Archive for the 'Savings' Category

Nov 07 2011

Excuse me, China… could you lend us another billion? Understanding the imbalance of trade between China and the United States

The $1.4 Trillion Question – James Fallows – the Atlantic

American consumers are a curious bunch. Up until 2007, the average savings rate in the United States fell as low as 1%, and during brief period was actually negative. What does negative savings actually mean? It means that Americans consume more than they actually produce.On the micro level, the only way to consume beyond ones income is to borrow from someone else to pay for the additional consumption. In other words, savings must be negative for one to consume beyond his or her income. The US is a nation of borrowers, but from whom do we borrow? China, for one…

China is a nation of “savers”, where national savings averages 50% of income. What exactly does this mean? Well, just the opposite what negative savings means; rather than consuming more than it produces, the Chinese consume only about half of what it produces. Here’s how James Fallows, a Shanghai-based journalist, explains the China/US dilemma:

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
What happens to the rest of China’s output? Naturally, it’s shipped overseas for Americans and others in the West to consume. The irony is that the consumption of China’s products has been kept affordable and cheap thanks to the actions the Chinese government has taken to suppress the value of the RMB, thus keeping its products cheap and attractive to American consumers.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Clearly, a strong dollar is good for America in many ways. The dollar’s strength in the last decade can be credited partially to the Chinese, who have been buying dollar denominated assets in record numbers over the last seven years.

By 1996, China amassed its first $100 billion in foreign assets, mainly held in U.S. dollars. (China considers these holdings a state secret, so all numbers come from analyses by outside experts.) By 2001, that sum doubled to about $200 billion… Since then, it has increased more than sixfold, by well over a trillion dollars, and China’s foreign reserves are now the largest in the world.

China’s purchase of American assets keeps demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets strong, thus the value of the dollar high relative to other currencies, allowing American firms and consumers the benefits of a strong dollars described above.
A nation’s balance of payments consists of the current account, which measures the difference between a country’s expenditures on imports and its income from exports (In 2008 China had a $232 billion current account surplus with the US, meaning the US bought more Chinese goods than China bought of American goods), and the capital account, which measures the difference between the inflows of foreign money for the purchase of real and financial assets at home and the outflows of currency for the purchase of foreign assets abroad. In the financial account, China maintains a deficit (meaning China holds more American financial and real assets than America does of China’s), to off-set its current account surplus.The two accounts together, by definition, balance out… usually. Any deficit in the China’s capital account that does not cover the surplus in its current account can be held as foreign exchange reserves by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC, however, prefers not to hold excess dollars in reserve, as the dollar’s value is continually eroded by inflation and depreciation; therefore it invests the hundreds of billions of excess dollars it receives from Americans’ purchase of Chinese goods back into the American economy, buying up American assets, with the aim of earning interest on these assets that exceed the inflation rates.

The “assets” the Chinese are using their large influx of dollars to buy are primarily US government bonds. The government issues these bonds to finance its budget deficits, and the Chinese are happy to buy these bonds for a couple of reasons: They are secure investments, meaning that unless the US government collapses, the interest on US bonds is guaranteed income for China. That’s one reason; but the primary reason is that the purchase of these bonds puts US dollars that were originally spent by American consumers on Chinese imports right back into the hands of American consumers (via government spending or tax rebates), so they can continue buying more Chinese imports.

The Chinese demand for dollar denominated financial assets, including government bonds, corporate stocks and bonds, and real assets like real estate, factories, buildings and so on, has resulted in a long period of a strong dollar. If the Chinese ever decided to stem the flow of dollars into American assets, the dollar’s value would plummet to record lows, leading to high inflation and eventually a balancing of America’s enormous current account deficit with China and the rest of the world.

However, a falling dollar is the last thing China wants to see happen, for two reasons: One, it would make Chinese imports more expensive thus less attractive to American households, thus harming Chinese manufacturers and slowing growth in China. Two, US dollars are an asset to China. Its $1.4 billion of US debt would evaporate if the dollar took a major plunge. To China, this would represent a loss of national wealth; in effect all that “savings” that makes China so unique would disappear as the dollar dived relative to the RMB. For these reasons, it seems likely that China will continue to be a willing buyer of America’s debt, thus the financier of Americans’ insanely high consumptive lifestyle.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Many people in America are terrified that the Chinese might dump their dollar holdings. What would happen to the value of the US dollar if China decided to change its foreign reserves to another currency?
  2. Why is it very unlikely that China will do this? In other words, how does the status quo benefit China as well as the US?
  3. How do American households benefit from China’s financing of the government’s budget deficits? In what way to they suffer from this arrangement?
  4. Do you think America can continue to finance its budget deficits through the continued sale of debt to foreigners forever? Why or why not?

152 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?

9 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 –

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):

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?

5 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

The “bright side” of the economic meltdown… have Americans really learned to live within their means?

Colbertnation | The Colbert Report Official Site | Comedy Central

Newsweek international edition editor Fareed Zakaria explains in clear terms the root causes of the United State’s economic hardships. Simply put, Americans have lived beyond their means for far too long.

When a household, a firm, or a national government spend more than it earns (in income or tax revenues), it must borrow to do so. The only problem with this type of deficit financed spending is that at some point “the only way people will keep lending you money is that you have to pay higher and higher interest rates…” This, according to Zakaria, is why the US economy has begun to slow down. Higher interest rates make borrowing and spending less and less attractive, while making savings more attractive.

Savings rates have started to rise in America as our debts have come due. Higher savings means less spending, less spending means weak Aggregate Demand, which means slower growth and rising unemployment. There you have it, the root cause of our economic meltdown. Americans have spent beyond their means for far too long; the question is, have we learned our lesson? Will our current hardships teach us to spend more responsibly in the future?

4 responses so far