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And given the expectation that many European countries are in for long bouts of austerity, executives do not envision a rebound.
Last month, John Chambers, chief executive of networking
giant Cisco, said that not only was business in Europe getting worse, but customers around the world were also holding back on purchases while they wait to see what happens on the continent.
“I think people are in this uncertain environment and when they’re uncertain, unfortunately, you don’t spend,” he said. “Even the financial institutions outside of Europe are really focused on getting the profitability back in line. . . . So clearly, they’re keeping their powder dry.
Jeremy Paxman is joined by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, venture capitalist Jon Moulton and Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom to discuss whether austerity is always the best method for resolving a country's national debt problem.
Basically, supply-side policies work best when there is pent-up private sector demand. By lowering the cost of investment, you can unleash a self-reinforcing cycle. The bigger the pent-up demand, the bigger the payoff to an improvement in expectations. Without that pent-up demand, resources freed from supply-side measures and austerity get saved, not spent, and no self-reinforcing cycle is triggered.
The world of 1980 had tons of pent-up demand and gale-force tailwinds. Inflation and interest rates were coming down from high levels, household leverage was very, very low, financial innovation non-existent, consumption had been deferred, and demography was coiled as the baby boomers were just coming on line. On the government side, unions were powerful, price and wage controls were a reality, and tax rates were high. This was the ideal set up for supply side reforms.Fast-forward to post-2008. Whatever the opposite of pent-up demand is, that’s what we have. Inflation and interest rates are already low, household leverage is a major burden, consumption was pulled forward during the boom, and demography is no longer our friend. Plus, we have globalization acting like a supply shock to our labor pool, holding down wages. In short, the tailwinds are now headwinds. On the government side, unions are far less powerful today, there are no price and wage controls, and tax rates are low. It seems next to impossible to make the case that supply-side policies can have anywhere near the effect today that they had in the 80s.
The question is not whether the current policy path is acceptable. The question is what should be done? To come up with a viable solution, consider the remarkable level of interest rates in much of the industrialised economies. The US government can borrow in nominal terms at about 0.5 per cent for five years, 1.5 per cent for 10 years and 2.5 per cent for 30 years. Rates are considerably lower in Germany and still lower in Japan.
These low rates even on long maturities mean that markets are offering the opportunity to lock in low long-term borrowing costs. In the US, for example, the government could commit to borrowing five-year money in five years at a nominal cost of about 2.5 per cent and at a real cost very close to zero. What does all this say about macroeconomic policy? Many in both the US and Europe are arguing for further quantitative easing to bring down longer-term interest rates. This may be appropriate given that there is a much greater danger from policy underreacting to current economic weakness than from it overreacting.
However, one has to wonder how much investment businesses are unwilling to undertake at extraordinarily low interest rates that they would be willing to with rates reduced by yet another 25 or 50 basis points. It is also worth querying the quality of projects that businesses judge unprofitable at a -60 basis point real interest rate but choose to undertake at a still more negative real interest rate. There is also the question of whether extremely low safe real interest rates promote bubbles of various kinds.
The Liquidity trap is a Keynesian idea. When expected returns from investments in securities or real plant and equipment are low, investment falls, a recession begins, and cash holdings in banks rise. People and businesses then continue to hold cash because they expect spending and investment to be low. This is a self-fulfilling trap.Consider these charts: