Tag Archives: Capital

Hard truths about the eurozone crisis

There has been little honest reflection within the European Commission about the eurozone crisis. Until now.
By Adam Tooze – It is not often one finds European officials quoting significant moments from pop culture, let alone an outgoing director-general for economic and financial affairs—the European Commission’s most senior economics official—quoting Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But that is how Marco Buti introduces a recent piece summing up his period in office between 2008 and 2019.

Buti’s contribution is significant as personal reflection but also because it raises the more general question of how the EU and its institutions will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the eurozone crisis.

When it came to revisiting the global financial crisis, Brussels did not hold back. In August 2017, to mark the tenth anniversary of its onset, the commission issued a statement blaming the spillover to Europe on the United States and giving itself credit for prompt action to stave off the worst. The press release was however issued on August 9th—anniversary of the failure of the French bank Paribas’ US property funds.

Subprime and Lehman could be safely blamed on the US. What, however, will the European institutions make of the ten-year anniversary of the eurozone crisis and its various phases between 2010 and 2015?

Last year, addressing the European Parliament on the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the euro, the then commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, admitted there had been a lack of solidarity with Greece. He acknowledged there had been ‘reckless austerity’ (l’austérité irréfléchie). But he had the gall to suggest that the commission had succumbed to the influence of the International Monetary Fund, as though the agenda of austerity and ‘structural reform’ had been imposed from outside.

The traumatic history of the last ten years deserves better. more>

Updates from McKinsey

How to restart your stalled digital transformation
Most digital initiatives sputter before they take full effect. A new survey finds that organizations stand a good chance of recovering lost momentum because slowdowns typically happen for reasons within their control.
McKinsey – At organizations pursuing digital transformations, more than seven in ten survey respondents say the progress of these efforts has slowed or stalled at some point. In the latest McKinsey Global Survey on the topic, we set out to understand what organizations can do to prevent burnout or to restart their engines if burnout occurs during these transformations, which previous research has found have a lower success rate than do more traditional transformations. The good news is that in most cases, organizations can prevent or overcome a loss of momentum.

More than 60 percent of respondents who report stalled digital transformations attribute the problem to factors that—with the right discipline and focus—organizations can control in the near term to medium term. This finding runs counter to widespread assumptions that external pressures, such as market disruptions or regulatory changes, pose the biggest threats to digital initiatives. More commonly reported sources of derailed progress include resourcing issues, lack of clarity or alignment on a company’s digital strategy, and poor quality of the digital strategy to begin with.

If a digital transformation stalls, the results suggest that organizations can regain momentum by implementing rigorous change-management and internal-communications programs and clarifying the transformation’s projected impact, which can help build alignment and commitment. For scaling digital programs beyond the pilot phase—the first stumbling block in a transformation’s execution—clarity on the time frame and expected economic impact is important, as is partnering with operations. Should an intervention be needed to reenergize a transformation, having the CEO step in appears to be advantageous. Further lessons come from respondents at companies that avoid stalling in the first place. They often say their organizations maintain momentum by obtaining strong alignment and strategic clarity before a transformation gets under way. more>

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Updates from Chicago Booth

Let your customers tell you when to pivot
Small-business owners can get guidance by surveying their own customers
By Pradeep K. Chintagunta – William Wrigley Jr. spent many of his childhood years selling his father’s Wrigley’s Scouring Soap on the streets of Philadelphia. So when he set out for Chicago in the 1890s, Wrigley did what he knew and brought the soap trade with him.

Had Wrigley stuck to his original plan, it’s unlikely his name would stand today as one of the most iconic in Chicago business history. Instead, he took some calculated risks and pivoted his business twice.

Wrigley had been tossing in packages of baking powder as an incentive for purchasing his soap. When the baking powder proved more popular with customers than his soap, he made it his main product. Soon he realized that his new bonus product, chewing gum, was an even bigger draw, and he changed his focus again. The rest is history.

Despite evidence that pivots can improve productivity and competitiveness, businesses aren’t always eager to make changes. It’s difficult to consider experimenting with a business model that has worked in the past, and many small-business entrepreneurs may not feel as though they have the time and resources to do so. more>

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Technology and the future of growth: Challenges of change

By Zia Qureshi – Economic growth has been lackluster for more than a decade now. This has occurred at a time when economies have faced much unfolding change. What are the forces of change, how are they affecting the growth dynamics, and what are the implications for policy? A recently published book, “Growth in a Time of Change,” addresses these questions.

Three basic ingredients drive economic growth—productivity, capital, and labor. All three are facing new challenges in a changing context. Foremost among the drivers of change has been technology, spearheaded by digital transformation.

Productivity is the main long-term propeller of economic growth. Technology-enabled innovation is the major spur to productivity growth. Yet, paradoxically, productivity growth has slowed as digital technologies have boomed. Among advanced economies over the past 15 years or so, it has averaged less than half of the pace of the previous 15 years. Firms at the technological frontier have reaped major productivity gains, but the impact on productivity more widely across firms has been weak. The new technologies have tended to produce winners-take-most outcomes. Dominant firms have acquired more market power, market structures have become less competitive, and business dynamism has declined.

Investment also has been weak in most major economies. The persistent weakness of investment despite historically low interest rates has prompted concerns about the risk of “secular stagnation.” Weak productivity growth and investment have reinforced each other and are linked by similar shifts in market structures and dynamics.

Technology is having profound effects on labor markets. Automation and digital advances are shifting labor demand away from routine low- to middle-level skills to higher-level and more sophisticated analytical, technical, and managerial skills. On the supply side, however, equipping workers with skills that complement the new technologies has lagged, hindering the broader diffusion of innovation within economies. Education and training have been losing the race with technology. more>

The future will be shaped by what global productivity growth does next

By Warwick J. McKibbin and Adam Triggs – Productivity growth is a shadow of its former self. It’s one-tenth of what it was 40 years ago in advanced economies, and even emerging economies are struggling to replicate the growth of the past. As the fundamental driver of long-run living standards, weak productivity growth is a serious problem. Lower living standards, bigger budget deficits, fewer jobs, lower wages, and higher inequality await if things don’t improve.

What is most striking about this period of low productivity is that it coincides with enormous advances in technology. An extra 3.5 billion people have gained access to the internet. The processing power of computers has increased exponentially while their cost and size have plummeted. Smartphones have multiplied, and online businesses have flourished. Email, GPS and advanced software have become widespread. The sharing economy is unlocking the full potential of idle cars and empty rooms and houses. Information and communication technologies (ICT) and artificial intelligence (AI) have reshaped many industries. The accumulated history of human knowledge is now at our fingertips.

Robert Solow famously remarked that “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Economists have put forward a variety of explanations for the so-called “Solow paradox,” each of which implies a radically different path for productivity growth in the future. Our chapter in the just-published book “Growth in a Time of Change” models each of these possible scenarios to explore what the world might look like depending on who turns out to be correct.

Let’s start with the optimists. Some economists, like the 2018 Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus and Iraj Saniee and his co-authors at Nokia Bell Labs, point to historical data showing long lag times between technological advances and increases in productivity. For these economists, a big surge in productivity is just around the corner.

If the optimists are correct and global productivity growth takes off rapidly, many of the world’s problems go away. Investment, wages, and employment rise sharply. GDP increases and inequality declines. While all sectors experience an investment boom, the durable goods sector experiences the largest increase. The sharp increase in investment sees an increased demand for investment goods, particularly durable manufactured goods and the energy and mining resources required to produce them. Countries that export durable manufactured goods (such as Germany) and energy and mining resources (such as Australia) benefit significantly. Secular stagnation becomes a thing of the past.

But new challenges emerge. The global economy is a closed system, so the resources to finance this boom in investment and production must come from somewhere: either from increased government savings or from reductions in current consumption. If governments don’t act, or if financial market rigidities prevent access to global capital markets, consumption can fall. The shock also triggers transitions that require the redeployment of labor and capital from declining sectors to booming ones. Rigid labor markets and oligopolistic product markets hamper this adjustment. Thus, the full benefits of the boom can be squandered, and its benefits may be short-lived and distributed more unequally between capital and labor.

Now consider the pessimists. Some economists, notably Northwestern University’s Robert Gordon, argue that the technological advances in recent decades won’t deliver the sort of productivity increases that we saw from the inventions of the last century. Facebook and Netflix are great, but they are no match for electricity and indoor plumbing. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

The populism puzzle
What caused the uprising that has transformed global politics?
By Hal Weitzman – When UK voters elected a Conservative government in December 2019, they effectively re-endorsed their view, expressed in a referendum three years prior, that Britain should leave the European Union. The news was celebrated by, among others, US president Donald Trump, who drew a parallel with his own attempt to be reelected in 2020 by tweeting, in a paraphrase of comments by Fox News host Steve Hilton, “Here in America it will be the same victory as BREXIT, but even more so.”

The 2016 Brexit referendum, and its transatlantic counterpart—Donald Trump’s victory in that year’s US presidential race—surprised opinion pollsters, and prompted many observers to question conventional political thinking. This more-recent UK election, and a US presidential campaign that has so far been dominated by candidates on the edges of the political spectrum, demonstrates that political populism is a still-potent force. Two of the world’s most stable and well-established democracies appear to have embraced populism and shunned globalization, which has led to much soul-searching about the future of liberal democracy.

The results have also challenged economic thinking, and Chicago Booth’s Lubos Pastor and Pietro Veronesi have been among the researchers studying the implications. “As economists, we have been taught to think that globalization is good, because people get to specialize, and you have free trade, and that’s a way of making somebody better off without making anybody worse off,” says Pastor. “Yet here—with the Trump and Brexit votes—you saw half the population rebelling. You saw the median voter turning against globalization.”

The real puzzle is this: Why did the United States and the United Kingdom turn to populism at a time of economic growth? more>

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The IMF: The World’s Controversial Financial Firefighter

The International Monetary Fund, both criticized and lauded for its efforts to promote financial stability, continues to find itself at the forefront of global economic crisis management.
By Jonathan Masters and Andrew Chatzky – Since its inception in July 1944, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has undergone considerable change as chief steward of the world’s monetary system. Officially charged with managing the global regime of exchange rates and international payments that allows nations to do business with one another, the fund recast itself in a broader, more active role following the 1973 collapse of fixed exchange rates, intervening in developing countries from Asia to Latin America. In 2010, it gained renewed relevance as the European sovereign debt crisis unfolded.

The fund has received both criticism and credit for its efforts to promote financial stability.

Forty-four allied nations convened at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 to establish a postwar financial order that would facilitate economic cooperation and prevent a rehash of the currency warfare that helped usher in the Great Depression. The new regime was intended to foster sustainable economic growth, promote higher standards of living, and reduce poverty. The historic accord founded the twin institutions of the World Bank and the IMF and required signatory countries to peg their currencies to the U.S. dollar. However, the system of fixed exchange rates broke down in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to an overvaluation of the U.S. dollar and President Richard Nixon’s decision to suspend the greenback’s convertibility into gold.

The IMF is akin to a credit union that permits its membership access to a common pool of resources—funds that represent the financial commitment or quota contributed by each nation, relative to its size. In theory, members with balance-of-payments trouble seek recourse with the IMF to buy time to rectify their economic policies and restore economic growth. The fund pursues its mission in three fundamental ways:

Surveillance. A formal system of review monitors the financial and economic policies of member countries and offers macroeconomic and financial policy advice.

Technical assistance. Practical support and training directed mainly at low- and middle-income countries help manage their economies.

Lending. The fund gives loans to member countries that are struggling to meet their international obligations. Loans, or bailouts, are provided in return for implementing specific IMF conditions designed to put government finances on a sustainable footing and restore growth. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Many retailers are making a basic mispricing mistake
By Robin I. Mordfin – Retailers have long set prices ending in 99 cents, knowing that buyers view $4.99, for example, as significantly less expensive than $5. But many companies underestimate consumers’ left-digit bias and should be using these prices more than they do now, according to research by Chicago Booth’s Avner Strulov-Shlain.

Strulov-Shlain analyzed price data from 1,710 popular products in 248 stores of a single US retailer, as well as data on 12 products carried by more than 60 chains and in 11,000 of their stores. He finds that one-quarter to one-third of all prices ended in 99 cents.

But companies tend to miscalculate how customers react to a one-cent price change, Strulov-Shlain asserts. Buyers treat a price increase from $4.99 to $5 as if it were a 15–25 cent increase, while companies behave as if customers respond as though it were a 1.5–3 cent increase.

To learn how much companies should charge, Strulov-Shlain built a model that combines previously established left-digit bias models with a profit-maximizing formula that takes left-digit bias into account. Using the model and retailers’ pricing data, he estimates what price sensitivity and left-digit bias the companies had in mind when setting prices. Many items would have been better priced with a 99-cent ending, because demand dropped when the dollar digit changed, he finds. That was also the case at higher costs, where selling more units for the lower 99-cent price was more profitable than selling fewer units at a higher price. more>

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Limited liability is causing unlimited harm

The purpose of limited-liability protection was to encourage investment in corporations, yet it has evolved into a source of systemic market failure.
By Katharina Pistor – In a recent tweetOlivier Blanchard, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, wondered how we can ‘have so much political and geopolitical uncertainty and so little economic uncertainty’. Markets are supposed to measure and allocate risk, yet shares in companies that pollute, peddle addictive painkillers, and build unsafe airplanes are doing just fine. The same goes for corporations that openly enrich shareholders, directors and officers at the expense of their employees, many of whom are struggling to make a living and protect their pension plans. Are markets wrong, or are the red flags about climate change, social tensions, and political discontent actually red herrings?

Closer inspection reveals that the problem lies with markets. Under current conditions, markets simply cannot price risk adequately, because market participants are shielded from the harms that corporations inflict on others. This pathology goes by the name of ‘limited liability’, but when it comes to the risk borne by shareholders, it would be more accurate to call it ‘no liability’.

Under the prevailing legal dispensation, shareholders are protected from liability when the corporations whose shares they own harm consumers, workers and the environment. Shareholders can lose money on their holdings, but they also profit when (or even because) companies have caused untold damage by polluting oceans and aquifers, hiding the harms of the products they sell or pumping greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere. The corporate entity itself might face liability, perhaps even bankruptcy, but the shareholders can walk away from the wreckage, profits in hand.

The stated justification for limited liability is that it encourages investment in—and risk-taking by—corporations, leading to economically beneficial innovations. But we should recognize that sparing owners from the harms their companies cause amounts to a hefty legal subsidy. As with all subsidies, the costs and benefits should be reassessed from time to time. And in the case of limited liability, the fact that markets fail to price the risk of activities that are known to cause substantial harm should give us pause. more>

The Last Time Democracy Almost Died

By Jill Lepore – American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation. “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” F.D.R. said in his first Inaugural Address, telling Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. But there was more to be afraid of, including Americans’ own declining faith in self-government.

“American democracy,” as a matter of history, is democracy with an asterisk, the symbol A-Rod’s name would need if he were ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act can the United States be said to have met the basic conditions for political equality requisite in a democracy. All the same, measured not against its past but against its contemporaries, American democracy in the twenty-first century is withering. The Democracy Index rates a hundred and sixty-seven countries, every year, on a scale that ranges from “full democracy” to “authoritarian regime.”

In 2006, the U.S. was a “full democracy,” the seventeenth most democratic nation in the world.

In 2016, the index for the first time rated the United States a “flawed democracy,” and since then American democracy has gotten only more flawed. True, the United States still doesn’t have a Rome or a Berlin to march on. That hasn’t saved the nation from misinformation, tribalization, domestic terrorism, human-rights abuses, political intolerance, social-media mob rule, white nationalism, a criminal President, the nobbling of Congress, a corrupt Presidential Administration, assaults on the press, crippling polarization, the undermining of elections, and an epistemological chaos that is the only air that totalitarianism can breathe.

Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition. Mussolini called Italy and Germany “the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today,” and Hitler liked to say that, with Nazi Germany, he had achieved a “beautiful democracy,” prompting the American political columnist Dorothy Thompson to remark of the Fascist state, “If it is going to call itself democratic we had better find another word for what we have and what we want.” In the nineteen-thirties, Americans didn’t find another word. But they did work to decide what they wanted, and to imagine and to build it.

Thompson, who had been a foreign correspondent in Germany and Austria and had interviewed the Führer, said, in a column that reached eight million readers, “Be sure you know what you prepare to defend.”

It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent. more>