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Down with Debt Weight

LONDON – Nearly four years after the start of the global financial crisis, many are wondering why economic recovery is taking so long. Indeed, its sluggishness has confounded even the experts. According to the International Monetary Fund, the world economy should have grown by 4.4% in 2011, and should grow by 4.5% in 2012. In fact, the latest figures from the World Bank indicate that growth reached just 2.7% in 2011, and will slow this year to 2.5% – a figure that may well need to be revised downwards.

There are two possible reasons for the discrepancy between forecast and outcome. Either the damage caused by the financial crisis was more serious than people realized, or the economic medicine prescribed was less efficacious than policymakers believed.

In fact, the gravity of the banking crisis was quickly grasped. Huge stimulus packages were implemented in 2008-9, led by the United States and China, coordinated by Britain, and with the reluctant support of Germany. Interest rates were slashed, insolvent banks were bailed out, the printing presses were turned on, taxes were cut, and public spending was boosted. Some countries devalued their currencies.

As a result, the slide was halted, and the rebound was faster than forecasters expected. But the stimulus measures transformed a banking crisis into a fiscal and sovereign-debt crisis. From 2010 onwards, governments started to raise taxes and cut spending in response to growing fears of sovereign default. At that point, the recovery went into reverse.