Team Vox wishes to thanks all its readers and contributors for making 2015 a great year for the site. Vox will post no new columns between 25 December 2015 and 2 January 2016. There is, however, plenty to catch up on. This column presents a list of topical columns written by leading economists in 2015. It also presents a few statistics on Vox’s popularity.
The effect of exchange rate devaluations on a country’s exports is frequently debated, with some supporting a strong impact and others suggesting no sizeable response of exports to relative price changes. This column argues that firm heterogeneity in terms of productivity and size can explain the opposing views. The measured reaction of aggregate exports to relative price movements is largely determined by the reaction of the most productive/largest companies.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement was reached in October following seven years of negotiations. This column examines how Japan can maximise the TPP’s effect on its economy, identifying several additional policies that will be necessary. These include support for Japanese small and medium enterprises seeking to expand operations overseas, and policies that encourage and ease incoming foreign direct investment.
The carving up of Africa by colonial powers is often a touch-stone for those concerned with African development and underdevelopment. This column looks into the effect imposed borders had on splitting ethnicities across countries. It finds that colonial border designs have spurred political violence and that ethnic partitioning is systematically linked to civil conflict, discrimination by the national government, and instability.
With the Doha Round finally out of the way, WTO members must decide how to proceed with unfinished business and new issues. This column argues for re-thinking the WTO approach to tariff cutting based on insights drawn from recent research. The next time around, deals may be more likely to be struck if emerging economies negotiate tariff cuts among themselves, reciprocally – as the original GATT members did in 1947.
A vocal set of economists argue that economies can succeed in the absence of strong state and public institutions. This column looks to the ‘Champagne fairs’ of medieval Europe for lessons in how important public institutions can be. Public authorities are crucial – for good or for ill. When rulers provided these as generalised institutional services to everyone, the Champagne fairs flourished. When they granted them to privileged groups only, trade declined and business moved elsewhere.
With the new UN Global Goals agreed this autumn, the issue of poverty is at the top of global agenda. This column presents a new book that reviews past and present debates on poverty in both rich and poor countries. The challenges ahead are in assuring the political will and administrative capabilities to implement and enforce sound anti-poverty policies, and in adapting them to differing circumstances and evolving knowledge about their efficacy.
In November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer unveiled plans for debt reduction in the UK over the rest of this Parliament. This column compiles the views of several experts on these plans, taken from a Centre for Macroeconomics survey. A significant number of respondents felt that the plans for debt reduction were not appropriate. There were also widespread doubts that the Chancellor’s Charter for Budgetary Responsibility would help underpin the credibility of fiscal policy.
Economic statistics are an important public good and governments typically recognise this by supporting their production, ideally through an independent agency. But producing reliable and meaningful statistics is by no means easy. In this column, former Bank of England Deputy Governor Charles Bean presents the findings from his forthcoming report on the UK’s current and future statistical needs. Addressing the challenge of measuring a modern dynamic economy not only requires statistical organisations to have the right skills, methods and technological systems – they also need to be pro-active and creative, curious and self-critical.
Thomas Piketty’s "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" quantified the evolution of wealth inequality and concentration over time and across a number of countries. This column examines existing macroeconomic models of wealth inequality through the lenses of the facts and ideas in Piketty’s book. It further examines the importance of the mechanism that Piketty champions – post-tax rate of return on capital. Gaps in existing knowledge and directions for future research are identified.
Italy’s economic performance is lagging behind other Eurozone and OECD countries. This column argues that radical changes in human capital, financial, innovation and product markets, and taxation would restore growth, but will take time to bear fruits. This leaves no room for complacency in the ongoing reform efforts.
The WTO members struck a deal in Nairobi at their Ministerial Conference that many have found hard to understand. Leading up to the conference, there was widespread agreement that the WTO’s multilateral negotiations – known as the Doha Development Agenda – should be finished or finished off, as they had dragged on too long already (since 2001). This column, by one of the world’s most seasoned trade policy experts, argues that the Nairobi Declaration finished off Doha for good, but it also finished several important elements of the original agenda. Both developed and developing nations won important gains.
The gender gap in the workplace persists, affecting women in professional and managerial occupations the most. This column looks at the gender gap among top executives at Standard & Poor’s firms and suggests that performance-related pay schemes should be better scrutinised. Increasing transparency of an executive’s compensation relative to others in similar positions might go some way towards mitigating gender pay inequality for top executives.
A good understanding of the evolution of exports over the years is crucial for the design of trade policy. This column dissects Japanese exports using a gravity model and concludes that it would be beneficial for Japanese companies to diversify their exports by shipping more to China, Europe, and South Korea.
Recent work on the importance of wealth and capital shows that it has fluctuated grossly over time in Europe. This column examines whether this pattern carries over to smaller, late-industrialising countries by looking at new historical evidence from Sweden. After being low in the pre-industrial era, Swedish wealth levels came into line with the rest of Europe in the 20th century. However, government wealth grew much faster and became more important in Sweden, largely due its public pension system. These findings highlight the role of economic and political institutions in the long-run evolution of national wealth.
Globalisation in the form of offshoring can impact the domestic labour market. This column investigates how offshoring affects workers based on their contract type. The findings indicate that the wages of South Korean manufacturing workers increase as offshoring increases, but that this impact is significantly weaker for temporary workers. One potential channel for globalisation to exacerbate inequality is therefore the contract type.
The Great Recession highlighted the prominent role that economic uncertainty plays in hindering investment and growth. This column provides new evidence that economic uncertainty can actually play a positive role by promoting the implementation of structural reforms with long-run benefits. The effect appears to be strongest for countries with poorly informed voters. These findings suggest that times of uncertainty may present an opportunity to implement reforms that would otherwise not be passed.
Accurately establishing the GATT’s starting point is important for assessments of its contributions to the post-war trading system, on which much of contemporary trade policy continues to be based. However, a frequently cited statistic is that average tariffs immediately prior to the first GATT negotiations in Geneva in 1947 were at or above 40%. This column largely debunks the 40% myth and suggests that average tariffs in 1947 were around 22%.
The recent inflows of refugees and migrants to Europe have raised new questions about how migration policies should be designed. Migrant-recipient countries are concerned not just with the number of migrants arriving, but also with their ‘quality’. This column argues that policies that screen migrants based on observable characteristics can have a detrimental effect on the quality of migrants (measured by their income). Such policies might thus fail to improve immigrants’ labour market outcomes at their destination.
Though Asian economies have maintained stable growth since 2010, their overall economic performance has slowed down compared to the peak in the 2000s. This column discusses the recent productivity trends in the Asian region and argues that the reason for the slowdown has been the end of China’s economic boom. Asian countries must undertake initiatives for achieving sustainable improvement of TFP across the region.
The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has successfully negotiated a Paris Agreement. International climate policy will be shaped by the events in Paris for years to come. This column highlights three key developments.
India is electing more and more politicians that are, or have been, accused of criminal activity. This column asks whether accused – and potentially corrupt – politicians influence economic activity by focusing on data from road construction, which is often tied to corruption. The evidence tentatively suggests that caste-based and patronage politics favours lower quality politicians, who in turn deliver benefits to specific groups. This generally leads to lower aggregate growth.
Labour mobility is an important prerequisite for the efficiency of labour markets. In the EU, however, different standards across countries present an implicit economic barrier for high-skilled professionals. This column examines how the recent EU harmonisation of professional standards in accounting affected cross-border migration relative to other professionals. The harmonisation had a strong positive effect on accountants’ cross-border migration. Harmonisation could thus be a potentially powerful tool for policymakers seeking to improve labour market efficiency.
Small businesses are the engine of innovation and job creation, and Basel regulation acknowledges their special role and discounts the capital requirements for loans to small firms. This column argues that the Basel requirements overstate the riskiness of small businesses, and that retail exposures are a much safer investment than previously thought. By forcing banks to hold a disproportionately higher amount of capital against such loans, Basel can unintentionally harm lending to small private firms.
At the heart of policy debates about our collective responses to climate change is the issue of risk and uncertainty - ‘unknown unknowns’ about the impact of global warming. In this Vox Talk, Gernot Wagner - co-author with Harvard’s Martin L. Weitzman of 'Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet’ - argues for Pigovian taxes and carbon pricing, against geoengineering solutions, and why 'we need to stick it to CO2, not to capitalism’.
Hate crimes against Muslims flared up in a number of western countries immediately after the terror attacks in Paris. This column presents evidence from the US after 9/11 suggesting that such a backlash can create a less assimilated and more isolated Muslim community. Terror attacks against western targets may have a long-term political and socio-economic impact on this generation and possibly the next.
The recent influx of refugees to Europe has stoked security fears and created anxiety about the social and economic consequences. This column provides new quantitative indicators for the intensity of migration-related fears and policy uncertainty, based on newspaper articles. The indices are presented for the US, UK, France, and Germany, and extend back to 1995. They show that recent levels of concern and uncertainty in European countries about migration are unprecedented.
Banking policy remains of great importance in the aftermath of the Global Crisis. This column presents recent research on the ability of the Single Resolution Fund to weather any future crisis scenario imaginable. The fund will be built up gradually over the coming decade, but as the losses from any future banking crisis are also likely to arise over a long period of time, the Single Resolution Fund should be sufficient to deal even with a crisis of similar proportions to the last one.
Academic economists, like any other group of professionals, are extremely competitive and concerned with measuring their own success. This column argues that that one cannot rank individual scholars’ achievements by the traditional summary measures, such as where their research is published or the institution with which they are affiliated. Properly judging success in economics requires paying attention to individual outcomes, not to aggregates that are poor signals of the individual results of which they are comprised.
The increase in the skill premium – wages of skilled workers relative to unskilled workers – has prompted research on its causes and potential remedies. This column presents new evidence suggesting that the impact of globalisation on the income distribution in industrialised countries is much stronger than initially thought. The productivity gains from having access to cheaper inputs through offshoring are not being distributed equally between the different economic actors in our rich societies.
Industrial classifications tend to depict the economy as a collection of separate sectors, and arbitrary lines are consequently drawn between these sectors. This column argues that this way of thinking ignores the complexity of production processes and management strategies, creating a divide between ‘manufacturing’ and ‘services’ which is stronger than it should be. In fact, manufacturing firms often produce and sell services to third parties – known as ‘servitisation’. Economic policies that fail to take into account the dual aspect of the activities of manufacturing firms may prove inadequate.
One of the most important effects of armed conflicts is the forced displacement of large numbers of civilians. When conflicts end, many who have left their homes return, facing the challenge of rebuilding their lives in post-conflict areas. This column analyses the outcomes of returning households during a short-lived interwar period in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Returning households, particularly those that are female-headed, face worse economic conditions. But returnees fare better on various health indicators, likely related to changes in sanitary habits picked up during displacement.
Few economists understate the importance of emerging market economies in terms of world GDP and global growth prospects. This column asks where the future of emerging markets’ investments lie. Where investors have focused in the past and institutional path dependency are important determinants of emerging markets’ allocation of international investment portfolios. This has implications for the geographical distribution of emerging markets’ portfolio investments, a force to reckon with in international financial markets.
The globalisation of innovation is proceeding at a fast pace. This column argues that the ethnic composition of a firm’s US-based inventive work force is an important factor in whether the firm engages in international collaborations. Collaborative patents are often utilised when a US public company is entering into a new foreign region for innovative work. This is especially notable in markets with weak intellectual property protections.
IMF data showed that the dollar value of ‘planetary GDP’ fell in 2015, but the IMF projects that world real GDP growth and inflation will be positive. This column notes that there is no inconsistency here. The decline in the dollar value of ‘planetary GDP’ reflects the 2015 increase in the value of the US dollar, not calculation errors or inconsistencies between real growth, inflation, and nominal GDP projections. The choice of numeraire matters in measuring nominal GDP growth, especially in years with very large currency movements such as the ones we have seen this year.
Economists are increasingly interested in measuring the relationship between women’s work and education and the number of children they have – in part as a response to public policies that aim to empower women. This column assesses the evidence and finds that whereas in the 1990s highly educated women had fewer children than women with a lower education in the US, it is no longer true today.
Whatever the result of Britain’s upcoming in-or-out referendum on EU membership, its relationship with the EU will change substantially. To assess these changes, it is important to understand how Britain has benefited from EU membership. This column argues that EU membership has brought benefits through three key mechanisms – trade, foreign investment, and finance. The current focus on UK exports to and imports from the EU may severely underestimate the true potential costs to Britain of Brexit.
Designing fiscal policy for today’s complex and uncertain economic climate is a problem that perplexes governments worldwide. This column proposes a solution – a new fiscal architecture with strengthened but budget-neutral automatic stabilisers. It won’t be easy, but overcoming predominantly political challenges will help foster steady and enduring growth.
There is growing evidence that worker productivity is contagious. This column examines the impact of co-worker networks on productivity using tools from network economics. There are indeed strong network effects in worker productivity, with increases in the productivity of an individual’s co-worker network leading to an increase in the individual’s productivity. Also, exposure to trained workers increases the productivity of non-trained workers. The findings have implications for the optimal structure of co-worker networks within firms.
Commuting fairly long distances to work has become an accepted facet of modern life in big cities. Yet very little research has been done on commuting and how elastic or inelastic it is in the face of certain shocks. This column goes through the data and assesses the impact of shocks on local employment, migration and commuting. Academics would do well to increase research into commuting in order to better develop wider employment policy.
Calls for coordination of macroeconomic policy have made a comeback since the Global Crisis. This column reviews this return of international policy coordination, both in terms of fiscal and monetary policy. It discusses recent developments and considerations in fiscal and monetary policy games, and cautions that most but not all calls for coordination are useful.
While domestic content in exports has been declining globally, the opposite trend has been observed in China. This column argues that this is mainly due to the structural transformation and FDI liberalisation in the country since 2000. As a result, individual processing exporters have substituted domestic for imported materials, both in terms of volume and varieties. These results indicate that China has become more competitive, particularly in the intermediate input sectors, which supports its ascent along the global value chains.
The diversity of European economic cycles, economic structures, and political dynamics is a strength of the Eurozone. However, sustainable arrangements are required to distribute risks and ensure that all countries can use fiscal policy to cushion economic downturns. This column proposes the creation of a system of stability bonds for the Eurozone. These could be structured to minimise moral hazard, improve governance, and ensure that fiscal policy can support growth during the next recession.
The concentration of personal wealth has received a lot of attention since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. This column investigates the UK and finds wealth distribution to be highly concentrated. The data seem to suggest that the top wealth share has increased in the UK over the first decade of this century.
Dyadic social network data – describing relations between two actors – are frequently derived from self-reporting surveys. This column explores how the misreporting problems that are typical of such data can bias estimations. Data on transfers between households in a Tanzanian village are shown to display a high rate of discrepancies within dyads. Failure to account for such misreporting results in a sizeable underestimation of inter-household transfers.
The analysis and forecasts of the IMF are well covered in the press. This column deals with a less noted development in the data provided by the IMF, namely the nominal decrease in Gross Planet Product. Since the IMF forecast both positive growth and positive inflation, the nominal shrinkage of GPP puts into question the consistency of the IMF World Economic Outlook data and forecasts.
We traditionally think of migrants draining their home country of knowledge and skills, and, instead, giving their all to their host country. Based on patent and inventor data, this column looks at knowledge diffusion conveyed by highly skilled migrants both within their host country as well as back to their homelands. China, South Korea and Russia seem to profit from their diaspora’s knowledge generation but the same can’t be said for India.
Firms are believed to have more uncertain prospects during recessions, possibly deepening economic downturns. This column argues that the relationship between firm uncertainty and GDP growth is much weaker than is commonly assumed. Further, firms’ prospects were not particularly uncertain during the Great Recession. Lastly, firm-specific uncertainty does not appear to have an important effect on the business cycle.
The impact of wage and income shocks on labour supply is difficult to measure. Some studies therefore use lottery prizes as an exogenous shock on income. This column looks at the effect of the size of the prize won on employment status and salaried earnings, using data from Dutch lotteries. The findings show that lottery prizes lead to a reduction of working hours but not to a decrease in the employment rate.
In the years running up to the global crisis, the banking sector was marked by a high degree of leverage. Using US data, this column shows how, before the onset of the crisis, banks accumulated leverage both on and, especially, off their balance sheets. The latter activities saw an increase in maturity mismatch, raised the probability of bank runs, and increased both individual bank risk and systemic risk. These findings support the imposition of an explicit off-balance sheet leverage ratio in future regulatory frameworks.
The size of fiscal multipliers has been the subject of major public policy debates in the past few years. This column provides evidence that, on average, the size of the fiscal multiplier is in line with assumptions made by policymakers at the start of the crisis. The effects of fiscal consolidation, however, vary significantly depending on the state of the economy and the composition of the fiscal adjustment.
With the introduction of new technologies such as fertiliser and hybrid seeds, agricultural productivity has experienced an unprecedented rise in the past decades in almost all parts of the world. But not in Sub-Saharan Africa. This column studies the fertilisers available in Sub-Saharan Africa. It turns out that there is a huge variation in terms of fertiliser quality. Farmers should be meaningfully integrated into markets and supply chains to ensure quality and trust.
As intermediate inputs account for two thirds of world trade, understanding the implications of input trade is an important task in international economics. This column argues that spending patterns on foreign inputs at the firm-level are key to quantifying the welfare consequence of input trade, as trade in intermediates allows firms to reduce their costs of production thereby benefitting the aggregate economy. It estimates that a 20% drop in the share of imported inputs in France would lead to a 7% increase in the consumer price index.
The recent shale boom has led to a change in the relative price of fossil fuels, which could have an impact on the electricity sector. This column looks at the decision of electricity generators to switch from coal to gas in response to changes in relative prices. Investor-owned utilities were more likely than independent power producers to switch from coal-fired to gas-fired generation to take advantage of lower natural gas prices. This heterogeneity in generators’ response to fuel prices has material implications for CO2 emissions.
Influential studies have shown that trade liberalisation is associated with substantial adjustment costs for workers in import-competing jobs. This column uses UK data to shed light on one such cost that has not been considered to date – subjective well-being. Import competition is found to substantially raise mental distress, through worsened labour market conditions and increased stress on the job. These findings provide evidence of an important hidden cost of globalisation.
Oil prices have dropped by over 60% since June 2014, and natural gas and coal have also seen price declines that look to be similarly long-lived. This column argues that action to restore appropriate price incentives, notably through corrective carbon pricing, is urgently needed to lower the risk of irreversible and potentially devastating effects of climate change. The hope is that the success of COP21 opens the door to future international agreement on carbon prices.
Central banks’ unconventional monetary policy measures are often accompanied by asset price changes. This column investigates the distributional effects associated with asset price increases. The findings show that house price increases lead to a significant decrease in net wealth inequality in the Eurozone, whereas equity price increases lead to a significant rise in inequality. Bond price growth leaves net wealth inequality largely unchanged.
In many countries, electricity supply is cited as a primary impediment to firm growth and productivity. This column assesses the effect of endemic electricity shortages on Indian manufacturers. The average reported level of shortages reduces annual plant revenues and producer surplus of the average plant by 5-10%. While the complete elimination of shortages may not be plausible in the near term, simulations show that interruptible retail electricity contracts could substantially reduce the impact of shortages on manufacturers.
China’s currency will form part of the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights basket. This column discusses whether the renminbi will assume an international role, or mostly a regional-currency role in Asia.
Internal devaluations have been suggested as a possible policy option for countries in a currency union facing large external deficits. These policy actions seek to restore competitiveness by replicating the outcomes of an external devaluation. This column examines wage moderation as a potential means of internal devaluation for EZ countries. If pursued by several countries, wage moderation can work if monetary policy is not constrained by the zero lower bound, or if supported by quantitative easing. Without sufficient monetary accommodation, it will not deliver much of a boost to output, and may hurt overall EZ output.
Many cities in China have notoriously high levels of air pollution. Given its tight control over the media, the Chinese government has a high degree of control over public information about air quality. This column explores the government’s incentive to downplay the seriousness of pollution spikes. Households that rely exclusively on public media are found to engage in less self-protective behaviours. This could lead to substantial public health costs in the long run that might otherwise have been avoided.
The COP21 conference faces a severe problem when it comes to funding climate adaptation in developing countries. This column examines novel strategies to increase the funding. The strategies are based on high individual carbon emitters wherever they are in the world, rather than according to the responsibilities of high-emitting countries. To this end, a global distribution of individual income and CO2e emissions is constructed.
Today's monetary policy effectiveness depends on expectations of future monetary policy. Shocks affect such expectations, but the nature of the shock matters. This column presents evidence that negative demand shocks lead markets to expect looser policy in the short run. Negative supply shocks lead to expectations of looser policy in the medium to long run. Unexpected expansions – from either the supply or demand side – have no significant influence on markets' expectations of future monetary policy.
It has been widely argued that firms obtain loans with relaxed terms if they are politically connected. This column presents evidence from Indonesia that firms whose owners or directors have a personal relationship with a politician are more likely to have their loans approved by state-owned banks, and are more likely to receive the full amount applied for. However, the labour productivity of such firms is on average lower. This suggests that in some cases, politically connected lending may distort the efficiency of resource allocation and be detrimental to economic development.
Olivier Blanchard and Daniel Leigh’s work on growth forecast errors and fiscal multipliers in 2009-2011 has been highly influential. This column extends their approach to recent years. The authors do not find convincing evidence for stronger-than-expected fiscal multipliers for EU countries during the sovereign debt crisis (2012-2013) or during the tepid recovery thereafter.