I have just read Mario Draghi’s opening remarks at the Brookings Institution. Nothing very new with respect to Jackson Hole and his audition at the European Parliament. But one sentence deserves commenting; when discussing how to use fiscal policy, Draghi says that:
Especially for those [countries] without fiscal space, fiscal policy can still support demand by altering the composition of the budget – in particular by simultaneously cutting distortionary taxes and unproductive expenditure.
So, “restoring fiscal policy” should happen, at least in countries in trouble, through a simultaneous reduction of taxes and expenditure. Well, that sounds reasonable. So reasonable that it is exactly the strategy chosen by the French government since the famous Jean-Baptiste Hollande press conference, last January.
Oh, wait. What was that story of balanced budgets and multipliers? I am sure Mario Draghi remembers it from Economics 101. Every euro of expenditure cuts, put in the pockets of consumers and firms, will not be entirely spent, but partially saved. This means that the short term impact on aggregate demand of a balanced budget expenditure reduction is negative. Just to put it differently, we are told that the risk of deflation is real, that fiscal policy should be used, but that this would have to happen in a contractionary way. Am I the only one to see a problem here?
But Mario Draghi is a fine economist, many will say; and his careful use of adjectives makes the balanced budget multiplier irrelevant. He talks about distortionary taxes. Who would be so foolish as not to want to remove distortions? And he talks about unproductive expenditure. Again, who is the criminal mind who does not want to cut useless expenditure? Well, the problem is that, no matter how smart the expenditure reduction is, it will remain a reduction. Similarly, even the smartest tax reduction will most likely not be entirely spent; especially at a time when firms’ and households’ uncertainty about the future is at an all-times high. So, carefully choosing the adjectives may hide, but not eliminate, the substance of the matter: A tax cut financed with a reduction in public spending is recessionary, at least in the short run.
To be fair there may be a case in which a balanced budget contraction may turn out to be expansionary. Suppose that when the government makes one step backwards, this triggers a sudden burst of optimism so that private spending rushes to fill the gap. It is the confidence fairy in all of its splendor. But then, Mario Draghi (and many others, unfortunately) should explain why it should work now, after having been invoked in vain for seven years.
Truth is that behind the smoke screen of Draghinomics and of its supposed comprehensive approach we are left with the same old supply side reforms that did not lift the eurozone out of its dire situation. It’ s the narrative, stupid!
Just a quick note on something that went surprisingly unnoticed so far. After Draghi’s speech in Jackson Hole, a new consensus seems to have developed among European policy makers, based on three propositions:
- Europe suffers from deficient aggregate demand
- Monetary policy has lost traction
- Investment is key, both as a countercyclical support for growth, and to sustain potential growth in the medium run
My first reaction is, well, welcome to the club! Some of us have been saying this for a while (here is the link to a chat, in French, I had with Le Monde readers in June 2009). But hey, better late than never! It is nice that we all share the diagnosis on the Eurocrisis. I don’t feel lonely anymore.
What is interesting, nevertheless, is that while the diagnosis has changed, the policy prescriptions have not (this is why I failed to share the widespread excitement that followed Jackson Hole). Think about it. Once upon a time we had the Berlin View, arguing that the crisis was due to fiscal profligacy and insufficient flexibility of the economy. From the diagnosis followed the medicine: austerity and structural reforms, to restore confidence, competitiveness, and private spending.
Today we have a different diagnosis: the economy is in a liquidity trap, and spending stagnates because of insufficient expected demand. And the recipe is… austerity and structural reforms, to restore confidence, competitiveness, and private spending (in case you wonder, yes, I have copied-pasted from above).
Just as an example among many, here is a short passage from Mario Draghi’s latest audition at the European Parliament, a couple of weeks back:
Let me add however that the success of our measures critically depends on a number of factors outside of the realm of monetary policy. Courageous structural reforms and improvements in the competitiveness of the corporate sector are key to improving business environment. This would foster the urgently needed investment and create greater demand for credit. Structural reforms thus crucially complement the ECB’s accommodative monetary policy stance and further empower the effective transmission of monetary policy. As I have indicated now at several occasions, no monetary – and also no fiscal – stimulus can ever have a meaningful effect without such structural reforms. The crisis will only be over when full confidence returns in the real economy and in particular in the capacity and willingness of firms to take risks, to invest, and to create jobs. This depends on a variety of factors, including our monetary policy but also, and even most importantly, the implementation of structural reforms, upholding the credibility of the fiscal framework, and the strengthening of euro area governance.
This is terrible for European policy makers. They completely lost control over their discourse, whose inconsistency is constantly exposed whenever they speak publicly. I just had a first hand example yesterday, listening at the speech of French Finance Minister Michel Sapin at the Columbia Center for Global Governance conference on the role of the State (more on that in the near future): he was able to argue, in the time span of 4-5 minutes, that (a) the problem is aggregate demand, and that (b) France is doing the right thing as witnessed by the halving of structural deficits since 2012. How (a) can go with (b), was left for the startled audience to figure out.
Terrible for European policy makers, I said. But maybe not for the European economy. Who knows, this blatant contradiction may sometimes lead to adapting the discourse, and to advocate solutions to the deflationary threat that are consistent with the post Jackson Hole consensus. Maybe. Or maybe not.
Update (9/30): Eurostat just released the September figures for inflation: Headline: 0.3%, Core, 0.7%
Hans Werner Sinn did it again. In the Financial Times he violently attacks Mario Draghi and the ECB. To summarize his argument (but read it, it is beyond imagination):
- The ECB gave too much liquidity to banks in peripheral EMU countries since 2008, thus fueling a spending boom.
- Then, with the SMP and the OMT programs it “lowered the interest rates at which overstretched eurozone members could obtain credit and reversed the losses of their foreign creditors, triggering another borrowing binge”
- Finally, “The ECB’s plan to purchase [private borrower's] debt could end up transferring dozens if not hundreds of billions of euros from eurozone taxpayers to the creditors of these hapless individuals and companies.”
- Last (but not least!!) he claims that deflation is necessary in EMU peripheral countries to restore competitiveness
I am shocked. Let me start from the last point. Even assuming that competitiveness only had a cost dimension, what would be required is that the differential with Germany and core countries were negative. Deflation in the periphery is therefore only necessary because Germany stubbornly refuses to accept higher inflation at home. And no, the two things are not equivalent, because deflation in a highly leveraged economy increases the burden of debt, and triggers a vicious circle deflation-high debt burden-consumption drop-deflation. I refuse to believe that a respected economist like Hans Werner Sinn does not see such a trivial point…
As for the rest, the spending binge in peripheral countries began much earlier than in 2008, and it is safe to assume that it was fueled by excess savings in the core much more than by expansionary monetary policies.
Further, does Sinn know what a lender of last resort is? Does he know what is “too big to fail”? Where was he when European authorities were designing institutions incapable of managing the business cycle, while forgetting to put in place a decent regulatory framework for banks and financial institutions?
And finally, does Mr Sinn remember what was the situation in the summer of 2012? Does he remember the complete paralysis of European governments that were paralyzed in front of speculative attacks to two large Eurozone economies? Does he realize that were it not for the OMT and the “whatever it takes”, today Spain and Italy would not be in the Euro anymore? Which means that probably the single currency today would not exist? Maybe he does, and he decided to join the AfD…
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…
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
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…
Last Thursday the ECB cut rates, somewhat unexpectedly. This shows that it takes the risk of deflation very seriously. Good news, I’d say. But unfortunately, press conferences follow ECB Council meetings. And I say unfortunately, because Mr Draghi words often fail to match his actions. Here is what he said on Thursday (I could not resist adding some bold here and there):
If you look at the euro area from a distance, you see that the fundamentals in this area are probably the strongest in the world. This is the area that has the lowest budget deficit in the world. Our aggregate public deficit is actually a small surplus. We have a small primary surplus of 0.7%, compared with, I think, a deficit of 6 or 7% deficit in US, – 6 I think – and 8 % in Japan. This is the area with the highest current account surplus. And it is also the area, as we said before, with one of the lowest – if not the lowest – inflation rate.
Fascinating. Truly fascinating. I will pass on the fact that one of the strong “fundamentals” Mr Draghi quotes, low inflation, is actually the main source of worry for economists and policymakers worldwide, including the ECB, that had to rush into a rate cut that was not planned at least until December! I will also pass on his praise of high current account surpluses while the Commission itself is considering opening an infraction procedure against Germany, for perpetuating an important source of imbalances within the eurozone and worldwide.
No, what I find more shocking is the list of fundamentals Draghi gives: public debt and deficit; inflation; current account balance. Now, it dates back a little, but I remember all of those, in Econ 101, to be defined as instruments of economic policy, supposed to serve the final objectives of growth and employment. It is true that we do rather well in what Draghi calls fundamentals, but I continue preferring to call instruments. Look at this table:
I have reported, for ease of comparison, data from the IMF World Economic Outlook (October 2013), therefore they are not the latest (quarterly or monthly) data. Also, I have highlighted in red the worst performer, and in green the best. And boy, Draghi is right! (Notice incidentally that eurozone inflation was 2.5 percent on average in 2012. With the latest data at 0.7 percent, this suggests that we are running, not walking, towards deflation.)
But if we look at the supposed objectives of economic policy (how would Draghi call these?), the picture changes, quite a bit:
No other major advanced economy is doing nearly as badly as the eurozone in terms of unemployment and GDP. But according to the ECB President we have “the strongest fundamentals in the world”. Does this means that Draghi did not take Econ 101? No, I know for sure that he did take it, and he actually had excellent mentors. To understand Draghi’s claim, it may be useful to read his whole sentence. After arguing that the eurozone has strong fundamentals he goes on:
This does not translate automatically into a galloping recovery. But, actually, it gives you the fundamentals upon which you can pursue the right economic policies. Structural reforms are the necessary and sufficient condition for this to happen. In the absence of that, unfortunately, we are going to stay here for quite a long time.
Here is the answer. The only and one answer. Focusing on instruments instead of targets is the strategy of those who do not believe that a role exists for active economic policies. It is a pity that one of these guys is heading the second most important central bank of the world. And it is paradoxically reassuring that the situation is currently so bad that he is forced to abandon his creed and implement active monetary policies.
Advice for the next episodes: praise Mario Draghi actions, and avoid reading the transcripts of his press conferences.