Archive for the 'Recession' Category

Oct 26 2009

Exchange rates, currency manipulations, and the balance of trade

FT.com | The Economists’ Forum | Imbalances and undervalued exchange rates: Rehabilitating Keynes

In our year 2 IB Economics class, we are beginning the part of our International Trade unit on exchange rates and the balance of trade . While the market for a particular currency reflects many of the same characteristics as a product market (i.e. upward sloping supply curve, downward sloping demand curve), the consequences of a change the price of a currency (the exchange rate) is far more powerful than a change in the price of a particular good or service in a product market.

How does the value of a country’s currency affect that country’s balance of trade with other countries? To understand this important concept, we first need to know something about the process by which currencies are exchanged when two countries trade. Let’s look at an example:

When an American consumer wants to buy an iPod that was made in China she will have to pay for it in US dollars, since that’s what she earns her wages in from selling her labor in the resource market. Apple now has the consumer’s $300, which gets split up to cover all the costs the company faced in the manufacture, distribution, marketing and sale of the iPod. Part of that $300 (say $100) will go to the manager of the factory in China where it was made.

The factory manager in Shanghai faces his own costs he must cover. He must pay rent on his factory space, interest on the loans he took out to acquire capital, and wages to the workers assembling iPods on his factory floor. The problem is, these costs are all in Chinese yuan, but he’s holding the US dollars that Apple paid him for his iPod. In order to cover his costs, the Chinese factory owner must take the $100 to a Chinese bank and swap it for RMB. The local bank that changes his money now hands the $100 over to China’s central bank (the PBOC) which prints and exchanges RMB to the bank at whatever the prevailing exchange rate is at the time.

Ultimately, China’s central bank will decide what to do with its holding of US dollars. Most of the dollars are loaned back to the United States through China’s purchase of US Treasury securities (the IOUs the US government sells to finance its deficits). China’s voracious demand for US dollar denominated assets keeps the demand for (and the the value of) dollars high on foreign exchange markets, meaning the RMB remains relatively cheap for Americans and therefore Chinese manufactured goods attractive.

China’s policy of exchange rate manipulation has upset many American politicians over the years, who often blame China for America’s shrinking manufacturing sector. A weak RMB means the cost of producing things like iPods in China is far lower than it would be in the US. By keeping demand for dollars high on the foreign exchange markets through its incessant demand for US treasury securities and other financial and real assets, while simultaneously hoarding vast reserves of US dollars in its central bank, thus keeping supply of dollars on foreign exchange markets low (see graph), China has prevented the RMB from appreciating, fueling the growth of the country’s export-manufacturing sector.

China’s currency manipulations may soon ilicit a response from the United States as president-elect Barack Obama takes office next year. Facing a recession and rising unemployment, combined with the recent appreciation of the US dollar, the pressure is on Obama to take immediate action to restore America’s manufacturing sector. According to the Financial Times blog “the Economists’ Forum”:

If the US economy takes a downturn and the dollar continues to strengthen, a resurgence of protectionist pressures is likely. This time around, these pressures could well take the form of unilateral action against competitive currencies. It is noteworthy that President-elect Obama has actively and repeatedly supported action against “currency manipulation.”

The “competitive currency” perceived to pose the greatest threat to America’s inustrial sector is certainly the Chinese RMB. Currency manipulation is a form of protectionism, which in a time of global economic slowdowns poses a larger threat than ever to both developed and developing nations’ economies alike. For this reason, the World Trade Organization may need to employ carrot and stick methods to create incentives for China to liberalize its currency controls and allow the RMB to strengthan against the dollar and other major currencies:

How would this new rule against undervalued exchange rates be incorporated in the WTO? Through negotiation. The (WTO) should place rules on undervalued exchange rates…. The US and EU have been the principal demandeurs for action by China in the past. But it is important to remember that until very recently, a number of developing countries—Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Turkey and South Africa—were affected by the competitive pressure from the undervalued (RMB). Indeed, some months ago, the Indian Prime Minister urged China to follow a more market-based exchange rate policy. For obvious reasons, more emerging market countries have not voiced their concerns, but it is possible that a coalition of affected countries could unite on this issue.

Clearly, Chinese concerns have to be addressed for any new rules to be crafted and commonly agreed… First, China’s major trading partners could pledge granting China the status of a “market economy” in the WTO contingent on it eliminating currency undervaluation and moving to a market-based system. This status would have significant value for China by shielding it against unilateral trade actions such as anti-dumping and countervailing duties by trading partners. Second, as part of radical governance reform of the IMF, which is desirable in itself, China should be offered a substantially larger voting share in the IMF commensurate with its economic status.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does China continuing to undervalue its currency threaten the industrial economies of its largest trading partners?
  2. What is China’s purpose for maintaining the low value of the RMB relative to the currencies of other nations?
  3. What would be a unilateral protectionist measure an Obama administration may advocate if the WTO refuses to take action against China’s currency manipulations? How would you advise president-elect Obama on the issue of whether to take protectionist action against China in the context of the current economic crisis in America?

103 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

How big is the government spending multiplier in America? Well, it depends on which economist you ask…

Economics focus: Much ado about multipliers | The Economist

What is the goal of fiscal stimulus during a recession? Is it simply to increase nation’s total income by a certain amount determined by how much a government increases its own spending by? If this were the case, then an $800 billion stimulus package, like the one begun this year in the US, would lead to a total increase in national income of, well, exactly $800 billion.

While such an outcome is possible, it is not the desired outcome of the Obama administration and the economists who have supported the use of expansionary fiscal policy during economic downturns (i.e. the Keynesian school of economists). Keynesians expect that an initial increase in government spending (or a decrease in taxes) will result in households and firms increasing their own consumption and investment, meaning successive increases in spending. The initial change in spending ultimately gets multiplied through further rounds of spending. The total change in national income resulting from an initial change in government spending or taxes depends on the size of the fiscal multiplier. Now, this is where things get tricky! From the Economist:

The size of the multiplier is bound to vary according to economic conditions. For an economy operating at full capacity, the fiscal multiplier should be zero. Since there are no spare resources, any increase in government demand would just replace spending elsewhere. But in a recession, when workers and factories lie idle, a fiscal boost can increase overall demand. And if the initial stimulus triggers a cascade of expenditure among consumers and businesses, the multiplier can be well above one.

The above scenario, where an economy is operating below full-employment and government spending puts the nation’s idle resources to work, creates new income and further increases private spending, is precisely what the Obama team and its economists hope will happen in the US economy soon. A multiplier of above one means the $800 billion will ultimately increase America’s national income by something greater than $800 billion!

The multiplier is also likely to vary according to the type of fiscal action. Government spending on building a bridge may have a bigger multiplier than a tax cut if consumers save a portion of their tax windfall. A tax cut targeted at poorer people may have a bigger impact on spending than one for the affluent, since poorer folk tend to spend a higher share of their income.

Crucially, the overall size of the fiscal multiplier also depends on how people react to higher government borrowing. If the government’s actions bolster confidence and revive animal spirits, the multiplier could rise as demand goes up and private investment is “crowded in”. But if interest rates climb in response to government borrowing then some private investment that would otherwise have occurred could get “crowded out”. And if consumers expect higher future taxes in order to finance new government borrowing, they could spend less today. All that would reduce the fiscal multiplier, potentially to below zero.

Herein lies the controversy about the effectiveness of deficit-financed fiscal stimulus. Several posts on this blog have focused on the neo-classical, supply-side economists’ fears that expansionary fiscal policy financed by government borrowing will drive up interest rates to private borrowers, thereby “crowding-out” private investment, off-setting any expansion in output achieved through government spending. In the Keynesian model, however, it is precisely because interest rates have bottomed out at the “zero bound” (according to Paul Krugman) that government borrowing and spending will not lead to crowding-out, rather could actually increase investors’ willingness to spend (their “animal spirits”) on new capital, actually “crowding-in” private investment.

Alas, the debate continues. The ironic thing is that even years from now, after all of Obama’s stimulus money has been spent, and the US economy is either fully recovered or it is not, we still won’t know how large the fiscal multiplier was, since tomorrow’s economists will find it nearly impossible to isolate the variable of the $800 billion of government spending and determine just how much of America’s growth in income can be attributed to government spending, and how much resulted from automatic stabilizers built-in to help the economy recover on its own during recessions.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do tax cuts for the rich tend to have a smaller multiplier effect than tax cuts for lower income households?
  2. How can government borrowing drive up interest rates, and why is this a concern to policy makers deciding on the size of a fiscal stimulus package?
  3. What are the animal spirits the article mentions? Where have you heard this expression before?
  4. Do you think borrowing trillions of dollars and spending it to put people back to work and try to dig the US economy out of recession is wise, or should the US government be practicing better fiscal responsibility?

11 responses so far

Sep 14 2009

Jobless Growth? How could this be?

Economic Growth Yet to Hit Job Market – washingtonpost.com

In AP and IB Economics, we understand the importance of macroeconomics to policymakers, whose primary macroeconomic goal is growth. Economic Growth, defined as an increase in a nation’s total output of goods and service (and therefore the national income), is desidred not only for the sake of growth itself (producing more stuff requires more resources, and may not necessarily make the average citizen better off), rather growth is needed in order to achieve full-employment of a nation’s labor force.

Growth is good. This tenet of economics is rooted in two basic observations: 1. Growth leads to an improvement in the average standard living of a nation’s people, and 2. Growth is needed to employ the growing workforce of a nation experiencing population growth and immigration.

America’s work force is a diverse group of people of all skill levels. 150 million strong, the nation’s workforce requires a healthy national economy with strong investment and consumption to maintain enough jobs to keep unemployment low.   In the last two years, however, the prospect of employment in America has diminished as the number of people out of work has grown to nearly 15 million.

Involuntary unemployment is perhaps the most serious cost of an economic slowdown. A willing and able worker (or 15 million of them!), skilled in mind and body, unable to find prouductive work, represents a monumental failure of a nation’s economy. Policies aimed at promoting growth are in fact aimed at creating employment.

The costs of unemployment affect not only the unlucky  individuals who have have lost their job. Social costs include increased crime and poverty, psychological costs include stress, anxiety, loss of self-image and depression. The economic costs are myriad. Unemployed workers become dependent on the rest of society for support, in one way or another. Benefits for the unemployed payed by the government require greater budget deficits or increased tax burden on the employed. The large pool of jobless citizens seeking work puts downward pressure on the wages of those still working, as employers find it difficult to keep paying high wages while demand for their products has fallen and millions of job seekers are willing to work for less.

The families and friends to whom unemployed workers turn for help find their already stretched incomes spread even thinner. Without steady incomes, the unemployed consume less, putting further strain on an already depressed economy. Deflation can result from unemployment, which can lead to futher layoffs by pessimistic firms, excacerbating the situation and plunging the economy into what’s known as a deflationary spiral.

For all the reasons above, policymakers strive to promote growth. When monetary policy fails to incite spending, the government must pick up the slack, hence the stimulus package so discussed in America today. China’s stimulus of over $500 billion (twice that of the US, as a percentage of its GDP) has had a positive effect on both GDP and the job market.

Employment levels in China began to recover over the past three months in the latest evidence of the rapid rebound in the economy from the international financial crisis as a result of heavy public investment.

Yin Weimin, China’s labour minister, said there had been a modest increase in the number of jobs in the economy during June, July and August, reversing the sharp slump in employment which began last October.

America’s stimlus has also begun to restore growth, but the rise in employment has so far not occured:

Despite an emerging economic expansion, businesses were sufficiently skittish about the future that the job market continued its long, steep decline in August, according to a new government report Friday. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent, from 9.4 percent, as employers shed jobs for the 20th straight month, the Labor Department said.

“Our clients tell us they will not hire in anticipation

of a recovery, but will wait until they see it,” said Jonas Prising, an executive vice president at Manpower, the giant employment services firm. “In a normal recession, people would now start to feel more comfortable and start hiring, but nobody is doing that today. They’ll do it when they see real orders and real business.”

The “silver lining” of the latest unemployment figures is hardly encouraging. The rise in unemployment is not as sharp as over most of the last year. In other words, workers are definitely worse off, but not as badly as they could have been if things were as dismal as they were earlier this year.

While the unemployment rate, as seen on the graph to the right, has risen almost every month since August of 2008, the rate at which the rate has increased has begun to slow. In other words, the economy is probably close to “bottoming out”.

The tally of lost jobs now stands at 6.9 million since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. But the rate of job losses has been declining, if haltingly, since winter. The 216,000 jobs eliminated in August is down from 276,000 cut in July and a peak of 741,000 lost in January.

Here’s what I find most interesting from in the current data. The unemployment rate’s recent rise may actually be a sign that the economy is beginning to recover. Recovery means growth in output, which should mean less unemployment. However, if workers who have been unemployed for a long time, and have therefore stop seeking employment suddenly feel more optimistic about the prospects of getting a job and begin seeking work again, then the nation’s unemployment rate actually rises! How’s that for “silver lining”? The 216,000 additional people added to the list of unemployed may have already been out of work but since they were notactively seeking employment they were not included in last month’s data.

The tricky thing about macroeconomic policy is this:  Monetary and fiscal policies can put billions of dollars into the nation’s banks and households’ and firms’ pockets through tax breaks, government bailouts, subsidies, infrastructure spending and “troubled asset swaps”… but all the money and income in the world will not lead the nation towards full-employment unless the nation’s consumers and producers feel confident. I teach my students that national income is made up of the sum of wages, interest, rent and profit; its spending consists of consumption, investment, government spending and net exports… but without the “big C” of confidence, expansionary policies aimed at increasing employment will come to nought. Confidence, according to John Maynard Keynes, is an animal spirit, a trait of humans beyond the assumption of rational behavior. Until confidence is restored, America’s output and employment levels will remain low.

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Jun 10 2009

The almighty bond market: Niall Ferguson’s concerns about the US deficit explained

Harvard Economist Niall Ferguson appeared on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria over the weekend. Ferguson has stood out among mainstream economists lately in his opposition to the US fiscal stimulus package, an $880 billion experiment in expansionary Keynesian policy. While economists like Paul Krugman argue that Obama’s plan is not big enough to fill America’s “recessionary gap”, Ferguson warns that the long-run effects of current and future US budget deficits could lead the US towards economic collapse. This blog post will attempt to explain Ferguson’s views in a way that high school economics students can understand.

Government spending in the US is projected to exceed tax revenues by $1.9 trillion this year, and trillions more over the next four years. An excess of spending beyond tax revenue is known as a budget deficit, and must be paid for by government borrowing. Where does the government get the funds to finance its deficits? The bond market. The core of Ferguson’s concerns about the future stability of the United States economy is the situation in the market for US government bonds. According to Ferguson:

One consequence of this crisis has been an enormous explosion in government borrowing, and the US federal deficit… is going to be equivelant to 1.9 trillion dollars this year alone, which is equivelant to nearly 13% of GDP… this is an excessively large deficit, it can’t all be attributed to stimulus, and there’s a problem. The problem is that the bond market… is staring at an incoming tidal wave of new issuance… so the price of 10-year treasuries, the standard benchmark government bond… has taken quite a tumble in the past year, so long-term interest rates, as a result, have gone up by quite a lot. That poses a problem, since part of the project in the mind of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is to keep interest rates down

There’s a lot of information in Ferguson’s statements above. To better understand him, some graphs could come in handy. Below is a graphical representation of the US bond market, which is where the US government supplies bonds, which are purchased by the public, commercial banks, and foreigners. Keep in mind, the demanders of US bonds are the lenders to the US government, which is the borrower. The price of a bond represents the amount the government receives from its lenders from the issuance of a new bond certificate. The yield on a bond represents the interest the lender receives from the government. The lower the price of a bond, the higher the yield, the more attractive bonds are to investors. Additionally, the lower the price of bonds, the greater the yield, thus the greater the amount of interest the US government must pay to attract new lenders.

crowding-out_11

Ferguson says that the price of US bonds has “taken a tumble”. The increase of supply has lowered bond prices, increasing their attractiveness to investors who earn higher interest on the now cheaper bonds. Below we can see the impact of an increase in the quantity demanded for government bonds on the market for private investment.

crowding-out_3

Financial crowding-out can occur as a result of deficit financed government spending as the nation’s financial resources are diverted out of the private sector and into the public sector. Granted, during a recession the demand for loanable funds from firms for private investment may be so low that there is no crowding out, as explained by Paul Krugman here.

But crowding out is not Ferguson’s only concern. The increase in interest rates caused by the US government’s issuance of new bonds could lead to a decrease in private investment in the US economy, inhibiting the nation’s long-run growth potential. But the bigger concern is one of America’s long-run economic stability. If the Obama administration does not put forth a viable plan for balancing its budget very soon, the demand for US government bonds could fall, which would further excacerbate the crowding-out effect, and eliminate the country’s ability to finance its government activities. In other words, such a loss of faith could plunge the United States into bankruptcy.

crowding-out_21

Fareed Zakaria asks Ferguson:

“Is it fair to say that this bad news, the fact that we can’t sell our debt as cheaply as we thought, overshadows all the good news that seems to be coming?”

Ferguson’s reply:

The green shoots that are out there (referring to the phrase economists and politicians have been using to describe the signs of recovery in the US economy) seem like tiny little weeds in the garden, and what’s coming in terms of the fiscal crisis in the United States is a far bigger and far worse story.

Finally Fareed asks the question everyone wants to know:”What the hell do we do?”

Ferguson:

One thing that can be done very quickly is for the president to give a speech to the American people and to the world explaining how the administration proposes to achieve stabilization of American public finance… the administration doesn’t have that long a honeymoon period, it has very little time in which it can introduce the American public to some harsh realities, particularly about entitlements and how much they are going to cost. If a signal could be sent really soon to the effect that the administration is serious about fiscal stabilization and isn’t planning on borrowing another $10 trillion between now and the end of the decade, then just conceivably markets could be reassured.

Ferguson is saying that only if the Obama administration begins taking serious steps towards balancing the US government’s budget can it hope to stave off an eventual loss of faith among America’s creditors (and thus a fall in demand for US bonds). It will be a while before tax revenues are high enough to finance the US budget. But if the country does not begin working towards such an end immediately, it may find itself unable to raise the funds to pay for such public goods as infrastructure, education, health care, national defense, medical research, as well as the wages of the millions of government employees. In other words, the US government could be bankrupt, and its downfall could mean the end of American economic power.

The power of the bond market should not be underestimated. America’s very future depends on continued faith in its financial stability and fiscal responsibility.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the US government has such a huge budget deficit this year? ($1.9 trillion) Previously, the largest budget deficit on record was only around $400 billion.
  2. How does the issuance of new bonds by the US government lead to less money being available to private households and firms?
  3. Do you think investors will ever totally lose faith in US government bonds? Why or why not?
  4. In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?

To learn more about the power of the bond market, watch Niall Ferguson’s documentary, The Ascent of Money. The section on the bond market can be viewed here:

100 responses so far

May 14 2009

A must read for AP Macro teachers: Paul Krugman explains why deficit spending during a recession does NOT cause crowding-out

Liquidity preference, loanable funds, and Niall Ferguson (wonkish) – Paul Krugman Blog – NYTimes.com

Below is the loanable funds market at its current equilibrium, according to Krugman (I is investment demand for funds, S is the supply of loanable funds):
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In Krugman’s words:

In effect, we have an incipient excess supply of savings even at a zero interest rate. And that’s our problem.

So what does government borrowing do? It gives some of those excess savings a place to go — and in the process expands overall demand, and hence GDP. It does NOT crowd out private spending, at least not until the excess supply of savings has been sopped up, which is the same thing as saying not until the economy has escaped from the liquidity trap.

In AP Macroeconomics, we teach that deficit-financed government expenditure decreases the supply of loanable funds as savers take their money out of commercial banks and invest in the bond market due to the attractive interest rates on government debt. Less funds available for the private sector drives up interest rates and crowds out private investment.

If the economy is producing close to the full-employment level and interest rates are positive, the decrease in supply of loanable funds can indeed drive up equilibrium interest rates and lead to the “crowding-out” of private investment. Krugman points out in this article that when the economy is at the “zero-bound” (i.e. when nominal interest rates are as low as they can go) and the quantity supplied of savings is still greater than the quantity demanded for investment, the government can effectively borrow from the public, decreasing the supply and correcting the surplus of savings without driving up interest rates in the private market. Put another way, the equilibrium interest rate is below zero, but the “zero-bound” acts as a price floor in the loanable funds market, resulting in a surplus of savings.

Government borrowing crowding out private investment is not something we can worry about during a recession, when low confidence and expectations have driven the supply of savings up and the demand for investment down. Public spending will divert funds from the private sector to the public sector, that’s true. But in today’s case, savings are sitting idle in the private sector, so government borrowing is putting those fund to use when the private sector has failed to do so.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the supply of loanable funds (S in the graph above) slope upwards? Why does the demand for loanable funds (I in the graph) slope downwards?
  2. Deficit financed government spending decreases the supply of loanable funds. Why?
  3. Crowding-out is not the only possible down-side of deficit spending by the government. What are some other long-term effects of governments running budget deficits year after year?

26 responses so far

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