Archive for August, 2011

Aug 25 2011

The joys and sorrows of the strong Swiss franc

Last Friday my favorite podcast, NPR’s Planet Money, did a feature story called “Switzerland’s too Strong for it’s own Good”. The gist of the story is that the uncertainty over budget deficits and the national debt in the US and Eurozone at this time are causing international investors to put their money into the Swiss franc and Swiss franc denominated assets. Switzerland’s reputation for financial discipline and fiscal responsibility makes it a safe-haven for international investors feeling jittery over the large budget deficits in Euro countries and in the United States.

The Planet Money team discusses why the rising value of the franc poses a threat to the Swiss economy. To understand just how much the franc (CHF) has strengthened against the currencies of its trading partners, examine the graph below, which shows the rise (and recent decline) in the value of the CHF against the currency of Switzerland’s neighbors, the Euro.

As can be seen, earlier this year on CHF was worth only around 0.76 euros, but as recently as August 10 one CHF could buy nearly 0.95 worth of goods from Euro countries. Of course, cheaper imports is a benefit to Swiss households, but what we need to realize is that this upward trend in the value of the CHF also means that all Swiss goods are becoming more expensive to European consumers. And here’s the problem with the stronger franc. Over 50% of Switzerland’s output is exported to the rest of the world (meaning a large proportion of Switzerland’s workers depend on strong exports), and the more expensive the country’s currency, the more expensive the goods produced by Swiss businesses become in the countries with which Switzerland trades.

A simple example would help: A Swiss chocolate bar that sells for two CHF would have cost a European consumer only 1.50 euros in February of this year (when one CHF = 0.75 Euro). But in early August the same bar of chocolate would have cost the European consumer 1.90 Euro, an increase in price of nearly 30%. This may not seem like much to a casual observer, but when you realize that Switzerland’s biggest exports are capital goods and financial services, which cost far more than 2 CHF, a 30% price hike placed on foreign consumers is much more noticeable. If a train engine that sold for 1 million Euros suddenly costs a European transport agency 1.3 million Euros, you can imagine such a transaction would become much less appealing, and demand for Swiss rail engines will begin to fall, putting Swiss jobs at risk.

Here on the ground in Switzerland, the effects of the strong franc have definitely not gone unnoticed. One point of discussion in the podcast is the fact that Swiss retailers have strangely not begun lowering the prices for their imported products. For example, one would expect that a bike shop selling bikes made by American companies in Taiwan would be able to lower its price for those bikes as one franc now buys about 30% more US goods than it could earlier this year. Logically, a $1000 bike that used to cost 1,100 CHF for a Swiss bike shop to import now only costs that shop around 800 CHF to import. The Swiss consumer should begin to see lower retail prices reflecting the lower costs to Swiss importers. Strangely, however, this has not materialized, and most retailers have kept their prices at the same level they were before the rise of franc’s value.

Perhaps retailers are unwilling to lower their prices because they are uncertain whether or not the franc will remain strong, and they would not want to have to be in a situation in which the franc suddenly weakens and their costs rise once again. Perhaps retailers are simply enjoying the greater profits resulting from falling costs and the same high prices. However, as a consumer myself living in Switzerland, I would guess that this is not the case, because I and many other people I know here have reduced the quantity of goods we buy from Swiss retailers. In the age of online shopping, it is now cheaper than ever to order goods like bicycles, clothing and electronics from foreign retailers through the internet.

For example, I recently ordered a bicycle from the United States that sells for $1,100 there. At current exchange rates, I was able to order this bike for only 800 CHF from the US. The same bike in Switzerland has a retail price on it reflecting the US dollar/CHF exchange rate of several years ago, and sells for 1,500 CHF. Of course, any imported product is charged a duty by customs, but even after paying around 160 CHF in duties, I still am saving nearly 500 CHF on this bike. The result is Swiss bike shops selling foreign brands have experienced a decline in sales as consumers like myself have chosen to order their good from foreign retailers, whose prices are much lower due to the stronger franc.

As an American working in Switzerland, I also benefit from the strong franc in that all of my debts are in dollars. I own a house in the States, and still have about four years left on my student loans from grad school. The strong franc reduces the burden of these debts and allow me to keep more of my income in Switzerland, sending home less and less money each month to cover the same expenses back home.

The big question on everyone in Switzerland’s minds right now is whether the rise of the franc will continue, or whether it will return to an equilibrium exchange rate against the euro and the dollar closer to levels seen earlier this year. Swiss exporters (chocolate companies, watch makers and train engine manufacturers) are hoping the franc will fall again. Households, on the other hand, will continue to enjoy the cheap online shopping opportunities, and may eventually enjoy cheaper retail products in Switzerland if importers become more comfortable lowering their prices to reflect the lower costs of their imports.

I predict that the rise in the franc is over, but that in the next few months it will reach an equilibrium against the dollar and the euro somewhere well above its historic level (around 1.5 francs per Euro and around 1.1 francs per dollar). I believe the franc will settle around 1.1 CHF per Euro and around 0.85 CHF per dollar. Once these exchange rates have settled and the wild fluctuations of the last month come to an end, Swiss exporters and importers alike will begin adjusting their costs and prices to reflect the more stable equilibrium to which we will become accustomed.

Living and working in one of Europe’s and the world’s strongest, most fiscally sound economies has its advantages. But in a world of free trade and floating exchange rates, panic among investors abroad has the potential to fire a devastating blast into the ship that is a healthy economy like Switzerland’s. But over time, just like in any speculative bubble, the rise in the value of the franc will stop, it will begin to fall once again, and everyone will come to their senses as import and export prices once again begin to reflect the true exchange rates between the franc and the currencies of its trading partners.

Discussion questions: 

  1. Strong is always better, right? A strong army, a strong economy, a strong leader. But when it comes to currencies, strong is often not better. Why is a strong currency potentially harmful to a nation’s economy?
  2. How would an increase in online shopping among Swiss households affect the prices Swiss retailers are able to charge for their imported products?
  3. How would a Swiss exporting firm, such as Rolex (a watch manufacturer) be affected by the rising value of the Swiss franc? What would such a firm have to do to keep its products at a competitive price in foreign markets?

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Aug 21 2011

Thoughts on Scarcity and the big questions of Economics

What is scarcity? In Economics, we say that scarcity is the basic economic problem. Because there are only limited resources available in the world, but humans’ wants and needs are practically infinite, we run into a problem, how to:

  • decide what will be produced, 
  • how it will be produced, and 
  • who will get the stuff that’s produced.

Any economic system must answer these three simple questions. Today I started off a new year of AP and IB Economics with a lesson in scarcity (the full lesson plan can be viewed here). Students were faced with a classroom with only half as many chairs as there were students. In the face of the scarcity of chairs, students had to decide who would get a chair and who wouldn’t. The suggestions from this morning’s class ranged from rock, paper, scissors, to musical chairs, to first come, first serve, to a Hunger Games style fight to the death. Ultimately, students decided that I, the teacher, should create a rotating schedule of who would get the chairs, to assure that they would be allocated fairly and no particular student would get to sit in a chair more often than any other.

It was of great interest to me that the students settled on this solution. Sure, it seems fair if a schedule is set by the teacher. But why was this their preferred solution? I asked them if this is how seats in movie theaters are allocated, or seats in top universities, or beds in hospitals? They agreed that, in fact, other scarce chairs are rarely allocated in the manner they settled on, a rotating schedule assigning seats to different people on different days in a way that assure everyone gets to have the chairs equal numbers of times throughout the year.

Of course, this is NOT how seats at top universities are allocated, nor in movie theaters. Upon reflection, we determined that university spots are typically allocated in the following manner:

  1. By merit (based on academic achievements in secondary school), and
  2. By price (based on who is able to afford tuition at the best universities).

Of course, in many cases, those who may be most qualified to attend the top universities may not be able to afford the tuition, so ultimately, university spots are allocated by price.

Once we had decided that price was an important factor in allocating the scarce chairs out there in the real world, we decided to try out a price system in the classroom. Each student was asked to write down on a piece of paper (confidentially, of course), the price they would be willing to pay each day to have a seat in my class. Once I collected the “bids” I organized them from highest to lowest, and those who were willing to pay the most ended up getting chairs, while those willing to pay the least had to stand.

Is the price system fair? During our debrief I asked students whether they believed our price system for determining chair allocation was fair. Instinctively, they said it was NOT fair. Their reasons were that those who could afford to pay the most (e.g. the richest students) ended up getting chairs, while the students with less disposable income ended up standing. But what makes this unfair?

Upon further discussion, some students pointed out that in the real world, those who are able to pay the most for scarce goods (university spots, high quality health care, nice cars, big houses), have probably worked the hardest and therefore earned higher incomes than those who cannot afford these nice things. In this regard,the price system makes sure that those who work hardest and are most productive end up enjoying a higher standard of living since they can afford to consume more and nicer products.

Or is the price system unfair? On the other hand, those who cannot afford to pay the prices of lots of nice things may not be able to do so because they have not worked hard enough (either in school or in the labor market). But how, then do we explain the fact that many factory workers, miners, fishermen, farmers and others who obviously work incredibly hard, cannot afford to buy lots of nice things (and get their kids into the best universities).

The questions we struggled with today in class are some of the most fundamental questions that the field of Economics deals with, and which we will study in great detail in my classes over the next two years:

  • What is scarcity and why does it exist?
  • What are some scarce resources in the world outside of school?
  • How should scarce resources be allocated between competing wants and needs?
  • Who should get the stuff that scarce resources go towards producing?
  • What is fair? And what is efficient?
  • What kind of system for allocating scarce resources is both efficient and fair?
These and many other questions form the basis of the field of Economics. In the coming months my students will explore the answers to these questions in  their Economics classes!

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Aug 16 2011

Too much debt or not enough demand? A summary of the debate over America’s fiscal future

As yet another school year begins, we once again find ourselves returning to an atmosphere of economic uncertainty, sluggish growth, and heated debate over how to return the economies of the United States and Europe back onto a growth trajectory. In the last couple of weeks alone the US government has barely avoided a default on its national debt, ratings agencies have downgraded US government bonds, global stock markets have tumbled, confidence in the Eurozone has been pummeled over fears of larger than expected deficits in Italy and Greece, and the US dollar has reached historic lows against currencies such as the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen.

What are we to make of all this turmoil? I will not pretend I can offer a clear explanation to all this chaos, but I can offer here a little summary of the big debate over one of the issues above: the debate over the US national debt and what the US should be doing right now to assure future economic and financial stability.

There are basically two sides to this debate, one we will refer to as the “demand-side” and one we will call the “supply-side”. On the demand-side you have economists like Paul Krugman, and in Washington the left wing of the Democratic party, who believe that America’s biggest problem is a lack of aggregate demand.

Supply-siders, on the other hand, are worried more about the US national debt, which currently stands around 98% of US GDP, and the budget deficit, which this year is around $1.5 trillion, or 10% of GDP. Every dollar spent by the US government beyond what it collects in taxes, argue the supply-siders, must be borrowed, and the cost of borrowing is the interest the government (i.e. taxpayers) have to pay to those buying government bonds. The larger the deficit, the larger the debt burden and the more that must be paid in interest on this debt. Furthermore, increased debt leads to greater uncertainty about the future and the expectation that taxes will have to be raised sometime down the road, thus creating an environment in which firms and households will postpone spending, prolonging the period of economic slump.

The demand-siders, however, believe that debt is only a problem if it grows more rapidly than national income, and in the US right now income growth is almost zero, meaning that the growing debt will pose a greater threat over time due to the slow growth in income. Think of it this way, if I owe you $98 and I only earn $100, then that $98 is a BIG DEAL. But if my income increases to $110 and my debt grows to $100, that is not as big a deal. Yes, I owe you more money, but I am also earning more money, so the debt burden has actually decreased.

In order to get US income to grow, say the demand-siders, continued fiscal and monetary stimulus are needed. With the debt deal struck two weeks ago, however, the US government has vowed to slash future spending by $2.4 trillion, effectively doing the opposite of what the demand-siders would like to see happen, pursuing fiscal contraction rather than expansion. As government spending grows less in the future than it otherwise would have, employment will fall and incomes will grow more slowly, or worse, the US will enter a second recession, meaning even lower incomes in the future, causing a the debt burden to grow.

Now let’s consider the supply-side argument. The supply-siders argue that America’s biggest problem is not the lack of demand, rather it is the debt itself. Every borrowed dollar spent by the goverment, say the supply-siders, is a dollar taken out of the private sector’s pocket. As government spending continues to grow faster than tax receipts, the government must borrow more and more from the private sector, and in order to attract lenders, interest on government bonds must be raised. Higher interest paid on government debt leads to a flow of funds into the public sector and away from the private sector, causing borrowing costs to rise for everyone else. In IB and AP Economics, this phenomenon is known as  the crowding-out effect: Public sector borrowing crowds out private sector investment, slowing growth and leading to less overall demand in the economy.

Additionally, argue the supply-siders, the increase in debt required for further stimulus will only lead to the expectation among households and firms of future increases in tax rates, which will be necessary to pay down the higher level of debt sometime in the future. The expectation of future tax hikes will be enough to discourage current consumption and investment, so despite the increase in government spending now, the fall in private sector confidence will mean less investment and consumption, so aggregate demand may not even grow if we do borrow and spend today!

This debate is not a new one. The demand-side / supply-side battle has raged for nearly a century, going back to the Great Depression when the prevailing economic view was that the cause of the global economic crisis was unbalanced budgets and too much foreign competition. In the early 30’s governments around the world cut spending, raised taxes and erected new barriers to trade in order to try and fix their economic woes. The result was a deepening of the depression and a lost decade of economic activity, culminating in a World War that led to a massive increase in demand and a return to full employment. Let’s hope that this time around the same won’t be necessary to end our global economic woes.

Recently, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria had two of the leading voices in this economic debate on his show to share their views on what is needed to bring the US and the world out of its economic slump. Princeton’s Paul Krugman, a proud Keynesian, spoke for the demand-side, while Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff represented the supply-side. Watch the interview below (up to 24:40), read my notes summarizing the two side’s arguments, and answer the questions that follow.

Summary of Krugman’s argument:

  • Despite the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s (a ratings agency) there appears to be strong demand for US government bonds right now, meaning really low borrowing costs (interest rates) for the US government.
  • This means investors are not afraid of what S&P is telling them to be afraid of, and are more than happy to lend money to the US government at low interest rates.
  • Investors are fleeing from equities (stocks in companies), and buying US bonds because US debt is the safest asset out there. The market is saying that the downgrade may lead to more contractionary policies, hurting the real economy. Investors are afraid of contractionary fiscal policy, so are sending a message to Washington that it should spend more now.
  • The really scary thing is the prospect of another Great Depression.
  • Can fiscal stimulus succeed in an environment of large amounts of debt held by the private sector? YES, says Krugman, the government can sustain spending to maintain employment and output, which leads to income growth and makes it easier for the private sector to pay down their debt.
  • With 9% unemployment and historically high levels of long-term unemployment, we should be addressing the employment problem first. We should throw everything we can at increasing employment and incomes.
  • Is there some upper limit to the national debt? Krugman says the deficit and debt are high, but we must consider costs versus benefits: The US can borrow money and repay in constant dollars (inflation adjusted) less than it borrowed. There must be projects the federal government could undertake with at least a constant rate of return that could get workers employed. If the world wants to buy US bonds, let’s borrow now and invest for the future!
  • If we discovered that space aliens were about to attack and we needed a massive military buildup to protect ourselves from invasion, inflation and budget deficits would be a secondary concern to that and the recession would be over in 18 months.
  • We have so many hypothetical risks (inflation, bond market panic, crowding out, etc…) that we are afraid to tackle the actual challenge that is happening (unemployment, deflation, etc..) and we are destroying a lot of lives to protect ourselves from these “phantom threats”.
  • The thing that’s holding us back right now in the US is private sector debt. Yes we won’t have a self-sustaining recovery until private sector debt comes down, at least relative to incomes. Therefore we need policies that make income grow, which will reduce the burden of private debt.
  • The idea that we cannot do anything to grow until private debt comes down on its own is flawed… increase income, decrease debt burden!
  • Things that we have no evidence for that are supposed to be dangerous are not a good reason not to pursue income growth policies.
  • When it comes down to it, there just isn’t enough spending in the economy!

Summary of Rogoff’s argument:

  • The downgrade was well justified, and the reason for the demand for treasuries is that they look good compared to the other options right now.
  • There is a panic going on as investors adjust to lower growth expectations, due to lack of leadership in the US and Europe.
  • This is not a classical recession, rather a “Great Contraction”: Recessions are periodic, but a financial crisis like this is unusual, this is the 2nd Great Contraction since the Depresssion. It’s not output and employment, but credit and housing which are contracting, due to the “debt overhang”.
  • If you look at a contraction, it can take up to 4 or 5 years just to get back where you started.
  • This is not a double dip recession, because we never left the first one.
  • Rogoff thinks continued fiscal stimulus would worsen the debt overhang because it leads to the expectation of future tax increases, thus causing firms and households increased uncertainty and reduces future growth.
  • If we used our credit to help facilitate a plan to bring down the mortgage debt (debt held by the private sector), Rogoff would consider that a better option than spending on employment and output. Fix the debt problem, and spending will resume.
  • Rogoff thinks we should not assume that interest rates of US debt will last indefinitely. Infrastructure spending, if well spent, is great, but he is suspicious whether the government is able to target its spending so efficiently to make borrowing the money worthwhile.
  • Rogoff thinks if government invests in productive projects, stimulus is a good idea, but “digging ditches” will not fix the economy.
  • Until we get the debt levels down, we cannot get back to robust growth.
  • It’s because of the government’s debt that the private sector is worried about where the country’s going. If we increase the debt to finance more stimulus, there will be more uncertainty, higher interest rates, possibly inflation, and prolonged stagnation in output and incomes.
  • When it comes down to it, there is just too much debt in the economy!

Discussion Question:

  1. What is the fundamental difference between the two arguments being debated above? Both agree that the national debt is a problem, but where do the two economists differ on how to deal with the debt?
  2. The issues of “digging ditches and filling them in” comes up in the discussion. What is the context of this metaphor? What are the two economists views on the effectiveness of such projects?
  3. Following the debate, Fareed Zakaria talks about the reaction in China to S&P’s downgrade of US debt. What does he think about the popular demands in China for the government to pull out of the market for US government bonds?
  4. Explain what Zakaria means when he describes the relationship between the US and China as “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)”.
  5. Should the US government pursue a second stimulus and directly try to stimulate employment and income? Or should it continue down the path to austerity, cutting government programs to try and balance its budget?

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Aug 15 2011

Oh the times, they are a changing!

The Economist – Sticking it to China

Not long ago, China was known as a source of low-skilled, manufactured goods imports to the United States. China’s abundant workforce andcheap raw materials made it the perfect place for American firms to source their toys, cheap electronics, and textiles from. But today things are different. China’s economy grew at over 10% in the first half of 2011, a rate that shocked many who predicted that weak international demand for its exports would slow China’s growth rate and begin to put pressure on employment. However, slow grown and weak employment figures are more characteristic of the US economy in 2011 than its Asian rival (or partner, depending on how you look at it).

So I guess I should not be surprised to see this article in the Economist, in which it appears that, at least in certain industries, the United States is now the source of low-skilled, labor and land intensive imports into China. But China’s famous “plastic toys” are even higher tech than America’s new export to China, chopsticks.

Jae Lee, a former scrap-metal exporter, saw an opportunity and began turning out chopsticks for the Chinese market late last year…

In May Georgia Chopsticks moved to larger premises in Americus, a location that offered room to grow, inexpensive facilities and a willing workforce. Sumter County, of which Americus is the seat, has an unemployment rate of more than 12%. Georgia Chopsticks now employs 81 people turning out 2m chopsticks a day. By year’s end Mr Lee and Mr Hughes hope to increase their workforce to 150, and dream of building a “manufacturing incubator” to help foreign firms take advantage of Georgia’s workforce and raw materials.

America as a source of abundant and cheap labor, raw materials, and capital… sounds more like China in the 1990s, doesn’t it?

Some say that the asendancy of the East will be defining event of the 21st Century. China, 600 years ago, was not only the world’s most populous country, but it was also the world’s most innovative, richest, and largest economy. The West, at the same time, was relatively poor and technologically under-developed compared to China. Today, after 300 years of Industrialization, the West is typically thought of as the “developed world” and China and its Asian neighbors fall under the designation of the “developing countries”.

But as the size of the developing worlds’ economies continues to grow at rates that far exceed those achieved in the developed world, the income gap between the two grows ever narrower; therefore it should not be a surprise to see the identities of their economies grow increasingly muddled. China, once the low-cost producer of basic manufactured goods, now finds it resources (land, labor and capital) growing increasingly scarce. The US, on the other hand, with its nearly stagnant growth, 16% under-employment, large amounts of idle capital and relatively abundant forests and other natural resources, will grow more attractive to manufacturers from the East looking for a place to source cheap, low-skilled goods from, even something as simple as chopsticks!

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