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Public Debt. I can’t Believe we are Still There

January 25, 2018 3 comments

The crisis is supposedly over, as the European economy started growing again. There will be time to assess whether we are really out of the wood, or whether there is still some slack. But this matters little to those who, as soon as things got slightly better, turned to their old obsession: DEBT! Bear in mind, not private debt, that seems to have disappeared from the radars. No, what seems to keep policy makers and pundits awake at night is ugly public debt, the source of all troubles (past, present and future).

Take my country, Italy. A few days ago this tweet showing the difference between the Italian and the German debt made a few headlines:

 

The ratio increased, so DEBT is the Italian most pressing problem. Not the slack in the labour market. Not the differentials in productivity. I can’t stop asking: why aren’t Italians desperately tweeting this figure?

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This shows the relative performance of Italy and Germany along two very common measures of productivity, Multifactor productivity and GDP per capita. I took these variables (quick and dirt from the OECD site), but any other measure of real performance would have depicted a similar picture.

So what? The public debt crusaders will argue that precisely because of debt, Italy has poor real performance. The profligate public sector prevented virtuous market adjustments, and hampered real convergence.  The causality goes from high debt to poor real performance, they will argue. Reduce debt!

Well, think again. Research is much more nuanced on this. A paper by Pescatori and coauthors shows for example that countries with high public debt exhibit high GDP volatility, but not necessarily lower growth rates. High but stable levels of debt are less harmful than low but increasing ones. In a recent Fiscal Monitor the IMF has shifted the focus back to private debt (which, it is worth remembering is the root cause of the crisis), arguing that the deleveraging that will necessarily continue in the next few years will require accompanying measures from the public sector: on one side, renewed attention to the financial sector, to make sure that liquidity problems of firms, but also of financial institutions) do not degenerate into solvency problems. On the other side, the macroeconomic consequences of deleveraging, most notably the increase of savings and the reduction of private expenditure, may need to be compensated by Keynesian support to aggregate demand, thus implying that public debt may temporarily increase in order to sustain growth (self promotion: the preceding paragraph is taken from my book on the relevance of the history of thought to understand current controversies. French version available, Italian version coming out in March, English version coming out eventually).

In just a sentence, the causal link between high debt and low growth is far from being uncontroversial.

Last, but not least, it is worth remembering that Italy was not profligate during the crisis; unfortunately, I would add.  Let’s look at structural deficit (since 2010; ask the Commission why we don’t have the data for earlier years), which as we know washes away the impact of cyclical factors on public finances.

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The Italian figures were slightly worse than the German ones, but not dramatically so. And if we take interest expenditure away, so that we have a measure of what the Italian government could actually control, then Italy was more rigorous (Debt obsessive pundits would use the term “virtuous”) than Germany.

The thing is that the Italian debt ratio is more or less stable, in spite of sluggish growth (current and potential) and low inflation. It is not an issue that should worry our policy makers, who should instead really try to boost productivity and growth. Said it differently, it is more urgent for Italy to work on increasing the denominator of the ratio between debt and GDP than to focus on the numerator. And I think this may actually require more public expenditure and a temporary increase in debt (some help from the rest of the EMU, starting from Germany, would not hurt). It is a pity that the “Italian debt problem” is all over the place.

Confusion in Brussels

October 17, 2014 13 comments

already noticed how the post-Jackson Hole Consensus is inconsistent with the continuing emphasis of European policy makers on supply side measures. In these difficult times, the lack of a coherent framework seems to have become the new norm of European policy making. The credit for spotting another serious inconsistency this time goes to the Italian government. In the draft budgetary plan submitted  to the European Commission (that might be rejected, by the way), buried at page 12, one can find an interesting box on potential growth and structural deficit. It really should be read, because it is in my opinion disruptive. To summarize it, here is what it says:

  1. A recession triggers a reduction of the potential growth rate  (the maximum rate at which the economy can grow without overheating) because of hysteresis: unemployed workers lose skills and/or exit the labour market, and firms scrap productive processes and postpone investment. I would add to this that hysteresis is non linear: the effect, for example on labour market participation, of a slowdown, is much larger if it happens at the fifth year of the crisis than at the first one.
  2. According to the Commission’s own estimates Italy’s potential growth rate dropped from 1.4% on average in the 15 years prior to the crisis (very low for even European standards), to an average of -0.2% between 2008 and 2013. A very large drop indeed.
  3. (Here it becomes interesting). The box in the Italian plan argues that we have two possible cases:
    1. Either the extent of the drop is over-estimated, most probably as the result of the statistical techniques the Commission uses to estimate the potential. But, if potential growth is larger than estimated, then the output gap, the difference between actual and potential growth is also larger.
    2. As an alternative, the estimated drop is correct, but this means that Italy there is a huge hysteresis effect. A recession is not only, as we can see every day, costly in the short run; but, even more worryingly, it quickly disrupts the economic structure of the country, thus hampering its capacity to grow in the medium and long run.

The box does not say it explicitly (it remains an official government document after all), but the conclusion is obvious: either way the Commission had it wrong. If case A is true, then the stagnation we observed in the past few years was not structural but cyclical. This means that the Italian deficit was mainly cyclical (due to the large output gap), and as such did (and does) not need to be curbed. The best way to reabsorb cyclical deficit is to restart growth, through temporary support to aggregate demand. If case B is true, then insisting on fiscal consolidation since 2011 was borderline criminal. When a crisis risks quickly disrupting the long run potential of the economy, then it is a duty of the government to do whatever it takes to fight, in order to avoid that it becomes structural.

In a sentence: with strong hysteresis effects, Keynesian countercyclical policies are crucial to sustain the economy both in the short and in the long run. With weaker, albeit still strong hysteresis effects,  a deviation from potential growth is cyclical, and as such it requires Keynesian countercyclical policies. Either way, fiscal consolidation was the wrong strategy.

I am not a fan of the policies currently implemented by the Italian government. To be fair, I am not a fan of the policies implemented by any government in Europe. Too much emphasis on supply side measures, and excessive fear of markets (yes, I dare say so today, when the spreads take off again). But I think the Italian draft budget puts the finger where it hurts.

The guys in Via XX Settembre dit a pretty awesome job…

The Italian Job

July 8, 2013 1 comment

A follow-up of the post on public investment. I had said that the resources available based on my calculation were to be seen as an upper bound, being among other things based on the Spring forecasts of the Commission (most likely too optimistic).

And here we are. On Friday the IMF published the result of its Article IV consultation with Italy, where growth for 2013 is revised downwards from -1.3% to -1.8%.

In terms of public finances, a crude back-of-the-envelop estimation yields a worsening of deficit of 0.25% (the elasticity is roughly 0.5). This means that in the calculation I made based on the Commission’s numbers, the 4.8 billions available for 2013 shrink to 1.5 once we take in the IMF numbers. It is worth reminding that besides Germany, Italy is the only large country who can could benefit of the Commission’s new stance.

And while we are at Italy, the table at page 63 of the EC Spring Forecasts (pdf) is striking. The comparison of 2012 with the annus horribilis 2009 shows that private demand is the real Italian problem.  The contribution to growth of domestic demand was of -3.2% in 2009, and -4.7% in 2012! In part this is because of the reversed fiscal stimulus; but mostly because of the collapse of consumption (-4.2% in 2012, against -1.6% in 2009). Luckily, the rest of the world is recovering, and the contribution of net exports, went from -1.1% in 2009 to 3.0% in 2012. This explains the difference in GDP growth between the -5.5% of 2009 and the -2.4% of 2012.

Italian households feel crisis fatigue, and having depleted their buffers, they are today reducing consumption. I remain convinced that strong income redistribution is the only quick way to restart consumption. Looking at the issues currently debated in Italy, this could be attempted  reshaping both VAT and property taxes so as to impact the rich and the very rich significantly more than the middle classes. The property tax base should be widened to include much more than just real estate, and an exemption should be introduced (currently in France it is 1.2 millions euro per household). Concerning VAT, a reduction of basic rates should be compensated by a significant increase in rates on luxury goods.

Chances that this will happen?

Wishful Thinking

March 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Yesterday I published a note on OFCE le blog (in French), analyzing one possible outcome of the recent Italian elections: A center-left minority government, with external support of the Cinque Stelle movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo. The last part of the post argues that if a convergence between the Democratic Party and Beppe Grillo were to be found (at the moment the scenario is rather unlikely), it would happen on a number of progressive issues, like for example minimum citizenship income. But then, I conclude, this has implications for Europe as a whole. Here is a translation of the last paragraphs: It is clear  that the convergence could hardly happen within the bounds of the current fiscal consolidation. An agreement would therefore need a prior reversal of austerity that, it is worth repeating, was disavowed by the voters. This would not be easy for the Democratic Party that, like the Socialist Party in France, made the choice of fiscal discipline, and has kept a very ambiguous position along all the electoral campaign. But in turn, this has implications for Europe as a whole. European leaders in the next weeks may face a choice between demanding that Italy stays the course of fiscal consolidation, condemning the third economy of the eurozone to political paralysis and probably social chaos; or, accept that a new government is formed, that will most likely abandon austerity.  In both cases it will be impossible to act as if nothing had happened. Europe could be forced to rethink its own economic strategies, that are failing not only in Italy. An some countries reluctantly embracing fiscal consolidation (France to name one) could take the opportunity to challenge austerity as the only policy for growth.

Let’s be clear, here. I am totally aware that at the moment this is nothing more than wishful thinking. But hey, you never know…