While the talks between the EU and the Greek government has bought the euro a little bit more time, there is a growing undercurrent of a debate over the European crisis. More writers are trying to put their finger on where Europe is going and what the continent needs. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, looks at demographics and points to some of the deeper social and cultural problems that plague Europe:
[A] country or continent will be in decline if it rejects the culture of family, turns its back on work, and closes itself to strivers from the outside. Europe needs visionary leaders and a social movement to rediscover that people are assets to develop, not liabilities to manage. If it cannot or will not meet this existential challenge, a “lost decade” will look like a walk in the park for Grandma Europe.
There are reasons why a country turns away from family, work and social, demographic and cultural reproduction. Those reasons are closely tied to self determination: when people are demoted from independent individuals to subjects of the welfare state, their desire to assume responsibility for a family weakens accordingly. When government uses economic incentives to steer people toward certain life choices, and away from others, people become less inclined to participate in the reproduction of the society they inherited. They are happy to hand that responsibility over to government – precisely along the lines of the incentives that government has created.
In other words, when government has social-engineering ambitions the consequences of its incursions into the private lives of its citizens reach far beyond what government planners initially would anticipate. Collectivization of people’s daily lives destroys much more than just the economy.
The welfare state is the collectivization vehicle that rolls all over the values that formed the foundation of Western civilization. Proponents of individual and economic freedom chronically under-estimate the destructive force of the welfare state, both short-term and long-term. Brooks represents the view that the welfare state, over its long-term existence, is somehow isolated from the cultural and social traditions and institutions of a society.
The short-term perspective and under-estimation of the welfare state is well represented by former Polish deputy prime minister Leszek Balcerowicz. In the Fall 2014 issue of the Cato Journal, Balcerowicz offers a refreshing explanation of the crisis that caused the Great Recession. After initially attributing the crisis in the so called PIIGS countries to the financial sector, he develops a productive narrative of the crisis where the financial and fiscal sectors interact:
- In one direction the crisis causality runs from the financial sector to the fiscal sector – “fiscal-to-financial” by Balcerowicz’s terminology – when “sustained budgetary overspending … spills over ito the financial sector, as financial institutions are big buyers of government bonds”;
- In the other direction the crisis causality runs “financial-to-fiscal”, which Balcerowicz exemplifies with Ireland and Spain: “The spending boom in the housing sector fueled the growth of their economies and created a deceptively positive picture of their fiscal stance”.
While Balcerowicz is theoretically correct about the quality of the financial-to-fiscal causality, it still remains to be proven that there was enough economic activity at stake to cause such a brutal drop in employment and general economic activity as happened in 2008-2009. Balcerowicz does not offer any deeper insight into the causality, but adopts the narrative that has become the official explanation of how the Great Recession started.
Of far more interest is Balcerowicz’s “fiscal-to-financial” argument. Chronically overspending governments pull banks down with them, especially as the credit ratings of the welfare states start tumbling. I pointed to this in two articles last year, one in April and one in December. I also explain the role of the welfare state behind the crisis in my book Industrial Poverty.
The one point where Balcerowicz stumbles is when to explain why governments chronically overspend. He approaches the problem as a question:
What are the root causes of the tendency of modern political systems to systematically overspend, which results in fiscal-to-financial crises or in chronically ill public finances that act as a brake on economic growth?
He then suggests that the answer to this question “belongs to public choice”. This is an analytical mistake: public choice lacks the methodological power to penetrate the complexity of the welfare state.
Clearly, there is a need for libertarians and other friends of economic and individual freedom to learn how to understand, analyze and politically and legislatively dismantle the welfare state. Without such knowledge they will continue to make near-miss contributions such as the ones by Brooks and Balcerowicz.
But fear not. I have another book coming. Stay tuned.
The answer to the question whether or not Greece will stay in the euro will probably be given this week. New socialist prime minister Tsipras is not giving the EU what it wants, jeopardizing his country’s future inside the currency union:
Talks between Greece and eurozone finance ministers broke down on Monday with an ultimatum that Athens by Friday should ask for an extension of the current bailout programme which runs out next week. Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said he would have been willing to sign off on a proposal made by the EU commission, which was more accommodating to Greek demands, but that the Eurogroup offer – to extend the bailout programme by six months – was unacceptable. The battle is about more than just semantics. EU officials say Greece cannot cherrypick only the money-part of a bailout and ignore the structural measures that have to be implemented to get the cash. “If they ask for an extension, the question is, do they really mean it. If it’s a loans extension only, with no commitments on reforms, there is an over 50 percent chance the Eurogroup will say no,” one EU official said. Failure to agree by Friday would leave very little time for national parliaments in four countries – notably Germany – to approve the bailout extension. It would mean Greece would run out of money and be pushed towards a euro-exit. … As for the prospect of letting Greece face bankruptcy to really understand what’s at stake, an EU official said “there is no willingness, but there is readiness to do it”.
The mere fact that there is now official talk about a possible Greek exit from the euro is a clear sign of how serious the situation is. It is also an indication that the EU, the ECB and the governments of the big EU member states have a contingency plan in place, should Greece leave the euro.
My bet is that Tsipras is gambling: he wants out of the euro, but with a majority of Greeks against a reintroduction of the drachma he cannot go at it straightforwardly. He has to create a situation where his country is given “no choice” but to leave. This is why he is negotiating with the EU in a way that he knows is antithetical to a productive solution.
The reason why Tsipras wants out is simple: he is a Chavista socialist and wants to follow in the footsteps of now-defunct Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. That means socialism in one country. (A slight rephrasing of the somewhat tarnished term “national socialism”.) In order to create a Venezuelan-style island of reckless socialism in Europe, Tsipras needs to get out of the euro zone.
Should he succeed, it is likely that other countries will follow his example, though for different ideological reasons. However, there is more at stake in the Greek crisis than just the future of the euro zone. Tsipras is riding a new wave of radical socialism, a wave that began moving through Europe at the very depth of the Great Recession. Statist austerity was falsely perceived as an attempt by “big capitalism” to dismantle the welfare state. It was not – quite the contrary: statist austerity was a way for friends of big government to preserve as much as possible of the welfare state.
However, socialists have never allowed facts to get in the way of their agenda. And they certainly won’t let facts and good analysis get in the way of their rising momentum. What started mildly with a socialist victory in the French elections in 2012 has now borne Tsipras to power in Greece and is carrying complete political newcomers into the center stage of Spanish politics. But this new and very troublesome wave of socialism is not stopping at member-state capitals. It is reaching into the hallways of EU politics as well. As an example, consider these words on the Euractiv opinion page by Maria João Rodrigues MEP, Vice-Chair of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, and spokesperson on economic and social policies:
The Greek people have told us in January’s elections that they no longer accept their fate as it has been decided by the European Union. For those who know the state of economic and social devastation Greece has reached, this is only a confirmation of a survival instinct common to any people. The Greek issue has become a European issue, and we are all feeling its effects.
This is a frontal attack on EU-imposed austerity, but it is also a thinly veiled threat: unless Europe moves left, the left will move Europe.
Back to Rodrigues:
European integration can only have a future if European decisions are accepted as legitimated by the various peoples who constitute Europe. Decisions at European level require compromises, as they have their origins in a wide variety of interests. But these compromises must be perceived as mutual and globally advantageous for all Member States involved, despite the commitments and efforts they entail. The key question now is whether it will be possible to forge a new compromise, enabling not only to give hope to the Greek people, but also to improve certain rules of today’s European Union and its Economic and Monetary Union.
This should not be misinterpreted as a call for return of power to the member states. The reason why is revealed next:
We need a European Union capable of taking more democratic decisions and an Economic and Monetary Union which generates economic, social and political convergence, not ever-widening divergence. If Europe is unable to forge this compromise, and if the rope between lenders and borrowers stretches further, the risks are multiple: financial pressures for Greece to leave the euro; economic and social risks of continued stagnation or recession, high unemployment and poverty in many other countries; and, above all, political risks, namely further strengthening of anti-European or Eurosceptic parties in their aspiration to lead national governments, worsening Europe’s fragmentation.
The fine print in this seemingly generic message is: more entitlement spending to reduce income differences – called “economic and social convergence” in modern Eurocratic lingo – and a central bank the policies of which are tuned to be a support function for fiscal expansion. The hint of this is in the words “If the rope between lenders and borrowers stretches further”: member states should be allowed to spend on entitlements to reduce income differences, and if this means deficit-spending, the ECB should step in and monetize the deficits.
Rodrigues offers yet another example of the same argument:
[Many of] Greece’s problems were aggravated by the behaviour of the European Union: Firstly, it let Greece exposed to speculative market pressures in 2010, which exacerbated its debt burden. Secondly, when the EU finally managed to build the necessary financial stabilisation mechanisms, it imposed on Greece a programme focused on the reduction of the budget deficit in such an abrupt way that the country was pushed into an economic and social disaster. Moreover, the austerity measures resulted in a further increase of Greece’s debt compared to its GDP.
It is apparently easy for the left to look away from such obvious facts as the long Greek tradition of welfare-state spending. But that goes with the leftist territory, so it should not surprise anyone. More important is the fact that we once again have an example of how socialists use failed statist austerity to advocate for even more of what originally caused the crisis, namely the big entitlement state. They want to turn the EU and the ECB into instruments for deficit-spending ad infinitum to expand the welfare state at their discretion.
To further drive home the point that what matters is the welfare state, Rodrigues moves on to her analysis of Greece:
What Greece needs now is a joint plan for reform and reconstruction, agreed with the European institutions. This plan should replace the Troika programme, while incorporating some of its useful elements. Crucially, it should foresee a relatively low primary surplus and eased conditions of financial assistance from other eurozone countries, in order to provide at least some fiscal room for manoeuvre for the country. In return, the plan should set out strategic reforms to improve the functioning of the Greek economy and the public sector, including tax collection, education, employment and SMEs services as well as ensuring a sustainable and universal social protection system.
There is no such thing as a “sustainable and universal social protection system”. When Europe’s new generation of socialist leaders get their hands on the right policy instruments they will turn all government-spending faucets wide open. Deficits will be monetized and imbalances toward the rest of the world handled by artificial exchange-rate measures (most likely of the kind used by now-defunct Hugo Chavez).
If this new wave of socialism will define Europe’s future, then the continent is in very serious trouble.
A short-term measure of the strength of the momentum will come later this week when we will know whether or not Greece will remain in the currency union. Beyond that, things are too uncertain to predict at this moment.
After a delay with its national accounts publications, Eurostat has now caught up. Fourth-quarter numbers are beginning to sip out, with the following press release last Friday:
Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.3% in the euro area (EA18) and by 0.4% in the EU28 during the fourth quarter of 2014, compared with the previous quarter, according to flash estimates published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. In the third quarter of 2014, GDP grew by 0.2% in the euro area and by 0.3% in the EU28.
More important, though, is the annual growth rate:
Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.9% in the euro area and by 1.3% in the EU28 in the fourth quarter of 2014, after +0.8% and +1.3% respectively in the previous quarter. During the fourth quarter of 2014, GDP in the United States increased by … 2.5% (after +2.7% in the previous quarter).
The U.S. economy is still way ahead of Europe, and there are no signs of this parity shrinking. For the three countries where Eurostat has reported individual 2014 GDP numbers, inflation-adjusted growth rates are far from impressive:
- Germany: 1.61 percent;
- France: 0.38 percent;
- Greece: 0.87 percent.
For the two largest economies in the euro zone, Germany and France, the combined growth rate is 1.08 percent. That is a minuscule uptick over the second and third quarter annual growth rates of 0.99 and 1.02 percent, respectively. Furthermore, while the combined growth rate for Germany and France is slowly increasing, the individual growth rates for the two countries are going in different directions. Again, annual inflation-adjusted growth rates reported by quarter:
Frustrating comments are already pouring out over the internet. EUbusiness.co. says that the numbers are “too weak to convincingly signal a full-blown recovery”. They are absolutely right. Analysts quoted by EUbusiness.com attribute the slight uptick in growth to falling oil prices and a weaker euro. Both of these are external factors, which means that Europe still has no core growth power. It is also important to remember that the weak euro partly is attributable to concerns about the future of the currency. With Greece basically in open defiance of payment obligations and EU-imposed austerity programs, and with countries like Portugal and Italy likely to join Greece should Athens decide to secede from the currency union, there are complicated, long-term reasons for a weak euro.
One analyst suggests to EUbusiness.com that the fact that the ECB has basically eliminated interest rates is adding so much to the picture that it is time to talk about a European recovery:
The ECB’s version of so-called quantitative easing has already decreased government borrowing prices across most of the currency bloc and weakened the euro, which should help to boost exports in Europe. “For the first time in two years, we can say that the region is going for solid growth,” Anna Maria Grimaldi, an economist at Intesa Sanpaolo SpA in Milan, told Bloomberg News. “The euro area is supported by the very strong tailwinds of the fall of the euro, the fall of oil prices and the fall of interest rates sparked by ECB QE.”
However, as I explained last week, the zeroing of interest rates has at best led to a temporary boost in business investments. There are no signs of a permanent recovery.
I will repeat this ad nauseam: unlike the American economy, the European economy has no reason to recover.
Sweden has joined the club of runaway monetary policy. From Reuters:
Sweden shocked markets on Thursday by introducing negative interest rates, launching bond purchases and saying it could take further steps to battle falling prices. The central bank joins a list of those including the European Central Bank, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, to resort to unconventional monetary policy steps to confront an unusual combination of economic problems.
No. The Federal Reserve has reversed course. And together with The Bank of England the Fed has been helped by the fact that it is operating in an economy with moderate taxes and relatively relaxed fiscal policy. The ECB has opened the monetary flood gates in an economy that is plagued by statist austerity and more or less zero growth.
In fact, the slight uptick in economic activity in the third quarter of 2014 that I reported on earlier this week is closely correlated to the all-out liquidity bombardment that the ECB began early summer last year. On the margin there are those who will take advantage of declining interest rates. According to data from the ECB, euro-denominated loans to non-financial corporations declined noticeably in 2014. In the group of loans with a 5-10 year rate fixation, the interest on loans above 1 million euros fell by more than one percentage point, from 2.9 percent to 1.73 percent. Other collateral loan categories saw smaller declines, but the downward trend is unmistakable.
It is likely that the same thing will happen in Sweden; the question is what effect lower interest rates will have on economic activity. In the EU, gross fixed capital formation – a.k.a., business investments – did actually increase in 2014. However, broken down by quarter, the annual growth rate (i.e., over the same quarter the previous year) looks much different:
- Q1 2014 up 3.78 percent;
- Q2 2014 up 2.35 percent;
- Q3 2014 up 1.86 percent.
In other words, the largest annual increase was recorded before the ECB declared a negative interest rate. It remains to be seen what happened in the fourth quarter, but even if there was an increase somewhere in the same territory as earlier in 2014, the big question is what the lasting impact is going to be on GDP growth and employment. One indicator of this is private consumption, which seems to have benefited a bit more from the ECB’s desperate interest rate cuts. Again measured as annual increases by quarter:
- Q1 2014 up 0.68 percent;
- Q2 2014 up 1.27 percent;
- Q3 2014 up 1.4 percent.
For the two years Q3 2012 to Q3 2014 the annual increase was, on average, 0.3 percent. Nothing to be jubilant about, but the modestly accelerating trend during 2014 indicates a stabilization (rather than some sort of genuine recovery).
What does this mean for Sweden? The problem with that particular country is that its private-consumption increase is inflated by recklessly high household debt levels. These levels, in turn, are held up by mortgage loans with absolutely irresponsible terms, such as interest-only payments or basically life-long maturity periods. As I explained in my book Industrial Poverty, if Swedish household debt had remained a constant share of disposable income from 2000 and on, its private-consumption growth rate would almost have stalled.
Put bluntly: Sweden appears to be in reasonable economic shape only because households have increased their debt as share of disposable income from 90 percent 15 years ago to 180 percent today.
What this means is, plain and simple, that it is exceptionally irresponsible to make more credit available at even lower costs. But it also means that on the margin, the Swedish Riksbank will get less new economic activity out of every negative interest point than the ECB gets; the higher the household debt, the less inclined banks are to let people pile on new debt.
Unfortunately, the Riksbank president, Mr. Stefan Ingves, does not see this problem. Reuters again:
“Should this not be enough, we want to be very clear that we are ready to do more,” said Central bank governor Stefan Ingves. “If more is needed, we are ready to make monetary policy even more expansionary.” The central bank said this would mean further repo-rate cuts, pushing out future rate hikes and increasing the purchases of government bonds or loans to companies via banks.
As the Reuters story also explains, the Riksbank is ready to move into debt monetization – unthinkable only a year ago:
The Riksbank said it would “soon” make purchases of nominal government bonds with maturities from 1 year up to around 5 years for a sum of 10 billion Swedish crowns ($1.17 billion). But with the ECB printing 60 billion euros a month in new money the Riksbank’s much more limited program may have little effect on bond yields – already at record lows. “In terms of GDP, the mini-QE program amounts to about 0.25 percent,” banking group Morgan Stanley said in a note. “Therefore, this measure should be seen more as a signal that the Riksbank is ready to do more and remain dovish for the foreseeable time.”
In other words, here again the marginal payoff is going to be small. The only exception would be if the Swedish government decides to throw out its balanced-budget rules and start a major spending drive funded by the Riksbank. This seems unthinkable today – just like negative interest rates and a QE program seemed unthinkable a year ago.
Quantitative Easing is not a recession remedy. It is a defensive monetary strategy. So is the negative interest rate. Together, these two measures declare that a government and its central bank has reached the end of the road in trying to get their economy moving again. The big problem for Europe, Sweden included, is that they have come to this point almost seven years after the Great Recession started. With a recovery being half-a-decade overdue, with tapped-out monetary policy and fiscal policies restrained by ill-designed balanced-budget measures, Europe is firmly planted on the road straight into industrial poverty.
Sweden, with its imbalanced real estate market and very deeply indebted households, is on the same road, only with a more volatile ride.
With third-quarter GDP data available we can now get an updated view of the government debt situation across the economically stagnant European Union.
For the first time in years there is actually a little bit of good news on the horizon. But before we get there, let us look at member-state debt ratios as of third quarter last year:
|Third quarter 2014|
Debt ratios appear to be plateauing. From the third quarter of 2012 to Q3 2013, seven member states decreased their debt ratios; from Q3 2013 to Q3 2014 eight countries experienced a decline. The following table reports changes in percentage points; for example, in Austria the debt ratio increased from 82.4 percent in Q3 2012 to 84.1 percent in Q3 2013 – a difference of 1.7 percent:
|Debt ratio changes, third quarters|
|12 to 13||13 to 14|
For the EU-28 as a whole the debt ratio has increased from 83.4 percent in 2012 to 86.6 percent in 2014. Euro-18 has seen a similar upward trend.
However, if we review the data on a quarter-to-quarter basis, things look a bit more optimistic. For the EU-28 there is a small decrease, from 87 percent in Q2 2014 to 86.6 percent in Q3 2014. The same marginal decline is visible in 18 member states. In eleven of them the decline is only marginal, i.e., less than one percentage point, an fact that is important to keep in mind.
That said, it would make sense that the debt ratio is stabilizing across Europe. The statist austerity measures applied in several countries the past 2-4 years have cut spending and increased taxes – not to reduce the size of government, but to make the welfare state more affordable in a new era of economic stagnation. Those measures have now re-aligned the welfare state with a smaller, non-growing GDP.
Greece appears to have achieved this alignment. Their debt ratio fell, quarter to quarter, for the first time since before the Great Recession:
It is far too early to actually conclude that the debt ratios have stabilized. However, this first indication, embedded in third-quarter data, is encouraging in the sense that the crisis is over and an era of less-worse stagnation has begun.
What these numbers do not show, though, is any sign of a turnaround in the European economy. Less inflation, GDP growth remains in one-percent territory, which is actually worse than in 2011.
Lacking the economic and political willpower to recover, Europe has opted for the second-best alternative: economic stagnation and industrial poverty.
My good friend Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has often spoken well of tax and spending reforms in the Baltic states. While we are in some disagreement on the extent to which these reforms have paid off, Tanner is absolutely right in that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have shown comparatively strong fortitude in parting with the straight-line statism that holds so much of the rest of Europe in its grip. And he definitely makes a good point in that those countries are good examples for the rest of Europe to follow.
Today, Estonia makes yet another contribution to the debate over what direction Europe should take. In an opinion piece for the EU Observer, the small, proud Baltic nation’s former Prime Minister and former Vice President of the European Commission, Siim Kallas outlines his case against the European corporate income tax:
The European Central Bank (ECB) recently announced it would buy various securities in order to inject more than €1 trillion into the European economy. This move was long expected to counter exceedingly low consumer prices and the euro’s high exchange rate vis-a-vis the currencies of our main trade partners. The European Commission is also developing a €315 billion investment package in the European transport, IT, and energy infrastructure sectors. Both moves can help restore growth in the European economy. But what about structural reforms?
Mr. Kallas is on to something here. Europe’s problems are structural and require far-reaching reforms to so called economic institutions: permanent government spending programs; taxes; regulations that otherwise govern economic behavior. While his interest in institutional – structural – reform is limited to the tax system, it is nevertheless encouraging to see an emerging debate over any part of the European economic structure. It raises the level of attention from the immediate political attention span toward the horizon of tomorrow.
Mr. Kallas again:
Structural reforms have so far been limited to the austerity programmes forced on euro countries with debt and budgetary troubles who couldn’t have avoided default without EU help. They are, understandably, extremely unpopular. At the same time, European businesses, which are, in historical terms, a pro-European force, have voiced frustration over ever-multiplying regulations and shrinking market freedoms. So how about taking some big steps to encourage entrepreneurship and to stimulate the private sector?
Before we continue, it is worth noting that the “European businesses” that Mr. Kallas refers to, have in good part been for the so called European project because it has given them competition-harming legislative influence. Many of the product regulations that have come out of Brussels in the past 20 years have been of such a kind that they have benefited certain businesses at the expense of their competitors. British Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage often makes this point.
By supporting the “European project”, Big Business in Europe have endorsed a government machine that is now slowly turning on them. The same thing has happened here in the United States, which under the Obama administration has led many large corporate donors to back off from Democrats and other statists. Thanks to our much more dynamic political system, we have already seen the tide turn against big, onerous government.
Europe, on the other hand, is still moving in the wrong direction. Mr. Kallas sees this and definitely understands what the consequences are. Whether or not he can get through to big, lobbying corporations and rally their support – well, that remains to be seen. He seems hopeful, though, and he has a good, tangible idea that could resonate in the right places, namely the abolishment of the corporate income tax. Currently, the political trend is toward so called harmonization of the corporate income tax through something called the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base. However, says, Mr. Kallas:
More market-oriented policymakers, especially those in economically more successful countries, fear harmonisation is designed to lead to higher taxes. … Many people say big corporations should make big contributions to national treasuries for political reasons, for the sake of social justice. But perhaps they could make a better contribution by creating jobs and decent salaries. In reality, budget revenues from corporate income tax are moderate due to a mixed set of exemptions and derogations.
A very good point. According to OECD tax data, as a government revenue source the personal income tax is three to five times as important as the corporate income tax. In the four biggest euro-zone economies, corporate income tax revenue varies from 1.8 percent of GDP in Germany to three percent in Italy. British and American corporate income tax revenues claim, respectively, 2.5 and 2.3 percent of GDP.
That is not a whole lot of money. However, the termination of the corporate income tax would leave hundreds of billions of euros in the private sector: if corporate income tax revenue equals 2.5 percent of total EU-28 GDP, then its abolition would allow businesses to keep 330 billion euros more per year. While in the current economic climate they would be reluctant to immediately put all of that money to good use, it would be a major boost to their confidence over time.
Just to illustrate the potential magnitude of a confidence boost: 330 billion euros is approximately 14 percent of total gross fixed capital formation in the European Union. This is equivalent to a $454 billion cash injection into American businesses.
Long story short: Mr. Kallas’s idea is very good. The only problem is that Europe’s consumers sorely lack confidence. Their eagerness to buy what Europe’s businesses produce is not going to go up because the corporate income tax is terminated. That said, if there was an improvement in consumer confidence, the corporate response would be solid and in itself reinvigorate private-sector confidence.
The real kicker here would be a combination of an abolished corporate income tax, a structured exit from the welfare state and tax cuts targeted for households – primarily the VAT. That would most certainly revive the European economy and return the continent to global prosperity leadership.
Mr. Kallas is on the right track. Let’s hope he keeps going and that others join him.
Today it is time to review in more detail the latest national accounts data from Eurostat. A disaggregation of the spending side of GDP reinforces my long-standing statement: the European economy is in a state of long-term stagnation.
To the numbers. We begin with private consumption, which is the driving force of all economic activity. It is not only a national-accounts category, but an indicator of how free and prosperous private citizens are to satisfy their own needs on their own terms. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic freedom that private consumption is the dominant absorption category.
Once consumer spending starts ticking up solidly, we can safely say there is a recovery under way. However, little is happening on the consumption front: over the past eight quarters (ending with Q3 2014) the private-consumption growth rate for the EU has been 0.3 percent per year. While the increase was stronger in 2014 than in 2013, only half of the EU member states experienced a growth in consumer spending of two percent or more in the last year. The three largest euro-zone countries, Germany, France and Italy, were all at 1.2 percent or less.
One bright spot in the consumption data: Greece, Spain and Portugal, the three member states that have been hit the hardest by statist austerity, now have an annual consumption growth rate well above 2.5 percent. Portugal has been above two percent for three quarters in a row; a closer look at these three countries is merited.
Overall, though, the statist-austerity policies during the Great Recession have caused a structural shift in the European economy that may be hard to reverse. From having been a consumer-based economy with strong exports, the EU has now basically been transformed into an exports-driven economy. On average, gross exports is larger as share of GDP than private consumption.
In theory, one could argue that this is a sign of free-market trade where people and businesses choose to buy what they want and need from abroad instead. I would be inclined to agree – but only in theory. In practice, if households and businesses freely made their choices on a global market, then rising exports would correlate with rising imports and, most importantly, rising private consumption. However, that is not the case in Europe. On average for the 28 EU member states,
- Exports has increased from an unweighted average of 59 percent of GDP in 2007 to an unweighted average of 70 percent in 2014;
- Net exports has also increases, from zero in 2007 (indicating trade balance) to six percent of GDP in 2014 (indicating a massive trade surplus).
If the rising exports had been a sign of increased participation in global trade on free-market terms, then either of two things would have happened: consumption would have increased as share of GDP or imports would have increased on par with exports. In reality, neither has happened, which leads to one of two conclusions:
- There has been a massive increase in corporate investments, which if true would indicate growing confidence in the future among Europe’s businesses; or
- Exports is the only category of the economy that is allowed to grow because it is not subject to the tight spending restrictions imposed by austerity.
Gross fixed capital formation, or “investments” as it is often casually referred to, was an unweighted average of 26 percent in the EU member states in 2007. Seven years later it had fallen to 21 percent. This is clearly a vote of no confidence from corporate Europe. Therefore, only one explanation remains: the discrepancy between on the one hand the rise in gross and net exports and, on the other hand, stagnant private consumption and a declining investment share, is the result of a fiscal policy driven by statist austerity.
The purpose of fiscal policy in Europe since at least the beginning of the Great Recession has been to balance the government budget at any cost. If this statist austerity leads to a painful decline in household consumption or corporate investments, then so be it. As shown by the numbers reported here, years of statist austerity have depressed corporate activity. In fixed prices, gross fixed capital formation in the EU has not increased since 2011:
- In the third quarter of 2011 businesses invested for 607.8 billion euros;
- In the third quarter of 2014 they invested for 602 billion euros.
The bottom line here is that the only form of economic activity that brings any kind of growth to the European economy is – you guessed it – exports. But it is not just any exports. It is exports outside of the EU. How do we know that? Because of the following two tables. First, the average annual private-consumption growth rate, reported quarterly, for the past eight quarters (ending Q3 2014):
|Private consumption growth|
With private consumption growing at less than one percent in 19 out of 28 countries, households in the EU do not form a good market for foreign exporters.
Things a not really better in the category of business investments:
|Gross fixed capital formation|
What this means, in plain English, is that the European economy still is not pulling itself out of its recession.
But is it not possible that things have changed recently? After all, the time series analyzed here end with the third quarter of 2014. There is always that possibility, but one indication that the answer is negative is the latest report on euro-zone inflation. From EU Business:
Eurozone consumer prices fell by a record 0.6 percent in January, EU data showed Friday, confirming deflation could be taking hold and putting pressure on a historic bond-buying plan by the ECB to deliver. The drop from minus 0.2 percent in December appears to back the European Central Bank’s decision last week to launch a bond-buying spree to drive up prices. Plummeting world oil prices were largely to blame for the fall in the 19-country eurozone, already beset by weak economic growth and high unemployment, the EU’s data agency Eurostat said.
If the EU governments let declining oil prices trickle down to consumers – and avoid raising taxes in response – there could be a positive reaction in private consumption. However, lower gasoline and home heating costs will not be enough to turn around the European economy.
More on that later, though. For now, the conclusion is that Europe is going nowhere.
Recently Eurostat released national accounts data for the third quarter of 2014. Here is a review of those numbers in the context of historical GDP data. All growth rates are in 2005 chained prices.
First, the growth rates of 28-member EY and 18-member euro zone:
The real annual growth rate of the EU-28 GDP is 1.51 percent, compared to 1.34 percent in Q2 of 2014 and 1.61 percent in Q1. Euro-zone growth is markedly lower – for first, second and third quarters of last year, respectively: 1.08, 0.65 and 0.79 percent. The difference between the euro zone and the EU-28 is primarily the work of a recovery in the British economy. In the three quarters of 2014, Britain saw its GDP growth at 1.8, 3.6 and 3.2 percent, respectively. If we subtract the U.K. economy from the EU-28 GDP, the European growth rates for 2014 fall to (with actual rates in parentheses) 1.58 (1.61), 0.89 (1.34) and 1.17 (1.51) percent. A distinct difference, in other words.
As the aforementioned numbers report, there is not much to be joyful of inside the euro zone. There are member states with strong growth, but they tend to be of marginal importance for the entire zone. In the third quarter of 2014 the strongest-growing euro-zone countries were Luxembourg (3.99 percent over Q3 2013), Malta (3.82) and Ireland (3.54). By contrast, the three largest euro economies have a tough time growing at all: Germany (1.24 percent over Q3 2013) and France (0.24) kept their nose above water, while third-largest Italy saw its GDP decline by half a percent.
Here is the growth history of the three largest euro-zone economies:
We will have to wait and see what the new Greek government will do to the future of the euro and the confidence of private-sector agents in the European economy. With Syriza teaming up with a distinctly nationalist party, the message out of Athens could not be stronger: Greece is off on a new course, and it won’t be with the best interests of the euro zone in mind.
There is a lot more to be said about these GDP numbers. It will be very interesting to look at what sectors are driving whatever growth there is – and which ones are contracting. I suspect that exports will play a larger role than domestic demand. Hopefully I am wrong, because if I am correct it means that there is still no change in overall private-sector confidence in the euro zone. But that remains to be seen; I will return to this dissemination of Europe’s national accounts as soon as possible.
Only a couple of days after the European Central Bank raised white flag and finally gave up its attempts at defending the euro as a strong, global currency, Greek voters drove their own dagger through the heart of the euro. Reports The Telegraph:
Greece set itself on a collision course with the rest of Europe on Sunday night after handing a stunning general election victory to a far-Left party that has pledged to reject austerity and cancel the country’s billions of pounds in debt. In a resounding rebuff to the country’s loss of financial sovereignty, With 92 per cent of the vote counted, Greeks gave Syriza 36.3 percent of the vote – 8.5 points more than conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
That is about six percent more than most polls predicted. But even worse than their voter share is how the parliamentary system distributes mandates. The Telegraph again:
It means they will be able to send between 149 and 151 MPs to the 300-seat parliament, putting them tantalisingly close to an outright majority. The final result was too close to call – if they win 150 seats or fewer, they will have to form a coalition with one of several minor parties. … Syriza is now likely to become the first anti-austerity party in Europe to form a government. … The election victory threatens renewed turmoil in global markets and throws Greece’s continued membership of the euro zone into question. All eyes will be on the opening of world financial markets on Monday, although fears of a “Grexit” – Greece having to leave the euro – and a potential collapse of the currency has been less fraught than during Greece’s last general election in 2012.
It does not quite work that way. The euro is under compounded pressure from many different elements, one being the Greek economic crisis. The actions by the ECB themselves have done at least as much to undermine the euro: its pledge last year to buy all treasury bonds from euro-zone governments that the market wanted to sell was a de facto promise to monetize euro-denominated government debt. The EU constitution, in particular its Stability and Growth Pact, explicitly forbids debt and deficit monetization. By so blatantly violating the constitution, the ECB undermined its own credibility.
Now the ECB has announced that in addition to debt monetization, it will monetize new deficit. That was the essence of the message this past Thursday. The anti-constitutionality of its own policies was thereby solidified; when the Federal Reserve ran its multi-year Quantitative Easing program it never violated anything other than sound economic principles. If the ECB so readily violates the Stability and Growth Pact, then who is to say it won’t violate any other of its firmly declared policy goals? When euro-zone inflation eventually climbs back to two percent – the ECB’s target value – how can global investors trust the ECB to then turn on anti-inflationary policies?
Part of the reason for the Stability and Growth Pact was that the architects of the European Union wanted to avoid runaway monetary policy, a phenomenon Europeans were all too familiar with from the 1960s and ’70s. Debt and deficit monetization is a safe way to such runaway money printing. What reasons do we have, now, to believe that the ECB will stick to its anti-inflationary pledge when the two-percent inflation day comes?
This long-winded explanation is needed as a background to the effects that the Syriza victory may have on the euro. I am the first to conclude that those effects will be clearly and unequivocally negative, but as a stand-alone problem for the ECB the Greek hard-left turn is not enough. In a manner of speaking, the ECB is jeopardizing the future of the euro by having weakened the currency with reckless monetary expansionism to the point where a single member-state election can throw the future of the entire currency union into doubt.
Exactly how the end of the euro will play out remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is that Thursday’s deficit-monetization announcement and the Greek election victory together put the euro under lethal pressure. The deficit-monetization pledge is effectively a blank check to countries like Greece to go back to the spend-to-the-end heydays. Since the ECB now believes that more deficit spending is good for the economy, it has handed Syriza an outstanding argument for abandoning the so-deeply hated austerity policies that the ECB, the EU and the IMF have imposed on the country. The Telegraph again:
[Syriza], a motley collection of communists, Maoists and socialists, wants to roll back five years of austerity policies and cancel a large part of Greece’s 320 billion euro debt, which at more than 175 per cent of GDP is the world’s second highest proportional to the size of the economy after Japan. … If they fulfil the threats, Greece’s membership of the euro zone could be in peril. Mr Tsipras has toned down the anti-euro rhetoric he used during Greece’s last election in 2012 and now insists he wants Greece to stay in the euro zone. Austerity policies imposed by the EU and International Monetary Fund have produced deep suffering, with the economy contracting by a quarter, youth unemployment rising to 50 per cent and 200,000 Greeks leaving the country.
Youth unemployment was up to 60 percent at the very depth of the depression. Just a detail. The Telegraph concludes by noting that:
Mr Tsipras has pledged to reverse many of the reforms that the hated “troika” of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank have imposed, including privatisations of state assets, cuts to pensions and a reduction of the minimum wage. But the creditors have insisted they will hold Greece to account and expect it to stick to its austerity programmes, heralding a potentially explosive showdown.
Again, with the ECB’s own Quantitative Easing program it becomes politically and logically impossible for the Bank and its two “troika” partners to maintain that Greece should continue with austerity. You cannot laud government deficit spending with one side of your mouth while criticizing it with the other.
As a strictly macroeconomic event, the ECB’s capitulation on austerity is not bad for Greece. The policies were not designed to lift the economy out of the ditch. They were designed to make big government more affordable to a shrinking private-sector economy. However, a return to government spending on credit is probably the only policy strategy that could possibly have even worse long-term effects than statist austerity.
Unfortunately, it looks like that is exactly where Greece is heading. Syriza’s “vision” of reversing years of welfare-state spending cuts is getting a lot of support from various corners of Europe’s punditry scene. For example, in an opinion piece at Euractiv.com, Marianna Fotaki, professor of business ethics at University of Warwick, England, claims that the Syriza victory gives Europe a chance to “rediscover its social responsibility”:
Greece’s entire economy accounts for three per cent of the eurozone’s output, but its national debt totals €360 billion or 175 per cent of the country’s GDP and poses a continuous threat to its survival. While the crippling debt cannot realistically be paid back in full, the troika of the EU, European Central Bank, and IMF insist that the drastic cuts in public spending must continue. But if Syriza is successful – as the polls suggest – it promises to renegotiate the terms of the bailout and ask for substantial debt forgiveness, which could change the terms of the debate about the future of the European project.
As I explained recently, so called “debt forgiveness” means that private-sector investors lose the same amount of money. The banks that received such generous bailouts earlier in the Great Recession had made substantial investments in Greek government debt. Would Professor Fotaki like to see those same banks lose even more money? With the new bank-rescue feature introduced as the Cyprus Bank Heist, such losses would lead to confiscation of the savings that regular families have deposited in their savings accounts.
Would professor Fotaki consider that that to be an ethically acceptable consequence of her desired Greek debt “forgiveness”?
Professor Fotaki then goes on a long tirade to make the case for more income redistribution within the euro zone:
The immense social cost of the austerity policies demanded by the troika has put in question the political and social objectives of an ‘ever closer union’ proclaimed in the EU founding documents. … Since the economic crisis of 2007 … GDP per capita and gross disposable household incomes have declined across the EU and have not yet returned to their pre-crisis levels in many countries. Unemployment is at record high levels, with Greece and Spain topping the numbers of long-term unemployed youth. There are also deep inequalities within the eurozone. Strong economies that are major exporters have benefitted from free trade, and the fixed exchange rate mechanism protecting their goods from price fluctuations. But the euro has hurt the least competitive economies by depriving them of a currency flexibility that could have been used to respond to the crisis. Without substantial transfers between weaker and stronger economies, which accounts for only 1.13 per cent of the EU’s budget at present, there is no effective mechanism for risk sharing among the member states and for addressing the consequences of the crisis in the eurozone.
In other words, Europe’s welfare statists will continue to blame the common currency for the consequences of statist austerity. But while professor Fotaki does have a point that the euro zone is not nearly an optimal currency area, the problems that she blames on the euro zone are not the fault of the common currency. Big government is a problem wherever it exists; in the case of the euro zone, big government has caused substantial deficits that, in turn, the European political leadership did not want to accept – and the European constitution did not allow. To battle those deficits the EU, the ECB and the IMF imposed harsh austerity policies on Greece among several other countries. But countries can subject themselves to those policies without being part of a currency union: Denmark in the 1980s is one example, Sweden in the ’90s another. (I have an entire chapter on the Swedish ’90s crisis in my book Industrial Poverty.) The problem is the structurally unaffordable welfare state, not the currency union.
Professor Fotaki again:
The member states that benefitted from the common currency should lead in offering meaningful support, rather than decimating their weaker members in a time of crisis by forcing austerity measures upon them. This is not denying the responsibility for reckless borrowing resting with the successive Greek governments and their supporters. However, the logic of a collective punishment of the most vulnerable groups of the population, must be rejected.
What seems to be so difficult to understand here is that austerity, as designed for Greece, was not aimed at terminating the programs that those vulnerable groups life off. It was designed to make those programs fit a smaller tax base. If Europe’s political leaders had wanted to terminate those programs and leave the poor out to dry, they would simply have terminated the programs. But their goal was instead to make the welfare state more affordable.
It is an undeniable fact that the politicians and economists who imposed statist austerity on Greece did so without being aware of the vastly negative consequences that those policies would have for the Greek economy. For example, the IMF grossly miscalculated the contractionary effects of austerity on the Greek economy, a miscalculation their chief economist Olivier Blanchard – the honorable man and scholar he is – has since explained and taken responsibility for.
Nevertheless, the macroeconomic miscalculations and misunderstandings that have surrounded statist austerity since 2010 (when it was first imposed on Greece) do not change the fact that the goal of said austerity policies was to reduce the size of government to fit a smaller economy. That was a disastrous intention, as shown by experience from the Great Recession – but it was nevertheless their goal. However, as professor Fotaki demonstrates with her own rhetoric, this point is lost on the welfare statists whose only intention now is to restore the welfare state to its pre-crisis glory:
The old poor and the rapidly growing new poor comprise significant sections of Greek society: 20 per cent of children live in poverty, while Greece’s unemployment rate has topped 20 per cent for four consecutive years now and reached almost 27 per cent in 2013. With youth unemployment above 50 per cent, many well-educated people have left the country. There is no access to free health care and the weak social safety net from before the crisis has all but disappeared. The dramatic welfare retrenchment combined with unemployment has led to austerity induced suicides and people searching for food in garbage cans in cities.
There is nothing wrong factually in this. The Greek people have suffered enormously under the heavy hand of austerity, simply because the policies that aim to save the welfare state for them also move the goal post: higher taxes and spending cuts drain the private sector of money, shrinking the very tax base that statist austerity tries to match the welfare state with.
The problem is in what the welfare statists want to do about the present situation. What will be accomplished by increasing entitlement spending again? Greek taxpayers certainly cannot afford it. Is Greece going to get back to deficit-funded spending again? Professor Fotaki gives us a clue to her answer in the opening of her article: debt forgiveness. She wants Greece to unilaterally write down its debt and for creditors to accept the write-down without protest.
The meaning of this is clear. Greece should be able to restore its welfare state to even more unaffordable levels without the constraints and restrictions imposed by economic reality. This is a passioned plea for a new debt crisis: who will lend money to a government that will unilaterally write down its debt whenever it feels it cannot pay back what it owes?
This kind of rhetoric from the emboldened European left rings of the same contempt for free-market Capitalism that once led to the creation of the modern welfare state. The welfare state, in turn, brought about debt crises in many European countries during the 1980s and ’90s, in response to which the EU created its Stability and Growth Pact. But the welfare states remained and gradually eroded the solidity of the Pact. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the European economy would have absorbed it and shrugged it off as yet another recession – just as it did in the early ’90s – had not the welfare state been there. Welfare-state created debt and deficits had already stretched the euro-zone economy thin; all it took to sink Europe into industrial poverty and permanent stagnation was a quickly unfolding recession.
Ironically, the state of stagnation has been reinforced by austerity policies that were designed in compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact; by complying with the Pact, those policies, it was said, would secure the macroeconomic future of the euro zone and keep the euro strong. Now those policies have led the ECB to a point where it has destroyed the future of its own currency.
How much time does the euro have left? That question was put on its edge last week when the Swiss National Bank decided it was no longer going to anchor the Swiss franc to the iceberg-bound euro ship. It was a wise decision for a number of reasons, the most compelling one being that the euro faces insurmountable challenges in the years ahead.
In fact, the Swiss decision was de facto a death spell for Europe’s currency union. More specifically, I noted that the euro…
survived the Greek depression of 2012 by a razor-thin margin. Now it faces three very serious threats to its own survival. The first is the upcoming Greek elections, where anti-austerity, anti-euro, pro-Hugo Chavez Syriza looks like winners. Should they emerge victorious they could very well initiate a Greek exit from the currency union. The euro would survive that, and the German government has a contingency plan in place to stabilize the euro. But then there is the Greek government debt… Syriza has openly declared that they want “debt forgiveness” for governments throughout Europe. If the drachma is reintroduced, it will very likely plummet vs. the euro, making it exceptionally difficult for Syriza to repay its loans to the EU and the ECB. A default is within the realm of the probable; remember the Greek “debt write down” three years ago.
If all the problems for the euro were tied to Greece, the currency would indeed have a future. But there are so many other challenges ahead for the common currency that nothing short of a miracle – or unprecedented political manipulation – can keep it alive through the next three years.
The biggest short-term problem – Greece aside – is the pending announcement by the ECB of its own Quantitative Easing program. Reuters reports:
The European Central Bank will announce a 600 billion euro sovereign bond buying program this week, money market traders polled by Reuters say, but they also believe this will not be enough to bring inflation up to target. In the past two months traders have consistently predicted that the ECB would undertake quantitative easing, considered the bank’s final weapon against deflation. Eighteen of 20 in Monday’s poll said the bank would announce QE on Thursday.
This highly anticipated European QE program must be viewed in its proper macroeconomic context. It is going to be very different from the American QE program. For starters, the balance between liquidity supply and liquidity demand was very different in the U.S. economy than it is in the euro zone today. After its initial plunge into the Great Recession the American economy slowly but relentlessly worked its way back to growth again. Since climbing back to growth in 2010 the U.S. GDP has grown at a rate slightly above two percent per year. This is not something to throw a party over, but it has allowed the economy to absorb much of the liquidity that the Federal Reserve has pumped into the economy.
By being able to absorb liquidity, the U.S. economy has avoided getting caught in the liquidity trap. Growth rates have been good enough to motivate businesses to increase investment-driven credit demand; households have gotten back to buying homes and automobiles (car and truck sales in 2014 were almost as good as in pre-recession 2006).
The European economy does not absorb liquidity. It is stagnant, and has been so for three years now. The ECB has pushed its bank deposit rate to -0.2 percent, in other words it is punishing banks for not lending enough money to its customers. Despite this ample supply of credit there are no signs of a recovery in the euro zone, with GDP growth having reached the one-percent rate once in three years.
In other words, the positive outlook on the future that motivates American entrepreneurs and households to absorb liquidity through credit is notably absent in the European economy. When the ECB now evidently plans to pump even more liquidity out in the economy, it appears to not understand how significant this difference is between the euro zone and the United States.
Or, to be fair, with all its highly educated economists onboard, the ECB most certainly understands what role liquidity demand plays in an economy. Its pending decision to launch a QE program appears instead to be based in open ignorance of the lack of liquidity demand.
Which leads us to ask why they would ignore it.
The answer to this question is in the declared purpose of the QE program. If it is aimed at buying treasury bonds, then the QE program clearly is not designed to re-ignite the economy, an argument otherwise used. If QE is supposed to monetize government deficits, then its purpose is really to secure the continued existence of the European welfare state. If that is the purpose, then the only safe prediction is that there will be no end to QE before the welfare state ends.
That, in turn, means the ECB would be stuck monetizing deficits for the rest of the life of the euro. Which, under such circumstances, would be a relatively short period of time…
More on this on Thursday, when the ECB is expected to announce its QE program. Stay tuned.