Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 29 June 2017

Economists and the Euro: for the record

Almost every time I write something about Brexit, I get at least one comment along the lines of ‘you economists got it wrong on the Euro, so why should we take any notice of you on Brexit’. This is beginning to annoy me, because in reality the opposite is true: it was because of economics and economists that we didn’t join the Euro in 2003. So the next time someone says the same to you, send them this blog post.

As far as I can see, the source of this ‘you got it wrong’ line is a poll that the Economist magazine did of academic economists on whether the UK should join the Euro in 1999. In that poll 65% said yes, and 35% said no. It was a good piece of journalism and a sensible survey, and it roughly corresponds with how I viewed academic opinions at the time. Claims by Andrea Leadsom that the Bank and IMF also recommended joining are simply wrong.

This poll has zero relevance to the Brexit issue for the following reasons:

  1. Academic economists split 2 to 1 in favour of joining in 1999. In the case of Brexit, for every one economist that thought leaving was a good idea, there were 22 that said the opposite. So while a majority of economists favoured joining the Euro, the overwhelming consensus was that Brexit would involve economic costs.

  2. Ask any academic about the Euro, and they will tell you that there are pros and cons, and it is largely a matter of judgement whether the pros or cons win. A key issue which I did some work on (with Rebecca Driver) was whether countercyclical fiscal policy could deal with asymmetric shocks. Our work suggested they could to a significant extent, but that made the proposed Stability and Growth Pact a concern. Others, looking at other types of risk, might come to a different conclusion.

    The contrast with Brexit is total. There are no major economic pros that need to be compared with the cons. Instead there are just economic costs, and the debate is about how large these will be.

  3. Euro membership involved macroeconomics. Membership of the EU is mostly about trade. These are different branches of economics with little in common. Brexit involves the impact of geography on trade (gravity equations) and the impact of trade on productivity, while Euro membership involves the macroeconomic response to asymmetric shocks. It is a bit like refusing to have your hip replaced because your flu jab didn’t stop you getting flu.

The poll was in 1999. The UK did not decide to make a decision whether to join the Euro or not until 2003, and thankfully it did more than take a poll of economists on the issue. The Treasury was given plenty of time to analyse the pros and cons of entry, and it did so by undertaking a large number of studies. This is how policy advice should work in the absence of delegation: you do not ask the expert what the decision should be, but instead ask what the issues are and let the politician make the decision. I have discussed the so called 5 tests process, overseen by Dave Ramsden, in detail here. Most of the studies were done ‘in house’ by Treasury economists, but advice was sought from a large number of leading academics in the field. Peter Westaway was brought in from the Bank to write a couple, and I wrote a study on the optimal entry rate, extending and developing work I had begun back in the days before we entered the ERM.

The analysis was at the highest level, and I could detect no overt bias one way or the other. Some studies found significant benefits from joining, and others found significant costs or concerns. Although it is easy to be cynical, I have talked to some of the actors involved and it does seem as if the economics, encapsulated in these various studies, was critical in first convincing Gordon Brown and then Tony Blair that now was not the right time to join.

So the reality is that studies that summarised state of the art academic economic analysis stopped the UK joining the Euro. Without that, the decision on UK entry would have been down to politics, much like the formation of the Euro itself, and who knows how that would have gone. The economic analysis anticipated some of the problems behind the Euro crisis but not all. Economics is far from perfect, but that is no reason to ignore it when it says things you do not like to hear.

Tuesday 27 June 2017

When capturing the middle ground works or fails

In 2015 Labour went for austerity-lite compared to Osborne’s full on austerity. It failed. Yet in 2017 Labour went for Brexit-lite, and it worked. Why does capturing the middle ground (often called triangulation) sometimes work and sometimes fail?

The theory behind why it should work is straightforward. Suppose you can grade an issue from 1 to 10, and we have a two party system: you can vote Labour or Conservative. In the case of Brexit, 1 would be staying in the EU and joining the Euro, and 10 would be No Deal. Now suppose voters are evenly distributed along this spectrum of possibilities: 10% want No Deal (10), 10% want a deal where we leave with minimal trade deals with the EU (9) and so on. An even distribution means 50% of the population want options between 1 and 5, and 50% want options between 6 and 10. Suppose the Conservatives go for option 8, which in this case is a fairly hard Brexit. Suppose Labour actually believe in option 3. What option should they campaign for in an election?

If all voters are well informed and are certain to vote, and there are no third parties, the answer is to go for the middle ground. If they campaigned for 3, they would capture only 50% of voters (those who prefer options 1 to 5), and the Conservatives would win those preferring 6 to 10. But if they campaigned for option 7, they would capture 70% of the vote. Indeed those voters who understood triangulation might have reasoned that although Labour were campaigning for 7, they were only doing that to appease some of their traditional core voters, and if elected they would actually go for a more EU friendly option.

You could read Labour’s position on Brexit in GE2017 as being very close to the Conservatives. But the language that stressed the importance of the economy allowed those who prefered options 1 to 7 to think Labour would be better than the Conservatives. Labour did indeed appear to go for something like option 7 in GE2017, and it seems to have worked: the swing to Labour was higher in areas that voted to Remain (their did not alienate voters who wanted options 2 or 3), but they captured some Leave voters as well. Whether that Labour positioning was based on triangulation or did actually reflect the leadership's true beliefs I honestly do not know.

Compare this to the 2015 election and austerity, where option 1 is wanting fiscal stimulus and more public investment because interest rates were stuck close to their lower bound, and 10 was an even sharper austerity than George Osborne was proposing. Instead he proposed option 8, and Labour went for something more moderate: on paper maybe 6, but they kept quiet about the difference so maybe in practice 7. Labour’s positioning is generally thought to have failed. Not only did they lose the election, but afterwards an ‘outsider’ became party leader on a platform that was clearly anti-austerity.

So why did triangulation work with Brexit in 2017 but fail with austerity in 2015? There are many ways of changing this very simple model to resolve this puzzle. My current favourite is as follows. What is missing from the linear scale of options outlined above is any account of the framework by which voters judge competence, and the option of not voting. In 2015 the dominant narrative was the one set out by the Conservatives: austerity was required because they were clearing up the mess left by Labour. By positioning themselves as austerity-lite Labour in effect did nothing to challenge that narrative. This had two consequences. First, those who took a strong anti-austerity line might have been tempted not to vote. Second, those in the middle did not go with Labour because Labour’s competence was questionable: they had caused the deficit problem in the first place.

So Labour’s positioning in 2015 to capture the middle ground failed. By not challenging the dominant narrative they appeared to accept their alleged past incompetence, and committed anti-austerity voters may have not turned up. In 2017 Labour openly challenged the austerity narrative. That meant they didn’t capture the middle ground, but they did not lose it either. (It should also be added that the middle ground on austerity has probably been shifting as the deficit itself falls.)

In 2017 with Brexit, there was no dominant narrative. As I have remarked before, the country is as divided as it was in the original vote. Labour had two options. It could oppose Brexit, and get the anti-Brexit vote. Or it could attempt to capture the middle ground by accepting Brexit but stressing that they would put the economy first. They, by preference or design, went with the second triangulation option and it seems to have worked.

Why were hard line Remainers not put off from voting Labour as anti-austerity voters may have been in 2015? In part I suspect because Brexit was not the only dominant issue. Labour campaigned on its anti-austerity manifesto, and for many Remain voters this was at least as important as Brexit. This meant that not voting was not an option. There may also have been the realisation that had Labour campaigned to Remain, this would have allowed the Conservatives to make the election a rerun of the Brexit vote, and the distribution of voters by constituency would mean the Conservatives would have won more seats even if the national vote had been evenly split. So in the case of Brexit, but not austerity, triangulation made sense.

Whether this is right or not I have no idea as I am very much an amateur on these issues. I only write about it here because I have not seen this comparison between the two elections made elsewhere. To the extent that Labour’s triangulation on Brexit was tactical, it means if (following May's failed election) the Conservatives move to a softer Brexit (from 8 to 7, say), it is important that Labour moves as well (from 7 to 6) to keep their Remain voters on side. 

Saturday 24 June 2017

Brexiteers versus Economists one year on

One year ago we found out that the British people had decided (narrowly) that they had had enough of experts, and one group of experts in particular: economists. Economists had warned that Brexit would harm the economy, and the Brexiteers laughed it off, claiming Brexit could give the UK lower immigration without any economic pain. Economists responded that reducing immigration would make access to public services worse not better, but everyone told us we were simply out of touch with the people.

When a few months after the referendum Brexiteers started claiming that the economists had been proved to be completely wrong, I decided to score this match between Brexiteers and Economists. Goals would come from actual events, not from unconditional forecasts. The first goal of this match had been scored by the Economists within seconds of the match starting: the collapse in sterling would make nearly all British citizens poorer. The second arrived shortly afterwards, as the Bank decided to cut rates and restart QE to offset the negative impact of Brexit.

The Brexiteer side later claimed that this second goal shouldn’t count, because the economy did not collapse in the second half of 2016. But the main reason that happened was because consumers dipped into their savings, something that was not sustainable. The Bank did not reverse its decision. Forecasts went up and down, but this match is based on events, not forecasts.

The next goal was the election of Donald Trump. At first Brexiteers claimed it was a goal for their side, as Trump had been in favour of Brexit. But the reality soon dawned that Trump, like Brexiteers, lied all the time: he had no intention of making any trade deals with the UK before doing one with the EU first (as Obama had said, we would be way down the list). In addition a trade deal with Trump began to look like something it might be better not to have. That blew apart Brexiteers claims that they could quickly get new trade deals outside the EU to make up for lost trade with the EU. They had scored a goal, but it was in their own net.

If at this point you are thinking the referee is biased, I should add that he subsequently ruled out two goals claimed by Economists. The first was invoking Article 50. Economists claimed that was a foolish thing to do because it would leave the UK fighting against the clock. The referee ruled it out because that was a forecast, and the Brexiteers were still claiming that No Deal was better than a bad deal for the UK. The second was the first quarter GDP figures, with no growth in GDP per head. The referee rightly said that this could just be erratic data and we would have to wait for another quarter at least.

But with the score at 3:0 to the Economists the chances of a Brexiteer win still seemed remote. We now entered the most exciting period of the game yet. The Brexiteer captain called a general election, which she foolishly said was to enable her to consolidate her Brexit position. The Brexiteers threw everything into attack, but this left them weak at the back and a swift counterattack led to the fourth goal in the Brexiteer net. A despondent team then conceded without any resistance a fifth goal, when they agreed to the structure of negotiations set out by the EU. It was now clear the Economists had been right, and starting the Article 50 process had been a huge mistake. Trying to use EU migrants as a bargaining chip became a cruel failure, a tactic apparently invented by the captain herself.

With the Brexiteers now 5:0 down, and with the only prospects being further successful strikes by the Economists (the divorce payment, an interim settlement that effectively keeps existing trade arrangements including free movement), it looks like certain defeat for the Brexiteers. If I had started this off as a boxing match rather than a football match, I could have had the referee calling an end to this fight. It now seems absolutely clear that the Economists have been proved right and the Brexiteers horribly wrong about the economics of Brexit. But Boris Johnson or David Davis are favourites to be the next Prime Minister, Gove is back in the Cabinet and someone is calling for an inquiry into economists because they are "dangerously irrelevant", so what do I know?

Wednesday 21 June 2017

UK monetary policy: you cannot be serious?

Nothing shocks me in the area of fiscal policy anymore, but I do have some faith that monetary policy makers know what they are doing. While fiscal policy makers in the US, UK and the EZ did precisely the wrong thing consistently from 2010, monetary policy makers rightly pulled out all the stops, and my main quarrel was that in the UK and EZ they pretended QE was an instrument with the same order of reliability as interest rates. Instead they should have told fiscal policy makers that they could no longer do their jobs efficiently because interest rates had hit their lower bound.

However, there are occasional aberrations. EZ interest rates went up in 2011 rather than down and the MPC almost did the same. (Let’s not mention Sweden.) And then, last month, three members of the MPC voted to raise interest rates. After I had had my John McEnroe moment, I quickly realised that these three members were making exactly the same mistake as a different three made in 2011. Only this time they had less excuse.

Back in 2011, inflation was between 4% and 5% but the UK was still in deep recession. Inflation was high because of austerity (an increase in VAT), higher energy prices and maybe the lagged effects of an earlier depreciation. In 2017 inflation is high because of the Brexit depreciation, yet the real economy looks very weak as consumers start to pull back spending. In essence the situation is identical: inflation is high because of one-off factors, and because the real economy is weak inflation will come back down of its own accord. There is no point making the real economy even weaker by raising interest rates.

The only thing you might worry about in these circumstances is that inflation might be more persistent than you thought because nominal wages start to rise as workers try and avoid falls in real wages. That didn’t happen in 2011 even though inflation reached 5%, and inflation did come quickly back to near target within a year. An increase in interest rates would have achieved nothing except make the recession worse.

Exactly the same applies now, with the only difference being inflation is still less than 3%. We can be sure of this by looking at what is happening to nominal wages. UK nominal wages have increased in the four months of 2017 by less than 2% compared to a year earlier, which represents a distinctly lower rate of growth than in the second half of 2016. A relative price change, like a depreciation, can only shift inflation permanently higher if wage inflation starts rising. Right now it is falling.

When I recently wrote about increasing the inflation target, I knew I would get at least one comment saying wouldn’t this reduce real wages even further. As I always do, I explained that raising the inflation target should raise the rate of increase of all nominal quantities by the same amount, which is what economists mean by inflation. But it seems the same basic point has to be made to these three members of the MPC too: inflation is not just the rate of change of the consumer price index.

The weakness of real wages in the face of rising inflation (and remember this increase in inflation was predictable the moment Brexit happened) also tells us something important about the UK labour market. Here is the Resolution Foundation’s underemployment measure, based on work by Bell and Blanchflower. It shows the index still above its level in the first half of the 2000s. 

But perhaps more importantly, the weakness of nominal wages suggests that the NAIRU may have decreased since then. A good rule for monetary policymakers right now is to only think about raising interest rates when nominal wage inflation starts rising by more than 2% above underlying labour productivity growth. 

Postscript 22/6/17

The day this post was published a speech from MPC member Andy Haldane was also published. Haldane did not vote for higher interest rates in May. It is a speech of two halves. The first presents a detailed and analytical discussion of the changing nature of the UK labour market, and his conclusion is that the NAIRU may well have declined as a result. He therefore provides solid evidence for the conjecture in my last paragraph. 

However the second half of the speech is in complete contrast. It involves a kind of unstructured shopping list of pros and cons for raising rates, full of references to things like 'political uncertainty' and equity markets and 'inflation narratives'. As a result of that, he favours raising rates earlier than markets expect. Sterling rose on publication of the speech. (If nothing else, sterling's reaction to first Carney's speech and then this has been a nice vindication of uncovered interest parity (UIP) theory.)

I think there is another way of describing this speech of two halves. The first involves a careful analysis of a key driver of the inflationary process (and finds a strong explanation of why wage inflation is currently weak). The second is unstructured list making, with a decision based on some unexplained intuitive process. I may be a little harsh, but it looks to me like the best and worst of monetary policy making.       

Monday 19 June 2017

Austerity will only end when our leaders start being honest

Austerity was the underlying motivation for starting this blog. Sometimes I think everything that I, Paul Krugman and many others have written over the last six or more years has fallen on deaf ears. Take two recent pieces of evidence: this FT article by Nicholas Macpherson, ex permanent secretary at the Treasury, and this interview of the Chancellor by Andrew Marr.

In talking about Osborne’s fiscal consolidation that began in 2010, Macpherson says: “With hindsight, there was a case for going further faster.” His rationale is that the public like a dose of austerity, but tire after a time. At no point does he mention the economy (a recovery that stalled from 2010 to 2013, and then only started growing at trend thereafter), or monetary policy (interest rates were stuck at their lower bound). His desire for a shorter, sharper fiscal shock would have almost certainly produced a second recession.

I calculated that the fiscal consolidation that did take place cost the average household at least £4,000 in lost resources. This is based on OBR numbers, and assumes (as the OBR does) that the economy recovers quickly from any fiscal consolidation. This latter assumption looks very shaky indeed. Once you stop making it, the costs of austerity become horribly large. Not a word about this from Macpherson, which allows him to make the ridiculous argument that we should have had a shorter sharper consolidation.

One of the other ridiculous things Macpherson says is that, from 2010 to 2016, the UK did not even experience austerity. He justifies this because the debt to GDP ratio over this period rose. I’ve heard similar things in comments on my blog, presumably because of what Conservative politicians or their apologists say in the press. The statement confuses levels with rates of change, whether you are talking about the impact on the economy or on individuals. This is first year undergraduate stuff.

Philip Hammond said in his interview that a deficit of 2.5% is not sustainable. The normal definition of sustainability is a deficit that keeps the debt to GDP ratio constant. The current debt to GDP ratio is 86.5%. To work out roughly what the sustainable deficit is, divide the debt level by 100 and multiply that by the expected growth rate of nominal GDP. That means that today a deficit of 2.5% of GDP would be sustainable as long as nominal GDP grew at about 3%. So his statement that a deficit of 2.5% is not sustainable simply looks wrong.

You could rationalise this by saying that he believes our current debt to GDP level is not sustainable, and that therefore he wants to reduce it, but if that is what he means he should say so. Instead it seems that he wants to pretend that the government is like a household, and so therefore there is some reason why a deficit of zero is desirable. Of course Hammond does not mention interest rates either. And he knows that, in an interview like this, he can get away with anything involving economics or numbers.

Austerity has been supposedly dying since after the Brexit vote, but that just reflects misleading or dishonest reporting. As Torsten Bell says, for most people austerity means cuts to public spending, and for public sector workers and those on low incomes there is more austerity to come. Hammond also said Labour’s proposed fiscal policy would be “catastrophic for the country”. I suspect this kind of nonsense hyperbole, frequently invoked by the right wing press, has now become counter-productive. In reality at the heart of Labour’s fiscal policy is a fiscal rule which takes the government’s role in the economy seriously, rather than reduce it to the budget of a Swabian housewife. I cannot wait for the day that becomes the UK government’s fiscal rule, and we can move discussion of UK fiscal policy away from numbers 'not adding up' and back into the 21st century.

Friday 16 June 2017

Raising the inflation target

The argument for a higher inflation target is straightforward, once you understand two things. First the most effective and reliable monetary policy instrument is to influence the real interest rate in the economy, which is the nominal interest rate less expected inflation. Second nominal short term interest rates have a floor near zero (the Zero Lower Bound, or ZLB). Combine the two and you have a severe problem in a recession, because to combat the recession real interest rates need to move into negative territory, and how far they can go into that territory is limited by the ZLB. That means monetary policy alone may be unable to get us out of a recession.

Raising the inflation target reduces the likelihood that interest rates will hit the ZLB. To see why, note first that the long run (economists often say ‘equilibrium’ or ‘natural’) real interest rate is positive. Let’s say it is 2%. If the inflation target is 2%, and the ZLB is 0%, that would mean that in normal times the average nominal interest rate is 4% (2% inflation target + 2% to get to a 2% real interest rate). That means nominal interest rates can be cut by a maximum of 4% if the economy falters. That may be enough for a mild downturn, but as we saw in 2008 it is not enough for a major recession. However if the inflation target was 4%, nominal rates would now be able to fall by a maximum of 6%. That is probably enough to combat all but the worst kind of recession.

Why are many economists currently arguing that we should raise the inflation target from 2% to 4%? One of the reasons is that we now believe the long run real interest rate is currently lower than it was when the 2% target was first chosen. (This is sometimes referred to as secular stagnation.) If you go through the arithmetic above, you can see why a lower long run real interest rate will make the ZLB problem worse. The argument is that we now need to raise the inflation target to make sure we hit the ZLB less often in the future.

This issue moved from an academic discussion to a real possibility in the US a few days ago. When Fed Chair Janet Yellen had been asked about raising the inflation target in the past, she has tended to dismiss the idea. However she now says that it is something that the Fed will review in the future, and that it is one of the most important questions facing central bankers today.

This will undoubtedly give new impetus to the debate over whether the inflation target should be raised. We are in standard trade-off territory here. Economists generally agree a higher inflation target will in itself inflict greater costs on the economy, but they bring the benefit that the ZLB problem will occur less often. But there is an alternative, and clearly much better way out of this dilemma.

Governments have another instrument that has a reasonably predictable impact on aggregate demand, and which can be used to combat a recession: fiscal policy (changes to taxes and government spending). In the UK at the moment interest rates are at the ZLB in part because fiscal policy is contractionary (austerity). It would be far better to use this instrument to stimulate the economy in a recession than to raise the inflation target. Yet the institution of independent central banks have discouraged governments from using fiscal policy in this way.

It is no good central banks pretending that this is something which is up to governments, and that there is some unwritten law which means that central banks should keep quiet on such things. In reality, in both the UK and the Eurozone, the central bank actively encouraged governments to do the wrong thing with fiscal policy in the last recession. In other words, they encouraged austerity. If there is something inherent in the institution of a central bank that makes them give inappropriate advice in this way, then we should be asking how central banks can be changed as a matter of urgency.

What should happen in a recession, as soon as the central bank thinks that interest rates will hit the ZLB, is that central banks should say, out loud in public, that fiscal policy should become more expansionary. In addition central banks should say, out loud in public, that governments need not worry about rising debt and deficits due to the recession and any fiscal stimulus they undertake spooking markets because the central bank has that covered. Both statements have the merit of being true. 

Of course governments will need to restore debt to desired levels at some point, but that point should be well after interest rates have left the ZLB because then debt correction can be painless. The immediate aim of fiscal policy in a recession should be to allow interest rates to rise above the ZLB as soon as possible. That gives you the best macroeconomic outcome, and one that is far superior to raising the inflation target. The most important question facing central bankers today is why they failed to do that from 2009.

Now it is possible that, if democracy is in a bad shape (as it currently is in the US for example), the government may ignore the advice it receives from the central bank. In that case it is worth considering giving central banks some additional power to mimic a fiscal expansion, such as helicopter money for example. Or it may be worth considering institutional changes that allow nominal interest rates to go negative. Or raising the inflation target. But before doing any of those things we need to ensure that central banks give the right advice to governments when the next recession comes along.

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Conservative zugzwang

Would really like to get back to macro, as some interesting things have been happening, but there are just too many compelling issues following GE2017 to talk about first.

The GE2017 result left the Conservatives in a position that chess players call a zugswang, which means whatever you do makes your position worse. They needed to turn to the DUP to get an overall majority, which leaves them with a secure hold on power. But that move in itself will lose them some popularity, kills their ‘coalition of chaos’ charge, and runs the risk of damaging Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement says that the sovereign should exercise power with “rigorous impartiality”. It will be up to the DUP to persuade Sinn Fein that all they are getting from the government is extra money for Northern Ireland. So to hold on to power, the Conservatives put the Northern Ireland peace process in jeopardy and give a gift to Labour.

The Conservatives will not fight another election with May as their leader. Their MPs, whatever they may say in public, are angry at her incompetence in running a campaign, putting together a manifesto, responding to the press, and almost everything else. The longer she stays in post, the longer the memory of that dismal campaign lingers and the more the brand gets tainted. However an election to replace her will reopen the split over Brexit which could tear the party apart.

Here is a worst case scenario. After the referendum, the Remain half of the party were in shock, and so they allowed May to define what Brexit meant. She did it in such a way as to ensure Hard Brexit, which will inflict considerable damage on the economy. Remain MPs felt they had no way of resisting that (few tried), but as Ruth Davidson made clear in any election in the near future they will be less passive, trying to elect one of their own who will perhaps keep the UK in the EEA (a Norway type deal), and certainly stay in the customs union. Leave MPs will do everything they can to stop that, and it is difficult to see this time their candidate mysteriously withdrawing before the membership are consulted. The Leave membership, with the help of the press, will choose the Leave candidate. Ruth Davidson might then declare independence from the main party.

It could be a terrible mess, spread out over time. It is a contest which will allow, with delicious irony, Corbyn to describe the Conservatives as too hopelessly divided to govern. Furthermore if they hold the contest while the EU negotiations are going on, Labour will justly accuse them of wasting precious time. But if they leave any contest until after the A50 negotiations have ended, the less time a new leader has to improve the Conservative brand, particularly when their majority makes them look powerless and ineffectual. It is a zugzwang.

The same applies to how they turn their fortunes around. The obvious move is to abandon austerity. The agreement with the DUP and other factors mean that the existing deficit targets will not be hit, so turning the deficit into surplus appears a distant prospect. But ending austerity in the mind of the voter means spending more on the NHS and schools. It should also mean reversing the cuts to in work benefits. However to, for example, match Labour’s spending commitments with some attractive alternatives of their own without raising taxes will blow the deficit. That would destroy the ‘we are competent because we cut the deficit’ line so carefully built up over seven years. To raise taxes will damage their core vote. Once again, a zugzwang.

You can add immigration. Fail to meet their target once again, and their credibility on this issue will be destroyed, but try meeting it and the economy is in serious trouble. Of course none of this means that the Conservative are bound to lose the next election. As a Conservative Prime minister once said, events dear boy, events. But for the party it means the liklihood that things will get worse before possibly getting better.

Monday 12 June 2017

GE2017 and the Media

There is a danger of missing the point about Labour’s surge and the media. The issue is absolutely not that political commentators were surprised by Labour’s sudden popularity among voters. Of course they were surprised, because there was no evidence for it before May 2017. The dismal showing of Labour in the council elections at the start of May was real enough. Those on the left who say they knew it would happen are using the word ‘knew’ in the same sense as football supporters knowing their own side is going to win.

We all have a pretty good idea why the surge happened. In style Corbyn was everything May was not, and Labour’s policies were popular. What the media should be worried about was that both those things came as a surprise to the public. As I said here, a general election campaign is unusual because the public get to see much more of the party leaders and hear much more about their policies, and the broadcasters are duty bound to be impartial. But the character of May and Corbyn did not change overnight, and neither were the policies offered by either side very different from the stance they took before the election. So why were people so surprised?

Someone more cynical than I might suggest that the media’s job is to distort reality: to portray May as more competent than she was and to portray Corbyn as incompetent. What happened in the election campaign is that the electorate got a proper look at the two main leaders and their policies, and realised what the media had been saying was false.

That cynical view is completely appropriate to most of the right wing press, whose job is to distort reality as much as they can get away with. (Remember that damning article about May just before the election that was pulled by the Telegraph?) But why did the truth about May and Corbyn not make any impression on the public until the election? Did political commentators know no more than the public, and were just as surprised as the public about May and Corbyn’s character and their policies during the campaign? If that is the case, they were poor journalists. Or is it that they failed to communicate what they did know?.

Is the problem that the broadcast media feels duty bound to just present soundbites (May can do those), and the independent press in the UK is just too small? Or is the problem that the right wing media for one reason or another sets the parameters for other journalists. Is it that political journalists like winners and despise losers, so let the polls influence how they portrayed individuals and parties? I do not know the answers, but these are the questions the media needs to reflect on.   

Friday 9 June 2017

Labour and its Left

The 1980s were a battle between what eventually became New Labour, and what is often referred to as the Hard Left. 1983 to 1997 was a long period where the Hard Left gradually lost influence within both the party (then the membership and trade unions) and among the parliamentary party (the PLP). But this didn’t mollify the distaste New Labour had for the Hard Left.

This period meant that those opposing the left adopted two propositions which became almost hard-wired into their decisions.

  1. The left within Labour were more concerned with controlling the party than winning elections. That has often been said about Jeremy Corbyn over the last two years.

  2. That the Left, and their ideas and policies, were toxic to most voters. The right wing press assisted in this by talking about the loony left.

In short, it was best to act as if Labour’s Left were a political pariah. As a result of these ideas the left minority within the PLP was tolerated (Labour needed to be a broad church), as long as it remained small and powerless. Triangulation became the way to win power: to adopt policies that were never from the Left, but adopted a centre ground between the Left and the Conservatives. New Labour was not old Labour.

The strategy was extremely successful. Tony Blair won three elections, and it took the deepest recession since the 1930s to (just) remove Labour from office. The Blair government achieved a lot, particularly for the poor, but it also made serious mistakes, most notably Iraq. That stopped a lot of those on the left actively supporting the party.

In 2015, when Labour under Ed Miliband was defeated, the general mood among the PLP seemed to be that it needed to triangulate once more and move further to the right. Crucially, some leading figures suggested Labour should all but embrace George Osborne’s austerity policy. The three main candidates to take over from Miliband were seen (with justification or not) as representing this thinking. Austerity was a critical issue, in part because - if accepted - it potentially constrained what Labour could do to a large extent. It was also an economically illiterate policy, which I can safely say with authority. Worse than that, it was a policy that - as the deficit fell - began to lose its popularity, so for Labour to adopt it at just the point it was losing its popular appeal seemed a doubly crazy thing to do.

Before Corbyn won that election I wrote
“Whether Corbyn wins or loses, Labour MPs and associated politicos have to recognise that his popularity is not the result of entryism, or some strange flight of fancy by Labour’s quarter of a million plus members, but a consequence of the political strategy and style that lost the 2015 election. …. A large proportion of the membership believe that Labour will not win again by accepting the current political narrative on austerity or immigration or welfare or inequality and offering only marginal changes to current government policy.”

At this point I was receiving impassioned pleas by some to come out against Corbyn. These mainly went along the lines that Corbyn was unreformed from the 70s/80s, and wanted to take over the party for the ‘old left’. Many said he could not win an election because his policies would be too radical. He would be a disaster with the electorate. It was unmodified 1980s thinking. These arguments sounded unconvincing to me, mainly because Corbyn would have to work with the PLP. Unlike the 1980s, the left were now such a small minority within the PLP that they would have no other choice.

As I had anticipated, Corbyn and McDonnell did form a shadow cabinet of all the (willing) talents, and as far as economic policy was concerned they were far from radical. McDonnell set up the Economic Advisory Council (EAC), which I and I suspect others were happy to join because it involved no endorsement of Labour’s policies. Arguments that we should have withheld our advice because Corbyn was somehow ‘beyond the pale’ were again straight from the post-83 playbook, and I am very glad that I ignored them. I helped Labour adopt a fiscal rule which in my view exemplified where mainstream macroeconomics was, and which incidentally some sections of the Left were very critical of. It formed a key part of their 2017 manifesto

What I had not anticipated, back when Corbyn was about to be elected, was how foolish some Labour MPs would be in those months following his election. Critical briefing of the press was constant, and tolerated by many in the PLP. As I wrote at the time, this strategy was stupid even if you hated Corbyn, because it gave the membership the excuse to ignore Corbyn’s failings. I was more right than I could have imagined. This was the first major mistake that the PLP made after the election.

The other thing I had not anticipated was Brexit. This triggered the second major mistake by the PLP, which was the vote of no confidence. It was in many cases an emotional reaction to Brexit, the leadership’s role in the campaign and earlier incompetence. It was understandable, but it was nevertheless terrible politics. Corbyn’s supporters were gifted the perfect narrative in the subsequent leadership election: the PLP had sabotaged Corbyn’s leadership.

The two mistakes made by the PLP ensured that for many members the 2016 vote became the PLP against the membership. One big mistake Owen Smith made was to not side with the membership in terms of changing the 15% leadership rule, so naturally they said if you do not trust us we will not trust you. Nevertheless I supported Smith over Corbyn, because I could not see a future for a party that had become so deeply divided. I thought the next election was winnable for Labour, but not if the party was seen by the electorate as at war with itself. That was one of the key reasons I resigned from the EAC: whether that was the reason three others also left I cannot say.

After Corbyn won for a second time, the polls suggested Labour’s future was bleak. This is what led May to call her snap election. However two things happened after Corbyn’s re-election which surprised me and many others, and meant that my predictions of no future under Corbyn proved wrong. First, the internal squabbling within Labour stopped almost completely. Second, the leadership started putting together a manifesto that would prove very popular, with a competence that had earlier been missing. During the general election divisions within Labour were not part of May’s main attack, in part because she chose to make the campaign presidential in style..

Many will say that Labour achieving 40% of the popular vote vindicated the membership’s faith in Corbyn. Others will go further and say ‘if only the PLP had been more cooperative we could have won’. That is going too far..The election result was also a consequence of a truly terrible Conservatives campaign, headed by a Prime Minister who exposed herself as just the wrong person to lead the country through Brexit  The economic environment couldn’t have been better for Labour: unlike 2015 we had falling real wages and the slowest quarterly GDP growth rate in the EU. Labour’s manifesto held out hope, while the Conservative manifesto was a liability. Despite all this, the Conservative vote share was above Labour.

What the election does show beyond doubt is that the attitudes most of the PLP had towards the Left, which they had carried with them from the 1980s, are no longer appropriate. The result was not the disaster they had been so sure would happen. That showed some left wing policies can be very popular, even if they are called anti-capitalist by those on the right. The curse of austerity on the UK electorate has lifted. Unlike the ‘dementia tax’, none of the policies in Labour’s manifesto proved to be a millstone around Corbyn’s neck. The days when Labour politicians needed to worry about headlines in the Mail or Sun are over.

The big lessons of the last two years are for Labour’s centre and centre-left. The rules that applied in the 1980s no longer apply. The centre have to admit that sometimes the Left can get things right (Iraq, financialisation), and they deserve some respect as a result (and vice versa of course). The centre and Left have to live with each other to the extent of allowing someone from the Left to lead the party. Corbyn has shown that the Left are capable of leading with centre-left policies, and the electorate will not shun them. With the new minority government so fragile, it is time for the centre and centre-left within Labour to bury old hatchets and work with Corbyn’s leadership.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Why has the US resisted Trump but the UK acquiesced to Brexit?

This post is a response to a provocative piece by Anatole Kaletsky. He writes
“While the US has taken only 100 days to see through Trump’s “alternative reality” (though perhaps not through Trump himself), almost nobody in Britain is even questioning the alternative reality of Brexit.”

In other words, although both the US and UK succumbed to right wing populism, the US is strongly resisting while the UK has given up doing so. He contrasts the reaction of business to Trump and Brexit. “US businesses started lobbying immediately to block any Trump policies that threatened their economic interests” which has “removed Trump’s main protectionist threat.” In contrast “no major British companies have tried to protect their interests by campaigning to reverse the Brexit decision. None has even publicly pointed out that the referendum gave Prime Minister Theresa May no mandate to rule out membership of the European single market and customs union after Britain leaves the EU.”

One reaction that many will have is that while US elections are 4 year affairs, a referendum was meant to be ‘for a generation’. If the Leave vote had been 60% or more, I might have some sympathy with this view. But the narrow victory coupled with uncertainty about what Brexit actually entails means that the argument for a vote after negotiations conclude is compelling. But only around 30% of people support being allowed a second vote. In contrast, currently 56% of US voters disapprove of Donald Trump.

You could say this is because Donald Trump has done plenty of things for US voters to get angry about, whereas Brexit has not happened. I would put the point rather differently. The problems with Trump are visible to everyone. You just need to read his tweets! The costs of Brexit are economic and less clear to everyone. For example the depreciation immediately after Brexit was very visible, but you needed some knowledge of economics to know that this would mean lower living standards for everyone living in the UK.

This gets translated into how each are handled in the media. The New York Times and the Washington Post are in the front line against Trump, while if you want information on how Brexit is damaging the economy you will find plenty of it in the Financial Times. But that negative news does not normally make it into the broadcast media, because the broadcast media has decided that the Brexit debate is over. The reason it has done that is the real reason why the UK appears to have given in to Brexit, which is the Labour party.

It is difficult to get ideas discussed in a sustained way in the broadcast media unless one of the two major political parties is pushing it (see, for example, opposition to austerity before Corbyn). In contrast to the Democrats, who have been unified in their opposition to Trump, Labour have accepted Hard Brexit. It would be unfair to dump the whole responsibility for Labour’s Brexit U-turn on Jeremy Corbyn. Many Labour MPs pushed in the same direction because they thought it would gain them votes: austerity appeasement all over again. I think a strong leader who believed in EU membership could have overcome that, but Corbyn’s preferences were different.

As a result, we have had a general election supposedly about who will be best at negotiating Brexit without any discussion of Brexit itself. Despite the LibDems best efforts, there has been no discussion of all the events since the referendum which indicate bad times ahead, as outlined by Ian Dunt. There has been endless discussion about how taxes and spending might change under Labour or the Conservatives, but none about the elephant in the room: the cuts or tax increases that Brexit and lower immigration will require. There is a hope, expressed by Bill Keegan, that today’s vote may lead to a hung parliament, which in turn might just lead to a second referendum, but it is a very slim hope.

It may also be the only hope. George Eaton may well be right that Labour’s decision to back a Hard Brexit has helped them in this election. The danger is that Labour will draw the lesson that this will be true in 2022 as well, and their new leader (if there is a new leader) will also commit to hard Brexit. Again the austerity mistake will be repeated: assuming the electorate's attitudes will remain unchanged. If that happens, we may well see in four years time a rejuvenated US with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans routed because of their association with Trump, but a UK entering a long period of relative decline and isolation because it gave in to right wing populism. 

Monday 5 June 2017

Could austerity’s impact be persistent

How Conservative macroeconomic policy may be making us persistently poorer

I was happy to sign a letter from mainly academic economists published in the Observer yesterday, supporting the overall direction of Labour’s macroeconomic policy. I would also have been happy to sign something from the Liberal Democrats, who with a similar macroeconomic stance have the added advantage of being against Brexit, but no such letter exists. As I have said before about letters, it is the overall message that counts. We desperately need more public investment and more current spending to boost demand, which in turn will allow interest rates to come away from their lower bound.

If I could carry just one message into mediamacro to bring it more into line with macro theory, it is that nominal interest at their lower bound represent a policy failure. Unconventional monetary policy is a very unreliable substitute for interest rate changes and fiscal policy as a way of controlling the economy, and a temporary fiscal stimulus can reliably get interest rates off their lower bound. This was the big mistake that most advanced countries made in 2010, and painfully slow recoveries were the result. The UK is currently making the same mistake, which is why the macroeconomic impact of the Labour and LibDem programmes is so much better than the Conservatives’ continuing austerity.

In the textbook macroeconomic models, this policy mistake can have a large but temporary cost in terms of lost output and lower living standards. This is because in these basic models a short term lack of demand does not have an impact on supply. Output in the longer run is determined by the number of those wanting to work, the capital stock and technology, all three of which are assumed to be independent of short term demand shortages. However it looks increasingly like these textbook models can be wrong.

In a new study (pdf), Gustav Horn and colleagues at the IMK institute in Germany looked at how persistent the impact of negative fiscal shocks (higher taxes or lower spending) had been on output. Their analysis is a refinement of earlier studies by of Blanchard and Leigh, and more recently Fatas and Summers. They find that the impact of recent fiscal shocks have been persistent rather than temporary, at least so far.

Although this persistent impact is not part of textbook models, economists have explored effects of this kind (the collective name for which is ‘hysteresis’). There are many theories about why it could happen, such as theories of endogenous growth. I explored the idea of an innovations gap in a recent post. To see why this possibility is so important, take the example of UK austerity in financial years 2010/11 and 2011/12. A few years ago I took the OBR’s (conservative) assessment of its impact on GDP growth in those two years, and assumed that the impact of fiscal consolidation had completely unwound by 2013. That gave you a total cumulated cost of austerity of 5% of GDP (1+2+2), or £4,000 per household.

What happens if instead the impact of austerity is much more persistent? I can no longer use the OBR’s numbers, because they assume impacts die out over time. Instead, let me make the fairly conservative assumption that each 1% reduction in the cyclically adjusted deficit reduces GDP by 0.7%, but these effects are permanent. I’ve chosen 0.7 because that gives a similar answer for the cost of austerity by 2012 as my previous calculation. But rather than disappearing in 2013, these cost persist and grow with each additional act of consolidation. By 2016/17 GDP would be lower by nearly 4%, and a further 1% would be added by the planned additional austerity until 2019/20. If you accumulate those losses, it means that the average household would have lost a staggering £13,000 by 2016/17, rising to £23,000 3 years later.

If you think that sounds a ridiculously large number, just compare output or income relative to past trends. Here is a version from the IFS.

Once you see this data, claims that we have a strong economy become laughable. UK median incomes are currently over 15% below previous trends. That is more than enough room to accommodate 4% due to a permanent effect from austerity.

I do not have to argue that such permanent effects are certain to have occurred. The numbers are so large that all I need is to attach a non-negligible probability to this possibility. Once you do that it means we should avoid austerity at all costs. In 2010 austerity was justified by imagined bond market panics, but no one is suggesting that today. The only way to describe current Conservative policy is pre-Keynesian nonsense, and incredibly harmful nonsense at that. That was why I signed the letter.