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.

UNCTAD INET-YSI Summer School 2020

Register here . I will be talking about Myths about monetary policy, inflation targeting and central banks.