Fiscal policy

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

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

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

What is to be done? This question has to be asked of UK economic policy. Only the complacent can be satisfied with what is happening. Yes, the 1 per cent increase in third-quarter gross domestic product is welcome. But GDP stagnated over four quarters and was 3.1 per cent lower than in the first quarter of 2008.

I remain convinced that the decision to move towards fiscal austerity so sharply in 2010 was a huge error. A salient aspect of the mistake was that the UK reinforced the move towards austerity in the EU. In an article entitled “Self-defeating austerity?” published in the October National Institute Economic Review, Dawn Holland and Jonathan Portes argue that UK GDP could well be 4.3 per cent lower this year and 5 per cent lower in 2013 than it would have been without these consolidation programmes, including the UK’s. Moreover, in 2013 the UK’s ratio of public sector debt to GDP might be 5 percentage points higher than it would have been without the co-ordinated contraction. This is a step forward and maybe two steps back.

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On May 10 2012, the yield on the German 10-year bund was 1.44 per cent, on the US 10-year Treasury was 1.85 per cent and on the UK 10-year gilt was 1.9 per cent.

These are extraordinary numbers. They are particularly striking in the cases of the US and UK, which unlike Germany, run very large fiscal deficits and are experiencing very rapid increases in public sector indebtedness.

This combination of falling government bond rates with very rapid rises in public sector indebtedness reminds us, of course, of the experience of Japan since 1990. (See charts below)

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I wrote a column on November 24 2011 entitled “Why cutting fiscal deficits is an assault on profits”. My point was summarised as follows: “If the government wishes to cut its deficits, other sectors must save less. The questions are ‘which ones’ and ‘how’. What the government has not admitted is that the only actors able to save less now are corporations. The government’s – not surprisingly, unstated – policy is to demolish corporate profits.”

This column was based on data for the sectoral financial balances in the UK and US. In this comment, I wish to elaborate on this theme, in three ways: first, I would like to show the charts from which my comments were drawn; second, I wish to describe the argument of a note by David Bowers of London’s Absolute Strategy Research (The Fiscal Risks to Corporate Free Cash Flow, November 17 2011), who has elaborated interestingly on this theme; and, finally, I want to consider the broader relevance of this way of thinking about macroeconomic adjustment. Read more