Deflation is Here — And The Government is Poised to Make it Worse

Consumer prices may not be deflating as quickly as Labour’s electoral chances did earlier this month, but — even after £300 billion of quantitative easing — price deflation for the first time in more than half a century is finally here. The Bank of England continues to throw everything at keeping prices rising at close to their 2 percent target. Yet it’s not working. And this is not just about cheaper oil. Core inflation has also been dropping like a rock.

I argued that “deflation was looming” for Britain last year, and feel a little vindicated that it has come to pass. But I don’t feel at all gratified about the thing itself.

In a highly indebted economy such as Britain’s — where private debt dwarfs government debt — deflation is a dangerous thing. Past debts — and the interest rates paid on those debts — are nominally rigid. Unless specifically stipulated as being inflation-adjusted (like TIPS) they don’t scale to price changes in the broader economy.

Under positive rates of inflation, inflation assists in keeping debt under control, by shrinking the present amount of goods and services and labour that equate to a nominal amount of currency. Under deflation, the opposite process occurs, and the nominal value of currency — as well as that of historical debt — rises, making the debt harder to service and pay down, especially with the ongoing accumulation of interest.

On the face of it, that is good news for net savers and bad news for net debtors. But raising the difficulty of deleveraging and debt service can often be bad for both, because debtors who cannot pay default, bankrupting themselves and injuring their creditors. It can also depress the economy, as individuals and firms are forced to stop spending and investing and start devoting more and more of their income to the rising real cost of deleveraging.

With growth last quarter dropping to 0.3 percent from 0.6 percent, this process might very well already be under way. This raises the prospect of the nightmarish debt-deflationary spiral above.

The last thing that the economy needs under that circumstance is more money being sucked out of it through slashing public spending. Sucking money out of the economy will make deleveraging even more difficult for debtors, and slow growth further as individuals and firms adjust their spending plans to lower levels of national and individual income. Yet that is the manifesto that the country elected to power in the election earlier this month. And although Osborne and Cameron can get out of it — via offsetting cuts in spending with tax cuts — if they go through with their election promises, the prospect of recession, continued deflation and rising levels of unemployment loom clearly.

What the economy really needed in 2010 was a deep and long commitment to public stimulus to provide the economic growth needed to let the private sector deleverage. Unlike the public sector, which is a sovereign creditor borrowing in its own currency — the private sector is far from a secure debtor. Private borrowers can — unlike the central government — “become the next Greece” and run out of money.

With interest rates in the last parliament having sunk down to new historic lows, such a thing was affordable and achievable. Instead, by trying to do public deleveraging at the same time as the private sector was deleveraging Osborne, Cameron and Clegg chose a much rockier path, one in which private deleveraging and public deleveraging are slow and grinding. With private debt levels still very high, the country remains vulnerable to another deleveraging-driven recession.

What The UK’s Low Productivity Is Really Telling Us

This, I would argue, is one of the scariest charts in the world today. The green line is output per hour worked, and the dotted green line is the pre-crisis trend:

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It’s what the Bank of England calls the “UK productivity puzzle.” As the BBC’s Linda Yueh notes: “output per hour is around 16 percentage points lower than it should be if productivity had grown at its pre-crisis pace.”

I don’t think it should be called a “productivity puzzle”. That would imply that we don’t really understand the phenomenon. That the phenomenon is a puzzle. But it’s really a simple phenomenon. The phenomenon is that people are producing less output per hour than they were before the financial crisis. Work is getting done. But the quality of the work is not improving.

The Bank of England points to “reduced investment in both physical and intangible capital, such as innovation, and impaired resource allocation from low to high productive uses” as a cause. In other words, the work is crap because firms aren’t deploying the resources to do good work. And this is a trend that predates the election of the Coalition government in 2010. As the Bank of England notes, the UK has lagged in investment as a percentage of GDP behind its fellow G8 economies since even the 1990s.

But things got really bad under the Coalition. And that shouldn’t really be news. There was a recession resulting from the financial crisis. The recession — as recessions tend to do — resulted in a severe drop in business investment. In the wake of the recession, what did the newly elected government decide to do? It decided to enact sweeping austerity programs — to slash investment even more.

So the story is that the government decided to compound the after-effects of the financial crisis with an austerity program. That means depriving the economy of even more resources needed for productivity, growth and prosperity. And — in truly, truly shocking news — UK investment as a percentage of GDP is currently lagging at a pathetic 15 percent of GDP behind Belgium, Gambia, Jordan, Equatorial Guinea and Costa Rica, and barely ahead of Greece!

The austerian view, of course, is that the austerity was necessary because otherwise the bond vigilantes would have sold UK public debt, and we would have turned into Greece, or something.

The so-called “productivity puzzle” and the related low-investment puzzle categorically proves this claim wrong. If the austerity was imbuing the market with confidence necessary for growth, we would expect to see productivity and investment rising.

That has not been the case. What has occurred is a zombie recovery caused by zombified economic policies. Yes, there has been substantial job growth, and GDP is now above its pre-crisis peak — albeit in the slowest recovery since the South Sea bubble 300 years ago. But the weakness in productivity continues to illustrate the rottenness.

You can’t starve yourself to strength. You can’t beat yourself to growth.

Debunking George Osborne’s “Recovery”

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George Osborne spouts some nonsense about some so-called economic recovery:

The UK economy is “turning a corner”, Chancellor George Osborne has said in a speech in London.

Mr Osborne cited “tentative signs of a balanced, broad based and sustainable recovery”, but stressed it was still the “early stages” and “plenty of risks” remained.

Mr Osborne said that recent months – which have seen more upbeat reports on the economy – had “decisively ended” questions about his economic policy.

At this point, I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about. He appears to be inhabiting a parallel universe, one entirely separated from the reality which has seen sustained unemployment about 8% for the last 5 years — that’s 2.51 million people out of work who are looking for work — and a slump worse than the one Britain experienced in the Great Depression:

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A tiny uptick after a huge and long depression is barely anything to celebrate. It is a probabilistic certainty that after falling off a cliff and lying prone on the ground awhile, things will one day sooner or later tick upward. Five years later is much later than sooner, and we’re not even back to the level of activity that existed in 2008. It could be eight or ten years at current growth levels after the initial events of 2008 that we make it back to that level of activity. And there is no sign that unemployment will begin coming down any time soon. In the long run, the sea will once again be calm and flat but no-one knows how long away the long run will be.

You cannot cut your way to growth. You do not stimulate growth by taking money and economic activity out of the economy. That is the manner in which you instigate depression. Supplies of capital and labour are both extremely slack — this is illustrated by the extremely low level of interest rates, and the high level of unemployment. Eventually the excesses of capital and labour will be used up, and the economy will return to full-employment and growth. But eventually could be a very long time. Waiting around when capital is available at the lowest interest rates in history and while unemployment continues to number in the millions is extremely dangerous and fragilising. Maybe the uptick will continue, and we will return to 2008 levels of activity by 2016 or 2018. Yet we would still have had a lost decade, one that probably could have been avoided had we not embarked on austerity in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it is possible that things may get worse, not better.

If I had been the politician who presided over this disaster, I would have resigned and hid myself away behind a rock. And it’s not just Osborne’s failure. The British media and other political parties have mostly failed to hold Osborne’s disastrous austerity policies to account. The fact that this depression has been a greater slump than the Great Depression is not the talking point that it ought to be. Perhaps that is because all the major political parties bear some responsibility, as Labour oversaw the start of the slump from 2008 to 2010, and the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have overseen the continuation of the slump from 2010 to 2013. Whatever the reason, it is dreadful, and individuals from all sections of society continue to suffer for this disastrous mismanagement.

On Policy Uncertainty…

Paul Krugman says that the notion that the weak economy is due to policy uncertainty has been thoroughly debunked. The Stanford/Chicago uncertainty index has considerably fallen:

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Without any considerable boost to job growth:

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While policy uncertainty is concerned with policy in general, and not executive policy in particular, Krugman’s analysis is that “policy uncertainty” is a thinly-veiled attempt to blame Obama for the sluggishness of the recovery:

One of the remarkable things about the ongoing economic crisis is the endless search for explanations of something that’s actually quite simple — the sluggish pace of recovery. You have a large overhang of private debt; you have a still-depressed housing sector; and you have contractionary fiscal policy. Add to this the well-established fact that recovery tends to be slow after recessions caused not by tight money but by private-sector overreach, and there’s just no mystery that needs explaining.

Yet we’ve seen an endless series of analyses declaring that there is indeed a deep mystery, and it must be Obama’s Fault. Probably the most influential of these analyses was the claim that Obama was creating “uncertainty”, and this was holding everything back.

This crude notion of policy uncertainty is often attached to the notion of the Confidence Fairy; the idea that by running large deficits, government is crowding out private investment due to fears of future tax increases. The corollary of the Confidence Fairy view is that the only way to bring back private investment is to have large-scale austerity, to solidify expectations of lower future taxes. This view has been the basis for David Cameron’s economic policy in the UK, which can only be soberly judged as a large-scale failure.

Krugman is right to trash the Confidence Fairy — austerity at this point in the business cycle is a catastrophic error, because it sucks money out of the real economy. And he’s also right to trash those who view the sluggishness of the recovery as solely Obama’s fault. But he’s wrong, I think, to throw policy uncertainty out of the window entirely as a proximate cause of some of the problem’s we’re now facing.

Broadly, policy uncertainty goes both ways. That is simply because not all entrepreneurs in the private sector are looking for or worrying about tax cuts. People are heterogeneous. While there are some entrepreneurs worried about the future trajectory of taxes, many other entrepreneurs may be hoping for fiscal stimulus either because they would expect to receive orders from the government (for example, construction firms, defence contractors, universities, energy companies) or because they would be hoping that with stimulus, more people would have money in their pockets and they would be spending it.

While this, of course, cannot explain the crisis itself, nor the long and slow deleveraging since, having a deadlocked Congress erring on the side of austerity could be a major headache for many private enterprises. The fact that the more severe austerity experienced in Europe and Britain has actually led to bigger budget deficits there could result in even deeper and greater uncertainty for businesses. Put more simply, many businessmen could be reading Paul Krugman and others like him, agreeing with their interpretations, and worrying about the confused and deadlocked approach that the Federal government has taken to the post-2007 economy, and the dangers of austerity. This could contribute to the uptick in policy uncertainty measured by the Stanford/Chicago Index experienced since 2007 just as much as Wall Street Journal-reading Republicans worrying about the Confidence Fairy and taxes.

Is the British Economy Finally Recovering?

The British government would like us to believe that the British economy is finally recovering after a quarter of 0.6% real GDP growth, which if sustained over a full year would equate to 2.4% annualised real GDP growth.

David Cameron claimed:

To accept this argument, one would have to make oneself entirely ignorant of the facts of the current economic situation. Here’s the British economy’s post-2008 real GDP growth, compared to the United States which has also experienced a relatively lukewarm, disappointing recovery:

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We are still far below the 2008 peak. Even the United States has done better. Only Europe — which has adopted even greater fiscal austerity than Britain since the slump — has done worse.

On unemployment, we’re doing even worse. Since the slump, unemployment hasn’t even begun to come down:

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The truth is that the British economy is in a depression, very similar to the one experienced in the 1930s — what Keynes called a “depressed equilibrium”. The government now — as then — is not taking the malaise seriously, and would prefer to spew meaningless slogans about “building an economy for hardworking people” instead of focusing on job creation, which is the only viable short-term route out of the slump.

When All Else Fails, Housing Bubble

Last month I asked:

So what’s Osborne’s plan to generate growth?

Today we seem to have an answer.

As Anatole Kaletsky sarcastically put it:

That’s right — aside from an underfunded infrastructure pledge, a duty cut on beer and cigarettes, and a tiny and delayed corporation tax and national insurance decrease, George Osborne’s plan is to throw money at housing and hope for the best. 

Sounds markedly similar to the American strategy following 2001 when Greenspan “created a housing bubble to replace the NASDAQ bubble”, and we all know how that ended.

I’d tend to argue that the opposite is a much better idea. Instead of propping up the housing market, Cameron and Osborne should deregulate construction and planning (getting planning permission can be a long, costly task in the UK, and planning restrictions are estimated to add up to £40,000 to house prices) so that housing prices fall (if not absolutely at least priced in median wages) and Generation Y can start getting on the housing ladder.

As Faisal Islam put it:

But alas no. Instead of using the ultra-low interest rate environment and idle resources to invest in a quality business infrastructure  — high speed broadband, roads, railways, energy — and lower unemployment, Osborne has chosen to throw his stock in with the malinvestment-loving property speculators.

Unfortunately, pumping up credit bubbles can win elections (as we saw with Bush in 2004), so this may have improved the Tory electoral chances for 2015. But in the long run, we will see this as a dire move.

Cameron’s EU Policy Uncertainty

So, David Cameron wants a referendum?

I believe that small is beautiful, and that the European Union system is big and fragile. I am all for free trade, freedom of movement and immigration. But as for regulatory, monetary and fiscal integration — which is the direction that Europe has taken, especially since the self-inflicted Euro crisis that grew out the fundamentally flawed Euro system — how can Europe be responsive to its citizens when they are so numerous, so diverse and so geographically and linguistically dispersed? How can it be viable to have the same regulatory and political framework for Poland, Spain, Austria, Britain, Denmark and Greece? Political and monetary frameworks that are local and decentralised are usually responsive and representative. Big bureaucratic juggernauts are very often clunky and unresponsive.

That means that I am quite open to the idea of Britain leaving the political union, so long as we retain the economic framework that Britain voted for in a referendum on joining the European Economic Community — the predecessor to the European Union — in the 1970s. Britain never voted for political union, and the British public has been shown again and again in polls to be broadly against such a thing.

But David Cameron’s plan for an In-Out referendum in 2017 — but only if the Conservatives win the 2015 election — is misguided. It will just create five years of totally unnecessary policy and regulatory uncertainty.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that policy uncertainty can be very damaging to the economy. A 2013 paper Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven Davis used automated text analysis techniques to count key words relevant to uncertainty in the media. They combined the news analysis with data from tax code changes, disagreement among economic forecasters, and information from equity option markets to create an “uncertainty index”:

UncertaintyIndex

They looked at changes to gross domestic product, private investment, industrial production and unemployment, and found that spikes in uncertainty foreshadow large and persistent declines in all four. First, GDP and private investment:

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Next, industrial production and unemployment:

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The last thing that Britain needs is five years of policy uncertainty. If Cameron wants to have a referendum on E.U. membership, why not do it now? 82% of the public favour such a referendum — presumably not only UKIP and Conservative voters, but also Liberal Democrats and Labour voters. If we vote to leave, then we leave, if we vote to stay, we stay. We — and the markets — will know exactly where we stand.

Frankly this strikes me as more of a political ploy. The Conservatives are haemorrhaging support to UKIP. They are roughly ten points behind Labour in the polls. This strange announcement just seems like an attempt by Cameron to claw back support and distract from the disastrous state of the economy which just entered a triple-dip recession and which has been depressed since 2008. Ironically, this announcement may actually worsen the economic woe.