Welcome to London and I look forward to meeting you.
Well done for choosing “Intermediate Macroeconomics” – a phrase that sets the pulse racing and breaks the ice at parties.
Seriously, while the course title is perhaps uninspiring, I am sure you will find the content fascinating, relevant and challenging. Throughout the semester we shall be touching on core challenges facing global society.
Initially, following our GDP data adventure, we take a super-long term focus exploring growth trends, industrial revolutions, technology, productivity, stagnation, trade and inequality – themes that are both current and ancient. Of course, Covid and Brexit Britain will make guest appearances but do not expect definitive answers! In these sessions you will soon appreciate that Macroeconomics will not just be testing your economics skills (micro as well as macro). We shall need to draw on many other disciplines: history, philosophy, maths, psychology, politics, accounting – to name just a few! It will be the start of your journey to become “ the rarest of birds.”
As the course progresses we place increasing emphasis on models – maps to guide us through the complexity of economic life. Models will not help us to pinpoint the “truth” (whatever that is). But models can be useful in marshalling our thoughts – what Keynes called “vigilant observation” – and to make better decisions.
Complexity arises partly because expectations of an inherently uncertain future influence the present. Human behaviour, that often belies simplistic concepts of “rationality”, fuels the endemic volatility of spending. And modern corporate life is much closer to game-theoretic oligopoly than perfectly competitive price-taking. In such an environment markets do not always work well; as such, official intervention – demand and/or supply oriented, fiscal and/or monetary – can prove essential.
Through sessions 6 – 10 we shall tackle cycles, inflation, finance, monetary policy and fiscal stances. This will lead us into cutting-edge debates as to whether the Fed is doing the right thing, whether government finances are out of control and whether the banks have finally got their houses in order. We are over a decade away from the Lehman Bros bankruptcy; a defining moment in a defining period of 21st century history – the so-called Great Financial Crisis (GFC for short). Yet the macroeconomic legacy of that crisis still very much with us and there are signs that the right lessons have still not been learnt.
Later on in the semester, session 11 will pull many threads together and we explore simulations of a small domestic macro model. You will all be playing significant roles in presenting the results. The final sessions of the course – weeks 12 to 14 – add more global flesh to the bone. Exchange rates and global capital flows will be stirred into the mix and we conclude with debates about the large-scale models (mainly DSGE and Agent-Based) that central banks, think-tanks and private corporations use to navigate the choppy waters of our macro world.
Along the way, and not just in the specifically “global” sessions, we spice things up by highlighting contemporary events – pandemics, climate change, trade wars, emerging market woes, currency gyrations and any other topics we collectively decide upon.
We start our first session with administrative issues which should take no more than 30 minutes:
- course overview and syllabus
- textbook and online resources
- attendance and participation
- virtual office hours
- session formats
- assessment and grading
The remainder of Session 1 will introduce Gross Domestic Product – the key “go-to” number for summarising a country’s economic performance. GDP data are rarely out of the news, real and “fake“. GDP data can win or lose elections, are central to key policy decisions and have enormous influence on private sector behaviour, not least global capital investment decisions. Little surprise then that statisticians have been threatened with jail, even executed, if their numbers upset political masters.
One thing we have all learnt in recent years is that data impart information but not always in a good way. Information can feed both risk and an abuse of the power it bestows. Used responsibly, data can boost profits but reputational damage can undo hard-earned revenues – just ask Facebook. So data can be good but it can also be evil – a threat to democracy and privacy. Some view banks and FAANGS – with their vast information riches – as the robber barons of the 21st century. Many commentators cite data as the new oil – arguably a misleading comparison.
So no apologies for devoting two sessions to GDP data – we can only scratch the surface but the lessons learnt will put us in good shape for the rest of the course. We start with the easy stuff that you’ve probably come across already: Y = C+I+G+X-M. Be careful though. The circular flow and its related accounting identities give the impression that measuring GDP is pretty straightforward. I wish it were that simple.
Getting the GDP numbers “right” really matters – not just for policy but for politics. Visibly getting the numbers “wrong” undermines trust in authority. Left to fester, that eroding trust can swiftly lead to socio-political disruption. But what do we mean by “right” numbers? Truth is generally not absolute. As John Keane, Professor of Politics, writes, “reality is multiple and mutable….what counts as truth is a matter of interpretation“.
On a practical level there are so many types of GDP measures out there: real, nominal, $-valued, index-based, per capita, seasonally adjusted, unadjusted.
Once you have chosen the “right” series you might want to calculate how quickly it has grown over any given period. How are you going to do that? It might sound easy but the potential for confusion is huge. There are many different ways of calculating growth rates.
Time will be taken to build technical skills by exploring the use of FRED, OECD and IMF data sources. We shall also touch on the need for informative visualisations and finessed calculations of growth.
Yet, armed with the “right” growth numbers, what do they actually tell you? Even mature and pandemic-free economies can demonstrate unnerving volatility over time. So, if a quarterly GDP growth number is weak, should we panic? Or do we just put it down to statistical noise? Data and information are not the same as knowledge and wisdom!
We also need to remember that GDP figures are built up from millions of individual households and companies. That means that the aggregate data may not be representative of “typical” firms or people. Higher productivity and new technology sound good-to-have but what if it means you, your friends, and your family are thrown out of work? “Expert” narratives welcoming modern development will no longer chime with a broad swathe of experience – a dangerous development that could seriously mislead readings of economic (let alone political) trends.
Moreover, data are not perfect. Even if there are no blatant lies, fresh information can come to light and new methods of putting the numbers together may be adopted. So, once data is published, the “truth” can change, sometimes dramatically.
Deeper conceptual problems also need to be addressed. GDP – dubbed one of the great inventions of the 20th century – started life in the 1930s as a way of measuring “stuff”. But advanced 21st century economies are now dominated by services rather than goods. This generates a lot of problems for bean counters with difficulties mounting in the wake of digital technology and intangible, sometimes “free”, services. Indeed, setting the production boundaries – what’s in, what’s out of GDP measurement – has been a perennial problem, prompting historian Adam Tooze, to state that “GDP at its neatest captures a narrow and somewhat arbitrary slice of reality“. Certainly US Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, speaking in 1968, had serious doubts about GDP as a metric.
To round up our selective intro to macro data we shall pose this question: does more GDP make you happier? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
For class prep I recommend the BEA’s primer on national economic accounts – it contains a nice (and thankfully brief) overview of some key concepts you will need to master. Also have a look at this video featuring Diane Coyle’s excellent book on GDP.
30 Aug 2020