Better to take a short term hit

In: Uncategorized

6 Jul 2009

The following comment by me appeared in the latest Fund Strategy (6 July).

Last week saw the publication of some of the scariest numbers so far in this recession. Britain suffered its worst quarterly fall in GDP since 1958: a year when Harold Macmillan was prime minister and the Soviet Union was launching Sputnik satellites into space. The 2.4% fall in the first quarter of 2009 was equivalent to about 10% at an annual rate.

In America the unemployment rate hit its highest level since 1983: when the American embassy in Beirut was bombed and Michael Jackson first performed the “Moonwalk”. Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, has estimated America has lost 6.5m jobs since the start of this recession.

To make matters worse Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of the state of California, declared a state of fiscal emergency in his state. The fiscal plight of the American states adds to the ballooning of federal debt discussed in this week’s cover story.

Under such circumstances it is not surprising that Stuart Thomson, the economist at Ignis, talks of a “WWW recovery”. He is not referring to the internet but to the pattern of apparent recovery followed by a decline back into the mire.

After nine months of severe pain it should be apparent to all that the recovery, when it comes, will not be easy. The economies of the developed world are in a dire state.

With the benefit of hindsight it would have been better to take some pain in the short term, rather than the sustained torture by a thousand cuts. For example, letting some large banks and auto makers go under would no doubt have been unpleasant. But if the destruction of old business helped pave the way for the generation of new ones, the longer-term effect could be beneficial.

Of course, it makes sense to minimise the extent of human suffering. Those who lose their jobs should, as far as possible, get help in finding work in new or expanding economic sectors.

In any case, the current recession is hardly painless. As Greg Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, points out in his blog the level of American unemployment now is much higher than the Obama administration forecasted in January. This is despite its huge stimulus plan.?Better to take misery in the short run than face a protracted period of unpleasantness.