Why the Dow’s rise isn’t a sign of President Trump’s great policy for me

The featured photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 International license, and was taken by Gage Skidmore.

Characteristically, President Trump has recently been all about showing off how well he’s performed in his first year as one of the most powerful people on Earth. While for myself and some others his first year has been unsuccessful (to put it mildly), Trump is dead set on proving us naysayers wrong largely by using the sustained rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (an index showing how shares in 30 of the US’ largest companies have traded over periods of time) during his presidency. While at first glance well-performing large companies may seem to indicate that the economy as a whole is performing well (which it is currently), in this article I will make and support two propositions: firstly that the current US economic boom is unsustainable (assuming the Dow is a good measure of current economic performance), and secondly that the Dow, either way, isn’t a very good reflection of how the economy is doing.

Looking more in depth at our first strand of argument, while business spending increases have allowed the US economy greater than 3% economic growth over the past two quarters, the Trumpian tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy run the risk of actually increasing the American budget deficit (exactly the opposite of what many Republican deficit hawks campaigned for). Politically, this becomes very difficult for the Republicans to justify, but more than that, the fact that that according to the Tax Policy Centre Trump’s plan actually would hurt the lower 50% of income earners represents a decrease in future consumption and thus a decrease in US short run (and long run if firms then stop investing) economic growth arising from this set of policies. Essentially, then, the point I’m trying to make here is that hurting the little guy may boost growth in the short term, but in the long term when real after-tax incomes and consumption fall, the economy might not be doing so great. This is because the rich consume less than the poor for an equal addition to income, so even though the rich get richer, it might not actually boost consumption and growth all that much. So Trump can be happy with the buoyant Dow and economy for now, but he should know it may not last long.

Taking the issue from another perspective weakens Trump’s Dow-focused point further. If we look at who the Dow Jones’ rise actually helps, we see that it serves to increase income inequality further. A NYU report in 2013 showed that the richest 20% of Americans owned 92% of stocks, indicating that the benefits from the Dow’s rise are not equally distributed. Even if we look at the Dow’s rise in isolation as a sign that the economy is doing well, we still see numerous faults with the theory. By seeing what the Dow actually is, and how it may have been affected by recent news, we can see that it may have been buoyed by Trump’s plans to cut business taxes and not actually an improving economy. Within this plan, Trump has also presented changes to the individual tax code that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, but although the American middle and lower economic classes may not actually benefit from his plans, the Dow is rising. This one example shows the divorce that may exist between the performance of large companies and the economy in general; income inequality worsens the economy through decreasing growth, but tax cuts boost large corporations’ after-tax profits. Hence, through this example we can see that the Dow Jones may not be able to accurately gauge US economic performance, putting another dent in the logic behind some of Trump’s recent tweets.

To summarise and conclude, I have established in this piece why I think that President Trump using the Dow Jones Industrial Average to cement his claim to doing well in his new job is flawed. This is both for reasons relating to economic unsustainability, and also because the Dow doesn’t actually tell us how the economy performs all that well. On another, slightly related note, this sort of issue is why I think that the backlash against experts these days is so unhelpful. The things I’m saying here would be much more credible if an actual expert was saying it, but without experts there are no credible voices to inform people that their President may not actually be doing the wonders for the economy that they think he is. I sincerely hope that in the future we can arrive in a world where experts are given the respect they deserve, and are able to call out any figure for saying something potentially wrong without being disregarded because they can’t predict a world that is fundamentally unpredictable. Without it, well, we’ll have lost one crucial, perhaps vital, check on people in positions of great power.

On Bitcoin as a global currency

The featured photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The recent bullish trend in the market for Bitcoin has seen the fledgling currency really capture the eyes of the general public. In many ways, the cryptocurrency can be seen as technology’s answer to today’s fiat money, and in the same vein it has been suggested that it could grow into a new global currency, coming into greater worldwide use for transactions. Fascinating though the prospect may be, for me there are several reasons why I doubt this could happen, which relate both to how a global shift to Bitcoin could be implemented and also to how this new economic paradigm could actually work once implemented. The first of these reasons is its volatility, and with that, I’ll begin.

Reasons why to me it is unlikely Bitcoin can become a new global currency

  1. Its volatility. It is likely that over the past few months bullish speculators on Bitcoin have made substantial profits, and if the price signal of the free market is anything to go by, the upward trend in Bitcoin price shows more people are accepting its viability as a currency. However, it is this very appreciation of the currency that is a great example of the point I am trying to make: at the current moment, Bitcoin is far too volatile to be held confidently by consumers. Take the example of the pound sterling. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the movements of the pound were taken as an unusual sign of volatility, perhaps signalling uncertainty regarding the future trajectory of sterling exchange rates. When we compare this with Bitcoin, which has previously risen against the dollar by 50%, 33%, and 20% in 23, 60 and 63 days respectively, we can see just how unusual Bitcoin’s price movements are compared to a widely-used currency. In a potential transition period whereby Bitcoin begins to come into common use, it may be economically rational for consumers to choose not to hold Bitcoins and instead to hold currencies that are far less volatile against others. This is because sharp rises and falls in the value of the currency can significantly reduce or increase purchasing power (in countries where Bitcoin has not become as mainstream) from one day to the next. In turn, this can create uncertainty regarding future spending and hence a reluctance to hold Bitcoins as a reserve currency due to this uncertainty, limiting its potential to be a truly global currency.
  2. Limitations of monetary policy. A potential counterargument to the point raised above is that Bitcoins will stop being produced when the supply of them hits 21 million. This actually promotes price stability, and means that in the long term, the point above is moot. Fair enough. What I would say to that is it then becomes very difficult for central bankers to use monetary policy tools (such as lowering the interest rate) to stimulate aggregate demand, in, for example, the aftermath of a recession. A big point often raised about Bitcoin is that it does not lie under the jurisdiction of any government or central bank, so therefore they cannot influence the money supply and hence it would be hard for political consensus to be reached on the adoption of Bitcoin as a national currency. For the sake of the all-important flexibility of monetary policy, then, I would argue that it is not only unlikely that bitcoin will become any country’s national currency, but it is also essential that it does not. However, it is true that Bitcoin can be widely accepted for transactions without becoming a national currency – but the point below indicates to me that this is unlikely to happen.
  3. Trust. In my previous article, I talked about how paper money nowadays was backed by the trust of its users. On the surface, bitcoin can seem somewhat familiar to the fiat money I mentioned: it is not backed by any tangible commodity and hence only relies the trust of societies that use it to function as a store of value, a unit of account and a medium of exchange. However, recent happenings make this trust somewhat hard to attain for bitcoin. Firstly, the volatility which I mentioned above can create uncertainty over the future prices of bitcoin in terms of other major currencies, potentially scuppering its use. Secondly, with figures such as Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, claiming that bitcoin is “only fit for use by drug dealers, murderers and people living in places such as North Korea.”, public perception of the currency as a means to enable criminal activity may limit its general use. Factors such as these contribute to a general lack of acceptability in transactions, which severely limit bitcoin’s potential as a worldwide currency. Similarly, the failing of Bitcoin exchanges like Mt Gox also can contribute to this lack of trust and acceptability.

To summarise, Bitcoin is indeed a hugely interesting, and potentially revolutionary, new currency. However, I hope I’ve done a good job of illustrating why I think it is unlikely to be a new global currency. Regardless, I think it’s really important to keep a huge eye out for it; to me one of the most interesting developments in the global economy is how the fledgling currency does. Let’s just wait and see.

How could we curb Venezuela’s hyperinflation?

Think of a note worth 10,000 bolívars. That seems like a lot, right? I’m a nice guy; I’ll give it to you. Go buy yourself a nice TV or something.

What’s that? They said you don’t have enough money?

Precisely.

As of July 27, 2016, this seemingly valuable note is worth just over ten dollars (it’s almost definitely worth less by the time you’ll read this). In the UK, it wouldn’t be enough to buy you a takeaway dinner. This is because of the rapid hyperinflation that’s occurring in the South American country, leaving it in a tumultuous spiral of poverty, with some not even having enough to pay for essentials such as food or heating. A recent Bloomberg report even suggested that the Venezuelan government is running out of money to print money, such is the state of the country. An analyst at Nomura even predicts that a $200 oil price is needed before the Venezuelans can balance their budgets. Estimates for the rate of decrease of prices range from 400% to 720%, meaning that Venezuelans are eager to spend their money before its worth dramatically decreases just a few weeks later. It seems that policymakers are unable to come up with a solution to the problems that Hugo Chávez’s government largely created. Is the country doomed?

Not quite.

The Venezuelan government needs to learn from the lessons of German, Zimbabwean and Brazilian hyperinflation in order to put a stop to the inflationary pressure that has roiled its economy. Fundamentally, the problem is that, due to the pegging of the bolívar against the dollar, there is an “official” exchange rate of bolívars to dollars, and then there is a black market rate, which is a cause of the hyperinflation. Officially, the bolivar trades competitively against the US currency, however on the black market, it is estimated that 10,000 bolívars are worth just over one dollar. The solution? Officially unpeg the Venezuelan currency from the dollar, and allow it to float freely, so that both the government and the people of Venezuela are on the same side: there is now only one exchange rate, and this makes the problem much easier to solve – we need only one bullet, rather than two, so to speak. In addition, this allows Nicolas Máduro and his government to significantly reduce their fiscal deficit, that came about through them getting significantly less bolívars from overseas for every unit currency than the people got through black market transactions using the unofficial exchange rate.

Now that we have a reduced fiscal deficit, the Venezuelans need to stop printing money in order to finance deficit spending. This would stabilise the aggregate money supply in the economy, reducing the potential for a further reduction in the value of money. Logic dictates that the reduced inflation will disincentivise Venezuelans from spending their money in anticipation of a coming decrease in value, which would in turn lead to an increase in savings. Aggregate demand for goods and services would therefore reduce, causing a corresponding decrease in demand-pull inflation (inflation as a result of aggregate demand outmatching aggregate supply). This leads to a continuous cycle whereby more and more people save more and more money rather than investing it, and combined with the stable money supply, inflation will continue to decrease. Years of hyperinflation have battered the Venezuelan people’s expectations, however, so it may take a long time for them to be convinced that their currency will hold its purpose as a store of value, enabling inflation to decrease substantially. While this may allow the national debt of the country to increase, it is a price worth paying for the country to return to a period of long term economic sustainability, during which tight fiscal policy (increasing taxes and cutting government spending) can help bring this debt down.

The final prong of this three-pronged attack on inflation is that when inflation decreases substantially, the likelihood is that it will still be relatively high; inflation ranging from 400% to 720% can’t simply be swatted away. Therefore, the government needs to maintain interest rates at a level such that the nominal interest rate is far higher than inflation, causing the real interest rate to be high and positive. Intuitively, this means people will see it as beneficial to further save their money rather than invest it immediately, curbing the cycle that increases demand-pull inflation. As the rate of inflation continues to decrease, the central bank should gradually decrease nominal interest rates, while keeping them high above inflation, until they have reached a level of inflation that they see as sustainable, at which point real interest rates could potentially come down.

The sad state of Venezuela is a reminder of the dangers that letting inflation go out of control can provide; Hugo Chávez has failed his country immensely. Despite this, the policies outlined above should go a long way to cut out the plague of hyperinflation, and restore peace and prosperity to the Venezuelan people.

What do you think?

Shrey Srivastava, 16

Game theory: A gem of microeconomics

Microeconomics has many captivating branches within it, but the newest and most exciting one has to be game theory. In fact, just two years ago in 2014, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences went to the game theorist Jean Tirole. This is indicative of just how far game theory has come in such a short time, since John von Neumann set the building blocks for game theory not even a century ago, in 1944. Nowadays, it is an essential part of microeconomics, which helps one understand how firms operate in a variety of different situations. But what exactly is it? Continue reading “Game theory: A gem of microeconomics”

How I think we can solve the problem of poverty in India

It is clear to see from the past few years that India’s economy has been surging. With their economy now being classified as the fastest growing economy in the world today, it would look like everything is good in this country of 1.2 billion. However, what the Indian underclass will tell you is a story that is starkly different from what Indian businessmen such as Ratan Tata will say. The problem of poverty in India is a dark stain on the face of humanity, with Indian labourers frequently toiling 10 or even 12 hours a day, for little or no reward. For too long has bureaucratic red tape covered up the real problem, which is that a greater proportions of Indians need to be above the UN poverty line. To do this, we need progressive and constructive solutions, some of which I am trying to provide here. Continue reading “How I think we can solve the problem of poverty in India”