Our broken economy doesn’t need more stimulus

The OECD’s urging to ‘drop austerity’ is out of sync with reality

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 10:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 10:45am

The recent row in the UK over the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union and the debate over the pressurised extraction of oil, known as fracking is similar in that everybody has a view but no one is prepared to be informed by the facts. The usual source of information, the internet, is unreliable. Most posts are highly biased and parrot fiction as fact. In both cases people hold firm views because it comes from the gut; this is more commonly known as indigestion.

There other issue in economics that drives more heat than light is whether governments should spend to get their economies out of trouble, or should they employ handbag economics, austerity, to consolidate their economic strength?

Keynesian economists who demand spending to stimulate the economy are forgetting that we are already spent

Once again the armchair economists of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development have called “on rich countries to drop austerity.” This phrase was the BBC’s emotional shorthand for the story described in the Financial Times as a, “call for urgent action to combat flagging growth” for despite positive growth in the US, the UK, Australia and indeed Europe the spectre of flagging growth continues.

China alone will impact global growth as its steadily declining growth figure of 6.9 per cent (going on 3.9 per cent) will obviously affect global growth figures given how the world’s second largest economy affects the maths. The oil price fall will provide an additional but apparent fall in growth despite it being altogether positive for the global economy – though not for Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

The OECD is mired in a number of historical misconceptions. First of all rich countries aren’t rich – they may have lots of assets but most of them highly indebted. My father-in-law said that you never know how wealthy a man is unless you know how much he owes. The public debt ratio in Japan is currently 237 per cent of GDP; the US is 104 per cent; in Europe it is 93 per cent; China is believed to be at least in the 90’s if local public debt is included.

Some countries like Singapore have high debt levels (at 114 per cent of GDP) but also large reserves but there is no such pot of gold and no easy way of earning it in most other jurisdictions. A country may be developed but that is not the same as being rich with the luxury of being able to afford to be a little generous.

The second myth is that policymakers have actually followed the path of austerity. Over the last seven years, public debt levels in the US have risen 63 per cent, in Europe by 41 per cent, Japan by 34 per cent, while China is up at least 41 per cent in that period. The most voluble politician in favour of austerity, George Osborne of the UK, has himself wimped out by extending his forecast for a balanced budget each year so far. Those so-called Keynesian economists who demand spending to stimulate the economy are forgetting that we are already spent. A few extra billion here has to be paid back sometime. Debt does not magically disappear. In investment, there is no free lunch. I feel sure a modern-day Keynes would be on my side.

The problem is that we have borrowed from our future and we must now go through a hair-shirted period of low growth to right the balance. The MSCI world index of shares rose 5.1 per cent in the early part of the 1970’s, a moderate if normalised return. The world index rose 8.4 per cent each year on average in the seventies; 19 per cent in the eighties; 16 per cent in the nineties but then just 2 per cent in the naughties as the markets caught a cold, and 7 per cent in the one’s. The big returns in the ‘80s and ‘90s were driven by falling interest rates and effectively borrowed returns from the future. Over the 45 years since 1970, the average annual equity returns were over 10 per cent - that seems too much and sooner or later low interest rates and those returns will normalise back to 5-7 per cent.

Unfortunately policymakers, investors, politicians, and the man in the street all want jam today. Central bankers have overused the interest rate tool into ineffectiveness. Politicians are happy to borrow and spend to buy votes. We should welcome a period of dull growth for the alternative is a bubble then a crash that will force austerity upon us. We had our jam yesterday.

The OECD might better direct its energies towards encouraging the supply side of the economy, reducing red tape, barriers to trade and workers, protecting employee salaries, giving tax breaks and encourage productive spending only – cutting universal welfare! One remembers the Chinese Proverb, “talk doesn’t cook the rice”.

Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management