I just read, a few days late, a very instructive Op-Ed by Otmar Issing for the Financial Times. The zest of the argument is in the first few lines, that are worth quoting:
Imagine you are asked to give advice to a country on its economic policy. The country enjoys near-full employment; its growth is above, or at least at full potential. There is no under-usage of resources – what economists call an output gap – and the government’s budget is balanced, but the debt level is far above target. To top it all monetary policy is extremely loose.
This is exactly the situation in Germany. Recently forecasts for growth have been revised downwards, but so far the overall assessment is unchanged. At present there is no indication of the country heading towards recession. Inflation is low but there is no risk of deflation. From a purely national point of view Germany needs a much less expansionary monetary policy than it is getting from the European Central Bank. This is a strong argument why fiscal policy should not be expansionary, too.
Where is the economic textbook that argues that such a country should run a deficit to stimulate the economy? There is hardly a convincing argument for such advice.
The quote is a perfect example of what is wrong with mainstream thinking in German academic and policy circles. First, the incapacity to fully appreciate to what extent the German national interest is linked to the wider fate of the eurozone. From a purely national point of view, Germany needs stronger growth in the eurozone, its main trading partner. And it needs higher inflation at home and abroad. Which means that no, monetary policy is not too expansionary for Germany, as Issing claims.
But there is a more important issue: Issing seems not to grasp that the problem with the German economy is that it is unbalanced. True, it is near full employment (even if much could be said about the quality of that employment), but it relies too much on exports and too little on domestic demand, with the result that it runs, since 2001, increasing current account deficits. To say it bluntly, Germany has been sitting on the shoulders of the rest of the world economy, and since 2010 it has been followed by the rest of the eurozone that is globally running trade surpluses. I have already said many times that this is a bad (and dangerous) strategy.
I do not know what textbooks Issing reads. Germany’s intellectual tradition must include OrdoTextBooks. The ones I know say that expansionary fiscal policy, at full employment, crowds out private expenditure and exports. And guess what? This is exactly what Germany should do, for its own and its neighbours’ welfare. And if at the same time private expenditure was also boosted, with wage increases (hey, don’t listen to me; listen to the Bundesbank!) and incentives for investment, crowding out could be limited to foreign demand.
So, I read textbooks and I conclude that Otmar Issing is dead wrong. Germany should boldly expand domestic demand (public and private), thus overheating its economy, crowing out exports, and increasing inflation. The effect would be rebalancing of the German economy, growth in the rest of the eurozone, and relief in the rest of the world, for which we would stop being a drag.
Unfortunately this is not bound to happen anytime soon.
Spain is today the new model, together with Germany of course, for policy makers in Italy and France. A strange model indeed, but this is not my point here. The conventional wisdom, as usual, almost impossible to eradicate, states that Spain is growing because it implemented serious structural reforms that reduced labour costs and increased competitiveness. A few laggards (in particular Italy and France) stubbornly refuse to do the same, thus hampering recovery across the eurozone. The argument is usually supported by a figure like this
And in fact, it is evident from the figure that all peripheral countries diverged from the benchmark, Germany, and that since 2008-09 all of them but France and Italy have cut their labour costs significantly. Was it costly? Yes. Could convergence have made easier by higher inflation and wage growth in Germany, avoiding deflationary policies in the periphery? Once again, yes. It remains true, claims the conventional wisdom, that all countries in crisis have undergone a painful and necessary adjustment. Italy and France should therefore also be brave and join the herd.
Think again. What if we zoom out, and we add a few lines to the figure? From the same dataset (OECD. Productivity and ULC By Main Economic Activity) we obtain this:
It is unreadable, I know. And I did it on purpose. The PIIGS lines (and France) are now indistinguishable from other OECD countries, including the US. In fact the only line that is clearly visible is the dotted one, Germany, that stands as the exception. Actually no, it was beaten by deflation-struck Japan. As I am a nice guy, here is a more readable figure:
The figure shows the difference between change in labour costs in a given country, and the change in Germany (from 1999 to 2007). labour costs in OECD economies increased 14% more than in Germany. In the US, they increased 19% more, like in France, and slightly better than in virtuous Netherlands or Finland. Not only Japan (hardly a model) is the only country doing “better” than Germany. But second best performers (Israel, Austria and Estonia) had labour costs increase 7-8% more than in Germany.
Thus, the comparison with Germany is misleading. You should never compare yourself with an outlier! If we compare European peripheral countries with the OECD average, we obtain the following (for 2007 and 2012, the latest available year in OECD.Stat)
If we take the OECD average as a benchmark, Ireland and Spain were outliers in 2007, as much as Germany; And while since then they reverted to the mean, Germany walked even farther away. It is interesting to notice that unreformable France, the sick man of Europe, had its labour costs increase slightly less than OECD average.
Of course, most of the countries I considered when zooming out have floating exchange rates, so that they can compensate the change in relative labour costs through exchange rate variation. This is not an option for EMU countries. But this means that it is even more important that the one country creating the imbalances, the outlier, puts its house in order. If only Germany had followed the European average, it would have labour costs 20% higher than their current level. There is no need to say how much easier would adjustment have been, for crisis countries. Instead, Germany managed to impose its model to the rest of the continent, dragging the eurozone on the brink of deflation.
What is enraging is that it needed not be that way.
Yesterday I quickly commented the disappointing growth data for Germany and for the EMU as a whole, whose GDP Eurostat splendidly defines “stable”. This is bad, because the recovery is not one, and because we are increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for that growth that we should be able to generate domestically.
Having said that, the real bad news did not come from Eurostat, but from the August 2014 issue of the ECB monthly bulletin, published on Wednesday. Thanks to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard I noticed the following chart ( page 53):
The interesting part of the chart is the blue dotted line, showing that the forecasters’ consensus on longer term inflation sees more than a ten points drop of the probability that inflation will stay at 2% or above. Ten points in just a year. And yet, just a few pages above we can read:
According to Eurostat’s flash estimate, euro area annual HICP inflation was 0.4% in July 2014, after 0.5% in June. This reflects primarily lower energy price inflation, while the annual rates of change of the other main components of the HICP remained broadly unchanged. On the basis of current information, annual HICP inflation is expected to remain at low levels over the coming months, before increasing gradually during 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, inflation expectations for the euro area over the medium to long term continue to be firmly anchored in line with the aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% (p. 42, emphasis added)
The ECB is hiding its head in the sand, but expectations, the last bastion against deflation, are obviously not firmly anchored. This can only mean that private expenditure will keep tumbling down in the next quarters. It would be foolish to hope otherwise.
So we are left with good old macroeconomic policy. I did not change my mind since my latest piece on the ECB. Even if the ECB inertia is appalling, even if their stubbornness in claiming that everything is fine (see above) is more than annoying, even if announcing mild QE measures in 2015 at the earliest is borderline criminal, it remains that I have no big faith in the capacity of monetary policy to trigger decent growth. The latest issue of the ECB bulletin also reports the results of the latest Eurozone Bank Lending Survey. They show a slow easing of credit conditions, that proceed in parallel with a pickup of credit demand from firms and households. While for some countries credit constraints may play a role in keeping private expenditure down (for example, in Italy), the overall picture for the EMU is of demand and supply proceeding in parallel. Lifting constraints to lending, in this situation, does not seem likely to boost credit and spending. It’s the liquidity trap, stupid!
The solution seems to be one, and only one: expansionary fiscal policy, meaning strong increase in government expenditure (above all for investment) in countries that can afford it (Germany, to begin with); and delayed consolidation for countries with struggling public finances. Monetary policy should accompany this fiscal boost with the commitment to maintain an expansionary stance until inflation has overshot the 2% target.
For the moment this remains a mid-summer dream…
Yesterday’s headlines were all for Germany’s poor performance in the second quarter of 2014 (GDP shrank of 0.2%, worse than expected). That was certainly bad news, even if in my opinion the real bad news are hidden in the latest ECB bulletin, also released yesterday (but this will be the subject of another post).
Not surprisingly, the German slowdown stirred heated discussion. In particular Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor, blamed the slowdown on geopolitical risks in eastern Europe and the Near East. Maybe he meant to be reassuring, but in fact his statement should make us all worry even more. Let me quote myself (ach!), from last November:
Even abstracting from the harmful effects of austerity (more here), the German model cannot work for two reasons: The first is the many times recalled fallacy of composition): Not everybody can export at the same time. The second, more political, is that by betting on an export-led growth model Germany and Europe will be forced to rely on somebody else’s growth to ensure their prosperity. It is now U.S. imports; it may be China’s tomorrow, and who know who the day after tomorrow. This is of course a source of economic fragility, but also of irrelevance on the political arena, where influence goes hand in hand with economic power. Choosing the German economic model Europe would condemn itself to a secondary role.
I have emphasized the point I want to stress, once again, here: adopting an export-led model structurally weakens a country, that becomes unable to find, domestically, the resources for sustainable and robust growth. And here we are, the rest of the world sneezes, and Germany catches a cold. The problem is that we are catching it together with Germany:
The ratio of German GDP over domestic demand has been growing steadily since 1999 (only in 19 quarters out of 72, barely a third, domestic demand grew faster than GDP). And what is more bothersome is that since 2010 the same model has been
adopted by imposed to the rest of the eurozone. The red line shows the same ratio for the remaining 11 original members of the EMU, that was at around one for most of the period, and turned frankly positive with the crisis and implementation of austerity.It is the Berlin View at work, brilliantly and scaringly exposed by Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann just a couple of days ago. We are therefore increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for our (scarce) growth (the difference between the ratio and 1 is the current account balance).
It is easy today to blame Putin, or China, or tapering, or alien invasions, for our woes. Easy but wrong. Our pain is self-inflicted. Time to change.
I am puzzled by Wolfgang Münchau’s latest piece in the Financial Times. Let me start by quoting the end:
[...] The ECB should have started large-scale asset purchase a year ago. It certainly should do so now. The EU should allow governments to overshoot their deficit targets this year, and suspend the fiscal compact, which will result in further fiscal pain from 2016.
Even a casual reader of this blog will quickly realize that it would be hard for me to agree more with these statements. The macroeconomic stance at the EMU level has been seriously inappropriate since 2010, with fiscal policy globally restrictive (thank you austerity), and monetary policy way too timid.
So, what is the problem? The problem is the first part of Münchau’s editorial, in which he attacks the Bundesbank for its plea in favour of faster wage growth in Germany (the Buba asked for an average wage increase of 3%).
This is frankly hard to understand. The eurozone problems, and it’s flirting with deflation, stem from the victory of the Berlin View, that laid the burden of adjustment on the shoulders of peripheral countries alone.
The call for wage increases in Germany signals, and it was about time, that even conservative German institutions are beginning to realize the obvious: there will be no rebalancing, and therefore no robust recovery, unless German domestic demand recovers. This means a fiscal expansion, as well as private expenditure recovery. Unsurprisingly, the Buba rules out the former, but it is nice to see that at least the latter has become an objective. Faster wage growth may not make a huge difference in quantitative terms, but it still marks an important change of attitude. This is a huge step away from the low-wage-high-productivity-export-led model that the Bundesbank and the German government have been preaching (and imposing to their partners).
Münchau is right in calling for a different policy mix in the EMU. But this is complementary, not alternative, to a change in the German growth model. I would have expected him to applaud a small but potentially important change in attitude. Instead I have read a virulent attack. Puzzled, puzzled…
The latest Eurostat release on inflation shows that the Eurozone, and the EU at large, keep flirting with deflation. This happens mostly because peripheral countries have near-zero inflation rates. Strikingly, no EU country had, in January, annual inflation rates above the 2% ECB target (Finland and the UK stood at 1.9%). Deflation is a problem for debtors, who see the real value of their debt increase. It is a problem for macroeconomic policy (in particular monetary policy). But it is also a problem for rebalancing. The imbalances that built over the period 1999-2007 show up in diverging inflation rates and labour costs. Take the former, from Eurostat data: Read More
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?