Larry Summers’ IMF speech on secular stagnation partially shifted the attention from the crisis to the long run challenges facing advanced economies. I like to think of Summers’ point of as a conjectures that “in the long run we are all Keynesians”, as we face a permanent shortage of demand that may lead to a new normal made of hard choices between an unstable, debt-driven growth, and a quasi-depressed economy. A number of factors, from aging and demographics to slowing technical progress, may support the conjecture that globally we may be facing permanently higher levels of savings and lower levels of investment, leading to negative natural rates of interest. Surprisingly, another factor that had a major impact in the long-run compression of aggregate demand has been so far neglected: the steep and widespread increase of inequality. Reversing the trend towards increasing inequality would then become a crucial element in trying to escape secular stagnation.
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.
Dani Rodrik has an excellent piece on Project Syndicate. I strongly advise reading and sharing it. Rodrik points out that structural reforms (if well designed, I’d add) tend to destroy jobs in low productivity sectors, and to create them in high productivity ones. He then argues that for the second effect to happen, the high productivity sectors need to face strong demand. This is not happening right now, so that structural reforms, where implemented, are only contributing to depressing employment and growth. He concludes that the very success of structural reforms depends on fixing the short run aggregate demand deficiency problem, through standard Keynesian policies. The zest of the paper is in the last two paragraphs:
Ultimately, a workable European economic union does require greater structural homogeneity and institutional convergence (especially in labor markets) among its members. So the German argument contains a kernel of validity: In the long run, EU countries need to look more like one another if they want to inhabit the same house.
But the eurozone faces a short-term problem that is much more Keynesian in nature, and for which longer-term structural remedies are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Too much focus on structural problems, at the expense of Keynesian policies, will make the long run unachievable – and hence irrelevant.
Rodrik states something rather obvious: Read more
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:
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.
Paul Krugman hits hard on one of the most cherished american myths, the golden years of Reaganomics. He shows that using the middle class as a benchmark (the median family income of the economy), the Reagan decade saw a disappointing performance; this, not only if compared to the longest expansion in post war history, during the Clinton presidency, but also with respect to the much less glorious 1970s.
But, maybe, Krugman is telling a story of inequality, and not of sluggish growth. The fact that median income did not grow much during the Reagan years may not mean that growth was not satisfactory, but simply that somebody else grasped the fruits.
For curiosity, I completed his figure with average yearly growth rates for two other series: Income of the top 5% of the population, and the growth rate of the economy.
Well, it turns out that Reaganomics yielded increasing inequality and unsatisfactory growth. And well beyond that, median income consistently under-performed economic growth in the past forty years.
What seems extremely robust is the performance of the top 5% of the population. Their income increased significantly more than output over the past decades. It is striking in particular, how the very wealthy managed to cruise through the current crisis, when income of the middle class was slashed.
Nothing new, Ken Loach in 1993 said it beautifully: it is always raining stones on the working class. But I guess it does no harm to remind it from time to time…
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!
I started by highlighting the French weakness in this particular moment:
- France suffers, like all other eurozone countries, from a protracted period of slow growth; it is the effect of the global crisis, and its vicious evolution into a local sovereign debt crisis.
- This problem is compounded by the structural weakness of France, witnessed by its deteriorating external position in the past 15 years. A loss of competitiveness that contrasts with the increasing strength of Germany.
The commonsensical solution seems therefore to “do like Germany”: structural reforms aimed at lower wages and lower taxes on firms, in order to improve competitiveness (I did not say it, but this of course goes together with a reduced role of the government and a leaner welfare state). Nevertheless, i pointed out that there are a lot of “buts“, that make the solution less commonsensical than it would appear at first sight: Read more
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.
I have been busy organizing a workshop on Inequality and Macroeconomic Performance, to be held in Paris on October 16-17.
If you happen to be around and are interested, just send a mail to the address provided in the program.