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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ten New Year Questions For Paul Krugman

I have an interview with Paul Krugman in today's edition of La Vanguardia (in Spanish). Below I reproduce the English original. As will be evident, there are many topics about which Paul and I are far from being in complete agreement. But on one topic we are in complete harmony: the diffficult situation which now faces Spain, the need for internal devaluation, and the threat which continuing inaction on the part of Spain's current leaders represents for the future of the entire Eurozone.


Edward Hugh: In your NYT article "How Did Economists Get It All So Wrong", you state what I imagine for many is the obvious, that few economists saw our current crisis coming. The Spanish economist Luis Garicano even made himself famous for a day because he was asked by the Queen of England the very question I would now like to put to you: could you briefly explain to a Spanish public why you think this was?

Paul Krugman: I think that what happened was a combination of two things. First, the academic side of economics fell too much in love with beautiful mathematical models, which created a bias toward assuming perfect markets. (Perfect markets lead to nice math; imperfect markets are a lot messier). Second, the same forces that lead to financial bubbles – prolonged good news tends to silence the skeptics – also applied to economists. Those who rationalized the way things were going gained credibility until the day things fell apart.


E.H. : The late Sir Karl Popper used to contrast what he regarded as science with ideologies like Marxism and Psychoanalysis, because there seemed to be no way whatever of consenually agreeing with their practitioners a series of simple tests which would enable their theories to be falsified. Some critics of neoclassical economics - including Popper's heir Imre Lakatos - have expressed similar frustrations. Do you think we economists are, as a profession, up to the challenge of formulating testable hypotheses in such a way that the public at large might come to have more confidence in what we are up to, or are we a lost cause?

P.K.: I really don’t think that’s a helpful way to pose this question. Economics is about modeling complex systems, and as such the models are always less than fully accurate. What economists do need, however, is some demonstrated ability to get big things right. They had that after the Great Depression, when Keynesian economics clearly made sense of both the depression and the wartime recovery. But now the profession needs to get back on track.


E.H.: Comparing the types and levels of indebtedness in the United States as between 1929 and 2007 one factor immediately stands out, the importance in modern times of the financial sector. You have repeatedly drawn attention to this phenomenon, and to how the unbridled growth of the institutions associated with it inevitably sowed the seeds of the problem which eventually came. Is there a road back? Can we reduce the strategic importance of this sector in developed economies and still generate meaningful economic growth?

P.K.: We grew fine for 30 years after World War II with a much smaller financial sector. I think if we tax and regulate the sector, we can replace it with other, more productive uses of resources – everything from manufacturing to health care.


E.H.: Another of the distinguishing characteristics of the global economy over the last decade has been the development of large and sustained imbalances, with the US-China one being only the most publicly visible. Here in Europe we also have strong and notable differences between export driven economies like the German and the Swedish ones and many of those in the South and East which have evolved models based on consumer and corporate indebtedness and import dependence. Do you think we have the policy tools available to address such issues, and if so, where do we start?

P.K.: On the domestic side in advanced countries, financial reform should help reduce debt reliance. As for the developing country capital surpluses, that’s heading for a big confrontation. In the end, either China in particular increases domestic spending, or there will be some kind of at least threatened trade war.


E.H.: One of the standard pieces of economic observation about countries recovering from financial crises is that their recoveries are export driven. This has now almost attained the status of a stylised fact. But as you starkly ask, at a time when the financial crisis is generalised across all developed economies - whether because those who borrowed the money now have difficulty paying back, or those who leant it now struggle to recover the money owed them - to which new planet are we all going to export? Maybe we don't need to look so far afield. Many developing economies badly need cheap and responsible credit lines, and access to state-of-the-art technologies. Do you think there is room for some sort of New Marshall Plan initiative, to generate a win-win dynamic for all of us?

P.K.: Um, no. Not realistically as a political matter. We’ll be lucky if we can get the surplus developing countries to spend on themselves. My guess is that our best hope for recovery lies in environmental investment: taking on climate change could, in terms of the macroeconomic impact, be the functional equivalent of a major new technology.


E.H.: Last December you publicly warned of a burgeoning economic crisis on Europe's outer frontiers. Indeed you even went so far as to state that the center of the present crisis had "moved from the U.S. housing market to the European periphery" - and by periphery here I take it you mean countries like Ireland, Spain, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Baltics. With hindsight, and looking at how Europe sovereign debt, with Greece in the forefront, has suddenly become the "plat du jour" for the financial markets, this seems to have been extraordinarily perceptive. What was it about the situation on Europe's periphery that attracted your attention at such an early stage?

P.K.: Numbers, numbers, numbers. Those huge current account deficits practically screamed “bubble”. In general, it’s been amazing how useful even very rough measures of imbalance have been at predicting crisis, in everything from U.S. housing to Latvia. And that makes it even more amazing how few people recognized the warning signs.


E.H.: One of the most significant recent monetary initiatives - the Euro - is now nearly ten years old. On its fifth birthday Ben Bernanke described it as a "great experiment", do you think this description still fits the case, or is it now possible to start to draw some tentative conclusions?

P.K.: It’s still very much an experiment. We’re only seeing the real downside now, as the eurozone tries to cope with the unwinding of large internal imbalances. Until we see how that goes, the judgment on the euro will remain in doubt.


E.H.: A number of Eurozone economies are currently in some difficulty due to their high general level of indebtedness and a loss of price competitiveness which makes exporting their way out of their problems quite hard. This issue becomes even larger given that these economies no longer have a currency to devalue, In a speech earlier this year in Argentina you said that Spain now had no alternative but to carry out a systematic reduction of prices and wages in order to restore competitiveness. For a Spanish public which is far from convinced that this is the case, could you briefly explain why this is so?

P.K.: Put it this way: for a number of years Spain could pay its way within the eurozone by selling assets, mainly real estate, as the inflow of capital financed a huge housing boom. That allowed Spanish wages to rise relative to those in other European countries. But now the housing boom has gone bust, and the big inflows of money are over. So Spain needs to compete in producing real stuff, such as manufactured goods. And it won’t be able to do that unless it has a major gain in productivity through wage reductions.


E.H.: In the Latvian context the expression "internal devaluation" has been advanced to describe this kind of wage and price correction process. The expression has a very attractive feel about it, but as you recently pointed out in your NYT blog (The Pain In Spain) the changes involved are far from easy to implement, with consequences which are normally none too pleasant for those on the receiving end. Indeed they bear a striking resemblance to what used to be called wage and price deflation in the 1930s. Have we really advanced so little in all these years, or are there now more sophistocated policy instruments available to public authorities to implement such changes in a way that parallels the monetary policy improvements which we have seen in action during the present crisis?

P.K.: I wish I had some clever suggestions. But the essentials of economics change much less than the façade. The truth is that Spain is very much in the same situation as gold-standard countries in the 1930s; in some ways worse, because it lacks the option of using trade policy as a substitute for devaluation. So deflation it must be.


E.H.: Finally, as one decade draws to a close, and another opens, are there any grounds for optimism? You often speak of the return of depression economics, is what we once called the "modern growth era" now decidedly over, or are we simply passing through an interlude, with a new dawn out there waiting for us, somewhere just over the horizon?

P.K.: We will recover eventually. And we have learned some things since the Depression, which was why this hasn’t been nearly as bad. Overall, leadership is better – I’m especially relieved that we have smart, well-intentioned people running my own country, which is a major improvement. So sure, things will improve. But it’s going to be a hard slog.

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