I am delighted to be back in China this week for a high-level seminar in Nanjing on the international monetary system. Every time I come to this part of the world, I am impressed by the dynamism of the economies and the optimism of the people. The region’s economic performance over the past few decades has been nothing short of remarkable. To sustain this progress, Asia needs to grapple with numerous challenges today and these relate directly to our discussions in Nanjing. The current international monetary system has certainly delivered a lot. But it also has flaws that need to be fixed, especially if the next phase of globalization is to succeed in bringing a strong and broad-based increase in living standards. I see four pressing issues.
It was a privilege to participate in the IMF conference devoted to rethinking policy frameworks in the wake of the crisis. Highly encouraging was the openness of the discussion, the range of views, the willingness to question orthodoxy, and the posture of humility. One gets the impression that the crisis triggered the response that it should. We have embarked on a path of rethinking conceptual frameworks and policy choices in a way that will contribute to the stability of the system. Returning to old patterns, while waiting for different or more complete models to be developed and tested, would be a risky mistake. Here, I offer five thoughts stimulated by the spirit of the conference, as a contribution to the broader discussion that we all hope might stimulate further research and policy analysis. And, ultimately, progress.
The risk free nature of government bonds, one of the cornerstones of the global financial system, has come into question as the global crisis unfolds. One thing is now very clear: government bonds are no longer the risk-free assets they once were. This carries far reaching implications for policymakers, central bankers, debt managers, and how the demand and supply sides of government bond markets function.
The most remarkable aspect of the recent conference at the IMF was the broad consensus that the macroeconomic models that had been relied upon in the past and had informed major aspects of monetary and macro-policy had failed. They failed to predict the crisis and they provided limited guidance on how the economy should respond. There was also remarkable consensus about many elements of policy in responding to the crisis, and there were even large areas of policy consensus for the longer run. In short, the conference made an important contribution in invigorating a balanced debate about reforming macroeconomics.
Governments in Africa have a prime objective—to reduce poverty. To improve living standards and create jobs, they need to provide their citizens with better health care, better education, more infrastructure. They need to build hospitals, schools, and to pay doctors, nurses, teachers. All this costs money, and how to pay for this—in a way that is both fair and efficient—is a major challenge. With limits to how much a government can receive as grants or borrow, raising tax revenues will be a crucial element for governments to deliver more of these essential services and, in turn, reduce poverty. Policymakers will have an opportunity to exchange views on the challenges of Revenue Mobilization in Sub-Saharan Africa at a conference in Nairobi this week. To help frame that conversation, here are some ideas about priority areas for action.
I had one major source of unhappiness with last week’s conference on macroeconomic policies in the wake of the financial crisis: the participants were largely silent about the dismal outlook in the advanced economies for the next several years. With the exception of that one critical omission, I was impressed by the discussion. One striking feature was the consensus that there is no consensus. The crisis has, appropriately, made macroeconomists and policymakers humble about what we know. There were, however, some specific issues on which there was, if not unanimity, considerable agreement.
The global economic crisis taught us to question our most cherished beliefs about the way we conduct macroeconomic policy. Earlier I had put forward some ideas to help guide conversations as we reexamine these beliefs. I was heartened by the wide online debate and the excellent discussions at a conference on post-crisis macroeconomic policy here in Washington last week. At the end of the conference, I organized my concluding thoughts around nine points. Let me go through them and see whether you agree or not.
In times of crisis, choices must be made. In the most recent global economic crisis, policymakers moved quickly to stabilize the system, providing massive financial support, which is the right response in the beginning of any crisis. But that only treated the symptoms of the global financial meltdown, and now a rare opportunity is being thrown away to tackle the underlying causes. In our new paper, we analyze the policy choices made during the crisis and compare them to a number of past ones. It turns out the phases of this crisis followed the same pattern as previous ones, but policymakers made different choices this time around. This post lays out the lessons that we should learn.
Before the global economic crisis, mainstream macroeconomists had largely converged on a framework for the conduct of macroeconomic policy. The framework was elegant and conceptually simple, and it seemed to work. From the early 1980s on, macroeconomic fluctuations were increasingly muted, and the period became known as the “Great Moderation”. Then the crisis came. If nothing else, it forces us to do a wholesale reexamination of those principles. This raises questions that will keep us busy for years to come. To start exploring the answers, David Romer, Michael Spence, Joseph Stiglitz, and I have organized a conference at the IMF on March 7-8. Here are some ideas to get the conversation started.