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Posts Tagged ‘economy

“Symmetry is not the way of the world in all times and places”*…

What a difference a couple of decades make…

Asymmetries are back. Rising market power, the sudden ubiquity of global digital networks, hierarchical hub-and-spoke structures in international trade and finance and the enduring dominance of the US dollar, despite the transition to floating exchange rates, all point to their resurgence. The remarkable decay of economic multilateralism in the very fields – trade and development finance – where global rules and institutions were first tried and reigned supreme for decades, is paving the way to a redefinition of international relations on a bilateral or regional basis, with powerful countries setting their own rules of the game. This transformation is compounded by the strengthening of geopolitical rivalry between the US, China and a handful of second-tier powers.

Donald Trump’s attempt to leverage US centrality in the global economy to extract rents from economic partners was short-lived. But US policy has certainly changed permanently. For all its friendly intentions, the Biden administration leaves no doubt about its overriding priorities: a foreign policy for the (domestic) middle class – to quote the title of a recent report (Ahmed et al, 2020) – and the preservation of the US edge over China. China, for its part, has set itself the goal of becoming by 2049 a “fully developed, rich and power-ful” nation and does not show any intention to play by multi-lateral rules that were conceived by others. In this context, the rapid escalation of great power competition between Washington and Beijing is driving both rivals towards the building of competing systems of bilateral or regional arrangements.

What is emerging is not only an asymmetric hub-and-spoke landscape. It is a world in which hubs are controlled by major geopolitical powers – in other words, a multipolar, fragmented world. Nothing indicates that these asymmetries will fade away any time soon. On the contrary, economic, systemic and geopolitical factors all suggest they may prove persistent. We will have to learn to live with them.

There are several consequences. First, this new context calls for an analytical reassessment. Recent research has put the spotlight on a series of economic, financial or monetary asymmetries and has begun to uncover their determinants and effects. Analytical and empirical tools are available that make it possible to gather systematic evidence and to document the impact of asymmetries on the distribution of the gains from economic interdependence. We are on our way to learning more about the welfare and the policy implications of participating in an increasingly asymmetric global system.

Second, the relationship between economics and geopolitics must now be looked at in a more systematic way. For many years – even before the demise of the Soviet Union – international economic relations were considered in isolation, at least by economists. They were looked at as if they were (mostly) immune from geopolitical tensions. This stance is no longer tenable, at a time when great-power rivalry is reasserting itself as a key determinant of policy decisions. Whatever their wishes, economists have no choice but to respond to this new reality. They should document the potential for coercion by powers in control of crucial nodes or infrastructures and the risks involved in participating in the global economy from a vulnerable position.

Third, supporters of multilateralism need to wake up to the new context. They have too often championed a world made up of peaceful and balanced relations that bears limited resemblance to reality. Because power and asymmetry can only be forgotten at one’s own risk, neglecting them inevitably fuels mistrust of principles, rules and institutions that are perceived as biased. Multilateralism remains essential, but institutions are not immune to the risk of capture.

Asymmetry, however, does not imply a change of paradigm. Even if it affects the distribution of gains from trade, it does not abolish them. And in a world in which global public goods (and bads) have moved to the forefront of the policy agenda, there is no alternative to cooperation and institutionalised collective action. The prevention of climate-related disasters, maintenance of public health and preservation of biodiversity will remain vital tasks whatever the state of inter-national relations. What asymmetries call for is an adaptation of policy template. The multilateral project should not be ditched, but it must be rooted in reality.

Understanding the emerging new global economy: from the conclusion of Jean Pisani-Ferry‘s (@pisaniferry) paper, “Global Assymetries Strike Back,” eminently worth reading in full. [Via @adam_tooze]

*  Charles Kindelberger, economic historian and architect of the Marshall Plan

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As we find our place, we might send tight birthday greetings to Paul Adolph Volcker Jr.; he was born on this date in 1927. An economist, he was appointed Federal Reserve Chair by President Carter in 1979, and reappointed by President Reagan. He took that office in a time of “stagflation” in the U.S.; his tight money policies, combined with Reagan’s expansive fiscal policy(large tax cuts and a major increase in military spending), tamed inflation, but led to much larger federal deficits (and thus, higher federal interest costs) and increased economic imbalances across the economy. In the end, Reagan let Volcker go; as Joseph Stiglitz observed, “Paul Volcker… known for keeping inflation under control, was fired because the Reagan administration didn’t believe he was an adequate de-regulator.”

Volcker returned to government service in 2009 as the chairman of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. In 2010, Obama proposed bank regulations which he dubbed “The Volcker Rule,” which would prevent commercial banks from owning and investing in hedge funds and private equity, and limit the trading they do for their own accounts (a reprise of a key element in the then-defunct Glass-Steagell Act). It was enacted; but in 2020, FDIC officials said the agency would loosen the restrictions of the Volcker Rule, allowing banks to more easily make large investments into venture capital and similar funds.

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“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals”*…

It’s said that nothing lasts forever…

In 1930, the English economist John Maynard Keynes took a break from writing about the problems of the interwar economy and indulged in a bit of futurology. In an essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” he speculated that by the year 2030 capital investment and technological progress would have raised living standards as much as eightfold, creating a society so rich that people would work as little as fifteen hours a week, devoting the rest of their time to leisure and other “non-economic purposes.” As striving for greater affluence faded, he predicted, “the love of money as a possession . . . will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity.”

This transformation hasn’t taken place yet, and most economic policymakers remain committed to maximizing the rate of economic growth. But Keynes’s predictions weren’t entirely off base. After a century in which G.D.P. per person has gone up more than sixfold in the United States, a vigorous debate has arisen about the feasibility and wisdom of creating and consuming ever more stuff, year after year. On the left, increasing alarm about climate change and other environmental threats has given birth to the “degrowth” movement, which calls on advanced countries to embrace zero or even negative G.D.P. growth. “The faster we produce and consume goods, the more we damage the environment,” Giorgos Kallis, an ecological economist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, writes in his manifesto, “Degrowth.” “There is no way to both have your cake and eat it, here. If humanity is not to destroy the planet’s life support systems, the global economy should slow down.” In “Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities,” Vaclav Smil, a Czech-Canadian environmental scientist, complains that economists haven’t grasped “the synergistic functioning of civilization and the biosphere,” yet they “maintain a monopoly on supplying their physically impossible narratives of continuing growth that guide decisions made by national governments and companies.”

Once confined to the margins, the ecological critique of economic growth has gained widespread attention. At a United Nations climate-change summit in September, the teen-age Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg declared, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” The degrowth movement has its own academic journals and conferences. Some of its adherents favor dismantling the entirety of global capitalism, not just the fossil-fuel industry. Others envisage “post-growth capitalism,” in which production for profit would continue, but the economy would be reorganized along very different lines. In the influential book “Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow,” Tim Jackson, a professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, in England, calls on Western countries to shift their economies from mass-market production to local services—such as nursing, teaching, and handicrafts—that could be less resource-intensive. Jackson doesn’t underestimate the scale of the changes, in social values as well as in production patterns, that such a transformation would entail, but he sounds an optimistic note: “People can flourish without endlessly accumulating more stuff. Another world is possible.”

Even within mainstream economics, the growth orthodoxy is being challenged, and not merely because of a heightened awareness of environmental perils. In “Good Economics for Hard Times,” two winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, point out that a larger G.D.P. doesn’t necessarily mean a rise in human well-being—especially if it isn’t distributed equitably—and the pursuit of it can sometimes be counterproductive. “Nothing in either our theory or the data proves the highest G.D.P. per capita is generally desirable,” Banerjee and Duflo, a husband-and-wife team who teach at M.I.T., write…

As the estimable John Cassidy (@JohnCassidy) explains, the critique of economic growth, once a fringe position, is gaining widespread attention in the face of the climate crisis: “Can We Have Prosperity Without Growth?

See also Branko Milanovic (@BrankoMilan): “Degrowth: solving the impasse by magical thinking.”

* “When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” — John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren

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As we internalize externalities, we might send carefully-conserved birthday greetings to Gifford Pinchot; he was born on this date in 1865.  An American forester, he became the first chief of the Forest Service in 1905. By 1910, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s backing, he built 60 forest reserves covering 56 million acres into 150 national forests covering 172 million acres.  Roosevelt’s successor, President Taft– no environmentalist– fired Pinchot.  Still Pinchot’s efforts earned him the honorific, “the father of conservation.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 11, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”*…

The pandemic economy has been strange and unpredictable from the get-go.

Throughout the past 14 months, the twists and turns have been surprising: The housing market boomedthe stock market soaredpeople got into day tradingeveryone hoarded toilet paper, and lumber became a must-have. There’s been widespread disagreement about how much support from the government was needed, whether the country was doing too much or not enough, or whether help would come at all. We won’t know whether the country overshot or undershot the response for years, and there’s still uncertainty about what’s happening in the labor marketprices, and other areas. And the prevailing theme has been one that has nothing to do with the economy directly: As long as Covid-19 isn’t under control, the economy isn’t either.

“Having been a forecaster for 10 years, we were surprised all the time, because nobody has a crystal ball and particularly if you just pull out one data series, one month, there’s just no way,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist and now a senior fellow at the Jain Family Institute. “It’s going to be a wild ride; the data through the end of this year, they’re going to be tough.”

The country and the world are staring into a black box of uncertainty on the economy. It’s frustrating, but it’s also inevitable. Anyone who says they know exactly what is going on in the economy right now is lying. The same goes for anyone who says they know what’s going to happen next.

“Because of the unique nature of this crisis, there are going to be some swings,” said Mike Konczal, director of macroeconomic analysis at the Roosevelt Institute. “In a year, they’re going to be trivia questions, but right now we’re obsessing about them.”

Few people will probably remember two years from now that the price of used cars and trucks went up by 10 percent in April. 

We know that the economy is different now than it was a year ago and that it will be different a year from now. What’s not clear is exactly how. And what we need now — including economists, experts, and policymakers — is the intellectual humility to recognize that’s the case.

“At this point, most things should be presumed temporary until proven permanent,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at the jobs website Indeed.

It’s unnerving to admit what we don’t know, and the pandemic has been a real exercise in that. But after so long of staring into the abyss, maybe it’s time we embrace it…

Anyone who says they know exactly what’s happening in the economy is lying. Emily Stewart (@EmilyStewartM) explores that uncertainty and what it might mean: “The black box economy.”

* John Kenneth Galbraith

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As we consult the stars, we might note that today is National Be a Millionaire Day. While many sources confirm this celebratory fact, there’s no real information on its origin. The term “millionaire” was coined in France around 1719 to describe speculators in the Mississippi Bubble who earned millions of livres in weeks before the bubble burst; it seems first to have appeared in the U.S. in 1786, when Thomas Jefferson wrote about the French… so the “holiday” surely dates from sometime after that.

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“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”*…

In a stark sign of the economic inequality that has marked the pandemic recession and recovery, Americans as a whole are now earning the same amount in wages and salaries that they did before the virus struck — even with nearly 9 million fewer people working. 

The turnaround in total wages underscores how disproportionately America’s job losses have afflicted workers in lower-income occupations rather than in higher-paying industries, where employees have actually gained jobs as well as income since early last year.

In February 2020, Americans earned $9.66 trillion in wages and salaries, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, according to the Commerce Department data. By April, after the virus had flattened the U.S. economy, that figure had shrunk by 10%. It then gradually recovered before reaching $9.67 trillion in December, the latest period for which data is available. 

Those dollar figures include only wages and salaries that people earned from jobs. They don’t include money that tens of millions of Americans have received from unemployment benefits or the Social Security and other aid that goes to many other households. The figures also don’t include investment income… 

The figures document that the vanished earnings from 8.9 million Americans who have lost jobs to the pandemic remain less than the combined salaries of new hires and the pay raises that the 150 million Americans who have kept their jobs have received.

The job cuts resulting from the pandemic recession have fallen heavily on lower-income workers across the service sector— from restaurants and hotels to retail stores and entertainment venues. By contrast, tens of millions of higher-income Americans, especially those able to work from home, have managed to keep or acquire jobs and continue to receive pay increases.

“We’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Richard Deitz, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, referring to the concentration of job losses. “It’s a totally different kind of downturn than we’ve experienced in modern times.”

The figures also underscore the unusually accelerated nature of this recession. As a whole, both the job losses that struck early last spring and the initial rebound in hiring that followed have happened much faster than they did in previous recessions and recoveries. After the Great Recession, for example, it took nearly 2 1/2 years for wages and salaries to regain their pre-recession levels…

One reason why the job losses have had relatively little impact on the nation’s total pay is that so many of the affected employees worked part time. The average work week in the industry that includes hotels, restaurants and bars is just below 26 hours. That’s the shortest such figure among 13 major industries tracked by the government. The next shortest is retail, at about 31 hours. The average for all industries is nearly 35 hours. 

The recovery in wages and salaries helps explain why some states haven’t suffered as sharp a drop in tax revenue as many had feared. That is especially true for states that rely on progressive taxes that fall more heavily on the rich. California, for example, said last month that it has a $15 billion budget surplus. Yet many cities are still struggling, and local transit agencies, such as New York City’s subway, have been hammered by the pandemic.

The wage and salary data also helps explain the steady gains in the stock market, which have been led by high-tech companies whose products are being heavily purchased and used by higher-income Americans, such as Apple iPads, Peloton bikes, or Amazon’s online shopping.

This week, the New York Fed released research that underscored how focused the job losses have been. For people making less than $30,000 a year, employment has fallen 14% as of December. For those earning more than $85,000, it has actually risen slightly. For those in-between, employment has fallen 4%… 

Some companies have cut wages in this recession, but on the whole the many millions of Americans fortunate enough to keep their jobs have generally received pay raises at largely pre-recession rates. Some of those income gains likely reflect cost-of-living raises; the Commerce Department’s wage and salary data isn’t adjusted for inflation…

Truman Bewley, a retired Yale University economist who wrote a book about the concept of sticky wages, said that most companies have a key core of workers they rely on through hard times and are reluctant to cut pay for them. 

And there’s another reason, Bewley said, why many companies cut jobs instead of pay. While researching his book, he said a factory manager told him why his company did so: “It gets the misery out the door.”  

More at: “Sign of inequality: US salaries recover even as jobs haven’t.”

See also “More Than 33 Million Americans Have Filed for Unemployment During Coronavirus Pandemic.” source of the image above.

And to compare the U.S. to other countries, try this nifty interactive visualization.

* Plutarch

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As we examine equity, we might send foundational birthday greetings to Pierre le Pesant, sieur de Boisguilbert; he was born on this date in 1646. A French lawmaker and a Jansenist, he is best remembered as one of the inventors of the notion of an economic market– he championed free trade in opposition to Colbert‘s mercantilist views (which generated government revenues through duties and tariffs).

But he is also noteworthy as the champion of a single tax on each citizen (in lieu of all tariffs, customs, and other trade-related fees) that in some ways presaged Henry George‘s proposals.

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“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom”*…

Some of the music to which we listened in 1971 [source]

What a difference five decades makes…

1971 was an eventful year: Intel released the world’s first commercial microprocessor, the 4004; the Aswan Dam was completed; Charles Manson and three of his followers received the death penalty: National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast for the first time; Walt Disney World opened in Florida: Mount Etna erupted (again): The “Pentagon Papers” were made public; the Attica Prion riots happened; the 26th Amendment (lowering the voting age to 18) was ratified; Amtrak, FedEx, the Nasdaq, and Greenpeace were created; China was admitted to the U.N.; Qatar and what is now the UAE were freed from British colonial rule; and so very much more…

Richard Nixon was U.S. President. Average income in the U.S. was $10,600; the average home price was $25,250. A movie ticket cost $1.50; a gallon of gas, $0.33. We listened to music the featured the albums pictured above; we saw Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, and Diamonds Are Forever at the movies; and we watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Partridge Family, McCloud, and Walter Cronkite on TV.

As we look back fifty years, we can see that 1971 seems– beyond the idiosyncratic consequences of the many events that distinguished it– to have been a point of inflection, of sustained changes in direction economically, politically, socially, and culturally:

A small selection from a plethora of charts that ask: “WTF Happened In 1971?

* Francis Bacon

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As we hit the stacks, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Luther Terry, M.D., published the landmark report Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States saying that smoking may be hazardous to health– and sparking national (and worldwide) anti-smoking efforts. While it wasn’t the first such declaration (nor even the first declaration by a U.S. official), it is notable for being arguably the most famous such declaration for its lasting and widespread effects both on the tobacco industry and on the worldwide perception of smoking. A federal ban on cigarette advertising on television went into effect… in 1971.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 11, 2021 at 1:01 am

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