Recently, there has been great concern among policymakers worldwide about rising food prices and increased food-price volatility. It is widely believed that oil and food prices have become closely linked after 2006, owing in part to a shift in US biofuel policies. This column presents evidence that challenges this conventional wisdom.
The long-lasting stagnation in Italy has often been explained by the country’s lost of competitiveness, but focus on total factor productivity has been scarce. This column discusses the effect of capital and labour misallocation on the productivity slowdown. Such misallocation could not result from labour rigidity, but could be due to limited ICT investment and penetration. Rigid non-meritocratic management practices can greatly affect ICT exploitation, and subsequently – overall productivity growth.
Of the three pillars of the nascent European banking union, establishing a unified bank-resolution mechanism is the most pressing issue. This column suggests some changes to the existing Single Resolution Mechanism proposals. The decision to initiate resolution should be left to the ECB and national resolution authorities. Debt automatically convertible into equity when capital thresholds are violated could partially replace liabilities subject to bail-in. The Single Bank Resolution Fund must be supranational to ensure the credibility of the mechanism.
Two regional trade agreements are centre of attention in Ukraine: the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU – that for the time being Ukraine has rejected – and the Eurasian Customs Union with Russia, that Ukraine has been invited (or pressured) to join. Rather than choosing between the two, Ukraine should focus on reducing policy frictions that negatively affect trade through processes that mobilise firms and industries on both sides of the border. The recent proposal by Ukraine to establish a joint commission among Ukraine, Russia and the EU to promote trade could be a step in this direction.
Does government quality affect the size and evolution of regional inequality? This column approaches this question using regional data for 46 countries with different degrees of economic development over the period 1996-2006. We find that there is a strong negative association between quality of government and within-country disparities. Countries with better quality of government register lower levels of spatial inequality.
During the recent turmoil in the Eurozone, little attention has been paid to one of the euro’s founding objectives – price convergence. This column argues that the euro has in fact been very successful in this regard. In a study of the pricing behaviour of Apple, IKEA, H&M, and Zara, the authors find that price dispersion is 30–50% lower for countries in a currency union than for those with a fixed exchange rate.
Basel III is coming into focus. The fundamental logic of the regulatory changes seems sensible, but the devil is in the detail – empirical implementation. This column discusses a detailed quantitative study, incorporating analytical calculations, Monte Carlo simulations and results from observed data. It concludes that the Basel Committee has taken three and a half steps backwards and half a step forward. If implemented, the framework is likely to lead to less robust risk forecasts than current methodologies.
Two important long-run trends in economic geography are steady urbanisation and agglomeration to the big cities. This column presents recent research on population trends focusing on fixed regions over time. In seven of the eight countries studied, the region containing the largest metropolitan area significantly increased in population share at the expense of the rest of the country over the past few centuries. A ‘new economic geography’ model with multiple, asymmetric regions can replicate this new stylised fact.
The sustainability of government debt cannot be determined with certainty. This column presents an early warning indicator to predict sovereign debt crises using a stochastic simulation framework. What counts is the risk of a significant rise in public debt, more so than the expected evolution of the debt level. A key determinant of the indicator is the quality of budgetary policies in controlling the government budget in the event of adverse shocks.
There is widespread agreement that government protection of banks contributed to the financial crisis, leading to proposals to require banks to finance a larger share of their portfolios with equity instead of debt – thus forcing shareholders to absorb losses instead of taxpayers. This column argues that equity ratios relative to asset risk are what matter, not equity ratios per se. Although higher equity requirements for banks may be desirable, the costs of reduced loan supply should be taken into account.
The global crisis changed the face of monetary policy. This column, written by the IMF’s chief economist, reviews the main changes. It draws on contributions to a recent IMF conference on the topic.
Many studies find evidence of a growing income inequality in China. However, the majority of these studies may be constructing biased measures of inequality. This column presents evidence from a new study on how inequality in China is overstated if one ignores the spatial differences in the cost of living. With a booming urban housing market that displays a high degree of heterogeneity, accounting for spatial price differences is essential.
In recent years, European coal consumption has increased, while natural gas consumption has declined – despite Europe’s commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. This perverse scenario is partly attributable to EU policies. Subsidies to renewables and energy efficiency targets have the unfortunate side effect of lowering carbon prices, thus partially offsetting their environmental benefits. Raising the EU carbon price would be preferable to employing multiple policy instruments, since it would minimise distortions in energy markets, achieve cost efficiency, and raise fiscal revenues.
The views and theories on the impossible trinity are conflicting. This column discusses some of the theories and their potential drawbacks. It points out that the impossible trinity has policy relevance for advances economies because their currencies are often close substitutes, and exchange rates follow expectations. For emerging economies, however, the policies implied by the impossible trinity could not be sustained due to the instability of their financial markets.
Before the onset of the financial crisis, European households and non-financial firms were borrowing heavily in lower-yielding foreign currencies to finance their home mortgages or business investments, even though they did not necessarily have a steady income in the currency concerned. Five years after the financial crisis, banks still hold a substantial amount of foreign currency loans to unhedged borrowers on their balance sheets. This column quantifies the systemic risk that these foreign currency loans pose to the European banking sector.
Having promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure the survival of the euro, the ECB now faces the problem of record high unemployment combined with a strong currency. There is accumulating evidence that the ECB is more willing to fight currency appreciation than the Bundesbank would have been. Capital inflows have been a key source of recent upward pressure on the euro. Should this continue, the ECB may need to intervene more aggressively in order to promote economic recovery in the Eurozone.
Higher asset prices increase the value of firms’ collateral, strengthen banks’ balance sheets, and increase households’ wealth. These considerations perhaps motivated the Federal Reserve’s intervention to support the housing market. However, higher housing prices may also lead banks to reallocate their portfolios from commercial and industrial loans to real-estate loans. This column presents the first evidence on this crowding-out effect. When housing prices increase, banks on average reduce commercial lending and increase interest rates, leading related firms to cut back on investment.
Preferential trade agreements have been proliferating since the 1990s. However, research that focuses on differences of design of such agreements is scarce. This column analyses whether this is the case by exploring the effect of depth of preferential trade agreements on trade flows. It concludes that deep agreements have larger trade flow effects than shallow ones.
Since the advent of the Eurozone sovereign-debt crisis, economic commentators have drawn attention to macroeconomic imbalances within the Eurozone. This column presents evidence on the link between macroeconomic imbalances and differences in culture – or more specifically, interpersonal trust. A conservative estimatation suggests that a one standard-deviation increase in trust reduces macroeconomic imbalances by about a quarter of a standard deviation. Moreover, differences in interpersonal trust can explain a fifth of the variation in intra-Eurozone imbalances.
The impact of policy uncertainty on economic activity is potentially important, but controversial because it is hard to identify and quantify. Recent research provides a framework to identify the impacts of policy uncertainty on firm decisions, and finds it has strong effects in the context of international trade. China’s WTO accession secured its most-favoured nation status in the US, and the evidence shows this reduction in uncertainty can explain a significant fraction of its export boom to the US.
Eliminating corruption is a central policy goal of policymakers around the globe. It is known that corruption is a barrier to economic development because it increases the costs and risk of business activity, and deters investment. This column discusses a new study analysing the opposite causal relationship – the effect of economic growth on corruption. Both theoretical and empirical evidence show that economic growth causes the amount of corruption to fall.
Individuals moving from long-term unemployment into work face a number of challenges. This column discusses the use of temporary in-work support during this transition. Recent experimental evidence has shown the potential for such support to have a positive long-term effect. It can increase not only employment entry but also employment retention, and so may provide a means of addressing the low pay, no pay cycle.
Policymakers fear the negative employment effects of foreign direct investment. This column provides recent empirical evidence on FDI and domestic employment. The results show that FDI has positive effects on domestic employment. Furthermore, our new empirical research finds a non-negative relationship between Japanese firms' foreign activities and their suppliers' domestic employment.
Preferential import policies that allow developing markets to export to advanced economies are intended to dynamically promote development rather than just provide basic gains from trade. This column argues that the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act achieves the latter but not the former, distorting incentives along the value-added chain. While beneficial, preferential trade deals are not a panacea and are certainly not a replacement for pro-development policies.
A key Millennium Development Goal was to halve the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day. This was met five years ahead of schedule, and the World Bank is promoting a new goal of ‘shared prosperity’ defined in terms of the growth rate of incomes in the bottom 40% of households. This column discusses research showing that there is a strong one-for-one relationship between overall growth and average income growth in the poorest quintiles. Overall growth is thus still important.
Around the world, civil service reform is viewed as necessary to deliver public services effectively and to foster development. However, evidence is thin on how the management of bureaucrats affects the provision of public services. This column presents new evidence from Nigeria linking completion rates of government projects to bureaucractic management practices. Greater autonomy is associated with higher completion rates, whereas performance monitoring and incentive schemes seem to backfire. The most effective private-sector management practices may not be suited to public sector bureaucracies.
Many Eurozone banks are still in a fragile state following the Global Crisis. This vulnerability will be highlighted as the ECB takes charge of bank supervision, and the EZ moves towards a banking union. This column proposes a Eurozone bank restructuring agency as a way to speed up the crisis resolution. This temporary, centralised agency would be in charge of restructuring viable and non-viable banks throughout the Eurozone. Solving the problem of legacy assets is a necessary step towards a banking union.
Though trade union density and its trends vary considerably across Western European countries, in most of them the current density has fallen down in comparison to 30 years ago. This column reviews some explanations for the decline of unionisation and discusses some of the challenges unions need to face. Union membership could still be stabilised because it is embedded in social, economic, and political structures of the western European countries.
A major feature of globalisation in the last decades has been the emergence of global supply chains, especially in Asia. This column explains how supply chains may increase the risks of shock contagion across countries. It shows how the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the floods in Thailand had ripple effects on the Japanese automobile industry across countries. It suggests that greater international cooperation, such as the development of sister industrial clusters, is one way to mitigate the risks.
This column argues that asset purchases and forward guidance by central banks can be effective in reducing financial market participants’ tail-risk perceptions. US data suggest that, since their inception in 2008, the unconventional policies adopted by the Federal Reserve have significantly compressed perceptions of tail risk. Despite increases in risk premia during the recent ‘tapering’ episode, estimates of tail-risk perceptions still remain significantly below the levels observed when the measures were introduced. Still, the effects of exit on tail-risk perceptions remain uncertain, and will require careful monitoring.
The idea that there is a common tipping point in the relationship between public debt and economic growth is still widespread. However, this is likely due to a misinterpretation of the existing evidence. Once we allow for the relationship between debt and growth to be country-specific, there is limited evidence supporting the presence of a within-countries debt threshold.
Based on statistical measures of different degrees of democracy vs. autocracy, this article briefly reviews the progress of democracy around the world during the past 212 years, and places democratic developments in Africa since 1960 in that context. Democracy is positively associated with education, which in turn is associated with lower fertility and greater longevity. Democracy is also associated with reduced corruption. Together, these effects suggest democracy should be good for growth – a hypothesis that is borne out by the data.
A few large firms have disproportionate influence on economic fluctuations even in large countries. Such multinational firms are likely to transmit shocks across borders. This column argues that foreign affiliates drive the real business-cycle comovement between the region of location and the parent country. A few mechanisms explaining this link are presented.
The gender gap in labour-force participation rates is still not closing up. Among other factors, cultural aspects may play a role. This column describes an experimental study, conducted with women from Italy, on the benefits of formal childcare on outcomes of children. Highly educated women are positively affected by the information about formal childcare. Low-educated mothers, however, do not increase their use of childcare facilities, or their labour supply.
The economic divergence we observe today was existent even a thousand years ago. Thanks to recent work on historical data, we can now trace the economic development of different countries centuries back in the past. This column discusses the roots of the Great Divergence between European and Asian economies. The column argues that divergence is due to the differential impact of shocks that hit economies with different structural features.
Revelations about American spying in Europe – and the backlash they have produced – threatens ongoing EU-US trade talks. This column assesses that threat, highlighting often-overlooked factors, not the least of which is the poor record of allowing security policy concerns to influence trade relations.
Retrospective voting – voting for incumbents if one’s situation has improved under the politician’s watch – is a well-established pattern. This column shows that this pattern also applies when ‘improvement’ is measured by a subjective measure of well-being. Among the stark results discussed is the finding that newly widowed women are 10% less likely to be pro-incumbent than the control group.
During the Great Recession, advanced economies have not experienced the disinflation that has historically been associated with high unemployment. This column shows that using consumers’ (as opposed to forecasters’) inflation expectations restores the traditional Phillips curve relationship for recent years. Consumers’ inflation expectations are more responsive to oil prices than those of professional forecasters. The increase in oil prices between 2009 and 2012 may in fact have prevented the onset of pernicious deflationary dynamics.
Discussions of international trade often focus on aggregate trade flows, but it is firms that trade, not countries. This column presents evidence from Norwegian export data showing that larger exporters have more customers and greater dispersion in customer size. Moreover, exporters with many customers tend to sell to importers with few suppliers. These stylised facts are captured by a model in which finding a buyer is costly. The model’s prediction that export responses are amplified in destinations with less buyer dispersion is confirmed in the data.
This column discusses the concept of leverage, its components and how to measure and monitor it. It proposes the marginal leverage ratio – a valuable supplement to the traditional absolute leverage ratio – as an early warning tool to signal episodes of excessive leverage and to determine if and how banks deleverage. By capturing the dynamics of leveraging-deleveraging cycles better than the absolute leverage ratio, the marginal leverage ratio provides an indication of risk that a stable absolute leverage ratio can conceal.
Predicting exchange rates is still an inexact science. Economic models perform poorly, and a plethora of alternative methods have been attempted. This column guides the reader through the state of the art, reviewing various predictors, models, and data specifications. Despite a large and divergent literature chasing this holy grail, the toughest benchmark remains the random walk without drift.
The resale-pricing aspect adopted by Apple’s agency model is highly controversial. Competition authorities fear that it raises retail prices. In the app market, resale pricing reduces prices to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship. Prices of eBooks, though, increased when Apple entered the industry. This column analyses why this is the case.
The immigration debate has focused on immigrants’ net fiscal impact – whether they receive more in welfare payments and other benefits than they pay back in taxes. This column summarises research showing that – contrary to popular belief – immigrants who arrived in the UK since 2000 have contributed far more in taxes than they have received in benefits. Compared with natives of the same age, gender, and education level, recent immigrants are 21% less likely to receive benefits.
Intensifying negotiations leading to the December WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali have renewed optimism for concluding the beleaguered Doha Round and boosting Asia’s trade. Agreement in Bali on tariff-quota administration, trade facilitation, and food security would improve the prospects for a Doha deal and WTO credibility. Failure at Bali, however, would spur the rise of mega-regional trade agreements – to the detriment of countries outside these agreements.
Governments wary of fiscal expansion have turned to monetary policy to stimulate slowly recovering economies. This column presents evidence that lowering interest rates is ineffective during recessions – just when fiscal policy would be most effective. If this result is robust, we are seeing recent signs of recovery in spite of austerity, not because of it.
Iceland’s 2008 capital controls are still in place to prevent outflows of domestic holdings in failed cross-border banks. However, it is important for the country’s future economic prosperity to lift the capital controls without endangering financial stability. This column discusses the risks of capital controls and gives policy recommendations for cases of the three former major Icelandic banks.
Sovereign bankruptcies occur regularly and violently. The nature of sovereign-debt problems has changed in comparison to ten years ago. This column discusses policy proposals to better resolve debt crises and prevent them from happening in the future. Such proposals are given both for the Eurozone, and at a global level.
In the upcoming UK Research Excellence Framework, a small panel of academics are tasked with rating thousands of academic submissions, which will result in university departments being ranked and public money being distributed. Given the enormity of the task and the scarcity of the resources devoted to it, this article discusses a straightforward procedure that might help, based on exactly the Bayesian methods that academic economists study and teach when considering the problem of decision-making under uncertainty.
Academics are subject to new types of evaluations. In the UK this is done via the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This column discusses some of the shortcomings of the REF and the methods individual papers are ranked. New evaluations and requirements change the incentives of economists and can affect their research – sometimes not for the better.
Private and public debt in the Eurozone increased since the 2000s, and especially so in certain countries. This column presents evidence that high levels of private and public debt, together with deleveraging of all sectors, are especially harmful for economic growth. Private sector debt is more detrimental to growth than public sector debt. Therefore, policies aimed at reducing the private debt could yield important benefits.
Bank capitalisation determines the probability of a bank failure. This column discusses how bank’s corporate governance affects its capitalisation. Corporate governance, in which the bank acts in the interest of its shareholders, is defined as a good one. Such governance, however, can lead to lower bank capitalisation. It also has possibly negative implications for financial stability.
The depth of the recent financial crisis is often attributed to excessively high leverage of corporations and banks. This column analyses corporate leverage in the long-run, and in particular the shift from bilateral to multilateral firm-bank relationships in the UK. This shift is related to the firms’ use of debt finance, and subsequently to their increased leverage.
Several theories link polygamy to poverty. Polygamy is concentrated in west Africa and has declined in recent decades. Geographic variation in women’s agricultural productivity does not predict differences in the prevalence of polygamy, but historical inequality and exposure to the slave trade do. Although contemporary female education does not reduce polygamy, areas with more educational investment in the past have less polygamy today. Conflict and lower rainfall lead to small increases in polygamy, whereas lower child mortality leads to a large decrease. National policies appear to have little effect.
In response to the Great Recession, unemployment insurance has been extended in many countries, but there is controversy over whether such extensions are optimal. Unemployment insurance entails direct fiscal costs, and encourages job seekers to prolong their search. The familiar benefit of unemployment insurance is that it allows the jobless to maintain their consumption. However, by reducing the search effort of other workers, it also improves a given worker’s chance of finding a job. Unemployment insurance extensions appear less costly when these search externalities are considered.
Since the adoption of the Anti-Monopoly law in 2007, the Chinese competition authorities have stepped up enforcement of mergers and anti-competitive practices. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce has relied heavily on behavioural remedies in merger cases (as opposed to the more efficient structural remedies favoured by the European Commission). Furthermore, merger policy has been used to protect domestic industries from competition. In contrast, Chinese fines for cartels have shown no foreign bias, and if anything have been too low.
Why are FDI flows between China and technologically-advanced countries surprisingly small? This column analyses the issue in light of China's quid pro quo policy that makes technology transfer a precondition of foreign firms selling in China. We find that the policy provides significant gains for China, but losses to its FDI partners.
Trade agenda consists of new and old themes, often closely intertwined. Among the new themes, mega-FTAs– in particular the Trans-Pacific and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – have been especially popular. This column discusses the nature of mega-FTAs and their relationship with the multilateral rules. The column concludes that such FTAs promote deep regional integration, but also have positive impact on non-members.
The conventional wisdom is that managing academics is futile. This column challenges this view by comparing management performance in UK universities with measures of research and teaching quality. Universities with better management have better performance. This holds for all types of universities, and the results are not driven by differences in resources. Recruitment, retention, and promotion are the most important aspects of management in universities, but management at the level of academic departments – not human resources departments – is what matters.
Modern banks operate in a complex global financial ecosystem. This column argues that proper regulation requires an updating of our ideas about how they operate. Modern banks finance bond portfolios with uninsured money market instruments, and thus link cash portfolio managers and risk portfolio managers. Gone are the days when banks linked ultimate borrowers with ultimate savers via loans and deposits. The Flow of Funds should be updated to reflect the new realities.
In recent years, the growth rates of Latin American countries have been cooling-off in comparison to the period of 2004-08. This column argues that the cooling-off is not due to a change in external factors because these have remained favourable. Persistent economic growth can be achieved by internal transformations. It cannot be sustained solely by the external conditions.
Financial transaction taxes are designed to raise revenue and stabilise financial markets, but their effect on market volatility is controversial. This column presents evidence from the sudden reintroduction of stamp duty on new housing projects in Singapore. Overall trading volume declined while volatility increased. These effects were strongest for previously underpriced projects, consistent with the hypothesis that informed speculators were more strongly discouraged by the tax than noise traders. This suggests that financial transaction taxes may reduce the informativeness of asset prices.
Today’s austerity, many argue, is stupid. This column argues that today’s EZ austerity may arise from stupidity before the crisis – specifically lacklustre structural reform. Excess debt arose in nations maintaining unsustainable living standards and welfare systems in the face of poor growth. The Crisis forced radical adjustments such as austerity in a recession. It’s not austerity which caused low growth, but low pre-Crisis growth which ultimately caused austerity. The way out of austerity is fundamental pro-growth reforms that create room for more gradual fiscal adjustment.
New micro-level data sets allow better testing of existing and new hypotheses on how banks operate in the often challenging environment of emerging markets. This column introduces an eBook that reports on the findings of a recent conference in London on using different research methodologies and data sources in banking research.
Unlike the US, Europe is struggling to recover from the crisis. This is especially the case in certain European countries. This column discusses why the process of convergence in the Eurozone has slowed down. It proposes a way for European institutions to cope with the structural problems – with individual country-level reforms and a federal budget. Otherwise, the alternative could be a disintegration of the Eurozone.
There is a large and growing literature on peer effects, but much less is known about the role of friendships and social relationships in student outcomes. The best evidence on the mechanisms behind aggregate peer effects suggests an important role for discipline and disruption. Very recent research suggests that friends can also have a substantial effect on student outcomes, and in many cases the effect of friends appears to be independent of aggregate peer effects.
Reduced policy uncertainty can contribute to a country’s economic growth. This column highlights the negative influence of policy uncertainty and political instability on the growth of Japan. A survey shows that international trade and tax polices pose the greatest uncertainty on Japanese companies. The column concludes with a discussion of the mechanism via which uncertainty affects corporate behavior.
What are the determinants of banks’ liquidity holdings and how are these reshaped by liquidity regulation? Based on a sample of 7,000 banks in 30 OECD countries, this column argues that banks’ liquidity buffers are determined by a combination of both bank- and country-specific variables. The presence of liquidity regulation substitutes for most of these determinants while complementing the role of size and institutions’ disclosure requirements. The complementary nature of disclosure and liquidity requirements provides a strong rationale for considering them jointly in the design of regulation.