You can rely on Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1983-89, to go against the conventional wisdom (see his views on climate change here and here, for example). He’s certainly not a member of the “we’re all Keynesians now” group. In today’s FT he argues that monetary policy is the key tool, not fiscal stimulus. Keynes was wrong:
“Britain … recovered faster than any other major nation from the 1930s slump. It did so largely on the basis of cheap money and a balanced budget. Between the slump’s deepest point, in 1932, and 1937 the UK economy grew at an unprecedented 4½ per cent a year. Nor was this due to rearmament spending, which did not start until 1936”.
I await the comments of economic historians on his reading of the 1930s. For the moment let me focus on his central message.
Lawson argues that recapitalizing the banks is the priority. Certainly, deleveraging by the banks has been huge. Nobody can deny that the economy can’t move again until the banks are sorted out. They are the achilles heel of the battered Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism. Today Citgroup got a $300 bn bailout.
But is this enough? It won’t be if deflation sets in. Then the real value of debt will rise, which will punish Britain’s already highly indebted households. Once deflationary expectations take hold, they are very difficult to shift as Japan in the 1990s demonstrated. Then monetary policy becomes next to useless: interest rates cannot be cut below zero.
Not using fiscal policy to stimulate consumer spending is therefore enormously risky. For sure, consumers might save rather than spend (see my previous post). And Britain will face a big tax bill (after the next election). The gilts market might take fright, but for now they are buying (few want equities).
Back to the lessons Lawson draws from the 1930s: if Britain was to revert to a balanced budget then it would have to cut public spending in a recession rather than raise it. This would have its own deflationary effect which, as economic activity fell, would reduce the tax base – thereby requiring a further expenditure cut to maintain a balanced budget. This is not a recipe for achieving economic recovery.
So, Nigel Lawson’s defiance of the Keynesian consensus is brave, but wrong. His recommendation is too risky. The same goes for doing nothing about climate change (on the latter: go here for a debate between Lawson and Oliver Letwin).
Tony Addison is Executive Director of the Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester.