"When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues"

( JM Keynes, "Economic Possibilities for our Granchildren" 1930 )

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Will 2011 turn into 1938?

" History Does Not Repeat Itself, But. It Sure Does Rhyme"(Mark Twain)

This is not an exercise in mathematics, it´s about Economics and History. Western governments have lately adopted serious measures aimed to reduce the growing deficit of their public accounts. The list is impressing: The governments of Greece, UK, Spain Italy, Portugal Germany and other countries decided to reduce costs and impose austerity measures expected to inflict a serious ( and additional ) economic stress on their ( more modest ) citizens. Just for the record, alternative or complementary measures as increasing the tax burden (which affects the more affluent classes) or improving the tax collection system are inexistent or of secondary nature.

Such measures can be justified only if that their expected benefits exceed the negative impacts of such measures on the economy. Put it in other words the hidden assumption is that economy is already on “the right track” so the demand of public sector is less crucial than before. However, the propagandist effort pointing on the imminent “recovery” (Green Shots, “We saved the world “ and so on) relies upon a not very solid ground : GDP growth figures are still fragile, interest rates extremely low and unemployment rates high. My claim is that such policies the wrong cure for the wrong disease and they could easily exacerbate the economic recession we are still suffering.

That debate resembles the situation along the mid 30 when the Great Depression was still around but growing pressures for “balanced budget” forced the US administration to cut expenses. True, history does not repeat itself, but it definitively “rhymes”, so the lesson in that case could be interesting.

From the Wikipedia
"The Recession of 1937–1938, sometimes called the Roosevelt Recession, was a temporary reversal of the pre-war 1933 to 1941 economic recovery from the Great Depression in the United States. Economists disagree about the causes of this downturn. Keynesian economists tend to assign blame to cuts in Federal spending and increases in taxes at the insistence of the US Treasury while monetarists, most notably Milton Friedman tended to assign blame to the Federal Reserve's tightening of the money supply in 1936 and 1937".
“…….. In June 1937, some of Roosevelt's advisors urged spending cuts to balance the budget. WPA rolls were drastically cut and PWA projects were slowed to a standstill.
The Results ….
"...The American economy took a sharp downturn in mid-1937, lasting for 13 months through most of 1938. Industrial production declined almost 30 per cent and production of durable goods fell even faster”. Unemployment jumped from 14.3% in 1937 to 19.0% in 1938, rising from 5 million to more than 12 million in early 1938.Manufacturing output fell by 37% from the 1937 peak and was back to 1934 levels. Producers reduced their expenditures on durable goods, and inventories declined, but personal income was only 15% lower than it had been at the peak in 1937. In most sectors, hourly earnings continued to rise throughout the recession, which partly compensated for the reduction in the number of hours worked. As unemployment rose, consumers' expenditures declined, leading to further cutbacks in production".

A few Graphs for illustration

2011 = 1938¿

As can be noticed, the 1937 brilliant cut ( it was a cut, not an increase of taxes) wiped out 2 years of unemployment reduction bringing back the figure to the 20% area. The figures beyond 1939 are irrelevant as the mobilization following the outbreak of WWII changed the rules of the game.

The risks of repeating 1937 1938 experiences are high which means social, economic and political devastating consequences. If history can teach us something, how can we explain the risk approach of policy makers? Given the timing and the nature of these measures, I cannot escape the thought that political decision makers are disproportionally prone to respond to any short term oscillations of financial markets. Personal interest? Class interest? Lack of intellectual skills? Opportunism? Just name it. An honest leadership with a longer run and civic perspective, and even with some “historic” touch would probably adopt a more human and economic measures.

Let us hope that 2011 does not turn into 1938, as the real risk is that 2012 would turn into1939.

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