Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Trans Pacific Partnership and the argument for Free Trade

The final agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership was reached yesterday. Now it must be approved in Congress. I had noticed before (here, here and here) the bi-partisan support for TPP (not all bipartisanship is good after all) and the limitations of the agreement itself. Will write something later this week on the specifics revealed by the agreement (no big surprise, btw).

If you need a crash course on the limitations of 'free' trade based on Ricardian or Heckscher-Ohlin-Samuelson (HOS) models see the posts below, which include also a response to Mankiw's defense of TPP and Free Trade and an older discussion of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia:

On 'free' and managed trade (Ricardian model)

The Colombia FTA: Only Corporations Win

You can also read my paper "What do undergrads need to know about trade and finance." It was a response to Krugman's "What do undergrads need to know about trade." He used to say comparative advantage and specie-flow mechanism (which means the balance of payments is self-adjusting; so his argument is about trade and finance really). I suggest that absolute advantage and unstable capital flows might matter too. Krugman seems to have wised up on this, and is not for TPP (even if his reasons are weird; if I have time I'll discuss that too).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

On the blogs

The Blanchard Touch -- Krugman on WAPO's Blanchard profile. I've written on Blanchard's 'changes' at the IMF before (and herehere and here). Probably will have more on the myth of the reformed IMF later again

Kregel on the Vulture Funds -- Multiplier Effect (the Levy blog) transcribes the interview with the Buenos Aires Herald

Is the Devil in the Details? Estimating Global Poverty -- Sanjay Reddy on the pitfalls of the World Bank's measures of poverty

Friday, October 2, 2015

Austerity, class warfare and weak labor markets

Labor market still weak. New BLS report says that: "total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 142,000 in September, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.1 percent." Also: "average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees were unchanged" and revisions meant that "employment gains in July and August combined were 59,000 less than previously reported." Not enough job creation, labor participation falling, and wages stagnant. Secretary of Labor said, correctly, that an infrastructure bill would be needed to get us out of the slow recovery. That used to be a bipartisan policy. Nobody was against fixing roads and bridges.

But the chances for expansionary fiscal policy are nil. The US has adopted, basically since 2011, a contractionary stance. This basically results from the politics of hostage taking in Congress, and while we narrowly avoided a government shutdown this week, it is very likely that the budget and the debt ceiling limit would lead to one before the end of the year. Class warfare, and attack on labor, is at the end of the day the basis for this irrational fiscal policy, as I discussed a couple years back after another shutdown was in the news.

PS: I'll be discussing some of these issues later today (4pm Eastern time) at the Rick Smith Show.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Unlimited Targets? Some pointers

By Sergio Cesaratto (Guest Blogger)

In this short note I will not add anything of substantial to the debate with Marc Lavoie on the nature of the Eurozone (EZ) crisis in view of Target 2 (T2). Readers have numerous papers to look at (including Lavoie 2015a/b, Cesaratto 2013, 2015a/b) and posts (Vernengo 2015, Ramanan, 2015). However, although most of relevance has already been said, there is perhaps still some space for few qualifications.

1. Subject of the dispute is on whether the EZ crisis can be considered a balance of payment (BoP) crisis in view of the existence of T2 and of the Eurosystem semi-authomatic refinancing mechanism, or if it should be considered a crisis derived from flawed institutional mechanisms that led, in particular, to a belated intervention by the ECB to sustain peripheral sovereign debts.

Marc believes that given the existence of T2 and refinancing mechanisms, a BoP crisis cannot occur in a monetary union:
“The point that I have tried to make on a number of occasions at conferences is that outflows are not limited by the amount of foreign reserves in the Eurozone context, in contrast to a country on a fixed or managed exchange rate regime. If a Eurozone country is running a current account deficit that banks from other Eurozone members decline to finance, or if it is subjected to capital outflows, then all that happens is that the national central bank of that country will be accumulating TARGET2 debit balances at the ECB. There is no legal limit to these debit balances. The national central bank with the debit balances, which pay interest at the target interest rate, has as a counterpart in its assets the advances that it must make to its national commercial banks at that same target interest rate. And the commercial banks can obtain central bank advances as long as they show proper collateral. Why would the size of current account deficits or TARGET2 debit balances worry speculators?” (Lavoie 2015: 158)
Marc correctly points out the difference in our views:
“Cesaratto (2015°: 151) and I agree when he concludes that “there are no definite limits to T2 imbalances”; he seems to disagree when he adds that “a political limit has been set by the imposition of harsh austerity measures on peripheral countries in order to obtain positive CA balances”. (ibid)
So the difference is that I see policy limits (perhaps political was not the right word) to T2 imbalances in the sense that policy makers cannot see them growing indefinitely, reflecting growing flow and stock foreign indebtedness and, correspondingly, mounting indebtedness of peripheral private and sovereign debts.

2. To give an example, would a central government with a sovereign central bank (CB) let one region (say Calabria) to expand its expenditure issuing regional bonds by letting its CB to guarantee an unlimited issuance? Notably this behaviour would let this region to accumulate an unlimited balance of payment deficit and foreign debt with the rest of the country and the rest of the world. At the minimum the other regions would like to imitate this (electorally) convenient behaviour. The reader can derive by herself the economic consequences of this behaviour.

If this does not complicate the life of readers, a reference to a view that cannot be suspected of fiscal timidity, that is to MMT, is useful here. Wray and Nersisyan (2010: 16) argue that although there are not “financial constraints [to sovereign debt and deficit] inherent in the fiat system”, nonetheless some arbitrary fiscal constraint, e.g. a balanced budget of the cycle, is necessary to avoid that the government “might spend ‘out of control,’ taking too large a percent of the nation’s resources”.

Would any national government let its CB to back a single region to behave this way? And should we expect the EU sustaining a single member, let alone a group of members, to behave this way? Or could we expect the U.S. printing dollars to check the Argentinian foreign debt crisis in 2001?

On a similar vein Ramanan (2015, italics added) pointed out:
“Let’s consider what happens if there is no federal government and if the ECB is the main supranational authority (ignoring other supranational institutions which have limited powers). Suppose the ECB were to guarantee the debt of governments of all Euro Area nations. There’s nothing to prevent, say, the government of Finland to increase the compensation of its employees every year by a huge percentage and thereby affecting Finnish corporations’ compensation of its employees. This will result in a reduction of competitiveness of Finnish producers and Finnish resident economic units will rely more on goods and services produced abroad. This will raise Finland’s net indebtedness to the rest of the Euro Area and the world. If someone believes that this debt is not a problem, how about the inflationary impact of this rise in demand on the rest of the Euro Area?... 
To summarize, the Euro Area problem wouldn’t have been a balance-of-payments problem had the official sector promised to act as a lender of the last resort to national Euro Area governments without any condition. As long as there are conditions, it is a balance-of-payments problem. One cannot pretend that the European Central Bank has or can be given such powers to lend without any condition. And hence the Euro Area crisis is a balance-of-payments problem.”

3. In this sense I do not agree with the ecumenical view taken by Matias Vernengo (2015) according to which:
“Cesaratto and Lavoie hypotheses are one and the same. The balance of payments and the monetary sovereignty views of the European crisis are two sides of the same coin. The fact that overdraft facilities involved in the TARGET2 system could be used to create credit to finance euro imbalances, or that the ECB could buy government bonds in the secondary market does not preclude the fact that the actual crisis is, in the absence of these policies, the result of the inability to manage a CA deficit.”
It can be noted that Matias eventually endorses the argument (that I refrain to attribute to Lavoie but that, perhaps, he might approve) that the absence of an unlimited credit by the ECB is the ultimate cause of the BoP crisis. My view is that it is unthinkable to believe in an open ended support by the ECB (or by the EU governance) of unlimited Target 2 imbalances. And this is, in my view, the ultimate cause of the imposition of austerity policies on the periphery. The ECB “whatever it takes” (threatened) intervention, finalised to alleviate the austerity costs by reassuring financial markets, was indeed subordinate to the adoption of austerity measures - so that no German court could protest, inspired by Werner Sinn, that the ECB was sustaining unlimited peripheral foreign debts.

In Lavoie’s and Paul De Grauwe (e.g. 2013)’s views austerity was functional to reassure the financial markets about the fiscal sustainability of peripheral debts given the absence of the ECB as lender of last resort (see Cesaratto 2015b for a review). Note that this view is exposed to a fiscal interpretation of the crisis (one that Lavoie and De Grauwe firmly oppose). And, indeed, the reader may wander what is the cause of the crisis, given that Lavoie and De Grauwe tend to neglect Robert Frankel’s and others’ story about the similarities of the EZ crisis with the typical financial crisis of emerging economies (see Cesaratto 2015b for a review)

The next are minor points.

4. Marc is correct when he argues that Roberto Frenkel does not reject the “unlimited Target 2 unbalances view”:
“Let me make a final point. Cesaratto (…) enlists Roberto Frenkel (2012) among the
economists who support his ‘balance-of-payments’ interpretation of the crisis. I got quite
a different impression when I read his paper. While Frenkel (2012: 13) agrees with Cesaratto that the adoption of the common currency was a mistake and that the crisis has its origin in ‘the conjunction of fixed exchange rates, full capital mobility and weak financial regulation,’Frenkel nevertheless believes that the size of TARGET2 balances is irrelevant and argues that the sovereign risk premiums observed with GIIPS countries were tied to the absence of a credible lender of last resort”
And indeed in my most recent paper (Cesaratto 2015b) I had already pointed out:
“A more nuanced position is taken by Frenkel (2014, pp. 13-14). On the one hand he regards the eurocrisis as a balance of payment crisis; on the other, he denies that there can be an “exchange rate risk” (the typical manifestation of a balance of payment crisis) in the euro zone presumably because of the combination of Target 2 and the ECB refinancing operations. The increasing sovereign default risk is then attributed to the absence of a lender of last resort. Notably, with OMT the ECB began to act as a lender of last resort but precisely to defuse what Draghi (2012) called in his most famous speech ‘convertibility risk’, that is the risk of a euro break-up.”
5. Finally, although this is less important, I’d like to point out, in Cesaratto (2015a) I was not so pretentious to claim that Lavoie (2015) was entirely devoted to discuss Cesaratto (2013). Unfortunately this is the impression that the reader may get from Lavoie’s incipit of his Reply. When I began my (2015) paper writing:
“In a general appreciation of my work on TARGET2 (T2) (Cesaratto 2013), Marc Lavoie (2015a) criticized my interpretation of the Eurozone (EZ) troubles as a balance of payments crisis”,
by ”general appreciation” I meant “positive reception” (see e.g. the Microsoft Window Word dictionary), but perhaps the way I expressed myself was ambiguous.


Cesaratto, S. 2013. “The Implications of TARGET2 in the European Balance of payments Crisis and Beyond.” European Journal of Economics and Economic Policy: Intervention 10, no. 3: 359–382. link

Cesaratto, S. 2015a. “Balance of Payments or Monetary Sovereignty?. In Search of the EMU’s Original Sin–Comments on Marc Lavoie’s The Eurozone: Similarities to and Differences from Keynes’s Plan.” International Journal of Political Economy 44, no. 2: 142–156. link

Cesaratto, S. 2015b. Alternative Interpretations of a Stateless Currency crisis, Asimmetrie, WP no.8. link

De Grauwe, P. (2013) Design Failures in the Euro zone - can they be fixed? London School of Economics, LEQS Paper No. 57/2013. Link

Frenkel, R. 2012. “What Have the Crises in Emerging Markets and the Euro Zone in Common and what Differentiates Them?”, link

Frenkel, R. (2014) What have the crises in emerging markets and the Euro Zone in common and what differentiates them? in Joseph E. Stiglitz, Daniel Heymann (eds), Life After Debt - The Origins and Resolutions of Debt Crisis, Palgrave Macmillan (quotations from the WP version link)

Lavoie, M. 2015a. “The Eurozone: Similarities to and Differences from Keynes’s Plan.” International Journal of Political Economy 44, no. 1 (Spring): 3–17. link

Lavoie, M. 2015b. “The Eurozone Crisis: A Balance-of-Payments Problem or a Crisis Due to a Flawed Monetary Design?” International Journal of Political Economy 44, no. 2: 157-160. (abstract)

Nersisyan, Y. and Wray, L.R. (2010) Does Excessive Sovereign Debt Really Hurt Growth? A Critique of This Time Is Different, by Reinhart and Rogoff, Levy Institute, WP No. 603

Ramanan (2015) Sergio Cesaratto’s Debate With Marc Lavoie on Whether the Euro Area Crisis Is a Balance-Of-Payments Crisis – II, The Case For Concerted Action

Vernengo, M. (2015) Greece on the verge, Nakedkeynesianism, June 30

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Capitalism: six part documentary by Ilan Ziv

Ilan Ziv's documentary. I appear in chapter 3 on Ricardo. But other than that, there is an impressive list of names, including Robert Boyer, Ha-Joon Chang, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, James Galbraith, David Graeber, David Harvey, Kari Polanyi Levitt, Eric Mielants, Thomas Piketty, Robert Skidelsky and Yanis Varoufakis among others. It should be good for courses on history of ideas, history and about the crisis.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Clarida on Fed policy: or how does the Fed affect inflation

Richard Clarida gave an interview (right at the beginning of the podcast) on why the Fed should increase the rate of interest. He also said that the Fed can affect inflation, which, he correctly points out, is denied by several economists. However, the degree of confusion on this subject is significant, and modern monetary theory, and its implications for central banking behavior, is, in part, responsible for that.

The conventional wisdom on what central banks can do (and one can think of Clarida's contribution with Galí and Gentler as a good summary of the dominant position) suggests that central banks can only target inflation efficiently in the absence of cost-push inflation or if they do not care about deviations from the natural rate of unemployment (or output, depending on whether the unemployment gap or the output gap is used for the central bank's policy rule). And some authors believe that inflation is in the long run really always caused by excess demand, and that the system gets back to its natural level, so that there should be no concern other than inflation.

Under these circumstances the Fed has an effect on inflation through two mechanisms.The Fed could maintain the rate of interest low even in the face of an economy close or in extremis at the natural rate, supposedly stimulating spending, and it could also affect inflationary expectations. The later is the basis for Blanchard's proposal to increase the inflation target to 4%, for example. The same solution was suggested by Krugman (my comments here).

On the first issue, besides the problem that most mainstream economists do not know what is the precise level of the natural rate of unemployment (and I'm not even going to get into the logical problems which the rate), there is the issue that the natural rate is not constant, and it might be affected by the actual level of unemployment. So as the Fed keeps the rate low, and again this would arguably lead to more spending, higher output and lower unemployment, the natural rate would fall, and inflation might not pick up.* In addition, there is the fact that lower rates might not translate into higher private spending after all. Eccles famous 'pushing on a string' story. In that case, it seems that the Fed has actually limited capacity to affect inflation.

The second point emphasis the role of expectations. The notion is that the Fed affects what agents think and has real effects through this channel. This is a variation of the inflation expectations fairy according to which higher expected inflation would lead to more investment. Here again Eccles is relevant. Eccles was very explicitly against confidence fairy type arguments (see here and here). Here the argument is that if the Fed announces its willingness to allow for higher inflation, then agents would assume that inflation would indeed be higher (economic agents don't seem to care what the mechanism by which inflation will end up being actually higher), and would spend more (holding to cash would hurt them).

So if the Fed says inflation could go up to 4%, even though oil prices are low, and wages are stagnant, economic agents ignore facts, and hold to the expectations of inflation. In this case, by spending, with the economy being at the natural level, economic agents cause the inflation that the Fed stimulated in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Again, inflation occurs because of excess spending when the economy is at the natural rate. The key to understand how (what mechanism) the Fed can (or can't) affect prices is crucially linked to that very problematic concept of the natural rate.

Don't get me wrong. I think the Fed can affect prices, but is way less effective than what the conventional wisdom suggests, and its powers are asymmetric, meaning it can reduce inflation more than it can increase it. First, hiking the rate of interest, from a cost perspective, increases financial burden of firms and that might lead to higher prices (something that was known as the Gibson Paradox, the positive relation between the interest rate and the price level; later has been also known as the Cavallo-Patman effect). But higher rates, more importantly, increase the burden of debt, leading consumers and firms to possibly default, and reduce the level of activity. It is the lower level of activity, and its impact on workers bargaining power, and, hence, the absence of wage pressures, that matters for stabilization.

On the other hand, reducing rates as noted above might have little impact on spending and the level of activity. Traditionally low rates were instrumental in making fiscal expansion easier, since the government could borrow at low rates. But in the absence of government spending, and any other additional increase in autonomous spending, lower rates per se are unlikely to lead to a booming economy, particularly one that is beyond full capacity and that would display demand-pull inflation (inflation more often than not is cost-push anyway).

* Laurence Ball now says the natural rate of unemployment is around 4.3%, for example.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Tom Palley Got Right: 10 year edition

By Tom Palley

Ten years ago (September 2005) I launched my website. To mark this anniversary, here are ten postings that I think got it right. Many of them are included in my book, The Economic Crisis: Notes From The Underground (2012).

1. Keynesianism: what it is and why it still matters (September 18, 2005). My first post. What was intellectually unfashionable back then is now in.

2. The Questionable Legacy of Alan Greenspan (October 16, 2005). Raining on the Maestro’s parade was not popular.

3. Winner’s curse: The Torment of Chairman-designate Bernanke (November 4, 2005). I suspect Mrs. Bernanke wishes Mr. Bernanke read this before accepting the job.

Read rest here.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On the blogs

Imperialism and World War I -- Branko Milanovic, which suggests the usefulness of Marxist theories of Imperialism. There is a nice book on the topic by Anthony Brewer

The workplace Panopticon, or beware of companies whose names end in yze -- A bit older post by David Ruccio on supervision and control of the labor force. Have been teaching David Gordon's Fat and Mean in the Political Economy class, and this is on topic

Economics: What went right -- Paul Krugman again on why conventional macro (New Keynesian style) has done well explaining the crisis (I did comment on this before here, and here)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Material well being and morality

Wall Street Journal's logic. They say:
"In the Americas 'thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,' the pope said. 'Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.'

The pope’s call to a common humanity is much-needed, but to our ears the most striking word in that passage is 'north.' Here is the Latin American pope acknowledging that the migrants are moving north to the United States, not the other way around. This is the same United States that practices the capitalist economics the pope has excoriated on so many other occasions. There must be something moral to free-market economics if it creates so much opportunity that attracts so many of the world’s poor."
Hmm. Interesting take. There is something material about the US economy for sure.  How they confuse material well-being with morality is another issue. Beyond the confusion between the ideology of free-market and the economic system actually in place in the US, I think it's safe to say that one can understand why immigrants move North, while at the same time believe that there are better alternatives to the US version of capitalism. There is something striking in the WSJ piece indeed, but it isn't the word north.

PS: Their editorial reminded me of Joan Robinson, who said (Economic Philosophy, p. 45) that "as we see nowadays in South-East Asia or the Caribbean [and one could add Middle East or Latin America], the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What's in an index? Heterodox and Developing Country Journals in Economics

Nope not about index numbers. About Rankings. Below a list of several heterodox and mainstream journals as ranked by the Thomson-Reuters citation index (the Web of Science-Social Science
Citation Index, SSCI) in the last citation report. As it can be seen heterodox journals have a considerably lower impact factor than mainstream journals. The leading heterodox journal in my list* (the Cambridge Journal of Economics) is comparable to a lower ranked mainstream journal (certainly not the bottom of the line, since it's above Economica, but low). Worse several important heterodox journals are not even ranked.

The index is calculated on the basis of the following formula (adapted from here):

A= total cites in 2014
B= 2014 cites to articles published in 2012-13 (this is a subset of A)
C= number of articles published in 2012-13
D= B/C = 2014 impact factor

The universe of of published articles (C) is what really matters for heterodox journals, it would seem. Heterodox journals would have less citations if the universe of articles involves all economic journals. The reverse would have almost no impact on mainstream journals. The late Fred Lee did some research on the bias of the conventional rankings, and built some alternative measures (subscription required). His proposal suggested separating the mainstream and heterodox fields as different disciplines.

While this solution would certainly resolve certain issues for heterodox journals, issues related to the bias in favor of journals from developed countries, and perhaps more specifically English speaking countries is not dealt in this approach. The case of  Revista de Economia Política (also known as the Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, REP or BJPE), which has been published for 35 years and is, perhaps, the leading Brazilian economics journal is illustrative in this context. The fact that REP is not indexed highlights the developed country, Anglo-Saxon bias in economics (probably true in other fields too).

Other problems occur for subdisciplines of economics that are not taken seriously by mainstream economics, like the history of ideas. For example, the History of Political Economy (HOPE) journal is not particularly heterodox (I would say mainstream is not an incorrect definition of its stance, even though it is open to and has published heterodox authors). But, as it can be seen in the table above, it ranks lower than many heterodox journals.

My concerns with a policy that separates the rankings, and makes heterodox economics a different field than mainstream economics, is that it increases the isolation of the heterodoxy, and creates the conditions to suggest that heterodox economics is not economics (there will be economics and heterodox economics). Note that rankings increasingly matter for decisions about hiring and retention. In my view, the important thing is to only use rankings with significant qualifications, and not as a the single or even the main tool to evaluate the quality of a journal.

* The list is, no doubt, incomplete. There is no way of searching for heterodox journals, so I used my memory and searched the ones that I thought relevant for the basis of this post. There is an obvious bias in the sample, but that would be about the same for the mainstream journals in the list.  For a more comprehensive list see Fred Lee's paper linked in the text.

PS: Full disclosure I'm on the board of REP and Investigación Económica (number 10 in the list above) and, also, I'm one of the founding co-editors of the Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE; number 6 in the list).