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Free exchange

Our economics correspondents consider the fluctuations in the world economy and the policies intended to produce more booms than busts

Articles by Free exchange

Has BRICS lived up to expectations?

20 days ago

DOES anyone still care about the BRICS? Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa concluded their tenth official summit in Johannesburg on July 26th. The widespread perception is that the group has failed to live up to the hype the acronym helped to generate. But that is only half true.The combined GDP of the original quartet (which did not include South Africa) is actually far bigger in dollar terms than Goldman Sachs envisaged when they first projected BRIC growth in 2003 (after Jim O’Neill, their former head of economic research, coined the acronym two years earlier). China’s rapid expansion has more than made up for tribulations elsewhere. And thanks to the evolution of the BRICs’ exchange rates and prices, their dollar growth has been more impressive than their performance

Read More »

Religious competition was to blame for Europe’s witch hunts

20 days ago

IN EUROPE, a belief in witchcraft is widely associated with medieval superstition. But this is not quite accurate. Before the 15th century popes denied the existence of witchcraft and forbade the prosecution of anyone accused of practising it. It was only after 1500 that churches reversed their position. Over the following three centuries 80,000 people were tried for witchcraft, half of whom were executed, mostly by hanging or burning. But in the 18th century the practice of putting people on trial for witchcraft died out. The Economist’s first issue in 1843 (published 175 years ago this month) hoped that support for tariffs would go the way of belief in witches: to extinction.In recent decades economists have tussled over why this happened. In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a

Read More »

Why scan-reading artificial intelligence is bad news for radiologists

20 days ago

THE better artificial intelligence gets, the greater the popular concern that smart machines will soon usher in a labour-market catastrophe. In Chandler, Arizona, Americans can at this moment hail a ride from a car without a human at the wheel. Web users can read high-quality, instant translations of foreign-language newspapers—no professional translation service needed. And developers of machine-learning technologies are moving rapidly to apply their tools across a vast array of medical tasks.Despite this, economists, with rare exceptions, are relatively sanguine about the possible labour-market effects of AI. Technological change always raises fears of mass unemployment, after all, and yet there are more people working worldwide than ever. Count me among those who reckon this approach is

Read More »

Republicans grouse about tax models they once supported

20 days ago

THEY have been at this a long time. In 1994 Republicans, newly in charge of Congress, held hearings on what would come to be called “dynamic scoring”. Bills, they said, should be evaluated using the predictive power of macroeconomic models. If the model predicts more GDP growth, then it could be inferred that the growth would produce more tax revenue. During the hearings, however, came an awkward moment. Alan Greenspan, then in charge of the Federal Reserve, told Congress that macroeconomic models were “deficient”. That is, their predictive power, though interesting, was not good enough to rely on. Last year, after the election of Donald Trump, your blogger contacted Mr Greenspan to see whether the models were good enough yet. Mr Greenspan, his office responded, had not yet changed his

Read More »

The Nobel in economics rewards a pioneer of “nudges”

20 days ago

NOT long ago, the starting assumption of any economic theory was that humans are rational actors who maximise their utility. Economists summarily dismissed anyone insisting otherwise. But over the past few decades, behavioural economists like Richard Thaler have progressively chipped away at this notion. They combine economics with insights from psychology to show how heavily economic decisions are influenced by cognitive biases. On October 9th Mr Thaler’s work was recognised at the highest level when the Nobel Committee awarded him this year’s prize in economics. Mr Thaler thus becomes one of very few behavioural economists to win the prize.Mr Thaler’s has been a prolific career, spanning over four decades, the last two of them at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. His

Read More »

Europe inches closer to a plan for fixing its financial flaws

20 days ago

DONALD TRUMP and Theresa May may have done more to push Europeans together, and open up an opportunity for reform of its institutions, than any pro-European American president or British prime minister could ever have dreamt. The Commission’s “Reflection paper on the deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union”, issued on May 31st, points the way towards a package deal that could be acceptable to Northern and Southern euro area countries. But some key elements are still missing.Encouragingly, the Commission sets out a tight calendar for completing the banking union, with the creation of a common deposit insurance scheme and a common backstop for the European Resolution fund intended to be in place by 2019. These two elements are crucial if we are to stop the banks posing an existential

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Donald Trump’s budget ignores what is ailing American workers

20 days ago

PRESIDENTIAL budget requests are worth exactly nothing. They carry no force of legislation. They land, heavy, bound and shrink-wrapped, so they can be immediately binned as Congress continues its now yearly stumble toward a “continuing resolution”—a supposedly temporary legislative act that in recent decades has almost entirely replaced the statutory budget process. The request from the President is the least consequential part of something that is completely broken. It functions like a bumper sticker on an old car. It only tells you about the person who’s driving. Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina who won his seat in the Tea-Party wave of 2010, runs Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. Mr Mulvaney has created the budget his wing of the Republican party

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How to interpret a market plunge

20 days ago

FOR much of the past two years, market watchers have had little to write about, apart from the passing of one stock-index milestone after another. The events of the past week, however, have shaken the financial world awake. A recent, upward zag in bond yields seemed to signal the arrival of a new theme in market movements. Stock prices confirmed it, and then some. Over the past week, American stocks have dropped about 7%, punctuated by a breathtaking, record-setting plunge on Monday. The Dow Jones stock index recorded its largest ever one-day drop, of more than 1,000 points. In percentage terms the decline, of more than 4%, was the biggest since 2011.The swoon set tongues to wagging, about its cause and likely effect. There can be no knowing about the former. Markets may have worried that

Read More »

Richard Thaler’s work demonstrates why economics is hard

20 days ago

RICHARD THALER has won the Nobel prize in economic sciences this year for his contributions to behavioural economics. It’s a well-deserved prize and a clarifying one, as far as economics is concerned. For a very long time, economists hoped to treat individuals a bit like particles in physics, whose activity can be described by a few well-understood rules, which allow researchers to model and understand complex interactions between particles. The rules, they reckoned, were things like perfect information, forward-looking reasoning and rationality. Of course economists understood that individuals didn’t always behave according to those rules, but the idea was that, in aggregate, the rules would allow for a pretty good approximation of reality.Then came the behavioural economists, who made it

Read More »

The case against shrinking the Fed’s balance-sheet

20 days ago

AS EXPECTED, the Federal Reserve announced on September 20th that it will soon begin reversing the asset purchases it made during and after the financial crisis. From October, America’s central bank will stop reinvesting all of the money it receives when its assets start to mature. As a result, its $4.5trn balance-sheet will gradually shrink. However, the Fed did not give any clues as to what the endpoint for the balance-sheet should be. This is an important question. There are strong arguments for keeping the balance-sheet large. In fact, it might be better were the Fed not shedding any assets at all. Most commentators view a large balance-sheet, which is the result of quantitative easing (QE), as an extraordinary economic stimulus. Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chair, seems to agree: at a

Read More »

Why the Fed is likely to raise rates, despite low inflation

20 days ago

CREDIBILITY is a thing you have to worry about with toddlers. You cannot reason with them. The best you can hope to do is respond consistently to undesirable behaviour. Get this wrong and your work becomes harder. If your correspondent doesn’t actually go and hide the box of Legos every time he has to count to three, for example, his child will not find his threats to be credible, and will fail to respond to them. Get our daily newsletterUpgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.This is the problem the Federal Reserve has now with financial markets. For six months the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has been carefully managing its speeches, meeting minutes and economic projections to one end: convince debt markets that it will raise the benchmark interest rate

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A new paper rekindles a tiresome debate on immigration and wages

20 days ago

WHAT effect do immigrants have on native wages? It’s perhaps one of the most important questions of labour economics. It’s also one that is largely unanswerable. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to separate cause and effect. If a country with high rates of immigration also sees strong wage growth, we can’t assume that immigrants are boosting wages—it may well be the case that the migrants are choosing to move to places with stronger economies.One approach to getting around this problem is to find a natural experiment in which either the supply of or demand for labour changes exogenously. Perhaps the most famous example of such an event in labour economics is the Mariel Boatlift. In 1980, Fidel Castro, then president of Cuba, eased emmigration restrictions. Some 125,000 Cubans

Read More »

Is there a wage growth puzzle in America?

20 days ago

TODAY’S labour market report showed that the American economy created 156,000 net new jobs in August. That was a bit less than expected, but payrolls are still growing comfortably faster than the working-age population. Despite having created over 2m jobs in the last year, pushing unemployment below 4.5% for the last five months, wage growth remains muted, at around 2.5%, compared to more like 3.5% the last time unemployment was comparably low. In a recent article for the print edition, I analysed one potential explanation for weak wage growth: retirements of high-earnings baby-boomers.Scott Sumner has taken issue with the premise of my piece. He says there is no puzzle at all. Instead, slow wage growth is being caused by slow growth in nominal GDP (cash-terms spending in the economy) —

Read More »

Bitcoin is fiat money, too

20 days ago

FINANCIERS with PhDs like to remind each other to “read your Kindleberger". The rare academic who could speak fluently to bureaucrats and normal people, Charles Kindleberger designed the Marshall Plan and wrote vast economic histories worthy of Tolstoy. “Read your Kindleberger” is just a coded way of saying “don’t forget this has all happened before”. So to anyone invested in, mining or building applications for distributed ledger money such as bitcoin or ethereum: read your Kindleberger.Start with A Financial History of Western Europe, in which Kindleberger documents how many times merchants in different centuries figured out clever ways of doing the exact same thing. They made transactions easier, and in the process created new deposits and bills that increased the supply of money. In

Read More »

The hubris of ten-year budgets

20 days ago

IN February of 2001, Alan Greenspan, then still the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and still called the “Maestro”, testified to the Senate Budget Committee. The committee wanted to get started on the tax cuts George W. Bush had promised during his campaign. Mr Greenspan gave them his qualified blessing, with an argument that now sounds incredible: he was worried that America would pay down its debt too soon. That week the Clinton administration’s Office of Management and Budget had released its final ten-year budget projections. Firms had just completed several years of capital investments in desktop computers, and workers had become more productive. This had increased corporate revenue, and consequently taxes paid to the government. A long bull market in stocks meant that the Treasury

Read More »

Religious competition was to blame for Europe’s witch hunts

25 days ago

IN EUROPE, a belief in witchcraft is widely associated with medieval superstition. But this is not quite accurate. Before the 15th century popes denied the existence of witchcraft and forbade the prosecution of anyone accused of practising it. It was only after 1500 that churches reversed their position. Over the following three centuries 80,000 people were tried for witchcraft, half of whom were executed, mostly by hanging or burning. But in the 18th century the practice of putting people on trial for witchcraft died out. The Economist’s first issue in 1843 (published 175 years ago this month) hoped that support for tariffs would go the way of belief in witches: to extinction.In recent decades economists have tussled over why this happened. In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a

Read More »

Has BRICS lived up to expectations?

July 27, 2018

DOES anyone still care about the BRICS? Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa concluded their tenth official summit in Johannesburg on July 26th. The widespread perception is that the group has failed to live up to the hype the acronym helped to generate. But that is only half true.The combined GDP of the original quartet (which did not include South Africa) is actually far bigger in dollar terms than Goldman Sachs envisaged when they first projected BRIC growth in 2003 (after Jim O’Neill, their former head of economic research, coined the acronym two years earlier). China’s rapid expansion has more than made up for tribulations elsewhere. And thanks to the evolution of the BRICs’ exchange rates and prices, their dollar growth has been more impressive than their performance

Read More »

How to interpret a market plunge

February 6, 2018

FOR much of the past two years, market watchers have had little to write about, apart from the passing of one stock-index milestone after another. The events of the past week, however, have shaken the financial world awake. A recent, upward zag in bond yields seemed to signal the arrival of a new theme in market movements. Stock prices confirmed it, and then some. Over the past week, American stocks have dropped about 7%, punctuated by a breathtaking, record-setting plunge on Monday. The Dow Jones stock index recorded its largest ever one-day drop, of more than 1,000 points. In percentage terms the decline, of more than 4%, was the biggest since 2011.The swoon set tongues to wagging, about its cause and likely effect. There can be no knowing about the former. Markets may have worried that

Read More »

Republicans grouse about tax models they once supported

December 1, 2017

THEY have been at this a long time. In 1994 Republicans, newly in charge of Congress, held hearings on what would come to be called “dynamic scoring”. Bills, they said, should be evaluated using the predictive power of macroeconomic models. If the model predicts more GDP growth, then it could be inferred that the growth would produce more tax revenue. During the hearings, however, came an awkward moment. Alan Greenspan, then in charge of the Federal Reserve, told Congress that macroeconomic models were “deficient”. That is, their predictive power, though interesting, was not good enough to rely on. Last year, after the election of Donald Trump, your blogger contacted Mr Greenspan to see whether the models were good enough yet. Mr Greenspan, his office responded, had not yet changed his

Read More »

Why scan-reading artificial intelligence is bad news for radiologists

November 29, 2017

THE better artificial intelligence gets, the greater the popular concern that smart machines will soon usher in a labour-market catastrophe. In Chandler, Arizona, Americans can at this moment hail a ride from a car without a human at the wheel. Web users can read high-quality, instant translations of foreign-language newspapers—no professional translation service needed. And developers of machine-learning technologies are moving rapidly to apply their tools across a vast array of medical tasks.Despite this, economists, with rare exceptions, are relatively sanguine about the possible labour-market effects of AI. Technological change always raises fears of mass unemployment, after all, and yet there are more people working worldwide than ever. Count me among those who reckon this approach is

Read More »

Richard Thaler’s work demonstrates why economics is hard

October 11, 2017

RICHARD THALER has won the Nobel prize in economic sciences this year for his contributions to behavioural economics. It’s a well-deserved prize and a clarifying one, as far as economics is concerned. For a very long time, economists hoped to treat individuals a bit like particles in physics, whose activity can be described by a few well-understood rules, which allow researchers to model and understand complex interactions between particles. The rules, they reckoned, were things like perfect information, forward-looking reasoning and rationality. Of course economists understood that individuals didn’t always behave according to those rules, but the idea was that, in aggregate, the rules would allow for a pretty good approximation of reality.Then came the behavioural economists, who made it

Read More »

The Nobel in economics rewards a pioneer of “nudges”

October 9, 2017

NOT long ago, the starting assumption of any economic theory was that humans are rational actors who maximise their utility. Economists summarily dismissed anyone insisting otherwise. But over the past few decades, behavioural economists like Richard Thaler have progressively chipped away at this notion. They combine economics with insights from psychology to show how heavily economic decisions are influenced by cognitive biases. On September 9th Mr Thaler’s work was recognised at the highest level when the Nobel Committee awarded him this year’s prize in economics. Mr Thaler thus becomes one of very few behavioural economists to win the prize.Mr Thaler’s has been a prolific career, spanning over four decades, the last two of them at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Read More »

Bitcoin is fiat money, too

September 22, 2017

FINANCIERS with PhDs like to remind each other to “read your Kindleberger". The rare academic who could speak fluently to bureaucrats and normal people, Charles Kindleberger designed the Marshall Plan and wrote vast economic histories worthy of Tolstoy. “Read your Kindleberger” is just a coded way of saying “don’t forget this has all happened before”. So to anyone invested in, mining or building applications for distributed ledger money such as bitcoin or ethereum: read your Kindleberger.Start with A Financial History of Western Europe, in which Kindleberger documents how many times merchants in different centuries figured out clever ways of doing the exact same thing. They made transactions easier, and in the process created new deposits and bills that increased the supply of money. In

Read More »

The case against shrinking the Fed’s balance-sheet

September 20, 2017

AS EXPECTED, the Federal Reserve announced on September 20th that it will soon begin reversing the asset purchases it made during and after the financial crisis. From October, America’s central bank will stop reinvesting all of the money it receives when its assets start to mature. As a result, its $4.5trn balance-sheet will gradually shrink. However, the Fed did not give any clues as to what the endpoint for the balance-sheet should be. This is an important question. There are strong arguments for keeping the balance-sheet large. In fact, it might be better were the Fed not shedding any assets at all. Most commentators view a large balance-sheet, which is the result of quantitative easing (QE), as an extraordinary economic stimulus. Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chair, seems to agree: at a

Read More »

Is there a wage growth puzzle in America?

September 1, 2017

TODAY’S labour market report showed that the American economy created 156,000 net new jobs in August. That was a bit less than expected, but payrolls are still growing comfortably faster than the working-age population. Despite having created over 2m jobs in the last year, pushing unemployment below 4.5% for the last five months, wage growth remains muted, at around 2.5%, compared to more like 3.5% the last time unemployment was comparably low. In a recent article for the print edition, I analysed one potential explanation for weak wage growth: retirements of high-earnings baby-boomers.Scott Sumner has taken issue with the premise of my piece. He says there is no puzzle at all. Instead, slow wage growth is being caused by slow growth in nominal GDP (cash-terms spending in the economy) —

Read More »