China and the exodus of cash

March 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Another very good video from PunkFT. As the Chinese economy starts to slowdown by its standards (even at 6% growth) the Chinese are sending their money overseas in search of safer investments. In doing this they are often violating currency controls which are there to keep money inside China. The housing market in many countries have been driven up by the flood of cash from China – Vancover, Sydney, Hong Kong, New York and Auckland. Chinese spent almost $30 billion on U.S. homes in 2015.

How will authorities stop the outflow? One way is to increase domestic interest rates to encourage people to deposit their money in local banks. However this impacts those Chinese companies that borrow money and could prompt some debt-laden companies into deleveraging. Worth a look and great animations.

Macroeconomic models – a new approach needed.

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

In 1776 Scottish economist Adam Smith talked of the economy as the invisible hand. Here he emphasized the self-regulating nature of the economy as individuals, firms and companies independently seek to maximize their gain which may produce the best outcome for society as a whole. The capitalist systems seems to rely more on the relentless growth of consumer spending and, although it can lead to dramatic improvements in standard of living, it does require people to become resolutely addicted to products/services and be prepared to get into significant debt.

Today, an economy is a much more intricate machine which aims to allocate scarce resources to satisfy the utility of economic agents such as individuals, firms and government. The dominant model for many years has been “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium” (DSGE) and it takes all the characteristics of an individual (this person is typically called the representative agent) which is then cloned and taken to represent the typical person in an economy.


Therefore it assumes that all individuals and firms have identical needs and wants which they pursue with total self-interest and complete knowledge of what they desire. DSGE also takes into account the impact of shocks like oil prices, technological change, interest rates, taxation etc. However a couple of areas that it doesn’t represent accurately is the financial sector and the instability of markets – booms and slumps. A new task will be to include the banking sector into the models as macroeconomists assumed it to be a screen between savers and borrowers rather than profit orientated organisations prepared to take big risks with increased leverage and sub-prime lending. For example as house prices increase banks are willing to lend more money to speculators who bid up the price above what is the fundamental value. The opposite applies if banks become more risk adverse and marginal buyers are forced out of the market causing prices to drop. By representing the financial sector in an economic model you go some way to help solve the major problem with DSGE and other models in that they are useful only if they are not unsettled by external factors like a banking crisis.

Keynes said “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”. To achieve this there needs to be structural reform in the discipline.

Agent-based modeling

An emerging field called agent-based modelling has grabbed the attention of some economists. This is where large amounts of data is collected from individuals who are unique to each other in they have different motives and actions in the market place. The behaviour of these individuals overlap and interact which generate predictions through a messy process but similar to what happens in real life, unlike DSGE and the clean old-fashioned macroeconomic models. Agent-based modeling has also shown promise in other disciplines like Physics and involve real-world problems. The example used by John Lanchester (New York Times magazine) is how Brazil nuts seem to end up towards the top of the mixed-nut package and nut research has since found real-life applications in industries such as pharmaceuticals and manufacturing.

With a better sense of what is influencing behaviour in the economy, economists might become less blinkered by their own theory, and better able to foresee the next crisis. Meanwhile, they would be wise to repeat (daily) the words: “My model is a model, not the model.”

Final thought

Macroeconomic models need to be adapted to take account of the events of the last 20 years. For so long typical macro model has been DSGE but as yet no model includes the impact of recessions and the eighty-year depressions. Economics failed to predict or prevent the GFC and this was based on conceptual faults which included a refusal to engage with the role of the banking and finance system in the economy.

Dani Rodrik of Harvard University splits economists into two camps: hedgehogs and foxes.

Hedgehogs take a single idea and apply it to every problem they come across.

Foxes have no grand vision but lots of seemingly contradictory views, as they tailor their conclusions to the situation.

Maybe more fox like behaviour is needed.


New York Times Magazine – The Major Blind Spots in Macroeconomics

The Economist – A less dismal science


Teaching ethics: the sub-prime crisis

February 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Teaching ethics to my Yr 10 class I have used the sub-prime crisis as an example. As with behavioural economics the conventional view of finance assumes that markets are efficient and that the price of shares, bonds and other financial instruments are a reflection of the fundamental economic values that they represent. Behavioural finance is all about understanding why and how financial markets are inefficient. If there is a difference between the market price of a share or bond and its fundamental value then in conventional economics no one can make money in financial markets by exploiting the difference.

Global Financial Crisis

In July 2007 a loss of confidence by US investors in the value of sub-prime mortgages caused a liquidity crisis.  Sub-prime mortgages were loans that were high risk and many mortgage holders unable to meet their  repayments. The mortgages were pooled into what was know as a Collaterised Debt Obligation (CDO) which were sliced into tranches – safe – okay – risky. Investors tended to buy safe tranches as they were rated AAA by the rating agencies. However the rating agencies were very generous in their assessment of these investments as they were paid by the banks who created the CDOs. Banks also were able to take out insurance on the CDO even if they didn’t own them. This was called a Credit Default Swap (CDS).

Timberwolf.pngThe flow chart (above) and video (below) shows how Goldman Sachs sold a CDO called Timberwolf to investors and proceeded to bet against that investment by buying insurance from AIG so that when the CDO failed they got a pay out from them. As you maybe aware AIG sold a lot of CDS’s and ultimately had to be bailed out by the US government. However a significant portion of the bailout money went to the banks that had created the problem.

Below is another very good clip from the Big Short that explains how the mortgage market brought down the financial system. Good references to CDO’s in which celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain compares fish to finance?

China’s wages on the increase

February 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Useful new video from the FT showing the increase in China’s wages and how they are catching up with those in the developed world. China’s labour force as a whole, hourly wage is around 70 per cent of the level in weaker eurozone countries, according to data from Euromonitor International. Has China reached the Lewis Point where the abundance of cheap labour has dried up as workers return to the rural areas? Could be used for the A2 Developing Economies topic.

NAFTA – Positives and Criticisms

February 26, 2017 1 comment

NAFTA took effect in 1994 during the Clinton administration although he had to rely on support from the Republicans in the House – 60% of congressional Democrats voted against NAFTA. NAFTA got rid of tariffs on more than half of its members’ industrial products and by 2009 the deal eliminated tariffs on all industrial and agricultural goods.

Positives of NAFTA

  • American corporates believed the deal would cut labour costs and therefore increase efficiency and international competitiveness.
  • American consumer would also benefit from lower prices.
  • It would raise Mexico’s living standards especially in the north.
  • Trade between the USA and Mexico has risen 1.3% in 1994 to 2.5% in 2015
  • Mexico’s real income has risen – $10,000 in 1994 to $19000 in 2015
  • Less Mexicans are migrating to the USA – 500,000 a year to virtually nothing.

Mexican incomes are no better, as a share of those in the US, than they were in 1994.  Americans are slightly better off. NAFTA has caused significant job losses in the manufacturing industry.

However there are some unseen circumstances which have affected the deal.

1. The crisis of the Mexican Peso in 1994-95  – Zapatista rebels launched an uprising in Southern Mexico and the leading presidential candidate was assassinated. Worried about stability, foreign investment began to flee the country. It was eventually brought under control by a loan from the US government.

2. September 11th – this terrorist attack increased the cost of moving goods and people

3. The rapid growth on the Chinese economy which accounted for more than 13% of global exports and 25% of global manufacturing value-added. This puts a lot of pressure on global supply chains.

Have job losses been a result of NAFTA?

Brad DeLong (University of California) estimated that NAFTA could be blamed for only 0.1% of job losses in the US economy. This equates to fewer jobs than the US economy adds in a typical month. But to be realistic job losses would have increased without NAFTA for the following reasons:

1. the advances in technology would see labour being substituted
2. the strong US dollar would make US exports less competitive and thereby making overseas production attractive
3. Transport and communications improvements have made overseas production also attractive

Source: The Economist – 4th February 2017
Below is Paul Krugman on Bloomberg news. He talks of the poor performance of NAFTA for Mexico in that the country hasn’t developed as a whole. Some of the northern states have done well but southern Mexico is still very poor.


Categories: Trade Tags: , ,

Cash is a rational birthday present but inappropriate

February 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is a clip from Seinfeld that I use when teaching Behavioural Economics. It seems rational that Jerry gives Elaine $182 for her birthday but it really is inappropriate. Cash replaces social norms by market norms and ruins the feelings usually evoked by a typical non-cash birthday gift. The deadweight loss of giving is the loss of efficiency that occurs when the value of the gift to the recipient is less than the cost of the gift to the giver. In this case, economists argue that cash would be a more efficient gift.

Full v Fulfilling Employment

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Free Exchange in The Economist had an article which looked at the change in terminology used by Janet Yellen chairman of the Federal Reserve. In a recent statement she alluded to the US economy near maximum employment and that rate rises could ensue. However only 69% of American adults have a job.

Full employment has normally been the concept that has been used to describe a situation where there is no cyclical or deficient-demand unemployment, but unemployment does exist as allowances must be made for frictional unemployment and seasonal factors – also referred to as the natural rate of unemployment or Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU). If a central bank wishes to stimulate demand below this level there is the concern that inflation will increase therefore they take a guess as to what is the natural rate of unemployment – the lowest rate of unemployment where prices don’t accelerate. Maximum unemployment is the same in that it refers to the labour market being as tight as it can be without increasing prices. Natural rates in the US have varied – around 5.3% in 1950 and then peaking at 6.3% in the stagflation period before falling 4.9% in 2008 and then rising to 5.1% after the GFC, see graph below.

NRU - 1950 - 2016.png

NRU and its causes

The NRU mainly depends on the level of frictional unemployment – defined as those who are in between jobs. This number can vary as at different times of the business cycle as there can be a delay in matching those looking for work with the vacancies themselves – a mismatch sometimes referred to as Structural Unemployment. The increase in frictional unemployment in the 1970’s and 80’s was largely due to the decline in manufacturing jobs with the advent of automation and more right wing policies (Reagan and Thatcher). Workers would stay unemployed in the hope that good high paid manufacturing jobs would reappear.

Unions can also influence the NRU with protecting workers jobs and pushing up wages so that employers find it too costly to employ more labour. However the fall in the 1990’s could be due to the advent of technology in the hiring process and the growth of part-time jobs which assisted those workers facing a career change.

Another influence on the NRU is wage growth as with the higher wages you attract more of the labour force to engage in actively looking for work.

A central bank will have to use trial and error to make a decision on how much spare capacity there is in an economy. Only when prices start to increase do they have an idea how capacity is running.

Quality not Quantity

As alluded to by The Economist the goal of full employment must consider the quality of jobs as well. With the acceleration of technology over labour, maximum employment should consider more than capacity constraints or inflationary pressure.

Rather, governments need to consider the options available to workers: not just how easily they can find jobs they want, but also how readily they can refuse jobs they do not. By lifting obstacles to job changes and giving workers a social safety net that enables them to refuse the crummiest jobs, societies can foster employment that is not just full, but fulfilling.

Sources: The Economist 28th January 2017, St Louis Federal Reserve – Natural Rate of Unemployment

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