Tag Archives: Balance of trade

Governments should spend more and tax less to reduce their deficits.

There’s no mistake in the title! To understand economics as it works at the macroeconomic level means we cannot just assume that what works for us as individuals or households also works for currency issuing governments like the UK, the USA and Australia. At first look,  it’s almost as if we have gone down the rabbit hole and we really are in a parallel universe. It is tempting to quote Lewis Carroll’s Queen in “Through the Looking Glass”:

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But Alice was quite right in saying:

 “one can’t believe impossible things.” 

We just need to look at the problem from the right perspective to make sense of it all. Any currency issuing government, such as the USA, the UK, or Australia  need never have a Greek type debt problem providing it understands how its own economy works.

The government deficit can be expressed as:

Govt Deficit = Savings of Everyone Else = Private Domestic Savings + International Savings

or

Govt Deficit = Private Domestic Savings + BOP deficit(trade)

In other words, if everyone else in the world wants to save in US dollars, UK Pounds or  Australian dollars which they must if want to sell these countries more stuff than they buy from them, then the governments, or the Private Domestic Sectors in these countries, have to run a deficit.

If the Governments try to reduce their deficits by cutting spending and raising taxes then all they will do is force their economies into recession or even depression.

If they do really want to reduce their deficits, they would have to discourage everyone else saving. In the UK, that would include overseas trading partners who sell to the UK more than they buy from the UK and save the difference.

The way to do that would be to keep interest rates low and engineer some inflation, just a few % should be enough,  into the system – by increasing government spending and reducing taxation. So, perhaps counter intuitively, the way to reduce the government’s deficit in the longer term is for it to spend more and tax less in the shorter term.

Note: I’m not arguing that governments should make deficit reduction a primary object of economic policy. The government’s fiscal policy should always be aimed at steering a sensible middle course between having too much inflation on the one hand and too much unemployment and too many business failures on the other.

But, inevitably, there will always be those neoliberal types  who focus on the government’s deficit. They always seem bewildered that it doesn’t change in the way what they expect it to, and this article is an attempt to explain why.

 

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Germany vs Greece. The end game?

It looks like it’s crunch time. Either there will be some last minute cobbled together agreement to prolong the agony, or Greece will be forced to leave the Eurozone. Most neo-liberals take the simplistic view that Greece borrowed the money and has an obligation to repay come what may.

When bankers issue loans they have to be sensible and only issue loans to creditworthy customers. If the customer cannot repay the days when they were placed in a debtors prison are long gone. In any case we should not look at macroeconomic problems in microeconomic  terms. Germany has a net annual surplus of over €200 billion which, by definition, it is not re-spending. Another few billion euros, extracted under duress from Greece, would make no difference whatever to the living standard of German workers – many of whom are not at all well paid.

It would make much more difference if Germany moved to abolish its trade surplus. That would certainly increase living standards in Germany and also allow Greece and others to trade their way out of their debt problem.

Germany has been foolish in several ways. Foolish to lend the money, but also foolish in not understanding the basics of macroeconomics. Prof. Yanis Varoufakis reports that he’s done his best to explain some basic theory to their supposed brightest and best but the more he tries the more upset they become!

Simply, they don’t understand that there are consequences to running an annual surplus of over €200 billion. Where do the Germans think those euros come from? They cannot print them themselves like they could with the DM. They cannot come from the UK or USA. They pay for German exports in £ and $.

They have to come from other euro using countries which means they don’t have enough euros left to run their economies properly. It’s not just Greece. Albeit to a slightly lesser extent it’s Italy, Spain, France etc too.

Alternatively, they have to be created by the ECB or by the Bundesbank  with ECB approval. So if the ECB can do that for Germany, why not for Greece?

Muddled Thinking Watch #7: Chuka Umunna on Labour’s pre-GFC Deficit

Chuka makes some valid points in his recent Guradian article:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/09/labours-first-step-to-regaining-power-is-to-recognise-the-mistakes-we-made

For example he acknowledges that:

” First, we spoke to our core voters but not to aspirational, middle-class ones. We talked about the bottom and top of society, about the minimum wage and zero-hour contracts, about mansions and non-doms. But we had too little to say to the majority of people in the middle.”

Partially right. “The majority of people” are in the middle. So, in a democracy, to win elections, you have to not only speak to, but also win support from,  “the majority of people”. There’s no getting away from that.

Whether Labour spoke to its core voters is a matter of opinion. I’d argue they may have spoken to them, but they didn’t listen, which is slightly different.

He also makes some invalid points. He says:

“Of course, the last Labour government should not have been running (an albeit small and historically unremarkable) deficit before the financial crash. “

The last Labour government certainly made more than a few mistakes. George Brown famously  made the ludicrous claim that he’d abolished “boom and bust”.  The period  of the Labour government  (13 years) consisted of mainly years of boom, which enabled it to achieve electoral success,  except the last 2 years were years of bust, or trying to recover from the 2008 bust, which brought about its downfall.

But did they make a mistake about the government’s deficit? The boom was caused by too much credit being created by the private sector. I don’t believe there is any dispute on that point. That credit inflated asset prices, firstly shares in the dotcom boom and then property prices in the years up to 2008.  With the benefit of hindsight what should they have done to prevent that credit bubble? They, or their so-called “independent” Bank of England,  should have increased interest rates.  If there’s too little saving and too much borrowing then interest rates should rise. Is there any dispute on that point? That would have stopped the credit bubble. No problem.

But if they’d done that there would have been a problem of the £ appreciating in value. Exports would have become uncompetitive. That, and the reduction in domestic borrowing, and therefore, spending, would have led to less economic activity. Business failures and unemployment would have risen.

So what else would the Labour Government have had to do to compensate? Run a tighter fiscal policy, with a lower deficit, or a looser fiscal policy with a higher deficit?

If you think you know the answer, please email it, with an extremely simple to understand explanation,  to:

chuka4streatham {at} gmail(.)com

PS  I’ll ask Chuka if he can provide a small cash prize for the best answer. 🙂

Why not give control of the fiscal deficit to the Bank of England?

In a democratic society, I would argue that decisions regarding interest rates, both long and short term, should be made by the elected government. They used to be. However, for nearly 20 years, short term rates in the UK have been set by the BoE. The level of short term interest rates is important and it can be adjusted to stimulate a slowing economy or slow an overstimulated economy. But there are other adjustments that can be made too.

Just as a pilot has all the control levers at his disposal when he’s flying a plane (if he, or she, does hand over to the co-pilot it would be all the controls not just one) then all the controls need to be either in the hands of government or the hands of the central bank.

But just who has the controls when it comes to controversial policy decisions like QE? Does an  independent Bank of England decide, all on its own, to buy up £375 billion of government securities from the private financial sector? I don’t think so!

QE is no big deal. That’s not a common view, I’ll agree, but from a scientific perspective, there seems to be no reason why the issue of government , or the BoE if you prefer, IOUs in the form of cash should be any more or less inflationary to the economic system than the issue of IOUs in the form of gilts (treasury bonds). If it is necessary to buy back gilts from the private sector to control longer term interest rates then that’s what needs to happen.

So why not give control of the fiscal deficit to the BoE too? The BoE could calculate the best combination of fiscal and monetary policy, including whatever level of QE is needed, and tell the government what it needs to do. Arguably the government could decide to raise income tax a bit here or reduce VAT a bit there , etc, but it would not have complete control of fiscal policy as it now does.

This is not my favoured option BTW. But, if the pilot is going to hand over the (macroeconomic) controls to his or her co-pilot it should be all the controls and not just one.

Unfunded Promises? No such thing!

All Govt spending  comes back as taxation eventually. Where else can it go? So, there’s no such thing as “unfunded promises” or “unfunded spending”.  Now that the UK’s election campaign is well underway we are hearing  accusations along the lines that their opponent’s sums “don’t add up” ,  or “they haven’t done their costings properly” . It is  from both sides. It’s not just the right wing that doesn’t understand how money flows in the economy. Labour is just as bad, and maybe even worse, than the Tories at the present time.

Money arrives in the economy when government spends it in and leaves the economy when government taxes it out. More can’t leave than arrive for other than a limited amount of time. It’s physically impossible.

The government doesn’t tax it out because it needs the money. Why would it? It’s created it in the first place. The UK government hasn’t adopted the euro, the UK government still has total control over the issuance of its own currency. It’s like saying a theatre needs to collect its theatre tickets because it needs the tickets. Or the Post Office needs to collect back its stamps because it needs the stamps.

The government imposes taxes to cancel its stamps and tickets – effectively. It does that to prevent high inflation in the economy. So, providing inflation is under control, government spending can be allowed to rise – especially if there is slack in the economy and there is an unemployment and underemployment problem. If inflation isn’t under control spending needs to be trimmed back or taxation increased.

If we are worried about the future economy that our children will live in, we only need think about the one we live in now to know what the real worries should be. What do we thank or blame our predecessors for? We thank them for the railway network, the road system, the health service , the education system etc. We blame them for some of their past environmental practices which mean that rivers have to be cleaned up, buildings which should be white are actually black with accumulated soot, some of their slipshod practices over the disposal of nuclear waste etc.

Do we worry about the ‘debts’ they accumulated? Not at all. They are of no consequence to us now.