Monday, September 28, 2009

It is wrong to push the old into a quicksand

Francesco Giavazzi – the distinguished economist from Bocconi University, Milan, a frequent visitor to MIT – made two gaffes around September last year: about Lehman Brothers, and about derivatives markets. Then he lay low for about a year, to re-emerge now with two more gaffes: one on targeting the aged in order to cover the cost of fiscal stimulus, and one on a wishful drive towards global recovery. This just goes to show that the judgment of engineers who turn to economics should be seen as that of engineers.

Lehman Brothers

On 16 September 2008, the day after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, Francesco Giavazzi expressed great enthusiasm for the US authorities’ decision not to bail it out. “Yesterday has been a good day for capitalism” (sic!), he wrote on, adding that “Now the liquidity cushion needed by AIG will also be provided by the market”. First he had to add a postscript to his piece, acknowledging that the US government had bailout AIG only a couple of hours later. Then he had to recognize – in a joint book with Alberto Alesina on the global economic crisis – that “ex-post, the failure to save Lehman Brothers probably was a mistake” (La crisi. Può la politica salvare il mondo? 2008, p. 49), rather than the “victory of the market” he had hailed earlier. Compare with Chris Giles, in the FT of 13 September 2009: “The collapse of Lehman Brothers transformed an expected global slowdown into the worst recession since the second world war. Though the direct losses from the Lehman bankruptcy caused little trouble, the ensuing panic that engulfed financial markets, banks and companies hit the global economy harder than the Opec oil crises of the mid-1970s, the loss of control over inflation in the late 1970s or the dotcom crash at the turn of the millennium”.

Derivatives markets

Expressed enthusiasm for the inordinate growth of the derivatives market, on the ground that derivative products allow Indian farmers to reduce the risks surrounding their crops, and enable the homeless to buy their homes, was another economic error. According to the Basel-based Bank of International Settlements, the global outstanding derivatives – bets on the value of assets, and bets on those bets – have been growing exponentially and at their peak earlier in 2009, when their total began to decline slowly, they had reached 1.14 quadrillion dollars (more precisely: $548 trillion in Exchange Traded Derivatives plus $596 trillion in notional Over-The-Counter derivatives). By comparison, the Gross Domestic Product of all the countries in the world is only 60 trillion dollars. What was supposed to be an instrument to distribute risk turned into a multiplication of risk. Or else those Indian farmers and US homeless have been exercising a lot of leverage.

But clearly the statute of limitations leaves errors unpunished in economics. Giavazzi has now reappeared to fire two more shots, though his aim has not improved over last year.

Targeting the aged

In a post on asking “What’s the proper exit strategy from the crisis?”, Giavazzi argues that the exit will take a long time, probably a matter of years, and the real co-ordination necessary is not across countries, but between monetary and fiscal policy. What should be rescinded first, exceptional monetary accommodation or the fiscal deficit?

Jean Pisani-Ferry argued recently that first should come structural reforms, then the gradual withdrawal of fiscal stimulus, then monetary policy could be reined in. He feared that Central Banks would not accept a secondary role, and was right: on 11 September, at a Bank of Italy Conference in Rome, ECB Board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi said: “The more delayed the fiscal exit, ceteris paribus, the more the monetary policy exit might have to be brought forward. Indeed, given the level of the debt accumulated in most advanced economies, any delay in the fiscal exit is likely to have an effect on inflation expectations, and may even disanchor them.
This is a risk that monetary policy cannot take, as it would undermine its overall strategy.” (Bini Smaghi 2009 “An ocean apart? Comparing transatlantic responses to the financial crisis”; I was there and could not believe my failing ears).

Now, this does not sound like co-ordination, more like blackmail. Giavazzi likens the strategies of Central Banks and fiscal authorities to a game of chicken, whereby two car drivers on a collision course may both refuse to give way and crash – a patently inferior solution to a cooperative one. Giavazzi instead recommends that Euro-zone governments should commit themselves irrevocably to future spending cuts, in order to stabilize expectations and allow central banks to wait longer before they remove monetary accommodation. This would avoid the demand contraction that earlier fiscal cuts would cause.

True, but Giavazzi singles out for future cuts the ageing-related spending over the next 15 years. According to The 2009 Ageing Report issued by the European Commission (2008), ageing related spending amounts to 7% of GDP per year in Holland, 5% in Spain, 3.5% in Germany, and 3.3% in the EU27. Thus the budgetary effects of ageing are several orders of magnitude larger than the fiscal cost of the crisis. In terms of present value of total age-related expenditure (note: over 15 years), the present value of fiscal stimulus (temporary, over only 2 years) naturally is much lower, comparatively negligible (see Giavazzi’s Fig. 1, from IMF data).

Figure 1. The fiscal costs of the crisis compared to age-related spending

Source: IMF

The trouble is that all these figures are utterly misleading. The incidence of pension expenditure, on GDP or on total government expenditure, is not comparable across countries because of different statistical conventions (for instance in the treatment of golden handshakes and of payments to invalids), and even less comparable across countries with different incidence of so called distributive, Pay As You Go (PAYG) systems, versus capitalized, fully funded pension systems. Necessarily countries with a dominant PAYG system look as if they were more generous towards the aged than they actually are, because pension contributions should, but usually are not, counted as government revenue against pension expenditure. Conversely, an entirely funded system will appear as making no claim on government expenditure at all, because pension contributions are credited to the pension funds financing pension expenditure: but there is no reason why PAYG pension expenditure and revenue should be accounted for any differently. Only for uniform statistical conventions and for a comparable incidence of redistributive/funded pension systems will government expenditure on pension indicate – as the IMF figure produced by Giavazzi suggests – governments’ relative generosity towards old-age pensioners. Reflect on the fact that in 2006 the Italian pension system actually showed a surplus of 0.8% of GDP which therefore made a positive, significant contribution to the funding of public deficit (See R.F. Pizzuti, Rapporto sullo Stato Sociale, 2008, p.21), rather than wrecking social accounts from now to Kindom Come. See also three earlier posts on this Blog, of 13 June, 23 June, and 30 June, as well as the theoretical backing of Nick Barr and Peter Diamond, Reforming Pensions: Principles and Policy Choices, Oxford UP, 2008, and Pension Reform: A short Guide, Oxford UP (2009).

The same considerations apply to the additional expenditure due to population ageing, although its funding is not spelled out in the data quoted by Giavazzi. It is simply wicked to compare two item of expenditure in terms of their present value – two years in one case, 15 years in another. Besides, you cannot single out ageing as a specific source of expenditure, that can be cut at will regardless of the means provided by the recipients to finance the pension system as a whole. You might as well resort to the method – probably apocryphal but telling – that Federico Caffè used to quote when he discussed pensions: in some primitive society apparently the young brandish long pointed poles to decisively push into quicksand the aged no longer able to look after themselves. At the time of the Italian pension reform of 1995 the satirical magazine Cuore published a poster saying: “Your Government Needs YOU: Kill an Old-Age Pensioner”. Is this the Giavazzi solution? After all, it appears to be seriously considered by the IMF (2009).

The drive towards global recovery

In the September issue of the latest IMF publication, Development and Finance, there is a piece on “Growth after the Crisis”. If the world economy is to recover, a replacement must be found for the newly frugal U.S. consumer. Giavazzi calculates a consumption shortfall of about 3% of US GDP (i.e. a 4% increase in the saving rate from zero, of over 70% GDP being disposable income, = 2.8%), that cannot be compensated by the growth of China India and Brasil. China in particular will need to improve the provision of finance to the private sector, introduce a public safety net and risk-sharing financial products (this time we are talking about health and life insurance, and pensions, not derivatives…) before the Chinese saving rate is reduced. Europe – and particularly an export-led Germany, cannot or is not willing to do much (especially after the German elections).

So, Giavazzi argues, “the only way to maintain full employment is through higher investment.” This cannot be higher public investment, given the limited opportunities especially in the United States (where it is about 3% of GDP) and the “high probability that some of it will be wasted rather than contributing to raising the productive level of the capital stock”. Private investment (which is close to 20% in the USA) then must be the answer. But what would induce firms to raise investment spending in the middle of a sharp recession, and without any prospect of a likely technological breakthrough?

Elementary: “the realization that the crisis will change the composition of world demand for the long term. To address such a change, the structure of world output would have to adjust, which requires industrial restructuring and, as a consequence, new investment.” Because the crisis has brought about “a change in the composition of world consumption”, which “cannot happen without substantial restructuring, and, therefore, substantial investment.” What would prompt firms to invest is “the anticipation of a change in both the geographic allocation and the composition of consumption—relatively more consumption in China, relatively less in the United States; higher demand for such things as basic appliances and relatively lower demand for high-end automobiles.”

At this point the production of a long list of instruments of industrial policy, powerful enough to promote this kind of investment in restructuring, might be expected. But no, Giavazzi candidly relies on the incentive that “Those countries that do the restructuring—and get it right, including the portion that happens through public investment—will come out of the crisis richer.” Thus Giavazzi's pronouncements on the crisis range from applauding the Lehman disaster to misunderstanding the size role and danger of derivative markets; from the targeting of social welfare provisions for the old to the rosiest, starriest-eyed version of economic planning, not via public investment because of its presumed inefficiency, but presumably through the resurrection of French-type indicative planning that never worked and never will. Since when, in this century, do western governments take national investment decisions as they appear to do in Giavazzi’s world? Are private enterprises really enlightened and optimistic to the extent of selflessly investing in the hope of collectively implementing a balanced plan, starting from a large scale, tangible imbalance?

Giavazzi’s article appears in a prestigious official IMF publication; are his views shared by Dominique Strauss-Khan and/or Olivier Blanchard? The mind boggles.


Ron said...

You recommend industrial policies, in order to encourage producers to invest in capacity re-structuring and so supplement the lower demand of US consumers. I thought that "industrial policy" was anatema these days, that "the best industrial policy is no industrial policy"?

D. Mario Nuti said...

Industrial policy anathema? I believe the statement you quote was given by a Polish Minister of Industry in the early 1990s, at the beginning of the Transition. Times have changed, especially in the last year, not only with regard to monetary easing, near-zero interest rates and fiscal stimulus, but also with respect to industrial policy.

For instance, in a recent CEPR discussion paper on “The growth after the crisis” (No. 7480, September 2009), Dani Rodrik (Harvard) asks the question “How hospitable will the global environment be for economic growth in the developing world as we come out of the present financial crisis?” He argues that the answer will depend on how well we manage to reconcile the requirement that external imbalances should not get too large, with the developed nations’ ability to absorb a rapid increase in the supply of tradables by poor nations so that they can grow. Dani Rodrik argues that “It is possible to render these two requirements compatible, but doing so requires greater use of explicit industrial policies in developing countries, which have the potential of encouraging modern tradable activities without spilling over into trade surpluses. The “price” to be paid for greater discipline on real exchange rates and external imbalances is greater use (and permissiveness towards) industrial polices”.

Exclusive reliance on an imbalanced capacity structure to promote by itself massive investment in capacity re-structuring is wishful thinking, whether in developing or developed countries. Nor can environmental protection and reclamation, or the development of clean energy sources, be expected to attract large scale investment without specific industrial policies.