The game is up: the age of liberal finance over. The Left's Plan B?

By Ann Pettifor. An edited version of this piece was published on Left Foot Forward, 14 September, 2011. This original, longer version posted 19 September, 2011. 

The game is up. The 2007-9 private banking crisis that started with the unpayable debts of the US sub-prime sector, was never over. The crisis has now moved on to include the unpayable debts of sovereigns owed to private European bankers. It is increasingly clear that there is declining political and institutional support for further private bank bailouts. The dramatic resignation on Friday 9th September of Jürgen Stark, architect of Europe’s equivalent of the Gold Standard – the Growth and Stability Pact – marks an important step in the resistance to bailouts by the ECB; in the inevitable collapse of the Maastricht Pact, and with it, the utopian vision of the neoliberal Euro.

And so the age of liberalised, de-regulated finance appears to be over – at least in Europe. That is the conclusion of investors in both Wall St and the City of London and explains the collapse of confidence in banks and the volatility of stock markets as investors rush for the exits, transferring speculative gains into the safety of government bonds.

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What a financial tailspin may mean for you and me

Wall Street plummeted as concerns over European debt and the US economic downturn spurred a broad sell-off. Photograph: Shen Hong/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Read my article from Guardian Cif, Friday 19th August:

As bank shares and stock markets plummet, and investors flock to the safety of government bonds; as obstinate EU leaders crucify their countries in a futile struggle to defend today’s equivalent of the gold standard; as British and American politicians adopt austerity policies and drive their economies closer to the cliffs of depression; and as most professional economists stand aloof from the escalating crisis – what lies ahead for ordinary punters like you and me?

First, let’s take look at the big political picture. This crisis is already sharpening the divide between left and right in both the EU and the United States. Studying a precedent – the implosion of the 1920s credit bubble in 1929 – we note that four years after that crisis erupted, the political divide sharpened decisively. The United States and Britain moved to the left. Germany chose a different path. After 1930, Germany’s Centre party under Chancellor Brüning adopted austerity policies that resulted in cuts in welfare benefits and wages, while credit was tightened. At the same time the German government engaged in wildly excessive borrowing from the liberalised international capital markets. The ground was laid for the rise of fascism.

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Eight fallacies in the LSE Keynes/Hayek debate

Tonight, Wednesday 3 August 2011 at 08.00pm BST (GMT +1), BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a debate which took place at the London School of Economics (LSE) on 26 July.  This broadcast will be repeated on Saturday, 6 August, at 10.15 p.m BST (GMT +1).

Along with my colleagues Prof. Victoria Chick and Douglas Coe at PRIME  we have written the following response to the debate:

Debaters considered whether Keynes or Hayek had the solution to the present financial crisis. The economist George Selgin and philosopher Jamie Whyte spoke for Hayek; Keynes’s biographer Robert Skidelsky and the economist Duncan Weldon spoke for Keynes.

On the one hand we are pleased that the BBC and the LSE now acknowledge rival positions to the present austerity policies of Western governments. On the other  we are concerned that the debate might have served mainly to reinforce existing prejudices, rather than to clarify the substance of the matters under discussion, matters which – there can be no doubt – are of the most profound importance.

Lord Skidelsky provocatively but justly reminded the audience that in the early 1930s, the same orthodoxy driving western austerity policies directed the actions of Germany’s 1931 Bruning government and paved the way for the rise of Nazism. These actions – vigorously opposed by Keynes – were the final straw for a Germany crushed by defeat and the disastrous boom-bust cycle that followed their return to the gold standard. Reparations were easily circumvented by wildly excessive borrowing from financial interests around the world, in a manner that even Keynes did not anticipate. It was these financial and fiscal policies that brought Hitler to power.

With financial interests still firmly in the ascendency and reactionary right-wing forces increasing their grip in the United States and much of the Western world, we must not forget these lessons from history, which formed the background to the original debate between Keynes and Hayek themselves. The stakes are high indeed.

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Savings and the alchemy of credit - my article for Aviva

Aviva has brought together a collection of prominent thinkers to provoke renewed debate and fresh ideas about future prosperity and creating a culture of sustainable savings. The group, names the ‘Future Prosperity Panel‘, published their report ‘Big picture thinking – Towards sustainable savings’.

My article is called ‘Savings and the alchemy of credit’ and is published alongside valuable work from Alain De BottonSimon TayPaweł Świeboda and Diane Coyle.

Read a summary of my essay on the Aviva site and watch a video interview with me here… >

Knowles needs to listen more carefully to ‘hero’ Clinton on deficit reduction

The austerity brigade is rattled. Young Daniel Knowles over at the Daily Telegraph is so worried, he has had to rise to the defence of the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility – and then resorts to proposing Greece’s economic strategy for the UK. Why? Because orthodox economic ideology has been challenged by none other than Daniel’s ‘hero’ that notorious womaniser, President Bill Clinton.

Bill gets it. On the deficit that is.  Thanks to Left Foot Forward and Mehdi Hasan we have all read Clinton’s  speech:

“(the) UK’s finding this out now. They adopted this big austerity budget. And there’s a good chance that economic activity will go down so much that tax revenues will be reduced even more than spending is cut and their deficit will increase.”

Daniel Knowles challenges his hero, on these grounds:

  1. “The government cannot spend so much that net revenues actually increase. By Clinton’s logic we should increase spending until our deficit goes away. ”
  2. “The Office of Budget Responsibility..using a Keynesian model, estimates that the fiscal multiplier is about .35”……that means that…overall the deficit is will be smaller than it would have been without cuts….. (Note: Knowles Update:  I actually made a mistake with that statistic – 0.35 is the estimate for the multiplier for VAT. Estimates of the fiscal multiplier overall, including those of the OBR, IMF and others, are closer to 0.)
  3. Greece: spending cuts have reduced the deficit from 15.4% of GDP in 2009 to 9.5% now.

The first two points are rightly, morphed together in Knowles’s argument. The first is to do with the impact of government spending. In a slump – which we are living through now – it is vital for the government to spend to fill the investment vacuum created by an over-indebted and extremely nervous private sector, desperately trying to de-leverage its debt. Right now the UK private sector is busily hoarding cash, because they are – rightly – worried about their levels of debt; and because they fear – rightly – that if they do invest, customers (both private and corporate) will not walk through the door – because customers too, are heavily indebted and worried about the threat of unemployment and falling house prices.

So given these circumstances of widespread fear and paralysis in the economy – what the ONS calls ‘flat-lining’ –  say the government invests £1 billion in libraries. What would happen next?

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Cambridge excludes Keynesians from conference on Keynes

Like Catholics organising a conference on Protestantism and excluding Protestants, the Cambridge organisers of a conference to ‘celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’, have excluded Keynes scholars. By contrast, most of those who will address the conference subscribe to the ‘classical’ theory that Keynes thought he had defeated.

The one name on the list that is identified with Keynes, at least in the public eye, is Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University, who will be giving the ‘Plenary Lecture’. However, in his opening remarks to the conference, Prof. Krugman poses the question: “What am I doing here?” and modestly suggests that:

I’m arguably not qualified to [give this talk]. I am, after all, not a Keynes scholar, nor any kind of serious intellectual historian. Nor have I spent most of my career doing macroeconomics. Until the late 1990s my contributions to that field were limited to international issues; although I kept up with macro research, I avoided getting into the frontline theoretical and empirical disputes.

Click here to download a PDF copy of Paul Krugman’s lecture >

Krugman is an extremely controversial figure for Keynes scholars. He champions a mainstream interpretation of Keynes’s work known as the neo-classical synthesis, and seems to have avoided any discussion with those actually working in the field. Many fear that his adherence to a rightly discredited version of Keynes’s theory serves Keynes very badly indeed.

Qualification for participation in this event hosted by the Cambridge Faculty of Economics and Cambridge Finance appears to be complete detachment from scholarly debates about the nature of Keynes’s work. Scholars were hard pushed to recall one contribution to the Keynes literature written by any on the list of participating economists. The UK Post-Keynesian Economics Study Group, a body dedicated to the serious pursuit of these matters since 1988, with an on-line community of over 300 academics, found out about the conference by accident. “Even by the standards of the economics profession, this is staggering”, one member observed.

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Austerity: OECD economists show clear signs of ‘cold feet’ for austerity

(Photo: REUTERS / Yiorgos Karahalis )
A Greek riot policeman stands in front of graffiti written on the wall of a bank during violent demonstrations over austerity measures in Athens, May 5, 2010. Greece faced a day of violent protests and a nationwide strike by civil servants outraged by the announcement of draconian austeristy measures.

Dear readers….Recovering from ‘flu and a trip down to Hay on Wye…Thought you might be interested in this piece I have written for Prime.

“We should note recent developments in political economy, that – while understated – are, we hope, of significance. Last week, the OECD published their latest World Economic Outlook, which features chapters on each developed economy as well as an assessment of the world economy as a whole.

The report is schizophrenic. It clumsily offers an outlook of excessive optimism; makes a selective assessment of ‘risks’; but continues adherence to an economic policy doctrine that is clearly making OECD economists very uncomfortable.

While the OECD report contains the expected justifications and support for the ‘austerity’ approach, nevertheless the organisation’s ‘cold feet’ are becoming apparent, even before the full extent of austerity programmes has begun to impact. There is no better example of this unease than their approach to the UK.

The report commends UK policymakers for their “current fiscal consolidation (which) strikes the right balance and should continue.”  At the same time, OECD economists hedge their bets by urging the UK government to embark on “higher infrastructure spending (that) would lower the short-term negative growth effects of consolidation without affecting its pace.”   At a press conference last week, the OECD chief economist warned that the UK should be prepared to cool austerity in the wake of weaker growth.

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Women talking macro-economics

5th February 2010

My conversation earlier this week with Elena Sisti – of Italy’s Altreconomia on macro-economics, reform of the finance sector, money, and yes, how we women have left the all-important matter of finance to the boys. Big mistake. It’s time to get in there, and exercise influence. Too much is at stake. Continue reading… ›

Keynes and taxpayers’ largesse

I wrote a piece on Keynes and monetary policy for the Standard, which appeared on Thursday, 23rd October, 2008. You can read it below. Today a group of monetarist economists , supported by a range of bankers, have written to the Telegraph objecting to a public works programme to help economic recovery. They are right that excessive liabilities on the government’s balance sheet could cause interest rates to rise, but government spending has a multiplier effect, and very quickly pays for itself. They seem unaware of this economic fact. There is some overlap between our views on monetary policy as an effective tool, but I disagree with their view that UK government spending has been excessive.

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A debt spiral we could have avoided

24th October, 2008

The NS has published a short piece this week: “Economists simply would not accept that their model could fail“.  An introductory sentence is not mine: “Who would have predicted..that prudent Gordon Brown (would)  breach the EU cap on government spending?” Am writing to the NS to ask for a correction to be published.

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