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Governments Moving to Cut Spending, in Echo of 1930s

David Leonhardt|The New York Times
Wednesday, 30 Jun 2010 | 12:34 PM ET

The world’s rich countries are now conducting a dangerous experiment. They are repeating an economic policy out of the 1930s — starting to cut spending and raise taxes before a recovery is assured — and hoping today’s situation is different enough to assure a different outcome.

In effect, policy makers are betting that the private sector can make up for the withdrawal of stimulus over the next couple of years. If they’re right, they will have made a head start on closing their enormous budget deficits. If they’re wrong, they may set off a vicious new cycle, in which public spending cuts weaken the world economy and beget new private spending cuts.

On Tuesday, pessimism seemed the better bet. Stocks fell around the world, over worries about economic growth.

Longer term, though, it’s still impossible to know which prediction will turn out to be right. You can find good evidence to support either one.

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The private sector in many rich countries has continued to grow at a fairly good clip in recent months. In the United States, wages, total hours worked, industrial production and corporate profits have all risen significantly. And unlike in the 1930s, developing countries are now big enough that their growth can lift other countries’ economies.

On the other hand, the most recent economic numbers have offered some reason for worry, and the coming fiscal tightening in this country won’t be much smaller than the 1930s version. From 1936 to 1938, when the Roosevelt administration believed that the Great Depression was largely over, tax increases and spending declines combined to equal 5 percent of gross domestic product.

Back then, however, European governments were raising their spending in the run-up to World War II. This time, almost the entire world will be withdrawing its stimulus at once. From 2009 to 2011, the tightening in the United States will equal 4.6 percent of G.D.P., according to the International Monetary Fund. In Britain, even before taking into account the recently announced budget cuts, it was set to equal 2.5 percent. Worldwide, it will equal a little more than 2 percent of total output.

Today, no wealthy country is an obvious candidate to be the world’s growth engine, and the simultaneous moves have the potential to unnerve consumers, businesses and investors, says Adam Posen, an American expert on financial crises now working for the Bank of England. “The world may be making a mistake, and it may turn out to make things worse rather than better,” Mr. Posen said.

But he added — after mentioning China, India and the relative health of the financial system, today versus the 1930s — that, “The chances we’re going to come out of this O.K. are still larger than the chances that we aren’t.”

The policy mistakes of the 1930s stemmed mostly from ignorance. John Maynard Keynes was still a practicing economist in those days, and his central insight about depressions — that governments need to spend when the private sector isn’t — was not widely understood. In the 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed to outdo Herbert Hoover by balancing the budget. Much of Europe was also tightening at the time.

If anything, the initial stages of our own recent crisis were more severe than the Great Depression. Global trade, industrial production and stocks all dropped more in 2008-9 than in 1929-30, as a study by Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke found.

In 2008, though, policy makers in most countries knew to act aggressively. The Federal Reserve and other central banks flooded the world with cheap money. The United States, China, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Europe, increased spending and cut taxes.

It worked. By early last year, within six months of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, economies were starting to recover.

Stimulus vs. Austerity
Discussing whether the administration should spend or cut back to revive the economy, with CNBC's Steve Liesman and Richard Dekaser, Woodley Park Research.

The recovery has continued this year, and it has the potential to create a virtuous cycle. Higher profits and incomes can lead to more spending — and yet higher profits and incomes. Government stimulus, in that case, would no longer be necessary.

An internal memo from White House economists to other senior aides last week noted that policy makers “necessarily tend to focus on the impediments to recovery.” But, the memo argued, the economy’s strengths, like exports and manufacturing, “more than make up for continued areas of weakness, like housing and commercial real estate.”

That optimistic take, however, is more debatable today than it would have been a month or two ago.

As is often the case after a financial crisis, this recovery is turning out to be a choppy one. Companies kept increasing pay and hours last month, for example, but did little new hiring. On Tuesday, the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence fell sharply this month.

And just as households and businesses are becoming skittish, governments are getting ready to let stimulus programs expire, the equivalent of cutting spending and raising taxes. The Senate has so far refused to pass a bill that would extend unemployment insurance or send aid to ailing state governments. Goldman Sachs economists this week described the Senate’s inaction as “an increasingly important risk to growth.”

The parallels to 1937 are not reassuring. From 1933 to 1937, the United States economy expanded more than 40 percent, even surpassing its 1929 high. But the recovery was still not durable enough to survive Roosevelt’s spending cuts and new Social Security tax. In 1938, the economy shrank 3.4 percent, and unemployment spiked.

Given this history, why would policy makers want to put on another fiscal hair shirt today?

The reasons vary by country. Greece has no choice. It is out of money, and the markets will not lend to it at a reasonable rate. Several other countries are worried — not ludicrously — that financial markets may turn on them, too, if they delay deficit reduction. Spain falls into this category, and even Britain may.

Then there are the countries that still have the cash or borrowing ability to push for more growth, like the United States, Germany and China, which happen to be three of the world’s biggest economies. Yet they are also reluctant.

China, until recently at least, has been worried about its housing market overheating. Germany has long been afraid of stimulus, because of inflation’s role in the Nazis’ political rise. In responding to the recent financial crisis, Europe, led by Germany, was much more timid than the United States, which is one reason the European economy is in worse shape today.

The reasons for the new American austerity are subtler, but not shocking. Our economy remains in rough shape, by any measure. So it’s easy to confuse its condition (bad) with its direction (better) and to lose sight of how much worse it could be. The unyielding criticism from those who opposed stimulus from the get-go — laissez-faire economists, Congressional Republicans, German leaders — plays a role, too. They’re able to shout louder than the data.

Finally, the idea that the world’s rich countries need to cut spending and raise taxes has a lot of truth to it. The United States, Europe and Japan have all made promises they cannot afford. Eventually, something needs to change.

In an ideal world, countries would pair more short-term spending and tax cuts with long-term spending cuts and tax increases. But not a single big country has figured out, politically, how to do that.

Instead, we are left to hope that we have absorbed just enough of the 1930s lesson.

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