The Economist: austerity in 2010 "threatened recovery"

The coalition against austerity is overwhelming.

It feels as though a rubicon has been somewhat crossed: it is now, undoubtedly, mainstream opinion that fiscal consolidation – austerity, to you or me – in the immediate aftermath of the greatest financial crisis in 80 years was a terrible idea.

The Economist's Free Exchange column was never particularly supportive of austerity, occasionally going against the grain of the magazine's main editorial line to do so. But this week is a particularly strong attack on the idea.

In the print column, Ryan Avent focuses on the IMF's declaration that, in times of crisis, the fiscal multiplier could be several times higher than previously thought, and takes a look at wider research in the area:

What that means is that austerity may hurt much more at some times than others. In a 2010 paper Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California, Berkeley argued that the fiscal multiplier may be negative during booms, meaning that spending cuts actually raise growth. In recessions, by contrast, it could be as high as 2.5. A study by Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum and Sergio Rebelo of Northwestern University suggested that although the multiplier may hover at around 1 normally, it could rise to more than 3 when interest rates fall to near zero, leaving the central bank with less room to act.

We called the IMF's realisation that it had severely underestimated the multiplier the most important 68 words in its world economic outlook, and it appears Avent agrees.

In the blog which accompanies the column, he doubles down on the claimtwitter):

Policymakers suffered from a striking lack of perspective in opting to pursue broad austerity beginning in 2010. It was clear at the time that some economies needed to begin cutting debts immediately and that lots of economies would need to bring debt down eventually. But a look at global conditions should have indicated that the normal cushions against fiscal cuts were weaker than normal or absent. And so the decision by countries not facing immediate market pressure to start cutting alongside those that were seriously undermined the consolidation efforts of economies in truly dire straits and threatened recovery.

Avent has much more to say, particularly on the failure of central banks to play their role correctly, and both columns are well worth reading in full.

It's always hard to argue about what ought to have happened. Politically, everyone will point out that it holds little weight: no party can win an election based on the claim that they would have been better if they had won the last one; instead, they have to present forward-looking visions, and explain why the country will be better in five years time under them.

And economically, whether or not austerity was right is now meaningless; it happened, and failed, but the circumstances are changing daily. We are (far too slowly) climbing out of depression, and at some point the arguments for fiscal consolidation will get stronger, and a new discussion will need to be had.

Nonetheless, it is worth repeating: George Osborne was wrong, emphatically, obviously and inarguably. His decisions hurt the economy and the nation entirely unnecessarily, and he refused every possible opportunity to ameliorate that damage. Plan A isn't just failing, it has failed. Yet there has been no contrition, no apology, and not even a hint of understanding. All there is is a lesson for future Chancellors: Don't Do This.

Sad Osborne is sad, but not about austerity. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.