Archive for March, 2008

Mar 31 2008

Politics, priorities, and the Phillips Curve

FT.com / Asia-Pacific / China – Weak dollar troubles Beijing

Inflation, with its erosive effects on wealth and income, has plagued China at increasing rates since mid-2007. In February it reached an annualized rate of 8.7%, threatening to undermine China’s GDP growth rate, which has been predicted in the 8% range for this year.

As we have discussed in our our AP Econ class here in Shanghai, China’s inflation is caused by a combination of demand and supply-side factors. On the demand-side, a growing middle class has driven consumer spending to record levels recently, surpassing investment as the largest component of China’s GDP in 2007. Of course, as always, high inflation (thus low real interest rates), optimism about rising consumption in the future, and a comparative advantage in labor-intensive manufacturing (albeit a diminishing one as wages continue to rise) all combine to keep investment extremely high. Furthermore, cheap exports have helped keep demand for China’s output from abroad strong. The combination of increasing consumption, strong investment, and its trade surplus have resulted in demand-pull inflation.

On the supply-side, China has encountered additional inflationary pressures of late. Rising energy prices (mostly due to coal and oil shortages) combined with record rises in food prices (24% increase in the last year), have driven costs to firms up, shifting the aggregate supply curve leftward, further fueling inflation.

Knowing the damaging effects inflation has on income and wealth, it might be assumed that Beijing would place the utmost emphasis on taming the country’s rising prices. This, however,is not at the top of the government’s macroeconomic goals, according to premier Wen Jiabao:

On the issue of whether he would sacrifice economic output to bring down inflation, at the risk of increasing unemployment, Mr Wen indicated that growth re­mained the overarching priority. “We must ensure that our economy will grow…in order to ensure employment,” he said. “China is a developing country with 1.3bn people. We have to maintain a certain degree of fast economic growth to provide enough jobs.

”He said China needed to add about 10m jobs a year for the next five years, a lower figure than in the past whenPC the aim was growth of 15m-20m jobs a year.

The tradeoff between inflation and unemployment to which Mr. Wen refers is a text book example of the challenges faced by macroeconomic policymakers everywhere. This trade-off is illustrated in the Phillips Curve model, which shows that in the short-run, there exists an inverse relationship between the price level and the unemployment rate.

In his words above, Mr. Wen demonstrates Beijing’s preference in the trade-off between inflation and unemployment: He’ll take inflation… Here’s why.

In case you haven’t heard, China is not a democracy. Nor is it a, ehem, “free” country. According to Alan Greenspan in his book “The Age of Turbulence”, democracy and freedom of speech act as “safety valves” in Western countries; in other words, in times of economic or political unrest, the right to gather in the streets, the right to vent frustrations through a free press and the opportunity to advocate political and economic change through the various media, all combine to prevent violent and revolutionary uprisings when times get tough economically.

Take the US for example. Times are certainly tough right now. Inflation’s approaching 4-5%, while nominal growth has nearly stagnated. Unemployment, while it has technically fallen recently, in reality has risen as hundreds of thousands of workers have given up searching for work. The bursting of the housing bubble represents one of the most massive losses of wealth in recent history. A weak dollar has meant that even cheap imports don’t seem so cheap anymore. Throw in the desperate war in Iraq, the nuclear threat from Iran, rising food prices, $110 oil and an incredibly unpopular national leader, and by some measures the country would appear ripe for revolution. However, a revolution is about the least likely thing to occur in America, because it enjoys the “safety valve” of democracy. Rather than overthrowing their government, Americans have the right to go to the pole and vote for a new one, which in all likelihood will occur this November when it seems either Barrack or Hillary stand the greatest chance and winning the White House.

Now let’s look at China. The picture’s not quite so gloomy for the Chinese right now. Yes, inflation is high, as in the US. But unlike America, China is still growing at a very healthy pace, unemployment is probably still below its natural level, the real estate markets in China’s cities are still booming, meaning the middle class residents there are experiencing leaps and bounds in terms of personal wealth. Demand for its exports remains strong, and ever more poor Chinese are finding jobs in high paying factories across the country. Investments in capital, infrastructure and education point towards a bright future of continued growth for the foreseeable future.

But wait, 8.4% is something to worry about, especially when we take into account the 24% increase in food prices. Shouldn’t Wen and Beijing be taking drastic steps to reign in this high rate of inflation? In short, NO, they shouldn’t. Because as can be seen in the Phillips Curve, to reduce inflation could result in another, far more serious problem for Beijing; rising unemployment.

It appears that Beijing’s greatest fear is a population out of work. Its goal of creating 10 million new jobs is ambitious, but in the eye’s of the government, necessary. The Chinese people do not enjoy the “safety valve” of democracy through which economic frustrations and hardships can be channeled were the country to experience a slowdown in growth and an increase in unemployment. The last time the economy faced high inflation AND high unemployment, students, workers, soldiers and tanks all gathered for an afternoon of urban warfare under Mao’s somber gaze in Beijing. To avoid such massive revolutionary movements in the future, Beijing must do all it can to insure job creation continues and growth remains strong, even if the trade-off is record high inflation.

This one passage spoken by Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, tells a vivid story about the reality of Communist dictatorship in China. Sound economic policy may go on the back burner in times of political uncertainty. Price controls, such as those on petrol in Shanghai (speaking of, the long lines at gas stations are back!), were a microeconomic example of bad economics; Beijings hesitance to seriously tackle inflation is a macroeconomic example. Holding on to power seems to be more important than stabilizing prices, at least for now.

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Mar 21 2008

A much needed break…

March, April, May: this is crunch time for students of IB and AP Economics. Exams are just around the corner, we’re wrapping up a long year (or two) of studies, and all the excitement of the end of the year is upon us. Just when we need it most, spring break is here!

I’ll be in Malaysia for the week diving, visiting old high school friends, and enjoying the country I lived in as a kid. Some of you may be here in Shanghai wishing you were someplace cool, looking for something useful to do. If this is you, then you should check out the “AP/IB Exam Prep” page on this blog, where you can find downloadable study guides for every unit in the AP courseup to this point and links to the wiki pages you’ve created throughout the year. Between these two resources, you probably don’t even need to open your textbook when reviewing for the AP and IB exams in May.

Have a great spring break. If you’re feeling like me right now, then this break has arrived at just the right time! Don’t expect much from me for the next 9 days, I’m not even bringing my computer to Malaysia with me, so this should be the last post until March 31!

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Mar 21 2008

Growing pains

OECD Cuts Growth Forecast to Below 2% – Bloomberg.com

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts a global slowdown in growth. Among its 30 member nations, the OECD predicts growth of below 2% for 2008.

The [OECD] cut its forecast for expansion this year in its 30 member nations to “less than” 2 percent, the weakest since 2003. This “will be a difficult year of lower growth and some more unpleasant surprises,” OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria said in an interview in Oslo. “We have revised downwards a number of our projections.”

Okay, 2% isn’t that bad, right? I mean, it’s still growth. In fact, the OECD believes the strongest growth will be in emerging economies such as China and India, which it predicts will grow at 6.9%. The US and Europe may not enjoy such comfortable rates of expansion in this time of restricted credit, low consumption and investment and dwindling optimism among households and firms.

Jean-Luc Schneider, deputy director of the OECD’s economics department, said the agency is “not yet completely convinced there will be a recession” in the U.S., though it will be “flirting” with contraction. That will affect other OECD economies, especially those in Europe, said Gurria.

While European growth won’t be as “uncomfortable” as in the U.S., it’ll “probably be worse than we know today…”Keynesian AD/AS

In times of macroeconomic weakness as described above, an active role for government may be required in order to stimulate consumption and investment, increase aggregate demand and restore a healthy rate of economic growth.

Keynesian economists advocate an active role for government and central banks in times of recession. The Keynesian school of economics rests on the theory of downwardly inflexible wages and prices, the implication being that in times of declining demand (low investment and consumption), the economy slides into recession characterized by rising unemployment and slow or negative growth. (as illustrated in the graph here)

The classical view of recession, however, holds that as employment and output decline, the price level will fall due to weak aggregate demand. This “flexible price” theory leads classical economists to argue that if left alone, the economy will self-correct because workers will eventually accept lower wages, leading firms to hire more workers, increase output, and restore full-employment (as shown in the graph on the left). No government intervention is needed in such a scenario.

Classical AD/AS recessionKeynesians argue that “flexible prices” are a myth, that in times of recession prices may remain high or even rise (in the case of a supply-shock as illustrated in the graph below). Due to the “sticky prices”, workers are not willing to work for lower wages, thus firms are not able to increase their employment in a time of weak aggregate demand. Without downwardly flexible wages, aggregate supply will not adjust outwards to restore full employment output.

Keynesian economists therefore support action by the government and central banks in times of slow or negative growth. In America today, the mainstream view adopted by most macroeconomic policy makers is still rooted in Keynesian theory, which explains the government’s recent fiscal stimulus package and expansionary monetary policies undertaken by the Fed.

Expansionary policies like a tax rebate, the Fed’s buying of bonds on the open market, and the lowering of the discount rate are aimed at shifting Aggregate Demand outward to restore full employment. The problem is that in addition to weakextended-as_2.jpeg demand, the world economy is simultaneously experiencing rising costs of production as a result of record energy and food prices.

Cost-push inflation and rising unemployment pose a whole new policy challenge for central bankers and politicians. To combat recession in the face of rising prices is tricky, as the trade-off between unemployment and inflation is tenuous. The Phillips Curve illustrates the inverse relationship between the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. To understand the logic of this model it is useful to examine the current challenge face by the Fed.

Both unemployment and inflation are rising in the US right now. The reason for this is the rising costs faced by firms due to a weak dollar combined with high energy and food prices. Normally, a Keynesian approach to recession alleviation would be in order to restore full employment. Stimulating spending through expansionary policies, however, will only worsen the inflation problem.

The “supply shock” faced by America today has caused both unemployment and inflation to increase, which is illustrated by an outward shift in the Phillips Curve. The best policy action in this scenario may, in fact, be to allow the US to enter aPC recession; in other words, no policy, or laissez faire.

If the US and European economies are allowed to experience a significant slowd0wn or contraction in growth, the global demand for commodities such as fossil fuels, minerals, and other raw materials for production should decline, putting downward pressure on these commodity prices. In addition, rising unemployment should eventually result in workers accepting lower wages. The combination of falling commodity prices and wages should encourage firms to increase output, shifting aggregate supply outward and the Phillips Curve inward, restoring full-employment and price level stability.

In all likelihood we will not see the above scenario transpire. Governments and central bankers are already making moves to maintain growth and low unemployment, even in the face of rising prices. The Keynesian/classical debate, however, will continue. For now, at least, it seems as if the Keynesians are still winning the battle of the hearts and minds of political and economic leaders today.

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Mar 18 2008

Mankiw on free trade in politics

Beyond the Noise on Free Trade – New York Times

Ever wondered which presidential candidate had the most “economistic” views on economic issues? In other words, which candidate supports economic policies most in line with the mainstream economic theories of our day: Obama, Clinton or McCain?

First question is what, exactly, are the mainstream economic views at issue? In Harvard Professor Gregory Mankiw’s article above, he talks about the issue of free trade:

Economists are, overwhelmingly, free traders. A 2006 poll of Ph.D. members of the American Economic Association found that 87.5 percent agreed that “the U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade.”

The benefits from an open world trading system are standard fare in introductory economics courses. In my freshman course at Harvard, we start studying the topic in the second week, and we return to issues of globalization throughout the year. The basic lessons can be traced back to Adam Smith of the 18th century and David Ricardo of the 19th century: Trade between two countries creates winners and losers, but it leaves both nations with greater overall prosperity.

Indeed, all principles of economics courses (including our AP and IB courses here at SAS) teach in the first units the concepts of comparative advantage and trade based on specialization by nations in the production of the goods for which they have a lower opportunity cost than others. This basic tenet, illustrated so clearly with a simple productions possiblity curve, has proven to be the source of endless political turmoil in America, a country whose market economy is built on the principles of free trade, but whose citizens seem to increasingly oppose it today:

In December, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked Americans, “Do you think the fact that the American economy has become increasingly global is good because it has opened up new markets for American products and resulted in more jobs, or bad because it has subjected American companies and employees to unfair competition and cheap labor?”

When this question was asked a decade ago, the public was almost evenly split. In the recent poll, however, only 28 percent endorsed globalization, while 58 percent opposed it.

The protectionist tide seems to be rising in America in the face of rising unemployment, falling output, inflation and all-around insecurity among households and firms. So the question arises, where do the leading candidates fall on issues of free trade? Is it a threat to Americans’ well-being or the source of our vast wealth and power? Mankiw examines the candidates’ stances on a few major trade issues in the last few years. 

Here’s what he finds: Overwhelmingly, John McCain has shown support for policies aimed at expanding free trade, while Clinton and Obama have taken stances oposing open markets. From opposing tariffs on Chinese imports to advocating a reduction of subsidies to American farmers to supporting the Central American Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the US/South Korea FTA, McCain has consistently fallen on the side of the mainstream economists on the issue of globalization, while his Democratic counterparts have taken stances opposing trade liberalization and the opening of new markets to competition between American and foreign producers.

What conclusions can be drawn from Mankiw’s observation? Are Democrats economically illitereate? Do Obama and Clinton need to sit through Econ 101 to learn that trade and specialization benefit society through expansion of output and lower prices? Probably not. Mankiw suggests that the rhetoric coming from the “Hillbama” campaigns is probably just populism aimed at gaining support of voters who fear the threat they perceive trade to pose to their livelihoods.

Maybe the candidates’ records as legislators are not good indicators of what their policies might be as president. Maybe campaign rhetoric… is nothing more than that. But counting on it requires, one might say, the audacity of hope.

Personally, I hope Mankiw is right, and that the Democrats prove to be a bit more “economistic” in their policies should one of them end up in office. What do you think? Should American voters believe everything candidates say in their campaigns? If Hillary and Barack appear to be anti-trade and protectionist now does that mean America will be put on a path of isolation should one of them win the White House? Should we, as economists, be afraid, or hopeful, in this time of “change” and “hope” in America?

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Mar 17 2008

Little used monetary policy tool called into battle!

More Bold Moves from the Fed: Business Week online ediction

Here we are, the night before our test on Monetary Policy, and good ol’ Mr. Bernanke throws me a perfect blogworthy bit of news!

The Federal Reserve announced a series of steps Mar. 16 to help provide relief to a spreading credit crisis that threatens to plunge the economy into recession: The central bank approved a cut to its lending rate to financial institutions, from 3.5% to 3.25%, and created another lending facility for big investment banks to secure short-term loans.

Global financial markets appeared to react with alarm on Sunday evening. In overseas trading, the euro made new highs vs. the dollar, U.S. Treasury futures fell, and gold futures posted new record highs at $1,009.50 per ounce.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe briefly what the article means by “a spreading credit-crisis”. How does less lending threaten to “plunge the economy into recession”?
  2. Which tool of monetary policy does the term in bold refer to? Why would financial institutions ever need to borrow from the Fed?
  3. Why did the euro reach “new highs vs. the dollar” on news of the US lowering interest rates? Why did gold shoot to its highest price in history on the news?

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