Co-authored with Felix Martin
Three cheers for Robert Zoellick. Writing in the FT this week, the World Bank president set out an ambitious agenda for the Group of 20 leading economies to “rebalance demand” and “spur growth”. He recognises that the reduction of current account imbalances is a necessary condition for a non-protectionist trading system.
Global imbalances lie at the heart of the current recession; failure to address them will abort recovery and lead to currency wars. Gold can play a minor part in the necessary rebalancing, as Mr Zoellick suggests – although history shows that a gold standard would be too deflationary.
Next week the parliamentary battle over cuts will start up again. The chancellor, George Osborne, will say the government’s programme of fiscal retrenchment is necessary to “restore confidence”. Alan Johnson, his shadow, will say it threatens the “fragile recovery”. The government plans to cut public spending by 10 per cent over four years as part of its deficit reduction plan. This will extract 5 per cent out of a shrunken economy. It is the most audacious axe-cutting exercise in almost a century, double the size of the cuts in the 1930s, equalled only by the 1921 Geddes Axe, which cut government spending by 11 per cent in two years. Labour says it is too much, too fast.
The two positions are clear enough, the arguments underlying them less so. What macroeconomic theory do the budget hawks have to subscribe to, to believe that taking £100bn out of the economy in the next four years will produce recovery? And what do the budget doves need to believe to claim the cutters are wrong?
Co-authored with Michael Kennedy
In 1937 Keynes wrote: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.” Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, disagrees. Stripped of its jargon, his argument last Friday in the Financial Times is that fiscal retrenchment is needed to “consolidate recovery”. This has become the standard European – though not American – line. “Failure to address the deficit is the greatest danger we face,” said UK Treasury minister Lord Sassoon in the House of Lords on Monday, faithfully echoing the words of his master, chancellor George Osborne. But beyond vaguely referring to the need to restore “confidence”, none of the cutters can explain how reducing public spending when private spending is already depressed will “consolidate recovery”.
In 1974, Edward Heath asked: “Who governs – government or trade unions?” Five years later British voters delivered a final verdict by electing Margaret Thatcher. The equivalent today would be: “Who governs – government or financial markets?” No clear answer has yet been given, but the question may well define the political battleground for the next five years.
Co-authored with Prof Marcus Miller
The fragility of the British economy in face of the Great Recession demands a rethinking not just of macroeconomic policy, but of the balance between consumption and investment, between finance and industry. In response to this challenge, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, set out a “new economic model” in the annual Mais lecture last week. But there is little evidence of new thinking. There is no reference, for example, to what one might learn from the experience of Japan, which faced a similar “balance sheet recession” in the 1990s. Mr Osborne harks back to the old view that government is the problem not the solution – a philosophy that led to widespread financial deregulation and the current crisis.
Sir, In their letter to The Sunday Times of February 14, Professor Tim Besley and 19 co-signatories called for an accelerated programme of fiscal consolidation. We believe they are wrong.