Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Inside a Macroeconomic Policy Blunder


Already bored with the election? Here is a bit of economic history instead.

To many readers of this blog, 1979-83 will seem like ancient history. To some of us, it was part of our formative history as adults. I joined the Treasury as an economist in 1974, straight after finishing my undergraduate degree. At the time a career in public service rather than academia via a PhD seemed much more interesting and useful. In 1979 the Treasury generously sent me to do a masters degree, on the condition that I worked at least another two years at HMT. While I was doing the masters Mrs Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, and the Treasury I came back to was a rather different place to the one I had left. [1]

Tim Lankester became a Treasury civil servant just one year earlier than me, after working for the World Bank. His talents obviously shone, and he became private secretary to Jim Callaghan in 1978, and then private secretary for economic affairs to Mrs Thatcher in 1979. He therefore had a particularly interesting vantage point in which to view the brief but highly significant UK monetarist experiment. He went on to have a very distinguished career as a civil servant (becoming permanent secretary at the Overseas Development Administration) and then in education. This helps explain why it took a pandemic and associated lockdowns for him to get around to writing about those events some fifty years earlier.

Being a civil servant Lankester was no true believer in either Thatcher or monetarism in 1979. Partly as a result his book, which relies on a lot of very good research as well as personal memories, is a pretty objective account of the monetarist period, as well as covering what came before and ending almost at the present day. It is also very well written and easily accessible to non-economists.

The book starts by setting the scene in the summer 1981 with a cabinet meeting. Unemployment has soared, firms are going bankrupt, inflation is still high and money targets are being missed by miles. Minister after minister asks Thatcher to change her economic course, and she is only saved by Deputy PM William Whitelaw, who tells her restless cabinet to give the policy more time. In reality it was near the end of what Lankester calls ‘hard monetarism’.

The book also begins on a more personal level with a London dinner party around the same time, where Lankester is sitting next to Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post and famous for helping uncover Watergate. After giving a standard defence of Conservative policy to a sceptical Bradlee, a journalist opposite tells Bradlee very loudly that Lankester is Thatcher’s Albert Speer. During a stunned silence Bradlee whispers to Lankester “You either hit him or you have to leave”, and he leaves. As Lankester walks home he wonders to what extent he is complicit in Thatcher’s economic policies. He thinks of Henry Neuberger (a good friend of mine) who left HMT to become an advisor to Labour leader Michael Foot. I think it was Henry who wrote that monetarism was like trying to control how much people ate by regulating the supply of crockery. I too got out exactly when my two years was up to work at the then fiercely anti-monetarist National Institute. Not only did I think monetarism was foolish and dangerous at the time, but I was also beginning to see the value in good academic research. [2]

Of course the monetarist policy failure had nothing to do with civil servants like Lankester and everything to do with Mrs Thatcher and her Treasury ministers. What I personally found most interesting from Lankester’s account, perhaps because I experienced monetarism from a Treasury viewpoint, was how much Thatcher herself was a dedicated monetarist. It is quite fair to describe this episode as Thatcher’s monetarist experiment.

Part of the reason Thatcher adopted monetarism, which was a distinctly minority view among UK academics, was the failure of what went before: politicians trying to override the Phillips curve by using Incomes Policy. Lankester recounts a meeting between Callaghan and union leaders months before he lost the election, when one union leader banged his fist on the table and said “It’s your job, Jim, to get inflation down to 2%; it’s my job to get 18% for my members”.

When Thatcher defeated Heath to become Tory leader, she set up the Economic Research Group (the first ERG!?) chaired by Howe. Although politicians sympathetic to monetarism (including Lawson) were in a majority, it didn’t help that those opposed advocated Incomes Policy instead. But Lankester argues that “monetarism came naturally to” Thatcher. The link between the money supply and prices seemed obvious to her. Although she liked Freidman’s account of monetarism as a ‘scientific doctrine’ akin to the law of gravity, he suggests she was a monetarist by conviction. Lawson called it ‘primitivist’ monetarism. For Thatcher monetarism just had to be true. [3]

Lankester and Thatcher’s views on both economics and society more generally were quite different, but despite this they got on very well, I suspect in part because Lankester was very good at knowing the limits of his private secretary role. Thatcher made it clear that the only advice she wanted from him was on points of interpretation and detail. Lankester admired many of her personal qualities (e.g. her self-belief, her drive and her personal integrity) as well as some of her policy achievements, but he describes monetarism as her biggest mistake. One of the downsides of self-belief is that you can imagine that in areas where you have little knowledge your beliefs are superior to the beliefs of the majority of experts

The mistaken basic concepts of monetarism (the stock of money was a very poor indicator of policy stance, and controlling an intermediate target was inferior to controlling the policy objective) were compounded by tactical errors by ministers. Chancellor Howe decided on a 7-11% target range for the money supply, essentially because it was felt it had to be lower than the 8-12% adopted by the Labour government, even though for Labour these targets were largely cosmetic. Yet wage pressure had increased, oil prices were increasing, and the new government doubled VAT, which meant that this target range was far too tight. Lankester suggests that only Lawson understood this. Indeed he suggests Thatcher didn’t understand the implications of such a tight target for interest rates, which she hated to see going higher.

Interest rates went higher and higher, yet money growth still exceeded its target. As an anti-inflation policy it was a cold turkey strategy, not by design but because the monetary target was sending completely the wrong signals.

The famous 1981 budget was the last major act in the brief monetarist story, and Lankester rightly describes its tax rises as a mistake because they reduced the strength of the subsequent recovery. [4] The 1982 budget raised the targets for monetary growth, as well as introducing additional targets for different definitions of the money supply. When Lawson became Chancellor, he in practice focused more on having an exchange rate target, which he had argued for in the ERG as preferable to money targets. That eventually led to a second major macroeconomic blunder, but that is a different story (although it is covered in this book).

The consequences of the brief monetarist experiment for the real economy are well known. Lankester recounts that his wife’s family-run textile firm was forced into liquidation in late 1980. The combination of high interest rates, and the impact of these together with North Sea Oil on the exchange rate, crippled the traded goods sector. Unemployment rose rapidly and didn’t come down when inflation eventually fell. He argues, correctly in my view, that a more gradualist policy of reducing inflation would have been far more preferable, because it would have avoided such a large and long lasting increase in unemployment, albeit with a more gradual reduction in inflation. In addition my own view is that deflation early on using fiscal rather than monetary policy would have avoided such a big hit to the traded sector.

One mistake some opponents of Thatcherism often make is that high unemployment was all part of the plan, and in particular a means to reduce union power. In fact few of those advocating monetarism before it happened believed it would have such devastating effects. Lankester writes that “Thatcher was undoubtedly surprised and upset by the rise in unemployment in the early 1980s”. Interestingly he also thinks that if she had been told about those costs in advance, she would have gone ahead with the policy anyway because she wouldn’t have believed the predictions, because she had this primitivist belief in monetarism and because she would not have been content with a more gradual fall in inflation. She really did believe there was no alternative.

Thatcher’s monetarist experiment was a macroeconomic policy blunder of the highest order, because it ruined so many people’s lives and because there was a better alternative. For those looking for a detailed and objective account of this blunder, then this is an excellent book. It was probably not the first time a Prime Minister or Chancellor had pursued an economic policy that was opposed by most academic experts and which had ruinous macroeconomic consequences, and unfortunately it would not be the last. Over the last fourteen years we have had two more (austerity and Brexit).

Yet the recent example that reminds me most of Thatcher’s monetarism is Truss’s fiscal event, which involved a Prime Minister’s primitivist belief (for Truss that tax cuts had to be good and might pay for themselves), a small band of economists with unconventional and radical ideas not backed by evidence, a disdain for conventional academic views or civil service advisors and a policy that dramatically increased interest rates. Fortunately for us that fiscal event was quickly reversed and its champion deposed, so it did not create the lasting scars that Thatcher’s monetarism did.

[1] To give one example, my first job in HMT included writing briefs for the Chancellor, Dennis Healey, on other major economies for the international meetings he attended. Healey wanted to know about macro policy in each country, as well as how it was working. With a change in government, where Howe replaced Healey as Chancellor, those briefs now contained personal details about each finance minister, their interests and hobbies etc, and included much less macroeconomics.

[2] To take just one example, the incoming Conservative government chose M3 as their money supply target in part because there seemed to be a close correlation between it and prices two years later. HMT agreed to publish a paper looking at this relationship, written not by HMT but by a named Treasury economist, which turned out to be me under the supervision of Chief Economist Terry Burns. The relationship fell apart the moment it was econometrically interrogated.

[3] For primitivist monetarists, facts and research have little impact on their beliefs. When the Treasury published my research on money to price regressions (see footnote [2]), although there was no attempt to censor what I wrote as the named author of a Treasury Working Paper, I had to focus on the results rather than my interpretation of them. Any objective reading would have quickly understood that my work undermined government policy. Yet a day after publication Tim Congdon, a well known monetarist, wrote a piece in the Times that suggested the opposite.

I was furious at this, and asked to write a letter in response correcting his misinterpretation. HMT said no. But Henry Neuberger, who as I noted earlier was now working for Michael Foot, came to my rescue and wrote a very similar letter to the one I wanted to write. To his credit, Terry Burns also arranged a lunch between him, Congdon and me, where I not only told Congdon why he was wrong but where Terry backed me up. The results were eventually published in an academic journal here.

[4] My own personal story as a Treasury economist in charge of looking at the economic effects of the budget is described here. The story illustrates that most Treasury economists, like the famous 364 academics who wrote the famous letter, thought it was a bad budget.

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Why Quantitative Easing is qualitatively important but quantitatively not so important


I have written a couple of posts recently where Quantitative Easing (QE) has played an important role. Here, for example, is a post about why QE could end up putting a large hole in the public finances, and how this could be avoided. I also wrote recently about how QE shows us that the government can easily finance its deficits by creating money rather than selling debt, if it chose to do so. This second post illustrates why QE is qualitatively important.

One of the first posts I wrote over a decade ago involved a similar theme. QE showed us why a key idea behind austerity, that we had to reduce the government’s deficit despite being in a recession because the bond market might suddenly decide not to buy UK government debt, was nonsense. QE was a Bank of England policy of buying UK government debt to keep longer term interest rates low, so in any bond market strike the Bank would simply step in with QE. After that happened during the pandemic, I could say I told you so. At a slightly more mundane level, QE helps tell us why it is dumb to continue to teach students about the ‘money multiplier’.

However, while the existence of QE is important in many ways, just how important it has been in quantitative terms is much more questionable. Ever since QE was widely introduced by the major central banks after the Global Financial Crisis, it has occasionally attracted rather outlandish claims about how much it was doing. Some of this came from a predictable source. Those who couldn’t quite believe that the equation MV=PT was nothing more than a meaningless identity claimed post-pandemic inflation was down to additional QE during the pandemic. But a more interesting example is from the New Statesman’s Will Dunn (whose stuff I normally like). Its title is “The QE Theory of Everything” and the subtitle “How the $30 trillion quantitative easing experiment reshaped our world – from Brexit to the dominance of Big Tech” reflects the article’s claim that QE was quantitatively very important.

The problem is that, in the macroeconomic scheme of things, QE is really not that important. It is almost a footnote in any account of the response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and the 2010 austerity period. Evidence suggests it has a modest effect in reducing long term interest rates, and therefore increasing output, but no one is quite sure why it is having that effect and how predictable or repeatable that effect is. As I noted before, central bank estimates of how effective it was tend to be much higher than academic estimates, and while central bank economists have an incentive to exaggerate its impact, it’s not clear why academics should want to do the opposite.

So how can QE have reshaped our world? There is nothing qualitatively wrong in Dunn’s piece. As he says, QE involves the central bank creating huge amounts of money to buy large quantities of government debt with the aim of reducing long term interest rates. Of course the central bank sets short term rates, but by 2009 rates had fallen to almost zero and central banks in the UK and US felt they couldn’t go any lower, so their focus changed to getting longer term interest rates (which were above zero) lower.

As I explained in this recent post, long term interest rates are heavily influenced by current and expected short term interest rates (through arbitrage). The idea of QE was to force them even lower, by using the traction of supply and demand. As I explained in that recent post, it is arbitrage rather than supply and demand that mainly determines interest rates on government debt, but in extreme circumstances supply and demand can matter, as we saw after the Truss fiscal event when UK pension funds wanted to sell debt and no one wanted to buy.

So central banks use QE to try and bend the arbitrage that links interest rates on government debt to expected short term interest rates by buying huge amounts of debt and thereby making it scarce. With less government debt around, buyers are prepared to accept an even lower interest rate.

The reason for doing this was the hope that by lowering long term interest rates firms would be encouraged to invest more. But another effect is to raise asset prices: the less return you can get by buying paper assets (government debt), the more the return you get from investing in real assets (equity, houses) is worth, so the price of real assets goes up. Inevitably the wealthy become wealthier.

So QE undoubtedly raised the wealth of the wealthy to some extent. But what is also true is that the value of wealth was mainly raised by central banks having to reduce short term rates to almost zero, and keep them there for a very long time. If QE had never happened, house prices and equity markets would still have soared, and wealth inequality would have increased dramatically. For this reason, QE was never the prime cause of the cake belonging to the wealthy rising but rather just the icing on top.

The importance of low interest rates rather than QE in explaining rising wealth inequality shows that what the wealthy gain in a higher valuation of wealth they lose in terms of income from that wealth. It is misleading to recognise one without recognising the other. This can work both ways. MMTers are always telling me how high interest rates favour the wealthy, because they tend to focus on the income effect and not the valuation effect.

Why did short term interest rates hit almost zero? Because we had the biggest recession since WWII. Why did short term interest rates stay at almost zero for so long? Because in all the major countries except China from 2010 we had a fiscal policy known as austerity. It was austerity that kept short interest rates so low for so long, and therefore it was austerity that was the main driver of low long term interest rates and rising wealth inequality.

Laying the blame at the door of austerity rather than QE is important for political reasons. Austerity was a policy carried out by elected governments, while QE is a more ‘technocratic’ policy enacted by unelected central banks. It would indeed be a serious charge to ascribe widespread ills to a policy enacted by unelected central bankers that was never voted for. Indeed the governments that ignored basic macroeconomics and majority academic opinion to push through spending cuts at the depth of the recession would love the idea that it was central bankers fault all along. Which is why it is important to understand that it was austerity, enacted by governments, that is mainly responsible.

A more subtle argument would be to concede that QE played a minor role in increasing wealth inequality, but instead suggest that its existence allowed politicians to enact austerity because central bankers said they still had the power to influence the economy through QE. As someone who is pretty critical of central banker’s silence on the impact of austerity (and some even for encouraging it), I would have no problem making that argument, except for the fact that I don’t honestly think it stands up. In the US austerity happened because Republicans won control of Congress, and they just wanted to cut public spending (defense aside). In the Eurozone austerity happened because politicians, particularly German politicians, wanted it. In the UK Cameron was criticising Labour’s moves to fiscal expansion in 2008/9 largely oblivious to interest rates hitting the lower bound.

So I think ascribing most of the increase in wealth inequality that has happened since the GFC to QE is both factually wrong and lets the politicians who enacted austerity off the hook.

It also matters because of what is called Quantitative Tightening (QT), which is just the unwinding of QE. If you inflate the impact of QE, then its reversal also ought to have large effects. Accordingly Dunn writes “But Truss and Kwarteng were also doomed to fail by the Bank of England, which also planned to sell very large amounts of gilts, at exactly the same time.” By the same logic any Labour Chancellor that wanted to borrow more to invest could have similar problems because the Bank of England could be selling off their government debt at the same time, flooding the market.

Fortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. A recent study showed that the reversal of QE undertaken by central banks so far has had very little impact on long term interest rates. This is partly because QE wasn’t that powerful to begin with, but also because the QT is being done much more incrementally than the original QE. So I think it is wrong to suggest that QT played any part in what happened to the Truss fiscal event, and it is also wrong to suggest that QT will have any material effect on a future Labour government’s ability to borrow to invest.

Quantitative Easing is interesting and important in many ways, but it hasn’t reshaped our world.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

The political right is in an illiberal trap of its own making, which offers their opponents opportunities


A new CPS report 'Taking Back Control’, co-written by the relatively sensible and numerate among Conservative MPs Neil O’Brien, proposes a national commitment to return net migration to the historical norm of the tens of thousands. The last government to do such a thing was of course the Cameron coalition, and their failure to meet these targets was a key factor behind the rise of UKIP and Brexit.

Others are more qualified to discuss the report in detail. Instead I want to set it within a much broader political economy framework, mainly focused on the UK but with references to the US where there are obvious parallels or differences. I will begin by describing how the political right of Thatcher and Reagan, which came to be associated with the emergence and then dominance of neoliberalism, ended up becoming an authoritarian party proposing limits on immigration, trade, and human rights. As I have discussed this in more detail in earlier posts I will be more brief here.

If you tend to describe everything that came from Thatcher and Reagan as neoliberal, let me emphasise why there is a huge contradiction between neoliberalism and controls on immigration and trade. If you like to think of neoliberalism as an ideology that favours free markets, then erecting trade barriers or telling firms what labour they can hire is not promoting free markets but instead state interference in markets. [1] I tend to think about neoliberalism as a collection of ideas that helps existing capital in general (e.g. reducing union power), or at least some parts of capital without harming others (privatisation). If you like, under neoliberalism the executive is at least in part “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. In technical terms they represent ideas that are Pareto improvements for capital. Yet immigration controls or trade barriers harm large sections of capital, so how can politicians that enact them be categorised as neoliberal?

Of course neoliberal ideology remains a core part of how most right wing politicians think, and it remains a pervasive influence on society more generally. Yet while it is obvious to describe the Thatcher and Reagan governments as neoliberal, it is much harder to use that label for politicians that erect rather than lower barriers to trade, and politicians who attempt to stop firms hiring workers from overseas.

Party membership on the right has always been pretty socially conservative. Yet this hasn’t been true of right wing politicians in the UK at least. As this study by Bale et al shows, most Conservative MPs tend to be as socially liberal as the average voter (and therefore much more liberal than Conservative party members), but much more right wing on economics. (I don’t know if similar data exists for the US.)

This suggests that for these politicians, the focus on attracting socially conservative voters was at least initially a political tactic rather than anything based on personal conviction. In a sense this is not surprising. Arguing for yet more tax cuts for the rich, or for less regulations in the labour market, may be consistent with neoliberalism but is not likely to attract that many voters. In addition, the UK voting system (as in the US) favours social conservative over socially liberal voters. As I argue here, the initial popularity of Thatcherism was time limited, as the failure of the privatised water industry clearly shows.

The problem with using immigration as an insincere tactic is that it has led, on both sides of the Atlantic, to the dominance of social conservatism on the political right. In the US the Republican’s Southern Strategy broadened out into culture wars, was followed by the Tea Party and then by Donald Trump. In the UK the failure of the Cameron coalition to meet its immigration targets, because Cameron and Osborne knew that trying to do so would harm the economy, led to the UKIP insurgency and Cameron’s Brexit referendum pledge. The rest, as they say, is painful history that everyone in the UK knows all too well.

While the mechanisms that led to Trump and Brexit are rather different, reflecting constitutional differences between the two countries, [2] there are also some common elements. Two in particular are the role of money from rich individuals, and the role of the media (in particular Fox News in the US and the right wing press in the UK). Both signal the growing importance of plutocracy in both countries, which I started writing about back in 2017, and is now becoming more mainstream in the UK (for example see Martin Wolf’s latest book “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” (interesting review here)).

At the time many focused on the populist nature of Brexit and Trump. It is tempting to argue that this aspect, though real enough (enemies of the people and all that), is an inevitable consequence of the triumph of social conservatism over both social liberalism and neoliberal economics. A label often used for social conservatism is authoritarian, because social conservative and authoritarian views tend to go together. Social conservatives prefer dominant, uncompromising leaders. [3] While social conservatism may naturally go together with authoritarianism and populist leaders, in my view it is social conservatism rather than populism that provides the driving force here.

The key factor that led to Brexit in the UK, and which continues to haunt the Conservative party, is the party’s vulnerability to electoral challenge from insurgent parties that can promise stronger action on immigration. This alone will ensure immigration continues to be perhaps the central policy of a Conservative opposition: hence the CPS report noted in the introduction. In truth a Conservative opposition also has little choice as long as a Labour government avoids obviously left wing economic policies and providing that it provides considerable support for public services. If the economy does better than it has over the last fourteen years (and it would be unlucky not to), then a focus by a Conservative opposition on socially conservative issues is inevitable.

The other key factor behind Brexit was the strong support from the right wing press, and for the foreseeable future this will ensure the Conservatives remain a pro-Brexit party, even though this is likely to be unpopular among a majority of voters. In addition, the readership of the right wing press tends to be older and therefore more socially conservative, so this force will help maintain the dominance of social conservatism among Conservative politicians.

Ironically, and in contrast to the US, I believe the composition of party members has been much less important in the UK than insurgency from the right, the right wing press and the influence of wealthy political donors. Although these members do get to choose the party leader, their choice is limited by MPs, and these MPs can ensure that members never get the choice of electing the likes of Suella Braverman. However party members do get to choose new MPs, so their influence via this route will be important over the longer run.

All this means that, barring economic misfortune, the UK political battleground will remain centred on the social conservative/liberal divide. The replacement of class by age as the key division in mainstream politics will persist. I suspect the same is true in the US [4], although it is hard to see past the chaos that even a Trump defeat will bring. In electoral terms this is bad news for the Conservatives. Brexit is likely to become more unpopular over time, if only for demographic reasons. In addition, as John Burn-Murdoch observes, in anglophone countries younger voters tend to be more tolerant of immigration than older voters. The more the right focuses on socially conservative issues, the less likely it is that younger voters will naturally transition to the right for economic reasons as they age.

This in turn will give a Labour government more freedom to adopt more socially liberal policies. They will need that freedom, because just as the Conservatives have had to worry in government about insurgent parties on the right, so a Labour government after an initial honeymoon period will need to worry about losing votes to parties that are either more liberal and/or left wing. This is hard to imagine today, where Labour are trading off government failure to court Conservative voters, and where (as the local elections showed) Conservative unpopularity means that the efforts of Labour, the Liberals and Greens are largely complementary.

Once Labour has become established in government that situation will change. As it seems increasingly likely that Labour will be cautious on using higher taxes to improve public services (i.e. will not follow the approach I suggested here), and the mess the current government has left things in is so great, dissatisfaction with the slow speed of progress is bound to grow. That is much more likely to see the polls shifting towards the Greens and Liberal Democrats than the Conservatives, whose record on public services will persist in voter memories for some time.

That dissatisfaction will only intensify if Labour attempts to fight the Conservatives on their socially Conservative territory. In addition, controlling immigration rather than tackling the causes of immigration does economic damage which Labour cannot afford. The same is true if Labour are too cautious on Europe, and I suspect the Lib Dems will be quick to return to trying to outflank Labour on this issue. (I discussed the importance of a tipping point in public attitudes to Brexit here.) A Labour government will find, if it tries, that trying to follow the Conservatives down their socially conservative rabbit hole will cause way more electoral problems than it solves. [5] Instead they should see that the hole the Conservatives have dug for themselves (and Braverman wants them to continue to dig) is an opportunity for a fresh, more liberal approach.

[1] John Elledge suggested an way in which Brexit could still be described as favouring free markets, if you see ‘free’ as the absence of any government involvement in trade. (Free from rather than free to trade.) While I thought this ingenious at the time, I now suspect that this is an ex-post rationalisation rather than any fundamental division within neoliberalism. After all, there is nothing within neoliberalism that objects to the state making life easier for business, and that is what the international harmonisation of regulations within the Single Market essentially is.

[2] The existence of primary elections in the US allowed those who wanted to elect politicians who would place a greater weight on socially conservative policies in government a direct route of achieving their ends. Money and media influence could be employed to support more socially conservative politicians in elections for Congress and, ultimately, for the White House. That is much more difficult in the UK for individual MPs.

[3] There is more to it than that of course. While right wing economic views are often justified on the basis that they work for everyone (trickle down, efficiency of the private sector etc), with the social conservative liberal divide it is much more clearly a matter of personal preference. In addition, it is clear that over the last fifty years or so social liberalism has been winning. So it suits the social conservative to believe not only in the myth of the silent majority, but also to be attracted by the idea that their views are the ‘will of the people’.

[4] The importance of the Christian right in the US, a force largely absent in the more secular UK, is an additional factor.

[5] Just as the Conservatives in government are prevented from locating their policy positions near the centre of the social conservative/liberal divide because of an insurgent party to their right, so Labour in government will find it dangerous to stay close to that centre because voters will move to a more socially liberal party.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

When are large and persistent increases in debt to GDP justified?


In this post I showed a chart of UK government debt to GDP since 1900. It starts off at below 50%, then rises sharply to 200% during WWI. It rose to 250% during WWII, but then fell steadily during the post war golden age, going below 50% by the mid-1970s. The next sharp rise is after the Global Financial Crisis, followed by a smaller rise during the pandemic, getting to current levels of around 100% of GDP.

This brief chronology suggests that debt to GDP (and more recently also central bank issued reserves to GDP) rise sharply in extreme crises. But climate change is an extreme crisis facing every country, so why are most governments (maybe US excluded) resisting the idea that they should be running large deficits to pay for measures to reduce the extent of climate change? Is there a clear way of deciding when it is OK to allow large and persistent government deficits and when it is not?

In this post I set out why there is. To make things simple, I will assume the case for higher spending is overwhelming, so the issue is only how it should be paid for. The obvious alternative to allowing this additional spending to generate persistently large deficits is to substantially increase taxes. There is a standard economic proposition called ‘tax smoothing’, which states that it is better to smooth taxes over time than have erratic increases or decreases. In economic terms most taxes have distortionary costs, where the costs associated with a unit increase in taxes are likely to increase with the level of taxes, so it is less costly to smooth taxes over time. It is also intuitive: if a government offered people the chance of paying no tax for 5 years followed by the certainty of paying double normal tax for the next five, then most people would reject this offer.

A key point is that while there are clear benefits from keeping taxes smooth rather than allowing their path to be dictated by erratic movements in government spending, and occasionally periods of very high spending, there are no costs to erratic movements in government deficits, government debt or bank reserves. So it makes perfect sense to try and smooth taxes, letting government deficits take the strain of both erratic and sometimes high levels of government spending.

It is tax smoothing that justifies allowing debt or reserves to rise substantially during periods of unusually high spending. However note that the higher government spending that justifies a high deficit is temporary. If it was permanent, tax smoothing would not apply, and taxes would need to rise in line with government spending, with no increase in the deficit. Even if the expenditure has long lasting benefits, such as better education for example, that doesn’t imply it should be funded by borrowing or money creation if that higher spending is permanent. (This abstracts from Keynesian arguments, which we consider below.)

The centrality of tax smoothing to thinking about deficits and debt is why many papers written on fiscal rules, including my own (see here for example) often start by setting out that idea. Tax smoothing also tells us why balanced budget rules are bad economics. As government spending is inevitably lumpy and/or erratic, balancing the budget would match that with a lumpy, erratic path for taxes. More generally it shows why fiscal rules should, if possible, [1] always take the long view, to avoid ‘shocks’ to government spending being translated into a bumpy path for taxes.

Tax smoothing also implies that in a downturn or recession the ‘automatic stabilisers’ (e.g. lower taxes, more unemployment benefits) should be allowed to operate, but obviously tax smoothing can say nothing about countercyclical fiscal policy, because the argument for such policy comes from Keynesian macroeconomics. For moderate downturns or recessions any deficits that come from either the automatic stabilisers or fiscal stimulus will be matched in later years by boom periods where we get automatic surpluses because taxes are unusually high, and also perhaps because of fiscal contractions to moderate demand. In other words the normal business cycle should not lead to persistently higher debt or reserves.

Unfortunately history tells us that occasionally we get very deep recessions, and these are not matched by very large booms. Not only will the deficits caused by the automatic stabilisers be particularly large in these recessions, but fiscal stimulus is likely to be essential because interest rates will hit their lower bound. This is of course what happened during the Global Financial Crisis.

Tax smoothing implies that large deficits during the GFC, to allow for both the automatic stabilisers and fiscal stimulus, were sensible. Once the recovery from a deep recession is complete, it makes sense to - if required - return any deficits to normal levels using spending or taxes. The great sin of 2010 austerity was starting fiscal consolidation in the middle of the recession rather than when the recovery was complete.

Investment is also a lumpy activity: sometimes you need a lot and sometimes not so much. Tax smoothing implies that it would be a mistake to match annual public investment with taxes, which is why I argue that public investment should be paid for by borrowing or issuing reserves, with taxes only matching some long term average of investment expenditure. That is why it makes sense to exclude public investment from any medium term deficit target, and also why the falling debt to GDP rule is a bad target.

Tax smoothing accounts for and justifies large increases in debt during wars and, together with Keynesian policy, implies persistently higher debt after a very deep recession. What about a global pandemic? The justification at the time for large deficits was that this too created a deep recession. In a recent post I questioned whether the extent of deficits run up in the UK and other European countries was justified, but this is really an argument about the extent of the additional spending on the furlough scheme, not tax smoothing.

How does tax smoothing apply to spending to reduce the extent of climate change? It has become increasingly clear that such spending is temporary, in the sense that green energy is likely to be cheaper once the capacity to produce, store and distribute it is in place. So we are talking about a green transition requiring temporarily higher public and private spending to change how we produce energy. Even if that spending lasts for a decade or so the tax smoothing argument once again applies. Spending to green the economy should not be ‘paid for’ by higher taxes, but instead should see a rise in the ratio of debt or reserves to GDP. [2]

How quickly should debt be brought down after one of these crises? In the stylised smoothing model where people live forever (or care about future generations as if they live forever, by leaving appropriate bequests to children) the answer is debt should never be brought back down. Even in more realistic models the answer is that debt should be brought back down very slowly indeed, as I helped show here. If you think that the current generation is more likely to be selfish than caring about future generations, then how quickly debt is brought down will also depend on how much the original spending helps future generations.

The idea that it is politically responsible to keep government debt to GDP constant or bring it down is deeply ingrained in parts of the population and much of the media. This idea is not entirely baseless, as some politicians have in the past increased deficits for their own political advantages, rather than because it made sense in economic terms. But it is equally important to recognise when it is economically irresponsible not to allow large deficits to fund temporary but essential expenditure, particularly if that expenditure might not happen if it had to be paid for by higher taxes. Spending to green the economy and reduce the extent of climate change is a clear example of that.

Note that the tax smoothing argument applies to public spending to green the economy whether that spending is classed as public investment, day to day public spending or involves tax breaks to incentivise firms or consumers to reduce their carbon footprint. The key reason why this spending should lead to higher deficits rather than higher taxes is that it is temporary as part of a green transition.

How can we be sure that a government that says debt is increasing because of measures to green the economy is not in reality abusing this idea to just avoid having to put up taxes to pay for other areas of permanent spending? Checking this in an economy like the UK is perfectly feasible, but it needs to be done by an independent body that is very familiar with the details of government spending and accounting. This sounds like a worthy task for a fiscal council, like the Office of Budget Responsibility in the UK.

[1] Portes & Wren-Lewis discusses what ‘if possible’ means in this case. The more a government (with the help of a fiscal council) can be trusted to abide by the spirit of the rules, the more long term these rules can be.

[2] A carbon tax alongside green investment and subsidies still makes economic sense, which if other taxes remain unchanged would reduce the size of additional deficits. However the political problems with implementation may mean such taxes remain well below effective levels.