The IMF has debunked the myth of Osborne's fiscal "credibility"

Slowing the cuts would not trigger a bond market revolt.

There is a huge amount of interesting material in the full IMF staff report on the UK, released today, in particular the lasting damage ("hysteresis" to economists) done by this prolonged period of very low growth.  But in this post I wanted to draw attention to one particular paragraph (it is para 43 on page 38).   I reproduce it here in full:

Some further slowing of consolidation is unlikely to trigger major market turmoil

43. Further slowing consolidation would likely entail the government reneging on its net debt mandate. Would this trigger an adverse market reaction? Such hypotheticals are impossible to answer definitively, but there is little evidence that it would. In particular, fiscal indicators such as deficit and debt levels appear to be weakly related to government bond yields for advanced economies with monetary independence. Though such simple relationships are only suggestive, they indicate that a moderate increase in the UK’s debt-to-GDP ratio may have small effects on UK sovereign risk premia (though a slower pace of fiscal tightening may increase yields through expectations of higher near-term growth and tighter monetary policy).  This conclusion is further supported by the absence of a market response to the easing of the pace of structural adjustment in the 2011 Autumn Statement. Bond yields in the US and UK during the Great  Recession have also correlated positively with equity price movements, indicating that bond yields have been driven more by growth expectations than fears of a sovereign crisis.

This couldn't be clearer.  It is saying two things.  First, the reason long-term gilt yields are low in the UK (and similarly in virtually every other "advanced economy with monetary independence") is weak growth, not "confidence" or "credibility".  "Bond yields are driven more by growth expectations."  That is, yields are low not because of economic confidence but because of its exact opposite. This is precisely what I and others (Simon Wren-Lewis here, and of course Paul Krugman in the US) have long been arguing.  Indeed, the specific evidence the IMF cites - that yields have fallen when stock markets have fallen - is precisely that, in the UK, I first pointed  here a year ago.  

Second, that there is no reason to believe that slowing fiscal consolidation would "trigger an adverse market reaction".  In other words, when the Chancellor said that "these risks [of slowing consolidation] are very real, not imaginary", he was, once again, indulging in evidence-free speculation, not serious analysis.  Indeed, the Fund accurately points out that the main reason yields might rise (slightly, not precipitiously) if fiscal policy were to be loosened would be because of "expectations of higher near-term growth". As I pointed out here, this would be good news.

So, the IMF agrees that the reason gilt yields are low is because of weak growth, not confidence; and that we could loosen policy with minimal risk and probable benefit.  This is an explicit endorsement of the argument set out by Paul Krugman and Richard Layard (and endorsed by a long list of eminent economists, not to mention me) in their Manifesto for Economic Sense:  "there is massive evidence against the confidence argument; all the alleged evidence in favor of the doctrine has evaporated on closer examination."

 As I noted, the Fund's recommendations are, to be polite, inconsistent. But the analysis is spot on. And it explodes whatever is left of the credibility of the analysis underlying the government's fiscal strategy.

This piece originally appeared on Jonathan Portes's blog Not the Treasury view ...

George Osborne, "indulging in evidence-free speculation, not serious analysis." Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.