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May 1, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

"Genus Institutionalist; Species: Galbraithian"

Jamie Galbraith versus Phil Gramm:

Causes of the Crisis, by James K. Galbraith, Commentary, Texas Observer: Editor's note: These remarks were delivered ... at a debate between University of Texas professor James Galbraith ... and former Majority Leader Richard Armey, chief instigator of the recent Astroturf "tea party" protests. Armey had begun his remarks by noting that his rule in life was "never trust anyone from Austin or Boston," and proceeded to declare his allegiance to the "Austrian School" of economics, a libertarian view that regards public intervention in private markets as socialism.

It is of course a pleasure to be with you today. I was born in Boston, and I am proud of it. And I have lived 24 years in Austin—and I'm proud of that.

Leader Armey spoke to you of his admiration for Austrian economics. I can't resist telling you that when the Vienna Economics Institute celebrated its centennial, many years ago, they invited, as their keynote speaker, my father [John Kenneth Galbraith]. The leading economists of the Austrian school—including von Hayek and von Haberler—returned for the occasion. And so my father took a moment to reflect on the economic triumphs of the Austrian Republic since the war, which, he said, "would not have been possible without the contribution of these men." They nodded—briefly—until it dawned on them what he meant. They'd all left the country in the 1930s.

My own economics is American: genus Institutionalist; species: Galbraithian.

This is a panel on the crisis. Mr. Moderator, you ask what is the root cause? My reply is in three parts.

First, an idea. The idea that capitalism, for all its considerable virtues, is inherently self-stabilizing, that government and private business are adversaries rather than partners...; the idea that regulation, in financial matters especially, can be dispensed with. We tried it, and we see the result.

Second, a person. It would not be right to blame any single person for these events, but if I had to choose one to name it would be... former Senator Phil Gramm. I'd cite specifically the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act—the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act—in 1999, after which it took less than a decade to reproduce all the pathologies that Glass-Steagall had been enacted to deal with in 1933. I'd also cite the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, slipped into an 11,000-page appropriations bill in December 2000 as Congress was adjourning following Bush v. Gore. This measure deregulated energy futures trading, enabling Enron and legitimating credit-default swaps, and creating a massive vector for the transmission of financial risk throughout the global system. ...

Third, a policy. This was the abandonment of state responsibility for financial regulation... This abandonment was not subtle: The first head of the Office of Thrift Supervision in the George W. Bush administration came to a press conference on one occasion with a stack of copies of the Federal Register and a chainsaw. A chainsaw. The message was clear. And it led to the explosion of liars' loans, neutron loans (which destroy people but leave buildings intact), and toxic waste. That these were terms of art in finance tells you what you need to know. ...

The consequence ... is a collapse of trust, a collapse of asset values, and a collapse of the financial system. That is what has happened, and what we have to deal with now.

Can "stimulus" get us out?

As a matter of economics, public spending substitutes for private spending. ... But it is not self-sustaining in the absence of a viable private credit system. The idea that we will be on the road to full recovery and returning to high employment in a year or so therefore seems to me to be an illusion. And for this reason, the emphasis on short-term, "shovel-ready" projects in the expansion package, while understandable, was a mistake. As in the New Deal, we need both the Works Progress Administration ... to provide employment, and the Public Works Administration ... to rebuild the country. ...

The risk we run, in public policy, is not inflation. It is lack of persistence, a premature reversal of direction, and of course the fear of large numbers. If deficits in the trillions and public debt in the tens of trillions scare you, this is not a line of work you should be in.

The ultimate goals of policy are not measured by deficits or debt. They are measured by the performance of the economy itself. Here Leader Armey and I agree. He spoke with approval, in his remarks, of the goals of 3 percent unemployment and 4 percent inflation embodied in the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978. Which, as a 24-year-old member of the staff of the House Banking Committee in 1976, I drafted.

Paul Krugman: An Affordable Salvation

Setting the record straight:

An Affordable Salvation, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The 2008 election ended the reign of junk science in our nation's capital, and the chances of meaningful action on climate change, probably through a cap-and-trade system on emissions, have risen sharply.

But the opponents of action claim that limiting emissions would have devastating effects on the U.S. economy. So it's important to understand that just as denials that climate change is happening are junk science, predictions of economic disaster if we try to do anything about climate change are junk economics.

Yes, limiting emissions would have its costs. ... A cap-and-trade system would raise the price of anything that, directly or indirectly, leads to the burning of fossil fuels. Electricity, in particular, would become more expensive, since so much generation takes place in coal-fired plants.

Electric utilities could reduce their need to purchase permits by limiting their emissions of carbon dioxide... But the steps they would take..., such as shifting to other energy sources or capturing and sequestering much of the carbon dioxide they emit, would without question raise their costs.

If emission permits were auctioned off — as they should be — the revenue ... could be used to give consumers rebates or reduce other taxes, partially offsetting the higher prices. But the offset wouldn't be complete. Consumers would end up poorer than they would have been without a climate-change policy.

But how much poorer? Not much, say careful researchers, like those at the Environmental Protection Agency or the ... Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even with stringent limits, says the M.I.T. group, Americans would consume only 2 percent less in 2050... That would still leave room for a large rise in the standard of living, shaving only one-twentieth of a percentage point off the average annual growth rate.

To be sure,... many ... insist that the costs would be much higher. Strange to say, however, such assertions nearly always come from people who claim to believe that free-market economies are wonderfully flexible and innovative, that they can easily transcend ... constraints...

So why don't they think the economy can cope with limits on greenhouse gas emissions? Under cap-and-trade, emission rights would just be another scarce resource...

Needless to say, people like Newt Gingrich, who says that cap-and-trade would "punish the American people," aren't thinking that way. They're just thinking "capitalism good, government bad." But if you really believe in the magic of the marketplace, you should also believe that the economy can handle emission limits just fine.

So we can afford a strong climate change policy. And committing ourselves to such a policy might actually help us in our current economic predicament.

Right now, the biggest problem facing our economy is plunging business investment ... since they're awash in excess capacity...

But suppose that Congress were to mandate gradually tightening emission limits, starting two or three years from now. This would ... create major incentives for new investment — investment in low-emission power plants, in energy-efficient factories and more.

To put it another way, a commitment to greenhouse gas reduction would, in the short-to-medium run,... give businesses a reason to invest in new equipment and facilities even in the face of excess capacity. And given the current state of the economy, that's just what the doctor ordered.

This short-run economic boost isn't the main reason to move on climate-change policy. The important thing is that the planet is in danger, and the longer we wait the worse it gets. But it is an extra reason to move quickly.

So can we afford to save the planet? Yes, we can. And now would be a very good time to get started.

Fed Watch: Despite Green Shoots, Odds Favor More Easing

Tim Duy:

Despite Green Shoots, Odds Favor More Easing, by Tim Duy: The Fed took an interesting risk by holding policy steady on Wednesday.With green shoots all the rage, policymakers are ready to step to the sidelines as they monitor the progress of their many programs.And clearly, they must have known that the 3% level on 10-year Treasuries was dependent on the expectation that policymakers would expand the pace of outright purchases of those assets, but are betting that economic conditions will remain sufficiently weak to prevent a crippling increase in rates. Still, given that policymakers still see the economy in decline, albeit at a slower rate, the odds favor additional easing in the months ahead, especially considering expectations of a widening output gap. Recall that labor markets, and the threat of deflation, kept the Fed easing well past the end of the recession in 2001.

Short of an outbreak of inflation, or a unexpected and unlikely surge of growth, there is little reason to think that the Fed is ready to bring policy to a sustained pause. And an imminent rise in inflation remains an outside risk for the Fed; the focus remains consistently on disinflation or, worse yet, outright deflation. A key paragraph is:

In light of increasing economic slack here and abroad, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued. Moreover, the Committee sees some risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term.

Policymakers are counting on a rising output gap (both here and abroad) and lags in the price setting process to keep inflation at bay. Indeed, this must be the case, as some of the current numbers are really not all that comforting. I am not inclined to place too much focus on headline inflation - oil prices appear to have found a bottom around $50 a barrel, and sustained hints of a firming of global economic activity would promise to send prices higher, thus offsetting the strong disinflationary impact of falling energy prices since the middle of 2008. In contrast to low year-over-year headline numbers, the personal income and outlays report for March revealed that core PCE prices gained by 0.2% in each of the past three months, pushing the annualized three month trend back above 2%:


And note that near-term inflation expectations have climbed back up into a normal range:


From this perspective, policymakers have done a good job anchoring inflation expectations against the possibility of deflation. Is this enough, however, to unsettle FOMC members? Despite these inflationary hints, it is simply unlikely that the Fed would ignore the disinflationary implications of the output gap. One way to ignore the gap is to argue that the US will revert to an emerging market inflation dynamic. I think such an argument requires a steady depreciation of the Dollar to hold - which could happen, but a Dollar crisis looks, for the moment, unlikely given relative global weakness. One could also argue that estimates of potential output are optimistic and don't reflect the importance of structural change in the economy. This is the issue that Nick Rowe at the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative attempts to tackle:

Even in the short run a good banking and financial system will be important in re-allocating capital between growing and declining sectors, if there are shifts in relative demand. If people want fewer cars and more restaurant meals, but banks cannot shift loans from car manufacturers to restaurants, the Short Run Aggregate Supply curve may shift left, because the restaurants won't be able to expand to meet demand, and car manufacturers' prices or wages may be sticky downwards.

If you see the financial crisis as causing the recession by shifting the SRAS curve left, then monetary and fiscal policies, which shift the AD curve right, are not the appropriate cure. Even if you see leftward shifts of the SRAS curve as only part of the story, you will see limits on what monetary and fiscal policy can achieve. When expansionary monetary and fiscal policies start to cause excessive inflation, before output and employment have returned fully to normal, you will know that purely AD policies have reached the limit of what can be expected from them.

Nick is slapped down by Brad DeLong:

But if bad banks have shifted the AS curve inward, then right now we should have stagflation: depression and inflation, as output falls and prices rise. We don't. The argument that fiscal and monetary policies won't reduce unemployment to normal levels because we have a supply side problem is completely incoherent in an AS-AD framework.

Brad is correct that in a traditional AS-AD framework, bad banks are demand shocks, not supply shocks. There is still something about Nick's argument that is important - the financial system redirected capital investment into housing and consumption related activities. Presumably, potential output includes the ability to build and sell as many houses the US economy produced at the height of the housing bubble. But what good is that output if we don't want to build and sell that many houses in the future? How do we redirect capital away from those sectors? And how long does it take? Arguably, the narrowing of the US trade deficit is pushing that adjustment forward, as the US economy can't focus entirely on producing nontradable goods. Recall Brad DeLong from 2005:

There is an alternative scenario, one in which foreigners'--including foreign central banks'--desired holdings of dollar-denominated assets shortly hit the wall, and the asset price shifts that result from desired holdings' hitting the wall reduce, or do not increase, confidence in the dollar.

In this alternative scenario, the U.S. has to move about ten million workers out of currently-favored sectors--construction, home-equity-credit financed consumer expenditures, and so on--into export and import-competing manufactures. How much structural unemployment does such a sectoral shift require, and how long does the structural unemployment last? Other countries have to shift up to forty million workers out of export manufactures into other industries, and to generate demand for the products of those industries (without destabilizing their own monetary systems and asset prices, as Japan appears to have done at the end of the 1980s). The U.S. Federal Reserve would have to cope with whatever inflationary pressures are generated by rising import prices. Foreign central banks would have to cope with whatever stresses on their own asset prices are created by enormous losses of value in the stocks and bonds of their exporting companies.

If structural unemployment is rising - not because banks are currently bad, but engaged in bad behavior in the past - attempts to reduce unemployment back to pre-recession levels will yield higher inflation. This problem is minimized if labor resources can be quickly redirected into other sectors, a process that Nick above is implying is hampered by the existence now of bad banks. But, as Brad suggested in 2005, getting to inflation in the current environment seems to require a Dollar collapse - a story that for now is difficult to tell.

All of which is interesting, but even if you believe that structural unemployment is rising, I don't think anyone believes it is near the 8.5% rate for March (not to mention the underemployment rate of 15.6%). Nor does anyone expect that recent green shoots are sufficient to keep unemployment from rising further. Moreover, note that the Employment Costs Index released today reveals the continued slide in employee compensation costs - consistent with the FOMC's concerns about economic slack. Indeed, the ECI highlights the risks of the Fed's move to hold steady policy: Declining wage growth, coupled with higher interest rates, would play havoc with household efforts to reduce balance sheets and intensify the need to boost saving rates. Hence why the risks still favor additional policy easing - especially if programs such as TALF and PPIP are less successful than imagined.

In short, the shoots are much too green and the output gap much too wide to stimulate much discussion on Constitution Avenue that the end of easing has conclusively been reached. A pause to assess, yes. But Fed officials will be looking for clear and convincing evidence that economic activity is both self sustaining (not likely to fade after the initial burst of federal stimulus moves through the pipeline) and sufficient to substantially reduce the output gap before they sound the all clear signal. An end to the rapid pace of job loss is very different from a return to steady job growth. Again, recall the sustained pattern of easing in the wake of the 2001 recession - we need to go a long way up from -6% GDP growth before the job engine is started. To be sure, there should be some lingering concern that the Fed will act quickly (or at least the markets will act quickly), if there is a perceived need to withdraw monetary accomodation. But the data are well short of what would be necessary to justify such a shift in policy in the near future.

Who will be the Chosen One?

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Souter Said to Be Leaving Court in June

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