Tag: austerity

Ten years ago, the financial crisis deepened and stock markets around the world plummeted. The trigger was the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest US investment bank. It filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. This was not the first bank failure around that time. In 2007, Northern Rock in the UK (Aug/Sept 2007) had collapsed and so too had Bear Stearns in the USA (Mar 2008).

Initially there was some hope that the US government would bail out Lehmans. But when Congress rejected the Bank Bailout Bill on September 29, the US stock market fell sharply, with the Dow Jones falling by 7% the same day. This was mirrored in other countries: the FTSE 100 fell by 15%.

At the core of the problem was excessive lending by banks with too little capital. What is more, much of the capital was of poor quality. Many of the banks held securitised assets containing ‘sub-prime mortgage debt’. The assets, known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), were bundles of other assets, including mortgages. US homeowners had been lent money based on the assumption that their houses would increase in value. When house prices fell, homeowners were left in a position of negative equity – owing more than the value of their house. With many people forced to sell their houses, prices fell further. Mortgage debt held by banks could not be redeemed: it was ‘sub-prime’ or ‘toxic debt’.

Response to the crisis

The outcome of the financial crash was a series of bailouts of banks around the world. Banks cut back on lending and the world headed for a major recession.

Initially, the response of governments and central banks was to stimulate their economies through fiscal and monetary policies. Government spending was increased; taxes were cut; interest rates were cut to near zero. By 2010, the global economy seemed to be pulling out of recession.

However, the expansionary fiscal policy, plus the bailing out of banks, had led to large public-sector deficits and growing public-sector debt. Although a return of economic growth would help to increase revenues, many governments felt that the size of the public-sector deficits was too large to rely on economic growth.

As a result, many governments embarked on a period of austerity – tight fiscal policy, involving cutting government expenditure and raising taxes. Although this might slowly bring the deficit down, it slowed down growth and caused major hardships for people who relied on benefits and who saw their benefits cut. It also led to a cut in public services.

Expanding the economy was left to central banks, which kept monetary policy very loose. Rock-bottom interest rates were then accompanied by quantitative easing. This was the expansion of the money supply by central-bank purchases of assets, largely government bonds. A massive amount of extra liquidity was pumped into economies. But with confidence still low, much of this ended up in other asset purchases, such as stocks and shares, rather than being spent on goods and services. The effect was a limited stimulation of the economy, but a surge in stock market prices.

With wages rising slowly, or even falling in real terms, and with credit easy to obtain at record low interest rates, so consumer debt increased.

Lessons

So have the lessons of the financial crash been learned? Would we ever have a repeat of 2007–9?

On the positive side, financial regulators are more aware of the dangers of under capitalisation. Banks’ capital requirements have increased, overseen by the Bank for International Settlements. Under its Basel II and then Basel III regulations (see link below), banks are required to hold much more capital (‘capital buffers’). Some countries’ regulators (normally the central bank), depending on their specific conditions, exceed these the Basel requirements.

But substantial risks remain and many of the lessons have not been learnt from the financial crisis and its aftermath.

There has been a large expansion of household debt, fuelled by low interest rates. This constrains central banks’ ability to raise interest rates without causing financial distress to people with large debts. It also makes it more likely that there will be a Minsky moment, when a trigger, such as a trade war (e.g. between the USA and China), causes banks to curb lending and consumers to rein in debt. This can then lead to a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.

Total debt of the private and public sectors now amounts to $164 trillion, or 225% of world GDP – 12 percentage points higher than in 2009.

China poses a considerable risk, as well as being a driver of global growth. China has very high levels of consumer debt and many of its banks are undercapitalised. It has already experienced one stock market crash. From mid-June 2015, there was a three-week fall in share prices, knocking about 30% off their value. Previously the Chinese stock market had soared, with many people borrowing to buy shares. But this was a classic bubble, with share prices reflecting exuberance, not economic fundamentals.

Although Chinese government purchases of shares and tighter regulation helped to stabilise the market, it is possible that there may be another crash, especially if the trade war with the USA escalates even further. The Chinese stock market has already lost 20% of its value this year.

Then there is the problem with shadow banking. This is the provision of loans by non-bank financial institutions, such as insurance companies or hedge funds. As the International Business Times article linked below states:

A mind-boggling study from the US last year, for example, found that the market share of shadow banking in residential mortgages had rocketed from 15% in 2007 to 38% in 2015. This also represents a staggering 75% of all loans to low-income borrowers and risky borrowers. China’s shadow banking is another major concern, amounting to US$15 trillion, or about 130% of GDP. Meanwhile, fears are mounting that many shadow banks around the world are relaxing their underwriting standards.

Another issue is whether emerging markets can sustain their continued growth, or whether troubles in the more vulnerable emerging-market economies could trigger contagion across the more exposed parts of the developing world and possibly across the whole global economy. The recent crises in Turkey and Argentina may be a portent of this.

Then there is a risk of a cyber-attack by a rogue government or criminals on key financial insitutions, such as central banks or major international banks. Despite investing large amounts of money in cyber-security, financial institutions worry about their vulnerability to an attack.

Any of these triggers could cause a crisis of confidence, which, in turn, could lead to a fall in stock markets, a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.

Finally there is the question of the deep and prolonged crisis in capitalism itself – a crisis that manifests itself, not in a sudden recession, but in a long-term stagnation of the living standards of the poor and ‘just about managing’. Average real weekly earnings in many countries today are still below those in 2008, before the crash. In Great Britain, real weekly earnings in July 2018 were still some 6% lower than in early 2008.

Articles

Information and data

Questions

  1. Explain the major causes of the financial market crash in 2008.
  2. Would it have been a good idea to have continued with expansionary fiscal policy beyond 2009?
  3. Summarise the Basel III banking regulations.
  4. How could quantitative easing have been differently designed so as to have injected more money into the real sector of the economy?
  5. What are the main threats to the global economy at the current time? Are any of these a ‘hangover’ from the 2007–8 financial crisis?
  6. What is meant by ‘shadow banking’ and how might this be a threat to the future stability of the global economy?
  7. Find data on household debt in two developed countries from 2000 to the present day. Chart the figures. Explain the pattern that emerges and discuss whether there are any dangers for the two economies from the levels of debt.

In three interesting articles, linked below, the authors consider the state of economies since the financial crisis of 2007–8 and whether governments have the right tools to tackle future economic shocks.

There have been some successes over the past 10 years, in particular keeping inflation close to central bank targets despite considerable shocks (see the Vox article). Also unemployment has fallen in most countries and to very low levels in some, including the UK.

But economic growth has generally remained well below the levels prior to the financial crisis, with low productivity growth being the main culprit. Indeed, many people have seen no growth at all in their real incomes over the past 10 years, with low unemployment being bought at the cost of a growth in zero-hour contracts and work in the gig economy. And what economic growth we have seen has been largely the result of taking up slack through unprecedentedly loose monetary policy.

Fiscal policy, except in the period directly following the financial crisis, has generally been tight as governments have sought to reduce their deficits and slow down the growth in their debt.

But what will happen if economies once more slow? Or, worse still, what will happen if there is another global recession? Do countries have the policies to tackle the problem this time round?

Quantitative easing could be used again, but many economists believe that it will have more limited scope if confined to the purchase of assets in the secondary market. Also, there is little scope for reducing interest rates, which, despite some modest rises in the USA, remain at close to zero in most developed countries.

One possibility is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy, where new money is used to finance government expenditure on infrastructure, such as road and rail, broadband, green energy, hospitals and schools and colleges. This would avoid the need for governments to borrow on open markets as the spending would be financed by new government securities purchased directly by the central bank.

An objection to such ‘people’s quantitative easing‘, as it has been dubbed, is that it would effectively end the independence of central banks. This independence has been credited by many with giving central banks credibility in controlling inflation. Would inflationary expectations rise with people’s quantitative easing and, with it, actual inflation? A lot would depend on the extent to which this QE could still be conducted within a framework of targeting inflation and whether people’s expectations of inflation could be managed jointly by the government and central bank.

Articles

How should recessions be fought when interest rates are low? The Economist. Free exchange (21/10/17)
The economy is failing. We need to think radically about how to fix it The Guardian, Liam Byrne (25/10/17)
Elusive inflation and the Great Recession Vox, David Miles, Ugo Panizza, Ricardo Reis, Ángel Ubide (25/10/17)

Videos

Economics since the crisis Vox on YouTube. Charles Goodhart (11/10/17)
Is the system broken? Vox on YouTube, Anat Admati (12/10/17)
Signs of a crisis Vox on YouTube, Christian Thimann (19/10/17)
Policy stances since 2007 Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (29/10/17)
Did policymakers get it right? Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (4/10/17)

Questions

  1. Why, during the next recession, will the “zero lower bound” (ZLB) on interest rates almost certainly bite again?
  2. Why would the scope for QE, as conducted up to now, be more limited in the future if a recession were to occur?
  3. Why have central banks appeared to have been so successful in keeping inflation close to target despite negative and positive demand- and supply-side shocks?
  4. Why are the pressures on government expenditure likely to increase in the coming years?
  5. How would a temporary price-level target help to tackle a recession when the economy next bumps into the ZLB? What would limit its success?
  6. Is it appropriate for central banks to stick to an inflation target in times when there is an adverse supply-side shock resulting in cost-push inflation?
  7. Why might monetary policy conducted in a framework of inflation targeting tend to lessen the impact of a fiscal stimulus?
  8. What are the arguments for and against relaxing central bank independence and pursuing a co-ordinated fiscal and monetary policy?
  9. What are the arguments for and against using helicopter money to boost private expenditure during a future recession where interest rates are already near the ZLB?
  10. What are the arguments for and against using ‘people’s QE’?

‘There is no magic money tree’, said Theresa May on several occasions during the 2017 election campaign. The statement was used to justify austerity policies and to criticise calls for increased government expenditure.

But, in one sense, money is indeed fruit of the magic money tree. There is no fixed stock of money, geared to the stock of gold or some other commodity. Money is created – as if by magic. And most of broad money is not created by government or the central bank. Rather it is created by banks as they use deposits as the basis for granting loans, which become money as they are redeposited in the banking system. Banks are doing this magic all the time – creating more and more money trees as the forest grows. As the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin explains:

Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

However, most of the country’s MPs are unaware of this process of money creation. As the linked Guardian article below states:

Responding to a survey commissioned by Positive Money just before the June election, 85% were unaware that new money was created every time a commercial bank extended a loan, while 70% thought that only the government had the power to create new money.

And yet the role of money and monetary policy is central to many debates in Parliament about the economy. It is disturbing to think that policy debates could be based on misunderstanding. Perhaps MPs would do well to study basic monetary economics! After all, credit creation is not a difficult topic.

Articles

How the actual magic money tree works The Guardian, Zoe Williams (29/10/17)
“Shocking ignorance” from MPs who don’t know where money actually comes from CITY A.M., Jasper Jolly (27/10/17)
Money creation in the modern economy Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin, Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas of the Bank’s Monetary Analysis Directorate (2014 Q1)
Politicians get lost in search of the fabled Magic Money Tree CITY A.M., Vince Cable (12/10/17)

Positive Money poll

Poll shows 85% of MPs don’t know where money comes from Positive Money, David Clarke (27/10/17)

Questions

  1. Do central banks create money and, if so, what form(s) does it take?
  2. Explain how credit creation works.
  3. What determines the amount of credit that banks create?
  4. How can the central bank influence the amount of credit created?
  5. Distinguish between narrow and broad money supply.
  6. What is the relationship between government spending and broad money supply (M4 in the UK)?
  7. Why is there no simple money multiplier whereby total broad money supply is a simple and predictable multiple of narrow money?
  8. What determines the relationship between money supply and real output?
  9. Does it matter what type of lending is financed by money creation?
  10. Comment on the statement: “The argument marshalled against social investment such as education, welfare and public services, that it is unaffordable because there is no magic money tree, is nonsensical.”
  11. Could quantitative easing be used to finance social investment? Would there be any dangers in the process?

Europe’s largest economy is Germany and the prospects and growth figures of this country are crucial to the growth of the Eurozone as a whole. The EU is a key trading partner for the UK and hence the growth data of Germany and in turn of the Eurozone is also essential in creating buoyant economic conditions within our borders. The bad news is that the economic growth forecast for Germany has been cut by the German government.

The German government had previously estimated that the growth rate for this year would be 1.8%, but the estimate has now been revised down to 1.2% and next year’s growth rate has also been revised downwards from 2% to 1.3%. Clearly the expectation is that low growth is set to continue.

Whenever there are changes in macroeconomic variables, a key question is always about the cause of such change, for example is inflation caused by demand-pull or cost-push factors. The German government has been quick to state that the lower growth rates are not due to internal factors, but have been affected by external factors, in particular the state of the global economy. As such, there are no plans to make significant changes to domestic policy, as the domestic economy remains in a strong position. The economy Minister said:

“The German economy finds itself in difficult external waters … Domestic economic forces remain intact, with the robust labour market forming the foundation … As soon as the international environment improves, the competitiveness of German companies will bear fruit and the German economy will return to a path of solid growth … [for this reason there is] no reason to abandon or change our economic or fiscal policy.”

The global picture remains relatively weak and while some economies, including the UK, have seen growth pick up and unemployment fall, there are concerns that the economic recovery is beginning to slow. With an increasingly interdependent world, the slowing down of one economy can have a significant impact on the growth rate of others. If country A begins to slow, demand for imports will fall and this means a fall in the demand for exports of country B. For countries that are dependent on exports, such as Germany and China, a fall in the demand for exports can mean a big decline in aggregate demand and in August, Germany saw a 5.8% drop in exports.

Adding to the gloom is data on inflation, suggesting that some other key economies have seen falls in the rate of inflation, including China. The possibility of a triple-dip recession for the Eurozone has now been suggested and with its largest economy beginning to struggle, this suggestion may become more real. The following articles consider the macroeconomic picture.

Articles

Germany cuts growth forecasts amid recession fears, as Ireland unveils budget The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (14/10/14)
As cracks in its economy widen, is Germany’s miracle about to fade? The Observer, Philip Oltermann (19/10/14)
Why the German economy is in a rut The Economist (21/10/14)
Germany’s flagging economy: Build some bridges and roads, Mrs Merkel The Economist (18/10/14)
Germany cuts 2014 growth forecast from 1.8% to 1.2% BBC News (14/10/14)
IMF to cut growth forecast for Germany – der Spiegel Reuters (5/10/14)
Fears of triple-dip eurozone recession, as Germany cuts growth forecast The Guardian, Phillip Inman (15/10/14)
Germany slashes its economic forecasts Financial Times, Stefan Wagstyl (14/10/14)
Merkel vows austerity even as growth projection cut Bloomberg, Brian Parkin, Rainer Buergin and Patrick Donahue (14/10/14)
Is Europe’s economic motor finally stalling? BBC News, Damien McGuinness (17/10/14)
Why Germany won’t fight deflation BBC News, Robert Peston (16/10/14)

Data

World Economic Outlook Database IMF (15/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)

Questions

  1. How do we measure economic growth and is it a good indicator of the state of an economy?
  2. What are the key external factors identified by the Germany government as the reasons behind the decline in economic growth?
  3. Angela Merkel has said that austerity measures will continue to balance the budget. Is this a sensible strategy given the revised growth figures?
  4. Why is low inflation in other economies further bad news for those countries that have seen a decline or a slowdown in their growth figures?
  5. Why is interdependence between nations both a good and a bad thing?
  6. Using AS and AD analysis, illustrate the reasons behind the decline German growth. Based on your analysis, what might be expected to happen to some of the other key macroeconomic variables in Germany and in other Eurozone economies?

Here are a series of videos examining the case for and against austerity policy. Is such policy necessary to re-balance countries’ economies and retain or regain the confidence of investors? Or does such policy harm not just short-run growth but long-run growth too? Does it reduce investment and thereby aggregate supply?

These videos follow on from the news item Keynes versus the Classics: a new version of an old story. In the first video, Mark Blyth, author of Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea, argues that austerity policy has not worked and never can. George Osborne, by contrast, argues that although it has been a ‘hard road to recovery’, austerity policy is working.

International bodies take a more nuanced stand. The IMF, while supporting the objective of reducing the government deficit, argues that the pace of the cuts in the UK should be slowed until more robust growth returns. The OECD, in examining the global economy, is more supportive of countries maintaining the pace of deficit reduction, but argues that the ECB needs to take stronger monetary measures to boost bank lending in the eurozone.

With austerity having increasingly alarming effects on unemployment and social cohesion, especially within certain eurozone countries, such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, it is not surprising that there are growing demands for rethinking macroeconomic policy.

There is general agreement that more needs to be done to promote economic growth, and a growing consensus that an increase in infrastructure expenditure is desirable. But whether such expenditure should be financed by increased borrowing (with the extra deficit being reduced subsequently as a result of the extra growth), or whether it should be financed by reductions in expenditure elsewhere, is a continuing focus of debate.

Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea The Guardian, Mark Blyth (27/5/13) (see also)
IMF: UK austerity will be a ‘drag on growth’ BBC News. Hugh Pym (22/5/13)
George Osborne: ‘Hard road to recovery for UK economy’ BBC News (22/5/13)
Economy and austerity BBC News, Sajid Javid and Stephen Timms (1/5/13)
IMF’s Olivier Blanchard urges UK austerity rethink BBC News (16/4/13)
OECD ‘supportive of Osborne austerity plans’ BBC news (29/5/13)
Stimulus vs. austerity measures in EU CNN, Mohamed El-Erian (29/5/13)
‘No time to wobble’ on deficit reduction YouTube, Sir Roger Carr (CBI president) (16/5/13)
Deficit-Cutting: Not If, But When Wall Street Journal Live, David Wessel (8/5/13)

Questions

  1. What are the arguments for maintaining a policy of deficit reduction through tight fiscal policy?
  2. What are the three principles put forward by Mark Blyth for designing an appropriate macroeconomic policy?
  3. How does the fallacy of composition relate to the effects of all countries pursuing austerity policy simultaneously?
  4. Is the IMF for or against austerity? Explain.
  5. Assess the policies advocated by the OECD to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone.