Thursday, 24 March 2011

The future of macroeconomic policy (updated)

In a column at Olivier Blanchard offers up nine tentative conclusions about the future of macroeconomic policy:
1. We’ve entered a brave new world, a very different world in terms of macroeconomic policymaking.

2. In the age-old discussion of the relative roles of markets and the state, the pendulum has swung – at least a bit – toward the state.

3. There are many distortions relevant for macroeconomics, many more than we thought was the case earlier. We had largely ignored them, thinking they were the province of the microeconomist. As we integrate finance into macroeconomics, we’re discovering that distortions within finance are macro-relevant. Agency theory – about incentives and behaviour of entities or “agents” – is needed to explain how financial institutions work or do not work and how decisions are taken. Regulation and agency theory applied to regulators themselves is important. Behavioural economics and its cousin, behavioural finance, are central as well.

4. Macroeconomic policy has many targets and many instruments (that is, the tools we use or variables to implement policy). Many examples were discussed at the conference. Here are two:

* Monetary policy has to go beyond inflation stability, adding output and financial stability to the list of targets and adding macro-prudential measures to the list of instruments.
* Fiscal policy is more than just “G minus T” and an associated “multiplier” (the proportion or factor by which changes in government spending or taxes affect other parts of the economy). There are potentially dozens of instruments, each with their own dynamic effects that depend on the state of the economy and other policies. Bob Solow made the point that reducing discussions about fiscal policy to what is the right multiplier does not do service to the issue.

5. We may have many policy instruments, but we are not sure how to use them. In many cases, we are uncertain about what they are, how they should be used, and whether or not they will work. Again, many examples came up during the conference:

* We don’t quite know what liquidity is, so a liquidity ratio is one more step into the unknown.
* It was clear that some people believe capital controls work and some don’t.
* Paul Romer made the point that, if you adopt a set of financial regulations and keep them unchanged, the markets will find a way around, and ten years later, you’ll have a financial crisis.
* Michael Spence talked about the relative roles of self-regulation and regulation. Both are needed, but how we combine them is unclear.

6. While these instruments are potentially useful, their use raises a number of political economy issues.

* Some instruments are politically hard to use. Take cross-border flows. Putting in place a multilateral regulatory structure will be very difficult. Even at the domestic level, some macro-prudential tools work by targeting specific sectors, sets of individuals, or firms, and may lead to strong political backlash by those groups.
* Instruments can be misused. It was clear from the discussion that a number of people think that, while there may be an economic case for capital controls, governments could use them instead of choosing the right macroeconomic policies. Dani Rodrik argued for using industrial policy to increase the production of tradable goods without getting a current-account surplus. But in practice we know the limits of industrial policy, and they haven’t gone away.

7. Where do we go from here? In terms of research, the future is exciting. There are many topics on which we should work – namely macro issues with, as Joe Stiglitz suggests, the right micro foundations.

8. Things are harder on the policy front. Given we don’t quite know how to use the new tools and they can be misused, how should policymakers proceed? While we have a good sense of where we want to get to, a step-by-step approach is probably the way to go.

* Take inflation targeting. We can’t, from one day to the next, just give it up and have, say, a system with five targets and seven instruments. We don’t know how to do it and it would be unwise. We can, however, introduce gradually some macro-prudential tools, testing the water to see how they work.
* Increasing the role of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in the international monetary system is another example. If we go in that direction, we can move slowly from, say, creating a market in private SDR bonds to exploring the possibility for the IMF to issue SDR bonds to the private sector and then, if feasible, issuing them to mobilise funds in times of systemic crisis.

Pragmatism is of the essence. This was a general theme that came up, for example, in Andrew Sheng’s discussion of the adaptive Chinese growth model. We have to try things carefully and see how they work.

9. We have to keep our hopes in check. There are going to be new crises that we have not anticipated. And, despite our best efforts, we could have old-type crises again. That was a theme in Adair Turner’s discussion of credit cycles. Can we, using agency theory and the right regulations, get rid of credit cycles? Or is it basic human nature that, no matter what we do, they will come back in some form?
Don't know how many people are going to buy into these conclusions. I think of any number of economists who will not. For example, I don't see number 2 as particularly useful given that many of the problems we have faced over the last few years are due to state actions, so even more state involvement in the economy doesn't seem like a good response. And as for 7, I do worry as to what Stiglitz would see as the "right micro foundations" for macro.

Blanchard see these ideas as the beginning of a conversation. Well it could be a conversation which, as is normal for macro, produces much heat but very little light.

Update: Matt Nolan is depressed by all of this.


Matt Nolan said...

There are just so many "half-right" statement in this isn't there.

I agree imbalances are important, and distortions need to be taken into account - but instead of explaining the why and the how they are just using it as a case for random intervention.

This saddens me.

Paul Walker said...

Matt. I agree it is sad. May be if I read all the papers involved it may all make sense. But given what Blanchard wrote it does look like a they are making a case for random interventions.