Category Archives: Economic History

AS Economics Revision – Transition Economies

Covered this topic today with my AS Economics revision class. What have been the formidable challenges facing eastern European countries (command) embracing capitalism? Here are some thoughts as well as an informative video from the IMF:

  • In planned some goods are provided free but not in a market economy
  • Corruption – widespread in communist countries in eastern Europe – Oligarchs
  • Inflation ↑ – privatised firms began to charge prices that reflected high costs
  • Lack of entrepreneurial experience
  • Rising unemployment as owners of businesses try to make them more efficient.
  • Labour relations – Poor as workers are in a new environment – Job security?
  • Consumer sovereignty – some industries decline/expand
  • Resources – surplus and shortage
  • Self-Interest – fewer merit goods and more demerit goods
  • Time Gap before framework of government controls can be developed
  • Expansion of industry – potentially for greater externalities
  • Old/disabled – vulnerable with the change of government role
  • Welfare system – limited support for unemployed etc. will take time to develop
  • Provision of public services – disruption to police and other public services
  • Moral Hazard – the state insure workers against risks of losing their job

Democracy and Capitalism – are they compatible?

Although there have been arguments that democracy and capitalism are incompatible no advanced capitalist democracy has been relegated out of high-income countries or reverted into a totalitarian state. It seems that in advanced economies democracy and capitalism seem to promote each other. However the next few years will test this theory as inequality starts to threatens the foundations of democracy.

Economist have given their views as to why capitalist democracies might fail. The oldest worry is that the masses will vote to take possession of the wealthy and without secure property rights there can be no capitalism. Here are the thoughts of some economists:

However what explains why democracy and capitalism have co-existed for so long? Iversen and Soskice in their book “Democracy and Prosperity’ see capitalism and democracy as potentially mutually supporting, with three stabilising pillars.

  1. Strong government – constraining the power of large firms and labour unions, and ensures competitive markets. Weaker countries find it harder to resist the short-term expediency of securing power by protecting monopolies.
    a sizeable middle class, forming a political bloc that shares in the prosperity created by a capitalist economy.
  2. large firms that are not mobile – they cannot break their connections with local skilled networks where business plans and frontier technologies require the know-how developed and dispersed.
  3. Immobile companies give governments a degree of sovereignty which they use to boost the middle class. The middle classes dictate to feeling confident about the economy but a sharp slowdown in growth in real median incomes, could strengthen the appeal of movements that threaten to disturb the status quo. Governments, too, are becoming less responsive to middle-class priorities. America’s is too dysfunctional, and Britain’s too distracted by Brexit, to focus on improving education, infrastructure and the competitiveness of markets.

Conclusion

Demographic change might also take a toll: older and whiter generations may not much care whether a would-be middle class that does not look like them has opportunities to advance or not. Then, too, the authors may have underestimated the corrosive effect of inequality. Threatening to leave is not the only way the rich can wield power. They control mass media, fund think-tanks and spend on or become political candidates. Proud democracies may well survive this period of turmoil. But it would be a mistake to assume survival is foreordained.

Source: The Economist – Economic stress and demographic change are weakening a symbiotic relationship. Jun 13th 2019

World Economic Centre of Gravity – 2018

Danny Quah of the London School of Economics (LSE) wrote a paper in 2011 describing the dynamics of the global economy’s centre of gravity. By economic centre of gravity he refers to the average location of the planet’s economic activity measured by GDP generated across nearly 700 identifiable locations on the Earth’s surface.

The graphic below from The Economist shows an updated WECG. In 1AD China and India were the world’s largest economies. European industrialisation and America’s rise drew the economic centre of gravity into the Atlantic. However Japan’s economic boom made it the second largest economy in teh world pulling the centre north. As China has regained economic leadership, the centre is now retracing its footsteps towards the east. Extrapolating growth in the 700 locations is projected by 2025 to locate between India and China.

It is interesting to note how the WECG seems to move horizontally so does this suggest that the north-south divide will remain invariant? In looking at the actual data in Quah’s research, it shows that latitude declines from 66 degrees North to 44 degrees North by 2049. This might seem to imply that the south, like the east, is actually gaining considerable relative economic strength. Policy formulation for the entire global economy, and global governance more generally, will no longer be the domain of the last century’s rich countries but instead will require more inclusive engagement of the east. Many global policy questions will remain the same, e.g. promoting growth in the world economy, but others might change in character, e.g. appropriate political and military intervention. If you are interested in Quah’s paper you can download it by clicking here.

Sources:

The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity by Danny Quah. 2011

The Economist – The Chinese Century – October 27th 2018

10 years after GFC – what we’ve learnt

Thanks to colleague Paul Chapman for this article from Mercer ‘Health Wealth Career’. Its looks at the 10 lessons learnt from the GFC and 3 thoughts from what we might expect in the future.

Lesson 1 – Credit cycles are inevitable. As long banks are driven by growth and profit margins their decision-making inevitably leads to greater risk and poorer quality. The growth from 2005-2008 was generated by leverage.

Lesson 2 – The financial system is based on confidence, not numbers. Once confidence in the banking system takes a hit investors start to pull their money out – Northern Rock in the UK.

Lesson 3 – Managing and controlling risk is a nearly impossible task. Managing risk was very difficult with the complexity of the financial instruments – alphabet soup of CDO, CDS, MBS etc. A lot of decisions here were driven by algorithms which even banks couldn’t control at the time. Models include ‘unkown unkowns’

Lesson 4 – Don’t Panic. Politicians learnt from previous crashes not to panic and provided emergency funding for banks, extraordinary cuts in interest rates and the injection of massive amounts of liquidity into the system. The “person on the street” may well not have been aware how close the financial system came to widespread collapse

Lesson 5 – Some banks are too big to be allowed to fail. This principle was established explicitly as a reaction to the crisis. The pure capitalist system rewards risk but failure can lead to bankruptcy and liquidation. The banks had the best of both worlds – reward was privatised with profits but failure was socialised with bailouts from the government. Therefore risk was encouraged.

Lesson 6 – Emergency and extraordinary policies work! The rapid move to record low policy interest rates, the injection into the banking system of huge amounts of liquidity and the start of the massive program of asset purchases (quantitative easing or “QE”) were effective at avoiding a deep recession — so, on that basis, the policymakers got it right.

Lesson 7: If massive amounts of liquidity are pumped into the financial system, asset prices will surely rise (even when the action is in the essentially good cause of staving off systemic collapse). They must rise, because the liquidity has to go somewhere, and that somewhere inevitably means some sort of asset.

Lesson 8: If short-term rates are kept at extraordinarily low levels for a long period of time, yields on other assets will eventually fall in sympathy — Yields across asset classes have fallen generally, particularly bond yields. Negative real rates (that is, short-term rates below the rate of inflation) are one of the mechanisms by which the mountain of debt resulting from the GFC is eroded, as the interest accumulated is more than offset by inflation reducing the real value of the debt.

Lesson 9: Extraordinary and untried policies have unexpected outcomes. Against almost all expectations, these extraordinary monetary policies have not proved to be inflationary, or at least not inflationary in terms of consumer prices. But they have been inflationary in terms of asset prices.

Lesson 10: The behavior of securities markets does not conform to expectations. Excess liquidity and persistent low rates have boosted market levels but have also generally suppressed market volatility in a way that was not widely expected.

The Future

Are we entering a period similar to the pre-crash period of 2007/2008? There are undoubtedly some likenesses. Debt levels in the private sector are increasing, and the quality of debt is falling; public-sector debt levels remain very high. Thus, there is arguably a material risk in terms of debt levels.

Thought 1: The next crisis will undoubtedly be different from the last – they always are. The world is changing rapidly in many ways (look at climate change, technology and the “#MeToo” movement as just three examples). You only have to read “This Time is Different” by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Rheinhart to appreciate this.

Thought 2: Don’t depend on regulators preventing future crises. Regulators and other decision makers are like generals, very good at fighting the last war (or crisis) — in this case, forcing bank balance sheets to be materially strengthened or building more-diverse credit portfolios — but they are usually much less effective at anticipating and mitigating the efforts of the next.

Thought 3: The outlook for monetary policy is unknown. The monetary policy tools used during the financial crisis worked to stave off a deep recession. But we don’t really know how they might work in the future. Record low interest rates with little or no inflation has rendered monetary policy ineffective – a classic liquidity trap.

Source: Mercer – September 2018 – 10 Years after the GFC – 10 lessons

Questions about the next recession.

Ryan Avent of ‘The Economist’ considers how the next recession might happen — he asks the following questions:

  1. When will the next recession be?
  2. Where will it begin?
  3. Is the world prepared for a recession?
  4. What are the obstacles?
  5. What should governments do?

Very good viewing for macro policies – Unit 4 and 5 of the CIE A2 Economics course.

With the downturn in an economy, cutting interest rates has been the favoured policy of central banks. But the use of quantitative easing (QE) might mean the end of conventional monetary policy with rates already at record low levels – by pushing rates into negative territory they are actually encouraging a deflationary environment, stronger currencies and slower growth. The graph below shows a liquidity trap. Increases or decreases in the supply of money at an interest rate of X do not affect interest rates, as all wealth-holders believe interest rates have reached the floor. All increases in money supply are simply taken up in idle balances. Since interest rates do not alter, the level of expenditure in the economy is not affected. Hence, monetary policy in this situation is ineffective.

Liquidity Trap

Economic Consequences of Trump

Very good video from Project Syndicate looking at the recovery of the US economy and if it is sustainable. Also was Trump responsible for the growth or Obama? Maybe Janet Yellen and central bankers with such low interest rates for a long period of time. However if there is another downturn do governments have the tools to grow the economy again? It seems that central banks have run out of ammunition i.e. no room to cut interest rates further. There is agreement that the levels of employment are not sustainable in the future and the focus should be on assisting low wage work and help people prepare for and keep work- ‘reward work’.

  • Features Nobel laureates Angus Deaton and Edmund Phelps, along with Barry Eichengreen,
  • Rana Foroohar author of ‘Makers and Takers’
  • Glenn Hubbard Dean of Columbia Business School

Clean energy – winners and losers

The impact of energy flows on the power and influence of nations has mostly been about the need for oil. Securing oil supply by ensuring its shipment, protecting the countries that produce it to the extent of going to war in an oil producing country has been prevalent in the 20th century. Oil being inelastic in demand has meant that as it becomes more scarce the price increases will result in higher revenue for the oil producing oligopoly. Countries dependent on the importing of oil have been at the wrath of higher oil prices caused by embargoes, wars, a financial crisis to name but a few – see graph below.

In fact the USA has been the most aggressive in protecting its oil supply to the extent that it saw it as their right to use military force in the Middle East – 2003 – second Iraq War. The reason given was to remove Saddam Hussein but this just disguised their real motive was to protect the oil fields. If they were so concerned about Saddam Hussein’s regime why didn’t they do anything about Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe? The answer is Zimbabwe doesn’t have oil. Remember the Gulf War in 1990 was a UN sanctioned operation involving many countries not just the USA and UK.

However the idea of scarcity is coming to an end thanks to 3 big developments.

  1. The shale revolution in the US has lead to them being the biggest combined producer of oil and gas – the US now pumps 10m barrels a day and it is making the country less reliant on imported oil. Also increases in US supply has added to the global market reducing the price.
  2. China is now moving to a more service based economy and in the process is moderating its demand for coal and oil, slowing the consumption of electricity. More importantly though it is deploying gas and renewable energies and stopping the growth of carbon-dioxide emissions. It’s dependence on imported fossils fuels has been the catalyst to develop more of its own wind and sunlight for energy sources as well as it planner more electric vehicles.
  3. Climate change requires low-carbon energy and the Paris accord of 2015 is a start to fight climate change. To achieve this goal trillions of dollars will have to be invested in wind and solar energy, batteries, electricity grids and a range of more experimental clean-energy sources. Ultimately this creates significant competition between countries in developing these technologies but also but at risk the access to rare earths and minerals to make the hardware. It seems that energy is now driven by the technology not the natural resource we are so used to.

Energy transitions since the Industrial Revolution has seen the following:

Coal ——> oil ——> technology and clean energy.

The obvious losers from this change will be those who have an endowment of fossil-fuel reserves and have relied for too long on oil without reforming their economies.

Traditional energy system (oil etc) is constrained by scarcity
The abundant renewable energy system is contained by variability

Ultimately the challenge for countries in future will be who can produce the most energy and who has the best technology. Those that don’t embrace clean-energy transition will be losers in the future.

Source: The Economist – Special Report ‘The Geopolitics of Energy’ 17th March 2018

Spy coin and a poppy

Many thanks for this piece from good friend Jim Frood regarding a Canadian spy coin.
As a limited edition coloured 50 cent coin will go into circulation in New Zealand later this year, to mark 100 years since the end of World War I, one hopes that it doesn’t go the way of a similar Canadian coin in 1974 – see right. The ARMISTICE DAY COIN will feature a red poppy surrounded by a green wreath and silver ferns representing the past, present and future and the three armed forces of New Zealand.

Nicholas J. Saunders in his book: The Poppy A History of Conflict, Loss, Remembrance and Redemption 2013 vividly describes what happened with the Canadian coin. In 2007 in the midst of the war on terror a branch of the US Defence Department issued an alert about ‘spy coins which had appeared in Canada. The Defence Department announced that mysterious coins with ‘radio frequency transmitters’ had been discovered on defence contractors traveling in Canada. Analysis of the coin led to the idea that a transmitter was buried in the poppy inside the coin. The US government then classified all the documents relating to the ‘discovery’! That only added to the affair which Nicholas notes degenerated into farce. The ‘mystery’ was cleared up eventually. If you want to read more about the ‘spy coin’ and the poppy in general, Nicholas’ book is well worth reading.