Ferguson vs. Krugman, Recession vs. Depression

In the Financial Times of 29 May, Niall Ferguson offers a History lesson for economists in thrall to Keynes.

I think perhaps Mr Krugman would benefit from a refresher course about [the] historical context [of Keynes’s (1937) General Theory]. Having reissued his book The Return of Depression Economics, he clearly has an interest in representing the current crisis as a repeat of the 1930s. But it is not. US real GDP is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to fall by 2.8 per cent this year and to stagnate next year. This is a far cry from the early 1930s, when real output collapsed by 30 per cent. So far this is a big recession, comparable in scale with 1973-1975. Nor has globalisation collapsed the way it did in the 1930s.

Credit for averting a second Great Depression should principally go to Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, whose knowledge of the early 1930s banking crisis is second to none, and whose double dose of near-zero short-term rates and quantitative easing – a doubling of the Fed’s balance sheet since September – has averted a pandemic of bank failures. No doubt, too, the $787bn stimulus package is also boosting US GDP this quarter.

But the stimulus package only accounts for a part of the massive deficit the US federal government is projected to run this year. Borrowing is forecast to be $1,840bn – equivalent to around half of all federal outlays and 13 per cent of GDP. A deficit this size has not been seen in the US since the second world war. A further $10,000bn will need to be borrowed in the decade ahead, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Even if the White House’s over-optimistic growth forecasts are correct, that will still take the gross federal debt above 100 per cent of GDP by 2017. And this ignores the vast off-balance-sheet liabilities of the Medicare and Social Security systems.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the bond market is quailing. For only on Planet Econ-101 (the standard macroeconomics course drummed into every US undergraduate) could such a tidal wave of debt issuance exert “no upward pressure on interest rates”….

The policy mistake has already been made – to adopt the fiscal policy of a world war to fight a recession. In the absence of credible commitments to end the chronic US structural deficit, there will be further upward pressure on interest rates, despite the glut of global savings. It was Keynes who noted that “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist”. Today the long-dead economist is Keynes, and it is professors of economics, not practical men, who are in thrall to his ideas.

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