Natural Resources v GDP

The Economics of Biodiversity by Sir Partha Dasgupta was published in February this year and was a wake up call for all of us. Sir Partha says nature must be recognised as an asset and that our traditional measure of economic prosperity – Gross Domestic Product – is no longer fit for purpose. Basically all 7.8 billion of us is on a collision course with the planet.

“The problem with GDP is that it doesn’t include the depreciation of capital and one of the natural capital, or nature, which is somewhat different from buildings and roads in that you can really depreciate it very fast.”

Between 1992 and 2014 there was a 40% fall in the stock of natural capital per person – water, food, air etc. See graph below.

Global Wealth Per Capita, 1992 to 2014

Source: The Economics of Biodiversity by Sir Partha Dasgupta

Since 1950 the global economy has grown 14 fold and with the increase in prosperity has come the cost to our natural environment. With our current consumption we need an earth that is 1.6 times larger. Although there has been moves to slow the rate of climate change the progress needs to be accelerated. Larry Elliott in The Guardian looked at three ways:

  • Firstly you could simply stop the burning of fossil fuels or international travel now or in the near future.
  • Secondly you leave the issue of climate change to the markets: governments could stop subsidising the use of fossil fuels but otherwise leave it to inventiveness of the private sector to come up with solutions.
  • A third approach is to have a partnership between the government and the private sector. A previous example of this was the announcement by President Kennedy in 1961 that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Larry Elliott quotes Mariana Mazzucato’s new book ‘Mission Economy’ in which she states that by focusing on the immense power of governments to shape markets, capitalism itself can be remade. Mazzucato aims to infuse capitalism with public interest rather than private gain.

Below is a recent video from CNBC about climate change which is already taking a financial toll on the planet, with extreme weather events costing the global economy $146 billion in 2019, according to insurer Swiss Re. Also an interview with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva about how governments and business can fight back.

David McWilliams podcast – The end of neoliberalism?

Below is a link to a David McWilliams podcast which I recommend – excellent for macro policy.

130 – The end of Neo-Liberalism & economic super-cycles explained with Dario Perkins

There is mention of the collapse of the European Super League and that this could be that defining moment when the irresistible force of a once all-conquering ideology came crashing into the immovable object of a new reality, with devastating consequences.

The interview with Dario Perkins – 20 minutes in – is particularly worth listening to. They talk about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and that we shouldn’t worry where the money comes from as the central bank can just print it – spend first and tax later. It’s fiscal policy that will decide whether central banks can meet their inflation targets.

Joe Biden – the world’s most unlikely radical – is a convert to MMT. He is to MMT what Ronald Reagan was to monetarism. Biden’s agenda is to compress inequalities, rip the economy away from Wall Street and give it back to the man on the street by using government spending as an arm not just of economics but democracy underpinned by fairness. Biden wants to reverse the past 30 years and lead us into a new macroeconomic supercycle, which might also last decades.

European Super League and so much for Joseph Schumpeter

Economist Joseph Schumpeter talked about creative destruction in that to survive capitalists continually seek more profits through the pursuit of new markets. With the presence of new markets this brings about more innovation removing the old businesses and opening opportunities for the new.

The free market, in which business is supposed to thrive, is based on weak barriers to entry, competition and less regulatory constraints. The extreme of this theory is perfect competition although in football we don’t have homogeneous products in that all teams are different. However the market does give teams the chance to gain promotion from lower divisions in English Football. Take for instance Leicester City winning the EPL and before them teams like Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest – the latter winning the league having just been promoted from the Second Division (in those days). These teams used innovation, coaching, strategically delving into the transfer market (not with the funds that some clubs have today) etc to form a successful team.

Nottingham Forest – Div 1 Champions 1977-78

The proposed ESL was all but free-market capitalism with an American style franchise system with 12 teams guaranteed a place in the competition – significant barriers to entry and not conducive to competition. So much for Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction with a group of elite clubs protecting their market and the owners being rentier capitalists. The ESL’s proposed move is similar to what has been happening in the market place – a structure of businesses taking huge debt and taking little interest in competition as long as they are making money. Manchester United, probably the most famous club in the world, got knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage but are still making a lot of money for the owners. It seems that the desire to win trophies has been superseded by profit – the proposed ESL avoids competition as member clubs are protected against the risk of failure. Not to say this is not already happening as the EPL and many other leagues in Europe are dominated by a small number of clubs which have significant funds available. This makes it near impossible for the other clubs to be competitive – remember Wimbledon winning the FA Cup in 1988 with the ‘crazy gang’. They had the worst stadium, poorly paid players and the lowest gates. It is hard to see supporters of less wealthy clubs being too enthusiastic about the excitement of victory.

The ESL has demonstrated that global capitalism operates on the basis of rigged markets not free markets, and those running the show are only interested in entrenching existing inequalities. It was a truly bad idea, but by providing a lesson in economics to millions of fans it may have performed a public service. Larry Elliott – The Guardian – 22-4-21

US dollar – journey to reserve currency status and where to from here?

From CNBC – a short history of how the US dollar became the reserve currency and could that status be under threat. The main points from the video are:

  • how investors rush to buy US$ during crisis times
  • the history behind the gold standard
  • 88% of foreign exchange transactions are done in US$
  • Could other currencies threaten the US$ as the global reserve currency?
  • Central banks have added the Chinese Yuan as part of its reserves.
  • European autonomy is being mooted so that they are independent of payment channels in the US$
  • Holdings of of US$ reserves in the global banking system – see image below

Short-selling explained – ‘Trading Places’ movie

The 1983 movie ‘Trading Places’, staring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd tells the story of an upper class commodities broker Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) and a homeless street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) whose lives cross paths when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate bet.

There is a great part in the movie when they are on the commodities trading floor that explains price and scarcity. Winthorpe and Valentine are up against the Duke Brothers in the Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice (FCOJ) futures market.

How a futures market works
As opposed to traditional stock/shares futures contracts can be sold even when the seller doesn’t hold any of the commodity. For instance a contract of $1.30 per pound for a 1000 pounds of FCOJ in February indicates that the seller is compelled to provide the produce at that time and the buyer is compelled to buy the produce.

Here’s how it worked in the movie

The Duke Brothers believe they have inside knowledge about the crop report for the orange harvest over the coming year. They are under the impression that the report will state the harvest will be down on expectations which will necessitate greater demand for stockpiling FCOJ – this will mean more demand and a higher price. Therefore at the start of trading the Dukes representative keeps buying FCOJ futures. Others saw they were only buying and wanted in on the action, those that had futures were not willing to sell so the price kept rising. However the report was fake and Winthorpe and Valentine had access to the genuine report which stated that the orange harvest had not been affected by adverse weather conditions. Knowing this they wait till the the price of FCOJ reaches $1.42 and start to sell future contracts.

Then when the crop report is announced and it indicates a good harvest investors sell their contracts and the price drops very quickly. The Dukes are unable to sell their overpriced contracts and are therefore obliged to buy millions of units of FCOJ at a price which exceeds greatly the price which they can sell them for. In the meantime Winthorpe and Valentine for every unit they sold at $1.42 they only have to pay $0.29 to buy it back to fulfill their obligation. This results in a profit of $1.13 per unit.

Mega ships and diseconomies of scale

The mega ship the Ever Given was a familiar name in the news recently with it getting stuck in the Suez canal and thus preventing any marine traffic in both directions. The Ever Given is operated by the Taiwan-based firm Evergreen and is a so called mega ship and was carrying over 18,000 containers.

Mega (container) ships have been built in increasingly larger sizes to take advantage of economies of scale and reduce expense as part of using multiple forms of transport without actually handling of the freight itself. The big container ships can carry up to 23,964 twenty foot equivalent unit (TEU) whilst the smaller capacity ships have a maximum capacity of 1,000 TEU.

Herd Mentality and Prisoner’s Dilemma
This being said there is some dispute over the extent that the mega ships achieve economies of scale. A follow the leader mentality in ordering bigger ships have been since the mid 1990’s with firms following Maersk in ordering bigger capacity ships. In most cases it only takes two years for other carriers to catch-up to Maersk and in some cases they can hold more TEU. This has led to operators facing prisoner’s dilemma. Operators are trying to outdo their rivals by building larger ships which help increase its market share through their reduced costs but are fully aware that what actually is needed is capacity rationalisation. This strategy has not only fuelled the never-ending competition for large ships but also led to mistrust among operators, entangling them in the prisoner’s dilemma. The ideal scenario is for operators to refrain from acquiring mega ships and let supply and demand prevail.

Infrastructure costs to cope with mega ships
The graph below shows the savings and costs increases from increasing the capacity of mega ships. There is a saving with carrying more TEU’s but terminals will incur significant capital expenditure to handle larger vessels and terminal yards areas will need to increase by 33% to avoid congestion, even with no growth in volume. There are negative externalities to consider that arise from upsizing as dredging deeper channels and expanding yard area will have environmental effects.

Source: Diminishing economies of scale from megaships? Marine Money Japan Ship Finance Forum, Tokyo 12th May, 2016

Are we heading into Stagflation?

Currently teaching macro conflicts with my CIE A2 class and we have been discussing the late 1970’s and the stagflation period – see graph below. Since the days of stagflation in the US and UK in the 1970’s inflation has been the number one target for central bankers. The main cause of inflation during this period was the price of oil –

  • 1973 – 400%↑ – supply-side– Yom Kippur War oil embargo
  • 1979 – 200%↑ – supply-side – Iran Iraq War
Source: The Economist

US President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to follow Keynes’s formula and spend his way out of trouble were going nowhere and the newly appointed Paul Volcker (US Fed Governor in the 1970’s) saw inflation as the worst of all economic evils. Below is an extract of an interview from the PBS series “Commanding Heights”

“It came to be considered part of Keynesian doctrine that a little bit of inflation is a good thing. And of course what happens then, you get a little bit of inflation, then you need a little more, because it peps up the economy. People get used to it, and it loses its effectiveness. Like an antibiotic, you need a new one; you need a new one. Well, I certainly thought that inflation was a dragon that was eating at our innards, so the need was to slay that dragon.”

The policy of the time was Keynesian – inject more money into the system in order to get the economy moving again. This was also the case in the UK in the early 1970’s but Jim Callaghan’s (Labour PM in the UK ousted by Thatcher in 1979) speech in 1976 had reluctantly recognised that this policy had run its course and a monetarist doctrine was about to become prevalent. Below is an extract from the speech.

“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment. That is the history of the last twenty years”

With this paranoia about inflation central bankers began to implement a monetary policy targeting inflation in the medium term. In NZ the Reserve Bank Act 1989 established “price stability” as the main objective of the RBNZ. “Price stability” is defined in the PTA (Policy Target Agreement) as keeping inflation between 1 to 3% (originally 0-2%) – measured by the percentage change in CPI. Around the world central banks were adopting a more independent approach to policy implementation and with targeting inflation a new prevailing attitude seemed to be like an osmosis and suggesting that low prices = macro-economic stability as well. Also, raising interest rates is an unpopular political move and governments could now blame the central bank for this contractionary measure.

So are we now concerned that we will be entering another period of stagflation? Like the 1970’s we do have a supply-side issue (although not oil based) and expansionary demand side. The following are concerns:

Demand Side
– excessive fiscal stimulus for an economy that already appears to be recovering faster than expected.
– excessively accommodative with policies that combine monetary and credit easing
– monetisation of fiscal deficits will put pressure on inflation

Supply Side
– Rising protectionism
– Supply bottlenecks – container shortages and the Suez blockage
– Reshoring of FDI from low-cost China to higher-cost locations

However in saying this will the global supply side be positively influenced by better use of technological innovation in artificial intelligence and the return to normality on global supply distribution networks. Also will demand pressure eventuate especially when the threat of unemployment is ever present?

New Zealand Regional GDP and GDP per capita in charts

Below are a couple of graphs that might be useful for showing the regional differences in New Zealand GDP and the GDP per capita – Year end 31 March 2020.

  • The value of the New Zealand economy is $323,142m whilst the average income in the country is $64,079.
  • 14 of the 15 regions experienced an increase in GDP (the West Coast was the only region that experienced a contraction in GDP).
  • The Auckland region has the largest regional GDP at $122,557 million.
  • Economic output in the North Island accounted for just under 78 percent of total economic output in New Zealand, with the South Island providing just over 22 percent.
  • Taranaki has the highest GDP per capita at $76,715
  • Northland has the lowest GDP per capita at $42,711

Important to note that these figures are pre Covid-19

COVID-19 and a fairer economy

FT European Economics Commentary Martin Sandbu believes the COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild better economies that work for everyone. Sandbu author of ‘The Economics of Belonging’ – see previous post – talks here about the polarisation of rich societies since 1980. The main points of interest that he raises are below. Worth a look.

  • 1980 – large number of jobs available in factories start to disappear.
  • Globalisation – not the main cause of unemployment but technology has taken a lot of the manual and clerical jobs (structural unemployment) and retail has gone online.
  • Tax systems have not redistributed income – unions have been in decline.
  • Rural areas worst effected – good jobs more prevalent in cities so rural areas suffer.
  • Low paid service jobs have been impacted by COVID-19. Also as they involve contact with others there is more exposure to the disease.
  • Pandemic catalyst for change. History tells us – US Great Depression = New Deal, 2nd WW = postwar welfare state.
  • Technology change is with us so the need to find new ways of working. Do we have a Universal Basic Income (UBI)?
  • Lower burden of employing workers – less income tax, payroll tax and generally make it cheaper to hire people in to better jobs. Make up the shortfall in revenue elsewhere.
  • With the significant increase in inequality – introduction of a wealth tax. Also a tax on carbon emissions and redistribute to help the worse off.
  • Greater need to overcome regional inequality within countries
  • Need to the political will to make economies work better for everyone.