Productivity statistics expose deep weaknesses in theoretical economics

I hadn’t intended to post for another couple of weeks, but this article in the Financial Times is too good to miss. It tackles one of the central issues in modern economic debate: why productivity growth is so slow. Productivity lies at the heart of the conventional view of public policy – and yet it is very poorly understood. This article sheds light on what is happening in the UK – and it should give politicians and economists pause.

Productivity is in principle a very simple idea. It is the amount produced by a unit of labour in a unit of time – the number of widgets per person per hour, for example. This immediately conjures up a clear mental picture of a factory producing cars, say. Count the number of cars produced, and the number of hours of labour required and it is easy-peasy, surely? Alas in a modern economy  it is a much more difficult idea. What if your car factory is producing both Ford Fiestas and Mondeos, and switches to the smaller car? Has productivity gone up if more are produced? And how do you distinguish product enhancement from inflation?  And then there are problems treating capital outputs and inputs, research and development, and so on. In the end the productivity measured across an economy is a bit of a balancing figure, as we accountants would call it – or a bit of a dustbin – what’s left when you’ve taken everything else out. It is just a number relationship without a coherent meaning in its own right. It is not like the concepts that physical scientists are used to dealing with – such as the temperature and pressure of a gas. Macroeconomics is heterogeneous, to say nothing of being subject to capricious social forces that tend to corrupt all attempts at measurement.

Now, what is the productivity puzzle? It is that productivity growth, as measured by macroeconomic statisticians, has slowed markedly since 2008, when the financial crash caused a dislocation in measured income. This applies to all developed economies, but to the British economy most of all – UK productivity growth, according to the article, fell from 1.6% per annum before 2008 to just 0.3% after. This has profound implications, since in the long term productivity growth is what drives income per head, alongside the average hours people work (influenced strongly by workforce participation – such as how many women are in paid employment). And this drives tax revenues, from which public services are funded. Since we assume that quality of life is mainly driven by income, and that public services can constantly be enhanced by extra spending (apart from occasional periods of “austerity”), this has profound implications. Prior to 2008 most economists assumed that productivity growth of 1-2% pa was a law of nature and  main driver of “trend growth”, which could be baked into economic models. The corollary was that weak growth since 2008, and the failure of GDP to catch up with the pre 2008 trend-line, was a failure in macroeconomic policy.

But given the dustbin nature of the productivity statistics, it is very hard to drill down into them to find out just where the problem is – though that there is a problem of some sort is clear. This is licence for all manner of people to project their speculations into a fact-free zone. Mostly these are based on the intuitively obvious idea that the changes to the productivity figures represent trends in the efficiency of workers. Recently Bank of England bigwig Andrew Haldane moaned that the problem was that efficiency was stuck in a rut, especially in a swathe of mediocre firms. He based this on sectoral analysis which showed that the productivity had stagnated across all sectors – with economic growth mainly attributed to rises in employment, not efficiency.

The FT article, authored by Chris Giles and Gemma Tetlow, challenge that. A close examination of the numbers shows that the crash in productivity growth arises from changes in a small number of economic sectors, accounting for just 11% of income. These are banking, telecoms, electricity and gas, management consultancy, and legal and accounting services. Actually Mr Haldane’s and Mr Giles/Ms Tetlow’s analysis can be reconciled. Mr Haldane was taking a general view across the economy since 2008, where productivity growth is now very limited. The FT writers are looking at the transition from before and after 2008. The curious point is why productivity growth was so high in that small number of industries before 2008 – and the realisation that this is what was driving so much of the figures for productivity growth before that date.

And that leaves this blogger asking whether that pre-crash productivity growth – and by implication the pre-crash trend rate of overall economic growth – was in any sense real, other than statistically. In banking we know that in 2008 massive state resources were required to keep the industry alive, and that since then the industry has been much better controlled. This suggests that “productivity” would more correctly be described as “recklessness”. And in each of the other industries you can point to factors that demonstrate that growth was not simply incremental improvements in efficiency. For example in electricity and gas productivity was based on high inputs of fossil fuels and nuclear energy – and the switch away from these destructive sources of power has caused a decline in measured productivity. And how on earth do you assess the output of management consultancy, and accountancy and legal services? The transition may simply be from high margins in boom economy conditions to higher scrutiny when times were harder – or to put it another way, what was supposedly economic growth prior to 2008 was in fact concealed inflation.

All this supports the narrative that I have been promoting for quite a few years about the transition from growth to austerity. This is that the supposed growth of the economy of the early to mid noughties in the UK was down to excess demand, of which reckless fiscal policy was a part  – though you might alternatively argue that it was reckless borrowing by the private sector that the government turned a blind eye to. It also suggests that the lacklustre economic performance of the UK economy since 2008 reflects a lot more than just weak demand management: it is chickens coming home to roost.

This takes me to two very important conclusions. The first is that we have to be very careful about the recommendations of macroeconomists – and the eco-system of commentators and policy types that use macroeconomics as their starting point. The bandying about of aggregate statistics is all very well – but the aggregates hide as well as reveal – and we need to base economic prescriptions on the complexities of the real economy. That is hard, but necessary.

The second point is that overall productivity is indeed stuck in a rut, and has been since well before 2008. It must reflect structural issues in real economy – and not simply laziness amongst mediocre firms or poor macroeconomic management. There is no shortage of potential culprits: demographics; the nature of modern technology; the temporary nature of gains from trade with Asian economies. The world may still be becoming a better place – but because of things that are not captured in GDP, and hence productivity statistics. The problem for public policy is that tax revenues are largely driven by GDP (which is why it is an important statistic) – so we can’t expect an ever increasing flow of tax revenue to fund public services. In the long run we must either reduce the demand for public services (healthier people, fewer crimes, less skewed income distribution, etc.), raise taxes, or compromise what level of services and benefits we think that a civilised state should provide.

And that is a completely new way of thinking about public policy. The political right have grasped this (for the wrong reasons, perhaps) – but the left has not.

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New monetarism: a challenge to conventional economics

Followers of my blog may have noticed quite prolonged exchanges in the comments section between me and Peter Martin. We are both amateur economists so this kind of exchange helps to sharpen thinking, absent an academic or journalistic environment. In order that I might understand Peter’s critique better, he suggested that I view this video of Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Ms Kelton advocates a system referred to as “Modern Monetary Theory” or, sometimes, “neo-chartalism”. (I will use “neo-chartalism” henceforth as it is easier to write; the “neo” is needed because I think a lot has been added to the basic idea of chartalism). When, as I recently blogged, mainstream macroeconomic thinking is in a sad state, it behoves us to look at those challenging it. This is an interesting idea to pick apart.

The core idea is in fact quite an old one – the original chartalism dates from 1905 and its ideas can be traced back further than that. It is that money is a state artifact, and as such the state has much more latitude in its management than conventional wisdom allows. This is in opposition to the more conventional view that money evolved primarily as a means of exchange to facilitate a market economy, and that the state’s powers to manage it must be constrained or it will be devalued. It is also contrasted with an idea of money that is intimately linked to precious metals (“metalism”), which is a bit cranky these days.

The chartalist view is that money’s primary function is as a voucher with which to pay taxes. It stems from the need of states to commandeer resources to fulfill its functions; this it does through the imposition of liabilities on citizens, which we call taxes. It uses currency values to denominate these liabilities, and then puts physical currency into circulation so that they can be settled. It does this in the first instance by paying its servants and suppliers in this currency. Since everybody needs currency to pay taxes, it quickly evolves into the primary medium of exchange for the whole economy. This allows a banking system to develop for the provision of credit, which in turn facilitates the evolution of money from precious metal coins, to vouchers for precious metal, to fiat money not backed by anything at all. The utility of fiat money, which people not so long ago would have been quite unable to comprehend, is perhaps the ultimate vindication of chartalism. Money is simply what the state says it is; it needs no greater authority than that. And it follows that the state need never run out of money, because it can create all it needs.

This narrative of money is compelling. Historical research comprehensively refutes the idea in old economics textbooks that money somehow evolved from a barter economy. Indeed the core chartalist narrative of money is now so widely held that it is fair to call it mainstream. I doubt that most modern economics textbooks repeat the barter myth. That states can create all the money they need (usually, and misleadingly, called “printing” money) is old news, though, and, indeed, has been an enduring theme of economic debate since the hyperinflation that followed the First World War in Germany and Austria. The chartalist view on this is distinctive: the act of the state creating money does not of itself devalue it: that depends on the context in which it is done. The problem in post war Germany and Austria was that reparations were making unbearable demands on these states.

But this narrative tells you little by itself. It is what neo-chartalists build on this foundation that sets them apart from other economists. My main disappointment with Ms Kelton is that she spends too much time revelling in the brilliance of the initial insight (including a very useful idea of a pyramid of exchange, which explains why local currencies are unlikely to succeed), and too little in explaining where she thinks it leads and why. In trying to explain it I will identify ideas that are implicit in what she says, rather than part of an explicit structure.

The next key idea, and the one that makes neo-chartalism truly distinctive, is that fiscal and monetary policy should form a unity. The best way of putting more spending power into an economy is for the state to loosen fiscal policy – to spend more or tax less; the best way to cool an economy down is to tighten fiscal policy. Fiscal policy directly affects the amount of money flowing in the economy. And a looser fiscal policy can always be supported by the creation of more money. This is very different from the pre-crash consensus, which suggested that fiscal and monetary policy should often pull in opposite directions – with only a marginal role for fiscal policy at all. And even after the crash the British coalition government had a policy of tight fiscal policy balanced by loose monetary policy. Chartalists say this was a mistake: fiscal policy should have been kept loose up to the point where economic capacity was fully utilised, with monetary policy providing support as required; only then should the brakes be jammed on (although may impression is that they  are reluctant to admit that the brakes should ever be jammed on – I may be being unfair).

Here too, I think that neo-chartalists are onto something. I was coming to a similar conclusion, albeit by a different route: the application of the Mundell-Fleming model for open international economies. Ironically Mundell-Fleming is an old-school idea, and regarded with suspicion by neo-chartalists (for example Professor Bill Mitchell of the University of Newcastle, NSW, a leading chartalist). Mundell-Fleming suggests that a floating exchange rate neutralises fiscal policy; but not if it is harmonised with monetary policy. Under a fixed exchange rate system, monetary policy automatically harmonises with fiscal policy, and even amplifies it. The neo-chartalists are surely right that monetary policy by itself is a very inefficient means of managing demand compared to fiscal policy – but it can be an important adjunct to it.

Perhaps the difference between me and the neo-chartalists is that I think the aggressive use of fiscal policy leads to state management of exchange rates,which is not, incidentally, necessarily a fixed exchange rate, and certainly not a currency union. But that is a discussion that needs to be taken elsewhere.

A third key building block of neo-chartalism is that a powerful, fully sovereign state is a force for good. Ms Kelton regards the sacrifice of sovereignty involved in the creation of the Euro with near disbelief. Why on earth would anybody want to do something so stupid? This marks neo-chartalism as a political idea of the left, and its faith in a strong state as the instrument of democratic will. The right view a strong state with suspicion or hostility – as something that uses its power to escape democratic control and further the interests of the state sector at the expense of everybody else. To see the importance of this aspect of the debate, you only have to look at Zimbabwe, where the state’s ability to create money has been a critical way for Robert Mugabe’s regime to retain power; in order to curb the political excesses of the Zimbabwe government it was necessary to adopt the US dollar as currency. Now that Mugabe is on top, he is trying to create his own currency again – but to secure his political status, not to advance the Zimbabwean economy. Strengthening the state’s power on money creation will place a real strain on democratic institutions. Things look all very easy when the state needs to create money to stimulate: but can it be trusted to reverse course when the economy overheats? History suggests that governments tend to deny that an economy is overheating until long after inflation has set in. The Argentine government of Cristina Fernandez even went as far as politicising the state statistics bureau to cover up inflation statistics. In Britain we may remember the stagflation of the 1970s, or, more recently, Gordon Brown adjusting his fiscal rules just when they called for tightening. I think this is a big problem, but not necessarily an insoluble one.

Interestingly there is a divergence of opinion on the radical left here.  People such as the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis think that there is virtue in the idea of a supra-national system for the management of money – a sort of new Bretton Woods – that would curb a state’s power to create money. It is no coincidence that this view comes from somebody used to the challenges of managing a small country, whereas Ms Kelton hails from the USA, which in effect has its cake and eats it by controlling a world currency while remaining a sovereign state.

There are some further ideas important to the construction of neo-chartalist policy:

  1. A optimal private sector (i.e. the aggregation of net private consumption and net business income) should operate at a surplus – i.e. they should be net savers. Excessive private sector debt follows if they are net borrowers, and that is destabilising; public debt is much safer because the state can create the currency to repay it. The private surplus must be balanced by either or both of an external surplus (e.g. net exports) or a public sector deficit. Since not all economies may have an external surplus, this means that it will often be the case that a permanent budget deficit is perfectly healthy (with the US and UK economies being examples). An inappropriate budget surplus could lead to a private sector debt boom – which is what happened to President Clinton’s USA in Ms Kelton’s view.
  2. Sovereign states with control over their own money have nothing to fear from an external deficit – which implies that the state or private citizens must obtain funding from foreigners. The key is that the country must borrow in its own currency – so that it can create the money to repay it. That a country might be forced to borrow in foreign currency is a major weakness in the whole edifice, I think. It is far from clear why exporters from surplus countries should always be in a weaker bargaining position than importers from deficit ones, and so be forced to accept the importer’s currency.
  3. The developed world is suffering from a chronic lack of demand. Neo-chartalists follow pre-crash neo-Keynesians in believing that the key indicator of excess demand in an economy is inflation (as opposed to asset prices or trade deficits). And since inflation does not appear currently to be a  threat in any major economy, there must be plenty of scope to expand fiscal policy. Neo-chartalists do not appear to take seriously the idea that their may be darker forces at work in the economy, reducing economic potential – something that I have long argued. Ms Kelton produced a graph to illustrate where the US economy could be by projecting forwards its growth rate from before the crash – something guaranteed to leave me spitting with fury! They also seem to have little truck with the “Austrian school” idea that a certain degree of slack is required in an economy in order to sustain the forces of creative destruction – and that recessions may be positively beneficial.

In summary: the neo-chartalists are re-writing the conventional wisdom on what money actually is, and have useful things to say about the role of fiscal policy. But beyond that my first reaction is that it is a modest idea that has pretensions beyond itself. It seems applicable in some contexts, but not as a general rule. And yet neo-chartalists are a valuable part of the dialectic from which a new economic synthesis will form. They do not deserve the disdain with which conventional economists treat them. Indeed many of the ideas I have briefly discussed here are a well worth a revisit. I want to dig further into to the topics raised in this blog: the role and management of state power; the relationships between public, private and external balances; managing an economy in the wider world; and demand management vs deeper economic forces.

A discipline that still reserves a place for real business cycle extremists, surely has a place for the new monetarists too.

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Macroeconomics is becoming a pseudoscience, and that’s not good for us

Recently the FT’s Wolfgang Munchau referred to an article by prominent US economist Paul Romer, The Trouble with Macroeconomics, published in September 2016. Mr Munchau used it as an argument to rethink the conventional wisdom of macroeconomic management, such as independent central banks and inflation targeting. I agree we need a rethink, but Mr Romer’s article is the wrong jumping-off point for that idea. Instead Mr Romer shows that academic macroeconomics has lost touch with the real world.

Mr Romer references the Trouble with Physics an article from 2007 by Lee Smolin. At this time there was a lot of nonsense going on in theoretical  physics, in particular with the idea of string theory. String theory attempts to be a theory of everything, and at its core is a lot of hard mathematics. But it makes no verifiable predictions and, indeed, seems to avoid areas where there is any danger that data might challenge it. It is more metaphysics than physics. And yet it commanded a sizeable academic following, including a number of big hitters – or at least it did in 2007.

Mr Romer suggests that something similar is happening in academic macroeconomics. People are creating elaborate models whose complexity runs well ahead of any data that can test their relationship to reality. This is covered up by sophistry and obfuscation. By itself this is not so strange, except that people are reluctant make public criticisms of these models, and the often prominent academics whose names attach to them. And yet that process of criticism is the stuff very of science. This makes it a pseudoscience – something that adopts the outward language of a science, but where a core set of beliefs and people are beyond criticism. (There is, of course, always a core set of beliefs in any system that are beyond challenge, including science, but I am talking about something wider here).

The prime target of Mr Romer’s criticism is a theoretical system referred to as the real business cycle. This was developed in the 1980s, and commanded supporters such as Chicago Nobel laureate Robert Lucas. It suggests that government actions, such as fiscal and monetary policy, have little effect on the real economy, and that the business cycle is almost entirely driven by changes to technology, a macroeconomists’ way of saying “just noise”. The real business cycle was presented to me as an economics undergraduate in 2006 as a curiosity that was so silly that it didn’t need comment or study. I can think of no serious piece of economic policy in recent years, and certainly since the financial crash of 2008, that makes reference to it. So it was a surprise to me to read that it remains the subject of serious academic support in the US – and that other serious academics look the other way rather than criticise it.

While Mr Romer spends most of his paper taking apart models based on the real business cycle, he makes it clear that this is a general problem, affecting Keynesian models too. And in particular the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) models that are used for economic forecasting, and so hard-wired into economic management. Economists like to create huge models with lots of variables, and then pump huge amounts of data through them. But it is mathematically impossible to identify, that is to fix, the variables without building assumptions into the model about how they relate to each other – which the model is then unable to test. The models are therefore more a product of their assumptions than a test of those assumptions against data. Mr Romer complains of a conspiracy of silence not to undermine the fragility of all this. This ressembles string theory and other hobby horses of theoretical physics – though these days I read a lot about constructive work going on in physics, as scientists grapple with the problems of dark energy and dark matter. Also I think theoretical physicists are much more transparent about what they are doing – so far as I can see they aren’t even pretending that what they do is useful, except in some abstract sense of advancing the boundaries of human thought. Macroeconomists are dishonest by comparison.

How has all this come about? I don’t think it helps that macroeconomics has been politicised, and in the highly polarised environment of US politics. Real business cycle models are beloved of the right, as a basis for cutting government down to size; DGSE models are liked by the left, as the basis of fiscal and monetary intervention. Pretty much any important development in macroeconomics is parsed for its political significance. Neutrality does not seem to be an option – and yet cloaking policy prescriptions in academic mumbo-jumbo make them look more authoritative, and so demand for academic economists remains strong. US academics used to knock seven bells out of each other (the famous dispute between “salt water” and “fresh water” institutions) – but no doubt they now realise that this just devalues the whole discipline, and so the different schools ignore each other instead. Besides, they both rely on similar conceits.

How much does this matter? Those involved in the practical business of running economies have long since ignored real business cycle theory. Econometric models are used, but with a great deal of caution. Alternative ways of constructing models might be fruitful (for example Kingston’s Professor Steve Keen suggests the use of non-equilibrium complexity theory, as used in meteorology) – but these are liable to suffer from same identification problem. The future is inherently unpredictable. Practical economists can get on with the job without help from an increasingly irrelevant academia.

And yet there is a clear crisis in economic management. Too many people in developed economies feel left behind, fueling political instability that will not help economic management. The authority of the western democratic and inclusive system of government is waning as a result. If academic macroeconomists coud somehow change the direction of their discipline, rather than resorting to obfuscation to insist they were right all along, and deluding themselves that massive computer models are telling us anything useful, then the outlook would be better.

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