Major economies

According to an article in The Economist on August 2, “economists trying to explain the feeble pace of America’s recovery regularly blame deleveraging”. This raises two questions: can the US recovery sensibly be described as feeble and, if it can, is deleveraging to blame? Read more

The UK has a seriously unbalanced economy, with little spare capacity and a slow trend rate of growth. To correct its imbalances, the current account deficit and the cash flow surpluses of the corporate sector need to fall. This would permit a fall in the fiscal deficit, but requires a fall in the real exchange rate and in the share of consumption in gross domestic product.

The fall in the trend rate of economic growth comes from a combination of a slower growth in the population of working age and a drop in productivityRead more

In the past governments have funded their deficits – for example, they have borrowed in the bond market rather than through treasury bills. This is despite the fact that, for the past 80 years, the rate of interest on bonds has been greater than that on Treasury bills; that is, we have had an upward sloping yield curve.

I suggested in a recent blog that this was because governments correctly perceived that there were considerable economic risks in not funding, and that it was worth paying the additional cost to avoid these risks. Quantitative easing, which is a form of underfunding, must therefore have increased these risks. Defenders of QE need either to argue that these risks have not risen or that the benefits we have received from QE outweigh the rise in risks. To be consistent, those who hold that no additional risks have been incurred must now hold that governments should not have funded in the past and must now stop. But their silence is deafening, and such views are implausible, being held, I think, in the hope of dissuading discussion rather than from any conviction that they would survive much debate. Read more

US gross domestic product was increased last year by much more than the growth of the economy. This sleight of hand was achieved by changing the way GDP is measured. The UK is due for a similar make-over this year. Reality won’t change and we need to be alert to the comments of those who will think it has.

“Nearly all scientists believe that there is a clear-cut distinction between fact and theory…William Whewell (1794-1866) denied that any such sharp distinction existed.” Peter Medawar, the Nobel laureate, whom I am quoting, agreed with the denial; and, as GDP data are generally considered to be facts, the revisions show that Whewell was spot on. The calculation of GDP depends on the theoretical model on which it is based. The change in GDP involves a change in the model being used and, in my view, the new model is worse than the old one. Read more

Abenomics, the term given to the reform package Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe launched to revive the country’s economy, is based on two myths. One is that the economy has performed badly and the second is that this non-existent failure has been due to deflation. Despite its lack of intellectual justification, the attempt to stop deflation has been a success as the accompanying rhetoric and monetary policy have produced yen weakness. This was an essential step towards solving Japan’s fiscal problem and, as the rhetoric has been about deflation rather than devaluation, the dramatic weakness of the currency has been achieved without international opprobrium.

Over time the devaluation should result in an improved current account. This will allow the fiscal deficit to fall while the economy moves ahead, but it is not enough on its own. The other essential is to reduce the cash flow surplus of the business sector. Having achieved success in step one, largely by accident, there is a chance that Abenomics will succeed in step two. If it does, it is again likely to be an accident. Read more

Cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio (Cape) appears to be a valid way to measure the value of the US stock market, but this does not mean that it can sensibly be used for other indices. As I explained in a previous blogpost, Cape is only valid if it can pass two tests: first, that the real return on equities has been mean reverting; and second, that profit margins have also been mean reverting and have rotated quickly around their average.

Real returns on equities has been less strongly mean reverting in other markets than they had been in the US. This weakens the case for Cape in other major stock markets, but does not, I think, necessarily rule it out. Even if returns would otherwise have been mean reverting, they will not have been if countries had suffered unexpected and catastrophic losses, such as occurred in world wars. I had already explained in Growth and returns, another blogpost, that these losses were the probable explanation for the exceptionally low returns on equity investment in the first half of the 20th Century in countries such as Germany and Japan. Read more

The cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio (Cape) has become well known as a way of valuing the US equity market. Its moderate success in this role has led to the assumption that the same approach will be valid for other markets. Unfortunately this seems doubtful, as I will try to explain. I should warn readers that, despite trying to make my explanation as simple as possible, I have been unable to avoid raising some quite technical points.

There are two fundamental and very different ways in which equity markets can be measured. One of these is q, by which the market value of companies is compared to the real value of their assets. This follows from the basic principle that, in any reasonably competitive economy, the value of anything depends on the cost of creating it — and it is therefore the macroeconomic approach. The other way treats equities as financial assets and values them by discounting the expected future returns at an appropriate rate. Cape is based on this approach and depends for its validity on the data for any particular stock market being consistent with the theory behind it. Read more

It is widely, but by no means universally, accepted among economists that the “rate of interest” is closely related to growth. It is, however, also generally accepted that this applies to a closed economy, such as the world as a whole.

The growth rate of G5 countries has been declining steadily for years, and this trend has recently accelerated, as chart one shows. It seems likely that low growth has become endemic and this is being widely interpreted as implying that real interest rates will remain low. This view strikes me as being unjustified on theoretical grounds and is also a very dubious conclusion to draw from the past. Read more

The UK economy may stall but expectations for growth are generally being upgraded. Unemployment is falling rapidly and, as chart one shows, it is at or below its long-term average, depending on which measure is used. The rapid decline in unemployment indicates that growth is well above trend and the rate seems unlikely to be very different from the level at which wage rises will start to accelerate (ie, the Nairu – non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment).

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Janet Yellen, the US Federal Reserve’s chairwoman, gave an important speech earlier this month which raised several interesting issues. One of them was emphasised by the FT US economics editor Robin Harding in an article headlined “Yellen warns inflation may lag recovery”. In the April 16 article, he said that “Ms Yellen said that high levels of unemployment had put less downward pressure on inflation than expected, so higher employment might not pull prices up again”.

There are two diametrically opposite interpretations of the change in the relationship between inflation and unemployment to which Ms Yellen has drawn attention. It is either a one-off aberration which will unwind, or a structural change. If the former, then inflation is likely to remain low for longer than would otherwise be likely; but, if the latter, inflation is likely to pick up more quickly. The difference is crucial as the former interpretation would reasonably allow the Fed to delay raising interest rates, while the latter calls for an even earlier rise than would otherwise be appropriate. Read more