Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs on Greece (WSJ)

A ray of optimism - but we'll have to keep on eye on what happens in September and October in the streets of Athens:

Recall March 2010. Tensions over the Greek debt crisis were running high within the euro zone and among our international partners. People were talking about the end of the single currency. After weeks of intense consultations, phone calls, long days and even longer nights locked in meetings, a sense of determination and solidarity prevailed among European policy makers: "We swim together or we sink together."

Then came May 2010. Europe agreed on a joint euro area and IMF loan-support package for Athens, conditional on Greece's strict implementation of a credible fiscal adjustment program. Many outside critics doubted whether Athens could get the job done.

Now, August 2010. The Commission's first review of the program's implementation shows that, so far, Athens has proved the doubters wrong. Greece's ambitious and front-loaded adjustment program is on track to deliver a return to macroeconomic and financial stability, and stronger and more balanced growth in the medium-term.....

Read it all here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

'Needed: A New Economic Paradigm' / Stiglitz

Stiglitz is always interesting and illuminating to read. In his Aug 18 FT piece titled 'Needed: A New Economic Paradigm' he once again argues (convincingly in my opinion) of why much of the toolkit available in Economics may be inappropriate / distorting and even dangerous.
...It is hard for non-economists to understand how peculiar the predominant macroeconomic models were. Many assumed demand had to equal supply – and that meant there could be no unemployment. (Right now a lot of people are just enjoying an extra dose of leisure; why they are unhappy is a matter for psychiatry, not economics.) Many used “representative agent models” – all individuals were assumed to be identical, and this meant there could be no meaningful financial markets (who would be lending money to whom?). Information asymmetries, the cornerstone of modern economics, also had no place: they could arise only if individuals suffered from acute schizophrenia, an assumption incompatible with another of the favoured assumptions, full rationality.

Bad models lead to bad policy: central banks, for instance, focused on the small economic inefficiencies arising from inflation, to the exclusion of the far, far greater inefficiencies arising from dysfunctional financial markets and asset price bubbles. After all, their models said that financial markets were always efficient. Remarkably, standard macroeconomic models did not even incorporate adequate analyses of banks. No wonder former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, in his famous mea culpa, could express his surprise that banks did not do a better job at risk management. The real surprise was his surprise: even a cursory look at the perverse incentives confronting banks and their managers would have predicted short-sighted behaviour with excessive risk-taking....

...Fortunately, while much of the mainstream focused on these flawed models, numerous researchers were engaged in developing alternative approaches. Economic theory had already shown that many of the central conclusions of the standard model were not robust – that is, small changes in assumptions led to large changes in conclusions. Even small information asymmetries, or imperfections in risk markets, meant that markets were not efficient. Celebrated results, such as Adam Smith’s invisible hand, did not hold; the invisible hand was invisible because it was not there. Few today would argue that bank managers, in their pursuit of their self-interest, had promoted the well-being of the global economy....

...Changing paradigms is not easy. Too many have invested too much in the wrong models. Like the Ptolemaic attempts to preserve earth-centric views of the universe, there will be heroic efforts to add complexities and refinements to the standard paradigm. The resulting models will be an improvement and policies based on them may do better, but they too are likely to fail. Nothing less than a paradigm shift will do.

The full article can be found here (subscription required) or (most of it) here.

(one more reason why our 'evaluation'-mania in IB Economics is so important...)

On Fiscal Policy again...

Well, the academic year is about to begin and, slowly, work effort is picking up! I checked out Project Syndicate and there was an article by Skidelsky titled 'Fixing the Right Hole" which concerns fiscal policy and why the position of the 'fiscal hawks' may not make all that much sense:

Yet the budget cutters have a fallback position. The problem with fiscal stimulus, they say, is that it destroys confidence in government finances, thereby impeding recovery. So a credible deficit-reduction program is needed now to “consolidate recovery.”

What is it about cutting the deficit that is supposed to restore confidence? Well, deficit reduction may lead consumers to believe that a permanent tax reduction is on the horizon. This will have a positive wealth effect and increase private consumption. But why on earth should consumers believe that cutting a deficit, and raising taxes now, will lead to tax cuts later?

One implausible hypothesis follows another. Fiscal consolidation, its advocates claim, “might” lead investors to expect improvement on the supply side of the economy. But it is unemployment, loss of skills and self-confidence, and investment rationing that are hitting the supply side.

We are told that the “credible announcement and implementation” of fiscal-consolidation strategy “may” diminish the risk premium associated with government debt. This will reduce real interest rates and make “crowding in” of private spending more likely. But real interest rates on long-term government debt in the US, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom are already close to zero. Not only do investors view the risks of depression and deflation as greater than those of default, but bonds are being preferred to equities for the same reason.

Finally, the reduction of governments’ borrowing requirements “might” have a beneficial effect on output in the long run, owing to lower long-term interest rates. Of course, low long-term interest rates are necessary for recovery. But so are profit expectations, and these depend on buoyant demand. No matter how cheap it is for businessmen to borrow, they will not do so if they see no demand for their products.

The ECB’s arguments look to me like scraping the bottom of the intellectual barrel. The truth is that it is not fear of government bankruptcy, but governments’ determination to balance the books, that is reducing business confidence by lowering expectations of employment, incomes, and orders. The problem is not the hole in the budget; it is the hole in the economy.

He makes reference to an article in the July issue of the ECB Monthly Bulletin ('The effectiveness of euro area fiscal policies', p. 67) and I would advise IB year 2 Higher Level (but even interested standard level) economics students to read carefully section 2 (pp. 68-71) titled 'Fiscal policy effectiveness: theoretical considerations". Skidelski's piece can be then thought of as an evaluation of the ECB position. The July issue of the ECB's monthly bulletin can be found here.