Yesterday the Council decided that Spain and Portugal’s recent efforts to reduce deficit were not enough. This may lead to the two countries being fined, the first time this would happen since the inception of the euro.
It is likely that the fine will be symbolic, or none at all; given the current macroeconomic situation, imposing a further burden on the public finances of
these two any country would be crazy.
Yet, the decision is in my opinion enraging. First, for political reasons: Our
world is crumbling. The level of confidence in political elites is at record low levels, and as the Brexit case shows, this fuels disintegration forces. It is hard not to see a link between these processes and, in Europe, the dismal political and economic performances we managed to put together in the last decade (you are free pick your example, I will pick the refugee crisis (mis) management, and the austerity-induced double-dip recession).
But hey, one might say. We are not here to save the world, we are here to apply the rules. Rules that require fiscal discipline. And of course, both Portugal and Spain have been fiscal sinners since the crisis began (and of course before):
Once we neglect interest payments, on which there is little a government can do besides hoping that they ECB will keep helping, both countries spectacularly reduced their deficit since 2010. And this is true whether we take the headline figures (total deficit, the dashed line), or the structural figures that the Commission cherishes, i.e. deficit net of cyclical components (the solid lines). Looking at this figure one may wonder what they serve to drink during Council (and Commission) meetings, for them to argue that the fiscal effort was insufficient…
What is even more enraging, is that not only this effort was not recognized as remarkable by EU authorities. But what is more, it was harmful for these economies (and for the Eurozone at large).
In the following table I have put side by side the output gaps and fiscal impulse, the best measure of discretionary policy changes1. I have highlighted in green all the years in which the fiscal stance was countercyclical, meaning that a negative (positive) output gap triggered a more expansionary (contractionary) fiscal stance. And in red cases in which the fiscal stance was procyclical, i.e. in which it made matters worse.
|Output Gap and Discretionary Fiscal Policy Stance|
|Output Gap||Fiscal Impulse||Output Gap||Fiscal Impulse||Output Gap||Fiscal Impulse|
|Source: Datastream – AMECO Database|
|Note: Fiscal Impulse computed as change of cyclically adjusted deficit net of interest|
The reader will judge by himself. Just two remarks. linked to the fines put in place. First, the Portuguese fiscal contraction of 2015-2016 is procyclical, as the output gap was and still is negative. On the other hand, Spain has increased its structural deficit, but it had excellent reasons to do so.
One may argue that the table causes problems, because the calculation of the output gap is arbitrary and political in nature. Granted, I could not agree more. So I took headline figures, and compared the “gross” fiscal impulse with the “growth gap”, meaning the difference between the actual growth rate and the 3% level that was assumed to be normal when the Maastricht Treaty was signed (If you are curious about EMU numerology, just look here). This is of course a harsher criterion, as 3% as nowadays become more a mirage than a realistic objective. But hey, if we want to use the rules, we should take them together with their underlying hypotheses. Here is the table:
|Growth Gap and Overall Fiscal Policy Stance|
|Growth Gap to 3%||Fiscal Impulse||Growth Gap to 3%||Fiscal Impulse||Growth Gap to 3%||Fiscal Impulse|
|Source: Datastream – AMECO Database|
|Note: Fiscal Impulse computed as change of government deficit net of interest|
Lot’s of red, isn’t it? Faced with a structural growth deficit, the EMU at large, as well as Spain and Portugal, has had an excessively restrictive fiscal stance. I know, no real big news here.
To summarize, the decision to fine Portugal and Spain is politically ill-timed and clumsy. And it is economically unwarranted. And yet, here we are, discussing it. My generation grew up thinking that When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best of What’s Still Around. In Brussels, no matter how bad things get, it is business as usual.
1. The fiscal impulse is computed as the negative of the change in deficit. As such it captures the change in the fiscal stance. Just to make an example, going from a deficit of 1% to a deficit of 5% is more expansionary than going form a deficit of 10% to a deficit of 11%↩.
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.
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
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:
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:
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)
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.
The latest Eurostat release on inflation shows that the Eurozone, and the EU at large, keep flirting with deflation. This happens mostly because peripheral countries have near-zero inflation rates. Strikingly, no EU country had, in January, annual inflation rates above the 2% ECB target (Finland and the UK stood at 1.9%). Deflation is a problem for debtors, who see the real value of their debt increase. It is a problem for macroeconomic policy (in particular monetary policy). But it is also a problem for rebalancing. The imbalances that built over the period 1999-2007 show up in diverging inflation rates and labour costs. Take the former, from Eurostat data: Read More
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.
Not that he needs it, but I feel I must advertise this New York Times editorial by Paul Krugman, on the looming European catastrophe. As usual, it is masterly written. I just want to add one remark: The economic suicide of Europe happens because of ideological blindness. We are trapped in a doctrinal approach to economics and economic policy. There is nothing you can do against fundamentalism.
Should the title of this blog change from Gloomy to Desperate?