Category Archives: Globalization

Finally, A Real Debate Over Monetary Policy

Scott Sumner is an original economic thinker and a particular expert in monetary affairs. So I sat upright when I saw his skeptical reply to the QE2 Skeptics.

Early this week a host of high-profile economists, investors, and thinkers, under the e21 banner, issued an understated but unusually critical “open letter to Ben Bernanke.” They urged him to abandon the $600 billion QE2 strategy, warning of uncertain but possibly very large downside risks compared to little reward even in the unlikely case it works.

Sumner, who favors a concept he calls NGDP (nominal GDP) targeting, says the Fed isn’t trying to spur inflation. It’s trying to boost national income. And who could be opposed to that?

Sumner says the Fed can move the AD (aggregate demand) curve to the right. “Whether that extra spending shows up as inflation or real growth,” he acknowledges, “is of course an important issue.” A very important issue. But critics of QE2 and the broader existing Fed framework aren’t necessarily worried about short-term inflation of the CPI type. No, we are worried about sinking Fed credibility, dollar debasement, possible asset bubbles, and international turmoil. And, yes, possible inflation down the road.

I think Sumner ignores a couple important factors that argue against the simple equation that more Fed easing yields a significant and quantifiable higher level of NGDP, and more importantly RGDP.

First, the transmission mechanism whereby increased bank reserves become credit isn’t working well. A trillion dollars of excess reserves sit on U.S. bank balance sheets. Small and medium sized businesses have found access to loans difficult. Consumers, too, even with historically low mortgage and personal loan rates, have not necessarily been able to access credit because of tighter lending standards and retrenched credit cards and home equity lines. If QE2 merely increases excess reserves further, without a more effective way to boost the supply and demand of actual credit, I don’t think the Monetary Ease –> More NGDP equation is so clear. A further complication: Large companies and the federal government find credit at historically low rates abundant and accessible. But this begs the second problem with the simple Ease –> NGDP equation.

In a world of closed economies, Sumner’s view that U.S. QE would directly translate into more U.S. AD (or his preferred national income) might work, at least temporarily. But we don’t live in a closed economy. Or as Robert Mundell long ago said, “There is only one closed economy — the world economy.” Companies, hedge funds, and other global entities can borrow cheap dollars and then go find opportunities across the globe.

An example is this Nov. 17 Bloomberg story: “Bernanke’s ‘Cheap Money’ Stimulus Spurs Corporate Investment Outside U.S.”

Southern Copper Corp., a Phoenix- based mining company that boasts some of the industry’s largest copper reserves, plans to invest $800 million this year in projects such as a new smelter and a more efficient natural-gas furnace.

Such spending sounds like just what the Federal Reserve had in mind in 2008 when it cut interest rates to near zero and started buying $1.7 trillion in securities to spur job growth. Yet Southern Copper, which raised $1.5 billion in an April debt offering, will use that money at its mines in Mexico and Peru, not the U.S., said Juan Rebolledo, spokesman for parent Grupo Mexico SAB de CV of Mexico City.

Southern Copper’s plans illustrate why the Fed’s second round of bond buying may not reduce unemployment, which has stalled near a 26-year high.

Or as Richard Fisher, CEO of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, said in an October 19 speech:

I have begun to wonder if the monetary accommodation we have already engineered might even be working in the wrong places.

I’m all for companies investing in the best opportunities around the globe. And some of that investment may benefit the companies’ American assets or workforce in direct or indirect ways over time. But that kind of long-term symbiotic growth is not what the Fed is aiming for or says it’s doing with QE2. When the Fed specifically targets the short-term U.S. economy and ends up pushing money overseas, that’s a direct failure of the mission. I believe the Fed should concentrate more on the dollar’s value as the world’s key reserve currency. But here we have a case of arbitrage — getting weak dollars the heck out of the country. We can see that much of ROW is growing faster than the U.S.

Beyond these transmission and international factors, it’s clear that Fed policy — now that we are beyond the panic of 2008-09 when Bernanke and Co. rightly filled an emergency monetary hole — is fueling the growth of government and giving Washington an excuse to continue with counterproductive anti-growth fiscal and regulatory policies.

Sumner tries to addresses this criticism:

7.  “Won’t monetary stimulus just paper over the failures of the Obama administration, allowing him to get re-elected?”

That’s an argument unworthy of principled conservatives.  After 30 years of major neoliberal reforms all over the world (even in Sweden!) it’s time for conservatives to become less defeatist about the possibility of making positive improvements in governance.  We need to do the right thing, and let the political chips fall where they may.  If monetary stimulus is tried, and succeeds in boosting NGDP (which even conservatives implicitly acknowledge can happen when they worry about inflation) then it would drive a stake through the heart of the Krugmanite fiscal stimulus argument (for future recessions.)

I think Sumner misses the point. Fed critics should of course root for the success of Bernanke and our other economic policymakers. But it’s not the case that QE2 is objectively the “right thing” and all critics are opposing it for political reasons. If critics think it is the wrong monetary policy — with the additional ominous factor that it is aiding and abetting (“papering over”) a harmful fiscal and regulatory path — then they are not required to bite their lips and “let the political chips fall where they may” as the economy continues to limp along. If mere monetary policy could solve all the world’s problems, then Mao’s China could have succeeded so long as Beijing printed enough money. That’s a severe reference, an exaggeration to make a point. But Bernanke himself has stated that the Fed cannot do everything, and it’s crystal clear historically that central banks often cause more problems than they cure, often when they are trying to compensate for other poisonous policies.

Despite the sluggish economy and these disagreements, I’m encouraged we are finally having a real, national (international!) debate over monetary policy — one I’ve urged for a long time. And I look forward to further offerings from Sumner . . . and many others.

Huge $1.45 billion, a new low

After the EC antitrust authority today leveled a €1.06 billion fine against Intel, the company’s general counsel Bruce Sewell gave an illuminating interview to CNBC:

We better come up with a better way to restrict the EC’s range of motion on these matters. Sewell called the action “arbitrary.” The CNBC reporters called it a “shakedown.” They’re both right.

Meanwhile, EC competition commissioner Neelie Kroes added insult to injury when she blithely noted that Intel is now supporting European taxpayers.

A huge array of experts in the legal and economic fields quickly denounced the EU “fine,” (Can you really call $1.45 billion a fine?), and raised very serious questions about arbitrary antitrust becoming the chief protectionist tool of the 21st century.

Scholar Ronald Cass said the EC Competition Directorate acted as

prosecutor, investigator, and judge.

Grant Aldonas of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said,

Given the implications for R&D that drives Intel’s investment in both Europe and the United States, it makes little sense to divert these funds to the European Union’s coffers instead.

And as we attempt to emerge from a brutal economic crisis, where unemployment continues to rise, my former colleague Ken Ferree made the crucial macro point:

If you love jobs and economic growth, you have to love the companies that drive the economy and create employment demand.

The global economy cannot function if large nations or regions, like the EU, the U.S., or China, engage in over-the-top punitive actions against any company, let alone one of the most inventive firms of our time. Without engaging in the type of tit-for-tat protectionism that leads to destructive trade wars, we need to find a way to roll back what I called in a recent Wall Street Journal article “Europe’s anti-innovation ‘antitrust’ policy.” Moreover, we should resist letting the EC’s casual intrusiveness seep into our own antitrust jurisprudence, which has for the most part fortunately been more tightly focused on the question of consumer harm. As this excellent article notes, there is some reason to worry we might be sliding in the wrong direction.

Resisting these impulses will promote the global cooperation we need to rebound from the crisis. It will be better for innovative companies. Better for consumers of innovative, life changing products. And . . . better for the citizens, consumers, and entrepreneurs of that too-long underperforming land we call Europe.

Patriotic multinationals

Matthew Slaughter of Dartmouth’s Tuck business school with another good paper showing why global engagement is hugely important to American productivity and wealth.

Dollar Standard Crucial

Stanford’s Ronald McKinnon, who I cited in my recent Wall Street Journal article on China, echoes my view:

Indeed, as the world goes into a severe economic downturn, the threat of beggar-thy-neighbor devaluations becomes acute — as in the 1930s. Stabilizing the exchange rate between the world’s two largest trading countries could be a useful fixed point for checking the devaluationist proclivities of other nations around the world.

Globalization & Monetary Policy

The Dallas Fed announces a conference on the topic I’ve been writing about lately — namely, the intersection of globalization, capital flows, asset prices, China, and monetary policy.

“Alexander Hamilton was right”

Steve Forbes with a resounding call for stable, low-entropy money.

Greenspan truly began to think he was a monetary philosopher king who could fine-tune economic activity by manipulating short-term interest rates. Greenspan’s Louis XIV “I am the state” proclivities were intensified when he fell under the sway of a strange theory of Ben Bernanke’s. Bernanke joined the Fed as a governor in 2002 and posited that the world was plagued by “excess” savings. China, India and other countries were saving too much money. Preposterous! In a properly functioning global financial system there can be no excess savings. The whole purpose of finance is to direct savings from one party to be invested with another party. The enormous amounts of liquidity that led to the housing and commodities bubbles of recent years cannot be blamed on thrifty Chinese but on the excess money creation of Greenspan and Bernanke. If their central goal had been a steady value for the buck, those bubbles would never have reached the sizes they did, and volatility in the financial markets would have been only a fraction of what it is today.

Here’s Forbes making the point from Davos.

The Real China Story

The New York Times, in its series on the origins of the financial crisis it calls “The Reckoning,” pins our housing and credit bubbles on Chinese savings and the U.S.-China trade gap. This is basically the view of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. We were helpless. Monetary policy had become ineffective. The New York Times also says the U.S. failed to react to the China-U.S. “imbalances” soon enough, that we took a “passive” approach. 

In fact, most of this is backward. We did not under-react to China. We overreacted. The U.S. weak-dollar policy — a combination of historically low Fed interest rates and a Treasury calling for a cheaper currency — was a direct and violent reaction to the trade gap. A series of Treasury secretaries and top U.S. economists, from John Snow and Hank Paulson to John Taylor and Martin Feldstein, explicitly backed this policy as a way to “correct” these “imbalances.” This weak-dollar policy was designed to reduce the trade gap but in fact boosted it by pushing oil and other commodity prices through the roof. It also created and pushed excess dollars into other hard assets like real estate, resulting in the housing boom and then bust.

America’s overreaction to China’s rise in particular and our misunderstanding of global trade and finance in general was thus, I believe, the chief source of our current predicament. The Fed and Treasury failed to grasp the truly global nature of the economy and the centrality of the dollar around the world. I tell the story of Chinese-U.S. interaction in this long paper, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation in China: 1978-2008.”

“Not just worse…a lot worse”

That, it seems, is the economic prognosis of the Obama financial team, looking ahead at a total global “demand collapse” and the total failure of fragile states like Pakistan.

the sense I get from them is that they are very worried that the economy will get a lot worse before it gets better. Not just worse… a lot worse. As in — double digit unemployment without the wiggle factors. Huge declines in aggregate demand. Significant, persistent deficits. That’s one reason why the Obama administration seems to be open to listening to every economist with an idea and is stocking the staff with the leading lights of the field. . . .

Where the discussion isn’t going, at least in public,  (or the PR level), is the possibility that the first foreign policy crisis the administration will face will be the complete economic collapse of a large, unstable nation. To be sure, Pakistan is nearly broke, and U.S. policy makers seem to be aware of that; but a worldwide demand crisis could lead to social unrest in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore, the Ukraine, Japan, Turkey or Egypt (which is facing an internal political crisis of epic proportions already). The U.S. won’t have the resources to, say, engineer the rescue of the peso again, or intervene in Asia as in 1997. 

Team Obama may believe this. And they may be right. But it probably doesn’t hurt their cause to make people think they believe this. If things do get much worse, they can say they anticipated it. If things improve, they can take credit for a heroic and historic rescue. (See, “Committee to Save the World.” ca. 1999.)

To a number of smart people, all this seems like too much “depression lust.”

“Techno-Nationalism”: Debating the “where” of innovation

About 10 days ago I gave a presentation to a D.C. business group on “Innovation: The End? Or a New Beginning?” We got into a discussion of high-end immigration and were in general agreement that we should grant easy green cards to all STEM PhDs educated in the U.S., among other enticements to smart immigrants. One commenter then suggested this was a kind of a zero-sum race between the U.S., China, and India for the world’s human capital.

I replied, however, that the technological, economic, and political advance of China and India is a good thing. Innovation anywhere in the world benefits us, too, if we are open to the global economy. For hundreds of years, North America attracted much or most of the world’s financial and human capital because (1) though imperfect, we were an attractive realm of freedom and (2) much of the rest of the world was so inhospitable to innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and was generally politically intolerant. This massive tilt in our direction is now over. Other parts of the world present more opportunities for entrepreneurship and education, and we’re not going to get all the smart people, no matter how open our immigration laws. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get the smartest people. Just that there’s going to be lots of innovation and new enterprise in new non-U.S. places, and that overall that’s a good thing.

So I was intrigued when an Economist article on this very topic hit my radar yesterday. Turns out Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School has written a whole book on the subject: The Venturesome Economy.

So does the relative decline of America as a technology powerhouse really amount to a threat to its prosperity? Nonsense, insists Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School. In “The Venturesome Economy”, a provocative new book, he explains why he thinks this gloomy thesis misunderstands innovation in several fundamental ways.

First, he argues that the obsession with the number of doctorates and technical graduates is misplaced because the “high-level” inventions and ideas such boffins come up with travel easily across national borders. Even if China spends a fortune to train more scientists, it cannot prevent America from capitalising on their inventions with better business models.

That points to his next insight, that the commercialisation, diffusion and use of inventions is of more value to companies and societies than the initial bright spark. America’s sophisticated marketing, distribution, sales and customer-service systems have long given it a decisive advantage over rivals, such as Japan in the 1980s, that began to catch up with its technological prowess. For America to retain this sort of edge, then, what the country needs is better MBAs, not more PhDs.

A lot to agree with. The addition of China and India to the world economy, with new minds and new centers of research and innovation, make it more likely that new general purpose technologies like the integrated circuit or laser will be invented — maybe the next one will be in the field of biotech or energy, who knows. It will be good for humanity, at least for those open to these inventions and, yes, the commercializers. But how does clustering — like Silicon Valley, where a whole ecosystem of talent, firms, and infrastructure spiral virtuously upward — come into play? Does clustering mean as much as it used to in the age of instant global broadband communication? If technology and the corresponding innovations rapidly diffuse everywhere — and they do — it’s largely a matter of who earns the profits. Who sets the standards. And which governmental jurisdictions get to tax the innovations and entrepreneurs. In nationalist terms, where military and political power derive from economic power, it is largely a competition for tax revenues.

But I think Bhidé, at least in this article (I’ve yet to read the book), still underplays the importance of PhDs or their equivalents who not only make the once-in-a-generation breakthroughs but also do help manufacture and commercialize these inventions. And Bhidé probably overplays the the importance of MBAs, who he says are key to our “consumer” culture. Consumers don’t drive the economy. Entrepreneurs do. Yes, MBAs are good at cleaving consumers from their wallets. But consumption is a function of growth and growth expectations, which depend on entrepreneurial confidence. Supply creates its own demand.

If we had a perfectly globalized, flat, frictionless world — a world of “maximum entropy” — it’s true, the “where” of innovation wouldn’t matter much. And we should basically be shooting for that type of world. After all, I named my blog after it. But until we get there, the “where” of innovation probably matters more than Bhidé would like.

In this game, it’s the farsighted innovators and consumers, who want free trade and tax competition, against the all-too-often shortsighted politicians, who seek the short-term advantage of protectionism, tax gouges (which can only be achieved through tax harmonization cartels), and “energy independence” campaigns. It takes real wisdom to understand that China’s or India’s gain is also our own.