Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Obama’s best strategy: Do nothing

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 8, 2013 13:05 UTC

Ronald Reagan had a catchphrase when faced with a crisis, especially a synthetic “crisis” of the kind Washington loves to concoct. He would call in the officials and media advisers rushing manically around the West Wing and calmly tell them: “Don’t just do something – stand there.”  In this respect, as in several others, “No Drama Obama” seems to resemble the man he once admiringly described, despite their ideological animosity, as the last great “transformational” U.S. president.

With Wall Street hitting new records as Washington supposedly plunges into its latest fiscal crisis with the budget sequestration that began this week, Obama could do well to emulate Reagan’s laid-back style. In addition to doing nothing about the latest manufactured fiscal crisis, he could explain why nothing is the right thing to do.

To be more specific, Obama could negotiate a truce in the budget war. Instead of insisting that Republicans must “pay” for Democratic spending cuts by agreeing to higher taxes, the president could offer a much more attractive deal to both sides. If Republicans eased the sequester and demanded no new spending cuts, the Democrats could promise not to raise any taxes. Such a ceasefire would  be seen by both parties as an honorable draw. Republicans would have fulfilled their pledge to stop higher taxes; while Democrats would have thwarted efforts to gut government and the welfare state.

There would be only one drawback. My fiscal ceasefire proposal does nothing to reduce deficits or government debts. But doing nothing on deficits is exactly the right policy for the U.S. today. Apart from the political pendulum, which is swinging all over the world against austerity, as described in this column last week, there are four strong economic arguments for U.S.  “deficit denial.”

First, there is absolutely no market pressure on the U.S. government to reduce borrowing. On the contrary, investors are so desperate to lend to the U.S. Treasury that unlimited amounts can be raised in the bond market at the lowest interest rates ever offered. While these low rates are partly due to Federal Reserve monetary policies, private investors, too, have been stampeding into U.S. bonds. Since nobody is forcing American individual savers or foreign sovereign wealth funds to lend money to the U.S. government on the same generous terms as the Fed, these lenders presumably believe that U.S. Treasury bonds are a good investment.

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.

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.

Is the current market optimism justified?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 31, 2013 18:39 UTC

The U.S. economy has just suffered its first contraction since 2009, consumer confidence has plunged since November’s election and Americans’ paychecks are only just starting to reflect an increase in payroll taxes averaging $70 per month. Across the Atlantic, the euro zone and Britain seem to be sinking back into recession. And conditions in Japan have become so desperate that newly elected prime minister Shinzo Abe is openly devaluing the currency and threatening to take direct control of the central bank.

At the same time, stock markets around the world are approaching or exceeding records. Money is flowing into equity mutual funds at the fastest rate since the end of the last bull market in 2000. And business sentiment, as reported from Davos, seems to be more optimistic than at any time since the global financial crisis of 2008.

Is there a rational way to explain these contradictions? Will the business and market optimism be sustainable? Or is this sudden euphoria just another financial bubble, sure to be punctured if the grim message from recent economic indicators sinks in? The likely answer to all these questions is yes.

Cooperation isn’t coming to Washington – it’s already arrived

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 23, 2013 23:50 UTC

The House of Representatives decision to suspend the U.S. Treasury debt limit is the most important political event in America since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008.  As anticipated in this column immediately after the 2012 election, Washington seems to have broken its addiction to deadly games of economic chicken. That, in turn, should mean an orderly resolution of all U.S. fiscal problems and perhaps even an outbreak of bipartisan political cooperation, at least on economic issues, of a kind not seen in Washington since the early 1990s.

None of these favorable outcomes is yet acknowledged as true in Washington or Wall Street. Political analysts and market pundits have almost unanimously described the House decision as a diversionary tactic, simply designed to shift the high-noon confrontation with Obama to a new battleground more favorable to the Republican side: the March 1 date for automatic spending cuts under the sequestration procedure, or the March 27 expiration date of current government budgets.

This cynicism will almost certainly be proved wrong. The obvious reason is that an army in full retreat, as the Republicans have been since the election and fiscal cliff fiasco, finds it hard to regroup against an enemy enjoying strong momentum. And when such a battered force does attempt a last stand, this usually results in a rout. In this case, however, there are more specific reasons for the Republicans to seek peaceful coexistence instead of the fight-to-the-death over borrowing and spending that many pundits still predict. To see why House leaders decided to unilaterally disarm their nuclear weapons — first the fiscal cliff and now the debt ceiling — one has to understand the transformation in U.S. political dynamics that occurred the moment the votes were counted on Nov. 6.

David Cameron pushes his EU luck

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 17, 2013 17:16 UTC

Editor’s note: After this column was published, Cameron announced he would be delaying his speech in Amsterdam due to the hostage crisis in Algeria.

Some think the prospect impossible. Many think the outcome inevitable. Most think the question irrelevant.

Will Britain pull out of the European Union or fundamentally renegotiate the terms of its EU membership?

2013: When economic optimism will finally be vindicated

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 10, 2013 17:31 UTC

Will the world economy be in better shape in 2013 than 2012? The Economist asked me to debate this question with Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer of PIMCO, the world’s biggest bond fund. El-Erian is the author of When Markets Collide, a brilliant book that coined the term “New Normal” to describe the world’s inevitable descent into a Japanese-style era of stagnation after the 2008 financial crisis. I was delighted by the invitation because I wrote a book at about the same time, taking a very different view of the crisis – and many of my predictions finally look like they will be realized in 2013.

In Capitalism 4.0, I argued that the crisis would create a new model of global capitalism, one based neither on the blind faith in market forces that followed the Great Inflation of the 1970s nor on the excessive government intervention inspired by the Great Depression of the 1930s. While this new species of capitalism would doubtless go through a painful period of evolution, its character would be fundamentally optimistic because it would be driven by four historic transformations. Those transformations helped trigger the 2008 crisis, but their roots are in the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

First, the end of the initial wave of communism created a world that was unified under a single property-based economic system. Second, the opening of China and India added 3 billion producers and consumers to global markets. Third, the revolution in information technology made globalization possible by slashing communications and logistics costs. Fourth, the worldwide adoption of pure paper money ‑ money not backed by gold, silver, currency pegs or any other arbitrary standards of value ‑ allowed governments to stabilize macroeconomic cycles to a previously unimaginable degree.

The fiscal cliff deal proves Congress is working

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 2, 2013 22:42 UTC

The U.S. fiscal cliff was dodged in pretty much the way that seemed most likely after November’s election: a bipartisan deal in which pragmatic Republicans, no longer focused on ending the presidency of Barack Obama, joined moderate Democrats to prevent economic sabotage by extremists from both ends of the political spectrum. On Wall Street, the immediate reaction was euphoria. But among mainstream economists and political commentators in Washington, it was cynicism.

While stock markets around the world approached their highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis, media headlines emphasized grim forebodings: Fresh stand-off looms after US cliff deal (Financial Times); Budget deal passes, debt ceiling looms (Wall Street Journal); Deal done but threats remain (Washington Post); Bigger showdowns loom after fiscal cliff deal (Reuters); House backs tax deal as next fight looms (Bloomberg).

Investors’ initial reactions are often misguided, especially to complex political events, but this time the markets will probably be proved right, and the pundits wrong. This week’s deal marked a genuine, and most likely sustainable, breakthrough for reasons of both politics and economics.

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