While the IMF’s research team has for many years chipped away at mainstream economic thinking, a short, accessible paper makes an even more frontal challenge. It’s caused such a stir that the Financial Times featured it on its front page. We’ve embedded it at the end of this post and encourage you to read it and circulate it.
The article cheekily flags the infamous case of the Chicago Boys, Milton Friedman’s followers in Pinochet’s Chile, as having been falsely touted as a success. If anything, the authors are too polite in describing what a train wreck resulted. A plutocratic land grab and speculation-fueled bubble led quickly to a depression, forcing Pinochet to implement Keynesian policies, as well as rolling back labor “reforms,” to get the economy back on its feet.
The papers describes three ways in which neoliberal reforms do more harm than good.
Overly mobile capital, meaning unrestricted cross-border money flows. The IMF paper points out that while the neoliberals claim that freely mobile money helps growth, there’s not much concrete evidence to support that. By contrast, higher levels of capital flows lead to more instability and more frequent and severe financial and economic crisis. Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart determined that high levels of international capital flows were strongly correlated with bigger and nastier financial crises. The BIS also made a persuasive, well-documented case that excessive “financial elasticity” which means lots of cross-border funds mobility that can quickly collapse, was the cause of the 2008 crisis.
It’s also hard to see how highly mobile money can be a plus, particularly for smaller and even not so small economies. Look at the how much the yen has moved over the past decade. How can investors in things that would actually make an economy more productive (foreign direct investment, such as factories and other operations) make any kind of accurate assessment of returns to cross border investment with so much foreign exchange volatility? And that uncertainty will lead a foreign investor to require a higher rate of return. Similarly, even if there were measurable benefits from highly mobile money movements, the costs of the busts need to be offset against that. It’s pretty hard to see how you “offset” the cost of the blowup just past, whose total cost is estimated at one times global GDP.
Thus the paper argues that the heretical idea of capital controls can make sense as a way to choke off a credit bubble stoked by foreign investment.
Austerity. The IMF article argues that while small countries may have no choice other than to curtail their overall level of indebtedness, this is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. For larger countries, running larger deficits, particularly after a financial crisis, is a better option than belt-tighening.
This section of the article is frustrating, since it utterly fails to distinguish fiat currency issuers from states that are not monetary sovereigns. It also blandly accepts the idea that high levels of indebtedness are bad, when government debt increases typically make up for shortfalls in private sector investment and demand. Recall that in the supposedly virtuous Clinton budget surplus years, households, which are normally net savers in aggregate, managed to make up for the Federal government fiscal drag by going on a big debt party. But it does have some zingers, at least by the standards of policy wonkery:
Austerity policies not only generate substantial welfare costs due to supply-side channels, they also hurt demand—and thus worsen employment and unemployment. The notion that fiscal consolidations can be expansionary (that is, raise output and employment), in part by raising private sector confidence and investment, has been championed by, among others, Harvard economist Alberto Alesina in the academic world and by former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet in the policy arena. However, in practice, episodes of fiscal consolidation have been followed, on average, by drops rather than by expansions in output. On average, a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP increases the long-term unemployment rate by 0.6 percentage point and raises by 1.5 percent within five years the Gini measure of income inequality (Ball and others, 2013)
Depicting “fiscal consolidation” as snake oil is radical, at least among Serious Economists.
Increasing inequality. The paper gratifyingly says that both austerity and highly mobile capital increase inequality, and inequality is a negative for growth. And it firmly says Something Must Be Done:
The evidence of the economic damage from inequality suggests that policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they are.Of course, apart from redistribution, policies could be designed to mitigate some of the impacts in advance—for instance, through increased spending on education and training, which expands equality of opportunity (so-called predistribution policies). And fiscal consolidation strategies—when they are needed—could be designed to minimize the adverse impact on low-income groups. But in some cases, the untoward distributional consequences will have to be remedied after they occur by using taxes and government spending to redistribute income. Fortunately, the fear that such policies will themselves necessarily hurt growth is unfounded.
Mind you, this article is far from ideal. For instance, careful readers will see that it treats the debunked loanable funds theory as valid.
In some ways, the fact that this article was written at all, and that it is apparently fomenting debate in policy circles is more important than the details of its argument, since it does not break new ground. Instead, it takes some of the findings and analysis of heterodox and forward-thinking development economists and distills them nicely.
The publication of this IMF paper is a sign that the zeitgeist is, years after the crisis, finally shifting. It is becoming too hard to maintain the pretense that the policies that produced the global financial crisis, which are almost entirely still intact, are working. And the elites and their economic alchemists may also recognize that if they don’t change course pretty soon, they risk the loss of not just legitimacy but control. With Trump and Le Pen at the barricades, the IMF wake-up call may be too late.