Friday, February 27, 2015

Sundry links

No time for writing this week, so I'm listing blog posts and articles that caught my eye recently:

1. Liftoff levers. John Cochrane is doing a fantastic job explaining how the Fed's reverse repo operations are supposed to work. Start with this post, and then read this other one.

2. A "new" working paper, by Katharina Knoll, Mortiz Schularick, and Thomas Steger, looks at global house prices in the really long run (1870-2012). From the abstract: prices in most industrial economies stayed constant in real terms from the 19th to the mid-20th century, but rose sharply in recent decades. Land prices, not construction costs, hold the key to understanding the trajectory of house prices in the long-run. Residential land prices have surged in the second half of the 20th century, but did not increase meaningfully before. We argue that before World War II dramatic reductions in transport costs expanded the supply of land and suppressed land prices. Since the mid-20th century, comparably large land-augmenting reductions in transport costs no longer occurred. Increased regulations on land use further inhibited the utilization of additional land...
3. An Icelander goes to Cyprus and tells us why Cypriots keep cash worth 6% of GDP under the mattress.--Sigrún Davíðsdótti at A Fistful of Euros.

4. China's monetary and exchange rate framework under pressure.

           4.1 Huge FX inflows turn into small outflows, and the PBoC switches from draining renminbis to injecting them. To keep base money growing, the central bank has introduced new tools. By Gabriel Wildau for the Financial Times.

           4.2 Time to ditch the renminbi-dollar peg? The Chinese currency has depreciated and is hitting the central bank's target band.

           4.3 On the internationalization of the RMB, a colleague forwards several papers and reports
                 Paths to a reserve currency, at the Asian Development Bank Institute.
                 The rise of the redback, by HSBC.
                 Yuan is fifth world's payments currency, at the WSJ.
An important event to keep in mind is that the IMF is reviewing the SDR basket in 2015. China is under pressure to step up the internationalization of the renminbi, ahead of the basket review.

5. Dani Rodrik summarizes the results of his latest paper on de-industrialization.

Premature deindustrialization is not good news for developing nations. It blocks off the main avenue of rapid economic convergence in low‐income settings, the shift of workers from the countryside to urban factories where their productivity tends to be much higher.
Industrialization contributes to growth both because of this reallocation effect and because manufacturing tends to experience relatively stronger productivity growth over the medium to longer term. In fact, organized, formal manufacturing appears to exhibit unconditional convergence (Rodrik 2013), which makes it special and an engine of growth. Since low‐income countries tend to start with small manufacturing sectors, the dynamic within manufacturing initially plays a small role, overshadowed by the reallocation effect. But over time, the within‐manufacturing effect becomes a more potent force as the manufacturing sector becomes larger.Premature deindustrialization throws sand in the wheels of both engines (Rodrik 2013, 2014).
The consequences are already visible in the developing world. In Latin America, as manufacturing has shrunk informality has grown and economy‐wide productivity has suffered. In Africa, urban migrants are crowding into petty services instead of manufacturing, and despite growing Chinese investment there are as yet few signs of a real resurgence in industry. Where growth occurs, it is driven largely by capital inflows, transfers, or commodity booms, raising questions about its sustainability.  
In the absence of sizable manufacturing industries, these economies will need to discover new growth models. One possibility is services‐led growth. Many services, such as IT and finance, are high productivity and tradable, and could play the escalator role that manufacturing has traditionally played. However, these service industries are typically highly skill‐intensive, and do not have the capacity to absorb – as manufacturing did – the type of labor that low‐ and middle‐income economies have in abundance. The bulk of other services suffer from two shortcomings. Either they are technologically not very dynamic. Or they are non‐tradable, which means that their ability to expand rapidly is constrained by incomes (and hence productivity) in the rest of the economy.

I couldn't help but tie Rodrik's paper to that other paper by Pritchett and Summers, the one about regression to the mean of long-term growth rates. Growth is far from a uniform process. It tends to happen in fits and starts. Those who are projecting high growth rates of developing economies, based on past high growth rates, which in turn hinged on industralization, are probably going to be disappointed.

6. The translation industry.The Economist opines that translation is very hard for machines. Humans will need to stay involved, but technology will improve productivity.

A different question: Do improvements in translation bode well for language diversity in the world? How about the language learning industry? I see this as a race between technologies that allow machines to translate better, and technologies that allow humans to learn languages faster. The machines are winning, by a long shot. We're clearly on a path to better simultaneous translation capabilities. Soon we'll be able to listen to anything, anywhere in our native tongue, in real time. That means humans won't have to know more than one language. Learning languages will become a hobby, like dancing. (Sorry, parents, but you're wasting your money on Mandarin lessons.)

As for language diversity, I think a more important force than technology is urbanization. The lion's share of the world's languages are spoken by small, rural communities in developing countries. Urbanization increases the usefulness of majority languages, killing the minority languages. And urbanization will happen faster than the spread of cheap, simultaneous translation technology. At some point, however, the trend towards fewer and fewer languages will slow down, as simultaneous translation becomes pervasive.

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