Policy Research in Macroeconomics

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


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.

In parallel, President Obama was reported as disappointing the expectations of UK policymakers by failing to endorse the Government’s approach to economic policy. While Obama has not proved the champion of the better world that we had all hoped, – he is no FDR –  his stance is important and perhaps even brave.

In the second half of 2010 the world economy began to weaken, but this is greatly underplayed by OECD economists.  Instead they point to a perceived optimistic outlook ahead. But this outlook is thinly based. We are told that financial conditions are improving: but in the UK the latest assessments of project Merlin flatly contradict such a notion.


Source: www.telegraph.co.uk. Data: BBa / BIS / Bank of England

In the real economy, world trade has retreated substantially from the relatively rapid outturns at the start of 2010. The report recognises that this is a consequence of monetary policy tightening in emerging markets and the wearing off of stimulus packages in major economies. The retraction of earlier stimulus programmes by the US and EU is rather an understatement. Stimulus has not only been withdrawn, it has been replaced by austerity.

So what are the grounds for OECD optimism?   Especially given that their economists remain obsessed by inflation as the causa causans of all possible outcomes. Their overriding fear is that inflation will cause consumers to retrench. This threat is then used to justify tighter monetary policies– which would hurt over-indebted consumers, corporates and SMEs. But unemployment is a much more important driver of consumer behaviour. Wage earners snap their purses shut in the wake of what for many millions is the reality of, and for others the threat of, unemployment. Inflation is no doubt painful to the less well-off, but from a macroeconomic perspective ‘core inflation’ today is at low levels, no matter how much the OECD tries to play it up. Watch out as inflation falls rapidly over the next few months, in line with weakening economies.

The austerity and fierce monetary strategies embarked on by governments – already burdened by losses transmitted by the private banking crisis – have been directed by the civil servants of supra-national organisations: such as the OECD and IMF as well as the global central banking fraternity. These public employees enjoy immense influence, and as the the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet indicated in a speech on 2 June, 2011 they wish to capture:

“a much deeper and authoritative say in the formation of the country’s economic policies….. A direct influence, well over and above the reinforced surveillance that is presently envisaged”

Given the ECB’s role in exacerbating the crisis in Greece (described by Nouriel Roubini as ‘throwing good money after bad – to bail out, rather than bailing in, reckless creditors….a giant Ponzi scheme”)  such “authoritative” advice  by supra-national organisations has crucified economies “in a struggle which is certain to prove futile” –  to quote Keynes.

But the OECD’s latest report hints that minds might be changing. It contains the beginnings of the admission that the world is being forced down a desperate path that has no justification in economic reason and the evidence of history. The experience of the great depression stands before us. It was only enlightened monetary policies and expansionary fiscal policy that restored the US and UK not only to health but to a position to resist reactionary forces and fascism.  The current strategy is likely to make us more vulnerable to reactionary political forces – in the EU and the US.

Some might like to celebrate the previous timid stimulus for e.g. car scrappage schemes etc, under both Alastair Darling and the Larry Summers White House.  But in the light of present events, it is clear that their approach was designed not to save society but to preserve a financial system that has palpably failed the vast majority of the citizens of the world.

We at PRIME economics have repeatedly called for something greater and more just. Perhaps the foot-shuffling of the OECD indicates recognition that imposing austerity policies at a time of global economic weakness is indeed a futile struggle – soon to be abandoned?

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