Yearly Archives: 2012

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all!

Merry Christmas 2012(card via

I have been collecting some quotable quotes from various sources and my bookmarks. Here are some of them:

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.

– Joan Robinson, 1955, “Marx, Marshall And Keynes”Occasional Paper No. 9, The Delhi School of Economics, University Of Delhi, Delhi.

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.

– JMK, GT.

Economics limps along with one foot in untested hypotheses and the other in untestable slogans.

– Joan Robinson, 1962, “Metaphysics, Morals And Science”, Economic Philosophy, Chicago: Aldine

In economics, arguments are largely devoted, as in theology, to supporting doctrines rather than testing hypotheses.

– Joan Robinson, 1977, “What Are The Questions?”, Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 15, No. 4

One of the main effects … of orthodox traditional economics was … a plan for explaining to the privileged class that their position was morally right and was right for the welfare of society.

– Joan Robinson, 1937, “An Economist’s Sermon”, Essays In The Theory Of Employment, The Macmillan Company

In the natural sciences, controversies are settled in a few months, or at a time of crisis, in a year or two, but in the social so-called sciences, absurd misunderstandings can continue for sixty or a hundred years without being cleared up.

– Joan Robinson, 1981 (1979), What Are The Questions And Other Essays – Further Contributions To Modern Economics, M.E. Sharpe

… I am convinced that this concept of general equilibrium in a monetary economy constitutes the primal scene [endnote: ‘The primal scene’ is a technical term in psychoanalysis; it is the imaginary perception, postulated by Freud, by the infant of its own parents at intercourse.] – the primitive imaginary vision of the world – out of which the whole of mainstream macroeconomics now flows. At one extreme are ‘monetarists’ of various hue who believe that the classical version of this simple model does, or should, or can somehow be made to describe the real world. Almost all other modern macroeconomists, while forming a huge spectrum, have as their essential activity the study of what happens if parts of the machine do not function properly, e.g. are subject to rigidities or time lags. For instance, much work has been concerned with the effects on the solution of this model if the various prices do not clear markets or clear them imperfectly. If wages are not flexible the labour market may not clear; this is what most students now understand as Keynesian economics. If the price of goods is not flexible, the market for goods may not clear, perhaps generating ‘classical’ unemployment.

Now Sylos Labini (like Kaldor and Pasinetti in different ways) makes a devastating case against the empirical relevance or even the meaningfulness of the aggregate production function. What I want to emphasise here is the system role which the production function fulfills and therefore just why the Sylos Labini critique is so important. What the production function does for all equilibrium systems – whether markets clear or not – is to bring labour into instantaneous equivalence with real product in such a way that alternative quantities of each can potentially be traded against one another. The production function is necessary for this equivalence so that labour can instantaneously be translated into the profit-maximising quantity of product which firms are therefore motivated to supply. Without the production function no neoclassical model will start up; the blood supply to its head is cut off …

… I have reached a point when I am prepared to make a declaration. I want to say of neoclassical macroeconomics what I have said sometimes of certain kind of fiction; I know that the world is not like that and I have no need to imagine that it is. In particular, I do not believe that there exists a market in which goods in aggregate and labour in aggregate can be exchanged provided only that the price of each is right in relation to some given stock of ‘money’.

But my objection goes beyond skepticism that the world we live in is being described realistically. My additional concern is that the NCP [neoclassical paradigm] is prejudicial with regard to the understanding of some of the most important processes going on in the world today. Thus in the ‘classical’ version of the NCP real output is determined by supply side alone; fiscal policy is entirely impotent and the government can only affect anything by changing the money supply; even then all it can do is affect the price level. The idea that fiscal policy is impotent, which seems to be based entirely on this model, has been extremely influential in contemporary political discussion; it is not just a provisional result suitable for a week or two in an elementary class.

Then the abolition of time prejudices the perception of inflation as an evolutionary process; the equilibria generate ‘explanations’ of price levels not changes, and theories of inflation cannot be convincingly coaxed forth. As if this were not enough, the whole construction leads by virtue of its axioms to the conclusion that wage and price flexibility, in combination with free trade, will generate full employment and convergence, if not equalisation, of living standards between countries and between regions within countries. In sum, while the absence of processes occuring in historical time means that the NCP does not encourage students to go and look up figures in books, if and when they are forced to do so their vision is likely to have been for ever distorted.

– Wynne Godley, 1993, Time, Increasing Returns And Institutions In Macroeconomics, in S. Biasco, A. Roncaglia and M. Salvati (eds.), Market and Institutions in Economic Development: Essays in Honour of Paolo Sylos Labini, (New York: St. Martins Press), pp. 59-82

Traditional theory, both classical and neoclassical, asserts that free trade in goods between different regions is always to the advantage of each trading country, and is therefore the best arrangement from the point of view of the welfare of the trading world as a whole, as well as of each part of the world taken separately. [footnote: The latter part of this proposition abstracts from the possibility that a particular country possesses some degree of monopoly power and thereby can turn the terms of trade in its favour by means of a tariff even after retaliation by other countries is taken into account.] However, these propositions are only true under specific abstract assumptions which do not correspond to reality. Under more realistic assumptions unrestricted trade is likely to lead to a loss of welfare to particular regions or countries and even to the world as a whole – that is to say that the world will be worse off under free trade than it could be under some system of regulated trade …

… Owing to increasing returns in processing activities (in manufactures) success breeds further success and failure begets more failure. Another Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, called this ‘the principle of circular and cumulative causation’.

– Nicholas Kaldor, 1981, “The Role Of Increasing Returns, Technical Progress And Cumulative Causation In The Theory Of International Trade And Economic Growth”, Further Essays On Economic Theory And Policy, Holmes & Meier

Random Tidbits On National Accounts And Keynesian Models Of Income And Expenditure

I came across this article (via a Tweet from Stephen Kinsella): Accounting As The Master Metaphor Of Economics by Arjo Klamer and Donald McCloskey which discusses how the framework of national accounts has been pushed to the background in economic analysis over the years.

It is a nice read – although boring in a few places. I found this reference to John Hicks’ 1942 book The Social Framework: An Introduction To Economics in the above article and managed to get a copy – although a used one but with almost no usage. As described in the Klamer-McCloskey’s article, Hicks’ textbook really goes into details of national accounts and he seems to have had a great intuition of how it all works.

John Hicks - The Social Framework

Hicks’s book gives a nice introduction to how important national accounts are in understanding and describing the production process and economic cycles.

Here is a scan of two pages on the balance of payments – the topic I like the most.

John Hicks Balance Of Payments

(click to enlarge)

Hicks understood how weak balance of payments can cause troubles. Of course, it took the genius of Nicholas Kaldor to realize the supreme importance of balance of payments in the determination of national income and expenditure. Leaving that aside, the text has nice ideas and discussions on how stocks and flows feed into one another.

John Hicks is famous for an entirely different reason – the IS/LM model. Later he accepted it was a huge mistake, but put it mildly: “… as time as gone on, I have myself become dissatisfied with it”. But economists still keep using it and keep erring.

Also, Hicks was to soon abandon/forget his own social accounting approach as per Klamer-McCloskey’s article. Perhaps, not really.

In an extremely important paper, Wynne Godley said:

To come down to it, the present paper claims to have made, so far as I know for the first time, a rigorous synthesis of the theory of credit and money creation with that of income determination in the (Cambridge) Keynesian tradition. My belief is that nothing the paper contains would have been surprising or new to, say, Kaldor, Hicks, Joan Robinson or Kahn.

John Hicks also had another nice book called A Market Theory Of Money written in 1989. Here is a great insight (also the view of Kaldor) from Page 11, Chapter 1 named “Supply And Demand?” on how to create a dynamic Keynesian theory of determination of national income and expenditure:

… The traditional view that market price is, at least in some way, determined by an equation of demand and supply had now to be given up. If demand and supply are interpreted, as had formerly seemed to be sufficient, as flow demands and supplies coming from outsiders, it is no longer true that there is any tendency over any particular period, for them to be equalized: a difference between them, if it were not too large, could be matched by a change in stocks. It is of course true that if no distinction is made between demand from stockholders and demand from outside the market, demand and supply in that inclusive sense  must be equal. But that equation is vacuous. It cannot be used to determine price, in Walras’ or Marshall’s manner. For what matters to the stockholder is the stock that he is holding: the increment in that stock, during a period is the difference between what is held at the end and what was held at the beginning, and the beginning stock is carried over from the past. So the demand-supply equation can only be used in a recursive manner, to determine a sequence (It is a difference or a differential equation); it cannot be used directly to determine price, as Walras and Marshall had used it.

I came across a reference in the book (The Social Framework) to a paper by James Meade and Richard Stone on concepts on national accounts: The Construction Of Tables Of National Income, Expenditure, Savings And Investment written in 1941. It has the following interesting table:

James Meade & Richard Stone - Sectoral Balances

which is the now famous sectoral balances identity! Incidentally, it also includes Kalecki’s profit equation. In the above “Foreign Investment” shouldn’t be confused with Foreign Direct Investment flows in the financial account of the balance of payments. The authors define it as:

… equal to income generated by receipts from abroad less current expenditure abroad.

So can we call the profit equation SMK equation? :-)

James Meade and Richard Stone were pioneers of national accounts. Incidentally, James Meade wrote a famous textbook on balance of payments.

Of course the way this is presented doesn’t make the connection between the financial account and current accounts. The sectoral balances was usually written by Wynne Godley as:


where NAFA is the net accumulation of financial assets of the private sector, PSBR is the net public sector borrowing requirement, and BP is the current account balance of international payments. More on this connection below.

How it is to be derived in a stock-flow consistent framwork of Godley/Lavoie? If you click on this search Transactions Flow Matrix, you will find some blog posts on the background. First, we construct a flow matrix like this:

Simplified National Income Matrix

The last line is essentially Kalecki’s profit equation.

The above construction however raises an important question. Godley and Lavoie’s textbook (Chapter 2) quotes a famous 1949 article of Morris Copeland on this:

When total purchases of our national product increase, where does the money come from to finance them? When purchases of our national product decline, what becomes of the money that is not spent?

Copeland’s work was highly successful and established the flow of funds accounts of the United States in 1952.

Here is a republished version of the article (via Google Books):


If you prefer Google Books directly, here is the link: Social Accounting For Moneyflows.

Incidentally, Copeland was motivated to prove the quantity theory of money wrong when he did this work! Also Godley/Lavoie point out that John Dawson (the editor of the above book) says:

the acceptance of…flow-of-funds accounting by academic economists has been an uphill battle because its implications run counter to a number of doctrines deeply embedded in the minds of economists.

in an article from the chapter The Conceptual Relation Of Flow-Of-Funds Accounts To The SNA of the same book.

Over time, the system of national accounts (with its first version in 1947) has used some of the concepts of flow of funds accounting and now the framework is much more wider than usual textbook guides of national accounts. The flow of funds still retains importance because it has information which the system of national accounts such as (2008 SNA) doesn’t handle.

Here’s the UN website for the historical versions of the system of national accounts.

How does one look at this in a stock-flow coherent framework? Simple, we need a full transactions flow matrix – which not only includes income/expenditure flows but also financial flows. The following is how it looks like for a simple model:

Transactions Flow Matrix 3

(Click to zoom)

Of course, identities themselves shouldn’t be looked at as models. One needs a fully coherent accounting model of the economy based on behavioural assumptions and “closures”. See this essay Keynesian theorising during hard times: stock-flow consistent models as an unexplored ‘frontier’ of Keynesian macroeconomics Camb. J. Econ. (July 2006) 30(4): 541-565 by Claudio Dos Santos and also Wynne Godley and Marc Lavoie’s book Monetary Economics. As Dos Santos quotes Lance Taylor in the article:

Formally, prescribing a closure boils down to stating which variables are endogenous or exogenous in an equation system largely based upon macroeconomic accounting identities, and figuring out how they influence one another.

We Are NOT All Keynesians Now!

The Jan Hatzius interview on sectoral balances mentioned in the previous post – although has given it some popularity – has led to great confusions among economic commentators.

Here is a confused Professor from the famous institute INSEAD – Antonio Fatás on his blog.

Fatás implicitly denies that propensities to consume/save and government expenditure and taxing decisions have any impact at all on demand and hence output.

I quote from his blog. The quote includes that of Hatzius’ interview (in italics):

[Hatzius] “That’s the starting point. It’s a truism, basically. Where it goes from being a truism and an accounting identity to an economic relationship is once you recognize that cyclical impulses to the economy depend on desired changes in these sector’s financial balances. If the business sector is basically trying to reduce its financial surplus at a more rapid pace than the government is trying to reduce its deficit then you’re getting a net positive impulse to spending which then translates into stronger, higher, more income, and ultimately feeds back into spending.”

[Fatás] This paragraph is misleading (I will ignore again the fact that in an open economy things are more complex). It states (at least this is the way I read it) that growth depends on the “desired changes in these sector’s financial balance”. This is not correct. I can imagine an economy where those financial balances are not changing at all where output is growing very fast (and I can also imagine another one where output is collapsing). There is no connection between growth and these financial imbalances. As long as demand (private or public) is feeding into production and income, the private or public sector might be spending more than last year but their income is also increasing which can make the financial balance remain at the same level as before.

Jan Hatzius is discussing a model of business cycles and growth in the medium term – such as a year or two. But for Fatás, “this is not correct” and “there is no connection between growth and these financial imbalances”! He claims that demand can be feeding into production and income but doesn’t realize that a change in financial balances caused by say a change in the propensity to save or consume itself leads to changes in the source of demand.

Fatás is thinking of a situation – a type of a long run situation where the parameters in the models are not changing and there is high growth. But that does not mean “there is no connection between growth and these financial balances”. A spontaneous change in one or few parameters (such as the propensity to consume) or an exogenous change in the government expenditure changes financial balances and affects the growth rate.

But these things do not matter for him:

If we believe that we are in a situation where the output gap is large, there are unused resources and, as a result, output is determined by demand, what matters for growth is whether demand increases relative to last year and not so much the change in the desired changes in the financial balances of either the private or public sector.

Again forgetting that desired changes in the financial balances affect the sources of demand.

Somehow basic notions of the Keynesian principle of effective demand are difficult for economists to understand.

Jan Hatzius On Sectoral Balances

Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal interviewed Goldman Sachs’ Jan Hatzius recently with questions aimed at his usage of the sectoral balances approach:

BI: Back to the balance sheet, multi-sectoral framework of looking at the economy. How did you come to this view? On Wall Street this is still very rare. I don’t see many economist talk about the economy this way, recognizing this identity and making projections based on it. How did you come to see this as the framework by which we should be looking at the economy right now?

HATZIUS: I’ve long been fascinated with looking at private sector financial balances in particular. There was an economics professor at Cambridge University called Wynne Godley who passed away a couple of years ago, who basically used this type of framework to look at business cycles in the UK and also in the US for many many years, so we just started reading some of his material in the late 1990s, and I found it to be a pretty useful way of thinking about the world.

It’s usually not something that gives you the secret sauce at getting it all right, because there are a lot of uncertain inputs that go into this analytical framework, but I do think it’s a reasonable organizing framework for thinking about the short to medium term ups and downs of the business cycle.

Basically, in order to have above trend growth, a cyclically strong economy, you need to have some sector that wants to reduce its financial surplus or run a larger deficit in order to provide that sort of cyclical boost, most of the time.

There are other factors at play in the business cycle – I’m certainly not claiming that ‘this is it!’ – but I have found it to be pretty useful.

The full interview: Goldman’s Top Economist Explains The World’s Most Important Chart, And His Big Call For The US Economy

“Maastricht Is A Half-Baked Half-Way House”

I frequently quote Wynne Godley’s Maastricht And All That written for the London Review Of Books in 1992. Here’s from another article (paywalled) for the same magazine from 1993:

I am in favour of Britain having much closer ties with other European countries, provided that appropriate institutions are created and the whole thing is brought under effective political control …

… The tract made only two points: that a single currency would remove the instability caused by fluctuating exchange rates, thereby enabling business to plan more reliably, and that international traders would no longer incur ‘transaction costs’ in the form of the small margin they now have to pay dealers when they buy and sell foreign exchange. It was as simple as that! The brief contained no reference whatever to the obvious fact that by joining a currency union, member countries would be giving up powers of independent action which at present they possess. It follows a fortiori that the document said nothing about who those powers would be given up to, and how the new authorities would exercise them …

… And if an individual country cannot issue its own money, it has no more power to conduct an independent fiscal policy than has a local authority, say, or an erstwhile colony in an imperial system …

… But to the extent that national governments can no longer be effective, this points to a pressing need for some supranational authority, call it a federal government, to carry out these functions …

… It is a good moment to start again. I think the Maastricht enterprise was built on a premise that has turned out to be completely mistaken: namely, that there can exist some kind of union between countries which is much more than a community of independent nations with special trading arrangements but much less than a full-blown political union. Maastricht is a half-baked half-way house and, with the CAP always at the back of my mind, I cannot agree that it is right to support it on the grounds that it is the only route ahead, the full nature of which will only be revealed in due course. Going forward should now mean that we explicitly hand over the main instruments of independent policy-making to some properly constituted body under appropriate political control. If this is not what Britain wants, is it completely out of the question that we now deliberately go backwards?

[italics in original, boldening mine]

– Wynne Godley in DerailedLondon Review Of Books, 1993

Origins Of The Sectoral Balances Identity

I thought I should share what I found recently about who was to state the sectoral balances identity first – since it comes across as enlightening to say the least. I found the identity in Nicholas Kaldor’s 1944 article Quantitative Aspects Of The Full Employment Problem In Britain. It was published as Appendix C to Full Employment In A Free Society by William Beveridge.

(If you find the mention of this identity anywhere before, please let me know!)

Here’s a Google Books screenshot of the page:

The article also appears in Kaldor’s Collected Essays, Vol 3 (Chapter 2, pp. 23-82).

The ‘net’ is net of consumption of fixed capital. Also ‘balance of payments’ is used for the current balance (footnote 1, page 28). (In The Scourge Of Monetarism, Kaldor used ‘net saving’ as saving net of investment).

Anthony Thirlwall wrote a biography of Kaldor in 1987 and he mentions that Kaldor kept pushing the implications of the identity in the 1960s (page 251). He managed to convinced some of his colleagues such as Wynne Godley and Francis Cripps and pick up public fights with others such as Richard Kahn.

Wynne Godley recalled how he came to appreciate this identity in his book Monetary Economics with Marc Lavoie. In Background Memories (W.G.) he wrote:

… In 1970 I moved to Cambridge, where, with Francis Cripps, I founded the Cambridge Economic Policy Group (CEPG). I remember a damascene moment when, in early 1974 (after playing round with concepts devised in conversation with Nicky Kaldor and Robert Neild), I first apprehended the strategic importance of the accounting identity which says that, measured at current prices, the government’s budget deficit less the current account deficit is equal, by definition, to private saving net of investment. Having always thought of the balance of trade as something which could only be analysed in terms of income and price elasticities together with real output movements at home and abroad, it came as a shock to discover that if only one knows what the budget deficit and private net saving are, it follows from that information alone, without any qualification whatever, exactly what the balance of payments must be. Francis Cripps and I set out the significance of this identity as a logical framework both for modelling the economy and for the formulation of policy in the London and Cambridge Economic Bulletin in January 1974 (Godley and Cripps 1974). We correctly predicted that the Heath Barber boom would go bust later in the year at a time when the National Institute was in full support of government policy and the London Business School (i.e. Jim Ball and Terry Burns) were conditionally recommending further reflation! We also predicted that inflation could exceed 20% if the unfortunate threshold (wage indexation) scheme really got going interactively. This was important because it was later claimed that inflation (which eventually reached 26%) was the consequence of the previous rise in the ‘money supply’, while others put it down to the rising pressure of demand the previous year …

Canada’s Mark Carney To Head The Bank Of England

So the news is that Mark Carney – the Governor of the Bank of Canada will now be the next Governor of the Bank of England.

Wynne Godley would have been happy – had he been alive and known that Carney is perhaps the only central banker to have recognized his foresight. (Carney probably is also the only central bank head to have named some names.)

In a speech From Hindsight To Foresight from 17 Dec 2008, he said:

… Few forecast these events; although, in an outbreak of retrospective foresight, an increasing number now claim they saw it coming. The reality is that among all the banks, investors, academics and policy-makers, only a handful were able to identify ahead of time the causes and potential scale of the crisis. …

with an attached footnote:

Examples include Bill White, formerly of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank for International Settlements; Harvard University’s Ken Rogoff; Nouriel Roubini of New York University; Wynne Godley of Cambridge; and Bernard Connolly of AIG Financial Products.

Money Supposedly Became Fiat And Hence Balance Of Payments Does Not Matter Kind Of Argument

So Karl Whelan wrote another article on TARGET2 claiming once more that a loss of TARGET2 claims of the Bundesbank does not matter at all to Germany. He has a new paper as well. Earlier he was arguing there was no loss at all.

His argument roughly is that since there is no longer trade settlement in gold, money is thence fiat and the loss does not matter.

Closed economy monetary economics is confusing enough for most monetary economists but when matters of open economy are discussed, it is a Herculean task for them to make sense of simple things. Some economists are better but end up making a mess.

First there is this story of “fiat money”. Supposedly after 1973 – when the Smithsonian Agreement broke down – money or currencies became fiat according to many theories. I guess this is generally the notion made popular by Austrian economists as far as I can tell and (is the root of all evil in this story). But this is strange. If “fiat money” has any meaning to it, money was equally fiat before – either during the Bretton Woods system or in any monetary institutional setups before that. So the US Dollar was as fiat as in 1920 as in 2012. There’s no meaning to saying that currencies became fiat suddenly.

Of course, in the Bretton Woods system, nations’ governments were required to redeem official foreign balances either in gold (till 1968), SDRs (after 1968) or in the currency of the member making the request (if any). In addition, there was a system of market convertibility in addition to official convertibility. In addition, the US volunteered to convert official foreign balances to gold till 1971.

So one could say that international trade was settled in gold. However, since money is credit, international trade would also settle by borrowing from foreigners – not just the official sector borrowing but other resident sectors borrowing from foreigners. The proper way to understand this is to study how balance of payments accounting is done and it was no different now than what it used to be.

A nation which runs a trade deficit need not lose gold reserves because the current account deficit could be financed via the financial account. If there is a problem in inflow, changes in interest rates by the central bank would attract funds from foreign financial centers.

More generally as always, it is income changes which works to bring imbalances back to balance. Sometimes things get out of hand, leading to a loss of gold reserves and the need for international financial help for exceptional financing of the balance of payments. But even in the supposedly new fiat world, things can get out of hand and require exceptional financing transactions.

Before Bretton Woods, nations had less formal agreements and typically the central bank and/or the government would promise to convert currency notes into gold at the request of the holder and not just official balances. It was thought that this made currencies acceptable and that the central bank should not issue more currency notes than the amount of gold they held. This story however, has no empirical support. It was however thought that the amount of currency notes is some multiple of the amount of gold and perhaps this is the origin of the story of the multiplier. But this is a troublesome story and there is some sort of view that money is exogenous in such monetary setups but endogenous otherwise – which makes no sense at all. Money is always credit-led and demand-determined and hence endogenous.

[To be more complete, some nations do not have a legal tender of their own and use other currencies as per law]

Now, economists argued that in the era of fixed exchange rates, an outflow of gold would lead to an automatic contraction of the money stock – the underlying theory being that of the money multiplier. This is presented as the Mundell-Fleming approach. Wages would reduce and this will lead to more competitiveness in international markets and bring the trade imbalance back into balance. This didn’t work because the whole notion was based on ideas of the money multiplier and notions such as that. (In addition it ignores the crucial aspect of non-price competitiveness).

So Emperor’s New Clothes – economists figured that floating exchanges would do the trick. Even a great economist such as Nicholas Kaldor believed so (while he was warning about troubles with the Bretton Woods system in the 1960s) but he was the first to point out that it doesn’t do the trick – soon in the 1970s.

More troublesome is the notion that if a nation is indebteded to foreigners in the domestic currency, it doesn’t owe foreigners anything and that this debt is just technical. The reason given is that nations are relieved to convert balances of foreign governments and/or central banks in the new era (the ones floating their exchange rates). But this is highly mistaken. While it is untrue (official convertibility still exists), it ignores the more important concept of market convertibility. The “reason” is dubious. It is true that it doesn’t cost the central bank anything if banks ask for currency notes to satisfy the demand for their customers, it doesn’t mean much. The private sector net wealth and aggregate demand is affected by net government expenditures and precisely when the nation has a balance of payments crisis, does the government have less power. It however is useful to have the government to make expenditures and take other emergency actions to handle a crisis in the external sector (with the exception of governments in a monetary union and nations which have “dollarization”). Debt denominated in domestic currency is useful for another reason. Assuming foreigners do not repatriate funds abroad when the currency is depreciating, it prevents a revaluation loss on liabilities. Indebtednesss in foreign currency on the other hand, leads to revaluation losses – implying more is needed from export receipts to prevent the debt from getting out of hand.

The fact that in any monetary setup nations face a balance of payments constraint has led nations to grow via success in international trade. Those who understood this trick early gained market and their success led to more success. This in turn puts a handicap on the rest of the world. The ‘mercantalist’ nations while didn’t believe the invisible hand (according to Keynes) nevertheless gain tremendously from the present system of free trade. As long as free trade is maintained, it is advantageous to nations to have strong external positions – in trade and in claims held on foreigners.

Now to the paper of Karl Whelan.

For Whelan, the external assets of a nation – including the claims of the government on non-residents – does not matter at all.

When considering the loss of the Bundesbank’s TARGET2 claim, it is important to distinguish between implications that matter and those that don’t.  Most of the commentary on this issue has focused on implications for the Bundesbank itself and the need for a hugely costly recapitalisation of the central bank.  For example, Burda (2012) argues that “Germany has now become a hostage to the monetary union, since a unilateral exit would imply a new central bank with negative equity.” However, there are a number of reasons why the capital position of the central bank is something of a red herring when considering a break-up scenario.

The first reason for this is that despite the common belief that central banks need to have assets that exceed their notional liabilities, there is no concrete basis for this position. Systems like the Gold Standard required a central bank to “back” the money in circulation with a specific asset but there is no such requirement when operating a modern fiat currency.  A central bank operating a fiat currency could have assets that fall below the value of the money it has issued – the balance sheet could show it to be “insolvent” – without having an impact on the value of the currency in circulation. A fiat currency’s value, its real purchasing power, is determined by how much money has been supplied and the factors influencing money demand, not by the central bank’s stock of assets. As discussed in the attached box, close examination reveals little merit to the various arguments that are put forward for the idea that a central bank must have positive capital to achieve its goals.

The second reason the focus on central bank capital is a red herring is that, even if it is decided after a break-up that Germany must recapitalise the Bundesbank, rather than being hugely costly, this recapitalisation would have no impact on either the net asset position of the German state or its budget deficit.  Let’s assume the German government recapitalises the Bundesbank by providing it with an interest-bearing government bond.  While the government’s gross debt will increase, the government bond becomes an asset of the Bundesbank, so the total public net debt does not change.

Similarly, suppose the new debt provides interest payments of €3.9 billion (equal to the annual interest that would be generated by the September 2012 level of Bundesbank net Intra-Eurosystem claims). This payment would raise the profits of the Bundesbank by this amount, thus raising the amount the Bundesbank can return to the German government by the same amount, resulting in no change in the budget deficit.

So the issue facing Germany in case of a loss of its Intra-Eurosystem claims is not the insolvency of the Bundesbank or the costs associated with recapitalising it.  The real issue is simply that the Bundesbank had a large asset and this asset will have disappeared. Still, despite the eye-popping level of the Bundesbank’s TARGET2 claim, the disappearance of the net income from the Intra-Eurosystem claims would have a very modest impact on the annual German budget. At an interest rate of 0.75 percent, the yield of €3.9 billion on the net Intra-Eurosystem claims of €516 billion as of the end of September represents only 0.15 percent of German GDP. Rather than a huge potential loss keeping Germany hostage within the Eurozone, I suspect this is a loss than many Germans would shrug off as perhaps being smaller than the likely costs associated with the sovereign bailout funds aimed at saving the euro.

Although Whelan accepts there is a loss (although he wasn’t earlier), there is hodge-podge here in the whole write-up. Whether there is gold involved in settlement of international debt or if the government promises to convert currency notes into gold (to keep its currency acceptable and which is just an illusion in any case) is an entirely irrelevant issue. The potential of a loss of huge amounts (given that a panic can lead to further losses for the German public sector – to see how see this post) is dreadful to Germany. The seigniorage calculation is hardly useful. It is like telling someone that a $1m loss doesn’t matter because it only earns $2,500 per year – given current interest rates. His point that there is “no change in the budget deficit” if Bundesbank’s foreign assets get replaced by German government debt has a simple calculation mistake – in one case the public sector is receiving interest income from abroad and in the other it isn’t.

Edited 22 Nov 2012 7:35am GMT

(Apologies for misspelling Whelan earlier in some places in earlier version)

Joe Stiglitz’s Presentation On Global Imbalances

I came across this presentation of Joe Stiglitz (from INET earlier this year) today as someone referred to it on Facebook. I think I may have referred to it earlier. Stiglitz is certainly one of the better economists in mainstream. The presentation is at Business Insider with the title Joe Stiglitz’s Presentation On Why The Entire Global Economic System Is Doomed To Fail – which I think was a nice heading!

The world is severely imbalanced as a result of the promotion of free trade and this has led to debtor exhaustion (borrowing words from Stiglitz). Deficit nations are in a position where they cannot expand domestic demand unilaterally because sooner or later they will run into a balance-of-payments crisis. Surplus nations on the other hand are showing no inclination to do fiscal expansion. Till now the United States was acting as an “importer of the last resort” or a “demander of the last resort” and this allowed the world to grow. But faced with its own balance of payments problems, it is not easy for the United States to grow. The rising public debt (as a counterpart of the rising net indebtedness of the United States to the rest of the world caused due to the United States’ balance of payments) will not be promoted by the Federal Reserve – the exorbitant privilege of the United States has become a burden. This is not to say that fiscal policy will not help the United States but it cannot alone bring the nation back to full employment.

I absolutely love Nicholas Kaldor and I saw some nice things in the presentation (emphasized by Kaldor such as “learning by doing”), promoting industrial policy in the developing world and modifying the rules of the game for the world trade to allow nations to take unilateral action to prevent imbalances from getting out of hand (last slide in the presentation). Kaldor himself (and his “New Cambridge” group) had advocated import controls for the United Kingdom in the late 70s/early 80s.

Kaldor had an articulate way to put his ideas across. Here’s from his 1981 article The Role Of Increasing Returns, Technical Progress And Cumulative Causation In The Theory Of International Trade And Economic Growth (from his Collected Papers, Vol 9):

Traditional theory, both classical and neoclassical, asserts that free trade in goods between different regions is always to the advantage of each trading country, and is therefore the best arrangement from the point of view of the welfare of the trading world as a whole, as well as of each part of the world taken separately. [footnote: The latter part of this proposition abstracts from the possibility that a particular country possesses some degree of monopoly power and thereby can turn the terms of trade in its favour by means of a tariff even after retaliation by other countries is taken into account.] However, these propositions are only true under specific abstract assumptions which do not correspond to reality. Under more realistic assumptions unrestricted trade is likely to lead to a loss of welfare to particular regions or countries and even to the world as a whole – that is to say that the world will be worse off under free trade than it could be under some system of regulated trade …

… Owing to increasing returns in processing activities (in manufactures) success breeds further success and failure begets more failure. Another Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, called this ‘the principle of circular and cumulative causation’.

[italics in original]

Although there are some right things Stiglitz says about international imbalances, he emphasizes monetary policy more than fiscal policy (something all mainstream economists do) and also suggests a global reserve system (the kind proposed by Keynes with a World Central Bank and all that). Economists have to wake up to the fact that monetary policy has a limited role to play and it is fiscal policy which matters. The idea of a world central bank won’t work – as emphasized by Kaldor (in the 60s!) because it would necessarily involve surrendering political sovereignty – governments won’t give each other unlimited credit lines to each other in such a system. (More on Kaldor and the world central bank some other time).

I have some commenters contacting me on the “About” and “Aspiration” pages on this blog recently and I thought this blog post should make my position clear that free trade makes everyone worse off. A closely related claim here (which will be defended again and again) is that over the long run, exports are the only source of autonomous demand. Because some nations get ahead of the others, this puts a severe handicap on others and new rules of the game is the only way out to prevent the general state of stagnation in the world economy (in between occasional periods of booms). Hence the title of the blog “Concerted Action”!

Happy Diwali!

Happy Diwali to my Indian (and also non-Indian) readers!

Diwali is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil.

Reminds of this:

I think I had best begin by making my own position clear – I regard ‘monetarism’ as a terrible curse, a visitation of evil spirits, with particularly unfortunate, one could say devastating, effects on our country, Britain. The biological process of natural selection should make for the development of favourable traits in human character – and that includes the acceptance of ideas and beliefs that promote progress and the rejection of ideas that have the opposite effect. As we all know this is not, unfortunately, either a smooth or a continuous process – it proceeds by fits and starts. The religion of most societies contains the basic dualism between god and evil spirits, between angels and devils, between the purveyors of good advice and the purveyors of bad advice. The choice between them is often represented as a moral issue whereas it is more truly a matter of flair and intuition which sometimes works and sometimes does not. Decadence, according to Nietzsche, is a state in which the individual intuitively goes for the bad solutions for getting out of difficulties, and fails to pick out good ones.

The alarming thing is not that some people should hold crackpot ideas. The alarming thing is when crackpot ideas sweep the board – when they capture the minds of a wide selection of important and influential people. This has been the case with the rapid spread of monetarism among academics, journalists, bankers and politicians in the last five to ten years. It has also been the case with the rapid spread of racialism, the mass conversions of Fascist or Nazi ideas and ideals in the 1920s and 30s; and no doubt many other examples could be given. Ultimately the devil fails – at least this has been the case hitherto, otherwise we should not be here. But the cost is sometimes horrendous – whether through wars, revolutions or the misery and agony inflicted by mass unemployment, loss of opportunities, loss of skills or even loss of knowledge and know-how.

– Nicholas Kaldor, Origins Of The New Monetarism, 1981