Wolfgang Münchau takes to task in today’s FT the latest example of German opposition, and in particular opposition from finance minister Schäuble, to ECB policies. However I think he ends up missing the obvious target. He discusses the particular problems negative rates pose for Germany’s financial sector, and in his last paragraph writes
“This episode is a reminder that the collective spirit that was so strongly present in the first years of the eurozone has gone. That — not the presence of imbalances or other technical problems — constitutes the single biggest danger to the long-term viability of Europe’s monetary union.”
I would suggest this has the causality wrong. Any collective spirit has gone because of these ‘technical problems’. The biggest technical problem is an obsession with inappropriate collective fiscal consolidation (austerity). In the Eurozone the ECB is being forced to try negative interest rates because it is having to undo the impact of fiscal consolidation. And the man most responsible for this obsession is Schäuble.
Gavyn Davies nicely sums up my own view about negative interest rates. Without radical institutional and social changes (which may not be desirable), bank profitability puts a limit on how far central banks can go, and for that reason exploring these frontiers could be counterproductive. But the alternative of more QE, possibly directed at other assets besides government debt, is way down the list of effective and reliable instruments for managing aggregate demand right now. Helicopter money is a much better way of giving central banks more ammunition. But the focus right now should not be on any of this, if we are genuinely concerned about social welfare. As John Kay says, “we need less financial ingenuity and more common sense”.
What we should be talking about is why governments are not doing much more public investment. Yet in the US, Germany and the UK any dramatic increase in public investment seems out of the question. Barry Eichengreen, in an article entitled “Confronting the Fiscal Bogeyman”, writes of Germany:
“The ordoliberal emphasis on personal responsibility fostered an unreasoning hostility to the idea that actions that are individually responsible do not automatically produce desirable aggregate outcomes. In other words, it rendered Germans allergic to macroeconomics.”
In the US, antagonism to the Federal government rooted in the past has meant Republican leaders are
“antagonistic to all exercise of federal power except for the enforcement of contracts and competition – a hostility that notably included countercyclical macroeconomic policy. Welcome to ordoliberalism, Dixie-style. Wolfgang Schäuble, meet Ted Cruz.”
“Ideological and political prejudices deeply rooted in history will have to be overcome to end the current stagnation. If an extended period of depressed growth following a crisis isn’t the right moment to challenge them, then when is?”
He does not mention the UK, where the antagonism to public investment seems to lack any deep historical explanation, and may just reflect stupidity or an ideology imported from the US.
When I talk about public investment people normally think about big projects, like HS2 in the UK. I like to point out that simpler and perhaps more boring things, like repairing roads, are at least as important, and can be done immediately. But if there is one area above all else where much more needs to be done right now it is investment in renewable energy.
The recent news on climate change is not good. It is foolish to read too much into one or two months figures, but this chart is nevertheless quite scary. It is scary because we know of various possible ‘tipping points’ (like the melting of all Arctic ice or the mass release of methane from permafros) which could accelerate global warming. Most climate models assume we will control carbon emissions in time to stop that happening, but we cannot be sure of that, because we are in uncharted territory.
We know we need a massive expansion of renewable energy, but one problem that has so far stopped that being a complete solution to climate change has been that sometimes the wind neither blows nor the sun shines. We need to be able to cheaply store electricity, but our current battery technology is not good enough. Battery technology is also crucial in making electric cars as attractive as petrol based cars. But technology could come to the rescue. Existing batteries could be made much more efficient, or completely new battery technologies could be made viable. Much more efficient transmission could also help. And if you look at all three links, you may notice one common factor. These potential breakthroughs have all come from research undertaken in the public sector. As Mariana Mazucato has argued, the state is “better able to attract top talent and pursue radical innovation”.
China put over $80 billion into the renewable energy sector in 2014. That is nearly 1% of its GDP. It has committed to spend 25 times that amount over the next 15 years on clean energy. Both the US and Europe spent much smaller amounts ($38 and $58 billion respectively), even though their economies are much larger (the US figure is around 0.07% of its GDP). In dollar terms, the Chinese government also spent more on Green R&D than Europe or the US.  The scope for US and European governments to spend more on researching and help with developing green technology is huge. Yet in the UK the government has recently cut back its support for renewable energy, even though the UK’s need for renewable energy is urgent.
Climate change may be the most important example, but it is not alone. It is absurd that when the potential for technological change leads people to write about robots taking over, actual productivity growth is slowing everywhere. As an IMF report says, "innovation [is] highly dependent on government policies." I think Brad DeLong, in commenting on Eichengreen’s article, has it exactly right when he writes “it is long past time for a frontal intellectual assault on the[se] dangerous and destructive ideologies”.
 If we include corporate R&D, Europe moves ahead of China in $ spend, but China is still ahead of the US.