So Much for the Claim That We Will Make Different Mistakes from Those Made During the Great Depression
Stephen Gordon: Stimulus? What Stimulus?

Martin Wolf contra the Pain Caucus

By my lights Martin Wolf is, of course, completely correct:

Martin Wolf - Fear must not blind us to deflation’s dangers: A consensus is forming that policymakers should tighten fiscal policy, sharply, in countries with large fiscal deficits. Yet what makes these policymakers sure that business and consumers will spend in response to austerity? What if they find that it tips economies into recession, or even deflation? In last weekend’s communiqué of the Group of 20 leading economies, finance ministers and central bank governors stated that “countries with serious fiscal challenges need to accelerate the pace of consolidation”.Yet the world economy confronts two risks, not one: the first is, indeed, that much of the developed world is going to be Greece; the second is that it will be Japan.

As Adam Posen, outside member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, pointed out in a recent speech, fiscal contraction, along with persistent banking problems and insufficiently loose monetary policy, generated the negative shock in 1997 that entrenched deflation in Japan.* Many economic historians argue that the US made a similar mistake in 1937. How, I wonder, will the world look back on what is now being planned? Germany’s commitment to greater fiscal austerity across the eurozone is powerful, if hardly surprising. Judged by the UK prime minister’s speech on Monday, the UK is on the same path. Happily, the US has not joined the consensus – as yet. Japan is stuck firmly in deflation. Germany’s most recent rate of annual core inflation was just 0.3 per cent. In the US, core inflation is 0.9 per cent. Another economic shock could shift these economies into deflation, with all the attendant difficulties of trying to make monetary policy bite in a world of post-bubble deleveraging....

[W]hat would a big tightening of fiscal policy deliver? In the absence of effective monetary policy offsets, one would expect aggregate demand to weaken, possibly sharply.... [B]ut what about the risks of a Greek-style meltdown? A year ago, I argued – in response to a vigorous public debate between the Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson, and the Nobel-laureate economist, Paul Krugman – that the rapid rise in US long-term interest rates was no more than a return to normal, after the panic. Subsequent developments strongly support this argument. US government 10-year bond rates are a mere 3.2 per cent, down from 3.9 per cent on June 10 2009, Germany’s are 2.6 per cent, France’s 3 per cent and even the UK’s only 3.4 per cent. German rates are now where Japan’s were in early 1997, during the long slide from 7.9 per cent in 1990 to just above 1 per cent today. What about default risk? Markets seem to view that as close to zero.... The question is whether such confidence will last. My guess – there is no certainty here – is that the US is more likely to be able to borrow for a long time, like Japan, than to be shut out of markets, like Greece, with the UK in-between....

Critics could argue that these arguments downplay the risks of a “sudden stop” in financial markets. But risks arise on both sides. When Japan – or Canada or Sweden – tightened in the 1990s, a buoyant world economy could absorb excess domestic supply. There is no world economy big enough to offset renewed contraction in Europe and the US.... Premature fiscal tightening is, warns experience, as big a danger as delayed tightening would be. There are no certainties here. The world economy – or at least that of the advanced countries – remains disturbingly fragile. Only those who believe the economy is a morality play, in which those they deem wicked should suffer punishment, would enjoy that painful result.