Chris Johns: Growing the economy, not cutting debt, must be our priority

Paschal Donohue should not take any cues from UK on what to do in a post-crisis world

Depending on which looking glass you use, we are either borrowing from ourselves or printing the money. Or, ultimately, a bit of both. Photograph: Davd Sleator

Depending on which looking glass you use, we are either borrowing from ourselves or printing the money. Or, ultimately, a bit of both. Photograph: Davd Sleator

 

The economic policy response to the pandemic has been compared to wartime. Coronavirus has changed many things, not least the terms of the debate about government intervention in the economy. The raw numbers speak for themselves.

In Ireland, the initial response consisted of measures that totalled around €24.5 billion. This amounted to 14 per cent of the annual size of the economy, as measured by GNI* – which tries to strip out some of the distortions caused by the multinational sector. The cost has grown as restrictions have been extended. The eventual size of the bill will, of course, depend on how long those restrictions last.

Fourteen per cent (and growing) of your economy is a bill that would have been unimaginable a year ago, particularly as most of it has been borrowed. Most economists would have said that it is a fiscal trick impossible to pull off, at least not without a crisis in government debt markets.

We haven’t had a crisis because most of the money was lent to us by the European Central Bank. Depending on which looking glass you use, we are either borrowing from ourselves or printing the money. Or, ultimately, a bit of both.

The UK chancellor, Rishi Sunak, last week made, by my calculations, his 16th fiscal announcement of the pandemic. He called it a budget. It was really just another update (albeit an extensive one) on spending and taxation in the wake of the crisis. Pages of estimates and pure guesses about the future of the UK economy revealed a pandemic bill, so far, reckoned to be £407 billion. That’s about 19 per cent of UK GDP. Sunak stated, correctly, that nothing like this has ever been seen, apart from during the two world wars.

So it looks like the UK has been more generous than Ireland. But we are probably not comparing like with like. It is too early to be reaching that kind of judgment. Either way, we are looking at jaw-droppingly large numbers, amounts of borrowed money that have caused barely a flutter of excitement in government debt markets. Until very recently, at least.

Austerity

That wartime comparison was also drawn recently by Ken Rogoff, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. During the great financial crisis, Rogoff became famous in certain circles for warning that governments shouldn’t allow debt to reach, let alone exceed, 100 per cent of GDP. Such thinking led to the subsequent decade of austerity. Conventional wisdom dictated that debt had to be stabilised and preferably reduced.

Rogoff recanted this week, Well, sort of. He admitted that his 100 per cent warning was, in reality, just a rule of thumb for normal times. Recognising just how abnormal current circumstances are, he suggested that today’s priority should be spending on pandemic relief and, I think, trying to grow your way out the problem.

Debt-to-GDP is a ratio. All we have are Rogoff-style rules of thumb about what is sustainable – or not. Economics provides zero precision about the right ratio. Austerity was about managing down the numerator: that focus on borrowing. The current crisis means that we should focus on the denominator: get growth up.

Gloomy outlook

It’s a point of view not shared by Sunak. He presented a gloomy outlook for the UK economy and did nothing about that outlook: the pandemic will leave permanent scars. In the short term, he extended supports and reliefs until September. For the medium term all that awaits the UK are tax hikes and spending cuts. It was, said Simon Wren-Lewis, professor at Oxford, an austerity budget resonant of the Cameron-Osborne years.

Sunak laid claim “to levelling with the British people”. He didn’t. He should have said that we have little idea about where the economy will be in the years following the pandemic’s end and that he will act appropriately when we do know.

If anyone believes he means to raise taxes and slash spending in the run-up to the next general election, I have a bridge to sell them. He should have said that all the forecasts, slavishly followed by all of the media, will all be wrong.

Sunak said nothing about Brexit costs, the green economy or the social care crisis. There was no extra money for frontline workers. He did nothing for the UK’s rate of economic growth. It was all about the numerator, not the denominator.

The Economist newspaper this week called for a post-pandemic rewrite of the social contract. Sunak’s response was a big raspberry.

If Paschal Donohue is looking for pointers about what to do in a post-crisis world he should not take any cues from the UK. Sunak got it wrong and revealed a mindset unmoved by the seismic changes wrought by the pandemic. A century ago Keynes wrote prophetically about the postwar fiscal settlement and the awful consequences of wrong-headed orthodoxy. He would marvel about how little has changed.

Pandemic relief is one thing, the next is growth. The US is where all of the new thinking – and action – is going on. The bet – not without risks – is that we have to focus on the denominator.

Bond markets may or may not in future be so quiescent but much power here lies in the hands of the ECB. Growing our economies – and that social contract rethink – are the mammoth tasks that await.

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