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)
- What are the arguments for maintaining a policy of deficit reduction through tight fiscal policy?
- What are the three principles put forward by Mark Blyth for designing an appropriate macroeconomic policy?
- How does the fallacy of composition relate to the effects of all countries pursuing austerity policy simultaneously?
- Is the IMF for or against austerity? Explain.
- Assess the policies advocated by the OECD to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone.
High levels of government debt and the adverse effect this has on the economy has been a key influencing factor in the fiscal consolidation efforts across the world. A key factor providing evidence in support of the connection between high government debts and low economic growth was a paper by two Harvard economists. However, the data used in their research has been called into question.
As we saw in a previous post, It could be you, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff presented a paper back in January 2010. Their research suggested that when a country’s debt increases above 90% of GDP, economic growth will slow considerably. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.) As you might expect, given the timing of this research, policymakers were intrigued. For those governments in favour of cuts in government spending and increases in taxation to bring the government debt down, this research was dynamite. It seemed to provide the evidence needed to confirm that if left to grow, government debt will have a significantly adverse effect on growth. Here was evidence in favour of austerity.
But, did a simple error create misleading information? A student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was trying to replicate the results found by Reinhart and Rogoff, but was unable to do so. Thomas Herndon contacted the Harvard professors and they sent him the spreadsheets they had used in their calculations. Looking through it, an error in calculating the average GDP was spotted. However, the student and his supervisors also engaged in further research and came across other inconsistencies. This led to a draft working paper being published in April. The paper did find the same correlation between high debt levels and low growth, but the outstanding results found by Reinhart and Rogoff disappeared. Responding to the error, the Harvard professors said:
We are grateful to Herndon et al. for the careful attention to our original Growth in a Time of Debt AER paper and for pointing out an important correction to Figure 2 of that paper. It is sobering that such an error slipped into one of our papers despite our best efforts to be consistently careful. We will redouble our efforts to avoid such errors in the future. We do not, however, believe this regrettable slip affects in any significant way the central message of the paper or that in our subsequent work.
So, how might this correction and the implications affect government policy? Are we likely to see a reversal in austerity measures? Only time will tell.
Seminal economic paper on debt draws criticism Wall Street Journal, Brenda Cronin (16/4/13)
Reinhart, Rogoff … and Herndon: The student who caught out the Profs BBC News, Ruth Alexander (20/4/13)
Reinhart and Rogoff publish formal correction Financial Times, Robin Harding (8/5/13)
The 90% question The Economist (20/4/13)
Reinhart and Rogoff correct austerity research error BBC News (9/5/13)
Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff publish formal collection CNBC, Robin Harding (9/5/13)
Rogoff and Reinhart should show some remorse and reconsider austerity The Guardian, Heidi Moore (26/4/13)
The buck does not stop with Reinhart and Rogoff Financial Times, Lawrence Summers (5/5/13)
Meet Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, the Harvard professors who thought they had austerity licked – and Thomas Herndon, the student who proved them wrong Independent, Tim Walker (22/4/13)
Growth in a time of debt American Economic Review (May 2010)
Does high public debt consistently stifle economic growth? A critique of Reinhart and Rogoff Political Economy Research Institute, Herndon, Ash and Pollin (April 2013)
- How do high government debts arise?
- In order to reduce government debts, cuts in government spending and increases in taxation are advocated. How does theory suggest that these changes in fiscal policy will affect economic growth?
- What are the arguments (a) in favour of and (b) against austerity measures?
- How might the correction made by Reinhart and Rogoff affect policymakers and their austerity plans?
- What are the key messages from Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper?
Interest rates have, for some years, been the main tool of monetary policy and of steering the macroeconomy. Across the world interest rates were lowered, in many cases to record lows, as a means of stimulating economic growth. Interest rates in the UK have been at 0.5% since March 2009 and on 2nd May 2013, the ECB matched this low rate, having cut its main interest rate from 0.75%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Low interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing for both firms and consumers and this in turn encourages investment and can boost consumer expenditure. After all, when you borrow money, you do it to spend! Lower interest rates will also reduce the return on savings, again encouraging spending and for those on variable rate mortgages, mortgage payments will fall, increasing disposable income. However, these above effects are dependent on the banks passing the ECB’s main interest rate on its customers and this is by no means guaranteed.
Following the cut in interest rates, the euro exchange rate fell almost 2 cents against the dollar.
Interest rates in the eurozone have been at 0.75%, but a 0.25 point cut was widely expected, with the ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone continuing to adversely affect growth and confidence. A lack of trust between banks has also contributed to a lack of lending, especially to small and medium sized enterprises. The ECB has injected money into financial institutions with the aim of stimulating lending, but in many cases, banks have simply placed this extra money back with the ECB, rather than lending it to other banks or customers. The fear is that those they lend to will be unable to repay the money. In response to this, there have been suggestions of interest rates becoming negative – that is, if banks want to hold their money with the ECB they will be charged to do it. Again, the idea is to encourage banks to lend their money instead.
Small and medium sized businesses have been described as the engine of growth, but it is these businesses who have been the least able to obtain finance. Without it, they have been unable to grow and this has held back the economic recovery. Indeed, GDP in the Eurozone has now fallen for five consecutive quarters, thus prompting the latest interest rate cut. A key question, however, will be how effective this quarter of a percent cut will be. If banks were unwilling to lend and firms unwilling to invest at 0.75%, will they be more inclined at 0.5%? The change is small and many suggest that it is not enough to make much of a difference. David Brown of New View Economics said:
The ECB rate cut is no surprise as it was well flagged by Draghi at last month’s meeting. Is it enough? No. The marginal effect of the cut is very limited, but at least it should have some symbolic rallying effect on economic confidence.
This was supported by Howard Archer at HIS Global Insight, who added:
Admittedly, it is unlikely that the trimming of interest rates from 0.75% to 0.5% will have a major growth impact, especially given fragmented credit markets, but any potential help to the eurozone economy in its current state is worthwhile.
Inflation in the eurozone is only at 1.2%, which is significantly below the ceiling of 2%, so this did give the ECB scope for the rate to be cut. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) After all, when interest rates fall, the idea is to boost aggregate demand, but with this, inflation can emerge. Mr Draghi said ‘we will monitor very closely all incoming information, and assess any impact on the outlook for price stability’. The primary objective of the ECB is the control of inflation and so had inflation been somewhat higher, we may have seen a different decision by the ECB. However, even then, 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth is hard to ignore.
So, if these lower interest rates have little effect on stimulating an economic recovery, what about a movement away from austerity? Many have been calling for stimulus in the economy, arguing that the continuing austerity measures are stifling growth. The European Council President urged governments to promote growth and job creation. Referring to this, he said:
Taking these measures is more urgent than anything … After three years of firefights, patience with austerity is wearing understandably thin.
However, Mr. Draghi urged for policymakers to stick with austerity and continue to focus on bringing debt levels down, while finding other ways to stimulate growth, including structural reform. The impact of this latest rate cut will certainly take time to filter through the economy and will very much depend on whether the 0.5% interest rate is passed on to customers, especially small businesses. Confidence and trust within the financial sector is therefore key and it might be that until this emerges, the eurozone itself is unlikely to emerge from its recession.
ECB ready to enter unchartered waters as bank cuts interest rate to fresh low of 0.5pc The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/5/13)
Draghi urges Eurozone governments to stay the course on austerity Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut to a record low of 0.5% The Guardian, Heather Stewart (2/5/13)
ECB’s Draghi ‘ready to act if needed’ BBC News (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut again as ECB matches Bank of England Independent, Russell Lynch (3/5/13)
Margio Draghi urges no let-up in austerity reforms after Eurozone rate cut – as it happened The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate to record-low 0.5% in desperate measure to drag Eurozone out of recession Mail Online, Simon Tomlinson and Hugo Duncan (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rates, open to further action Reuters, Michael Shields (2/5/13)
Eurozone loosens up austerity, slowly Wall Street Journal (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate, not enough to pull the region out of recession The Economic Times of India (2/5/13)
Euro steady ahead of ECB interest rate announcement Wall Street Journal, Clare Connaghan (2/5/13)
European Central Bank (ECB) cuts interest rates BBC News (2/5/13)
All eyes on ECB as markets expect rate cut Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
- How is a recession defined?
- Using an aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram, illustrate and explain the impact that this cut in interest rates should have.
- On which factors will the effectiveness of the cut in interest rates depend?
- Using the interest rate and exchange rate transmission mechanisms to help you, show the impact of interest rates on the various components of aggregate demand and thus on national output.
- What would be the potential impact of a negative interest rate?
- Why did the low inflation rate give the ECB scope to cut interest rates?
- What are the arguments for and against austerity measures in the Eurozone, given the 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth?
In a carefully argued article in the New Statesman, the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, considers the slow recovery in the economy and whether additional measures should be adopted. He sums up the current state of the economy as follows:
The British economy is still operating at levels around or below those before the 2008 financial crisis and roughly 15 per cent below an albeit unsustainable pre-crisis trend. There was next to no growth during 2012 and the prospect for 2013 is of very modest recovery.
Unsurprisingly there is vigorous debate as to what has gone wrong. And also what has gone right; unemployment has fallen as a result of a million (net) new jobs in the private sector and there is vigorous growth of new enterprises. Optimistic official growth forecasts and prophets of mass unemployment have both been confounded.
He argues that supply-side policies involving “a major and sustained commitment to skills, innovation and infrastructure investment” are essential if more rapid long-term growth is to be achieved. This is relatively uncontroversial.
But he also considers the claim that austerity has kept the economy from recovering and whether policies to tackle the negative output gap should be adopted, even if this means a short-term increase in government borrowing.
But crude Keynesian policies of expanding aggregate demand are both difficult to implement and may not take into account the particular circumstance of the current extended recession – or depression – in the UK and in many eurozone countries. World aggregate demand, however, is not deficient. In fact it is expanding quite rapidly, and with the sterling exchange rate index some 20% lower than before the financial crisis, this should give plenty of opportunity for UK exporters.
Yet expanding UK aggregate demand is proving difficult to achieve. Consumers, worried about falling real wages and large debts accumulated in the years of expansion, are reluctant to increase consumption and take on more debts, despite low interest rates. In the light of dampened consumer demand, firms are reluctant to invest. This makes monetary policy particularly ineffective, especially when banks have become more risk averse and wish to hold higher reserves, and indeed are under pressure to do so.
So what can be done? He argues that there is “some scope for more demand to boost output, particularly if the stimulus is targeted on supply bottlenecks such as infrastructure and skills.” In other words, he advocates policies that will simultaneously increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. Monetary policy, involving negative real interest rates and quantitative easing, has helped to prevent a larger fall in real aggregate demand and a deeper dive into recession, but the dampened demand for money and the desire by banks to build their reserves has meant a massive fall in the money multiplier. Perhaps monetary policy needs to be more aggressive still (see the blog post, Doves from above), but this may not be sufficient.
Which brings Dr Cable to the political dynamite! He advocates an increase in public investment on infrastructure (schools and colleges, hospitals, road and rail projects and housing, and considers whether this should be financed, not by switching government expenditure away from current spending, but by borrowing more.
Such a strategy does not undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit, and may assist it by reviving growth. It may complicate the secondary objective of reducing government debt relative to GDP because it entails more state borrowing; but in a weak economy, more public investment increases the numerator and the denominator.
He raises the question of whether the balance of risks has changed: away from the risk of increased short-term borrowing causing a collapse of confidence to the risk of lack of growth causing a deterioration in public finances and this causing a fall in confidence. As we saw in the blog post Moody Blues, the lack of growth has already caused one ratings agency (Moody’s) to downgrade the UK’s credit rating. The other two major agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may well follow suit.
The day after Dr Cable’s article was published, David Cameron gave a speech saying that the government would stick to its plan of deficit reduction. Not surprisingly commentators interpreted this as a split in the Coalition. Carefully argued economics from Dr Cable it might have been, but political analysts have seen it as a hand grenade, as you will see from some of the articles below.
When the facts change, should I change my mind? New Statesman, Vince Cable (6/3/13)
Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Exclusive: Vince Cable calls on Osborne to change direction New Statesman, George Eaton (67/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News (7/3/13)
Vince Cable makes direct challenge to Cameron over economic programme The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/3/13)
Vince Cable Says George Osborne Must Change Course And Borrow More To Revive Growth Huffington Post, Ned Simons (6/3/13)
David Cameron and Vince Cable at war over route to recovery Independent, Andrew Grice (6/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News, James Landale (6/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
Clegg Backs Cable Over Controversial Economy Comments LBC Radio, Nick Clegg (7/3/13)
It’s plain what George Osborne needs to do – so just get on and do it The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (6/3/13)
Vince Cable’s plan B: a “matter of judgement” BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/3/13)
George Osborne needs to turn on the spending taps The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/3/13)
- Why has monetary policy proved ineffective in achieving a rapid recovery from recession?
- Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and automatic fiscal stabilisers.
- Why has the existence of automatic fiscal stabilisers meant that the public-sector deficit has been difficult to bring down?
- In what ways has the balance of risks in using discretionary fiscal policy changed over the past three years?
- In what ways is the depression of the late 2000s/early 2010s (a) similar to and (b) different from the Great Depression of the early 1930s?
- In what ways is the structure of public-sector debt in the UK different from that in many countries in the eurozone? Why does this give the government more scope for expansionary fiscal policy?
- Why does the Office of Budget Responsibility’s estimates of the tax and government expenditure multipliers suggest that “if fiscal policy is to work in a Keynesian manner, it needs to be targeted carefully, concentrating on capital projects”?
- Why did Keynes argue that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero bound (to use Dr Cable’s terminology)? Are we currently at the zero bound? If so what can be done?
- Has fiscal tightening more than offset loose monetary policy?
The UK has always been an attractive place for investment, as foreign companies look to cities such as London for stable investment opportunities. This provides not only jobs and output, but also tax revenue for the government. However, one drawback is the lost tax revenue through tax avoidance schemes and big businesses say that if the UK is to remain competitive it needs to look at cutting taxes and bureaucracy.
In recent months, we have seen cases of individuals being prosecuted for tax evasion and more recently in the USA, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have been criticized by the Senate for allegedly moving an estimated £13bn to offshore accounts. (Microsoft and HP deny any wrong-doing). It is cases like this that provide an argument for governments to cut business rates and avoid losing business and jobs to other tax havens. Lord Fink, who is a Director of Firms located in a variety of tax havens said:
’I don’t see why the UK should not compete for jobs that at present are going to the Cayman Islands’
Tax havens are obviously attractive to firms, as they provide a means of retaining more of a firm’s earnings and hence their profits. By offering a much lower rate of tax than countries such as the UK, they help to ease the tax burden on wealthy individuals and investors in hedge funds, along with many others.
The question is, do these lower tax rates discourage investment into the UK and thus would a relaxation of Revenue Customs’ rules mean an increase in inward investment and the other positive things that this would bring? Or would a decrease in tax rates for wealthy investors send the wrong message?
In a time of austerity, tax cuts for the rich are never going to be a popular policy – at least not amongst the ‘non-rich’ – in truth, the majority of the population. Furthermore, many simply see tax havens as morally wrong – or as George Osborne put it ‘morally repugnant’. The use of them provides the better off with a means of paying less to the taxman, whilst the worse off continue to pay their share.
The controversy surrounding tax havens is perhaps even more of an issue given the size of the public-sector deficit. With tax havens being used by those who should be paying the most, tax revenues are lower than would be the case without tax evasion and avoidance. Is this adding to the burden of basic rate tax payers?
This doesn’t help the gap between government expenditure and revenue, which has contributed to the largest amount of UK public-sector borrowing in August 2012 since records began. Net borrowing reached £14.4bn, as things like corporation tax receipts fell and benefit payments rose. Money that should go in to the government’s coffers is undoubtedly making its way into tax havens, but does that also mean that jobs are making their way out of the country? If tax rates in the UK were cut, cities such as London may become even more attractive places to invest, which could potentially create a much needed boost for the economy. But, at what cost? The following articles consider the controversy of tax havens.
Microsoft and HP rapped by US Senate over tax havens BBC News (20/9/12)
Morally repugnant tax avoiders can rest easy under David Cameron Guardian, Tanya Gold (21/9/12)
Britain could prevent the use of tax havens by ending ‘archaic’ business rules Telegraph, Rowena Mason (21/9/12)
UK public-sector borrowing hits record high of £14.4bn BBC News (21/9/12)
The top Tory who wants to make Britain a tax haven for millionaires Guardian, Martin Williams and Rajeev Syal (20/9/12)
Make UK a tax haven to attract investment from millionaires, urges Tory treasurer Mail Online, Daniel Martin (21/9/12)
Microsoft saved billions using Irish tax havens Irish Times, Genevieve Carbery (21/9/12)
Microsoft, HP skirted taxes via offshore units: U.S. Senate Panel Reuters, Kim Dixon (21/9/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)
- What are the key features of tax havens?
- Briefly explain the arguments in favour of tax havens and those against. Think about them from all points of view.
- Explain the way in which a cut in UK tax rates could create jobs and how the multiplier effect may provide a boost for the UK economy.
- If tax rates were cut, how might this affect an individual’s decision to work? What about an individual’s decision to invest? Use indifference analysis to help explain your answer.
- How does tax avoidance and evasion affect public sector borrowing? Is there any way a cut in tax rates on foreign investment could improve the government’s finances?
- Do you think there is any truth in the argument that the UK is losing out to other countries because of its higher tax rates? Is a reduction in tax rates necessary to help us compete?