[2905] Stimulus is about expectation setting too

There are criticisms that some of elements of the stimulus announced by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad do not have immediate impacts, and so it should be replaced with more immediate responses. Responses like bigger cash transfer and bigger spending now. And the new Cabinet seems on course to enlarge the stimulus.

I am here to say, this stimulus needs to address several time horizons. The present as well as the near future. And this is why medium run elements are crucial.

One aspect why it is important is the need to encourage the hoarding of labor in order to minimize job losses. It is about building expectation justifying that hoarding.

I have a simple chart to explain how that is possible:

The chart shows the level of employed labor for 3 types of period. There are two lines signifying a stimulus without medium term expectation setting (blue) and a stimulus with one (red).

A stimulus without medium term expectation setting: companies faced with an negative economic shock will shed labor. This will increase the national unemployment rate. Increased unemployment will affect income negatively and that in turn will adversely affect consumption growth, and inevitably the GDP growth. Companies will shed labor because they do not have a clear view of the medium-term horizon and will optimize their labor size now given current situation.

In constrast, a stimulus with medium term expectation setting will provide these companies with clearer view of the medium-term. It tells them they will need the labor soon, but not now. So, rather than shedding labor, they would try to conserve it and in doing so, not reduce their capacity (by too much). In effect, it will help cushion the unemployment rate from rising as fast as it would under a stimulus without medium term expectation.

So in theory, a stimulus with medium term elements will shed fewer workers than a stimulus without.

Here is the thing: we can do both immediate and medium term elements in a stimulus. There is little reason to decide which one should come in and which one should go out. Both time horizons can be addressed. Both need to be addressed.

There is also another element in play to justify medium term plans: while we are facing both demand and supply disruptions, stimulus is not good at handling the latter. Pumping more money will not solve the supply-side. This gap can be addressed by expectations.


[2633] What is the benchmark of failure for austerity?

Has austerity failed?

In the sense of expansionary fiscal contraction, it has. Expansionary fiscal contraction, in short, suggests that government contraction will immediately expand the private sector. That particular interpretation of fiscal austerity has clearly failed to bear out in countries under crisis. It is like the argument that says reducing taxes will increase government revenue, which is untrue if the economy is on the left side of the Laffer curve.

I do not believe in expansionary fiscal contraction. Other parts of the economy have to grow more than the fiscal contraction caused by austerity if the economy is to expand. In times when taxes go up and public spending goes down, especially in an economy dominated by the public sector, an immediate expansion will be impossible.

But the hypothesized result of expansionary fiscal contraction is a narrow benchmark to measure austerity on. Maybe it is a poetic justice to measure harsh policy harshly.

But the success of austerity can be measured against future growth instead of current growth (or rather current contraction). The idea of austerity is to swallow the bitter pill and get well after that. The point of putting government finance in order is to ensure that the government will not go bankrupt or unable to finance its operations.

Swallowing the bitter pill means the same operations that the government would be unable to finance if it had not switched gears would be cut down to a more reasonable level given the condition of public finance. What makes the cut down bearable is that it usually comes with aids: money for government under severe financial pressure. It means instead of cutting down services drastically under no austerity-no aids condition, the austerity scenario with aids prevents the bankruptcy scenario from happening altogether, with less severe cut.

The cut in public spending in times of recession will be painful and that much is clear. Yet, pointing out that austerity is painful is not enough as a benchmark to say that austerity has failed. There has to be a comparison and the comparison is, how more painful austerity is compared to a scenario of bankruptcy?

There is every reason to believe that the latter scenario (the bankruptcy scenario) will be more painful than the former (austerity). If cutting a significant level of services under the austerity program is painful, imagine a complete collapse of services when the government goes bankrupt. Austerity is the bitter pill to avoid a worse fate.

It is worth stating that austerity is the last option. It is required when countries run out of its economic wits. Despite criticism macroeconomics has suffered in the past few years, I think we still know enough that there are wide options of tools (monetary policy anyone?) before we will be left with severe austerity program.

So, how much pain avoided then should be the benchmark of success for any austerity program. The avoidance of government collapse is another benchmark of success because a collapse is exactly what austerity should aim to prevent.

So, has austerity failed?

When somebody pronounces the failure of austerity, I am almost always wanted to raise my hand and ask, “what is the benchmark of failure?” I suspect those who pronounce the failure believe that pain itself is a failure. If that is the benchmark, then I will disagree with it as I have explained earlier: pain alone is not enough; we need to ask if austerity is more painful than no austerity.

This however does not mean austerity should be done in one shot. There is only so much pain anybody can bear before a society collapses or like in the case of Germany, turns to fascist and other extremists for cure. The point of austerity is to prevent that collapse.

That does not mean austerity should be done in one shot. I prefer an austerity program distributed over time, with a combination of aids, debt relief, low interest rate, long repayment and fiscal reform of government under austerity program.

The alternative to austerity is expanded government spending but in many countries under pressure, they do not have the financial resources to do just that. And there are few countries that are willing to throw money into a blackhole called “helping others” without any fiscal reform associated with a typical austerity program.


[2493] What happened in October 2011?

Does anybody know why the leading indicator went up in October?

I see the money supply went up, which means demand for money went up, which in turn suggests there were increase in economic activities. But why?

Economics Politics & government

[2417] Being honest about crime

There are always victims in an economic recession. It can push individuals into desperation and force them potentially to do something that they would not otherwise do. It can turn the man on the streets into a criminal.

There is a relationship between economic recessions and unemployment rates and there is a relationship between unemployment and crime rates. An empty stomach has a way of convincing that the wrongness of stealing is only a secondary worry to the concern of the stomach. Rule of law can be meaningless in times of desperation.

The hungrier one gets because of external circumstances, the greater the erosion on one’s belief in the rule of law. The reward of specific types of crime becomes enticing.

Although there are risks involved in committing the crime, its relative immediate reward has the potential of immediately relieving hunger. A little chance of not going hungry is better than no chance at all.

Before these sentences are misconstrued as a justification or even an encouragement for criminal activities, let it be known the difference between describing and prescribing. One describes without making value judgment. One prescribes with value judgment. This is an effort at the former.

The relationship between economic recession (or perhaps the term economic downturn is a better phrase to escape the banality of technicalities) and unemployment rate is well-established. This requires no further exposition. The relationship between unemployment and crime rates is also well-explored.

What makes exposition important for the latter is that in Malaysia, there is an increasing tendency to ignore it. In its place, there is a belief that an alphabet soup causes the decline in reported crime rate.

That narrative needs to be assessed and then made blunt in the interest of sincerity. Partisan political discussions sometimes can push honesty aside for political convenience. It is all about brownie points. The utility of free speech is essential in putting less-than-honest assertion in perspective.

There are many documentations proving how unemployment contributes to crime rate. Karin Edmark in 2005 showed how ”unemployment had a positive and significant effect on some property crimes in Sweden.”

Property crimes can be associated with theft, which can be associated to what can be called as crime of the stomach. In 2002, Eric Gould, Bruce Weinberg and David Mustard found a similar result for general crime rate for young, unskilled labor in the United States, between 1979 and 1997.

Steven Raphael and Rudolf Winter-Ebmer in 2001 found the same relationship in the United States in the 1990s. They wrote ””¦a substantial portion of the decline in property crime rates during the 1990s is attributable to the decline in the unemployment rate.”

There is little reason why it should be different for other parts of the world, including Malaysia.

It is highly instructive to learn that if indeed actual crime rate had decreased in Malaysia, it happened only while the economy was recovering, thus creating the jobs needed to reduce unemployment.

It is equally instructive that crime rate was on the rise around the same time the Great Recession was at its peak, adversely affecting external demand for Malaysian goods and through that, jobs in Malaysia.

In February 2009, the unemployment rate was 4.1 per cent. In the same month in 2010, the rate was 3.6 per cent. Out of the 12 months, the 11 months of 2009 had higher unemployment rate than the same month a year later. If anybody requires any reminder, it was 2010 when the domestic economy was recovering at a worthwhile rate. The year 2009 was just horrible.

The severity of that number can be put in better context. The annual rate for 2006, 2007 and 2008 was around 3.3 per cent. In 2009, it is estimated to be 3.7 per cent. The estimate for 2010 is already lower than the year before, at 3.5 per cent.

As for the 2010 crime rate, the crime index fell by about 15 per cent compared to the previous year, according to a Bernama report. It also stated that the ”achievement was a result of the Royal Malaysia Police’s (PDRM) 12 initiatives to battle crime nationwide,” those initiatives being the Government Transformation Program. The arrogance and the dishonesty are truly remarkable.

The narrative of the results from the government’s effort at combating crime must compete with the mainstream uncontroversial economic one. This is not to say government effort is worthless, but for it and its supporters to claim too much credit, or in this case all the credit for the alleged drop in crime rate without even blinking amid the well-established and stronger case between unemployment and crime rate is too much to take. That is undue credit.

It must compete, just like how the government and its supporters claimed the undue credit for the Malaysian economic recovery when in fact, it was mostly the then rising tide of global economy that lifted the Malaysian boat.

Little things do matter. Actual effort at combating crime by the government and the wider public do matter and they are most appreciated. Nevertheless, do not be dishonest about it. Such dishonesty will discredit all the good real things done.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on August 21 2011.


[2413] Looking for inverted yield curve

There have been talks of recession hitting the United States again. Extremely shocking manufacturing data from the US today is probably partly fueling the talks.

Although prediction is a risky game, there are various indicators one can use to gauge the likelihood of a recession. One of them is the US treasury yield curve.

An inverted yield curve may signal a recession, or at least some kind of pessimism in the market. The reason is that market participants will expect rates to go down during a recession. Future inflation rate meanwhile is expected to decrease as demand dies down. With those expectations, the bondholders will not require too high a returns.

Now, despite the talks, the current curve is sloping upward.

As you can see, the three yield curves in the last few weeks have been well behaving, unlike the one about 3 years ago just after the peak of the financial crisis. The September 2008 yield was inverted up to 2-year term.

So, there is no recession in the current yield curve. At least, not yet. Quite the contrary (unless we will be seeing stagflation), there is considerable inflationary expectation beyond the 5-year term relative to now; it is a pretty steep curve. That may suggest some kind of recovery.

Nevertheless, looking at the yield curve right now might be flawed, just because the Federal Funds Rate is already close to zero. Given that the US is possibly in a liquidity trap, the yield curve cannot be inverted.

Still, a relatively flat curve could be used as a signal of recession, especially if liquidity premium theory is taken into account. If the curve keeps sinking like it has for the past few weeks (so far, it seems to be due to flight to security phenomenon), we could be seeing a flat yield curve in a couple of months. Then, the case for recession will be stronger.

Of course, the curve should be viewed in context of other data for one to have a more educated guess about the future.

Another story is that the yield curve has been sinking lower and lower. The market is telling S&P something: S&P has got it wrong.