economic order made by Angela Merkel in her address to the World Economic Forum.
You may be used to these types of blogs by now … On my commute to work on the 18th May, I listened to Start the Week on BBC radio 4 and happened upon a fascinating discussion on inequality.
Of those discussing the issue, one certainly needs no introduction: Joseph Stiglitz, a prominent economist, author and commentator on economics, in particular on inequality. He was joined by Steve Hilton, who has worked for David Cameron for many years in providing advice on a range of issues, including inequality and strategy and has written on existing institutions and their effectiveness. The final panellist was Masha Gessen, who has written extensively on Russia and in particular on the journey of the infamous Boston Bomber.
Though the discussion covers a variety of areas relevant to economics, one key area that is addressed is inequality and the policies that are being used to address the causes and the symptoms. You can access the 45-minute discussion at the link below.
Joseph Stiglitz and Steve Hilton on inequality BBC Radio 4 (18/5/15)
- How would you measure inequality?
- Why is it important to distinguish between the causes and symptoms of poverty when designing government policy?
- To what extent do you believe that education is an essential requirement for growth and development?
- Why has inequality grown in some of the most developed nations?
- How is it possible that inequality in the developed world has grown, while global inequality has fallen?
- Why does the report argue that the reforms they suggest would help boost growth?
- Do you agree that existing institutions are not suitable for society today?
I found this interesting article on the BBC News website about three students in Nigeria who have created an online job search company. Only five years later, this company now is valued in the millions and employs over 100 people.
The article below contains some interesting insights into the Nigerian job market and the key to success for this company. In particular, they note the effect of the multiplier through job creation and how this has been used to benefit the wider economy. This is particularly pertinent given the severe unemployment problem that has affected this African economy. It has helped 35,000 people to find jobs in the past two years.
How three students created Nigeria’s online jobs giant BBC News, Jason Boswell (2/9/14)
- What are the main causes of the unemployment problem in Nigeria?
- The company itself employs hundreds of people, but indirect employment effects have also occurred. How has this happened?
- How important are entrepreneurs in African countries as a means of helping their development?
GDP is still the most frequently used indicator of a country’s development. When governments target economic growth as a key goal, it is growth in GDP to which they are referring. And they often make the assumption that growth in GDP is a proxy for growth in well-being. But is it time to leave GDP behind as the main indicator of national economic success? This is the question posed in the first of the linked articles below, from the prestigious science journal Nature.
As the article states:
Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being.
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country
So what could replace GDP, or be considered alongside GDP? Should we try to measure happiness? After all, behavioural scientists are getting much better at understanding and measuring the psychology of human well-being (see the blog posts Money can’t buy me love and Happiness economics).
Or should we focus primarily on long-term issues of the sustainability of development? Or should we focus more on the distribution of income or well-being in a world that is becoming increasingly unequal?
Or should measures of well-being involve weighted composite indices involving things such as life-expectancy, education, housing, democratic engagement, leisure time, social mobility, etc. And, if so, how should the weightings of the different indicators be determined? The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces annual Human Development Reports, where countries are ranked according to a Human Development Index. As the UNDP site states:
The breakthrough for the HDI was the creation of a single statistic which was to serve as a frame of reference for both social and economic development. The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.
HDI is a composite of three sets of indicators: education, life expectancy and income (see). The UNDP since 2010 has also produced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).
The IHDI will be equal to the HDI value when there is no inequality, but falls below the HDI value as inequality rises. The difference between the HDI and the IHDI represents the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality and can be expressed as a percentage.
You can now build your own HDI for each country on the UNDP site by selecting from the following indicators: health, education, income, inequality, poverty and gender.
The Nature article considers a number of measures of progress and considers their relative merits. The other articles also look at measuring national progress and well-being and at the relationship between income per head and happiness. It is clear that focusing on GDP alone provides too simplistic an approach to measuring development.
Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy The Conversation, Daniel Sage (9/1/14)
Economic view: No matter what the politicians say, GDP is a distorted guide to economic performance and a bad way to measure prosperity Independent, Guy Hands (28/1/14)
Buy buy love The Economist (22/6/13)
Experts confirm that money does buy happiness – but only up to £22,100 Independent, Jamie Merrill (28/11/13)
Can Money Buy Happiness? Scientific American, Sonja Lyubomirsky (10/8/10)
Money can buy happiness The Economist (2/5/13)
Money can buy happiness Hacker News, pyduan (13/1/14)
Can ‘happiness economics’ provide a new framework for development? The Guardian, Christian Kroll (3/9/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Financial crisis hits happiness levels BBC News (3/11/13)
Happiness study finds that UK is passing point of peak life satisfaction The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/11/13)
How GDP became the figure everyone wanted to watch BBC News, Peter Day (16/4/14)
Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person Science Daily (27/11/13)
- What does GDP measure?
- How suitable a measure of economic progress is growth in GDP?
- How can GDP be adjusted to make it a more suitable measure of economic progress?
- What are the advantages of using composite indicators of well-being?
- What difficulties are there in measuring well-being using composite indicators?
- Assuming there were no measurement problems, what indicators would you include in devising the optimum composite indicator of well-being?
- Can money buy happiness?
- Why do life satisfaction levels peak at around $36,000 (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP))?
The link below is to an article by Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. He argues that per-capita GDP is a poor indicator of development, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The problems with using GDP as an indicator of the level of development of a country are well known and several alternative measures are in common use. Perhaps the best known is the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI), where countries are given an HDI of between 0 and 1. HDI is the average of three indices based on three sets of variables: (i) life expectancy at birth, (ii) education (a weighted average of (a) the mean years that a 25-year-old person or older has spent in school and (b) the number of years of schooling that a 5-year-old child is expected to have over their lifetime) and (iii) real gross national income (GNY) per capita, measured in US dollars at purchasing-power parity exchange rates (see Box 27.1 in Economics 8th edition for more details).
But although indicators such as this capture more elements of development than simple per-capita GNP or GNY, there are still serious shortcomings. A major problem is the lack of and inaccuracy of statistics, especially when applied to the rural subsistence and informal urban sectors. The problem is recognised and some countries are trying to address the problem (see the second article below), but the problem is huge. As Gates says:
It is clear to me that we need to devote greater resources to getting basic GDP numbers right. … National statistics offices across Africa need more support so that they can obtain and report timelier and more accurate data. Donor governments and international organisations such as the World Bank need to do more to help African authorities produce a clearer picture of their economies. And African policymakers need to be more consistent about demanding better statistics and using them to inform decisions.
Another problem is how you convert data into internationally comparable forms. For example, how are inflation, exchange rates, income distribution, the quality of health provision and education, etc. taken into account?
How GDP understates economic growth The Guardian, Bill Gates (8/5/13)
States’ GDP computation report out soon, says Nigeria statistics bureau Premium Times (Nigeria), Bassey Udo (9/5/13)
Michael Porter Presents New Alternative to GDP: The Social Progress Index (SPI) Triple Pundit, Raz Godelnik (13/4/13)
- By accessing the Human Development Index site, identify which countries have a much higher ranking by HDP than by per capita gross national income. Explain why.
- Why is expressing GNY in purchasing-power parity (PPP) terms likely to increase the GNY figures for the poorest countries?
- Explain the following quote from the Gates article: ‘I have long believed that GDP understates growth even in rich countries, where its measurement is quite sophisticated, because it is very difficult to compare the value of baskets of goods across different time periods’.
- Why is GNY per capita, even when expressed in PPP terms, likely to understate the level of development in subsistence economies?
- Explain whether the rate of growth of GNY per capita is likely to understate or overstate the rate of economic development of sub-Saharan African countries?
- Why are the challenges of calculating GDP or GNY particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa?