One thing I have found troubling is the near-unanimity in the US that we must Do Something about the burgeoning economic crisis, and that Something is big time monetary and fiscal stimulus.
Near unanimity is almost never a good thing in the political and policy realm, since conditions and options are sufficiently complicated so as to make it unlikely that there is a magic bullet.
Not to beat a dead horse, but we have been struck by the number of analogies made to the Great Depression that strike us as wrongheaded. The first is the idea that throwing money at “stimulus” will actually do the job, I see a lot of back of the envelope calculations of what % of GDP it will take to do the job.
But as the misguided tax rebates showed, it is quite possible to devise programs that are largely ineffective (roughly 80% of the rebates went to savings or debt reduction, which is a form of savings). A lot of money has similarly been thrown at the “get credit markets working again” program. And what are the results? Consumer and small business credit slashed, private securitizations a thing of the past, almost no debtor in possession financing (crucial for Chapter 11 bankruptcies), letters of credit scarce and costly, A2/P2 commercial paper at record spreads, and the Fed and Treasury still seeming to create, increase, or extend programs on virtually a weekly basis.
So what economist Tom Ferguson calls the “hydraulic Keynesian” approach might not be as successful as its advocates suggest. And that assumes it is the right remedy. We have argued that Keynes himself would not be on board with the idea of the US leading the stimulus charge:
The operating assumption behind US policy now is seeing the US situation as parallel to that of the US in the Depression, and taking the view, based on the fact that the US seemed to finally shake off the slump with the demands of wartime production and the unprecedented budget deficits that accompanied them. But there were considerable worries in 1946 that the US would fall back into Depression. The conventional view is that pent-up demand carried the US through, after a sharp but very short downturn in 1946.
However, would this strategy have worked in a peacetime setting? The US also emerged from its slump to a world with a tremendous amount of industrial production destroyed by the war. Thus, the US, whose problem in the late 1920s (which didn’t look like a problem at the time) was that it was a huge exporter, to the point where it sucked up so much gold as to be destabilizing to the financial system, could with 50% of world GDP, revert to its preferred old role with less damaging side effects. Had the rest of the world gone into wartime levels of stimulus along with the US, without the loss of productive capacity, would there ever have been an end of the beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies of the 1930s? International trade didn’t just fall, “collapsed” is not an uncommon characterization of the degree of contraction….
Similarly, as we have said before, the US was a world-dominating exporter, as China is now, and had the biggest gold reserves, as China now had the largest FX reserves. Thus it is China that needs to undergo a huge-scale stimulus program to make up for the loss of demand from the US. Keynes, in the 1930s, advocated that the US make up for the demand loss rather than expecting the US’s overindebted European trade partners to continue overconsuming….
Yet what is being advocated as a Keynesian remedy is in fact the opposite of what Keynes called for in his day. Keynes’ prescription then would lead to a global rebalancing, with the US depending more on internally generated demand and less on its foreign partners (who were defaulting on their government debt). But if it were successfully deployed in the US now, it wold lead to a continuation, of our excessive consumption and China’s underdevelopment of its internal demand.
Martin Wolf, in today’s Financial Times, comes to a similar conclusion:
With businesses uninterested in spending more on investment than their retained earnings, and households cutting back, despite easy monetary policy, fiscal deficits are exploding. Even so, deficits have not been large enough to sustain growth in line with potential. So deliberate fiscal boosts are also being undertaken…
This then is the endgame for the global imbalances. On the one hand are the surplus countries. On the other are these huge fiscal deficits. So deficits aimed at sustaining demand will be piled on top of the fiscal costs of rescuing banking systems bankrupted in the rush to finance excess spending by uncreditworthy households via securitised lending against overpriced houses.
This is not a durable solution to the challenge of sustaining global demand. Sooner or later….willingness to absorb government paper and the liabilities of central banks will reach a limit. At that point crisis will come. To avoid that dire outcome the private sector of these economies must be able and willing to borrow; or the economy must be rebalanced, with stronger external balances as the counterpart of smaller domestic deficits. Given the overhang of private debt, the first outcome looks not so much unlikely as lethal. So it must be the latter.
In normal times, current account surpluses of countries that are either structurally mercantilist – that is, have a chronic excess of output over spending, like Germany and Japan – or follow mercantilist policies – that is, keep exchange rates down through huge foreign currency intervention, like China – are even useful. In a crisis of deficient demand, however, they are dangerously contractionary.
Countries with large external surpluses import demand from the rest of the world. In a deep recession, this is a “beggar-my-neighbour” policy. It makes impossible the necessary combination of global rebalancing with sustained aggregate demand. John Maynard Keynes argued just this when negotiating the post-second world war order.
In short, if the world economy is to get through this crisis in reasonable shape, creditworthy surplus countries must expand domestic demand relative to potential output. How they achieve this outcome is up to them. But only in this way can the deficit countries realistically hope to avoid spending themselves into bankruptcy.
The UK is closer to the endgame than the US, so it is easier for them to perceive the risks (Willem Buiter has detailed the parallels between the UK and Iceland). The US, with the advantage of its deep Treasury markets and the reserve currency, has more rope with which to hang itself and its hapless creditors.