Monthly Archives: May 2013

The UK Treasury considers John Maynard Keynes to be an idiot. He famously said that “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity”. The Treasury rejects this view. As so often before, it is wrong.

This debate of the 1930s has been reborn, with Keynes’ role being taken by the International Monetary Fund. In April’s World Economic Outlook, the IMF stated that in the UK, “where recovery is weak owing to lacklustre demand, consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path”. Read more

On Monday 13th May, I participated in a debate on austerity organised by the New York Review of Books, held in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. The motion was: “Austerity in the Eurozone and the UK: Kill or Cure?”. Those arguing in defence of austerity were Meghnad (Lord) Desai and Sir John Redwood MP. On my side was Lord (Robert) Skidelsky. Here is the speech I presented – a version of which was published in the New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013, Volume 60, Number 12. It can also be found at www.nybooks.com. Read more

Humanity has decided to yawn and let the real and present dangers of climate change mount. That was the argument I made in last week’s column. Nothing in the responses to it undermined that conclusion. If anything, they reinforced it. Judged by the world’s inaction, climate sceptics have won. That makes their sense of grievance more remarkable. For the rest of us, the question that remains is whether anything can still be done and, if so, what?

In considering this issue, a rational person should surely recognise the extent of the consensus of climate scientists on the hypothesis of man-made warming. An analysis of abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed scientific papers, published between 1991 and 2011 and written by 29,083 authors, concludes that 98.4 per cent of authors who took a position endorsed man-made (anthropogenic) global warming, 1.2 per cent rejected it and 0.4 per cent were uncertain. Similar ratios emerged from alternative analyses of the data. Read more

The UK Treasury is, it is reported, considering the sale of parts of its student loan book. This provokes a big question: when should the UK government sell such an asset – given that it is both immortal and solvent?

The best answer has two parts. First, it must be believed that the asset would be better managed by the private sector. And, second, it must be believed that this superior private management can only be introduced by selling the assets – rather than introducing some type of private management contract. Read more

Last week the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was reported to have passed 400 parts per million for the first time in 4.5m years. It is also continuing to rise at a rate of about 2 parts per million every year. On the present course, it could be 800 parts per million by the end of the century. Thus, all the discussions of mitigating the risks of catastrophic climate change have turned out to be empty words.

Collectively, humanity has yawned and decided to let the dangers mount. Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College in London, notes that when the concentrations were last this high, “the world was warmer on average by three or four degrees Celsius than it is today. There was no permanent ice sheet on Greenland, sea levels were much higher, and the world was a very different place, although not all of these differences may be directly related to CO2 levels.” Read more

A commenter, A.N., objects to my argument that the big reason for the explosion in government bond yields in Spain was not its debt dynamics, which are remarkably like the UK’s, but because it does not have a lender of last resort, as the UK does.

He responds that the debt dynamics of France and Germany were just like Spain’s. But they were not similarly punished. In any case, the facts are clearly otherwise. These are the relevant data for the three mentioned countries. It is quite clear that Spanish debt dynamics are far worse than those of France and Germany. Read more

Roger Altman of Evercore partners is a friend of mine, a distinguished public servant and a respected financial expert. But his column “Blame bond markets, not politicians, for austerity” is, in my view, gravely mistaken. Read more

I recently looked at what happened to private financial balances inside the eurozone. Today’s post looks at what happened to the current account deficits. It fills out the broad story of the eurozone’s across-the-board shift into becoming a very large capital exporter. It is complementary to an excellent post by Gavyn Davies, who addresses the sources of the ongoing adjustment.

As it happens Michael Pettis, professor at Peking University, and author of the excellent book, The Great Rebalancing (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013) has a complementary post.

In this, he argues that Spain had no choice over what happened to it during the 2000-07 period, given the deliberate policies of Germany, which were aimed at generating a large current account surplus (“improving competitiveness” being the normal way of talking about this form of structural mercantilism). If one’s principal trading partner is seeking to generate a huge current account surplus and so exporting capital, he argues, then a country is effectively forced into running the counterpart deficits, whatever the consequences.

I agree with this analysis of what happened. Indeed, I have argued along these lines for several years, in trying to explain the roots of the eurozone crisis, which is a balance-of-payments cum financial crisis, of which fiscal deficits are a symptom, not, except in the case of Greece, a cause. Read more