Leszek Balcerowicz: The Anti-Bernanke

Popular Articles, Resources — By on December 16, 2012 at 12:15 PM

By MATTHEW KAMINSKI

As an economic crisis manager, Leszek Balcerowicz has few peers. When communism fell in Europe, he pioneered “shock therapy” to slay hyperinflation and build a free market. In the late 1990s, he jammed a debt ceiling into his country’s constitution, handcuffing future free spenders. When he was central-bank governor from 2001 to 2007, his hard-money policies avoided a credit boom and likely bust.

Poland was the only country in the European Union to avoid recession in 2009 and has been the fastest-growing EU economy since. Mr. Balcerowicz dwells little on this achievement. He sounds too busy in “battle”—his word—against bad policy.

“Most problems are the result of bad politics,” he says. “In a democracy, you have lots of pressure groups to expand the state for reasons of money, ideology, etc. Even if they are angels in the government, which is not the case, if there is not a counterbalance in the form of proponents of limited government, then there will be a shift toward more statism and ultimately into stagnation and crisis.”

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Looking around the world, there is no shortage of questionable policies. A series of bailouts for Greece and others has saved the euro, but who knows for how long. EU leaders closed their summit in Brussels on Friday by deferring hard decisions on entrenching fiscal discipline and pro-growth policies. Across the Atlantic, Washington looks no closer to a “fiscal cliff” deal. And the Federal Reserve on Wednesday made a fourth foray into “quantitative easing” to keep real interest rates low by buying bonds and printing money.

As a former central banker, Mr. Balcerowicz struggles to find the appropriate word for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke‘s latest invention: “Unprecedented,” “a complete anathema,” “more uncharted waters.” He says such “unconventional” measures trap economies in an unvirtuous cycle. Bankers expect lower interest rates to spur growth. When that fails, as in Japan, they have no choice but to stick with easing.

“While the benefits of non-conventional [monetary] policies are short lived, the costs grow with time,” he says. “The longer you practice these sorts of policies, the more difficult it is to exit it. Japan is trapped.” Anemic Japan is the prime example, but now the U.S., Britain and potentially the European Central Bank are on the same road.

If he were in Mr. Bernanke’s shoes, Mr. Balcerowicz says he’d rethink the link between easy money and economic growth. Over time, he says, lower interest rates and money printing presses harm the economy—though not necessarily or primarily through higher inflation.

First, Bernanke-style policies “weaken incentives for politicians to pursue structural reforms, including fiscal reforms,” he says. “They can maintain large deficits at low current rates.” It indulges the preference of many Western politicians for stimulus spending. It means they don’t have to grapple as seriously with difficult choices, say, on Medicare.

Another unappreciated consequence of easy money, according to Mr. Balcerowicz, is the easing of pressure on the private economy to restructure. With low interest rates, large companies “can just refinance their loans,” he says. Banks are happy to go along. Adjustments are delayed, markets distorted.

By his reading, the increasingly politicized Fed has in turn warped America’s political discourse. The Lehman collapse did help clean up the financial sector, but not the government. Mr. Balcerowicz marvels that federal spending is still much higher than before the crisis, which isn’t the case in Europe. “The greatest neglect in the U.S. is fiscal,” he says. The dollar lets the U.S. “get a lot of cheap financing to finance bad policies,” which is “dangerous to the world and perhaps dangerous to the U.S.”

The Fed model is spreading. Earlier this fall, the European Central Bank announced an equally unprecedented plan to buy the bonds of distressed euro-zone countries. The bank, in essence, said it was willing to print any amount of euros to save the single currency.

Mr. Balcerowicz sides with the head of Germany’s Bundesbank, the sole dissenter on the ECB board to the bond-buying scheme. He says it violates EU treaties. “And second, when the Fed is printing money, it is not buying bonds of distressed states like California—it’s more general, it’s spreading it,” he says. “The ECB is engaging in regional policy. I don’t think you can justify this.”

“So they know better,” says Mr. Balcerowicz, about the latest fads in central banking. “Risk premiums are too high—according to them! They are above the judgments of the markets. I remember this from socialism: ‘We know better!’”

Mr. Balcerowicz, who is 65, was raised in a state-planned Poland. He got a doctorate in economics, worked briefly at the Communist Party’s Institute of Marxism-Leninism, and advised the Solidarity trade union before the imposition of martial law in 1981. He came to prominence in 1989 as the father of the “Balcerowicz Plan.” Overnight, prices were freed, subsidies were slashed and the zloty currency was made convertible. It was harsh medicine, but the Polish economy recovered faster than more gradual reformers in the old Soviet bloc. …

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image: flickr.com/sebastianszulfer

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