Tag: fiscal austerity

Slumping Money Supply (Not Austerity) Plunges Hungary Into Recession

Hungary is in a recession, again. According to the chattering classes, as well as many analysts and financial reporters, fiscal austerity is the cause of Hungary’s slump.

Nonsense. Hungary’s recession results from its slumping money supply.

When monetary and fiscal policies move in opposite directions, the economy will follow the direction taken by monetary (not fiscal) policy – money dominates. For doubters, just consider Japan and the United States in the 1990s. The Japanese government engaged in a massive fiscal stimulus program, while the Bank of Japan embraced a super-tight monetary policy. In consequence, Japan suffered under deflationary pressures and experienced a lost decade of economic growth.

In the U.S., the 1990s were marked by a strong boom. The Fed was accommodative and President Clinton was super-austere – the most tight-fisted president in the post-World War II era. President Clinton chopped 3.9 percentage points off federal government expenditures as a percent of GDP. No other modern U.S. President has even come close to Clinton’s record.

The money supply picture for Hungary seemed to be looking up until late 2011 (see the accompanying chart). Indeed, Hungary’s money supply had nearly returned to its trend-rate level, when it peaked in November 2011. Then, in the course of just over a month, things took a turn for the worse.

First, Moody’s downgraded Hungary’s debt to junk status, and soon thereafter, S&P and Fitch followed suit. Then, the EU and IMF walked out on debt restructuring talks, citing concerns over proposed constitutional changes, which threatened the Hungarian central bank’s independence. Just days later, their fears were confirmed, as the Hungarian Parliament passed the controversial law, merging the central bank with the Financial Supervisory Authority. And, to top it off, Hungary unexpectedly cancelled part of its December debt auction.

When the dust settled, confidence in Hungary’s financial system had been shattered. Despite a 15.9% increase in the supply of state money, the total money supply had plummeted by 4.2% (from November 2011 to January 2012). As the accompanying table shows, this decline in the total money supply was driven by a 9% drop in the all-important bank-money component of the total.

Hungary’s money supply has yet to recover from this perfect monetary storm. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Hungary recently adopted a damaging financial transactions levy.

Money and monetary policy trump fiscal policy. Until Hungary gets its money and banking houses in order, its economy will continue to wallow in recession.

Christina Romer’s Naïve Keynesianism

President Obama’s former head of the Council of Economic Advisers has taken to the pages of the New York Times to warn us against pursuing “fiscal austerity just now,” particularly not spending cuts.

Christina Romer’s views are Keynesian. She doesn’t use that word, but she is focused on juicing “demand” with optimally-targeted and well-managed government “investments.”

Economics has numerous schools of thought, but Romer’s writing reflects nothing but the most simplistic Keynesian framework. The fact that the huge Keynesian stimulus of recent years that she supported has coincided with the slowest economic recovery since World War II seems to be of little concern to her.

She also doesn’t seem to be interested in how government spending actually works in the real world. She assures us that “government spending on things like basic scientific research, education and infrastructure … helps increase future productivity.”

That view has a veneer of economic authenticity, but it leaves many issues unaddressed:

  • Most federal spending is on transfers and consumption, not investment. The debt crisis we face is driven mainly by entitlements, which is consumption spending. Romer’s talk of investment spending is a rhetorical bait-and-switch.
  • Romer doesn’t distinguish between average and marginal spending. If some federal investment spending has created positive net returns, that doesn’t mean that additional spending would. Governments already spend massive amounts on education, for example, so the marginal return from added spending is probably very low.
  • If the government investments that Romer touts are so valuable, then why hasn’t the government done them already? After all, federal, state, and local governments in this country already spend 41 percent of GDP.
  • If science, education, and infrastructure investments have the high returns that Romer seems to think they do, then why does the government need to be involved? Private firms seeking higher profits would be all over such investments.
  • Romer mentions that the “social returns” on some investments might be higher than purely private returns. However, that doesn’t mean that the government should automatically intervene. For one thing, the government suffers from all kinds of management failures and other pathologies.
  • Romer also ignores that the government imposes substantial deadweight losses on the economy when it commandeers the resources it needs for its “investments.”

So my reading assignment for Romer is www.DownsizingGovernment.org so she can get a better understanding of how federal programs actually operate.

And readers interested in all the economics of government spending that Romer doesn’t tell you about can consult Edgar Browning’s excellent book, Stealing From Each Other.

British Military Cuts, Conservatives, and Neocons

Yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain’s biggest defense cuts since World War II. The cuts affect the British military across the board.

The Army will shed 7,000 troops; the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will each lose 5,000 personnel; the total workforce in the Ministry of Defence, including civilians, will contract by 42,000. The Navy’s destroyer fleet will shrink from 23 to 19. Two aircraft carriers – already under construction – will be completed, but one of the two will be either mothballed or sold within a few years. Whether the one remaining flattop in the British fleet will actually deploy with an operational fixed-wing aircraft is an open question. They’ve decided to jettison their Harriers; a technological marvel when it was first introduced, it has a limited range and a poor safety record. In its place, the Brits still intend to purchase Joint Strike Fighters, but not the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version.

And right on cue, Max Boot argues in today’s Wall Street Journal, following the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano’s example, that fiscal conservatives should not use these cuts as an example of how to reign in deficits. According to Boot and Carafano, military spending is off-limits. Period.

But as I note at The Skeptics, most Americans do not buy into this argument:

In Boot’s telling, Cameron’s decision inevitably places a heavier burden on the shoulders of American taxpayers and American troops.

But why should Americans perform a function for other governments that they are obligated by tradition, law and reason to perform for themselves? Defense is, as Boot notes, “one of the core responsibilities of government.” I would go one better: defense is one of the only legitimate responsibilities for government. So why does Max Boot think that Americans should simply resign themselves to take on this burden, doing for others what they should do for themselves?

I suspect that he fears that most Americans are not comfortable with the role that he and his neoconservative allies have preached for nearly two decades, hence his preemptive shot across the bow of the incoming congressional class that will have been elected on a platform of reducing the burden of government. True, the public is easily swayed, and not inclined to vote on foreign policy matters, in general, but as I noted here on Monday, it seems unlikely that the same Tea Partiers who want the U.S. government to do less in the United States are anxious to do more everywhere else. And, indeed, such sentiments are not confined to conservatives and constitutionalists who are keenly aware of government’s inherent limitations. Recent surveys by the Chicago Council of on Global Affairs (.pdf) and the Pew Research Center (here) definitively demonstrate that the public writ large is anxious to shed the role of global policeman.

Click here to read the entire post.

Stimulus Now, Restraint Later?

Journalists have been repeating lately that “economists say” that we need yet more government spending now to keep on goosing the economy, even though – to be sure – we will need to cut back on spending at some point in the undefined future, to avoid the fate of Greece. Well, maybe some economists. But I’m sure this “economists agree” claim is no more true today than it was a year ago. Here’s one example, from NYU economist Mario J. Rizzo, coauthor with Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. of The Economics of  Time and Ignorance:

But let’s look at the arguments made by the opponents of fiscal stimulus.

Some have argued that, as deficits increase, people now offset the putative stimulus by increasing their savings in anticipation of future tax increases. So there is no stimulus now.

Others have argued that, for example, extending unemployment insurance (again) to those unemployed for more than six months will increase the length of unemploymentnow (by subsidizing it) while failing to stimulate.

The stimulus failure is due to the relatively small increase in spending induced by non-permanent increases in income (as unemployment insurance is certainly not permanent source of income). Even more, producers know that the spending is non-permanent so it is unlikely to result in increased employment of labor. Thus, there is no stimulus now; in fact if unemployment continues there is a kind of anti-stimulus now.

Austrians have argued that failing to allow the housing market to adjust by both fiscal and monetary propping-up measures, worsens the situation now by prolonging the inevitable adjustment to a bubble sector. As the adjustment is dragged out and the rest of the economy suffers the dampening effectsnow. This must include the uncertainty as to when (in calendar time) the market will be allowed to adjust.

In empirical work, John Taylor finds that to the extent there was some effect of the fiscal stimulus it was very small and lasted only a matter of two or three months for each major injection. So I guess the long run is four or five months by this reckoning:

Compared with the 2008 stimulus, the 2009 stimulus was larger, but the amount paid in checks was smaller and more drawn out. Nevertheless, there is still no noticeable effect on consumption. I also show the timing of the “Cash for Clunkers” program in Figure 7; it did encourage some consumption, but did not last and cannot be considered an effective method to stimulate the economy. In addition, my analysis of the government spending part of the stimulus is that it too had little positive impact.

Even frameworks that stress future consequences of current stimulus need not be long-run theories in the calendar sense. For example, if the anticipated taxes required to pay off or service current deficits consist of rises in marginal income tax rates, output will be considerably lower and the real interest rates higher in a matter of a couple of years than without stimulus.

The upshot of all of this is that the anti-stimulus economists are not claiming we must trade off benefits now for some long-term pie-in-the-sky benefits. Most are saying: The stimulus route leads to (almost) no benefits now as well as costs later.