Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

The age of austerity is ending

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 28, 2013 15:35 UTC

Whisper it softly, but the age of government austerity is ending. It may seem an odd week to say this, what with the U.S. government preparing for indiscriminate budget cuts, a new fiscal crisis apparently brewing in Europe after the Italian election and David Cameron promising to “go further and faster in reducing the deficit” after the downgrade of Britain’s credit. But politics is sometimes a looking-glass world, in which things are the opposite of what they seem.

Discussing the outcome of Friday’s “sequestration” of U.S. government spending is best left to the month ahead, when we see how the public reacts to government cutbacks. But in Italy, Britain and the rest of Europe, this week’s events should help convince politicians and voters that efforts to reduce government borrowing, whether through public spending cuts or through tax hikes, are both politically suicidal and economically counterproductive.

In Italy, and therefore the entire euro zone, this shift is now almost certain. After the clear majority voted for politicians explicitly campaigning against austerity and what they presented as German economic bullying, further budget cuts or labor reforms in Italy are now off the agenda, if only because they would be literally impossible to implement. If Angela Merkel demands further budget cuts, tax hikes or labor reforms as a condition for supporting Italy’s membership of the euro, a majority of voters have given an unequivocal clear answer: Basta, enough is enough. Most Italians would rather leave the euro than accept any further austerity – and if Italy left the euro, total breakup of the single currency would follow with an inevitability that might not apply if the country exiting were Greece, Portugal or even Spain.

Merkel surely understands this, and she is determined to avoid a catastrophic euro crisis just before her own election in Germany on Sept. 22. She is therefore almost certain to heed Italian voters’ refusal to accept further tax hikes, budget cuts or labor reforms. From now on, the European Central Bank will have to offer its support to Italy without any tough pre-conditions. In fact, Italy can realistically be expected to make only one economic promise: to maintain the existing taxes and reform laws already legislated under Monti. That promise should be easy enough to keep, since Italy’s new parliament will be no more able to muster a majority for repealing old laws than for introducing new ones.

The European Commission, meanwhile, can move the fiscal goalposts in Italy’s favor. Once that precedent is set for Italy, similar flexibility should spread across the euro zone – and at that point the ECB would be able to offer effectively unconditional guarantees of financial support for all members of the euro zone, while Merkel and German voters turn a blind eye. Once investors work all this out, European financial markets can be expected to calm down and Italian politicians to return to what they know and love: plotting, backstabbing and Machiavellian intrigue.

The losers in Italy’s election are already clear

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 21, 2013 18:00 UTC

We don’t yet know the winner of Sunday’s election in Italy, but the losers are already clear. And in this election, who loses may be much more important than who wins.

The obvious loser is Mario Monti, the charming and eloquent economics professor who is widely credited with saving Italy from a Greek-style debt crisis during his one-year term as Italy’s unelected prime minister. Monti could have gone down in history as the most effective and intelligent Italian leader of his generation, had he decided to opt out of this weekend’s election and instead sought appointment as Italy’s president. That is a mainly ceremonial role that can become very important in times of constitutional crisis (which in Italy occur all too often), and Monti could almost certainly have won strong endorsements  from Italian politicians on the left and right.

Instead, Monti surprised everyone by founding a political party and running for Parliament at the head of a center-right grouping. This now looks like a big mistake. According to the last pre-election polls, Monti’s group is running a humiliating fourth, after the Italian Socialist Party, Silvio Berlusconi’s resurrected personal party and stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo’s anarchic Five Star Movement. Worse still for Monti, he seems to have helped his archenemy Berlusconi by splitting the opposition to the scandal-ridden former prime minister. If Monti’s party performs as badly as expected, it will be all too easy for his opponents to present the election as a clear rejection of the painful economic reforms he imposed on his long-suffering countrymen at the behest of the German government and the European Central Bank.

Britain’s strength is its weakness

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 14, 2013 16:19 UTC

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the weakest of them all? As G20 finance ministers warn of the threat of a “global currency war” at their meeting in Moscow this weekend, two odd features of this looming financial conflict tend to be overlooked.

The first is that every country’s objective in this war is to “lose” by making its currency weaker. This is because a weak currency tends to support exports, employment and economic growth (if all other things are equal, which they never quite are). The second oddity is that the clear winner in this global currency war has not been Japan, Switzerland, China or any of the other usual suspects, but a country rarely accused of financial aggression: Britain.

Since the global financial crisis started in mid-2007, the pound sterling has been, by a wide margin, the weakest major currency. The Bank of England’s trade-weighted sterling index fell by a record 30 percent in early 2009 and, despite a modest rebound in 2010-12, it remains 24 percent below its level of mid-2007. Japan, by contrast, has endured a rise in its trade-weighted exchange rate of 60 percent from July 2007 to late last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe committed his new government to a more competitive rate. Japan is therefore fully entitled to resent other countries’ accusations of currency warfare, when it has in fact been a long-suffering pacifist, exposing its export companies to the full burden of other countries’ post-crisis currency adjustments.

A breakthrough speech on monetary policy

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 7, 2013 16:01 UTC

Wednesday night may have marked the “emperor’s new clothes” moment of the Great Recession, in which the world suddenly realizes its rulers are suffering from a delusion that doesn’t have to be humored. That delusion today is economic fatalism: the idea that nothing can be done to break the paralysis in the global economy and therefore that a “new normal” of mass unemployment and declining living standards is inevitable for years or decades to come.

That such economic fatalism is nonsensical is the key message of a truly historic speech delivered on Wednesday by Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority and one of the most influential financial policymakers in the world. Turner argues that a virtually surefire method of stimulating economic activity exists today and that politicians and central bankers can no longer treat it as taboo: Newly created money should be handed out to the citizens or governments of countries that are mired in stagnation and such monetary financing of tax cuts or government spending should continue until economic activity revives.

The idea of distributing free money to end deep recessions has been promoted theoretically by serious economists since the 1930s, when it was one of the few practical policies that Keynesians and monetarists agreed on. John Maynard Keynes proposed burying money in disused coal mines to be dug up by unemployed workers, while Milton Friedman suggested dropping money out of helicopters for citizens to pick up. Friedman also argued in a 1948 paper that governments should rely solely on printed money to finance their regular cyclical deficits. More recently, as conventional policies to revive growth have faltered, with widespread disappointment about the impact of zero interest rates and quantitative easing, proposals for distributing money directly to citizens have been quietly gaining traction among critics of orthodox central banks. I discussed this trend, sometimes described as “quantitative easing for the people,” in several columns last year.

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