Even the Prime Minister Theresa May is saying it. Low interest rates are not lifting the economy in the right way. So time for government spending and tax cuts to take over? Or, as economists call it, active fiscal policy. She joins a chorus of academic economists and newspaper commentators.
The story goes back to the 1930s when the Depression was rampant. This hit government tax revenues and the conventional wisdom was that government spending had to be cut to balance the budget. Enter the great economist Maynard Keynes.
Keynes pointed out that the problem with the economy was a shortage of demand – not enough people buying things to pay for the people in jobs. Or to put it another way, there was excess saving. If people are saving, they are spending less than they earn. That means that there isn’t enough spending across the economy to pay everybody’s wages, so the economy sinks. Or it will sink if the savings are not spent on investment, which is another type of spending. Stuffing cash into mattresses is not investment. Neither is putting the money into a bank account unless the bank lends it to somebody who in their turn pays somebody to do something. In a depression people are unwilling to invest, and so saving tends to be higher than investment. And so the economy enters a doom-loop. Before the 1930s economies were marked by severe boom and bust cycles.
Keynes pointed to a way through. If government increased its spending or cut taxes, they would put money in people’s pockets, which would be spent, neutralise the excess saving and bring the economy back to life again. Slowly governments followed his advice, most famously US President Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal. The most spectacular success came in Hitler’s Germany, which spent freely on infrastructure (think of the autobahns) and armaments. Keynes pointed out that it did not matter what the spending was on provided it was spent at home, or at any rate it didn’t matter at first. As the economy approaches capacity wasteful government spending is a problem, but not before then. The rapid expansion of the US economy as it was placed onto a war footing in the 1940s proved Keynes right beyond doubt. Thus was born fiscal policy as an instrument of economic management, and economics as a discipline entered a golden age. The swings from boom to bust were notably reduced in the 1950s and 1960s.
Then it came off the rails. In the 1970s things changed. The first shock was the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates – it could not handle the excess of US spending on the Vietnam war. This destabilised the international financial system. Then came the oil shock in 1973, as OPEC ramped up oil prices massively. The governments that tried to spend their way out of the subsequent recession merely created inflation and not jobs. The governments that applied stricter fiscal policy, West Germany and Japan in particular, suffered much lower inflation. Enter another economist: Milton Freidman.
Freidman suggested that Keynes had it all wrong. The issue was not managing government spending and taxes, it was managing the money supply. The Depression was severe because the banking system collapsed, and people couldn’t borrow money. A lot of what Freidman said turned out to be nonsense, but what evolved was the neo-Keynesian consensus. This relegated fiscal policy to a relatively minor role. In the conventional wisdom of the time (often referred to nowadays as “neoliberalism”), government spending could easily get out of hand, destroy inventives and make economies less efficient. Instead the main responsibility for managing the business cycle came to something referred to as “monetary policy”, run by central banks.
Monetary policy is a bit of misnomer, a hangover from Freidman’s emphasis on money supply. To this day people often explain monetary policy as if people paid for things in banknotes, which are printed at will by the central bank. In fact money has moved almost entirely to accounting systems of debtors and creditors, with banknotes relegated to a very minor role. The economic implications of a bank account are utterly different from those of a pile of banknotes. The idea of money supply is nearly meaningless. Instead of that, as regular commenter to my blog Peter Martin put it in a post to Lib Dem Voice, what we have is interest rate policy. Money supply in the economic models taught to students has become a completely theoretical concept that cannot actually be measured . If demand is falling in an economy, this is corrected by reducing interest rates, which should encourage people to spend more. If things look like getting out of hand, then interest rates are raised.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s this system seemed to be working, but it came under increasing criticism. Central banks used inflation targets to judge whether the level of demand was too high or too low. But this measure excluded asset prices, which were directly influenced by interest rates. Asset bubbles were allowed to develop. Then they popped in 2007 to 2009, in the financial crash and the big recession that ensued, which interest rate policy proved unable to correct.
Fiscal policy made a return. But it was tentative. As soon as the worst of the recession was over, governments cut back (widely referred to as “austerity”). Critics argued that this was stalling any recovery. Then the victims of low interest rates, those saving for pensions in particular, started to get agitated. This is most evident in Germany – but Mrs May was voicing concerns amongst her constituents in the UK.
So can fiscal policy help lift economic growth, in place of low interest rates? There is a strong case for this, but caution is warranted. Most economic commentators hedge their bets by recommending that extra spending is on infrastructure projects, that will yield economic returns in their own right.
This hints at the first of three reasons for caution. What if the reasons for slow growth are structural and not to do with low aggregate demand? Are we making the same mistake as the mid 1970s, when economists saw high unemployment and low growth and assumed that this meant lots of spare capacity? In fact economies then had suffered a major dislocation from the oil shock, and were slow to adapt because of excessively unionised and corporatist economic management. That was then, but there are plenty of suggestions as to what the capacity restraints might be now, starting with demographics. Investing in infrastructure should help overcome these constraints, killing two birds with one stone.
The second reason for caution is that economies have internationalised. A lot of the benefit of fiscal stimulus can leak abroad, especially if other countries have a deficiency of demand too. Fiscal stimulus might simply drag in imports from countries eager for export-led growth. Globally coordinated fiscal policy works much better. This was achieved in 2009, but consensus has broken down since. The risk of stimulating other people’s economies can be reduced if the stimulus programme is carefully designed. But it can be quite hard to tell where best to direct spending or tax cuts.
And the third reason for caution is the difficulty in understanding when to turn the tap off and tighten policy. Politicians are prone to fiddling the figures to put the evil day off. British Chancellor Gordon Brown was notorious for this in the mid-2000s, contributing, in my view anyway, to the severity of the financial crash in 2007-09. Anti-austerity has become a political totem on the left – and yet there must come a point in any business cycle when austerity is required. This is also a problem with using infrastructure investment as the prime instrument of fiscal policy – it is not so easy to manage according to the business cycle. Lead times can be long and if an investment project is worth doing, it is probably worth doing at all points in the cycle.
And a final point. looser fiscal policy is unlikely to help savers with raising interest rates. Interest rate policy and fiscal policy should not be working against each other. To raise interest rates we need to see a healthier British and world economy. That looks some way off.