Reuters blog archive
Evidence that Europe’s austerity policies are not working was in ample supply this morning. The euro zone as a whole is now in its longest recession since the start of monetary union. France has succumbed to the region's retrenchment. Italy’s GDP slump is now the lengthiest on record. And Greece, still in depression, shrank another 5.3 percent in the first quarter.
To understand why this is happening, Brown University professor Mark Blyth says it is necessary to forget everything you think you know about the euro zone crisis. The monetary union's troubles are not, as often depicted, the result of runaway spending by bloated, profligate states that are finally being forced to pay the piper. Instead, argues Blyth, it is merely a sequel to the U.S. financial meltdown that started, like its American counterpart, with dangerously-indebted risk-taking on the part of a super-sized banking sector.
In a new book entitled "Austerity: The history of a dangerous idea," Blythe writes that sovereign budgets have come under strain primarily because taxpayers of various nations have been forced to shoulder the burden of failed banking systems.
The way austerity is being represented by both politicians and the media - as the payback for something called the 'sovereign debt crisis,' supposedly brought on by states that apparently 'spent too much' - is a quite fundamental misrepresentation of the facts. These problems, including the crisis in the bond markets, started with the banks and will end with the banks. The current mess is not a sovereign debt crisis generated by excessive spending for anyone except the Greeks. For everyone else, the problem is the banks that sovereigns have to take responsibility for, especially in the euro zone. That we call it a 'sovereign debt crisis' suggests a very interesting politics of 'bait and switch’ at play.
from Anatole Kaletsky:
This is a critical week for the world economy and financial markets, especially in the United States. Friday’s U.S. employment report will signal either a renewal of the economic recovery or, much more likely, will confirm that the economy is sinking into another seasonal “soft patch” for the fourth time in four years. Despite this risk, stock prices on Wall Street are at record highs, suggesting that equity investors see this slowdown as nothing more than a temporary obstruction on the way to a sustained recovery, just as in the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012. So should we prepare for more anxiety about a double-dip recession, or can we feel confident that this summer will be followed by an autumn of strong recovery, as in the past four years?
I had an excellent vantage point this week from which to assess this question: the global conference of the Milken Institute in California, which brings together 1,000 business executives, politicians and financiers in a U.S. equivalent of the Davos economic forum, transplanted to the warmer and even plusher surroundings of Beverly Hills. Clearly, there was anxiety about the flagging recovery and the self-inflected damage caused by January’s payroll tax hike and the unplanned cuts to public spending caused by the sequestration process. But there was also a palpable resurgence of optimism about America’s long term prospects: the opportunities created by 3 billion new global consumers; the U.S. track record of innovation and enterprise; the magnetism of U.S. universities for global talent; the promise of energy independence; the transformational opportunities from “big data” and robotics; the prospect of liberalized immigration policies; and, encompassing many of these issues, a sense that the hyperpartisan warfare in Washington over healthcare, taxes and public spending had reached a point of exhaustion. Both sides, it seems, might be ready for a ceasefire, if not yet a lasting peace.
from Nicholas Wapshott:
Remember the sequester? When seven weeks ago the deadline to find a federal budget compromise came and went, there was much handwringing in Washington. In the event that no agreement was found there were to be cuts to public spending so severe and painful that no one would dare fail to agree. To deter Republicans from holding out, half the immediate spending savings of $85.4 billion was to be found from the defense budget, and, to ensure Democrats would work to find a deal, half from annually funded federal programs. Despite these encouragements to fiscal discipline, the March 1 deadline came and went.
For weeks the word “sequestration” was used so often that commentators and their readers grew sick of it. The headlines moved on. But quietly, without making much news, implementation is well under way and proving just as dire and destructive as advertised. It is hard to fully comprehend the impact of death by a thousand cuts and where they fall. This week the sequester broke surface when it began affecting air travel, causing long delays at airports, which is to be expected when you send 1,500 air traffic controllers home without pay. One in 10 controllers will stay at home on unpaid leave every day until October. With the vacation season looming, crowded airports full of frustrated passengers will become commonplace.
from Lawrence Summers:
With the release of the president’s budget, Washington has once again descended into partisan squabbling. There is in America today pervasive concern about the basic functioning of our democracy. Congress is viewed less favorably than ever before in the history of public opinion polling. Revulsion at political figures unable to reach agreement on measures that substantially reduce prospective budget deficits is widespread. Pundits and politicians alike condemn gridlock as angry movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party emerge on both sides of the political spectrum, and partisanship seems to become ever more pervasive.
All this comes at a time of great challenge. Profound changes, as emerging economies led by China converge toward the West, will redefine the global order. Beyond the current economic downturn, which is surely the most serious since the Great Depression, lies the even more serious challenge of the rise of technologies that may well raise average productivity but displace large numbers of workers. Public debt is running up in a way that is without precedent except in times of all-out war. And a combination of the share of the population that is aged and the rising relative price of public services such as healthcare and education pressure future budgets.
from Chrystia Freeland:
Pity Barack Obama. Everything in his life experience prepared him to be the president who would take on the big challenge of the 21st century: rising income inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class.
His peripatetic youth taught him about the price of plutocracy. In an interview unearthed by Zachary A. Goldfarb of the Washington Post, in 1995 Barack Obama, plugging his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," recalled that experience for the Hyde Park Citizen, his neighborhood edition of a newspaper that bills itself as the "Premiere African American Weekly" in Chicago.
Britain's independent Office for Budget Responsibility slashed its growth forecasts for this year ahead of George Osborne's Budget on Wednesday. But looking longer-term, it now has the unusual distinction of being more optimistic about Britain's long-term economic health than the Bank of England, often pilloried for its rose-tinted views.
And rightly so. The Bank's famed GDP fan charts have been exceptionally over-optimistic. Until recently, it routinely suggested the economy was more likely to grow more than 5 percent annually than contract even slightly, which was plainly absurd.
By Ian Campbell
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The UK economy is flat-lining and austerity is blamed. But George Osborne should resist mounting pressure to reverse course or slash taxes in his third budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer on Wednesday.
from The Great Debate UK:
By Nick Hostler, tax expert at BDO. The opinions expressed are his own.
Following the recent loss of the UK’s AAA rating, Chancellor George Osborne will be keen to show real progress and dedication towards eliminating the UK’s structural fiscal deficit, but must balance this with ensuring that the UK is a highly competitive and attractive location for multi-national businesses. The Budget should mark a watershed moment for the coalition government as Osborne, with an eye on the next general election, treads a fine line while demonstrating an understanding of the pressures faced by individuals and businesses across the country.
Whether he strikes this balance remains to be seen, but here is what I believe the Budget will have in store.
from The Great Debate UK:
By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.
Budget Day again, and the pressure on Chancellor George Osborne is rising ominously. There is little agreement about what needs to be done, but complete agreement that something has to change because the state of Britain's economy is simply awful.
Yet just look at the facts in the table below (all the data are taken from Eurostat, the EU's own statistical agency). For the latest quarter, the UK economy contracted by 0.3 percent - but France's performance was just as dismal, Germany's economy shrank by twice as much, as did the euro zone as a whole. Only the USA achieved a significantly better outcome, a dazzling growth rate of zero - but at least it didn't shrink. Year-on-year (Y-O-Y, as the pros call it), the picture is even clearer. Britain's economic growth, a miserable 0.3 percent, was not significantly lower than Germany's, but better than France's minus-0.3 percent, or indeed the euro zone as a whole, which was down by 0.9 percent. Only the USA grew to any significant extent – and there are signs that it may now be starting to slow down, even before the impact of the fiscal cliff and the sequester are felt.
from The Edgy Optimist:
Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republican budget this week with an ominous yet familiar warning: “America’s national debt is over $16 trillion.” Having stated the problem, he then offered a solution, one which differed only marginally from what he’s offered the past two years. Namely: restrain government healthcare spending on Medicare and Medicaid, reform the individual tax code, close loopholes, lower corporate taxes, and promote natural gas and energy independence. The goal? A balanced budget by 2023 that will ensure “the well-being of all Americans…and reignite the American dream.”
The strongest part of Ryan’s unveiling is not the specifics, which may not be very strong at all, but the unimpeachable critique of the White House and congressional Democrats for not offering their own blueprint and budget for the future. Some of that is semantics; both the president and congressional Democrats have offered various rough outlines of their long-term budget, and now Senate Democrats offered their counterproposal. But until late they had operated more in the rough-and-tumble of dysfunctional Washington negotiations rather than with explicit, official and formal (and long) outlines of exactly what will be spent and how. Yes, each year the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, does assess and express views about present spending. That is not the same as an explicit pathway for the future, which Ryan has indeed offered.