Category Archives: Fiscal Policy

New Zealand's debt

NZ debt %GDPBrian Gaynor in the NZ Herald wrote an article on New Zealand’s debt position. There are two important figures to note:

1. Gross external debt, which is the country’s total overseas debt.
2. Net external dent, which is determined by subtracting New Zealand’s gross overseas lending from its gross external debt.

New Zealand Government debt is currently $54.9 billion with total Government debt (external plus domestic) representing 38% of GDP. This is low by international standards. The biggest contributors to New Zealand’s external external debt are the registered banks which now account for $117.9 billion. The banks increased their overseas borrowings from $55.2 billion in 2001 to 139.5 billion in 2008. However since the GFC, banks have reduced their borrowing from overseas by $21.9 billion which is a positive development. However the big concern for New Zealand is that with a small financial market domestic borrowers source a lot of their debt from overseas lenders. New Zealand would be in a much stronger position if its financial markets could fund domestic borrowers.

IMF says Greece needs more debt relief.

The IMF has stated that Greece needs far more debt relief than European governments have been willing to contemplate so far, as fractious parties in Athens prepared to vote on a sweeping austerity package demanded by their lenders. Paul Mason from Channel 4 in the UK explains the options very well in the video below.

A2 Revision – Keynesian and Post-Keynesian Period

I have discussed with my A2 class the end of the Gold Standard and the new era of self-regulating markets that started in the 1980’s under Reagan (US) and Thatcher (UK). This relates to Unit 5 in the A2 syllabusMain schools of thought on how the macroeconomy functions – Keynesian and monetarist.

Robert Skidelsky, in his book “Keynes – The Return of the Master”, outlined the Keynesian and Post-Keynesian periods. The Keynesian period was the Bretton Woods system whilst the “New Classical” Washington consensus system succeeded it. Both are outlined below:

The Bretton Woods system was designed to improve the rules and practices of the liberal world economy which had grown up sporadically in the 19th century. However in 1971 the fixed exchange rate system collapsed (see post Fixed exchange rates and the end of the Gold Standard) and the full employment objective was cast aside. Futhermore controls on capital were removed in the 1990’s. The new system introduced was more free market based and took the name of the Washingotn Consensus System.

According to Skidelsky the two regimes were shaped by two different philosophies. The Bretton Woods system broadly reflected the Keynesian view that an international economy needed strong political and institutional supports if it was to be acceptably stable. The Washington consensus was driven by free market principles of self-regulation and limited government intervention.

Syriza’s rescue programme for Greece “ pure Keynesian policies”

A number of articles from The New Yorker magazine have outlined the problems facing Greece’s anti-austerity party Syriza. The party came to power on the election promise of reducing Greece’s debt burden and to liberate Greece from the Troika – the ECB, the IMF and the European Commission. However the extension recently granted to Greece will take place only within the framework of the existing arrangement. The budgetary targets for 2015 and 2016 have kept the economy stuck in recession.

* the Greek economy has contracted by 30% since 2008.
* 25% of the workforce are officially unemployed
* 50% of those under 24 years of age are unemployed
* 40% of Greek children live below the poverty line.

Money has been flowing out of the economy leaving the banking system on the verge of collapse see graphic from The Economist.

As with the Keynesian doctrine, Syriza’s solution in to create effective demand by pumping money into the system. One economics professor at the University of Athens called it “pure Keynesian policies. The big question is where will the money come from although some seem to think that it can raise revenue from tackling corruption and tax evasion. The latter is widespread in Greece amongst the upper-middle class and the very rich – the top-most bracket of households and businesses are responsible for 80% of the total tax debt owed to the government.

Greece’s creditors were mostly European banks, which had, in part, used public bailout money following the 2008 credit crunch to scoop up Greek bonds. For example, French and German banks were on the books for thirty-one and twenty-three billion euros, respectively. The troika stepped in during the spring of 2010, and again in 2012, to orchestrate bailouts of the Greek government, offering two hundred and forty billion euros in loans in exchange for a drastic reduction in government spending and other measures to make the Greek economy more competitive. Source: New Yorker

Grexit
The conventional wisdom is that returning to the drachma would be a catastrophe for Greece. There are pros and cons to this decision – the following would be concerns about returning to the drachma:
* An immediate devaluation;
* The value of savings would tumble;
* The price of imported goods would soar.

However on the positive side of things you would get the following:
* Greek exports would become cheaper
* Labour costs even more competitive.
* Tourism would likely boom.
* Regaining control of its monetary and fiscal policy for the first time since 2001

It would give Greece the chance to deal with its economic woes. Other countries that have endured sudden devaluations have often found that long-term gain outweighs short-term pain. When Argentina defaulted and devalued the peso, in 2001, months of economic chaos were followed by years of rapid growth. Iceland had a similar experience after the financial crisis. The Greek situation would entail an entirely new currency rather than just a devaluation.
This conflict is as much about the ideology of austerity and whether smaller countries will have a meaningful say in their own economic fate. However one needs look back in history to remember that in debt-saddled Weimar German, humiliation and dispossession festered until it a gave rise to the Nazi party. Greece’s neo-nazi party won the third greatest number of parliament seats in the last election.

Greek Bonds

WE THE ECONOMY – 20 short movies on economics

WE THE ECONOMY website provides a series of short films that explain economic concepts or key features of the modern economy. Each of the 20 movies focuses on some aspect of the U.S. economy or on some economic concept. The films are grouped into five ‘chapters’ covering the basics of the economy:

What is the Economy?
What is Money?
What is the Role of our Government in the Economy?
What is Globalization?
What Causes Inequality?

Every 5-8 minute video is well worth watching and useful for the classroom. Below is the trailer – very professionally done and excellent reinforcement when teaching certain topics.

Oil producers struggle to balance budgets with low oil prices

A widely used measure of the impact of oil prices on major producers’ governments is the fiscal breakeven price. That’s “the average price at which the budget of an oil-exporting country is balanced in a given year,” according to Standard & Poor’s. Estimates of fiscal breakeven prices can vary considerably based on a variety of factors including actual budget expenditures, and differences in oil production forecasts.

For most countries oil needs to be above $100 a barrel to balance the budgets of major oil producing countries. Venezula which has major deficit problems and accelerating inflation needs oil at $151 a barrel in 2015 to balance its budget. For Iran, which has yet to agree to curb development of nuclear weapons and heavily subsidizes gasoline for its citizens, needs oil at $131 a barrel. And Russia needs oil at $107 for a chance of getting its finances in order. As for Libya a whooping $317 per barrel is required for them to start to improve their fiscal position. See graphic below.

Oil - B even Price

The Perils of Deflation

DeflationFor so long central banks and policy makers have been obsessed with inflation but with inflation falling the dangers of deflation are now on the horizon. In the USA, Britain and the euro zone inflation is dropping below the 2% target and Japan is struggling to maintain higher prices. Why is deflation bad:

1. Money made today will be worth less tomorrow so investment is discouraged
2. Goods cheaper tomorrow reduces consumption and therefore aggregate demand
3. Central banks struggle to set real interest rates which are stimulatory
4. People who borrow money find that what they owe is worth more in real terms
5. Demand runs below the economy’s capacity to supply goods and services leaving an output gap. This can lead to unemployment and wage cuts which worsens the situation

One of the main problems at present is the fact that Central Banks are running out of ammunition – interest rate cuts – as rates are close to 0%. Therefore in order to stimulate demand they now have to use fiscal policy and more government spending would assist especially in areas that are in need – e.g. roads, bridges etc.

Would US public infrastructure spending drive up prices?

Some alarming figures have been banded about with regard to America’s infrastructure. It is estimated that over 700,000 bridges are rated as structurally deficient. In 2009 Americans lost approximately $78 billion to traffic delays – inefficient use of time and petrol costs. Also crashes which to a large extent have been caused by road conditions, cost a further $230 billion.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers the US needs to spend $2.2 trillion bring their infrastructure up to standard. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2011 that for every dollar the federal government spent on infrastructure the multiplier effect was up to 2.5. Other indicators state that every $1 billion spent on infrastructure creates 18,000 jobs, almost 30% more than if the same amount were used to cut personal income taxes. – The Economist

Positive Externalities from infrastructure.

Investment in infrastructure has a lot of positive externalities – faster traveling time for consumers and companies, spending less time on maintenance. Research has shown that the completion of a road led to an increase in economic activity between 3 and 8 times bigger than it initial outlay with eight years after its completion. But what must be considered is that now is the best time to invest in infrastructure as it is very cheap – much cheaper than it will be when the economy is going through a boom period.

Russian economy – Priests to halt slide of Rouble?

Russia OilWith oil prices heading to below $60 per barrel and inflation on the rise the Russian economy is bracing itself for some difficult times ahead. Oil is imperative to Russian growth rates and The Economist reported that in 2007, when oil was $72 a barrel, the economy managed to grow at 8.5%. Additionally between 2010 – 2013, when oil prices were high, the country’s net outflow of capital was $232bn – 20 times what it was between 2004 and 2008. See graph from The Economist.

But as oil prices drop so does the currency which mean imports become more expensive – the bigger the drop the more expensive they are. Russia imports a lot of goods – the value in 2000 was $45bn compared to in 2013 $341bn. This lower value of the Rouble fuels inflation and it is expected to reach 9% by the end of the year. To maintain peoples spending power the government will need to intervene in the economy and run bigger deficits.

But there is another problem a weaker Rouble makes debt servicing more expensive so in the long-term more money needs to be found. When there was a high oil price instead of increasing their reserves, money was spent on salaries and pensions and especially the armed forces where spending increased by 30% since 2008. One wonders why they spent so much on the Sochi Winter Olympics. However drastic steps are being taken to reduce the decline of the Rouble with priests blessing the servers at the Central Bank with holy water.

Russia CB

Stress Test – not enough to bolster the real economy

Paul Krugman in the ‘New York Review of Books’ wrote a very informative review of Tim Geithner’s book “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises”. Although I have not read the book Krugman does put across a strong view that the stimulus to end the US economy’s free fall was too small and too short-lived given the depth of the slump.

We can think of the economy as a patient who was rushed to the emergency room with a life-threatening condition. Thanks to the urgent efforts of the doctors present, the patient’s life was saved. But while the doctors kept him alive, they failed to cure his underlying illness, so he emerged from the procedure partly crippled, and never fully recovered.

Something went very wrong with the US economy in 2008. But what?

Quite early on, two somewhat different stories emerged about the economic crisis.

1. A classic bank run of enormous proportions. And there certainly was a very frightening panic in 2008–2009.
2. The large overhang of private debt, in particular household debt.

What’s the difference? A financial panic is above all about confidence, or rather the lack thereof, and the overriding task of policy is to restore confidence. However confidence will not overcome the problem of debt overhang. It needs policies like sustained fiscal stimulus and debt relief for families.

Financial panics arise institutions promise their creditors ready access to their funds but are unable to pay them. This is because they invest in assets that are relatively illiquid, and this works only when a small fraction of a bank’s depositors try to pull their money out on any given day. When this does happen the bank is forced to sell assets – usually at fire sale prices – in order to raise cash – and this can break the bank. And this in turn means that when investors fear that a bank may fail, their actions can produce the very failure they fear: depositors will rush to pull their money out if they believe that other depositors will do the same, and the bank collapses.

The point is that a financial panic is very much a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. And it needs a “lender of last resort,” providing banks facing a run with cash, so that they don’t need to engage in desperate fire sales.

So why was it so hard to organise an effective response to the 2008–2009 panic? One answer is that the Fed was set up to deal with conventional banks, and had neither a clear legal mandate for nor much experience in bailing out shadow banks. Fear of bank losses led to 3 ideas that needed to be debated.

1. Some who warned of “moral hazard”—that bailing out banks would reward bad actors, and encourage future irresponsibility.

2. Some who were in favour of nationalization argued that the banks needed to be bailed out. The idea was that the government, in return for taking on big risks, should temporarily acquire ownership of the most troubled banks, so that taxpayers would profit if things went well.

3. Some thought that the financial crisis should be treated more or less as an ordinary lender-of-last-resort problem—that temporary nationalization would hurt confidence and was unnecessary, that once the panic subsided banks would be OK.

Stress TestWhatever the reasons, however, the stress test pretty much marked the end of the panic. The graph below shows several key measures of financial disruption—the TED spread, an indicator of perceived risks in lending to banks, the commercial paper spread, a similar indicator for businesses, and the Baa spread, indicating perceptions of corporate risk. All fell sharply over the first half of 2009, returning to more or less normal levels. By the end of 2009 one could reasonably declare the financial crisis over.

But a funny thing happened next: banks and markets recovered, but the real economy, and the job market in particular, didn’t. It’s still very hard to find a full-time job—both the number of long-term unemployed workers and the number of people unable to find full-time jobs remain far above pre-crisis levels.

Balance Sheet Recession

The best working hypothesis seems to be that the financial crisis was only one manifestation of a broader problem of excessive debt—that it was a so-called “balance sheet recession.” This is where households have taken on high levels of debt and at some point face pressure from creditors to ‘deleverage’, reducing their spending in an effort to pay down debt. But by doing this they reduce consumer spending in the economy and this can turn into a self-reinforcing spiral, as falling incomes make debt repayment even harder.

However a balance sheet recession cannot be cured by restoring confidence. Fiscal stimulus and debt relief are required by the government to reduce private debts and allow debtors to spend again. The private sector is not in a position to do so.

Greece’s other economy.

Underground economyThe Economist recently wrote about Greece’s informal economy. Here are some interesting points from the article:

* 24% of all economic activity went undeclared in 2013. After the recession the the economy shrank by 30% – government debt is 174% of GDP

* Greeks feel that their taxes are wasted – you only have to think back to the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2004. Greece’s ‘tax morale’ is the fourth lowest of 26 countries and its public sector is renowned for being the most corrupt in the EU.

* What has been the catalyst for the informal economy is the fact that Greece has a high level of self-employment – this makes it easier to evade income tax. Also government levies account for 43% of labour costs, compared with the rich-country average of 26%.

However it is important to remember that over 25% of Greeks are officially unemployed and the informal economy is a lifeline to many of them. Over two thirds of shadow earnings are spent instantly with companies that do pay tax. The best way to encourage Greeks to declare tax would be a sustained economic expansion. If there is growth and falling unemployment the temptation to go underground should dwindle.

Cartoon from ‘The New Yorker’ magazine.