Margaret Thatcher used to say that “There is no alternative” to whatever policy she believed in. But there is always an alternative to banging your head against a brick wall — you can stop banging your head against a brick wall. The G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in Moscow last weekend may have marked such a moment of revelation, when governments around the world gave up on fiscal and financial austerity, and recognized that growth based on consumption, borrowing and rising house prices is better than no growth at all.
It is now nearly five years since the Lehman crisis and throughout this period politicians and economists have been obsessed with avoiding the mistakes that supposedly produced the crisis. They have been trying to reduce debts, both in the public and the private sectors; to make their banks behave more cautiously; and to “rebalance their economies” away from their over-dependence on consumption, services and finance in favor of supposedly more sustainable economic activities such as saving, exporting and manufacturing. The virtues of saving, exporting and manufacturing are so much taken for granted these days that it is easy to forget the novelty and implausibility of the rebalancing concept.
Until 2007 conventional wisdom among economists was that manufacturing nations like Germany and Japan should restructure their economies to resemble the U.S. and Britain. It was only after the Lehman debacle that economic fashion shifted decisively against Anglo-Saxon “bubble” economies, based on debt-fueled consumption, property speculation, financial engineering and other frivolous service activities like coffee shops and computer games. Instead every nation has tried to emulate the solid virtues of the Germanic economic model, powered by exports, investment and manufacturing. Angela Merkel’s slogan that “you cannot cure debt with debt” has become an international motto, despite the fact that central banks were printing money like there was no tomorrow, and governments have committed themselves to deleveraging by homeowners, banks and the public sector, all at the same time.
In the past few months, the pendulum of economic fashion has started swinging back from austerity and towards credit-fueled consumption growth. The G20 communique made this plain, stating that growth is now a higher priority than debt reduction in every major nation.
More important than mere words and phrases have been the actions of governments around the world. One country after another has accepted the U.S. injunction to stop relying on exports for recovery and instead to promote domestic consumption growth, if necessary financed by debt. In Japan, we have seen the launch of Abenomics, with its enormous spending programs and monetary expansion. In Britain, the government started deliberately inflating a housing bubble in its last budget by creating a subprime mortgage market backed by unprecedented government guarantees — and the results have already become apparent in an upsurge of house prices and consumer confidence.