How austerity was based on market panic

Markets were full of fear. When that receded, so did the bond spreads.

When countries across Europe were putting together austerity policies in 2011, the orthodox reasoning was that the debt and deficit of the nations were out of control, and that this was being communicated by the markets, in the form of bond yields.

But did nations actually base their estimates of the need for austerity on the fiscal fundamentals? Or were they misled by market reaction? A research paper from Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji breaks down the question.

It's certainly the case that the austerity was based, almost entirely, on the state of the market. The authors compare the extent of austerity measures in 2011 with the spreads of the nations' bonds (the difference between each country’s 10-year government bond rate and the German 10-year government bond rate), and find a near-perfect correlation:

Austerity measures and spreads in 2011

The authors write:

There can be little doubt. Financial markets exerted different degrees of pressure on countries. By raising the spreads they forced some countries to engage in severe austerity programs. Other countries did not experience increases in spreads and as a result did not feel much urge to apply the austerity medicine.

Now, that in itself is not particularly problematic. After all, if the financial markets are rationally responding to problems in the respective nations' finances, then it makes sense to try and calm them by getting finances under control. But if the markets are instead in the throes of irrational panic, then basing policy around their whims is problematic.

Ji and de Grauwe then come up with two proxies to test what it actually was which was driving the financial markets. If the markets are acting rationally, then as fundamentals improve, the spreads should fall. So, starting in mid-2012, they compare the change in debt-to-GDP ratio (just one possible measure of fiscal health) to the change in spread values.

They find that, over the period they're examining, debt-to-GDP ratio increases in every one of the ten nations they study. Despite this, however, the spreads decrease in each — and those decreases aren't particularly correlated with the debt-to-GDP change:

 

Change in debt-to-GDP ratio vs. spreads since 2012Q2

The bond markets don't appear to pay much attention to the basic financial health of the nations. What they do pay attention to is the European Central Bank. The paper states that:

The decision by the ECB in 2012 to commit itself to unlimited support of the government bond markets was a game changer in the Eurozone. It had dramatic effects. By taking away the intense existential fears that the collapse of the Eurozone was imminent the ECB’s lender of last resort commitment pacified government bond markets and led to a strong decline in the spreads of the Eurozone countries.

In the summer of 2012, the ECB removed fear from the equation. What happened then was a widespread collapse in bond spreads. But the collapse wasn't uniform; instead, "countries whose spread had climbed the most prior to the ECB announcement experienced the strongest decline in their spreads". By taking away panic, the ECB lets us see that almost all of the prior variation in the bond spreads had been as a result of that panic.

Basing policy on calm sensible market reactions might work; basing it on the reaction of markets in existential fear probably wouldn't. That's traditionally the time when politicians start trying to lead markets, rather than follow them. And, sure enough, the authors repeat a calculation confirmed by many others: panic-driven austerity has crushed growth in the nations it's been practiced…

Austerity and GDP growth 2011-2012

…and has hurt fiscal fundamentals in those same nations, with debt-to-GDP ratios getting worse the more austerity is practiced:

 

Austerity and increases in debt-to-GDP ratios

The TUC's Duncan Weldon (whose tweets first pointed me to the research) sums up the lessons we've learned:

  1. Financial markets are perfectly capable of acting irrationally. Market panic drove extreme austerity in Southern Europe.
  2. Extreme austerity has proved self-defeating – it means debt/GDP ratios are higher not lower.
  3. Markets, to quote the IMF’s Chief Economist, can be ‘schizophrenic’ – they initially reward harsh austerity measures and then panic when they, predictably, lead to weaker growth.
  4. The end result is that market panic, followed by policy-maker panic, has imposed huge economic and social costs across Europe

Seems like if politicians really really want to base their decisions on the ill-thought-out panic of large numbers of people, they ought to at least wait for an election.

Gambling with out future. 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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder