Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has just published its annual ‘Green Budget‘. This is, in effect, a pre-Budget report (or a substitute for a government ‘Green Paper’) and is published ahead of the government’s actual Budget.
The Green Budget examines the state of the UK economy, likely economic developments and the implications for macroeconomic policy. This latest Green Budget is written in the context of Brexit and the growing likelihood of a hard Brexit (i.e. a no-deal Brexit). It argues that the outlook for the public finances has deteriorated substantially and that the economy is facing recession if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
It predicts that:
Government borrowing is set to be over £50 billion next year (2.3% of national income), more than double what the OBR forecast in March. This results mainly from a combination of spending increases, a (welcome) change in the accounting treatment of student loans, a correction to corporation tax revenues and a weakening economy. Borrowing of this level would breach the 2% of national income ceiling imposed by the government’s own fiscal mandate, with which the Chancellor has said he is complying.
A no-deal Brexit would worsen this scenario. The IFS predicts that annual government borrowing would approach £100 billion or 4% of GDP. National debt (public-sector debt) would rise to around 90% of GDP, the highest for over 50 years. This would leave very little scope for the use of fiscal policy to combat the likely recession.
The Chancellor, Sajid Javid, pledged to increase public spending by £13.4bn for 2020/21 in September’s Spending Review. This was to meet the Prime Minister’s pledges on increased spending on police and schools. This should go some way to offset the dampening effect on aggregate demand of a no-deal Brexit. The government has also stated that it wishes to cut various taxes, such as increasing the threshold at which people start paying the 40% rate of income tax from £50 000 to £80 000. But even with a ‘substantial’ fiscal boost, the IFS expects little or no growth for the two years following Brexit.
But can fiscal policy be used over the longer term to offset the downward shock of Brexit, and especially a no-deal Brexit? The problem is that, if the government wishes to prevent government borrowing from soaring, it would then have to start reining in public spending again. Another period of austerity would be likely.
There are many uncertainties in the IFS predictions. The nature of Brexit is the obvious one: deal, no deal, a referendum and a remain outcome – these are all possibilities. But other major uncertainties include business and consumer sentiment. They also include the state of the global economy, which may see a decline in growth if trade wars increase or if monetary easing is ineffective (see the blog: Is looser monetary policy enough to stave off global recession?).
- Why would a hard Brexit reduce UK economic growth?
- To what extent can expansionary fiscal policy stave off the effects of a hard Brexit?
- Does it matter if national debt (public-sector debt) rises to 90% or even 100% of GDP? Explain.
- Find out the levels of national debt as a percentage of GDP of the G7 countries. How has Japan managed to sustain such a high national debt as a percentage of GDP?
- How can an expansionary monetary policy make it easier to finance the public-sector debt?
- How has investment in the UK been affected by the Brexit vote in 2016? Explain.
We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.
The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.
Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.
Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.
He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:
||Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
||Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
||Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).
Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.
Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)
- What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
- What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
- Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
- Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
- Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
- Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
- What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
- What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?
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?
In the second part of this blog, we look at an interview with the Guardian given by Robert Chote, Chair of the UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility. Like Mervyn King’s, that we looked at in Part 1, Robert Chote’s predictions are also gloomy.
In particular, he argues that if Greece leaves the euro, the effects on the UK economy could be significant, not just in the short term, but in the long term too.
The concern is that you end up with an outcome in the eurozone that creates the same sort of structural difficulties in the financial system and in the economy that we saw in the past recession, and that that has consequences both for hitting economic activity in the economy, but also its underlying potential. And it’s the latter which has particular difficulties for the fiscal position, because it means not just that the economy weakens and then strengthens again – ie, it goes into a hole and comes out – but that you go down and you never quite get back up to where you started. And that has more lingering, long-term consequences for the public finances.
The interview looked not just at the effects of the current crisis in the eurozone on the eurozone, British and world economies, but also at a number of other issues, including: the reliability of forecasts and those of the OBR in particular; relations between the OBR and the Treasury; allowing the OBR to cost opposition policies; the economic effect of cutting the 50p top rate of income tax; the sustainability of public-sector pensions; and tax increases or spending cuts in the long term.
In Part 3 we look at attempts by the G8 countries to find a solution to the mounting crisis.
Robert Chote interview: ‘I would not say in the past there’s been rigging’ Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (18/5/12)
UK ‘may never fully recover’ if Greece exits euro Guardian, Andrew Sparrow, Helena Smith and Larry Elliott (18/5/12)
British economy may ‘never quite recover’ from a severe Euro collapse The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (18/5/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook Office for Budget Responsibility (March 2012)
- Why is it very difficult to forecast the effects of a Greek withdrawal from the euro?
- Why may Greek withdrawal have an effect on long-term potential output in the UK and the rest of Europe?
- Why are economic forecasts in general so unreliable? Does this mean that we should abandon economic forecasting?
- Why are public finances “likely to come under pressure over the longer term”?
- Why might the cut in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% have little impact on economic growth? Distinguish between income and substitution effects of the tax cut.