Sunday, September 18, 2011

Stimulus is the problem not the solution

As the world's main economies slow, and in some cases grind to a halt, the calls for governments and Central Banks to stimulate their economies are growing louder and they are starting to respond.

With interest rates already on the floor (in the West at least) and public finances dangerously stretched, it is not clear how governments and central banks can provide much of a lift. But even if they could, isn't it time we accepted that there are limitations to what fiscal and monetary stimulus can achieve?

The idea is very simple: extra government spending, tax cuts, lower mortgage rates and quantitative easing (money printing) all are supposed to create fresh demand in the economy and set off second round effects as companies hire and invest to meet the new demand.

But if that's the cure, why are the patients who have been prescribed it (many times) still stuck in hospital with doctors anxiously looking at the graphs zigzagging downwards at the end of their beds?

Never has a "solution" been tried and failed so often as stimulus. Just looking at the American experience alone we have had, and it's worth listing them, multiple attempts to pep up the economy during the last two decades:

1993 : response to the recession that followed the Gulf War oil price spike
1997: response to the Asian currency crisis
1998: monetary easing following Russian crisis and consequent LTCM hedge fund collapse
1999: open market operations to inject liquidity ahead of anticipated Y2K bug problems
2001-3: Fed funds rate cut multiple times to 1%
2001: Economic Growth Act - Bush tax cuts
2001 (end): Fed injects $100bn of credit post 9/11
2007/8: Fed funds rate cut to effectively 0%
2008: Bush stimulus package
2008/9: QE $1.1tn
2009: Obama stimulus
2010/11: QE2 $600bn
2011: Operation Twist and 2 year guarantee on Fed funds rate
2011: American Jobs Act 447bn stimulus package

Every one of these policies was expressly designed to stimulate the economy and was reported (uncritically for the most part) in the press as a "boost" or as "aid". And every one had a future price in terms of higher debts, either public or private.

After all that boosting the economy should be soaring but as we all know the US, Japan, Europe and the UK are stuck in the mire with massive debts, barely any growth, shockingly high unemployment and banks teetering on the brink.

I will write next time on why I think stimulus does more harm than good but will sign off with some stats from the crisis before this one: going back to 2002 after the dot com bust. The year the Fed stoked up a consumer credit binge and private sector credit grew at an annual rate of $695 billion. A massive debt increase that sowed the seeds of the next downturn and under which the US is still languishing. And what did that buy? GDP growth of $110 billion. Every $6 debt produced a measly $1 of growth. The debts are still with us but the growth long gone.

moral hazard

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