The New Swedish Model?

Swedish-flag-credit-Matti-Matilla

The advocates of “austerity now!” are talking about Sweden.

Last year Fraser Nelson wrote in The Spectator:

When Europe’s finance ministers meet for a group photo, it’s easy to spot the rebel — Anders Borg has a ponytail and earring. What actually marks him out, though, is how he responded to the crash. While most countries in Europe borrowed massively, Borg did not. Since becoming Sweden’s finance minister, his mission has been to pare back government. His ‘stimulus’ was a permanent tax cut. To critics, this was fiscal lunacy — the so-called ‘punk tax cutting’ agenda. Borg, on the other hand, thought lunacy meant repeating the economics of the 1970s and expecting a different result.

Three years on, it’s pretty clear who was right. ‘Look at Spain, Portugal or the UK, whose governments were arguing for large temporary stimulus,’ he says. ‘Well, we can see that very little of the stimulus went to the economy. But they are stuck with the debt.’ Tax-cutting Sweden, by contrast, had the fastest growth in Europe last year, when it also celebrated the abolition of its deficit. The recovery started just in time for the 2010 Swedish election, in which the Conservatives were re-elected for the first time in history.

So, how is the Swedish economy doing?

Well, the good thing about assessing the Swedish economy is that Sweden remains monetarily sovereign, meaning that its economy is not dependent upon the monetary policy of a foreign agency like the ECB. This means that it can be fairly assessed side-by-side with other Western monetary sovereigns like Britain, America and Japan.

The thing that austerians are so excited about is that Sweden currently has low debt and is running balanced budgets:

sweden-government-debt-to-gdp

But that hasn’t meant that unemployment has been low. In fact, right now it’s worse than American, British and Japanese unemployment:

sweden-unemployment-rate

And while Sweden’s low debt and balanced budgets may have resulted in low rates, its rates are not significantly lower than Britain and America, and are higher than Japan who carry the highest debt load of all:

sweden-government-bond-yield

But to be fair real GDP growth in Sweden since the crisis has been relatively decent — although notably still below its pre-2008 trend — beating the other three countries who all performed poorly:

fredgraph

I think that Sweden is benefiting less from its actions during the slump and more from its actions during the boom.

In my view, Sweden’s focus on bringing down deficits in the years from 2004 until the crisis in 2008 was very responsible and prudent. Sweden had no wasteful expansionary spending in the mid 2000s on things like occupying Iraq. It was not enacting expensive legislation like No Child Left Behind, Medicare D and unfunded tax cuts that bloated government budgets.

Coming into the crisis with a low debt-to-GDP ratio is very healthy because it gives the government additional fiscal space to cut taxes, and spend money on infrastructure, public goods and tax rebates to bring down the unemployment rate, which is the one aspect of the Swedish macroeconomy with significant room for improvement. An unemployment rate approaching 9% is undeniably unhealthy, and it is disappointing that the Swedish treasury with so much wiggle room is not doing more to assist the private sector in bringing down unemployment. And even though Sweden has had more growth than other Western countries, it has still not caught up with its pre-2008 growth trend.

Sweden’s unemployment woe illustrates that Sweden is not a paradigm of the supposed virtues of austerity in all seasons. Austerity in the slump just frees up resources while the economy is already suffering from a high degree of slack in resources — capital (high savings, low interest rates) and labour (high unemployment). Sweden illustrates this just as much as other Western nations.

The lesson we should take from Sweden is that a countercylical spending policy — less spending in the boom, more spending in the slump — is preferable.

Of Reinhart & Rogoff & the Emperor’s New Clothes

The brutal smashing that Reinhart and Rogoff’s work has taken in the past 24 hours, was inevitable even without the catalogue of serious methodological errors in their paper.

Reinhart and Rogoff’s empirical result posited a clear threshold. Reinhart and Rogoff were clear that  debt-to-GDP ratio above 90% spelled doom for growth. The actual data is far less clear:

6a00e551f080038834017c38ae718e970b

There is some correlation, but that correlation was loose enough to suggest that this was just one factor of many, and it never said anything at all about whether high debt caused low growth, or low growth caused high debt, or whether some exogenous factor was causing both. The real questions are all about causation.

Far from being a magical no-growth threshold, the UK experienced some of its strongest growth at a public debt level above 90% of GDP, suggesting very strongly that there are many other factors in play. In general, I would tend to caution against the use of arbitrary thresholds to establish principles in economics, whether that is the debt level necessary to lower growth, or the leverage level necessary to trigger a bank run, etc. The evidence suggests these almost certainly vary on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, much of the pro-austerity case seems to have been built on Reinhart and Rogoff.

Olli Rehn of the European Commission defended austerity as follows:

[I]t is widely acknowledged, based on serious research, that when public debt levels rise about 90% they tend to have a negative economic dynamism, which translates into low growth for many years.

Paul Ryan defended austerity using the same criteria:

Economists who have studied sovereign debt tell us that letting total debt rise above 90 percent of GDP creates a drag on economic growth and intensifies the risk of a debt-fueled economic crisis.

Timothy Geithner too:

It’s an excellent study, although in some ways what you’ve summarized understates the risks.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick (an adviser to David Cameron) agreed:

[W]e would soon get to a situation in which a debt-to-GDP ratio would be 100%. As economists such as Reinhart and Rogoff have argued, that is the level at which the overall stock of debt becomes dangerous for the long-term growth of an economy. They would argue that that is why Japan has had such a bad time for such a long period. If deficits really solved long-term economic growth, Japan would not have been stranded in the situation in which it has been for such a long time.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, Chairman of the American Action Forum:

The debt hurts the economy already. The canonical work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff and its successors carry a clear message: countries that have gross government debt in excess of 90% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are in the debt danger zone. Entering the zone means slower economic growth.

This all feels very much like a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Those shining robes that cloaked the austerian case for austerity now and at-all-costs were based on serious methodological errors — as opposed to more nuanced criteria for fiscal consolidation during the boomtime, when interest rates on government debt exceed the unemployment rate. All those serious people who praised Reinhart and Rogoff’s seriousness clearly didn’t read it very well, or study the underlying data. Much more like they formed an opinion on the necessity of austerity now, and looked around for whatever evidence they could find for their preconception, whether Reinhart and Rogoff, or Alessina and Ardagna.

The fact that Reinhart and Rogoff did not, and are still not prepared to issue some clarification to their study to prevent its abuse by austerity-obsessed policymakers is sad given the copious evidence that austerity under present conditions is self-defeating. The fact that their response has so far consisted of defending their very weak conclusions — in full knowledge of the political implications of their work, and how it has been used to justify harsh austerity in very slack economic conditions — is very sad indeed.

Spending Problem? Paul Ryan is the Spending Problem

Paul Ryan talks like a small government conservative:

Too much government inevitably leads to bad government. When government grows too much and extends beyond its limits, it usually does things poorly.

And the WSJ is pumping up Ryan as an antidote to the growth of government:

Ryan represents the GOP’s new generation of reformers. More than any other politician, the House Budget Chairman has defined those stakes well as a generational choice about the role of government and whether America will once again become a growth economy or sink into interest-group dominated decline.

But Ryan himself has been responsible for a lot of that government growth. He loyally voted for all the big government programs George W. Bush ensconced into law — Medicare Part D, often described as the largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society; the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the PATRIOT Act and the NDAA; the TARP bailout of Wall Street; the bailout of General Motors. So long as it was debt-fuelled spending authorised by a Republican (and during the Bush years, there was an awful lot of debt-fuelled spending authorised by Republicans) Ryan was out voting for it. 

Ryan’s voting record establishes firmly that Ryan is as much for bailouts and the expansion of government as Obama. He talks like a small government conservative on the deficit, too, but dig into the details and he promises to balance the budget on the back of closing loopholes in the tax code that he refuses to specify, while completely ignoring the severe problem of excessive total debt that is keeping the economy depressed today.

Does Ryan have an explanation for his voting record? Why did he put party loyalty above loyalty to the principles he now claims to espouse? Or did he forget his small government principles during the Bush years? Did he only discover Ayn Rand in 2008?

Ryan was forced to try and explain. Here’s the exchange between Ryan and ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour.

AMANPOUR: Congressman Ryan, you actually voted for the Wall Street bailout, and indeed the auto bailout as well.RYAN: Right. The auto bailout in order to prevent TARP from going to the auto companies, because we already put $25 billion aside in an energy bill, which I disapproved of, to go to auto companies.

What? Ryan later tried to clarify his remarks in an interview with the Daily Caller:

The president’s chief of staff made it extremely clear to me before the vote, which is either the auto companies get the money that was put in the Energy Department for them already — a bill that I voted against because I didn’t want to give them that money, which was only within the $25 billion, money that was already expended but not obligated — or the president was going to give them TARP, with no limit. That’s what they told me. That’s what the president’s chief of staff explained to me. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want them to get TARP. We want to keep TARP on a leash. We don’t want to expand it. So give them that Energy Department money that at least puts them out of TARP, and is limited.’ Well, where are we now? What I feared would happen did happen. The bill failed, and now they’ve got $87 billion from TARP, money we’re not going to get back. And now TARP, as a precedent established by the Bush administration, whereby the Obama administration now has turned this thing into its latest slush fund. And so I voted for that to prevent precisely what has happened, which I feared would happen.

Ryan should take a leaf out of Mr T.’s book and quit his jibber-jabber. He voted for TARP, as well as the auto bailout, and he has no reasonable explanation beyond fierce loyalty.

Republicans had two choices — Ron Paul and Gary Johnson — who are both consistent fiscal conservatives with no record of supporting bailouts or expansions of government, and no record of supporting costly pre-emptive wars. The Republican Party rejected both candidates, and instead went with two defenders of bailouts, two expanders of government, two believers in pre-emptive war and a large, powerful security state. That decision says an awful lot about the Republican Party.

People who want to see government play a smaller role in the economy and society should look elsewhere; outside of rhetoric both of the two major tickets have a track record of increasing the size and scope of government, increasing debt levels and bailing out favoured corporations.