Business cycle or volatile booms and busts? The four stages of the bubble.

I blogged on this topic last year but below is a useful video from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on how bubbles are so difficult to predict with some examples from Gamestop to Tulips. A graphical explanation follows after the video.

I picked up this graphic and explanation from The Geography of Transport Systems by Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2020)

It is apparent that business cycles aren’t those smooth ups and downs as depicted in a lot of textbooks but more volatile with booms and busts. Central banks appear to play their part in this process with the low cost of borrowing feeding the boom phase of the cycle. Instead of economic stability regulated by market forces, monetary intervention creates long-term instability for the sake of short-term stability.

Bubbles (financial manias) unfold in several stages, an observation that is backed up by 500 years of economic history. Each mania is obviously different, but there are always similarities; simplistically, four phases can be identified:

  • Stealth – emerging opportunity for future prize appreciations of investments. Investors have better access to information and understand the wider economic context that would trigger asset inflation. Prices tend to increase but are unnoticed by the general public.
  • Awareness – many investors start to notice the momentum so money starts to push prices higher. There can be sell-offs but the smart money takes this opportunity to reinforce its existing positions. The media start to notice that this boom benefits the economy.
  • Mania – the public see prices going up and see this a great opportunity to invest with the expectations about future appreciation. This stage is not so much about reasoning but psychology as money pours into the market creating greater expectations and pushing prices up. Unbiased opinion about the fundamentals becomes increasingly difficult to find as many players are heavily invested and have every interest to keep asset inflation going. At some point, statements are made about entirely new fundamentals implying that a “permanent high plateau” has been reached to justify future price increases; the bubble is about to collapse.
  • Blow-off – everyone roughly at the same time realises that the situation has changed. Confidence and expectations encounter a paradigm shift, not without a phase of denial where many try to reassure the public that this is just a temporary setback. Many try to unload their assets, but takers are few; everyone is expecting further price declines. Prices plummet at a rate much faster than the one that inflated the bubble. Many over-leveraged asset owners go bankrupt, triggering additional waves of sales. This is the time when the smart money starts acquiring assets at low prices.

For more on the Business Cycle view the key notes (accompanied by fully coloured diagrams/models) on elearneconomics that will assist students to understand concepts and terms for external examinations, assignments or topic tests.

How Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club.

I can recommend listening/subscribing to the David McWilliams podcast – an Irish economist who popularises economics and explains quite complex issues in understandable language. I might be a bit bias here being Irish. He recently held a live podcast to a sold out audience of 1,200 in the 3Olympia theatre in Dublin. This theatre is more used to rock concerts, plays etc so for an economist to have a sold-out gig is quite impressive. Colin Peacock of Radio New Zealand recently interviewed him on Radio New Zealand

A recent podcast looked at Russia and how the oligarchs got their money – he used the example of Chelsea Football Club owned by Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich. Below is a mind map and a timeline of events.

  • 1990 – Germany reunites – fall of Berlin Wall
  • 1991 – Yeltsin – first president of Russian Federation
  • 1992 – ‘Shock therapy’ economic reforms – spiralling inflation
  • 1992 – Massive privatisation programme of state assets- every citizen 10,000 ruble voucher
  • 1993 – Oligarchs bought vouchers off confused public – very cheap
  • 1996 – Yeltsin offers oligarchs (22 individuals) key state assets (40% of country) for media support and financing re-election
  • 1997 – Government tries to curtail ‘sweetheart deals’ with oligarchs
  • 1997 – Oligarchs get money out of Russia – buy yachts, property, companies, football teams etc
  • 1999 – Yeltsin steps down and Putin becomes prime minister – the rest is history

Estimates of oligarchs worth outside Russia

  • $920bn of net private Russian wealth located offshore
  • $2bn stake in the London property market
  • $11bn in Swiss bank accounts500
  • Russian multimillionaires living in the UK

2020 report from the Atlantic Council on Russian dark money, Vladimir Putin and his closest associates control around one-quarter of the estimated $1 trillion worth of assets stashed away in the West and beyond Russia’s borders. Source: David McWilliams Podcast

For more on economic systems view the key notes (accompanied by fully coloured diagrams/models) on elearneconomics that will assist students to understand concepts and terms for external examinations, assignments or topic tests.

Global Stagflation and the threat to democracy.

In my economics classes this week one cannot get away from what is happening in Ukraine and the impact of that geopolitics will have on the global economy. Already I wrote a blog post on Russian interest rates and the collapse of the rouble but what are the challenges ahead for the global economy?

Before the invasion central banks worldwide were tightening monetary policy (interest rates) to reduce the increasing inflation pressure in their economy’s. The price of oil has increased to over US$105 adding to the inflationary problem as policy makers still have to deal with the slow recovery from the COVID pandemic. However the US Federal Reserve (US Central Bank) and the European Central Bank (ECB) have indicated that they intend to continue with their tightening policy of 25 basis points (0.25%) increase in interest rates this month but may have to be less aggressive in their future tightening. Their major concern now is that the war in Ukraine has increased the chances of a period of stagflation – stagnation and inflation at the same time. Therefore it is important that central banks are more sensitive to tightening their monetary policy as adding the Ukrainian crisis (with higher oil and food prices) to the present supply chain issues would increase the chances of stagflation and a significant downturn in the global economy.

In economic textbooks there are two main cause of inflation – Demand Pull and Cost Push (see graph below).

Source: Eleareconomics

The inflation that New Zealand is mainly experiencing is of a cost push nature especially when you look at the recent CPI figure of 5.9%. The major driver of this inflation is:

  • 30.5% rise in the cost of petrol
  • 15.7% rise in the associated cost in buying a new dwelling.
  • 4.1% increase in the food group

What you notice from the graph is that when the AS curve shifts left not only does inflation increase but also output and employment decrease. The last major stagflationary period was during the oil crisis years of 1973 (oil price up 400%) and 1979 (up 200%) – see video below from the Philadelphia Fed.

But when will these cost pressures ease in New Zealand? With a 5.9% inflation rate employees will put significant pressure on employers for wage increases and this is when there is already a very tight labour market (3.2% unemployment).

Final thought
2022 is going to be a very difficult year for the economy with both demand and supply issues:
Demand: higher inflation will mean a tightening of interest rates which will reduce spending and increase the debt burden.
Supply: higher energy costs, supply chain problems, increase in material costs and availability of parts for industry.

Add to this the war in Ukraine and we are in for a rocky ride. However the possible suffering is necessary if it nullifies the threat on global democracy.

For more on Stagflation view the key notes (accompanied by fully coloured diagrams/models) on elearneconomics that will assist students to understand concepts and terms for external examinations, assignments or topic tests.

COVID-19 and the Universal Basic Income debate.

Here Martin Sandbu of the FT  discusses the UBI as part of his Free Lunch on Film – taking unorthodox economic ideas that he likes and putting them to the test. He looks at both sides of the UBI argument with examples from Alaska and Finland where results showed that there was little reduction in working hours when people received the UBI. Good discussion and well presented.

Why has the UBI become such a popular talking point?

  • The coronavirus pandemic has seen wage subsidies – a no-strings attached regular cash transfers to just about everyone in the economy.
  • The automation of a lot of jobs has left people very concerned about redundancy.
  • The modern economy can’t be expected to provide jobs for everyone
  • The UBI is easy to administer and it avoids paternalism of social-welfare programmes that tell people what they can and can’t do with the money they receive from the government.


  • Potentially drives up wages and employees will compare their wages with the UBI.
  • Easier for people to take risks with their job knowing there is the UBI to fall back on.
  • It takes away the incentive to work and lowers GDP
  • UBI – not cheap to administer and would likely cost 13% of GDP in the US


  • In the Canadian province of Manitoba where the UBI was trialled, working hours for men dropped by just 1%.
  • The UBI would make it easier for people to think twice about taking unrewarding jobs which is a good consequence.
  • In the developing world direct-cash grant programs are used very effectively – Columbian economist Chris Blattman.
  • In New Jersey young people with UBI were more likely to stay in education

If the U.B.I. comes to be seen as a kind of insurance against a radically changing job market, rather than simply as a handout, the politics around it will change. When this happens, it’s easy to imagine a basic income going overnight from completely improbable to totally necessary. 

James Surowiecki – New Yorker – 20th June 2016

Instant Economics – the takeaway option.

The Economist recently had their Briefing article (October 23rd edition) on how economics is changing with ‘high frequency data’ and that there is a ‘Third-wave’ evident. They mention three changes to economic research.

  • It accesses data that is abundant and relevant to real-world problems.
  • Economists using the data are eager in influence government policy
  • There is little theory involved as the data/evidence says it all

1970s – more than half of economics papers focused on theory alone,
2011 – purely theoretical papers accounted for only 19% of publications.

There were hints of an economics third wave before the pandemic. Some economists were finding new, extremely detailed streams of data, such as Visa and Square (free business expense card) record spending patterns, Apple and Google track movements, anonymous tax records, location information from mobile phones etc. Of the 20 economists with the most cited new work during the pandemic, three run industrial labs.

The Economist divided economists into three groups:

  • lone wolves – who publish with less than one unique co-author per paper on average;
  • collaborators – those who tend to work with more than one unique co-author per paper, usually two to four people; and
  • lab leaders” – researchers who run a large team of dedicated assistants.

During the pandemic new economic papers increased markedly from 2019 – 2020 from the collaborators whilst the lone wolves were least evident. Large data sets benefit from the division of labour and the research was focused on the usefulness to business. Three of the top four authors during the pandemic compared with the year before—are all “collaborators” and use daily newspaper data to study markets. The concern about macro-economic research over the past few decades is that it has been too theoretical.

The downside is that consumers of fast-food academic research often treat it as if it is as rigorous as the slow-cooked sort—papers which comply with the old-fashioned publication process involving endless seminars and peer review.

Source: The Economist – ‘The real-time revolution’ – October 23rd 2021

AS Economics Revision – Transition Economies

With the CIE AS essay paper on Monday next week here are some notes on the issues confronting transition economies – this topic is in Unit 1 of the syllabus. What have been the formidable challenges facing eastern European countries (command) embracing capitalism? Here are some thoughts as well as an informative video from the IMF:

  • In planned some goods are provided free but not in a market economy
  • Corruption – widespread in communist countries in eastern Europe – Oligarchs
  • Inflation ↑ – privatised firms began to charge prices that reflected high costs
  • Lack of entrepreneurial experience
  • Rising unemployment as owners of businesses try to make them more efficient.
  • Labour relations – Poor as workers are in a new environment – Job security?
  • Consumer sovereignty – some industries decline/expand
  • Resources – surplus and shortage
  • Self-Interest – fewer merit goods and more demerit goods
  • Time Gap before framework of government controls can be developed
  • Expansion of industry – potentially for greater externalities
  • Old/disabled – vulnerable with the change of government role
  • Welfare system – limited support for unemployed etc. will take time to develop
  • Provision of public services – disruption to police and other public services
  • Moral Hazard – the state insure workers against risks of losing their job

Brexit – no longer ‘Mind the CAP’

After 47 years the UK has now left the EU and with it the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). At the outset of the EU, one of the main objectives was the system of intervention in agricultural markets and protection of the farming sector.

The economics behind CAP intervention price
An intervention price is the price at which the CAP would be ready to come into the market and to buy the surpluses, thus preventing the price from falling below the intervention price. This is illustrated below in Figure 1. Here the European supply of lamb drives the price down to the equilibrium 0Pfm – the free market price, where supply and demand curves intersect and quantity demanded and quantity supplied equal 0Qm. However, the intervention price (0Pint) is located above the equilibrium and it has the following effects:

  • It encourages an increase in European production. Consequently, output is raised to 0Qs1.
  • At intervention price, there is a production surplus equal to the horizontal distance AB which is the excess of supply above demand at the intervention price.
  • In buying the surplus, the intervention agency incurs costs equal to the area ABCD. It will then incur the cost of storing the surplus or of destroying it.
  • There is a contraction in domestic consumption to 0Qd1Consumers pay a higher price to the extent that the intervention price exceeds the notional free market price.

Figure 1: The effect of an intervention price on the income of EU farmers.

The increase in farmers’ incomes following intervention is shown also: as has been noted, one of the objectives of price support policy is to raise farmers’ incomes. The shaded area EBCFG indicates the increase in the incomes of the suppliers of lamb.

CAP and the UK

At considerable cost to the taxpayer the CAP has subsidised intensive farming methods that have impacted the British countryside and also increased the price of land making it harder to get into farming – since 2003 the price of land has risen from £4,500per hectare to £16,500 today. Subsidies also encourage farmers to develop land which is not suitable for farming and thus supports unproductive farms. The average English farm made a profit of just £6,200 in the tax year 2018-19 and being propped up by the subsidies has led to inertia and little or no innovation. Sheep farmers have especially struggled, in particular the 30% that are located in areas that are not conducive to farming – the Lake District, the Peak District, Exmoor and Dartmoor – but are seen by the public as picturesque walking areas. The issue being that farm income for grazing livestock in 2018-19 was approximately -£5,000 (lowland) and -£19,000 (upland) – see graph below.

Source: FT

New Zealand experience

New Zealand went through the process of removing the subsidies for farmers and in 1984 the Labour government ended all farm subsidies under the Lange Government and by 1990 the agricultural industry became the most deregulated sector in New Zealand. In the short-term there was considerable pain amongst the farming community and land values collapsed, inefficient farms went bust and the service sector that supports the industry. However to stay competitive in the heavily subsidised European and US markets New Zealand farmers had to increase efficiency, became more innovative and export-orientated – 95% of Fonterra’s produce (dairy) is exported. Compared to the UK, New Zealand does have a lower population density, weaker environmental standards and a different climate.

Post-CAP and the UK

In the Post-Brexit environment the UK government have pledged to keep overall subsidy levels although they will be replaced by the Environmentally Land Management Scheme (Elms) which is expected to be rolled out nationally by 2024 – the old subsidies will end in 2027. The Elms focuses on environmental benefits, such as flood mitigation and fostering wildflowers. Payments under Elms will initially be calculated on the basis of so-called “income foregone”, or what farmers could have otherwise made from farming on the same land, plus the estimated costs of the environmental work. The issue here is that a lot of this subsidy with go to the farmers who are already well off.

Agricultural support from the UK government is now focused on ‘public goods’ such as better air and water quality, thriving wildlife, soil health, or measures to reduce flooding and tackle climate change.

Transition of East Germany and the level of happiness

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1990 there was the predictable euphoria amongst the population in eastern block countries and although you can change a political system overnight, an economic system takes many years. That is why economies in the transition phase usually use this period of happiness amongst the population to implement economic policies which will be very unpopular in the short-term but potentially have long-term benefits for the economy. However were East Germans happier after this freshly regained freedom in 1990?

Research has shown that is took over 25 years after transition for the level of happiness to be higher than in a June 1990 survey taken when East Germany was still a socialist state. Happiness declined sharply from 1990 to 1991 as unification occurred and recovered to about where it was before the transition to capitalism began. The decline in satisfaction was accompanied by a decline in output equating to about one-third of GDP with high levels of unemployment as numerous firms go bankrupt. Unemployment reduces happiness but also impacts those in employment as the threat of losing their job increases. In East Germany the unemployment rate was 14.8% in 1994 and it peak at 18.4 in 2004 – see graph below.

As well as unemployment the social safety net was a factor that influenced the level of happiness in East Germany. Satisfaction with health care, childcare and work were all surveyed from 1990 onwards, and all decline noticeably in the transition to capitalism. Under socialism jobs tended to be assured and employers provided sufficient childcare and financed comprehensive healthcare. With the shift to the capitalist systems a lot of these benefits disappeared. An East German respondent to a survey commented that:

The unification process is costuming me personally DM400 each month. I include in this higher rental and transport costs, as well as social costs. There are problems at all levels: traffic, crime, rent refugees, health care, social security. For me personally it is a vast and serious problem. People have lost old structures and certainties, and don’t know how to cope. I know that we here in the East have to go through a transition process, but it is difficult and for many no longer makes sense.

When asked about their level of happiness people focus on their immediate personal circumstances rather than the political environment. This includes having a job, making a living, caring for their family and ensuring good health. Only around 1 person in 25 members broad systemic issues such as the form of government or political and civil rights.

Many economists assumed that the transition of East Germany to capitalism would make everyone vastly happier. Pre-transition conditions in East Germany show that to increase people’s level of happiness, job security and a strong social welfare system were paramount. Happiness in most Eastern European countries has been on the increase but it is still likely to be short of where it had been prior to transition. However it is not just policies in socialist countries that increase the level of happiness, capitalist countries can achieve similar results.

Source: An Economist’s Lessons on Happiness. Farewell Dismal Science by Richard A. Easterlin (2021)

The Supercycle and MMT

I listened to a very good interview on the David McWilliams podcast in which he talks with Dario Perkins the super cycle and the end of neoliberalism. A lot of the discussion was around the paper that Dario Perkins had written – A New Supercycle Running on MMT – in which he sees MMT as delivering a superior fiscal-monetary mix.
The fact that fiscal policy must take over from monetary policy has been the apparent with the range of policies that were implemented after the GFC. Since the late-19th century the super cycle can be placed into three phases of Capitalism influenced by macro-financial-political regimes – see chart below. MMT could provide the intellectual rationale for a new form of capitalism – Capitalism 4.0. Over the last century the pendulum has swung between extreme fiscal and extreme monetary policy with the global economy primed for another change.

1920’s – Monetary policy dominated but ineffective during the Great Depression
1930’s – Fiscal policy dominated as there was a need for government intervention to get the economy moving after the Great Depression
1940’s – 1960’s – Fiscal Policy – with the 2nd World War and the recovery process post-war.
1970’s – Stagflation and fiscal policy is no longer effective and Keynesian economics as government spending just causes higher inflation and higher unemployment.
1980’s – Monetary policy gains traction and inflation is brought under control. Central Banks become independent and fiscal policy and government intervention is seen as a restriction to growth. With Reagan and Thatcher Neoliberalism was the ideology of the day

Source: A New Supercycle Running on MMT

Have we reached a new regime – Capitalism 4.0?
The GFC was a warning that capitalism in its present form was not working and there was potential for a new regime change. However governments adopted austerity and QE which made inequality worse. The issue was that there was no alternative to the neoliberalism Capitalism 3.0 but with the arrival of COVID-19 governments have been forced to spend up large and there is a belief that the old system doesn’t work and that maintaining Capitalism 3.0 will not make the situation any better. Stephanie Kelton, author of The Deficit Myth, argues that we need to rethink our attitudes towards government spending.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)
MMT states that a government that can create its own money therefore:Cannot default on debt denominated in its own currency;

  • Can pay for goods, services, and financial assets without a need to collect money in the form of taxes or debt issuance in advance of such purchases;
  • Is limited in its money creation and purchases by inflation, which accelerates once the economic resources (i.e., labor and capital) of the economy are utilised at full employment;
  • Can control inflation by taxation and bond issuance, which remove excess money from circulation, although the political will to do so may not always exist;
  • Does not need to compete with the private sector for scarce savings by issuing bonds.
  • Within this model the only constraint on spending is inflation, which can break out if the public and private sectors spend too much at the same time. As long as there are enough workers and equipment to meet growing demand without igniting inflation, the government can spend what it needs to maintain employment and achieve goals such as halting climate change.

It will be interesting to see if MMT can enjoy the same presence in economic policy that monetarism and Milton Friedman experienced in the post-stagflation time period. Back then there was a political revolution primed to embrace monetarism and neoliberal ideas and an electorate that had experienced a serious economic crisis – stagflation. Subsequently the influence of MMT will come down to politics.

Joe Biden seems to have embarked on a more radical macro-economic policy which has various instruments that are found in MMT. Will there be other political leaders who embrace this paradigm like Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980’s with Friedman and monetarism?

Source: A New Supercycle Running on MMT

David McWilliams podcast – The end of neoliberalism?

Below is a link to a David McWilliams podcast which I recommend – excellent for macro policy.

130 – The end of Neo-Liberalism & economic super-cycles explained with Dario Perkins

There is mention of the collapse of the European Super League and that this could be that defining moment when the irresistible force of a once all-conquering ideology came crashing into the immovable object of a new reality, with devastating consequences.

The interview with Dario Perkins – 20 minutes in – is particularly worth listening to. They talk about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and that we shouldn’t worry where the money comes from as the central bank can just print it – spend first and tax later. It’s fiscal policy that will decide whether central banks can meet their inflation targets.

Joe Biden – the world’s most unlikely radical – is a convert to MMT. He is to MMT what Ronald Reagan was to monetarism. Biden’s agenda is to compress inequalities, rip the economy away from Wall Street and give it back to the man on the street by using government spending as an arm not just of economics but democracy underpinned by fairness. Biden wants to reverse the past 30 years and lead us into a new macroeconomic supercycle, which might also last decades.

Brexit and “Yes Minister”

With the UK having now left the European Union here is a very amusing clip from the BBC series “Yes Minister” (1982) in which Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker discuss Brussels and the notion of the UK trying to pretend that they are European. Also discusses why other European nations joined the common market in the first place.

Financial Crisis and Political Upheaval in Nazi Germany

A recent paper by Sebastian Doerr, Stefan Gissler, José-Luis Peydró and Hans-Joachim Voth investigates the role that a financial crisis in Germany played in the Nazis coming to power. They show how financial distress can lead to radical voting when accompanied by a convergence of cultural and economic factors. In less than four years, the Nazis went from capturing 2.6% to 37.3% of the popular vote. The authors identified the failure of one bank as being significant in growing the support of the nazis – Danatbank.

Danatbank and Dresdner Bank
Danatbank (the second largest bank in Germany) was widely seen as responsible for causing the financial crisis, and it was headed by the well-known Jewish manager Jakob Goldschmidt, a favourite target of Nazi propaganda. Its collapse in 1931 saw a surge of support for Hitler. Dresdner Bank, Germany’s third-largest lender, failed as well. Exposure to Dresdner Bank had a similar negative effect on city incomes as exposure to Danat, but had almost no effect on support for the Nazis. By contrast, Dresdner Bank was not the key target for Nazi propaganda – even if it had numerous Jews occupying leading positions like most German banks. While the economic impact of the two bank failures was almost identical, only exposure to Danat had a significant effect on Nazi voting. By 1932 Danatbank and Dresdner Bank merged.

Note: The shaded area indicates the period of the 1931 banking crisis, from the beginning of troubles at Austrian Creditanstalt to the merger between Danatbank and Dresdner Bank. Blue vertical lines show: (A) beginning troubles at Austrian Creditanstalt (May 1931), (B) Nordwolle accounting irregularities discovered and Hoover Moratorium established (June 1931), (C) failure of Danatbank and ensuing bank holidays (July 1931), and (D) forced merger of Danatbank and Dresdner Bank. 

The Depression enabled the Nazis’ rise to power, but the financial collapse of 1931 thus lent seeming plausibility to a key Nazi hate narrative, helping to bring a large part of the German middle class round to the party’s world view.

Wall Street and Main Street – the disconnect.

Excellent video from The Economist regarding the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street i.e. Stock Market and the Economy. The S&P 500 is up 38% since the middle of March this year when the US economy has been going through one of its worst recessions. The US Federal Reserve had a role here by providing aid packages so the increase in the S&P was seen as a Fed rally and not from normal fundamentals.

Public debt – how high can it go?

From the Economist – good video on government bonds and debt through the ages with some great graphics.

It asks the question is government debt a concern today? They state that as long as a country’s GDP is growing faster than the country’s debt accumulating in interest then it grow its way out of debt with no fiscal cost. It also questions why interest rates today are low? Central banks such as the RBNZ and the US Federal Reserve set the interest rates and will keep them low until the economy starts some sort of recovery. They are able to do this as there is little to no inflationary pressure in the economy – remember most central banks have an inflationary target. This does mean that savers lose out as the return they get is very low. Furthermore implementing a programme of quantitative easing floods the market with cash which in turn leads to a lower cost of borrowing.

The flattening of the Phillips Curve

Part of the CIE A2 macro syllabus focuses on the wage price spiral which relates to the Phillips Curve. Here are some excellent notes that I picked up from Russell Tillson in my early days teaching at Epsom College in London. As from previous posts, the Phillips Curve analysed data for money wages against the rate of unemployment over the period 1862-1958. Money wages and prices were seen to be strongly correlated, mainly because the former are the most significant costs of production. Hence the resulting curve purported to provide a “trade-off’ between inflation and unemployment – i.e. the government could ‘select’ its desired position on the curve. During the 1970’s higher rates of inflation than previously were associated with any given level of unemployment. It was generally considered that the whole curve had shifted right – i.e. to achieve full employment a higher rate of inflation than previously had to be accepted. Milton Friedman’s expectations-augmented Phillips Curve denies the existence of any long-run trade off between inflation and unemployment. In short, attempts to reduce unemployment below its natural rate by fiscal reflation will succeed only at the cost of generating a wage-price spiral, as wages are quickly cancelled out by increases in prices.

Central Banks

Central banks have found that inflation has been the pest it has been in the past – most countries inflation rates have been short of its target rate. After the GFC the level of unemployment rose and inflation was quite subdues. However, with the post GFC recovery unemployment began to fall whilst the inflation rate was still showing no signs of accelerating which went against the original Phillips Curve. A further problem was that imported goods and services in one country have little relevance on the wages in another and the low levels of unemployment tempted people back into the labour force who hadn’t been counted as unemployed. This is particularly the case in Japan.

When there is an increase in job numbers, with a boom period, inflation may also be slow to rise. Although firms tend to be reluctant to lower wages when the economic climate slows as it is harmful to staff morale. The same could be said in good times as wages tend not to rise that quickly.

For many businesses changing the price of their goods or services can be costly especially for a small increase in price. Therefore the change in the business cycle tends not to be reflected in price changes as there needs to be major swings before prices will move at all. Central bank policy tends to manipulate interest rates to maintain a stable inflation causing unemployment to move up or down – unemployment is what changes not inflation.

The problem that central banks face today is that to keep the phillips curve flat they need to be able to cut interest rates to stimulate growth when inflation threatens to become deflation. However there is little room for further easing with rates so low. Central banks will need to work with the government’s fiscal policy to stimulate growth and spend the money that the central bank’s create.

Macroeconomic Policy – where we’ve been and where are we going?

The Economist ‘Briefing’ recently looked at what now for macroeconomic policy in the global economy. The GFC of 2008 and outbreak of COVID-19 has got policymakers scratching their head as what can be done to stimulate aggregate demand.

Keynes’ ideas of government involvement in managing the economy in the business cycle – spend in recessions and pay of debt in booms – was flavour of the month in the post-war period. However by the1970’s this policy was in trouble which the spectre of stagflation – high inflation accompanied by high unemployment. According to Keynes the two variables should move in opposite directions. In 1976 the UK Prime Minister James Callaghan in his speech at the Labour Party Conference said:

We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employ­ment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of infla­tion into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. Higher inflation followed by higher unemployment.

The 1980’s saw monetarist ideas enter the scene with a focus on the control of inflation though constraining the money supply. University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker knew that in order the get inflation down that the economy would have to go through a recession and very higher unemployment in the short-run. However once inflation started to drop the Central Bank could relax monetary policy (interest rates) and then encourage more economic activity in the economy and thereby reducing unemployment. Previously policy had focused on equality of incomes which had a large impact of economic efficiency. Price stability was now the primary focus of a central bank and it was in New Zealand with the 1989 Reserve Bank Act that the first central bank became independent from government. Gone were the days where the Minister of Finance could get on the phone to the Reserve Bank Governor to change interest rates. Central banks had inflationary targets whilst fiscal policy was to keep government debts low and to redistribute income as the government saw fit.

This policy came unstuck after the GFC as central banks dropped interest rates to record levels and implemented a series of quantitative easing (QE) measures to no avail. Growth was stagnant for a long time but eventually demand for labour picked up. This would have normally been accompanied by higher inflation but it wasn’t the case. Just like in the 1970’s inflation and unemployment were not behaving according to the theory but at this time both were favourable – low inflation and low unemployment. However inequality was now gripping the attention of economists and there was concern about the monopoly position of some firms. The rich have a higher tendency to save rather than spend, so if their share of income rises then overall saving goes up and lower interest rates and QE were driving up inequality by increasing house and equity prices.

Once COVID-19 hit it was government’s fiscal policy which has been used to try and stabilise the economy and boost growth. Fiscal stimulus – government spending with running up large deficits might be required for a long period of time in order to support the economy. This is more acceptable amongst economists as low interest rates enable the government to service much larger debts and with such low inflation it is unlikely that rates will increase anytime soon. This resembles Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – the situation where the government can create its own money therefore:

  1. Cannot default on debt denominated in its own currency;
  2. Can pay for goods, services, and financial assets without a need to collect money in the form of taxes or debt issuance in advance of such purchases;
  3. Is limited in its money creation and purchases by inflation, which accelerates once the economic resources (i.e., labor and capital) of the economy are utilised at full employment;
  4. Can control inflation by taxation and bond issuance, which remove excess money from circulation, although the political will to do so may not always exist;
  5. Does not need to compete with the private sector for scarce savings by issuing bonds. Within this model the only constraint on spending is inflation, which can break out if the public and private sectors spend too much at the same time. As long as there are enough workers and equipment to meet growing demand without igniting inflation, the government can spend what it needs to maintain employment and achieve goals such as halting climate change.

Negative interest rates

Some governments have gone the way of negative interest rates (see graphic) to try and stimulate more aggregate demand. This would discourage saving and see a potential withdrawal of cash from the banking system leaving less money to lend out. Avoiding this scenario might involve abolishing high-denomination bank notes and making the holding of large amount of cash expensive and unfeasible. However in order to keep money in the banks might renege on interest rate cuts as customers might move their money to rival banks therefore high negative interest rates would severely dent banks’ profits.

The current economic environment may make negative interest more plausible as:

  • Cash is in decline.
  • Banks are becoming less important to finance.
  • Central bankers are looking at creating their own digital currencies

Final thought

Greater government intervention is what the majority of economists want but it does carry with it risks of significant debt and high inflation. There is an opportunity to rethink the economics discipline and as stated in The Economist:

A level-headed reassessment of public debt could lead to the green public investment necessary to fight climate change. And governments could unleash a new era of finance, involving more innovation, cheaper financial intermediation and, perhaps, a monetary policy that is not constrained by the presence of physical cash. What is clear is that the old economic paradigm is looking tired. One way or another, change is coming

The Economist – A new era of economics – July 25th 2020

Ludicrous regulations of the US Airline Industry and Contestable Markets

With Auckland now at COVID-19 Alert Level 3 and schools operating online we continued going through the A2 syllabus and discussed Contestable Markets using Webex. I used this clip from Commanding Heights to show how regulated the US airline industry was during the 1970’s. Regulations meant that major carriers like Pan Am never had to compete with newcomers. However an Englishman named Freddie Laker was determined to break this tradition and set-up Laker airways to compete on trans-atlantic flights. He offered flights at less than half the price of what Pan Am charged. Alfred Kahn was given the task by the then President Jimmy Carter to breakup the Civil Aeronautics Board (the regulatory body) and he wanted a leaner regulatory environment in which the market was free to dictate price. There is a piece in the clip that shows how ludicrous some of the regulations were:

When I got to the Civil Aeronauts Board, the biggest division under me was the division of enforcement – in effect, FBI agents who would go around and seek out secret discounts and then impose fines. We would discipline them. It was illegal to compete in price. That means it was illegal to compete in the discounts you offer travel agents. So we regulated travel agents’ discounts. Internationally, since they couldn’t cut rates, they competed by having more and more sumptuous meals. We actually regulated the size of sandwiches. Alfred Kahn

When the CAB was closed down competition was the rule and the industry had vastly underestimated the demand for air travel at lower prices – a very elastic demand curve – see graph below.

In the A2 course contestable markets is a popular essay question and is usually combined with another market structure.

What is a contestable market?

• One in which there is one firm (or a small number of firms)
• Because of freedom of entry and exit, the firm faces competition and might operate in a way similar to a perfectly competitive firm
• The threat of “hit and run entry” from new firms may be sufficient to keep the industry operating at a competitive price and output
• The key requirement for a contestable market is the absence of sunk costs – i.e. costs that cannot be recovered if a business decides to leave a market
• When sunk costs are high, a market is more likely to produce an price and output similar to monopoly (with the risk of allocative inefficiency and loss of economic welfare)
• A perfectly contestable market occurs only when entry and exit into and out of a market is perfectly costless
• Contestable markets are different from perfect competitive markets
• It is possible for one incumbent firm to dominate the industry
• Each existing firm in the market produces a differentiated product (i.e. goods and services are not perfect substitutes for each other)

There are 3 conditions for market contestability:

• Perfect information and the ability and or legal right to use the best available technology
• Freedom to market / advertise and enter a market
• The absence of sunk costs

• Liberalisation of the US Airline Industry in the 1970’s and the European Airline Market in late 1990s
• Traditional “flag-flying” airlines faced new competition
• Barriers to entry in the industry were lowered (including greater use of leased aircraft)
• New Entrants – easyJet- Ryanair

The Black Swan – spotted in Queenstown New Zealand

Black Swan – Glenorchy NZ

In December 2014, then-President Barack Obama warned that the United States needed to prepare for an upcoming pandemic. This came a soon after the Ebola outbreak had threatened to spread worldwide. People knew of pandemics and their impact from history but Covid-19 took a lot of us by surprise. This can be seen as a ‘Black Swan’ event – an event or discovery whose existence was not predictable from the available data, and whose effect on society or the markets yields surprising and unexpected results. Just because all the data says that there are only white swans does not prove that Black Swans do not exist. Philosophers debated that they didn’t exist until explorers found a Black Swan in Australia. It was quite ironic that yesterday, whilst holidaying in Queenstown (South Island NZ), I saw a Black Swan – see photo. It immediately reminded me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb book ‘The Black Swan’ (2007). The book describes a black swan as a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics:

  1. its unpredictability;
  2. its massive impact; and
  3. after it has happened, our desire to make appear less random and more predictable than it was.

The GFC unquestionably meet the criteria as a Black Swan. No one saw it coming and no one knows how it is going to end. The same can be said about Covid-19. This unexpected and hard-to-predict event was not within the range of normal expectations. However it will result in a major economic contraction on a global basis.

Economist Hyman Minsky once wrote a thesis about economic stability – more applicable to the GFC Black Swan event.
“If you have a wonderful, stable world and, better yet, it is growing nicely and nothing is going wrong, you are likely as the years go by to take more risk. As time passes the cost of taking risk gets less and less because interest rates come down. You can imagine that people will get carried away into thinking such conditions are permanent and take on record levels of debt. They think conditions will always be good. And then all it takes is one small event to create instability.”

This Time it is Different

I have mentioned in previous posts the work of Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart – co-authors of “This Time is Different” – 2009. Below is a summary from Amazon

Throughout history, rich and poor countries alike have been lending, borrowing, crashing–and recovering–their way through an extraordinary range of financial crises. Each time, the experts have chimed, “this time is different”–claiming that the old rules of valuation no longer apply and that the new situation bears little similarity to past disasters. With this breakthrough study, leading economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff definitively prove them wrong.

However the rise of the coronavirus and the impact it is having on the global economy is not the same as previous recessions/ depressions in history. Ken Rogoff found it hard to think of a historical parallel and came up with the Spanish flu epidemic which killed millions of people worldwide. Rogoff talks to Paul Solmon of PBS about the impact of the coronavirus.