On the Importance of Fiscal Policy

May 2, 2016 3 comments

Last week’s data on EMU growth have triggered quite a bit of comments. I was intrigued by Paul Krugman‘s piece arguing (a) that in per capita terms the EMU performance is not as bad (he uses working age population, I used total population); and (b) that the path of the EMU was similar to that of the US in the first phase of the crisis; and (c) that divergence started only in 2011, due to differences in monetary policy (an impeccable disaster here, much more reactive in the US). Fiscal policy, Krugman argues, was equally contractionary across the ocean.
I pretty much agree that the early policy response to the crisis was similar, and that divergence started only when the global crisis went European, after the Greek elections of October 2009. But I am puzzled (and it does not happen very often) by Krugman’s dismissal of austerity as a factor explaining different performances. True, at first sight, fiscal consolidation kicked in at the same moment in the US and in Europe. I computed the fiscal impulse, using changes in the cyclically adjusted primary deficit. In other words, by taking away the cyclical component, and interest payment, we can obtain the closest possible measure to the discretionary fiscal stance of a government. And here is what it gives:
2016_05_02_ImportanceFiscalPolicy_1
Krugman is certainly right that austerity was widespread in 2011 and in 2012 (actually more in the US). So what is the problem?
The problem is that fiscal consolidation needs not to be assessed in isolation, but in relation to the environment in which it takes place. First, it started one year earlier in the EMU (look at the bars for 2010). Second, expansion had been more robust in the US in 2008 and in 2009, thus avoiding that the economy slid too much: having been bolder and more effective in 2008-2010, continued fiscal expansion was less necessary in 2011-12.
I remember Krugman arguing at the time that the recovery would have been stronger and faster if the fiscal stance in the US had remained expansionary. I agreed then and I agree now: government support to the economy was withdrawn when the private sector was only partially in condition to take the witness. But to me it is just a question of degree and of timing in reversing a fiscal policy stance that overall had been effective.
I had made the same point back in 2013. Here is, updated from that post, the correlation between public and private expenditure:

Correlation Between Public and Private Expenditure
2008-2009 2010-2012 2013-2015
EMU -0.96 0.73 0.99
USA -0.82 -0.96 -0.04

Remember, a positive correlation means that fiscal policy moves together with private expenditure, and fails to act countercyclically. The table tells us that public expenditure in the US was withdrawn only when private expenditure could take the witness, and never was procylclical (it turned neutral in the past 2 years). Europe is a whole different story. Fiscal contraction began when the private sector was not ready to take the witness; the withdrawal of public demand therefore led to a plunge in economic activity and to the double dip recession that the US did not experience. Here is the figure from the same post, also updated:
2016_05_02_ImportanceFiscalPolicy_2
To sum up: the fiscal stance in the US was appropriate, even if it changed a bit too hastily in 2011. In Europe, it was harmful since 2010.

And monetary policy in all this? It did not help in Europe. I join Krugman in believing that once the economy was comfortably installed in the liquidity trap Mario Draghi’s activism while necessary was (and is)  far from sufficient. Being more timely, the Fed played an important role with its aggressive monetary policy, that started precisely in 2012. It supported the expansion of private demand, and minimized the risk of a reversal when the withdrawal of fiscal policy begun. But in both cases I am unsure that monetary policy could have made a difference without fiscal policy. Let’s not forget that a first round of aggressive monetary easing in 2007-2008 had been successful in keeping the financial sector afloat, but not in avoiding the recession. This is why in 2009 most economies launched robust fiscal stimulus plans. I see no reason to believe that, in 2010-2012, more appropriate and timely ECB action would have made a big difference. The problem is fiscal, fiscal, fiscal.

Celebrate

April 29, 2016 13 comments

Stronger than expected GDP growth in France and Spain (0.5% and 0.8% in 2016Q1, 0.1% more than expected!) has boosted Eurozone GDP to a staggering +0.6% in the first quarter of 2016. The Financial Times notes that GDP is now above its pre-crisis level. I expect, in the next few days, celebrations in some quarters.

So, just a reminder:
2016_04_29_Compare

The figure speaks for itself. While we had a lost decade (eight-ade), The US and the OECD as a whole were out of the woods in 2011Q2. Our neighbours across the Channel in 2013Q2. Furthermore, we were the only ones to go through a double dip recession, and are the only ones still fighting with deflationary pressures.

Of course, if we look at per capita GDP (warning, I constructed it myself, simply dividing real GDP by population on January 1st), the lost decade may materialize after all:
2016_04_29_Compare_1
I added Greece as a second reminder. The country is back at case one, in yet another round of difficult negotiations. And I do believe that remembering what they have endured may help

So, tell me again, what should we be celebrating?

The Sin of Central Bankers

April 19, 2016 Leave a comment

I read, a bit late, a very interesting piece by Simon Wren-Lewis, who blames central bankers for three major mistakes: (1) They did not see the crisis coming, while they were the only one in the position to see the build-up of leverage; (2) They did not warn governments that at the Zero Lower Bound central banks would lose traction and could not protect the economy from the disasters of austerity. (3) They may be rushing in declaring that we are back to normal, thus attributing all the current slack to a deterioration of the supply side of the economy.

What surprises me is (2), for which I quote Wren-Lewis in full:

Of course the main culprit for the slow recovery from the Great Recession was austerity, by which I mean premature fiscal consolidation. But the slow recovery also reflects a failure of monetary policy. In my view the biggest failure occurred very early on in the recession. Monetary policy makers should have said very clearly, both to politicians and to the public, that with interest rates at their lower bound they could no longer do their job effectively, and that fiscal stimulus would have helped them do that job. Central banks might have had the power to prevent austerity happening, but they failed to use it.

The way Wren-Lewis writes it, central banks were not involved in the push towards fiscal consolidation, and their “only” sin was of not being vocal enough. I think he is too nice. At least in the Eurozone, the ECB was a key actor in pushing austerity. It was directly involved in the Trojka designing the rescue packages that sunk Greece (and the EMU with it). But more importantly, the ECB contributed to design and impose the Berlin View narrative that fiscal profligacy was at the roots of the crisis, so that rebalancing would have to be on the shoulders of fiscal sinners alone. We should not forget that “impeccable disaster” Jean-Claude Trichet was  one of the main supporters of the confidence fairy: credible austerity would magically lift expectations, pushing private expenditure and triggering the recovery. He was the President of the ECB when central banks made the second mistake. And I really have a hard time picturing him warning against the risks of austerity at the zero lower bound.

And things are not drastically different now. True, Mario Draghi often calls for fiscal support to the ECB quantitative easing program. But as I argued at length, calling for fiscal policy within the existing rules’ framework has no real impact.

So I disagree with Wren-Lewis on this one. Central banks, or at least the ECB, did not simply fail to contrast the problem of wrongheaded austerity. They were, and may  still be, part of the problem.

The problem is one of economic doctrine. And as long as this does not change, I am unsure that removing central bank independence would have made a difference. Would a Bank of England controlled by Chancellor  Osborne have been more vocal against austerity? Would an ECB controlled by the Ecofin? Nothing is less sure…

 

Convergence no More

April 14, 2016 Leave a comment

As a complement to the latest post, here is a quite eloquent figure

2016_04_Convergence_no_More

I computed real GDP of the periphery (Spain-Ireland-Portugal-Greece) and of the core (Germany-Netherlands-Austria-Finland), and then I took the difference of yearly growth rates in three subperiods  that correspond to the run-up to the single currency, to the euro “normal times”, and to the crisis.

Let’s focus on the red bar: until 2008 the periphery on average grew more than 1% faster than the core, a difference that was even larger during the debt (private and public) frenzy of the years 2000. Was that a problem? No. Convergence, or catch-up, is a standard feature of growth. Usually (but remember, exceptions are the rule in economics), poorer economies tend to grow faster because there are more opportunities for high productivity growth. So it is not inconceivable that growth in the periphery was consistently higher than in the core especially in a phase of increasing trade and financial integration;

We all know (now; and some knew even then) that this was unhealthy because imbalances were building up, which eventually led to the crisis. But it is important to realize that the problem were the imbalances, not necessarily faster growth. In fact, if we look at the yellow bar depicting the difference in potential growth, it shows the same pattern (I know, the concept of potential growth is unreliable. But hey, if it underlies fiscal rules, I have the right to graph it, right?).

During the crisis the periphery suffered more than the core, and its potential output grew less fell more. This is magnified by the mechanic effect of current growth that “pulls” potential output. But it is undeniable that the productive capacity of the periphery (capital, skills) has been dented by the crisis, much more so than in the core. Thus, not only we are collectively more fragile, as I noted last Monday;on top of that, the next shock will hurt the periphery more than the core, further deepening the divide.

The EMU in its current design lacks mechanisms capable of neutralizing pressure towards divergence. It was believed when the Maastricht Treaty was signed that markets alone would ensure convergence. It turns out (unsurprisingly, if you ask me) that markets not only did not ensure convergence. But they were actually a powerful force of divergence, first contributing to the buildup of imbalances, then by fleeing the periphery when trouble started.

Markets do not act as shock absorbers. It is as simple as that, really.

Resilience? Not Yet

April 11, 2016 1 comment

Last week the ECB published its Annual Report, that not surprisingly tells us that everything is fine. Quantitative easing is working just fine (this is why on March 10 the ECB took out the atomic bomb), confidence is resuming, and the recovery is under way. In other words, apparently, an official self congratulatory EU document with little interest but for the data it collects.

Except, that in the foreword, president Mario Draghi used a sentence that has been noticed by commentators, obscuring, in the media and in social networks, the rest of the report. I quote the entire paragraph, but the important part is highlighted

2016 will be a no less challenging year for the ECB. We face uncertainty about the outlook for the global economy. We face continued disinflationary forces. And we face questions about the direction of Europe and its resilience to new shocks. In that environment, our commitment to our mandate will continue to be an anchor of confidence for the people of Europe.

Why is that important? Because until now, a really optimistic and somewhat naive observer could have believed that, even amid terrible sufferings and widespread problems, Europe was walking the right path. True, we have had a double-dip recession, while the rest of the world was recovering. True, the Eurozone is barely at its pre-crisis GDP level, and some members are well below it. True, the crisis has disrupted trust among EU countries and governments, and transformed “solidarity” into a bad word in the mouth of a handful of extremists. But, one could have believed, all of this was a necessary painful transition to a wonderful world of healed economies and shared prosperity: No gain without pain. And the naive observer was told, for 7 years, that pain was almost over, while growth was about to resume, “next year”. Reforms were being implemented (too slowly, ça va sans dire) , and would soon bear fruits. Austerity’s recessionary impact  had maybe been underestimated, but it remained a necessary temporary adjustment. The result, the naive observer would believe,  would eventually be that the Eurozone would grow out of the crisis stronger, more homogeneous, and more competitive.

I had noticed a long time ago that the short term pain was evolving in more pain, and more importantly, that the EMU was becoming more heterogeneous precisely along the dimension, competitiveness, that reforms were supposed to improve. I also had noticed that as a result the Eurozone would eventually emerge from the crisis weaker, not stronger. More rigorous analysis ( e.g. here, and here) has recently shown that the current policies followed in Europe are hampering the long term potential of the economy.

Today, the ECB recognizes that “we face questions about the resilience [of Europe] to new shocks”. Even if the subsequent pages call for more of the same, that simple sentence is an implicit and yet powerful recognition that more of the same is what is killing us. Seven years of treatment made us less resilient. Because, I would like to point out, we are less homogeneous than we were  in 2007. A hard blow for the naive observer.

Whatever it Takes Cannot be in Frankfurt

March 11, 2016 3 comments

Yesterday I was asked by the Italian weekly pagina99 to write a comment on the latest ECB announcement. Here is a slightly expanded English version.
Mario Draghi had no choice. The increasingly precarious macroeconomic situation, deflation that stubbornly persists, and financial markets that happily cruise from one nervous breakdown to another, had cornered the ECB. It could not, it simply could not, risk to fall short of expectations as it had happened last December. And markets have not been disappointed. The ECB stored the bazooka and pulled out of the atomic bomb. At the press conference Mario Draghi announced 6 sets of measures (I copy and paste):

  1. The interest rate on the main refinancing operations of the Eurosystem will be decreased by 5 basis points to 0.00%, starting from the operation to be settled on 16 March 2016.
  2. The interest rate on the marginal lending facility will be decreased by 5 basis points to 0.25%, with effect from 16 March 2016.
  3. The interest rate on the deposit facility will be decreased by 10 basis points to -0.40%, with effect from 16 March 2016.
  4. The monthly purchases under the asset purchase programme will be expanded to €80 billion starting in April.
  5. Investment grade euro-denominated bonds issued by non-bank corporations established in the euro area will be included in the list of assets that are eligible for regular purchases.
  6. A new series of four targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO II), each with a maturity of four years, will be launched, starting in June 2016. Borrowing conditions in these operations can be as low as the interest rate on the deposit facility.

Items 1-3 depict a further decrease of interest rates. Answering a question Mario Draghi hinted that rates will be lower for a long period, but also that this may be the lower bound (sending markets in an immediate tailspin; talk of rational, well thought decisions). The “tax” the ECB imposes on excess reserves, the liquidity that financial institutions keep idle, is now at -0,4%. Not insignificant.

But the real game changer are the subsequent items, that really represent an innovation. Items 4-5 announce an acceleration of the bond buying program, and more importantly its extension to non-financial corporations, which changes its very nature. In fact, the purchase of non-financial corporations’ securities  makes the ECB a direct provider of funding  for the real sector. With these quasi-fiscal operations the ECB has therefore taken a step towards what economists call “helicopter money”, i.e. the direct financing of the economy cutting the middlemen of the financial and banking sector.

Finally, item 6, a new series of long-term loan programs, with the important innovation that financial institutions which lend the money to the real sector will obtain negative rates, i.e. a subsidy. This measure is intended to lift the burden for banks of the negative rates on reserves, at the same time forcing them to grant credit: The banks will be “paid” to borrow, and then will make a profit as long as they place the money in government bonds or lend to the private sector, even at zero interest rates.

To summarize, it is impossible for the ECB to do more to push financial institutions to increase the supply of credit. Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that credit will increase and the economy rebound. There is debate among economists about why quantitative easing has not worked so far. I am among those who think that the anemic eurozone credit market can be explained both by insufficient demand and supply. If credit supply increases, but it is not followed by demand, then today’s atomic bomb will evolve into a water gun. With the added complication that financial institutions that fail to lend, will be forced to pay a fee on excess reserves.

But maybe, this “swim or sink” situation is the most positive aspect of yesterday’s announcement. If the new measures will prove to be ineffective like the ones that preceded them, it will be clear, once and for all, that monetary policy can not get us out of the doldrums, thus depriving governments (and the European institutions) of their alibi. It will be clear that only a large and coordinated fiscal stimulus can revive the European economy. Only time will tell whether the ECB has the atomic bomb or the water gun (I am afraid I know where I would place my bet). In the meantime, the malicious reader could have fun calculating: (a) How many months of QE would be needed to cover the euro 350 billion Juncker Plan, that painfully saw the light after eight years of crisis, and that, predictably, is even more painfully being implemented. (b) How many hours of QE would be needed to cover the 700 million euros that the EU, also very painfully, agreed to give Greece, to deal with the refugee influx.

Draghi Wants the Cake, and Eat It

February 16, 2016 6 comments

Yesterday Mario Draghi has called once more for other policies to support the ECB titanic (and so far vain) effort to lift the eurozone economy out of its state of semi-permanent stagnation. Here is the exact quote from his introductory remarks at the European Parliament hearing:

In parallel, other policies should help to put the euro area economy on firmer grounds. It is becoming clearer and clearer that fiscal policies should support the economic recovery through public investment and lower taxation. In addition, the ongoing cyclical recovery should be supported by effective structural policies. In particular, actions to improve the business environment, including the provision of an adequate public infrastructure, are vital to increase productive investment, boost job creations and raise productivity. Compliance with the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact remains essential to maintain confidence in the fiscal framework.

In a sentence, less taxes, more public investment (in infrastructures), and respect of the 3% limit. I just have two very quick (related) comments:

  1. Boosting growth remaining within the limits of the stability pact simply cannot happen. I just downloaded from the Commission database the deficit figures and the growth rate for 2015. And I computed the margin (difference between deficit and the 3% SGP limit). Here is what it gives:
    2016_02_Draghi
    Not only the margin for a fiscal expansion is ridiculously low for the EMU as a whole (at 0.8% of GDP, assuming a multiplier of 1.5 this would give globally 1.2% of extra growth). But it is also unevenly distributed. The (mild) positive slope of the yellow trend line, tells us that the countries that have a wider margin are those which need it the less as, overall, they grew faster in 2015. Said otherwise, we should ask the same guys who are unable to show a modicum of decency and solidarity in managing a humanitarian emergency like the refugee crisis, to coordinate in a fiscal expansion for the common good of the eurozone. Good luck with that…
    Mr Draghi is too smart not to know that the needed fiscal expansion would require breaching the limits of the pact. Unless we had a real golden rule, excluding public investment from deficit computation.
  2. So, how can we have lower taxes, more investment, and low deficit? The answer seems one, and only one. Cutting current expenditure. And I think it is worth being frank here: Besides cutting some waste at the margin, the only way to reduce current public expenditure is to seriously downsize our welfare state. We may debate whether our social model is incompatible with the modern globalized economy (I don’t think it is). But pretending that we can have the investment boost that even Mr Draghi today think is necessary, leaving our welfare state untouched, is simply nonsense. You can’t have the cake and eat it.

Therefore, what we should be talking about is our social contract. Do we want to keep it or not? Are we ready to pay the price for it? Are we aware of what the alternative of low social protection would imply? Are our institutions ready for a world in which automatic stabilization would play a significantly lesser role? If after considering these (and other) questions, the EU citizen decided, democratically, to abandon the current EU social model, I would not object to it. I would disagree, but I would not object. The problem is that this change is being implemented, bit by bit, without a real debate. I am no fan of conspiracy theories. But when reading Draghi yesterday, I could not avoid thinking of an old piece by Jean-Paul Fitoussi, arguing that European policy makers were pursuing an hidden agenda  (I have discussed it already). The crisis weakened resistance and is making it easier to gradually dismantle the EU social model. The result is growing disaffection, that really surprises nobody but those who do not want to see it. An Italian politician from an other era famously said that to think the worst of someone is a sin, but usually you are spot on…