After the latest disappointing data on growth and
indeflation in the Eurozone, all eyes are on today’s ECB meeting. Politicians and commentators speculate about the shape that QE, Eurozone edition, will take. A bold move to contrast lowflation would be welcome news, but a close look at the data suggests that the messianic expectation of the next “whatever it takes” may be misplaced.
Faced with mounting deflationary pressures, policy makers rely on the probable loosening of the monetary stance. While necessary and welcome, such loosening may not allow embarking the Eurozone on a robust growth path. The April 2014 ECB survey on bank lending confirms that, since 2011, demand for credit has been stagnant at least as much as credit conditions have been tight. Easing monetary policy may increase the supply for credit, but as long as demand remains anemic, the transmission of monetary policy to the real economy will remain limited. Since the beginning of the crisis, central banks (including the ECB) have been very effective in preventing the meltdown of the financial sector. The ECB was also pivotal, with the OMT, in providing an insurance mechanism for troubled sovereigns in 2012. But the impact of monetary policy on growth, on both sides of the Atlantic, is more controversial. This should not be a surprise, as balance sheet recessions increase the propensity to hoard of households, firms and financial institutions. We know since Keynes that in a liquidity trap monetary policy loses traction. Today, a depressed economy, stagnant income, high unemployment, uncertainty about the future, all contribute to compress private spending and demand for credit across the Eurozone, while they increase the appetite for liquidity. At the end of 2013, private spending in consumption and investment was 7% lower than in 2008 (a figure that reaches a staggering 18% for peripheral countries). Granted, radical ECB moves, like announcing a higher inflation target, could have an impact on expectations, and trigger increased spending; but these are politically unfeasible. It is not improbable, therefore, that a “simple” quantitative easing program may amount to pushing on a string. The ECB had already accomplished half a miracle, stretching its mandate to become de facto a Lender of Last Resort, and defusing speculation. It can’t be asked to do much more than this.
While monetary policy is given almost obsessive attention, there is virtually no discussion about the instrument that in a liquidity trap should be given priority: fiscal policy. The main task of countercyclical fiscal policy should be to step in to sustain economic activity when, for whatever reason, private spending falters. This is what happened in 2009, before the hasty and disastrous fiscal stance reversal that followed the Greek crisis. The result of austerity is that while in every single year since 2009 the output gap was negative, discretionary policy (defined as change in government deficit net of cyclical factors and interest payment) was restrictive. In truth, a similar pattern can be observed in the US, where nevertheless private spending recovered and hence sustained fiscal expansion was less needed. Only in Japan, fiscal policy was frankly countercyclical in the past five years.
As Larry Summers recently argued, with interest rates at all times low, the expected return of investment in infrastructures for the United States is particularly high. This is even truer for the Eurozone where, with debt at 92%, sustainability is a non-issue. Ideally the EMU should launch a vast public investment plan, for example in energetic transition projects, jointly financed by some sort of Eurobond. This is not going to happen for the opposition of Germany and a handful of other countries. A second best solution would then be for a group of countries to jointly announce that the next national budget laws will contain important (and coordinated) investment provisions , and therefore temporarily break the 3% deficit limit. France and Italy, which lately have been vocal in asking for a change in European policies, should open the way and federate as many other governments as possible. Public investment seems the only way to reverse the fiscal stance and move the Eurozone economy away from the lowflation trap. It is safe to bet that even financial markets, faced with bold action by a large number of countries, would be ready to accept a temporary deterioration of public finances in exchange for the prospects of that robust recovery that eluded the Eurozone economy since 2008. A change in fiscal policy, more than further action by the ECB, would be the real game changer for the EMU. But unfortunately, fiscal policy has become a ghost. A ghost that is haunting Europe…
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?
Larry Summers’ IMF speech on secular stagnation partially shifted the attention from the crisis to the long run challenges facing advanced economies. I like to think of Summers’ point of as a conjectures that “in the long run we are all Keynesians”, as we face a permanent shortage of demand that may lead to a new normal made of hard choices between an unstable, debt-driven growth, and a quasi-depressed economy. A number of factors, from aging and demographics to slowing technical progress, may support the conjecture that globally we may be facing permanently higher levels of savings and lower levels of investment, leading to negative natural rates of interest. Surprisingly, another factor that had a major impact in the long-run compression of aggregate demand has been so far neglected: the steep and widespread increase of inequality. Reversing the trend towards increasing inequality would then become a crucial element in trying to escape secular stagnation.
In the past weeks I have argued at length that the eurozone is in recession because of a strong contraction of aggregate demand; and that in spite of this fact the overall fiscal stance is restrictive.
I also argued that in the current situation the best that can be hoped for peripheral countries is a more gradual consolidation (ideally a neutral stance, but this is too much to ask). I do believe that a fiscal expansion, even in the periphery, would be sustainable and growth-enhancing. But at this stage this is just daydreaming. It won’t happen.
The fiscal stance of the eurozone will not become expansionary (as is sorely needed), if the core (and in particular Germany) does not implement robustly expansionary fiscal policies.
If their fiscal space is limited or non-existent, what can peripheral countries do, besides waiting for an improbable fiscal stimulus in Germany? A lot, actually. If public demand cannot be significantly increased (and will actually be further compressed, albeit at a slower pace), it is all the more important that the governments of Italy, Greece, Spain and so on, find ways to restart private demand.
There is a lot of discussion about structural reforms. They are not the answer. First, because they have an impact mostly on supply (and the problem, let me repeat it, is demand); second, because their benefits, if any, won’t materialize before a few years. And there is no time. The cumulate effect of five years of crisis is now threatening social cohesion in most peripheral countries.
A more straightforward policy, that could be implemented in the next few months with immediate effects, is a strong redistribution of the tax burden towards higher incomes. The increasing inequality of income of the past three decades is in my opinion one of the deep causes of the crisis; inequality has further increased since 2008. The squeeze of revenues for low incomes, coming from the combination of high unemployment and fiscal adjustment, is depressing both the capacity to spend and the morale of households. Increased inequality contributed to global imbalances in the past, and is recessionary in the current crisis.
In September, when the season of budget laws begins, governments in the periphery should propose to their parliaments revenue-neutral tax adjustments, lowering taxes on low income households and increasing them on the rich and very rich. This would be fair, and more importantly, effective to boost morale and consumption. I am talking about a substantial shift of the burden, large enough for its macroeconomic impact to be significant. This is all the more necessary if standard Keynesian deficit spending can not be implemented.
Update: just a link to Wolfgang Munchau, who seems to make a similar argument.
Austerity partisans had a couple of rough weeks, with highlights such as the Reinhart and Rogoff blunder, and Mr Barroso’s acknowledgement that the European periphery suffers from austerity fatigue.
In spite of the media trumpeting it all over the place, and proclaiming the end of the austerity war, it is hard to believe that eurozone austerity will be softened. Sure, peripheral countries will obtain some (much needed) breathing space. But this is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a significant policy reversal in the EMU.
The April data on Italian unemployment are out, and they look no good. Not at all. The overall rate (10.2%) is at its maximum since the beginning of monthly data series (2004), and youth unemployment is above 35%. The rest of Europe is not doing any better, with more than 17 millions people looking for a job in the eurozone alone.
We already knew. The latest data just add to the bleak picture. We also know (I discussed it) what the consensus diagnosis is: Too many rigidities, excessively high labour costs, both because of wages and of taxes on labour (the so-called tax wedge). Therefore, let’s have lower wages, and all will be well! Unemployment will disappear, growth will resume. Mario Draghi said it rather nicely:
Policies aimed at enhancing competition in product markets and increasing the wage and employment adjustment capacity of firms will foster innovation, promote job creation and boost longer-term growth prospects. Reforms in these areas are particularly important for countries which have suffered significant losses in cost competitiveness and need to stimulate productivity and improve trade performance.
I just published an editorial on the Italian daily il Corriere Della Sera (in Italian), that summarizes my views on the causes of the crisis and of global imbalances. It is a reprise of one of my first posts, written with Jean-Paul Fitoussi. It is useful to summarize and refresh the argument:
A picture of Germany somewhat different from the recent past emerges from two articles in the Financial Times of March 30:
- The first shows that, in a framework of decreasing unemployment, Germany’s domestic demand shows signs of vitality. Investment, and more remarkably consumption, increased moderately in 2011 and are forecasted to continue this year. Contrary to what happened in 2009-2011, most of growth for 2012 should come from domestic demand. This goes with (finally!) increasing wages, and some signs of price increases.
- The second article reports discussions on the ratification of the fiscal compact, with some parties in the Bundestag calling for a stop to austerity and for more solidarity towards troubled countries.
This does not mean that the overall stance of Germany will become openly expansionary, as would be sorely needed. But it is at least an indicator that the German domestic context is less monolithic than it used to be. This cannot be bad…