I’ve gotten a lot of really smart pushback on my claims about the UK economy, and I think I have significantly underestimated what I already believed to be a substantial aggregate demand shortfall. First, here is a comparison of UK NGDP at *basic* prices (to eliminate the VAT distortion, h/t to the most excellent Britmouse) compared to the US:
The NGDP shortfall in the UK is significantly higher than the US. Furthermore, it is worth noting we had no less than *5* consecutive quarters where NGDP feel at an annualised rate of greater than 1%, and the recovery was slower. Essentially, our NGDP collapse was much more drawn out (although in the US it was a little sharper, but my gut that more drawn out is worse, e.g. it’s harder to hoard labour for longer). Given that we are now about 5% further below trend compared to the US, when using this (probably better) measure of UK NGDP, is it really so surprising things are this bad compared to the States? Think of it this way – if nominal spending was relatively lower, is there any reason to think (ceteris paribus) the real GDP/inflation mix would be more favourable? I don’t think there is, and so I put the lower bound of the output gap relative to the US at about 2%. The total output gap is likely substantially larger.
The second thing that has made me change my mind is I see pretty much no plausible explanation in the data for why we would have had a large productivity shock. At least, it’s not anything remotely near as important as getting more NGDP, pronto.
This is really important. The idea that the output gap is small in the UK is going to make our monetary policy decisions even worse (including how the central bank would react to changes in fiscal policy, given the inflation mandate). Could there be a supply side issue? There could be a small one. But when we look at the NGDP (and inflation) correctly, I think it should be very clear where our priorities lie. And fiscal policy would have its effect highly diminished by the central banks reaction function (which is biased towards low inflation) if it believes the output gap is small. I think it may be time to start making some noise on this.
Also, I said in my previous post that I didn’t buy the post-Keynesian debt story because NGDP was so similar, and there hasn’t obviously been more deleveraging than the US and it couldn’t explain the discrepancy. So, in order to preserve consistency, given this change to my beliefs about relative NGDP, I have moved my subjective probability estimates somewhat in the direction of that explanation. I currently put sticky wages pretty low on my list. I do think sticky prices are the problem (prices clear markets, after all) but I’m now somewhat more agnostic as to which price that is. Which is all the more reason to plump for NGDP (level) targeting.
1) Be very, very careful with inflation and NGDP data, in both choosing the correct dataset and how to interpret it
2) Be very, very careful which base years you use for indices
3) Other people are smarter than you are. Listen to them.
A commenter, ‘david’, says
If you want to contend that there was a real shock, identifying one is not difficult: the economy of the City is heavily involved in finance.
So, if this is right, we’d expect London to be worse affected by the rest of the country, and finance to be especially badly affected. But this does not appear to be the case, based on the ONS’ “Gross Value Added at current basic prices” stats at a regional and industry level (I used the ‘workplace-based’ figures):
Now, Andrew Haldane thinks measuring GVA in the financial sector is problematic. Maybe the data is all wrong. Here’s contributions to GDP growth for 2006-10:
What this seems to suggest was that ‘Business services & finance’ was *incredibly* important to UK growth before 2008, but the reduction in the GDP was slightly more shared around. Here’s the growth in output year-on-year by those sectors:
There are lots of things one could say here. Construction is obviously important. Extraction is not surprising (think ever falling North Sea oil production). But I look at this and see stagnation in manufacturing, utilities, agriculture and (yes) government/other since well before the recession and these sectors took proportionally larger hits in 2009. I think there may be a bigger story, here.
And if I can find a better breakdown for ‘business services and finance’, that may shed a lot of light. But that’s enough from me, for now.
[Update: I added in some missing labels from the first GVA chart. The ever so slight discrepancy between the London total between the two graphs is because the first is 'Headline' GVA and the other is just 'GVA'. In the notes to the stats, it says "The headline regional GVA series for this publication have been calculated using a five-period moving average."]
A commenter ‘Alex’ over at Interfluidity directs me towards Paul Krugman, debunking the idea that the UK inflation has been worse than the US when you take into account the change in VAT. Here is the graph Krugman shows:
What you have to remember is we initially cut VAT before we increased it (and had stimulus before we had austerity). And so you can see my point about how to interpret the recession as a whole. Many thanks to all those who have made comments and provided links about debt dynamics. I will read, ponder and get back to you. But for now I’m sticking to my contention that (given tracking NGDP with the US) the UK experienced a real as well as a nominal shock. As Steve Waldman has pointed out in the comments
below at my previous post, the effect this would have on real wages would exacerbate the problems caused by a desire to deleverage on the part of UK households, and of course these two stories are not mutually exclusive.
*File under: Department of Yikes
Compare the following two charts, again from the Debt and Deleveraging report by the McKinsey Global Institute:
And I remind you again of UK and US Nominal GDP:
I look at these charts and think: “Sorry, which economy is supposed to be experiencing stagflation, and which one is supposed to be in recovery?”
I’m not saying that deleveraging doesn’t matter, I’m saying that it isn’t obvious to me how it is supposed to explain the discrepancy.
From the comments section over at Modeled Behavior:
I’m with you up to “something is wrong with prices,” but where did we get the premise that the price that has something wrong with it must be the real wage. I would suggest the possibility that real wages are a side show and that the price that is out of whack is the real interest rate. Inflation targeting sets a floor on the real interest rate, so if the natural interest rate goes below the negative of the inflation rate, the central bank will (and rightly so, because the cure would be worse than the disease) strongly resist any movement toward equilibrium via adjustments in current prices relative to expected future prices. In theory maybe you could work around this problem by having a huge decline in the real wage, but that would throw other things out of whack. The underlying problem is excessive patience.
If you don’t already, you should follow him on Twitter. Here’s a post from him back in November, making the same point. Here is Karl Smith on the logistical difficulties of saving, my favourite post of the year.
Steve Waldman (of the indispensable Interfluidity blog) has answered my plea for an explanation of the UK’s economic woes, offering a ‘Post-Keynesian’ description of the crisis. I highly recommend you go and read the whole thing before reading the rest of this post.
I am not convinced by the Post-Keynesian story. Waldman discussed the fact that the UK has not stabilised the path of nominal income, and this is true. However, here is a comparison of Nominal GDP for the UK and the USA:
Now, it is true that debt levels are much higher here, but (at least according to the recent ‘Debt and Deleveraging’ report from the McKinsey Global Institute) the country currently undergoing deleveraging is the US:
I grant that if the Post-Keynesian story is correct, it seems plausible we should expect the country with the higher debt to have larger (real) problems given equal deviation from the trend in nominal income. The flip side of this (as we are holding NGDP constant) is that inflation must be higher. But I’m not sure how to tie this whole story together with the fact that the US is deleveraging and we, apparently, have not even started (as of Q2 2011). So, you can colour me confused on this one.
I really hope Waldman is wrong, because I put the probability of nominal income returning to trend as basically zero. NGDP-level targeting may make for economic equilibrium, but I seriously doubt that it is a political one too.
So, I thought I would pen (or, rather, dictate as I am using the latest Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software, which is excellent by the way) a quick follow up to an email I sent to Tyler Cowen, which he then posted (with my permission) on Marginal Revolution.
First, I would like to make clear I am not ‘pro-austerity’ - not in the UK and certainly not in Europe. But we control our own monetary policy here and that makes all the difference. If you have a problem with the level of aggregate demand in the UK, please take it up with Mervyn King, or with our monetary policy objective which is much more heavily biased towards stable prices than full employment.
Second, there are an enormous number of people in the world who are suffering right now due to deficient aggregate demand. I am one of those people who has a problem with Mervyn King and our monetary policy objective. More aggregate demand, please.
However, I am becoming steadily less convinced that this is the whole story, at least for the UK. Back in November, Karl Smith made the clearest statement I have ever read of the New Keynesian explanation of a recession:
I can’t hammer this home enough. A recession is not when something bad happens. A recession is not when people are poor.
A recession is when markets fail to clear. We have workers without factories and factories without workers. We have cars without drivers and drivers without cars. We have homes without families and families without their own home.
Prices clear markets. If there is a recession, something is wrong with prices.
Right now, unemployment remains at over 8% in the UK while real wages are lower than they were 7 years ago and are continuing to fall. Yes, you read that correctly. Which immediately leads one to ask: on this explanation of a recession as expounded by Karl, how much further do real wages have to fall to eliminate disequilibrium unemployment?
I am not a political person, I’m trying to ask an intellectual question here. As an interested observer of (and, I stress, not remotely an expert on) the economy, I am finding the aggregate demand narrative an increasingly unsatisfying explanation of all that is happening in the British economy. Supply-side suffering is suffering too, and I think we need to take very seriously the chance that it is happening.
(Just a quick one, on a topic I am still highly uncertain and confused about. So be nice.)
I’ve been taught no less than three times that the interest rate is the price of money: once at school, once at college and once again at CFA class. And that doesn’t seem right to me.
First, consider a world without money. I offer you one sheep in exchange for two this time next year. The interest rate is 100%. It expresses the rate at which consumption can be shifted through time.
Second, consider a world where everyone adhered to Polonius’ admonition to neither a borrower nor a lender be. There is still money in this world. It is traded for goods and services. The price of money is the rate at which it is traded for goods and services. That is to say, it is what we normally call ‘the price level’.
So money is not essential to the existence of interest rates, and interest rates are not essential to the existence of money. As the medium of exchange, the price of everything is expressed in terms of money. There is no more a case for the price of future consumption being “the” price of money than the price of kumquats. A price is nothing more and nothing less than the rate at which things are exchanged, and money can be exchanged for anything. Considering this, I find it hard to see why setting an interest rate is the ‘essence’ of monetary policy, because it’s just one price among many. That we do it this way just seems like a historical accident.
This is also by way of saying that while I understand the zero-lower-bound issue under the current monetary system, the reason why it’s an issue at all is because normal monetary operations revolve around exchanging an asset that, under certain circumstances, becomes highly substitutable with money*.
Maybe we should choose a different one.
*This is also the only way I have been able to understand the ‘QE is just an asset swap’ objection, but that could be as much to do with my feeble brain as the quality of explanation on offer
I’m not likely to be back blogging anytime soon. But there was a simpler time before I had a respectable number of readers, and I thought it would be a good idea to collect all my favourite posts in one place, for the sake of posterity, my own future reference and the outside chance that you may find it interesting. I really hope that you enjoy reading as much as I did writing.
The burden of public debt
My four (good) posts on this debate, which raged throughout the econoblogosphere back in January, can be found here, here, here and here. If Paul Krugman or Dean Baker ever again make the claim that it’s a matter of identity that domestically-held public debt can’t be a burden to future generations, I will come out of retirement and remind them of the Epic Defeat they were dealt last time round. There aren’t many things I am sure about in this world, but this is one of them.
Adventures in GDP accounting
Other random musings
Being altruistic towards ourselves (on discounting)
Principle, not principal (on the student loan controversy in the UK)
The Christensen/Williamson/Roth exchange
(I was originally going to flesh this out and try and get this published, but have come to the belief that the blogosphere is intellectually and morally preferable to academic journals for discussing these ideas. Also, this is obviously way easier, and I’ve been sitting on the argument for so long I just want to put it out there and see what people think. So I’ve mostly just copied this from the draft, and put some token links in to make it look like a blog post…)
It has been alleged against the epistemic account of vagueness that the determination of the precise meaning of a vague term appears miraculous, severing the connection between meaning and use. Given the infinite possible precisifications of terms like “thin”, “heap” and “tall”, how on earth is one of those concepts picked out by our ordinary expressions? However, an actual refutation of epistemicism has never been forthcoming, and the epistemicist defence (e.g. Williamson 1994) against the above accusation has been to correctly point out that there isn’t any promising account of how the meaning of non-vague terms is related to use, and that it is unfair to demand that one be provided:
“Every known recipe for extracting meaning from use breaks down even cases where vagueness is irrelevant. The inability of the epistemic view of vagueness to provide a successful recipe is an inability it shares with all its rivals. Nor is there any reason to suppose that such a recipe must exist.” [Williamson 1994 p207 (1996 edition)]
Whilst I agree with Tim Williamson (no relation!) that such a recipe may forever be beyond our grasp, we can still ask whether the epistemic account of vagueness is consistent with the necessary conditions of a true account of meaning determination. It could be the case in the physical sciences that a ‘Theory of Everything’ is necessarily impossible to describe, but this would not prohibit us from making less ambitious but nevertheless true statements about physics and seeing whether they are consistent with other propositions. I submit than the following condition would have to be met in the case of meaning determination
(1) The determination of the meaning of a word/expression/concept* makes reference to the actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs* of the speakers of the language
(1) does not imply that meaning is exclusively determined by use, whatever that may mean, but it is impossible to see how we could explain how words change their meaning without some version of it. The ordinary phenomenon of semantic change provides the most compelling intuitive support for there being a role for the speakers of a language in determining the correct meaning of the words they use. Examples abound of words whose meaning has changed over time, with the most plausible explanation of the change being that the speakers of the language gradually took the word to mean something different. This is completely consistent with a realist account of universals, whereby the word “awful” could have once denoted the same universal as “awesome” does now, with the changing actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs of English-speakers eventually changing the denotation.
But who exactly are the speakers of English? The set of English-speakers is a classic example of a vague set; there are borderline cases in terms of who alive today might count as a member of the set (infants/bilinguals/speakers of dialects), and there are borderline cases going back in time (Was Chaucer a speaker of English? How about Shakespeare? Or Samuel Johnson?). On the epistemicist account, it is either True or False as to whether Chaucer spoke my language, even if we cannot ever know whether he did.
However, “English-speaker” is a word in English and, if (1) is correct, its meaning is partially determined by the actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs of the set of English-speakers. The epistemicist cannot account for how “English-speaker” takes on a precise meaning in English, for it requires that an already precise set of individuals be constituted (the set of English speakers), whose actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs serve as an input into the function that is supposed to determine the contents of the very same set. It would be as if a polity attempted to establish the extent of the franchise on the basis of a democratic vote.
Therefore, unless the epistemicist can account for semantic change without positing a (1)-like principle that leads to the problem of the self-constituting set of language-speakers, the epistemicist explanation of vagueness cannot be correct. But since my claim is actually negative (I’m agnostic as to the precise form (1) must take, it merely seems to me that you *can’t* come up with an account of semantic change that won’t result in the circular feature I have described, although I don’t know how to prove it), I would be very interested if anyone can come up with a plausible substitute for (1) that does not have the problem for epistemicism I have described. I can’t think of one, which makes this argument the closest thing to a refutation of epistemicism that I am aware of, and as such is worthy of further inquiry.
Comments/counter-arguments/reading suggestions are most welcome.
*Delete as appropriate, according to your philosophical sensibilities