Last week’s data on EMU growth have triggered quite a bit of comments. I was intrigued by Paul Krugman‘s piece arguing (a) that in per capita terms the EMU performance is not as bad (he uses working age population, I used total population); and (b) that the path of the EMU was similar to that of the US in the first phase of the crisis; and (c) that divergence started only in 2011, due to differences in monetary policy (an impeccable disaster here, much more reactive in the US). Fiscal policy, Krugman argues, was equally contractionary across the ocean.
I pretty much agree that the early policy response to the crisis was similar, and that divergence started only when the global crisis went European, after the Greek elections of October 2009. But I am puzzled (and it does not happen very often) by Krugman’s dismissal of austerity as a factor explaining different performances. True, at first sight, fiscal consolidation kicked in at the same moment in the US and in Europe. I computed the fiscal impulse, using changes in the cyclically adjusted primary deficit. In other words, by taking away the cyclical component, and interest payment, we can obtain the closest possible measure to the discretionary fiscal stance of a government. And here is what it gives:
Krugman is certainly right that austerity was widespread in 2011 and in 2012 (actually more in the US). So what is the problem?
The problem is that fiscal consolidation needs not to be assessed in isolation, but in relation to the environment in which it takes place. First, it started one year earlier in the EMU (look at the bars for 2010). Second, expansion had been more robust in the US in 2008 and in 2009, thus avoiding that the economy slid too much: having been bolder and more effective in 2008-2010, continued fiscal expansion was less necessary in 2011-12.
I remember Krugman arguing at the time that the recovery would have been stronger and faster if the fiscal stance in the US had remained expansionary. I agreed then and I agree now: government support to the economy was withdrawn when the private sector was only partially in condition to take the witness. But to me it is just a question of degree and of timing in reversing a fiscal policy stance that overall had been effective.
I had made the same point back in 2013. Here is, updated from that post, the correlation between public and private expenditure:
|Correlation Between Public and Private Expenditure|
Remember, a positive correlation means that fiscal policy moves together with private expenditure, and fails to act countercyclically. The table tells us that public expenditure in the US was withdrawn only when private expenditure could take the witness, and never was procylclical (it turned neutral in the past 2 years). Europe is a whole different story. Fiscal contraction began when the private sector was not ready to take the witness; the withdrawal of public demand therefore led to a plunge in economic activity and to the double dip recession that the US did not experience. Here is the figure from the same post, also updated:
To sum up: the fiscal stance in the US was appropriate, even if it changed a bit too hastily in 2011. In Europe, it was harmful since 2010.
And monetary policy in all this? It did not help in Europe. I join Krugman in believing that once the economy was comfortably installed in the liquidity trap Mario Draghi’s activism while necessary was (and is) far from sufficient. Being more timely, the Fed played an important role with its aggressive monetary policy, that started precisely in 2012. It supported the expansion of private demand, and minimized the risk of a reversal when the withdrawal of fiscal policy begun. But in both cases I am unsure that monetary policy could have made a difference without fiscal policy. Let’s not forget that a first round of aggressive monetary easing in 2007-2008 had been successful in keeping the financial sector afloat, but not in avoiding the recession. This is why in 2009 most economies launched robust fiscal stimulus plans. I see no reason to believe that, in 2010-2012, more appropriate and timely ECB action would have made a big difference. The problem is fiscal, fiscal, fiscal.
Jared Bernstein has a very interesting piece on the lessons we
(did not) learn from the great crisis. He basically makes two points:
First, the attitude towards lenders, while somewhat schizophrenic (Bear Sterns, up; Lehman, down. Why? We still don’t know), was forgiving to say the least. in his words, ” Borrowers get austerity, joblessness, and poverty. Lenders get bailouts when credit is scarce and bribes not to lend when it’s too plentiful”. He then argues that both letting lenders fail and bailing them out has large costs, that should be avoided ex ante through better regulation (and we are not there, yet).
Bernstein is perfectly right, but he neglects mentioning a third option, that was advocated at the time, for example by Joe Stiglitz: temporary bank nationalization. The Swedish experience of 1992 proves, according to many (1, 2), that this would have been as effective, while the cost for the taxpayer would have been greatly reduced if not completely eliminated. Public control over the main financial institutions would have guaranteed that the necessary healing could happen without the rents and bonuses that actually went to the very same people who had caused the trouble in the first place. Temporary nationalization, in other words, would have avoided the “Heads I win Tail you lose” feature of financial sector bailouts.
The second point Bernstein makes is that regardless of the strategy chosen to save the financial sector, fiscal policy should have been much more aggressive in fighting the downturn. A quote, again:
But here’s what I do know. Neither bailouts nor allowing insolvent banks to fail will work if, when private sector demand is subsequently tanking, we undercut the use of fiscal policy to make up the difference. In this regard, the clearest lesson of Lehman is not simply that we must regulate financial markets, which is true, nor is it that we must always preserve private credit flows by fully bailing out irresponsible lenders, which contributes to inequality and economic unfairness.
It’s that it takes both monetary and fiscal policy working together to get back to full employment. Restored credit flows alone won’t get people back to work. That’s pure supply-side thinking.
Well, he says it all. What drives me nuts, is that the he complains about the US, THE US, where the Fed showed incredible activism, where the Obama administration voted and implemented a huge stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) just weeks after been sworn in office, while it took us 7 years, to decide to adopt a cumbersome investment plan that will make little or no difference.
Without even mentioning the fact that the whole Greek crisis, since 2010, has been managed with an eye to (mostly German and French) lenders’ needs, rather than to the well-being of European (and in particular Greek) taxpayers.
I really would like to know what would Bernstein say, were he to comment the EMU lessons from the crisis…
A quick note on the US and the Fed. Pressure for rate rises never really stopped, but lately it has intensified. Today I read on the FT that James Bullard, Saint Louis Fed head, urges Janet Yellen to raise rates as soon as possible, to avoid “devastating asset bubbles”. Just a few months ago we learned that QE was dangerous because, once again through asset price inflation, it led to increasing inequality. Not to mention the inflationistas (thanks PK for the great name!) who since 2009 have been predicting Weimar-type inflation because of irresponsible Fed behaviour (a very similar pattern can be found in the EMU). Let’s play the game, for the sake of argument. After all, asset price inflation, and distortions in general are not unlikely in the current environment. So let’s assume that the Fed suddenly were convinced by its critics, and turned its policy stance to restrictive (hopefully this is just a thought experiment). I have two related questions to rate-raisers (the same two questions apply to QE opponents in the EMU):
- Do they think that private expenditure is healthy enough to grow and to sustain economic activity without the oxygen tent of monetary policy?
- If not, would they be willing to accept that monetary restriction is accompanied by a fiscal expansion?
I am afraid we all know the answer, at least to the second of these questions. Just yesterday, on Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi called for public expenditure cuts, invoking the confidence fairy and expansionary austerity (yes, you have read well. Check for yourself if you understand Italian. And check the date, it is 2015, not 2007) What Fed (and ECB) bashers tend to forget, in conclusion, is that central bankers are at the center of the stage, reluctantly, because they have to fill the void left, for different reasons, by fiscal policy. Look at the fiscal stance for the US: Fiscal impulse, the discretionary stance of the US government, was positive only in 2008-2009, and has been restrictive since then. In other words, while the US were experiencing the worse crisis since the 1930s, while recovery was sluggish and jobless, the US government was pushing the brake. We all know why: political blockage and systematic boycott, by one side of Congress, of each and every one of the measures proposed by the administration (that was a bit too timid, if I may say so). Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that fiscal policy was of very limited help during the crisis. What do Fed bashers have to say about this? What would have happened if, faced with procyclical fiscal policy, the Fed had not stepped in with QE? I am afraid their answer would once again turn around confidence fairies… The EMU is pretty much in the same situation. The following figure shows the cumulative fiscal impulse since 2008 for a number of countries: The figure speaks for itself. With the exception of Japan (thanks Abenomics!) governments overall acted as brakes for the economy (Alesina and Giavazzi should look at the data for Italy, by the way). Central banks had to act in the thunderous silence of fiscal policy. So I repeat my question once again: who would be willing to exchange a normalization of monetary policy with a radical change in the fiscal stance? To conclude, yes, monetary policy has been very proactive (even Mario Draghi’s ECB); yes, this led us in unchartered lands, and we do not fully grasp what will be the long term effects of QEs and unconventional monetary policies; yes, some distortions are potentially dangerous. But central bankers had no choice. We are in a liquidity trap, and the main tool to be used should be fiscal policy. Monetary policy could and should be normalized, if only fiscal policy would finally take the witness, and the burden to lift the economy out of its woes; if fiscal policy finally tackled the increasing inequality that is choking the economy. If fiscal policy did its job, in other words.
I don’t know why, but I have the feeling that Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi would not completely disagree.
Well, not him, actually (I wish I could); I need to content myself with his latest post on austerity. Krugman argues that austerity is happening (it is trivial, but he needs repeating over and over again), showing that in the US expenditure as a share of potential GDP is back to its pre-crisis level (while unemployment remains too high, and growth stagnates).
I replicated his figure including some European countries, and with slightly different data. I took OECD series on cyclically adjusted public expenditure, net of interest payment. This is commonly taken as a rough measure of discretionary government expenditure. I also re-based it to 2008, as most stimulus plans were voted and implemented in 2009. Here is what it gives: Read more