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Can we innovate better outside the EU? Economic lessons from the Nobel prize winner

Can we innovate better outside the EU? Economic lessons from the Nobel prize winner

Gordon Brown’s time as chancellor will be remembered for many things.

A sense of humour would be conspicuously absent from this list.

But he provoked a great deal of mirth unintentionally in a speech shortly before the 1997 General Election on the theme of “post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory”.

Perhaps the last laugh is with Brown. The person who invented the concept, the New York professor Paul Romer, is a joint recipient of the 2018 Nobel prize for his work in this area.

The standard economic theory of growth was set out over 60 years ago in a brilliant paper by the MIT economist Bob Solow.

Solow’s theory was not concerned with the short-run fluctuations in GDP growth over the course of the business cycle. He set up a framework for thinking about what determines growth in the longer run.

Solow argued that the growth in output was related to the growth of inputs of labour and capital into the productive process.

This seems obvious. But there was an extra ingredient: innovation.

This embraces a wide range of concepts, from becoming more efficient at producing what you already do, to major scientific breakthroughs.

Economists quickly used Solow’s model to estimate empirically what was really driving economic growth. In western economies, the answer was almost always the same. The amounts of labour and capital used had risen, but nowhere near enough to account for how much growth had taken place.

So the key factor in economic growth in the longer run is the amount of innovation which is carried out.

This insight is directly relevant to the debate over Brexit. Over a 10 or 20 year horizon, the key question is not the terms under which we leave – it is whether we will be able to innovate more effectively in or out of the EU.

The basic shortfall of the approach is that innovation itself is not explained by Solow’s model. Innovation is, in the jargon, “exogenous”. In other words, it is determined externally to the model.

This is where Romer enters the stage. His seminal paper in the Journal of Political Economy in 1986 is full of heavy-duty maths. The crucial difference with Solow is that the rate of innovation is determined within the theoretical model itself – hence the phrase “endogenous” – by profit-maximising firms.

Physical capital such as machinery, warehouses, and roads play a role in both the Solow and Romer theories of growth. But Romer introduced the key concept of knowledge as the basic form of capital.

Policymakers across the west in the past two decades have been obsessed by the “knowledge economy”. This is not, as Tony Blair and many others believed, simply a matter of sending more and more people to university. It is about how to encourage innovation.

Both the Solow and the Romer models are highly abstract – Solow, for example, began his article with the phrase “all theory depends on assumptions which are not quite true”. But both have been highly influential with policymakers, and illustrate the vital economic importance of ideas.

As published in City AM Wednesday 18th October 2018

Image: Gordon Brown by World Economic Forum via Wikimedia is licensed under CC-BY SA_2.0
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Economies of the future will have to engage with the world, not just the EU

Economies of the future will have to engage with the world, not just the EU

The fire and the fury rage from day to day around the outcome of the Brexit process.

The discussion has lost sight of the longer-term context in which both the UK and the EU will operate, regardless of the precise deal which is or is not struck.

In the 1960s, the countries which are now in the EU-bloc represented just under 30 per cent of world output. This has already fallen to less than 15 per cent.

And on any reasonable extrapolation of trends, it will dip under 10 per cent at some point in the next two decades.

This does not mean that Europe is getting poorer. Far from it. It means that the rest of the world, especially Asia, has been becoming richer much faster.

The Brookings Institute calculations released last week were a marvellous piece of news.

For the first time in human history, just over 50 per cent of the world’s population, or some 3.8bn people, live in households with enough discretionary expenditure to be considered either “middle-class” or “rich”.

This has been achieved by capitalism. Until the 1980s, for example, in their own ways both India and China were centrally planned economies. Once they shifted to the principles of market-based economies, they have boomed.

The Brookings authors estimate that in 2030 – just a decade and a bit away – the middle-class markets in China and India will account for $14.1 trillion and $12.3 trillion, respectively.

This compares to their projection of the US middle-class market at that time of $15.9 trillion.

Okay, so their decimal points give an air of spurious accuracy to the forecasts – but the general point is clear. Whether Europe likes it or not, the vast majority of world trade will take place outside the EU.

The second key point to note is that Europe has hardly been a major economic success story. The narrative peddled by Remainers seems stuck in the past.

If we travel back in time to, say, 1970, it becomes easy to believe that the European economies are so dynamic that it is essential for us to have the closest possible links with them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, annual real GDP growth in the economies which then made up the EU averaged over seven per cent. In contrast, the UK barely scraped above three per cent.

Since then, the long-term average growth rate of the original EU countries has fallen more or less continuously to less than two per cent a year.

The UK’s has also dropped, but not by much. Over the past 20 years, our GDP has risen by 2.1 per cent a year. France registers 1.6 per cent, Germany 1.5 per cent, and Italy a mere 0.6 per cent.

Regardless of the eventual Brexit terms, successful economies in the future will simply have to engage with the rest of the world, rather than depend upon the EU.

As published in City AM Wednesday 10th October 2018

Image: Chinese Girls by David Stanley licensed under CC-BY_2.0

 

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Bereft of new ideas, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is dead set on sticking its head in the sand

Bereft of new ideas, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is dead set on sticking its head in the sand

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the Labour Party conference, which ended last week, is how deeply conservative the political left has become. Its remedies for Britain’s problems look to the past and not the future. Far from embracing new technology, the left is hostile to it.

This was not always the case. Labour under Harold Wilson won a closely contested election in 1964. Wilson’s key phrase – “the white heat of the technological revolution” – became the butt of parodies. But it encapsulated Labour’s appeal. Tony Blair, for all his faults, projected an image of modernity with his “Cool Britannia”.

Now, we have the grim pledge to turn the clock back and renationalise the railways. This was first done in 1948. But there is no sense that anything innovative will be done.

In fact, the old British Railways, as it was then called, was subsequently plagued by massive underinvestment in modern technology and equipment.

Ironically, given Labour’s attacks on the short-termism of the City, it was precisely in the nationalised industries that such behaviour was rampant.

If fares had to rise to fund new investment, the political incentive facing the Minister of Transport was to refuse the increase. Given the choice between political popularity in the here and now, and the longer-term benefit to the industry, guess which one usually won.

Labour argues that the profits currently being made by the private rail companies would be ploughed back to improve the service. The much more likely outcome is that the money will be used to featherbed jobs and boost the pay of those employed in the sector.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Network Rail, the one part of the railways still in public ownership, has shown itself to be unfit for purpose.

The problems started immediately after nationalisation 70 years ago. The historian John Bew published a magnificent biography of Clement Attlee in 2016. Attlee led the 1945-51 Labour government, by far the most radical in British history. Attlee himself served with great bravery in the First World War, was a fervent patriot and supporter of the monarchy, and stressed individual responsibility as much as individual rights.

An ordinary railwayman features in a snippet in the book. He had been a keen supporter of nationalisation, but six months after the event, he had changed his mind.

Why? Because “where there used to be one inspector, now there are two” – jobs for the public sector middle class. Little wonder that Corbyn’s Labour is so keen on the idea.

The left in general seems bereft of new ideas and lives in fear of new technology. They want to ban Uber and AirBnB. They want to bring Google and Facebook to heel not by innovation and competition, but by regulation. Their house journal, the Guardian newspaper, is filled with savage attacks by liberal arts graduates on “algorithms”.

To make a success of Brexit, we need to embrace innovation. As far as the future is concerned, Labour is just sticking its head in the sand.

As published in City AM Wednesday 3rd October 2018

Image: Jeremy Corbyn by Rwendland licensed under CC-BY_SA 4.0
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At long last, economists appreciate that private debt was the catalyst for the crisis

At long last, economists appreciate that private debt was the catalyst for the crisis

This month saw the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a collapse which precipitated one of the only two global financial crises of the past 150 years.

The late 2000s and early 1930s were the only periods in time when capitalism itself has trembled on the edge of the precipice.

It was in November 2008 that the Queen put her famous question about the crisis to the academics of the London School of Economics: “Why did nobody notice it?”

The answer is simple. In the models of the economy at the time, finance did not matter.

Mainstream economists did not notice the massive financial imbalances in the economy, because in their models, any problems that might link to these imbalances were assumed away.

To be of any use, all scientific models have to make simplifications of reality. But orthodox macroeconomics took a step too far. It assumed that the workings of the whole economy could be explained by analysing the theoretical behaviour of just a single decision maker. In the jargon, this is the “representative agent”.

The agent is a device which economists used to model the economy. It was extremely clever, and could solve hard mathematical problems – calculating how the decisions of average consumers and companies would affect the macroeconomy.

These kinds of models go by the splendid name of “dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models”, or just plain “DSGE” to their friends. But at its most basic, the problem with such economic models was that there was only one decision maker in them.

Having just two, a “creditor” and a “debtor” for example, would have helped a lot.

Over the past decade, economists have been scrambling to incorporate other financial factors into their models, such as household debt. Key contributions to this research are discussed in the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Bizarre though they may seem, DSGE models now finally recognise the potential importance of household finance in causing crashes.

A particularly interesting paper in the journal is by Atif Mian of Princeton and Amir Sufi of Chicago. Their focus is considerably wider than the crisis of the late 2000s in the United States. They quote empirical studies across some 50 countries with data going back to the 1960s. They found that a rise in household debt relative to the size of the economy is a good predictor of whether GDP growth will slow down.

Rickard Nyman, a computer scientist at UCL, and I applied machine learning algorithms to data on both public and private (households and commercial companies) sector debt in both the UK and America. We find that the recession of 2008 could have been predicted in the middle of 2007.

Perhaps the most striking result is that public sector debt played little role in causing the crisis. The driving force was the very high levels of private sector debt.

A critic might say that this is simply a case of generals fighting the last war.

True, we don’t know whether a completely different nasty event lies around the corner. But at long last, economists appreciate the fundamental importance of debt and finance in Western economies.

As published in City AM Wednesday 26th September 2018

Image: Her Majesty The Queen by UK Home Office on Flickr licensed under CC-BY 2.0
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The Bank of England’s own data negates Carney’s overhyped house price warning

The Bank of England’s own data negates Carney’s overhyped house price warning

No one can tell them quite like Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England.

He appears to have briefed the cabinet last week that house prices could fall by 35 per cent in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

To be fair, the Bank did try to qualify this figure by saying that it was just the worst of several scenarios which analysts had produced in order to stress test the balance sheets of the commercial banks.

But the 35 per cent house price drop has now become embedded in the public narrative about Brexit.

Just how likely is such a massive drop to take place?

We do not know exactly how the Bank did its stress tests. But, typically, the worst-case scenario in such tests is either one which is judged to have a one in 20 chance of happening, or, if you are setting really demanding standards for the test, just a one in 100 chance.

When trying to assess these odds, an important input is what has happened in the past. The past may of course not be a reliable guide to the future, but it is all we have to go on.

An analogy from the sporting world might help. Every year, three clubs from the Championship are promoted to the Premier League. What are the chances of one of them being relegated after their first season in the top league?

We can look at the historical record since the Premier League began in 1992/93, which helps us form an initial view. We might then qualify it, and set the benchmark – a 44 per cent chance of relegation, since you ask.

With house prices, we can go much further back in time, as far back as 1845 to be exact. And the source of this information on nearly two centuries of house prices data is none other than the Bank of England itself.

Over all this time, there has never been a cumulative fall in the Bank’s house price series of as much as 35 per cent.

The closest we have seen was in the opening decade of the twentieth century in the run-up to the First World War. The UK economy was pretty much in the doldrums, and between 1902 and 1909, prices fell by a total of 33 per cent.

Nothing else remotely compares to this drop.

There have been two global financial crises over this period. In the 1930s, house prices fell by only seven per cent between 1929 and 1934.

And following the most recent crash, the reduction between 2007 and 2009 was 13 per cent.

In America, the Case Shiller house price index was 21 per cent lower in 2011 than it was in 2006, but this is the largest fall in that particular database.

The governor is therefore inviting us to believe that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, house prices may fall by more than they have ever fallen since the Bank’s own data began in 1845.

How did the Bank arrive at this figure? I think we should be told.

As published in City AM Wednesday 19th September 2018

Image: Mark Carney by Bank of England on Flickr licensed under CC-BY-ND 2.0
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The economic answer behind superstar salaries

The economic answer behind superstar salaries

Rugby Union’s Premiership season is underway again.

This is yet another professional sport which operates on the principles of socialism: the money all ends up in the pockets of what we might call the “workers”.

In a sport which was allegedly only played by amateurs until the mid-1990s, earnings have boomed. The average salary in the Premiership is over £200,000, and the stars are paid around the one million mark.

As a result of such payments, most of the Premiership clubs are only kept afloat by huge loans from their owners. Their accounts for 2016/17 were released at the end of August. Bruce Craig has put £18m into Bath since 2010. Bristol owe more than £20m. Wasps have liabilities approaching £50m.

But the players’ earnings are mere shadows of those of the top American sports stars. According to Forbes magazine, in the year to June 2018, the 100 best-paid athletes made $3.8bn between them. The boxer Floyd Mayweather topped the list with $285m.

Stars of popular culture pull in similarly staggering amounts. George Clooney earned $239m and Dwayne Johnson was the second highest among male actors at a mere $119m.

These vast sums appear to pose a challenge to economic theory. These players and actors are very good, but they are not so stupendously better than others who get paid very much less. How can this be explained?

The answer was provided in a brilliant article by the American economist Sherwin Rosen as long ago as 1981, entitled “The economics of superstars”.

Rosen based his theory on the fact that activities such as watching a sport or going to a film involve what economists call “joint consumption”.

If I am watching Arsenal, say, on the television, it does not matter how many other people are viewing at the same time. The game is still available for me to watch. In contrast, if I book a table at a popular restaurant or a particular seat on a flight, no one else can use it.

In 1880, if you wanted to hear a particular singer, you had to go to a live performance. Perhaps a thousand people could enjoy the joint consumption of the product. In 1980, tens of millions could watch on television.

Rosen, writing well before the internet, argued that advances in communications technology such as radio and television increased enormously the potential size of markets involving joint consumption. As he put it so succinctly, “the possibility for talented persons to command both very large markets and very large incomes is apparent”.

For example, the football played in England’s Premier League is in general better than that in the Scottish Premiership. But the English league rakes in well over £1bn a year in television rights, and Scotland less than £20m.

It is the combination of the joint consumption nature of these services and advances in communications which mean that a relatively small number of sellers can in principle service the entire market.

The more talented they are, the fewer still are needed. And that’s how they are able to earn so much.

Paul Ormerod 

As published in City AM Wednesday 12th September 2018

Image: Twickenham Stadium by David Iliff licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0
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