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.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide