Learn Macro by Reading the Paper

Macro, and I’ve said this before, is hard.

But a useful way to start understanding it, at least in an Indian context, is by:

  • carefully reading a well written article
  • understanding and noting for oneself key concepts within that article
  • recreating the charts from that article
    • That includes figuring out the source of the data…
    • … as well as acquiring the ability to build out these charts
  • And most important of all, creating a piece of your own (could be a YouTube video/short, a blog, an Instagram story, a Twitter thread) that helps simplify the article you’ve read.1

Now, Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman have generously obliged us by writing a well written article. I’ll oblige you by carefully reading it and annotating it, including pointing out key concepts, sources for data and recommendations for building out the charts.

That just leaves the last point for you, dear reader. We’ll call that homework.

Now, the well written article:

For more than a decade, India’s fiscal problem has been on the back-burner, acknowledged as a concern, but excluded from the ranks of pressing issues. Now, however, the problem is back with a vengeance. COVID has upended the fiscal position, and fixing it will require considerable time and effort, even if the economy recovers. This worrisome prospect has prompted calls for the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM) to be dusted off, reintroduced, and implemented — this time, strictly and faithfully. But before we heed them, we need to understand why the previous FRBM strategy failed and how to prevent a repeat. We argue below that the new strategy will look nothing like the current FRBM.

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronanvirus-india-economy-gdp-growth-post-covid-7261915/

First things first, what is FRBM?

The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, 2003 (FRBMA) is an Act of the Parliament of India to institutionalize financial discipline, reduce India’s fiscal deficit, improve macroeconomic management and the overall management of the public funds by moving towards a balanced budget and strengthen fiscal prudence. The main purpose was to eliminate revenue deficit of the country (building revenue surplus thereafter) and bring down the fiscal deficit to a manageable 3% of the GDP by March 2008.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiscal_Responsibility_and_Budget_Management_Act,_2003

Think of it as a one-person Alcoholic’s Anonymous club. It is of the government, for the government and by the government, and the idea is to wean the government off a dangerous addiction that it is hopelessly affixed to: debt.


By the way, there are many reasons this is a good essay, not the least of which is how well structured it is. The first three sentences in the very first paragraph, excerpted above, point out the problem that is going to be addressed, without using any difficult words or jargon. Then they point out the tool that will be used to address the problem. Then they point out the tool itself has problems. Finally, the explain that the essay is about fixing those problems. And then the essay follows. You might want to keep this in mind when writing your own essays (or indeed creating your own podcasts/videos etc.)


Now, back to the essay:

  1. What is general government debt? Where can I access the data?
    Note the second hyperlink above: I’ve linked to the Fred St Louis page about India’s debt, which itself gets the data from the IMF. Here is the page from the Ministry of Finance’s own website titled Public Finance Statistics. It has not been updated since September 2015. Here is a Motilal Oswal report on the subject that pegs general government debt at INR 157,227 billion. (Exhibit 1 in the report). If you read footnote 3 of that exhibit, two things happen. The first thing that happens is that you realize that tracking down general government debt might take a while. The second thing that happens is you feel a rather large twinge of sympathy for the folks who have tried to do this exercise.
    Figure 1 in the well-written article that we are analyzing in today’s post doesn’t mention a source, unfortunately. So recreating that chart will involve a rather large part of our day – but I would strongly recommend that you do the exercise. If you want to analyze Indian macroeconomic data for a living, this will be a good initiation. And indeed, a write-up about this exercise alone is a worthy addition to your CV!
  2. Second r-g: what is r, and what is g?
    1. “r” is the policy rate, which in our case will be the repo rate. This is available on the homepage of the RBI, top-left, under current rates.
    2. Time series data? Available on the DBIE page, under key rates.
    3. “g” is the nominal growth rate of the economy, and can be found at MOSPI.
    4. A useful thing to do as a student is to try and recreate the chart in the well-written article.
    5. Pts 1 and 2 here will help you get most of the data, and try and use either Microsoft Excel or Datawrapper to recreate the chart.2
  3. Next, what is primary balance?3 Where does one get that data in India?4
  4. Next, this sentence from the article: “Simple fiscal arithmetic shows that debt does not explode when the former (primary balance) is greater than the latter (interest-growth differential)”. What is this “simple fiscal arithmetic”? They’ve explained it in equations 1 and 2 in this paper.5
  5. The next three paragraphs after Figure 1 in the article point out how precarious India’s situation is when it comes to government debt, and why. It is one thing to read about the equation in a textbook, it is quite another to “run” the numbers in practice. Give it a shot, please, and see if it makes sense.
  6. Next, this paragraph from the article:
    “First, India should abandon multiple fiscal criteria for guiding fiscal policy. The current FRBM sets targets for the overall deficit, the revenue deficit and debt. This proliferation of targets impedes the objective of ensuring sustainability, since the targets can conflict with each other, creating confusion about which one to follow and thereby obfuscating accountability.”
    This paragraph is a good way to understand the importance of reading In The Service of the Republic, by Kelkar and Shah (and also to read up about the Tinbergen Rule).
  7. The next three paragraphs after that are a good way to understand what Goodhart’s Law means in practice.
  8. And finally, see if you can explain to yourself why targeting the primary balance is better than other options. Personally, I agree that it is a better target, and I agree that rather than setting down a concrete number to reach, averaging out half a percentage point worth of reduction is better. In essence, what they’re saying is that you shouldn’t try to reach x kilos of weight on a diet, but lose x% body weight every month. As our ex-captain might have put it, process over results. One of our gods advocates this too, as Navin Kabra points out.
    My reservation comes from the fact that sticking to a diet is hard, and that is true whether you’re targeting a process or a target. In other words, it is the ongoing implementation of the plan that is the challenge, not it’s design!
  9. One last point: without creating something that you are willing to put up for public consumption, and highlighting on your CV as an exercise you have done – you haven’t really learnt. Reading either that article or this blog is the easy part – explaining it somebody else is the much more difficult (and causally speaking, therefore meaningful) bit.
  10. Please, do it!
  1. Skipping this last point is missing the point altogether, rascalla![]
  2. Document your learnings as you go along.[]
  3. Read the whole article, please. It’s a good way to clear your understanding of this topic, and it is free[]
  4. The Excel link under Deficit Statistics was down when I tried to access the data. Your mileage may vary.[]
  5. Page 3[]

So You Think You’ve Understood Macro…

Warning: this post actually isn’t “for everybody”.

Teaching macro is hard enough. Teaching macro to non-economists is all but impossible, because things get really messy really quickly – and I cannot emphasize how messy, and how quickly. The simplest way to teach macro to non-economists is to say that macroeconomics attempts the impossible – it tries to analyze too many variables at the same time in a gloriously inadequate framework, with not enough attention being given to how to understand, measure and forecast risk uncertainty.

And that’s before we’ve even touched the concept of time and inherent unknowability!1

Shackle went on to write that what the market equilibrium conception showed was a world of perfect knowledge frozen in time. It thereby negated itself as being of any use in a world where knowledge of the future is impossible and time moves in one direction. In such a world the action of human beings must be in part based on reason and in part on imagination—specifically, imagination with respect to what various individuals imagine the future might be or even should be. Shackle wrote that neoclassical economics rested on a teleological or pre-determined future and thus left no space for human choice which was inherently tied up with a human being’s capacity to freely imagine what might be in store in the future.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._L._S._Shackle#Equilibrium_versus_time

I’m going to sound very woo-woo when I say this, but if at the end of your macro semester you think you’ve understood the subject, then both you and your prof haven’t done a very good job. Macro is hard, and the macroeconomy is inherently unknowable, and yes, I’m willing to die on this hill.

But that does not mean it is not worth studying! Quite the contrary, in fact: it is precisely this reason – the inherent unknowable nature of macro – that makes it so fascinating to study.2

And if you are somewhat familiar with macro – say you’ve spent a semester or so studying it, maybe a bit more – then a good way to check if you have “understood” the subject is to read this lovely little essay by Trevor Chow. (Please, be warned, if you have not had a course in theoretical macro, this essay will make very little sense, and you absolutely should not read it. )

Description: The goal is to bring you up to speed from knowing nothing about business cycle macroeconomics till you know everything you want to know about it at an intermediate macro level within a single post. We’ll mess around with the notion of goods and money market equilibrium to see where it takes us, though if you want to get to the interesting stuff and already know enough about IS-LM etc, feel free to skip to Part 4 and onwards. This is probably, even more than my growth series, the hardest I’ve tried at making things accessible and clear, so please do get in touch if you think there are things which are underexplained or could be rewritten. And check out Miles Kimball and Nick Rowe, whose ideas I borrow very generously from in this post.

https://tmychow.com/blog/2021/03/29/the-fallacy-of-composition

It’s very simply written, and is easily understandable – and trust me, that is hard to do when it comes to macro. It covers a lot of useful concepts, and there is a lot of back and forth between various schools of thought in macroeconomics.

My favorite excerpt was this one:

Macroeconomics is itself quite difficult, because even in the simplest business cycle models we are interested in all sorts of things: output, consumption, investment, the real interest rate, the nominal interest rate, prices, the money supply and inflation. Squeezing all of this into a static model is nigh impossible. Although I do think the canonical IS-LM model can be a bit deceptive with respect to interest rates, the idea of reconciling the goods and money markets is a useful approach. And by putting the IS-LM model through its paces, we’ve already illustrated some important ideas:

That the short run is a monetary question and not one of price adjustment
That there can be indeterminacy or unstable equilibria with bad monetary regimes
That liquidity traps and debt deflation can cause problems, but liquidity traps are really expectations traps
That there are good reasons for the Taylor rule and the Taylor principle

https://tmychow.com/blog/2021/03/29/the-fallacy-of-composition

Again, let me reiterate my basic point: if you are left with the feeling that you “get” macro, beware. Read more, and keep asking how you might be wrong in your understanding of the subject. And excellent places to begin would be Frank Knight and GLS Shackle – even the Wikipedia articles are more than enough to get started!

Bonus reading material: Snowdown and Vane.3

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: macro is hard!

  1. I’m genuinely curious: if you’ve been taught a course in theoretical macro, did G.L.S. Shackle ever come up for discussion?[]
  2. Quite like studying theology, no?[]
  3. These prices make no sense whatsoever. Pah.[]

Understanding interest rates

Simran, a first year BSc student at the Gokhale Institute writes in with this question:

Why is it that some developed countries have 0% interest rates? How are they sustained and is that a mark of a developed country? Is it good/ bad?

Is it related to their inflation rates? Because that’s the only thing I could think of.

They (the BSc students) will have macro only in the next semester, and I’m sure this question will be dealt with then. (I can’t resist adding that the question of how those classes will be conducted is topmost on my mind right now!)

But how would you go about answering this question when your audience has not been subjected to a semester’s worth of classes in macroeconomics?

The challenge I have set myself is that I will not refer to a single economist, or theory, while answering this question.

So: let’s think of it this way, Simran – you have a hundred rupee note with you, and I need a hundred rupees. So I approach you, and ask if you would be willing to give it to me. We’re both students of economics, you and I, so you quite reasonably ask what you will get in return.

Since I have nothing to give you right now, I say well, how about this: I’ll take a hundred rupees from you today, and give back an amount more than that a year from now.

That excess amount, obviously, is the rate of interest. But how much should it be? You would like two hundred rupees a year from now, and I might propose a hundred and one. Neither one of us is likely to accept the others proposal, and so we start looking for other people to cut a deal with.

You start to look for folks who are open to the idea of borrowing a hundred rupees from you, and returning two hundred (or thereabouts). I, on the other hand, start to look for folks who will lend me a hundred, and accept one hundred and one from me.

We, you and I, are now participants in the financial markets of our country. You are on the lender (or supply) side, and I on the borrower (or demand) side.

If there are a lot of people on Team Suppliers, you guys will find it difficult to find the same number of people willing to borrow. And so some of you might decide to cut the rate at which you are willing to lend. And if these financial markets are efficient – what that means is people are easily able to find out the rate/price at which transactions are taking place – then the rate of interest will come down.

Ask yourself what might happen if there are, instead, a lot of people on Team Borrowers.

Well, during these times, can you imagine a lot of people looking to borrow? I, for one, can’t imagine people wanting to set up factories, buy new TV’s, buy new houses etc. There’s hardly anybody playing on Team Borrowers!

But practically everybody in these financial markets is on Team Lenders! And so rates are going to come down:

Headline from Business Today

In fact, right now, there are so many people on Team Lenders right now, that interest rates are not just down to zero, they may well end up being negative! That’s right, you will have to pay to put money in the bank in some of these economies, and you will be paid if you borrow. Boggles the mind, but true!

And kudos for asking if interest rates are linked to inflation – yes, absolutely. But I’ll take a rain check on answering this question right now, simply because it takes us into really deep waters. Macroeconomists are prone to start squawking indignantly whenever they start thinking about inflation and interest rates (myself included), so this is best left for another day.

But for the moment, here’s the key takeaway: there are far too many people on the lending side, and nowhere near enough folks on the borrowing side, and so the price of this market – interest rates – will fall. More so in developed countries than in developing, perhaps, but they’ll fall the world over.

You’ll be able to power through the videos in this section of the macro class on MRU easily enough.

If you, or anybody else who has seen these videos, has any questions, shoot away!