The truth about the European economic crisis is spreading. The latest evidence of this growing awareness is in an annual report by the European Commission. Called “Report on Public Finances”, the report expresses grave concerns about the present state as well as the economic future of the European Union. It is a long and detailed report, worthy of a detailed analysis. This article takes a very first look, with focus on the main conclusions of the report.
Those conclusions reveal how frustrated the Commission has become over Europe’s persistent economic stagnation:
The challenging economic times are not yet over. The economic recovery has not lived up to the expectations that existed earlier on the year and growth projections have been revised downwards in most EU Member States. Today, the risk of persistent low growth, close to zero inflation and high unemployment has become a primary concern. Six years on from the onset of the crisis, it is urgent to revitalise growth across the EU and to generate a new momentum for the economic recovery.
Yet only two paragraphs down, the Commission reveals that they have not left the old fiscal paradigm that caused the crisis in the first place:
The aggregate fiscal picture for the EU and the euro area is now considerably more favourable, thanks to the commendably large consolidation efforts made in the past. … this has allowed Member States to slow the pace of adjustment. The aggregate fiscal stance is now expected to be broadly neutral in 2014 and 2015, both in the EU and the euro area. This will reduce one of the drags on growth and should therefore be welcomed.
If Europe is ever to recover; if they will ever avoid decades upon decades of economic stagnation and industrial poverty; the government of the EU must understand the macroeconomic mechanics behind this persistent crisis. To see where they go wrong, let us go through their argument in two steps.
a) “The aggregate fiscal picture for the EU and the euro area is now considerably more favourable, thanks to the commendably large consolidation efforts made in the past.” There are two analytical errors in this sentence. The first is the definition of “fiscal picture” which obviously is limited to government finances. But this is precisely the same error in the thought process that led to today’s bad macroeconomic situation in Europe: government finances are not isolated from the rest of the economy, and any changes to spending and taxes will affect the rest of the economy over a considerable period of time. The belief that government finances are in some separate silo in the economy led to the devastating wave of ill-designed attempts at saving Europe’s welfare states in 2012.
Austerity, as designed and executed in Europe, was aimed not at shrinking government but making it affordable to an economy in crisis. The end result was a permanent downward adjustment of growth, employment and prosperity. In order to get their economy out of this perennial state of stagnation, Europe’s leaders need to understand thoroughly the relations between government and the private sector.
b) “The aggregate fiscal stance is now expected to be broadly neutral in 2014 and 2015, both in the EU and the euro area. This will reduce one of the drags on growth and should therefore be welcomed.” Here the Commission says that if a government runs a deficit, it causes a “drag” on macroeconomic activity. This is yet another major misunderstanding of how a modern, monetary economy works.
Erstwhile theory prescribed that a government borrowing money pushes interest rates up, thus crowding out private businesses from the credit market. But that prescription rested on the notion that money supply was entirely controlled by the central bank; in a modern monetary economy money supply is controlled by the financial industry, with the central bank as one of many players. Its role is to indicate interest rate levels, but neither to set the interest rate nor to exercise monopolistic control on the supply of liquidity.
A modern monetary economy thus provides enough liquidity to allow governments to borrow, while still having enough liquidity available for private investments. In fact, it is rather simple to prove that the antiquated crowding-out theory is wrong. All you need to do is look at the trend in interest rates before, during and after the opening of the Great Recession, and compare those time periods to government borrowing. In a nutshell: as soon as the crisis opened in 2008 interest rates plummeted, at the same time as government borrowing exploded.
This clearly indicates that the decline in macroeconomic activity was not caused by government deficits; it was the ill-advised attempt at closing budget gaps and restore the fiscal soundness of Europe’s welfare states that caused the drag. And still causes the drag.
In other words, there is nothing new under the European sun. That is unfortunate, not to say troubling, but on one front things have gotten better: the awareness of the depth of the problems in Europe is beginning to sink in among key decision makers. What matters now is to educate them on the right path out of the crisis.
There is a lot more to be said about the Commission’s public finance report. Let’s return to it on Saturday.
Belgium is one of Europe’s most troubled welfare states, though its problems have been overshadowed by the macroeconomic disasters along the Mediterranean. Its fiscal problems are older than most EU member states, and it was the first country to attract sociological interest based on the fact that there were families – regular working class families – where three generations were perennially unemployed.
Today, Belgium is attracting interest because of a new report from the International Monetary Fund. The EU Observer reports:
The Belgian government is planning “many welcome measures to address the critical macroeconomic challenges facing the Belgian economy”, but it can do more, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Monday (15 December). On the same day Belgian unions organised a general national strike, the IMF presented its findings from a ten-day mission to the country. “The planned reforms of social security and budgetary measures are a step in the right direction”, the IMF wrote.
As with other welfare states in Europe, Belgium suffers from disturbingly low growth. As a result, tax revenues cannot keep up with entitlement spending and the budget deficit becomes structural. GDP growth has been as disappointing in the Belgian economy over the past few years as it has elsewhere in Europe (annual growth rates, reported quarterly):
The Great Recession took a big toll on the Belgian government’s finances. Its budget went from a 156 million euro surplus in 2007 to a 19.1 billion euro deficit in 2009, equal to 5.6 percent of GDP.
From there, the deficit has declined slowly but steadily, reaching the EU’s magic three-percent of GDP mark in 2013. Due to the almost clinical absence of GDP growth, the decline has been accomplished by means of welfare-state saving austerity. As the EU Observer explains, these policies are likely to continue, with some tax reshuffling to spice it up:
The centre-right government of Charles Michel, the first coalition without socialists since 1988, started work in October. It plans spending cuts and increasing the pension age from 65 to 67 by 2030. However, the IMF says that Belgium should also reform its tax system. … when it comes to labour tax, Belgium ranks top with a rate of over 40 percent. The IMF suggests that labour tax should be lowered and compensated with a higher tax on capital.
As the figure above clearly shows, there is no recovery under way in Europe. Belgium is no exception, which makes the IMF advice a problematic ingredient in the Belgian fiscal policy mix. More than anything, Belgium needs tax cuts, not a redistribution of the tax burden. It also needs massive, structural reforms to its welfare-state entitlements system, encouraging work and discouraging indolence. None of this is on the horizon, which makes it a safe bet to predict that the Belgian economy will not return to historic growth levels in the foreseeable future.
Whenever government creates an entitlement, it makes a promise to its citizens. The promise is defined in terms of a cash value, or an in-kind service of a certain quality; in terms of duration and of who is, or can become, eligible.
Over time, people adjust their lives to these promises. They come to rely on government being there for them when it really matters, and therefore stop – or never start – saving for contingencies such as unemployment or major health care expenses. Their incentives to stop providing for unforeseen events are reinforced by the taxes that go toward paying for government’s promises.
There you have it, in a nutshell: the welfare state.
In the early years of its existence, the welfare state provided for people with relative ease. Many adults still lived by the old creed of keeping current expenses moderate in order to have enough in the bank for most of what life could throw at them. Taxes were also relatively moderate, allowing people the cash margins to do the saving they still thought they needed.
Over time, though, it became harder and harder for government to keep its welfare-state promises. The incentives structure that government had created began sinking in to the fabric of the economy. Not only did people cut down on their savings, thus relying more on the welfare state, but they also responded to the higher taxes by working less.
Dependency on government increased while independence decreased. This created a trend where the ability of government to pay for its promises was slowly but inevitably eroded. The cost of its promises crept upward, beyond what the creators of the welfare state had originally imagined; work disincentives eroded tax revenues, also beyond what the architects of the welfare state had pictured.
In the early 1970s most of Europe’s welfare states hit a point where the cost of the welfare state began rising above what the private sector of the economy could afford. Various accommodating measures were taken, varying from higher taxes and benefits cuts – as in Denmark – to supply-side tax cuts aimed at accelerating growth in tax revenue – as in Sweden. (Notably, the Reagan tax cuts were coupled with seven-percent-per-year federal spending growth, a clear indication that the supply-side policies were there to fund government, not part of a strategy to reduce the size of government.) But these were merely stopgap measures; inevitably, the welfare state overwhelmed the private sector with its entitlement costs, its high taxes, its incentives toward a lifestyle of government dependency.
The crisis of 2008 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Europe’s welfare states plunged into the dungeon of economic stagnation and began their march into a new era of industrial poverty.
For more on that part of the story, see my book on the European crisis. For now, though, there is another aspect of the crisis of the welfare state that deserves attention. In response to the overwhelming cost of the welfare state, most of Europe’s countries have resorted to a kind of austerity not yet known to Americans. They cut government spending and raise taxes not to reduce the size of government, but to resize their welfare states to slim-fit them into a smaller economy (make them more “affordable” as Michael Tanner so aptly put it in his foreword to my book). The metrics for whether or not austerity has succeeded have nothing to do with how the private sector is doing – they are all focused on whether or not the welfare state will survive.
The primary measurement of survivability is whether or not the budget deficit has been reduced.
In order to get there, though, most European governments have had to cut deeply into their welfare state programs. That would be fine under the right circumstances – if people were given tax cuts corresponding to the spending cuts and thus a chance to buy the same services on a private market. But in the European, statist version of austerity, reduced spending means cutting the size of government without giving more room to the private sector. As much as this sounds like a contradiction in terms, consider the fact that while spending is reduced, taxes remain high or go up even higher.
As a direct result of this statist version of austerity, government breaks its promises to its citizens, and does it on many fronts at the same time. This is now statistically visible.
Broadly speaking, welfare-state spending consists of two parts: cash benefits and in-kind benefits. The latter is health care, elderly care, child care and similar services. Both these two categories can then be subdivided into means-tested and non-means tested benefits.
When a government is faced with the need to cut spending, and its motive for cutting spending is to save as much as possible of the welfare state, it will make its cuts based on two criteria:
- what cuts will give the most bang for the political and legislative effort; and
- what cuts will stir up the least political protests among voters.
These two criteria do not always work in tandem, and it varies from country to country, from government to government, which one weighs more heavily. However, as a general rule it is easier to cut in-kind benefits than cash benefits: while people see the reduction in cash benefits immediately, it takes a while for them to experience the reduced quality or availability of services such as health and child care.
We can see this rule at work in Europe. In countries that have been hit hard by statist austerity, there were tough cuts to in-kind benefits spending (Eurostat data; changes to annual total spending; current prices):
By contrast, countries that have not suffered as hard statist austerity measures:
Now compare the cuts to in-kind benefits in “austerity countries” to what they did with cash benefits:
What is the lesson from all this? There is, again, the broader, long-term lesson of a future in economic stagnation and a life in industrial poverty. But already today there are tangible consequences felt by citizens whom welfare statists often refer to as “vulnerable”. They have first been lured into dependency on government, then – when austerity strikes – they are left without access to services monopolized by government.
When the welfare state breaks its promises, having the right to health care is one thing; getting health care when needed is a totally different matter.
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.
Analysts are grasping for explanations of why the European economy has once again stalled. The European Central Bank, which has lowered its forecast for GDP growth in the euro zone, suggests that this weakening is not part of a trend, but an aberration from a trend:
First, activity in the first quarter was subject to an unusual upward effect from the low number of holidays (as the entire Easter school holiday period fell in the second quarter) and from the warm winter weather that had boosted construction. Neither of these upward effects in the first quarter was sufficiently captured by seasonal or working day adjustment. As they unwound in the second quarter, this dampened growth. Second, negative calendar effects related to the more than usual number of “bridge days” around public holidays in many euro area countries may have reduced the number of effective working days in May, a factor that was not captured by the working day adjustment.
I have a lot of respect for the macroeconomists at the ECB, but frankly, this is below what we should expect of them. Calendar days and weather always vary – some claim that the bad performance of the U.S. economy in the first quarter of this year was due to the unusually cold winter. In reality, that growth dip was more than likely the result of businesses trying to adjust to the impact of Obamacare. By contrast, the slow growth numbers in the European economy are part of a trend of economic stagnation. A 30,000-foot review of what the European economy looks like is a good way to become aware of that trend.
The profession of economic has to some degree drifted away from the bigger-picture thinking that characterized its earlier days in the 20th century. While econometrics is important, there is too much emphasis on it today, drawing attention away from longer, bigger trends and the kind of institutional changes that characterize Europe today. Based on this broader analysis, my conclusion stands: Europe is not going to recover until they do something fundamental about their welfare state. Or, more bluntly: so long as taxes remain as high as they are and government provides entitlements the way it does, there is no reason for the productive people in the European economy to bring about a recovery.
The problem with short-sighted, strictly quantitative analysis is that it compels the economist to keep looking for a reason why the economy should recovery, as if it was a law of nature that there should be a recovery.
This problem is reflected in the ECB forecast paper:
Regarding the second half of 2014, while confidence indicators still stand close to their long-term average levels, their recent weakening indicates a rather modest increase in activity in the near term. The weakening of survey data takes place against the background of the recent further intensification of geopolitical tensions (see Box 4) together with uncertainty about the economic reform process in some euro area countries. All in all, the projection entails a rather moderate pick-up in activity in the second half of 2014, weaker than previously expected.
It would be interesting to see the results of a survey like this where the questions centered in on the more long-term oriented variables that focused on people’s ability and desire to plan their personal finances. I did a study like that as part of my own graduate work, and the results (reported in my doctoral thesis) were interesting yet hardly surprising. When people are faced with growing uncertainty they try to reduce their long-term economic commitments as much as possible. This results in less economic activity today without any tangible commitment to future spending.
Since I do not have the resources to study consumer and entrepreneurial confidence in Europe at the level the ECB can, I cannot firmly say that people in Europe today feel so uncertain about the future that they have permanently lowered their economic activity. However, my survey results corroborate predictions by economic theory, and the reality on the ground in Europe today points in the very same direction. In other words, so long as institutional uncertainty remains, there will be no recovery in Europe.
The ECB does not consider this aspect. Instead they once again forecast a recovery, just as assorted economists have done for about a year now:
Looking beyond the near term, and assuming no further escalation of global tensions, a gradual acceleration of real GDP growth over the projection horizon is envisaged. Real GDP growth is expected to pick up in 2015 and 2016, with the growth differentials across countries projected to decline, thanks to the progress in overcoming the fragmentation of financial markets, smaller differences in their fiscal policy paths, and the positive impact on activity from past structural reforms in several countries. The projected pick-up in activity will be mainly supported by a strengthening of domestic demand, owing to the accommodative monetary policy stance – further strengthened by the recent standard and non- standard measures – a broadly neutral fiscal stance following years of substantial fiscal tightening, and a return to neutral credit supply conditions. In addition, private consumption should benefit from a pick-up in real disposable income stemming from the favourable impact of low commodity price inflation and rising wage growth.
A key ingredient here is “smaller differences in … fiscal policy paths” and “a broadly neutral fiscal stance”. This means that the ECB is expecting an end to austerity policies across the euro zone, an expectation that has been lurking in their forecasts for some time now. But austerity has not ended, nor have the budget deficit problems that brought about austerity. The austerity artillery is not as active now as it was two years ago, but it has not gone quiet. France, e.g., is currently in a political leadership crisis because of the alleged need to continue budget-balancing measures.
France also indicates where the fiscal trend in Europe is heading. If the radical side of the French socialists could have it their way they would chart a course back to big-spending territory. But they would also couple more spending with even higher taxes, in order to avoid conflicts with the debt and deficit rules of the EU Stability and Growth Pact. While technically a “neutral” policy, the macroeconomic fallout would be a further weakening of the private sector – in other words a further weakening of GDP growth.
Another aspect that the ECB overlooks is the effects of the recalibration of the welfare state that has taken place during the austerity years. I am not going to elaborate at length on this point here, but refer instead to my new book where I discuss this phenomenon in more detail. Its macroeconomic meaning, though, is important here: the recalibration results in the welfare state taking more from the private sector, partly in the form of taxes, and giving less back in the form of lower spending. As a result, the private sector is drained, structurally, of more resources, with the inevitable result that long-term GDP growth is even weaker.
None of this is discussed in the ECB forecast paper, which means that we will very likely see more downward adjustments of their growth forecasts in the future.
There would be no problem with the ECB’s erroneous forecasts if it was not for the fact that those forecasts are used by policy makers in their decisions on taxes, government spending and monetary supply. The more of these “surprising” downward corrections by forecasters, the more of almost panic-driven decisions we will see. Alas, from EUBusiness.com:
The European Central Bank cut its forecasts for growth in the 18-country euro area this year and next, and also lowered its outlook for area-wide inflation, at a policy meeting on Thursday. The ECB is pencilling in gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 0.9 percent in 2014 and 1.6 percent in 2015, the central bank’s president Mario Draghi told a news conference. “Compared with our projections in June, the projections for real GDP growth for 2014 and 2015 have been revised downwards,” he said. The bank said inflation was expected to be 0.6 percent this year — a lower rate than the 0.7 originally forecast, Draghi said.
And therefore, the ECB decided to cut its already microscopic interest rates. Among their cuts is a push of the overnight bank lending rate further into negative territory, so that it now stands at -0.3 percent. But all these measures, aimed at injecting more cheap credit into the European economy, will fall as flat on their bellies as earlier interest-rate cuts. The problem is not that there is not enough liquidity in the economy – the problem is, as mentioned earlier, that the European economy suffers from institutional and structural ailments. Those are not fixed with monetary policy. Yet with the wrong analysis of the cause of the crisis, Europe’s policy makers will continue to prescribe the wrong medicine and the patient will continue to sink into a vegetative state of stagnation and industrial poverty.
Last Friday I explained that Europe appears to be on its way back to Big Spending country. One major reason is that the policies practiced so far during the Great Recession have proven to be sorely inadequate. Another reason is that Europe suffers from a bad case of conventional wisdom, the default position of which is that there is nothing more important in the economy than the welfare state. As a result, when austerity policies, specifically designed to save the welfare state, fail to do just that while also failing to reignite the economy, voters and political leaders turn to erstwhile solutions such as more government spending. Led there by conventional wisdom, not solid analysis, they are certain to only do more harm to an already ailing patient.
In this situation, clear and crisp crisis analysis is more important than ever. That is the only way to a working solution to the crisis. Unfortunately, the road to such solutions still runs through analytical neighborhoods where arguments about what cause the crisis sprawl in all directions. My blog article from last Friday quoted one example, Dan Steinbock of the India, China and America Institute. This week, Steinbock continues his contribution in the EU Observer::
In the United States, the global financial crisis was unleashed by real estate markets and the financial sector, which caused a dramatic contraction and massive mass unemployment.
That is a superficial explanation. The root cause was a fundamental misinterpretation of a macroeconomic trend. From the late 1970s through the Millennium recession the swings in the American business cycle gradually became weaker. This has been interpreted as a shift to more stable growth, which policy makers in the United States used as a basis for liberalizing the country’s credit markets. One part of this liberalization was an expansion of subprime mortgage lending, a reform that makes sense if the expectation is high GDP growth and as a result high growth in disposable income, then the risks associated with subprime lending are well contained. The debt-to-income ratio would not reach alarming levels, perhaps not even grow at all.
There was just one problem. The trend that was interpreted as growth stabilization was also a trend of weakening growth. In the 2000s the American economy grew at about half the pace of the ’90s. This led to a relative weakening of the ability of American households to keep up with debt payments. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that this was a financial crisis – it was a macroeconomic crisis that was mismanaged and misinterpreted by key political leaders.
It is important to keep this in mind, because it has consequences for how to get the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession. Steinbock lauds the Obama administration for its “stimulus package”, which…
included spending in infrastructure, health and energy, federal tax incentives, expansion of unemployment benefits and other social welfare provisions. It boosted innovation and supported competitiveness.
Frankly, there is no evidence of this. The bulk of the money spent through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act went to fill revenue gaps in existing government spending programs, at the federal level as well as in the states. This borrowed money may have prevented a massive tax increase, which would have been the other conventional-wisdom option, but it certainly did not expand spending. On the contrary, what was a temporary jump in GDP growth during the stimulus spending, but as soon as it was over the growth rate reverted to pre-stimulus levels. It was not until late 2013 that the very first signs of some sort of recovery were visible. That recovery, though, which is still continuing, is far weaker than it should have been. Why? More on that in a moment. For now, back to the EU Observer, where Steinbock claims that the United States…
was able to rely on common fiscal and monetary policy. When one state got into trouble, it could turn to others for support. Of course, the crisis supported some states and hurt others, but the common institutions worked.
I have worked for state-based think tanks for eight years now, and I have carefully studied state fiscal policy for at least as long. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what Steinbock is talking about here.
Let’s continue to listen to him, though. Maybe he makes more sense when he turns to discussing Europe:
When the 2008/9 crisis hit Europe, the core economies relied on their generous social models, but structural challenges were set aside. That ensured a timeout but boosted threats. In spring 2010, the crisis was still seen as a liquidity issue and a banking crisis. So Brussels launched its €770 billion “shock and awe” rescue package to stabilise the eurozone. As the consensus view grouped behind Brussels, I argued that the rescue package was inadequate and the austerity policy too strict. Further, it ignored multiple other crisis points. And it was likely to result in demonstrations and violence in southern Europe.
While he is correct about the political fallout of the crisis, he is far too vague on the economic variables that drove the European economy into the ditch. As I explain in my book Industrial Poverty (order your hard copy now or get your ebook version very soon!) the cause of the European crisis is to be found in the structure of the welfare state. This structural ailment is present in the American economy as well, though not as pronounced, but it explains why the Western economies experienced a growth slowdown in the 1980s (EU) and on the heels of the Millennium Recession (U.S.).
So long as the structural problem remains, there will be no recovery in the European economy. The United States has been able to recover despite the weight of government, an aspect that Steinbock misses. He does, however, make a good point about mistakes made by the European Central Bank:
[The] European Central Bank (ECB), led by its then-chief Jean-Claude Trichet, moved too slowly and hiked rates instead of cutting them. When the ECB finally reversed its approach, precious time and millions of jobs had been lost. Subsequently, Trichet’s successor, Mario Draghi, cut the rates and pledged to defend euro “at any cost.” Markets stabilised, but not without huge bailout packages, which divided the eurozone.
Trying to stuff as many explanations as possible of Europe’s perennial crisis into the same article, Steinbock then proceeds to point in many different directions at the same time:
As Barroso and his commissioners began to argue that “the worst was over,” Brussels hoped to reinforce the trust in euro and the EU and deter the rise of the eurosceptics. But hollow promises resulted in a reverse outcome. What’s worse, both Brussels and the core economies failed to provide adequate fiscal adjustment amidst the global crisis and the onset of the eurozone debt crisis, which made bad mass unemployment a lot worse and continues to penalise demand and investment. Further, neither liquidity support nor recapitalisation of the major banks has mitigated the worst insolvency risks in the region. Unlike in the US, many European economies, including Nordic ones, also continued to cut their innovation investments, thus making themselves even more vulnerable in the future. As the crisis spread to Italy and Spain, which together account for almost 30 percent of the eurozone economy, bailout packages could no longer be used. Rather, structural reforms became vital but since they were seen as a political suicide, delays replaced urgency.
Reduced spending on “innovation” is not nearly as important an explanation of the crisis as the structural fiscal imbalances of the welfare state. It is important to separate what matters from what does not matter. Otherwise, one cannot provide solutions to those who are in the position to put them to work.
Europe’s version of austerity has been designed exclusively to save the continent’s big welfare states in very tough economic times. By raising taxes and cutting spending, governments in Greece, Spain, Italy and other EU member states have hoped to make their welfare states more slim-fit and compatible with a smaller tax base. The metric they have used for their austerity policies is not that the private sector would grow as a result – on the contrary, private-sector activity has been of no concern under government-first austerity. Unemployment has skyrocketed, private-sector activity has plummeted and Europe is in worse shape today than it was in 2011, right before the Great Big Austerity Purge of 2012.
The criticism of austerity was massive, but not in the legitimate form we would expect: instead of pointing to the complete neglect of private-sector activity, Europe’s austerity critics have focused entirely on the spending cuts to entitlement programs. While such cuts are necessary for Europe’s future, they cannot be executed in a panic-style fashion – they should be structural and remove, not shrink, spending programs. Furthermore, they cannot be combined with tax hikes: when you take away people’s entitlements you need to cut, not raise, taxes so they can afford to replace the entitlements with private-funded solutions. Tax hikes, needless to say, drain dry the private sector and exacerbate the recession that produced the need for austerity in the first place.
This is a very simple analysis of what is going on in Europe. It is simple yet accurate: my predictions throughout 2012, 2013 and so far through 2014 have been that there will be no recovery in Europe unless and until they replace government-first austerity with private-sector austerity. This means, plain and simple, that you stop using government-saving metrics as measurement of austerity success and instead focus on the growth of the private sector. This will rule out tax hikes and dictate very different types of spending cuts, namely those that permanently terminate government spending programs.
Unfortunately, this aspect of austerity is absent in Europe. All that is heard is criticism from socialists who want to keep the tax hikes but combine them with more government spending. A continuation, in other words, of what originally caused the current economic crisis (that’s right – it was not a financial crisis). These socialists won big in the French elections two years ago, gaining both the Elysee Palace and a majority in the national parliament. However, faced with the harsh economic realities of the Great Recession, they soon found that spending-as-usual was not a very good idea. At the same time, they have rightly seen the problems with the kind of government-first austerity that has been common fiscal practice in Europe. Now that their own agenda is proving to be as destructive as government-first austerity, France’s socialists do not know which way to turn anymore. This has led to a political crisis of surprisingly large proportions. Reports the EU Observer:
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday (25 August) tendered his government’s resignation after more leftist ministers voiced criticism to what is being perceived as German-imposed austerity. The embattled French President, Francois Hollande, whose popularity ratings are only 17 percent, accepted the resignation and tasked Valls to form a new cabinet by Tuesday, the Elysee palace said in a press release. “The head of state has asked him [Valls] to form a team in line with the orientation he has defined for our country,” the statement added – a reference to further budget cuts needed for France to rein in its public deficit.
From the perspective of the European Union, France has been the bad boy in the classroom, not getting with the government-first austerity programs that have worked so well in Greece (lost one fifth of its GDP) and Spain (second highest youth unemployment in the EU). Hollande’s main problem is that by not getting his economy back growing again he is jeopardizing the future of the euro, in two ways. First, perpetual stagnation with zero GDP growth has forced the European Central Bank into a reckless money-supply policy with negative interest rates on bank deposits and a de facto endless commitment to printing money. This alone is reason for the euro to sink, and the only remedy would be that the economies of the euro zone started growing again. Secondly, by exacerbating the recession in France, and by failing endemically to deliver on his promises of more growth and more jobs, Hollande is setting himself up to lose the 2017 presidential election to Marine Le Pen. First on her agenda is to pull France out of the euro; if the zone loses its second-biggest economy, what reasons are there for smaller economies like Greece to stay?
This is why he has now shifted policy foot, from the spending-as-usual strategy of 2012 to government-first austerity. But since neither is good for the private sector, frustration is rising within the ranks of France’s socialists to a point where it could cause a crippling political crisis. Euractiv again:
The rebel minister, Arnaud Montebourg, who had held the economy portfolio until Monday, over the weekend criticised his Socialist government for being too German-friendly. “France is a free country which shouldn’t be aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right,” he said at a Socialist rally on Sunday, urging a “just and sane resistance”. The day before, he gave an interview to Le Monde in which he claimed that Germany had “imposed” a policy of austerity across Europe and that other countries should speak out against it. Two more ministers, Benoit Hamon in charge of education and culture minister Aurelie Fillipetti, also rallied around Montebourg and said they will not seek a post in the new cabinet. In a resignation letter addressed to Hollande and Valls, Fillipetti accused them of betraying their voters and abandoning left-wing policies, at a time when the populist National Front is gaining ground everywhere. According to Le Parisien, Valls forced Hollande to let go of Montebourg by telling him “it’s either him or me.”
Ironically, the main difference between the socialist economic policies and those of the National Front is that the latter want to reintroduce the franc while the former want to stay with the euro. Other than that, the National Front wants to preserve the welfare state, though significantly cut down on the number of non-Europeans who are allowed to benefit from it. The socialists also want to preserve the welfare state, but also open the door for more non-European immigration.
In short, the differences between socialist and nationalist economic policy is limited to nuances. Needless to say, neither will help France back to growth and prosperity.
Meanwhile, according to the Euractiv story there is mounting pressure from outside France on President Hollande to stick with the government-first austerity program:
[The] government turmoil is also a sign of diverging views on how to tackle the country’s economic woes. French unemployment is at nearly 11 percent and growth in 2014 is forecast to be of only 0.5 percent. Meanwhile, French officials have already said the deficit will again surpass EU’s 3 percent target, and are negotiating another delay with the European Commission. The commission declined to comment on the new developments in France, with a spokeswoman saying they are “aware” and “in contact” with the French government. German chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday during a visit to Spain declined to comment directly about the change in government, but said she wishes “the French president success with his reform agenda.” Both Merkel and Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy defended the need for further austerity and economic reforms, saying this boosted economic growth.
Growth – where? What growth is he talking about? But more important than the erroneous statement that the European economy is benefiting from attempts to save the welfare state, France is now becoming the focal point of more than just the future of the current European version of austerity. The struggle between socialists and competing brands of statism is a concentrate of a more general political trend in Europe. The way France goes, the way Europe will go. While the outcome of the statist competition will make a difference to immigration policy, it won’t change the general course of the economy. Both factions, nationalists and socialists, want to keep the welfare state and therefore preserve the very cause of Europe’s economic stagnation (which by the way is now in its sixth year).
Europe needs a libertarian renaissance. Its entrepreneurs, investors and workers need to stand up together and say “Laissez-nous faire!” with one voice. Then, and only then, will they elevate Europe back to where she belongs, namely at the top of the world’s prosperity league.
There is yet more evidence that Europe, unlike the United States, is going to remain in a state of economic stagnation for a while longer. The EU Observer reports:
Italy has slipped back into recession putting pressure on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to fulfil promises to see through major structural reform to boost growth. The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, shrank 0.2 percent in the second [quarter], the country’s national statistics office said Wednesday (6 August).
The only quarterly number that Eurostat has released so far is the one adjusted for seasons and workdays, a number I would rarely use. However, it has its merits, too, as it comes as close as you can to linking GDP to the abstracted performance of economic agents. Compared to the same quarter 2013, this number shows a 0.3-percent drop in GDP over the same quarter 2013. Going back two years, the total decline is 2.5 percent. While the bulk of that decline took place in 2013, the country is still suffering from government-saving austerity programs designed to bring Italy into compliance with EU debt and deficit mandates.
But it is not over yet for Italy, not by a long shot. EU Observer again:
Finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan defended the government’s reform plans and said the country would not now need a corrective mini budget to stay on the right side of the EU’s fiscal rules. “The (GDP) figure is negative, but there are also positive elements. Industrial production is much better and consumer spending is continuing to increase, albeit slowly,” said Padoan
This statement is revealing of the purpose behind austerity. Everywhere in Europe, political leaders measure the success of austerity in terms of government fiscal balances; the metric never includes GDP growth. Greece is the prime example of this, where government-saving austerity peeled away one fifth of GDP in fixed prices. The Spanish encounter with austerity exemplifies similarly warped policy goal setting.
In addition, the finance minister’s statement about consumer spending is downright false. While there are no second-quarter Eurostat numbers yet on the spending of Italian consumers, first-quarter numbers are downright troubling. From Q1 2012 to Q1 2014, Italy’s consumer spending declined four percent. Over the last year, Q1 2013 to Q1 2014, the decline was a modest half-percent, but that is still a decline – not an increase.
Even if the GDP and consumption numbers indicate that the decline in Italian economic activity is coming to an end, there are no real signs of a sustainable uptick. It would be foolish to expect anything else, as the main fiscal-policy priority of the Italian government remains the same: save the welfare state. As we go back to the EU Observer, we get even more indications that nothing is really going to change for the better in the Italian economy:
The Italian PM has been among those calling the loudest for flexibility in the interpretation of the rules that govern debt and deficits in the eurozone. However other partners and the EU commission have indicated they wanted to see more structural reform undertaken first. The commission reiterated this on Wednesday and noted that Italy had already been told that it should stick to its budget plans. The other leader calling for flexibility and support from its EU partners is France’s Francois Hollande. In an interview with Le Monde recently, the French president urged Germany and the European Central Bank to do more to boost growth.
1. The Italian prime minister’s call for more flexibility in the interpretation of the EU’s stability and growth pact is really nothing more than a request to be allowed to increase government spending. It echoes what the socialist French president has been demanding for almost two years. However, the last thing Europe needs is more government spending.
2. When European political leaders talk about “structural reform” they do not refer to the kind of reforms actually needed, namely an orderly phase-out of the welfare state. Their take on “structural” is entirely regulatory and focused mostly on the labor market. But regulations do not build a structure – they are part of it, but they are not a structure in themselves. Furthermore, it is pointless to relax labor-market regulations without permanent tax cuts and terminations of government spending programs. Deregulation is supposed to make it easier for employers to hire and fire, but if there is no more demand for labor after the deregulation than before, there won’t be any more jobs out there.
3. It is rather amusing to see how the French president is urging others, outside of his domain, to do more for economic growth. In essence, he is telling the Germans to run their economy better, so he can continue to raise hate-the-rich taxes and drive even more entrepreneurs and hard-working high-end professionals out of France.
In conclusion, there still is no case for an economic recovery in Europe. The continent is now on its sixth year of stagnation, and in some countries an outright depression. Monetary policy has now taken the entire euro zone into the liquidity trap while fiscal policy remains stubbornly fixated on government-saving austerity policies.
Youth unemployment remains stuck above 22 percent in the EU, and above 23 percent in the euro zone. An entire generation is lost.
As painful as it is to say it, Europe is turning into an economic wasteland. It is entirely self-inflicted and if the Europeans want get out of their permanent crisis, they have the solution in their hands.
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.
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.