Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Political Economy of the COVID-19 Crisis in Latin America


Following my talk on the same topic, on the same venue, now someone that might know a bit more about what's going on, particularly in Brazil. Professor Mazat will talk this Friday, and I highly recommend it. To register go here. Btw, Numa is Professor of Development Economics in the Institute of Economics at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, my alma matter.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Debt default or negotiated solution?

An Argentinean default is neither new, nor a surprise, perhaps, even for a casual observer of the ups and downs of international bond markets. One may want to follow Oscar Wilde’s Victorian governess advice and omit the chapter on the fall of the peso as being ‘too sensational.’ But an Argentinean default now, after the Great Shutdown provoked by the coronavirus pandemic, would be the harbinger of a generalized sovereign debt crisis for emerging markets that would engulf the global economy, and make the recovery slower and more painful, including in the United States and other advanced economies. It may also undermine the US position in the global economy.
The Argentinean government’s debt restructuring proposal to the private creditors expired Friday, May 8th, with a limited number of adherents. In particular, large institutional investors did not accept the terms offered by Martín Guzmán, the finance minister, which would have implied a cut of about sixty percent of the principal, and a moratorium on payments for three years. This proposal, one might add, was for the most part designed before the coronavirus crisis, and the collapse of the global economy. The main preoccupation of the proposal was to put the external debt of the country on a sustainable basis, meaning in line with its ability to pay, which depends on its exports, the only secure source of dollars.

Black Rock, Fidelity, PIMCO and other investment funds that hold enough of Argentinean debt to preclude any rescheduling, want a cut of around forty percent, and have enough influence to hold out for a better deal (this guy here says Black Rock is the fourth branch of government). Since Argentina did not make a payment of interest of approximately US$ 500 million in April 22nd, today the country could be officially in default (grace period expires today, even if government extended negotiations). In the absence of a negotiated solution with the main bondholders the default is inevitable. The impasse is established, and the question is how can the stalemate be broken. Only the U.S. government holds the key for a negotiated solution.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States government, and other international creditor groups like the Club of Paris have been unusually supportive of Argentina. The IMF that had lent US$44 billion to Argentina between 2018 and 2019, has openly argued that the Argentinean debt is unsustainable, providing support for the rescheduling proposal. The U.S. government that has been a harsh critic of center left governments in the region, has had good rapport with the new government of Alberto Fernández, and his vice-president, the ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with whom relations were considerably less friendly in the past.

As Jagdish Bhagwati famously implied with the notion of a Treasury-IMF-Wall-Street complex, the connections between the financial sector, the United States government and the multilateral organizations run deep. The current Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, as it is well-known, worked at Goldman Sachs, and he is the last of a long list of Wall Street connected government officials. Only the United States would have the clout to influence bondholders to come to the table with a reasonable counter offer. This would be of interest not only to Argentina, and its creditors, since a default would lead to years of litigious disputes that would only be sorted out by the courts, but for the United States and its global standing in the midst of the pandemic.

The collapse of international trade and of the price of commodities, the disappearance of remittances and revenues from tourism, coupled with the normal flight to safety will put other developing economies, that were not on the verge of collapse like Argentina, on unsustainable paths too. Most of these debts are denominated in dollars. The exorbitant privilege associated to the international position of the dollar comes with some requirements, as Charles Kindleberger famously noted. It requires acting as a global lender of last resort, providing counter-cyclical demand in times of distress. The U.S. is already doing some of these, with the Fed offering swap lines for central banks of a few countries, but it has blocked other initiatives like the expansion of the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights. Certainly not enough, and debatable whether it is enough even for domestic purposes (let alone other problems noted here, like the notion that the federal government would allow subnational units to go bankrupt)

Even more important in the context of the pandemic, particularly for the U.S. global standing, would be to allow countries that are indebted in dollars to default. These countries need the international reserve currency for the importation of essential medical equipment and pharmaceutical goods. The crisis has, if anything strengthened the position of the dollar in the short run, but there are dangers.

A financial crisis in the middle of a pandemic could have enormous human consequences, and it could also create the conditions for an eventual reduced role for the dollar. The pandemic has exacerbated the dispute between the United States and China, and the latter has already expanded its global lending in renminbi for years. It is also trying to provide medical support for affected countries in the region, to reduce criticism about its role in the pandemic, and now has stepped in to provide medical support. Argentina too has received medical equipment from China. If the U.S. is perceived as unresponsive, it is not inconceivable that China, if it follows a more generous credit policy, could be favored by the crisis.

The best possible outcome would be a negotiated solution, which would probably fall somewhere in between the Argentinean government offer and what would make the big institutional investors not loose money in the short term. Somewhere between a forty and a sixty percent haircut. That would allow the Argentinean government to deal with what really matters, the pandemic, and perhaps expand its spending without fear of external consequences. The U.S. Treasury and the IMF should back more vocally such a solution. Time is running out.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

On the Argentinean debt renegotiation (in Spanish)

My interview on Led.fm with María Iglesia and Cecília Camarano for the program Reperfiladas (in Spanish, obviously) on the Argentinean debt restructuring.

Restructuring Argentina’s Private Debt is Essential

JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ, EDMUND S. PHELPS, CARMEN M. REINHART

Argentina's creditors are being asked to accept a proposal that would reduce their revenue stream but make it sustainable. A responsible resolution will set a positive precedent, not only for Argentina, but for the international financial system as a whole.

Read rest and list of signatures here.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Some brief thoughts on the Great Shutdown

First GDP numbers of the Great Shutdown were out yesterday. As it can be seen in the graph, GDP shrunk by about 4.8%. The data reflects only the first weeks of the stay at home lockdown of the economy in March, as the BEA report points out. Numbers will get considerably worse.
You must add to this the increase in unemployment insurance claims, which since the crisis started has gone up by more than 26 million, as reported by the Labor Department. Note that the unemployment rate is still at 4.4% and that it would take a while for numbers to reflect the collapse in jobs. Also, the series are measured in different ways, so many that lost their jobs, and filed for benefits (and might not even have received them) will not look for jobs (what would be the point), and, as a result would not count as unemployed. Expect the participation rate to fall. At any rate, the true unemployment rate as we speak, 26 plus another 5 million or so unemployed before the crisis, would be closer to about 19%. This is a crisis of biblical proportions.

But that is not my main concern. There are many ways in which fiscal and monetary policy could mitigate the worst effects of the crisis. The problem for me is that almost nobody is talking about the size of the effort that would be required for the economy to get out of this deep hole. Imagine that unemployment does get to something like almost a third of the labor force, as suggested by some Fed officials.

I've been playing around with some scenarios. This is not forecasting, which I don't consider a particular useful approach. This scenario is based on very simple assumptions using a simple Keynesian (yes, as in Keynesian cross) model, and some simple stock-flow accounting definitions, even though I don't have a fully consistent accounting model (on that and Godley and stock-flow models see this old post). I also assume certain parameters and sizes of shocks (even though I played with different numbers; on Godley and his view of the role of parameter estimation and model architecture see this other old post). Other than the simple multiplier (in this scenario of 1.2) and Okun's Law (3:1 ratio in this case), there are only assumptions about autonomous spending (government in this case, with some assumptions for this year at least informed by current events), and my concerns are essentially about what those mean in terms of the political economy of fiscal policy.
So, in my scenario output falls by about 8% next year, and recovery starts immediately, but GDP only surpasses the previous level in 2022/23, in the third year of the crisis. That's with a lot of fiscal stimulus, by the way. And in part the result of that is that the debt-to-GDP ratio goes to, in this scenario, about 180%, after 9 years (I had others with considerably more). Japanese levels of debt. I see no problem, but not everybody agrees, and, of course, that's the problem. Since the social forces that push for austerity are still around.
The scenario also implies that unemployment spikes (less than the number I gave above; so I guess a lot of discouraged workers and disguised unemployment), and it takes almost a decade to come down to reasonable numbers.

As with Godley, my interest in this is NOT to make predictions. I have no clue if this is going to happen or not (most likely not). My point is that in all my scenarios, huge fiscal stimulus was followed by moderate stimulus (not austerity*), and yet in all the debt-to-GDP ratio would go considerably up. It shouldn't be a surprise. In a crisis with a collapse in demand, that destroys jobs and income, and that workers and corporations are heavily indebted, it is unavoidable that the federal government would be required to pick up the tab, run higher deficits, and accumulate debt.

But are we prepared for that scenario? Republicans already called for less government, less taxes, and reduction in all types of spending (particular social spending, which is frankly nuts in the context of a pandemic). More surprisingly, Mitch McConnell seems to want States and municipalities to go bankrupt, that is, not do the normal thing in federations, which is to make the only entity with ability to borrow in its own currency to borrow (at zero rates really) and transfer resources. He basically wants the US to look more like Europe, and not the more social spending part, but the absence of a federal fiscal pact part. That's dangerous. And a Biden presidency (oh man, this hurts!), if it happens (consider the alternative; is it too early for a beer?), would have to deal with that and discussions about the debt ceiling (am I glad a grabbed a beer?). Oh well.

* In my scenarios, austerity makes things worse, making the recovery slower, and tax revenue growth too, btw.

PS: The other post on Godley's approach to macro modeling here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Das Adam Smith problem

A short lecture on Adam Smith's problem for a Principles class. This might be of more general interest, and perhaps something to watch during the quarantine. The book I used for the lectures on history of economic ideas was Heinz Kurz's Economic Thought: A Brief History, a book that I highly recommend. The discussion here is heavily influenced by Tony Aspromourgos' book The science of wealth: Adam Smith and the framing of political economy, another one you should read if you have the opportunity.

Friday, April 24, 2020

COVID-19 Crisis: More Like the 1920-1921 Recession

By Ahmad Borazan, Fresno State (Guest blogger)

Economic commentators are struggling to find a historic precedent to the current COVID-19 caused economic crisis and the possible path of recovery. Majority of economic downturns are dominantly an aggregate demand driven phenomenon. But with the current crisis there is an imposed constriction in both supply and demand sides of the economy. Looking at the aggregate supply and demand forced contraction there is a compelling analogy between the current crisis and the Federal Reserve induced recessions such as that of 1920-1921.

During a recession caused by a Fed’s hike of interest rate both the supply and demand sides of the economy are brought to a halt. The higher cost of borrowing impedes spending resulting in a chain reaction of contracting production and spending. Similarly, social distancing measures curb spending and production as people stay home, unemployment rises, and non-essential businesses closed.

The Fed increased interest rate in 1920 to bring down inflation and attract gold inflows to restore the gold standard. The hike started in January 1920 and caused severe contraction of industrial production, consumption, and investment. Combined with government spending cuts due to WWI defense spending demobilization, the interest rate hike was high enough to cause the unemployment rate to go up from 2.3% in 1919 to 11.3 in 1921 and nonfarm unemployment rate rose up to 16%. With the economy in a deep recession and unemployment high, prices declined in the biggest deflation of the American economy in the last 120 years.

Then as the high interest rate attracted gold inflows and the price level significantly declined, the Federal Reserve started cutting interest rate in mid-1921. Soon enough the economy recovered through spending booms of debt-driven consumption and residential investment. Usually, the recovery out of recession takes long, hence the argument for government intervention. But as Keynes explained in the General Theory, under extraordinary circumstances that “could only be accomplished by administrative decree and is scarcely practical politics under a system of free wage-bargaining.”

When there is an anchor of expectations that raise the expectation of higher income, then recovery of spending can follow swiftly. During the early 1920s recession, we could argue, this anchor was the Federal Reserve monetary policy. The Fed’s interest rate cut raised expectations of higher future income and an end to the monetary-tightening caused recession. Furthermore, as I argue in a forthcoming paper, the increase in demand was also facilitated by a jump in private spending that was pent-up due to WW-I rationing and the subsequent recession.

As the management of the economy was still in the era of laissez-faire, the high unemployment rate was tolerable and forced as a fair price to purge the economy of inflation. Benjamin Strong, the chairman of New York Federal Reserve refused to cut of interest rates before wages had gone down as much as prices. In the post New Deal era, a high unemployment rate around 10% is less tolerable.
Similarly, we could argue that loosening up social-distancing measures would kick in an increase of spending though as reports from China show this will not be fast as people would still be worried about going back to pre-crisis spending level. The last few days we saw protests in multiple US cities with crowds demanding to reopen the economy. Although the drivers of these protests could vary from legitimate economic pain to partisan politics, the US government should enhance its fiscal measures to sustain households’ incomes and jobs. Paycheck protection program for workers in small businesses should be expanded and extended to workers in large enterprises, in addition to state and local governments.

Government spending expansion when social-distancing measures are enforced and when relaxed would help us avoid a drastic depression as it would ensure sustained demand during the recovery. Furthermore, public deficit driven recovery would enable us to avoid risky private debt-driven rebound which characterized the era of the Roaring Twenties and contributed to the severity of the Great Depression.

Any concerns about expanding the debt are unjustified. The US debt to income ratio is currently less than half that of Japan which is capable of borrowing at extremely low cost while it has a smaller economy and lesser role in global financial markets compared to that of the US. If the Japanese experience proves anything it is that we have ample room for more debt to fund expansionary fiscal policy and avoid a depression. There is no reason to repeat the policy mistake done with the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 which cut discretionary government spending when the unemployment rate was 8%. More generous European economic fiscal and monetary reactions to the current crisis prove the capacity of advanced economies governments in relieving its citizens of economic hardship. One hopes these responses would bring the order of mythological fiscal scarcity to an end.

Donald Trump commenting on rescuing affected workers, kept saying we will help them so they "don’t get penalized for something that’s not their fault.” As if in normal times being unemployed or working for below a living wage is usually an individual’s choice and fault; not a result of the "naturally optimal" markets and other human-made structures.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

My talk on the Great Shutdown (in Spanish)


For those that understand Spanish my talk on the crisis (Keynesianism versus Socialism) organized by the university in Puebla (BUAP) by Juan Alberto Vázquez. Link to a piece published in an Argentinian newspaper on the topic here. My part goes up to minute 29 or so, then it's the talk by good friend Ignacio Perrotini on "Milton Friedman and the Plague."

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Friday, April 10, 2020

New issue of ROKE is out


The April Issue of the Review of Keynesian Economics is now out. The issue contains a collection of articles covering a spectrum of important issues. It opens with a debate over New Developmentalism which pits development relying on macro prices (especially the exchange rate) against historical state-led development policies. Next, there is an article on the role of the wage share in determining exchange rates. Thereafter, there are several articles on Post Keynesian growth theory. One addresses the evolution of income and wealth inequality, while others empirically assess alternative approaches to theorizing demand growth.

Two paper are open: "A Structuralist and Institutionalist developmental assessment of and reaction to New Developmentalism" by Carlos Aguiar de Medeiros and "Making sense of Piketty's ‘fundamental laws’ in a Post-Keynesian framework: the transitional dynamics of wealth inequality" by
Stefan Ederer and Miriam Rehm.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

World War II, not the New Deal, is the model for COVID-19 macroeconomic policies

Central planning (Socialism?) in democratic societies

There is a lot being written on the causes and cures for the economic consequences of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The predictable distinction is among those that think that this is essentially a demand shock, mostly to services, and those that are concerned with the disruption to supply chains. And to some extent both are correct. But that is not the more relevant problem here, which is whether we need just more government or a change in the nature of the governmental interventions.

Neil Irwin, from the New York Times, provides a suitable and simple explanation of the demand shock story. Note that a demand shock often goes together with significant financial implications, as agents with reduced revenue tend to default on loans or payment streams to any liabilities. The Economist noted the risk associated with excessive corporate debt, and the possibility that the virus might trigger a debt-deflation type crisis in financial markets. On the fragility of corporate balance sheets see also this insightful piece by Michalis Nikiforos. Many economists have talked in favor of this interpretation, and certainly there is a lot to be said about this view, which I tend to agree with, by the way.

The fiscal expansion plans put forward by the administration have been mostly seen through the lens of a regular demand shock version of the recession. They include things like a bailout of certain sectors hit hard by the sudden decline in demand, like the airlines, and checks to those that have lost their jobs, besides the Fed injecting liquidity to reduce the financial effects of the demand shock. In that sense, not very different from the fiscal package and financial rescue of the 2008 crisis.

Of course, macroeconomic policies in 2008, even though they did preclude a fall in unemployment of the magnitude that had occurred in the 1930s during the Great Depression, were flawed in many ways. They did rescue banks, but left many to lose their houses for one (and Obama's Justice Department did not prosecute in any significant way the many financial excesses of Wall St); it was also probably on the smaller side, leading to a prolonged, but very slow, recovery, in which labor market conditions remained relatively poor for many workers, even with low levels of unemployment by the end. All things that increased the problems at the bottom of the income distribution and helped explain Trump's political victory in 2016. Hence, there is reasonable fear that these policies might not work well this time around again. Besides, there is a case to be made that this crisis is not fundamentally a demand shock.

A prominent defender of the latter is Dean Baker. He says: "Our problem is not creating demand in the economy, the problem is keeping people more or less whole for a possibly extended period in which much of the economy is shut down." And as he notes, sending checks to people directly will fall short of a solution. Checks will be irrelevant for many, that have secure jobs, and insufficient for many, since it will be too little, or because some people might be directly excluded from such programs, like undocumented immigrants with US born children. Dean's alternative is to send money directly to companies that would keep workers employed and inactive, helping in the recovery too. Of course this solution deals fundamentally with those in the labor market, and not with those in more precarious situations.

I see the problem as being essentially a demand shock, note that the increase in unemployment insurance applications was marked last week, to a great extent associated to Coronavirus layoffs. Obviously nobody would deny the supply side effects of the crisis, even though these are less disruptive in the short run, in my view. Nobody is being laid off because the company is unable to obtain intermediary goods for production, or at least not on significant numbers. It is the sudden collapse of demand that matters. But that misses the point of the kind of demand and supply shocks that have hit the economy. These are localized, uneven shocks and an efficient policy reaction requires targeted interventions. The kind of intervention we need is one that one the demand side tries to maintain the ability of families with cash flows problems (the ones laid off and those that were already outside the formal job market), and on the supply side that redirects production to the sectors that would experiment a surge in demand.

The most typical analogy in times of macroeconomic crises is the Great Depression, and progressives, not incorrectly go searching for ideas in the New Deal tool box. However, the New Deal was mostly about regulation, in its first phase, and about spending, in particular after the Roosevelt Recession. The kind of intervention we need is more akin to World War II, one in which government agencies have ample powers to requisite, produce or fund private corporations to produce what is needed as vital effort for survival, as alluded by Jamie Galbraith in his recent piece on the virus. For example, we need to reconvert the economy to produce more ventilators, which are in short supply, and also to ration the ability of families to hoard certain key central consumer goods, to preclude localized scarcity of essential items like hand sanitizer. We need planning, not just more government spending. And, yes, that means Socialism (or Social Democracy). This was something that no US citizen would have been surprised about, in particular after the incredible collapse of the market economy in the early 1930s, and it should not be a surprise that Socialism is somewhat more popular now. COVID-19 makes it clear why markets cannot cope with global crisis like a pandemic.

Another central element of the World War II effort was the generous and strategic concern with the global impact of US policies. Lend-lease, even before the US entry in the war, was central for allowing the UK resist the Nazi onslaught, and the subsequent program with the Soviet Union was crucial for them to be able to resist, and eventually win the war in the European front. In order to defeat Nazism, the US authorities were willing to cooperate with a Communist government, and provide significant resources. A similar approach should be used to deal with nations that are not seen as allied (like the Soviets then), but that in a particular context should be helped, like Iran, and Venezuela, which are and will be under extreme duress during the pandemic. The negative effects on the US image associated to the tightening of the sanctions, and the impediments to IMF loans under these circumstances, will be hard to reverse.

Finally, some think that this would be a short lived V-shaped recession. Meaning that once the main social distancing policies are lifted, the economy will recover swiftly. Note, however, that the duration of the measures is contingent on its own success. The more successful we are at flattening the curve, meaning reducing the contagion rate, to avoid overwhelming the health system, the longer the economic disruption will be, and the more we would need a planned economy.

PS: Portuguese translation here.

Friday, March 6, 2020

From Truncated Developmental State to Failed State in Latin America


I gave a talk last year in Argentina that forced me to think about the notion of the developmental state and its limits for Latin America. I discussed it in Mexico too, and I added a bit more about the notion of failed states, also discussed in my first presentation. This week I presented at Boston University, for the first time for a mostly English speaking audience. This is a brief summary of some of my ideas, based on those presentations.

National state formation in Latin America, during the last quarter of the 19th century, in what has been termed in the more conventional literature the 1st globalization, was related to the incorporation of the region in the networks of trade, finance, in particular in relation to the United Kingdom and the United States, and the European migratory flows.  On the other hand, the disintegration of the national states in the neoliberal period, starting with the collapse of the so-called Golden Age of Capitalism, is the result of the same necessity to promote the integration of the region in the global economy. Strong or weak state, but with the same objective, to promote the subordinate integration of the region into the global economy. It must be emphasized that it is NOT a Latin American phenomenon, and that the Failed State in the region corresponds to what James Galbraith has called the Predator State in the case of the US, which implies the use of the state to promote the private gains of corporations and the wealthy.

Neoliberalism is NOT a right-wing phenomenon, since the existence of progressive neoliberals, as denominated by Nancy Fraser, referring to left of center, or more appropriately centrists like Clinton and Obama. Right-wing and left-wing populism are to a great degree a reaction to Neoliberalism.

The concept of the developmental state is often used, but seldom analyzed more carefully. The narrative is often associated with the Asian experience in the post-war period, from Japan to China, including in particular South Korea. Conceptually the work of Chalmers Johnson, and his followers (e.g. Amsden, Chang, Evans, and Wade, to cite the most prominent) is central, building on a tradition that harks back to Friedrich List. But the logic of the developmental state is actually related to the American experience, and to the legacy of Alexander Hamilton, who was the inspiration for List, as noted by Cohen and DeLong, discussed here before. In my view, that should be extended to the British case in the 18th century, which was the ultimate inspiration for Hamilton in his 'Report on Manufactures.'

It seems reasonable that what John Brewer called the British Fiscal-Military State  (old post on that here) is the original developmental state. In my view, the central characteristic of the developmental state is its ability to borrow more or less without limit and also without the possibility of default. It is true that the British currency was effectively tied to gold from the early 1700s, but convertibility was suspended in periods of crisis like the Napoleonic Wars. At the core of the developmental state is the ability to spend, without external restrictions. It must have the hegemonic currency, or it must not have a significant shortfall of it.

Charles Tilly famous dictum according to which “war made the state, and the state made war” is correct. It must be complemented by the work by Jan Glete, which extends to the work by Roberts and Parker on the Military Revolution, and the role of a permanent navy and naval warfare in the formation of the state. Nicholas Rodger refers to the Fiscal-Naval State. War matters, but control of the sea matters even more. What is missing in Tilly, and his followers, is the peripheral state, and the relation of the latter with the developmental state. In this case, if we take the Asian case as paradigmatic, we could say that the state lost the war, and the loss made the developmental state.

The developmental state in the periphery appears in the post-war period, with the establishment of American hegemony. The reasons for the collapse of the 1st globalization are complex, but at a deeper level Charles Kindleberger suggested that the roots of the inter-war crisis, including the Great Depression, and the wars too, were associated to the decline of British hegemony and the slow emergence of the American one. But it is not the collapse of the British hegemony, neither the rise to dominance by the United States, that allowed for the appearance of a developmental state in the periphery, and arguably in Latin America too.

The crisis per se opens space for new policies, without a doubt. But it is ultimately the Russian Revolution, and the Cold War, which provides an alternative to capitalism, that opens up space for both alternative policies in the periphery, but additionally for support by the new dominant hegemon in promoting development and lifting the external constraint, that I suggested was at the core of the possibility for a developmental state. In the Asian case, the very existence of the developmental state was to some extent tied to the special relation with the US within the geopolitical situation that included, not only the Soviet Union, but also communist China, North Korea, Vietnam, and the domino theory, according to which Asian economies would fall and become communist if a neighboring country also did. And that is without considering India, Indonesia and the non-aligned movement.

This generated the conditions for an American procurement policy for Asian firms. Daniel Immerwahr argues that Toyota, the firm famous for ‘just-in-time’ or flexible production methods that superseded Fordist mass production, was virtually broke at the beginning of the Korean War. The firm was saved by Pentagon purchases, which guaranteed demand, and the same time that it enforced standards, and transferred technology. In Latin America there was nothing similar to this. Volta Redonda, the first steel mill in Brazil, which depended on US technology transfer and resulted from the US military base in Natal during World War II, would pale in comparison. It was assumed, not completely incorrectly, that our elites would align themselves with the West, and that a communist revolution could not take roots in the region. When it occurred the long and harsh embargo on Cuba was imposed, and a similar one now on Venezuela. Sticks rather than carrots were used in the backyard.

In the case of Latin America, the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine, implied that the benevolent policy referred to as “development by invitation” by Immanuel Wallerstein, following the ideas of Arthur Lewis and revived more recently by Carlos Medeiros and Franklin Serrano, was never really a possibility.

The limited impact of the developmental state in the region, when compared with the Asian experience, should not be seen as a complete failure. The economies of the region grew relatively fast, and even an incomplete or developmental welfare state was created, as noted by Sonia Draibe and Manuel Riesco. Nor should the debt crisis of the 1980s, which closes the cycle, be seen as the result of state-led industrialization. In fact, it is the debt crisis that leads the region more decisively into neoliberalism, even if neoliberalism had started before with the Southern Cone at the forefront.

What has not been discussed in more detail is the role of the United States opening of China, and the role of development by invitation in Asia for the Latin American periphery. In the case of Latin America the end of the developmental period, and the opening up of China, has gone hand in hand with a reprimarization of production and exports in South America, and with a maquilization – which implies higher dependence on imported components – in Mexico and Central America. The new integration implies a peripheral integration with the Southern periphery. But the decision to open up Asia did not come from Latin America. It was an American decision, based on geopolitical calculations, isolate the Soviet Union, back then, and also to discipline the labor force in the center.

It is in this context that the failed state starts to take a hold in the region. But the failed state, defined broadly as one that is incapable to intervene coherently in the economy, or unable to maintain the monopoly of violence, is by no means a mistake. It is functional and necessary for the integration into the global economy. In contrast to the relatively strong state of the late 19th century needed to integrate our economies into the global markets, now, in the 2nd globalization, a weak state, incapable of defending the rights of the working class, is necessary. In the same sense that American elites abandoned their working class, and have weakened and promoted the destruction of the welfare state institutions, the same has taken place in Latin America, but in more dramatic fashion, since in the region the welfare state was already incomplete or truncated, to use Fernando Fajnzylber’s expression about our industrialization.

The protests in the region, and in the center, have opened the possibility for alternatives to neoliberalism, but it would be a mistake to presume that the latter is dead. In general, when left of center governments manage to get elected they must contend with managing the failed state left by neoliberalism.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Obamacare With a Public Option: Fool Me Twice Shame on Me


By Thomas Palley

There is an old saying “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” That saying is relevant for the current healthcare debate in which former Vice-President Biden and elite Democrats are touting a reheated version of Obamacare with a public option. It is a case of trying to fool the American public twice.

Adding an Obamacare public option will not solve the healthcare problem. Worse yet, it misses an historic opportunity to heal the festering wound of healthcare via a single-payer system as proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders.

Read rest here.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Housing and Inequality in Utah


From the recent report, written to a great extent by David Fields:
Rising housing costs and stagnating real wages are the primary causes of worsening housing affordability in Utah. From 2009 to 2016 real income only grew at 0.31% per year while rent crept upward at a rate of 1.03% per year in 2017 constant dollars. Now, more than 183,000 low-income Utah households pay more than half their income for rent, becoming more likely to be evicted and moving closer to homelessness.
Housing has not received as much coverage in the discussions about inequality, and this is well wroth reading. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bernie Sanders: Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself


By Thomas Palley

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Eighty-seven years ago those were the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural speech. Today, they resonate with Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, which confronts a barrage of attack aimed at frightening away voters.

Fear is the enemy of change and the friend of hate. That is why both sides of the political establishment are now running a full-blown campaign of fear-mongering against Sanders.

The Democratic Party establishment likes the economy the way it is and wants to prevent change. Donald Trump and the Republicans have made themselves the party of hate. Both therefore have an interest in promoting fear, which explains the strange overlap in their attacks on Sanders.

Read rest here.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Scott Carter's talk on Sraffa


If you are in London go see Scott Carter talk on Sraffa tomorrow, organized by Andrés Lazzarini. Time: Friday Feb. 14, (11:30 to 13:30). Location: Margaret McMillan Building, MMB room 224, Goldsmiths University of London, New Cross, SE14 6NW

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Do current times vindicate Keynes and is New Keynesian macroeconomics Keynesian?



Thomas I. Palley, Esteban Pérez Caldentey and Matías Vernengo

Professor Robert Rowthorn delivered the second annual Godley–Tobin lecture in New York City on 1 March 2019. The title of his lecture was ‘Keynesian economics – back from the dead?’ and it is published in this issue of the Review of Keynesian Economics. The lecture was attended by a large audience and the Question & Answer session provoked a stimulating discussion. Prompted by that discussion, we thought it would be interesting to invite some leading economists to independently address Professor Rowthorn's lecture topic. This symposium is the outcome of that invitation.

We are living in a time which many believe has a distinctly Keynesian character. That is captured in the belief that many economies appear to suffer from aggregate demand shortage or, at least, a proclivity to demand shortage. It is also captured in the revival of the concept of ‘economic stagnation,’ which was an idea that had much traction in the 1930s and 1940s but then fell away in the 1950s with the post-war boom and the non-reappearance of depression-like conditions.

Another Keynesian feature of the times is the character of macroeconomic policy, particularly fiscal policy. Following the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession it spawned, there was a global turn to sizeable coordinated fiscal stimulus. Though that turn was truncated (Keynesians would say mistakenly), its legacy remains in place in the sense that discretionary counter-cyclical fiscal policy is back. That is evident in the renewed widespread belief among economists and policymakers regarding the value of fiscal stimulus to combat recessions, though the details of when, how, and how much are still contested. That contrasts with the situation before the Great Recession when the mainstream consensus was that discretionary counter-cyclical fiscal policy was largely ineffective.

Read rest here

From the last issue of ROKE with free papers by Rowthorn and Eichengreen.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Stock Market Boom is Not the Basis of Shared Prosperity


By Thomas Palley

The US is currently enjoying another stock market boom which, if history is any guide, also stands to end in a bust. In the meantime, the boom is having a politically toxic effect by lending support to Donald Trump and obscuring the case for reversing the neoliberal economic paradigm.

For four decades the US economy has been trapped in a “Groundhog Day” cycle in which policy engineered new stock market booms cover the tracks of previous busts. But though each new boom ameliorates, it does not recuperate the prior damage done to income distribution and shared prosperity. Now, that cycle is in full swing again, clouding understanding of the economic problem and giving voters reason not to rock the boat for fear of losing what little they have.

Read rest here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Summers on secular stagnation, the ISLM, and the liquidity trap

Two short clips from Lawrence Summers talk at the ASSA meeting in San Diego. So he first says that secular stagnation is more plausible now than before. He sees that it can be explained as a shift of the IS curve backwards. His IS has a somewhat marginalist foundation, with a natural rate, and a fairly conventional story for investment. Of course, the negative shift has bee compensated by some sort of stimulus, that is now weaker. I would say a smaller multiplier that affects the slope of the IS would make more sense.
And he does say in the next clip that the IS is steeper, and the LM is flat, or that we are in a liquidity trap. Again, I think it's not really that, and simply a policy decision of the Fed, inevitable given the circumstances, perhaps.
He also, is not optimistic on monetary policy, and is pushing for expansionary fiscal policy. And certainly, even if there are many differences in the way I would portray the current macroeconomic situation, in particular the causes of the slow recovery and what he calls secular stagnation, on the policy issue we are not that far.

Monday, January 6, 2020

James K. Galbraith's Veblen-Commons award

Ritual and prestige among the Institutionalists

Jamie got the Veblen-Commons award, something his father received back in 1976. I introduced him, and as expected discussed a bit his contributions to economics, and the understanding of institutions. His most important contributions are on the field of inequality, and the work he has done with the University of Texas Inequality Project (UTIP).

There are many contributions that Jamie and UTIP have made. His use of the UNIDO payroll data, that he noted in his Godley-Tobin Lecture, has significant advantages over tax records and household survey data, and provides a different picture of global inequality. His use of the Theil decomposition is also original and provides new insights on inequality. And there is the more important contribution, his preoccupation with the macro-foundations of distribution theory.

I suggested, however, that perhaps his most provocative contribution to the understanding of economics and the evolution of institutions is in his notion of the Predator State, that in which private interest has taken over the commanding heights to promote the looting of what is left of the New Deal and Great Society project. This notion harks back to his father's famous trilogy -- American Capitalism, The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State (NIS), in particular the latter.

The evolution of of the bureaucratic state that was disappearing as his father wrote about it -- NIS was published in 1967 -- and its transformation into a predatory machine of the elites is central to understand inequality.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Raúl Prebisch as a Central Banker and Money Doctor


Here we edited with Esteban Pérez and Miguel Torres some unpublished manuscripts from Prebisch related to the Federal Reserve missions, led by Robert Triffin, to the Dominican Republic and Paraguay, in which he emphasizes the need of capital controls in peripheral countries that did NOT have the key hegemonic currency. There is also a discussion of Keynes and White's plans for Bretton Woods, which were partially published before. In Spanish. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

What to expect from the incoming government in Argentina

The government in Argentina has less than two weeks at this point. It is too early to pass judgment. But we can look at the legacy of the Macri administration, and indicate a few things about the current strategy. A paper I have just received from Fabian Amico, that will soon be published in Circus, will be invaluable for my very brief comments here (the new issue of Circus and his paper will eventually be linked here, in Spanish).

The first thing that should be evident is that the 4 years of the Macri administration, that were supposed to restore economic growth, something that had faltered since 2011, essentially as a result of an external constraint, were a failure. Using IMF data, the average GDP growth in the period was -0.2 percent. Yep, negative. Amico uses a local activity index and the results are visibly not very different (his numbers give an overall decline of 1.7 percent for the whole period).

Macri's administration also lifted capital controls, paid the Vulture Funds more than US$ 9 billion, and open the doors to additional foreign borrowing. The Macri government had put all of their bets on the notion that growth would come from private investment and exports, rather than the combination of government spending and higher wages, which allows for higher consumption. Below you can see how well that worked out for them.

As it should be clear only exports grew (Amico calls, aptly, the Macri period an export-led stagnation one), and not as a result of the real devaluation, since they grew at about 2 percent per year, more or less in tandem with the growth of global GDP. So much for the notion that devaluation provides space for policy, and higher growth. The collapse of government consumption, and the fall in real wages were crucial to explain the poor performance. Investment followed the accelerator and collapses with the fall in GDP.

The real depreciation of the exchange rate, as is well-know, affects negatively the real wages, that fell approximately 30 percent during his government, and as I had noted back in 2015, that was the real objective of his government. In that sense, one can say that his government did achieve its main goal. The participation of wages in total income fell 8 percent, as shown below.
The worst mistake was the increase in foreign debt in foreign currency, of course, the currency crisis and the return of the IMF, which I've already discussed (here and here) so I'll not delve again into this.

The Fernández administration, and the new Finance Minister, Martín Guzmán, are doing what was expected, and what seems reasonable under the current circumstances. The increased the retentions, taxes on exports, mostly of the agribusiness sector, started to tax assets held abroad, and eliminated taxes on assets held domestically in pesos, which are measures to try to increase the reserves in dollars. This will certainly complemented with measures to alleviate hunger, and poverty, including the pensions of the elderly poor. They are most likely in negotiations with the IMF to avoid a default, and that is crucial for the success of the economic program.

As Fernández said, his administration inherited the chaos. But there are reasons for hope in the dark.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

A Conservative win will create a neoliberal hot zone and dissolve the UK: here’s how to stop it

By Thomas Palley

I could not get this op-ed (written November 6, 2019) published as it was a mix of too dull & didactic, and too partisan or not partisan enough. Anyway, in the wake of the election, I think it was analytically spot on so I have decided to post it. Also, it makes clear the very special circumstances of the UK election. It is a gross distortion to extrapolate from the UK to the US. Unfortunately, that is exactly what elite US media (e.g. New York Times) and neoliberal Democrats are now doing.
Opinion polls are predicting the Conservative Party will romp home in the UK’s upcoming general election. Unfortunately, given the party’s current extremist inclinations, that stands to transform the UK into a neoliberal hot zone and also dissolve the UK within a decade.

The costs of a Conservative winA Conservative majority government will quickly implement a Brexit that inflicts significant economic and political injury. Additionally, it will double-down on neoliberalism which has already done so much damage.

One set of costs concerns the deepening of neoliberal policies that push austerity and increase income inequality. The other set of costs concerns Brexit.

Read rest here.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Central Banks, Development and the Argentinean Economy

My interview (in Spanish) on central banks, development and some moderate optimism about the forthcoming Argentinian government of Alberto Fernández.

Paul Volcker's legacy

Paul Adolph Volcker (1927-2019)

Paul Volcker has passed away, and many obits (NYTimes here) and blog posts will be published in the next couple of days. Most likely, the majority will suggest how Carter appointed him to bring down inflation, a courageous decision, that might have costed him the election, and how Volcker went on to stabilize the so-called Great Inflation. Volcker was the head of the New York Fed from 1975 to 1979, before he was appointed chairman of the Fed in that year. He can be seen as the anti-Marriner Eccles, the first chairman properly speaking, and Roosevelt's central banker. Volcker was the quintessential Monetarist central banker, and his tenure is symbolic of the rise of Neoliberalism,* as much as Eccles' tenure was the symbol of the New Deal social democratic values.

It is important to remember that Volcker actually imposed Milton Friedman's monetary growth targets as the Fed policy, for the first time, since central banks, the Fed included, had traditionally acted by managing the interest rate, rather than trying to control the monetary aggregates. That policy was a failure and was short lived, being abandoned still during his tenure as chairman. Charles Goodhart noted that every time a central bank tried to control a monetary aggregate, the previously stable relationship between that monetary aggregate and economic activity broke down. This became know as Goodhart's Law.

But the Volcker interest rate shock was part of the set of policies that brought inflation down, even if the effects were not necessarily the ones anticipated, and the mechanism not the one assumed by Monetarist theories. It was NOT the result of lower monetary emissions, as much as the fact that higher interest rates, significantly higher, and the recession that followed, together with the opening of the American economy to foreign competition led a large increase in unemployment. The worst recession since the Great Depression, and that reduced the bargaining power of workers.

The other consequence of the interest rate shock, and the more profound globally, was the appreciation of the dollar, which showed that the dollar was still the key currency globally,** and the collapse of the Mexican economy after a default, which led to the so-called Debt Crisis of the 1980s, which not only hit the Latin American periphery, but many countries in Eastern Europe, helping also in the eventual collapse of real socialism. Asian economies, and their Japanese creditors, were hit by the crisis, but managed better the problems of debt overhang, being able to continue to borrow and avoiding the collapse in growth known as the Lost Decade.

Volcker left the Fed in 1987, followed by Alan Greenspan, who was responsible for the deregulation of financial markets (e.g. the end of Glass-Steagall) more than any other person, perhaps. The legacy of financial deregulation is well-known, with a succession of bubbles, and rescues by the Fed of "too-big-to-fail" institutions. Volcker was a critic of financial deregulation after the crisis, suggesting famously that only the ATM was a useful financial innovation. The Volcker Rule, introduced with the Dodd-Frank legislation, forbade banks of using their own accounts for making some investments in derivatives and other financial instruments. In many ways, this was too little, too late.

If you read the regular obits and pieces in the media, I am sure his legacy will be defined fundamentally for achieving low inflation. He would be the father of what Ben Bernanke called the Great Moderation. But his policies are also co-responsible for lower growth rates, on average, wage stagnation, and increasing financial instability, in the center and the periphery.

* And yes Neoliberalism started with Carter, not Reagan, even if the latter was considerably more radical in his pursue of conservative policies.

** It is worth noticing that Volcker was the under secretary for international affairs during the Nixon Administration when the system of Bretton Woods collapsed, and the dollar was allowed to float. In a sense, he was there for the depreciation and then appreciation of the dollar, and the imposition of what has been termed the dollar diplomacy. In other words, he proved that abandonment of Bretton Woods was NOT the abandonment of a dollar based international monetary regime.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Argentina and the IMF


Alberto Fernández, who will assume as the next president in less than two weeks, has said he will not accept the next tranche of US$ 11billion that were part of the US$ 57 billion deal signed by the outgoing Macri administration. Many progressives see this as a good sign, in particular given the history of the IMF with Argentina. I've emphasized, against a lot of heterodox discussion on the subject, that the IMF remains essentially unchanged when it comes to policy prescriptions. So I do get the point.

Note, however, that the best argument for not using it, is NOT the fact that this would increase the leverage with the IMF. It would hardly do that. It's kind of a slap on their face. The leverage comes from the fact that the IMF did commit a huge amount of money, and presumably they knew this was not something that could be repaid under the circumstances that it was contracted. The reasons to accept it or not should be pragmatically associated to whether the country will need them to make the payments next year (and Argentina should negotiate to reduce and eliminate most of the payments, certainly with the IMF in the next few years). I assume that calculation has been made, and, hence, the decision. If Fernández, and his advisors, are hoping for a boost in exports, that might be a mistake.

Also, since someone in Colombia last week asked me whether Argentina should default (the person thought it was a no brainer), my simple reply is that this would be a terrible idea. Yes, the debt in foreign currency, that increased significantly in the Macri administration went to finance capital flight, and in many ways is questionable. And, for sure it was unnecessary, and should had been avoided. But to default implies to be cut from any sources of dollars, and that implies that one must ration imports, which implies by definition that a massive recession would take place. So the default should be avoided.

Note that the follow up question (same person), so why you need imports (of intermediary and capital goods). It's obviously a question of degree, but beyond advanced economies, all economies do need dollars, since it is the vehicle currency, and the one in which the key energy commodities are traded in. There's a reason for those 900 or so US military bases around the globe.

So, yep, not necessary to get the money, if the country doesn't need it for short term obligations. But if we do need it, then there's no shame in getting the next tranche, and negotiate strongly with the Fund.

The Political Economy of the COVID-19 Crisis in Latin America

Following my talk on the same topic, on the same venue, now someone that might know a bit more about what's going on, particularly i...