Posts Tagged ‘IMF’

Inequality

The latest IMF Fiscal Monitor, “Tackling Inequality,” is out and it represents a direct challenge to the United States.

It’s not just a rebuke to Donald Trump, who with his allies is pursuing under the guise of “tax reform” a set of policies that will lead to even greater inequality—or, for that matter, Republicans in state governments across the country that have sought to cut back on programs targeted at poor Americans. It also takes to task decades of growing inequality in the United States, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

As is clear from the chart above, the distribution of both income and wealth in the United States has become increasingly unequal since the mid-1970s. The share of income captured by the top 1 percent has more than doubled (from 10 to 20 percent), while it’s share of total wealth has increased dramatically (from 23 percent to 39 percent). Meanwhile, the share of income of the bottom 50 percent has declined precipitously (from 20 percent to 12.5 percent) and it’s share of wealth, which was never very high (at 0.9 percent), is now nonexistent (at negative 0.1 percent).

And what is the United States doing about it? Absolutely nothing. Over the course of the past four decades it’s done very little to tackle the problem of growing inequality—and what it has done has been spectacularly ineffective. Thus, inequality has grown to obscene levels.

What’s interesting about the IMF report is that it raises—and then challenges—every important argument made by mainstream economists and members of the economic and political elite.

Should we worry just about income inequality? Well, no, since “changes in income inequality are reflected in other inequality dimensions, such as wealth inequality.”

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Doesn’t the United States take care of the problem by redistribution? Absolutely not, since only Israel does less than the United States in terms of lowering inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) through taxes and transfers.

But doesn’t tackling inequality through progressive income taxes lower economic growth? Again, no: “There is not strong empirical evidence showing that progressivity has been harmful for growth.”

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Nor is there any justification for low tax rates on those at the top in terms of social preferences. Most Americans, according to a recent Gallup survey, most believe that the rich and corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes. In fact, the IMF notes, perhaps thinking about the United States, “societal preferences may not be reflected in actual policy implementation because of the concentration of political power in certain affluent groups.”

Clearly, much more can be done to lower the degree of inequality in the United States.

As a sign of the times, the IMF even chooses to discuss the role a Universal Basic Income might play in decreasing inequality.

Proponents argue that a UBI can be used as a redistributive tool to help address poverty and inequality better than means-­tested programs, which su er from information constraints, high administrative costs, and other obsta­cles that limit benefit take-­up. A UBI could also help address increased income uncertainty resulting from the impact of technology (particularly automation) on jobs.

UBI

According to its calculations, a Universal Basic Income in the United States (calibrated at 25 percent of median per capita income, in addition to existing programs) would cost only 6.5 percent of national income and achieve a remarkable reduction in both inequality (by more than 5 Gini points) and poverty (by more than 10 percentage points).

What puts the United States in stark relief is the contrast between the whole panoply of inequality-reducing policies that are available—from more progressive income taxes and the adoption of wealth taxes to reducing gaps in education and health programs—and the fact that the United States is moving in the opposite direction.

The United States is simply not tackling the problem, with the inevitable result: current levels of economic inequality are—by any measure, and especially in comparison to what could be but isn’t being done—grotesque.

Apparently, mainstream economists are trying to shrug off the label of the “dismal science.”

On this side of the Atlantic, we have the spectacle of Martin Feldstein asserting that GDP statistics are deceptive and the economic situation in the United States really is better than it appears.

And then, across the pond, there’s Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission’s vice president for the euro, arguing things in Greece are just fine. In his view, the Germany-sponsored rescue program “itself is on track. The Greek economy is recovering.”

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It just so happens Dombrovskis was the Prime Minister of Latvia, from 2009 to 2014, who led the imposition of the Draconian austerity program in his home country.

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Meanwhile, unemployment in Greece remains at 23 percent, well above the Eurozone average. And the IMF and European institutions are demanding further austerity measures (equivalent to 2 percent of gross domestic product) before agreeing on a new deal to aid Greece.

It’s as if nothing has been learned in the past eight years—which means the outlook for Greek workers, like those in the United States and Latvia, can only be described as dismal.

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As if to confirm my view yesterday, that the recent paper on neoliberalism by Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri, published in the IMF’s Finance and Development, does not signal a new, non-neoliberal set of IMF policies, here’s an extract from an interview with IMF Chief Economist Maury Obstfeld:

IMF Survey: Do you agree with some who have argued that a recent article in F&D (“Neoliberalism: Oversold?”) signifies a major change in Fund thinking? For example, is the IMF now saying that austerity does not work and, indeed, that it exacerbates inequality?

Obstfeld: That article has been widely misinterpreted—it does not signify a major change in the Fund’s approach.

I think it is misleading to frame the question as the Fund being for or against austerity. Nobody wants needless austerity. We are in favor of fiscal policies that support growth and equity over the long term. What those policies will be can differ from country to country and from situation to situation.

Governments simply have to live within their means on a long-term basis, or face some form of debt default, which normally is quite costly for citizens, and especially the poorest. This is a fact, not an ideological position.

Our job is to advise how governments can best manage their fiscal policies so as to avoid bad outcomes. Sometimes, this requires us to recognize situations in which excessive budget cutting can be counterproductive to growth, equity, and even fiscal sustainability goals.

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A new paper on “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” by Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri (pdf), is attracting a great deal of publicity these days.

It’s not really because of the arguments in the paper, which are basically some pretty mild criticisms of some aspects of neoliberalism. It’s only because of where the paper appeared— in Finance and Development, a quarterly magazine published by the International Monetary Fund.

But it’s a mistake to assume the IMF has rejected neoliberalism.

Ostray et al. begin by defining what they mean by neoliberalism, in terms of two main dimensions:

The first is increased competition—achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.

They then proceed to show that, while in their view, “there is much to cheer in the neoliberal agenda. . .there are aspects of the neoliberal agenda that have not delivered as expected.” In particular, removing restrictions on the movement of capital across borders and fiscal consolidation have not, in general, increased growth—but they have led to increased inequality, which in turn tends to hurt the level and sustainability of growth.

There’s nothing earth-shattering there. In fact, you don’t have to use heterodox economics to arrive at those conclusions. It’s pretty much the Keynesian critique of “hot money” and austerity, which (as Paul Krugman will tell any and all) is standard macroeconomics (except, as I have shown, Krugman doesn’t put much stock in the idea that inequality hinders capitalist growth).

Rather, the reason the Ostray et al. paper has garnered attention in many quarters is the fact that it names neoliberalism and it was published in an IMF-sponsored journal.

However, to keep things in perspective, the publication of the article doesn’t mean there’s a fundamental change in IMF policy in the works. As Myles Udland argues, while the authors may offer “a stunning argument against what has been the prevailing conventional wisdom among many in the international political and economic elite for a generation,”

This paper. . .reinforces the divide, at times, between the IMF’s “house view” on policy and the views of its research staff with regard to how that policy may actually work.

Last summer’s report from the IMF’s research arm that Greece’s creditors needed to take a haircut while IMF officials were working to secure Greece additional bailout funding is a prime example of this tension playing out in public.

Even more succinctly, Peter Doyle,

an economist and former senior manager at the IMF who resigned from the lender in protest in 2012 over its handling of Greece, dismissed the paper as nothing more than “what three guys at the IMF think.”

“This has no broad sanction. It has no status,” he said. “Three different guys might have produced a different article.”

So, yes, neoliberalism was definitely oversold (to an all-too-willing “international political and economic elite”) but don’t expect IMF policies—or, for that matter, the neoliberal approach of the other two members of the European troika—to change anytime soon.

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Greek workers have begun a 3-day general strike in protest against further austerity measures that are being proposed in return for more bailout money from their European creditors.

Even the Wall Street Journal admits that the proposed package of fiscal retrenchment measures is unsustainable, as it could come to 5 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product.

Eurozone finance ministers are holding a special meeting on Monday to debate the problem. Few expect a solution. One is needed at the latest by July, when Greece will default on bond debts unless a deal unlocks fresh bailout aid. The number causing the most grief is 3.5% of GDP: the primary-surplus target written in last year’s Greek bailout agreement. “The IMF thinks the primary objective should be lower. That would help Greece,” says David Mackie, chief European economist at J.P. Morgan.

Aiming for a smaller surplus would allow for less austerity, and for the Greek economy to breathe, IMF officials have argued for months. But it would also entail restructuring European loans to Greece, so that its debt doesn’t spiral ever higher. At a minimum, the IMF wants Europe to postpone Greece’s payment obligations by decades.

Eurozone governments led by Germany don’t want to take a hit on their Greek bailout loans, which total €205 billion ($234 billion) so far. Berlin is insisting the primary-surplus goal can’t be changed.

The fact is, since 2010, a succession of Greek governments have enacted spending cuts and tax increases worth a total of 32.3 percent of GDP, “a scale of austerity far beyond that seen in any other European country during the financial-crisis era.”

Greek workers are saying no more—and even the Wall Street Journal, which still considers the previous austerity measures to have been “inevitable,” can’t find a policymaker or economist who “argues that further belt-tightening on that scale is what Greece’s economy needs at this point.”

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