Public debt after the pandemic

Another extract from my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world have issued huge amounts of public debt, much of which has been purchased by central banks. In the US, for example, Federal public debt increased by $3 trillion over the course of 2020 (this is about 15 per cent of US national income)

while the monetary base (money created directly by the Federal Reserve) increased by around $1.6 trillion. This money was used to buy government bonds along with corporate securities in open market operations (what is now called Quantitative Easing)

Update Important but complicated: the Treasury has been overfunding its spending needs by issuing securities, and then depositing the excess proceeds at the Fed. To accommodate this, the Fed has increased its secondary market purchases of Treasurys. Netting out the Treasury account, the Fed’s balance sheet is $5.6 trillion rather than $7.2 trillion. Moreover, the post-COVID balance sheet expansion was $1.7 trillion, not $3.0 trillion. (moneyandbanking.com/commentary/202…) Presumably, the latest stimulus package ($900 billion) will draw down much of the Treasury account. If I have it right, this has been accommodated in advance by Fed purchases. End update

These policies represent a complete repudiation of assumptions which were considered unquestionable by the political class until relatively recently: that budgets should be balanced, and that public debt is always undesirable.

Even the most widely-accepted modifications of these assumptions are now problematic. A standard view is that budget balances should be stable over the course of the economic cycle. If measured appropriately, this entails a stable ratio of public debt to national income.

But where should this ratio be set?

Read More »

Scarcity and plenty

[Warning: half-formed thoughts ahead]
One of the most striking characteristics of the 21st century economy (divided into goods, human contact services and information) is that even very poor people have access to information-based services that were almost unimaginable 30 years ago. Given free wifi and a second-hand phone, someone lining up at a food bank can blog about the experience, and possibly attract readers all around the world[1]. Or they can entertain themselves with an endless supply of free books, news media, music and videos. That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that people in both rich and poor countries are going hungry.

Economics has traditionally been about scarcity. But now we have one part of the economy where scarcity remains dominant, and another, growing part, where it has just about disappeared. That raises a lot of different issues.

First, while we are accustomed to think of things like economic growth and inflation rates as objective facts, they are actually based on index numbers, which are the products of theoretical models. Those models don’t work well when an increasing part of the economy consists of information services that are becoming radically cheaper all the time. As a result, much of the debate about the desirability or otherwise of growth is misconceived.

A positive implication is that we can anticipate improving standards of living, because of ever-increasing access to information services, without economic growth in the 20th century sense of steadily increasing throughput of materials and energy, and correspondingly increasing environmental damage. T

A negative implication is that real incomes (that is, incomes deflated by a consumer price index) can increase, even as basic needs like food and housing become less affordable, because the price of inforamation related services is falling fast. I can’t find much that’s readily accessible on this – pointers would be appreciated. One notable fact is that the proportion of disposable income spent on food, which fell sharply between 1960 and 1998, has remained almost static since then. The price of food seems to have risen a little faster than the CPI over this period.

I haven’t talked yet about human contact services. Scarcity is just as relevant here as in the goods economy. Governments are heavily involved in funding and providing these services, and the quality of services is hard to measure. As a result, the kinds of services people get aren’t determined simply by their capacity to pay.

A question to which I don’t have an answer. Is there some way to exploit the massively increased productivity of information services to allow more, and more equal, provision of basic goods? This question underlies a lot of discussion about Universal Basic Income and similar ideas, but is rarely posed in a satisfactory way, let alone answered.

As you can tell, I’m struggling with some complicated problems here, so any thoughts welcome.

fn1. In the early days of blogging, thehomelessguy [Kevin Barbieux] did exactly this. His most recent site is here.

Synopsis

As was the case with Economics in Two Lessons, I’ve been struggling with the material for my book-in-progress, The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. But I’ve now managed to put together a synopsis I can work with. I’d very much appreciate comments, including but not limited to: topics I should be covering; issues raised by the brief summaries; and useful references. Thanks for comments so far, and thanks in advance for more.

Covid and the climate emergency

(Another extract from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic)

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a variety of social and economic trends, some beneficial and some harmful, that were already underway before 2020.

An important example of a beneficial effect has been an acceleration of the decline of carbon-based fuels. Lockdowns early in the pandemic produced a substantial reduction in demand for both electricity and transport. As well as providing a brief glimpse of a world with greatly reduced atmospheric pollution, the lockdown accelerated shifts in the energy mix that were already underway.

Since solar PV and wind plants cost nothing to operate, the reduction in electricity demand fell most severely on carbon-based fuels, particularly coal. As a result, the combined contribution of PV, wind and hydroelectricity to US energy generation surpassed that of coal for the first time in 130 years.

Official projections from the EIA suggest that coal use will return to its gradually declining trend in the wake of the pandemic, exceeding renewables for some years to come. However, the pace at which coal plants are being closed or converted to run on gas has accelerated during pandemic. Meanwhile, despite weak demand, wind and PV plants are being installed at a record pace, partly because near-zero interest rates make capital investments cheaper.

The reduction in transport usage reduced demand for oil, at one point leading to a startling situation where the price of oil was negative, as unsold oil exceed the capacity for storage. Although the price has recovered somewhat, it seems unlikely that transport demand will return to its previous trend.

At the same time, there has been continued progress, both technological and political, in the electrification of transport. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the sale of petrol and diesel cars would be prohibited after 2030, an advance on previous commitments. The decline in long-term interest rates also enhances the economic position of electric vehicles, which have higher upfront costs and lower operating and maintenance costs than petrol and diesel vehicles. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/auto-loan-interest-rates-drop-in-may-to-lowest-level-since-2013-according-to-edmunds-301069143.html

Not all energy-related developments associated with Covid have been positive. The convenience and cheapness of online taxi platforms like Uber and Lyft has reduced use of public transport in many cities. The pandemic, with the need to avoid crowded spaces like buses and subway cars has exacerbated this trend. And, while the option of working remotely reduces the need for travel, it has encouraged a more dispersed workforce with less need to commute to the central city locations best served by public transport.

Climate change after the pandemic

Even as the future of US democracy remains in the balance, and as the pandemic still rages, I’m still working on my book The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. At this stage, it’s hard to get a clear idea of how things will look when and if the pandemic is brought under control. One thing that is certain is that the problem of climate change/global heating will not have gone away. Over the fold, the intro for the chapter I’m writing on this topic. Comments, criticism and compliments all gratefully accepted.

The pandemic disaster has absorbed all of our attention. But the longer-running, and ultimately more dangerous disaster of global heating has continued to wreak its ever-increasing havoc.

The hottest temperature ever reliably recorded (130 F or 54 C) was observed on Sunday August 16 2020, at Death Valley. Unsurprisingly the record temperatures gave rise to hundreds of disastrous fires throughout California The scale of the fires was described by the New York Times as ‘staggering; with 1.4 million acres burned by August. But this was not a once-off disaster. Fires in 2017 set a new record for their extent and damage, only to be eclipsed by even worse disasters in 2018. The fires of 2019, which saw much of the electricity grid shut down for days on end, and 250 000 acres burned, seemed mild by comparison.

This pattern is not unique to the US. Massive fires have occurred from the Arctic to the Amazon. Over the Southern hemisphere summer of 2019-20, my own home country, Australia, experienced the worst bushfire season on record, with major cities blanketed in toxic smoke for weeks on end. Thirty-four people were killed by the fires themselves, but hundreds more died from the acute effects of the smoke, and many more are likely to die of long-term effects. Humans weren’t alone. Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced, with whole species threatened with extinction.

On the Atlantic coast of the US, the climate drove a different kind of disaster. As has become normal in recent years, the first storms of the North Atlantic hurricane season arrived in May, before the official start of the season on June 1. In August, Hurricane Laura became the strongest on record (by windspeed) to make landfall in Louisiana, tying a record set in 1856. Only the speed with which Laura moved inland prevented catastrophic damage on the scale seen with disasters like Katrina and Sandy. By mid-November, the 2020 season was declared the most active on record. There is now very strong evidence that climate change is causing more severe hurricanes, with heavier associated rainfall and rapid intensification.

As with the pandemic, we had plenty of warning about climate change. The science of global warming has been understood since the 19th century, and evidence that warming is taking place began to mount from the early 1980s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, and produced its First Assessment Report in 1990, leading to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The report established that global warming was taking place and that “emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: CO2, methane, CFCs and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface. The main greenhouse gas, water vapour, will increase in response to global warming and further enhance it.” However, considerable uncertainty remained regarding whether observed global warming was due to natural variability, human activity or some combination of the two.

The Second Assessment Report in 1995 presented stronger evidence that warming was being driven by greenhouse gas emissions. But already there was pressure from some governments to water down the conclusion.

A series of subsequent IPCC Assessment Reports has documented the increase in global temperatures and established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that human activity is primarily responsible. The most recent was the Fifth Assessment Report, released in 2014. The key finding:

Warming of the atmosphere and ocean system is unequivocal. Many of the associated impacts such as sea level change (among other metrics) have occurred since 1950 at rates unprecedented in the historical record. There is a clear human influence on the climate. It is extremely likely [probability greater than 95 per cent] that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950,

Transmission too

In my article arguing that electricity from solar PV (and wind) could soon be too cheap to meter, I didn’t mention transmission networks. That was for space reasons.

The case for public investment is actually stronger for transmission than for generation. Electricity transmission lines have the same cost structure as renewables (low operational cost and long lives), if anything more so, meaning that the cost of transmission depends primarily on the need to secure a return to the capital invested.

More than this, the electricity grid as a whole is a complex network in which valuing the services of any individual component is just about impossible. That in turn means that relying on markets to make optimal investment decisions is untenable.

For these reasons, the electricity transmission network should never have been privatised. I’ve been arguing for renationalisation for years.

Amazingly, in the new low interest environment, this idea seems to be gaining traction, at least as regards new investment. Labor has proposed a $20 billion public investment. The government hasn’t gone that far, but is seeking to use its own borrowing capacity to provide low cost finance for transmission investment ( a half-baked compromise, but better than nothing).

Too cheap to meter

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Inside Story, looking at the implications of zero interest rates for renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Key para

Once a solar module has been installed, a zero rate of interest means that the electricity it generates is virtually free. Spread over the lifetime of the module, the cost is around 2c/kWh (assuming $1/watt cost, 2000 operating hours per year and a twenty-five-year lifetime). That cost would be indexed to the rate of inflation, but would probably never exceed 3c/kWh.

The prospect of electricity this cheap might seem counterintuitive to anyone whose model of investment analysis is based on concepts like “present value” and payback periods. But in the world of zero real interest rates that now appears to be upon us, such concepts are no longer relevant. Governments can, and should, invest in projects whenever the total benefits exceed the costs, regardless of how those benefits are spread over time.