Monday, May 28, 2012

Adventures in Cognitive Dissonance

Brad DeLong, May 25:
The core competences of high finance are supposed to be (a) assessing risk, and (b) matching people with risks to be carried with people with the risk-bearing capacity to carry them. Robert Waldmann has a different view:
I think their core competencies are (a) finding fools for counterparties and (b) evading regulations/disguising gambling as hedging.
Regulatory arbitrage, and persuading those who do not understand risks that they should bear them--those are not socially-valuable activities.

Brad DeLong, yesterday:
If you have any risk-bearing capacity at all, now is the time to use it.

So I guess last week's doubts have been assuaged. Or did he really mean to write "If you have any capacity for being fooled into being a swindler's counterparty, now is the time to use it"?

EDIT: Oh and then, the post just after that one argued -- well, really, assumed -- that the current value of Facebook shares gives an unbiased estimate of future Facebook earnings, and therefore of the net wealth that Facebook has created. (I guess not a single dollar of FB revenue comes at the expense of other firms, which must be a first in the history of capitalism.) Is there some way of consistently believing both that current stock values give an unbiased estimate of the present value of future earnings, and that stock values a year from now will be much higher than they are today? I can't see one. But then I've never had the brain for theodicy.

UPDATE: Anyone reading this should immediately go and read rsj's much better take on the same DeLong post over at Windyanabasis. He explains exactly why DeLong is confused here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Prices and the European Crisis, Continued

In comments to yesterday's post on exchange rates and European trade imbalances, paine (the e. e. cummings of the econosphere) says,
pk prolly buys your conclusion. notice his post basically disparaging forex adjustment solutions on grounds of short run impact. but long run adjustment requires forex changes.
I don't know. I suppose we all agree that exchange rate changes won't help in the short run (in fact, I'm not sure Krugman does agree), but I'm not convinced exchange rate changes will make much of a difference even in the long run; and anyway, it matters how long the long run is. When the storm is long past the ocean is flat again, and all that.

Anyway, what Krugman actually wrote was
We know that huge current account imbalances opened up when capital rushed to the European periphery after the euro was created, and reversing those imbalances must involve a large real devaluation.
We "know," it "must": not much wiggle room there.

So this is the question, and I think it's an important one. Are trade imbalances in Europe the result of overvalued exchange rates in the periphery, and undervalued exchange rates in the core, which in turn result from the financial flows from north to south after 1999? And are devaluations in Greece and the other crisis countries a necessary and sufficient condition to restore a sustainable balance of trade?

It's worth remembering that Keynes thought the answer to these kinds of questions was, in general, No. As Skidelsky puts it in the (wonderful) third volume of his Keynes biography, Keynes rejected the idea of floating exchange rates because
he did not believe that the Marshall-Lerner condition would, in general, be satisfied. This states that, for a change in the value of a country's currency to restore equilibrium in its balance of payments, the sum of the price elasticities for its exports and imports must be more than one. [1] As Keynes explained to Henry Clay: "A small country in particular may have to accept substantially worse terms for its exports in terms of its imports if it tries to force the former by means of exchange depreciation. If, therefore, we take account of the terms of trade effect there is an optimum level of exchange such that any movement either way would cause a deterioration of the country's merchandise balance." Keynes was convinced that for Britain exchange depreciation would be disastrous...
Keynes' "elasticity pessimism" is distinctly unfashionable today. It's an article of faith in open-economy macroeconomics that depreciations improve the trade balance, despite rather weak evidence. A recent mainstream survey of the empirical literature on trade elasticities concludes,
A typical finding in the empirical literature is that import and export demand elasticities are rather low, and that the Marshall-Lerner (ML) condition does not hold. However, despite the evidence against the ML condition, the consensus is that real devaluations do improve the balance of trade
Theory ahead of measurement in international trade!

(Paul Davidson has a good discussion of this on pages 138-144 of his book on Keynes.)

The alternative view is that the main relationship is between trade flows and growth rates. In models of balance-of-payments-constrained growth, countries' long-term growth rates depend on the ratio of export income-elasticity of demand and import income-elasticity of demand. More generally, while a strong short-run relationship between exchange rates and trade flows is clearly absent, and a long-run relationship is mostly speculative, the relationship between faster growth and higher imports (and vice versa) is unambiguous and immediate. [2]

So let's look at some Greek data, keeping in mind that Greece is not necessarily representative of the rest of the European periphery. The picture below shows Greece's merchandise and overall trade balance as percent of GDP (from the WTO; data on service trade is only available from 1980), the real exchange rate (from the BIS) and real growth rate (from the OECD; three-year moving averages). Is this a story of prices, or income?

The first thing we can say is that it is not true that Greek deficits are a product of the single currency.  Greece has been running substantial trade deficits for as far back as the numbers go. Second, it's hard to see a relationship between the exchange rate and trade flows. It's especially striking that the 20 percent real depreciation of the drachma from the late 1960s to the early 1970s -- quite a large movement as these things go -- had no discernible effect on Greek trade flows at all. The fall in income since the crisis, on the other hand, has produced a very dramatic improvement in the Greek current account, despite the fact that the real exchange rate has appreciated slightly over the period. It's very hard to look at the right side of the figure and feel any doubt about what drives Greek trade flows, at least in the short run.

Now, it is true that, prior to the crisis, the Euro era was associated with somewhat larger Greek trade deficits than in earlier years. (As I mentioned yesterday, this is entirely due to increased imports from outside the EU.) But was this due to the real appreciation Greece experienced under the Euro, or to the faster growth? It's hard to judge this just by looking at a figure. (That's why God gave us econometrics -- though to be honest I'm a bit skeptical about the possibility of getting a definite answer here.) But here's a suggestive point. Greece's real exchange rate appreciated by 25 percent between 1986 and 1996. This is even more than the appreciation after the Euro. Yet that earlier decade saw no growth of the Greek trade deficit at all. It was only when Greek growth accelerated in the early 2000s that the trade deficit swelled.

I think Yanis Varoufakis is right: It's hard to see exit and devaluation as solutions for Greece, in either the short term or the long term. There are good reasons why, historically, European countries have almost never let their exchange rates float against each other. And it's hard to see fixed exchange rates, in themselves, as an important cause of the crisis.

[1] Skidelsky gives the Marshall-Lerner condition in its standard form, but the reality is a bit more complicated. The simple condition applies only in cases where prices are set in the producing country and fully passed through to the destination country, and where trade is initially balanced. Also, it should really be the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition. Joan Robinson was robbed!

[2] Krugman wrote a very doctrinaire paper years ago rejecting the idea of balance of payments constraints on growth. I've quoted this here before, but it's worth repeating:
I am simply going to dismiss a priori the argument that income elasticities determine economic growth, rather than the other way around. It just seems fundamentally implausible that over stretches of decades balance of payments problems could be preventing long term growth... Furthermore, we all know that differences in growth rates among countries are primarily determined by differences in the rate of growth of total factor productivity, not by differences in the rate of growth of employment. ... Thus we are driven to supply-side explanations...
The Krugmans and DeLongs really have no one to blame but themselves for accepting that all the purest, most dogmatic orthodoxy was true in the long run, and then letting long-run growth take over the graduate macro curriculum.

UPDATE: I should add that as far as the trade balance is concerned, what matters is not just a country's growth, but its growth relative to its trade partners. This may be why rapid Greek growth in the 1970s was not associated with a worsening trade balance -- this was the trente glorieuse, when all the major European countries were experiencing similar income growth. Also, in comments, Random Lurker points to a paper suggesting that another factor in rising Greek imports was the removal of tariffs and other trade restrictions after accession to the EU. I haven't had time to read the paper properly yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if that is an important part of the story.

Also, I was discussing this at the bar the other night, and at the end of the conversation my very smart Brazilian friend said, "But devaluation has to work. It just has to." And she knows this stuff far better than I do, so, maybe.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Do Prices Matter? EU Edition

The Euro crisis. One thing sensible people agree on is that the crisis has little or nothing to do with fiscal deficits  (government borrowing), and everything to do with current account deficits (international borrowing, whether public or private.) And one thing sensible people do not agree on, is how much those current account deficits are due to relative costs, or competitiveness.

A thorough dissection of competitiveness in the European context is here; Merijn Knibbe has some good posts critiquing it at the Real World Economics Review. Krugman, on the other hand, defends the competitiveness story, suggesting that the alternative to believing that relative prices drive trade flows, is believing in the "doctrine of immaculate transfer." What he means is, the accounting identity that net capital flows equal net trade flows doesn't in itself provide the mechanism by which trade adjusts to financial flows. A country with an increasing net financial inflow must, in an accounting sense, experience an increasing current account deficit; but you still need a story about why people choose to buy more from, or are able to sell less to, abroad.

So far, one can't disagree; but the problem is, Krugman assumes the story has to be about relative prices. It's not the case, though, that relative prices are the only thing that drive trade flows. At the least, incomes do too. If German wages fall, German goods may become more cost-competitive; but in any case, German workers will buy less of everything, including vacations in Greece. Similarly, if Greek wages rise, Greek goods may be priced out of international markets; but in any case Greek workers will buy more of everything, including manufactured goods from Germany. Estimating the respective impacts of relative prices and incomes on trade flows, or the elasticities approach, is one of the lost treasures of the economics of 1978. Both income and price elasticities solve the immaculate transfer problem, since capital flows from northern to southern Europe were associated with faster growth of both income and prices in the south. But their implications for policy going forward are quite different. If the problem is relative prices, a devaluation will fix it; this is what Krugman believes. If the problem is income elasticities, on the other hand, then balanced trade within Europe will require some mix of structural reforms (easier said than done), permanently faster growth in the north than the south, or -- blasphemy! -- restrictions on trade.

Let's pose two alternatives, understanding that the truth, presumably, is somewhere in between. In the one case, EU current account imbalances are due entirely to countries' over- or undervalued currencies. In the other case, current account imbalances are due entirely to differences in growth rates. One thing we do know: In the short run -- a year or two -- the latter is approximately true. In the short run, the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition is almost certainly not satisfied, so a change in prices will have the "wrong" effect on foreign exchange earnings, or at best -- if the country's imports and exports are both priced in foreign currency -- have no effect. In the long run, it's less clear. Do prices or incomes matter more? Hard to say.

So what is the evidence one way or the other? One simple suggestive strand of evidence is the intra- and extra-European trade balances of various countries in the EU. To the extent that trade flows have been driven by price, the deficit countries should have seen larger deficits with other EU countries than with other countries, and the surplus countries similarly should have seen larger surpluses within the union than outside it. Those countries whose currencies would otherwise, presumably, have appreciated relative to other EU members should have shifted their net exports towards Europe; those countries whose currencies would otherwise have depreciated should have shifted their net exports away. Is that what we see?

As is often the case with empirical work, the answer is: Yes and no. From Eurostat, here are trade balances as percent of GDP, within and outside the currency union, for selected countries and selected years.

Intra-EU Trade Balance
1999 2007-2008 2011
Germany  2.0% 4.8% 2.1%
Ireland 19.0% 7.4% 12.6%
Greece -10.0% -9.6% -5.3%
Spain -2.9% -4.0% -0.6%
France -0.3% -3.1% -4.3%
Italy 0.5% 0.5% -0.2%
Netherlands 14.8% 24.5% 27.9%
Austria -3.9% -3.0% -5.0%
Extra-EU Trade Balance
1999 2007-2008 2011
Germany  1.2% 2.8% 4.0%
Ireland 6.1% 7.8% 15.1%
Greece -3.9% -9.1% -4.4%
Spain -2.1% -5.1% -3.8%
France 1.0% -0.1% 0.0%
Italy 0.8% -1.2% -1.4%
Netherlands -11.8% -17.5% -20.5%
Austria 1.4% 2.7% 1.9%

What we see here is sort of consistent with the competitiveness story, and sort of not. Germany did increase its intra-EU net exports about twice as much as its extra-EU net exports over the pre-crisis decade, just as a story centered on relative prices would predict. And on the flipside, the fall in Irish net exports over the pre-crisis decade was entirely with other EU countries, again consistent with the Krugman story. 

But for the other countries, it's not so simple. The increase of the Euro-era Greek deficit, for instance, was entirely the result of increased imports from non-Euro countries. Euro-area trade, and non-Euro exports, were approximately constant in the ten years from 1999. This is more consistent with a story of rapid Greek income growth, than uncompetitively high Greek prices. Similarly, the movement toward current account deficit of Spain was mostly, and of Italy entirely, a matter of trade with non-EU countries. This is not consistent with the relative-price story, which predicts that intra-EU trade imbalances should have grown relative to extra-EU imbalances. Note also that today, Germany's net exports to the rest of the EU area are no higher than when the Euro was created, while Greece and Spain have substantially improved their intra-EU balances; but all three countries have moved further toward imbalance with extra-EU countries. This, again, is not consistent with a story in which trade imbalances are driven primarily by the relative price distortions created by the single currency.

Conclusion: Krugman is right that how much relative prices have contributed to intra-European current account imbalances, is a question on which reasonable people can disagree. But as a doctrinaire Keynesian, I remain an elasticity pessimist. It seems to me that we should at least seriously consider a story in which European current account imbalances are due to relatively rapid income growth in the periphery, and slow income growth in Germany, as opposed to changes in competitiveness. A story, in other words, in which a Greek exit from the Euro and devaluation will not do much good.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Merijn Knibbe had more or less the same thought.