China might NEVER become the biggest economy in the world

It is often assumed that given China’s remarkable growth rates over the past three decades – around 10% real GDP per year – China is on the way to soon becoming the largest economy in the world. In fact earlier this year it got a lot of media attention that when the World Bank argued that China already had overtaken the US as the largest in economy in the world. However, the argument was completely bogus as it was based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) rather than on actual exchange rates (To be fair we should blame the media rather than the World Bank for this interpretation of the data).

PPP based measures of GDP (per capita) might make sense if we want to measure how much an average citizen can buy for given an average income, however, it does not make sense when we want to measure the size of the economy. There we have to use measures based on actual exchange rates and if we do that then it turns out that the Chinese economy is still significantly smaller than the US economy. Hence, total Chinese GDP today is around 10 trillion USD, while US GDP is around bn 17-18 trillion USD. Said in another way the US economy is still nearly double the size of the Chinese economy.

And what I will argue in this post is that China might never overtake the US as the biggest economy in the world.

Chinese growth set to slow dramatically in the coming decades

There is a broad consensus among long-term macroeconomic forecasters that the Chinese economy is likely to slow significantly in the coming quarters – starting today!

There are overall three reasons why this is the case:

1) The catching-up process means less and less: A very large part of China fantastic growth performance over the past three decades is due to a “natural” catching up process. When poor economies – like the Chinese economy three decades ago – is freed up a catching up process is started. This means a lot for low-income economies, but as income levels increase the catching up process slows down. This is already the case for China.

2) Investment growth is likely to slow significantly: Fixed investments as share of GDP in China is extremely high – well above 40% of GDP. This is at least 10-15 %-point more than in other countries with a similar GDP/capita level. This to some extent reflect capital misallocation in the Chinese economy as investment decision in the Chinese economy to a large extent still is a result of quasi-central planing. It is therefore natural to expect investment growth to slow quite significantly in the coming decades.

3) China is facing serious demographic challenges: You can blame the Communist Party’s one-child policy or come up with other explanations but the fact is that the Chinese labour force is now already in decline and the decline will continue in the coming decades and soon the Chinese population will be in outright decline.

So from a growth-accounting perspective we have it all – less Total Factor Productivity growth – as the catch-up process slows, a slower increase in the capital stock and finally a declining labour force.

It is therefore hardly surprising that most long-term forecasts made for the Chinese economy forecast a rather significant slowdown in Chinese growth in the coming decades (See for example here.)

Closing in on the US, but China might never make it

It is commonly argued that trend growth presently is around 7-7.5% in China, however, it is equally common to argue that we will see a slowdown in real GDP growth to an average of around 5-6% in the coming 10-15 years. But the real slowdown comes after 2030 where the Chinese economy is expected by most long-term forecasters to start to approaching Japanese style growth rates and outright negative trend-growth should not be ruled out in the 2050s based on reasonable expectations about demographics, the investment ratio and the catching-up process.

Obviously it is difficult to make any macroeconomic forecasts. However, I would actually argue that it in many ways it is easier to make forecast 10-20 years ahead than 1-2 years ahead. When we do short-term forecast the shocks will always mess up our forecasts, but over a 10-20 years horizon the positive and negative shocks tend to even out. Furthermore, in the long-run it is all about supply side factors and with the growth rate of the labour force being a major factor we already know quite a bit. Hence, we have a pretty good idea about the growth of the Chinese labour force in 15-20 years as the people entering the labour force as young adults in 15 or 20 years already have been born.

I have gone through a number of studies of the long-term growth perspectives for the Chinese economy and based on that we can make a simple “simulation” of how the level of Chinese real GDP will develop from now and until 2060. I should stress it is not a forecast as such and lets therefore just stick with the term “simulation” of future Chinese real GDP under reasonable assumptions about the development in technology and in productions factors.

The graph below illustrates my argument that China might never overtake the US as the largest economy in the world. Here is my assumptions (and they can certainly debated, but they are not much different from the “consensus” forecasts for long-term growth in China and the US). I assume that trend real GDP growth in China over the next 15 years will be 6% – slowing from presently 7.5% to 4.5% in 2030. Hereafter the negative demographics in China really kick in and as a result trend growth drops to an average of just 2% for the period 2030-2060.

I have indexed Chinese real GDP at 55 in 2014 – reflecting that Chinese GDP (in USD) is around 55% of US GDP. In my simulation I have assumed that US trend real GDP growth is 3%. This is probably slightly optimistic compared to the “consensus” among long-term forecasters, but it is basically the growth rate we rather consistently have seen in the US economy since the early 1960s. The American demographic challenges are somewhat smaller than is the case for China and I find it rather likely that the US gradually will adjust immigration policies so meet these challenges (I certainly hope so…)

It is important to stress that I here assume that the there is no real appreciation or depreciation in the USD/RMB exchange rate (no Balassa-Samuelson effect). Hence, the exchange rate development is determined by relative inflation in the US and China. This might twist the results slightly against China. On the other hand I have also assumed that the output gap is zero in both countries. In fact the output gap in the US is still negative, while the output gap in China likely is close to zero or even positive. This twists the results against the US. Lets just (completely unreasonably) say that these factors even out each other.

China will NEVER catch up

So there you go. You see under these – simplistic – assumptions the Chinese economy will continue to gain on the US economy over the next two decades. However, under these assumptions (and I again stress it is assumptions) it will be close (around 90%), but no cigar for the Chinese economy – the Chinese economy will never be the largest economy in the world – or at least not in my life time and I do plan to live to at least 2060.

Furthermore, starting around 2040 China will stop catching up and instead see its economy decline relative to the US and in 2060 we will be more or less back where we started with Chinese GDP being around 60% of US GDP.

Now you might say that these results are too negative in terms of China or too positive in terms of the US and that might very well be the case. However, I do think that my simulations illustrate that China is not automatically set for global economic and financial domination. So while China – for a period – might become a bigger economy than the US – if we for example assumption 2.5% US trend growth rather than 3% – the negative demographics will start to kick in soon and that will ensure that the US economy will remain the biggest economy in the world – also in 50 years. This also means that it is quite hard to imagine in my view that the “financial centre” of the world will move to China and I find it extremely hard to imagine that the Chinese renminbi will take over of the role as the leading reserve currency of the world from the US dollar.

But there is no reason to cry for the Chinese

So China might never become the biggest economy in the world. However, that should really not be important for the Chinese. It might be for Chinese policy makers, but the average Chinese should instead celebrate the fact that outlook for his/her income level remains very bright and income growth for the individual Chinese is likely to remain very high in the coming decades. So the discussion above should not really be seen as being “bearish” on China. In fact I am rather optimistic about the Chinese “miracle” continuing in the coming decades. We should celebrate that, but we might never be able to celebrate the day the Chinese economy overtakes the US in absolute size.

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Something very clever Bryan Caplan wrote in 2007 on “Anti-Foreign Bias”

I must admit that I am somewhat depressed by the state of the world today. Deflationary monetary policies in Europe, increased protectionist tendencies and war and geopolitical tensions around the world. It is no secret that I think it is all connected.

But why do voters around the world rally behind the cries for closed borders and even more military build-ups? Why do policy makers – democratic and non-democratic – find it in their interest to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment, geopolitical tensions and to introduce protectionist measures?

Bryan Caplan might provide the answer – the “anti-foreign bias” of rationally irrational voters – this is from a piece Bryan wrote for Reason from 2007: 

A shrewd businessman I know has long thought that everything wrong in the American economy could be solved with two expedients: 1) a naval blockade of Japan, and 2) a Berlin Wall at the Mexican border.

Like most noneconomists, he suffers from anti-foreign bias, a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners. Popular metaphors equate international trade with racing and warfare, so you might say that anti-foreign views are embedded in our language. Perhaps foreigners are sneakier, craftier, or greedier. Whatever the reason, they supposedly have a special power to exploit us.

There is probably no other popular opinion that economists have found so enduringly objectionable. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith admonishes his countrymen: “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry.”

As far as his peers were concerned, Smith’s arguments won the day. More than a century later, Simon Newcomb could securely observe in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that “one of the most marked points of antagonism between the ideas of the economists since Adam Smith and those which governed the commercial policy of nations before his time is found in the case of foreign trade.” There was a little backsliding during the Great Depression, but economists’ pro-foreign views abide to this day.

Even theorists, such as Paul Krugman, who specialize in exceptions to the optimality of free trade frequently downplay their findings as abstract curiosities. As Krugman wrote in his 1996 book Pop Internationalism: “This innovative stuff is not a priority for today’s undergraduates. In the last decade of the 20th century, the essential things to teach students are still the insights of Hume and Ricardo. That is, we need to teach them that trade deficits are self-correcting and that the benefits of trade do not depend on a country having an absolute advantage over its rivals.”

Economics textbooks teach that total output increases if producers specialize and trade. On an individual level, who could deny it? Imagine how much time it would take to grow your own food, while a few hours’ wages spent at the grocery store can feed you for weeks. Analogies between individual and social behavior are at times misleading, but this is not one of those times. International trade is, as the economic writer Steven Landsburg explains in his 1993 book The Armchair Economist, a technology: “There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First you plant seeds, which are the raw materials from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships westward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.”

How can anyone overlook trade’s remarkable benefits? Adam Smith, along with many 18th- and 19th-century economists, identifies the root error as misidentification of money and wealth: “A rich country, in the same manner as a rich man, is supposed to be a country abounding in money; and to heap up gold and silver in any country is supposed to be the best way to enrich it.” It follows that trade is zero sum, since the only way for a country to make its balance more favorable is to make another country’s balance less favorable.

Even in Smith’s day, however, his story was probably too clever by half. The root error behind 18th-century mercantilism was an unreasonable distrust of foreigners. Otherwise, why would people focus on money draining out of “the nation” but not “the region,” “the city,” “the village,” or “the family”? Anyone who consistently equated money with wealth would fear all outflows of precious metals. In practice, human beings then and now commit the balance of trade fallacy only when other countries enter the picture. No one loses sleep about the trade balance between California and Nevada, or me and iTunes. The fallacy is not treating all purchases as a cost but treating foreign purchases as a cost.

Anti-foreign bias is easier to spot nowadays. To take one prominent example, immigration is far more of an issue now than it was in Smith’s time. Economists are predictably quick to see the benefits of immigration. Trade in labor is roughly the same as trade in goods. Specialization and exchange raise output—for instance, by letting skilled American moms return to work by hiring Mexican nannies.

In terms of the balance of payments, immigration is a nonissue. If an immigrant moves from Mexico City to New York and spends all his earnings in his new homeland, the balance of trade does not change. Yet the public still looks on immigration as a bald misfortune: jobs lost, wages reduced, public services consumed. Many in the general public see immigration as a distinct danger, independent of, and more frightening than, an unfavorable balance of trade. People feel all the more vulnerable when they reflect that these foreigners are not just selling us their products. They live among us.

It is misleading to think of “foreignness” as a simple either/or. From the viewpoint of the typical American, Canadians are less foreign than the British, who are in turn less foreign than the Japanese. From 1983 to 1987, 28 percent of Americans in the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey admitted they disliked Japan, but only 8 percent disliked England, and a scant 3 percent disliked Canada.

Objective measures like the volume of trade or the trade deficit are often secondary to physical, linguistic, and cultural similarity. Trade with Canada or Great Britain generates only mild alarm compared to trade with Mexico or Japan. U.S. imports from and trade deficits with Canada exceeded those with Mexico every year from 1985 to 2004. During the anti-Japan hysteria of the 1980s, British foreign direct investment in the U.S. always exceeded that of the Japanese by at least 50 percent. Foreigners who look like us and speak English are hardly foreign at all.

Calm reflection on the international economy reveals much to be thankful for and little to fear. On this point, economists past and present agree. But an important proviso lurks beneath the surface. Yes, there is little to fear about the international economy itself. But modern researchers rarely mention that attitudes about the international economy are another story. Paul Krugman hits the nail on the head: “The conflict among nations that so many policy intellectuals imagine prevails is an illusion; but it is an illusion that can destroy the reality of mutual gains from trade.” We can see this today most vividly in the absurdly overblown political reactions to the immigration issue, from walls to forcing illegal workers currently in America to leave before they can begin an onerous procedure to gain paper legality.



Talk about being disappointed…By the Bundesbank

Take a look at this list of Bloomberg headlines coming out today:


Wauw will the Bundesbank advocate monetary easing?


Yeah it sure looks like that!


Yes, yes the Bundesbank is surely dovish


This gotta mean the Bundesbank will support QE


Increadibly dovish Bundesbank…


Yes, yes… have the market monetarists taken over in Frankfurt?


Yeah! Now the Bundesbank surely will endorse QE! No doubt!


Or maybe not! Talk about being disappointed…

“If goods don’t cross borders, armies will” – the case of Russia

Recently I have been thinking quite a bit about the apparent rise of protectionism across the globe and in my quest to find data on the rise of protectionism I found some very interesting comments regarding the Global Trade Alert‘s annual report for 2013 (here reproduced from the Moscow Times January 11 2014):

Russia enacted more protectionist trade measures in 2013 than any other country, leaving it as the world leader in protectionism, according to a new study.

Furthermore, Russia and its partners in the Customs Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan, accounted for a third of all the world’s protectionist steps in 2013, said the study by Global Trade Alert, or GTA, a leading independent trade monitoring service.

A total of 78 trade restrictions, almost a third of all those enacted by Group of 20 countries, were imposed by Russian legislators last year, the study said.

With the new restrictions, Russia now has 331 protectionist measures in place, or a fifth of all protectionist policies registered worldwide .

Belarus is ranked second, with 162 measures.

The Russian-led Customs Union, which the Kremlin has presented as an alternative to the European Union, came under harsh criticism from the report’s authors.

“The Customs Union was responsible for 15 times as many protectionist measures as China while having only an eighth of the population,” said GTA coordinator Simon Evenett, in comments carried by Reuters.

He described Russia’s policy of economic restructuring as “nothing more than a potent mix of rampant subsidization and aggressive protectionism,” which contradicts the World Trade Organization’s principles.

Russia joined WTO in 2012.

The other members of the Customs Union, Kazakhstan and Belarus, are negotiating entry into the WTO.

Of Russia’s protectionist policies, 43.4 percent were targeted bailouts and direct subsidies for local companies, the report said. Tariff measures accounted for 15.5 percent, while anti-dumping, countervailing duty or safeguard provisions constituted almost 10 percent. Other steps included cuts in foreign worker quotas, export subsidies and restrictions, and sanitary measures

A surge in protectionism occurred around the world starting in 2012, the report said. The 2013 data indicate that the trend, which could slow down international economic growth in the next several years, is likely to continue.

Given recent events in Ukraine it is hard not to come to think of the old free trade slogan normally attributed to Frédéric Bastiat “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will”.


PS if you want to think of a “model” of the recent rise in geopolitical tensions around the world then think of this causal relationship: Monetary policy failure => deflationary pressures => rising political populism and an increase in protectionist measures => increased geopolitical tensions. I will try to return to this topic in later posts as I increasingly think there is a relationship between monetary policy failure and increased political uncertainty and geopolitical tensions.

PPS 14 years ago I wrote a short article on the relationship between protectionism and war. You will find it here (page 25-26). It is unfortunately in Danish, but Google Translate might help you.

PPPS a couple of posts on monetary policy failure in Russia. See here, here, here and here.

Recommend reading:

Doug Irwin



Guest post: The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders (Nathan Smith)

On my blog I mostly writes about monetary policy issues. However, I from time to time I venture into other areas. Among the areas I would like to give more attention to is the economics of immigration. I used to teach immigration economics at the University of Copenhagen and have done research on the topic while working at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Denmark 15 years ago. However, I have not worked professionally with immigrations economics for well over a decade and I have only followed the new research in this area from a bit of a distance.

However, since I started my blog I have had a tradition for inviting economic scholars and others to write guest posts on my blog. I am now continuing the tradition as I have invited Nathan Smith to write a guest post on a very interesting paper that he has been working on.

Nathan in his paper is trying to give an assessment of the Global Economic Impact of Open Borders. His results are extremely interesting and in my view illustrates just how big the economic potential benefits are if we moved towards a world of free movement of labour across borders.

This obvious is a very controversial topic so it is very welcomed that professional economists are contributing to a better understanding the topic. It is certainly about time that we start basing immigration policy around on a sound economic understanding of the topic rather than on emotions and populist rhetoric. I am therefore tremendously happy that Nathan has accepted my invitation to contribute to my blog on this very important topic.

Nathan would like to use this opportunity to welcome comments on his ideas and his paper. I would very much suggest that everybody interested in Nathan’s work and the economic of immigration in general leave comments here at the blog or drop Nathan a mail (see e-mail address below). You are obviously also welcome to drop me a mail ( It would be great if we could make this an example on a ‘real-time peer review’ of an academic paper.

- Lars Christensen

Guest post: The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders

by Nathan Smith (

First, a little about me. I’ve been an open borders advocate for nine years now, first publishing in an online journal call Tech Central Station (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), then in my 2010 book, Principles of a Free Society, and most recently at the blog Open Borders: The Case and The Freeman. My work experience includes the Cato Institute and the World Bank. My education includes a Masters in International Development from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (2003), and a PhD in economics from George Mason (2011). Now, I teach economics (macro, public finance, investments, international trade, research methods) at Fresno Pacific University, a small Christian college in California. The website Open Borders: The Case was founded by Vipul Naik and is dedicated to describing and developing the case for open borders in a rational and balanced way.

Open borders is a question both of ethics and of positive economics. There are non-utilitarian arguments that deportation of illegal immigrants, exclusion of peaceful migrants, forcible separation of families, or other aspects of border enforcement violate human rights, are morally impermissible, and must cease regardless of the consequences. But even those who accept these arguments will be curious about what the consequences of doing our moral duty are likely to be. For utilitarians, the whole question will turn on what would happen under open borders. Others may accept that there are such things as rights, and that they may forbid some policies that would be adopted on the basis of a merely utilitarian calculus, but think that a substantial amount of migration restriction is consistent with rights. Open borders would then be evaluated on the basis of its consequences. So, putting my knowledge of development economics to work, I’ve just finished a draft of a paper, “The Global Economic Consequences of Open Borders,” in which I’ve been trying to guess what would happen if all migration restrictions were abolished. Lars was kind enough to offer me the chance to give a glimpse of my methods and results here.

Under the status quo, markets for labor and human capital clear at the national level. Under open borders, they would clear at the global level. At any rate, that is how I model the main difference between the status quo and open borders. Everything else, initially, is either held constant—total factor productivity (TFP), country risk premia on investment capital, the total world population, the total world human capital stock—or changes because of the way global labor and human capital markets clear—the population and GDP of different countries, the global stock of physical capital, the wages of raw capital and the premium paid to human capital around the world. But before solving for a new global equilibrium in the labor and human capital markets, I had to develop a description of the world under the status quo. That is, I had to develop a stylized description of the current world economy, which was consistent with a theoretical model that could subsequently be solved for a new, open borders equilibrium, and which, at the same time, fit tolerably well with the data.

At the heart of my description of the status quo are the factors of production. I follow Mankiw, Romer, and Weil (1992) in explaining international income differences primarily by differences in physical and human capital per worker. TFP still plays an indispensable role, but it varies across countries much less than does average human capital. It is indispensable because—as was pointed out by critics of Mankiw, Romer, and Weil (1992) such as Paul Romer—to explain international income differences entirely by international differences in physical and human capital per worker, requires one to claim that these differences are very large, with counter-factual implications for the marginal product, and therefore the price, of these factors of production across countries. As Lucas (1990) observed, if international income differences depended on physical capital alone, the marginal product and price of physical capital would be orders of magnitude higher in poor countries vis-à-vis rich ones, and if capital is internationally mobile, all new investment would occur in poor countries.

If international income differences depended on human capital alone, then human capital ought to have a higher marginal product and earn more where it was scarce, and we should see mass emigration of smart college grads from the US to India, rather than the other way around. But fairly small differences in TFP—say, a factor of three between the most and least productive countries—suffices to reconcile a factor endowments explanation of most international income differences, with plausible factor prices. Table 1 shows, for selected countries: average human capital and the country risk premium on investment capital, as imputed on the basis of data; TFP, a residual used to reconcile GDP per capita with average human capital and the risk premium; and the “wage of raw labor” and “human capital premium,” as predicted when national labor and human capital markets are solved for equilibrium.

table 1 Nathan Smith

Table 1 features very large differences in average human capital across countries. Some of the world’s least developed countries have less than 5% of the human capital of the average American. Average human capital was imputed on the basis of the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), but the HDI was interpreted as (linearly related to) the log of average human capital. A possibly surprising, but on reflection plausible, feature of the status quo world as described in Table 1 and the underlying model, is that the wages of raw labor differ enormously across countries, but the human capital premium, though it, too, tends to be positively correlated with human capital, differs much less.

Lastly, it must be mentioned that there is a spatial model at work here. Working in Stata, I generate a data set of two million “settlements,” meant to fit major stylized facts about how the human population is distributed among cities, towns, and villages. I imputed TFP at the settlement level. I won’t try to describe the spatial model in detail here, but I do want to mention why it matters. A general problem for open borders models is that it’s hard to give strictly economic reasons why anyone would want to stay in unproductive places when they could move to productive ones.

To address this question, I start by noting that some domestic locations seem more productive than others, and asking why some people live in, say, Elko, NV, instead of New York. My spatial model is based on (a) increasing returns, (b) congestion disutilities, and (c) differences in local TFP. So, Elko, NV has lower TFP than New York, and ends up with fewer people and less physical and human capital per worker, but people still live there for the cheap land and lack of congestion. By the same token, why would anyone stay in Mexico, Indonesia, or Malawi under open borders, when they could live in the USA? Because the best city sites in the USA will get congested, and some places in Mexico, Indonesia, and Malawi may be better than some places in the USA.

So, what are my results? First, let me stress that these are preliminary. After some very helpful real-time peer review from my colleagues at Open Borders: The Case, I plan to refine the spatial model, and somehow I need to come up with better ways to deal with anomalies in imputed TFP, mostly arising from natural resource wealth. The paper describes two scenarios, “Scenario 1” which implements the model in the most literal fashion, and “Scenario 2,” in which I add in some other adjustments, such as human capital growth in response to the new incentives and opportunities of a world with open borders, falling country risk premia due to remittances and generally movements of people facilitating movements of money, and TFP adjustments due to cultural/institutional influences, positive and negative, and to the fact that TFP partly reflects congestible public goods.

In Scenario 1, over 5 billion people migrate, and the world economy comes to be dominated by a few “Countries of Reinforced Dominance” and “New Settler Societies,” while the largest western European countries become “Corridor Countries,” which see much of their native human capital emigrate as they absorb a flood of less-skilled immigrants, and most developing countries become “Countries of Emigration,” losing much to most of their populations to emigration, or “Ghost Nations,” in which less than 2% of the native population stays. While I actually find these large patterns somewhat plausible, the “Countries of Reinforced Dominance” and “New Settler Societies” include too many resource-rich countries like Qatar, East Timor, and Botswana. Since everything else is mobile, high TFP outliers have an outsized impact on global outcomes.

So, I’ll reserve judgment until I come up with a better way to get at “essential” GDP, reflecting the inherent productivity of a place’s institutions, deducting natural resource windfalls. For the record, unskilled workers’ living standards under Scenario 1 converge to 23% of the current US level; the human capital premium rises almost everywhere, converging to $66,535 per annum; average (but not necessarily median) incomes rise for natives of every country in the world; the global capital stock rises more than 100%; and world GDP rises by 80%.

As I say, TFP anomalies are the Achilles heel of the model, and I like Scenario 2 better in part because it deals with them, albeit in a somewhat rough and ad hoc fashion. In Scenario 2, immigrants from low TFP places to high TFP places raise TFP in the places they come from, and reduce it in the places they go to. This is less about negative congestion externalities, which the spatial model has already tried to take into account, as it is about social norms and institutions. Take littering. Citizens of developed countries tend to have a “no littering” norm pretty firmly imprinted in their minds. Citizens of many developing countries do not. So, immigrants from developing countries would probably make litter more common in developed countries, since at least some of them would bring their bad habits with them.

At the same time, the social disapproval and legal penalties they would face for littering in the West would change the habits of some of them, and return migration and letters home would facilitate the spread of a “no littering” norm back to migrants’ countries of origin. The same would apply to many other useful protocols and practices of developed countries, from tipping to not stealing napkins from food courts to not paying bribes to democratic tolerance to culturally valuing literacy and book learning, which open borders could be expected both to dilute at home, and to spread abroad. As it happens, these plausible assumptions about institutional transmission also tame the implausible ascent of high TFP outliers. Since “founder effects” are important, however, I give natives five times the weight of immigrants in determining the TFP, under open borders, of a country of (net) immigration, while emigrants have only one-fifth the weight of those who stay home, in determining the TFP, under open borders, of a country of (net) emigration.

Scenario 2 represents, for the moment, represents my “best guess” of what a world of open borders would “really” look like. Even then, a strange qualifier must be added: I am holding things like world population and TFP constant even as I project the end-point of a transition that would take decades to play out, so the results must be interpreted as if the transition dynamics to open borders are “fast-forwarded” while other changes underway in the world economy are frozen in place. Total migration under Scenario 2 is a little over 3 billion, about 44% of mankind. Interestingly, international geographic mobility under open borders would look similar to interstate mobility in the USA today.

The global human capital stock would rise by 50%, world GDP by 69%, and the global stock of physical capital by 88%. Most developed countries would turn into “host nations,” seeing immigrants from developing countries swell their populations, while most developing countries would see a large fraction of their populations emigrate. However, under Scenario 2, there would be no “ghost nations”: the worst-off countries would be “rescued” by the benign effects of their diasporas, and would see institutions improve, average human capital rise, and investment capital become more available. Some high TFP outliers would turn into “new settler societies,” but (setting to one side the special experience of the USA) these countries would end up with only about 10% of world population. The aggregate experiences of major geographic-cultural regions, shown in Table 2, give a pretty good description of how open borders would change the world under Scenario 2.

Table 2 Nathan Smith


The most striking feature of Table 2 is the dramatic rise of the West, defined as the EU plus the English-speaking USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The West’s population would soar to over 3 billion. It would be home to 43% of the world’s population, but about two-thirds of physical and human capital, and it would generate two-thirds of world GDP. Of course, the West might become less Western as it absorbed billions of immigrants, mostly from East and South Asia, so some might see this as, not the rise, but the end of the West. But polities that represent rival civilizations, such as India and China, would certainly see their relative power decline.

More important, though, is the impact on individuals. And it is here that the strength of the case for open borders really shines through. “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders” is meant as a contribution to positive, not normative economics. Evaluative judgments are included to keep the prose from being too dry, but are not what the paper is really about. Yet for anyone who cares about the welfare of the foreign-born, Table 3 cannot but be a powerful moral argument. For under Scenario 2, it is precisely the world’s poorest who would benefit most from open borders. Natives of the benighted Democratic Republic of the Congo would see their labor incomes rise, on average, by +1801%. Natives of Ethiopia, Burma, Tanzania, Kenya, and many other very poor countries, would see their incomes rise several-fold, partly because tens of millions of them would emigrate, partly because human and physical capital would become more abundant, partly because the diaspora’s influence would improve institutions. Natives of middle-income countries would see smaller, but still substantial, gains.

Table 3 Nathan Smith

Natives of developed countries would have a more ambiguous experience. There, the wage of raw labor would fall. The living standards of unskilled workers worldwide would converge to 44% of the US level. The human capital premium would rise in most places, even in the West, but in the USA, it would actually fall. This would occur because (a) the USA would be such a powerful magnet for skilled workers that average human capital, already high under the status quo, would actually rise slightly, and (b) TFP would fall by about 9%. In the large countries of Western Europe, natives would become minorities in the countries where they were born, but their average labor incomes would actually rise, thanks to gains from trade with immigrants, even as national TFP fell. But the median worker, having below average human capital, would probably earn less than under the status quo, and earnings would become more unequal. But the USA, where even the average worker would earn less than under the status quo, provides an especially good test case for the status quo.

Whether Americans would really be worse off under Scenario 2 is tricky. Their labor incomes would fall, but those who own land—and most Americans are homeowners—would see its value rise more than three-fold. Also, the US government would enjoy a far larger tax base, which it might use to hold natives harmless in the midst of enormous changes. But if we think of open borders as a sacrifice by Americans for the benefit of the foreign-born, it has the merit of being enormously effective on a per dollar basis. Global open borders would reduce Americans’ labor incomes by 10%, while increasing by multiples the welfare of billions of the poorest among our fellow human beings around the world.

While these results are not, in my view, rigged to favor open borders, they are of course highly contestable at the level of positive economics, as well as open, if accepted, to many normative appraisals. Yet I hope they will nonetheless help to dispel the notion that open borders are a “utopian” proposal. Open borders would not free mankind from work, or death, or turn the sea into lemonade, as one early utopian socialist dreamed. There would be major changes, and winners and losers, but on balance the changes would be positive, as well as highly egalitarian. Open borders is probably best compared to the abolition of slavery: a radical but not revolutionary reform, which seems quixotic, but which reason shows is attainable, and which will harm certain powerful vested interests, but benefit most of mankind, especially the worst-off, while expanding human freedom and reducing the amount of violence and coercion in the world.

At any rate, that’s my best guess as to what would happen. But my results are preliminary, and I will be grateful for feedback and criticism.

Three terrible Italian ‘gaps’

Yesterday we got confirmation that Italy feel back to recession in the second quarter of the year (see more here). In this post I will take a look at three terrible ‘gaps’ – the NGDP gap, the output gap and the price gap –  which explains why the Italian economy is so deeply sick.

It is no secret that I believe that we can understand most of what is going on in any economy by looking at the equation of exchange:

(1) M*V=P*Y

Where M is the money supply, V is money-velocity, P is the price level and Y is real GDP.

We can – inspired by David Eagle – of course re-write (1):

(1)’ N=P*Y

Where N is nominal GDP.

From N, P and Y we can construct our gaps. Each gap is the percentage difference between the actual level of the variable – for example nominal GDP – and the ‘pre-crisis trend’ (2000-2007).

The NGDP gap – massive tightening of monetary conditions post-2008 

We start by having a look at nominal GDP.

NGDP gap Italy

We can make numerous observations based on this graph.

First of all, we can see the Italian euro membership provided considerable nominal stability from 2000 to 2008 – nominal GDP basically followed a straight line during this period and at no time from 2000 to 2008 was the NGDP gap more than +/- 2%. During the period 2000-2007 NGDP grew by an average of 3.8% y/y.

Second, there were no signs of excessive NGDP growth in the years just prior to 2008. If anything NGDP growth was fairly slow during 2005-7. Therefore, it is hard to argue that what followed in 2008 and onwards in anyway can be explained as a bubble bursting.

Third, even though Italy obviously has deep structural (supply side) problems there is no getting around that what we have seen is a very significant drop in nominal spending/aggregate demand in the Italian economy since 2008. This is a reflection of the significant tightening of Italian monetary conditions that we have seen since 2008. And this is the reason why the NGDP gap no is nearly -20%!

Given this massive deflationary shock it is in my view actually somewhat of a miracle that the political situation in Italy is not a lot worse than it is!

An ever widening price gap

The scale of the deflationary shock is also visible if we look at the development in the price level – here the GDP deflation – and the price gap.

Price gap Italy

The picture in terms of prices is very much the same as for NGDP. Prior to 2007/8 we had a considerable level of nominal stability. The actual price level (the GDP deflator) more or less grew at a steady pace close to the pre-crisis trend. GDP deflator-inflation averaged 2.5% from 2000 to 2008.

However, we also see that the massive deflationary trends in the Italian economy post-2008. Hence, the price gap has widened significantly and is now close to 7%.

It is also notable that we basically have three sub-periods in terms of the development in the price gap. First, the ‘Lehman shock’ in 2008-9 where the price gap widened from zero to 4-5%. Then a period of stabilisation in 2010 (a similar pattern is visible in the NGDP gap) – and then another shock caused by the ECB’s two catastrophic interest rate hikes in 2011. Since 2011 the price gap has just continued to widen and there are absolutely no signs that the widening of the price gap is coming to an end.

What should be noted, however, is that the price gap is considerably smaller than the NGDP gap (7% vs 20% in 2014). This is an indication of considerably downward rigidity in Italian prices. Hence, had there been full price flexibility the NGDP gap and the price gap would have been of a similar size. We can therefore conclude that the Italian Aggregate Supply (AS) curve is fairly flat (the short-run Phillips curve is not vertical).

The Great Recession has caused a massive output loss in Italy

In a world of full price flexibility the AS curve is vertical and as a result a drop in nominal GDP should be translated fully into a drop in prices, while the output should be unaffected. However, as the difference between the NGDP gap and the price indicates the Italian AS curve is far from vertical. Therefore we should expect a major negative demand shock to cause a drop in prices (relative to the pre-crisis trend), but also a a drop in output (real GDP). The graph below shows that certainly also has been the case.

Output gap Italy


The graph confirms the story from the two first graphs – from 2000 to 2007 there was considerably nominal stability and that led to real stability as well. Hence, during that period real GDP growth consistently was fairly close to potential growth. However, the development in real GDP since 2008 has been catastrophic. Hence, real GDP today is basically at the same level today as 15 years ago!

The extremely negative development in real GDP means that the output gap (based on this simple method) today is -14%! And worse – there don’t seems to be any sign of stabilisation (yesterday’s GDP numbers confirmed that).

And it should further be noted that even before the crisis Italian RGDP growth was quite weak. Hence, in the period 2000-2007 real GDP grew by an average of only 1.2% y/y – strongly indicating that Italy not only has to struggle with a massive negative demand problem, but also with serious structural problems.

Without monetary easing it could take a decade to close the output gap  

The message from the graphs above is clear – the Italian economy is suffering from a massive demand short-fall due to overly tight monetary conditions (a collapse in nominal GDP).

One can obviously imagine that the Italian output gap can be closed without monetary easing from the ECB. That would, however, necessitate a sharp drop in the Italian price level (basically 14% relative to the pre-crisis trend – the difference between the NGDP gap and the price gap).

A back of an envelop calculation illustrates how long this process would take. Over the last couple of years the GDP deflator has grown by 1-1.5% y/y compared a pre-crisis trend-growth rate around 2.5%. This means that the yearly widening of the price gap at the present pace is 1-1.5%. Hence, at that pace it would take 9-14 years to increase the price gap to 20%.

However, even if this was political and socially possible we should remember that such an “internal devaluation” would lead to a continued rise in both public and private debt ratios as it would means that nominal GDP growth would remain extremely low even if real GDP growth where to pick up a bit.

Concluding, without a monetary easing from the ECB Italy is likely to remain in a debt-deflation spiral within things that follows from that – banking distress, public finances troubles and political and social distress.

PS An Italian – Mario Draghi – told us today that the ECB does not think that there is a need for monetary easing right now. Looking at the “terrible gaps” it is pretty hard for me to agree with Mr. Draghi.

Lars’s Law – I blame the ECB

My colleague Arne Rasmussen put it well in a comment on Facebook today:

”…you have Godwin’s law and then you have Lars’s law…sooner or later he will blame it (everything) on the ECB…”

Arne is of course right. I just have to admit it – I do tend to blame the ECB for everything bad in this world.


PS if you forgot what Godwin’s law then this what Wikipedia is tellng us: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”

European central bankers are obsessing about everything else than monetary policy

While it is becoming increasingly clear that Europe is falling into a Japanese style deflationary trap European central bankers continue to refuse to talk about the need for monetary easing to curb deflationary pressures. Instead they seem to be focused on everything else. We have been through it all – the ECB has concerned itself with who was Prime Minister in Greece and Italy about Spanish fiscal policy, rising oil prices in 2011 and about “financial stability”. And believe it or not it has become fashionable for European central bankers to call for higher wages in Germany!

This is from Reuters (on Sunday):

The European Central Bank supports Germany‘s Bundesbank in its appeals for higher wage deals in Germany, Der Spiegel magazine quoted ECB Chief Economist Peter Praet as saying on Sunday.

Low wage agreements were needed in some crisis-hit countries in the euro zone to bolster competitiveness, the magazine quoted Praet as saying.

By contrast, in countries like Germany where “inflation is low and the labour market is in good shape”, higher earnings increases were appropriate, Der Spiegel reported him to have said.

This would help bring average wage developments in the euro zone in line with the ECB’s inflation target of close to 2 percent, his argument continued, said Der Spiegel.

The Bundesbank historically has been a strong advocate of wage restraint, but with euro zone inflation stuck below 1 percent and consumer prices rising just 1.0 percent in June in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, some fear deflation.

Bundesbank Chief Economist Jens Ulbrich has been widely reported by German media to have encouraged German trade unions to take a more aggressive stance in wage negotiations given low levels of inflation.

First of all one should ask the question why European central bankers in this way would interfere in the determination of prices (wages). The job of the central bank is to provide a nominal anchor – not to have a view on relative prices.

Second you got to wonder what textbook European central bank economists have been reading. It seems like they have completely missed the difference between the supply side and the demand side of the economy.

We know from earlier that ECB Chief Economist Praet seems to have a bit of a problem differentiating between supply and demand shocks. Apparently this is a general problem for Eureopan central bankers – or at least Bundesbank’ Jens Ulbrich suffers from the same problem.

What Ulbrich seems to be arguing is that we should solve Europe’s deflationary problem by basically engineering a negative supply shock to the German economy. The same kind of logic has been used as an argument for the recent misguided increase in German minimum wages.

Hence, it seems like both Praet and Ulbrich actually acknowledge that there is a deflationary problem in Europe, but at the same time they very clearly fail to understand that this is a monetary phenomenon. As a consequence they come up with very odd “solutions” for the problem.

This can be easily demonstrated in a simple Cowen-Tabarak style AS/AD framework – see the graph below.

wage shock

ECB’s overly tight monetary policy has caused aggregate demand to drop shifting the AD curve from AD to AD’, which has caused a drop in inflation to below 2% (likely also soon below 0%).

The Bundesbank now wants to deal with this problem not by doing the obvious – easing monetary policy aggressive – but instead by causing a negative supply shock. Obviously if German labour unions are given further monopoly powers and/or the German minimum wage is increased then that is a negative supply shock – wages increase without an increase in productivity or demand for labour. This causes the AS curve to shift left from AS to AS’.

The result of course would be higher inflation, but real GDP growth would drop further (to y” in the graph). Or said in another way it seems like the Bundebank are advocating “solving” Europe deflationary problem by increasing the structural problems on the German labour market.

Obviously Jens Ulbrich likely would argue that this is not what he means (his reasoning seems to follow a typical 1970s style “Keynesian” macroeconometric model where there is no money and no supply side – higher wage growth cause demand to increase), but that doesn’t matter as the outcome of an exogenous negative supply shock to the German economy would be bad news for Europe rather than good news.

Stop micromanaging the European economy – and do monetary easing

It is about time that European central bankers stop obsessing about matters that have nothing to do with monetary policy – whether it is fiscal policy, financial stability or labour market conditions. They can and not should try to influence these matters. The ECB should just take these matters as given when they conduct monetary policy, but it not for them to influence these matters.

The Bundesbank or the ECB should not have a view on what the level of the public deficit in Spain is or the how much German wages should increase. The first is for the Spanish government to decide on and the second is for German employers and labour unions to negotiate. It is becoming very hard to argue for central bank independence when central bankers (mis)use this independence to interfere in non-monetary matters.

The ECB is failing badly on this at the moment has the risk of falling into a deflationary trap is increase day by day. So why do the Bundesbank and the ECB just not focus on solving that issue? Depressingly the problem is very easy to solve – also without worsening German labour market conditions.

PS The argument for higher wage growth and tight money is very similar to what caused the so-called Recession in the Depression in the US in 1937. The Roosevelt administration got increasingly concerned in 1936-37 that inflation was picking up while wage growth remained weak. The Roosevelt administration feared this would cause real wage to drop, which would cause private consumption to drop and unemployment to increase. This obviously is a very primitive form of Keynesianism (but something Keynes did in fact advocate) and today it should be clear to everybody that political attempts to cause real wages to outpace productivity will lead to higher rather than lower unemployment. And this is what happened in 1937 – the FDR administration troed push up real wages by increasing nominal wage growth and tightening monetary policy caused the recession in 1937.

PPS Unfortunately the Abe government in Japan seems to suffering from the same illusion that “engineering” a rise in real wage – without a similar rise in productivity – can help the Japanese economy.


The stock market has reached “a permanently high plateau” (if the Fed does not mess up again…)

Last week I wrote a post criticizing Fed chair Janet Yellen for apparently becoming a stock picker. Later later in the week she spoke before the US House Financial Services Committee in Washington she seemed to tone down a bit her “stock picking” comments, but she nonetheless commented on the general valuation of the US stock market.

I am still critical about the idea that the Fed has a view at all on the valuation of the US stock market, but lets for a second forget that and instead address the issue of US stock market valuation. I am certainly no equity analyst and the normal disclaimer applies – this is not investment advice. This is an quasi-academic excise.

Last week Yellen said that in her assessment US asset values “aren’t out of line with norms“. Said in another way – the US stock market is basically fairly valued.

Equity strategists and investors have many different methods to evaluate stock market valuation. An often used method is what has become known as the so-called Fed-model (named by the legendary equity strategist Ed Yardeni).

An alternative Fed-model

The Fed-model basically says that there is a close historical relationship between the so-called earnings yield (the inverse of the P/E ratio) and US Treasury bond yields. While there certainly is good theoretical reason to discuss the model there is no doubt that over time the “model” as fitted the development in the US stock market fairly.

I will here use a slightly altered version of the Fed-model. Instead of using the earning yields I look at the ratio between on the one hand Private consumption expenditure (as a monthly proxy for nominal spending/NGDP) and stock prices (I use the Wilshire 5000 index here). I compare that not with US Treasury yields but instead with the yield on Aaa corporate bonds. I have “calibrated” my “earnings yield”  (PCE/Wilshire5000) so it is in January 1980 was exactly equal to the corporate bond yield. This obviously is an ad hoc assumption, but it ensures that the average “valuation” of the stock markets is more or less zero for the period since 1975.

The graph below shows that there is a quite close historical correlation between the “earnings yield” and the yield on US corporate bonds.

Fed model

We can show basically the same thing by looking at the Wilshire 5000 in level versus what I below call “fundamentals”. “Fundamentals” I here define as the ratio of Private Consumption Expenditure to the corporate bond yield. Also here I have calibrated the “model” so January 1980 is our “starting point”.

Wilshare 5000

Both graphs above illustrate Yellen’s argument that stocks are not overvalued. In fact US stock prices exactly seem to reflect “fundamentals” – at least if we use my version of the Fed-model.

There is no bubble – it is easy to explain what have happened since 2009  

Some central bankers and a lot of internet-Austrians are eager to claim that the development in stock prices since 2009 in some way reflect monetary policy “manipulation” of the stock market. Obviously we cannot understand the development in stock prices without understanding monetary policy, but there is nothing “unnatural” about what have happened and as the graphs above illustrates it doesn’t really look like there is a US stock market bubble.

In fact we can use the Fed-model to explain the development in stock prices fairly well since Wilshire 5000 hit rock bottom in 2009. Since then Private Consumption Expenditure has rebounded and Corporate bond yields have come down. Both factors are obviously bullish for stock prices according to my adjusted Fed-model. Furthermore, stocks became significantly undervalued in 2008-9 and this in fact seems to most important in terms of the stock market valuation.

Looking at the adjusted Fed-model Wilshire 5000 is now basically at “fair value” levels. So going forward we need either to see Private Consumption Expenditure to increase or Corporate bond yields to drop to see further (fundamentally driven) stock market gains.

I should again stress that this is not the work of an equity strategist and I am not providing investment advice here. My only concern is to discuss whether or not we can say that actions from the Federal Reserve have manipulated stock prices in such away that we can say there is a bubble in the US stock market.

 The stock market has reached “a permanently high plateau” – until the Fed once again mess up things…

Famously Irving Fisher shortly before the stock market crashed in 1929 announced that the US stock market had reached “a permanently high plateau”. I might be repeating this mistake by argueing that we are now basically trading at “fair value” levels for the US stock. So let me hedge my position (quite) a bit – unless the Federal Reserve will make another policy mistake then US stocks are at a permanently high plateau. Other central banks like the PBoC or the ECB might also very well mess up things.

And yes monetary policy failure is the biggest risk at the moment as I see it. The US economy is in recovery, stock prices continue to inch up and financial market volatility is low.

Why? Exactly because monetary policy in the US in general has returned to what Bob Hetzel has called a Lean-Against-the-Wind with credibility-regime. While Fed policy is far from perfect we broadly-speaking can say the Fed has returned to a (quasi) rule-based monetary policy where the markets in general are able to predict changes to the monetary policy stance. If anything the Fed is probably expected to deliver 4% nominal GDP growth – and this is exactly what the Fed has done in recent years.

However, if the Fed for some reason where to change cause (or change the implicit target) for example because it is becoming preoccupied with asset prices as in 1928-29 we could see the Fed trigger a negative shock to the US economy and that surely would send the US stock market down.

The Fed should certainly not worry about stock market valuation, but if it delivers a stable and predictable monetary policy regime then it will also create the best environment for a stable development in stock markets. In fact a predictable and strictly rule based monetary policy would make it extremely boring to be an equity strategist…

Stock picker Janet Yellen

If you are looking for a new stock broker look no further! This is Fed chair Janet Yellen at her testimony in the US Senate yesterday:

“Valuation metrics in some sectors do appear substantially stretched—particularly those for smaller firms in the social media and biotechnology industries, despite a notable downturn in equity prices for such firms early in the year.”

This is quite unusual to say the least that the head of most powerful central bank in the world basically is telling investors what stocks to buy and sell.

Unfortunately it seems to part of a growing tendency among central bankers globally to be obsessing about “financial stability” and “bubbles”, while at the same time increasingly pushing their primary nominal targets in the background. In Sweden an obsession about household debt and property prices has caused the Riksbank to consistently undershot its inflation target. Should we now start to think that the Fed will introduce the valuation of biotech and social media stocks in its reaction function? Will the Fed tighten monetary policy if Facebook stock rises “too much”? What is Fed’s “price target” in Linkedin?

I believe this is part of a very unfortunate trend among central bankers around the world to talk about monetary policy in terms of “trade-offs”. As I have argued in a recent post in the 1970s inflation expectations became un-anchored exactly because central bankers refused to take responsibility for providing a nominal anchor and the excuse was that there are trade-offs in monetary policy – “yes, we can reduce inflation, but that will cause unemployment to increase”.

Today the excuse for not providing a nominal anchor is not unemployment, but rather the perceived risk of “bubbles” (apparently in biotech and social media stocks!)  The result is that inflation expectations again are becoming un-anchored – this time the result, however, is not excessively high inflation, but rather deflation. The impact on the economy is, however, the same as the failure to provide a nominal anchor will make the working of the price system less efficient and therefore cause a general welfare lose.

I am not arguing that there is not misallocation of credit and capital. I am just stating that it is not a task for central banks to deal with these problems. In think that moral hazard problems have grown significantly since 2008 – particularly in Europe. Therefore governments and international organisations like the EU and IMF need to reduce implicit and explicit guarantees and subsidies to (other) governments, banks and financial institutions to a minimum. And central banks should give up credit policies and focus 100% on monetary policy and on providing a nominal anchor for the economy and leave the price mechanism to allocate resources in the economy.


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