The news of the day is that François Hollande will not seek reelection in May 2017. This is rather big news, even it if was all too logical given his approval ratings. But what went wrong with Hollande’s (almost) five years as a President?
Well, I believe that the answer is in a post I wrote back in 2014, Jean-Baptiste Hollande. There I wrote that the sharp turn towards supply side measures (coupled with austerity) to boost growth was doomed to failure, and that firms themselves showed, survey after survey, that the obstacles they faced came from insufficient demand and not from the renown French “rigidities” or from the tax burden. I was not alone, of course in calling this a huge mistake. Many others made the same point. Boosting supply during an aggregate demand crisis is useless, it is as simple as that. Allow me to quote the end of my post:
Does this mean that all is well in France? Of course not. The burden on French firms, and in particular the tax wedge, is a problem for their competitiveness. Finding ways to reduce it, in principle is a good thing. The problem is the sequencing and the priorities. French firms seem to agree with me that the top priority today is to restart demand, and that doing this “will create its own supply”. Otherwise, more competitive French firms in a context of stagnating aggregate demand will only be able to export. An adoption of the German model ten years late. I already said a few times that sequencing in reforms is almost as important as the type of reforms implemented.
I am sure Hollande could do better than this…
It turns out that we were right. A Policy Brief (in French) published by OFCE last September puts all the numbers together (look at table 1): Hollande did implement what he promised, and gave French firms around €20bn (around 1% of French GDP) in tax breaks. These were compensated, more than compensated actually, by the increase of the tax burden on households (€35bn). And as this tax increase assorted of reshuffling was not accompanied by government expenditure, it logically led to a decrease of the deficit (still too slow according to the Commission; ça va sans dire!). But, my colleagues show, this also led to a shortfall of demand and of growth. A rather important one. They estimate the negative impact of public finances on growth to be almost a point of GDP per year since 2012.
Is this really surprising? Supply side measures accompanied by demand compression, in a context of already insufficient demand, led to sluggish growth and stagnating employment (it is the short side of the market baby!). And to a 4% approval rate for Jean-Baptiste Hollande.
OFCE happens to have published, just yesterday, a report on public investment in which we of join the herd of those pleading for increased public investment in Europe, and in particular in France. Among other things, we estimate that a public investment push of 1% of GDP, would have a positive impact on French growth and would create around 200,000 jobs (it is long and it is in French, so let me help you: go look at page 72). Had it been done in 2014 (or earlier) instead of putting the scarce resources available in tax reductions, things would be very different today, and probably M. Hollande yesterday would have announced his bid for a second mandate.
In a sentence we don’t need to look too far, to understand what went wrong.
Two more remarks: first, we have now mounting evidence of what we could already expect in 2009 based on common sense. Potential growth is not independent of current economic conditions. Past and current failure to aggressively tackle the shortage of demand that has been plaguing the French – and European – economy, hampers its capacity to grow in the long run. The mismanagement of the crisis is condemning us to a state of semi-permanent sluggish growth, that will keep breeding demagogues of all sorts. The European elites do not seem to have fully grasped the danger.
Second, France is not the only large eurozone country that has taken the path of supply side measures to pull the economy out of a demand-driven slump. The failure of the Italian Jobs Act in restarting employment growth and investment can be traced to the very same bad diagnosis that led to Hollande’s failure. Hollande will be gone. Are those who stay, and those who will follow, going to change course?
A new Occasional Paper details the new methodology adopted by the Bank of Italy for calculating an index of price competitiveness, and applies it to the four largest eurozone economies.
I took the time to copy the numbers of table 3 in an excel file (let’s hope for the best), and to look at what happened since 2009. Here is the evolution of price competitiveness (a decrease means improved competitiveness):
I find this intriguing. We have been sold the story of Spain as the success story for EMU austerity as, contrary to other countries, it restored its external balance through internal devaluation. Well, apparently not. Since 2008 its price competitiveness improved, but less so than in the three other major EMU countries.
The reason must be that the rebalancing was internal to the eurozone, so that the figure does not in fact go against austerity nor internal devaluation. For sure, within eurozone price competitiveness improved for Spain. Well, think again…
This is indeed puzzling, and goes against anedoctical evidence. We’ll have to wait for the new methodology to be scrutinized by other researchers before making too much of this. But as it stands, it tells a different story from what we read all over the places. Spain’s current account improvement can hardly be related to an improvement in its price competitiveness. Likewise, by looking at France’s evolution, it is hard to argue that its current account problems are determined by price dynamics.
Without wanting to draw too much from a couple of time series, I would say that reforms in crisis countries should focus on boosting non-price competitiveness, rather than on reducing costs (in particular labour costs). And the thing is, some of these reforms may actually need increased public spending, for example in infrastructures, or in enhancing public administration’s efficiency. To accompany these reforms there is more to macroeconomic policy than just reducing taxes and at the same time cutting expenditure.
Since 2010 it ha been taken for granted that reforms and austerity should go hand in hand. This is one of the reasons for the policy disaster we lived. We really need to better understand the relationship between supply side policies and macroeconomic management. I see little or no debate on this, and I find it worrisome.
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…
A follow-up of the post on public investment. I had said that the resources available based on my calculation were to be seen as an upper bound, being among other things based on the Spring forecasts of the Commission (most likely too optimistic).
And here we are. On Friday the IMF published the result of its Article IV consultation with Italy, where growth for 2013 is revised downwards from -1.3% to -1.8%.
In terms of public finances, a crude back-of-the-envelop estimation yields a worsening of deficit of 0.25% (the elasticity is roughly 0.5). This means that in the calculation I made based on the Commission’s numbers, the 4.8 billions available for 2013 shrink to 1.5 once we take in the IMF numbers. It is worth reminding that besides Germany, Italy is the only large country who
can could benefit of the Commission’s new stance.
And while we are at Italy, the table at page 63 of the EC Spring Forecasts (pdf) is striking. The comparison of 2012 with the annus horribilis 2009 shows that private demand is the real Italian problem. The contribution to growth of domestic demand was of -3.2% in 2009, and -4.7% in 2012! In part this is because of the reversed fiscal stimulus; but mostly because of the collapse of consumption (-4.2% in 2012, against -1.6% in 2009). Luckily, the rest of the world is recovering, and the contribution of net exports, went from -1.1% in 2009 to 3.0% in 2012. This explains the difference in GDP growth between the -5.5% of 2009 and the -2.4% of 2012.
Italian households feel crisis fatigue, and having depleted their buffers, they are today reducing consumption. I remain convinced that strong income redistribution is the only quick way to restart consumption. Looking at the issues currently debated in Italy, this could be attempted reshaping both VAT and property taxes so as to impact the rich and the very rich significantly more than the middle classes. The property tax base should be widened to include much more than just real estate, and an exemption should be introduced (currently in France it is 1.2 millions euro per household). Concerning VAT, a reduction of basic rates should be compensated by a significant increase in rates on luxury goods.
Chances that this will happen?
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…
The run up to the Italian elections in February is a welcome occasion to come back to the issue of austerity. The debate in Italy was fired by the widely discussed Wolfgang Munchau editorial, blaming Mario Monti for not opposing austerity. In the heat of electoral competition, this unsurprisingly stirred harsh discussions on whether Italy has room for reversing the austerity that ravaged the country. Some commentators got slightly carried away, accusing those opposing austerity of “silliness and falsehood”. I wonder whether they include the IMF chief economist in the bunch… Whatever, this is a minor issue; the way I see it, these discussions totally miss the point.
The upcoming Italian elections triggered an interesting debate on the choices ahead, and on the role of technocratic governments. A few days ago the Italian journalist Barbara Spinelli published on the daily La Repubblica a masterly analysis (in Italian) of the difficulties faced by a political sphere that seems incapable, or unwilling, to reclaim from technocrats the task of governing, by which I mean the right/duty to choose between policies with different economic and social consequences.
To an economist, Spinelli’s analysis is a source of further thoughts on the role of choice in economic theory and policy, with important consequences not only for Italy but also for the path that the European construction will walk in the coming years.