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Posts Tagged ‘paradox of thrift’

Keynes versus the Classics: a new version of an old story

The ‘Classical’ Treasury view of the 1920s and 30s was that extra government spending or tax cuts were not the solution to depression and mass unemployment. Instead, it would crowd out private expenditure if the money supply were not allowed to rise as it would drive up interest rates. But if money supply were allowed to rise, this would be inflationary. The solution was to reduce budget deficits to increase confidence in public finances and to encourage private investment. Greater price and wage flexibility were the answer to markets not clearing.

Keynes countered these arguments by arguing that the economy could settle in a state of mass unemployment, with low confidence leading to lower consumer expenditure, lower investment, lower incomes and lower employment. The situation would be made worse, not better, by cuts in public expenditure or tax rises in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit. The solution was higher public expenditure to stimulate aggregate demand. This could be achieved by fiscal and monetary policies. Monetary policy alone could, however, be made ineffective by the liquidity trap. Extra money might simply be held rather than spent.

This old debate has been reborn since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent deep recession and, more recently, the lack of recovery. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The articles below consider the current situation. Many economists, but certainly not all, take a Keynesian line that austerity policies to reduce public-sector deficits have been counter-productive. By dampening demand, such policies have reduced national income and slowed the recovery in both investment and consumer demand. This has at best slowed the rate of deficit reduction or at worst even increased the deficit, with lower GDP leading to a reduction in tax receipts and higher unemployment leading to higher government social security expenditure.

Although monetary policy has been very loose, measures such as record low interest rates and quantitative easing have been largely ineffective in stimulating demand. Economies are stuck in a liquidity trap, with banks preferring to build their reserves rather than to increase lending. This is the result partly of a lack of confidence and partly of pressure on them to meet Basel II and III requirements of reducing their leverage.

But despite the call from many economists to use fiscal policy and more radical monetary policy to stimulate demand, most governments have been pre-occupied with reducing their deficits and ultimately their debt. Their fear is that rising deficits undermine growth – a fear that was given weight by, amongst others, the work of Reinhart and Rogoff (see the blog posts Reinhart and Rogoff: debt and growth and It could be you and see also Light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?.

But there is some movement by governments. The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe is following an aggressive monetary policy to drive down the exchange rate and boost aggregate demand (see A J-curve for Japan?) and, more recently, the European Commission has agreed to slow the pace of austerity by giving the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia more time to bring their budget deficits below the 3% of GDP target.

Of course, whether or not expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policies should be used to tackle a lack of growth does not alter the argument that supply-side policies are also required in order to increase potential economic growth.

A Keynesian Victory, but Austerity Stands Firm The New York Times, Business Day, Eduardo Porter (21/5/13)
With Austerity Under Fire, Countries Seek a More Balanced Solution Knowledge@Wharton (22/5/13)
Keynes, Say’s Law and the Theory of the Business Cycle History of Economics Review 25.1-2, Steven Kates (1996)
Is Lord Keynes back in Brussels? The Conversation, Fabrizio Carmignani (31/5/13)
Keynes’s Biggest Mistake The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (7/5/13)
Keynes’s Not So Big Mistake The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (7/5/13)
The Chutzpah Caucus The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (5/5/13)
Keynes and Keynesianism The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (14/5/13)
Japan Is About To Prove Keynesian Economics Entirely Wrong Forbes, Tim Worstall (11/5/13)
The poverty of austerity exposed Aljazeera, Paul Rosenberg (24/5/13)
Britain is a lab rat for George Osborne’s austerity programme experiment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/5/13)
Eurozone retreats from austerity – but only as far as ‘austerity lite’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/5/13)
Europe’s long night of uncertainty Daily Times (Pakistan), S P Seth (29/5/13)
Abenomics vs. bad economics The Japan Times Gregory Clark (29/5/13)
European countries to be allowed to ease austerity BBC News (29/5/13)
U.K. Should Restore Growth, Rebalance Economy IMF Survey (22/5/13)
Now everyone is a Keynesian again – except George Osborne The Observer, William Keegan (2/6/13)
Austerity Versus Growth (III): Fiscal Policy And Debt Sustainability Social Europe Journal, Stefan Collignon (30/5/13)


  1. Explain what is meant by Say’s Law and its implication for macroeconomic policy.
  2. Why have many governments, including the UK government, been reluctant to pursue expansionary fiscal policies?
  3. What is meant by the liquidity trap? What is the way out of this trap?
  4. In the first article above, Eduardo Porter argues that ‘moral views are getting in the way of reason’. What does he mean by this?
  5. Explain what are meant by the ‘paradox of thrift’ and the ‘fallacy of composition’. How are these two concepts relevant to the debate over austerity policies?
  6. What are the dangers in pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
  7. What are the dangers in not pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
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The paradox of thrift

If one person saves more, then it will increase that person’s consumption possibilities in the future. If, however, everyone saves more, and hence spends less, then businesses will earn less and are likely to respond by producing less if the decline in aggregate demand continues. Hence if a country saves more, people could be worse off. That’s the paradox of thrift.

There is considerable debate around the world at the moment about the desirability of austerity policies. The debate has become more intense with the worsening economic outlook in many European countries and with the election in France of François Hollande who rejects many of the austerity measures of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

But can further stimulus be given to aggregate demand without causing a further worsening of countries’ public-sector debt positions and causing a fall in confidence in financial markets? And how would that impact on investment?

And in the meantime, as the economic outlook darkens, people are trying to save more, despite low interest rates. The paradox of thrift seems to be getting more acute. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

How National Belt-Tightening Goes Awry New York Times, Robert J. Shiller (19/5/12)
Japan disease is spreading: High risk and low returns Firstpost (India), Vivek Kaul (17/5/12)
The Solution can not be More Debt Huffington Post, Jill Shaw Ruddock (29/5/12)
Crediting debt Breaking Views, Edward Hadas (30/5/12)
Green investments can overcome the paradox of thrift New Statesman, Dimitri Zenghelis (7/6/12)
Austerity has never worked Guardian, Ha-Joon Chang (4/6/12)
The False Choice Between Austerity And Growth Forbes (24/5/12)
It’s not a case of austerity v stimulus for Europe Guardian, Paul Haydon (1/6/12)

UK households’ saving ratio: series NRJS ONS
Household saving rates for OECD countries StatExtracts: OECD


  1. Why may we be experiencing a paradox of thrift at the current time?
  2. What are the arguments for the use of fiscal and monetary policies to expand aggregate demand at the current time?
  3. What are the arguments against the use of fiscal and monetary policies to expand aggregate demand at the current time?
  4. Can economic growth be stimulated by a redistribution of aggregate demand and, if so, in what way?
  5. Can green investment overcome the paradox of thrift?
  6. To what extent are demand-side and supply-side policies (a) complementary; (b) contradictory? Or, to put the question another way, to what extent may policies to encourage growth in the long term damage growth in the short term and vice versa?
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Living beyond our means?

The UK and US governments face a conundrum. To achieve economic recovery, aggregate demand needs to expand. This means that one or more of consumption, government expenditure, exports and investment must rise. But the government is trying to reduce government expenditure in order to reduce the size of the public-sector deficit and debt; exports are being held back by the slow recovery, or even return to recession, in the eurozone and the USA; and investment is being dampened by business pessimism. This leaves consumer expenditure. For recovery, High Street spending needs to rise.

But herein lies the dilemma. For consumer spending to rise, people need to save less and/or borrow more. But UK and US saving rates are already much lower than in many other countries. You can see this by examining Table 23 in OECD Economic Outlook. Also, household debt is much higher in the UK and USA. This has been largely the result of the ready availability of credit through credit cards and other means. The government is keen to encourage people to save more and to reduce their reliance on debt – in other words, to start paying off their credit-card and other debt. That way, the government hopes, the economy will become ‘rebalanced’. But this rebalancing, in the short run at least, will dampen aggregate demand. And that will hardly help recovery!

In the following podcast, Sheldon Garon discusses his new book Beyond Our Means. He describes the decline of saving in the USA and UK and examines why other countries have had much higher saving rates.

‘He also seeks to explain why high interest rates didn’t encourage saving in the boom years and why current levels of relatively high inflation haven’t stopped savings rates shooting up again in Britain.’

Living beyond our means Guardian: the Business Podcast, Sheldon Garon talks to Tom Clark (2/11/11)


  1. Why have saving rates in the UK and USA been much lower than those in many other countries? How significant has been the availability of credit in determining savings rates?
  2. Why have saving rates increased in the UK and USA since 2008/9 despite negative real interest rates in many months?
  3. Explain what is meant by the “paradox of thrift”. What are the implications of this paradox for government policy at the present time?
  4. Why may it be difficult to have a consumer-led recovery in the UK and US economies?
  5. What is the life-cycle theory of consumption and saving? How well does it explain saving rates?
  6. Can people be given a “nudge” to spend more or to save more? If so, what nudges might be appropriate in the current situation?
  7. Why do countries with a more equal distribution of income have higher saving rates?
  8. What is the relationship between the saving rate and (a) the rate of inflation and (b) the real rate of interest? Why is this the case?
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Tackling the paradox of thrift

One of the structural problems facing the UK economy is that people have been borrowing too much and saving too little. As a result, vast numbers of people have been living on credit and accumulating large debts, and many people have little in the way of savings when they retire.

So should the government or Bank of England be encouraging people to save? Not according to Charles Bean, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England – at least not in the short term. While acknowledging that people should be saving more over the long term, he argues that the main purpose of the historically low Bank Rate since the beginning of 2009 has been to encourage people to spend, thereby boosting the economy. In other words, if the purpose of a loose monetary policy is to increase aggregate demand and stimulate the economy, then what is needed is increased consumption and reduced saving, not increased saving.

In the following webcast, Charles Bean gives his views about interest rates and counters the criticism that savers are being pid too little interest. He argues that for many the solution is to start drawing on some of their capital – not a solution that most savers find very appealing!

Bank of England: savers should eat into cash Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (27/9/10)

Savers told to stop moaning and start spending Telegraph, Robert Winnett and Myra Butterworth (28/9/10)
Bean Says Bank of England Trying to Get Reasonable Economic Activity Level Bloomberg, Scott Hamilton and Gonzalo Vina (27/9/10)
Spend, spend, spend, demands Bank of England deputy governor Investment & Business News , Tom Harris (28/9/10)

International saving data (see Table 23) Economic Outlook, OECD
AMECO on line (see tables in section 15.3) AMECO, Economic and Financial Affairs (European Commission)
Economic and Labour Market Review (see Table 1.07) National Statistics


  1. What is meant by the ‘paradox of thrift’?
  2. Reconcile the argument that it is in the long-term interests of the UK economy for people to save more with the Bank of England’s current intention that people should save less?
  3. Is there a parallel argument about fiscal policy and government spending (see the news item The ‘paradox of cuts’?)
  4. What are the determinants of saving?
  5. Look at the data links above and compare the UK’s saving rate with that of other countries.
  6. What has happened to the UK saving rate over the past four years? Attempt an explanation of this.
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The ‘paradox of cuts’

Keynes referred to the ‘paradox of thrift’ (see, for example, Box 17.5 on page 492 of Sloman and Wride, Economics, 7th edition). The paradox goes something like this: if individuals save more, they will increase their consumption possibilities in the future. If society saves more, however, this may reduce its future income and consumption. Why should this be so? Well, as people in general save more, they will spend less. Firms will thus produce less. What is more, the lower consumption will discourage firms from investing. Thus, through both the multiplier and the accelerator, GDP will fall.

What we have in the paradox of thrift is an example of the ‘fallacy of composition’ (see Sloman and Wride, Box 3.7 on page 84). What applies at the individual level will not necessarily apply at the aggregate level. The paradox of thrift applied in the Great Depression of the 1930s. People cutting back on consumption drove the world economy further into depression.

Turn the clock forward some 80 years. On 26/27 June 2010, leaders of the G20 countries met in Canada to consider, amongst other things, how to protect the global economic recovery while tackling the large public-sector deficits. These deficits have soared as a result of two things: (a) the recession of 2008/9, which reduced tax revenues and resulted in more people claiming benefits, (b) the expansionary fiscal policies adopted to bring countries out of recession.

But the leaders were divided on how much to cut now. Some, such as the new Coalition government in the UK, want to cut the deficit quickly in order to appease markets and avert a Greek-style crisis and a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to service the debt. Others, such as the Obama Administration in the USA, want to cut more slowly so as not to put the recovery in jeopardy. Nevertheless, cuts were generally agreed, although agreement about the timing was more vague.

So where is the fallacy of composition? If one country cuts, then it is possible that increased demand from other countries could drive recovery. If all countries cut, however, the world may go back into recession. What applies to one country, therefore, may not apply to the world as a whole.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail and consider the individual elements of aggregate demand. If there are to be cuts in government expenditure, then there has to be a corresponding increase in aggregate demand elsewhere, if growth is to be maintained. This could come from increased consumption. But, with higher taxes and many people saving more (or reducing their borrowing) for fear of being made redundant or, at least, of having a cut in their incomes, there seems to be little sign that consumption will be the driver of growth.

Then there is investment. But, fearing a ‘double-dip recession’, business confidence is plummeting (see) and firms are likely to be increasingly reluctant to invest. Indeed, after the G20 summit, stock markets around the world fell. On 29 June, the FTSE 100 fell by 3.10% and the main German and French stock market indices, the Dax and the Cac 40, fell by 3.33% and 4.01% respectively. This was partly because of worries about re-financing the debts of various European countries, but it was partly because of fears about recovery stalling.

The problem is that cuts in government expenditure and rises in taxes directly affect the private sector. If government capital expenditure is cut, this will directly affect the construction industry. Even if the government makes simple efficiency savings, such as reducing the consumption of paper clips or paper, this will directly affect the private stationery industry. If taxes are raised, consumers are likely to buy less. Under these circumstances, no wonder many industries are reluctant to invest.

This leaves net exports (exports minus imports). Countries generally are hoping for a rise in exports as a way of maintaining aggregate demand. But here we have the fallacy of composition in its starkest form. If one country exports more, then this can boost its aggregate demand. But if all countries in total are to export more, this can only be achieved if there is an equivalent increase in global imports: after all, someone has to buy the exports! And again, with growth faltering, the global demand for imports is likely to fall, or at best slow down.

The following articles consider the compatibility of cuts and growth. Is there a ‘paradox of cuts’ equivalent to the paradox of thrift?

Osborne’s first Budget? It’s wrong, wrong, wrong! Independent on Sunday, Joseph Stiglitz (27/6/10)
Strategy: Focus switches from exit to growth Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/6/10)
Once again we must ask: ‘Who governs?’ Financial Times, Robert Skidelsky (16/6/10)
Europe’s next top bailout… MoneyWeb, Guy Monson and Subitha Subramaniam (9/6/10)
Hawks hovering over G20 summit Financial Times (25/6/10)
G20 applauds fiscal austerity but allows for national discretion Independent, Andrew Grice and David Usborne (28/6/10)
To stimulate or not to stimulate? That is the question Independent, Stephen King (28/6/10)
Now even the US catches the deficit reduction habit Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (28/6/10)
George Osborne claims G20 success Guardian, Larry Elliott and Patrick Wintour (28/6/10)
G20 accord: you go your way, I’ll go mine Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/6/10)
G20 summit agrees on deficit cuts by 2013 BBC News (28/6/10)
IMF says G20 could do better BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (27/6/10)
Are G20 summits worth having? What should the G20′s top priority be? (Economics by invitation): see in particular The G20 is heading for a “public sector paradox of thrift”, John Makin The Economist (25/6/10)
Why it is right for central banks to keep printing Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/6/10)
In graphics: Eurozone in crisis: Recovery Measures BBC News (24/6/10)
A prophet in his own house The Economist (1/7/10)
The long and the short of fiscal policy Financial Times, Clive Crook (4/7/10)

G20 Communiqué
The G20 Toronto Summit Declaration (27/6/10) (see particularly paragraph 10)


  1. Consider the arguments that economic growth and cutting deficits are (a) complementary aims (b) contradictory aims.
  2. Is there necessarily a ‘paradox of cuts’? Explain.
  3. How is game theory relevant in explaining the outcome of international negotiations, such as those at the G20 summit?
  4. Would it be wise for further quantitative easing to accompany fiscal tightening?
  5. What is the best way for governments to avoid a ‘double-dip recession’?
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