Battle Lost: Austerity Won

It has been surprising to see how over the last five years some have been holding to their economic theories even if the facts kept proving them wrong (Yyperinflation? Confidence and austerity?). At the end, it seems that ideology dominates much of the macroeconomic analysis we see these days. But what is more surprising is how broad this phenomenon is and how the general economic commentary that one reads in the press cannot move away from those theories either.

One statement that will not go away is the constant reference to “printing money” which is not only incorrect from a factual point of view (most of the increase in the monetary base corresponds to reserves not to bank notes being printed) but also misleading when it comes to the understanding of the role of central banks. Even those who support central bank actions during the crisis have to add a sentence at the end to warn us about the danger of so much liquidity.

And austerity, as much as the data has disproven the claim that it would be through reduction in government spending and increased confidence that advanced economies will return to healthy growth rates, it does not seem to lose its appeal either. As an example, here is a CNBC article that provides a long list of arguments of why austerity is winning the war. The arguments: the UK is finally growing, Spain’s GDP is not falling anymore and even in Greece we now start seeing the possibility of positive growth. And where is this coming from? From the austerity that these wise governments have implemented over the last year. This is, of course, a misleading analysis of the data. It is still the case that countries where austerity was the strongest have seen the lowest growth rates (and the largest increase in debt). The only reason why these three countries are either returning to growth or not collapsing anymore is that after such a deep crisis, growth must return at some point. Yes, even without any policy actions to support growth, economies recover. But they do so slowly and they will never return to where they should have been. And just to get the facts straight, in these three countries, governments have stopped being a large drag in the economy. When you reduce government spending growth suffers. Once government has stabilized at a low level it does not become a drag on growth.

The last five years have provided an incredible macroeconomic experiments to learn about the effects of monetary and fiscal policy to stabilize cycles. But it seems that this crisis will be wasted, not so much in terms of implementing reforms but in terms of our ability to use data to improve our understanding of macroeconomics.

About Antonio Fatás 136 Articles

Affiliation: INSEAD

Antonio Fatás is professor of Economics at INSEAD. He is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in London and has worked as external consultant for international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and the World Bank.

He teaches the macroeconomics core course in the MBA program as well as different modules on the global macroeconomic environment in Executive Education. His research is focused on the study of business cycles, fiscal policy and the economics of European integration. His articles appear in academic journals such as the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Monetary Economics, Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Journal of Public Economics, Journal of International Economics, Journal of Economic Growth, European Economic Review or Economic Policy.

Professor Fatás earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and M.S. from Universidad de Valencia.

Visit: Antonio Fatás Blog, Personal Page

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