Archive for February, 2013

Feb 27 2013

Sequestration – a basic economic analysis

Ben Bernanke Lectures Congress on Austerity Economics : The New Yorker

In just two days, the United States will enact a massive contractionary fiscal policy known as the “sequester”, which includes over $1 trillion in federal spending cuts rolled out over the next ten yeas. The imminent sequester (which is defined as “to isolate, or hide away”) is the result of the failure of Democrats and Republicans to agree upon an acceptable combination of spending cuts and tax increases to put the US government on a more sustainable budgetary path (meaning lower national debt in the future). The sequester was never intended to occur, rather it was put in place to force the two parties to come up with a budget compromise that would cause less harm to the economy than the cuts that the sequester will impose.

The $1.2 trillion cut in spending will have several negative effects on the US economy, including 

…up to 2,100 fewer food inspections, 373,000 mentally ill adults and children going without treatment, 70,000 kids being kicked out of preschool, 2,700 schools losing federal funding, about 30,000 teacher layoffs, a reduction in federal law enforcement capacity equivalent to the loss of 1,000 federal agents, 1,000 fewer criminal prosecutions, and the list goes on and on. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, recently said before the Senate Armed Services Committee that sequestration will “make it much harder for us to preserve readiness after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The effects on national output and employment in the US economy, which is still recovering from the Great Recession of 2009, will likely be devastating. According to the Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke,

“Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant… Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run.”

Bernanke, a Republican himself, recognizes that any cut in government spending (known as a contractionary fiscal policy) will harm the US economy’s growth potential both in the short-run and the long-run. Bernanke believes that the primary goal of the government right now (and the Central Bank, which he is the head of) should be to promote increased employment to bring the nation’s unemployment rate down (back to its natural rate).

So what is the argument FOR a contractionary fiscal policy? Why would the Democrats and Republicans let this sequestration take place even when America’s leading economic voice is calling for it to be avoided? If you ask many of the Republicans in Washington, D.C., America’s biggest macroeconomic problem is not slow growth or high unemployment, it’s the large national debt. The debt (which is the sum of all of the country’s past budget deficits), has grown to nearly 80% of the nation’s GDP. This means that the nation owes the holders of that debt nearly as much as its total income in a year. If an individual had a debt level this high, that individual would probably have to cut back on his own spending (cut up those credit cards!), to begin paying back that debt; obviously, high personal debt ultimately leads to a decrease in the standard of living of the indebted person as it eventually has to be paid back.

But a nation’s debt is a little different than that of an individual. If the US government cuts back on spending to reduce the debt, the result is rising unemployment, lower incomes, reduced confidence among households and firms, a reduction in economic growth, and possibly, a recession. The goal of reducing the debt could ultimately reduce the national output and income, which could ironically make the debt an even bigger deal than it already is. Let me explain why.

Imagine two countries, Country A and Country G. Country A has a national debt of $12,000 billion dollars. Country G has a national debt of $355 billion dollars. Obviously, Country A’s debt is around 35 times the size of Country G’s. So if I asked you, which of these countries is facing a “debt crisis”, you’d probably say Country A, right? Well, you’d be wrong. Country A is America, and Country G is Greece. So why does Greece’s national debt of $355 billion, which represents 182% of Greece’s GDP of $195 billion, constitute a “crisis”, while America’s debt of $1,200 billion, or just around 80% of its GDP, is simply a cause of concern among one of the country’s political parties? The answer is, it’s not how large a nation’s debt is in dollar terms that matters, rather how large the debt is relative to the country’s GDP. A millionaire could handle a $100,000 debt just fine, while for an individual earning minimum wage, a debt of $100,000 would present a crushing burden that is unlikely ever to be overcome without that individual declaring himself bankrupt.

If the sequestration takes place, America’s GDP may fall, as Bernanke has warned. But its debt will continue to grow (albeit less slowly than it would without the sequester). If the GDP falls while the debt grows, the country’s debt burden actually increases, despite the desired outcome of the sequester, a reduction in debt. In other words, the sequestration will make America more like Greece (the guy on minimum wage) and less like America (the millionaire!).

Rather than working towards debt reduction, as the mainstream of the Republican party advocates, Ben Bernanke would prefer the federal government focus on policies that reduce unemployment. Unemployment, defined as “the state of actively seeking a job, but being unable to find one”, has several negative effects on individuals and the economy as a whole. Here’s Bernanke explaining to the US Congress the consequences of unemployment:

High unemployment has substantial costs, including not only the hardship faced by the unemployed and their families, but also the harm done to the vitality and productive potential of our economy as a whole. Lengthy periods of unemployment and underemployment can erode workers’ skills and attachment to the labor force or prevent young people from gaining skills and experience in the first place—developments that could significantly reduce their productivity and earnings in the longer term. The loss of output and earnings associated with high unemployment also reduces government revenues and increases spending, thereby leading to larger deficits and higher levels of debt.

Many economists believe that America’s huge national debt (in dollar terms) is really not all that bad when compared to its even huger GDP. A nation’s debt really only becomes a problem when that nation, like an individual burdened with a high level of personal debt, is forced to reduce its spending and begin paying that debt off. A nation can maintain a high level of debt as long as it can continue to borrow more money to pay off its past debt. And in the current global economy, no nation can borrow money more easily than the United States of America.

The cost of borrowing money is the interest rate that must be paid on loans made to an individual or government. At present, the US government can borrow money at very low interest rates (it pays between 1% and 3% on most of the government bonds it issues). This fact indicates that America’s debt, while it is a primary concern of the Republican party, is not a major concern among those to whom the US government owes money, nor to those who may lend it money in the near future.

The tradeoff America faces as it enters this period of sequestration, government spending cuts, and the resulting reduction in aggregate demand, income, output and employment, is one between future debt and future prosperity. The sequester may reduce the level of debt in the future, but it will also increase the debt burden (as Bernanke explained). In exchange for a smaller dollar value of its debt, America may have to accept  increased unemployment and a slower recovery from the Great Recession, which together will make the US less competitive, reduce standards of living, and make it more difficult for future generations to enjoy the quality of life experienced by their parents and grandparents.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the Unemployment Rate in the United States today? What is thought to be the US’s “natural rate of unemployment” How is unemployment measured (simply state the formula)?
  2. Based on America’s current unemployment rate, where would you expect the US to be on its business cycle? Draw a business cycle model and indicate where the US is most likely to be.
  3. Based on America’s current unemployment rate, where do you think current US equilibrium output is compared to full employment output? Draw an AD/AS model and indicate the likely equilibrium the US is currently experiencing.
  4. If you were in charge of fiscal policy, identify two possible policy recommendations that the US should consider given its current level of unemployment. Explain how each would impact the level of unemployment in the economy.
  5. Assume the marginal propensity to consume in the United States is 0.6, and the government decides to cut military and domestic spending by $85 billion. Calculate the effect this will have on America’s GDP.
  6. On the business cycle and AD/AS diagram you drew above, show the effect of the $85 billion spending cut.
  7. Explain how the spending cut will will impact the level of unemployment in the economy.
  8. Discuss with your table the wisdom of the $85 billion spending cut described above.

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Feb 26 2013

Examining terms of trade data

Published by under Terms of Trade

Terms of trade has always been one of the trickier topics to teach in IB Economics. Stated simply, a nation’s terms of trade is a numerical representation of the country’s export prices relative to its import prices. With this in mind, the intuitive interpretation is that a “strong” terms of trade is desirable, while a “weak” terms of trade is undesirable. However, it’s not always so cut and dry.

In looking around for some data on terms of trade, I came upon the World Bank’s database of “Net barter terms of trade index”, which measures “the percentage ratio of the export unit value indexes to the import unit value indexes, measured relative to the base year 2000”. So, basically, the numbers tell use how much higher or lower each nation’s export prices are relative to their import prices today as compared to 2000.

Follow the link above and study the data for various countries. Create some graphs and plot a few countries against one another. See if you can come up with some hypotheses regarding what may account for changes in different country’s terms of trade since 2000. For example, study the table below and answer the questions that follow.



  1. Describe the changes in the four nations’ terms of trade since 2003.
  2. Why do all nations start close to 100?
  3. How might China’s trade balance have been affected by the changes in its terms of trade since 2000?
  4. How might Venezuela’s trade balance have been affected by the changes in its terms of trade since 2000?
  5. What are some possible causes for the improvements in Venezuela’s and Saudi Arabia’s terms of trade? 
  6. What was the likely cause of the dip in both Venezuela’s and Saudi Arabia’s terms of trade in 2008-2009?
  7. Under what circumstances will an improvement in a nation’s terms of trade lead to an improvement in its trade balance? When does a deterioration in terms of trade improve the trade balance?

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Feb 21 2013

Obama’s proposed trade deal – Good for America, Good for Europe – so who are the losers?

In his state of the Union address last week, US president Obama shared his plan for a “transatlantic trade and investment partnership”. The proposed agreement would eliminate tariffs and take other steps to promote free trade of goods and services traded between the United States and the 27 European Union nations.

While tariffs on most goods are already very low (rarely higher than 3% according to the Economist)there still exist several non-tariff barriers to trade between world’s two largest economies.  These barriers to trade include policies such as:

  • The “buy American” provision that many US congressmen support for government spending
  • Subsidies to farmers in both the US and the EU
  • Subsidies to the world’s two largest airplane manufacturers, Boeing and Airbuss
  • Protection of “geographically unique brands” such as Champagne and Roquefort cheese (which reduces competition in the US market for these European products)
  • Different standards and regulations in the two economies over health and safety requirements for foreign produced products such as pharmaceuticals and food, vehicles, information flows, and so on.

Truly free trade between nations requires not only the removal of protective tariffs, but also the dismantling of subsidies for domestic producers as well as non-tariff barriers to trade such as strict rules and regulations of imported products.

If the US and Europe succeed in forming a new free trade agreement, the benefits could be substantial for both economies:

Trade in goods and services between the two economic giants amounts to nearly $1 trillion each year, and total bilateral investment between them to nearly $4 trillion. Getting rid of remaining tariffs could raise Europe’s GDP by around 0.4% and America’s by a percentage point. Ditching even half of today’s non-tariff barriers could boost GDP in both places by 3%.

A single TTIP test for new drugs would be a massive boon for pharmaceutical firms. Agreed standards for electric cars would create a vast market, as well as huge demand for accompanying infrastructure. Think how Amazon and Google could gain from looser rules on cross-border flows of information in Europe. And think how Europe’s austerity-blighted economies could gain from more demand from abroad.

The gains from trade are many. However, the arguments against free trade often prevent these benefits for many from being enjoyed to protect the interests of a few. One question to consider when looking at the likely outcome of any new free trade agreement is whether it will lead to trade creation or trade diversion. One nation that may have reason to be concerned about a new trade agreement between the US and the EU is Switzerland, which is not part of the EU. If a new agreement creates new trade and increases the flow of goods and services between the US and the EU, it may be the case that this comes at the cost of of reduced trade between the US, the EU and Switzerland.

The Swiss, not being part of either major economy, would maintain its own rules, regulations tariffs and subsidies that affect trade with the other two economies. It may, therefore, be the victim of increased trade between the other two economies, while trade is diverted away from the Swiss economy as Americans buy more EU-produced goods and Europe buys more American produced goods. If this results, it may put pressure on the Swiss to reduce or remove many of their own trade barriers so as to prevent losing demand from the US and EU.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do non-tariff barriers to trade such as subsidies and health and safety regulations reduce the flow of goods between nations?
  2. The article mentions that “Europe’s austerity-blighted economies could gain from more demand from abroad.” Interpret this statement. Do you think free trade could provide relief to the debt-ridden countries in the Eurozone?
  3. Why should Switzerland be worried about a new free trade agreement between the US and the Eurozone.


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Feb 21 2013

Degrees of Economic Integration – IB student research project

Using chapter 24 in the textbook Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma, you and your group are to prepare a short Google Presentation outlining the characteristics of, examples of and effectiveness of one of the types of trading blocs that countries may form to promote trade.


  1. Sit with your group at a table. One person must log into their school Google Apps account and create a new Presentation. Share this presentation with the other group members.
  2. While the first person is creating the Presentation, the rest of the group should start reading (as a group) the section of chapter 24 on your assigned trading bloc.
  3. Once the group has read the correct section, begin working on #1 below. Summarize in large font the main characteristics of your assigned topic. Try to do this in no more than two slides.
  4.  Next, follow the link in #2 below and read about the suggested example. On one or two slides in your presentation, summarize the history and impact the trading bloc has had on member states.
  5. Finally, as a group, read pages 517-520 and then discuss with your partners the effectiveness of your assigned trading bloc at promoting the benefits of free trade discussed earlier in the course. Summarize your evaluation of your assigned trading block on one or two slides in your presentation.

Once your Google Presentation is finished (it should be between 4 and 8 slides), go to “File: Publish to the Web…”, select “start publishing” then copy the link to your presentation. In a comment on this post, include your group’s assigned topic, group member names, and the link to your presentation.

You have one period to complete this assignment. If it is not done by the end of class, please complete your presentation for homework and make sure the link is posted in the comment section before your next class!

Group 1: Preferential trade agreements (PTA)

  1. Define and identify the characteristics
  2. Research and summarize the history of a Preferential trade agreement: Latin American Integration Association (LAIA)
  3. Based on what you’ve learned, evaluate the effectiveness of a PTA at promoting the benefits of free trade  discussed earlier in this course (must read pages 517-520)

Group 2: Free trade agreement (FTA)

  1. Define and identify the characteristics
  2. Research and summarize the history of a free trade agreement: South Asian Free Trade Area
  3. Based on what you’ve learned, evaluate the effectiveness of an FTA at promoting the benefits of free trade  discussed earlier in this course (must read pages 517-520)

Group 3: Customs Union and Common Market

  1. Define and identify the characteristics. Distinguish between a customs union and a common market.
  2. Research and summarize the history of a customs union/common market: Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR)
  3. Based on what you’ve learned, evaluate the effectiveness of custom unions and common markets at promoting the benefits of free trade  discussed earlier in this course (must read pages 517-520)

Group 4: Monetary unions and complete economic integration

  1. Define and identify the characteristics. Distinguish between a monetary union and complete economic integration.
  2. Research and summarize the history of a monetary union: The Eurozone
  3. Based on what you’ve learned, evaluate the effectiveness of monetary unions and complete economic integration at promoting the benefits of free trade discussed earlier in this course (must read pages 517-520)

Share your findings: Once each group has put together a short Google Presentation with their findings, we will get into four new groups for the last part of class (one representative from each of the above groups represented) and share our presentations.

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Feb 07 2013

Lesson plan: Elasticity, exchange rates and the balance of payments – understanding the Marshall Lerner Condition

Related Unit: IB Economics Unit 4.7 – Balance of Payments (Unit 3.3 in the new IB Economics syllabus)

Topic: The Marshall Lerner Condition and the J-Curve

Learning Goals/Objectives:

  • For students to understand that the levels of price elasticity of demand for a country’s imports and exports determines whether a depreciation or devaluation of the country’s currency will move the nation’s balance of payments towards a surplus or a deficit.
  • For students to understand the impact of time on the effect of a depreciation or devaluation of a nation’s currency on its balance of payments in the current account.
  • For students to evaluate the argument that a country will always benefit from a weaker currency.

Test of prior knowledge:

  1. Define ‘price elasticity of demand’ and explain how it is measured.
  2. With the use of examples, explain why some products have low price elasticity while others have a high elasticity. With the use of examples, explain why the price elasticity of demand for some goods changes over time
  3. Explain how the depreciation of a country’s exchange rate might affect its current account balance. IS THIS ALWAYS THE CASE?
  4. How might the PED for exports and imports influence the balance on the current account following a change in the value of a nation’s currency?

Part 1:

  • Each student should research the forex market for his or her home country in the United States. If you are American, research the forex market for the dollar in Europe.
  • Complete three pre-readings:
  • Using Yahoo Finance, research exchange rate data from the two countries two years ago up to today.
  • Use Yahoo’s software to create two a line graph plotting the value of your currency in terms of dollars. For your initial graph, show the exchange rates over a two year period. For example:

The exchange rate of Japanese Yen in the United States over the last two years:

Take a snapshot of your two-year exchange rate diagram in OneNote, then copy and paste the questions below into the page.

Questions to answer in OneNote:

  1. Write a brief description of the changes in your country’s exchange rate over the last two years. (2 marks)
  2. Focus on two specific time periods from during the last two years: One in which your currency appreciated noticeably and one in which it depreciated noticeably. These could be periods of just a couple of days or longer periods of weeks or more. Highlight these in two different covers in your graph.
  3. Describe what is happening to your currency during the two time periods you highlighted in your chart. (2 marks)
  4. Explain TWO factors that may have caused the currency to change in value. (2 marks)
  5. Given the changes to the exchange rate you identified above, what would you predict would happen to your country’s current account balance over the two periods identified? Explain. Following appreciation – in the short-run and in the long-runFollowing depreciation – in the short-run and in the long-run. (4 marks)
  6. Why does the price elasticity of demand for imports and exports increase over time following a change in a country’s exchange rate? (2 marks)
  7. Draw a J-Curve showing the likely change in your nation’s current account balance following the period of depreciation of its currency shown in your chart above and explain its shape, referring to your country’s currency. (2 marks)
  8. For both the period of appreciation and the period of depreciation you identified above, explain the impact of the change in exchange rates on the following (4 marks)
    • a firm that imports its raw materials from the other country
    • a firm that exports its finished products to the other country
    • consumers who buy imports from the other country
    • a firm that produces good for the domestic market and competes with firms from the other country

Part 2:

Read the following article:  How Far Will the Dollar Fall?’ by Richard W. Rahn. Based on the extracts below, answer the questions that follow.

Some applaud the dollar’s fall because they believe it makes U.S. exports less expensive and that higher demand will cut the trade deficit. The downside of a low-value dollar is that it makes all the imports we consume more expensive, including raw material and parts used by U.S. businesses, and makes it costlier for U.S. dollar holders to travel or invest outside the U.S. A continued drop in the dollar’s value could destabilize the international economy, leading to a worldwide recession.

  • Why might the weaker dollar worsen the US trade deficit? Under what conditions would the weaker dollar improve America’s trade deficit? (2 marks)

Some argue our large trade deficit (or current account deficit) is responsible for the fall in the dollar’s value. They have it backward. It is the flow of foreign investment dollars (the capital account) into the U.S. economy that drives the trade deficit.

  • How does a large financial (capital) account surplus allow the United States to maintain a large current account deficit? (2 marks)

The world now is actually on a two-currency standard — the dollar and the euro. China in effect has fixed its currency to the dollar for the last two decades, and the Japanese central bank only allows the yen to fluctuate within a limited range against the dollar.

  • How do exchange rate controls by China and Japan reduce the likelihood that a weaker dollar will improve the United States’ current account balance? (2 marks)

So long as the U.S. continues to offer a higher return on capital than its foreign competitors, both foreign banks’ and private investors’ demand for dollars grow, and the current account deficit can be sustained.

  • If investments in the United States began earning lower returns relative to investments in other countries’ financial and capital markets, what would ultimately happen to the US balance of payments in its current and financial accounts? Explain (2 marks)

The above lesson was inspired by the Biz-Ed activity “International Trade: The Falling Dollar or Rising Pound?”

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