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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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