Do you believe in the invisible
bond vigilante and the confidence fairy?:
Austerity, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...For the last few
months, I and others have watched, with amazement and horror, the emergence of a
consensus in policy circles in favor of immediate fiscal austerity. That is,
somehow it has become conventional wisdom that now is the time to slash
spending, despite the fact that the world’s major economies remain deeply
This conventional wisdom isn’t based on either evidence or careful analysis.
Instead, it rests ... on belief in what I’ve come to think of as the invisible
bond vigilante and the confidence fairy.
Bond vigilantes are investors who pull the plug on governments they perceive as
unable or unwilling to pay their debts. Now there’s no question that countries
can suffer crises of confidence (see Greece, debt of). But what the advocates of
austerity claim is that (a) the bond vigilantes are about to attack America, and
(b) spending anything more on stimulus will set them off.
What reason do we have to believe that any of this is true? Yes, America has
long-run budget problems, but what we do on stimulus over the next couple of
years has almost no bearing on our ability to deal with these long-run problems.
Nonetheless, every few months we’re told that the bond vigilantes have arrived,
and we must impose austerity now now now to appease them. Three months ago, a
slight uptick in long-term interest rates was greeted with near hysteria: “Debt
Fears Send Rates Up,” was the headline at The Wall Street Journal, although
there was no actual evidence of such fears, and Alan Greenspan pronounced the
rise a “canary in the mine.”
Since then, long-term rates have plunged again. Far from fleeing U.S. government
debt, investors evidently see it as their safest bet in a stumbling economy. Yet
the advocates of austerity still assure us that bond vigilantes will attack any
day now if we don’t slash spending immediately.
But don’t worry: spending cuts may hurt, but the confidence fairy will take away
the pain. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is
incorrect,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet,.. president of the European Central
Bank... Why? Because “confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper
What’s the evidence for the belief that fiscal contraction is actually
expansionary, because it improves confidence? (By the way, this is precisely the
doctrine expounded by Herbert Hoover in 1932.) Well, there have been historical
cases of spending cuts and tax increases followed by economic growth. But ...
every one of those examples proves ... to be a case in which the negative
effects of austerity were offset by other factors, factors not likely to be
relevant today. ...
And current examples of austerity are anything but encouraging. Ireland has been
a good soldier..., grimly implementing savage spending cuts. Its reward has been
a Depression-level slump — and financial markets continue to treat it as a
serious default risk. Other good soldiers, like Latvia and Estonia, have done
even worse — and all three nations have, believe it or not, had worse slumps ...
than Iceland, which was forced by the sheer scale of its financial crisis to
adopt less orthodox policies.
So the next time you hear serious-sounding people explaining the need for fiscal
austerity, try to parse their argument. Almost surely, you’ll discover that what
sounds like hardheaded realism actually rests on a foundation of fantasy, on the
belief that invisible vigilantes will punish us if we’re bad and the confidence
fairy will reward us if we’re good. And real-world policy — policy that will
blight the lives of millions of working families — is being built on that
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 2, 2010 at 12:24 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Fiscal Policy, Unemployment |