Posts Tagged ‘EMU reform’

Germany’s longing for the Ancien Régime is a Threat for Europe

August 19, 2022 Leave a comment

Note: this is a rough translation of a piece published on the Italian neswpaper Domani, with a few edits and additions.

While the campaign for the election captures all the attention of the Italian establishment, we should not stop looking beyond our borders. In particular, the lack of interest in what is happening in Germany is striking and worrisome. The difficulties Europe’s largest economy is experiencing will in fact have far more significant consequences for many European countries than their domestic political struggles.

Last week, the ministry of economy and ecological transition (headed by the vice-chancellor and number two of the Green party, Robert Habeck) published a report on the reform of the stability pact, which, although we tend to forget it, will be THE topic of the coming months. The guiding principles for reform that the report outlines are basically a re-proposal of the existing rule, as if the disasters of the sovereign debt crisis and the Covid tsunami were a parenthesis to be closed as soon as possible by returning to the old world.

Under a gleaming hood, the German engine has been in crisis for years

There will be time to return to the inadequacy of this proposal (Carlo Clericetti does it well in the Italian magazine Micromega) and to the issue of European governance. What I would like to emphasise here is that the German elites, with this frenzy to return to the past, do not seem to fully grasp at least two things: First, the fact that after the experience of the last ten years it is not possible to return to an idea of economic policy for which the only beacon is fiscal discipline, neglecting public investment, industrial policy, social protection and so on. Second, and this is more surprising, they do not grasp the fact that the German growth model seems to have hit its boundaries. As a reminder, we are talking about a model aiming at export-led growth, that was based on the one hand on the compression of domestic demand (with wages that for decades grew much less than productivity); on the other hand it was based on an export sector that took advantage of both the dualism of the labour market and of value chains rooted in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Germany could therefore import intermediate goods and low-cost components and re-export finished products, often with a high technological content, to non-European markets. This is the main reason why it remained a manufacturing power while most advanced countries had to cope with de-industrialisation and relocation.
Many, including myself have criticised this model, which during the sovereign debt crisis Germany successfully managed to generalise to the rest of the eurozone. In 2020, in concluding an essay on Europe, I pointed out how that model has come to an end. The public and private investment deficit, the result of decades of self-imposed frugality, has progressively depleted the capital stock and reduced the competitiveness of German industry. Meanwhile, while the growth of emerging countries has helped to provide outlets for German goods, it has also seen these countries develop high value-added production that competes with German exporting firms. But there is more: I also noted that the progressive distortion of the ordoliberal model, the increase in inequality and precariousness (which contributes to demographic stagnation and to the ageing of population), and the growing dependence on foreign demand, more problematic than ever in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical context, have all contributed to making Germany a giant with feet of clay.

A Giant with Feet of Clay

Feet of clay that today are cracking. The bottlenecks that appeared during and after the pandemic, due to lockdowns and to the recomposition of global supply and demand, have (not surprisingly) proved to be more persistent than many expected. Furthermore, the acceleration of investment in the ecological transition, obviously welcome and all too late, creates shortages particularly in sectors that are key for the German economy, such as the automotive. Finally, geopolitical tensions, the slowdown in emerging economies, and of course the war in Ukraine greatly reduce the outlets for the German export sector and have laid bare the short-sightedness of the past German leadership’s choice to rely on Russian oil and gas, admittedly reducing costs, but creating a dependency for which the country is now paying the price. It is important, however, to emphasise again that the events of the last two years have only come to add to the structural problems of a model of growth and organisation of production that was beginning to show its limits even before the pandemic.

The German elites at a crossroads

In 2020, I concluded my essay by stating that the crisis of the German model could have been an opportunity for Europe, as it would have forced Germany to worry about the imbalances within the eurozone, to promote public and private investment, to rethink industrial policy, to support (German and European) domestic demand; not out of altruism, but to create a stable European market in an international context that had become structurally uncertain and turbulent. The heartfelt support for Next Generation EU seemed to confirm the feeling that something had changed in Germany. The recent turn of the German debate is therefore worrisome and should be looked at closely. Habeck’s paper and the recent stances of the Minister of Finances, the liberal Lindner, point to a kind of “ostrich syndrome” of the German elites, who seem to long for a return to the past in order not to have to deal with the structural problems of Germany and of European integration. If this tendency prevails, not only the German citizens but the whole of Europe, which will slip into irrelevance, will pay the price in the coming years. On the contrary, representatives of the German government at European tables need to be called upon to contribute to the rethinking of industrial and energy policy and public investment policies, to the development of a European welfare state, to the definition of budget rules that allow for active and sustainable policies, to the development of the internal market, to the completion of the banking union, and the list could go on. In short, an ambitious and wide-ranging European discussion is needed to make the German elites look away from their navels and try to restore Europe’s centrality at a time of great geopolitical turbulence (which will certainly extend well beyond the war in Ukraine). France and Italy, because of their size and the influence they have had in Europe in the recent past, would obviously play a key role in countering the return to the past of the German elites. This is why the absence of European issues from the (pre-electoral) Italian and (post-electoral) French debate cannot but cause concern.


The Euro Debate: Back to Square One

November 20, 2017 2 comments

I was glad to write a preface for the Italian translation (La moneta rinnegata) of Martin Sandbu’s latest effort (Europe’s Orphan). A somewhat shorter version can be found on the website of LuissOpen.

In a few sentences, I believe that the interest of the book lies in two points:

  • First, its rebuttal of the “flawed euro” narrative. This narrative is shared by euro skeptics and federalists (including myself more often than not), and it fatally hurts the capacity of the latter to win the argument. If the euro is flawed, and if a political union is not in the cards, then it is hard to argue against XX-exiters with arguments other than fear. And fear (Brexit docet) does not work.
  • Second, Sandbu shows masterfully something I have also been saying, much less effectively: institutions (and money is one) do not make policies. People do. None of the policy mistakes that disseminate the euro crisis Via Crucis  was inevitable. In the piece for LuissOpen I notice that institutions may still bias the choice in certain directions (think of the Stability Pact), but in spite of that I join Sandbu in believing that the Euro is the scapegoat for policies that could and should have been different. La moneta rinnegata, indeed.

I would add something, that came to my mind after I had sent out the piece. Sandbu puts at the center of his narrative the issue of debt restructuring. It is the refusal of EU creditors to consider forgiveness for a debt that was anyway never to be repaid, that led to self-defeating austerity. Sharing the burden (debt relief) would have entailed lower costs and eventually, would have increased resilience and more sustainable public finances. The IMF recognized this fundamental contradiction, but the other creditors (must notably Germany) did not.

And they still don’t. I believe that the whole debate about risk sharing versus risk reduction, that shapes the discussion on EMU reforms, replicates the fault lines we saw at work for debt crisis management. On one side those who believe that market mechanisms or policy constraints, alone, cannot dampen the centrifugal forces that are inevitably built in any monetary union. On the other, those who believe that the collective convergence will happen once each member behaves, so that enhanced rules and firewalls are all that is needed for the euro to thrive.

Thus Sandbu’s book helps making sense of what happened, but also to assess the proposals for the future. Refusal to share costs linked to the debt crisis turned out to be a huge mistake. We should avoid making another one by refusing to fight divergence through risk sharing.

Can France Survive Without Europe?

May 6, 2017 2 comments

I should begin by saying that it is sad to see that my last post dates from February 20. Lots of things going on right now, in particular the wrapping up a book on the history of macro, that is draining all my energies. But I need to try harder to keep the blog going…

At any rate, tomorrow France votes. And I wrote a piece for Social Europe, in which I try to put the outcome of the election in the European context. If you do not want to read all of it, here are the bullet points:

  1. France is considered the sick man of Europe for the standard reasons (rigidity lack of reform etc)
  2. 2) But in fact “hard” data are not that bad, rather the contrary (productivity investment FDI, etc). Just look at Thomas Piketty’s blog post from a few months ago.
  3. lost competitiveness is price competitiveness, that is not France’s fault, but Germany’s (wage deflation).
  4. In fact the sick man of Europe is Europe itself, because it forces countries into a dilemma:
    • They can engage in fiscal competition and internal devaluation. But let’s not fool ourselves, there is no way that this can be done without killing the European social model. Only the downsizing of the welfare state can allow reducing taxes and labour costs and keeping public finances sustainable;
    • Or, they (try to) protect their social model, but pay the price of low competitiveness and slow growth.
  5. France oscillated between Scylla and Charybdis, leaning more towards the second path.  And it suffers, because most other countries did take the internal devaluation  path, willingly or not . Everything in the way the EMU is constructed, pushes countries to engage in deflationary policies.
  6. Exiting (from the Euro, from the ECU, from the EU) would in no way subtract countries to the dilemma. A small open economy would have an even harder time carrying on autonomous economic policies (more in general, what I think of XXexit is well summarized here. To be fair to my colleagues, I contributed very little to that piece, but was happy to sign it).
  7. Thus, the survival of the French model is in Europe, or it is nowhere. The next President’s fate will have to be decided there
  8. If France wants to save its social model, it needs to trigger change in the EU. It will save its model. Otherwise it is doomed; it will not survive, socially and electorally, to five more years of muddling through.
  9. And viceversa, if there is a chance for Europe to change, that chance is represented by a coalition against deflationary policies that only France would have the strength to form and lead. There is one way, and only one way, to escape Scylla and Charybdis.

I did not write that in the Social Europe piece, but I want to add that the path is very narrow. Macron has the virtue of putting Europe at the center of his project, but his reform proposals are for the moment very vague. And more importantly, his tax reduction plan resembles a bit too much to the good ol’  supply side measures that sank Jean-Baptiste Hollande.  But then, what do we know? First, policies are shaped by events; and second Le Pen would of course mean the end of the Euro right now. So, we can just hope that (and fight for) France and Europe will walk that narrow path.

Fiscal Expansion or What?

January 21, 2014 4 comments

The newly born Italian magazine Pagina99 published a piece I wrote on rebalancing in Europe after the German elections. Here is an English version.

The preliminary estimates for 2013 released by the German Federal Statistical Office, depict a mixed picture. Timid signs of revival in domestic demand do not seem able to compensate for the slowdown in exports to other countries in the euro zone, still mired in weak or negative growth rates. The German economy does not seem able to ignore the economic health of its European partners. In spite of fierce resistance of Germany policymakers, there is increasing consensus that the key to a durable exit from the Eurozone crisis can only be found in restoring symmetry in the adjustment following the crisis. The reduction of expenditure and deficits in the Eurozone periphery, that is currently happening, needs to be matched by an increase of expenditure and imports by the core, in particular by the Netherlands and Germany (Finland and Austria have actually drastically reduced their trade surpluses). In light of the coalition agreement signed by the CDU and the SPD, it seems unlikely that major institutional innovation will happen in the Eurozone, or that private demand in Germany will increase sufficiently fast to have an impact on imbalances at the aggregate level. This leaves little alternative to an old-fashioned fiscal expansion in Germany.

The Eurozone reaction to the sovereign debt crisis, so far, has focused on enhancing discipline and fiscal restraint. Germany, the largest economy of the zone, and its largest creditor, was pivotal in shaping this approach to the crisis. The SPD, substantially shared the CDU-Liberal coalition view that the crisis was caused by fiscal profligacy of peripheral member countries, and that little if any risk sharing should be put in place (be it a properly functioning banking union, or some form of debt mutualisation). The SPD also seems to support Mrs Merkel’s strategy of discretely looking elsewhere when the ECB is forced to stretch its mandate to respond to exceptional challenges, while refusing all discussion on introducing the reform of the bank statute in a wider debate on Eurozone governance. This consensus explains why European matters take relatively little space in the 185 pages coalition agreement.

This does not mean that the CDU-SPD government will have no impact on Eurozone rebalancing. The most notable element of the coalition agreement is the introduction of a minimum wage that should at least partially attenuate the increasing dualism of the German labour market. This should in turn lead, together with the reduction of retirement age to 63 years, to an increase of consumption. The problem is that these measures will be phased-in slowly enough for their macroeconomic impact to be diluted and delayed.

Together with European governance, the other missing character in the coalition agreement is investment; this is surprising because the negative impact of the currently sluggish investment rates on the future growth potential of the German economy is acknowledged by both parties; yet, the negotiations did not include direct incentives to investment spending. The introduction of the minimum wage, on the other hand, is likely to have conflicting effects. On the one hand, by reducing margins, it will have a negative impact on investment spending. But on the other, making labour more expensive, it could induce a substitution of capital for labour, thus boosting investment. Which of these two effects will prevail is today hard to predict. But it is safe to say that changes in investment are not likely to be massive.

To summarize, the coalition agreement will have a small and delayed impact on private expenditure in Germany. Similarly, the substantial consensus on current European policies, leaves virtually no margin for the implementation of rebalancing mechanisms within the Eurozone governance structure.

Thus, there seems to be little hope that symmetry in Eurozone rebalancing is restored, unless the only remaining tool available for domestic demand expansion, fiscal policy, is used. The German government should embark on a vast fiscal expansion program, focusing on investment in physical and intangible capital alike. There is room for action. Public investment has been the prime victim of the recent fiscal restraint, and Germany has embarked in a huge energetic transition program that could be accelerated with beneficial effects on aggregate demand in the short run, and on potential GDP in the long run. Finally, Germany’s public finances are in excellent health, and yields are at an all-times low, making any public investment program short of pure waste profitable. Besides stubbornness and ideology, what retains Mrs Merkel?