Why most economic forecasts have been so wrong in recent years

In its recent six-monthly World Economic Outlook report, the IMF included a section examining why it, and just about all other economic forecasters, had been consistently too optimistic in its forecasts of economic growth over the last three years. This has been particularly painful for those governments undergoing austerity programmes, where the shortfall in growth relative to forecasts has meant larger deficits and the need for further austerity programmes.

The very clear conclusion is that their estimates of the fiscal policy multipliers have been far too low. The fiscal policy multiplier measures the degree to which the economy is impacted by a change in fiscal policy (either a tightening of policy created by raising taxes or cutting spending, or an easing of policy created by cutting taxes or boosting spending). For the 30 years up to 2007, economists had identified this multiplier to have a value of about 0.5, so that a fiscal tightening equivalent to 1% of GDP, could be expected to reduce the growth rate of the economy as a whole by about 0.5%. However since 2008 this previously stable relationship has changed and the multipliers now appear to range between 0.9 and 1.7. Further, it was  those economies which underwent greater austerity which saw the higher multipliers on final economic demand.

For the UK, this is unfortunate news for Mr Osborne, since this is exactly what his Labour opponent, Mr Balls, has been saying for some time. It means that the steady approach to austerity at about a 1% rate of tightening per annum, that he adopted is having a greater effect on the overall economic growth than he envisaged.

The higher multipliers identified where there is greater austerity is probably due to an economic confidence effect, as the deep cuts in government spending and large increases in taxes will lead everyone to believe that recession is imminent and thus curtail their spending immediately. For Greece, Spain and Portugal this goes some way to understanding why their previous austerity plans have not worked – those who are bailing them out have demanded that they get their fiscal houses in order in a short space of time and this has resulted in even weaker economies and larger than expected budget deficits.

At the same time as the fiscal policy multipliers have risen, so the monetary policy multipliers appear to have fallen. Cutting interest rates from 6% to 5% has a far more dramatic effect on the economy than cutting the from 1% to 0% and Quantitative Easing policies are generally agreed to work best the first time they are used and have less effect with each repeated use. Keynes is often attributed with describing such policies as “pushing on a string”. Central Banks are now having to make significant monetary policy changes to have any effect on the economy.

So the world finds itself in a real policy bind. The area of policy being tightened (fiscal) is working too effectively on growth, and the area of policy being eased (monetary) is not working at all effectively on growth. This approach does help to provide an understanding of why economic growth is consistently disappointing the economic forecasters. The policy implications are at odds with conventional wisdom – governments should adopt a slow but sure approach to austerity, and a more effective form of Quantitative Easing needs to be adopted with the concept of the Modern Debt Jubilee (espoused here), appearing to be an increasingly interesting idea.

A layman’s guide to Quantitative Easing

Until very recently, Central Banks generally conducted their monetary policy through changing their key reference interest rate, which was generally the rate at which they would lend to the commercial banks on a short term basis supported by acceptable collateral. Thus the economy was regulated by changing the price of money. Theoretically, by increasing the rate of interest in the economy, the desire to borrow and spend would be reduced and the desire to save would be increased, and economic growth and inflation should fall back. Conversely, reducing interest rates should help to boost economic growth. It is generally accepted by monetary economists that the impact of changing interest rates takes between one and two years to have its full effects on the economy.

However in late 2008, the shock to the global economy from the financial crash that most Central Banks cut interest rates to the lowest practical levels (somewhere between zero and 1%, depending on the system), but still felt that they needed to ease policy further to offset the strong recessionary forces that were being experienced.

Thus, they turned from easing through changing the price of money in the economy to easing through changing the quantity of money in the economy (hence the rather ugly term “Quantitative Easing” (“QE”)). The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England began their QE programmes in April 2009, but in fact the Bank of Japan had been engaging in QE policies since 2003, its rates having reached zero in the previous global downturn.

Until this century, QE had only ever been seen as a theoretical tool in the Central Banker’s arsenal. It was a lesson that some (most notably Ben Bernanke) learned from the Great Depression, where once interest rates reached a low point, the Central Banks felt that there was nothing else they could do. There is thus no history or experience to examine to determine if it works or how it works. The current policy is therefore a live economic experiment.

The manner in which Central Banks have indicated they expect QE to work is as follows. The Central Bank goes into the financial markets and buys securities, typically government bonds, although the Federal Reserve has also bought mortgage-backed securities, and the Bank of Japan has also bought equities and REITs. To finance this they create the money (digitally) and use it to pay the seller of the security (typically a bank). The bank’s assets now consist of more cash and less securities. Typically the income return on the cash will be lower than the income return on the securities they have just sold, and so they have a decision to make. They could choose (i) to maintain the lower income stream, because they might have a great need for liquidity, (ii) to go back into the securities markets and buy some other securities to maintain their income, or (iii) increase their lending to companies or households. Choosing (i) has no impact on the real economy and choosing (iii) clearly has a major impact because it is helping directly to boost demand and spending in the economy.

In practice, what has happened is that banks have chosen (ii), and have sought to maintain their income stream by investing in higher-risk securities. Thus yields have fallen first on government bonds, then on investment-grade corporate bonds and finally on high-yield bonds. This then gives companies the opportunity to borrow at lower rates of interest in the financial markets, which could be used to fund investment. QE, to date, has been a policy that has clearly supported financial markets – it is difficult to see a direct effect on bank lending and economic growth, but it is likely (and claimed by the Central Banks) that economic growth would have been much weaker without QE.

There are some problems with continued applications of QE. Firstly, it is generally believed by economists that QE policies have less impact as they are repeated. Since it is such an unusual policy, the first time it is deployed it has a shock effect, but later iterations do not as the financial system adapts its behaviour to the policy. Secondly, the liquidity of the underlying financial markets may be damaged. For example, the Bank of England now owns more than one-third of all gilts outstanding, and has no current plans to sell them, so the level of liquidity in the gilt market has been reduced by the policy.

The great fear that many commentators have about QE is that by creating more and more money in the financial system without greater economic output, the end result must inevitably be higher prices. In fact higher expected inflation is one of the objectives of the policy, since if people expect higher prices in the future it is rational to buy things now before they rise in price, and so boost demand in the economy today. The response of the Central Bankers would be to say that QE is a reversible policy, and the bonds that they have purchased, can very easily be sold back into the financial markets, so reducing the excess liquidity in the system, and the inflationary threat.

To date, a more realistic concern has been that there is no evidence anywhere in the world where QE has worked. It clearly has not brought Japan out of its long term stagnation, and so far neither the US or UK economies can be said to have recovered strongly. The reason for this is that the extra liquidity generated has remained within the financial system and not found its way into the real economy, and so boosted real demand. If the underlying causes of weak economic growth are that the banking system has overlent relative to its capital, that consumers feel their debt levels are too high, and both feel that they need to retrench (or in the jargon, deleverage their balance sheets), then the current policy of QE will not actually affect the desire to borrow or to lend.

A more radical policy option would be to print money and ensure that it was only used in ways that directly benefitted the consumer’s balance sheet. Thus £450 billion (only a little more than the total QE to date) could be used to give every adult in the country £10,000 to be used either to repay debt, or towards a deposit for the purchase of a first home or into a pension pot. By improving the savings to debt ratio of each adult in the country, the time at which they will once again feel happy to spend more will be brought forward.

Resurrecting the world’s first economic policy idea

The Old Testament gives specific instructions to the Israelites as to how they should organise their society. One of the most intriguing from a modern-day economist’s perspective is that of the Jubilee. Every 50th year, all debts between Israelites were to be wiped clean, all land returned to the families that owned it 50 years previously and slaves freed. In today’s parlance, it was pushing the Reset button and starting afresh. There is little evidence that the Israelites followed this revolutionary idea, most probably because those who would benefit most were the poor and downtrodden and those who would benefit least were the rich and powerful!

Recently some economists such as Stephen Green have been proposing the idea of a Modern Debt Jubilee (http://moderndebtjubilee.blogspot.co.uk/p/modern-debt-jubilee.html) as having merit for solving today’s economic problems. The world is currently experiencing a balance-sheet recession rather than a standard cyclical recession. This is where individuals, governments and especially banks believe themselves to be over-indebted and seek to reduce their liabilities (debts) – there is a much reduced desire both to borrow and to lend. This inhibits overall demand in the economy, leading to slower growth which in turn holds back confidence in companies who defer investment.

The policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) is the printing of money to make banks balance sheets more liquid and thus encourage them to lend once more. An alternative Modern Debt Jubilee policy would be to print money and use it to repay some of the debt outstanding which is inhibiting economic growth – so returning to the concept of Jubilee. For example the government could decide to give every adult in the country £10,000 in a special account, which could at first only be used for the repayment of their debts. In this way, individuals could repay their most expensive debts (typically consumer credit), and banks would become both more liquid and have smaller balance sheets. For those who do not have debts use of the money could be restricted to paying for tertiary education, for buying a home for them to live in or providing a pension – all of which can be regarded as personal long term investment.

At the cost of a large amount of money, £450bn for the UK – (compared with the £375 billion of QE so far approved by the Bank of England) this Modern Debt Jubilee policy would significantly reduce consumer debts, provide better-funded pensions and boost the amount of equity in people’s homes. Though the use of this money would be restricted to “worthy” areas, there would certainly be a consumer wealth effect both from consumers just feeling less indebted and from the boost to disposable income from reduced interest payments. Demand in the economy would pick up and if the Bank of England feared inflation then they could easily reverse the QE as banks would not need the extra liquidity as consumers repaid debts. A little inflation, however, would be rather welcome as it would break the economy out of the deflationary mindset that it has fallen into currently.

If we do need to print more money to boost the economy, then this idea is a far more powerful way of ensuring it happens than replacing government bonds with cash in the banks’ balance sheets, the current QE policy.

Jubilee – the oldest and least used economic policy idea in history is definitely worth considering today in a modern form. For those at the bottom end of the income distribution, it would rid them of debts that burden their lives thereby pushing the Reset button on their personal finances. For the middle classes it is a way of either ridding themselves of expensive debt or encouraging long term savings.