When do you stop talking about an economy as being in a recession, and when do you start talking about it as being in a state of permanent stagnation? How many years of microscopic growth does it take before economic stagnation becomes the new normal to people?
Since 2012 I have said that Europe is in a state of permanent economic stagnation. So far I am the only one making that analysis, but hopefully my new book will change that. After all, the real world economy provide pieces of evidence almost on a daily basis, showing that I am right. Today, e.g., the EU Observer explains:
France has all but abandoned a target to shrink its deficit, as the eurozone endured a turbulent day that raised the prospect of a triple-dip recession. Figures published by Eurostat on Thursday (14 August) indicated that the eurozone economy flatlined between April and June, while the EU-28 saw 0.2 percent growth.
I reported on this last week. These numbers are not surprising: the European economy simply has no reason to recover.
The EU Observer again:
Germany, France, and Italy … account for around two thirds of the eurozone’s output. Germany’s output fell by 0.2 percent, the same as Italy, which announced its second quarter figures last week. France recorded zero growth for the second successive quarter, while finance minister Michel Sapin suggested that the country’s deficit would exceed 4 percent this year, missing its European Commission-sanctioned 3.8 percent target.
And that target is a step back from the Stability and Growth Pact, which stipulated a deficit cap of three percent of GDP. It also puts a 60-percent-of-GDP cap on government debt, but that part seems to have been forgotten a long, long time ago.
What is really going on here is a slow but steady erosion of the Stability and Growth Pact. Over the past 6-8 months there have been a number of “suggestions” circulating the European political scene, about abolishing or at least comprehensively reforming the Pact. The general idea is that the Pact is getting in the way of government spending, needed to pull the European economy out of the recession.
No such government spending is needed. The European economy is standing still not because there is too little government spending, but because there is too much. I do not believe, however, that this insight will penetrate the policy-making circles of the European Union any time soon.
Back to the EU Observer:
In an article in Le Monde on Thursday (14 August), [French finance minister] Sapin abandoned the target, commenting that “It is better to admit what is than to hope for what won’t be.” France would cut its deficit “at an appropriate pace,” he added in a radio interview with Europe 1. … Sapin’s admission is another setback for beleaguered President Francois Hollande, who made hitting the 3 percent deficit target spelt out in the EU’s stability and growth pact by 2013 one of his key election pledges in 2012. Paris has now revised down its growth forecast from 1 percent to 0.5 percent over the whole of 2014, and cut its projection for 2015 to 1 percent from 1.7 percent.
Let me make this point again: instead of asking when the European economy is going to get back to growth again, it is time to ask if the European economy has any reason at all to get back to growth. As I explain in my new book, there is no such reason so long as the welfare state remains in place.
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.
In the May European Parliamentary elections voters expressed strong anti-EU sentiment. This sentiment was split into two main channels, one patriotic-nationalist and one socialist. Europe’s leftist political leaders have aggressively seized the momentum, emboldened in good part by strong showings in national elections in recent years (Greece, France and Italy to mention three). They are now seeking to set a new tone in Europe’s fiscal policy, with the Stability and Growth Pact in their crosshairs.
It is important to understand what this means. The socialist desire to overhaul Europe’s fiscal rules are not driven by a concern for the European economy and its permanent crisis. Instead, their goal is to do away with restrictions on deficit spending so they can get back to their favorite political pastime: growing government. They are, however, cleverly using the lack of economic recovery to their advantage.
Before we get to the details of this, let us first note that – just as I have said over and over again – there is no recovery underway in Europe:
Eurozone business activity slipped for the second month running in June, a closely watched survey showed on Monday, with France leading the fall and possibly heading to recession. Suggesting a modest recovery could be stalling, Markit Economics said its Eurozone Composite Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) for June, a leading indicator of overall economic activity, slipped to 52.8 points from 53.5 in May. The data showed that growth remained robust in Germany, despite weakening slightly, but that the downturn deepened in France, the country generating the most worry in the 18-member currency bloc. “Once again, the bad news in June came largely from France,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank. Business activity in France slumped to 48.0 points from 49.3 points, pushing even lower below the 50-point line which marks the difference between expansion and shrinkage of the economy.
France is the second largest economy in the euro zone, with 21.5 percent of the zone’s total GDP. It is also the second largest economy in the EU, measured in euros, edging out Britain by eight percent. For this reason alone, a downturn in France is going to affect the entire euro area and, though obviously to a lesser degree, the entire EU economy.
However, as the EU Business story continues, we learn that France is not the only culprit here:
The June PMI rounded off the strongest quarter for three years, but a concern is that a second consecutive monthly fall in the index signals that the eurozone recovery is losing momentum,” Williamson said. The currency bloc excluding heavyweights France and Germany “is seeing the strongest growth momentum at the moment, highlighting how the periphery is recovering,” he added. Germany’s PMI stood well into expansion territory, but at 54.2 points, slightly lower than 56.1 points reached the previous month. “Despite the further drop in the overall Eurozone composite PMI, the index remains comfortably in growth territory,” said Martin van Vliet of ING. But the PMI slip “vindicates the ECB’s recent decision to implement further monetary easing and will keep fears of a Japanification of Europe firmly alive,” he said.
See I told you so. I stand firmly behind my long-term prediction that Europe’s crisis is not a protracted recession but a permanent state of economic affairs. Europe is in a permanent state of stagnation and will remain there for as long as they insist on keeping their welfare states.
This is where the surging socialists come back into the picture. The last thing they would do is admit that government is too big. Instead, they are now hard at work to do away with the restrictions on deficit spending that the EU Constitution has put in place, also known as the Stability and Growth Pact. Or, as explained in a story from the EU Observer:
The European Commission and government ministers will re-assess the bloc’s rules on deficit and debt limits by the end of 2014, the eurozone’s lead official has said. But Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chairs the monthly meeting of the eurozone’s 18 finance ministers, insisted that the terms be kept to for now. “All the ministers stressed the importance to stick to the rules as they are now,” he told a news conference in Luxembourg on Thursday (19 June). “At the end of the year… we will look at whether we can make them less complex.” The EU’s stability and growth pact requires governments to keep budget deficits below 3 percent and debt levels to 60 percent. It has also been stiffened in the wake of the eurozone debt crisis to make it easier for the commission to impose reforms and, ultimately sanctions, on reluctant governments. But the effectiveness of the regime has been called into question this week. Germany’s economy minister Sigmar Gabriel appeared to distance himself from his country’s long-standing commitment to budgetary austerity on Monday, commenting that “no one wants higher debt, but we can only cut the deficit by slowly returning to economic growth.” Critics say that the 3 percent deficit limit enshrines austerity and prevents governments from putting in place stimulus measures to ease the pain of economic recession and boost demand.
It is interesting to compare this to statements from the IMF earlier this month. The IMF does not – at least not explicitly – want to give room for expanded government spending. But government expansionism is the underlying agenda when the EU Commission and other political leaders in Europe start questioning the debt and deficit rules if the Stability and Growth Pact. According to the prevailing wisdom among Europe’s leftists the Pact has driven austerity which in turn has reduced government spending. While they are correct in that regard, they do not mention that the same austerity measures have increased the presence of government in the other end, namely in the form of higher taxes. They obviously do not have a problem with higher taxes, but to them it is politically more advantageous to point solely at the spending side of the equation.
In short, the new leftist attack on the Pact’s debt and deficit rules seeks to cast the rules as not only having damaged the European welfare state but also as preventing future government expansion:
The Italian premier [Democratic Socialist Matteo Renzi] is a key player in delicate negotiations among EU leaders on the next president of the European Commission, who also needs the EP’s endorsement. The assembly’s socialist group, where the PD is the largest delegation, has expressed readiness to support Merkel’s candidate – former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker – if he accepts a looser interpretation of EU budget rules. “Whoever is running to lead the EU commission should first tell us what he intends to do for growth and jobs. Rules must be applied with a minimum of common sense,” Renzi said last week, while his point man for the EU presidency, undersecretary Sandro Gozi, suggested that the EU had “worried a lot about the Stability Pact”, forgetting that “its full name is ‘Stability and Growth Pact’, not just ‘Stability Pact’”.
Interestingly, the left has gained such a momentum in their attack on the Stability and Growth Pact that they are beginning to rock support for it even among its core supporters. The EU Observer again:
On Monday, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel echoed Italian arguments by suggesting that countries adopting reforms that are costly in the short term, but beneficial in the long run, could win some form of budget discipline exemption. But his proposal was immediately shot down by Merkel’s right-hand man, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. Daniel Gros, the German-born director of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels think-tank, thinks Renzi could get his way as long as he delivers on his domestic reform pledges. “If he manages not just to announce them, but also get them approved by parliament and implemented on the ground, he would have a lot of cards in hands,” Gros says. He agrees it is a question of reinterpreting, rather than changing EU budget rules.
Renzi has made it clear that he wants to see increased budget flexibility under EU rules, a condition for him to back Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president. The Italian PM wants productive investments to be removed from deficit calculations. Padoan said this month that reforms undertaken should be factored in the way budget deficits are calculated.
There is no mistaking the confidence behind the left’s attempts at doing away with the Stability and Growth Pact, or at least disarming it. So far it has been political kätzerei in Germany to even raise questions about the debt and deficit rules. But as another story from Euractiv reports, that is beginning to change:
German Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel has advocated giving crisis-ridden countries more time to get their budgets in order, triggering a debate in Germany and rumours of a divide within Germany’s grand coalition over its course for EU stability policy. … “We are in agreement: There is no necessity to change the Stability Pact,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday (18 June). The Chancellor and Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel deflected accusations on Wednesday that there is a rift within the German government over changes to Europe’s Stability and Growth Pact. The two were clear that they are in agreement over the fact that the pact does not need to be altered. Rumours of dissent came on Monday (16 June) after Gabriel said countries should be given more time to fix their budgets in exchange for carrying out reforms, while speaking in Toulouse, France. Countries like France and Italy have been struggling with the strict conditions of the Stability Pact for some time now and continue to call for more flexibility and time. Gabriel’s initiative seeks to accommodate these concerns, a proposal that originally came from the family of social democratic parties in Europe. The French and Italian governments are run by parties belonging to this group.
The problem with the left’s aggressive assault on the Pact is not that the Pact itself is good. It is not. It is constructed by artificially defined debt and deficit limits with no real macroeconomic merit to them. No, the problem is that the left wants to be able to grow government even more, in an economy that already has the largest government sector in the world. Doing so would only reinforce Europe’s stagnation, its transformation into an economic wasteland – and its future as the world’s most notorious example of industrial poverty.
Big news. The IMF wants Europe to focus less on saving government from a crisis that government created, and to focus more on getting the economy growing again. From a practical viewpoint this is a small step, but it is nevertheless a step in the right direction.
Politically, though, it is a big leap forward. Two years after the Year of the Fiscal Plague in Europe, the public debate on how to get the continent growing again is beginning to turn in the right direction.
The EU’s rules on cutting national budget deficits discourage public investment and “imply procyclicality,” prolonging the effects of a recession, a senior IMF official has said. Speaking on Tuesday (10 June) at the Brussels Economic Forum, Reza Moghadam said that reducing national debt piles should be the focus of the EU’s governance regime, adding that the rules featured “too many operational targets” and a “labyrinth of rules that is difficult to communicate.” “Debt dynamics i.e., the evolution of the debt-GDP ratio, should be the single fiscal anchor, and a measure of the structural balance the single operational target,” said Moghadam, who heads the Fund’s European department.
Let’s slow down a second and see what he is actually saying. When the Great Recession broke out full force in 2009 the IMF teamed up with the EU and the European Central Bank to form an austerity troika. Their fiscal crosshairs were fixed on Greece and other countries with large and uncontrollable budget deficits. The troika put Greece through two very tough austerity programs, with a total fiscal value of eleven percent of GDP.
Imagine government spending cuts of $800 billion and tax increases of $1 trillion in the United States, executed in less than three years. This is approximately the composition of the austerity packages imposed on the Greek economy in 2010-2012. No doubt it had negative effects on macroeconomic activity – especially the tax increases. But the econometricians at the IMF were convinced that they knew what they were doing.
Until the fall of 2012. I have not been able to establish exactly what made the IMF rethink its Greek austerity strategy, but that does not really matter. What is important is that their chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, stepped in and published an impressive mea-culpa paper in January 2013. The gist of the paper was an elaborate explanation of how the IMF’s econometricians had under-estimated the negative effects on the economy from contractionary fiscal measures – in plain English spending cuts and tax increases.
The under-estimation may seem small for anyone reading the paper, but when translated into jobs lost and reduction in GDP the effects of the IMF’s mistake look completely different. It is entirely possible that the erroneous estimation of the fiscal multiplier is responsible for as much as eight of the 20 percent of the Greek GDP that has vanished since 2008 thanks to austerity.
This means that by doing sloppy macroeconomics, some econometricians at the IMF have inflicted painful harm on millions of Greeks and destroyed economic opportunities for large groups of young in Greece. I am not even going to try to estimate how large the responsibility of the IMF is for Greece’s 60-percent youth unemployment, but there is no doubt that the Fund is the main fiscal-policy culprit in this real-time Greek tragedy.
Despite the hard facts and inescapable truth of the huge econometric mistake, the IMF in general, and chief economist Olivier Blanchard in particular, deserve kudos for accepting responsibility and doing their best to avoid this happening again. Their new proposal for simplified fiscal-policy rules in the EU is a step in this direction, and it is the right step to take.
Back to the EU Observer story:
“The rules are still overlapping, over specified and detract focus from the overall aim of debt sustainability,” he said. The bloc’s stability pact drafted in the early 1990s, and reinforced by the EU’s new governance regime, requires governments to keep to a maximum deficit of 3 percent and a debt to GDP ratio of 60 percent. However, six years after the start of the financial crisis, the average debt burden has swelled to just under 90 percent of economic output, although years of prolonged budget austerity has succeeded in reducing the average deficit exactly to the 3 percent limit.
Yes, because that was the only goal of austerity. The troika – especially the EU and the ECB – did not care what happened to the rest of the economy. All they wanted was a balanced budget. The consequences not only for Greece, but for Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and even the Czech Republic have been enormous in terms of lost jobs, higher taxes, stifled entrepreneurship, forfeited growth…
I believe this is what the IMF is beginning to realize. The European Parliament election results in May put the entire political establishment in Europe on notice, and the IMF watched and learned. They have connected the dots: austerity has made life worse in Europe; when voters see their future be depressed by zero growth, high unemployment and a rat race of costlier government and lost private-sector opportunities, they turn to desperate political solutions.
When people are looking ahead and all they see is an economic wasteland, they will follow the first banner that claims to lead them around that wasteland. Fascists and communists have learned to prey on the desperation that has taken a firm grip on Europe’s families. But the prospect of a President Le Pen in 2017 – a President Le Pen that pulls France out of the euro – has dialed up the panic meter yet another notch.
In short: the IMF now wants Europe’s governments to replace the balanced-budget goal with fiscal policy goals that, in their view, could make life better for the average European family. The hope is that they will then regain confidence in the EU project and reject extremist alternatives. I do not believe they can pull it off, especially since they appear to want to preserve, even open for a restoration of, the European welfare state.
EU Observer again:
[Critics] … argue that the [current fiscal] regime is inflexible and forces governments to slash public spending when it is most needed at the height of a recession. “Fiscal frameworks actively discourage investment….and imply pro-cyclicality and tightening at the most difficult times,” commented Morghadam, who noted that “they had to be de facto suspended during the crisis.” Procyclical policies are seen as those which accentuate economic or financial conditions, as opposed to counter-cyclical measures which can stimulate economic output through infrastructure spending during a recession.
All of this, taken piece by piece, is correct. The problem is the implied conclusion, namely that you can do counter-cyclical fiscal policy with the big government Europe has. You cannot do that. The confectionary measures at the top of a business cycle simply become too large, too fast. The reason is that taxes and entitlements are constructed in such a way that they redistribute income and resources between citizens on a structural basis. If you use this structure as a measure to stabilize a business cycle you will inevitably reinforce the work-discouraging features of high marginal income taxes at the top of the cycle, but you won’t weaken work-discouraging entitlements at the same point in time. The combination of work-discouraging incentives then accelerate the downturn.
Long story short, if you attempt to use a modern welfare state is not suited for countercyclical fiscal policy, you will end up with weaker growth periods and stronger recessions. Exactly the pattern we have seen over the past quarter-century or so in Europe, and to a lesser degree over the past 15 years in the United States.
The only viable route forward for Europe – and long-term for the United States as well – is to do away with the welfare state. Until we get there, though, this rule change, proposed by the IMF, would be a small step in the right direction. It would ease the austerity pressure, take focus away from attempts at saving government and putting the political spotlight on the need to restore the private sector of the European economy.
There is an ongoing debate here in the United States about our federal debt. Obviously, we cannot keep raising the debt-to-GDP ratio, and although the federal deficit has shrunk dramatically in the past couple of years, there is a strong likelihood that we will return to growing deficits some time beyond 2018. This obviously means that the debt will accelerate again; what will happen to the debt ratio is a question for future inquiry.
As things look now, the U.S. economy is slowly rising out of the recession at growth rates 2-3 times what the Europeans are seeing. That is somewhat good news when it comes to our debt ratio, a variable that has more than symbolic meaning. Countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios pay more on their debts than countries with low ratios. The reason is simple: a country with a low debt ratio is more likely to have enough of a tax base to both fund its current spending and meet its debt obligations. GDP, obviously, is the broadest possible tax base, so the larger it is relative government debt, the safer it is to buy a country’s Treasury bonds.
The next step in this reasoning would be to ask if the debt ratio itself has any relation to GDP growth itself. In other words, does the burden of government debt on an economy slow down its growth? If the answer is yes, then rising debt creates a vicious circle including higher interest rates, the need for higher taxes and stagnant growth.
Many would say that this vicious circle obviously exists and that no further investigation into the matter is needed. However, those who say so disregard the fact that the United States, with a debt ratio above 100 percent of GDP (we cannot count just the debt “held by the public” because all debt costs money one way or the other) has a faster-growing GDP than the EU does, where the aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio for all 28 member states is 87 percent.
Therefore, as always it is good to take a look at some data. The following figure reports Eurostat data for 27 EU member states (excluding Croatia which became a member just this year) over the period 2000-2013. The data is broken down to quarterly levels and not adjusted seasonally (this vouches for “genuine” observations). The left vertical axis reports debt-to-GDP ratios while the right axis reports inflation-adjusted GDP growth numbers, quarterly over the same quarter the previous year. Since this gives us a very large number of pairs of observations, the data is organized into deciles. Each contains 148 pairs of observations – debt ratio and GDP growth for the same quarter – except for the last decile which contains 149 observations. Each decile reports average numbers for each variable for that decile:
*) The astute observer will notice that I am only reporting 1,481 observation pairs when 27 countries observed over 14 years, four times per year, should actually produce 1,512 observation pairs. The lower number reported here is due to two factors: only one data series is available for the fourth quarter of 2013, and both series for Malta are missing for the first few quarters.
While this is not an actual econometric study (that would take a lot more time than I have on my hand for this blog) the analysis nevertheless reports an interesting correlation. First, when the debt ratio rises above 60 percent, growth slows notably. The 60-percent debt level is often referred to in the public debate over government debt as a threshold governments should not cross. I have sometimes dismissed this level as arbitrarily chosen, and I maintain that any simple focus on this ratio for legislative purposes is indeed arbitrary. In fact, if we look at the other end of the spectrum a debt level below 40 percent appears to have very strong positive effects on growth. If we are going to have legislation about a debt ratio cap, then why not use 40 percent?
That said, the observed correlation calls for deeper investigation. Unlike some simplistic pundits (you know who you are…) I am not going to draw the immediate conclusion that high debt ratios cause low growth. Let us remember that GDP is the denominator of the debt ratio; if the denominator grows slowly for any reason, and government keeps deficit-spending as usual, then the debt ratio is going to rise for purely arithmetical reasons. However, as mentioned earlier, large deficits themselves can very well drag down GDP growth, raising the debt ratio for causal reasons.
More on that later.For now, let’s conclude this little exercise with two questions that I hope to answer soon:
1. Is there a correlation between large debt and big government spending? If so, the low growth in high-debt-ratio countries could have its explanation.
2. What happens if we delay one of the two variables one quarter? This classic, basic statistical method could tell us a lot about the causes and effects between debt and growth. I am going to take a stab at it as soon as time allows.
Needless to say, any future inquiry would have to include the United States. This one does not, simply because the raw data used here did not include U.S. numbers. Now that I have this data in a configured file of my own it is easy to add U.S. data.
The Great Recession has been a rockier ride for the economies of the Western world than any other economic crisis since the Great Depression. We are still not out of it, and there is no way of telling when Europe will recover – if ever. While the U.S. economy continues its moderate recovery, there are still no credible signs of a turnaround in Europe, where there is almost no GDP growth and very slow growth in consumer spending.
It is entirely understandable that the Europeans have not yet seen the light in the tunnel. Their focus during the recession has been to bring down government budget deficits, prioritizing a balanced budget over any other economic goal. But underneath the efforts to balance the budget there is another, less visible but nevertheless unrelenting agenda: to save the European welfare state.
The EU has propagated for, and imposed, austerity policies upon member states not because a balanced budget is inherently good, but because it makes the welfare state look fiscally unsustainable. During the 1980s, when Lady Thatcher led Britain back to the 20th century, Europe’s conservatives used budget deficits as an argument against big, redistributing entitlement programs. They had a point: government debt as share of GDP has been growing all over the Western world for almost half a century now. The following tables illustrate this. They report data from CESIFO, a German research institute, with the numbers illustrating a relationship between government debt as share of GDP in two different years. For example, in the first table, the number reported for Japan is 6.04 under the column title “1970 to 1990″. This means that the Japanese government’s debt in 1990, as share of GDP, was 6.04 times higher than it was in 1970. In other words, if the Japanese government’s debt in 1970 was ten percent of GDP, it would be 60.4 percent of GDP in 1990.
Consequently, any report of a number larger than 1.00 means that the debt ratio in that country has increased:
Country selection is based entirely on data availability; not all countries have reported comparable data for the periods in question. However, for each period, the selection shows the same consistent trend of growing government debt. In the first period, from 1970 to 1990, debt grew in eleven of 13 countries. In the second period, 1975-1995, debt grew in 14 out of 16 countries. In period three, 1980-2000, 14 out of 17 countries experienced debt growth. Finally, in the fourth period debt grew in 22 out of 28 countries.
The unrelenting growth in debt is closely associated with the welfare state. A good example: the Danish record-breaking growth in debt between 1975 and 1995 originates in an out-of-control expansion of entitlement programs in the 1970s and early ’80s. In the late ’80s Denmark went through a very painful period of austerity, with massive tax increases that in some ways crippled private consumption. Debt growth stopped, though, and in the early ’90s focus shifted toward tax cuts. As a result, the Danish debt ratio declined from 1995 through 2005.
Does the Danish example show that the welfare state is compatible with economic growth and prosperity? No, it does not. More on that in a later article. For now, enjoy the debt ratios and consider what they tell us about our generation’s sense of entitlement, especially vs. future generations.
Never bark at the big dog. The big dog is always right.
If your goal is to restore growth and full employment in a crisis-ridden economy, don’t use austerity. It does not work. I have explained this for two years now – in blogs, research papers and numerous debates – and I am pleased to say that my work has been recognized. One step forward on that front is my book, out in July. But more important than the recognition of my work is the constant reminders of austerity failure that reality provides. In addition to raw, statistical evidence of decline and stagnation all over Europe, the German government is now de facto conceding defeat on the austerity front. From British newspaper The Guardian:
Germany has signalled it is preparing a third rescue package for Greece – provided the debt-stricken country implements “rigorous” austerity measures blamed for record levels of unemployment and a dramatic drop in GDP. The new loan, outlined in a five-page position paper by Berlin’s finance ministry, would be worth between €10bn to €20bn (£8bn-16bn), according to the German weekly Der Spiegel, which was leaked the document. Such an amount would chime with comments made by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who, in a separate interview due to be published on Monday insisted that any additional aid required by Athens would be “far smaller” than the €240bn it had received so far.
So how can the German government be admitting it has lost the austerity fight against the economic crisis, when it actually demands more austerity by the Greek government? Simple: the German government together with assorted Eurocrats from Brussels have sold last two fiscal-disaster packages as “the” fix for the crisis. If only Greece agreed to this-or-that austerity measure, and then got a loan, then the Greek economy would be on a fast track to a recovery.
By now proposing not a second, but a third bailout for the Hellenic welfare-state wasteland the German government is de facto admitting that the prior two packages did not at all deliver as promised.
Which, of course, is an outstanding reason to try the same policies a third time while expecting a different outcome…
The Guardian again:
The renewed help follows revelations of clandestine talks between Schäuble and leading EU figures over how to deal with Greece, which despite receiving the biggest bailout in global financial history, continues to remain the weakest link in the eurozone. The talks, said to have taken place on the sidelines of a Eurogroup meeting of eurozone finance ministers last week, are believed to have focused on the need to cover an impending shortfall in the country’s financing and the reluctance Athens is displaying to enforce long overdue structural reforms.
It is a bit unclear what the “structural” element of those reforms would be, but if the history of Greek bailouts is any indication we can safely assume that the “reforms” would be higher taxes and lower entitlement spending. While less spending is highly desirable, it has to come in the form of predictable reductions – and they have to be coupled with targeted tax cuts that give those dependent on government a fighting chance to provide for themselves once the government handouts are gone.
Such reforms are not rocket science. Two years ago I put together five such proposals in a book. I would not expect the Greek government to have read it, or that any Eurocrat would have seen it… but the basic idea – permanent spending cuts coupled with targeted tax cuts – is so common-sensical that you would expect someone in Europe to propose it as a guideline for getting Greece, and Europe, out of its crisis.
So far, though, I have not seen a single proposal for “structural reform” in Greece along these lines.
Perhaps it is understandable, at the end of the day, why no such ideas are floating around in the public debate. After all, the end result is a dismantling of the welfare state, an idea as alien to Europeans as a monarchy is to Americans. But so long as Europe’s political leaders remain married to the welfare state, they will also have to continue to come up with non-solutions to the crisis. One of those solutions is another debt write-down. The Guardian again:
Most of the debt overhang now haunting the country belongs to European governments and at 176% of GDP – up from 120% of national output at the start of the crisis – is not only a barrier to investment but widely regarded as being at the root of its economic woes. “They are missing the point: Greece does not need a third bailout, it needs debt restructuring,” said the shadow development minister and economics professor, Giorgos Stathakis. “Even in the IMF, logical people agree there is no way we can have any more fiscal adjustment when the whole thing has reached its limits,” he said. “There is simply no room for further cuts and further taxes and that is what they are going to ask for.”
It is precisely this attitude that traps Greece in a perpetual crisis. Its plunge into industrial poverty over the past five years was not caused by a financial crisis, as public economic mythology suggests. The plunge was the work of the welfare state, which over a long period of time had drained the private sector of money, entrepreneurship, investments and productivity. When the global recession hit, the excessive cost of the welfare state was exposed full force. Trying first and foremost to save the welfare state, Eurocrats from the EU and the ECB joined forces with economists from the IMF to squeeze even more taxes out of the private sector. At the same time, the rapidly growing crowds of unemployed and poor were deprived of more and more of the only thing that had kept them going: welfare-state handouts.
The result was that those who saw their handouts shrink were even less able to find a job than they had been before. Rising taxes killed the job market for them.
At the core, the Greek crisis is one of a welfare state that costs vastly more than the private sector of the Greek economy can afford, even on a good day. The debt that the good professor and fellow economist Stathakis wants to have forgiven is the result of this historic mess of irresponsible entitlements and burdensome taxes.
If Greece does not fix its welfare-state problem, it does not matter how much debt that is forgiven. It will continue to accumulate more debt, and then what? Another round of debt forgiveness?
Again, this basic insight is missing from the European discussion on what to do with Greece. Even the IMF is apparently concentrating on the debt burden, suggesting, according to the Guardian, that “without additional debt relief by eurozone governments, Greece’s debt burden could smother the country’s economy.” That is exactly wrong: the economy is being smothered by the welfare state, which austerity measures are aimed at saving.
At least there is some common sense in the debate. The Guardian concludes:
China, Brazil, Argentina, India, Egypt and Switzerland have been among the countries expressing grave doubts that the assistance would work, arguing that Greece might end up worse off after the austerity programme.
Thank you for that. Let’s now hope that more people see this and that we can get some traction for a reform program that combines entitlement phase-out with targeted tax cuts. It is the only way to save Greece from generations of industrial poverty – and it is the only way to save the rest of Europe from the same fate.
On Monday I explained that Greece has begun a transition from depression to stagnation. The transition is visible in macroeconomic data: the decline in GDP and private consumption, both of which have been going on for years, are not as fast anymore, and unemployment seems to be plateauing. Government debt is still growing, though, especially when measured as a ratio to GDP. In the second quarter of 2013, the latest number available, the quarter-to-quarter increase in the ratio was faster than it was in any of the three preceding quarters.
The transition from depression to stagnation is largely made possible by two factors. First, the Greeks have lost one quarter of their economy, which includes an enormous drop in standard of living. Most Greeks have had to forfeit consumption that people in other industrialized countries take for granted. What remains is essentially the bare-bones kind of consumption that you realistically cannot sustain without in an industrialized country. At this “core consumption” level of economic activity, it is harder for people to cut away anything more. As a result, they will increase their efforts to protect what they have left.
Secondly, years of austerity has recalibrated the Greek welfare state. The reason why it ran enormous deficits for years is that its tax rates could not produce enough revenue for the spending that the welfare state required. This was a problem before the Great Recession but it exploded into pure urgency as the crisis started unfolding. Instead of trying to turn around the implosion of the economy, the EU and the Greek government decided to recalibrate the welfare state: taxes were raised to produce more revenue at a lower GDP, and spending programs were cut to spend less at that same lower GDP. Each new austerity program effectively constituted another recalibration. Eventually, during last year, the recalibration efforts caught up with the imploding GDP, and austerity tapered off.
Once you release an economy from its austerity stranglehold it will transition from decline to stagnation. However, it will not recover – other than marginally – for one very simple reason: the welfare state is now recalibrated to balance the budget at an abysmally low activity level. Therefore, as soon as economic activity picks up the government budget will suck in excessive amounts of money from the private sector, creating substantial surpluses early on in the recovery. Politicians who have fought the people to subject them to round after round of austerity will not be inclined to cut taxes; they will see the surpluses as yet another sign that “austerity worked”. While they throw victory parties, the economy continues to putter along at permanently higher unemployment and a permanently lower standard of living.
This is exactly what happened in Sweden in the ’90s (I have an entire chapter on that crisis in my upcoming book Industrial Poverty) and the Greek situation is not much different.
Yet despite glaring evidence to the contrary, there are people out there who willingly and eagerly claim that in the austerity war on the crisis, austerity won. In an opinion piece for the EU Observer, Derk Jan Eppink, Member of the EU Parliament from Belgium and vice president of the Parliament’s Conservatives and Reformists group, has this to say:
Irish Premier Enda Kenny has announced his country will exit its bailout programme in December. When he took office in 2011, Ireland’s budget deficit was over 30 percent of GDP. Narrowing it to projections of 7.3 percent this year and 4.8 percent next, Kenny has restored market confidence in Dublin’s ability to sort out its long-term debts. Investors are again willing to buy Irish bonds, raising funds and lowering borrowing costs. In mid-2011, interest on Irish debt stood at 15 percent. Now it is below 4 percent and Ireland has raised sufficient cash balances to cover all its debt payments next year. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have both returned their Irish rating to investment grade. Without repairing its ability to manage its debts, Ireland’s government could not function for very long as a provider of essential public services. Irish recovery could not have happened without the fiscal consolidation which commentators attack as “austerity.”
It is interesting to notice what metrics Mr. Eppink uses to measure the Irish “success”. The austerity program has recalibrated the Irish welfare state to produce a budget balance at a vastly lower activity level than before the crisis. This means that the Irish government has no incentive to run a fiscal policy that brings the economy back to its higher activity levels; as in the Greek case, its tax-and-spend ratios will actually discourage private-sector growth beyond what is needed for the newly calibrated budget balance.
What this means in practice is easy to see in Eurostat employment numbers. Irish unemployment has fallen over the past two years, with total unemployment down from 15.1 percent in January 2012 to 12.3 percent in November 2013; during the same period of time youth unemployment declined from 31.1 percent to 24.8 percent. This looks like a solid recovery, especially since one in four unemployed aged 15-24 is no longer unemployed. However, if we cross-check these numbers with the employment ratio we get a somewhat different picture:
In the years before the crisis the employment ratio for 15-64 year-olds was 65-70 percent; in the third quarters of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 it has averaged 59.7 percent, with no visible trend either up or down;
In the years before the crisis Irish unemployment for the group aged 15-24 was 45-55 percent; in the third quarters of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 it has averaged 30.9 percent, with no visible trend either up or down.
It is troubling when unemployment falls but employment ratios remain steady. It means that people are either leaving Ireland in desperation or, more likely, that they are leaving the work force. A closer look at the enrollment in various income-security programs would probably give a detailed answer. (I will try to return to that later.)
A glance at GDP data also indicates stagnation rather than recovery. In the third quarter of 2013 the Irish seasonally adjusted, constant-price GDP grew by 1.7 percent over the same quarter in 2012. However, the four preceding quarters GDP contracted. There was more growth in the Irish economy in 2011 than what appears to be the case in 2013. Private consumption has been falling six of the last eight quarters, with entirely negative numbers thus far for 2013.
There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: there is no Irish recovery under way. If anything, the end of the Irish austerity campaign has marked the starting point of economic stagnation for the Irish economy just as it has in Greece.
Standard&Poor’s, one of the leading US-based ratings agencies, on Friday (20 December) downgraded EU’s rating by one notch to AA+, citing concerns over how the bloc’s budget was funded. “In our opinion, the overall creditworthiness of the now 28 European Union member states has declined,” Standard&Poor’s said in a note to investors. Last month, it downgraded the Netherlands, one of the few remaining triple-A rated EU countries. In the eurozone, only Germany, Luxembourg and Finland have kept their top rating.
Not surprising. The Netherlands experienced a very tough budget fight in 2012, with a resigning prime minister, upsetting elections and, during 2013, a close encounter with harsh austerity policies. This was not exactly what the Dutch had expected that they would be subjected to. Or, as I explained the situation in March 2013:
The Dutch government, which has been clearly in favor of tough austerity measures on southern European economies where the deficit exceeds the three-percent limit, now suddenly recognizes that austerity is bad for GDP growth. To play on another American proverb, life is not as fun when the austerity chickens are coming home to roost.
Evidently, the Dutch austerity measures did not prevent a credit plunge. Back now to the EU Observer story about the Standard & Poor downgrading:
The agency noted that “EU budgetary negotiations have become more contentious, signalling what we consider to be rising risks to the support of the EU from some member states.” EU talks for the 2014-2020 budget took over a year as richer countries – notably the UK and Germany – insisted on a cut, while southern and eastern ones wanted more money.
And herein lies the gist of why S&P is worried. The EU budget fight is about countries with better government finances wanting to pay less to countries with troubled or outright catastrophic government finances. If there is a cut in EU funds to Spain, Portugal or Greece, those recipient countries will have to take even tougher measures to try to comply with the budget balance targets set by the EU and the ECB. Given that they are already chronically incapable of doing so, it is not hard to see why S&P is very concerned with cuts in the EU budget.
This message, though, seems lost on some Eurocrats:
The news struck just as EU leaders were gathering for their last day of a summit in Brussels. European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso dismissed the rating downgrade. “We have no deficit, no debt and also very strong budget revenues from our own resources. We disagree with this particular ratings agency,” the top official said in a press conference at the end of the EU summit. “We think the EU is a very credible institution when it comes to its financial obligations,” Barroso added. … EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy downplayed the S&P decision. “The downgrade will not spoil our Christmas,” he said.
Perhaps we should not expect anything else from them. After all, the Eurocracy in Brussels has proven, over and over again, that it lacks insight, interest and intelligence to successfully deal with Europe’s perennial economic crisis. This is in itself a troubling fact, as the signs of a continuing crisis are everywhere for everyone to see. A good example, also from the EU Observer:
The number of people unemployed in France rose 0.5% to over 10.5% in November, figures released Thursday show. The statistics are a political blow for President Francois Hollande who had pledged to bring the rate down by the end of 2013. The figures for December will be released end January.
The Eurocracy’s refusal to see the big, macroeconomic picture is also revealed in their delusional attitude toward the EU’s crisis policy:
The EU says Spain’s banks are back on a “sound footing,” but one in four Spanish people are still unemployed. Klaus Regling, the director of the Luxembourg-based European Stability Mechanism (ESM), made the statement on Tuesday (31 December) to mark the expiry of Spain’s EU credit line. He described the rescue effort as “an impressive success story” and predicted the Spanish economy will “achieve stability and sustainable growth” in the near future.
The only problem is that the crisis in the Spanish banks was not the cause of the economic crisis. The welfare state was the cause. Europe’s banks actually suffered badly from the crisis by having exposed themselves heavily to euro-denoted Treasury bonds: when Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and even countries like Belgium and Netherlands started having serious budget problems, Treasury bonds lost their status as minimum-risk anchors in bank asset portfolios.
With trillions of euros worth of exposure to government debt, Europe’s banks rightly began panicking when in 2012 Greece forced them to write off some of the country’s debt. The debt write-off was directly linked to a runaway welfare state, whose spending promises vastly exceeded what Greek taxpayers could ever afford. The same problem occurred in Spain where the government’s ability to pay its debt costs have been in serious question for almost two years now.
To highlight the Spanish situation, consider these numbers from Eurostat:
- In 2007 the consolidated Spanish government debt was 382.3 billion euros, of which financial institutions owned 47 percent, or 179.7 billion euros;
- In 2012 the consolidated Spanish government debt was 883.9 billion euros, of which financial institutions owned 57.5 percent, of 507.9 billion euros.
In five short years, Spanish banks bought 382.2 billion euros worth of government bonds. During that same time, the Spanish government plummeted from the comfortable lounges of good credit to the doorstep of the financial junkyard.
It was also during this period of credit downgrading that the Spanish government began subjecting the country to exceptionally hard austerity measures, the terrifying effects of which I have explained repeatedly. However, as today’s third EU Observer story reports, those effects are of no consequence to the Eurocracy, whose praise for austerity will soon know no limits:
He also praised the EU’s austerity policy more broadly, saying: “The people’s readiness to accept temporary hardship for the sake of a sustainable recovery are exemplary … The Spanish success shows that our strategy of providing temporary loans against strong conditionality is working.” Spain will officially exit its bailout later this month, after Ireland quit its programme in December. Unlike Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the Spanish rescue was limited to its banking sector instead of a full-blown state bailout. It saw the ESM put up a €100 billion credit line in July 2012. In the end, the ESM paid out €41.3 billion to a new Spanish body, the Fondo de Restructuracion Ordenado Bancaria (FROM), which channelled the loans, most of which mature in 2024 or 2025, to failing lenders.
So all that has happened is that European taxpayers have been put on the hook for failed Spanish bank loans – loan defaults that Spain’s banks could have dealt with had they not chosen to lend a total of half-a-trillion dollars to their failing government.
Nobody seems to ask how this debt restructuring will help the Spanish government end its austerity policies. Such an end is a must if the Spanish economy is ever to recover. That does not mean a return to “business as usual” under the welfare state – on the contrary, the welfare state must go – but what it does mean is some breathing room for the private sector to regain its regular, albeit slow, pace of business.
Instead of connecting the dots here, the Eurocracy continues to look at the European economic crisis through split-vision glasses, and Spain is no exception. The EU Observer again:
For its part, the European Commission last month warned that the Spanish economy is still in bad shape despite the good news. It noted that “lending to the economy, and in particular to the corporate sector, is still declining substantially, even if some bottoming out of that contraction process might be in sight.” Meanwhile, the latest commission statistics say 26.7 percent of the Spanish labour force and 57.4 percent of its under-25s are out of work. The labour force figure is second only to Greece (27.3%) and much higher than the EU’s third worst jobs performer, Croatia (17.6%). … A poll in the El Mundo newspaper published also on Wednesday showed that 71 percent of Spanish people do not believe they will see any real benefit from Spain’s recovery until 2015 at the earliest.
All this ties back to the Standard & Poor downgrading of the EU. There is, plain and simple, a lot of concern that nothing is going to get better in the EU. There are good reasons to believe this: the persistent message from Brussels over the past two years has been that the next austerity package will be the last, that it will turn things around and put depression-stricken economies back on track again. As we all know, that has not happened, which raises the question if the EU is going to have to actually increase its bailout efforts toward fiscally troubled member states.
This blog’s answer is “yes, very probably”. Europe’s only way back to prosperity and growth goes through the structural elimination of the welfare state.
Welcome to Year of the Lord 2014. (Forget that “Current Era” crap – we are on God’s calendar for a reason!)
A lot is at stake this year. For us here in America we have upcoming midterm elections in November. Republicans have the momentum and it is not impossible that they take the Senate. The Democrats are panicking over what the Obama presidency is doing to their party; they have already suffered costly losses in state legislatures and gubernatorial offices.
We will also see an emerging field of presidential candidates for 2016. There are already some interesting Republicans lurking behind the curtains. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is often suggested as an early front runner. Senator Ted Cruz has won many informal polls recently, and let’s not forget Senator Rand Paul, a much more realistic libertarian politician than his firebrand father.
To make matters even more interesting, there could actually be some respectable candidates on the Democrat side as well, such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (though he might hold off until he’s done two terms).
We also have to get really serious about our budget deficit. Fortunately, Compact for America – I am on their advisory council – is making progress with a good, realistic proposal for a constitutional amendment to bring about a budget balance.
Overall, the outlook for the United States is moderately optimistic. That includes the economy, which is not exactly steaming ahead, but definitely crawling forward faster than the European economy. The fact of the matter is that Europe, or at least the European Union, is in much bigger trouble than the United States. Yes, our interest rates on such indicators as the ten-year Treasury bond may be a bit higher than, e.g., France, but unemployment, GDP growth, taxes and welfare spending are all moving in the wrong direction in the EU.
To make matters worse for Europe, the current crisis, which I have described as a state of industrial poverty, is far from over. In fact, it may very well make a big turn for the worse, a fact that very few people speak openly about. We find a notable exception in one of the world’s few remaining respectable journalists, namely Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at The Telegraph, who does not mince his words when discussing the mounting debt crisis in the industrialized world:
Much of the Western world will require defaults, a savings tax and higher inflation to clear the way for recovery as debt levels reach a 200-year high, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF working paper said debt burdens in developed nations have become extreme by any historical measure and will require a wave of haircuts, either negotiated 1930s-style write-offs or the standard mix of measures used by the IMF in its “toolkit” for emerging market blow-ups. “The size of the problem suggests that restructurings will be needed, for example, in the periphery of Europe, far beyond anything discussed in public to this point,” said the paper, by Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.
Some telling examples of what we are talking about:
- The EU, with 28 member states, had a gross government debt of 86.8 percent of GDP in the second quarter of 2013, up from 84.8 percent in Q2 2012;
- The 17-member euro zone’s debt ratios were 93.4 percent in Q2 2013 and 89.9 percent in Q2 2012;
- Greece: 169.1 percent, up from 149.2;
- Spain: 92.3, up from 77.6;
- France: 93.5, up from 90.8;
- Italy: 133.3, up from 125.6;
- The Netherlands: 73.9, up from 68.4.
Very few EU member states show a falling debt ratio, and when they do, the decline is marginal compared to the rise in other countries.
There is an implicit premise in the IMF report about the relation between the private sector and government. Before we get to it, let’s hear more from Evans-Pritchard:
The [IMF] paper said policy elites in the West are still clinging to the illusion that rich countries are different from poorer regions and can therefore chip away at their debts with a blend of austerity cuts, growth, and tinkering (“forbearance”). The presumption is that advanced economies “do not resort to such gimmicks” such as debt restructuring and repression, which would “give up hard-earned credibility” and throw the economy into a “vicious circle”. But the paper says this mantra borders on “collective amnesia” of European and US history, and is built on “overly optimistic” assumptions that risk doing far more damage to credibility in the end.
Very important indeed. Remember the Greek partial debt default? Not to mention the Cypriot Bank Heist when the government of Cyprus confiscated private savings deposits to pay for a bank bailout. Both these measures are now part of the legislative toolkit as the governments of the EU continue to fight their hopeless fight against the debt.
In reality, this fight is about something else than the debt itself. It is about the very heart and soul of the European economy. If the EU chooses to deal with its current crisis the way the IMF hints at, then it will automatically put government above the private sector. The measures proposed will save government at the expense of the private sector. This is the implicit premise in the IMF report, one that Evans-Pritchard does not address. However, as we return to his column we get some hints of how this premise would inform actual policy:
While use of debt pooling in the eurozone can reduce the need for restructuring or defaults, it comes at the cost of higher burdens for northern taxpayers. This could drag the EMU core states into a recession and aggravate their own debt and ageing crises. The clear implication of the IMF paper is that Germany and the creditor core would do better to bite the bullet on big write-offs immediately rather than buying time with creeping debt mutualisation. The paper says the Western debt burden is now so big that rich states will need same tonic of debt haircuts, higher inflation and financial repression – defined as an “opaque tax on savers” – as used in countless IMF rescues for emerging markets.
Aside the implied acknowledgement that the private sector will have to give in order for Europe’s welfare states to take, this paragraph is an effective IMF acknowledgement that Europe is now in a state of long-term economic stagnation.
The two issues actually connect. If there was any prospect of strong economic growth in the EU, there would not be any need to push for practically authoritarian measures to “save” governments from their own debts. Yet the IMF report cleverly opens for precisely that, namely debt defaults on a much wider scale than happened in Greece, as well as inflation and widespread use of so called “financial repression”:
Most advanced states wrote off debt in the 1930s, though in different ways. … Financial repression can take many forms, including capital controls, interest rate caps or the force-feeding of government debt to captive pension funds and insurance companies. Some of these methods are already in use but not yet on the scale seen in the late 1940s and early 1950s as countries resorted to every trick to tackle their war debts. The policy is essentially a confiscation of savings, partly achieved by pushing up inflation while rigging the system to stop markets taking evasive action.
We hear more and more about inflation as a “solution” to the debt crisis. This is disturbing, especially since when the inflation genie is out of the bottle, he is mighty reluctant to get back in there again. While it is difficult for politicians to cause inflation, it is not impossible, and if they are delusional enough to believe that they can turn off the inflation faucet just as easily as they can turn it on, they are going to use it.
Again, inflation is but one of the measures that politicians would resort to in order to save the welfare state from its own debt. The measures to save the welfare state would by necessity tax the private sector in every way possible, thus forcing voluntary economic activity – the heart and soul of a free society – to take the back seat while coercive economic activity – the welfare state – lives on unperturbed by the weight of its own debt.
The comparison to World War II debt is an egregious way to elevate the welfare-state crisis above the responsibility of statist politicians who built and nurtured it. World War II was an exceptional, disastrous event. The current debt crisis was not caused by a disaster. It was caused by deliberate, long-term political action to take one man’s money and time and give to someone else, for no other reason than that the recipient was considered “entitled”.
Through the build-up of the welfare state, government spending ran amok, demanding far more money than taxpayers could afford, over a long period of time. I explain this in detail in my forthcoming book Industrial Poverty; the short story is that Europe’s welfare states allowed entitlement spending to creep up above tax revenues, little by little, until the combined effect of taxes, entitlements and work discouragement had pushed back the private sector to where it was structurally unable to pay for the welfare state.
At this point it was only a matter of time before the debt that the welfare state brought about would explode. The financial crisis came along and helped the debt balloon inflate – notably the financial crisis was aggravated by banks’ exposure to deteriorating government debt!
This means two things. First, it is high time to stop imposing more regulations on the private sector. The more governments regulate the private sector, the more hindrances they put in place for the only engine that can pull Europe out of its crisis. Secondly, there is no way out of the debt crisis unless we are willing to say farewell to the welfare state. Its entitlement systems and its taxes will continue to weigh down the private sector for as long as the welfare state exists. The same crawling debt crisis that exploded in 2008-09 will begin again as soon as governments all over Europe stop their austerity measures.
At the same time, austerity has only made a bad crisis worse. The design of austerity measures used thus far is clearly to save the welfare state and make it fit within a tighter economy. Yet the burden of entitlement programs has not eased – on the contrary, it has increased. For every new austerity measure that has increased taxes and cut government spending, the economic crisis has worsened, thus giving rise to the need for even more austerity.
Europe must break this vicious circle, and the only way to do this is to abandon the desperate hunt for the balanced budget. Instead, Europe’s political leadership must focus on structurally phasing out the welfare state. They must privatize health care, income security and education – and cut taxes proportionately to their structural spending cuts. They must let the private sector take over what government has failed at delivering, both in terms of producing services and in terms of funding those services. Permanent spending cuts coupled with well designed tax cuts.
Only then can Europe see growth and prosperity again. If they do not choose this path, but instead stick to the old recipe of keeping the welfare state and trying to starve it into a stagnant economy, they will perpetuate their debt crisis.
That, in turn, means static or even declining private-sector activity while more and more people will clamor to the welfare state’s entitlement programs just to be able to make ends meet every month. Government will continue to grow, both in absolute and in relative terms. That growth will continue ad infinitum, until there is nothing but a planned, Sovieticized economy left.
Europe does not need that. Europe needs massive doses of economic freedom.