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How UK deficit hysteria began

Laura Basu has a good bookjust out on UK media coverage of events from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) until 2015, which I have reviewed for Open Democracy. Among other things, it tells the story of how what Mark Blyth callsthe ‘biggest bait and switch in history’ happened in the UK. Laura argues that it can be dated almost exactly to the Budget of April 2009.

That the right wing press would start talking about the horrors of the rising UK deficit is no surprise. Osborne had decided in the previous year to oppose the Labour government’s stimulus measures because he saw in the rising deficit a way to beat Labour. The puzzle is why a broadcast media, ever conscious of balance, pushed the same line, even though it was clearly advantageous to one side politically.

The following story is mine, not Laura’s. Before the GFC, the way that the broadcast media covered budgets had become quite formulaic. Each budget would present estimates of the deficit over the next five years, and with the help of the IFS commentators broadcasters would discuss not only what tax changes had been announced, but also what might be implicit in the projections. No doubt this framework suited journalists well, because it allowed easy analogies with households. If the IFS felt that the projections were over optimistic and therefore fiscal rules might be broken, they said so and that became one of the budget talking points. The state of the economy was hardly ever discussed, because the Bank of England seemed to be doing a pretty good job of keeping things stable.

That all changed with the GFC, when monetary policy ran out of reliable levers to manage the economy. However journalists wouldn’t know that from the Bank of England, who tended to talk as if Quantitative Easing was a close substitute to interest rates as a monetary policy instrument. They would know it from academic macroeconomists, but journalists were generally too busy to make the effort to talk to them. For whatever reason, they did not fully appreciate how much the world had changed as a result of the GFC.

So when in the budget of April 2009 the Treasury showed the full extent of the deficits that the recession (and to a smaller extent the government’s stimulus measures) had created, journalists behaved exactly as they would have done before the GFC. Compared to deficits seen before the financial crisis, the numbers were indeed large. But crucially, because the Treasury estimated that the GFC had reduced the trend level of GDP, fiscal savings were necessary as a result. When these took the form of efficiency savings, the IFS were rightly skeptical.

So the coveragewas all about higher taxes and lower spending, and whether they would be enough to close the record deficit. At no point in the subsequent discussiondoes anyone ask whether the current deficits are large enough to create a strong recovery. The growth forecasts are taken as given, and only their fiscal consequences are discussed, as if the former had nothing to do with the latter: an assumption that is only appropriate if monetary policy is in complete control of the economy. The government’s line that these deficits were necessary to ‘support’ the economy was almost entirely ignored.

Furthermore, the issue of whether the markets would purchase all this extra debt was already being raised. This is City speak, seeing a recession as involving more government debt and therefore perhaps higher rates, rather than understanding that the recession was caused by more saving and less borrowing so there would be plenty of new savings to buy the additional debt.

In other words the broadcasters had a framework for commenting on the budget which was appropriate before the financial crisis, but totally inappropriate after it. What they should have been asking is whether the Chancellor had done enough to ensure the recovery that was forecast, or whether perhaps larger deficits might be needed. In retrospect, that was exactly the right question to ask.

At the time, the reason for these deficits was clearly spelt out by the IFS as well as the Treasury. "The Treasury's assessment of the fiscal damage wrought by the current economic and financial crisis is breathtaking," said IFS director Robert Chote. "It will require two full parliaments of mounting austerity to repair." But in a telling indicator of things to come, the headline paragraph loses the bit about the GFC. As Laura’s book shows, it became so easy for a media prone to amnesia to forget about the financial crisis and blame everything on Labour profligacy, as after a time most voters began to believe. But the fundamental mistake was focusing on the deficit as a problem rather than as an instrument designed to produce a strong economy. The mistake came from the media’s inability to see how the GFC had changed the macroeconomic rules of the game.


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