Opinion

Lawrence Summers

Britain and the limits of austerity

Lawrence Summers
May 5, 2014 13:53 UTC

The Bank of England is seen in the City of London

The British economy has experienced the most rapid growth in the G7 over the last few months. It increased at an annual rate of more than 3 percent in the last quarter — even as the U.S. economy barely grew, continental Europe remained in the doldrums and Japan struggled to maintain momentum in the face of a major new valued added tax increase.

Many have seized on Britain’s strong performance as vindication of the austerity policy that Britain has followed since 2010, and evidence against the secular stagnation idea that lack of demand is a medium-term constraint on growth in the industrial world.

Interpreting the British strategy correctly is crucial because of the political stakes in Britain, the question of future British economic policy and, most important, because the British experience influences economic policy debates around the globe. Unfortunately, when properly interpreted, the British experience refutes the austerity advocates and confirms John Maynard Keynes’s warning about the dangers of indiscriminate budget cutting during an economic downturn.

A protester holds a placard during a rally in Trafalgar Square in central LondonStart with the British economy’s current situation. While growth has been rapid recently, this is only because of the depth of the hole that Britain dug for itself. While the U.S. gross domestic product is now well above its pre-crisis peak, in Britain GDP remains below previous peak levels and even short of levels predicted when austerity policies were implemented. Not surprisingly given this dismal record, the debt to GDP ratio is now nearly 10 percentage points higher than forecast, and the date when budget balance is predicted has been pushed back to the end of the decade.

The common excuse offered for Britain’s poor performance is its dependence on financial services. Yet the New York metropolitan area, far more dependent on financial services than Britain, has seen GDP comfortably outstrip its previous peak. Though the euro area has performed poorly, even a casual look at trade statistics confirms that this cannot account for most of Britain’s poor growth.

On secular stagnation

Lawrence Summers
Dec 16, 2013 12:31 UTC

Some time ago speaking at the IMF, I joined others who have invoked the old idea of secular stagnation and raised the possibility that the American and global economies could not rely on normal market mechanisms to assure full employment and strong growth without sustained unconventional policy support. My concern rested on a number of considerations. First, even though financial repair had largely taken place four years ago, recovery since that time has only kept up with population growth and normal productivity growth in the United States, and has been worse elsewhere in the industrial world. Second, manifestly unsustainable bubbles and loosening of credit standards during the middle of the last decade, along with very easy money, were sufficient to drive only moderate economic growth. Third, short-term interest rates are severely constrained by zero lower bound and there is very little scope for further reductions in either term premia or credit spreads, and so real interest rates may not be able to fall far enough to spur enough investment to lead to full employment. Fourth, in such a situation falling wages and prices or inflation at slower-than-expected rates is likely to worsen economic performance by encouraging consumers and investors to delay spending, and to redistribute income and wealth from higher spending debtors to lower spending creditors.

The implication of these considerations is that the presumption that runs through most policy discussion — that normal economic and policy conditions will return at some point — cannot be maintained. The point is demonstrated by the Japanese experience, where gross domestic product today is less than two-thirds of what most observers predicted a generation ago, even as interest rates have been at zero for many years. It bears emphasis that Japanese GDP disappointed less in the five years after the bubbles burst at the end of the 1980s than the United States has since 2008. GDP today in the United States is more than 10 percent below what was predicted before the financial crisis.

If secular stagnation concerns are relevant to our current economic situation, there are obviously profound policy implications that I will address in a subsequent column. Before turning to policy, though, there are two central issues regarding the secular stagnation thesis that have to be addressed.

The U.S. must embrace a growth agenda

Lawrence Summers
Feb 11, 2013 13:06 UTC

There should be little disagreement across the political spectrum that growth and job creation remain America’s most serious national problem. Ahead of President Obama’s first State of the Union address of his second term, and further fiscal negotiations in Washington, America needs to rethink its priorities for economic policy.

The U.S. economy grew at a rate of 1.5 percent in 2012. Last week, the independent Congressional Budget Office projected that growth will be only 1.4 percent during 2013 – and that unemployment will rise. While the CBO says that growth will accelerate in 2014 and beyond, it nonetheless predicts that unemployment will remain above 7 percent until 2016.

A weak economy and limited job creation make growth in middle-class incomes all but impossible, add pressure to budgets by restricting tax revenue and threaten essential private and public investments in education and innovation. Worse, they undermine the American example at a dangerous time in the world.

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