Monthly Archives: July 2016

IEO On The Euro Area’s Balance Of Payments Problems

The IEO, Independent Evaluation Office of the IMF has come up with a report The IMF And The Crises In Greece, Ireland, And Portugal in which it discusses how the IMF rejected the possibility of a balance of payments crisis in a monetary union without a full political union such as in the Euro Area.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of The Telegraph quotes an important passage from the report in an article:

“The possibility of a balance of payments crisis in a monetary union was thought to be all but non-existent,” it said. As late as mid-2007, the IMF still thought that “in view of Greece’s EMU membership, the availability of external financing is not a concern”.

At root was a failure to grasp the elemental point that currency unions with no treasury or political union to back them up are inherently vulnerable to debt crises. States facing a shock no longer have sovereign tools to defend themselves. Devaluation risk is switched into bankruptcy risk.

The quote is in page 25 (page 33 of pdf) of the article, linked on top of this page.

Some economists clearly saw it coming. Here’s Wynne Godley from his 1991 article Commonsense Route To A Common Europe for The Observer:

… But more disturbing still is the notion that with a common currency the ‘balance or payments problem’ is eliminated and therefore that individual countries are relieved of the need to pay for their imports with exports.

Quite the reverse: the existence or a common currency makes a country more directly dependent on its ability to sell exports and import substitutes than it was before, particularly as it will then possess no means whereby it can (in the broadest sense) protect itself against failure.

Why doesn’t it happen to a state in say the United States? This is because, there’s a federal government which is engaged in automatic fiscal transfers. Weaker states as a whole will receive more from the government than what it sends as taxes, especially during downturns. This has the effect of stabilizing the current account balance of payments of the whole region and prevents its indebtedness from exploding relative to its economic output. The Euro Area clearly does not have it.

A Short Note On George Soros’ Principle Of Reflexivity

There’s a nice paper by George Soros from 2014, titled Fallibility, Reflexivity, And The Human Uncertainty Principle in which he gives a good alternative description of financial markets. It’s a kind of a review article of his own ideas he has developed over the years. This is in sharp contrast to the “efficient market hypothesis”.

Here I wanted to discuss just one aspect. In section 4.1 of the paper, Soros says:

Let me state the three key concepts of my approach, fallibility, reflexivity, and the human uncertainty principle as they apply to the financial markets …

Second, reflexivity. Instead of playing a purely passive role in reflecting an underlying reality, financial markets also have an active role: they can affect the future earnings flows they are supposed to reflect. That is the point that behavioral economists have missed. Behavioral economics focuses on only half of the reflexive process: cognitive fallibility leading to the mispricing of assets; they do not concern themselves with the effects that mispricing can have on the fundamentals.

Although, in neoclassical economics, it is difficult to see how this is the case, it is easy in stock-flow coherent macro models. Without writing equations, let’s see how this works.

  1. A rise in expectations of equity prices will lead to a rise in the actual value of equity prices.
  2. Higher equity prices implies holding gains (capital gains) for the holders ultimately households.
  3. This raises consumption (and purchases of houses) as households are richer.
  4. This rise in domestic demand raises output as producers will produce more to meet the demand.
  5. Higher production means higher profits.
  6. A boom in financial markets also leads to a rise in firms’ capital formation (“investment”). Investment is self-financing as investment expenditure for one firm is a source of revenue for another.

Of course, there are feedback effects as well and this may become a bubble which goes bust, but this is the basic mechanism by which reflexivity works.

Although this appears simple, this cannot happen in neoclassical economics because the “production function” is at the heart of it.

Back to Soros. In the paper, he has a nice chart with an explanation of it.

George Soros - Stock Prices Affecting Fundamentals

Soros explains:

A typical market boom– bust. In the initial stage (AB), a new positive earning trend is not yet recognized. Then comes a period of acceleration (BC) when the trend is recognized and reinforced by expectations. A period of testing may intervene when either earnings or expectations waiver (CD). If the positive trend and bias survive the testing, both emerge stronger. Conviction develops and is no longer shaken by a setback in earnings (DE). The gap between expectations and reality becomes wider (EF) until the moment of truth arrives when reality can no longer sustain the exaggerated expectations and the bias is recognized as such (F). A twilight period ensues when people continue to play the game although they no longer believe in it (FG). Eventually a crossover point (G) is reached when the trend turns down and prices lose their last prop. This leads to a catastrophic downward acceleration (GH) commonly known as the crash. The pessimism becomes over done, earnings stabilize, and prices recover somewhat (HI).

Of course, it’s more complicated. There can be other factors leading to the fall of both equities and earnings. But importantly, the fall in equity prices can—via the wealth effect and a fall in firms’ capital formation (“investment”)—lead to a fall in earnings.

George Soros’ criticism of neoclassical economics is great and he’s quite correct in getting an important causality. His description however lacks a mechanism. This can be provided with a demand-led stock-flow coherent behavioural model without any production function.

Joseph Stiglitz On The European Union

In this interview (linked below) with The New York Times, Joseph Stiglitz points out the response of the EU to the UK EU referendum vote and its authoritarianism. He says that after the Brexit vote, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is the President of the European Union said that the EU will act tough on the UK to make sure other European Union members do not leave. Stiglitz then says that you want to believe that people want to stay in the EU because it brings benefits to them but, no, that is not the way Juncker is thinking. He wants people to stay because of fear and is issuing a threat.

Joseph Stiglitz Interview

click the picture to see the video on NYT’s Facebook page.

Discussion around 19:00

Another important point Stiglitz makes about the Euro Area is about a system of progressive taxation. This point is often less discussed. If France raises taxes, it makes it easier for economic units to move to another place inside the Euro Area and hence it is difficult to create a system of progressive taxation.

I find it disappointing that many heterodox economists support the European Union. Will the Juncker threat make them realize?

Milton Friedman On Free Trade

I always like watching Milton Friedman, not because I like him but for something totally opposite. It helps in knowing what the exact position of economists is. Milton Friedman has been hugely influential on how economists think. Almost everyone is just rambling what Friedman said, so why not listen to their master?

This is a lecture given in 1978 on free trade.

Milton Friedman Lecture On Free Trade

click the picture to watch the video on YouTube

A claim made by Friedman in the video is that market mechanisms work to resolve balance of payments problems. “Balance of payments is not a problem”, says Friedman. Of course that’s all wrong but economists continue to believe in such things.

Another claim made by Friedman is that protectionism is because few industries lobby for it. While that is certainly true, how about “free trade” itself? Producers with market share in international markets influence their governments to push for free trade internationally. Why didn’t he talk of those things?

MoneyWeek Interviews Steve Keen

In this interview, Steve Keen talks of Europe post the UK EU Referendum (“Brexit”).

Steve Keen talks of various things such as the importance of manufacturing etc. In the first four minutes, he also refers to Wynne Godley’s 1992 LRB article Maastricht And All That.

Steve Keen MoneyWeek Interview

click the picture to see the video on MoneyWeek’s website. 

Nice interview.

A few complaints. Although Steve Keen is correct about the importance of debt, he is still holding on to his equation, “aggregate demand = gdp + change in debt”. Also in the interview Keen talks of quantitative easing is about banks selling bonds to the Fed. Although banks in their role as primary dealers do sell the bonds to the Federal Reserve, the counterfactual is not banks holding all the bonds.

I also do not believe in debt jubilees (except in exceptional case such as farmers with huge debt in India). Debt jubilee is unfair to the people who didn’t go into debt. Good initiatives are things such as forgiving medical debt as done by John Oliver.

Never Trust An Economist

“Never trust an economist, including myself”, says Ha-Joon Chang in this wonderful video titled, Economics Is For Everyone.

Ha-Joon Chang

click the picture to see the video on YouTube.

Ha-Joon Chang is definitely sounding like Joan Robinson. In a lecture in Delhi in 1955, she said:

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.

More from her in this post Joan Robinson On Economists

Financing Vs. Spending Unions: How To Remedy The Euro Zone’s Original Sin

by Thomas Palley

In economic policy, timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. The euro zone crisis has been evolving for over seven years, making it difficult to time policy proposals. Now, the shock of Brexit has created a definitive political opportunity for reforming rather than patching the euro. With that in mind, I would like to revive an earlier mistimed proposal for a euro zone “financing union” (English version, German version). The proposal contrasts with others that emphasize “spending unions”. But first some preliminaries.

The euro zone’s original sin

The original sin within the euro zone is the separation of money from the state via the creation of the European Central Bank (ECB) which displaced national central banks. Under the euro, countries no longer have their own currency for which they can set their own exchange rate and interest rate, and nor can they call on a national central bank to buy government bonds and finance government spending.


This article first appeared at Thomas Palley’s blog

The World Needs A Kaldorian Response

Dani Rodrik has a new article, The Abdication Of The Left written for Project Syndicate. He says:

The good news is that the intellectual vacuum on the left is being filled, and there is no longer any reason to believe in the tyranny of “no alternatives.” Politicians on the left have less and less reason not to draw on “respectable” academic firepower in economics.

Consider just a few examples: Anat Admati and Simon Johnson have advocated radical banking reforms; Thomas Piketty and Tony Atkinson have proposed a rich menu of policies to deal with inequality at the national level; Mariana Mazzucato and Ha-Joon Chang have written insightfully on how to deploy the public sector to foster inclusive innovation; Joseph Stiglitz and José Antonio Ocampo have proposed global reforms; Brad DeLong, Jeffrey Sachs, and Lawrence Summers (the very same!) have argued for long-term public investment in infrastructure and the green economy. There are enough elements here for building a programmatic economic response from the left.

This is fine, but it wouldn’t be enough to solve the world’s problems because the world as a whole is balance-of-payments constrained as most individual nations are. What is needed is a coordinated response at the international level – a concerted action.

In his 1984 book Causes Of Growth And Stagnation In The World Economy, Nicholas Kaldor wrote:

I should like to end this series of lectures by suggesting the outline of a world-wide agreement on the necessary policies for recovery. The programme could be summed up under four main heads:

  1. The first is coordinated fiscal action including a set of consistent balance of payments targets and “full employment” budgets.If this does not prove to be politically feasible, it is inevitable that the growth of unemployment will sooner or later force governments to take measures that would make it necessary for them to expand demand without being frustrated by the inevitable balance of payments consequence of expanding their economies relative to their trading partners. This means that there needs to be some form of restriction that would limit the increase in “competitive” imports to some target ratio in relation to exports. Trade liberalisation, which played such an important part in the rapid economic progress during the years of expansion, becomes a serious obstacle to economic recovery in the case of prolonged stagnation due to the inability of countries to achieve a coordinated set of policies. But, given a proper recognition of the problem, that under conditions of unrestricted free trade the actual volume of production and trade may in fact be considerably less than under some system of regulated trade – a system which relates the volume of imports in manufactures from a particular group of countries, such as the members of the EEC, to some mutually agreed ratio to the exports of individual members to the rest of the group – there is no reason why full employment should not be restored through policies of expansion, preferably directed by the expansion of State investment. This coordinated action by all countries, instead of isolated actions by each country, is the first and most important requirement of recovery.

At present all countries have fairly large deficits in the general government budget, but these are largely the consequence of the low level of activity. On a “full employment” basis they would show a highly restrictive picture – they would show surpluses and not deficits. Contrary to appearances, the requirement of stability is for expansionary budgets with lower taxes and higher expenditure, and not further fiscal restriction (as is advocated, for example, by M. de Larosiere of the International Monetary Fund).

Before the crisis, the economics profession believed in two orthodoxies:

  1. crude version of Monetarism, which treats the stock of money as exogenous and also claims that fiscal policy is impotent.
  2. free trade.

While policy response following the 2008 crisis have made economists realize that the first orthodoxy is wrong, they are yet to realize the orthodoxy of the second. As Joan Robinson said in her 1973 article, The Need For A Reconsideration Of The Theory Of International Trade, “there is no branch of economics in which there is a wider gap between orthodox doctrine and actual problems than in the theory of international trade”. The recent consensus of the economics profession on the debate about the UK EU referendum highlights it. Instead of the invisible hand, we need a visible hand, i.e., a coordination at the international level. The leftist response as highlighted by Dani Rodrik are welcome but still leave the problem open. So one needs both this and a world-wide fiscal expansion with balance-of-payments targets.


Circular Arguments

Recently, Paul Krugman reminded us of circular reasoning in his blog on Brexit. The same was said earlier by Mervyn King.

Economists use circular reasoning all the time but I’ll digress from economics in this post on something I came across recently involving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

There’s a proof of the irrationality of 21/n , where n is an integer for n > 2 (proof doesn’t work for n = 2) which goes something like this:

Suppose 21/n = p/q, where and are integers and n > 2 . Then:

pn = qn + qn

violating Fermat’s last theorem. So 21/n  is irrational by contradiction.

Sounds cool. But not so. It’s circular argument. A comment at mathoverflow by a person named JS Milne points that that Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem itself uses the irrationality of 21/.


Marc Lavoie On Absolute Advantage Vs. Comparative Advantage

Thanks, the blogger with pen name “Lord Keynes” for reminding us of Marc Lavoie’s fantastic description of free trade, comparative advantage vs. absolute advantage from his book, Post-Keynesian Economics: New Foundations. 

Google Books allows you to read pages 507-509 (if the embed doesn’t open, try another browser):

Marc Lavoie - Absolute Advantage Vs. Comparative Advantage

click picture to read on Google Books.