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A Plea for Semi-Permanent Government Deficits

December 9, 2016 3 comments

Update (1/7/2016): The whole paper is now available on Repec.

I have recently written a text on EMU governance and the implementation of a Golden Rule of public finances. I will provide the link as soon as it comes out. The last section of that paper can be read stand alone (with some editing). A bit long, I warn you, but here it is:

Because of its depth, and of its length, the crisis has triggered an interesting discussion among economists about whether the advanced economies will eventually return to the growth rates they experienced in the second half of the twentieth century.
One view, put forward by Robert Gordon  focuses on supply-side factors. Gordon argues that each successive technological revolution has lower potential impact, and that in this particular moment, “Slower growth in potential output from the supply side, emanating not just from slow productivity growth but from slower population growth and declining labor-force participation, reduces the need for capital formation, and this in turn subtracts from aggregate demand and reinforces the decline in productivity growth.

In a famous speech at the IMF in 2013, later developed in a number of other contributions, Larry Summers revived a term from the 1930s, “secular stagnation”, to describe a dilemma facing advanced economies. Summers develops some of Gordon’s arguments to argue that lower technical progress, slower population growth, the drifting of firms away from debt-financed investment, all contributed to shifting the investment schedule to the left. At the same time, the debt hangover, accumulation of reserves (public and private) induced by financial instability, increasing income inequality (on that, I came first!), tend to push the savings schedule to the right. The resulting natural interest rate is close to zero if not outright negative, thus leading to a structural excess of savings over investment.

Summers argues that most of the factors exerting a downward pressure on the natural interest rate are not cyclical but structural, so that the current situation of excess savings is bound to persist in the medium-to-long run, and the natural interest rate may remain negative even after the current cyclical downturn. The conclusion is not particularly reassuring, as policy makers in the next several years will have to navigate between the Scylla of accepting permanent excess savings and low growth (insufficient to dent unemployment), and the and Charybdis of trying to fight secular stagnation by fuelling bubbles that eliminate excess savings, at the price of increased instability and risks of violent financial crises like the one we recently experienced.

The former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard has elaborated on the meaning of Summers’ conjecture for macroeconomic policy. If interest rates will remain at (or close to) zero even once the crisis will be over, monetary policy will continuously face the Scylla and Charybdis. The recent crisis is a good case study of this dilemma, with the two major central banks of the world under fire from some quarters, for opposiite reasons: the Fed for having kept interest rates too low, contributing to the housing bubble  and the ECB for having done too little and too late during the Eurozone crisis.

Drifting away from the Consensus that he contributed to consolidate, Blanchard concludes that exclusive reliance on monetary policy for macroeconomic stabilization should be reassessed. With low interest rates that make debt sustainability a non-issue; with financial markets deregulation that risks yielding more variance in GDP and economic activity; and with monetary policy (almost) constantly at the Zero Lower Bound, fiscal policy should regain a prominent role among the instruments for macroeconomic regulation, beyond the cycle. This is a very important methodological advance.

Nevertheless, in his plea for fiscal policy, Blanchard falls short of a conclusion that naturally stems from his own reading of secular stagnation: If the economy is bound to remain stuck in a semi-permanent situation of excessive savings, and if monetary policy is incapable of reabsorbing the imbalance, then a new role for fiscal policy may appear, that goes beyond the short-term stabilization that Blanchard (and Summers) envision. In fact, there are two ways to avoid that the ex ante excess savings results in a depressed economy: either one runs semi-permanent negative external savings (i.e. a current account surplus), or one runs semi-permanent government negative savings. The first option, the export-led growth model that Germany is succeeding to generalize at the EMU level, is not viable, except for an individual country implementing non cooperative strategies, because aggregate current account balances need to be zero. The second option, a semi-permanent government deficit, needs to be further investigated, especially in its implication for EMU macroeconomic governance

There are a number of ways, not necessarily politically feasible, to allow EMU countries to run semi-permanent government deficits. A first one could be to restore complete national budget sovereignty, (scrapping the Stability Pact). This would mean relying on market discipline alone for maintaining fiscal responsibility. As an alternative, at the opposite side of the spectrum, countries could create a federal expenditure capacity (which would imply the creation of an EMU finance minister with capacity to spend, the issuance of Eurobonds, etc.). Such an option is as unrealistic as the previous one. In an ideal world, the crisis and deflation would be dealt with by means of a vast European investment program, financed by the European budget and through Eurobonds. Infrastructures, green growth, the digital economy, are just some of the areas for which the optimal scale of investment is European, and for which a long-term coordinated plan would necessary. The increasing mistrust among European countries exhausted by the crisis, and the fierce opposition of Germany and other northern countries to any hypothesis of debt mutualisation, make this strategy virtually impossible. The solution must therefore be found at national level, without giving up European-wide coordination, which would guarantee effective and fiscally sustainable investment programs.

In general, the multiplier associated with public investment is larger than the overall expenditure multiplier. This is particularly true in times of crisis, when the economy is, like today, at the zero lower bound. With Kemal Dervis I proposed that the EMU adopts a fiscal rule similar to the one implemented in the UK by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown in the 1990s, and applied until 2009. The new rule would require countries to balance their current budget, while financing public capital accumulation with debt. Investment expenditure, in other words, would be excluded from deficit calculation, a principle that timidly emerges also in the Juncker plan. Such a rule would stabilize the ratio of debt to GDP, it would focus efforts of public consolidation on less productive items of public spending, and would ensure intergenerational equity (future generations would be called to partially finance the stock of public capital bequeathed to them). Last, but not least, especially in the current situation, putting in place such a rule would not require treaty changes, and it is already discussed, albeit timidly, in EU policy circles.

To avoid the bias towards capital expenditure that the golden rule could trigger, we proposed that at regular intervals, for example in connection with the European budget negotiation, the Commission, the Council and the Parliament could find an agreement on the future priorities of the Union, and make a list of areas or expenditure items exempted from deficit calculation for the subsequent years.

My Grain of Salt on Brexit and on the Risk of XXxit

June 24, 2016 7 comments

Much has been said, already, and even more will be said in the coming hours/days/weeks/months/years, on Brexit. I have little to add. So here is what I see as a series of notes to self. For those who are already tired of reading pages and pages, I can summarize what follows in a sentence: We should focus more on policies than on institutions

  1. The long lasting skepticism about the EU that always permeated British society across the board, has eventually been compounded by the recent dreadful performance of EU member states in managing the crises that have hit our communities. A sparse and incomplete list would include the stubborn insistence on the wrong policy mix (austerity cum reforms) which yielded a double-dip recession that no other large economy experienced in the past decade; the obsession with debt and deficits when the economy was in desperate need for public support to aggregate demand; the despise of democracy shown when dealing with the Greek referendum last summer; the slow moving ECB that only took action years (not weeks, years) after the other central banks; the bullying of small countries in crisis, in negotiations that really were not one, but rather a take-it-or-leave-it; and finally, maybe the mother of all policy mistakes, the cynical and illogical management of refugees crisis. Show that to voters who always were half in and half out, and it is no surprise that they want to walk away.
  2. The EU has been made the scapegoat for choices of the UK government, that was reelected just a few months ago. Osborne and Cameron embraced austerity and government downsizing wholeheartedly, they did not need the EU for this. If it is these policies that the British voters wanted to sanction, then they cast their vote in the wrong elections.
  3. Which brings me to those who today happily see Brexit as the beginning of the end of the EU, and with it of austerity and reforms. I am afraid they are delusional here. Neoliberal policies existed before the EU, and they will exist after. They are the making of governments (and academics), that will not vanish together with the EU. Rather the contrary. Let’s not forget that one of the main selling points of the Leave camp has been that EU regulation chokes UK businesses. If you want to scrap neoliberal policies, rather than fighting the EU, that is a mere vehicle, you should fight the governments that propose them . Remind me of that old story about looking at the finger rather than at the moon?
  4. My feeling is, and I am afraid to be proven right, that the disintegration of the EU would make it harder to protect social justice, workers’ right, the welfare state. Small countries would be even more exposed than the EU as a whole to competitive pressure from the rest of the world. And competitive pressure in the past never turned out to work in favour of labour and wages.
  5. The fact that neoliberalism has very little to do with the EU is proven by the rise of populism well beyond our borders. The global problem is an increasingly dysfunctional economic system. If you kill growth and prosperity, if you increase the social divide, if you boost inequality, then it is no surprise that the first guy saying “life was better before” is given a chance by voters. In normal times, a somebody like Farage (or Le Pen, or Trump, or Salvini) would have very little traction with the voters. Today they give the cards of the political game. And in Europe the game is made easier by the existence of a perfect scapegoat, that is far and immaterial, the EU.
  6. This is why I would also resist the temptation to blame the voters as irresponsible, conservative, irrational, nostalgic, uneducated. The age or education divide of the Brexit referendum is all over the web. But I see them both as proxies for the really relevant divide, which is between the winners and the losers of the past few decades. The same divide that emerges in the US (where paradoxically the losers put faith in the typical winner), and in all the other EU countries.
  7. How to win the hearths and minds of the losers? How to claim their confidence back? Should that not be by definition the essence of a progressive agenda? The way out is to end harmful policies, and to re-transform the EU into a symbol of social progress. Easier said than done, of course; but I see no alternative. What I have been writing in this blog since 2011 tries to explore possible ways to do so. We should stop looking at institutions (the Stability Pact, the euro), and focus on policies, fighting the wrong ones and supporting the right ones. EU institutions are certainly dysfunctional. They are certainly biased towards excessive reliance on market mechanisms (that prove over and over again how far they are from the academic ideal of perfect efficiency). But once again, they can be twisted, and even changed, if only a political will to do so emerges. In a sentence, even within the current institutional framework, if there was a clear political consensus towards abandoning austerity, we could do so. The problem, I will never get tired of repeating it, is not the Stability Pact. The problem are governments that fail to put it on hold or even to change it.
  8. (This is just a sharper restatement of 4). We should stop fighting the EU (or the euro) as the cause of our troubles. We should spot the forces that within each country fight for a radical change in policies, and work to give them a majority. If we do so, the EU will cease to be a problem, and will hopefully become again a force of progress. If we don’t, no Brexit or XXxit will bring to us prosperity. Rather the contrary.
  9. Of course I am thinking in particular of large countries. The Syriza experience in Greece proves that “rejection of austerity in a single country”, especially if it is small and in trouble, cannot work. A new paradigm for policy making should emerge in France, in Germany, in Italy. That would allow a meaningful debate at the European scale.
  10. All this said, given how self-referential are our elites, how self-indulgent, how superficial in their approach to policy, my “gloominess” is doomed to persist.

EMU Troubles: The Narrow Way Out

September 18, 2015 4 comments

I was asked to write a piece on whether we should continue to study the EMU (my answer is yes. In case you wonder, this is called vested interest). One section of it can be a stand-alone blog post: Here it is, with just a few edits:

While in the late 1980s the consensus among economists and policy makers was that the EMU was not an optimal currency area (De Grauwe, 2006), the choice was made to proceed with the single currency for two essentially opposed reasons: The first, stemming from the Berlin-Brussels Consensus, saw monetary integration, together with the establishment of institutions limiting fiscal and monetary policy activism, as an incentive for pursuing structural reforms and converging towards market efficiency: as the role of macroeconomic management was believed to be limited, giving up monetary policy would impose negligible costs to countries while forcing them, through competition, to remove growth-stifling  obstacles to markets.

Another group of academics and policy makers, while not necessarily subscribing to the Consensus, highlighted the political economy of the single currency: Adopting the euro in a non-optimal currency area would have created the incentives for completing it with a political union: a federation, endowed with a common fiscal policy and capable of implementing the fiscal transfers that are required to avoid divergence. In other words a non-optimal euro was seen as just an intermediate step towards a real United States of Europe. A key argument of the proponents of a federal Europe was, and still is, that fiscal transfers seem unavoidable to ensure economic convergence. A seminal paper by Sala-i-Martin and Sachs (1991) shows that even in the United States, where market flexibility is substantially larger than in the EMU, transfers from booming states to states in crisis account for almost 50% of the reaction to asymmetric shocks.

It is interesting to notice how the hopes of both views were dashed by subsequent events. As the theory of optimal currency areas correctly predicted, the inception of the euro without sufficiently strong correction mechanisms, triggered a divergence between a core, characterized by excess savings and export-led growth, and a periphery that sustained the Eurozone growth through debt-driven (public and private) consumption and investment.

Even before the crisis the federal project failed to make it into the political agenda. The euro came to be seen by the political elites not, as the federalists hoped, as an intermediate step towards closer integration, but rather as the endpoint of the process initiated by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in 1950. The crisis further deepened economic divergence and recrimination, highlighting national self-interest as the driving force of policy makers, and making solidarity an empty word. As we write, the Greek crisis management, the refugee emergency, the centrifugal forces shaking Europe, are seen as a potential threat to the Union, rather than a push for further integration as it happened in the past (Rachman, 2015).

The Consensus partisans won the policy debate. The EMU institutions, banning discretionary policy, reflect their intellectual framework; and the policies followed (more or less willingly) by EMU countries, especially since the crisis, are the logical consequences of the consensus: austerity and structural reforms aimed at increasing competitiveness and reducing the weight of the State in the economy. But while they can rejoice of their victory, Consensus proponents have to deal with the failure of their policies: five years of Berlin View therapy has nearly killed the patient. Peripheral countries’ debt is still unsustainable, growth is nowhere to be seen (including in successful Germany), and social hardship is reaching unbearable levels (Kentikelenis et al., 2014). Coupling austerity with reforms proved to be self-defeating, as the short term recessionary impact on the economy was much larger than expected (Blanchard and Leigh, 2013), and as a consequence the long run benefits failed to materialize (Eggertsson et al., 2014). It is then no surprise that in spite of austerity and reforms, divergence between the core and the periphery of the Eurozone is even larger today than it was in 2007.

The dire state of the Eurozone economy is in some sense the revenge of optimal currency areas theory, with a twist. It appears evident today, but it was clear two decades ago, that market flexibility alone would never suffice to ensure convergence (rather the opposite), so that the Consensus faces a potentially fatal challenge. On the other hand, the federalist project, that was already faltering, seems to have received a fatal blow from the crisis.

The conclusion I draw from these somewhat trivial considerations is that the EMU is walking a fine line. If the federalist project is dead, and if Consensus policies are killing the EMU, what have we left, besides a dissolution of the euro?

I conclude the paper by arguing that two pillars of a new EMU governance/policy are necessary (neither of them in isolation would suffice):

  1. Putting in place any possible surrogate of fiscal transfers, like for example a EU wide unemployment benefit, making sure that it is designed to be politically feasible (i.e. no country is net contributor on average), eurobonds, etc.
  2. Scrapping  the Consensus together with its foundation, the efficient market hypothesis, and head towards real, flexible coordination of (imperfect) macroeconomic policies in order to deal with (imperfect) markets. Government by the rules only works in the ideal neoclassical world.

I know, more easily said than done. But I see no other possibility.

Sand Fiscal Foundations

April 11, 2015 6 comments

Simon Wren-Lewis has an interesting piece on structural deficits. He has issues with Pisani-Ferry’s plea for more stable  structural deficit targets for EU countries. While Pisani-Ferry has a point in invoking more certainty for EU government action, Wren-Lewis argues, rightly so, that stable targets risk creating straitjackets for countries, and that the problem is mostly in the excessively short time horizon of structural deficit targets.

The fact that both Pisani and Wren-Lewis have a point highlights what is in my opinion a structural flaw of EU fiscal governance, namely its reliance on the slippery concept of structural government deficit.

To explain this simply, the idea underlying structural deficit targets is that  not all deficit were created equal. if the government runs a deficit because of adverse cyclical conditions (low growth yields lower tax revenues and larger welfare payements), this deficit is “healthy” because it supports economic activity, and bound to disappear when the economy recovers. As such, governments should not be required to target cyclical deficit, but only  the structural (or cyclically adjusted) deficit, which is precisely the deficit “cleaned” of its cyclical component.

The EU fiscal rule, the Stability Pact and its hardened Fiscal Compact extension, recognizes this distinction, and imposes that governments balance their budget over the cycle, which is yet another definition of structural deficit. This may seem a sensible approach, recognizing, as I just said, that not all deficits were created equal. But in fact sensible it is not.

The problem lies precisely in the word “cleaned” I used above . How do we clean headline deficit from its cyclical component, to compute the structural deficit that should be targeted by governments? This is how we should do it: We compute “potential output”, i.e. the capacity of production of the economy. From that we can obtain the output gap, i.e. the distance of actual output from its potential level; finally, by applying an estimate of how the deficit responds to the output gap, we can clean headline deficit from its cyclical component. Simple, right? Yes, in theory. In practice, we have no way to do it in a sufficiently precise way.

Just consider what the Commission itself states in the page dedicated to its own methodology for measuring potential output. (Their most recent methodological paper can be found here).

Any meaningful analysis of cyclical developments, of medium term growth prospects or of the stance of fiscal and monetary policies are all predicated on either an implicit or explicit assumption concerning the rate of potential output growth. Given the importance of the concept, the measurement of potential output is the subject of contentious and sustained research interest.

All the available methods have “pros” and “cons” and none can unequivocally be declared better than the alternatives in all cases. Thus, what matters is to have a method adapted to the problem under analysis, with well defined limits and, in international comparisons, one that deals identically with all countries. (emphasis is mine)

There is nothing wrong with recognizing that potential output estimates are “contentious”. Contrary to what some Talebans persist to argue, economics is a social science, subject to all the uncertainties, mismeasurements, and ambiguities that are inherently linked to human and social interactions.

Where we have a problem is in using a contentious concept as the foundation for rules in which a zeropointsomething deviation from the target may lead to sanctions and public disapproval by the EU community, with all the potential financial market disruptions associated with it.

This makes the rule non credible, because the contentious estimate may be questioned. More importantly, it leads to what Wren-Lewis fears: countries imposing harsh sacrifices to their people that may turn out to be unwarranted when the estimate is revised.

I am not clear about what fiscal rule we should have in the EU. I actually am not even convinced that we really would need one. What is certain is that two necessary conditions for any rule to be effective, credible, and reasonable are that it is not short -termist (I rejoin Wren-Lewis), and that it is based on indicators that are quantitatively as precise as possible.

The current rule fails on both ground (and don’t get me started on how crazily complicated and arbitrary it grew over time). EU fiscal governance remains founded on sand. And of course, a serious debate on its reform is nowhere to be seen in European policy circles.

It’s the Institutions, Stupid!

January 21, 2015 6 comments

Tomorrow’s ECB decision on Quantitative Easing is awaited like a messiah (it would be interesting to see what happens if the ECB does not announce QE). We’ll see the shape this takes, but I already argued some time ago that excessive expectations on ECB action stem from the suicidal neglect of fiscal policy, the instrument of choice at times of liquidity traps. Mario Draghi and the ECB Governing Council are given an excessive burden by the inertia of governments trapped in ideology and/or in a crazy fiscal rule.

There will be time to assess the shape and the impact of tomorrow’s decisions. Here I want to focus on one aspect of all this that is not sufficiently emphasized. Even the bolder and more effective Quantitative Easing program would come unacceptably late. The ECB should have stepped in to sustain economic activity much earlier, at least in 2012, when its counterparts launched their own programs; or possibly earlier, given the Eurozone specific sovereign debt crisis. But it did not, mostly because it was politically impossible to take such a decision without the threat of deflation looming on the eurozone.

And I get to my point. I just saw a paper by Philippe Martin and  Thomas Philippon (here a VoxEU column presenting its main results) that tries to disentangle the impact of different shocks on the crisis, and runs a number of counterfactual experiments. Its conclusion are interesting and commonsensical. The first is that except for Greece, more prudent fiscal policies in the early 2000s would not have been effective in preventing or softening the private deleveraging shock that happened from 2008. Only if more prudent fiscal policies had been coupled with macroprudential policies (i.e., curbing private leverage in the first place), there would have been an impact on the crisis. The counterfactual I found more interesting is the one on the “Whatever it Takes” OMTs program. The authors ask whether  the OMT, if implemented in 2008 and not in late 2012, would have made a difference, and the answer is a clear yes. If through ECB insurance spreads had been kept low, peripheral countries would have had the fiscal space to counter the crisis, and unemployment would have been reabsorbed. Interestingly, the authors neglect the impact of the 3% limit on public deficits. Of course, had they introduced a fiscal rule limiting fiscal space, the impact of OMT would have been less glorious.

The way I see it (I am not sure the authors would have the same interpretation), Martin and Philippon show that the roots of EMU problems are institutional. If we had a normal central bank, capable of acting as a Lender of Last Resort, and of insuring the euro denominated debt; if we had normal governments, capable of using fiscal policy as a countercyclical tool, then… well, then we would be the US! The crisis would have hit hard because excessive leverage did not depend on macroeconomic governance, but policy could have been reactive and coordinated, thus leading to a recovery like the one we saw in the US (while I hear those who complain about policy and about the state of the economy in the US, it is undeniable that their economic performance is orders of magnitude better than our own!). Of course, the US also have a system of fiscal transfers that we can only dream of…

So our problem is that we don’t have normal institutions for macroeconomic governance. Macroeconomic policy in the EMU is the result of political skirmishes, and rests more on the diplomatic capacities of Mario Draghi Angela Merkerl, or Alexis Tsipras, than on a clear assessment of problems and solutions. Furthermore, this (mal)functioning yields last-minute decisions, only if under threat  (OMT because of speculation on periphery’s debt; QE because of deflation).

We are in the eight year of the crisis, and the trending topics among European elites are QE, and the Juncker plan. The former will likely be a byzantine compromise between Mario Draghi and the German government (as a side note: what about central bank independence, Mrs Merkel? Wasn’t that one of the things that you kept in such high consideration that you did not want it endangered by debt monetization?); the Juncker plan is simply an empty box. And they both come into the picture way too late, as the need for expansionary fiscal and monetary policies was clear at least since 2010.

The new European motto should be too little too late.