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 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

The chart below comes from the Conference Board’s wonderful “total economy database”. It uses GDP per head, at PPP, in 2011$s (computed according to the Eltoto, Kovacs and Szulc method).

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In January 2004, I attended a property conference in Switzerland, to give a talk on the European economy. I talked about the end of European catch-up on US productivity levels. But the most interesting part of the conference was a workshop in which I argued that a number of European countries, the UK being one, had dangerous property booms.

The most dangerous of all, I suggested, was Spain’s, because it is a large European country which was experiencing a huge rise in property prices and, as a result, a huge boom in property development and a correspondingly overheated construction sector. The results could be extremely painful. This remark led to a heated altercation with a Spanish property developer. I understood why he was so angry. But he was wrong, of course.

The Spanish property sector created a huge boom and a huge crash. The big question is what the Spanish authorities should (or could) have done about it. Read more

“Against the background of renewed market tensions, euro area members of the G20 will take all necessary measures to safeguard the integrity and stability of the area, improve the functioning of financial markets and break the feedback loop between sovereigns and banks. We welcome the significant actions taken since the last summit by the euro area to support growth, ensure financial stability and promote fiscal responsibility as a contribution to the G20 framework for strong, sustainable and balanced growth. In this context, we welcome Spain’s plan to recapitalize its banking system and the eurogroup’s announcement of support for Spain’s financial restructuring authority. The adoption of the fiscal compact and its ongoing implementation, together with growth-enhancing policies and structural reform and financial stability measures, are important steps towards greater fiscal and economic integration that lead to sustainable borrowing costs. The imminent establishment of the European Stability Mechanism is a substantial strengthening of the European firewalls. We fully support the actions of the euro area in moving forward with the completion of the Economic and Monetary Union. Towards that end, we support the intention to consider concrete steps towards a more integrated financial architecture, encompassing banking supervision, resolution and recapitalization, and deposit insurance. Euro area members will foster intra euro area adjustment through structural reforms to strengthen competitiveness in deficit countries and to promote demand and growth in surplus countries. The European Union members of the G20 are determined to move forward expeditiously on measures to support growth including through completing the European Single Market and making better use of European financial means, such as the European Investment Bank, pilot project bonds, and structural and cohesion funds, for more targeted investment, employment, growth and competitiveness, while maintaining the firm commitment to implement fiscal consolidation to be assessed on a structural basis. We look forward to the euro area working in partnership with the next Greek government to ensure they remain on the path to reform and sustainability within the euro area.”


This was the section of this week’s G20 communiqué that dealt with the eurozone.

Let us examine it closely.

“Euro area members of the G20 will take all necessary measures to safeguard the integrity and stability of the area, improve the functioning of financial markets and break the feedback loop between sovereigns and banks.”

The crucial word here is “necessary”. We can safely say that agreement on what this means is altogether lacking. Read more

One of the salient characteristics of Germany’s policy-making in the eurozone crisis ‑ or, more precisely, of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel ‑ has been the view that time is on its side. In a noteworthy speech delivered in Italy on June 2 2012, George Soros, the investor and philanthropist, has challenged this notion directly.

In the penultimate paragraph, Mr Soros writes:

“. . .  The German public cannot understand why a policy of structural reforms and fiscal austerity that worked for Germany a decade ago will not work for Europe today. Germany then could enjoy an export-led recovery but the eurozone today is caught in a deflationary debt trap. The German public does not see any deflation at home; on the contrary, wages are rising and there are vacancies for skilled jobs, which are eagerly snapped up by immigrants from other European countries. Reluctance to invest abroad and the influx of flight capital are fuelling a real-estate boom. Exports may be slowing but employment is still rising. In these circumstances it would require an extraordinary effort by the German government to convince the German public to embrace the extraordinary measures that would be necessary to reverse the current trend. And they have only a three months’ window in which to do it (My emphasis).”

I believe Mr Soros is right on the amount of time left. Read more

A statue holds up a symbol of the euro in front of the European Parliament building in Brussels. Getty Images

A statue holds up a symbol of the euro in front of the European Parliament building in Brussels. Getty Images

The previous two posts Part 2 and Part 1 tried to explain why the sovereign debt of eurozone countries seem to be far more fragile than that of countries with their own central banks.

This issue is a relatively new one, so far as I know. But it is extremely important.

One of the questions raised in the subsequent discussions is why the possibility of illiquidity-induced default (as in the Spanish sovereign debt market) should be any different in impact from the possibility of a devaluation and inflation (as in the gilt market).

I have three suggested answers. Read more

I have noted in the first part of this blog that the debts of countries in the eurozone have suffered a very different fate from those outside the eurozone during the crisis. This is evident when one compares the yields on sovereign bonds of the UK with those of France, Italy and Spain, countries that on the face of it, have governments at least as solvent, if not more so.

So why has the experience of the eurozone members been so different and so painful and what can be done to remedy the problem?

There are two possible explanations, which are not mutually exclusive. Read more

Paul Krugman has an interesting blog on the New York Times website on austerity and growth in the eurozone. I thought it would be interesting to examine the question, using the latest data from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database.

I have defined the fiscal tightening as the percentage point change in the structural (or cyclically-adjusted) general government deficit from 2008, the year of the crisis, to the forecast for 2012. The assumption is that this change represents the results of policy, rather then cyclical effects. I have taken growth as being the proportional change in GDP from 2008 to 2012. Read more

The answer to this question is an unambiguous “yes”. It is not possible, it is true, to have a currency crisis inside a currency union, provided the currency union is credible, though currency risk returns, implicitly, as soon as it is not. But balance-of-payments and currency crises are NOT the same thing. A balance-of-payments crisis can show itself in a currency union in one (or, more likely, both) of two ways: as a credit crisis or as a regional economic slump.

The fundamental point was made by the British economist, Tony Thirlwall, in a column entitled “Emu is no cure for problems with the balance of payments”, in the Financial Times of October 9 1991. In this he was responding to the then widespread argument that “we don’t talk about the balance of payments difficulties of Scotland, Wales and the North of England, or of Sicily and Apulia. But this does not mean that they don’t exist.”

Let us start at the most basic level: that of the individual. Can individuals have a balance of payments crisis? Certainly. Read more

What do eurozone leaders want most at the meeting of the World Economic Forum? To cease being viewed as the source of global economic threats and return to being a source of economic solutions. It is far more fun – let alone more dignified – to lecture others on their faults than to be lectured on one’s own. It is even more humiliating when those lectures are thoroughly deserved.

Unfortunately for the eurozone, there is no chance that its policymakers will escape blame in Davos. They will argue that they are on the way to a resolution. Alas, the more percipient of them, as well as their peers from around the world, know they are not. Their visit to the Swiss mountains will be a discomforting experience.

The eurozone is almost universally regarded as the source of the pre-eminent threat of an economic meltdown. The risk is that both banks and sovereigns could default, probably triggering – or triggered by – a partial or complete break-up of the eurozone. Such a wreck may still be regarded as unlikely, but it is no longer inconceivable.

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What can we see in the world economy in 2012? Risks galore, is the answer.

The debt crisis of the high-income countries is already four and a half years old. Yet it shows no sign of abating, particularly in the eurozone. While emerging and developing countries are in reasonably robust condition, they would be vulnerable to an intensification of the crisis, which could hit them via several channels: trade, finance and remittances. Many countries – both high-income and developing – are in a weaker condition than they were in 2008 and would, accordingly, find it harder to respond effectively.

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AP/Bernd Kammerer

AP/Bernd Kammerer

In the most recent post, I discussed the fullest analysis yet by Hans-Werner Sinn (together with Timo Wollmershäuser), president of the Ifo Institute in Munich, of the role of the European System of Central Banks in funding the balance of payments imbalances inside the eurozone.

While this post elicited many interesting comments, none, I believe, invalidated Professor Sinn’s basic thesis, which is that monetary financing of the balance of payments (ie the current account deficit, plus net private capital flows) is large, growing and decisive in sustaining imbalances inside the eurozone.

Prof Sinn’s work has attracted much controversy. But this is not, in my view, because it is fundamentally wrong (although I think he did initially exaggerate the problems created for managing money and credit in Germany itself), but because it reveals what many policymakers and observers would like to conceal. Read more

Mario Draghi

Mario Draghi, December 8, 2011. Image by Getty.

Will the European Central Bank save the eurozone? This is an extremely controversial question. What is clear, however, is that the central bank is the only entity with the capacity and the calling to do so. Without the euro, the ECB ceases to exist. That is true of no other eurozone institution. It gives it the incentive to act. It is also acting on a large scale.

The resistance to funding governments by purchasing bonds on a large scale, even in secondary markets, remains strong, as Mario Draghi, the new president of the ECB made plain in his interview with the FT on December 18.

Nevertheless, he argued, the ECB took important action the week before:

“We cut the main interest rate by 25 basis points. We announced two long-term refinancing operations, which for the first time will last three years. We halved the minimum reserve ratio from 2 per cent to 1 per cent. We broadened collateral eligibility rules. Finally, the ECB governing council agreed that the ECB would act as an agent for the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).”

Thus the ECB is determined to fund banks freely, at low rates of interest, thereby subsidising them directly and the governments they lend to, indirectly. Read more

Iceland was the first country devastated by the financial crisis. Lehman Brothers failed on September 15 2008. By October 9, its three big banks – Glitnir, Landesbanki and Kaupthing – had collapsed. The UK government seized Landesbanki UK under anti-terror laws, while Gordon Brown, the prime minister, threatened to seize Icelandic assets in the UK. On October 24, Iceland agreed a deal with the International Monetary Fund.

On October 27 2011, I attended a conference jointly organised by the IMF and the government of Iceland to celebrate Iceland’s graduation from the programme and evaluate the outcome of the rescue. I also moderated the final panel.

The programme remains controversial. Jón Daníelsson of the London School of Economics presented a critique during the conference. Others presented critiques from outside.

What happened to Iceland is clear: its banks ran amuck. Read more

“You can’t cut debt by borrowing.” How often have you read or heard this comment from “austerians” (a nice variant on “Austrians”), who complain about the huge fiscal deficits that have followed the financial crisis? The obvious response is: so what?  Read more

The future of fiscal policy was intensely debated in the FT last week. In this Exchange, I want to examine what is going on in the US and, in particular, what is going on inside the Republican party. This matters for the US and, because the US remains the world’s most important economy, it also matters greatly for the world.

My reading of contemporary Republican thinking is that there is no chance of any attempt to arrest adverse long-term fiscal trends should they return to power. Moreover, since the Republicans have no interest in doing anything sensible, the Democrats will gain nothing from trying to do much either. That is the lesson Democrats have to draw from the Clinton era’s successful frugality, which merely gave George W. Bush the opportunity to make massive (irresponsible and unsustainable) tax cuts. In practice, then, nothing will be done.

Indeed, nothing may be done even if a genuine fiscal crisis were to emerge. According to my friend, Bruce Bartlett, a highly informed, if jaundiced, observer, some “conservatives” (in truth, extreme radicals) think a federal default would be an effective way to bring public spending they detest under control. It should be noted, in passing, that a federal default would surely create the biggest financial crisis in world economic history.

To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.

The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch? Read more