Britain is losing the economic Olympics
As London prepares for another display of British pageantry and good humor to match the unlikely triumph of last month’s rain-sodden Royal Jubilee, a less impressive aspect of Britain’s stoical “stiff upper lip” may detract from the national pride associated with hosting the Olympics. In the global race out of recession, Britain has just been revealed as a prime contender for the wooden spoon.
Not only was the shocking drop of 0.7 percent in Britain’s second-quarter GDP reported on Wednesday much bigger than investors and independent economists had expected but it almost matched the 0.8 percent fall in Italy’s GDP the previous quarter. And that Italian drop holds the record for the biggest quarterly contraction suffered by any G7 country since the immediate aftermath of the Lehman crisis. Much more important than such statistical trivia is the fact that Britain’s economic output is still 4.5 percent below the peak level it reached in the first quarter of 2008, more than four years ago. The U.S. and German economies, by contrast, are now significantly bigger than they were before the crisis and, in this sense at least, have left the recession behind them. And even the euro zone as a whole, despite the severity of its financial crisis, has done much better than Britain, with GDP just 2 percent below its peak in 2008.
National economic performance is not, of course, a competitive Olympic sport, and there is more to economic success than GDP growth. Still, there is a good reason for connecting the Olympics with economics: International competitions and comparisons can teach useful lessons and create incentives to improve economic management.
The most instructive international comparison at present is between the British and American efforts to clamber out of recession and financial crisis. This race is about as close as economics can get to a controlled experiment of the kind favored by natural scientists, in which sharply different policies are applied to two countries with broadly similar structures and initial conditions, facing similar economic problems.
In 2008, the U.S. and Britain were two advanced economies with large financial sectors, dangerous housing bubbles, heavy consumer debt and similar government deficits and debt levels relative to GDP. Both suffered extremely severe banking crises that forced their governments to take on huge additional liabilities by guaranteeing their biggest banks. For two years after the Lehman crisis in September 2008, the two economies followed broadly similar policies: slashing interest rates to zero, allowing large expansions of their budget deficits and financing the resulting debt with newly printed money. The two economies moved closely in tandem, as economic theory would have predicted: both on the way down until mid-2009 and then on the way up until mid-2010.
But then, in the summer of 2010, the newly elected British government set a radically different course for one very specific and controversial aspect of economic policy – government borrowing. Instead of simply tolerating the big budget deficits that had resulted from weak economic growth, as both the U.S. and British Treasuries had done until 2010, David Cameron decided his top priority would be to reduce government borrowing. He planned to do this by slashing public spending and imposing substantially higher tax rates. The U.S. government, meanwhile, continued with a fiscal policy of benign neglect. Despite all the sound and fury in Washington about deficits and debt limits, U.S. tax rates and public spending plans remained broadly unchanged through 2011 and 2012, with a small cut in payroll taxes largely offsetting the fiscal impact of cuts in local government spending and employment. In all other respects conditions in the two economies remained unchanged. Both central banks continued to print money and to keep interest rates near zero. The dollar and the pound moved very little against one another, and exports grew moderately in both countries, despite the crisis in the euro zone. In short, this really was a controlled experiment on the impact of different fiscal policies.
Curiously enough, the two economies began to diverge from the moment this controlled experiment started, with the British economy contracting in the third quarter of 2010, while growth accelerated in the U.S. In the period since then, the U.S. economy has expanded by 2.7 percent, while Britain has contracted by 0.8 percent. The latest results of this experiment will be revealed on Friday, when the U.S. GDP figures are published and can be compared with the 0.8 percent fall in British GDP just announced.
It may be said, of course, that the British policy of fiscal consolidation was still justified, even if the U.S. enjoys much stronger growth, as it almost surely will. After all, controlling public debt and deficits is an important national objective that counts for more than simply juicing up short-term growth.
But this is where we get to the really significant and surprising feature of the race out of recession. Britain’s heroic spending cuts and tax increases imposed by the Cameron government may contrast starkly with lassitude and cowardice displayed by politicians in Washington. But this dramatic political contrast has made absolutely no difference on the debt and borrowing outcomes the two countries have actually achieved, because the British austerity has simply prolonged recession, while U.S. fiscal laxity has allowed the economy to grow. According to the latest IMF figures, published two weeks ago, the U.S. budget deficit has been reduced from 10.5 percent of GDP in 2010 to 8.2 percent in 2012. This reduction is a slightly bigger reduction in the deficit than Britain has managed to achieve in the same period – from 9.8 percent to 8.1 percent.
In short, any country determined to control public borrowing should forget about fiscal austerity and instead do everything to grow as fast as it can – a fitting economic message from Olympic Britain.
PHOTO: A rower from Hong Kong trains for the single sculls at Eton Dorney near London in preparation for the Olympic Games, July 25, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young