Yesterday Eurostat published growth flash estimates for a number of EU countries. As expected, they do not look good. In 2013 Q1 the eurozone has lost 1 per cent of its GDP with respect to the first quarter of 2012 (-0.7 for the EU 27). It is the longest recession since the inception of the single currency, and it brings with it record unemployment at 12.1 per cent.
Not surprising, I said, because in spite of increasing talks about softened austerity, austerity ain’t over. In many countries, government final consumption in real terms (the G in national accounting equations, just to be clear) sharply decreased. And this is, surprise, correlated with subsequent growth:
Browsing national accounts may be an inexhaustible source of insight on the current debate about austerity. Take this figure, which shows the evolution of real GDP and of its components for the US and the EMU, making the first quarter of 2008 equal to 100.
I tracked in particular the evolution of private (consumption plus investment) and public expenditure on good and services.
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.
Helene Mees in a Project Syndicate Comment weighs into the dispute between Paul Krugman and the Commission officials, siding with Rehn and his people.
Mees’ criticism of Krugman is two-sided. First, she argues, Krugman omits to say that the OMTs program is subject to heavy conditionality, and that the signature of the fiscal compact was a necessary precondition for the adoption of the program. I don’t get it. The ECB is very vocal on austerity and on structural reforms, and it is clear that the OMTs program was adopted only at the very last minute, facing the perspective of eurozone collapse. A number of economists, including myself, welcomed the OMTs while criticizing the heavy conditionality attached to it. The very fact that the OMTs was reluctantly adopted shows that even austerity partisans cannot deny the fact that the EMU is desperately lacking a proper lender of last resort, of which the OMT is a pale surrogate. The more non-Keynesian institutions are forced to adopt Keynesian solutions, the more Krugman’s point is vindicated. I fail to see how the opposite could be true. Read more
A quick note on Portugal. Let’s start from three facts:
- Austerity did not work. Portugal is in a recessionary cycle. The economy will shrink by 2.3 per cent this year, more than twice as much as the previous government forecast (and the slowdown of exports to the rest of the eurozone, is not helping).
- Austerity is self defeating: the deficit-to-GDP ratio widened from 4.4 per cent in 2011 to 6.4 per cent last year, and is forecasted to be 5.5 per cent in 2013. Far above the target of 3 per cent that the government had agreed with the Troika. My guess is that it will be even larger than that.
- The magic wand of confidence is not magic. The budgetary cuts did not boost private spending, and expectations remain gloomy. The Financial Times article cites the Portuguese daily Público writing “Portugal has entered a recessionary cycle. People have no reason to believe the future will be any better. The [adjustment] programme has failed and has to be changed.” So long for the confidence fairy…
Is this surprising? Not at all. Austerity is likely to be recessionary and self-defeating, when a number of conditions are met. (a) Monetary policy is at the zero lower bound, and cannot compensate the recessionary effects of budget cuts with interest rate reductions. (b) Trading partners are also in a slump (and/or they are also implementing austerity measures), and hence exports can not substitute for decreased domestic demand. (c) The private sector is deleveraging, and subject to a credit crunch. Read more
I must say I am puzzled by today’s decision of the ECB to leave rates unchanged. It simply does not fit with what Mario Draghi said during the press conference. Let me quote him.
Inflation expectations for the euro area continue to be firmly anchored in line with our aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term. At the same time, weak economic activity has extended into the early part of the year and a gradual recovery is projected for the second half of this year, subject to downside risks. Against this overall background our monetary policy stance will remain accommodative for as long as needed.
If words actually mean what they mean, Draghi informed us that (a) inflation, and inflation expectations, are in line with forecasts and objectives; (b) at the same time, economic activity is weaker than expected, and the future recovery is at risk; (c) the ECB is willing to have an accommodative monetary stance.
Two considerations: first, the king is naked; it was obvious from the very beginning that the recovery in the second half of the year was not in the cards. I already discussed the systematic bias in official forecasts. It turns out that simply saying to markets that things will go well, is not sufficient to make them act accordingly. The confidence fairy, as Krugman calls it, is nowhere to be seen. I would add that this systematic bias risks making EMU institutions less credible, and hence further weaken their capacity to anchor private sectors’ expectations…
And then the puzzle: if inflation is under control, and if economic activity is weak, and if the ECB deems accommodation to be needed, why, why on earth are rates kept constant? Should we remind to Mario Draghi what is written in article 127 of the Lisbon Treaty?
The primary objective of the European System of Central Banks, hereinafter referred to as “ESCB”, shall be to maintain price stability. Without prejudice to the objective of price stability, the ESCB shall support the general economic policies in the Union with a view to contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the Union as laid down in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union.
Among the general policies that the ECB should support there is growth and employment. And lowering the rates today would certainly not lead to “prejudice to the objective of price stability”
Why is the ECB so frightened to send the signal to markets that it is ready to boost economic activity? Is there an hidden agenda we are unaware of?
Eurostat GDP data are out. The eurozone is in recession, and it is worse than expected (-0.6% in 2012). Austerity is not working, and is recessionary. Wow, who would have said it…
Seriously, so long for the widespread optimism of a few weeks ago. The crisis is not over, we actually are in the middle of it. The way I see it, things will get worse before they get better (if they do get better).
Also interesting, Germany’s export-led growth strategy is panting. The fourth quarter of 2012 was rather bad (worse than in France, for example), and this is due to lower investment on one side, and to weaker trade (exports fell more than imports). Here is an excerpt of today’s press release of the German statistical office, Destatis:
In a quarter-on-quarter comparison (adjusted for price, seasonal and calendar variations), signals from the domestic territory were rather mixed according to provisional calculations: household and government final consumption expenditure went up slightly. In contrast, gross fixed capital formation in construction decreased a bit and gross fixed capital formation in machinery and equipment was down markedly on the third quarter of 2012. The decline of the gross domestic product at the end of 2012 was mainly due to the comparably weak German foreign trade: in the final quarter of 2012, exports of goods went down much more than imports of goods.
Germany stubbornly refuses to accommodate austerity in the periphery with a domestic impulsion. This makes adjustment for the rest more painful, and impacts expectations at home. This is why investment dropped significantly. My take on this is that if Germany had been only moderately more expansionist at home, expectations would not have been dashed (even if slightly increasing, in January the IFO index of German business confidence stagnates at around 104 at the moment, after hitting an all time high of 115.40 in February of 2011). And investment figures would be substantially better.
So, we learned today that austerity does indeed reduce growth, and that it spills to other countries. Two surprises in one day. It will need a hell of an effort to forget all of this before tomorrow!
There are signs of optimism around. Cautiously, policy makers and commentators start discussing the shape (and the fragility) of the future recovery. Martin Wolf on the Financial Times already speculates on the timing of reversal to a normal state of affairs. Wolf is rightly worried by the temptation to reverse policies too fast, a mistake we made already at the end of 2009, when stimulus plans were reversed into consolidation far too soon.
As a rule of thumb, I’d argue that exceptional involvement of governments in the economy should stop when the private sector is ready to take the witness. Stimulus plans and monetary easing should be rolled back once private spending resumes (or is ready to resume), and when the credit market is sufficiently loose. So the question is, how does private sector behaviour fit, within this moderate optimistic mood? Not too well I am afraid… Read More
The run up to the Italian elections in February is a welcome occasion to come back to the issue of austerity. The debate in Italy was fired by the widely discussed Wolfgang Munchau editorial, blaming Mario Monti for not opposing austerity. In the heat of electoral competition, this unsurprisingly stirred harsh discussions on whether Italy has room for reversing the austerity that ravaged the country. Some commentators got slightly carried away, accusing those opposing austerity of “silliness and falsehood”. I wonder whether they include the IMF chief economist in the bunch… Whatever, this is a minor issue; the way I see it, these discussions totally miss the point.
Il Sole 24 Ore just published an editorial I wrote with Jean-Luc Gaffard, on the structural problems facing the EU. Here is an English (slightly longer and different) version of the piece:
It is hard not to rejoice at the ECB announcement that it would buy, if necessary, an unlimited amount of government bonds. The Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program is meant to protect from speculation countries that would otherwise have no choice but to abandon the euro zone, causing the implosion of the single currency. As had to be expected, the mere announcement that the ECB was willing to act (at least partially) as a lender of last resort calmed speculation and spreads came down to more reasonable levels.