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ECB: One Size Fits None

March 31, 2014 15 comments

Eurostat just released its flash estimate for inflation in the Eurozone: 0.5% headline, and 0.8% core. We now await comments from ECB officials, ahead of next Thursday’s meeting, saying that everything is under control.

Just this morning, Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times rightly said that EU central bankers should talk less and act more. Münchau also argues that quantitative easing is the only option. A bold one, I would add in light of todays’ deflation inflation data. Just a few months ago, in September 2013, Bruegel estimated the ECB interest rate to be broadly in line with Eurozone average macroeconomic conditions (though, interestingly, they also highlighted that it was unfit to most countries taken individually).

In just a few months, things changed drastically. While unemployment remained more or less constant since last July, inflation kept decelerating until today’s very worrisome levels. I very quickly extended the Bruegel exercise to encompass the latest data (they stopped at July 2013). I computed the target rate as they do as

Target=1+1.5\pi_{core}-1(u-\overline{u}).

(if you don’t like the choice of parameters, go ask the Bruegel guys. I have no problem with these). The computation gives the following:

EMU_Taylor_March_2014

Using headline inflation, as the ECB often claims to be doing, would of course give even lower target rates. As official data on unemployment stop at January 2014, the two last points are computed with alternative hypotheses of unemployment: either at its January rate (12.6%) or at the average 2013 rate (12%). But these are just details…

So, in addition to being unfit for individual countries, the ECB stance is now unfit to the Eurozone as a whole. And of course, a negative target rate can only mean, as Münchau forcefully argues, that the ECB needs to get its act together and put together a credible and significant quantitative easing program.

Two more remarks:

  • A minor one (back of  the envelope) remark is that given a core inflation level of 0.8%, the current ECB rate of 0.25%, is compatible with an unemployment gap of 1.95%. Meaning that the current ECB rate would be appropriate if natural/structural unemployment was 10.65% (for the calculation above I took the value of 9.1% from the OECD), or if current unemployment was 11.5%.
  • The second, somewhat related but more important to my sense, is that it is hard to accept as “natural” an unemployment rate of 9-10%. If the target unemployment rate were at 6-7%, everything we read and discuss on the ECB excessively restrictive stance would be significantly more appropriate. And if the problem is too low potential growth, well then let’s find a way to increase it

Commission Forecasts Watch – March 2014 Edition

March 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Last week the Commission published its second flash estimates for 2013 GDP growth. This allows to update an earlier exercise I had made on forecast errors by the Commission (around this time last year). This is what I had noticed at the time:

The Commission tends to be overly optimistic, and forecasts turn out to be in general higher than actual values. It should not be like this. While I expect a government to inflate a bit the figures, a non-partisan, technocratic body should on average be correct.
Related, it is also surprising that in November of the same year the Commission is still consistently overoptimistic (yellow bar). Let me restate it. This means that in November 2012 the Commission made a mistake on GDP growth for 2012. November!

I had concluded that there was a likely political bias in the Commission’s forecasts, with excessive optimism used to deflect criticisms of austerity. I also ventured in a quick and dirty estimate of the range for GDP growth in 2013, based on the Commission’s past errors. Actual growth turned out to be -0.5%, i.e. at the lower bound of my range (and below the forecast of the time by the Commission, that was -0.3%). I must nevertheless confess that my range was rather wide…

But what about this year? Read more

Wanted: German Inflation

March 6, 2014 7 comments

The latest Eurostat release on inflation shows that the Eurozone, and the EU at large, keep flirting with deflation. This happens mostly because peripheral countries have near-zero inflation rates.  Strikingly, no EU country had, in January, annual inflation rates above the  2% ECB target (Finland and the UK stood at 1.9%). Deflation is a problem for debtors, who see the real value of their debt increase. It is a problem for macroeconomic policy (in particular monetary policy). But it is also a problem for rebalancing. The imbalances that built over the period 1999-2007 show up in diverging inflation rates and labour costs. Take the former, from Eurostat data: Read More

Greek Tragedies, 2014 Edition

February 28, 2014 9 comments

Last week’s publication of a Lancet article1 on the effect of austerity on Greek public health  made a lot of noise (for those who know Italian, I suggest reading the excellent Barbara Spinelli, in La Repubblica).

The Lancet article sets the tone since the abstract, talking of “mounting evidence of a Greek public health tragedy”. It is indeed a tragedy, that highlights how fast social advances may be reversed, even in an advanced economy.

Some time ago (March 2012) I had titled a post “Greek Tragedies“. Mostly for my students, I had collected data on Greek macroeconomic variables. I concluded that austerity was self-defeating, and that at the same time it was imposing extreme hardship on Greek citizens. Of course one needed not be a good economist to know what was going on. It was enough not to work at the Commission or in Germany… But the Lancet article also allows to substantiate another claim I made at the time, i.e. that austerity would also have enormous impact in the long run. It is weird to quote myself, but here is my conclusion at the time:

Even more important, investment (pink line) was cut in half since 2007. This means that Greece is not only going through depressed growth today. But it is doing it in such a way that growth will not resume for years, as its productive capacity is being seriously dented.

What makes it sad, besides scary, is that behind these curves there are people’s lives. And that all this needed not to happen.

I think it is time for an update of the figure on the Greek tragedy. And here it is:

GreekTragediesMark2I said in 2012 that investment cut in half spelled future tragedy. Two years later it is down 14 more points, to 36% of 2007 levels. I am unsure the meaning of this is clear to everybody in Brussels and Berlin: when sooner or later growth will resume, the Greek will look at their productive capacity, to discover it melted. They will be unable to produce, even at the modest pre-crisis levels,without running into supply constraints and bottlenecks. I am ready to bet that at that time some very prestigious economist from Brussels will call for structural reforms to “free the Greek economy”. By the way, seven years into the crisis, the OECD keeps forecasting negative growth together with unsustainable (and growing) debt.

I also added unemployment to my personal “Greek Tragedy Watch”: GreekTragediesMark2_2Terrifying absolute numbers (almost 30% unemployment overall, youth unemployment around 60%, more than that for women!). And absolutely no trend reversal in sight. A final consideration, related to the melting of the capital stock. How much of this enormously high unemployment, is evolving into structural? How many of the unemployed will the economy be able to reabsorb, once it starts growing again? Not many, I am afraid, as there is no capital left.

Not bad as an assessment of austerity… And yet, just this morning the German government complained for a very limited softening of austerity demands.  Errare umanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum…

 

1. Kentikelenis, Alexander, Marina Karanikolos, Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler. 2014. “Greece’s Health Crisis: From Austerity to Denialism.” The Lancet 383 (9918) (February): 748–753. Back

Fiscal Expansion or What?

January 21, 2014 3 comments

The newly born Italian magazine Pagina99 published a piece I wrote on rebalancing in Europe after the German elections. Here is an English version.

The preliminary estimates for 2013 released by the German Federal Statistical Office, depict a mixed picture. Timid signs of revival in domestic demand do not seem able to compensate for the slowdown in exports to other countries in the euro zone, still mired in weak or negative growth rates. The German economy does not seem able to ignore the economic health of its European partners. In spite of fierce resistance of Germany policymakers, there is increasing consensus that the key to a durable exit from the Eurozone crisis can only be found in restoring symmetry in the adjustment following the crisis. The reduction of expenditure and deficits in the Eurozone periphery, that is currently happening, needs to be matched by an increase of expenditure and imports by the core, in particular by the Netherlands and Germany (Finland and Austria have actually drastically reduced their trade surpluses). In light of the coalition agreement signed by the CDU and the SPD, it seems unlikely that major institutional innovation will happen in the Eurozone, or that private demand in Germany will increase sufficiently fast to have an impact on imbalances at the aggregate level. This leaves little alternative to an old-fashioned fiscal expansion in Germany.

The Eurozone reaction to the sovereign debt crisis, so far, has focused on enhancing discipline and fiscal restraint. Germany, the largest economy of the zone, and its largest creditor, was pivotal in shaping this approach to the crisis. The SPD, substantially shared the CDU-Liberal coalition view that the crisis was caused by fiscal profligacy of peripheral member countries, and that little if any risk sharing should be put in place (be it a properly functioning banking union, or some form of debt mutualisation). The SPD also seems to support Mrs Merkel’s strategy of discretely looking elsewhere when the ECB is forced to stretch its mandate to respond to exceptional challenges, while refusing all discussion on introducing the reform of the bank statute in a wider debate on Eurozone governance. This consensus explains why European matters take relatively little space in the 185 pages coalition agreement.

This does not mean that the CDU-SPD government will have no impact on Eurozone rebalancing. The most notable element of the coalition agreement is the introduction of a minimum wage that should at least partially attenuate the increasing dualism of the German labour market. This should in turn lead, together with the reduction of retirement age to 63 years, to an increase of consumption. The problem is that these measures will be phased-in slowly enough for their macroeconomic impact to be diluted and delayed.

Together with European governance, the other missing character in the coalition agreement is investment; this is surprising because the negative impact of the currently sluggish investment rates on the future growth potential of the German economy is acknowledged by both parties; yet, the negotiations did not include direct incentives to investment spending. The introduction of the minimum wage, on the other hand, is likely to have conflicting effects. On the one hand, by reducing margins, it will have a negative impact on investment spending. But on the other, making labour more expensive, it could induce a substitution of capital for labour, thus boosting investment. Which of these two effects will prevail is today hard to predict. But it is safe to say that changes in investment are not likely to be massive.

To summarize, the coalition agreement will have a small and delayed impact on private expenditure in Germany. Similarly, the substantial consensus on current European policies, leaves virtually no margin for the implementation of rebalancing mechanisms within the Eurozone governance structure.

Thus, there seems to be little hope that symmetry in Eurozone rebalancing is restored, unless the only remaining tool available for domestic demand expansion, fiscal policy, is used. The German government should embark on a vast fiscal expansion program, focusing on investment in physical and intangible capital alike. There is room for action. Public investment has been the prime victim of the recent fiscal restraint, and Germany has embarked in a huge energetic transition program that could be accelerated with beneficial effects on aggregate demand in the short run, and on potential GDP in the long run. Finally, Germany’s public finances are in excellent health, and yields are at an all-times low, making any public investment program short of pure waste profitable. Besides stubbornness and ideology, what retains Mrs Merkel?

Mario Draghi is a Lonely Man

January 10, 2014 6 comments

I just read an interesting piece by Nicolò Cavalli on the ECB and deflationary risks in the eurozone. The piece is in Italian, but here is a quick summary:

  • Persisting high unemployment, coupled with inflation well below the 2% target, put deflation at the top of the list of ECB priorities.
  • Mario Draghi was adamant that monetary policy will remain loose for the foreseeable horizon.
  • As we are in a liquidity trap, the effect of quantitative easing on economic activity has been limited (in the US, UK and EMU alike).
  • Then Nicolò quotes studies on quantitative easing in the UK, and notices that, like the Bank of England, the ECB faces additional difficulties, linked to the distributive effects of accommodating monetary policy:
    • Liquidity injections inflate asset prices, thus increasing financial wealth, and the value of large public companies.
    • Higher asset prices increase the opportunity costs of lending for financial institutions, that find it more convenient to invest on stock markets. This perpetuates the credit crunch.
    • Finally, low economic activity and asset price inflation depress investment, productivity and wages, thus feeding the vicious circle of deflation.

Nicolò concludes that debt monetization seems to be the only way out for the ECB. I agree, but I don’t want to focus on this. Read more

Competitive Structural Reforms

December 16, 2013 3 comments

Mario Draghi, in an interview to the Journal du Dimanche, offers an interesting snapshot of his mindset.  He (correctly in my opinion) dismisses euro exit and competitive devaluations as a viable policy choices:

The populist argument that, by leaving the euro, a national economy will instantly benefit from a competitive devaluation, as it did in the good old days, does not hold water. If everybody tries to devalue their currency, nobody benefits.

But in the same (short) interview, he also argues that

We remain just as determined today to ensure price stability and safeguard the integrity of the euro. But the ECB cannot do it all alone. We will not do governments’ work for them. It is up to them to undertake fundamental reforms, support innovation and manage public spending – in short, to come up with new models for growth. [...] Taking the example of German growth, that has not come from the reduction of our interest rates (although that will have helped), but rather from the reforms of previous years.

I find it fascinating: Draghi manages to omit that German increased competitiveness mostly came from wage restraint and domestic demand compression, as showed by a current account that went from a deficit to a large surplus over the past decade.  Compression of domestic demand and export-led growth, in the current non-cooperative framework, would mean taking market shares from EMU partners. This is in fact what Germany did so far, and is precisely the same mechanism we saw at work in the 1930s. Wages and prices would today take the place of exchange rates then, but the mechanism, and the likely outcome are the same. Unless…

Draghi probably has in mind a process by which all EMU countries embrace the German export-led model, and export towards the rest of the world. I have already said (here, here, and here) what I think of that.  We are not a small open economy. If we depress our economy there is only so much the rest of the world can do to lift it through exports. And it remains that the second largest economy in the world deserves better than being a parasite on the shoulders of others…

As long as German economists are like the guy I met on TV last week, there is little to be optimist about…

What is Wrong with the EU?

December 5, 2013 3 comments

Eurostat just released the 2012 figures for poverty and social exclusion in the EU. The numbers are terrifying. Let me quote the press release: “In 2012, 124.5 million people, or 24.8% of the population, in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion,  compared with 24.3% in 2011 and 23.7% in 2008. This means that they were in at least one of the following three conditions: at-risk-of-poverty, severely materially deprived or living in households with very low work intensity
One may be tempted to shrug. After all, 1% in four years, is not that much. Let me put actual people behind the numbers: The number of people at risk of poverty increased of 5.5 millions between 2008 and 2012. Strikingly, always looking at Eurostat data, the number of jobs lost in the EU28 over the same period is almost exactly the same (-5.4 millions).

This is plain unacceptable. And teaches us two lessons

  • Our welfare system is not capable anymore to shield workers from the hardship of business cycles. We progressively dismantled welfare, becoming “more like the United States”. But we stubbornly refuse to accept the consequence of this, i.e. that fiscal and monetary policy need (like in the US) to be proactive and flexible, so as to dampen the cycle. Constraints to macroeconomic policy, coupled with a diminished protection from the welfare state, spell disaster, social exclusion, and the destruction of the social fabric.
  • The second lesson is that these numbers are there to stay. The economy may recover, but the loss of confidence, of capacity, of social status of those who we pushed into hardship, will stay with us for years to come. We are destroying human capital at amazing speed.

What is enraging is that none of this was inevitable. The crisis could have been shielded by less ideological leadership in European institutions and in some most European capitals. Frontloading of austerity in the periphery was a terrible mistake. Not accompanying it with fiscal expansion in the core was a crime, showing of how little solidarity counts, facing the protestant urge to “punish the sinners”.

The result is that one of the most affluent economic areas of the world barely notices that one quarter of its population lives at risk of poverty. What is wrong with us?