Sunday, 16 January 2011

Business As Usual?

One of our contentions is that the financial economy and the real economy each run to a different rhythm. At times when both of the economies are synchronised, tremendous gains are made. When they are out of step, then problems arise. Our current economic difficulties originated in a hic-cup in the financial economy. There was an edifice of credit given too easily to people who were patently unable to repay the loans (what Will Hutton calls the ‘Ponzi Economy’), regulators who were unwilling to regulate this lending, and  a financial sector driven by greed and personal enrichment to expand this lending beyond safe limits. All of this came tumbling down when the financial economy hit a speed bump.

It was by no means certain that the contagion in the financial economy would need to spread into the real economy. After all, the bursting of the ‘ Bubble’ only had mildly recessional implications. However, a combination of a poor and tardy policy response – particularly in the US – allowed the contagion to bleed from the financial economy into the real economy. And here we are, where we are – the worst recession since the 1930s.

The financial economy and the real economy are still out of step. Across the OECD, unemployment remains high, there is still a relatively large debt overhang in the public and household sectors, and the output gap remains higher than previously experienced. All of this suggests that the real economy needs further fiscal and monetary stimulation. The financial economy, on the other hand, has largely recovered from where it was during the credit crunch. Credit is flowing again - albeit at much reduced trading volumes - the financial system has been shored up, bank profits have returned, and even large bonuses are back on the agenda of bankers. The danger, as the financiers see it, is the nascent inflation that could result from the recent monetary expansion. The financial economy needs interest rates to be increased as part of a monetary contraction.

In many respects, this reflects a desire to return to ‘business as usual’. Of course, if I were an investment banker, I would see the logic behind returning to stellar salaries as quickly as possible. However, the policy of ‘business as usual’ implies that we continue to make the mistakes that put us into recession to begin with. This suggests that the financial economy has yet to come to terms with the paradigm shift that the recession has caused.

For example, the conventional wisdom that proved to be unwise in 2008 states that if inflation is building, then interest rates should be increased and monetary policy should be contracted. If the MPC were to follow the suggestion of Andrew Sentance to increase interest rates, would it work? We think not. The main inflationary pressures that we are currently experiencing are structural in nature caused by rising food, energy, and commodity prices. Raising interest rates may cause Sterling to appreciate a little (or it may not), taking the pressure off those food, energy, and commodity prices denominated in US Dollars, but the impact on global food, energy, and commodity prices is likely to be negligible. UK interest rates would have to rise very far in order to have an impact on global commodity prices.

Instead, such a policy is likely to do severe damage the real economy. Low inflation rates and a low value of Sterling, which fell by between 20% to 25% in the period 2007-10, have stimulated the UK manufacturing sector that exports to Europe, the US, the Middle East, and the Far East – i.e. those economies based around the Euro and the US Dollar. Whilst the cost of imported materials have risen, this is unlikely to lead to a domestic inflationary spiral because of the sheer size of the output gap. There is too much slack in the economy, particularly with the public sector redundancies starting later this year, for inflation to get out of hand.

And this is the point at which we arrive. If it is UK policy to nurture the exporting manufacturing sector, then interest rates need to be held low for some time to come, despite the occurrence of structural inflation. If, on the other hand, interest rates are raised, then it signals a surrender to the financial economy and a return to ‘business as usual’.

If this occurs, the we ought not to complain too much about bankers bonuses. After all, that is part and parcel of our economic policy.

© The European Futures Observatory 2011

BBC News - UK interest rates remain at 0.5%

The Economist | The outlook for exports: Trade winds

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