Tagged: Government Debt

Errors in Global Debt Analysis

Government debt is a problem. It pushes the cost of today’s government entitlement programs onto the shoulders of tomorrow’s taxpayers. The debt problems are made worse by the fact that the welfare states of Europe and North America all seem to suffer from a structural deficit: over a period of time longer than a business cycle they increase spending faster than their tax base increases. These deficits in turn are caused by entitlement programs that are purposely designed to increase in cost independently of the private sector’s ability to pay for them.

Over time, governments have raised taxes to keep funding their welfare states – and when tax increases have been politically unpalatable they have resorted to spending cuts. The net effect has been a more stingy welfare state at a higher cost to taxpayers.

Herein lies the core of the reason why the Western World has an endemic debt problem. As a share of GDP taxes have increased in every European welfare state over the past half century – in some cases the tax-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled. (See my book Industrial Poverty, pp. 75-77.)

In other words, the welfare state creates a permanent spending problem, the funding of which creates a permanent slow-growth problem which in turn creates a permanent deficit problem.

This is a systemic failure for the Western World of epic proportions. Unfortunately, the “big picture” is still a mystery to many people. Let me offer two examples. The first is from The Telegraph:

The eurozone is “untenable” in its current form and cannot survive unless countries are prepared to cede sovereignty and become a “United States of Europe”, the manager of the world’s biggest bond fund has warned. The Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO) said that while the bloc was likely to stay together in the medium term, with Greece remaining in the eurozone, the single currency could not survive if countries did not move closer together.

What this means in a nutshell is that the member states of the EU, or at the very least the euro zone, would have to give up their individual iterations of the welfare state and hand over taxation and spending authority to a union-wide authority. That would be either the EU if it incorporated all 28 states, or some “core” European government if it was confined to the euro zone.

The idea behind this is to bring fiscal and monetary policy into some kind of jurisdictional harmony. But this will not solve anything. It is a change in form, not content. The same welfare state will cause the same problems, and the policies put in place to reduce or eliminate government deficits while preserving the welfare state will have the same negative effects as they now have at the national level.

The Telegraph again, more to the point:

PIMCO used the example of the Latin and Scandinavian unions in the 19th century, which lasted an average of 50 years before breaking up, to illustrate how monetary unions were incompatible with sovereignty. “You need to reach some sort of political agreement about how to share fiscal resources around the zone. We’re a long, long, long way from designing that and getting the political backing for it,” … “So while you’re waiting for that and you’ve got low growth, and high unemployment, you run the risk of letting these anti-euro parties to the forefront.”

Those anti-EU parties would break up the currency union – in fact, that will happen as soon as Marine Le Pen moves into the Elysee Palace in Paris – but they will not alter Europe’s fundamental socio-economic structure. They will try to defend the welfare state, too, and will eventually encounter the exact same problems that have troubled Europe’s welfare states incrementally since the late 1970s.

But let us not forget that the government debt problem is not confined to the “advanced” welfare states shoring the North Atlantic. In fact, as if to underscore the social and economic disease that the welfare state represents, The Guardian reports:

Greek ministers are spending this weekend, almost five grinding years since Athens was first bailed out, wrangling over the details of the spending cuts and economic reforms they have drawn up to appease their creditors. As the recriminations fly between Europe’s capitals, campaigners are warning that the global community has failed to learn the lessons of the Greek debt crisis – or even of Argentina’s default in 2001, the consequences of which are still being contested furiously in courts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Or, for that matter, the Danish and Swedish lessons from, respectively, the 1980s and 1990s. I discuss the Danish crisis and analyze carefully the Swedish case in my book Industrial Poverty; for those proficient in Swedish, see an abbreviated analysis in the next issue of Magasinet Neo, out next week.

Back to The Guardian:

As Janet Yellen’s Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates, boosting the value of the dollar, while the plunging price of crude puts intense pressure on the finances of oil-exporting countries, there are growing fears of a new debt crisis in the making.

An example. The Alaska state government gets more than 90 percent of its General Fund revenue from oil. With the oil price at a third of what it was two years ago the state government is now on the verge of fiscal panic.

Ann Pettifor of Prime Economics, who foreshadowed the credit crunch in her 2003 book The Coming First World Debt Crisis, says: “We’re going to have another financial crisis. Brazil’s already in great trouble with the strength of the dollar; I dread to think what’s happening in South Africa; then there’s Malaysia. We’re back to where we were, and that for me is really frightening.”

I have written several articles about South Africa, where I have pointed to the main problem of the country. It is not debt – that is merely a symptom of what is really wrong. The systemic error in the South African equation is the massive entitlement system that the ANC government has tried to build and fund since taking over power 20 years ago. Trained as they were by Swedish socialists, the ANC leadership that defined the course of South Africa after the fall of Apartheid had only one thing in mind: to build their own version of the Scandinavian welfare state.

The result is high inflation, low growth, very high unemployment, social instability and a tax system that punitively keeps employers from creating jobs.

Without the welfare state there would be no debt problem in South Africa.

The Telegraph again:

Since the aftershocks of the global financial crisis of 2008 died away, … next to nothing has been done about the question of what to do about countries that can’t repay their debts, or how to stop them getting into trouble in the first place.

Don’t build a welfare state. Don’t create spending programs that the private sector cannot afford. This is a particularly bad idea in developing countries where the private sector is in poor shape in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is not the direction that the global debate is moving. It is taking a different route, namely toward welfare states being given a chance to default on their debt with impunity. The Telegraph explains:

Developing countries are using the UN to demand a change in the way sovereign defaults are dealt with. Led by Bolivian ambassador to the UN Sacha Sergio Llorenti, they are calling for a bankruptcy process akin to the Chapter 11 procedure for companies to be applied to governments. Unctad, the UN’s Geneva-based trade and investment arm, has been working for several years to draw up a “roadmap” for sovereign debt resolution. It recommends a series of principles, including a moratorium on repayments while a solution is negotiated; the imposition of currency controls to prevent capital fleeing the troubled country; and continued lending by the IMF to prevent the kind of existential financial threat that roils world markets and causes severe economic hardship. If a new set of rules could be established, Unctad believes, “they should help prevent financial meltdown in countries facing difficulties servicing their external obligations, which often results in a loss of market confidence, currency collapse and drastic interest rates hikes, inflicting serious damage on public and private balance sheets and leading to large losses in output and employment and a sharp increase in poverty”.

Once this measure is in place, what are the chances anyone would buy Treasury bonds from any country that is perceived to have some debt problems? What countries would be allowed this measure? It would have to be all UN member states, or else the rules for the Chapter-11 style mechanism would be ad hoc.

The next question is what would happen if Greece used this way out of its debt problems. All of a sudden we are talking about a euro-zone member state, a European welfare state, a country that is not too different from, say, Spain or Italy. What would happen if Spain or Italy did a “Chapter 11”, countries that are not too different from, say, France?

This is a Pandora’s Box of defaults that would have catastrophic effects on the financial system. It would turn now-safe Treasury bonds – or at least from those countries that still have good credit – into almost toxic assets. Who would want to buy any welfare-state Treasury bonds if that government can choose to file for bankruptcy if they consider the payments too burdensome?

Surely, there would be rules for filing for bankruptcy. But who would be writing those rules? The same welfare states that want to be able to borrow frivolously to keep their entitlement programs going.

The systemic problem with the welfare state still eludes the world’s political leaders. Ann Pettifor may very well be right in that there is another debt crisis coming, but a more accurate way of describing it would be that the same debt crisis – the ongoing, daily borrowing by unsustainable big governments – that has been cooled off for a while will erupt again.

And it will continue to do so until our political leaders get their act together and terminate the welfare state.

Growth and Deficits in Europe

As the Germans, the Greeks and the European Union leadership try to hash out a reasonable plan for Greece to secede from the currency union, the underlying question remains: has Europe managed to deal with the structural problems that brought many of its member states to their fiscal knees?

More specifically: are the problems that have sent Greece into a depression and possibly out of the euro zone unique to Greece – or are they just more concentrated there than elsewhere in Europe?

The answer to this question, presented in my book Industrial Poverty, is that the Greek crisis is merely a concentrate of an endemic European problem: a welfare state that is structurally and permanently too costly for the private sector to pay for. So long as the Europeans keep their welfare state they will continue to dwell in economic stagnation, with chronic problems of growth and budget deficits.

Over the past year countless forecasts of a strong recovery – or even a moderate recovery – in the European economy have been proven wrong. There are two reasons for this: economists normally rely on econometrics when they make their forecasts, a methodology that is not well tuned for large institutional and structural problems in the economy; and the focus on – obsession with – econometrics leads economists to ignore long-term structural trends in the economy.

Europe’s crisis is a structural one, caused by a long trend of weakening growth and increasingly persistent budget deficits. The over-arching problem, again, is the structure of entitlements imposed on the economy by the welfare state, a fact that is visible in the following, rather compelling data.

Figure 1 reports data on GDP growth and government deficits as share of GDP. The data is from 12 European welfare states, selected first and foremost based on data availability. The 12 states are then observed over a period of 48 quarters, fourth quarter of 2002 through third quarter of 2014, for annual, inflation-adjusted GDP growth and the deficit-GDP ratio. The result is a clearly visible correlation between the deficit ratio and GDP growth:



The better the deficit-to-GDP ratio, the stronger is GDP growth.

Now, let’s not rush to conclusions here. The immediate reaction among crude Austrians and crude Keynesians would be, respectively:

  • “Yes, this proves that austerity is king!”
  • “No, this can’t be – everybody knows that deficit spending is king!”

Truth is, neither side is correct. The reason why budget surpluses, or small deficits, correlate with high growth and deficits with slow or no growth, is as simple as it is independent of political-economic theory. Put simply, modern, mature welfare states are so big and difficult to pay for that a budget deficit is the normal state of affairs. Since the welfare state also depresses growth, by means of high taxes and sloth-inducing entitlements, it creates a combination of deficits and low growth.

Under unusual circumstances, high growth combines with surpluses not because government spending is low, but because GDP growth is high. In other words, observations of surpluses in Figure 1 are due entirely to a fortunate period of strong growth.

To further reinforce the point that growth is the only way to a reduced deficit in modern welfare states, consider Figure 2:


Note how the deficit-to-GDP ratio improves from 2005-2006. The reason is an improvement in GDP growth that started already in 2003. Next, note how GDP growth stagnates and starts declining in 2007 and how the deficit ratio follows downward in 2008. The upturn in the deficit ratio does not come until 2010, a year after GDP started improving.

In a nutshell: it is growth, not austerity, that fixes European budgets. (The same holds true, obviously, for the United States as well.) In absence of growth the budget deficits overwhelm their host economies and pile up more and more unsustainable debt.

European Debt Stabilizing

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
Greece 176.0% Malta 71.9%
Italy 131.8% Netherlands 69.0%
Portugal 131.4% Finland 58.1%
Ireland 114.8% Slovakia 55.4%
Belgium 108.0% Poland 48.6%
Cyprus 104.7% Denmark 47.1%
Spain 96.8% Czech Rep. 43.4%
France 95.3% Latvia 40.4%
U.K. 92.6% Romania 38.4%
Austria 80.7% Sweden 38.4%
Hungary 79.1% Lithuania 38.3%
Slovenia 78.1% Bulgaria 23.6%
Croatia 77.8% Luxembourg 22.9%
Germany 74.8% Estonia 10.5%

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
Austria 1.7% -3.4%
Belgium 2.0% 0.1%
Bulgaria -1.0% 6.6%
Croatia 6.6% 7.7%
Cyprus 22.5% 4.7%
Czech Rep. -2.5% -1.5%
Denmark -0.2% 0.2%
Estonia 0.6% 0.4%
Finland 3.1% 4.1%
France 3.1% 3.4%
Germany -2.2% -2.1%
Greece 18.6% 5.0%
Hungary -3.3% 2.0%
Ireland 0.7% -9.4%
Italy 5.5% 4.0%
Latvia -2.0% 2.1%
Lithuania -0.6% -0.8%
Luxembourg 6.2% -5.0%
Malta 3.6% -0.6%
Netherlands 3.7% 0.3%
Poland -0.6% -7.3%
Portugal 5.7% 3.6%
Romania 3.2% 0.2%
Slovakia 5.1% -1.1%
Slovenia 13.7% 16.8%
Spain 14.1% 5.0%
Sweden 1.2% 0.8%
U.K. 0.3% 5.5%

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:

Greece France Spain Debt Ratios

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.

The New Left and Europe’s Future

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.

Another Greek Debt Default?

Three years have passed since Greece simply nullified part of its debt. In the last quarter of 2011 the Greek government owed its creditors 356 billion euros; in the first quarter of 2012 that debt had been reduced to 281 billion euros, a reduction of 75 billion euros, or 21 percent. The banks that owned Greek treasury bonds were strong-armed by the EU and the ECB into accepting the debt write-down; ironically, that only added insult to injury as banks in, e.g., Cyprus started having serious problems as a result of precisely that same write-down.

As some of you may recall, a bit over a year after the Greek government unilaterally decided to keep some of the property lenders had allowed them to use – in other words wrote down their own debt – banks in Cyprus began having problems. Having invested heavily in Greek treasury bonds they had to take a disproportionately impactful loss on their lending to Athens. As a direct result the EU-ECB-IMF troika began twisting another arm: that of the Cypriot government. They wanted the government in Nicosia to order the banks in Cyprus to replenish their balance sheets with – yes – money confiscated from their customers.

That little episode of assault on private property is also known as the Cyprus Bank Heist.

Both these events, which exemplify reckless disrespect for private property and business contracts, make Bernie Madoff look like a Sunday school prankster. Unlike Madoff, government is established to protect life, liberty and property. But in both Greece and Cyprus government has voided property rights simply because it is the most convenient way at the time for government to fund its operations.

In other words, to protect the welfare state at any cost.

There were many of us who thought that Europe’s governments had learned a lesson from the massive protests against both the Greek debt write-down and the Cyprus Bank Heist. Sadly, that is not the case. Benjamin Fox, one of the best writers at EU Observer, has the story:

With fewer than three weeks to go until elections which seem ever more likely to see the left-wing Syriza party form the next Greek government, the debt debate has returned to the centre of European politics. Syriza’s promises to call an end to the Brussels-mandated budgetary austerity policies … are not new … But what is potentially groundbreaking is Syriza’s proposal to convene a European Debt Conference, modelled on the London Agreement on German External Debts in 1953 which wrote off around 60 percent of West Germany’s debts following the Second World War

Apparently, Syriza does not think twice about the actual consequences of their proposal. If it was carried out, it would have the same kind of effects on Europe’s banks as the last debt write-down. While there are no immediately reliable sources on how much of the Greek government debt is owned by financial corporations, we can get an indirect image from other euro-zone countries in a similar situation. In Spain, e.g., banks owned 54.3 percent of all government debt in 2013; in Italy the share was 55.6 percent while 41.2 percent of the French government were in the hands of financial corporations.

Adding up actual debt for these three countries, both total and the share owned by banks, gives us a financial-corporation share of almost exactly 50 percent. Using this number as a proxy for Greece, we can assume that banks own 160 billion of 320 billion euros worth of Greek government debt.

A Greek debt write-down according to the Syriza proposal would, if it cut evenly across the total debt, force banks to lose 86 billion euros. And this is under the assumption that, unlike the last write-down, banks are treated on the same footing as everyone else. Back then banks had to assume a bigger shock than other creditors.

The 2012 write-down was worth a total of 75 billion euros.

Has Syriza even taken into account that families, saving up for retirement, own treasury bonds? In Italy they own as much as ten percent of all government debt, a share that would equal 32 billion euros in Greece. But even if that number is five percent – 16bn euros – and you ask them to give up 60 percent of it, the impact on remaining private wealth in Greece would be devastating.

To make matters worse, Syriza does not confine their confiscatory dreams to their own tentative jurisdiction. Benjamin Fox explains that Syriza hopes that a write-down in Greece…

would lead to a huge write-down of government debt for … other southern European countries. The idea was initially mooted by Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras in 2012 when the left-wing coalition finished second in the last Greek elections. Roundly dismissed as fantasy for almost all the two years since then, the proposal is at the heart of the party’s campaign manifesto and Syriza insists it won’t back down if it wins the election.

In the three countries mentioned earlier, Italy, Spain and Greece, banks own a total of 2.47 trillion euros worth of debt. A 60-percent write-down of that equals 1.58 trillion euros. Compare that, again, to the total Greek write-down of three years ago of 75 billion euros.

In Italy alone households own 215 billion euros in government debt. Is the socialist cadre leading Syriza ready to rob them of 89 billion euros just to improve their government’s balance sheets? That would be 1,500 euros for every man, woman and child in Italy. Obviously, all of them do not own government debt, but the more concentrated the ownership is the bigger the impact will be on their economic decisions.

This is, for all it is worth, an idea of galaxy-class irresponsibility. If it ever became the law of the land in Europe it would set off a financial earthquake far beyond what the continent experienced in 2009. And I keep repeating this: all of this is under the assumption that banks will not be discriminated against – an assumption that is not likely to survive all the way to a deal of this kind. Europe’s socialists have a tendency to despise banks and consider them unfair, even illegitimate institutions. It is possible that Syriza, at least as far as Greece is concerned, would force banks to eat the entire write-down loss.

But is this really worth all the drama? After all, the Greek election is three weeks out. Benjamin Fox notes that “Syriza is so close to taking power that the proposal deserves to be taken seriously.”

This debt write-down is part of a broader plan that Syriza has put in place for the entire European Union. To work at the EU level the plan would have to be more complex and involve a series of transactions involving the European Central Bank that, frankly, amount to little more than macro-financial accounting trickery. At the end of the day, those who have lent money to Europe’s governments would make losses worth trillions of euros.

As things look today it is not very possible that Syriza would have it their way across the EU. But it is almost certain that they will go ahead and do it in Greece. What the ramifications would be for the Greek economy is difficult to predict at this point – suffice it to say that the storm waves on the financial ocean that is the euro zone will rise again, and rise high, if Syriza wins on January 25.

German Bond Rates Go Negative

The stagnant European economy does not need more bad news. Unfortunately, there is more coming. Business Insider reports:

The amazing collapse in German bond yields is continuing. Today, five-year bonds (or bunds) have a negative nominal return for the first time ever. That means that investors buying a 5-year bond on the market today will effectively be paying the German government for the privilege of owning some of its debt. This has been happening for some time now. In 2012, people were amazed when 6-month bund yields went into negative territory. In August, the two-year yield went negative too. Less than a month ago, the same thing happened with the country’s four-year bunds.

While there is a downward trend in bond yields in most euro-zone countries, there is a clear discrepancy between first-tier and second-tier euro states. Ten-year treasury bond yields, other than Germany:

  • Austria, 0.71 percent, trending firmly downward; France, 0.83 percent, trending firmly downward; Netherlands, 0.68 percent, trending firmly downward; Italy, 1.87 percent, trending firmly downward.

A couple of second-tier examples:

  • Ireland, 1.24 percent, trending weakly downward; Portugal, 2.69 percent, trending weakly downward.

Greece is the real outlier at 9.59 percent and an upward yield trend. But Greece is also a reason why Germany’s bond yields are turning negative. Although the Greek economy is no longer plunging into the dungeon of depression, it is not recovering. Basically, it is in a state of stagnation. Its very high unemployment and weak growth is coupled with an ongoing austerity program, imposed by the EU, the ECB and the IMF.

Add to that the political instability which, in late January, will probably lead to a new, radically leftist government. Syriza’s ideological point of gravity is the Chavista socialism that has been practiced in Venezuela over the past 10-15 years. They are also vocal opponents to the EU-imposed austerity programs, an opposition they would have to deliver on in case they want to stay relevant in Greek politics.

If Greece unilaterally ends its austerity program, it de facto means the beginning of their secession from the euro. That in turn would raise the possibility of other secessions, such as France, where a President Le Pen would begin her term in 2017 with a plan to reintroduce the franc. When that happens, the euro is history.

There is no history of anything similar happening in modern history, which makes it very difficult for anyone, economist or not, to predict what will happen. Europe’s political leaders will, of course, want to make the transition as smooth and predictable, but without experience to draw on there is a considerable risk that the process will be neither smooth nor politically controllable. Add to that the inability of econometricians to forecast the transition; based on the numerous examples of forecasting errors from the past couple of years, there is going to be little reliable support from the forecasting community for a rollback of the euro.

That is not to say the process cannot be a success. But the window of uncertainty is so large that it alone explains the investor flight to German treasury bonds.

This uncertainty is also throwing a wet blanket over almost the entire European economy, an economy that desperately needs growth and new jobs. Since 2010 the EU-28 economy has added 800,000 new jobs, an increase of 0.37 percent. For comparison, during the same time the American economy has added eleven million jobs, an increase of a healthy 8.5 percent.

French Economy Grinds to a Halt

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 Future of the Euro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Socialists Attack EU Stability Pact

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.

Or, as noted by Euractiv:

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.

IMF Wants to Kill Deficit Rule

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 Observer reports:

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.