Wednesday, October 19, 2016
PATH TO POWER: Ostry earned his BA from Queen’s University in Canada when he was just 18 and went on to receive a BA and MA from Oxford, an MS from the London School of Economics and a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. He joined the IMF in 1988 as an economist in the research and European departments, and has held a variety of roles in the years since, including heading up the group’s influential biannual World Economic Outlook survey. He became deputy director of research in 2006. Ostry writes prolifically for publications including The Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal and has been cited in economic remarks by President Obama.
POWER PLAY: Ostry has been pursuing research seemingly at odds with IMF orthodoxy for years; in a 2014 Financial Times article, for example, he decried inequality and argued for “a more redistributive tax system.” But he made his biggest splash in June of this year when he coauthored a paper simply titled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?,” published in the IMF’s own Finance & Development magazine. In it, Ostry lays out a deeply researched argument against austerity and wholesale capital account liberalization, neoliberal policies that have been gospel at the IMF for decades. The month before the paper’s release, the IMF called for massive debt relief for Greece.
PATH TO POWER: The native Parisian specialized in antitrust law at Baker & McKenzie for 24 years before entering French politics in 2005. She began as a trade minister in Jacques Chirac’s cabinet, and was Nicolas Sarkozy’s agriculture and, later, finance minister. In 2011, she took over as managing director of the IMF from Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stepped down after being charged with attempted rape.
POWER PLAY: Though Lagarde has been widely credited with restoring the IMF’s credibility following the scandalous exit of her predecessor and for being the voice of reason during the Greek debt crisis, she has been dogged by her role in the decade-old Bernard Tapie affair involving accusations of corruption in the sale of Adidas. Her decision as French finance minister in the 2008 case led to a 404-million-euro arbitration payout for Tapie, who had ties to Sarkozy. That payment was eventually annulled and Lagarde was absolved of wrongdoing, but a recent corruption probe into the incident has her facing negligence charges and up to one year in jail. Despite this distraction, the IMF appointed Lagarde to a second term in February, and she continues to receive its board’s support.
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PATH TO POWER: Ostry earned his BA from Queen’s University in Canada when he was just 18 and went on to receive a BA and MA from Oxford, an MS from the London School of Economics and a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. He joined the IMF in 1988 as an economist in the research and European departments, and has held a variety of roles in the years since,
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Jim Gordon’s frank assessment of the IMF’s 2010 program in Greece was his most notable success in recent years. It received wide coverage in all the major newspapers—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph—and praise from almost every quarter. It took all of Jim’s diplomatic and drafting skills to produce a report that was fair to his IMF colleagues who had worked on that program and also a fair description of what really happened. As an official IMF document, the assessment had to be written in Fund-ese but Jim (and his team) drafted it in a way that journalists were able to translate it quite easily into English, as The Guardian explicitly did.
A decade earlier, Jim had played a key role in the IMF program for Korea during the Asian Crisis of 1997-98. Though many Koreans have bitter memories of this time, that IMF program was actually a success in helping stabilize the Korean economy fairly rapidly. Jim described the program later in a 2009 article called “The Korean Crisis Ten Years Later: A Success Story”: I hope history will see it his way.
During his stint as the IMF’s representative in India, Jim did some of the early analysis (with Poonam Gupta) on understanding India’s services revolution and on the drivers of portfolio flows into India. These are among Jim’s most cited papers.
So successful was Jim at the IMF’s policy work that it is easy to forget the academic success of his early career. Between 1988 and 1991, Jim published an astonishing seven papers in good journals, including three in the Journal of Public Economics—the leading journal in that field. Many of these papers tackled the question of how best governments should tax and spend when some fraction of its population is prone to tax evasion (and when that fraction itself changes when governments change their policies).
These papers are extensively cited to this day, and their subject matter probably equipped Jim well for dealing with governments—and indeed with IMF departments when he later moved to the IMF’s budget office. I certainly bore the brunt of many a “Aw, come on, you can do better” from Jim as I tried to lie and cheat my way out of out some budget snafu when I was the Research Department’s budget manager.
I will miss Jim on the tennis court. He used his squash skills to hit shots that sailed just inches over the net and at impossible angles. We played outdoors well into the winter—largely at the urging of our crazy Canadian friend Dan Vincent—and Jim always grumbled pleasantly at how silly we all were to be giving in to Dan. One day, after I had been taking some lessons to improve my game at the net, he applauded my play, saying: “Prakash, you’ve become an intimidating presence at the net.” I responded: “Jim, that’s the first time anyone has used the word ‘intimidating’ about me in any context.” His laughter at that will stay in my mind for a long time. Goodbye, Gentle Jim.
Jim Gordon’s frank assessment of the IMF’s 2010 program in Greece was his most notable success in recent years. It received wide coverage in all the major newspapers—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph—and praise from almost every quarter. It took all of Jim’s diplomatic and drafting skills to produce a report that was fair to his IMF colleagues who had worked on that program and also a fair description of what really happened.
Friday, October 14, 2016
I had a few interactions with Greenspan in 1997-98 when I was one of the analysts for Asian economies at the Fed. One day in late-1997, he met with a group of us to think through what he should say in testimony to Congress on the Asian crisis. He started talking about the housing boom that had been underway in many of those countries. “It was a case of conspicuous construction,” I blurted out. He loved the phrase and used it in his testimony a couple of times.
My other interactions with him were all on Indonesia and I did not come out looking good in any of them. He had asked me for money supply for Indonesia. I gathered the data on the monetary base and the credit aggregate that he had asked for. But somehow when I added the two I was getting garbage numbers – some errors in my spreadsheet that I couldn’t figure out. Around 6.45 pm – it was a Friday — Greenspan called me himself and said “I’m still waiting …”. I told him what was going on. He said “Just bring up the base and credit numbers and I’ll add them myself over the weekend.” When I got home I told my wife “We’re not eating lunch in this town again. In fact, we’re never eating lunch again as the Fed chair is going to tell everyone I’m an incompetent.” My wife said I should just take the correct numbers on Monday morning because he probably wouldn’t get around to working on them over the weekend. Sure enough, that’s what happened: when I gave him the correct table on Monday, he said with a smile, “The weekend shaped up differently.”
Another time, he asked for detailed sectoral price data for Indonesia. A possible hyperinflation was looming and he wanted to study it in his spare time on the weekends. I dutifully photocopied pages from Indonesian statistical manuals in the Fed library. The names of the sectors were in Bahasa but in all cases but one it was easy to guess the English equivalents. I circled that sector’s name and wrote a note in the margin for my research assistant: “Find out which sector this is – old geezer will want to know.” Some instinct of self-preservation must have kicked in because I then crossed out “old geezer” quite thoroughly and wrote “Chairman”. Somehow the pages with my note still on there made it to Greenspan and came back with a note from him: “You’re right.”
My last interaction with him was while I was still at the Fed but had accepted a job at the IMF. He had asked a small group to brief him on the political situation in Indonesia. At one point he turned to me and asked, “Prakash, what do you think? Is Suharto going to survive?” (As an aside, my boss Tom Connors told me after the briefing: “The Chairman just learned to say your name and say it right. Are you sure you want to go the IMF?”) I had prepped up for Greenspan’s expected question by reading a ton material including all the State department cables. I confidently went in a long explanation of why Suharto would survive. A month later, Suharto was gone. But luckily, so was I.
From left to right: Prakash Loungani, Sebastian Mallaby, Rana Foroohar, and David Wessel at an IMF Book Forum on Mallaby’s new biography of Greenspan
I had a few interactions with Greenspan in 1997-98 when I was one of the analysts for Asian economies at the Fed. One day in late-1997, he met with a group of us to think through what he should say in testimony to Congress on the Asian crisis.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
IMF Survey: Professor Sargent, could you please explain the role debt limits have played in the economic history of the U.S.?
Sargent: Based on the evidence that my friend George Hall and I have assembled, the answer is different before 1917 and after 1939.
Before 1917, there was not an aggregate debt limit. Instead, interestingly, there was a debt limit bond by bond. Congress designed every bond and put a limit on the amount that could be issued. And those limits were taken seriously. They seem to have provided information about what upper bound on what future debt would be, except during wars.
After 1939, an aggregate debt limit was created for the first time. It restricts the par value of the total amount of debt. If you adjust for inflation, in real value, the government debt limit was constant until a little after 1980. It actually went down after 1945. In real terms, the value of debt relative to GDP went down even more. After 1983, nominal debt limits rose and more than inflation except in the Clinton administration. So, as I said, the answer seems to differ substantially after 1939 and before 1917.
IMF Survey: And what was the reason for moving from this bond-by-bond approach to the aggregate limit?
Sargent: Good question. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, gave his reasons. After World War I, the federal government had big debts. These debts were in discrete issues of bond of particular maturities. They were issued in big lumps with “echo effects”: lumpy debt service events; potential liquidity and roll-over risks. In the 1920s, the U.S. ran a primary surplus, but not big enough to service all the debt that would come due. So when those big bonds matured, Mellon knew that he was going to have to ask Congress for authority to issue new bonds. He foresaw those “echo effects”. So he asked Congress for authority and flexibility to smooth those things over time. Congress assented. Mellon wanted to manage the debt in ways that would increase the liquidity and allow him freedom basically to be a good portfolio manager.
It is interesting why Congress assented to Mellon’s request while it had denied such requests from earlier Secretaries of the Treasury. You have to know more about the politics of the times than I do to answer that question. The Republicans had big majorities in Congress in the 1920s and they mostly trusted Mellon. Congress evidently thought Mellon’s was a reasonable request and at that time he was respected a lot.
IMF Survey: When would debt limits work effectively in restricting spending?
Sargent: I don’t know. I began this talk [Richard Goode lecture] with a quote from a smart Assistant Treasury Secretary who said debt limits are totally a sideshow, meaning that they are totally irrelevant. Just entertainment. But if you go back to 19th century, they seem to have been taken seriously. In various episodes, they constrained what the President and the Secretary of the Treasury could do, or thought that they could do. Something must have changed between then and now. We are trying to learn more about those changes or at least to frame the question.
IMF Survey: What lessons can policymakers in other countries learn from the U.S.?
Sargent: This is speculative, but the way I look at it is that any decision maker, whether he or she admits it, has two things: (1) a model about the way the world is put together, and (2) some interests they want to advance or protect, that is their constituents’ interests. To me, they try to do the best they can in terms of their constituents’ interests, given their understanding of the way the world is put together. They have theories of economics, including theories about government fiscal policy, whether it matters or not, how it matters.
I think if you go back in the 19th century and try to read and listen, people talk about their theories. Congressmen and journalists discussed and debated them. Presidential elections were fought about intricate technical matters of monetary policy: the silver standard, the greenback, the gold standard, bimetallism. It looks to me as though people on both sides had a common theory.
I believe that the economic doctrines that are in policymakers’ heads are very important. It is very corny to say it, but it is still true.
IMF Survey: How about the IMF? What can we learn from this history?
Sargent: The IMF was set up for good reasons. Keynes and Harry Dexter White and many other good people wanted to solve problems that had devastated the world economy after World War I: adjusting international monetary policies and international debts. The founders of the IMF had theories about how the international monetary system could be set up to handle adverse events in ways that would attenuate adverse consequences.
I see a pretty straight line: the IMF has embodied that theory in a set of practices. I view it as an important institution that seeks to keep alive the thoughts and concerns of its founders. For better or worse, in some countries, they say we don’t want to do it the IMF way. Well, the IMF way is that you have to respect the government budget constraint, mostly from your own domestic taxpayers’ resources, not from abroad. If you want some good outcome, this is what you have to do. A lot of this is just arithmetic and sensible economics. (Some of the arithmetic is unpleasant—that is one reason they call ours “the dismal science”.) The package of IMF policies is coherent and makes sense.
IMF Survey: What is the most interesting thing you have learned from your work?
Sargent: To me, one of the most fascinating things is how the U.S. Congress and Treasury recognized and managed rollover risks and interest rate risks; and how they thought about the sources of the fundamentals that drove interest rate risk, some under the government’s control, some not. Many of their discussions and decision seem very wise and modern. The government did various things about rescheduling and issuing callable debt and exercising call options. It was quite a sophisticated operation, done 150 years ago. We are trying to understand: (1) were those good things to do; and (2) what motivated those decisions.
IMF Survey: What’s next for your research?
Sargent: Debt limits are just a part of what we are doing. We are digging deeper and trying to find interesting stories behind individual episodes. Then, we hope to tell some convincing stories—and supplement them with sensible analysis.
In a recent visit to the IMF, Nobel Laureate Thomas Sargent brought to life the economic and financial history of the United States, with stories of how debt limits have evolved over the years before and since the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions. Read the full article…
Monday, October 12, 2015
Before the world can answer questions about how poverty is reduced, it needs to know how progress can be measured. But estimates of the number of the world’s poor and questions about whether it has been decreasing or increasing have given rise to one of the hottest controversies in the development community. Angus Deaton, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, who has looked in detail at India’s poverty numbers, has been at the center of this debate. He speaks here with Prakash Loungani of the IMF’s External Relations Department about the dimensions of the problem and what can be done to provide more transparent and more reliable data on the world’s poor.
LOUNGANI: The World Bank’s estimate that 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day is cited everywhere. How reliable is this estimate?
DEATON: There’s surely a very large margin of error in that estimate. Even small changes in the design of the survey used to measure poverty can often have dramatic impacts on the poverty estimates. For instance, you could lower the estimate of the number of poor in India by 175 million just by shortening the recall period from one month to one week.
LOUNGANI: It’s a dramatic example, but you’ll have to explain what a recall period is.
DEATON: To measure poverty, you have to survey people and ask them to recall their expenditures— how much they spent on food, clothing, and so forth. You have to choose whether to ask them to recall how much they spent over the past week or how much they spent over the past month. That’s the recall period. Choosing a one-week recall period generally yields higher expenditures, and therefore lower rates of poverty, than choosing a one-month recall period. (The latter is measured on a weekly basis, of course, so that you’re comparing like and like.) India has long used a 30-day recall period. In recent years, the statistical authorities in India did an experiment to see what difference the recall period makes to the estimate of the number of poor. They found, as I mentioned, that shifting to a one-week recall period would essentially halve the number of poor in India. That must be the most successful poverty-reduction program in the world!
LOUNGANI: But haven’t you been working to resolve such data problems and come up with a good estimate of the number of poor in India?
DEATON: Yes, I have been trying to use the parts of the survey that are consistent over time to adjust the poverty numbers and put them on a consistent track. What that has shown in the end is that there has been fairly steady poverty reduction in India. The number of people living in poverty has declined at a steady rate over the past 20–30 years; there is no evidence of a pickup in the rate of decline since the reforms of the 1990s. I end up with an estimate of a poverty rate for India of 28 percent in 2000. Scholars at the Delhi School of Economics, working independently and using methods quite different from mine, have reached similar conclusions
LOUNGANI: Your findings won’t give much comfort to either side of the debate in India.
DEATON: I think that is broadly right. But the reformers have more to cheer about than their opponents. The findings don’t give the reformers everything they would have liked—notably, a pickup in the rate of poverty reduction in the postreform era. But it certainly shows that the claims of their opponents that poverty reduction stalled as a result of the reforms or that poverty actually increased are quite incorrect.
LOUNGANI: Is the problem just with India’s poverty statistics or is it broader?
DEATON: It is a broader problem, but I should remark that, even with all the problems of measurement, we do know that India accounts for about one-third of the world’s poor. So coming up with a more reliable estimate of India’s poor goes a long way toward getting a better estimate of the world’s poverty rate. But the problems that we face with the poverty data in India are quite likely to be present elsewhere.
LOUNGANI: What are some of the problems with the poverty estimates, setting aside the issues of survey design that we’ve already to some extent discussed?
DEATON: Let me try to get the first problem across in a simple way. Suppose that I had tried to see if income growth in China had any impact on the poverty rate in India. Right away you’d say: “That’s crazy. You need the income and poverty numbers to be from the same country.” Well, in most countries the data on income and the data on poverty come from two different sources. And, exaggerating a bit now to make the point, sometimes these two sources are so far apart in the stories they tell that they may as well be from different countries.
LOUNGANI: For example?
DEATON: The problem is endemic, but again the most dramatic case is India’s. According to its national income accounts, India has had robust economic growth over the last decade, and this certainly accords with what most people think has happened. But, at least until the latest figures came out, the national survey statistics, which are the source of the poverty estimates, showed that average consumption has essentially been flat over the last decade. These two stories about what’s happened in India cannot both be right. How can you have strong growth in consumption in the national income accounts and no growth in average consumption in the household survey? Either consumption hasn’t grown as much as the national accounts say it has or consumption has grown more—and perhaps poverty has been reduced more—than the national surveys say it has. So this, in simple terms, is the first problem—the lack of reconciliation between the household survey and the national income accounts.
LOUNGANI: The lack of price indices is also a big problem, I guess?
DEATON: Absolutely. There are two separate issues here. One is that to compare poverty rates across countries, to make the kind of $1 a day numbers that you mentioned are cited everywhere, you have to use purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates. Well, revisions to these exchange rates can play havoc with the poverty estimates. The World Bank itself was caught in this trap: in the 1997 World Development Report, before the crisis, Thailand is shown as having a poverty rate of only 1 /10 of 1 percent of the population. This figure was attributed by then chief economist Joe Stiglitz to the Asian economic miracle. But this was less a demonstration of the miracle than of the dangers of inappropriate PPP conversion. It’s a bit disconcerting when the World Bank’s dream of a world free of poverty can be realized simply by misusing exchange rate data.
LOUNGANI: You said there was a second issue with respect to price indices?
DEATON: Yes, you also need good price indices to compare poverty rates within the country, particularly between urban and rural areas. Countries often have good data for urban centers but not for the countryside, which is often where most of the poor live. This can be a big problem. For instance, I think the unavailability of good price indices for rural areas is in part responsible for the very conflicting views of what impact the Asian crisis had on the poor in Indonesia.
LOUNGANI: If the poverty data are so error-ridden, why don’t we rely on other socioeconomic indicators?
DEATON: That is done. Statistics on life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy are all things that people look at to supplement the poverty numbers. Amartya Sen has been the intellectual force behind this broader look at deprivation. The United Nations Development Program has come up with a Human Development Index that aggregates all this information in a certain way. I don’t think the way they aggregate it is quite right, but at least it’s wrong in a very transparent fashion. But it is important to realize that income or consumption poverty is an important dimension of poverty in its own right and we should not be using other indicators as a proxy for it, any more than we should be using income poverty as a proxy for health or illiteracy. They are different things.
LOUNGANI: Should we just ignore the poverty numbers altogether?
DEATON: No, that’s clearly going too far. I don’t have objections to the concept of poverty. We do have a notion of poverty, like we have a notion of being cold or being hot; people can generally identify who in their community is poor. But it’s one thing to have a rough notion of poverty in your community, quite another to come up with an estimate of the number of poor in the whole developing world. That, as we’ve discussed, requires a lot of decisions. So what I’m objecting to is the pretense that at the end of this series of decisions we can draw a very sharp cutoff, a poverty line. It encourages a rather Micawberish view of things where the result is taken to be happiness on one side of the line and misery on the other. (“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”) We should admit that the poverty numbers have large margins of error but keep working to improve them.
LOUNGANI: That’s a nice segue to my final set of questions. What institutional changes are needed to get some quality control on the poverty numbers?
DEATON: The often rather informal arrangements under which numbers are produced need to be looked at. I think the poverty numbers were first thought up for the Bank’s 1990 World Development Report. There was a lot of heroic work by Bank economists to put these numbers together. But they weren’t regarded then as frontline numbers. When folks first started doing GDP numbers, a few academics put some numbers together, and they were thought of as interesting and neat rather than solid numbers you could hang your hat on. Now the poverty numbers have become big important numbers on which many things, including the evaluation of the Bank’s own performance, hinge. At the moment, pretty much no one other than Bank economists can tell you how these numbers were put together and how they can be reproduced. So when someone comes along and accuses the Bank of biasing the numbers one way or the other, it’s difficult for an outside agency or independent scholars to leap to its defense and help resolve the controversy. So we need greater transparency at the Bank on how the poverty numbers are going to be put together in the future. You could imagine setting up other institutions to do this, but greater transparency would get us going in the right direction. And helping countries resolve statistical issues is something that the Bank and the IMF should do a lot more of.
LOUNGANI: It’s difficult for the IMF to take a deep interest in poverty measurement when some still call for us to leave the “poverty business” altogether.
DEATON: I’m in favor of the IMF’s staying in the poverty business, within limits. I was persuaded by [former IMF First Deputy Managing Director] Stan Fischer’s remarks at the conference last year [on macroeconomic policies and poverty reduction] as to why poverty is central to the IMF’s mission. He said that the IMF cannot use the “Von Braun defense”— “I just put the rockets up, and it’s someone else’s business where they fall”—to keep out of poverty. I don’t see how the IMF can cleanly mark out its core mission and say that poverty reduction is someone else’s business. The question is, how far do you go? Certainly, you don’t want to turn yourself into the Bank and hire all the specialists it has and replicate all the detailed poverty analysis it does. But showing greater awareness of poverty measurement issues is essential.
LOUNGANI: What are some areas we could focus on?
DEATON: Several of the problem areas that we discussed are areas where IMF economists are very highly skilled. In countries where there are discrepancies between the national income accounts and the national surveys, IMF staff may have some clues about the extent to which fudges in the national income accounts are responsible. The IMF also has had a long-standing interest in accurate price indices because of the need to get accurate measures of real monetary aggregates, real exchange rates, and the like. And I believe the IMF these days actually issues guidelines on how to provide macroeconomic data and assess their quality. That should be extended to poverty data. This is not the IMF changing its line of business, but simply recognizing that to do your business well you have to be well informed about the measurement of poverty.
Congratulations to Angus Deaton for winning the Nobel Prize in Economics. Below is my IMF Survey interview with Deaton (July 2002) on When numbers don’t tell the full story about poverty in India and the world
Before the world can answer questions about how poverty is reduced, it needs to know how progress can be measured. But estimates of the number of the world’s poor and questions about whether it has been decreasing or increasing have given rise to one of the hottest controversies in the development community.
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