Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bill Gates strikes at Ridley (and Easterly)

Bill Gates reviews The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley and gives strong response to the leave-all-to-markets-and-chill out approach to innovation and development.

In discussing Africa, Mr. Ridley relies on critics who say, essentially, "Aid doesn't work, hasn't worked and won't work." He cites studies, for instance, that show a lack of short-term economic benefit from aid, but he ignores the fact that health improvements, driven by aid, have been a major factor in slowing population growth, which has proven, in turn, to be critical to long-term economic growth. I may be biased toward aid because I spend my money on it and meet with lots of people who are alive because of it, but even if that were not the case, I would not be persuaded by such incomplete analysis.

Development in Africa is difficult to achieve, but I am optimistic that it will accelerate. Science will come up with vaccines for AIDS and malaria, and the "top-down" approach to aid criticized by Mr. Ridley (and by the economist William Easterly) will fund the delivery of these life-saving drugs. What Mr. Ridley fails to see is that worrying about the worst case—being pessimistic, to a degree—can actually help to drive a solution.

[…] Mr. Ridley devotes his attention to just two present-day problems, development in Africa and climate change, and seems to conclude, "Don't worry, be happy." My prescription would be, "Worry about fewer things while understanding the lessons of the past, including lessons about the importance of innovation." This might qualify me as a rational optimist, depending on how stringent the criteria are. But there can be no doubt that excessive pessimism may cause problems with how society plans for the future. Mr. Ridley's book should trigger in-depth discussions on this important subject.

Like many other authors who write about innovation, Mr. Ridley suggests that all innovation comes from new companies, with no contribution from established companies. As you might expect, I disagree with this view. He also seems to think that innovation involves simply coming up with a new idea, when in fact the execution of the idea is critical. He quotes the early venture capitalist Georges Doriot as saying that as soon as a company succeeds, it stops innovating. A great counterexample is Intel, which developed over 99% of its breakthroughs after its first success.

Mr. Ridley describes the economy of the future as "post-corporatist and post-capitalist," a silly throwaway phrase. He never explains what will replace all the companies that figure out how to make microchips or fertilizer or engines or drugs. Of course, many companies will come and go—that is a key element of capitalism—but corporations will continue to drive most innovation. It is a dangerous and widespread problem to underestimate the ongoing innovation that takes place within mature corporations.

In his quest to highlight exchange as the key mechanism in the success of our species, Mr. Ridley underplays the role of other institutions, including education, government, patents and science, all of which, especially since the 19th century, have played a central role in the improvements that humanity has experienced. Too often, when Mr. Ridley finds an example that minimizes the contributions of these institutions, he seems to think that he has validated the idea that exchange deserves all of the credit.

NRB caps CEO perks and benefits

Finally, after months of hue and cry, Nepal’s central bank has finally fixed perks and benefits of CEOs of banks and financial institutions (BFIs). Well, in reality they have not capped it per se. It only gave guidelines to fix perks and benefits. The BFIs’ board is entrusted with the responsibility to fix perks and benefits in such a way that it does not violate the guidelines set by the Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB), the central bank. These guidelines are broad and will appease the public, who have been irked by the ultra-grandeur of bank executives, their high flying lifestyle and contributing to increasing income inequality at least in the banking sector.

Earlier, I had argued that NRB’s mandate is not to fix perks and benefits. It can, however, outline a set of indicators to determine salary and benefits. Currently, the salary of a CEO at a commercial bank ranges from Rs 500,000 to Rs 1.4 million a month.

Here are highlights of the new guidelines (sourced from Milan Mani Sharma’s article in today’s edition of Republica daily):

  • NRB has asked the BFIs to limit the fixed annual salary and allowances for chief executives to less than 5 percent of the average staff expenses incurred over the previous three fiscal years or less than 0.025 percent of the company´s total assets at the end of the previous fiscal year, whichever is lower.
  • It also bars BFIs from paying the incentives at one go. In case the incentive exceeds 40 percent of annual salary and allowances, BFIs should pay just 40 percent of the total amount within that fiscal year and distribute the rest in equal proportions (of 20 percent) over the next three fiscal years.
  • If the BFI plunges into loss during that period, it is to reverse all the deferred incentives and account them as income.
  • NRB has asked banks and financial institutions to cover the bill of just one telephone or cell phone.
  • Vehicles to be provided to chief executives must not cost more than 50 percent of their annual salary and allowances. It bars BFIs from providing another vehicle to a CEO throughout his term, even in case of renewal of his or her term.
  • BFIs are allowed to cover the fuel bill and salary of one driver for each CEO. They can cover the bills of the CEO´s professional memberships, internet use, newspapers and magazines, but the extent of such coverage must not exceed 0.50 percent of annual salary and allowances.
  • The cap will not be applicable to banks and financial institutions that are in trouble.

    Likewise, banks and financial institutions are exempted if they are undergoing restructuring with donor assistance or if they are institutions in which the government has a full or partial stake (such as Rastriya Banijya Bank, Nepal Bank Limited and Agricultural Development Bank).

  • The cap will not effect the branches of foreign banks (like Standard Chartered Bank Nepal) either.

Here is what I commented and proposed two months ago:

When job market is stagnating, macroeconomic situation deteriorating, inflation staying at a very high level, and opportunities squeezing, it obviously fuels anger when people read about executives fetching monthly salaries that an average citizen cannot even earn in his lifetime. This is something BFIs and executives should ponder upon because it independently fuels anger in the society they themselves are a part of. The government and central bank could give into public pressure any time.

There could be a middle path to business and moral dimensions to the executive pay debate. For instance, a “fair” way could be that executives’ paycheck may be a function of a basket of indicators: Long-term growth prospects, overall debt, non-performing loans, rate of return from unproductive sectors (which should have minimal weight as the returns appear to be cyclical in nature), long-term rate of return from productive sectors, and diversification of investment and loan portfolios, among others. If there are strict, transparent and easily comprehensible criteria, then there would not be much controversy over this issue, which has been wrongly taken up by the central bank while failing to fulfill its explicit mandate.

Iceland versus Ireland

In early 2009, a joke was making the rounds: “What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland? Answer: One letter and about six months.” This was supposed to be gallows humor. No matter how bad the Irish situation, it couldn’t be compared with the utter disaster that was Iceland.

But at this point Iceland seems, if anything, to be doing better than its near-namesake. Its economic slump was no deeper than Ireland’s, its job losses were less severe and it seems better positioned for recovery. In fact, investors now appear to consider Iceland’s debt safer than Ireland’s. How is that possible?

Part of the answer is that Iceland let foreign lenders to its runaway banks pay the price of their poor judgment, rather than putting its own taxpayers on the line to guarantee bad private debts. As the International Monetary Fund notes — approvingly! — “private sector bankruptcies have led to a marked decline in external debt.” Meanwhile, Iceland helped avoid a financial panic in part by imposing temporary capital controls — that is, by limiting the ability of residents to pull funds out of the country.

And Iceland has also benefited from the fact that, unlike Ireland, it still has its own currency; devaluation of the krona, which has made Iceland’s exports more competitive, has been an important factor in limiting the depth of Iceland’s slump.

None of these heterodox options are available to Ireland, say the wise heads. Ireland, they say, must continue to inflict pain on its citizens — because to do anything else would fatally undermine confidence.

But Ireland is now in its third year of austerity, and confidence just keeps draining away. And you have to wonder what it will take for serious people to realize that punishing the populace for the bankers’ sins is worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.

Read the full article by Krugman here.

The end of the era of Samuelsonian synthesis

It is worth posting the entire blog post by Krugman.

Brad DeLong writes of how our perception of history has changed in the wake of the Great Recession. We used to pity our grandfathers, who lacked both the knowledge and the compassion to fight the Great Depression effectively; now we see ourselves repeating all the old mistakes. I share his sentiments.

But watching the failure of policy over the past three years, I find myself believing, more and more, that this failure has deep roots – that we were in some sense doomed to go through this. Specifically, I now suspect that the kind of moderate economic policy regime Brad and I both support – a regime that by and large lets markets work, but in which the government is ready both to rein in excesses and fight slumps – is inherently unstable. It’s something that can last for a generation or so, but not much longer.

By “unstable” I don’t just mean Minsky-type financial instability, although that’s part of it. Equally crucial are the regime’s intellectual and political instability.

Intellectual instability

The brand of economics I use in my daily work – the brand that I still consider by far the most reasonable approach out there – was largely established by Paul Samuelson back in 1948, when he published the first edition of his classic textbook. It’s an approach that combines the grand tradition of microeconomics, with its emphasis on how the invisible hand leads to generally desirable outcomes, with Keynesian macroeconomics, which emphasizes the way the economy can develop magneto trouble, requiring policy intervention. In the Samuelsonian synthesis, one must count on the government to ensure more or less full employment; only once that can be taken as given do the usual virtues of free markets come to the fore.

It’s a deeply reasonable approach – but it’s also intellectually unstable. For it requires some strategic inconsistency in how you think about the economy. When you’re doing micro, you assume rational individuals and rapidly clearing markets; when you’re doing macro, frictions and ad hoc behavioral assumptions are essential.

So what? Inconsistency in the pursuit of useful guidance is no vice. The map is not the territory, and it’s OK to use different kinds of maps depending on what you’re trying to accomplish: if you’re driving, a road map suffices, if you’re going hiking, you really need a topo.

But economists were bound to push at the dividing line between micro and macro – which in practice has meant trying to make macro more like micro, basing more and more of it on optimization and market-clearing. And if the attempts to provide “microfoundations” fell short? Well, given human propensities, plus the law of diminishing disciples, it was probably inevitable that a substantial part of the economics profession would simply assume away the realities of the business cycle, because they didn’t fit the models.

The result was what I’ve called the Dark Age of macroeconomics, in which large numbers of economists literally knew nothing of the hard-won insights of the 30s and 40s – and, of course, went into spasms of rage when their ignorance was pointed out.

Political instability

It’s possible to be both a conservative and a Keynesian; after all, Keynes himself described his work as “moderately conservative in its implications.” But in practice, conservatives have always tended to view the assertion that government has any useful role in the economy as the thin edge of a socialist wedge. When William Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale, one of his key complaints was that the Yale faculty taught – horrors! – Keynesian economics.

I’ve always considered monetarism to be, in effect, an attempt to assuage conservative political prejudices without denying macroeconomic realities. What Friedman was saying was, in effect, yes, we need policy to stabilize the economy – but we can make that policy technical and largely mechanical, we can cordon it off from everything else. Just tell the central bank to stabilize M2, and aside from that, let freedom ring!

When monetarism failed – fighting words, but you know, it really did — it was replaced by the cult of the independent central bank. Put a bunch of bankerly men in charge of the monetary base, insulate them from political pressure, and let them deal with the business cycle; meanwhile, everything else can be conducted on free-market principles.

And this worked for a while – roughly speaking from 1985 to 2007, the era of the Great Moderation. It worked in part because the political insulation of central banks also gave them more than a bit of intellectual insulation, too. If we’re living in a Dark Age of macroeconomics, central banks have been its monasteries, hoarding and studying the ancient texts lost to the rest of the world. Even as the real business cycle people took over the professional journals, to the point where it became very hard to publish models in which monetary policy, let alone fiscal policy, matters, the research departments of the Fed system continued to study counter-cyclical policy in a relatively realistic way.

But this, too, was unstable. For one thing, there was bound to be a shock, sooner or later, too big for the central bankers to handle without help from broader fiscal policy. Also, sooner or later the barbarians were going to go after the monasteries too; and as the current furor over quantitative easing shows, the invading hordes have arrived.

Financial instability

Last but not least, the very success of central-bank-led stabilization, combined with financial deregulation – itself a by-product of the revival of free-market fundamentalism – set the stage for a crisis too big for the central bankers to handle. This is Minskyism: the long period of relative stability led to greater risk-taking, greater leverage, and, finally, a huge deleveraging shock. And Milton Friedman was wrong: in the face of a really big shock, which pushes the economy into a liquidity trap, the central bank can’t prevent a depression.

And by the time that big shock arrived, the descent into an intellectual Dark Age combined with the rejection of policy activism on political grounds had left us unable to agree on a wider response.

In the end, then, the era of the Samuelsonian synthesis was, I fear, doomed to come to a nasty end. And the result is the wreckage we see all around us.