Wednesday, 1 July 2015

What I did on my holidays

I'm just finishing a short break walking in Scotland, and the fact that I have not posted a blog over the last week tells you the weather has not been too bad. However I did find the time to write a piece for the New Statesman on Greece, which can be found here. My favourite sentence is this:

"That the governments of the eurozone continue to display a macroeconomic understanding of fiscal policy equivalent to that of Angela Merkel’s imagined Swabian housewife is perhaps not surprising – it has been a consistent pattern since the eurozone began."

That sentence is followed by a few on the role of the IMF, which deserve amplification, and I'll hope to do that shortly after I leave Scotland.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The big picture

I have wasted far too much of my time killing zombies. This is what Paul Krugman calls ideas or alleged facts that, despite being shown to be wrong countless times, keep coming back to life. In terms of anti-Keynesian mythology, the zombie I have spent too much time on is that 2013 UK growth showed austerity works, but I’ve also done a bit on the mistaken idea that US growth in 2013 shows that Keynesian multipliers are zero. (I’ve been told that what I have done in the US case is deficient for a couple of reasons - neither of which I accept - but those saying this have never shown that doing it their way makes any difference. Instead they prefer to stick to gotcha economics. You can draw your own conclusions from that.) But these are particular episodes for particular countries - what about the big picture?

I happened to be using the IMF’s datamapper recently, and it contains the following for GDP growth in the advanced economies.

There was slow growth in the early 80s, but that was followed by years of around 4% growth. Another slow growth period in the early 90s, followed by years of around 3% growth. The same again for the 2000s. We then had the massive recession of 2009, followed by 3% growth in 2010. Then four years of growth below 2%, which would have been classed as a downturn based on previous experience.

Why has there been such a pathetic recovery? There is a simple, entirely conventional answer, which perfectly fits the timing: fiscal austerity. As I set out here, growth from 2010 in the US, UK and Eurozone would have been closer to previous recoveries without cuts in government consumption and investment.

Now of course there are other explanations. The most obvious is that recoveries from financial crises have been weaker and more prolonged in the past. However a point that is not made often enough is that the austerity explanation and the weak finance explanation are quite compatible with each other. In a recession private spending and public spending on goods and services do not compete, so even if private spending has been weak because of difficulties in obtaining finance, austerity in the form of public spending cuts will still reduce GDP. Furthermore, an inability by consumers to borrow can magnify the impact of cuts in transfers or increases in taxes on consumption.

The only theoretically plausible explanation for why austerity in the form of cuts to government consumption and investment will not reduce output in a demand deficient recession is if monetary policy eases to offset the cuts. That explanation suggests weak growth since the recession is a deliberate choice by monetary policy makers, and it gets more implausible as each day passes. Here is consumer price inflation from the same source. Whereas inflation wobbled around 2% during the Great Moderation, in 2013 and 2014 it was below 1.5%, and this year is heading towards zero.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The paranoia of power

A coda to my previous post, where I reported on some simulations presented in the Bank of England’s new blog. My final paragraph started: “The blog does not discuss the policy implications, but they are pretty obvious.” I went on to say what I thought the implications were. Tony Yates thinks that maybe there was a hidden meaning in the sentence I wrote. The hidden meaning was: ‘see how subversive the new blog is: they are allowing staff to communicate that they think the MPC should be overshooting the target’.

When Tony first raised this possibility with me on twitter, I just had to laugh, for two reasons. The first is that I had never imagined what I wrote could be interpreted this way. I am an academic, not a journalist trying to gain kudos by embarrassing the Bank. I am interested in what policy should be, not what some Bank staff think it should be. The second is that Tony’s imagined interpretation of what I had written was a perfect illustration of the kind of old Bank thinking that used to make it such a closed institution.

This kind of thinking subjects each possible release of economic analysis, however technical, to the following test. Could you imagine a malevolent journalist taking this analysis and using it to infer something about what policy might be or what some people in the institution think policy should be? The imagined journalist could be both very knowledgeable and quite stupid. If the answer is yes for any combination of these things, the analysis should not be released.

Now Tony is the last person to support such an attitude, but by imagining I had some hidden meaning, and then putting his imagination into print, he just encourages the old way of thinking. As far as I can see some staff members published a piece of technical analysis, and left those reading it to draw any policy conclusions they wished. Now what on earth is wrong with that! 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Bank of England goes Underground

This is a short post to celebrate an important innovation at the Bank. They now have a blog, which not only has a great name (which those who have not been to London may need a subway map to understand), but looks like being an invaluable addition to the UK and economics blogging scene. As I suggested here, this is another in a long line of small innovations made possible by appointing Mark Carney as Governor. Those who experienced previous regimes can hardly believe it.

The blog promises a mix of posts in terms of both content and wonkishness, and to start we have an easily understandable discussion of the implications of driverless cars for the insurance industry, and a more technical piece on macro. The idea behind the macro post is however fairly simple. If interest rates cannot go below some lower bound, the distribution of forecast outcomes will be skewed. If bad things happen, things will be a lot worse than if good things happen. The novelty is to use what are called stochastic simulations of the Bank’s main macro model to quantify this (using, I have to add, a methodology proposed by one of my former Oxford PhD students – well done Tom). Here is a fan chart for inflation which I think is self-explanatory.

The blog does not discuss the policy implications, but they are pretty obvious. As Brad DeLong has recently pointed out (it’s a point that I and others have also made), with non-symmetrical outcomes like this, you should not choose the policy based on what is most likely to happen. Instead you bias your policy to shy away from the very bad outcomes. So in this case instead of aiming for 2% inflation as the most likely outcome, you aim for a policy where the most likely outcome is above 2%, to avoid a situation where the economy hits the lower bound for interest rates. To put it intuitively, when walking along a narrow path beside a cliff, it is natural and probably wise not to walk in exactly the middle of the path.   

Friday, 19 June 2015

Telling lies

What do you do when a well known macroeconomics blogger says you have made a claim which you have never made? You have in fact clearly said the opposite, and the claim you are supposed to have made is obviously silly. Ignore it maybe? But then you get comments on your own blog expressing surprise at how you can make such a silly claim. There is only one thing you can do really - write a post about it.

Some background which is important because it makes it clear why this is no simple misunderstanding or mistake. I had been reading stuff about how US growth in 2013 refuted the Keynesian position on austerity. 2013 was the year of the sequester, when many economists had voiced concerns about how a sharp fiscal contraction could derail US growth. Growth in 2013 turned out to be modest, and this led some to argue that this modest growth had refuted Keynesian economics.

So I thought I’d do a simple calculation, discussed here. I took the data series for government consumption and investment (call it G), and computed what growth would have been if we assumed an instantaneous multiplier of 2 and no austerity. If the 2013 experience really did refute the Keynesian position, then my counterfactual calculation of growth without austerity would have given some implausibly large number. I choose a multiplier of 2, because that rather large number would give the Keynesian analysis a real test. I did the same for earlier years. The counterfactual number I got for 2013 growth was 3.7%, rather than actual growth of 2.2%, with similar growth rates for earlier years. Hardly an implausible number for a recovery from a deep recession with interest rates still at zero, so no obvious refutation.

Scott Sumner then wrote a post where he said three things in particular.

1)    “Simon Wren-Lewis also gets the GDP growth data wrong”
2)    “He claims that RGDP growth was 2.3% in 2012 and 2.2% in 2013”
3)    “austerity began on January 1st 2013”

(1) and (2) were a rather strange way of saying that I should have used Q4/Q4 growth rather than annual growth. On (3), I wrote a new post simply plotting the data series I had used, which shows a pretty steady fiscal contraction starting in 2011 and continuing in 2013. [1]

Which brings us to his latest post. He writes, about those two original posts:

“He [sic] second claim is to deny that austerity occurred in 2013.”

He goes on to say that this claim is absurd, which of course it is. The only problem is that I never made it, or anything like it. In fact I obviously thought the opposite.

Could this be a simple misunderstanding? There are two reasons why not. The first was that my counterfactual with no fiscal contraction had raised growth from 2.2% to 3.7% in 2013. That would not happen if there had been no austerity in 2013. The second was that I had reproduced the data which clearly shows continuing austerity in 2013! So this was no misunderstanding, or even exaggeration. It is difficult to know what else to call it other than a straightforward lie.

[1] Sumner also says in this latest post that I’m using the wrong variable: rather than G I should use a more comprehensive measure including taxes and transfers, because G is not the variable used to measure austerity in the Keynesian model. But he must know that macroeconomists use both G and some measure of the deficit to look at short term fiscal impacts, for a simple reason. Consumers can smooth the impact of tax and transfer changes, while the impact of G is direct. So equating a $ worth of cuts in G with a $ tax increase, as a deficit measure would do, is wrong: particularly if timing is important, which in this case it is.

So using G is a pretty standard thing to do. In this case, however, it does not seem to make much difference. Here is the IMF WEO series for the US structural deficit. It shows a very similar pattern to G. Austerity starts in 2011, and continues thereafter. 

Where Labour went wrong

When the New Statesman asked me to write something on Osborne’s budget surplus law, they also suggested I talk about what Labour’s attitude should be. Space constraints meant that I could not say much on the second question, so let me amplify here.

Let's start in 2009. The Labour government's policy at the time was absolutely right. They provided fiscal support for the economy in the midst of the recession even though it meant increasing the deficit. Given the belief at the time that the recession might be short lived their policy was also quite clever, using a temporary cut in VAT as a close proxy for looser monetary policy.

What line should they have taken in 2010? I remember reading some reports that Gordon Brown initially wanted to continue placing the recovery above the need to reduce the deficit. If true, he was right. However it was perhaps inevitable that Labour began to also focus on deficit reduction: the recovery looked like it had begun, the debt problems in the Eurozone were constantly in the news, and the Conservatives and much of the media were saying we could become like Greece. So they instead fell back on the idea that recovery could be achieved at the same time as implementing policies designed to reduce the deficit. We can call this the ‘too far, too fast’ period, from the mantra Ed Balls used to criticise George Osborne’s policy.

This was when they made their first big mistake. Both Coalition parties had developed their own mantra, which I can call the ‘clearing up the mess Labour left’ line: Labour profligacy had maxed out the credit card, and so difficult measures would be needed. This is what Bill Keegan calls the big lie. Apparently Alastair Campbell advised Ed Miliband to get an independent figure to do a report on Labour’s fiscal record in an effort to counter this lie, but this advice was rejected. (The paper I wrote came out in 2013, but still to my knowledge Labour has never used it.)

I have seen two reasons given for why Labour chose not to defend its record: Miliband wanted to establish his independence from a government that had lost an election (to ‘move on’), and it was thought that the Coalition strategy of blaming the last government would lose its potency after a year or two. The second argument proved horribly wrong. Instead the ‘clearing up the mess’ line was used to blame Labour for damage caused by 2010 austerity. It was complete nonsense, but it worked. 

In a way 2011 and 2012 were too easy for Labour: the economy was stagnant and Osborne looked vulnerable. But Labour should have anticipated that growth would return at some point before the election - if I could, surely they could. They will not have anticipated the stagnant productivity that allowed unemployment to fall so rapidly, but in political terms growth would have probably trumped high unemployment anyway, as I suggested back in 2012.

What should have happened in 2012 is that the ‘too far, too fast’ line should have changed to become a full blown attack on austerity: that was their second big mistake. By 2012 it was obvious that fears about a UK debt crisis had been completely overblown. The problem with ‘too far, too fast’ is that it sounded like austerity-lite: the need to focus on the deficit was conceded. Labour could have easily got away with changing its line at this point. They could have said that we thought there was a debt funding problem, but now we know there wasn’t. The argument that austerity should be postponed until the recovery is assured (i.e. when interest rates are well away from the Zero Lower Bound) was right in terms of the macroeconomics, but it would also have allowed Labour to combat the ‘clearing up the mess’ line, and profited from Osborne’s move to plan B.

Instead Labour seemed to be constantly triangulating between sensible macroeconomics and what the focus groups were telling them, and thereby producing a policy that failed to convince. Their fiscal policy proposals going into the 2015 election were much more sensible than George Osborne’s, but instead of attacking his renewed austerity they tried to pretend that they too were ‘tough on the deficit’. It was left to the SNP to argue against austerity.

The problem was that instead of presenting a clear alternative vision, Labour looked like it was always playing catch-up with Osborne. As John Curtice writes: “the Achilles’ heel of Labour’s campaign appears to have been a failure to convince those who were sceptical about the Conservatives’ economic record that Labour offered an attractive alternative.” As Lord Ashcroft’s polls show, and as I noted sometime before the election, by 2015 around half the public were against the continuation of austerity, yet Labour’s message on this was confused.

Today Labour continues to think that triangulating on the deficit, or worse just copying Osborne, is the answer. I think this tells us a great deal about the Labour party. That it is light on good macroeconomic advice and expertise, of course. But also that it spends too much time listening to people in the Westminster bubble and fails to spend time thinking about basic electoral strategy.

What Labour needs to ask now is what will prevent the Conservatives convincing the electorate in 2020 that Labour just cannot be trusted on the economy? Admitting their past fiscal mistakes when in government now, however much that is partial and hedged, will just give ammunition to their opponents in five years time. (Just read this, and extract the quotes.) More serious still, by allowing the focus to remain on the deficit, it lets Osborne get away with the damage he inflicted in 2010-2012, and the continuing social costs of austerity. What is the point in talking about the record on growth or productivity, when you appear to have conceded that reducing the deficit is all important, and Osborne is doing plenty of it?

In my New Statesman piece I say it is still not too late to change tack, stop triangulating and try something new - to start telling the truth. But I think there is a danger that this sentence frames the discussion in the wrong way, so it appears to be a contest between pursuing the right policy and winning elections. This post is all about the best way of regaining economic credibility, which means taking a strategic view rather than looking at what sounds good to today’s focus group. Put simply, if around half the electorate already think austerity should not continue, why on earth are Labour giving in to deficit fetishism? In electoral terms, the fact that attacking austerity is also good macroeconomics is just a bonus.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Eurozone’s cover-up over Greece

Whenever I write about Greece, a large proportion of comments (maybe not a majority) could be summarised as follows: how can you side with Greece when its economy is so inefficient and its governments so inept and after everything we have done for them. I have no illusions about the inefficiencies and corruption endemic within the Greek economy. Nor do I want to become an apologist for any Greek government.

What does seem to me very misguided is the idea that European policymakers have already been generous towards Greece. The general belief is that had they not stepped in austerity in Greece would have been far worse. This seems simply wrong. If European policymakers have been generous to anyone, it is the Greek government’s original creditors, which include the banks of various European and other countries.

Suppose that Eurozone policy makers had instead stood back, and let things take their course when the markets became seriously concerned about Greece at the beginning of 2010. That would have triggered immediate default, and a request from the Greek government for IMF assistance. (In reality at the end of 2009 the Euro area authorities indicated that financial assistance from the Fund was not “appropriate or welcome”: IMF 2013 para 8) In these circumstances, given the IMF’s limited resources, there would have been a total default on all Greek government debt.

If that had happened, the IMF’s admittedly large assistance programme (initially some E30 billion, but increased by another E12 billion in later years), would have gone to cover the primary deficits incurred as Greece tried to achieve primary balance. That E42 billion is very close to the sum of actual primary deficits in Greece from 2010 (which includes the cost of recapitalising Greek banks).

What that means is that the involvement of European governments has not helped Greece at all. With only IMF support, Greece would have suffered the same degree of austerity that has actually occurred. The additional money provided by the European authorities has been used to pay off Greece’s creditors, first through delaying default in 2010 and 2011, and then by only allowing partial default in 2012. (I’m not sure the two groups see the division that way, but if some of the IMF money was intended to pay off Greece’s creditors, you have to ask why the IMF should be doing that.)

It is pretty clear why the European authorities were so generous to Greece’s creditors. They were worried about contagion. (For more on this, see Karl Whelan here.) The IMF agreed to this programme with only partial default, even though their staff were unable to vouch that the remaining Greek public debt was sustainable with high probability (IMF 2013, para 14).

The key point is that the European authorities and the IMF were wrong. Contagion happened anyway, and was only brought to an end when the ECB agreed to implement OMT (i.e. to become a sovereign lender of last resort).This was a major error by policymakers - they ‘wasted’ huge amounts of money trying to stop something that happened anyway. If Eurozone governments had needlessly spent money on that scale elsewhere, their electorates would have questioned their competence.

This has not happened, because it has been so easy to cover-up this mistake. Politicians and the media repeat endlessly that the money has gone to bail out Greece, not Greece’s creditors. If the money is not coming back, it becomes the fault of Greek governments, or the Greek people. That various Greek governments, at least until recently, agreed to participate in this deception is lamentable, although they might respond that they were given little choice in the matter. (Some of a more cynical disposition might have wondered how many of the creditors were rich Greeks.)

The deception has now developed its own momentum. What should in essence be a cooperative venture to get Greece back on its feet as soon as possible has become a confrontation saga. If the story is that all this money has gone to Greece and they still need more, harsh conditions including further austerity must be imposed to justify further 'generosity'. Among the Troika, hard liners can play to the gallery by appearing tough, perhaps believing that in the end they will be overruled by more sensible voices. The problem with this saga is similar to the problem with imposing further austerity - you harm the economy you are supposed to be helping. (Some see a more sinister explanation for what is currently going on, which is an attempt at regime change in Greece.)

That this is happening is perhaps not too surprising: politicians act like politicians often act. The really sad thing is that playing to the gallery seems to work: politicians using the nationalist card can deflect criticism that should be directed at them for their earlier mistakes. It happens all the time of course: see Putin and the Ukraine, or Scotland and the 2015 UK election. I wonder whether there will ever come a time when this cover-up strategy fails. Futile though it might be, I just ask those who might see this as an ungrateful nation always demanding more to realise they are being played.