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Reform or Perish

June 19, 2015 2 comments

Very busy period. Plus, it is kind of tiresome to comment daily ups and downs of the negotiation between Greece and the Troika Institutions.

But as yesterday we made another step towards Grexit, it struck me how close the two sides are on the most controversial issue, primary surplus. Greece conceded to the creditors’ demand of a 1% surplus in 2015, and there still is a difference on the target for 2016, of about 0.5% (around 900 millions). Just look at how often most countries, not just Greece, respected their targets in the past, and you’ll understand how this does not look like a difference impossible to bridge.

The remaining issue is reforms. Creditors argue that Greece cannot be trusted in its commitment to reform. After all, they cheated so often in the past… In particular, creditors point at one of Syriza’s red lines, the refusal to touch pension reforms, as proof that the country is structurally incapable of reform. And here is the proof, the percentage of GDP that crisis countries spent in welfare::

2015_06_Reforms_Greece_1

I took total social expenditure that bundles together pensions, expenditure for supporting families, labour market policies, and so on and so forth. All these expenditure that, according to the Berlin View, choke the animal spirits of the economy, and kill productivity.

Well, Greece does not do much worse than its fellow crisis economies, but it is true that it is hard to detect a downward trend. The reform effort was not very strong, and certaiinly not adapted to an economy undergoing such a terrible crisis. The very fact that after four years of adjustment program the country spends 24% of its GDP in social protection, is a proof that it cannot be trusted.This is just proof that, once more, the Greek made fun of their fellow Europeans, and that they want us to pay for their pensions.

Hold on. Did I just say “terrible crisis”? What was that story of ratios, denominators and numerators? The ratio is today at the same level as 2009. But what about actual expenditure? There is a vary simple way to check for this. Multiply each of the lines above for the value of GDP. Here is what you get (normalized at 2009=100, as country sizes are too different):

2015_06_Reforms_Greece_2

The picture looks quite different, does it? Greece, whose crisis was significantly worse than for the other countries, slashed social expenditure by 25% in 5 years (I know, I know, it is current expenditure. I am too busy to deflate the figure. But I challenge you to prove that things would be substantially different). Now, just in case you had not noticed, social expenditure has an important role as an automatic stabilizer: It supports incomes, thus making hardship more bearable, and lying the foundations for the recovery. In a crisis the line should go up, not down. This picture is yet another illustration of the Greek tragedy, and of the stupidity of the policies that the Troika insists on imposing. By the way, notice how expenditure increased from 2005 to 2009, in response to the global financial crisis. A further proof that sensible policies were implemented in the early phase of the crisis, and that we went berserk only in the second phase.

Ah, and of course virtuous Germany, the model we should all follow, is the black line. Do what I say…

One may object that focusing on expenditure is misleading. There is more than expenditure in assessing the burden of the welfare state on the economy. While Greece slashed spending, its welfare state did not become any better; its capacity to collect taxes did not improve, that its inefficient public administration and its crony capitalism are stronger than ever. Yes, somebody may object all that. That someone is Yanis Varoufakis, who is demanding precisely this: stop asking that Greece slashes spending, and lift the financial constraint that prevents any meaningful medium term reform effort. Reform is not just cutting expenditure. Reform is reorganization of the administrative machine, elimination of wasteful programs, redesigning of incentives. All that is a billion times harder to do for a government that spends all its energies finding money to pay its debt.

Real reform is a medium term objective that needs time, and sometimes resources. In a sentence, reform should stop being associated with austerity.

But hey, I am no finance minister. Just sayin’…

@fsaraceno

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.

Mr Sinn on EMU Core Countries’ Inflation

December 17, 2014 16 comments

Two weeks ago I received a request from Prof Sinn to make it known to my readers that he feels misrepresented by my post of September 29. Here is his very civilized mail, that I publish with his permission:

Dear Mr. Saraceno,
I have just become acquainted with your blog: https://fsaraceno.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/draghi-the-euro-breaker/. You misrepresent me here. In my book The Euro Trap. On Bursting Bubbles, Budgets and Beliefs, Oxford University Press 2014, and in many other writings, I advise against extreme deflation scenarios for southern Europe because of the grievous effects upon debtors. I explicitly draw the comparison with Germany in the 1929 – 1933 period. I advocate instead a mixed solution with moderate deflation in southern Europe and  more inflation in northern Europe,  Germany in particular. In addition, I advocate a debt conference for southern Europe and a “breathing currency union” which allows for temporary exits of those southern European countries for which the stress of an internal adjustment would be unbearable. You may also wish to consult my paper “Austerity, Growth and Inflation: Remarks on the Eurozone’s Unresolved Competitiveness Problem”, The World Economy 37, 2014, p. 1-1,  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/twec.2014.37.issue-1/issuetoc, in which I also argue for more inflation in Germany to solve the Eurozone’s problem of distorted relative prices.  I would be glad if you could make this response known to your readers.

Sincerely yours
Hans-Werner Sinn
Professor of Economics and Public Finance
President of CESifo Group

I was swamped with end of semester duties, and I only managed to read the paper (not the book) this morning. But in spite of Mr Sinn’s polite remarks, I stand by my statement (spoiler alert: the readers will find very little new content here). True, in the paper Mr Sinn advocates some inflation in the core (look at sections 9 an 10). In particular, he argues that

What the Eurozone needs for its internal realignment is a demand-driven boom in the core countries. Such a boom would also increase wages and prices, but it would do so because of demand rather that supply effects. Such demand-driven wage and price increases would come through real and nominal income increases in the core and increasing imports from other countries, and at the same time, they would undermine the competitiveness of exports. Both effects would undoubtedly work to reduce the current account surpluses in the core and the deficits in the south.

This is a diagnosis that we share But the agreement stops around here. Where we disagree is on how to trigger the demand-driven boom. Mr Sinn expects this to happen thanks to market mechanisms, just because of the reversal of capital flows that the crisis triggered. He argues that the capital which foolishly left Germany to be invested in peripheral countries, being repatriated would trigger an investment and property boom in Germany, that would reduce German’s current account surplus. This and this alone would be needed. Not a policy of wage increases, useless, nor a fiscal expansion even more useless.

Problem is, the data speak against Mr Sinn’s belief. Since the crisis hit, capital massively left peripheral countries, and yet this did not fuel domestic demand in Germany. Last August I showed the following figure:

GermanDomesticDemand

It shows that after a drop (in the acute phase of the financial crisis) due to a sharp decline of GDP, since 2009 domestic demand as a percentage of GDP kept decreasing, in Germany as well as in the rest of the Eurozone. The reversal of capital flows depressed demand in the periphery, but did not boost it in Germany. Mr Sinn is too skilled an economist to fail to see this. The reason is, of course, that the magic investment boom did not happen:

2014_12_17_Sinn_1Mr Sinn, being a fine economist, could object that this is because GDP, the denominator, grew more fell less in Germany than in the rest of the EMU. Well, think again.

2014_12_17_Sinn_2Yes, France comes out as investing (privately) less than Germany. But we are far from an investment boom in Germany as well. Mr Sinn, will agree, I ma sure.

What basically happened, I said it before, is that adjustment was not symmetric. Peripheral countries reduced their excess demand, while Germany and the core did not reduce their excess savings. The result is that, if we compare 2007 to 2014, external imbalances of the periphery were greatly reduced or reversed, while with the exception of Finland the core did not do its homework:

2014_12_17_Sinn_0The EMU as a whole became a large Germany, running a current account surplus (it was more or less in balance in 2007), and relying on its exports for growth. A very dubious strategy in the long run.

The conclusion in my opinion is one and only one: We cannot count on markets alone, in the current macroeconomic situation, if we want rebalancing to take place. In the article he suggested I read, Mr Sinn states that a 4 or 5 per cent inflation rate would be politically impossible to sell to the German public:

Moreover, it is unclear whether the German population would accept being deprived of their savings. Given the devastating experiences Germany made with hyperinflation from 1914 to 1923, which in the end undermined the stability of its society, the resistance against an extended period of inflation in Germany could be as strong or even stronger than the resistance against deflation in southern Europe. After all, a rate of 4.1 per cent for German inflation for 10 years, which would be necessary to allow the necessary realignment between France and Germany without France sliding into a deflation, would mean that the German price level would increase by 50 per cent and that, in terms of domestic goods, German savers would be deprived of 33 per cent of their wealth. If the German inflation rate were even 5.5 per cent, which would be necessary to accommodate the Spanish realignment without price cuts, its price level would increase by 71 per cent over a decade and German savers would be deprived of 42 per cent of their wealth.

This shows all the logic of Ordoliberalism: It is impossible to sell inflation to the the German public, because this would deprive them of their savings. This argument only makes sense if one subscribes to the Berlin View that the bad guys in the south partied with hard earned money of northern (hard) workers. Otherwise the argument makes no sense at all, as high inflation in the core for next few years simply  compensates low inflation in the past. Should I remind Mr Sinn that the outlier in terms of labour costs  is not the EMU periphery, but Germany?

Also, I find it disturbing that, while acknowledging that inflation in Germany would be needed, Mr Sinn rejects it on the ground that it would be a hard sell. The role of intellectuals and academics is mostly to discuss, find solutions (or at least try), and then argue for them. All the more so if this is unpopular, because it is then that their pedagogical role is most needed. All too often public intellectuals abdicate to their role, and simply follow the trend. Should we all argue in favour of a euro breakup only because public opinion is less and less favorable to the single currency?

Finally, a short comment on another bit of Mr Sinn’s article:

And although the core countries would suffer [from high inflation], the solution would not be comfortable for the devaluating countries either. They will unavoidably face a long-lasting stagnation with rising mass unemployment and increasing hardship for the population at large. People will turn away from the European idea, and voices opting for exiting the euro will gain strength. Thus, it might be politically impossible to induce the necessary differential inflation in the Eurozone.

I don’t really see his point here. But let’s take it for good, just for the sake of argument. I think it is too late to worry about support for the euro in the periphery. It is hard to see how “excessive” inflation in the core would impose more hardness than seven years of adjustment, ill-conceived structural reforms, and self-defeating austerity.

So Mr Sinn, thank you for your mail and for the reference to your paper that I have read with interest. But no, I don’t think I misrepresented you.  The core of your argument remains that the burden of adjustment should rest on the periphery’s shoulders. And you failed to convince me that this is right.

Labour Costs: Who is the Outlier?

September 11, 2014 27 comments

Spain is today the new model, together with Germany of course, for policy makers in Italy and France. A strange model indeed, but this is not my point here. The conventional wisdom, as usual, almost impossible to eradicate, states that Spain is growing because it implemented serious structural reforms that reduced labour costs and increased competitiveness. A few laggards (in particular Italy and France) stubbornly refuse to do the same, thus hampering recovery across the eurozone. The argument is usually supported by a figure like this

2014_09_Labour_Costs

And in fact, it is evident from the figure that all peripheral countries diverged from the benchmark, Germany, and that since 2008-09 all of them but France and Italy have cut their labour costs significantly. Was it costly? Yes. Could convergence have made easier by higher inflation and wage growth in Germany, avoiding deflationary policies in the periphery? Once again, yes. It remains true, claims the conventional wisdom,  that all countries in crisis have undergone a painful and necessary adjustment. Italy and France should therefore also be brave and join the herd.

Think again. What if we zoom out, and we add a few lines to the figure? From the same dataset (OECD. Productivity and ULC By Main Economic Activity) we obtain this:

2014_09_Labour_Costs_1

It is unreadable, I know. And I did it on purpose. The PIIGS lines (and France) are now indistinguishable from other OECD countries, including the US. In fact the only line that is clearly visible is the dotted one, Germany, that stands as the exception. Actually no, it was beaten by deflation-struck Japan. As I am a nice guy, here is a more readable figure:

2014_09_Labour_Costs_2

The figure shows the difference between change in labour costs in a given country, and the change in Germany (from 1999 to 2007). labour costs in OECD economies increased 14% more than in Germany. In the US, they increased 19% more, like in France, and slightly better than in virtuous Netherlands or Finland. Not only Japan (hardly a model) is the only country doing “better” than Germany. But second best performers (Israel, Austria and Estonia) had labour costs increase 7-8% more than in Germany.

Thus, the comparison with Germany is misleading. You should never compare yourself with an outlier! If we compare European peripheral countries with the OECD average, we obtain the following (for 2007 and 2012, the latest available year in OECD.Stat)

2014_09_Labour_Costs_3

If we take the OECD average as a benchmark, Ireland and Spain were outliers in 2007, as much as Germany; And while since then they reverted to the mean, Germany walked even farther away. It is interesting to notice that unreformable France, the sick man of Europe, had its labour costs increase slightly less than OECD average.

Of course, most of the countries I considered when zooming out have floating exchange rates, so that they can compensate the change in relative labour costs through exchange rate variation. This is not an option for EMU countries. But this means that it is even more important that the one country creating the imbalances, the outlier, puts its house in order. If only Germany had followed the European average, it would have labour costs 20% higher than their current level. There is no need to say how much easier would adjustment have been, for crisis countries. Instead, Germany managed to impose its model to the rest of the continent, dragging the eurozone on the brink of deflation.

What is enraging is that it needed not be that way.

Walls Come Tumbling Down

August 16, 2014 9 comments

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):
IMG_4407.PNG

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…