About


The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

Comment Standards:
Comments are moderated and will not appear until the moderator has approved them.

Please submit appropriate comments. Inappropriate comments include content that is abusive, harassing, or threatening; obscene, vulgar, or profane; an attack of a personal nature; or overtly political.

In addition, no off-topic remarks or spam is permitted.

February 18, 2011

China’s inflation dilemma

As the G20 meets and debates issues of inflation and global imbalances, China's central bank is again on the move. From Reuters:

"China on Friday raised required reserves to a record 19.5 percent, adding to an increasingly aggressive effort by Beijing to stamp out stubbornly high inflation.

"Over the past four months, China has also raised interest rates three times and ordered banks to issue fewer loans in an attempt to make sure it can meet a 2011 inflation target of 4 percent."

Though rising food prices are indicted in a good many discussions of emerging market inflation these days, it is not just food, the article notes:

"Soaring food costs have driven Chinese inflation, rising 10.3 percent in the year to January and accounting for nearly three-quarters of the jump in overall prices.

"But pressures have been broadening. Non-food inflation, long subdued, rose at its fastest pace in more than a decade in January."

The Reuters piece, in my opinion, also hits on the key issue:

"Excess cash in the economy, stemming from China's trade surplus, is a root cause of fast-rising prices, prompting the central bank to use reserve requirements to lock up a bigger share of deposits and thereby slow money growth."

That issue gets most of the story, leaving out only the implicit key link—the pegging of the yuan to the dollar. The Economist this week offers up an interesting comparison between a measure of the real (or inflation-adjusted) yuan-dollar exchange rate and the nominal exchange rate:

021811

The real exchange rate—which, in effect, measures the value in trade of Chinese goods and services for U.S. goods and services—is rising and has been more or less continuously for some time. It is not so apparent that the real exchange rate is being systematically manipulated or controlled, and in fact there is good reason to claim that it is not (or at least not via monetary policy). Real exchange rates are about the demand and supply of real resources—things that are not over time controlled by manipulating the money supply. That reality is suggested by evidence cited in the Economist article:

"Conventional wisdom says that a stronger yuan would reduce China's current-account surplus. Yet the empirical support for this is weak. In a paper published in 2009, Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin and Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia University examined more than 170 countries over the period 1971-2005, and found little evidence that countries with flexible exchange rates reduced their current-account imbalances more quickly than countries with more rigid regimes."

But if printing money does not buy you control over real stuff, it is very definitely a factor in controlling the nominal exchange rate—a measure of the value in trade of currency for currency. And there, I believe, is the crux of the problem. To keep the nominal exchange rate from rising, the People's Bank of China in effect prints yuan and buys dollars. Though this has limited impact on any real fundamentals, it is the source material for inflation. In fact, if a monetarist heart beats within you, the picture of the recent Chinese inflation experience will surely warm it:


As Chairman Bernanke said in recent congressional testimony:

"The renminbi is undervalued. … It would be both in our interest and in the Chinese interest for them to raise the value of their currency. And it would help them with their inflation problem."

Today he put forward a similar sentiment, though not mentioning China by name.

Of course, the astute and skeptical among you might ask, if the money-to-inflation nexus is relevant to China, why not the United States? A fair question, one that I will take on another day.


Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
Senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


January 11, 2011

The pluses and minuses of reluctant consumers

If you've been keeping up with news from last weekend's convergence of economists at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, you will probably have heard of this optimistic-sounding conclusion by Harvard economist Martin Feldstein:

"It is not hard to imagine that a few years from now the current account imbalances of the US and China will be very much smaller than they are today or even totally gone."

An advance copy of the article was provided a few weeks ago at Real Time Economics, and considerable commentary has followed since (here, here, here, and here, for example). Not surprisingly, the progress Professor Feldstein envisions has two components:

"The persistence of large current account imbalances reflects government policies that alter the savings-investment balances in both the United States and China.

"The large current account deficit of the United States reflects the combination of large budget deficits (negative government saving) and very low household saving rates. ...

"In contrast, China's large current account surplus reflects the world’s highest saving rate at some 45 percent of GDP [gross domestic product]."

The source of Feldstein's belief that progress will come?

"Consider first the situation in the United States. Current conditions suggest that national saving as a percentage of GDP will rise as private saving increases and government dissaving declines. Private saving has been on a rising path from less than two percent of disposable income in 2007 to nearly six percent of disposable income in 2010. The forces that caused the rise in the U.S. saving rate since 2007 could cause the saving rate to continue to rise. Those forces include reduced real wealth, increased debt ratios, and a reduced availability of credit. ...

"The reduction of the U.S. current account deficit implies that the current account surplus of the rest of the world must also decrease. While this need not mean a lower current account surplus in China, I believe that the policies that the Chinese have outlined for their new five year plan are likely to have that effect. These include raising the share of household income in GDP, requiring state owned enterprises to increase their dividends, and increasing government spending on consumption services like health care, education and housing."

Some skepticism about the probability of a substantial decline in Chinese saving rates was noted in a recent post at The Curious Capitalist, which focuses on some interesting new research that relates high Chinese saving rates to an increase in income volatility. To the extent that the increased income volatility is inherent in China's ongoing transition to a more market-based economy, substantial changes in consumer behavior might be difficult to engineer. That said, only about half of the increase in Chinese saving rates appears explainable based on natural economic forces, and the Chinese government can certainly reduce national saving of its own accord (via deficit spending). Furthermore, according to Feldstein's calculations, a relatively small decline in the Chinese saving rate could eliminate their side of the current account imbalance.

As to the first part of the equation—an increase in saving by U.S. consumers—Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart offered this yesterday in remarks prepared for the Atlanta Rotary Club:

"Households have been actively deleveraging—that is, working down debt levels and saving more of their income. The savings rate has increased from a little over 1 percent in 2005 to more than 5 percent currently.

"Consumer debt as a percent of disposable income has declined markedly over the past three years after rising steadily since the 1980s. Most nonmortgage consumer debt reduction has been in credit card balances. As consumers have reduced their debt, the share of income used to service financial obligations has fallen sharply to the lowest level in a decade.

"Consumer action to reduce debt is not the whole deleveraging story. In the numbers, the decline in overall household indebtedness has been highly affected by bank write-offs. Also, banks' stricter underwriting requirements for new consumer debt have contributed to runoff.

"I expect the phenomenon of household deleveraging to continue."

Restrained consumer spending was one item on a list of three "headwinds" that President Lockhart believes will serve to restrain growth in 2011 (the other two being policy uncertainties and ongoing credit market repair). Not that this is all bad:

"First, today's headwinds to a significant degree reflect structural adjustments that will, in the longer term, place the U.S. economy on a stronger footing. The preconditions for strong future growth are reduced uncertainty, improved consumer and household finances, and healthy credit markets.

"Second, I believe the headwinds I have emphasized will restrain growth but not stop it. I fully expect growth in gross domestic product, in personal incomes, and in jobs to be better in 2011 than in 2010.

"Finally, I acknowledge the potential that economic performance this year could surprise me on the upside. Businesses, for example, are sitting on lots of cash. Cash accumulation is not something that can continue forever, particularly in the case of public companies. It may not take much weakening of headwinds to unleash some of the economic forces that thus far have been bottled up."

Though faster progress would be welcome—particularly with respect to job creation—the Lockhart and Feldstein commentary makes it clear there is a delicate balance between resolving the short-run pain and setting up the longer-term gain.

Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
Senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

June 21, 2007

Dark Matter By Any Other Name

From Austin Goolsbee, via Mark Thoma:

... The United States miracle of the 1990s was that our productivity began growing faster than that of other countries, even though we were the richest to start with...

To explain the experience in the United States, one would have to believe that Americans have some better way of translating the new technology into productivity than other countries. And that is precisely what [London School of Economics] Professor [John] Van Reenen’s research suggests.

His paper “Americans Do I.T. Better: U.S. Multinationals and the Productivity Miracle,” (with Nick Bloom of Stanford University and Raffaella Sadun of the London School of Economics) looked at the experience of companies in Britain that were taken over by multinational companies with headquarters in other countries. They wanted to know if there was any evidence that the American genius with information technology transfers to locations outside the United States. If American companies turn computers into productivity better than anyone else, can businesses in Britain do the same when they are taken over by Americans?

And in the huge service sectors — financial services, retail trade, wholesale trade — they found compelling evidence of exactly that. American takeovers caused a tremendous productivity advantage over a non-American alternative.

When Americans take over a business in Britain, the business becomes significantly better at translating technology spending into productivity than a comparable business taken over by someone else. It is as if the invisible hand of the American marketplace were somehow passing along a secret handshake to these firms.

Sound familiar?  If you can't quite put your finger on it, here's a refresher from Ricardo Hausmann and Federico Sturzenegger:

There is a large difference between our view of the US as a net creditor with assets of about 600 billion US dollars and BEA’s view of the US as a net debtor with total net debt of 2.5 trillion. We call the difference between these two equally arbitrary estimates dark matter, because it corresponds to assets that we know exist, since they generate revenue but cannot be seen (or, better said, cannot be properly measured)...

At least three factors account for the accumulation of dark matter. The first refers to foreign direct investment (FDI). Consider a simple example. Imagine the construction of EuroDisney at the cost of 100 million (the numbers are imaginary). Imagine also, for the sake of the argument that these resources were borrowed abroad at, say, a 5% rate of return. Once EuroDisney is in operation it yields 20 cents on the dollar. The investment generates a net income flow of 15 cents on the dollar but the BEA would say that the net foreign assets position would be equal to zero. We would say that EuroDisney in reality is not worth 100 million (what BEA would value it) but four times that (the capitalized value at our 5% rate of the 20 million per year that it earns). BEA is missing this and therefore grossly understates net assets. Why can EuroDisney earn such a return? Because the investment comes with a substantial amount of know-how, brand recognition, expertise, research and development and also with our good friends Mickey and Donald. This know-how is a source of dark matter. It explains why the US can earn more on its assets than it pays on its liabilities and why foreigners cannot do the same. We would say that the US exported 300 million in dark matter and is making a 5 percent return on it. The point is that in the accounting of FDI, the know-how than makes investments particularly productive is poorly accounted for.

That story might only go so far, as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Matthew Higgins, Thomas Klitgaard, and Cedric Tille claim...

... we review the argument that the United States holds large amounts of intangible assets not captured in the data—assets that would bring the true U.S. net investment position close to balance. We argue that intangible capital, while a relevant dimension of economic analysis, is unlikely to be substantial enough to alter the U.S. net liability position.

... but it's apparently more than a fairy tale.

June 11, 2007

One Savings Glut That Carries On

From the Wall Street Journal:

China's monthly trade surplus soared 73% in May from a year earlier, a state news agency reported Monday, amid U.S. pressure on Beijing for action on its yawning trade gap and the possibility of sanctions.

Exports exceeded imports by $22.5 billion, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing data from China's customs agency. That figure, close to the all-time record high monthly surplus of $23.8 billion reported in October, came despite repeated Chinese pledges to take steps to narrow the gap by boosting imports and rein in fevered export growth. The report gave no details of imports or exports.

The U.S. government has been pressing Beijing for action, especially steps to raise the value of the Chinese currency. Critics say the yuan is kept undervalued, giving Chinese exporters an unfair advantage and adding to the country's growing trade gap.

Apparently, the U.S. Senate is about to officially jump into the yuan-peg fray.  From Bloomberg:

The U.S. Senate will introduce a bill this week to pressure China to strengthen its currency, the Financial Times said today, citing unidentified people close to the situation.

The market, on the other hand, suggests that maybe things aren't so straightforward:

The gap may increase pressure on China to let the yuan appreciate to reduce tensions with trading partners and cool the world's fastest-growing major economy. The currency today had its biggest decline in 10 months and has reversed gains made in May when Chinese and U.S. officials met for trade talks in Washington...

The yuan declined 0.2 percent to 7.6691 against the U.S. dollar at 4 p.m. in Shanghai today, the biggest one-day fall since Aug. 15.

The currency has strengthened 7.9 percent since China scrapped a 10-year peg to the dollar and revalued the currency in July 2005. The 0.74 percent monthly gain in May was the biggest since the end of the fixed exchange rate.

I'm not sure what the story is there, but Nobel Prize winner Robert Mundell warned this weekend that too much pressure on the Chinese may not imply an appreciating yuan.  From the Wall Street Journal (page A9 in the weekend print edition):

... in the unlikely event that the yuan were suddenly made fully convertible, Mr. Mundell predicts that the value of the currency would fall, not rise. Many Chinese savers would want the security of keeping at least some portion of their wealth in foreign currency and would convert quickly, worried that the government might slam the door shut. This might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the U.K. in 1947, the Bank of England saw its reserves evaporate in a matter of weeks, and reinstated capital controls. The movement to full convertibility is fraught with danger and must be approached cautiously.

Meanwhile, yet another Nobel Prize winner, Michael Spence, suggests there is something much deeper in play than mere currency policy.  From China Daily:

China has been in a high growth mode since it started economic reforms in the late 70s. Its almost three decades of high growth is the longest among the 11 high-growth economies in the world and part of "a recent, post-World War II phenomenon". And the Chinese economy will sustain its fast growth for at least two more decades...

The high levels of savings and investments both in the public and private sectors, resource mobility and rapid urbanization are the important characteristics of China's high growth, says Spence, who is also the chairman of the independent Commission on Growth and Development. The commission was set up last year to focus on growth and poverty reduction in developing countries. China's saving rate of between 35 to 45 percent is among the highest despite the relatively low level of income of its people. Resource mobility has generated new productive employment to absorb surplus labor in a country where 15-20 million people move from the rural areas to the cities every year.

The most important feature of sustained high growth is that it leverages the demand and resources of the global economy, says Spence. All cases of sustained high growth in the post-War period have integrated into the global economy because exports act as a major high-growth driver.

Enumerating the reasons why the Chinese economy will sustain its high growth rate for another two decades, he says: "There are basically two reasons. One is that there is still a lot of surplus labor in agriculture. The engine for high growth is still there. The second is that the Chinese economy has diversified very rapidly. It's quite flexible and entrepreneurial."

Spence clearly believes that the Western complaints of too low a value for the Chinese currency and too high a surplus in its trade balances will self-correct, with a little help from government policy:

The only way to stop China's high growth would be to shut the economy off from the rest of the world. "It's just not going to happen." Even 20 years later, China will continue to grow because its currency will appreciate, helping raise the income level and increase the wealth of the people...

... To balance the huge trade deficit, Spence hopes China would boost domestic consumption and bring down the saving rate.

He acknowledges, though, that the relatively high-income younger generation is spending more despite the fact that East Asians traditionally are good at saving. A solution to the trade imbalance could also be found by increasing social security and the pension system, making them available to everybody, improving the medical coverage in the rural areas and making education at all levels affordable.

Meanwhile, the move to liberalize domestic financial markets in China took another step forward this weekend.  From Reuters, via China Daily:

China Export-Import Bank (EximBank) is set to issue 2 billion yuan (US$261 million) in yuan-denominated bonds in Hong Kong this month, making it the first Chinese lender to do so, sources told Reuters on Monday.

Exim Bank is to sell the 3-year bonds only to institutional investors, an investment banking source said, adding that the bank would decide on the yield later.

Never boring, is it?