Suyts on Krugman

Suyts quite rightly criticizes Paul Krugman on the Nobel Laureate’s latest ramblings. However, his analysis misses a couple of issues. This is an extended comment.

You are quite right on two issues here, which I believe have been called the ratchet effect and the debt servicing impact.

The first is that it is easy to increase government expenditure, but much more difficult to scale it back as there are entrenched interests to stop the scale back. It is easy to give people welfare benefits or create jobs. But try to take these away and people will fight like crazy to keep them.

The second on debt servicing you demonstrate very well. As total debt goes up, so does the interest on that debt.

There are other issues that should be taken into consideration on the deficit and debt problem.

The first issue is the size of government. When an economy enters recession, the tax receipts fall and expenditure rises. Corporation tax is the first area to go down, followed by income tax as unemployment rises. In expenditure terms, welfare payments will rise along with (possibly) business bail outs. With small government, taxing little and spending little, this impact was small. With large government – in Britain rising nearly 50% of GDP – this effect is large. A 6% decline in GDP perhaps increased the deficit by 6-7% of GDP. Under the Eisenhower administration, a similar decline would worsen government finances by maybe 2% of GDP. Big government exacerbates the size of cyclical swings.

The second issue is the position at the start of downturn. In mid-2008 both USA and Britain had structural deficits – in the USA to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Britain finance a huge increase in public sector pay and capital spending on schools and hospitals. A structural deficit is the measure of the average government deficit over the course of the business cycle. In Britain at the top of the cycle, the actual deficit was around 3% of GDP, with a planned rise to 4%. The structural deficit was probably greater than 4% of GDP in mid-2008 in Britain and maybe slightly smaller in the USA. Below is my estimate of the impact of Britain’s structural deficit in April 2010. I estimated that the structural deficit built up between 2001 and 2008 would in the long-term increase National Debt by 40% of GDP. I was overly optimistic in my assessment.

The third issue is with the classical Keynesian Multiplier. Crude textbook Keynesianism of the 1960s for a closed economy stated

E = C+I+G

Or national expenditure is the sum of Consumption, Investment and Government expenditure.

The theoretical impact of increasing government expenditure on total output, when the economy is at less than full employment, is Y/G. If government expenditure is 10% of national income, then increase G by $1 and Y will increase by $10. If government expenditure is 40% of national income, then increase G by $1 and Y will increase by $2.50. However, crudely put, if the government expenditure does not take up the slack in the economy (the deficit in aggregate demand), then (in an inflation-free economy) the government expenditure “crowds out” private expenditure. Another way of putting the situation, if the economy is not “stuck in a rut” as Keynes assumed in his “General Theory”, but merely reacting to overinvestment (such as a housing bubble), then increased government expenditure will have no effect on total output, but “crowd out” other expenditure. It will also add to the nominal national debt, without adding to total national income, thereby increasing national debt as a percentage of national income, or expanding national income leading to increased tax revenues and thus closing the deficit.

The fourth issue is fiscal tipping points. If the increased government expenditure fails to stimulate the economy, then the result will be a larger structural deficit. If, like some European countries, there is a further contraction then the deficit will increase. In Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, this further downturn has led to increased economic risk, pushing up interest rates. This increases short-term debt costs, further increasing the deficit. The only way to stem total collapse is to massively cut public expenditure and increase taxes to not only pay for the debt-financing costs but to rapidly cut the deficit as well. In climate change there has been much spurious talk about possible tipping points in the remote future if certain things come true. But in OECD economies, with some already having gone beyond the fiscal tipping points, many (including Krugman) seem oblivious to the possibility. Should we not use a smidgeon of the precautionary principle in economics , proclaiming austerity as an insurance against severe depression.?

Kevin Marshall

Inflation – How NOT to eradicate the deficit.

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman makes a sensible comparison of the debt crisis in Britain with Greece in the New York Times.

His major error to say that an advantage for Britain of retaining its own currency is in possessing the ability to reduce its real debt levels through inflation. However, to do so could be quite dangerous for the economic health of Britain for two reasons linked to a simple fact. Nominal interest rates tend to follow inflation so real interest rates tend not to be negative for long.

1. Borrowing for house purchase tends to be on variable interest mortgages. Fix rate mortgages are uncommon. Assume inflation rose to 10% (halving the real value of debt every 7 years). People would, in the short-term see monthly repayments more than double. My own monthly repayment mortgage (lower than average) would go up from 20% of income to 50%. The impact would cause house prices to fall again and consumer spending to plummet. So far the UK has avoided the house price crash of the 1990 to 1992, when tens of thousands of homes were repossessed. Mortgage debt is relatively higher now than then.

2. If inflation took off before the deficit was much reduced, the average rate of interest on the national debt would increase rapidly. This could mean in the short term the real cost of interest payments could increase, increasing the primary surplus. Further, the experience in Britain both in the late 1980s and mid 1990s is that after inflation, real interest rates remain high for a long period.

Possessing a constraint is a positive advantage of the euro. However it is only feasible if member nations had stuck to the original rule of maintaining the government deficit to less than 3% of GDP. However, it did not work without an additional rule – to keep the budget in a small surplus when the economy was at, or above, the long-term growth rate of the economy – the project was bound to fail in a deep recession.

Hopi Sen is aggrieved, with a slight justification, that Paul Krugman makes similar points to his post of a day before.