Opinion

Edward Hadas

Get used to zombie economics

Edward Hadas
Jul 10, 2013 12:15 UTC

Zombies are neither really alive nor fully dead. Moviegoers know that, but the idea is also useful in demographics and economics. Although economic zombification receives little attention, its effects could be as important as monetary policy, fiscal deficits and structural reforms.

The demographic trends are well known. For the past three or four decades in most developed economies, the number of children born has been too low, often by a wide margin, to keep the population constant. Japan is the leader in this decline. Indeed, the zombification of the Japanese population could well be the most dramatic such shift in history, at least during a period of peace, prosperity and good health.

Of course, Tokyo and Osaka are not actually filled with walking, flesh-eating corpses. But as in a horror film, the nation’s life-force is waning. Over the last decade, the number of Japanese people aged between 20 and 25 years old has declined by 22 percent. Since there is almost no immigration, the demographic future is easy to predict: another 22 percent drop over the next 20 years.

By comparison, the euro zone decline looks modest: a 5 percent fall in the size of the 20 to 25 age group in the past decade. Some parts of Europe have relatively high birth rates, and immigration keeps the numbers up. Still, the region overall can look forward to almost certain demographic decay.

The United States has resisted the zombie curse. The number of 20 to 25 year olds is 12 percent higher now than a decade ago. A dip is likely in the next few years, thanks to the lingering effect of the sharp decline in family size after the post-World War Two baby boom. But thereafter, the native-born young population should stay almost stable. With immigration, it will probably keep rising, although more slowly than in the past.

China’s wisdom on GDP growth

Edward Hadas
Jul 3, 2013 12:10 UTC

“We should no longer evaluate the performance of leaders simply by GDP growth. Instead, we should look at welfare improvement, social development and environmental indicators.” That is a fine piece of wisdom from Xi Jinping, China’s president. Leaders of developed economies can learn from it.

Xi was speaking to a domestic audience about the choice of leaders within the ruling Communist Party. The desire for people who are “devoted fighters for the socialism with Chinese characteristics” is distinctly local, but Xi identified a fact which transcends all Chinese characteristics: GDP is a poor measure of economic progress.

Actually, for China, GDP is modestly helpful. In a country still so poor, increases in output correlate well with genuine economic improvements: factories and farms producing more and better goods, enterprises offering more and better services, and so on. Still, Xi is right that China is ready to outgrow this crude indicator. The idea is all the more relevant in richer economies, where GDP growth is a terrible measure of economic progress.

Bond markets and failed theory

Edward Hadas
Jun 5, 2013 14:00 UTC

In theory, interest rates are one of the jewels of capitalist economies. The theory has been well tested over the past half-century, and it has failed. Interest rates have become a mark of shame. The recent increase in yields on government bonds in much of the world – by a quarter, from 1.65 percent to 2.1 percent since the beginning of May for 10-year U.S. government bonds – is only the latest chapter in a long and depressing story.

The theory starts well, with a plausible behavioural generalisation. A lower interest rate encourages less saving and more consumption today, while a higher rate encourages saving now and boosts consumption in the future. But the theoreticians are not content with that; they want mathematical precision. They get it by adding some extraordinarily unlikely assumptions about knowledge, uncertainty, defaults, growth, and inflation.

The result is almost magical: a single “natural” interest rate which serves as a sort of economic fulcrum. At this ideal rate, saving and consumption are supposed to be balanced correctly, and the financial system is perfectly aligned with the real economy of making and selling.

The dangerous aristocrats of finance

Edward Hadas
May 29, 2013 14:21 UTC

In many ways, the financial world has changed remarkably little in the five years since the 2008 financial crisis. Yes, banks, brokers and other intermediaries are neither as profitable nor as popular as in the pre-crisis years. However, the industry is still arrogant, isolated and ridiculously lucrative. Leading financiers look more like pre-revolutionary aristocrats than normal businessmen.

Pay is the most obvious sign of this privileged social position. Consider JPMorgan, a fairly typical financial firm in terms of remuneration. Last year, the annual compensation per employee was $192,000.

That already seems high, but the measure includes the majority of employees whose pay is bunched around the $45,000 average for non-supervisory U.S. workers in finance. Assume that two-thirds of Morgan’s employees were in that group. For the rest, the people at the top and upper middle of the company, that leaves an average pretax reward of $485,000 – more than 10 times the norm of the lower orders.

Keynes, fertility, and growth

Edward Hadas
May 15, 2013 13:43 UTC

“Keynes was a homosexual and had no intention of having children. We are NOT dead in the long run … our children are our progeny.” This tirade came from Niall Ferguson, the financial historian, Harvard professor and pundit, speaking in the third capacity at an investor conference two weeks ago. Though largely misguided, part of that comment is interesting. The idea that fertility has something to do with economics is due for a revival.

The sexual slur, for which Ferguson apologised, is tedious, as is the wilful misunderstanding of John Maynard Keynes’s quip: “in the long run we are all dead”. That was a complaint about the glib willingness of rival economists to endorse temporary suffering, which Keynes thought was largely unnecessary, for the sake of some distant good, which he thought was far from certain to arrive.

But Ferguson’s comment assumes, correctly, that our economic activity cannot be separated from an almost biological desire to create a good society which will endure into the future. In other words, there is a valid analogy between our biological drives to survive and reproduce and the economic desires to satisfy our needs and to thrive, now and in the future. Economists have captured the close ties of biology and society with two different images: growth and fertility.

Rana Plaza and union labels

Edward Hadas
May 8, 2013 14:34 UTC

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a turning point in the history of American labour relations. It led directly to a slew of new laws on safety and labour practices in New York State, and indirectly to a less exploitative approach to industrial labourers throughout the country. Last month’s Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where the collapse of a clothing factory killed more than 700 people, demonstrates that the lessons need to be learned again, this time on a global scale.

It is not a coincidence that both these accidents involved the garment trade. This is an industry of mostly small, poorly capitalised companies, which jostle against each other in a long and rapidly shifting supply chain. Retailers shop around aggressively, suppliers sub-contract freely and the price pressure is relentless. No one takes responsibility, and it can seem like almost everyone involved is irresponsible.

It does not need to be like this. In the first few decades after Triangle, the common good increasingly prevailed in the clothing trade in the United States, and eventually in other rich countries. Trade unions protected workers, customers learned to pay enough for their clothes to support fair wages, and price competition was muted.

In favour of much less trading

Edward Hadas
May 1, 2013 13:40 UTC

It was front page news in the Wall Street Journal. For three long hours last week, there was no trading on the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the home of S&P 500 stock index options and the Vix volatility index. The Journal quoted a trader: “It was very, very unnerving”. Risks went unhedged. Experts worried about the effect of a more grievous software fault on an even more important exchange. What would happen then?

Almost nothing. Imagine a worst case scenario: a hacker closes down all the exchanges for a full month. All portfolios of stocks, bonds, options, futures, currencies and commodities are exactly the same on June 1 as on May 1.

What would the outage change? The prices at the end of the “exchange holiday” would presumably be about the same as they would have been otherwise. The lost income of brokers and traders with superior insight or information would be matched by the foregone losses of their counterparties. As for the economy, a few new issues of bonds and shares would have been delayed a few weeks, but the losses would be more than matched by gains: the absence of frenetic trading would remove a significant distraction for business people.

Debt debate in need of upgrade

Edward Hadas
Apr 24, 2013 14:31 UTC

In retrospect, last week’s debunking of one of the key conclusions of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart about government debt looks inevitable. The whole story, from the initial lavish praise for the Harvard professors to the current harsh criticism, is a sad reminder of the power of ideology in the angry debate over economic policy.

In 2011, the two eminent professors claimed to show a tipping point for government borrowing. If the debt amounted to more than 90 percent of GDP, the GDP growth rate was typically much slower than in more fiscally prudent countries. When Thomas Herndon, a mere graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, redid the maths this year, he also found a correlation between higher government debt and slower growth. But there was nothing remotely like a tipping point.

The new paper was a blow to the politicians who relied on the Rogoff-Reinhart 90 percent line to support fiscal “austerity” (smaller government budget deficits). But they were always foolish to trust a study which drew a universal conclusion from a small sample of countries in vastly different situations.

In favour of the living wage

Edward Hadas
Apr 10, 2013 12:05 UTC

In the United States and some other developed economies, wages for the least well paid are too low. A mandatory living wage is the best way to redress this injustice.

The idea of minimum wages is well accepted, but the American $7.25 an hour does not meet the simple standard of providing enough to support the worker who earns it. For an adult in New York State, self-support requires 55 percent more, $11.25 an hour in a full-time job, according to The MIT Living Wage Calculator. And a just minimum should really be enough to raise a family – something closer to the $23.58 an hour required to support a single wage-earner with one child.

The minimum wage is one part of the remarkably complex pay system found in all developed industrial societies. Economists often suggest that wages are determined by market forces, the supply and demand for labour, and by employers’ calculations of the value of labour. But actual wages influence both the market and the perceived value of labour. It is more accurate to include market forces and economic value somewhere in the middle of the long list of factors which contribute to the ever-shifting social agreement on pay levels. This agreement is established in the mysterious way that all social orders are built – the powerful push, the weak resist, traditions are followed and evolve, justice is respected and flouted, market forces and economic calculations nudge.

Obesity and the unhealthy economy

Edward Hadas
Mar 13, 2013 15:11 UTC

Obesity is a matter of free choice – no one forces people to get fat – but few people are happy with the result. In the last few decades, the freedom to eat has too often turned into slavery to the immoderate desire for more.

In the United States, the world leader in obesity, the trend toward higher body weights began more than a century ago. Researchers John Komlos and Marek Brabec show that the average body mass, weight adjusted for height, has moved upward fairly steadily – from too low for optimal health right through optimal to the current too high level. Most visibly, and alarmingly, the gap between the heaviest 30 percent and the rest has widened significantly in the last few decades. There is no end in sight.

The problem of obesity is an adverse side effect of one of the greatest economic liberations ever, the freedom from want of food. Until shortly before 1900, food shortages were nearly always and everywhere a lively possibility, and all too often a grim reality. Now, although inadequate nutrition still blights the lives of more than a billion people in the world, residents of developed economies enjoy food in excess.

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