Saturday, 26 July 2014

Why strong UK employment growth could be really bad news

Some of the better reporting and interviews with George Osborne yesterday did try and put the strongish 2014Q2 output growth in context. Yet the much stronger growth in UK employment continues to be greeted by many as unqualified good news - even by some who should know better. So, rather than trying to be satirical, let me attempt to be as clear as I can. Those who already understand the problem can skip the next three paragraphs.

By identity, strong employment growth relative to output growth means a reduction in labour productivity. In the short term when unemployment is above its ‘natural’ (non-inflationary) level, falling labour productivity is good news. It means that a given level of output is being produced by more people, so there are less people unemployed. This is good news because our evidence is that the costs of being unemployed are very high. Of course if more workers are producing the same amount of stuff, their real wages will fall, but that just means that the cost of a recession is being evenly spread rather than being concentrated among the unemployed.

Now lets move on until unemployment has fallen to its natural rate. It is what happens next that is crucial. If labour productivity starts increasingly rapidly, such that we make up all or nearly all of the ground lost over the last five years, that will be fantastic. Rapid productivity growth will bring rapid growth in real wages, meaning that much of the unprecedented fall in real wages we have seen in recent years is reversed. After a decade or so, UK living standards will end up somewhere around where they would have been if there had been no recession. The UK ‘productivity puzzle’ will have been a short term affair that economists can mull over at their leisure. Analysis will not look kindly on the policies that allowed output to be so low for so long, but - hysteresis effects aside - that will be history.

The alternative is that labour productivity does not make up lost ground. If this happens, the average UK citizen will be 15-20% poorer forever following the Great Recession. Living standards in the UK, which before the recession appeared to be growing at least as fast as those in other major established economies, will have fallen back substantially relative to citizens in the US and Europe. This is the alternative that most forecasters, including the OBR (see chart reproduced here), are assuming will happen. 

So the absence of labour productivity growth is good in the short term, but is potentially disastrous in the long term. The problem is that the absence of growth in labour productivity since the recession is unprecedented (see chart below): nothing like this has happened in living memory. The reason to be concerned is that the rapid growth in productivity required to catch up the ground already lost is also unprecedented for the UK, which is why most economists assume it will not happen. Which brings me to another puzzle.

As long as I can remember, UK governments have been obsessed by long term productivity growth, and its level relative to the US, France and Germany. They have put considerable effort into understanding what influences this growth, and what policies can help increase it. This was true when UK labour productivity was steadily increasing at a slightly slower rate than in other countries, or increasing at a slightly faster rate. Given this, you would imagine that the UK government would be frantic to know what was currently going on. Why has UK productivity stalled, why are we falling behind our competitors at such a fast rate?

GDP per hour worked: source OECD

Instead this government seems strangely indifferent. If they have an explanation for the absence of UK productivity growth, I have not seen it. You generally need to understand something before you know what to do about it. Instead the Prime Minister and Chancellor would seem to prefer not to talk about it, because it ‘feeds into’ the opposition’s complaints about low wages. This really is irresponsible. Is it simple arrogance? - they know what is good for the economy, even if they do not understand it. Or is it indifference? - we do not care too much about long term UK prosperity, as long as you keep voting for us. Or is it just too embarrassing to admit that the most calamitous period for UK living standards since the WWII has happened on their watch.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Synthesis!? David Beckworth's Insurance Policy

Could it be that New Keynesians and Market Monetarists can converge on a common policy proposal? I really like David Beckworth’s Insurance proposal against ‘incompetent’ monetary policy. Here it is.

1) Target the level of nominal GDP (NGDP)

2) “the Fed and Treasury sign an agreement that should a liquidity trap emerge anyhow [say due to central bank incompetence] and knock NGDP off its targeted path, they would then quickly work together to implement a helicopter drop. The Fed would provide the funding and the Treasury Department would provide the logistical support to deliver the funds to households. Once NGDP returned to its targeted path the helicopter drop would end and the Fed would implement policy using normal open market operations. If the public understood this plan, it would further stabilize NGDP expectations and make it unlikely a helicopter drop would ever be needed.”

In fact I like it so much that Jonathan Portes and I proposed something very like it in our recent paper. There we acknowledge that outside the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB), monetary policy does the stabilisation. But we also suggest that if the central bank thinks there is more than a 50% probability that they will hit the ZLB, they get together with the national fiscal council (in the US case, the CBO) to propose to the government a fiscal package that is designed to allow interest rates to rise above the ZLB.

There we did not specify what monetary policy should be, but speaking just for myself I have endorsed using the level of NGDP as an intermediate target for monetary policy, so there is no real disagreement there. A helicopter drop is a fiscal stimulus involving tax cuts plus Quantitative Easing (QE). Again we did not specify that the central bank had to undertake QE as part of its proposed package, but I think we both assumed that it would (outside the Eurozone, where for the moment we can just say it should). I think a central bank could suggest that an income tax cut might not be the most effective form of fiscal stimulus (compared to public investment, for example), but let’s not spoil the party by arguing over that.

Now this does not mean that Market Monetarists and New Keynesians suddenly agree about everything. A key difference is that for David this is an insurance against incompetence by the central bank, whereas Keynesians are as likely to view hitting the ZLB as unavoidable if the shock is big enough. However this difference is not critical, as New Keynesians are more than happy to try and improve how monetary policy works. The reason I wrote this post was not because of these differences in how we understand the world. It was because I thought New Keynesians and Market Monetarists could be much closer on policy than at least some let on. I now think this even more. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Macroeconomic innumeracy

Anthony Seldon is perhaps best known for his biographies of recent UK Prime Ministers. He had a column in the FT recently, which suggested that the Prime Minister’s team had done rather better than popular perception might suggest. Two sentences caught my attention: “Credit for sticking to the so-called Plan A on deficit reduction must be tempered by the government’s reluctance to cut more vigorously” and “Downing Street insiders can claim to have managed to steer…..the recovery of a very battered economy”.

The first sentence suggests that the government stuck to its original 2010 deficit reduction plan, but it should have cut spending by more than this plan. I disagree with the opinion in the second part of the sentence, but that is not the issue here. The problem is that the factual statement in the first part of the sentence is very hard to justify. The numbers suggest otherwise, as Steven Toft sets out here. The second sentence also indicates no acquaintance with the numbers. As the well known (I thought) NIESR chart shows, this has been the slowest UK recovery this century - including those in the 1920s and 1930s. The financial crisis certainly battered the UK, but it also hit the US pretty hard too! Yet average growth 2011-13 in the US was 2.2%, in the UK 1%. The idea that macroeconomic mismanagement left the UK economy in a peculiar mess before the financial crisis is a politically generated myth which is also divorced from the data, as I have argued on a number of occasions.

In one sense it is unfair to single Anthony Seldon out in this respect, because I hear similar mistakes all the time from UK political commentators who profess to be, and may honestly believe they are, objective when it comes to macroeconomic reporting. I suspect the problem is threefold. First, the common feature of these mistakes is that they are repeated endlessly by the government and its supporters. Second, there is group self-affirmation - what Krugman calls ‘Very Serious People’ talk to each other more often than they talk to people acquainted with the data. Third, when some of this group do look for economic expertise, they often talk to ‘experts’ in the City or read the Financial Times. Unfortunately, both sources can and do have their own agendas.

Yet in another sense it is not unfair, because Seldon is a historian, and historians stress the importance of accessing primary sources. The main positive point I want to make is that political commentators need to check the data if they want to avoid making macroeconomic statements that are factually incorrect.      

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Is economics jargon distortionary?

Employees are already beset by red tape if they try to improve their working conditions. Now the UK government wants to increase the regulatory burden on them further, by proposing that employee organisations need a majority of all their members to vote for strike action before a strike becomes legal, even though those voting against strike action can still free ride on their colleagues by going to work during any strike and benefiting from any improvement in conditions obtained. Shouldn’t we instead be going back to a free market where employees are able to collectively withhold their labour as they wish?

I doubt if you have ever read a paragraph that applies language in this way. Yet why should laws that apply to employers be regarded as a regulatory burden, but laws that apply to employees are not? Labour markets, alongside financial markets, are areas where the concept of a ‘free’ market uncluttered by regulations is a myth. Here, as elsewhere, language has been distorted to suit a neoliberal agenda.

Is this also true with terminology used in academic economics? That is the argument put forward by Charles Manski in this Vox piece in the context of economists’ discussion of taxation and lump-sum taxes. He writes:

“Students of economics learn that the formal usage of the concepts 'inefficiency', 'deadweight loss', and 'distortion' in normative public finance refer to a theoretical setting where a private economy is in competitive equilibrium and a government can use lump-sum taxes to modify the endowments of individuals. In this setting, classical theorems of welfare economics show that any Pareto efficient social outcome can be achieved by having the government use lump-sum taxes to redistribute endowments and otherwise not intervene in the economy. Income taxes and other commonly used taxes logically cannot yield better social outcomes than optimal lump sum taxes but they may do worse. Deadweight loss measures the degree to which they do worse.”

The big problem with this terminology and associated research agenda, he argues, is that it presumes lump sum taxes are a feasible option, whereas in reality they are not.

“The research aims to measure the social cost of the income tax relative to the utterly implausible alternative of a lump-sum tax. It focuses attention entirely on the social cost of financing government spending, with no regard to the potential social benefits.”

Indeed, lump sum taxes (a.k.a. a poll tax) are not a feasible option precisely because they achieve non-distortion at the cost of being unfair, and in the real world taxation is as much about fairness as allocative efficiency.

The counterargument is that the idea of a lump sum tax is just a useful analytical device, which allows research to focus on the taxation side of the balance sheet, without having to worry about what taxes are spent on. It would be equally possible to look at the benefits of different types of government spending, all of which were financed by a lump sum tax. Equally the competitive equilibrium against which real world taxes are distortionary is an imaginary but analytically useful reference point - everyone knows the real world is not like this competitive equilibrium.

It is not our fault, the counter argument would go, that non-academics abuse these analytical devices. No serious economist would talk about the costs and benefits of a policy to cut a particular tax in isolation, when that cut has been financed using a lump sum tax. Governments that do that have clear ulterior motives. Equally no serious economist would talk about the benefits of reducing a tax designed in part as Pigouvian (i.e. a tax designed to offset some market externality), within the context of a model that ignores that externality. (For a recent example where the UK Treasury published a study that managed to do both of these things, see here.)

I think the key here is to clearly differentiate analysis from policy advice. I have used lump sum taxes in my research, and I often talk about taxes being distortionary. I think both general and partial equilibrium analysis is useful, and devices that allow abstraction are invaluable in economics. (I have less sympathy for the concept of Pareto optimality, for reasons discussed here. See also the excellent series of discussions by Steve Randy Waldman.) However these devices can often allow those with an agenda (including the occasional economist) to mislead, which is why economists need to be very careful when presenting their analysis to policy makers, and why they also need to have the means to alert the public when this kind of deception happens. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Fiscal deceit

Vince Cable, the LibDem minister whose remit includes UK student finance, is apparently having cold feet about the plan to privatise the student loan book. Which is good news, because if ever there was an example of a policy designed to lose money for the public sector (or, as they say in the media, cost the taxpayer more), it was this.

As I explained in this post, if a public asset that generates income is privatised, the public gains the sale value, but loses a stream of future income. The ‘debt burden’ need not be reduced, because although future taxes will fall because there is less debt to pay interest on, they will rise because the government has also lost a future income stream.

With assets like the Royal Mail, we can debate endlessly whether the asset will become more or less efficient under private ownership. If it is more efficient, and therefore profitable, under private ownership, the private sector might be prepared to pay more for it, and so the public sector (and society) is better off selling it – unless of course the government sells it at below its market price! However in the case of the student loan book, it is pretty clear that privatisation is a bad deal for the public sector for two reasons.

First, as Martin Wolf has pointed out, the revenues from student loan repayments are very long term, and pretty uncertain. Any private sector firm that might buy this book is likely to discount these revenues quite highly, and so will not be prepared to pay the government enough to compensate the government for the lost revenue. Second, as Alasdair Smith points out, the main efficiency issue is collecting the loan repayments. Here the government has clear advantages over the private sector, because loan repayments are linked to income, and the government has all the information on people’s income, and an existing system for collecting money based on income.

So selling the student loan book is an almost certain way of increasing the ‘debt burden’ on current and future generations. As Alasdair Smith reports, George Osborne justified the sale by saying that it helped the government with a ‘cash flow issue’. As Alasdair rightly says, the government does not have cash flow issues. This kind of ludicrous policy either comes from ideological fundamentalism (the government shouldn’t own assets) or the need to meet ridiculously tough deficit targets. Whichever it is, every UK citizen loses money as a result.

George Osborne is hardly the first finance minister to play tricks like this, so how do we stop future governments from doing the same? I’m glad to see more journalists, like Chris Cook, making the points I make here. However it would be better still if an independent body, set up by the government to calculate its future fiscal position, was charged with a statutory duty to make these points. At present the OBR does not have that duty, and it feels naturally reluctant to go beyond its remit and pick fights with the government. However, if it became more of a public watchdog, with a remit to flag government proposals that appeared to lose money for the public sector in the long term, that might just stop future governments doing this kind of thing.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

What annoys me about market monetarists

I missed this little contretemps between Nick Rowe and Paul Krugman. Actually this appears to be a fuss over nothing. The main point Paul was trying to make, it seemed to me, was about how far the Republican base were on monetary policy from anything reasonable, and so what he called the neomonetarist movement did not have much chance with this group. By implication, neomonetarism was something more reasonable, although he had well known problems with its ideas. So a sort of backhanded compliment, if anything.

Nick responded by pointing out that what he called neofiscalists (those, like me, who argue for fiscal stimulus at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB)) hadn’t done too well at finding a political home recently either. Which, alas, is all too true, but I think we kind of knew that.

What interests me is how annoyed each side gets with each other. Following my earlier posts, I will use the label market monetarist (MM) rather than neomonetarist. It seems to me that I understand a little why those in the MM camp get so annoyed with those like me who go on about fiscal policy. Let me quote Nick:

“We don't like fiscal patches that cover up that underlying problem. Because fiscal policy has other objectives and you can't always kill two birds with the same fiscal stone. Because we can't always rely on fiscal policymakers being able and willing to do the right thing. And because if your car has alternator trouble you fix the alternator; you don't just keep on doing bodge-jobs like replacing the battery every 100kms.”

I’ll come back to the car analogy, but let me focus on the patches idea for now. In their view, the proper way to do stabilisation policy outside a fixed exchange rate regime is, without qualification, to use monetary policy. So the first best policy is to try every monetary means possible, which may in fact turn out to be quite easy if only policymakers adopt the right rule. Fiscal policy is a second best bodge. MM just hates bodgers.

As I explained in this post, the situation is not symmetric. I do not get annoyed with MM because I think monetary policy is a bodge. I have spent much time discussing what monetary policy can do at the ZLB, and I have written favourably about nominal GDP targets. But, speaking for just myself, I do get annoyed by at least some advocates of MM.

Before I say why, let me dismiss two possible reasons. First, some find MM difficult because there does not seem to be a clear theoretical model behind their advocacy (see this post from Tony Yates for example). I can live with that, because I suspect I can see the principles behind their reasoning, and principles can be more general than models (although they can also be wrong). Second, I personally would have every right to be annoyed with some MMs (but certainly not Nick) because of their debating style and lack of homework, but I see that as a symptom rather than fundamental.

To understand why I do get annoyed with MM, let me use another car analogy. We are going downhill, and the brakes do not seem to be working properly. I’m sitting in the backseat with a representative of MM. I suggest to the driver that they should keep trying the brake pedal, but they should also put the handbrake on. The person sitting next to me says “That is a terrible idea. The brake pedal should work. Maybe try pressing it in a different way. But do not put on the handbrake. The smell of burning rubber will be terrible. The brake pedal should work, that is what it is designed for, and to do anything else just lets the car manufacturer off the hook. Have you tried pressing on the accelerator after trying the brake?”

OK, that last one is unfair, but you get my point. When you have a macroeconomic disaster, with policymakers who are confused, conflicted and unreliable, you do not obsess over the optimal way of getting out of the disaster. There will be a time and place for that later. Instead you try and convince all the actors involved to do things that will avoid disaster. If both monetary and fiscal policymakers are doing the wrong thing given each other’s actions, and your influence on either will be minimal, you encourage both to change their ways.

MM agrees that fiscal stimulus will work unless it is actively counteracted by monetary policy. Nick says we can't always rely on fiscal policymakers being able and willing to do the right thing. But since at least 2011 we have not been able to rely on monetary policymakers in the Eurozone to do either the right thing, or consistently the wrong thing. So why is anyone with any sense saying that austerity is not a major factor behind the second Eurozone recession? That is just encouraging fiscal policymakers to carry on doing exactly the wrong thing, in the real world where monetary policy is set by the ECB rather than some MM devotee.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A short note on tobacco packaging

About a year ago I published a post that was off my macro beat, about whether banning advertising was paternalistic or freedom enhancing. It was prompted by the UK government appearing to kick the idea of enforcing ‘plain packaging’ of cigarettes into the long grass. Subsequently the government seemed to change its mind, and asked paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler to review the Australian experience, where plain packaging had been introduced more than a year earlier. In April this year the UK government announced that it would go ahead with plain packaging, after a ‘short consultation’.

The standard argument against actions of this kind is that they are paternalistic. Most economists are instinctively non-paternalistic, although personally I think paternalism can be justified in a small number of cases, like the compulsory wearing of seat belts. Furthermore, I think as behavioural economics progresses, economists are going to find themselves becoming more and more paternalistic whether they like it or not.

However my argument on advertising was rather different. Most advertising is not ‘on-demand’: we have to go out of our way to avoid it. Examples would be television advertising, magazine advertising or billboard advertising. A lot of advertising also has no informational content, but instead tries to associate some brand with various positive emotions - a mild form of brainwashing. A ban on this kind of advertising enhances our freedom, making it less costly to avoid being brainwashed. Banning advertising allows us to avoid unwanted intrusion by advertising companies. It enhances rather than detracts from our freedom. Of course it restricts the freedom of companies, but companies are not people.

What appears on a packet of cigarettes is different, because it is ‘on-demand’ - only those buying the product view it. However it is almost invariably of the non-informative kind. In contrast, ‘plain packaging’ is actually informative, about the health risks being faced by the smoker. So in this case, the smoker receives more information under plain packaging, so will be better off. Arguments by the industry that this represents a ‘nanny state’ are nonsense, and are akin to potential muggers arguing that policemen represent a gross violation by the state of the rights of the mugger.

The UK decided in April to adopt plain packaging because the evidence from Australia was that it was having a positive impact. More recently, the Financial Times reports that the latest National Drugs Strategy Household Survey shows a sharp decline not only in the number of cigarettes smoked per week, but also a large rise in the age at which young people smoke their first cigarette. (The cigarette industry and their apologists argue that smoking has in fact increased as a result of the ban, so strangely they are against it!)

This shows how in at least one respect Australia is helping lead a global improvement in peoples’ lives. Alas the new Australian government has also just abolished their carbon tax, which unfortunately means we need to be selective in following an Australian example!