Tag Archives: martin wolf

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.

More On Wynne Godley’s Methodology

Matias Vernengo has a post on Stock-Flow Consistent Macroeconomics: Stock-Flow With Consistent Accounting (SFCA) Models.

He has a nice way of giving a short description of pricing in the G&L models:

In my view, the stock-flow and the demand driven (and I should say, the fact that price dynamics is orthogonal to the income flow determination structure) is the essential characteristic of this approach.

Also, Simon Wren-Lewis (from Oxford) has a new blog post on the sectoral balances approach – Sector Financial Balances As A Diagnostic Check, where he mentions Martin Wolf’s recent post on Wynne Godley’s approach. He (Wren-Lewis) has been admitting recently that DSGE models are not useful.

In the comments section Simon Wren-Lewis has this to say:

Martin Wolf sent me the following comment, which I am sure others will also find interesting:

“I used sectoral financial balances before the crisis, following Wynne. I argued that what was going on in the US external and household sectors were evidently unsustainable. This allowed me to argue that when the latter’s deficits were eliminated, there would be a recession and a huge fiscal deficit. What I had not expected was that the turnaround in the household sector would trigger a meltdown of the financial system.

“This makes it clear that one has to link the flow sectoral balances to the balance sheets in the economy. In this case, my mistake was not looking closely enough at the balance sheet of the financial sector. Good macroeconomic analysis has to examine the flows and stock meticulously and seek to assess whether the behaviour we see is sustainable. The assumption that private agents cannot make huge mistakes about the sustainability of what they are doing is, in my view, the biggest mistake in macroeconomics.”

Back to DSGE models. I think they are totally useless. I like this quote by Francis Cripps from an article in The Guardian from 27 Feb 1979: Economists With A Mission:

Martin Wolf On Wynne Godley’s Sectoral Financial Balances Approach

Martin Wolf who usually writes good articles on macroeconomic developments wrote recently on the sectoral balances approach (which he uses frequently anyway).

In his recent post The Balance Sheet Recession In The US he writes:

… I look at this through the lens of “sectoral financial balances”, an analytical framework learned from the work of the late Wynne Godley. The essential idea is that since income has to equal expenditure for the economy, as a whole, (which is the same things as saying that saving equals investment) so the sums of the difference between income and expenditures of each of the sectors of the economy must also be zero. These differences can also be described as “financial balances”. Thus, if a sector is spending less than its income it must be accumulating (net) claims on other sectors.

The crucial point is that, since sectoral balances must sum to zero, a rise in the deficit of one sector must be matched by an offsetting change in the others. It follows that if the fiscal deficit is increasing, the sum of the surpluses of the other sectors of the economy must be increasing in a precisely offsetting manner.

These are tautologies. But the virtue of this framework is that it forces us to ask what drives what: are, for example, fiscal deficits in the US (or UK) driving the surpluses in other sectors or are the surpluses in the other sectors driving the fiscal deficit? We can obtain answers by examining what behaviour is changing…

and that:

… The idea that the huge fiscal deficits of recent years have been the result of decisions taken by the current administration is nonsense. No fiscal policy changes explain the collapse into massive fiscal deficit between 2007 and 2009, because there was none of any importance. The collapse is explained by the massive shift of the private sector from financial deficit into surplus or, in other words, from boom to bust…

Nice read: The Balance Sheet Recession In The US.

The sectoral balances approach should always be handled with supreme care. There are causalities running in all directions and one needs to ask what brings them to equivalence, what the value of policy instruments are, how is output changing etc.

The following is from Wynne Godley himself:

From the Levy Institute article The U.S. Economy – Is There A Way Out Of The Woods, November 2007

Although the three balances must always sum to exactly zero, no single balance is more a residual than either of the other two. Each balance has a life of its own, and it is the level of real output that, with minor qualifications, brings about their equivalence. Underlying the main conclusions of our reports is an econometric model in which exports, imports, taxes, and private expenditure are determined as functions of such things as world trade, relative prices, tax rates, and flows of net lending to the private sector. However, neither the knowledge that this is the case nor the perusal of any list of econometric equations will, on its own, impart any intuition as to why output moved as it did over any set period.

[boldening: mine]

Here’s from the article The U.S. Economy – A Changing Strategic Predicament, March 2003

It is well known to students of the National Accounts that the surplus of private disposable income over expenditure is equal to the government balance (written as a deficit) plus the current balance of payments (written as a surplus). While these balances are related to one another by a system of accounting identities, each has, to some extent, a life of its own that is reconciled with the other two via the aggregate income flow. The way the balances evolve provides a useful armature around which to organise a narrative account of economic developments, because any one of them is necessarily implied by the other two. Furthermore, the balances may give an early warning that unsustainable processes are taking place, for any high or rising balance implies a change in public, private, or foreign debts, which cannot grow without limit relative to income.

Wynne Godley with his CEPG partner Francis Cripps
(from Cambridge Group Sings The Blues, The Guardian, 17 April 1980)

I Like Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf has just written an article on FT: Why the Bundesbank is wrong questioning the arguments made by Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank. (This speech: Rebalancing Europe).

This chart is interesting:

(click to enlarge)

Wolf says:

Arguably, the crucial step is to agree on the nature of the illness. On this, progress is now being achieved, at least among economists. It is widely accepted that the balance of payments is fundamental to any understanding of the present crisis. Indeed, the balance of payments may matter more in the eurozone than among economies not bound together in a currency union.

I am not sure how widely accepted or understood this is, but it’s exactly right!

(Also never mind the reference to Werner Sinn in the next line in the original article – although Sinn still had a point in spite of his rather painful analysis)

Unable to make a draft at the central bank, governments are left with less means of protecting themselves in case of failures. Hence nations in a currency union are more directly dependent on the external sector.

Then on Weidmann:

Alas, these remarks confuse productivity with competitiveness. Yet these are distinct: the US, for example, is more productive, but less competitive, than China. External competitiveness is relative. Moreover, at the global level, the adjustment must also be shared. Mr Weidmann knows this. As he says, “of course, surplus countries will eventually be affected as deficit countries adjust”. The question is by what mechanism.

[emphasis: mine]

Martin Wolf knows how economies as a whole work roughly and he has been emphasizing that the solution to the world’s problems lie with the creditor nations. Also, in 2004 he said that America is in a comfortable path to ruin!

So here’s an unsuccessful attempt to prove Martin Wolf doesn’t “get it” from Bill Mitchell: So near but so far … from comprehension. This was a critique of an article written by Martin Wolf where he showed that the creditor status of Japan is hugely helpful to its recovery in spite of having a huge public debt . . . Martin Wolf’s right in spite of Mitchell’s assertion that he is wrong 🙂

Martin Wolf Pays A Generous Tribute To Anthony Thirlwall

Readers of this blog will notice how I attach special importance to the balance of payments in telling the story of how economies work.

In a recent blog post Can one have balance of payments crises in a currency union? at FT, Martin Wolf refers to the work of Anthony Thirlwall – who has made great contributions to the Kaldorian story of growth of nations.

(photo courtesy Wikipedia)

The following article on the Euro appeared in the Financial Times on 9 October 1991 and the FT link of the article is here.

The whole blog post is written nicely by Martin Wolf and although lacking the Kaldorian punch, definitely worth reading.

Let us start at the most basic level: that of the individual. Can individuals have a balance of payments crisis? Certainly.

: -)

Thirwall and his colleague John McCombie wrote this supremely insightful book in 1994 titled Economic Growth and the Balance of Payments Constraint

Martin Wolf On EU Summit

Excellent analysis of the EU Summit by Martin Wolf on FT using the sectoral balances approach:

Let me make this point by turning last week’s analysis of the balance of payments into one of foreign, private and government financial balances in eurozone members (see charts). To remind readers: these have to add up to zero, by definition. But how they go about adding up is revealing.

As I noted last week, fiscal imbalances were modest before the crisis, but the current account imbalances were huge. Surplus private funds in some countries (notably Germany and the Netherlands) were intermediated by the financial system to fund private deficits in others (notably Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain). When crisis hit, these flows ceased. Deficits of private sectors collapsed (most turning into surpluses), while fiscal deficits exploded. Now, says Germany, the latter must be slashed.

By definition, the sum of private and current account deficits must also fall towards zero. The private sectors of erstwhile capital-importing countries have moved towards surpluses, for a good reason: they are trying to reduce their debts, not least because their assets are falling in value. Thus the external deficit needs to fall. That can occur in a good or a bad way. The good way would be via increased output of exports and import substitutes; the bad would be via a deeper recession. The good way requires far higher imports in the core of the eurozone or far greater competitiveness for the eurozone as a whole. But little chance of either of these exists, under plausible expectations for demand and activity. That leaves the bad way: deep recessions, in which the government reduces its deficit by deflating the private sector yet more.

In brief, it is extremely difficult to eliminate fiscal deficits in the structural capital-importing countries, without prolonged recessions or huge improvements in their external competitiveness. But the latter is relative, so the needed improvements in the external performance of weak eurozone countries imply a deterioration in that of eurozone capital-exporters, or radically improved external performance for the eurozone as a whole. The former means that Germany becomes far less German. The latter implies that the eurozone becomes a mega-Germany. Who can believe either outcome is plausible?

This leaves much the most plausible outcome of the orgy of fiscal austerity: long-term structural recessions in vulnerable countries. To put it bluntly, the single currency will come to stand for wage falls, debt deflation and prolonged economic slumps. Can this stand, however big the costs of a break-up?

The eurozone has no credible plan to fix the flaws of the eurozone, apart from greater fiscal austerity: there is to be no fiscal, financial or political union; and there is to be no balanced mechanism for economic adjustment on both sides of the creditor-debtor divide. The decision is, instead, to try still harder with a stability and growth pact whose failures have been both predictable and persistent.

Alternative link with no subscription via Business Spectator

UK/US Sectoral Balances

Martin Wolf wrote a blog post yesterday on FT: Understanding sectoral balances for the UK where he compares the sectoral balances for the United Kingdom and the United States.

To me both the similarities and differences are interesting. The following charts are from his post:

Krugman, Wolf And Goodhart

Paul Krugman has a blog  post today titled Death By Accounting Identity, commenting on Martin Wolf’s FT Article Why cutting fiscal deficits is an assault on profits, where Wolf talks about the sectoral balances identity made famous by Wynne Godley. I guess the better way to put it is that Martin Wolf is trying to make the accounting identity famous.

A Damascene Moment

In his book with Marc Lavoie, Wynne Godley wrote in his part of Background memories (by W.G.)

… 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. …

I believe Wynne Godley discovered this identity while working for the British Treasury in the ’60s – at least the identity relating two sectors – domestic private sector and the government sector, but the damascene moment happened in 1974. The accounting identity is also used heavily in his 1983 book Macroeconomics, with Francis Cripps.

Charles Goodhart

Charles Goodhart also seems to be making use of the accounting identity (and a mental model built around this identity) in his recent Voxeu post Europe: After the Crisis. The difference is that in Charles Goodhart’s writing, fiscal policy is given less importance than monetary policy.

He talks of three implicit and incorrect assumptions:

  • The first, and most important, incorrect assumption was that a private-sector deficit in any country, matched by a capital inflow (current account deficit), should not be potentially destabilising.

The thinking was that the private sector must have worked out how to repay its debts before incurring them.

  • The second misguided assumption was that, in a single monetary system, local current account conditions not only cannot be calculated, but do not matter.
  • The third was that the public sector deficit of a member country is just as damaging when it is matched by a national private sector surplus, as by capital inflows.

I think each of these points is really insightful.

The first assumption is reminiscent of the economic agent in models who has a perfect foresight. The agent must have seen the future very well and would have calculated well in advance that things will go well. Consolidate all agents and we have the first assumption.

The second assumption is extremely well presented. People, especially economists asked – if the states in the United States used the same currency, why not Europe? The pitfall in this assumption is assuming away the U.S. Federal Government which makes fiscal transfers without anyone noticing.

The third assumption has to do with the lack of understanding the various causalities linking the three financial balances.Goodhart also goes into providing ideas for the design of “The fiscal counterpart to a monetary union”. One point I liked was on transfer dependency: 

For a stabilisa­tion instrument to be pure and effective, three principles are key (see Goodhart and Smith 1993 for details):

  • The instrument should be triggered following changes in economic activity but its intervention should be halted as soon as no further changes occur, irrespective of the level at which the economy has again become stable.

Otherwise, the instrument would perform not only a stabilisation function, but also play a redistribu­tive role. Such an ‘impurity’ is typical for traditional fiscal policy measures, but should be avoided in the Community context as it may perpetuate adjustment problems and induce transfer dependency.


Goodhart also makes a nice point on Japan – something (a part of it) you can see me writing in the Chartalists’ blogs’ comments section:

This analysis implies that the Eurozone needs a wholesale reorientation of the stability conditions. They must be refocused towards concern with external debt, and deficit, conditions and much less single-minded focus on the public sector finances.

If a member country is in a Japanese condition with a huge public-sector debt, but fully financed domestically, with a current-account surplus and large net external assets, then its debt should entirely be its own concern, and not subject to censure or control by any outside body, whether in a monetary union, or not. Of course, such greater attention to external, especially current-account, conditions needs to be more nuanced, since deficits, and external debts, incurred to finance tradeable goods production subsequently should provide the extra goods to sell to pay off such debts.

Japan’s public debt of 200% of GDP is quoted in rhetoric about public debt, but it is forgotten that Japan is a creditor nation and hence not always great to compare it with other nations.

Another recent article by Goodhart starts off well:

There are two main problems to be faced in any attempt to improve the architecture of international macro‐economic and financial oversight. The first is structural; the second is analytical. The first difficulty resides in the discord between having a system of national sovereignty at the same time as an international market economy, …

Martin Wolf At His Best!

The latest article from Martin Wolf, titled Creditors can huff but they need debtors is probably his best. Martin Wolf correctly identifies the problems with world imbalances:

Blessed are the creditors, for they shall inherit the earth. This is not in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet creditors believe it: if everybody were a creditor, we would have no unpaid debts and financial crises. That, creditors believe, is the way to behave. They are mistaken. Since the world cannot trade with Mars, creditors are joined at the hip to the debtors. The former must accumulate claims on the latter. This puts them in a trap of their own making.

Also, as usual, he has the best charts. You can read the rest here.