Please, Rishi, stop evading the problem

There is an animated debate going on about post-pandemic economic policies. Centred in the US, the discussion has implications for the forthcoming Budget in Britain and for decision-making across other advanced economies. As he prepares for the 3 March Budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak needs to get real about Britain’s economic torpor.

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The coronavirus cash crunch

The UK Treasury’s number one priority, with support from the Bank of England, must be to get unlimited money swiftly to businesses and individuals who are losing income because of the government’s coronavirus containment measures. This applies both to providing firms with cash to avoid bankruptcy as well as to ensuring that all their staff – employed, self-employed and gig workers – continue to be paid when they go into unpaid quarantine or are laid off either temporarily or permanently.

But however successful the government is in this vital support task, the British economy is already in recession. And the more extensive the lockdowns are, the deeper the immediate falls in economic activity will be. Long before the Covid-19 outbreak many economists had been correctly anticipating another downturn. Britain, like most other advanced industrial countries, has been in a state of precarious sclerosis ever since the stabilisation which followed the financial crisis. Western economies have been producing too little new wealth for decades. They were only functioning as well as they have been by borrowing from the future. Now this precarious, debt-dependent economic life has suffered a sharp and unexpected disruption. The collapse is largely due to a cash crunch.

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If another crash comes, don’t blame coronavirus

Institutions are starting to draw attention to the potential economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak. However Covid-19 is not the cause of our economic malaise. Forecasters should be careful in presenting new economic releases on coronavirus and now allow this health matter to become an occasion for economic scaremongering.

Playing up the economic costs of Covid-19 could exacerbate fearful responses, as well as distract from the much longer-lasting sources of economic sickliness. Global growth and, especially, advanced-economy growth are already dismal, and have been for many years. Forecasts for this year were already pretty downbeat before most people were aware of the word coronavirus. The danger is that this acute health disease gets blamed for our economic troubles, while the chronic economic disease remains undiagnosed and untreated.

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When the next crisis comes, don’t blame the central bankers

President Trump’s tweets criticising the Federal Reserve bank, and the European Central Bank, draw attention to how prominent central banking has become over recent years. Central banking’s high profile today marks a significant shift from earlier times. Central banking used to be regarded as a necessary activity that most people knew existed, but few could get that excited about.

Increasingly over the past three decades the central banks have attained a much more prominent role, not only in the US but across the mature industrial countries. This has had nothing to do with changes to the calibre of central bankers, or to the development of new banking techniques. Instead, it was primarily a response to the exhaustion of Western politics that became more evident from the second half of the 1980s.

There are three important features of central banking in modern mature economies. First, the misleading fallacy of central bank ‘independence’. Second, the associated sheltering of politicians from responsibility for the economy. And third, the waning efficacy of central banking.

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2019: the economic picture isn’t rosy

Compared to the start of 2018, economic forecasters at the end of the years are much more gloomly about global economic prospects for the forthcoming period. Trade wars, the ‘end’ of cheap money, excessive emerging market corporate debt, and Britain ‘crashing out’ of the EU are some of the major risks identified in the turn-of-the-year economic projections. We’re told that sluggishness is taking hold again.

Despite the shift in tone there is still too much complacency about the deeper challenges we’re facing. Here are three that deserve more attention and discussion, not just by forecasters but by all of us: accumulating Western atrophy inflaming international economic unevenness; exorbitant debt levels in the mature nations; dysfunctional economic policies.

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