Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Confessions of a deficit denier

Anatole Kaletsky
Nov 15, 2012 04:44 UTC

Here is a confession: I am a deficit denier.

To say this in respectable society is to be reviled as a self-serving rogue, worse than someone who denies climate change. Yet whenever I see a budget crisis — the U.S. falling off a fiscal cliff; austerity protests paralyzing Europe; Britain’s governing coalition tearing itself apart over missed budget targets -– I cannot resist the same conclusion: These countries’ leaders should take a deep breath, relax and stop worrying about deficits.

For there is actually no fiscal crisis in the United States, Britain or most European countries — including even Italy and Spain. Greece is another matter. But the very specific Greek disaster hardly justifies a generalized global panic about all government debts.

Consider some statistical facts. Interest rates are lower today than at any time in history, meaning that governments find it easier to borrow money than ever before. This hardly suggests impending bankruptcy.

Especially since the investors falling all over themselves to lend them money are not naïve widows and orphans or government-controlled central banks. Rather, hedge funds, billionaires and the sovereign-wealth funds of financially sophisticated nations like Norway and Singapore have all poured far more money into government bonds than into shares, property or gold over the past three years.

Why are sophisticated investors unmoved by the deficit panic? Because they know that governments, at least outside the euro zone, are nowhere near bankruptcy. In fact, debt levels are not dangerously high. The U.S. government net debt is expected to stabilize at 89 percent of gross domestic product from 2014 to 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund, even if all the Bush tax cuts were extended and without any of the spending cuts assumed in the fiscal cliff. Similar stable debt levels are projected for Germany, France, Italy, Britain and even Spain. Assuming debt levels do stabilize in the rage of 85 percent to 100 percent of GDP, these won’t be worryingly high. U.S. national debt peaked at 110 percent of GDP in the late 1940s, and Britain’s was even higher. But nobody worried much about national bankruptcy after World War II – and the confidence proved justified. For the U.S. and Britain both enjoyed their strongest economic performance in the two decades after their deficits peaked at more than 100 percent of GDP.

An optimistic vision of Obama’s second term

Anatole Kaletsky
Nov 7, 2012 21:15 UTC

President Barack Obama’s re-election is good news for the world economy and financial markets. Of course a victory by Mitt Romney, unlikely though it was, might have been even better news, which is perhaps why stock markets fell sharply after the election. If Romney had won, his promised tax cuts and willingness to ignore budget deficits would have delivered a big stimulus to the U.S. economy and triggered a potential boom. But even without this fiscal boost, recent U.S. economic indicators, especially on housing, employment and bank lending, have pointed clearly in the right direction – and now there is every reason to expect these positive trends to accelerate.

While the election was a genuine obstacle to U.S. economic recovery, the problem lay not in the policies of either Obama and Romney but in the uncertainty about whose policies would be implemented and what each party might do to sabotage the other’s plans. This political doubt delayed investment decisions and hiring plans, and, in corporate bank accounts and bond markets, clogged the flood of new money created by the Federal Reserve. Now that the election is over, this dam will start to open. Political polarization, at least on economic issues, will start to ease. And the confrontation over taxes and public spending looming at the end of the year should be resolved with much less rancor than expected. All these optimistic conclusions follow from one crucial feature of the election result: The calculations of self-interest for politicians in Washington, for investors on Wall Street and for business people across America have now been transformed.

Let us begin with the business community. Much of it has been fiercely opposed to President Obama, particularly to his signature policies of universal healthcare and restoring Bill Clinton’s top tax rates. Given that, surveys suggested that many companies, and especially small businesses, suspended normal decisions on hiring and investment for months before the election, while they waited for Obamacare to be abandoned and tax hikes to be ruled out.

Would Romney be better for Europe?

Anatole Kaletsky
Nov 1, 2012 11:51 UTC

Looking at the opinion polls, there is no contest for which of the presidential candidates would be better for Europe. In a survey published this week by U.K.-based YouGov, 90 percent of European voters said they would support Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. But does this lopsided support correspond to the true interests of Europeans?

The numbers are not entirely surprising. The Republican stance on emotive social issues such as abortion, healthcare and environmental protection create an almost unbridgeable cultural divide for many Europeans. On foreign policy, there are understandable fears in Europe that a Romney administration would downgrade the United Nations, increase the risks of war in the Middle East, or possibly provoke confrontations with Russia over Georgia or NATO enlargement.

However, if we focus on the issues that are preoccupying Europeans now en masse — global economic stagnation and the deepening euro crisis — then we reach a different conclusion. Maybe Europe should root for Romney, despite his social views.

Is a revolution in economic thinking under way?

Anatole Kaletsky
Oct 25, 2012 14:15 UTC

Four years after the start of the Great Recession, the global economy has not recovered, voters are losing patience and governments around the world are falling like ninepins. This is a situation conducive to revolutionary thinking, if not yet in politics, then maybe in economics.

In the past few months the International Monetary Fund, previously a bastion of austerity, has swung in favor of expansionary fiscal policies. The U.S. Federal Reserve has committed itself to printing money without limit until it restores full employment. And the European Central Bank has announced unlimited bond purchases with printed money, a policy denounced, quite literally, as the work of the devil by the president of the German Bundesbank.

This week an even more radical debate burst  into the open in Britain. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, found himself fighting a rearguard action against a groundswell of support for “dropping money from helicopters” – something proposed by Milton Friedman in 1969 as the ultimate cure for intractable economic depressions and recently described in this column as “Quantitative Easing for the People.”

To escape the Great Recession, embrace contradiction

Anatole Kaletsky
Oct 18, 2012 16:39 UTC

Where will jobs and growth come from? As we enter the fifth year of the Great Recession, people all over the world are asking this question, but their political leaders are not providing any convincing answers, as has been made obvious in the U.S. presidential debate and the European Union summit this week.

The second presidential debate started with Jeremy Epstein, a 20-year old college student, pointing out that he had “little chance to get employment” and asking the two candidates for some reassurance and an explanation of how this would change. Mitt Romney offered lots of reassurance but not much explanation:

“I want you to be able to get a job. I know what it takes to get this economy going. I know what it takes to create good jobs again. I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve. When you graduate … in 2014, I presume I’m going to be president. I’m going to make sure you get a job. Thanks, Jeremy. Yeah, you bet.”

Is Mitt Romney a closet Keynesian?

Anatole Kaletsky
Oct 10, 2012 21:45 UTC

John Maynard Keynes said back in 1936 that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Keynes himself is now a seemingly defunct economist, but his influence connects the two most important events of the week and perhaps of the year: the sudden reversal of fortunes in the U.S. election and the powerful critique of overzealous fiscal austerity produced by the International Monetary Fund.

What connects these two events is an economic question that almost nobody dares to raise publicly, but that now seems destined to dominate the U.S. election and that hung over the IMF annual meeting in Tokyo this week: Do deficits really matter? Or, to restate the issue more precisely: Are government efforts to cut budget deficits counterproductive in conditions of zero interest rates when fiscal austerity suppresses economic growth?

This conclusion is strongly suggested by the IMF’s “World Economic Outlook” produced for the annual meeting. The WEO presented six detailed case studies, starting with Britain from 1918 to 1939, of economies that tried to reduce large public debt burdens with various policy mixes in the past 80 years. It concluded that two conditions were essential for success: very low interest rates and adequate rates of economic growth. If fiscal austerity produces high unemployment and economic stagnation, it is doomed to failure, causing the government’s debt burden to go up instead of down. After examining this historical evidence, the IMF report hinted strongly that at least two major economies were now caught in self-defeating debt spirals: Spain, where the debt trap is created by political pressures from the euro zone, and Britain, where the futile austerity is entirely self-imposed.

Does Murdoch’s paywall reversal signal a sale of The Times?

Anatole Kaletsky
Oct 3, 2012 22:16 UTC

Rupert Murdoch conceded defeat this week in his battle with Google and the Internet, an adversary even more powerful than the British government. Murdoch, uniquely among the world’s media magnates, decided two years ago to create a “paywall” for the London Times that could not be penetrated by Google and other “parasitic” search engines. In effect, the paper was cut off completely from the public Internet. As one of Murdoch’s newspaper managers later described this strategy: “Rupert didn’t just build a paywall; he circled it with barbed wire, dug a moat around it and put crocodiles in the moat.”

On Monday Murdoch relented. Times articles started reappearing in Google searches, although anyone wanting to read them still has to pay £1 for one day’s paper or £2 per week. Coincidentally, News Corp, Murdoch’s holding company, announced the departure of its chief digital officer, Jonathan Miller. And Murdoch himself stood down as chairman of Times Newspapers, the News Corp subsidiary that controls his upmarket British papers.

Murdoch’s U-turn sends two interesting signals. The first, already much discussed, is about the disappointing results of this paywall experiment – just 131,000 subscribers after two years. The second is about Murdoch’s global empire and the future ownership of the Times. Having spent 20 years at the Times before leaving it six months ago, these signals sound to me like an SOS.

Don’t panic about the fiscal cliff

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 27, 2012 15:38 UTC

Who’s afraid of the fiscal cliff? Even as protests in Spain and Greece revive jitters in the euro zone, global businesses and investors have discovered a new political horror, this time in the U.S. The fear now in world markets is not so much about November’s election, but about the automatic tax hikes and public spending cuts that Ben Bernanke has dubbed the “fiscal cliff.” These fiscal changes, which come into force on Dec. 31 unless Congress passes new legislation, will tighten fiscal policy by some 4 percent of GDP, comparable to the austerity programs in Spain, Italy and Britain.

Given what fiscal austerity has done to Europe, the worries are understandable, but everyone should calm down. A drastic fiscal tightening is almost inconceivable after the election, because politics, economics and markets interact in Europe and America in opposite ways.

Let’s start with economic policy. The warnings from the Federal Reserve to U.S. politicians as the fiscal deadline approaches are all against allowing the legislated tax increases and spending cuts to take effect. Thus the Fed is giving politicians advice that is opposite that of the European Central Bank and the Bank of England.

Central banks make an historic turn

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 19, 2012 19:33 UTC

When the economic history of the 21st century is written, September 2012 is likely to be recorded as a defining moment, almost as important as September 2008. This month’s historic events – Ben Bernanke’s promise to buy bonds without limit until the U.S. returns to something approaching full employment, Angela Merkel’s support for the European Central Bank bond purchase plans and the Bank of Japan’s decision to accelerate greatly its easing program – may not seem earth-shattering in the same way as the near-collapse of every major bank in the U. S. and Europe. Yet the upheavals now happening in central banking represent a tectonic shift that could transform the economic landscape as dramatically as the financial earthquake four years ago.

To see why, we must go back in history 40 years, to the early 1970s. Maintaining full employment was at that time regarded as the main objective of all economic policy, and this had been the case for roughly 40 years, since the Great Depression. But by the early 1970s, voters had enjoyed decades of more or less full employment and were starting to focus on inflation rather than depression as the main threat to their prosperity. Economists and politicians were responding to this shift. Milton Friedman led a monetarist “counterrevolution” against the Keynesian obsession with unemployment, designing new economic models to challenge the Keynesian view that market economies were naturally prone to long-term stagnation. By restoring the pre-Keynesian assumption that market economies were automatically self-stabilizing, the monetarist models produced two powerful policy prescriptions directly opposed to the Keynesian views.

First, the monetarists insisted that price stability, rather than full employment, was the only legitimate target for monetary policy and government macroeconomic management more generally. Second, they argued that central bankers should not accept any direct responsibility for unemployment, since sustainable job creation depended solely on private enterprise – full employment would be achieved automatically if inflation were conquered and market forces were allowed to operate freely, with the minimum of government interference or union constraints. A few years later, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan turned Friedman’s intellectual revolution into practical politics. On top of its economic impact, monetarism had huge ideological effects by absolving government macroeconomic management of any direct responsibility for jobs and instead attributing unemployment to regulations, unions, welfare policies and other market distortions.

Why the current europhoria will likely fade

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 13, 2012 15:05 UTC

Does the German Constitutional Court ruling in favor of a European bailout fund, closely followed by the big win for pro-euro and pro-austerity parties in the Dutch general election, mark the beginning of the end of the euro crisis? Or were these events just a brief diversion on the road toward a euro breakup that began with the Greek government accounting scandals in 2009? Most likely, the answer is neither. This week’s political and legal developments have given European leaders just enough leeway to avoid an immediate collapse of the single currency, but not nearly enough to end the euro crisis.

In this respect, the German Constitutional Court has acted exactly in accord with the powerful speech delivered in Berlin this week by George Soros and published in the New York Review of Books. This accuses German policy of condemning Europe, albeit inadvertently and with the best of intentions, to “a prolonged depression and a permanent division into debtor and creditor countries so dismal that it cannot be tolerated.” Germany does this by always offering “the minimum necessary [support] to hold the euro together,” while blocking “every opportunity to resolve the crisis” once and for all.

From what he calls this tragic record of missed chances, Soros draws a conclusion similar to the one presented in my columns three months ago. Germany can continue as the economic leader of Europe only if it accepts the responsibilities of a “benign hegemon,” much as the U.S. did when it forgave Germany’s debts and launched the Marshall Plan after World War Two. If, on the other hand, Germany continues to identify debt with guilt (the German language, significantly, uses the same the word, schuld, for both concepts), it will continue blocking any resolution of the euro crisis that might involve the sharing of government debts across Europe. If, on top of this opposition to mutualizing debts, Germany retains its taboo against any monetary financing of government deficit, as practiced in the U.S. by the Federal Reserve, then Europe will be condemned to long-term depression and quite possibly a revival of national hatreds. In that case, it would be better for all concerned if Germany left the euro.

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