Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Up until now, Paul Krugman’s writings on the current economic crisis have always made sense to me. Not that I always agreed with him, but I understood the logic of what he was saying.

He has suddenly lost me. In a New York Times op-ed column on Sunday, he argues that, in a worst-case scenario, the US could become like Ireland: unable to stimulate its economy out of recession/depression because fiscal policy is constrained by the need to satisfy the government’s creditors. I understand why this is happening in Ireland. I don’t understand how it could happen in the US.

There are a couple of huge differences between the US and Ireland, macroeconomically speaking – differences which, to my mind, render the two nations not even remotely comparable, even under an extreme hypothetical scenario. First, the US is much larger than Ireland, a much larger part of the world economy and much more self-sufficient. Second, the US has its own currency, in which its debts are denominated. Paul Krugman, as much as anyone (if not more), must be aware of the implications of these differences; yet he writes as if they could be ignored.

If our debt-to-GDP ratio rises too high, Prof. Krugman suggests, “we might start facing our own problems with the bond market.” But what problems is he talking about? We surely won’t face the same problem that Ireland faces: namely, that, in order to get enough euros to run our government, we would have to offer high interest rates and engage in austere fiscal policies. We won’t have that problem because we don’t need any euros to run our government and never will. If international lenders lose confidence in the US, the result will be a decline in the value of the dollar, not (unless the Fed and the Treasury allow it to happen) an increase in the interest rate that the Treasury must pay.

We might worry about the declining value of the dollar if there were a problem with inflation in the US. But there’s not, and, as I argue in an earlier post, there isn’t likely to be any time soon. As it is, a decline in the value of the dollar would do for the US exactly what Ireland is unable to do for itself with fiscal policy: it would stimulate the economy and get us out of the recession.

Professor Krugman may disagree with the arguments I made in the earlier post, and he may think that inflationary recession could be a problem for the US. But in that hypothetical event, we’d be dealing with a very different problem than what Ireland is experiencing right now.

The closest analogy I can see would be between leaving the euro (in the case of Ireland) and inflating the dollar (in the case of the US). But the analogy isn’t a close one at all, since the former decision is discrete and nobody thinks it’s going to happen, whereas the latter is a continuum and there are varying opinions on the degree to which it might happen. And if this analogy is what Prof. Krugman has in mind, it seems to me that it is incumbent on him to make it explicit, since it’s hardly something that would be obvious to most readers.

I can imagine a worst-case scenario, one where all the arguments I made in my earlier post turn out to be wrong and the Fed ends up having to choose between serious inflation and serious depression, but that scenario doesn't remind me of what is happening in Ireland.

It’s also worth noting that a lot more has to go wrong in the US, as compared to Ireland, before the US gets to that worst case scenario. In the case of Ireland, it was the collapse of the banking system and the government’s lack of resources in reacting to that collapse (an outcome that Prof. Krugman fears for the US, should current policies prove ineffective). In the US that would just be the beginning. Before we reach the worst case scenario, (1) the rest of the world would have to decide that their sovereign investments are more important than their economic recoveries, so that they would refuse to support a collapsing dollar and instead accept a deterioration of trade with the US; (2) foreign producers would have to pass on most of their increased costs to the US (in contrast to what they did, for example, in the late 1980’s); (3) Americans, despite their newfound thrift, would have to accept most of those increased prices rather than substituting cheaper domestic goods; and (4) US producers would have to raise prices rapidly in spite of weak economic conditions, and keep raising prices despite weakening economic conditions. It’s not impossible, but personally it’s not something I spend much time worrying about.

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management.


Richard H. Serlin said...

Krugman clearly understands all of this. He's just using hyperbole here to try to help drive home points. His intentions, as always, are good, so I wouldn't be too hard on him.

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