Bad Economic News, Part 2

Yes, there is more bad economic news coming out of Europe. Industrial production fell by 1.9 percent in August compared to the same month last year. Germany, the largest European economy, saw a year-to-year decline of 2.8 percent, but what is even more worrying is that German industrial production fell by 4.3 percent from July 2014 to August, the second highest month-to-month drop in the EU.

Another worrying number comes out of Greece: a decline of six percent year-to-year. While the month-to-month decline is not dramatic i itself at -1.6 percent, the Greek economy has seen industrial production fall month-to-month in five of the past six months. Not a good sign at all.

Furthermore, Sweden, a country filled with large exporting manufacturers, has seen a month-to-month decline in four of the past six months, and five of the past six months on a year-to-year basis.

As far as industrial production goes, Europe is not recovering. At best, stagnation continues. And things don’t look much better on the inflation front, according to Eurostat:

Euro area annual inflation was 0.3% in September 2014, down from 0.4% in August. This is the lowest rate recorded since October 2009. In September 2013 the rate was 1.1%. Monthly inflation was 0.4% in September 2014. European Union annual inflation was 0.4% in September 2014, down from 0.5% in August. This is the lowest rate recorded since September 2009 In September 2013 the rate was 1.3%. Monthly inflation was 0.3% in September 2014.

Despite a frenzy of liquidity expansion, the European Central Bank has not been able to reverse course. Europe as a whole is still heading for deflation. Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Spain, Poland, Italy, Slovenia and Slovakia are already in deflation territory. Only five EU member states, Latvia, the U.K., Austria, Finland and Romania have an inflation rate between one and two percent, the highest being 1.8 percent in Romania. The rest of the EU is stuck with zero to 0.8 percent inflation.

No wonder there is a growing conversation about the ailing currency union:

The eurozone appears to have come back onto the markets’ radar amid low inflation, poor economic news from Germany, and Greece’s bailout exit plans. Greece’s long-term borrowing costs went above 8 percent on Thursday (16 October) – their highest for almost a year – as investors took fright at the fragile political situation in the country. The government in Athens has tried to shore up popular support by suggesting it will exit its bailout programme with the International Monetary fund more than a year early. But the recent announcement spooked investors, unconvinced that Greece can stand alone.

The unrelenting stagnation of the European economy is bad news in itself for the sustainability of the currency union. If Greece exits, it will de facto but not de jure abandon the currency union. Moreover, things do not get better when Germans cluster together and sue the ECB for its allegedly illegal expansionary monetary policy:

[Critics] which include Bundesbank president Jens Wiedmann, say that the programme goes beyond the ECB’s mandate of maintaining price stability across the 18-country eurozone. They also say that knowing the ECB will buy their debt could make EU chancelleries less prudent. The plaintiffs had filed their case to the German Constitutional court in Karlsruhe, which in February referred the case to the European Court of Justice. In court, Gauweiler’s lawyer, Dietrich Murswiek, described the ECB scheme as an “egregious extension of [the bank’s] powers” which was designed to “avert the insolvency of member states”.

The ECB is not going to reverse course. They are stalwartly convinced that if money supply just keeps expanding, then eventually they can cause a shift from deflation to inflation. So long as they keep expanding money supply, interest rates will trend to zero. So long as interest rates dwell in that territory, more and more investors will turn to stock markets and real estate for profitable investments. This increases the volatility of those markets, without any gain in the real sector of the economy.

GDP at zero growth, double-digit unemployment, prices deflating, money supply exploding. Yep. This can’t go wrong.

But the budget deficit, folks – the budget deficit is now under control. Aren’t you happy?

When young, third-generation unemployed Europeans are getting tired walking up and down the streets looking for the jobs that aren’t there; when struggling former middle-class families have mopped up the scraps of what used to be a promising future; when the patients in austerity-ravaged hospitals are caught between untreated pain and calling the nurse in vain; when they all want to catch a break in their struggle to make ends meet in their new lives in industrial poverty; all they have to do is look up in the sky and see the shining budget balance spreading its glory over the economic wasteland.

Bad Economic News, Part 1

Yankees baseball legend Yogi Berra coined the proverbial phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. That is certainly true about the European economic crisis. This past week saw a crop of bad news from the Old World. Nothing very dramatic – and certainly nothing that should surprise regular readers of this blog – but nevertheless bad news. In this first of two parts, let’s look at a report from the EU Observer:

The eurozone appears to have come back onto the markets’ radar amid low inflation, poor economic news from Germany, and Greece’s bailout exit plans. Greece’s long-term borrowing costs went above 8 percent on Thursday (16 October) – their highest for almost a year – as investors took fright at the fragile political situation in the country. The government in Athens has tried to shore up popular support by suggesting it will exit its bailout programme with the International Monetary fund more than a year early.

There is an important background here. The bailout program had three components:

1. The Greek government will do everything in its power to combine a balanced budget with protecting as much as possible of its welfare state against the economic depression;

2. In return for the Greek government’s tax increases and spending cuts, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank provided loans that kept the Greek government afloat cash-wise;

3. The only metric used to measure the success of bailout policies is the stability of a balanced government budget.

If GDP did not grow, if unemployment was at 30 percent, if more than half the young in Greece had no job to go to… none of that mattered. As a result, there has been no structural improvement of the Greek economy; government has not reduced its burden on the private sector – quite the contrary, in fact. Welfare systems have been reduced, but higher taxes have prevented welfare recipients from transitioning into self sufficiency.

As a result, the social situation in Greece is almost unbearable. The political reaction has come in the form of a surge for parties on the extreme flanks of the political spectrum. In my book Industrial Poverty I explain in detail what happened in Greece, what brought the country down from the heights of European prosperity to permanent stagnation. Today, sadly, the country is little more than a macroeconomic wasteland.

It is with this in mind that one should approach the news that Greece is considering leaving the bailout program. The coalition government is under enormous pressure to save the nation itself, to keep parliamentary democracy in place and to inject some sort of life into the economy. If they fail either of two extreme political movements will take over – the Chavista communists in Syriza or the Nazis in Golden Dawn.

International investors know this and are understandably scared. In their mind the bailout is the least of available evils; in reality, as I explain in my book, the attempts at balancing the budget and saving the welfare state in the midst of the crisis are the very policies that keep Greece from recovering; weak signs of a minor recovery earlier this year have yet to materialize into anything other than the “beaten dog” syndrome often following protracted periods of austertiy.

This is the very reason why Greece is now considering leaving the bailout program. They cannot continue forever to try to muddle through with an economy deadlocked in depression and a democracy so fragile that it has brought the first Nazis into a parliament in Europe for the first time since World War II.

However, as the EU Observer explains, the Greek government is caught between a rock and a hard place – as are other hard-hit euro zone economies:

But the recent announcement spooked investors, unconvinced that Greece can stand alone. Long-term borrowing costs also jumped in the weak periphery states, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The market jitters – while not comparable to the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011 and 2012 – come as the eurozone’s main economies are once again at odds over policy responses.

France also belongs on that list, primarily for its typically European attempt at leaving the bailout program. Its government tried to leave the bailout path for a left turn into the quagmire of government expansionism. Thinking that more government spending, on top of the largest government spending in the world, could in fact bring about a recovery, the French socialists who won the 2012 elections scoffed at the EU balanced-budget rules and went full speed ahead with their government-expansionist agenda.

Two years later that agenda has hit a brick wall. Massive tax increases, supposed to pay for some of the new government spending, have only resulted in an exodus of brain power and entrepreneurship. The French GDP is standing more still than the Eiffel Tower.

In fact, the EU Observer notes,

France and Italy are fighting a rearguard action for more flexibility saying budget slashing will condemn them to further low growth. Paris is on collision course with both Berlin and the European Commission after having indicated that it wants an extra two years to bring its budget deficit to below 3 percent of GDP. Italy, meanwhile, has submitted a national budget for 2015 which brings the country to the edge of breaking the rules.

The French challenge to the budget-balance rules compounds the uncertainty emanating from the talks in Athens about a Greek bailout exit. It is more than a theoretical possibility that at least one of these countries leaves the euro zone in the next two years, and does so for a combination of political and economic reasons. That would be an institutional change to the European economy – and really the global economy – of such proportions that no traditional quantitative analysis can render justice to a forecast of its effects. It is therefore entirely logical that global investors are growing more uncertain and as a result demand higher risk premiums.

As the icing on the uncertainty cake, informed investors know that Marine Le Pen may very well become France’s next president. If she wins in 2017 her first order of business is in all likelihood going to be to exit the euro zone and reintroduce the franc. On the one hand that could be an “orderly” exit; on the other hand it would have ripple effects throughout the southern rim of the euro zone to the point where the very future of the common currency is in grave danger.

In summary: mounting uncertainty about the future of the euro is being mixed with growing uncertainty about the macroeconomic performance of the member states of the currency union.

Stay tuned for the second part about the bad news out of Europe.

Spanish Growth An Exports Bubble?

At the beginning of this year there were lots of forecasts that the European economy was going to recover. I never believed them, primarily because government was a bigger burden on the economy than ever. So far I have been proven right, which is not something I would want to celebrate. But I also want to make clear that once government pulls back from its efforts at balancing its budget with higher taxes and spending cuts, the private sector will eventually start to recover.

There is a lot of research to show this. I review the public policy part of that research in chapter 5 in my new book Industrial Poverty. My conclusion is that this kind of austerity can work – the private sector emerges growing from even the most protracted periods of austerity. However, this is not a reason to use austerity as it has been applied through most of recent history, namely as a means to save government. Instead, austerity must be redesigned to reform away government. Otherwise the private-sector recovery that follows will suffer from two ailments:

1. It will look fast in the beginning, as consumers catch up with the standard of living they lost during the austerity period; and

2. Because of the recalibration of the welfare state – permanently higher taxes and permanently lower spending – the economy will hit its full employment level at a higher rate of unemployment than before the austerity episode.

It is also important to keep a watchful eye on whether or not a recovery is external or internal. In too many European countries over the past quarter century, a recovery has come from a rise in exports, i.e., been external. The consequence of this is that the domestic economy lags behind.

To make matters worse, much of modern manufacturing in Europe consists of bringing in parts produced in low-cost countries, assembling them at a highly efficient plant in a European country and then shipping them on to their final destination. This new kind of industrial production is increasingly isolated from the rest of the economy, which means that its multiplier effects on private consumption and business investments is relatively weak. It is, in other words, no longer possible for a small, exports-oriented European country to enter a lasting growth period merely on a rise in exports.

Earlier this year I pointed to Germany as an example of the feeble macroeconomic role of exports. You can get a temporary boost in GDP growth from a rise in exports, but once that boom goes away, it will have left very few lasting “growth footprints” in the economy. It looks like the same thing is now happening in Spain, which is in a recovery, according to the ECB:

The economic recovery has gathered momentum during 2014, with GDP growing at a faster pace than the euro area average.

Going by the latest national accounts numbers from Eurostat, which for obvious reasons covers only the first two quarters of 2014, it was not until Q2 this year that Spanish GDP outpaced the euro zone: 1.1 percent real growth over the same quarter previous year, compared to 0.5 percent for the euro zone.

Before that, Spain was doing worse than the euro zone by a handsome margin.

The ECB again:

Growth has been supported by a rise in domestic demand, while the external balance has weakened substantially as a result of a slowdown in export market growth and higher imports. Domestic consumption and investment in equipment are benefitting from growing confidence, employment creation, easier financing conditions and low inflation.

Over the past year there has been a slow but steady decline in Spanish unemployment, from 26.1 percent in August 2013 to 24.4 percent in August 2014. That is very good for a people hit very hard by disastrously ill designed fiscal policies over the past three years.

At the same time, there are clear signs that this is an “export bubble”. Consider these growth numbers for the country’s GDP (quarterly over same quarter previous year):

SPAIN 2013Q3 2013Q4 2014Q1 2014Q2
Real GDP -0.6 -0.1 0.7 1.1
Private cons. -1.2 1.1 2.1 2.2
Exports 3.7 3.2 6.4 1.5
Investments -5.4 -2.4 -0.7 0.6
Government 0.5 -3.7 0.5 1.0

There is no doubt that GDP growth is improving. While 1.1 percent is absolutely nothing to write home about, as mentioned earlier it exceeds the euro-zone average. The big question is whether or not this improvement will last. The biggest concern is the exports numbers: good growth for two quarters, then a major leap up to 6.4 percent, only to fall back to 1.5 percent. (While these are not seasonally adjusted numbers, they are quarterly growth on an annual basis which neutralizes seasonal effects.) If exports fall back to tepid growth numbers below two percent, GDP growth will most likely slide back into zero territory.

However, there are a couple of other mildly encouraging factoids in these numbers. To begin with, government spending, while on the growth side, is expanding slowly at no more than one percent per year. This number does not account for financial payments, such as unemployment benefits and other income security entitlements, but they do account for government activities that involve government employees. Alas, restraint in government spending means very little effort from government to expand its payrolls to do away with unemployment.

The apparently stable growth in private consumption is in all likelihood attributable to the post-austerity effect I pointed to above. This means that we will not see 2+ percent growth for much longer; for that to happen there has to be a sustained and substantial addition of consumers to the economy who are capable of spending more than what is required for pure subsistence. This, in turn, will not happen until unemployment comes down more than marginally.

Another mildly encouraging sign is that business investments have stopped declining. The turnaround over the past four quarters is in all likelihood an attempt by exporters to expand their capacity. If the exports boom is coming to an end, so will probably investments.

To turn this fledgling recovery into a lasting trend, the Spanish government needs to address the underlying problem in its economy: the welfare state. Otherwise it will just experience spurts of growth here and there as anomalies to a permanent state of stagnation – and industrial poverty.

Will Tax Greed Force Up Irish Taxes?

Europe is known for its high taxes, but there is one exception: corporate income taxes. Compared to American corporate income taxes – federal and state – the EU has relatively mild tax rates. While punitive personal income taxes, very high payroll taxes, confiscatory value-added taxes and other taxes contribute to holding Europe back economically, the comparative advantage of moderately reasonable corporate income taxes has helped, on the margin, to prevent the economic crisis from getting even deeper.

Now there is a push in the EU to squander this one little competitive advantage that they have on the global economic arena. The EU Observer reports:

Ireland will scrap a controversial tax instrument which allows companies to legally shift huge profits from Ireland to countries with low taxes, the country’s budget minister has announced. Speaking in the Irish parliament on Tuesday (14 October), Michael Noonan told deputies that the scheme, known as “double Irish” would be closed to new entrants in 2015 and gradually phased out between now and 2020. He added that in the future all companies registered in Ireland would have to pay tax there. The double Irish enables companies to make royalty payments to separate Irish-registered subsidiaries whose parent company is based in another country, allowing them to avoid paying corporate tax. Taken together with Ireland’s corporation tax rate of 12.5 percent, far lower than the EU average, it has prompted plenty of criticism from other EU countries in recent years.

One reason why Ireland was able to elevate itself from the bottom of the economic ranks in the 1980s to one of the wealthiest nations in the world in the early 2000s was that it promoted entrepreneurship, business investments and free markets. A package of reforms, including a drastic cut in the corporate income tax and rules such as the one mentioned here, attracted many multi-national corporations who decided to use Ireland as their springboard toward the European market.

Now Ireland is under pressure from the European Union, and the reason is deeper than just the “double Irish”. The EU Observer again:

The European Commission is currently investigating whether the tax deal between software giant Apple and the Irish government breaks the bloc’s rules on state aid, as well as similar cases in the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Reuters elaborates:

The European Union has accused Ireland of swerving international tax rules by letting Apple shelter profits worth tens of billions of dollars from revenue collectors in return for maintaining jobs. European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told the Dublin government in a letter published on Tuesday that tax deals agreed in 1991 and 2007 amounted to state aid and may have broken EU laws. … The Commission said the tax rulings were “reverse engineered” to ensure that Apple had a minimal Irish bill, adding that minutes from meetings involving Irish officials showed that the Irish tax authority did not even attempt to apply international tax rules in its deals with Apple. Instead, the company’s tax treatment had been “motivated by employment considerations”, the Commission said, citing the minutes of meetings between Apple representatives and Irish tax officials.

I am not a legal expert, but I know enough about how taxes work to be certain about one thing: tax laws are very complicated and almost always written to benefit either the lawyers – who get more jobs by interpreting the laws for us plebeians – or to generate as much short-term government revenue as possible in a static economy. This fact alone is a reason for a conflict between the EU and the Irish government: one of them is obviously not happy with how the laws are interpreted.

However, there is another aspect on this. The commonly shared wisdom among government expansionists is that all private income belongs to government by default, and that government does the private sector a favor by not raising tax rates to 100 percent. This is why a tax cut is viewed as a “gift” to taxpayers and a “cost” to government. Therefore, when Ireland allows businesses to make money at a lower tax rate than the rest of the EU, other European government see this as Ireland is giving corporations government money – a corporate subsidy. But not only that: they see that gift as being not just from the Irish government, but from all European governments. The reason is simple: by having a low corporate tax rate Ireland puts competitive pressure on other EU governments who then have to lower, or at least refrain from raising, their corporate tax rates. By being forced to hold back taxation, Ireland’s competitors think that they are being forced to give up their own money.

As weird as it sounds, this is the reasoning underlying the debate over Ireland’s tax policy and its corporate tax rates.

More French Flee Punitive Taxes

I recently noted that the French government has resorted to desperate tax cuts. These cuts reflect a major change in economic thinking in Paris, but the decisiveness of this turnaround struck me as a bit odd. After all, there was no unpredictable economic news out there to explain why it happened now.

Or was there?

British newspaper Independent has the story:

The land of 400 cheeses, the birthplace of Molière and Coco Chanel, is facing an unprecedented exodus. Up to 2.5 million French people now live abroad, and more are bidding “au revoir” each year. A French parliamentary commission of inquiry is due to publish its report on emigration on Tuesday, but Le Figaro reported yesterday that because of a political dispute among its members over the reasons for the exodus, a “counter-report” by the opposition right-wing is to be released as an annex.

And why is this such a controversial topic? The Independent explains:

Centre-right deputies are convinced that the people who are the “lifeblood” of France are leaving because of “the impression that it’s impossible to succeed”, said Luc Chatel, secretary general of the UMP, who chaired the commission. There is “an anti-work mentality, absurd fiscal pressure, a lack of promotion prospects, and the burden of debt hanging over future generations,” he told Le Figaro.

That is France in a nutshell. No other country in Europe, not even Sweden, has been able to combine welfare-state entitlements with ideologically driven labor market regulations to the extent that the French have. (In Sweden, labor market law delegates the right to regulate the labor market to the unions instead, effectively elevating them to government power without government accountability.) But this is not the work of two years of socialism under President Hollande – it has been very long in the making. Alas, the Independent continues:

However, the report’s author Yann Galut, a Socialist deputy, said the UMP was unhappy because it had been unable to prove that a “massive exile” had taken place since the election of President François Hollande in 2012. What is certain is the steady rise in the number of emigrants across all sections of society, from young people looking for jobs to entrepreneurs to pensioners. According to a French Foreign Ministry report published at the end of last month, the top five destinations are the UK, Switzerland, the US, Belgium and Germany.

So here we have the explanation of why the French government is now scrambling to cut taxes. Their tax increases were the straw that broke the camel’s back. By raising the top income tax bracket to a confiscatory 75 percent they gave tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, medical doctors, computer engineers, finance experts, investors and business executives the final reason they needed to leave the country. As a result, tax revenue from the punitive taxes introduced under Hollande are nowhere near what the socialist government had planned for. As a result there is less money in government coffers to pay for the same socialist government’s entitlements.

The smaller-than-planned revenue stream in combination with larger-than-affordable entitlement spending opens up a budget deficit. The French government is already in breach of the EU balanced-budget law, often referred to as the Stability and Growth Pact. A self-inflicted escalation of the deficit puts Hollande in direct confrontation with the EU Commission, which is already loudly complaining that France seems perennially unable to bring its deficit down under the ceiling of three percent of GDP mandated by the aforementioned Pact.

Back now to the Independent for some more details on the French exodus:

Hélène Charveriat, the delegate-general of the Union of French Citizens Abroad … told The Independent that while the figure of 2.5 million expatriates is “not enormous”, what is more troubling is the increase of about 2 per cent each year. “Young people feel stuck, and they want interesting jobs. Businessmen say the labour code is complex and they’re taxed even before they start working. Pensioners can also pay less tax abroad,” she says.

Wait… what was that?

Businessmen say the labour code is complex and they’re taxed even before they start working.

Those evil capitalists. Two 20-year-old guys from working class homes have a passion for fixing people’s cars. They decide to open their own shop and start by working their way through the onerous French bureaucratic grinds to get their business permit. (I know someone who tried that. A story in and of itself. I’ll see if he wants to tell it in his own words.) Once they have the permit they scrape together whatever cash they can, buy some used tools and put down two months rent on a garage at a closed-down gas station. While they get the tools together, find the garage and get everything set up they obviously have no revenue. But that does not stop The People’s Friendly Government from showing up at their doorsteps to collect taxes on money they have not yet made.

These two young Frenchmen do not exist. And if they did, they would move to England and open their shop there instead, thus joining the growing outflow of driven, productive Frenchmen from all walks of life. But it is actually good that the Independent is less interested in reporting on the young French expatriates and instead puts focus on the country’s hate-the-rich taxes:

As for high-earners, almost 600 people subject to a wealth tax on assets of more than €800,000 (£630,000) left France in 2012, 20 per cent more than the previous year.

Governments in high-tax countries rarely pay any attention to the outflow of their young, productive and aspiring citizens. The argument is that those young people don’t pay much taxes anyway. Right now. Of course, if they are allowed to work and build careers and businesses instead of emigrating, they will become wealthy and create lots of jobs in the future. That, however, is a perspective that big-government proponents notoriously overlook. Therefore, there is really just one way to explain to them what harm their punitive tax policies do, and that is to shed light on the exodus of wealthy, productive people happening right now. Such news can actually work.

As indicated by my earlier article on the desperate French tax cuts, it may already be working. The French government cannot ignore forever how its combination of a wealth tax and a 75-percent tax on top incomes destroy existing jobs and, more importantly, solidly and decisively prevents the creation of new ones. They cannot forever dwell in the delusion that government somehow can raise GDP growth above the current level of zero percent, and they certainly cannot use government to create jobs for the more than ten percent of the work force that are currently unemployed.

It remains to be seen how sincere the French socialist government is about reversing course. It is by no means certain that the newly announced tax cuts mark a turning point. It could just as well be that they are mere token gestures, aimed at giving false hope of a better future to new prospective emigrants.

In Search of Economic Leadership

The global economy is gradually becoming more disparate. The United States and Japan are pulling ahead while Europe is in a permanent state of stagnation and China is likely going to experience its first, real industrialized recession ever.

In this structurally changing world there is a need for thought leadership, both nationally and globally. We have institutions that, at least to some degree, where created for that purpose. The International Monetary Fund is a good example. Unfortunately, the IMF is not taking a lead, echoing instead much of the same analysis and arguments heard from the national governments whose macroeconomic ineptitude created this long crisis in the first place.

A good example of the Fund’s attitude is put on display in a new report where the managing director of the IMF notes that:

the IMF’s World Economic Outlook had trimmed its growth forecasts for the global economy. “In the face of what we have called the risk of a new mediocre, where growth is low and uneven, we believe that there has to be a new momentum and that is what we will be discussing with the membership in the coming days. “This new momentum—with, hopefully more growth, more jobs, better growth, better jobs—is certainly something we would call on the membership to produce,” Lagarde declared.

So what is the IMF’s idea on how to get the world economy growing again? Well, Lagarde said…

the IMF has noted growing country specificity in its analysis, where within each group of economies some countries are progressing and others are lagging behind. She said the IMF recommends action in three particular areas. Monetary policy where, particularly in the euro zone and Japan, more accommodative monetary policy is needed going forward to support the economy.

This is actually the wrong recipe. Europe is already profusely accommodating with a stretched-to-the-limit monetary expansion totally unbecoming of what the founders of the ECB had in mind. Accommodation policies are in fact so bad that the euro zone is now over-saturated with liquidity and interest rates on bank overnight lending have gone negative.

None of this has helped. There is no sign on the European horizon that real-sector activity has picked up. Instead, it looks very much as though Europe has now entered its own version of the Japanese decade. After almost 15 years of a combination of stagnation, deflation and liquidity saturation, the economy has now finally entered a recovery phase. But there is no doubt whatsoever that the very protracted monetary expansion period put a lid on real-sector activity, precisely the opposite of what was intended.

The mechanisms that brought about the Japanese decade were those that Keynes specified when he defined the liquidity trap. The mechanics of the trap are important, but a topic for a separate article. What is important here is that IMF managing director Lagarde no doubt disagrees with the Keynesian analysis and, despite lack of evidence in her favor, suggests that yet more liquidity supply would get the European economy going again. That does not bode well for the Europeans.

But what about fiscal policy? Well, says the report,

more growth-friendly measures can be put in place as outlined in the IMF’s latest Fiscal Monitor that called attention to fiscal policies adjusted to support job market reforms.

No word about the need for lower taxes, more reforms promoting private deliveries on government promises. No word on how structurally over-bloated welfare states have put an unbearable burden on the welfare state in the vast majority of the world’s industrialized nations.

The IMF should be a thought leader on these issues. Instead, it has become a service organization for countries that have become stuck in a permanent state of anemic growth, recommending 20th century solutions to 21st century problems.

Ebola and Socialized Health Care

When government creates a spending program, it also makes a promise to taxpayers. So long as the sum total of those promises is small and government limited to protecting life, liberty and property, we have good reasons to believe that government can deliver on its promises. However, the more promises government makes, the fewer of those promises it will be able to keep. As government promises reach into income redistribution and services like health care, the distance between promise and provision grows into a chasm.

That chasm has opened up across Europe. As millions upon millions of Europeans have discovered, a broken government promise is not just a theoretical construct. It is harsh reality. First they were lured into dependency on government by lavish promises of being taken care of, then government walked away from its promises  – and did so without offering people a route to an alternative.

The price is paid by the people. As government fails to deliver as promised, and taxes and regulations supporting the government monopoly all remain in place, people have nowhere else to go but down. A permanent blanket of stagnation slowly descends upon the economy and a new form of industrial poverty replaces prosperity and a bright future.

This is, again, not just theory. It is harsh reality. When government asks people to trust it, and then fails to provide that trust, even ebola can slip through the cracks of the crumbling tax-funded promises. A story from the New York Times offers a chilling example:

The case is particularly worrisome to health experts because Spain is a developed country that is considered to possess the kind of rigorous infection control measures that should prevent disease transmission in the hospital. Although the Ebola epidemic has killed hundreds of doctors and nurses in West Africa, health officials in Europe and the United States have reassured the public repeatedly that if the disease reached their shores, their health care systems would be able to treat patients safely, without endangering health workers or the public.

The story also suggests:

While the risk to hospital workers is thought to be far lower in developed countries, the infection of the Spanish nurse, along with the missteps in dealing with Ebola in Dallas, exposes weak spots in highly praised defense systems.

There is a major difference between the American and Spanish cases. In Dallas, health care workers approached the patient under the assumption that the U.S. government was right when, back in July, it assured Americans that there was no real risk that ebola would ever spread to the United States. Trusting their government, the health care professionals in Dallas used their professional skills as they have been trained, assuming that the people in charge of keeping our country safe were doing their job as promised.

Once the ebola case had been confirmed, however, our health care system, which still to a large degree is private and therefore has plenty of resources, went to work and contained what could have become a very serious outbreak.

Spain is a different case altogether. To begin with, the country has a virtually open border to northern Africa, with migrants coming daily across the narrowest stretch the Mediterranean. It is comparatively easy to travel from the epicenter of the ebola outbreak to the southern coast of Spain. But more importantly, the Spanish health care system, unlike the American, has suffered major spending cuts in the last few years. In December last year The Economist observed similarities between cuts in government health monopolies in Greece and Spain, with the Greek cuts leading to…

dramatic increases in HIV, mental illness, TB and the return of malaria. Greece made its cuts two years earlier than Spain did, so their impact became evident sooner. But the situation in Spain is just as worrying, warns Helena Legido-Quigley of the [London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine], who fears that if the government doesn’t change course soon, similar outbreaks could very well happen in Spain.

Specifically, The Economist notices, Spanish health care spending…

was reduced by 13.7% in 2012 and by 16.2% in 2013 (including social services). Some regions imposed additional cuts as high as 10%. As a result a significant part of the Spanish population is excluded from basic health care, which could in turn lead to public-health problems for the entire population.

As part of the 2012 cuts, the Spanish government reduced tax subsidies for medicine, a measure that was also used in Greece. The effect of these cuts is that many people simply do not get the medicine they have been prescribed – since there are no private alternatives, people are locked in to a defaulting government monopoly. Because of the high taxes needed to fund the welfare state, few Spanish families have enough money to pay privately for what they have already paid for through taxes.

With resources at hospitals being tightened, access to health care rationed and a culture of austerity spreading through the entire health care system, it is not out of the realm to ask to what extent Spain is at risk of an ebola outbreak because its government made a promise to its people that it cannot afford to keep. As an example, the New York Times story cited earlier reports that in order to treat one single ebola patient, a hospital in Madrid turned an entire floor into a sealed-off isolation unit. In a health care system with tight resources, that means the hospital has to move numerous other patients to other units or even other hospitals. This in turn means increasing the number of patients per room, or (as in Sweden) putting patients in storage rooms, lunch rooms, corridors or even patient lunch cafeterias.

In a private health care system, the supply of resources is dynamic. It depends on the public need for health care and is funded through a multiple of sources, such as insurance plans, out-of-pocket payments and charitable donations. Competition and patient choice guarantee that, over time, there is always provision of health care for all patients.

By contrast, in a government health monopoly resources are static and rigidly dependent on how much taxes the legislature can squeeze out of the private sector. If, in theory, health care were the only thing government provided, it may not be an unbearable burden to taxpayers. However, a single-payer government health monopoly is the crown jewel of the welfare state, and therefore adds up to an excessive tax bill for the private sector.

The effect is inevitably a long-time economic decline and the kind of welfare-state crisis that Spain is now experiencing. The pressing question now is: can a rationed government health monopoly protect a modern, industrialized nation from a deadly disease?

A Japanese Recovery

Last week I mentioned Japan in an article about France. Quoting an article from Forbes Magazine I made the point that Japan has been stuck in the liquidity trap for a very long time, and that the inflation the country is now experiencing is of the dangerous, monetary kind. The Japanese story illustrates why it is so dangerous for Europe to try to get out from underneath a perennial recession by aggressively expanding money supply.

The lesson for Europe stands firm: printing money when there is no demand for that money is a thoroughly bad idea, and Japan is a good example of why. From the time the Japanese deflation era started, in the late ’90s, the growth rate in the money supply accelerated. This went on for most of the next decade and a half; coincidentally, starting in the late ’90s Japan experienced almost 15 years of deflation.

It is, in other words, safe to warn the Europeans that massive expansion of the money supply will not break deflation. But it is also important to acknowledge that Japan is now showing signs of leaving deflation behind, just as the Forbes article suggested.

The problem is that the new Japanese inflation is not of the kind that Forbes suggested. I quoted the article and took its point as given – it referred to a side point in my article and therefore I accepted the conclusion of what looked like a credible source. But I also had an unrelenting feeling that I needed to look into the veracity of the point from the Forbes story. After all, if Japan had suddenly gone from deflation to inflation without an underlying upturn in real-sector activity, there would be a big case for studying the transmission mechanisms that channeled all that extra liquidity into prices.

In other words, it would have been a historic opportunity for monetarists to prove that their theory of inflation is actually true. It would be “true in the long run”, a 15-year long run, but it would nevertheless be true.

As I started digging through national accounts data it turned out that Japan is not at all entering an era of monetary inflation. The push upward on prices originates in the real sector: production, consumption and gross fixed capital formation (business investment).

Figure 1 reports inflation-adjusted growth in GDP (all data reported below is from Eurostat):

JP 1

Japanese GDP growth exhibits some volatility, but since 2011 the trend is closer to the American economy than the euro zone.

Figure 2 reports private consumption growth:

JP 2

Here the trend is actually fairly good for an economy that has been stagnant for almost two decades. It is still nothing to cheer about – Japan, like the United States, cannot break the Industrial Poverty line of two percent. But at least Japanese consumers are out there spending money, which is far more than you can say about their peers in the depressed euro zone.

Figure 3, finally, tells the story of business investments:

JP 3

This is perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that the Japanese economy is in recovery mode after 15 years in the economic wasteland. Growth rates in corporate investments are not ecstatically high, but they are the best since the mid-’90s. Again, activity in the Japanese economy is showing the same modest but real recovery tendency as the American economy.

Normally, growth rates around two percent should not even come close to driving inflation. However, with 15 years of stagnant business investments there is very little excess capacity in the economy. Add to that a shrinking work force and the capacity ceiling is lower in Japan than in many other economies.

So there you have it. Japan is leaving the shadow realm of stagnation and deflation. The real sector is recovering, and with production capacity adjusted to stagnation, not growth, excess-demand inflation sets in earlier than in, e.g., the United States. Not to mention Europe.

The Japanese deserve kudos for their apparent return to growth. Let us hope they keep it up.

Desperate French Cut Taxes

Almost everywhere you look in Europe there is unrelenting support for a continuation of policies that preserve big government. Hell-bent on saving their welfare state, the leaders of both the EU and the member states stubbornly push for either more government-saving austerity or more government-saving spending. In both cases the end result is the same: fiscal policy puts government above the private sector and leads the entire continent into industrial poverty.

Monetary policy is also designed for the same purpose, which has now placed Europe in the liquidity trap and a potentially lethal deflation spiral. The European Central Bank is fearful of a future with declining prices, thus pumping out new money supply to somehow re-ignite inflation. In doing so they are copying a tried-and-failed Japanese strategy, on which Forbes magazine commented in April after news came out that prices had turned a corner in the Land of the Rising Sun:

Japan’s government and central bank are likely to get much more inflation than they bargained for. This risks a sharp spike in interest rates and a bond market rout, with investors fleeing amid concerns about the government’s ability to repay its enormous debt load. In the ultimate irony, it may not be the deflationary bogey man which finally kills the Japanese economy. Rather, it could be the inflation so beloved by central bankers and economists that does it.

This is a good point. Monetary inflation is an entirely different phenomenon than real-sector inflation. The latter is anchored in actual economic activity, i.e., production, consumption, trade and investment. It emerges because basic, universally understood free-market mechanisms go to work: demand is bigger than supply. This classic situation keeps inflation under control because prices will only rise so long as producers and sellers can turn a profit; if they raise prices too much they attract new supply and profit margins shrink or vanish.

Monetary inflation is a different phenomenon, based not in real-sector activity but in artificially created spending power. I am not going to go into detail on how that works; for an elaborate explanation of monetary inflation, please see my articles on Venezuela. However, it is important to remember what kind of inflation European central bankers seem to be dreaming of. As they see it, monetary inflation is the last line of defense against a deflation death spiral, regardless of what is happening in Japan.

They may be right. Again, there is almost unanimous support among Europe’s political elite that whatever policies they choose, the overarching goal is to preserve the welfare state. However, there is a very remote chance that something is about to happen on that front. And it is coming from an unlikely corner of the continent – consider this story from France, reported by the EU Observer:

France has put itself on a collision course with its EU partners after rejecting calls for it to adopt further austerity measures to bring its budget deficit in line with EU rules. Outlining plans for 2015 on Wednesday (1 October), President Francois Hollande’s government said that “no further effort will be demanded of the French, because the government — while taking the fiscal responsibility needed to put the country on the right track — rejects austerity.”  The budget sets out a programme of spending cuts worth €50 billion over the next three years, but will result in France not hitting the EU’s target of a budget deficit of 3 percent or less until 2017, four years later than initially forecast.

In the beginning, Holland stuck to his socialist guns, trying to grow government spending and raise taxes. However, he soon changed his mind and combined tax hikes with cuts in government spending, as per demands from the EU Commission. Now he is taking yet another step away from established fiscal policy norms by combining spending cuts, albeit limited ones, with tax cuts – yes, tax cuts:

The savings will offset tax cuts for businesses worth €40 billion in a bid to incentivise firms to hire more workers and reduce the unemployment rate. In a statement on Wednesday, finance minister Michel Sapin said the government had decided to “adapt the pace of deficit reduction to the economic situation of the country.”

The “adaptation” rhetoric is the same as the French socialists had when they took office two years ago. What has changed is the purpose: back then their fiscal strategy was entirely to grow government – because according to socialist doctrine government and only government can get anything done in this world. Now they are actually a bit concerned with the economic conditions of the private sector.

This goes to show how desperate Europe’s policy makers are becoming. In the French case it is entirely possible that Hollande is willing to become a born-again capitalist in order to keep Marine Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace. After all, the next presidential election is only three years out. But it really does not matter what Hollande’s motives are, so long as he gets his fiscal policy right.

The EU Observer again:

Last year, France was given a two-year extension by the European Commission to bring its deficit in line by 2015, but abandoned the target earlier this summer.  It now forecasts that its deficit will be 4.3 percent next year. The country’s debt pile has also risen to 95 percent of GDP, well above the 60 percent limit set out in the EU’s stability and growth pact. Meanwhile, Paris has revised down its growth forecast from 1 percent to 0.4 percent over the whole of 2014, and cut its projection for 2015 to 1 percent from 1.7 percent. It does not expect to reach a 2 percent growth rate until 2019.

This is serious stuff but hardly surprising. I predict this perennial stagnation in my new book Industrial Poverty. And, as I point out in my book, a growth rate at two percent per year only keeps people’s standard of living from declining- it maintains a state of economic stagnation. There will be no new jobs created, welfare rolls won’t shrink and standard of living will not improve. For that it takes a lot more than two percent GDP growth per year.

Hollande’s new openness to – albeit minuscule – tax cuts should be viewed against the backdrop of this very serious outlook.  He will probably not succeed, as the tax cuts are so small compared to the total tax burden, and the tax-cut package is not combined with labor-market deregulation. But the mere fact that he is willing to try this shows that there is at least a faint glimpse of hope for a thought revolution among Europe’s political leaders. Maybe, just maybe, they may come around and realize that their welfare statism is taking them deeper and deeper into eternal industrial poverty.

Europe Trapped in Welfare Statism

Europe keeps struggling with its impossible balanced-budget endeavor.

In a desperate attempt to save the welfare state while also balancing the government budget they keep destroying economic opportunity for their entrepreneurs and households. This leads to panic-driven spending cuts combined with higher taxes, the worst alternative of all routes available to a balanced budget. The reason – and I keep emphasizing this ad nauseam – is that they desperately do not want to remove the deficit-driving spending programs.

To break out of the shackles of their self-imposed welfare-statist version of austerity, some European politicians have suggested that the EU needs to revise the rules under which member states are brought into compliance with the Union’s balanced-budget amendment. This is not viewed kindly among the Eurocrats in Brussels. From Euractiv:

The European Commission will not let EU budget discipline rules be flouted, incoming economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici said on Monday (29 September), days after his former colleagues in the French government said Paris would again miss EU targets. Last year, European Union finance ministers gave Paris an extra two years to bring its budget deficit below the EU ceiling of 3% of national output after France missed a 2013 deadline in what is called the ‘excessive deficit procedure’. But earlier this month, the French government said it would not meet the new 2015 deadline either and instead would reduce its budget shortfall below 3% only in 2017.

They certainly could meet the deadline, and they could do it even faster than proposed. All they would need to do would be to chainsaw the entire government budget until what is left fits within the three-percent rule. However, they know they cannot do that, for two reasons. The first is simple macroeconomics: so long as you do not cut taxes, any spending cuts will mean government takes more from the private sector and, relatively speaking, gives less back. That reduces private-sector activity and thus exacerbates the recession.

The second reason is that when half or more of the population depend on government for survival, you can only do so many spending cuts before they set the country on fire. The solution is a predictable way out of dependency, one that gives people an opportunity to become self sufficient without suffering undue, immediate financial hardship. That excludes tax hikes and sudden spending cuts – but on the other hand it mandates structural spending cuts that permanently terminate entitlement programs.

However, this solution to their unending economic crisis keeps eluding Europe’s policy makers.