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Central bank advice on austerity

Wren-Lewis, S. (2014) “Central bank advice on austerity“, Mainly Macro Blog, 05 May.


As I wrote recently, the economic debate on the impact on austerity is over bar the details. Fiscal contraction when interest rates are at their zero lower bound is likely to have a significant negative impact on output. Of course the popular debate goes on, because of absurd claims that recovering from austerity somehow validates it. Next time you get a cold, celebrate, because you will feel good when it is over! Which means more articles like this will have to be written.

An interesting question for an economist then becomes why austerity happened. There are some groups who have a clear self interest in promoting austerity: those who would like a smaller state, for example. While arguments for ‘less government’ are commonplace among the more affluent in the US, in Europe there is much less natural antagonism to government. As a result, as Jeremy Warner said, you can only really make serious inroads into the size of the state during an economic crisis. Large banks also have a direct interest in austerity, because they need low debt to make future bank bailouts credible, enabling them to carry on paying large bonuses from the implicit state subsidy that this creates. So, from a cynical point of view, for this and other reasons those close to finance will always talk up the danger of a debt funding crisis just around the corner.

However there is a large middle ground who genuinely believes austerity was required to prevent the chance of a funding crisis, particularly after Greece. Yet Quantitative Easing (QE) fundamentally changes this. If the central bank makes it known that QE drastically reduces the chance of a debt funding panic, and anyway they have the means to offset its impact if it occurred, any contrary advice from the financial sector might be defused. The middle ground might be persuaded that fiscal stimulus is possible after all.


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