European Central Bank executive member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi outlined the fiscal and monetary constraints facing EU states at the Group of 30 conference in Rabat. In it he warns of a US of future crisis, and perhaps controversially denounces Keynesianism as inappropriate. European states can’t rely on inflation to reduce their debts, fiscal austerity is the only course available to them, but Americans may be deluding themselves that they will be able to impose an ‘inflation tax’ on investors in US debt. Modern investors are too sophisticated Smaghi thinks.
On Keynes –
In the aftermath of the Lehman failure, governments around the world seemed to rediscover Keynes. They injected huge amounts of borrowed money – public funds – to stabilise the economy after the shock of the Lehman failure. These policies worked, and averted a global depression. The success of those policies has led governments – encouraged by international organisations – to continue using expansionary fiscal policies to try pulling the economy out of the recession and getting it back to the pre-crisis level.
The strategy is based on a model which may turn out to be inappropriate in the current conjuncture. Let me discuss some of the underlying assumptions of the model. First, the initial fiscal impulse was successful in avoiding a depression because it helped to coordinate agents’ expectations, in the Keynesian or Knightian way of reducing uncertainty, thereby avoiding a vicious circle of recession and deflation. The direct impact on domestic demand may have been more modest, as shown in countries where the size of the fiscal stimulus was more contained but nevertheless fared equally well. Second, potential growth might have been severely affected by the crisis. As a result, the pre-crisis level of output, achieved in a bubble economy, would not represent a sustainable objective over the policy-relevant horizon. Third, the level achieved by the public debt in many countries may have impaired the effectiveness of further expansionary fiscal policy.
To sum up, while the fiscal expansion was successful immediately after the Lehman crisis, it may not be sustainable over time and may have to be corrected rapidly. Financial markets seem to be giving increasing attention to this hypothesis. And they have started to test it.
On fiscal consolidation –
Let me conclude. What we are currently experiencing is a crisis of public finances in advanced economies. It started with Greece, and the euro, because of the specific institutional framework which prevents Greece and the other euro area countries from using the inflation tax to overcome their budgetary problems. This will force euro area countries to address their fiscal positions earlier. It’s not easy. But it will be done, because it can be done and it has to be done in any case. And, last but not least, because there are no alternatives.