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.

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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:

growth_fig1

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.