Archive for the 'Consumption' 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?

153 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 29 2008

European banks struggling – government lubrication needed!

European governments bail out more lenders – International Herald Tribune

As the US financial system holds its breath to see if the US government’s injection of $700 billion of liquidity actually results in new lending and restored business and consumer confidence, Europe is beginning to see its own government takeovers of European banks.

Regulators in Britain, Belgium and Iceland swooped in Monday to engineer emergency rescues of three banks with heavy exposure to soured mortgages, echoing moves underway in the United States.

In the latest sign of trouble to hit Europe from the global credit crisis, the Belgian, Dutch and Luxembourg governments announced a partial nationalization of the troubled Belgian-Dutch financial conglomerate Fortis, involving a combined injection of €11.2 billion from the three governments, which take a 49 percent stake…

Meanwhile, the British Treasury on Monday confirmed that it had seized the lender Bradford & Bingley – the third British bank to tumble this year – after no private buyers emerged.

Much as in the United States, several European banks have gotten into trouble as their assets tied to real estate have lost value due to the weak European and American real estate markets. As more and more borrowers are unable to pay their mortgages, banks’ assets decline in value and the banks’ willingness and ability to make new loans decreases. This limits the amount of credit available to households and firms, and with it their ability to make investments in consumer goods and capital. Tighter credit markets mean weaker aggregate demand (less consumption and investment), leading to slower or negative economic growth and rising unemployment.

In the past, when one bank got into trouble with bad assets like those tied to the real estate market, other private banks would come along and bail the troubled bank out, swapping cash for the assets, allowing the troubled bank to continue making loans. But when all banks find themselves in the midst of the same financial crisis, the likelihood of finding a private buyer for a struggling bank is low. This is where the government steps in:

The bailout of Fortis (Belgium’s largest commercial bank) orchestrated by the three neighboring countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) and the ECB (European Central Bank)… was meant to restore confidence in the bank before the reopening of markets on Monday after a tumultuous week of imploding share values at Fortis. The shares gained 4.8 percent to €5.45 Monday.

In Britain, regulators were unable to find buyers to keep Bradford & Bingley afloat. The lender’s shares are down 90 percent from the peak, touching new depths Friday as an already skittish market punished the company, prompting the talks.

When the private sector is unable or unwilling to purchase the assets of a bank that has experienced a write down of its asset value, the government must intervene to make sure such banks have the liquidity (meaning the hard cash) they need to make loans to borrowers, whose spending is needed to keep the economy going.

In the US, the government has agreed to trade $700 billion in hard, loanable and spendable cash, in exchange for financial assets tied to bad mortgages worth something less than $700 billion. If the swap has the effect the government hopes it will, then lending institutions will feel more confidence and be willing to loan cash to each other and to borrowers (households and firms), spending in the economy will increase (consumption and investment) and aggregate demand will rise, meaning more total output, more employment and higher incomes. In addition, more lending will also lead to an increase in the capital stock, effectively pushing the American and European aggregate supply curves outwards, leading to a more stable rate of inflation (a major worry for both economies as oil prices hit record levels this year).

In spite of the recent round of bailouts in both the US and Europe, confidence among European firms and households is low:

Euro-zone economic confidence plunged to its lowest level in seven years in September, the EU said Monday.

A regular survey of European companies and consumers showed the index of confidence in the economy falling to 87.7, close to a 2001 trough, the European Commission said.

The EU executive warned that the survey carried out in the first two weeks of September may not fully reflect growing gloom in the last few weeks as worries over a U.S. and European recession widened on a financial market crisis.

Industry, services and construction were all more pessimistic than a month ago, it said, while consumer confidence was unchanged from a low level. Retailers were slightly more upbeat about their prospects.

It said industry managers’ employment expectations fell – meaning they believe they may have to cut jobs – although services companies were more hopeful.

Consumers thought that unemployment would increase in future months and expect prices to rise.

The 15 nations that share the euro are battling high inflation as oil prices remain high – although below recent record levels – and increasing fears that a financial crisis will freeze or sharply hike the cost of borrowing.

That would slow growth as companies found it harder to get credit and people faced high costs to buy homes. The U.S. government is trying to stave off tighter credit conditions by buying up hundreds of billions of dollars of bad debt from major lenders

As can be seen, falling confidence and tighter credit markets are evil twins. If the Euro zone economy is to avoid recession, the European Central Bank and the governments of the 15 Euro nations should follow closely events in the US over the next few weeks. The $700 billion injection of liquidity, if successful, will act as lubrication in the engine of the US economy.

Think of it this way: lately, the US economic engine has slowed down. Friction in the financial markets has slowed the flow of cash from households to banks to firms and back to households. In IB and AP Economics terms, the circular flow of money and income has slowed to a halt. To get the engine moving again, cash is needed. Banks with liquid cash are more willing to lend to one another and to households and firms. A healthy economy depends on a well lubricated economic engine, which in today’s world means a functioning financial market.

The government bailouts in the US and Europe are intended to do one thing: lubricate that engine and get the economy moving forward once more.

Discussion question:

  1. Why does the government need to intervene in financial markets? Shouldn’t those who took risks by making bad loans pay for their mistakes and be allowed to go under?
  2. What will it take to turn consumer and investor confidence around in Europe?
  3. How might the crisis in the financial markets affect you and me in the real world?

2 responses so far

May 26 2008

It may not be a recession, but it sure feels like one… / Columnists / Wolfgang Munchau – Inflation and the lessons of the 1970s

It seem that everyone’s speculating about the US economy today. Recession or no recession, that is the question. The economy has even surpassed the Iraq War as the number one issue in the US presidential race! John McCain, who has publicly admitted that economics is not his strong suit, may just find himself in trouble in a general election where the most important concern among voters is the economic situation.

So what IS that situation, anyway? Is the US in a recession? In other words, has real gross domestic, or total output in the US economy, actually declined over the last six months? Technically, the answer is no. My fellow blogger, Steve Latter, explains this clearly here. What is true, on the other hand, is that the current situation shares many similarities to the global economic slowdown that did occur in the 1970s.

In 1973 OPEC, the newly formed oil cartel consisting at the time of only Arab states, reduced its output of oil and cut off exports to the United States in response to US support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, in which the Israelis officially occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and seized the Golan Heights from the sovereign nation of Syria. To punish the US for its position on this conflict, OPEC cut off supplies of oil to the west, driving gas and energy prices upwards by 70%, triggering a supply shock characterized by a decline in total output and an increase in both unemployment and inflation, a phenomenon known as stagflation: a macroeconomic policy maker’s worst nightmare.

Recently the world has seen a similar (albeit of a different cause) rise in the price of oil and energy prices. Today the rise in energy prices is driven primarily by rising demand, rather than reduced supply (since the 1970s the OPEC cartel has grown to include many non-Arab nations, making it harder to achieve collusion to restrict output and drive up oil prices). Global demand for oil has risen steadily, driven ever higher due to rapid growth in China and other developing nations, and exacerbated by the falling value of the dollar, the currency in which oil prices are denominated.

The supply shocks of today have combined with falling aggregate demand in the US due to weak consumer spending to slow real growth rates to nearlry 0%. So technically, the US has avoided a recession, but the effect on American workers and consumers may be just as painful as the real recession of the 1970s. In order to prevent the “r” word from becoming a reality today, central banks (including the US Fed) have eased money supplies, lowering interest rates, fueling even greater increases in the price level.

…the global weighted average inflation rate will be 5.4 per cent this year, while the global money market interest rate is currently only 4.3 per cent. This means that global short-term real interest rates are negative – at a time when inflation is rapidly accelerating. As monetary policy has been excessively accommodating for more than a decade, inflationary pressures have built up in the global economy.

Central bankers like Ben Bernanke have to make tough decisions sometimes, weighing the trade-off between unemployment and inflation, and determining their monetary policies based on whatever they deem to be the “lesser of two evils”. Rising energy prices have forced firms to cut either cut back their production and raise the price of their products, both actions that result in less overall spending and output in the economy. Falling house prices have led consumers to cut back their own spending, further reducing demand for firms’ output. These factors have all pushed the unemployment rate from around 4.8% a year ago to 5.1% today, which combined with an estimated additional 3-5% of American workers having dropped out of the workforce, (referred to by the Department of Labor as “discouraged workers”) paints a pretty ugly picture of the reality for the American worker today.

The harsh reality of the weak labor market has led Mr. Bernanke and the Fed to pursue an expansionary monetary policy aimed at avoiding further increases in the unemployment rate and decreases in the GDP growth rate. Expansionary monetary policy means lower interest rates, with the goal being increased consumption and investment, both factors that could worsen the inflation problem already experienced thanks to the global supply shock. Evidence indicates that the inflation problem, even in the US where slow growth usually leads to lower price levels, is not going away:

In the US, a survey-based measure of inflationary expectations recently showed an increase to more than 5 per cent. I would estimate there are now several hundred basis points of difference between the current Fed funds rate and an interest rate that would be consistent with price stability in the medium term.

…meaning the Fed, in its attempt to avoid recession and rising unemployment, has created a condition where real interest rates are actually negative, a highly inflationary condition. All this wouldn’t be so bad if wages in the US were rising along with the price level. This however, does not appear to be happening:

The main difference between the situation in the 1970s and now is today’s absence of wage inflation, which explains why absolute inflation rates are a little more moderate. I guess this is probably because of some combination of deregulated labour markets and globalisation. But the lack of wage-push inflation is not necessarily good news. Falling real wages mean falling disposable income and tighter credit conditions mean less borrowing for consumption.

Rising prices for energy, transportation and food have put American households in a tough situation. In the past, periods of inflation have often been characterized by rising wages, meaning the full brunt of nominal price level increases was not entirely born by the American worker. Today, on the other hand, a recession has thus far been avoided, but the combination of record numbers of “discouraged workers”, rising unemployment and inflation may make the pain of our current economic situation just as real as recessions of the past.

In the words of billionaire investor and economic sage Warren Buffett just today:

“I believe that we are already in a recession… Perhaps not in the sense as defined by economists. … But people are already feeling the effects of a recession.”

“It will be deeper and longer than what many think,” he added.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between nominal and real GDP? Which must decline in order for the economy to be in a recession?
  2. What impact do rising energy prices have on the behavior of individual firms?
  3. Why are low interest rates likely to make the inflation problem even worse?

9 responses so far

May 19 2008

China’s “silver bullet” – a strong RMB could solve her biggest economic woes…

Asia Sentinel – The Answer for China’s Inflation
Two goals recently voiced by the Chinese leadership: increased consumer spending and reduced inflation. These are worthy goals for policymakers to pursue; if accomplished, they will mean increased well-being for the average Demand-pull inflation caused by increase in consumptionChinese household, which will enjoy more goods and services at lower prices.

The problem is, increased consumption usually means rising prices, as can be clearly illustrated in an aggregate demand / aggregate supply diagram. Household spending makes up somewhere around 40% of China’s GDP, exports, government spending and investment account for the rest. Whenever one component of total expenditures increase in the economy, all other things equal, the price level will rise.

Only two things could happen to make the Chinese leadership’s goal of increased consumer spending and stable prices a reality: either productivity in the economy must increase more rapidly than consumer spending, shifting aggregate supply outward, or another component of aggregate demand must be reduced more rapidly than consumption increases, offsetting the increase in overall expenditures cause by rising consumption.

So what magical combination of fiscal and monetary policy can be employed to both increase consumption and stabilize the price level? The answer may not rest purely in the realm of domestic macroeconomic policy-making, but rather in the foreign exchange markets, where a weak RMB has kept domestic consumption low and net exports (thus the price level) high. Allowing the RMB to appreciate should make “magic” happen and lead to rising domestic consumption and disinflation simultaneously:

A stronger currency, commensurate with China’s increased economic strength, would both tamp down inflation and allow Chinese consumers to buy more goods and services. However, for reasons not entirely clear to me, or few others for that matter, China’s leaders are resisting this simple and beneficial solution.

The Chinese leadership’s stated goal in prodding their citizens to spend more is to decrease their economy’s dependence on exports. If the Chinese, who currently save 50 percent of their incomes, saved less, more of their production would be consumed locally. As a result, China would be less vulnerable to economic downturns abroad. Without a vibrant domestic market, over-leveraged Americans will apparently remain China’s most important customers.

A strengthened yuan would lower the real costs of goods for domestic consumers and allow the Chinese themselves to compete more evenly with consumers in other nations to whom they currently send the fruits of their labor. As goods become more affordable in China, the Chinese would naturally consume more. A rising yuan would therefore kill two birds with one stone: it would reverse recent consumer price increases and it would induce Chinese consumers to buy their own products.

Some members of the US Congress estimated sometime last year that the Chinese currency was undervalued by 27%, leading certain politicians to call for an across the board tariff on all Chinese imports to the United States. Such protectionist sentiment was not uncommon 12 months ago, but as America faces its own economic slowdown, compounded by rising inflation and the falling value of the dollar, such calls for more taxes on imports have disappeared from Washington.

The sensible action for the Chinese to take in response to its own overheating economy (letting the RMB appreciate in order to relieve inflation and encourage domestic consumption) could spell economic doom for the US. As China adopts a “strong yuan” policy, its demand for US dollar-denominated financial assets, including government debt, will decline, reducing demand in the US bond market, lowering bond prices and driving up interest rates in the US. Higher US rates will discourage investment and consumption, exacerbating the slowdown already underway in America. Furthermore, reduced demand for US assets by China will cause demand for the dollar to slide in foreign exchange markets. Since much of American’s household spending is on imports, inflation will rise in America as not only Chinese goods, but all imports, are now more expensive to Americans.

Usually in economics class, we adopt the frame of mind that economics is not a zero-sum game. In other words, through free trade based on comparative advantage and specialization, individuals and nations will benefit due to increased total output, increased productivity, higher incomes, and greater variety of goods and services produced within and among communities and nations. In the case of China and the US today, on the other hand, we appear to be in a situation where increased consumption by Chinese may be achievable only at the expense of American consumers, who because of rising interest rates and a falling dollar, may be forced to live “within their means” for the first time in decades.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why is a strong RMB necessary to simultaneously increase consumption and reduce inflation in China?
  2. Why would interest rates in the US rise if China adopted a “strong RMB” policy?
  3. Would Americans be better off without trade with China? What about the statement that Americans will be worse off if China is to achieve greater levels of domestic consumption?

2 responses so far

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