A Lender of Last Resort for the EMU

January 14, 2015 2 comments

Update: The Court ruled the OMT “Legal in Principle“. The final ruling will be later this year, but it is safe to assume that it will confirm the preliminary one.

Today is an important day for the ECB, as the European Court of Justice will issue an interim ruling on the Outright Monetary Transactions program launched in the fall of 2012. The Court needs to rule, upon demand by the German Constitutional Court, whether the program overstepped the boundaries set by the Treaties to ECB action. The ruling of course may have an impact on furture action by the ECB, notably the decision to launch a round of QE.

I think it is important to clarify once more that QE and the OMT (welcome to the wonderful world of EU acronyms) are not the same thing. If Mario Draghi manages to rally the Governing Council behind him, QE will consist of a vast program of sovereign bond purchases, in order to try to lift the European economy out of deflation. A European version in short, of what was done three years ago by the Fed and other major central banks in the world.

The OMT responded to a very different need, notably the need to defuse speculation on sovereign debt markets and to protect peripheral countries (at the time Spain and Italy) from the risk of default. The summer of 2012 was very difficult, as economic and political problems in Greece caused investors to flee from peripheral countries and spreads on sovereign bonds to increase at unprecedented levels. After the “whatever it takes”  speech in July (But there is another message I want to tell you. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough), the ECB in September engaged almost unanimously to step in the market for sovereign bonds and, if necessary, to stretch its mandate by acting as a lender/buyer of last resort for countries in trouble.
With the OMT program, the ECB commits to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds of countries in trouble that request assistance, thus de facto transforming itself into a lender of last resort. In exchange for ECB protection countries need to engage in a program of fiscal austerity and structural reforms. In other words with the OMT program the ECB offered insurance in exchange for reforms and austerity. A deal that would entail the loss of a good deal of sovereignty. It is not by chance that Spain always refused to apply for the program, in spite of heavy pressure, and that as of today no country ever used it. At the time the OMT program was wrongly interpreted as a clumsy attempt to implement quantitative easing in the Eurozone. It was instead clear, since the beginning that, as with any insurance scheme, its success would be measured precisely by the fact that the ECB would not have to intervene on bond markets.

So we need to be clear here. The European Court of Justice today and in the next months will not be deciding on QE and macroeconomic management. It will be deciding whether the EMU has the right to rely on an insurance mechanism that all countries have . It will be deciding whether EMU governments borrow in their own currency, or in a foreign one. A major decision indeed.

Mr Sinn on EMU Core Countries’ Inflation

December 17, 2014 16 comments

Two weeks ago I received a request from Prof Sinn to make it known to my readers that he feels misrepresented by my post of September 29. Here is his very civilized mail, that I publish with his permission:

Dear Mr. Saraceno,
I have just become acquainted with your blog: https://fsaraceno.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/draghi-the-euro-breaker/. You misrepresent me here. In my book The Euro Trap. On Bursting Bubbles, Budgets and Beliefs, Oxford University Press 2014, and in many other writings, I advise against extreme deflation scenarios for southern Europe because of the grievous effects upon debtors. I explicitly draw the comparison with Germany in the 1929 – 1933 period. I advocate instead a mixed solution with moderate deflation in southern Europe and  more inflation in northern Europe,  Germany in particular. In addition, I advocate a debt conference for southern Europe and a “breathing currency union” which allows for temporary exits of those southern European countries for which the stress of an internal adjustment would be unbearable. You may also wish to consult my paper “Austerity, Growth and Inflation: Remarks on the Eurozone’s Unresolved Competitiveness Problem”, The World Economy 37, 2014, p. 1-1,  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/twec.2014.37.issue-1/issuetoc, in which I also argue for more inflation in Germany to solve the Eurozone’s problem of distorted relative prices.  I would be glad if you could make this response known to your readers.

Sincerely yours
Hans-Werner Sinn
Professor of Economics and Public Finance
President of CESifo Group

I was swamped with end of semester duties, and I only managed to read the paper (not the book) this morning. But in spite of Mr Sinn’s polite remarks, I stand by my statement (spoiler alert: the readers will find very little new content here). True, in the paper Mr Sinn advocates some inflation in the core (look at sections 9 an 10). In particular, he argues that

What the Eurozone needs for its internal realignment is a demand-driven boom in the core countries. Such a boom would also increase wages and prices, but it would do so because of demand rather that supply effects. Such demand-driven wage and price increases would come through real and nominal income increases in the core and increasing imports from other countries, and at the same time, they would undermine the competitiveness of exports. Both effects would undoubtedly work to reduce the current account surpluses in the core and the deficits in the south.

This is a diagnosis that we share But the agreement stops around here. Where we disagree is on how to trigger the demand-driven boom. Mr Sinn expects this to happen thanks to market mechanisms, just because of the reversal of capital flows that the crisis triggered. He argues that the capital which foolishly left Germany to be invested in peripheral countries, being repatriated would trigger an investment and property boom in Germany, that would reduce German’s current account surplus. This and this alone would be needed. Not a policy of wage increases, useless, nor a fiscal expansion even more useless.

Problem is, the data speak against Mr Sinn’s belief. Since the crisis hit, capital massively left peripheral countries, and yet this did not fuel domestic demand in Germany. Last August I showed the following figure:


It shows that after a drop (in the acute phase of the financial crisis) due to a sharp decline of GDP, since 2009 domestic demand as a percentage of GDP kept decreasing, in Germany as well as in the rest of the Eurozone. The reversal of capital flows depressed demand in the periphery, but did not boost it in Germany. Mr Sinn is too skilled an economist to fail to see this. The reason is, of course, that the magic investment boom did not happen:

2014_12_17_Sinn_1Mr Sinn, being a fine economist, could object that this is because GDP, the denominator, grew more fell less in Germany than in the rest of the EMU. Well, think again.

2014_12_17_Sinn_2Yes, France comes out as investing (privately) less than Germany. But we are far from an investment boom in Germany as well. Mr Sinn, will agree, I ma sure.

What basically happened, I said it before, is that adjustment was not symmetric. Peripheral countries reduced their excess demand, while Germany and the core did not reduce their excess savings. The result is that, if we compare 2007 to 2014, external imbalances of the periphery were greatly reduced or reversed, while with the exception of Finland the core did not do its homework:

2014_12_17_Sinn_0The EMU as a whole became a large Germany, running a current account surplus (it was more or less in balance in 2007), and relying on its exports for growth. A very dubious strategy in the long run.

The conclusion in my opinion is one and only one: We cannot count on markets alone, in the current macroeconomic situation, if we want rebalancing to take place. In the article he suggested I read, Mr Sinn states that a 4 or 5 per cent inflation rate would be politically impossible to sell to the German public:

Moreover, it is unclear whether the German population would accept being deprived of their savings. Given the devastating experiences Germany made with hyperinflation from 1914 to 1923, which in the end undermined the stability of its society, the resistance against an extended period of inflation in Germany could be as strong or even stronger than the resistance against deflation in southern Europe. After all, a rate of 4.1 per cent for German inflation for 10 years, which would be necessary to allow the necessary realignment between France and Germany without France sliding into a deflation, would mean that the German price level would increase by 50 per cent and that, in terms of domestic goods, German savers would be deprived of 33 per cent of their wealth. If the German inflation rate were even 5.5 per cent, which would be necessary to accommodate the Spanish realignment without price cuts, its price level would increase by 71 per cent over a decade and German savers would be deprived of 42 per cent of their wealth.

This shows all the logic of Ordoliberalism: It is impossible to sell inflation to the the German public, because this would deprive them of their savings. This argument only makes sense if one subscribes to the Berlin View that the bad guys in the south partied with hard earned money of northern (hard) workers. Otherwise the argument makes no sense at all, as high inflation in the core for next few years simply  compensates low inflation in the past. Should I remind Mr Sinn that the outlier in terms of labour costs  is not the EMU periphery, but Germany?

Also, I find it disturbing that, while acknowledging that inflation in Germany would be needed, Mr Sinn rejects it on the ground that it would be a hard sell. The role of intellectuals and academics is mostly to discuss, find solutions (or at least try), and then argue for them. All the more so if this is unpopular, because it is then that their pedagogical role is most needed. All too often public intellectuals abdicate to their role, and simply follow the trend. Should we all argue in favour of a euro breakup only because public opinion is less and less favorable to the single currency?

Finally, a short comment on another bit of Mr Sinn’s article:

And although the core countries would suffer [from high inflation], the solution would not be comfortable for the devaluating countries either. They will unavoidably face a long-lasting stagnation with rising mass unemployment and increasing hardship for the population at large. People will turn away from the European idea, and voices opting for exiting the euro will gain strength. Thus, it might be politically impossible to induce the necessary differential inflation in the Eurozone.

I don’t really see his point here. But let’s take it for good, just for the sake of argument. I think it is too late to worry about support for the euro in the periphery. It is hard to see how “excessive” inflation in the core would impose more hardness than seven years of adjustment, ill-conceived structural reforms, and self-defeating austerity.

So Mr Sinn, thank you for your mail and for the reference to your paper that I have read with interest. But no, I don’t think I misrepresented you.  The core of your argument remains that the burden of adjustment should rest on the periphery’s shoulders. And you failed to convince me that this is right.

Commission Forecasts Watch – November 2014 Edition

November 4, 2014 1 comment

Update (11/10): Well, I typed a few numbers wrong,  for France and Finland (thanks to Tadej Kotnik for pointing this out). I corrected the data, and stroke down the remarks on Finland that with the corrected data does not beat the expectations. Apologies to the readers

Today the Commission issued its Autumn forecast. It is therefore time to update my forecast watch. Here it is:


Last March, my crystal ball gave me a forecasted growth  of 0.55% for the EMU, while the Commission forecasted 1.2% (In March it was 1.1% but it had then been revised in May). As of today (if things do not get worse, in which case I will be even closer), my forecast error is -0.25%, and the Commission’s is +0.4% I win, the Commission loses.

After 2013, when they were remarkably close, Commission forecasts seem to have diverged once more, at least last Spring. We’ll have to see what the final figure for 2014 is (My crystal ball forecast update gives 0.65%).

But besides playing with numbers, the interesting thing about this year’s Autumn forecasts, is that growth has been revised downwards especially for core countries.


In particular since last Spring the mood has changed about Germany, whose growth forecast has been slashed of 0.5% for 2014 (in just a few months, it is worth reminding it), and of 0.9% (almost halved) for 2015. Also interestingly, the only core country whose expectations have been revised upwards, Finland, is also the only one that got rid of its excess savings and current account surplus.

We all know that the disappointing performance of Germany is due, mostly, to geopolitical uncertainty and low growth in emerging economies. When will our German friends understand that putting all eggs in the basket of foreign demand is risky?

Confusion in Brussels

October 17, 2014 8 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…

Smoke Screens

October 14, 2014 13 comments

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!


The Lost Consistency of European Policy Makers

October 6, 2014 6 comments

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.