Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The EU-U.S. love-hate relationship

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 11, 2014 17:51 UTC

The elaborate gavotte between the American and European economies continues.

While the Federal Reserve has begun to wind down its controversial quantitative easing (QE) program, the European Central Bank (ECB) the federal reserve of the eurozone, has announced it is considering a QE program of its own.

It is a belated acknowledgement, if not an outright admission, from Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, that five years of the European Union’s austerity policy has failed to lift the eurozone nations out of the economic mire. The ECB has presided over a wholly unnecessary triple-dip recession in the eurozone and sparked a bitter rift between the German-dominated European Union bureaucracy and the Mediterranean nations that must endure the rigors imposed from Brussels. All to little avail.

If there are any “austerians” left standing, let them explain this. Ignoring the cries of the unemployed and those pressing for urgent measures to promote growth in Europe, the ECB blithely imposed its punishing creed, arguing that there would be no gain without pain. The result? Little gain, endless pain.

The eurozone economy endured growth at a miserable 0.2 percent year-on-year in the last quarter of 2013 (after an 18-month-long eurozone recession). Unemployment is at a wretched 11.9 percent. The eurozone is suffering from chronic “lowflation,” with inflation at an annual 0.5 percent,  heading toward perhaps the most destructive economic condition of all — deflation.

In response to this dunce’s report card, Draghi is considering pumping money into the eurozone through quantitative easing. Even then, he has made clear he does not mean what he says. He sees this policy — which Washington abandoned when it was seen to be ineffective  – as a last resort to push up inflation and avoid the spiraling collapse of prices and economic activity that threatened the world economy in the fall of 2008. But he hopes the mere threat of QE will be enough to lift prices and save Europe from the deflation that has dogged the Japanese economy for decades.

The twisted politics of enforced economic pain

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 25, 2013 16:16 UTC

By the end of the year, American taxpayers will no longer be part owners of General Motors. That is good news all around. Nationalization of a private company rarely makes economic sense. Even for red-blooded socialists, the ownership of the means of production has long been an empty threat, a totemic cul de sac that for years led socialism down the wrong path. Regulation is a far better way to ensure an industry works for the public good.

The federal government is not best-suited to administer a private industry. The emergency that once threatened American motor manufacturing has passed. State intervention has forced much-needed restructuring into a hidebound business riddled with grandfathered practices and anachronistic benefits. Intervention avoided the deleterious knock-on effects of the collapse of a major domestic industry, helped the external balance of payments, and saved thousands of skilled jobs in good time.

The return of GM to wholly private hands will no doubt set off hand-wringing from those who would have preferred GM to go properly bust during the financial panic of 2008, then restructure itself without state help. Those who opposed Steven Rattner’s motor rescue argue that government intervention to prevent a company from going broke interferes in a timeless process of rebirth as natural as the change of the seasons.

No, austerity did not work

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 7, 2013 18:09 UTC

There have been a lot of sighs of relief in Europe lately, where countries like Britain and Spain, long in recession, have finally started to grow. Not by much, nor for long. But such is the political imperative to suggest that all the misery of fiscally tight economic policies was worth the pain that there are tentative claims the worst is now over and, ipso facto, austerity worked.

Hold on a minute. Growth is good. Growth is what allows countries to pay down their national debt by increasing economic activity, putting the unemployed to work and making people prosperous enough to pay taxes. But gross domestic product growth alone is not enough to provide adequate sustained prosperity if it does not also lead to significant job growth.

Take Spain, which has just emerged from two years of recession by posting a third quarter growth rate of 0.1 percent. Technically the Spanish slump is over. But a glance at their job figures shows the country has a long way to go before it can genuinely say it has escaped the diminishing effects of austerity — in the form of tight fiscal policies, public spending cuts and labor and entitlement reforms — imposed indirectly by Germany through the European Union.

Austerity is a moral issue

Nicholas Wapshott
May 17, 2013 20:29 UTC

Security worker opens the door of a government job center as people wait to enter in Marbella, Spain, December 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the nearly five years since the worst financial crash since the Great Depression, the remedy for the world’s economic doldrums has swung from full-on Keynesianism to unforgiving austerity and back.

The initial Keynesian response halted the collapse in economic activity. But it was soon met by borrowers’ remorse in the shape of paying down debt and raising taxes without delay. In the last year, full-throttle austerity has fallen out of favor with those charged with monitoring the world economy.

Not in the spirit of Hayek

Nicholas Wapshott
May 14, 2013 18:50 UTC

It has been a bad couple of weeks for conservative social scientists. First a doctoral student ran the numbers on the study by Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that underpins austerity and deep public spending cuts as a cure for the Great Recession and found it full of errors. Then a policy analyst, Jason Richwine, who angered Senate Republicans trying to pass immigration reform with a one-sided estimate of the cost of making undocumented workers citizens, was obliged to clear his desk at the Heritage Foundation when it became known his Harvard dissertation suggested Hispanics had lower intelligence than “the white native population.”

It makes you wonder what Friedrich Hayek would have to say about such aberrant research. Hayek has become the patron saint of conservative intellectuals – and with good reason. He went head to head with John Maynard Keynes in 1931 in an effort to stop Keynesianism in its tracks. Hayek failed, but his attempt gave him mythical status among thinkers who deplore big government and central management of the economy.

Hayek became a conservative hero a second time with publication of his Road to Serfdom  (1944) that suggested the larger the state sector, the more there was a tendency to tyranny. Many of today’s Hayekians harden up Hayek’s carefully expressed thoughts to declare that all government is potentially despotic, while also ignoring his arguments in favor of governments providing a generous safety net for the less advantaged, including a home for every citizen and universal health care – perhaps because Americans were first introduced to Serfdom in a much truncated Reader’s Digest edition. They would do well to re-read the original.

Austerity still doesn’t work

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 16, 2013 16:26 UTC

Does austerity work? As many Tea Party activists and conservative economists suggest that the solution to America’s economic ills is a large spoonful of the bitter medicine of austerity, it is a question worth asking. A few months of misery may be worth it if the result is strong growth and full employment. First witness for the austerity prosecution is Latvia, for which some extravagant claims are being made. The economy of the former Soviet satellite and current member of the European Union was nose-diving in 2008-9. Now it is growing again.

Latvia’s premier, Valdis Dombrovskis, has written a self-congratulatory book, How Latvia Came through the Financial Crisis, with the help of Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute, who claims that if America followed the Latvian example we would all be better off. Aslund extrapolates from the Latvian example, “Keynesian thinking has been tested, and it has failed spectacularly.” So what does Latvia’s experience of austerity really tell us? As you might expect, things are not quite as rosy as they are made out to be.

Back in 2008-9, Latvia was at its lowest ebb, losing a fifth of its output in just two years. Its second largest bank went bust, leaving thousands of Latvians without their lives’ savings. Unemployment was above 20 per cent, and 40 per cent among the young. Credit froze and construction, which prior to 2008 was booming thanks to low interest rates, collapsed. In December 2008, the Latvian government won a €7.5 billion bail-out from the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU – worth more than a third quarter of its annual GDP of $28.25 billion – on the condition that it introduce “structural reforms” and a generous, temporary safety net to offset the harsh effects of austerity. The reforms meant slashing public spending from 44 per cent of GDP to 36 per cent and removing legal safeguards from trade unions to reduce labor costs. By early 2009, violent rioting erupted on the streets of the capital, Riga.

from The Great Debate:

Should Obama mimic David Cameron’s austerity?

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 27, 2011 20:17 UTC

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

In medieval times, a key member of a monarch’s retinue was the food taster, a hapless fellow who ate what his master was about to eat. If the taster survived, the food was deemed safe for the king’s consumption. President Obama has a taster of sorts in David Cameron, the British prime minister, who has embarked upon an economic experiment that echoes the recipe of wholesale public spending cuts and tax hikes needed if both sides in Congress are to agree to raising the federal government debt ceiling. How the British economy is faring offers Obama an idea of what a similarly radical policy of cutting and taxing here would mean to the American economy.

Cameron’s election in May 2010 coincided with the start of the Greek debt crisis. The Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned him that the public debt in the UK was so large that Britain, too, might see its lending become impossibly expensive, so Cameron decided that there was no time to lose in putting the fiscal books in order. He decided to slash public spending by 25 per cent over four years and immediately raise value added tax on goods and services from 17.5 to 20 per cent. Such a radical remedy found favor with the rump of British Conservatives who felt that Margaret Thatcher’s free-market, small government, “sound money” policies of the Eighties had not been pressed to their limit. In turn, Thatcher’s prescription to reduce the size of the state derived from her favorite thinker Friedrich Hayek, the author of “The Road to Serfdom,” who believed like many Tea Party supporters that government intervention inevitably leads to tyranny.

Cameron’s experiment in applying a radical cure to the British economy caught the attention of a number of conservatives here, among them George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wrote in the Washington Post, “If Cameron’s approach works -- dramatically cutting deficits without stalling economic growth -- it will be an obvious, powerful example for America.” “If only the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress had been so courageous. Instead, they are choosing to put off these big decisions,” moaned Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief of the Economist, in a piece co-authored with Michael Green in the Wall Street Journal. Even Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner thought the British experiment worth trying. “I am very impressed, as one man’s view looking from a distance, at the basic strategy [Cameron] has adopted,” Geithner told the BBC.

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