Politicians who preside over economic booms often develop delusions of competence. You can see this domestically: Jeb Bush imagines that he knows the secrets of economic growth because he happened to be governor when Florida was experiencing a giant housing bubble, and he had the good luck to leave office just before it burst. We’ve seen it in many countries: I still remember the omniscience and omnipotence ascribed to Japanese bureaucrats in the 1980s, before the long stagnation set in.
This is the context in which you need to understand the strange goings-on in China’s stock market. In and of itself, the price of Chinese equities shouldn’t matter all that much. But the authorities have chosen to put their credibility on the line by trying to control that market — and are in the process of demonstrating that, China’s remarkable success over the past 25 years notwithstanding, the nation’s rulers have no idea what they’re doing.
Start with the fundamentals. China is at the end of an era — the era of superfast growth, made possible in large part by a vast migration of underemployed peasants from the countryside to coastal cities. This reserve of surplus labor is now dwindling, which means that growth must slow.
But China’s economic structure is built around the presumption of very rapid growth. Enterprises, many of them state-owned, hoard their earnings rather than return them to the public, which has stunted family incomes; at the same time, individual savings are high, in part because the social safety net is weak, so families accumulate cash just in case. As a result, Chinese spending is lopsided, with very high rates of investment but a very low share of consumer demand in gross domestic product.
This structure was workable as long as torrid economic growth offered sufficient investment opportunities. But now investment is running into rapidly decreasing returns. The result is a nasty transition problem: What happens if investment drops off but consumption doesn’t rise fast enough to fill the gap?
What China needs are reforms that spread the purchasing power — and it has, to be fair, been making efforts in that direction. But by all accounts these efforts have fallen short. For example, it has introduced what is supposed to be a national health care system, but in practice many workers fall through the cracks.
Meanwhile, China’s leaders appear to be terrified — probably for political reasons — by the prospect of even a brief recession. So they’ve been pumping up demand by, in effect, force-feeding the system with credit, including fostering a stock market boom. Such measures can work for a while, and all might have been well if the big reforms were moving fast enough. But they aren’t, and the result is a bubble that wants to burst.
China’s response has been an all-out effort to prop up stock prices. Large shareholders have been blocked from selling; state-run institutions have been told to buy shares; many companies with falling prices have been allowed to suspend trading. These are things you might do for a couple of days to contain an obviously unjustified panic, but they’re being applied on a sustained basis to a market that is still far above its level not long ago.
What do Chinese authorities think they’re doing?
In part, they may be worried about financial fallout. It seems that a number of players in China borrowed large sums with stocks as security, so that the market’s plunge could lead to defaults. This is especially troubling because China has a huge “shadow banking” sector that is essentially unregulated and could easily experience a wave of bank runs. But it also looks as if the Chinese government, having encouraged citizens to buy stocks, now feels that it must defend stock prices to preserve its reputation. And what it’s ending up doing, of course, is shredding that reputation at record speed.
Indeed, every time you think the authorities have done everything possible to destroy their credibility, they top themselves. Lately state-run media have been assigning blame for the stock plunge to, you guessed it, a foreign conspiracy against China, which is even less plausible than you may think: China has long maintained controls that effectively shut foreigners out of its stock market, and it’s hard to sell off assets you were never allowed to own in the first place.
So what have we just learned? China’s incredible growth wasn’t a mirage, and its economy remains a productive powerhouse. The problems of transition to lower growth are obviously major, but we’ve known that for a while. The big news here isn’t about the Chinese economy; it’s about China’s leaders. Forget everything you’ve heard about their brilliance and foresightedness. Judging by their current flailing, they have no clue what they’re doing.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 31, 2015
“Greece’s Economy Is A Lesson For Republicans In The U.S.”: The Toxic Combination Of Austerity With Hard Money
Greece is a faraway country with an economy roughly the size of greater Miami, so America has very little direct stake in its ongoing disaster. To the extent that Greece matters to us, it’s mainly about geopolitics: By poisoning relations among Europe’s democracies, the Greek crisis risks depriving the United States of crucial allies.
But Greece has nonetheless played an outsized role in U.S. political debate, as a symbol of the terrible things that will supposedly happen — any day now — unless we stop helping the less fortunate and printing money to fight unemployment. And Greece does indeed offer important lessons to the rest of us. But they’re not the lessons you think, and the people most likely to deliver a Greek-style economic disaster here in America are the very people who love to use Greece as a boogeyman.
To understand the real lessons of Greece, you need to be aware of two crucial points.
The first is that the “We’re Greece!” crowd has a truly remarkable track record when it comes to economic forecasting: They’ve been wrong about everything, year after year, but refuse to learn from their mistakes. The people now saying that Greece offers an object lesson in the dangers of government debt, and that America is headed down the same road, are the same people who predicted soaring interest rates and runaway inflation in 2010; then, when it didn’t happen, they predicted soaring rates and runaway inflation in 2011; then, well, you get the picture.
The second is that the story you’ve heard about Greece — that it borrowed too much, and its excessive debt led to the current crisis — is seriously incomplete. Greece did indeed run up too much debt (with a lot of help from irresponsible lenders). But its debt, while high, wasn’t that high by historical standards. What turned Greek debt troubles into catastrophe was Greece’s inability, thanks to the euro, to do what countries with large debts usually do: impose fiscal austerity, yes, but offset it with easy money.
Consider Greece’s situation at the end of 2009, when its debt crisis burst into the open. At that point Greek government debt was near 130 percent of gross domestic product, which is definitely a big number. But it’s by no means unprecedented. As it happens, Greece’s debt ratio in 2009 was about the same as America’s in 1946, just after the war. And Britain’s debt ratio in 1946 was twice as high.
Today, however, Greek debt is over 170 percent of G.D.P. and still rising. Is that because Greece just kept on borrowing? Actually, no — Greek debt is up only 6 percent since 2009, although that’s partly because it received some debt relief in 2012. The main point, however, is that the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is up because G.D.P. is down by more than 20 percent. And why is GDP down? Largely because of the austerity measures Greece’s creditors forced it to impose.
Does this mean that austerity is always self-defeating? No, there are cases — for example, Canada in the 1990s — of countries that slashed their debt while maintaining growth and reducing unemployment. But if you look at how they managed this, it involved combining fiscal austerity with easy money: Canada in the ’90s drastically reduced interest rates, encouraging private spending, while allowing its currency to depreciate, encouraging exports.
Greece, unfortunately, no longer had its own currency when it was forced into drastic fiscal retrenchment. The result was an economic implosion that ended up making the debt problem even worse. Greece’s formula for disaster, in other words, didn’t just involve austerity; it involved the toxic combination of austerity with hard money.
So who wants to impose that kind of toxic policy mix on America? The answer is, most of the Republican Party.
On one side, just about everyone in the G.O.P. demands that we reduce government spending, especially aid to lower-income families. (They also, of course, want to reduce taxes on the rich — but that wouldn’t do much to boost demand for U.S. products.)
On the other side, leading Republicans like Representative Paul Ryan incessantly attack the Federal Reserve for its efforts to boost the economy, delivering solemn lectures on the evils of “debasing” the dollar — when the main difference between the effects of austerity in Canada and in Greece was precisely that Canada could “debase” its currency, while Greece couldn’t. Oh, and many Republicans hanker for a return to the gold standard, which would effectively put us into a euro-like straitjacket.
The point is that if you really worry that the U.S. might turn into Greece, you should focus your concern on America’s right. Because if the right gets its way on economic policy — slashing spending while blocking any offsetting monetary easing — it will, in effect, bring the policies behind the Greek disaster to America.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 10, 2015
“The Obama Recovery”: You Shouldn’t Conclude That Hitting Yourself In The Head Is Smart Because It Feels So Good When You Stop
Suppose that for some reason you decided to start hitting yourself in the head, repeatedly, with a baseball bat. You’d feel pretty bad. Correspondingly, you’d probably feel a lot better if and when you finally stopped. What would that improvement in your condition tell you?
It certainly wouldn’t imply that hitting yourself in the head was a good idea. It would, however, be an indication that the pain you were experiencing wasn’t a reflection of anything fundamentally wrong with your health. Your head wasn’t hurting because you were sick; it was hurting because you kept hitting it with that baseball bat.
And now you understand the basics of what has been happening to several major economies, including the United States, over the past few years. In fact, you understand these basics better than many politicians and commentators.
Let’s start with a tale from overseas: austerity policy in Britain. As you may know, back in 2010 Britain’s newly installed Conservative government declared that a sharp reduction in budget deficits was needed to keep Britain from turning into Greece. Over the next two years growth in the British economy, which had been recovering fairly well from the financial crisis, more or less stalled. In 2013, however, growth picked up again — and the British government claimed vindication for its policies. Was this claim justified?
No, not at all. What actually happened was that the Tories stopped tightening the screws — they didn’t reverse the austerity that had already occurred, but they effectively put a hold on further cuts. So they stopped hitting Britain in the head with that baseball bat. And sure enough, the nation started feeling better.
To claim that this bounceback vindicated austerity is silly. As Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University likes to point out, if rapid growth after a gratuitous slump counts as success, the government should just close down half the economy for a year; the next year’s growth would be fantastic. Or as I’d put it, you shouldn’t conclude that hitting yourself in the head is smart because it feels so good when you stop. Unfortunately, the silliness of the claim hasn’t prevented its widespread acceptance by what Mr. Wren-Lewis calls “mediamacro.”
Meanwhile, back in America we haven’t had an official, declared policy of fiscal austerity — but we’ve nonetheless had plenty of austerity in practice, thanks to the federal sequester and sharp cuts by state and local governments. The good news is that we, too, seem to have stopped tightening the screws: Public spending isn’t surging, but at least it has stopped falling. And the economy is doing much better as a result. We are finally starting to see the kind of growth, in employment and G.D.P., that we should have been seeing all along — and the public’s mood is rapidly improving.
What’s the important lesson from this late Obama bounce? Mainly, I’d suggest, that everything you’ve heard about President Obama’s economic policies is wrong.
You know the spiel: that the U.S. economy is ailing because Obamacare is a job-killer and the president is a redistributionist, that Mr. Obama’s anti-business speeches (he hasn’t actually made any, but never mind) have hurt entrepreneurs’ feelings, inducing them to take their marbles and go home.
This story line never made much sense. The truth is that the private sector has done surprisingly well under Mr. Obama, adding 6.7 million jobs since he took office, compared with just 3.1 million at this point under President George W. Bush. Corporate profits have soared, as have stock prices. What held us back was unprecedented public-sector austerity: At this point in the Bush years, government employment was up by 1.2 million, but under Mr. Obama it’s down by 600,000. Sure enough, now that this de facto austerity is easing, the economy is perking up.
And what this bounce tells you is that the alleged faults of Obamanomics had nothing to do with the pain we were feeling. We weren’t hurting because we were sick; we were hurting because we kept hitting ourselves with that baseball bat, and we’re feeling a lot better now that we’ve stopped.
Will this improvement in our condition continue? Britain’s government has declared its intention to pick up the baseball bat again — to engage in further austerity, which does not bode well. But here the picture looks brighter. Households are in much better financial shape than they were a few years ago; there’s probably still a lot of pent-up demand, especially for housing. And falling oil prices will be good for most of the country, although some regions — especially Texas — may take a hit.
So I’m fairly optimistic about 2015, and probably beyond, as long as we avoid any more self-inflicted damage. Let’s just leave that baseball bat lying on the ground, O.K.?
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 28, 2014
We got the latest quarterly economic growth numbers today, and they’re pretty striking:
The U.S. economy grew at its fastest rate in more than a decade between the months of July and October, helped by a surge in consumer spending, according to government data released Tuesday morning.
The Commerce Department said gross domestic product growth hit an annualized rate of 5 percent in the third quarter, revised upward from the previous estimate of 3.9 percent. Not since 2003 has the economy expanded so quickly.
The third quarter performance, coupled with 4.6 percent growth in the second quarter, amounts to the best sign since the Great Recession that the U.S. recovery has hit its stride.
The simple way to look at the political implications of these numbers is to say that it’s good for Democrats, since there’s a Democrat in the White House. And though it’s extremely unlikely for growth to stay over 5 percent for any length of time — it’s been 30 years since we had more than two consecutive quarters at that level — if both growth and job creation remain strong for the next two years, it’ll be somewhere between difficult and impossible for a Republican to win the White House in 2016, since the state of the economy swamps every other issue in presidential campaigns.
That’s the simple way to look at it, and it’s not wrong. But there’s another layer to the state of the country’s economy that could make things more complicated for both parties. It has to do with the difference between the two numbers that get the most attention — job creation and GDP growth — and the rest of how Americans experience their economic and working lives.
If you listen to the way President Obama talks about the economy these days, you’ll notice that he always says both that things are going well and that “we have more work to do.” It’s a way to assure people that he understands that they don’t feel secure and that many may not have gotten back to where they were before the Great Recession. On the other side, for a long time Republicans would say, “Where are the jobs, Mr. President?” But they can’t say that anymore, nor can they complain about growth being weak.
The economic debate of 2016 will start in about a year from now. While there could certainly be a downturn between now and then, let’s assume for the moment that the momentum continues. How could Republicans make a case that although growth and job creation are strong, all is still not well? Even if that’s what Americans feel, it would be a difficult case for Republicans to make, because those top-line figures are what they generally point to when they discuss the economy. What else can they build their case on? They aren’t going to talk about the stock market or corporate profits, not only because those have both performed spectacularly during the Obama presidency, but because they know that ordinary people don’t much care.
And they aren’t going to talk about the things that really make people worried. The most important fact of the American economy in the past few decades may be its failure to produce rising wages, but that’s not something Republicans are particularly concerned with. Their economic focus is usually on business owners — the taxes they pay, the regulations they have to abide by, and so on. Even if you believe that helping those owners is the best way to help the people who work for them, you’re going to have a hard time finding Republicans who want to talk about something like wage stagnation.
And the arguments Republicans always make against Democratic proposals aimed directly at workers, like increasing the minimum wage or expanding health coverage, are that the proposals will cost jobs and hinder growth. So they can’t turn around and say, “OK, so growth and job creation may look good, but the real problem is what people earn and how they’re treated on the job.” That’s just not in the Republican DNA.
If there’s an accompanying problem for Democrats, it’s that voters could look at the Obama years and say that yes, it’s now a lot easier to find a job, but the jobs don’t pay what they should or offer the same security and dignity they used to. The American economy is a much crueler place than it once was, and two terms of a Democratic administration haven’t done enough to reverse that evolution.
That could be a genuinely biting critique. But fortunately for Hillary Clinton (or whoever the 2016 Democratic nominee is), Republicans are the last ones who are going to make it.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, December 23, 2014
“Three Expensive Milliseconds”: Society Is Devoting An Ever-Growing Share Of Its Resources To Financial Wheeling And Dealing
Four years ago Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, abruptly canceled America’s biggest and arguably most important infrastructure project, a desperately needed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Count me among those who blame his presidential ambitions, and believe that he was trying to curry favor with the government- and public-transit-hating Republican base.
Even as one tunnel was being canceled, however, another was nearing completion, as Spread Networks finished boring its way through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. Spread’s tunnel was not, however, intended to carry passengers, or even freight; it was for a fiber-optic cable that would shave three milliseconds — three-thousandths of a second — off communication time between the futures markets of Chicago and the stock markets of New York. And the fact that this tunnel was built while the rail tunnel wasn’t tells you a lot about what’s wrong with America today.
Who cares about three milliseconds? The answer is, high-frequency traders, who make money by buying or selling stock a tiny fraction of a second faster than other players. Not surprisingly, Michael Lewis starts his best-selling new book “Flash Boys,” a polemic against high-frequency trading, with the story of the Spread Networks tunnel. But the real moral of the tunnel tale is independent of Mr. Lewis’s polemic.
Think about it. You may or may not buy Mr. Lewis’s depiction of the high-frequency types as villains and those trying to thwart them as heroes. (If you ask me, there are no good guys in this story.) But either way, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to save three milliseconds looks like a huge waste. And that’s part of a much broader picture, in which society is devoting an ever-growing share of its resources to financial wheeling and dealing, while getting little or nothing in return.
How much waste are we talking about? A paper by Thomas Philippon of New York University puts it at several hundred billion dollars a year.
Mr. Philippon starts with the familiar observation that finance has grown much faster than the economy as a whole. Specifically, the share of G.D.P. accruing to bankers, traders, and so on has nearly doubled since 1980, when we started dismantling the system of financial regulation created as a response to the Great Depression.
What are we getting in return for all that money? Not much, as far as anyone can tell. Mr. Philippon shows that the financial industry has grown much faster than either the flow of savings it channels or the assets it manages. Defenders of modern finance like to argue that it does the economy a great service by allocating capital to its most productive uses — but that’s a hard argument to sustain after a decade in which Wall Street’s crowning achievement involved directing hundreds of billions of dollars into subprime mortgages.
Wall Street’s friends also used to claim that the proliferation of complex financial instruments was reducing risk and increasing the system’s stability, so that financial crises were a thing of the past. No, really.
But if our supersized financial sector isn’t making us either safer or more productive, what is it doing? One answer is that it’s playing small investors for suckers, causing them to waste huge sums in a vain effort to beat the market. Don’t take my word for it — that’s what the president of the American Finance Association declared in 2008. Another answer is that a lot of money is going to speculative activities that are privately profitable but socially unproductive.
You may object that this can’t be right, that the invisible hand of the market ensures that private returns and social returns coincide. Economists have, however, known for a long time that when it comes to speculation, that proposition just isn’t true. Back in 1815 Baron Rothschild made a killing because he knew the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo a few hours before everyone else; it’s hard to see how that knowledge made Britain as a whole richer. It’s even harder to see how the three-millisecond advantage conveyed by the Spread Networks tunnel makes modern America richer; yet that advantage was clearly worth it to the speculators.
In short, we’re giving huge sums to the financial industry while receiving little or nothing — maybe less than nothing — in return. Mr. Philippon puts the waste at 2 percent of G.D.P. Yet even that figure, I’d argue, understates the true cost of our bloated financial industry. For there is a clear correlation between the rise of modern finance and America’s return to Gilded Age levels of inequality.
So never mind the debate about exactly how much damage high-frequency trading does. It’s the whole financial industry, not just that piece, that’s undermining our economy and our society.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 13, 2014