The Euro Debate: Back to Square One

November 20, 2017 1 comment

I was glad to write a preface for the Italian translation (La moneta rinnegata) of Martin Sandbu’s latest effort (Europe’s Orphan). A somewhat shorter version can be found on the website of LuissOpen.

In a few sentences, I believe that the interest of the book lies in two points:

  • First, its rebuttal of the “flawed euro” narrative. This narrative is shared by euro skeptics and federalists (including myself more often than not), and it fatally hurts the capacity of the latter to win the argument. If the euro is flawed, and if a political union is not in the cards, then it is hard to argue against XX-exiters with arguments other than fear. And fear (Brexit docet) does not work.
  • Second, Sandbu shows masterfully something I have also been saying, much less effectively: institutions (and money is one) do not make policies. Humans do. None of the policy mistakes that disseminate the euro crisis Via Crucis  was inevitable. In the piece for LuissOpen I notice that institutions may still bias the choice in certain directions (think of the Stability Pact), but in spite of that I join Sandbu in believing that the Euro is the scapegoat for policies that could and should have been different. La moneta rinnegata, indeed.

I would add something, that came to my mind after I had sent out the piece. Sandbu puts at the center of his narrative the issue of debt restructuring. It is the refusal of EU creditors to consider forgiveness for a debt that was anyway never to be repaid, that led to self-defeating austerity. Sharing the burden (debt relief) would have entailed lower costs and eventually, would have increased resilience and more sustainable public finances. The IMF recognized this fundamental contradiction, but the other creditors (must notably Germany) did not.

And they still don’t. I believe that the whole debate about risk sharing versus risk reduction, that shapes the discussion on EMU reforms, replicates the fault lines we saw at work for debt crisis management. On one side those who believe that market mechanisms or policy constraints, alone, cannot dampen the centrifugal forces that are inevitably built in any monetary union. On the other, those who believe that the collective convergence will happen once each member behaves, so that enhanced rules and firewalls are all that is needed for the euro to thrive.

Thus Sandbu’s book helps making sense of what happened, but also to assess the proposals for the future. Refusal to share costs linked to the debt crisis turned out to be a huge mistake. We should avoid making another one by refusing to fight divergence through risk sharing.

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A German Model?

September 23, 2017 1 comment

Tomorrow Germany votes, and there is little suspense, besides the highly symbolic question of whether the far right will make it into the Bundestag.

Angela Merkel will be Chancellor for the fourth time, marking a long period of political and policy stability. In the past fifteen years Germany emerged as the model to follow for the other large economies. For since its economy has performed better, in terms of growth and unemployment, than France or Italy.

I have at discussed at length, here and elsewhere, the costs of the German success in terms of global imbalances and uncooperative behaviours. Last week I wrote a piece for the newly born magazine LuissOpen (Ad: Follow it on twitter! There is plenty of interesting content well beyond economics! End of Ad).

The piece lists, in a non exhaustive way, a number of weaknesses that can be spotted behind the shining macroeconomic results, and also argues that there is much more than labour market liberalization behind a successful economic model (including in Germany).

The original piece can be found here (and here in Italian). I copy and paste it below

Three months after his commencement, Emmanuel Macron delivered last week one of the most important, and controversial, promises of his agenda. The loi travail that will become operational in the next few weeks mostly deals employment protection, which is weakened especially for small and medium enterprises. The aim is to lift constraints for firms hiring, and thus increase employment. This first set of norms should be followed in the next weeks or months by norms aimed at improving training and employability of unemployed workers. Once completed, the package would be the French version of the flexicurity that Scandinavian countries put in place in the past, with different degrees of success.

Without entering into the details of the law, the set of norms approved by the French government, just as the Italian Jobs Act voted in 2014, is a bold step towards the flexibilization of  labour market relations that Germany has in place since the early years 2000, with the so-called “Hartz Reforms”. The German experience, and to a minor extent the first few years of application of the Job Act, can help understand how the French labour market could evolve in the next few years.

Germany in fact sets itself as an example. The argument goes that the reforms it implemented in 2003-2005, did liberalize labour markets, and since then, with the exception of the first years of the crisis, unemployment has been steadily decreasing. But in fact, this is a misleading example, because the Hartz reforms were embedded in a complex institutional setting, which goes well beyond labour market flexibility.

First, an important segment of the German labour market, the one linked to manufacturing and business services, has always been ruled by long-term agreements between employers, workers, and local work councils. For these insider workers a system of work relations was in place, in which highly paid workers acquired skills through vocational training (within or outside the firm), and were protected by an all-encompassing welfare system. Vocational training created robust bonds between the firms, that had often invested substantial resources in the training, and the workers, whose specific skills could not easily be transferred to other sectors or even to other firms.

At the turn of the century, globalized markets coupled with the aftermath of the reunification, exerted a serious pressure for a restructuring  of labour relations.  This restructuring happened through a consensus process that did not involve the government, and kept untouched the bond between the firm and the worker created by vocational training.

The mutual interest in preserving the long-term relationship between workers and firms in the insider markets, led to agreements aimed at reducing costs or to increase productivity without increasing turnover or reducing average job tenure. These agreements could involve on the workers’ side labour sharing, flexibility in hours and in labour mobility, wage concessions, reductions in absenteeism. In exchange for this, firms would guarantee continued investments in innovation and in the (vocational) training of workers, and job security.

It is crucial to understand that the Hartz reform did not touch the insiders market (manufacturing, finance, insurance and business, etc), that as we just said had already begun restructuring without government intervention. The reform made the welfare system less generous, while  allowing access to benefits even for workers with low earnings, thus de facto introducing incentives to low-paid jobs. Furthermore, it liberalized temporary work contracts, and made more flexible a few sectors subject to competition from posted workers (i.e. construction).

The combined result of reforms and endogenous restructuring yielded a spike in part time jobs, and an increase of employment. But it also widened the gap in earnings and in protection between workers in the export-oriented sectors and the others.

The second feature of the German system that made it resilient during the crisis is the existence of a dense network  of local public savings banks (the Sparkassen). Savings bank were a defining feature of the banking sectors of a number of European countries (e.g. Spain, Italy), but have progressively become marginal. Germany is therefore an exception in that its local savings banks are still a pillar of its economy.

Local savings banks have specific public interest missions, as they are involved in the development of local communities, and in financing households and firms (in particular SMEs). The law only allows operation within the region of competence, which shields them from competition while keeping them close to their stakeholders. Similarly, the ambit of their operations is limited (for example, they face limits in their capacity to engage in securities trading or in excessively risky financing).

To avoid that these limitations hamper their effectiveness and their solidity, the banks work as a network  among them. The network exhibits economies of scale and of scope, while remaining close, in its individual components, to local communities. Furthermore, the existence of solidarity mechanisms (rescue funds) ensures that temporary difficulties of a bank are tackled without spreading contagion.

The major private commercial banks, very active in international markets, did suffer like in most other countries, were a drain on public finances, and drastically contracted their lending to the real sector. The Sparkassen on the other hand kept their financing steady (especially to SMEs) and required virtually no state aid. As a consequence, the local savings banks cushioned the impact of the financial crisis on the German economy, and their continued financing of firms is certainly a major factor in explaining the quick rebound of the German economy after 2010.

If taken together, the banking sector and the labour market institutions design a remarkably efficient system, geared towards the establishment of long run relationships in which the interests and the objectives (between entrepreneurs and workers, between banks and firms) were aligned.

But this effectiveness did not come without costs. From a macroeconomic point of view, profitability and competitiveness increased, but also precautionary savings, induced by a less generous welfare state, and by the increased uncertainty faced by workers. The “success” of the German export-led economy, that had a 9% current account surplus in 2016, is based on the compression of domestic demand, and on a labour market that is increasingly split in two, and in which inequality increased dramatically.  The low unemployment that should make other countries envious hides a massive increase of the so-called working poor. (See figure 2 here)

I would push this even further: the Hartz Reform had a strong impact on labour market dualism and precariousness, but only a minor one in explaining the resilience of the economy. A recent CER policy brief makes a somewhat similar point.

Following the Jobs Act, the Italian labour market seems to be headed in a similar direction as the German one. The recent data released by ISTAT on labour market development certified the return of employed people to the pre-crisis peak (2008), thus marking, symbolically the end of the crisis. Yet, GDP is still 7% below its 2008 level, meaning that the increase of employment happened in low value added sectors (such as for example tourism and catering), and often with part-time contracts. These are typically sectors with low and very low wages, and stagnant productivity dynamics. At the same time, wages (but not employment) increase in manufacturing-export oriented sectors. The Italian labour market, in a sentence, is heading towards the same dualistic structure that characterizes the German one. This explains why, like in Germany, Italian domestic demand stagnates; why the increase in employment is obtained at the price of increased precariousness and of the working poor; why, finally, while the numbers say that the crisis is beyond us, the actual experience of households is often different. Italy, and to a minor extent Germany, are the best proof that employment and growth do not necessarily go hand in hand with increased well-being.

Focusing exclusively on labour market flexibility, Italy and in France only imported one element of the German “model”; and probably the one that is by far the least important.  The German capacity to put in place long term relationships, the real key to economic resilience success, is lost in our countries.

Can France Survive Without Europe?

May 6, 2017 2 comments

I should begin by saying that it is sad to see that my last post dates from February 20. Lots of things going on right now, in particular the wrapping up a book on the history of macro, that is draining all my energies. But I need to try harder to keep the blog going…

At any rate, tomorrow France votes. And I wrote a piece for Social Europe, in which I try to put the outcome of the election in the European context. If you do not want to read all of it, here are the bullet points:

  1. France is considered the sick man of Europe for the standard reasons (rigidity lack of reform etc)
  2. 2) But in fact “hard” data are not that bad, rather the contrary (productivity investment FDI, etc). Just look at Thomas Piketty’s blog post from a few months ago.
  3. lost competitiveness is price competitiveness, that is not France’s fault, but Germany’s (wage deflation).
  4. In fact the sick man of Europe is Europe itself, because it forces countries into a dilemma:
    • They can engage in fiscal competition and internal devaluation. But let’s not fool ourselves, there is no way that this can be done without killing the European social model. Only the downsizing of the welfare state can allow reducing taxes and labour costs and keeping public finances sustainable;
    • Or, they (try to) protect their social model, but pay the price of low competitiveness and slow growth.
  5. France oscillated between Scylla and Charybdis, leaning more towards the second path.  And it suffers, because most other countries did take the internal devaluation  path, willingly or not . Everything in the way the EMU is constructed, pushes countries to engage in deflationary policies.
  6. Exiting (from the Euro, from the ECU, from the EU) would in no way subtract countries to the dilemma. A small open economy would have an even harder time carrying on autonomous economic policies (more in general, what I think of XXexit is well summarized here. To be fair to my colleagues, I contributed very little to that piece, but was happy to sign it).
  7. Thus, the survival of the French model is in Europe, or it is nowhere. The next President’s fate will have to be decided there
  8. If France wants to save its social model, it needs to trigger change in the EU. It will save its model. Otherwise it is doomed; it will not survive, socially and electorally, to five more years of muddling through.
  9. And viceversa, if there is a chance for Europe to change, that chance is represented by a coalition against deflationary policies that only France would have the strength to form and lead. There is one way, and only one way, to escape Scylla and Charybdis.

I did not write that in the Social Europe piece, but I want to add that the path is very narrow. Macron has the virtue of putting Europe at the center of his project, but his reform proposals are for the moment very vague. And more importantly, his tax reduction plan resembles a bit too much to the good ol’  supply side measures that sank Jean-Baptiste Hollande.  But then, what do we know? First, policies are shaped by events; and second Le Pen would of course mean the end of the Euro right now. So, we can just hope that (and fight for) France and Europe will walk that narrow path.

On the Political Nature of Monetary Policy

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I was intrigued by Munchau’s editorial on central bank independence, that appeared on today’s FT. Munchau argues that central banks’ choices are increasingly political in nature, especially if their mandate is broad, as is the case for example of the Fed. His argument is that a broad mandate implies tradeoffs, and as such it does not go well with central bank independence.

I must say I am unconvinced to say the least, on at least two levels.

First, I do not see how a strict mandate would make central bank choices less political in nature. It makes them more opaque, but by no means less political. I wrote about this in a paper on ECB action during the crisis, and more succinctly in an op-ed for Social Europe co-written with Yan Islam back in 2015.  Let me quote a few excerpts from that piece:

A dual mandate requiring the central bank to pursue two, sometimes conflicting, objectives forces the institution to make inherently political choices. Far from being a shortcoming, this allows for a more flexible and unbiased monetary policy. A central bank following a dual mandate will always be able to take an aggressive stance on inflation, if it deems this necessary. Appropriate choice of the weights given to employment and inflation would allow incorporation of any combination of the two objectives. […]

Inflation-targeting central banks, such as the ECB, de facto also target growth but timidly and without explicitly saying so. This leads to low reactivity and opaque communication, hampering in turn the capacity of central banks to manage expectations and effectively steer the economy. A good case in point is the ECB that – compared to the Fed – did “too little and too late” from 2009, amid a constant debate on whether the inflation-targeting mandate was being violated. […]

ECB opacity is intrinsically linked to the confusion between its mandate and its activities in the real world, and as such it cannot lead to any meaningful discussion but only to legalistic disputes on the definition of price stability, of how medium is the medium term and the like.

The main merit of a dual mandate is in fact that it lets the political nature of monetary policy emerge without ambiguities. It is indeed true that monetary policy with a dual mandate requires hard choices, just like those debated these days, and hence is political by its very nature. The point is, so is monetary policy with a simple inflation-targeting objective. The level of inflation targeted, and the choice of the instruments to attain it, is anything but neutral in terms of its consequences on the economy. Thus, an inflation-targeting central bank is as political in its actions as a bank following a dual mandate, the only difference being that In the former case the political nature of monetary policy is concealed behind a technocratic curtain.

In a sentence, we argued that monetary policy choices are always political, and as such they should be incorporated in the policy mix, without hiding behind what Yan and I called a technocratic illusion.

Munchau’s link between the broadness of the mandate and its political nature, is simplistic and in my opinion strongly misleading. In fact, we concluded back in 2015 that it is linked to a specific intellectual framework

The profound justification of an exclusive focus on price stability can only lie in the acceptance of a neoclassical view in which virtually powerless governments need to make little or no choices. Once we dismiss that platonic view, monetary policy acquires a political role, regardless of the mandate it is given.

The second reason why Munchau’s argument is unconvincing is the conclusion, somewhat implicit in his piece, that a central bank making political choices needs to be a “government agency”. Why is it so, exactly? I fail to see it. What matters is not that the central bank is controlled by the finance ministry, but that it is accountable, like any other actor doing policy, in a system of well functioning checks and balances.

Once we recognize that a central bank has a political role, we need to make sure first, that its mandate is not falsely perceived as technocratic; and second, that its actions are properly embedded in a balanced policy mix, in which there is coordination with, not subordination to, the other branches of government. It seems to me that the US institutional system comes pretty close to this. The same cannot be said for the eurozone.

Trump and Reagan

January 28, 2017 1 comment

A couple of days ago I had an interesting debate hosted by France 24, on Trumponomics. Interesting because there was an overall agreement between me and Dan Mitchell from Cato Institute, even if from totally opposite points of view, on the fact that Trumponomics does not exist. The Donald is pushing forward a number of inconsistent measures, whose final effect is impossible to forecast (except that it is a safe bet to say that it will not end well).

Mitchell argued of course that the only good policies imply the downsizing of the government. As one can easily imagine I would tend to disagree. And over and over again, during the 40 or so minutes of discussion, came back the reference to the golden era of Ronald Reagan. Trump needs to cut taxes, as Reagan did, and downsize government, as Reagan did. And growth and unemployment will return, as under Reagan

When I said that the problem of the US was not the lack of jobs per se, but rather the increasingly unequal distribution of income, that started precisely under Reagan, Mitchell replied that this was false (I officially spread fake truths!), claiming that median income under Reagan increased. Well, think again. An old post by Paul Krugman had already dispelled the mith, and I had written on it myself. I copy the figure from that post (updated) here:

2017_01_trump_and_reagan_1

 

So, while it is true that median income increased under Reagan-Bush (Mitchell is formally right), it is hard to define it an era or decreasing inequality I My conclusion back then was that growth does not lift all boats, and trickle-down economics does not exist. And Reagan did not do that well in terms of growth either. And did I mention twin deficits?

Just a final remark. The downsizing of government under Reagan is also a myth (which is rather good news, by the way): Look at OECD data:2017_01_trump_and_reagan

 

I rest my case. People at Cato should pick their role models more carefully.

 

 

Killing Them Softly?

December 15, 2016 1 comment

Just a very quick and unstructured note on Greece. There is lots of confusion under the sky, and it seems to me that creditors are today advancing in sparse order.

Yesterday something rather upsetting happened, as the Eurogroup suspended bailout payments because Greece engaged in some extra expenditures. These are mostly targeted to pensioneers and to the Greek islands that had to endure unexpected costs linked to the refugee crisis. Unexpectedly, the Commission is siding with Greece, with Pierre Moscovici arguing that the country is on target, and that its effort has been remarkable so far. In fact, I have understood, Greece is doing so well that it overshot the target of structural surplus for 2016, and it it these extra resources that it is engaging in order to soft the impact of austerity.

And then there is the IMF, accused by Greece of pushing for more austerity, is also under attack from EU institutions (Eurogroup and Commission) for its refusal to join the bailout package. The Fund has hit back, in a somewhat irritual blog post signed by Maurice Obstfeld and Poul Thomsen (not just any two staffers) and seems not to be available to play the scapegoat for a program that in their opinion was born flawed. In fact, I think that more than to Greece, Obstfeld and Thomsen have written with the other creditors in mind.

I have two considerations, one on the economics of all this, one on the politics.

  • I think I will side with the IMF on this. At least with the recent IMF. Since the very beginning The IMF has dubbed as irrealistic the bailout package agreed after the referendum of 2015 . The effort demanded to Greece (the infamous 3.5% structural surplus to be reached by 2018) was recognized to be self-defeating, and the IMF asked for more emphasis on reform, with in exchange a more lenient and realistic approach to fiscal policy: debt relief and much lower required suprluses (1.5% of GDP). In other words, the IMF seems to have learnt from the self-defeating austerity disaster of 2010-2014, and to have finally an eye to the macroeconomic consistency of the reform package. I still believe that the bailout should have been unconditional, and require reforms once the economy had recovered (sequencing, sequencing, and sequencing again). But still, at least the IMF now has a coherent position. Moscovici’s FT piece linked above also seems to go in the same direction, arguing that nothing more can be asked to Greece. It falls short of acknowledging that the package is unrealistic, but at least it avoids blaming the country. And then there is the Eurogroup, actually, Mr Dijsselbloem and Schauble (let’s name names), that did not move an inch since 2010, and fail to see that their demands are slowly (?) choking the Greek economy, stifling any effort to soften the hardship of the adjustment.
  • The political consideration is that the hawks still give the cards, as they dominate the eurogroup. But they are more isolated now. Evidence is piling that the eurozone crisis has been mismanaged to an extent that is impossible to hide, and that the austerity-reforms package that the Berlin View has imposed to the whole eurozone is a big part of the explanation for the political disgregation that we see across the continent. The more nuanced position of the Commission, the IMF challenge to the policies dictated by the hawks, therefore represent an opportunity. There is a clear political space for an alternative to the Berlin View and to the disastrous policies followed so far. The question is which government will be willing (and able) to rise to the occasion. I am afraid I know the anwser.