American Economy Growing Stronger

There is good news today from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which reports that U.S. GDP…

increased at an annual rate of 4.0 percent in the second quarter of 2014, according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the first quarter, real GDP decreased 2.1 percent (revised). The Bureau emphasized that the second-quarter advance estimate released today is based on source data that are incomplete or subject to further revision by the source agency

This is good news, indeed, even with the caveat that there will be revisions to the number by the end of August when more complete data has been processed. As a reminder of how big those revisions can be, consider that the estimates for the first quarter of this year ranged from -2.1 to -2.9 percent. That was an unusually large margin of error. Early estimates, like this four-percent growth figure for the second quarter, are based on limited data and matched with forecasting models that “fill in the blanks”. Those models, in turn, are based on historic trends in industrial activity throughout the U.S. economy. When real economic activity deviates from long-term, historic trends – either because of a protracted recession or because of an ongoing structural change to the economy – the part of preliminary GDP estimates that comes from forecasting models is suddenly more uncertain.

In a nutshell, while there is an underlying trend of recovery, that trend is not strong and confident enough to yield highly accurate preliminary GDP estimates. But even if there is an unusually large downward adjustment of this figure, we are still going to have satisfactory growth going in this economy.

So what is behind this good GDP news? Back to the BEA news release:

This upturn in the percent change in real GDP primarily reflected upturns in private inventory investment and in exports, an acceleration in PCE [private consumption], an upturn in state and local government spending, an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment, and an upturn in residential fixed investment that were partly offset by an acceleration in imports.

In other words, the BEA sees an across-the-board increase in economic activity. This is very good, even though we could have done without the rise in state and local government spending. However, once the more complete numbers are out in about a month, there will be opportunity for a detailed examination of the actual growth drivers. However, the BEA gives some hints:

Real personal consumption expenditures increased 2.5 percent in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 1.2 percent in the first. Durable goods increased 14.0 percent, compared with an increase of 3.2 percent. Nondurable goods increased 2.5 percent; it was unchanged in the first quarter.

The rise in durable-goods consumption is particularly notable, as it is often associated with long-term spending or financing commitments by consumers. This could actually indicate a deeper, more lasting trend of growth, driven by strengthening consumer confidence. If so, we will see much more of GDP in the 3-percent growth bracket. That would be highly welcome, especially since the average GDP growth for the U.S. economy in the 2000s barely exceeded an inflation-adjusted 1.5 percent per year.

But before we all jump up and down with joy, keep in mind again that growth in the first quarter was a solid negative 2.1 percent. I attribute that, at least in part, to the uncertainty around Obamacare. Businesses have now adjusted to it, consumers are absorbing the cost and accommodating to it. That does not mean Obamacare has not had negative effects on the economy; wait and see what happens to health care costs, employment in the health sector and spending on medical technology.

Another indicator that the economy may be on a reinforcing rebound is the 5.3-percent increase in non-residential construction, an indication that businesses expect activity to grow on a long-term basis. Business equipment investment corroborates this, with a solid seven-percent growth (it decreased in the first quarter). Residential construction growth was even stronger, at 7.5 percent.

All in all, what has been a tepid recovery looks better today. A couple of key variables indicate reinforced confidence among consumers as well as businesses. If the Obama administration sits still and does nothing, they will make the best contribution possible to this. No more big spending programs, please. (Let’s not forget that Obama has been more fiscally conservative than any recent Republican president, Reagan included.) If Republicans take the Senate in November, there will be even more reasons to believe in a sustained recovery.

In addition to continued growth in jobs and earnings, a solid trend of growing GDP will also reduce the risk of monetarily driven inflation in the United States. From this perspective it is particularly reassuring that consumer spending on durable goods is growing, as is spending on both residential and commercial construction. All these activities rely heavily on credit, and that includes, of course, the mortgages needed to buy new homes. Excess liquidity that has been slushing around in the U.S. banking system will now go to work where it is needed.

This particular aspect of the recovery is usually under-estimated by economists. Let’s briefly compare our situation to what is happening in Europe. There, too, business credit is growing, but not for the same reason as here. EUBusiness.com reports:

Banks in the eurozone eased credit standards for loans to businesses in the second quarter for the first time since 2007, the European Central Bank said Wednesday. Announcing the upbeat results of its quarterly euro area bank lending survey, the ECB said it had also become easier for private households to get loans as confidence returned to the sector.

This is nonsense. The EU economy may be breaking into positive growth numbers, but it is closer to one than two percent annually. The best evidence of this is a very slow growth rate in private consumption. This is not enough to shore up confidence and make people crowd to the banks, desperate for loans. The same is true for businesses, whose investment growth is nowhere near American levels.

Instead of a desperately needed real-sector recovery, the increase in lending in the euro zone is a direct effect of the negative interest rates that the European Central Bank has introduced on bank over-night deposits. This measure, which de facto marked Europe’s entry into the liquidity trap, penalizes banks if they deposit excess liquidity to accounts with the ECB. Faced with a penalty from the ECB, banks have apparently decided to aggressively market loans to businesses and households.

The fact that they decide to lower credit standards right away, right as they start their loan marketing campaign, is a good indicator of cause and effect in this: if households and businesses were recovering solidly from the Great Recession, they would qualify for loans at existing standards; the fact that banks have to lower credit standards in order to sell loans to customers means that the aggregate credit profile of the European bank customer has not changed recently. That in turn means that people and businesses make roughly the same amount of money, have approximately the same employment and sales outlook on the future, and that job prospects and markets are not growing.

In other words, without the ECB’s negative interest rate and without banks lowering credit standards, there would be no increase in bank lending in Europe.

Because there is no recovery, an increase in lending to the private sector could result in monetarily driven inflation. More on that some other time, though. For now, let’s celebrate yet another U.S. macroeconomic victory over Europe.

An Institutional Analysis of the Crisis

As an institutional economist I focus my research on the role that institutions and policy structures play in our economy. It is a fascinating niche in economics, and when combined with macroeconomics it becomes one of the most powerful analytical tools out there. So far, over the past 2.5 years, everything I have predicted about the European crisis has turned out to be correct; my upcoming book Industrial Poverty makes ample use of institutional economics and macroeconomics to show why Europe’s crisis is far more than just a protracted recession.

In economics, the institutional methodology is often pinned against econometrics, the mainstream methodological favorite. I don’t see it that way – econometrics has its place in economics – but the mainstream of the academic side of economics has given econometrics a far bigger role than it can handle. This has led to over-confidence among econometricians which, in turn, has led to a downplay or, in many cases, complete disregard for the benefits that other methodologies bring. The worst consequence of this over-reliance on econometrics was the multiplier debacle at the IMF, with serious consequences for the Greek economy. (How many young Greeks are unemployed today because their government implemented austerity policies based on IMF miscalculations?) A wider, better understanding for economic institutions and their interaction with the macroeconomy could help mainstream economists a long way toward a deeper, more complete understanding of the economy and, ultimately, toward giving better policy advice.

As an example of how institutional analysis can inform more traditional analysis, consider this interesting article on the European crisis by Economics Nobel Laureate Michael Spence and David Brady, Deputy Director of the Hoover Institution:

Governments’ inability to act decisively to address their economies’ growth, employment, and distributional challenges has emerged as a major source of concern almost everywhere. In the United States, in particular, political polarization, congressional gridlock, and irresponsible grandstanding have garnered much attention, with many worried about the economic consequences. But, as a recent analysis has shown, there is little correlation between a country’s relative economic performance in several dimensions and how “functional” its government is. In fact, in the six years since the global financial crisis erupted, the US has outperformed advanced countries in terms of growth, unemployment, productivity, and unit labor costs, despite a record-high level of political polarization at the national level.

This is true, and as I demonstrate in Industrial Poverty, a major reason for this is that the American economy is not ensnared in a welfare state like the European. We still lack a couple of major institutional components that they have: general income security and a government-run, single-payer health care system. That said, the U.S. economy is not exactly performing outstandingly either:

LB 7 28 14 2

Yes, we are currently in better shape than Europe, but we are also doing worse than ourselves 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Let’s keep this in mind as we continue to listen to Spence and Brady – their discussion about political dysfunction is actually tied to the role of the welfare state in the economy:

[In] terms of overall relative economic performance, the US clearly is not paying a high price for political dysfunction. Without dismissing the potential value of more decisive policymaking, it seems clear that other factors must be at work. Examining them holds important lessons for a wide range of countries. Our premise is that the global integration and economic growth of a wide range of developing countries has triggered a multi-decade process of profound change. These countries’ presence in the tradable sector of the global economy is affecting relative prices of goods and factors of production, including both labor and capital.

And the government structures that aim to redistribute income and wealth within a country. High-tax economies lose out to low-tax economies. The Asian tigers have generally held tax advantages over their European competitors, but they have also held advantages on the other side of the welfare-state equation as well. By not putting in place indolence-inducing entitlement systems they have kept their work force more shaped toward high-productivity labor than is the case in the old, mature welfare states of Europe.

Why does the welfare state not change, then, in response to increased global competition? After all, Japan, China, South Korea and other Asian countries have been on the global market for decades. Enter the political dysfunction that Spence and Brady talk about. Unlike the United States, there is almost universal agreement among Europe’s legislators that the welfare state should be not only preserved but also vigorously defended in times of economic crisis. This has been the motive behind the European version of austerity, with the result that taxes have gone up, spending has gone down and the price of the welfare state for the private sector has increased, not been reduced as would be the logical response to increased global competition.

It is not entirely clear what kind of American political dysfunction Spence and Brady refer to, but if it has to do with fighting the deficit, they are absolutely on target.

In fact, probably without realizing it, Spence and Brady make an important observation about the long-term role of the welfare state:

Relatively myopic policy frameworks may have worked reasonably well in the early postwar period, when the US was dominant, and when a group of structurally similar advanced countries accounted for the vast majority of global output. But they cease working well when sustaining growth requires behavioral and structural adaptation to rapid changes in comparative advantage and the value of various types of human capital.

If understood as a general comment on the institutional structure of an economy, this argument makes a lot of sense. So long as the traditional industrialized world only had to compete with itself, it could expand its welfare states without paying a macroeconomic price for it. Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish economist and a main architect of the Scandinavian welfare-state model, confidently declared back in 1960 that the welfare state had no macroeconomic price tag attached to it. Back then, it was easy to let government sprawl in every direction imaginable without any losses in terms of growth, income and employment. That is no longer possible.

Spence and Brady then make this excellent observation of the American economy:

What, then, accounts for the US economy’s relatively good performance in the post-crisis period? The main factor is the American economy’s underlying structural flexibility. Deleveraging has occurred faster than in other countries and, more important, resources and output have quickly shifted to the tradable sector to fill the gap created by persistently weak domestic demand. This suggests that, whatever the merit of government action, what governments do not do is also important. Many countries have policies that protect sectors or jobs, thereby introducing structural rigidities. The cost of such policies rises with the need for structural change to sustain growth and employment (and to recover from unbalanced growth patterns and shocks).

The move of resources from the domestic to the foreign-trade sector is visible in national accounts data as a rise of gross exports as share of current-price GDP from 9.1 percent in 2003 to 13.5 percent in 2013. Furthermore, actual growth numbers for exports relative private consumption reinforce the point made by Spence and Brady: from 20087 to 2013 private consumption has increased by 15 percent in current prices, while gross exports have increased by more than 22 percent. For every new dollar Americans doled out on cars, food, haircuts and motel nights, foreign buyers added $1.50 to what they spend on our products.

However, let us once again remember that the adaptation of the American economy should be viewed against the backdrop of a smaller welfare state. As I have discussed on several occasions, European countries are also making big efforts at increasing exports. They are not as lucky in using foreign sales as a demand-pull mechanism for restarting their economies. One reason, again, is the rigor oeconomicus that the welfare state injects into the economy.

Spence and Brady also compare the United States to a number of other countries, noting that:

Removing structural rigidities is easier said than done. Some stem from social-protection mechanisms, focused on jobs and sectors rather than individuals and families. Others reflect policies that simply protect sectors from competition and generate rents and vested interests. In short, resistance to reform can be substantial precisely because the results have distributional effects. Such reform is not market fundamentalism. The goal is not to privatize everything or to uphold the mistaken belief that unregulated markets are self-regulating. On the contrary, government has a significant role in structural transitions. But it must also get out of the way.

In short – and my words, not theirs: reform away the welfare state. Its detrimental influence actually stretches deeper than perhaps Spence and Brady recognize: it does indeed protect large sectors from competition by simply monopolizing them. Health care is a good example, with a government monopoly spilling over on medical-technology products. Another good example is income security, where many European countries have de facto monopolized every aspect from parental-leave benefits to retirement security. Education is a third example, where the United States, despite its heavily socialized K-12 system has a very strong private sector for academic education. This sector is almost entirely absent in many European countries.

Again, it is good to see a different approach to economic analysis than the traditional one based on econometrics and often irresponsibly simplified quantitative analysis. In a situation like the European crisis, it is very important for economists and other social-science scholars (Brady is a political scientist) to broaden the analysis and focus on such variables that rarely change. Among those are economic institutions such as the welfare state, and the political and economic incentives at work in Europe to preserve it, even in the face of mounting global competition.

The Structural Crisis: More Evidence

The European crisis still seems to confuse the continent’s policy makers. After having believed for several years that austerity would both save the welfare state and increase growth, they have now slowly began walking away from the EU’s constitutionally required government deficit and debt rules. Instead, there is now growing belief in government spending as the remedy for the persistent crisis.

For the most part, the debate now seems to gravitating toward the question of how much government stimulus is needed. If the continent is indeed in a recovery mode, as some suggest it is, then there is not this big need for more government spending.

It is understandable that some believe there is a recovery under way. According to Eurostat, GDP for the EU as a whole grew by an inflation-adjusted 1.5 percent in the first quarter of 2014, over the same quarter of 2013. This is an increase from the last quarter of 2013 (1.0 percent) and in fact the fourth quarter in a row with improving growth numbers.

Technically, this represents a recovery. However, in no way does this mean that Europe is out of the crisis. To see why, let us compare GDP growth rates for EU-28 during the 2009-10 spurt to the one that started in 2013:

Q2 2009 Q3 2009 Q4 2009 Q1 2010 Q2 2010
Q1 2013 Q2 2013 Q3 2013 Q4 2013 Q1 2014
2009-10 -5.9 -4.4 -2.1 1.1 2.5
2013-14 -1.3 0.1 0.5 1.0 1.5

Early on in the Great Recession, the European economy made a rapid recovery and kept growing at more than two percent per year for four quarters straight. The rate slowly fell, though, and by the second quarter of 2011 growth was once again below two percent. By the end of that year it was below one percent, and down into negative territory in Q2 of 2012.

But should not a growth spurt count as a definitive recovery? Are not four quarters of improvement enough, especially if followed by a year of growth above two percent?

There is some merit to that argument. The problem is that the growth rates discussed here are not the kind of rates that normally would constitute a recovery, let alone a growth phase of a business cycle. Europe is in a structural crisis, which means that its growth rate is permanently lower than it was before. This is now becoming painfully evident in Eurostat’s national accounts data.

It has now been six years since the Great Recession began. For the entirety of the crisis that we have seen so far, namely 2008-2013, the average inflation-adjusted annual GDP growth rate for the European Union is a depressing -0.1 percent.

This is despite the aforementioned growth spurt.

Compare that to the six preceding years, 2002-2007: 2.4 percent. And that covers the back end of the Millennium Recession. Going back yet another six-year period to 1996-2001, we include the opening and trough of that recession, and still come out with 2.8 percent per year!

To further emphasize the structural nature of the European crisis, let us look at a long-term trend in growth. The following figure illustrates GDP growth in the EU as a six-year moving average. Starting in the fourth quarter of 2001 the average begins by covering the 1996-2001 period. The average is quarter-based to give as detailed an image as possible:

LB GDP EU28 6YR MAVG

The red trend line conveys a chilling message of structurally driven decline. In order to get Europe out of this decline and persistent crisis, economists must re-write their own books on macroeconomics. Surely, the conventional relative-price based advice from accomplished economists such as Michael Spence is still valid: a reduction in the cost of production in Spain vs. other exporting countries will eventually bring about a boost in exports. But as I have pointed out on several occasions, when that boost happens, such as in Germany or Sweden, it has very little influence on GDP growth as a whole. Modern foreign trade in industrialized economies is an isolated activity as many inputs are imported from elsewhere.

But more importantly, the presence of the welfare state throws a heavy, wet blanket over the economy. Austerity, as practiced in Europe in recent years, has added insult to injury by means of even higher taxes and even more perverted economic incentives.

As Michael Spence points out in the aforementioned article, it does not help Europe’s most troubled economies to share currency with Germany. This prevents the exchange rate adjustment needed to reflect global relative production costs. But the conventional macroeconomic wisdom also tends to downplay the growth-hampering effect that welfare states, and welfare-state saving austerity policies, have on GDP.

Spence actually opens for a recognition of this problem in another article together with political scientist David Brady. They acknowledge that modern Western governments have difficulties unifying all their policy goals, including income redistribution. However, Spencer and Brady do not go into more depth on the role that income-redistributing policies may play in causing the downward growth trend illustrated above. Their choice not to do so is understandable – their focus is elsewhere – but it also reflects somewhat of a conventional wisdom among economists: income redistribution and its institutional form, the welfare state, is just another sector of the economy.

It is not. It is the overweight on the private sector that is slowly but inevitably destroying the prosperity of the West. For more on that, stay tuned for my book Industrial Poverty. Out soon!

The Future of the Euro

The economic problems in Europe make themselves known in many different ways. Among them, a weakening of the euro. TorFX reports, via EUBusiness.com:

While the Euro recovered losses sustained in the wake of Portugal’s mini-banking crisis earlier in the month, the common currency put on a fairly lacklustre performance last week. The Euro dropped to a fresh 22-month low against the Pound and struggled against the US Dollar as investors speculated on the prospect of the European Central Bank bringing in additional stimulus measures.

It is important to keep in mind that exchange rates swing very frequently and sometimes violently, only to return to long-term stability. However, there is more than a short-term message in a 22-month low for the euro. Four variables are aligning to make the euro’s future difficult:

1. The negative interest rate. The ECB is penalizing banks for depositing excess liquidity with the bank’s overnight accounts. Even the moderately skilled speculator knows that a negative interest rate means he will have less money on Friday than he had on Monday, which of course drives investors to other currencies. The British pound comes to mind, as does the U.S. dollar. The problem for Europe is that once it has dug itself into a hole with the negative interest rate, it is mighty hard for the ECB to get out of there without any macroeconomic gains to show for it. The argument for the negative interest rate is that it will “encourage” more lending to non-financial corporations – business investments, for short. But businesses do not want to invest unless they have credible reasons to believe they will be able to pay back the loans. That really does not change because interest rates drop from almost zero to zero.

Bottom line: the ECB has entered the liquidity trap and will be stuck there for a long time to come, negative interest rate and all. This weakens the currency, especially over the short term.

2.  Deflation. Part of the reason for the ECB’s move into negative interest territory is the spreading fear of deflation. The past few years have shown that a rapid expansion of the money supply has no effect on inflation, either in Europe or in the United States. Therefore, the ECB cannot reasonably be hoping to cause monetary inflation with a desperate move like negative interest rates. Its hope is instead hitched to a rise in business investments which would cause inflation through traditional, Phillips-curve style excess-demand effects.

Bottom line: not gonna happen. As mentioned earlier, businesses are not borrowing at almost-zero interest rates – why would they borrow at zero rates? There is no profit-promising activity in other parts of the economy, and there won’t be, as our next point explains.

3. Austerity and government debt. Ever since the Great Recession began, Europe has used austerity not to reduce the size of government, but to preserve the welfare state. This has led to perennially slow or non-existent GDP growth and high, perennial unemployment. This has two consequences that spell trouble for the euro over the longer term. The first is that persistent lack of economic activity discourages business investments per se. Austerity, European style, includes tax hikes which constitute further government incursions into the private sector. The perpetuation of European austerity therefore means the perpetuation of low levels of business activity. The second consequence is that even if economic activity picks up, because, e.g., a long-term rise in exports (unlikely to happen) there is so much excess capacity in the economy that there will be no excess-demand driven inflation for a year, maybe even two. The excess supply, of course, consists of massive amounts of un-demanded liquidity slushing around in the European economy, and perennially high unemployment, including 20+ percent youth unemployment in a majority of EU member states.

Bottom line: political preferences to preserve the welfare state will keep macroeconomic activity low. Long-term outlook is continued stagnation. No support for a return to interest rates above liquidity-trap levels.

4. Continued recovery in the United States. Despite dismal growth numbers for the first quarter, the long-term outlook for the U.S. economy is moderately positive. We have not applied the destructive European version of austerity, even though its tax-hiking component makes it a wet dream for many statists. Furthermore, Obama has been surprisingly restrained on the spending side of the federal budget, being far more fiscally conservative than, e.g., Ronald Reagan. This has created reasonably good space for U.S. businesses to grow. There are caveats, though, such as the implementation of Obamacare, which in all likelihood contributed to  the negative GDP number in the first quarter of this year. There has also been a regulatory barrage from the Obama administration that has stifled a lot of business activity, although it has subsided somewhat in the last year and a half. But even a moderately positive business climate makes the U.S. economy notably stronger than its European competitor.

Bottom line: a slowly strengthening dollar will attract investments that otherwise would have gone to the euro zone, putting further downward pressure on the euro.

There is actually a fifth variable, which is entirely political. If Marine Le Pen gets elected president in France in 2017 she will pull her country out of the euro. That means goodnight and farewell for the common currency. Long-term minded investors would be wise to keep this in mind.

All in all, the case for the euro is not good. Stagnation at best, weakening more likely, with the probability of its demise slowly gaining strength.

More Tensions over Stability Pact

The European Parliament elections in May conveyed a somewhat schizophrenic voter message. At the end of the day, though, the inevitable outcome is a strong gain for the left. Socialists were emboldened, as were their fellow statist nationalists. Both flanks are pushing for a number of policy reforms that, taken together, could very well mark the beginning of the end of the European Union as we know it. On the left, more and more voices demand a restoration of Europe’s austerity-tarnished welfare state. Some of those demands come in the form of attacks on the Stability and Growth Pact, which dictates budget deficit caps for all EU member states, attacks that are motivated by the desire to rebuild the welfare state.

Europe’s left turn seems to continue at the state level, and with it the criticism of the prevailing austerity doctrine. The most recent example is from Slovenia. Euractiv reports:

Center-left political novice Miro Cerar led his party to victory in Slovenia’s election … (13 July), indicating he would rewrite a reform package agreed upon with the European Union to fix the euro zone member’s depleted finances. The result will test investor nerves, given Cerar’s hostility to some of the big-ticket privatization programmes that the EU says are key to a long-term fix for Slovenia, which narrowly avoided having to seek an international bailout for its banks last year.

Selling off government-owned businesses is a way to temporarily reduce the budget deficit:

Cerar’s government will now oversee a raft of crisis measures agreed upon with the EU, in order to reduce Slovenia’s budget deficit and remake an economy heavily controlled by the state. Cerar, however, opposes the sale of telecoms provider Telekom Slovenia and the international airport, Aerodrom Ljubljana, fuelling investor fears of backsliding. … He said his cabinet would immediately consider which companies would remain in state hands and what to do with the rest. … The outgoing government suspended the privatization process this month pending the formation of a new government, which is not expected before mid-September. Cerar will have to find other ways to raise cash if he is to meet to targets agreed to with the EU, in order to slash Slovenia’s budget deficit to 3% of output by 2015, from a forecast 4.2% this year.

The Slovenians better make up their minds on this issue. According to the EU Observer, the EU and the ECB are not budging on the Stability and Growth Pact:

ECB boss Mario Draghi urged EU leaders not to meddle with the bloc’s rules on debt and deficits on Monday, warning that it could turn the tide on much needed economic reforms.

It remains to be seen to what extent the emboldened left in the European Parliament can influence the way the EU Commission interprets the Stability and Growth Pact. So far, though, the Draghi view is also that of the Commission.

And just to add to the schizophrenia of current European politics, Draghi added a curious remark:

Addressing MEPs on the Parliament’s economic affairs committee in Strasbourg (14 July), Draghi said structural reforms combined with government spending cuts and lower taxes were the only route to restoring economic stability. “There should be a profound structural reform process,” he said, adding that “there is no other way”. “We should take great care not to roll back this important achievement, or to water down its implementation to an extent that it would no longer be seen as a credible framework,” he said.

The combination of less government spending and lower taxes is almost the antithesis of what the EU and the ECB have been preaching to euro-zone member states in the past few years. The austerity packages they have forced on member states have been of the government-first kind, aimed at balancing budgets to make welfare states more fiscally sustainable.

This type of austerity relies at least partly on tax increases. A combination of less taxes and less spending is in fact not austerity at all – it is a policy for government roll-back. If Draghi really means this, he is the first major EU figure to step forward and promote such a structural change to the Euoropean economy.

It is unlikely, though, that Draghi will get much support for any kind of permanent reduction of government. There is far too much power to be had in making the Stability and Growth Pact more flexible. Not only does it allow statist politicians to save their welfare states, but it also opens for a classic form of “Italian governance”. The EU Observer again:

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, whose government holds the EU’s six month presidency, has led calls for the pact’s rules to be applied with more flexibility to allow governments to increase public investment programmes. The demand was rejected by Draghi who stated that “the present rules already contain enough flexibility”. “If a rule is a rule then it has to be complied with,” he said, commenting that “I’m not sure I get – perhaps because I lack political skills – the chemistry of flexibility being essential to make a rule credible”.

It’s simple. The flexibility that Renzi wants is simply a way to apply a general law selectively. That, in turn, gives elected officials more power, as they can oversee the “flexible” application and choose who will get and exception and who will not. Inevitably, the choice will be made based at least in part on the size of the brown envelopes that exchange hands under the negotiation tables in Brussels.

Between corruption and the welfare state, big government has enough supporters to stay right where it is in Europe. Furthermore, regardless of what kind of interpretation of the Stability and Growth Pact that will set the tone in the next few years, it is going to be there as a power tool for the EU over the member states. The left’s desire for more flexibility is just a desire to put more direct power in the hands of bureaucrats and legislatures.

The Global Socialist Rebound

There is no bigger threat to economic freedom than an authoritarian government. It destroys property rights and economic incentives. It crushes the pillars of entrepreneurship and makes it practically impossible for people to make an honorable living on their own. Gradually, an authoritarian government destroys free-market capitalism, and when the destruction has reached a critical point the most obvious economic result is the inevitable decline in the standard of living for all.

Misery replaces opportunity. Poverty replaces prosperity. Government dependency replaces self determination.

There is nothing new in this. The history of the 20th century is filled to the brim with evidence of the destructive effects of authoritarianism, including its devastating power to destroy well-functioning economies and the prosperity they produce. It would be logical to conclude that we have learned the lessons of the Soviet empire, of the collapse of collectivist economic projects in Latin America and of the slow but unrelenting stagnation of Europe’s welfare states.

You would expect that those lessons would be loud and clear, available to everyone.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Socialism is on a worldwide rebound. It is not new: already eight years ago I warned about the resurrection of communism in Europe. At that time it was a topic that nobody really paid any attention to. This is understandable. The economy was in pretty good shape, both in the United States and in Europe – in other words there was no reason to worry about depression-driven support for extremism of the kind we can witness in Europe today. The terror attacks of 9/11 were in fresh memory, as were the attacks in London in the summer of 2005. The only extremism that made its way into the public debate had an islamist trademark.

Nevertheless, my warning was timely. Communism and its ideological affiliates have been on the rise for a long time. After a decade in disarray following the fall of the Soviet empire, socialists regained strength and confidence after 9/11. In addition to their support for Saddam Hussein’s regime and opposition to any efforts to topple it, they started lining up their political assets in parliamentary democracies to advance their ideology on democratic terms. In the mid-2000s, the global left was becoming politically savvy thanks in part to idolized authoritarians like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Today, socialism has made dangerous inroads on several fronts around the world. The socialist power structure that Chavez put in place is still in charge of Venezuela, and perhaps even more radical now than under his reign. The “Chavista” version of Latin American socialism has spun off at least two other authoritarian leaders in the region, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. In a separate but parallel advancement of socialism in Latin America, Cristina Kirchner has driven Argentina into the same ditch on the left side of the road as the gentlemen Chavez, Morales and Correa have done with their countries.

In Europe, the last few years of serious economic crisis has pushed large groups of voters into the arms of socialist parties. It is a remarkably broad phenomenon that has made Chavez-admiring Syriza one of the largest parties in Greece; it led to the sweeping French socialist election victories a couple of years ago; in September it will probably carry the surging left-wing coalition in Sweden to a strong election victory (on a message that the world’s highest taxes are not high enough!).

Even the nationalist movement in Europe is a form of socialism. Hungary’s Fidesz and Jobbik adhere to the same economic collectivism as do Golden Dawn in Greece, Front National in France and an assortment of smaller, nationalist parties in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The difference between socialists and nationalists in Europe is, essentially, that the former want to expand the welfare state with no inhibitions while the latter want to reserve the services of the welfare state for the people of their individual countries, and not share them with immigrants from – primarily – Africa and the Middle East.

(Disclaimer: UKIP, Britain’s patriotic movement, is basically a libertarian party. They are opposed to the welfare state and to immigration aimed at living off it, but unlike continental and Scandinavian nationalist parties they also want to ultimately dismantle the welfare state. As such they are rather alone on the European political scene. Now back to our regular broadcast.)

The rebound of socialism is not limited to Europe and Latin America. The Obama administration was carried into office by a warped belief that government can take care of people from cradle to grave. Obama and his fervent supporters soon found that Americans still have a strong sense of individualism and skepticism toward government as a partner through life. It is fair to say that on a broad scale, Obama’s aggressive statist agenda has peaked and so has collectivism in America. The question is how we as a country will downsize government, and whether or not it will happen on fiscally sustainable terms.

Others are not so lucky. South Africa is a good example. After two decades of European-inspired welfare statism, South African voters have grown a bit weary of the ANC. Their hold on power is not yet in jeopardy, but it has weakened in recent years. As I have explained in numerous articles, the reasons for this weakened support for the ANC are obvious to any sober observer of the South African economy. Poverty is pandemic among black South Africans and has slowly but steadily spread to colored and white South Africans as well. Unemployment and crime have become permanent phenomena, especially – but not exclusively – in the large areas of the country that still live in abject poverty.

Despite 20 years of promises, the ANC has delivered precisely what socialism always delivers: decline, deprivation and despair. As a result, many South Africans are turning to alternative political movements, and one of the first to capitalize on this is Julius Malema. The former president of the ANC’s youth league has formed his own political movement, an outright communist party that pervertedly calls itself the “Economic Freedom Fighters”.  Here is some of what they want to do to South Africa:

A supposition that the South African economy can be transformed to address the massive unemployment, poverty and inequality crisis without transfer of wealth from those who currently own it to the people as a whole is illusory. The transfer of wealth from the minority should fundamentally focus on the commanding heights of the economy. This should include minerals, metals, banks, energy production, and telecommunications and retain the ownership of central transport and logistics modes such as Transnet, Sasol, Mittal Steel, Eskom, Telkom and all harbours and airports.

They have similar plans for agricultural land, with the intent to redistribute it from current owners and users to others, ostensibly based on racial preferences. The miserable consequences of land expropriation in Zimbabwe have apparently not deterred them. Nor has the economic disaster created by Chavez in Venezuela, where government has gotten itself involved in everything from utilities to the production and distribution of food. Not surprisingly, Julius Malema, South Africa’s premier communist, wants to do the same.

A communist government is just about the last thing South Africa needs. By the same token, Europe is absolutely not in any need of more collectivist policies. Latin America’s socialist experiments must end now, so the continent can reap the harvests of its full economic potential under economic freedom.

Currently, much of the global socialist rebound is currently flying under the radar of freedom-minded scholars, activists and politicians. Let’s hope that changes.

Economics and the Great Recession

So what is really happening to the U.S. economy? Is it in recovery mode, or did the very negative growth numbers for the first quarter signal a new recession? Is the European economy in a recover phase, or not?

While I have firmly said “no” on the European recovery question, there is no doubt that economists in general will wrestle with these questions for at least the remainder of 2014. The past few years have been particularly challenging for economists, especially those whose days are spent on mainstream, econometrics-based forecasting. In an excellent article for the Wall Street Journal, republished by the Hoover Institution, financial economist John Cochrane shows just how challenging those years have been.

Put bluntly, over the course of the Great Recession, leading macroeconomists have missed the target in their predictions of GDP growth by so much that if they tried to send a space chip to Mars it would go to Jupiter instead.

Fortunately, economists do not build space ships. But major errors in macroeconomic forecasting are a serious matter. Politicians decide fiscal policy based on those forecasts. In Greece, for example, the government followed advice on tax increases and spending cuts from leading economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF economists had grossly under-estimated the negative reactions in the private sector to government spending cuts.

The error, concentrated to a so called fiscal multiplier, was of such dimensions that one fifth of all young in Greece are now unemployed indirectly as a result of that forecasting error.

As I have reported before, IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard, a highly respectable economist, issued a full mea-culpa paper soon after they discovered the error. The paper is a stark but honorable warning to other economists to be more cautious about forecasting the future – and about offering legislative advice.

As a macroeconomist I have great difficulty discouraging anyone from listening to advice from economists. Generally, we do well on the policy side. But the Great Recession has challenged a lot of widely held beliefs in economics, among them the belief that econometrics – currently the technical core of economic forecasting – is the supreme tool for predicting the future.

Unorthodox economists like yours truly have long criticized mainstream economists for relying too much on so called rigorous quantitative tools. As Cochrane’s article shows, this debate is gaining strength, and it is a safe bet that it will continue for a long time. In fact, I believe it will constitute the groundwork for major reforms to macroeconomics, both in theory and in methodology, over the next decade or two.

We need those reforms, and we all need to pull our load to make them happen. I do not pretend to have a big voice, but my new book, Industrial Poverty, about the European crisis, will be my first contribution to the conversation.

Politicians, businesses and other members of the general public depend on us knowing what we do. If we are not willing to reconsider our theory, our methodology and everything else all the way down to our forecasting methods, then economists will ultimately be responsible for more surprises in the future, like the one with the U.S. growth numbers, or the one that has been unfolding in Europe over the past five years.

Another Attack on Tax Competition

From a macroeconomic viewpoint Illinois is one of the worst-performing U.S. states. A big reason is the high taxes, by U.S. comparison, that drive jobs and businesses to other states. Illinois has raised its taxes more times than I care to count, with a “temporary” income-tax increase in 2011 that (huge surprise) has turned out to be permanent. States neighboring Illinois have been quick to capitalize on The Prairie State’s suicidal tax policy, with some crafty people in Indiana putting up this billboard at the state line:

LB 7 9 14 image

The image is not mine. It was the thumbnail for a policy paper by the Illinois Policy Institute, a hard-working free-market think tank in Chicago. I chose to borrow it because it illustrates the campaign by Indiana to attract tax-weary Illinoisans. In doing so, Indiana participates in one of the most important economic activities of our time: tax competition. Since there is completely free movement of people and capital across state lines in the United States, the decisions by families and businesses where to reside and work is governed to a relatively large degree by factors such as the tax burden. High-tax states (count Illinois among them) lose jobs and investments to low-tax states.

Politicians who want to build big governments can then sell their welfare states to taxpayers as best they can – if taxpayers prefer to keep more of their own money, and pay for more of their own consumption directly out of their own pocket, then they can choose to do so.

Tax competition fulfills two major purposes. (For an excellent introduction to tax competition, please visit this site over at Center for Freedom and Prosperity.) The first purpose is to keep the free-market sector of the economy alive. When people make decisions to move, look for jobs or invest based in part on differences in taxation, it keeps us as economic agents on alert. We do not slouch on the job, we watch for better opportunities and thereby take responsibility for ourselves and those who depend on us.

The second purpose is to put a cap on the growth, and ideally size, of government. If people can vote with their feet – or money – then government will at some point have to reconsider its plans to expand with yet more tax hikes.

Which explains why there is such widespread contempt for tax competition among lawmakers, both in the United States and in Europe. The latest expression of that contempt comes from (another huge surprise) France, where socialist politicians want to do away with tax competition altogether, at least within the EU. Reports Euractiv:

Paris has long backed the idea of an across-the-board harmonisation of EU member states’ tax systems. According to French government advisors, this must begin by a common tax base for the European banking sector, EurActiv France reports. … Those in favour of harmonisation have a mountain to climb, but have not backed away from the challenge.

Fortunately, there is still a shred of common sense to be shared among some in Europe:

Experts across Europe oppose a common tax system on the basis that competition between tax systems is positive and forces governments to be more efficient.

This, however, has not prevented government expansionists from making the most absurd arguments for abolishing tax competition. Euractiv again:

France has one of the highest levels of income tax in Europe and the government argues that low tax rates prevent the smooth working of the European Common Market. Earlier this year French President François Hollande said he wanted “harmonisation with our largest neighbours by 2020.” In a report titled Tax Harmonisation in Europe: Moving Forward, the [French government's economic advisory council] CAE proposed three ways to tackle the negative effects of fiscal competition.

The very idea that low tax rates prevent “the smooth working” of the free market in the EU is patently absurd. The argument is based on the notion that when tax rates are the same everywhere, businesses make decisions based not on taxes but on “real” business matters. But that notion disregards the fact that government is an active player in the economy, and that its services – while provided inefficiently under a coercion-based monopoly – are like most other services in the economy. I can choose to buy tax-paid services from the New York state government, or from the state of Wyoming, just as I can choose to bank with Warren Federal Credit Union or First Interstate Bank, or to buy my insurance products from Farmers, GEICO or any other insurance company.

Since government is an active player in our economy, it must be subjected to the same free-market conditions as the rest of us, as far as that is possible.

However, as we go back to the Euractiv piece we learn that this is not a concept that European statists are willing to entertain:

The first measure is to continue efforts for a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB). Harmonising tax systems would make “fiscal competition more transparent and healthier,” says Agnès Bénassy-Quéré. According to Alain Trannoy, an economist who co-wrote the report, a CCCTB should be based on “reinforced cooperation or with some countries like Germany, France, the Benelux states and Italy, in order to create a snowball effect in different Eurozone countries.” Harmonising tax bases would also reduce the risks of optimisation, when multinationals transfer their revenues from one country to another in order to benefit from lower corporate tax. “Corporate tax is an important element, but there is no point if tax bases are not harmonised,” said Alain Trannoy.

And now for the three-dollar bill question: once these high-tax EU states succeed in creating a high-tax cartel, what is going to happen with the tax rates?

a) They will go up,

b) They will go up, or

c) They will go up.

You may choose whichever answer you want, so long as your choice is harmonized with the answers you do not choose.

Euractiv again:

According to the authors, the Banking Union, which was adopted in April, needs to go further in the area of taxation. This can be done with a Single Financial Activity Tax (FAT) in Europe. They also advocate a minimum corporate income tax for the banking sector, the receipts of which should be reinvested into infrastructure and long term investments and “form the first building block of a euro area budget.”

And there you have it. The real purpose behind this is to build yet another level of government spending. While it sounds noble to invest in “infrastructure” and the like, this is, after all Europe. Therefore, it is a safe bet to foresee that if this new level of government were ever to be created, its spending would go primarily toward yet more entitlement programs in an even more complex welfare state. Let’s keep in mind that there are already politicians on the left flank of European politics who are pushing hard for harmonized entitlement programs across the EU. What better venue for that harmonization than a full-fledged, EU-level welfare state?

And as we all immediately understand, the world’s largest welfare state, which has not solved all the alleged problems of inequality and poverty it was created to solve, must therefore obviously become a lot bigger.

Out there, on the outer left rim of unabridged statism, the question “when is government big enough?” simply does not have an answer. With the next EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs likely being a socialist, this unanswered question is going to have serious consequences for Europe. Its current journey into industrial poverty, paved by the world’s most sloth-inducing entitlement systems and fueled by the world’s highest taxes, apparently is not going fast enough.