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 2009, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness was published. This book by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein examines how people are influenced to make decisions or change behaviour.
According to Thaler and Sunstein, people can be ‘nudged’ to change their behaviour. For example, healthy food can be placed in a prominent position in a supermarket or healthy snacks at the checkout. Often it is the junk foods that are displayed prominently and unhealthy, but tasty, snacks are found by the checkout. If fashion houses ceased to use ultra thin models, it could reduce the incentive for many girls to under-eat. If kids at school are given stars or smiley faces for turning off lights or picking up litter, they might be more inclined to do so.
The UK government has been investigating the use of ‘nudges’ as a way of changing behaviour, and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has been considering the question. It has just published its report, Behaviour Change. The summary of the report states that:
The currently influential book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocates a range of non-regulatory interventions that seek to influence behaviour by altering the context or environment in which people choose, and seek to influence behaviour in ways which people often do not notice. This approach differs from more traditional government attempts to change behaviour, which have either used regulatory interventions or relied on overt persuasion.
The current Government have taken a considerable interest in the use of “nudge interventions”. Consequently, one aim of this inquiry was to assess the evidence-base for the effectiveness of “nudges”. However, we also examined evidence for the effectiveness of other types of policy intervention, regulatory and non-regulatory, and asked whether the Government make good use of the full range of available evidence when seeking to change behaviour.
The report finds that nudges
… used in isolation will often not be effective in changing the behaviour of the population. Instead, a whole range of measures – including some regulatory measures – will be needed to change behaviour in a way that will make a real difference to society’s biggest problems.
So is there, nevertheless, a role for nudges in changing behaviour – albeit alongside other measures? Read the report and the articles below to find out!
Lords report calls for regulation over persuasion to improve public health Wales Online, David Williamson (19/7/11)
Government’s ‘nudge’ approach to health is not enough, according to House of Lords and Work Foundation HR Magazine, David Woods (20/7/11)
How can I tell if I’ve been nudged Independent, Natalie Haynes (20/7/11)
Healthier behaviour plans are nudge in the wrong direction, say peers Guardian, Sarah Boseley (19/7/11)
‘Nudge’ is not enough, it’s true. But we already knew that Guardian, Jonathan Rowson (19/7/11)
Nudge not enough to change lifestyles – peers BBC News, Nick Triggle (19/7/11)
Why a nudge is not enough to change behaviour BBC News, Baroness Julia Neuberger (19/7/11)
House of Lords findings: why green Nudges are not enough The Green Living Blog, Baroness Julia Neuberger (19/7/11)
Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee publish report on Behaviour Change YouTube, Baroness Julia Neuberger (14/7/11)
Press Release Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (19/7/11)
Behaviour Change Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (online version) (19/7/11)
Behaviour Change Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (PDF version) (19/7/11)
- When may a nudge (a) be enough, (b) not be enough to change behaviour?
- What instruments does the government have to change behaviour?
- Distinguish between a ‘technical’ and an ‘adaptive’ solution to changing behaviour. Give examples.
- Why might adaptive solutions provide more of a challenge to policymakers than technical solutions.
- Can a nudge ever be transformative?