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…
Paul Krugman has a short post on the Eurozone, today (I’d like him to write more about us; he has been too America-centered lately), pointing out that the myth of fiscal profligacy is, well, just a myth. in fact, he argues, the only fiscally irresponsible country, in the years 2000 was Greece. It is maybe worth reposting here a figure that from an old piece of this blog, that since then made it into all my classes on the Euro crisis:
The figure shows the situation of public finances in 2007, against the Maastricht benchmark (3% deficit and 60% debt) before the crisis hit. As Krugman says, only one country of the so-called PIIGS (the red dots) is clearly out of line, Greece. Portugal is virtually like France, and Spain and Ireland way better than most countries, including Germany. Italy has a stock of old debt, but its deficit in 2007 is under control.
So Krugman is right in reminding us that fiscal policy per se was not a problem before the crisis; And yet, what he calls fiscal myths, have shaped policies in the EMU, with a disproportionate emphasis on austerity. And even today, when economists overwhelmingly discuss unconventional measures available to the ECB to contrast deflation, fiscal policy is virtually absent from the debate and continued fiscal consolidation is taken for granted. I will write more on this in the next days, but it is striking how we aim at the wrong target.
I just finished editing a collective volume, in English and in French, on possible ways to reform Europe. Here is the blog post that presents it:
What Reforms for Europe?
From May 22 to May 25, Europeans will vote to elect the 751 Members of the European Parliament. These elections will take place in a context of strong mistrust for European institutions. While the crisis of confidence is not specifically European, in the Old Continent it is coupled with the hardest crisis since the Great Depression, and with a political crisis that shows the incapacity of European institutions to reach decisions. The issues at stake in the next European elections, therefore, have multiple dimensions that require a multidisciplinary approach. The latest issue of the Debates and Policies Revue de l’OFCE series (published in French and in English), gathers European affairs specialists – economists, law scholars, political scientists – who starting from the debate within their own discipline, share their vision on the reforms that are needed to give new life to the European project. Our goal is to feed the public debate through short policy briefs containing specific policy recommendations. Our target are obviously the candidates to the European elections, but also unions, entrepreneurs, civil society at large and, above all, citizens interested by European issues.
In the context of the current crisis, the debate leading to the next European elections seems to be hostage of two opposing views. On one side a sort of self-complacency that borders denial about the crisis that is still choking the Eurozone and Europe at large. According to this view, the survival of the euro should be reason enough to be satisfied with the policies followed so far, and the European institutions evolved in the right direction in order to better face future challenges.
At the opposite, the eurosceptic view puts forward the fundamental flaws of the single currency, arguing that the only way out of the crisis would be a return to national currencies. The different contributions of this volume aim at going beyond these polar views. The crisis highlighted the shortcomings of EU institutions, and the inadequacy of economic policies centered on fiscal discipline alone. True, some reforms have been implemented; but they are not enough, when they do not go in the wrong direction altogether. We refuse nevertheless to conclude that no meaningful reform can be implemented, and that the European project has no future.
The debate on Europe’s future and on a better and more democratic Union needs to be revived. We need to discuss ways to implement more efficient governance, and public policies adapted to the challenges we face. The reader nevertheless will not find, in this volume, a coherent project; rather, we offer eclectic and sometimes even contradictory views on the direction Europe should take. This diversity witnesses the necessity of a public debate that we wish to go beyond academic circles and involves policy makers and citizens. Our ambition is to provide keys to interpret the current stakes of the European debate, and to form an opinion on the direction that our common project should take.
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
Today we learn from Daniel Gros, on Project Syndicate that the emphasis on German surplus is misplaced:
The discussion of the German surplus thus confuses the issues in two ways. First, though the German economy and its surplus loom large in the context of Europe, an adjustment by Germany alone would benefit the eurozone periphery rather little. Second, in the global context, adjustment by Germany alone would benefit many countries only a little, while other surplus countries would benefit disproportionally. Adjustment by all northern European countries would have double the impact of any expansion of demand by Germany alone, owing to the high degree of integration among the “Teutonic” countries.
Fascinating. The bulk of the argument is that Germany is a small player in the global economy, and therefore that its actions have no impact. I have two objections to Gros’ argument. Read More
The Financial Times highlights one of the most striking conclusions of the latest ECB Financial Stability Report (full document here). The ECB, using FT’s words, “issued a stark warning over the threat posed by the scaling back of US monetary stimulus, calling on eurozone policy makers to do more to prepare for the market shocks from Federal Reserve tapering.“
There are of course many reasons why a change of policy of the largest world economy is closely monitored because of its potential impact. The ECB statements nevertheless are striking to me, because they are further confirmation of the small country syndrome that I pointed out in the past.
Quantitative Easing has been pivotal in ensuring that the hasty reversal of the fiscal stance in the United States did not dip their economy into a new recession. One may argue that today’s US economy is not sufficiently robust for exiting monetary stimulus. But it is sooner or later going to happen. The rest of the world has been free riding on Fed’s policies. In particular, the eurozone has benefited from QE in a context of sharp and pro-cyclical austerity, and very timid monetary policy.
Here is the statement I would have expected from the ECB: “The eurozone, the second largest economy of the world, has benefited from exceptional measures implemented by the Fed. This helped our economies and our financial markets in the context of a difficult consolidation process. Domestic factors in the United States will most likely cause a reversal of these policies. It is time European policy makers stand on their legs. As our economies persist in a state of chronic weakness, the ECB will consider its own quantitative easing program, to compensate for tapering in the United States, and provide to the European economy the environment it needs to rebound“
Such a statement, that I would find reasonable and balanced (maybe even too prudent), is nevertheless revolutionary nonsense in European policy circles. Instead we had the same old “copy-and-paste” demand to EMU countries of structural reforms and stable macroeconomic policies (read austerity). Not a single hint of even remotely possible non orthodox policies here at home. The sad truth is that we are structurally incapable of finding within our economy and our institutions the instruments to ensure growth and prosperity. We are structurally free riders. We siphon aggregate demand from the rest of the world running increasing current account balances, and we are not capable of implementing an autonomous monetary policy.
The world’s second largest economic area remains a parasite of the global economy, and it is incapable of living up to its responsibilities. Nothing good can come out of this.
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.
Germany rejected the US Treasury’s criticism of the country’s export-focused economic policies as “incomprehensible”. Much has been said about that. Let me just add some pieces of evidence, just to gather them all in the same place.
Exhibit #1: Net Lending Evolution
Note#1 : I took net lending because because net income flows from residents to non residents (not captured by the current account) may be an important part of a country’s net position (most notably in Ireland). Note #2: I took away France and Italy from the two groups called “Core” and “Periphery”, because their net position was relatively small as percentage of GDP in 2008, and changed relatively little.
Wolfgang Munchau has an excellent piece on today’s Financial Times, where he challenges the increasingly widespread (and unjustified) optimism about the end of the EMU crisis. The premise of the piece is that for the end of the crisis to be durable, it must pass through adjustment between core and periphery. He cites similar statements made in the latest IMF World Economic Outlook. This is good news per se, because nowadays, with the exception of Germany it became common knowledge that the EMU imbalances are structural and not simply the product of late night parties in the periphery. But what are Munchau’s reasons for pessimism? Read More