It is surely time for governments around the world, including Australia’s, to remember the first law of holes: if you’re in one, stop digging. Governments have been digging madly since the global financial crisis, injecting massive amounts of monetary and fiscal stimulus. It hasn’t worked.
We don’t have much to show for it in Australia - an interest bill of $16 billion on government debt compared with zero before the crisis, and a growth rate and unemployment rate that are struggling to meet long term averages.
The world economy is in its 6th year of below average growth since 1990. Japan has not grown at all - its GDP in 2016 is exactly at the level it was in 2008 – despite massive amounts of monetary and fiscal stimulus over a decade.
Growth in Europe has remained below 1% every year since 2008, well below its pre-crisis levels, despite the United States Federal Reserve relentlessly pumping new money into the banking system with interest rates already zero. And the US also remains in a funk with growth at 1.5%, less than the 2.5% long run average, having also pumped new money into its banking system and running budget deficits every year that have seen government debt steadily grow as a share of the economy.
Incredibly, the IMF and some governments have not given up. They now accept that perhaps cheap money and plenty of it hasn’t worked, but they still cling to fiscal stimulus as the last great hope as long as it’s the right kind.
According to the IMF, debt-financed government infrastructure spending is the answer – think roads, ports, power and communication networks. They have constructed a mathematical model showing that such infrastructure spending, funded by borrowing, actually reduces the government debt to GDP ratio in a world of low interest rates. This is because it boosts GDP by more than it raises debt, and boosts overall economic wellbeing.
This will be music to the ears of those politicians who want to spend big on infrastructure. It is however a pipedream.
The problem is not so much what the debt is used for, although that does matter, it is more the size of debt itself. Since 2008, government debt has increased in almost all advanced countries as a ratio to GDP.
In the US total government debt has increased from 92 to 125%, in the UK from 63 to 114%, in Japan from 184 to 246%, in Australia from 34 to 65%, and even in relatively austere Germany from 68 to 82%. The combination of rising government debt and booming asset prices (stocks and housing) financed by monetary stimulus is dangerous.
We have seen through the global financial crisis the devastating effects of a collapse in asset prices on the economy, especially on economies with debts whether held by the private or public sector. Indeed it’s this memory that is surely one of the factors currently holding back spending by households and firms.
In this environment, it would be reckless of governments to embark on major fiscal stimulus that raises their debt levels further. The IMF’s model does not take account of the risk of an asset price collapse in a world of high debt and the effect this has on private sector spending.
It needs to be said that the IMF’s model is essentially the same type of model that it uses to forecast GDP growth of countries and which The Economist found had an appalling record of inaccuracy. The Economist team took a sample of 220 instances from 1999 to 2014 where a country went from growth in one year to recession in the next, and found that the IMF had never once predicted the looming recession in its April forecasts of the previous year.
There is at least one prescription to the world’s low growth problem that governments have not yet tried. That is to do precisely nothing – stop digging. We may even discover things about the economy’s restorative powers that we didn’t know, or had forgotten.
A related idea is to actively unwind government intervention where evidence suggests it is not working. It is easy to dismiss such prescriptions as the old-hat 1990s deregulation agenda.
But that was a period of great prosperity in Australia and elsewhere. In any case it’s not about deregulation, but more like what David Cameron in the UK called “better regulation” which was enabled through the Deregulation Act 2015. It is worth noting that growth in the UK has been the strongest in Europe in recent years.
Back to home, the Reserve Bank of Australia should keep its power dry when it meets today and hold its official interest rate steady at 1.5%. And so it should for some time to come.
The Australian government should do the same and not be seduced by the siren call from the IMF and others to spend up big on infrastructure.