25 Jan 2010  Research & Ideas

A Macroeconomic View of the Current Economy

Concerned or confused by the economic environment? Take some lessons from history and concepts from macroeconomics to get a better understanding of how the economy works. A Q&A with HBS professor David A. Moss, author of A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics: What Managers, Executives, and Students Need to Know.

 

If they didn't understand it already, executives and corporate managers have learned one huge lesson over the past couple of years: macroeconomics matters.

Interest rates. Exchange rates. Trade deficits. The Gross Domestic Product. Inflation. All of these can affect a company's bottom line by influencing the cost and availability of money, goods, and services. Macroeconomic forces can conspire to make business more difficult, but they can also present opportunities to executives who know how to, for example, read a country's national income accounts and balance of payments.

For explanations on how the economic system works and what history teaches us, business readers might turn to A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics: What Managers, Executives, and Students Need to Know, by Harvard Business School professor David A. Moss, who holds graduate degrees from Yale in economics and history. The book, which grew out of background notes Moss wrote for his MBA students, is a nontechnical, accessible explanation of broad concepts such as "output," "money," and "expectations"—as well as more specific ones ranging from real exchange rates to total factor productivity. Moss also includes numerous tools for interpreting big-picture economic developments.

We asked Moss to talk about the book and some of the events now taking place on the macroeconomic horizon.

Sean Silverthorne: What's the definition of macroeconomics?

David Moss: It involves thinking about the economy as a whole. Micro is about firms and individual actors and how they behave; macro is about aggregate performance of the economy: overall GDP, trade surplus or deficit, inflation.

In principle, we should be able to get rid of the (macro/micro) distinction because all micro behavior—all the firms and individuals—add up to the aggregate economy. But it turns out that we're not there yet. There's still a great deal we don't fully understand. We see patterns at the macro level that are sometimes hard to disaggregate and pinpoint exactly where they came from at the micro level. So as a result, we separate macro and micro. Someday, if we ever figured everything out, these things would come together. That's true in many areas of study.

Q: What will executives and other business readers learn from the book?

A: One of the most important things is they're going to be able to read the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist much more effectively than they could before. Those publications integrate macroeconomics with what we know about business and markets, often in the very same articles. Without some background in macroeconomics, much of that goes past the reader.

What exactly does it mean that the real interest rate has moved, or the real exchange rate has moved this way or that? There are different types of productivity—labor productivity, capital productivity, and total factor productivity. Which is the right one to look at in a particular context?

There's a lot of information out there—particularly in the business press. If these aren't familiar terms, and if one doesn't have a way of putting it all together, then you can't process all of this information as effectively as possible.

I think another thing readers will learn is that they can look at big developments at the macro level and start to think about what they mean—how these developments might come back and affect their bottom line.

Let's take exchange rates. Exchange rates fluctuate widely, and anybody who tells you they know what the exchange rate is going to be tomorrow either has godlike powers or is putting you on. But there are patterns over time. For example, countries that are running large and ongoing current account deficits tend to see their currencies depreciate over time. This doesn't mean that the currency of a country running consistent current account deficits is going to depreciate tomorrow or next week or even next month. But over time, you expect it to depreciate. So if you're a business manager, you probably want to be fairly well hedged against this possibility, either by making use of certain financial instruments or by carefully spreading out your real investments across various countries.

Q: You mentioned that you can't predict exchange rates. But are there rules of thumb managers can practice when thinking about exchange rates and how to play them?

A: I'll mention several.

First, as I just suggested, it makes sense to look at a country's current account deficit or surplus. For countries that are running large current account surpluses, like China and Japan, you'd expect their currency to appreciate over sustained periods of time. I can't say for sure that Japan's currency is going to appreciate over time, but in all likelihood, it will. I would be very surprised if China's doesn't appreciate over time.

Another thing you want to look at is inflation. If a country has a higher inflation rate than its trading partners, you should expect that its currency is likely to depreciate over time as well.

Maybe I can put this in some perspective. Over the long term, a main driver of a country's exchange rate is probably its current account deficit or surplus. In the medium term, you probably want to look at inflation rates. But at the day-to-day level, changes in short-term interest rates seem to be a key driver. For example, if the European Central Bank suddenly (and unexpectedly) raises its key short-term interest rate tomorrow, you're probably going to see the euro appreciate, almost immediately. If the central bank of the United States—the Fed—unexpectedly lowers its interest rate, the dollar may well depreciate a bit that same day. You tend to see these very quick fluctuations associated with interest-rate changes. But over the longer term, the current account balance is probably far more important.

Q: What is the current account deficit, and why is it important?

A: The current account deficit just means that you (as a country) are consuming, or spending, more than you actually produce. Think about a household. If you earn $100,000 a year and spend $106,000, you're going to have to borrow $6,000 (or draw down your assets) to make up the difference. The same is true for a country.

Between business spending, government spending, and consumer spending—consumer spending being the biggest—the United States consistently spends more than 100 percent of its GDP (as high as 106 percent in 2005 and 2006). But of course we produce only 100 percent of GDP, so we need to borrow the difference. How do we do that? Well, we ask the Japanese, the Chinese, and some others for their goods, and they give them to us. And then they lend us the money to buy them. We are both borrowing—literally borrowing in financial terms from, particularly, the Asians—and getting their goods (imports). Someday, they're going to want us to repay, which means they're going to have a claim on our output. And someday, we're probably going to have to run a current account surplus, where we're producing more than we spend, and we're shipping off the rest (the surplus) to our current creditors.

Q: Your book centers on the three pillars of macroeconomics: output, money, and expectations. Can you talk generally why these are important to understand?

A: When you think about these three things, output should be in big letters, and the other ones in smaller letters. Output is really the center of macroeconomics, and the key measure is the GDP, that is, total aggregate output, the market value of all final goods and services produced.

In a sense, all that you (as a country) have is the total output that you produce in a year—your GDP. Sometimes people think if everyone owned lots of stocks and bonds, we could all retire happy, regardless of the GDP. But if the nation's total output in future years is not sufficiently large, then all those stocks and bonds are going to end up being worth a lot less than expected. Total output is the key to how much we can consume, not little pieces of paper called stocks and bonds.

As a result, economists worry a lot about how a country can increase its GDP growth rate, how higher growth of output can be achieved over the long term, and how we can make sure that in the short term total output isn't unduly volatile (with unsustainable booms and busts).

Q: The second pillar of macroeconomics is money.

A: In some sense money is just another asset, but it turns out to be a rather special asset. One of the reasons it is special is that there seems to be a relationship between people's holdings of that particular asset and their current consumption or spending. And that's because money is an asset that you can use to buy things, right now. It's the ultimate form of liquidity. But another thing that's important about money is that its supply is largely controlled by the government. Depending on which type of money supply you look at, the government has either a complete monopoly or a partial one. By their control over the money supply, central bankers can essentially set interest rates, especially short-term interest rates.

And that's the basis of monetary policy. It's because of that control over the money supply—either increasing or decreasing the money supply—the government can set short-term interest rates. And that short-term interest rate is what central bankers use to try to control inflation and moderate the business cycle.

Q: And what about expectations? Why are expectations the third pillar?

A: Expectations are extremely interesting because they represent a connection between the present and the future. Current decisions are affected by what people expect the future to bring. For example, business managers set the prices of their products—at least in part—based on expectations. More broadly, if people expect the price of a good (say, wheat) is going to be higher in the future, then the price is going to start rising today.

Although expectations of all sorts are important, one particular set of expectations—about the state of the overall economy and one's own future income—is especially important from a macroeconomic perspective. If people believe the economy is going to falter, even if their reasons are wrong, in the short term the economy may well falter. If consumers believe that they'll soon be in economic trouble, they will reduce their consumption and start scaling back on purchases. And what are businesses going to do? If they see people reducing their consumption (or even just planning to reduce their consumption), business managers may decide to scale back on their own operations, so as not to produce a lot of output that no one's going to buy. Firms will start laying off workers. And then, of course, the negative expectation becomes self-fulfilling. You can even get stuck there for a long time—in a recession.

That's why in some cases you need either a very aggressive monetary policy or large-scale deficit spending, which is what we've seen this past year. Both aggressive monetary easing (lower interest rates) and large-scale deficit spending send the signal that demand will increase, and thus both aim to break the cycle of negative expectations about the economy.

Q: What's a good way to think about foreign direct investment in the United States? Are we selling too much of our core assets to foreign investors?

A: Look, this is a political decision, and it's above my pay grade. There may be some strategic assets that we (as Americans) don't want to sell to foreigners. Congress is going to have to decide which ones those are. It may be that we don't want to sell certain elements of our media to foreigners, or perhaps certain strategic assets that are important for building critical military equipment.

One can be too cautious about reliance on foreigners. In the early 19th century, the British thought their grain supply was strategic, and they protected it aggressively. Eventually, however, with the repeal of the Corn Laws, the British decided to move toward free trade in wheat. It was a controversial move. Skeptics feared that other countries that supplied wheat to Britain could use it as a weapon, by threatening to starve Britain. But it turned out that nothing of the sort ever happened, and Britain was almost certainly better off after it repealed its Corn Laws.

The broader thing to think about with regard to foreign investors buying assets in the United States is that if we as a country are going to spend more than we produce—if we're going to run a current account deficit—year after year, then there's in fact no alternative to foreigners buying our assets, either debt or equity. As I said, if you're earning $100,000 and you're spending $106,000, you're going to have to borrow or draw down your assets to make up the difference. So that's what we're doing as a country. The problem is not fundamentally that foreigners are buying too many American assets, but that Americans are spending too much.

The right way to fix this, of course, is by increasing the American savings rate. Up until the economic crisis, household savings were essentially zero, business was saving in the vicinity of 15 percent (through retained earnings), and the government was dissaving (because of its budget deficit) by a few percent of GDP each year. Once the crisis struck, household savings rose, and government dissaving (deficits) rose by about the same amount.

Over the long term, we'll need to find a way to save more across the board. We'll need to increase our national savings rate quite substantially. That's ultimately the only way we're going to turn around our current account deficit and ultimately stimulate the kind of growth longer term that we'd all like to see.

So what does that mean? We need to figure out how to encourage households to increase their savings, especially once the recession is clearly behind us. I think that will have to be front and center. Also, once the recession is over, we'll definitely need to get our budget deficits under control—most likely by controlling spending and raising taxes. We'll certainly need to prepare for the retirement of the baby boomers.

Q: The Federal Reserve Board and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, have tremendous influence on the business environment, particularly on interest rates. If you're a manager and interest rates affect your business, how do you think about this?

A: It's worth putting yourself in the shoes of Ben Bernanke and trying to imagine how he thinks about it. That's going to be helpful in assessing what he might do.

As a central banker, Mr. Bernanke has to worry about a number of different things: inflation, unemployment, GDP growth, exchange rates, the stability of the financial system, and so on.

In more normal economic times, he would likely focus mainly on maintaining a low and stable rate of inflation—perhaps around 2 percent. He has written and spoken in the past about his belief in inflation-targeting. The basic idea is that if the central bank manages to keep inflation within the target range (again, around 2 percent), then everything else will tend to fall into place: low unemployment, relatively stable GDP growth, and so on.

So, once the financial crisis and the recession are well behind us, probably the best way to predict how Bernanke will set interest rates is by looking at where inflation is headed. If inflation is rising above the 2 percent level, he's likely to push the short-term interest rate upward, in order to contain inflation. If inflation is falling below the 2 percent level, he's likely to push the short-term interest rate downward. That would be the best way to predict what he's going to do in normal times.

Of course, these haven't been exactly normal times. With the financial system in serious jeopardy and unemployment surging, Mr. Bernanke put aside inflation-targeting and used just about every weapon in his arsenal to save the economy from collapse. He lowered the federal funds rate to just about zero—the lowest ever—and he developed and employed all sorts of unconventional tools to help stabilize things, including asset purchase programs, large-scale financial guarantees, and direct lending to nonbank financial institutions. My own view is that while he inevitably made all sorts of mistakes (especially in the lead-up to the crisis), his extraordinary actions in the heat of the crisis may well have saved us from a complete financial collapse and a far worse macroeconomic crisis.

Once the biggest dangers are behind us, Mr. Bernanke will have to figure out how to get things back to normal. His aggressive stimulation of the economy could easily prove inflationary if he doesn't bring rates back up in time. But it will be a delicate balancing act if unemployment remains unusually high.

Eventually, if all goes well, we'll get back to standard inflation-targeting, and monetary policy will become far more predictable again. But for the time being at least, the Federal Reserve remains in uncharted waters.

Q: As a field of academic study, where do you think macroeconomists have made the most progress?

A: There's a lot that macroeconomists don't know. But I think in monetary policy they've made a good deal of progress. Had we had the same level of knowledge today that we had in the early 1930s, we might have faced a second Great Depression. Bernanke, of course, was a careful student of the Great Depression; he understood it quite well, particularly from a monetary standpoint. The level of monetary understanding is much better than it was in the past. And that reduces our odds of falling into another Great Depression. Again, it doesn't eliminate those odds, but it reduces them. Macroeconomists deserve a lot of credit for that.

That said, excessively low interest rates during the boom years may well have helped to cause the crisis. So monetary policy, while much better than in the past, is still nowhere near perfect. For example, we still know very little about how to prevent a bubble from becoming a problem in the first place.

Q: In your own field of research, what are you working on these days?

A: Well, I'm working on a number of things. I've spent a great deal of time over the past year thinking about financial regulation and what it should look like, and I've been talking with lawmakers in Washington about this quite a bit.

I've also launched a new second-year course at Harvard Business School on financial history. I started creating the course long before the financial crisis hit, but it's definitely been fascinating to teach about past financial booms and busts—about the history of financial innovation, financial growth and excess, and financial regulation—at this particular moment.

Financial history has truly come alive over the past couple of years. My hope is that we can use that history—the long history of financial markets and institutions—in figuring out how to prevent another financial crisis going forward. That's where much of my work has been focused these days.

About the author

Sean Silverthorne is editor-in-chief of HBS Working Knowledge.