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For richer or for poorer? The economic case for marriage is worth remembering

For richer or for poorer? The economic case for marriage is worth remembering

An important piece of social news emerged last week. According to the Office for National Statistics, the divorce rate in 2018 fell to its lowest level for nearly 50 years.

The overall trend is clear and well-established. The divorce rate rose steadily from the late 1950s, with sharp rises immediately following the Divorce Act of 1969, to the early 1990s.

Since then, with minor blips, the rate has fallen. It now stands at just over half the level of its 1993 peak.

Economic theory has a lot to say about marriage and divorce.

This may be surprising to many. But economists believe that the theory’s basic model, that of someone making a rational choice from the alternatives on offer in any given situation, is universal in its application. The institution of marriage is a key social phenomenon, and so the rational choice model ought to be able to give an explanation as to why it exists.

The Chicago economist Gary Becker received the Nobel prize in 1992 for his pioneering work in this area. Essentially, the participants in a marriage reap what economists see as the gains from trade. One partner goes to work and earns money, and the other raises children and does housework. By each concentrating on the activity which he or she does better than the other, both parties benefit.

Implicitly, Becker took as the social background to his theory the institutional structure of marriage and the family as it existed in the Midwest of the USA in the 1950s. Gender roles have certainly evolved since then, but his basic insights remain valid.

A much more general theory of marriage is linked with the work of economists such as Bob Rowthorn, former head of the Cambridge economics department.

In this approach, marriage is seen as an institution for providing couples with the confidence to make long-term investments in their relationship. The basic theme is that marriage should be seen as an institution for creating trust between individuals in the sphere of family life.

Given this emphasis on both trust and the long term, it is curious that many metropolitan liberals, not least Supreme Court justice Lady Hale when she headed the family courts, appear to see marriage as no better than any other form of family structure.

The empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the special value of marriage for the individuals concerned, for their children, and for society. Indeed, there are few hypotheses in the social sciences which receive such clear confirmation from serious research.

For example, most children grow up to be useful and well-adjusted members of society regardless of family structure. But the incidence of crime and mental illness among children whose parents have divorced, while low as a proportion of all such children, is much higher than it is among those whose parents remain married.

The falls in the divorce rate can be seen as rational learning by the generation who were children themselves when divorce was at its peak. They see the costs imposed on them. And society as a whole will reap the benefits in years to come.

As published in City AM Wednesday 4th December 2019 
Image: Wedding Rings via Piqsels licensed for use CC0 1.0
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Labour’s rejection of conventional economic theory ignores important insights

Labour’s rejection of conventional economic theory ignores important insights

One of the first tasks facing whoever becomes chancellor after the General Election will be choosing the next governor of the Bank of England.

Getting to make this choice would be a key step in the plans of Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell to shake up the Bank of England, but his radicalism is not simply a matter of practical policies. McDonnell appears to want a new intellectual approach at the central bank and across government, one not based on existing economic theory.

Many people on the left, such as McDonnell, have criticised austerity ever since the financial crisis of the late 2000s. They often believe this to be a criticism of conventional economic theory.

But these are two different things. They are not the same. It is certainly possible to construct a coherent critique of austerity purely on the basis of standard theory.

Economists disagree on the matter because of different interpretations of the empirical evidence, rather than on the basic theory.

However, Labour’s election manifesto appears to want to ditch the most powerful insight of the whole of economic theory. Namely, that people react to changes in the incentives which they face. If incentives change, behaviour changes.

For example, even the most dedicated critic of economics will slow down when approaching a speed camera if they are exceeding the speed limit. On the open road, there is a chance of being stopped by the police, but it is very small. Yet the probability of incurring a penalty rises sharply in the presence of a speed camera. And so behaviour changes — the driver slows down.

We can apply this insight to taxation. Already, the top one per cent of earners in the UK pay well over 30 per cent of all income tax, according to calculations by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Before tax, to be in the top one per cent you have to earn at least £166,000 a year. After tax, the figure falls to £111,000. So these individuals — just over 300,000 of them — are already handing over one third of their income to HMRC.

We know from Labour’s manifesto that McDonnell wants to raise many billions more in tax from the top five per cent of earners.

Much of this would potentially fall on the top one per cent, where the money is really concentrated. But this would require these taxpayers to stand still and wait to be plucked like so many golden geese. Economic theory, supported by a vast amount of empirical evidence, suggests that this just would not happen.

he same ignorance of fundamental, well-supported economic theory is seen in Labour’s policy on corporation tax. The proposal is to raise the rate from 19 to 26 per cent.

The basic problem here is that if the tax rate changes, the behaviour of a company will change.

The company may hold down wages. It may not take on extra staff, or even get rid of existing employees. It may cut dividends, so that pension funds and the income of pensioners is reduced. Or it may slash investment, so that the workers in the firms which supply to the company will suffer.

Instead of jettisoning economic theory, Labour should learn from its most powerful insights.

As published in City AM Wednesday 27th November 2019 
Image: John McDonnell by Sophie Brown via Wikimedia licensed for use  CC BY-SA 4.0
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What kind of person crosses the Nevada desert to investigate UFO conspiracies?

What kind of person crosses the Nevada desert to investigate UFO conspiracies?

Area 51 is a mysterious place.

Located deep in the Nevada desert, it is home to highly classified US military operations. Rumours abound that it harbours secrets about extraterrestrial life.

In June, a podcaster released an interview with someone who claims to have studied flying saucers in Area 51. The video spread like wildfire on the internet.

A proposal for an event took shape, labelled “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of US”. The idea was for large numbers to gather on 20 September in a couple of tiny Nevadan towns next to Area 51. The security defences would be overwhelmed. Citizens could then see for themselves the aliens being kept secret by the military-industrial complex.

Around two million individuals pledged on Facebook to attend. Estimates vary, but it seems that in reality only some 2,000 turned up in the nearby towns. Of these, a mere 200 or so actually arrived at the security fences which guard the area. No one tried to cut or climb over the barriers.

The event has subsequently attracted a great deal of ridicule in both the mainstream and social media. But it usefully illustrates two important principles in economic theory.

The first is the so-called free rider problem. It occurs when some individuals fail to contribute their fair share to the cost of a shared product or services.

An everyday example is that of a shared kitchen space in an office block. Provided enough people are willing to keep it clean, there is an incentive for others to free-ride and enjoy the clean kitchen without doing anything themselves.

The problem is that where free riders exist, the product or service in question tends to be under-produced. In the kitchen example, the supply of people willing to clean may drop off.

Exactly the same thing took place outside Area 51. Everyone wanted the razor wire fences to be cut, so they could consume the “product” of entering the site to see if it contained aliens. But not enough – in fact no one at all – was willing to cut the wire and incur the potential cost of being shot.

The event also illustrates the importance of revealed rather than stated preference.

Economists traditionally attach little weight to surveys in which people are asked hypothetical questions about what they might do or pay in different situations. These constitute stated preferences.

Instead, economists prefer to infer preferences from the actions people actually take. If you always buy Pepsi rather than Coke, you have revealed your preference between the two.

Pressing a button to say you “like” something merely states your preferences.  The cost of doing this is virtually zero. Revealing preferences may involve substantial costs, such as travelling to the Nevada desert.

This fundamental point is being lost in many of the reactions of decision-makers to events on social media. Far too much importance is being attached to actions which are almost costless.

The UFO buffs of Area 51 have done a public service by providing a clear example of this principle, and of evidence that “likes” do not necessarily equal action.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd October 2019
Image: Area 51 by RJA1988 from Pixabay
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Modern Monetary Theory? More like Magic Money Tree

Modern Monetary Theory? More like Magic Money Tree
As the Brexit process unfolds, the possibility of a Corbyn government has become much more tangible. Last month, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, wrote to the Treasury to say that in power he would require them to “widen the range of economic theories and approaches in which its officials and those in the rest of the government are trained”. In principle, this would be a good thing. Machine learning algorithms, for example, have been shown beyond doubt to be more powerful than the traditional economists’ tool of econometrics for analysing data. Standard economic theory is not as good as cultural evolution theory at understanding how search engines, reputation systems, and social media affect the decisions we make and the news we read. Somehow, however, one feels that this is not the retraining which McDonnell has in mind. The fashionable idea among left-wing economists is something called “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT). In the US, the rising Democrat star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears to be keen on it, believing that it could finance her Green New Deal as well as an immense raft of social programmes and welfare benefits. A key part of MMT asserts that governments who control their own currency can finance any level of spending simply by printing more money. Countries in the Eurozone, for example, cannot do this, because the European Central Bank controls how much money can be created – but the UK can. A sharp increase in public largesse almost always creates an increase in the public sector deficit, which is the difference between spending and the income that the government gets from taxes. The conventional way of financing the deficit is by issuing bonds. This both creates a stream of interest payments to the lenders, and at some point – depending on the date of maturity – have to be repaid. MMT asserts that printing money instead removes these constraints. Money created by the government never needs to be repaid. For example, £10 notes carry the phrase “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of 10 pounds”. If you take it to the cashier’s desk in the Bank of England, they will do just that – they will give you another £10 note instead. Also, money carries no interest. In technical terms, we might think of money as a “zero coupon perpetual bond”, although I have never seen MMT theorists refer to it in this way. In one way, MMT is completely true. Countries like the US and the UK can finance government deficits by printing money rather than issuing bonds. Indeed, there are genuine arguments to be had about the appropriate mix of the two. Where the theory falls down, however, is not recognising the adverse consequences of creating too much money. The economic history of the world is replete with examples of how this just creates inflation, from Roman emperors to the latest example, Venezuela. MMT ought to be renamed the Magic Money Tree. The Bank of England is running a competition for whose face should be on the £50 note. For MMT theorists, the answer is obvious: old magic grandad himself, Jeremy Corbyn.
As published in City AM Wednesday 10th April 2019
Image: Jeremy Corbyn by Chris McAndrew via Wikimedia is licensed under CC BY 3.0
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From Northern Rock to lunch tables, no one is immune from the herd mentality

From Northern Rock to lunch tables, no one is immune from the herd mentality

The Bank of England and Federal Reserve held a two-day conference last week in London on big data and machine learning. All very interesting stuff.

There was an intriguing vignette as we emerged from the conference room for the frugal lunch on the first day.

Straight ahead was a table with sandwiches, fruit and the like. Most participants made for this, so many that a long queue soon formed, stretching well out of the room. But a sharp right instead brought you to a smaller table, with identical food. The wait was very much shorter.

This illustrates important aspects of modern economic theory.

In fashion markets and on the internet, for example, products or sites can rapidly become popular for reasons not connected to their inherent qualities. They become more popular simply because they are already popular. People start to follow the crowd rather than rely on their own judgment.

The same thing can be observed in bubbles in financial and property markets. An extreme example was seen in the case of Northern Rock in the run-up to the financial crisis in 2008. The bank did in fact have enough assets to pay its liabilities. But it experienced a short-term liquidity problem and approached the government for support.

The news leaked, and within 24 hours huge queues formed outside the branches as people scrambled to get their money out. The longer the queue, the bigger it became. The result was the first bank failure in the UK for 150 years.

This herd-like behaviour seems irrational. But an important paper by Sushil Bikhchandani and colleagues in the top-ranked Journal of Political Economy 25 years ago showed that it was perfectly compatible with the economic concept of rationality.

Suppose you have to make a decision, like the table to go to in order to pick up lunch. You might have some private information about the options. In addition, there is some public information available to all.

If enough people have chosen and have already given more weight to the public information, it will seem like it is more accurate than your own. So you are likely to give more weight to it when you choose.

This is exactly what happened at the central bank event. The first few people coming out of the conference used private information, and made for the table they could see. Others behind them could only see people getting lunch, and simply followed them. They used the public information about where lunch was available.

Those in the long queue had imperfect information, another key concept in economic theory. They were outside the room and could not see the other table in the opposite corner.

I considered approaching people in the queue to sell them information to shorten their wait. But it is a bit tricky to value information – yet another important issue in modern economics. As soon as I mentioned it, they would easily guess there was another table and find it themselves.

The conference itself was fascinating. But it was certainly gratifying to see economists behave as rational herders.

As published in City AM Wednesday 5th December 2018

Image: Northern Rock by Alex Gunningham via Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 2.0
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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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