Daniel W. Drezner

Have we reached consensus on austerity #fail?

A little more than a year ago I blogged that global policymakers had reached a "focal point" moment on the merits of austerity as a macroeconomic policy during a global recession. Namely, central bank authorities had concluded that the policy doesn’t really work well at all. If true, this was a big deal. One could ...

A little more than a year ago I blogged that global policymakers had reached a "focal point" moment on the merits of austerity as a macroeconomic policy during a global recession. Namely, central bank authorities had concluded that the policy doesn’t really work well at all. If true, this was a big deal. One could argue that from the May 2010 Toronto G-20 summit to the end of 2011 was a period where the austerity policies were widely touted and occasionally implemented. If this was the wrong policy, and there was a shift, that’s kind of a big deal.

So where are we now on this? 

On the public commentary side, I’d say we’re approaching near-consensus on the failures of austerity for large economies. The passing of time has allowed for a comparative look at the data, and the results are not pretty for austertity enthusiasts. Martin Wolf sums up the indictment rather neatly, riffing off of a paper by Paul De Grauve and Yuemei Li: 

[T]he chief determinant of the reduction in spreads over German Bunds since the second quarter of 2012, when OMT [the ECB pledge to open up its monetary taps] was announced, was the initial spread. In brief, "the decline in the spreads was strongest in the countries where the fear factor had been the strongest."

What role did the fundamentals play? After all, nobody doubts that some countries, notably Greece, had and have a dreadful fiscal position. One such fundamental is the change in the ratio of debt to gross domestic product. The paper makes three important observations. First, the ratio of debt to GDP increased in all countries even after the ECB announcement. Second, the change in this ratio turned out to be a poor predictor of declines in spreads. Finally, the spreads determined the austerity borne by countries.

On the policy output side, there’s been a demonstrable but partial shift. In the past year, the European Central Bank, Federal Reserve, and Bank of Japan have rejected austerity policies in favor of greater levels of quantitative easing. Furthermore, contrary to the outright hostility developing countries directed at quantitative easing in the fall of 2010, the reaction to the past half-year of quantitative easing has been far more muted. When the latest G-20 communique said: 

Monetary policy should be directed toward domestic price stability and continuing to support economic recovery according to the respective mandates. We commit to monitor and minimize the negative spillovers on other countries of policies implemented for domestic purposes.

That was code for "hey, G-7 central banks, you gotta do what you gotta do. We get that."  Which is demonstrably different from yelling "currency wars", a meme that seems not to have caught fire this time around. 

Top central bank authorities have also been willing to speak truth to power — in this case, GOP members of Congress. John Cassidy recounts Ben Bernanke’s testimony from yesterday: 

Departing from his statutory duty of reporting to the Senate Banking Committee on the Fed’s monetary policy, Bernanke devoted much of his testimony to fiscal policy, warning his congressional class that letting the sequester go ahead would endanger the economic recovery and do little or nothing to reduce the country’s debt burden.

"Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant," Bernanke told his students, who included a number of right-wing Republican diehards, such as Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, and Patrick Toomey, of Pennsylvania. "Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run."

Translated from Fed-speak, that meant that congressional Republicans have got things upside down. Bernanke has warned before about the dangers of excessive short-term spending cuts. But this was his most blunt assertion yet that Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, et al. should change course. "To address both the near- and longer-term issues, the Congress and the Administration should consider replacing the sharp, frontloaded spending cuts required by the sequestration with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run," Bernanke said. "Such an approach could lessen the near-term fiscal headwinds facing the recovery while more effectively addressing the longer-term imbalances in the federal budget."

So does this mean some additional policy shifts? Alas, probably not. The consensus against austerity seems pretty strong on the monetary policy side of the equation. On the fiscal policy dimension, however, austerity remains the de facto policy for a lot of economies. This includes the United States, which is conventionally depicted as not having embraced austerity. The New York Times’ Binyamin Appelbaum outlines the current fiscal austerity in his story today: 

The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war.

And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate on Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years.

The cuts may be felt more deeply because state and local governments — which expanded rapidly during earlier rounds of federal reductions in the 1970s and the 1990s, offsetting much of the impact — have also been cutting back.

Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II.

Total government spending continues to increase, but those broader figures include benefit programs like Social Security. Government purchases and investments expand the nation’s economy, just as private sector transactions do, while benefit programs move money from one group of people to another without directly expanding economic activity.

The reason for this split does not require rocket science. Monetary policy is a tool of politrically insulated central bankers. Fiscal policy is a tool for elected politicians. The public might dislike specific budget cuts, but damn if they don’t love austerity in theory

So, in retrospect, I think early 2012 was a focal point — but only for central bankers and commentators. As Cassidy notes, there remain elected politicians who are super-keen on austerity: 

Corker, a former builder who is a long-time critic of Bernanke’s expansionary policies, called him "the biggest dove since World War Two." Toomey, a former head of the conservative lobbying group Club for Growth, questioned whether the sequester would have any real impact on the economy. Bernanke shrugged off the criticisms, calmly and methodically laying out the realities of the situation.


 Twitter: @dandrezner

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