Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Time to stop following defunct economic policies

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 19, 2014 17:59 UTC

Can economists contribute anything useful to our understanding of politics, business and finance in the real world?

I raise this question having spent last weekend in Toronto at the annual conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a foundation created in 2009 in response to the failure of modern economics in the global financial crisis (whose board I currently chair). Unfortunately, the question raised above is as troubling today as it was in November 2008, when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth famously stunned the head of the London School of Economics by asking faux naively, “But why did nobody foresee this [economic collapse]?”

As John Maynard Keynes observed in 1936, when he challenged the economic orthodoxies that were aggravating the Great Depression: “The ideas of economists, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

This remark is as relevant today as in 1936. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate, asked rhetorically in Toronto: “Why are central banks and governments still trying to predict the effects of their policies with an economic model that is manifestly absurd?”

His answer was that the economic models studied in universities and published in leading academic journals are still largely based on a simplifying concept, known as the Representative Agent, which effectively assumes that “everyone in the economy is the same.”  So these models have nothing to say about lending or borrowing, ignore the existence of banks and treat bankruptcies as unimportant because “when the borrower does not repay, he only defaults on himself.”

A central banker’s ‘license to lie’

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 30, 2014 21:43 UTC

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who retires this week as the world’s most powerful central banker, cannot be trusted.

Neither can Janet Yellen, who will succeed him this weekend at the Federal Reserve.

And neither can Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England; Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, or any of their counterparts at the central banks of Turkey, Argentina, Ukraine and so on.

Central bank stimulus is here to stay, but what if it fails?

Anatole Kaletsky
Nov 14, 2013 16:29 UTC

If anyone still doubted that central bankers all over the world will keep interest rates at rock-bottom levels, those doubts should have been dispelled this week. Janet Yellen’s statement on Thursday to the U.S. Senate that the Fed has “more work to do” to stimulate employment, and that “supporting the recovery today is the surest path to returning to a more normal approach to monetary policy,” capped a series of surprisingly clear commitments to easy money from central bankers this week. On Wednesday Joerg Asmussen, a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank, and Ewald Nowotny, the Austrian central bank governor — both of whom had previously been reported as voting against last week’s surprise ECB rate cut — said that they might in fact support further rate cuts and even negative interest rates, as well as the possibility of breaking the taboo against U.S.-style purchases of government bonds. And Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, reiterated more strongly than ever that any early increase in British interest rates was out of the question, despite the fact that the outlook for the British economy has turned out to be much better than the BoE had expected.

But what if these zero interest rate policies produce disappointing results in the year ahead, as they have in each of the past four years? What if the world economy fails to spring back to life or just plods along with sub-par growth, despite all this stimulus, as has happened in each of the past four years?

With luck, these questions will not need answering because fiscal austerity has acted as a powerful headwind to economic recovery in the U.S., Europe and Britain and these budget consolidation efforts are now being relaxed. The new records on Wall Street and other stock markets suggest growing confidence among investors that monetary stimulus will finally deliver decent levels of growth next year — and this does indeed seem likely. But what if the optimism turns out to be wrong? What if the U.S. and Britain fail to grow by at least 3 percent next year, and what if Europe stays stuck with sub-1 percent growth and mass unemployment? In that case, the monetary and fiscal policy experiments since the Lehman crisis would have to be judged as failures — and that judgment would open the way to much more radical ideas than zero interest rates and QE. Such radical ideas would be of two opposing types.

When illogical policy seems to work

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 13, 2013 15:23 UTC

It’s cynical, manipulative and hypocritical – and it looks like it is going to work. How often do you hear a sentence like this, to describe a government initiative or economic policy?  Not often enough.

The media and a surprisingly high proportion of business leaders, financiers and economic analysts seem to believe that policies which are dishonest, intellectually inconsistent or obviously self-interested in their motivation are ipso facto doomed to fail or to damage the public interest. But this is manifestly untrue. The effectiveness of public policies and their ultimate desirability is in practice judged not by their motivations, but by their results.

Which brings me to the real subject of this column: the improving outlook for the world economy and why many economists and financiers cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it. Let me begin with a striking example anticipated in this column back in March: the boom in house prices and debt-financed consumption that the British government is pumping up in preparation for the general election in May 2015.

What’s behind the spooked stock market?

Anatole Kaletsky
May 30, 2013 16:14 UTC

Strange things have been happening in the world economy and financial markets this week. While that sentence could be written almost any time in the past five years, since the outbreak of the global financial crisis, the strangeness this week has taken a particular form that reveals more than it confuses.

Almost all the economic news recently has been favorable, or at least better than expected. U.S. home values have risen more than at any time since 2006, job losses are down and consumer confidence has been restored to pre-crisis levels. Japan has enjoyed its fastest growth in years, with evidence mounting of stronger consumption and rising wages. Even in Europe, the outlook appears to be improving as policy shifts away from austerity and toward growth, with the European Commission no longer pressing governments to hit their deficit targets. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank hints at the possibility of negative interest rates and other extraordinary stimulus measures. But financial markets have reacted to all this good news by becoming more volatile – panicky, even – than at any time this year.

Although the U.S. stock market briefly hit a record high on Tuesday, prices quickly slumped. Meanwhile, Japanese shares have suffered their steepest fall since the 2011 tsunami. Most importantly, bond markets have collapsed the world over, pushing long-term interest rates in the United States, Japan and much of Europe to their highest levels in more than a year.

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 Japan set to lead after 20 years of torpor?

Anatole Kaletsky
Dec 19, 2012 16:56 UTC

As 2012 draws to a conclusion, it’s likely that the fiscal cliff will be averted, U.S. politics and monetary policy are irrevocably set, European politics are suspended until September’s German election and the Chinese leadership transition is over. In short, the political and monetary uncertainties that have obsessed financial markets and paralyzed business have all been dispelled. As a result, 2013 promises to be a year for businesses and investors to focus again on economic fundamentals and corporate performance instead of delaying decisions while they waited with bated breath for the next euro summit, or election, or meeting of the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank. In one part of the world, however, events are moving the other way.

In Japan, economic and business conditions remain as dull as ever, but politics and monetary policy are suddenly exciting. And while the world has largely lost interest in Japan, the gestalt shift  in the world’s third-largest economy could have big implications for global business and for the way voters think about governments and central banks.

Last weekend’s landslide election of Shinzo Abe, a potentially powerful prime minister, was largely a result of his promise of a revolution in monetary policy designed to jolt the Japanese economy out of its 20-year stupor. If Abe delivers on his election rhetoric – still a big “if”, especially in a country where power is wielded mainly by bureaucrats rather than elected politicians – the global impact could be huge.

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.

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.”

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.

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