Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Karl Marx was right — at least about one thing

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 11, 2014 18:42 UTC

 A board displays the Dow Jones industrials average after the close at the New York Stock Exchange

Confidence in the global economy is steadily improving, as shown in the financial markets’ bullish behavior and confident comments from companies and policymakers over the past few weeks. Though these columns have argued in favor of a robust recovery, when investors get uniformly bullish, the pessimistic case deserves attention.

Many distinguished economists believe that the current improvement in global conditions is just a blip. They insist that the world faces years, if not decades, of “secular stagnation.” How seriously should we take them?

The good news is that there is little evidence of secular stagnation in global statistics. The “new normal” for the world economy since 2008 has not been very different from the pre-crisis period. The average growth of the global economy from 1988 to 2007, the 20 years before the crisis, was 3.6 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook database. The IMF latest forecast for 2014 is exactly the same — 3.6 percent. Though Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, hinted at a modest downgrade this week.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Lagarde addresses the Bretton Woods Committee annual meeting in WashingtonAt first glance, this continuity seems hard to square with the slowdown in economic activity in all major economies since 2008. The IMF expects only 2.2 percent growth this year in the developed countries, compared with an average of 2.8 percent during the two decades before the crisis. In the emerging economies, meanwhile, growth is projected at 4.8 percent this year, slightly below the average of 4.9 percent of the pre-crisis decades.

Since both emerging and developed economies have weakened, how can it be that the world economy as a whole has not slowed? The answer is the shifting balance of economic activity from slower advanced economies to faster-growing developing economies.

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.

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