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Breaking the consensus

Even IMF researchers are calling time on free market dogma and the neoliberal orthodoxies of the past 30 years.

What has come over the International Monetary Fund? Not content with playing the good cop to Europe’s bad in the ongoing Greek crisis – in which it has been arguing for debt relief and less austerity – the fund has just published an article in its in-house magazine by three of its leading researchers entitled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”. Their answer is “yes”.

The article takes aim at two of the most important aspects of the neoliberal economic agenda that has been so influential since the early 1980s. The first is the removal of restrictions on the movement of capital across international borders – so-called capital account liberalisation. Readers of a certain age will recall that 40 years ago there were strict limits on the amount of foreign currency one could buy before going abroad on holiday and companies had to show evidence of the need to import supplies to gain access to the foreign exchange market. Such restrictions were even harsher for international investment – making it almost impossible for institutions in one country to invest in the equity and bond markets of another.

Neoliberal theorists decried this situation as absurd. Rich countries have abundant capital, so the rate of return on it is relatively low, they argued. Poor ones are capital-scarce, so the returns on investment are high. Erecting artificial barriers preventing capital from flowing from rich countries to poor ones was therefore like stopping water from flowing downhill: an unhelpful intervention in the natural order of things, with detrimental consequences for all. During the 1980s and 1990s, international capital controls were thus dismantled worldwide – and often as a precondition for IMF assistance. The scale of private cross-border capital flows rocketed and soon eclipsed those of public-sector lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF itself. 

But while these private capital flows were large, it quickly became obvious that they could also be extremely erratic. Throughout the 1990s, a succession of big developing countries enjoyed huge inflows of money  to be used for financing government spending and infrastructure development. But in each case, the new sources of funding turned out to be fickle, as private investors proved far less tolerant of heterodox economic policy than official funders had been. The result was a succession of crises – in Mexico in 1994, in east Asia in 1997, in Russia in 1998, in Argentina in 2001 – as the newly discovered rivers of capital suddenly began flowing the other way.

The IMF became well known at the time for insisting that these occasional stunning crashes should not derail liberalisation: they were just the price of reforms not fully complete. The new IMF article, in the June edition of Finance & Development magazine, disagrees. After nearly 30 years, it argues, the growing pains have not stopped. Open capital accounts have indeed increased developing countries’ access to capital for development but, strikingly, there is little evidence that this has raised growth rates. And there is no question that it has exaggerated the boom-bust business cycle, increased inequality and raised the odds of periodic financial crises.

Couched as it is in the equivocal language of cost-benefit analysis, this change of tune might sound inconsequential. It is not. Twenty years ago, Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was branded an international pariah for reimposing capital controls to insulate his country from the east Asian financial crisis. The new IMF article concludes that such measures are “a viable, and sometimes the only, option”.

The second plank of the neoliberal agenda at which the IMF article takes aim will be even more familiar to UK readers: curbing the size of the state. In the 1980s and 1990s, the main emphasis on this front was on privatisation. As that agenda began to run its course, emphasis shifted to methods of constraining governments’ abilities to run excessive deficits of spending over revenues – and rules to avoid the accumulation of too much public debt. The Maastricht rules introduced by the eurozone countries in 1993, which mandated annual deficits of no more than 3 per cent of GDP and public debt of no more than 60 per cent, were perhaps the most prominent example.

For most of the 2000s, such self-denying ordinances seemed to be costless virtues.  Then, in 2007, the global economic crisis hit. After a brief flirtation with increased state spending when confronted with the steep recessions of 2008-09, the governments of the eurozone and the UK were converted again to the crucial importance of shrinking public debt and cutting spending. The notion that cutting spending can (or even is necessary to) boost growth – of “expansionary fiscal contraction” – came roaring back into fashion.

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The IMF broached its dissent early in the post-crisis period, with its economists expressing scepticism over the pace and timing of austerity in Europe. Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, and Olivier Blanchard, its chief economist, argued for relaxing spending constraints and turning a blind eye to debt burdens until depressed economies were solidly recovering. 

Gossip-mongers at the World Economic Forum in Davos put it down to the fact that they are both French and therefore constitutional backsliders on matters of fiscal prudence; and policymakers preferred to pick up on pseudo-scientific economic sound bites such as the idea of a public debt tipping-point at 90 per cent of GDP. In reality, however, the IMF was merely stating the clear conclusions of conventional economic models – models that the vast difference since 2009 in the recovery of the US, which did not opt for austerity, and Europe, which did, appears to have proved largely correct.

The new IMF article drives home the point. The “short-run costs of lower output and welfare and higher unemployment”, it concludes, “have been underplayed, and the desirability . . . of simply living with high debt and allowing debt ratios to decline organically through growth is underappreciated”. Austerity is often self-defeating and debt limits by themselves are meaningless.

Is this two-part mea culpa on both capital flows and the size of the state a major landmark in the evolution of the IMF’s thinking – and could this be important in practice, given the intellectual heft that the Washington institutions bring to the international policy debate? It is, and it could.

Will it rehabilitate the IMF as an institution among the populations of the countries it is meant to serve? Here I am more sceptical. There is no question that there was disagreement on policy in east Asia in 1997, for example. But the real problem with the IMF’s intervention had to do not with the correctness of its prescriptions but their legitimacy. The single most enduring image of that painful period was the photo of the then managing director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, arms folded and frowning like a schoolmaster giving detention, watching over President Suharto of Indonesia as, humiliatingly, Suharto bowed to the inevitable and signed up to the fund’s financing plan.

In many developing countries, memories of unjust colonial domination are raw and if the IMF is to help resolve the growing dissatisfaction of populations with policymaking elites, it will need to do more than just make improvements to its advice – no matter how sincere and welcome such improvements may be. The reality that, in effect, power over its assistance belongs exclusively to a handful of rich economies will have to change. Reforming its governance to give developing countries more control is the place to start.

In the UK, meanwhile, we can have no such complaints. We have no one to blame for taking neoliberalism’s crazier ideas too seriously but ourselves.

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage)

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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