Imports and GDP: This Stuff Matters!

I’ve done an earlier version of this post, but have tried to simplify it even further in what follows.

Let’s go back and take a look at a concept that most of us are familiar with, but perhaps don’t know well enough (myself included!): GDP.

What is GDP?

That’s an easy question to answer, and one that every student of Econ101 more or less memorizes:

The final value of all goods and services produced in an economy in one accounting period.

Check out this definition from Wikipedia, this one from the OECD, this one from the IMF,  or run a search yourself – they’ll all be more or less the same.

Now, you can measure GDP in more than a couple of ways, but the version that most students of economics are definitely familiar with is the expenditure approach. It says that GDP is measured by tallying up the total expenditure used to buy final goods and services.

You might be familiar with this equation, for example:

GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Exports – Imports

Or, to give this equation its abbreviated version:

GDP = C + I + G + X – M

Now, this is where things begin to get a little tricky.

This equation, and the way it is written out, leaves a lot of people under the impression that a country’s income will go up, if only we imported less as a country. 

And it is an understandable position to take! If we imagine that M has a value of, say, 100, then GDP goes down by 100. If M were to be zero instead, GDP would be higher by hundred in this alternate scenario.

But this is wrong! I’m going to use two different ways to show you why this is wrong.

Here’s the first one: go back to the definition of GDP, at the top of this piece. Now that you’ve read it, answer this question: where are imports produced? Are they produced in our country, or are they produced in another country?

And if they’re produced in another country, should they be included in our GDP?

The reason the equation says minus M is because we shouldn’t be counting it in GDP in the first place. Once we remove imports, we’re left with the very definition of GDP: goods and services produced in an economy in a given time period. 

Subtracting imports doesn’t make GDP higher. Adding it is completely wrong accounting.

All right, fine, you might grudgingly say. But then why is it in the equation at all in the first place?

Fair question! 

If you are an American, living in America, and you buy a smartphone manufactured in China, that would count as an import (M). 

But here’s the thing: it would also count as consumption ( C ). 

Think about it: if you are using the expenditure approach to measure GDP, your purchase of a Chinese manufactured smartphone is consumption, and it is also an import.

If the American government were to import binoculars manufactured in Israel, it would be government expenditure (G). But it would also be imports (M). You could make similar arguments for investment (I) as well, but you get the idea now.

So, a longer, but more accurate and understandable way of writing out the expenditure method of GDP is as follows (hat-tip to Noah Smith for this version):

GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Imported consumption + Domestically produced investment + Imported investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Government spending on imported stuff + Exports – Imports

Now, some simple crossing out of terms…

Gross Domestic Product = Domestically produced consumption + Imported consumption + Domestically produced investment + Imported investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Government spending on imported stuff + Exports – Imports

…leaves you with this:

Gross Domestic Product = Domestically produced  consumption + domestically produced investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Exports

That first version, with all the crossed out terms, is how we should really be writing it out all the time, because that is what economists really mean. But we don’t do that, unfortunately, leaving folks with the entirely understandable impression that reducing imports makes us richer.

But hey, now you know! GDP, by definition, has nothing to do with imports, and the reason we subtract imports out is because we’re adding them in while counting consumption, investment and government expenditure.

TN Ninan on The Misery Index

More often than not, inflation and unemployment move in opposite directions. Why this should be so, and whether this actually is so, are questions that can get a lot of economists very hot under the collar very quickly! 

But every now and then, this relationship breaks down very quickly, and we’re then staring at a problem that economists refer to as stagflation. That, in effect, is when inflation is stubbornly high, but unemployment is also stubbornly high. TN Ninan, a columnist for the Business Standard, riffs on this and related concepts in an excellent recent column

In particular, he drags up an idea that most of us haven’t heard about lately, the misery index. Given what’s around us these days, though, you might want to construct such an index for the months to come! What is the misery index, you ask? Well, simply add up the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation for any given economy! It’s a simple enough index to create, and you can learn a fair bit by taking a look at which countries are doing well (low on the misery index), and which countries are the unfortunate table-toppers. 

As the column points out, Turkey, Argentina and South Africa top these charts, and Brazil and Russia round off the current top five. But most major economies are inching up this particular chart, and this is something you want to keep an eye on in the days to come. Here is more information, if you’re interested in learning more about the misery index.

Now, as with ice-cream flavors, so also with indices such as these. You can add in different flavors and come up with many different variations. So it was only a matter of time before somebody thought of adding in interest rates to create a new version of the misery index. Imagine living in an economy with high inflation, high unemployment and high interest rates! And if you want a little-bit-of-everything-when-it-comes-to-macro index, well, throw in per capita growth rates too. Note that this last addition actually makes it rather less of a misery index, since high per capita growth is a good thing.

And finally, TN Ninan’s column also mentions another interesting, relatively recent idea that you might want to explore yourself: The Great Gatsby curve. Take a look at what it means, and reflect on how appropriate the name is.

Literature and economic theory – who’d have thunk it, eh?

What is a Doom Loop?

Is a global recession imminent?

Probably. Macroeconomic forecasting is the stupidest of sports, but it is looking quite likely, yes.

How will recession start, how will it play out, and how long will it last? I don’t have the faintest idea, and trust me, nobody knows for sure.

But certain channels of both cause and effect (and sometimes both at the same time, because macro is hard) can be readily identified. And one such channel in today’s day and age is that of a ‘doom loop’.

A country is at risk of a doom loop when a shock to one part of its economic system is amplified by its effect on another. In rich countries, central banks should have the power to halt such a vicious cycle by standing behind government debt, stabilising financial markets or cutting interest rates to support the economy. But in the euro zone, the ECB can only do this to a degree for individual countries.

https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2022/06/22/what-is-the-doom-loop-in-the-euro-zone

I haven’t taught international macro for a while now, but when I used to, I would explain this to my students by calling it the Mamata Banerjee/Narendra Modi/Raj Thackeray problem. I hope your curiosity is piqued!

For an economic union of political entities to work, there are (very broadly speaking) four things that must be present:

  1. A monetary union (which the EU has)
  2. A fiscal union (this is the Mamata Banerjee angle, explained below)
  3. Capital mobility (Narendra Modi)
  4. Labor mobility (Raj Thackeray)

Now, bear in mind that my examples are from a while back. I am referring to Mamata Banerjee’s first stint as Chief Minister, and the version of Narendra Modi I have in mind is the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

But back when Mamata Banerjee became Chief Minister of Bengal for the first time, one of the first things she did was to ask the Centre for help given West Bengal’s precarious finances. The point is not about whether it was given or not (as far as this blogpost is concerned), the point is that states routinely ask for, and sometimes get, aid from the centre. This may be because of natural disasters, or man made ones, financial ones or otherwise. The point is that the central government has the ability to ‘help’ out states if necessary. It is, of course, more complicated than that, and a fiscal union also implies the ability to raise and share taxes, but the central point is the fact there is help available, if needed.

But the ability of the European Union to do so is severely constrained, because you will need a lot of good luck to convince, for example, German voters that their taxes might be used to help the Spanish economy in its time of need. And for somewhat similar reasons, you can make more or less the same argument for the inability of the European Central Bank to chip in when necessary.

Or consider Narendra Modi’s invitation to Ratan Tata, to have his Tata Nano factory be relocated from West Bengal to Sanand in Gujarat. That’s an example of capital mobility, and again, this is much easier to achieve within a country.

And finally, Raj Thackeray, and his opposition to workers from outside Maharashtra ‘taking’ jobs within the state – that is a great way to understand what (lack of) labor mobility means.


The point is that an economic union must necessarily have these four things in place for it to be a meaningful, stable and well-functioning European Union. The idea isn’t new, of course – Robert Mundell‘s idea has been around since the late 1950’s, and there have been others who have worked on related ideas. Also read Paul Krugman on the topic.

But the point is that if a crisis strikes the EU, they have a limited range of weaponry that they can deploy.

Please read the rest of the article to get a sense of how linkages between European governments and its banks, the banks and the broader economy, and the broader economy and the European governments can both cause and exacerbate a crisis.

And as usual, the concluding paragraph for your perusal:

The euro zone is at less risk from doom loops than it was ten years ago, thanks to reforms to the banking system, the ECB’s commitment to preserve the euro and some embryonic fiscal integration. But the danger has not disappeared. And reforms to the euro zone’s architecture that would further reduce the risk have stalled⁠—in part because in 2012 the ECB boldly stepped in, easing the pressure on governments to make difficult decisions. As the ECB once again intervenes, the prospects for deep euro-zone reform look increasingly remote.

https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2022/06/22/what-is-the-doom-loop-in-the-euro-zone

Neelkanth Mishra on the Inflation Spectrometer

There’s learning macroeconomic theory, and there’s applying what you know to the world around you. In an excellent column, which we shall parse together, Neelkanth Mishra teaches us how to use basic micro and macroeconomics to make sense of the world around us.

He begins with an analogy of the spectrometer, a device used to ‘disentangle’ waves. Having explained what a spectrometer is, and what it might be used for, he then goes on to say that you might be able to do something similar with economic phenomena, and asks if you could use an idea analogous to the spectrometer to disentangle the phenomena that are causing inflation.

Let’s dig in.


In theory, inflation is a macroeconomic phenomenon, and analysing it by category is unwise, as prices shift both supply and demand between categories — sometimes global and local factors mix as well. For example, higher oilseed prices could shift acreage from pulses in the upcoming Indian kharif crop, pushing up prices of pulses even though the initial supply disruption was in Ukrainian sunflower oil.

https://tessellatum.in/?p=433

It’s one thing to learn about supply and demand. It is quite another to learn about partial equilibrium. But it is a whole other thing (and the point of the entire exercise) to be able to apply these ideas to what we see around us. Can higher oilseed prices cause an increase in the price of pulses? And even if you were to tentatively say ‘yes’, the real challenge would be the follow-up question: through what channels, and why?

He identifies two clear strands of driving factors that are responsible for inflation today, beginning with a larger than necessary stimulus applied in America during Covid-19. As an interesting aside, he says that this ended up pushing retails sales ten standard deviations above normal.

If you are a student reading this, take the time to pause over here and reflect on this statistic. Ten standard deviations above normal? That sounds like a lot! But you should also ask yourself the following:

  1. What does above normal mean? How is it defined? Average annual sales over the last decade? Or is it monthly sales over the last five years? Or some other construct?
  2. The standard deviation only makes sense given our understanding of the first bullet point. What period has been used? How often have ten standard deviation events taken place in the last, say, one hundred years (assuming we have data going back that far, of course)?
  3. None of this, to be clear, is me doubting what Neelkanth Mishra has said. The point I am making is that you, as a student of economics, should try and run some Google searches to find out where that number comes from, or best of all, try and run the analysis yourself. Search for retail sales on Fred St Louis, and knock yourself out with a spreadsheet. As they say, get your hands dirty!
  4. Read the rest of the paragraph to get a sense of how to think through macroeconomic issues and understand them better.

The downward lash of this bullwhip is now starting, which can push apparent demand well below real demand. US federal fiscal deficit as a share of gross domestic product or GDP in the last three months is the lowest since June 2019. As services restart, a goods-to-services switch in consumption is underway; shipping bottlenecks have eased (though not fully); global industrial production got back above trend in February (though recent lockdowns in China hurt); and there is evidence of excessive inventory in many supply chains. Prices of TV panels and memory chips are falling, and the year-on-year price increases in metals are now much below those seen in April. Prices may not go back to the pre-Covid levels (meaning deflation from here), but the inflationary impulse does seem to be behind us.

https://tessellatum.in/?p=433
  1. Learn about the bullwhip effect.
  2. Play around with this chart to verify for yourself the fiscal deficit point. (If anybody reading this works, or can work with the RBI, please push for the DBIE website to be more like, and indeed better than, the Fred St Louis website. Thank you.)
  3. Run some searches for memory chip prices (add words like “trend”, 2022, H2 2022 and use Google’s search filters to narrow down the search results).
  4. Reflect on whether you agree about the inflationary impulse from the USA’s fiscal stimulus now being behind us. Say you had to disagree with his point: what would you choose to drag up as points that negate his hypothesis?

The second global impulse, the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, may be harder to adjust to, with demand and supply adjustments likely to take many quarters. The conflict and the associated sanctions have reduced the global supply of food and energy. Given that global GDP growth and the use of dense energy are intimately linked, fiscal and monetary measures can only redistribute what remains between countries; they cannot offset the shortages. Nearly every major economy has announced energy subsidies — while this is understandable, given the domestic political compulsions as well as the need to sustain growth, they will only prolong the period of higher energy prices. This can be seen as countries competing for the remaining supplies of energy, pushing up prices until the weak hands (countries) give up. Higher prices have also not triggered investments in new supplies yet, as suppliers lack certainty on how long the shortages may persist. These trends could keep prices higher for longer than currently anticipated.

https://tessellatum.in/?p=433
  1. Understand the point about fiscal and monetary stimuli being of limited use in a global context.
  2. Understand the unseen effect of domestic subsidies on global oil prices
  3. Trust me on this – there’s many, many, many pages of reports, news articles and blog posts that have been read for that one seemingly simple fragment of a sentence: “as suppliers lack certainty on how long the shortages may persist”. Learn, for your own sake, the art of reading a lot in order to be able to give a concise summary.

Moving to local drivers of inflation: Inflation occurs when a stimulus pushes aggregate demand above the economy’s capacity to meet it. Even though state governments’ deficits are much lower than budgeted, the total government deficit in India is higher than in pre-Covid times. The recent fiscal steps to prevent a rise in fertiliser and fuel prices, while prudent and to some extent necessary, may serve only to spread inflation over a longer period. The rise in India’s current account deficit (CAD), with May balance-of-payments (BoP) deficit run-rate at nearly 2 per cent of GDP, also suggests domestic demand, at least in its current mix, is unsustainable.

https://tessellatum.in/?p=433

If I was conducting an interview for a student who was aspiring to join the corporate world as an economist, I would have liked to have shown the candidate this paragraph, given them a laptop with an internet connection, and told them that they have thirty minutes to find the answers to the following questions:

  1. Find out for me the original source from where we can find out that state government’s deficits are much lower than budgeted
  2. Find out for me the original source for India’s CAD and B-O-P deficits.
  3. Answer for me, with data to back up your answer the following question: is India’s current mix of domestic demand unsustainable?

If you are not able to answer these questions, and you are currently a student of macroeconomics, you might wish to add stuff outside of your textbooks into your diet.


But now, best of all, for the three paragraphs that follow the one that I quoted in the previous section, I won’t come up with a list of comments and questions. I’ll in fact ask you to come up with questions yourself, along the lines that I just did, and then see if you can answer them.

Go ahead, give it a try!


This article is a great example of what hands on macroeconomics looks like. If you are in college and are wondering what your syllabus has to do with the world outside, ask yourself a simple question: do you see yourself as being capable of writing a similar article yourself?

That, if you ask me, is a true examination. Write it, please, and share it with all of us by putting it up for us to read in the public domain. What a great addition to your CV that would be.

No?

On Starting Salaries

I joined Genpact as a data analyst in the year 2006, fresh out of college. Genpact was one of the few firms that had visited our campus for recruitment that year, and I was lucky enough to be “placed” along with three other batchmates.

My starting salary? 3.75 lakh rupees, or INR 375,000/-.

I remember thinking how princely an amount this was back then, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how I could possibly spend whatever amount I got on a monthly basis. Of course, life very quickly taught me the same lesson that it has taught everybody else – so it goes.

But the reason I bring this up is because of a Finshots write-up that’s been shared with me a fair few times this past week:

₹3.6 lakhs
That was the typical salary paid out to a fresher in 2010 when they entered one of India’s top IT companies. Think — TCS, Infosys, HCL, and Wipro.
A decade later, they were still being paid roughly the same sum.
So technically, if you were to take into account inflation, freshers in 2020 were far worse than their counterparts back in 2010. And the salary hikes weren’t particularly enticing too.

https://finshots.in/archive/it-firms-great-resignation/

I’m not sure where they got the data from, but anecdotally, this sounds about right. I’ve been in charge of placements at the Gokhale Institute, where I work, for about four years now, and while we’ve managed to get firms on campus that pay substantially more, starting salaries for most firms at the entry level are at about this number, more or less.

Which, as the Finshots newsletter goes on to point out, is ridiculously low for 2022. And why might this be so?

Well, two ways to think about it. First, as the newsletter itself points out, it’s simple economics. There’s excess supply.

You see, India produces roughly 1.5 million engineering graduates every year. And IT firms hire around 200,000 people every year. This means the effective pool of applicants remains sizeable and IT companies continue to be spoilt for choice. Even others attributed it to cartelization, alleging that IT companies banded together to deliberately suppress salaries. But despite what you want to believe, the bottom line remains the same — Entry-level salaries simply did not budge a lot in the past decade and IT graduates were getting a bit angsty.

https://finshots.in/archive/it-firms-great-resignation/

It’s worth learning more about economics to help yourself understand what terms such as excess supply, homogenous goods, elasticity, cartelization, inefficient labor markets mean, because they help you understand why starting salaries are so low. Search for these terms online, on this blog, or begin with MRU videos, but help yourself by learning about these concepts if you are unfamiliar with them.

Or watch AIB videos!

If you ask me, do both. It’s a great way to learn econ theory and have a bit of fun.


But as the newsletter goes on to point out, things are changing, and they say this is because of three reasons: increased attrition, greater recruitment by start-ups and burnout from the pandemic. Each of three, I should add are inter-related, but I broadly agree with their explanation.

Average salaries are up, firms are paying more, and it’s a great time to be out there looking for a job. But, as the conclusion of the newsletter points out, it would seem that there is a recession looming on the horizon, and that may drag starting salaries back to square one.

How does one find out about the probability of a recession? Well, there’s lots of ways, but without being too meta, keep an eye out for the kind of questions that are being asked about the macroeconomic situation:

One data point doesn’t add up to much, I’ll admit, but there’s other ways to keep yourself abreast of the situation:

https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=recession&geo=IN

Or, once again, run searches online (this time for macroeconomics), or on this blog, or begin with MRU videos. Or all of the above, if you ask me.

But trust me on this: a good intuitive grasp of basic economics concepts goes a very long way indeed. And when it comes to wages, we all have skin in the game. (Read the book, if you haven’t already).

No?

Imports, Exports and GDP

“The key is to understand that imports are also included in consumption, investment, and government spending. The real GDP breakdown looks like this:

  • GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Imported consumption + Domestically produced investment + Imported investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Government spending on imported stuff + Exports – Imports

So you can see that while imports are subtracted from GDP at the end of this equation, they’re also added to the earlier parts of the equation. In other words, imports are first added to GDP and then subtracted out again. So the total contribution of imports on GDP is zero.”

That is an excerpt from a lovely little write-up by Noah Smith on his Substack, and one that I’ll be using whenever I teach macro. It’s lovely for many reasons, but most of all for the reason that the bullet point goes a very long way towards making the point that a lot of folks miss: you don’t get rich by importing less.

When I say “you”, I mean the country in question – and this equation, written out this way, helps us understand why. If you’re a student of macro, and are under the impression that India will get richer if only we imported lesser, think about the definition of GDP:

Gross domestic product (GDP) is the total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gdp.asp

If you think about it, how can imports possibly qualify as being produced within a country’s borders? As Noah says, the equation can also be written like this:

GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Domestically produced investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Exports

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/imports-do-not-subtract-from-gdp?s=r

Read the rest of Noah’s post, especially if you are a student of macroeconomics. It should help clear up a lot of basic, but important and often misunderstood ideas about GDP calculations.


https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus

Russia has stopped publishing detailed monthly trade statistics. But figures from its trading partners can be used to work out what is going on. They suggest that, as imports slide and exports hold up, Russia is running a record trade surplus.
On May 9th China reported that its goods exports to Russia fell by over a quarter in April, compared with a year earlier, while its imports from Russia rose by more than 56%. Germany reported a 62% monthly drop in exports to Russia in March, and its imports fell by 3%. Adding up such flows across eight of Russia’s biggest trading partners, we estimate that Russian imports have fallen by about 44% since the invasion of Ukraine, while its exports have risen by roughly 8%.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus

Think about the previous section, and try and answer this question: is Russia poorer or richer or unchanged because Russia isn’t importing as much, as measured by GDP and changes in GDP?

Well, Russia may be worse off, and Russians may be worse off. It’s leader?

As a result, analysts expect Russia’s trade surplus to hit record highs in the coming months. The iif reckons that in 2022 the current-account surplus, which includes trade and some financial flows, could come in at $250bn (15% of last year’s gdp), more than double the $120bn recorded in 2021. That sanctions have boosted Russia’s trade surplus, and thus helped finance the war, is disappointing, says Mr Vistesen. Ms Ribakova reckons that the efficacy of financial sanctions may have reached its limits. A decision to tighten trade sanctions must come next.
But such measures could take time to take effect. Even if the eu enacts its proposal to ban Russian oil, the embargo would be phased in so slowly that the bloc’s oil imports from Russia would fall by just 19% this year, says Liam Peach of Capital Economics, a consultancy. The full impact of these sanctions would be felt only at the start of 2023—by which point Mr Putin will have amassed billions to fund his war.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus (Emphasis added)

Macro is hard! But it also matters, especially at times such as these.

On the “Natural” rate of unemployment

Lovely Twitter handle, I must say, and if you don’t already, please do follow him on Twitter.

India and China’s GDP Components Over Time

This should go without saying, but ask yourself if you are able to recreate these charts given the data sources mentioned in the tweet. You needn’t use DataWrapper necessarily (although if you’re considering journalism or a related field, learning it will help) – but do see if you can create the chart!

V Ananta Nageswaran on the IMF’s Medium-Term Forecasts for India and China

If you are an undergrad or post-grad student in India studying economics, you’ve no doubt been taught how to think about GDP (ways to measure it, ways to define it, its limitations, its advantages). But if you ask me, what we fail to do enough of is explain to students how one is supposed to use these concepts.

I often tell my students that GDP for a nation is like grades/marks obtained by a student. In much the same way that grades are not an accurate reflection of all of what a student has done in an academic year (even in purely an academic sense), GDP isn’t an accurate reflection of what a country has earned in a given time period. But also in much the same way that we have not been able to come up with a better way to assess students, we have not been able to come up with a better way to measure the economic output of a nation.

So while keeping in mind the fact that the measure isn’t perfect, but also that there isn’t a better measure in place just yet, let’s go ahead and read V Ananta Nageswaran’s excellent column in the Livemint about India and China’s medium term forecasts by the IMF.

What I am going to do below is highlight some sentences from this column and pose questions on the basis of these excerpts. Try and answer these questions, especially if you have been taught macro in your college/university. To my mind, this will go a very long way towards helping you understand if you have, well, understood key macroeconomic concepts:

  1. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) publishes its World Economic Outlook (WEO) twice a year after its Spring and Autumn meetings.

    Have you read the latest edition? If nothing else, take a look at the executive summary.
  2. “However, since then, many private-sector economists have upgraded their forecast for India’s economic growth this financial year to more than 10%, based on more recent and real-time indicators including mobility data.”

    What might a list of such indicators look like? Here’s a place to get started.
  3. “In October, India’s nominal GDP for 2026-27 was projected at ₹392.84 trillion and $4.393 trillion. In the April WEO edition, the corresponding forecasts were ₹389.01 trillion and $4.534 trillion. So, secondary-school arithmetic will tell us that the Fund has become relatively more pessimistic on the Indian rupee versus US dollar (USD) in October than in April. From 70.9 in 2020-21, the Fund sees the rupee depreciating to 89.4 against the US dollar by 2026-27. In April, the implied exchange rate forecast for 2026-27 was 85.8. So, the US dollar is stronger by 4.2% at the end of 2026-27 as per the October 2021 forecast versus April’s. The effect is that India’s nominal GDP in USD terms in 2026-27 is $140 billion lower than the April forecast.”

    Can you go back to the report and find out how the author reached these numbers? Do you agree with his calculations? Can you explain these calculations to somebody else? Do you find yourself able to write paragraphs like these? If not, what do you think you need to learn?
  4. “When it comes to forecasting exchange rates, the literature informs us that economic fundamentals do a poor job for any horizon under three years.”

    What might this mean in terms of statistical concepts? What does this tell you about how to think about long term investing (in financial assets, people and entire nations)?
  5. “Of all the economic fundamentals that influence exchange rates, the one enduring factor is the inflation differential.”

    Which are the other economic fundamentals that influence exchange rates? What is the inflation differential? Why does the author say that this particular factor is an enduring one?
  6. This is a truly remarkable graph, and worthy of thinking about deeply. Why does it look the way it does? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? For whom, exactly, and over what time horizon?
  7. “So, for any USD-INR forecast, higher inflation rates in India over the US that have been the default factor for the past few decades cannot form the basis. The Fund may have to revisit its implicit forecasts for USD-INR in April 2022.”

    Do you agree with the author’s assessment that inflation in India may not necessarily be higher than in the United States? Why or why not? With what implications beyond GDP calculations?

I’d recommend that you try and figure out the answers to these questions yourself, or even better, with a group of like-minded people. Run them past your prof(s), and see what they have to say. Wwrite up/record your answers and put ’em up for public consumption.

And best of all, try to come up with more such questions yourselves!

A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas

I’m not a fan of recommending a particular textbook to my students in any course that I teach. I’m not a fan of textbooks in general, but that’s a story for another day.

The reason I am against the idea that you should read “a” textbook for a course is because I find the idea that you can learn a subject by reading just one book to be a deeply repugnant one. I’m happy to recommend ten, or more. And students should learn by dipping into all of them!


But if you were to put a gun to my head and tell me that I must absolutely recommend just one macro text for Indian students who are learning macro for the first time, A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas would be it.

Why? For the following reasons:

Rare is the textbook that begins with a disclaimer to the effect that the author did not want to write a textbook. Rarer still is the preface that goes on to say that other textbooks (and more besides!) should also be read. If you are an econ prof, you must have read multiple prefaces by now that dispense advice about how chapters such-to-such, followed by chapters these-to-those ought to be included in an introductory course, but on the other hand chapters extra-but-still-necessary only need be included in an intermediate course.

The preface to this book does no such thing. Read the whole book, it says, and read more besides.

But the second most important part of the preface, and the part that got me hooked to the whole book is that includes a reference to a novel. That in itself is, well, novel. Second, it is an Indian novel. Third, it is a novel that has nothing to do with macroeconomic theory. This is a book that teaches you that macroeconomic theory – that after all, is the job of a textbook – but it is also a book that teaches you what to do with that theory. It teaches you to apply that theory to get a handle on the society that you need to study, and it helps you understand that this society is so much more than the abstractions of economic theory. Use this book to appreciate life better, it seems to say. Or, in the language of us economists, Alex Thomas has written the book as a complement to everything else that you will read and learn about Indian society. Not as a substitute. That is a rare old achievement, and one well worth celebrating.

The most important part?

Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualize and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little about the gaps between theory and data, and occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought.

Preface, pp xvi, Macroeconomics An Introduction

There are nine chapters in the book, and I hope Alex Thomas won’t mind me listing them out over here:

  1. What is economics?
  2. Conceptualising the macroeconomy
  3. Money and interest rates
  4. Output and employment levels
  5. Economic growth
  6. Why economic theory matters
  7. The policy objectives of full employment
  8. The policy objective of low inflation
  9. Towards good economics

Say you want to teach a course in macroeconomics to students who have not studied the subject before. Conceptually speaking, here are the questions I would want to answer as an instructor:

What are we studying here, exactly? What are we abstracting from all of reality and of those abstractions, which features matter more than the others? Why are we studying whatever it is that we’re studying? If we (students and the prof) agree on the answers to the first few questions, how do we go about defining and measuring “success”? Why put the word success in inverted quotes?

Chapter 1 | Chapters 2,3,4 | Chapters 5 and 6 | Chapters 7 and 8 | Chapter 9 is how I interpret the layout of the book, in line with the questions above. Personally, I would have wanted to put chapters 5 and 6 right after chapter 1, but after having read the book, I can understand why the book was structured the way it has been. In particular, the four sections of the sixth chapter can only become truly comprehensible after you’ve gone through chapters 2,3,4. If I were to be teaching a course on macro, I would still be tempted to jump from 1 to at least the spirit of chapters 5 and 6, but that’s just my personal preference at play. Growth matters, and helping students appreciate why growth matters can be hugely motivating.


This book deserves a separate section of the review dedicated exclusively to the richness of the text. I challenge you to find me another textbook, from anywhere in the world that can go from talking about Tony Aspromourgo’s chapter on Piero Sraffa on pp 100, to talking about a Telugu novella on pp 102 (Kesava Reddy’s Moogavani Pillanagrovi: Ballad of Ontillu, 2013) to talking about Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari on pp 103! To be clear, the challenge isn’t finding another textbook that talks of these three sources specifically (I can guarantee you that there isn’t another one!), but one that manages to traverse such breadth. Breathtaking stuff, and I never imagined I would use that phrase while reviewing a macro text.

But it’s not just that one series of excerpts. Every chapter is liberally sprinkled with a list of reading recommendations that stand out for their sheer breadth. All of them have been listed out between pages 200-208 in the text, and just these eight pages alone are worth the price of admission. Well, these eight pages and the two that precede it. In those two pages, Alex Thomas lists out all the data sources that have been used in the case of each table from each chapter.

In particular, this book deserves to be praised for raising repeatedly issues of caste, gender and ecology at various points through the text. Growth, but at what cost? Land as a factor of production, sure, but rooted in which society, and with therefore what consequences?

Consider this excerpt from pp 128, for example:

A village economy cannot be understood as a simple departure from the competitive macroeconomy we have discussed thus far. It requires us to understand how village space is divided and demarcated (typically on the basis of caste). The spatial inequality present in a village economy is captured very well by Kota Neelima in her depiction of a poor and indebted farmer’s house in Death of a Moneylender (2016).

The very next paragraph touches upon aspects of religion and its linkages to labor mobility. As always reasonable people can and should argue about how much of an impact these aspects (and other aspects of Indian society) have on the cold austere ivory tower approach that most macroeconomic textbooks adopt. I think it is a very significant impact, and you may not – and that is, of course, absolutely fine. But we are debating the quantum of significance and relevance, not questioning its very existence – and that is very, very welcome indeed.

Indeed, this is a book that ends with an exhortation: if you take one thing away from this book, Alex Thomas seems to be saying, take away an appreciation for the pluralistic approach (pp 196):

If you are a student of economics, you will soon study “statistics for economists’ and ‘mathematics for economists’. In both these methods of economics, there exist multiple concepts, theories and approaches, just like in macroeconomics and microeconomics; pay attention to the fact that these ‘methods of economics themselves both originated and are used within a social context. Moreover, a pluralistic approach to economics by itself is not sufficient when employing economics in the service of public policy; it is important to keep in mind the collective wishes of people as Xaxa’s poem in Section 1.4 pointed out.
I end this book with the hope that you take pluralism as a friend, sometimes a difficult one, in your journey of learning.


The pluralistic approach isn’t just restricted to moving across (and beyond) the social sciences. Even within the domain of macroeconomic theory, Alex Thomas takes the time and trouble to make sure that all views about the macroeconomy are fairly represented. The fifth chapter in particular is notable for this, but that should be taken to be especial praise for that chapter, not a faint damning of the others!

What could have been done better? If this book is intended for people learning about macroeconomics for the first time, I think this books errs on the side of doing a little bit too much. Some sections might be a little bit too involved for a reader who still has to cultivate a taste for macroeconomic theory (and god knows it is very much an acquired taste). And some first time readers might also not appreciate some of the macroeconomic controversies and the role they have played in pushing the field further.

This should beg the obvious question: well, what, exactly, should be cut? Well, not cut exactly, but some of the more involved explanations can be turned into, say, accompanying YouTube explainers (about which more below).

There are also some notable names missing from an introductory text of macroeconomics, but I’m all but certain that this is a case of conscious choice rather than inadvertent omission.

A tip to the students reading this review: help Alex out by coming up with videos that will act as accompaniments to the text. That is, if you are doing the hard work of reading through the text and understanding it, help others by creating content that will act as a complement to the reading of the text. Many students should do this, and in many languages! As Alex says, embrace plurality, both in terms of approach and understanding, but also linguistically speaking.


My biggest problem with the book is a bit of a meta-problem, and I hope I turn out to be wrong in what I am about to say. The biggest requirement, I think, of this book is a teacher who will do it justice. I honestly do not think that this book can be read by a first-time student of macroeconomics without some sort of mentoring and guidance. To be clear, this is not about the book being difficult or inaccessible – I am of the opinion that macroeconomics just is that hard.

But if what I’m saying is correct, then the success of the book is as dependent on the guide/mentor/professor as it is upon both the book and the reader. And that brings me to my answer to whether or not I would recommend that you read this book. It is not, I think, for everybody. But that’s not a criticism of the book, or its contents or the author. It is an acknowledgment of just how hard macroeconomics really is. In fact, Alex Thomas himself says that a year of undergrad studies in economics is recommended before you tackle this book.

But hey, hopefully I turn out to be wrong! Hopefully you can and will read this book and understand it.

And if you are already a serious student of economics (whether formally enrolled in a university or otherwise), then I absolutely and unreservedly recommend this book to you. As a student of Indian macroeconomics, you simply couldn’t do better. Period.


P.S. Alex Thomas will be speaking about his book to the students from the Gokhale Institute on the 17th of September. I don’t think livestreaming is possible, alas, but we will be putting up the recording on our YouTube channel for sure. If you have questions you’d like to ask Alex Thomas, pass them along here in the comments. We’ll try to work them in!