The IMF changing its stance leaves the OBR and Treasury isolated

The number of people who think that this recession was unpredictable is shrinking by the day, writes NIESR's Jonathan Portes.

The IMF's reassessment of the "fiscal multiplier" has sparked off multiple reactions in the economics blogosphere both in the US and UK. My initial reaction is here. Meanwhile, Chris Giles at the FT has weighed in (£), attempting to demonstrate that the IMF's analysis is not robust. I'd like to step back a bit now from the IMF piece (I'll return to it later) and explain why this matters.

As I discuss here, in mid-2010 the international economic policymaking community, led by the IMF, and very much influenced by the new Coalition governnment in the UK, executed what became known as the "pivot" to fiscal consolidation. Pretty much everyone agreed that it was necessary to reduce budget deficits; the question was how quickly, and what the damage, if any, to growth would be. As a reminder for those new to this debate, the "multiplier" measures this: it is the reduction in output resulting from a given reduction in the budget deficit (so if the multiplier is 1, then a reduction in the budget deficit of 1 per cent of GDP reduces output by 1 per cent). On this question, broadly, there were three camps.

First, a small group of economists argued both on theoretical and empirical grounds that fiscal consolidation wouldn't reduce growth at all – indeed it might even enhance growth (so the multiplier would be zero or positive). The doctrine of "expansionary fiscal contraction" argued that tightening fiscal policy could, through exchange rate and confidence effects, actually increase demand and growth; a paper (£) by Alesina and Ardagna was particularly influential in this respect. While this was always a minority view among empirical macroeconomists, this research was quickly picked up on by those politicians who wanted aggressive deficit cuts, in both the UK and EU. For example, Matthew Hancock MP, formerly George Osborne's Chief of Staff (and now Minister for Skills), claimed:

I discovered that research into dozens of past fiscal tightenings shows that, more often than not, growth doesn't fall but accelerates.

Somewhat more tentatively, the UK Treasury argued (although I doubt any Treasury official believed this for a moment) in the 2010 Emergency Budget that: 

[The wider effects of fiscal consolidation] will tend to boost demand growth, could improve the underlying performance of the economy and could even be sufficiently strong to outweigh the negative effects.

So while this view was never very credible economically, it certainly influenced policy.

The second view was that taken by mainstream economic modellers and forecasters, including most importantly the IMF, but also the UK Office for Budget Responsibility, the Bank of England and indeed us here at NIESR. This was that the negative impact of fiscal consolidation on growth would be significant, but not disastrous. The IMF never believed the Alesina and Ardegna results; in October 2010 the Fund concluded that:

Fiscal consolidation typically lowers growth in the short term. Using a new data set, we find that after two years, a budget deficit cut of 1 percent of GDP tends to lower output by about 0.5 per cent and raise the unemployment rate by ⅓ percentage point.

These estimates were based on historical experience over the last three decades; using similar data, NIESR's model incorporate similar estimates. And when estimating the impact of the UK fiscal consolidation programme announced in June 2010, the OBR also used very similar estimates. This is hardly surprising: as Duncan Weldon points out in a neat bit of detective work, the OBR's multiplier estimates are based primarily on one IMF paper, as well as two papers from NIESR researchers. 

There was, however, a third view. This  was advanced most strongly by Paul Krugman and Brad Delong in the US, and here by Martin Wolf (in the columns of the FT) and Simon Wren-Lewis; it was that the experience of the last three decades (except, perhaps, in Japan) was not relevant to that of a world where monetary policy was limited by the zero lower bound on interest rates (or, for those like Scott Sumner who think that monetary policy could have been even more aggressive, by political or institutional constraints).  In such a world, multipliers would be significantly higher, and almost certainly greater than one.   Simon explains why here, concluding perceptively that this may be "an occasion where thinking about macroeconomic theory can be rather more useful than naively following the evidence of the past."  Meanwhile, Antonia Fatas and Ilian Mihov argued on empirical grounds that the Fund and others were consistently underestimating the size of the multiplier, as they explain here

So what then is the significance of the IMF analysis published this week? For reference, I will repeat the key paragraph:

In line with these assumptions, earlier analysis by the IMF staff suggests that, on average, fiscal multipliers were near 0.5 in advanced economies during the three decades leading up to 2009. If the multipliers underlying the growth forecasts were about 0.5, as this informal evidence suggests, our results indicate that multipliers have actually been in the 0.9 to 1.7 range since the Great Recession. This finding is consistent with research suggesting that in today’s environment of substantial economic slack, monetary policy constrained by the zero lower bound, and synchronized fiscal adjustment across numerous economies, multipliers may be well above 1.

So, in contrast to the Fund's 2010 view, multipliers are much larger than 0.5 – large enough to have a very substantial, and negative, impact on growth.  

Now, the IMF analysis, in isolation, is clearly not definitive "proof" that multipliers are now 0.9 to 1.7 – and even if it was, that would not "prove" anything about multipliers in a specific country. I won't attempt to arbitrate between the Fund and Chris Giles on econometrics, except to say that his detailed analysis (£) confirms my view, which he also reports, that cross-country regressions are typically not very robust, and in general can be used to make pretty much any argument you like (indeed, this is precisely the same reason I never believed the Alesina and Ardegna result either). So while I think the new Fund analysis does broadly support the view that in general terms one of the reasons the Fund's forecasts (in common with pretty much everyone else's) have been too optimistic is that they underestimated the negative impact of fiscal consolidation, I wouldn't place much weight on them in isolation. 

But what is clear – particularly in the last sentence I quote above – is that the Fund has now accepted that the balance of the argument, both theoretical and empirical, has tilted decisively in favour of the third group of economists above. It's not just about one set of regressions; these are simply a further piece of supportive and confirmatory evidence supporting those of us who argued that aggressive fiscal consolidation was an unnecessary and dangerous gamble, with very serious downsides. The Fund is now squarely in this camp. This is a major intellectual shift – as Isabella Kaminska writes, no wonder Paul Krugman is feeling "smuggish". But leaving aside the economists' debate, how should this affect policy? In the UK, I can think of two key implications:

  • The first relates to the current debate about how large the UK "output gap" is, and hence how much scope there is for expansionary policy (both fiscal and monetary). The UK economy has essentially seen zero growth for the past two years.  Some analysts – Chris Giles being the most credible, but the OBR has also taken this line – have argued that given the sort of multipliers assumed by the OBR and IMF, fiscal consolidation can't explain much of this growth shortfall, so it must be something else: supply side weakness, commodity prices, and so on, meaning that changing fiscal policy might not do much good.  If, however, multipliers were in fact much higher, then fiscal consolidation is indeed the main reason for weak growth; and correspondingly, the scope for boosting growth through expansionary policy is much greater;
  • The second relates very specifically to the OBR. As Duncan pointed out, the OBR's excessively optimistic forecasts were explicitly based on multipliers derived from IMF research. The IMF has now explicitly changed its mind; the OBR's position is no longer tenable. If it wants to retain its credibility as an economic forecaster independent of government, it needs to examine its assumptions and methodology, both retrospectively and prospectively, on the impact of fiscal consolidation on growth. The December OBR forecast should include at a minimum both a reassessment of its forecast record, in the light of the Fund's change of view, and an assessment going forward of the impact of different multiplier assumptions on growth. 

Arguably, however, far more important than the UK debate- and far more central to the concerns of the IMF – are the implication for the eurozone, and in particular for the current adjustment programmes in Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal. Several months ago, I argued:

Clearly long-run solvency is also essential. But, in Spain and Italy, trying to hit arbitrary short-run deficit targets, as proposed by the European Commission, is likely if anything to be counterproductive to the objective of long-run sustainability. Spain’s long-term fiscal position, for example, is relatively strong; what it needs to ensure that remains the case is decent levels of economic growth, and what it needs for that is structural reform, especially labour market reform. Both politically and economically, such reforms will be both less painful and more effective if fiscal consolidation is much slower, as I argue here. These arguments on timing hold good even if multipliers and hysteresis effects are relatively small; if such effects are large – and there is every reason to believe that in European labour markets hysteresis effects are of profound macroeconomic importance – then they are even more compelling.

The IMF clearly now agrees with this, as Christine Lagarde has made clear in the case of Greece. They need now to point out to the European Commission and the German government as forcefully as possible that if they do not belatedly come to their senses, they will run the economies of Southern Europe – and possibly the euro itself – into the ground on the basis of an economic analysis that has now been discredited both theoretically and empirically.

Finally, what about us at NIESR? Well, we did produce this, examining why the multiplier might be larger in current circumstances, and examining the implications; precisely what the OBR should have done. But, more broadly, when presenting NIESR forecasts in 2011, I was frequently asked why we were rather pessimistic relative to most other forecasters, and certainly the OBR.  My response was often that what I worried about most was not that our model's predictions looked rather gloomy; it was that the economists I took most seriously – those listed above, who don't use quantitative models – thought our model was far too optimistic. And so it proved.

The IMF's buildings in Washington DC. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?