This post is nothing new. It is just a reminder for non European readers (or for distracted European readers), about the way things work in the EMU. The German Bundesbank President Weidmann violently attacked the European Commission for failing to enforce fiscal discipline within the Stability Pact.
What is wrong with this? Is this not just another confirmation of the old cliché that Germans are obsessed with respecting the rules?
Well, think again. Everybody knows that EU countries need to curb their public deficit to be below 3% of GDP, and need to aim to structural balance. But it is less known, especially outside Europe, that since 2011, as a part of the so-called “six-pack”, the EU introduced the Macroeconomic Imbalances Procedure (MIP), “which aims to identify, prevent and address the emergence of potentially harmful macroeconomic imbalances that could adversely affect economic stability in a particular Member State, the euro area, or the EU as a whole”.
This procedure builds on a scoreboard of 14 indicators, among which we can read the following:
- 3-year backward moving average of the current account balance as percent of GDP, with thresholds of +6% and -4%;
Yeah, that is right, at the very first place. And guess what, Germany’s current account surplus, since the MIP came into force has been above 6% every single year. (it is expected to be 9% in 2016).
And yet, no corrective action has been imposed, and of course no sanctions. I understand that Germany has no problems with not being sanctioned. But maybe it would be wise to keep a low profile regarding others’ violations..
So, for once, I agree with Jens Weidmann: the Commission should be harsher on those who do not respect the rules. And of course, it will, but just with some. Among the many problems European governance has, this is not the least: all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
I was puzzled by Daniel Gros’ recent Project Syndicate piece, in which he claims that Germany’s dominance of the EMU may be coming to an end. Gros’ argument is based on two facts. The first is the slowing growth rate of Germany, that seems to be heading towards the pre-crisis “normal” of slow growth (Germany grew less than EMU average for most of the period 1999-2007). The second, more geo-political, is the lack of willingness (or of capacity) to manage, the crises that face the EU (in particular the refugees crisis).
Gros concludes that this loss of influence is dangerous, because Germany will not be able to resist the changes in policies that are pushed by peripheral countries and by the ECB. Of course, implicit in this statement, is Gros’ belief that these policies were necessary and useful.
I welcome the recognition that Germany has steered the EMU since the beginning of the crisis. Those of us talking about the Germanification of Europe have been decried until very recently. Yet, I do not share, not at all, Gros view.
True, Germany’s growth is slowing down. These are the risks of an export-led growth model: countries are not masters of their own fate. Germany stayed clear from the peripheral countries’ crisis (that it contributed to create) by turning to the US and to emerging economies as markets for its exports. But now that these countries are also having problems, the limits of jumping on other countries’ shoulders to grow, become evident. I am surprised by Gros’ surprise, as this was evident from the very beginning.
But here I do not want to reiterate my criticisms of the export-led model, starting from the fallacy of composition. Instead, I would like to challenge Gros’ argument that Germany influence is waning. I would say on the contrary that the Germanification of the eurozone is almost complete.
I took a few macroeconomic variables, and contrasted Germany with the remaining 11 EMU members. Let’s start with (missing) domestic demand, a defining characteristic of the export-led growth model:
Since 2007, the yellow line (EMU11) and the red line (Germany) converged, mostly because domestic demand in the rest of the EMU was reduced. This led of course to an increased reliance of the EMU as a whole on exports. The EMU as a whole had an overall balanced external position in 2007, while it has a substantial current account surplus today (the EMU12 went from 0.5% to 3.4 projected for 2016. Germany went from 7% to 7.7%). In other words, the EMU11 joined Germany on the shoulders of the rest of the world.
Austerity has of course much to be blamed for this compression of domestic demand: Just look at government balances (net of interest payments):
True, the difference between Germany and the rest of EMU is today larger than in 2007. But since Germany and the Troika took the driving seat in 2010, government balances of the EMU11 have been steadily converging to surplus, and they are not going to stop in the foreseeable horizon (the Commission forecasts go until 2016).
Finally, if we look at one of the main drivers of growth, investment, the picture is the same.
Be it private or public, the EMU11 Gross Fixed Capital Formation has been converging towards the (excessively low) German level (I did not draw the differences, not to clutter the figure).
And of course, there are labour costs, for which convergence to Germany was brutal, even if the latter, rather than EMU peripheral countries, were the outlier. To summarize, during the crisis the difference between Germany and the rest of the EMU was substantially reduced, and will continue to be in the next years:
The difference was reduced for all variables, except for government deficit. Self-defeating austerity slowed down the convergence. But private expenditure, in particular investment, more than compensated.
So, if I were Gros, I would not worry too much. The Germanification of Europe is well on its way. If Germany does not go to the EMU11 (it definitely does not!), the EMU11 keeps going to Germany.
But as I am not Gros, I worry a lot.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Just a quick note on yesterday’s announcement by the Commission that virtuous countries will be able, in 2013 and 2014, to run deficits and to implement public investment projects.
Faced with an excessive enthusiasm, Commissioner Rehn quickly framed this new approach within very precise limits, that are worth transcribing:
The Commission will consider allowing temporary deviations from the structural deficit path towards the Medium-Term Objective (MTO) set in the country specific recommendations, or the MTO for Member States that have reached it, provided that:
(1) the economic growth of the Member State remains negative or well below its potential
(2) the deviation does not lead to a breach of the 3% of GDP deficit ceiling, and the public debt rule is respected; and
(3) the deviation is linked to the national expenditure on projects co-funded by the EU under the Structural and Cohesion policy, Trans-European Networks (TEN) and Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) with positive, direct and verifiable long-term budgetary effect.
This application of the provisions of the SGP concerning temporary deviations from the MTO or the adjustment path towards it is related to the current economic conditions of large negative output gap. Once these temporary conditions are no longer in place and the Member State is forecast to return to positive growth, thus approaching its potential, any deviation as the above must be compensated so that the time path towards the MTO is not affected.
For once, the Commission is not vague about what is allowed and what is not, and the result is that this announcement will turn out to be nothing more than a well conceived Public Relations operation. Allow me to attach some numbers to the Commission proposal.