Opinion

Edward Hadas

Central bankers’ reward for failure

Edward Hadas
Aug 28, 2014 09:12 UTC

Economic systems that work well do not have many heroes. The elevated status of the world’s central bankers – seen in the close attention paid to their annual get-together last weekend in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – is a sign that the financial system works badly.

Most of the modern economy flourishes without much help from professional economists. That would have pleased John Maynard Keynes. The British economist thought his peers should be like dentists – “humble, competent people” who could deal effectively with specialised problems. Such technicians do in fact take care of the production and distribution of goods and services, the allocation of incomes, the protection of the environment and even the development of new products.

These practical, almost anonymous experts have been a huge success. The prosperity of developed economies is fantastic by any historic standard, and many goods and services are available to rich and poor alike. The system deals fairly easily with innovations, changes in taste, natural disasters, military action and pretty much every sort of disruption – except severe financial problems.

Of course, economic problems remain. In rich countries, the biggest by far is a shortage of good jobs. The recent positive German experience of falling unemployment suggests that the main solution is, as Keynes would have hoped, detailed and bureaucratic. The main tricks have been refinements in the terms and conditions of employment contracts and in the details of the tax and unemployment systems. In other countries, different adjustments are needed, perhaps more equal wages. But what is required is detailed work by economist-dentists.

For all that, most professional economists are still not much like dentists. They generally work with grand theories about such abstract concepts as equilibrium interest rates and economic cycles. They rely on idealised concepts like “the firm,” risk premiums and gross domestic product. Their simplifying equations are impressive, but not very useful.

Time to retire unemployment

Edward Hadas
Aug 20, 2014 09:25 UTC

Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Give Janet Yellen credit. The chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve is keen to use monetary policy to help get more people into good jobs. Her priority – work is more important than finance – is reflected in the subject of this week’s get-together for the world’s central bankers: “Re-Evaluating Labor Market Dynamics.” One item should be on the agenda of the distinguished guests at Jackson Hole, Wyoming: how to replace the concept of unemployment.

The suggestion may sound frivolous, but the idea of a simple measure of unemployment is tied to a wrong view of how modern economies work. The unemployment rate made sense in developed economies a century ago, when workers were men who wanted full-time jobs as soon as they finished school, and to continue until they died or retired. In that world, unemployment was easy to define – working-age men without a job.

Small is beautiful in finance

Edward Hadas
Nov 6, 2013 16:14 UTC

Some economic activity makes the world better, some is a cost of making the world better, and some actually makes the world worse. Where does the business of finance – lending, borrowing and securities trading – fit in? Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, recently said: “a vibrant financial sector brings substantial benefits.” The implication is that more finance is a good thing, as long as it is safe. That is simply wrong.

True, empirical studies show that financial activity increases along with incomes in poor countries. But this correlation has little bearing on developed economies with mature financial systems. In these countries, additional financial activity unquestionably adds to GDP, but the same can be said for the substitution of expensive medical care for cheap preventative action. The question is whether additional finance promotes overall economic good.

It can do so, but not directly. Finance is a cost. It is a means not an end, an input not an output. People and companies should engage in financial activity only to help them do other things – most notably to preserve or increase wealth, to coordinate expenditure with incomes and to help organise real investments, production and distribution.

Has quantitative easing worked?

Edward Hadas
Sep 4, 2013 15:05 UTC

It is nearly five years since the U.S. Federal Reserve slid into quantitative easing, the deployment of artificially created money into the bond market. QE and a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates have been the highlights of post-crisis monetary policy. That era is far from over, but it has lasted long enough for a preliminary judgment of monetary policy – especially as the Fed says it is now preparing to “taper” its bond purchases. My verdict: QE could have been worse, and it should have been better.

We know that policymakers might have done a worse job, because that is what they did in 1929, the last time a cross-border credit boom ended in a cross-border credit bust. Today’s central bankers have done better than their professional ancestors. In the 1930s, central bankers in many countries presided over debilitating deflation, and failed to prevent banking crises. This time, prices have neither collapsed nor exploded, and Lehman Brothers was the only big financial institution to topple.

While monetary policy helped stabilise economic and financial conditions, government bank rescues, large fiscal deficits and the automatic benefits of welfare states all played more important roles. The central banks’ support of weak institutions, and, in the euro zone, of weak governments was more important than their monetary policy.

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