There is growing anxiety that policymakers in the developed world will need to consider some radical approaches to tackling the next downturn. Quantitative easing (the buying of government bonds using the money of the central bank) is limited and with interest rates already a record lows a further drop is unlikely to stimulate much more aggregate demand. Fiscal policy could be employed – tax cuts and increases in government spending. However the issue here is how much fiscal stimulus can government’s afford with the debt they already have? See table
Government policy in recent years has done little to improve the economic climate. Although there has been many rounds of quantitative easing the productivity of those in work has been poor leading to lethargic growth levels. This ultimately limits real wage growth and tax revenue to reduce government debt levels. Economies are now doomed to many years of weaker growth with lackluster demand which will mean more radical policies outside the square. Some policy options could be:
Fusing Monetary and Fiscal Policy
An option discussed in The Economist was to finance public spending and the tax cuts by printing more money. This could be more effective than Quantitive Easing (QE) as the money now bypasses the banking system and goes straight into the pockets of the consumers. This would hopefully encourage consumers to spend money straight away instead of going through the process of borrowing money from the bank as is the case with QE.
Incomes Policy – wage-price spiral
The aim of an incomes policy in the 1960’s and 70’s was to link the growth of incomes to the productivity so as to prevent the excessive rises in factor incomes which raise costs and hence prices. However the idea here is to generate higher incomes at all levels by using tax incentives and to encourage a wage-price spiral. This seems bizarre in the context of the 1970’s as this is what governments were trying to solve.
Capital spending on infrastructure is seen as a much more effective tool to stimulate growth than tax cuts. Unlike tax cuts, capital spending goes directly into the circular flow and it attracts complementary spending elsewhere in the economy more than any other intervention. It is estimated that a third of roads in the USA are in a poor state and over 10% of its bridges are not structurally sound. However although it might sound a good idea, infrastructure spending can be wasteful as even many years of capital spending in Japan hasn’t had the desired effect of boosting the economy.
Where to from here?
The problem, then, is not that the world has run out of policy options. Politicians have known all along that they can make a difference, but they are weak and too quarrelsome to act. America’s political establishment is riven; Japan’s politicians are too timid to confront lobbies; and the euro area seems institutionally incapable of uniting around new policies.
Source: The Economist – 20th February 2016
In explaining the differences between internal and external balances I came across an old textbook that I used at University – Economics by David Begg. It was described as ‘The Student’s Bible” by BBC Radio 4 and I certainly do refer back to it quite regularly. Part 4 on macroeconomics has an informative diagram that shows the impact of booms and recessions on the internal and external balances.
Internal Balance – when Aggregate Demand equals Aggregate Supply (potential output). And there is full employment in the labour market. With sluggish wage and price adjustment, lower AD causes a recession. Only when AD returns to potential output is internal balance restored.
External Balance – this refers to the Current Account balance. The country is neither underspending nor overspending its foreign income. For a floating exchange rate, the total balance of payments is always zero. Since the balance of payments is the sum of the current, capital, and financial accounts, saying the current account is in balance then also implies that the sum of the capital and financial accounts are in balance.
The top left-hand quadrant shows a combination of a domestic slump and a current account surplus. This can be caused by a rise in desired savings or by an adoption of a tight fiscal policy and monetary policy. These reduce AD which cause both a domestic slump and a reduction in imports.
The bottom left-hand corner shows a higher real exchange rate, which makes exports less competitive, reduces export demand and raises import demand. The fall in net exports induces both a current account deficit and lower AD, leading to a domestic slump.
In a downturn a more expansionary fiscal and monetary policy can hasten the return to full employment eg. Quantitative easing, tax cuts, lower interest rates. However one could say that today it doesn’t seem to be that effective.
The US Federal Reserve announced on 18th December a tapering of its bond-buying program to $75bn a month beginning in January. This video from Paul Solman of PBS is a useful guide about the process and asks economists (including Robert Shiller) their opinion on the matter. Recently the Fed said that it would lower its monthly long-term Treasury bond purchases to $40 billion and mortgage-backed securities to $35 billion a month.
Fed Chair Ben Bernanke recently testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services and acknowledged the troubling employment conditions. Unemployment rate at 7.6% remains well above its longer-run normal level, and rates of underemployment and long-term unemployment are still much too high. Bernanke indicated that he would continue quantitative easing because of the unemployment figures but this method doesn’t seem to be working when you consider the lack of job growth – see graph. The U.S. Federal Reserve is currently purchasing US$85 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities and Treasury securities each month as part of its quantitative easing programme. This programme places downward pressure on long-term interest rates, and is intended to promote economic activity. However the S&P* earnings per share (eps) has grown above 70% since the bottom of the last cycle but job growth has been under 5%.
*The S&P 500® is widely regarded as the best single gauge of large cap U.S. equities. There is over USD 5.58 trillion benchmarked to the index, with index assets comprising approximately USD 1.3 trillion of this total. The index includes 500 leading companies and captures approximately 80% coverage of available market capitalisation.
“The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
Should investors focus on the short run or long run? The majority are looking at short run gains rather than a long term focus as they are most likely driven by instant financial rewards after the GFC.
Investors are also looking to see if the significant monetary expansion over the last 5 years will lead to inflationary pressures. Niels Jensen of Credit Writedowns has been writing on this for awhile and has come up with a couple of reasons why we shouldn’t be worried about it. Firstly many investors don’t seem to have grasped the difference between the monetary base and the money supply.
The monetary base is the total amount of a currency that is either circulated in the hands of the public or in the commercial bank deposits held in the central bank’s reserves.
The money supply is the entire stock of currency and other liquid instruments in a country’s economy as of a particular time. The money supply can include cash, coins and balances held in checking and savings accounts.
See above for some figures from Neils Jensen
As he points out it is the money supply, not the monetary base, which influences inflation. The chart below shows that there is no growth in bank lending despite the QE measures of printing money.
“As so aptly demonstrated in a recent IMF paper, the interaction between inflation and the economic cycle is very different today when compared to the 1975-1994 period. Whereas inflation back then was pro-cyclical, it is largely non-cyclical today with inflation well anchored around 2% regardless of the underlying economic conditions – see chart below. The obvious implication of this is that inflation should behave relatively well even as (if) economic fundamentals improve.” Source: Credit Writedowns
Lately there has been a lot of media coverage about an Excel error by academics Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart – co-authors of ‘This Time is Different’ – 2009. A student from University of Massachusetts tried to replicate one their models regarding growth rates when a country has a public debt of greater than 90% of GDP. Rogoff and Carmen stated that with this level of public debt growth in a country falls to a mean of -0.1%. However using the same data the student found that a figure of 2.2% was applicable in this context.
However Rogoff and Reinhart have been cautious about saying that high debt causes slower growth rates but it does highlight the validity of analysis connecting debt and austerity to growth rates. Adam Posen in the FT stated that the claim of a clear tipping point for the ratio of Government Debt to GDP past which an economy starts to collapse doesn’t hold. Following the second world war the US, UK, Belgium, Italy and Japan had public debt greater than 90% of GDP but there was not much of an effect on their economies. In Italy and of late in Japan stagnation in economies led to slowly rising debt levels. In the UK and US in the 1950’s growth returned and debt levels declined. What this is suggesting is
Slow growth is at least as much the cause of high debt as high debt causes growth to slow.
But a certain amount public debt is necessary for future development of any economy especially when you think about the construction of infrastructure and government spending on education. Both of which contribute to future growth and in theoretical terms move the production possibility curve outwards. This in turn creates growth and subsequently income for a government.
USA – Mad Spending v EU – Nervous Austerity
With one side of the Atlantic – USA – involved in quantitive easing (printing money) and the other – EU – with severe austerity, maybe somewhere in between would be a logical way to go about things. But is moderation a choice for policy makers when they have already gone so far down the track of their respective plans?
What can be concluded is that too much debt has costs for growth but the degree of those costs is dependent on the reasons for debt accumulated and what path the economy is actually taking.
Nouriel Roubini wrote a piece on the Project Syndicate site focusing on the costs of QE. After three rounds of QE one wonders about its effectiveness. Roubini came up with 10 potential costs.
1. QE policies just postpones the necessary private and public sector deleveraging and if this is left too long it can create a zombie economy – institutions, firms, governments etc lose their ability to function.
2. Economic activity in the circular flow may become clogged with bond yields being so low and banks hoarding liquidity. Therefore the velocity of money circulation grinds to a halt.
3. With more money in the economy this implies a weakening of the currency but this is ineffective if other economies use QE at the same time. QE becomes a zero-sum game as not all currencies can fall simultaneously. QE = Currency Wars
4. QE leads to excessive capital to emerging markets. This can lead to a lot of extra liquidity and feed into domestic inflation creating asset bubbles. Furthermore an appreciation of the domestic currency in emerging markets makes their exports less competitive.
5. QE can lead to asset bubbles in an economy where it is implemented. It is especially prevalent when you’ve had an aggressive expansionary monetary policy (1% in USA after 9/11) already present in the economy for many years prior.
6. QE encourages Moral Hazard – governments put off major economic reforms and resort to a band aid policy. May delay fiscal austerity and ill discipline in the market.
7. Exiting QE is important – too slow an exit could mean higher inflation and assets and credit bubbles are created.
8. Long periods of negative real interest rates implies a redistribution of income and wealth – creditors and savers to debtors and borrowers. QE damages pensioners and pension funds.
9. With QE excessive inflation accompanied by slow credit growth, banks are faced with very low net interest-rate margins. Therefore, they might put money into riskier investments – remember the sub-prime crisis, oil prices up $147/barrel
10. QE might mean the end of conventional monetary policy. Some countries have discarded inflationary targets and there is no cornerstone for price expectations.