Four years ago world leaders, meeting in the G20 crisis session, agreed they would all work to move from recession to growth and prosperity. They agreed to a global growth compact to be delivered by combining national growth targets with coordinated global interventions. It didn’t happen. After the $1 trillion stimulus of 2009, fiscal consolidation became the established order of the day, and so year after year millions have continued to endure unemployment and lower living standards.
Only now are there signs that the long-overdue shift in national macro-economic policies may be taking place. The new Japanese government is backing up a “minimum inflation target” with a multi-billion-dollar stimulus designed to create 600,000 jobs. In what some call the “reverse Volcker moment,” Ben Bernanke has become the first head of a central bank for decades to announce he will target a 6 percent level of unemployment alongside his inflation objective. And the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has told us that “when policy rates are stuck at the zero lower bound, there could not be a more favorable case for Nominal GDP targeting.” Side by side with this shift in policy, in every area but the Euro, there is also policy progress in China. It may look from the outside as if November’s Communist Party Congress simply re-announced their all-too-familiar but undelivered wish to re-balance the economy from exports to domestic consumption, but this time the promise has been accompanied by a time-specific commitment: to double average domestic income per head by 2020.
The intellectual case for change is obvious. A chronic shortage of demand has developed for two reasons. First, as the IMF announced at the end of 2012, the adverse impact of fiscal consolidation on employment and demand has been greater than many people expected. Secondly, the effectiveness of quantitative easing has almost certainly started to wane. As former BBC chief Gavyn Davies has put it, “the supply potential of the economy is in danger of becoming dependent on, or ‘endogenous to,’ the weakness of domestic demand. …With demand constrained in this way for such a lengthy period of time, supply potential is beginning to downsize to fit the low level of demand.” It is a new equilibrium that can be reversed only by boosting demand.
But why is there so little optimism when the paradigm shift sought in 2009 is finally starting to materialize? Why do experts continue to downgrade their forecasts for 2013 and even 2014, while discussion so often drifts toward talk of a lost decade? It is, I suggest, because while countries are today adopting national growth strategies, they have missed out on the other part of the 2009 decision — the necessity of coordinated global intervention. And the big question is whether the momentum for growth can be sustained by national initiatives alone in the absence of global action or will instead melt away once again under the pressure of narrow, self-defeating national policies.
There is depressing testimony to stagnation produced by a lack of global demand. Olivier Blanchard, the IMF chief economist, has deployed devastating figures to demonstrate how fiscal consolidation has depressed the Western economy. Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research underlines the point: Austerity in one country reduces demand in the next and vice versa. ”The hit to output in Germany is now 2%. In the UK it is 5%; and in Greece 13%,” he wrote. Still more shocking is the impact on debt-to-GDP ratios. As Portes points out, fiscal consolidation was supposed to improve fiscal sustainability; instead, it makes matters worse. “This isn’t true just in extreme cases like Greece – fiscal consolidation across the EU has raised debt-to-GDP ratios in Germany and the UK as well. In both the UK and the euro area as a whole, the result of coordinated fiscal consolidation is a rise in the debt-GDP ratio of approximately five percentage points. For the UK, that means a debt-GDP ratio of close to 75% in 2013 instead of about 70%. We are not running to stand still; we are determinedly heading in the wrong direction.”