Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Single Market was Mrs Thatcher’s great achievement for the UK

Parliament should be able to vote on whether leaving the EU means destroying this legacy.

The story of how Mrs Thatcher helped in the creation of the Single Market is told by Helene Von Bismarck here. She believed it would be of great benefit to the UK, and she was right. Here is a nice chart from this CBR report I discussed in my last post.

It shows the share of UK exports as a percentage of the GDP of the area exported to, for both the EU and the rest of the world. The rapid increase in the UK export share, doubling between 1990 and the beginning of the financial crisis, has to be largely down to the Single Market. [1]

But didn’t the CBR report say that the benefits of the Single Market had been exaggerated by the Treasury? Yes it did. Here is some of its reasoning. That growth in UK export share after the Single Market is not as impressive as it looks, because there is an underlying 6% positive trend in the share, which you can detect before we joined the EU. That looks pretty on a picture, until you realise it is nonsense. A 6% trend rise in an export share will imply that at some point not too far away UK exports to the EU will be as high as total EU GDP. UK exporters are just not that much better than exporters in other countries. There is no underlying trend rise in the UK’s export share.

As I say in The Independent, the rationale for going down the route of leaving the Single Market is completely wrongheaded. First, the Brexit vote was close - hardly a ringing endorsement for undoing Thatcher’s legacy. Second, all the evidence we have is that large numbers of Leave voters are not prepared to accept a reduction in their living standards as a price for reducing immigration, a reduction which is in the process of happening right now as a result of the collapse in Sterling. If you say we have no real evidence for this, show me your evidence that the referendum vote was a vote to leave the Single Market. If May really believes it when she says that the recent strength of the economy has convinced her that the costs of Brexit will not be that great, she is a fool. Third, the logic of saying that we cannot accept Single Market rules because we would have no say in what they are makes no sense because we will be worse off not accepting them. Once again, a majority of the country does not want to ‘take back control’ if it costs them money.

I say in The Independent that this is happening because May wants to finally show that she can bring down immigration, after 6 years trying and failing. It is also because she thinks she has to do this to keep her party together. But what Brexit means should not be up to the Prime Minister, particularly one who cannot be objective about immigration and who is a hostage to the Eurosceptic half of her party. The Single Market decision should be up to parliament. Leaving the Single Market was not on the referendum ballot paper, so it is not the ‘will of the people’. It does not follow automatically from the Leave decision, as many Leave campaigners correctly assured us before the vote.

Parliament should decide on whether we leave the Single Market as part of leaving the EU, not Theresa May. That is what living in a parliamentary democracy is all about. If the government denies MPs the chance to vote for leaving the EU but against leaving the Single Market, then that is effectively a coup against our democracy. MPs should block approval of invoking Article 50 until they get the opportunity to vote, in a way that is binding on the Prime Minister, to stay in the Single Market.

[1] The chart also casts doubt on the argument that being in the EU has held back UK exports to the rest of the world. This share was falling before we entered the EU, but has stabilised while we were a member.  

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Fake Economics and the media

If there is Fake News, is there such a thing as Fake Economics? I thought about this as a result of two studies that have received considerable publicity in the press and broadcast media over the last few weeks. Both, needless to say, involve Brexit. The first are two bits of analysis by ‘Change Britain’, saying Brexit would generate 400,000 new jobs and “boost the UK by £450 million a week”. The second is a more substantial piece of work by economists at the Centre for Business Research (CBR) in Cambridge, which was both very critical of the Treasury’s own analysis of the long term costs of Brexit and came up with much smaller estimates of its own for these costs.

Defining exactly what Fake News is can be difficult, although we can point to examples which undoubtedly are fake, in the sense of reporting things to be true when it is clear they are not. Fake News often constitutes made up facts that are designed for a political purpose. You could define Fake economics in a similar way: economic analysis or research that is obviously flawed but whose purpose is to support a particular policy. (Cue left wing heterodox economists to say the whole of mainstream economics is fake economics.) We can equally talk about evidence based policy and its fake version, policy based evidence.

The study by Change Britain seems to fit into that category. In looking at the impact on jobs of potential new export markets once Brexit has happened, it counts the jobs from any extra exports but ignores the jobs lost from extra imports. It adds the extra value of exports sold to the direct budgetary saving, which is a meaningless thing to do.

The CBR analysis is less obviously fake. However Ben Chu has gathered the views of some academics who are experts in trade theory, including Richard Baldwin (who has just written a definitive and widely praised book on the ‘new globalisation’) and AlanWinters, both hugely respected with immense experience, who pour some very cold water over the study.

My key point is that both of these studies were given considerable exposure in the media, and not just in the part devoted to pro-Brexit propaganda. Here is Larry Elliott in the Guardian on the CBR study. In all the cases I’ve seen the reporting has been uncritical, with no attempt to get the opinion of experts in the field. (The Guardian in their coverage of the ‘Change Britain’ report did note that the organisation was backed by pro-Leave campaigners, but it still published the claims without any criticisms of the analysis.)

It is not difficult to understand why this happens. It is a combination of two problems: lack of journalistic resources and the concept of old news. It is the latter that means a report has to be reported on the day of publication, leaving little time to get critical reactions (particularly from academics). But these factors do mean that the non-partisan mainstream media is wide open to fake economics. (Columnists like Elliott should be able to do better, but he did support Brexit.)

This is how the public, and to be honest, journalists themselves get a distorted view of the economics of Brexit. The impression is given that, as usual, economists are divided over the issue, whereas in reality academics are pretty well united in their view that Brexit will reduce UK living standards. (And of course it already the depreciation leads to inflation and lower real wages.)

Journalist resources and culture are not going to change anytime soon. Which is why economists have to think seriously as a collective about how they can best counter fake economics. This has to involve doing something individual academics are not very good at: giving fast responses if journalists ask whether some new report is serious economics or fake economics. .

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Blanchard joins calls for Structural Econometric Models to be brought in from the cold

Mainly for economists

Ever since I started blogging I have written posts on macroeconomic methodology. One objective was to try and convince fellow macroeconomists that Structural Econometric Models (SEMs), with their ad hoc blend of theory and data fitting, were not some old fashioned dinosaur, but a perfectly viable way to do macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy. I wrote this with the experience of having built and published papers with both SEMs and DSGE models.

Olivier Blanchard’s third post on DSGE models does exactly the same thing. The only slight confusion is that he calls them ‘policy models’, but when he writes

“Models in this class should fit the main characteristics of the data, including dynamics, and allow for policy analysis and counterfactuals.”

he can only mean SEMs. [1] I prefer SEMs to policy models because SEMs describe what is in the tin: structural because they utilise lots of theory, but econometric because they try and match the data.

In a tweet, Noah Smith says he is puzzled. “What else is the point of DSGEs??” besides advising policy he asks? This post tries to help him and others see how the two classes of model can work together.

The way I would estimate a SEM today (but not necessarily the only valid way) would be to start with an elaborate DSGE model. But rather than estimate this model using Bayesian methods, I would use it as a theoretical template with which to start econometric work, either on an equation by equation basis or as a set of sub-systems. Where lag structures or cross equation restrictions were clearly rejected by the data, I would change the model to more closely match the data. If some variables had strong power in explaining others but were not in the DSGE specification, but I could think of reasons for a causal relationship (i.e. why the DSGE specification was inadequate), I would include them in the model. That would become the SEM. [2]

If that sounds terribly ad hoc to you, that is right. SEMs are an eclectic mix of theory and data. But SEMs will still be useful to academics and policymakers who want to work with a model that is reasonably close to the data. What those I call DSGE purists have to admit is that because DSGE models do not match the data in many respects, they are misspecified and therefore any policy advice from them is invalid. The fact that you can be sure they satisfy the Lucas critique is not sufficient compensation for this misspecification.

By setting the relationship between a DSGE and a SEM in the way I have, it makes it clear why both types of model will continue to be used, and how SEMs can take their theoretical lead from DSGE models. SEMs are also useful for DSGE model development because their departures from DSGEs provide a whole list of potential puzzles for DSGE theorists to investigate. Maybe one day DSGE will get so good at matching the data that we no longer need SEMs, but we are a long way from that.

Will what Blanchard and I call for happen? It already does to a large extent at the Fed: as Blanchard says what is effectively their main model is a SEM. The Bank of England uses a DSGE model, and the MPC would get more useful advice from its staff if this was replaced by a SEM. The real problem is with academics, and in particular (as Blanchard again identified in an earlier post) journal editors. Of course most academics will go on using DSGE, and I have no problem with that. But the few who do instead decide to use a SEM should not be automatically shut out from the pages of the top journals. They would be at present, and I’m not confident - even with Blanchard’s intervention - that this is going to change anytime soon.

[1] What Ray Fair, longtime builder and user of his own SEM, calls Cowles Commission models.

[2] Something like this could have happened when the Bank of England built BEQM, a model I was consultant on. Instead the Bank chose a core/periphery structure which was interesting, but ultimately too complex even for the economists at the Bank.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Miles on Haldane on Economics in Crises

Anything that says economics is in crisis always gets a lot of attention, particularly after Brexit (because economists are so pessimistic about its outcome), and Andy Haldane’s public comments were no exception. But former Monetary Policy Committee colleague David Miles has hit back, saying Haldane is wrong and economics is not in crisis. David is right, but (perhaps inevitably) he slightly overstates his case.

First an obvious point that is beyond dispute. Economics is much more than macroeconomics and finance. Look at an economics department, and you will typically find less than 20% are macroeconomists, and in some departments there can be just a single macroeconomist. Those working on labour economics, experimental economics, behavioural economics, public economics, microeconomic theory and applied microeconomics, econometric theory, industrial economics and so on would not have felt their sub-discipline was remotely challenged by the financial crisis.

David Miles is also right that economists have not found it difficult to explain the basic story of the financial crisis from the tools that they already had at their disposal. Here I will tell again a story about an ESRC seminar held at the Bank of England about whether other subjects like the physical sciences could tell economists anything useful post-crisis. It was by invitation only, Andy Haldane was there throughout, and for some reason I was there and asked to give my impressions at the end. In the background document there was a picture a bit like this.
UK Bank leverage: ratio of total assets to shareholder claims. (Source Bank of England Financial Stability Report June 2012) Added by popular request 17/1/17 [3]

I made what I hope is a correct observation. Show most economists a version of this chart just before the crisis, and they would have become very concerned. Some might have had their concern reduced by assurances and stories about how new risk management techniques made the huge increase in leverage seen in the years just before the crisis perfectly safe, but I think most would not. In particular, many macroeconomists would have said what about systemic risk?

The problem before the financial crisis was that hardly anyone looked at this data. There is one institution that surely would have looked at this like this data, and that was the Bank of England. As Peter Doyle writes:

“ .. it was not “economics” that missed the GFC, but, dare I say it (and amongst some others), the Bank of England.”

If there is a discussion of the increase in bank leverage and the consequent risks to the economy in any Inflation Reports in 2006 and 2007 I missed it. I do not think we have been given a real account of why the Bank missed what was going on: who looked at the data, who discussed it etc. I think we should know, if only for history’s sake.

What I think David Miles could have said but didn’t is that macroeconomists were at fault in taking the financial sector for granted, and therefore typically not including key finance to real interactions in their models. [1] As a result, the crisis has inspired a wave of new research that tries to make up for that, but this involves using existing ideas and applying them to macroeconomic models. There has also been new work using new techniques that has tried to look at network effects, which Andy Haldane mentions here. Whether this work could be usefully applied much more widely, as he suggests, is not yet clear, and to say that until that happens there is a crisis in economics is just silly.

The failure to forecast that consumers after the Brexit vote would reduce their savings ratio is a typical kind of forecasting error. Would they have done this anyway, and if not what about the Brexit vote and its aftermath inspired it, we will probably never know for sure. This kind of mistake happens all the time in macro forecasting, which is why comparisons to weather forecasting and Michael Fish are not really apt. [2] That is what David Miles means by saying it is a non-event.

What is hardly ever said, so I make no apologies for doing so once more, is that macroeconomic theory has in some ways ‘had a good crisis’. Basic Keynesian macroeconomic theory says you don’t worry about borrowing in a recession because interest rates will not rise, and they have not. New Keynesian theory says creating loads of new money will not lead to runaway inflation and it has not. Above all else, macroeconomic theory and most evidence said that the turn to austerity in 2010 would delay or weaken the recovery and that is exactly what happened. As Paul Krugman often says, it is quite rare for macroeconomics to be so fundamentally tested, and it passed that test. We should be talking not about a phoney crisis in economics, but why policy makers today have ignored economics, and thereby lost their citizens' the equivalent of a lot of money.

[1] In the COMPACT model I built in the early 1990s, credit conditions played an important role in consumption decisions, reflecting the work of John Muellbauer. But as I set out here, proposals to continue the model and develop further financial/real linkages were rejected by economists and the ESRC because it was not a DSGE model.

[2] Weather forecasts for the next few days are more accurate than macro forecasts, although perhaps longer term forecasts are more comparable. But more fundamentally, while the weather is a highly complex system like the economy. It is made up of physical processes that are predictable in a way human behaviour will never be. As a result, I doubt that simply having more data will have much impact on the ability to forecast the economy.

[3] Total asset are the size of the bank's balance sheet. Shareholder claims are the part of those assets that belong to shareholder, and which therefore represent a cushion that can absorb losses without the bank facing bankruptcy. So at the peak of the financial crisis, banks had over 60 times as many assets as that cushion. That makes a bank very vulnerable to loss on those assets.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Kocherlakota’s argument for fiscal expansion in the US

Is there a macroeconomic case for tax cuts in the United States right now? Paul Krugman and I say no, using the following logic. The Fed thinks we are close to full employment, if we use the term to denote the level of employment that keeps inflation constant. Generalised tax cuts (rather than just tax cuts to the very rich) will tend to raise aggregate demand, which will lead inflation to increase. The Fed will therefore raise interest raise rates further to offset this increase in demand before it happens. As a result, the tax cuts will have no impact on demand, but simply make funding investment more expense.

There are clear grounds for saying that the Fed is wrong about the economy being close to full employment, and therefore any increase in aggregate demand from any source would not raise inflation. But a central bank that acts in the textbook manner will not wait for the higher inflation to materialise, but will anticipate it because it takes time for interest rates to influence demand and inflation. As a result, tax cuts will lead to higher interest rates and there will be no net impact on demand.

Narayana Kocherlakota, who used to be on the committee that sets US interest rates, presents another possible reason why an increase in demand will not raise inflation. He argues that aggregate supply has been suppressed by low demand, and that rising demand might itself stimulate supply. For example, a lot of technical innovations might have been shelved while demand was depressed, but would be brought into production if demand looked like expanding rapidly. As these technical innovations would expand the capacity of firms to produce more, they would not raise prices as a result of any increase in demand. As these innovations would produce more from the existing labour force, there would be no inflation pressure coming from wages either.

If this sounds like wishful thinking, remember than the US economy, like most, is still way below the level of output that pre-recession trends would have suggested were likely. Did research into new and better production techniques really slow down substantially during the recession years, or did the research still take place to be implemented at some later date?

Even if this argument is plausible, and I think it is, it would still be irrelevant if the Fed didn’t make any allowance for it. They would still believe that tax cuts would raise demand and inflation, and so they would raise interest rates and crowd out any increase in demand. Indeed, if the Fed believed this ‘endogenous supply’ argument, they surely wouldn’t have raised rates in 2016.

What Kocherlakota wants the Fed to do is follow an approach put forward by Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans. He puts the case in this speech. Essentially the Fed should depart from the usual policy approach of targeting expected inflation, and wait for inflation to actually rise above target before it raises rates. This would mean that it ignored any fiscal stimulus (whether it be tax cuts or additional public investment), and focused simply on the actual inflation rate. If we were in fact below full employment, or if demand created its own supply, the fiscal expansion would raise output and welfare.

An important point that Kocherlakota makes, and I have made in the past, is that you do not need to believe with certainty that we are below full employment or that demand will create its own supply. All you have to do is give it some significant probability of being true. You then look at the costs and benefits of pursuing an Evans type monetary policy weighted by this probability. A key point here is that the costs of a short term overshoot of the 2% target are likely to be a lot smaller than the cost of missing out on a percent or two of national output for potentially some time.

Does this change my views on a prospective Trump stimulus package? Not really. There is a very strong case for more public sector investment on numerous grounds. But that investment should go to where it is most needed and where it will be of most social benefit, and I think it is very unlikely (along with I suspect most economists) that a Trump Presidency and a Republican House can deliver that. That extra public investment will give the economy the stimulus that could work with an Evans type monetary policy. From a macroeconomic viewpoint there seems no point in doubling up on stimulus through tax cuts, and in terms of how the Fed reacts it may even be counterproductive.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The French election and two-dimensional politics

Unless something very surprising happens, the French presidential election will be between Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Fran├žois Fillon, who recently won the primaries for a collection of parties (essentially the right wing republican party). Fillon’s platform was extremely neoliberal. As Renee Buhr describes here:
“His policy proposals largely indicate a small government, low taxation and free market approach to economic policy, while his campaign rhetoric takes aim at the usual ‘boogeymen’ cited by liberal politicians – government regulations, public expenditures, high taxes and public sector institutions and employees.“

This makes we worried that Le Pen will win.

If you see politics as all about a left/right axis, my concern makes no sense. Choosing someone whose economic policy is very much to the right of the centre/right parties should eat into Le Pen’s support, while those on the left will vote (reluctantly) for the lesser of the two right wing parties. However this one dimensional view is far too simplistic, and perhaps fatally so in this case.

To illustrate why, I want to briefly look at a piece by Jonathan Wheatley, which uses UK politics before the 2015 election. A sample were asked their views on 30 different policy issues. A technique was then used to find a pattern in the responses. The first interesting result was that the strongest pattern was two dimensional: there seem to be two common factors underlying these responses. To quote:
“The first is an economic dimension, drawing on issues such as the mansion tax, the bedroom tax, and privatisation of the NHS. The second is a cultural dimension, drawing on issues such as EU membership, immigration, same-sex marriage and English Votes for English Laws.”

We could say the cultural dimension was about identity, varying from communitarian to cosmopolitan views. He then looks at the political party people supported. Here is the result:

On the cultural dimension, party supporters are where you would expect. But on economic issues UKIP supporters are less rather than more right wing than Conservative party supporters.

I know of no similar analysis that looks at French voters, but this does not matter for the point I want to make. Suppose we use the same diagram to represent a political party's policy position. In that case the area occupied by UKIP in the diagram above does seem to correspond to Front National policies. Their position on the identity axis is certainly well to the south of other parties, but their position on economic issues is far from neoliberal. In choosing who to vote for, the voter will position themselves on the diagram, and look for the party that is closer to them in this two dimensional space. (Of course we cannot use the diagram to actually measure distance, as the implicit weighting between the two aspects is arbitrary, and may not correspond to that of the voter. But the conceptual argument still works.)    

From this two dimensional perspective, choosing a candidate to oppose Le Pen who is pretty right win in economic terms does nothing to capture Front National voters. But more seriously, it risks losing the support of left wing voters. While they may dislike Le Pen because of her stance on immigration and other identity issues, Le Pen is more acceptable in terms of economic policies than a very neoliberal candidate.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Tough on the causes of immigration

In Tony Blair’s recent intervention on Brexit, I kept expecting to read “we need to be tough on immigration, and tough on the causes of immigration”. For those who do not know, when he was Shadow Home Secretary in 1993, Tony Blair came up with the slogan: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It was a brilliant piece of political spin. The public had the perception that the Conservatives were tougher than Labour in dealing with crime. What Blair did with this slogan was to counterattack by suggesting that the Conservatives might be tough in the sense of locking people up, but maybe a smarter strategy would be to go for the causes rather than just the symptoms of the problem.

He didn’t say that about immigration. But I wish some of those who argue that we need to restrict immigration by more would say something like: “Rather than control immigration, we should do something about the causes of immigration”. There currently seems to be a presumption that if you decide immigration is too high, you automatically argue for some form of direct immigration controls and numerical targets to guide these controls. That does not follow. Indeed you could argue that it should not follow. Having some bureaucrat decide whether a firm should or should not be able to employ someone from overseas is likely to be arbitrary and inefficient. Having a points system to do the same risks being a blunt instrument that leads to many bad individual outcomes

You would think, in particular, that those politicians that extol the virtues of a free and flexible labour markets, and argue that we need to reduce red tape for UK business, would push this line, and argue for indirect rather than direct control of immigration..But there may be a good political reason why they do not. One of the political advantages of direct controls is that they hide the costs to firms of those controls.

Suppose, for the sake of argument (and against the evidence), that we agreed that immigration imposed some form of cost on society. The obvious solution, for an economist, would be to impose a tax on firms that employed immigrants. Indeed Theresa May floated such an idea in early 2016. But that immediately makes it clear to the public that controlling immigration has costs, and allows the business sector to lobby hard against this tax. A much milder idea of ‘naming and shaming’ firms that employed immigrants was floated at the last Conservative party conference, but was quickly dropped for similar reasons. As Brexit polls showed, many people only favour immigration controls when they think there will be no cost to them personally. Even government ministers behave in a similar way. The moment you make it clear that reducing immigration will harm business, support falls.

While this might be a concern for those who want to use immigration as a political weapon (to deflect attention from the consequence of austerity, for example), it should not be for others (in the Labour party, for example) who simply want to appease public opinion. Above all else, focusing on the causes of immigration rather than direct controls should produce a much more honest public debate.