Spending cuts and the threat to democracy

What America should learn from Europe and the Middle East.

The "sequester", which began on 1 March, is the American form of austerity, or cut-backs in government spending during a recession. Austerity, or stingy government in Europe has kept employment extremely depressed compared to what it would have been with government stimulus, as Paul Krugman argues.

On Saturday, there were massive protests throughout Portugal against Scrooge policies by the government, which have so destroyed the country’s economy that 2 per cent of the population has fled abroad for jobs in the past 2 years alone. On Friday, Greek workers staged a huge general strike. In Italy, anti-austerity feeling made grumpy comedian Beppe Grillo and his party the swing vote in the new parliament. Grillo may single-handedly destroy the eurozone. European newspapers rather amusingly demanded that Grillo now "take responsibility" and "tell us what he wants". He is a contrarian comedian. It would be like having Robin Williams or Tracy Morgan as the swing vote in Congress, with the press hounding them for their agricultural policy and asking them about the dangers of deflation. But Grillo's ascendancy, while less alarming than the resurgence of the Greek far right, is a manifestation of the rejection by the Italian public of the long dreary road prescribed by the "troika", (The International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the Central Bank), of further government cut-backs, reductions in minimum wage, high unemployment, no hope.

While for some odd reason the Middle East does not usually get analysed with the same social science tools as Europe, the political crisis in Egypt is related to the Muslim Brotherhood government’s austerity program. The latter, as Samuel Knight argues, is being pursued under pressure from the International Monetary Fund. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Cairo, also urging acceptance of the austerity program. Austerity is estimated to have reduced Egyptians’ real income by 3 per cent in January alone. Tunisia is doing better than Egypt economically, but the parliament, dominated by the religious Right, is also tempted by austerity measures, seeking to trim a point off the budget deficit this year while seeking 4.5 per cent growth. While letting the value of the Tunisian dinar fall would hurt consumers with regard to imported goods, it would make Tunisian textiles and tourism more affordable for those abroad. Tunisia's exports are hurt by European economic problems, and the country would do well to develop more Asian customers (Brazil has had success reorienting exports to the Pacific Rim). Likewise, although Yemen's economy improved in 2012 after a 10 per cent drop in the revolutionary year of 2011, if anything the government budget deficit of 5.5 per cent is not big enough to stimulate the economy properly.

Reducing the state budget at a time of economic contraction is the opposite of what the great economist John Maynard Keynes prescribed. When the economy is in the doldrums, the businesses are skittish about investing their money, and so keep it in the bank. The only force, Keynes argued, that can and will risk putting a lot of money into the economy during a deep recession is the government. Of course, the government has less money at that point, too, since tax receipts are reduced. So it will simply have to spend money it doesn't technically have, i.e. go into deficit and print extra paper money. The extra paper will, obviously, lose some of its value. But that loss can have benefits, too, since it will make the goods produced by the country less expensive abroad, and spur exports.

This argument is straightforward for most countries, and it is mysterious why European and some Middle Eastern governments reject it. It is complicated in the US by the position of the dollar as a reserve currency and by the fall of manufacturing to only 20 per cent of the US economy. The former means that large budget deficits don't necessarily reduce the dollar's value significantly, because the US only holds about a third of the world's dollars and there is a lot of confidence in its value. The latter means that even when the dollar falls against the yen or euro, the jump in exports is limited to a fifth of the economy and domestic services don’t get much of a boost. But actually these peculiarities of the US economy are not arguments for austerity; on the contrary, the reserve dollar allows the US to do stimulus without as much pain as one would otherwise expect.

Instead, the Tea Party has forced the US into an artificial crisis with the "sequester", taking $100bn a year out of the economy for the next ten years, which will cut half a point of economic growth and harm workers, keeping unemployment high – not to mention the harm it likely will do to medical research, higher education, etc. That this austerity is being pursued by the GOP in part in hopes of disillusioning voters with President Obama in his second term is fairly obvious, but it is also in order to protect the 2003 Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, 80 per cent of which have been retained. Sequester, as usual with these things in the US, is actually a tax on the middle classes to benefit the wealthy, since it preserves undeserved tax cuts for the latter by reducing government services for the former.

That austerity does not work economically should be clear. But that it creates populist discontents that are shaking southern Europe and could derail Middle East democratisation is even more alarming. The world needs stimulus, not Scrooge government if it is to pull out of the crisis kicked off by corrupt bankers in 2008.

This is a cross-post from Juan Cole's blog Informed Comment

Barack Obama holds a cabinet meeting at the White House on 4 March. (Photo: Getty.)
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Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

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