China is still reforming

Every once and a while you read articles suggesting that the reform process in China has stopped. Tyler Cowen discussed a book on China by Joe Zhang that makes 5 very dubious claims about reform. This one seems more than “dubious”:

In the past decade, China has erased most (if not all) of the liberalization of the previous two decades.

Thirty years ago China wasn’t much more advanced than North Korea.  The SOE share of the Chinese economy fell from 80% in 1978 to 18% today.  Here’s a graph showing the first decade of the 21st century:

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 1.01.45 PM

That graph is from a 2011 article in The Economist. But how about more recently? Has the reform process stopped?

Last year the FT reported that Xi Jinping was initially focusing on making the SOEs more efficient:

Reforms in train in China amount to a significant, albeit indirect, challenge to state companies across a range of industries, chipping away at their privileges. The government does not want to eliminate them. Instead, it wants to make them more efficient and more profit-focused – in short, more like private companies.

.  .  .

Private companies complain that they are struggling to compete against state companies and cannot access the same investment or funding opportunities as them. Moreover, the productivity gains at state companies have stalled, with their equity returns lagging behind private rivals by about 10 percentage points.

These problems form the basis of Mr Xi’s new round of SOE reforms. First, the government has promised to open up protected industries, including finance and energy, to more private capital – giving entrepreneurs capital opportunities that they lacked before. These openings, though, are expected to be modest.

The second and crucial part of Mr Xi’s push is to make existing SOEs more like private companies in their operations, if not their ultimate ownership. The reforms “will mainly focus on improving the operational efficiency of the SOE sector”, said Zhu Haibin, an economist with JPMorgan.

The government will allow state companies to introduce employee stock ownership plans, a way of encouraging managers to target profits. Bringing more private investors on board will also increase the portion of state companies in the hands of performance-minded shareholders, a disciplining force.

Even more important are the reforms that will change their operating environment. Shifts to market-based pricing for energy inputs and interest rates are, over time, undermining the advantages that state companies have over their private rivals.

An example of that was seen last week when China Development Bank, a state-owned lender that is one of the biggest creditors to local governments, had to scale back a planned bond issue because of tight monetary conditions. It was a case of an increasingly liberalised interest rate market forcing a state-owned company to weigh its investment plans more carefully.

“They know that if they issued the bond, the yield will be pretty high, probably higher than their returns,” said a credit trader with a European bank in Shanghai.

The industrials sector has also thrown up multiple examples this year of how market forces are impinging on state companies. The listed arms of Cosco, a shipbuilder, and Yunwei, a chemicals company, are among those that have announced assets sales in recent months to repair their balance sheets after big losses.

In 2014 things are moving even faster.  The Economist recently reported that privatization is back on the table:

The temptations to branch out have been too great: relative to their private-sector peers, they have benefited from cheaper financing from state-owned banks, favouritism from local governments in land sales and a lighter touch from regulators.

Second, despite these advantages, SOEs have given progressively less bang for their buck. Faced with mounting losses in the 1990s, China undertook a first round of drastic reforms of its state-owned companies. There were mass closures of the weakest firms, tens of millions of lay-offs and stockmarket listings for many of the biggest which made them run a little more like private companies. That initially paid dividends. SOEs’ return on assets, a gauge of their productivity, rose from barely higher than zero in 1998 to nearly 7% a decade later, just shy of the private-sector average. But over the past five years, their fortunes have ebbed. Profitability of state companies has fallen, even as private firms have grown in strength. SOE returns are now about half those of their non-state peers. For an economy that, inevitably, is slowing as it matures, inefficient state companies are a dangerous extra drag. Jian Chang of Barclays says that putting SOEs right is “the most critical reform area for China in the coming decade”.

Until recently, however, few analysts thought that China had the desire or the ability to get back into the muck of SOE reform.  Companies under the central government, such as PetroChina, the country’s biggest oil producer, were believed to be strong enough to resist the changes that would erode their privileges. At the provincial and municipal levels, local officials were thought bound to government-owned companies by ties of power, patronage and money. China was not expected to sit entirely still: gradual deregulation of interest rates and energy pricing was placing indirect pressure on state companies to operate more efficiently. But a direct, frontal assault on them of the kind waged by Zhu Rongji, then prime minister, in the 1990s seemed out of the question. Even when the party unveiled a much-ballyhooed reform plan last November and vowed to target SOEs, there were doubts about how far Xi Jinping, China’s president, could go. People close to the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), the agency that oversees China’s biggest SOEs, say that it was still dragging its feet at the start of this year.

But a flurry of announcements in the past few months shows that reforms are getting on track. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Sinopec, Asia’s biggest refiner, is close to selling a $16 billion stake in its retail unit, a potentially lucrative opening for private investors. CITIC Group, China’s biggest conglomerate, is poised to become a publicly traded company by injecting its assets into a subsidiary on the Hong Kong stock exchange, for $37 billion. After its initial reluctance, SASAC announced reforms at six companies. They are to experiment with larger private stakes and greater independence for directors.

Although generating fewer headlines, moves by local governments to sell their companies could be even more significant for the Chinese economy. Local SOEs have performed worse than their central counterparts, meaning there is plenty of scope for improvement. They are more accessible to private investors since they are concentrated in non-strategic sectors. “It’s opening wide up. There is a ridiculous amount of deal flow coming our way,” says a manager with an international private-equity firm. The southern province of Guangdong recently held a meeting at which it offered stakes in 50 different SOEs, according to people present. Shanghai has also been at the forefront. In June it sold a 12% stake in a subsidiary of the Jin Jiang hotel group to Hony Capital, a local private-equity firm. Analysts say that this will encourage better management practices at Jin Jiang, including stock-option incentives for executives, and that it could serve as a template for future such deals.

The received wisdom in China used to be that “vested interests”, namely SOEs themselves, would thwart reform. Few believe that any more. With more than 100 officials from PetroChina, the biggest SOE of all, now under investigation for corruption, Mr Xi has flexed his muscles.

I often get commenters making very strange claims.  They’ll assert that the success of the 4 East Asian “tigers” was due to mercantilist policies and the failures of Latin America were due to free market neoliberal policies.  That’s of course the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom. They always cite a couple economists whose names I forget (one American and one South Korean.) While I haven’t read the original papers, my guess is they make the common mistake of forgetting that all economies are very complex.  You can find market reforms everywhere, even in North Korea.  You can find lots of government intervention everywhere, even in Hong Kong much of the real estate is owned by the state.  The trick is to get an overall view of the situation.  Was East Asia or South America more open to trade?  (The two most successful tigers were completely open, the other two fairly open.) Which South American economies did the least bad?  (The neoliberal ones like Chile did best, the highly statist ones did the worst.)  Perhaps some people believe intervention is good, and then look for examples of intervention in a successful economy.  You can always find some, but were they the decisive factor in the success?  Almost never.

I haven’t read the book Tyler discusses, so I can’t comment on the specifics.  But I’d love to see someone provide a short summary of how someone could claim China today is roughly as illiberal as 30 years ago.  That seems preposterous at first glance.  Is it possible the author made the same mistake as those who claim Latin America is a test of free markets, and East Asia a test of statist policies?

On the other hand my claim that tight money by the Fed caused the Great Recession also seems “preposterous at first glance.”  :)

PS.  I’d recommend Coase’s book on China (written with Ning Wang) for those who are interested in how they reformed their economy.

Question for David Glasner

Here’s David Glasner:

I can envision a pure barter economy with incorrect price expectations in which individual plans are in a state of discoordination. Or consider a Fisherian debt-deflation economy in which debts are denominated in terms of gold and gold is appreciating. Debtors restrict consumption not because they are trying to accumulate more cash but because their debt burden is so great, any income they earn is being transferred to their creditors. In a monetary economy suffering from debt deflation, one would certainly want to use monetary policy to alleviate the debt burden, but using monetary policy to alleviate the debt burden is different from using monetary policy to eliminate an excess demand for money. Where is the excess demand for money?

Why is it different from alleviating an excess demand for money?

As far as I know the demand for money is usually defined as either M/P or the Cambridge K.  In either case, a debt crisis might raise the demand for money, and cause a recession if the supply of money is fixed.  Or the Fed could adjust the supply of money to offset the change in the demand for money, and this would prevent any change in AD, P, and NGDP.

Perhaps David sees the debt crisis working through supply-side channels—causing a recession despite no change in NGDP.  That’s possible, but it’s not at all clear to me that this is what David has in mind.

Williamson on monetary policy and interest rates

In the past, Stephen Williamson has attracted some fierce criticism for his views on the relationship between money and interest rates, specifically some posts that seemed to deny the importance of the “liquidity effect.”  Nick Rowe and others criticized Williamson for seeming to suggest that a Fed policy of lowering interest rates would actually lower the rate of inflation–via the Fisher effect. Williamson has a new post that seems to have somewhat more conventional views of the liquidity effect, but still emphasizes the longer term importance of the Fisher effect:

If the central bank experiments with random open market operations, it will observe the nominal interest rate and the inflation rate moving in opposite directions. This is the liquidity effect at work – open market purchases tend to reduce the nominal interest rate and increase the inflation rate. So, the central banker gets the idea that, if he or she wants to control inflation, then to push inflation up (down), he or she should move the nominal interest rate down (up).

But, suppose the nominal interest rate is constant at a low level for a long time, and then increases to a higher level, and stays at that higher level for a long time. All of this is perfectly anticipated. Then, there are many equilibria, all of which converge in the long run to an allocation in which the real interest rate is independent of monetary policy, and the Fisher relation holds.

Before discussing Williamson, let me point out that back in 2008-09, 99.9% of economists thought the Fed had eased policy, and that the deflation of 2009 occurred in spite of those heroic easing attempts.  That 99.9% included the older monetarists.  Only the market monetarists and the ghost of Milton Friedman insisted that money was tight and that interest rates were falling due to the income and Fisher effects.  I’d like to think that Williamson agrees with us, but of course he’d be horrified by the specifics on the MM model, indeed he wouldn’t even recognize it as a “model.”

Williamson continues:

A natural equilibrium to look at is one that starts out in the steady state that would be achieved if the central bank kept the nominal interest rate at the low value forever. Then, in my notes, I show that the equilibrium path of the real interest rate and the inflation rate look like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 10.41.23 AM

Is that really monetary tightening?  After all, inflation rises.  Here’s the very next paragraph by Williamson:

There is no impact effect of the monetary “tightening” on the inflation rate, but the inflation rate subsequently increases over time to the steady state value – in the long run the increase in the inflation rate is equal to the increase in the nominal rate. The real interest rate increases initially, then falls, and in the long run there is no effect on the real rate – the liquidity effect disappears in the long run. But note that the inflation rate never went down.

The scare quotes around “tightening” suggest that Williamson is also skeptical of the notion that tightening has actually occurred.  Indeed inflation increased, then policy must have eased. However to his credit he recognizes that “conventional wisdom” would have viewed this as a tightening.  Nonetheless the final part of the paragraph has me concerned.  Williamson refers to the disappearance of the liquidity effect, but in the example he graphed there is no liquidity effect, as the rise in interest rates was not caused by a tightening of monetary policy.  If it had been caused by tighter money, inflation would have fallen.

So how can the graph be explained?  As far as I can tell the most likely explanation is that at the decisive moment (call it t=0) the equilibrium Wicksellian interest rate jumps much higher, and then gradually returns to a lower level over the next few years.  And the central bank moves the policy rate to keep the price level well behaved.  I suppose you might see this as being roughly the opposite of the shock that hit the developed economies in 2008, except of course it was more gradual.

Suppose there had been no change in the Wicksellian equilibrium rate, and the central bank simply increased the policy rate by 100 basis points, and kept it at the higher level.  In that case, the economy would have fallen into hyperdeflation. When you peg interest rates in an unconditional fashion, the price level becomes undefined.

Is there any other way that one could get a path like the one shown by Williamson? Could the central bank initiate this new path? Maybe, at least if you don’t assume a discontinuous change in the interest rate, followed by absolute stability.  To explain how you could get roughly this sort of path lets look at the reverse case.

Suppose the Fed had been increasing the monetary base at about 5% a year for many years, and the markets expected this to continue.  This led to roughly 5% NGDP growth.  The markets assumed the Fed was implicitly targeting NGDP growth at about 5%.  But the Fed actually also cared about headline inflation, which suddenly rose higher than desired (due to an oil shock.)  The Fed responded by holding the base constant for a period of 9 months.  (For those who don’t know, so far I’ve described events up to May 2008.)

This unexpectedly tight money turned market expectations more bearish.  As expectations for NGDP growth became more bearish, the asset markets fell and the Fed responded by cutting interest rates.  And since inflation did not immediately decline, real short term rates also fell (still the mirror image of the Williamson graph.)  BTW, we know that even 3 month T-bill yields FELL on the news of policy tightening at the December 2007 FOMC meeting.  Williamson would have approved of that market reaction!!

Normally the Fed would have realized its mistake at some point, and monetary policy would have nudged us back onto the old path.  In this case, however, market rates had fallen to zero by the time the Fed realized its mistake.  And the Fed was reluctant to do unconventional stimulus.  There was a permanent reduction in the trend rate of NGDP growth, as well as nominal interest rates. This showed up in lower than normal 30-year bond yields.  The process played out even more dramatically in Europe (and earlier in Japan.)

I do have one quibble with the Williamson post.  He seems too skeptical of the claim that the ECB recently eased policy.  But before I criticize him let me say that I find his error much more forgivable than the conventional wisdom, which views low interest rates as easy money.

Williamson points out that the ECB recently cut rates, and that if the ECB leaves rates near zero for an extended period of time, then inflation is likely to stay very low, as in Japan.  All of this is correct.  But I think he overlooks the fact that while the overall policy regime in Europe is relatively “tight”; the specific recent actions taken by the ECB most definitely were “easing.”  We know that because the euro clearly fell in the forex markets in response to that action.

I think this puzzles a lot of pundits.  It’s very possible for central banks to take relative weak actions that are by themselves expansionary, even while leaving the overall policy stance contractionary, albeit a few percent less so than before. That’s the story of the various QE programs in America.

I encourage all bloggers to never reason from a price change.  Do not draw out a path of interest rates and ask what sort of policy it is.  First ask what caused the interest rates to change—the liquidity effect, or the income/Fisher effects?

PS.  Of course I agree with most of the Williamson post, such as his criticism of “overheating” theories of inflation.

HT:  TravisV

Level vs. growth rate targeting

Here’s Lars Christensen:

In fact I am pretty sure that if somebody had told Scott in July 2009 that from now on the Fed will follow a 4% NGDP target starting at the then level of NGDP then Scott would have applauded it. He might have said that he would have preferred a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend, but overall I think Scott would have been very happy to see a 4% NGDP target as official Fed policy.

Actually I would have been very upset, as indeed I was as soon as I saw what they were doing.  I favored a policy of level targeting, which meant returning to the previous trend line.

Now of course if they had adopted a permanent policy of 4% NGDP targeting, I would have had the satisfaction of knowing that while the policy was inappropriate at the moment, in the long run it would be optimal.  Alas, they did not do that.  The recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.

However I do agree with Lars that the Fed has done much better than the ECB.

HT:  TravisV.

Further thoughts on “inflation”

Nick left the following comment on the previous post:

I really like this post … So I’m sorry to snark … But:

‘I concluded inflation is real.’
And
‘That’s why I keep claiming that inflation is a meaningless concept.’

Me think Econ no fit words good sometime.

What can I say?  I suppose I was thinking about this in two different ways:

1.  The BLS tries to do “hedonic” adjustments to the CPI, i.e. adjust for product quality change.  I showed that when we really did have high inflation you’d see the prices of ordinary items like cars rise very rapidly.  That’s clearly not true today.  I also showed that using what I thought was a plausible hedonic comparison (the 2014 Accord is just as good as the 1986 Legend) you could get zero inflation in new car prices, far less that the 35% assumed by the BLS.  So I’m dubious that the BLS is grossly understating inflation.  Of course I acknowledge that lots of service prices have risen faster than car prices, and thus there has been some inflation.  Even so, using the BLS hedonic approach, the actual BLS numbers seem plausible.

However . . .

2.  When I say inflation is a meaningless concept I’m suggesting that the concept is not well defined, despite the BLS’s attempts to do so.  Here’s commenter Vivian making a very good point:

Taking literally, “hedonic” means relating to pleasure. Did you get more or less pleasure from that 1964 Olds with all its trunk and leg space, steel and chrome and its muscular engine than you would from the Accord? What would it cost today, even with our advances in manufacturing technology, to reproduce that 1964 Olds with the same specs? Are hedonic adjustments confusing functionality with price (or even pleasure)?

These are all debatable questions, and for this reason I doubt the statement “there is no such thing as true inflation rate” is debatable.

In earlier posts I’ve made an argument (similar to Vivian’s and almost the opposite of my previous post)–that if you use a sort of “pleasure” criterion, then price inflation is roughly equal to wage inflation, and living standards haven’t risen at all. Thus people used to get great pleasure from crummy black and white TVs, but now someone with that TV set would be miserable, thinking about the great big flat panel HDTV his neighbor has.  He’d feel poor.  If economists really believe the CPI is supposed to measure a constant utility level, then for all we know there might have been no real wage gains in the past 100 years.  Who’s to say if people are happier than 100 years ago? All of these concepts are so slippery that I’m very skeptical of the notion that there is any “true” rate of inflation.

But my previous post was sort of saying; “if we are going to play the game of trying to seriously estimate inflation using BLS hedonic-type approaches, there is no reason to doubt their claim that inflation has slowed sharply from the Great Inflation period.”  Nice quality cars went from $3600 to $22,500 in 22 years, then to $22,105 in 28 more years.  You can quibble about the models I chose, but the overall pattern is clear.  Inflation has slowed sharply.  Or should I say “inflation” has slowed sharply?  I don’t seem to be able to make up my mind.