Monthly Archives: April 2013

Nicholas Kaldor On Floating Exchange Rates

Martin Wolf has a nice new column on imbalances creating troubles for the UK economy in the Financial Times: What a floating currency gives and what it does not.

Why are current account deficits a haemorrhage in the flow of circular income? Weak external trade performance implies a drain in demand and hence pressure on the path to full employment and also that fiscal policy has to give in: else public debt and net indebtedness to foreigners keep rising relative to output which cannot be sustained for long. This means that if an individual nation or the world as a whole needs reflation, drastic changes need to made on how the world is run – especially using a system of regulated international trade rather than a system of free trade.

Nicholas Kaldor had a lot of change of mind about exchange rates during his lifetime. In the introduction to Volume 6 of his collected essays Further Essays On Applied Economics, he has a lot to say about his views.

Nicky Kaldor also had a paper The Relative Merits Of Fixed Exchange And Floating Rates – a memorandum as an economic adviser to the Chancellor in 1965 in which he was arguing for the merits of floating the exchange rates. In page xiii from introduction to Further Essays On Applied Economics he confesses:

The strategy advocated in my 1965 paper “The Relative Merits of Fixed and Floating Exchange Rates” thus proved in practice futile …

… So the policy which I advocated in the 1960s and developed at greater length in my 1970 Presidential Address to the British Association, of reconciling full employment growth with equilibrium in the balance of payments through adjusting the relationship between import and export propensities by a policy of continuous manipulation of the exchange rate, proved in the event a chimera. The main reason for this was that (along with most economists) I greatly overestimated the effectiveness of the price mechanism in changing the relationship of exports to imports at any given level of income. The doctrine that exports and imports are kept in balance through induced changes in their relative prices is as old and deeply ingrained as almost any proposition in economics.

So there you have it – realising his mistake earlier than anyone else.

He goes on further to drive this point:

… In other words, what the Harrod theory asserts is that trade is kept in balance by variations of production and incomes rather than by price variations: a proposition which implies that the income elasticity of demand of a country’s inhabitants for imports and those of foreigners for its exports are far more important explanatory variables than price elasticities.

which is essentially saying that it is non-price competitiveness which is far more important than price competiveness.

Further …

… If the Harrod theory provides the realistic explanation of the underlying forces which maintain the trade flows of an industrial exporter in balance (subject, of course, to the exceptions to this rule in the shape of long-term surplus and deficit countries, which must be capable of being explained in the same framework) this also carries the implication that the relationship of import propensities to exports will be relatively insensitive to such variations of relative prices as can be accomplished by monetary or exchange rate policies.

This latter implication (though discussed in the 1930s) seems to have got lost when the debate on fixed versus flexible exchange rates flared up again in the 1960s. This explains perhaps the exaggerated hopes placed on variations in exchange rates as an instrument of the “adjustment process” in international trade and payments and, for Britain in particular, on a system of “managed floating” as a means of securing higher and stable growth rates.

Again he later emphasises his learning:

… I was convinced that once exchange rates are freed from the rigidities imposed by Bretton-Woods, the forces of cumulative causation which made some countries grow fast and others slowly will no longer operate, or not in the same manner. That belief was so badly shaken by experience of subsequent years for for reasons explained in my most recent paper on the subject, which is discussed below.

James Tobin said it best once:

I believe that the basic problem today is not the exchange rate regime, whether fixed or floating. Debate on the regime evades and obscures the essential problem.

Of course that doesn’t mean one ties both shoes together and irrevocably fixes exchange rates (and give up the government powers to make drafts at the central bank) but the essential problem referred above – although gets diluted – doesn’t go away outside a monetary union.

Thomas Herndon!

So Comedy Central had a nice show on the Reinhart-Rogoff episode and how their work was used to drive world-wide austerity. The show featured Thomas Herndon – the graduate student from the University of Massachusetts Amherst who found errors in R&R’s work.

Great work Thomas!

Worth a watch:

(Click the two pictures to watch the videos from the original website)

The Colbert Report - 1

This is the video where Thomas Herndon appears:

The Colbert Report - 2

h/t Louis-Philippe Rochon and Mike Norman

United States To Adopt The 2008 SNA

There are two interesting articles in the Financial Times today:

Data shift to lift US economy 3% and US economy gets a Hollywood makeover

According to the first article,

The revision, equivalent to adding a country as big as Belgium to the estimated size of the world economy, will make the US one of the first adopters of a new international standard for GDP accounting.

which links to the 2008 SNA page.

The manual/handbook of the new SNA is available at the Unstats site.

It is also available in print for $150 or $75 (depending on where you live).

It is the book to learn national accounts and is better if read from the start rather than being used as a reference for one particular point.  When you read it patiently, you will realize how much of work and effort has gone into it – especially to make the conceptual framework self-consistent.

Games Economists Play

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.

It is fun to watch what economists have to say after the recent Reinhart-Rogoff episode and look at their behaviour.

To be brutally straightforward, I think economists are playing games here to mislead and deceive everyone. Mainstream economists in the past few days have been trying their best to persuade everyone into believing that they are modest people and economics is a hard science* and it’s two outliers who have misled politicians into worldwide austerity etc.

So we hear Mark Thoma saying something like lack of sufficient data prevents economists from choosing the best model. It gives the impression that mainstream economists broadly know how the world works and that they are just unable to give the best solution from a pack of 10 good models. But it hides the fact that at the most elementary level, macroeconomists struggle to even understand basic macroeconomics and that there exists a supreme Post-Keynesian alternative.

In a recent NYT blog post Destructive Creativity Paul Krugman tries his best to mislead everyone about the status of macroeconomics.

According to him:

If you stayed with Econ 101, you got it right, if you went with the trendy stuff you made a fool of yourself.

It is the most inaccurate statement about the state of macroeconomics and reflects poorly on someone who has written articles such as A Dark Age Of Macroeconomics. Econ 101 – as taught in most universities – is deeply misleading and erroneous.

I won’t go into how chimerical macroeconomics is because there are already a few good blogs there. This post is not about attempting to prove how economics taught at universities is chimerical but to point out games economists play.

Krugman tries to play a supergame on top of what other economists are doing. He says:

You can already see quite a few people reacting to this affair by declaring that macro is humbug, we don’t know anything, and we should just ignore economists’ pronouncements. Some of the people saying this are economists themselves!

No, this is misleading. Mainstream economists are not saying this really but are playing games. Those who have been saying that mainstream economics is a chimera have been saying this for a long time. There is hardly any new entrant in this from within the orthodox community. And Krugman tries to defend the subject itself:

What we have experienced since 2007 is a series of huge policy shocks — and basic macroeconomics made some very counterintuitive predictions about the effects of those shocks. Unprecedented budget deficits, the model said, would not drive up interest rates. A tripling of the monetary base would not cause runaway inflation. Sharp government spending cuts wouldn’t free up resources for the private sector, they would depress the economy more than one-for-one, so that private spending as well as public would fall.

There are three things wrong about this. First, basic macroeconomics did not make these predictions. Second, Krugman – as he has done in the past – is saying that in liquidity trap situations exceptions appear and more importantly he knew it beforehand! Third, Krugman says Econ 101 notes the exception.

(Some great tactics to avoid saying that Econ 101 is garbage).

Of course some points should be given to Krugman because he has been saying things which are different from most of his colleagues but it is incorrect and thoroughly misleading and to say that Econ 101 survives the crisis.

*of course true that Macroeconomics is hard but read Luigi Pasinetti’s Keynes And The Cambridge Keynesians: A Revolution In Economics To Be Accomplished.

Margaret Thatcher’s Gigantic Con Trick

There have been too many praises for Mrs Thatcher after her death today.

Wynne Godley once described the Thatcher “miracle” as a gigantic con-trick. Here is from a newspaper article:

I regard the Thatcher miracle as a gigantic con-trick. Almost every major indicator – output, unemployment, industrial investment, and the balance of payments has performed poorly over the nine Thatcher years taken as a whole … The ‘con’ trick has been achieved by the enrichment of part of the community at the expense of a minority, by skilful but thorougly dishonest presentation of the facts, by the ruthless use of patronage and the exploitation of an ugly vein of populism in the British people.

– Wynne Godley in Why I Won’t Apologize, September 18, 1988, Observer. 

The article scan is below:

Wynne Godley - Why I Won't Apologize

Wynne Godley, Why I Won’t Apologize
(click to enlarge and click again)

Also see the papers which describes the right facts:

  1. Coutts, K. and Godley, W. (1989), The British Economy Under Mrs Thatcher. The Political Quarterly, 60: 137–151. (Link)
  2. Godley, W. (1990), The British Economy Under Mrs Thatcher: A Rejoinder. The Political Quarterly, 61: 101–102. (Link)

Thatcher’s bluff was caught very early by Godley. The huge rise in unemployment (to 3 million) was predicted first by Wynne Godley himself in 1979.

Reference: Godley W., ‘Britain’s chronic recession-can anything be done?’ in W. Beckerman (ed.) Slow Growth in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1979.

His King’s College Obituary (Annual Report, 2011) had this to say about Thatcherism:

Wynne rather relished his reputation as the ‘Cassandra of the Fens’. He famously made a double prediction: that under current policies of the first Thatcher government unemployment would inevitably rise to three million, but – the second prediction – that this would not in fact happen, on the grounds that, since in post-war Britain three million unemployed had to be an electoral suicide note, the policies would have to be changed. He was right with the first prediction, and – misreading the not-for-turning dispositions of the Iron Lady – wrong with the second. The actual outcomes appalled him. For Wynne the fundamental economic responsibility of a government was to ensure ‘full employment’. In pursuit of that aim he was uninhibited as Keynes himself and perhaps rather close in his motivation. He believed it was essential to use fiscal levers to stimulate demand, and was even prepared – though under very strict conditions – to countenance temporary import controls to protect and strengthen economic activity. His ideas were controversial and, like the man himself, often stood at an odd angle to the contemporary world, but the moral imagination which informed them was large and generous.

… One Funeral At A Time?

Eine neue wissenschaftliche Wahrheit pflegt sich nicht in der Weise durchzusetzen, daß ihre Gegner überzeugt werden und sich als belehrt erklären, sondern vielmehr dadurch, daß ihre Gegner allmählich aussterben und daß die heranwachsende Generation von vornherein mit der Wahrheit vertraut gemacht ist.

Translation: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

– Max Planck.

The variant of this is “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

Margaret Thatcher passed away today but Thatcherism still survives and dominates policy debates. So perhaps Max Planck doesn’t seem to apply to economics yet in a straightforward way.

The best opposition to Thatcherism came from Cambridge. In a small book based on speeches in the House of Lords (1979-1982) The Economic Consequences Of Mrs Thatcher and devoted entirely to pin-pointing the fundamental errors of Thatcherism, Nicholas Kaldor wrote in this in a chapter titled The Economics of the Primitive (18.3.81), page 83:

The belief that public expenditure must be cut in order to balance the budget, which is clearly held passionately by Mrs Thatcher and her immediate associates, derives from an anthropomorphic conception of economics. Primitive religions are anthropomorphic. They believe in gods which resemble human beings in physical shape and character. Mrs Thatcher’s economics is anthropomorphic, in that she believes in applying to the national economy the same principles and rules of conduct as have been found appropriate to a single individual or a family – paying your way, trimming your expenditure to fit your earnings, avoiding living beyond your means and avoiding getting into debt. These are well-worn principles of prudent conduct for an individual  but when applied to policy prescriptions to a national economy they lead to absurdities.

If an individual cuts his expenditure he will not thereby reduce his income. However, if  a Government cut their public expenditure programme in relation to tax rates and charges, they will reduce the total spending in the economy and hence the total production and income. It will reduce the revenue yielded by existing taxes and it will cause public expenditure on unemployment benefits and on the support of firms in trouble, and other similar items, to rise. It is a policy that is appropriate only in times of excess demand and over-full employment, as was the case with Crippsian austerity after the war. At a time like now, with 2½ million unemployed, far from being a recipe for prudent housekeeping and future prosperity it is a recipe for ruin. To keep tightening the budget in the hope of  ‘balancing the books’ is to keep reducing the output and income of the nation and hence to fail to balance the books as tax yields shrink and expenditures to support the disintegrating economy increase.

The word “prudent” still survives to this day and perhaps heard more often, in politicians’ and central bankers’ speeches, research reports of financial markets’ “experts” and in the media and in rating agencies pressuring government to tighten fiscal policy.

Update: Here is John Boehner repeating Thatcherism on Twitter:

“It’s remarks like that which explain why people hate economists!”

A lot of heterodox economists are sympathetic to Paul Krugman because he seems to have argued for fiscal expansion.

Ha!

First, we are in this mess because of people like Paul Krugman who has promoted free trade – which has been destructive to the world economy as a whole and has prevented debtor nations from engaging in fiscal expansion to reflate their economies. The creditor nations won’t reflate their economies by fiscal expansion so easily – just barely the minimal needed to prevent social tensions from building up – because they don’t want to become debtors down the road. They overdo this but free trade has created this situation in the first place.

This crisis has made nations realize the importance of exports in growth and nations will want to improve their international investment position should there be growth in the rest of the world and they will want to wait sufficiently for exports to improve before expanding domestic demand. This creates a game theory like problem for growth of the world as a whole.

Now, Krugman is a smart man. He will make it look as if he was not all that dogmatic. And now ridicules everyone who opposes fiscal expansion. While it is good in a sense because the world needs a worldwide fiscal expansion (but this needs to be coordinated at least), it is nowhere close to the simplistic solutions Krugman presents with his comical IS/LM diagrams and liquidity trap theories and confusions with his notions of exogenous money – which is only a smart way of defending his earlier positions – even though we hear frequent Mea Culpas on his blog.

I came across this article by William Greider – Why Paul Krugman Is So Wrong in which he reminds the readers of how the mania of free trade has been promoted by Paul Krugman and how he has ridiculed everyone showing dissent.

It is generally nice in parts and is worth reading. I like the part in which Greider says that even though free trade has created problems for the United States, it wants to get out of the problems by promoting more free trade!

I am also reminded of a sacred tenet article of Paul Krugman making the case for free trade. The article titled Ricardo’s Difficult Idea not only ridicules anyone arguing against free trade but also gives out strategies on how to promote it.

Here is one paragraph which is worth quoting:

During the NAFTA debates I shared a podium with an experienced, highly regarded U.S. trade negotiator, a strong NAFTA suppporter [sic]. At one point a member of the audience asked me what I thought the effect of NAFTA would be on the number of jobs in the United States; when I replied “none”, based on the standard arguments, the trade official exploded in anger: “It’s remarks like that which explain why people hate economists!”

I like this quote by Francis Cripps from an article in The Guardian from 27 Feb 1979: Economists With A Mission:

Francis Cripps - If Economists Did Not Exist