Yesterday I commented on the intriguing box in which the IMF staff challenges one of the tenets of the Washington consensus, the link between labour market reform and economic performance.
But the IMF is not new to these reassessments. In fact over the past three years research coming from the fund has increasingly challenged the orthodoxy that still shapes European policy making:
- First, there was the widely discussed mea culpa in the October 2012 World Economic Outlook, when the IMF staff basically disavowed their own previous estimates of the size of multipliers, and in doing so they certified that austerity could not, and would not work (of course this led EU leaders to immediately rush to do more of the same).
- Then, the Fund tackled the issue of income inequality, and broke another taboo, i.e. the dichotomy between fairness and efficiency. Turns out that unequal societies tend to perform less well, and IMF staff research reached the same conclusion. And once the gates opened, it did not stop. The paper by Berg and Ostry was widely read. Then we had Ball et al on the distributional effects of fiscal consolidation (surprise, it increases inequality). Another paper investigated the channels for this link, highlighting how consolidation leads to increased inequality mostly via unemployment. And just last week I assisted to a presentation by IMF economists showing how austerity and inequality are positively related with political instability.
- On labour markets, before yesterday’s box 3.5, the Fund had disseminated research linking increased inequality with the decline in unionization.
- Then, of course, the “public Investment is a free lunch” chapter three of the World Economic Outlook, in the fall 2014.
- In between, they demolished another building block of the Washington Consensus: free capital movements may sometimes be destabilizing…
These results are not surprising per se. All of these issues are highly controversial, so it is obvious that research does not find unequivocal support for a particular view. All the more so if that view, like the Washington Consensus, is pretty much an ideological construction. Yet, the fact that research coming from the center of the empire acknowledges that the world is complex, and interactions among agents goes well beyond the working of efficient markets, is in my opinion quite something.
What does this mass (yes, now it can be called a mass) of work tells us? Three things, I would say. First, fiscal policy is back. it really is. The Washington Consensus does not exist anymore, at least in Washington. Be it because the multipliers are large, or because it has an impact on income distribution (and on economic efficiency); or again because public investment boosts growth, fiscal policy has a role to play both in dampening business cycle fluctuations and in facilitating stable and balanced long term growth. The fact that a large institution like the IMF has lent its support to this revival of consideration for fiscal policy, makes me hope that discussions about macroeconomic policy will be less ideological, even once the crisis will have passed.
The second thing I learn is that the IMF research department proves to be populated of true researchers, who continuously challenge and test their own views, and are not afraid of u-turns if their own research dictates them. I am sure it has always been the case. What is different from the past is that now they have a chief economist who seems more interested in understanding where the world goes than in preaching a doctrine.
The third remark is more problematic. If I write a paper saying that austerity will not be costly because multipliers are 0.5, and 2 years later retract my previous statement and argue that austerity is in fact self defeating, the impact on the world is zero. If the IMF does the same, during the two years huge suffering will be needlessly inflicted to masses of people. This poses a problem, as research by definition may be falsified. In the past an institution like the IMF would never have admitted a mistake. And we certainly do not want to go back there. Today they do admit the mistakes, but the suffering remains. The only way out to this problem is that the “new” IMF should learn to be cautious in its policy prescriptions, and always remember that any policy recommendation is bound to be sooner or later proven inappropriate by new data and research. We don’t live in a black and white world. Adopting a more prudent stance in dictating policies would be wise (in Brussels as well, it goes without saying). And of course, the disconnect between the army and the general is also a problem.
I am writing a paper on inequality and the crisis, for which I used Piketty and Saez ‘s World Top Income Database to try to understand whether the distributional effect changed over time. Unfortunately their data cover 2012 only for a handful of countries, among which are the United States; waiting for new data here is the evolution of income percentiles, including capital gains, from 2007 to 2009 (yellow bars), and from 2009 to 2012 (red bars):
The financial crisis of 2007-2008 mainly hit asset prices, thus having a major impact on the richest layers of the income distribution. In fact, the top 0.1% to 0.01% (a handful of people) lost more than 40% of their income in real terms, while average income of the bottom 90% dropped of around 10%. This was short-lasted, nevertheless, as the prolonged recession, and the jobless recovery that followed, quickly restored, and further deepened the distance between the rich on one side and the middle and lower classes on the other. Since 2009 average income of the bottom 95% stagnated (for the bottom 90% it kept decreasing). Nothing really new, here. The iAGS 2014 report, to which I (marginally) contributed, reaches similar conclusions. But I thought it would be interesting to share it.
And while we are at it, here are the ratios of average income of those at the very top, with respect to income of the bottom 90% (from the same dataset):
The top 0.1%-0.01%, the same handful of people as before, has an average income that is 120 times the average income of the bottom 90%. This is also barely breaking news…
Now, as we all know, the traditional view on income distribution states that factors of production are paid according to their contribution to the production process (their “marginal productivity”). Within this traditional view, the recent steep increase of inequality would be explained by skill-biased technical progress and increased competition in the globalized labor market: the entrance in the global labor market of low-skilled workers from emerging and developing economies lowered the average marginal productivity of labor, thus reducing its share of national income. Increasing inequality would then be an ineluctable process that policy is not supposed to address, if not at the price of reduced efficiency and growth. Is this a caricature? Not so much. in his recent Project Syndicate comment on Piketty, Kenneth Rogoff proposes once again the old tradeoff between inequality and growth that the crisis seemed to have buried once and for all (just look at the widely cited IMF discussion paper by Ostry et al). The traditional view is alive and kicking, and those who oppose it are dangerous liberal extremists! After all, Rogoff tells us, the tide raises all boats…
The bottom line is that if a top executive makes on average 120 times the wage of his or her employee, well, this means that he or she is 120 times more productive. Rent seeking and political capture play no role in explaining the difference in pay. Circulez, il n’y a rien à voir…
Nothing new under the sky, I guess. But it is important, from time to time, to send out reminders.
Update, March 20th: Speaking of ideological biases concerning inflation, Paul Krugman nails it, as usual.
On today’s Financial Times, Phillip Hildebrand gives yet another proof of unwarranted inflation terror. His argument is not new: In spite of the consensus on a weak recovery, the US economy may be close to its potential , so that further monetary stimulus would eventually be inflationary.
He then deflects (?) the objection that decreasing unemployment reflects decreasing labour force participation rather than new employment, by suggesting that it is hard to know how many of the 13 millions jobs missing are structural, i.e.not linked to the crisis. I think it is worth quoting him, because otherwise it would be hard to believe:
However, an increasingly vocal group of observers, including within the Fed, posits that more of the fall in the participation rate appears to have been structural than cyclical, and it was even predictable – the result of factors such as an ageing workforce and the effect of technology on jobs.
(the emphasis is mine). Now look at this figure, quickly produced from FRED data: Read more
Larry Summers’ IMF speech on secular stagnation partially shifted the attention from the crisis to the long run challenges facing advanced economies. I like to think of Summers’ point of as a conjectures that “in the long run we are all Keynesians”, as we face a permanent shortage of demand that may lead to a new normal made of hard choices between an unstable, debt-driven growth, and a quasi-depressed economy. A number of factors, from aging and demographics to slowing technical progress, may support the conjecture that globally we may be facing permanently higher levels of savings and lower levels of investment, leading to negative natural rates of interest. Surprisingly, another factor that had a major impact in the long-run compression of aggregate demand has been so far neglected: the steep and widespread increase of inequality. Reversing the trend towards increasing inequality would then become a crucial element in trying to escape secular stagnation.
In the past weeks I have argued at length that the eurozone is in recession because of a strong contraction of aggregate demand; and that in spite of this fact the overall fiscal stance is restrictive.
I also argued that in the current situation the best that can be hoped for peripheral countries is a more gradual consolidation (ideally a neutral stance, but this is too much to ask). I do believe that a fiscal expansion, even in the periphery, would be sustainable and growth-enhancing. But at this stage this is just daydreaming. It won’t happen.
The fiscal stance of the eurozone will not become expansionary (as is sorely needed), if the core (and in particular Germany) does not implement robustly expansionary fiscal policies.
If their fiscal space is limited or non-existent, what can peripheral countries do, besides waiting for an improbable fiscal stimulus in Germany? A lot, actually. If public demand cannot be significantly increased (and will actually be further compressed, albeit at a slower pace), it is all the more important that the governments of Italy, Greece, Spain and so on, find ways to restart private demand.
There is a lot of discussion about structural reforms. They are not the answer. First, because they have an impact mostly on supply (and the problem, let me repeat it, is demand); second, because their benefits, if any, won’t materialize before a few years. And there is no time. The cumulate effect of five years of crisis is now threatening social cohesion in most peripheral countries.
A more straightforward policy, that could be implemented in the next few months with immediate effects, is a strong redistribution of the tax burden towards higher incomes. The increasing inequality of income of the past three decades is in my opinion one of the deep causes of the crisis; inequality has further increased since 2008. The squeeze of revenues for low incomes, coming from the combination of high unemployment and fiscal adjustment, is depressing both the capacity to spend and the morale of households. Increased inequality contributed to global imbalances in the past, and is recessionary in the current crisis.
In September, when the season of budget laws begins, governments in the periphery should propose to their parliaments revenue-neutral tax adjustments, lowering taxes on low income households and increasing them on the rich and very rich. This would be fair, and more importantly, effective to boost morale and consumption. I am talking about a substantial shift of the burden, large enough for its macroeconomic impact to be significant. This is all the more necessary if standard Keynesian deficit spending can not be implemented.
Paul Krugman hits hard on one of the most cherished american myths, the golden years of Reaganomics. He shows that using the middle class as a benchmark (the median family income of the economy), the Reagan decade saw a disappointing performance; this, not only if compared to the longest expansion in post war history, during the Clinton presidency, but also with respect to the much less glorious 1970s.
But, maybe, Krugman is telling a story of inequality, and not of sluggish growth. The fact that median income did not grow much during the Reagan years may not mean that growth was not satisfactory, but simply that somebody else grasped the fruits.
For curiosity, I completed his figure with average yearly growth rates for two other series: Income of the top 5% of the population, and the growth rate of the economy.
Well, it turns out that Reaganomics yielded increasing inequality and unsatisfactory growth. And well beyond that, median income consistently under-performed economic growth in the past forty years.
What seems extremely robust is the performance of the top 5% of the population. Their income increased significantly more than output over the past decades. It is striking in particular, how the very wealthy managed to cruise through the current crisis, when income of the middle class was slashed.
Nothing new, Ken Loach in 1993 said it beautifully: it is always raining stones on the working class. But I guess it does no harm to remind it from time to time…
Thanks to Mark Thoma I have read a very interesting piece by David Altig on technological change and inequality. Altig weighs in the debate that Bob Gordon started a few months on the possible slowdown of trend productivity in the next decades. Bob’s argument is known, and makes sense: no current innovation, not even the fanciest ones, seems to have the potential to change our life as did railroads, jet planes, or, even more importantly, running water! But it is undeniable that he ventured in uncharted lands (innovation, future inventions, the future), and I am in the end incapable to take sides on the issue. I am just very satisfied that Bob’s argument is taken seriously, even by those opposing it.
I found interesting Altig’s remark that “game-changing technologies have, in history, been initially associated with falling capital prices, rising inequality, and falling productivity“. He ends asking whether these trends, that we are nowadays observing, could be the indicator of yet another major “game changer”. But this is also not what I want to point out. Read More