In the NYT it was stated that Moody’s are predicting that a tighter fiscal policy – cuts in government spending and increased taxation – will slow economic growth for 2013 by about 1.2 percentage points and prevent the unemployment rate from falling to 6.1 percent by the end of the year. Where is the effect of QE on these figures?
Lately there has been a lot of media coverage about an Excel error by academics Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart – co-authors of ‘This Time is Different’ – 2009. A student from University of Massachusetts tried to replicate one their models regarding growth rates when a country has a public debt of greater than 90% of GDP. Rogoff and Carmen stated that with this level of public debt growth in a country falls to a mean of -0.1%. However using the same data the student found that a figure of 2.2% was applicable in this context.
However Rogoff and Reinhart have been cautious about saying that high debt causes slower growth rates but it does highlight the validity of analysis connecting debt and austerity to growth rates. Adam Posen in the FT stated that the claim of a clear tipping point for the ratio of Government Debt to GDP past which an economy starts to collapse doesn’t hold. Following the second world war the US, UK, Belgium, Italy and Japan had public debt greater than 90% of GDP but there was not much of an effect on their economies. In Italy and of late in Japan stagnation in economies led to slowly rising debt levels. In the UK and US in the 1950’s growth returned and debt levels declined. What this is suggesting is
Slow growth is at least as much the cause of high debt as high debt causes growth to slow.
But a certain amount public debt is necessary for future development of any economy especially when you think about the construction of infrastructure and government spending on education. Both of which contribute to future growth and in theoretical terms move the production possibility curve outwards. This in turn creates growth and subsequently income for a government.
USA – Mad Spending v EU – Nervous Austerity
With one side of the Atlantic – USA – involved in quantitive easing (printing money) and the other – EU – with severe austerity, maybe somewhere in between would be a logical way to go about things. But is moderation a choice for policy makers when they have already gone so far down the track of their respective plans?
What can be concluded is that too much debt has costs for growth but the degree of those costs is dependent on the reasons for debt accumulated and what path the economy is actually taking.
The 10bn-euro (US$13bn) bailout of Cyprus’ economy, agreed by the EU and IMF, demands that all bank customers pay a one-off levy and has led to heavy cash withdrawals.
Under the currently agreed terms, depositors with:
* Less than 100,000 euros in Cyprus accounts would have to pay a one-time tax of 6.75%.
* More than 100,000 euros would pay 9.9%.
The BBC says the president may want to lower the former rate to 3%, while raising the levy on the larger depositors to 12.5%. Some EU source told Agence France-Presse there could be a three-way split on the level of levy, grouped into accounts holding less than 100,000 euros, between 100,000 and 500,000 and more than 500,000. The clip below is from Al Jazeera – it shows at one bank in the Limassol district, a frustrated man parked his bulldozer outside and threatened to break in.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently addressed parliament stating that he plans to reverse the trend of issuing bonds to raise money but raise more in taxes. Japan cannot beat deflation and a strong currency (yen) if it adheres to the same policy of the past decade.
However his speech comes after the announcement of a $226.5bn stimulus package earlier in the year and this when Japan already has some serious debt issues – public debt that is almost three times the size of the Japanese economy.. He also wants the Bank of Japan to maintain an open-ended policy of quantitative easing (QE) and a doubling of the inflation target – 2%. Hopefully the fiscal stimulus package accompanied by more QE will drive down the price of the yen which will make Japanese exports more competitive. He stated his three arrows of economic policy:
1. Aggressive Monetary Easing
2. Flexible fiscal spending
3. A growth strategy that would induce private investment
Who knows if it will work but Shinzo Abe stated that it is worth the gamble.
Another very useful clip from Paul Solman of PBS News. China has for quite a few years now gone down the route of government planning to keep economic activity buoyant. Assumptions have been made that in 10 years time there will be 200 cities in China with over 1 million people and 8 being over 10 million. However a recent blog post showed that there are ghost towns in certain areas of China with empty housing estates.
An example of artificially creating growth, as well as building host cities, is have a 7 year old bridge (built to last for 40 years) blown up and rebuilt. This generates jobs for construction industry including contractors for different aspects of the bridge. This likens to Keynesian policy where J.M.Keynes said that you should dig holes and fill them in to keep people employed. The Soviet Union found that central planning is good at mobilising resources, but is not good at sustaining innovation, or incentives that promote long-term growth. What China needs is more domestic consumption and move away from a reliance on government investment projects and export revenue. As ever Paul Solman explains things well.
The race for countries to devalue their currency (make their exports more competitive) has led to massive increase in monetary stimulus into the global financial system. We are all aware of the three rounds of Quantitative Easing from the US Fed and the indication that they would keep the Fed Funds Rate at virtually zero until 2015. To add fuel to the ‘dim embers’, in 2013 the US is going to inject US$1 trillion into the circular floe. However in China they have also embarked on some serious stimulus:
* More infrastructure development – US$60bn
* Additional credit – US$14 trillion in extra credit since 2009 (equal to entire US banking system)
Nevertheless even with all this artificial stimulus there might be some short-term growth but I can’t see it being sustainable when you consider the extent of global deleveraging. Also IMF figures show that the world saving rates are on the increase (* forecast):
With increased saving rates accompanied by significant austerity measures in many parts of Europe where is the consumer demand going to come from? Unemployment in Spain is 26% and predicted to hit 30% this year- more worrying is 50% of those under 25 are unemployed. Spanish protesters chanted “We don’t owe, we won’t pay” in a march against austerity. So in the US we have massive fiscal stimulus but across the water in Europe it’s all about “tightening the belt” and cutting government spending. Neither seems to be working and are we just putting off a significant downturn for a later date?
After a year in operation the Danish government recently announced that it was to abolish its tax on saturated fats. The idea behind the Fat Tax was to increased the price of unhealthy foods and therefore reduce consumption and improve the health of the population. However in practical terms the tax was a nightmare to administer as it not only targeted chips, burgers, hot dogs etc but also high-end food including gourmet cheeses. According to some critics this was to the worst example of the nanny state. The Economist reported some of the problems:
* Bakers were concerned with fat content in their cakes.
* Pig farmers said their famous bacon would cost more than imports.
* Independent butchers complained that supermarkets could keep their meat prices down as they could spread the cost of the tax across other goods.
* The tax applied on meat was imposed by carcass not per cut, which meant higher prices for lean sirloin steak as well as fatty burgers.
* Before the tax was imposed there was significant hoarding especially in margarine, butter and cooking oil
However there was also a surge in cross border shopping and a study estimated that 48% of Danes had done shopping in Germany and Sweden – sugary drinks, beer, butter etc were no doubt high on the shopping list.
Here is another classic from Merle Hazard – the Nashville country artist who sings about the world of finance. Here he sings about the Fiscal Cliff.
by Merle Hazard
It was a sunny day down in Washington. I took my Chevy out for a spin. While I was stopped at a light, I saw some cars to my right, and then what happened nearly did me in. House Speaker Boehner pulled his wheels next to Senator Reid’s, and then they got into an awful tiff. So Boehner said “Let’s fight,” and Reid said “Yeah, you’re right.” ”Let’s have a drag race to the fiscal cliff!”
Fiscal cliff The fiscal cliff is a danger zone. It’s where grown men go when budgets are blown. If our Senators cannot agree, they make Massive cuts automatically. When the budget talks have come to a halt, People go there and they threaten default. What will happen if we hit the fiscal cliff?
It was a game of chicken; I was really scared. I didn’t want anyone to die. But Boehner revved it up, and said “Keep taxes low,” and Reid said ”No, we must keep spending high.” And then it finally happened, what I always feared. And, yeah, it looked as bad as you would think. Our elected reps skidded out of control And drove their cars right over the brink.
Fiscal cliff The fiscal cliff is a danger zone. It’s where grown men go when budgets are blown. When our Congressmen cannot agree, Taxes go up automatically. When the budget talks have come to a halt, People go there and they threaten default. What will happen if we hit the fiscal cliff?
[Spoken] Well, officer, my memory of that day has never gone away. I often find myself thinking, “What if?” And what I’ve realized is that if they’d only been wise enough to compromise, well…
[Sung] They could have saved us from the fiscal cliff!
Fiscal cliff Wah wah wah, wah wah wah wah wah…
Thanks to Richard Wells for this video clip. With defeat in the US election Mr Burns explains the Fiscal Cliff at the Springfield Republican Headquarters. Worth a look.
Negotiations over the US Fiscal Cliff continue with hopes rising that a compromise will be averted. During the week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said that the ‘fiscal cliff’ is a substantial risk to the outlook for America. However he also pointed out that if America’s fiscal issues could be sorted out then “the US economy might be in for a very good year” ahead. In negotiating with the Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff, Obama has said that he will refuse to sign legislation that extends the current top rates on incomes over US$200,000 for individuals and US250,000 for couples. However he has asked for an extension of tax cuts to middle and low income earners.
From the chart below you can see that the main factor behind the fiscal cliff is the expiring of tax cuts.
With the US debt currently standing at 16 billion dollars and the prospect of a fiscal cliff – slashed spending and higher taxes – is it sustainable to keep on borrowing money? Historically Americans have preferred debt to taxes – you could say that it all started with the Boston Tea Party where they disposed of tea in the harbour because of the tax policy of the British government and the East India Company that controlled all the tea imported into the colonies. The video clip below from PBS News has MIT economist Simon Johnson talking about his recent book “White House Burning” which discusses the history of US debt – 225 years of it. He states that if we want to keep Social Security and Medicare we need to think how you are going to pay for it. The answer is NOT selling more debt to the Chinese but to pay the taxes to support social insurance programmes. He also mentions that if you go over the fiscal cliff in a disorganised way, with significant political confrontation, it will be a disaster. Quite simply the US government needs to acquire more tax revenue and bring its spending under control.
Free Exchange in The Economist debated this topic and went into detail concerning the Fiscal Multiplier. It refers to the change in GDP that is due to a change in government fiscal policy – taxes and spending. They use the following examples
Multiplier = 1.5 Government Spending down $1 = overall spending down = $1.5
Multiplier = 0.5 Government Spending down $1 = overall spending down = $0.5
Therefore the value of the multiplier is the crucial variable and a value that is greater than the level of GDP you maybe able to close the deficit but this results in a higher debt to GDP ratio than it started with. Estimates of the fiscal multiplier have been approximately 1% or below and the IMF have suggested that if you cut deficits by 1% of GDP it will have an impact of 0.5% of GDP – multiplier value of 0.5. What has been suggested is that:
Spending cuts may “crowd in” private-sector activity: if governments are using up scarce capital and labour then austerity creates room for private firms to expand. In open economies, austerity’s bite can be passed on to other countries through reduced imports. Most important of all, monetary policy can act as a counterweight to fiscal policy. Spending cuts that threaten to drag growth below a desired level should prompt monetary easing, limiting the multiplier.
However timing is everything and austerity measures now are not conducive to favourable outcomes for the following reasons:
1. With many economies implementing the same measures the impact can’t be deflected onto others.
2. Austerity measures normally might free up resources for private use but that mattered far less when unemployment and saving were high.
3. With interest rates at near-zero levels there was little scope for any additional monetary stimulus to offset the fiscal tightening. Monetary policy has run out of ammunition.
Another really good video from Paul Solman of PBS, this time he talks with Wall Street Journal journalist David Wessel about America’s debt. Some noteworthy facts include:
* 63 percent the government spent went out the door without a vote of Congress
* 20 percent of the federal budget is spent on defense – $700 billion last year, more than the combined defense budgets of the next 17 largest defense budgets of other countries
* Each aircraft carrier is $11 billion. This is enough to replace 750,000 shoulder, knee, and hip joints for people on Medicare.
* In 2011 the government took in $1.3 trillion in tax revenue, but the Treasury adds up the value of all the loopholes, deductions and credits, and they amounted to $1.1 trillion.
Robert Frank, author of the Economic Naturalist and The Darwin Economy, wrote a piece in the New York Times on the influence money has on determining the outcome of political decisions. Wealthy donors to political causes will want to make sure that policies implemented by the authorities will mean lower taxes for them and less regulation for their businesses. As their income goes up this will only increase the monetary contribution they can give to demand greater favours.
This invariably leads to greater inequality and eventually may become so acute that even those politicians who have large funding from the corporate sector won’t succeed against opponents who seek major reforms. However, lower tax rates can have both positive and negative impacts on wealthy donors:
Positive - lower taxes mean greater disposable income and more consumption in the private sector.
Negative – budget deficits and the reduced quality and quantity of public services e.g. roads, schools, hospitals etc.
Those on higher incomes have been insulated from the declining quality of public sector goods and services by being able to pay for the equivalent in the private sector – schools, hospitals etc. But with a declining middle class it might be harder to recruit productive workers in addition to a reduction in demand for goods and services. Furthermore there are consequences of poor public goods/services that cut across the inequality of income and affect everyone:
* poor roads, bridges and general infrastructure
* electricity shortages/ blackouts (remember ENRON in California)
* effects of reduced investment in nuclear power that could be detrimental to safety
Frank asks which country would be happier? As improvements to cars are quite costly above a certain value and can be viewed as only minor, most people think that the BMW drivers are better off, not to mention safer. Furthermore the BMW drivers are less likely to feel deprived as societies don’t often mingle.
Frank concludes by saying:
So if regulation promotes a safer, cleaner environment whose benefits exceed those broadly shared costs, everyone – even the business owner – is ahead in the long run.
The New York Times recently reported that the Japanese authorities are once again trying to stimulate a rather moribund economy with injecting more money into the circular flow.
* A ¥11 trillion is to be added to an asset buying programme
* The Bank of Japan will supply banks with cheap long-term funds in the hope of stimulating borrowing.
* Base interest rate to stay at 0-0.1% – see graph below
* These measures will stay in place until inflation has reached at least 1% – Bank of Japan forecast of this figure is March 2014.
There has been some return to growth with the reconstruction after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. However global demand has declines and the issue of territory with China hasn’t helped – Japanese goods are not being favoured by Chinese consumers. Japan’s deflationary decade hasn’t been helped with a contracting population and monetary policy needs to be accompanied by government fiscal policy as private sector companies don’t have the confidence to invest in major expansions. To this end the government have thrown money at the economy to the tune of ¥422.6 billion (in the form of government spending) but this is already twice the size of the Japanese economy. A strengthening yen hasn’t helped matters as exporters find their products uncompetitive.
From reading the October 2012 IMF Fiscal Monitor I came across a page on the Swedish model of managing its public finances. Obviously the IMF see this as a good example for other economies to follow. At the bottom of the recession in 2009 the fiscal deficit in Sweden was only 1% of GDP and by 2011 it was at pre-crisis levels. The IMF publication identified four main points that other countries could learn from.
1. The building up of fiscal buffers during good times, together with credible fiscal institutions, provides room to maneuver during bad times.
Before the GFC Sweden enjoyed a fiscal surplus of 3.5 percent of GDP, compared with an average deficit of 1.1 percent of GDP among advanced economies. When the recession hit the government had enough fiscal space to allow automatic stabilizers to operate fully and to implement stimulus measures without jeopardizing fiscal sustainability. The fiscal balance went from a surplus of 3.5 percent of GDP in 2007 to a relatively small deficit of 1 percent of GDP in 2009. The authorities’ expansionary policy was not called into question by markets because of the low level of the deficit and the credibility of Sweden’s comprehensive fiscal policy framework—including a top-down budget process, a fiscal surplus target of 1 percent of GDP over the output cycle, a ceiling for central government expenditure set three years in advance, a balanced-budget requirement for local governments, and an independent fiscal council.
2. Central bank credibility allows monetary policy to be used aggressively.
During the crisis, the Riksbank lowered its target short-term interest rate nearly to zero and implemented sweeping liquidity measures, including long-term repurchase agreement operations and the provision of dollar liquidity.
3. A flexible exchange rate can help absorb the shock.
During the crisis, the krona fell in value against both the dollar and the euro as investors flocked to reserve currencies. It depreciated by 15 percent in real effective terms from mid-2008 to early 2009, supporting net exports and helping prop up economic activity.
4. Decisive action to ensure financial sector soundness is crucial.
Swedish banks were badly hurt by the financial crisis, despite their negligible exposure to U.S. sub- prime assets. Bank profitability fell sharply in 2008– 09, and two of the largest banks — both increasingly funded on wholesale markets and exposed to the Baltics — saw their loan losses spike and their share prices and ratings decline accordingly. The authorities took fast action to calm depositors and inter- bank markets, including a doubling and extension of the deposit guarantee and introduction of new bank recapitalization and debt guarantee schemes.
The table below from the Australian Markets Weekly (Published by National Australia Bank) shows the fiscal position of euro-zone and other developed nations. As you can see the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) of the euro-zone countries have very high gross debt to GDP levels except for Spain. Japan has the highest but is also the only economy involved in fiscal loosening – see column 4. Notice the severity of tightening in some euro-zone countries as austerity measures start to be implemented. It does seem a little strange that Australia’s tightening in fiscal policy is greater than that of the UK and the US and not that far from the IMF‟s estimate of “austerity” announced for Italy.
The memo items are also of interest in that they show the nominal GDP, debt and budget balance in $USbn. In nominal GDP you have USA, China, Japan, Germany as the leading economies by output levels. China overtook Japan this year.
Coming from Ireland I took a keen interest in the book entitled “Understanding Ireland’s Economic Crisis” edited by Stephen Kinsella and Anthony Leddin. It is a series of papers written by Irish academics which focuses on the causes of the largest destruction of wealth of any developed economy during the 2007-2010 global financial crisis. One paper on “The Phillips Curve and the Wage-Inflation Process in Ireland” lent itself to the Unit 6 of the A2 CIE syllabus. Remember the Phillips curve:
Bill Phillips, a New Zealander who taught at the London School of Economics, discovered a stable relationship between the rate of inflation (of wages, to be precise, rather than consumer prices) and unemployment in Britain over a long period, from the 1860s to the 1950s. Higher inflation, it seemed, went with lower unemployment. To the economists and policymakers of the 1960s, keen to secure full employment, this offered a seductive trade-off: lower unemployment could be bought at the price of a bit more inflation.
Notice the following:
1987: – 17% unemployment with over 3% inflation
1988-99: – unemployment falls to 5% and inflation 1.5%
1999-2000: – inflation increases from 1.5% to just over 7%. This increase was largely due to expansionary fiscal policy (demand-pull inflation) and capacity constraints that led to higher costs of production (cost-push). This led to a classic Phillips Curve situation as unemployment was at 4% and the unexpected increase in inflation had caused workers to ask for higher wages. With the low rate of unemployment their bargaining position was very strong.
2001-2004: – during this period we see the typical Phillips Curve wage-price spiral. When there is an unexpected rise in inflation this is accompanied by inflationary expectations and Ireland saw a dramatic upsurge in nominal pay awards. As demand-pull inflation fed into cost-push Irish inflation remained relatively high over the next 3 years.
2005-2008: – with unemployment still around 4% wages continued to rise significantly as inflation remained around the 5% level.
2008-2011: the global financial crisis hits the world economy and unemployment in Ireland hits 15% in the space of 2 years. Meantime the trade-off with inflation starts with the CPI reaching over -6% at the end of 2009. More recently we see inflation getting up to 3% with the rate of unemployment increasing at a diminishing rate.
Although economic indicators are improving in Ireland there is still a long way to go before they can be more confident about its outlook.
Western European economies went back into recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of negative GDP) as the injection of demand into the circular flow was more than offset by public austerity programmes in certain countries. The conditions in the Euro-zone don’t seem to be very conducive to any sort of recovery – contractionary fiscal policy is prevalent in many countries and a lack of confidence across the region stifles any upturn.
Greece is still has serious concerns over any recovery – IMF boss Christine Lagarde stated that Greece should be given “a bit more time”.
“This is what I have advocated for Spain, Portugal and what we are advocating for Greece. An additional two years was necessary for the country to actually face the fiscal consolidation programme that is considered.”
However there is still some more hardship to come before any sort of economic recovery. I was surprised at the German growth levels over the last tow quarters. Quite like this graph showing annual GDP in the Euro-zone.