The big picture – and it isn’t pretty

It’s no easy task to write a reasonably concise (about 200 pp), highly readable, well-informed synopsis of the big trends in global economic history, along with an assessment of how these are likely to play out in the near future. Stephen King, HSBC’s Senior Economic Adviser, has given us such a book in Grave New World: The End of Globalization and the Return of History. As the title indicates, it isn’t an optimistic book. But more of that in a moment.

The book starts with an extract from a speech by Joseph Chamberlain as Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1897. It was an ‘end of history’ speech: in ruling the Empire, he sdai, “[W]e are fulfilling what I believe to be our national mission, and we are finding scope for the exercise of those faculties and qualities which have made us a great governing race….” The Introduction segues into the inevitability that empires that rise subsequently fall. The Whig interpretation of history is still wrong.

The remainder of the book is similarly ambitious and wide-ranging, although consequently covering vast events in a page or two; this can inevitably feel breathless. But this is a worthwhile price to pay for the breadth of reference. For instance, few books by financial market economists about global trends manage to include reference to the work of development economist Arthur Lewis (although I’d like to mildly complain that he’s referred to here as the first black academic at the LSE; he was the first black professor appointed in the UK, and that was by the University of Manchester, where my office is in the Arthur Lewis Building).

The other merit of a wide-ranging book of course is that you learn some things you didn’t know. For me, it was the detail about China’s extension of its economic and political reach in Asia and beyond. For all that China’s path will be turbulent (see Martin Wolf in the FT today), there can be no doubt about where the centre of gravity of the world economy is moving.

The final part of Grave New World is titled ‘Globalization in Crisis’. It describes the multiple weaknesses of existing global institutions but concludes there’s nothing better around than sticking with, and improving, the WTO, the EU, NATO etc. I think one has to forgive the un-stirring conclusion – I certainly have no better ideas, although in glum moments (there are may, watching the news) I rather fear that events in the near future will destroy the existing institutional landscape leaving no option but to go back to the drawing board.

The book ends even more pessimistically than me, however, with an imagined Ivanka Trump Inauguration speech in 2044. Oh my, history is definitely baaack.71coBmyck4L

How can financial services serve?

A 2010 book, Portfolios of the Poor, made a big impression on me because the researchers had taken great care to ask poor people (in Bangladesh, India and South Africa) in great detail how they managed their money and what their financial needs were. The answer was different from the enthusiasm at the time for micro-credit schemes. It turned out people with not much income need secure vehicles for saving and transactions; borrowing was a low priority, and few people will become entrepreneurs, micro or otherwise.

Jonathan Morduch, one of that team (with Daryl Collins), has now co-authored (with Rachel Schneider) a book taking a similar, detailed look at the finances of American families. They investigated (using the same method of detailed diary-keeping and interviews over an extended period) families in several parts of the country who ranged from single mothers living in poverty to nuclear families a notch or two above median income for their area. One could call them the ‘left behinds’. The results, written up in The Financial Diaries: how American families cope in a world of uncertainty, is just as illuminating.

The headline is that the volatility of income is a bigger problem for most of those interviewed than their level of income. This volatility is closely linked to the way the labour market in the US has moved toward less stable conditions, with employers shifting risks steadily onto employees. “Over half of all income volatility was due to changes in income from the same job.” Even the higher income households in the sample experienced significant earnings volatility.

When income is uncertain, or even when it isn’t but is only slightly higher than regular outgoings, then emergency expenses – healthcare above all (this is the US!), but also car repairs when the car is essential for work – mean it is difficult for people to save steadily. The juggling involved in managing their finances, and the fragility of financial security, also occupies so much mental bandwidth (as per Scarcity) that people find it hard to get off the financial treadmill by any long-term planning. Clipping coupons seems a high priority compared with saving up to pay for college, albeit there are some exceptional focused individuals.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that financial services do not serve most of these households (up to and beyind the median) at all well. Much financial advice is geared at long-term questions like retirement saving, which is an unimaginable luxury for this 50%-plus. Few products a geared at saving for short-term goals – such as saving enough for a deposit to rent a new apartment – and certainly not with a combination of commitment devices to encourage the saving but enough access or control to make the money accessible in a real emergency.

The same bias to the long term financial needs of the well-off colours comment about pay day loans or check cashing services – payday loans have ultra-high APRs but their customers are often looking at per week costs over the short term. Lisa Servon’s The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives, which includes her experience working in a check cashing service, is a great companion volume to The Financial Diaries. (There’s an excellent NPR program about it.)

Servon’s book also includes some descriptions of tech-based financial products aiming to serve low-income customers better, as does this one. None has been a stellar success yet. Morduch and Schneider suggest legal limits on the total amount a lender can recover from a borrower, enabling short term lending to take place without it turning into a permanent, even increasing, debt burden. They write: “By pushing more of the consequences of underwriting decisions on to lenders – in the form of losing their money – they [ie total loan recovery caps] make lenders more cautious and selective in how much and to whom they lend.”

The book underlines how common is the experience of being on the edge financially, citing large-scale surveys to complement their detailed work. The latest US Census showed less than 4% of the population below the poverty line for the whole of 2008-2011, but 90 million (nearly one third) experiencing poverty for two months or more of the three years. In 2011 alone, 8.3% were below the line all year but about a quarter for two or more months.

Both The Financial Diaries and The Unbanking of America are illuminating reads, above all, for paying attention to what people say, rather than just theorising about them. Even before reading the latest rash of stories about the absymal behaviour of the banks, one can only conclude that unbanking will be a good thing as long as entrepreneurs – and the regulators who make or break them – can deliver at long last on the ‘service’ part of financial services.

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Actually existing capitalism

I read the D.M.Winch book I picked up, Analytical Welfare Economics, on the train yesterday. My overwhelming reaction was, “You could get away with teaching such arid material in 1971??” Still, there were a couple of nuggets I enjoyed.

“While perfect competition is sufficient for the achievement of a Pareto optimum, it is not necessary. It is quite possible theoretically to satisfy the necessary conditions in a controlled socialist state. ‘Perfect’ socialism is every bit as good as perfect competition when judged by this criterion. In te real world of course, socialism is far from perfect, but so is competition. Since bith systems are capable of achieving a Paretian optimum in their conceptually perfect forms, the proposition [the 1st welfare theorem] concerning perfect competition does not establish its superiority.”

I liked the reminder about the formal equivalence between the ideal free market and the ideal centrally planned economy, its general equilibrium dual (an idea – as I’ve said before – brilliantly illustrated by Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty).918XzFk2GeLThere was also a nice link made between Scitovsky’s argument about welfare reversals, overturning the possibility of Hicks-Kaldor compensation and the difference between compensating and equivalent variation. Still, I won’t be troubling my students to get Prof Winch’s book out of the recesses of the library…

 

Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment

Expectations matter a great deal in the way the economy evolves. When, how and why did this come about? It must have been linked to the capitalist growth take-off, because why would the future be relevant if nothing much ever changed? Emily Nacol’s An Age of Risk: Politics and Economy in Early Modern Britain links it to the British Enlightenment – specifically to the philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Smith. She argues that they presented the future as a territory of risk in order to support their arguments about the political and economic order. What’s more, the book says, there were two sides to this: risk as a source of threat to manage and risk as an opportunity for previously unexploited profits. “When the cautious citizen acts with the future in mind, he transforms his social world in the process, now and in the future,” she writes. Hobbes created the fear, Locke introduced the tools of probabilistic calculation, Hume argues for calculated and prudent risk-taking as a path to profitable opportunities which will pay off in the long term, and Smith analyses how institutional structures can manage and mitigate – or exacerbate – risk, in Nacol’s schema.

The book is quite short but does presuppose familiarity with the four philosophers – my wider reading of their work dates back to the late 1970s and PPE, although I dip in reasonably often, so it was a bit heavy going. Having said that, the key insight about the Enlightenment as the moment when thinking about risk, an orientation toward the future, became important is interesting. Especially at what sometimes feels like a moment of anti-Enlightenment when nostalgia for an imagined (and imaginary) past has overtaken us. Time to re-read Paul Krugman’s brilliant 1991 QJE paper on history versus expectations.

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Welfare economics and octopus intelligence

It’s always a mistake to go on holiday, although we had brilliant sunshine for 3 days of walking in the Lake District (for those who know the Lakes, 3 days without rain at all is quite something). While there, I popped into Westwood Books in Sedbergh, a second hand book emporium with a small but high quality economics section. I picked up three titles, including D.M. Winch’s classic little (1971) Analytical Welfare Economics. My Public Policy Economics course has the basic welfare theorems as the scaffolding off which the material is hung; it’s non-technical but not easy. After all, these are hard problems. The Winch book (I think I read it once in the 1970s) is largely non-technical too, whereas many textbook treatments quickly become very technical. I think covering the materials without scary algebra is important for students who come from a range of economics, politics and other social science courses – with varying levels of technical/mathematical background –  and many of whom will go into policy-type jobs. However, the Winch book is also pretty abstract. As I’ve not found the ideal textbook to use in my undergraduate teaching, I’ve now decided to write it myself.

IMG_4086Meanwhile, I’ve also been reading the utterly brilliant Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith. I’m interested in a dilettantish way in animal intelligence because of thinking about human economic decision-making. Pigeons and rats in some circumstances make the choices that would be predicted by economic constrained optimisation models (although as Cecelia Heyes has emphasised to me, this doesn’t mean they’re behaving like humans – the similarity stems from context not deep behavioural or genetic common factors). So do humans, of course, sometimes act like rational, optimizing homo economicus. Understanding the contextual determinants of how choices get made (by any creatures) seems crucial. Anyway, it turns out the octopus and the cuttlefish are pretty smart and – to anthropomorphise shamelessly – also rather human in their occasional stroppiness. Other Minds is simply superb, not just for its insights into the world of ‘cephalod-inclined hobbyists’. It’s lucid, thought-provoking, fascinating, funny. The key message I’ve taken so far is the importance of the feedback from actions to sense perceptions and hence to ‘consciousness’ or ‘intelligence’ – which, like any feedback loop, can reach a tipping point after which change becomes eponential. Best book of the year so far. And I say this having also read Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias in the Lake District.

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