Monday, 28 July 2014

If minimum wages, why not maximum wages?

I was in a gathering of academics the other day, and we were discussing minimum wages. The debate moved on to increasing inequality, and the difficulty of doing anything about it. I said why not have a maximum wage? To say that the idea was greeted with incredulity would be an understatement. So you want to bring back price controls was once response. How could you possibly decide on what a maximum wage should be was another.

So why the asymmetry? Why is the idea of setting a maximum wage considered outlandish among economists?

The problem is clear enough. All the evidence, in the US and UK, points to the income of the top 1% rising much faster than the average. Although the share of income going to the top 1% in the UK fell sharply in 2010, the more up to date evidence from the US suggests this may be a temporary blip caused by the recession. The latest report from the High Pay Centre in the UK says:

“Typical annual pay for a FTSE 100 CEO has risen from around £100-£200,000 in the early 1980s to just over £1 million at the turn of the 21st century to £4.3 million in 2012. This represented a leap from around 20 times the pay of the average UK worker in the 1980s to 60 times in 1998, to 160 times in 2012 (the most recent year for which full figures are available).”

I find the attempts of some economists and journalists to divert attention away from this problem very revealing. The most common tactic is to talk about some other measure of inequality, whereas what is really extraordinary and what worries many people is the rise in incomes at the very top. The suggestion that we should not worry about national inequality because global inequality has fallen is even more bizarre

What lies behind this huge increase in inequality at the top? The problem with the argument that it just represents higher productivity of CEOs and the like is that this increase in inequality is much more noticeable in the UK and US than in other countries, yet there is no evidence that CEOs in UK and US based firms have been substantially outperforming their overseas rivals. I discussed in this post a paper by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva which set out a bargaining model, where the CEO can put more or less effort into exploiting their monopoly power within a company. According to this model, CEOs in the UK and US have since 1980 been putting more bargaining effort than their overseas counterparts. Why? According to Piketty et al, one answer may be that top tax rates fell in the 1980s in both countries, making the returns to effort much greater.

If you believe this particular story, then one solution is to put top tax rates back up again. Even if you do not buy this story, the suspicion must be that this increase in inequality represents some form of market failure. Even David Cameron agrees. The solution the UK government has tried is to give more power to the shareholders of the firm. The High Pay Centre notes that: “Thus far, shareholders have not used their new powers to vote down executive pay proposals at a single FTSE 100 company.”, although as the FT report shareholder ‘revolts’ are becoming more common. My colleague Brian Bell and John Van Reenen do note in a recent study “that firms with a large institutional investor base provide a symmetric pay-performance schedule while those with weak institutional ownership protect pay on the downside.” However they also note that “a specific group of workers that account for the majority of the gains at the top over the last decade [are] financial sector workers .. [and] .. the financial crisis and Great Recession have left bankers largely unaffected.”

So increasing shareholder power may only have a small effect on the problem. So why not consider a maximum wage? One possibility is to cap top pay as some multiple of the lowest paid, as a recent Swiss referendum proposed. That referendum was quite draconian, suggesting a multiple of 12, yet it received a large measure of popular support (35% in favour, 65% against). The Swiss did vote to ban ‘golden hellos and goodbyes’. One neat idea is to link the maximum wage to the minimum wage, which would give CEOs an incentive to argue for higher minimum wages! Note that these proposals would have no disincentive effect on the self-employed entrepreneur. 

If economists have examined these various possibilities, I have missed it. One possible reason why many economists seem to baulk at this idea is that it reminds them too much of the ‘bad old days’ of incomes policies and attempts by governments to fix ‘fair wages’. But this is an overreaction, as a maximum wage would just be the counterpart to the minimum wage. I would be interested in any other thoughts about why the idea of a maximum wage seems not to be part of economists’ Overton window

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Understanding fiscal stimulus can be easy

There seems to be a bit of confusion about fiscal stimulus. I think most people understand what is going on in undergraduate textbook models, but some seem less sure of what might be different in more modern New Keynesian models. This seems to revolve around three issues:

1) In Traditional Keynesian (TK) models any fiscal giveaway seems to work, whereas in New Keynesian (NK) analysis the type of fiscal policy seems to matter much more.

2) Is the dynamics of how policy works different in TK and NK models?

3) In TK models fiscal and monetary policy seem interchangeable, but NK models imply fiscal policy is a second best tool. Why is that?

In this post I will just cover the first two issues.

The best way to answer these questions is to ask how NK models differ from TK models, and where this matters. To keep things simple, let’s just think about a closed economy. I’ll also assume real interest rates are fixed, which switches off monetary policy. This is not quite the same as fiscal policy in a liquidity trap, because expected inflation may change, but that is a complication I want to avoid for now.

First, a difference that does not matter much for (1) and (2). The most basic NK model assumes the labour market clears, while the TK model does not. I tried to explain why that was not critical here.

The difference that really matters is consumption. In TK models consumption just depends on current post tax income, while in the most basic NK model consumption depends on expectations of discounted future income, and expectations are rational. This makes NK models dynamic, whereas in the textbook TK model we do not need to worry about what happens next.

This immediately gives us the best known difference between NK and TK: Ricardian Equivalence. A tax cut today to be financed by tax increases in the future leaves discounted labour income unchanged, and so consumption remains unchanged. However this is only a statement about tax changes. Changes in government spending have much the same impact as they do in TK models.

In particular, if we have a demand gap of X that lasts for Y years, we can fill it by raising government spending by X for Y years, and pay for it by reducing government spending in later years. A practical example of what I call a pure government spending stimulus would be bringing forward public investment. As taxes do not change, then for given real interest rates consumption need not change.

Nick Rowe sets up a slightly different problem, where there is a wedge shaped gap to fill. In that case government spending can initially rise, but then gradually fall back, filling the wedge. Same logic. Nick says that a policy that would work equally well in theory is to initially leave government spending unchanged, but then let it gradually fall, so that it ends up permanently lower. This is not nearly as paradoxical as Nick suggests. By lowering government spending in the long run, taxes will be lower in the long run. Consumers respond by raising consumption now and forever, so it is consumption that fills the gap. It works in theory, but may not in practice because consumers cannot be certain government spending will be lower forever. It is also an odd experiment that combines demand stabilisation with permanently changing the size of the state. So much simpler to do the obvious thing, and raise government spending to fill the demand gap. As fiscal stimulus in a liquidity trap does not require fine tuning, implementation lags are unlikely to be critical.  

So if we restrict ourselves to fiscal changes that just involve changing the timing of government spending, fiscal demand management in NK models works in much the same way as in TK models, which is simple and intuitive. It really is just a matter of filling the gap.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Why strong UK employment growth could be really bad news

Some of the better reporting and interviews with George Osborne yesterday did try and put the strongish 2014Q2 output growth in context. Yet the much stronger growth in UK employment continues to be greeted by many as unqualified good news - even by some who should know better. So, rather than trying to be satirical, let me attempt to be as clear as I can. Those who already understand the problem can skip the next three paragraphs.

By identity, strong employment growth relative to output growth means a reduction in labour productivity. In the short term when unemployment is above its ‘natural’ (non-inflationary) level, falling labour productivity is good news. It means that a given level of output is being produced by more people, so there are less people unemployed. This is good news because our evidence is that the costs of being unemployed are very high. Of course if more workers are producing the same amount of stuff, their real wages will fall, but that just means that the cost of a recession is being evenly spread rather than being concentrated among the unemployed.

Now lets move on until unemployment has fallen to its natural rate. It is what happens next that is crucial. If labour productivity starts increasingly rapidly, such that we make up all or nearly all of the ground lost over the last five years, that will be fantastic. Rapid productivity growth will bring rapid growth in real wages, meaning that much of the unprecedented fall in real wages we have seen in recent years is reversed. After a decade or so, UK living standards will end up somewhere around where they would have been if there had been no recession. The UK ‘productivity puzzle’ will have been a short term affair that economists can mull over at their leisure. Analysis will not look kindly on the policies that allowed output to be so low for so long, but - hysteresis effects aside - that will be history.

The alternative is that labour productivity does not make up lost ground. If this happens, the average UK citizen will be 15-20% poorer forever following the Great Recession. Living standards in the UK, which before the recession appeared to be growing at least as fast as those in other major established economies, will have fallen back substantially relative to citizens in the US and Europe. This is the alternative that most forecasters, including the OBR (see chart reproduced here), are assuming will happen. 

So the absence of labour productivity growth is good in the short term, but is potentially disastrous in the long term. The problem is that the absence of growth in labour productivity since the recession is unprecedented (see chart below): nothing like this has happened in living memory. The reason to be concerned is that the rapid growth in productivity required to catch up the ground already lost is also unprecedented for the UK, which is why most economists assume it will not happen. Which brings me to another puzzle.

As long as I can remember, UK governments have been obsessed by long term productivity growth, and its level relative to the US, France and Germany. They have put considerable effort into understanding what influences this growth, and what policies can help increase it. This was true when UK labour productivity was steadily increasing at a slightly slower rate than in other countries, or increasing at a slightly faster rate. Given this, you would imagine that the UK government would be frantic to know what was currently going on. Why has UK productivity stalled, why are we falling behind our competitors at such a fast rate?

GDP per hour worked: source OECD

Instead this government seems strangely indifferent. If they have an explanation for the absence of UK productivity growth, I have not seen it. You generally need to understand something before you know what to do about it. Instead the Prime Minister and Chancellor would seem to prefer not to talk about it, because it ‘feeds into’ the opposition’s complaints about low wages. This really is irresponsible. Is it simple arrogance? - they know what is good for the economy, even if they do not understand it. Or is it indifference? - we do not care too much about long term UK prosperity, as long as you keep voting for us. Or is it just too embarrassing to admit that the most calamitous period for UK living standards since the WWII has happened on their watch.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Synthesis!? David Beckworth's Insurance Policy

Could it be that New Keynesians and Market Monetarists can converge on a common policy proposal? I really like David Beckworth’s Insurance proposal against ‘incompetent’ monetary policy. Here it is.

1) Target the level of nominal GDP (NGDP)

2) “the Fed and Treasury sign an agreement that should a liquidity trap emerge anyhow [say due to central bank incompetence] and knock NGDP off its targeted path, they would then quickly work together to implement a helicopter drop. The Fed would provide the funding and the Treasury Department would provide the logistical support to deliver the funds to households. Once NGDP returned to its targeted path the helicopter drop would end and the Fed would implement policy using normal open market operations. If the public understood this plan, it would further stabilize NGDP expectations and make it unlikely a helicopter drop would ever be needed.”

In fact I like it so much that Jonathan Portes and I proposed something very like it in our recent paper. There we acknowledge that outside the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB), monetary policy does the stabilisation. But we also suggest that if the central bank thinks there is more than a 50% probability that they will hit the ZLB, they get together with the national fiscal council (in the US case, the CBO) to propose to the government a fiscal package that is designed to allow interest rates to rise above the ZLB.

There we did not specify what monetary policy should be, but speaking just for myself I have endorsed using the level of NGDP as an intermediate target for monetary policy, so there is no real disagreement there. A helicopter drop is a fiscal stimulus involving tax cuts plus Quantitative Easing (QE). Again we did not specify that the central bank had to undertake QE as part of its proposed package, but I think we both assumed that it would (outside the Eurozone, where for the moment we can just say it should). I think a central bank could suggest that an income tax cut might not be the most effective form of fiscal stimulus (compared to public investment, for example), but let’s not spoil the party by arguing over that.

Now this does not mean that Market Monetarists and New Keynesians suddenly agree about everything. A key difference is that for David this is an insurance against incompetence by the central bank, whereas Keynesians are as likely to view hitting the ZLB as unavoidable if the shock is big enough. However this difference is not critical, as New Keynesians are more than happy to try and improve how monetary policy works. The reason I wrote this post was not because of these differences in how we understand the world. It was because I thought New Keynesians and Market Monetarists could be much closer on policy than at least some let on. I now think this even more. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Macroeconomic innumeracy

Anthony Seldon is perhaps best known for his biographies of recent UK Prime Ministers. He had a column in the FT recently, which suggested that the Prime Minister’s team had done rather better than popular perception might suggest. Two sentences caught my attention: “Credit for sticking to the so-called Plan A on deficit reduction must be tempered by the government’s reluctance to cut more vigorously” and “Downing Street insiders can claim to have managed to steer…..the recovery of a very battered economy”.

The first sentence suggests that the government stuck to its original 2010 deficit reduction plan, but it should have cut spending by more than this plan. I disagree with the opinion in the second part of the sentence, but that is not the issue here. The problem is that the factual statement in the first part of the sentence is very hard to justify. The numbers suggest otherwise, as Steven Toft sets out here. The second sentence also indicates no acquaintance with the numbers. As the well known (I thought) NIESR chart shows, this has been the slowest UK recovery this century - including those in the 1920s and 1930s. The financial crisis certainly battered the UK, but it also hit the US pretty hard too! Yet average growth 2011-13 in the US was 2.2%, in the UK 1%. The idea that macroeconomic mismanagement left the UK economy in a peculiar mess before the financial crisis is a politically generated myth which is also divorced from the data, as I have argued on a number of occasions.

In one sense it is unfair to single Anthony Seldon out in this respect, because I hear similar mistakes all the time from UK political commentators who profess to be, and may honestly believe they are, objective when it comes to macroeconomic reporting. I suspect the problem is threefold. First, the common feature of these mistakes is that they are repeated endlessly by the government and its supporters. Second, there is group self-affirmation - what Krugman calls ‘Very Serious People’ talk to each other more often than they talk to people acquainted with the data. Third, when some of this group do look for economic expertise, they often talk to ‘experts’ in the City or read the Financial Times. Unfortunately, both sources can and do have their own agendas.

Yet in another sense it is not unfair, because Seldon is a historian, and historians stress the importance of accessing primary sources. The main positive point I want to make is that political commentators need to check the data if they want to avoid making macroeconomic statements that are factually incorrect.      

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Is economics jargon distortionary?

Employees are already beset by red tape if they try to improve their working conditions. Now the UK government wants to increase the regulatory burden on them further, by proposing that employee organisations need a majority of all their members to vote for strike action before a strike becomes legal, even though those voting against strike action can still free ride on their colleagues by going to work during any strike and benefiting from any improvement in conditions obtained. Shouldn’t we instead be going back to a free market where employees are able to collectively withhold their labour as they wish?

I doubt if you have ever read a paragraph that applies language in this way. Yet why should laws that apply to employers be regarded as a regulatory burden, but laws that apply to employees are not? Labour markets, alongside financial markets, are areas where the concept of a ‘free’ market uncluttered by regulations is a myth. Here, as elsewhere, language has been distorted to suit a neoliberal agenda.

Is this also true with terminology used in academic economics? That is the argument put forward by Charles Manski in this Vox piece in the context of economists’ discussion of taxation and lump-sum taxes. He writes:

“Students of economics learn that the formal usage of the concepts 'inefficiency', 'deadweight loss', and 'distortion' in normative public finance refer to a theoretical setting where a private economy is in competitive equilibrium and a government can use lump-sum taxes to modify the endowments of individuals. In this setting, classical theorems of welfare economics show that any Pareto efficient social outcome can be achieved by having the government use lump-sum taxes to redistribute endowments and otherwise not intervene in the economy. Income taxes and other commonly used taxes logically cannot yield better social outcomes than optimal lump sum taxes but they may do worse. Deadweight loss measures the degree to which they do worse.”

The big problem with this terminology and associated research agenda, he argues, is that it presumes lump sum taxes are a feasible option, whereas in reality they are not.

“The research aims to measure the social cost of the income tax relative to the utterly implausible alternative of a lump-sum tax. It focuses attention entirely on the social cost of financing government spending, with no regard to the potential social benefits.”

Indeed, lump sum taxes (a.k.a. a poll tax) are not a feasible option precisely because they achieve non-distortion at the cost of being unfair, and in the real world taxation is as much about fairness as allocative efficiency.

The counterargument is that the idea of a lump sum tax is just a useful analytical device, which allows research to focus on the taxation side of the balance sheet, without having to worry about what taxes are spent on. It would be equally possible to look at the benefits of different types of government spending, all of which were financed by a lump sum tax. Equally the competitive equilibrium against which real world taxes are distortionary is an imaginary but analytically useful reference point - everyone knows the real world is not like this competitive equilibrium.

It is not our fault, the counter argument would go, that non-academics abuse these analytical devices. No serious economist would talk about the costs and benefits of a policy to cut a particular tax in isolation, when that cut has been financed using a lump sum tax. Governments that do that have clear ulterior motives. Equally no serious economist would talk about the benefits of reducing a tax designed in part as Pigouvian (i.e. a tax designed to offset some market externality), within the context of a model that ignores that externality. (For a recent example where the UK Treasury published a study that managed to do both of these things, see here.)

I think the key here is to clearly differentiate analysis from policy advice. I have used lump sum taxes in my research, and I often talk about taxes being distortionary. I think both general and partial equilibrium analysis is useful, and devices that allow abstraction are invaluable in economics. (I have less sympathy for the concept of Pareto optimality, for reasons discussed here. See also the excellent series of discussions by Steve Randy Waldman.) However these devices can often allow those with an agenda (including the occasional economist) to mislead, which is why economists need to be very careful when presenting their analysis to policy makers, and why they also need to have the means to alert the public when this kind of deception happens. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Fiscal deceit

Vince Cable, the LibDem minister whose remit includes UK student finance, is apparently having cold feet about the plan to privatise the student loan book. Which is good news, because if ever there was an example of a policy designed to lose money for the public sector (or, as they say in the media, cost the taxpayer more), it was this.

As I explained in this post, if a public asset that generates income is privatised, the public gains the sale value, but loses a stream of future income. The ‘debt burden’ need not be reduced, because although future taxes will fall because there is less debt to pay interest on, they will rise because the government has also lost a future income stream.

With assets like the Royal Mail, we can debate endlessly whether the asset will become more or less efficient under private ownership. If it is more efficient, and therefore profitable, under private ownership, the private sector might be prepared to pay more for it, and so the public sector (and society) is better off selling it – unless of course the government sells it at below its market price! However in the case of the student loan book, it is pretty clear that privatisation is a bad deal for the public sector for two reasons.

First, as Martin Wolf has pointed out, the revenues from student loan repayments are very long term, and pretty uncertain. Any private sector firm that might buy this book is likely to discount these revenues quite highly, and so will not be prepared to pay the government enough to compensate the government for the lost revenue. Second, as Alasdair Smith points out, the main efficiency issue is collecting the loan repayments. Here the government has clear advantages over the private sector, because loan repayments are linked to income, and the government has all the information on people’s income, and an existing system for collecting money based on income.

So selling the student loan book is an almost certain way of increasing the ‘debt burden’ on current and future generations. As Alasdair Smith reports, George Osborne justified the sale by saying that it helped the government with a ‘cash flow issue’. As Alasdair rightly says, the government does not have cash flow issues. This kind of ludicrous policy either comes from ideological fundamentalism (the government shouldn’t own assets) or the need to meet ridiculously tough deficit targets. Whichever it is, every UK citizen loses money as a result.

George Osborne is hardly the first finance minister to play tricks like this, so how do we stop future governments from doing the same? I’m glad to see more journalists, like Chris Cook, making the points I make here. However it would be better still if an independent body, set up by the government to calculate its future fiscal position, was charged with a statutory duty to make these points. At present the OBR does not have that duty, and it feels naturally reluctant to go beyond its remit and pick fights with the government. However, if it became more of a public watchdog, with a remit to flag government proposals that appeared to lose money for the public sector in the long term, that might just stop future governments doing this kind of thing.