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
Wolfgang Munchau has another interesting editorial on austerity, in yesterday’s Financial Times. He argues that the US may become the next paying member of the austerity club, thus making the perspective of another lost decade certain.
Munchau’s article could be the n-th plea against austerity, as one can by now read everywhere (except in Berlin or in Brussels; but this is another story). What caught my attention are two paragraphs in particular.
Larry Summers has a very interesting piece on yesterday’s Financial Times.
He argues that a few countries (the US, Germany, Japan, the UK; I would also add France) enjoy extremely low borrowing rates, both short and long run. In particular, real rates (nominal rate minus inflation) are negative or zero for maturities up to 5 years, and extremely low for longer ones. Summers’ conclusions are then straightforward:
- Focusing on further quantitative easing is not particularly useful; given the already very low rates, further reductions are unlikely to trigger private spending (it has a name: liquidity trap. And Paul Krugman has been insisting a lot on this, for example here)
- More importantly, government should borrow now, like crazy, taking advantage of the favorable conditions to reinforce their long term fiscal sustainability. This is what any reasonable CEO would do, and there is no reason why governments should act differently.
Summers makes a point that is almost obvious: Any project that has positive expected return would improve the country’s fiscal position, if financed with debt at negative real rates: This is the time for example to borrow to buy government buildings that are currently leased. Or to accelerate the rate of replacement of aging capital; or again, to engage in long term infrastructure building/renovation. Makes sense, right? It makes so much sense, that chances are that it will not be done…
I would like to add two considerations. The first is to stress that to get private demand started, it is important that growth perspectives are stronger. Firms today do not invest, not because of borrowing costs, but because even at very low interest rates, expected demand is so low that investment is not profitable. The second is that, for Europe, increased borrowing in Germany, France and the UK would be crucial. Countries enjoying low rates could not only significantly improve their long term prospects, as Summers argues. They could also sustain demand in countries that are consolidating, thus favoring the rebalancing I have repeatedly argued for.