Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

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.

That waiting game is now over. U.S. businesses can no longer hope for a new president who will restore the untrammeled free-market environment of George W. Bush. Instead of a theoretical choice between Obama’s new regulations and a free market utopia modeled on Ayn Rand, corporate executives must now choose between adapting to Obama’s policies, including healthcare, going out of business or finding another country with a friendlier business environment.

Once they confront this choice, a few may decide to move to Mexico, Canada or China, but most will surely acknowledge that the U.S. remains a relatively attractive place to do business and will simply build the costs of healthcare and taxes into their budgets. They will then switch their attention from politics to business as usual and get on with hiring or investment decisions that make financial sense in this new regulatory environment. If businesses refrain from investment or hiring from now on, this will be for financial reasons, not out of political unease.

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.

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.

Reject the politics of oversimplification

Anatole Kaletsky
Aug 16, 2012 14:58 UTC

Whatever happens in the election and the euro crisis, the autumn of 2012 may go down in history as a pivotal moment of the early 21st century – a political season that may even be more transformational than the financial upheavals that started with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers four years ago. Paul Ryan’s nomination to the Republican ticket means American voters will feel forced to make a radical choice between two very different visions of the government and the market, in fact of the whole structure of politics and economics in a modern capitalist state. The choice facing Europe in the next few months – starting on September 12 with the Dutch elections and the German court decision on European bailouts – is in some ways even more dramatic: It is not just about the role of government, but about the very existence of the nation-state.

But do these decisions really need to be so radical? It is fashionable to proclaim that the future is a matter of black and white: bigger government or freer markets, national independence or a European superstate. But these extreme dichotomies do not make sense. The clearest lesson from the 2008 crisis was that markets and governments can both make disastrous mistakes – and therefore that new mechanisms of checks and balances between politics and economics are required. The second obvious lesson of the crisis was that economic problems ignore national borders and therefore that ever more complex mechanisms for international cooperation are needed in a globalized economy.

Given the historic importance of the decisions that have to be made this autumn on both sides of the Atlantic, it will be tragic if complex issues such as the role of government or the future of Europe are reduced to oversimplified choices between polarized alternatives.

Why is the response to economic crisis not more serious?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 12, 2012 14:46 UTC

The state of the world economy these days reminds me of the famous telegram from an Austrian general, responding to his German counterpart toward the end of World War One. The German described the situation in his sector of the Eastern front as “serious but not catastrophic”.  In the Austrian sector, the reply came, “the situation is catastrophic but not serious”. In much of the world today the economic situation is verging on catastrophic, but “not serious” seems a perfect description of the political response.

Four years after the Lehman crisis, economic activity and employment in the OECD has not yet returned to its pre-crisis level. Unemployment is at postwar highs in every major European country apart from Germany and, while the U.S. jobless rate is now a little below its postwar record, it has been stuck above 8 percent for longer than at any time since the Great Depression. And in Britain, the long-term loss of output assumed by the government’s latest budget forecasts implies, according to Goldman Sachs calculations, that the six months of the post-Lehman crisis did greater permanent damage to the country’s productive capacity than the Great Depression or World War Two.

Now consider the response. In the U.S., the four years since Lehman have been dominated by economic debates among politicians, media commentators and business leaders on issues that are almost totally irrelevant to unemployment and the pace of economic recovery: how to reduce long-term budget deficits and whether to tweak the top rate of income tax from 36 percent to 39.6 percent. In Britain, the biggest economic controversy this year has been the extension of value added tax to hot pies. Europe’s response to the deepest economic depression in living memory – and an even more alarming xenophobic nationalism that threatens the literal disintegration of the euro and the European Union – has been to debate the bureaucratic “modalities” of bank regulations, fiscal treaties and pension reforms in the next decade.

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