Tag Archives: paul krugman

The ‘Paradox’ Of Protectionism

Paul Krugman says trade wars are a wash. Brad Delong is raising his neoliberal freak flag high.

Who is right? Answer: Neither. Global output will rise under non-selective protectionism (or has an expansionary bias, to be more precise). Protectionism reduces the propensity to import. That doesn’t mean imports will fall. Total imports of an individual nation will rise because of higher income. World trade will rise because of higher world income.

In other words, non-selective protectionism acts by reducing the propensity to import by price elasticity effects but raises volume of imports via income elasticity effects.

The world as a whole is balance-of-payments constrained, not just individual nations. Raising tariffs on imports incentivises producers to produce more as they will face less competition from abroad. Consumers will shift to domestically produced goods because of price elasticity effects.

Moreover, since governments of most nations won’t have a balance-of-payments constraint if there are large tariffs, they will be free to boost domestic demand by fiscal policy, limited only by the economy’s capacity to produce. If it is done, it will be a conscious behaviour by the government.

There is of course another way fiscal policy gets relaxed because of balance of payments. Reduction of current account deficits, relative to gdp, reduces the budget deficit, relative to gdp (as can be shown by a behavioural model and this shouldn’t be surprising as the two are related by an accounting identity). Typically governments follow some rules even if they aren’t explicitly required and their expenditure is endogenous to the government budget deficit: they tighten fiscal policy when the budget deficit goes out of a limit and relax fiscal policy when the budget deficit is within the limit. So improvement in a country’s balance of payments position would lead to a relaxation of fiscal policy, automatically.

To summarize, protectionism if done the right way can raise world trade because of rise in world income. There is no economic case against protectionism. There is opposition because few corporations want to increase their share in world markets. Protectionism reduces share of these mega corporations instead of reducing world trade. So “free trade” (which is managed trade for a few) only benefits a few and imposes a huge cost on the world economy.

All that is for the current world economic outlook. Typically in deep recessions governments take protectionist measures. In such scenarios, since output is falling, there is a tendency to confuse this with causation. It is more accurate to say that protectionism prevented a deeper implosion in such cases.

Non-selective Protectionism In Wynne Godley’s 1999 Article Seven Unsustainable Processes

‘Free Trade Loses Political Favour,’ says the front-page of today’s Wall Street Journal.

Free Trade Loses Political Favour

Paul Krugman has two articles conceding that he held wrong views earlier.

Krugman says:

But it’s also true that much of the elite defense of globalization is basically dishonest: false claims of inevitability, scare tactics (protectionism causes depressions!), vastly exaggerated claims for the benefits of trade liberalization and the costs of protection, hand-waving away the large distributional effects that are what standard models actually predict.

Krugman claims that he hasn’t done any of it but a reading of his 1996 article Ricardo’s Difficult Idea says the exact opposite.

The earliest cri de cœur of the U.S. balance of payments situation came from Wynne Godley in his 1999 article Seven Unsustainable Processes. 

In his sub-heading ‘Policy Considerations,’ he says:

Policy Considerations

The main conclusion of this paper is that if, as seems likely, the United States enters an era of stagnation in the first decade of the new millennium, it will become necessary both to relax the fiscal stance and to increase exports relative to imports. According to the models deployed, there is no great technical difficulty about carrying out such a program except that it will be difficult to get the timing right. For instance, it would be quite wrong to relax fiscal policy immediately, just as the credit boom reaches its peak. As stated in the introduction, this paper does not argue in favor of fiscal fine-tuning; its central contention is rather that the whole stance of fiscal policy is wrong in that it is much too restrictive to be consistent with full employment in the long run. A more formidable obstacle to the implementation of a wholesale relaxation of fiscal policy at any stage resides in the fact that this would run slap contrary to the powerfully entrenched, political culture of the present time.

The logic of this analysis is that, over the coming five to ten years, it will be necessary not only to bring about a substantial relaxation in the fiscal stance but also to ensure, by one means or another, that there is a structural improvement in the United States’s balance of payments. It is not legitimate to assume that the external deficit will at some stage automatically correct itself; too many countries in the past have found themselves trapped by exploding overseas indebtedness that had eventually to be corrected by force majeure for this to be tenable.

There are, in principle, four ways in which the net export demand can be increased: (1) by depreciating the currency, (2) by deflating the economy to the point at which imports are reduced to the level of exports, (3) by getting other countries to expand their economies by fiscal or other means, and (4) by adopting “Article 12 control” of imports, so called after Article 12 of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which was creatively adjusted when the World Trade Organization came into existence specifically to allow nondiscriminatory import controls to protect a country’s foreign exchange reserves. This list of remedies for the external deficit does not include protection as commonly understood, namely, the selective use of tariffs or other discriminatory measures to assist particular industries and firms that are suffering from relative decline. This kind of protectionism is not included because, apart from other fundamental objections, it would not do the trick. Of the four alternatives, we rule out the second–progressive deflation and resulting high unemployment–on moral grounds. Serious difficulties attend the adoption of any of the remaining three remedies, but none of them can be ruled out categorically.

[italics in original, underlying mine]

Limits To Growth?

There has been a debate led by vicious attack by Paul Krugman that Bernie Sanders’ plans cannot achieve growth of 5.3%. And there have been replies by others.

Coming from a third-world country and seeing an annual growth rate of about 8% in the 10 years of the rule of the UPA government (mid 2004-mid 2014), —meaning real GDP more than doubling in 10 years — despite a global financial crisis and economic slowdown, it appears comical to me that Paul Krugman claiming such a thing is not possible for the United States.

I am a bit unsympathetic to those who quote historical data to try to sneak in an argument that 5.3% is possible. It sounds too apologetic.

If the U.S. fiscal policy was run with a restrictive bias since a long time, there is obviously a huge deflationary bias imparted by policy. So you cannot use that data to either argue one way or the other. The ones using data to try to show it’s possible are playing into the hands of economists such as Paul Krugman whose writing appears nothing but a support for Hillary Clinton.

For a closed economy, the only constraint to growth is the capacity to produce. The United States’ economy suffers no such constraint. At full employment, growth is constrained by rises in productivity and addition to the working population. But productivity itself is endogenous to production because of learning by doing. In addition, rises in incomes motivate people to work harder.

So imagine an economy in which the government’s fiscal stance is held constant for 10 years – i.e., the government expenditure and the tax rates are held constant. Output might fluctuate and even grow but finally the deflationary bias in fiscal policy will drag growth. But you cannot average out 10 years of economic data of hardly any growth to argue out that the economy cannot grow for the next n years.

But things are not easy. What surprises me is that in none of these discussions from either side, is there any discussion of the U.S. balance of payments. The U.S. does not have exports of just a couple of hundred billions and a GDP of some $16 tn. It has exports of about $2.5 tn and GDP of about $16 tn, meaning the GDP is a few multiple of exports. The United States is a net debtor to the rest of the world. So a rapid rise in growth by any means will come at the expense of terribly deteriorating balance of payments which cannot last long.

Of course the above doesn’t mean that things are as pessimistic. It depends on what is going on in the rest of the world and the United States being the economic center of world activity can convince others to boost their economies and there is no reason to assume that it cannot. if there is rapid growth in other economies, the U.S. balance of payments is not something to worry about.

The importance of balance of payments is seriously missing in all discussions. Use of historical data is so wrong here.

tl;dr summary: supply constraints cannot put a limit of some 5% on U.S. growth. It depends on policy makers’ decisions worldwide.

Krugman’s 45 Degree Rule

Recently, Paul Krugman reminded us of his “45 degree rule” on his blog Conscience Of A Liberal. This was a reference to his paper in 1989 which was a rediscovery of Thirlwall’s Law from 1979 [1] which states that the long run rate of growth of any country is constrained by the rate of growth of exports divided by the income elasticity of imports. Krugman rediscovered this law but interpreted the causality in the opposite way. This shouldn’t be surprising because in neoclassical economics, growth is explained by a production function and it is then difficult to interpret the causality in Thirlwall’s way. In an essay [2], John McCombie explains:

Krugman (1989) rediscovered Thirlwall’s Law, which he termed the 45-degree rule, as empirically ε/π = y/z or, when the (log) of the former is regressed on the (log) of the latter, the coefficient is unity or the slope of the line is 45-degrees. (Krugman provides some empirical evidence providing further confirmation of this empirical relationship). Like McCombie and Thirlwall (1994), he rules out sustained changes in the real exchange rate as a factor in bringing the balance of payments into equilibrium. Consequently, it is necessary to explain why the rule holds. The Keynesian explanation is that it is growth rates that adjust to maintain the balance of payments in equilibrium, but this is rejected by Krugman on “a priori grounds” that it is “fundamentally implausible.” He continues that “we all know that differences in growth rates among countries are primarily determined in the growth rates of total factor productivity, not differences in the rate of growth of employment; it is hard to see what channel links balance of payments due to unfavourable income elasticities to total factor productivity growth” (Krugman, 1989, p. 1037).

The Krugman article is instructive because it goes to the heart of the question about the direction of causation. Drawing on new trade theory, monopolistic competition, and the importance of increasing returns, he argues that faster growth leads to increased specialisation and the production of new goods for sale in overseas markets. Thus high “export elasticities of demand” are due to a dynamic supply side and rapid growth, rather than vice versa.

[x is the growth of the volume of exports, π is the domestic income elasticity of demand for imports, ε is the world income elasticity of demand for exports, and z is the growth of world income]

For a more forceful defence of Thirlwall’s Law, see McCombie’s paper.

In my opinion, the causality runs in both directions. However I am more sympathetic to Thirlwall and McCombie. And because the causality runs in both directions, there is still a balance-of-payments constraint. Complex economic dynamics still benefit richer nations and immiserate others. To an extent, this is already present in Kaldorian models. Growth brings in rise in productivity and this effects price competitiveness and hence beneficial to balance of payments generally. However, I also consider the income elasticity as being affected by growth at home and abroad.

References

  1. Thirlwall, A. P. (1979) ‘The Balance of Payments Constraint as an Explanation of International Growth Rate Differences’, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review, March.
  2. McCombie, J.S.L. (2011) ‘Criticisms and defences of the balance-of-payments constrained growth model: some old, some new ‘, PSL Quarterly Review, vol. 64 n. 259 (2011), 353-392. (Can be previewed on Google Books here)

Casual Monetarism

In an Op-Ed for The New York Times, Japan’s Economy, Crippled by Caution, Paul Krugman is seen using a highly Monetarist language:

As I said, you might think that ending deflation is easy. Can’t you just print money? But the question is what do you do with the newly printed money (or, more usually, the bank reserves you’ve just conjured into existence, but let’s call that money-printing for convenience). And that’s where respectability becomes such a problem.

When central banks like the Federal Reserve or the Bank of Japan print money, they generally use it to buy government debt. In normal times this starts a chain reaction in the financial system: The sellers of that government debt don’t want to sit on idle cash, so they lend it out, stimulating spending and boosting the real economy. And as the economy heats up, wages and prices should eventually start to rise, solving the problem of deflation.

… When you print money, don’t use it to buy assets; use it to buy stuff. That is, run budget deficits paid for with the printing press.

Now, there are several things wrong about this. The most important one is the implicit assumption in the “model” that fiscal expansion via increased government expenditure is about neutral and that domestic demand is boosted only because of the way in which the government debt is financed – i.e., central bank purchases of government debt. In other words, Krugman is saying that if there is deflation and if there is an expansion of fiscal policy via a rise in say government expenditures, it will have little effect when the central bank doesn’t purchase government debt. Put it in another way, it is saying that the government expenditure multiplier effect acts mainly because of central bank purchase of government debt and not because of the increase in government expenditure per se.

This is silly intuition and the cause of this is the notion that fiscal policy is more or less neutral except in special circumstances.

In reality, it is the other way round. If the government expenditure rises, and if the central bank purchases government debt, the rise in output is mainly attributable to the former. This can of course be seen in a stock-flow consistent model but can also be seen by simple accounting and flow of funds. A rise in government expenditure on goods and services raises output directly and also via the multiplier effect. The central bank has a huge control over interest rates and the additional debt is simply absorbed by the bond markets easily. There’s no competition with other borrowers as the wealth of the private sector rises. In addition, if the central bank purchases government debt, it is hardly clear if households know if inflation is going to rise and increase their consumption because of “inflation expectations”. Even if they think that if inflation is set to rise, they might reduce consumption as inflation might reduce their real wealth.

Which is not to say that asset purchase programs of the central bank or “quantitative easing” has no effect on demand and output. It works via capital gains in wealth leading to higher consumption and the feedback effects of this. It also works if economic units shift their portfolios to buying non-financial assets. The effect of all this is unclear. In addition, as mentioned earlier, casual Monetarism like the language used by Paul Krugman mixes up correct attributions of government expenditure and central bank government debt purchases on output, misleading everyone.

Simply say “raise government expenditures”. Why all this casual Monetarism with “printing presses”?

Economists Can Be So Wrong

Oh boy! Krugman could not have been more wrong about Macroeconomics than what he said recently in his blog The Conscience Of A Liberal for The New York Times. In a blog post, Competitiveness And Class Warfare, he concludes:

International competition is a mostly bogus notion; …

In a sense it is not surprising. Paul Krugman has done enough to push free trade. With that position, one is forced to take a position that competitiveness doesn’t matter (or that free trade will lead to a convergence between successful and unsuccessful nations).

The notion that balance of payments does not matter is as old as Monetarism. If it is understood that competitiveness does matter and that for a nation it hurts domestic producers and hence one needs some sort of protectionist measures goes against the notion of free trade. For neoclassical economists other than Paul Krugman, competitiveness does matter but in a different sense. They would argue that it there is divergence in performance of nations because of “loose fiscal policy” or “fiscal profligacy” and so on and that once the government balances its budget and behaves the way as per a standard textbook model, there’ll be convergence in performance because market mechanisms will do the trick. But Krugman is different. During the crisis, he has understood that fiscal policy is important and that it is not impotent as claimed by his colleagues.

There are of course other factors at play in the examples Krugman provides. Japanese producers are highly competitive but at the same time, the government of Japan didn’t expand domestic demand by fiscal expansion and so the performance of the economy of Japan has suffered. But that doesn’t mean that the competitiveness of Japanese producers doesn’t matter. Had they been less competitive, Japanese exports would have been lower than otherwise and Japan would have imported more because foreign producers would beat them at their home. Moreover, a weaker current account balance of payments would have led to a bigger government deficit and the Japanese government would have (incorrectly) tightened fiscal policy in response, with the result that both balance of payments and fiscal policy would have reduced domestic demand and hence output.

So while there are other factors affecting economic performance, none of it ever means that competitiveness doesn’t matter.

Cambridge economists were clear on this. Here’s Wynne Godley in a 1993 article 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), page 79:

… In the long period it will be the success or failure of  corporations, with or without active help from governments, to compete in world markets which will govern the rise and fall of nations.

In trying to defend the importance of fiscal policy, some economists such as Paul Krugman become forceful in their views about the way the world works and underplay the importance of matters such as international competitiveness. They seem to falsely believe that this strategy would work for them because accepting the importance of competitiveness would give enough chance for their opponents to argue against worldwide fiscal expansion.  It is a sad and counterproductive strategy.

Krugman And Causality

In a recent post titled Money, Inflation And Models for his NYT blog, Paul Krugman clearly states that “normal equilibrium macro models” say that the direction of causality is from money to prices. Krugman says:

Consider the relationship between the monetary base — bank reserves plus currency in circulation — and the price level. Normal equilibrium macro models say that there should be a proportional relationship — increase the monetary base by 400 percent, and the price level should also rise by 400 percent. And the historical record seems to confirm this idea.

His post is about how this fails when the economy is in a “liquidity trap”. The post hence is the clearest proof of Paul Krugman’s struggle in getting the causality right. Keynes quote from the GT is appropriate here:

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.

Krugman presents a chart which shows the relationship between money and prices but it does not occur to him that the causality is reverse to what he is assuming, whether or not there is a liquidity trap. The simple causal story that a rise in the level of expenditure leads to a rise in the stock of money seems alien to Krugman.

It is of course also true that a rise in the stock of money such as via an asset purchase program by the central bank (“QE”) may have an effect on prices. This happens via a wealth effect: demand has an effect on prices of goods and services. This effect is likely small. The main mechanism — the reverse causality — seems to never occur in Krugman’s mental model of the way the world works.

Krugman has of course written about the “dark age of Macroeconomics”, but has shifted his position since then. Although it is not clear what exactly Krugman’s model is, one can still make an inference: normal equilibrium models work outside of liquidity traps, but in liquidity traps a lot changes. This model is chosen by Krugman so that he can confidently claim that there is hardly anything wrong in Macroeconomics.

Interest Rate, Growth And Debt Sustainability

Frequently, discussions about debt sustainability have discussions about the importance of the interest rate and growth in debt sustainability analysis. See for example, today’s Paul Krugman’s post on his blog. It is concluded that as long as the rate of interest is below the rate of growth, the ratio public debt/gdp doesn’t explode. Unfortunately, this result is erroneous.

John Maynard Keynes’ biggest disservice to the profession is to not start with the open economy. In my view, debt sustainability is tightly connected to balance of payments.

Imagine a nation whose exports is constant. If output rises, it will have adverse effects on the current account balance of payments because of income induced increase in imports. This will have an adverse effect on the international investment position of the nation: the net international investment position will keep deteriorating unless output is slowed down or some measure is taken to improve exports. In the case of rising exports, there is a similar constraint, except it is weaker but dependent on the rate of growth of exports.

If the ratio net international investment position/gdp keeps deteriorating, either the public debt to non-residents or private indebtedness to non-residents or both have to keep rising, all unsustainable.

There are some complications. A nation’s balance of payments also depends on how assets held abroad and liabilities to foreigners affect the primary income account of balance of payments. Also, the exchange rate can depreciate (or be devalued in fixed-exchange rate regimes) improving exports and reducing imports. However assuming that exchange rate movements do the trick is believing in the invisible hand. Foreign trade doesn’t just depend on price competitiveness but also on non-price competitiveness. These complications are highly interesting but do not affect the fundamental fact that a nation’s success is dependent on the success of corporations to compete in international markets for goods in services.

Even the conclusion that the government should contract fiscal policy and aim for a primary surplus in its budget balance or else the ratio public debt/gdp keeps rising if the rate of interest is greater than the rate of growth is erroneous. Consider a closed economy. An expansion in fiscal policy will automatically raise output and gdp and hence tax collections to prevent the ratio public debt/gdp from exploding. The public sector balance may hit primary surpluses but not due to contraction of fiscal policy or targeting a primary surplus in its budget balance.

In short, although the rate of interest and the rate of growth are important in debt sustainability analysis, it is not as easy as is usually presenting in macroeconomics textbooks and in the blogosphere. For a more detailed analysis see the reference below.

Reference

  1. Godley, W. and B. Rowthorn (1994) ‘Appendix: The Dynamics of Public Sector Deficits and Debt.’ In J. Michie and J. Grieve Smith (eds.), Unemployment in Europe (London: Academic Press), pp. 199–206

Updated 8 Apr 2015, 6:52 am UTC.

Thomas Palley — New Keynesianism As A Club

Thomas Palley has a new blog post detailing how much recent new Keynesian theory is a rediscovery of ideas developed by old Keynesians and Post Keynesians over the past thirty years and that new Keynesians persistently fail to acknowledge that precedence.

New Keynesianism as a Club

Club, noun. 1. An association or organization dedicated to a particular interest or activity. 2.  A heavy stick with a thick end, especially one used as a weapon.

Paul Krugman’s economic analysis is always stimulating and insightful, but there is one issue on which I think he persistently falls short. That issue is his account of New Keynesianism’s theoretical originality and intellectual impact.

Read more here.