Economics, philosophy, and distraction from productive activity
Friday, October 25, 2013
On Depressions, the Structure of Production & Fiscal Policy
I came into economics and finance blogging in 2011 a very different economic thinker than I am today. I was convinced (and remain convinced) that we were going through a once-in a generation economic transformation, or more accurately an industrial revolution the shape of which remained uncertain. These ongoing industrial revolutions, of course, cause great upheavals. As Joseph Stiglitz has noted, the Great Depression of the 1930s can be seen as a great displacement of labour in agriculture thanks to technological improvement. Stiglitz, like myself, sees a parallel between today’s slump and that of the 1930s; in the 1930s we were transitioning out of agriculture. We are also in a transitional period today. Since the advent of globalisation, and the growth in automation in the 1970s and 1980s society had begun suffering from falling real wages, and had had to lever up on debt in order to sustain lifestyles and spending habits. The financial sector had taken advantage of this, offering cheapish debt and — morally hazardously — securitising these debts and selling it a greater fool. This was a bomb waiting to explode — because lenders did not have to take responsibility for the fruits of their lending, they could lend to any NINJA, pay the credit rating agencies to grade highly speculative debt as AAA-grade, and sell it to another bank, or a pension fund, or a hedge fund. When the financial crisis blew up, I desired very, very strongly to see the entire corrupt market liquidated. This was an entirely Darwinian wish; financial firms had acted irresponsibly, creating a monstrous system that nobody really understood and they should pay the consequences for their irresponsibility. In liquidation, people would learn a harsh lesson and the economy would be forced to adapt to the new reality. In Hayekian terms, I thought that the structure of production ought to be left alone to adjust.
So I was furious to see the financial sector bailed out and rescued, and I strongly suspected that such medicine would have very harsh negative side effects as the speculators had been rescued instead of learning their lesson the hard way. Maybe the bankers and financiers who got bailed out — and the regulators who were found to be asleep at the wheel — have not learned a lesson. We shall see. Yet, when push came to shove, governments and central banks chose to save the system instead of watching it burn to the ground and given the complexity of the system, and the danger of good businesses being destroyed alongside the speculators and shysters, that is an entirely understandable decision. Certainly, it was also a morally questionable decision — after all, while bankers and financiers get bailed out in an emergency, help for the much poorer fringes of society is much less forthcoming. Yet this is the world in which we live in.
Of course, the world goes on. Banks may not have been disciplined, but the structure of production still must adjust to the new world, albeit in a less brutal and immediate fashion. This has been far from simple. Even though the financial system was saved, economies around the world remained in a depression. In fact, I would define an economic depression in these terms — a depression as opposed to a transitory recession, which relatively quickly self-corrects is a situation in which the structure of production cannot adjust itself back into a pattern of growth, and economic activity becomes permanently lowered. In Britain and the Eurozone we are so far behind our pre-crisis trend that we still as of October 2013 have not grown our way out of the trough yet, let alone caught up with the long term trend line:
The causes of this are multiple and complex. We are in an the midst of an ongoing industrial revolution, a great whirling flourish of creative destruction in which both foreign labour and automation are displacing both manufacturing and increasingly service industries. This creates real ongoing instability. Furthermore there remains the fallout from the crisis — confidence in new job-creating and growth-creating business ventures may have become inherently depressed, as economic expectations drift lower and lower in the context of low growth. Then there is the ongoing trend of government austerity, taking money and jobs out of the economy. Energy prices remain relatively high by historical standards, as we rely on old and increasingly expensive oil-based infrastructure (although I expect energy costs to begin to fall as we transition to newer energy architectures). The private sectors in most Western countries remain in deleveraging mode from a very large private debt overhang from before the crisis, limiting their consumption and investment and paying down debt. These are just some of the possible causes of depressed growth and elevated unemployment that we see.
Governments particularly in Britain and the Eurozone have attempted to fight depressed growth using austerity policies (in the context of expansionary monetary policy). The proponents of austerity theorise that by promising to bring down taxes and spending, they will unleash private sector spending by reducing future expectations of taxes. To me, this has always seemed like a boneheaded and Rube Goldberg-style approach. Simply, the issue of depressed private economic activity is far more complex than future taxation expectations. And aggressive monetary policy has not succeeded in reversing the depression(even if it has probably made the depression less severe). So it has been entirely unsurprising to me to see this approach largely failing. I approach the problem in a far more direct manner. The solution to lowered growth and elevated (and involuntary) unemployment is relatively simple.Eventually someone will start using up the idle resources. This will either be the private sector once it independently gets over its slump in animal spirits, or it will be the government. With such huge volumes of idle capital, interest rates will remain very low until stronger appetite for credit re-emerges. In equilibrium theory, the low cost of credit will by itself start to re-energise borrowing appetite by making more projects potentially profitable. Of course, interest rates are far from the only factor that borrowers take into account when seeking credit, and so it is perfectly plausible that the economy — as it has done — can remain depressed even with very low rates due to deleveraging pressures, low expectations and low confidence, etc. So if the market is ill-suited to taking up the idle resources any time soon — lying as it is in a depressive, irrational strop — the only agent that can do so is the state. The fact of low interest rates allows this to kill two birds with one stone — the state can borrow money (utilising idle capital) to create jobs (utilising idle labour), raising interest rates and bringing down the unemployment rate. And this approach does not require anyone to make accurate predictions about the future. It simply requires a market economy, and a state willing to employ idle resources when they are idle, and to ease off using idle resources when unemployment becomes low and interest rates start to rise.
Many — including probably Hayek himself — would argue that using up idle resources in such a manner will not allow the structure of production to adjust to the new economic reality. The state, Hayek would argue is a poor allocator of capital because it lacks the informational efficiency of the market. I would mostly agree with Hayek’s objection, and note that I favour a predominantly market-based economy. Government interventions should be kept to a necessary minimum. Yet, in a depressionary environment, the structure of production deteriorates as resources lie idle. Unemployed workers lose skills, lose competitive edge and spend and invest less, further depressing the economy. Capital — factories, buildings, amenities, ideas, etc — deteriorates. Young workers may enter the labour force but never find a job. Crime rises, and shady fringe businesses like loan sharks thrive as the unemployed struggle to pay the bills. The social costs of mass unemployment are exceedingly high. The adjustment occurring in a depression is more like a rot. And it is absurd to rot your way to growth. Instead, by lowering unemployment and using up idle capital (preferably in a mix of state-run infrastructure and technology projects, and lending to new businesses) more businesses can be born into existence. Potentially successful new ideas can be tried out, and may find success in the marketplace. The formerly unemployed get to develop skills, habits and ideas, instead of sitting at home all day doing nothing, or hunting for jobs in a scarce and depressed marketplace. And money will go into people’s pockets, spurring investment and consumption, fomenting more new business growth. This, in my view, is the best shot at getting a depressed and rotten structure of production out of the doldrums and back toward strong organic growth. Sooner or later, of course, the private sector will come back and begin to use up resources. But that could be a very, very, very long way away. If we want the structure of production to adjust to the new world and to continue adjusting as the world continues to change, letting huge quantities of resources sitting idle seems like a bad way to do it. Targeted fiscal policy can change that.