Niall Ferguson vs Paul Krugman

Niall Ferguson on the recent rise in long term interest rates and his dispute with Paul Krugman (via the FT):

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.

It is a brave or foolhardy man who picks a fight with Mr Krugman, the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics. Yet a cat may look at a king, and sometimes a historian can challenge an economist.

A month ago Mr Krugman and I sat on a panel convened in New York to discuss the financial crisis. I made the point that “the running of massive fiscal deficits in excess of 12 per cent of gross domestic product this year, and the issuance therefore of vast quantities of freshly-minted bonds” was likely to push long-term interest rates up, at a time when the Federal Reserve aims at keeping them down. I predicted a “painful tug-of-war between our monetary policy and our fiscal policy, as the markets realise just what a vast quantity of bonds are going to have to be absorbed by the financial system this year”.

De haut en bas came the patronising response: I belonged to a “Dark Age” of economics. It was “really sad” that my knowledge of the dismal science had not even got up to 1937 (the year after Keynes’s General Theory was published), much less its zenith in 2005 (the year Mr Krugman’s macro-economics textbook appeared). Did I not grasp that the key to the crisis was “a vast excess of desired savings over willing investment”? “We have a global savings glut,” explained Mr Krugman, “which is why there is, in fact, no upward pressure on interest rates.”

Now, I do not need lessons about the General Theory . But I think perhaps Mr Krugman would benefit from a refresher course about that work’s historical context. Having reissued his book The Return of Depression Economics, he clearly has an interest in representing the current crisis as a repeat of the 1930s. But it is not. US real GDP is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to fall by 2.8 per cent this year and to stagnate next year. This is a far cry from the early 1930s, when real output collapsed by 30 per cent. So far this is a big recession, comparable in scale with 1973-1975. Nor has globalisation collapsed the way it did in the 1930s.

Round 1 goes to Ferguson. Krugman and the other Keynesians will no doubt be surprised when inflation rears its ugly head as well. Not Ferguson:

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.

Its as if the Keyensians learned nothing from the 1970s. Well, it appears they’ll get another chance. Maybe this time we can bury Lord Keynes for good.

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