Growth But What Kind Of Growth?

The election of François Hollande as the new French President will give a lift to other European leaders, such as Italy’s Mario Monti, who want to temper austerity with measures to stimulate growth.

Despite mutterings from Berlin this morning that Germany has no intention of renegotiating the European fiscal pact, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signaled that she would be open to some growth-tilted measures to go along with the fiscal pact.

What seems likely to happen is that the pact will not be reopened. Merkel seems unlikely to shift on that — after all, she considers the agreement very much her baby. But she won’t oppose a side-agreement that contains several measures aimed at stimulating euro-zone growth.

But the negotiation over those measures is what is going to be tough and potentially highly divisive. Two different visions of what is need for growth are going to be in conflict.

Hollande’s is more public sector-based and involves government borrowing and spending on things like the development of infrastructure. He has suggested, for example, raising money for major road improvements with so-called European Project Bonds.

The competing vision can be seen in the approach of the classical liberal Monti and the new European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, the Italian banker and economist who succeeded Jean-Claude Trichet at the ECB last autumn.

Both Monti and Draghi are pushing for major structural reform, arguing this would prompt sustainable growth. That involves reducing the public sector and reforming rigid labor markets making it easier for firms to hire and fire.

Both sides are likely to find considerable common ground – hence my argument yesterday that there will in effect be a Hollande-Monti dynamic driving much of EU politics in the coming months. Together the two have the clout to push Merkel. But it isn’t going to be easy to merge the two visions and settle on agreed measures.

There will be consequences for Hollande with his own supporters. Fifty-six percent of France’s GDP now goes on the public sector – that’s a higher proportion than Sweden’s. Any resulting growth agreement made by euro-zone leaders is still going to mean that Hollande having to cut back on the public sector, to disappointment those who celebrated his victory last night in Paris.

 

Dollar or Pound?

A relative wrote me to ask whether she should change pounds for dollars on the grounds that the dollar has weakened during the debt ceiling showdown and would likely increase in value once a compromise had been struck in Washington DC. This is what I replied:

“I am glad you are so confident that a last-minute deal will avert a technical default. I think a lot could go wrong before then. And if a deal is struck, it will be the two-part Reid-Boehner compromise that in effect will kick the can down the road and will merely delay the reckoning. In other words, this failure of mature government is to be repeated in a few months time.

On the macro-level, I agree with Mohamed el-Erian (PIMCO’s CEO) that long-term damage has already been caused to the U.S. and that international investor confidence has been shaken by what has been taking place in the past few weeks. It is quite likely that the rating agencies will downgrade the U.S., even if the Reid-Boehner compromise is agreed. That will knock the value of the dollar.

Despite the awfully slow economic growth in the UK the last quarter, I still believe that the Coalition is basically on the right track – UK debt reduction is essential and more necessary than debt reduction in the U.S.. For example, the U.S. deficit could disappear with an increase in government revenue, i.e. tax increases. That is off-the-table, alas, at present because of the economic illiterates in the GOP House caucus, who believe incorrectly that any tax increase will restrain economic growth.

In other words, I think the pound is a better bet than the dollar in the medium term. Could you make a small profit by buying dollars now and maybe in a few days time, if a deal is struck, see a dollar value rise and be able to exchange back to pounds beneficially? Maybe you could, but it is a risk and I am not sure that you should be risking your capital.”

And what happens if a deal is not done, even the Reid-Boehner plan? I know there is a temptation to risk but I myself would avoid it.”

 

Obama Can Buck The Trend

Journalists can be as slavish to precedent as judges. Most media round-ups of the U.S. presidential election stakes begin or devote much space to the fact that unemployment is running high and that no incumbent since FDR has secured re-election with it higher than 7.2 percent.

Binyamin Applebaum provides the perfect example of conventional wisdom with his piece for the New York Times on June 1, in which he asserts: “Seventeen months before the next election, it is increasingly clear that President Obama must defy that trend to keep his job.”

Precedents are there to be broken, though, and elections are littered with examples of campaigns that have bucked trends. Obviously, persistently high unemployment is something that’s likely to hurt Obama – I’m sure he’d prefer it below the magic 7.2 percent number – but it may well be that it isn’t the defining factor this time.

With incumbency and no primary challenger, Obama is already enjoying a couple of distinct advantages.

And he has another major advantage going into the election season that will, I suspect, assist him to buck the trend – namely, the weakness of the opposition. The GOP’s current candidates are about as inspiring as Bob Dole was in 1996, an election that saw Bill Clinton coast to victory on much lower approval ratings than Obama now enjoys.

Clearly, Obama is vulnerable because of the agonizingly sluggish recovery and high unemployment. Twice as many Americans think the country is on the wrong track as the right one and anger is high in key battleground states such as Michigan, Ohio and Florida. Obama will focus no doubt on continuing to try to persuade voters that without the stimulus and the takeover of GM and Chrysler, the economy and unemployment rate would be much worse.

I happen to think he’s right but that, though, is a tough sell and comes down to defending a record rather than pitching forward and presenting new ideas. President Herbert Walker Bush was caught in that trap when he sought reelection in 1992 – in fact the economy was pulling out of recession then but people were not feeling the benefits of recovery and he got blamed for the economic pain.

Obama has another major weakness: he has failed to present a credible plan to cope with the budget deficit, currently running at almost 10 percent of GDP. His suggestion is that higher taxes on the wealthy will sort that out. It won’t.

But where is the Republican that can take Obama’s weaknesses and turn them into GOP strengths? Do they have credible plans for reducing the budget deficit while at the same time coaxing quicker growth and providing the circumstances for more Americans to get jobs?

The governors in the race – Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney – have to be considered the serious candidates. (Sarah Palin, if she runs, and Michele Bachmann are the circus acts.)  But all they do is trot out the line that pleases the Tea Party consisting of slashing public spending and cutting taxes.

Pawlenty has gone off into never-never land in terms of the scale of public spending and tax cuts he wants to see – his plan has prompted groans of disbelief from the Economist magazine, hardly a publication that is in favor of Big Government or high taxes. Aside from ideologues, few respected economists see much to recommend in the bleak solutions being thrown up by the GOP candidates.

They sound like Bush the Younger when it comes to the magic of tax cuts. He claimed that “tax relief will create new jobs. Tax relief will generate new wealth. And tax relief will open new opportunities.” And how did job growth fare? Well, between pre-recessionary 2001 and 2007 America enjoyed the slowest job growth since World War II. Very impressive. And now we have the Republican candidates coming out with the same old, same old unsophisticated supply-side solutions.

Of course, taxes can be too high and in certain economic circumstances and at some points in business cycles tax cuts can be essential. The IMF is recommending them for the UK currently – and that on top of the spending reductions being planned by the coalition government in London. But for America now tax cuts would be unhelpful for economic or job growth.

Bruce Bartlett, a senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House; and deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department during the George H.W. Bush administration, has been trying to explain to his erstwhile colleagues on the right about why that is the case. His latest column in The Fiscal Times scorns Republicans for tending to talk as if there is only one factor that affects growth – namely, tax rates.

As Bartlett points out corporate investment is key when it comes to economic growth. It is worth quoting him in full:  “There’s no evidence that the 2003 tax cut did anything to stimulate corporate investment. Indeed, according to the Federal Reserve, nonfinancial corporations have increased their holdings of liquid assets to $1.8 trillion from $1.2 trillion since 2003. Thus it’s implausible that a further reduction in the corporate rate, as Pawlenty and other Republicans favor, would do much to raise investment.

“The bottom line is that neither taxes nor spending by themselves are the most important government contribution to the investment climate; it’s the budget deficit. Consequently, a reduction in tax revenue which raises the deficit is unlikely to stimulate domestic investment because more money will have to be borrowed from abroad. Conversely, a tax increase dedicated to deficit reduction could well be stimulative, as was the case with the 1982 and 1993 tax increases. Contrary to Republican dogma, rapid growth followed on both occasions.”

Ordinary voters may not think in such terms. Polls suggest that the budget deficit scares the blazes out of them — as it should. But are they going to be convinced that drastically cutting public spending pell-mell is the answer or that making America’s wealthiest people even wealthier is the way forward?

One thing, I suspect, Republicans still don’t get is that they scare the majority of voters far more with their talk of radically changing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And their lack of a plan to overcome the clear and present danger of structural unemployment save a shrug of the shoulders and claiming tax cuts will solve everything by magically promoting economic growth just isn’t going to cut it on the stump either.

An approach that talks about public investment in infrastructure, science, technology and education, structural reforms to boost jobs and growth, the importance of savings, cutting public spending over time and not so rapidly that it will derail recovery, retraining, government in partnership with the private sector is much more likely to resonate with voters.

As the Economist has pointed out recently, the Republican “failure on the deficit” is serious. “The deficit is simply too large to close through spending cuts alone. The overall tax take – at its lowest, as a share of GDP, in decades – must eventually rise.”

Realism is something that Americans are likely to appreciate this time round more than ever. They understand that a crossroads has been reached. So far there isn’t a candidate on the GOP side who is offering honesty to counter Obama’s half-honesty.

 

 

 

Animal Spirits, Economic Growth – No UK Will Just Rebalance

All the talk from Britain’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, is about rebalancing and getting the country’s public finances in order. All very important, of course, but what remains utterly depressing is the Coalition’s tax position. In an interview today, Alexander confirms that the Treasury is not thinking of reducing taxes on the middle-class and high earners. He says it as unlikely that there will be any tax reductions for the next five years.

Now there is nothing wrong with trying to get to grips with Britain’s £155billion budget deficit — unlike the U.S., Britain is taking decisive action to rein in public expenditure. But retaining the 50p top rate of tax and the higher 20 per cent rate of VAT, which kicks in next January, is going to do little to inspire the animal spirits and will only hold back economic growth — yes, it is the private sector that is going to be the engine to power the U.K. out of the doldrums, if it is allowed.

Politicians just seem intent on making the mistakes that worsened and prolonged the Great Depression back in the 1930s. As Arthur Laffer has noted: “The damage caused by high taxation during the Great Depression is the real lesson we should learn. A government simply cannot tax a country into prosperity.”

And some off-setting expenditure cuts? Don’t build the two new aircraft carriers and forget a Trident replacement!