Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Fiscal council developments

As longstanding followers of this blog will know, I have a particular interest in what are called either ‘fiscal councils’ or ‘independent fiscal institutions’. As I have been and will be preoccupied with other issues for a while, I thought I would try and squeeze in one post on recent developments both in the UK and abroad.

In the UK we had Dave Ramsden’s Treasury review (pdf) of the OBR. The most positive aspect of the review is the recommendation for more resources. I guess the headline news was that the OBR would not be asked to cost opposition policies before elections, as the Dutch fiscal council has done for some time, and as the Australian PBO now does. I would have liked a different decision, but my disappointment is mitigated by three factors:

  • the report does recommend the “OBR should ensure greater availability of tools and data to allow third parties to cost alternative policy options”.
  • in the UK we have the IFS, which does do this and currently (and rightly) has a quasi-official status
  • the level of the fiscal debate in the UK media is currently so poor that I’m not sure how much such a development would improve things.

This last point raises something of a paradox. People like me hoped that fiscal councils like the OBR would improve the public debate. This paradox reflects in part the particular nature of the OBR, which would not be allowed to say - for example - that the fiscal charter is economically illiterate (i.e. no economist agrees with it). Fiscal councils in some other countries can do that, and indeed were set up to do that. This is a gap the IFS cannot fill. I guess the OBR will not be allowed to comment on the economics of different fiscal rules until the UK gets a more sensible rule. I think it is quite likely that if the OBR was able to say such things, we would not have had this particular fiscal charter and we would all be better off as a result.

With the rapid growth in the number of fiscal councils around the world, the case for some kind of international network has become much stronger. It is therefore good news is that one is about to be established for those in the EU. There are at least two important roles such a network can have, apart from the obvious one of spreading best practice.

First, it can help establish and maintain independence for individual fiscal councils, which may be put under various kinds of pressure by their national governments. Sometimes this pressure is just verbal, and often indicates that the council is doing its job. I have just come back from Ireland, where the Irish fiscal council criticised a pre-election giveaway by the government. Its chairman John McHale also suggested that it might break the Commission’s fiscal rules. The government then revealed that it had obtained agreement from Brussels, but had not told the fiscal council. It managed to spin this as an error made by the council, which journalists dutifully parrotted. Substantive criticism was thereby deflected. That kind of thing from governments is only to be expected. It becomes more serious when governments react to criticism in financial or even existential terms, as has happened in Canada and Hungary. In those cases, the council needs all the defence it can get.       

Second, a network can act as an important pressure group on the Commission. The Commission itself has recently established an Advisory Fiscal Board, which if nothing else can increase the dialogue between the fiscal councils and the Commission. I talked about the dual system of fiscal monitoring within Europe here, and how I hope we will see a gradual reduction in central control and more discretion given to national governments monitored by strong national fiscal councils. If Daniel Gros is right and German hegemony is coming to an end, then maybe it might just happen - one day.     

 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Is sterling overvalued?

One of the reasons that steel plants have been closing in the UK rather than Germany or France, and that UK manufacturing output has fallen for the last two quarters, is the strength of sterling and the weakness of the Euro. The weakness of the euro relative to the dollar could be explained (at least qualitatively) by interest rate expectations: whenever interest rates do rise in the US, they will surely rise well before they do in the Eurozone. When domestic interest rates are expected to rise relative to overseas rates, a currency should appreciate.

The same logic could be applied to sterling. Indeed some still believe interest rates could rise in the UK before they rise in the US. If the UK looks like the US, you would expect on these grounds for the pound relative to the dollar to be roughly stable, but sterling to follow the dollar in appreciating against the Euro. To a first approximation that is what has happened.

The only problem comes if you look at the UK’s external performance. The current account deficit as a percentage of GDP has wobbled around 2% for most of this century, but in the last few years it has increased sharply, coming in at over 5% of GDP in 2014. All these deficits are taking their toll on the UK’s net financial position: twenty years ago we owned about as many overseas assets as there were UK assets owned overseas, but we are now a net debtor by an amount that will just get larger if we continue to run large current account deficits. (For more on this, see Felix Martin in the FT.)

When I calculated an equilibrium sterling euro rate in 2003, my estimate was 1.365 E/£. As current rates are close to that, and given the point about expected interest rates, what is the problem? Unfortunately there are three. First, that calculation was based on an assumption that the sustainable UK current account was balance. In other words, if the rate had stayed at 1.365 E/£, then over time and on average the current account should have been in balance. Instead we have had persistent deficits. In the early 2000s that might have been partly explicable because sterling was a little stronger than my estimate, but since the beginning of 2008 quite the reverse has been true, but we have still run deficits. That either suggests my estimate was wrong (the equilibrium E/£ rate should have been lower), or the equilibrium rate has depreciated since 2003.

Second, persistent current account deficits that weaken our net foreign asset position will in any case imply a gradual depreciation in the equilibrium exchange rate. The worse our net asset position gets, the greater the trade surplus we need to pay interest on that net debt. Third, and perhaps more speculatively, if the recent stagnation in productivity also represents a stagnation in innovation in the variety and quality of goods produced in the UK, that will also mean a depreciation in the equilibrium exchange rate.


All this suggests to me that sterling may currently be overvalued. How can I say this when there are a huge number of people in that market trying to make money from getting the ‘right’ rate? Quite simply from experience. The market is totally focused on very short term movements, and pays very little attention to estimates of equilibrium rates. When I did my equilibrium rate calculation in 2002, the actual rate was wandering around 1.6 E/£, and there was no clear reason why it should be so much higher than the equilibrium rate. So, even allowing for expectations about interest rates, it would be quite possible for sterling to be currently overvalued.          

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The accidental tax credit cuts?

This is a sort of companion piece to my earlier post about the centre-left in UK politics

I complain a lot about the UK media and its coverage of economic issues, so I should in fairness note the occasions when it does its job well. Here is Newsnight last night - look around 18 minutes in. The House of Lords have just voted to delay Osborne’s cuts to tax credits. We have a discussion chaired by Evan Davis between the Labour peer who helped achieve that vote, and two Conservative politicians: Jacob Rees-Mogg from the right of the party and Tim Montgomerie from the left.

The first good point is when Rees-Mogg trots out the standard government line that although these cuts to tax credits will hurt the working poor (a lot), taken as a package with the increase in the minimum wage and changes to tax thresholds they will not. Everyone, including Evan Davis (who once worked at the IFS), turns on him to tell him he is wrong. That is good journalism: when a government tells lies they should be called out. Rees-Mogg’s response about being naive in trusting his Chancellor is a delight.

In contrast Montgomerie acknowledges what the cuts do and how contrary they are to the government’s rhetoric about helping people into work and reducing poverty. The second, and even better point, is when at the end Davis asks Montgomerie where on earth he thought the pre-election welfare savings the Conservatives proposed were going to come from if it was not cuts to tax credits. It was an excellent question, and the response was I suspect quite honest (as Montgomerie tends to be). The Conservatives never expected to win the election. Instead their manifesto was an initial bargaining position, and things like cuts in tax credits were expected to be traded away in coalition negotiations.

This tells you how weak the centre-right is within the Conservative party right now. If the Chancellor and the majority of Conservative MPs thought the same way as Montgomerie, then their response to their election victory would not be to carry out the elements in the manifesto they expected to bargain away. It would be so easy for the Chancellor after the election to find some pretext not to cut tax credits. Instead Osborne went ahead, hoping that his control of so much of the media (and what the Treasury publishes) would mean that he could get away with the gulf between what he claims and what he actually does.

The weakness of the centre-right in UK politics has been masked for a long time by Cameron’s pre-2010 spin, a few progressive social policies and the restraining hand of the Liberal Democrats within the coalition. As I wrote in that earlier post, I strongly suspect a strong political centre (left or right) is vital for good governance, and that both the UK and Europe is suffering from its absence.The big question people like Montgomerie have to address is why, over the next five years, they will not suffer the same fate as the centre-right within the Republican party in the US.



Monday, 26 October 2015

Keynes never left Canada, and intends to stay

Nick Rowe has a post where he points out that the outgoing Conservatives did not abandon Keynes during the Great Recession. He takes a graph of government spending from an article by Matthew Klein, but we can make the same point be looking at the underlying primary balance. (As I have noted many times, no measure of fiscal stance is ideal. If you want a more detailed analysis of the Canadian macro position than I will give here, read the Klein article.) According to the OECD, this moved from a surplus of 2% of GDP in 2006 to a deficit of 3.2% of GDP in 2010. We saw a similar countercyclical swing in fiscal policy in the US, but whereas that swing was sharply put into reverse in the US, in Canada the deficit was still 1.8% in 2013. (The UK was like the US except the peak deficit was in 2009, and the reverse was well under way by 2010.)

So we saw a classic Keynesian fiscal policy in Canada. Partly as a result, Canadian GDP only fell by 2.7% in 2009 and grew strongly in the next two years. That in turn meant that short interest rates only stayed on their floor for just over a year, and rose to 1% during 2010. So it all looks like a textbook New Keynesian policy, and close to the one recommended in Portes and Wren-Lewis: fiscal expansion helped get interest rates above their lower bound.

That was then. More recently GDP has been falling, and interest rates have been cut to 0.5%. So is it time for a tight fiscal policy, or instead some additional deficit financed public investment? Ask the man on the escalator, the new Canadian Prime Minister. In the election Trudeau played a classic Keynesian card (Labour leadership please note). Both his two opponents criticised this deviation from a balanced budget policy. Trudeau won, so Keynes remains in Canada. While interest rates may not have yet hit their lower bound, it makes sense to borrow to invest when rates are low and when there is a significant risk rates could hit ‘zero’ (Osborne please note).

Unlike governments in Europe and the US, Canada did not dash for austerity just as the recovery was beginning and while interest rates were still on their floor. They had a clear choice a week ago to allow a deficit to finance investment or go for a balanced budget, and they chose the more sensible fiscal policy. I think there are two lessons beyond Canada. First, right wing governments do not have to make major macroeconomic policy mistakes with fiscal policy. Second, voters do not always suffer from deficit fetishism.


Saturday, 24 October 2015

What are ABC to do?

This is quite a long piece about politics, that I suspect no one will like. I have said before that I depart from my comfort zone of macroeconomics when I think an important point is being missed from the public debate. In this case the second sentence may follow from the first.

What should the strategy be for the great majority of Labour MPs who did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn (ABC=anyone but Corbyn)? They can continue to expound their misery to receptive political journalists. They can continue to stand aghast at the dislike that some now in power hold for their predecessors. But for a group that has lost two crucial elections within the space of a few months, they really need a more positive focus.

Tony Payne, director of SPERI at Sheffield University, has a suggestion which I think has a great deal of merit. They should “come to terms fully, properly and honestly with Labour’s record in government under Blair and Brown between 1997 and 2010”. This is not in some kind of masochistic, ‘what we got wrong’ kind of exercise, but rather to recognise what that Labour government got right. I was part of a group of academics that looked at economic policy under Labour, and the sense I got was that there were an awful lot of positives to note. But in looking at the negatives, one point that should be recognised is that these (e.g. Iraq, not enough banking regulation, perhaps not enough local support for inward migration) did not come from any tendency to be too populist. Instead rather the opposite.

I’ll come back to that in a second, but actually I decided to write this in response to another post by Tony Payne, which could perhaps be described as a lament for the centre-left. You can get the flavour from this passage:
“what underpins and ultimately characterises centrist politics (whether in its left or right variant) is a rejection of what I see as the easy moral simplicities of populist politics in favour of the complex, awkward and often unsatisfying and unsatisfactory world of governing, of trying to find the best way through the most difficult problems, even if that involves compromise. The latter is of course the dirtiest of words in the lexicon of the populist left (and right).”

I think that speaks to where a lot of the ABCs are right now. They say we tried to be sensible in the face of difficult problems, but we were outflanked on both sides by the moral simplicities of populist politics. I suspect (and to be fair Tony Payne does not make this link) it also passes as some sort of explanation as to why ABC lost two elections. They were the realists who lost out to the idealists and populists. As an explanation I think it is completely inadequate, and to be frank comes close to denial.

Let me take my own subject as an example, partly because austerity is also central to much else. In the end what quite a few of the ABCs wanted to do was to junk the complex and perhaps awkward truths of how to run a sensible fiscal policy in favour of the populist politics of talking about the nation’s credit card. Osborne’s fiscal charter is not supported by a single economist I know, but many of the ABC’s have advocated supporting it. In this case what those ABCs have been doing is adopting - or at least flirting with - populist politics, but the popular politics of the right rather than the left.

That in turns comes from what seems to be the dominant mantra of the ABCs, which is that only they are serious about trying to win elections. That is why, we are told, they have to adopt the populist policies of the other side, because only that way can they win. Notice first how different this is from the noble Weberian concept of the centre that Tony Payne puts forward. Notice second that these populist policies seem to come from the right rather than the left: whenever there is a populist policy from the left (like renationalising rail), then it becomes time to cast aside populism and be ‘sensible’.

I have struggled to understand what is going on here. But the thought that I keep coming back to is regulatory capture. This is the idea that the regulators of an industry become captured by the industry itself: by its objectives, values and methods. In some cases the reason for capture is straightforward (revolving doors), but in some cases it reflects the fact that regulators cannot match their industry in terms of knowledge and analysis. My idea is that in this case instead of an industry you have a Westminster discourse which, under the coalition, was dominated by the thinking of the centre-right. Most Labour MPs simply didn’t have the time or resources to find alternatives to this, and gradually became hostage to this discourse. As Paul Krugman might say, after a time all they hear are the views of Very Serious People.

Part of this Westminster discourse involves the tactic of exclusion for individuals and ideas that are deemed to be outlandish. (Outside the Overton window, if you like.) I have experienced that on a personal level recently: imagine a biologist being told that they would be ‘branded’ if they gave technical advice to a major political party!? Rather more important it leads some politicians on the centre left with strong skills and expertise reluctant to sit at the same table as those in their own party with more radical views, even when those holding more radical views have every incentive to seek compromise. You have to ask who benefits from this.

It is often said in politics that voters vote for and against incumbents, not oppositions. I doubt very much if Labour party members voted for Corbyn because they had suddenly become converted wholesale to a Bennite type platform. Instead they voted against what the parliamentary party had become. I think recognising their responsibility for their own failure is the first step to recovery. I said that the ABCs would do well to follow Tony Payne’s advice and focus on what the Labour government did right. One of those things was the regime of tax credits, which cut poverty and made it easier for people to work. They might then reflect on the reasoning, forces and processes that led so many of them this July to abstain on the bill that cut those credits.

The centre left needs to retrace its steps as a first stage to recovery, and learn from the many things it got right when in government. In the UK and elsewhere in Europe it is important this happens sooner rather than later. Hopefully in doing this it will rediscover positive virtues and ideals that go beyond simply a negation of populism. I strongly suspect a strong political centre (left or right) is vital for good governance, and that both the UK and Europe is suffering from its absence.   

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The last 7 years are an argument against inflation targeting

The big controversy since the Great Recession began has been about fiscal policy: government spending, taxes and the budget deficit. In contrast monetary policy has not hit the headlines so much. This is understandable: while fiscal policy has oscillated from fiscal stimulus in 2009 to fiscal austerity in 2010, once the recession became clear (to some earlier than others) monetary policy in the UK, US and Japan appears to have been unambiguously expansionary, with interest rates staying at historical lows. The ECB is the exception, raising rates just before a second Eurozone recession.

Look a little closer however and we find something rather more worrying. Most people who base their view on economics rather than politics would regard the recovery from the Great Recession as disappointing. We have got particularly good reasons to be disappointed in the UK, but many economists think the US and Japan could also have done better at reducing unemployment more rapidly. More worrying still, the recession and the slow recovery may have caused permanent damage. (See Antonio Fatás here on his work with Larry Summers.) In the UK in particular we appear to have permanently lost a massive 15% of income during the recession. That kind of loss over a 7 year period is totally unprecedented in peacetime.

There are well known mechanisms by which short term output losses could lead to a permanent reduction in output capacity, known collectively by economists as hysteresis mechanisms. They include deskilling of the unemployed, less capital and less capital embodied technical progress. Just how permanent they are varies by type, but they all involve real costs in terms of lost output. One that worries me a lot is how expectations about trend output get downgraded, which can become self-fulfilling for quite some time.

The people whose job it is to make sure recessions are short-lived and these kinds of mechanisms do not take hold are in central banks. Yet if you ask monetary policy makers what they think about the last 7 years, they will not hang their heads in shame. They will not say it has been a disaster, but what more could we do? They will not say that, with interest rates near zero, they were powerless to do much, because unconventional policies like Quantitative Easing were poor instruments and government fiscal policy was moving in the wrong direction. Instead they will probably say that overall the last 7 years have not been too bad. This very different view seems both odd and worrying.

The reason however is straightforward. Monetary policy makers either regard their primary target as inflation, or are explicitly told that inflation should be their primary target. While below target now, inflation was above target in 2011 and 2012, so on balance maybe the record is not too bad. So looking at what they were asked to do, monetary policy makers feel little remorse.

In the UK we can put this in a rather startling way. Imagine someone in 2011 discovered a magical new policy instrument that was guaranteed to stimulate the economy, and gifted it to the Bank of England. In all probability they would not have used it. For four months in 2011 three members of the MPC voted to raise rates. We were just two MPC members away from following the ECB’s disastrous course. Just because we avoided that calamity by a whisker does not mean we should pretend it didn’t happen.

This all comes down to what economists have called the divine coincidence. This is the idea that you do not need to target both output and inflation. Ensuring that inflation is on target in a considered way (by for example looking at inflation two years ahead) will stabilise output as well. While the US central bank has a dual mandate (essentially both inflation and output), central banks that were made independent later (like the Bank of England) have inflation as their primary target. One of the main reasons for this was a growing belief before the Great Recession that the divine coincidence would hold. Target forecast inflation and output will look after itself.

The idea of the divine coincidence has not had a good recession! As I explained in one of my better posts, if the divine coincidence worked a central bank in a parallel universe that targeted the output gap rather than inflation should feel exactly the same way about the last 7 years as our inflation targeters. Yet as I explained there and above they would instead feel ashamed and frustrated. We know there are good empirical reasons why the divine coincidence might break down when inflation is low: resistance to nominal wage cuts will mean that monetary policy makers targeting inflation in a recession will overreact to positive inflation shocks like oil price increases and underreact to below target inflation. Add hysteresis, and you can get lasting damage.

So one lesson of the last 7 years must be that relying on the divine coincidence is a mistake. A primary goal of the central bank is to end recessions quickly, and giving it a single primary target of inflation can detract from that. One obvious improvement is to give the central bank a dual mandate, although the best way to specify that is not clear. Another possibility is to combine output and inflation into a single target, and yet another is to raise the inflation target to a level where the divine coincidence might still hold. Luckily for me I have thought quite a bit about these questions already, but in the next few months I may need to come off any fences that remain.



Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Central bankers and their irrational fear

Mervyn King said

“Central banks are often accused of being obsessed with inflation. This is untrue. If they are obsessed with anything, it is with fiscal policy.”

As an academic turned central banker, King knew of what he spoke. The fear is sometimes called fiscal dominance: that they will be forced to monetise government debt in such a way that means inflation rises out of control.

I believe this fear is a key factor behind central banks’ reluctance to think seriously about helicopter money. Creating money is no longer a taboo: with Quantitative Easing huge amounts of money have been created. But this money has bought financial assets, which can subsequently be sold to mop up the money that has been created. Under helicopter money the central bank creates money to give it away. If that money needs to be mopped up after a recession is over in order to control inflation, the central bank might run out of assets to do so. A good name for this is ‘policy insolvency’. [1]

There is a simple way to deal with this problem. [2] The government commits to always providing the central bank with the assets they need to control inflation. If, after some doses of helicopter money, the central bank needs and gets refinanced in this way, then helicopter money becomes like a form of bond financed fiscal stimulus, but where the bond finance is delayed. In my view that delay may be crucial in overcoming the deficit fetishism that has proved so politically successful over the last five years, as well as giving central banks a much more effective unconventional monetary instrument than QE. [3] But central banks do not want to go there, partly because they worry about the possibility of a government that would renege on that commitment.

The fear is irrational for two reasons. First, central banks already face the possibility that they may make sufficient losses on QE that they may require refinancing by the government. The Bank of England has requested and been given a commitment to cover those losses. There is no conceptual difference between this and underwriting a helicopter drop except probabilities.

The second reason is more basic. In today’s world, where in the major economies it is now well understood that interest rates need to rise in a boom to control inflation, it is hard to imagine a government that would make its central bank impotent by refusing to provide it with assets. If such a government ever existed, it would have long before ended central bank independence because it wanted to stop it increasing interest rates with the assets it already had. Under the government of central bank nightmares, the central bank would lose its independence before it could complain that the government was reneging on an earlier commitment to underwrite helicopter money.

The fear of fiscal dominance is itself not irrational, although it seems increasingly unlikely it would happen in a modern democracy. What is irrational is thinking that allowing helicopter money in a recession would make fiscal dominance more likely to happen. [4]

I have also argued that this irrational fear has already been costly. I have described how the widespread adoption of austerity at the beginning of the recovery represents the failure to politicians to follow basic macro. Here central banks become a policy intermediary between academia and politicians: they have the knowledge of how costly austerity can be when rates are zero. But what politicians heard from senior central bankers was not these costs, but encouragement to pursue austerity. An irrational fear of budget deficits may be one explanation for central banks being economical with the truth.

Central banks overcame one big psychological barrier when they undertook Quantitative Easing. That was the first, and perhaps the more important, stage in ending their primitive fear of fiscal dominance. They now need to complete the process, so we can start having rational discussions about alternatives to QE.

[1] A central bank cannot actually become insolvent, as this post explains.

[2] No one to my knowledge has ever proposed giving the central bank the legal power to collect a poll tax.

[3] A key feature of deficit fetishism is a concern about deficits in the short term. Politicians seem happy to take measures that cut deficits in the short term even if debt becomes higher in the longer term. Indeed the analysis presented by DeLong and Summers argues that hysteresis forces would not have to be that large before austerity would raise long run debt to GDP levels. We also know that deficit fetishism is specific to increases in debt caused by recessions: over the longer run if anything deficit bias implies rising rather than falling levels of government debt. So any form of fiscal stimulus that avoided an increase in debt in the short run but not in the long run would avoid deficit fetishism. That is what a money financed fiscal stimulus aka helicopter money aka People’s QE could do.

[4] Why am I confident that a government could not be so obsessed with its debt that it might renege on an underwriting pledge? It is because deficit fetishism is only politically attractive in a recession when individuals are themselves cutting back on their borrowing, and therefore feel the government should do the same. This will not apply when the recovery has taken place and inflation is in danger of exceeding its target.






Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Linking tax credits and the fiscal charter

I have made fun in the past about Labour politicians and supporters who in public trip up once the word borrowing is mentioned. An interviewer only has to ask ‘but if Labour reverses this cut it will mean more borrowing’ and the interviewee stumbles around in a way that shouts to anyone watching that Labour have a vulnerability here.

It is a vulnerability that helped lead to the disastrous decision under the interim leadership not to oppose Osborne’s cuts in tax credits, and to McDonnell’s embarrassing initial decision (now reversed) to support the charter. But now that Labour has sorted itself out on both issues, it needs to stop avoiding the borrowing question. Take this otherwise assured performance by Owen Smith on Newsnight last night (27 minutes in, HT Owen Jones).

Here is what Owen Smith should have said when asked whether reversing the cuts to tax credits would lead to more borrowing.
“The Chancellor has said he needs to cut tax credits to meet his new fiscal charter. Labour oppose this charter, because it makes no economic sense. Osborne cannot find a single economist who supports his plan. Imposing a work penalty to pay borrowing off more quickly is just counterproductive, because discouraging people from working makes the economy weaker. This was supposed to be a government that encouraged work, yet here is the Chancellor doing the opposite in order to meet a charter that only his MPs support.”

If the interviewer persists with “so you will borrow more”, say
“Labour would not need to cut tax credits because we would balance current income and spending, leaving room for the country to invest. Labour would borrow to invest, whereas Osborne is paying for the little public investment he is doing by cutting tax credits. What matters is government debt in relation to GDP, and our policy would mean that debt relative to GDP would fall under Labour.”

I am sure those skilled in spin could sharpen this, but you get the idea. The days when deficit fetishism gripped voters are coming to an end. Labour needs to change its rhetoric to reflect this, and paint Osborne into the ideological corner he occupies.  

Monday, 19 October 2015

Employment and category errors

When talking about the Great Recession in the UK, we all know (I hope) that this is still the slowest recovery for at least a century and that we have only just regained pre-recession levels of output per head. I find it very frustrating when some people respond by saying the story is quite different when it comes to employment. The frustration is because the remark reflects a confusion which is not trivial to explain to non-economists, coupled with uncertainty about whether this is a real confusion or just political banter.

I was inspired to write about this again by a very good piece by Larry Elliott in the Guardian. He puts it well by talking about how we coped with recession, but I thought I could try and summarise the point slightly differently. In a recession, looking at output is all about the size of the cake. Looking at employment is about how that cake is distributed.

The recession of the early 1980s involved a smaller decline in output, but a bigger and much more persistent increase in unemployment. In contrast the really distinctive feature of this recession has been the decline in real wages. These differences are almost surely linked: unemployment increases were smaller this time, and unemployment then fell rapidly, because real wages declined. Low wages encouraged firms to first fire fewer workers, and later to take on more. There remains a lot we do not know, such as whether this is all a result of the recession or if other factors were involved, and to what extent is a more flexible labour market responsible. This is really just the UK’s productivity puzzle expressed in a different form.

I think most economists would agree with Larry Elliott that the Great Recession in the UK was distributed in a better way than earlier recessions. The high costs of prolonged involuntary unemployment are, I hope, also well known. Whether any of this better distribution should be credited to current politicians seems doubtful: if any politician deserves credit, the most obvious is Margaret Thatcher.

If you look at this in terms of the size of the cake (output) and its distribution (employment and real wages), then you can see why those who dispute the claims about how poor the recovery from this recession has been by pointing to employment are making a category mistake. It is almost certainly better that a recession should lead to declines in real wages rather than increases in unemployment. But to argue that rapid employment growth excuses poor output growth is just another way of celebrating a disastrous productivity performance.        

Saturday, 17 October 2015

How television fails in its duty to inform

When a Tory voter emotionally complained about how she had been deceived about cuts to her tax credits, it caught the media’s attention. I don’t want to get into the debate that followed about whether she deserved sympathy or not, except to say this just shows up some elements of the left at their sanctimonious worst. What struck me was the juxtaposition of this with another remark I saw elsewhere, which is that everyone who had looked at the numbers knew Osborne would cut tax credits after the election. This remark is correct, if be ‘knew’ we mean highly likely.

That information had clearly not got through to this Tory voter. Conservative MPs know she is not alone, which is of course why the Prime Minister lied about it before the general election, and why he and Osborne continue to try and cover up the facts. It is the media’s job to get information across, and on this it clearly failed. Most in the parts of the print media that see that as part of their job did their best: those in the part who are paid to deceive also did their job well. Whether we should let those who produce news like celebrity gossip and sports reporting use that platform to peddle political propaganda is an interesting issue. But these do not arise in the UK with the television media, which has a duty to inform in an impartial way which it is clearly failing to fulfill.

This is not about the television media’s coverage as a whole, but how information is presented in the kinds of programmes that this Tory voter is likely to watch: the major news programmes, interviews with the Prime Minister or Chancellor etc. Take for example the clip where the Prime Minister lied about cuts to tax credits. There David Dimbleby asks him by saying “some people” have suggested tax credits would be cut, rather than “every non-partisan expert”. This may seem small, but this kind of detailed textual analysis is critical (and it is what many journalists have been trained to do).

Of course this is not an isolated incident. The idea that the deficit was a consequence of Labour profligacy rather than the recession is widely believed (as another pre-election debate illustrated), which means the television media again failed. In other areas where the partisan right wing press do their best to mislead, like welfare and immigration, the average person’s perception of key facts is wildly wrong (in the direction they are misled), which means the television media has also failed. Journalists seem happy to quote large sums of money on magnitudes like government debt in a way designed to make them sound scary, but fail to put them into historical context (it needs just one chart), which would mean focusing on the debt to GDP ratio and pointing out that this will fall even if we run modest deficits. The politically loaded and inaccurate term taxpayers money is freely used, and the term welfare benefits misused. I could go on and on, and have.

Political journalists working in television try hard to be unbiased in a party political sense. They do this partly because there are political machines that try and hold them to that. I would suggest being unbiased towards the facts, and more positively their duty to inform, are at least as important. Unfortunately there are no equivalent mechanisms to ensure this happens.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The fiscal charter media fiasco

The House of Commons passes into law a fiscal charter which enshrines in the short term another period of severe austerity, and thereafter commits the government to a crazy fiscal rule. The media (with one or two notable exceptions) focus on Labour U-turns and 20 odd abstentions. The Labour leadership have only themselves to blame of course. Which given the way the media operates is true. But does it have to be this way?

Behind the gimmick of a charter is a real policy that will impact on everyone. This policy is the reason the government will make substantial cuts to tax credits for millions of poorer working people, making their already difficult lives substantially harder. George Osborne said as much in his budget speech . Would these people really think that this was of less interest than endless discussion of Labour embarrassment? Who are television news programmes made for: ordinary people who receive tax credits or a Westminister bubble obsessed with political process?

The charter is all about macroeconomics: fiscal policy and fiscal rules. There is an academic literature on fiscal policy and fiscal rules. I have not come across a single non-partisan academic economist who supports this charter, and certainly not one who knows about this literature. For an academic discipline that is always accused of being hopelessly divided, that is saying something. The reasons are not that difficult to get across:

  • The policy restricts public investment at just the time that public investment should be high because borrowing and labour are cheap. Its a near universal view among economists that now is the time for higher public investment.

  • Targeting a surplus year in and year out is likely to lead to harmful volatility in tax rates or spending. All macro theory says the deficit in the short-term should be a shock absorber.

  • If the charter is achieved, it will bring debt down ridiculously fast, penalising the current working generation.

  • Fiscal austerity when interest rates are very low is never a good idea

Again with the exception of a few newspapers, I heard nothing of this in media reporting. Instead I heard misleading statements, like you needed surpluses to get debt down when what matters is the debt/GDP ratio. (2% deficits with normal growth will reduce the debt ratio.)

Even the ‘highbrow’ news programmes like Channel 4 news and Newsnight chose to spend most of its time talking about U-turns on either side. No mention of the complete lack of economic support for this charter. On an issue with such important consequences, is that fulfilling a duty to inform? We have millions of hardworking but poor families who will be made substantially worse off as a result of a fiscal rule which no academic economist has supported? Will these families ever find that out? What does that tell us about our media, and our democracy?

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

When economists play political games

I saw you talking to those people the other day. You really should think twice before being seen to talk to people like that.

Similar lines could be taken from countless novels about class, race or some other form of social exclusion. When I agreed to be part of a group that would occasionally advise the new Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on economic policy, I must admit I hadn’t expected something like that to be said to me by economists I respect. Political hacks would say it for sure, but economists interested in promoting good policy?

Just to be clear, McDonnell’s group places no restrictions on what its members can say in public about policy. We are not required to support or endorse Labour policy. Indeed, to the extent that Labour does adopt a policy that any of its members disagree with, the group gives those members a slightly higher public profile if we make that disagreement public. As the media generally fails to distinguish good economic advice from political spin, a direct channel like this group seemed like a good idea, with no cost to its members except their time. Except ...

On Monday McDonnell announced a U-turn: he would no longer support Osborne’s new fiscal charter. The media focus, as ever, was on the ‘political shambles’ of a U-turn, with only the occasional suggestion that the charter itself was economic nonsense. (The body of this FT leader was an exception.) A few economists on twitter, however, suggested that this political shambles somehow reflected badly on the members of the advisory group. One described the members of the group being ‘branded’ by association. If other economists reading this sympathise with that view, you need to read on.

As this FT piece suggests, the new Labour position of not supporting the charter is likely to find general support among the advisory group. (We have not yet met.) Indeed, as I said to the FT, a huge majority of macroeconomists — particularly if they know something about fiscal policy — would recommend opposing the charter. I have no idea if the views of any of the group had any influence on this U-turn, but if it did that means the group is having some influence, which has to be a positive thing. Indeed, as I know some of those making this ‘guilt by association’ charge actually oppose Osborne’s charter, they should welcome the fact that we may have helped change Labour’s position. Instead they are saying his change of mind reflects badly on us!? It makes no logical sense, unless something else is going on here.

As I said in an earlier post, I am happy to give advice on macro policy to any of the mainstream political parties, whether I agree with their current macro or other policies or not. Over the past five or more years I have given public and private advice to Treasury officials working for the actual Chancellor. I feel strongly that governments should and can follow good macroeconomics whatever their political persuasion. For me to say I’m not going to talk to you because I do not like your policy on X would be as silly and childish as it sounds.

So what is going on with economists who would not blink an eye at me giving advice to a Chancellor whose policies I often (but not always) oppose, but suggest that when it comes to the Labour party there is some kind of guilt by association? It seems to me that they are, knowingly or not, part of a political game. The game is to give the current Labour leadership some kind of pariah status. If we were talking about a party like the BNP, that might make some sense, but for the main opposition party in which a radical leadership is going to have to reach a consensus with their less radical MPs it does not. Unless of course your primary interest is to support another party. Which is why the government and many journalists want to foster this pariah status frame of mind. It is a shame that some economists who are parroting this guilt by association line seem not to understand the political game they are inevitably playing.