May 23, 2018 / 12:27 PM / 2 years ago

COLUMN-Populism surge intensifies spotlight on economic, market orthodoxy: McGeever

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jamie McGeever

LONDON, May 23 (Reuters) - The leader of the free world is trash-talking globalisation and advocating trade tariffs, another president says inflation is caused by high interest rates, and the incoming government of a G7 country wants 250 billion euros of national debt written off.

From Donald Trump to Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan to an incoming populist coalition in Italy, challenges to the global economic and financial market orthodoxy of the past 40 years are coming thick and fast.

The global economy, financial and banking system have recovered a decade on from the financial crisis, but millions of people around the world still feel enfeebled, left behind, and poorer than they were before.

The populist backlash that has delivered ballot box shocks around the world in recent years attests to that deep and widespread sense of dissatisfaction and frustration, and should come as little surprise.

Still, the fact that many of the ‘idees fixes’ in economic policymaking that have underpinned markets for decades are being challenged so boldly is fascinating.

There’s always been intellectual opposition from the left to the forces underpinning the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ promoting globalization, independent central banks, flexible exchange and interest rates, mobile capital, private property rights, small government and fiscal discipline.

But for years a raft of left-leaning leaders, from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair and several others across Europe dared not question this orthodoxy far less try and tackle it, fearing it would be political suicide. Only now is the left starting to tentatively push back at the model, such as Britain’s opposition Labour Party under socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In fact, in elctoral terms, the war on the consensus is being most sucessfully waged by the populist right. Surprisingly, barring the odd hotspot like Turkey, market tremors have been remarkably light: world stocks are up 30 percent since the Brexit referendum two years ago, volatility is near record lows; and raising debt for most governments, firms and households is still historically cheap.

The term ‘Washington Consensus’ was coined by economist John Williamson in 1989, and refered to a package of policies that were supposed to rescue Latin American countries from economic and financial crises in the 1980s.

This canon was rooted in the laissez-faire economic policies of 1980’s U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which also included mass privatization of state-owned assets, deregulation of financial services, and income and corporate tax cuts.


The most obvious manifestation of the populist backlash is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has promised to slash the country’s trade deficit and revive manufacturing which he says has been decimated by “unfair” trade deals.

His solution is to rip up multilateral trade pacts such as TPP and NAFTA, slap tariffs on a wide range of imports, and seek a series of bilateral agreements that he says will be “fairer” for the United States.

Trump’s economic nationalism and hostile stance towards free global trade has inspired others to challenge existing orthodoxy in their own ways.

Brexit may not be avowedly against free trade per se, but it’s junked more than 40 years of Britain’s central economic orientation and its supporters dismiss multilateral and central banking economists as fearmongers. “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts,” said Conservative politician and leading Brexiteer Michael Gove.

Italy’s next government, the 66th since World War Two, looks set to be formed by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League.

Earlier this month it was revealed they had plans to demand 250 billion euros of debt forgiveness and create procedures to allow countries to exit the euro. Italian stocks and bonds tumbled, and the two parties have since rowed back.

But their spending plans still look set to put Italy on a collision course with the European Union over the breach of budget rules. Fiscal rectitude? Not so much.

“With an avowed ‘Italy first’ agenda, this means Trumpism has arrived in Europe.” Oxford Economics wrote on Monday.

In Turkey, meanwhile, questions are mounting over the independence of the country’s central bank and separation of monetary and fiscal policy, thanks to president Erdogan’s increasingly vocal interventions.

Earlier this month he said interest rates are “the mother and father of all evil,” and repeated his claim that inflation is a result of high, not low, interest rates: “The lower the interest rate is, the lower inflation will be.”

While Erdogan has crushed his domestic enemies, he is finding that taking on international financial markets with policies that defy economic orthodoxy is much tougher. Turkey’s lira has plunged to record lows - it’s down 20 percent against the dollar so far this year - and bond yields are soaring.

You won’t find these policies and remedies in the economic textbooks that have been the basis for free market ideology over the past 40 years. They’re anathema to the Washington Consensus. But markets should get used to them.

Further reading:

*”Disbelief” - Investors in Turkey stunned by Erdogan’s fight with markets

*UPDATE 6-Trade war fears ebb as U.S., China agree to continue talks

*UPDATE 4-Italian markets extend selloff on prospect of high-spending new government (Reporting by Jamie McGeever; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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