Fiscal policy

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