Spare Britain the policy hair shirt

The UK should tighten fiscal and monetary policy now, in the depths of a slump. That, in essence, is what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calls for in its latest Economic Outlook. I wonder what John Maynard Keynes would have written in response. It would have been savage, I imagine.

The OECD argues: “A weak fiscal position and the risk of significant increases in bond yields make further fiscal consolidation essential. The fragile state of the economy should be weighed against the need to maintain credibility when deciding the initial pace of consolidation, but a concrete and far-reaching consolidation plan needs to be announced upfront.” Furthermore, monetary tightening should begin no later than the fourth quarter of this year, with rates rising to 3.5 per cent by the end of 2011.

Let us translate this proposal into ordinary language: “If you are unwilling to starve yourself when desperately ill, nobody will believe you would adopt a sensible diet when well.” But might it not make sense to get better first?

Here are some facts, to keep the hysteria in check: the UK economy is operating at least 10 per cent below its pre-crisis trend; the OECD estimates the “output gap” – or excess capacity – at slightly over half of this lost output; the UK government is able to borrow at a real interest rate of below 1 per cent, as shown by yields on index-linked gilts; the yield on conventional 10-year gilts is 3.6 per cent; the ratio of gross debt to gross domestic product was 68 per cent at the end of last year, against 73 per cent in Germany and 77 per cent in France and an average of 87 per cent since 1855; the average maturity of UK debt is 13 years, according to the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Monitor; and, yes, core inflation has risen to 3.2 per cent, but that is hardly a surprise, given the large – and essential – sterling depreciation.

Above all, the private sector is forecast by the OECD to run a surplus – an excess of income over spending – of 10 per cent of GDP this year. On a consolidated basis, the UK’s private surplus funds nearly 90 per cent of the fiscal deficit. Thus, fiscal tightening would only work if it coincided with a robust private recovery. Otherwise, it would drive the economy into deeper recession. Yes, that is a Keynesian argument. But this is a Keynesian situation.

I agree that there needs to be a credible path for fiscal consolidation that would lead to a balanced budget, if not a surplus. That will be essential if the UK is to cope with an ageing population in the long term. I agree, too, that the path needs to be spelled out. Given the high ratios of spending to GDP – close to 50 per cent – the best way to proceed is via tight, broad-based, long-term control over expenditure. But a substantially faster pace than envisaged by the last government might threaten recovery: the OECD, for example, forecasts economic growth at 1.3 per cent this year and 2.5 per cent in 2011. Even this would imply next to no reduction in excess capacity.

Of course, one might argue that ultra-loose monetary policy should be used as an offset. But the OECD wants to remove that support, too. Why the OECD makes this recommendation is beyond me.

A good argument might be that monetary policy is a damaging way of refloat the economy, since it tends to weaken the exchange rate (and so raise inflation), increase prices of houses and other assets, and encourage borrowing by a grossly over-indebted private sector. But if one took this line, one should surely argueagainst rapid fiscal tightening. Thus, while the conventional wisdom is that the best combination is tight fiscal policy and ultra-loose monetary policy, that might be a mistake.

Against the background of rapid fiscal tightening, even ultra-loose monetary policy might prove ineffective. The growth of broad money and credit remains very low, for example. Moreover, sterling’s real effective exchange rate has stabilised since early 2009 and the pound has recently strengthened against the euro. None of this suggests that monetary policy is now too loose. That would be still more true after a big fiscal contraction. If there were a sharp monetary tightening as well, the chances of renewed recession are very high, particularly now that the eurozone seems likely to be more feeble than hoped a few months ago.

The OECD seems to take the view that the only big risk is a loss of fiscal and monetary “credibility”. It is not. The other and – in my view, more serious – risk is that the economy flounders for years. If that happened, eliminating the fiscal deficit would be very hard.

If, as the OECD and Britain’s coalition government believe, fiscal tightening must be accelerated, the corollary is ultra-loose monetary policy, until recovery is established. If, alternatively, monetary policy is ineffective, as it may be, fiscal tightening should be announced, but implementation should be postponed until recovery is secure. I have now lost faith in the view that giving the markets what we think they may want in future – even though they show little sign of insisting on it now – should be the ruling idea in policy. So now should the OECD.

martin.wolf@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/martinwolf

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