How Economists Can Misunderstand The Crisis. “On Wednesday last week, yields on 10-year US Treasuries – generally seen as the benchmark for long-term interest rates – rose above 3.73 per cent. Once upon a time that would have been considered rather low. But the financial crisis has changed all that: at the end of last year, the yield on the 10-year fell to 2.06 per cent. In other words, long-term rates have risen by 167 basis points in the space of five months. In relative terms, that represents an 81 per cent jump. Most commentators were unnerved by this development, coinciding as it did with warnings about the fiscal health of the US. For me, however, it was good news. For it settled a rather public argument between me and the Princeton economist Paul Krugman.”
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Of course, Mr Krugman knew what I meant. “The only thing that might drive up interest rates,” he acknowledged during our debate, “is that people may grow dubious about the financial solvency of governments.” Might? May? The fact is that people – not least the Chinese government – are already distinctly dubious. They understand that US fiscal policy implies big purchases of government bonds by the Fed this year, since neither foreign nor private domestic purchases will suffice to fund the deficit. This policy is known as printing money and it is what many governments tried in the 1970s, with inflationary consequences you do not need to be a historian to recall.
No doubt there are powerful deflationary headwinds blowing in the other direction today. There is surplus capacity in world manufacturing. But the price of key commodities has surged since February. Monetary expansion in the US, where M2 is growing at an annual rate of 9 per cent, well above its post-1960 average, seems likely to lead to inflation if not this year, then next. In the words of the Chinese central bank’s latest quarterly report: “A policy mistake ... may bring inflation risks to the whole world.”
The policy mistake has already been made – to adopt the fiscal policy of a world war to fight a recession. In the absence of credible commitments to end the chronic US structural deficit, there will be further upward pressure on interest rates, despite the glut of global savings. It was Keynes who noted that “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist”. Today the long-dead economist is Keynes, and it is professors of economics, not practical men, who are in thrall to his ideas.
The writer is Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University and author of The Ascent of Money (Penguin)