Thursday, 11 August 2016

Who is afraid of the bond market? The paradox of Keynesianism

One of the added benefits of Brexit is that it has finally forced the government to kill off George Osborne's tenure at No. 11 Downing Street and thus abandon his insane attempts to balance the country's finances through austerity. But it would nevertheless be unfair to blame George Osborne entirely for the austerity of the last six years. Why? Because he was only doing what most mainstream economists and the opposition Labour Party were telling him to do, only doing it better.

The problem is this. Cast your mind back to the 2010 general election and remind yourself of the options that were available to the electorate. In essence there were only two: Osborne with his austerity-max, and the Labour Party with its austerity-lite. Neither were very appealing, but more pertinently, neither had any basis in macroeconomic theory, or more specifically in that part we consider as pure Keynesianism.

According to Keynes, the appropriate fiscal response of a government in a recession is to cut taxes and increase spending. The aim is to increase aggregate demand in the economy to compensate for the fall that has induced the recession thereby helping to rebuild confidence and restore output to pre-recession levels. Unfortunately there is a problem with this plan: nobody seems to have the necessary bottle to carry it out. This is because the plan as it is conventionally implemented contains a fundamental flaw. That flaw is debt.

In a recession incomes and employment levels fall and hence so too do tax revenues. In contrast unemployment levels rise and so consequently does social security spending. As a result the government budget deficit grows more negative and the national debt increases. And the bigger the recession, the bigger the deficit and so the bigger the borrowing requirement will be. Now in theory this shouldn't matter because a government that prints its own currency can never run out of money, but in practice it does matter because economists and the financial markets obsess about debt to GDP ratios and sovereign default, and driving this fear are the IMF, the bond market and the credit agencies.

The consequence of this is that in a recession when Keynesian theory demands that governments borrow whatever is necessary to get the economy moving again and operating back near full capacity, the bond market is urging caution and threatening to restrict credit. So in 2010 even though UK gilt yields were at historic lows and government borrowing was dirt cheap, all the talk was about reducing borrowing as quickly as possible to prevent market bond rates rising and our credit rating falling. Yet paradoxically, before the crash when the economy was booming and the government should have been discouraged from borrowing, there was no such alarm in the markets about UK debt and borrowing was positively encouraged.

This is the paradox of current Keynesian economics. When your economy is in a deep recession and Keynes says "borrow borrow borrow", the bond market wants to do the opposite. Yet when the economy is booming and Keynes says governments need to operate a surplus, the bond market is quite happy to lend you anything you want. Just ask Gordon Brown.

So in 2010 instead of both main political parties promising to cut taxes, raise welfare payments and increase investment as Keynesian theory demands, both political parties promised to do the opposite, but by slightly different amounts (obviously) in order to at least maintain a pretence of economic and political pluralism. All of this should therefore make economists think seriously and critically about what they really understand by Keynesian policies and how they can implement them because what this clearly demonstrates is that the current paradigm that they adhere to just isn't working. Not only that, it can NEVER work.

Fortunately there is a solution. That solution is Modern Monetary Theory or MMT. (To be continued...)

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