Monday, April 27, 2015

Morning in America and Cameron’s Productivity Pessimism

I feel over 30 years younger. A recent UK debate reminds me of the infamous Reagan commercial - it’s Morning in America again. You see the Reagan tax cuts saved America from that awful 1982 recession under Jimmy Carter. Oh wait – Reagan became President before the 1982 recession. Of course the macroeconomic mix back then involved Reagan’s fiscal stimulus and a very vigorous monetary contraction with the recovery coming after the Volcker FED declared victory over inflation and eased up. The Bank of England of late has been using monetary stimulus desperately trying to offset Cameron’s vigorous fiscal austerity. And the intellectual garbage coming from Cameron’s government is being documented by Simon Wren Lewis:
The idea that austerity during the first two years of the coalition government was vindicated by the 2013 recovery is so ludicrous that it is almost embarrassing to have to explain why … imagine that a government on a whim decided to close down half the economy for a year. That would be a crazy thing to do, and with only half as much produced everyone would be a lot poorer. However a year later when that half of the economy started up again, economic growth would be around 100%. The government could claim that this miraculous recovery vindicated its decision to close half the economy down the year before. That would be absurd, but it is a pretty good analogy with claiming that the 2013 recovery vindicated 2010 austerity.
This FRED chart shows what Simon is referring to. A deep recession followed by a partial recovery with real GDP at only 1.037 of its 2007 level and real income per capita still below its level from 7 years ago. The UK economy is imitating the US macroeconomic performance 30 years ago. In 1983, we were still far below full employment but Cameron has found a bogus estimate of potential output in the UK that say they are just fine. Paul Krugman explains:
these estimates are now based on estimates of potential output, which purport to show that the British economy in 2006-7 was hugely overheated and operating far above sustainable levels. But nothing one saw at the time was consistent with this view. In particular, there was no sign of inflationary overheating. So why do the usual suspects claim that Britain had a large positive output gap? The answer is that the statistical techniques used by most of the players here automatically reinterpret any prolonged slump as a slowdown in the growth of potential output — and because they also smooth out potential output, the supposed fall in current potential propagates back into the past, making it seem as if the pre-crisis economy was wildly overheated.
Bill Martin has been following this debate for a while:
There are two sharply contrasting explanations for the continuing malaise. The conjunction of weak activity, persistent inflation and disappointing trade performance adds weight to the common view that the economy has become bound to a lower trajectory, the result of a permanent loss of productive capacity. Others believe the economy is primarily constrained by weak demand, the result of a private debt overhang and a contraction in the flow of bank credit, deflationary forces made worse by an upsurge in world commodity prices.
Bill comes down on the latter explanation as does Paul and Simon. The former view is a Real Business Cycle tale of negative productivity shocks. We heard those stories 30 years ago but the US economy finally did fully recover. Let’s hope the same occurs for the UK economy. But let’s suppose for a moment that the productivity pessimists are correct. Then Cameron’s government should cease gloating how well the UK economy is doing as a permanent fall in real income per capita is not good news.

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