Wednesday, October 12, 2011

10 reasons why stimulus is the problem not the solution

Last week I wrote that calls for more economic stimulus should be rejected because such measures demonstrably make things worse rather than deliver the boost they are supposed to. I listed 13 separate fiscal or monetary efforts made to stimulate the US economy since 1993 which have left it in a worse state than any time since the War.

Other countries which have run even bigger government deficits and run easy money policies for longer, like Greece and Japan, are in an even worse state.

Despite this dismal record policymakers (most recently the Bank of England with its QE3 programme) persist on trying to shove stimulus down our throats. Few commentators ever seem to question whether these “boosts” actually do more harm than good.

So, in no particular order, here are ten reasons why I think unfunded public spending, super-low interest rates and money printing are economically damaging and preventing recovery:

Sugar rush - stimulus only creates a temporary boost to demand at the cost of storing up demand-destroying effects for the future. One reason why most countries are suffering marked slow-downs now is that the effects of the 2008/9 stimulus packages have worn off.

Prolonging the agony – these false demand rushes do not just benefit healthy parts of the economy, they allow unhealthy, over-indebted and unsustainable parts to limp on: zombie banks, companies and, dare I say it, consumers.

Bad habits die hard – if you look at the way stimulus is supposed to work, it is in ways that are completely contrary to the long term interests of the countries being “helped”: encouraging consumption rather than investment; more borrowing rather than savings. Bank of England policy has been likened to “war on savers” which is just about the last thing the UK needs with a pensions timebomb ticking.

So now Inflation's a good thing? – the monetary authorities are expressly trying to create inflation with their policies and seem to be quite pleased with themselves when they create it. I am less sanguine. The BoE reckoned its first bout of QE generated up to 2% extra inflation. One reason why private sector demand is so depressed this year is high fuel prices which have been particularly affecting retailers. A lot of government spending is indexed to inflation so it makes the deficit reduction harder. Contrary to commonly stated opinion, high inflation doesn’t automatically erode debt. It may do this if wages rise faster than general prices but this has not been the case in recent years.

Leakage – A lot of the demand supposedly created by these stimulus measures leaks abroad in the form of increased imports or by encouraging investment capital to flee to emerging markets in search of better returns. The Chinese bubble that may be about to burst was made in Washington.

Moral hazard – The financial sector knows that every time the markets weaken, the fiscal and monetary taps will be turned on and they will be rescued. This has been done so many times - the term that describes the phenomenon, the Greenspan Put, was coined as long ago as 1987 – that the financial sector has a strong incentive to take ever greater risks because the downside is so limited. Stimulus is one of the main reasons for the “too big to fail” phenomenon.

Confidence trick – QE, fiscal stimulus and lower interest rates are all supposed to encourage business investment, which creates jobs and thus more consumer spending and thus more investment in a virtuous cycle. But if you were in charge of a business, would stimulus policy incentivise you to invest for the long term? Maybe a decade or so go but these kinds of measures have been tried and have failed so many times now that they are counterproductive and cause cynicism and confusion in the business community.

Bucking the market – True free-market believers are a dying breed these days. How else do you explain the lack of criticism, even from supposedly right wing politicians, for probably the biggest and most damaging example of state interference there is - central banks holding down interest rates below their market level. Interest rates are a price mechanism like any other: if you set the price of credit too low you will upset the delicate balance between saving and investing, investment now and consumption later. See this article to understand the theory of intertemporal misallocation which explains a lot of the current crisis: What Spanish Pigs Can Tell Us About Economics

Pensions vandalism – One common aim of stimulus measures of the QE variety is to lower bond yields which also has some nasty side effects for pension funds and retirees buying annuities. Is it really going to help our companies to have to increase the contributions to their pension funds? Will it help demand to impoverish pensioners? See this article from the telegraph There’s Another Fine Mess QE Has Got Us Into

Big Spenders – if you believe that governments spend (and then tax and borrow) too much, then take a look at stimulus as one of the main reasons for this. Look at Spain where low interest rates over-stimulated the economy, falsely inflating GDP and tax revenues thus encouraging the government to spend too much. And when the stimulus wears off, governments have a great excuse to spend and borrow even more to “support” the economy. One Nobel prize-winning idiot even claimed that an imaginary war against aliens would be a good thing because it would encourage the US government to spend even more trillions it didn’t have – Paul Krugman: An Alien Invasion Could Fix the Economy

OK, so this is a mish-mash of ideas and I haven't tried to distinguish between the different types of stimulus. Maybe different countries which might benefit from certain measures at particular times. But in general I believe that governments would be better to concentrate on balancing their budgets, cutting taxes and regulation and leave the economy, including interest rates, to the markets.

From our website: guide to Spain's Autonomo (self employed) system

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