A new Occasional Paper details the new methodology adopted by the Bank of Italy for calculating an index of price competitiveness, and applies it to the four largest eurozone economies.
I took the time to copy the numbers of table 3 in an excel file (let’s hope for the best), and to look at what happened since 2009. Here is the evolution of price competitiveness (a decrease means improved competitiveness):
I find this intriguing. We have been sold the story of Spain as the success story for EMU austerity as, contrary to other countries, it restored its external balance through internal devaluation. Well, apparently not. Since 2008 its price competitiveness improved, but less so than in the three other major EMU countries.
The reason must be that the rebalancing was internal to the eurozone, so that the figure does not in fact go against austerity nor internal devaluation. For sure, within eurozone price competitiveness improved for Spain. Well, think again…
This is indeed puzzling, and goes against anedoctical evidence. We’ll have to wait for the new methodology to be scrutinized by other researchers before making too much of this. But as it stands, it tells a different story from what we read all over the places. Spain’s current account improvement can hardly be related to an improvement in its price competitiveness. Likewise, by looking at France’s evolution, it is hard to argue that its current account problems are determined by price dynamics.
Without wanting to draw too much from a couple of time series, I would say that reforms in crisis countries should focus on boosting non-price competitiveness, rather than on reducing costs (in particular labour costs). And the thing is, some of these reforms may actually need increased public spending, for example in infrastructures, or in enhancing public administration’s efficiency. To accompany these reforms there is more to macroeconomic policy than just reducing taxes and at the same time cutting expenditure.
Since 2010 it ha been taken for granted that reforms and austerity should go hand in hand. This is one of the reasons for the policy disaster we lived. We really need to better understand the relationship between supply side policies and macroeconomic management. I see little or no debate on this, and I find it worrisome.
I have just read Mario Draghi’s opening remarks at the Brookings Institution. Nothing very new with respect to Jackson Hole and his audition at the European Parliament. But one sentence deserves commenting; when discussing how to use fiscal policy, Draghi says that:
Especially for those [countries] without fiscal space, fiscal policy can still support demand by altering the composition of the budget – in particular by simultaneously cutting distortionary taxes and unproductive expenditure.
So, “restoring fiscal policy” should happen, at least in countries in trouble, through a simultaneous reduction of taxes and expenditure. Well, that sounds reasonable. So reasonable that it is exactly the strategy chosen by the French government since the famous Jean-Baptiste Hollande press conference, last January.
Oh, wait. What was that story of balanced budgets and multipliers? I am sure Mario Draghi remembers it from Economics 101. Every euro of expenditure cuts, put in the pockets of consumers and firms, will not be entirely spent, but partially saved. This means that the short term impact on aggregate demand of a balanced budget expenditure reduction is negative. Just to put it differently, we are told that the risk of deflation is real, that fiscal policy should be used, but that this would have to happen in a contractionary way. Am I the only one to see a problem here?
But Mario Draghi is a fine economist, many will say; and his careful use of adjectives makes the balanced budget multiplier irrelevant. He talks about distortionary taxes. Who would be so foolish as not to want to remove distortions? And he talks about unproductive expenditure. Again, who is the criminal mind who does not want to cut useless expenditure? Well, the problem is that, no matter how smart the expenditure reduction is, it will remain a reduction. Similarly, even the smartest tax reduction will most likely not be entirely spent; especially at a time when firms’ and households’ uncertainty about the future is at an all-times high. So, carefully choosing the adjectives may hide, but not eliminate, the substance of the matter: A tax cut financed with a reduction in public spending is recessionary, at least in the short run.
To be fair there may be a case in which a balanced budget contraction may turn out to be expansionary. Suppose that when the government makes one step backwards, this triggers a sudden burst of optimism so that private spending rushes to fill the gap. It is the confidence fairy in all of its splendor. But then, Mario Draghi (and many others, unfortunately) should explain why it should work now, after having been invoked in vain for seven years.
Truth is that behind the smoke screen of Draghinomics and of its supposed comprehensive approach we are left with the same old supply side reforms that did not lift the eurozone out of its dire situation. It’ s the narrative, stupid!
Just a quick note on something that went surprisingly unnoticed so far. After Draghi’s speech in Jackson Hole, a new consensus seems to have developed among European policy makers, based on three propositions:
- Europe suffers from deficient aggregate demand
- Monetary policy has lost traction
- Investment is key, both as a countercyclical support for growth, and to sustain potential growth in the medium run
My first reaction is, well, welcome to the club! Some of us have been saying this for a while (here is the link to a chat, in French, I had with Le Monde readers in June 2009). But hey, better late than never! It is nice that we all share the diagnosis on the Eurocrisis. I don’t feel lonely anymore.
What is interesting, nevertheless, is that while the diagnosis has changed, the policy prescriptions have not (this is why I failed to share the widespread excitement that followed Jackson Hole). Think about it. Once upon a time we had the Berlin View, arguing that the crisis was due to fiscal profligacy and insufficient flexibility of the economy. From the diagnosis followed the medicine: austerity and structural reforms, to restore confidence, competitiveness, and private spending.
Today we have a different diagnosis: the economy is in a liquidity trap, and spending stagnates because of insufficient expected demand. And the recipe is… austerity and structural reforms, to restore confidence, competitiveness, and private spending (in case you wonder, yes, I have copied-pasted from above).
Just as an example among many, here is a short passage from Mario Draghi’s latest audition at the European Parliament, a couple of weeks back:
Let me add however that the success of our measures critically depends on a number of factors outside of the realm of monetary policy. Courageous structural reforms and improvements in the competitiveness of the corporate sector are key to improving business environment. This would foster the urgently needed investment and create greater demand for credit. Structural reforms thus crucially complement the ECB’s accommodative monetary policy stance and further empower the effective transmission of monetary policy. As I have indicated now at several occasions, no monetary – and also no fiscal – stimulus can ever have a meaningful effect without such structural reforms. The crisis will only be over when full confidence returns in the real economy and in particular in the capacity and willingness of firms to take risks, to invest, and to create jobs. This depends on a variety of factors, including our monetary policy but also, and even most importantly, the implementation of structural reforms, upholding the credibility of the fiscal framework, and the strengthening of euro area governance.
This is terrible for European policy makers. They completely lost control over their discourse, whose inconsistency is constantly exposed whenever they speak publicly. I just had a first hand example yesterday, listening at the speech of French Finance Minister Michel Sapin at the Columbia Center for Global Governance conference on the role of the State (more on that in the near future): he was able to argue, in the time span of 4-5 minutes, that (a) the problem is aggregate demand, and that (b) France is doing the right thing as witnessed by the halving of structural deficits since 2012. How (a) can go with (b), was left for the startled audience to figure out.
Terrible for European policy makers, I said. But maybe not for the European economy. Who knows, this blatant contradiction may sometimes lead to adapting the discourse, and to advocate solutions to the deflationary threat that are consistent with the post Jackson Hole consensus. Maybe. Or maybe not.
Spain is today the new model, together with Germany of course, for policy makers in Italy and France. A strange model indeed, but this is not my point here. The conventional wisdom, as usual, almost impossible to eradicate, states that Spain is growing because it implemented serious structural reforms that reduced labour costs and increased competitiveness. A few laggards (in particular Italy and France) stubbornly refuse to do the same, thus hampering recovery across the eurozone. The argument is usually supported by a figure like this
And in fact, it is evident from the figure that all peripheral countries diverged from the benchmark, Germany, and that since 2008-09 all of them but France and Italy have cut their labour costs significantly. Was it costly? Yes. Could convergence have made easier by higher inflation and wage growth in Germany, avoiding deflationary policies in the periphery? Once again, yes. It remains true, claims the conventional wisdom, that all countries in crisis have undergone a painful and necessary adjustment. Italy and France should therefore also be brave and join the herd.
Think again. What if we zoom out, and we add a few lines to the figure? From the same dataset (OECD. Productivity and ULC By Main Economic Activity) we obtain this:
It is unreadable, I know. And I did it on purpose. The PIIGS lines (and France) are now indistinguishable from other OECD countries, including the US. In fact the only line that is clearly visible is the dotted one, Germany, that stands as the exception. Actually no, it was beaten by deflation-struck Japan. As I am a nice guy, here is a more readable figure:
The figure shows the difference between change in labour costs in a given country, and the change in Germany (from 1999 to 2007). labour costs in OECD economies increased 14% more than in Germany. In the US, they increased 19% more, like in France, and slightly better than in virtuous Netherlands or Finland. Not only Japan (hardly a model) is the only country doing “better” than Germany. But second best performers (Israel, Austria and Estonia) had labour costs increase 7-8% more than in Germany.
Thus, the comparison with Germany is misleading. You should never compare yourself with an outlier! If we compare European peripheral countries with the OECD average, we obtain the following (for 2007 and 2012, the latest available year in OECD.Stat)
If we take the OECD average as a benchmark, Ireland and Spain were outliers in 2007, as much as Germany; And while since then they reverted to the mean, Germany walked even farther away. It is interesting to notice that unreformable France, the sick man of Europe, had its labour costs increase slightly less than OECD average.
Of course, most of the countries I considered when zooming out have floating exchange rates, so that they can compensate the change in relative labour costs through exchange rate variation. This is not an option for EMU countries. But this means that it is even more important that the one country creating the imbalances, the outlier, puts its house in order. If only Germany had followed the European average, it would have labour costs 20% higher than their current level. There is no need to say how much easier would adjustment have been, for crisis countries. Instead, Germany managed to impose its model to the rest of the continent, dragging the eurozone on the brink of deflation.
What is enraging is that it needed not be that way.
Mario Draghi, in an interview to the Journal du Dimanche, offers an interesting snapshot of his mindset. He (correctly in my opinion) dismisses euro exit and competitive devaluations as a viable policy choices:
The populist argument that, by leaving the euro, a national economy will instantly benefit from a competitive devaluation, as it did in the good old days, does not hold water. If everybody tries to devalue their currency, nobody benefits.
But in the same (short) interview, he also argues that
We remain just as determined today to ensure price stability and safeguard the integrity of the euro. But the ECB cannot do it all alone. We will not do governments’ work for them. It is up to them to undertake fundamental reforms, support innovation and manage public spending – in short, to come up with new models for growth. […] Taking the example of German growth, that has not come from the reduction of our interest rates (although that will have helped), but rather from the reforms of previous years.
I find it fascinating: Draghi manages to omit that German increased competitiveness mostly came from wage restraint and domestic demand compression, as showed by a current account that went from a deficit to a large surplus over the past decade. Compression of domestic demand and export-led growth, in the current non-cooperative framework, would mean taking market shares from EMU partners. This is in fact what Germany did so far, and is precisely the same mechanism we saw at work in the 1930s. Wages and prices would today take the place of exchange rates then, but the mechanism, and the likely outcome are the same. Unless…
Draghi probably has in mind a process by which all EMU countries embrace the German export-led model, and export towards the rest of the world. I have already said (here, here, and here) what I think of that. We are not a small open economy. If we depress our economy there is only so much the rest of the world can do to lift it through exports. And it remains that the second largest economy in the world deserves better than being a parasite on the shoulders of others…
As long as German economists are like the guy I met on TV last week, there is little to be optimist about…
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.