I’m pissed off this week, and it’s rant time. Faisal Islam has a post and video on “exporting homes” which is totally daft. I read a post from Matt Nolan describing “Housing Xenophobia” in New Zealand just a few months back, and thought it was a good thing that didn’t happen here. How naive.
Faisal makes the claim in the video that houses built in London and sold to foreigners (eek! foreigners!) are “not functionally part of Britain’s housing stock.” Yes, yes, really, they are. Just like the Nissan factory in Sunderland is part of the capital stock available for production in Britain, even though it’s owned by foreigners (eek! foriegners).
Increasing the supply of housing in Britain increases the supply of housing in Britain. End of story. This is unequivocally a Good Thing. That should be common sense; see also Matt Yglesias. Let us not hear silly claims about how middle-class Malaysian investors are buying London property to let it sit empty. Give me a break.
Now rant two. Let us not hear any rubbish about how “putting money into housing” is an “unproductive use of capital”. If I want to deploy capital improving my own standard of living, or that of somebody else, by building a lovely house, who the hell do you think are telling me what is “productive” and what is not? Some kind of central planner? Seriously, screw you too. If you think building more car factories will be a “productive use of capital” then go right ahead and build yourself a car factory, and good luck to you too.
Rant three, most important rant: It should not be an aspiration of the government to spend money building “affordable housing”. That is as daft as proposing that the government should spend money building canned spam factories, “affordable food”, because there are lots of poor people who can’t afford to eat. (I’m sure I stole this analogy from somebody so my apologies.)
If any politician proposed building spam factories (“Plan Spam”… “Help to Eat Spam”?) they would be hounded from office. But apparently it’s just fine for “progressives” to ensure poor people are stuck with low living standards by building crap, low-quality – uh, sorry – “affordable” – uh, sorry – “social” houses for them.
If you want to improve the quality of the British housing stock get rid of the crazy planning laws. To deliberately skew housebuilding towards the low end of the market will simply move the average quality of housing lower than it otherwise would be, i.e. it lowers prosperity. And if you also want poor people to afford more or better housing (or food), then raise their incomes through the tax system, absolutely fine by me. Confusing the means by which we achieve “better housing” and “lower inequality” is total nonsense.
Final rant: Saying that “rising house prices is bad” is reasoning from a price change. Because Japan. Japanese residential real estate prices collapsed by about 50% since 1991. Was that a “good thing” for the Japanese, did it somehow raise their “real incomes”? No. That’s nonsense. Rising demand for housing in Britain, which is mostly driven by rising incomes, is a another Good Thing. If you want to say the supply-side is crap, or that demand-side subsidies are crap, just say that. Don’t talk about changes in price being “bad” or “good”.
Alright, rants over, I feel better now.
The competition for “worst public policy idea of the year” is heating up. Osborne’s entry, “Help to Buy”, was striking both for its wrong-headed selection of market (housing, which is suffering exactly because of government intervention), and magnitude (twelve-figure sums of public sector guarantees). But Miliband’s entries this week are strong contenders; price controls and property confiscation.
Osborne’s “Help to Buy” and Miliband’s price controls are similar, and similarly bad policy, in that they implicitly reject the signals embedded in market price movements. Osborne thinks house prices are “high” and decides that people need “Help to Buy”, a demand-side subsidy. Miliband thinks energy prices are “high” and decides that is not “fair” for consumers (he used the phrase “fair deal” in his speech), so we need a supply-side restriction (albeit temporary) in the form of price controls.
In neither case is it possible to believe that policy is being driven by any objective analysis of the markets in question; they are both clearly populist attempts to win votes. This seems like a worrying trend. Price movements are part and parcel of how market economies allocate resources; relative price changes are signals to and from consumers and producers about supply and demand. In rejecting that most basic principle politicians reject one of the most fundamental sources of our prosperity.
I’ve got a new theory to try out. Here it is:
If households accumulate too much wealth, an aggregate demand crisis must inevitably follow. There is a simple causation: when households become very rich, they slow down their spending. Because one household’s spending is another’s income, aggregate spending (income) will then subsequently fall.
My theory is perfectly consistent with the UK data, in which the 2008 recession directly followed an unprecedented rise in total household net wealth to £6.8tn in 2007 (Source: ONS Blue Book), a doubling of wealth in just ten years. If you owned £6.8tn would you carry on working? No, you’re not stupid. And UK householders are not stupid either – you don’t get to own £6.8tn of wealth by being stupid.
The recession was not good for UK households, with their total wealth falling by a cool £1tn in 2008. UK householders were not happy. By 2009, they had resolved to step up and get back to spending more money so they could build up their wealth again.
By 2011, the recession was long gone, and UK households had built up their total wealth to a staggering £7tn. Can you guess what happened next? Yup, that’s right. Boom. Another recession. The data are clear. If aggregate UK household wealth rises to around £7tn, the people of the UK kick back and stop spending as much.
Yes, that is a pretty silly theory. But this type of theory is what got me interested in macro. If you replace “assets” with “debt” in my story… does it make more sense? Or is it a confusion of correlation with causation? And if debt in the UK (and US) caused an AD crisis, why is Australia different? What if debt merely correlates with the level of nominal spending, and does not cause it?
This post is a roundabout way of saying that Nick Rowe’s post on who controls the size of the Sun is one of the most enlightening things I’ve read this year. If you’ve not read it, I recommend it to you very highly indeed.
Chris Giles has an excellent piece on ditching the output gap which I won’t quote fully to avoid the wrath of the crack team of copyright enforcement lawyers at the FT:
Ditching the output gap concept would not resolve the big economic debates of the day but it would at least free them from some unnecessary constraints. Monetary policy makers would no longer have to act so surprised that inflation has remained stubbornly high alongside economic weakness. In fiscal policy, the authorities would have to accept that they do not know how much of the deficit is structural and needs action, and how much will go away as the economy recovers.
The rest is just as good.
Chris Dillow’s response to my call for an NGDP target raised the (persistent) suggestion that the UK supply-side is not able to keep up with demand growth. This puts Chris in the same position as that held by inflation hawks like Andrew Sentance, I suppose – an odd alliance.
Jason Rave’s analysis is probably my favourite, as he nails inflation targeting as the source of all this woe, advising that we should ignore the “inflationary illusions“. Here, here!
I don’t really have much to add to all this discussion, but I’d like to attempt a quick defence of the much-maligned UK supply-side.
If we take the liberty of ignoring the effect of the VAT changes as Whitehall takes a larger cut of nominal spending, a supply-side constraint on demand growth just does not look that obvious. This graph shows the annual rate of change of both nominal GDP at basic prices, and real GDP (note this is the change over four quarters, not the more volatile quarter-on-quarter rate of change):
In 2011 as a whole, NGDP at Basic Prices – the income actually available to produce new stuff – increased just 2%. And there was a 0.7% increase in output. Is that really such a terrible supply-side performance?
So I think the VAT change is perfectly sufficient to explain the size of the “wedge” between 2011 NGDP (a pathetic 3% even including VAT) and output growth, and the UK supply-side performance gives little evidence for pessimism about whether faster demand growth would only be inflationary.
Chris Dillow produces this graph:
…and makes a rather grand claim:
You can read this chart as a refutation of neoliberalism. Neoliberals thought that if only taxes could be cut and labour’s bargaining power weakened, that capital spending would rise and economic growth follow. This has not happened. And it is, surely, unlikely that the corporate tax cuts Osborne announced in the Budget will significantly turn things around.
The graph Chris uses is confusing; it is hard to distinguish between cyclical movements in (private non-financial) corporate income (or retained earnings, gross saving) and movements in corporate capital formation. Here’s a graph of the two series in nominal terms:
I would hesitate to pull out any divergent trend between these series except at around 2002/3. This is curious, because for the UK economy as whole, gross capital formation has stayed roughly at 16-18% of GDP for a while, if we are permitted to count the late 1980’s as a cyclical boom and 2008 onwards as a cyclical slump:
The sectoral breakdown of capital formation does back the case that Business Investment was going sideways since around 2000. But total capital formation keeps growing. This is the graph of the volume of capital formation broken down by sector – sadly the ONS do not have data before 1997:
Housebuilding will contribute to PNFC income but not (greatly) to PNFC capital formation, because new houses are allocated to the household sector’s capital account. The growth in housebuilding might explain to a small extent the divergence between corporate gross saving (retained earnings) and corporate capital formation which Chris is looking for. I have not attempted to analyse that further, but it may well be an insignificant effect, for example if the UK housebuilders were distributing most of their income rather than saving it.
This story does offer up a possible explanation for the lack of PNFC capital formation: the real resources required for capital formation were scarce, and UK housebuilders simply outbid other firms. It wasn’t possible to build a lot of new houses and a lot of new factories, in other words.
This argument could be extended to the concurrent expansion of government investment; a simple “crowding out”, though the scale of expansion in fiscal investment spending is less significant prior to 2007 . Absent the expansion of deficit-funded fiscal spending under the Blair/Brown government, the Bank of England would have cut interest rates to keep nominal spending and inflation in line, a point Mervyn King has made before. Lower (real) interest rates could have encouraged more investment spending, ceteris paribus.
The causation could go the other way, of course, as Chris might claim; a lack of domestic capital investment opportunities freed up resources for housebuilding etc. Food for thought, anyway.
Will Hutton has outed Business Secretary Vince Cable as a supporter of NGDP targeting. The Guardian have Hutton interviewing Cable this weekend. Will Hutton frequently advocates for an NGDP target in his Observer/Guardian columns; it was also known that Cable’s Special Advisor, Giles Wilkes, was a reader of Scott Sumner’s blog and supporter of NGDP targeting. The influence of blogs on policymakers is revealed!
Here’s a transcript of the last four minutes of the video, discussing macro policy:
Hutton: Would you advocate pegging the pound to the Euro, not joining, pegging the pound to the Euro, to kind of lock in the competitive exchange rate we’ve got?
Cable: I don’t think that works. We’ve had all kind of experience of trying to peg exchange rates, not least what happened under Mrs Thatcher and it was a terrible mess you may remember. So I don’t think in practice that can be made to work. But I think you have put your finger on a very very big policy issue that we’ve hardly talked about actually in the last few years. Which is that the biggest consequence of economic policy since the last three years has been a big devaluation of the currency, it’s about 25% and it has provided a big push, “kick” if you like, to British industry.
It has partially worked, it is one of the reasons why the automobile industry is growing quite rapidly. I think it will continue to get us growing, but you quite rightly say it hasn’t had the dramatic effects it did have in the mid 1990’s for example.
The big question you raise about the exchange rate is this. That in the past, I think this has happened now 3 times, whenever the British real economy has started motoring, it’s been crushed by an overvalued exchange rate. In the Tory years it was done deliberately. In the Howe budgets, Howe/Thatcher budgets, 1980s, they used a very high exchange rate to crush inflation. And in the process destroyed quite a lot of manufacturing industry.
It happened again in 1990 and it happened in a less deliberate way through the long period of Labour government where the exchange rate was clearly overvalued, we had a big contraction in manufacturing industry. And under the last government I think it went down from 18% to about 10% of GDP as a result of the fact the exchange rate in real terms was too high.
The challenge you’re posing which I think is exactly the right one, is how we stop that happening again. Because if it happens again all the stuff I’m doing about promoting industry policy and apprenticeships and so on, it could easily be swept away if this experience is repeated.
Hutton: I have the solution. You’re going to give a yes or no answer. If you won’t peg the pound to the euro your other option to keep a competitive exchange rate is this.
That we change, we require, the Bank of England not to target inflation with its inflation target, but instead to target the growth of all goods and services in the economy, so called money…
Cable: Money GDP. I’m very attracted by that.
Hutton: You are in favour of moving from an inflation target to a money GDP target?
Cable: I’m attracted by that.
Hutton: Because that is the way of doing it. If you do that, you do two things. We would guarantee to our banks that their balance sheets would become more manageable over time. And we would also assure with QE that the exchange rate would remain competitive.
So I mean can I tease you, [are you] not just attracted to it Vince, come on – I’m for it, are you for it?
Cable: Well look, one of the boring things about being a Cabinet Minister, is that the following day the Guardian says Minister instructs Governor of the Bank of England to do X or Y, and I’m not going to write your headlines for you. But no, look, the economic logic you’ve set out is impeccable, let’s leave it at that.
Hutton: Vince Cable, thanks very much indeed.
[Errors and omissions in the transcript are my own!]
Cable’s comment about the high exchange rate “crushing” the British economy under Labour seems somewhat odd. Manufacturing output shrunk between 2000 and 2003 but was otherwise growing modestly under Labour up to the beginning of 2008. Other more productive service industries grew faster, notably finance, so manufacturing as a proportion of GDP shrunk. That’s what’s supposed to happen in advanced economies. No big deal.
It’s not clear (to me) exactly why Hutton/Cable think NGDP targeting would benefit manufacturing industry in particular. Perhaps they envisage active pro-industrial fiscal policy being “enabled” by stable NGDP growth? NGDP targeting is surely not going to “stabilise” the real exchange rate, nor necessarily involve devaluation, which is what both Cable and Hutton appear to want.
But it is revealing that Cable knows what is coming; he is willing to take a position on NGDP targeting in an public interview, rather than take the easy road and defend the status quo.
H/T to commenter “anonymous” on Scott’s blog.