Brexit and the Unforecastability of Demand-Side Recessions

Simon Wren-Lewis claims the Brexit slowdown is about to begin because its negative effect on the economy is no longer masked by unusually strong consumption. Hence, GDP is going to take a hit.

The thing is: all the effects the Brexit vote could conceivably have in the short-run pertain to aggregate demand (AD). Since AD is controlled by the BoE, there is no reason to assume that Brexit will have any short-run consequences on GDP – as I already pointed out immediately after the Brexit vote.

One may argue that at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB) and under strict inflation targeting, the central bank might lose this control. But since monetary policy in the UK is not even at the ZLB, this theoretical possibility does not apply in the case of post-Brexit Britain.

In general, if the central bank is doing its job properly, any slow-down or reduction of GDP caused by demand-shocks is impossible to predict ahead of time.

Why has this basic fact been ignored by so many economists in the case of Brexit?

Well, most of the economists who have been predicting a negative effect of Brexit on GDP in the short-run believe that Brexit will have a negative effect on the long-run supply side of the British economy. Whether the long-run effect of Brexit will be negative or positive is debatable but taking a pessimistic view is certainly not inherently flawed.

Since economists are human and few humans are immune to the passions involved in political arguments, I guess that, being of the conviction that the long-run effects of Brexit will be negative, these economists have been tempted to loosen their intellectual standards and to sex up their arguments by making gloomy predictions about the short-run as well.

That so many economists have been making these predictions may make them seem respectable. It doesn’t make them well-reasoned or correct.

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The Root of the Root of the Perverse Incentives in the Banking Sector: the Wrong Monetary Policy Regime

As I have described before, the banking sector is a mess – or as Mervyn King put it: “Of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today.”

At the root of the problem are explicit and implicit government guarantees for bank debt. These constitute a subsidy of debt financing and provide an incentive for banks to minimize equity to asset ratios. Razor-thin capital ratios again incentivize banks to take on excessive risk. At some point excessively risky investment behavior will produce heavy losses and lead to a solvency crisis.

Government guarantees for bank debt do not only stand at the beginning of this causal chain – they also stand in the way of a solution to the solvency crisis. Undercapitalized banks do not necessarily need to engage in credit rationing. The much simpler solution would be to issue more capital. But the taxpayer subsidy for debt has made capital artificially expensive relative to debt. Hence, banks are reluctant to issue more capital and the solvency crisis drags on.

So, if the government abolished deposit insurance (which is, of course, not insurance in the true sense of the word but simply a government guarantee) and also announced that there would be no bailing out of creditors any more in the future, would this eliminate the perverse incentives in the financial industry?

Without being accompanied by certain changes in the institutional environment (described below) such an announcement would simply not be credible and hence not effective: there are, at the moment, banks that are (potentially) “too important to fail”. Hence, the government has a strong incentive to renege on its promise and rescue such banks in the event of a crisis.

Anticipating this too-important-to-fail problem facing the government, the creditors of such banks will be content with relatively low risk-premiums. Again, the capital structure irrelevance principle will not hold and the banks will still be able to reduce their weighted average cost of capital by increasing their leverage to astronomical levels.

Without first solving the too-important-to-fail problem, the government cannot credibly commit to not bail out failed banks. But is there a solution to this problem at all?

The failure of a sufficiently large bank (or several banks) may well cause a massive negative shock to aggregate demand that cannot be offset by conventional monetary policy (i.e. by cutting the nominal safe interest rate). The economic cost associated with such an outcome (especially the cost in the form of a potentially significant rise in unemployment) may well be deemed too high to be politically acceptable.

The fact that the central bank’s power to offset negative aggregate demand shocks by cutting the safe nominal interest rate is limited (namely by the zero lower bound) is the main argument put forward to rescue failed banks with taxpayers’ money.

However, while there is obviously a limit to reductions in nominal interest rates, there is no limit to the extent to which the central bank can increase the money supply. That was Milton Friedman’s point when he complained about the failure of US monetary policy in the 1930s.

Of course, it is not enough to just increase the money supply. In order for the expansion of the money supply to increase aggregate demand, markets have to believe the increase of the money supply will be permanent. In short: the central bank has to commit to temporarily higher inflation (NGDP growth) in the future.

A fixed inflation target cuts off the Friedmanite money expansion route to boosting aggregate demand at the zero lower bound. If the central bank does not commit to deviate from its inflation target, market participants know that the central bank will collect the newly printed money again as soon as the economy is not subject to the aggregate demand shock any more. Hence, the effect of the monetary expansion on spending will be negligible.

The problem is that at the moment central banks across the world have a fixed inflation target, which means that the central bank’s power to offset negative aggregate demand shocks caused by the failure of sufficiently large banks is limited by the zero lower bound, which is again the root of the too-important-to-fail problem.

Brexit – the long run vs. the short run

There are forecasts that Brexit will precipitate a British recession or at least a significant slowdown of economic growth in the short run.

As Paul Krugman argues here and here, the assumption that the Brexit will be a major negative shock to aggregate demand does not follow from standard macroeconomic theory. Hence, according to Krugman, there is no good reason to expect a UK recession.

I agree with Paul Krugman. There is no strong reason to believe that Brexit will be a major negative shock to aggregate demand. And even if a negative shock to aggregate demand were to occur (for example, because of self-fulfilling negative expectations, i.e. firms believe there will be a recession so they reduce investment which then leads to reduced aggregate demand), monetary policy (maybe even combined with fiscal policy) could offset this negative effect by keeping nominal spending stable.

Of course, Brexit will have an effect on the British economy, namely on the long-run supply side of the economy. Krugman argues that this effect will be negative:

Brexit will almost certainly have an adverse effect on British trade; even if the UK ends up with a Norway-type agreement with the EU, the loss of guaranteed access to the EU market will affect firms’ decisions about investments, and inhibit trade flows.

This reduction in trade relative to what would otherwise happen will, in turn, make the British economy less productive and poorer than it would otherwise have been.

Ceteris paribus, i.e. given all other trade arrangements between Britain and the rest of the world and given the current regulatory framework  in the UK (which is, to a large extent, determined by the EU), Krugman is of course right.

But why would everything else stay equal?

By leaving the EU, Britain will be free to adopt a unilateral free trade policy. Many Brexiteers favour this approach and one can only hope that they will prevail.

Britain would benefit from dispensing with barriers to trade even if other countries did not do the same. It would of course be desirable if other countries also removed their barriers to trade: in this case the gains from trade would be even higher. But moving to free trade unilaterally is the optimal policy for Britain independent of whether or not trade barriers in other countries continue to exist.

Furthermore, Brexit makes it possible for Britain to embark on a new approach to, say, financial regulation. In the UK, there was virtually no government regulation of banking until 1979. Instead, the behavior of banks was subject to tight private regulation. The private regulatory framework for banking was then substituted by government regulation in the 1980s.

This approach has not been a success. Brexit gives Britain the opportunity to return to the principles that served financial markets so well before the 1980s.

Will Britain use the opportunities presented by Brexit – or will Britain’s approach to trade and regulations be more restrictive and intrusive than before?

I don’t know for sure. Nobody knows for sure.

But on the whole I am slightly optimistic. In general, smaller political entities are governed better than larger ones. And many Brexiteers have a fairly libertarian world-view.

The most important effect of Brexit may not (directly) pertain to Britain anyway but to the rest of Europe and the world. Brexit may constitute the beginning of the end of the EU, which – by imposing a large, bureaucratic, uniform governance structure on a diverse continent – is basically the opposite of competitive governance.

Let us hope that, in hindsight, Brexit indeed turns out to be the beginning of a trend towards local autonomy and governance diversity. It would be the best possible outcome.