Posts Tagged ‘debt’

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?


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.


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.


Push Greece Off the Cliff?

February 5, 2015 18 comments

Yesterday, like many, I was appalled by the ECB announcement that it would stop accepting Greek bonds as collateral for loans. The timing, right after Greek finance minister Varoufakis met Draghi, but before he met German finance minister Schauble, seemed a clear signal: the ECB sides with Germany and EU institutions, and the only possible outcome it expects is a complete rolling back of Syriza electoral promises, and a renewed Greek commitment to austerity and troika-style structural reforms (privatizations plus labour market reform, to say it simply). This would of course be terrible news for Europe (these recipes simply did not work, this is acknowledge  everywhere from the IMF to the White House, passing by Downing Street). And terrible news for democracy as well. The signal to voters would be “Enjoy your day at the polls. Then we decide in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin”.

Appalling, I said. This morning I have read a different, very interesting interpretation by Frances Coppola.  Please read the piece. Is wonderfully written. In a few sentences, it says that the ECB move may not be pressure just on Greece, but on both sides involved, i.e. on Germany as well. In a sort of mega game of chess, by weakening Greece, by pushing it closer to the edge of the cliff, the ECB forces both sides to actively look for a deal, in order to avoid the catastrophic effect of Grexit. Coppola mentions the principle of “coercive deficiency” (famously applied to nuclear deterrence): a weaker Greece makes it run out of options, and hence a deal unavoidable.

Boy, I hope Frances is right! The alternative interpretation, United Creditors Against Greece, would mean the end of the Euro. And it is true that the practical implications of yesterday’s decision are in the end limited.  But I remain worried, for at least two reasons.

  1. The first is that if the ECB were trying (in a convoluted way) to set the stage for a deal, it should push Greece closer to the cliff, while at the same time showing at least some willingness to negotiate. Now, it seems that the ECB is not willing even to grant an extension of maturities. This is at odds with the interpretation of the ECB as setting the ground for a deal
  2.  Second, even assuming the ECB were in fact trying to crate the conditions for a deal, the game would be dangerous indeed, because it relies on Germany’s leaders to be good chess players! Leaving metaphors aside, it seems that Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble are trapped in their own narrative of debt as a morality tale, in which punishment of the sinners is by definition impossible. So the question becomes whether they would recognize that pushing Greece off the cliff would entail huge costs for the EU at large. And even if they recognize it, they may be willing to pay the price “to teach the sinners a lesson”

Difficult times ahead. I am not optimist

Who are the Radicals in Europe?

January 25, 2015 6 comments

As I write the Greek people are voting.  I was puzzled in the past weeks by the fear (more in the media than in markets, actually) of a “radical” left win. Puzzled, because the radical and ideological policy makers do not seem to live in Greece, today. On January 20 I wrote a piece for the Greek website Macropolis, where I claimed that we should not expect an Armageddon if Syriza wins, but rather some welcome fresh air.  I reproduce the piece here:

It is most likely that from the elections of January 25 will emerge a Syriza-led government, the main uncertainty being how large a coalition Alexis Tsipras will have to gather to obtain a comfortable parliamentary majority. This is seen with a fair deal of preoccupation in Europe. A preoccupation that does not seem warranted. Syriza is no longer the radical party of the beginning, which called for the exit from the euro and for a default on Greek public debt. Today it is party whose program can hardly be defined revolutionary, and whose label of “radical” left is justified mostly by the drifting of other social democratic party in Europe  (for example in Italy and in France) towards the center of the political spectrum, and towards a de facto acceptance of the European macroeconomic orthodoxy. Syriza’s leader, Tsipras, as the prospects of victory become more concrete, has further softened his tones and is already actively negotiating with the Commission and with the major countries, in view of a compromise on the key points of his program. However, some of the media and some political leaders around Europe continue to present the Greek elections as an incoming Armageddon, and the possibility of a Syriza victory as the beginning of the end for the monetary union.

Let’s see what are the reasons for concern. Regarding Europe, Syriza’s agenda has two key elements. First, in case of victory Tsipras would ask to renegotiate a substantial chunk of Greece’s unbearable public debt, that today is mostly (for around 80%) in the hands of official creditors. Of course, this would mean a loss for creditors to absorb. But, as the Financial Times noted as well,  it is difficult to imagine a durable exit from the crisis that has choked Europe since 2008,  if at least a part of the debt burden that is stifling the recovery is not removed. The French finance minister has agreed yesterday that some compromise on Greek debt will be have to be found, even if some northern countries are at least as of now inflexible. What seems increasingly evident, in fact is that with the European economy back into deflation the costs, for creditor countries as well as for debtors,  of a long stagnation, seem far more important than the loss associated with the debt restructuring. The second key point of Syriza’s electoral agenda is the abandonment of austerity that, albeit less stringent than in previous years, continues to characterize European economic policy   In other words, Syriza asks to address the problem of unsustainable debt, so far hidden under the rug, and to finally acknowledge the need for a comprehensive plan to restart the European economy, that goes well beyond the accounting tricks of the Juncker plan. Syriza may seem radical to some German economist. But it is in good company of other well-known extremists such as Paul De Grauwe, the IMF, the US government, and much of the Anglo-Saxon press. The European economy is unbalanced and stuck in a deflationary  liquidity trap, Mario Draghi’s faces fierce political opposition, and his arrows are increasingly ineffective; it is therefore increasingly clear that only fiscal policy will be able to get us out of trouble.

On closer inspection, it seems far more radical the position of those who, despite having grossly underestimated the negative effects of austerity, ask for more of the same; of those who insist on advocating supply-side reforms to cope with a chronic lack of demand; and of those who boast having achieved a balanced budget one year ahead of forecasts, when Europe would benefit from a recovery of domestic demand in Germany.

What will happen then, if “radical” Syriza will win the election? Actually not much. Tsipras, comforted by opinion polls among his fellow citizens, does not consider the Grexit option. He will sit at the negotiating table to try to obtain for his country a substantial restructuring of debt, and for Europe change towards a more Keynesian policy. If on the latter objective it is hard to imagine that substantial progress will be made, debt restructuring in some form will probably happen. First, because as we said above, it seems to be an unavoidable event, just waiting for the political conditions to be reunited. And second, because Greece will negotiate from a position of strength.  Its primary budget surplus (a proof, if needed, that contrary to widespread beliefs Greece actually did its homework; and painfully so), and the low share of debt held by private investors, around 15%, would allow it not to be subject to market pressures in case of exit and default.

And contrary to some declarations that resemble to pre-electoral tactics (the Greek election game is played in the European arena as well), Greece’s exit from the euro would not arrange its European partners either. First, because it would be accompanied by default, and losses for creditors would be significantly larger than in the case of restructuring. Then, probably more important, because Grexit would have unpredictable contagion effects on other peripheral economies, which not hazardously today look with concern to the increasingly harsh tones used in particular by the German Government. In case of a Syriza victory Angela Merkel will most probably soften the tone and agree to negotiate. It is hard to imagine that orthodoxy will go as far as to push Greece out of the euro.

It goes without saying that the negotiation will be harsh, and that tensions will emerge. But today the ECB is more active in assisting countries in difficulty, and its program OMT, which recently received preliminary clearance by the European Court of Justice, is a good protection against speculative attacks.

To conclude, Europeans should stop worrying and let democracy play its role. A Syriza-led government (possibly forming an alliance with George Papandreou’s To Kinima) would not cause an earthquake. Rather the contrary, it could help stirring things up, and bring within the European debate discussion about measures the need for which is now obvious to all except to those who will not see.

Wrong Debates

May 9, 2014 1 comment

Paul Krugman has a short post on the Eurozone, today (I’d like him to write more about us; he has been too America-centered lately), pointing out that the myth of fiscal profligacy is, well, just a myth. in fact, he argues, the only fiscally irresponsible country, in the years 2000 was Greece. It is maybe worth reposting here a figure that from an old piece of this blog, that since then made it into all my classes on the Euro crisis: Fig1PostMArch16
The figure shows the situation of public finances in 2007, against the Maastricht benchmark (3% deficit and 60% debt) before the crisis hit. As Krugman says, only one country of the so-called PIIGS  (the red dots) is clearly out of line, Greece. Portugal is virtually like France, and Spain and Ireland way better than most countries, including Germany. Italy has a stock of old debt, but its deficit in 2007 is under control.

So Krugman is right in reminding us that fiscal policy per se was not a problem before the crisis; And yet, what he calls fiscal myths, have shaped policies in the EMU, with a disproportionate emphasis on austerity. And even today, when economists overwhelmingly discuss unconventional measures available to the ECB to contrast deflation, fiscal policy is virtually absent from the debate and continued fiscal consolidation is taken for granted. I will write more on this in the next days, but it is striking how we aim at the wrong target.

Greek Tragedies, 2014 Edition

February 28, 2014 10 comments

Last week’s publication of a Lancet article1 on the effect of austerity on Greek public health  made a lot of noise (for those who know Italian, I suggest reading the excellent Barbara Spinelli, in La Repubblica).

The Lancet article sets the tone since the abstract, talking of “mounting evidence of a Greek public health tragedy”. It is indeed a tragedy, that highlights how fast social advances may be reversed, even in an advanced economy.

Some time ago (March 2012) I had titled a post “Greek Tragedies“. Mostly for my students, I had collected data on Greek macroeconomic variables. I concluded that austerity was self-defeating, and that at the same time it was imposing extreme hardship on Greek citizens. Of course one needed not be a good economist to know what was going on. It was enough not to work at the Commission or in Germany… But the Lancet article also allows to substantiate another claim I made at the time, i.e. that austerity would also have enormous impact in the long run. It is weird to quote myself, but here is my conclusion at the time:

Even more important, investment (pink line) was cut in half since 2007. This means that Greece is not only going through depressed growth today. But it is doing it in such a way that growth will not resume for years, as its productive capacity is being seriously dented.

What makes it sad, besides scary, is that behind these curves there are people’s lives. And that all this needed not to happen.

I think it is time for an update of the figure on the Greek tragedy. And here it is:

GreekTragediesMark2I said in 2012 that investment cut in half spelled future tragedy. Two years later it is down 14 more points, to 36% of 2007 levels. I am unsure the meaning of this is clear to everybody in Brussels and Berlin: when sooner or later growth will resume, the Greek will look at their productive capacity, to discover it melted. They will be unable to produce, even at the modest pre-crisis levels,without running into supply constraints and bottlenecks. I am ready to bet that at that time some very prestigious economist from Brussels will call for structural reforms to “free the Greek economy”. By the way, seven years into the crisis, the OECD keeps forecasting negative growth together with unsustainable (and growing) debt.

I also added unemployment to my personal “Greek Tragedy Watch”: GreekTragediesMark2_2Terrifying absolute numbers (almost 30% unemployment overall, youth unemployment around 60%, more than that for women!). And absolutely no trend reversal in sight. A final consideration, related to the melting of the capital stock. How much of this enormously high unemployment, is evolving into structural? How many of the unemployed will the economy be able to reabsorb, once it starts growing again? Not many, I am afraid, as there is no capital left.

Not bad as an assessment of austerity… And yet, just this morning the German government complained for a very limited softening of austerity demands.  Errare umanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum…


1. Kentikelenis, Alexander, Marina Karanikolos, Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler. 2014. “Greece’s Health Crisis: From Austerity to Denialism.” The Lancet 383 (9918) (February): 748–753. Back

It’s the Denominator, Stupid!

February 25, 2013 1 comment

This weekend’s news was the downgrade of the UK by Moody’s. Chancellor Osborne took this as a sign that austerity should be strengthened even more, probably because he had little choice (never put all your eggs in one basket…). And yet, if only somebody in Downing Street bothered going through the text, they would have read this:

The key interrelated drivers of today’s action are:
1. The continuing weakness in the UK’s medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody’s now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government’s fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
3. And, as a consequence of the UK’s high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government’s balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.

Thus, Moody’s analysts clearly state the direction of causality: Read more

One Austerity (Should Not) Fit All

January 28, 2013 2 comments

The run up to the Italian elections in February is a welcome occasion to come back to the issue of austerity. The debate in Italy was fired by the widely discussed Wolfgang Munchau editorial, blaming Mario Monti for not opposing austerity. In the heat of electoral competition, this unsurprisingly stirred harsh discussions on whether Italy has room for reversing the austerity that ravaged the country. Some commentators got slightly carried away, accusing those opposing austerity of “silliness and falsehood”. I wonder whether they include the IMF chief economist in the bunch… Whatever, this is a minor issue; the way I see it, these discussions totally miss the point.

Read more