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.
Tomorrow’s ECB decision on Quantitative Easing is awaited like a messiah (it would be interesting to see what happens if the ECB does not announce QE). We’ll see the shape this takes, but I already argued some time ago that excessive expectations on ECB action stem from the suicidal neglect of fiscal policy, the instrument of choice at times of liquidity traps. Mario Draghi and the ECB Governing Council are given an excessive burden by the inertia of governments trapped in ideology and/or in a crazy fiscal rule.
There will be time to assess the shape and the impact of tomorrow’s decisions. Here I want to focus on one aspect of all this that is not sufficiently emphasized. Even the bolder and more effective Quantitative Easing program would come unacceptably late. The ECB should have stepped in to sustain economic activity much earlier, at least in 2012, when its counterparts launched their own programs; or possibly earlier, given the Eurozone specific sovereign debt crisis. But it did not, mostly because it was politically impossible to take such a decision without the threat of deflation looming on the eurozone.
And I get to my point. I just saw a paper by Philippe Martin and Thomas Philippon (here a VoxEU column presenting its main results) that tries to disentangle the impact of different shocks on the crisis, and runs a number of counterfactual experiments. Its conclusion are interesting and commonsensical. The first is that except for Greece, more prudent fiscal policies in the early 2000s would not have been effective in preventing or softening the private deleveraging shock that happened from 2008. Only if more prudent fiscal policies had been coupled with macroprudential policies (i.e., curbing private leverage in the first place), there would have been an impact on the crisis. The counterfactual I found more interesting is the one on the “Whatever it Takes” OMTs program. The authors ask whether the OMT, if implemented in 2008 and not in late 2012, would have made a difference, and the answer is a clear yes. If through ECB insurance spreads had been kept low, peripheral countries would have had the fiscal space to counter the crisis, and unemployment would have been reabsorbed. Interestingly, the authors neglect the impact of the 3% limit on public deficits. Of course, had they introduced a fiscal rule limiting fiscal space, the impact of OMT would have been less glorious.
The way I see it (I am not sure the authors would have the same interpretation), Martin and Philippon show that the roots of EMU problems are institutional. If we had a normal central bank, capable of acting as a Lender of Last Resort, and of insuring the euro denominated debt; if we had normal governments, capable of using fiscal policy as a countercyclical tool, then… well, then we would be the US! The crisis would have hit hard because excessive leverage did not depend on macroeconomic governance, but policy could have been reactive and coordinated, thus leading to a recovery like the one we saw in the US (while I hear those who complain about policy and about the state of the economy in the US, it is undeniable that their economic performance is orders of magnitude better than our own!). Of course, the US also have a system of fiscal transfers that we can only dream of…
So our problem is that we don’t have normal institutions for macroeconomic governance. Macroeconomic policy in the EMU is the result of political skirmishes, and rests more on the diplomatic capacities of Mario Draghi Angela Merkerl, or Alexis Tsipras, than on a clear assessment of problems and solutions. Furthermore, this (mal)functioning yields last-minute decisions, only if under threat (OMT because of speculation on periphery’s debt; QE because of deflation).
We are in the eight year of the crisis, and the trending topics among European elites are QE, and the Juncker plan. The former will likely be a byzantine compromise between Mario Draghi and the German government (as a side note: what about central bank independence, Mrs Merkel? Wasn’t that one of the things that you kept in such high consideration that you did not want it endangered by debt monetization?); the Juncker plan is simply an empty box. And they both come into the picture way too late, as the need for expansionary fiscal and monetary policies was clear at least since 2010.
The new European motto should be too little too late.
I just read, a few days late, a very instructive Op-Ed by Otmar Issing for the Financial Times. The zest of the argument is in the first few lines, that are worth quoting:
Imagine you are asked to give advice to a country on its economic policy. The country enjoys near-full employment; its growth is above, or at least at full potential. There is no under-usage of resources – what economists call an output gap – and the government’s budget is balanced, but the debt level is far above target. To top it all monetary policy is extremely loose.
This is exactly the situation in Germany. Recently forecasts for growth have been revised downwards, but so far the overall assessment is unchanged. At present there is no indication of the country heading towards recession. Inflation is low but there is no risk of deflation. From a purely national point of view Germany needs a much less expansionary monetary policy than it is getting from the European Central Bank. This is a strong argument why fiscal policy should not be expansionary, too.
Where is the economic textbook that argues that such a country should run a deficit to stimulate the economy? There is hardly a convincing argument for such advice.
The quote is a perfect example of what is wrong with mainstream thinking in German academic and policy circles. First, the incapacity to fully appreciate to what extent the German national interest is linked to the wider fate of the eurozone. From a purely national point of view, Germany needs stronger growth in the eurozone, its main trading partner. And it needs higher inflation at home and abroad. Which means that no, monetary policy is not too expansionary for Germany, as Issing claims.
But there is a more important issue: Issing seems not to grasp that the problem with the German economy is that it is unbalanced. True, it is near full employment (even if much could be said about the quality of that employment), but it relies too much on exports and too little on domestic demand, with the result that it runs, since 2001, increasing current account deficits. To say it bluntly, Germany has been sitting on the shoulders of the rest of the world economy, and since 2010 it has been followed by the rest of the eurozone that is globally running trade surpluses. I have already said many times that this is a bad (and dangerous) strategy.
I do not know what textbooks Issing reads. Germany’s intellectual tradition must include OrdoTextBooks. The ones I know say that expansionary fiscal policy, at full employment, crowds out private expenditure and exports. And guess what? This is exactly what Germany should do, for its own and its neighbours’ welfare. And if at the same time private expenditure was also boosted, with wage increases (hey, don’t listen to me; listen to the Bundesbank!) and incentives for investment, crowding out could be limited to foreign demand.
So, I read textbooks and I conclude that Otmar Issing is dead wrong. Germany should boldly expand domestic demand (public and private), thus overheating its economy, crowing out exports, and increasing inflation. The effect would be rebalancing of the German economy, growth in the rest of the eurozone, and relief in the rest of the world, for which we would stop being a drag.
Unfortunately this is not bound to happen anytime soon.
I 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- (Here it becomes interesting). The box in the Italian plan argues that we have two possible cases:
- 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.
- 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…
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.
Yesterday I quickly commented the disappointing growth data for Germany and for the EMU as a whole, whose GDP Eurostat splendidly defines “stable”. This is bad, because the recovery is not one, and because we are increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for that growth that we should be able to generate domestically.
Having said that, the real bad news did not come from Eurostat, but from the August 2014 issue of the ECB monthly bulletin, published on Wednesday. Thanks to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard I noticed the following chart ( page 53):
The interesting part of the chart is the blue dotted line, showing that the forecasters’ consensus on longer term inflation sees more than a ten points drop of the probability that inflation will stay at 2% or above. Ten points in just a year. And yet, just a few pages above we can read:
According to Eurostat’s flash estimate, euro area annual HICP inflation was 0.4% in July 2014, after 0.5% in June. This reflects primarily lower energy price inflation, while the annual rates of change of the other main components of the HICP remained broadly unchanged. On the basis of current information, annual HICP inflation is expected to remain at low levels over the coming months, before increasing gradually during 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, inflation expectations for the euro area over the medium to long term continue to be firmly anchored in line with the aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% (p. 42, emphasis added)
The ECB is hiding its head in the sand, but expectations, the last bastion against deflation, are obviously not firmly anchored. This can only mean that private expenditure will keep tumbling down in the next quarters. It would be foolish to hope otherwise.
So we are left with good old macroeconomic policy. I did not change my mind since my latest piece on the ECB. Even if the ECB inertia is appalling, even if their stubbornness in claiming that everything is fine (see above) is more than annoying, even if announcing mild QE measures in 2015 at the earliest is borderline criminal, it remains that I have no big faith in the capacity of monetary policy to trigger decent growth. The latest issue of the ECB bulletin also reports the results of the latest Eurozone Bank Lending Survey. They show a slow easing of credit conditions, that proceed in parallel with a pickup of credit demand from firms and households. While for some countries credit constraints may play a role in keeping private expenditure down (for example, in Italy), the overall picture for the EMU is of demand and supply proceeding in parallel. Lifting constraints to lending, in this situation, does not seem likely to boost credit and spending. It’s the liquidity trap, stupid!
The solution seems to be one, and only one: expansionary fiscal policy, meaning strong increase in government expenditure (above all for investment) in countries that can afford it (Germany, to begin with); and delayed consolidation for countries with struggling public finances. Monetary policy should accompany this fiscal boost with the commitment to maintain an expansionary stance until inflation has overshot the 2% target.
For the moment this remains a mid-summer dream…