Michael Burke: In today's Financial Times, chief economics commentator Martin Wolf has an interesting piece on how we can get out of the crisis. He argues that conventional wisdom about the prospects for economic recovery, and the policy adjustents that will be necessary, is completely wrong.
"The conventional wisdom is that it will also be possible to manage a smooth exit. Nothing seems less likely."
The reason for his more sober assessment is the trend in private sector financial balances; that is, the growing surpluses of private sector incomes over private sector expenditures. For the OECD as a whole this surplus is projected to reach 7.4% of GDP this year. Six countries, Ireland is one of them, will run surpluses of more than 10% of GDP. In Ireland's case it is projected that the private sector will earn more than it spends to the equivalent of over 15% of GDP, the third highest of OECD economies behind only Spain and Iceland.
This has been dubbed 'the paradox of debt' by Paul Krugman, following the Keynesian notion of the 'paradox of thrift'. The argument is that, while for each highly-indebted company or individual it makes sense to save, or, in the current climate pay down debt, for the economy as a whole it is disastrous. The aggregate saving reduces final demand, both household spending and business investment and thereby deepens the recession. Incomes for individual and companies fall further, so they repsond by cutting expenditures further, and so on.
There are many criticisms of this notion from what has become orthodoxy over the past several years. The only serious one is that, if the private sector saves in this way but continues to consume and invest in the same proportions all that will then happen is that prices will fall, and goods and services will be cheaper at the new, lower level of spending. However, this ignores two trends that occur in crises and are happening currently, most especially in Ireland.
The first is that investment tends to fall much faster than consumption, for obvious reasons. Of a total decline in Ireland's GNP of €28.9bn, personal consumption has fallen by 15.1% (€14.7bn) and investment has fallen by 52.5% (€30bn). In fact, as the data shows, the fall in investment accounts for more than the entire decline in GNP, with the difference mainly accounted by foreign earnings. This pattern, where investment is the main driver of the recession, is replicated across the OECD although in some other countries it is net exports which have also plunged, not private consumption as in Ireland.
The second reason why this orthodox criticism is invalid is the level of debt. As prices fall, as they have in Ireland, the real level of the debt only increases. The many vociferous calls for 'competitive deflation' ignore this fundamental fact. Not only is (un)competitiveness a misdiagnosis of the current situation, but the 'cure', lower prices in Ireland than the rest of the EU would only increase the debt-servicing burden for all who earn their incomes in Ireland, individuals, companies and the government.
To return to the Martin Wolf article, he argues that, while extremely loose monetary policy has been necessary, by itself it stores up two alternative problems, both of which lead ultimately to disaster. One possibility is that cheap money reignites a boom in consumption, which itself just postpones an even bigger future financial crisis. The other possiility is that there is no recovery in consumption and the fiscal poston deteriorates further, to the point of widespread government defaults.
Happily, there is another option. Or actually two, according to Wolf, one of which is a surge in demand in 'emerging' economies. But for highly indebted countries like Ireland the policy option to avert disaster is clear: "a surge in private and public investment in the deficit countries ....[where] .....higher future income would make today’s borrowing sustainable."
He argues that the hope that the world will go back to as it was before the crisis is forlorn one. As we have already seen, it is the huge investment deficit which is driving the recesson, and only an enormous increase in invesment can restore both prior levels of activity and government finances.
"Let us not repeat past errors. Let us not hope that a credit-fuelled consumption binge will save us. Let us invest in the future, instead."