Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Economics:  The Hangover

But for a truly grim picture, read a new report on deleveraging by the McKinsey Global Institute. It points out that in many rich countries the process of debt reduction hasn't even started. America has begun to pare its debt burden, although the drop is small compared with the build-up in 2000-08 (see chart). But many European countries are more, not less, in hock than they were in 2008. There the hangover could last another decade or more.
The McKinsey report pores over two episodes that it considers most relevant for today: the experiences of Sweden and Finland following their banking busts in the early 1990s. Debt reduction took place in two stages. In stage one, the private sector reduces its debts; the economy is weak and public debt soars. In stage two, growth recovers and the longer-term process of reducing government debt begins. In both these cases growth was buoyed by booming exports, a boon that seems unlikely this time. But it is telling that Sweden did not begin its budget-cutting until the economy had recovered; and that when Finland tried an early bout of austerity, this worsened its recession.

The McKinsey analysts carefully avoid suggesting this means Europe's austerity is misguided. Circumstances today are different, they argue: European governments began with higher debt and deficits, leaving them with less room for manoeuvre. But the message is clear: America is closer to Sweden's successful template than Europe is. Debt reduction is very difficult without economic growth, and the scale of Europe's austerity makes it hard to see where that growth will come from.

That's all the more true because Europe's governments have been remarkably timid, compared with the Nordics, in exploiting another avenue to growth—structural reform. The report underscores just how dramatically Sweden and Finland overhauled their economies in the wake of their debt crises. Banks were nationalised and restructured; whole sectors, such as retailing, were deregulated. Thanks to a slew of efficiency-enhancing reforms, productivity soared and investment boomed.

For more, see The Hangover, January 21, 2012 at The Economist.

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