Tag Archives: Private debt

What happened between 2010 and 2016. All about Austerity…

I came across something on Yves Smith’s excellent #NakedCapitalism blog, which I thought I’d share with my future self.

Before linking it, here’s my own version of the story so far…

I’ve kept banging on about the follies of #austerity ( aka ‘fiscal consolidation’) as introduced by the UK’s Chancellor George Osborne, much aided and abetted by the hapless Nick Clegg in the coalition government which came to power in 2010.

But it is important to be clear that fiscal consolidation is very appropriate under certain circumstances – namely, when an economy is judged to be growing strongly, and, for any reason you like, it is judged desirable to rein in public debt. After all, why burden your future self or future generations with debt which is unnecessary because you can easily afford to reduce it without harming your growth or harming your public services? All governments borrow by issuing debt in the form of government bonds and the UK government has nearly always been in debt. Think of it as a mortgage. No problem, as long as you can afford the interest payments. Even with a strongly growing economy a government may legitimately wish to borrow in order to raise large sums, beyond the scope of taxation, for state investment purposes – on infrastructure, hospitals, universities, schools, weapons, scientific research, and so on (war also comes to mind). But if it needs to borrow to pay for ongoing salaries, unemployment benefits, social services, road maintenance, etc., (etc.) – then clearly something is wrong. In that case it may mean taxation is just too low: as a growing economy may mainly be putting the proceeds of its growth into the pockets of a very few, with little ‘trickling down’ to the many. In which case the government’s coffers would be receiving too little tax to pay for current expenditure, because inequality is too high.

The current UK austerity policy was introduced by the Clegg-Cameron coalition shortly after the massive increase in debt incurred by the UK government of Gordon Brown: an increase which was necessitated by the bailout of the poorly-regulated financial sector (for which blame Bill Clinton and blame Blair-Brown) after the financial sector, especially the banks, brought much of the world economy to its knees. The same events occurred in the USA, where it all started, and in many other major economies.

Financial sector bailouts, the monetary policy of reducing central bank interest rates and fiscal stimulus by governments – ie extra government spending – were initially applied and sort-of saved the day. But the initial very appropriate fiscal stimulus was quickly followed by panicky fiscal retrenchment even as the previous policy was starting to work. The immediate result of the 2010 newly elected Conservative fiscal retrenchment was to immediately turn shaky recovery back into recession. In the UK George Osborne lifted his foot off the fiscal brake a little when it became obvious to the Treasury in 2011 that his austerity policy was damaging the economy, which had started to grow again in 2009-10. All the while Mr Osborne was claiming that there was no alternative to Plan A, and that he was still pursuing it. But he wasn’t. Much to the chagrin of some of the ‘Tory Press’.

However, by then the damage caused by Osborne’s ceasing all UK government investment, and his other austerity measures, had already been done; followed by knock-on (‘hysteresis’) effects on private investment as well as further state investment. Of course, the UK economy did eventually start to recover yet again – they always do…eventually. But this UK recovery, despite significant employment growth, has since been pretty anaemic and fragile in terms of GDP, with appallingly low productivity and an unsustainable ‘trade deficit’. not to be confused with the fiscal deficit, which was hardly shrinking at all, despite the cuts. Similar government behaviour elsewhere in the world produced similar results, though Britain’s productivity remains the worst among developed nations.

Of course, in the middle of all this, the euro area had its own special problems to add to the mix, largely due to irresponsible bank lending, most especially by German banks, to irresponsible  private borrowers – mainly property developers in other countries, especially Ireland and Spain. Greece was a special bad case with Greek government profligacy which was pretty obvious when it joined the euro and which should have stopped its joining, except nobody had the courage to call out the Greek govenment over its bogus data.

Basically, what was forgotten by the UK government and others, as they focused their attention on the higher than normal Debt/GDP ratio (obviously more important than the actual debt itself), was that while, if this ratio is considered too high to be sustainable, there are, on the surface, two ways to bring it down:

  1. to directly cut debt by cutting the government deficit (difference between tax take and expenditure), through severely curtailing government spending, or…
  2. a longer term strategy of raising GDP by means of additional government spending on capital investment and encouraging business to invest… (and there is always ‘helicopter money’ to consider, as well – giving money directly to consumers to spend)

… in most countries, especially the UK, the focus was wholly on response (1) from which the private sector bit of (2) was supposed to occur via… er…’confidence’.

The reason for choosing opton (1) was the alleged sheer urgency of ‘bringing down the debt’. This was supposed to mean the private sector would regain its confidence to spend and business, thereby, would invest more. It was hoped by the more full-blooded neocons that this would also have the benefit of shrinking the state, which, for many, was their main ideological and selfish motivation (lower taxes, y’see).

Of course it failed and continues failing, even in its anaemic form.

This is because businesspeople are not stupid and did not actually have confidence that the policy was going to work, whatever they may have been saying to the press. And so, instead, they pocketed their profits and tax cuts by proceeding to increase senior management salaries/bonuses while massaging up their share prices via buying their own shares, thus ‘justifying’ increased bonuses… etc., (etc.). British productivity, in particular, suffered from a lack of investment and cheap labour, some imported.

Neither were ‘the markets’ confident. Thus they went about increasing their purchase of government bonds in the secondary market, driving up bond prices and thereby decreasing bond yields, since the interest paid is monetarily fixed on the initial government issue price. This was, amazingly, widely reported by an ignorant press and others as ‘success’ in raising the confidence of the markets and, by inference, business generally. After all, if a country’s bond prices are high (interest rates therefore low) doesn’t that mean the country is a safe bet?

Bollocks it did.

In this case it meant that while ‘the markets’ understood that a country in charge of its own currency would have some difficulty actually going bankrupt, because if push comes to shove it can legally pay its debts in its devalued currency, government bonds were being bought instead of shares or investing in productivity-enhancing schemes because, in reality – as opposed to what was put in company reports – they had too little confidence in their sales and profitability being steadily sustained in the future. There was nowhere else really to invest with any confidence, squire.

In the euro zone, countries can easily go bankrupt, because they do not have their own currency and so debt must be repaid in euros. They are in a situation a bit like the old discredited ‘gold standard’.  This was why Britain could never ever have become ‘Greece’ despite the ignorant warnings from people who should have known better, or did know better but were just being mendacious.

Throughout, there was also the ‘monetary policy’ employed by central banks, namely reducing interst rates drastically and quantitative easing  – otherwise known as ‘unconventional’ monetary policy – employed to overcome the ‘zero lower bound’, when you cannot stimulate an economy via lower interest rates any more because they they have already been reduced to zero or near zero. That had relatively poor stimulative success – unless, maybe it worked to keep us out of recession once we had managed to get out of it. In fact, we mainly got out of it through consumer spending and increases in consumer debt, or at least consumer ‘dissaving’.

So, in the UK, here we still are, with an anaemic recovery (yes, yes, better than some, but still anaemic) which can easily be knocked off course by any old external shock – and any old self-inflicted internal shock like the Brexit vote and its rumbling longer term repercussions.

Quite early on in all this, the IMF had changed its mind about the desirability of fiscal consolidation as a way of reducing debt (murmurings and research from them in 2010 and later, as I posted in previous blogs). But the OECD seems only very recently to have come to its senses and started to call for governmental fiscal expansion policies. It says the need is urgent, urgent, I tell you! It has to be remembered that these august instutions are often run by politicians and bankers who have a major say in the official pronouncements, which may actually conflict what their economists are actually saying, until eventually the economic realities and the narrative of their economists successfuly break through.

Meanwhile, Germany is still stuck in its traumatic Weimar fear of inflation – forgetting Bruning deflation – and employs a version of macroeconomics allegedly invented by Schwaebian Housewives: debt=bad…always… and never ever print money. Their behaviour is also dictated by a belief that every country in the euro zone should be like them and export more than it imports: a logical impossibility… (except to German finance ministers, apparently).

Finally, here is the link I promised originally.

But now we are starting a new story. Post the Brexit referendum. Next blog.

 

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