I read, a bit late, a very interesting piece by Simon Wren-Lewis, who blames central bankers for three major mistakes: (1) They did not see the crisis coming, while they were the only one in the position to see the build-up of leverage; (2) They did not warn governments that at the Zero Lower Bound central banks would lose traction and could not protect the economy from the disasters of austerity. (3) They may be rushing in declaring that we are back to normal, thus attributing all the current slack to a deterioration of the supply side of the economy.
What surprises me is (2), for which I quote Wren-Lewis in full:
Of course the main culprit for the slow recovery from the Great Recession was austerity, by which I mean premature fiscal consolidation. But the slow recovery also reflects a failure of monetary policy. In my view the biggest failure occurred very early on in the recession. Monetary policy makers should have said very clearly, both to politicians and to the public, that with interest rates at their lower bound they could no longer do their job effectively, and that fiscal stimulus would have helped them do that job. Central banks might have had the power to prevent austerity happening, but they failed to use it.
The way Wren-Lewis writes it, central banks were not involved in the push towards fiscal consolidation, and their “only” sin was of not being vocal enough. I think he is too nice. At least in the Eurozone, the ECB was a key actor in pushing austerity. It was directly involved in the Trojka designing the rescue packages that sunk Greece (and the EMU with it). But more importantly, the ECB contributed to design and impose the Berlin View narrative that fiscal profligacy was at the roots of the crisis, so that rebalancing would have to be on the shoulders of fiscal sinners alone. We should not forget that “impeccable disaster” Jean-Claude Trichet was one of the main supporters of the confidence fairy: credible austerity would magically lift expectations, pushing private expenditure and triggering the recovery. He was the President of the ECB when central banks made the second mistake. And I really have a hard time picturing him warning against the risks of austerity at the zero lower bound.
And things are not drastically different now. True, Mario Draghi often calls for fiscal support to the ECB quantitative easing program. But as I argued at length, calling for fiscal policy within the existing rules’ framework has no real impact.
So I disagree with Wren-Lewis on this one. Central banks, or at least the ECB, did not simply fail to contrast the problem of wrongheaded austerity. They were, and may still be, part of the problem.
The problem is one of economic doctrine. And as long as this does not change, I am unsure that removing central bank independence would have made a difference. Would a Bank of England controlled by Chancellor Osborne have been more vocal against austerity? Would an ECB controlled by the Ecofin? Nothing is less sure…
Simon Wren-Lewis has an interesting piece on structural deficits. He has issues with Pisani-Ferry’s plea for more stable structural deficit targets for EU countries. While Pisani-Ferry has a point in invoking more certainty for EU government action, Wren-Lewis argues, rightly so, that stable targets risk creating straitjackets for countries, and that the problem is mostly in the excessively short time horizon of structural deficit targets.
The fact that both Pisani and Wren-Lewis have a point highlights what is in my opinion a structural flaw of EU fiscal governance, namely its reliance on the slippery concept of structural government deficit.
To explain this simply, the idea underlying structural deficit targets is that not all deficit were created equal. if the government runs a deficit because of adverse cyclical conditions (low growth yields lower tax revenues and larger welfare payements), this deficit is “healthy” because it supports economic activity, and bound to disappear when the economy recovers. As such, governments should not be required to target cyclical deficit, but only the structural (or cyclically adjusted) deficit, which is precisely the deficit “cleaned” of its cyclical component.
The EU fiscal rule, the Stability Pact and its hardened Fiscal Compact extension, recognizes this distinction, and imposes that governments balance their budget over the cycle, which is yet another definition of structural deficit. This may seem a sensible approach, recognizing, as I just said, that not all deficits were created equal. But in fact sensible it is not.
The problem lies precisely in the word “cleaned” I used above . How do we clean headline deficit from its cyclical component, to compute the structural deficit that should be targeted by governments? This is how we should do it: We compute “potential output”, i.e. the capacity of production of the economy. From that we can obtain the output gap, i.e. the distance of actual output from its potential level; finally, by applying an estimate of how the deficit responds to the output gap, we can clean headline deficit from its cyclical component. Simple, right? Yes, in theory. In practice, we have no way to do it in a sufficiently precise way.
Any meaningful analysis of cyclical developments, of medium term growth prospects or of the stance of fiscal and monetary policies are all predicated on either an implicit or explicit assumption concerning the rate of potential output growth. Given the importance of the concept, the measurement of potential output is the subject of contentious and sustained research interest.
All the available methods have “pros” and “cons” and none can unequivocally be declared better than the alternatives in all cases. Thus, what matters is to have a method adapted to the problem under analysis, with well defined limits and, in international comparisons, one that deals identically with all countries. (emphasis is mine)
There is nothing wrong with recognizing that potential output estimates are “contentious”. Contrary to what some Talebans persist to argue, economics is a social science, subject to all the uncertainties, mismeasurements, and ambiguities that are inherently linked to human and social interactions.
Where we have a problem is in using a contentious concept as the foundation for rules in which a zeropointsomething deviation from the target may lead to sanctions and public disapproval by the EU community, with all the potential financial market disruptions associated with it.
This makes the rule non credible, because the contentious estimate may be questioned. More importantly, it leads to what Wren-Lewis fears: countries imposing harsh sacrifices to their people that may turn out to be unwarranted when the estimate is revised.
I am not clear about what fiscal rule we should have in the EU. I actually am not even convinced that we really would need one. What is certain is that two necessary conditions for any rule to be effective, credible, and reasonable are that it is not short -termist (I rejoin Wren-Lewis), and that it is based on indicators that are quantitatively as precise as possible.
The current rule fails on both ground (and don’t get me started on how crazily complicated and arbitrary it grew over time). EU fiscal governance remains founded on sand. And of course, a serious debate on its reform is nowhere to be seen in European policy circles.
My (very short) take on this: I do believe that Krugman has a point, a very good one, when claiming that standard textbook analysis is (almost) all you need to understand the current crisis, and to implement the correct policy solutions.
The point is what we define as “textbook analysis”. Krugman refers to IS-LM models. But these, that starting in the 1980s virtually disappeared from graduate curricula because supposedly too simplistic, not grounded on optimization, not intertemporal, and so on and so forth.
I personally was exposed to these ideas in my undergraduate studies in Italy, and I still teach them (besides using them to discuss the crisis with my students). But they were nowhere to be found during my graduate studies at Columbia (certainly not a freshwater school). None of the macro I studied in graduate school (Real Business Cycle models, or their fixed-price variant proposed by New Keynesians) as interesting as it was intellectually, could give me insight on the crisis. I simply do not need to use it.
The IS-LM model with minor amendments (most notably properly accounting for expectations to deal among other things with liquidity traps) remains a powerful tool to understand current phenomena. The problem is that it is not mainstream at all. What bothers me in Krugman’s post is the word “standard”, not “textbook analysis”.