Saturday, September 30, 2017

30/9/17: Technological Revolution is Fizzling Out, as Ideas Get Harder to Find

Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones, John Van Reenen, and Michael Webb’s latest paper has just landed in my mailbox and it is an interesting one. Titled “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” (September 2017, NBER Working Paper No. w23782. the paper asks a hugely important question related to the supply side of the secular stagnation thesis that I have been writing about for some years now (see explainer here: and you can search my blog for key words “secular stagnation” to see a large number of papers and data points on the matter). Specifically, the new paper addresses the question of whether technological innovations are becoming more efficient - or put differently, if there is any evidence of productivity growth in innovation.

The reason this topic is important is two-fold. Firstly, as authors note: “In many growth models, economic growth arises from people creating ideas, and the long-run growth rate is the product of two terms: the effective number of researchers and their research productivity.” But, secondly, the issue is important because we have been talking in recent years about self-perpetuating virtuous cycles of innovation:

  • Clusters of innovation engendering more innovation;
  • Growth in ‘knowledge capital’ or ‘knowledge economies’ becoming self-sustaining; and
  • Expansion of AI and other ‘learning’ fields leading to exponential growth in knowledge (remember, even the Big Data was supposed to trigger this).

So what do the authors find?

“We present a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” In other words, there is no evidence of self-sustained improvements in research productivity or in the knowledge economies.

Worse, there is a diminishing marginal returns in technology, just as there is the same for every industry or sector of the economy: “A good example is Moore's Law. The number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s. Across a broad range of case studies at various levels of (dis)aggregation, we find that ideas — and in particular the exponential growth they imply — are getting harder and harder to find. Exponential growth results from the large increases in research effort that offset its declining productivity.”

We are on the extensive margin when it comes to knowledge creation and innovation, which - to put it differently - makes ‘innovation-based economies’ equivalent to ‘coal mining’ ones: to achieve the next unit of growth these economies require an ever increasing input of resources.

Computers are not the only sector where the authors find this bleak reality. “We consider detailed microeconomic evidence on idea production functions, focusing on places where we can get the best measures of both the output of ideas and the inputs used to produce them. In addition to Moore’s Law, our case studies include agricultural productivity (corn, soybeans, cotton, and wheat) and medical innovations. Research productivity for seed yields declines at about 5% per year. We find a similar rate of decline when studying the mortality improvements associated with cancer and heart disease.” And more: “We find substantial heterogeneity across firms, but research productivity is declining in more than 85% of our sample. Averaging across firms, research productivity declines at a rate of around 10% per year.”

This is really bad news. In recent years, we have seen declines in labor productivity and capital productivity, and TFP (the residual measuring technological productivity). Now, knowledge productivity is falling too. There is literally no input into production function one can think of that can be measured and is not showing a decline in productivity.

The ugly facts presented in the paper reach across the entire U.S. economy: “Perhaps research productivity is declining sharply within every particular case that we look at and yet not declining for the economy as a whole. While existing varieties run into diminishing returns, perhaps new varieties are always being invented to stave this off. We consider this possibility by taking it to the extreme. Suppose each variety has a productivity that cannot be improved at all, and instead aggregate growth proceeds entirely by inventing new varieties. To examine this case, we consider research productivity for the economy as a whole. We once again find that it is declining sharply: aggregate growth rates are relatively stable over time, while the number of researchers has risen enormously. In fact, this is simply another way of looking at the original point of Jones (1995), and for this reason, we present this application first to illustrate our methodology. We find that research productivity for the aggregate U.S. economy has declined by a factor of 41 since the 1930s, an average decrease of more than 5% per year.”

This evidence further confirms the supply side of the secular stagnation thesis. Technological revolution has been slowing down over recent decades (not recent years) and we are clearly past the peak of the TFP growth of the 1940s, and the local peak of the 1990s (the ‘fourth wave’ of technological revolution).

Update June 7, 2018: A new version of the paper is available at

Friday, September 29, 2017

29/9/17: Eurocoin: Eurozone growth is still on the upside trend

The latest data from Eurocoin - an early growth indicator published by Banca d’Italia and CEPR - shows robust continued growth dynamics for the common currency GDP through August-September 2017. Rising from 0.67 in August to 0.71 in September, Eurocoin posted the highest reading since March 2017 and matched the 3Q 2017 GDP growth projection of 0,67.

The charts below show both the trends in Eurocoin and underlying GDP growth, as well as key policy constraints for the monetary policy forward.

The last chart above shows significant gains in both growth and inflation over the last 12 months, with the euro area economy moving closer to the ECB target zone for higher rates. In fact, current state of unemployment and growth suggests policy rates at around 2.4-3 percent, while inflation is implying ECB rate in the regions of 1.25-1.5 percent.

In summary, euro area recovery continues at relative strength, with growth trending above the post-crisis period average since January 2017, and rising. Inflationary expectations are starting to edge toward the ECB target / tolerance zone, so October ECB meeting should be critical. Signals so far suggests that the ECB will outline core modalities of monetary policy normalisation, which will be further expanded upon before the end of 2017, setting the stage for QE unwinding and some cautious policy rates uplift from the start of 2018.

28/9/17: Pimco on Russian Economy: My Take

An interesting post about the Russian economy, quite neatly summarising both the top-line challenges faced and the resilience exhibited to-date via Pimco: Worth a read.

My view: couple of points are over- and under-played somewhat.

Sanctions: these are a thorny issue in Moscow and are putting pressure on Russian banks operations and strategic plans worldwide. While they do take secondary seat after other considerations in public eye, Moscow insiders are quite discomforted by the effective shutting down of the large swathes of European markets (energy and finance), and North American markets (finance, technology and personal safe havens). On the latter, it is worth noting that a number of high profile Russian figures, including in pro-Kremlin media, have in recent years been forced to shut down shell companies previously operating in the U.S. and divest out of real estate assets. Sanctions are also geopolitical thorns in terms of limiting Moscow's ability to navigate the European policy space.

Banks: this issue is overplayed. Bailouts and shutting down of banks are imposing low cost on the Russian economy and are bearable, as long as inflationary pressures remain subdued. Moscow can recapitalise the banks it wants to recapitalise, so all and any banks that do end up going to the wall, e.g. B&N and Otkrytie - cited in the post - are going to the wall for a different reason. That reason is consolidation of the banking sector in the hands of state-owned TBTF banks that fits both the Central Bank agenda and the Kremlin agenda. The CBR has been on an active campaign to clear out medium- and medium-large banks out of the way both from macroprudential point of view (these institutions have been woefully undercapitalised and exposed to serious risks on assets side), and the financial system stability point of view (majority of these banks are parts of conglomerates with inter-linked and networked systems of loans, funds transfers etc).

Yurga, another bank that was stripped of its license in late July - is the case in point, it was part of a real estate and oil empire. B&N is another example: the bank was a part of the Safmar group with $34 billion worth of assets, from oil and coal to pension funds.

The CBR knowingly tightened the screws on these types of banks back in January:

  • The new rules placed a strict limit on bank’s exposure to its own shareholders - maximum of 20% of its capital, forcing the de-centralisation of equity holdings in banking sector; and
  • Restricted loans to any single borrower or group of connected borrowers to no more than 25% of total lending.
I cannot imagine that analysts covering Russian markets did not understand back in January that these rules will spell the end of many so-called 'pocket' banks linked to oligarchs and their business empires.

The balance of the banking sector is feeling the pain, but this pain is largely contained within the sector. Investment in Russian economy, usually heavily dependent on the banks loans, has been sluggish for a number of years now, but the key catalyst to lifting investment will be VBR's monetary policy and not the state of the banking sector. 

Here is a chart from Reuters summarising movements in interbank debt levels across the top 20 banks:

The chart suggests that net borrowing is rising amongst the top-tier banks, alongside deposits gains (noted by Pimco), so the core of the system is picking up strength off the weaker banks and is providing liquidity. Per NYU's v-lab data, both Sberbank and VTB saw declines in systemic risk exposures in August, compared to July. So overall, the banking system is a problem, but the problem is largely contained within the mid-tier banks and the CBR is likely to have enough fire power to sustain more banks going through a resolution. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

28/7/17: Climbing the Deficit Mountains: Advanced Economies in the Age of Austerity

Just a stat: between 2001-2006 period, cumulative Government deficits across the Advanced Economies rose by SUD 5.135 trillion. Over the subsequent 6 years period (2007-2012) the same deficits clocked up USD 14.299 trillion and over the period 2013-2018 (using IMF forecasts for 2017 and 2018), the cumulated deficits will add up to USD 8.197 trillion. On an average annual basis, deficits across the Advanced Economies run at an annual rate of USD0.86 trillion over 2001-2006, USD 2.375 trillion over 2007-2012 and USD 1.385 trillion over 2013-2017 (excluding forecast year of 2018).

As a percentage of GDP, 2001-2006 saw Government deficits for the Advanced economies averaging 2.68% of GDP annually in pre-crisis era, rising to 5.42% of GDP in peak crisis years of 2007-2012, and running at 2.98% of GDP in 2013-2017 period. Looking at the post-crisis period, return to pre-crisis levels of Government spending would require

In simple terms, there is a mountain of deficits out there that has been sustained by cheap - Central Banks’ subsidised - funding, the cost of which is starting to go North. The cost of debt financing is a material risk consideration.

28/9/17: Schauble: A Requiem For Austerity Finance

My comment for yesterday’s NY Times on Wolfgang Schäuble’s departure from the Finance Ministry post: 

28/9/17: Irish Migration: Some Good News in 2017

While headline figures for net migration to Ieland paint an overall positive picture in the annual data (provided on April-April basis) for 2017, there are some creases on the canvas, both good and bad.

Top line numbers are good: net inward migration posted a print of 19,800 in 2017, up on 16,200 in 2016 and 5,900 in 2015. This marks the third year of positive inflows. However, on a cumulative basis, the last three years are still falling short of offsetting massive outflows recorded in 2010-2014. Cumulatively, between 2010 and 2017, the overall net migration stands at -65,900. Taking last two years’ average net inward immigration, it will take Ireland almost 4 years to cover the shortfall. Worse, on pre-crisis trend (omitting peak inward migration years of 2005-2007), we should be seeing inward net migration of around 27,100, well above the current rate. And on a cumulative basis, were the pre-crisis trends to remain unbroken, we would have added 487,600 residents between 2000 and 2017, instead of the actual addition of 394,500 over the same period. 

So things are improving and getting toward healthy, but we are not quite there, yet.

And there are other points of concern. Primary one is the fact that net inward migration remains negative for Irish nationals: in 2017, net outflow of Irish nationals fell to 3,400 from 8,700 in 2016. However, the figures continue to record net outflows for 8th year in a row. Over the period of 2010-2017, Ireland lost net 139,800 nationals.

On a positive side, there is net inflow of all other nationalities into Ireland, with non-EU nationals inflows jumping (net basis) to 15,7000 in 2017, the highest levels on record (albeit records only start from 2006). It is impossible to tell from CSO figures which nationalities are driving these numbers - a crucial point when it comes to assessing the nature of inflows.

Final point worth making is a positive one: in 2017, Ireland recorded another year or growth in - already strong - net inflows of skills and human capital as reflected both in age demographics and educational attainment. By educational attainment, third level graduates and higher category of net inflows posted another historical record in 2017 at 23,600, topping 2016 record of 20,800. Since 2009, including the years of the acute crisis of 2010-2012, Ireland added net 61,000 new immigrants and returned migrants with third level and higher education. This is consistent with continued recovery in human capital-intensive sectors of the economy and is a huge net positive for Ireland.

Hence, overall, the figures for migration are on the balance positive, although some pockets of weaknesses continue to remain and pose a challenge to the arguments about the breadth and depth of the recovery to-date.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

21/9/17: Another reminder: Financial Crises are becoming more frequent & more disruptive

As recently noted by Holger Zschaepitz @Schuldensuehner, new research from Deutsche Bank shows that "Post Bretton Woods (1971-) system vulnerable to crises. Frequency of Financial Crises increased since then. Growth of finance encouraged trend".

Of course, readers of this blog would have known as much by now.  Almost 2.5 years ago I wrote about research by Claudio Borio of BIS on the same topic (see and Borio's findings are linked to his own earlier work on excess financial elasticity hypothesis (see

So while the DB 'research' simply replicates the findings of others who paved the way, it does present a nice picture of the amplified nature of financial crises in recent decades, both in terms of timing/frequency and in terms of impact.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

12/9/17: Asymmetric Conflicts and U.S. 'Learning Curve'

'Asymmetric warfare' or more aptly, 'asymmetric conflict' involves a confrontation between two sets of agents in which one set possesses vastly greater resources. In more recent time, the notion of 'asymmetric conflicts' involved the less endowed agents winning against more endowed ones. And the degree of asymmetries has grown significantly over time:

  • In Vietnam War, vastly outgunned Vietnamese forces literally defeated vastly over-equipped French and U.S. military machines;
  • In the Cold War confrontation, significantly less resourced Warsaw Pact managed to sustain relative long-term parity with much more resourced Western counterparts (including Nato);
  • In post-USSR years, vastly under-resourced Russia, compared to vastly over-resourced U.S. has been able to achieve quite a few 'wins' in geopolitical arena; 
  • Isis - with barely any resources, has managed to achieve huge gains against a range of much better equipped counterparties;
  • In Afghanistan, Taliban - with military expenditure of just a few million per annum, is successfully holding the line against both the Afghan state and its backers; and of course,
  • The 'rust-bucket' North Korea has just outplayed the U.S. in its race for nukes as a deterrent.
In summary, thus: spending does not secure reduction of risks in the age of asymmetric conflicts.

Now, consider the two key sources of 'existential' threats to the U.S. geopolitical positioning in the world: Russia and China. Illustrating asymmetric conflict:

And despite this obvious lack of connection between volume of spend and outruns in terms of geopolitical achievements, the prevalent consensus in Washington remains the same: more funds for Pentagon is the only way to assure preservation of the U.S. geopolitical positioning. 

Learning, anyone?

12/9/17: U.S. Median Household Income: The Myths of Recovery

The U.S. Census Bureau published some data on household incomes today. Off the top, the figures are encouraging:

The excitement of some analysts reporting these as a major breakthrough along the trend is understandable, notionally, 2016 U.S. median household income has finally surpassed the previous peak, recorded in 1999. Back then, median household income (adjusted for official inflation) stood at USD58,665 and at the end of 2016 it registered USD59,039. Note: italics denote points of importance, relevant to the analysis below.

As this chart from Marketwatch ( clearly illustrates, notionally, we are in the ‘new historical peak’ territory:

Alas, notional is not the same as tangible. And here are the reason why the tangible matters probably more than the notional:

1) Consider the following simple timing observation: real incomes took 17 years to recover from the 2000-2012 collapse. And the Great Recession, officially, accounted for only USD 4,031 in total decline of the total peak-to-trough drop of USD 5,334. Which puts things into a different framework altogether: the stagnation of real incomes from 1999 through today is structural, not cyclical. The ‘good news’ today are really of little consolation for people who endured almost two decades of zero growth in real incomes: their life-cycle incomes, pensions, wealth are permanently damaged and cannot be repaired within their lifetimes.

2) The Census Bureau data shows that bulk of the gains in real income in 2016 has been down to one factor: higher employment. In other words, hours worked rose, but wages did not. American median householders are working harder at more jobs to earn an increase in wages. Which would be ok, were it not down to the fact that working harder means higher expenditure on income-related necessities, such as commuting costs, childcare costs, costs for caring for the dependents, etc. In other words, to earn that extra income, households today have to spend more money than they did back in the 1990s. Now, I don’t know about you, but for my household, if we have to spend more money to earn more money, I would be looking at net increases from that spending, not gross. Census Bureau does not adjust for this. There is an added caveat to this: caring for children and dependents has become excruciatingly more expensive over the years, since 1999. Inflation figures reflect that, but real income deflator takes the average/median basket of consumers in calculating inflation adjustment. However, households gaining new additional jobs are not average/median households to begin with. And most certainly not in 2016, when labour markets were tight. In other words, median household today is more impacted by higher inflation costs pertaining to necessary non-discretionary expenditures than median household in 1999. Without adjusting for this, notional Census Bureau figures misstate (to the upside) current income gains.

3) In 1999, the Census Bureau data on household incomes used different methodology than it does today. The methodology changed in 2013, at which point in time, the Census Bureau estimated that 2013 median income was about USD1,700 higher based on new methodology than under pre-2013 methodology. Since then, we had no updates on this adjustment, so the gap could have actually increased. Today’s number show that median household income at the end of 2016 was only USD374 higher than in 1999. In other words, it was most likely around USD1,330 or so lower not higher, under pre-2013 methodology. Taking a very simplistic (most likely inaccurate, but somewhat indicative) adjustment for 2013-pre-post differences in methodologies, current 2016 reading is roughly 1.6 percent lower than 2007 local peak, and roughly 2.3 percent lower than 1999-2000 level.

4) Costs and taxes do matter, but they do not figure in the Census Bureau statistic. Quite frankly, it is idiotic to assume that gross median income matters to anyone. What matters is after-tax income net of the cost of necessities required to earn that income. Now, consider a simple fact: in 1999, majority of jobs in the U.S. were normal working hours contracts. Today, huge number are zero hours and GIG-economy jobs. The former implied regular and often subsidised demand for transport, childcare, food associated with work etc. The latter implies irregular (including peak hours) transport, childcare, food and other services demand. The former was cheaper. The latter is costlier. To earn the same dollar in traditional employment is not the same as to earn a dollar in the GIG-economy. Worse, taxes are asymmetric across two types of jobs too. GIG-economy adds to this problem yet another dimension. Many GIG-economy earners (e.g. Uber drivers, delivery & messenger services workers, or AirBnB hosts) sue income to purchase assets they use in generating income. These are not reflected in the Census Bureau earnings, as the official figures do not net out cost of employment.

5) Finally, related to the above, there is higher degree of volatility in job-related earnings today than in 1999. And there is longer duration of unemployment spells in today’s economy than in the 1990s. Which means that risk-adjusted dollar earned today requires more unadjusted dollars earned than in 1999. Guess what: Census Bureau statistic shows not-risk-adjusted earnings. You might think of this as an ‘academic’ argument, but we routinely accept (require) risk-adjusted returns in analyzing investment prospects. Why do we ignore tangible risk costs in labor income?

Key point here is that any direct comparison between 1999 and 2016 in terms of median incomes is problematic at best. It is problematic in technical terms (methodological changes and CPI deflator changes), and it is problematic in incidence terms (composition of work earnings, risks, incidences of costs and taxes). My advice: don’t ever do it without thinking about all important caveats.

Materially, U.S. households' disposable risk-adjusted incomes are lower today than they were in 1999. That explains why American households are drowning in debt: the demand for income vastly exceeds the supply of income, even as official median household size shrinks and cost of housing is being deflated by children staying in parents homes for decades after college. The rosy times are not upon us, folks.

12/9/17: Partisan Gap in Consumers' Perception of the U.S. Economy Explodes

A quick post, H/T @profsufi. Here is a chart from the U of Michigan consumer survey showing an explosion in partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to self-reported consumer sentiment:

As Sufi stated in his tweet, "Rise in partisan bias in economic expectations according to Michigan Survey of Consumers data". Notably,

  1. Democrats negative perceptions are not at extraordinarily low levels. Similar applied for the Republicans during Obama 1 Administration and Carter Administration, and for Democrats in Carter Administration and Bush W2 Administration. So negative perceptions are not the key driver of the gap dramatic rise.
  2. Republican's optimism during the Trump Administration [short so far] tenure is the main driver of the partisan gap. 
  3. Current partisan gap reflects data that barely touches Trump Administration, with majority of economic performance figures still impacted heavily by the inertia inherent from the Obama Administration days. 
This has to fly in the face of anyone presenting Trump Presidency as the 'minority Republican' thing. Adjusting for the lags in data is impossible without looking at specific monthly series and down weighing observations closer to Obama tenure (I suggest authors do that), but it is clear that the true extent of Trump-specific gap has to reflect also some share of the Republican's perceptions of Obama 2 economic conditions. Which will most likely make the current gap even larger. 

Another point worth making is that the data above clearly shows just how subjective and unreliable (from the point of view of revealing actual quality of underlying economic conditions) the measures of Consumer Confidence are. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

8/9/17: Euro complicates ECB's decision space

My pre-Council meeting analysis of the ECB monetary policy space was published in Sunday Business Post yesterday:  It turned out to be pretty much on the money, focusing on euro FX rates constraints and QE normalisation path...

Thursday, September 7, 2017

7/9/17: Millennials’ Support for Liberal Democracy is Failing: A Deep Uncertainty Perspective

We just posted three new research papers on SSRN covering a range of research topics.

The third paper is "Millennials’ Support for Liberal Democracy is Failing: A Deep Uncertainty Perspective" and it is available here:

Recent data on electoral dynamics and sociopolitical preferences present evidence of declining popular support for the values and institutions of traditional liberal democracy across some western societies. This decrease is more pronounced within the younger cohort of voters, especially the Millennials. Key drivers for the younger generations’ scepticism toward liberal democratic values are domestic intergenerational political and socioeconomic imbalances that engender the environment of deeper uncertainty. Policy and institutional responses to democratic volatility are inconsistent with those necessary to address rising deep uncertainty and may exacerbate and accelerate the negative fallout from the pressures on liberal democratic institutions.

7/9/17: What the Hack: Systematic Risk Contagion from Cyber Events

We just posted three new research papers on SSRN covering a range of research topics.

The second paper is "What the Hack: Systematic Risk Contagion from Cyber Events", available here:


This paper examines the impact of cybercrime and hacking events on equity market volatility across publicly traded corporations. The volatility influence of these cybercrime events is shown to be dependent on the number of clients exposed across all sectors and the type of the cyber security breach event, with significantly large volatility effects presented for companies who find themselves exposed to cybercrime in the form of hacking. Evidence is presented to suggest that corporations with large data breaches are punished substantially in the form of stock market volatility and significantly reduced abnormal stock returns. Companies with lower levels of market capitalisation are found to be most susceptible. In an environment where corporate data protection should be paramount, minor breaches appear to be relatively unpunished by the stock market. We also show that there is a growing importance in the contagion channel from cyber security breaches to markets volatility. Overall, our results support the proposition that acting in a controlled capacity from within a ring-fenced incentives system, hackers may in fact provide the appropriate mechanism for discovery and deterrence of weak corporate cyber security practices. This mechanism can help alleviate the systemic weaknesses in the existent mechanisms for cyber security oversight and enforcement.

7/9/17: Long-Term Stock Market Volatility & the Influence of Terrorist Attacks

We just posted three new research papers on SSRN covering a range of research topics.

The first paper is "Long-Term Stock Market Volatility and the Influence of Terrorist Attacks in Europe", available here:


This paper examines the influence of domestic and international terrorist attacks on the volatility of domestic European stock markets. In the past decade, terrorism fears remained relatively subdued as groups such as Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) relinquished their arms. However, Europe now faces renewed fear and elevated threats in the form of Middle Eastern and religious extremism sourced in the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), who remain firmly focused on maximising casualty and collateral damage utilising minimal resources. Our results indicate that acts of domestic terrorism significantly increase domestic stock market volatility, however international acts of terrorism within Europe does not present significant stock market volatility in Ireland and Spain. Secondly, bombings and explosions within Europe present evidence of stock market volatility across all exchanges, whereas infrastructure attacks, hijackings and hostage events do not generate widespread volatility effects. Finally, the growth of ISIL-inspired terror since 2011 is found to be directly influencing stock market volatility in France, Germany, Greece, Italy and the UK.

7/9/17: Deutsche Mark Euro?.. ECB, Taylor rule and monetary policy

In our Economics course @MIIS, we are covering the technological innovation contribution to the break down in the wage inflation, unemployment, and general inflation (Lecture 2). Here is fresh from the press data showing the divergence between actual monetary policy and the Taylor rule in Germany: