Krugman dabbles in Austrian theory

Needless to say, he doesn’t do so consciously nor does he show any signs of having learned the relevant empirical lessons. But in this particular situation, he is correct in placing the blame for the present Irish debacle on a credit bubble and in recommending the right economic policy:

The Irish story began with a genuine economic miracle. But eventually this gave way to a speculative frenzy driven by runaway banks and real estate developers, all in a cozy relationship with leading politicians. The frenzy was financed with huge borrowing on the part of Irish banks, largely from banks in other European nations.

Then the bubble burst, and those banks faced huge losses. You might have expected those who lent money to the banks to share in the losses. After all, they were consenting adults, and if they failed to understand the risks they were taking that was nobody’s fault but their own. But, no, the Irish government stepped in to guarantee the banks’ debt, turning private losses into public obligations….

In early 2009, a joke was making the rounds: “What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland? Answer: One letter and about six months.” This was supposed to be gallows humor. No matter how bad the Irish situation, it couldn’t be compared with the utter disaster that was Iceland.

But at this point Iceland seems, if anything, to be doing better than its near-namesake. Its economic slump was no deeper than Ireland’s, its job losses were less severe and it seems better positioned for recovery. In fact, investors now appear to consider Iceland’s debt safer than Ireland’s. How is that possible?

Part of the answer is that Iceland let foreign lenders to its runaway banks pay the price of their poor judgment, rather than putting its own taxpayers on the line to guarantee bad private debts. As the International Monetary Fund notes — approvingly! — “private sector bankruptcies have led to a marked decline in external debt.”

Where Krugman goes awry is in stating that the Irish are “bearing a burden much larger than the debt — because those spending cuts have caused a severe recession so that in addition to taking on the banks’ debts, the Irish are suffering from plunging incomes and high unemployment.”

It’s not the spending cuts that have caused the severe recession, it is the debt-deflation that inevitably followed the end of the credit bubble that caused it. And while Krugman is correct to note that the Keynesian solution to “restore confidence” is not working, he doesn’t realize that is because it is irrelevant and cannot work. He does, however, recognize that his usual recommendation of currency devaluation (printing away the debt) is not an option due to the financial straightjacket imposed by the Euro, which leaves the correct option of the Irish government defaulting on the bank debts, which is exactly what Austrian theory dictates should have been done in the first place.

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