Tag Archives: fiscal policy

Solving the productivity puzzle

10 Oct

In recent days, there has been much “I told you so” in the air. The IMF has revised its forecast for growth in the UK, predicting that the British economy will grow more than it had expected in earlier forecasts. The French chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, had raised something of a storm in the UK earlier this year when he criticized the government’s austerity drive. Now that the UK appears to be growing more than expected, the British Chancellor George Osborne feels vindicated.

This squabbling over numbers points us to one of the problems with the austerity debate as it stands. Much of it has rested on forecasts and estimates. Projections of growth trends and government revenues three or four years down the line are notoriously difficult and yet both sides of the debate have claimed that their estimates make the most sense.  

This focus on numbers is particularly problematic in the UK as it detracts from the main issue. Newspaper headlines and public debate tend to focus on interest rate movements, the UK’s government-fuelled housing price bubble, the revision of growth forecasts that we have seen in recent days. What is not being discussed is the real mystery in the UK since the beginning of the crisis: the marked dip in productivity. Writing in the Financial Times, Chris Giles rightly points out that being so focused on the ups and downs of fiscal policy has meant we have missed the big issue of the UK’s productivity puzzle. Looking back at forecasts made in 2008, the main finding is that growth is much lower and inflation higher than was predicted.

 According to Giles, this tells us that the main problem in the UK is not a lack of demand due to austerity policies. Rather, “it suggests that something has gone wrong with the supply of goods and services in Britain” – this is what economists are calling the productivity puzzle and few have any explanations for it. Steve Nickell, a member of the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility committee, recently admitted that whilst there are many theories about this puzzle, there is still no coherent explanation for it (FT, 10/10/13).

One idea (see Charles Goodhardt’s article here) is that if employment is held roughly constant, then falls in demand will lead to falls in output, which will then depress productivity. Logically this holds: if the same number of people are producing fewer things, then their productivity (output per worker) will fall. Compared with previous recessions in the UK (early 1980s and early 1990s), employment has held up well. We have not seen the collapse in manufacturing employment that we saw in the early 1980s, for instance, which had the effect of boosting productivity. A feature of the 2008-2013 downturn in the UK has therefore been the protection of manufacturing capacity and the avoidance of massive liquidation and bankruptcies. The result has been a fall in productivity. In other countries, like Spain, where unemployment has mushroomed, productivity has risen noticeably. Why this job-rich recession in the UK? And what about other countries like Germany, who have also managed to hold up employment? Has productivity fallen there too?

Goodhart’s is one explanation amongst many others and it may not convince everyone. After all, unemployment in the UK rose from just over 5% in 2008 to 8% in 2010. Isn’t that enough to keep up productivity levels? If not, then how much is enough? Compared to the petty points scoring of Osborne and co, though, and the fixation on forecasts and projections that has characterized both sides of the austerity debate, this is what we should really be thinking about.

Fiscal rules and election campaigns

24 Sep

As the UK Labour Party’s annual conference kicks off this week, ideas are beginning to emerge about what Labour will offer in the run up to the 2015 general election. One of these ideas is to have the country’s independent budgetary body, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), to audit all of the pledges made by Labour in its election manifesto. Assuming that Labour’s tax and spend plans are found to be consistent with budgetary discipline and pledges on meeting deficit and public debt targets, the OBR would thus bolster Labour’s claims to responsibility and sound fiscal management.

This idea is nothing new for the Labour party. When Tony Blair carried his party to victory in 1997, he had promised to match Tory party spending commitments. This pledge had been intended to bury the long-standing image of the Labour party as a motley crew of profligate leftwingers. Over time, we have seen fiscal policy steadily depoliticized through the creation of fiscal councils and various fiscal rules, a development supported by the Left and the Right. The IMF estimated in 2009 that 80 countries in the world have adopted a fiscal rule of one kind of another. Debt brakes have been inscribed into constitutions in Germany and in Switzerland. In the UK, the OBR was created in order that government be made accountable to an independent body for its public spending. Elsewhere, fiscal councils with varying powers have become a common feature of the macro-economic policymaking landscape, as the table below highlights.

Fiscal Councils


Government Debt Committee (1997)


High Council of Finance (1989)


Parliamentary Budget Office (2008)


Economic Council (1962)


Council of Economic Experts (1962)


Fiscal Council (2008)*


Central Planning Bureau (1947)


Fiscal Council (2010)


Fiscal Policy Council (2007)

United Kingdom

Office for Budget Responsibility (2010)

United States

Congressional Budget Office (1975)

* Hungary’s fiscal council was dismantled in 2010

The European Union as a whole is organized around a set of budgetary rules that are policed and monitored by the European Commission, the so-called Fiscal Compact of 2012.  Monetary and fiscal policy are slowly starting to look alike as both policy areas come under the oversight of independent bodies of experts.

The idea of the British Labour party to submit manifesto promises to an independent audit takes this idea one step further. The message is clear: a promise made about spending by politicians is only credible if it has been overseen by a body of experts. Credibility and responsibility lies with apolitical bodies. Politics, itself, is the terrain of half-truths and misleading creative accounting.

One problem with this is the idea that once a policy has been given the stamp of approval by a body of experts, it becomes incontestable. Especially in the realm of fiscal policy, this is nonsense. Spending plans are notoriously subject to revision and change because they rest upon assumptions about the wider economy. Small changes in growth projections throw even the most carefully prepared and audited spending plans into disarray. That a party’s manifesto commitments are given the all clear by the OBR tells us little about what a party will do once in government. The OBR itself operates according to a set of assumptions about the maco-economy that are constantly subject to revision and change.

Another problem is that parties and governments that rely on monetary and fiscal rules set by independent bodies are in effect out-sourcing responsibility to these agencies. At the same time, these agencies – fiscal councils, central banks – only operate according to strict mandates set by politicians. The result is that neither the politicians nor the agencies accept the responsibility of making choices that are not right or wrong in any objective sense, but are based rather on what one believes is the right thing to do. This leaves us with a vacuum at the heart of politics. Ed Balls’ idea of auditing his campaign pledges brings that vacuum into the election campaign itself. Far from being a moment where rules are challenged and redrawn, the 2015 campaign risks becoming subject to the same rules and constraints that govern everyday politics today.

A word of advice to Ed Balls? It’s not because the OBR has given your policies the all-clear that voters will trust you. That will only come from building a direct relationship with them and engaging with them as citzens.

The Real Culture War II: Utopia, Austerity and the F***** C****

18 Dec

Yesterday we argued for carrying the culture war into the heart of the American political economy. We made the very broad claim that a defining feature of our economic culture is the acceptance of limits. This might seem like a strange thing to say. Surely the last decade was marked not by limits but by a failure to acknowledge them. Individuals, businesses and eventually governments borrowed well beyond their means. That, so the story goes, was what created the credit crunch and the stagnant new normal. It is certainly the narrative behind the growing deal, in which Republicans appear to be ‘conceding’ on some tax hikes while Democrats accept 5-10% cuts to Social Security.

But that narrative exactly misreads the role of credit and consumption. The expansion of credit was largely an attempt to overcome the limits of capitalism within capitalism. As is now common knowledge, the expansion of consumer credit presupposed stagnant wages:

Real Household Debt Wealth Income

And, as the graph shows, it began with sagging profit rates of the late 1970s – perhaps most famously marked by Volcker’s revanchist announcement that “the standard of living of the average American must decline.”


(graph from Robert Brenner, see also Henwood.) What the expansion of consumer credit permitted, in other words, was the appearance that capitalism could accommodate the expansion of desires, the demand for ‘more,’ even while suppressing labor costs and increasing the expropriation of the expropriated.

The expansion of credit over the past thirty years was in a sense a massive bridge loan to cover the transition to a leaner set of arrangements, in which more jobs would be low-paying, part-time and insecure, labor would be less able to defend attacks on the standard of living, ‘job-creating’ capital would take home a larger share of the pie and then basically sit on it, and politicians could pretend serious economic issues could simply be managed by technocrats.

The major problem with the credit crunch was not the attempt to surpass existing limits to consumption, but with the implicit practical belief that credit could in any way rise above and compensate for the class defeats of the past twenty years. Just as Obama has frequently tried to rise above politics in the name of some abstract non-partisan unity, so too did the borrowing public hope it could rise above the real disparities in society, without having to face them directly.

To put it another way, the ‘fiscal cliff’ is not just a false emergency engineered by Republicans and Democrats, it is the culmination of decades of attempting to paper over the limits, not merely injustices, of the American economy. It is not just that both parties have joined the austerity bandwagon, they in the process are attempting to neutralize the only utopian moment of the past few decades: the satisfaction of desires that the current society cannot satisfy. The expansion of debt would have been unlikely to succeed had that desire not been there to sublimate.

Of course, critics may say that many of these desires took a form not at all challenging to a consumer society. That criticism has some teeth, and we will take it up in tomorrow’s post. However, moving too quickly towards anti-consumerism not only misses the utopian moment, but also blurs quickly into the bland and conservative narrative of arguing we should do more with less. The starting point for an economic culture war must be to reject the austerity party and its culture of low expectations. Any reconstruction of meaningful alternatives must begin by rejecting that piece of our economic culture. After all, the so-called ‘solution’ of a grand bargain is really just a an attempt to throw back on society the political class’s own lack of imagination and inability to deal with the problems it has inherited.

(to be continued)

The Real Culture War, Or, The Ideological Mountain in front of the Fiscal Cliff

17 Dec

This is the first in a series following up on a previous post, in which we argued that the culture war should be carried into the heart of the American political economy, rather than presuppose the separation between culture and economics.

During the contest between Romney and Obama, lefties argued that the election was an instrument of political distraction. It focused attention on a false choice between Democrats and Republicans, which served mainly to narrow our sense of possibility and the full range of alternatives. They looked forward, therefore, to the day after the election, when ‘real’ politics could begin again. However, as the fiscal cliff debate reminds us, the American political system continuously produces and reproduces a narrow range of choices. How to cut trillions in dollars in spending in the midst of a post-crisis economic stagnation is a competition over who better fits in with the hegemonic idea of our time: limits.

What both sides agree on is that we have to expect less. The lesson of the past decade is people irresponsibly demanded more than the economy could provide, whether privately, through credit markets, or publicly, through state provision. Somehow we can only return to growth and progress by living within our means. Even the more significant recent expansions of the state – Obamacare in particular – have come with the rider that we should expect only the minimal humanization of capitalism, not its transformation. Extend health care to the poor, but don’t think that there could be a public option, and don’t even mention single payer.

Likewise, the fiscal cliff debate manufactures a climate of emergency that, in the name of sharpening the minds, just narrows our focus. While some liberals have fairly pointed out that fears about the cliff are exaggerated, and the product of wars and tax cuts issued the right-wing Keynesians of the Republican party, Democrats are just as much, perhaps more, the party of austerity. Even some liberals admit as much, though entertain the false hope that the party can be saved from itself. The oppressiveness of our political culture lies in its unrelenting ability to force upon us these limited choices, continually lowering our expectations. If there is a culture war to be had, it is this one.

(to be continued)



The Van Rompuy draft

28 Jun

This evening, heads of government will discuss a draft proposal put together by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and his team, prepared “in close collaboration” with the heads of the European Commission, the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank. Though it seems the terrain is already being prepared for an inconclusive summit, it worth looking at Van Rompuy’s draft to see exactly what is to be discussed.

The draft is striking by virtue of its conditional wording: there are many ifs, coulds, possiblies and maybies. The whole draft reads as a tentative and rather speculative account of what reforms the EU could take on board if it wanted to move forward with fiscal and monetary integration. There is none of the hubris or confidence one might find in earlier drafts produced by European institutions, confident of their authority and of member state compliance.

There are nevertheless a few measures that seem a bit more thought out and have a whiff of probability about them. One is the integrated supervision of banks, the so-called banking union. This measure seems likely largely because member states can all agree on the point that national regulators have been found wanting. Instead of national regulators that sign off on generous assessments of the state of national banks, something more robust is needed. What is surprising is that the draft – with the presumed agreement of ECB head, Mario Draghi – singles out the ECB as the institution most likely to take on this role. This is surprising because – as Dermot Hodgson as shown – the ECB is generally rather reticent about any attempt at expanding its competences. Far from being a power-hungry supranational actor, the ECB has shied away from taking on new roles. Its sole concern is its price stability mandate: anything else smacks of back-handed attempts at imposing some sort of political oversight onto the bank, a terrible idea according to mainstream central bank thinking. Either it has accepted this new role because it does see it as an opportunity to increase its power or it has had this forced upon it in some way. One reason may be a convergence between Draghi, Van Rompuy, Barroso and Juncker, on the need to set up this banking union in a way that avoids any messy involvement with domestic politics. By placing it within the ECB, Van Rompuy notes in his draft, existing treaty law (“the possibilities foreseen under Article 127(6) of the TFEU”, to be exact) should be sufficient. A tidy legal solution to a thorny problem, and one that Draghi can no doubt appreciate even if it means a slight expansion in the ECB’s remit.

On the “integrated budgetary framework”, another important chunk of Van Rompuy’s draft, it is obvious what might be accepted by national leaders and what remains pretty unlikely. The key suggestion is that stronger measures to control the upward end of government spending need to be introduced. Van Rompuy suggests that in the end “the euro level area would be in a position to require changes in budgetary envelopes if they are in violation of fiscal rules”. This begs the question of what the sanction would be exactly – probably, fines of some sort – but it also makes clear how the evolution of economic governance in Europe is following well-trodden lines. What is being suggested here is really a constitutionalizing of limits to what governments can spend: exactly what national governments have been discussing for some time and what former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had proposed in France.

The push to make excessive spending truly illegal is hardly new and the ideas are familiar to anyone who followed the events of the 1990s and the Maastricht criteria. Overwhelmingly, economic growth is assumed to come from private sector activity, supply-side reform and from a focus on exports. There is to be a minimal role for public spending in any national growth strategy. National government discretion with regard government spending, and especially the idea that market instability should be compensated by discretionary uses of the public purse, has little role to play in the draft. That the fiscal excesses were more consequence than cause of the present crisis, and were initially the result of massive wealth transfers in the form of bank bail-outs after the Lehman Brothers collapse, is not taken into account. Even the part of the draft that mentions a “European resolution scheme” to be funded by bank contributions – “with the aim of orderly winding-down non-viable institutions and therefore protect tax payer funds” – pales in comparison to the tax-payer funded European Stability Mechanism that is vaunted as a possible “fiscal backstop to the resolution and deposit guarantee scheme”.

What remain far more tentative are the parts that describe the issuance of common debt and the creation of a fully-fledged European treasury: ideas that are being firmly resisted by Chancellor Merkel. And the mention of strengthening democratic legitimacy is an afterthought in a draft that focuses on measures intended to restrict as much as possible the room of manoeuvre for nationally-elected representatives.

There is little evidence of federalizing ambition in Van Rompuy’s draft. The most likely measure – the banking union – is proposed in a way that avoids having to rewrite any existing laws. The suggestions about common budgetary rules are driven by national governments so lacking in authority that they need binding external frameworks in order to impose any sort of fiscal discipline on their own societies. The reaction to this end of week summit will most likely be disappointment at what is not in the final communiqué. But judging from Van Rompuy’s draft, the real problem is what is in it.

Was there austerity? Is there still?

22 May

As the Euro debate trades one nostrum for another, shifting from ‘pro-austerity’ to ‘pro-growth,’ it is worth asking ourselves what ‘austerity’ was about. After all, as Tyler Cowen and others have argued, if austerity means an absolute decline in spending, then that hasn’t happened. As this graphic from Veronica de Rugy shows, there has been an overall slowing of the growth rate of spending, with slight absolute declines in Spain, Ireland and Greece from 2009 highs:


But the graphic does not show dramatic cuts in real dollars. So is all this talk of austerity a ruse or rhetorical flourish? Is ‘austerity’ simply defined according to one’s economic preferences? That is sort of Cowen’s view, at least insofar as Cowen believes there is no good definition of austerity, which is why the word austerity just ends up measuring the distance between the amount of spending one thinks is correct relative to the actual amount of spending.

While the Left might be inclined to jump at Cowen et al.’s approach to austerity, it is worth separating a few things. Data on overall state spending blurs together at least two distinct issues – changes in popular consumption (and expectations about that consumption) as compared with the role of the state in managing capitalism. Increases, or non-dramatic decreases, in state spending are perfectly compatible with across the board belt-tightening when it comes to popular consumption. War-time austerity, after all, is just that – sudden increases in overall state-spending, but simultaneous limitations on popular consumption. The graph below shows the rapid increase in US public spending during WWII despite belt-tightening at home:

Given the long-term trend over the twentieth century of the state’s increasing involvement in managing various aspects of capitalism, it would be very surprising if state spending dramatically declined. But it can still remain the case that the state is withdrawing from various welfare functions, or limiting its role in maintaining popular consumption – either through direct redistribution or through employment programs.

Consider, for instance, the fact that, over the same period that Cowen et al. think there have not been ‘savage cuts,’ we have seen the US, Spain and Greece cut public employment. The US government, for instance, has cut about 586,000 jobs since the recession began. As Doug Henwood pointed out a month ago (and the WSJ later agreed), state and local cuts to employment are responsible for about 1 to 1.5% of the unemployment. Put another way, were it not for cuts in public employment, the unemployment rate would be closer to 7%, not 8.5%. The Greek agreement includes cutting 15,000 jobs, despite a 22% unemployment rate. A similar story can be told for Spain. So it is worth separating discussions of austerity from overall state involvement in the economy. Spending can remain constant or even increase even as the state imposes new limits on its willingness to support popular consumption.


The Unholy Alliance of Monetary Expansion and Fiscal Austerity: More for those who have, less for those who don’t

16 Jan

Anyone observing the course of macro-economic policy in industrial countries over the past few years cannot help but notice an over-riding pattern: monetary expansion, fiscal austerity. This is an unholly alliance, in which the most regressive form of stimulus tacitly underwrites a fiscal contraction that punishes the least well off for the financial crisis and subsequent economic stagnation. (Skip the next two paragraphs if you already know the basic facts.)

Consider first some well-known facts. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has pushed interest rates about as low as they will go, and says it will keep them at the lower bound until 2013. It has also engaged in two rounds of quantitative easing, first buying in 2008-2009 over $1 trillion worth of MBS (Mortgage Backed Securities) and agency securities, then in 2010 it bought $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds, as well as the less significant Operation Twist. These measures have, in a narrow sense, been somewhat successful, with the Fed making profits on its original asset purchases, recently returning $77 billion to the Fed. The easing of the 2008-2009 credit constraints has acted as a kind of stimulus to the US economy by increasing the money supply, though strong doubts persist as to any further marginal improvements the Fed can make (e.g. Here and here). Meanwhile, while the Fed has pumped like crazy, state spending has come under serious attack. To be sure, there was the initial roughly $800 billion stimulus in late 2008, but this was almost entirely offset by contractions at the state and local level. The contractionary trend continued in 2011 such that government employment was “down by 280,000 over the year. Job losses in 2011 occurred in local government; state government, excluding education; and the U.S. Postal Service.” And then there is the whole super-committee, trillions of dollars in savings issue waiting in the wings.

We find a similar story in Europe. There have been in some cases multiple rounds of austerity in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and so on, despite record level Eurozone unemployment and economic economic stagnation, verging on recession. Meanwhile, despite initial recalcitrance, the ECB not only has pushed interest rates low, it has begun quietly expanding its balance sheet, offering nearly $500 billion in cheap 3-year loans, and after the recent success of Italian and Spanish bond auctions, has suggested it will loan more money in February. Fiscal austerity, monetary expansion.

Now one perfectly reasonable response to this relationship between central banks expanding the money supply and central governments contracting demand is to say “thank God for the Fed/ECB! At least there is one sane institution left intervening in the economy.” And as a response to those banging the drums of austerity, who believe in ‘expansionary austerity’, or to those who think the Fed is the root of all evil, this is a perfectly reasonable response. Austerity makes things worse, and displaces the costs of the crisis onto the worst off; the Fed, though it is not a progressive institution, is not the root of all evil. However, there is more going on here than that.

For one, in the European case, the tradeoff has been explicit. Draghi held out for as long as he could, on the grounds that Europe had to get its fiscal house in order before the ECB would become more adventurous. Moreover, as Henry Farrell has pointed out, while the raison d’etre of central banks to be insulated from political pressure, what this really means is that they are insulated from the kinds of political pressure felt by elected representatives, i.e. democratic political pressure. They are not from political pressure tout court. Instead, they are influenced by those like them, who speak their language of expertise and money. This makes it much easier for them to propose ‘solutions’ that hurt the majority – who do not so easily understand financial matters, nor tend to produce expert knowledge about it. Which is why it is easy for them to be so nonchalant about fiscal austerity, and why one hears very little about how regressive stimulus through loose monetary policy is relative to fiscal policy.

Just a refresher on that last point because it is relevant. Those best able to take advantage of low interest rates are those with positive net worth, not to mention financial savvy, which is for the most part the wealthy. And it does so without forcing them to invest in any particular way (one of the reasons why it can be of limited use as stimulus – borrowers can just park their money in T-bills, Swiss francs, or some other safe asset, rather than invest in job-creating enterprises). Additionally, it indirectly helps the wealthies by boosting the stock market, and thus those who gain most from increases in stock values (regardless of the underlying employment situation.) Moreover, as Doug Henwood has pointed out, monetary stimulus does the least to disrupt the existing class structure. It increases the ability of private borrowers to spend without actually altering the ability of average workers to earn or increasing their bargaining power with employers. Fiscal policy, on the other hand, especially something like jobs programs, puts a floor under wages, increases demand for labor, and thus changes labor-capital relations. On top of which, it challenges employers’ claims that they should possess exclusive control over investment.

The unholy alliance between monetary expansion and fiscal austerity is more intricate yet. A further response to those who want to present central banks right now as the only sane actors is that their expansionary activity deadens the impact of the insanity. That is to say, even when central bankers argue there should be more fiscal expansion, as Bernanke is reputed to want, their expansionary monetary policy conceals the full damage of the fiscal policy. It gives even greater room for fiscal irrationality. In all, the unholy alliance amounts in practice to a kind of policy combination that serves to redistribute upwards: fewer social services and public benefits for majority, alongside a monetary policy that directly or indirectly benefits the wealthy. And this combination does little to address the underlying sources of the crisis and continued lack of employment/stagnating wages.

Finally, and this is the most difficult part of the unholy alliance to tease out, there is a deep-seated, tacit ideological dimension here. The willingness of central banks to engage in massive pump-priming seems to us to be conditional in certain ways on a certain balance of class forces. The balance is one in which working class demands are weak, expressed not just in more passive unions with lower membership, but in the wider ideological defeat of the idea that public power could be used to meet the basic needs of all and even to socialize investment. Central bankers, once called in to lower the American standard of living by raising interest rates, have been freely keeping interest rates low now that weak labor bargaining power practically eliminates fears about inflation (a reality to which German bankers have yet fully to adjust.) It is harder to imagine an expansionary monetary policy, at least of the magnitude that we have seen, in the midst of a more robust fiscal response by the state to protect the bargaining power and living standards of workers, not to mention in the midst of significant labor militancy. Insofar as the absence of strong political support for expansionary fiscal policy registers the wider political weakness of the Left, the unholy alliance speaks to the ideological hegemony of conservative economic views (despite the hand-wringing of certain Austrians and ‘end-the-Fed’ Randians.) While the credit crunch was supposed to have discredited economic orthodoxy, in fact it seems to have created the conditions for its consolidation. The result: easier money for those who have, less for those who don’t.

Interview with Arthur Goldhammer

29 Nov

As part of our ongoing series of interviews, we have today responses from Arthur Goldhammer. Art runs the excellent French politics blog, is on the editorial board of French Society, Politics, and Culture, and chairs the Visiting Scholars series at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. He is a writer and translator of more than 120 books from French to English, including a translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He has written and commented on both the US and European dimensions of the recent financial crisis, and we have asked him to elaborate his views.

What are the stories right now that you think people either aren’t paying enough attention to, or about which we have the wrong view?

I think we need to pay more attention to how the expansion of lending was financed by what Hyun Song Shin, Joe Danielsson, and Jean-Pierre Zigrand call “passive investors,” namely, household savers, value-oriented money market funds and pension funds (see here). Ben Bernanke called attention to a “global savings glut” due to the US-China trade imbalance, but Shin points out that the Chinese by and large did not buy risky mortgage-backed securities. Instead, he notes the existence of a “global banking glut,” as passive investors provided cheap financing that allowed European banks to expand their lending dramatically during the early 2000s. It was this intermediation of US funds through global European banks that fueled both the US mortgage bubble and the various bubbles that occurred in Europe.

Let’s turn to the Eurozone debt problem. The dominant view is that Greeks and Italians are corrupt, inefficient and lazy, and that is why they find themselves in this mess. What is your view of what is going on?

Low productivity and laziness are not the same thing. Greek workers in fact put in more hours per year than German workers, but they do not produce as much per hour of work because the German and Greek economies are radically different in structure. Given the low cost of government borrowing before 2009, however, the Greek government increased its purchases over many years, which drove up unit labor costs relative to Germany while putting money into the pockets of workers, encouraging them to buy imported goods. In other southern-tier countries, the details of the picture vary but the overall pattern is the same: wage-inflation in the south combined with wage-stability in Germany, where unions and management cooperated to foster export-led growth. Inevitably, this structural disparity reached its limit. To be sure, deficiencies in Greek and Italian governance contributed to the crisis, but they are not its root cause.

The standard recipe for the recovery from the Eurozone crisis is austerity and structural reforms in the peripheries, plus some recapitalization of banks. Do you think this is the right way to go?

“Structural reform” can mean many things. Too often it is simply a euphemism for “scale back the welfare state” and “make it easier to fire unwanted workers.” Clearly, a more far-sighted structural reform, oriented toward education, job training, and productivity-enhancing investment is needed to put Europe on a more balanced growth path. In the short run, austerity is harmful because it will reduce aggregate demand. The theory of expansionary contraction is wrong: business confidence will be undermined, not increased, by simultaneous fiscal retrenchment across the Eurozone.

What do you think would address the trade and debt imbalances between Northern and Southern Europe? Do you think it can be done within the European monetary order?

Germans need to consume more, save less, and agree to a fiscal union that will allow for transfers of wealth to poorer regions. Politically, however, the latter will not be easy to achieve, since Germans were assured when the euro was created that they would never be part of a “transfer union.” The German Constitutional Court might even veto any such proposal. This could doom the Eurozone. But German gains from the euro have been so substantial, and the costs of a collapse of the Eurozone would be so great, that it is possible to envision evolution on this point. I am not sure that it can come fast enough, however, to save the system, especially if the European Central Bank refuses to purchase sovereign debt on the primary market to keep Italian borrowing costs within reason.

The hegemony of the demand for austerity is striking. It is offered as the solution to the Eurozone crisis, as well as to the American situation – the US Congress even created a supercommittee to find savings. Yet it seems odd to have such agreement around austerity in the midst of a potential double dip recession. What is wrong with the demand for austerity? How do you account for the strength of this common sense?

It is not easy for people to think in terms of a general economic equilibrium. Politicians often fall back on homely household analogies: “a family cannot indefinitely spend more than it earns,” etc. Other simple homilies abound: “Debt got us into this mess, we cannot get out by piling on more debt.” The paradox of thrift is difficult to grasp. It is hard, moreover, for many people to place confidence in “the Keynesian solution,” because there is so much controversy over what it means. Keynesianism was only dimly understood during the Great Depression, and the immense deficits incurred in World War II were not taken on in virtue of an intellectual conversion to Keynesian ways of thinking. The so-called Keynesian demand management that took hold in the 60s is really a separate body of doctrine from Keynesian teachings about the liquidity trap, and demand management policies were discredited by the stagflation of the 70s. The economics profession itself is so far from consensus about Keynesianism in either normal times or liquidity traps that it would take a leap of faith for the average informed voter to countenance the vast deficit spending that some theorists say is necessary to restore growth. So things will have to get worse before practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are willing to put themselves deliberately into the hands of some defunct economist.

In the US, there is an influential view that we need to have continued expansionary monetary policy but contractionary fiscal policy. That seems to be the recipe of the moment, with the Fed even contemplating another round of quantitative easing. What do you think of this approach to inadequate demand and balance sheet problems?

I think that quantitative easing is helpful but that its operation is too slow and will eventually have to be supplemented by a more expansionary fiscal policy. The latter must be accommodated by monetary policy, but monetary policy alone cannot do the trick. Without growth, the Eurozone debt crisis will worsen, and “quantitative easing,” which has already occurred there, will have to take the form of monetization of the debt, which the ECB has thus far staunchly resisted. But the gallows will concentrate the minds of central bankers, unless political chaos erupts first.

Debt, especially mortgages and student loans, have become a major issue over the past few years. What if anything do you think should be done about it? How should we understand the growing debt of American households in the past decades?

I think the housing market will correct itself but the damage to millions of lives could be limited if the government were to take a more aggressive line on mortgage modification. Student debt is another matter because expectations about the returns from education change very slowly. Too much hope is being invested in education, and inevitably many students will emerge with more debt than their future incomes can justify, imposing a durable drag on the economy. Law schools may have over-expanded, for instance, turning out more lawyers than the economy can remunerate at the levels students expected when their students took on heavy tuition burdens. On the other hand, the high cost of medical care might be alleviated if our medical schools produced more doctors, increasing competition and thus reducing fees for service, but unless there is a corresponding decrease in the cost of medical school, the burden will be borne by the students. But an over-indebted graduate is not like an underwater homeowner. The graduate’s freedom will be inhibited if she can’t service her debt, but the only appropriate bailout is sweeping social change.

One thing that seems to tie the American and European situation together is the considerable growth of financial activity. Is there anything to the view that the last decades can be understood as a period of financialization? If so, what does it mean to say the economy has become financialized?

There is no doubt that finance-related activities have accounted for a growing share of GDP and that much of this activity has been unproductive. But how much? It’s hard to know, because efficient economic growth does require intermediation between passive investors and active entrepreneurs. We have also learned that regulation of finance is not always helpful because it provides incentives for capital to seek unregulated niches in which to operate less transparently. For instance, the Basel II banking regulations appear to have contributed to the growth of the “shadow banking system” implicated in the mortgage financing debacle. Governments have nationalized banking systems in the past without always achieving more transparent or efficient financing. Nevertheless, I think increased public oversight of leveraged institutions is inevitable. And I’m not sure that there is any justification at all for hedge funds and other leveraged private equity firms operating largely outside the regulatory structure that applies to banks. Given the over-representation of financial operatives in the very highest income brackets, increased marginal tax rates on top earners, recently recommended in this paper by Peter Diamond and Emanuel Saez, might, if not curtail financial activity, at least yield revenues that could be put to alleviating the damage.

Related to that question, what do you think accounts for the ‘bubbliness’ of the US and European economies, and especially the scale of these bubbles? We have seen a number of different bubbles and credit crises – housing bubbles in the US, UK, Ireland, and Spain; sovereign debt events in Greece, Portugal, and Italy, perhaps even France. While there was the dot come bubble in the late 90s, and the East Asian financial crisis, those don’t seem to have had the magnitude and systemic character as the latest period. What is, or isn’t, different about what we’re experiencing now?

I think that the scale of the bubbles is related to the “banking glut” discussed above. There also seems to be a “herd mentality” at work in investment banking circles, perhaps owing to the way in which bankers are recruited, trained, and rewarded. But I don’t know enough about these matters to offer specific recommendations.

How optimistic/pessimistic are you about the ability of national democratic procedures to provide solutions to the current economic crises in Europe and in the US? What do you think of the recent proliferation of technocratic governments in Greece and Italy? Does the current crisis expose some basic tensions between capitalism and democracy? If so, how exactly?

I do not believe that so-called technocratic governments will survive for very long. The question of capitalism and democracy is larger than I want to take up here. To be sure, the crisis has exposed the power of financial institutions to insist on their due and to exert pressure on democratic institutions. But the money that has been lent includes the savings of millions of ordinary citizens, whose interests deserve protection as much as, if not more than, the interests of the borrowers, who after all have benefited from the use of the loaned funds over a long period of time. Our normal democratic procedures, which are intended to reconcile large-scale conflicts of interest of this sort, do not function well in an international context in which complicated technical issues are involved. We must not, however, throw up our hands in despair, lest the comprehensible rage of those whose trust has been abused give rise to some regrettable reaction.

What are your views of the nascent protests (Occupy Wall Street, Indignados) developing in response to the introduction of austerity packages in Europe and the US? Are these movements a continuation of or a break with the anti-globalization movements of the past? Are they likely to fundamentally change public perceptions and government policy or will they have only a very small lasting impact?

I think the protest movements have called attention to growing inequality, which excessive borrowing had in part masked. I believe that the movements are new and to a large extent independent of anti-globalization actions. They reflect a desire for increased voice, especially for the young, in democratic polities that had become overly focused on freeing markets, reducing taxes and preserving benefits for the old. If the movements are to have lasting impact, however, they need to influence the electoral process, and I am not sure that they have the numbers, leadership, or organizational skills to do so. Finally, the most recent protests are only one among many signs of a more general crisis of legitimacy throughout the democratic world. Elites have claimed too large a share of productivity gains and too great a monopoly of life opportunities for their children. Without reform, the center cannot hold. Even with reform it may be too late.

What, finally, do you think the appropriate political response is to both these crises and their aftermath?

Although there will inevitably be political responses of many kinds, what is really needed, I think, is an intellectual response to guide the politics: there is clearly something wrong with our understanding of economics, especially in the areas of monetary systems and macroeconomic stabilization. Until we achieve new clarity in these areas, politicians will flail at problems whose origins they do not fully grasp, and people will demand solutions that are incoherent and therefore potentially destructive. We must be wary of our own certitudes. As we saw in the Great Depression, statesman convinced of the virtues of the gold standard acted in ways they believed were right but that we know were wrong. We are similarly in the dark and should therefore proceed tentatively, experimentally, until we are confident that we are moving toward the exit. In the meantime, income must be redistributed downward and elites must loosen their stranglehold on upward mobility through education.

The EU’s six-pack

3 Oct

Tomorrow, finance ministers from all EU member states will meet to formally vote on a new set of proposals drafted by the European Commission. Entitled the ‘new economic governance package’, these proposals have been in preparation for many long months. They have been worked on by an army of national experts in the Council and civil servants within the Commission. Government representatives in Brussels have been making sure that any disagreements are ironed out before ministers meet tomorrow to stamp the package with their approval. The package was already all but finalized at the last meeting of EU finance ministers in Poland (see relevant statement by the Polish Presidency of the EU here).

The economic governance package contains six new legal instruments (see here for a summary), hence it’s nickname, the ‘six-pack’. Its main goal is to tighten supervision over national government budgets. The philosophy underpinning the package seems to be that the current European crisis is the result of excess spending by governments (for why this is only a partial account of the crisis, see here). The proposals are thus designed to “lock-in” prudent fiscal policy through an array of rules and a tightened sanctions regime. Governments running excessive deficits, for instance, will only be able to avoid a sanction from the European Commission if the Council musters in return a qualified majority of votes against the sanction (the so-called “reverse voting mechanism”). The Commission’s supervision of government spending will be expanded to include overall government debt in addition to its existing role in supervising deficits. The package also includes a new ‘excessive imbalance procedure’: an in-depth review of a country’s economic situation undertaken by the European Commission at the demand of the Council. Based on the results of this procedure, the country concerned would have to present to the Council a plan for how to resolve these ‘excessive imbalances’.

As a measure of what will be the consequences of the Eurozone crisis, this is a good start. More dramatic developments may ensue as governments struggle to contain the consequences of a likely Greek default. But as far as the day-to-day running of the Eurozone goes, the measures proposed by the Commission are likely to form the horizon for macro-economic policy in the EU for the years to come. Looking at the proposals, we see that nothing fundamentally different is being proposed. The modifications point to a tougher regime of regulation of national economic policy, particularly as regards government spending. The connection between national finance and economic ministries and pan-European institutions of control and supervision will become tighter. And the scope for pressuring countries with budgetary difficulties will increase. Being a member of the EU won’t change dramatically, but it will become a meaner and harder-edged place. And the presumption of the package is simple and is consistent with the philosophy of the EU as a whole: bad behaviour by national governments is to blame; greater supervision by external, non-partisan authorities is the solution.

QE3 : US1

23 Sep

Ignored by all but market-watchers and anti-Fed types, the Fed gave tacit encouragement to a QE3 strategy this week. Stimulus in the worst possible way. In fact, for all the attention that Obama’s jobs program and proposed tax hikes have been getting, right now it seems like a lot of sound and fury. Whatever compromise is going to come out of it, it is likely to be a lot of small ideas whose whole will be less than the sum of its parts. The Fed, on the other hand, under Bernanke’s ‘leadership’ has decided to buy up $400 billion in long-term bonds and sell an equivalent amount of short-term bonds. This move, coordinated with interventions by the European Central Bank, has been dubbed ‘Operation Twist’ after a previous operation from the 1960s (explainer here). (Is there no area of social life immune from military metaphors? Though perhaps it does say something about the anti-democratic ways and means of the Fed…)

The idea seems to be that, coupled with a zero percent interest policy, this will inject liquidity into a stagnant economy on the verge of a double-dip, and stimulate employment-generating investment rather than just allowing extra cash to sit in T-bills. And it’s a politically acceptable way of injecting liquidity because it does not increase the balance sheets of the Fed, just redistributes its holdings as a way of ‘twisting’ the yield curve on bonds.

We’ve been here before. Many of the arguments (here and here) against expansionary monetary policy still apply. But it’s even more problematic than we first thought. First, it’s worth noting that, as Perry Mehrling has been tirelessly demonstrating, this is all QE3 but under the table, as it were. Just to remind ourselves, QE1 was the buying up of lots of toxic assets to try to clean up bank balance sheets, avoid an even worse credit crunch, and had some real rationale insofar as it helped avoid a panic. (Hence ‘US 1’ in our title  – we can accept this particular part as at least a necessity for the American economy). QE2 was the buying up of huge amounts of treasuries to drive down borrowing costs, and was much more dubious, not just because it increased the size of the Fed’s balance sheet but did little more than spark speculation on commodity prices.

Mehrling has identified two mechanisms through which ‘QE3’ is happening. The first, via the zero interest rate policy, is that private entities can borrow at zero and then reinvest that money in any asset with a positive return. (See, for instance, the recent rush to the Swiss franc). This is ‘privatized QE3‘ because it happens off the balance sheets of the Fed, via the expansion of private money – “private debts secured by the asset purchased.” The second mechanism, is via the expansion of eurodollars, or borrowing dollars from other banks that hold dollar reserves. Mehrling again: “The point is that QE3 is happening without any necessity for the Fed balance sheet to expand by a single dollar. It is happening on the balance sheets of other central banks.”

What’s the problem? Well, to begin with, as Mehrling himself observes, “The difference is that, since the Fed is not doing the trade on its own balance sheet, it has no control over which trades get made.” It can increase money supply, but it can’t tell people what to do with it. It certainly can’t force them to invest in creating things. And quite reasonably, given the absence of demand, corporations seem content to sit on their cash, or park it swiss francs or gold, rather than create jobs by investing in new production. As a way of dealing with unemployment, this is useless at best.

Worse yet, it seems like an aim here is to reboot the pre-crash system rather than change it. “The rationale behind lowering long-term bond yields is that it will enable homeowners to cut their borrowing costs, encourage greater borrowing and investment, while pushing more investors to leave government bonds and buy riskier assets.”

Invest in riskier assets? Cut borrowing costs for homeowners? This sounds like debt-financed asset-speculation, alongside debt-financed private consumption – ie the financial model of growth that got us into this mess. (And an incredibly inefficient and destructive way of providing people with homes, the only halfway decent thing to come out of this mess.) And, as Mehrling points out, since a lot of this QE3 mechanism is private in nature, “it looks like a repurposed shadow banking system” with the exception that the new asset on which to speculate has yet to be determined. (On shadow-banking, see this excellent piece by Kapadia and Jayadev). This is surely stimulus of the worst sort.

Finally, one defense of this kind of expansionary monetary policy is that it is a way of dealing with a balance-sheet recession in a way that also redistributes money. It helps correct balance sheets by inflating away debt, and inflating away debt helps households struggling to pay off credit cards and banks. As we’ve noted before, this narrative is decidedly flawed, because ‘debtor’ and ‘creditor’ are not uniform entities by any measure – they are certainly not the same as poor and rich, or worker and employer. But more to the point, inflating away credit is also a way of inflating away wages. The Census Bureau’s recent Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage report notes that the real median household income has declined by 6.4% since 2007, and is 7.1% below its 1999 peak. Remember that is median income, with a bottom that includes many more unemployed than before – 4-10% more depending on how you measure. When you add in the unemployed and underemployed, you have a much more serious decrease in household income (nevermind wealth, which has seen even more serious declines). When there is inflation alongside wage stagnation, what are households to do? Borrow! This really does look like system reboot, except in much worse economic conditions, without an asset to speculate on (yet), and with households already deeply underwater. QE3 : US 1.

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