Monday, 14 July 2014

UK economics curriculum: an open reply to the QAA

To: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Southgate House
Southgate Street
GL1 1UB 

15th July 2014 (revised 31 July)

Thank you for the opportunity to suggest further changes to the QAA subject benchmark statement in economics (SBSE). I think the draft needs significant further work for four reasons: repetition; insufficient critical and open thinking; insufficient pluralism; and a need to re-prioritise to reflect employer surveys.

The SBSE could merge sections 4. 'subject knowledge and understanding' and 5. 'subject specific skills and other skills'. Finance and accounting (QAA, 2007) have a single section 3. 'subject specific knowledge and skills'.

There is wording in the both finance and accounting that emphasises critical and open thinking: 'a capacity for the critical evaluation of arguments and evidence'; 'the ability to analyse... unstructured problems' as well as an emphasis on presentation, communication and information technology skills. The SBSE could use similar wording.

The main thrust of the document is 'to abstract and simplify' (2.5) and 'the study of factors that influence income, wealth and well-being'. It could instead emphasise 'the empirical grounding of the subject; being question motivated not tool motivated; and address issues such as growth, distribution and the environment' (personal notes from QAA meeting). The need to discuss the purpose of economics was made in the original INET curriculum proposal (Skidelsky, 2011). For example, topics that come up with student groups include climate change, inequality, unemployment, banking, power, gender, profit retention and tax avoidance.

A lack of theoretical pluralism is apparent in section 4.1 'a coherent core of economic principles' and 5.4 'key concepts'. The SBSE could use similar wording to the finance statement section 2: 'study pursued from a variety of perspectives, including but not restricted to, the behavioural, ethical, economic, sustainable and statistical/mathematical'.

Please note my surprise that finance and employment are considered to be 'static analyses'.

In my view, sections 2.5, 4.3, 5.4, 5.6 and 7 confuse the priorities given in the employer surveys:

The Economics Network Survey of 2012 places 'communication of economic ideas' and 'analysis of economic, business and social issues' ahead of 'abstraction' and lists 'social costs and benefits' as the most important subject-specific knowledge.

The SBE Survey of 2013 prioritised data manipulation, money and banking, financial economics, economic history, cost-benefit analysis, competition, behavioural economics, history of economic thought and financial history. These were ahead of advanced mathematics and mathematical packages. These priorities are either missing, or inconsistent, in these overlapping sections.

Where the committee have proposed changes I support these: the new bullet on 'historic and policy contexts in which specific economic analysis is applied'; engagement with finance, ethics, philosophy and international relations; a new bullet to communicate with 'non-specialists/non-economists'; brief mention of case studies; removal of the word 'scarcity' and inclusion of the words 'phenomena', sectors' and the 'pluralist perspectives/interdisciplinary synthesis' mentioned earlier.

Can you note my disappointment that it took so long to circulate the draft after the 18th March committee: as a result, even these minor revisions will not be available for the 2014-15 academic year.

Thank you for agreeing to widen the consultation to 'gather a full range of perspectives'. I hope that this will include academic groups (WINIR, PKSG, AHE and so on) as well as student groups (PCES, Rethinking Economics, CSEP, GURWES and so on) and other employers (in finance, consultancy and non-profit).

With best regards,
Neil Lancastle

Summary of comments from other committee members
1.  The statement needs rewriting to show how economics has changed since the crisis, to encourage a more pluralist approach to teaching, and to encourage critical inquiry by students.
2.  The statement needs to include economic and financial history, behavioural economics, real world case studies, banking, and the skills and topics prioritised by employers.

Economics Network. (2012). Economics Graduates’ Skills and Employability.
SBE Survey. (2013). Teaching Economics after the Crisis: The Results of the Society of Business Economists’ Members’ Survey of January 2013. Available from Society of Business Economists.
QAA. (2007). Finance.
QAA (2007). Accounting
Skidelsky, R. et al. (2011). Three year economics undergraduate curriculum

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

There are alternatives

More on the lack of public support from CORE for the student letter, calling for 'more open, diverse and pluralist economics'. However,the student letter has been signed by a diverse group of academics and economists (see below). 
This was sent to the FT on 3rd June but not published, hence the Blog.


Dr Alvin Birdi’s hope that the CORE curriculum will ‘prioritise empirically important questions’ is welcome. However, he is wrong to dismiss criticism from those outside the project as ‘off the mark and unhelpful’.  Dr Hugh Goodacre’s is not the only dissenting voice; Kate Raworth thinks that ‘to be honest I don’t feel it [CORE] bodes well’ and Ha-Joon Chang and Jonathan Aldred write that ‘teaching undergraduates economics as a series of interconnected debates at best risks needlessly confusing students and at worst actively misleading them...this is unfortunately the view taken by a leading group of curriculum reformers among mainstream economists – the CORE project group’.

There are occasions when CORE members engage with those on the outside calling for alternatives. Andy Haldane wrote a supportive foreword to the report by students at Post-Crash Manchester, but they were dismissed by Diane Coyle as failing to ‘recognise the breadth of the courses available’ and by Simon Wren-Lewis as being 'fundamentally misguided’.

More generally, the CORE steering group and CORE contributors appear united in their dismissal of alternative curricula: not a single one appears to have signed the ISIPE open letter. Surely someone from CORE has an encouraging word for the students? After all, the letter is signed by a diverse group of academics and economists, many of whom leave helpful comments: Ann Pettifor, Stephanie Blankenberg, Molly Scott Cato, Robert Pollin, Michael Ash, Achim Truger, Arne Heise, Doyne Farmer, Thomas Piketty, Lord Robert Skidelsky, Alan Kirman, Ha-Joon Chang, James Galbraith, Peter Mooslechner, Lars P. Syll, Victoria Chick, Geoffrey Harcourt, Marc Lavoie, Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Sheila Dow, John Komlos, Paul Davidson, Steve Keen, Engelbert Stockhammer, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Matheus Grasselli, Gary Dymski, John Weeks, Ken Binmore, Malcolm Sawyer, Mathew Forstater, Ozlem Onaran, Stephen Fazzari, Sheri Markose, Tae-Hee Jo, Thomas Palley and Yuval Millo. 

Best regards,
Neil Lancastle

Postgraduate student in finance and economics, University of Leicester

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Spinning from the CORE

What have the CORE steering group and the ISIPE student letter got in common? The short answer: nothing.

If you scan the list of supporters (last scan, 5th October 2014) you find that not a single steering group member has publicly supported the ISIPE call for 'a more open, diverse and pluralist economics'. Some of us have received private messages of support, but it would be fantastic if someone like Diane Coyle (chair of the steering group and acting chairman of the BBC trust) or Eric Pentecost (chair of the Royal Economic Society's CHUDE committee) were to sign the letter.

Especially when 'CORE in the news' includes ISIPE press coverage with the phrase 'we try to link to all the mentions of the CORE project in the media'. Anyone would think this was the 'citation cartel' and 'invisible college' that Victoria Chick referred to at the Post-Crash Manchester fringe event.

Outside of CORE, a growing body of voices are stating publicly that the CORE curriculum is too narrow. Kate Raworth wrote on her blog that:

'CORE’s twenty modules are works in progress...but to be honest I don’t feel it bodes well... it’s only when we reach Module 17 that we learn about ‘The economy of the Earth’... and in the outline of the whole curriculum there doesn’t appear to be any room to discuss whether or not unlimited economic growth is theoretically, technically or socially possible".

Hugh Goodacre wrote in the FT that:

'Far from introducing a wider range of viewpoints, [CORE] excludes any method or theory other than the same old simplistic platitudes about equilibrium and disequilibrium and all the rest of it. It aims to justify to first-year students the fact that their further curriculum will centre overwhelmingly on mathematical models constructed on that basis, and far from welcoming student discussion in its formulation, consultation on the course by students and dissenting staff was rigorously denied'

Ha-Joon Chang and Jonathan Aldred, writing in support of the student campaign in the Observer, point out that 'in Cambridge, like every other elite university, the undergraduate economics curriculum has remained almost the same'.

These comments suggest little has changed since this survey of undergraduate economics programmes published in 2012. The original INET UK Economics Curriculum Committee, led by Lord Skidelsky, found that courses in microeconomics emphasised theory and mathematics; macro courses relied heavily on New Classical thought; and only two out of twelve universities discussed economics from a qualitative perspective such as history of economic thought, economic history and philosophy of economics.

Why are there still so many dissenting voices? It has been suggested in a Reuters Blog that students 'underestimate the scale of the intellectual scandal'. Looking at the press coverage, it seems the campaign also underestimates the scale of the intellectual spin. As Imre Lakatos might put it, the CORE has a  'protective belt' or positive heuristic which is more flexible and 'forges ahead with almost complete disregard of 'refutations' (Lakatos, 1980: p51).

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Campaigning for the long-run at the Post-Crash fringe

The fantastic Post-Crash Manchester held a fringe event to the Royal Economic Society (RES) conference. What better than a discussion between Victoria Chick and Diane Coyle? We heard their very different views on pluralism, on the openness of the RES and other institutional barriers to change.

For Diane Coyle, the problems are a 'gap' between between research and the curriculum, and a 'gap' in public understanding. While she accepts that some economists in the US might simply 'add a little bit of financial friction in DSGE models' she thinks it is a mistake to say that UK economics is monolithic.  Her vision of a pluralist curriculum was one motivated by questions and evidence, where history matters, economies are dynamic and we do not have a grand, unified theory that works in all contexts.

For Victoria Chick, the 'castle had been captured' by a scientific model, a 'mechanical elephant' that replaced dialogue between schools. Yet discussing the source of our differences, like the Sufi elephant in the parable, is much more informative. Economists used to agree to differ, and tell their own stories, but we learn less that way and 'the last thing we want to do is bicker and be indecisive'. Victoria said the same principles apply today between heterodox and mainstream economists.

In the workshop sessions, we had already swapped stories about barriers to change. Economics students at LSE take the very good LSE 100 course which asks big questions such as 'how should we manage climate change?' using 'different approaches to evidence, explanation and theory' from across the social sciences, but there are no credits awarded. At Glasgow, a six-week Post-Keynesian course by Alberto Paloni was being supported by undergraduate teachers. At Manchester, the heterodox economist who taught their 'Bubble, Panics and Crashes' course was on a temporary contract and 'let go' when the course was dropped. These are real barriers, with long-term impacts on those involved.

The audience questions about institutional barriers brought very different responses. Diane had already suggested that 'you only get one chance at this' because under the research excellence framework (REF) funding goes towards research, not teaching: she did not know how students could change the REF. Diane also disagreed that the direction of change at Manchester was too narrow, and thought that the RES was 'absolutely open to debate'. Victoria, on the other hand, found these institutional factors to be 'very problematic' with the general impression that the RES did not want to create space for discussion, a 'citation cartel' in economics and an 'invisible college'.

Diana had asked the meeting to 'appreciate efforts to reach out and help when it is there', yet I was left with the sense that other schools are being used but not recognised. If promotion depends on citation levels, yet you were not cited during the era of the 'mechanical elephant', you have already left the profession. Addressing this goes beyond research ethics, much as the RES could learn from the AEA. It requires recognition of key contributions despite their publication in heterodox journals. That requires discussion, humility and intellectual honesty. The system for promoting academics needs to be more flexible, and to reward and encourage innovative research and teaching.  For many in the room, these are campaigns that have, and will continue to take, a lifetime.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Avoiding bubbles with pooled funds

There's a simple formula which shows how a speculative bubble can grow. With present value (P) and a positive rate of return (r) to time (t) the value of the annuity (A) rises exponentially:

With a negative return the bubble tends towards zero. Since balance sheets have both assets and liabilities, there are four possible bubbles and anti-bubbles:

Financial Crisis Observatory (2013)

There are much richer mathematical possibilities to represent a return series, such as braid groups; the problem here is not so much the representation as the fact that there are bubbles. The uncertainty could be managed by simply pooling the tail risks, for assets and liabilities. The short-term characteristics are less susceptible to expectations, measurement errors and variance in the rate of return. Only as the future unravels do the long-term characteristics reveal themselves. The pooling of tail risks is a common insurance strategy and, when there is market failure, unravelling these long-term characteristics falls on governments and central banks.

Imagine, instead, if financial asset and liabilities were split into short-term and long-term annuities: the short-term being held privately, and the long-term being owned by a pooled or government fund. With an increase in the general level of risk, such as unmitigated climate change, the value of the long-term pooled fund would fall. With effective mitigation, the value of the long-term pooled fund would rise. If time (n) represents the length of the short-term annuity, the value of the long-term pooled fund to time (t) is approximately:

That gives the government or pooled fund a present value to assess risk mitigation projects. If the assets are firms or buildings at risk from climate change, the impact on the long-term value is what matters. Here, there is certainly scope for better maths and better estimates of the risks. Within this pooled fund we already have the tail risks for climate change, and assets that are absent from the national accounts: oceans, forests, air and water.

Whether or not private markets function at these longer maturities is highly unlikely. Poverty and high-risks are indistinguishable, because both are a preference for cash today. Long-term estimates for natural assets are heavily contested, such as the industry figures for carbon. There is no obvious private incentive to mitigate tail risks, except perhaps in a well-regulated and mandatory insurance market. Mitigation projects would convert an uncertain stream of insurance cash flows into a fixed sum: the higher value of the long-term annuity less the project cost. However, few (if any) firms and households insure events beyond next year, let alone beyond their lifetime.

So while pooling tail risks would seem to avoid the excesses of asset and liability bubbles, the quadruple problems of poverty, under-insurance, valuation errors and the government as an 'insurer of last resort' remain. There is no incentive for private interests to deal with tail risks. No-one will join a pooled fund today when they think they have the winning lottery ticket tomorrow. The politics will fail as long as the majority believe they are one step ahead of environmental and financial risks.

Financial Crisis Observatory. (2013). Financial Bubble Experiment. Available at:

Saturday, 7 December 2013

How to start a crypto-bank run

First published 7th December 2013
Updated 10th February 2014

A friend who is a crypto-currency evangelist gave me a Bitcoin a few years ago, which I jokingly accepted as a 'store of value' until the price bubbled* to over $1000. When I heard that China was banning direct trade in Bitcoins, I sold up and suggested my friend did, too. Yes, the flash-crash was China's fault. For a while I was tempted to roll the crypto-dice, buying Litecoins in expectation that Mt.Gox would start trading them; or arbitraging the exchanges**.

But I find it difficult to believe there is a 'natural price' or that 'par' will emerge from the chaos: I think insiders will profit and outsiders will lose. To exchange my Bitcoin I paid FOUR sets of fees: a percentage to the trading platform; a fixed spread to the settlement platform; an exchange rate fee from USD to GBP; and a transfer fee to a 'recognised' UK holder of GBP: total fees were over 10%.

Crypto-currencies have seen the most unexpected people jump into bed together: drug dealers, geeks, crypto-anarchists and libertarians. On the left, their anger is directed at private interests; on the right, it is directed at government.  But crypto-currencies look like Wildcat banking to me, with an unregulated network of international crypto-banks. There are multiple currencies and trading platforms, and you can buy derivativeslend and borrow.

Without anyone to uphold 'par' or regulate the crypto-banks the most obvious lesson is to have stronger regulation of the exchanges and crypto-banks. Today (10th February 2014) there was a flash crash on the BTC-e exchange where a Bitcoin was briefly worth $102. I think I had a lucky escape.


* This post on Bitcoins makes a good point about their self-reinforcing nature. The basic foodstuff of crypto-banks is the Bitcoin. If derivatives are settled in Bitcoin, and crypto-banks and firms are bought and sold in Bitcoins, their scarcity drives up the price and perpetuates the bubble. There are similarities here with GBP and USD, which might become less scarce if more trade were settled in other currencies.

** There is also an analogy with the 'carry trade'. For long periods there have been profits to be made if you buy on the Eastern Europe and Chinese exchanges and sell on MtGox (USD). This works best for insiders who can avoid bank fees (7% on PayPal).

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Are there policy alternatives to Ireland's austerity?

This is a response to the PKSG presentation by Stephen Kinsella on 19th November 2013.

In essence, the stock-flow-consistent approach is ‘to a very large extent an exercise in accountancy – or perhaps logic is a more congenial word’ (Godley, 1983). The paper by Stephen Kinsella extends this approach with a five sector model, estimated using OLS. Applying different spending and tax shocks, he concludes that Ireland's austerity could have been less severe.

Leading into the crisis, Ireland was running small government and current account surpluses. As expected under the 'New Cambridge hypothesis', the private sector ran a deficit. Unfortunately, this was due to investment in property rather than production. Remarkably, the assets and liabilities of the banking sector doubled between 2005 and 2008. 

Then, the Irish economy saw major shifts in the composition and direction of capital flows after 2008. Households became net savers, the foreign sector moved deposits our of Ireland and shifted to investment in equity. These effects are dwarfed, however, by government which, in the form of an IMF bridging loan, bailed out the financial sector (purple and red):

The 'run on deposits' followed the sale of Merrill Lynch to the Bank of America, on the same weekend in 2008 that Lehman Brothers collapsed. If the Federal Reserve had not prevented the collapse of AIG and Merrill had been left to fail, the story would be different: Bank of America is still being pursued by AIG for alleged fraud at Merrill. With the subsequent deleveraging, Irish banks are reporting costs higher than income and Merill looks the most fragile:

So while the paper recommends less austerity, the banking sector remains a risk for the Irish government. Yet fiscal policy is hemmed in by budget rules from the European Commission. The Treat of Maastricht requires that the government runs a deficit of no more than -3%, while the European Commission Alert Mechanism Report asks for a current account balance between -4% and +6%. Ireland has missed these targets every year since 2006:

The trajectory, above, suggests some uncertainty that Ireland will reach the green (private sector surplus) or red (private sector deficit) triangles (government deficit less than 3%, and a current account balance between -4% and +6%).

While the SFC model in the paper fits the data very well, like any SFC model it might be further disaggregated: in particular the treatment of shadow banking (ie: leverage); the derivatives book and the effects of currency and duration mismatch. Of course, such data are not readily available. Household spending might also be impacted by wealth, with realised and unrealised capital gains affecting behaviour to varying degrees: Minsky's hedging, speculative and Ponzi modes of financing. Ireland's low corporation taxes also encourage profit retention via foreign investment.

There are other policy alternatives for Ireland: having symmetrical rules for government budgets at the EU;allowing fiscal transfers from 'core' to 'periphery'; and similar mechanisms such that surplus countries pay towards adjustment costs. So as well as the risks from a weak household sector under austerity, there is a risk that foreign capital will dry up or reverse due to tax treaties or tax harmonization being imposed at the EU level. Not that there are many calls for this in Ireland. As Stephen put it succinctly: 'turkeys don't vote for Christmas'.

Wynne Godley (1983), Personal correspondence with J.K. Galbraith