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.

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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Venezuela and the embargo

Should have posted this a while ago. I had a conversation with the World Bank economist above on how much of the problems of Venezuela are the result of the embargo. Here a paper by Francisco Rodríguez. Worth reading.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Bernie Sanders in 1998 on the Global Crisis and the IMF role in it

Old clip from C-SPAN. It's still worth watching. Strong critique of the failures of the IMF and neoliberal policies in leading to the crisis. We know now that the subsequent bubble pushed the major crisis for another 10 years.

New Issue of ROKE soon!

The next issue of the Review of Keynesian Economics with Bob Rowthorn's Godley-Tobin Lecture and papers by Barry Eichengreen, Steve Fazzari, Peter Bofinger and Bob Dimand, among others is coming soon.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Heilbroner, Minsky and Heterodox Economics at UNAL Radio

Radio show in Spanish at the website of Universidad Nacional de Colombia. In Spanish of course. A short summary of one of my talks at the conference last week. Thanks to Diego Guerrero and Óscar Morillo.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Moral Economy of Housing

A new post by David Fields, long time contributor to this blog. From his post:

At its most fundamental level, housing is more than a market segment or policy, it is a social relation that serves as the kernel of human survival, which can have profound consequences for the actors involved, the actions they take, and the outcomes that follow. As such, housing provides a set of meanings and values, a material form of emotional, cultural, political and economic significance. It is an institution that points to polyvalent higher order social arrangements that involve both patterns of social mobility and symbolic systems that infuse human activity with a powerful essence. Housing insecurity, therefore, is not a just a means of financial dispossession, but an ontological crisis concerning personal identity and the relationship to the rest of society.
Read rest here.

The effects of financialization in Latin America: Is there space for monetary policy?

For those in Bogota next Tuesday. I'll link to the live stream, which I think will be available.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Contradictions and Challenges for Growth in Latin America

This week, Thursday at 10am, at the Facultad de Estudios Superiores (FES) Acatlán, Mexico for those around. Organized by Teresa Santos López and with my good friend Ignacio Perrotini.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The IMF's Second Chance in Argentina

Kevin Gallagher and Matías Vernengo

Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, have won the election in Argentina amid a real danger that the country’s economy will collapse. Outgoing president Mauricio Macri and the transitioning Mr Fernández should work closely with the IMF to put the fragile economy back on a path to stability and sustainable growth.

Read rest here.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Challenges for Economic Development in Latin America at the Universidad del Litoral

I'll be in Santa Fé (Argentina, not New Mexico) next week, talking about the challenges ahead, in a particularly important time for the country.

For those around that want to register go here.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Who really wants the (Brazilian) economy to grow?

Franklin Serrano and Vivian Garrido (Guest bloggers)

When the Brazilian economy was growing with low unemployment rates and reducing income inequality, it was said that “businessmen have never made so much money” and, at the same time, the business community’s discontent with the government was increasing. On the other hand, in the current situation of semi-stagnation that followed from a deep recession, the entrepreneurs of both real and financial sectors declare their unrestricted support to the current government, despite the daily mess and shame of various government members and the bad economic conditions. We believe that, in order to understand both this apparent paradox and the very tendency of the Brazilian economy to stagnate, it is useful to clarify some basic theoretical relationships between investment, growth of demand and profitability.[1]

What matters to entrepreneurs?Entrepreneurs want "profitability". Profitability is not simply about selling more (total profit volume), but about the amount of profit compared to the size of the invested capital. Of course, as the economy grows, the volume or mass of profits invariably increases in absolute terms. But, as Garegnani said, companies do not care about the mass of absolute profits, but about the rate of profit, that is, the amount of profit relative to the capital invested; this variable may simply be called “profitability”. However, in the short run, the capital stock already installed is given; it’s a result of past investments. Then, in this short run, the rate of profit on this capital stock will depend only on the amount of profit and this, by its turn, depends on two factors: how much is produced and sold (the level of output) and the share of the product (and income) that goes to profits. Let us clarify in more detail these two factors.

In order to do so, let's imagine a scenario (let's call it “scenario 1”) in which real wages rise more than the trend of growth of labor productivity. This tends to reduce the rate of profits as the share of profits on sales (the second factor above) falls. It is true that, since in aggregate level these increases in wage share tend to increase the demand for consumption (because the share of wage income spent on consumption is naturally higher than that of profit income), aggregate consumption and production increase, which means that, in the short run, the degree of utilization of already installed capital increases and firms as a whole, partially offset lower margins with higher sales (i.e., the first factor above). Lower margins tend to decrease the rate of profit, but higher sales, on the other hand, tend to increase the rate of profit on this already installed capital stock. But one thing does not fully offset the other. This offset, however, besides being of a short term nature, is also only partial, as any increase in the payroll increases company costs and only part of this increase comes back as additional demand and revenue for them. This is because part of the amount of these additional wages will be spent directly on imported consumer goods (and indirectly on imported inputs of consumer goods produced in the country). Another part of the payroll increase goes either to pay direct taxes or is captured by indirect taxes paid by consumers and embedded in the price of retail goods. And also because part of the payroll is saved or used to pay workers's debts with the financial sector (whose owners tend not to spend these revenues).

So, is this profit rate that matters to entrepreneurs?Not really; or rather, although this is the actual rate of profits realized on the existing capital stock, it is not the rate of profit that determines the expected profitability of entrepreneurs in their new investments. In the latter case, companies are going to invest an adequate amount for the production capacity to adjust to the new expected total demand (which, in the present case, has grown) at a planned or normal degree of utilization, that, in its turn, is calculated to meet the expected fluctuations in demand, which implies that now (beyond the short term), the volume of capital invested will increase. Therefore, because of the rise on real wages, the expected rate of profit on new investments will fall as much as the share of profits will fall, without any partial compensation (as in the previous case), and gradually the profit rate related to the capital that is being installed goes falling as much as the expected rate of profit. And this rate of profit, that is, the rate of profit on the productive capacity planned to be used at the normal level, is the one that matters, because it determines the expected profitability. This longer run profit rate is called the “normal” or “expected” rate of profit.

But why do companies focus on the expected rather than on the actually realized profit rate?Well… due to competitive pressure, firms do not want either to overestimate the expansion of the market (in order to avoid loss), nor underestimate this expansion, otherwise they will lose market shares to rival companies and/or new entrants in their sectors. Hence, any individual entrepreneur who refuses to invest just because he is not content with a lower profitability (i.e., a lower normal rate of profit) while demand is expanding will simply be losing market share to another one. The idea of ​​planning the production capacity to be used at the so-called “normal” level contemplates the possibility of fully meeting the average demand over the life of the equipment while maintaining a slack to meet temporary or seasonal demand peaks, thus avoiding losing market share to competitors during these peaks. And because the productive capacity is planned to operate at the normal level based on the expected demand, then it is the expected not the realized rate of profits that becomes decisive.

Does this mean that, although “upset”, entrepreneurs still invest knowing that their expected profit rate will fall?


So, profitability matters to entrepreneurs but it doesn't matter to the investment decision? What do you mean?

This is where we would like to separate and clarify the confusion between the expected profit rate and the investment decision. The total amount of investment depends only on the expected demand and not on the expected profit rate! This leads us to two opposite but not antagonistic conclusions. First, that the business community generally does not like reductions in the share of profits in income through real wage increases above the rising trend in labor productivity. That is, as we said above, the business community struggle for their profitability, because this is what matters to them. But second, when this scenario of a rise in the wage share actually happens and markets expand, the combination between competition and the lack of a better alternative, cause entrepreneurs to expand their investments, even if expected and realized profit rates are falling, unless they fall below their opportunity cost, given by the interest rate, which is its lower bound. With profit rates still above this lower limit and if demand is expanding, investment continues to grow. A central implication of these propositions is that the reaction of the business community to a downward trend in profitability will not be, therefore, an implausible "investment strike." As Kalecki said: "capitalists do many things as a class, but they certainly do not invest as a class". If and when there is a capitalist reaction, it will consist of doing something like political pressure for the State to change the economic policy regime, in order to reverse the situation in the direction of their own interests.

To illustrate, let us now suppose a second scenario (let's call it “scenario 2”), where we observe such a class reaction that succeeds and, through austerity policies, the government manages to generate stagnation with mass unemployment and this then reverses the trend of rapid growth in real wages. In this second scenario, if demand is no longer expanding and even more if there is unwanted idle capacity in the already installed capital stock, companies have no incentive to invest, no matter how much real wages and other costs or taxes and corporate contributions fall, due to labor reforms or social security or due to tax exemptions to firms in general. As much as the business community can and will be satisfied with this high level of profitability, there is no incentive for additional investment, since it would only create unnecessary productive capacity. Probably some entrepreneurs will invest in innovations to steal market share from other companies. But if the innovators succeed, those other companies that have lost market tend to reduce their own investments in the same magnitude. Unfortunately, without growth of final demand, an aggregate expansion of investment will not be sustained for too long.

And what matters to workers?Naturally, workers generally are interested in more jobs, and in increase in real wages. Both factors are directly connected with higher economic growth because growth tends to generate more jobs. In fact, politically and historically, it is through decreasing unemployment and underemployment that the bargaining power of workers rises (and has risen) and facilitates the achievement of higher real wages and better working conditions. Increases in real wages above labour productivity growth is even better for workers, because, in this case, in addition to the initial increase in wage purchasing power, there is an increase in the economy’s aggregate marginal propensity to consume (share of total income that is spent on consumption) and thus, an additional increase in aggregate demand and employment as a result of this wage increase itself.

In our view, due to a number of structural characteristics of the economy, Brazil was, until 2010, close to the previous situation described above, which is equivalent to our scenario 1. These characteristics had included elements such as: the demographic transition _ reducing the growth of labor supply _ and the low labour productivity growth _ due to a more than proportional expansion of the services sector, what generated more employment than the expansion led by other sectors. In addition, several aspects of the growth pattern adopted, based on a strong rise in the minimum wage, an elevation of job formalization, and an expansion of the welfare state (giving the poor the opportunity to survive or study without working in precarious conditions) contributed to increase the bargaining power of workers, especially the low-skilled ones, which has grown substantially and unexpectedly during the boom of the Brazilian economy since 2004. Nevertheless, since 2011 the government, pressured by the discontentment of the capitalist class with this trend, has taken a number of palliative measures to restore the corporate profitability (especially tax exemptions) and seemed to have been surprised with the lack of positive impact of such measures on private investment, in a context where government had helped to decrease markedly the growth of demand. Then, in 2015, the government decided to assume the austerity policies and the gradual weakening of the welfare state with the reduction of social rights. The capitalist class and its external allies, counting also on the support of the workers with higher salaries (the latter particularly outraged by basic wages increase and progressive measures such as the 2013’s housekeepers PEC[2]) and seeing that they had nothing to fear from a government without any firmness, set out to attack. And, through a succession of coups, the transition to something close to our scenario 2, against the workers' interests,was completed, and here we are now. Profitability conditions improve by each measure taken by the government, helped by the low bargaining power of the workers in this stagnant and mass unemployment economic situation.

In short ...

… With this note, we came up with a scenario that now, we hope, seems less paradoxical, and it is: a) interesting for entrepreneurs; b) uninteresting for workers; c) with an upward trend in the profit rate and d) with low investment growth.

Due to the weak growth of demand that largely resulted from austerity policies, investment and the economy are barely growing and there is a huge and successful effort to focus the political debate on anything but the state of the economy and social rights, in order to prevent the loss of legitimacy and maybe electoral failure of forces supporting the government. Promoting economic growth is not and has never been a priority for big businessmen and, as has been clearly acknowledge, neither growth is a government priority. But who really needs growth are not the entrepreneurs in general _ apart from some small entrepreneurs, for whom and whose family the company generates jobs _ but the workers.


SERRANO, F. & SUMMA, R. F. (2018) Conflito distributivo e o fim da “breve era de ouro” da economia brasileira. Novos Estudos CEBRAP, v. 37, p. 175.


[1] For more details see Serrano and Summa (2018)

[2] PEC is a brazilian instrument created to facilitate changes in small parts of the Federal Constitution. In the case refered in the text, it was a particular formalization of housekeeper’s jobs.

Argentina and the IMF: What to Expect with the Likely Return of Kirchnerism

Simple Math, Macri + IMF = Poverty

The Argentine economy is on the verge of another default less than two decades after the last one, in 2002. The forthcoming elections, in October 27, will most likely bring back the Kirchnerist opposition back to power, and they will have to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that has the power to prevent a crisis.

Argentina has a long and turbulent history with the IMF that dates back to the country’s entry in the organization in 1956 and to the first loan that was received the following year, after the military coup that brought down the Peronist government in 1955. Since then, the country has been an adept user of IMF resources, ranking among the countries that signed the most agreements. The loan of approximately $57 billion, reached in 2018, is the largest in the IMF’s history, and is a Stand-By arrangement, since it comes with the imposition of economic policies designed by the IMF. This contrasts with the period in which Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were in power.

Read rest here.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Thursday, October 10, 2019

MMT in Developing Countries at the Real News Network

Full transcript of the short interview here. Paper was linked before. Note that we say that Functional Finance does apply to developing countries, but that the insistence of the advantages of flexible exchange rates, as opposed to managed regimes with capital controls, are not correct.

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 consequenc...