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

Articles by Free exchange

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

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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.

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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

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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

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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) —

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The hubris of ten-year budgets

August 4, 2017

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

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Podcast: Goodbye, Benito

July 19, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Brazil’s rigid labour market regulations were transplanted wholesale from Benito Mussolini’s Italy back in 1943. Now President Michel Temer has approved an overhaul. Will it encourage job creation? Also, an exorcist in Paris fighting “bad spirits”. And why President Trump is playing hardball in renegotiating NAFTA.

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Podcast: Vorsprung durch Angst

July 5, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Germany is admired for a stable economy and holding on to blue-collar jobs but derided for its persistent trade surpluses. Our economics editor John O’Sullivan examines what Chancellor Merkel’s government might do next. Also, how “total immersion” could drive the masses to virtual reality.

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Podcast: Vorsprung durch Angst

July 5, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Germany is admired for a stable economy and holding on to blue-collar jobs but derided for its persistent trade surpluses. Our economics editor John O’Sullivan examines what Chancellor Merkel’s government might do next. Also, how “total immersion” could drive the masses to virtual reality.

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Podcast: The Italian bailout job

June 28, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Italy has been forced to bail out two banks at a cost of as much €17bn euros ($19 bn). Is that the end of the bleeding in Italy’s financial sector? Also, as the iPhone turns ten, we look at how Apple is evolving. And Catherine Mann, Chief Economist at the OECD, tells us how to government can help workers made jobless by globalisation.

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Podcast: The Italian bailout job

June 28, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Italy has been forced to bail out two banks at a cost of as much €17bn euros ($19 bn). Is that the end of the bleeding in Italy’s financial sector? Also, as the iPhone turns ten, we look at how Apple is evolving. And Catherine Mann, Chief Economist at the OECD, tells us how to government can help workers made jobless by globalisation.

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Podcast: A poison chalice for GE’s new boss

June 14, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Patrick Foulis asks if a break-up is on the cards as General Electric appoints a new CEO. Also, Uber is on a collision course as it grapples with management problems. Why confidence among European companies is sky high. And tension in global trade in aluminium. Hosted by Philip Coggan.

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A new paper rekindles a tiresome debate on immigration and wages

June 12, 2017

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

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Podcast: Super Mario to the rescue

June 7, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content] As the European Central Bank meets in Estonia this week, is it time for Mario Draghi to withdraw support from the Eurozone economy? Emerging Markets Editor Simon Cox on why the BRICs label is still relevant. And, how investors are taking care of the planet. Simon Long presents

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

June 6, 2017

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. 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 by a quarter of a percentage point at its June meeting. It has succeeded. FedWatch, a tool

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Europe inches closer to a plan for fixing its financial flaws

June 2, 2017

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

May 24, 2017

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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Donald Trump’s budget ignores what is ailing American workers

May 24, 2017

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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Podcast: Trumponomics

May 10, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Simon Long delves into what Donald Trump means for taxes, growth and trade. Also: the markets react to Emmanuel Macron’s election victory in France and China develops its first large passenger jet

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Podcast: Trumponomics

May 10, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Simon Long delves into what Donald Trump means for taxes, growth and trade. Also: the markets react to Emmanuel Macron’s election victory in France and China develops its first large passenger jet

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Europe needs true fiscal integration, not its own IMF

May 9, 2017

THE euro-zone debt crisis exposed a critical need for stronger European financial safety nets and institutions. In March 2010, Thomas Mayer and Daniel Gros, two German economists, made a strong case for the creation of a European Monetary Fund (EMF). In the end, European leaders agreed on a European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) in May 2010. This was later transformed into the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which today works alongside the IMF in Europe’s financial-assistance programmes. The creation of the ESM was a major step in the process of integrating and completing the euro area. It offered a powerful mechanism to backstop sovereign debt markets and deal with sudden stops in capital flows at a time of acute crisis. But over the years, as the more fundamental flaws in the

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Europe needs true fiscal integration, not its own IMF

May 9, 2017

THE euro-zone debt crisis exposed a critical need for stronger European financial safety nets and institutions. In March 2010, Thomas Mayer and Daniel Gros, two German economists, made a strong case for the creation of a European Monetary Fund (EMF). In the end, European leaders agreed on a European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) in May 2010. This was later transformed into the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which today works alongside the IMF in Europe’s financial-assistance programmes. The creation of the ESM was a major step in the process of integrating and completing the euro area. It offered a powerful mechanism to backstop sovereign debt markets and deal with sudden stops in capital flows at a time of acute crisis. But over the years, as the more fundamental flaws in the

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Another pay rise?

May 9, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Callum Williams joins presenter Simon Long to examine the merits of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a £10 minimum wage. The Chinese investors who idolise American billionaire Warren Buffet. Why a gender gap among Economics students could cause problems down the road

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Podcast: Another pay rise?

May 9, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Callum Williams joins presenter Simon Long to examine the merits of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a £10 minimum wage. The Chinese investors who idolise American billionaire Warren Buffet. Why a gender gap among Economics students could cause problems down the road

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America’s economic growth slows to 0.7%

April 28, 2017

THE news that America’s GDP growth slowed to 0.7% on an annualised basis in the first quarter of 2017 is no real surprise, for two reasons. First, although consumer and small business confidence have soared since Donald Trump won the presidential election, most measures of actual economic activity have failed to display the same vim (see article). Second, it is often the case that growth sags in the first quarter of the year, despite recent efforts by statisticians to purge the economic data of seasonality. Since 2010, excluding today’s release, first-quarter GDP growth has averaged just 1.1%, compared with 2.5% at other times in the year. Judged against that benchmark, the latest data are only a little disappointing.The more interesting story is a shift in the composition of growth. Consumers have driven most of the economy’s spending growth since the end of 2015. But consumption has now slowed abruptly (see chart). For that, blame sales of durable goods. Falling motor vehicle sales alone have taken almost half a percentage point off the growth rate. Weak sales of durable goods would usually signal a hesitant consumer. That makes the contrast between what consumers are doing and what they are saying all the more puzzling. Perhaps politics is muddying the waters.

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America’s economic growth slows to 0.7%

April 28, 2017

THE news that America’s GDP growth slowed to 0.7% on an annualised basis in the first quarter of 2017 is no real surprise, for two reasons. First, although consumer and small business confidence have soared since Donald Trump won the presidential election, most measures of actual economic activity have failed to display the same vim (see article). Second, it is often the case that growth sags in the first quarter of the year, despite recent efforts by statisticians to purge the economic data of seasonality. Since 2010, excluding today’s release, first-quarter GDP growth has averaged just 1.1%, compared with 2.5% at other times in the year. Judged against that benchmark, the latest data are only a little disappointing.The more interesting story is a shift in the composition of growth.

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Podcast: How will France’s election affect business?

April 26, 2017

[unable to retrieve full-text content] As the presidential race narrows to two strongly contrasting candidates, we explore what a victory for each would mean for businesses. The digital revolution is making measuring GDP a bit trickier. Also, how a website that crowdsources algorithms for quantitative finance could disrupt the industry

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Reducing rates for “pass-through” businesses will be tough to justify

April 25, 2017

THERE are two main reasons for a country to paw around in its tax code: to create more economic growth, or to repair a structural deficit. Any politician who wishes to quietly give money to friends or kill a troublesome programme will supply one of them. He will either say “businesses need tax certainty to grow” (meaning: “certainty that they will like the tax code”), or “we don’t have the money”. So as the Trump administration releases its tax plan on April 26th, there are only two questions to ask: whether it will speed up America’s current economic recovery, and whether it will begin to fill in the country’s long-term deficits. If the early leaks from the White House are any guide, it will do neither. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House wants to reduce the top tax rate on pass-through businesses to 15%. “Pass through” means the business itself has no tax obligations—those are passed to the owners. Last year economists from the Treasury department took a hard look at the administrative tax data for these businesses for the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 1980, they found, levies on income from pass-through businesses made up less than a quarter of America’s corporate-tax revenue. By 2011 that had climbed to more than half. Changes to the tax code in 1986 had made this structure more attractive to owners.

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Reducing rates for “pass-through” businesses will be tough to justify

April 25, 2017

THERE are two main reasons for a country to paw around in its tax code: to create more economic growth, or to repair a structural deficit. Any politician who wishes to quietly give money to friends or kill a troublesome programme will supply one of them. He will either say “businesses need tax certainty to grow” (meaning: “certainty that they will like the tax code”), or “we don’t have the money”. So as the Trump administration releases its tax plan on April 26th, there are only two questions to ask: whether it will speed up America’s current economic recovery, and whether it will begin to fill in the country’s long-term deficits. If the early leaks from the White House are any guide, it will do neither. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House wants to reduce the top tax rate

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Podcast: A sweet story

April 18, 2017

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