Niall Ferguson says, Paul Krugman’s Advice Will Lead USA To Depression

One of the hottest feuds in economics today is the one between Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. The debate represents austerity vs. stimulus, with Krugman, of course, arguing that the U.S. needs to do way more to save the economy.Ferguson notes that his dispute with Krugman isn’t even so much about economics — it’s about history. Ferguson is a history professor. And history says pretty clearly that countries with this level of sovereign debt eventually go bust.Ferguson isn’t convinced we’re totally doomed just yet. And he’s not calling for overly violent cuts that will leave us eating cat food. Instead, he just wants to see credible commitments to get spending under control down the road to assure investors that our debt is good, and to convince businesses that they can hire and invest today without worrying about massive tax hikes down the road.

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Paul Krugman Throws In Towel, Says We’re Headed For Another Depression

For the last several months, Princeton professor Paul Krugman has become increasingly agitated about what he feels is a disastrous mistake in the making — a sudden global obsession with “austerity” that will lead to spending cuts in many nations in Europe and, possibly, the United States.Krugman believes that this is exactly the same mistake we made in 1937, when the country was beginning to emerge from the Great Depression. A sudden focus on austerity in 1937, it is widely believed, halted four years of strong growth and plunged the country back into recession, sending the unemployment rate soaring again.In Krugman’s view, the world should keep spending now, to offset the pain of the recession and high unemployment–and then start cutting back as soon as the economy is robustly healthy again.Those concerned about the world’s massive debt and deficits, however, have seized control of the public debate, and are scaring the world’s governments into cutting back.Which fate is worse? It depends on your time frame.Cutting back on spending now would almost certainly make the economy worse, at least for the short run. Not cutting back on spending later, meanwhile (and Congress has shown no ability to curtail spending), will almost certainly keep us on a road to hell in a handbasket.The White House’s own budget projections show the deficit improving as a percent of GDP to about -4% by 2013. After that, however, even the White House doesn’t think things will get much better. After a few years of bumping along at about -4%, the deficit will begin to soar at the end of the decade. And thanks to the ballooning costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security–along with inflating interest payments from all the debt we’re accumulating–the White House expects the deficit to soar to a staggering -62% of GDP by 2085.What Krugman and his foes agree on is that that’s no way to run a country. And it’s time we finally faced up to that.In the meantime, we’ll continue to fight about what to do in the near-term. And Krugman thinks he has lost that war and we’re headed for another Depression.

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Paul Krugman says, Governments Are Panicked About Spending And Debt

As the rest of the world works itself into a panic over debt and deficits, Princeton professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman continues to argue that acting on this fear will quickly make things far worse:What’s the greatest threat to our still-fragile economic recovery? Dangers abound, of course. But what I currently find most ominous is the spread of a destructive idea: the view that now, less than a year into a weak recovery from the worst slump since World War II, is the time for policy makers to stop helping the jobless and start inflicting pain…Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea — not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts. And the O.E.C.D. predicts that high unemployment will persist for years. Nonetheless, the organization demands both that governments cancel any further plans for economic stimulus and that they begin “fiscal consolidation” next year.In terms of short-term impact, Krugman’s logic makes sense. Anyone who argues that we should cut spending instantly without acknowledging that this will cause major short-term pain is either delusional or disingenuous.But the longer term implications of continuing to spend boatloads of money we don’t have also needs addressing. Specifically, Prof. Krugman needs to explain why debt-fear-mongers like Niall Ferguson are wrong that, once government debt hits about 90% of GDP (where ours is headed), default is pretty much inevitable.Pointing to the post-World War II experience, when US government debt soared and then shrank gradually as a percent of GDP over the next two decades, doesn’t take into account the massive consumer and financial debt the country currently carries. In those days, it was just the government that borrowed up to its eyeballs. Today, in terms of total debt to GDP, we’re in completely uncharted territory.

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Paul Krugman says, We’ll be Repeating the Great Mistake of 1937

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

That 1937 Feeling

Published: January 3, 2010

Here’s what’s coming in economic news:  The next employment report could show the economy adding jobs for the first time in two years. The next G.D.P. report is likely to show solid growth in late 2009. There will be lots of bullish commentary — and the calls we’re already hearing for an end to stimulus, for reversing the steps the government and the Federal Reserve took to prop up the economy, will grow even louder.

But if those calls are heeded, we’ll be repeating the great mistake of 1937, when the Fed and the Roosevelt administration decided that the Great Depression was over, that it was time for the economy to throw away its crutches. Spending was cut back, monetary policy was tightened — and the economy promptly plunged back into the depths.

This shouldn’t be happening. Both Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, and Christina Romer, who heads President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, are scholars of the Great Depression. Ms. Romer has warned explicitly against re-enacting the events of 1937. But those who remember the past sometimes repeat it anyway.

As you read the economic news, it will be important to remember, first of all, that blips — occasional good numbers, signifying nothing — are common even when the economy is, in fact, mired in a prolonged slump. In early 2002, for example, initial reports showed the economy growing at a 5.8 percent annual rate. But the unemployment rate kept rising for another year.

And in early 1996 preliminary reports showed the Japanese economy growing at an annual rate of more than 12 percent, leading to triumphant proclamations that “the economy has finally entered a phase of self-propelled recovery.” In fact, Japan was only halfway through its lost decade.

Such blips are often, in part, statistical illusions. But even more important, they’re usually caused by an “inventory bounce.” When the economy slumps, companies typically find themselves with large stocks of unsold goods. To work off their excess inventories, they slash production; once the excess has been disposed of, they raise production again, which shows up as a burst of growth in G.D.P. Unfortunately, growth caused by an inventory bounce is a one-shot affair unless underlying sources of demand, such as consumer spending and long-term investment, pick up.

Which brings us to the still grim fundamentals of the economic situation.

During the good years of the last decade, such as they were, growth was driven by a housing boom and a consumer spending surge. Neither is coming back. There can’t be a new housing boom while the nation is still strewn with vacant houses and apartments left behind by the previous boom, and consumers — who are $11 trillion poorer than they were before the housing bust — are in no position to return to the buy-now-save-never habits of yore.

What’s left? A boom in business investment would be really helpful right now. But it’s hard to see where such a boom would come from: industry is awash in excess capacity, and commercial rents are plunging in the face of a huge oversupply of office space.

Can exports come to the rescue? For a while, a falling U.S. trade deficit helped cushion the economic slump. But the deficit is widening again, in part because China and other surplus countries are refusing to let their currencies adjust.

So the odds are that any good economic news you hear in the near future will be a blip, not an indication that we’re on our way to sustained recovery. But will policy makers misinterpret the news and repeat the mistakes of 1937? Actually, they already are.

The Obama fiscal stimulus plan is expected to have its peak effect on G.D.P. and jobs around the middle of this year, then start fading out. That’s far too early: why withdraw support in the face of continuing mass unemployment? Congress should have enacted a second round of stimulus months ago, when it became clear that the slump was going to be deeper and longer than originally expected. But nothing was done — and the illusory good numbers we’re about to see will probably head off any further possibility of action.

Meanwhile, all the talk at the Fed is about the need for an “exit strategy” from its efforts to support the economy. One of those efforts, purchases of long-term U.S. government debt, has already come to an end. It’s widely expected that another, purchases of mortgage-backed securities, will end in a few months. This amounts to a monetary tightening, even if the Fed doesn’t raise interest rates directly — and there’s a lot of pressure on Mr. Bernanke to do that too.

Will the Fed realize, before it’s too late, that the job of fighting the slump isn’t finished? Will Congress do the same? If they don’t, 2010 will be a year that began in false economic hope and ended in grief.

PAUL KRUGMAN says, “Things are still getting worse”

nytimes1

Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, sees “green shoots.” President Obama sees “glimmers of hope.” And the stock market has been on a tear.

So is it time to sound the all clear? Here are four reasons to be cautious about the economic outlook.

1. Things are still getting worse. Industrial production just hit a 10-year low. Housing starts remain incredibly weak. Foreclosures, which dipped as mortgage companies waited for details of the Obama administration’s housing plans, are surging again.

The most you can say is that there are scattered signs that things are getting worse more slowly — that the economy isn’t plunging quite as fast as it was. And I do mean scattered: the latest edition of the Beige Book, the Fed’s periodic survey of business conditions, reports that “five of the twelve Districts noted a moderation in the pace of decline.” Whoopee.

2. Some of the good news isn’t convincing. The biggest positive news in recent days has come from banks, which have been announcing surprisingly good earnings. But some of those earnings reports look a little … funny.

Wells Fargo, for example, announced its best quarterly earnings ever. But a bank’s reported earnings aren’t a hard number, like sales; for example, they depend a lot on the amount the bank sets aside to cover expected future losses on its loans. And some analysts expressed considerable doubt about Wells Fargo’s assumptions, as well as other accounting issues.

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs announced a huge jump in profits from fourth-quarter 2008 to first-quarter 2009. But as analysts quickly noticed, Goldman changed its definition of “quarter” (in response to a change in its legal status), so that — I kid you not — the month of December, which happened to be a bad one for the bank, disappeared from this comparison.

I don’t want to go overboard here. Maybe the banks really have swung from deep losses to hefty profits in record time. But skepticism comes naturally in this age of Madoff.

Oh, and for those expecting the Treasury Department’s “stress tests” to make everything clear: the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, says that “you will see in a systematic and coordinated way the transparency of determining and showing to all involved some of the results of these stress tests.” No, I don’t know what that means, either.

3. There may be other shoes yet to drop. Even in the Great Depression, things didn’t head straight down. There was, in particular, a pause in the plunge about a year and a half in — roughly where we are now. But then came a series of bank failures on both sides of the Atlantic, combined with some disastrous policy moves as countries tried to defend the dying gold standard, and the world economy fell off another cliff.

Can this happen again? Well, commercial real estate is coming apart at the seams, credit card losses are surging and nobody knows yet just how bad things will get in Japan or Eastern Europe. We probably won’t repeat the disaster of 1931, but it’s far from certain that the worst is over.

4. Even when it’s over, it won’t be over. The 2001 recession officially lasted only eight months, ending in November of that year. But unemployment kept rising for another year and a half. The same thing happened after the 1990-91 recession. And there’s every reason to believe that it will happen this time too. Don’t be surprised if unemployment keeps rising right through 2010.

Why? “V-shaped” recoveries, in which employment comes roaring back, take place only when there’s a lot of pent-up demand. In 1982, for example, housing was crushed by high interest rates, so when the Fed eased up, home sales surged. That’s not what’s going on this time: today, the economy is depressed, loosely speaking, because we ran up too much debt and built too many shopping malls, and nobody is in the mood for a new burst of spending.

Employment will eventually recover — it always does. But it probably won’t happen fast.

So now that I’ve got everyone depressed, what’s the answer? Persistence.

History shows that one of the great policy dangers, in the face of a severe economic slump, is premature optimism. F.D.R. responded to signs of recovery by cutting the Works Progress Administration in half and raising taxes; the Great Depression promptly returned in full force. Japan slackened its efforts halfway through its lost decade, ensuring another five years of stagnation.

The Obama administration’s economists understand this. They say all the right things about staying the course. But there’s a real risk that all the talk of green shoots and glimmers will breed a dangerous complacency.

So here’s my advice, to the public and policy makers alike: Don’t count your recoveries before they’re hatched.

Published: April 16, 2009