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.
I just read an interesting piece by Nicolò Cavalli on the ECB and deflationary risks in the eurozone. The piece is in Italian, but here is a quick summary:
- Persisting high unemployment, coupled with inflation well below the 2% target, put deflation at the top of the list of ECB priorities.
- Mario Draghi was adamant that monetary policy will remain loose for the foreseeable horizon.
- As we are in a liquidity trap, the effect of quantitative easing on economic activity has been limited (in the US, UK and EMU alike).
- Then Nicolò quotes studies on quantitative easing in the UK, and notices that, like the Bank of England, the ECB faces additional difficulties, linked to the distributive effects of accommodating monetary policy:
- Liquidity injections inflate asset prices, thus increasing financial wealth, and the value of large public companies.
- Higher asset prices increase the opportunity costs of lending for financial institutions, that find it more convenient to invest on stock markets. This perpetuates the credit crunch.
- Finally, low economic activity and asset price inflation depress investment, productivity and wages, thus feeding the vicious circle of deflation.
Nicolò concludes that debt monetization seems to be the only way out for the ECB. I agree, but I don’t want to focus on this. Read more
George Soros writes a piece on Project Syndicate, that is both pedagogical and very clear in outlining a possible answer to the current EMU crisis. He starts with a diagnosis of the EMU imbalances that rejects the “Berlin View”, and argues for the existence of structural imbalances
Normally, developed countries never default, because they can always print money. But, by ceding that authority to an independent central bank, the eurozone’s members put themselves in the position of a developing country that has borrowed in foreign currency. Neither the authorities nor the markets recognized this prior to the crisis, attesting to the fallibility of both. Read more
Yesterday I published a note on OFCE le blog (in French), analyzing one possible outcome of the recent Italian elections: A center-left minority government, with external support of the Cinque Stelle movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo. The last part of the post argues that if a convergence between the Democratic Party and Beppe Grillo were to be found (at the moment the scenario is rather unlikely), it would happen on a number of progressive issues, like for example minimum citizenship income. But then, I conclude, this has implications for Europe as a whole. Here is a translation of the last paragraphs: It is clear that the convergence could hardly happen within the bounds of the current fiscal consolidation. An agreement would therefore need a prior reversal of austerity that, it is worth repeating, was disavowed by the voters. This would not be easy for the Democratic Party that, like the Socialist Party in France, made the choice of fiscal discipline, and has kept a very ambiguous position along all the electoral campaign. But in turn, this has implications for Europe as a whole. European leaders in the next weeks may face a choice between demanding that Italy stays the course of fiscal consolidation, condemning the third economy of the eurozone to political paralysis and probably social chaos; or, accept that a new government is formed, that will most likely abandon austerity. In both cases it will be impossible to act as if nothing had happened. Europe could be forced to rethink its own economic strategies, that are failing not only in Italy. An some countries reluctantly embracing fiscal consolidation (France to name one) could take the opportunity to challenge austerity as the only policy for growth.
Let’s be clear, here. I am totally aware that at the moment this is nothing more than wishful thinking. But hey, you never know…
Il Sole 24 Ore just published an editorial I wrote with Jean-Luc Gaffard, on the structural problems facing the EU. Here is an English (slightly longer and different) version of the piece:
It is hard not to rejoice at the ECB announcement that it would buy, if necessary, an unlimited amount of government bonds. The Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program is meant to protect from speculation countries that would otherwise have no choice but to abandon the euro zone, causing the implosion of the single currency. As had to be expected, the mere announcement that the ECB was willing to act (at least partially) as a lender of last resort calmed speculation and spreads came down to more reasonable levels.
So, we had another crucial summit, on June 28-29, followed by another also crucial Eurogroup, on July 9. Like all the ones that preceded, and the ones that will follow, they were trumpeted as the final solution to eurozone woes. And as usual, these “final solutions” lasted days, if not hours.
I was tempted to comment immediately after, but I wanted to see the dust settle for once, so as to have more perspective. Did not work that way, though, as news kept piling up. But let’s look at what was agreed.
Countries like the United States, Japan or the United Kingdom can finance their debt at zero or negative real interest rates. This in spite of debt levels higher than those of the euro area, and growth forecasts that are not necessarily better. Meanwhile, the eurozone peripheral countries have to deal on a daily basis with the mood of markets, and to pay interests on debt at the limit of sustainability.
The reasons for this state of affairs are clear, and have been repeatedly mentioned. Eurozone countries are forced to borrow in a currency that they do not issue: the euro is in effect a foreign currency. To quote Paul de Grauwe,
In a nutshell the difference in the nature of sovereign debt between members and non-members of a monetary union boils down to the following. Members of a monetary union issue debt in a currency over which they have no control. It follows that financial markets acquire the power to force default on these countries. This is not the case in countries that are no part of a monetary union, and have kept control over the currency in which they issue debt. These countries cannot easily be forced into default by financial markets.
In other words, peripheral eurozone countries are in the same situation of Latin America in the eighties: they are forced to pay high risk premia to markets fearing the risk of default, induced by the vicious circle austerity-recession-debt burden.