Archive for October, 2008

Weekend reflections

October 31st, 2008 27 comments

It’s time (on time for once) for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Treasury on the cost of saving the planet

October 31st, 2008 57 comments

I’ve been too busy to do more than read the summary of the Treasury’s estimates of the cost of an measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most importantly an emissions trading scheme. Of course, there have been quite a few exercises of this kind, but what’s striking about this one is that it looks at a much wider (and more realistic, if we want to save the planet) range of options, going all the way to a 90 per cent reduction in emissions relative to 2000 levels, achieved by 2050. This is a contract and converge scenario where all countries accept a common emissions entitlement per person.

Treasury estimates that, under this scenario, GNP per person in Australia will average $78 000 in 2050 compared to $50 000 at present. By contrast in the reference scenario which has an 88 per cent increase in emissions, 2050 GNP is estimated at $83 000, or about 6 per cent higher (I don’t think this takes account of costs avoided through climate mitigation).

When I get a bit of time, I’ll report more on the details and assumptions. But the quibbles coming from predictable rentseekers, and their tame consultants, look like just that, quibbles.

Treasury’s estimates are, not surprisingly, quite consistent with the arguments I’ve made for a long time on this blog. That’s because any competent economist doing the analysis must come up with estimates of a comparable order of magnitude. If you want to make the case that saving the planet requires reducing living standards, or even a big reduction in the rate of growth of living standards, you need either to invent a whole new economics or wave your hands vigorously enough to conceal the fact that you don’t have any economic analysis to support you.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Bris Science plug

October 30th, 2008 3 comments

I’ll be speaking at this month’s Bris Science lecture on Monday 3 November, on the topic “The Financial Crisis and what it means for you”. 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm (Doors open at 6 pm) Ithaca Auditorium, Brisbane City Hall

Details over the fold
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Meanwhile in a galaxy far, far away …

October 28th, 2008 70 comments

This story about the IMF rescue package for Ukraine (second of many, after Iceland) quotes Timothy Ash, head of emerging-market research at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London as saying

`The money is only half of the issue, conditionality is key. We hope the fund is maintaining its push for a more flexible exchange rate, far- reaching reforms in the banking sector and more privatization.”

Mr Ash, just returned from a six-week holiday on Mars, was reading from his prepared boilerplate script and had yet not been advised of the recent nationalisation of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

(found in today’s AFR)

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

October 27th, 2008 25 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any issue. Civilised discussion only. Please avoid snarks and trolling and strictly no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

What does it all mean?

October 26th, 2008 21 comments

There’s been a bit of discussion about what Alan Greenspan really conceded in his recent testimony. Although Greenspan was less opaque than usual, I won’t try to second-guess him any further, and will instead ask again what the crisis means for the way we think about economics and the economy. There are two big economic ideas that look substantially less appealing in the light of the current crisis.

The first is the macroeconomic hypothesis, often called the Great Moderation which combines the empirical observation that the frequency and severity of recessions declined greatly from 1990 to the recent past with the explanation that “the deregulation of financial markets over the Anglo-Saxon world in the 1980s had a damping effect on the fluctuations of the business cycle”.

The second is the microeconomic idea, central to much of modern finance theory called the Efficient Markets Hypothesis. In its most relevant form, the EMH states that prices observed in asset markets (for stocks, bonds, foreign exchange and so on), reflect all known information, and provide the best possible estimate of the value of earnings that assets will generate.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Greenspan concedes

October 24th, 2008 81 comments

There’s been a fair bit of debate about what, if anything, the current crisis means for economic policy and political philosophy more generally. A lot of this has been hung up on issues of terminology, which I will do my best to avoid here and in future.

Coming to substance, quite a few people have argued that the crisis doesn’t really signify very much, and that, once it is resolved, things will return to pretty much the way they were a couple of years ago. I disagree.

This concession of error by Alan Greenspan is, I think, pretty strong evidence against the view that the crisis is not so significant, in policy or ideological terms.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Weekend Reflections

October 24th, 2008 26 comments

It’s time (on time for once) for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Diminishing publication lags

October 23rd, 2008 7 comments

Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve been very interested in the relationship between technical and cultural innovation. Among other things, I make the point that this is now a two-way street: the development of the Internet is driven as much by cultural innovations, like the manifold uses of blogs, as by technical innovation, and in many cases it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

I gave a presentation on this at the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCi) Conference a few months ago, and was invited to turn it into a paper for a special issue of a new journal, Cultural Science.

I was very favorably impressed by the issue when it came out, and also by the interval between submission and publication, which was quite a bit shorter than I’ve experienced in the past. To be precise …

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Categories: Books and culture Tags:

Steve Keen on debt

October 23rd, 2008 51 comments

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Steve Keen‘s work on debt, presented (among other places) in this paper for the Centre for Policy Development last year. I made some comments at the time, as follows:

I’m generally in sympathy with the arguments presented here. However, having made similar arguments for a long time and having been continually surprised by the durability of the asset price boom/bubble let me offer a couple of counterarguments/cautions:

(1) The increase in house prices can be partially explained (on the supply side) by the increase in the size/quality of the average/median house and, particularly in the last decade, by increases in the cost of labour and materials

(2) On the demand side, given the above and the fixity of land, some increase in prices would be expected as a result of population growth and income growth. If you suppose that housing is a superior good, this would imply that the value of houses should grow faster than GDP, and probably that debt would also rise relative to GDP.

(3) Looking at the big picture of the rise in debt, it has gone on for so long (40+ years) that it must cast some doubt on arguments based on the claim that bubbles always burst. I still think the arguments are valid, but the objection can’t just be dismissed

(4) A fuller version of the optimistic story would say that credit markets have become steadily more efficient with the result that households are able to manage much larger volumes of debt. A plausible version of this story might include the concession that the debt growth of the past decade has outrun the capacity of households and markets to manage it, implying the need for a painful correction as is now happening in the US, but also allowing for a continued upward trend in, or stabilisation of, debt/income ratios.

On balance, having thought through all this, I still think the story in Steve Keen’s piece is the right one. But it’s important to confront the opposing argument in its strongest possible form.

Obviously, the opposing arguments I wanted Keen to respond to look a lot weaker now. Whatever qualifications I might still want to make, Keen got the basic points right, and those who are criticising him now should concede this.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Meltdown continues at the Oz

October 22nd, 2008 70 comments

The Australian has long since ceased to be a serious newspaper. Its opinion pages are devoted to recycling talking points from the US-centred rightwing parallel universe (some more serious conservatives have described it as the “conservative cocoon”, a term coined by conservative blogger Ross Douthat, recently elaborated here). Its political writers, who straddle the gap between news and commentary have long been in the tank for the conservative parties or for particular conservative politicians. Its war on science (Tim Lambert is now up to instalment XXII and he’s not comprehensive) has long passed beyond the point of absurdity.

Even so, I don’t think I’ve seen a front page headline as brazenly defiant of the facts as today’s. Having claimed, falsely, that the Reserve Bank opposed the government’s deposit guarantee, and been put down, mildly but firmly, by RBA Governor Glenn Stevens, the Oz doubles down and announces a “backflip” on the basis of the marginal adjustments discussed here yesterday.

For the correct story, you have to go the Fin (paywalled unfortunately). While the Fin is just as rightwing as the Oz on most issues, its readership consists primarily of businesspeople who need accurate information, not delusional rightwingers who need their prejudices confirmed. From the Fin it is clear that the Bank pushed for an unlimited guarantee (for much the same reasons as given here) and that it was Treasury that initially wanted the silly $20 000 limit.

The Oz is now essentially worthless as a source of information. Some individual journalists are still pretty good, and articles with their bylines are worth reading. But if their weather report predicted sunshine, I’d pack an umbrella, just in case.

Update The Oz goes for the trifecta, despite their claim that the RBA opposed an unlimited guarantee now being denied outright by both Glenn Stevens and Ken Henry. They have a document showing that the RBA wants to charge wholesale depositors directly for the guarantee and using the term “cap” to describe the amount that would be used to distinguish between wholesale and retail. This kind of ex post tweak is unsurprising, but still news and if the Oz had stuck to that a couple of days ago, they (and the Opposition) would be in less trouble now. Instead they have beaten it up into a full-scale war with the Government, Treasury and RBA which is going to cost them a lot in the long run.

To restate the point, the original announcement said nothing (at least nothing I saw) to indicate that the government guarantee would be free, and deposit insurance schemes normally involve a premium. In due course, I expect that the government will charge the protected institutions for the guarantee. It’s turned out to be necessary to move more quickly at the wholesale level, but this is a step in the right direction. The silly pointscoring of the Opposition (and its representatives in the press) is grossly irresponsible.

Categories: Economics - General, Media Tags:

Time of Hope?

October 21st, 2008 28 comments

As the odds shorten on an Obama victory, the undoubted enthusiasm for Obama is tempered by doubts that a new Democratic Administration, even backed up by strong majorities in both houses of Congress, will really change that much.

However, there’s a case for a much more optimistic view. Given a supermajority in the Senate, or even a win that’s near enough, with some RINO support to override Republican filibusters, some widely respected analysts are predicting marvellous things from Obama including:

* Medicare for all
* Serious financial reregulation
* Union rights
* Ending tax cuts for the rich
* A green ‘revolution’
* Voting rights for all, including DC

In the light of the lame record of the last congress, and of the Democratic Congresses in the 90s, this might seem unlikely. But an article I’ve just read points to a string of quite radical measures passed by the House in the last Congress and blocked only by the filibuster. Furthermore, as the writer observes the conversion of Southern Democrats into Republicans since the 90s means that most Democrats will hold the line on issues like health care.

All in all, it’s given me more cause for optimism than anything I’ve read for a while.

Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Defining the boundaries

October 21st, 2008 17 comments

I did a radio interview this morning, in response to a couple of stories about the second-round impacts of the government’s decision to guarantee bank deposits. Both at retail and wholesale levels, the decision has produced a rush to move funds where they can benefit from the guarantee. Those at the losing end, including foreign investment banks and mortgage funds are, unsurprisingly, upset.

This process was in fact underway before the announcement of an explicit guarantee, though the main trend was from smaller banks to the “too big to fail” Big Four. The guarantee benefitted the small banks, but put the pressure onto nonbanks and foreign banks. This was more or less inevitable and raises the question of the next steps.

Two responses are necessary. First, the government has to define the boundaries of its guarantee, making it clear that any investment outside the guarantee will not be bailed out under any circumstances. Second, it has to make it clear that there is a significant price to be paid for the guarantee. The price will include both an insurance premium and restrictions on risk-taking.

In the long run, this should lead to the kind of narrow banking model I’ve long advocated, in which publicly guaranteed banks stick to a tightly regulated range of well understood activities. This allows for a completely separate set of financial institutions, of which stock markets are the exemplar, where government guarantees are ruled out in advance*. These would offer higher returns but no possibility of transferring risk to the public.

The ultimate losers from the process are likely to be the Big Four, which previously got the benefit of “too big to fail” status at zero costs.

* It’s probably impossible to preclude emergency rescues of firms seen as vital, like Chrysler in the US or Rolls-Royce in the UK. But, where such rescues are unavoidable, they should be done on terms that wipe out the great bulk of shareholder equity and require a substantial haircut for bondholders as well.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

October 20th, 2008 64 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any issue. Civilised discussion only. Please avoid snarks and trolling and strictly no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Discredited credit agencies

October 19th, 2008 64 comments

I’ve done another guest post over at the ABC Unleashed site, on the topic, which we’ve discussed here a few times, of the ratings agencies, their quasi-official role in regulating investment, and their recent catastrophic failures. I’ve reposted it over the fold.

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Asset price bubbles

October 17th, 2008 30 comments

As the various asset price bubbles of the past decades or so inflated, and in some cases burst, there was vigorous debate about what, if anything should be done about them. The two main camps were those who advocated doing nothing, on the grounds that monetary policy should be focused solely on inflation, and those who thought that the settings of monetary policy should take asset prices into account. The first group won the debate at the time, at least as far as actual policy was concerned, with consequences we can all see. Most proponents of the do-nothing viewpoint have conceded defeat

In a paper in the (institutionalist) Journal of Economic Issues, which came out in 2006, Stephen Bell and I took a different view of the debate. We argued that there was little scope to respond to asset bubbles by changing the settings of existing monetary policy instruments, and that “any serious attempt to stabilize financial market outcomes must involve at least a partial reversal of deregulation.” Among other things, we pointed out the fact that given a presumption in favour of financial innovation, asset prices bubbles were inevitable, and that ‘In the absence of a severe failure in the financial system of the United States, it seems unlikely that ideas of a ‘new global financial architecture’ will ever be much more than ideas.’

You can read the full paper
Bell, S. and Quiggin, J. (2006), ‘Asset price instability and policy responses: The legacy of liberalization’, Journal of Economic Issues, XL(3), 629-49.


Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Climate change and the crisis

October 16th, 2008 64 comments

As I’ve mentioned before, the drama of the financial crisis has tended to distract attention from the bigger long-term problem of climate change. But is there more than that? How will the crisis affect the economics of a response to climate change? I’ve been asked by GetUp to do a guest post on this.

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Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Lame ducks

October 16th, 2008 11 comments

I wrote this is a guest post for the blog: not sure if they’ve run it yet.

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Categories: World Events Tags:

Quick take on fiscal stimulus package

October 15th, 2008 62 comments

I’ve been responding to quite a few media questions about the government’s fiscal stimulus package and I haven’t had time to formulate more than a dot-point response. So here goes
* The size of the package is about right and it makes sense to announce it now
* The help for pensioners and low-income households is well-targeted to meet both policy objectives and the need to bolster demand
* I’m less impressed by the increase in the First Homeowners grant. In the long run, this scheme has been part of the problem of high housing costs, not part of the solution. Maybe the government has information suggesting the possibility of a rapid collapse in the housing sector, in which case some sort of emergency stimulus might be necessary. But the medium term direction of house prices has to be down

I don’t think that differs much from the par response from economists, but I’d be interested in readers’ thoughts

Update 19/10More on this from Tristan Ewins

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Krugman wins Economics Nobel

October 13th, 2008 86 comments

Paul Krugman has been awarded the 2008 Nobel prize for economics[1]. The rules of the prize, honoured more in the breach than in the observance in economics, say that it is supposed to be given for a specific discovery, and Krugman is cited for his groundbreaking work in the economics of location done from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

The reality, though, is that economics prizes are awarded for careers. Krugman’s early work put him on the list of likely Nobelists, but his career took an unusual turn around the time of the 2000 election campaign. While he has still been active in academic research, Krugman’s career for the last eight years or more has been dominated by his struggle (initially a very lonely one) against the lies of the Bush Administration, its supporters and enablers. Undoubtedly, the award of the prize in this of all years, reflects an appreciation of this work on behalf of truth in economics and politics more generally.[2]

The crew at Crooked Timber, of which I’m part, have a more parochial reason for cheering this outcome. Paul has generously agreed to take a part in a CT seminar on the work of Charles Stross, which should be published in the next month or so. Without giving too much away, there are some Nobel-related insights in his contribution.

fn1. Strictly speaking, the Bank of Sweden prize in Economic Sciences in honour of Alfred Nobel, or something like that.
fn2. Doubtless, Republicans will complain about being implicitly identified, yet again, as enemies of science and of truth. But they’ve made their bed and must lie in it (in both senses of the word).

The fiscal policy response to the crisis

October 13th, 2008 22 comments

With the effective nationalisation of the banking system now accepted as necessary (Australia’s comprehensive guarantees amount to public assumption of the risks of ownership, and hopefully the fees to be paid by the banks will reflect this) attention has turned to the role of fiscal policy.

Getting fiscal policy right involves a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, there is the short-term need for stimulus. On the other hand, the combination of a large stimulus and a bailout/nationalisation package imply big deficits, which will have to be recouped in the future.

In the Australian context, the Opposition is calling for an immediate pension increase and the bringing forward of the next stage of tax cuts. That’s a plausible line, although other opportunities for stimulus through public expenditure need to be explored. But the obvious, though unstated, quid pro quo is that the ‘aspirational’ tax cuts proposed for the next Parliament should be taken off the table. It will take a long time to restore the budget balance after the kind of stimulus that is needed here.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

October 13th, 2008 9 comments

My backlog has diminished to the point where the Monday Message Board is up on Monday! Comments on any topic, civilised discussion, no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Now we're getting somewhere

October 12th, 2008 30 comments

The British government has abandoned proposals for non-voting preference shares and is moving towards full-scale nationalisation of the banking sector. According to the London Times(h/t Felix Salmon) the latest proposals would leave the government owning 70 per cent of Royal Bank of Scotland and 50 per cent of Halifax. The London stockmarket is likely to be closed, and it seems unlikely that many banks will remain private by the time it reopens. Presumably, with Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs in deep strife, the US can’t be far behind, though Paulson is still talking nonsense about non-voting shares. Still, it’s only three weeks ago that he was opposing any kind of public equity, and only six weeks ago that he was claiming that there were no real problems.

As the Times says, no-one knows how much toxic sludge will turn up when the government finally gets access to the books, but it seems unlikely that most governments will be overwhelmed in the way that Iceland has been. The capacity of developed-country governments to raise additional revenue is huge, easily enough to cover trillions in bad debt over a few years. So, once the sector is nationalised it should be possible to get lending flowing again. And, the prospects for an orderly shutdown of the massively overgrown markets for derivatives like credit default swaps suddenly seem a lot better.

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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

A good move

October 12th, 2008 22 comments
Categories: Economics - General Tags:

All that is solid melts into air

October 12th, 2008 10 comments

My piece in Thursday’s Fin caused a modest stir by quoting Karl Marx, offset to some extent by an allusion to Schumpeter. It’s mainly about how to finance infrastructure investment, given that the PPP model looks to be off the table for some years to come.

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A bit more on deposit guarantees

October 12th, 2008 4 comments

I worked a bit more on deposit guarantees and the resulting note is over the fold.

There’s also more from Joshua Gans, Peter Martin and Armagnac’d.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Weekend reflections

October 11th, 2008 16 comments

It’s time (a bit late again) for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

A bad move

October 10th, 2008 59 comments

The Rudd government has made its first big mistake in handling the financial crisis. The just-announced proposal to guarantee bank accounts up to $20 000 is worse than useless. Given that lots of people hold more than $20 000 in individual bank accounts, they have an obvious incentive to diversify, which means large scale withdrawals. The possibility of this turning into a run is far from remote. Turnbull’s suggestion of $100 000 is better, but the only serious option is an unlimited guarantee.

Update Some good news on this. Once we have a guarantee of $100K or more in place, the extra liability associated with an unlimited guarantee will be modest, while the gain in simplicity will be substantial, and the argument for exercising direct control over bank lending will be unanswerable. Of course, as a colleague pointed out in the course of email discussions on this point, the real problem is the banks’ reliance on overseas borrowing. I’ll be discussing some proposals on this before too long I hope.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

We are all socialists now

October 10th, 2008 46 comments

A couple of days ago, I thought my call for full-scale nationalisation of the banking sector would remain beyond the pale of political acceptability for at least a week. But in today’s paper I read the following, very sensible assessment

Inevitably, the US, Britain and Europe are going to end up with nationalised banking systems in one form or another, and with governments guaranteeing not only their deposits but probably all their liabilities. The nationalisation will be a temporary emergency measure. But for some time at least the systemically important banks effectively are going to be public utilities and must be regulated accordingly.

This taxpayer rescue of banking systems opens up a new and potentially very important avenue for unfreezing bank lending and restoring the flow of credit. If governments effectively control the banks, what is to stop them from demanding that they start lending again?

And what wild-eyed socialist wrote this? Alan Wood in the Australian.

Meanwhile, calls for a guarantee of bank deposits are gaining force.

Of course, none of this constitutes a shift to socialism in any meaningful sense of the term. But it does mean, for quite some time to come, the end of neoliberalism (or free-market liberalism or whatever you want to call the set of ideas centred on the proposition that markets can do a better job than governments in managing risks of all kinds). The question of what will replace neoliberalism has come up so suddenly, and in such chaotic circumstances, that no-one has a clear answer. I’m confident that the response must be broadly social democratic, but there are a lot of details that need to be filled in.

Note The spam filter has been rejecting comments because of the ci*lis problem in the post title. I’ve fixed that, but commenters will probably need to asterisk the S word (Soci*lism) to avoid the filter.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

State capitalism on the instalment plan

October 8th, 2008 65 comments

With the financial meltdown accelerating in the wake of the US bailout, and the recognition that many more failing banks will have to be nationalized, the British government is moving to get ahead of the game by offering equity injections across the board. But already this seems inadequate. Now that the taboo on nationalization has been broken, wouldn’t it make better sense to for the UK (and others) to nationalize the whole sector? With full control, governments could then ensure the resumption of interbank lending at least among their own banks. This would provide a feasible basis for co-operative moves to re-establish international markets.

For this week at least, such an idea is beyond the range of political acceptability. But it’s striking to look back a month and realise that in that period the US government has become the main mortgage lender, the guarantor of the short term money market, the effective owner of the world’s largest insurance company, the potential future owner of much of the banking sector and now the purchaser of last resort for commercial paper. Since the reluctance of banks to buy commercial paper must reflect a significant probability of default, it seems inevitable that some of this commercial paper will end up being converted into claims on the assets of defaulting issuers, extending the scope of nationalisation beyond the finance sector and into business in general.

This kind of instalment-plan nationalisation seems to offer the worst of all worlds. At some point, a more systematic approach will have to be adopted, and given the rate at which markets are plummeting, the sooner that point comes the better. This isn’t the return of socialism, but it certainly looks like the end of the kind of financial capitalism that has prevailed for the last few decades.