‘Banks make money out of thin air’ is a confusing slogan

Banks do not create money out of thin air. That’s the title and argument of an article by Pontus Rendahl and Lukas Freund in VOX.

Unsurprisingly, people on Twitter took issue with the authors’ claim:

I find this polemic boring and unproductive.

Boring, because I explained the misconceptions surrounding “money from thin air” in Bankers are people, too. (If you have a copy of the book, see page 38).

It’s also unproductive, because a slogan is not an insight. VOX claims to provide ‘Research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists’. It’s a sad state of affairs if leading economists produce more heat than light by using slogans.

Scientists don’t argue about slogans. Insight follows from identifing the relevant mechanisms or from looking at empirical findings, not from these endless ‘debates’.

That’s why Bankers are people, too contains so many drawings of simple balance sheets and discussions of behavior and incentives. I wanted to be crystal clear, not become yet another vague economics guru.

Do better, economics community…

Is GDP underestimated?

How big is the economy? It’s a crucial question in economics. It’s also the title of a chapter in Bankers are people, too (pages 119-122).

Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure for economic output based on market prices. This means that unpaid (e.g. domestic) work is not included in GDP, although we find it valuable.

As consumers, we also benefit from free digital services (email, messaging apps, maps, search engines…) that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

But how much do people value these digital services?

In How should we measure the digital economy, Erik Brynjolfsson and Avinash Collis try to measure just that. They introduce ‘GDP-B’, a metric which ‘augments’ GDP with the consumer wellbeing from free stuff. The whole article is worth a read.

For example, they argue that “Facebook alone has created more than $225 billion worth of uncounted value for consumers since 2004” and that “including the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017.”

For more on the difficulties of GDP, read Economics is hard.

Productivity data

Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.

Paul Krugman

International datasets on productivity:

EU KLEMS (‘measures of economic growth, productivity, employment, capital formation, and technological change at the industry level for all European Union member states, Japan, and the US’)

WORLD KLEMS

MICROPROD

CompNet (‘micro-based competitiveness dataset for European countries, unprecedented in terms of coverage and cross-country comparability’)

What is financial geography?

I recently started working at the Social and Economic Geography research group of Ghent University, in the team of professor Ben Derudder. We study financial networks in collaboration with the team of professor Sabine Dörry at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research.

But why am I at the department of geography instead of economics? In other words, what exactly is financial geography? I have to admit that I didn’t know until a couple of months ago.

This post is an attempt to describe what financial geography is, and what sets it apart from other fields that study finance.

Continue reading “What is financial geography?”

Economics is hard

How are economic statistics collected? Do economic models correspond to observable reality?

In a world where markets and politicians respond strongly to things like gross domestic product (GDP) figures and economic forecasts, these are important questions. Unfortunately, discussion often jumps directly to the interpretation of new data or the output of models. Students are rarely challenged to question what the data and the models represent.

I recently came across two great articles that dig into these issues. Continue reading “Economics is hard”

Down to the corporate side!

The Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement was a government policy in the People’s Republic of China during the 1960s and 1970s. From Wikipedia: “privileged urban youth [were] sent to mountainous areas or farming villages to learn from the workers and farmers there.”

A lot of economists and economic historians study aggregated data, e.g. gross domestic product, inflation, trade flows, or productivity.

Such a high level approach is valuable. However, the macro perspective by definition misses the details. A macroeconomist will typically explain productivity growth by referring to increases in (human) capital and total factor productivity. But how exactly do concrete changes lead to higher output? Continue reading “Down to the corporate side!”

If this was financial assistance, I’d hate to see the opposite

The European support program for Greece ends today. Some called the program a bailout, others assistance or solidarity. Whatever you call it, the outcome has been abysmal.

Greece fared worse than the US during the Great Depression. Emerging markets recovered faster from financial crises than Greece did. The only countries that have shrunk more than Greece in the past ten years are failed states like Libya, Yemen, and Venezuela.

“Congratulations” to all who were responsible for this “success”.

Can we avoid another financial crisis?

Can we avoid another financial crisis? Ten years after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), we’ll hear the opinions of countless pundits about the likelihood of a new crisis. However, few commenters will be able to answer the question as profoundly as professor Steve Keen. Keen elaborated his views in the 2017 book with the appropriate title Can we avoid another financial crisis? Continue reading “Can we avoid another financial crisis?”

What has Big Tech ever done for me?

There’s a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which rebels conspire against the Roman occupation. They ask themselves “What have the Romans ever done for us“.

Upon reflection, they realize that the Romans brought them sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a freshwater system, baths, public order, and peace.

I get the same feeling when I read articles about Big Tech. Continue reading “What has Big Tech ever done for me?”