Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Something That Doesn't Stop Can Go On Forever

Here's an interesting factoid I came across, while poking around in the trade data (here):

Australia has had a a current account deficit in 48 out of the 50 years since 1960. [1]

These aren't small deficits, either: They average 3 percent of GDP. And yet, where's the pressure to increase net exports? Where's the currency crisis, where's the collapse of the Australian dollar? (In fact, it's at its highest level in more than 30 years, per the BIS.) Where's the unsustainable debt? I know nothing about the Australian economy, but it's hard not to wonder, if a big current account deficit is sustainable for 50 years, why not 100? Why not indefinitely?

It's a question that people who think that current account balance is the master key to the macroeconomy, really ought to think about.

[1] The exceptions are 1972 and 1973.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Default = Death

I've observed before that to make sense of the financial press, you have to adopt the view that the world exists only as a source of payments on financial assets. Here's a beautiful example, from an article at VoxEU. The writers are discussing CDS spreads on sovereign debt, specifically the "swap curve," which is supposed to represent the market's best guess of the probability of default:
In normal times the slope of the swap curve is flat or slightly positive, reflecting more uncertainty about more distant future . In times of stress, however, the slope typically turns negative, mirroring fears that the country may not survive in the short term. But, if it does, it will not default later on.
Yes, paying bondholders in full is synonymous with national survival.

Which makes sense, I guess, if you're looking at the world only through the bond trader's terminal, where Ireland, say, is not a group of people or a political or historical entity, but simply an asset class. Doug Henwood has a wonderful quote in Wall Street from Charles Leggatt, who liquidated his family's 172-year old art dealership: "What I came into was the art trade; what I am leaving is a financial service." I don't know what's scarier about our rulers: that they are trying to do the same thing to the whole world, or that they think it's already done.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Exterminate the Brutes, er, Zombies!

At the bar the other night, they had The Walking Dead on. We do seem to be in a zombie moment right now. One can't but wonder what it means.

I hadn't seen the show before, but I did read the comic books it's based on. (Whatever; I like comics.) The comic version is notable for having the least threatening zombies around; in one scene, a normal guy is trapped overnight in a room with dozens of zombies, and kills them all. With his bare hands. Sure, you don't want them to bite you, but that goes for bedbugs too. (It's also notable for its exceptionally blatant ripoffs of other zombie stories, like the opening lifted straight from 28 Days Later. But maybe that sort of borrowing is the sign of a vital popular form?) More to the point, it, even more than the run of post-apocalypse survival tales, valorizes traditional, masculine authority. Not for nothing it's set in the South, and the main character is a cop; that's a departure from most of these stories, which get their juice precisely from the ordinariness of their protagonists. My friend Ben makes the interesting observation that a very large proportion of horror movies are set in decaying industrial landscapes. But that's not the case with The Walking Dead. There, the spaces the human characters defend against the zombies are iconic enclaves of order: a gated subdivision, a prison. Their central challenge, literal and metaphorical, is to keep the fences in place.

And on the other side of the fences, the zombies. The specific characteristic of the zombie, as opposed to other horror genre monsters, is their lack of individuality. They look human but have no minds, souls or personalities. Their behavior is mechanical, and they only ever appear in groups. The classic vampire story is of the monster stealthily infiltrating our society. You can't tell that story about zombies; they have to be everywhere. Nor can you deter them or manage them, they don't follow the various rules vampires are supposed to. All you can do, is kill them. Indeed, one of the themes of the comic-book Walking Dead is the danger of empathizing with the zombies. In one plot arc, a group of farmers are keeping their zombified relatives and neighbors locked in a barn (again, these are some seriously wimpy zombies) in the hope that they're somehow recoverable. The heroes, naturally, put aside sentimentality and exterminate them. They may look human, is the point, but they're really just part of the formless, threatening mass.

The idea of a small group of civilized people holding some redoubt against a human-looking but impersonal mass is a familiar one in the culture, from Fort Apache to Fort Apache in the Bronx. (My father used to point out that the trope of the small band of white settlers facing a mass of Indians stretching the horizon reversed the historical situation almost exactly.) In this sense zombies slot neatly into some important political myths as well. It's not a coincidence that in Max Brooks' World War Z, the most mainstream recent zombie book, the two countries that are best prepared to deal with the worldwide zombie plague are Israel and South Africa, the latter explicitly thanks to apartheid-era plans for defense of the white minority against the African hordes.

In terms of the logic of zombie stories, Brooks made a good choice. The idea of a small group of fully-human individuals defending themselves against a faceless, anonymous mass has deep roots, but it comes most clearly to the surface in settler societies. Here is Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, on the original confrontation between his Spanish ancestors and the ancestors of the Indian and mestizo poor all around him:

Men like Father Bartolome de Las Casas came to America with the conquistadores and abandoned the ranks in order to collaborate with the vanquished... This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality.

It seems to me useless to ask ... whether it would have been better for humanity if the individual had never been born and the tradition of the antlike societies had continued forever.

There's the settler creed, with unusual frankness. We are capable of moral choices; they -- that is, everyone "foreign to the West" -- have no individual existence, but are only parts of a larger organism. We can sympathize with them; they can't even sympathize with themselves. We are human; they are "antlike." Or zombielike.

But why now?

Well, of course the entertainment industry needs new material; vampires are mostly played out and werewolves don't seem to touch any commercially viable anxieties. (Maybe this one will do better.) James Frey is betting on aliens; we'll see.

But there might be a deeper reason. Look at that picture above, of the zombies pressing up against the fence. It doesn't take a degree in semiology to see what that represents. But it's not just the border. My friend Christian, who is finishing a book on the politics of global warming, describes one of the main forms of adaptation in the rich countries as the armed lifeboat. It's adaptation to climate change as exclusion and repression, and that's much easier if you can imagine the excluded as faceless ant people. If we don't find a better way to translate climate change into a political vision that can mobilize people, then the white policeman with the gun, ruthlessly exterminating the masses outside the lager and strictly maintaining order inside it, is an idea we may be increasingly asked to become comfortable with. If so, one could read zombie tales like The Walking Dead as a warning -- or, less charitably, as helping to prepare the way.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Enemies of All Mankind

Is this for real? Did Bruce Sterling really write a novel in which the end of intellectual property rights leads to a complete collapse of social order, with bandits infesting the highways? Yes, it seems, he did.

OK. Take away whatever picture you've got in your mental dictionary under "hegemony," and put this there instead. Because what better ideological scaffolding could any form of privilege ask for, than the idea that society itself would fall apart without it.

Around 1600, most people could not imagine a world without an inborn hierarchy, without gradations of greater and lesser in every area of life. "There is a degree above degree. ... Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows." Today they say, take but perpetual copyright away. Not much has changed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Haven't I Read Anything By Anne Carson Til Now?



Audubon


Audubon perfected a new way of drawing birds that he called his.
On the bottom of each watercolor he put "drawn from nature"
which meant he shot the birds

and took them home to stuff and paint them.
Because he hated the unvarying shapes
of traditional taxidermy

he built flexible armatures of bent wire and wood
on which he arranged bird skin and feathers--
or sometimes

whole eviscerated birds--
in animated poses.
Not only his wiring but his lighting was new.

Audubon colors dive in through your retina
like a searchlight
roving shadowlessly up and down the brain

until you turn away.
And you do turn away.
There is nothing to see.

You can look at these true shapes all day and not see the bird.
Audubon understands light as an absence of darkness,
truth as an absence of unknowing.

It is the opposite of a peaceful day in Hokusai.
Imagine if Hokusai had shot and wired 219 lions
and then forbade his brush to paint shadow.

"We are what we make ourselves," Audubon told his wife
when they were courting.
In the salons of Paris and Edinburgh

where he went to sell his new style
this Haitian-born Frenchman
lit himself

as a noble rustic American
wired in the cloudless poses of the Great Naturalist.
They loved him

for the "frenzy and ecstasy"
of true American facts, especially
in the second (more affordable) octavo edition (Birds of America, 1844).

[From Men in Off Hours.]


(Critics seem to object that Carson's poems read like essays, which are what she used to write. OK. But as an admirer of Brecht and Pound and Larkin, I have to ask: Why shouldn't the essay aspire to the condition of a poem, and vice versa?)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Karl Marx, Original Real Business Cycle Theorist

From Theories of Surplus Value:
Let us assume that wages and profit fell simultaneously in total value, from whatever cause (for example, because the nation had grown lazier), and at the same time in use value (because labour had become less productive owing to bad harvests, etc.), in a word, that the part of the product whose value is equal to the revenue declines, because less new labour has been added in the past year and because the labour added has been less productive...
Prescott, Barro, Sargent, Lucas, etc. owe this guy royalties! or at least a footnote.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Lucas Critique: A Critique

Old-fashioned economic models (multiplier-accelerator models of the business cycle, for example) operate in historical time: outcomes in one period determine decisions in the next period. That is, agents are backward-looking. The Lucas critique is that this assumes that people cannot predict what will happen in the future. The analyst on the other hand can derive later outcomes from earlier ones (or we would not be able to tell a causal story), so why can't the agents in the model?

Lucas says this is an unacceptable contradiction, and resolves it by attributing to the agents the model used by the analyst. (Interestingly some Post Keynesians (e.g. Shackle) seem to see the same contradiction but they resolve it the other way, and take the inability to predict the future attributed to the agents in the model as a fundamental feature of the universe, so applicable to the analyst too.) But is the idea of predictable but unpredicted outcomes such an unacceptable contradiction?


One reason to say no is that the idea that agents must know as much as analyst rests on a sociological foundation – that institutions are such as to foster knowledge of the best estimate of future outcomes. This need not be the case. For example, consider the owners of an asset that has recently appreciated in value, where there is some doubt about whether the appreciation is transitory or permanent, or whether further appreciation should be expected. Those asset-owners who have a convincing story of why further appreciation is likely will be most successful at selling at a higher price, and so will increase their weight in the market. And to have a convincing story you should yourself be convinced by it – this is true both logically and psychologically. Similarly with various arm's-length relationships that must be periodically renewed – the most accurate promises are not necessarily the most likely to bring success. Or on the other side, classes and organizations to maintain their coherence need their members to hold certain beliefs. This could take the deep form of ideology of various kinds, or the simple form of the practical requirements of organizational decision-making implying a limited set of inputs.

The other reason comes if you carry the Lucas critique through to its logical conclusion. Those who accept rational expectations also use the method of comparative statics, where transitions from one equilibrium to another is the result of “shocks”. One set of technologies, tastes, endowments, policies, etc. yields equilibrium A. Then a shock changes those parameters, and now there's equilibrium B. Joan Robinson objected to this procedure on grounds that it ignored dynamics of transition from A to B, but there is another problem. Evidently B is a possible future of A. The analyst knows this. So why don't the inhabitants of A? Unless the shock is literally divine intervention, presumably its probability can be affected by the their actions, so doesn't the analysis of A have to take that into account? Or, even if the shock is indeed an act of God, it's possibility must be known – since it is known to the analyst – and so it must affect decisions made in A. But in that case the effects of the shock can be hedged and nothing happens as a result of the shock; there is no longer two equilibria, just one. So we either have agents with perfect knowledge of everything and no knowledge of shocks, which must literally be divine interventions; or we can have only a single equilibrium which nothing can change; or we can become nihilists like Shackle; or we can reject the Lucas critique and accept that there are regularities in economic behavior that are not anticipated by the actors involved.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fragment of an Argument

David Colender, in Beyond Microfoundations: Post Walrasian Macroeconomics, explains that Post Walrasian macro is based on the idea that complexity of macro economy and limits to individual rationality mean that there will not be a unique equilibrium. Institutions and non-price coordinating mechanisms are needed to constrain the available degrees of freedom, to produce stability. But "while many past critics of Walrasian economics have based their criticism on the excessive mathematical nature of Walrasian models, I want to be clear that this is not the Post Walrasian criticism; if anything, the post Walrasian criticism is that the mathematics used in Walrasian models is too simple. ... The reason Marshall stuck with partial equilibrium was not that he did not understand the interrelationships among markets.... Instead Marshall felt that general equilibrium issues should be dealt with informally until the math appropriate for them was developed. That has only recently happened."

I heard something very similar from Duncan Foley last week: Heterodox macro needs to be more mathematically sophisticated than the mainstream, with nonlinear regressions and models using statistical mechanics drawn from physics.


Sorry, I'm not buying it. Colender and Foley are right that it's not possible to construct a consistent, tractable, intuitive model of the economy using linear equations. But the solution is not to construct intractable, non-intuitive models using more complex math. It's to abandon the search for a general model and focus instead on locally stable aggregate relationships that allow us to tell causally meaningful stories about particular developments. We don't need a theory of institutions in the abstract, but historically grounded accounts of specific institutions.

Is There Really a European Sovereign Debt Crisis?

The past few months have seen a flurry of articles warning that the next stage of the financial crisis will be a flight from sovereign debt, specifically in the European periphery. Even people who don't believe in confidence fairies when it comes to the US or the UK accept the conventional wisdom that financing the deficit of the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) is a problem -- that there is simply no way to convince the public to hold the amount of debt these countries will have to issue in the absence of austerity. For these countries, it's sadly conceded, in the absence of the option of devaluation the hard exigencies of the bond market leaves them no choice but slash spending and force down wages.

But is it true? Here are the relevant debts and deficits, in billions of euros (not percent of GDP, for reasons that will be clear in a moment.)


General Government Debt and Net Borrowing



2010 2009 2008
Greece Net debt 259 230 199

Net borrowing 19 32 18
Ireland Net debt 86 58 41

Net borrowing 28 23 13
Italy Net debt 1542 1473 1395

Net borrowing 80 80 42
Portugal Net debt 135 121 105

Net borrowing 12 16 5
Spain Net debt 1051 1054 1088

Net borrowing 97 118 44
PIIGS Net debt 3073 2936 2828

Net borrowing 236 269 122

Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook

(General government here includes all levels of government; "net" means that intra-government borrowing is excluded.)

As we can see, deficits approximately doubled in the PIIGS countries between 2008 and 2009, and stabilized in 2010. But how big are these deficits? Are they, for example, big compared with the balance sheet of the European Central Bank?


ECB Assets (billions of euros)



4th week of October of...


2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

Euro-area bank loans

547

701

831

451

444

389

Euro-area securities

471

361

153

133

121

133

Total assets

1878

1786

1958

1249

1119

999

Source: ECB, Weekly Financial Statements

In passing, it's interesting how different the balance sheet of the ECB looks from the Fed's especially before the crisis. While the asset side of the Fed's balance sheet, at least until three years ago, consists almost entirely of treasury bills, the ECB has more lending to banks, much more foreign exchange reserves, much more gold (about 10 percent of its pre-crisis assets!) and relatively little in the way of securities. For present purposes, though, two points stand out. First, the ECB increased its security holdings by E320 billion over the past two years, or E160 billion a year. This is equal to two-thirds of the total annual borrowing of the PIIGS countries. So in principle the ECB would only have to increase its current rate of securities purchases by 50 percent to meet the entire borrowing needs of the five threatened countries. Second, looking now at stocks rather than flows, the ECB increased its balance sheet about about 1 trillion euros between 2005 and 2008. Another similar increase would allow the ECB to purchase one-third of the entire outstanding debt of the PIIGS countries. Interestingly, this is very similar to the increase in the Fed's balance sheet over the same period. More to the point, it's well within the range that has been suggested as an appropriate size for a second round of quantitative easing (QE2).

Now, I'm not suggesting that the ECB should actually finance all new borrowing by ECB countries facing crises, or try to monetize a substantial portion of their existing debt. For one thing, there's no need to; presumably even modest additional purchases would be enough to convince private actors to hold the debt at a reasonable price, if the ECB made it clear it stood ready to do more. I'm just saying that the frequently-heard argument that the governments of Southern Europe are "too big to save" isn't obviously true. It seems more likely that any European QE2 -- quantitative easing in its current use, remember, just means big central bank purchases of long-dated government debt -- that had appreciable macroeconomic effects would be more than enough to solve the sovereign debt problem as well.

Of course people (or their equivalents in the world of respectable business opinion) get very upset when you suggest that a government debt problem can be solved by just monetizing it. Oh, they say, but that's inflationary. Maybe; but in the current context that's an argument for it, rather than against it. And given that the 2005-2008 expansion of the ECB balance sheet didn't produce any noticeable upward pressure on prices, it;s hard to see why another comparable one would. OK, they say, but what about the incentives? Why should governments ever show fiscal discipline if they know the ECB will just bail them out when they get in trouble? And there's the heart of the matter, I think. It's not that Greece, Spain, and the rest need tough austerity because they can't be bailed out; rather, they won't be bailed out in order to force them to implement austerity.

The metaphor you sometimes see for the European sovereign debt situation is of mountain climbers roped together above a cliff. If one falls, it goes, the others can hold him up. But if they don't act quickly and more fall, then the ones still holding on may be pulled down themselves if they don't cut their companions loose. Maybe a more apt analogy would be that the climbers up top have a powerful winch, securely bolted to the rock; they could pull up the danglers just by turning a crank. But they wonder, wouldn't it be better to leave them hanging, to teach them a lesson?



EDIT: The counterargument is that, while there is no technical problem with the ECB guaranteeing the financing of budget gaps in peripheral Europe, this would exacerbate the anti-democratic character of Euorpean institutions by giving the ECB a quasi-fiscal role. This is a trickier question.