Newly Revised & Updated for 2013
“As much a guidebook for our times as an explainer of economics.”
–From the foreword, by Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO
If you’re looking for an easy-to-read, authoritative and witty guide to the economy, then The Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in The Real World is for you. The first edition, released in the fall of 2010, won rave reviews (see below) from media, readers, teachers and financial professionals alike. I’ve now updated it with plenty of new material to cover developments in the global economy in the last two years. Among the changes:
- • Extensive new discussion of debt, deficits, fiscal stimulus and austerity
- • New detail and descriptions of the Federal Reserve’s unconventional monetary policy, including quantitative easing
- • A new chapter about currencies and the euro crisis
For readers of The Little Book of Economics I’ve put together this brief overview of books, organizations, blogs, articles and other resources for those who want to dive more deeply into particular subjects or acquire more expertise. You can access it by clicking here. I welcome suggestions for additions.
Jul 5th 2014 | From the print edition
FOR most of its 80 years, America’s Export-Import Bank has laboured in obscurity, providing loans, loan guarantees and credit insurance to foreign buyers of American products from jumbo jets to quiche. All of a sudden, it is in the spotlight: Tea Party conservatives have declared it to be the embodiment of corporate welfare. Republicans are threatening to block reauthorisation of the bank when its mandate expires on September 30th.
The fight over ExIm has drawn rare attention to one of the most pervasive and enduring instruments of mercantilism in the world trading system. Export-credit agencies got their start early last century. Britain’s, established in 1919, was part of an effort to improve its balance of payments and thus return to the gold standard. America’s ExIm Bank was originally conceived as an instrument of foreign policy, to provide leverage over the Soviet Union and support for Cuba.
The global financial crisis gave such banks a new lease of life. When banks pulled back from trade finance after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, governments prodded their export agencies to fill the gap to prevent a bigger fall in trade volumes. Official export credit extended by the G7 alone soared from $35 billion in 2007 to $64 billion in 2009, and has remained around those levels since (see chart below).
Subsidised loans for exports have long been recognised as a form of mercantilism, which is why rich countries struck a gentlemen’s agreement in 1978 to curb them. Signatories to the “OECD arrangement” agree to maximum loan maturities, commercially-based interest rates and minimum risk premiums for insurance. When one signatory strikes a financing deal, it notifies the others, giving them the opportunity to match the terms. Read the rest of this entry »
Jul 5th 2014 | WASHINGTON, DC | From the print edition
IAN TONER, an architect in Philadelphia, recently went to city offices for a permit to build a stoop for a client’s home. The city, he learned, had just imposed new requirements: he would have to get maps from gas, electric, water and other utilities to ensure the stoop would not disturb their underground lines and then resubmit his application. A process he thought would take a day took more than two weeks.
That’s not all. Other new rules require that he prove that his builder has general liability, workers’ compensation and car insurance, and has paid all his taxes. Four times a year he must set aside a half day to ensure he is paying the state’s and city’s myriad taxes correctly. Mr Toner doesn’t question the need for rules and taxes; what galls him is the time and hassle involved in complying with them. “The information exists all over the place and the burden is on me not just to gather it but [to] interpret it. I’m not going to leave here because of this, but they’re all things that could turn a person off of coming here.”
America’s states and cities have traditionally tried to attract businesses by offering them tax breaks and other cash incentives. Yet there may be a more effective way, and one which puts no strain on stretched budgets: make life simpler. Read the rest of this entry »
Jul 2nd 2014, 20:32 by G.I. | WASHINGTON, D.C.
Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chair, has long said there might be times when monetary policy could be used to counteract financial instability. But in a speech before the International Monetary Fund today, she erected such a high bar to its use that is seems unlikely ever to happen: the “potential cost … is likely to be too great … at least most of the time.”
The unstated logical conclusion is that there is some optimal exposure to crisis. Read the rest of this entry »
Jun 26th 2014, 15:42 by G.I. | WASHINGTON, D.C.
First, factual. Yes, core CPI inflation has rebounded to 2% from 1.6% in February and today we learned that core PCE inflation has risen to 1.5% from 1.1%. What should we infer from this? Nothing. In the short run inflation oscillates because of idiosyncratic movements in various components, such as rent, health care and imported commodities, but over longer periods, it is remarkably inertial: the best forecast of inflation over the next five years is inflation over the past five years. The nearby chart illustrates this;
core inflation fell below 1% in 2010 and rose above 2% in 2012; neither marked the start of a new trend. There is no reason to think the recent run of high monthly readings is a new trend, either. The Fed, to its credit, didn’t freak out when core inflation was scraping 1% earlier this year; it predicted that as the downward pressure from imported goods inflation and health care faded, overall inflation would move toward its 2% target, and it has. Yes, it has done so slightly faster than expected but this is no more cause for concern than learning a patient will be discharged from the intensive care unit in six weeks instead of eight. Second, theoretical. If you have a forecast of higher inflation, it helps to have a theory of the inflation determination process behind it. Inflation is a continuous rise in the price level; the obersvation that the price level has risen recently is not a theory any more than a patient’s high temperature is a theory of infectious disease. Many critics think the prolonged period of low real rates and the large size of the Fed’s balance sheet are in and of themselves inflationary, but this is divorced from any consideration for why real rates are negative and the Fed’s balance sheet so large in the first place. Charlie Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, calls this “the spontaneous combustion theory of inflation… Households and businesses simply wake up one day and expect higher inflation is coming without any further improvement in economic fundamentals.”
There are many competing theories for the inflation determination process. What do they tell us? The New Keynesian theory, to which the Fed subscribes, considers inflation a function of slack and expectations. The evidence is pretty persuasive that while slack has shrunk in the last five years (and perhaps faster than expected because of diminished potential), it remains ample. Expectations, likewise, have oscillated but shown no trend up or down.
You may dismiss this model because slack is hard to measure and expectations are a lagging indicator. Perhaps you prefer to look at costs (as a mechanical price mark-up model does). Labour is the main component of costs, and as the nearby chart shows,
unit labour costs are up just 1.2% in the last year. This, too, is a noisy series, as it is driven by both wages and output per hour; but it’s hard to see a worrisome trend. Wages have barely kept up with prices since the recovery began which means the benefits of productivity growth (meager though they are) have gone predominantly to profit margins, which touched a new high of 12.7% in the fourth quarter. They dipped in the first quarter, but they’ll probably bounce back after GDP reverses its drop. So profit margins could accommodate some acceleration in labour costs and remain comfortably wide. What if you consider inflation always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon? I consider the money supply pretty useless for forecasting anything, but even if were a monetarist, I wouldn’t be worried. Quantitative easing has significantly expanded the monetary base, but that expansion will end once QE stops later this year. Meanwhile, this has not fueled broader measures of money and credit: M2 is up just 6.5% in the last year, slightly faster than last year but still well below rates of growth recorded in 2011 and 2012 (which, you’ll recall, did not signal an inflation breakout).
Third, strategic. I recently attended a conference at the Hoover Institution on central banking where many of the presenting scholars were deeply concerned the Federal Reserve’s unorthodox policies would lead to an eruption of inflation before long. Many cited the 1970s when the Fed kept real interest rates too low for too long in the mistaken belief the economy was operating below potential. What these analyses ignore is the asymmetry of risks facing the economy. Of course, the Fed might wait too long to tighten and inflation could eventually rise above the 2% target. But, leaving aside how costly such a deviation would be, the Fed has demonstrated it knows how to get inflation back down, even if the process can be costly. By contrast, recent history shows how few effective tools central banks have for reversing inflation that falls too far, or turns to deflation. Either outcome raises the prospect of real interest rates that are too high and unemployment above its natural rate for years to come. Given this asymmetry, overshooting inflation is clearly a lesser evil than undershooting inflation. This, more than anything else, is why the panic over inflation is misplaced.
Jun 19th 2014, 18:25 by G.I. | WASHINGTON, D.C.
Secular stagnation is a delightfully alliterative description of America’s economy, but also an ambiguous one. “Secular” implies the depressed state of the economy is down to structural, supply-side factors, whereas “stagnation” suggests cyclical obstacles to demand are to blame. The distinction matters, because it will determine the path for interest rates.
Let’s assume stagnation is the problem: the normal cyclical recovery of the economy is being smothered by headwinds to demand: deleveraging, tight credit, fiscal contraction, post-crisis risk aversion, etc. The supply side is largely unscathed. This means there’s a big gap between actual and potential output which puts significant downward pressure on inflation. In this case, the path of interest rates should resemble the blue line in the nearby chart. The Fed keeps interest rates near zero as long as possible to overcome those headwinds. The large output gap ensures this doesn’t allow inflation to emerge. But eventually, the headwinds fade, demand springs back and the Fed must quickly tighten so that by the time demand converges with supply (i.e. the output gap closes), rates are back to their natural, equilibrium rate. In this case, the natural rate is same as it was before the crisis, i.e. a nominal rate of around 4%, and a real rate around 2%.
Now suppose instead that secular, supply-side forces are the reason growth has been so disappointing. These would include diminished labour force growth because of aging, lifestyle choices, lower fertility and immigration; reduced innovation; and as a consequence of all these things, less capital investment. In this case, the right path for interest rates is shown by the red line. Because weak growth is due primarily to lower potential, the output gap is much smaller and an outbreak of inflation more of a risk. This means the Fed must start to raise interest rates sooner, and more quickly, so that they are back to normal by the time the output gap closes. But lower potential growth means the return on capital is lower which reduces the natural, or Wicksellian (named for Knut Wicksell) interest rate, and so Fed funds plateaus at a lower level.
Deciding which of the two scenarios applies requires estimating both potential growth and the natural rate of interest – no easy task since neither can be directly observed.
Thomas Laubach of the Federal Reserve Board and John Williams, now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, managed to do just that with an elegant, intuitive model in a 2001 paper. They define the natural rate as the rate needed to keep the output gap at zero. Then they develop a model of potential output that yields an output gap, and from that infer the natural rate. This is determined by both potential growth, and a bunch of other factors like risk aversion and desired saving. Because these latter factors move a lot over the business cycle, the natural rate fluctuates more than if only relatively-slow moving potential growth mattered. For example, Mr Williams’ updated estimates imply the real natural rate of interest was -0.2% at the end of 2013, owing both to high desired saving, and a steady decline in potential growth, to about 2% now from 2.9% in 2007.
Your choice of interest rate path thus depends heavily on how you interpret recent data. The fact that unemployment has fallen far faster than GDP can explain may be down to demand – a lot of discouraged workers have quit the labour force – and thus require zero rates for longer; or it may be because potential growth is lower, which means the output gap is closing quickly, and the Fed must start tightening relatively soon. For most of the last few years, Fed officials threw their lot in with the demand side story: they kept pushing out the date that rates would start rising. That’s changing. In the FOMC’s latest survey of economic projections, released yesterday, members lowered both expected growth and unemployment this year while trimming their estimate of potential growth to 2.2% from 2.25% (it was 2.65% in 2009). They slightly raised the path of expected hikes in the Fed funds rate while lowering its long-run level (the de facto the natural rate) to 3.75%, from 4%.
This process is probably not over; labour market and demographics factors may have depressed potential growth to below 2%. Add in high desired saving from fiscal consolidation and reserve accumulation by emerging economies, and the natural rate is probably closer to 3% than 3.75%. This also means inflation has probably bottomed out and could move back to, or even above, target within a year or so.
This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that bond yields are about to shoot higher. That’s because the negative of a quicker liftoff by the Fed is more than offset by the positive of a lower long-run natural rate. For equities, the implications are ambiguous: a lower natural rate reduces the discount rate and raises the price-earnings ratio, but lower potential depresses earnings growth.
My analysis treats supply and demand separately. In reality, they are interrelated. People who lose their jobs for cyclical reasons and then go long enough without work can end up permanently out of the labour force. As Mr Williams and his colleague Glenn Rudebusch note in a recent paper, getting the long-term unemployed back to work can restore some of the economy’s lost potential. But it will require more stimulative monetary policy and inflation overshooting for a while. This is a prospect the Fed may have to grapple with before long. When I asked Janet Yellen about it, she indicated she was open to letting inflation overshoot if it was necessary to get unemployment down: “If the distance from achieving an objective [either full employment or low inflation] is particularly large, it would be consistent with the balanced approach that we would tolerate some movement in the opposite direction on the other objective.” She suggested that such a scenario was pretty unlikely. Hopefully, though, she’s preparing for it – just in case.
The original article is linked here.
Central banks around the world are struggling to promote growth without fomenting worrisome risk-taking
Jun 21st 2014 | Washington, DC | From the print edition
UNTIL the global financial crisis, central banks treated bubbles with benign neglect: they were hard to detect and harder to deflate, so best left alone; the mess could be mopped up after they burst. No self-respecting central bank admits to benign neglect any longer. “No one wants to live through another financial crisis,” Janet Yellen, then a candidate to head the Federal Reserve, said last year. “I would not rule out using monetary policy as a tool to address asset-price misalignments.”
After six years of interest rates near zero the tension between central banks’ responsibility for output and inflation on one hand and financial stability on the other is growing. On June 12th the Bank of England hinted it would pursue new measures to curb ever-climbing property prices. Shortly afterwards Ms Yellen fretted about the “reach for yield” and subdued volatility, a sign of investors’ complacency.
Read the rest of this entry »
In both Britain and America financial excesses are best countered with rules, not with interest rates
INVESTORS lulled into believing that low interest rates would last for ever got a cold dose of reality this month. First, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, told an audience in the City that rates could rise “sooner than markets currently expect”. Now America’s Federal Reserve, which like the bank has kept rates near zero for more than five years, has signalled its intention to keep them there at least until next year; but it too faces ever louder calls, including some from its own officials, to abandon that pledge (see article).
Advocates of fast action worry that rates left near zero for too long will cause inflation to accelerate in both countries. And they fear that even if prices stay quiescent, too much cheap money for too long is inflating asset bubbles: their eventual popping will create another financial crisis. These worries are not unfounded. But they are exaggerated.
Start with inflation. At 1.5% in Britain (the lowest rate in four and a half years) and 1.6% in America, it is below the 2% target of both countries’ central banks. Of course, central bankers should fret not about today’s inflation but tomorrow’s, and the vigour of Britain’s recent growth means the country’s spare capacity is disappearing: unemployment has dropped to 6.6% from 7.8% a year ago. But there is no pressure on wages. In America, the price picture is even more benign: the slack is greater, and inflation has been below target for two years. As in Britain, meagre pay rises give no hint of a wage-price spiral.
What about financial instability? Froth is certainly evident. In Britain the main exhibit is house prices, which have surged by 10% in the past year, overtaking pre-crisis levels. Household debt is also on the rise. In America the appetite for risk is most obvious in the fixed-income market: loans to highly leveraged companies this year are on track to match last year’s record-breaking $1.1 trillion. A third of these loans lack the usual covenants that ensure borrowers can repay the money.
Give surgery a try
These excesses are worrying, especially given the wretched history of the 2000s, when the Fed stood by as an enormous housing bubble inflated. Yet higher rates now are the wrong response to the latest signs of excess, for three reasons.
First, the excesses are still small, compared with those that brought down the global economy in 2007. Britain’s housing bubble is largely limited to London. And in both Britain and America banks sit on thicker cushions of capital and liquidity, making them less vulnerable to any downturn in asset prices.
Second, central bankers and their fellow regulators can treat financial excess far more surgically today by using “macroprudential” tools rather than the blunt instrument of interest rates. The starting-point with mortgages is usually limiting loan-to-value and debt-to-income ratios, but, importantly, allowing some flexibility for the riskiness of various borrowers. (Canada, for instance, is stricter with buy-to-rent investors than with homeowners.) Banks can also be compelled to hold more capital and liquidity against risky loans. And to the extent that macroprudential measures slow down the growth of assets, debt and wealth, they delay the need to raise interest rates, so safer loans remain cheaper for longer.
Third, the danger of raising interest rates to dampen down asset prices is much bigger now than it was ten years ago, because rates are near zero. Premature monetary tightening could push the economy back into recession and turn inflation to deflation. The result would be to send interest rates back to zero for even longer.
To be sure, macroprudential controls are untested. Applied too roughly, without allowing for the creditworthiness of borrowers, they too could be fairly blunt. But they are a better first line of defence against bubbles than just raising interest rates. Central banks would end up creating far more financial instability if, in their zeal to deflate bubbles, they kill the recoveries they have so carefully nurtured. Better, for the moment, to leave interest rates alone.
The original article is linked here.