The house price boom that has been present in most Chinese cities since the early 2000s has triggered substantial interest in the role that China’s housing policy plays in its housing market and macroeconomy, with an extensive literature employing both empirical and theoretical perspectives developed over the past decade. This research finds that the privatization of China’s housing market, which encouraged households living in state-owned housing to purchase their homes at prices far below their market value, contributed to a rapid increase in homeownership beginning in the mid-1990s. Housing market privatization also has led to a significant increase in both housing and nonhousing consumption, but these benefits are unevenly distributed across households. With the policy goal of making homeownership affordable for the average household, the Housing Provident Fund contributes positively to homeownership rates. By contrast, the effectiveness of housing policies to make housing affordable for low-income households has been weaker in recent years. Moreover, a large body of empirical research shows that the unintended consequences of housing market privatization have been a persistent increase in housing prices since the early 2000s, which has been accompanied by soaring land prices, high vacancy rates, and high price-to-income and price-to-rent ratios. The literature has differing views regarding the sustainability of China’s housing boom. On a theoretical front, economists find that rising housing demand, due to both consumption and investment purposes, is important to understanding China’s prolonged housing boom, and that land-use policy, which influences the supply side of the housing market, lies at the center of China’s housing boom. However, regulatory policies, such as housing purchase restrictions and property taxes, have had mixed effects on the housing market in different cities. In addition to China’s housing policy and its direct effects on the nation’s housing market, research finds that China’s housing policy impacts its macroeconomy via the transmission of house price dynamics into the household and corporate sectors. High housing prices have a heterogenous impact on the consumption and savings of different types of households but tend to discourage household labor supply. Meanwhile, rising house prices encourage housing investment by non–real-estate firms, which crowds out nonhousing investment, lowers the availability of noncollateralized business loans, and reduces productive efficiency via the misallocation of capital and managerial talent.
Florian Exler and Michèle Tertilt
Consumer debt is an important means for consumption smoothing. In the United States, 70% of households own a credit card, and 40% borrow on it. When borrowers cannot (or do not want to) repay their debts, they can declare bankruptcy, which provides additional insurance in tough times. Since the 2000s, up to 1.5% of households declared bankruptcy per year. Clearly, the option to default affects borrowing interest rates in equilibrium. Consequently, when assessing (welfare) consequences of different bankruptcy regimes or providing policy recommendations, structural models with equilibrium default and endogenous interest rates are needed. At the same time, many questions are quantitative in nature: the benefits of a certain bankruptcy regime critically depend on the nature and amount of risk that households bear. Hence, models for normative or positive analysis should quantitatively match some important data moments. Four important empirical patterns are identified: First, since 1950, consumer debt has risen constantly, and it amounted to 25% of disposable income by 2016. Defaults have risen since the 1980s. Interestingly, interest rates remained roughly constant over the same time period. Second, borrowing and default clearly depend on age: both measures exhibit a distinct hump, peaking around 50 years of age. Third, ownership of credit cards and borrowing clearly depend on income: high-income households are more likely to own a credit card and to use it for borrowing. However, this pattern was stronger in the 1980s than in the 2010s. Finally, interest rates became more dispersed over time: the number of observed interest rates more than quadrupled between 1983 and 2016. These data have clear implications for theory: First, considering the importance of age, life cycle models seem most appropriate when modeling consumer debt and default. Second, bankruptcy must be costly to support any debt in equilibrium. While many types of costs are theoretically possible, only partial repayment requirements are able to quantitatively match the data on filings, debt levels, and interest rates simultaneously. Third, to account for the long-run trends in debts, defaults, and interest rates, several quantitative theory models identify a credit expansion along the intensive and extensive margin as the most likely source. This expansion is a consequence of technological advancements. Many of the quantitative macroeconomic models in this literature assess welfare effects of proposed reforms or of granting bankruptcy at all. These welfare consequences critically hinge on the types of risk that households face—because households incur unforeseen expenditures, not-too-stringent bankruptcy laws are typically found to be welfare superior to banning bankruptcy (or making it extremely costly) but also to extremely lax bankruptcy rules. There are very promising opportunities for future research related to consumer debt and default. Newly available data in the United States and internationally, more powerful computational resources allowing for more complex modeling of household balance sheets, and new loan products are just some of many promising avenues.
Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann
Economic growth determines the future well-being of society, but finding ways to influence it has eluded many nations. Empirical analysis of differences in growth rates reaches a simple conclusion: long-run growth in gross domestic product (GDP) is largely determined by the skills of a nation’s population. Moreover, the relevant skills can be readily gauged by standardized tests of cognitive achievement. Over the period 1960–2000, three-quarters of the variation in growth of GDP per capita across countries can be accounted for by international measures of math and science skills. The relationship between aggregate cognitive skills, called the knowledge capital of a nation, and the long-run growth rate is extraordinarily strong. There are natural questions about whether the knowledge capital–growth relationship is causal. While it is impossible to provide conclusive proof of causality, the existing evidence makes a strong prima facie case that changing the skills of the population will lead to higher growth rates. If future GDP is projected based on the historical growth relationship, the results indicate that modest efforts to bring all students to minimal levels will produce huge economic gains. Improvements in the quality of schools have strong long-term benefits. The best way to improve the quality of schools is unclear from existing research. On the other hand, a number of developed and developing countries have shown that improvement is possible.
The links of international reserves, exchange rates, and monetary policy can be understood through the lens of a modern incarnation of the “impossible trinity” (aka the “trilemma”), based on Mundell and Fleming’s hypothesis that a country may simultaneously choose any two, but not all, of the following three policy goals: monetary independence, exchange rate stability, and financial integration. The original economic trilemma was framed in the 1960s, during the Bretton Woods regime, as a binary choice of two out of the possible three policy goals. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, emerging markets and developing countries found that deeper financial integration comes with growing exposure to financial instability and the increased risk of “sudden stop” of capital inflows and capital flight crises. These crises have been characterized by exchange rate instability triggered by countries’ balance sheet exposure to external hard currency debt—exposures that have propagated banking instabilities and crises. Such events have frequently morphed into deep internal and external debt crises, ending with bailouts of systemic banks and powerful macro players. The resultant domestic debt overhang led to fiscal dominance and a reduction of the scope of monetary policy. With varying lags, these crises induced economic and political changes, in which a growing share of emerging markets and developing countries converged to “in-between” regimes in the trilemma middle range—that is, managed exchange rate flexibility, controlled financial integration, and limited but viable monetary autonomy. Emerging research has validated a modern version of the trilemma: that is, countries face a continuous trilemma trade-off in which a higher trilemma policy goal is “traded off” with a drop in the weighted average of the other two trilemma policy goals. The concerns associated with exposure to financial instability have been addressed by varying configurations of managing public buffers (international reserves, sovereign wealth funds), as well as growing application of macro-prudential measures aimed at inducing systemic players to internalize the impact of their balance sheet exposure on a country’s financial stability. Consequently, the original trilemma has morphed into a quadrilemma, wherein financial stability has been added to the trilemma’s original policy goals. Size does matter, and there is no way for smaller countries to insulate themselves fully from exposure to global cycles and shocks. Yet successful navigation of the open-economy quadrilemma helps in reducing the transmission of external shock to the domestic economy, as well as the costs of domestic shocks. These observations explain the relative resilience of emerging markets—especially in countries with more mature institutions—as they have been buffered by deeper precautionary management of reserves, and greater fiscal and monetary space. We close the discussion noting that the global financial crisis, and the subsequent Eurozone crisis, have shown that no country is immune from exposure to financial instability and from the modern quadrilemma. However, countries with mature institutions, deeper fiscal capabilities, and more fiscal space may substitute the reliance on costly precautionary buffers with bilateral swap lines coordinated among their central banks. While the benefits of such arrangements are clear, they may hinge on the presence and credibility of their fiscal backstop mechanisms, and on curbing the resultant moral hazard. Time will test this credibility, and the degree to which risk-pooling arrangements can be extended to cover the growing share of emerging markets and developing countries.
Moussa P. Blimpo, Admasu Asfaw Maruta, and Josephine Ofori Adofo
Well-functioning institutions are essential for stable and prosperous societies. Despite significant improvement during the past three decades, the consolidation of coherent and stable institutions remains a challenge in many African countries. There is a persistent wedge between the de jure rules, the observance of the rules, and practices at many levels. The wedge largely stems from the fact that the analysis and design of institutions have focused mainly on a top-down approach, which gives more prominence to written laws. During the past two decades, however, a new strand of literature has emerged, focusing on accountability from the bottom up and making institutions more responsive to citizens’ needs. It designs and evaluates a mix of interventions, including information provision to local communities, training, or outright decentralization of decision-making at the local level. In theory, accountability from the bottom up may pave the way in shaping the institutions’ nature at the top—driven by superior localized knowledge. The empirical findings, however, have yielded a limited positive impact or remained mixed at best. Some of the early emerging regularities showed that information and transparency alone are not enough to generate accountability. The reasons include the lack of local ownership and the power asymmetry between the local elites and the people. Some of the studies have addressed many of these constraints at varying degrees without much improvement in the outcomes. A simple theoretical framework with multiple equilibria helps better understand this literature. In this framework, the literature consists of attempts to mobilize, gradually or at once, a critical mass to shift from existing norms and practices (inferior equilibrium) into another set of norms and practices (superior equilibrium). Shifting an equilibrium requires large and/or sustained shocks, whereas most interventions tend to be smaller in scope and short-lived. In addition, accountability at the bottom is often neglected relative to rights. If norms and practices within families and communities carry similar features as those observed at the top (e.g., abuse of one’s power), then the core of the problem is beyond just a wedge between the ruling elite and the citizens.
“Reform” in the economics literature refers to changes in government policies or institutional rules because status-quo policies and institutions are not working well to achieve the goals of economic wellbeing and development. Further, reform refers to alternative policies and institutions that are available which would most likely perform better than the status quo. The main question examined in the “political economy of reform” literature has been why reforms are not undertaken when they are needed for the good of society. The succinct answer from the first generation of research is that conflict of interest between organized socio-political groups is responsible for some groups being able to stall reforms to extract greater private rents from status-quo policies. The next generation of research is tackling more fundamental and enduring questions: Why does conflict of interest persist? How are some interest groups able to exert influence against reforms if there are indeed large gains to be had for society? What institutions are needed to overcome the problem of credible commitment so that interest groups can be compensated or persuaded to support reforms? Game theory—or the analysis of strategic interactions among individuals and groups—is being used more extensively, going beyond the first generation of research which focused on the interaction between “winners” and “losers” from reforms. Widespread expectations, or norms, in society at large, not just within organized interest groups, about how others are behaving in the political sphere of making demands upon government; and, beliefs about the role of public policies, or preferences for public goods, shape these strategic interactions and hence reform outcomes. Examining where these norms and preferences for public goods come from, and how they evolve, are key to understanding why conflict of interest persists and how reformers can commit to finding common ground for socially beneficial reforms. Political markets and institutions, through which the leaders who wield power over public policy are selected and sanctioned, shape norms and preferences for public goods. Leaders who want to pursue reforms need to use the evidence in favor of reforms to build broad-based support in political markets. Contrary to the first generation view of reforms by stealth, the next generation of research suggests that public communication in political markets is needed to develop a shared understanding of policies for the public good. Concomitantly, the areas of reform have circled from market liberalization, which dominated the 20th century, back to strengthening governments to address problems of market failure and public goods in the 21st century. Reforms involve anti-corruption and public sector management in developing countries; improving health, education, and social protection to address persistent inequality in developed countries; and regulation to preserve competition and to price externalities (such as pollution and environmental depletion) in markets around the world. Understanding the functioning of politics is more important than ever before in determining whether governments are able to pursue reforms for public goods or fall prey to corruption and populism.
Jeanet Sinding Bentzen
Economics of religion is the application of economic methods to the study of causes and consequences of religion. Ever since Max Weber set forth his theory of the Protestant ethic, social scientists have compared socioeconomic differences across Protestants and Catholics, Muslims, and Christians, and more recently across different intensities of religiosity. Religiosity refers to an individual’s degree of religious attendance and strength of beliefs. Religiosity rises with a growing demand for religion resulting from adversity and insecurity or a surging supply of religion stemming from increasing numbers of religious organizations, for instance. Religiosity has fallen in some Western countries since the mid-20th century, but has strengthened in several other societies around the world. Religion is a multidimensional concept, and religiosity has multiple impacts on socioeconomic outcomes, depending on the dimension observed. Religion covers public religious activities such as church attendance, which involves exposure to religious doctrines and to fellow believers, potentially strengthening social capital and trust among believers. Religious doctrines teach belief in supernatural beings, but also social views on hard work, refraining from deviant activities, and adherence to traditional norms. These norms and social views are sometimes orthogonal to the general tendency of modernization, and religion may contribute to the rising polarization on social issues regarding abortion, LGBT rights, women, and immigration. These norms and social views are again potentially in conflict with science and innovation, incentivizing some religious authorities to curb scientific progress. Further, religion encompasses private religious activities such as prayer and the particular religious beliefs, which may provide comfort and buffering against stressful events. At the same time, rulers may exploit the existence of belief in higher powers for political purposes. Empirical research supports these predictions. Consequences of higher religiosity include more emphasis on traditional values such as traditional gender norms and attitudes against homosexuality, lower rates of technical education, restrictions on science and democracy, rising polarization and conflict, and lower average incomes. Positive consequences of religiosity include improved health and depression rates, crime reduction, increased happiness, higher prosociality among believers, and consumption and well-being levels that are less sensitive to shocks.